Fire & Water
It was cold. Water-smoothed stones dug into Lee’s body. His fingers slipped in the algae laden riverbed as he struggled to raise himself up enough to breathe. Exhausted and shaking, he finally managed to lift his head high enough to prop a cheek on a nearby rock. He sucked air in great gulps, panting. Ice filled his lungs and body. He was so numb from the water’s chill it was hard to feel anything. In the back of his mind he was alert enough to know that meant trouble, even so, he felt gratitude that it also meant the pain from his bite wounds was barely noticeable.
Lee lay where he had fallen for far longer than was healthy. It was only the thought of Chip, waiting at the flying sub, that pulled him back up to his feet. An act that required more energy than Lee thought he could muster. The last thing he wanted was for his nervous exec to come looking for him. Not with the trouble lurking in the woods. Swaying unsteadily, Lee scanned the tree line with wary eyes. Firefly flickers of light glided noiselessly, peeking out from behind the shadowy cover of brush and trees. He shuddered, not only from the bitter cold that crept over his body and sapped the strength from his limbs. Nothing was going to get him out of the water and into the woods again. No matter how hypothermic he got, he was following the river down to the sea. Lee shivered and forced himself to move.
Whatever they were, they didn’t like water. Lee had discovered that when he fell from the cliff. Luckily, the pooled water in the river bend was deep enough to keep him from breaking any bones on landing. One of the creatures had struck Lee’s back right before he fell. Pinpricks of pain spread out from that location and down his spine. Panicked and hurting, Lee had lunged deeper into the river and away from the thing that had attacked him, only to watch stunned as it thrashed and snapped its jaws, fading into a hissing boil of water and mist. Lee had not set one foot out of the water since. He could feel them pacing alongside the banks, eyeing him with greedy desire. He was so cold.
God. Lee staggered, dropping to his knees. Pain spread across his back as muscles cramped agonizingly from the base of his spine to his neck. His mouth dropped open in a silent scream. Somehow he managed to keep from falling face first into the river and drowning. Lost in the torturous haze, time faded into a meaningless eternity.
Lee gasped, lungs desperate for life-giving air. Slowly, the cramping eased in his back, again he nearly collapsed; the relief was dizzying in its intensity. He sprawled against a nearby boulder, clutching it like a long lost friend. Chip… praying that the exec was following orders and on the radio to Seaview by now instead of heading off to find the captain on his own, Lee blundered forward, step-by-exhausting-step. He had to get home.
Lee giggled drunkenly. Nelson. He wished his admiral were beside him. Those creatures wouldn’t stand a chance. And maybe then he could get out of this damned cold water. He felt like a cartoon character that had fallen through ice and come out encased in an ice cube. Lee tripped, falling sideways and below the current; choking and coughing, he shakily thrust himself to his hands and knees. Wet droplets rolled from his hair down his neck and face. His clothes were heavy anchors weighing him down. Lee wasn’t sure if he could stand. He began to crawl awkwardly forward. Giggling again at the thought of anyone seeing the proud Captain of Seaview crawling around on all fours, terrified of the bogey monsters. A flicker of that maddening light sparked in the corner of his eye. He could feel the gloating evil. Furious and fed up, Lee whirled, throwing the closest piece of dead wood towards the trees. Rage brought him to his feet. "Come and get me you cowards!"
Silence echoed back. Lee shut his eyes for a second, closer to losing it then he could ever remember. He would give anything if Nelson would come strolling up the riverbed, Kowalski, and Sharkey by his side. His imagination armed them with Super Soaker squirt guns and Lee broke into an almost hysterical laughter, laughter that ended in sob-like choking. Lee prayed fervently that his vision would not come true. The last thing he wanted was to endanger his admiral and shipmates. If only Chip would stay put. Please God; don’t let Chip come after him.
Shadowed forms crept and prowled at the fringes of his vision; glowing eyes were frustrated and ravenous. Lee wondered somewhat hazily what had created them, or from what creature they had descended. Nelson would know. He would take one look at their form—the sharp white teeth, the wrinkled, dimpled furless skin—and he would start hypothesizing. Despite his fear and exhaustion, Lee smiled affectionately. Chip, now. He wouldn’t even bother to wonder about them. The first thing on his mind would be eliminating the danger they posed to the captain. If he’d had any idea of what was awaiting his skipper here on the island, he would have chained Lee to the pilot’s seat on the flying sub and furiously debated with the admiral the wisdom of letting Lee go traipsing off alone. Chip had a dim view of ONI missions. This one had made no sense to him. According to scientific information ONI had received, the neighboring volcanic island was going to blow. Information Nelson had validated with his own scientific research and experiments. Hearing Lee was being sent in alone to check out the remains of an abandoned, highly secretive People’s Republic laboratory, Chip had protested. If everyone had left the lab, surely they would have removed all important paperwork and files? Lee had clapped a hand on his exec’s shoulder stating, "Theirs was not to reason why… " Chip’s burning blue eyes had put a sudden end to the rest of that quote. The exec didn’t want to hear it. Stubborn gaze switching from captain to admiral, he’d demanded to at least be allowed to go with Lee in the flying sub.
That was a large reason for Lee’s current panic. He was late. So late. Chip Morton had orders to wait a specific amount of time for Lee and then head back to the sub for reinforcements. Neither the Admiral nor anyone else on his boat wanted Lee or Chip to be stuck in the danger zone when the other island blew it’s top. Seaview’s captain had the dismaying notion that Chip would creatively amend those orders. He had no doubt Chip would call for reinforcements, but some doubt over whether Chip would go back for more men or come looking for Lee while Seaview came to them. He pushed himself to move faster, fatigue making each step forward a hard-won battle. It was so cold.
Chip kept his eyes on the monitor. The forward camera had picked up glimpses of strange moving objects on the shoreline. He wasn’t sure what they were. They were like nothing he had ever come across before in his life. The concern he felt for his overdue captain ate at his insides. His captain had missed the last two check-ins and had yet to answer any of Chip’s radio calls. If Lee had run into any of those… things? Fiddling with the tracker, he cursed—an uncharacteristic action that would have drawn the startled gaze of every crewman aboard. The stupid thing wasn’t working right. Removing the back, he followed the path of the colored wires, searching for a short or loose wire. What was the good of sneakily bugging Lee if he couldn’t get the tracking device to work? Worry sped up his mind and sharpened his vision. There! Shaky with success, Chip clumsily tightened the screw, replaced the back, and tried flicking the switch once more. The subdued beeping had him bending over and thanking God.
From the readings he was getting, Lee was only a few miles away. Moving slowly but at least he was moving. Chip was a lot less worried now that he knew Lee was alive. Waiting was torturous. If he didn’t know his captain would bite his head off, he would go to meet him. But if there was one thing sure to set Lee off, it was one of his men placing themselves at unnecessary risk. The problem was that Lee’s definition of unnecessary risk and the crew’s wasn’t exactly the same when it came to the captain’s well being. Chip waited and watched the tracking screen. Curious. Lee seemed to be taking a meandering course back to the FS1. Why? A familiar feeling about the route had him sifting through the photos from a previous flyover; Chip traced the river from the sea to the hills farther inland. Lee was following the river. It was too shallow for the flying sub to traverse. Chip’s mouth tightened. He was on the verge of disobeying Lee’s orders. Not that his even being there now was not a blatant offense in itself, although Chip preferred to think of it as a resourceful interpretation of orders in a shifting situation. There was no way he could leave Lee here alone, possibly hurt or injured, and live with himself. Help was on the way. Nelson would spare no time in getting here. Chip knew that fact as well as he knew the man.
Lee was taking too long. His progress on the tracking screen was erratic and sluggish. There were times when no movement showed at all. Chip made a decision. A quick message went off to Sparks. Moving the FS1 to the mouth of the river he armed himself with a rifle and handgun. Slinging a pack with first aid supplies over one shoulder and the rifle over the other, he opened the top hatch. Leaping lightly from the flying sub to dry ground, he took a cautious look around for any of those weird and unidentifiable creatures he had caught glimpses of earlier. Jogging easily, tracker in hand, Chip headed upriver.
Cracking in the bushes had Chip jumping nervously sideways. It saved his life as the teeth that would have ripped out his throat sank into the pack instead. Animal and man fell into the frigid water. The howling screams of the ugly beast deafened Chip; he rolled one way as the manic animal leapt the other. It writhed crazily on the shore, biting at its steaming, festering flesh. Chip Morton gagged from the stench rising off its disintegrating body. He retched at the sight of the animal tearing into its own entrails. Turning resolutely away, he headed upriver again, keeping to the water. Now he knew why Lee was sticking so closely to the river. His hand clapped to his side as he reached for the radio to warn the admiral. The radio was gone. Chip didn’t waste any time looking for it, more concerned than ever about his friend. Cocking the rifle, he held it ready to fire as he paced forward, boots slipping every now and then on the slimy rocks. His mind concentrated on getting to Lee as swiftly as possible.
It was harder going than he’d expected. After what seemed like forever, Chip leaned over a boulder, panting. The current seemed determined to push him back downriver; it fought every step to tip him off balance. No wonder Lee’s progress had been so slow. Thinking of Lee, Chip stared searchingly up the river. The late afternoon sun sparkled off the water blindingly but provided no warmth to counteract the chill invading both body and mind. Chip’s feet were so numb he couldn’t feel the stones underneath them. His hiking boots kept twisting as they slipped and slid on the slick, rock and debris cluttered riverbed. All he needed was to break an ankle and end up with Lee having to drag him back to the FS1.
Worse than the cold, the unsteady footing, and the currents’ pull on his feet, was the eerie flicker of glowing eyes that kept pace among the shadowed trees and bushes edging the riverbanks. Chip did not appreciate otherworldly creatures and experiences, especially when they came in that size and considered him dinner. Much to Lee’s expressed amusement. "You think I have a control problem?" Laughingly, Lee had added, "Chip, you are so anal it hurts." Thinking back on that discussion, the exec admitted that he preferred dealing with the mundane and ordinary. Beings and circumstances he knew how to handle and understood, not these… things. He wasn’t even sure if guns or rifles would work effectively against them. Grimly facing upriver, Chip was willing to find out, prepared to shoot anything that jeopardized his mission to recover the captain. He’d find out just how those — creatures — enjoyed eating high caliber bullets.
Sprawled on his belly in the tangle of driftwood, Lee was entranced, too numbed to feel the bark scratching his cheek. The water flowing through his clothes and over his limbs felt almost warm and comforting. He watched a tiny beetle struggle its way along a wet branch; the iridescent sheen on its back like a brilliant misty rainbow. Lee lost himself in the shimmer of bright colors. He had a vague thought that there was something he needed to be doing… something important, but he was so comfortable and the colors so pretty…
"Lee!" Was that Chip? Lee’s gaze remained focused on the beetle. Warm air blew over the back of his head. Oh, good. Someone must have turned up the heat. Lee’s nose wrinkled as he was distracted from the beetle’s epic climb by a foul odor. He’d have to talk to Sharkey; something must have crawled into a heating duct and died. It stank. A hot droplet of foamy substance slid down his upper cheek and over his face. Lee blinked sluggishly. He rolled his head to look upwards, frowning. Red psychotic eyes gleamed into his, the hairless snout furrowed in a snarl, baring sharp, yellowed teeth in an insane grin; fetid breath washed over him. Lee didn’t have time to scream.
Chip nearly passed out from shock when he rounded the river bend. One of those things was poised over an oblivious Lee, stalking him from a large pile of driftwood that stretched out from the bank into the stream. "Lee!" He watched the panic in his friend’s expression as Lee finally realized he had company. Its jaws opened impossibly wider. Chip fired, emptying the rifle into the beast. It turned malevolent eyes in his direction, staggering back with each bullet that hit. Chip’s blood froze as solid as his feet. The creature kept its balance. Glaring knowingly, as if it knew how much it would hurt the blond to take this victim, it crept precariously closer to its prey. Chip began to run forward, dropping the empty rifle and pulling out the handgun. He needed to get closer.
Shoving himself backwards as the crazed beast above him was knocked off balance by each shot from the rifle, Lee couldn’t seem to get to his feet. Hands and boots flailing and grasping at the interlocking deadwood that entangled him, he kept tripping back into the water. He was still within reach of those saliva-dripping jaws. It ignored the water Lee splashed over him; the spray burned into its skin, reddening and bubbling. Stretching out, ready to rend and tear, the beast yelped as a bullet pierced its foreleg. Off balance for a crucial second, the creature fell sideways into the stream. The strength of its howl as it hit the water, sizzling, deafened Lee and Chip. Gasping heavily for breath, Chip managed to drag Lee to safety, staring mesmerized at the boiling mass of steaming hissing water.
"I hope you found… something at that lab… worth going… through all this, Lee." Chip panted, still trying to catch his breath after that desperate dash to save his friend and captain. He looked down anxiously as Lee began to laugh and choke. For the first time he noticed how cold the skipper’s skin was against his hands. Lee’s laughter ended abruptly in gagging. Chip knelt, wrapping supportive arms around his captain, preventing Lee sliding down into the river. Lee leaned his back against the offered chest, resting tiredly. His head rolled to the side; damp hair pressed coldly into Chip’s neck. Lee spoke so softly the exec could barely make out the words.
"No." Lee whispered. He shuddered, closing his eyes at the vision filling his mind. "I found nothing in the laboratory." Nothing but bones and blood.
Despite the overwhelming feeling of disaster that had urged him to get the hell out of there, Lee had forced himself to make a thorough search. His flesh crawled as he remembered opening the door to leave and coming face to face with his worst nightmare. Slamming the door shut in its face, he’d been shocked when the steel door bend inwards as the beast had leapt against it. Breaking glass windows elsewhere in the laboratory had let Lee know he had company. After emptying his handgun into one of the creatures to no avail, Lee had broken a window to escape. One of those things had sunk its teeth into his calf but was forced to let go as the weight of Lee’s falling body pulled it across a shard of glass stuck in the windowsill. Bolting forward into the bushes, Lee had been caught again; the force of the creature’s strike had driven beast and man over a cliff hidden in heavy brush. Free falling to the river below, Lee had silently vowed to speak with Admiral Johnson about the quality of information ONI provided its agents. If he lived.
Lee huddled against his friend; it was so cold. He shivered uncontrollably.
"Lee?" Chip could feel Lee shaking in his arms. He craned his neck in an effort to get a look at Lee’s face. The captain’s skin was white and bloodless. The tremors increased. Worried about Lee’s hypothermia, the exec decided it was best to get Lee back to the FS1 as soon as possible. He could treat any injuries inflicted on the captain there.
"Chi…iii..p." Lee’s teeth clattered. All he wanted was to be tucked in bed on Seaview, warm and safe. Safe… He had to get Chip out of here! Arms flailing, Lee tried to stand.
"Easy, buddy." Chip kept his grip on Lee as the other man struggled to his feet. His friend was so skinny; it was surprising how heavy he was in reality. Chip staggered; what felt like a ton of Lee was caught up in his arms as the other man stumbled awkwardly. "Hold it… Be still a second."
"I can’t…" Lee fought to move forward; the sky was determined to tilt upside down. "We have to get out of here!" His eyes were darkened hazel pools in the ashen face. "Chip, move. We have to go…" Lee strained forward; Chip’s hold slipped precariously. The exec caught the skipper just in time to prevent a nosedive.
"Stand still, Lee!" The snapped command had Lee dizzily complying. Chip managed to get a better grip on his friend. He pulled one of the captain’s arms over his shoulders; his other arm remained wrapped around Lee’s waist. "Okay. Let’s just take it easy. We’ll get back to the FS1 faster if neither one of us breaks a leg." Chip kept a wary eye on his surroundings. The gleaming flickers of light paralleled their progress from the shadowed bushes and trees.
By the time the river spread out in anticipation of meeting the sea, Chip was ready to drop. He had to practically carry Lee now. Thank God the flying sub was so close, hidden by a bend in the river. "Not much longer now, Lee."
Lee was lost in a freezing fog of exhaustion… no longer able to lift his head. His weight drooped increasingly upon his exec’s broad shoulders. Good old Chip. Lee watched his feet move, fascinated. They appeared to walk without his conscious control… one foot, then the other. He giggled. One foot in front of the other. Wasn’t that a song from some Christmas cartoon…? Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer? No… he didn’t think that was the one… Santa Claus is Coming To Town? That sounded right. All he remembered was the abominable snow monster and some little guy dancing in the snow. And blizzards, he remembered a big blizzard. He felt like he was in one now. He could feel the shards of snow biting coldly through his body, driven by the gusting wind. Strange. He couldn’t see any snow in the water; maybe it melted too fast. Like those things. Lee shivered. His head spun giddily.
Chip’s concern grew as Lee giggled and mumbled something about Rudolph and Santa Claus. It was understandable that his friend would be thinking of winter—Lee was extremely cold—but Santa Claus? He had to get Lee inside FS1 and out of those wet clothes. Chip lurched awkwardly as Lee sagged in his arms, shivering. "C’mon, Lee. On your feet…" he coaxed. "We’re almost to the flying sub." He held on as Lee clutched at him and tried to stand upright. Chip smiled as his friend started walking again. "That’s it, buddy. You can make it." Chip was concentrating so deeply on Lee that it took him a minute to become aware of the flying sub’s occupants. He stumbled to a halt; Lee stared at him in confusion, then followed Chip’s gaze, shocked into sanity.
One of the hideous creatures crouched, slavering, upon the top hatch of the FS1. Another shifted agitatedly behind the first, eager to feast. Its hungry eyes gleamed obsessively at Lee. Chip glanced hastily left and right. They were surrounded! Both sides of the riverbank were covered with pacing, ravenous beasts. Their malicious gaze laughed at him; what are you going to do now, man? Frustrated and hungry for the flesh it had tasted earlier, a beast howled, leaping agilely from the shore to the FS1 and on to the opposite shore. Its eyes were fixed with unholy lust on the object of its desire. Chip paled as he heard the belly of the monster rumble.
"My God." Lee whispered. A sentiment Chip wholeheartedly agreed with. Lee’s sorrowful look of apology triggered Chip’s anger.
"This isn’t your fault, Lee!" Chip’s blue eyes flashed fire at the beasts around them. Come on in; the water’s fine!
The exec’s furious, defiant energy seeped into his companion. Lee braced himself, embarrassed by his momentary pessimism. He could feel the pent-up energy in Chip. It fueled his own resistance. With a tremendous effort, Lee stood calmly, still exhausted, still trembling, but with cold, not fear. His mind raced as his narrowed eyes met the blood-tinted gaze of the horde. His passionless assessment drove them into a frenzy of impotent rage. Greedy to sate their rapacious appetites with his skin and meat, they raved and howled, jaws gaping, saliva flying as heads tossed in fury. They had drunk of his blood and it was good.
"Chip. Did you turn on the tracking beacon in the flying sub?" Lee locked eyes with the creatures on the small sub. They stared arrogantly between captain and exec. Lee didn’t like being on the menu, and they would get to Chip over his dead body. His brow creased; unfortunately, that was true—they would get to Chip over Lee’s dead body. With a side-glance at his friend, taking in the fierce expression, Lee amended his opinion. If Chip had his way, they would be getting to Lee over Chip’s dead body. It was too bad looks couldn’t kill. There wouldn’t be a creature left standing. Lee’s knees weakened, he wobbled unsteadily. Damn it. He didn’t have time for this. Lee cursed his failing body as shivers spread up his spine, his muscles twitched and quivered.
"Yes, it’s on," Chip spat out, locked in a visual battle with the larger beast on the sub. Lee shuddered beside him, sagging. Chip switched his attention immediately to his companion. "Easy! Take it easy, Lee." He felt like howling in impotent rage himself. He needed to get Lee somewhere warm. Now.
Lee patted Chip on the back as he leaned into the exec’s supporting embrace. "Quit worrying. I’m fine."
Chip snorted in disdain at that familiar refrain. "Sure. Sure, you’re fine."
Lee smiled, pushing away a little to stand on his own two feet. One hand remained fisted in Chip’s jacket; the exec kept a grip on Lee’s arm. Sighing, Lee studied the flying sub’s position. "It’s too bad you didn’t park the FS1 in deeper water. We could swim underneath and enter from below."
"I didn’t want to get my feet wet." Chip answered defensively.
Lee stared in disbelief up and down his friend’s drenched form. Chip peered down at his soaked clothes and then looked up at Lee. One dark eyebrow rose questioningly. Lips began to twitch; both men laughed uproariously, staggering into each other to keep from falling, bent over and gasping from hysteria and the release of too much tension. They ended up on their knees in the river. Hiccupping and even more exhausted, Lee was tempted to fall back in the stream and rest, uncaring that he was close to hypothermic shock. He knew it was not a good thing to be feeling warm again. But he was so tired of the cold.
The eerie silence drew their attention back to their surroundings. They had momentarily forgotten about the silent observers staring at them with deadly intent. Lee sat down in the water, stretching cramped legs. Chip tried to hide his fear for Lee, desperate for a solution to their problem. He’d thought of sneaking by the sub to the seaward side, but they would be in reach of the beasts on the shore or the beasts on the sub. He quickly suppressed the vision of sharp jaws snagging and ripping off an arm or head. There just wasn’t enough room… or enough bullets in his gun. He didn’t know if they would even fire now that they had been wet for so long.
"We have to get around the FS1." Lee sighed, hunched over exhaustedly. "Nelson will send any rescue party to this location first. They don’t know about the island’s inhabitants…" Lee glanced over at his friend, questioningly.
"No." Chip was reluctant to admit it. "I lost the radio when one of those things attacked me." More optimistically, he added, "I did notify the Admiral that I had sighted some strange animal on the shore."
Lee laboriously rose to his feet. He shook from fatigue, body numb. "If the shore party lands before we can warn them, they won’t stand a chance." He regretted the loss of his own weapon in his fall. Somehow a pocketknife just didn’t seem to offer as much of a defense. There was no way he was sticking anything out towards those claws and jaws. Lee thought wistfully of his dream of Nelson, Sharkey, and Ski with those Super Soakers. He would give anything to see it come true. "I have an idea. Take off your jacket, Chip." Chip obeyed, watching as Lee removed his own jacket and swished it around in the water, getting it thoroughly wet. "I’ll go first."
"We’ll go together." Chip stepped between Lee and the sub, grabbing his friend’s arm firmly. Lee glared at him. "You can hardly stand." Chip stubbornly faced down his captain. "You know I’m right, sir." The exec didn’t trust the skipper not to do something self-sacrificingly stupid.
Lee fumed. He’d been planning to be bait to distract those things while Chip slipped past them. "Damn it." Lee’s frustration got the better of him. He tugged at the grip on his arm, testing Chip’s resolve. It didn’t budge. Lee’s arm dropped. "Chip… "
"Lee… what will the crew think if I come back without you." He teasingly shook Lee. "Think of what my family would say… mom would disown me."
Lee chuckled, giving in. All right. They were in this together. "It’s too bad mom’s not here now." He smiled wryly. Those poor creatures wouldn’t know what hit them." He sobered. "If we’re going to go, let’s go. I don’t like the idea of my crew ending up as dinner." Thinking of his unsuspecting crew landing on the beach and ending up torn apart by those… things… sent a jolt of energy through Lee’s tired frame. His head lifted; determined, he strode down the river, the current pushing him forward as if in support of his intentions, Chip right beside him.
It was with grateful wonder that Lee noticed the water creeping up his legs as the riverbed lowered to the sea. Chip exchanged hopeful glances with Lee. They just might make it. Both men paused as they approached striking distance; without words, they sidled closer to the sub than the riverbank. They would need to be quick. Lee bent down along with Chip and they soaked their jackets; Lee rolled his own body in the water and rapidly stood. He had thought he was too numb to possibly feel any colder. He was wrong. Chip followed suit then stood, shaking, at his side. They edged forward keeping, a wary eye on the two beasts on the sub. The eerie silence had not been broken yet. Ruby eyes glittered menacingly; one of the beasts crouched lower in anticipation, drool dripping off its sharp teeth, gray hairless snout wrinkled back in a soundless snarl. Its skin rippled as muscles flexed. It leapt closer to the edge, stretching its neck out to bite at Lee, ending up with a mouthful of wet jacket. The jacket shredded as it tore loose; the pain of swelling, blistered gums only fed its appetite. A clawed hand snagged Lee’s shoulder. He arched in agony. Chip swatted the beast across its face with his soaked jacket. It let go, screeching as its eyes bulged and popped. Steam rose from the empty sockets, the skin encircling them cracked and reddened. Blind, it fell splashing into a torrent of bubbling, fermenting water. Chip fell over Lee’s collapsed body as he dodged a shadow overhead, barely escaping the grasping jaws. He splashed water up at it and it recoiled. They rolled with the current past the sub. The screams and howls of rage deafened him. Out of reach and unable to regain his footing, Chip strained to drag Lee towards shallow water; the river’s force seemed bent on washing them out to sea. Fear for his friend was a pain that bit deep into his soul.
"Lee!" Chip could no longer feel the riverbed; he sank below the seawater. Chip kicked frantically as he wrapped one arm around Lee’s chest, twisting so that Lee faced upwards. He swam powerfully, sucking in air as his head finally broke the surface. He almost cried when Lee started choking and gasping for breath.
"Chip?" Lee was confused to find himself in deep water. He blearily watched the spreading red ink discoloring the water around his shoulder. "I think we need to get to shore. I’m… I’m bleeding." He tried to pull away and swim on his own, not wanting to burden Chip, and got a mouthful of seawater as he sank.
"Relax. I’ve got you." Lee went limp, allowing the exec to do all the work. Chip swam at an angle to get out of the strong current and into calmer water and the shallows. He focused solely on this task; if he didn’t make it, Lee would drown. The icy water ate at his strength, sapping his energy. Shivering and oblivious to everything but getting Lee near shore, Chip stroked mindlessly on. He grunted with annoyance as he hit an obstacle, blindly trying to find a way around it.
"Chip. What the devil are you doing?" Nelson watched in shock as his exec tried to push his way around the rubber raft. Morton seemed to be lost in his own world. They had been calling to Lee and Chip since they had first been spotted on the way to the flying sub. "Sharkey, Kowalski, grab Chip."
Chip fought the grasping hands, having difficulty keeping his grip on Lee and their heads above water. Jamison frowned as he watched the battle to bring Chip closer to the boat. Nelson and his men tried to get through to the exec. Their reassurances and urgings only incited more struggles. They were going to end up drowning both the skipper and exec at this rate.
"Grab Lee!" What was wrong with the normally intelligent admiral and his crew? None of them were thinking. "Admiral… grab Lee and you’ve got Chip. He’ll follow Lee anywhere."
Nelson swore. He felt like an idiot. Kowalski was in the water a second after the doc had spoken. Man, it was cold! He gingerly swam around to the exec’s side. Holding on to the raft’s rope with one hand, Ski firmly grabbed a floating wrist, and tugged the skipper sharply away from Morton. Numbed by the frigid waters, Chip was no match for Kowalski. The admiral and CMO quickly reached out to pull Lee aboard before he could sink below the waves.
"No!" Chip found his arm and chest suddenly empty as Lee was torn from his grasp. He panicked. Those things…they had Lee! Chip flailed at the boat trying to reach him. Sharkey grabbed the exec by the shirt and hauled him forward; Kowalski aided the chief in dragging Chip aboard, then swiftly slipped back into the raft. He was thankful to be out of the water. Even with his wetsuit on it was dammed cold.
"Lee…" Chip broke into a fit of coughing, doubled over in the bottom of the raft. He was shivering convulsively. "They have the skipper… God! Those things, they… they’ll tear him apart." Chip hung on to the front of Sharkey’s jacket and tried to shake him. "Water… they melt in water… never seen anything… like them." Chip fell back against Ski, who was now beside him, trying to quiet him.
Nelson shot a worried glance at his CMO who was crouching over his captain. "Doc, Chip’s raving… " He had seen the fascinating creatures grouped around the flying sub and along the shoreline. Obviously, they were the reason his officers were freezing their butts off in the frigid seawater instead of on the way back in the FS1. But a type of animal that melts in water? Chip had to be out of his mind.
"Hypothermia, Admiral. If he’s as cold as Lee… I’m not surprised." Jamison patted Lee on the cheek. He needed to check the skipper over. It would help if Lee were conscious and could tell him where it hurt. The CMO swiftly pulled off his jacket and tucked it around Lee’s head and shoulders. He began an examination of his patient.
Kowalski tried to get Chip to calm. "It’s all right, sir. We have the skipper; he’ll be fine." Ski looked over at the doc for collaboration. Dr. Jamison was too preoccupied with his current patient to respond to Ski’s look of inquiry. Chip tried to get up and failed, sliding back down in the raft. His unfocused gaze searched for Lee.
Nelson clapped a hand on Chip’s shoulder. He bent down to look the officer in the eyes. "Chip." The exec was too distracted to notice him, still looking dazedly around the boat. Nelson placed gentle hands on the sides of Chip’s face. The skin under his fingers was pale and ice cold. He frowned, "Sharkey give me your jacket." Anxious, but not showing it, Nelson glanced quickly over at his captain. Will hovered over him, speaking softly. The doc was in his line of sight but the admiral could see the slow, shallow rise and fall of Lee’s chest. His anxiety lowered a notch. Chip’s head tossed in his hands, drawing Nelson’s attention. "Easy, lad. We have you." The exec finally locked eyes with Nelson, blinking. The admiral smiled reassuringly. "We have both of you. You’re going to be fine. Take it easy and relax." The blond gradually settled, resting against Kowalski’s offered support. Nelson’s hands slid down to Chip’s neck and then let go. He began to stand. "That’s an order." He watched as Sharkey wrapped the exec in the dry jacket. It still retained heat from the chief’s body and Chip snuggled willingly into its soothing warmth.
Moving over to the motor, the admiral began to regain his confident demeanor, now both his officers were safely in his and Will’s care. He had been extremely apprehensive when Sparks could no longer contact Chip. "Kowalski… Sharkey, I’m going to drop you off on the flying sub. Head straight back to Seaview. Keep your handguns ready in case those creatures try to give you any trouble."
Sharkey’s shaggy brows lowered over his iron-grey eyes. "Don’t worry, sir." He patted the gun on his hip. "I’ve got plenty of trouble for them!"
"Plenty of trouble, sir." Kowalski added vigorously.
Jamison’s stomach turned upside down. His lips tightened; the more he saw of Lee and his injuries, the more his concern grew. Will’s eyes darkened. Besides the skipper’s dangerously low body temperature, he had numerous puncture wounds on his body and several deep scratches on his back. The captain’s clammy ashen skin emphasized each wound and bruise. Lee looked like he’d been caught up in a fight between a pack of dogs and cats. The amount of blood loss Lee must have suffered scared Will.
"No!" The CMO’s alarmed shout at Nelson drew that man’s instant attention. The admiral’s face paled as he read the doc’s anxiety easily. "Admiral, we have to get these men to Seaview right away." Jamison’s intense disquiet was contagious. "Chip’s going to get worse and Lee’s in bad shape; we need to get him to Sickbay, fast, if he’s going to have a good chance to survive."
"Kowalski, come and help me get the captain out of these wet clothes. Sharkey, help the exec strip. It’s important we get them as warm and dry as possible. Any dry clothes you can spare to cover them with would be appreciated." The doctor began peeling Lee’s wet outfit from his cold body. With Ski’s assistance he was soon able to wrap Lee in the heavy pullover sweater and jacket Nelson handed him and the doc’s own jacket.
Ski took over handling the boat so Nelson could stay with the skipper. He could tell the admiral and CMO were worried about Lee’s continued unresponsive state.
Chip was not exactly cooperating. Sharkey’s calm, steady voice was showing signs of agitation. "Mr. Morton, please. I know it’s cold but Doc wants you out of those wet clothes."
"I’m fi… fine, Chief." Chip managed to squeeze out through chattering teeth. He refused to let go of the jacket he clutched tightly around his shoulders.
"Sure you’re fine, sir. But you’ll feel much better out of those freezing clothes and in this nice warm sweater." Sharkey tried cajoling his XO. "Come on, sir. You’ll feel much better afterwards, I promise." The helpless look of frustration the chief aimed at Nelson had the admiral lending him a hand.
"Mr. Morton. Doc says the clothes come off. That’s an order." Nelson’s no nonsense tone had Chip reluctantly cooperating.
Sharkey sighed with relief. "Let me give you a hand, sir." In the chief’s opinion it was going to take a shoehorn to get the exec out of those pants.
Chip huddled in a corner of the boat, naked except for the sweater and shirts he had covered his legs with and the jacket wrapped around his upper body. He glared indiscriminately at his fellow passengers. The whole idea of the crew catching him looking like this offended his sense of dignity. At least Lee was unconscious and would never notice. Sitting there quietly, shivering, Chip steamed. He cast a worried look Lee’s way, alert for any signs of awakening. He could see reddened bandages peeping through the assortment of clothing covering his friend’s body. Chip wondered how many wounds were there that he couldn’t see. Closing his eyes in dismay, Chip thought back to their narrow escape. Less than half an hour ago he would have been happy to parade buck naked through the corridors if it got Lee and him away from those monstrosities. He supposed he should be grateful he was there, naked or not.
Morton was still thankful to hear Will asking Nelson to call ahead and prepare for their arrival.
Following his CMO’s commands, Nelson had corpsmen with stretchers and warmed blankets ready and waiting to rush his officers to Sickbay. For the rescuers and rescuees, all of them wearing a lot less than they had started out with, it had been a long cold trip back to Seaview.
It was warm. Lee lay motionless on the heated cushions that pillowed his body; heated blankets piled on top of him were a blessed comfort as he rested, inhaling the warm oxygen wafting past his nostrils from the mask covering his face. Everywhere, warmth. It seeped throughout his body and into his skin. This was heaven. Far off in the distance he could hear sounds of voices clashing. It disturbed the blessed peace that held him enraptured. Lee’s brow furrowed. Was that Chip? Chip! Frantic, Lee shot upright. Every wound, scratch, and bruise on Lee’s body woke up and said hello. His cry of agony created instant silence in the room. Falling back on his pillows, Lee bit his lip and waited for the throbbing to subside. Murmurs of reassurance calmed him as he felt Jamie brush up against him to fiddle with something or other. Lee sighed heavily as the harsh pain gradually eased. Opening his eyes, he blinked. Warm brown eyes stared down at him.
Jamison smiled. "Welcome back, Skipper. I’m not going to ask how you feel. I can guess and you’ll only lie." The doc laid a careful hand on Lee’s arm. "Try not to move too fast, Lee. Your body is not up to the task. Just lie still and relax." The CMO’s gaze hardened as he straightened up and faced his other not-so-patient patient. "And you… you can forget it, Chip. You are in no shape to go anywhere. I’m sure Nelson will be quite capable of recovering the flying sub without your assistance. You are not the only crew onboard this boat."
Chip tore his anxious gaze from the skipper. His face tightened grimly. "They don’t know what they are dealing with, I do!" The exec had spent the last hour convincing the admiral of the creatures’ invulnerability to ordinary weapons and the effect water had upon them. While Nelson remained skeptical, he had given Chip his word that he would be careful and vowed to test Chip’s water theory before risking any crew on shore. Riley had gleefully obtained permission to try out the new-and-improved Super Soaker squirt gun he had bought for his nephew. A veteran crewman, the surfer took his exec’s warning to heart. Kowalski and Sharkey were determined to take any chance to offer payback for the captain; they broke out a hand pump and hose. They ignored the joking from the other crew; all they cared about was the fact those creatures, beasts, whatever they were, had harmed their skipper. Still, Chip couldn’t rest easy knowing they were going out there without him. His mouth opened.
"No! You are in no shape to go gallivanting around in the cold. That is my medical judgment and it is not going to change." Jamison’s brown eyes flashed; the doc was exasperated by the exec’s persistent arguing. "In fact, you should be resting right now. I want you back in that bunk, Mister!"
Lee removed his oxygen mask. They always made him feel claustrophobic. He watched the confrontation between doc and exec. His money was on Jamie. Lee’s sleepy look of amusement was shared by the admiral as that man entered silently and leaned against the bulkhead. Nelson winked at his captain.
"The matter is settled, Mr. Morton," The admiral stated flatly. "The flying sub is already aboard." Chip and Jamison looked surprised. Nelson stood straight and walked over to Lee’s upper bunk. "We went out 15 minutes ago." Looking away from Lee for a moment, Nelson added, "You were right, Chip. They couldn’t stand up to the water fired at them." The admiral shook his head. It had been like nothing he had ever seen before in his life. That was saying a lot. Seaview had come up against some unusual and strange situations. To his dying day he would never forget the sight and sound of those things disintegrating and dissolving under the flow of water. Riley’s enthusiasm for using the squirt gun had subsided rapidly as he turned green at the gills.
Chip’s blue eyes angrily confronted him. "You told me you would let me know when you were leaving." The exec’s voice was low and controlled.
"Oh. Now I answer to you. Is that it?" Nelson’s own blue eyes flashed. He did not like being questioned by his own crew. Not even by Lee. The admiral’s sarcastic tone and glance brought a flush to Morton’s cheeks.
"No, sir." Chip’s response was subdued.
The admiral took pity on him. "We had signs the volcano was going to erupt earlier than expected. We had to leave at once, not spend time going over all your concerns again. We got the sub, and everyone, back in one piece, and Seaview is already headed as far away as we can get." His attention returned to the sleepy eyed Lee. His captain stared back drowsily. Nelson looked over at his CMO questioningly. Jamison nodded his head towards Lee’s IV.
"The skipper will be fine, Admiral. He overreached his body’s capabilities for a moment. I upped his pain meds." Jamison gazed affectionately down at his bleary captain. "I’m sure he will be driving all of us in Sickbay crazy in no time at all." A tolerant glance caught Chip trying to sneak out of his bunk again. "Commander Morton is already getting a good head start on that." He shook his head. "Bed, Chip." The exec sulkily obeyed.
"Admiral?" Lee’s soft voice drew Nelson closer. He reached out to brush a stray curl off Lee’s damp forehead.
"What is it, Lee." Nelson propped his chin on the bedrail.
"What were they?"
Nelson had to think seriously for an answer. His hand rested gently on Lee’s shoulder.
Lee was having difficulty keeping his eyes open. They kept drifting shut on him.
Nelson’s lips curved in a smile. "I don’t know, Lee. I’ve never heard of anything like them. Perhaps they descended from some fairytale legend. Or, more likely,they were an experiment that went awry and turned on their creators."
Lee shivered as he saw the blood and bone bedecked laboratory in his mind's eye and remembered his frantic escape, his fear for Chip and his crew.
Jamison scowled at the admiral and fiddled with the IV lines again.
Seeing Lee's uneasy expression and the shudder that wracked him—and mindful of Jamison's glare—the admiral was swift to reassure, "Whatever they are, Lee, they won’t exist after the volcano blows. If the ash doesn’t kill them, the resulting tsunami that floods their island as it sinks into the sea certainly will." His hand gently tightened. "Go to sleep. We’ll be here when you awake."
This time when Lee’s eyes drifted shut, they stayed that way.