This is stand-alone story that sits pretty much anywhere in the Voyage timeline.
As caves go, this one was prime real estate. It was small by comparison but fully equipped with all the standard cave features. Fat rock floor, with just a thin layer of sand and a scattering of dead leaves, lichen and moss along the cave walls, that wet musty smell inherent to caves around the world, and from somewhere in the far back corner came the steady ‘drip-drip-drip’ of water. All in all Lee wasn’t overly impressed. As with any real estate the selling points were always location, location, location. Lee had felt lucky to even find this place. Still, it was a decent hiding for the two of them. All they had to do now was wait for the landing party to track them down. The homing device was activated. It was just a matter of time now.
Lee settled himself into a more comfortable position, with his back braced against the cool rock wall and his knees drawn to his chest. One arm rested atop his knees while the other hand gripped the Beretta in a lose grip. He kept a careful eye on the cave entrance, hardly more than a crack in the cliff face. His ears strained for any out of the ordinary sound but so far there was nothing beyond the usual jungle-rainforest sounds. The one sound he did register made Lee question why he even took this mission.
From the back of the cave came the labored breathing of the second half of his two-man team. Pulling his watchful eyes away from the entrance, Lee swung his head around to glance back to the man who had accompanied him in this disastrous mission. The dim light of the cave did nothing to hide the fresh stains on the other man’s dark green trousers and shirt. Two bullets. The man had taken two bullets. He shouldn’t have even been here. Lee should never have gone along with ONI.
I should never have agreed to this. He’s not field-trained. He didn’t stand a chance once the shooting started. I should never have let him off the damn boat. Lee thought to himself as he watched the other man trying to rest. ONI had sworn this was a simple retrieval. Pick up a defecting scientist. He had terminal cancer and wanted to spend his last days in freedom, where he could use his knowledge for the good of mankind.
Naturally, it hadn’t turned out that way.
“I can hear you all the way over here. Stop it,” the low, weary voice from the back of the cave said. Lee glanced back. He had thought the man was a sleep.
“What am I doing?” Lee asked with more than a touch of humor, despite the situation.
“Blaming yourself. This is not your fault. Don’t even start.”
“I should never have allowed you to tag along. I should have known this was a set up from that start. My gut was screaming this was a trap but I didn’t listen. Now look at what it’s gotten you.”
The man pushed his lanky frame up into a more upright position, the effort leaving him gasping and sweating. Lee made to move and help, but got a dismissing wave of a hand.
“I’m fine, skipper. It’s gonna take more than a couple of scores to put me down. You just watch the entrance. This will teach me to move faster next time.”
Lee snorted. “If I have my way, there won’t be a next time. You’re staying on board the boat, where you belong.”
“Are all ONI agents as pushy as you?”
Lee looked away, dropping the hand holding the gun over the other wrist across his knees. He focused on the entrance, unable to get the image of his friend collapsing as the first shot glanced off his right side, the other tearing a deep score though his left leg. “Only the ones who couldn’t stop something they knew was coming,” Lee finally said.
William Jamieson snorted and gasped as another wave of pain radiated from his leg. “You’re clairvoyant now, as well as being a master spy? Stepping up in the world.”
“How can you make jokes? You could bleed out before the landing party gets here and it’s all my damn fault. I should have never let ONI talk me into bringing you along. You’re not trained for this sort of thing. You weren’t ready for this,” Lee snarled, angry with himself, not the doctor.
Will settled himself firmly against the cave wall. He pressed harder down on the damp makeshift bandage they had fashioned from Lee’s tee shirt. The bleeding on his leg had slowed. It was nasty, but not life threatening. It was enough to slow the two of them down, forcing Lee to switch to a different plan. He shifted his attention from his own wounds to Lee. The younger man was bleeding from wounds of a different sort.
“It’s not as bad as all that. Lee, I came along of my own accord. I knew what I was getting into. Dr. Jalad requested a doctor. I’ve known Jalad for more than twenty years. If ONI didn’t see a problem with his request that I come along, why shouldn’t I? You had no way of knowing the man had been followed. The only saving grace was that I don’t think he suffered.” Will closed his eyes against the memory of finding Jalad’s body on the trail, his throat slashed from ear to ear.
Lee let out a long pent up breath. “I just wished we could have gotten him out. If he was going to die, he deserved to live what was left of his life in peace and freedom.”
“That’s all anyone deserves. Freedom. Don’t blame yourself for this, Lee. You did what you could and it’s not your fault. You can spent the rest of your life reviewing the ‘what if’s’ in life. What if we had been faster, what if we had a bigger party, what if, what if? You can’t live you life that way, Lee.”
“I’m clairvoyant and you’re a shrink now?” Lee replied.
“I’m right and you know it.”
Lee focused once more on the cave entrance, holding up one hand for silence. Something was moving outside. Crane lifted the gun and trained the barrel on the opening, ready for what ever came through.
A black rat made its slow way past the entrance, raising up on its hind legs and sniffing the air. Delicate whiskers twitched then the rodent dropped back to its feet and scurried off. Lee let out the pent up breath in a rush then resettled himself against the cave.
“I didn’t get into this to watch innocent people die. Jalad might have started out on the wrong side but he wanted to change. It’s not his fault he was born into the wrong country that didn’t value him for the good he could have done. He didn’t deserve what he got.”
The doctor watched Lee for a long time, a mixture of expressions running across the younger man’s face. If there ever there was a time to get inside the mind of Lee Crane, this was that moment.
“So why do you do this, Lee?”
“Do what?” The question seemed to have caught the skipper off guard. He swung his head around to peer curiously at Jamieson.
“Why do you keep taking on these missions? Why risk life and limb when only a handful of people are even going to know what you’ve done? Why tempt fate? You risk capture and torture, death and dismemberment each time you do this, not to mention the wrath of a certain XO who shall remain nameless. Why keep doing this? Why take that risk that each time you leave Seaview, it might be your last time?”
Why do I do this? Lee asked himself, unable to say anything for a long time. He’d been taking ONI assignments since graduation. It was as natural as breathing. It wasn’t something he had considered not doing.
“Because I can, I suppose. I’m good at this. I don’t always come back looking like forty miles of bad road.”
Jamieson grinned. Lee had a point. “True enough. The times you do come back slightly worse for wear make up for it.”
“When it rains, it pours, is that what you’re saying?”
“Something like that. I’ve always wondered if the risk is worth it.”
Lee shifted his position so he could keep an eye on the cave entrance yet see the doctor out the corner of one eye. Normally he didn’t like talking about what motivated him. He was an officer, an active agent. He took his orders seriously and did his damnedest to carry them out. He didn’t like being questioned. But Jamie didn’t seem to be questioning his motives, he seemed more curious than anything else.
“Let me ask you this. You have a patient and you try your hardest to save that patient. But in the end, it’s not enough. You lose one. Do you resign? Stop practicing?”
“Hell no. The loss of one life is nothing to laugh at but I’m not going to hang my stethoscope because of one death. I can’t save every patient, but I’m going to try,” Jamieson replied quickly, not real sure where Lee was going with this. How was being a doctor like being a giant target for every unfriendly foreign power?
“It the same thing. Evil exist. We’ve both seen it. We’ve seen it in action. We’ve seen the end result. It has to start somewhere. If we can find were it begins, we can stop it before it gets out of hand, before it spreads like some kind of cancer over the world. The Hitler’s of the world, the Bin Laden’s of the world, they all started somewhere. If we can stop the evil before it starts, no matter the cost, the risk is worth it. Freedom is worth it, I think.”
Jamieson was quiet. He had always known Lee Crane as a man with deep convictions but he just never considered how deep some of those feelings went. He understood the man a little better now. He noticed Lee had a slight smile on his face and he watched the cave entrance.
“Only that once I get back, I’ll be fifty bucks richer.”
“How so?” Jamie had his suspicions, but he wanted to hear Lee’s side of things.
“Chip bet me fifty bucks I couldn’t some back in one piece. Looks like I come out a winner this time.”
Jamieson could not stop the dry chuckle. “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch, skipper. We haven’t got back to the boat yet.”