Commander Lee Crane frowned as he exited the Institute gates, the sleepy-eyed guard posting a half-hearted salute even as he tried to abort a yawn. The young guard didn’t succeed in either endeavor. However, that only served to tell the equally tired sub captain there wouldn’t be any dinner tonight. It had to be midnight and all the eateries would be closed. The cupboard in his apartment was as bare as Old Mother Hubbard’s, too. Nothing in the fridge that he’d want to even contemplate. Hell, he fumed, there wasn’t even a beer.
It had been a long day—tediously long and very busy. The admiral had brought by some coffee and a sandwich for lunch or his stomach would have been sounding taps hours ago. As it was, there were still vociferous protests coming from his middle. There was only one solace in all this—the reports were completed, as were the requisitions. Everything was on schedule and Seaview would leave shipshape and on schedule in a week.
As he drove toward his apartment, not far from the Institute, he saw the garishly bright lights of a fast food restaurant. His frown deepened. Those places didn’t deserve the nomenclature of ‘restaurant.’ They were grease pits, joints without the sleaze and booze. When he wanted to trust his stomach to someone else’s cooking, which was often, as his own cooking wasn’t something to brag about, he would prefer it to be to someone who had more experience under his or her belt. Lee wasn’t all that sure about a sixteen-year-old cooking his chicken or fixing his burger. Of course, he’d been an anxious sixteen-year-old once, desperately trying to get work and ending up in an ice cream parlor fixing malted’s and root beer floats.
His stomach gave a particularly loud grumble and the rest of his body seemed to sympathize. Lee felt the slight nudge from his brain that it was harboring resentment in the form of a developing headache. With a sigh, he turned into the burger joint and parked next to the door. There was no one else in the parking lot and it was obvious that they were trying to close up for the night. He walked in anyway. A young girl glanced up from her clean-up chores and suppressed a sigh. Crane’s irritation at his situation vanished. No kid needed to be working this late, Friday night or no Friday night. “I’m sorry, I realize it’s late, but, uh, I had to work late and you’re the only place open.”
She nodded toward the clock. “You barely made it. We close at midnight.”
“Well, if it’s too much trouble,” he began, looking at the clock whose hands were now straight up. “Since this would keep you after hours….”
“No, sir, it won’t take long.”
“Thanks,” he said with a smile. Lee spied a few wrapped burgers and figured he’d have to supply his protesting body with warming light fare tonight. Served him right for not ordering something more humane, like a loaded pizza from Pappa Antony’s before they had closed. Lee heard the noise of others working in the back. “How about the freshest of what you have there on the tray. That will help you out and appease my hunger.”
The girl chuckled, and checked the racks. She pulled all of them down and placed them in a large bag. “Would you like fries with them?”
That would take time. “No.” He considered something to drink. “Still have something in your fountain?” She nodded and handed him a large cup and a straw. “How much do I owe you?”
“Just the one double. It was put out five minutes ago, but the guy changed his mind. Two-fifty.”
He gave her three dollars, motioned her to keep the change, loaded his cup with Coke and headed out the door. A soft object and a sharp cry stopped him in his tracks. A very dark shape scuttled beneath a nearby bush. It was hard to tell, but Lee thought it was a kitten he’d almost trod on. He paused, wondering if he had hurt the creature, not sure if he wanted to find out just what it was if it wasn’t a kitten. Two glowing eyes peeked up at him. Had to be a cat. “Kitty, kitty?” he called. Slowly the eyes approached. The dark blob coalesced into four fuzzy legs attached to a skinny body. A long skinny tail followed. It meowed but it stayed wary.
Lee was about to turn away, but then considered the pitiful state of the little beggar. That cat was skinnier than Doc claimed he was. Squatting down, Lee opened and then reached into the bag. The kitten was immediately rubbing around his ankles, legs and poised to jump into his bag. “Wait a minute, heathen,” Lee said, his voice soothing. He pulled out the first thing he came to. It was a cheeseburger. The kitten ought to like that. He pulled off the top bun and was about to give the meat to the cat when it grabbed it out of his hand. It began tearing at it and gulping down huge pieces.
“He’s been hanging around for the past few days. Almost been hit twice that I know of. Kicked quite a few times. I’m going to have to take him to the pound, I guess.” The girl’s voice trailed off.
“But you can’t leave animals there this time of the night,” Lee finished.
“Well, maybe I can. I am the boss of my own domain and I don’t have to be to work until later in the morning.”
“He’d be safer at the pound. At least until….”
“He’ll be adopted,” Lee assured her, hoping to make her feel better. He reached down and before it could protest, scooped the little black morsel up. It growled softly and was still holding on to the remainder of the burger. Lee laughed. “Tenacious, aren’t you?” Looking back at the girl, he added, “He’ll be okay. Least I could do since I am one of those who kicked him—her, or whatever. Even if by accident.” The kitten was struggling to hang on to the last piece of burger, but finally lost it. It wriggled and Lee decided he could give one of the other sandwiches to the kitten after he got home. Thankfully, the top of his convertible was up. Still holding on to the cat, he nodded to the girl, closed the door and then put the kitten in the seat next to him. It immediately leaped for the bag, realized where it was and dived under the passenger seat. He shook his head and started the car. By the time he got out of the parking lot, the kitten was wailing from under its refuge.
Lee Crane woke with a start, feeling the sting of several needles on his big toe. “Ow!” he shouted, jerking his foot back and then at the offending object. There was a muffled ‘yow’ and then a thump on the floor. Wakefulness brought realization at what had happened. The kitten.
It had been fun trying to figure out how to accommodate the little guy at one o’clock in the morning. The local all-night convenience store had cat food, but no litter, so he had to make do with a baking pan and some sand scooped from the beach. So far he had sand all over one side of his kitchen floor and a rambunctious kitten doing a cat imitation of a rooster an hour before sunrise. “Go to sleep!” he growled and rolled over. Tugging on his blanket told him the little monster was climbing back. This time, however, it curled up by his stomach and went to sleep. Lee did the same. He awoke a couple of hours later, the kitten gone, but the place still warm. Scratching in the kitchen told him what was going on.
Crane had been determined to take the kitten to the shelter that morning, but somehow found there wasn’t time. Same with the next day. The third day, he’d bought a nice litter box, litter, a dish and some more cat food. The fourth day brought a name and some toys. His cleaning lady, an older woman named Amanda Nader, had been surprised, but delighted with the fuzzy bundle of energy.
After five days, the kitten, which Lee had discovered was a tom, was still in residence. So far, his house was intact, although there were several punctures in his feet and toes. DS or Deep Six was now possessed of a permanent home. Black as coal, DS liked to hide in shadowy corners and ambush whoever was coming by, like a sub hiding near the bottom, waiting for an enemy ship. He attacked without warning and at any time his little kitty heart desired attention. After the first few attacks, Lee had heatedly ordered the miscreant to stand down. It didn’t stop the attacks, but the claws were sheathed and Crane considered it a viable compromise.
Now he was wondering what in the heck he was going to do with a kitten while he was gone on missions. Specifically, he was wondering about the mission tomorrow. Mrs. Nader solved his problem, by offering to come twice a day to check on DS. Lee insisted on paying her for her extra efforts. He bought all the extras an energetic kitten might need or want and then packed his duffle. It was after midnight by the time he was ready to go. He called DS, but got no response except scratching noises in the head. With a shrug, Lee wrote a check for Mrs. Nader, left it on the kitchen counter, and picked up his duffle. The drive was short and it wasn’t long before he was back onboard his beloved Gray Lady. A rate took his bag and Crane handed him his cover and jacket, too.
Lee wanted to do his first walk through the boat while it was still manned by a skeleton crew. When everyone else showed up in a few hours, he’d have the department heads do their inspections and report to him. He met another rate as he walked aft.
“Skipper!” Stu Riley, who was carrying a bucket and mop, cried out in surprise. “I didn’t know you were on board yet.”
Crane could tell something was up. He’d been around the young surfer long enough to realize when he was hiding something. Riley loved jokes and pranks, and since they were rarely dangerous, Lee let them slide—most of the time. It was then he smelled something a bit peculiar. “Riley, you pulling watch with Marley?”
“Marley.” Crane already knew the answer; he had seen the new rate’s name on the roster. Marley was a top mechanic’s mate, could put anything together and on the last mission had done just that, saving many men in the process. However, Marley was an introvert with a capital I, and Riley had taken it upon himself to bring the young man out of his shell. “Smells like a movie theater down here,” he stated.
Riley blanched. “It does, sir?”
“It does and this isn’t in the vicinity of the ward room or the rec room.” He frowned. “What have you done to Marley this time?” Riley and Kowalski had pulled pranks on Marley during the last mission. The first was exchanging the young man’s sneakers for a pair of polka dot Keds. They had rigged the salt shaker on Marley’s first meal aboard, short-sheeted the boy’s rack during his first watch, and put shaving cream on his hand while he was asleep. Lee remembered such pranks in the Academy, but he had found ways to get back at the perpetrators. Marley just laughed with the jokesters and took everything all in stride. He even wore the Keds until Chip had noticed and ordered the jokesters to find Marley’s regulation shoes ASAP. Crane wondered if the kid had a limit to his patience.
“Oh, n . . . nothing, sir,” Riley stammered.
Crane continued down the corridor to the Reactor Room and stopped short. On the floor outside the door was something very incongruous. Bending down, he picked up a fluffy white piece of popcorn. He looked inside the room and saw Marley in protective gear cleaning up more popcorn. Alarm warred with annoyance, which was also tinged with amusement. “How long’s he been in there?”
“Only a few minutes, Skipper,” Riley blurted. “We’ve taken turns. Worn the protective gear every time.”
“Who’s idea was it to do this?”
“Uh, sir, I’d rather not say,” Riley murmured.
Crane looked at him in surprise. Riley was a jokester, but he wasn’t devious. “You saying it was Marley?”
Riley just repeated his last comment. At that time, Marley started out of the room. Lee helped open the heavy door, and then closed it behind the young man. Riley helped him out of the gear.
“Captain, I think there’s a leak in the one of the cells in there. Sir,” Marley told him, seemingly unsurprised to see Crane.
Lee had hoped that neither of the two men had tried to put the kernels inside the reactor, but the implications of what he was seeing and hearing weren’t any more comforting. “It popped in the outer chamber?”
“Yes, sir. I had the bag next to the control console. Where the damping rods are,” Marley informed him, his dark brown eyes showing genuine alarm.
“And what was the original purpose of your . . . experiment?” Lee asked.
“Well, sir, it was sort of a joke at first, but it kind of seemed a worthy experiment.” Marley was almost a head shorter than Crane and had to look up, but there was no guile in the young man’s demeanor. “Stu and some of the others had told me of problems on earlier missions, and, well, I, uh. Well, I thought…. Anyway, it seemed rather too warm in there, even though the indicators said everything was normal. So I just went ahead and, I, uh….”
Lee nodded. “I understand and while that is a rather unorthodox way of testing your, um, hypothesis, your concerns are founded.” He checked the readings on the outside console and, like Marley, didn’t see anything abnormal. However, if there was a leak of some kind and the indicators weren’t functioning properly, there could be serious consequences later. “Riley, get the nuclear engineer team down here on the double. I don’t care where they are right now.”
“Aye, aye, sir!”
Lee studied Marley another moment. “Next time find a better way to test your hypothesis. Using a radiation counter would have been cleaner.”
“Uh, yes, sir,” Marley replied nervously.
“Carry on and dump that popcorn in a protected receptacle.” Crane smiled softly to reassure the man.
“Aye, aye, sir!”
He continued his walk, finding no other problems. By the time he was finished, the reactor team was on board and hard at work trying to diagnose the problem. Men were beginning to report in and Chip was already checking the systems in the control room. “Welcome back, Chip!” Lee called out as he entered the room.
Chip looked up from the console he was checking out. “Should have known you’d be here already. Problem in the Reactor Room?”
Crane nodded. “Apparently. For some reason the reactor controls, including the radiation detection system, aren’t functioning correctly. Marley found out using the popcorn method,” Lee explained with a wry smile.
Chip straightened up and looked puzzled. “Popcorn method?” Then the light seemed to click on. “You mean?” He grinned broadly. “You mean he tried to cook popcorn in there? Who set him up to it? Riley?”
“Probably he gave him the idea, but Marley told me that something didn’t seem quite right. It was too warm in there so he used the bag of popcorn like miners used to use a canary.”
Chip shook his head. “Well, I’ll be…. Hmm, will everything be ready for departure by 1100 hours?”
“If not, then shortly thereafter. I hope.”
Crane was very satisfied ten hours later when they were well underway and he was ready for some much needed sack time. The reactor problem had been found and corrected, including the self-diagnostic and safety systems. Nothing was amiss and Chip had taken the conn and had literally shoo-ed him out. Lee had grabbed a couple of sandwiches and some coffee from the mess and headed for his cabin.
He opened the door and was hit with an odor that was at once familiar and totally out of place. It was something he had dealt with until he had purchased some good cat litter and a litter box for DS. Sitting in the middle of his desk, tail swishing; gazing at him with totally disapproving golden eyes was Deep Six. Lee looked around. The offensive odor was obviously in the head. At least, he thought, the kitten had the smarts to know where to go in an emergency. “When in the hell did you stowaway, you little heathen?” he demanded.
DS only answered him with a very loud meow. He stood up and eyeballed the plate in his hand. With a shrug, Crane placed it on the desk and let the cat choose which sandwich he wanted. He was glad Cookie had given him two, not that he couldn’t have eaten them himself. With a soft growl, DS snagged the roast beef from inside one of the rolls and pulled it from the plate. Lee took it from him and tore it up into smaller bits, while DS swiped at his hand, claws sheathed.
Laughing, Lee put the shredded meat on a saucer and handed it back to the little beast. While DS ate, Lee did the same. The cat might decide he wanted the chicken, too. They both finished about the same time and Lee leaned back with a contented sigh. “What am I going to do with you? We’re supposed to be out on this mission for ten days.”
DS washed his paws and then his whiskers, not caring the least about his master’s predicament. A soft, rumbling purr came from the reprobate. Lee simply couldn’t stay mad at the kitten. Just as he hadn’t been able to give him up. Still, there was the issue of what to do with DS. “You stay here and stay out of trouble,” he commanded. “And hold it until I get back with something for you to use as a litter box.”
Within an hour, Crane had appropriated an old baking pan from a sleepy mess mate and procured some litter from storage room, thankful that at least some of the mechanical systems on the boat needed oil. When he got back to the room, he found DS attacking his blanket with a vengeance, growling and biting at a small object underneath. To his horror, Lee saw something moving besides Deep Six. The kitten backed away, reared up on his hind legs and pounced. This time the claws were unsheathed. Lee grabbed him and studied the slight movement. It was no bigger around than a half dollar, but it seemed to have legs. An insect? DS was struggling to get loose. Lee was just as determined to keep the kitten from harm. If it was something dangerous….
He shoved the protesting kitten into the head and shut the door. Deep Six scratched on the door, meowing, but Lee ignored him. He pulled off his shoe and had it ready as he grabbed the blanket by one corner and jerked it off the rack. A round, eight-legged creature flew through the air and landed on its back on the ground, legs waving in the air. Lee was about to stomp on it, when he examined it more closely. It wasn’t real. It was a mechanical spider. Of course, even toys could be dangerous on this boat, so he continued his examination. The small metal legs waved in the air, but nothing issued from the rubber body and it didn’t right itself. He carefully nudged the spider over and watched while it limp slowly across the room. A couple of legs had been broken so it walked with a peculiar jerky, scrabbling combination.
Finally Crane decided someone was trying to pull a prank on him. He should have known. A mission that began with popcorn in the reactor room and a kitten in his cabin would have to have a prank. He just wondered what the occasion was? Usually the rates were celebrating someone’s birthday, the birth of a child or some other anniversary, but Lee couldn’t think of a thing going on now. Chip used to pull pranks on him when they were midshipmen, but nothing since graduation.
DS’s scratching and yowling were louder now. Lee let the kitten out and it immediately stalked up to and then pounced on the toy arachnid. He let him play while he cleaned up the mess in the head. When the cabin was back in order and smelling better, Lee put some litter in the pan and shoved it near the bathroom door. He cleaned out the coffee mug and filled it with water for Deep Six.
DS was still hounding the spider that now had only four legs. Lee changed into his pajamas and climbed into bed. He didn’t remember much more after that. Sometime in the night he felt a warm presence against his stomach.
“Captain Crane! Captain Crane, call the sick bay.”
The intercom snatched him from a sound sleep and he jerked off the cover before he remembered that DS was sleeping with him. A startled meow and a thump alerted him to this most recent indignity. Careful not to tread on the kitten, Lee reached for the call button. “Crane here.” The clock said 0530.
“Captain, we have a situation that needs your attention.”
Crane was already pulling off his pajamas. “I’ll be there in a few minutes, Doc.”
DS was still glaring at him from the floor. He calmly licked a spot on his tail and jumped back up on the rumpled blanket.
He pulled on his trousers and his shirt. “Sorry, pal. Some things are more important than your dignity,” Lee told the kitten as he went into the head. Shaving would have to wait, he determined. “I’ll bring you some breakfast when I get done in sick bay.” DS was curled up and ignoring him.
What met him in
“Since never; he doesn’t drink at all. Can’t tolerate the stuff,” Chip bit off. “That’s what’s strange about all this. He was fine when he came on duty. Fine most of the night, but about an hour ago he started talking to himself and then he started this.” Morton shook his head. “We looked. There was no alcohol at his station. Nothing on his breath. But I thought you needed to be appraised of the situation.”
“Anything else?” Doc queried.
“What do you mean?” Chip asked.
“I mean a reaction to something could do this, too. Was
there anything else at his duty station?” Doc gently forced
“What?” Lee and Chip said at the same time.
“It is some kind of reaction. He’s going into shock,” Doc spat out. “The best thing you can do is to find what he took.”
“He had a slight cold, he said, but had bought something new for it on the way to the base,” Chip remembered.
“I need to go back to the control room anyway. I’ll search the radio shack and send anything we find up to you, Doc.”
The CMO just grunted, his main attention on the sick radio
operator. Lee stood back and watched, wishing there was something he could do
to help. Within a few minutes, Riley was in the room, a bottle of cold medicine
in his hand. “The XO said you needed this, Doc.” He peered over at
“Doc’s on top of it, Stu,” Lee told him.
“Put it on my desk,” Doc ordered. “I’m kind of busy, Captain. Do me a favor and read off the ingredients on the medicine bottle.”
“I’ll keep you updated, Riley,” Lee told the rate, motioning him to leave. He complied with the doctor’s orders. The list seemed endless, but one ingredient was alcohol.
“What I thought. Alcohol intolerance and the doxylamine combined with something else, probably APC or something innocent to send him into orbit,” Doc explained even as he motioned Frank to start an IV. The directions to his orderly flew right and left and Lee backed up to the door. He felt a presence behind him.
“What’s going on,” the Admiral inquired, his voice deep with concern. Lee told him. “I can sympathize,” the older man murmured.
“He’s stabilizing,” Jamieson told them. “I think he’s going to be all right. I’ll let you both know in a little while.”
Nelson nodded. “Let’s go get some breakfast, Lee.”
Crane remembered the kitten. Unshaven or not, he needed to get something for the cat. “I’ll grab something and take it to my cabin,” he replied.
“Couple of things I want to discuss with you about this mission anyway. Your cabin is as good a place as anywhere,” Nelson commented.
Lee tried to think of something to sidetrack the admiral’s suggestion, but he couldn’t think of a thing. There was no sense delaying the inevitable anyway. The two men ordered their meals and then headed toward Crane’s cabin.
Nelson cocked an eyebrow when Lee unlocked his door and peered in. “Hiding a girl in there, Lee?” The admiral chuckled at his joke.
“Not exactly, Admiral,” Lee replied. “It was sort of an accident.” He ushered Nelson in and then shut the door behind them.
The older man stood transfixed by the desk, staring at the coal black kitten that had raised his head and was appraising the newcomer. “I knew you had come to like cats somewhat, but didn’t know that extended to owning one.”
“That was kind of an accident, too.” Lee explained the circumstances as Nelson walked over to the bunk and reached his hand out to let the kitten sniff him. DS gave one finger a quick lick and meowed softly.
“I think he’s hungry,” the admiral commented.
As if on cue, there was a knock on the cabin door. Lee quickly answered and took the trays from the rate’s hands. “Thanks, Bailey,” he said and pushed the door shut with his foot. Deep Six was immediately up on his feet and attentive to the covered plates.
“What did you name him? Or is it a female cat?”
“Male. Deep Six or DS for short. He’s an attack cat, but has learned to keep his claws sheathed on most maneuvers.”
Nelson laughed at that and DS’s preparation for launch to the desk. The rump wiggled menacingly, but before he could leap, Crane scooped him up. “Wouldn’t want him to knock over our coffee.” He broke up some bacon and mixed it with scrambled eggs. The concoction went on a saucer and Lee put it down on the deck for DS to dig into. The cat did so with relish. The two men tackled their own breakfasts, discussing the upcoming mission. They were picking up a pair of scientists from a deep-sea science lab and flying them to the states for an important meeting.
“I think you’re going to have another passenger on the Flying Sub when you take the researchers back,” Nelson said dryly.
The ‘passenger’ was now grooming the remains of his breakfast from his whiskers. “Hope none of them’s allergic to cats,” Lee muttered.
“Find out soon enough,” came the reply. They finished their coffee as they watched the kitten attack the battered, legless rubber spider.
Two days later,
Late in the afternoon, Crane walked through the control room with a small toolbox in one hand, his flight jacket in the other. The crew gazed curiously at the box that had several holes in the side, from which muttered feline curses were drifting. There had been scuttlebutt floating around on what the skipper had been hiding in his cabin, but none had guessed a cat. Soft laughter floated in the room, but Crane just nodded and smiled. They would have to come to his apartment to meet the miscreant feline.
He set the makeshift carrier on the bunk and strapped it down. The two scientists came down the ladder while he was doing a systems check. They glanced around to make sure their gear was stowed properly before strapping in. “You’re going to have to let our other passenger out when we’re airborne,” Dr. Ruell commented, his soft voice belying that he had ever been a university professor. His companion nodded in agreement.
“If he behaves,” Lee replied. “I’m just glad that neither of you is allergic to cats.” The admiral had explained the circumstances to the two men during their discussions.
“Not totally fond of them,” Dr. Martin, the older of the two men said. “But we get along all right.”
Pre-flight checks finished, he contacted the control room to begin launch sequence. Everything went smoothly and they were soon released. Lee kicked in the propulsion units and something popped out in front of him from the top of the view windows. He stared at the dangling cubes, not knowing whether to be angry, disgusted or amused. The pair of fuzzy, purple dice bounced merrily, just as they would above the dash of an old fifties Chevy.
“What the hell?” the two scientists gasped out.
Lee just shook his head. “I think I need a beer,” he muttered. He then explained everything that had happened since leaving dock and the two men laughed heartily.
“We started out pranking each other in the lab after we’d had a disagreement,” Ruell commented. “Nothing serious, but it sure did relieve the boredom. I’m glad to see we’re not the only ones. By the way, Captain, there’s a note attached.”
Lee reached up and pulled the small strip of paper down and read it. Lee, just thought, before you became too complacent, that I needed to remind you of the first ship we served on. The one that confirmed our decision to go into sub school. Chip. Lee thought of the date and realized it was the same month and day they had reported on the DE Tippecanoe. He laughed and briefly relayed the joke to his passengers.
“By golly, your executive officer does have a sense of humor!” commented Martin. “And I’ll be happy to treat you to that beer after we land.”
Lee nodded, launched the Flying Sub out of the water and set the headings for San Francisco. DS was released and after he had merrily leaped for and finally brought down the dice, he jumped up in Martin’s lap. He moved to Ruell’s and finally curled up and slept the rest of the way in Crane’s lap. Lee would definitely have to write this one down. It was every bit as unbelievable as any of their monster, ghost, alien or wild science adventures they had lived through.