Inspired by a comment from Liz Martin - RLK
A light tap on his cabin door had Admiral Nelson calling out a tired “Enter.” He took one look at the slouching shoulders and exhausted expression of his CMO, Dr. Will Jamison, waved one hand at the chair next to his desk and with the other opened the bottom drawer and pulled out the bottle of scotch he kept there, as well as two glasses. Nothing was said between the two men until Will had downed half of the three fingers Nelson poured out in one single gulp.
“Thanks,” the doctor told his boss. “After the last four days…” His voice trailed off and he took a more controlled sip of what was left in his glass.
“What’s the latest count?” Nelson asked carefully. While he was fairly up-to-date with current events, he had a feeling that Will would appreciate the chance to be listened to almost as much as he seemed to appreciate the drink.
Will took a huge breath and
let it out in a long sigh before answering.
“Every bed in
Nelson snorted. “I’ve known him a lot longer than you have and I’m still tempted to slap him silly on occasion,” he admitted.
It caused Will to grin broadly. “Let Chip and I know when you do it. We’d both be more than happy to cheerlead.”
Nelson laughed outright and took a sip from his own glass. “Speaking of whom,” he encouraged.
Will sighed heavily again. “Thank heavens we found that handy seamount and settled in for the duration. I swear those two would be trying to run the boat all by themselves, barely recovering or not.”
The current situation had its
cause in a couple of semi-unrelated occurrences five days previous. Seaview was on her way home from a three-week
cruise. After charting an area of ocean
bottom north of
When Chip had realized what a relatively easy cruise it was going to be he went to his captain with a slightly different crew Duty schedule from what he normally put together. Lee took a casual glance, thought better of what he’d just read, took a longer glance, and pointed an eyebrow at his XO. “A little bored, are we?” he asked. Chip merely shrugged. “Or should I be asking, which crewman ticked you off so bad that you want to harass the entire boat?”
That caused Chip to grin broadly. Very little got past his eagle eyes and ears, such was his dedication to his job. And the crew as a whole was very careful not to tick him off, that being the fastest way to extra duty. But what was causing Chip’s current humor was the knowledge that, even as laid back as Lee’s leadership style was, there was rarely a misplaced bolt on the entire sub that he didn’t know about. No one, up to and including the Admiral, totally figured out how he managed it.
His grin turned into a soft chuckle. “We haven’t had any major crises the last couple of missions. Thankfully,” he added with feeling, and relaxed slightly as he explained his plan. “This cruise should be quiet as well. Just thought that it was a good time to surprise everyone and do the quarterly proficiency drills a little early.”
“But all of them in a single cruise?” Lee asked. Chip sent his CO a slightly evil grin, which Lee slowly matched, and the two spent the next half hour going over the schedule.
As both men expected, no matter the steady stream of drills combined with regular duties, the crew as a whole performed exceptionally well. As was their habit, Chip gave them nothing more than a ‘Bravo Zulu,’ a well done, and left Lee to congratulate the crew in a bit more personal manner – in this case with a twenty-four hour layover and shore leave at Pago Pago on the island of Tutuila in American Samoa.
The stay on the small island went fine. The crew had a great time and even the senior officers took a few hours for themselves. The Admiral and Will enjoyed a wonderful dinner together at one of the local restaurants, and Lee and Chip took off for a hike.
The problems started about
eight hours after Seaview left the island and headed home. It began with several men exhibiting the
symptoms of mild food poisoning. At
first Will wasn’t concerned. Turn young
men loose on a tropical island and there was no telling what they’d put in
their mouths. But matters quickly got
out of hand. Men were dropping like
flies so fast that Will and his corpsmen could barely keep up. A virulent form of viral gastroenteritis, or
stomach flu, was Will’s next guess, but tests wouldn’t confirm the
diagnosis. Will was kept so busy tending
to crew that Admiral Nelson took over the testing. Until that point only crewmen had been
affected, not any of the boat’s officers.
Nelson was close to confirming that some sort of poison was causing the
problem – thankfully in small doses – when the first officer went down. It took a while for it to be noticed because
the officer in question was Chip, known by the whole crew to be almost as good
as his CO at simply ignoring any and all infirmities if at all possible. Will had immediately confined Seaview’s XO to
the already overcrowded
Will was noticing a tendency for patients to recover fairly quickly once they were put on IV’s. Unfortunately, some of the first crewmen to get sick relapsed soon after being released. It was all extremely frustrating, but Will was by this time so tired that he couldn’t properly reason out a cause. He did, however, realize the first time Lee came in to check on Chip that Seaview’s CO was also suffering from whatever was going on. Will fussed but as usual Lee chose to ignore him. And in truth, Lee didn’t seem to be all that bad. Will did notify Admiral Nelson, and the decision was made to find someplace to settle Seaview until the whole mess could be sorted out. Rough weather topside precluded the submarine from surfacing – Will practically growled when Lee muttered something about rolling on the surface probably not being overly helpful to already touchy stomachs. Happily they’d made their way to a spot safely above crush depth and everyone’s concentration turned to figuring out what the blazes was going on.
Will was taking an infrequent break, grabbing coffee and a bite to eat in the Officers’ Wardroom that morning, when the answer smacked him – literally – in the head. Severe tiredness had led to extremely short tempers, which had led to bouts of sudden silliness as crew did their best to keep from killing each other. A minor altercation between two of the JO’s led to one of them picking up a piece of dried fruit and throwing it at the other one. It ricocheted and hit Will just above his ear. He chuckled and started to toss it back before suddenly staring at the innocent morsel, vaguely remembering that one of the crew had brought a large box of the mixed fruits aboard when he’d returned from shore leave; the same crewman who had been the first felled by whatever was happening, and one of the first to relapse once he was released from Sick Bay. Will grabbed up the bowl full of the stuff that had appeared in the Wardroom the day before and headed for Nelson’s lab.
It didn’t take Nelson long at
all, now that he had firm evidence in hand, to discover that the dried fruits
were, indeed, the culprit. Will and
Nelson told the crew only that the dried fruit had been treated with an
unapproved – at least by
Now, about twelve hours later, Will could finally take a deep breath. As he’d told Nelson, there were still too many men recovering from the effects to move the giant submarine. But at least no one was getting worse. He took another controlled sip of scotch, and let out a sigh that seemed to come all the way from his toenails.
“My sentiments, exactly,” Nelson agreed with the unspoken commentary, and worked on his own glass.
Will sent him a grin that was
half grimace. “You know, Admiral,” he
told his boss, “I’ve never been as grateful as I have been in the last few days
that you had the foresight to include such a large, well-equipped,
At that Nelson gave him a slightly sheepish little grin. “Actually, Will, you can blame your ‘favorite’ patient, somewhat, for that part of Seaview’s design.”
Will was confused. “But Seaview was already built and in service before Lee came aboard.”
Nelson nodded. “It goes back to when he served under me on the Nautilus.” His grin went even more sheepish.
Will frowned. “What did he do?” he demanded in an almost growl.
“Among other things, saved my six,” Nelson told him openly, “or there would never have been a Seaview in the first place.”
Will sighed. “I know I’m going to regret this,” he said with a note of resignation in his voice. He none-the-less raised an eyebrow, inviting Nelson to explain.
Nelson sent his CMO a fond grin. “Some of this I learned later,” he started his explanation, “when my XO at the time, Cory Mains, and I went over the ‘After Action Report.” Will nodded. “And some of it I’ve put together from odd comments from both he and, over the years, Lee.”
“That man actually talked about a past mission?” Will’s voice held total disbelief, causing Nelson to chuckle. Will all too often muttered about his reticent CO.
“Like I said,” Nelson admitted, “it was only the odd comment.” Will nodded, and Nelson started his tale.
Capt. Harriman Nelson was not
a happy man. The submarine he commanded,
Nautilus, had been called to Pearl Harbor from where she was patrolling in the
area of the
Part of Nelson’s unease had
to do with where that meeting was supposed to take place – west of the town of
While Nautilus waited, Nelson
would make his way on foot approximately ten kilometers due north, along an arm
of water, to its end. There he would be
met by an undetermined number of scientists who were coming west from
Provideniya. They were scheduled to be
attending a ‘meeting of the minds’ at a research center there to discuss how
Part of what was making
Nelson so nervous was that, like Nelson, Stepan Rospev, the man he had met
several years ago at an international conference, was also extremely
knowledgeable about nuclear physics.
According to intel he had grown tired of the
Rospev had made it clear that he would only meet with someone he trusted, and that someone was Nelson. There wasn’t any mention of who else might be with him, or how he was going to get away from the conference in the first place and make his way the ten clicks to the meeting point undetected. All Nelson could do was hope that Stepan would take all these things under consideration when he plotted his escape.
Capt. Nelson’s XO, Lt. Cdr.
Cory Mains, was almost as unhappy as his CO.
Skulking around unfriendly waters was nothing new – Nautilus spent a
fair amount of time trying to keep tabs on Cold War opponents and other threats
to free world security. But that had
nothing to do with working in close enough to deploy a landing party! He understood what was expected of him in
Nelson’s absence. And he was comfortable
enough with his own skills, as well as the crew under him, to carry out the
assignment. But ever since Nelson had
briefed him, two days out of
So far, the rest of the crew had been told nothing – there was no reason. Just before they reached St. Lawrence Island COB Bullock would be briefed, as he would be responsible for getting Nelson safely to shore. Word would get out, as was inevitable in the close confines and small crew size of a submarine. But the crew would also understand that they could expect to be told only what they needed to know, and to mind their own jobs to their highest ability as others were dependant on them.
Nelson spent several hours on
the trip north studying the topography he’d have to traverse. Staying along the arm of water would mean
easier walking but more chance of discovery.
He’d been supplied with local clothing and ID documents, but he’d rather
not have his less-than-fluent Russian tested.
Midsummer meant moderate temperatures.
Nautilus hit St. Lawrence Island’s west end just after 1800 hours. She proceeded cautiously along the island’s southern coast as Nelson went over last-minute details with XO Mains. Drop off would be at 0030 hours, the darkest hour of the area’s short night. Nautilus would return to St. Lawrence Island and hang around its southern coast, resting quietly on the relatively shallow bottom. She would return in exactly twenty-four hours, come to periscope depth, and await Nelson’s signal, two quick flashes from the penlight he carried, before sending an inflatable boat ashore. A second pick-up time was arranged for the following night, just in case there were problems making the first one. While neither Nelson nor Mains wanted to think about what could cause it, they also established a third plan – if Nelson missed the second pick-up Mains was to contact ComSubPac for further instructions.
Nelson knew that at least the
basics of his rather unorthodox assignment had gotten to the crew when his
appearance in the Control Room dressed in native civvies caused nothing more
than a grim nod from several men. One
look that was more intense flashed ever so briefly across the face of Nautilus’
newest JO, Lt. Lee Crane. Nelson had
been an occasional lecturer during Crane’s
He stayed in the
A quick glance around the
Capt. Nelson had waited an
extra second for the small inflatable to hit shore before grabbing his backpack
and hurrying into the underbrush. The
last thing he needed was wet shoes and pant legs bothering him, and he didn’t
dare risk a fire to dry them out.
Luckily there was a small stretch of fairly flat land. Nelson sent the seamen who had rowed him
ashore a quick nod and melted into the brush.
He found what cover he could and watched until the small boat was safely
back to Nautilus and the conning tower disappeared from view. Mains had disapproved – strongly – that
Nelson wasn’t carrying a communications devise of any kind, but Nelson agreed
with the men who had briefed him about not daring to risk it. If he was discovered, there could be nothing
on him to connect him to the
Nelson proceeded with all due caution, his senses on high alert. While there was little to maintain a livelihood outside of the villages, there was still the chance of stumbling into a remote homestead. People in this part of the world were notorious for their independence. He avoided any totally open ground as much as possible, but still made fairly good time as he paralleled the arm of water to its northern end. He’d not gone all that far when the sun reappeared from its very short nighttime disappearance. The skies were clear, and Nelson found himself squinting in the unaccustomed brightness. Definitely spending too much time with your head under water, he muttered quietly to himself. Shaking his head with a soft self-conscious grin, he continued his outwardly casual but inwardly cautious amble north.
He stopped just short of the top of a rise, lay down, and slithered forward just far enough to see over the top. To his right he could see the end of the arm of water he’d been following. The smell of smoke had him searching for its source. Just to the west of the upper edge of water there was a large area of brushy terrain. From its northern edge rose a small plume of smoke. Nelson said a silent prayer that it was his friend but took the time to skirt the area and approach from the north, through more underbrush instead of going directly to the fire, just in case it was someone else. It took him an extra half an hour, so cautiously was he moving. But he breathed a huge sigh of relief when he paused behind the last line of brush and peered into the small clearing. Even bundled up as the four men were who were sitting around the small fire, Nelson had little difficulty recognizing Stepan Rospev, a slightly rotund man who seemed more fitted to sitting behind a microscope than diving with cephalopods, which is what he’d been lecturing on when Nelson had originally met him. Nelson hesitated only long enough to be fairly sure that there was no one else around before entering the clearing. All of the men startled at his appearance. Two of them instantly returned to staring at the fire while one openly stared at him. The fourth, Rospev, rose and took a couple of steps in his direction. Nelson wasn’t overly happy with his reception from the others, but walked over and offered Stepan his hand in greeting.
Nelson was made even unhappier by Rospev’s first comment. “I was hoping that you would not come, Harriman,” he said softly, in heavily accented English. Before Nelson could do more than raise an eyebrow, the sound of several weapons being cocked reached his ears. “I am sorry,” Rospev continued with a small shrug. “I was betrayed by someone I thought I could trust.” The man at the fire who had continued to stare now stood and sent Nelson as evil a grin as Nelson had ever seen, as half a dozen heavily armed soldiers walked out of the underbrush to surround the smaller group. “Unfortunately I have now been forced to do the same to you,” Rospev continued, strong regret in his voice.
“Not your fault,” Nelson told him as rough hands grabbed him, stripped off the backpack, and thoroughly searched him. The man at the fire had taken several steps forward and now shouldered Rospev out of the way to stand directly in front of Nelson, practically spitting as he said something in rapid Russian. Nelson didn’t catch all of it but there was no mistaking the sheer venom with which it was said. But it was the shove given to his friend that irritated Nelson more and he launched himself at the man. He had the satisfaction of landing a couple of solid blows to the man’s face before his head exploded, and everything went dark.
* * * *
Cory Mains continued to stalk
Cory was standing quietly in the Conn, trying to control his case of nerves over his absent CO and wishing Nelson was there right now going on and on about some marine topic Cory could care less about when his thoughts were interrupted by a call from the radioman, Petty Officer Medlen. There was a call from ComSubPac that Mains was directed to take privately in Nelson’s cabin. Cory knew that he frowned, not liking the sound of that, but nonetheless hurried to his CO’s cabin and notified Medlen to put the call through.
Cory was not proud of himself for how he handled the call. Not only was he unable to maintain his cool, he was totally unable to convince the powers that be of what a terrible mistake they were making with what they ordered him to do. He practically slammed the mic back in its holder at the end of the call and had to take a couple of minutes, and a whole lot of deep breaths, before he was able to once more pick it up. He hesitated again, giving serious consideration to ignoring his orders and changing them to something that made a good deal more sense. But a few more deep breaths reminded him that he was too good an officer to ignore a direct order. On top of which he knew only too well what Capt. Nelson would have to say about that, and cringed slightly as he let that reaming out pass through his mind. On the other hand it would almost be worth it if it got Nelson safely back on the boat, and Cory had absolutely no faith in the orders he’d just been given accomplishing that task. The hand not holding the mic slammed against Nelson’s desktop with enough force to rattle things in drawers. But his voice was under control – mostly – when he made his call.
* * * *
Once Lt. Lee Crane’s shift
was over in the
“Sit!” Mains ordered, and pointed to the small visitor’s chair in the cramped cabin. He knew that taking out his anger on the young lieutenant, especially as it was in no way Crane’s fault, was the wrong way to be dealing with the orders he’d just been given. He could even understand the look of confusion on Crane’s face as he sat on the very front edge of the chair. Mains took another deep breath, tried to get himself under control, and started his explanation.
“ComSubPac just called. Seems the State Department has had further intel on Capt. Nelson’s assignment and now thinks that he could be walking straight into a trap.”
“Sir,” Lee couldn’t stop himself from uttering, but instantly clamped his lips shut and gave his attention to his XO no matter how his heart rate had jumped.
“We’re ordered to make the meet tonight as already established, but be prepared to send in rescue if the Captain misses the pick-up.”
Lee just nodded. He was starting to get a tiny idea of why he was being briefed, and also why his XO was so miffed.
Mains’ voice was hard, and his look especially penetrating, as he continued. “For some reason ComSubPac has it in their head that the rescue party is going to consist of one man. You.”
It was all Lee could do not to cringe at the vehemence Mains put into that last word and again only managed a short nod, watching with slightly lowered eyes but still giving his XO his entire attention as Mains seemed to struggle to regain control.
Which he did, with noticeable effort. His stare was, however, only slightly less menacing when he continued. “I’ve seen your service jacket. I’m reminded now that there are some rather interesting gaps, remarkable for their lack of detail.”
Once more Lee only nodded. He knew that Capt. Nelson was aware that Lee had been tagged by ONI, the Navy’s Intelligence agency, for further training shortly after graduation from Annapolis, and that he occasionally ran ‘errands’ for them. But it wasn’t anything that was openly discussed. Even under current circumstances.
Mains actually wasn’t
surprised when Lt. Crane didn’t offer to elaborate. He was starting to get an idea of why
ComSubPac had been so adamant in their choice of a rescue ‘team’. He had his voice, and himself, under more
control as he continued. “I’m not sure
what kind of pack we can put together.
The Captain’s kit was given to him at
“I can manage most of what I need,” Lee told him, finding his voice. “I keep it in my bag,” he admitted, again slightly lowering his eyes. “Maybe COB Bullock could scrounge me up some kind of coat?”
Mains nodded. There was no telling what some of the crew might have in their individual kit bags. “I’ll see what he can come up with and have him leave it in your cabin.” Lee nodded. “Weapon?”
“Have my own,” Lee told him almost shyly. “Radio?”
Mains’ expression once more went hard. “The Captain was forbidden from taking anything in.” It was his turn to nod as Lee reacted to that bit of intel. “Since I have no such orders for you…” His voice trailed off and he and Lee both gave curt nods.
“Not sure how much I’ll be able to keep in contact,” Lee amended.
“Anything has to be better than nothing at all,” Mains growled. “I’ll take you off of the Duty schedule.” He sent a stern look Lee’s way. “I don’t suppose that it’s any use advising you to get some rest.”
Lee’s expression went slightly sheepish again. “Probably not, sir,” he admitted.
Mains merely nodded. “Now pull your chair around here and I’ll fill you in on what I know, and what you need to know.”
“Captain Nelson may still make the meet,” Lee offered as he repositioned himself.
“We can’t wait until the last minute; if nothing else, the period of darkness is too short.” Lee nodded his agreement and the two put their heads together.
* * * *
Nelson regained consciousness slowly, at first none too sure that he even wanted to. His head was pounding, his ribs hurt, and he couldn’t make his arms move out of whatever contorted position they seemed to be stuck in. Finally a soft “Harriman” penetrated his pain-filled haze and he managed to get his eyes to open.
From what he could remember, he seemed to still be in the same small clearing, although along its edge. The fire in the middle of the area now had a good many more men around it, mostly soldiers from their dress. Nelson turned his head enough to find the voice that once more softly spoke his name and found Stepan Rospev sitting a few feet from him, his hands bound behind him around the slender but sturdy trunk of a scrub tree. Nelson finally took stock of his own position, leaning to one side which put undo stress on one shoulder, and struggled briefly to sit up with his back now firmly against a similar tree trunk. He took a deep breath, feeling the effort pull slightly across his ribs. “How long?” he finally got out.
Rospev shrugged. “About three hours, I think.”
“Why?” When Rospev merely looked confused, Nelson continued. “Why are we still here?”
Again Rospev shrugged. “I am not certain,” he admitted. “No one is being overly communicative. I am sorry.”
Nelson understood that Rospev was back to the interrupted conversation earlier, apologizing for getting Nelson into this mess, and it was his turn to shrug. “Happens,” he said.
“I should have been more careful,” Rospev muttered miserably.
“We all get fooled,” Nelson told him. He glanced at the other men but they seemed to be in the middle of their own animated, if quiet, conversation and weren’t paying Nelson and Rospev any attention. “What happened?”
Rospev shuddered. “I could not take it any longer,” he told Nelson. “The constant demands for weapons upgrades while my own research requirements and conservation recommendations went totally ignored.” Nelson sent him as an encouraging a nod as he could. “When this conference was announced I am afraid that I let myself become overly excited. I realized too late that I might have said too much to the wrong people.” He shook his head. “But even then things seemed to be working out. I did not question when plans came together too easily.” He frowned. “Or when Viktor, Dr. Lobov,” he expanded, and nodded in the general direction of the man who Nelson had slugged, “seemed so excited to be included in my plans.” Nelson had noticed that the man seemed to be favoring the left side of his face as he talked to the others around the fire, and took grim satisfaction in knowing that his right fist didn’t hurt without good reason. He noticed Rospev’s expression turn even more miserable. “I was so proud of myself for pulling everything off so easily that I did not take into consideration that it was too easy.” His voice turned hard, if still quiet. “I have been such a fool!” He looked at Nelson fully. “And now I have unfortunately involved you.”
Nelson once more shrugged. “We’ve all made mistakes in our lives, Stepan,” he told his friend with feeling. “We just have to figure out a way to get it turned around.” Rospev merely hung his head. “What did you tell them about me?”
“Just that I was expecting someone to lead us the rest of the way to safety – at no time did I identify you.”
Nelson nodded. “That was good thinking,” he tried to give his friend something positive to think about. “You don’t know why we’ve been kept here instead of being moved?” he once more asked.
Rospev shook his head slowly. “From what little I have heard them talking, I think that they may be waiting for something to happen. Or, someone else to arrive. I am not sure.”
“Humm,” Nelson muttered mostly to himself, pondering that bit of information and what it might mean. But the fact that he was no longer unconscious was at that moment noticed around the fire and one of the soldiers, accompanied by the man Stepan had identified as Viktor Lobov, walked over. Nelson took great personal satisfaction in the fact that Lobov’s sneer was being seriously hampered by a quickly blackening and swelling eye. Unfortunately he allowed enough of a grin to show on his face that Lobov took exception. A hard boot toe connected with his already aching left ribcage before the soldier, who seemed to be in charge, shouted at Lobov sharply, and two other soldiers quickly hurried over and forced Lobov to accompany them back to the fire.
“Your name,” the soldier demanded, in even more thickly accented English than Rospev. Nelson pretended to not understand and the question was repeated in Russian.
Nelson gave him the name that was on the forged documents he’d been given. “Yuri Zolkin.” There was a shouted curse from Lobov, and before the soldiers could get him once more under control Nelson heard his own name nearly screamed in his direction.
“Dr. Lobov claims that you are an American named Harriman Nelson,” the soldier continued.
Nelson picked up enough of the statement, spoken in Russian, to be fairly sure of the translation. He merely shrugged. He wasn’t quite as successful at interpreting the man’s next statement, but once the soldier went back to the fire Stepan filled in the blanks. There was apparently someone coming from Yanrakynnot, further to the north, who was supposed to be able to identify Nelson. Once that was confirmed they would be taken to Provideniya and then to Achchen, from where they would be flown to Moscow.
Nelson asked if there had there been any indication of when the person was supposed to arrive from Yanrakynnot, but Stepan could only hazard a guess of sometime the following afternoon. Traveling in this area of Siberia was problematic at best. Nelson silently pondered his options. He was on his own, obviously, as Nautilus was of no help. Nelson et al would probably have left the area before he missed the second pick-up time, and even then he’d not been given any plans of rescue from that direction in his original briefing. He knew that was one reason Cory had been so upset. But that couldn’t be helped now. Cory, a good officer, would follow his orders.
No, Nelson was on his own. He saw no way of making the first pick-up. If he could somehow escape he might just make the second. Barring that, if he could figure out a way to get to Kivak he might, somehow, manage the 38 miles of ocean back to St. Lawrence Island. He shook his head – carefully, as it still hurt like the blazes. Whatever he did, he had to include Stepan in his plans if at all possible. His friend was a dead man if they ended up in Moscow. Nelson, once identified, would be paraded around as an American spy. If he was somehow ransomed home his career would still be over for sure, and even that was a big ‘if.’ More likely he’d be tossed in a Russian prison, or end up dead like Stepan once his usefulness in a propaganda campaign was over. Okay, Harry, he muttered silently, you walked into this mess. He frowned at his unintentionally bad joke. Now it’s up to you to get yourself out of it.
* * * *
Lee barely waited for the small inflatable to head back to the waiting Nautilus before double-checking his compass and heading north. He was only too aware that XO Mains, despite his following of orders, didn’t have a great deal of confidence in Lee’s ability to rescue Capt. Nelson. He was determined to prove his worth, as well as bring the man safely home who had become very much Lee’s mentor at Annapolis. He wasn’t sure how he was going to do that, especially as he had no idea of what danger he was headed into. But over the last few years he had learned, with ONI’s training and help, to trust his judgment and instincts. They’d gotten him in trouble a time or two – his impetuous nature tended to over-balance caution. But he’d always managed to think fast enough on his feet to find a way to accomplish his task. He allowed himself a slightly smug grin. His superiors hadn’t always approved of his methods. But at least they’d had to acknowledge his successes.
COB Bullock had located a light jacket of undeterminable origin, along with what could almost be described as a fishing vest – a light garment with a multitude of pockets. Lee filled a good many of them with items from his kit bag, after changing from his uniform into dark blue knit pullover and a slightly ratty pair of jeans. XO Mains had shaken his head slightly at the outfit when he brought Lee a small radio tuned to a hopefully obscure channel that Nautilus’ radiomen would be monitoring constantly. He’d handed Lee a first aid kit that the sub’s corpsman had put together and tied up in a piece of canvas that had been cut from a larger piece to do away with the US Navy stamp it carried. Lee nodded his approval of the foresight and stuffed it in the large back pocket of the vest. Mains also handed him another package that turned out to be several large roast beef sandwiches. Lee ducked his head as Mains warned him that the sandwiches better not come back. Obviously Mains had picked up on, during Lee’s tenure aboard Nautilus, Lee’s habit of not eating if other projects were occupying his mind. Lee sent him a small grin as he covered everything with the jacket. A black watch cap Bullock had found somewhere, with no Navy markings, completed Lee’s outfit.
Now, Lee was grateful for the layers of clothing. Moving quickly he kept from getting too cold. But the rising sun was obscured from shining by a building cloud cover and the breeze was freshening. Lee suspected that there was bad weather coming – he just hoped that it would hold off for another 24 hours. By that time, with any luck, he’d be safely back aboard Nautilus along with Capt. Nelson.
It was about mid-morning when he approached his target area. Unknowingly mimicking Nelson, he spotted the smoke from the fire and skirted the area to approach from the north. He avoided making the same mistake Nelson had only because of the forewarning Nautilus had gotten from ComSubPac. Inching through heavy cover as silently as possible, he discovered a sentry posted on the edge of the clearing. Lee recognized this as both good news and bad. At least Nelson was most likely still close by. But Lee’s job had instantly gotten more difficult than already assumed. He carefully scanned what he could see around him and decided to move more to the east before getting any closer to the clearing. The breeze was making the brush rattle and wave, thus covering some of his own movements and noise. But it also hampered his ability to maneuver quickly. The trees to the east, even if only the stubby ones that could survive Siberia’s brutal winters, offered a few more possibilities both for surveillance and possible distraction.
He had to avoid another sentry but was soon snaking his way through the underbrush beneath the trees. What he found brought more good news and bad. Lee spotted Nelson and another man, sitting on the ground with their arms tied around small tree trunks at the edge of the clearing, another sentry between Lee and them. In the clearing he could make out several more men, some dressed as soldiers, some not, sitting or standing around a small fire. There was a pot sitting in the embers and, as he watched, one of the men passed around some metal bowls. The others took turns ladling what appeared to be a stew of some sort into the bowls and began to eat. One of the men glanced toward Nelson and said something Lee didn’t catch, but it caused everyone else to laugh. The smell of the food drifted Lee’s way, reminding him that he’d not eaten in too many hours. He’d been too nervous, after his talk with XO Mains, to get much down except coffee. With another glance at the one sentry he could see, Lee hunkered down even further in the brush. From this distance, Nelson didn’t appear to be taking much notice of what was going on around the fire. He hadn’t reacted to the laughter, although Lee did see the other prisoner glance Nelson’s way before also studiously ignoring it. While Nelson’s back was upright against the tree, his head was leaning forward and down as if he were sleeping. Or unconscious, Lee thought angrily. Several options for action presented themselves but Lee hesitated. He needed more information about what was going on, and the only way that was going to happen was if he remained calm and continued to observe the camp.
* * * *
Nelson was cold and tired. And hunger wasn’t helping his aching head and ribs. He and Stepan had been released from their bonds only a couple of times, to relieve themselves and eat the hard bread and small amounts of water given them. Unwillingly, it seemed to Nelson. But then, he had to admit that he’d yet to meet a friendly Russian soldier. During those all too brief moments of freedom they’d had several guns trained on them and there had been no opportunity to do more than comply.
Nelson’s muscles were cramping from the lack of activity and there had been no offer of moving closer to the fire. Now, as the brief night had given way to a gray morning, the cold was seeping in worse and worse. He was almost looking forward to whomever they were waiting for to arrive, if only it meant that he would be released from his enforced immobility. His head drooped as the men prepared their noon meal, and he didn’t bother to look up when he heard them laughing.
He did look up as one of the men moved away from the fire in his direction thinking perhaps that, now that all of the men had eaten, maybe he and Stepan would be given something. But it seemed that the man was only headed to relieve the guard who had been posted in the area behind Nelson and Stepan so that he could go and eat. Nelson sent Stepan a grim look and once more lowered his head. He didn’t acknowledge the small sound he heard behind him a few minutes later, assuming that it was the sentry moving around. The men at the fire didn’t appear to take notice, either. It had been so soft that Nelson figured they hadn’t heard it; they had been talking quietly amongst themselves. From what Nelson could pick up, they were speculating about when the person they were waiting for would likely show up.
He also didn’t pay any attention when something seemed to brush his hand. His fingers were so cold and stiff that at first he wasn’t sure that he’d felt anything at all. He couldn’t help but notice the bit of black knit that appeared by the side of his tree, between he and Stepan. Just a brief glimpse before it disappeared, and then he was sure that he felt something once more touch his hand. He noticed Stepan openly staring behind Nelson and quickly motioned to him. Stepan seemed also to realize what he was doing, and both men glanced toward the fire. Thankfully no one there appeared to have noticed them and both Nelson and Stepan once more lowered their heads, although Stepan was covertly still trying to see behind Nelson.
“Sir,” came in a soft whisper, too soft to identify the speaker. “I’m going to cut the rope.” Nelson gave a very brief nod, just enough to acknowledge that he’d heard. He still couldn’t quite identify the voice but was getting a strong idea of who it most likely was. He didn’t move his arms as he felt the tension release so as not to alert the men around the fire. He wasn’t too sure he could anyway, as stiff as he’d become. But he readied himself as best he could for whatever was about to happen. He glanced at Stepan, who gave him an equally brief nod, and an arm reached between the two trees and Stepan’s rope instantly hung slack. He, too, held himself still.
“How many more?” came from behind him, still in a whisper.
“I assume you took care of the one behind us.” What Nelson recognized as a watch cap appeared once more, barely around the tree and sheltered from the view from the fire by Nelson’s hip, and gave a brief nod. “Then three more sentries, north, west, and south, and the five by the fire.”
“South has already been neutralized,” came the whisper. “Head that direction when the fireworks start,” and the watch cap disappeared.
Nelson was now fairly sure that his rescuer was Nautilus’ youngest JO, Lt. Lee Crane. He wasn’t going to speculate on how that had happened, although he had the niggling of an idea. He could even smile softly at what his XO, Cory Mains, had probably had to say about it. But he wasn’t about to knock the timing. As carefully as he could, without attracting too much attention from the soldiers, he began stretching muscles and loosening joints, preparing a body sore, stiff, and cold, for quick moving. He sent Stepan a quick nod as his friend was doing the same. Nelson was also eyeing his chances for grabbing one of the soldiers’ rifles. He wasn’t sure what kind of diversion Crane – if that’s who it actually was – was planning. He’d just have to play whatever was about to happen by ear, and take his chances as they presented themselves.
He had no idea where his rescuer had disappeared to until, from the area east of the fire, a small projectile suddenly flew out of the brush and arced directly into the center of the fire, missing the stew pot by barely an inch. The resulting explosion happened so fast that it caught everyone, including Nelson and Stepan, off guard. Nelson was quick to note that it was little more than a flash bomb. It momentarily blinded and disoriented the men around the fire but didn’t cause a lot of actual damage. As quickly as he could he headed Stepan south while he headed for the fire and the soldiers’ weapons.
He’d grabbed up one rifle and was reaching for another when he heard a shout. He turned just in time to see Viktor Lobov, an expression of complete hatred on his face and a nasty looking revolver in his hand. Nelson had no time to react before he saw Lobov pull the trigger. He felt the impact in his upper left arm, spinning him around and forcing him to drop the rifle he’d picked up. Expecting another hit, instead Lobov suddenly fell backward, a red stain quickly spreading on his chest. Totally surprised, Nelson looked and saw who he could now identify as Lee Crane emerge from the bushes, pistol in his hand, and head in his direction. But as the rest of the soldiers were starting to regain their senses Nelson motioned him away and grabbed up the rifle he’d dropped. He barely glanced at his arm, noting that the bullet had gone all the way through. Time enough to wrap something around it once they got away.
If they got away. The soldiers were quickly getting over their initial startlement, realizing that they weren’t actually hurt, and reaching for their weapons. Nelson clubbed the nearest one with the butt end of the rifle. He also grabbed both his own pack and the one Stepan had earlier identified as his. Stepan had told him that they’d both been thoroughly searched but left intact. Slinging one strap from each over his shoulder with a muffled groan, he took off for the brush.
He momentarily lost sight of Crane as bullets started to fly. He stopped long enough to send several back in the direction of the soldiers before hurrying on, but had only gone another fifty yards or so when he found both the lieutenant and Stepan hunkered down behind some rocks. As he ducked around them as well Crane let fly half a dozen rounds – he, too, had snagged one of the soldier’s rifles. There was momentary silence from their pursuers.
“Sir,” came an exclamation, and Nelson realized that Lee had spotted the blood on the sleeve of his coat.
“Nothing serious,” he responded offhandedly as he kept an eye on the direction they’d just come.
Crane looked doubtful, but Nelson sent him a meaningful glare and Lee backed down. “In that case, sir, I suggest that you take your friend and keep going south. “I’ll keep your other ‘friends’ occupied and join up with you shortly.” It was said firmly, but Crane kept a properly respectful expression on his face accompanied by an ever so slight downward look in his eyes as he kept looking between Nelson and the path north.
Nelson snorted but in fact it was exactly what he’d been about to suggest, only with him staying behind. Since he couldn’t argue with the logic, and so far Crane had handled himself and his task with perfect competence, he merely sent Crane a nod and he and Stepan, who had yet to say a word but did take his pack from Nelson, took off.
They didn’t go far, only a couple of hundred yards, before they found another place of suitable cover. It was off to their right slightly and offered a steep hill at their back, rocks to crouch behind for cover, and a clear view of the area Crane would traverse to reach them, as well as any following soldiers. There had been sporadic gunfire behind them, short bursts of several shots followed by moments of silence. As Nelson kept watch for Crane he also kept glancing at Rospev, who suddenly seemed to be fighting a headache. As Nelson looked at him, he removed the fur hat that he’d been wearing ever since Nelson woke up from being gun-whipped. “Stepan!”
“I am doing okay,” his friend tried to wave off Nelson’s concern. There was dried blood on the side of Stepan’s head.
“What happened?” Nelson asked, still trying to keep an eye out for Crane. He was getting nervous because of the gunfire he’d heard.
Stepan shrugged. “After you were incapacitated I unfortunately showed pleasure at the damage you inflicted on Viktor’s face.” He sent Nelson a broad grin. “Viktor has always been vain about his looks.”
Nelson returned the grin and gave him a ‘thumb’s up.’ “Bad?” he asked.
“No,” Rospev told him. “A bit of a headache,” he admitted.
“I hear you,” Nelson agreed, but inwardly he still worried. While he had lost consciousness there had been no blood. The side of Stepan’s head was crusty with the dried substance. Nelson knew that head wounds often bled heavily even though little damage had been done. But he also knew that that much damage usually indicated multiple hits. He’d have to keep an eye on his friend and be on the lookout for any signs of an awkward gait or slurred speech – anything that might be an indication of a worsening head injury.
For now he was a bit more worried about Crane. It was taking the young man longer than Nelson thought it should for him to catch up. Nelson was just giving serious consideration to heading back in the direction of the camp when the black watch cap poked carefully out of some brush. Nelson gave a very short whistle, Crane looked around until he spotted Nelson’s head barely peeking over the rocks, and hurried to join the other two.
Nelson kept watch to the north until Crane dropped beside him with an audible whuff of air. Nelson sent him a hard look and Lee gave him a small smile. “Hi, Skipper,” he said softly.
Nelson snorted. He tried to send Lee a glare but knew that he wasn’t controlling his face well enough to cover a small grin. “Hi, yourself, Lieutenant,” he muttered nonetheless. “How’d you talk Mains into this?” He had a pretty good idea already but he wanted to see how Crane answered the query.
“Wasn’t me, sir,” Lee admitted. “Someone from ComSubPac radioed. They told him that there had been further intel indicating that your meeting had been compromised.” There was a mutter from Rospev, low and angry, and in Russian, and Nelson sent him a nod. “They told Mr. Mains to send me in.” Lee sent Nelson an extremely sheepish look. “He’s not thrilled, for sure. If I don’t get you safely back, sir, he’ll relegate me to cleaning the ballast tanks for the rest of my tour aboard Nautilus.”
Nelson chuckled openly. “He might anyway, just on general principles,” he teased the young man he’d grown fonder of during Crane’s years at Annapolis than even now he’d openly admit to.
It was Lee’s turn to smile although it was accompanied by the shy, almost through-the-lashes look Nelson had grown used to seeing at the Academy. But almost instantly Lee’s expression turned firm. “Sir!”
Nelson realized that Lee was staring at his left arm. “It’s nothing,” he told Lee offhandedly. “I put my handkerchief inside my sleeve; that will hold until we get back.” He saw Lee suck in a breath and open his mouth, preparing to argue, and wasn’t in the mood. Trying to change the subject he turned to Rospev. “Stepan, I’m sorry. I didn’t ask about the other two men with you and Lobov. Should we have tried to bring them with us?”
Rospev shrugged. “I think that they would have liked to come. But Viktor intimidated them so much, when the soldiers moved in, that they were too afraid. They pretended to have just been playing along so that they could turn me in themselves. I wash my hands of them!” he ended with a growl.
Nelson nodded. He’d had enough of the taste of Lobov’s venomous persona that Stepan’s explanation made perfect sense. But his attempt to sidetrack Lee with the conversation fell flat on its face.
“Captain, you need to let me look at that wound.” Lee’s voice was very firm and under control. “You know what happened the last time…”
“Not another word, Lieutenant,” Nelson snarled, cutting him off. He glared at Lee, but Lee met his gaze with one of conviction. They were both remembering an incident that had occurred about three months after Lee came aboard Nautilus.*
The semi-standoff ended when Nelson couldn’t hold the glare in the face of Lee’s silent but firmly insistent expression, and shrugged out of the coat and left shirtsleeve. Lee took a look toward the north as he reached into the large back pocket of the vest and brought out the first aid kit he’d been given. “I’ll watch for unfriendlies,” Nelson grumbled, still trying to sound angry. “You just hurry up.”
Nelson saw Rospev raise an eyebrow at the strange conversation he’d just heard and sent him half a smile. “Confused?” he asked.
“I gather that I have stepped into the middle of a previous conversation?” Rospev responded hesitantly.
Nelson snorted again as Lee ducked his head but continued to assess the damage, clean it the best he could, and tape bandages in place. “Dr. Stepan Rospev, Lt. Lee Crane,” Nelson made the belated introduction. “Crane has the disgusting trait of occasionally thinking he’s smarter than his superior officers.” Lee’s head ducked even further. Rospev looked nervously between the two. What he knew of Nelson, the man definitely did not tolerate insubordinate underlings well at all. “He also,” Nelson continued in a growl before his face relaxed into a sheepish grin and his voice softened, “has the disgusting trait of frequently being right.” He sent Rospev a wink before nodding toward the spare pack that he’d grabbed. “Check that, would you, Stepan? I saw food come out of it and I’m hoping that there’s more. I’m starving.” Rospev complied eagerly, but both men also watched Lee as his hands reached back into his multi-pocketed vest.
“Here, sir,” he said, offering Nelson the sandwiches. “These should help.” Nelson’s eager reach for the package almost made him miss the slight flinch as Lee quickly reclosed the jacket. Nor did Lee miss the fact that Nelson saw it and he sent his CO another of his shy little smiles. “I was hurrying, and not totally watching where I put my feet,” he said by way of explanation. “Zigged when I had intended to zag. No biggy, just a bruise that’s going to bug me for a few days.”
Nelson glared at him, ready to reciprocate Lee’s insistence on tending to Nelson’s injury. But sounds from the direction they’d just come grabbed the attention of all three. Rospev flattened himself, hands still searching through the pilfered pack. Nelson and Lee both barely peeked around different rocks and watched five of the soldiers, heavily armed, attempt to follow their prey. They entered the small clearing in front of where the others hid and stopped, appearing to be pondering their options after apparently losing the trail in the rocky terrain of the clearing.
Nelson was trying to figure out his options when he realized that his young lieutenant had a mischievous, bordering on slightly evil, grin starting to creep across his face. “Whatever you’re plotting, Mr. Crane, I’m back in command of this assignment,” he managed to growl while barely whispering, so as not to give away their position.
“Yes, sir,” Crane agreed. But the grin never left his face. “Am I allowed to offer a suggestion?”
Nelson very carefully kept a grin off his own face. During his years at Annapolis Crane, along with his three co-conspirators, Midshipmen Morton, Levin, and Hughes, had been suspected of any number of instances of minor mayhem. Nothing had ever been proven, and none of the instances were anything mean-spirited or hazardous. Mostly the moments had had a knack for adding a bit of levity to an otherwise serious and strenuous time in the Middies’ lives, and helped to make their class one of the most successful and cohesive that the Academy had thus far produced. The prevailing thought at the time was that Morton had been the mastermind but Nelson had never totally bought into that theory. Crane had the ability to think totally outside the box. He was young and occasionally impetuous, but Nelson had learned that it was wise to at least listen to his ideas instead of totally dismissing them out of hand.
But he was interrupted from asking when the soldiers suddenly sprinted south, putting themselves between Nelson and his escape route. “That’s just terrific,” he muttered angrily.
“Actually, sir, it is,” Crane told him, the grin still spreading. As the soldiers disappeared into the brush on the other side of the clearing Nelson turned a nasty glare on Crane but it failed to diminish the lieutenant’s obvious glee. In fact, he basically ignored Nelson and turned instead to Rospev. “Doctor,” he addressed the scientist, “are you convinced that the other two men you brought with you want to defect?”
Rospev looked at Nelson for several seconds, waiting for the man to flatten his impudent crewman. When Nelson held his tongue, Rospev finally answered. “Like me they have no close family left behind, and wish to continue their research without political interference. I still condemn them for not being able to stand up to Viktor and the soldiers, and trying to save their own lives.” He sighed. “But I can understand why.”
“Did Dr. Lobov know how Capt. Nelson was getting to the meeting place?”
Rospev shook his head carefully, obviously trying to ignore his headache. “I did not know, only where we were to meet.”
“Coming from Kivak would make the most sense,” Nelson interjected, “with its proximity to St. Lawrence Island.”
Lee nodded. Nelson noted that the grin had disappeared but he could almost see the gears turning behind Lee’s expressive eyes. “Yes, sir,” he replied respectfully. “That means that they won’t be expecting us to do something so totally stupid as to double back, pick up the other two men, and head east to the coast. From there we can head south.” As Nelson started to open his mouth to object, Lee hurried on. “We’ll have to skirt the town of Chechen, sir, but from what I remember of the map that won’t be too hard. And we can have Nautilus pick us up not too far south of there; less distance for us to travel and only a bit trickier for Mr. Mains. And further away from Kivak if they,” he nodded toward where the soldiers have disappeared, “have already sounded the alarm.”
Nelson sent the younger man another glare. “And just how do you propose we change the pick-up point? We have no way to contact Nautilus.”
Lee’s grin returned. “You may have been forbidden to bring a radio along, sir.” He patted his jacket. “Mr. Mains was given no such order.”
Nelson could only shake his head. As usual, Lee’s logic was sound. He sat quietly, eating his sandwich as well as his share of the hunk of cheese Stepan had pulled from the pack. Happily there had also been a canteen attached to the pack. Lee shook off the suggestion that he at least eat half a sandwich and share the water but Nelson, who was not unaware of the lieutenant’s inclination towards thinking first of others while ignoring his own needs, made it an order. The shy smile came back as Lee complied. They both kept a careful watch for more unfriendlies. Once done eating they removed everything from the pack and hastily buried anything they didn’t need. Along with some bread and a couple of tins of peaches they found a box of ammunition for the rifles Nelson and Lee had snagged. After they both reloaded the weapons they divided the rest of the bullets up between them, stowing them in pockets so they’d be handy. Nelson was continuing to keep a close watch on Rospev but, other than obvious signs of a headache, the Russian seemed to be doing okay. They continued to watch southward but once they were ready they headed north, back toward the camp.
This time they approached from the west, Lee having convinced Nelson that the cover was better than the way both had entered the camp the first time. Nothing much had changed except for a lot fewer men around the fire. And, something covered by a tarp. Nelson gave Lee a short nod of thanks for taking out Lobov. The two scientists were still huddled around the fire but now only two of the soldiers were left to guard them, one of them obviously nursing an aching head from Nelson’s having whacked him earlier with the rifle butt. Lee slipped aside before Nelson even realized what the young man was thinking and surprised everyone by walking into the camp, rifle leveled at the two soldiers. Nelson shook his head – he was definitely going to have to have a long talk with the lieutenant. But not right now. He hurried forward, his rifle also at the ready, and heard Rospev follow him.
They didn’t waste a whole lot of time. Using the rope that had previously had Nelson and Rospev immobile they quickly did the same to the two guards. While Rospev explained what was going on to his colleagues Nelson watched their reactions closely, and realized that Lee was doing the same thing. But they seemed to show only excitement at being rescued, and quickly gathered their things. Nelson sent Lee a nod when, from out of his vest he brought out a small roll of duct tape and placed a couple strips across the mouths of each guard. As Rospev would have shepherded the other two scientists out of camp toward the east Nelson stopped him and pointed the trio west. He watched Lee put another strip of tape across each soldier’s eyes as he quickly collected anything from around the camp that could come in handy. Lee helped as soon as he was done with the guards. They both avoided the tarp-covered body. Once done they reunited with Rospev and circumnavigated the camp to the north, being extra watchful as they had no idea when reinforcements were to arrive in the form of the man who was supposed to be able to identify Nelson, and whoever he might be bringing with him. But they neither saw nor heard anyone and were quickly out of the area.
More people meant that they had to move more slowly, and Nelson cringed every time the newcomers made a loud noise; they were obviously not used to trying to walk silently. And the second time that he had to tell Rospev to tell them to quit talking and shut up, he also called a halt to get a few things straight. Through Rospev he explained that they were still in grave danger, and if they didn’t want to be found and shot they’d better get a grip on procedures. When Rospev translated that they seemed to finally understand that they weren’t home free. Nelson wisely didn’t mention that, if they didn’t get themselves under control, it would in all likelihood be him who shot them! His arm was really starting to hurt, and between that and the constant tension he was in a foul mood already without their incessant chatter.
Rospev, too, seemed to be regretting the decision to go back for them. He did introduce them to Nelson as Drs. Yegor Onopov and Sergei Bakunin. Nelson glanced at Lee who was hanging back a bit, keeping their rear guarded, but didn’t include him in the introductions. A nod told him that Lee was perfectly happy with that arrangement. He seemed to be keeping as much of an eye on Onopov and Bakunin as he was on their back trail. Both scientists had watched him shoot Lobov and were keeping a cautious eye on him as well. Nelson decided that that wasn’t a bad thing. If they were concerned about Lee always being behind them with a rifle at the ready they were less likely to cause trouble. After that, traveling was much quieter, although still not totally to Nelson’s liking. But at least it did seem that they were doing their best to move as silently as they could.
The men had more trouble keeping to cover this much closer to the waters of the Bering Strait, and getting around Chechen cost them several hours. It was nearing 2100 hours before they found a suitable place to stop and rest. Nelson was becoming seriously concerned about Rospev; for the last couple of hours he’d accepted help walking from Bakunin, and Onopov had checked his head wound and eye responses during one of their ever more frequent stops. Stepan had assured Nelson that he was doing just fine, but Nelson caught a look that passed between him and Onopov and wasn’t totally buying it. Even Lee seemed more exhausted than Nelson thought he should be when he dropped beside Nelson and used his compass to help estimate where they were. But Nelson chalked it up to too many hours with too little sleep and food. His thoughts went back to the worried look Lee had sent him before Nelson left Nautilus and figured that the young man had probably not rested well afterward. He watched Lee pull a small radio out of his pocket, put an earphone plug in his right ear, and talk softly into the radio he held a scant inch from his mouth.
“Polar bear to Orca. Polar bear to Orca. Come in, Orca,” Lee spoke quietly but firmly. He clamped his right hand over his ear as he continued to hold the radio in his left. Nelson motioned for everyone else to be quiet. Apparently Lee got an answer as he once again spoke into the radio. “Small change of plans. Request pick-up…” and he gave the estimated coordinates. “Polar bear has package plus 3 more. Repeat, pick-up for five requested. With damages,” he added with a quick flick of his eyes toward Nelson. There was another short pause, then “Roger that, Orca. Polar bear out,” and Lee re-stowed the radio.
Nelson sent him a stern look. “Not exactly original call signs, Lieutenant,” he observed dryly.
Lee sent him his shy smile. “Seemed appropriate, sir,”
Nelson nodded. “How long?”
“Nautilus will have to be especially vigilant as word has surely gone out by now.” Again Nelson nodded. “But they will hopefully be looking closer to Kivak.” He looked around. “I suggest you stay here while I go scout for good cover closer to the water. We can move down there nearer to 0030 hours.”
Nelson nodded. “Good plan, only…” The last word came out a bit louder as Lee started to move. “You stay here,” Nelson ordered. His glare increased as Lee started to open his mouth, and Lee shut it again. “I’ll do the reconnaissance.”
“Yes, sir.” Nelson hesitated a second as he thought that he detected a note of relief in the younger man’s voice, as if he was just as glad not to have to move. But he chalked it up to the fatigue that Lee had already been showing and slipped quietly out of the small shelter they’d found.
It took longer than Nelson thought that it would to find a safe waiting spot. If it had just been him there were several small sheltered areas. But he needed a spot where five men could stay hidden, and still be accessible to someplace that the small inflatable could land. He was also concerned about getting that many men back to the submarine in one trip. There was no way there would be time for two. Nautilus’ inflatable would just barely be big enough for everyone. Nelson considered the option of dumping packs as soon as they were deep enough that it would be unlikely they would wash ashore and be found. He and Lee could do that, if necessary. But the three Russians were carrying what they could from their old lives – probably things that were irreplaceable in whatever new lives they established in the states, or wherever they settled. Nelson was extremely loath to tell them they couldn’t bring even the little bit they’d stuffed in their packs.
The place that he finally found was a bit closer to a small settlement of houses, probably a fishing village, than he would have liked. But there was a small concave area – not really a cave but it did offer an overhang to get underneath – with enough brush around it to offer cover for everyone, and near enough to a fairly level gravelly area where the inflatable could land. He noted the coordinates as best he could with his compass and made his way back to the others.
Slipping through the surrounding brush as silently as he could, he suddenly found a rifle barrel six inches in front of his nose. “Oops,” came in a whisper, and the rifle was lowered. “Sorry, sir.” Nelson found Lee looking at him bashfully.
Nelson chuckled softly. “Under the circumstances, better safe than sorry,” he waved off Lee’s apology. “Mission accomplished, but it’s a bit further away than I’d like. How’s Stepan? We’d probably better get going soon to be sure we get there on time.”
“I’m fine, Harriman,” came Rospev’s voice from behind Lee.
“Sure you are,” Nelson grumbled, but moved to where he could give his friend a reassuring smile. “Just a little longer and we’ll have you safe. All of you,” he added, including the other two scientists in his glance, and got back nods in return. He grabbed Rospev’s backpack as well as his own, as Bakunin helped Stepan to his feet after shouldering his own pack. Nelson turned and found Lee ungracefully getting up. “Lee?”
Crane sent him a tired smile. “I’ll be glad to get home as well, sir.” He was favoring his right side again, and for the first time Nelson noticed a dark stain on the jacket. Lee noticed him staring at it. “Not sure where the COB found this jacket, sir, but it’s definitely seen better days.”
“It would appear, so have you,” Nelson muttered. Crane sent him another of his shy little smiles but didn’t say anything further, and Nelson led his little band out of the shelter.
The going was even slower as Nelson watched Rospev have more and more difficulty walking. He and Bakunin kept right behind Nelson as best they could, followed by Onopov, with Crane bringing up the rear. They were having to stop every twenty yards or so and it was midnight by the time they reached the place Nelson had found. As they settled themselves under the overhang, Lee once more pulled out the small radio. But when he seemed to be having difficulties with it, Nelson took it gently from him. “You rest,” he ordered, and Crane gave him a grateful nod.
“Polar bear to Orca,” Nelson spoke, once he’d turned on the radio and set the earphone.
Almost instantly he heard his XO’s voice in his ear. “Orca standing by,” was all he said, but Nelson breathed a huge sigh of relief hearing the familiar tone. He was brief as well, not giving the actual coordinates but merely the difference between what Crane had given earlier in case anyone was listening. “Understood,” came the reply, and both men broke the connection.
This time Nelson kept the radio. Crane was kneeling, half-leaning against the rock face watching and listening in the growing darkness around them. He made no objection when Nelson pocketed the device instead of handing it back. They both looked toward the other three as Rospev suddenly toppled over where he was sitting, and Onopov and Bakunin quickly started examining him, whispering in Russian to each other. Nelson caught bits of it, but obviously Crane caught even more. “They think that he’s bleeding into his brain,” Crane translated softly. “They aren’t sure how serious it is but, since it took so long to develop, they think that he will be okay.” They watched as Rospev roused. He wasn’t totally coherent but seemed to realize what was happening. “But he needs medical attention as soon as possible,” Crane continued.
Nelson nodded and turned his attention to the sea. Nautilus’ corpsman, Petty Officer Burdick, was one of the best he’d ever served with. No neurosurgeon, for sure. But once they could scurry out of Russian territory and Doc, as any sub’s corpsman was usually called, had a chance to evaluate Stepan’s condition for himself, they could put in a call and get someone on the line who could walk Burdick through whatever he could do to keep Stepan alive until they could get him to one. Nautilus was supposed to head for Washington State once they made the pick-up but Nelson was already revising those orders, figuring out the nearest Alaskan port from which Stepan and the others could be evacuated. Nome was pretty much a straight shot from where they were. Once back aboard, Nelson would head there with all due haste.
His attention was drawn to a soft noise off to his right, like perhaps a small animal of some sort, but almost instantly he forgot it as he caught movement out on the water. He sent a quick double-click from the penlight he carried and prepared to move his small band of men down to the beach. But he’d no more than stood up when his head was nearly taken off by a bullet that missed him by inches. So fast that he almost didn’t realize where it came from at first, an answering volley was fired from Crane’s rifle. “Move, sir. I’ll cover you,” Lee told him. Nelson hesitated only a second. They were only going to get one chance at this and apparently ‘someone’ wasn’t going to make it easy. As Crane sent another shot in the direction Nelson had heard the noise, he hustled the three Russians toward the water as fast as he could. Onopov and Bakunin were half-carrying, half-dragging Rospev. Nelson quickly snatched up Stepan’s backpack – he’d never taken off his own – and sent a rifle volley of his own into the darkness as he nearly walked backward, defending the three. There were several more shots in his direction and what Nelson took as a muffled oath escaped one of the Russians. He turned and saw Bakunin stumble slightly before continuing his part in getting Stepan to the boat, although now with a noticeable limp.
Nelson sent another round in the shooter’s direction and it was matched by a couple from Lee. He was gratified to hear a pained yell after the second one and turned his attention to the water. He was never more grateful to see anything in his life than he was when Nautilus’ inflatable hit the rocky flat area. There hadn’t been any more unfriendly shots after he’d heard the yell and as quickly as he could he helped the two crewmen, one of whom turned out to be COB Bullock himself, get the Russians on board. Onopov immediately started looking at an apparent wound in Bakunin’s upper left thigh. Nelson was preparing to push off when he realized Lee hadn’t yet made an appearance. “Crane,” he hissed into the darkness.
“Here,” came the reply, and Crane all but stumbled down to him just as another shot came way too close for anyone’s comfort. Nelson practically shoved Crane into the inflatable, emptied his rifle in the general direction of the unfriendlies and, tossing it aside, pushed off and jumped in all in one motion. He was instantly reminded of his own injuries, all but forgotten in the tension of the last couple hours, and a groan escaped before he could stop it.
“Skipper?” came from both the COB and Seaman Lands as they paddled toward the open ocean as fast as they could.
“I’m fine,” Nelson growled.
Softly there was a rebuttal from Crane. “The Skipper has a bullet wound, upper left arm.”
“Lieutenant,” Nelson all but spit out.
But it didn’t stop Crane. “It’s cleaned as best I could, but Doc will need to take a look as soon as he can.” Even as hard as Nelson was glaring at the younger man, he noticed Bullock have to turn his head and suspected that the COB was having to hide a grin as once again Crane chose to risk Nelson’s wrath by giving an unedited report. “Dr. Rospev is worse,” Crane continued. “Head injury. I’m not sure about Dr. Bakunin.” Onopov said something softly and Crane translated. “Dr. Onopov says that he doesn’t think the bullet hit anything but muscle, but it will need tending to as well.”
Nelson was so mad that he could have almost, at that moment, tossed his insubordinate lieutenant overboard. And yet, at the same time, he had to bury a chuckle. Crane was obviously taking no chances that Nelson would, as he had in the past, downplay the injuries and not get Burdick to check them properly. Especially in this case, where there were others hurt as well. He knew that Bullock and Lands were reading the anger on his face as they studiously ignored him and paddled for all they were worth. But he also knew his crew – and especially Crane – well enough that he wasn’t going to be able to slip past his corpsman, even if it had to wait until he had looked at the Russians first. He was fairly sure that Crane would have held his tongue until getting back to the boat if Bullock hadn’t been there. The COB reported directly to XO Mains, and Crane’s comments would be passed on as soon as possible after they got back. As worried as Cory had been before this whole mess started, once the COB passed on Crane’s information Cory probably wouldn’t let Nelson out of his sight. Nelson was in one respect very pleased. It spoke well of the respect his crew had for him. But he was still royally ticked! He turned his back to the rest in the inflatable and watched the coastline slip further away.
So intent was he on his personal little temper tantrum that he was startled when the little boat suddenly slowed down, and he turned to find Nautilus’ conning tower directly in front of him. Instantly his only thoughts were of getting everyone aboard and getting the heck out of the area before anything else went wrong.
Willing hands made the transition from inflatable to submarine go swiftly. Obviously Crane’s original message had been noted because Burdick met each member of the shore party just inside and immediately started sorting out the injuries. Nelson was able to side-step the corpsman with a fierce glare and head for the Conn but behind him he heard COB Bullock begin to repeat Crane’s assessment, and he’d barely gotten caught up with XO Mains, and gotten Nautilus headed west, when the COB entered the Conn.
“COB,” Nelson ordered, “status.”
Bullock didn’t hesitate. “Doc’s assessing the head wound. Seaman Carrick,” Carrick had extensive first aid training and helped out when needed, “is checking the leg wound. Turns out the other guy isn’t injury free either. He started throwing up blood. Lt. Crane is translating; seems the guy has what sounds like a bleeding ulcer.”
“Sounds like Sick Bay is a tad busy,” Nelson said, with a pointed glare at his COB.
Bullock nodded. “Yes, sir.” He maintained a proper, respectful expression on his face as he continued. “Doc said, if you could hold out a bit longer, he’d get to you as soon as he could.”
Nelson saw Mains, who had already noticed the hole in Nelson’s jacket sleeve but had carefully held his tongue, now shoot him a look of concern. Nelson tried to casually wave it off, all the while controlling a grin at his COB who had obviously been taking lessons from Crane. “I can wait,” he assured both men. He turned back to Mains in time to catch his XO getting a grin of his own under control. Apparently he was thinking pretty much the same thing as Nelson was. Quietly, so that Mains was the only one who heard it, he muttered, “I am going to have that young man’s head. Now he’s gone and corrupted my incorruptible COB.”
The two men had served long enough together that, despite the growl in Nelson’s voice, Mains still heard the respect, and was comfortable that he could get away with speaking fairly openly. “And I was just thinking that I’d write him up for a commendation for getting all of you back. Relatively in one piece,” he added carefully.
“He’ll be receiving it posthumously,” Nelson growled, but he couldn’t quite get his grin under control and got an answering one back.
They weren’t out of the woods just yet. Nelson had set a course that had Nautilus taking a rather circuitous route to Nome. Heading first north-northeast, he was trying to avoid any unfriendlies who could possibly be waiting for them to make a beeline for St. Lawrence Island. It was, therefore, nearly an hour later before XO Mains could nudge his CO towards Sick Bay. Once Nautilus had safely entered international waters Nelson set a course for Nome with all due haste, and placed a call to ComSubPac to update the powers that be on what was going on. There had also been a call to Nome, to relay Petty Officer Burdick’s issues and get him the information necessary to stabilize the patients as best he could until they could be delivered to the hospital there.
Nelson got those updates when he tried to enter Nautilus’ tiny Sick Bay. Rospev was lying on the one exam table and a bunk mattress had been laid on the floor behind it for Onopov, an IV stand between the two holding bags of fluids for both men. Rospev’s eyes were open and Nelson tried to talk to him. But the Russian was only semi-conscious and not very coherent. As Burdick would have sat Nelson down on a chair to check his Skipper’s injury, Nelson demanded an update. Burdick explained that at present, both Onopov and Bakunin were stable. Bakunin was in the closest crew cabin, being kept an eye on by Carrick. Burdick was more concerned about Rospev but at the moment was following the instructions he’d been given by the doctors in Nome and Rospev seemed a little better. Nelson raised an eyebrow when Burdick had mentioned where Bakunin was – the closest crew cabins belonged to the JO’s. Burdick confirmed that Lt. Allman had volunteered his bunk, as opposed to using the Mess as was usually the case when there were more injuries than Sick Bay could handle. Nelson carefully hid a grin – Nuclear Specialist Allman did not like his meals interrupted. But it reminded Nelson to ask if Burdick had checked out Crane.
The corpsman gave him a puzzled look as he finally got Nelson sat down in the corner and started to cut away his shirtsleeve and get to the bandage Crane had taped in place. “I wasn’t aware that he was injured, sir. He was really tired but he didn’t say anything else was wrong.”
Nelson snorted. “He wouldn’t,” he grumbled. “At least until you had everything else under control. And I’m not sure that he is hurt,” he admitted before having to swallow a yelp of pain, as well as an oath, as Burdick started cleaning the wounds. The bullet had gone straight through and both entry and exit wounds got a thorough cleaning and examination, much to Nelson’s discomfort. Through clenched teeth he continued. “He was favoring one side. I gathered that he slipped and fell against something – he said that it was just a bruise.” He sent his corpsman a disgusted look. “But I wouldn’t put it past him to downplay it.” The frown deepened into a glare as Burdick struggled to maintain a straight face. Crane’s status on board Nautilus had gone straight up when he’d risked his CO’s retaliation by reporting Nelson to Pearl Harbor’s base commander for doing exactly the same thing. Nelson gave the corpsman a quick nod despite the glare and still clenched teeth.
“I’ll track him down and check,” Burdick assured him. He sighed as he glanced around his tiny space. “Just as soon as I get a spare moment.”
“He’d better be in his bunk, resting,” Nelson grumbled fiercely.
“Yes, sir,” Burdick agreed, but had to turn his head to the side as he could no longer keep a grin covered.
Once Burdick had the wounds cleaned and treated to his liking he taped more secure bandages in place. Nelson asked if he could cover it with something long enough for Nelson to take a quick shower. The corpsman nodded with a small grin and put several more layers of tape in place, telling his once more fairly under control CO that he’d replace the whole thing later that day.
Gratefully Nelson finally made his way to his cabin, stripped off his by now totally disreputable outfit, and stepped into his tiny shower. Mindful of submarine protocols, he still stood under the spray of water longer than usual, letting it wash away some of the frustrations of the last couple of days as well as the dirt, sweat, and grime. He was still there when he heard a commotion of some sort in the corridor, and noisy voices coming from fairly close by. He quickly dried off and redressed in a clean uniform. No alarms had been triggered but he scurried to see what chaos was being created now.
There were several men standing outside one of the small JO quarters and at first Nelson thought that there must be some sort of problem with Dr. Bakunin. But a loud clearing of his throat made everyone back off and he found Petty Officer Burdick and Seaman Carrick both working on a very pale, far too still, Lt. Crane. “What…” came out loudly, but anything else he might have said got stuck in his throat.
Burdick gave him a brief look. “I came to check on him and couldn’t rouse him. He didn’t fall, sir. Or rather, he might have, but he was also shot.”
“What?” Nelson yelled before he could get himself back under control.
“I really don’t think that he realized how serious it is,” Burdick continued. “It doesn’t look like it bled much and he did put a bandage on it.”
“Then why is he unconscious?” Nelson was still yelling.
Carrick cringed at the volume of Nelson’s demand as he continued to hand Burdick supplies from the first aid bag. Even Burdick hesitated ever so briefly. “It was bleeding internally, sir. I suspect that he felt lousy, but thought that it could wait until things slowed down before saying anything because there was so little external blood. Once he lay down…” The corpsman’s voice trailed off as he concentrated on accessing the actual damage. Nelson saw him make a small incision, and paled himself at the sudden rush of blood that had apparently been pooling inside.
“I need more light,” Burdick suddenly demanded, and Carrick grabbed a desk lamp and held it close. Nothing more was said for a bit except Burdick asking for supplies from Carrick. “Back to your stations,” sounded in Mains’ characteristic style, firm but not overbearing, and everyone in the corridor except Nelson scattered. Mains came to stand by his shoulder and Nelson filled him in with what little he knew, his voice filled with emotion but fairly steady and under control.
“He’ll be okay?” Mains asked, as Burdick seemed to start getting things back under control.
The corpsman shook his head. “I don’t know yet, sir.” He wiped at some more blood. “The gun shot must have barely nicked an artery. Or, the fall earlier bruised it, and pressure finally built up enough that it blew out. I’m not sure. Whatever happened, it didn’t blow until the lieutenant had already bandaged the area, I think, and the bandage caused the blood to stay inside so he didn’t notice.” He shrugged. “On the other hand, it’s also probably what kept him from bleeding out totally.”
Nelson reached out a hand to grasp the doorframe as his knees suddenly went weak. “When the boat came he was the last one to get to the beach. We were being fired at and I practically threw him aboard…” His voice trailed off.
“Probably wouldn’t have made a difference,” Burdick told him, trying to sound convincing. “I’ve got the bleeding clamped off – I need to move him down to Sick Bay where I can do a better job of getting it more under control until we get to Nome. He’ll need surgery I’m not really qualified to do. But…” He looked at both Mains and Nelson.
When Nelson couldn’t get his voice to work fast enough, Mains spoke. “Can either of the Russians be moved?”
Burdick nodded. “Dr. Onopov. I’ve got him on meds but he’ll need to be monitored. I’d rather not let Dr. Rospev too far out of my sight.”
“Move Onopov to my bunk,” Mains told him, “and if Rospev can be moved to the mat that will leave the table for Crane.”
“That will work,” Burdick agreed. “But if we could use another bunk next door,” he nodded in the direction of the other JO cabin across the corridor where Bakunin was already stashed, “then Carrick can watch both Drs. Onopov and Bakunin.”
“I’m sure one of the JO’s would be happy to give up his bunk until we reach Nome,” Nelson said.
Mains had to smile, however briefly, at Nelson’s handling of the situation. There wasn’t a man aboard who would risk their CO’s infamous temper by not immediately acquiescing. Well, perhaps Crane, he thought, and the smile threatened to break through no matter how serious the situation was. Let’s just hope that he survives to be able to! he added. Out loud he assured Nelson, “I’ll take care of it.” Nelson nodded and, not wanting to get in his corpsman’s way any longer, headed for the Conn by way of the Wardroom. He was in serious need of coffee!
Nelson realized that he was on the prowl an hour later, trying to walk off a case of nerves by constantly scanning the various stations in the Conn, when Mains told him quietly, “ETA Nome a bit over two hours, sir.”
Nelson nodded and stopped his stalking. But it wasn’t but a few minutes later he realized that he was firmly gripping the chart table to keep himself from starting back up again. He glanced at Mains, who was studiously avoiding looking at him. “I’m glad we seemed to have avoided any more trouble,” Nelson offered, just to make conversation.
“Yes, sir,” Mains agreed wholeheartedly. “Wasn’t looking forward to fighting our way home.” He realized too late that that was probably the wrong thing to say to Nelson right at that moment, since Nelson had had to do just that to get back to the boat. Happily Nelson chose to merely send him another nod. “Almost lunchtime,” he changed the subject.
Nelson let a small grin show. He so appreciated having Cory as his XO. The man was extremely conscientious about how he ran both himself and his boat, the crew held him in great respect for his fairness as well as his quiet confidence and ability to maintain order. Nelson had no doubt that he would one day make an excellent skipper of his own boat. Probably sooner than later. Right now, he very much appreciated Cory’s efforts to casually try and get his uptight CO out of the Conn and out of his hair! It caused Nelson to send him a soft chuckle. “Understood, Cory,” he told his XO, who merely raised an eyebrow as if he didn’t understand. “I’ll be in the Wardroom if you need me.” He added, because he knew Cory would expect it anyway, “I’ll check in with Doc before I come back.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” Mains told him, a perfectly controlled expression on his face. It caused Nelson to chuckle again ever so softly as he left the Conn.
He really had intended to hit the Wardroom first, but found himself outside Sick Bay instead and entered quietly. Burdick, who was kneeling on the floor next to Rospev, stood immediately. “Sir,” he said respectfully.
“Everything under control?”
“For the moment, sir. Dr. Rospev comes and goes, but he’s responsive to stimuli so I don’t think the head trauma is getting any worse.” Nelson nodded and looked at Crane, whose eyes had been closed but were now open a crack, looking in his direction. “It took a bit but I got Lt. Crane’s bleeding under control. He’s held together with duct tape and wishful thinking at the moment, but he should be okay once he’s had proper surgery.”
“I see that he’s awake.”
“I’d rather that he wasn’t,” Burdick muttered, before seeming to realize who he was muttering at and getting his voice once more under control. “Tried to convince me that he could go back to his cabin.”
“You stay put, Lieutenant,” Nelson ordered, pointing a finger at Crane.
“Aye, sir,” came a soft reply, and Crane’s eyes once more closed. Nelson shared a quick grin with Burdick across his body.
“When was the last time you had a break, Petty Officer,” Nelson asked. His corpsman looked about ready to drop.
“Been awhile,” Burdick admitted. “But I’ll be okay until we get everyone safely to Nome.”
“Bet you could use some Joe,” Nelson told him, referring to the high-test coffee Nautilus’ cook kept available 24/7. “I’ll make sure your patients don’t walk out on you.”
“Thank you, sir, but I can get someone…”
Nelson waved off the objection. “Need to have a few words with Lt. Crane,” he told the corpsman. He made Burdick grin broadly when he added in a stern voice, “I’ll try not to leave him in worse shape than he is now.”
“Aye, sir,” Burdick struggled to get out without actually laughing, having gotten an earful from COB Bullock about what went on in the inflatable. He glanced at the IV’s attached to both of his patients and left with an “I’ll be back in five minutes.”
Once the door was closed, Nelson leaned back against the bulkhead and studied Crane quietly. He wasn’t sure if his former student and current JO would reopen his eyes on his own, or if Nelson would have to speak first. He had no doubt that Lee was conscious. Just as he was preparing to open his mouth, Lee’s eyelids cracked ever so slightly.
“So help me, Lieutenant,” Nelson started, his voice firm and his expression harsh, “if you ever try to hide an injury again on my boat I’ll turn you into shark bait myself.”
“I didn’t think it was that bad, sir,” Crane tried to defend himself. “Doc sort of had his hands full, and I thought that I could wait.”
“Doc backing up your excuse is the only thing that’s keeping you from going on report.” Nelson’s voice was still hard.
“Aye, sir.” Crane sighed heavily and his eyes once more closed.
Nelson grinned down at him. His voice was much softer as he once more spoke. “I don’t think that I took the time to thank you properly for saving my tail, as well as the others.”
Crane’s eyes opened again, a bit wider this time. “Just doing my job, sir. Just following orders.”
Nelson momentarily frowned. “You seen to have a rather…interesting, shall we say…method for determining which orders you follow when,” he grumbled.
Crane’s lips twitched ever so slightly. “Yes, sir,” he agreed. “Just trying to do my job the best way I know how,” he added.
It caused Nelson to snort. “For which Mr. Mains is grateful.” He sent Crane a glare. “I’m reserving judgment.”
“Yes, sir.” The two shared a look that spoke volumes, but nothing more was said as Burdick chose that moment to return, a large steaming mug of coffee in one hand and a thick sandwich in the other. Nelson nodded and left – the room was far too crowded for him to hang around any longer.
“And how many doctors did he drive crazy during that convalescence,” Dr. Will Jamison asked his boss with a grumble of his own in his voice.
Admiral Nelson shrugged. “Have no idea,” he admitted. “We made Nome a couple of hours later and the hospital sent ambulances for all four men. Nautilus laid over that night and I went to see Stepan the following morning.” He sent Will a frown and his voice turned slightly hard. “I never did find out who said what – nobody was about to admit anything – but before anyone there would let me see either Stepan or Lee I was stuffed in an exam room and had my head, arm, and ribs thoroughly checked out.” Will grinned broadly, Nelson finally did as well, and his voice was back to normal when he continued. “Everyone was going to be fine – thankfully.” He took a sip from his glass. “Lee had lost a lot of blood. While Burdick had done a great job Lee did, as Burdick knew, need further surgery to repair the damage. Nautilus was ordered back on patrol – we had seriously irritated the Russians with our little adventure. By the time Lee was fit for duty he’d been reassigned.” Nelson chuckled. “I’m not totally sure that Cory was sorry to be rid of him. Lee did have a slight tendency to mess up his orderly boat.”
Will sent him a glare. “It’s nice to know that there are some constants in the world.” Nelson choked on the swallow of scotch he’d just taken, but both men ended up chuckling.
“He does keep things interesting,” Nelson admitted.
“That’s one way to phrase it,” Will growled. “What became of your friend and his colleagues?”
Nelson grinned. “Stepan changed his name to Stephen Ross,” he said casually.
Will shot him a look. “Our Dr. Ross, in the Microbiology Department?” Nelson nodded, and Will shrugged. “Explains the accent, and why he never talks about his younger years.”
“All three, once they were debriefed and given visas, found jobs at different marine labs around the country. I didn’t keep in contact with the other two. But when I started planning NIMR Stepan, well, Stephen, was one of the first people I recruited.” He grinned. “When Lee came, they instantly recognized each other. Although,” he added, “they both studiously avoid mentioning how they originally met.”
“I can understand that. Lee rarely talks about a past mission, even if it wasn’t an ONI one.” Nelson nodded in agreement with his CMO. “And I imagine that Dr. Ross would just as soon forget the whole thing as well.” He drained his glass, Nelson indicated the bottle, still sitting on his desk, but Will shook his head and stood up. “I’d better be getting back. But I do appreciate the information.” He sent Nelson a bit of an evil grin. “I’ll give my corpsmen an edited version the next time they start feeling overworked.” Nelson chuckled and Will left.
Nelson leaned back in his chair, nursing the bit of scotch left in his glass. He hadn’t thought about that incident in a lot of years. He’d been irritated when the Navy – although it was more than likely ONI – had snatched Lee out from under his command. Despite Mains’ mutterings, and even a few of his own, he’d really enjoyed having Lee aboard Nautilus. When Seaview had moved from merely a pipedream to actual reality he’d worked hard to get Lee assigned as her captain but had been overruled by the Navy brass, with whom he still had to remain on speaking terms. John Phillips had been good – Nelson wasn’t regretting that first year at all. But a huge sigh escaped as he acknowledged now how he was appreciating having Lee once more close at hand. While he could easily admit what he’d told Will – Lee did keep life ‘interesting’ at times - Nelson was pretty sure that he’d not have it any other way.
The grin increased as he thought back on that mission. Humm, he thought, wonder what Lee would have to say if I reminded him of that promise of turning him into shark bait if he ever again hid an injury on my boat. He downed the last of his scotch. On second thought, he chuckled, perhaps I’ll let that one stay forgotten.
~ Finis ~
*see First Duty, by R. L. Keller