Under Attack


By R. L. Keller



The first Chip knew that there was even a problem was Chief Sharkey’s shouted, “Watch out!”  The warning was followed by an instant and severe pain on the side of his head, then everything went black.  His next sensations were the return of the pain, although not quite so bad now, and his body’s prone instead of upright position on the deck.  Slowly and painfully opening his eyes, he discovered himself surrounded by people, and tried to get up.


“Easy, Mr. Morton.”  Several hands kept him from succeeding, and Chip followed the voice to his right to the face of Seaview’s CMO, Dr. Will Jamison.  Jamie’s next words, instead of being directed at Chip, were to someone out of Chip’s sight behind him.  “This does not bode well for a smooth cruise.  We’re not even away from the dock yet and the Exec’s headed for Sick Bay.”  There were snickers from here and there around the aft stores locker where Chip had been supervising the loading of supplies.  They stopped instantly as Chip sent a glare around him.  All except one, coming from the direction Jamie had sent his last comment.  A left hand appeared on Chip’s shoulder, one wearing a signet ring on the third finger.  Chip very carefully turned his head in that direction.


“How do you feel?” his Captain and friend, Lee Crane, asked, a slight smile still on his face.


“Sore,” Chip growled, not bothering to explain whether he meant in pain or ticked off, and again tried to sit up.  Jamie frowned but merely put a hand on his arm, helping him maintain the position until the wave of dizziness that hit with the movement subsided somewhat.  Lee shifted slightly to hold him from the other side.  “And I’m not letting you stick me in Sick Bay,” Chip added forcefully to the CMO


“Actually, you are,” the doctor snapped back.  His voice softened as he continued.  “At least for an hour or so.  You took a pretty good whack to the side of your head.  It was a glancing blow, thankfully, and you were only unconscious for a few minutes.  But I still want to keep an eye on you for a bit, until I know for sure the fuzziness is gone.”  He grinned as Chip reacted to his ‘mind reading’ of his patient’s true state, despite said patient’s attempt to appear normal.  The grin widened as Chip’s scowl softened to a wry smile.


“What happened?” Chip asked Sharkey, standing nervously right behind the Doctor.


“A box slipped out of Jennings’ hands, sir.”  Chip looked around until he spotted the new crewman standing several yards to his left.


“Sorry, sir,” Jennings said so quietly that Chip could barely hear him.


“It happens,” Chip responded, but it came out as another growl.  He made an effort to stand, and succeeded only with the help of both Jamie and Lee.  Upright, he had to again close his eyes against the dizziness that hit him.


“But I’m sure it won’t happen again,” Lee added firmly.  “Now off to Sick Bay and let Doc have his fun.”  Even as much as his head hurt, Chip had to grin softly.  Lee would do whatever it took to defend his crew.  Even, apparently, from the infamous temper of his boat’s Executive Officer.  And even if it meant deflecting that temper toward himself by a little good-natured teasing.  Reluctantly Chip acknowledged the order, for that’s what it was despite the way it had been delivered, and went with the Doctor back to his domain.


But ten minutes of Jamie’s poking, prodding, and shining lights into his eyes was about all Chip could handle.  “Come on, Doc,” he finally grumbled, sitting on the edge of the exam table.  “I’m fine.”  Both men flinched slightly as they recognized Lee’s favorite excuse for avoiding Sick Bay – an excuse both men had been known to yell at their captain for using.  “I need to get back to work.”


“The only thing you need to do is lay down on the gurney and relax for awhile.  I’m not letting you out of here until I can be sure that headache isn’t getting any worse.  Unless, of course, you’d prefer to crash in one of the bunks.”


That decision was easy – the central gurney was closer to an escape route.  Chip reluctantly swung his legs around and lay back.


“Thank you.  And don’t get any ideas about walking out without permission.  Both John and Frank are here, and we’re all three keeping an eye on you.”  All Chip’s glacial stare did was cause the CMO to smile broadly, and Chip finally relaxed and closed his eyes.


* * * *


Chip stretched and yawned broadly.  Ah, that feels good.  Finally!  A little peace and quiet.  Suddenly the realization of where he was settled in.  His eyes popped open and he sat up so fast he almost banged heads with Jamie.


The CMO moved back just in time, and when Chip looked at him was grinning.  “It’s about time,” he commented dryly.  “I was afraid I was going to have to wake you up for supper.”


Chip glanced at his watch and discovered it was almost 1700 hours.  “Damn,” he growled and started to swing his legs off the gurney.


“Not so fast.”  Doc put a hand firmly on Chip’s chest and pushed him back.  Before Chip could say anything, he held up his other hand in a ‘stop’ position.  “Five minutes, Mr. Morton.  Once I’m satisfied you’re fit for duty, you can be on your way.”


“I’m fine,” Chip growled, but they both chuckled at the old familiar line, and Chip relaxed long enough for Jamie to give him a quick check.  “Can’t believe I fell asleep like that,” Chip finally admitted sheepishly.


“The Skipper said you’ve been a little short on that commodity lately.  Said your stay at that computer conference in San Francisco was less than pleasant.”


“Lee was down here?”


Jamie held up two fingers.  “Once when the loading was complete, and again about half an hour ago, just before we left the dock.”


“Damn!”  This time Jamie didn’t try to stop Chip as he flew off the exam table.  “I have to get to the Control Room.”


“Don’t think Capt. Crane can get us through the channel to open water without you?” Jamie teased at the XO’s back, and Chip threw him a glare over his shoulder.  “I’d strongly suggest you tuck in your shirt and fix your tie before leaving here,” Jamie continued mildly.  “I don’t believe I have enough anti-hysteria drugs on board if the crew sees you the way you are right now.  They’d all die of shock.”  He burst out laughing at the murderous expression that crossed Chip’s face for that one, and decided he’d better watch his back for awhile.  Seaview’s Executive Officer might put on a front of “All Business” on the boat, but Jamie was all too aware of Chip’s other side.  The man was notorious in certain circles for positively devious retaliations.  True, they were most often directed at a certain dark-haired commander.  But there had been instances…..


Chip quickly put his uniform back in order and, with another glare at the still grinning CMO, headed forward.  Coming quickly around a corner, he almost ran into a laughing Patterson and Jennings.


“Oops.  Sorry, sir,” Patterson, the older of the two sailors, said as he stepped to the side.  “Feeling better, sir?”


“Yes,” Chip answered shortly, and started to continue on.


“Really sorry about what happened, Mr. Morton,” Jennings spoke up.  Chip stopped walking and looked at him.  “I’ll be more careful in the future.  The Skipper walked us all through what happened and showed me a better way than I was using to handle the boxes.”


Chip was forced to smile – almost.  Yep, that sounded just like Lee.  “Good.  You’ll catch on to the way we do things here.”  Chip gave the young seaman an encouraging smile, and continued forward.  He stopped just around the next corner as hearty laughter came again from Patterson’s and Jenning’s direction.  Lee, what did you tell those guys? he growled to himself and marched off.


Lee had his back to the aft hatch as Chip came through.  The Captain was watching out the front windows as Seaview maneuvered away from the dock, and Chip stalked up behind him silently.  The duty crew had their eyes focused on their instrumentation and didn’t look his way.  Lt. James sent him a glance as Chip walked up, but was busy passing his CO’s commands along as the giant submarine eased into the channel toward open water.  Chip waited for what he knew from experience would be a pause before any more commands were needed and harrumphed loudly – right behind Lee.  Trying to startle his friend, he was disappointed when Lee merely glanced his way.


“Welcome back.”  Lee grinned.  The grin faded quickly as he watched Chip come to attention, still ticked off at what he thought Lee might have said behind his back.


“Lt. Cdr. Morton, reporting for duty, sir.”


The grin made a return, although combined with a bit of puzzlement.  “Good,” he answered quietly, and handed the clipboard he was holding to Chip.  “You have the Conn.  Carry on.”  He took a few steps forward and watched quietly as Chip took over getting Seaview into open water.  But once that was done and the course set, Chip left Lt. James with the Conn and walked up to Lee, motioning forward.  As they reached Seaview’s distinctive windows, Lee turned to face him.  “What’s up, Chip?” he asked softly, puzzlement written clearly all over his face.  He had no idea why Chip was holding himself so stiffly and acting so formal.


“What did you do,” Chip demanded, “tell the whole boat about that stupid computer conference and my not getting any decent sleep the last three nights?”


Lee still looked confused, and a little concerned at his friend’s accusations.  “What are you talking about?”


“I ran into Pat and Jennings on the way here from Sick Bay.  They were laughing their heads off!”


Lee shrugged.  “Have no idea what was so amusing, but I’m glad Jennings is settling in so fast.  The only person I told about the second-rate hotel the conference committee booked you into and the roomie they stuck you with who snored like a steam engine, was Doc.  And the only reason I mentioned it to him was because he was getting concerned at how long you were sleeping.”


Chip’s posture finally started to relax.  “Sorry.”  He sent Lee a sheepish look.  “Don’t usually let that kind of stuff get to me.”


“You sure you’re okay?”


Before Chip could answer, his stomach sent up a reminder that he’d missed lunch, and now it was dinnertime.  He grinned at Lee.  “Did I also mention, the food was lousy?”


Lee punched him lightly on the shoulder.  “Well then, lead the way.  All of a sudden I’m famished.  Must be from doing both your job and mine all day.”  He laughed out loud at the glare Chip sent him, and with one quick stop to make sure Lt. James had everything well in hand, headed for the Officers’ Wardroom.


Chip did give Jamie a quick stare as he and Lee walked into the Wardroom.  The CMO was already sitting down, eating and visiting quietly with Admiral Nelson.  The OOM made one quick mention of the morning’s incident and was quickly assured by both Chip and Lee that everything was under control.  Nelson gave Chip a measuring look, then nodded as Chip gave him a small grin.  The conversation turned to the nature of the cruise – checking out some intel that there had been an underwater explosion of some sort near the top of one of the peaks in the Mid-Pacific underwater mountain range, south and east of the Hawaiian Islands chain.


Professional topics were the order of the day until, about halfway through the meal, Chip caught Lee trying to swallow a belch – and not totally succeeding.  Hah!  Time for a little retaliation.  “You still fighting heartburn?” he asked his CO innocently.  “You were having problems at breakfast this morning.”


“I knew it,” Doc interrupted.  “You’re finally getting that ulcer I’ve been warning you about for years.  Won’t rest.  Won’t take decent vacations.  Constantly worried about the boat, or the crew, or the report that’s not due for three months but just has to be worked on right now, even if ‘right now’ is 0400!”


“Doc,” Lee started indignantly but was interrupted by Chip’s chuckles, and glowered at him disgustedly.


Nelson took the opportunity of the break to comment dryly to the CMO, “I thought you keep saying that it’s you who’s going to get the ulcer, from having to put up with Lee and all his shenanigans.”


“That, too,” Jamie agreed emphatically.


“Enough,” Lee demanded, then sheepishly glanced at Nelson through lowered eyelashes as he realized he’d just yelled at an admiral, and his boss to boot.  Nelson merely smiled at him over his coffee cup.  “It’s not heartburn.  Well…it is, but…”


“Spit it out, junior,” Chip couldn’t resist another jab.


“A friend was in town for a few hours last night, and we went out for Mexican food.”


“You don’t usually get that reaction from enchiladas suizas,” Chip observed.


Lee’s expression got even more sheepish.  “Wasn’t the enchiladas.  We, sort of, got into a jalapeno eating contest afterward.”  Chuckles surrounded him.


“Who won?” Chip wanted to know.  Lee dropped his eyes back to his plate, and the chuckles increased.


“Hey,” he looked up, defending himself.  “She had an unfair advantage.  Since she wasn’t driving, she could wash them down with beer.”


“She?” Chip suddenly got very interested, turning toward his friend.  Lee, however, just looked smug, and went back to eating.


“Still, Skipper,” Jamie continued with the original topic, “24 hours is a long time to be suffering the aftereffects.” 


Lee’s expression got sheepish again.  “More like 18 hours.  Her plane didn’t leave until 0300.”


“Did you go to bed?” Jamie wanted to know, then got a pained expression on his face as Lee yelled “DOC!”  Nelson chortled into his coffee, and Chip choked on his.  Lee continued to glare at the CMO as he pounded on Chip’s back – a little harder than was probably necessary.  “That’s not what I meant and you know it, Captain,” Jamie defended his question.


He did,” Lee grumbled disgustedly and pointed towards Chip.  He gave the still half-choking, half-laughing XO another whack.  “And the answer is yes.  Well, sort of,” he hedged.  “Dropped her at the airport about 0130, and got here to my cabin by 0215.”


“And your cabin light was still on at 0330 when I finally rolled in,” Chip offered, and earned another glare.


“Skipper,” Jamie warned.


“Crashed as soon as I got in, I swear.  Chip must have seen the light from when I got up to take an antacid.”  That caused the other three to chuckle again, and even Lee finally smiled.


The four finished the meal in peace until Doc stood up to leave.  “Stop by my office when you’re done, Skipper.  I stocked some stronger antacids after the last time Cookie made Chili Vesuvius.”  He merely grinned at the look of annoyance Lee shot him.


“Serves you right, eating hot peppers at that hour of the night,” Chip chided him.


Lee finally grinned.  “It was worth it,” he snickered, and refused to be goaded further.


* * * *


Chip was working in his office the following afternoon, going over some of the seemingly endless paperwork involved in his job.  Lee always complained about how many reports he had to deal with as Captain of Seaview.  Well, he has nothing on the Exec’s position, Chip grumbled to himself.  He got up, stretched, and was headed to grab a glass of water and a couple ibuprofens – he still had a slight headache from yesterday’s altercation with the box, but wasn’t about to mention it to Doc – when there was a call over the intercom warning of incoming turbulence.  Chip barely had time to grab the doorjamb into the head when the submarine tilted sharply to port and rocked several times before righting herself and continuing on her way.  Just a minor inconvenience for an experienced submariner like Chip.  He heard Lee call for Damage Control, waited a couple minutes and called down to the Control Room to make sure he wasn’t needed.  Lee assured him all was well.  It would take more than a little rocking and rolling to cause any serious damage.  Things on a sea going vessel of any kind, let alone a submarine, were fairly well secured at all times. 


What hadn’t been secured, as Chip discovered when he returned to his desk, was the voltmeter he’d been working with earlier.  It had fallen off and under the desk, and in doing so had somehow managed to nick the power cord to Chip’s lamp a few inches from the base.  He immediately reached up and turned off the lamp, deciding that was a good excuse to rest his eyes for awhile.  Grabbing up the voltmeter, he headed aft to return it to the electronics repair locker.


On the way he ran into Chief Sharkey, coming from whatever the COB had considered it important to be doing at the time.  Chip kept a smile to himself.  Despite the man’s brash attitude, Chip could think of only a few people he’d rather have on his team than Chief Frances E. Sharkey.  And the man did keep the crew and the boat running in tip-top condition.  But it tended to be on his terms, not those of his superiors.  Not that it mattered, Chip guessed.  But the only two officers Sharkey didn’t treat with a subtle air of superiority were the admiral and the captain.  And Chip suspected Sharkey only gave deference to Lee because of Nelson’s attitude toward Seaview’s young Skipper.  Not that the chief was ever disrespectful.  Chip just tended to feel, when giving him orders, that Sharkey was the one tolerating the officers, not the other way around.  Oh well, Chip mentally shrugged.  Don’t mess with what works.  “Sharkey,” he said out loud.


“Sir?”  The Chief stopped and looked at Chip respectfully.


Chip hid another smile.  Let it never be said that the COB didn’t put on a front of Naval discipline.  There’s just something in the tone of voice…  “The cord to my desk lamp was damaged slightly in that turbulence.  Nothing serious, but have someone check it out.  It probably only needs a little electrical tape over the nick to protect it.”


“Aye, aye, sir.  I’ll get right on it.”  Chip nodded and they continued on in opposite directions.


It was well over an hour before Chip made it back to his cabin.  He ran into Patterson and Riley in the electronics locker while returning the voltmeter.  Chip gave the older man a querying glance, and was tempted to ask what the seaman and Jennings had found so humorous earlier.  Deciding it would probably be better to forget the whole thing, he put the unit away and left with just a nod.  Checking a few other things as he passed, he made a quick stop in the Wardroom for a cup of the high-octane, solid black fluid the chef lovingly called coffee.  Then Chip swung through the Control Room, just because, before he went back to his cabin.  Not bothering to totally close the cabin door, and thinking he needed one of his light jazz tapes to get him through the rest of the reports, he stopped next to his desk and reached with his right hand to turn on the lamp.  As the light came on he glanced toward the selection of tapes on the shelf behind his desk and casually laid his hand on the edge of the desk.


“YEOW!”  As his hand touched the lamp cord there was a sizzle and pop, and Chip’s hand received a powerful shock and slight burn from the not-yet-repaired cord.  “Damn!” he snarled, shaking his hand and glaring at the cord.  He’d not thought the original damage was as bad as it looked now.   But then, probably the result of what I just did.


“Sir?” came hesitantly from the doorway, and Chip looked up to find Chief Sharkey poking his head inside.  “You okay?”


“No, I’m not,” Chip growled, then relented.  “Yes, I’m fine.  Just scorched myself on this cord.  Thought I told you to have it fixed.”


“I had it in the works, sir,” Sharkey said, coming the rest of the way into the cabin.  “I gave Admiral Nelson the papers I was taking him, and was just about to call down to maintenance to send someone up when I ran into Jennings.  Asked him to fix it and he headed off to get his gear.  I don’t know what could have happened.  But I’ll find out,” he assured the XO.


“No, I’ll find out,” Chip snapped, and headed aft.  Sharkey shuddered.  He’d seen that look on Mr. Morton’s face before – Seaview was about to be minus one seaman.


Tropical Storm Morton was building rapidly to hurricane strength.  He rounded a corner and was about to drop down the ladder to the next level when he spotted two people visiting a few feet from the base of the stairwell.  One was his intended target, Jennings, utility belt around his waist.  The other was Lee, arms crossed, leaning casually against the bulkhead.  As Chip started down the ladder, he realized Lee was telling the seaman about some of the advanced electronics classes NIMR held for employees off and on throughout the year.  Both men looked at him as he hit the bottom step. 


Lee obviously noticed Chip’s slightly scorched hand – probably because Chip was still holding it with his other one.  “Chip, what happened?”  He straightened immediately and took a step closer, instant concern in his voice.


“It’s nothing,” Chip said, losing a good bit of his built-up steam.  But there was still a hard quality to his voice as he looked at Jennings.  “I laid my hand on top of an electrical cord that was supposed to have already been fixed.”  He looked back at Lee.  “Thankfully, I just got a good shock.”


“I’m so sorry, sir,” Jennings stammered.  “Chief Sharkey told me about the problem, but then it took me a little bit to locate where the box of that size coated wire was stored.”  He pointed to the coil attached to his belt.  “I cut off enough to make a new cord, and was just on my way up to take care of it when Capt. Crane stopped me.”


“Sorry.”  Lee looked at Chip, a bit chagrined.  “It’s my fault.  I saw Jennings with the cord and remembered his interest in advanced electronics from our interview.  Guess I kept him talking longer than I should have.”


Chip couldn’t help but let a small grin squeak through.  That was so typically Lee – gently picking people’s brains for their interests, then guiding them into training areas that would lead to faster advancement.  “It happens,” Chip told his friend, and they shared a quick grin before Chip turned back to the seaman.  “When I first saw the damage, it looked like all it needed was a piece of electrical tape around the nick, not a whole new cord.  Thought I told Sharkey that.  He must not have passed on the message.”


“Oh no, sir.  I mean, yes, sir.  He told me that.  But my father’s a Journeyman electrician.  He taught me never to just slap a quick fix on a problem, but to do the job right the first time.”


Chip could see Lee nodding approval out of the corner of his eye.  “Well, after my little blunder, it’s going to need it now anyway.  If you and the Captain are through…”


“I’ll take care of it immediately, sir,” then looked quickly at his Skipper for permission to depart.  A nod sent him scurrying up the stairs toward Officers’ Country.


“Sorry,” Lee said again, and laid a hand on Chip’s arm.  “Let’s get you down to Sick Bay.”


Chip stiffened.  “Why?” he thundered, and glared at Lee.  If there was one person on Seaview who hated that particular part of the boat more than her Captain, it was her XO.


“Because you’re still holding your hand as if it hurts like hell,” Lee said quietly.  “Move it” came out a little more firmly before he relented with a grin.  “Maybe Doc won’t be there, and you can get Frank to just rub a little salve on it.”


No such luck.  Not only was Doc there, he also spent several minutes fussing at Chip for even considering not reporting the injury.  “Burns gather infections like a magnet.  Even fairly simple ones like this.”  He took both senior officers into his stern gaze.  “If a few more people around here would let me know immediately about the minor injuries, there would be far less chance they’d end up here because they turned into major ones.”  Both Chip and Lee gave him sheepish grins.  Doc continued to look threatening, but he gently spread an antibiotic salve over the burn and applied a light gauze dressing.  “That,” he said, indicating the bandage as he put the last piece of tape in place, “can come off in the morning.”  He handed Chip the small tube of salve.  “Just keep rubbing a bit of this on several times a day until I tell you to stop.  Now get out, both of you.  We’re only two days into this trip and I’ve already seen more of the both of you in here than I care to.”  While his voice remained firm, he grinned slightly, and received answering ones as Chip slid off the gurney where he’d been sitting and the pair left.


As they walked forward toward the Control Room, Chip turned to Lee.  “Do you know how long you were talking to Jennings before I interrupted you?”


“Not really,” Lee admitted.  “Must have been a good 20 minutes or so.”  He gave Chip a small grin.  “You know how it goes.”


“Yes, Lee,” Chip gave him one of his better XO glares, “I know.”  He finally let a grin show.  He always envied Lee’s easy way with the crew.  Oh, Chip could unbend.  Off duty.  At beach parties, and such.  But on duty, somehow, it just never felt right.  And Chip was rarely if ever ‘Off Duty’ onboard the submarine.


“Why did you ask?”


“No reason, really.”  Chip tried to wave off the question.


Lee wasn’t buying it.  “Give, Chip.  What’s up?”


“Nothing,” Chip said again, then grinned at the expression that hit Lee’s face – a mixture of stubbornness, puzzlement and concern, but mostly stubbornness.  And to think, Lee always accused him of being the stubborn one.  He shrugged.  “Just,” he finally answered, “it seemed to take Jennings an awfully long time to follow an order.”


“And…” Lee insisted.  Stubbornness, tenacity, persistence, whatever you wanted to call it, neither could usually outlast the other.


“And,” Chip admitted reluctantly, “what with yesterday’s incident, I was just wondering if he diddled around getting to my office, hoping I’d have another little ‘accident’.


Lee’s expression turned stunned.  “You can’t mean that,” he practically gasped.


“Not really,” Chip admitted.  “Just…”


“Not a chance, Chip.”  Suddenly Lee’s expression turned unexpectedly wicked, and he grinned.  “So, what happened during your interviews with Jennings to make you think he’s got it in for you?  Run him through your “weed out the wimpy crew by playing the evil XO” routine?”


Chip glared at him before they both burst out laughing.  “Hey,” Chip defended himself.  “Don’t knock it.  It works.”


“Turning into a bitter old man, Chip,” Lee continued with a chuckle.  “All the mean and ornery things you do are finally catching up and turning you paranoid.”  As Chip sent him a murderous glance, Lee reached out and gave him a quick, gentle punch on his shoulder.  “Gotta lighten up once in awhile.  Have a little fun.”


“ME!” Chip sputtered.  “You’re the one who’s always worried about everything, won’t take a vacation, won’t relax for…”  He couldn’t continue as both men cracked up.


When they finally settled down, Lee gave Chip a speculative look.  “Feeling better?”


“Yeah,” Chip grinned back.  “Thanks.”


“Figured it was about my turn.”


“Got that right,” Chip told his friend sternly.  They both grinned again and headed for the Conn.


* * * *


Chip was standing at the chart table that evening, going over the navigation charts for the area Seaview would be traveling through for the next dozen or so hours, when Riley came down the spiral stairs from Officers’ Country.  Lee and Nelson were sitting in the Nose, pouring over the latest intel NIMR had forwarded about the underwater disturbance.  Chip just assumed that the seaman appearing from a direction he normally wouldn’t have probably meant that he was returning from some errand either Lee or the OOM had sent him on, and gave him only a passing glance before getting back to the charts.  But instead of stopping in the nose, Riley came to stand just a few feet away from him, waiting quietly until Chip finished with O’Brien and looked up.  Chip also noticed that Lee had aimed a raised eyebrow at Seaview’s youngest seaman.  And Chief Sharkey had wandered forward from his usual station by the aft hatch.


“What is it, Riley?” Chip asked, finally acknowledging the man.


“Just wondering, sir, if you were done with the voltmeter you borrowed from the electronics locker this morning.  I was just going to calibrate it with the others.  But if you’re still using it, it can wait until morning,” he added quickly, as Chip felt his expression harden.


“I returned that hours ago, Riley,” Chip half-grumbled.  “You and Pat were there.  Why would you think I still had it?”


“No, sir.  I mean, yes, sir, I saw you come in.  But the voltmeter is still checked out to you.”  Both Riley’s voice and expression registered discomfort at seemingly having to correct the XO.  That was not the way to rapid advancement aboard Seaview, and was more likely than not to get you assigned to cleaning out the ballast tanks.


But before Chip could land on the hapless seaman, Lee spoke up.  “Could you have just not signed it back in, Mr. Morton?” he asked softly.  Knowing Lee so well, Chip figured that he had no wish to sound like he was correcting his Exec in front of the crew, but neither did he wish to see Riley slaughtered in front of said crew.


However, Chip sent Lee a frown before his expression softened.  “Possible,” he admitted.  “Had several things on my mind.”  He looked back at Riley.  “Check the drawer,” he said somewhat offhandedly, already dismissing the seaman.  But Riley didn’t move.  When Chip looked up, he was glancing nervously between XO and CO.  “What?” Chip demanded.


“Sorry, sir, but I checked the drawer already, then the sign-out sheet.  That’s how I knew you were supposed to have it.  And Jennings…he was there when I went looking for it…well, he mentioned that he saw it on your desk when he went to fix your lamp cord.”  Riley was looking and sounding even more uncomfortable.


“What?” exploded out before Chip could stop it, and had Lee bouncing out of his chair.


“Come on, Riley.  Mr. Morton.  Let’s go try and sort this out.”


Chip was steaming.  He knew that he’d put the voltmeter back.  He knew both Patterson and Riley had seen him do it.  But, at the same time, he recognized Lee’s attempt to take this conversation somewhere a little more private, and followed Lee and Riley up the stairs.  He was totally unprepared for the sight that greeted all three men when they entered Chip’s cabin – the voltmeter was sitting in plain view on the left side of Chip’s desk.  A hand on his shoulder stopped whatever was about to explode out of his mouth.


“Riley,” Lee said softly, “would you do the XO a favor and sign in the meter before you run the calibrations?”


“Sure thing, Skipper.  No problem.”  Riley looked only too happy to grab up the unit and make his escape.


Chip was still glaring at his desk when Lee stepped in front of him, his hand never having left Chip’s shoulder.  Both face and voice expressed concern for his old friend.  “Chip?  You okay?  This isn’t like you.”  He let a grin appear.  “If anything, you’re absolutely anal about equipment being put back.”


Chip grunted at the little jibe, and sent Lee a disgusted look before the frown returned.  “I know I put that thing back.”  He reached up and rubbed a hand over his temple.


“Still fighting a headache?” Lee asked, even more softly, and grinned at the expected denial that Chip instantly returned.  “Whatever,” Lee continued.  “Why don’t you crash?  I know you have Bob all lined out for the night, and everything else is in order…”  He hesitated as Chip grumbled under his breath, and raised an eyebrow.


“I put it back,” Chip muttered.


“Then how come it was still on your desk?” Lee questioned, still softly.  Chip sent him a glare but didn’t answer, and finally just shrugged.  “What did you do to tick off the submarine fairies,” Lee joked, and gave Chip’s shoulder a squeeze before dropping his hand.  “They’ve really been on your case this cruise.”


Chip crossed his arms and glared at his CO – and best friend – before finally returning Lee’s grin.  “Maybe I need to sacrifice a seaman in their honor.”  He was only half joking.


“Now, now, Chip.”  Lee grinned more broadly.  “You’d just have more interviews to schedule when we get back, and all the paperwork that goes with them.”


“Might be worth it,” Chip growled, but he also grinned again, if for no other reason than it got Lee to leave him be.  Someone had put the meter back in his office after he’d replaced it in the locker.  He didn’t know who or why.  He did know that he wouldn’t be able to convince Lee without further proof.  Nor did he understand why Riley and Patterson were lying about it.  But I will find out, he promised himself.


Things stayed calm over the next two days for Chip.  No snickering crewmembers, no misplaced equipment.  Lee quit giving him little sideways glances when he thought Chip wasn’t looking.  Even his headache finally disappeared.   About time, he muttered to himself as he double-checked Lt. James’ last course correction.  Finding everything in order he gave Chris a nod, and went forward to make a hit on the carafe of coffee usually kept there.  Unfortunately it was almost empty.  Eesh.  Did I drink that much already?  Haven’t seen anyone else near it, and Lee and the Admiral have been holed up all morning going over advance reports for that upcoming cruise.  Sharkey walked by it, headed to check something in FS1.  But I don’t think he took any.  Boy, I’d better start paying attention to how much I’ve been guzzling or I’ll start climbing the bulkheads.  Right after I have one more cupful.  He gave himself a wry smile, emptied the carafe into his cup, parked a hip on the ledge of Seaview’s most unique feature, her front windows, and watched the ocean go by.  It wasn’t quite Cookie’s usual brew, rich and strong, but Chip just chalked up the slightly bitter taste to the fact that it had been sitting there for awhile, and downed it anyway before getting back to watching over the submarine’s progress.


He was just beginning to realize that his stomach was a bit queasy when footsteps on the spiral stairs announced Lee’s return.  Chip ignored his stomach - just assuming that it was too much coffee and not enough food - and watched while Lee did a quick walk-through of all the duty stations in the Conn, and headed with him to the Wardroom for lunch.  Lee was chattering away about several upgrades Nelson wanted to make to the diving bell, to augment the collection equipment already there.  Chip listened with only half an ear – if it didn’t involve the onboard computers, it was nothing that he needed to be very worried about at the moment.  He filled his plate as he always did from Cookie’s ample selections.  But when he sat down and started to eat, he discovered that his slight queasiness had turned into full-blown nausea, and nothing on the plate looked the least bit appetizing.


“Chip?” Lee asked softly.


Chip realized that Lee had noticed his hesitancy to begin eating.  He gave his CO and friend a wry smile.  “Think I drank too much coffee this morning,” he admitted reluctantly.  “Nothing looks good.”


Lee chuckled.  “Another myth, shot down in flames.”  When Chip just raised an eyebrow, Lee continued.  “Cast-Iron-Stomach Morton just met his match.”  Chip frowned.  “Guess we’ll have to start having Cookie make you a pot of decaf.”  Chip’s frown deepened as Lee’s chuckle increased.  “Or better still, warm milk.”  That earned Lee a quick backhand from his friend, and they both chuckled.  But Chip also put down the fork he’d been playing with, and Lee looked at him seriously.  “You really don’t look good all of a sudden.”


“No big deal, Lee.”  Chip shrugged.  “It will pass.”


“One way or the other,” Lee said smugly, then had to duck another backhand before they both chuckled again.  “Why don’t you go check in with Doc?”


Chip was shaking his head before Lee even finished the sentence.  “Not that bad.  No way.  Just a little queasy is all.”


Lee smiled, and Chip knew why.  If possible, Chip was even better at tap dancing around going to Sick Bay than Lee was even if he didn’t have as much practice.  “Well, at least, will you go lay down for awhile?  Please?  You look lousy.”


Chip opened his mouth to argue, then hesitated.  He really didn’t feel well – as much as he hated to admit it.  “Maybe for an hour or so,” he relented.  “Think I’ve got some pink stuff in the head from the last time we tried eating that weird version of sushi.”


Lee turned slightly green.  “Ugh.  Don’t remind me.  That’s the last time I eat anything that’s not printed in a language I can read.  Not ever taking the waitress’ word for anything again.”  Chip nodded his agreement, stood up, and then glanced toward the galley.  “Just saw Cookie headed for the Crew’s Mess,” Lee told him, then grinned as Chip ditched his uneaten lunch in the garbage and headed out.  Even the dignified, no-nonsense Mr. Morton tried hard not to tick off the temperamental chef by tossing out food.


Chip figured that he really did look unwell by the glances he got from the few crewmen he met on the way to his cabin.  The nausea was getting worse, he reluctantly admitted, and the trace of a smile touched his lips as he thought about the sobriquet that Lee had used, given to him by his Annapolis roommate on one of their first trips home together to the Morton household.  Chip had gotten a serious case of the munchies one night.  Lee had sat quietly, drinking a glass of milk and eating a couple cookies, while Chip systematically relieved the fridge of any contents that could be consumed without further cooking.  He topped off the impromptu smorgasbord with two green pears he found in the vegetable crisper.  Mrs. Morton had discovered the raid the next morning as she was starting to prepare breakfast, and as soon as the meal of scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast was cleaned up, headed for the market with the two young men in tow to haul back fourteen bags of groceries.


That nickname’s going to take a hit, for sure, Chip admitted as he needed to hurry the last few yards to his cabin door.  He barely made it to his head before losing what little was in his stomach.  Hoping to settle everything down, he took a dose of Pepto and headed to lie down for a few minutes.


* * * *


Hearing Lee’s voice made Chip open eyes that he hadn’t realized he’d closed, and he instantly startled at what he saw.


“Easy, Chip,” Doc’s voice sunk in as several hands restrained him from moving off the deck of his cabin just outside the head.


“What happened?” he demanded in his best XO voice, though even he could hear that that wasn’t exactly how it came out.


“Suppose you tell us,” Doc continued, and Chip looked around and finally saw Lee on his other side.


“I came up to check on you before returning to the Conn,” Lee said, and Chip could feel the concern he easily heard in Lee’s voice.  “Found you passed out on the deck.”


Chip let himself relax as Doc continued his exam.  “Barely made it here before tossing my cookies,” he admitted, and gave both men a sheepish grin, then turned away as Doc tried to check pupil responses with his small penlight.


“So you decided to help get rid of whatever was causing the upset by taking ipecac?” Doc blustered at him.  “Really smart, Mr. Morton.  That kind of idiotic logic I expect from him,” and he pointed at Lee.


“Huh?”  Chip was totally confused.  He tried to sit up and, while the doctor just continued to glare at him, Lee supported him as he wobbled a little.  “What are you talking about?” he demanded.


“It’s sitting on the counter,” Doc just continued to glare at him, and Chip turned to see a bottle of something that wasn’t pink on the small head countertop.


“No,” came out softly as Chip shook his head, now totally confused.


“When he mentioned being queasy,” Lee offered, “he said he’d take Pepto-Bismol to try and settle it.”  He glanced at Chip.


“And that’s exactly what I did,” Chip insisted.  He shook a suddenly aching head.  “I certainly wouldn’t have taken that stuff,” and he jabbed a finger toward the head.  “Don’t remember even having any.”


“You sure that’s not how you maintain your slim figure while eating everything that doesn’t eat you first?” Lee teased him with a grin, and laughed outright at the glare Chip sent him.


“Gentlemen,” Doc said sternly, his expression telling the two younger men that he was definitely not using the term he’d prefer to use, given the circumstances.  “What I want to know right now is why the XO was headed to his cabin instead of Sick Bay if he wasn’t feeling well.  And why, if his CO knew about it, said CO wasn’t ordering him in that direction?”  Instantly twin sheepish expressions were directed at their CMO.  Doc just shook his head.  “Well, he’s headed there now.  And no arguments,” he added quickly and loudly, cutting off whatever Chip was about to say.  As the doctor stood and retrieved the small bottle from the head, Lee helped Chip to stand up, and again steadied him until he got himself under control.  When Doc spoke again, walking back to the other two, his voice was softer.  “I won’t bite, Chip, if you need to lean on me on the way.”


The blond just frowned and headed slowly for the door, his head pounding and his stomach still threatening retaliation.  Lee must have made some indication of accompanying him, because he heard Doc say, “We’ll manage just fine, Skipper,” and Lee didn’t follow them.


They didn’t speak on the short walk, but once Doc had him seated on the table he started a more thorough examination, and questioned Chip about what he’d had to eat all day.  Chip just shrugged.  “You saw what I had for breakfast.”  The four senior officers had, as usual, eaten the meal together.  “Other than coffee, that’s it.”


“From the carafe in the nose?” Doc asked as he drew a blood sample.


Chip nodded, then got thoughtful.  Doc noticed and raised an eyebrow, and Chip gave him half a shrug.  “The last cupful I had tasted a little weird – kind of bitter.”  He shook his head and gave Doc another sheepish grin.  “Figured it was old and the bottom dregs, and didn’t give it a thought.  Can I leave now?”


Doc leveled a glare at him.  “No, you can not,” and again had to hurry with the rest of the explanation to cut off Chip’s response.  “When I’m satisfied that you’re not going to spread stomach flu all over the boat, then, and only then, will I let you go back to your cabin.  And when,” he had to raise his voice as Chip again threatened to interrupt, “I’m satisfied that you won’t fall on your face at the first little turbulence we run into, as weak as you are right now, I’ll let you go back on duty.  Is that clear?”


“Aye, aye,” Chip muttered, and didn’t argue – for the most part – about being settled into one of the bunks.


* * * *


With no awareness of having fallen asleep, he again awakened slightly disoriented, this time to voices coming softly from Doc’s office.  He sat up quietly, but apparently made at least some noise as he was immediately accosted.


“Who said you could move?” Doc challenged, walking over.  He was followed by both Nelson and Lee.


“Give me a break, Doc.  I feel fine.”  He cringed slightly at the line he was always yelling at Lee for using, and watched both Nelson and Lee grin softly as Doc just harrumphed.


It was Nelson who spoke as Doc sighed heavily and started taking Chip’s pulse.  “You told Doc that all you had to eat or drink all morning, except breakfast with us, was coffee from the carafe in the nose?”


“Yes, sir.”


“Who else had coffee from it?”


“Don’t think anybody did.  You and Lee were holed up in your office all morning, and Lt. James is, for some reason, limiting his intake.”  He paused.  “Sharkey floated through at one point, checking something on board FS1 for you, he said, but I didn’t see him take any.”  He shrugged again.  “Wasn’t paying that much attention.”


“I didn’t ask him to check anything on FS1,” Nelson said, puzzled.  “Are you sure that’s what he said?”


“I thought so.  Honestly, I wasn’t paying that much attention to him.”


There were quick smiles all around, as each acknowledged the COB’s habit of occasionally having his own reasons, and only his own reasons, for doing anything.


But Doc quickly got back to business, and gave Chip a stern look.  “You still swear that you didn’t take the ipecac I found in your head.”


“Absolutely,” Chip assured him with a glare.


Doc sent the glare right back.  “The fact remains, however, that you had it in your system.  And we didn’t find any Pepto in your cabin.”


Chip bristled.  “The fact remains, Doctor,” he growled, “that I don’t know how it got there.  In either place.  Maybe you need to go back and re-check your test results.”  His voice had risen with each word, but even through his anger he didn’t miss the quick look that passed between Nelson and Lee.


“Chip,” Lee’s voice, as well as a hand laid on Chip’s leg, tried to soothe his old friend as Nelson took Doc’s arm and none too gently steered the irate doctor back toward his office.  “You don’t honestly think Doc screwed up.”


“Somebody did!”  Chip was still seriously ticked.  He felt Lee’s hand, still on his leg, give a little shake.


“When I asked you a couple days ago who you’d ticked off this cruise, I wasn’t expecting it to be Doc.”  Chip turned his eyes from glaring at Doc’s back to look at Lee, and his expression finally softened as Lee’s grin spread.  But the concern reappeared as Chip tried to swing his legs around in preparation for getting up.  “You sure that’s a good idea right now?”  Lee took a quick glance over his shoulder toward Doc’s office.  “For a couple of reasons,” he added.


“I’m sure not staying here,” Chip growled.  Lee flipped eyebrows at him, but got out of his way.  They weren’t interrupted, despite a raised voice coming from Doc’s office, immediately followed by something in Nelson’s resonant voice too soft to make out.  Lee did insist that Chip return to his cabin and Chip, with a wry grin, didn’t argue.  He did go immediately into his head to search for the Pepto he knew he’d taken.  But he could only shrug his shoulders at Lee, who’d followed him, when he couldn’t find it.


“You do believe me, don’t you?”  Even Chip could hear the hesitancy and doubt in his voice, and he straightened up and squared his shoulders.


“Of course,” Lee told him, although Chip thought the response lacked a bit of Lee’s usual assuredness.  “There has to be a logical explanation.  Now, would you please lie back down?  I’m already in enough trouble for aiding and abetting your escape.”  The two old friends shared a quick grin before Lee headed back to the Conn.  Chip reluctantly settled on his bunk, his head filled with trying to figure out what was happening all of a sudden to his normally ordered life.


His troubled thoughts were interrupted by a soft knock on his cabin door.  Before he could even roll over, the door started to open.  Chip’s instant thought was, Doc’s coming to reclaim his escapee, and he started to frown.  It changed to a grin as the head that poked through the opening, instead of being sparingly covered with light brown hair, was fully covered with slightly curly black, and Lee entered carrying a covered tray.  Lee gave him a sheepish grin as he walked over and put the tray on Chip’s desk.


“Cookie came up to put a fresh carafe of coffee in the nose.  Guess word got out, ‘cause he asked how you were doing.”


“Hard to keep a secret on this tub.”  Both men grinned.


“Anyway, he put together a few munchies – cookies, fruit, a couple brownies, peanut butter sandwich, some chips – mostly stuff that can sit around for a little while without spoiling, so you’d have something to nosh on.  When you feel up to it,” he added hurriedly, and then laughed as Chip’s response was interrupted by a loudly grumbling stomach.  “You never could go longer than six hours without sustenance.”


“What can I say?” Chip said, grinning.  “The furnace needs constant stoking.”  He glanced at the door.  “I’m on Doc’s hit list?” he asked.


Lee just shrugged.  “I asked Cookie to send a dinner tray to my cabin about 1830 hours – I’m not all that anxious to run into him in the wardroom anytime soon, either.”


“We aren’t exactly his most favorite people in the world, even on a quiet cruise.”  Lee nodded, and headed back to the Conn.


Chip moved to his desk chair and uncovered the tray.  With half of the sandwich in one hand and a cookie in the other, he contemplated the last few days.  Something was seriously weird about this cruise.  There had been instances before where one of the officers had been targeted to distract everyone from the purpose of the cruise.  But this was a simple cruise to scratch one of Nelson’s current itches.  At least, he pondered silently, on the surface.  Wouldn’t be the first time that I’ve been kept in the dark about what’s going on.  But it’s never involved the crew.  Having devoured the cookie, his left hand smacked the chair arm.  Well, he admitted, taking a bite of the sandwich to appease his suddenly ravenous stomach, there was that once, when Sharkey got unexpectedly brainwashed along with both Nelson and Lee when the government wanted to test that new whatever it was.  His empty hand reached for the banana.  But if it’s some kind of test, Riley and Patterson are involved, as well as Doc, apparently.  Both he and Riley have outright lied.  And Sharkey – could he have spiked the coffee?  And it all started when Jennings dropped the box.  But Sharkey was there.  And he sure was handy when I burned my hand.  And who sent Jennings to fix the cord? Could someone have gotten to him?  Brainwashed him, or bought him off?  Replaced him with an imposter?  Wouldn’t be the first time for that, either, Chip finished with a growl.  I’ll talk to Lee – maybe he’s noticed something.  Right after I finish the rest of this food.  However, as rapidly as the food disappeared, so did Chip’s eyelids start to feel heavy.  Instead of heading out to find his friend, he ended up laying his head back against the chair and closing his eyes.  Just as the last of his conscious thoughts drifted away, he heard chuckles from several different voices.  He thought that they were right next to him and his eyes momentarily snapped open.  But there was no one else in his cabin, and the door was shut.  The thought of checking the ventilation grill flitted briefly through his mind but, before he could act on it, Morpheus once again claimed him.


* * * *


Chip startled awake, not sure what had disturbed him.  All was quiet in his cabin and outside the door.  He glanced at his watch and could only shake his head when he discovered that it was almost 2300 hours.  Too late to talk this out with Lee, he told himself, then grinned.  Yeah, right.  Without me around to nag him, he’ll be up at least another couple hours.  He ducked into the head for a second and, after running a comb through his hair, looked again for the Pepto.  A word rarely heard from the blond erupted when he found the bottle right where it was supposed to be.  The comb barely survived its smash against the counter, and Chip charged through his cabin and out into the corridor.  Once there, and moving to Lee’s cabin, he hesitated.  No light showed from the slight crack underneath the door.  With no wish to disturb his friend if Lee had, actually, crashed earlier then he tended to, Chip headed instead for the Conn.  If he couldn’t tackle Lee, he could at least quickly catch up from there what he’d missed all afternoon and evening.


Voices stopped him at the top of the spiral stairs – voices coming softly from right below him at the base of the stairwell in Seaview’s nose.  Chip had no difficulty recognizing the speakers.


“How’s it going?” filtered up the stairs in Nelson’s soft, resonant voice.  Despite his anger, Chip smiled.  There were a good many people in the world who would be very surprised to find out that Nelson could speak so gently.  Chip himself had rarely heard it until Lee came aboard.  While the two strong-willed men occasionally went toe-to-toe in anything but civilized tones if there were disagreements concerning a mission, Nelson’s friendship with Seaview’s young Captain had definitely had a mellowing effect on his infamously volatile persona.


“So far, so good,” Lee now answered back, also softly.  Obviously the two men were trying to keep their conversation from carrying into the Conn proper.


“He’s holding up pretty well.”  The ‘he’ in question wasn’t specified, but with Lee’s response, Chip had his answer.


“He’s rattled, definitely.  And ticked.”  Chip heard Lee chuckle softly.  “I’ll have to be especially vigilant to keep Chip from decapitating any crewmen who happens to get in his way.”


Chip’s mind was suddenly in turmoil.  The ‘incidents’ that had been happening were being orchestrated and both Lee and Nelson knew about it?  No.  Couldn’t be.  I’m just misinterpreting something, and was relieved as the conversation below him continued.  “It’s kind of fun having to keep an eye on him, instead of him always on my case.”


“Someone has to take care of you, since you refuse to take care of yourself.”  Nelson’s voice was filled with gentle humor.  Chip could imagine Lee’s instant frown at that unsubtle reminder of his tendency to always think of everyone else around him first, and himself last.  Nelson’s gentle chuckle preceded his next comment.  “Now, go check on your XO, then to bed with you.  As weird as things have been the last few days around here, I need my command team at the top of their game.”


“Yes, sir.”


Not wishing to be caught eavesdropping, as innocent as it had been, Chip scurried back to his cabin.  He had just sat down on the edge of his bunk and started to loosen his tie, when there was a soft knock on the door.  “Come,” he called out, and was unsurprised as Lee’s head poked around the only partially opened door.


“Safe to come in?”  As Chip sent him a glare, Lee’s grin broadened.  “Feeling better?” 


“Yeah,” Chip reluctantly admitted.  He wanted to ask what Nelson and Lee had been talking about, but decided to come at it sideways.  “Slept away most of the day.”  He watched Lee wave off the apology and settle into Chip’s desk chair.


“Not a problem.  We’ve traveled through these waters often enough, at least this part of the cruise, that Chris and Bob aren’t at all uncomfortable.  Doesn’t hurt me at all to take the Conn occasionally.”  He was referring to the fact that, as Seaview’s skipper, he rarely “had the Conn” no matter how much time he spent there, unless circumstances warranted his active participation.


“Yeah, but how long will it take me to talk Chris out of the case of nerves he gets every time I’m not there to act as a buffer between the two of you?”  Lt. Chris James was turning into a fine Watch Officer.  He was still just slightly nervous around his ever-watchful Skipper, but Chip’s comment was nothing more than a long-standing jab at Lee, and Lee responded in kind.


“Actually, I was just commenting to the Admiral how well things were running without you.  Maybe you should plan a nice, long, visit back to your family – oh, say, six months?”  Chip’s answer was to toss his uniform shirt, now off, at Lee, and both men ended up laughing.  “Kept expecting you to show up this evening,” Lee added, balling up the shirt and sending it neatly into the dirty clothes hamper inside the open closet door.


“So did I,” Chip admitted.  “Just woke up, checked the time, and decided that it wasn’t worth the effort.  Doc?” he asked, raising an eyebrow at Lee.


Lee lowered his.  “Not overly pleased with either of us at the moment.  Ran into him at dinner…”  He raised a hand as Chip started to say something.  “I know.  I was going to eat in my cabin to avoid him.  But the Admiral had reports that he wanted to go over and I sort of got included.”


Both men grinned, Lee somewhat uncomfortably.  It was something that had totally surprised both younger men when, shortly after Lee had taken over command of Seaview, Nelson had started giving Lee reports to read, asking his opinion on projects, and generally wanting him to participate in elements of NIMR’s future.  Chip had told Lee that Nelson had never included Phillips in such discussions.  Now Chip grinned harder as Lee wriggled nervously in the chair.  He knew that Lee was uncomfortable with being singled out by Nelson in a way that Phillips hadn’t been.  Chip kept telling Lee that he was headed for bigger things at NIMR, but Lee always just shrugged it off.  Chip knew that Lee preferred to stay under people’s radar but his competence – and in more than driving a sub – kept raising his profile, whether Lee liked it or not.


“Anyway,” Lee continued, “seems Doc came up to check on you, found the empty munchie plate and you sound asleep, and decided that you couldn’t be too bad if you’d eaten.”  He grinned as it was Chip’s turn to frown slightly.  “Said he was chalking the whole thing up to a delayed reaction from the computer conference, and he expected both our tails at breakfast tomorrow.”


“Which you’re going to miss by oversleeping if you don’t crash soon,” Chip teased his friend, earlier frustrations forgotten.  He figured it was Lee who had replaced the bottle of Pepto – Lee’s comment to Nelson about having to keep Chip from laying to waste any crewman who happened to get in the XO’s way now solving that little mystery.  As to the rest of it, well, it could have been about anything they’d been discussing earlier, and weren’t ready to let the crew know just yet.  Sure wouldn’t be the first time.


Lee had instantly frowned at Chip’s little dig, and glanced at his watch.  “It’s barely 2315.  I’m rarely in bed by now,” he complained.


“Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be,” Chip sniped right back.  They both grinned again, before Lee got a stern look on his face and stood up.


“Sometimes, Mr. Morton, you take this ‘XO looking after his Captain’ thing a little overboard, don’t you think?”


“No, sir,” Chip answered openly and honestly, before both men cracked up again.  From their first days together at Annapolis, Chip had been ‘looking after’ his instantly adopted younger brother, and it had easily carried over to now.  While it was true that a good XO insulated his Skipper from as much of the mundane as possible, and ‘looked out for’ any way to help out, Lee often accused Chip, both back then as well as now, of taking his job just a little too seriously.  It had occasionally caused rifts to the friendship.  Fiercely independent, Lee had never taken well to people getting in his way once he had determined a course of action.  But the rifts had always been short-lived, as both acknowledged the strong bond of friendship that led to them.  Now Lee just shook his head, and muttered something decidedly rude not quite under his breath, causing both men to crack up again.


“Good night, Chip.  Hopefully all the weirdness has been purged for this trip,” he ducked as Chip threw his uniform pants at Lee for that little pun, “and things can get back to normal.”


“Amen to that,” Chip readily agreed, and Lee left.  Chip policed what little in the cabin needed cleaning up, and settled into the bunk.  He lay awake, still slightly unsettled by all that had been happening, but quickly went back to sleep.


* * * *


Chip was absolutely ravenous by morning.  He easily ignored Doc’s gently teasing, “Well, I see things are back to normal,” as he entered the Officers’ Wardroom to find Chip just settling down to a plate filled even higher than usual with Cookie’s ample breakfast selections.  Cookie was positively beaming behind the counter, apparently none too happy about the XO’s lack of sustenance the previous day.  Lee and Nelson entered right after the CMO, and the day began as so many did aboard the giant submarine, with talk of the current cruise.  Once he reached the Control Room, it didn’t take long for Chip to catch up on what he’d missed the previous day.  He teased young Lt. James, in front of Lee, that now that the XO had returned, James could relax and not worry about having to deal with his overbearing Skipper.  He was pleased when Chris went right along with the joke.  While Lee pretended to frown, both saw the sparkle in his always-expressive eyes.


The rest of the day was just as relaxed.  Further reports had been received that the underwater explosion had not, apparently, caused as much damage as was originally thought.  While Nelson still wanted to know what had caused it, there didn’t appear to be any urgency in getting there.  Both Patterson and Riley were on duty in the Conn that morning and, while Riley seemed overly intent on not looking at his XO after basically calling Chip a liar over the voltmeter incident, neither man, nor Chief Sharkey, who was bustling around the Conn in his usual manner, seemed to act any differently toward Chip.  Chip pretty much tossed the whole matter aside as one big case of ‘weird’, shrugged his shoulders, and forgot about it.


Almost.  On the way to the Wardroom for lunch he bumped into Jennings, again headed somewhere with a coil of electrical wire attached to his equipment belt.  Seaview’s newest crewmember seemed unusually nervous around Chip.  When asked where he was headed in such a hurry, Jennings mumbled something about helping Kowalski with a little project in the Circuitry room, and hurried off.  Chip just shook his head and continued on.  But before he went back to the Conn he stuck his head into the room where so much of Seaview’s wiring had its main lines.  All seemed quiet.  When questioned, the crewman on duty there at the moment, Mickelson, said that there had been a momentary problem with an auxiliary switch, but that it had been quickly swapped out for a new one.  Chip just nodded and left.  With a small feeling of unease still lingering, however, he headed back to the Conn by way of his cabin, and made a brief walkthrough.  Finding nothing amiss, he gave himself a mental boot in the tail for his apparent paranoia, and got back to work.


* * * *


All was quiet through the rest of that day and into the next.  Seaview arrived at the site of the underwater explosion and the crew started assessing the damage and trying to find the cause.  While the ocean floor was beyond crush depth, the site of the explosion was fairly close to the top of one of the underwater mountains, and easily accessible by divers.  The usually fairly clear waters were still filled with silt, making visibility a major problem.  Chip kept Seaview in station-keeping mode, instruments monitored carefully for signs of more disturbances, while Lee oversaw what was to become a large number of diving expeditions sent out to gather a large number of different samples for Nelson to analyze.  Lee went out on as many of the dives as safety regulations would allow, and paced between the Conn and the Missile Room while awaiting his next opportunity to enjoy his second best pleasure next to piloting Seaview.  On the third day, on one of his trips through the Conn, Chip surreptitiously elbowed his friend gently in the ribcage and suggested he go play in the Flying Sub if he was still outside time restraints for another dive.  He’d meant it as a joke; since visibility was still so low, Lee would be limited to maneuvering pretty much on instrumentation alone.  But Lee’s face instantly lit up and he went down to prep FS1 for take off.  Chip just shook his head, called Kowalski to the Conn to accompany Lee so Lee wouldn’t get sidetracked and take off on his own, and calmly endured Lee’s glare when Lee found out.  Lee eventually just shook his head, returned the grin that spread across Chip’s face, and disappeared back inside the little yellow craft.  It was Chip’s turn to just shake his head, and get back to the job at hand.


Until about an hour later, when Nelson came charging down the stairs, computer printout in his hand.  He briefly glanced around the Conn and then charged up to Chip.  “Where’s Lee, out on a dive?”


“No, sir,” Chip answered calmly.  He was used to Nelson’s moods.  This was nothing more than ‘totally engrossed scientist.’  “He was still several hours away from being able to go out again and still be within regs.  I offhandedly suggested he take FS1 out instead and he, unfortunately, took me up on it.  I did manage,” he managed to cut off Nelson’s response, “to send Ski with him, so he’s not out alone.”


Nelson harrumphed, and a small smile finally touched his face.  “A bit antsy, was he?  Disrupting your orderly Conn?”


“A little bit,” Chip admitted, and returned Nelson’s broadening grin.


Nelson indicated the printout in his hand.  “I’ve found discrepancies in the samples he brought in yesterday afternoon.  I need to have further samples gathered.”


Chip turned to the chart table.  “Exactly where, sir?”  Nelson found the spot on the chart easily.  “Can Lee use FS1’s arms to collect what you want?”


“Not as easily as divers can,” Nelson answered, and then raised an eyebrow at Chip.  “Have you been able to get outside?” he asked, not without a trace of humor in his voice.


“Haven’t had the chance,” Chip admitted.  “Been kept busy here, what with Lee’s comings and goings.”


Nelson cocked an eyebrow at his XO.  “Not that busy, Mr. Morton.  I’m sure that Lt. James can keep Seaview from sinking while you go get some much-needed entertainment.  You are not immune from the need for distraction any more than our workaholic captain, you know.”  Chip dropped his eyes as Nelson’s jab hit home.  “Lt. James,” Nelson continued, “suppose you call the Missile Room to ready a dive team to be headed by Mr. Morton.”


“Yes, sir,” the young lieutenant answered crisply, and reached for the mic.  He allowed a small grin to appear as he finished his call, his back to Nelson who was returning up the stairs.  Chip, looking up from rechecking the exact coordinates he needed, saw the smile and straightened up to Attention.


“Lt. James,” he ordered in his best XO voice.


“Yes, sir?” Chris responded instantly, smile gone.


In a softer voice, Chip continued.  “You so much as let Seaview move a foot off station while I’m outside, and I’ll have you inspecting rivets the entire trip home.”  Then he relented and gave the man a slight grin.


“Understood, sir,” Chris answered, the grin starting to return.  Chip noticed similar ones on several of the Conn crew’s faces – those who had heard all of the exchange, starting with Nelson’s comments – and returned them as he exited and headed for his turn to enjoy a dive.


Chip was surprised that even the view out Seaview’s famous front windows didn’t accurately depict the lack of visibility in the murky waters.  He and his team, consisting of Nielson and Roberts, had to stay within a couple feet of each other to maintain visual contact.  Chip was leading the group to the collection site by the diver’s compass on his wrist, supplemented by additional directions from Patterson at the sonar station, monitoring the team’s progress and relaying coordinates through the divers’ mics.


All went well on the way out.  The three divers reached the correct site fairly easily despite the limited visibility.  They spread out several yards apart, maintaining verbal contact, and took multiple soil and water samples.  But when all of Chip’s bags were full and he tried to gather his team back together, he couldn’t find them.  They weren’t answering his repeated radio calls, so he swam around the site looking for them.  Patterson had quit transmitting once the trio had reached the proper site, and now Chip couldn’t even get either him or Sparks to answer his repeated calls.  He assumed that for some reason his radio had stopped functioning, but that didn’t explain why he couldn’t find the other two, or why they hadn’t attempted to find him.  While they hadn’t been able to see one another during the collections, they weren’t all that far apart.  Patterson should have had all three on his scope, and all three radios couldn’t have gone bad at the same time.


Hanging suspended in the murky water, Chip weighed his options.  The one thing he couldn’t do was stay here indefinitely – he’d all too soon run out of air in his tanks.  He knew how long he still had from the gages, and he knew how long it would take him to swim back to the boat.  That, at least, shouldn’t be a major problem.  Chip could follow his compass and depth gage back.  It wasn’t like Seaview wasn’t large enough that Chip would have trouble running into her.  He hesitated because it went against every instinct in him to possibly be leaving Roberts and Nielson behind.  He could only hope that their radios were still working, but if not, they also should be able to find their way back with their own dive gear.


With major reluctance, but with emptying air tanks, Chip started back for the boat.  He set himself at the depth of Seaview’s midline, knowing that no matter what part of the boat he eventually bumped into – probably literally, since he could see barely a foot in front of him now – he would be able to figure out where he was and head easily to the hatch.  And if, by some weird mischance, he did actually miss the boat, Patterson would alert the Missile room to Chip’s erratic swimming pattern and send out a rescue team.  Chip, however, was determined to not let that happen – Lee would never let him live it down!


For all the poor visibility, Chip was making quite good time, his swimming unhampered.  He kept his eyes glued to the gages, since he couldn’t see where he was going anyway.  Swimming, and swimming, and…  Where the heck is Seaview?  I should have reached her already.  He kept going, sure he’d run into the boat any second.


Another five minutes and Chip was getting seriously worried.  And not just a little ticked.  Even if he couldn’t find Seaview, she should have been able to find him and dispatched crew to aid his recovery.  He started mentally calculating time left in the tanks with time and depths needed for decompression stops to surface.  While he wasn’t that deep, he’d need at least one to be safe.  At least topside he wouldn’t have to worry about running out of air.


But the diving gods seemed determined to ruin his day.  He had just made the decision to surface when something entangled his legs.  Something heavy, which started to drag him down.  Momentary panic was instantly followed by cool logic, and Chip reached out to feel what had entangled him, discovering what was apparently a section of weighted fishing net.  He calmly reached down for his diving knife and started cutting himself free.  But the more he cut, the more he seemed to become trapped.  At first only his legs were caught, but as he cut away one section, another ensnared his left arm and he could feel himself being dragged further down.  The faster he cut, the more he was becoming entangled.  He felt himself tense up and start to breathe more rapidly, and instantly told himself to calm down.  He had just managed to get his breathing back under control when suddenly he found it hard to drag air through the mouthpiece.  Can’t be out of air yet, he tried to assure himself.  The gage showed I still have plenty of time to make the surface safely.  But there was no denying the fact that the regulator was giving every indication of low air in the tanks, and he redoubled his efforts to cut away the net.  He’d have to blow through the planned decompression stop but, if he could just get the blasted netting cut, he knew that he could hold his breath long enough to make the surface.  Finally, he felt the heavy weight fall away and threw himself upward, only to have his head connect with something extremely hard.  His last conscious thought before everything went black was, Boy, you screwed up major league this time.


* * * *


“He’s starting to come around, sir.”


“Thank God!”


Chip heard the words, but he had no idea where they were coming from.  Senses were returning slowly.  Hearing apparently arrived first.  Then touch – he discovered that he was laying on something extremely hard.  The thought entered his brain that it must be what he’d hit his head on, but he couldn’t for the life of him figure out how come now he was laying on it – whatever “it” was.  Everything was still black, but at least he could take a deep breath unhampered, which led him to realizing that the regulator was no longer in his mouth.


“Mr. Morton?” came with a small shake of his shoulder.  “Can you open your eyes, sir?” came with another shake.


Chip struggled to comply with the request, and was disconcerted to realize how much effort it took.  When his eyelids finally parted, he discovered himself squinting up at Seaview’s senior rating, Kowalski.  Memory returned in a rush and Chip glanced around, knowing that the last sight he’d had of the seaman was his head disappearing down FS1’s upper hatch.  Sure enough, Chip recognized the interior of the little yellow machine, and finally realized that he was lying on her deck.  He glanced toward the pilot’s chair.  “How the heck did I end up here?” he demanded of his best friend, and struggled to sit up.  Ski at first tried to get him to remain prone, but apparently the glare Chip sent his direction changed the rating’s mind.  He helped his XO into a sitting position, from which Chip sent the glare toward Lee.  He watched as his CO hit several control buttons, putting FS1 in station-keeping mode, and turned toward him.


“What happened to you on that dive?” Lee growled at him.  Before Chip could respond – could even ask why Lee seemed to be so angry – Lee continued.  “Did you lose all of your sense out there?  You refuse to answer Sparks’ calls, or those of your team members.  You leave them wondering what happened to you, and you take off headed directly away from Seaview.”  Lee’s voice was rising louder and louder, his face more angry with each word.  Chip almost expected him to bolt out of the chair and stand over Chip, sending the glare down and putting Chip in a less defensible position than he was already.  Instead, Lee left his seatbelt on, in what looked to Chip like a purposeful step to keep from doing just what Chip was anticipating, and just continued to glare at the man at his feet.


“In the first place,” Chip tried to keep his voice calm, “I wasn’t ignoring anybody.  My radio went dead.”  He watched Lee start to say something, apparently change his mind and take a deep breath.  Taking that as acceptance on his ticked-off CO’s part, Chip continued.  “Once I realized it, I tried to find Nielson and Roberts, but I couldn’t.  I searched as long as I could, given what air I had left, and then headed back for Seaview, assuming that they would do the same.”


“You headed exactly in the opposite direction, on the same heading you took away from Seaview to the collection site.  You forget how to read a dive compass?”  Lee’s voice was accusatory, and Chip found himself having to take a firm grip on his own building anger.


“No, Lee, I haven’t forgotten.  I don’t know how that happened.  Maybe whatever affected my radio screwed up the compass as well.”


“It didn’t seem to affect either Roberts’ or Neilson’s equipment.”


Chip took his own deep breath.  Now was not the time to further tick off his friend.  He could understand that what was mostly behind Lee’s anger was deep-seated worry.  It was behind Chip always getting ticked off when Lee went on ONI missions.  But it didn’t make staying calm in the face of that anger a whole lot easier.  However, there would be better, more private, times to deal with it.  “I don’t have an answer, Lee.  I just know what happened to me.”  That seemed to take some of the wind out of Lee’s temperamental sails, and Chip continued carefully.  “Patterson send you after me?”


“Divers couldn’t reach you fast enough.”  Lee’s voice had also lost some of its anger.


Chip nodded.  “Couldn’t figure out how I’d missed Seaview.  She’s a pretty big target.”  Chip tried a grin at his little joke.  Kowalski returned it but Lee didn’t, and Chip continued.  “Knew I needed to surface soon, then I got tangled in something.  Felt like a chunk of weighted fishing net.”


“There was no sign of it,” Lee said accusingly, still holding Chip in his hard gaze.


“Cut free of it just as I felt my air running out.  Headed straight up, and that’s when the lights went out.  I gather I smashed my head on FS1’s hull.”  He reached a hand back to where Kowalski had laid a cold pack and found a fair-sized lump.


“Figured if I could get close enough you’d see her, and come to the escape hatch.  Didn’t expect you to flatten your head on her.”  Lee’s face was still hard, but Chip thought that he detected a touch of humor in the voice.  At least Lee was no longer practically growling at him.


Chip tried giving him another small grin.  “Whatever works.”  He started to stand, but Kowalski stopped him about the same time his own head did.  Chip closed his eyes against the instant dizziness the too abrupt movement had caused.


“Stay put until Doc can check you out,” Lee ordered.  Chip let Ski lower him back down, and felt FS1 begin to move.


Just what I need – more time in Sick Bay, Chip growled a bit, but only to himself.  If he couldn’t even stand up, arguing that all he needed was a few hours rest was obviously not going to get him anywhere except further into Lee’s crosshairs. He shut his eyes and accepted the inevitable.


* * * *


Chip was rather proud of himself.  He actually managed one small victory over Seaview’s CMO and walked to Sick Bay instead of being carried there on a stretcher.  Unfortunately, that was as far as his stubbornness got him.  Kowalski followed him down to Doc’s domain and, once Chip had shed the rest of his dive gear, took it back to the Missile Room.  As he left, Chip asked the rating to bring him back his uniform.  But Doc belayed the request, telling Chip that he wasn’t going anywhere except to one of the bunks.  Doc wanted to run a few tests, and Chip was confined until the results were back and the headache Chip wouldn’t admit to having, abated.  Like Lee, Chip could sometimes talk Doc out of being so conscientious if conditions on the boat warranted it.  But with things quiet, and taking marine samples being the only activity, Chip surrendered semi-peacefully.  Once Doc quit poking, prodding, and asking all his – at least to Chip – stupid questions, one of the corpsmen settled Chip into a bunk.  The day’s expenditure of both energy and adrenaline finally caught up with Chip, and he settled into the pillow and blankets, and slept.


He awoke some indeterminate time later to voices coming from Doc’s office.  Sick Bay was fairly dark so Chip assumed that it was late.  He heard a shushing sound, and saw Lee’s head poke around the doorframe.  Chip was still buried fairly deeply in the blankets, and for some perverse reason that he didn’t immediately understand, he remained still with his eyes open to just slits.  As dark as the room was he was sure that all Lee would see was his still apparently slumbering form, and had that confirmed as Lee’s head disappeared and he reported same to whoever else was with him.


The group included Admiral Nelson, as his was the next voice Chip heard.  “But why would he lie?”  Chip heard confusion in Nelson’s voice, something that was rarely there.  Even when Nelson wasn’t totally sure of what was going on, his voice would bluster its way to a conclusion.  Everything else was so quiet that Chip had no problem hearing Lee’s response.  Chip thought that he should probably mention to Doc that he needed to think about installing some sort of soundproofing materials.  But Lee’s words drove away all other thoughts.


“All I know, sir, is when Ski checked out Chip’s equipment there was absolutely nothing wrong.  Both radio and compass were functioning normally, and there was still about 10 minutes of air in the tanks.”


“That just doesn’t make sense.”  Chip wasn’t surprised to find that Doc was also present.  “Could something out there have affected his gages?”


“Didn’t bother the other divers, either this dive or all the others we’ve sent out.”  Chip detected disgust in Lee’s voice, and didn’t understand why.  Surely he couldn’t think that Chip had made the whole thing up.


“Did Ski check the air in Chip’s tank?”  It was Nelson’s turn to distract Lee.  “Bad air could cause Chip to miss-read his equipment.  Wouldn’t be the first time we had a glitch.”  Chip knew that Nelson was referring to a dive where Lee’s tank had been affected.


But Lee squashed that thought.  “First thing Sharkey checked.  Chip’s tank was fine.”


Chip didn’t want to hear any more of the conversation so he rolled over to face the bulkhead and pulled the blankets over his head.  Worry over Lee’s apparent accusations was causing his head to pound.  I’ll deal with Lee in the morning, when my head will let me fight on a level playing field.  Not sure what put a burr up his six, but I haven’t done anything wrong.  No way!


* * * *


Chip’s head wasn’t 100% the next morning, and Doc wouldn’t allow him back on duty for another twenty-four hours.  But he did release Chip from Sick Bay with the proviso that he rest all day in his cabin, and report back in the morning before going to the Conn.  But before going to his cabin he headed for Lee’s, having ascertained that to be Lee’s present location as Seaview continued to stay where she was.  Chip tapped on the door, suddenly feeling nervous.  He entered at Lee’s call, closed the door quietly, and stood almost at attention instead of sprawling in the chair next to Lee’s desk, as was his habit.  Lee had looked up from the folder he was reading and watched Chip come in.  Now he leaned back in his chair, his expression neutral.  “Doc spring you, or did you escape?”


Chip got no indication of Lee’s mood from the question, and Lee’s expression never changed, so he kept his own face under tight control as he answered.  “Sprung…”  He almost added a ‘sir’, something he wouldn’t usually do during a private conversation.


“Released for duty?”  Chip could normally read Lee fairly easily, especially in his eyes.  Today he was totally clueless.


“Not until tomorrow,” he answered reluctantly.  “Confined to quarters for today.”


“And you’re here instead because…?”


Chip couldn’t stand the tension any longer.  “Because I want to know what the heck is going on,” he exploded.  “Sir,” he added, followed by an explosion of air from his lungs.  He visibly relaxed as Lee finally smiled, and waved a hand toward the visitor’s chair.  Chip flopped into it, never taking his eyes off Lee’s face as he noted the smile hadn’t reached Lee’s eyes.


“I hate to tell you,” Lee started quietly, “but we couldn’t find anything wrong with your equipment.”


Chip just shook his head.  “All I can say is what I told you yesterday.”


“What happened to your collection bags?”




“You didn’t have them when Ski pulled you aboard FS1.”


“Maybe I accidentally cut the strings while I was hacking at the net.”  Chip knew his voice, and probably his face, expressed his confusion.  But he was mostly frustrated that Lee didn’t seem inclined to believe him; he just kept that same expression on his face – the slight smile on his lips that never reached his eyes.


“Your dive knife was in its sheath, and the tops of the collection bag strings, if you did cut the bags off, should have still been attached to your belt.  They weren’t.”


Chip launched himself out of his chair, hands becoming tight fists.  “Are you calling me a liar?”  He glared at Lee, and the frustration grew as Lee’s face never changed.


“No.  I’m just relating the facts.”


“The facts,” Chip nearly shouted, and worked to control his emotions as Lee frowned, “are exactly as I related them yesterday.  I don’t know what’s happening, or who’s lying.  But before this cruise is over I’ll find out.  Sir!” he added with a snarl, turned on his heel, and closed the door behind him none too quietly on his way out.  He stomped the few steps to his own door and slammed it behind him as well, then regretted the action as his head seemed to reverberate with the sound and magnify it, giving Chip a worse headache than he’d had right after waking up in FS1.  Berating himself, and casting multiple aspersions on whoever was out to get him this cruise, he walked into his head and downed a couple ibuprofen.  Splashing water on his face, he walked over and crashed onto his bunk.  He lay there staring at the overhead, trying to make sense of everything that had happened since the cruise had begun, determined to make it home without anything, or anyone, else causing him trouble.


* * * *


The only person to interrupt Chip’s personal tantrum the rest of the day was Higgins, Cookie’s assistant, who appeared with a breakfast tray, and also lunch and dinner as well when Chip wasn’t in the mood to walk down to the Wardroom.  He kept expecting Lee to wander in to visit as the evening progressed.  It was rare for any spat between the two to last very long, no matter who or what had started it.  Chip was tempted to go track Lee down and apologize for his show of temper.  But he was just stubborn enough to think that it should be Lee who did the apologizing, for obviously doubting Chip’s version of the events, so Chip remained alone in his cabin.  Even Doc didn’t show up to harass him, and Chip had a moment of chagrin when he realized that he was actually disappointed.


The next day didn’t start out much better.  Chip showered, shaved, and dressed without anyone poking in to check and see if he was even still alive.  He decided to head for the Wardroom by way of the Conn, just to get a bit caught up from missing the last thirty-six hours or so.  He knew that he still had to get past Doc to be able to go back on duty, but didn’t expect anyone to object if he just glanced at the last couple status reports.  Seaview was still stopped, so Chip assumed that the Admiral was still examining the area.


Chip heard laughter as he came down the spiral stairs into the nose.  As he rounded the last curve of stairs and entered the Conn, the revelers, who turned out to be Lee and Lt. Keeter, both stopped laughing and turned toward him.


“You need to check with Doc before you report for duty, Mr. Morton,” Lee reminded him – unnecessarily, as far as Chip was concerned.  And also in what Chip usually referred to as ‘The Skipper being patient with an incompetent crewman’ voice, which instantly ticked Chip off all over again.


“Just going to pick up the last couple status reports to read over breakfast,” he managed to get out semi-calmly.


“No need,” Lee assured him, the same bland ‘Skipper in charge’ expression on his face.  “We haven’t moved yet.  The Admiral, as of dinner last night, still had several samples to study before we can head home.  We had to send out more divers after you failed to complete your collection.”


Chip’s head was beginning to pound again.  It was totally out of character for Lee to criticize Chip’s performance in front of any of the crew.  In fact, it was totally out of character for him to criticize Chip at all.  Chip was extremely efficient, a fact for which Lee had expressed gratitude to him on any number of occasions over the years.  Chip was tempted to make some scathing comment about the fact that apparently the samples Roberts and Nielson brought in were useless as well, if Nelson had to have the whole dive repeated, but bit his tongue just in time.  He mumbled to Keeter that he’d be back shortly to relieve the lieutenant and take the Conn and escaped out the aft hatch.


None of the other senior officers showed up in the Wardroom while Chip quickly ate what was for him a light meal.  Cookie looked askance as Chip only took a small helping of scrambled eggs and a piece of toast.  But Chip was at that point still so angry that he surprised himself in being able to eat even that much, and stormed off to Sick Bay.  Doc wasn’t around but the corpsman on duty, Frank, checked Chip’s chart, then the back of his head where the lump was still present, ran Chip through a series of short, simple neurological tests, and ok’ed the XO to return to duty. He did add a warning to report to Doc if the headache worsened, but that was all.  Chip was almost grateful when, returning to the Conn, Lee was nowhere around.  He knew that he was grumpy with Keeter, going over the current reports and orders, and the lieutenant seemed glad to get out of his XO’s line of fire upon being relieved.  None of the other crew on duty spoke to Chip, although that was hardly unusual.  One of the easiest ways to tick off the Exec was if he found someone not keeping their noses in their own equipment, and no one liked ticking off the Exec!  That had in the past proved hazardous to any free time the errant seaman might have the rest of the cruise, once the duty schedule was revised.  Lt. James, who usually served as Chip’s second on day shift, was absent this morning, having been assigned other duties by Lee.  Chip didn’t mind.  He was content to keep his own counsel, and the morning went by quickly.


1215 hours found Chip on his way to the Wardroom for lunch, leaving Lt. James, who had shown up just before 1200 hours, with the Conn.  He was just about to step over one of the numerous ‘knee-knockers’, the lower sills on all the watertight hatches aboard, when there was a flash of red behind Chip and he was pushed.  Hard!  He fell forward through the hatch, unable to catch himself, and landed totally out of control on the far side.  His head collided with the deck, and once again everything went momentarily black.


He awoke to an argument going on over his body.  “Why the hell did you release him for duty if he couldn’t even walk the length of the boat without passing out?”  That was Lee yelling, Chip realized.  He wished his friend would lower his voice.  It was causing the headache to increase once again.


“Frank examined him this morning, ran several simple rests, and noted on his chart that he wasn’t having any difficulties,” was yelled back in Doc’s voice.  Chip wondered who else was around – probably half the crew by now, drawn to the argument.  Although, he reasoned, when Lee and Doc get into it, everyone else tries to find a hole to crawl in.  Right now, Chip wished that he could as well.


“And where were you that a corpsman had to do the exam,” Lee continued on, still shouting.


By this time Chip had himself back under some semblance of control – mostly the result of anger taking over better judgment – and he cut off whatever Doc was about to say.  “Doesn’t make any damn difference why he wasn’t there, because I didn’t fall,” he yelled as he pulled himself into a sitting position.  “I was pushed.”


“You were not,” Lee barely glanced at him, disgust in his voice and on his face.  “You lost your balance and tripped,” and his glare returned to the doctor’s face.


Okay, I’ve had it, Chip muttered to himself, and launched himself to his feet to stand toe-to-toe with his superior officer.  “I did not trip.  I was pushed.  By a crewman in a red jumpsuit.  I caught a glimpse of it just before I felt a shove in my back.”  He knew that he was yelling, and didn’t care.  He’d totally forgotten Doc, standing just behind him at this point.  He didn’t care how loud he got.  He didn’t care who on board heard.  Lee was going to listen this time.


It didn’t help Chip’s anger at all when Lee just gave him an almost pathetic look.  “Chip, I was only about 4 yards behind you.  There was no one else around. I clearly saw you simply get dizzy and fall forward.”


It was a mistake for Lee at that point to take his eyes off Chip and look instead beyond him to Doc, with a look on his face that clearly beseeched the doctor to take an obviously deluded Chip off his hands; that he, Lee, had more important things to do.  That little bit of inattention allowed Chip to see the expression on Lee’s face, and react to it by grabbing Lee and slamming him back against the bulkhead.  He had hold of Lee’s uniform shirt by both shoulders, and the material was almost cutting into Lee’s throat.  “Why are you lying?” Chip screamed.  Chip’s sudden attack surprised Lee so much that he was unable for a moment to defend himself.  “Why are you doing this to me?” Chip continued to scream, and emphasized the question by pulling Lee slightly forward, only to smash him back, bouncing Lee’s head against the hard surface.


The action seemed to galvanize Lee.  He popped his arms upward, loosening Chip’s grip on his shirt.  With a growl, he launched an attack of his own, knocking Chip back with a punch to his stomach.  As Chip doubled over from the pain, Lee brought his hands together and chopped down on the back of Chip’s neck, knocking Chip to the deck.  Lee immediately landed on top of him, grabbing for his arms and trying to pin him down.  Chip kicked at Lee’s legs as hard as he could and tried to twist away and get back to his feet.  But Lee was too quick for him.  He scrambled away just long enough to get behind Chip and wrap him up in his long arms, pinning Chip’s arms against his body, and staying away from Chip’s still wildly thrashing feet.


Chip struggled as hard as he could, but Lee’s lean body disguised strength that, even as far back as Annapolis, Chip had never been able to master.  As he struggled, knowing it was hopeless now that Lee was in a commanding position but having no intention of simply surrendering, Chip heard Lee’s voice. 


“Chip, what are you doing?”  Chip just growled and struggled harder.  “Chip?” Lee seemed confused.  Chip ignored him.  “Jamie, what’s happening?”


Chip had totally forgotten that the doctor was there as well.  Now hands were placed almost gently on either side of Chip’s head and he heard the familiar voice, sounding remarkably gentle considering the circumstances.  “Chip, wake up.”  Chip was suddenly totally confused, and stopped struggling.  “Chip, open you eyes,” came with a slight slap on his cheek.


Weren’t his eyes already open?  He could swear that he’d just been in an all-out fight with Lee…  “Huh?”  Another small slap, and Jamie telling him, firmly this time, to open his eyes, and Chip finally complied.


Chip found himself sitting on the deck in Sick Bay, close to one of the bunks along the side bulkhead.  Jamie was kneeling in front of him, and strong arms held him firmly from behind.  Not understanding what was happening, he first stared at Jamie, and then turned to see who was holding him.  As he watched, Lee released him and pushed back a foot or so, his face a good deal paler than it usually was and his upper body visibly shaking.  As all Lee could do was look between Chip and Jamie, Chip turned back to the CMO.  “Will one of you explain what the hell is happening?  Please?”


Jamie grinned, and said to Lee, “He’s awake.”


“Thank God!” Lee breathed, and pushed himself to his feet.  Hesitantly, like he was almost afraid of Chip’s reaction, he reached down a hand, offering to help Chip up as well.


“Chip.”  Jamie’s voice brought Chip’s attention forward again.  “Sit on the bunk for a bit.”  Chip accepted Lee’s help up, and actually looked at the bunk for the first time.  The blankets were a jumbled mess and the pillow was nowhere to be seen.  Chip slowly sat down and Lee walked off across the room, almost pacing.  As Jamie took Chip’s pulse, much to Chip’s annoyance, he saw color start to return to Lee’s face, and Lee physically get himself back under control.  As Jamie finished counting - and if the smile on the older man’s face was any indication, he was pleased with the results - Chip’s look implored the doctor to explain.  Instead, he first looked toward the still pacing Lee.  “Skipper?  You okay?”


Lee stopped pacing and looked up almost bashfully at Doc.  “Yeah,” he said, with a huge sigh.


“Then sit!”  It came out an order, in the tone that both younger men heard all too often when Jamie was lecturing them about something to do with their health, and it caused both Lee and Chip to grin slightly.  Lee didn’t obey but he did walk closer and stand still, watching Chip intently.  Chip in turn looked at Jamie.


“You remember getting hit with the box that Jennings dropped?”


“Of course,” Chip answered, now more confused than ever.


“You fell asleep on the exam table.”


“Didn’t get much sleep at the conference,” Chip answered hesitantly, looking back and forth between the doctor and Lee.


“So the skipper explained when he came down to check on you.”  Both Jamie’s voice and expression were filled with gentle humor.  “As he was explaining, you started getting restless.  Figured that you were just having a bad dream.  I was concerned that you might accidentally fall off the gurney but I didn’t want to disturb the rest you obviously needed so I lowered it, pushed it over here, Lee and I rolled you onto the bunk, and tucked you in all nice and comfy.”  He grinned more broadly as Chip frowned at the flippancy.  “I was replacing the gurney where it belonged and reclipping it to the deck, and Lee had just raised the railing on the bunk, when you went just a tad ballistic.”  He raised an eyebrow, and waited for Chip to explain.


Chip just continued to shift his gaze between the two faces. He could see that Lee was still having trouble containing his emotions, seriously upset by whatever had just happened.  “That was today?  That I got hit?”


“About two hours ago,” Jamie confirmed.


“We aren’t in the middle of the ocean?”


“Haven’t even left the dock yet,” it was Lee’s turn to answer, gathering himself and noticeably calming down.  Chip uttered a particularly vulgar phrase, causing Jamie to burst out laughing.


“Must have been a doozy of a dream,” the older man said, barely getting it out around the laughter.  Chip just glared at him.


“Chip?” Lee asked.


Chip transferred the glare toward his best friend before it turned sheepish.  “Trust me.  You really don’t want to know what I thought was happening.”  He grinned, and was rewarded with Lee’s bright smile.


“Yes, I do,” Lee told him teasingly, back under control.


“No, you don’t,” Chip said firmly, his expression hardening.


“Ten bucks says I can get you to tell me before the cruise is over.”


“You’re on,” Chip accepted the challenge, and started to stand up.


“Hold it,” Jamie interrupted.  “Nobody said that you could leave.”


“Jamie,” Chip started in sternly, causing Lee to laugh even harder.


“You,” Jamie pointed toward Lee, “don’t you have a boat to get moving?”


“Aye, sir,” Lee answered immediately, but still grinning.


“Then get lost,” Jamie mock-growled, before also smiling.  “You’ll get this one back,” he pointed toward Chip, “before we leave the breakwater.”  He gave both men a wicked grin.  “At least, if you want him back, and not have him arrested and confined to the Brig for trying to strangle a superior officer.”


Lee burst out laughing as Chip sent the doctor one of his patented XO glares.  “Nope.  I’ve got a bet to win,” and Lee left, still chuckling.


“Your backside on the exam table,” Jamie ordered, totally ignoring Chip’s continued glare.  It didn’t take him long to be sure that Chip wasn’t suffering any serious side effects from either the earlier incident or the nightmare, and he started to send Chip on his way before adding, “I’d strongly suggest you tuck in your shirt and fix your tie before leaving here.  I don’t believe I have enough anti-hysteria drugs on board if the crew sees you the way you are right now.  They’d all die of shock.”  He burst out laughing at the murderous expression that crossed Chip’s face for that one, and decided he’d better watch his back for awhile.  Seaview’s Executive Officer might put on a front of “All Business” on the boat, but Jamie was all too aware of Chip’s other side.  The man was notorious in certain circles for positively devious retaliations.  True, they were most often directed at a certain dark-haired commander.  But there had been instances…..


Chip quickly put his uniform back in order and, with another glare at the still grinning CMO, headed forward.  Coming quickly around a corner, he almost ran into a laughing Patterson and Jennings.


“Oops.  Sorry, sir,” Patterson, the older of the two sailors, said as he stepped to the side.  “Feeling better, sir?”


“Yes,” Chip answered shortly, and started to continue on.


Then stopped dead, realizing that this was exactly how the nightmare had started.  “Doc?” he said loudly, and headed back for Sick Bay.