By R. L. Keller
The submarine sat quietly on the bottom of the ocean, just inside a small bay, her crew patiently waiting. Every so often her skipper would walk the length of the control room, glancing over the shoulders of his men at their instruments. Not because he thought that they might miss something if he didn’t keep on their backs; they were a finely trained crew. It was simply a way to pass the time.
Submariners by definition were patient men. Long hours spent skulking under the seas, protecting your country from other skulking submarines – as well as surface ships – either taught you patience or sent you running to some other branch of the Navy. Not to mention being confined to tight quarters with 120 other men, doing your jobs and living your lives in companionable cooperation. These were men who did not lose their cool over trivialities.
And yet, there was just the trace of palpable tension
running through the
* * * *
I almost don’t believe this, the agent told himself with a wry grin. The mission has so far gone off without a hitch. Has to be a first. He chuckled silently, scanned the shoreline for any sign of activity, and started putting on the diving equipment.
For once, an assignment was going smoothly. Seemed like something always messed him up and he was enjoying not having to improvise. He’d parachuted in directly on target. His entry and exit from what was a suspected munitions stockpile had gone totally undetected. He’d taken photographs of the illegal arms buildup to be presented before a council of bordering nations. With proof in hand they could work together to squash the rebellion brewing in their increasingly belligerent neighbor. The agent just had to get back to his transportation, and he’d found the diving equipment stashed exactly where he’d been told that he’d find it. In the back of his mind was a niggling little thought about waiting for the other shoe to drop – that this was just the calm before the storm, so to speak. The mission had so far gone entirely too well. But he pushed the thought aside. He had to be due an easy mission for a change, didn’t he?
Well, there was one little thing that still puzzled him. Something about some of the equipment in the arms stockpile had him searching his memory banks. It wasn’t a recognizable weapon that he was familiar with. But he was sure that he’d seen something like it before – somewhere. However, for the moment he shrugged off the puzzle, quickly donned the scuba gear, and made sure that his camera was secure inside its waterproof pouch and the pouch secured to his diving belt. He gave one more glance around the tree-lined cove and started to slip silently into the water.
* * * *
“Incoming, Skipper,” the sonar operator said quietly
“Little blip or big one,” his CO asked, coming to stand behind the man.
“Looks like our diver, sir. Small target, moving slowly, coming from the anticipated coordinates.”
“It’s about time,” the boat’s XO muttered. His Skipper sent him an amused grin, returned almost immediately as it was mirrored in several of the other crewmember’s faces. These men had, for the most part, served a sufficient amount of time with each other to enjoy a little gentle teasing about the enforced inactivity of the last several hours.
But the smiles were swiftly wiped away by a second blip on the sonar screen. “More incoming, Skipper,” the crewman reported, somewhat unnecessarily as his CO bent over the screen. “Reads like one of their patrol boats.”
“Doesn’t look like they’re searching for anything specific,” the Skipper replied, watching the blip carefully.
“No, sir,” his sonarman confirmed. “Pattern looks like just a sweep through the area. But if he happens to go active on his sonar we’re dog meat.”
The Skipper nodded grimly and reached for the nearest mic. “Chief, diver incoming. Get your recovery team ready. This could get real ugly, real fast.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” came the response from the escape hatch. “I’ll let you know as soon as his feet are through the hatch.”
“Better make it his bellybutton,” the XO sent another not-quite-under-his-breath mutter in the direction of his Skipper.
“Just get it right the first time,” the Skipper warned the Chief. “We screw this up and we’ll have a certain overly temperamental admiral firing nukes up our six.”
“Aye, sir,” came smartly back from the Chief, and the Skipper broke the connection.
“Something special about this guy, Skipper?” the XO wanted to know, as the Skipper replaced the mic.
“Something,” his CO answered with an enigmatic little grin.
But again, the sonarman interrupted his thoughts. “Patrol boat just changed course – now he’s headed almost directly for the diver.”
“Spotted him?” the Skipper asked.
“Can’t say for sure but it looked like a lazy turn. The guy’s not going very fast. In fact, he’s been slowing down a bit the last couple of minutes.”
“Damn,” the Skipper muttered.
* * * *
Damn, the agent muttered silently to himself at almost the same time. Deep down he’d known that his luck wasn’t going to hold. He’d been about to disappear underwater when half a dozen rifle shots rang out. A burning pain low on the left side of his back told him that not all of the bullets had missed their mark. It didn’t feel too bad, as gunshot wounds went, and he figured that he’d been just enough into the water to deflect some of the bullet’s striking force. But another issue quickly took precedence; the break in the seal of the dive suit was allowing salt water to reach his skin. Not only was it causing the wound to burn more intensely, the water was gradually seeping into the rest of the wetsuit, increasingly slowing his progress. He was just reaching for his dive knife, to cut a few more slices into the now ruined suit to keep the influx of water from pooling in various spots, when movement overhead caught his attention. Well, that’s just ducky, he sniped silently. That’s all we need – a patrol boat out searching the bay. As instantly as the thought came, he realized that the boat didn’t appear to have its sonar array deployed. Apparently this was just a casual patrol. You mean, someone didn’t report the gunfire? Maybe the guy thought that he got me good and they’re looking for the body. Whatever… He grabbed his knife, made a few judicious slits in the by now bulging wetsuit and, hugging the bottom as closely as he could, continued on in the direction he’d been told that his transportation would be waiting. He was so busy keeping one eye on his compass, and one eye on the boat prowling overhead, that the divers had hold of him before he even realized that they were there.
* * * *
The Skipper didn’t waste any time. The instant the Chief reported that the escape hatch was secure he quietly maneuvered the submarine barely off the bottom and headed her in the exact opposite direction from the still prowling patrol boat topside. As it became apparent that the boat hadn’t even known that they were anywhere in the area, his XO laid in the already plotted course toward neutral open waters and the Skipper headed aft.
A wry smile crossed his face as he eavesdropped just a moment on the conversation going on around the escape hatch before entering the area. “A problem, Petty Officer Lucas?” he asked the sub’s corpsman, his expression once again under control.
“Just a little difference of opinion, sir,” the man
answered in a soft
The Skipper was very used to his corpsman’s sense of humor. He was also enjoying their visitor’s sudden realization of who the Skipper was and he allowed the smile to reappear. “Now here I thought, Mister Crane, that you’d have learned your lesson about lower ranking personnel sometimes having a better grasp of senior officers’ health issues.” His grin broadened as Lee Crane’s expression turned decidedly sheepish.
“Captain Mains,” Lee answered. “I was told where to meet but not who,” he explained his momentary confusion before trying to brush away the corpsman’s continuing ministrations. “I really need to report in…”
“Not for an hour or so,” Mains cut him off. “Radio silence until we’re away from your friends upstairs.”
“Understood, sir,” Lee acknowledged. He looked up almost shyly. “Good to see you again, sir.”
“You know this guy, Skipper?” the Chief asked, looking back and forth between the two.
“Oh, sorry. Chief Davis, Petty Officer Lucas, may I introduce Commander Lee Crane. I have the distinction of having survived a tour with then Lt. Crane when I was XO aboard the old Nautilus.” He chuckled as Lee dropped his eyes. “Cdr. Crane now commands Admiral Harriman Nelson’s research sub, Seaview.”
The Chief straightened up considerably. “That’s the admiral you said would be shooting nukes up our six if we didn’t get this guy…ah, I mean Cdr. Crane…back in one piece?”
Lee started to grin, flinched and frowned slightly when the corpsman hit a particularly tender spot as he continued to examine Lee, and finally grinned again. “Relax, Chief. Admiral Nelson would never blame anyone else for what trouble I manage to get into.” He gave Mains a particularly sheepish grin as the Captain again chuckled.
“Suppose you run along with Lucas and get patched up. The Chief, I’m sure, can come up with
something a little more comfortable for you to wear than that tattered
wetsuit. By the time you wander forward
“Sounds like a plan, sir,” Lee agreed quietly. He started to stand, stumbled just a bit – more from tiredness, he knew, than injury – but immediately had three sets of hands grabbing for him. “I’m fine,” he said instantly.
“Sure, you are,” Mains replied a bit sardonically.
Away from his ‘home turf’ as it were, and under the watchful eye of Capt. Mains, in this instance his superior officer aboard what Lee now knew to be the SSN Lechner, Lee had little choice but to surrender peacefully and let himself be taken to the sub’s tiny Sick Bay. The corpsman’s continued gentle humor went a long way to easing Lee’s frustration. At one point Lucas paused and gave Lee a quizzical look as Lee grinned softly to himself. The grin broadened. “I was just admiring your techniques,” Lee told him. “You remind me a lot of the two corpsmen aboard Seaview.”
“Why, thank you, sir,” Lucas drawled, with a grin of his own. “Word gets around, you know. You don’t get to serve on Admiral Nelson’s pride and joy without being quite a bit better than competent.”
Lee’s grin turned sheepish. “Actually, I was comparing your ability to deal with frustrated senior officers,” he admitted. “Although,” he hurried on to explain, “there’s nothing not first rate with your medical skills, either.”
Lucas chuckled. “Thank you again, sir. Helps to keep a sense of humor around here.” He was cleaning the area around the bullet wound, and at that point reached behind him to a tray that he’d prepared for a pre-loaded syringe.
“What’s that?” Lee demanded with a glare.
The corpsman’s face split into a grin. “You afraid of needles, Commander?” he asked.
Lee’s glare turned into a frown. “Just have a sneaky, smart-aleck CMO.”
Lucas laughed. “Not to worry. This here’s just a local anesthetic. Got an entry wound but no exit. Don’t want you to be setting off metal detectors the next time you go through an airport.”
“Felt like it just grazed across my back,” Lee grumbled.
“Not quite, sir,” Lucas explained patiently. “Got you at an angle, for sure. And didn’t have a lot of energy left when it got to you. But entered here,” he touched the spot that he’d been cleaning up, “and lodged just under the skin here.” He hit the same place he had while still down at the escape hatch and again Lee flinched. “Sorry, sir. Just need to deaden the area, make a small incision, and pluck that bad boy out of you. Won’t take but ten minutes and I’ll have you all taped back together.” Again Lee responded to the soft drawl, allowed himself to be repositioned on the exam table, and almost didn’t feel the needle prick, so gentle was the corpsman’s touch.
Lucas was just putting a small bandage in place, after putting in a few stitches to close both the entry wound and the small incision he’d made to extract the bullet, when Chief Davis appeared with a set of khakis and a small kit of toiletries like hotels kept on hand for emergencies. Lee had to immediately bury a snicker. He’d been expecting dungarees, or maybe a jumpsuit. Apparently the Chief was trying to put Lechner’s best foot forward, so to speak, and rounded up the uniform. Lee sat up so fast that he had to close his eyes for a second to fight off some sudden dizziness. “Sure you don’t want to lay here a little longer, Commander?” Lucas asked. “Your blood pressure is still a bit low. Think maybe you lost more blood than I first thought.”
“I’m fine,” Lee grumbled automatically, but gave both men a small grin as he reached for the clothes.
“XO Fannin says you can use the spare bunk in his cabin, sir,” Chief Davis offered.
The comment caused an instant broad grin on the corpsman’s face as he cleaned up his equipment. Lee sent him a raised eyebrow. “Best you don’t snore, Commander,” Lucas told him, still grinning. “That’s why the bunk’s not being used by the Navigation officer, Lt. Deal.”
“I take it Mr. Fannin likes his rest nice and peaceful.”
“Aye, sir,” both Lucas and Davis said instantly and emphatically.
“Must be an XO thing,” Lee told them with a grin of his own. Buttoning up the shirt, he carefully stood up. Staying under control this time he pulled on the slacks, tucked in his shirttails, pulled up the zipper, and buttoned the waistband. “We out of unfriendly territory yet, Chief?”
“Should be getting close, sir. The Skipper said, if you were feeling up to
it, to come up to the
“I’m fine,” Lee repeated automatically.
“Here you go,” Lucas said as he handed Lee a small bottle. Lee just glared at it, not taking it. “Just an all-purpose antibiotic, Commander.” He sent Lee a grin. “Guess you like pills about as much as you like needles.”
Lee was forced to grin.
To appease the corpsman he took the bottle and dropped it into a pocket,
planning to dispose of it into the first garbage bin he ran across. There was no way such a little injury would
be causing him trouble, and his stomach sometimes reacted badly to medications. He missed seeing the corpsman roll his eyes
at the Chief as he headed forward.
Coming in through the aft hatch Lee was glancing around, getting his bearings, when Capt. Mains motioned him up to the chart table. “We cleared into open water ten minutes ago, Commander, and let ComSubPac know that we had you. Safe,” he sent Lee a small grin, “and relatively sound.”
“I’m fine,” Lee muttered again.
Mains raised an eyebrow. “So it would appear,” was, however, all he said on that subject. “They’re going to notify ONI, but apparently had an earlier message that you were to wait until ONI contacted you before transmitting your intel.”
It was Lee’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “They say why, sir?” Mains shook his head. “Swell,” Lee muttered, causing Mains to send him a querying look. “On the other hand,” Lee continued, “ONI rarely explains why they do anything.” The last came out a grumble, and caused Mains to give him a small grin. When Lee didn’t offer any further answer, Mains continued.
“CSP also tried to relay the message to Admiral Nelson, but Seaview isn’t answering.”
“They could be out of communications range, sir. I got pulled off for this assignment just
before Seaview entered the
Mains held up a hand. “Don’t try to explain. I never could make heads or tails out of half of what he was saying.” A smile touched his mouth but didn’t quite reach his eyes. “You understand all that stuff?”
Lee grinned openly. “Maybe a little more than you. But then, I’ve been around him longer.” Mains just nodded. “Anyway, if he’s already under the pack ice it could take a bit for them to answer.”
Mains again nodded. “That was the consensus. We’ll head north, and wait until we get an idea of where Seaview’s at before we make plans to get you home. Sorry.” He grinned openly. “You’ll have to put up with a few less amenities than you’re used to for awhile longer.”
Lee returned the grin. “Not a problem, sir. I appreciate your hospitality. And if there’s any way that I can help out while I’m here…”
“Relax and enjoy the ride, Commander. In fact, why don’t you go grab some rack time? I rather suspect that you could use it.”
Lee’s usual response was stopped by the firm authority with which the last sentence was delivered. “Aye, sir,” he acquiesced with a sigh, and headed in the direction of where the XO’s cabin should be. He buried a smile when Chief Davis tagged along. COB’s were universal - they made sure that everything was ship-shape, extending even to seeing that any visitor didn’t get lost. Lee sent the man a quick nod when his normally unerring sense of direction once again led him directly to the right cabin. A stab of pain as he swung into the upper bunk reminded him that such quick moves might not be a good idea for a day or two, and he carefully made himself as comfortable as possible.
Expecting to get a call at any moment that either Seaview had reemerged from whatever black hole Nelson’s research had led her into, or ONI wanted him, Lee thought that he’d just close his eyes for a bit. While not openly admitting – even to himself – that he was tired, the bunk did feel awfully good. He was totally aghast when he opened his eyes after what he thought was only half an hour and glanced at his watch. Nearly six hours had passed and it was now almost 1900 hours. He abruptly sat up, only to have a voice from below him mutter, “Relax, Commander. Neither ONI or Seaview is as of yet talking.”
Lee carefully leaned over the side of the bunk and found XO Fannin stretched out in the lower one. “Still? Have you tried contacting NIMR to see if they’ve heard anything?”
“ComSubPac did, apparently. Admiral Stark, himself.” There was a pause. “You sure Stark and Nelson are as good friends as scuttlebutt has it?”
Lee chuckled, albeit a bit self-consciously. “Best friends,” he told Fannin. “Doesn’t keep them from the occasional 90 decibel conversation.”
“Ah,” Fannin nodded.
“Explains a few things,” he admitted.
“Apparently Stark has been trying to get hold of Nelson for the last 24
hours or so. Something to the effect
that Seaview’s passing through the strait was noted by sensors both in
“Swell,” Lee muttered, causing Fannin to chuckle.
“Not to worry. The Skipper told him that you were sleeping off a rough completion of your assignment ashore…” He pointed an eyebrow at Lee. “Wasn’t trying to eavesdrop on the Skipper’s conversation, mind you…”
“But submarine Conns being a tad on the small side…” Lee encouraged.
“Could have sworn that there was a string of expletives rather abruptly cut off from Stark’s end.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me.” Lee sighed heavily. “I’m not Stark’s favorite person in the world. And he knows that Admiral Nelson doesn’t always appreciate my being dragged away on ONI assignments. Especially when I come back, as happens all too often, injured. Not that this is anything,” Lee hurried to add. “Just…it will give Nelson more ammunition to fire if he doesn’t like what Stark wants him for.”
“Humm,” was Fannin’s noncommittal reply.
“Guess that I’d better go find out what Stark wants.” Lee lowered himself carefully down from the upper bunk, but couldn’t stop the small twinge and soft groan as he landed.
“Better check in with the corpsman first,” the XO advised. “And then get yourself something to eat. It’s been my experience that senior officers – particularly admirals – are best dealt with after a fortification of good food and strong coffee.”
Lee had frowned at mention of the corpsman, but chuckled at the second suggestion. “I’ve come to that same conclusion,” he admitted with a grin.
“I don’t envy you, having to deal with one on a daily basis.”
Lee’s grin broadened. “Nelson’s not so bad. Well,” he hedged, “at least most of the time.”
Fannin sent him a grin. “I just came in about half an hour ago,” he said, as Lee once again glanced at his watch. “Have a couple hours of paperwork to do, plus a few other odds and ends.”
“Ah, the life of an Exec,” Lee said with a grin.
Fannin returned it. “I won’t be crashing until closer to 2300 hours.”
“I’ll try to be a good guest,” Lee told him, and headed out.
But despite the XO’s suggestions Lee’s first stop was the
Fortunately, that admiral had calmed down somewhat from
the earlier talk Mains had had with him.
He only grunted when Lee told him, upon being asked, that he was fine;
that he’d only gotten a scratch on the mission for ONI. Stark was a bit more demanding to know what
Lee knew of Nelson’s whereabouts. But
Lee knew only that Nelson had been headed for the
“You’ll have to let me in on your secret some day,” Mains told him with a grin.
“What secret would that be?” Lee asked, puzzled.
“How to keep from getting blasted into the next time zone by ticked off admirals.”
Lee sent him a sheepish look. “Trust me, sir. I get more than my share of reaming out.”
Mains chuckled but just shrugged his shoulders. “Come along. I’ll keep you company in the Wardroom and you can catch me up on what Admiral Nelson’s been doing since I last saw him.”
“And when would that be?” Lee asked. The two spent the next hour hashing over mutual friends and acquaintances.
A few minutes after 2000 hours Petty Officer Lucas stuck his head through the Wardroom door. Mains motioned him in with a casual, “What’s up?”
“Figured I’d better track down my victim…ah…patient,” Lucas told his skipper with a grin that included Lee in the glance. “Scuttlebutt has at least two admirals needing to know his whereabouts, and I want to make sure we return him in tip-top shape. Don’t want a bad mark on your record, Skip.”
As much as Lee wanted to frown at the hovering corpsman he couldn’t help but grin at the easy, relaxed way with which Mains obviously conducted his command. He’d been a little like that aboard Nautilus, a good balance for Nelson’s occasionally abrupt, no-nonsense style. Lee was wondering if some of his own easy style might not have been patterned after Mains when a clearing of the skipper’s throat brought him back to the present. “Sorry,” Lee said instantly. “I don’t usually woolgather so badly.”
“Not a problem,” Mains told him. “You’re not on duty here, Commander. No reason you can’t relax. Run along and let Lucas have his fun, and I’ll see you in the morning.” Lee didn’t miss the implied warning to not be wandering around his boat all night, sent Mains a nod of acceptance, and left with the corpsman.
After the quick check Lee knew that he was expected to return to the XO’s cabin for the night. But restlessness wouldn’t let him. He spent the next hour doing exactly what Mains had quietly warned him not to – wandering around the boat. He was careful not to get in anyone’s way, and stayed out of any area where he might not be welcome – Navy Commander with level 1 security or not. Once again he noticed Chief Davis keeping a quiet watch on his activities, and buried a grin.
Shortly before 2200 hours he ambled back into the Control Room. A shake of the radioman’s head quickly told him that there had still been no word from Seaview. Without even realizing he was doing it, Lee’s eyes briefly wandered across all of the duty stations before he admitted that he had little recourse but to return to his assigned quarters. After just barely waking up from a solid six hours of sleep Lee figured that he would be spending a restless night, but nonetheless surrendered to the inevitable.
* * * *
Lee was therefore totally amazed when he did actually sleep all through the submarine’s night. He’d lain awake until Fannin came in but once the cabin lights went out so did he. And he didn’t stir until the sound of the door opening alerted him to the XO’s return from the officers’ head in the morning. Shaking his head in disbelief, he sat up.
“Didn’t mean to wake you,” Fannin told him.
“Can’t believe I slept that long,” Lee admitted. Fannin grinned, quickly dressed and, with a
nod, headed out. Lee took almost as
little time completing his morning ablutions, and headed to the
He was again met with negative shakes of the head, this
time from both the radioman and Capt. Mains.
“Could Admiral Nelson not want you back for some reason?” Mains asked,
with a spark of humor on his face. Lee
recognized its being very similar to the one on Mains’ face as he’d sent then
young Lt. Crane to retrieve Nelson from
“Haven’t ticked him off like that for some time.” His grin turned a bit sheepish. “At least, I don’t think so.”
Mains chuckled. “Lt. Brandaw, here, says we’re still cruising North-Northeast, no sign of any unfriendlies, and no directive from ComSubPac to be doing anything differently. Guess we can go enjoy a leisurely breakfast.”
Food was the last thing Lee wanted. Every bone in his body wanted to grab the radio headset and start broadcasting signals to Seaview until he finally got a reply. But all he said was, “Sounds like a plan,” and unwillingly followed Mains to the Wardroom.
There were only two events of noteworthiness for the next twelve hours. After breakfast Lee had finally heard from ONI, and had transmitted the digital pictures of the arms buildup that he’d been sent in to document. When he’d asked the reason for the delay he’d been told that intelligence in the neighboring country had reported that the unfriendlies were announcing to the world that they’d killed a spy. Lee responded sarcastically that it was nice of ONI to wait this long to see if the reports were true. His contact didn’t bite on that opening, which was just as well. Lee had been all cocked and primed to blast the man’s eardrums with a diatribe of how idiotic could they get, having been assured by ComSubPac that ONI had been notified of the successful completion to the mission. The contact just gave the radio equivalent of a shrug, and issued the proper code sequence for Lee to transmit the pictures. Lee figured that the expression on his face was the reason the sub’s radioman stayed so far out of Lee’s way during the exchange. When he was done, Lee managed half a smile for the man and amiably handed back the headset instead of slamming it into the bulkhead.
Lee was quite a bit more controlled for his second call of the day, this one right after lunch, from ComSubPac. Admiral Stark again demanded to talk to Lee, and seemed unwilling to accept that Lee had no further information to give him on the whereabouts of Seaview and Admiral Nelson. When he stood up from that call he found both Capt. Mains and XO Fannin watching him from the chart table. He walked over and raised an eyebrow, inviting an explanation. Mains obliged.
“How is it that you can handle Stark with such finesse, and yet got so frustrated with ONI earlier that you barely kept yourself from demolishing the radio?”
Obviously didn’t do as good a job of hiding that this morning as I thought I did, Lee mused silently. Out loud, he answered. “I detest stupidity. ONI seems to all too often breed it.” He sighed heavily. “On the other hand, ‘stupid’ is about the last adjective I’d use to describe Admiral Stark. I can think of half a dozen other words…” He sent both men a small grin. “But I’ve pretty much gotten used to his blustering.” His grin broadened. “Helps a whole lot that I’m now in the Reserves and working for NIMR. He knows that if he lands on me too hard he’ll have Admiral Nelson on his six.”
“That’s dirty pool,” Mains told him.
Lee shrugged. “Whatever works.”
But the continued silence from his boat was eating away at Lee’s reserves of patience, and 1600 hours found him pacing the corridors of the submarine, unable to settle down. Admiral Nelson was well aware of the timetable Lee had been given for the completion of the assignment. And even if Seaview wasn’t the designated pick-up craft, both he and Chip Morton, Seaview’s XO and Lee’s best friend, would be wanting word that Lee had gotten back safely. A momentary lapse of control had him driving his fist into the closest bulkhead. Thinking that he was alone in that particular section of corridor, he startled badly when he heard a voice.
“Is that how your hand got broken on Nautilus?” Capt. Mains asked, coming around a corner. He walked up to Lee, a soft smile just touching his face. **
“Aye, sir,” Lee admitted almost bashfully.
Mains nodded. “Nelson thought so, but no one ever found a dent in any of the bulkheads.”
Lee smiled ever so softly as he flexed his hand, making sure that he hadn’t just done exactly what had happened all those years ago. “Good American workmanship,” he told Mains. “Although, my XO routinely tells the COB to check my cabin for damage.”
Mains chuckled openly. “And here I thought that Seaview was made of sturdier materials than our friend here.” He reached out and patted the bulkhead that Lee had just slammed his hand into. “Wouldn’t think there’d be much chance of you damaging her.”
Lee grinned sheepishly. “Have to admit, the ladies pretty much win my temper tantrums.”
Mains’ hand moved to Lee’s shoulder and his voice turned serious. “I think I understand what you’re going through. But we both know Nelson.” Lee nodded. “And I’ve heard a thing or two about that XO of yours.” Lee gave him an open grin. “I rather suspect that whatever is going on, the two of them can handle it. They’ll no doubt pop back into view wondering what all the fuss was about.”
“What usually happens,” Lee admitted.
“But just in case, how about we bump our speed up a notch or two. Let this lady stretch her legs for a change instead of just skulking around.”
“I’d appreciate that, sir. Thank you.”
Mains shrugged. “We like to have a little fun around here from time to time. Breaks up the monotony.” He sent Lee a small grin.
Lee cringed. “There are times when I’d gladly trade you posts. ‘Boring’ is not a term we use too often aboard Seaview.”
Mains chuckled as the two headed toward the
Lee sent him a grin. “I think that I can come up with one or two to make you glad that you have this nice, cushy, monotonous post.”
* * * *
no mistaking a mission in progress, Lee told himself, standing back and watching Capt.
Mains ready his boat and crew. The
intensity in the
But the frustration continued to build, as unused as he was to just standing and watching. The second time that he had to relax hands that had unknowingly turned into hard fists – and realized that the action had been caught by Capt. Mains’ eagle eyes – he sent the man a sheepish grin and asked permission to contact NIMR directly.
Within just a few moments he was speaking to the Institute’s radio room. After the proper codes were given and received, he queried the man on duty, Jason Parquer, about Seaview’s last known position. There was just a bit of hesitation before the man responded.
“You know, Skipper, I probably should have fired off an alert before ComSubPac called,” he admitted. “But with Admiral Nelson…” He paused, and Lee sent him a soft chuckle.
“I know exactly what you mean, Jase. We’ve all had too much experience at something sidetracking him, and checking in being the furthest from his mind, or Seaview’s ability.”
“Aye, sir,” came the emphatic response.
“Was there anything unusual about this time?”
“Not really, sir,” Jason
admitted. “Everything was A-ok. No real reason they had to keep in constant
contact. Once they dropped you off and
they got that flash message, they continued on toward the
“What flash message?” Lee asked casually. It wasn’t anything new for someone – usually ComSubPac, but occasionally someone from Washington, DC as well – to send Nelson secure messages regarding current situations, whether or not Seaview was ‘supposed’ to be just a research vessel.
“Came through about two hours after you left the boat, sir. Forwarded through ComSubLant for some reason. Have no idea what it said, sir. It had all the proper codes so I just sent it on.”
“No reason for you not to, Jase,” Lee told him.
“Want me to try and backtrack it, sir?”
Lee shook his head as his mind processed that bit of intel, realized somewhat belatedly that the man couldn’t see the movement over the radio, and finally answered verbally. “Don’t bother, Jase. If it was ‘Eyes Only’ for the Admiral, no one is going to tell you much anyway. But I think I’ll ask Admiral Stark if he knows anything about it.”
“He’s sure been antsy to talk to Admiral Nelson about something.”
“So I’ve heard,” Lee grumbled, and heard an answering chuckle from Jason. “You hang tight and I’ll see what, if anything, I can shake loose from this end.”
“Sounds good, sir.”
“Where exactly was Seaview at her last transmission?” Lee asked again.
Jason gave him the
coordinates; Lee signed off and walked up to the chart table. Both Mains and Fannin raised an eyebrow. Lee
handed over the slip of paper he’d jotted down the coordinates on, the proper
chart was spread out, and it only took an instant to find where Seaview had
last called from, about halfway through the
“You just missed him,” Joe told Lee.
“Sounds like perfect timing to me,” Lee answered, and both chuckled. He explained about the flash message, asking if perhaps Joe knew anything about it.
“Not a clue,” Joe told him. “Although that’s not unusual.”
“I thought maybe that’s why Stark was trying to reach Admiral Nelson, even before I completed the ONI mission.”
“No idea, Lee. But I’ll pass along the message. May take awhile. Admiral Stark has meetings the rest of the day with the CNO – he’s out here for a couple days.”
“Ugh,” Lee told him with feeling. “That’s probably why Stark wanted to get hold of Nelson – wanted him to attend the meetings as well.”
“Probably,” Joe agreed. “Stark never really said. He was just ticked when he couldn’t reach him.”
“So I gathered,” Lee grumbled, and Joe laughed. “Anyway, just thought that if the message could be backtracked, it might explain Seaview’s disappearance. I figured that Admiral Stark would have a better chance of doing that than me, or anyone at NIMR.”
“He does have a certain knack for getting to the bottom of things.”
“Ah…yeah,” Lee told him. “No matter who gets squashed in the process.” They both laughed – Lee with a tad less humor than Joe. While he admired Stark a lot – more than he’d usually admit to publicly – he’d found himself on the bottom of the man’s ‘discard’ pile a couple of times too often to really like him.
“One of us – probably the Admiral – will be in touch if we hear anything,” Joe told him. “But I’m guessing not before tomorrow morning, earliest, unless the Admiral already knows about the message.”
“Sounds good, Joe, and thanks. It will take Lechner another 18 hours or so to reach Seaview’s last known position.” He gave Joe the coordinates in case Admiral Stark hadn’t already gotten that bit of intel from NIMR. “Not really sure what Capt. Mains has planned at that point. If we still haven’t heard anything, he’ll probably be contacting ComSubPac for further instructions.”
“I’ll pass that on as well. Hey…” Joe added with an obvious smile in his voice, “keep the faith. You’ll no doubt find Nelson off collecting a new specimen of sea critter.”
“And Chip plotting revenge for my not being there as a buffer between him and an overly research-focused Admiral,” Lee added with a chuckle.
“That, too,” Joe agreed, and the two friends rang off.
Well aware that his end of
both conversations had been easily heard throughout the
Lee smiled softly, and not a little self-consciously. “More room to pace on Seaview,” he admitted, causing the other two to smile.
Mains ever so briefly laid a hand on Lee’s shoulder. “Everything is running smoothly here so we have time to head for supper, and a few of the stories you promised – about how the XO and I should be happy with Lechner, here, and not be envious of Seaview and her exploits.”
“Aye, sir.” Lee wasn’t in the mood for either food or stories, but he recognized Mains’ attempts to take Lee’s mind away from his current troubles and went along amiably. XO Fannin joined them, having surrendered command to “C” watch.
Several times during the meal, as Lee related a few of Seaview’s more ‘interesting’ but unclassified adventures, he caught the XO sending him barely disguised looks of disbelief. After a not totally smothered snort, Mains sent Lee a grin. “I don’t think Mr. Fannin believes you, Commander,” he observed.
“He’s never met Admiral Nelson, has he?” Lee commented back.
“Now that you mention it, I don’t think he has.”
“Does sort of make a difference.”
The XO, growing tired of being talked about but not to, landed his empty coffee mug on the table none too gently. “Are you telling me, Skipper, that we haven’t just spent the last half hour having our legs pulled?”
Lee tried, unsuccessfully, to bury a snicker. Mains kept himself a little more under control. “Actually, XO, I rather suspect Mr. Crane of doing a pretty fair job of editing what he has told us.” He pointed an eyebrow at Lee, who was still smiling.
“And you’d be right, sir,” Lee agreed. “Although, I only chose to relate a few of the tamer missions.”
Fannin had apparently had enough of the kibitzing and, meal finished, stood up. “I’d better be getting back to the Conn,” he told no one in particular, and left.
Capt. Mains finally laughed. “Poor Barry,” he chuckled. “I have tried, once or twice, to tell him about my time aboard Nautilus. His father is a history buff, with special interest in subs. Thought the XO would enjoy passing along some of the stories from a first-hand viewpoint.”
“Maybe Seaview could borrow him for a cruise or two. I’d do my best to give him back in one piece,” Lee promised.
Mains chuckled again. “I think, perhaps, I’ll wait a day or two before I propose that to him.”
Lee nodded. “If he’s anything like my XO, probably a wise idea,” he agreed.
“So,” Mains changed the subject, “what’s it going to take to keep you from tearing my little home away from home,” he waved a hand, indicating Lechner, “limb from limb,” reminding Lee of his little indiscretion that afternoon.
Lee answered him openly. “Seaview answering her hail.” Mains sent him a nod, and he continued. “For right now I need to go clear my camera – with everything going on, once I sent the pictures to ONI I think I failed to delete them from the memory card.” At a look from Mains he continued. “SOP, unless I have different orders.” Mains nodded. “No real problem this time, but still…” He shrugged.
“You like all that cloak and dagger stuff?” Lee didn’t immediately answer. “None of my business,” Mains tried to brush off the question.
Lee smiled softly. “Not why I hesitated,” he told him. “It’s just…a little hard to answer.”
“Admiral Nelson doesn’t keep you busy enough?”
Lee choked on the mouthful of coffee he’d just taken, and sent Mains a sheepish grin as he got himself back under control. “If I’d had any idea whatsoever of the amount of paperwork involved in running Seaview, I’m not sure I’d have been so eager to accept command,” he told Mains. “Oh, it’s not so much Seaview herself,” he continued, “although that’s bad enough.”
“Tell me about it,” Mains grumbled, but still smiled softly.
Lee returned it. “But more and more I’m involved in aspects of NIMR as well. Reading proposals, evaluating them for cruise parameters, sometimes making recommendations for how best they should be handled, what extra crew, if any, we need to carry to handle different circumstances. I don’t have the luxury of just running the sub – I have to be able to see the whole picture.”
“That’s why you pick up more of the scientific end.”
Lee nodded. “Oh, I don’t have to understand it all. Thankfully!” He sighed heavily, causing Mains to grin more broadly. “But I have to understand enough of the larger puzzle to make sure Seaview and her crew handles their part of it.”
Lee didn’t realize how silent he’d gotten, or what his expression had turned into, until Mains cleared his throat and said softly, “We all have the occasional mission go bad.”
Lee sent him a self-conscious look. “That, too,” he admitted. “But I was thinking more of the times that I’ve had to lock horns with the Admiral when we’ve disagreed about what – and what not – Seaview can be safely expected to accomplish.” Mains physically shuddered. “Yeah,” Lee agreed.
“You’re still there.” Mains sent him a reassuring look.
Lee smiled. “I really, really, love Seaview. And NIMR. And working for Admiral Nelson.”
“So, why ONI?” Mains got back to his original question.
Again Lee hesitated, and this time Mains didn’t interfere. “I was recruited fairly soon after I graduated Annapolis,” Lee started. Mains just nodded. “Discovered that I was good at it. I think I liked to be able to get more instant gratification that something I did actually made a difference.” He looked up from the depths of the coffee mug he’d been talking into to see if Mains understood.
Mains nodded. “Sometimes, down here, we’re never too sure,” he told Lee.
It was Lee’s turn to nod. “And on Seaview, some of the things we do, setting out sensors and such, the results from the data collected aren’t really useful for months, or even years. While the ONI missions sometimes get screwed up, or don’t turn out the way you want them to, there’s still a feeling of…” He wasn’t sure how to explain.
“Accomplishment, doing what you’re trained to do, helping right a wrong?” Mains offered. Lee looked at him and nodded. “I think I understand.”
A bit of a gleeful grin hit Lee’s face. “Suppose you could explain that to my XO? He gives me hell every time I leave the boat.”
“Sorry,” Mains told him. “Heard stories about Morton. Think I’ll leave him to you, thank you all the same.”
Lee chuckled openly. “Chip’s terrific. The best friend a guy could have, a great submariner, a perfect XO. I trust him totally. It’s why I’m able to so easily run errands for ONI – I never have to worry about Seaview.” Lee sent Mains a sheepish grin. “And I make very sure that I never say that where Chip can hear me.” Both men chuckled. “It’s just,” Lee continued, “he’s seen the results of ONI intel being all too often less than…” He paused. “He just sees more of the down side.”
Mains nodded. “I think I understand,” he repeated. “Admiral Nelson – well, he was still Capt. Nelson then – got pulled from Nautilus a couple times while we served together.” It was his turn to pause. “It’s hard, being the one left behind to wait.” Lee nodded. “And you and Morton have known each other a long time, if I remember correctly.”
“Roommates at Annapolis,” Lee confirmed. A soft smile hit Lee’s face as memories quickly flitted through his brain of only-child Lee suddenly being surrounded by the gregarious Morton clan, and Chip instantly electing himself Lee’s big brother. Mains raised an eyebrow. But Lee didn’t elaborate on the grin and merely polished off his coffee. “Better go deal with those pictures before I forget again,” he said instead.
Mains shot him a look. “Perhaps tomorrow we can find a project or two for you down in Engineering. Make you feel more at home.” That had been the section Lee was assigned to when he’d first met Mains aboard Nautilus. “Give you something to concentrate on if Seaview is still playing hide and seek.”
Lee grinned, albeit somewhat shyly. “Sounds like a plan, sir. I’d like to be helpful while I’m here, if I could.”
“Uhuh,” Mains muttered as he, too, drained the last of his coffee. They exited out the Wardroom door and each headed in a different direction.
Lee returned to the XO’s cabin, tracked down his gear bag, and sat down with the camera. But instead of simply deleting the pictures he’d taken, he sat for a few minutes going through them until he came to the one that most closely showed the strange piece of equipment that had puzzled him. It was sort of pyramid-shaped, with an exterior metal framework only slightly larger than the interior solid part. Between his own training, and seminars sponsored by ONI, he was well versed in the different ways the world’s diverse societies had of blowing each other to kingdom come. This mechanism didn’t match any of his reference points. And yet, it was somehow familiar looking.
Staring at it didn’t immediately help so he went through the rest of the pictures one more time before deleting all but the puzzling one. He glanced at it again but still got nowhere with identifying what it was reminding him of. Frustration starting to build, he put the camera away and headed out to… He was out the door before he stopped and realized that doing a ‘walkaboat’ here wasn’t nearly as acceptable a practice as it was for him on board Seaview. He gave himself a quick mental kick in the six and wandered down to the Conn.
He was quick enough to catch the slightly bemused look on Capt. Mains’ face as he came through the aft hatch before Mains got it under control and replaced it with a more benign one. He wasn’t nearly as successful at controlling his own sheepish grin as he walked up to the chart table. “Sorry,” he mumbled quietly. “Just can’t seem to relax.”
“Gee, I never would have noticed,” was said so quietly by XO Fannin, bent over the table working on the next portion of navigation, that Lee barely heard the quip. Mains heard it as well, obviously, as his shoulders briefly shook with silent laughter. Lee’s expression went that much more sheepish and he lowered his eyes, looking at the pair almost through his lashes.
Once more under control, Mains said lightly, “Perhaps the XO would like a little reprieve, and let you plot his next series of navigational maneuvers.”
Fannin looked up. “You mean, an extra half hour to work on re-supply orders, Fit-Reps, drill schedules, maintenance checks…” He stopped as Mains was totally unable to control his laughter.
Even Lee grinned broadly. “XO complaints,” he told Mains, “are obviously universal.”
“How would you know?” Fannin grumbled. “Your tour as XO was what, five months?” But any harshness in the words was mitigated by the grin on his face.
“Eight, actually,” Lee admitted. “But part of that I was off-boat for a couple TAD assignments.”
Mains raised an eyebrow. “ONI?” he asked softly, and Lee nodded.
“Ugh,” Fannin told them both. Lee nodded again. Fannin handed over his pencil. “Obviously you need all the XO experience you can get.” He sent Mains a raised eyebrow. “Maybe I can take the next couple of days off?” he asked. “I could really use the sleep.” All three men chuckled at that, and Lee noticed quick smiles on other faces scattered around the Conn as well.
“Are you implying that you have so much to do, XO, that you don’t get your proper rest?” Mains asked sternly. But Lee could easily read the sparkle in the man’s eyes, now that he knew what he was looking for. “Perhaps I need to request a transfer for you – someplace with a little less stress. Like, say, Greenland.” At Fannin’s instant shudder, Mains chuckled again and told Lee, “Mr. Fannin is from Arizona.”
“I like visiting the station in Greenland,” Lee told the two, in as serious a tone as he could muster. “Makes a nice change from Santa Barbara.” Fannin crossed his arms over his chest and sent both men dirty looks, at which point both Lee and Mains snickered.
“Yep,” Lee told Mains. “I definitely missed the class at XO school that taught that look. Chip…Mr. Morton… is an absolute master at it.”
“And you haven’t picked it up from him?” Mains asked seriously.
Lee shook his head. “There’s something about the learning curve that makes it difficult to manage when it’s being so frequently directed at you.” At that point even Fannin chuckled.
“Lt. Deal,” Fannin addressed the man who had a few minutes previously walked into the Conn.
“Sir,” was answered instantly.
“You have the Conn.”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
“Commander Crane,” Mains now addressed the lieutenant, “has permission to plot the next sections for you,” thus giving Lee official permission to stay in the Conn. “See that he doesn’t run us into anything – he’s used to front windows.” Even Lee was forced to grin at that reference to Seaview’s most unique feature.
The next couple of hours went by quickly for Lee. While navigation charts were second nature for him, and plotting the most direct, yet safest, course for the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia was relatively easy, it still gave his thoughts something to focus on besides his frustration and anxiety. He also went back over Lechner’s course since picking him up. He mentally made notes to pass on about a couple of changes that he would have made, realized that they were based on Seaview’s greater crush depth, and judiciously decided to keep his mouth shut!
It was the grin that thought put on Lee’s face that Mains caught a glimpse of when he wandered back through the Conn about 2200 hours, and he sent Lee a raised eyebrow. “Care to share?” he asked dryly.
“Not really,” Lee admitted.
Mains’ eyes once again sparkled but he said nothing further, just spent a couple minutes looking at Lee’s navigation notes. Lee knew exactly when he came to the point where Lee had made a very slight detour from what would have been a straight course, and was prepared when Mains again pointed an eyebrow at him.
“That chart is a touch out of date, sir,” Lee explained. “I routed you around an unstable underground vent. The last time Seaview went through there we were right on top of it when it let loose.” His grin broadened. “Some of our younger crewmen were heard comparing the ride to a roller coaster.”
“Lieutenant?” Mains looked at the duty officer.
“Spotted Cdr. Crane plotting it, Skipper, and already made a note about it,” Lt. Deal told Mains. Lechner’s Skipper just shook his head and sent Lee a grin. He also casually glanced at the sub’s chronometer.
Lee took the slightly unsubtle hint. “Aye, sir,” he acquiesced. “I wouldn’t want to disturb XO Fannin by coming in too late and waking him up.” Mains grinned, and led the way towards Officers’ Country.
* * * *
Lee suffered through a very bad night. Too many questions and not enough answers kept him from sleeping, but away from home ‘turf’ – his beloved Seaview – he was unable to do much to alleviate his frustrations. Apparently XO Fannin was feeling cold because he’d turned the heat up in the cabin. Lee couldn’t find a comfortable way to lie. He thought about suggesting that, since heat rises, he switch bunks with the XO for the night, but was forced by courtesy to be as still as possible so as not to risk disturbing the man.
By 0500 Lee couldn’t stand it any longer. The night’s enforced inactivity caused the wounds on his back to complain, and Lee was unable to smother the moan of momentary pain that escaped. He never did discover if he actually made it out of the cabin without waking the XO, or if Fannin simply chose to ignore him.
Setting a new record for showering, shaving, and dressing, Lee headed for the Conn. The radioman gave him a negative shake of the head, and Lee had to take serious control of himself to keep from doing something decidedly embarrassing – like punching out the radio! Instead, he took a couple of deep breaths, stalked over to check the boat’s position on the current chart, and headed for the Wardroom – Lechner’s cook didn’t keep a coffee carafe close by like Seaview’s did. The first mug full went down in about four swallows, and he was halfway through the second when Capt. Mains walked in.
Apparently Lee didn’t have his expression under as much control as he thought he did. “Should I call Petty Officer Lucas to check your hand, or Chief Davis to check the bulkheads between here and the Conn?” Mains asked, his face benign but the hint of laughter in his voice.
Lee sighed heavily. “Neither, sir.” He glanced at Mains. “But it was close.”
Mains smiled and went to pour his own mug full of the morning eye-opener. “Good. Have a project lined up to keep you out of trouble for a few hours. Lt. Samuels has decided that this would be a good time to service the back-up generator; do a complete strip down and re-build. Be a little difficult for you to manage with a broken hand.”
Lee gave Mains an impish grin. “Not that bad. Mostly punch with my left hand. Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve worked mostly with my right.”
Mains shook his head, but also grinned broadly. “Should I warn Samuels to stay out of your way?”
Lee once more drained his mug before answering. “Today, sir, that might be a plan,” he admitted.
“You okay?” Mains pointed an eyebrow at Lee, seeming to take a critical appraisal for the first time. Lee stopped his reach to refill his coffee mug and raised an eyebrow. “You look worse this morning than you did when you got here,” Mains explained the question.
Lee turned to finish pouring more coffee before answering. “Had better nights,” he admitted, tossing the comment lightly over his shoulder. Mains was still watching him closely when he turned back. “No biggy,” Lee told him. A grin hit Lee’s face as he worked to defuse Mains’ sudden scrutiny. “Did you give the Admiral – well, Capt. Nelson back then – that look on board Nautilus?” Lee was referring to something that had happened about three months after Lee came aboard. *
If he’d wanted to sidetrack the man he was sadly disappointed. Mains’ look stayed firm as he answered dryly. “He outranked me.”
Lee tried again. “Guess I’ll go find Lt. Samuels and get started on that generator.”
“No hurry,” Mains refused to be deflected. “Samuels won’t wander in for breakfast for another 45 minutes or so. You can tackle him then about his plans.”
Lee surrendered. “Yes, sir.” He sighed heavily.
“In the meantime why don’t you let Lucas take a look at you?”
“I’m fine,” Lee said instantly, and a little louder than he meant to. It caused Mains’ grin to return.
“Don’t think Admiral Nelson would appreciate my not making sure that we took optimum care of you.” It was said in Mains’ dry, serious tone. Lee caught the sparkle that was present in the captain’s eyes, but still knew that Mains wasn’t going to let him off the hook.
“Aye, sir.” His grin came back. “But like I said the other day, he’d never hold it against you.”
Mains finally grinned again. “Know you’re too much like him, does he?” Whatever Lee would have answered was interrupted by the aforementioned corpsman poking his head through the Wardroom door. “Ah, Lucas,” Mains greeted him warmly. “We were just talking about you.”
“Something good, I hope, Skipper,” Lucas said, taking a step inside the room.
Mains sent Lee a bit of a sardonic look. “Kind of depends on your point of view,” he answered the corpsman, but kept his gaze on Lee. The corpsman looked uncertainly between the two officers, until Lee gave him a bit of a sheepish grin.
“Capt. Mains was just reminding me of the importance of letting crewmen do their jobs,” Lee said quietly. It caused Mains to snort.
“Kinda think, from the looks of you, Commander, I’m the guilty party.” He looked at Mains. “Sorry, Skipper. Sorta got sidetracked yesterday and didn’t keep proper track of my patient.”
“You have to watch us senior officers like a hawk.” Mains tried to control the humor both on his face and in his voice. The fact that he failed miserably had Lee chuckling as well.
Lucas hesitated a moment, but with the two senior officers present obviously amused decided a smile wouldn’t get him in trouble, even if he didn’t totally understand what was going on. “Commander?” He send Lee a look.
“Feel okay,” Lee told him automatically. “From recent comments I gather that I don’t look okay.”
“A little flushed, sir,” the corpsman confirmed. Lee didn’t say anything, but acknowledged to himself that that would explain his thinking the XO’s cabin was hot. “Better let me take a look at you,” Lucas continued. Lee shot Mains a quick look, but nodded and followed the corpsman out the door.
Lee didn’t realize how badly he’d tensed up, once he’d settled on the small exam table and pulled up his shirt, until Lucas’ soft chuckle caught his attention. He sent the man a quick grin and forced himself to relax.
The corpsman’s touch was gentle as he examined the entry and exit wounds. “Seems you’ve picked up a bit of infection, Commander. Sorry. Thought everything looked pretty clean, and the meds I gave you would handle any stray little bugs you might have picked up from exposure to the sea water.”
Lee sent a sheepish look over his shoulder. “Must have misplaced the pills,” he mumbled.
“Ah,” Lucas told him in his easy drawl. “Gotta be an officer trait – misplacing meds. Both XO Fannin and Lt. Deal have the same problem.”
“Guess we just have more to concentrate on,” Lee went along with him.
“Not a problem. I can sure understand how you’d have other things on your mind, sir. Since it’s quiet I’ll just help you remember.” Lee sent him a grin as the corpsman’s quiet way of speaking once again helped Lee relax. “Doesn’t look too bad, sir,” he continued. “A little red. Surprised that you didn’t notice it getting more painful.” Lee decided silence was the best option to that one, and again Lucas chuckled. “Yep,” he drawled. “Definitely an officer thing.” Even Lee was forced to chuckle.
It took the corpsman only a few minutes to exchange the small bandage Lee had been wearing for a slightly larger, medicated one, and quiz Lee to determine what kinds of antibiotics Lee had been given in the past. As Lee stood up and tucked his shirttails back in, Lucas handed him a couple pills. Lee frowned, but at another chuckle quickly downed them and headed out.
Lee still didn’t particularly want breakfast. On the other hand he was grateful for Capt. Mains trying to find something to help keep Lee’s mind off of all the unanswered questions this mission had so far created. He was a bit chagrinned that, once again, his dismissive attitude toward his own health issues had caused a little problem. But he just gave an internal shrug of the shoulders and promptly forgot about it.
Walking back into the Wardroom he found Capt. Mains halfway through his meal, in companionable conversation with a j.o. who Lee recognized as Lt. Samuels. As Lee started to walk over to them, Mains coughed loudly into his hand. Lee stopped, ducked his head, and took his usual small portions of the available breakfast selections before joining the other two.
“Some things obviously never change,” Mains said softly into his coffee mug. He didn’t look at Lee, but Lee grinned anyway. Samuels just looked confused, and Mains changed the subject. “Chief Davis laid a pair of dungarees on your bunk, Commander,” he told Lee. “Said they were pretty well used…”
Lee nodded. “Good thinking, sir. From my experience servicing equipment, they’re likely to get a tad greasy.”
“May I ask, Commander,” Samuels said carefully, “when the last time was that you worked on a generator?” Mains had to cough heavily into his hand, turning away from both of the others.
Lee winked at the lieutenant, now totally confused, and told Mains in a serious voice. “Perhaps you should see the corpsman about that cough, sir.”
Mains couldn’t bury the snort that elicited. “Strictly a temporary condition, Commander.”
“Yes, sir,” Lee deadpanned, and turned back to Samuels. “Actually, Lieutenant, I tend to be a very hands on CO. Literally.” He sent both men a bit of a sheepish grin. “Have my hands in the machinery on a fairly regular basis.”
“Don’t worry, Lieutenant,” Mains got out, grinning broadly. “I have every confidence that Commander Crane won’t muck up your generator or I wouldn’t have suggested he work on it.”
“Sorry, sir,” Samuels immediately backpedaled. “Didn’t really think so. Just…” His voice trailed off.
Mains sent Lee a grin. “The Lieutenant is a tad gun-shy, I’m afraid.”
“Let me guess,” Lee sent a grin right back. “An officer afraid to get his hands dirty?”
Samuels frowned and muttered something too low for Lee to hear. Mains nonetheless translated. “Kept a nail file in his pocket to make sure his manicure was always perfect.”
Lee shook his head. “His name wasn’t Bishop by any chance?” As Mains started to answer, Lee shook his head and raised a hand. “Let’s just say, been there.” He got answering nods from both men, before it was his turn to change the subject. “Sort of expecting a call from Admiral Stark’s office,” he told Mains.
“Don’t worry,” Mains told him with half a grin. “We’ll make sure you take the call, not one of us.” Lee grinned, and turned his attention to his breakfast.
* * * *
“You find something amusing about a piece of essential equipment laying around in 49 pieces, Mr. Crane?” Capt. Mains had just walked quietly up to Lee, sitting in the middle of a tarp in a quiet corner of Engineering, bits of stripped down generator spread around him. Lee had been grinning broadly – he thought only to himself.
“Sorry, sir,” Lee told Mains, and sent him a toned down version of the grin. “But yes, sir. Or rather, what this just reminded me of.” Mains pointed an eyebrow at him, inviting an explanation. “I’ve been bugged by a piece of equipment I saw in the…” He hesitated. “Well, where I was sent in to take pictures,” he finished. Mains nodded. While he knew the basics of what Lee had been sent in to do, those kinds of things weren’t openly discussed. “I just now realized what it was reminding me of.” Mains squatted down just off the edge of the tarp. “Seaview was at home for a couple weeks. I was going over a few things with Admiral Nelson while he worked in one of the electronics labs, puttering with a piece of equipment. He’d had this idea for something he called a vortex generator.” Mains rolled his eyes, and Lee’s grin increased. “If it helps, I didn’t totally understand what he was doing, either.” Mains grinned back. “It was apparently something he hoped would turn into a power source for some of the monitoring sensors we leave on the ocean floor. We’d had an encounter with a nasty bit of mechanics called a Magnus Beam, and the Admiral was trying to adapt some of the technology into something useful instead of destructive.”
“He always did like to putter with things,” Mains offered.
Lee grinned. “I can’t complain, sir, since a lot of that early puttering led to Seaview being built.” Mains nodded. “And now, his inventions still bring a lot to both Seaview and NIMR. Only this time…” Lee chuckled broadly.
“Didn’t quite go as planned?” Mains guessed.
Lee laughed. “To put it mildly, no. Nelson started putting things together, the machine made a weird noise, and every building at NIMR within 200 yards of the lab instantly went black.” He grinned at Mains. “Of course, we didn’t find that out until later. Just knew that suddenly we were in the dark. We thought that a fuse had blown or something. Until the complaints started coming in from all over the complex.” Lee laughed again. “The Admiral couldn’t get the thing dismantled fast enough.”
Even Mains chuckled. “Oops.”
Lee got himself back under control. “Actually, it was a little spooky; a little too close to the original bit of nasty machinery to be all that funny at the time.” His grin came back. “But, it had its moments.” He looked at the pieces of the generator spread out around him. “Seeing all this brought back the look on the Admiral’s face once we got everything straightened out. He was so sure that he’d figured the thing out and worked around the bad functions, keeping the mechanism internalized instead of letting the power it produced circulate outward. It took him awhile to live that one down – especially when it got out about a few of the things around NIMR that his little miscalculation interrupted.” He shrugged. “Still don’t know what it was that I saw, but at least that’s one question answered.”
“The only one at the moment, I’m afraid,” Mains told him with a sigh in his voice. It was Lee’s turn to point an eyebrow, inviting an explanation. “You just had a call from Admiral Stark’s office.” Lee started to rise, but Mains stopped him with an upraised hand. “The message was short, from Lt. Cdr. Jackson.”
“Joe Jackson,” Lee supplied. “Admiral Stark’s aide, and an old friend of mine. He’s who I talked to last evening.”
Mains nodded. “That’s what I thought. Anyway, when I told him that it would take a few minutes for you to get to the radio, he said to just give you a message. Said that Stark hasn’t been able to find anyone at ComSubLant who admits to having sent the flash message, or even just forwarding it.” Lee’s expression, he knew, turned hard. “Stark hasn’t given up,” Mains hurried on to explain. “In fact, with the Chief of Naval Operations now involved…” He hesitated.
“He was already at ComSubPac for meetings,” Lee supplied.
Mains nodded. “Jackson was directed to tell you…” He hesitated again, and continued with a slight grin. “You two being friends explains his comment. He said, and I quote, tell Lee that stones are being overturned at new world record speeds, unquote.” Lee grinned – sort of – and Mains nodded. “Lechner has also been directed to continue with all due speed toward where Seaview was last known to be, and from there to proceed as we see fit to track her down.”
“I don’t envy anybody who gets in the way of a combined CNO-Stark investigation.” Lee cringed. “Admiral Stark is bad enough all by himself.”
Mains nodded seriously, before a bit of sparkle hit his eyes. “You do know how to put this all back together, I hope.” He waved his hand at the scattered parts. “I would hate to have to apologize to Lt. Samuels, after assuring him that you’d not mess up his department.”
Lee grinned. “I’d never put you in that kind of spot, sir,” he assured Mains. “Just a bit more to strip down and clean, then I’ll be ready to reassemble it.”
Mains grinned back. “I’ll leave you to it. ETA Seaview’s last known position is still four hours, so no reason to push yourself.” Lee sent him a puzzled look. “I’ve just read Petty Officer Lucas’ report.”
“I’m fine,” Lee said instantly, and then gave Mains one of his somewhat shy, through-the-lashes looks. Mains sent him a momentary harsh glare, but it almost instantly softened somewhat. Mains stood up, and Lee saw a bit of sparkle return to his eyes before he turned and left. Lee just shook his head and refocused on the project in front of him.
Lee took a bit of personal satisfaction, although he kept it buried behind a perfectly correct expression when, two hours later, he fired up the generator and checked its output with a voltmeter, all under the respectful but still watchful eyes of Lt. Samuels. Lee gave him a simple nod and helped put everything back where it belonged before cleaning up and heading for the Conn.
He didn’t make it on the first try. He’d just left XO Fannin’s cabin after changing when a voice hailed him. “You’re a hard man to track down, Commander,” came in Petty Officer Lucas’ soft drawl.
“Obviously not hard enough,” Lee muttered quietly.
The corpsman cocked his head sideways, indicating that he hadn’t heard the comment and inviting Lee to repeat it. When Lee didn’t accept the invitation, Lucas continued. “The Conn said you were in Engineering, they said you’d left already, and looks like I just caught you here.” He was smiling and Lee couldn’t help but return it, in response to the man’s quiet good humor. “Not a problem,” Lucas continued. “Just didn’t want you to forget your meds.” Lee knew that he frowned when Lucas added, with a broad grin, “A little of Cookie’s coffee and you’ll never even taste them.”
Lee finally chuckled. “I gather that’s also a reminder that it’s lunchtime,” he said amiably.
Lucas’ grin spread. “Now that you mention it, sir.”
Lee reached out a hand and took the small packet Lucas handed him, then turned and headed for the boat’s Wardroom. It took Lee a few steps before he realized that he was being followed. He stopped, turned, and pointed one of his better command glares at the corpsman.
Lucas stopped as well, and looked a little concerned. “Sorry, sir. Wasn’t following you. Well,” he shrugged, “headed in the same direction.” Lee gave himself a shake, grinned, and continued his pied piper roll to the Wardroom.
If Lee had any ideas about ditching the meds he was outmaneuvered – Capt. Mains was just dishing up his own lunch when Lee came through the door. Lucas didn’t enter the room but Lee watched as the two exchanged a nod, and surrendered fairly gracefully. He knew he made a face as he quickly swallowed the pills when Capt. Mains had to bury a snicker.
“Yep,” Mains told Lee when he once more had himself under control. “Two peas in a pod – you and Nelson.”
“Well,” Lee admitted, “in a few things, anyway.” Mains grinned.
Lee sat quietly listening to Mains, Fannin, and Lt. Deal discuss what the boat could expect to encounter during the next couple of hours it would take Lechner to pass thru the Bering Strait and what lay north of there, where they assumed Seaview had gone. No one asked Lee’s opinion, nor did he butt in. They had a good handle on the area and he couldn’t have added much.
He had no real idea of how little food he was actually putting in his mouth until Fannin and Deal got up to leave, and Mains pointed a particularly upraised eyebrow at him. “I’m rather fond of my current cook, Commander. I’d just as soon you didn’t turn him into a neurotic mess with your decidedly lackluster response to one of his better efforts.”
Lee frowned, but also looked down at his plate of shepherd’s pie and realized that he’d been doing little more than pushing bits of it around. Controlling his expression as best he could, he fell back on the line he’d used earlier. “Antibiotics sometimes upset my stomach,” he half-mumbled. It never would have worked on Seaview. But here, where his habits weren’t so easily recognized…. He sent Mains a quick glance, and added the hint of a sheepish smile for effect.
It didn’t have the effect he was hoping for. Mains continued to level a steady gaze at Lee for so long that Lee got the distinct feeling he was seeing right through the subterfuge. “I suppose that could explain why you look worse now than you did this morning.” Mains’ expression never changed, making Lee’s sheepish grin more real.
“I do tend to drive our CMO a little crazy,” he offered.
“Harrumph,” was Mains’ reply. Lee had to carefully hide the very real grin that sound almost caused, as close as it was to Nelson’s version. And used, Lee was sure, for precisely the same reason – Mains didn’t believe a word Lee was saying! Lee figured that the only reason Mains didn’t call him on it was, Lee had just been seen by the corpsman. He gave Mains as innocent a look as he could manufacture, although he had a feeling that Mains could still read the smile behind the expression when all he said was, “Well, come along to the Conn when you’re done eating. I’d like you to be a bit more specific, if you can, about where Admiral Nelson was going to put those sensors, and which you think he’d have headed for first.”
“I’m done now, sir.” Lee knew that it came out far too rapidly when Mains gave him the look that held humor in his eyes but didn’t reach the rest of his face. He did turn and send a look that Lee was unable to see to the cook, who had come in moments before. But both officers were quiet as they made their way forward.
Lee headed immediately to the chart table, where XO Fannin already had the chart laid out, and Lee went to work trying to match coordinates with what he was remembering of the chart Admiral Nelson had marked for him before they started the cruise. He glanced up, expecting to find Mains at his shoulder, but Lechner’s skipper was in conversation with someone who was standing just outside the hatch, out of Lee’s view. When he did finally join Lee they were almost immediately interrupted, as a call came in for Lee from Admiral Stark.
The temperamental admiral didn’t waste any time. “Your radioman is full of s…buffalo chips,” Stark blustered. “There was no flash message sent to Seaview.”
Lee took a deep breath before answering. “Sir, with all due respect, I’d trust my life to Parquer, and Admiral Nelson would as well, I know. If he said he forwarded a message, that’s exactly what he did.”
Stark all but shouted an expletive through the phone. Lee sent Mains, who had followed Lee across the Conn to the radio, a wry grin when it was obvious Lechner’s skipper heard the word without benefit of a headset. “Nothing was sent from either ComSubLant or ComSubPac.” Stark had his voice under a bit more control. But not much.
“Then it was someone who had ComSubLant’s codes, sir.” Lee tried to remain calm. The only person who Lee had ever seen get away with yelling back at Stark was Admiral Nelson.
The same word was shouted even louder before there were some softer sounds, and a new voice took over that end of the conversation. Lee visibly straightened up, causing Mains to point a curious eyebrow at him, but all Lee said was a very correct, “Yes, sir,” as he recognized the CNO’s voice.
“We haven’t given up on that possibility, Commander Crane.”
“Yes, sir,” Lee carefully said again, and could see Mains’ eyes start to sparkle.
“Steps are being taken at this end. In the meantime, I’d like to speak to Capt. Mains.”
“Yes, sir,” and Lee slipped off the headset. He had the pleasure of seeing Mains straighten noticeably when Lee mouthed “CNO” as he handed over the headset, but tried not to smile.
That conversation wasn’t much longer than Lee’s had been, and also interspersed with a couple of “Yes, sirs,” and an “Understood, sir,” from Mains. When it was over Mains motioned for Lee to follow him and returned to the chart table, where XO Fannin could be included in the low conversation. “We have been directed,” Mains said quietly, “to proceed with our search for Seaview. We are to accept no directive to do otherwise unless it comes from either Admiral Stark or the CNO directly.” He sent Lee a quick look of… Lee wasn’t quite sure what, but both men nodded. “The Montpelier,” he glanced again at Lee, and Lee nodded that he recognized the name of one of the newer Los Angeles class fast attack subs, “has been directed this way from northwest of Greenland. It will take her just under two days to get here, so until then we’re on our own.”
“Understood,” Fannin nodded. Lee didn’t say anything, but suspected that he wasn’t hiding his building anger and frustration well when Mains once more indicated that he wanted Lee to follow him. They didn’t go far, just a few steps outside the Conn, but it was at least a little more private than the sub’s command center.
“What would Admiral Nelson’s reaction have been,” Mains asked, “to a message directing him somewhere other than his intended course?” Lee just raised an eyebrow. “What I mean is,” Mains continued, “would he have accepted it at face value or would he have questioned it?”
“Depends, sir. If it had all the proper codes, which apparently it did, he would have no reason to think it wasn’t genuine.” Lee took a deep breath. “On the other hand, since it apparently came from ComSubLant, which is a little unusual for us unless we’re on assignment for the Navy in their jurisdiction, he might have at least wondered about it.” He shrugged. “But apparently, whatever it was, he didn’t, because no one has heard from them since.”
Mains nodded. “So if it was something like, oh, say, ‘You’re in the area anyway, check on this’…” He looked at Lee, and Lee nodded. “He wouldn’t have thought much about it?”
“No, sir,” Lee agreed. “Did the CNO…?”
“No,” Mains cut him off. “He’s just as confused as we are. At least…” Mains got thoughtful. “That was the impression I got. But his already having directed Montpelier to join us…” He and Lee both nodded. “I think that this might not be a good time to get careless,” Mains continued.
“No, sir,” Lee agreed with feeling, and they both returned to the Conn.
At Seaview’s last known coordinates Lechner was brought down to two-thirds speed. Sonar and hydrophones were brought to full capacity, on the lookout for anything unusual. But all seemed normal so they made their way cautiously and carefully through the rest of the Bering Strait.
As they neared the northern end of the Strait and prepared to enter the Chukchi Sea, Mains again questioned Lee about Nelson’s intended path. Lee pointed to the chart, to a place almost directly north. “The continental shelf extends out from Russia for anywhere from 300 to 1000 miles, and we think is fairly frequently patrolled by their subs. Nelson saw no real need to work in that area and risk starting any kind of international incident by being caught in their waters – out of their territorial range or not.” Mains nodded. “He was more interested in placing sensors directly north, along these ridges just southwest of the Chukchi Plain, and over here, along the Chukchi Plateau, before working east along the Northwind Escarpment. Once you leave the continental shelf these are the shallowest areas, where we can leave sensors that can still be fairly easily retrieved later.”
“So you’re saying that, if the flash message had pointed Seaview toward the Russian side of the sea, Nelson would probably have questioned it?” Mains asked.
Lee nodded. “I think so. It’s possible that he could have been directed to Wrangel Island for some reason. There’s a research station there that we work with from time to time. But it would be a bit strange for ComSubLant to direct him there – enough so that he probably would have questioned why it didn’t come through Stark’s office.”
“So, you’re best guess?” Mains prodded gently.
Lee tapped the chart. “The area just southeast of where Seaview was headed is covered with ridges and canyons, but still not all that deep. It’s far enough out from the Siberian mainland that there would be little risk of running into a stray patrol. Lots of places to hide, if you were so inclined.”
Mains studied the chart for a few minutes. “Montpelier will in all likelihood stay close to the continental shelf until she hits Prince Patrick Island, at the west end of the Queen Elizabeth Islands north of Canada. If we advise her to head straight across the Canada Basin from there, she’d end up at the Northwind Escarpment and can join the search from that end.”
“Sounds like the best plan to me, sir,” Lee agreed. Mains headed to the radio as Lee went back to studying the chart.
Over the years there had been any number of attempts – both covert and overt – to either capture or destroy Seaview. While most of the world saw her as nothing more than an oversized moveable marine research laboratory, those in strategic positions knew better. And not all of those strategic positions were in friendly countries. Lee wasn’t overly sure what the unfriendlies thought they were going to do with Seaview if they ever captured her – she was too distinctive to hide for long. They might make use of her technology and firepower once before she was surrounded and blasted out of the ocean. Lee shuddered. Once would be all it would take, depending on the target, he admitted. Personally, he’d always expected for her to be stashed away somewhere, and her technological advances cannibalized over time and used elsewhere. Without realizing it, Lee clenched both fists. That won’t ever happen, if I have anything to say about it, he growled silently.
He hadn’t heard Mains walk back up to him, so jumped slightly when a hand fell on his shoulder. He sent Mains a soft grin that went even more sheepish as Mains nodded to Lee’s still-clenched fists. “While, as I said earlier, this isn’t the time to get careless, it’s also not the time to let anger and frustration overrule common sense,” Mains advised.
“No, sir,” Lee agreed, and forced himself to relax. “But when I get my hands on whoever is responsible for this…” He didn’t finish the threat.
Mains nodded. “But for right now, why don’t you go get some rest.” It was said with genuine caring.
“No,” Lee growled. The “sir” he added almost two seconds later came out a little softer. But not much. Fannin rolled his eyes. Lee didn’t see it, but knew the XO had done something as Mains sent an almost smile over Lee’s head. “I’m fine,” Lee added, a bit more under control.
“You’ll forgive me if I trust my corpsman a little more in this instance than I do you,” Mains told Lee sternly. Lee nodded, but he kept his attention on the chart he’d gone back to studying. He did look up when Mains let out a low, exasperated, growl.
“Sir,” Lee straightened, and looked Mains in the eye, “what if that was Lechner out there, somewhere?”
Mains didn’t miss a beat. “I’d hope that there was someone around to keep me focused on what’s important – making sure that I kept myself healthy enough and under control until there was something I could actually do about it.”
Lee was forced to smile, however minimally. “Easier said than done, sir.”
“Understood,” Mains admitted. But his gaze stayed firm. When Lee still made no move to leave the Conn, Mains’ frown deepened. “Are you this big a pain on Seaview?”
Lee’s grin broadened slightly. “Worse,” he admitted.
Fannin’s muttered, “I have got to meet his XO,” had even Mains grinning. It was SOP for an Exec in the Navy to be responsible for dealing with as much of the mundane, day-to-day duties as he could, ‘protecting’ his CO from getting bogged down, and helping keep him ready for the action of the day.
Lee made even Fannin grin when he muttered, “Chip cheats. He sic’s the Admiral on me.”
“We’re doomed,” Mains told his XO. “No way we can compete with that kind of firepower.”
Lee tried to change the subject. “If I was setting up an ambush, sir, I think that I’d concentrate on one of these two canyons.” He pointed to a specific spot on the chart he’d been studying, in the general area he’d already mentioned to Mains.
“Why?” It wasn’t a challenge – merely a request for further information.
“They are the only two that are close enough to where Seaview was headed that it wouldn’t trigger an immediate question from Nelson if he was asked to check something out.” Lee got thoughtful. “Or someone mentioning that another sub had run across a puzzle, and asking Nelson to check it out.”
“Nelson and his puzzles,” Mains muttered, not unkindly, making Lee nod. “Who knew Seaview’s destination?”
Lee shrugged. “We didn’t exactly keep it a secret,” he admitted. Mains nodded again. “And while these two canyons are deep enough to easily accommodate Seaview under the ice, they don’t go all the way through to the Chukchi Plain without the probability of having to break ice to do it.”
“Seaview not much of an icebreaker?”
Lee shuddered, remembering a few necessary instances. “Only when she has to.”
Mains didn’t ask him to explain. “So it’s possible she could be trapped.”
“It would take something in front of her that she couldn’t get past, and a reason that they didn’t think she could get through the surface ice,” Lee told him. “But she’d be pretty well hidden from anybody trying to find her.”
“What could stop her?”
Lee could only shake his head. “That’s the part that has me stumped,” he admitted. “That area isn’t deep enough to keep divers from going out, or FS1 for that matter.”
“Mechanical difficulties of some sort?” XO Fannin asked.
Lee shrugged. “At this point, anything is possible. Seaview isn’t indestructible.” Lee sighed and looked at Mains. “Even though Admiral Nelson likes to think she is on occasion.”
Mains leveled a look at Lee that made him a little uncomfortable. “Seems to be a lot of that around Nelson – the assumption of invulnerability.”
Lee couldn’t stop the small grin that hit his face, and watched as Mains’ expression softened ever so slightly as well. “A Nelson thing for sure,” he responded.
“Something else that no one will probably be able to do anything about.” Mains’ voice held a sigh.
“Doubt it,” Lee agreed. Mains just shook his head.
* * * *
The next couple of hours were quiet. Tense, for sure, as everyone in the Conn concentrated on their duties. Mains quit trying to get Lee to leave and go rest. He did continue to keep close tabs, however. For his part, Lee tried to stay as calm as he could and not pace. Mostly, he spent his time between sonar and hydrophone, those being his only ‘eyes’ into the waters ahead of the sub. He also closely followed Lechner’s progress on the navigation chart as she made her way in the general direction of the two canyons Lee had pointed out to Mains.
As they got near the mouth of the one furthest away from Nelson’s intended direction – Mains having suggested that they check that one first and then work their way back – the hydrophone operator hailed Mains. “Skipper, I’m getting…something… Not sure what. Never heard anything like it before.”
“Your best guess, Bailey,” Mains requested.
“Sorry, sir. No idea. It’s just a weird sound.”
Lee, who was at that point watching over the sonarman’s shoulder, sent Mains a quick grin. “May, I, sir?” He indicated the extra headset at the hydrophone station. “I’ve had some experience with the term ‘weird’ as it pertains to hydrophones.” ***
Mains waved a hand. “Another story I’d like to hear?” He grinned at his little pun. Lee’s grin spread as he slipped on the extra headset.
But almost immediately he stopped dead and stiffened. “HARD ASTERN. LEFT FULL RUDDER!!!!!” he yelled in his best command voice.
Nothing happened. Instantly Lee realized that Mains was glaring at him for the obvious order, given when Lee had no authority to do so. Lee knew his expression was one imploring Mains to comply. But with no more than a two second delay Mains seemed to give himself an internal shake and repeated the order firmly, although the glare never left his face. The order was instantly relayed by the XO and the helmsmen immediately complied.
For a split second Lechner didn’t want to respond. Lee literally held his breath until he felt her finally stop, and then start backwards. Sluggishly at first, as if she was having problems, but finally with a bit more authority. As the noise from the headset slowly got further away, Lee closed his eyes and finally took a couple of deep breaths. When he re-opened them it was to find Mains standing next to him, the glare still firmly in place. “Now that that little maneuver is accomplished, would you care to explain yourself, Commander?” he demanded.
Lee took another deep breath, still trying to recover from the instant shock that he’d received from the noise he’d heard. “Remember that piece of equipment I was telling you about this morning, sir?” Mains nodded, his expression starting to turn a little less harsh. Lee pointed to the hydrophone. “That’s the sound it made just before everything went black.” He handed Mains the headset, although by now the noise was only a whisper.
“Sir,” the sonarman, Inman, spoke up, “at almost the same time Bailey mentioned the sound, sonar went a little haywire. It was almost like a black hole was swallowing it up. Once we started to back up it cleared. But it’s like there’s something out there eating the transmission.”
“There is,” Lee said softly, to no one in particular, before he looked again at Mains.
“What is it?” Mains’ voice was still demanding, but starting to settle down.
“Nelson’s machine, for want of a better explanation,” Lee told him. “You asked what could stop Seaview. That!” and he waved a hand outside. “It eats energy.” He turned and started to leave the Conn.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Mains was back to the demanding command tone in his voice.
Lee turned and straightened, sending Mains his own version of a command stare. “Out to disable it. Seaview’s on the other side.”
“You don’t know that.” His expression was filled with concern and worry. “If that thing has had Seaview trapped without power for as long as she’s been out of touch…” He didn’t finish the thought.
Lee understood what Mains was trying to say – and why he couldn’t get that horrible thought out. “After our encounter with the original weapon Admiral Nelson designed and installed several backup measures. She’s there. I can feel her. It’s not likely that the crew has been very comfortable. But life support could be maintained for a fairly long time.” He got an angry look. “It can’t be maintained indefinitely, however, and we can’t do a thing to help until that…machine,” Lee made it into a dirty word, “is deactivated.”
“Why can’t we just blast it out of existence?”
“For the same reason you just said, sir. We don’t know what’s directly on the other side of it.”
“You’re in no shape to be diving. Let one of the SEALs do it.”
Lee had already discovered that two of the divers Lechner carried had completed the Navy’s Special Forces training. It hadn’t surprised him. While they usually served in separate team units, it wasn’t unusual for subs and other Navy vessels to carry one or two aboard – just in case. But he was already shaking his head. “They have no idea how to deal with that thing.” Again he waved a hand. He could see Mains building up to more orders, and looked him straight in the eye. “With all due respect, sir, you don’t want to try and stop me.” He said it quietly but firmly. Out of the corner of his eye he saw crewmen cringe. XO Fannin flatly stared at him for the challenge.
Surprisingly, Mains’ expression actually softened ever so slightly. “So it would seem.” He also spoke quietly and under control. “What do you need?”
Lee’s brain had already been processing that. “A dry suit with heavy-duty earplugs, a spear gun, and a small underwater explosive charge, shaped to control the direction of its explosion.”
Mains reached for the nearest mic. “Chief Davis.” As soon as he got the almost instant response, he continued. “Commander Crane is on his way to the escape hatch with a shopping list. See that it’s filled.” His hard look returned just for a moment, pointed directly at Lee. “And get two divers prepped to go out with him.” Lee decided to quit while he was ahead, nodded, and headed aft.
Chief Davis hadn’t wasted any time, Lee noted, as he hit the area around the escape hatch. Two men, who Lee recognized as the two divers who had assisted Lee when he was first picked up, were already in the process of getting into the more complicated dry scuba suits. A third suit, complete with all its insulating underclothes, was laid out, and Davis started helping Lee change once he sent a seaman to collect the rest of the equipment Lee required.
As Lee stripped down and started putting on the thermal layers that were worn inside the suit a soft, “I don’t advise this, Skipper. It really isn’t a good idea for him to be diving,” filtered into everything else that was running through Lee’s mind. He glanced around to find Petty Officer Lucas watching, standing next to Capt. Mains. Barely acknowledging their presence, Lee concentrated on getting all of the layers of clothing smoothed out so that they wouldn’t bind once he was into the outer suit.
“I know, Lucas,” Mains answered, also quietly but still loud enough that Lee knew he was meant to hear it. “But sometimes, even when you know better, you just have to step back and let people figure out all on their own what a stupid jackass they’re being.”
Lee ducked his head, acknowledging that he’d heard. He noticed the other two divers turn away, obviously hiding grins. “It will give you something to take about, Petty Officer,” he said, with his back still turned as Chief Davis carefully zipped up the back of the dry suit, “when you meet Seaview’s corpsmen.”
The seaman sent for the other supplies had just entered with two packs designed to attach to the divers’ weight belts when the intercom went off. “Skipper,” came in XO Fannin’s voice, “we’ve got company, and they don’t seem like they’re here to help.”
A hard look hit Mains’ face. He and Lee exchanged a nod before he sent the Conn an acknowledgement and headed forward. Lee checked the pack, finding the materials necessary for the shaped explosive charge he’d asked for. Rather than an ordinary underwater explosive, he needed to be able to direct the power to only affect the device, not everything around it. The second pack was handed to one of the other divers, and he and Lee exchanged a nod before all three quickly finished getting into the diving suits, grabbed the spear guns Chief Davis handed them, and slipped out the escape hatch.
Lee instantly missed the greater communication capabilities of the diving equipment Seaview carried. The divers were no sooner clear of the sub when they felt her turn over their heads. She barely moved from her current position, but it was obvious to all that she was facing her possible attacker. Lee used universal hand signals with the other two, including a couple he’d picked up from other dives he’d taken with SEALs – they tended to have a few rather specialized internal commands. It wasn’t easy ignoring what could possibly be happening over their heads, but all three divers headed toward where Lee’s compass told him he’d find the device.
The waters were murky, as they frequently were in the Arctic. Lee decided that that was probably a good thing as it kept him from being distracted by anything except what was immediately around him and his intended target. Because Lechner had been backed off to what they felt was a safe distance, the three knew that they had a fairly substantial swim ahead of them, although there wasn’t a really good way to judge just how far.
Even with the heavy-duty earplugs, all three divers began having problems after swimming an estimated 200 yards from the noise that the device was emitting. Luckily it wasn’t affecting the breathing units. Lee hadn’t expected it to – even the original nasty piece of machinery hadn’t done that. But that only spurred Lee’s anxiety. Admiral Nelson had been able to bypass the Magnus Beam and open Seaview’s escape hatch long enough for divers to get out and help destroy the weapon. If Lee was right, whatever this new adaptation did it was keeping both Seaview and her crew trapped.
A sharp pain momentarily slowed Lee, and he sent Lucas a mental thumb’s up for his accurate diagnosis of Lee’s abilities. He also promptly put it out of his mind. He did, however, adjust his battle plan. Lee signaled that he wanted the other two to wait where they were; that he’d go ahead and try to disable the devise. They were to give him a certain amount of time. If the device was still active it would mean that Lee had failed, and they were to make a second attempt.
The other two weren’t having any of it. SEALs by nature lent new meaning to the terms ‘dedicated’ and ‘determined’, but Lee also suspected Capt. Mains’ fine hand in this. He made his displeasure very known, to no avail, and eventually surrendered and led the way forward.
* * * *
The air was static with tension as Mains entered Lechner’s Conn. Fannin didn’t waste any time getting him current. “Sub coming in hard and fast. Doesn’t answer hails. Not squawking ident. I ordered Sonar on high to help cover that there are divers out. She slowed down at that and came to a stop, standing 500 yards to port.”
Mains nodded. “Divers away. Put us facing her and open the torpedo doors.” As Fannin issued the orders, Mains turned to Sonar. “Are her doors open?” he asked.
“Sir, we’re pinging so loud,” Inman answered honestly, “I’m not sure I could tell you if our doors are open.” Mains sent him a nod. “But I think she started to.”
Mains grabbed a mic. “Lt. Franks,” he called the Weapons Officer and got an instant response. “Load tube one with a quarter charge, tube two with a full one, and once I’ve ordered them fired I want your best turnaround times, full loads all around.”
“You’ve got ‘em, Skipper.” If Mains hadn’t been so focused on the current situation he would have smiled at the edge of excitement in the lieutenant’s voice. These men trained their whole careers to be prepared for something like this. At the same time most hoped that it was only training – that they weren’t placed in a life or death situation. But when it came, wanted or not, they were prepared for whatever they were called on to do, and thrilled to show off just how good they were.
Mains double-clicked the mic. “Slaton,” he told his radioman, “plug me into a transmission line.”
“You’re on, Skipper,” came almost immediately.
“Unidentified sub,” Mains started in his best Command voice, “this is SSN Lechner. Be advised that we’re having problems with some experimental torpedoes. They have become unstable and we’ve been directed to this area to discharge them. You are only 100 yards behind the area we’ve been directed to use, as it presents the least damage to the environment. One of the problems we’ve been experiencing is with the targeting systems. For your own safety we advise you vacate our vicinity immediately.” He cut the transmission and pointed a look at Slaton.
“They heard you, Skipper. I’d bet my dolphins on it.” Mains nodded, turned to XO Fannin, and asked the other sub’s depth, keel to ocean floor.
A little quick figuring and Fannin answered. “Call it 75 feet, sir.”
Mains nodded, checked the chart, and gave Lt. Franks a set of coordinates for the number one tube. As Fannin translated, an absolutely unholy grin hit his face. “I gather you don’t have a problem with those coordinates, XO,” Mains asked, straight-faced.
Fannin’s grin spread. “No, sir. None whatsoever.” Mains nodded and told Franks to fire.
The results were spectacular. The torpedo, instead of hitting the ocean floor in front of the aggressive sub, had been targeted directly under her nose. Mains immediately got back on the radio. “Sorry about that,” he said, insincere apology in his voice. “Told you we were having targeting issues.” Again he broke the connection, and turned toward Sonar.
“She’s not backing off, sir,” Inman told him.
“Her skipper is either very brave, or very stupid,” Mains said philosophically, and clicked the mic. “Lt. Franks, target tube two the same position and fire when ready.” He disconnected and looked at Fannin. “Let’s see how he likes that ride.”
“The divers?” Fannin had lost his grin.
“They should be fine. It was one of the reasons Crane asked for the heavy-duty earplugs, because of his own explosive. They’ll feel some of the turbulence. But the torpedo’s power will be directed outward, and the plugs should handle any underwater concussion that gets that far.”
Lechner had rocked slightly during Mains’ explanation as the second torpedo was fired. Just as it exploded, Inman spoke up from Sonar. “Skipper, another sub coming in behind the first.”
“Now that’s just mean,” Mains told no one in particular.
“Skipper,” Slaton called from the radio shack, “incoming call. ComSubPac indicated, but the codes are garbled. I think our friends out there are trying to jam it.”
“CNO or Stark?”
“Neither, sir. An Admiral Reynolds.”
Mains and Fannin exchanged a look, both aware that the timing of the call had to be related to the present condition. They were also both aware that they’d been ordered to accept no such transmission from anyone other than those two sources. “Tell him I’m a little busy at the moment and I’ll get back to him as soon as I can.” Slaton shuddered and Mains took pity on him. “When he yells at you for that one,” he told the radioman, “ask him how big an international incident he’s prepared to handle.”
“Aye, sir,” Slaton responded, a little hesitantly.
“And the instant you disconnect,” Mains continued, “try to get through to Admiral Stark and give him as much info on this guy Reynolds’ call as you can.”
“Aye, aye, sir.” Slaton’s response was decidedly more confident.
* * * *
Lee continued to ignore the growing burning in his back. As the device finally came into sight he admitted that he was in trouble. But the soft percussion, coming from the direction Lechner had faced after the divers were out, allowed him to focus more directly on his mission. He knew he’d pay for that later, but right now he could think of nothing but destroying the machine he was blaming for Seaview’s silence. Praying that Mains was wrong, and he wasn’t already too late, he forced himself forward.
The other two divers followed Lee’s lead, and hugged the bottom as they approached the machine. It was pyramid-shaped, about four feet across at the base and six feet tall at its upper point – about twice the size of the one Admiral Nelson had built, but still much smaller than the original machine. Lee reached for the bag at his belt and started to take out the components for the explosive device. He didn’t realize that his hands were shaking until one of the other men reached forward to help him. Nodding his thanks he concentrated on putting the device together. All three men were bothered by the sound being put out by the machine, sort of an underlying whine. But the strong earplugs were a great help, keeping the sound from penetrating beyond their brains’ abilities to control the disorientation that it could have otherwise caused.
What did distract them, at least momentarily, was a much stronger explosion from the same direction as the first. There was a moment’s hesitation before Lee and one diver finished getting the charge put together. The third diver swam all the way around the unit. Lee wished that he’d remembered to bring a camera; Admiral Nelson would probably give him hell for that oversight. Lee allowed himself an internal shrug. He’d take whatever Nelson had to offer, just so long as his boss was still alive to be able to deliver it. Then almost instantly he remembered – there was still the picture in his camera that he hadn’t deleted. The mechanism it showed was almost identical to this one, except minus a few components. Whew – off the hook, he told himself. Now, just how the blazes did it end up there? He shelved that puzzle for the time being and got back to work.
Once the explosive device was assembled, the third diver pointed to where he’d determined would be the most advantageous place to put it. Lee hesitated only a moment, evaluating this unit with the other two he’d seen. Agreeing with the man’s assessment, it didn’t take them long to place it.
That’s where the three once more hit a snag. The two SEALs wanted to head toward what looked like a substantial outcropping of rocks to await the blast. Unfortunately, it was pretty much in the opposite direction Lee wanted to head – toward where he expected to find Seaview. While silent, conducted completely with hand signals, the ‘discussion’ was heated. But outvoted, Lee was forced to surrender. As one diver set the timer on the charge, Lee was gently herded toward the outcropping by the other.
* * * *
Mains pondered his options. There weren’t many. His obligations were to his orders – find Seaview. It was becoming all too likely that he’d done just that. Now he had to sit tight, protecting his divers and keep his fingers crossed that they could destroy whatever had disabled Nelson’s sub. And, pray that Nelson and company were okay. Lechner couldn’t render aid – at least until he’d gotten rid of his two ‘friends’ out there. He was also praying that, since he’d shown a willingness to stand and fight, the others would think long and hard before pushing the issue. But he wasn’t holding his breath. Especially after that strange call reported to be from ComSubPac, but which he had a strong suspicion wasn’t.
The standoff lasted several minutes, until a soft thud from Lechner’s starboard side – the direction the divers had headed – was announced by Bailey at the hydrophone. XO Fannin’s soft “Yes” was followed almost immediately by Inman at sonar practically yelling that torpedoes were incoming. Mains ordered decoys launched and ballast blown to raise Lechner but keep her positioned right where she was, between the two hostile subs and his divers. He also issued orders to target the enemy subs. They’d both started moving the instant the one had fired. Even with Lechner’s wire-guided torpedoes, keeping two enemy subs at bay was going to get tricky. But Mains had faith in his boat and her crew. If anyone could pull this off, he was sure they could. At least, we’re going to give it our best shot. He cringed inwardly at that horrible pun, and started issuing commands so fast that his crew had to scramble to keep up.
But keep up they did. The incoming torpedoes had been caught by the decoys, but their concussion was close enough to rock Lechner rather substantially. Nonetheless, Lechner fired again. This time, now that hostilities had been formalized, with intended deadly accuracy. The enemies had decoys of their own and the first volley was intercepted. The second sub had used the time to try and sneak around Lechner’s port side and fire. Again Lechner deployed decoys and fired her torpedoes, guided by their wires, at the second sub.
Once more Lechner’s torpedoes were intercepted, and again the second sub fired. Only this time, the first sub fired again as well. Mains was just opening his mouth to order Lechner to move from her position, to better defend herself, when Sonar announced even more incoming. An oath slipped out before Inman could finish the statement by saying that the new ones were coming from starboard and headed straight for the first sub. Mains immediately took evasive action and concentrated on the second sub.
The battle was short-lived. Unexpectedly attacked from a new direction, the first sub turned tail and tried to run. A heavy concussion and strong turbulence told Lechner’s crew that she didn’t get far. When the second sub also turned away, Mains let her go. Instantly there was an incoming call. Slaton was smiling when he sent it to Mains’ mic. Mains figured that he knew who it was from but still answered at least semi-formally. “This is SSN Lechner. Thanks for the help.”
The answer came in Admiral Harriman Nelson’s resonant tones. “Somehow I think you have that a little backwards, Cory. But you’re welcome, just the same. How in blazes did you find us?”
“That’s sort of a long story, Admiral. But we can both thank that stubborn, bull-headed captain of yours. That is, if he’s still in one piece. He and two of my divers should be somewhere in the vicinity of ‘whatever-that-was’ that had you cornered.”
There was a few moments’ silence before Nelson answered. “Sonar has three small targets headed our way. We’ll pick them up and meet you topside.”
“Roger that, Admiral. But could we make it a little further south? Crane says Seaview isn’t much of an icebreaker, and I don’t want to risk scratching Lechner’s paint.”
A deep chuckle answered him. Mains could hear other voices in the background, but not clearly enough to pick out individual words. “Sounds like a plan, although apparently a couple of crewmen were looking forward to trying to spot polar bears.”
Mains grinned, more from the expression XO Fannin sent him than Nelson’s comment. “See you in a bit, sir,” he answered, “and sorry to disappoint your men.”
“Not a problem,” Nelson assured him easily. “We still have half a dozen sensors to put out. I rather suspect they’ll get their chance.”
* * * *
Lee started to lean forward but was stopped by a growl from his left. He sent his XO a glare. “I’m just getting another cookie,” he muttered. Both men’s voices were kept low, but Lee looked around to find amused expressions being directed at him from several of the other men sitting close by.
Seaview’s observation nose, referred to frequently as ‘Nelson’s front porch,’ was a little crowded. Lechner was tied up at her side and the two crews were enjoying visitation privileges, after Lechner’s crew helped Seaview’s get back to a degree of normalcy. At the moment, settled around the table watching a rather spectacular sunset were Mains, Fannin, Lt. Deal, Lt. Franks, and Chief Davis. They were being hosted by Nelson, Chip, Lee, Lt. James, Chief Sharkey, and Dr. Will Jamison. Lee had watched Petty Officer Lucas being warmly welcomed by Seaview’s two corpsmen and smiled, albeit with a bit of apprehension, as the three headed for Seaview’s Sick Bay. He was just happy that he was no longer incarcerated there. Although, it had been a hard-fought battle.
Lee’s return to his beloved Seaview hadn’t gone exactly as he’d planned. He and the two Lechner divers had stayed hunkered down behind the rock outcropping until all the explosions quit. Once they’d poked their noses out they’d found themselves not all that far from the giant submarine. Lee was so relieved to find her in one piece and functioning that for a moment he couldn’t move. With closed eyes he uttered a silent ‘thank you’ prayer before heading forward. As they got close three divers were coming out to meet them. After a brief ‘conversation’ one of the SEALs led Seaview’s men down to what was left of the device while the other went with Lee inside. Lee didn’t think anything about it at the time. But he hadn’t even gotten out a response to Sharkey’s “welcome home” the instant the hatch door was opened when Lechner’s diver announced loudly that Lee needed to be seen by Seaview’s doctor. Lee had immediately tried to squelch the idea. A loud clearing of Admiral Nelson’s throat as he and Chip entered the Missile Room had Lee frowning. “Admiral…” he tried anyway, but was immediately overruled.
“Later, Lee. As soon as the other divers are in with what’s left of whatever had us trapped…”
“A take-off of your take-off of the Magnus Beam,” he tried to get Nelson distracted. It didn’t work. Nelson just sent him half a grin and continued – in a slightly louder and firmer voice.
“Both Lechner and Seaview will head a bit south until we can surface safely. We’re okay for now. We’ll all get caught up once things are a little more settled.”
“Aye, sir,” Lee muttered grudgingly, causing both Nelson and Chip to grin.
“Come, on, grumpy,” Chip told him amiably. “What did you do to yourself this time?”
“Nothing,” Lee muttered. “I’m fine.”
“Tell that to someone who believes you.” Chip was still calm. Lee sent him a glare, but it morphed fairly quickly into an almost smile.
Chip wasn’t nearly as amiable by the time he’d gotten Lee to Sick Bay and helped him out of the dry suit. Lee’s pace had slowed perceptively before they were halfway there, and it had nothing to do with Lee’s dislike for that particular part of his boat. He tried to convince both Chip, and Jamie once they’d made it that far, that he was just tired. As usual, neither man believed a word he said and he found himself face down on the exam table. Surrendering to the inevitable, he answered Jamie’s questions almost honestly.
Fireworks erupted, however, when Jamie tried to park him for the foreseeable future in one of Sick Bay’s bunks. Not even Admiral Nelson showing up could keep Lee from stating, rather emphatically, that he was going to the Control Room until he had all of his questions answered. While it was obvious to all that Nelson was having difficulties keeping a straight face, a compromise was reached that allowed Lee to go to the nose as long as he’d stay there and not be trying to run all over the boat. Chip promised to have the Master-At-Arms escort Lee back to Sick Bay if Lee didn’t comply. It earned him an absolutely nasty glare from Lee but chuckles from both Nelson and Jamie, and Lee finally agreed. He hadn’t been there ten minutes before Cookie showed up with coffee.
Now, almost three hours later, everyone was starting to get caught up with everything that had been going on. One of the first things Lee had learned was that, however the machine managed it, it basically put a dampening field on any manufactured energy it encountered within its boundaries. The back-up systems Nelson had put into place after the Magnus Beam incident had, for the most part, also been affected, and it was only because one of the air revitalizers could be run by hand-crank that Seaview’s crew had survived. There were a lot of very tired crewmen but they’d never given up hope, and had maintained watches to make sure no one boarded Seaview, as well as kept checking power supplies in case things came back on. That’s how they’d been able to respond so fast once the machine was destroyed.
But other than that, activity had been kept to a minimum. Any food in the freezer and refrigerator that could be eaten without cooking was consumed, and everything that spoiled had been tossed in the freezer and the door shut tight. Cookie was already muttering about all the hours it would take to clean it out and make it fit to use again. He was also working with Lechner’s cook to put together the first decent meal Seaview’s crew had had in too many days. Where he’d found time to whip up a batch of cookies, Lee had no idea. But he was taking as much advantage of the treats as he could.
“I still don’t quite know how Seaview got trapped in the first place,” Lee tried to get the conversation back on track. “You’ve alluded to some things, but now that we’re all together…” He raised an eyebrow.
Nelson sighed heavily before sending him an indulgent, albeit tired, smile. He totally understood Lee’s frustrations. What with getting Seaview back in acceptable running order, a couple dozen calls back and forth with ComSubPac, and keeping an eye out for any more unfriendlies, no one had had much time to give Lee more than the basics. Will had been unrelenting in his demands that Lee stay where he was – especially after conversations with both Lechner’s corpsman and the two SEALs. With able assistance from Chip, co-coordinating everything from Seaview’s Conn, Lee hadn’t stood a chance. He’d gotten bits and pieces only. But now that Lechner’s officers had come aboard it was time to get everyone caught up. It would also help put together the After Action Report to have all the pieces laid out in reasonably chronological order. Before he could begin, there was a second request.
“As much as it pains me to agree with Crane, Admiral,” Capt. Mains said with a glance at Lee and a grin at Nelson, “I, too, would really like to know what we ended up in the middle of.”
Nelson laughed outright – mostly from the expression Chip sent first to Mains, and then leveled at Lee. Seavew’s ever-correct XO never, but never, did anything to undermine Command structure aboard the sub. But the long friendship between Lee and him did lead to some interesting moments. Nelson also suspected that he needed to have a private conversation with his old XO, Cory Mains. He had the distinct impression that the last few days aboard Lechner had probably been ‘interesting’ as well.
“Sir?” Lee prodded once more, and Nelson finally got himself under control.
“You know about the flash message we received right after you left the boat.” It was a statement but both Lee and Mains nodded. “From someone in ComSubLant I’d never heard of,” Nelson grumbled.
“Our ‘friend’ Admiral Reynolds?” Mains asked.
Nelson nodded, and emptied his coffee cup. He reached for the carafe for a refill, at the same time pushing the cookie plate closer to Lee. Lee ducked his head but still reached out for a couple more. Nelson buried a grin. “I should have questioned it,” he continued.
“Jase said that it had all the proper codes,” Lee reminded him.
Nelson nodded and turned to Mains. “And thanks to your quick thinking, we now know how it got through.”
“Mostly my radioman’s doing, Admiral. I didn’t realize he was quite that…inventive…when it came to backtracking signals.”
“I did,” was muttered very quietly by XO Fannin, but still heard by everyone at the table.
Mains pointed an eyebrow at him. “Care to enlighten us, XO?”
“Not particularly, sir.”
Chip, sitting next to Fannin, nudged him with an elbow. “I’ll give you the ten cent tour of Seaview later.” It caused smiles all around the table.
“Well, anyway, thanks to ONI we now know that this ‘Admiral Reynolds’ was some file clerk in Washington, and a plant for the People’s Republic. The CNO is not happy that he was able to lay his hands on a code book.” There were several shivers around the table, as well as a couple of “ouches.” Nelson nodded. “But at least it explains why he only had the codes for ComSubLant and not ComSubPac. The message he sent said that, as Seaview was already headed in the right direction, would we check out a suspicious sonar reading at the head of the canyon you found us in. It had supposedly been reported by a Russian sub. But they were having mechanical issues at the time and hadn’t been able to safely investigate.” Nelson’s fist hit the table.
“Sir?” Lee tried to deflect the tantrum triggered, he was pretty sure, from Nelson feeling like he should have been more careful. Out of the corner of his eye he caught a brief flash of a smile cross Chip’s face, and almost smiled himself. It was so automatic anymore for Lee to step in and try to smooth over Nelson’s occasional moments of uncontrolled emotion.
Nelson, too, seemed to recognize what that single word signified. He relaxed and sent Lee a small smile. “I know, Lee,” he said, his voice once more under control. “40-40 hindsight being such a good teacher…”
“Do you suppose, sir,” Chip asked, “that that’s the reason he waited until Lee was off-boat to send the message?” He realized the instant the thought was out of his mouth how it sounded, and tried to back pedal. “I mean…” he started to stammer.
Nelson cut him off. “I know exactly what you mean, Chip.” It was said without acrimony. In fact, Nelson’s voice held a hint of humor. “While it is a fact that Lee and I together might have questioned the message, that’s not what was behind it. That last call from Admiral Stark cleared up part of the timetable.” He sent his XO a hint of a grin. “Seems his handlers had just discovered who the ONI agent was who had been sent in to photograph the weapons stockpile. They suspected that Lee would recognize the device they’d concocted from my stolen designs.” He raised a hand to stop Lee’s instant question. “Yes, Lee, we also know how that happened. After I almost brought NIMR to a standstill that day…” He shared a grin with Lee. “I took the plans to DC and ran them past Admiral Holcomb at Weapons R&D.”
Lee nodded. Nelson had worked with Holcomb and his technicians over the years on various weapon designs for the Navy. “The bad guys had a plant there, too?” he asked.
“So it would seem,” Nelson growled. “They couldn’t stop your mission, but sent someone to try and stop you reporting back. Whoever it was was also a bit handicapped because they were trying to keep their own cover from being blown. Seems it wasn’t entirely the one country’s idea to cause trouble, just a militant faction backed by the People’s Republic. This little gambit is causing housecleaning to be done in all sorts of places.”
Lee raised his coffee cup in a toast. “Here’s to clean houses,” he said with feeling. Several “here here’s” were uttered around the table. “So?” Lee prodded Nelson back to the story.
“So…” Nelson took a swallow of coffee. “They already had the plan in progress, but apparently the threat that you would recognize the weapon caused them to implement it a little ahead of schedule in case their plan to stop you failed.”
“Which it almost didn’t,” Chip did a little growling of his own, but into his coffee mug. Lee sent him a frown but said to Nelson, “So, it was them that told ONI that I’d been killed?”
Nelson nodded. “They weren’t sure if they’d gotten you, and didn’t know about the call that Jiggs had placed to Admiral Jones saying that you were safe on Lechner. Robert… Admiral Jones,” he identified for Lecher’s crew, “started getting suspicious when he was relayed two opposing messages – his operative saying the reports listed you as dead, and the one from Jiggs saying you were fine. Once you relayed the pictures he started to quietly backtrack the other message.”
“Good ol’ Admiral Jones,” Chip snarled into his mug. While everyone around the table knew that Chip had said something, from Lee’s instantly reaching out a hand and smacking Chip’s shoulder, Lee was pretty sure that he was the only one who had actually heard the words. Thankfully. Nelson raised an eyebrow, but Lee just shook his head.
“Just putting down the usual rebellion associated with ONI, sir,” he told Nelson with a slight smile.
“If it will help, Chip,” Nelson told his XO seriously, “Robert is feeling pretty bad about how far this plot got without being detected.” Chip sent him a nod, but the expression on his face was still slightly threatening.
“The message, sir?” Lee again tried to get back to the whole story.
Nelson nodded but once more emptied his mug and refilled it before continuing. Lee suppressed a shudder at what kind of mood Nelson must have been in the last few days. Seaview’s problems aside, a caffeine-deprived Admiral was not a pretty sight.
“We were directed, as I said, up the canyon. There wasn’t anything suspicious until it was too late. We went up to the head, couldn’t find any kind of problem, and were on our way out when all of a sudden everything quit working.”
“They must have hidden in one of the other canyons, waited until you were past before divers set up the unit, and activated it once you were within range,” Lee offered.
“No doubt,” Nelson agreed. “We didn’t even have any idea of what was causing it. None of the instruments were working.” Lee nodded. “I had my suspicions when even the hand-cranked escape hatches were frozen.”
“How did you get the hand-cranked air revitalizer to work?”
Nelson sent him a sheepish look. “I didn’t,” he said quietly. “Riley did.”
“Excuse me?” Lee had reason to respect the young seaman’s talents on several fronts, but out-thinking the Admiral wasn’t one of them.
“All of the external exit wheels work hydraulic cylinders, and all the valves were frozen solid. The hand crank on the air revitalizer works the unit directly and the unit, for some reason I still don’t quite understand, functioned. Thankfully. But the valves were frozen there as well. Riley suggested removing all of the valves.”
“But…” Lee started, totally amazed at the work that would involve if nothing else.
“Exactly,” Nelson seemed to read his mind. “We dismantled them to only the most critical areas, but it still meant that the crank had to be operated constantly, and at a considerable rate of speed to keep air flowing. You have some very tired crewman, Commander.”
“As long as you’re all still alive,” Lee told him with feeling, and got answering nods from all around the table.
“We assumed that whoever had trapped us was waiting to be sure that we were all unconscious or dead before they turned off the weapon. They tried once, yesterday morning. The power came on ever so briefly, and someone tried coming in the forward escape hatch. When they found themselves confronted by a very much alive and angry crew they quickly retreated. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to do anything before the weapon was turned back on. He turned toward Mains. “We are very, very grateful that you came when you did.”
“As I said earlier, Admiral, thank your captain.” He sent Lee a glance. “He is nothing if not persistent.” There was a not totally buried snort from Chip, and Lee sent him a glare.
Nelson’s chuckle had Lee focusing on his own coffee mug. “Around here it tends to be called a few other words,” he told Mains.
Lechner’s captain sent him an easy grin. “I suspect that I could come up with a few of them.” He sent Lee a quick grin, and got an answering one in reply – even if it did take an extra second or two before it appeared. “And we appreciate the speed with which you acted.” He returned his gaze to Nelson. “Things were getting a little too ‘interesting’ out there for my taste,” he admitted.
Nelson nodded. “While we were already keeping critical areas monitored, after yesterday we were even more on alert. We felt the concussion from the explosions, and when the power came back on we immediately tried to get the heck out of there. Finding an unidentified sub in our way sort of let the crew release some pent up frustration.” He shrugged. “Not that I was in any mood at that point to stop them.” He sent a look at Chip that had the blond trying to bury himself in his coffee mug.
Lee grinned at Mains. “Hell hath no fury like my XO on short rations,” he got in a bit of revenge that had the rest of the table chuckling. “So where does that leave things?” he asked Nelson, to get back on track.
“Still being sorted out,” Nelson told him. “It’s going to take some time to make sure that all of the planted agents are corralled.” His voice turned nasty. “We may never know how much intel was corrupted.” He gave himself a shake to get back under control. “But we can be pretty sure that it will be awhile before anything like this is tried again. Their plans revealed, one sub lost and their spy network in tatters, should slow them down considerably.” He got answering nods from around the table, as well as a few undecipherable mutters. “Cory has been directed by ComSubPac to escort us home just in case we discover any problems we don’t realize at the moment we have, from all the exposure to that infernal machine.” His voice had turned hard again and he struggled briefly to get back under control. “Montpelier is still on course for here, and will continue to patrol the area for awhile.” He sent Lee a small grin. “As soon as we know Seaview is 100% we’ll come back. We still have sensors to place.”
Lee sighed heavily. “Understood, sir,” he acknowledged.
Nelson grinned at him. “But for the next few days we can relax a bit. Cory has graciously offered to loan us extra crew so that ours can get some much needed rest.” Lee didn’t quite get a snicker buried as he glanced quickly between Mains and Fannin, and Mains grinned broadly. Nelson raised an eyebrow. “Would one of you care to fill me in?” He leveled a glare at the two men.
“No, sir,” came back in stereo, before Lee and Mains again grinned broadly.
“Harrumph,” Nelson growled, but it was obvious to those who knew him that he was having trouble maintaining the frown. Lee spared another glance toward Fannin and discovered that Mains was doing the same. Lechner’s XO was suddenly looking decidedly uncomfortable.
Chip had also apparently been watching the interplay. “Mr. Fannin, about ready for that tour? I think there’s enough senior staff around that we won’t be missed for a bit.” He glanced around the table.
With nods from both Nelson and Mains, the two XOs made their exit. Lt. James rose as well. “By your leave, Skipper. Ah, Skippers,” he amended. “I’ll show Lts. Deal and Franks around the Conn.” As he received nods of approval, those three headed for the Control Room. Chiefs Davis and Sharkey wandered off as well leaving Mains, Nelson, Will, and Lee. When Lee also started to rise, Will loudly cleared his throat.
Lee glared at him. “I’m checking my boat, Doctor,” he all but snarled. Unfortunately he also flinched as he stood up.
Will didn’t back down. “The only thing that you’re going to check, Commander, is the inside of your eyelids.” As Lee opened his mouth, Will returned the glare two-fold. “Do not even start!” While Will’s voice remained low, the words were said slowly and succinctly. “I’m far too tired to argue with you. You have two choices for bunks – Sick Bay or your cabin. And whichever you choose, the MAA is going to be stationed right outside the door.”
“Chief Hauck has no doubt had less sleep than you have,” Lee challenged him.
Will didn’t hesitate an instant. “Then behave yourself and don’t make him stay up any longer than he has to.”
The argument was interrupted by a snort – not from Nelson but from Capt. Mains. He turned toward Nelson. “It’s actually kind of reassuring, knowing that he acts pretty much the same way here as he did aboard Lechner. A little more…cooperative for us, perhaps, since he wasn’t on his own turf.”
Nelson was barely maintaining a straight face. “A handful, was he?”
“Had its moments,” Mains replied with a sigh in his voice.
It finally undid Lee. “My cabin.” He kept the growl in his voice, but it softened ever so lightly as he added, “And don’t bother Chief Hauck.”
As Will started to open his mouth, Nelson finally stepped in. “Will,” he warned, “I strongly advise you to quit while you’re ahead.” A triumphant look hit Lee’s face before Nelson wiped it off with his next comment. “And you,” he pointed a finger at Lee, “I could swear that I just heard you agree to crash quietly.”
Lee dropped his eyes. “Yes, sir.” He still sent Will a quick glare before heading up the spiral stairs.
Will waited until Lee was out of sight. “Now I know things are back to normal,” he told Nelson philosophically. The Admiral laughed at him, and Will headed aft.
Once they were alone in the Observation Nose, Nelson caught Mains giving him an odd look over the top of his coffee mug. As soon as he realized that Nelson had seen it, it disappeared. But Nelson was fairly sure what had caused it. “You’re thinking, Cory,” he said, humor still in his voice, “that we’re all a little silly? A reaction to having just cheated death, perhaps?”
Mains choked on the swallow of coffee he’d taken to cover the uncontrolled look he’d sent his former skipper. He’d been away from Nelson long enough to have forgotten just how easily the man seemed to read minds. Once he was back under control, he nodded. “Actually, yes, sir,” he admitted.
Nelson grinned. “Partly, I suppose,” he said a bit bashfully. “For the most part, however…” Nelson sent Mains an open smile.
Mains couldn’t help himself. He glanced toward the now empty part of the table where Lee and Chip had been sitting. Nelson laughed outright. To try and get himself off the hook he’d landed on, Mains cleared his throat. “Crane turned into every bit the officer and leader that you said he would, sir, when he first came aboard Nautilus.”
Nelson snorted. “And you’d just as soon I take him off your hands,” he teased his old XO.
Mains finally smiled. “Yes, sir,” he could easily admit.
Nelson chuckled again. “Cory, he has become one of the finest men it has ever been my pleasure to know. He is also bull-headed, overly dedicated – to everything except taking care of himself – and stubborn to the point of pigheadedness. But, he is also usually right – about everything except taking care of himself.” Nelson chuckled again. “Thankfully I found a CMO who is just as dedicated, stubborn, and pigheaded as Lee. Makes for some interesting moments,” he admitted.
“I’ll bet,” Mains said with feeling. “Actually, it was kind of refreshing having him aboard. You’re right – he’s knowledgeable, fits in easily with others…” Mains grinned. “Well, most of the others. My XO is still wondering what planet Crane is from.” Mains and Nelson both chuckled. “He really is one of the best submariners I’ve ever met.”
Nelson nodded. ‘He’s saved our tails more often than I care to remember. The crew is fiercely loyal to him.” He sent Mains a sheepish grin. “Much more than to even me,” he admitted. “They’d follow him to Hades without a second thought.” He cringed. “Have, actually, a time or two.” His grin came back. “But not sure I’d have him any other way. Doc’s mutterings aside.” They both grinned.
“My cook had a complaint or two,” Mains told Nelson. “Something else I’d forgotten – how little that man eats.”
Nelson laughed. “You did notice, I’m sure, how fast the cookies appeared.”
“Wondered about that.”
“My cook flat caters to the man.” Nelson shrugged. “It works,” he admitted, before changing the subject. “You in the mood for a quick tour? I’m afraid we’re not quite at our best.”
Mains chuckled. “Not a problem, sir. At one point I asked Crane how it was that he managed sub service, as frustrated as he got. He told me it was because he had more room to pace on Seaview.” Both men grinned. “Sort of curious to see what he meant.”
“By all means, Cory,” Nelson responded, still with a smile. “By all means.” The two headed through the Conn toward the aft hatch.
Elsewhere, XOs Morton and Fannin, quickly relaxing into a first-name basis, were just passing the Crew’s Mess as they meandered through the much larger boat. For Barry it was proving to be a real eye-opener. Chip was enjoying the chance to show off his charge. Most of the talk had centered on how each dealt with standard XO duties when it came to their individual boats. Chip had had no XO experience prior to coming to Seaview, and Barry had questions about certain procedures when the boat was so much larger. Basically, however, they discovered that duties were pretty much the same. Barry had admitted that at one point. Chip caught the strange expression on his face when he said it, and pointed a quizzical eyebrow in his direction.
Barry grinned. “We were all in Lechner’s Conn the other night,” he explained. “I made some smart aleck remark about how much work I had to do, and Crane laughed. He told Capt. Mains that XO complaints were apparently universal.”
Chip chuckled. “Let me guess – you mentioned the endless paperwork.”
“Among other things,” Barry admitted.
“It never ceases, does it? And yet, in some ways, I actually like it.” Barry looked at him like he was crazy, and Chip laughed outright. “Well, most of it, anyway.” He shrugged. “I like the organization part. Keeping Seaview properly supplied and staffed.” He sighed. “One of the benefits here – we get to pick our crew, not just take what’s assigned.”
“How do I transfer?” Barry asked him seriously, before instantly backtracking. “Ah, forget I said that.”
Chip grinned. “So, what did Lee do to you?” Barry stared at him, not answering, and Chip snickered. “Relax, Barry. It won’t go any further. But I’ve known Lee for too many years not to recognize that expression on your face.”
Barry hesitated before saying quietly, “Some of the stories he told…”
“Were no doubt all true,” Chip assured him. Barry continued to stare, and Chip snickered even harder. “I gather you thought he was making them up?”
“Basically accused him of it,” Barry admitted. “The Skipper stood up for him…” Barry’s voice trailed off.
Chip continued to grin as he headed down a different corridor. “It does get a tad…peculiar around here from time to time,” he admitted.
Barry stopped walking, and glanced around before asking quietly, “How do you handle…” He caught himself and shut up.
Chip smiled broadly. “Spit it out. Like I said, it ain’t going any further.”
Barry still hesitated. “How do you put up with Crane?” finally sputtered out.
Chip laughed so hard, the pair caught the attention of several of Seaview’s crewmen as they wandered past, headed toward the interesting smells now emanating from the direction of the Mess. Chip waved them on, and finally got himself back under control. “Had quite enough of him?” he asked. “And you’ve only had him, what, three days?” Barry sent him a glare. Chip clapped him on the shoulder. “Well, Seaview is happy to have him back. We sincerely thank you for that.” Barry looked skeptical, and Chip chuckled softly. “It’s like this – when Lee is off-boat, I get stuck with not only my paperwork but his as well.” Barry groaned. “Also, when he’s off-boat, the crew gets cranky. The longer he’s gone, the crankier they get.” Barry shuddered. “Yeah. Exactly. And that’s not the worst of it.”
“There’s something worse than too much paperwork coupled with a cranky crew?”
“Definitely. Lee off-boat for any length of time – particularly on an ONI mission, when we don’t have any information about what’s going on – makes for a cranky Admiral.” Barry looked physically ill. “Yeah,” Chip agreed and also shuddered. But his expression almost immediately brightened. “With smells like that from the Crew’s Mess, that’s gotta mean dinner’s ready in the Wardroom.” He led the way in that direction.
Lee entered his cabin reluctantly, but with a huge sigh of relief. He was disgusted at the way he’d been outmaneuvered. He was also disgusted at how tired he was from just the climb up the stairs and the short walk down the corridor. But the thing he’d been dreading the most the last few days had not come to pass – his boat and her crew were safe!
Hoping to do a little outmaneuvering of his own, he laid down on his bunk. He suspected that both Jamie and Chip wouldn’t waste a lot of time before they came to check on him. He decided that, if they both found him apparently asleep, they’d leave quietly. Once they’d both come and gone he’d head back to the Conn. They’d play heck rousting him twice in a row!
As his head hit the pillow he allowed himself to relax for the first time in what seemed like forever. Even in the Nose earlier he’d been tense, able to watch his crew but frustrated that he’d not been allowed to help. He knew that he owed Capt. Mains more than the brief “Thanks” he’d already given him, not only for managing to keep Lee sane the last few days, but especially for his actions in saving Seaview. Lee would issue his highest commendation to Lechner and her Skipper and crew when he worked on the AAR. Nelson had forbidden him to start on it until morning – he wanted everyone to have the opportunity to take a deep breath. Lee also suspected that the Admiral was waiting to see if this whole mess was truly over before beginning the report. Lee couldn’t argue with that logic, but it was another reason he wanted to return to the Conn as soon as possible. So, for the moment, he’d ‘play the game’ and close his eyes. His own bunk did feel great after too many days away from it.
As Chip and Barry rounded one corner, headed for Officers’ Country, they ran into Nelson and Mains coming from another direction. The two Lechner officers remained quiet as the two from Seaview got almost identically sheepish expressions.
“He’s not already back in the Conn,” Nelson told his XO. “We just came from there.”
“And so far we haven’t run into him wandering around the boat,” Chip added. They both nodded and walked toward Lee’s cabin. No one spoke as they got close. Both Mains and Fannin raised eyebrows, but stopped with Nelson several paces back from the cabin door while Chip walked softly up to it, listened for a moment, tapped very quietly, and then poked his head inside. He disappeared for just a bit before coming back out, gently closed the door, and walked back to the other three. “Out like a light,” he told Nelson, a grin on his face.
“You’re sure.” Nelson knew his captain all too well.
But Chip knew him even better. “He’s not as good at faking sleep as he thinks he is,” Chip said confidently. Nelson grinned and led the way back to the Nose.
As they hit the bottom of the spiral stairs, several of Lechner’s crewmen were just headed up the conning hatch. Mains tapped Barry. “I suppose that we’d better wander on home ourselves,” he said, almost wistfully. “Although, as we’re escorting Seaview, you could stay aboard for awhile if you’d like.” He sent Nelson a grin. “That is, if the Admiral wouldn’t mind.”
Nelson returned the grin. “Not a’tall,” he told both men. “Happy to have you aboard,” he told Lechner’s XO.
“No, no,” Fannin hurriedly told the others. “As much as I’ve enjoyed the look-see, I’d better get back to my own duties.”
“XOs, you gotta love ‘em,” Mains told Nelson in as serious a voice as he could manage with still a broad smile on his face. “Always thinking that their boats will sink if they’re not right there every second, keeping watch.” He and Nelson gave their respective XOs fond grins.
“Naturally,” Chip spoke up, his very proper XO mask firmly in place. “Can’t expect the CO to keep things running all by themselves.” While Fannin gave him a look that said all too plainly, “Are you totally daft, man, for saying that out loud?” both Nelson and Mains cracked up. Chip’s expression never wavered, but he winked at Fannin and the two headed toward the conning hatch.
Nelson stuck his hand out toward Mains. “However it happened, and despite the circumstances, it’s been great to see you again, Cory.”
“Same here, sir. And I seem to remember something about a round at your favorite bar the next time I was in town? As we’ll be following you home…” His voice trailed off, but the broad grin never left his face.
“BZ’s may never be the same, what with our two crews invading at the same time,” Nelson told him with a chuckle. As they, too, headed for the conning hatch, Mains’ glance turned upward toward Officers’ Country. “Forget it, Captain,” Nelson told him sternly, before his expression once again cracked into a grin.
Mains also smiled. “No, sir. Heavens, no! He’s far too high maintenance for my lowly little sub.” He sighed, and sent Nelson a wink. “But, he is fun to have around,” he admitted.
Nelson clapped him on the shoulder with a grin and a nod. “That he is, Cory. That he is.”
“For a little while, anyway,” Mains amended. Nelson’s laughter followed him all the way up the hatch ladder.
* see “First Duty” by R. L. Keller
** see “The Incident” by R. L. Keller
*** see “Past Imperfect” by R. L. Keller