The Fire Returns

By Clayton Vires

 (revision # 1)

"Your number cannot be completed as dialed," said the recorded voice.

Harriman Nelson slammed the receiver into its cradle. It split into two, and the jagged plastic edges cut Nelsonís hand. He cursed a stream of sailorís oaths, then wrapped his bleeding hand in his handkerchief and stormed off to Sickbay. Jameison may have to put stitches in it, it looked so deeply cut.

"What did you do, Harry, crush a drinking glass?" chided Will Jameison as he cleaned and bandaged Nelsonís injured hand. Nelson explained the telephoneís breaking when he slammed it down.

"Just as dumb," muttered Jameison. Jameison was one of the few people in the world who could speak to Harriman Nelson in that manner. Lucius Emory was another, and he had his hands full back at the Institute. The riots that had broken out in Santa Barbara had caused some collateral damage to the Institute: phone lines down, electrical power interrupted, the sewers blocked (fortunately, the sewage could be fed to the experimental waste-eating bacteria). Fences had been cut as saboteurs sought to put the Nelson Institute of Marine Research out of commission. Nelson had doubled the number of guards, and had taken to pairing them up and giving one of them a laser. A few of the saboteurs had been wearing bulletproof armor, and required heavier weaponry to stop them.

His hand bandaged, Nelson headed forward to the Control Room, where the world situation was being monitored. He went straight to the Observation Nose, and sat in one of the leather chairs. A crewman produced a cup of coffee. After drinking the beverage, Nelson rose and joined Lee Crane at the master monitor.

"Whatís the latest, Lee?" asked Nelson tiredly. He had slept little since New Yearís Day, when the first episodes of millennium violence broke out. Craneís voice sounded as tired as Nelsonís felt.

"Itís getting worse, Admiral," Crane sighed, "and itís showing signs of increasing geometrically. All major cities of the world have reported fighting." He noticed the bandaged hand, but Nelson waved it off.

Nelson was shocked and saddened by this news. He could not help but wonder how something so seemingly petty as which year really marked the new millennium could turn people against each other. Earth was forming two camps: those who maintained that the millennium started in the year two thousand, who were called the "ohies", and the people who believed that the twenty-first century didnít began until the year two thousand-one, who were called "oneies."

The disputes had been little more than verbal bouts at first. Celebrities and regular folks alike voiced their opinions and supported them with what each side called "facts." Things started to get violent when the talk shows threw people from both sides together. Two of the more popular hosts had their noses broken by angry guests wielding folding chairs.

The first deaths had seemed like typical murders, until the anonymous letters followed several of the killings. The writers proclaimed the victims to be traitors to mankind, either by selling out to the media hype and calling two thousand the millennial year, or by fighting progress and maintaining an antiquated calendar that names two thousand-one as the start of the third millennium.

It was actually the tabloids that coined the names, "ohie" and "oneie." Nelson could have choked them with his bare hands for that. This was a world crisis, and the combatants had to be assigned trite and childish names! Not that the combatants themselves werenít childish. To be trying to kill each other because they disagreed when the twenty-first century started was the height of imbecility. If Nelson had his druthers, heíd let them wipe each other out and let more sensible people get on with life. But too many innocents were endangered, especially if one of the warring factions got their hands on chemical, biological, of nuclear weapons. The chance, too, that some terrorist or terrorist supporter, God, there were enough of them, would use this as a chance to launch an attack against the civilian populations of the Free World. This was just too critical to be allowed to go on much longer. If it did, they wouldnít have anything to terrorize!

Nelson glanced at several news reports from around the world. The Great Wall of China had been hit by bulldozers in many locations. The Eiffel Tower had been splashed from the air by a fire bomber loaded with pig manure. It hadnít been physically damaged, but it sure was unpleasant! The United Nations Secretariat building in New York had windows shot out of both sides by snipers. One side bore the number "2000" in broken glass, and the opposite side read "2001." The list went on and on. Fortunately, the number of casualties had been small. This could not be counted on to continue, however. The scale and manner of violence was on the rise, and was sure to trigger another World War if it didnít stop.

Nelson turned off the news reports and turned to his senior officers. Captain Lee Crane and his Exec, Chip Morton, felt as helpless as Nelson to bring reason to the minds of these people, but they knew they had to try, if they wanted to see their world continue.

"Admiral," announced Sparks from the Radio Shack, "the President is on the line. He wants to speak to you." Nelson told Sparks to pipe it over to the main monitor. He would address the President there.

The screen illuminated to show a Commander In-Chief who appeared every bit as fatigued as Nelson. The signs of stress and sleeplessness were just as prominent. The President spoke deliberately, and he sounded as he tired as he looked.

"Harry, weíve got to do something to stop this," the President began. "The Pentagon calculates that, at the present rate of escalation, a full scale nuclear exchange is inevitable."

"How long?" inquired Nelson. He had been doing his own figuring, and wanted to know in the experts in Washington were calling it the same way he was.

"Thirty days, maximum," replied the President. "Harry, youíre only hope to avoid global Armageddon."

"Why me?" Nelson asked. He didnít want the weight of the whole world on his shoulders.

"Your credentials are impeccable, and your integrity is unimpeachable," the President replied. His image shrank to a white dot, then disappeared.

"It looks pretty bleak, Admiral," commented Crane.

"How could normally rational people suddenly go at each otherís throats over such a ridiculous thing as the date?" lamented Nelson. Heíd seen humans do stupid things before, but this took the cake. Heíd seen stupid aliens, but the people of Earth could be the imbeciles of the galaxy.

Nelson sat heavily in the overstuffed chair in the Observation Nose, and pondered the rapidly deteriorating world situation.

Who or what could be causing this? Humans had gone to war for some pretty silly reasons, but never this asinine. Could a hostile government be behind this? Were they trying another attempt to drive the world to destruction, so that they could rebuild it in their own, twisted image? Could Gamma really be alive, trying to do the same? Nelson had to answer no. The CIA, Interpol, ONI, any number of agencies were keeping watch on the Xin Ren. Gamma was truly dead; it had been confirmed. No double could be so perfectly prepared. Then what was causing it? What!

********************************************************************************

Seaview had been cruising at high speed, toward the Marianas Trench. A package containing nuclear material bought from Russia had gone down with the cargo ship that had been carrying it, the victim of the "ohies" declaring the vessel a target because its owner was a "oneie." Seaview had been carrying the new DS1; a deep-diving craft loosely based on the Flying Sub design. It could not fly, but it was able to handle the thirty-five-thousand foot depth of the Trench. Nelson was going to use it to retrieve the nuclear material. It was rumored that the ohies had a deep-diving sub, and were going to do the same thing. It was a race against time.

By the time Seaview arrived at the location of the sinking, reports were coming in that the new Sunstar orbital solar-fusion array was in danger. The series of mirrors was circling the Earth in geosynchronous orbit, focusing solar radiation on capsules of hydrogen, and triggering controlled fusion reactions. It was hinted that the mirrors would be targeted at Earth. Nelson did not believe that the advertised fail-safes were really useful, and he was worried that the mirrors would be used by one of the warring parties. But, at a depth of ten thousand feet, Seaview couldnít do much beyond the completion of its current task.

The DS1 performed flawlessly, and the lost nuclear material was located and retrieved. Fortunately, the protective casing was intact. No radiation leaked into the surrounding ocean. Kowalski had the container aboard in an hour, docking with the special pod that had been mounted for DS1 on Seaviewís back.

"Good Job, Ski," congratulated Crane as the senior rating entered the Control Room.

"Thanks, Skipper," Kowalski replied, blushing. He modestly returned to his favorite spot aboard the submarine, the Sonar station.

"Lee, letís get to the surface, and see what we can do for Sunstar," ordered Nelson. Crane gave the command to surface, and Morton put the giant sub into a rapid climb. As soon as communications with the outside world could be reestablished, the news channels were checked for recent events. Sunstar was on everybodyís mind, because each mirror had the potential to fry a city before it was destroyed by space interceptors. The news reporterís voice was grave as she told of the latest threat.

"The oneies claim to have taken control of the Sunstar solar-fusion satellites, and say they are prepared to turn them on Earth," she said. " Following is a statement that was sent in to over the Internet." The anchor paused while the message was played.

"We have broken the codes to the Sunstar satellites, and they are in our complete control," the voice said. It was a very arrogant voice, filled with contempt. "We will demonstrate our power to bring judgement to all who believe the lies of the onies, and to avenge the sinking of our ship. At one p.m., the satellites will turn to the Van Allen radiation belts circling Earth."

"One P.M.! Thirteen hundred hours! Thatís fifteen minutes away!" gasped Sharkey.

"When will we surface?" demanded Nelson.

"Twenty minutes," Morton answered, "and we canít go any faster. The strain on the hull will be too much."

Seaview continued her rapid climb, the fears of her crew increasing as the depth decreased. Sharkey, positioned in the nose, was the first to notice the color. A pinkish glow emanated from the surface, getting stronger with each foot the submarine climbed. Crane and Morton were waiting below the bridge hatch, ready to open it as soon as the bridge drained. Nelson saw the same glow that Sharkey did, and he seemed to slump where he was standing.

***********************************************

The twenty minutes were up, and Seaview was about to break the surface. This was to be a conventional surfacing, not the forty-five degree up bubble of the maximum performance climb. Nelson wanted Crane to open the hatch get out onto the bridge as quickly as possible, and this was the quickest way to accomplish it. Nelson was mentally urging Crane on to more speed. He had to have his worst fears either confirmed or denied. The strong red glow that illuminated the Observation Nose was enough to tell Nelson what was going on topside, but he had to have proof.

**********************************************

The hatch opened, and Crane and Morton spilled out onto the bridge. They immediately stood to survey their surroundings. Morton was the first to speak.

"The skyís on fire!" he gasped, for, indeed, thatís what it looked like. The cerulean vault of the sky was replaced by and angry red, with darker red streaks moving through it.

"Not again," sighed Crane, his shoulders slumping. He remembered the first time this happened, over twenty years ago. The Van Allen radiation belts had overloaded and burst into flame. It was like yesterday that Nelson had sailed to the United Nations to make his case to detonate a nuclear warhead in space and blow out the Belts like a candle, only to be shouted down by fellow scientist Emilio Zucco. He remembered how Seaview was a hunted ship, and had to destroy another submarine in order to survive. He remembered the insane Alvarez, found floating of a chunk of ice. In fact, the world had just barely recovered from the devastation of that first episode. And now it had happened again.

"Lee," came Nelsonís urgent voice through the speaker, "how bad does it look?"

"About the same as the first time," was Craneís reply. "How long does the radio say this has been going on?"

"About forty-five minutes," Nelson replied, "since the Sunstar satellites were aimed on the Belt. It enveloped the entire earth in twenty minutes."

ĎSir," interrupted Sparks, "a new transmission is overriding the network broadcast." All ears listened to the new sound. It was the same voice that announced the commandeering of the Sunstar satellites.

"Now you have seen the penalty of believing the lies of the oneies," spat the contempt-filled voice, "May you all burn in hell, the way the Earth will now burn." The speakers streamed nothing but static now, as the disruption of Earthís ionosphere broke down electromagnetic transmissions.

Nelson quickly sat down at the computer terminal in the Observation Nose and called up a file. He quickly scanned the records of the first sky-on-fire incident. When he had found what he wanted, he called Sparks and ordered him to put in a call to Washington over the VLF frequencies. He requested the history of the propagation of the Van Allen overload: its origin, the satellites involved, radiation curves, atmospheric temperature. The all-important 168 degrees Fahrenheit stuck in his mind. Had the temperature reached that level before, the Belts would have been impossible to extinguish, and all oxygen would have been consumed from the atmosphere. Nelson was looking to reconfirm that, and to get enough data to calculate the point where he would have to detonate a nuclear missile.

"The callís been sent, Sir," Sparks informed Nelson, "and we should get the answer in about two hours." Nelson thanked the radio officer, and went back to the nose.

"Close the collision screens," he ordered, "at least we donít have to look at this."

When the requested information came in, Nelson took the disk that Sparks had copied it on back to his quarters. There, he accessed Seaviewís central supercomputer, and inputted the data. He made several calculations, and picked up the intercom microphone to call Crane.

"Aye, Sir," replied Seaviewís Captain.

"Lee, Iím relaying coordinated to you. I want you to set a course at flank speed as soon as itís computed. We have 48 hours to defuse the Belts before they go critical and explode!"

"Explode?" said Crane. "They werenít going to do that the first time, Sir!"

"I know, Lee," replied Nelson, "but this time, the use of the Sunstars to trigger the Belts has created a new phenomenon. Itís much more volatile than before, and the Belts are much more energized."

"Course received, Admiral," Chip Morton spoke. "Weíll be underway in five minutes."

Nelson could do no more, so he retired for the night.

**********************************************

"Crane to Nelson."

Nelson was up instantly. He snatched the mike from wall.

"Nelson here. What is it Lee?"

"Weíre encountering an ice floe from the Arctic,"

"Where are we?" demanded Nelson.

"A hundred miles west of Seattle," replied Crane.

"The ice cap is melting and breaking up, just like the last time," commented Nelson. He dressed and proceeded to the Control Room, where he joined a worried Crane at the Sonar screen.

"Some of them are the size of houses," commented Kowalski. "Theyíre drifting southward with the current."

"Captain!" announced Patterson, who was monitoring surface radar, "Thereís what appears to be a man-made object on one of the ice blocks."

"Man-made?" asked Crane as he looked over Patís shoulder at the unusual return. It contained reflections that could only come from metal. He ordered then topside lookouts to train their binoculars in the direction of the radar contact.

"There are people on the ice!" shouted one of the lookouts. Crane ran to the Periscope Island and found the object himself. He saw two men lying on the ice, along with what appeared to be a medium size dog. Several pieces of gear were scattered around them, which gave the metallic returns. Crane ordered "All Stop" and had Sharkey dispatch a zodiac to retrieve the men. Doc Jameison was on his way topside, to check them out immediately. Nelson and Crane exchanged uncomfortable looks, both remembering that Alvarez was found the same way. What if there were two of them this time?

*********************************************

Nelson and Crane observed from the bridge as Jameison examined the rescuees. One man was considerable larger than the other, being perhaps six-foot-six, and very muscular. He had a golden blond hair and beard, and a deep tan. The other individual was slight of build, with dark brown hair. The large one stirred, and Nelson scurried down the ladder to the hatch at the bottom of the sail. Crane was right behind him. They emerged just as the doctor was closing up his bag. Both men were seated on the deck. The dog was cavorting happily.

"How are they?" Nelson asked.

"Harry, I donít understand it! They say theyíve been on the flow for six days, and theyíre in perfect health!" replied Jameison, exasperated. "They should have been seriously sunburned!" Nelson decided to question the men. He extended his hand to the tall one.

"Iím Admiral Harriman Nelson," he said as he took the manís hand. His grip was incredibly strong. A weaker man may have had his hand crushed. Nelson went on to introduce Crane and Morton.

"My name is Zeiss," replied the big man. My associate, Mr. Hardiss, and I, wish to express to you our gratitude. Our dog, Cerberus, is obviously thankful."

"Youíre welcome," Nelson said. "What were you doing on the ice, if I may ask?"

"We were prospecting for oil deposits in under the ice cap, when the Van Allen belts exploded.

"Our camp was much larger," added Hardiss, "but most of it sank or drifted away when as the ice block broke up." Nelson was sure that he didnít like this man. His actions were devious and his words far too smooth. He would be watched. They both would be watched, but Hardiss much more then Zeiss. Zeiss emanated a mix of goodwill and power, which could be a dangerous combination, but he didnít seem threatening.

"Which company were you prospecting for?" Crane inquired. He was looking for something that he could independently follow up on.

"No Company, Captain," replied Zeiss. "Weíre entrepreneurs. We set up camp with our own money, and we prospected on our own money."

"Itís unfortunate that the money was all wasted," said Nelson.

"I wouldnít say it was wasted, Admiral," smiled Zeiss, "just temporarily lost. The investment will reap great returns. By the way, where is your galley? Mr. Hardiss and I are famished from days of minimal rations."

Nelson had a crewman show the guests to the Wardroom, and help them get a meal from Cookie. He returned to the Observation Nose, Crane and Morton accompanying him. They closed the doors to the Control Room, and sat down to discuss the events that had transpired with the visitors.

"Admiral, I donít like either of them," began Crane, "even if Zeiss seems a good enough fellow. Hardiss is definitely hiding something, and I think Zeiss is as well. After all, they were on the ice together."

"We canít forget that they didnít have sunburns," added Morton. "They should have been lobsters, but theyíre not. They havenít given us any explanation beyond "ask Dr. Jameison", which doesnít cut it with me."

Nelson grunted assent, and lit up a cigarette. The smoke extractors added their gentle hum to the background sounds of the submarine, creating a pocket of peace amid the tumult that the world was in. Nelson drew on his smoke, and paused reflectively.

"I donít think they are who they say they are," he commented at last.

"Then who might they be?" queried Morton. "They canít be human if they were out there as long as they say they were. Alien invaders?"

"I donít think so, Chip," replied Crane. "Usually, an invader would have made some sort of statement by now regarding their intentions. Nobody other than the ohies and the onies has taken "credit" for whatís going on."

"These guys might be associates of Pem," suggested Morton.

"I had Jamie look for any pocket watches, or similar devices, when he did his exams," stated Nelson, "and he found nothing. If they are from Pemís race, their technology had improved to the point that they can miniaturize their machines even more than his were."

"Then weíre back at square one," sighed Crane. Suddenly, their musings were broken off by a call from the control room.

"Admiral! Sonarís picked up a sub approaching at flank speed!" came Sharkeyís excited voice. Morton opened the doors to the Control Room, and the three senior officers sped back to the Sonar station.

"What does it look like?" Nelson asked.

"Definitely Seawolf class," answered Kowalski, who was now manning Sonar. "Theyíre on an attack profile." They watched the blip of the intruder on the screen as it closed the distance to Seaview.

"They must want to get to us badly, to come at us so noisily," said Crane.

"Maybe they want to talk, and this was the only way to contact us, with the radios down," suggested Sharkey.

"I donít think so, Chief," interrupted Kowalski nervously. "Theyíve launched torpedoes!"

"Evasive plan A!" shouted Crane, and Seaview exploded with activity. Morton put her into a crash dive, and ordered sonic and thermal decoys launched. The planesmen danced the great submarine with their controls. Seaview weaved horizontally and vertically as she descended. The intruder fell into a stern chase, and followed them down.

"Shall we fire back?" asked Sharkey.

"Negative, Chief," replied Nelson. "No aggressive responses on our part."

"We just keep diving. Their crush depth is thousands of feet above ours," added Crane. "If they want to implode their hull, itís their choice."

Seaview continued her dive, as the spread of torpedoes continued to close. She was heading toward deep water off the Continental shelf, passing between several undersea spires. She cleared the rock formations with ease, and the torpedoes exploded against them. Moments later, the pursuer was through, and into deep water.

The descent continued, with Seaview slowly pulling away. Morton checked the depth gauge.

"Theyíre at their crush depth," he muttered.

"Pull up, you fools!" Crane swore. Kowalski heard it first, through his headphones. The groaning of overstresses metal, and the popping of welds. When the implosion came, he ripped the phones off. By that time, the others heard it. Several men aboard Seaview became physically sick, and those who didnít, wanted to.

"Damn them," muttered Crane. Nelson put a hand on his friendís shoulder.

"No, Lee, they damned themselves," consoled Nelson.

"They really wanted us," said Morton sadly.

"Do you think Zuccoís talked to them?" asked Crane. Nelson said nothing, but nodded his agreement. Everyone heard a clatter from the spiral staircase. Down came Zeiss and Hardiss.

"Admiral Nelson, what a ride! What happened?" asked Zeiss, who appeared to have enjoyed himself.

"Over a hundred men just died," replied Nelson flatly.

"Another submarine was pursuing us. They exceeded their crush depth," explained Nelson. Zeiss merely shrugged, as if the lost lives meant nothing to him. Hardissí lips curled up almost imperceptibly, as if he were trying to hide a smile. He looked pleased, however. Nelson closed the doors to the Control Room.

"Gentlemen, youíve tried to conceal it, but you obviously donít give a tinkerís damn for the lives that have just ended, or, for that matter, the entire worldís going to hell in a handbasket!" Nelson said darkly. Hardissí eyebrows danced at the mention of the word "hell."

"Admiral, thatís not so," said Zeiss in an attempt at self-defense, "itís just that Mr. Hardiss and I are still so overjoyed at our rescue. Surely, the deaths of those sailors are a tragedy. So are the disasters that the Van Allen belts have caused. Of course Mr. Hardiss and I mourn, but what is there that anyone can do?"

"Thereís a lot that can be done," stated Crane emphatically, "and Admiral Nelson is the man to do it. He put those belts out twenty years ago, and heís gonna do it again!"

"Lee, I hope I live up to the confidence you have in me," said Nelson cautiously.

"Admiral, the men of Seaview and the people of the world have every confidence in your ability to extinguish the fire in the sky again," responded Crane proudly.

"If the world has every confidence in Admiral Nelson, then, why did someone just try to send us to the bottom of the sea?" Hardiss asked with feigned innocence. The malice could be seen just under the surface of his remark.

Craneís countenance darkened, and every word that followed carried a thinly veiled threat of what he might do to Hardiss if the man continued to taunt Admiral Nelson.

"Some people in this world have no concern for the good of all," Crane spat, "only for their own benefit. They are willing to sacrifice others in the pursuit of their own ends." The air in the Nose became charged with animosity between Crane and Hardiss. Both men, the tall Crane, who seemed to have a ramrod for a spine, and the smaller, slightly stooped Hardiss, unconsciously squared off to do battle. Zeiss, sensing the coming explosion, stepped between them.

"Gentlemen, gentlemen, please," he pleaded, placing a strong hand on each manís chest, as a referee would in a professional wrestling match. "Captain Crane, I believe that Seaview can do whatever it takes to put out the fire in the sky, as you call it. Iím sure that Admiral Nelson will agree with me, that itís useless to spend your energy where it wonít do any good, as in arguing." Crane, recognizing the truth in Zeissí words, relaxed ever so slightly.

"Any you, Mr. Hardiss, should not be aggravating our hosts so. They have much important work to do." Hardiss seemed to hunch down even further, angry at having been reprimanded.

"Mr. Zeiss is right," said Nelson, "We need to concentrate on the job at hand. Fighting amongst ourselves like a pack of dogs wonít put the Belts out." With the situation defused, Zeiss and Hardiss retired to the guest quarters, leaving the Seaview staff to proceed with their plans to quench the burning radiation belts. Crane approached Nelson privately.

"Admiral, Iím sorry I acted the way I did," Crane apologized. "I donít know what came over me. When Hardiss was taunting us, I just wanted to reach down his throat and rip his heart out."

"If he has one," Nelson quipped.

"What?" said Crane.

"I donít know what possessed me to say that, Lee," shrugged Nelson, "Itís almost as if that man has no heart, to either feel, or even pump blood." Nelson gave Crane a rare helpless look. They opened the doors to the Control Room, and busied themselves in various tasks.

*******************************************

Seaview continued at flank speed toward the point in the Arctic Circle where Nelson intended to launch the nuclear-tipped missile. The "burning sky" (a name given by the media) had been searing the Earth for nearly a week. Forest fires were widespread. They were so large that the smoke they were sending up into the atmosphere was actually shielding the surface from some of the radiation. When this was over, Earth was in for a real "nuclear winter" of the type that the old atomic war doomsayers head threatened. In less than two days, the calculated 168į F threshold would be reached, and, as before, the reaction would consume the oxygen in Earthís atmosphere. Zeiss and Hardiss had settled into the routine on board, and had done a good job keeping out of the way. Still, it had been reported several times that arguments erupted regularly in the guest quarters that housed the rescuees. From what could be overheard, they seemed to be disagreeing about the outcome of some event, and whether or not someone was going to do something. Nelson was intrigued, and a bit concerned. He would have to ask them, if he didnít bug their quarters, first.

The senior officers were joined together in the Nose, discussing their seemingly exceptional luck after the chase by the lone hunter-killer sub. They had not been molested since then, and were beginning to wonder why.

"Perhaps weíre being watched over by angels," opined Morton.

"Or gods," added Nelson. Crane looked at Nelson in astonishment. He had made several cryptic remarks since Zeiss and Hardiss had come aboard. Crane was intensely curious, and said so. Nelson shrugged, and gave Crane another of the rare helpless looks. Crane was beginning to wonder if he would have to talk to Jameison.

"Trust me on this, Lee," pleaded Nelson, "please. I know by that look on your face the youíre about to ask Jamie if Iíve gone off the deep end, but I havenít."

"All right, Sir," agreed Seaviewís captain. Just as Crane finished his words, the Red Alert klaxon sounded. Crane slapped the button that opened the doors to the Control Room.

"Status!" Crane shouted.

"Weíve got bombers approaching from North America!" explained Morton. "B-52ís!" The venerable old Boeing Stratofortress was still flyable, where the electromagnetic radiation of the Belts had grounded the newer B-1B Lancers and B-2 Spirits. Now, airplanes that were forty-plus years old were winging their way toward Seaview. Everyone wondered what they may be carrying in their cavernous bomb bays.

"Dive, Dive!" shouted Morton, preparing to take the submarine down.

"Belay that!" ordered Nelson. Everyone froze, looking at Nelson in shock. What was in his mind? Had he really gone daft, as some rumors had it? Crane had to speak up.

"Respectfully, Admiral," he began, "if we just sit here, our own Air Force is going to send us to the bottom."

"And seal the fate of the world," commented Hardiss almost cheerfully as he and Zeiss come down the spiral staircase. Crane looked at the man in disgust, then turned back to Nelson.

"Whatís your idea, Sir," Crane asked.

"To find out from the commander of that flight just what their orders are." Replied Nelson. He walked back to the radio shack.

"Sparks, contact that formation. Tell them that I want to speak with their commander," Nelson told the communications Officer. Sparks did so, and soon, the voice of the pilot came over the speaker.

"Flight Commander, this is Admiral Harriman Nelson of the S.S.R.N. Seaview. What are your orders?"

"Our orders are to find Seaview and sink her," the pilot replied.

"For what reason?" Nelson asked.

"To prevent the launch of a nuclear missile that will cause a runaway reaction in the Van Allen Belts if detonated there," was the airmanís response.

"Son, Iím asking you to stop for a moment and think about it," said Nelson as he would to his own son, as he sometimes did with Crane. "Were you here twenty years ago, when this first happened?"

"No sir," replied the aviator.

"Well, when this happened then, I wanted to launch a missile to put it out," explained Nelson patiently, "but certain individuals didnít believe me. They prevailed on the world to stop me, which they tried. But I was able to launch that missile, and extinguish the Van Allen Belts. I want to do that now. Will you help me, and call off the attack?" Silence followed for several seconds. Everyone held his breath. Zeiss and Hardiss glanced at each other. Zeiss bobbed his eyebrows, to which Hardissí brow furrowed. The voice of the pilot came back, tinged with regret.

"Iím sorry, Admiral," he said sadly, "but I have my orders, which are to sink Seaview. "This is Redeemer One over and out." The connection went dead.

"Redeemer," spat Crane angrily. He sorely resented the use of the word by an airman whose mission was to kill those aboard Seaview, and thereby, the people of Earth. He looked back at Nelson, who everybody else was looking at. The man seemed to have aged ten years in as many minutes. Nelson tiredly gave an order.

"Surface, and prepare the topside laser," he said. Morton gave the orders to take the sub up completely, and to prepare the new weapon. As Seaviewís deck cleared, the laser control pod descended from the ceiling. Its image was duplicated on the big screen, so that all could see what Nelson did. Six of the B-52ís could be seen: their silhouettes were unmistakable. As Nelson zoomed on them, their bomb bays could be seen to open, and the contents of them came into sight.

"Gravity bombs!" said Sharkey. He couldnít understand why they wouldnít try something like harpoon missiles.

"They want to carpet bomb us, to make sure weíre hit," explained Crane.

"Iím going to target their FLIR pods," said Nelson as he manipulated the zoom and targeting. The crosshairs zeroed on one of the units, and Nelson pressed the "Fire" button. A ray of intense white light sprang from the small turret that had extended from Seaviewís upper deck. The same laser generator that normally fired through the nose spotlight had been channeled, by a mirror, through the new emitter. The beam struck true, exploding the bomberís forward-looking-infrared system, and fracturing the radome just above it from the intense heat. The radome split away, exposing the radar array to the slipstream, which broke it off. The B-52 was now blind, but was still in the air. Nelson repeated the procedure on the other five aircraft. They released their weapons loads where they thought Seaview was, but the sticks of bombs that exploded in the sea did no serious damage to the sub. Nelson stowed the laser, and lit up a cigarette. On the main viewer, the bombers could be seen flying off at a reduced airspeed, greatly slowed by having their radomes blown off.

"Whew! That was close," breathed OíBrien.

"At least none of them died this time," commented Crane. That had been Nelsonís greatest fear: more people having to lose their lives following orders. The imploded sub that chased them was still fresh in everybodyís memories.

"Good show!" exclaimed Zeiss, slapping Nelson on the back. The stare that Nelson returned would have withered a crewman. Zeiss merely looked sheepish, and backed off. Hardiss lurked in the shadows near the spiral staircase, a look of extreme displeasure on his face.

*********************************************

 

The last leg to the launch area was smooth sailing. No one harassed them, which was the only peace that the crew of Seaview had. The news of the fires, droughts and other disasters that were the results of the raging Van Allen belts was mind numbing. The original conflict between the ohies and the onies had disappeared from the media, dwarfed in significance. It was reported that those who had commandeered the Sunstar satellites, and touched off the conflagration in space, had been captured and summarily executed. The videos were hideous. They had died in a manner that would have made even Dr. Gamma proud, and many had actually wished that Harriman Nelson were among those who had been put to death. However, they said nothing.

Nelson sat in the nose, pondering why they had reached the launch point unmolested. The launch was to be conducted from periscope depth, allowing visual observation to go on. Even then, the roughness of the surface could be felt. Up here, at the top of the world, the disturbance of the near-boiling waters of the equatorial areas was minimal. There were no tsunamis here, like those that had washed away much of the coastal cities. Still, those who watched the viewer were thankful for the image stabilization. Nelsonís reverie was broken by Sparksí voice over the intercom. Nelson had received a faint burst transmission from the President. Nelson ordered it piped to the Nose, where he could watch it with his senior officers.

"Admiral," began the static-filled replay. The President looked terrible, with dark circles under his eyes, and thick beard stubble on his face. "The leaders of the world have unanimously agreed to your plan to put out the Belts. We only hope that youíre able to hear this. Godspeed to you, and may the missile strike true." The message ended.

"Now we know why we havenít been bothered since the B-52ís," commented Crane.

"Thank God they came to their senses," added Morton.

"Amen," added Sharkey. Nelson visibly relaxed for a minute, then straightened his back and stood. He looked to everyone like the sure, confident Nelson of old. The Admiral was back!

"Time to launch," he spoke. The strength in his voice convinced all that he was, indeed, back.

"Four minutes," Morton fairly shouted back.

During this, Zeiss and Hardiss exchanged some queer looks. Zeiss was smug, his face practically boasting. Hardiss sneered back defiantly. No one noticed this, as they were too wrapped up in the imminent launch. Nelson called for and received a report on the missileís status, the targetís conditions, and the external temperature calculations.

"Temperature calculated to be one hundred sixty-three degrees max," Morton said. The countdown to doomsday continued. In less than ten minutes, the critical temperature at the Equator would reach the threshold one sixty-eight, and the runaway reaction would commence. That was just enough time for the missile to reach altitude, and detonate. Nelson called for a countdown from ten. Crane began shortly after the order.

"Ten, Nine, Eight," he stated. Every eye available was on the split screen image of the open missile tube, and the red sky.

"Seven, Six, Five," Crane continued. Every man uttered a silent prayer.

"Four, Three, Two, One, Zero!"

"Fire!" shouted Nelson.

Seaview rocked as the nuclear weapon was blown from its tube by a charge of compressed air. The camera darkened at the solid fuel booster lit, and the missile disappeared at the top of a trail of smoke. Nobody seemed to breathe as they watched the missile climb higher toward the fire in the sky. Those who could not see it through the nose window watched it on a monitor. Every hand was at a screen. The missile disappeared into the glare. Morton began reading telemetry.

"Altitude sixty miles, on course to detonation coordinates," he stated. "Estimated equatorial temperature, one hundred sixty-five degrees." Three degrees from threshold. The computer-generated plot of the missileís trajectory showed it to be about one-third of the way to its target.

"Altitude one hundred miles, still on course," Morton continued. Detonation would take place at one hundred-fifty miles altitude. "Temperature, one sixty-six point five."

"Altitude one hundred forty-temperature one hundred sixty eight!" exclaimed Morton. The critical temperature had been reached. Would the missile detonation have any effect? Still, Morton called out the telemetry.

"One hundred fifty miles!" he shouted. The video screed darkened hastily as the thermonuclear light flooded the camera. A flash could be seen through the nose windows. The missile had detonated as planned! Only time would tell if it was successful. The prayers came vocally now.

After the flash faded, the camera cleared to reveal the fiery sky. Nothing appeared to be happening. Then-a dark spot could be seen in the bright crimson glow. I spread out into a ring, and within that ring could be seen the most beautiful blue that one could imagine.

Seaview erupted in whoops and hollers, accompanied by a great deal of hearty backslapping. Crane had bolted up the ladder to open the hatch that lead to the Bridge. He flew out of it, followed by Morton, and Nelson. They shielded their eyes from the red glare, even as they watched it break up.

"You did it, Admiral!" shouted Crane.

"No, Lee, we did it," corrected Nelson.

"Seaview did it," added Morton.

They watched the sky for several minutes, until it was blue from horizon to horizon. Looking down, they saw the decks full of crew. Every man who could afford to leave his post was topside, staring at the sky. Buddies relieved those who couldnít leave their posts, so they could see as well. Smiling at this, Nelson, descended the ladder, followed by Crane and Morton.

********************************************

"I told you that Nelson would do it!"

"You did not! It was only because the world chose not to sink him!"

The argument that had erupted between Zeiss and Hardiss had caught the attention of everyone in the Control Room. It was obvious that Admiral Nelson was the subject of their disagreement. But why, no one could fathom. The verbal exchange grew in intensity until Nelsonís bellow drowned it out.

"I want to know what this is all about, and I want to know now!" the Admiral shouted.

"Well, Admiral," Zeiss began, "Mr. Hardiss and I have had opinions regarding the success of your mission," and they happen to be opposite."

"Opposite?" asked Nelson. "Opposite, as in?"

"I was firmly convinced that you would prevail," replied Zeiss, "while Mr. Hardiss was, um, not so-optimistic, shall we say?"

"You mean I didnít think he could do it," sneered Hardiss.

"Youíre both entitled to your opinions," stated Nelson, "but why you would argue about it is beyond me. Do you feel that strongly?"

"Well, actually, we, um, had a slight wager on the outcome," replied Zeiss sheepishly.

"Wager? A BET?" gasped Nelson. He was shocked, as well as everyone else in the Control Room. "You had the arrogance to gamble on the fate of the world? Who the hell you are you?" As if in reply to his question, the Control Room was filled with a bright light. The glow was emanating from both Zeiss and Hardiss, who were surrounded by a brilliant halo. The glow increased until the Seaview crew had to cover their eyes. When it faded, the guests were completely transferred. Zeissí casual attire was replaced by a tunic, in the Greek style. It hung off of one shoulder. His feet were shod in sandals. A laurel wreath surrounded the crown of his head. His complexion was a deep, tanned gold. But it was what was in his hand that drew the most attention. He held a glowing shape that resembled a lightning bolt.

Hardiss was equally transformed. He was now clad in a charcoal gray, floor length tunic. It had a black cloak draped over it, which covered his sandal-shod feet. His skin had a ghostly pallor, and his eyes had black circles completely around them. A faint smell of brimstone clung to him.

"You asked who we are, Admiral," boomed the transfigured Zeiss, "and now you see."

"Who are you, really?" whispered Nelson.

"We are two figures that mankind had relegated to mythology," explained Zeiss to Nelson. "You will recognize me as Zeus, from your Greek pantheon."

"Zeus," said Nelson admiringly, "king of the Greek gods. Your, "associate" is, I take it, Hades?"

"How right you are. I am called Hades, who you have made the king of the underworld," the former Hardiss explained, bowing deeply. His voice irritated the nerves like fingernails on chalkboard.

"What brings you here?" demanded Crane. The initial astonishment was being replaced by indignation.

"We are a race that has existed since the beginning of time, and we have visited your race often over the millennia. Much of your ancient mythology is about your encounters with our kind," explained the creature known as Hades. The contempt for humanity was clear in his voice.

"Since youíve told us who you really are, why didnít you tell our ancestors?" inquired Morton.

"They would not have understood. Their minds were too undeveloped," Hades went on. "Had it not been for one of our craft crashing in the place you call Roswell in this century, your minds would be equally primitive."

"When we saw the growing violence over your year two thousand," the so-called Zeus said, "I consulted what your ancients called the Oracle at Delphi. It is really a time displacement scanner, and it told me that the world would require the services of Admiral Harriman Nelson. Hades and I have wagered over the affairs of men for millennia, and we couldnít miss this."

"You mean that you bet with peoplesí lives?" Nelsonís indignation was obvious in his voice. Zeiss Ė Zeus, noticed, and began to grow angry as well. When he spoke, his voice came to come from everywhere.

"Iíll have you know, Earthling, that we do not interfere in your human events. We make wagers, but you carry them out," the Zeus boomed. The lightning bolt in his hand began to glow more brightly, when a soft chuckle came from beneath the spiral stairs. Hades was laughing.

"What do you mean, we donít interfere?" the "Lord of the Underworld" snickered. "Do you forget Hermes holding the basin for Pontius Pilate? Or, putting the revolver in Hitlerís drawer? Weíve meddled in the lives of humans since the beginnings of their pitiful existence! Hades clutched his side as he laughed.

"Zeus" grew angrier. "Hades" didnít seem to notice, or, if he did, he didnít care.

"You self-righteous buffoon! You never caught on that you were being taken!" Hades barely got out. Zeus was infuriated by the humiliation of being deceived by Hades, and his reaction was almost too quick for the human eye to follow. An ear-splitting craaaack filled the Seaview as Zeus hurled his thunderbolt at the guffawing Hades. The self-styled Lord of the Underworld glowed brightly, then faded out. A strong smell of brimstone filled the air, and the wall under the spiral staircase was blackened. The stairs themselves were slightly deformed, looking like they had melted and sagged slightly. Zeus saw the shocked looks on the faces of the crew, and chuckled himself.

"Do not worry about another loss of life," he said, "because Hades is what you call immortal. I merely sent him back across the River Styx. This has happened before." Nelson was the first to regain his voice.

"Look, "Zeus", I may not be able to harm you, but, you are no longer welcome aboard Seaview. Now, would you be so kind as to leave?" said Nelson, as politely as he could feign. Zeus took one look at the Admiral, smiled, and gave a little bow.

"Why, of course, Admiral," he continued to chuckle. "I am finished here. I thank you for your hospitality." With that, Zeus raised an arm toward the ceiling. Soon, a red glow filled the windows in the Nose. Sharkey was plainly agitated.

"The skyís not on fire again, is it?" he asked nervously.

"Why, no, Chief," said Zeus good-naturedly, "itís only my son, Apollo, coming to pick me up in the chariot of the Sun, to return me to glorious Olympus."

"Chariot of what?" Sharkey asked, dumbfounded. Zeus didnít bother to explain that it was a transdimensional shuttlecraft, fashioned to look like the Earthly conveyance of ancient Greece. He merely pointed out the window.

Amid the blinding glare, the shape of a golden chariot could be seen. It was pulled by two fire breathing while stallions, and upon it stood a young man. He looked much like Zeus, only in a younger version. Apollo spoke, and his voice could be heard in the air within Seaview.

"Father! I am here to take you home," came Apolloís voice. It was like the rushing of a mighty wind. Zeus answered.

"Welcome, Son. Return me now to fair Olympus. Come, Cerberus." A beam curved from the chariot to Zeus, and he was pulled from the presence of the humans. When they looked, they saw him standing beside Apollo in the chariot. Cerberus was seated behind them. He had grown two additional heads, and his eyes glowed like fiery coals. Zeus reached into his tunic, and extracted a small item. It traveled on a beam of light, from his hand, through the Herculite hull of Seaview, to Nelson. It looked for all the world like a giant golden wishbone.

"Whatís this?" Nelson asked.

"Itís the wishbone of bird of Olympus," said Zeus with a mischievous grin. "It is said that if you break it, a wish will be fulfilled. That is, if you believe in it! Ha ha!" The joke was lost on the men of Seaview.

"Farewell, Admiral Nelson and Seaview," Zeus said. The chariot turned away from the submarine, and sped off into the sky. "Itís been fun!"

"Could you a least tell us your real names?" asked Nelson.

"What? And ruin the myth? Not on your life!" guffawed Zeus as the strange spacecraft sped out of sight. Nelson spoke again.

"Gentlemen, I believe weíve had enough out-of-this-world experiences for the time being. Letís go home."

"Being "gods" must be a real ego trip for them, to keep doing it after theyíve been debunked," commented Crane. Everyone nodded agreement.

"But what about the fight that started all this?" inquired Sharkey.

"It seems to have just disappeared," explained Crane. "There is no more fighting about the year two thousand. They just gave up."

"But what about the millennium? When does it actually start?" Sharkey asked sincerely.

"Letís just let it be a matter of personal opinion," said Nelson firmly.

 

 

THE END