First Duty

By R. L. Keller



Lt. Lee B. Crane was a dead man.  He knew it.  His superior officers knew it.  In fact, the whole crew aboard his current boat, the submarine Nautilus, knew it.  At the moment she was docked at the Naval base in Pearl Harbor, but Lee hadn’t requested shore leave, nor had any been offered.  When he wasn’t attending to those duties that still needed doing in his station, Engineering, he sat quietly in the tiny cabin he shared with three other JOs, his head hanging down, thinking about what had gotten him into this mess in the first place.  Occasionally his head would pop up and his fists would clench as he remembered the incident three days previous, just after Nautilus had docked.  It was not an error, he would remind himself firmly.  Even if it did sort of happen accidentally, it needed doing.  I’m not sorry I did it, and given the same conditions I’d do it again.  Then he would take a deep breath, remind himself that what he did amounted to nothing less than suicide to any advanced career plans he might have with the Navy, and he would once more hang his head.


During those three days, no one on the boat said more to him than they absolutely had to.  Even if one of the junior officers he shared the cabin with walked in, they left him pretty much alone.  Afraid to be found ‘guilty by association,’ he knew.  Oh, there had been a couple of quiet little comments supporting him – always done when no one else could hear.  Nautilus’ corpsman had given him a quick smile and a thumb’s up right after the incident.  Some of the crewmen had given him sympathetic nods.  A couple of times an extra cookie or brownie had appeared on his plate at mealtimes. 


Once, in the Wardroom, the XO, Lt. Cdr. Mains, had walked in when Lee was just finishing his meal.  Lee hadn’t much wanted anything to eat, with the severe case of nerves he’d been fighting ever since the incident.  But knowing that he would ultimately just make himself that much more sick to the stomach if he didn’t, had forced himself to manage at least a few bites three times a day.  Lee had instantly popped to Attention when Mr. Mains entered.  The XO hadn’t said anything, just nodded and waved him back to his seat.  But Lee picked up his plate, scraped the uneaten food into the garbage, and hustled out.  However, not before noticing a look of…something…cross Mains’ face.  At any other time Lee would have thought it a look of amusement.  But Lee didn’t think Mains was that mean or petty to enjoy Lee’s predicament.  Lee really liked the XO.  In fact, he liked the whole crew.  He knew that he’d obviously misread the look.  Probably just pity, he told himself, and hurried back to his duties. 


For Lee had committed the ultimate sin for a military man.  Not only had he questioned his Captain’s instructions, he’d openly, almost as soon as Nautilus had docked, reported his Skipper to the base’s commanding admiral.




The problem – or rather, what Lee considered a problem and his Skipper adamantly hadn’t – started four days prior to Nautilus making port.  Lee had joined the crew almost two months before that, at Norfolk, and this was the first time the boat had docked since.  They’d patrolled the North Atlantic for over a month, eventually cruising under the polar cap and entering the North Pacific.  Lee had been excited and thrilled when he’d received his orders.  Excited to be assigned to the most powerful submarine in the world, and thrilled to be serving under her Skipper, Capt. Harriman Nelson.  Lee had met Nelson his fourth-class year at Annapolis.  Nelson had been an occasional instructor at the Academy all four years that Lee was there.  Other middies had complained that Nelson was a taskmaster and a crackpot, expounding theories of submarine design that sounded too futuristic and impractical to implement, and demanding a level of excellence that many students found extremely hard to attain.  Lee discovered that he liked being pushed to reach higher levels of understanding.  He read in Nelson an intensity to strive further than mere competency, a need that struck cords within Lee.


And apparently Nelson recognized those attributes in Lee as well.  Nelson never showed favoritism.  In fact just the opposite – he seemed to push Lee harder.  But between the two there grew a connection.  Lee could easily admit that Nelson had become very much a mentor to him.  Lee’s own father had died when Lee was only five.  Nelson nurtured in Lee the natural curiosity – about everything – that Lee’s mother had instilled in him, and became a man that Lee looked up to.


Now, Lee was going to have the opportunity to work under Nelson in actual environments, not just classroom simulations.  He was honest enough to admit to a bit of trepidation, along with the excitement.  Lee had not seen Nelson since graduation, and it was never easy trying to live up to the expectations you assumed would be placed on you by those you considered your mentors.


Lee had quickly settled in to the boat’s rhythms and routines.  As the most junior of the officers he didn’t have much free time.  He was expected to not only become totally comfortable with his own Engineering duties, but to familiarize himself with all the other stations as well.  He got along with the other officers.  He made a point to get to know those crewmen he directly supervised, as well as at least chat with as many others as he came in contact with.  While remaining relaxed and friendly around them, he taught the men under his command that while he broached no slouching of duties, he was also right there helping them with any problems that should arise.


Those first few weeks Lee saw little of Capt. Nelson.  Lee was assigned the Dog watch – 0000 to 0600 hours – and, if he wasn’t on watch he was participating in drills, evaluating the results, studying manuals to improve results, and getting ready for the next set of drills.  Submarines were a tight environment that only survived if everyone performed on exceptionally high levels.  Lee pushed his men to excel, but he pushed himself even harder.  The acceptance of his peers was good, but acceptance from himself that he’d done the best he was capable of was demanded.


As watches were rotated, and Lee was assigned various other duties, he had the opportunity to spend more time in the Conn and around Capt. Nelson, as well as share the occasional meal in the Wardroom.  Their previous acquaintance was never mentioned, except for one brief conversation one day when Nelson walked into the Wardroom for a cup of coffee and interrupted an impromptu poker game among the off-duty JOs.  The incident reminded both men of something that had happened at Annapolis, and caused a brief smile and a few words from each of them.*


Lee did feel comfortable that he was accepted aboard Nautilus.  The crewmen under him easily followed his leadership.  The occasional nods that he got from the COB told him that the man most responsible for the enlisted aboard – and someone, Lee had discovered, who usually frowned on ‘wet behind the ears’ junior officers – had no qualms with him.  Lee knew that a good COB felt it his responsibility to make sure the crewmen were treated right.  COBs took their complaints directly to the Executive Officer, and so far Lee had had nothing other than complimentary comments on his performance.  Well, except for being called to task one day by his direct supervisor, Lt. Worth, for helping a couple crewmen repair some faulty wiring when he was supposed to be in his rack sleeping.  But Lee had known that there was a major drill coming up in just a few hours, and wanted to make sure that his department was ready for it.  By helping out he was assuring that his men were well rested and ready for whatever was thrown at them.  When he’d explained that to Worth, the Lieutenant had just shaken his head, reminded Lee that he was also responsible for making sure that he was ready for the drills as well, and ordered him to stand down.  Lee had crashed – reluctantly.  But he’d gotten a good deal of satisfaction when his section scored the highest rankings for proficiency on the next day’s exercises. 


A couple of times during the cruise, Nelson had ordered Nautilus stopped and he’d gone out on dives to collect samples of some sort.  Lee knew that Nelson was almost more scientist than naval officer, and that he was a certifiable genius.  Some of Nelson’s more disgruntled students at Annapolis had referred to him as merely ‘certifiable.’  Lee wasn’t sure what the Navy thought about Nelson obviously continuing his research.  But then, it wasn’t his place to consider such topics.  When he was assigned to accompany Nelson on a dive shortly before they were to reach Pearl Harbor for re-supply, he’d eagerly complied.


As they were suiting up, Nelson explained that various instrumentation in the Conn had suddenly acted oddly while Nautilus was passing a seemingly insignificant seamount.  A few kilometers further on, everything had returned to normal.  Nelson had ordered Nautilus back to the seamount where, again, instruments went a little haywire.  They weren’t all that deep, and the water was clear.  Nelson was going out to do a visual inspection of the seamount, and collect samples to see if he could figure out what was causing the anomalous readings.  He didn’t explain why he’d chosen Lee to accompany him, and Lee didn’t particularly care.  He loved diving for whatever reason, and having the opportunity to go with Nelson was just that much better.


At first, all went well.  They noticed that whatever was causing the strange readings onboard was also having an effect on their diving instruments.  But as they both had full tanks, and Nautilus was close by, neither thought much about it.  There were no outward indications of an explanation from a brief visual inspection of the otherwise innocent-looking rise on the ocean floor.  Nelson had brought along an auger for taking samples from within the mound, which Lee carefully stowed in the collection bag he carried.


They’d taken about half a dozen samples, and Nelson was just about to complete another one, when a burst of steam sprayed out of the hole Nelson was making.  It was strong enough to throw both men back, Nelson harder than Lee as he was closer to it.  Nelson fell backwards against the seafloor, jarring his body and causing him to momentarily lose his scuba mouthpiece.  But even before Lee could reach him, he’d gotten himself back under control.  He’d just shrugged off Lee’s concern, retrieved his auger, and they returned to the boat.  While they re-dressed, Nelson explained that apparently there was a pocket inside the mound, which he had inadvertently tapped.  He just laughed it off as one of the hazards of undersea exploration, gathered up the sample bag, and headed to the small laboratory Lee knew that he maintained on the sub.


Lee was concerned, however, by the fact that Nelson had been coughing rather heavily once they returned to the boat, and suspected the Skipper of having swallowed some water during the brief time that he’d been without his mouthpiece.  Nelson was also a smoker, so tended toward a slight cough from time to time anyway.  Between the two it bothered Lee.  He casually mentioned that perhaps Nelson should let the corpsman check him over, but Nelson just waved off the suggestion and walked away.  Lee could do nothing more than shrug and get back to his duties.


The next day Lee happened to be in the Wardroom when Nelson and XO Mains walked in.  Lee was quick to note that Nelson’s cough had not diminished.  It didn’t seem to have affected the Skipper’s appetite, however, as he loaded his plate and sat down to eat.  Lee was done eating, and rose to leave just as the two senior officers were sitting down.  He hesitated, not sure what he wanted to do, and Mr. Mains pointed an eyebrow at him.


“A question, Mr. Crane?”


“Yes, sir, if I’m not interrupting.”


Nelson’s rumbled chuckles filled the small room.  “We were just discussing the fourteen hours of debriefing we’re both going to have to endure when we reach Pearl.  And that’s after some presentation I’ve been ‘invited’ to attend at the Punchbowl Cemetery – some senator wants to get himself in the newspaper, apparently.  Your question is a welcome respite to those thoughts.”


Despite himself, Lee sent both men a small look of half-smile, half-grimace.  Debriefings were a necessary part of the completion of any cruise, but they always seemed like such a royal pain.  Lee wasn’t even going to get into a few senators’ speeches he’d been stuck listening to over the last couple of years.  “Just wondering, sir,” he addressed Capt. Nelson, “if you’d answered the puzzle of the seamount?”


Nelson’s reply continued to be punctuated by small coughs.  “The samples we brought in proved to contain magnetic particles.  That happens sometimes around thermal vents.  In one sample the concentration was larger than I’ve ever seen in that kind of setting, however.”  His eyes were sparkling.


Lee had to struggle to maintain a benign expression, and suspected that he knew why XO Mains had to quickly hide a smile behind his coffee mug.  There was never any doubt when Nelson was expounding on an exciting subject.  Well, exiting to him, anyway.  But just as Lee was about to comment, a particularly heavy cough hit the Captain.  “Sir…” Lee started to once more suggest that Nelson see the corpsman.


But Nelson cut him off with a firm, “Aren’t you due on watch, mister?”


Actually, Lee wasn’t scheduled for almost an hour.  But he was only too familiar with that tone, whether it came from his Skipper or his instructor.  “Aye, sir,” he acquiesced, turned, and left.


Lee didn’t see Capt. Nelson at all the next day, but he did have reports of Nelson’s activities - accidental though they were.  Just as he walked into the Wardroom for breakfast, he overheard the XO say to the ‘B’ watch officer, Lt. Corcoran, something about Nelson being up half the night.  Corcoran started to reply, noticed Lee, and both he and Mains stopped talking.  But Lee had had occasion to walk past the Skipper’s cabin during the night, having to run up to the Conn from Engineering to check on a gauge that the watch officer suspected was malfunctioning, and he’d heard Nelson coughing badly.  And at supper there were a couple of mutters between two other JOs who had apparently been chewed out by Capt. Nelson over a minor incident in the Conn that afternoon.  Nelson had left right after the incident and returned to his cabin – at least that’s the story the JOs were told by XO Mains when he quietly tried to smooth the feathers Nelson’s reprimand had ruffled.  Mains had told them that Nelson was just on edge over something, and once they reached Pearl and everyone had some leave time, things would calm down.  Lee figured that he’d meant when Nelson finally started feeling better, but he kept that thought to himself.


What happened the following morning, and what got Lee into such trouble, might not have happened at all if a few seemingly unrelated occurrences hadn’t chosen to take place all at the same time.  Lee was assigned Duty Watch at the conning hatch, checking off all crew headed for shore leave.  He didn’t mind, enjoying the chance to exchange a few casual words with the crewmen.  It meant standing out in a slight drizzle of rain, but that didn’t bother him, either.  He did give half a thought to Nelson’s earlier comment about having to go to a speech of some sort, but figured that there would be canopies set up.  The senators Lee had run into on occasion didn’t seem the kind to like getting wet!  An official car pulled up at the base of the gangplank and Admiral Daniel Laird, the base commander, exited the rear seat just as Lee heard a heavy cough sound on the ladder inside the hatch.  Lee had met Admiral Laird following a TAD assignment to ONI, the Navy’s intelligence agency.  The mission culminated at Pearl, and Laird had sat in on the debriefing.  He’d been impressed with the young Lieutenant’s handling of a rather delicate matter involving the daughter of a foreign diplomat who had seduced the son of a Marine general and nearly gotten him to hand over several highly classified documents.  Laird had wanted Lee assigned to Pearl, apparently to ‘handle’ a couple of problems they were having, but ONI had refused to release Lee from their immediate clutches.  Laird had told Lee that, anytime he wanted, he had a position on the Admiral’s staff.  Lee had just smiled, thanked him, and headed off to his next assignment.


It took Laird several steps up the gangplank before he realized who was standing at the top.  Lee saluted smartly, but a slight smile touched his lips as Laird returned the salute lazily and a grin hit his face.  “Crane,” he greeted Lee with an outstretched hand.  “So this is where you’re hiding these days.”


Lee’s reply was cut off as Capt. Nelson stepped through the hatch.  “I gather you know my newest JO.”  Nelson smiled as well, then had to quickly cover a cough.


“Had the pleasure of his company for a few hours at the tail end of a TAD assignment.”  Laird continued to grin as he also held out a hand to Nelson.  “Told him I’d make a place for him on my staff anytime.”


“Well, you can’t have him before he’s finished his tour here,” Nelson told the Admiral firmly.


“Ah, Harry, you mean we can’t negotiate on our way out to the Punchbowl for the ceremonies?”  He glanced at the soggy skies.  “Or better yet, over a hot drink at the ‘O’ club afterwards.  As long-winded at Senator Harris is, we’re all going to be drenched by the time he shuts up.”  He glanced at Lee.  “And you didn’t hear that, Lieutenant,’ he ordered.  But he was still grinning.


“No, sir,” Lee answered instantly.  Nelson tried unsuccessfully to smother another cough.  “But, sir, Capt. Nelson shouldn’t be out in this…”


“Stow it, mister,” Nelson ordered with a glare.


Lee came to Attention.  “Yes, sir,” he responded smartly.  He couldn’t bring himself to look directly at his Skipper.  Nelson started to walk past him down the gangplank, obviously expecting Admiral Laird to follow.


But Laird hesitated, looked between the two a moment, and then addressed Lee.  His words stopped Nelson’s forward progress, and he turned back.  “Captain, I think I’d like to hear what the Lieutenant was about to say.”


Lee didn’t dare look at Capt. Nelson.  He could almost feel the heat from the twin blue lasers he knew were being directed at him from his Skipper’s eyes.  He felt trapped, now that he’d actually opened his mouth.  But it was too late now.  “Capt. Nelson had a minor diving accident a few days ago, and has been coughing ever since.  He shouldn’t be standing out in this rain, sir.”  He took a deep breath.  “At least, in my opinion, sir.”  He prepared himself to get blasted into the next time zone, such was Nelson’s infamous temper.


It didn’t happen.  Admiral Laird gave him a long look, then turned toward Nelson.  “Is the Lieutenant correct, Harry?”


“I’m fine,” Nelson growled.  Unfortunately, he also coughed again.


“I think, perhaps, we’ll just test that theory – at the base hospital.”  He turned finally toward Nelson.  “If nothing else, it’s a great excuse to get out of going to that stupid speech.”  He grinned at Nelson.  Nelson wasn’t amused.  He sent a particularly dangerous look Lee’s way, but Laird cut it off with another chuckle.  “Capt. Nelson.”  There was still a smile on his face, but a command in the tone of his voice.


It wasn’t lost on Nelson.  He finally looked at Laird, and lost some of his stiff posture.  “Sir,” he acquiesced.  Laird nodded down the gangplank, and the two men made their way back to the car, and that was the last time Nelson had been on the boat.




Which explained why Lee now found himself in his present predicament.  He’d had no word of Capt. Nelson’s condition, nor had he asked; he’d just kept his nose in his own duties.  And thoughts of how his once-promising naval career could go to hell-in-a-hand-basket so fast.  He was just standing up, feeling like he was about to lose what little he’d eaten for breakfast, when the intercom went off.  “Lt. Crane,” came in XO Mains’ clear, calm voice, “report to the Conn.  And bring your jacket and cover.”


Lee took a deep breath.  Here it comes, he thought.  I get my six tossed off the boat without benefit of the gangplank.  Although, Mains hadn’t told him to pack his kit…


“Lt. Crane,” demanded the intercom.  Lee hustled to control his woolgathering and jumped for the button.


“On my way, sir,” he answered smartly.  He still took a couple of seconds to try and get himself under control, grabbed the required two items, and hustled forward.


He entered the Conn with trepidation, but the only men there were the skeleton duty crew needed to maintain the boat in port, and XO Mains.  No Capt. Nelson, as Lee was expecting.  Mains’ face carried its usual neutral expression, and he turned casually at Lee’s approach.  He picked up something from the chart table and, as Lee stopped a few feet away, tossed it to Lee.  Lee caught it easily, and discovered a small set of keys.


“There’s a car waiting on the dock, Lieutenant.  Take it and drive over to the base hospital.  Capt. Nelson is being released.”


“Yes, sir,” was all Lee could manage to get out.  Capt. Nelson was going to have him alone – in a car – and Lee just knew that he’d be lucky not to have broken eardrums before he could complete the relatively short drive back to the dock.


“And be quick about it,” Mains’ voice broke in as Lee just continued to stand there.  “Capt. Nelson doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”


“No, sir.” Lee sputtered.  “Ah, I mean, yes, sir.”  He started to turn away.


“Do you know the way across the base?” Mains asked.


“Yes, sir,” Lee answered, stopping his turn.  “I’ve been there a couple of times.”  Mains raised an eyebrow, inviting an explanation.  When it didn’t come, he just nodded.


But Lee hesitated.  “Sir?  Why me, sir?  Wouldn’t it be better if someone else…”


Mains cut him off.  “The Captain asked for you personally, Lieutenant.  Now be off.  Room 203,” he added.


“Aye, sir,” and Lee scurried up the ladder to the conning hatch.  This time there was no mistaking, despite the benign expression on the XO’s face, the sparkle of humor that danced in his eyes.  Boy, did I misjudge him, Lee admitted reluctantly.


It took a scant fifteen minutes to make the short drive across the base to the hospital, and the entire way Lee’s stomach kept threatening to disgrace him.  When he pulled into the parking lot he took a couple of deep breaths, straightened up, and got a firm grip on his emotions.  “I will not dissolve into a puddle of guilt,” he told himself.  “Whatever happens, I brought it on myself.  I’m still happy that Capt. Nelson got the treatment that he obviously needed, and if it scuttles my career, letting an illness go untreated didn’t end his.  That’s what’s the most important thing here.”  He clamped his cover on his head and walked with determination across the parking lot and through the front doors to the hospital.


Once inside, cover tucked under his arm, some of his resolve tried to melt away.  He stopped at the desk to get directions.  When he mentioned the room number, the nurse on duty rolled her eyes.  “Finally,” she muttered.  “Be glad to see the last of that one!”  She pointed Lee in the proper direction.  Lee’s resolve faltered a bit more, just for a second, before he gave himself another mental shake and headed down the hall.


The door to the room he wanted was standing open, and Lee stopped at the entrance.  Nelson had his back to the door, putting a few things into the small kit that was lying on the bed.  There was a wheelchair sitting a few feet away from him.  Lee took a deep breath and knocked on the doorframe.  “Lt. Crane, reporting as ordered, sir,” he said quietly.


Nelson spun on his heel at the sound.  “Harrumph,” he growled.  “About time.”  He finished stuffing the few items into his kit, closed it, and turned and sat down in the wheelchair, kit in his lap.  “Push,” he ordered.


Lee blinked, unmoving.  “Sir?”


“I said push, Lieutenant.  The blasted hospital won’t let me just walk out.  Blasted regulations.”  He sent Lee one of the most menacing glares Lee had ever seen on the man’s face.  Lee scurried to comply.


Nothing more was said between the two as Lee propelled his CO down the hall and out the front doors.  The instant they closed behind them Nelson bounced out of the chair and once more glared at Lee.  Lee quickly pushed the chair back inside the doors and over to one side, out of the way, and hurried back to show Nelson the way to the car.  Nelson’s face continued to hold a scowl, and Lee wasted no time heading back toward the docks.


But, about half way back, Nelson suddenly ordered, “Pull over.”


“Sir?”  They were down between two huge storage buildings, a short cut Lee had learned on one of his earlier visits to the base.


“I said, pull over.”  Nelson’s voice had changed from gruff growl to almost soft.


Lee nearly stopped breathing.  He’d had occasion to hear that tone in the Captain’s voice only once during his four years at Annapolis.  It was an indication of Nelson at his most dangerous, and did not bode well – at all – for the person on the other end.  Lee pulled the car over carefully, put it in park, and turned off the motor.  Here it comes, he told himself.  He left his hands on the steering wheel, more to have something for them to do than anything, and turned his head not quite to the point of looking directly at Nelson.  “Sir?” he said again, quietly.


“Lieutenant, do you know why I asked to have you come pick me up?”  Nelson’s voice was still soft.


Lee’s stomach was once again doing flip-flops.  But he took a deep breath and said what he believed.  “To rip me a new one, in private, for my insubordination.  Sir,” he added, carefully.


Nelson’s instant laughter filled the car, and Lee finally looked fully at him, totally incredulous.  It took Nelson a few moments to get himself back under control, but he finally shook a finger at Lee.  “Three days ago…” he continued to chuckle softly, “and without Admiral Laird’s presence, you’d have been right.”  He sent Lee a meaningful look.  “Just as you were right to do what you did at the time.”


Lee just stared at him.  “Sir?”  Suddenly it seemed the only word that would come easily out of his mouth.


“Right then, I was so mad at you that I could have tossed you to the sharks and not given it another thought.”  It was Nelson’s turn to give himself a little shake.  “And I would have been totally wrong.”  Lee just continued to stare unabashedly.  “Oh, I knew that I was sick.  But be hanged if I’d let myself admit it.  Mains knew it.  Hell, the whole blasted boat knew it.  But it took our newest, most junior officer, to do the right thing and make me deal with it.”  Lee opened his mouth, nothing came out, and he closed it again.


“Lee, the Navy doesn’t spend all those years and dollars training officers to be ‘yes’ men.  Oh,” he sent Lee a particularly knowing look, “a certain amount of discipline has to be maintained.”


“Yes, sir,” Lee finally was able to acknowledge, albeit carefully.


“But we need officers who can think on their feet and deal effectively with problems as they arise.  I’m thanking you for what you did.  Now,” he sent Lee a glare, “ you pull a stunt like that on my watch again, and I’ll toss you overboard and forget where.  Do I make myself clear?”


 “Yes, sir.”  As a smile touched Nelson’s eyes, Lee let himself finally take a relaxed breath.  “Not without a good reason, at least, sir,” he added, looking at Nelson through slightly lowered eyes.


Nelson’s glare momentarily turned nasty, before he once more burst out laughing, and lightly backhanded Lee’s shoulder.  “Now, get me back to the boat.  I want off this base and back to sea as fast as we can manage it.”


“Aye, sir,” Lee agreed enthusiastically, and turned the ignition.


Nothing was said for a bit, then Nelson broke the silence, speaking almost – but not quite – to himself.  “I told Mr. Mains, when we received your orders, that life aboard was about to get interesting.”  He sent Lee a soft grin.  “I think that he’s finally starting to believe me.”  Once more Nelson’s soft chuckles filled the car.





*see “Cobwebs” by R. L. Keller