THE PHANTOM STRIKES BACK
DIANE FARNSWORTH KACHMAR
Lee once again felt the fog... cold, wet, clinging... enveloping him as his life ebbed away. Krueger had left again. Where the German's voice had been in his mind, there now was only deep paralyzing cold. The whisper no longer controlled him, making Lee do things he didn't want to do. He couldn't see, couldn't move. Black rustling darkness surrounded him. Dimly he heard voices. Krueger. No, there were two voices, arguing. Nelson. The Admiral wouldn’t leave him here to die.
Crane struggled to open his eyes, to move, but the darkness remained. Was he still on the island?
That voice made him shiver uncontrollably. Lee knew it only too well. Krueger. He had returned from his errand to possess him once again. No. He wouldn't be pushed aside again. There had to be some way to fight...
"It does you no good to resist, Kaptain. You are mine and I will have you."
"No." Lee shook his head vehemently, not knowing whether it was his voice or his thoughts that formed the words. "I won't go with you. I'll die first."
There was a pause; then Krueger's voice came back, soft, icily cold. "You ARE dead, Kaptain. That is why I have come back for you."
"No." Lee sat bolt upright, the dark fog finally lifting from his vision. A room hazily took shape around him. Sick Bay. Seaview. Nelson HAD brought him home.
"Alas, he tried, Kaptain, but the shock - he made me leave you once too often. A mortal body can only take so much ..." Krueger gestured behind Crane, and Lee turned, his eyes widening in shock.
He was lying, or at least his body, was lying in the Sick Bay berth. Unnaturally pale, and so still. Dead?
"Come, Kaptain." Krueger latched onto his arm, his touch burning like ice. "It is time to go."
Lee recoiled, pulling his arm free. "I'm not going anywhere with you."
"You must, Kaptain." Krueger smiled. " I have claimed the right to your soul. You must come serve my submarine."
"You're mad! I destroyed your U-Boat. I saw her explode."
"No, Kaptain. She merely ceased to exist on your mortal plane. And now so have you. You have crossed the threshold into my world now, and you will do as I say."
Against his will, Lee felt himself being drawn. He steeled himself against the insidious whisper inside his head. His body was there on the bed, apparently lifeless; yet he could see, and hear. "This is wrong. There's been a mistake. I won't go with you."
"But you must, Kaptain."
The whisper grew stronger, forcing him to move. No. I can't. Admiral...
"Nelson can no longer help you. You are mine."
Lee felt his feet moving. Krueger's will was too strong and he didn't have the strength to resist. They walked past Nelson, asleep in the other Sickbay berth, and out of the room. Jamieson raised his head from his report as they walked in front of him; but when he looked right through him, Lee knew he must be dead.
Cold despair filled him, yet Krueger kept urging him on. Turning in the corridor, the German walked straight through a bulkhead, heading for the sea. Lee expected to be brought up short, but found he passed through the seven inches of steel plate as easily as his companion. Three more bulkheads and they had left the submarine behind.
"Come, Kaptain, it grows late."
Kreuger set off across the open sea, walking about thirty feet above the ocean floor without a thought for his surroundings or height. Lee felt his flesh crawl momentarily but doggedly followed after Krueger. There was no sensation of pressure, or water, only cold. He had to be dead. There was no way he could defy the laws of gravity and pressure this way.
Lee smiled wryly. If he wasn't dead, he would be by now, no suit, no tank. He stopped, feeling his chest. He wasn't breathing, either. Great. And he certainly wasn't wet. Being dead was turning out to be quite weird. He also felt no sense of time. One minute they were walking; the next the U-444 loomed before them.
"Is she not beautiful?" Krueger gestured expansively. "You will serve her well."
Lee stopped, staring at his new home in disbelief. There were gaping, rusted holes in the hull, the deck plates twisted and warped by the explosions. The hatches were buckled, the conning tower bent and twisted. Krueger was mad if he thought he could raise her.
Krueger walked through the nearest bulkhead, disappearing inside the U-444.
Lee paused. This was insanity. But what other choice did he have? Wander the seas forever in this 'spirit' existence? He longed for Seaview. But what could he do there? Walk the corridors unseen, watch his friends grieve for him, and then get on their lives. Could he stand to see her commanded by another?
A hand came snaking out from the bulkhead and closed around his wrist, yanking him toward the submarine. A moment later Lee was inside the U-444.
"Are you always this stubborn, Kaptain?" Krueger dropped his wrist. "We must get underway."
Lee followed the German up to the control room. The inside of the sub was filled with water, but Krueger seemed oblivious to the fish that swam past his ears. Lee could not feel them, in time, he supposed, he would get used to it.
The control room was deserted. Lee was not sure what he had been expecting. A skeleton or two perhaps, but then they had probably all returned to the sea after sixty years. The small cramped room bore no resemblance to Seaview, but the equipment looked somewhat familiar. Lee picked up an archaic is-was plotter from the navigation table.
"Set course. Bearing 270. Mark 54."
Lee set the coordinates on the plotter, wondering how Krueger knew them. The periscope would never rise - not with its cables off track and underfoot. The ship began to rise. Lee grabbed for the edge of the table as the bow came up slowly. "Where are we going?" He turned to Krueger.
"Hunting," was the German's grim reply.
And hunt they did. It did not seem to matter than the U-444 was in ruins. The controls worked... somehow. They would stalk and target, and then destroy. One long endless game. It became hard to think in terms of time or reality. They were hunters in a grand game, and they hunted ghosts. Lee say classes of ships he had only read about in his history texts.
Krueger was in his element, shouting orders, and Lee had no choice but to obey. Where could he go? Doomed to an eternity of fighting. He had never liked fighting. Was it blind fate or poetic justice that had so bound his soul to Krueger's? He had killed, but it wasn't his life, and Lee had never wanted it to be his death.
Krueger had been tracking the World War II sub for days it seemed. Lee had remained silent. The German was going to be outmatched if he persisted to setting up Wahoo as a target. The old ships had been no match for U-444, but this was different. But then, maybe he'd get lucky and Wahoo would release him from this nightmare existence.
"Fire!" Krueger yelled, and Lee hit the torpedo firing button.
Krueger began counting. Nothing. The count exceeded the range. Still nothing. A miss. Lee turned to set up the plot again.
The U-444 shook with a sudden clang. They had been hit. Wahoo had their range. Their forward bulkhead buckled, and U-444 lurched, her bow dropping. Two more torpedoes thudded into their side, driving them to the sea floor.
All around him the submarine was breaking apart. Krueger was still shouting orders, but Lee refused to obey them. They were going down. Soon she would bottom out and the bulkheads would implode in on top of them. He could not die again, but would he cease to exist now the U-444 was destroyed? Or would Krueger find another place for them to dwell?
Lee put the plotter down on the table. Enough was enough. What else could Krueger do to him, he was already dead.
"Kaptain, you must - " Krueger was beside him, shoving the plotter into his hands.
"No!" Lee threw the plotter to the deck. "Do what you will, exile me to limbo, but I won't be your slave!"
Krueger glowered menacingly. "You will do as I say!"
Then the sub bottomed out. The bulkheads came crashing inward, knocking Lee to the deck. Everything went hazy, then the rustling darkness was back. How could a dead person be knocked unconscious?
Crane started. That wasn't Krueger's voice.
"Lee?!" the voice persisted, a strong undercurrent of concern in it. Nelson. What was he doing here? The Admiral was far away on Seaview. It was a trick of Krueger's. He was trying to drive him mad.
Lee did not dare open his eyes. He did not want to see the gloating face of the German above him.
"Lee??" Nelson's voice nearly broke, and Crane forced his eyes open. There was no way Krueger could duplicate that inflection.
Everything was fuzzy and he blinked, trying to focus. Lee felt the pressure on his arms ease, and he was suddenly aware someone had been shaking him.
"He's with us." Jamieson's voice came from behind his head.
"Thank God." Nelson replied, relief evident in his tired voice.
Crane turned his head toward Nelson, and the slight movement set off a fire in his right side. The fuzziness began to spin, and he shut his eyes against the vertigo, feeling weak and sick. Strong hands gripped his shoulders, raising him slightly, and Lee felt something - no, someone, sit on the bed and slide in behind him, bracing him.
"Easy," Jamie cautioned as the grip around his shoulders tightened.
Lee leaned back gratefully. He knew that touch, the familiar solidness. The Admiral HAD brought him home.
"I hope all his thrashing around hasn't started his wound bleeding again." Jamieson's hand touched his side and the pain flared. Lee tried not to stiffen, but his body would not respond.
"Sorry." Doc’s hand lifted, and the pain subsided slightly. Lee fought to bring his breathing under control. Crane tried to open his eyes again. After a moment or two, the fuzziness cleared, and he saw Jamieson about halfway down the bed. The Doctor had pulled down his covers, and was doing something to a large, crimson stained bandage wrapped around his stomach. It felt like Jamie was driving a ice pick into his side.
"Steady." Nelson's voice came from behind him. Lee could feel his hands, bracing him through his sweat soaked sickbay shirt. They were warm, and the Admiral's voice was calm now, low and reassuring.
Lee glanced up at him, and tried to smile, to let him know who wonderful it felt to be alive. And to be home. That took all the strength he seemed to have left, but it was worth it when Nelson met his eyes and the corners of his mouth turned up in a warm, affectionate smile in return.
Again the pain in his side flared as Jamie added several strips of gauze to his bandage, and taped them down.
Lee swallowed hard, trying to find his voice. Jamieson took out his stethoscope and laid it on his wrist, listening for a moment, then put it away.
"How -- " The words would not form.
"Don't try to talk, Lee." Jamie put a restraining hand on his left arm above the IV.
"You want to tell him?" Nelson asked.
Doc smiled slightly. "If he can stay awake that long."
Lee tried to nod, but his head refused to move. He could only look at Jamieson.
Jamie gave his arm a reassuring pat. "You lost a lot of blood before the Admiral finally got you back here yesterday, in fact it took me all night to get you stable enough to remove the bullet."
Lee's eyes widened as he realized the passage of time.
Doc shrugged. "After that we could only hope you were strong enough to come out of it." Jamieson's eyes narrowed. "That was some nightmare."
"It's all right, Lee. Krueger's gone. Lani took him with her."
"I -- " Lee forced out the words out. "I -- thought -- I was -- dead."
"No chance," Nelson replied. "You only kept us up all night worrying."
Lee shifted his gaze back to the Admiral. "Again?"
To his relief, Nelson and the Doctor laughed.
"C'mon, Harry." Jamie pushed off the bed. "He needs to rest." The CMO scowled down at Crane. "No more nightmares."
"Yes -- Jamie." Lee was too tired to argue. Nelson eased him back prone on the bed, and Jamieson pulled the covers back up. He was safe here, they would look after him. Krueger would not get him here.
Jamieson walked quietly over the storage cabinet. "He'll be all right, now he knows where he is."
"What did you call that - a regression nightmare?"
"Yes. Having Krueger take him over must have upset him more than we realized. I'll talk to him about it when he's stronger, help him."
"That Krueger. I hope he's gone to hell for good."
"She promised you, didn't she."
"Then let it go." Doc put the gauze roll back in the cabinet. "C'mon, I'm starved. Let's go eat supper." Will swung the cabinet closed and left. Harry followed him.
The mirror on the cabinet reflected back the now quiet Sick Bay. Frank sat at the desk; writing. The Captain was sleeping, his chest rising slightly with each breath.
The surface of the mirror shimmered, then the outline of a man took shape. Short, slightly on the stocky side, dressed in a black jacket and German Naval Officers' cap.
Crane shifted in his sleep, tossing restlessly, and Frank rose from the desk. The image in the mirror smiled, then laughed quietly.
"So you think you have won, Nelson. Your love was stronger than my will and you managed to snatch him back. But I have time. One day, when your guard is down, I shall take him. Then he will be mine forever."
The mirror shimmered, and the German's image faded away.
Crane subsided, burrowing back into his pillow, and after a brief examination, Frank resumed his seat. Nothing out of the ordinary. The corpsman shrugged. Must be the pain. He’d make a note of it and let Doc decide whether Crane needed more medication.
The worst of it was over for the Captain, he would recover. It had been close, but then that was nothing new. It had a wild couple of days, something to write home about. Frank looked down at the report. Then again, maybe not...