A Subtle Little Reminder

By R. L. Keller

For Rosie, because I promised to write her a Chip story. This also follows in the timeline begun in 'DJ', and continued in 'There Will Be an Answer'.

Chip wasn't at all surprised to discover that the first two faces he saw as he climbed up the access ladder from FS1 were those of Admiral Nelson and Dr. Jamison. Nor was he surprised at the first words he heard. His feet had barely hit Seaview's deck when Jamie demanded, "How's the Skipper?"

Chip let a small grin escape. The giant submarine's Captain, also Chip's best friend, had been injured during a recent 'errand' for ONI. While he was recovering, albeit slowly, the CMO had refused to allow him back aboard for Seaview's next cruise. Given two choices, either staying at the Institute and being 'Mother Henned' by Doc or recuperating at the Bed & Breakfast friends ran on the Oregon coast, Lee had chosen what to him was the lesser of two evils. Chip had driven him up several days ago, and spent the time before he was due to report relaxing with the B&B's hosts, Tim and Annie Hughes. Chief Sharkey had met him that morning in Newport with the Flying Sub, as Seaview made her way toward the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska. Leaving an under-the-weather Lee was made a bit easier knowing that the Hughes, old friends from Naval Academy days, shared his concern for Lee's welfare. Personally, Chip figured Lee would be more 'mother henned' by Annie then he would have been by Doc! Although, Chip grinned again, Lee will probably handle it better, coming from her. Then again

Thinking about the past few days, Chip didn't answer the question fast enough, and Nelson prodded, somewhat impatiently, "Chip?"

"Grumpy," Chip answered, his smile broadening. "But doing okay," he assured both men, as well as the obviously eavesdropping crewmen who were close enough. Not that Chip could totally object. The entire crew took a rather proprietary attitude toward their Skipper. "Still gets tired quite easily, but manages to climb the two flights of stairs to the room with minimal trouble. Annie shoves food at him as often as she thinks she can get away with it, and keeps pretty close tabs on him the rest of the time."

"And did you finally get to meet his new girlfriend, Lacey?" Nelson asked softly.

"I was right the first time, Admiral," Chip answered with a straight face. No way was he going to tell the men how he'd been introduced. "She's a real dog." But he shared a look and a laugh with Chief Sharkey, just coming up behind him.

"Now, Chip" Nelson started, but Chip held up a hand.

"No, really," and he reached into his shirt pocket. Pulling out a picture, he handed it to the Admiral. He'd taken it surreptitiously the day before with his digital camera as he, Lee, and the Hughes were finishing a picnic lunch on the beach below the B&B, then printed it out that evening, unbeknownst to Lee, on Tim's computer. Lee was sitting on the sand, one hand draped casually on the back of the beautiful blue merle Shetland Sheepdog's neck, scratching gently behind her half-tipped ears. She was sitting next to Lee, looking at him intently. It had been a very warm day and Lee had been persuaded to wear shorts to the beach. They, and the T-shirt he wore, did little to hide how painfully thin Lee still was. But he was smiling broadly at something Annie had just said and at least looked semi-normal.

"She appears to be quite enamored of him," Nelson observed dryly.

"Barely lets him out of her sight," Chip agreed. His grin was quickly matched by those on the two older men's faces as they looked at the picture. "I thought I'd post that in the Wardroom," Chip continued. "And I gave one to Sharkey to put in the Crew's Mess.

"Chip," Nelson started firmly, although still grinning broadly, "I'd really rather not have to break in a new XO."

"Oh, we'll take them down before he comes back aboard. Maybe," he added with a snicker. "With your permission, Sir, I'll dump my gear in my cabin before officially taking over command of the submarine." Nelson waved him up the spiral staircase, slowly shaking his head.

Chip didn't get very far when, finished in his cabin, he headed back toward the Conn. Admiral Nelson was standing in his open doorway, and motioned him inside. Chip wasn't really surprised to find Doc there as well. Both men would be wanting a more detailed account of Lee's health, away from where the crew could so easily overhear. He grinned as he entered the cabin and sat down in the chair they'd left him. "Had a feeling you wouldn't let me get away with so little a report," he said to the CMO. "Didn't expect to be pounced on quite this fast, however." His grin broadened at the scowl Jamie sent him.

"Harrumph," came out as a warning from Nelson, but he couldn't stop a small grin of his own.

"Lee's very frustrated," the blond finally admitted, sitting on the edge of the chair by Nelson's desk. Jamie had the other visitor's chair, and the Admiral sat down behind his desk. "But he admitted to me that he didn't think he could have stayed at the Institute without going a little bonkers, and getting away was probably for the best."

"Did you see any improvement?" Jamie wanted to know.

Chip sighed, and shook his head. "Not a lot. But then, it's only been a few days."

"He walked down to the beach, where that picture was taken, himself?" the doctor asked.

Chip snorted. "You think any of us had guts enough to try and help?" Both Jamie and Nelson gave him sheepish grins. "From where the parking lot is, it's not much farther than what he's been walking at home. He did it twice while I was there ­ yesterday, and on Sunday. The first time it pretty much wiped him out, and he lay down and slept almost 15 hours. Yesterday did seem to be better. He was still tired when we got back but didn't immediately crash. And both times, when he woke up, he seemed to have recovered well."

Jamie nodded. "That's what I've noticed, too. Even when he does overextend himself, a good rest and he's back to where he was. It's just getting him to rest" All three men cringed slightly.

But Chip almost immediately brightened. "You two haven't met Annie. If anyone can get him to behave, it will be her. She's been harassing us since our Segundo year at Annapolis, when she met Tim. She's always treated Lee like the little brother who needed to be kept watch on."

"And Lee still likes her?" Nelson was amazed.

Chip laughed. "It's hard not to like Annie. And besides, you know how old-fashioned Lee is. Well, that's not the term I should use, I suppose," he admitted, slightly chagrinned. "But he's always so respectful of women. Even of my sisters, and they're impossible!" Both Admiral and CMO laughed. "Annie just seems to have a knack for handling Lee, and he doesn't argue the point ­ well, mostly anyway."

"Too bad she's already married," Jamie muttered, not quite to himself. The other two smiled.

"I rather suspect it would have to be someone extremely special to ever take Lee's mind off Seaview for any length of time," Nelson acknowledged. "Speaking of which, Chip, before you head to the Control Room there are a couple things I need to apprise you of."

"Yes, Sir?" Chip said, as Jamie rose.

"One thing," the CMO said to Chip, "before I leave you two to boat's business. What arrangements were you able to make, if any, for Lee to see a doctor while he's there? I know we sort of left that open. I'm certainly not expecting any miracles, given our Skipper's track record in that department."

"Tim and I talked about that ­ where Lee couldn't hear," Chip answered. "Seems they have a friend who's a physician. Tim said it's not unusual for him and his wife to come to dinner on occasion. From there they'd just play it by ear. About the best we could come up with, without the threat of Lee going ballistic." Jamie nodded and left, and Chip turned to Nelson. "Problems with Seaview, Sir? I didn't think Lieutenants James and O'Brien would have any trouble getting her this far."

Nelson waved off Chip's concerned statement. "No, no. They've done an admirable job." He gave Chip a sheepish grin at his choice of words. "Sparks even took a few hours here and there. And, of course, Lt. Keeter covered Delta watch as usual. Although, I'm sure all of them will be more than happy to turn her over to you," he added with a chuckle. "I just wanted to give you the updates on the sensor problems that came in after you left NIMR," he pushed a folder across his desk, "and to let you know we had to make a last minute crew substitution." Chip raised an eyebrow. "There was an incident in the galley as we were getting supplies loaded the day before we sailed, and Cookie received a fairly nasty steam burn. He'll be fine, but Doc wanted him to take it easy so we replaced him this cruise with a man from the cafeteria ­ Wells. He's not worked on Seaview before, but we were in a hurry, and he does have the proper security clearances."

Chip raised the other eyebrow at the face Nelson made. "Not up to Cookie's standards, I take it?"

"He's trying," Nelson said. "And Cookie's assistant is helping as best he can. But"

"It does take awhile to get the hang of things," Chip admitted. "Keeping at least some food available around the clock, as well as just the normal 24-hour meal schedule on a submarine, is a lot different than three meals a day."

"Just be aware that some of the crew are a little less patient than others."

Chip kept his expression neutral. He rather suspected, if Wells was having problems, one of the least patient crewmembers was probably the Admiral! After all, Nelson did go to the expense and trouble of having a premier chef on board ­ even if Cookie did start out as the assistant to the Reactor Control Officer. Fine dining is one of the few pleasures Nelson allows himself. "I'll take care of it, Sir," he said in his best XO voice. He had a hard time maintaining the expression as Nelson grinned at him. He knew he had a reputation for keeping order aboard Seaview. It was a well-known fact that crossing the XO was the surest way to ballast tank detail! And he did absolutely nothing to detract from that idea. "Anything else?"

"Not right now. As soon as you're ready, plot a course for the closest non-operating sensor. Ahead standard ­ no need to push."

"Aye, aye, Sir." Chip stood, folder in hand, and headed back to the Conn. He again had to counsel his features as he practically jogged down the circular stairs. There was an almost audible sigh of relief from the duty crew as he hit the Control Room deck. Good grief, he grimaced to himself. What's got the guys so on edge? But he just gave James a quick smile, ran over the current status report with the young lieutenant, and sent him off to lunch as Chip prepared to get Seaview under way. He did wonder at the slight shudder that James gave at the mention of food, but put it out of his mind for now. He'd packed away such a large breakfast, he was quite willing to put off any first-hand knowledge of the substitute cook's talents ­ or lack thereof ­ until later. Besides, he figured it really couldn't be that bad. Cookie just had everyone spoiled. Quickly plotting the course, he set the heading and gave the orders that got Seaview once again on her way to the Gulf of Alaska. Just as the giant submarine dove, he got an inexplicable urge to glance toward land. But knowing there was no way he'd be able to spot the B&B anyway, just shrugged it off. Hang in there, Lee, he sent up the silent prayer, then gave himself a wry smile as he adjusted the automatic height setting on the periscope. He noted, somewhat smugly to be sure, that the duty crew had quickly settled into a more normal attitude, and helped it along by quietly and calmly walking through the room checking the instrumentation and chatting briefly with each man. Wherever Chief Sharkey had disappeared to ­ presumably to the Crew's Mess to post Lee's picture ­ he'd returned right after Chip. He gave Chip a quick grin and a thumb's up. Chip was a little surprised that the COB hadn't said anything to him on the way back from Newport about the absent chef. But in reality it had only taken them about 10 minutes to travel the short distance, and most of the conversation had revolved around Lee and his 'date' for the picnic.

As the afternoon progressed, familiar, comfortable habits fell back into place among the duty crew, although Chip was still a bit puzzled as to why they'd gotten out of whack to begin with. This was a highly skilled, experienced crew. They'd all dealt without their Captain on board, and even, occasionally, the XO. A few days shouldn't have been any big deal to them. This does not bode well for a smooth sail, Chip found himself muttering under his breath, but immediately shook off the feeling. Lee was recovering; this was to be a quiet cruise. Everything was finally starting to look up.

* * * *

Unfortunately, the unease returned as he stepped through the doorway into the wardroom just after 1800 hours. No smell of freshly baked bread greeted him. No smell of strong coffee. No delicious scents at all wafting from the Galley. What was wafting was the distasteful smell of something burnt. He was almost ready to grab the nearest fire extinguisher when he saw Doc motion for him to join him and Lt. Keeter at one of the closer tables. The unease grew rapidly as he realized he was unable to identify everything on the plates sitting in front of each man.

Doc looked at him sympathetically. "Just wanted to warn you. Because the accident happened just before we were preparing to leave, Cookie had all his menus planned and foodstuffs loaded. Wells has been doing the best he can to follow the recipes, but" he sighed heavily. "This is supposed to be lamb stew." Chip looked down, trying to visualize Cookie's wonderful version chocked full of cubed turnips, halved baby red potatoes, peas and chopped dates, blended with a heavenly array of herbs and thickened with finely chopped hazelnuts. He usually served it over fluffy, perfectly cooked rice, or sometimes couscous. The only things Chip recognized were a few lumps of gray meat. They were mixed in with what looked like thick gravy covering an obviously firmly congealed lump. "It's just a little over-cooked," Doc confirmed. "It actually doesn't taste too bad." A vision of Annie's wonderfully different version of spaghetti flitted through Chip's mind but he gave himself a shake, plastered as neutral an expression on his face as he could muster, and headed for the serving table.

* * * *

He was still muttering under his breath as he returned to the Control Room less than 45 minutes later. That was as long as his level of disgust would let him control his emotions in the Wardroom. Gritting his teeth, he'd tried to keep up a reasonably pleasant conversation with Doc as he'd dutifully eaten his dinner. Catching himself starting to plot just how long it would take Sharkey to return to Newport and kidnap Annie, he grabbed two slices of bread ­ apparently there had been a few loaves in the freezer ­ slathered them with butter, sprinkled on a thick layer of sugar, and headed back to the Conn. He figured the carb load from that combination would keep him going for a few hours without his stomach starting to rumble. According to the logs, James and O'Brien had been trading off the Conn since leaving Santa Barbara, with a few hours here and there put in by Sparks or Admiral Nelson, and Lt. Keeter covering Delta watch. Chip figured, since he hadn't come aboard until almost 1200 hours, he'd stay until midnight and give Chris and Bobby a breather.

Thank heavens Seaview doesn't run on output from the galley, Chip muttered under his breath as he went over the next section of navigation. She seems to be running just fine. He paused for a second to enjoy the feel of the steady, comforting vibrations that gently traveled through the giant submarine. "Oh Hell!" he suddenly blurted out, then had to quickly get himself back under control as he realized the two navigation ratings had heard him. He waved off their concerned looks with a sheepish grin and pretended to study the chart under his fingers.

"Problems, Chip?" a voice startled him, and he looked up to find Nelson had come down the spiral stairs and was standing a few feet behind him.

"No, Sir," Chip replied, and searched frantically for something to tell the Admiral. No way was he going to explain that what had caused the outburst was the realization that because Cookie was the second-best Reactor technician they had on Seaview, there had been an instant flash through his brain of Seaview's reactor trying to power the mighty submarine on that horrible lump he'd been forced to eat for dinner. "Just realized I forgot something in my office I was going to throw aboard before leaving with Lee. No big problem."

"Some of your music CDs?" Nelson finished walking up to him.

"You know about them?" Chip was surprised.

"Think the whole boat does," Nelson chuckled. "Jamie won't quit talking about them, after that trip to the Sea Lab when you used them to help keep Lee quiet. Remember? After the diving accident?"

Chip grinned. "They did come in handy," he admitted. "Had some new ones," he continued, welcoming Nelson's suggestion as a good excuse for his outburst. "Guess I'll just have to make do with the ones I have on board."

Nelson surprised Chip when he took a step closer and lowered his voice. "It's hard on everyone when Lee's not on board," the older man said quietly ­ almost sadly. "We've all come to depend on him a great deal."

Chip nodded, startled not so much by the comment itself as he was that Nelson would utter it out loud. To Jamie, maybe. The Admiral and CMO often visited when time and workload permitted. But while Nelson could chat away for hours about business with his XO, it was rare that he allowed such a personal comment to surface, especially in such a public place ­ no matter how quietly it had been said. Chip responded just as quietly. "He'll be back before we know it," then added with a grin, "I suppose we should enjoy the peace and quiet while it lasts." He allowed himself to match the grin that spread across the older man's face.

"Good point." Nelson gave him a clap on the shoulder. "Just because you've been on leave for a few days, that doesn't mean you can stand watch all night." He gave his XO a meaningful look.

"Not a problem, Sir," Chip responded seriously. "Figured I'd crash about midnight, after Delta takes over."

"See that you do," Nelson told him firmly, before his expression softened ever so slightly. "One workaholic senior officer is quite enough around here."

"Only one?" came out before Chip could stop it, and he quickly dropped his eyes back to the chart under his hands. Happily, Nelson's chuckles could still be heard at the top of the spiral stairs as he made his way back toward Officers' Country. Behind him, Chip heard a soft, "Got away with that one," but a quick turn found all heads studiously glued to the instrumentation in front of each. Probably Rawn, Chip muttered to himself as he got back to what he'd been doing. The newest permanent member of Seaview's crew, while an excellent hydrophone operator, still hadn't quite settled in. At least there haven't been anymore unauthorized boxing lessons, Chip acknowledged silently, in reference to Rawn's first weeks aboard the submarine. A few of the more overly conscientious crew had taken offense at comments Rawn had made, and taken disciplinary action into their own hands. But he still hasn't learned to keep his mouth shut! Chip decided another quiet walk-through of the Control Room was in order. As he casually wandered through the area he kept his eyes out for any suspicious smirks or guilty grins. But everyone, even Rawn, kept focus on their units and answered Chip's quiet questions easily, and Chip was left with his suspicions unconfirmed. Everything remained peaceful until Lt. Keeter relieved Chip at midnight, and he went gratefully to bed.

* * * *

0015 Friday found Chip at Lee's desk, finishing up the logs and regretting the rules about no booze on the boat. Well, sort of rules. Cookie always stashed a few bottles of good wine in case they had guests for dinner. And, of course, there's Nelson's private stock of scotch, Chip mused. No one was about to tackle that issue. Especially since the Admiral had been known to share, on those occasions when everyone was in need of a good belt. But other than that Could use a beer about now.

Things had slowly gotten somewhat back to normal. The food situation gradually improved as Wells became more comfortable with his job. Still not anywhere up to Cookie's standards, meals were at least edible. Chip had given some thought ­ kept totally to himself ­ to what had kept Admiral Nelson going until the food became more palatable. He got a partial answer the second evening. Jamie casually mentioned that Nelson had assigned the CMO, at the earliest opportunity, to call in whoever Jamie needed to help develop a better tasting nutrition bar. Privately, Chip thought that an excellent idea. Both he and Lee had mentioned to Nelson on several occasions that the bars, kept on Seaview as emergency rations, needed reworking; that while they might be nutritionally balanced, their flavor and texture left much to be desired. Each time the Admiral had just shrugged off the suggestions. Until now. Chip also made a mental note to check stores. He strongly doubted supply was going to match inventory.

Command structure was still, though settling into a more normal rhythm, just a bit more fractured than usual. O'Brien was much happier tending to his engines than being in command, so the normal routine when Lee wasn't aboard was for Chip to dump some of his XO duties on Lt. James while Chip did as much of the Captain's duties as possible. They usually managed just fine. While young and inexperienced, Chris was turning into excellent XO material, in addition to serving as Seaview's Weapons Officer. But this trip, a simple cruise by Seaview's standards, wasn't going as smoothly as normal. Chip began to suspect that Nelson, for whatever reason (lack of a decent meal came instantly to Chip's mind) had apparently been a bit blunt with the young lieutenant, as James seemed to be more 'needy' than he usually was. Still carrying out his duties in his usual perfectly competent manner, James just seemed to require more of Chip's attention than he was used to.

That was one reason Chip was just now getting to the reports. Every time he'd tried to get a few hours to himself Thursday afternoon to catch up, Chris called him back to the Control Room with some question or another. After the fourth time, Chip had surrendered and just stayed there. He gave up after the second call this afternoon. Why, all of a sudden, can't he manage a simple course correction without making me come down to clear it? Chip muttered under his breath. Admiral, what did you do to him?

And speaking of the Admiral, Chip was having his share of problems from that direction as well. Well, to be honest, not problems, Chip admitted to himself. But several times, especially this afternoon, Nelson had either stopped by to ask Chip a question, or in one instance called Chip to his cabin and spent half an hour quizzing Chip about which of several project proposals Chip thought should take priority over the others. Chip had, of course, glanced at the proposals earlier in his office at NIMR ­ copies always ended up in his 'In' basket. But other than an occasional comment during department meetings, Nelson had never really asked for Chip's opinion on the subject. At least, not in this much detail. Why doesn't he just e-mail Lee? This is the kind of stuff Lee's working on at the moment anyway. And I guess that also explains why I've found him doing reports at all hours of the night. I just didn't realize how much Nelson includes Lee on NIMR's planning stages. Hmm. With my luck, the OOM's started to realize he depends on Lee more than he thought he was, and with this latest scare, thinks he's going to start dumping more on me. Terrific! Just what I need ­ more work to do.

At that precise moment, the cabin door unceremoniously opened and the object of Chip's mutterings stalked in. He knew he'd not uttered that last statement out loud. That didn't keep him from starting badly, and jumping to his feet. "Sir?" he stammered.

"What are you doing in here?" Nelson asked. Chip figured his normally inscrutable expression was this once failing him as a soft smile slowly spread across the older man's face.

"Figured this was the last place anyone would come looking for me," the blond admitted. "Seems like I just get sat down to work on this stuff, and somebody interrupts me."

"Oops," Nelson said softly, with a sheepish grin, and Chip found himself returning it. "Just saw the light under the door. I'm so used to seeing it ­ at all hours of the night," he added with a slight grumble, "I had this sudden panic attack that Lee had somehow managed to sneak back aboard."

Chip grinned. "Wouldn't let that happen, Sir. Besides which," and the grin broadened, "Annie wouldn't let him that far out of her sight."

"Definitely have to meet her sometime," Nelson chuckled. He glanced at the reports stacked on the desk. "Just how long do you plan to work on those?" The slight grumble was back.

Chip couldn't stop himself from ducking his head, however slightly. "Shouldn't take more than 45 minutes ­ an hour tops," he answered quietly.

"See that your head's in contact with your pillow by 0100 latest," Nelson ordered, turned abruptly, and headed out of the cabin. Later Chip couldn't be sure, but he thought he'd heard the older man mutter, just before the door closed, "Bad enough Lee's up at all hours. Does he have to corrupt everyone else aboard?" Chip just shook his head and went back to what he'd been doing. It obviously wouldn't do to explain to the Admiral that if he'd just let Lee run the boat, without also being a sounding board for Nelson on NIMR business, Lee might not be up at all hours. Nope, not a good idea at all, he sighed. But he was very careful to return to his own cabin, and make sure the lights were out, by Nelson's stipulated cut-off.

* * * *

The purpose for the cruise got underway two and a half days later, but it quickly became apparent that things weren't the way they'd originally seemed. For starters, the first non-functioning sensor was in plain sight, right where they'd left it almost eight months pervious. The original thought was that, after the sensors had started to register a mild quake, they'd been buried by debris. But when divers brought the still-not-operating sensor aboard, Admiral Nelson made a rather startling ­ and disgusting ­ discovery. The sensors were of a newer, and thought to be better, design. But careful examination showed a flaw in the way that the outer casing joined the base. When it was shaken, say, by the small quakes it was starting to register, the connection was compromised. Seawater was admitted into the unit, shorting out the entire mechanism. Nelson was irate.

"The whole point of these units," he started yelling ­ happily for the crew in the Missile Room, to no one in particular ­ "is to monitor and measure quakes. You'd think 'someone' would have had the brains to actually make sure they could withstand a little jiggling around without falling apart."

Chip, at whom the comment was somewhat directed since he was the person standing closest to the Admiral, maintained his outward calm ­ with difficulty to be sure. "These are the units Albion Industries developed, right? Not NIMR?"

"Theirs was the lower bid, so the International Earthquake Research Agency decided to go with them instead of us." Nelson flung the unit disgustedly into a box. "Well, guess what? Now they not only have to come up with the funds to replace the broken units we have to replace, but we're going to have to replace every one of the Albion units we installed. You send Sharkey back to NIMR in FS1. I'll have them prep every unit we have, and however many they can get ready in the next twelve hours, for the Chief to bring back."

"IERA is not going to like it," Chip pointed out, very carefully. Nelson was not above shooting the occasional messenger.

"Tough!" was spit back at him with venom, softened just slightly by the satisfied smirk that came over the older man's face. "This unit goes back with Sharkey. Dr. Wainwright will have a field day pointing out to IERA how badly it was constructed, then I'll stuff the bill in their faces for our units plus the extra costs this cruise will ring up to replace the garbage Albion dumped on them. That should make them think twice about calling our units overpriced and too over-cautiously engineered."

"Yes, Sir." Chip allowed a small grin to appear. "That ought to do it."

"Once I get off the horn," Nelson continued, "I'll prep one of our units ­ just happened to have brought a few along." His smile continued, very self-satisfied. "We'll get this one replaced, then you can move on to the next one."

"Aye, Sir." Chip picked up the box Nelson had tossed the defective unit into. "I'll get Sharkey on his way. With your permission, I'll send Kowalski along as co-pilot." Nelson just waved an affirmative as he stalked off toward the Radio Shack, and Chip headed for the Conn.

* * * *

Chip lay tossing and turning the following Friday night, unable to fall asleep. Most unusual for him. But the last few days had been most unusual aboard Seaview. Almost boring. Monday and Tuesday, Chip had been kept busy re-plotting the cruise to now include all of the Albion sensor positions, not just the few they'd originally planned to replace. He also had to totally revise the diving schedules. O'Brien, acting as Diving Officer this cruise, gave him a curious look at one point as the two sat working out the details. Chip had momentarily let his mind wander, and it took a soft clearing of O'Brien's throat to get him back. They shared a chuckle as Chip related his conversation with Lee the morning Chip left the B&B, and Lee's comment about not having his 'Decision Suit' on. Chip was the one in uniform; Chip was the one in charge.

"So," O'Brien asked carefully, "that means, when the Skipper's in Sick Bay and not in uniform, you're in charge and he has to obey you." He let another grin appear as Chip grimaced.

"I wish," Chip growled. "Sure would make it easier to keep him down until he's at least halfway healed." They shared another quick grin as both recognized the futility of that wish, and got back to the job at hand.

But starting Wednesday, Chip had little to do except make sure everything stayed on track. Chris James had returned to his normal, competent self, O'Brien had the dives under control, and Chip was left to run spot inspections and emergency drills, things Lee did during the all too infrequent quiet times aboard the giant submarine. The crew had relaxed into the quiet efficiency they usually reserved for boring ­ to them ­ charting missions. Far too well trained to relax their tactical standards, there was still an air of calm aboard. Even Jamie was reduced to reading mystery novels - an activity he usually reserved for shore leave - as Chip found out over a cup of coffee on Thursday. Higgins, Cookie's assistant, had taken to making a batch of cookies every other day or so, right after the noon meal, and Chip had been taking full advantage of the opportunity to indulge. Today's offering was peanut butter ­ Chip's favorite, no matter how much Lee ribbed him that it should more appropriately be chocolate chip. The CMO had wandered in as Chip was inhaling his fourth large cookie (or possibly his fifth ­ he wasn't counting), and the two sat visiting amiably. In Doc's hand was a copy of The Cat Who Brought Down The House by Lilian Jackson Braun*, which is how the topic of the CMO's off-duty pleasures came up. Jamie also wanted to know if Chip had heard from either Lee or Tim Hughes and the XO admitted he'd actually been avoiding e-mailing either, not wanting to know how many temper tantrums his occasionally volatile CO was having because of his restricted status. Both officers cringed slightly, Chip stuffed two more cookies in his face, and eventually headed for the forward missile room to run a spot inspection.

That conversation returned to mind Friday night, and Chip allowed himself a few minutes of disgruntlement. With the additional units to replace, and having to extend the length of the cruise, not only were they stuck with Wells' cooking that much longer, Chip was going to be that much later returning to Oregon to pick up Lee. Tim, Annie, hope you have heavy duty ear plugs.

Chip finally admitted sleep was avoiding him and he might as well get up and do something constructive. Dressing, he decided to 'pull a Lee' and do a walk-through of the boat. Or, as the crew refers to it, a 'walkaboat', Chip snickered as he headed aft. He also decided to e-mail Lee in the morning, update him on the sensor problem, and casually ask how things were going. Chip knew he'd have heard from Tim by now if there were serious problems. But he'd just feel better checking.

His mind far away on the Oregon Coast, Chip didn't pay that much attention to the fact that the hatch was partially open. He pushed it wide and stepped through into the Missile Room ­ and straight into a shower. Two gasps and a choked off "Oh, sh" sounded from a back corner as Chip swiped a hand across his face and front to back through his short blond hair to get rid of most of the water. He gave the metal bucket that had held the water bomb, and which had glanced off the side of his head, a kick, and demanded in his most authoritative voice, "What's going on in here?"

A totally mortified Stu Riley peeked out from behind the torpedo rack. "Whawhat are you doing here?" the seaman stammered. "I mean, ahit's awfully late, Sir," he finally got out, then stood there looking like he was awaiting execution.

Chip almost felt sorry for the young man. Not all that long ago the unlucky Riley had been responsible for dumping a full tray of food on his disciplinarian XO. With deeper concerns on his mind at the time, Chip had pretty much let the seaman off the hook for that incident. But Riley hadn't been taking any chances, either, and had stayed as much as possible out of Chip's line of fire.

But this time Riley wasn't going to get off so easily. Thoroughly drenched, water still dripping off his hair, Chip glared menacingly. "I said, what's going on in here?" letting his voice become the icy soft growl that had been known to turn irate Master Chiefs into quivering masses.

The effect on the hapless seaman was total devastation. His eyes widened, his mouth opened, but nothing came out. Chip wasn't sure what he'd have done if a second head hadn't at that moment appeared. Rawn, Chip breathed disgustedly.

"It was my idea, Sir."

"And why doesn't that surprise me?" Chip's voice was still barely above a whisper.

"That," Seaview's newest crewman pointed toward the bucket, "was meant for Kowalski."

Chip was far too good a poker player to let his expression give him away. But he did get a fairly good idea of where this was headed. "Continue," he commanded.

Riley finally found his voice ­ sort of. "We knew Ski had been assigned to monitor the dive locker. WeahIdiscovered he hadn't had a chance to do it yet today. Ah" He gulped visibly. "It's been so quiet, Sir"

Rawn took back the explanation "There's nothing going on tonight. No more dives until Sunday. We just thought we'd have a little fun. Sir."

Chip momentarily closed his eyes, more a reaction to the belated 'Sir' than anything. Technically he should have the seamen's heads for the horseplay. Also, technically, they were right. Things were quiet, and this was precisely the kind of simple little antics that kept the crew a close-knit family, comfortable in each other's company. And Lee would be very pleased that Rawn was fitting in well enough to participate ­ IF that's what was happening, and not a retaliatory strike on the crewman he'd had the most trouble with since coming aboard. Chip didn't think it was, since he'd enlisted Riley's help in the plot.

In a momentary quandary, Chip still hadn't quite decided how to handle the situation when there was a startled "What the" behind him, and Kowalski came through the hatch to stand in the puddle of water that was still dripping off Chip and onto the deck. "Sir?" He stood hesitantly, looking back and forth between his XO and fellow seamen.

"Your friends planned a little present for you," Chip said mildly, opening his eyes and nodding toward Riley and Rawn. "I spoiled their surprise."

"What?" the senior rating squeaked, still taking in the water, the bucket, the guilty expressions on the other seamen's faces ­ and a very soggy Executive Officer. The rating's expression started to turn dark.

Chip fought hard to hide his grin. He was all too familiar with that expression. It tended to appear on his own face every time Lee pulled some bone-headed stunt. He figured the upshot would also be the same ­ Ski would light into his fellow crewmen with the same ferocity that Chip used on his friend. He just hoped Kowalski had a little more success than he usually did. He turned back toward the two culprits. "Chief Sharkey will have amended duty assignments for you two by 0800 tomorrow," he growled. "I seem to recall him mentioning the aquariums in the Admiral's lab need a thorough scouring and a new inventory taken of the specimen food supplies." No one liked the job of inventorying the often-smelly stuff the Admiral kept on hand to feed his lab animals. It was right up there with scrubbing the bilges. He turned on his heel and exited through the hatch, walking rapidly to get around the corner before he allowed a smile to form. Behind him, he could hear Ski start to yell before the hatch was firmly shut.

Continuing to walk rapidly, Chip was hoping to make it back to his cabin before his late-night stroll and disheveled appearance were noticed by anyone else. No such luck. Failing to glance down a passageway, concentrating more on the niggling little headache that was starting to form from getting conked by the falling bucket, a low, rumbling voice stopped him dead. "Little late for a swim, isn't it?" Chip turned back, preparing an explanation for the Admiral. He was dismayed to find the OOM flanked by Jamie and Chief Sharkey. His attempt at some sort of explanation was temporarily sidetracked by what the COB was holding in his hand. "Yes, it's a whole wheat roll," Nelson continued, noticing what Chip was focusing on. "Higgins found Cookie's recipe this afternoon, and they came out of the oven as we were grabbing a cup of coffee."

"There might be enough left for breakfast," Jamie added smugly.

"I doubt it," Nelson chuckled.

"Couldn't we make Higgins the chef and Wells his assistant?" Sharkey almost ­ but not quite ­ whined.

"Not really," Nelson admitted reluctantly. "But have no fear. As we were leaving, he was starting another batch."

"Hallelujah," Doc breathed.

"Now," Nelson got back on track, and gave Chip's wet uniform a light brush with his fingertips, "what mischief have you been up to? I thought you went to bed an hour ago."

Leave it to the Admiral, Chip thought silently, shaking his head. "Just in the wrong place at the wrong time." He knew he wasn't going to get off that lightly when both Admiral and CMO cocked eyebrows at him. Sharkey was too busy polishing off the last of the roll. Chip went on to explain what had happened, finishing off with orders to Sharkey for the next morning's extra assignments.

"You're letting them off kind of easy, aren't you?" Jamie questioned. "That bucket could have caused serious damage."

"Yeah," Sharkey chimed in. "The Skipper wouldn't be that lenient."

Chip gave the COB a disgruntled look. "Chief, you know as well as I do what the Skipper would have done. As dull as this cruise has been, he'd have quickly helped Riley and Rawn set the dang thing back up, and laughed his fool head off when Kowalski tripped it." All three officers chuckled as the Chief sheepishly nodded agreement. "Although," Chip's voice softened just a bit, "Lee would have used a plastic bucket." All four men grinned and nodded. "Just see to the extra duty," Chip continued to the COB. "I have a feeling that that, combined with the lecture they're probably still getting from Ski, will be ample punishment. At least for now," he added.

"Aye, aye, Sir," Sharkey nodded once more, and headed back down the corridor the way he'd come.

"So much for there being any rolls left by breakfast," Nelson chuckled.

"Did the bucket hit you?" Jamie asked, dragging Chip back from his momentary thoughts of following the Chief.

"No," he lied. As bored as Doc was, he'd probably stuff Chip in Sick Bay just to have something to do. "Just got nailed by its contents." He added a smile as Nelson once again chuckled softly.

"Then why do you keep rubbing the side of your head?" the CMO persisted.

Chip turned on his best command stare. "I'm wet, and I'm tired, and I've walked all the way back up here in shoes that go 'squish' with every step," he growled. "And there jolly well better be rolls enough for breakfast," he added emphatically, causing the other two officers to openly laugh.

Nelson clapped him on his soggy shoulder. "Off to bed with you," he said, still chuckling. "You know perfectly well there isn't a soul on board who'd dare get between you and fresh bread." Chip just hung his head as the other two laughed, and headed for his cabin. This time, thankfully, when his head hit the pillow, he slept.

* * * *

And awoke to a splitting headache. Obviously the result of his up-close-and-personal encounter with the bucket. Not that he was going to admit that to Doc. He quickly showered, shaved, dressed, downed a couple ibuprofen, and headed to the Control Room. Once he'd satisfied himself that everything was under control, he made a beeline for the Wardroom. As promised, the wonderful smell of fresh bread greeted him halfway down the corridor. Between that, and decently cooked eggs, bacon and hash browns, Chip actually enjoyed the meal. He'd have enjoyed it even more if a nagging little piece of the headache hadn't persisted. But he ignored it as best he could and spent the morning in the Control Room. Noticeably absent were Rawn and Riley, and Chip shared a quick grin with Lt. James as he related the previous night's escapades.

Admiral Nelson and Doc were already eating what appeared to be fairly palatable ham sandwiches and vegetable soup when Chip showed up in the Wardroom about 1230 hours. "Oh there you are," Nelson said, somewhat distracted.

"Admiral," Jamie started chiding, "you know perfectly well that Chip isn't about to miss a meal unless either the boat's about to blow up, or else the Skipper is." All three men chuckled, Chip somewhat embarrassed.

"I ran down to Engineering for awhile," Chip explained his slight disappearing act.

"Problems?" Nelson wanted to know.

"Not really, Sir. We had a quick flash on one of the panels and I went down to check it out. Were you looking for me? Mr. James knew where I'd gone."

"Ah. Nothing urgent. I put a folder on your desk. With Dr. Caitlyn's defection to Woods Hole in Massachusetts, we'll have an opening in the Biotechnology Lab. There are three quite decent possibilities for the vacancy. Would you look at them and give me your recommendation? I'd like to fill the position as quickly as possible."

Chip's response was almost hesitant. "Oh. Not a problem, Sir. But, if I may suggest an alternative?"

"You already know about the three applicants, and want to suggest a fourth?" Nelson cocked a disbelieving eyebrow at him.

"Nono, Sir." Chip scrambled to explain. "Not what I meant. I just thought well, I was going to e-mail Lee after lunch. See how things are going"

"You still haven't talked to him?" Doc asked.

Chip cringed slightly. "Haven't wanted to risk it," he admitted. "Just in case" He left the sentence unfinished, but from the looks on both older men's faces, they understood totally. Chip gave himself a shake and continued. "Just thought that I could scan in the resumes and forward them to Lee. It's the kind of stuff he's working on anyway, and he's usually quite perceptive about staffing."

"An excellent idea," Nelson agreed readily.

"Are you going to tell him about last night's version of the 'Seaview Follies'?" Jamie asked with a grin.

"Nope," Chip answered with a matching one. "Decided this morning I'd let Riley and Rawn tell him all about it once Lee's back aboard."

Nelson elbowed the CMO. "And here we thought last night that our esteemed XO was going soft, letting the miscreants off way too easily." The two older men shared a laugh as Chip drew himself up to his full six feet.

"Me, Sir? Never!" he grumbled, but spoiled the effect when his face, too, broke out in a grin. "I also haven't broken the news to Riley," he added, and all three shared a laugh as Chip went to pick up his own lunch.

With the added information to send to Lee, Chip kept his personal questions to a minimum. He was somewhat concerned when he'd yet to get a response by that evening, but thought perhaps Lee had gone down to the beach again, or maybe the three had planned an outing of some sort. Well, four, counting Lacey, Chip snickered to himself. He was kept fairly occupied, himself, all afternoon and into the evening. One of the dive plane indicator lights kept flashing red on the control panel. Everything was working normally so he and O'Brien were fairly sure it was just a short of some kind. But it was still a bit annoying. Unfortunately, with the miles of electrical wiring in the giant submarine, it looked like it was going to take them awhile to find the problem.

By Sunday morning Chip's headache had finally subsided, only to be triggered again when he still hadn't heard from Lee. Between reaching and taking care of another defective sensor and continuing to track down the wiring problem, Chip didn't have much time to dwell on it, however. And by the time things did slow down, Lee had sent a message that all was well, he'd just been busy, and he'd look over the job applications and forward a recommendation to the Admiral. Not a very informative e-mail, but at least Lee wasn't grumbling openly about the forced shore leave.

Anticipating both Nelson's and Doc's reactions to the news that he'd heard from their absent Captain, Chip printed out the e-mail and handed it to the two older men over dinner.

"That's it?" Jamie demanded.

"Sorry, Doc," Chip answered philosophically. "Guess he wasn't in a talkative mood. Be glad he didn't wax poetic about a certain overly zealous CMO," he added with a grin. The glare he got in return almost matched one of Lee's best. Humm ­ must have been taking lessons, Chip thought to himself as he turned his attention to his own tray. The grin on his face did not go undetected.

"That's all you've heard from him." Nelson made it a statement, not a question.

"That's it, Sir," Chip answered quietly. "Maybe he'll write more when he sends your report."

"Humph," Nelson grunted, and conversation changed to other topics.

* * * *

But when the reply came in early Tuesday morning, there was nothing more than Lee's recommendations to the Admiral. Not that anyone aboard Seaview knew anything about it until very late that night. They'd all been awakened at 0435 by an alarm sounding, and Seaview's nose suddenly pointing almost straight down. By the time Chip and Nelson made it to the Control Room, Lt. Keeter had the submarine leveled out again, but everyone started scrambling to figure out what had caused the problem in the first place.

It all too rapidly became evident that the warning lights they'd continued to get intermittently were more than mere shorts in the wiring. Chip spent the day getting increasingly frustrated, trapped in the Control Room. If Lee had been aboard, one or the other of them would be down in Engineering, or wherever the 'action' was, helping. But Chip was uncomfortable leaving command to one of the juniors when there was no way of knowing what, or from where, the next problem would occur. At least he could take comfort that Admiral Nelson was neck deep in the search for the problem. But he had a feeling that there were going to be a whole lot of crewmen who weren't. Short fuses were one of Nelson's specialties.

He also had a feeling Lt. James was very happy to have him around when, about 1400, Seaview again took on the characteristics of a roller coaster ride, diving to starboard and bouncing against a seamount before coming back under control. They had managed to get to an area where the bottom was fairly shallow and Chip, with fingers figuratively crossed, ordered Seaview settled on the bottom until they could figure out what was happening. With dive planes and maneuvering still a bit compromised, the submarine landed less than gently, but with minimal damage to either herself or her crew. That left Chip free to join the hunt for the troublesome wiring.

But even with every available hand opening panels, tracking junctions, checking breakers, and following lines through access hatches, it was a very slow process of elimination. It wasn't until nearly 2200 that one of the electricians, checking a junction box in one of the minor storage rooms, stumbled ­ literally ­ over the problem. A container of spare rivets had fallen off a shelf, apparently banging the junction box, jiggling it just loose enough from the bulkhead that it occasionally, as Seaview maneuvered, started shorting out some of the lines going through it. The more it wiggled, the looser it became on the bulkhead, and the more problems it caused. Once found, it took the repair crew all of half an hour to fix.

Chip was finally headed for his cabin just after midnight when Admiral Nelson called him into his office. There was a note from Lee on the OOM's computer detailing his perusal of the three scientists' resumes, and listing his reasons for making the recommendation he did, but absolutely nothing of a personal nature. The two officers just shook their heads.

"I'll call in the morning, Admiral," Chip told the older man with a heavy sigh. "See if I can find out how things are going."

"You do have a way of making him talk to you." Nelson sat back in his chair and grinned.

Chip sent a wry smile back. "Even though it's occasionally at enough decibels to rattle windows."

"Whatever works," Nelson chuckled and dismissed him with an affectionate wave of his hand. It had been a long day.

* * * *

"HE WHAT?" Chip bellowed the following morning, standing in the radio shack. No matter how late he'd gotten to bed the night before or how tired he was, he'd hit the Conn just before 0700, checked to make sure everything was on track, and headed for a quick breakfast, returning at 0735. Seaview was just coming up on another sensor ­ a working one this time. However, just the motion of the huge submarine settling in close enough for the divers was enough to break the seal, and they were treated to a first-hand show of just how unstable the units were. Nelson, standing in the Observation Nose, was incensed and stomped off to the Missile Room to personally go out on the dive. Chip felt sorry for whoever got stuck going out with him, and once again had reason to miss Lee. His friend was one of the few people Nelson would slow down long enough to listen to. Lee probably wouldn't have been able to stop Nelson from going out on the dive, but would have either gone out with him, or been able to calm him down enough that whoever did go out wasn't subjected to a Nelson tantrum. All Chip could do was stay in the Control Room, keeping watch as the sensor was replaced. As soon as the Admiral was back aboard, apparently also back under control since O'Brien didn't report that there was anyone headed for Sick Bay, Chip could relax. Once Seaview was on her way toward the next sensor site, he took the time to have Sparks place the promised call to the B&B. The verbal explosion was the result of Tim telling him Lee wasn't there. And it didn't help at all that his friend couldn't tell him exactly where Lee was, and wouldn't totally explain who he was with. "Just a friend," was all Tim would say, and laughed. "Tim," Chip yelled firmly, using the voice he usually reserved for flattening wayward crew. Said crew, having no idea what was going on, suddenly became very glued to their instrumentation. Unfortunately for Chip, the effect on Tim was a good deal less than desired ­ his Annapolis friend just laughed harder and told him to chill out. Chip used a few words he had a feeling Sparks had never heard before, at least not out of the normally under control XO's mouth, broke the connection to the sound of Tim's continuing laughter, and went in search of the Admiral and CMO. The crewmen he met on the way took one look at the dark expression on his face and instantly gave way like waves off the prow of a battleship.

Not totally surprised, Chip found the two objects of his search together having coffee in the Wardroom. Before he could say one word, the two JOs sitting in the far corner suddenly had somewhere else they urgently needed to be.

"I didn't feel the boat do anything unusual," Nelson said casually. "There can't have been another problem."

"Must be an impending disaster," Jamie offered.

"Impending is right, Doc," Chip growled. "Just as soon as I get my hands around a certain Commander's neck!"

"I gather you called the Hughes," Nelson said, amused. "What's he done this time?"

"I don't know. He's not there!" Chip all but spit out.

Nelson's "Where is he?" demand was instantly drowned out by Jamie's "He'd better not have gone back to the Institute!"

Chip finally took a deep breath. "No, Doc. Tim said he and a friend headed north, up into Washington State, to do a little sightseeing."

"Who's the friend?" Jamie wanted to know. "When will they be back?"

Chip's frown returned. "Tim wouldn't say who it was, and wasn't sure when they'd be back. But it must be okay. Tim was laughing."

"Male friend," Nelson asked with the beginnings of a grin, "or female?"

Chip paused and got a speculative look on his face. "You know, now that I think about it, Tim might have said girlfriend." He gave the other officers a disgruntled look. "He was laughing so hard, it was kind of hard to understand some of what he said."

Nelson exchanged a glance with Jamie. "Not, I gather, Lacey," he said mildly.

Chip finally allowed himself to grin. "Rather doubt it. But I do remember Annie asking about a Rebecca somebody or another. Apparently Lee met her the last time he was there. Lee just gave Annie a glare and told her he'd never talked to the person again. But" He let the thought drop.

"Well, whoever it was, doesn't sound like the Hughes were too upset about it," Nelson offered.

"Tim sure wasn't," Chip grumbled. "But if Lee goes off and does something stupid ­ something that keeps him off Seaview any longer than he already needs to be"

"Tired of the extra paperwork already?" Nelson teased. "Relax. How much trouble can he get into just doing a little sightseeing?"

* * * *

The next several days were fairly routine aboard Seaview. They were making good progress replacing the defective Albion sensors. In fact, Chip even had them ahead of the original revised timetable ­ the one he'd scrambled to make after they found out the trip wasn't to be quite as ordinary as they had thought. Probably, Chip thought ruefully to himself on Saturday as they sat stationary, replacing another sensor, because everyone aboard, crewmen and JOs alike, are being extra diligent not to make any kind of screw up that would delay us by so much as ten minutes. Probably a reaction to my temper tantrum the other day. Not to mention the Admiral's blow-up the day after.

Nelson had gotten a call from Albion's CEO, insisting that obviously Seaview's crew had screwed up installing the sensors and that's why they were malfunctioning. There certainly wasn't anything wrong with the design or construction. Unfortunately for the crew, the Admiral had been in the Observation Nose when the call came in, and Chip didn't get the connecting doors to the Control Room closed fast enough to totally block off Nelson's instant explosion. At least the crew knew what had caused that one. But it didn't help much, following so closely after Chip's. Everyone was being extremely careful.

After that, Chip decided he'd better get his own attitude more under control, and bring his usual brand of sanity and calm back to the fore. It was difficult. He found himself worrying about his friend, and twice almost broke down and called Lee's cell phone. The only thing that stopped him was the remembered sound of Tim's laughter in his ear. Chip had made very sure Tim, and therefore obviously Annie, was aware of just how serious Lee's condition had been. That while he seemed to be recovering, no one really knew for sure how long it was going to take, or whether there would be setbacks along the way. Logic told him Tim wouldn't have been that amused by Chip if he wasn't totally comfortable with whoever Lee was with, and where they were going. Unfortunately, it didn't help much. Chip continued to worry, and the crew continued to tiptoe around both him and the Admiral.

Chip didn't sleep well Sunday night. After his untimely shower he'd not made any more unannounced late-night forays outside Officers' Country, and had actually almost returned to his normal sleeping patterns ­ two minutes after his head hit the pillow he was out. But an unease settled over him that night about the same time the blanket did, and he was unable to shake it. Even turning on one of his music CDs that used nature sounds as a backdrop for light classical music didn't help. Possibly because the first one he grabbed was called Piano Cascades** which used the sound of gentle rain, quiet streams, small waterfalls and other naturally occurring water sounds. For some reason, while waiting for the music to do its usual job of relaxing him into sleep, all that kept going through Chip's mind was wondering where Seaview had sprung a leak.

Because of it he took a fair amount of ribbing Monday morning. Standing at the chart table, he couldn't keep from yawning as he let Lt. James handle maneuvering the submarine into position to replace the third to last sensor. Only two more after this one, crossed his mind with a sigh. Unfortunately, he punctuated the thought with another large yawn, not completely covered up before Chris caught him. He gave the young Lieutenant a wry grin, but anything he might have said was cut off by a call from the Admiral over the intercom.

"Mr. Morton." The order didn't sound very pleasant.

Chip quickly grabbed up the mic. "Morton here, Sir," he said cautiously.

"Come to my cabin as soon as you have a chance," Nelson directed.

"Now what?" Chip mouthed to Chris, but responded neutrally to the Admiral, after checking Seaview's position, "About five minutes, Sir?"

"Fine," Nelson muttered, and the connection was audibly broken.

Lt. James raised an eyebrow, Chip just shrugged and, as soon as he felt comfortable doing so, headed up the spiral stairs. With only a slight hesitation, he rapped lightly on the Admiral's door. It was times like this when he really missed Lee and the buffer he normally provided between Nelson and the crew.

"Come," came from within, and Chip quickly entered. Nelson was standing by his desk, glaring at one of the defective Albion sensors sitting on top. He barely acknowledged Chip's entrance before waving a hand disgustedly at the unit. "Just got off the phone with Albion's CEO ­ again!" he growled. "He's still refuting the fact that these sensors are defective, and therefore IERA is threatening to challenge paying for this cruise. Screaming doesn't seem to help," the Admiral admitted reluctantly, with just a flick of his eyes in Chip's direction. "Any suggestions?"

"Well," Chip started, then hesitated, not sure how to continue. The Admiral didn't always take advice well at the best of times. And this, obviously, wasn't one of the better ones. Chip tried an end around. "I think maybe Lee might advise taking one and stuffing it up the CEO's"

"Mr. Morton," Nelson thundered, and turned to glare at him full force.

"Sir," Chip responded, instantly coming to attention, and also instantly very sorry he had tried to defuse some of Nelson's temper by being flippant. He stared straight ahead, and about 4 inches left of Nelson's collar full of stars. He thought he caught a light tick at the corner of Nelson's mouth as the older man continued, and didn't think he'd ever noticed it there before, no matter how angry the man got. Oh hell. I've done it now!

The tick remained as Nelson continued. "Has it never occurred to you that one of the reasons you and Lee make such a formidable team is that you don't think like Lee?" Chip noticed the tick expanding into an almost smile. "At ease," Nelson said a bit more softly. "I was asking your opinion, not what Lee would advise."

Chip visibly relaxed, and thought for just a second before answering. "Well, Sir, I think maybe I'd take one of the already broken sensors, and one we pulled in that was still working, and send them to an independent lab for evaluation. One that IERA would accept findings from. NIMR as well," he added hastily. "Then we all live with the results."

"Hmm," Nelson considered. "We'd better send one of our own along as well. Make it a fair comparison."

"Yes, Sir. Ah" he still wasn't sure it was safe to continue.

"Spit it out, Commander," Nelson muttered, but his voice had softened decidedly.

"Just wondering, Sir, why this wasn't done already."

"Because," the growl was back, "IERA didn't want to spend the money, when Albion had already done such a wonderful sell job to them on their units. And," the smile that suddenly lit up Nelson's face had an almost malicious overcast to it, "I know just the independent lab to send them to. Ocean Research Systems. Totally honest, impeccably thorough. IERA will have to accept their findings."

But will you? Chip wanted to ask, in the however unlikely event that the lab should rule in favor of Albion. He wisely kept that thought to himself as Nelson continued.

"I'll box up the units, and call Liz Carlisle at ORS. We'll hand deliver them as soon as we get home. Don't want Albion to claim there was damage done in the mail."

"No, Sir," Chip agreed readily. "I could have Sharkey take them by FS1, if you'd like?"

"No," Nelson seemed to have totally calmed down, now that there was an acceptable plan of action. "When we get back will be soon enough. Carry on," he dismissed Chip with a wave as he went back to glaring at the offensive sensor. Chip let out what he hoped was an inaudible sigh, and hurried back to the general safety of the Conn.

Safe from the Admiral, maybe, but not from Lt. James and his gentle teasing as Chip continued to unsuccessfully stifle a series of yawns. As Seaview wouldn't be moving for another hour or so, Chip finally headed for the Wardroom and Cookie's toxic waste coffee, guaranteed to keep you glowing in the dark for hours. It was a measure of just how tired Chip actually was that he was almost there before it totally sunk in, Cookie wasn't aboard. And Wells' coffee, while actually fairly good under normal circumstances, wasn't what Chip was in need of. The assistant chef caught him hesitating before pouring out a cup ­ and yawning again. He sent his XO a quick smile, after an equally quick glance over his shoulder.

"Wells won't let me make coffee the way I know most of you like it, Sir," he said somewhat apologetically. "But it won't take me more than a few minutes to do a small pot full ­ if you'd like to order it."

Chip sent him a grateful smile. "Consider yourself so ordered, Higgins," he said in his XO voice, spoiled it just a tad with another quick grin, and helped himself to a few cookies while he waited. Returning to the Control Room still working on his fourth cup of the powerful brew, he felt fortified enough to handle whatever the day threw at him.

* * * *

Five hours later he wasn't so sure. The unease he'd had the night before returned with Sparks' answering of a call from NIMR that he immediately transferred to the Admiral's cabin. It couldn't have been five minutes later that Nelson called down, urgency in his voice, ordering FS1 prepped for immediate take-off and Chip to report to his cabin. Chip and James gave each other a "Now What!" raise of the eyebrows and Chip took off. His concern deepened when, as he approached Nelson's cabin from the Conn, he found Doc just getting there from the other direction.

Nelson didn't waste any time once both were inside the cabin. "Angie just got a call from Tim Hughes."

"Lee," Chip breathed.

Nelson flashed him the briefest of grins. "Easy, Chip. Apparently he's basically okay."

"But" Jamie challenged, leaning forward in the chair he was only barely sitting in anyway.

"But," Nelson acknowledged, "he and his friend were hiking"

"Hiking?" both Chip and Jamie challenged. Loudly!

"Gentlemen," Nelson said with impatient indulgence, "this will go much faster without interruptions."

"Aye, Sir," Chip acquiesced. Jamie sat back all of half an inch further into his chair.

"The information is sketchy at best," Nelson admitted, "and coming third hand. Whoever is with Lee called Hughes, and he called the Institute. Whatever they were doing - walking, hiking, something ­ they were apparently attacked by another person. What I know for sure is, both Lee and his friend are for the most part unhurt. But Lee overtaxed himself and was hospitalized for evaluation."

"Where?" Jamie demanded, unable to help himself.

"Port Orchard, Washington state. FS1 to Bremerton Naval Base, then rental car, and we'll be there by midnight."

"I'll grab my bag." Nelson gave him a nod and the CMO hurried out. Chip just sighed heavily, and Nelson favored him with a smile.

"I know, Chip. But"

"But," Chip finished for him, "we have two more sensors to replace, and I'm needed here."

"We'll call just as soon as we know what's going on," Nelson promised. "And apparently Lee really is okay."

Chip gave the OOM a quick grin. "Heaven help the doctor trying to treat him, under any circumstances. You better get Jamie there fast!"

* * * *

No matter the relatively innocuous nature of the message, the next several hours were pure hell for Chip. He and the Admiral had agreed not to say anything to anyone else until they had more definitive information. The entire crew took a rather proprietary attitude toward their Skipper ­ whether Lee liked it or not. There was no sense in getting everyone upset for what could possibly be no reason. Chip just returned to the Control Room and told the duty crew the Admiral and CMO had been called back to the mainland, and Seaview would probably be completing the mission without them. He knew there were crewmen who weren't buying it ­ at least not totally. And he was perfectly willing to accept the fact that his own nervousness was the culprit. Try as he might, once Nelson and Jamie took off he was simply unable to maintain his usual calm.

Having Sharkey hovering wasn't helping. Admiral Nelson very obviously hadn't said anything to the COB, and the man was not happy to have been left out of the loop. Chip took the fidgeting, hemming and hawing, and general being underfoot as good-naturedly as he could manage. But when Sharkey started in actually questioning where the Admiral was going, why he'd taken Doc with him, and when did they expect to be back, Chip turned, crossed his arms, and glared openly at the COB. "Chief," he said, his voice low but with a quality that matched the glare, "don't you trust Admiral Nelson to know what he's doing?"

Sharkey blinked at the XO. "Of course, Sir. But"

"Then don't you think," Chip cut the man off, "that if it had been important for you to have that information, he'd have made sure you did?" Chip had had his difficulties over the years with the COB. Sharkey was totally devoted to Nelson and Seaview, in that order. He had no problems with Lee as Seaview's Skipper, and followed orders easily. But Chip always got the feeling that Sharkey felt all the other officers aboard should come under the Chief's command, XO included. Not that the man challenged them openly. He just usually tended to ignore them as much as was possible. Happily, the JOs for the most part just ignored him back. There was the occasional grumble, but either Lee or Chip squashed it quickly with a reminder of just how good Sharkey was at keeping the boat and her crew running smoothly. It was a measure of Chip's own frustrations that he felt the need to squash the man himself at this point. His glare intensified and he all but looked down his nose at Sharkey, his voice growing hard. "When there's a need for you to know more, you'll be informed. For now, since you obviously have nothing else to do, go down to propulsion and check out the PMS files. Dismissed," Chip ended the conversation, and turned back toward the chart table, barely acknowledging the miserable "Yes, Sir," behind him. As the sound of footsteps disappeared toward the aft hatch, Chip caught a quick, smug, grin crossing Lt. James' face. "Care to join him, Mister?" Chip growled, barely looking up.

"No, Sir," Chris answered immediately, carefully neutral.

"Then I suggest you get your mind back on your own job. Your last course correction is two degrees off." The duty crew having heard the entire conversations of the last few minutes, the Conn grew very quiet. Instantly sorry for the second outburst, but not totally for the first, Chip kept his nose buried in the charts for a few minutes, then excused himself to go work on reports. Seaview had a good crew. They didn't need a caged tiger on the prowl.

And that was exactly what Chip felt like right now. All too quickly it became apparent that he was in no condition to calmly work on reports so he pushed them aside, and began pacing the confines of his cabin. He knew it was stupid. He knew it was non-productive. He knew it wasn't helping the crew to know their ranking officer aboard was not totally under control, especially since they had been given no reason for his jitters. And even more so since Doc had gone with the Admiral. But

From the very first time Chip had laid eyes on the shy, skinny, barely 17-year-old Lee Crane, assigned as his roomie their first days at Annapolis, there developed a special bond between the two. Nearly two years older, Chip had spent a year at his local junior college before deciding upon Annapolis. From a boisterous family with younger sisters and numerous cousins, Chip had automatically relegated the dark, curly-headed only-child Crane into the position of just another sibling. He very quickly discovered Lee wasn't overjoyed at suddenly finding himself stuck with an overly watchful big brother, but Chip hadn't let a little thing like that discourage him. Over the years it had caused squabbles, arguments, and the odd knock-down-drag-out fight. Yet, through it all, the friendship between the two had only deepened.

Upon graduation they'd both headed for the Nuclear Power Training Unit, then sub school, but ended up going in separate directions after that. Chip had gone on to do some grad courses in computer science while Lee had been recruited for an Intel assignment. But they'd always managed to stay in touch. When time and assignments allowed, they even managed a few leaves together ­ at least once, much to Chip's disgust at the resulting 'adventure' Lee had gotten them into.

But the bond held. And, once both were aboard Seaview, deepened further. They worked well as a team, often seemingly reading each other's thoughts, anticipating each other's actions. Chip grimaced slightly as he remembered Admiral Nelson's comments of a few days ago. No, he didn't think like Lee. They really did balance each other well. Even their erstwhile command nemesis, Admiral Jiggs Stark, had to admit (grudgingly at best) that the Crane/Morton team was one of the best in or out of the Navy.

But time and maturity had never taken away Chip's need to 'look after' Lee. If anything, it had deepened. As far as the relatively conservative Chip was concerned, his 'little brother' took an all too cavalier attitude toward his own safety. On duty that concern was seldom evident. Lee was in command of the great submarine, and Chip was his extremely competent, highly skilled Executive Officer. Chip would never even think of doing anything that might undermine Lee's authority, or the crew's opinion of their Skipper. Not that the crew didn't have their own ideas about how the Skipper took care of himself. But despite the addition of 123 pairs of eyes to help 'look after' Lee, Chip was much happier having him where he could keep an eye on him himself!

For Chip, the problem times were mostly when Lee was off boat. The fact that Lee had continued to accept ONI assignments drove Chip to occasional outright, if carefully out of sight, insubordination ­ not that Lee ever held it against his friend. On the contrary, Lee usually treated the outbursts with an indulgence that only infuriated Chip that much more. They both were keenly aware that what drove Chip's comments was a genuine concern for his friend's well being. Besides the fact that the two were such close friends, Chip was all too aware of how important Lee had become to Seaview, her crew, and her designer, not necessarily in that order. Chip had no idea what would happen if there ever came a time when Lee was permanently no longer aboard. The occasional absences were bad enough!

Damn! Chip loved his job as Seaview's XO ­ of being Lee's XO. But times like this, when all he could do was wait on board ­ Take care of business ­ nearly drove him crazy. Chip's left hand reached out almost of its own volition and smacked the bulkhead, bringing Chip back to the present with an unpleasant abruptness. Good, Morton. Have Nelson, when he calls, find you in Sick Bay having a broken hand cast! Chip shook his head at himself, and glanced at his watch. Still way too soon to expect the call. DAMN! The hand started in the direction of the bulkhead again, and he stopped it just in time. Concentrate, you idiot, Chip chastised himself. The initial report said he's safe ­ this time. There's no reason for you to come unhinged. At least, and Chip's expression turned hard, until you have him within range! Chip grinned with dark humor and headed for the Wardroom. With any luck he could get Higgins to make another pot of decent coffee. This had all the makings of a very long night.

* * * *

The call, when it finally came in about 0100, did little to relieve Chip's anxiety. It was good to know that Lee was, in fact, safe. But he was asleep when Nelson and Jamie arrived, the CMO had apparently threatened the Admiral with beheading if Nelson so much as thought about waking him up, and the person who had been with Lee at the time was apparently unwilling to talk to strangers. Any definitive information would have to wait. Chip had taken the call in his cabin, where he'd scurried to from the Control Room. "Doesn't sound like I'd better say anything to the crew just yet," he sighed heavily. Nelson must have heard it over the phone lines, because when he responded there was commiseration in his voice.

"I suppose it's hopeless to tell you to get some sleep."

"Afraid so," Chip agreed tiredly.

"I had better luck with Jamie. I'm going to stay here at the hospital with Lee until I know for sure what happened. I'll keep you posted."

"Appreciate it, Sir," and the connection was broken. With that Chip was able to at least rest for a few hours. He was surprised later to learn that he'd actually been able to fall asleep.

Nelson's second call came in just before 0530, and had a still half-asleep Chip instantly awake. "Bracken," he practically yelled into the phone, and worked hard to get himself under control. "He was behind what happened in Detroit?"

"So it would appear," Nelson growled. From the Admiral's tone throughout his repeating Lee's story to Chip, the XO was extremely glad Nelson was so many miles away. He didn't hold out much hope for anyone who was unfortunate enough to get in the four stars' line of fire any time soon. "I'm going to call NIMR Security, have someone I can trust around, just in case. No need to tell the locals any more than necessary."

"Davy Jackson should be available, Sir," Chip offered. "He's on Base Security at the moment. Lee's comfortable with him." Both men knew Lee wouldn't take kindly to a watchdog, and the easygoing but extremely efficient Jackson had a knack for dealing with his temperamental CO.

"Good," Nelson agreed. His voice softened as he continued, and Chip's attention doubled, wondering. "Oh, and the next time you see Lee, you'll want to have him explain who was with him on this little trip."


"I'll let Lee explain," was all Nelson would say. "I doubt either Jamie or I will return to Seaview, since the cruise is so near completion."

"Scheduled to be back at NIMR late Saturday/early Sunday," Chip confirmed. "Jamie taking Lee back?"

"Not sure, but I doubt it. Jamie was of the opinion that if Lee recovered from this case of over-exertion as he has in the past, he would return to NIMR and let Lee go back to the Hughes."

Chip sighed and finally relaxed. That more than anything else told him Lee was okay. Jamie was an absolute bear when it came to Lee's health. "So I take it I'm still on track to go back up to Oregon once Seaview's docked?"

"I'm sure Jamie is counting on it," Nelson answered. "Ah, Chip"

"I'll tell the crew a somewhat toned-down version of what happened ­ for now, at least."

"Agreed. I'll keep you posted if I learn anything else." The growl was back, and Chip shivered. Heaven help anybody who got in Nelson's way when he was on a blood scent.

Which is exactly what this almost was, Chip muttered to himself while headed for the Control Room. As he used the boat wide intercom to give the crew his carefully censored version of the previous day's events, he saw clenched fists and hard expressions hit most of the duty crew. The entire crew had visited Lee once he'd been brought home from Detroit, either in Med Bay, or later as he worked in his office. They were all aware of how close it had been this time, how lucky they'd been to get him back at all. Sharkey, Patterson, Riley, and Kowalski had gone along on what Lee referred to as the 'Commando Raid' to retrieve him, once they finally knew where he was. It was a measure of the crew's devotion to Lee that, if they'd known at the time who was responsible, Chip doubted there would have been any way to stop a 123-man, singularly minded, hunting party. Hmm, make that 124, Chip snarled to himself as he hung up the mic. And they'd have been lead by an auburn-haired, stocky man with stars on his collar and fire in his eyes. Chip shuddered slightly. Well, he may not have us physically behind him, since the object of the hunt is already dead. But that doesn't mean there still won't be heads rolling. Think I might be glad I'm here after all.

* * * *

By early the following morning Seaview's crew had replaced the last of the Albion sensors, and gratefully headed home. There had been another call from Nelson, and Chip's reporting to the crew that Doc was releasing Lee on Wednesday to finish his shore leave with friends did much to relieve the underlying tension that had remained after the initial report. Chip even heard a few crewmembers chuckling over the fact that, "it was obvious the Skipper's fine, or else Doc wouldn't be letting him out of sight, no matter how hard or loud the Skipper yelled."

Friday morning, with Seaview cruising toward home at standard speed, Chip took a few minutes and had Sparks place a call to Lee's cell phone. Momentarily disturbed when Lee didn't immediately answer, he called the B&B instead, and relaxed inwardly as Lee himself answered. Outwardly he demanded to know why Lee hadn't answered the cell. No sense letting Lee think he was completely off the hook. He relaxed totally as he listened to his friend explain he'd just left it upstairs since he wasn't planning on leaving the house that day. Relaxation turned to concern as he could hear tiredness in Lee's voice. "You okay?" he questioned softly. Concern turned to humor as Lee groused at the question, then turned cautious as Lee asked for a status report. Apparently all Nelson and Doc had told him about this cruise was that it had been 'interesting'. You can say that again, Chip muttered, took a deep breath, and told Lee that everything was okay, except that Seaview might need a little fresh paint in a few spots. He laughed outright at Lee's demand for an instant explanation. Things are back to normal. Lee's worried about the boat. To Lee he just replied he was glad to know Lee was obviously okay, told him he'd see him Sunday sometime, and broke the connection. The grin on his face as he returned to the chart table was reflected back to him by most of the duty crew. There were few secrets in the close confines of a submarine ­ they'd all known whom he'd called.

That evening, as he passed the Crew's Mess on his way back to the Control Room from a quick errand to supply, Chip decided it might be a wise idea to retrieve the picture he'd given Sharkey. Fun while it lasted, with Seaview almost home he figured he was better off having it in his possession than not knowing where it might end up. His mind on that, and also reminding himself to pick up the one in the Wardroom, he waved down the few crewmembers present, who'd jumped up at his sudden entrance, and headed for the bulletin board halfway down the room. He also spotted an almost empty plate of cookies ­ oatmeal raisin ­ and snagged two as he passed. He vaguely heard a couple gasps, and a quick, "Ah, Mr. Morton" from Kowalski, sitting off to one side, but reached out to take the picture down with one hand as he popped one of the cookies into his mouth with the other.

The reaction was instantaneous: his mouth burned, his eyes watered, he couldn't breathe. Someone had hollowed out the cookie and filled it with cayenne pepper! As he swallowed water as fast as he could from the glass Kowalski shoved into his hand, he spotted Riley and Rawn just walking into the room. Closing his eyes and shaking his head, it was all he could do to keep from shaking with laughter no matter how bad he felt ­ he'd obviously walked right into Ski's revenge for the water bomb.

The only sound in the room was Chip's occasional cough through his efforts to wash away the pepper. After he finally re-opened his eyes, he saw every one else standing absolutely motionless, almost at attention, waiting for the expected explosion. Even the two intended victims, although he wasn't sure they even knew why at that point. Keeping a firm hold on his own emotions, he carefully handed the now empty glass and the uneaten cookie back to Ski, snatched the picture off the bulletin board, and stalked out of the room without so much as a word to anyone. Walking with purpose to the Conn, he ordered Seaview to full speed. "I want home as fast as possible," he told a perplexed Mr. O'Brien, and headed for his cabin. As he marched up the spiral stairs, he sputtered to himself, Wonder if I can stay locked in my cabin until we're safely docked!

*The Cat who Brought Down The House, by Lilian Jackson Braun. Putnam, 2003

**Piano Cascades. Solitudes, Ltd. (no year listed). Produced by Gordon Gibson. Available from Solitudes, Ltd., 250 Ferrand Drive, Suite 1100, Toronto, Canada M3C 3G8