The Long Road Home
C. Lyn Barrow
The dust of the narrow trail rose around Lee Crane’s stumbling feet like small clouds, billowing upward in the still, hot air, threatening to choke him. His eyes burned from the glare, but also from lack of sleep. His body ached fiercely and his muscles, overtaxed too frequently over the past few days, threatened to drop him at every faltering step. Still he plodded on determinedly, aware only of the fading sun beating fiercely down on his dark-haired head.
He raised one arm, swiping across his sleeve across his sweaty forehead as he had already done a hundred times that day. His throat was parched with thirst; he had been without water since yesterday when he had indulged in the last few drops in his flask. This part of the country was barren, virtually uninhabited, at least by anyone other than more of the armed military encampments he had already avoided twice since he left the rebel camp high in the distant mountains, and even the latest of ONI’s aerial surveys had shown no streams, no foliage other than the occasional low bushes that dotted the sand.
He felt like he had been walking forever. Well, he reminded himself, it had been three days since his mission was completed and his contact had dropped him off beside the single road to cross this barrenness. He could have been carried closer to the coast. His contact had offered to do just that, but his mission had gone without mishap, and he was ahead of schedule. A truck making its way cross-country would certainly have been noticed by the army, and would have endangered everything he had accomplished, not to mention the life of his contact, and his own. It was not the first time he had walked so far, but the heat had combined with the shortage of water to sap his strength the same way loss of blood had have done on occasion in the past.
What he wanted most at this moment was someplace safe to lie down and sleep the clock around. Maybe he could just crawl into the meager shade of one of the larger bushes that grew alongside the trail and surrender to his body’s needs. He shook his head wearily, banishing that thought even as it flitted through his mind. He would demand vigilance of himself until he reached the coast and was retrieved by whatever means the ONI had devised for him. And even when he reached his destination there would be hours of debriefing ahead of him before he could begin to hope that he would be transferred back to Seaview.
At least this time he would return undamaged. Jamie would be pleased about that, he told himself, but no more so than Chip or Nelson, himself.
He was forced to admit that it was a rare occurrence for him to return undamaged from one of these forays into ONI’s secret world. Still, he could not refuse when he was summoned, particularly this time after it became obvious that he was the only man who would recognize Mahrin Kahn by sight. The importance of the real heir being returned to his people, not some puppet pretender foisted on his country and the world by the late Kahn’s grasping brother-in-law, had been made abundantly clear to him. Only someone who knew the rightful heir personally would be able to guarantee that the right man was returned to his country.
While the mission had not been a walk in the park.... Lee found himself chuckling at the old turn of phrase. None of his assignments were ever easy, and few went anything like what he was assured of in the beginning. This one had been physically demanding, and not without its moments of danger and risk, but he had survived it intact, and Mahrin was where his supporters could see him to his rightful place. That was all Lee had been asked to do.
He stumbled as he labored up the last hill before the steep decline to the beach. He would be on time. For a change he was not going to be late, not going to need medical attention before he could be debriefed. He knew himself well enough to know that once in the skiff and on his way to the fishing boat, or maybe even a seaplane, his energy would return long enough for him to make his report, but he was looking forward to that moment with an intensity that made him light-headed with eagerness. If only it could be his own bunk in his cabin aboard Seaview.
He sighed in his exhaustion.
He wondered if Will Jamieson had his reproaches already prepared for him, expecting him to need at the very least a few stitches and an overnight stay in Sick Bay for observation. Jamie would probably let the exhaustion pass with only a grumbled ‘Get some rest’. He had long since given up lecturing him for overextending his strength and endurance. That happened often enough during regular duty on Seaview for it to be unremarkable, but Lee knew he would be watching him closely for signs that Crane was being less than honest with him about his condition.
At least maybe this time Chip wouldn’t spend the first few days of his being back aboard bombarding him with disapproving glowers and disgusted stares. This time he could not admonish him for not taking proper care to remain uninjured, nor chastise him for his over-developed sense of responsibility to ONI missions. This time....
Once more Crane shook his head, though he regretted that impulse instantly as his vision blurred. He shouldn’t try to deceive himself, he acknowledged. Chip ragged on him because he cared what happened to him, to him as Captain of Seaview, and to him, Lee Crane, friend. Although he chaffed under the intensity of it sometimes, he was grateful for Chip’s attention, confident, as he was, that so long as Morton looked out for his welfare all would be well.
And Nelson. The Admiral would say the least, betray the least, but Lee knew that of them all Nelson was the most aware of the danger his young captain ventured into each time he responded to an ONI summons. He had been there himself, engaged in the same kind of life-risking assignments. He had frequently tried to dissuade Lee of continuing with the undercover missions, usually after one of those that had seen him injured, but he understood the younger man’s overwhelming need to do what he could do in the service of his country.
As he neared the crest of the hill he wondered if he would have to wait to be picked up. That was as common as his own arrival at the extraction point being delayed he knew. He would have to stay awake until the extraction team arrived, and as exhausted as he was he wasn’t looking forward to having to cool his heels. If only....
He topped the crown of the hill and started down the other side, trying to keep his feet in the sliding, treacherous sand, his gaze rising only momentarily to verify that the strand was empty of danger and that there was no boat beached at the meeting spot. The sun was setting, sliding inexorably into the ocean, and yet half-way down the slope he forced his gaze up, seeking any craft that might be there to pick him up. He lurched to a halt, stumbling in the clinging sand.
The mighty vessel rocked lazily on the surface of the water some quarter mile distant, as majestic as anything Lee had ever seen, and doubly welcome. There was a Zodiac approaching the shore, its location telling him that they had been watching his approach for some time, and had timed the Zodiac’s arrival at the beach to coincide with his own. A demonstration of Morton’s meticulousness, he thought with a grin.
But how had they come to be here? They were supposed to be five hundred miles away surveying a newly discovered sunken seaport off the Spanish coast. Was something wrong that they had come for him themselves? Nelson? Chip?
He raised his hand to shield his eyes. One of his fears was put to rest at once as he recognized both the Admiral and Morton in the front of the Zodiac. Kowalski was handling the outboard motor with his usual skill.
He hurried his descent then, and dogtrotted across the strand to the water’s edge, reaching it just moments before the rubber boat. For a moment he just stood there grinning foolishly, then his friends were standing beside him, their own smiles as wide as his.
“All in one piece, I see, lad?” Nelson said, his voice strangely thin.
“Aye, sir,” he replied, though he hardly recognized his own voice for its roughness.
Chip swung a water bottle strap off his shoulder, opened it, and thrust the container into Lee’s hands. “Drink slowly, Lee,” he cautioned. “I saw the aerials of the country you just crossed and figured you might need a drink of water ‘bout now.”
“Best thing I’ve ever tasted,” Lee admitted then, his voice a little more normal. “Didn’t expect to see you here.”
“We were just in the area....” Nelson began, then broke off as Lee turned a suspicious glance on him. “All right, I know how much you wanted to dive those ruins....”
Lee grinned, his smile forcing Nelson’s excuses into silence. He shook his head slowly, negating any further explanation.
“Thanks, sir. This means a lot.”
“It means a lot to have you back in one piece, Captain,” Nelson blustered, then turned to return to the rocking Zodiac. “Now let’s get back aboard Seaview and let Will check you over.”
Morton lowered his head, though Lee could see the twitching of the blond’s lips as he fought to contain his own laughter.
“Come on, Lee,” his friend said at last, throwing his arm over Crane’s shoulders and urging him toward the boat. “I saved some of the paperwork for you.”