THE WEAKEST LINK
By Diane Farnsworth Kachmar
First published in Outlands #9 1986
Chip Morton sighed as the sound of angry voices erupted again on the other side of the closed crash doors. When would McIntosh realize when the Admiral said no he meant it?
He glanced across the chart table at Lee Crane. The Captain of the Seaview was seated on the chart table stool, reading his daily reports, seemingly oblivious to the noise behind him. But Chip knew better. Crane's hands clenched the papers. Lee was about one more shout away from going forward and telling the miner to lay off the old man.
“They’re at it again,” Chip observed quietly, drawing the line of Seaview’s course on the chart.
“I know,” Lee sighed, and placed the report down on the table. "He's very persistent, isn't he?"
"Work's important to him, I guess." Morton glanced up at his friend. "Think the Admiral's going to budge?"
Crane shook his head. "Not likely. If they can't work within the conditions we set, he won't have any part of their grant."
Chip looked down at his charts gloomily. “It’s another week until we make home port.”
"Can't wait to rid of him, eh?" Crane laughed softly.
"Nobody likes the way he treats the Admiral. I thought for sure you were going to punch him out yesterday."
"I wanted to, but it wouldn't have helped anything." Lee replied calmly.
"The lower deck is starting to rumble."
"I know. I've spoken to the Admiral about it. He said to put on our Sunday smiles and live with it. I think he's waiting 'til we can complete the survey and return home. Something about personally telling the head of Extron where to stuff his grant."
Chip shook his head. "How could they possibly think we'd go along with them strip mining a protected area."
"It's possible they didn't know that was McIntosh's plans, or else they didn't care. Monastrea cavernosa means nothing to someone who's trying to become the sole distributor of tridirium. It's only piles of rock to them."
"Expensive piles, both in fines and bad publicity. And they certainly don't need any more bad press." Morton fiddled with his rule absently. "Or don't they read it?"
Lee smiled bitterly, without humor. "Would you? No, Chip, its simple economics. The deposit is concentrated there, and could be harvested quickly, unlike the pockets we found for him over the ridge. Same net result, only it takes longer to collect. More of our time, more rental..." Lee shrugged. "Now he won't even get that. And we'll have to contact the Marine Patrol to keep a watch on the area, since they have their eye on it." Crane picked up his report. "It was his choice, he didn't have to return empty-handed."
"So now we have to live with him."
"Cheer up. It's only a few more days."
Morton grinned. "I'm glad we're taking leave when we get back. After him, I'll need it."
* * * * *
Lee paused, fork in mid-air, and glanced around the wardroom. "Chip," he addressed his Exec across the table. "Isn't it kind of quiet in here?"
"That's because McIntosh isn't here." Nelson broke in from the head of the table, as Morton shrugged.
"Oh." Lee shook his head and resumed eating. He was trying hard to keep the miner from getting to him, but he should have realized that the man wasn't there.
"Wonder where he is?" Chip looked up from cutting his meat.
"Probably in his cabin, sulking." Nelson speared a chunk of roast beef with his fork. "I, for one, could use a meal without distractions."
"Well, sir, you could always ask Lee to have him eat with the men." Chip grinned, a mischievous glint in his eye.
"Heaven forbid!" Lee dropped his fork with a clank and shot Morton a warning look. "They'd have HIM for lunch."
Chip grinned wider, enjoying the idea.
"He does have a point, Lee," Nelson replied, and Crane could see the Admiral was amused by the prospect.
"We'll be home in four days, Chip," Lee countered swiftly. "Surely you can hold out 'til then." The last thing he needed was Morton giving the Old Man ideas. "He's really not so bad, if he'd get off this Trench thing."
"I think I've finally convinced him it's useless," Nelson answered. "At least he's stopped badgering me about it."
"Small favors, eh?" Morton teased.
“Something like that." Nelson reached for the coffee pot. "By the end of the week, he'll be back to being someone else's problem."
"I'll drink to that." Morton raised his coffee cup.
"Me, too." Lee raised his cup as well. The next time someone wanted to give them a "no strings" grant, he was going to have it thoroughly investigated first. They certainly didn't need the aggravation this one had caused.
The sub was very quiet in the half light of simulated night, as McIntosh padded along softly along the corridor in stocking feet lest he rouse the duty watch. His timing had to be exact, and he had to work fast. If they discovered him, it would be all over.
He approached the door to auxiliary control. The corridor was clear and should remain so for the next ten minutes. He shook his head, it was almost too easy. They suspected nothing. They had their routine and stuck to it like clockwork. For the last three nights he had laid in various access hatches, watching, weighing and they still had not discovered that their alarm system had been rendered useless. It was a very sophisticated system, and it had given him pause, but he had found a way to bypass it. There was always a way, if one looked hard enough.
McIntosh pushed the door open. The military always made it so easy, assuming no one would go where they weren't authorized. He crossed the room, and slid his pick into the first locker on the right. They had not even found his stash; as long as it remained locked they were sure it still contained what they had locked in there. He ran his hand over the scuba tanks. Soon, very soon. Then he reached for the white duffel bag at the bottom of the locker.
Pulling out the plastic explosive he began to shape the charge. A quick trip down the access hatch and into the circuitry room where he would place it behind the air revitalization unit would take care of phase one. It was almost time for the watch to change, and he'd have to be ready. With the explosive in place he could go on to phase two.
The miner smiled grimly as he worked. Nelson would rue the day he tried to thwart him. The Admiral had tried to convince him the sub was the most important thing in his life, but he had seen different. He would get Nelson where it hurt the most. He would do his mining ---if he ever wanted to see his Captain alive again.
* * * * *
Lee came through the hatch into the electronic supply room, intending to take a short cut through to crew’s quarters, before going to his cabin to write up the log, when he was attacked from behind.
Crane fell to his knees, dazed by the vicious blow to his head, fighting not to black out. He saw a pair of dark sneakers, and forced his head up. The blurred outline of a .45 filled his vision, coming straight at him. Then his pain flared for a brief agonizing moment, followed swiftly by black oblivion.
Lee regained consciousness abruptly, twisting away from the sharp, stinging slaps. A large dark shape was bent over him. He blinked, trying to focus. His head throbbed, but he ignored it, concentrating. The shape became Angus McIntosh, kneeling beside him, arm upraised to strike him again.
"Ah, you're finally awake, Captain, I was beginning to think I had used my gun butt too freely." The miner lowered his hand when he saw Crane was conscious.
Anger at McIntosh's audacity made Lee forget his aching head. "What the hell are you doing?" he grated, drawing his legs up under him. Laying his hand on the deck, Crane tried to sit up and nearly fell over. His wrists were handcuffed together. Using both hands to push himself off the deck, Lee finally managed to sit up. "Take these off." He thrust the cuffs at McIntosh. "You won't get Admiral Nelson to cooperate by using me."
McIntosh smiled down at him, a maddingly indulgent smile. "I wouldn't be so sure, Captain. I intend to mine the Cameron Trench, and Admiral Nelson will take me there, whether he wants to or not."
"How?" Lee challenged, giving the cuffs an experimental tug. "He's refused, and he won't change his mind." The steel cuffs held, and Crane lowered his hands back into his lap.
"The Admiral won’t let anything happen to you, Captain. You are much more valuable to him than a few coral colonies."
Lee gave McIntosh his best command glare to hide the realization that the miner had planned well, seizing a vulnerable spot that both he and Nelson tried hard not to show outsiders. "I'm expendable as anyone else on board," he replied firmly, holding his gaze on McIntosh.
"Don't try to bluff me, Crane. I have observed both of you, off guard. I watched and planned. I know everything there is to know about this beautiful ship of yours. Ah, what an efficient little miner she will be."
"You can't think you'll get away with holding me hostage. You're outnumbered 124 to 1.”
"No one will be looking for you, Captain, until eight o'clock. I know the routine of your vessel. You have completed your tour of the ship, and now everyone thinks you are in your cabin writing the log." McIntosh smiled again. "Shall I tell you what's going on in the rec room, for instance, or the galley, or even in the control room? They are all engrossed in their various tasks and pleasures, Captain. No one will miss you until eight o’clock, unless they have a reason to come find you, and by then you will be safely tucked away, out of reach."
"You expect me to cooperate?"
"On the contrary, Captain, I know better. You are too unpredictable to be left unguarded, so you are going where you won't be found and released. I don't want to lose my pawn too early in the game."
"There's not a place on board you can hide me that my men don't know about." Lee raised his cuffed hands. "And if you think these will immobilize me --”
McIntosh shook his head impatiently. "Captain, I have not underestimated you. Please don't make that mistake with me." McIntosh began to dig in a dirty white duffel bag beside him.
Lee gathered himself, but McIntosh raised the .45 again, pulling a timer device from the bag. "Don't be foolish, Captain. You will ruin the game if I have to kill you too soon. You have every chance of coming out of this situation unharmed, provided Nelson does exactly what I tell him to."
Lee relaxed back onto the deck. "He takes you to the trench and lets you strip mine it."
"I will make it very worth his while. After all, Nelson is entitled to a small percentage of the tridirium.
"And if he won't take you there?"
"Then I play out the hand, Captain." McIntosh abruptly thrust the timer device at him. "Do you recognize this?"
"It's a Webley multi-location remote detonator," Lee answered. If he stalled long enough, someone in crews’ quarters might notice he hadn't dropped in. It was a thin hope, but if he could keep McIntosh talking - "So, I'm your bomb."
"Very good, Captain! Nelson says no, I push a little button, and no more Captain. If I place you right, no more submarine."
"If you think I'll let you destroy this submarine -” Crane lunged, unable to contain his anger any longer. McIntosh went down beneath him as Lee knocked his captor from his knees and closed his hands around the miner's throat. White hot pain lanced through his head, as McIntosh flailed out with the gun. Lee tightened his grip, fighting the growing blackness. Don't let go until he goes limp.
McIntosh squirmed under him, struggling. Lee bore down with all his weight trying to keep him pinned to the deck. McIntosh rolled, bringing up a knee. He levered it into Crane’s stomach, throwing him off.
Lee fell heavily to the deck, shaking his head to dispel the darkness closing in on him. A hand twisted into his hair, dragging his head up.
McIntosh, red faced, and breathing hard, thrust his .45 against his left temple. "That was stupid! But not unexpected." He released his hand from Lee's hair, scrabbling on the deck beside him for the dropped timer device. Gathering it in his hand, he brought it up again. "Either, you cooperate or I’ll kill everyone on board right now." The miner’s finger hovered above a green button. "I knew I would need something to bring you to heel, so early this morning I climbed through the ventilation system to the circuitry room and put a bomb in the rear of the air revitalization unit."
"Impossible." Lee glared at him. "There's someone on duty watch all the time. You're bluffing."
"Would you care to find out, Captain?" McIntosh's finger moved closer to the button.
"You'll never get to the Trench if you kill us now."
"True." McIntosh raised his finger slightly. "But I'm not bluffing, Captain. First I disconnected the intruder alert in the shaft and made it an open circuit. Then I installed a bypass so that your monitor board stays green, even when a system isn't. After that, I slipped down from the shaft and opened the back panel of the air revitalizer. Quiet as a mouse I was, the watch never even heard me. Believe me, there is a bomb in there."
"And if I don't consent, you'll kill everyone."
"Only if you make me. Surely a few coral colonies aren't worth the lives of your crew. It's only rock. An obstacle to be removed."
"Is that how you take care of things, McIntosh? You blow them up?" Crane could not believe what he was hearing.
"It works well, Captain. No one else is even close to my ninety five percent recovery rate. We waste time. Let's go."
"I told you, Captain, where you won't be found." McIntosh reached down for his bag, and put the timer device back in it, then slung it over his shoulder. "On your feet."
Lee stood up, and the pounding in his head from the pistol whipping intensified. He gritted his teeth, fighting hard not to sway. He wouldn't give McIntosh the satisfaction. The .45 prodded him in the side.
"Over there. Open the access hatch."
"That doesn't go anywhere but auxiliary control."
"Then that's where we're going. Move!"
It was awkward trying to crawl in cuffs and McIntosh's insistent prodding only added to his anger. It was too narrow in the passageway to turn around, but when the Admiral got the better of this maniac Lee promised himself he'd teach this man a lesson in courtesy he'd never forget.
Lee undogged the access hatch from inside and moved the panel to one side. Then he crawled out into auxiliary control. As per routine the station was unmanned. McIntosh obviously knew that. They were off from the main corridors but after McIntosh left, he'd find some way to raise an alarm.
The miner crossed over to the storage lockers on the far side of the room, unlocking the door with a deft twist of his pick. The Admiral had inferred the man was less than honest, but had stopped short of calling him a thief. Another thing they had been wrong about. McIntosh removed a set of closed circuit scuba tanks from the locker along with a single tank unit, and then he turned back to Lee, a triumphant smile on his face. "Now, do you understand why you won't be found, Captain?"
Lee studied the tanks. Closed circuit. No bubbles. No trail to follow. They couldn't leave the ship when it was traveling, plus he had to stay on board to be used as a weapon. A cold chill ran through him. The ballast tanks.
Cramped, dark, filled with crossbeams and the other structural components of the Seaview, it was the perfect hiding place. There wasn't room for a search party even if anyone thought to look there. And they wouldn't, not unless someone noticed the missing tanks. Lee looked over at McIntosh. With the type of planning he had seen so far, he doubted the miner had been that careless.
Crane tugged on the cuffs again, but the tempered steel held. McIntosh would blow up the ship if he didn't get his way. They should have suspected something when he stopped insisting, and seemed content to return to Santa Barbara. Lee remembered the fanatical gleam in his eye whenever he spoke about mining the trench. The only way to keep his men safe was to go along with the miner.
McIntosh set the tanks down in front of him. "Hook it up."
Lee extended his cuffed hands. "I can't work in these."
"No, Captain." McIntosh began rummaging in his bag with one hand. "If I uncuff you, you will try to disarm me again, and I am not ready to kill you yet. It is awkward, but not impossible." McIntosh knelt next to him. "We waste time."
Lee attached the regulator to the tank unit and tested it. It worked despite his wish otherwise.
"Now the leverage." McIntosh reached for the regulator and plastered a hunk of plastic explosive over the metal below the rubber mouth grip. He worked fast and efficiently, using more than enough to disintegrate the whole assembly and whatever else might be attached to it.
Lee suppressed a shudder. The Admiral would find some way to stop McIntosh.
"If I remember your manual, you should have about four hours of air. Plenty of time to get turned around and headed to the Trench area at flank speed."
"Three and a half," Lee corrected. "If we maintain our present depth."
"Close enough." McIntosh placed a face mask on top of Crane's hair, pulling the strap down around the back of his head. "If Nelson cooperates, you have nothing to worry about." The miner donned a mask himself, leaving it up on his forehead. Awkwardly, Lee clipped the mouthpiece around his throat, and reached for his tanks.
"First things first, Captain." McIntosh motioned for him to put the tanks back on the deck. The miner then pulled a heavy weight belt from the locker and clasped it around Lee's waist. "I want you to stay put." He then searched and emptied the pockets of Crane's uniform before attaching a length of light weight chain with a padlock to the weight belt.
Watching the preparations Lee saw his chances for escape being diminished one by one. McIntosh had thought of every possibility.
"Here." The miner thrust a paper in front of him. "Sign this. I want to prove to Nelson I'm not bluffing."
Lee scanned the note. "He won't believe that." Crane flipped the paper over and laid it on his tank. Reaching for the pen McIntosh held, he awkwardly wrote a few words and signed it. "Give him this."
McIntosh read what he had written and smiled. "You summed it up very well. I shall enjoy watching his reaction." McIntosh gathered up all the loose items from the deck and stuffed them into his duffel bag, then stowed the bag back in the locker beside them, keeping only the detonator. He placed the device in small diving pouch attached to his belt where he could easily reach it. Replacing his .45 with a long, saw-toothed diving knife, he strapped the sheath to his leg. Looking up, he saw Lee watching him. He slung his tank over one shoulder, clipping the mouthpiece around his neck. "A precaution, Captain, in case you try to be the hero, again."
Lee raised his cuffed hands once again. "You can't expect me to don the tank like this."
McIntosh laughed. "That would be rather difficult wouldn't it?" The miner knelt beside him, undoing the harness and placing the straps over his shoulders, then clasping them closed. "There, that should do it. Now, get up."
Lee got his knees under him, but was roughly jerked to his feet by the impatient miner. "It's not use trying to stall, Captain. No one is coming."
McIntosh went over to the control panel and thumbed the hatch controls. The light on the panel didn't even light, verifying McIntosh's bypass. He was on his own.
Resigned, Lee pulled down his mask, settling it awkwardly over his face, and then inserted his mouthpiece firmly with his cuffed hands. He slid over the side of the hatch into the cold seawater, landing on his knees at the bottom of the tank. Something disturbed the water next to him and he turned, finding McIntosh beside him with an underwater light. The miner gave him a prod with the light and gestured aft.
Lee pushed off, swimming in the direction indicated, trying to gauge his location in the ship. He wanted to escape, but it looked impossible. Encumbered by the cuffs and weight belt, McIntosh would be on him before he could even break away, and if the miner set off the explosive here it could rupture the tank and send them all to the bottom. He had no other choice but to cooperate.
McIntosh's hand closed around his arm, stopping his forward progress. The miner pushed him toward an opening off to his left. Pump station. Which one? Aft from auxiliary control. No. 2. The nearest hatch was-
Lee was distracted by the miner, tugging on his arm. McIntosh illuminated the pump with his light, and indicated him to swim behind it. Lee let himself sink to the deck and felt McIntosh's hands on his weight belt. The miner pulled the chain free and threaded it first through his handcuffs and then around a metal feeder pipe on the pump. The padlock clicked closed with a audible snick. McIntosh played the light over him, fiddled with his tank harness for a moment, loosening the strap, and clasping it even tighter.
The miner backpedaled a few feet then gave him the thumbs up sign. Then he pushed off, swimming back in the direction they had come, leaving Lee in darkness with only the hiss of his regulator for company.
* * * * *
Chip looked up at the imperious sounding voice and had to fight very hard to keep a scowl from his features. Now what?
McIntosh came down the last three winding stairs at the front of the control room. Chip laid aside his pencil, waiting, as the miner came over to the chart table.
“I want Nelson down here." McIntosh put a small silver box on the table in front of him.
"The Admiral is busy right now." Chip reached for his pencil.
"Get him down here!" The miner's voice was ugly.
"For what?" Chip held his ground. He did not have to take orders from this man.
The miner lifted his box from the table. "Do you want a hole blasted in your submarine?" He thrust the box forward, almost under Morton's nose.
Seeing the device up close for the first time, Chip realized it was a detonator. He raised a hand slowly, placatingly, aware of the watch staring at McIntosh in disbelief. "Okay. You've made your point. Give me a minute to raise him," Morton replied calmly, reaching for the mic on the side of the table.
McIntosh pulled back. "That's better, Commander."
Chip clicked the mic button twice. "Admiral."
Nelson answered promptly. "Yes, Chip?"
At the sound of the Admiral's voice, the watch seemed to relax a bit, but Chip could see them watching McIntosh warily. He fought to keep his words slow and even. "Could you come down to the control room, sir? It's important."
"Very well." The resignation in Nelson's voice showed he'd rather not have been bothered, but Chip was glad he did not question him.
A few moments later Nelson came down the spiral stairs. Seeing McIntosh, and feeling the tension in the air, he came straight over to the chart table.
"What's the trouble?" He looked at Chip, not McIntosh.
"Mr. McIntosh wanted to see you."
Nelson turned to the miner. "I told you three days ago--”
"I know you told me," McIntosh sneered. "But you are through telling me anything. You will do as I say. If you ever want to see your Captain alive again."
The Admiral's eyes narrowed, as Chip fought to keep his own surprise from showing, then focused on the box McIntosh was holding. "What have you done to Lee -- Captain Crane?"
"Nothing. Yet." McIntosh's eyes gleamed, his fingers fondling the small box with its array of buttons. "I have merely detained the good Captain. You may have him back, none the worse for wear; once I am convinced we are on course for the Cameron Trench."
"So we're back to that again, are we?" Nelson's jaw tightened.
"I intend to mine that trench, Admiral, with or without your cooperation."
"And if I refuse to take you there?" Nelson's eyes were glacial.
"Then your Captain dies, and leaves a very large hole in your submarine." McIntosh cradled the detonator closely. "I do know explosives, Admiral, and believe me; I have put the Captain and my bomb where they will do the most damage." The miner glanced at his watch. "His time grows shorter by the minute."
Chip could sense Nelson's agitation, although the Admiral kept his voice calm. "How do I know you really have Crane?"
McIntosh smiled, a cruel, triumphant smile. "You could try to raise him, but I thought I would save you the trouble." He reached into his pocket and handed a crumpled piece of paper to the Admiral.
Nelson read the note, then handed it to him. Chip recognized the handwriting immediately. It was straightforward and to the point.
'Admiral, he's not bluffing. Do what you think best.'
Chip felt a sudden flash of worry at the uneven letters, then realized Lee had been forced to write it. For McIntosh to make Lee a hostage he would have had to take him by surprise and knock Crane out. A cold shiver ran down his spine at the implications of Lee's words. Morton hoped the situation could be reversed without endangering Lee's life unnecessarily.
He glanced at Nelson. The old man was thinking furiously. He knew the Admiral had understood what Lee was trying to tell him.
"All right. Mr. Morton, set course zero two zero, all ahead flank." Nelson's voice was all business. Not a good sign.
“Zero two zero at flank, aye, sir." Chip reached for his microphone to relay the order to the engine room.
Once the course change was executed, Chip glanced around the control room, to see what men he had to work with. Kowalski was always good in a fight, as were Riley and Malone. And Sharkey --
Chip suddenly realized the Chief was no longer at his duty station. He was sure Sharkey had been there when McIntosh arrived. He had no reason to leave except --
Morton felt a small surge of hope. The Chief must have been listening, and slipped below. If he could find Crane, then the miner would be rendered powerless.
Chip was sure the miner had not noticed the Chief's absence and knew it was up to him to keep it that way. "Permission to carry on, sir?" he asked Nelson, knowing the question would alert Nelson he was up to something.
"Permission granted," the Admiral replied without hesitation.
Morton laid down his mic and started to move aft.
"Where's he going?" McIntosh demanded.
"Commander Morton has certain tasks he must perform if he is to get you to your destination."
Chip almost winced at Nelson's inflection. He hated when the old man took that tone with him.
The miner eased down into the stool by the chart table. "All right, but no funny stuff, or I push the button."
"I'm sure you will." Nelson was having a hard time holding on his temper, and Chip hoped the Admiral wouldn't lose it. Then Morton noticed the quartermaster glaring at McIntosh. Chip followed his gaze back, and realized where McIntosh was sitting. The crew didn't like just anyone sitting there, as that was where Crane sat. He waited for a moment for the man to notice him, and then shook his head. The quartermaster turned back to his console unhappily.
Chip moved past him to the hydrophone and asked Riley his reading. The seaman gave it to him. Then he moved down to the next station. The watch soon caught on to what he was doing and the room was filled with operational chatter, most of it meaningless.
After a while McIntosh relaxed. Nelson realizing Chip's gambit, engaged the miner in conversation.
McIntosh was surly at first, only providing short, curt answers to the Admiral's queries, but Nelson kept after him, and he soon elaborated more and more of his plans.
Chip took Jenkins aside from the AMRAC station. "I want you to go down and find those missing drill bits. Check aft stores, amidships, anywhere you think they might have been stowed. We'll need them before we get to the Trench. Round up a detail to help you search."
At first the seaman did not seem to understand his doubletalk, but abruptly his face cleared and he nodded. "Sure thing, Mr. Morton, we'll get right on it."
"I want a report as soon you find anything."
"Aye, sir." The seaman exited through the starboard hatch down toward C-deck.
Chip turned back toward the chart table. Now he had to gain some time. Time for the Chief to find Lee.
* * * * * *
Crane had lost track of the time. He tried to move his hands to see his watch, then he remembered McIntosh had removed it. Maybe he was better off, not knowing when the end would come. Lee shook his head. The Admiral would find some way to disarm the miner, he had to have faith.
It was cold, and he could feel it sapping his strength. Already it was hard to keep from drifting. The cold water was slowly numbing his arms and legs and he knew he would soon reach a point where he would no longer feel them. Chained to the pump there was no way for him to change position. He had to sit this one out, and wait. They would find him sooner or later.
Five decks, six hundred feet long - he began to calculate. Thirty five men spread out covered an average of - Lee shook his head again. This was not helping. It would take them a good two hours to eliminate all the possible places in the access hatches and to check all the compartments. And an inventory of stores to discover the missing tanks would take all watch.
He was stuck here. He had to hang on until they found him. He began to keep count of his breaths, trying to judge the time. Concentrate on the numbers, keep breathing.