By R. L. Keller



(Author’s note: the opening for this story appeared earlier on Sub Pen with a different title.  It was always meant to be the beginnings of this longer story, but was posted there first as it stood well on it’s own.)


Wife of mine, I love you with my entire being.  But I am never letting you talk me into having dinner at that restaurant ever again!  Will Jamison, M.D., F.A.C.S., and CMO of the Nelson Institute of Marine Research, stifled a groan as he sat at the desk in his small office aboard NIMR’s research submarine, Seaview.  He’d been eating Lu-Tsi’s wonderful Chinese cooking for just over twenty-five years – as well as all of the other kinds of menus she had mastered.  He thought that he’d been introduced to pretty much all of the world’s different spices that she liked to experiment with.  When Lu-Tsi started raving about the new authentic Szechwan restaurant that had opened in Santa Barbara he’d had no qualms at all about going, and allowing her to chose his dinner items for him.  He’d been mildly intrigued by the unusual flavors he’d encountered, but greatly enjoyed listening to Lu-Tsi wax poetic about how delicious everything was; how it reminded her of meals her mother, now many years gone, had made.


It wasn’t until several hours later that Will realized his digestive system was objecting to ‘something’ he’d eaten.  He managed to keep Lu-Tsi, a retired nurse, from seeing the several doses of fizzy stuff – not to mention the couple more of pink stuff – he had to take.  She did realize that he’d not slept well but he was able to pass it off as nerves over Seaview’s departure the next day.  The cruise was going to be fairly long, and into an unusually unstable underwater area.


By morning Will decided that the worst was over.  He was able to say his extended good-byes while hiding only one small belch, and actually felt quite back to normal as he walked from Med Bay, where he’d checked in briefly to make sure there were no major disasters pending, down to the boat.  Unfortunately, with the dock a buzz of activity getting last minute supplies loaded, that meant diesel trucks and loading equipment in use.  The smells not only triggered a return of the indigestion, but also sparked a headache.


He was able to put the discomfort aside for a few minutes.  When he entered the Control Room to report aboard with the O.D. he caught the tail end of a bit of teasing between Seaview’s XO and CO.  Not all that unusual – the two young men were long time friends.  But it signaled to Will that his all too serious, extremely workaholic Skipper had quite obviously enjoyed the brief vacation he’d just returned from.


When Will had heard that Cdr. Crane was going to be gone for a few days he’d automatically assumed that Lee had been called away by ONI, and he began to worry.  It seemed that the man simply could not come back uninjured in some way.  He’d muttered same to his boss, Admiral Harriman Nelson, and was totally unprepared for Nelson’s answering chuckles.  Nelson had told Will quietly, making sure that he was not overheard, that it wasn’t ONI that wanted a few days of Lee’s time but a certain young lady who lived one state north.  Will knew immediately who Nelson was referring to and relaxed.  But Nelson had warned him “mum’s the word.”  Lee had only told Nelson because the trip was so close to Seaview’s sailing.  Lee kept his private life just that – private.  And he wouldn’t take kindly to the whole institute finding out that Dr. Becca Radiwan was slowly becoming more than merely a good friend.


Will saw Lt. James nod to him and mark him in on the Crew Roster, so Will headed for his office in Sick Bay before his presence could disturb the quietly snickering senior officers.  No one else was yet in the Conn.  The two would settle into command mode all too soon, as more crew checked in.


Once a quick check showed all well in Sick Bay, Will tried to concentrate on his pre-cruise routines.  But it quickly became evident that, while he might have survived the night, what little he’d managed to eat of Lu-Tsi’s breakfast casserole wasn’t going to enjoy a similar outcome.  He did manage a quick grin at that terrible pun, and made note that he’d have to use it on Lee at his first opportunity – the young man absolutely loved the occasional puns Will came up with, and Will used them shamelessly to help lighten Lee’s sometimes broody temperament.  He waited only until his senior corpsman reported in and hurried to his cabin – luckily not all that far away.


Will was not overly pleased with himself over the next several hours.  He told himself firmly that he was, after all, a doctor, and didn’t need anyone telling him how to treat himself.  He finally lay down on his bunk as he felt Seaview gently leave her berth and head into the channel toward open water.  He wanted to be back in Sick Bay before the Skipper ordered ‘Angles & Dangles,’ the swoopy up, down, and sideways maneuvers all submarines did upon leaving port to make sure that everything was safely secured.  The mood Lee was in, Will had a feeling he just might get a little carried away, that thought causing Will to grin.  But Lee – or more likely Chip – would give an all-boat five minute warning beforehand, and Will decided to rest until the call came.


But nearly an hour later the intercom was still quiet.  Will had felt Seaview, as smooth as she was, slip into deeper water, and wondered what was causing the delay.  He got up, glad that his stomach was finally settling down and his headache wasn’t nearly as strong.  Stepping into the head, he was splashing cold water on his face when the deck suddenly disappeared from under his feet.  His forehead bounced off the edge of the sink, and everything went black.


* * * *


The giant submarine Seaview was about two hours out of her homeport of Santa Barbara, CA, headed roughly west by southwest, with a destination of the Kermadec Marine Reserve northeast of New Zealand.  Her crew was in no particular hurry to get there – her designer and owner, Admiral Harriman Nelson, wouldn’t be joining them for almost a week.  He was flying in to meet them in his other technological marvel, FS1, the bright yellow flying sub.  With him would be Dr. Dale Patrick who had been granted permission to study several species in the crustacean family, specifically Asellotes, a suborder of isopods that had recently been discovered in the protected area of the Kermadec Trench.  Seaview’s Captain, Cdr. Lee B. Crane had rolled his eyes and advised his XO, Lt. Cdr. Charles P. “Chip” Morton, to enjoy the peace and quiet while it lasted when he’d notified Chip of the assignment; that once they reached the marine reserve and Nelson and Patrick started making descents into the trench by way of Seaview’s diving bell, life aboard the submarine was going to get decidedly stressful.  Chip raised the expected eyebrow, encouraging his CO – and best friend – to explain the remark, and Lee obliged.


“That area of the ocean bed is subject to frequent, and occasionally severe, earthquake action,” Lee had answered with a heavy sigh. 


Now he sent the blond a quick grin as Chip audibly groaned, studying the cruise parameters for what seemed like the 49th time.


“Just once couldn’t the Admiral find something to study that didn’t require hazard duty pay on the part of his crew?”


Lee laughed.  “And take all the fun out of it?” he asked way too cheerfully – at least as far as Chip was concerned.  He sent Lee one of his better Command glares, something that in the regular navy would not have gone over well.  But aboard Seaview, between the two old friends, it was accepted easily as Chip knew that it would be.  The look stayed in place as Lee picked up the Duty Roster from the chart table, gave his XO another grin, and headed out the aft hatch.


Once he was gone Chip also grinned.  He knew perfectly well that Lee was not making light of the possible dangers this cruise could bring.  Lee was absolutely meticulous when it came to the safety of Seaview and her crew.  He would be on top of every last detail of the cruise parameters, ensuring that all contingencies had been included in his evaluations.  And if, at any point, he decided that the hazards outweighed the safely measures, he would instantly abort the mission - even if it meant going toe to toe with Seaview’s owner, and his boss, Admiral Nelson.  Not that Nelson was careless or unthinking of the inherent dangers of a particular project.  He just tended to forget, sometimes, what he would be asking his boat and crew to do.  Fortunately, Lee had proven to be not the least bit shy about pointing out to the Admiral any little details his boss might have inadvertently overlooked.  And had been known to do so at considerable decibels, over and above what Nelson could himself produce – not an easily accomplished task.  But, one that had brought him considerable respect from his crew.


No, there was nothing about this cruise that was causing Lee’s current high spirits and unusually playful attitude.  Chip wasn’t exactly sure what was, but he suspected that it might have something to do with the fact that Lee had just returned that morning from a long weekend in Portland, Oregon.  Of course, the only reason he knew that was, he’d shamelessly searched Lee’s jacket pockets the previous Wednesday afternoon, while Lee was otherwise occupied, and found the airline ticket.  Lee had said nothing about where he was going. But, having met Becca Radiwan on a previous trip with his old friend…   Chip’s grin spread.  While he couldn’t admit directly that he knew where Lee had been, there was nothing wrong with a little good-natured needling to see if he could get Lee to admit to where he’d been – and with whom.


Before Chip could do more than plot a plan of action the currently nice, calm, cruise took a decided turn for the weird.  Chip heard footsteps behind him on the spiral stairs leading down from Officers’ Country – among other places.  Assuming they belonged to a returning Lee he turned with a grin on his face.  It instantly changed to puzzlement as the man who appeared turned out to be Frank, one of Seaview’s two corpsmen.  As it was highly unusual for either he or John to appear in the Conn without being requested, Chip crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow.


Frank recognized the expression – Seaview’s XO hated abnormalities.  Well, it couldn’t be helped; Frank was about to hit him with a biggy.


“Ah, Mr. Morton.  Ah… sir…  We didn’t happen to leave port without Dr. Jamison, did we?”


“Excuse me?”  Chip’s voice was firm.  He couldn’t imagine that Lee would be feeling silly enough to put Frank up to some sort of practical joke.  However…   “Explain yourself,” he demanded.


“John and I have been busy working in the medical supply room.  I just went to check with Doc about something and I can’t find him.”


Chip still wasn’t quite ready to believe the man.  “Where have you looked?” he all but growled.  Lee was going to pay for this one!


“Everywhere, sir,” Frank assured him with an honesty in both voice and expression that was beginning to make Chip feel the man’s unease.  His frown wavered and he reached for the mic.


“Dr. Jamison, report your location to the Conn,” he ordered after double-clicking the mic.  As he waited for a response his gaze swept the room, sending each dutyman’s gaze back to their own instrumentation.  Not that anyone’s attention had been so distracted as to be a hazard, but apparently Chip wasn’t the only one who was feeling the tension that had suddenly filled the Conn.


The seconds continued to roll by with no response from Seaview’s CMO.  Chip was just about to repeat the call when rapid footsteps could be heard approaching the aft hatch.  Chip was extremely familiar with the cadence and figured everyone else in the Conn was as well, so it was no surprise when Lee strode purposely into sight and up to the chart table.  Chip answered the upraised eyebrow by nodding toward the corpsman.  From Lee’s expression Chip had no doubts that whatever was going on, Lee wasn’t behind it.


Frank took the hint.  “Skipper, we can’t seem to find Doc.  He’s not in Sick Bay, the Wardroom, or his cabin.”  All three knew that unless called elsewhere, those were pretty much the only three places the doctor would be, with the exception of the Admiral’s cabin.  The two older men would occasionally visit in the evenings.  But right now that wasn’t likely, with Nelson not aboard.  Jamison occasionally came up to the Observation Nose to read when things were quiet, but rarely this early in a cruise.


Lee sent a glance back to Chip.  “He’s checked aboard,” the XO assured his CO.  “If for some reason he went back dockside it wasn’t noted.  And surely we’d have gotten a call by now if we accidentally left him.”


Lee nodded and reached for the mic, still in Chip’s hand.  “All hands, this is the Captain.”  Chip hid a grin despite the seriousness of the situation.  There wasn’t a man aboard that wouldn’t instantly recognize that voice over the boat wide intercom.  “We have a missing crewman.  He may be hurt and unable to respond.  All available personnel will make a sweep of the boat.”  He almost sighed before he added, “the missing crewman is Doc Jamison.”  He did sigh before double-clicking the mic again.  Sparks, call NIMR and alert Security to check for him there.”


After the instant “Aye, sir” from the radioman, Lee looked at Frank.  “You talked to him this morning?”


“Sort of,” Frank answered.  At identical raised eyebrows from CO and XO, he continued.  “Just as I came into Sick Bay he was headed out his office door.  He stopped long enough to say that he’d left the supply order on his desk, and would John and I see that everything was stowed and the Sick Bay cabinets re-stocked.  Not that we wouldn’t have,” he quickly assured the two officers, and received a brief grin from CO and a nod from XO.  All of Seaview’s crewmen were well trained in procedure but her two corpsmen were extremely competent and up-to-date.


“Nothing more?” Lee asked.


“No, sir.  Didn’t think anything about it at the time.  Just figured that he had something he needed to do.”


“And you said that you checked his cabin?”


Frank nodded, then added almost hesitantly.  “Knocked, and when there was no answer just took a peek.  He wasn’t at his desk and the head door was open.  I didn’t go in,” he admitted.


Lee gave Chip a quick nod and headed immediately for the spiral stairs.  At a gesture from Chip, Frank quickly followed.  Then, with a sudden discomforting feeling of his own, Chip gave Lt. James the Conn and nearly jogged up the stairs after the other two.


* * * *


Subconsciously acknowledging that some indeterminate amount of time had passed, Will was trying to make a suddenly fuzzy brain explain why his head seemed to be laying on the cold steel of Seaview’s deck when a sharp intake of breath, followed by an almost shouted “Jamie” forced all other thoughts away.  He tried to sit up but encountered instant resistance.  However, that didn’t even compare with what his head had to say about the attempted movement.


“Easy, Doc.”  Will recognized his senior corpsman’s voice through the fog and carefully opened his eyes.  But the first face he recognized was that of his Skipper, the earlier humor now replaced by worry.


Houston, we seem to have a problem, slipped unexpectedly into Will’s mind, and he sighed.


* * * *


Lee was in no way criticizing his corpsman’s earlier actions when he entered the CMO’s cabin after an unanswered knock on the door – he was just being thorough.  It was a shock, therefore, when he walked over and glanced into the head to find his friend lying on the deck.  His shout brought Frank to his side instantly, and Lee took a step back to allow the corpsman better access to the small area.


A quick glance at the goose egg on the side of the doctor’s forehead had Frank requesting John, the other corpsman, bring him the ERT, the emergency response trauma bag that was always kept ready aboard the submarine.  Lee started to make the call, realized that Chip had followed them up and was already reaching for the intercom, and stayed where he was as Frank started a manual exam of his supervisor.  But when there was obviously no boat-wide broadcast of Chip’s call he sent Lee a frown and hurried to the nearest corridor mic.  That call brought John on the run, and Chip returned to examine the obviously nonfunctioning unit in the cabin.


Will’s senses were returning, although frustratingly slowly, and he tried to push Frank away and sit up.  “I’m fine,” he grumbled.  The comment caused an instant reaction.  Frank grinned, Lee actually snickered, and there was a snort from out of Will’s sight that sounded suspiciously like a certain blond.  Will briefly closed his eyes before sending a frown at the man he was usually yelling at for using that line.  “Allow me to rephrase that,” he muttered.


“Too late, Doc,” came the reply in Chip’s still disembodied voice.  Lee’s grin increased and even Will was finally forced to give the two men he could see a small smile.  John showed up about then and, since Frank had been unable to detect any injury other than the bump on the head, the two helped Will up and over to his bunk where they had more room to continue the examination.  Will took one look at the grins that were still on the two senior officers’ faces and wisely kept his mouth shut.


“The intercom’s dead,” Chip told Lee rather unnecessarily.


“That would explain why I didn’t hear the call for Angles & Dangles,” Will said to no one in particular.


“Is that what happened?” Frank asked him.


Will nodded, albeit carefully as his head was pounding out the William Tell Overture – complete with cannon fire.  “The last thing I remember prior to a few minutes ago is the deck dropping out from under me.”


“And of course this would be the day,” Chip told the medical personnel, “that Lee got overly enthusiastic with the maneuvers.”


Lee drew himself up from where he’d been casually leaning against the desk and sent his impudent XO a glare.  “I was totally within regs,” he growled.  “We have a few new crewmen aboard, this is going to be a long cruise, and I wanted to make sure everything was shipshape while we were still close to port.”  The only thing the speech accomplished was to cause the others to grin more broadly – even Will – and Lee finally grinned again as well.


“Think you can walk down to Sick Bay, Doc?” Frank interrupted.  “That’s one heck of a bump you’ve got there, and you’ve admitted to being unconscious for well over half an hour.  Probably need to keep an eye on you for a day or so.”


Will sent a pretty good glare of his own at the corpsman.  “It’s nothing,” he growled.  “I’ll just stay here for a few hours.”


Chip snorted again and Lee sent a glare at the doctor.  “Jamie,” he growled, “if you think that you’re going to get away with that, after what you’ve put Chip and I through all too often, your head’s in worse shape than Frank thinks.”  Both corpsmen struggled with – and lost – efforts to hide their smiles.  The ‘discussions’ that erupted between the CMO and the senior officers – especially the Skipper – were the stuff of legend aboard Seaview.


“We’re still close enough to port,” Chip offered all too innocently, “we could turn back if you think Jamie needs to spend time in Med Bay.”


“NO!” Will thundered, and then had to grab his head to keep it from falling off.  “It’s not that serious,” he added, a little more quietly.


“Frank?” Lee asked.  His eyes were still sparkling but his voice was serious.


“Shouldn’t be necessary, Skipper,” Frank answered, carefully not looking at his immediate supervisor, Will.  “He took a good whack, for sure.  And I’ll run a few more tests in Sick Bay.”


“He’s certainly had enough experience doing that to you,” Will muttered at Lee, causing Chip to once more crack up.  Lee had the good graces to give Will a quick nod before heading back to the Conn.  Chip followed shortly after, once he’d called an electrician up to repair the intercom, and the two corpsmen escorted a grumpy Will down to Sick Bay.


* * * *


Nothing that afternoon or evening dissipated Will’s ill humor.  Frank’s occasional checks told both men that Will’s condition wasn’t worsening.  But the headache refused all efforts to medicate it away.  Will was honest enough to admit that he needed to stay in Sick Bay, resting quietly.  But he didn’t have to like it!  Nor was he totally successful at not taking his frustrations out on the two corpsmen.  He barely kept from telling John where he could put the soup and sandwich Cookie sent for lunch, and simply pushed the small table that had been put next to his bunk away with a mumbled growl.  Thankfully, Will knew that John’s disappearing act after his minor temper tantrum had nothing to do with Will’s rotten attitude.  It was merely that John would take the afternoon and early evening off, as long as things were quiet, so that he would be ready to man Sick Bay during Seaview’s night.  With the exception of the periodic checks, Frank stayed out of Will’s face as well.  Will couldn’t blame him – Will was being a decidedly quarrelsome, irritable patient.


Cookie himself delivered what was usually a favorite dinner of Will’s – the chef’s special seafood lasagna.  The only thing that kept Will from ordering the man to take the food back to the galley was, he knew that he needed nourishment.  Everything he’d eaten after dinner last night had all come back up, and that wasn’t conductive to getting better.  Logically, he could tell himself that.  Unfortunately, just looking at the food made Will feel nauseous again and he once more pushed the table away.  Frank made one attempt to jolly Will into eating but a surly Will turned over and faced the bulkhead, and Frank took the food away.


Will remained laying on his side, his back to the room, muttering to himself.  He’d spent some time that afternoon trying to find a comfortable way to lie.  The mattresses in Sick Bay, while looking soft enough, were nowhere near the thickness of the one in his cabin.  Nor did the pillow offer much comfort to his aching head.  Now he lay there, plotting tactics for convincing Frank to let him return to his cabin.  The tests proved that the symptoms of concussion weren’t getting any worse despite the fact that the headache wouldn’t go away.  There was no good reason why it wouldn’t be perfectly safe for Will to be responsible for his own care – none whatsoever!  He was a highly trained physician, for pete’s sake.  He knew what he could and couldn’t do, didn’t he?  He didn’t need a mere corpsman ordering him around!


Several minutes into some serious plotting on Will’s part about how to escape from his unwanted and unnecessary confinement he suddenly sighed.  Geez, Jamison, you’re a worse patient than the Command Team – and you’ve always thought that was well nigh impossible.  Will snorted softly and let his mind wander back to his *favorite* patients, XO and CO.  To say nothing of his boss, Admiral Nelson.  Will sighed heavily.  His present circumstances were helping him to understand, at least somewhat, the frustrations the senior officers must feel any time he was forced to keep one of them here.  And unlike them, he didn’t carry nearly the load of responsibility for the boat and crew that they did.  Or, at least, he told himself, while I do have responsibilities to the crew, in this instance no one is receiving less than complete care because I’m laid up.  Taking a deep breath, he rolled over onto his back.  He caught Frank giving him a concerned look from the doorway to Will’s small office.  The corpsman tried to cover it quickly with a smile but Will still caught it, and chastised himself.  “Think maybe,” he asked, “Cookie could be talked into heating up some of that beef barley soup he always keeps in the freezer without coming totally unhinged?”


Frank’s smile spread and the worry that had remained in his eyes disappeared.  “I doubt he’ll mind at all.  Mr. Morton came down to check on you earlier and between the two of us we polished off your dinner.  Cookie will never know you didn’t eat it, and probably just figure that you’re making up for lunch.”


Despite his still thumping head, Will chuckled softly.  Seaview’s Exec was a master at covering for an unhungry Lee.  Usually from the mutterings of his CMO, however, not the occasionally surly master chef.  But when Frank noticeably hesitated, Will sent him a sheepish grin.  “Relax, Frank.  I’ll be here when you get back,” alluding to the escapes Seaview’s senior officers were notorious for.  “If you’re nice I’ll even let you help me walk to the head.”  Frank snorted but he also nodded, and headed out the door for the Galley.


Frank was just getting Will settled back in his bunk, several pillows helping him sit up, when Cookie once more entered Sick Bay.  Will got the distinct feeling that the man knew perfectly well Will hadn’t eaten dinner but was choosing not to mention it.  He merely nodded when Will thanked him for the soup, accompanied by a thick slice of freshly baked bread, and left.  Will shared a quick grin with Frank and tucked into the meal.


Once finished, Will continued to sit up for awhile, visiting with Frank and going over a few things that on a typical cruise would be normal Sick Bay chatter.  John was included when he came on duty about 2030 hours.  Will was feeling very relaxed by the time Frank headed for his bunk so it was with some surprise that, once he’d laid back down and tried to settle in for the night – after making both corpsmen laugh when he told them firmly that he was getting up in the morning and resuming his duties – he found himself once more getting tense.  He tried to blame it on his previous mutterings making a return.  But when push came to shove, he couldn’t.  Once his head stopped pounding quite so badly, the bunk became surprisingly more comfortable.  The soup had tasted wonderful and there was no sign of the earlier digestive distress.  No, he just couldn’t quite put an answer to the puzzle, and fussing about it threatened a return of the pounding head.  As John dimmed the lights in the main Sick Bay room Will turned toward the bulkhead, closed his eyes, and tried to sleep.


But sleep wouldn’t come.  No matter how much he tried to relax he couldn’t.  He lay quietly so as not to trouble John and tried to focus on what was troubling him.  The answer just wouldn’t come and he steeled himself for a sleepless night.


He didn’t think that he’d fallen asleep but suddenly ‘something’ felt different.  The lights were still dimmed although the room was nowhere near dark.  Everything was quiet.  But Will’s sixth sense noted a change and he rolled over.  Sitting in a chair next to his bunk was Lee.  Apparently studying something in a folder, he looked up and smiled the shy little smile that always made him look even younger than Will knew him to be.


“Sorry, Jamie,” he said softly.  “Didn’t mean to wake you.”


“What are you doing here?” Will all but demanded, glancing at the wall clock and discovering that it was almost 0200 hours.


Lee’s expression went sheepish.  “It’s been sort of a weird day,” he admitted.  “Every time I headed down to check on you I got interrupted.  First there was a little glitch in Engineering.  Nothing serious.  We didn’t even need to slow down to get it fixed.”


“But you just had to keep an eye on it until everything was back to 100%.”  Will’s voice held a smidge of the lecturing tone he so often used with his CO.  As usual, Lee’s grin went even more sheepish.


“I called and Frank said you weren’t getting any worse,” Lee made his excuse.  Will snorted softly.  “About the time I got back to the Conn Chip got tied up with the fathometer – turned out to be just a loose wire but it took some time to track down.”  As Will rolled his eyes, Lee hurried with his explanation.  “Chris needed to go over the munitions list with the MAA.”  Lt. James, most often Chip’s second in the Conn, had recently taken over as Seaview’s Weapons Officer and was still working closely with the Master-At-Arms, Chief Hauck.  “I took the Conn until Chip had things back under control.”  Normally Lee wouldn’t ‘have the Conn’ on a regular basis – just when the cruise demanded it.  But Seaview’s command structure allowed for easy interaction and division of duties between the officers.  Not to mention the fact that Lee spent as much time as possible in the Conn anyway, no matter what was going on.  “Then there was a call from Lu-Tsi…”


“WHAT?” Will shouted, sitting up sharply.  His head reminded him why that wasn’t such a good idea just yet at the same time Lee reached out to him, urging him to lay back down.  Will continued to glare at him, resisting Lee’s efforts.  “Why didn’t anyone tell me she’d called?  What’s wrong?”


Lee’s chuckles finally got through Will’s tirade.  “Chill, Jamie.  Nothing’s wrong.  Well…”


“I suppose you told her what happened.  I need to call her.”


“No, you don’t.”  Lee’s voice turned serious and he firmly pushed Will back down.  “Nobody told you she called because she didn’t want to talk to you.  She wanted to talk to me.”


“What?”  Will’s voice was still raised, even though his head no longer was.  “Why?”


“Because she figured you wouldn’t say anything about being sick all last night.”


It was Will’s turn to lower his eyes into a sheepish expression.  “Thought I hid it better from her – that she hadn’t realized it,” he told Lee, his voice a good deal softer.


Lee grinned.  “All these years and you still underestimate her,” he said with fondness.


Will grinned back.  Lee and Lu-Tsi shared a very special friendship.  Rather than feeling threatened by it, Will would be eternally grateful.  When Will had first come to NIMR he and his wife were still mourning the loss of their only child, a son lost in a diving accident.  It’s what had caused Will to leave the regular Navy and accept Nelson’s offer – he thought that a change of venue would help draw Lu-Tsi out of the depression she’d fallen into.  And it had worked, too.  Although, not quite how Will had imagined.  The first time Lu-Tsi and Lee met, a special bond was formed.  Lee started to bring Lu-Tsi out of her funk.  Lu-Tsi decided that ‘someone’ needed to look out for Seaview’s impossibly young captain and elected herself to the position.  Much to Lee’s embarrassment.


“Dumb, I know,” Will admitted, acknowledging Lee’s comment.  He’d met Lu-Tsi shortly after med school.  He was doing his internship and she was fresh out of nursing school.  Tiny in stature, it hadn’t taken Will long to learn that she had a will of spring steel.  But after their son’s death, which they’d both taken hard but her especially, he’d started treating her a bit like the proverbial china doll, over-protecting her.  Somehow, even after Lee had helped to pull her out of it, he hadn’t stopped.  And every so often, like now, he was reminded of just how stupid he could be.


Lee’s grin spread.  “I didn’t tell her about your little oopsey.  It wasn’t your fault anyway, or had anything to do with dinner last night.  Just an accident caused by a faulty intercom.”




“You can explain it to her when you get home,” Lee teased him.


“Gee, thanks heaps,” Will growled.  “But you still haven’t explained what you’re doing here at this ungodly hour of the night.”


Lee’s expression got sheepish again.  “After Lu-Tsi called, I was on my way down to tell you when Admiral Nelson called.”  He sighed heavily and held up the folder still in his hands.  “Didn’t realize he wanted my responses to the reports he’d given me quite so fast.”


“Yeah, so…”  Will still didn’t understand.


“So,” Lee gave him the shy little through-the-lashes look that Will was so familiar with, “one of the things that makes it even halfway bearable to be stuck here is that Chip and the Admiral visit as often as they can.  Chip and I felt bad that you’ve been all alone, except for Frank and John, since they brought you down here.  Chip managed to get down for a bit but you weren’t in the mood for company.  This is the first chance I’ve had.”


Instantly Will knew what had been bothering him earlier.  And knew that he never would have figured it out on his own.  When one of Seaview’s ruling triumvirate was in Sick Bay – usually Lee, Will acknowledged silently, but only because he was most often putting himself between his crew and whatever danger was threatening them – the other two spent as much time with the injured as they could spare.  All three held a very special place in Will’s life.  To suddenly realize just how special he thought of them, and how much they felt the same way, was a little unsettling. And also, Will could admit, gave him a very warm glow inside.  He wasn’t sure just how to respond.


As Lee continued to give him a shy smile Will knew that he had to say something, and finally settled on what would be a typical ‘Will’ response.  “So, you’re trying to make me feel better by letting me find out you’re forgoing what little sleep that crazy body of yours seems to thrive on,” he grumbled.  He crossed his arms over his chest and glared at Lee.  It had the desired effect – Lee grinned openly.  “Go to bed,” Will ordered.  That will make me feel better.”


“Aye, sir,” Lee said, the grin spreading.  It was a little joke that the two shared – that Lee would ‘sir’ an officer of lower rank than himself.  It was Lee’s way of accepting Will’s logic.  With a nod, Lee rose and headed for the door.  When he stopped there and looked back, Will pointed a finger at him.  “Out,” he growled.  Lee chuckled, but left.


Will chuckled as well.  The warm glow continued to grow, especially when he thought of Lu-Tsi’s call to Lee.  Sometimes you have to be smacked in the head - literally, he shook his wounded body part carefully - to realize just how good you have it.  On all fronts, he told himself.  He easily went right back to sleep, a smile still on his face.


* * * *


Admiral Harriman Nelson adjusted the automatic pilot controls on his bright yellow marvel, the Flying Sub, and stretched, sending his companion a small smile.  “Coffee, Doctor?” he asked.  Getting a nod, he unbuckled his harness and went in search of the thermos bag he knew Angie, his PA, would have ordered stowed that morning.  Finding it secured on the small bunk, he brought it back to his seat and poured out cups of the strong brew for himself and Dr. Dale Patrick, as well as unwrapping sandwiches he found in the pack.  “Getting excited?”  He sent the man a broad grin.


“Who wouldn’t be?” the marine biologist answered.  “The chance to take your bell down into the Kermadec Trench, a place so very few people have ever seen.  I know that I’m only supposed to be studying the couple of new species of asellotes.  But think of all the possibilities?”  His voice was filled with delight at the prospect, and caused Nelson’s grin to broaden.


“I hear you,” he agreed.  “There’s absolutely nothing in the permit that says we have to ignore anything else of interest we find.  Well,” he amended, “as long as we stay within reason.”  The two scientists shared a grin.  “And as long as we don’t try my captain’s patience,” he added with a small private smile.


Dr. Patrick sent him a quizzical look.  “I don’t understand.  Surely he simply follows your orders.”


Nelson chuckled, albeit a bit self-consciously.  “Trust me.  There’s nothing simple about Commander Crane.”  Patrick frowned, and Nelson grinned broadly again.  “Oh, never fear that he understands the cruise parameters and the reason behind this trip.  But his parameters must also be met.  The safety of the boat and crew are Lee’s first priorities, and we’re travelling into a very unpredictable area of ocean.”


Patrick huffed somewhat disgustedly.  “You mean to tell me that you’d hire a captain who would pull the plug on this trip just because of the possibility of a little turbulence?  I thought you ran NIMR, not some part-time sailor.”  Nelson stared straight at Patrick for a few moments, getting his thoughts under control.  It took long enough, and the glare was of sufficient volume, that the biologist was starting to register the fact he had, just perhaps, overstepped his bounds.


“First of all,” Nelson finally growled through clenched teeth, “Cdr. Crane graduated first in his class at Annapolis.”  Patrick started to open his mouth but Nelson continued, his voice a bit louder.  “He was the youngest man in naval history to command a fast attack submarine.  I’m damned lucky to have pried him away from full-time service and into the Reserves so that he could command Seaview.”  Nelson finally chuckled, although there was a bit of an evil grin attached to it.  “There is still an admiral or two ticked at me for that little maneuver.”


“I guess that I’m just surprised,” Patrick said, his tone a good deal more controlled, “that you’d tolerate an underling giving you orders.”


Nelson’s chuckle was genuine.  “I trust Lee implicitly with the safety of Seaview’s missions.  For one, it allows me the freedom of not having to concentrate on that aspect.  I can focus totally on my research.”  His grin was once more a bit self-conscious.  “Oh, we’ve had our ‘discussions’ over the years,” he admitted.  “But Lee has saved not only my neck, but the entire crew, more times than I care to think about.”  Once more his expression hardened slightly.  “Be assured that he will do everything in his and Seaview’s not insignificant power to complete the cruise successfully.  That includes getting home in one piece.”  His grin turned slightly evil again, although Patrick didn’t know him well enough to see the bit of mischief mixed in.  “Just be prepared that it will be on his timetable, not necessarily yours.”


Patrick nodded but didn’t reply, and the two continued their travel in relative silence while finishing the packed meal.  This was the first time that he’d worked with Admiral Nelson and NIMR; he’d always done his research through Woods Hole.  But problems had arisen with the timing of the research and an associate had suggested that he call Nelson.  The man had intimated that Nelson could be a bit of an eccentric at times – he hadn’t explained and Patrick hadn’t asked.  But one had to have lived under a rock for the past bunch of years not to be aware of NIMR’s track record in the field of marine research.  Proposal written and accepted, Patrick was excited to get to work.


He’d been a little surprised that Seaview wasn’t in port when he arrived in Santa Barbara.  Nelson had quickly explained that because of the travel time, and that he had several meetings that he wanted to take care of before leaving on the extended trip, he’d sent Seaview on ahead.  Patrick had heard stories of Nelson’s little submersible, FS1, but hadn’t been totally prepared for what the ‘F’ stood for.  He’d rapidly gained a whole new respect for Nelson’s genius.  He still wasn’t overly thrilled with what he was learning of the division of authority on Seaview but decided that he’d better keep his mouth shut on that subject.


Admiral Nelson spent the next few minutes letting the previous conversation run through his mind.  He’d surprised himself with the vehemence at which he’d come to Lee’s defense.  Heaven knows, Lee is totally capable of defending himself.  Nelson buried a grin in his coffee mug.  He finally decided that, because Dr. Patrick had worked exclusively with Woods Hole in the past, Nelson was letting a bit of the rivalry between the two research centers cloud his judgment.  He’d done his own ‘behind the scenes’ evaluation of Patrick after NIMR received the proposal.  While knowing that Patrick would never have gotten the grant to study the new asellotes without proper credentials, Seaview had been subjected to enough craziness over the last few years to warrant some extra caution before passing the proposal on to Lee for his evaluation of the trip requirements.  He’d sent Lee a bit of an amused grin when Lee had, almost instantly, frowned at the location of the research project.  He’d known that Lee wouldn’t be happy.  But the grin had spread as he watched Lee immediately start to evaluate the best ways of keeping everyone safe while still accomplishing the mission.  Now, a bit more of that grin appeared.  Patrick might not like a few of Lee’s more limiting requirements.  Hell, Nelson could easily admit, I might not be overly thrilled with them, either.  However…  and the grin spread.  Lee wasn’t a man to be sidetracked when it came to the safety of ‘his’ boat and crew.  And Nelson, for all his occasional grumbling, was extremely grateful for it.


* * * *


Three hours later Nelson retook command of the small craft from the autopilot.  Talk had been of the relatively generic variety related to the marine world as opposed to anything specific and there had been no more fireworks.  Nelson sent FS1’s homing beacon, received a response from Seaview, and was shortly diving off the submarine’s bow.  The ocean gods were against him and docking the small craft didn’t go quite as smoothly as was usually managed.  Lee will dock my pay for scratching the paint, Nelson chuckled, but only to himself.  There was no way he was going to try explaining that horrible pun to Patrick.


Nelson wasn’t disappointed.  Lee met him at the top of the boarding ladder into Seaview’s nose.  While his expression was perfectly correct, there was an absolutely wicked sparkle in his eyes.  Nelson swept a quick glance around the Conn.  All eyes were glued to duty stations but there was no mistaking the grins on several faces.  Chip, the absolute master of the inscrutable look, was in his usual spot next to the chart table.  But his back was to Nelson and it took him several additional seconds to finally turn.  It was very obvious that a comment of some sort had been uttered loud enough to be heard by the entire Duty crew.  Rather than be ticked by the joke at his expense, it was merely another reminder to Nelson of how delighted he was to have Lee as Seaview’s captain.  The crew had been molded into one united front, willing to follow Lee into the worst of situations because he so easily included them in the lighter moments.


For now, at least, a little decorum needed to be established, and Nelson did his best.  Dr. Patrick was introduced, and a seaman dispatched to stow the doctor’s gear in the already prepared guest cabin.  Nelson himself conducted Patrick on a tour of the boat as Chip got Seaview back underway after the brief stop.  Once Nelson showed Patrick to his cabin to get settled in before supper, he returned to the Conn.


Both Lee and Chip turned from where they’d been discussing something on the chart table with Lt. Chris James.  Nelson sent all three a grin.  It was instantly returned – openly by the two senior officers and much more carefully by the young lieutenant – and Nelson walked over.  He figured that he might as well clear the air as soon as possible so he turned first to Chip.


“Has Sharkey given you the estimate yet for new paint?”  Nelson ignored the strangled off snort from Lee’s direction and kept his focus on his XO.  Lt. James suddenly decided that he needed something in the radio shack.


Chip managed – just barely – to keep his ‘XO on Duty’ mask in place.  “No, sir,” he replied, calm and correct.  “We thought that you might prefer to make that evaluation yourself.”


Lee totally lost it and headed for the Nose.  Chip’s mask slipped as Nelson burst out laughing.  He gave Chip’s shoulder a light backhand and followed Lee forward.  He still had to wait a bit while Lee got his expression under control.  When he did turn Nelson chuckled softly.  “Interesting trip so far?” he asked innocently.


“Had its moments, sir,” Lee admitted, still struggling with his amusement.


“I understand that there was a small issue with Will’s cabin intercom.”  Lee had reported the incident the day after it happened, in one of his updates to NIMR.  The report had been forwarded to Nelson, as Lee would be well aware of.


“Minor glitch, sir.”  Lee’s grin, which he’d barely gotten under control, threatened to spread once more.  “I’m sure he’ll be happy to tell you all about it at supper.”


Nelson buried a snort fairly successfully as he glanced at his watch.  “Which should be in roughly half an hour,” he observed.  “Gives me time to check my desk before meeting you there.”  Lee merely nodded at that not-so-subtle reminder, and Nelson headed back upstairs.


Thirty-five minutes later, with Dr. Patrick in tow, he walked into Seaview’s Wardroom.  Lee and Chip were already sitting down, eating.  Neither rose as he entered – while military discipline and decorum were the basis for Seaview’s command structure, the daily regimen was a bit more relaxed.  Nelson introduced Dr. Patrick to Dr. Will Jamison who was dishing up his own plate from Cookie’s wonderfully smelling selections and the three sat down opposite Lee and Chip.  There was a sheet of paper lying next to Seaview’s XO but it was Lee who pushed it across the table to where Nelson could read it.  The writing was Lee’s but there was no doubt about Chip’s finely tuned sense of humor being behind some of the listings.  Nelson’s quick glance showed it to be an extremely detailed accounting of what would be needed to repaint the minor scratches resulting from FS1’s altercation with the docking hatch, down to $2.29 for throat lozenges Chief Sharkey would need after spending two hours yelling at whichever crewman got assigned the duty, as he was wont to do when supervising a detail.  Nelson put as disgruntled an expression on his face as he could manage as he turned to Will.  “Isn’t it about time for Cdr. Crane’s and Mr. Morton’s next physicals?” he asked with a growl in his voice.  Chip kept a pretty good rendition of his XO mask in place.  Lee had, unfortunately, just taken a bite of Cookie’s freshly made whole-wheat rolls and ended up coughing badly.  Nelson distracted Will’s instant concern by shoving the piece of paper his way.


“Ah, I see your point,” Will agreed after scanning the page.  “And I do believe that you’re right,” he added, with a firm glance across the table.


By this time Lee had himself back under control but as he opened his mouth to reply he jerked, the recipient of a well-timed kick from Chip.  “After what we did to Doc a few days ago, you really want to take the chance?” Chip asked Lee quietly.  The crack caused all four Seaview officers to finally grin, and the conversation turned to the reason for the cruise.


While Nelson was perfectly aware that everyone knew the basic parameters it was a simple, relaxed way to make sure everyone – especially Dr. Patrick – was on the same page.  He’d seen Patrick frowning during the bit of hijinks and wanted to gently reestablish Lee’s knowledge of and authority over the many aspects of what wasn’t going to be an easy cruise.  “The bell’s going to take some abuse, I suspect,” he said, looking at his young captain.


Lee nodded, his Duty persona once more firmly in place.  “Once the engineers had all the extra equipment loaded and hooked up they re-tested everything in the pressure tank at NIMR before reloading the bell on Seaview.  I ran through the recalibrated specs once she was secured.  I’m not overly thrilled with running her all the way down.”  He turned to Dr. Patrick.  “I know that the maximum depth you listed is 23,000 feet.  She’ll do it,” he hurried to assure the marine biologist as once more Patrick frowned.  “But coupling those depths with the unpredictable tremors in the trench is going to be tricky.”


Before Patrick could comment, Nelson stepped in.  “Totally understandable,” he agreed.  “We’ll need to take it one day, one dive, at a time.  It’s why I extended the cruise dates – there’s just no way to limit ourselves to a specific number of days and be assured that we can get everything done.  Thankfully, the New Zealand authorities are open to that.  They’re anxious to have the research go well, and understand the need for safety over speed.”


“Yes, sir.”  Lee had the feeling that this little speech had a deeper meaning and sent Patrick a quick glance.  The doctor’s frown wasn’t quite so deep.  “I’ve been studying the earthquake activity reports that you got from New Zealand, and had Sparks send a request for recent updates.”


“Good,” Nelson told him.  “I’d actually planned to do just that.”  He sent Patrick just the hint of a smirk.  “Trends will help.  The rest we’ll just have to play by ear.”


“Yes, sir,” Lee once more agreed.


“Will all the dives in the bell be that deep?” Will asked.  He didn’t like surprises, and tried to keep on top of what he might expect from cruises in the way of possible injures.


“Hopefully not,” Patrick finally got a word in.  “Twelve known species of asellotes make their home in the Trench.  The ones I’m after specifically start at approximately the 14,000-foot level.”


Will covered a frown – not well, from the looks Lee and Chip sent him – at the obvious enthusiasm in the doctor’s voice – and he turned to Nelson.  “I have to admit, I’m not up on that area of marine biology.  What, exactly, are asellotes?”


“Deep sea bugs,” Chip muttered softly.  It earned him a glare from Patrick, a backhand from Lee, but a chuckle from Nelson.


“Essentially, Chip’s right,” the Admiral confirmed.  “A subspecies of Isopods.  Small, usually one to three centimeters in length, frequently with flattened, oval-shaped bodies and several pairs of short legs.  We have knowledge of them in shallower waters, in other parts of the world.”


“However,” Patrick broke in, “it is speculated that there could be as many as 500 species awaiting discovery in New Zealand’s waters.  There is every reason to believe we will run across more than the twelve so far identified.  The possibilities are extremely exciting.”


“With the whole Kermadec Trench area being in such an unstable state,” Nelson took back control of the conversation, “there just hasn’t been all that much research done there.”  He’d watched both Lee and Chip start to frown at Dr. Patrick’s obvious enthusiasm.  The pair had had to deal all too often with single-minded scientists aboard.  With occasionally disastrous results.  Nelson even had to admit to being responsible himself for a few of those instances.  “About half of what we do know of the area comes from only two sources.  It really is wide open as to what we find.”  He grinned broadly as both Lee and Chip sighed heavily.


“Yes, sir,” Lee repeated once more, and sent his boss a look of resignation.  Sort of.  Nelson was well able to read, and had no doubts as to Will’s and Chip’s ability to do the same, the look of determination that stiffened Lee’s spine ever so slightly.


* * * *


After dinner Nelson spent some time with Patrick in the marine lab before both wandered down to the Observation Nose.  He glanced into the Conn as he came down the spiral stairs.  Chip didn’t seem to be around.  Lt. O’Brien had the Conn but Lee was pouring over a sheaf of papers he had spread all over the top of the chart table.  He looked up as Nelson and Patrick entered the Nose and raised an eyebrow to see if Nelson wanted him for any reason.  When Nelson merely sent him a nod and headed in the direction of the coffee carafe Cookie kept supplied in the Nose, Lee went back to his pages.  Nelson and Patrick were sitting visiting about what they might find in the trench when Lee came forward, still apparently puzzling over whatever he was reading.


“May I interrupt for a moment, Admiral?” he asked.


Nelson was a bit surprised at the deferential tone in Lee’s voice and it caused him to smile.  Every so often the underage plebe that Lee had been when they first met crept into Lee’s voice and attitude.  It didn’t happen often.  Nelson realized that it was most likely happening now because of the highly scientific nature of the conversation he was interrupting.  Lee made no bones about admitting that he didn’t particularly care what Nelson might decide to study.  He far preferred to concentrate on making sure that Seaview and her crew were prepared for whatever Nelson needed them to do to complete his research.  If it meant occasionally standing in Nelson’s way when his requests were counter to Lee’s safety standards, then so be it as well.  But thankfully, that didn’t happen very often.


“Not a problem, Lee,” Nelson now told him, and waved a hand toward the coffee.  “What’s up?”


Lee ignored the coffee but did sit down.  “I received the additional updates from New Zealand,” he started, and indicated the papers he was carrying.  “The person who collected the data made a comment about there being no indications of overly strong tidal action during the time we’d be there.”  He sent Nelson one of his little half-smiles.  “I vaguely remember something someone at NIMR said about a correlation between high tides and earthquakes, but I can’t remember the exact comment, or now, who even said it.”


Nelson chuckled softly.  Leave it to Lee to keep that bit of information tucked away for future reference.  “Sounds like it might have been Bill Corcoran.”  Dr. William Corcoran had been with NIMR almost from its conception, his main project being how to predict earthquakes that triggered tsunamis, an all too present danger in the Pacific Ocean especially.


Lee nodded.  “I think you’re right, sir.”


“There’s been some studies done that have tried to make a correlation between extra strong tidal activity – usually high tides but there’s been low tide data as well – tied to more severe earthquake activity.  So far there are indications only, nothing concrete.  But it is interesting, none the less.”


“Makes a bit of sense, actually,” Lee agreed.  “The moon’s gravitational pull affects the tides so why wouldn’t it be possible to affect the earth’s plate movements as well, given extra strong conditions for whatever reason.”


Nelson’s grin was triggered more by Patrick’s expression that a mere sub driver like Lee could actually grasp that kind of research than it was by Lee’s statement.  Chalk up another two points for Lee against Patrick’s earlier skepticism.  “Exactly,” he got out fairly normally, still trying to control his chuckles.


Lee nodded.  “Okay.  Maybe I could have Dr. Corcoran gather tide levels for the next several weeks, just to confirm what New Zealand sent?”


“I’m sure that he’d be more than happy to supply that information,” Nelson agreed.  Lee nodded, excused himself, and headed for the radio shack.  Nelson sent Patrick a raised eyebrow as the marine scientist seemed about to say something. 


But apparently Patrick changed his mind.  “Nothing,” he tried to dispel Nelson’s question.


Nelson figured that Patrick still couldn’t quite grasp the fact the Lee might actually be a competent person after all, and decided that he’d rub in his advantage.  “I suppose now Lee and Bill will decide that, as long as we’re headed into the trench anyway, it would be a great idea to place earthquake sensors every so many feet of depth.”  He paused.  “Actually, that’s not such a bad idea.  I’ll have to redesign a few to take the added pressure.”  He pondered that for a bit, still controlling his grin at the expression on Patrick’s face.  “Of course, I’ll need permission from the New Zealand authorities.  And I’d have to leave a data collection unit on a level where we could service it easily from time to time.  Humm…”


Patrick was now frowning.  “I thought that this trip was on my meter,” he somewhat muttered.  “I’d prefer not to waste time we could be spending on my research.”


Nelson’s expression hardened ever so slightly before the grin reappeared.  “Another reason I extended the cruise dates, Doctor,” he replied pleasantly.  “I never know what might come up and send me off on a tangent.  Lee and Chip are quite used to my getting sidetracked, and always plan an extra day or two into any cruise parameters.  You’ll have as much time as can safely be arranged for your research.”  Patrick sniffed, buried whatever he’d been about to say in his coffee mug, and the conversation returned to other more general topics.


* * * *


Between fussing about the possible abuse Seaview might take given the dangers inherent in heading down into the Kermadec Trench, and the distraction of Jamie’s little oops, Chip had nearly forgotten about trying to drag the truth out of Lee about where he’d spent the few days leading up to this cruise.  For whatever reason he was reminded of it a couple mornings later in the shower, and entered the Wardroom half an hour later intent on a little Lee-baiting to see if he could get his friend of many years to open up.  Lee had spent the last few days pouring over data about the cruise and the more he read, the more serious he was getting.  Chip knew that there wasn’t anything particularly new.  Just, the closer it came to actually getting to the trench, the more entrenched – Chip almost choked on that gawdawful pun – Lee was becoming in trying to anticipate and find ways to overcome as many potential problems as he could possibly imagine happening.  And in a submarine that could add up to a lot of problems!  Chip had no intentions of trying to distract Lee from that topic.  Heaven only knew, Chip’s life had been saved too many times, as well as everyone else’s aboard Seaview, by Lee’s attention to details.  But a little lightening of the constant tension was necessary to Lee’s well-being as well, and Chip had always felt it part of his friendship with Lee to add a little merriment to Lee’s occasionally moody persona.  There was always the potential for it to rather spectacularly backfire – Lee had an absolutely wicked sense of humor when suitably challenged.  But even on those occasions when Chip ended up the victim of whatever plot misfired he kept his own sense of humor in place – mostly – comfortable that Lee was always more relaxed for the effort.


Apparently his plot would have to be postponed, at least temporarily; Lee was already in conversation with young Lt. James.  Chip listened quietly as he dished up his breakfast and realized that they were discussing emergency procedures for retrieving the diving bell.  It had only been used a few times since Chris had joined Seaview’s crew and Lee was casually – by outward appearances, anyway – walking the younger man through the process.  Chip sat down quietly next to Lee and kept his grin hidden.  While Lee kept his voice and demeanor casual there was no doubt that the young lieutenant was firmly focused on what he was being told.  He asked the occasional question, intent on getting the procedures firmly ingrained so that he’d be prepared, and not freeze up or be unsure of his commands should the need arise. 


Chip was in awe sometimes of how easily Lee instructed the men under him.  Chip could never quite match the balance between intensity and subtlety; his training sessions always seemed to come out more like a lecture – do it this way or else!  He did try.  But he could never match Lee’s quiet confidence.


As the impromptu training session came to an end and Lt. James headed for the Conn, Chip thought that he’d get his chance at Lee.  But Jamie walked in as Chris was leaving, followed by Admiral Nelson and Dr. Patrick, and Chip held his tongue as the three filled their plates and settled at the table opposite him and Lee.  Chip wasn’t overly comfortable around their guest but as yet hadn’t quite figured out why.  He’d easily picked up on the fact that Patrick wasn’t thrilled that Lee had the authority to pull the plug on any dive that he wasn’t comfortable with.  They’d had to deal with that kind of attitude before.  It never seemed to bother Lee unless the Admiral backed up the visitor and insisted that Lee continue, which had happened a few too many times for anyone’s comfort level.  That didn’t seem to be the case this time; Nelson had been almost overly enthusiastic a time or two reminding Dr. Patrick that Lee had control of this or that aspect of the dives.  But ‘something’ was bugging Chip about the man and he spent the meal quietly trying to figure out what it was.


The others spent the meal on a variety of topics, which Chip chimed in on a few times.  Lee wanted Nelson’s clarification on a few points about the data Dr. Corcoran had sent him concerning tides and earthquakes.  Chip listened intently to that discussion as it could easily become something he’d end up involved with.  Then he had to bury another grin as he realized he was reacting the same way Chris James had earlier to the ‘training session.’  Nelson had run his own set of diagnostics on the slightly redesigned interior of the bell, and he and Lee went over those as well.  Jamie caused the other three Seaview officers to grin, albeit with half a grimace, when he muttered not quite to himself about having to make sure that the decompression chamber was fully prepped. 


“Hopefully we won’t be needing it,” Nelson told him.  Jamie did his best impersonation of Nelson’s rather patented “harrumph.”  Chip nearly choked on a swallow of coffee he’d just taken and Lee pounded him on the back – a bit harder than Chip thought necessary and Chip sent him a glare, causing both Jamie and Nelson to chuckle.  Lee sent Chip a look of total innocence that only increased Chip’s glare.  Inwardly, however, Chip was grinning – if he couldn’t pester Lee about his trip to Portland, at least he’d given Lee reason to grin anyway.  Nelson changed the subject by asking for an ETA to the trench. 


“About 0800 tomorrow, sir,” Lee told him, back in command mode.  He knew that Nelson knew the answer already and assumed that the question was for Dr. Patrick’s information.  “I’d like to just hang out for a day, getting a feel for what the area could toss at us,” he continued.  “Maybe slip a couple thousand feet down so I’m more comfortable with where Seaview will be holding station during the dives.  If all looks a go we can schedule the first dive for the following morning.”  Chip noticed Patrick frowning during Lee’s assessment but, with a glance at Nelson who was nodding, held his tongue.


“Sounds perfect,” Nelson agreed.  “Slow and steady.”  Chip saw Lee duck his head, and Nelson chuckled again before continuing.  “I know, Lee – not always my usual response.”


“No, sir,” Lee answered, his lips twitching.  It caused Patrick’s frown to increase.


Cookie entering the Wardroom through the Galley door gave Chip the opportunity to change the subject before Dr. Patrick could get obnoxious about the bit of horseplay, as he seemed about ready to.  “Hey, Cookie,” he asked, “what’s for supper?  We haven’t had spaghetti for awhile.”


“Have meatloaf planned,” Seaview’s premier chef answered.  “Figured that I’d make extra so I could send sandwiches along on the dives.  I understand that they’ll take a long time.”


“Good idea,” Nelson told him.  “And yes.  Barring a problem, the deeper dives could take up to 18 hours.  Even the shallower ones will be 8 to 12 hours.”


“That works,” Chip agreed, grinning.  He glanced at Dr. Patrick before continuing way too innocently.  “Probably best not to fix chili, or your beans and ham soup, until the dives are all over.”  It was Lee’s turn to glare at him, but he couldn’t hold it as both Nelson and Jamie cracked up.


Even Cookie broke into a huge smile.  “No, sir.  Wouldn’t think of it,” and he headed back for the Galley, his shoulders shaking with silent chuckles. 


Lee backhanded his insolent XO before polishing off his coffee.  “Better get to the Conn,” he commented to no one in particular, “before Chip totally forgets what his job is and runs us into something.”  But he sent a grin over his shoulder as he left.


Chip glared at the closed door a moment before his own expression lightened and he sent Nelson and Jamie a mischievous grin.  “Actually, I thought that I was doing a rather fine job this morning.”


“Until he realizes what you were really up to,” Jamie observed dryly.


“Good point,” Chip agreed, and hurried after his CO.


Nelson had just sat, shaking his head, through that last bit of silliness, but once Chip left he sent Will a grin.  “Somehow I think it wise to stay out of the Conn this morning.”


Will nodded.  “Could perhaps get a tad thick in there.”


“Uhm,” Nelson agreed around the last of his own coffee.  “Doctor,” he addressed a still frowning Patrick, “shall we wander down and check out the bell?  I’ve had it equipped with what collection gear I think that you’ll need but now would be a good time to check, in case there’s something specific you want to change or adjust.”  The marine biologist seemed only too happy to have something concrete to do instead of what he obviously considered the totally frivolous behavior of Seaview’s officers, and left all too willingly with Nelson.


Will dawdled over the last of his coffee, and sent Cookie a grin when he reappeared.  The chef returned it before getting serious.  “The dives – they’re going to be dangerous, I gather.”


Will nodded.  “Nothing we haven’t handled before.  But the trench they’re headed into is particularly unstable, with frequent earthquake activity.”  It was his turn to frown.  “Hopefully we’ll just get tossed about a bit.”  His frown deepened.  “The younger seamen will probably enjoy it,” he added with a slight grumble.  “Riley in particular!”


Cookie grinned.  The young hydrophone specialist had a decidedly quirky attitude about life aboard the submarine.  “Might be a good idea for me not to plan on making soup of any kind for awhile,” he told Will, who nodded.


“Good chance that you’d end up with it all over the Galley.”


“Guess I’d better go batten down the pots and pans even better than usual.”


Will nodded again, polished off his coffee, and headed back to Sick Bay.  He decided that it might be a good idea to double-check his own area just in case.


Chip, once he’d officially taken the Conn, set Lt. James to studying what charts there were of the Kermadec Trench so that the young lieutenant would have some idea of what they were heading into.  He had spent the last week, off and on, doing just that, and knew that Lee had spent even more time at it than he had.  The next few weeks had all the earmarks of being particularly ‘interesting,’ as Lee liked to refer to some of Seaview’s weirder cruises.  Chip had a few more colorful descriptions but kept them pretty much to himself, especially on the boat.  Once a cruise was over he’d been known to let loose, usually after a few too many beers at BZ’s.


This particular morning he watched Lee, fairly relaxed to begin with, slowly start to get quieter and quieter as he began going from station to station in the Conn, making sure that all instrumentation was running at optimum levels.  Not that there was any likelihood that they weren’t.  It was just Lee’s way of working through the tension that was starting to build.  Chip had an uncomfortable feeling that, by the time they actually arrived at the trench, Lee would be so focused on keeping everyone else safe that he’d forget to look after himself.  It’s why he’d made the crack he had that morning to the Admiral and Jamie, and knew that they both knew what he’d meant by it no matter how jokingly it had been said.  Dr. Patrick, he could care less about!


Except that, there was still something nattering at the back of his brain about the man.  Chip could acknowledge that he wasn’t totally put off by the scientist – not like the reactions he’d had in the past to some of the Admiral’s wackier guests.  He pondered his discomfort for a bit, realized that he was getting almost as moody as Lee – even if for an entirely different reason – and gave himself a shake.  Lee had marked the charts with several locations where Dr. Patrick wanted to make the first dives and he spent a few minutes going over them with Lt. James.  As Lee paused between stations Chip called him over and the three spent some time going over the areas together, noting what little was known about currents and canyon walls.  They discussed even more strategies for handling this or that maneuver, and tossed out possible contingency plans.  At one point Chip noticed Lee trying to bury a grin and realized that Chris was scribbling down notes as fast as he could while still paying attention to everything that was said.  He shared a quick grin with Lee over the top of Chris’ head as the young lieutenant bent over one of the clipboards.


The quiet moment was broken as Seaview momentarily swayed to an underwater wave.  Lee glanced around the Conn.  “Get used to it,” he advised the Duty crew.  Chip noticed a suspiciously wicked grin cross Seaman Riley’s face ever so briefly.  Apparently Lee had spotted it as well because when Chip looked at him he had almost the same grin on his face.  Chip crossed his arms over his chest and sent his CO a momentary glare.  But even he couldn’t hold it when Lee shrugged and his grin spread.


The moment ended with footsteps on the spiral stairs.  “Lee?” Nelson asked, rapidly entering the Conn.  Dr. Patrick, trailing behind, stayed in the Nose.


“Definitely getting to the right area,” Lee observed.  “What is worrisome is the fact that I’m not sure we’re going to get much warning, even with bigger shockwaves.”


Nelson nodded.  “Everyone will need to be on his toes, for sure,” he agreed.  “I’ve got Sharkey double-checking the thrusters on the bell.”  He held up a hand to stop whatever Lee started to say.  “I know.  Both the mechanics at NIMR, and you as well, have already gone over them with a fine-toothed comb.”


Lee sent him a small grin.  “I was just going to say that with this cruise we can’t be too careful, and the extra checks are a good precaution.”  He took a deep breath.  “And I think that I’ll remind him to double-check both the cable and the communications line extra carefully between each dive.  Depending on what’s encountered during the dives they could both have minor damage that might not be immediately noticeable, but cause problems on the next dive.”


Nelson was instantly reminded of how much he appreciated having Lee as Seaview’s captain.  As good a skipper as John Phillips had been, Nelson had found himself having to stay on top of anything to do with the more scientific aspects of his research projects.  Phillips wasn’t careless – quite the opposite.  As long as it involved Seaview herself.  Phillips seemed to just assume that the mini-sub and diving bell came under Nelson’s jurisdiction.  Heaven only knew what he’d have thought of the Flying Sub.  While Nelson might have designed Seaview’s bright yellow offspring there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that it was Lee’s ‘baby.’  He could get FS1 to do things no one else would even try; he just seemed to become one with it, and whatever his mind thought, FS1 would do.  That thought putting a bit of a grin on his face, he joined Patrick in the Nose.


Lee wasn’t sure what had triggered Nelson’s sudden smile, and he’d learned that it was usually better not to ask.  Chip on the other hand was fair game so when he turned to find an almost identical expression on his XO’s face he crossed his arms over his chest and raised an eyebrow.  It merely caused Chip’s grin to increase.  “What?” Lee demanded.


Chip shrugged.  While he didn’t know for sure what had triggered Nelson’s enigmatic little smile he suspected that it had something to do with what he’d been thinking earlier, about the care with which Lee watched over everyone – and everything – under his command.  He did know that Lee expected an answer, and Chip had to quickly come up with something.  “Just, once more glad that I have you as a buffer between myself and the Admiral,” he said quietly, falling back on one of his stock answers.


Lee didn’t believe it for a second.  Chip was perfectly capable of keeping up with the Admiral, although he did know that Chip didn’t always believe that.  He also knew that it would probably be useless trying to get anything more out of the blond on that subject, surrendered gracefully, and went back to going over the charts with both he and Chris.  Seaview was rocked a couple of times more in the next hour.  Each time it was gentle, but without any warnings as usually happened; the hydrophones normally picked up on ‘something’ even if it was only by a few seconds, so fine-tuned was the instrumentation.  It was a bit worrisome but not overly so.  Lee assumed that, because of the distance the disturbances had probably traveled since they were so slight, they’d lost most of their potential for sending sound waves out in front of them.  He was actually a tad pleased that they were hitting them now.  It would get the crew prepared for reacting to them when they would no doubt get bigger as Seaview dealt with the region they were headed into.  He had enough confidence in everyone to know that they wouldn’t think that the little waves hitting them now would be the worst of it and become complacent.  But he took the small precaution of sending an all-boat call, reminding the crew that the anticipated ‘fireworks’ were already starting and would no doubt get a good deal worse the closer they got to their destination.


It reminded Chip of his earlier thoughts about having to keep an eye on Lee’s eating and sleeping habits, the two things that Lee tended to ‘forget’ when a cruise was intense.  It was a bit too early to try and head Lee in the direction of the Wardroom so he headed Lt. James that direction instead, figuring that once Chris returned he could give him the Conn while he and Lee ate.  He wasn’t holding his breath; if they encountered too many more undersea waves, and especially if they started getting stronger, Lee might decide that he needed to stick around while Chip was gone.  And Chip knew only too well that there was no guarantee, once Chip was back, that Lee would actually make it all the way to the Wardroom by himself.  At least for anything more than half a sandwich and a couple of cups of coffee.  Chip wasn’t stupid – he was totally aware that Lee didn’t mean to not take care of himself.  It was just that, when his mind was occupied with the plethora of details he needed to keep track of to keep everyone else safe, his own needs were always put back.  Chip couldn’t knock the man’s dedication to duty but he occasionally wanted to slap him silly because of it!


Once Chris had been dispatched, and just as Lee was about to start another walk-through of the Conn, Chip sidetracked him with, “Are you going to tell me where you disappeared to last week or do I have to beat it out of you?”  As he’d hoped, the sudden misdirection caused Lee to snort.


“You and what army?” came the retort.  Lee’s voice and expression were hard but Chip, who’d had years practice at reading his friend, easily saw the sparkle in his very expressive eyes.  He cracked a broad smile and Lee’s hard look softened.  “No biggy,” Lee continued.  “Just spent a few days with a friend.”  He sighed heavily.  “Figured that I’d get a little rest before this cruise started.”  Seaview waffled ever so slightly under their feet before leveling off again.  “I suspect that it’s going to be just as big a bear as I was anticipating.  Unfortunately!” he added with feeling.


“Blonde, brunette, or redhead,” Chip inquired innocently.


Lee’s hard look came back and he fixed Chip with one of his better command glares.  “None of your business, Mr. Morton,” came out slowly and succinctly, although the entire conversation had been carried out at a level that didn’t quite carry to the nearest crewmember.  By Chip’s continued casual posture there was little doubt on anyone’s part that the two were merely harassing each other, as happened frequently.  The rest of the men, while focused on their own tasks, still smiled softly at their officers’ hijinks.


“Lee,” reached the pair, and both turned to face the Nose.  Nelson gestured Lee forward.  He gave Chip one more short glare before they both grinned, and Lee walked forward to join his boss and Dr. Patrick.  “Small mutiny?” Nelson asked.  He’d noticed the antics – whatever had caused them this time.


“Nothing a few days on bread and water won’t cure,” Lee muttered, but couldn’t hide a smile of his own.


Nelson grinned.  He so appreciated and valued both Lee and Chip for their separate skills.  But as a team they’d helped the crew coalesce into more of a single unit than Nelson had seen on any other boat where he’d served.  Part of it had to do with the ability to handpick his crew, not just take what the Navy tossed his way.  But the main reason was exactly what Nelson had just watched happen – the ‘for-whatever-reason’ teasing match.  Most of the time Nelson figured that it happened spontaneously between the two old friends.  Every so often, and Nelson suspected that this was one of them although he didn’t know for sure, it occurred just when ‘something’ was needed to break whatever tension was building.  He was fairly sure that Chip had triggered it this time, especially after the comments at breakfast.  But it could just as easily have been Lee.  At the moment, Nelson decided to egg it along a bit.  “Let me remind you how much work would be involved in breaking in a new Exec.”  He said it firmly but was still smiling.


Lee answered in kind.  “No problem, sir.  Lt. James’ training is coming along quite nicely.”


At that Nelson chuckled openly, and motioned for Lee to sit down at the table where he and Patrick were going over some notes.  The grin increased as he watched Lee sweep a look through the Conn first, and finally settle on the front half of the indicated chair.  “I was just explaining to Dr. Patrick that, given acceptable conditions, we’d attempt a bell dive every other day.  That will give a day in between to evaluate anything collected.”


Lee pondered that only a moment.  “I’d be happier with two days in between.”  He held up a hand as Dr. Patrick tried to interrupt.  “Or alternating personnel on every third dive.”


“You can’t mean I won’t be allowed down on every trip,” Patrick all but spat out.


Nelson held his tongue no matter how much he wanted to smack the researcher for his insolence.  But after what had been said in the Flying Sub on the way to Seaview he decided that continuing to let Lee establish his authority would be the best way to handle it.  And, given past cruises, he had a very good idea of how Lee would do it.


Lee looked Patrick straight in the eye.  He wasn’t dictatorial – that wasn’t his style.  But his voice was firm.  “Doctor, Seaview maintains a set of very strict safety standards.  I’m sure that you must have been given a copy, either when your original proposal was accepted or, more likely, when you received the cruise parameters packet.  I don’t make the rules concerning diving time limits, the CMO does.  But I will adhere to them strictly.  We have an excellent safety record aboard Seaview.”  He sent Nelson a bit of a covered grin as Nelson disguised a snort in a cough.  There had been instances of utter mayhem on the submarine, for sure, but more often then not they were caused by not adhering to the regs.  “And I assure you, I’ll do my best not to mess that up.”


“Admiral…” Patrick started.


“Don’t expect me to override either my CMO or my Captain,” Nelson told Patrick, his voice firm.  “I pay them good money for their expertise.  I’d be an idiot to dismiss them on a whim.  I will remind you that I have your signed contract, wherein you have agreed to abide by all of Seaview’s rules and regulations.  I have every intention of keeping our end of that contract – supplying you with the means to do your research.  You’d better get used to keeping your end up or we might as well turn around and go home right now.”


It was apparent to both Nelson and Lee that Patrick realized that he had seriously overstepped his bounds and was trying to figure out a way to surrender gracefully.  Nelson had to bury another snort as Lee gave it to him by simply going on with the previous conversation.  “We’re lucky that the New Zealand authorities were so open with their time limits,” he now said to both Patrick and Nelson, his voice totally back to normal.  “It gives us the latitude of not having to rush through anything just to get done.”


Nelson nodded, as did Patrick.  “Speaking of whom, I talked to them this morning about the possibility of leaving some earthquake detectors at different levels as we descend into the trench, as well as a data collection and transmitter unit on an upper level where it can easily be serviced.  They were quite happy with the prospect.”


Lee had been nodding.  “Yes, sir.  Sparks mentioned the call.  Depending on where you decide to put it, we should be able to set the control unit using FS1.”


“My thoughts exactly,” Nelson agreed.  “I’ve glanced at the charts but I think an on-site inspection will give me a better idea of where I want to place the instrumentation.”


“Yes, sir.”  Once more Seaview rocked ever so gently before the stabilizers took over.  “Anything else, sir?” he asked, his eyes already scanning the Conn.


Nelson decided that he’d try to send Lee back to work as relaxed as he could.  “Try not to kill your XO,” he advised.  “He does occasionally come in handy, no matter what was happening a few minutes ago.”


Lee sent him one of his shy little smiles.  “I was refusing to tell him where I was last week,” he admitted.


“Ahhhh,” Nelson drawled out, grinning broadly.  “In that case, proceed as you think best.”


Lee sent him a slightly evil smirk.  “Yes, sir,” he agreed, and headed back to the Conn.


* * * *


The rest of the day went by fairly peacefully aboard Seaview.  The turbulence calmed down and Nelson theorized over dinner that it could possibly be somewhat cyclical.


“Lending credence to it being partially tidal-driven?” Lee asked.  Nelson merely shrugged.  “Sure would help if we had some way to predict the cycles.”


Nelson nodded and the pair shared a sympathetic grimace.  “As we do a bit of reconnaissance tomorrow, first priority is a safe spot for the data collector.  I need to make sure that the telemetry system is stable before we set out any of the detectors.  And let’s plan the shallower bell dives first.  If we get lucky, maybe over the next week we can get some sort of ideas about possible rates and cycles.”


“After all this time, the researchers in New Zealand don’t seem to have postulated any answers,” Lee reminded him.


“Very true,” Nelson agreed.  “But they haven’t had direct access to the intel I – and they – are hoping we’ll get from the units.”  He turned to Patrick.  “We’ll only be going a couple hundred feet into the trench tomorrow, Doctor.  Probably not much there to interest you.  But you’re welcome to come along if you’d like.”  A quick glance showed Lee already processing that invitation – with Patrick strapped into the back seat there would be little chance of him causing any kind of problems on the scouting trip.


“I’d like that very much,” Patrick answered.  He was a bit surprised, after the few blunders he’d managed to make, that the invitation had been offered.  He did wonder about the quick look that had passed between Nelson and Crane.  But the captain’s expression was neutral as he and his XO rose, their meals finished, and Patrick and Nelson spent the next several minutes pondering what they might find on the trip.


When Nelson entered the Control Room a bit later, having left Patrick with Chief Sharkey discussing the various collection devises available for use with the Flying Sub, he found both Lee and Chip bent over the chart table.  He took a quick glance and discovered that Chip seemed to be revising one of the Duty rosters.  He didn’t ask – whatever the reason, Chip was a master at maintaining order aboard the submarine and Nelson knew that there would be a perfectly logical reason for whatever he was doing.


Lee, on the other hand, was intently studying the chart for the area they were in, actually running a finger around the edges of the trench.  He looked up as Nelson stopped next to him.  “Admiral, I’ve been thinking,” he said, almost a curious expression on his face.


“Help.”  The word was said so softly that Nelson wasn’t at first sure where it came from.  Lee instantly swinging out an elbow and nailing Chip dead center answered that question, but Lee continued on without missing a beat and Nelson had to control his own expression to focus on what his conscientious young captain was saying.  For his part Chip didn’t look up, either, but Nelson thought that he could detect a slight smirk on the blond’s face, the very brief glance that he did take.


“The assumption has always been that the volatility of the area is coming from the earth’s plate movements at the bottom of the trench?” Lee asked.


Nelson nodded with a slight smile.  While Lee always claimed to focus on the missions themselves, he kept up with enough of the science to make sure his information was well rounded.  “One of the theories, at least.  Along with it’s proximity to the Tonga Trench, with the Horizon Deep right between the two and the New Hebrides Trench not that far away and coming in at a right angle.  Also, not that far to the east is the edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire with its underground volcanoes.  It’s a dynamic found nowhere else on earth.”


It was Lee’s turn to nod.  “The western rim is quite a bit higher than the eastern.  I assume that you’re going to concentrate on that rim to set out the sensors.”


“Sometimes referred to as the Kermadec Ridge.”  Nelson sent Lee a small grin.  “It should be easier there to find suitable places to put them.”


“I was just wondering why we’d need to place any of them below the rim.  Wouldn’t they record the same data there as they would further into the trench?  And, if the tremors are actually coming from some other source, or in combination with other sources, wouldn’t the sensors below the rim possibly miss recording them accurately?”


Nelson pondered that for a moment.  “I’d actually planned on at least one sensor on the rim, and I hoped to find places for five or six others at different levels inside the trench.”


“It was just a thought,” Lee backed down.


With another slight smile Nelson waved off the apology he heard in Lee’s voice.  “Your logic actually makes more sense,” he told the younger man.  “Maybe two on the rim with one between them down inside toward the upper end of the trench, and another set further south.”


“And we can set the collection unit between the two sets,” Lee agreed.


“Sounds like a plan.”


“You’ll have the units with us tomorrow?”


“Actually, no,” Nelson told him.  “I’d like to concentrate tomorrow on scouting as much of the area as we can.  We can plot locations, for sure, but I’d rather not take the time to actually set them out.  Time for that on days we aren’t making a bell dive.”  He saw Lee start to say something, and stopped it with a smile and an upraised hand.  “Yes, Lee, I understand that the faster we have them in place the more help they should be.”


“Yes, sir,” Lee told him through slightly lowered eyes.


“But having a good overview will be just as helpful in picking an area of the trench to do the bell dives as safely as possible.”


Lee’s “Yes, sir,” was much more firm this time.


“This is Tuesday,” Nelson continued.  “If all goes well we’ll mark locations tomorrow, make the first of the bell dives Thursday, and concentrate on setting out all of the sensors and the collection unit on Friday.”  He grinned.  “That way we won’t get bored quite so quickly between deep dives.”


Before Lee could respond, Seaview rocked ever so slightly and he sighed heavily.  “Somehow, sir, I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.”


* * * *


Off and on during the night and into the early hours of Wednesday morning the submarine felt slight ripples, but thankfully nothing heavy.  Lee cast a glance around the Control Room before heading down the hatch into the Flying Sub to start pre-fighting Seaview’s small yellow offspring after breakfast.  He caught Chip watching him and the two shared a quick nod.  Lee was once more, as he always was when leaving the sub for any reason, extremely grateful to have Chip as his Exec.  There was no one he trusted more or felt more comfortable around – even if the blond had spent half of breakfast needling him for more information on his recent trip.  When that got him nowhere he switched tactics and, citing Sharkey’s report that Lee had spent half the night wandering around the boat, unable to sleep, he teased Lee about not falling asleep while piloting FS1.  He told Lee seriously that he’d make sure Sharkey documented how much paint Lee damaged, as opposed to what Nelson had already done with his not so gentle docking earlier in the week.  Lee merely snorted and reminded Chip that Nelson usually piloted on these kinds of expeditions.  Now, just before his head went below the level of the deck on his way down the access ladder into FS1 he sent the blond a grin.  It spread when Chip crossed his arms over his chest and sent his CO a glare.


Lee was just finishing the pre-flight checklist when Admiral Nelson came down the ladder, followed by Dr. Patrick, and he started to vacate the pilot’s chair.  Nelson waved him back into it and then sent a raised eyebrow at Lee’s instant grin.  The grin went sheepish as Lee settled back into the seat.  “Just a comment from Chip,” Lee tried to shrug off Nelson’s obvious question.


“Harrumph,” Nelson muttered, but had trouble controlling his own grin as he showed Patrick how to adjust the harness in the not-frequently-used back seat.  He stowed the access ladder, and sent Lee a querying look as he settled into the copilot’s seat and buckled his own seatbelt.


“Chip’s been sharpening his needles,” Lee told him softly.


“He’s still angling for where you went?” Nelson asked with a grin.


“Among other things.”  Nelson sent him another raised eyebrow, inviting Lee to expand on the noncommittal comment.  With a grin of his own Lee chose to sidestep answering and instead touched his throat mic.  “FS1 to Seaview.  Checklist complete.  Ready to launch.”  He saw from the corner of his eye Nelson’s easy acceptance of Lee’s change of topic as he rested his hands lightly on his own set of controls, the slight grin still on his face.


Chip’s voice was, as always, controlled as he answered Lee’s call.  “Bay doors open.  Releasing docking clamps.”  There was an ever-so-short pause before he added, “Have a safe trip.”


“That’s the plan,” Lee answered, and concentrated on a smooth release.


Lee immediately felt slightly disoriented.  Overnight Seaview had been settled over the Kermadec Ridge, several hundred feet safely above crush depth.  With her unusual design FS1 was able to go quite a bit deeper but even she could handle only the very upper levels of the trench itself, second only in total depth to the Marianas Trench.  Lee was unused to launching the craft at this depth.  Even with all of FS1’s outside lights on visibility was severely limited.  The water seemed to absorb any light that got beyond just a few yards of the little machine.  Lee suddenly realized why Nelson had so easily let him pilot – Lee would have to navigate primarily by instrumentation, with no time to check on what little could be seen out the front windows.


He knew primarily where he was but spent the next ten minutes coordinating with Seaview, and the chart Nelson laid out on his lap, to carefully bring FS1 to the west edge of the trench toward the northern end.  Once he had visual contact with the terrain, and Nelson had their exact location plotted, he turned south and started a slow meander along the edge of the trench.  While Lee concentrated on keeping a steady course, Nelson followed along on the chart and visited with Patrick about what could be seen.  Or, more correctly, what little there was to see.


“STOP!”  Lee wasn’t thrilled when suddenly Dr. Patrick yelled out the order.  He frowned at Nelson, who was also looking slightly irritated.  But the Admiral gave a curt nod and Lee brought the little craft to a halt.  He heard Patrick’s seat belt unclip and gave an order of his own.


“Doctor, please do not leave your seat while we’re moving.”


Patrick ignored the comment with a snide, “You’re stopped,” and stepped up to stand just behind and between the two forward seats.  “Back up,” was his next order.


“That will require moving,” Lee grumbled, mostly under his breath, although he was fairly sure that Nelson heard him because the Admiral momentarily sent him a grin.  But he also nodded and Lee put the little craft into a gentle reverse.


After just a few yards Lee saw what had caught Patrick’s eye.  Nelson excitedly identified the object.  Notoliparis kermadecensis, named for this area where it was first identified in 1952.”  Lee watched as half a dozen small, white, fish-shapes fed on what appeared to be the carcass of a larger fish which must have died higher in the water table and fallen to this lower level.  “Since then it’s only been photographed one other time,” Nelson continued, and he used one of the external cameras to take several minutes of video.  The three men watched the scene for a bit longer before Patrick told Lee, “You can go on, now.”


Lee took a quick count to three before saying, tightly, “Not until you’re buckled back in, Doctor.”


“I can hang on to the seats.  I can’t see well from back there.”


Lee sent Nelson a quick look but the Admiral decided to stay out of it.  He had a fairly good idea of how Lee would handle the situation and had to carefully control his expression when he wasn’t disappointed.  While he may have designed the little yellow craft, Lee could get it to do things Nelson could only shake his head at.  Without Lee seeming to do anything, FS1 wiggled and Patrick had to grab the backs of both chairs to catch his balance.  Lee had braced himself but Patrick’s movement spun Nelson a quarter turn and he sent Patrick a glare.  “I believe you were told to stay securely belted into your seat, Doctor,” he growled.  His voice relaxed ever so slightly as he added, “This area is far too unstable to be up walking around in a craft this small.”  He noticed Lee’s lips twitch ever so slightly but the younger man was once more concentrating on his job and FS1 moved smoothly, if carefully, forward.


But Lee was now a bit more conscious of what was out the window.  Since he was skimming the seabed on the Kermadec Ridge he could afford to rely on visual contacts in equal parts with the instrumentation, and could react faster when anything of interest came within view.  He never did hear Dr. Patrick’s harness clip together, and the scientist was leaning as far forward as he could.  But as long as his backside stayed in contact with the seat, Lee remained quiet.


Several times Nelson had Lee scout a specific area, and he marked the chart when a suitable spot for one of the earthquake sensors was located.  They didn’t drop down over the edge of the deep to look for places to set one of the two Nelson wanted there.  Both Nelson and Lee decided that they would be more comfortable setting those with the bell.  Still traveling south, they didn’t look for a place to set the data collector, either.  Time to do that once they knew where the four sensors on the ridge were going to be placed.


Lee’s eyes caught a flash in the dark outside the illumination from FS1’s exterior lights and he slowed down, pointing the craft in the direction of what he’d seen.  He knew that down here there were creatures which could produce their own flashes of light but he was caught a bit off guard by the whatever-it-was that shortly came into view.  He sent Nelson a look of wonder and it caused the older man to chuckle softly.


“A rather aptly-named Gulper eel,” he told Lee as they watched what looked like an oversized, elongated upper and lower jaw attached to pretty much nothing more than a long whip of a tail that it appeared to use for locomotion.  The light flash came from the very tip of the tail.  “Sometimes referred to as a pelican eel from the way it uses that odd-shaped mouth to take in food.”  He busied himself getting video of the creature.


Lee nodded but was interrupted from replying when Chip’s voice came out of the speaker.  “Seaview to FS1.  Status check.”


Lee sent Nelson a wicked grin as he touched his throat mic.  “FS1 to Seaview.  Green across the board.  Just checking out your namesake – an oversized mouth attached to a long skinny whip-shaped body called a Gulper eel.”  He grinned as Nelson choked off a snort.  There was some sort of noise from Patrick but Lee ignored it.


There was momentary silence from the submarine before Chip’s voice came back.  “Admiral, are you there?  Sounds like Lee’s suffering from rapture of the deep,” referring to the euphoria and hallucinations divers could encounter from lack of oxygen.


Nelson couldn’t control his own chuckles as Lee’s grin spread wide, and he touched his own throat mic.  “All’s well down here, Chip.”


“Harrumph,” came softly through the speaker, and both Lee and Nelson cracked up.


“FS1 to Seaview,” Lee got himself back under control enough to replay.  “Continuing south as plotted.  FS1 out.”  Nelson just shook his head as Lee got back to business.


Life at this level was sparse to say the least.  Lee knew that a lot of it was almost microscopic in size and easy to miss if you weren’t looking for it specifically.  As they continued the scouting trip Lee was surprised to come across what Nelson identified as a Colossendels, a form of deep-sea giant spider.  It was somewhat reddish in color and nearly a foot across.  But all but a tiny bit of that width was legs – the body itself was very small.  Nelson sent Lee a sympathetic look as Lee shuddered and didn’t waste a lot of time checking out the animal – they both had reason to not be overly enamored of spiders.*


Even Lee recognized the deep-sea variety of Anglerfish with its bioluminescent ‘lure’ sticking up from its head attracting prey close enough to the fish’s mouth to be snatched up.  He didn’t turn around after he identified the fish but, from Nelson’s expression, Dr. Patrick made some kind of face.  The two officers shared a quick grin before Lee continued south.


The only thing of any interest that they ran into for the next hour were half a dozen different varieties of sea cucumbers and a couple of cusk eels.  Even Dr. Patrick became bored and sat back in his seat, although Lee never heard his harness click together.  Eventually Nelson decided that they’d gone far enough and had Lee turn around.  They spent the trip north plotting spots for the four sensors that would be placed on the upper edges of the trench as well as the data collection unit, and indicated the general areas where Nelson would place the two down lower in the trench using the bell.  They were nearly back to Seaview when they hit the first turbulence they’d felt all day, and it was fairly slight. 


“Wish we could count on more days like this one,” Lee said, mostly to himself.  But a quick glance Nelson’s way showed the older man nodding.


Nelson gave a quick snort when Lee, as usual, docked the little craft back in her berth with little more than a soft click of the locking clamps.  Lee ducked his head at the reminder of Nelson’s slightly ‘off’ docking a few days previously but the look he sent Nelson was a bit smug.  Nelson pretended an indignant huff but Lee easily read the sparkle in his eyes as he unclipped his harness.  He lowered the boarding ladder and he and Patrick re-entered Seaview as Lee finished shutting down FS1.


When he climbed aboard Seaview and closed the hatch, Chip and Chris were busy studying the chart Nelson had apparently left there.  “Not so much as a bump,” he sniped at the blond, in reference to Chip’s earlier crack about FS1’s paint job.  The young lieutenant had to bury a snicker as Chip sent a quick glare at Lee.  But the three quickly got down to business matching the marks on Nelson’s chart to coordinates on the navigation chart.  They decided to use the notation for the northernmost deeper sensor for the next day’s first bell dive.  It would let Nelson set his sensor, and after the two top sensors and the collector were set the following day they would have one full set in place to help make decisions on subsequent dives.  At least, that’s what Lee and Chip were hoping, and Lt. James added his enthusiastic nod of approval for the plan.


Lee bounced the plan off Admiral Nelson over dinner.  The exploration had gotten everyone back after the normal lunch period.  He wasn’t sure about Nelson and Patrick, but he’d wandered down to the Wardroom only long enough to pick up a couple cookies and a cup of coffee.  He avoided any arguments with Chip by heading to the Missile Room for just long enough to make the blond think that he’d spent the time actually eating a decent meal, and luckily Chip didn’t challenge him about it the rest of the afternoon.  He had no problem heading that direction just after 1800 hours as by then he was actually hungry.


Nelson was already nodding halfway through the description of Lee’s plan.  “Makes perfect sense,” he agreed. 


Dr. Patrick nodded as well, but mostly to himself.  It was finally sinking in that he couldn’t bluster his way over top of these men.  He wasn’t used to crews who had even an inkling of understanding about the research they were helping to conduct – they were just there to follow orders and he had no qualms about issuing those orders.  But here things were a good deal different.  Oh, most of the crew still saw to handling the equipment.  But the people he needed to work most closely with were well informed about the techniques needed, if not the actual research itself.  It was just another link in that unusual pattern when the boat’s doctor – someone who should care less about such things, asked about the sensors themselves.


“Admiral,” Will spoke up, “I’m a little curious how these sensors are going to work.”  As four sets of eyes turned his direction he gave a quick rendition of Lee’s shy look, but switched to a mini-glare as Lee and Chip both buried snickers.  “I mean, I’m used to the normal sensors we put out.  But at the depths we’re talking about here isn’t most of the surface mud? How will you stabilize them to get any sort of accurate reading?”


Nelson sent a quick grin across the table to Lee and Chip before answering Will, sitting on his side of the table but with Dr. Patrick between them.  “I’ve had to redesign a bunch,” he admitted.  “Not only with different protective shells to handle the pressure, but I’ve added slightly wider base plates that will each accommodate four long rods, one at each corner.  The rods will be sunk into the mud and should help hold the sensors in place as well as transfer motion directly to the plate, and hence to the equipment inside the sensor.  At least, that’s what I’m hoping.”


“Makes sense to me,” Will offered, and got back quick grins from the other three officers.  “And the two further inside the trench?”


“Same design but shorter pins,” Nelson told him.  “I’ll try to find some kind of rocky outcropping and drive the pins in.  One of the bell’s arms has a quick enough hydraulic motion that I should be able to manage fairly well to get them solidly attached.”  The words were barely out of his mouth when Seaview rocked with an underwater wave.  It wasn’t too bad, but everyone reached to steady his own plate and mug.  “Very solidly attached,” Nelson amended.


There were a few more waves during the evening, but thankfully nothing of major concern.  Lee could feel his stress building but tried as best he could to relax and get a decent night’s sleep.  Tomorrow the real ‘fun’ would begin.


* * * *


Chip stood at the chart table, ostensibly monitoring the Control Room crew but keeping one eye trained on his CO.  It was nearly 1200 hours the next day, Thursday, and the first of the bell dives was well underway.  As Chip expected, Lee had gone down to the Missile Room right after breakfast – which Chip had made sure he’d eaten, if not as much as the blond or Cookie would have liked – to monitor the launching of the bell, and Chip had gone down as well just for the heck of it.  Seaview was in station-keeping mode and Lt. James could handle things until Chip got back.  With Admiral Nelson and Dr. Patrick was Seaman Lawrence, a mechanics mate with several years’ experience servicing the equipment on the bell.  Chip had watched Patrick flick an irritated glance at the seaman when it became apparent that he wasn’t there just to oversee the launch but was actually going along.  With the extra equipment aboard there was even less room inside than usual. But he held his tongue as Nelson briefly discussed the objectives for this first dive with the seaman.  Once the bell was successfully launched, with Chief Sharkey capably in control of things in the Missile Room, Chip and Lee had returned to the Conn.  Chip knew that Lee would spend the entire dive dividing his attention between the two places; in fact, Lee had already been down to check things twice despite Chip keeping an open communications line with Sharkey.


So far everything was going well.  Two hours into the dive Admiral Nelson had found a suitable place for the earthquake sensor.  Mounting it in place had gone exceedingly well and the bell had continued its descent.  Today’s dive would be one of the shallowest planned, but 14,000 feet was still an uneasy distance.  With its own thrusters, the bell could maneuver short side trips on its own without having to reposition Seaview.  There had been a few minor tremors but nothing of any significance, and Seaview was able to ride them out with little effect on the cable to the bell.  Nelson reported that he and his companions had barely noticed.


They also, so far, hadn’t found much of any significance.  They were keeping the bell fairly close to the side of the trench, and stopping every so often to take samples.  An unfortunate effect of so deep sampling meant that anything living wouldn’t survive being brought to the surface with its light and lack of pressure so they were making as much use of the bell’s cameras as possible, both video and still.  Chip smiled when Lee tossed a quick comment to Seaman Patterson, on duty at that point on hydrophones, that he was in all likelihood going to be kept busy in the darkroom processing film – the seaman’s father was a noted photographer and had taught his son everything he knew about developing film.  Some of the bell’s equipment was digital and could be easily downloaded.  But several of the cameras still used film and were kept as a backup to the others.  Patterson had sent Lee a quick grin and a nod before once more concentrating on the equipment in front of him.


Chip knew that there was no way Lee would leave the Conn long enough to eat even a halfway decent lunch so he came at the problem a little sideways and had Cookie bring fruit and sandwiches to the Observation Nose.  He and Chris took turns eating without actually having to leave the Conn.  He had to carefully control his expression when Lee sent him a glare as Higgins, Cookie’s assistant, set out the meal.  But happily Lee accepted the slight irregularity and actually ate enough that even Chip was happy, and glad that he’d thought to ask Seaview’s occasionally temperamental chef.  Lt. O’Brien’s voice over the dive channel let him know that Sharkey had also been given a break – it would be SOP while the dives were taking place.


The dive had reached 14,500 feet when Nelson called an end for today just after 1300 hours, and Sharkey and his crew started hauling the bell back aboard.  Chip covered a grin as Lee headed for the Missile Room as the bell drew near.  Now maybe his friend could calm down.  It had been a quiet dive, and happily a quiet day tremor-wise.  Chip wasn’t looking forward to the deeper dives – especially if they were coupled with a more active sea.  Lee would not be a happy camper.


Admiral Nelson wasn’t at all surprised that Lee was the first person he saw when the bell hatch was cracked.  Unless Seaview’s captain was needed elsewhere he was sure to be found wherever the action was taking place aboard the sub.  He sent Lee a quick grin as he finished unbuckling his harness.  Lee backed off as Seaman Lawrence got ready to exit, carrying a box holding half a dozen collection containers.


“Your lab, Admiral?” Lawrence asked respectfully.


“I’ll take those,” Patrick ordered before Nelson could get off an answer.  The scientist grabbed the box out of the seaman’s hands, exited the bell, and hurried toward the hatch.  Lee shared a shrug with Lawrence and looked back to Nelson as the seaman took his turn exiting the bell.


Nelson’s eyes went momentarily upward before he sent a half-grin, half-grimace at Lee.  “This could be a very long cruise,” he muttered as he stepped out of the bell.


“Interesting trip?” Lee asked.


“You could say that,” Nelson replied before he chuckled softly.  “It really is fascinating down there.”


“Yes, sir,” Lee told him, trying to smother a grin.


Nelson reached out and lightly backhanded Lee’s shoulder.  “And you’d just as soon that be our only bell dive,” he said without acrimony.


“Yes, sir,” Lee repeated with feeling.




Lee shrugged.  “Comes with the territory,” he told his boss with a sigh.


Nelson’s grin spread.  “What say we go enjoy a peaceful dinner?”  He glanced at the hatch.  “I rather suspect that we won’t have any irritating interruptions.”


Lee returned the grin.  “I’ll have Cookie send a plate to the lab.”  His answer was Nelson’s deep chuckle and they headed for the Wardroom.


Having spent most of the day barely above crush depth, neither man was surprised to feel Chip move the sub a good deal higher for the night before he joined them in the Wardroom.  Nelson kept his two young officers entertained with as non-scientific a summary of his day’s activities as possible.  He commended Lee’s choice of Lawrence to accompany he and Patrick, but had to switch gears when Lee made it evident that that had been Chip’s decision.


“Even tempered,” Chip said softly, which earned him a backhand from Lee accompanied by Nelson’s chuckles.  Chip sent a quick glare at Lee but continued his explanation more correctly.  Lawrence worked with me on the last bell overhaul.”  Nelson nodded, remembering.  While Lee’s baby had always been FS1, after Seaview of course, Chip had a special affinity for the bell, and especially after he and the bell had been the primary forces behind saving Seaview and her crew after the incident with the underwater mines.****  “He knows the bell the best of anyone on board.”


“After you,” Lee amended, causing the blond to blush slightly.


“Saturday’s dive a shallow one to set the southern in-the-trench sensor?” Lee asked, getting back to business.


Nelson considered that a moment before nodding.  “That actually makes a good deal of sense at this point.  We can spend Sunday comparing samples from both ends, note any similarities or discrepancies, and have a better idea of how we want to continue from there.”


Lee nodded, and very carefully got his face under control before asking, “Will Dr. Patrick be joining us tomorrow to set out the other four sensors and the collection unit?”


Nelson choked off a snort as it was Chip’s turn to backhand his friend.  “I rather suspect Dr. Patrick will be busy in the lab,” he told them both.  His expression turned almost into a smirk.  “I made sure he took lots of samples today.”  Lee and Chip both grinned and the conversation went on to other topics.


Lee had barely hit his rack about 2300 hours when Seaview was hit with enough of an underwater wave to pop both he and Chip back into their khaki’s and head for the Conn.  That, however, seemed to be all that King Neptune was going to toss at them for the time being and both headed back to their cabins just after 0100 Friday morning.  Lee stripped off his uniform, laid it over the visitor’s chair next to his desk since it wouldn’t be all that long before he’d once more put it on, and crawled under the covers in just his skivvies, not bothering this time to pull on PJ’s.  A heavy sigh escaped as he lay on his back and his head hit the pillow.  It changed to a quick snort of laughter as he reached up to turn the bunk light out and discovered that he was being watched.  Hanging upside down on the bulkhead about three feet over his head was the wooden banana slug Chip had bought and presented to him as a reminder to slow down after a particularly trying cruise.**  At the time he’d tossed it away but somehow Admiral Nelson had ended up with it.  The addition of a magnet on its belly meant that it showed up in all sorts of interesting places.  Nelson didn’t move it often but it had become a bit of a game between the two – one that they chose not to share with anyone else.  Chip had spotted it a couple of times in Lee’s cabin but Lee would just smile and not answer the blond’s rather pointed questions.  Now, Lee knew exactly why the Admiral had obviously made a point of shifting it from the top of Lee’s file cabinet, where it had been for the last couple of months, while Lee had been in the Conn.  It was a not-so-subtle reminder to Lee to get some rest.  Grinning broadly, Lee rolled over and closed his eyes.  Now that Seaview was once more calm he fell asleep fairly quickly.


He and Chip had just sat down to their breakfasts, kibitzing about where to position Seaview during the FS1 trip, when Admiral Nelson walked into the Wardroom with Will.  Lee and Nelson shared a quick grin but Lee went right back to agreeing with Chip’s idea that Seaview should slide south as Lee and Nelson set the sensors.  “But maybe only as far as the point where we set the collection unit,” he amended.  “That will put us in a good place to spend the night, and be an easy run tomorrow morning for the next bell dive.”  As he realized Nelson was listening attentively, he reiterated the gist of the plan.


“Sounds good,” Nelson agreed as he slid into his usual place across from Lee.  Another quick look passed between the two and this time both Will and Chip picked up on it.


“Mr. Morton,” Will started seriously, “do you detect a certain…ah…something going on around us this morning?”


Chip gave Lee a speculative look before answering.  “Now that you mention it, Doc.  Definitely a private conversation of some sort.”


“They wouldn’t be plotting something other than setting out sensors, would they?”


Both Lee and the Admiral sent Chip completely innocent expressions.  “Help,” Chip muttered.  Nelson burst out laughing as Lee nailed his XO with a well-aimed elbow.”


“You pay attention while we’re gone,” Lee ordered gruffly.  “I want my boat in one piece when we get back.”


Nelson harrumphed.  “If I’m not mistaken, it’s my boat.”  But he could barely get the old joke out.  It caused Will and Chip to grin as Lee sent a momentary, and obviously faked, glare at his boss before all four men chuckled.


They were interrupted as Dr. Patrick walked in.  He filled his plate and hesitated a bit behind Will, apparently expecting the CMO to move over so that he could sit next to Nelson.  When Will chose to ignore him he finally sat down on Will’s other side and promptly started talking, a bit louder than necessary, over Will’s head to Nelson, totally ignoring everyone else.  No one interrupted, or even acknowledged his rambling dissertation on what he was finding in the samples he and Nelson had taken the previous day.  As he finally took a breath, and a bite of his meal, Nelson asked Lee blandly when Lee was planning to head out to set the sensors.


“I thought 0830 hours, sir,” Lee told him.  “The faster out, the faster back.”


Before Nelson could do more than nod, Patrick broke in.  “I can’t be ready that early.  I have another sample I need to work on.”


Lee held his tongue as he noticed a decidedly controlled expression hit Nelson’s face.  “Not a problem, Doctor.  You’ll have all day to work in the lab.  We’re only setting out sensors so we made no provision for you to accompany us this time.  Chief Sharkey will be going along to help and he’ll be using the passenger seat.”


“But I want to go,” Patrick sputtered.  “I…”


“Sorry,” Nelson cut him off, plastering the expression on his face that the other three officers easily recognized as ‘Nelson taking charge.’  “Not today,” he told Patrick in a tone that even the scientist recognized that he’d better not challenge.  “With all the extra equipment aboard there won’t be room for you.”  Nelson pointedly turned to Lee, dismissing Patrick with a bit of a sniff, and started a conversation about what was obviously boat’s business.  Everyone else continued to ignore Patrick as well and he quickly finished his breakfast and left.


Turbulence had been minimal once everything had calmed down after the night’s bit of fireworks.  Lee still did a quick walk-through of the Conn having a few words with each of the Duty crew before heading to pre-flight FS1.  Chip carefully buried a grin as he and Lt. James went over the charts and FS1’s proposed flight plan.  The crew never took umbrage at Lee’s questions; never thought for an instant that he was second-guessing anyone’s knowledge and understanding of the tasks at hand.  It was just Lee’s way of settling his own mind before the action began.  The crew understood that their Skipper’s ultimate reason for everything that he did or said was to keep them and the boat as safe as he possibly could.  Chip more than anyone on the crew knew this so he controlled his expression, not seeming to make light of Lee’s actions by smiling.  He caught Chris keeping surreptitious track of Lee’s actions as well.  The lieutenant, for all his youth, was turning into a first-rate bridge officer, well aware of what Lee was doing and willing to learn as much as he could to pattern himself after Lee’s excellent leadership abilities.


With a final glance around the Conn, Lee sent Chip a nod and then headed for FS1’s hatch to start getting the craft ready.  Chip took a deep breath, and realized that Chris had caught him.  Lee wasn’t the only one the young lieutenant kept an eye on and, while pleased, Chip sent him a firm look.  Chris nodded – they both understood the need to focus on their own duties with both Lee and the Admiral off boat for the next several hours.


As Lee stepped down the access hatch ladder, FS1’s rear hatch cycled and Chief Sharkey appeared along with Seamen Riley and Niles carrying in the sensors and their grounding rods, stowing everything where it was handy to the access panel for the arm that would position the equipment.  Sharkey would be responsible for loading the equipment on the arm, and Nelson would man the controls and set the units.  Lee sent the Chief a quick nod and a smile when a pack was secured to the small bunk – apparently Cookie wasn’t taking any chances about the three being gone so long as to miss lunch.


Sharkey’s detail had just secured the rear hatch when Nelson came down the ladder.  The Chief secured that hatch, stowed the ladder into its travel position as Nelson settled into the copilot’s chair, and then secured himself in the back passenger seat as Lee made his final com check with Chip.  The docking clamps released and the little craft slipped smoothly into the dark. Lee wasn’t quite as disoriented this time as he’d been two days ago but he was still relieved when FS1’s outside lights picked up the terrain at the edge of the trench and Nelson found their location on the chart.


The day went remarkably well, all things considered.  There were a few moments when minor turbulence interfered with the tasks at hand, but Lee’s easy control of the craft kept everything in order.  As a site was reached, Sharkey settled on the deck and loaded the sensor attached to its base plate onto the arm as it rested in its access chamber.  The inside chamber hatch was closed and Nelson opened the outside one, maneuvering the controls of the arm to settle the sensor in place.  A second arm, the one that would push in the stabilizing bars, was already deployed in case it was needed to hold the sensor in place for the bit of time it took to get the rest of the equipment ready.  The first arm was brought back in and quickly loaded with the ‘legs’ of the unit. Once they were ready, Nelson used both arms to set the bars into their holes before the quicker of the two arms pushed/hammered them down into the mud so that the whole unit was as firmly attached to the soft ocean bottom as possible.


The two northern-most sensors went in without a hitch.  Nelson called a break once the collection unit was settled safely in place and Chip reported that telemetry was coming in perfectly from all units so far set out.  Chief Sharkey retrieved the pack from the bunk and the three quickly devoured the sandwiches and coffee they found inside.  Seaview moved south, but remained over the collection unit as FS1 continued on to set out the other two sensors.


The third unit took a bit longer than the others to set up.  The spot that had originally been chosen for it now contained the carcass – or rather, what was left of it – of a sperm whale.  It had already been set upon by a fair number of denizens of the deep, always on the lookout for a meal.  The three men watched for awhile as Nelson took video of the not-often-seen activities before they moved just enough further south to not disturb the ongoing feast.


Three sighs of relief escaped as the last peg was settled deeply in place on the last of the sensors, and all three men exchanged sheepish grins.  “That went better than I was expecting,” Lee voiced what he knew all were thinking.  Sharkey returned to his seat once Nelson had brought both arms back into their traveling positions, and Lee headed the little craft back along the edge of the trench to where Seaview was waiting for them.


Chief Sharkey choked off a snicker, and Nelson sent Lee another sheepish grin, as FS1 settled into her docking clamps with barely a nudge.  Lee tried to keep control of his expression but he knew that he’d not totally succeeded when Nelson gave his shoulder a backhand slap as he stood up.  He grinned, listening to Nelson and Sharkey discuss how well the arms worked as he finished shutting FS1 down.  Sharkey lowered the access ladder into place as Lee stood up, and then hesitated as he waited for Nelson to head up into Seaview first.  Nelson grinned as he shooed the Chief up first, and then had to grin again as Lee shooed Nelson up, intending to be last.


Nelson’s head was just about to clear the upper hatch, and Lee was just raising his foot to the first rung of the ladder when, with absolutely no warning, Seaview rocked violently.  One moment all was well and the next Lee became the pillow that broke Nelson’s fall back to FS1’s deck.  Nelson was rolled off him as Seaview continued to rock back and forth and it took both men a few seconds to regain control.  As they started to question each other concerning their condition it was echoed by Sharkey from the hatch.  Nelson answered that he was fine and started to pick himself up off the deck as Lee tried to do the same.  But his attempt to say that he was fine ended up being choked off as he tried to move and his ribs strongly objected.  He tried to wave off Nelson’s shout to Sharkey to call Doc but his boss would have none of it.  Nelson made him lay back until Will scurried down the ladder.


“What did you do to yourself this time?” Will growled.


Before Lee could answer, Nelson broke in.  “Sorry, Doc.  My fault this time.  When Seaview shook I fell off the ladder and landed on him.”  He sent both Lee and Will a pretty good version of Lee’s through-the-lashes look.


“Admiral, the man does not need help injuring himself,” Will muttered.  Lee sent him a glare as Nelson finally chuckled.


It only took Will a minute to decide that Lee had suffered some badly bruised ribs.  It wasn’t until he and Nelson helped Lee stand that a twisted right knee became evident as well.  As Will started to recommend a stretcher ride to Sick Bay, the glare Lee sent him made him reconsider.  There were times to challenge the CO, and times that a little leeway (and he barely controlled the grin that atrocious pun caused) brought about a more cooperative patient.  He could read the pain on Lee’s face – which Lee was trying very hard to mask – as Lee made his way up the ladder.  With a look from Nelson that both men easily read, Will followed Lee’s slow trip through the Conn.  Lee stopped briefly at the chart table while Chip told him that all reports were that Seaview had survived the turbulence just fine, before reluctantly heading out the aft hatch toward his least favorite part of the boat.  Will had no misconceptions about his ability to get his stubborn CO to actually stay and rest his bruises.  But he’d settle for slowing Lee down long enough to get a better look at the damage than he’d gotten in the Flying Sub.  At the very least he could tape the knee to keep Lee from further straining it as he made sure that his boat was safe, as Will knew that he’d do the instant he was out of Will’s clutches no matter that he had Chip’s report to the same.  Lee would never second-guess his XO but it was just his way.


Will got the expected glare when he ordered Lee to remove his khaki’s before having a seat on the exam table.  He didn’t grin but it was a hard fought battle, and he figured that Lee knew it as he muttered under his breath but grudgingly complied.  “Thank you,” Will told him honestly, and started with the ribs.


He was fairly sure, from his brief exam in FS1, that Lee hadn’t broken anything, but he spent a little extra time verifying that.  He considered x-rays but didn’t find, on physical exam, any reason.  Lee was tender, for sure, but everything was solidly in place.  He’d walked around behind Lee at one point and reached up and ran a hand down the back of Lee’s head.  Lee ducked away but not before Will’s sensitive fingers found the lump that was already forming.  “Skipper,” he started firmly as he walked back in front of Lee, “do us both a favor.”  Lee merely glared at him.  “Should something like this happen in the future just take a step back, would you please?  With the Admiral’s extra padding, he’ll bounce.”  Despite the glare Lee sent him, Will could see a bit of sparkle in Lee’s expressive eyes.


Thankfully, Lee’s knee turned out not to be bad at all.  Will did put a few pieces of tape in place just to give it a little stability, made Lee down some Ibuprofen for the pain Lee was trying to hide, and sent him on his way.  Hopefully Will would see him at dinner, although he wasn’t taking any bets.  Either way he’d track Lee down partway through the evening and coax him to take more Ibuprofen.  That, plus a good night’s sleep, should take care of the majority of the aches.  Will would keep track of the rib injury on general principles.  As deep as they were there was no chance that Lee would be diving, and Will thought that today was the last of the scheduled FS1 trips.  Will hadn’t heard that Lee would be going out on any of the bell dives but he’d keep his ears open – while it would be unlikely that the different atmospheres used in the bell could cause problems with Lee’s slightly compromised breathing, Will was prepared to be vocal on his preference that Lee not go just to be on the safe side.


Lee sent Will a glare when he entered the Wardroom for dinner and found Nelson, Patrick, and the CMO just sitting down.  But it was quick, and mitigated by an ever so slight twitch of his lips.  Chip caught the exchange, gave Lee’s shoulder a quick nudge with his own, and grinned briefly when the glare was sent his direction.  The pair filled their plates and sat down in their usual spots – Lee opposite Nelson and Chip opposite Dr. Patrick who had once again usurped Will’s normal spot next to the Admiral.  The two scientists were discussing what Patrick had found in the samples taken the day before and, except for a quick nod, Lee and Chip didn’t interrupt the conversation.  Chip, especially, could care less, and concentrated on his plate.  Lee kept one ear on what was being said, if only to be prepared for the next day’s bell dive.  Apparently Nelson had already explained the agenda that had been proposed as Patrick was quite accepting of the plan, and the pair was discussing what, if anything, they might find in the more southerly section of the trench than they’d found in the north.


At one point Lee nearly choked.  Patrick was lamenting the fact that no real research could be performed on the living species, and Nelson quipped that perhaps he’d work on a design for an undersea lab that could withstand greater depths than anything that so far existed.  Once Lee got himself back under control he added, his eyes sparkling in reaction to the quick look Nelson had sent him, that instead of a stationary lab Nelson might want to consider one that could be sent to a specific area and anchored for awhile, but could then be moved elsewhere.  The look of speculation Nelson sent him nearly had him snickering and he had to grab his coffee mug to momentarily hide behind.  He did catch Chip and Doc sharing a look before each just shook their heads and went back to eating.  It took Patrick a bit to finally decide that Lee had just been teasing Nelson, and again wondered at the friendship that the two men obviously shared.  Although, from the look on Nelson’s face, he wasn’t totally sure that Nelson wasn’t actually considering the project.  But the conversation went back to the isopods Patrick had found – all known species, unfortunately – and the moment passed.


Admiral Nelson spent the evening with Dr. Patrick in the lab going over physically what Patrick had updated him on over dinner.  Patrick had a right to be excited even though so far nothing new had been found.  But Nelson himself was excited – every bit of data added to what little was known about deep sea trenches in general, and the Kermadec region in particular.  Nelson barely covered a grin as Patrick once more bemoaned the fact that keeping specimens alive was basically impossible.  He rubbed in the fact – at last it seemed so to Nelson – that Woods Hole was developing some special pressurized tanks that hopefully would handle that problem on future expeditions.  Nelson nodded and agreed that that would be an important step forward.  He tried not to look hard at Patrick when he added that then maybe Patrick wouldn’t have to depend on outside institutions for his research; that Woods Hole would be able to accommodate his needs.


Patrick carefully chose not to take the bait and merely nodded.  His own personal opinion was that Woods Hole spent far too much of their deep-sea resources scratching Bob Ballard’s itches, searching for sunken ships.  He wasn’t stupid enough to ever voice that opinion out loud, of course.  Dr. Ballard had brought great fame – and therefore large grants – to Woods Hole.  But it still privately ticked Patrick off.


Nelson caught the quick moment of disgruntlement on Patrick’s face and privately wondered what had caused it.  A mental shrug assigned the expression to Patrick having to work with NIMR instead on this cruise, carefully buried a smug look of his own, and the pair went back to studying the specimens that had been collected the day before.  Most were fairly unremarkable, with the flattened body and short-legged style of their more familiar terrestrial cousins, wood lice.  Another quick grin had to be quickly buried as Nelson allowed a stray thought of what Lee and Chip were no doubt thinking about the subject of this particular bit of research.  They were bad enough when Nelson insisted on counting seals or measuring ocean water temperatures.  He was pretty sure what they were saying privately about this expedition to study what amounted to nothing more than deep-sea bugs.  They could at least understand the value of setting out the sensors.  But Nelson suspected that that wouldn’t be enough to stop the occasional grumbles – from both officers and crew, especially if they ran into more aggressive tremors.  Bug research would not even come close to making up for challenges to their safety.  The crew would follow Lee to hell and back on nothing more than Lee’s request.  And Lee would do everything within his power to accomplish Nelson’s requested tasks.  But it still caused Nelson a moment of contemplation at his good fortune to have these incredibly well trained and dedicated men around him – despite their personal feelings over what Nelson occasionally got them involved in.  A quick grin appeared as he acknowledged that, while he might commend Lee on a fairly regular basis, he needed to make a better effort toward letting the crew know how much he appreciated them.  The grin spread slightly at what the Accounting Department would have to say if Nelson requested a bonus check be issued to all crewmembers once this cruise was over.  It wasn’t as personal as Lee’s Bravo Zulu’s to his men.  But Nelson knew himself well enough that he could admit that he’d find it easier.


Involved with Patrick’s samples, Nelson lost track of time and was surprised when he glanced at his watch to discover that it was nearly 2300 hours.  With a wry smile he reminded Patrick that they’d both better get some rest to be ready for the next day’s bell dive, and helped the researcher stow all the samples safely away.  Nelson made a pass through the Conn, ostensibly to check the telemetry from the sensors but mostly to make sure that Lee wasn’t stalking the boat, unable to settle down for the night.  But Lt. O’Brien assured him that Chip had pointedly headed Lee in the direction of Officers’ Country about an hour earlier.  O’Brien let a quick grin appear, and Nelson raised the expected eyebrow.  The lieutenant’s grin spread as he added the fact that Doc had casually made an appearance in the Nose just prior to Chip’s nudging Lee toward his rack, and Nelson chuckled softly as he gave O’Brien an easy nod.


He spent several minutes looking at the sensor readings for the last several hours, happily noting the relative calm of the area.  He did glance at the bottom of Lee’s cabin door before heading to his own.  He was prepared to comment if he found lights still on.  But only darkness showed in the small space and Nelson headed for his own bunk.


A bit of restlessness hit him as he got ready to crawl into bed and, with a lopsided grin at himself for being as bad as his conscientious captain, decided to have a quick nightcap from the bottle he kept in the bottom drawer of his desk.  He pulled it out and was reaching for one of the glasses he also kept there when his eyes hit the label on the bottle and he burst out laughing.  In obvious payback for the banana slug having been moved Lee had made a new notation on the bottle, another part of their private little game.  Carefully hidden among the words was a tiny dot; just a casual, unofficial way to mark the level of scotch in the bottle.  Nelson shook a finger in the direction of Lee’s cabin, still chuckling.  He realized that the laughter had done a better job of allowing him to relax than the drink would have and returned the bottle and glass to the drawer muttering a couple of casual, and obviously faux, insults aimed at the impudent younger man.  Appreciating him all the more for the gesture, he easily fell asleep.


* * * *


Saturday started out a little uncertainly with a handful of tremors, thankfully small.  Both Chip and Lee were studying the sensor printouts when Nelson came down the spiral stairs.  The three discussed it all the way to the Wardroom.  Nelson’s theory was that a lot of little quakes were actually better than total quiet.  He postulated that little quakes and releases of underground gases allowed pressure to escape.  If everything was quiet it was easier for a big release all at once to cause major problems.  The two younger men accepted that logic easily, although Nelson could still read the tension present in both men’s bodies.  He watched Will, already eating when the three walked in, have to bury a grin as Chip did his best to needle a reluctant Lee into eating enough to keep the frown off Cookie’s face.


Nelson hadn’t noticed Lee moving at all uncomfortably so he was a little surprised when Will asked Lee casually to please wander down to Sick Bay before he headed for the Conn.  Lee sent him the expected glare, which only caused Nelson and Chip to snicker and Will to smirk ever so slightly before he added, “Just for a minute, Skipper.”


“I’m fine,” Lee muttered, and the old familiar line caused Chip’s chuckle to change to a mutter so low that Nelson couldn’t hear the actual words.  He wasn’t sure if Lee did actually hear it, or merely react to what his XO – and best friend – would usually say in similar situations.  Whatever it was, Lee finally relaxed ever so slightly and sent his CMO – and also one of his special friends – a quick nod.


Will wasn’t so much worried about Lee’s injuries as he was using them for the opportunity of a casual check on the younger man.  Lee was all too adept at ignoring anything short of total incapacitation and refuse to allow his body to heal.  Will had had to get just as adept at taking any and all opportunities – however small they were – to keep tabs on him.  He knew that because of today’s bell dive he’d only get a couple of minutes.  But he’d take the moment, however short.


That’s about all he got – two minutes.  But at least Lee was cooperative.  He quickly sat and unbuttoned his shirt, letting Will check his ribcage.  Despite some rather spectacular bruises Lee wasn’t moving badly.  Will did manage to get the stubborn young man to swallow a couple Ibuprofen just on general principles and sent him on his way with only a minor grumble.  It actually caused Will to grin, and it spread when a very quick sparkle hit Lee’s eyes as he rebuttoned his shirt, tucked it in, and headed for the door.  All in all, Will was quite pleased with how his morning was going.


Lee had expected ‘something’ from Will this morning, but he’d put on the usual show of grumbling just because it was expected.  Leaving Sick Bay he headed for the Missile Room, knowing that Chip would have everything in the Conn well in hand.  He expected Sharkey to have everything in the Missile Room under control as well and was momentarily caught off guard by the discord he found instead.  Seaman Lawrence was double-checking the collection containers, being watched closely by Dr. Patrick.  Being questioned, actually, Lee realized, which explained the slightly disgruntled expression on the Chief’s face


“Problems, Doctor?” Lee asked respectfully as he walked up to Patrick and Lawrence.


“No, no,” Patrick was quick to answer.  Lee controlled the grin that threatened to show as Patrick’s tone, rather dictatorial to the seaman, was much more congenial to Lee.  “I just wanted to learn more about the equipment so you wouldn’t have to send anyone extra along.”


That grin Lee purposely allowed the man to see.  “Not necessary, Doctor,” he easily assured Patrick.  “There will always be a third person in the bell.  For safety reasons,” he added.  “But I’m sure Seaman Lawrence would be more than happy to walk you through the more general aspects of the equipment functions.”


“Of course, Skipper,” Lawrence responded.  “Always happy to show off the Admiral’s inventions.”


There were a couple of choked off snorts behind Lee, and Patrick’s small smile was decidedly forced.  But his voice was level as he thanked Lee and turned back to the seaman.  Lawrence sent his Skipper a quick nod and went back to showing the researcher exactly how he was stowing the containers for quick exchange during a dive.  Lee turned back to Chief Sharkey who was trying desperately to control his expression – and failing miserably.  A quick frown from Lee helped to get the COB back under control.  At that, Lee sent him an approving nod and spent a few minutes going over a few general pre-dive routines just to give himself a reason for staying there until Admiral Nelson showed up.


Nelson wondered about the quick grins he saw on several of the faces around the Missile Room when he stepped through the hatch.  The biggest one was on Seaman Lawrence’s face although he made sure that he had his back to Dr. Patrick before he let it show.  Nelson sent Lee a raised eyebrow that Sharkey also saw.  The pair shared a quick grin before Lee sent Nelson a small shrug of his shoulders.  Nelson decided that, boss or not, he’d just been outvoted and he amiably let it drop.  As long as Lee was in a good mood Nelson wasn’t about to do anything that screwed that up if he could help it, and he headed over to the bell as he pulled on his sweater.


“Got her ship-shape, Lawrence?” he asked with a grin of his own.  Whatever had been going on before he arrived, he was more than happy to help keep the mood light.


“Aye, aye, sir,” the seaman replied.  “Just showing Dr. Patrick a few more of your toys, sir, as he was interested in them.”


From the frown that hit Patrick’s face but was quickly covered, Nelson suspected that the researcher had just taken a jab about something.  Nelson knew his crew well enough that whatever was going on, Lee had no doubt instigated it.  The crew as a whole was fairly careful to stay polite to any visitors, at least to their faces, and especially with both Lee and Nelson present.  Whatever had been going on Nelson figured that Patrick had been nailed dead center, and no doubt because of something he himself had done or said considering previous instances the last several days.  Thankfully Patrick seemed to be realizing, if somewhat slowly, that he had to play by Seaview’s rules, not his own.  There had been clashes in the past…  Nelson had to carefully control a shudder at a few unpleasant memories.  But so far Lee was easily dealing with Patrick and his eccentricities, and the crew had become very adept at taking their cues from him.  If Lee weren’t upset by anything Patrick did they would happily play along.  Play being the operative word, I suspect, Nelson said only to himself as Lawrence sent him another quick grin.  A look back at Lee and Sharkey got him another grin from Lee and a thumb’s up from the Chief, and he stepped into the bell.


Nelson had felt Seaview moving as he’d made his way to the Missile Room and knew that Chip was moving the submarine further south to today’s dive site.  There was a minor delay after Patrick and Lawrence joined him in the bell and got strapped in.  Lee stuck his nose in briefly before closing and locking the hatch from the outside before Chip announced that Seaview was in position.  All three braced themselves for those first few awkward moments getting the bell lifted so that outer doors could be opened and the bell lowered into the water.  All three took a deep breath as they started down.


By this time Nelson was getting rather adept at setting out the sensors, the bell’s arms working similarly to those on FS1, so the last sensor was placed very quickly.  Lee reported that all telemetry was working well.  They were continuing to show small amounts of activity but nothing strong enough to affect either the sub or bell.  Today’s dive would be another semi-shallow dive – if 14,000 feet could be described as such.  Nelson knew that the levity in the Missile Room would be balanced by sharp attention to detail, there as well as all over the sub, and as always took great comfort in the knowledge.


Once the sensor was set they decided to stop every 500 feet to make a collection.  It wasn’t exactly what they’d done two days ago.  Then they hadn’t been quite so meticulous, although the end results had been roughly similar.  Each collection, once aboard the bell, was carefully documented as to depth and time.  Personally Lawrence wasn’t too sure why time was important since this far down there wasn’t any light.  But when he asked Nelson, keeping his question casual and polite and in a tone of genuine interest, Nelson sent him a grin.


“Seems odd, doesn’t it?  And yet, even here there are tidal influences.  That, coordinated with the sensor graphs….  It might not make a difference, or it maybe could.  We won’t know without all the proper documentation in place.”


“Understood, sir.  Thank you for the explanation.”


“No problem a’tall,” Nelson assured him with another grin.  He encouraged questions from the crew.  He knew that he bored them to tears on those occasions when he rattled on whether they’d asked a question or not so he tried, occasionally with minimal success, to keep his answers specific to the subject at hand.  He was helped to keep his answer brief by a quick frown from Patrick at the seaman’s question, and then was struck by the thought of expounding on the answer just to be perverse.  But he decided that would be rubbing salt into whatever wound had occurred prior to his entering the Missile Room and let the topic drop. 


They were, of course, in constant contact with Chief Sharkey, and occasionally either Chip or Lee would come over the dive channel to ask a question or relay some bit of information.  From the tone of Chip’s voice, Lee was back in the Conn.  Nelson wondered if Lee had shared with his XO whatever happened in the Missile Room because the first couple of Chip’s messages were in a decidedly lighter tone than his usual ‘XO on duty’ officiousness.  But the deeper the bell went the more serious he became, and Nelson suspected that Lee had gone back to pacing as he was wont to do.  Especially when he wasn’t in total control of a situation.  While he had the boat and crew as well prepared as he could make them, the bell was still at the mercy of whatever the ocean gods chose to throw at them and that would keep Lee on edge.  It was just Lee’s way.  The crew was used to it, and everyone would be very sure that nothing they did would cause further turmoil to their conscientious Skipper.  Chip would do what he could to help keep Lee settled, for which both Nelson and Will were extremely grateful.  And Nelson knew that Will was perfectly capable of aiming the occasional potshot at Lee, if for no other reason than to get Lee to focus on him for however brief a moment and away from whatever was causing the turmoil.  The crew to a man looked out for Lee as much, if not more, than Lee looked after them.  The thought caused Nelson his own private grin as the bell headed further down to the next collection level.  He turned the heat a degree higher as a small chill hit him, and asked Lawrence to break out the coffee he knew Cookie would have packed.  There would also be lunch items but it was a bit early for those.  The coffee, however, was welcomed by all three men.


Lee was indeed pacing, but Chip was happy to note that it wasn’t much more at this point than his normal watchfulness around the Conn.  The dive was going well so far and Lee was merely keeping track.  The sensors were continuing to show small discharges, and Chip could appreciate Nelson’s assumptions even more that this was actually a good thing.  He still had all too vivid nightmares over the totally unexpected underwater explosion that had resulted in him ending up in Sick Bay with a badly fractured forearm.*** 


He’d had to grin as he and Lee left the Wardroom that morning.  Cookie, knowing that there was a bell dive today, had casually told the pair that he’d bring lunch up to the Nose about 1145 hours.  Chip had watched Lee try to frown but be unable to hide the sparkle in his eyes as he sent the chef a quick nod and left, headed for Sick Bay as requested.  Chip had sent Cookie a broad smile and a thumb’s up.  The occasionally temperamental chef wasn’t big on special requests but he’d obviously picked up on the temporary change in routine being a major benefit to Lee, and that would have him doing what he could to accommodate.  Nelson sometimes fussed that, while it was he who paid for the premier chef to be aboard, it was Lee that the man catered to.  For all his bitching, Chip knew that Nelson was perfectly happy with the arrangement.


Now Chip watched Lee hang over Kowalski’s shoulder at the sonar station for a bit, watching the screen and having a few words with the Senior Rating.  An ever so slight grin hit his face as he thought back to Kowalski’s initial reaction to Lee.  Definitely not a pleasant meeting.  Happily that had quickly changed and ‘Ski had become Lee’s strongest advocate among the crew.  He was often Lee’s choice for a dive partner.  Lee never treated him differently than the rest of the crew.  But everyone knew that there was a strong bond of respect and friendship between the two, which no one aboard had any problems with.


Belatedly Chip realized that, as he was watching Lee, so was he being observed.  He frowned.  “A problem, Mr. James?” he grumbled as he caught the young lieutenant keeping tabs on him.


“No, sir,” Chris quickly responded.


“Harrumph,” Chip did a soft rendition of Nelson’s rather patented mutter and went back to keeping his eye on the sensor telemetry.  Secretly he was pleased with the man’s attentiveness.  Lt. James was turning into an excellent Watch officer.  Chip was just more used to keeping tabs on him than he was having his own tabs kept watch on, and smothered a grin.  Gotta watch these junior officers like a hawk, he muttered to himself, but could barely contain the chuckle the thought caused.  He sent Chris a nod and a very quick grin, and both men got back to the business at hand.


Lee sent a frown, first at Cookie and then at Chip, when the chef brought lunch items to the Nose just before noon.  It was just for show as he did greatly appreciate not having to leave the Conn.  He knew both men understood when Cookie merely nodded and Chip outright grinned.  Lee finally grinned back.  From the dive channel he knew that sandwiches had been broken out aboard the bell, too, as they descended to the next level.


Happily the afternoon went by nearly as quietly as the morning, but everyone took a deep breath as the bell was brought safely back aboard just after 1730 hours and Chip moved Seaview to a much higher and safer level where they would stay through Sunday, not returning to depth until the next dive, scheduled for Monday.  Again Patrick grabbed up the box of samples and headed for the lab.  Lee had gone to the Missile Room as the bell drew near, and he and Nelson shared a quick grin directed at the researcher’s back as they discussed today’s dive; how well everything had gone and both keeping fingers crossed that things continued to go so well.  They walked together to the Wardroom, the Admiral in need of coffee more than anything.  Lee grinned when Nelson mentioned to Cookie to break out extra thermoses for future dives; that the deeper they went the more coffee was going to be needed.  The chef sent back a quick nod.  Cookie was only too aware of how the whole crew, and especially the command staff, depended on the dark sludge he lovingly called ‘Joe’ to get them through the workload.  And the more tension aboard, the more coffee was needed.  That was a request he could easily accommodate.


Will wandered in not too long after Nelson and Lee sat down, and Chip wasn’t far behind.  Lee sent his XO a raised eyebrow.  “We’re at normal depth already?” he asked.


Chip frowned.  “I left Lt. James to handle the rest.  He definitely doesn’t have enough to do.”


Lee cracked up as Nelson and Will sent puzzled looks between the two.  “Seems Chip doesn’t like being kept an eye on quite so tightly,” Lee half-answered.


Chip turned his back on all three, filling his plate.  But secretly he was pleased that Lee had been relaxed enough to catch the bit of byplay between he and Chris earlier.


For their parts, Nelson and Will decided to quit while they were ahead – sort of – and Nelson continued his discussion of what he’d seen from the bell during the dive.  As with the previous bell dive, and planned for the others as well, they’d taken both water and, where they could, soil samples at the various levels.  Nelson was hopeful that once the samples were analyzed they’d find more than just the general detritus, or ocean snow, they’d found in the previous samples, fallout from above as bits fell through the water table, and the occasional already known species of isopods.  Like Patrick, his thirst for knowledge led to excitement over all the possibilities dives in this very remote and mostly unexplored region could produce.  He tried not to bore the other three too much, although he knew they had grown accustomed to his occasional overtures on the subject of ocean research.  He did have to cover a grin as, during a pause in his semi-lecture, Lee asked if he and Patrick had settled on a place for the Monday dive.


“Actually, I haven’t asked Dr. Patrick.  But I don’t see why we can’t move a bit more south for the next one since we’re already in this area.”


“And depth?” Lee wanted to know.


Nelson pondered that one for a bit.  “How about we leave that one for the day.  If tremors are quiet we’ll try for the deepest, around 23,000 feet.  If things are iffy we’ll make it less.”


“Works for me,” Lee agreed.  “How about Patrick?”


Nelson sent him a smirk.  “He’ll do what we decide,” he assured his captain.  He started to ask about what had been going on that morning in the Missile Rom but was interrupted by the doctor walking into the Wardroom.  “Didn’t expect you here, Doctor.  Figured you’d be buried in samples.”


Patrick shrugged.  “Was hungry actually,” he admitted.  He sent an almost shy look around the room, including a watchful Cookie in the glance.  “Can’t remember when I’ve eaten so well on a research trip.”


Lee watched the chef give Patrick a nod before turning back to the Galley.  But he knew he wasn’t the only one who caught Cookie’s shoulders shaking with buried chuckles when Nelson snorted and Chip had to muffle one of his own.  “We do like to eat well around here,” Nelson admitted.  “But I was going to ask Cookie to send a plate to the lab.”


Patrick shook it off.  “I’m actually also realizing the wisdom of the days between dives giving time for careful study.  Oh,” he admitted, “there will be much more to do after we get back.  But this is working out really well.”  He sighed.  “I’m just used to a more frenetic schedule.”


Nelson sent him a nod.  “It can get crazy around here, too.”  He chuckled softly as Chip said something under his breath and Lee nailed him with an elbow.  “But we’d built extra time into this cruise because of the unsettled nature of the area, coupled with the great amount of research that hasn’t been done here because of that as well as it’s protected status.  With New Zealand’s blessing, and King Neptune’s cooperation, we have the opportunity to get a great deal done.”


Patrick nodded and headed toward the table with his now filled plate.  Will this time started to give up his spot next to Nelson but the scientist waved him off and sat down on his other side.


Nelson had to bury a grin at the quick looks that passed between Lee and Chip.  Patrick had been fairly calm in the bell today, more so than the first dive and so much more careful than he’d been when he’d gone with Lee and Nelson in FS1.  Apparently a few things were finally starting to sink in!  “Lee and I were just discussing Monday’s dive,” he decided to tell Patrick, to test the theory by the doctor’s reactions, and he went on to explain.  He was pleased with the reaction he got.


“That sounds perfectly reasonable.  I would like to do one of the deep dives soon.  But I understand not being bounced around in the bell too much if it can be avoided.”


“Lousy for taking samples,” Nelson agreed.  Once more a quick look passed between Lee and Chip, and this time the blond’s elbow made a small strike.  But he instantly regretted it as Lee flinched.


“A little sore, Skipper?” Will asked, catching the flinch.


Lee started to say his usual, ‘I’m fine,’ but the looks of expectation he was getting from both Chip and Nelson stopped the reply.  Instead, he changed it.  “A little bit,” he admitted.


Will, not wanting to push the issue, merely nodded.  “You no doubt will be for a few days.  You took a pretty good smack.”  He grinned as Nelson sent him a somewhat sheepish look.


“Its fine,” Lee muttered, on general principles.  He hated Jamie getting the last word.


Will was all too familiar with that part of the ‘game’ that always broke out between the two over anything to do with Lee’s health, and was perfectly happy egging it along.  “Be sure and let me know if it disturbs your sleep,” he told his stubborn Skipper.  “We can try a stronger painkiller at night.”


“I’m fine,” came out strongly before Lee could stop it, and had to endure smirks from the other officers as he realized he’d so easily taken Jamie’s bait.  He sent his CMO a glare that he knew the other three would recognize as being false and concentrated on what was left of his dinner.  Thankfully the others chose to let it pass as well.


The evening was quiet.  Seaview was gently rocked a couple of times, but Lee was hoping that Nelson’s theory would hold and that the gentle release of pressure would keep ‘the big one’ from happening, at least while they were in the area.  Lee wandered through the boat, stopping to chat wherever he went.  Mickelson had new pictures of his twins, now almost two years old.  Patterson showed him the still shots FS1’s camera had captured on the scouting trip.  Lee raised an eyebrow but Patterson was quick to tell him that, yes, the Admiral and Dr. Patrick had sets, but that Nelson told him he could make a set for himself if he wanted.  Patterson thought that his nephew would get a kick out of showing them off at school.  Riley was caught in Crew’s Quarters bemoaning the fact that Seaview wasn’t being rocked harder – that he enjoyed the ‘rides.’  When he realized that Lee was leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed casually over his chest listening, he turned so bright red that Lee was momentarily concerned.  But everyone burst out laughing and Riley tried hard to apologize.  Lee merely waved it off with his own broad smile and ambled off.


Lee did have a moment’s pause when he glanced through the window into the Reactor Control Room and found Admiral Nelson in conversation with Chief Mason, Seaview’s Bull Nuke.  Neither man looked worried, but Lee opened the door and raised an eyebrow as both men looked at him.


“Relax, Lee.”  Nelson easily read the signs on Lee’s all too expressive face.  “You’re not the only one who wanders around from time to time checking on things, you know.”  His grin spread as Lee frowned.  He didn’t like anything going on behind his back, as this was appearing to be.  “Just checking with the Chief on those modifications I talked to you about last week.” 


Lee finally nodded and relaxed.  Nelson was always puttering with ideas to enhance Seaview’s performance.  “The ones where super-charging the hull against nasty jellyfish or whatever could be done without so badly over-stressing the reactor,” he brought up the report from his memory bank.


“Yes,” Nelson confirmed.  “Got stuck on a small issue and wanted Chief Mason to give it a look.”  He sent Lee another grin.  “Think we have it almost figured out.”


“Then I’ll leave you to it.”  Lee returned the grin, nodded to Mason, and continued on.


He wandered back through the Conn about 2200 hours.  All was quiet but he was surprised to see Jamie sitting in the corner of the Nose, reading.  Seaview’s CMO apparently didn’t hear Lee walk up to the edge of the crash doors and stop, just watching.  Will started badly when he glanced up from his book to look out the windows and saw Lee’s reflection in the herculite.


“Caught me,” he told his CO amiably once he relaxed.  “Wasn’t tired enough to sleep so I came up here for awhile.”


Lee gave him an easy grin and walked all the way forward.  “Even when there’s basically nothing to see, there’s always ‘something’ to see,” he agreed, looking out into the darkness.  Both men were quiet, until Lee finally turned and sat down on the window ledge.  He pointed an eyebrow at Will and sent a quick glance at the book now in Will’s lap.


Will grinned.  “Trashy mystery novel,” he answered the unspoken question.  “Can’t seem to get enough of them.  Knowing this was going to be a long cruise, Lu-Tsi bought me half a dozen or so.”


Lee grinned.  Despite Will’s derogatory description of the reading material, Lee knew that the CMO chose to read well-written, well-thought-out novels whose puzzles challenged him to find the solution as an aid to keeping his own mind sharp.  Knowing that, he still chose to tease.  “Turn your mind to mush,” he told Will seriously.  “Apparently I need to have a long talk with your wife.”


Will saw right thought the ploy – Lee’s eyes were sparkling far too brightly to actually be serious – and he shook a finger at his CO.  “Way far better than those dreary departmental reports you so often have your nose stuck in,” he grumbled.


Footsteps on the spiral stairs interrupted Lee’s comeback.  “Not all dreary,” Chip told them both brightly as he hit the bottom.  “The staffing reports especially have all sorts of interesting information for future secretary-trolling.”  Lee chuckled while Will merely shook his head.


“Explains why you’re always so eager to get them,” Nelson said, having walked up behind Chip unseen by him and Will.  Lee had noticed when he’d entered the Conn by way of the aft hatch and wandered quietly forward.


Chip turned red but still drew himself up straight.  “It’s the XO’s job to keep on top of all staffing issues,” he assured everyone, before grinning broadly as Lee and Will cracked up and Nelson gave his shoulder a light backhand.


Lee stood up but wasn’t able to hide a slight flinch from Will’s eagle eyes.  “Skipper?”  He purposely kept his voice soft, not accusatory.


Lee frowned but nodded almost imperceptivity.  “Sat too long against the cold windows.  I’ve got Ibuprofen in my cabin,” he added when Chip sent him a momentarily hard look.


But it was Nelson who told him, “See that you take it,” he ordered.  Both Will and Chip instantly grinned.  Lee had said he had it, not that he’d actually use it.  Even Lee had to grin at that jab.  Nelson gave a soft harrumph before heading up the spiral stairs.  Lee wandered around the Conn once more before letting Chip herd him toward Officers’ Country.  He didn’t see when Jamie left the Nose but the doctor was no longer there by the time he and Chip left the Conn.  Chip wasn’t taking any chances, and kept Lee in sight long enough to make sure he’d actually taken the mild painkillers before heading for his own cabin.  With a soft grin over how his ‘family’ kept tabs on him, Lee crashed and was asleep in mere moments.


* * * *


It appeared that Nelson was definitely on the right track with his partial predictions over the turbulence in the area.  The next day the sensors remained almost disturbingly quiet.  Nelson spent most of Sunday in the lab doing the preliminary processing on Saturday’s samples.  He and Patrick had a few moments of excitement when the deepest of the water samples held a 3mm acellote, the first they’d found so far.  Some of the excitement fizzled when they determined it to be an already identified sub-species.  But it still meant that the dive hadn’t been a total waste and the pair carefully documented the find.


The lack of sensor activity had Lee reminding everyone to be on his toes for a large release of built-up pressure.  When it came, just after 1930 hours, it didn’t catch too many people off guard.  Seaview was rocked about fairly dramatically but there were no reports of any damage.  The sensors almost immediately went back to the occasional blurp. 


Lee allowed himself to relax enough to be talked into trying for a deep dive on Monday, as they’d discussed on Saturday.  If the sensors went suddenly quiet Lee retained the option of halting the dive.  He saw Patrick frown but the scientist didn’t interrupt.  Lee and Nelson both agreed to take it one step at a time and see what happened.


They launched the bell as soon as they could after an earlier than usual breakfast.  Nelson grinned when Higgins, Cookie’s assistant, came into the Missile Room with two loaded packs instead of just the one Cookie had been preparing.  As hoped, the second pack held four large thermos bottles of coffee, and Seaman Lawrence sent Nelson a quick grin as he stowed them carefully in the bell.  He also packed as many collection units in as he could, and Admiral Nelson helped him find space for a few more.  It was going to be even more cramped than usual but Nelson didn’t want to find himself short of containers.  He saw Patrick give Lawrence’s seat a glance, and buried a grin.  Sharkey had finally told him the previous day what had gone on Saturday morning and they’d shared a chuckle over how Lee had dealt with the issue.  Nelson did suggest to Patrick that they might want to take samples a bit less frequently on the way down this time and resume the previous schedule once they passed the 14,000 foot level, where they’d stopped Saturday.  That seemed to relax Patrick somewhat as the three strapped themselves in.


Chip knew that he was in for a long day.  If the dive went according to plan, the bell wouldn’t be back aboard for approximately 16 hours.  The sensors, while continuing to burp, weren’t doing it as often as they had been, and every time there was a longer than usual pause Lee started getting antsy.  Not that Chip wasn’t worried himself.  But he worked hard to maintain the outward calm that the crew depended on for their own peace of mind.  They would be concerned if Lee came too unhinged, but Chip was the rock of stability that they all looked to.  They understood that Lee had all aspects of the dive to consider and balance, but even he counted on Chip to have Seaview performing at her finest to handle whatever other elements they ended up having to deal with.


Higgins brought fruit, potato salad, and sandwich fixings to the Nose just after 1200 hours, and Chip fussed until Lee took a break from pacing – not to mention the once an hour visits to the Missile Room – to eat.  Cookie himself delivered dinner – lasagna, Caesar salad, and green beans.  Apparently Will had spoken to the chef as he, too, chose to eat in the Nose.  Lee suspected it was a plot cooked up – and he grinned softly at that terrible pun – by Chip to ‘encourage’ Lee to eat a decent meal.  But by then the bell was starting back up after reaching their pre-determined maximum depth of 23,000 feet without incident and he was, actually, hungry.  Mostly, he was smart enough to realize, from all the nervous energy he’d expended throughout the day.  But he even made Jamie smile at the portions he took, and finally allowed himself to momentarily relax.


Everything went well until they actually had the bell aboard and were about to crack the hatch.  The sensors had been eerily quiet for the last several hours but no one was anticipating the strength of the underwater turbulence that smacked the submarine just moments after the lower doors were sealed and the bell was lowered into her docking clamps.  Lee reached for the bell hatch to unlock it and was instead harshly tossed on his back, his head bouncing off the deck.  A little stunned, he was nonetheless on his feet almost immediately.  He could hear Chip’s calm voice over the intercom collecting damage reports.  Happily there didn’t seem to be much, so well prepared was the boat and her crew, and Lee once more reached for the bell hatch.


Things weren’t so calm inside the bell.  Nelson was just unbuckling his harness so he’d been securely strapped in during the shaking.  Lee wouldn’t have expected Lawrence to unbuckle himself early but apparently he had because he was face down on the bell’s deck, lying awkwardly among the collection containers.  Lee wasn’t so surprised to note that Patrick had obviously unbuckled early but he was irritated that he’d flattened Lee’s crewman even further.  A quick thought flicked through Lee’s brain about knowing exactly how Lawrence was no doubt feeling, what with Nelson having flattened him a few days previously.  Lee would have reached in to start sorting things out but willing hands from several crewmen beat him to it.  On top of which, Lee realized that his own concentration was a little fuzzy and traced it to a rapidly expanding lump on the back of his head where it had connected with the unyielding deck moments before.


Lee knew that he was in trouble when he could detect no passing of time between determining that fact, and finding men on either side of him pushing him into a sitting position on the closest bench.  He tried to push both of them away before discovering that one was Admiral Nelson and the other was John, Doc’s night corpsman.  Looking toward the bell he saw Jamie kneeling next to Lawrence, now laid out on the Missile Room deck.  He didn’t see Dr. Patrick but did hear noises inside the bell and assumed that the scientist was busy gathering up his samples.  “Doc?” he sent Jamie the question uppermost on his mind, “how’s Lawrence?”


“You and he can compare notes about being flattened by falling bodies,” Will sniped back.  “Be quiet and let John figure out how much damage you’ve done to yourself this time.”


“I’m…”  The old line was cut off by Nelson sitting next to him on the bench loudly clearing his throat, and he wisely shut up and let the corpsman do his examination.


“Nothing major,” John finally told Will.  “Banged the back of his head, like the Chief told you…”  Lee made a mental note to assign Sharkey to cleaning the bilge.  “Probably has a pretty good headache,” John concluded.


“That’s nothing new,” Will quipped.  Lee opened his mouth to snipe back but pressure on his upper arm from Nelson’s side closed it, although not without a soft growl that Nelson chuckled at.  “Get him down to Sick Bay.  I’ll be right behind you with Lawrence.  He’s going to need x-rays to be sure but I don’t think his ankle is broken.”


“I need to check the boat,” Lee informed everyone firmly.


“Not until you can actually see straight enough to make an honest assessment,” Will told him with a bit of humor in his voice.  Lee figured that he wouldn’t be nearly as flip if Nelson wasn’t handy.  On the other hand, he muttered to himself, Jamie’s getting more and more used to dealing with a ticked off captain!  But he acknowledged, too, that Chip’s chatter over the all-boat intercom continued to be controlled, almost nonchalant, so he figured that there wasn’t anything major that needed his immediate attention.  Besides he, too, understood what Nelson’s continued presence meant – Lee was totally outvoted!


And, he admitted but only to himself, that an hour’s rest might not be a bad thing.  Just the effort of standing caused an increase in his headache and his vision went momentarily fuzzy.  He hesitated and Nelson, still firmly grasping his upper arm, didn’t try to hurry him.


“Gonna hafta have a little talk with King Neptune about his timing,” Lee muttered.  “Was just reaching for the bell’s hatch so I didn’t have anything to hang on to.”  He looked at Nelson somewhat sheepishly.  “Spend all my time reminding everyone else to be careful.  Be awhile living this one down.”  Nelson chuckled.  There was a soft snicker from John, and a snort from Will.


“Apparently his hard head once again saved him,” Will told Nelson as two crewmen lifted Lawrence and supported his weight so that he didn’t have to put any pressure on the injured ankle.  They headed for the hatch followed by a once more muttering Lee, although he kept it low enough that no actual words were heard.  Nelson had let go of Lee’s arm but he and Will followed closely behind, sharing a broad grin.


By the time everyone reached Sick Bay most of Lee’s fuzziness had left.  He knew that he’d still have to endure Jamie’s ministrations for at least a little bit.  But he was actually somewhat surprised when all that amounted to was a quick examination of the lump on the back of his head as John was sent off to get the x-ray machine ready.  Will also double-checked pupil responses, which John had done in the Missile Room, handed Lee a couple of pills, and told him to go put himself to bed for what was left of the night.  When Lee didn’t move, not quite believing Will would let him out of his sight that quickly, Will crossed his arms over his chest and sent him a stern look.  “Or would you rather just curl up here in a bunk?”


Lee quickly slipped off the exam table, happily noticing that there was no momentary fuzziness this time.  “I’m gone,” he told his CMO.


“Your cabin.  Period,” and Will shook a finger at him.


Before Lee could do more than open his mouth, Nelson answered.  “I’ll see to it,” he told both men.  Lee was going to negotiate for a quick trip through the Conn, took a good look at the expression on the Admiral’s face, and surrendered.  “I’ll make sure that Chip gives you a report before I throw his tail in bed as well,” Nelson told Lee softly.  Lee nodded and the pair headed for Officers’ Country.


Lee had barely changed out of his khaki’s and into pajama bottoms when Chip gave a quick knock, and entered at Lee’s call.  He started to open his mouth before taking a good look at Lee’s torso.  The bruising from the other day was turning some rather interesting shades of purple and green.  “Report,” Lee ordered firmly, and Chip finally grinned.


“Where’s the next set of bruises going to be?” he asked instead.  “Besides the back of your head.”


“My butt,” Lee told him with a glare.  “The same place you’re going to have them if you don’t give me my report!”  But they both burst out laughing.  Chip settled a hip on the edge of Lee’s desk as Lee sat down on the edge of his bunk.


“All’s well,” Chip told him.  “Obviously all the extra precautions we’ve been taking are keeping crew careful, and watching closely to make sure that everything is stowed and secured even better than usual.  Riley’s ecstatic – he got a bit of a roller-coaster ride.”  Chip shook his head.  “He did complain that it wasn’t long enough.”  Both he and Lee grinned.  “Seaview is handling the pressure and the turbulence just fine.”


“I’m going to suggest to the Admiral,” Lee told his XO, “that, depending on how the rest of this cruise goes, we still take extra time at home to give all of her plates and rivets an extra double-check.”


“Good plan,” Chip agreed.


Lee closed his eyes ever so briefly against the pain of the headache.  When he opened them Chip was watching him intently.  “Pounding nicely,” he informed his XO.


Chip sent him a quick grin, but stood.  “See you in the morning?”


“It is morning,” Lee muttered.  But he grinned and nodded – carefully – and Chip left.  Lee smiled softly to himself.  He was still a bit miffed that he’d not been allowed to check his boat but was forced to admit that there hadn’t been much reason to.  Chip’s voice over the intercom, from immediately following the incident, had been calm and controlled.  Lee was well aware that Chip always tried to control himself, no matter what histrionics were going on around him.  But Lee was also very good at catching the small nuances that could appear, small inflections that crept in under certain circumstances, and Lee had detected none of them.  He eased himself down on the bunk, decided that sleeping on his back might not be the wisest right at the moment, and curled up on his left side facing the bulkhead, that being the least damaged side.  He let a wry grin form at himself and his myriad of bruises.  It was definitely being one of those cruises.  He fell asleep with the smile still in place.


* * * *


Chip didn’t hear anything from the cabin next door – Lee’s cabin – as he was getting dressed the next morning.  Well, as Lee had pointed out, the same morning only a few hours later.  He hoped that Lee was sleeping in a bit – yesterday had been long and stressful, and ended with what he figured was a killer headache since Lee had actually admitted to it existing – something he usually pretty much ignored.  But Chip wasn’t holding his breath.  Lee could just as easily have gotten up earlier than usual and already be prowling the boat.  Chip hadn’t heard Lee’s shower but admitted to being in the middle of a rather…interesting…dream shortly before he woke up and might not have noticed.  He contemplated just walking quietly past Lee’s cabin door.  But he couldn’t stand not knowing for sure, tapped lightly and, when he didn’t get a response, poked his head inside.  Lee’s long form was still sprawled on the bunk.  Chip’s protective nature needed to make sure that he was okay even though his friendship would have preferred to let Lee sleep.  But he hadn’t even taken one step before a soft clearing of someone’s throat in the corridor had him turning toward the sound and he found Jamie sending him a glare.


“I hope that you weren’t thinking of waking him up,” the CMO told him firmly but softly.


“He’ll yell if I don’t,” Chip whispered back.


“I’ll yell louder if you do,” Jamie smarted right back, causing Chip to grin and pull the door closed.  “I checked on him a couple times during the night,” the doctor admitted as Chip walked back to where he was standing.  “He’ll no doubt wake up soon enough without your help, and spend the day prowling his boat.”  That came out with a bit of a grumble and Chip’s grin spread slightly.  “Let him get as much rest as he can before we turn around and do it all over again tomorrow.”


“Hopefully with a less painful ending to the dive,” Chip told him.


“Know of any good offerings we can make to Neptune?”


Chip shrugged.  “I’ve heard a virgin works, but we don’t have any of those handy.”  Will threatened to backhand him and Chip, grinning, headed for the Conn.  Will grinned also.  He’d come to check on Lee but with Chip’s look-see he turned around and headed for Sick Bay.  His only patient at the moment, Seaman Lawrence, was also still asleep.  “Well, only incarcerated patient,” Will amended to himself softly as he flipped through the chart John handed him.  The crewman’s ankle had turned out to have a small fracture after all, and Will had put on a light cast and made him stay here for the night.  Once Lawrence woke up Will would evaluate the pain level and decide at that point if he wanted the man to stay another day here or he could be returned to his own bunk.  It really wasn’t a bad break, more crack than anything.  But having Dr. Patrick fall on top of him had given him a set of bruises much in line with the ones Lee had received from breaking Admiral Nelson’s fall.  It was a given that Lawrence wouldn’t be making any more bell dives.  He’d advise Nelson and Chip of that over breakfast.  Lee, too, if he showed up.  Will was hoping he wouldn’t, but wasn’t holding his breath.


It was just as well because he’d barely sat down to breakfast when both Nelson and Chip walked in, and they’d barely settled into their customary seats when Lee came in.  He grinned when Chip turned to Nelson and mentioned casually, “At least he showed up here.  I was prepared to have to drag his tail out of whatever part of the boat he was inspecting.”  Nelson and Will both chuckled.


Lee’s expression went from instant glare, through frown, to slightly sheepish.  “Lt. Keeter told me that all was well and I’d better catch up with you before the Admiral came looking for me.”  As the others’ laughter died down he added, “Definitely gonna have to have a few words with him about proper protocol.”


“Two of those words better by Thank You,” Nelson told him sternly.


Lee sent his boss a sheepish glance.  “Yes, sir,” he agreed as Chip and Will chuckled again softly.


Chip figured that he’d get away with the question uppermost in everyone’s mind a little better than Jamie might, so as Lee sat down next to him he asked, “How’s your head?”


Lee had expected the question but not from that direction, so his already chosen response of “Pounding nicely, thank you,” got toned down from the version he’d been prepared to send Jamie’s way.  He did raise his hand as the CMO started to open his mouth.  “Already took something for it, Jamie.”  Will decided to quit while he was ahead – sort of – and concentrated on his own plate as the other three discussed the previous day’s adventures.


“We’ll need someone else to take Lawrence’s place,” Lee at one point brought up the obvious.


“Chief Sharkey usually goes on the dives,” Chip spoke up the other obvious.


Lee shook his head.  “I’d prefer him here.”


Nelson buried a quick grin.  A thought had just gone flashing through his brain and he was curious as to what kind of reaction it would get.  “Chip, you know that bell inside and out.  Pardon the pun,” he added as Will choked on a bite of food.  “You’ve been responsible for overseeing most of the upgrades.  This would be a great time for some practical experience.”


“I’m needed in the Conn,” Chip said matter-of-factly.


“What? I can’t run my own boat, now?” Lee growled.  “We’re just station-keeping during the bell dives.”


Chip promptly came back with, “You can’t seem to keep your six from bouncing of the deck.”


“If you could keep the boat steady…”


“Gentlemen,” Nelson said firmly as Will all but choked trying to keep himself from bursting out laughing.


The two combatants sent each other a sneer before turning innocent looks on their boss.  “Yes, sir?” came out in unison.  At that Will totally lost it and had to cover his mouth with his napkin, he was laughing so hard.


Even Nelson was having a hard time not cracking up.  “Eat your breakfast,” he finally sputtered out.  Lee and Chip gave each other a quick grin but did as ordered.


Once Will got himself back under control he turned to Nelson.  “You sure you want either one of them in the bell?”


Nelson harrumphed.  “They’re safer separated, from what I can tell,” he grumbled back.  Chip and Lee wisely kept silent.


The day turned into a quiet one.  Lee did catch Chip giving Lt. James some rather over-dramatically-expressed instructions on running the Conn while he was gone on the next bell dive.  Lee figured that the tone Chip was using had more to do with the fact that he knew Lee could hear him than actual worry that the younger man would have problems with the duty.  He sent Chip a glare that had the blond grinning and the lieutenant ducking his head behind some paperwork.


The headache continued to bug Lee all morning.  When he sat down with the others at lunch Will reached over and set a small paper cup in front of Lee’s plate with two pills in it.  Lee sent the CMO a glare but as usual it had absolutely no effect.  Lee wasn’t sure why he still bothered, and then admitted that it would be expected.  If he didn’t play ‘the game’ correctly he really would worry the oft-put-upon doctor.  He grumbled but in the end downed the pills.  Will sent him a nod but the meds themselves were never mentioned.


Nelson didn’t join them for the meal, and Cookie frowned but sent two plates to the lab.  Lee reminded him that there had been a good many samples collected the previous day.  He was actually a little surprised when the Admiral made it to the Wardroom for breakfast instead of going straight to the lab as apparently Dr. Patrick had done.  There was a mutter from the chef as he returned to the Galley that sounded like “still needs to take the time to eat a decent meal,” and all three officers shared grins.


Whatever the pills were, they finally made inroads on Lee’s aching head and he wandered around the boat most of the afternoon.  He didn’t bother Nelson who, according to Chief Sharkey, was holed up in the lab from where occasional shouts of excitement could be heard.  When Nelson didn’t appear for dinner Lee headed that direction once his own meal was finished.  Again Jamie placed pills in front of his plate, and the frown this time was accompanied by a few choice mumbles that had Chip grinning broadly and the doctor ignoring them both.  But again Lee took them.  Whatever they were, they were working better than anything else Lee had ever taken.


Will apparently decided to finally take pity on Lee.  “They’re what I took after my booboo at the beginning of the cruise,” he admitted, “so I have first-hand experience that they work.”  The three shared quick grins but went on to other topics for the rest of the meal.


There was no answer to Lee’s light tap on the lab door after dinner but he opened it anyway and stepped inside.  Half-eaten dinner plates were on one side counter.  Considering how both Nelson and Patrick were glued to their respective microscopes Lee figured that it was a small miracle that they’d been touched at all.


Neither man had seemed to notice Lee’s entrance and he was about to leave as quietly as he’d come in when suddenly Patrick almost yelled, “Another one,” and Nelson immediately left his own microscope to stand next to Patrick’s.  He finally noticed Lee as Patrick seemed reluctant to give Nelson a look.


“I gather that the collections from yesterday were productive?” Lee asked him with a half smile.  He recognized the look on Nelson’s face: an intensity that he didn’t see often but meant that the Admiral was extremely excited.


“Four so far that neither Patrick nor I have seen.  This is exactly what we were both hoping for.”


“And this is the fifth,” Patrick announced, and finally allowed Nelson a look.


“I do believe that you’re right, Doctor,” Nelson concurred after studying the specimen for nearly a full minute.  “It’s very similar to number two but there are distinct differences.”  Patrick went back to studying the specimen, and Nelson looked at Lee and grinned.  “We’ll have to study them further, of course, but if they do turn out to be new subspecies we’ll be able to name them.”  His smile turned positively mischievous.  “Would you like one named after you?”  Patrick sent Nelson a brief glare before returning his attention to the microscope.  Neither Nelson nor Lee paid him any mind.


Lee shook his head.  “Thank you, Admiral, for the honor.  But I’d just as soon not have a bug named after me if it’s all the same.”  That earned Lee a glare from Patrick, but both Lee and Nelson chuckled softly.


“How are the sensors?” Nelson continued to Lee, getting back to more serious business.


“Burping nicely, actually,” Lee told him.  “At the moment I see no reason not to do the next scheduled dive tomorrow.  But after the long day yesterday I’d suggest either a shallower one, or waiting another day.”  That popped Patrick’s head up from the microscope again and he opened his mouth.  But he clamped it shut again before anything came out.


Nelson pondered Lee’s suggestion for a bit.  “As long as we have good sensor readings I’d like to go ahead with tomorrow’s dive.”  He glanced at Patrick who was still watching him intently.  “Dr. Patrick and I will be sure to crash early so we get a full night’s sleep.”


Lee grinned.  “I’ll send Chief Sharkey down to roust you out of here by 2200 hours, sir.”  Patrick’s stare switched once more to Lee, but Nelson chuckled.


“Probably a good idea,” he admitted.  “Slightly north of yesterday’s dive, and we’ll play depth by ear depending on how stable the sensors remain.”


Lee nodded.  “Works for me.  I’ll go plot a location.”  With a nod from Nelson he headed for the Conn


He ran into Chief Sharkey on his way to the Conn and gave him the order to shoo the Admiral out of the lab no later than 2230 hours – he allowed the extra 30 minutes because of too many previous encounters with his workaholic boss.  Sharkey wasn’t overly thrilled with the prospects of another deep dive so soon but he’d also worked around Nelson long enough to know that it was, for the most part, hopeless to argue with him.  Despite a quick grumble that Lee totally agreed with, they both took a deep breath and headed in different directions.


Lt. O’Brien had the Conn by the time Lee made it that far and he went over the next day’s tentative schedule.  O’Brien offered to spend extra time in the Conn during the day since Chip would be aboard the bell.  But Lee actually preferred he spend any extra time in the Missile Room giving Sharkey a break.  Lee did thank Bobby, but he’d already decided to draft Lt. Bryson for a little hands-on training in the Conn.  He served as Lt. Keeter’s second occasionally on “D” watch but this would be a good chance for some extra experience.  Lee did grin to himself as he looked at the charts Nelson had marked.  It was very gratifying to him that O’Brien would jump in so quickly to volunteer.  Not unexpected – Lee was very proud of his crew for how well everyone pitched in when duties called for it.  But it still gave him a good feeling.


Nelson got a moment of revenge on Lee when, walking through the Conn on the way to his cabin later, he was able to give Lee a bad time about still being on duty and sent him toward his own cabin.  Lee took the chide easily – he’d actually been expecting Chip to appear at any moment to do the same thing.


* * * *


Lee was up a bit earlier than usual Wednesday morning, but Chip was up even earlier and already pouring over the duty logs when Lee came down the spiral stairs into the Conn.  Chip was still muttering somewhat about being stuck in the bell all day with Nelson and Patrick, and vowed that he was going to have to train more crewmen on the inner workings of the bell.  Actually there were several others who were semi-versed in the craft.  But they used it so seldom anymore, once FS1 came into being, that Lee and Chip had to admit that they’d both been somewhat lax in extra training for the bell.


“That’ll learn me,” Chip muttered.  Lee nudged Chip with his shoulder and grinned, and they both headed for the Wardroom.


Nelson and Patrick were already there.  Lee got in a jab at Chip when he reminded Cookie that the XO would be on the bell dive today and to make sure that he packed enough food.  Chip glared daggers at him but Nelson and Jamie, who had followed the younger men in, both chuckled.


But Nelson got back to business when he asked Lee about the sensors.  “Still burping with a fair bit of regularity,” Lee told him as he sat down.  “For the last 18 hours or so there hasn’t been a gap of more than about 90 minutes.  If it stays that steady I don’t see a reason not to do another deep dive.”  He sent a quick glance Patrick’s way before continuing on to Nelson.  “But if we do, I’d really like to see a two-day gap before any further dives.”  He hurried on before Patrick could interrupt.  “It’s a lot to ask to keep the crew under the 18-hours of stress so close together when we could just as easily stretch it out and give everyone a good rest.”


Nelson had started nodding about halfway through Lee’s suggestion.  “I was actually thinking that very thing.  We’re not nearly through with a preliminary look at the collections from Monday.  If we manage another deep dive today we’ll have more than enough to keep us occupied for at least two days.”


Chip asked about the collection containers; if they hadn’t gotten to them from the previous dive, did Nelson have enough for this dive.  With a grin Nelson assured him that he and Patrick had spent part of yesterday labeling and storing all the collections, and Sharkey had assigned crewmen to thoroughly clean and sterilize the units in preparation for their next use.  Lee pointed an eyebrow at Chip and asked how come Chip didn’t already know that; that a good XO should have been on top of such goings on.  Chip held his tongue while both Nelson and Will grinned, but from the look Chip sent him Lee knew that it was probably a good thing that Chip was going to be off-boat all day, and he’d better watch his back once the dive was over.


Happily for everyone it was another day of fairly peaceful turbulence.  There were a couple of waves that rocked Seaview gently.  Lt. Bryson, helping out in the Conn, sent Lee an uncertain look when it happened the first time.  But while Lee stayed attentive, Lt. James dealt with the disturbances calmly, getting Seaview back in trim nearly as fast as Chip would have.  Lee had to admit – and knew that Chris was perfectly aware of it as well – that the Conn crew needed very little instruction to get everything sorted out.  But Lee was using the experience as a training session for Bryson, much newer to the boat than Chris but rapidly fitting in very nicely.  Lee knew that he was paying close attention to everything that was going on around him while he monitored the sensors and gave James updates on that as well as other instrumentation and reports.  It’s what James usually handled as Chip’s second.  With the sensors burping fairly regularly the bell was making another deep dive. 


It wasn’t until halfway through the afternoon that Lee actually noticed that he wasn’t as nervous as he’d been the previous dive.  The revelation startled him somewhat, and puzzled him until he traced the reason.  He was focusing on the two junior officers, close enough to handle any glitches that came up and walking them through an unusual happening or two, instead of just assuming that Chip had everything well in hand and letting his own over-imaginative brain think the worst case scenario was about to happen and being on edge because of it.


He also realized that, now that the dives were actually taking place, the fact that everything was so far going so well was allowing him to relax slightly as well.  Not totally because he was only too aware of the chaos that could occur at any given moment.  But he could at least take a deep breath now and then instead of being so strung tight the first couple of times that he could barely breathe at all!  A grin broke through at one point as he contemplated telling Chip how relaxed he was now that the blond was off-boat.  Ah, maybe I’ll keep that one to myself, he finally decided, and then startled as Doc’s familiar mutter came from behind him.


“What are you plotting, Commander?” Will all but growled, coming down the spiral stairs and catching the momentary grin on Lee’s face.


Still feeling somewhat whimsical about his previous thoughts, he shared.  “Just noticing how much more relaxed I am with Chip gone,” he quipped.  At Will’s instantly raising both eyebrows as far as they would go, he explained the rest of his conclusions – including not telling Chip.


Will chuckled.  “All things considered, probably a good plan.”  He glanced around the calm Conn.  “I gather everything is going well?”  Lee nodded.  “I just came from the Missile Room.  Everything under control there as well.”


“Long way to go,” Lee admitted.  “I don’t really know how many bell dives the Admiral will order.  But we might just get through this without having to use the hyperbaric chamber yet.”  Lee sent him a quick smile.


“Quiet, Commander,” Will immediately ordered sternly.  Do not temp the ocean gods, thank you.”  He glared at Lee.


“Yes, sir.”  He used the old joke only half-jokingly, and they both shared a quick nod.  Will went to sit in the corner of the Nose, ostensibly to read although Lee suspected otherwise.  But he went back to focusing on his crew and the remainder of the afternoon passed quietly.  Doc even stayed forward and ate dinner with Lee.  Lee thought that might have been the original reason for the visit – without either the Admiral or Chip aboard there wasn’t anyone who would make Lee eat a decent meal.  But Lee was actually hungry, ate enough that even Will was happy, and then took the Conn officially while both Lt.’s James and Bryson quickly ate.  Lee did thank Cookie for the extra work it was taking to bring food up during the dives.  The occasionally temperamental chef shrugged it off.


“Wouldn’t want to do it all the time,” Cookie got in the last word.  Lee merely nodded, and waited to grin broadly until the chef’s back was turned.


Lee was once more in the Missile Room when the bell was brought aboard.  The dive channel was open and everyone in the room clearly heard Chip’s, “Doctor, sit!” as the bell was lifted through the bottom hatch.  There were buried snickers and broad smiles all around, and Lee and Sharkey shared a nod.  Lee had a private thought that he should have hit Nelson’s bottle for a finger or two, to offer Chip after the day he’d spent with the two scientists.  Screwed that one up, he muttered as crewmen scrambled to get the bell secured and the hatch open.


Lee’s first glance inside the hatch showed Nelson struggling to contain a grin, Chip scowling but trying to control it, and Patrick ignoring them both as he unfastened his harness and reached to start gathering up collection containers. Lee motioned to a couple of crewmen and they started picking up containers as well, and followed Patrick as he headed for the lab.  Nelson and Chip had their own harnesses undone but had sat quietly until the scientist scurried out.


“Interesting day?” Lee asked his XO innocently.  Chip sent him a glare that had been known to send crewmen scurrying for their lives.


“Chip,” Nelson sidetracked the blond, “thank you.  I’d almost forgotten how clever you are with the bell’s controls; absolutely catty making adjustments.  You handle it as well as Lee handles FS1.”  They all knew what a compliment that was.


“Thank you, sir,” Chip got out without looking too embarrassed.


Lee had quickly counted collection units as they went past.  “Another full load of samples, I see,” he said as Nelson stepped out of the bell.


“Yes, but another long day.”  He sighed as Chip climbed out.  “I think we’ll all look forward to two days off before another dive.”


“For us, maybe,” Lee included Chip in the comment as he teased Nelson.  “You’ll be buried in the lab.”


“And having a great time doing it,” Nelson teased back.


“Ah, a little coming up for air from time to time would be advisable.”


Nelson grinned.  “Cookie?”  Lee nodded.  “I shall take that advice under consideration.”  All three grinned.  Lee gave a final glance around the Missile Room but Sharkey had everything in order.  He and Chip checked the Conn but O’Brien already had Seaview headed for a good deal closer to the surface than she’s been, and the pair headed for their cabins.


Lee did raise an eyebrow as they made their way to Officers’ Country.  Chip just shrugged.  “He’s a scientist,” he muttered, as if that explained Lee’s unasked question concerning Patrick.  “But it did actually go fairly well.”  He grinned unexpectedly.  “The bell is small enough, strapped in he was always within the Admiral’s smacking distance.” 


Lee stopped walking.  “He didn’t actually…”


Chip shook his head.  “No.  But you know that look he gets once in awhile.”


Lee nodded.  “Unfortunately.”  He sent Chip a slightly sheepish look.


It was Chip’s turn to nod.  “Yeah,” he agreed.  They both chuckled and headed for their respective cabins.


* * * *


The next two days were a mixture of mostly calm highlighted by the occasional instant chaos.  The sensors were working beautifully.  As long as they continued to register the periodic burp, all stayed fairly calm.  If they were quiet for longer than a few hours, everyone paid special attention as they moved about the boat performing their duties, and made sure as little as possible wasn’t firmly secured – including themselves.  Riley, as well as several of the other younger crewmembers, would start to get excited, waiting for the turbulence that would follow an extended period of quiet sensors.  The more seasoned sailors would just shake their heads.  But everyone was getting somewhat used to the routine and there was a sense that even the boat herself was relaxing and ‘rolling with the flow,’ as it were.


Lee had to grin each time Nelson showed up in the Wardroom at mealtimes, most often accompanied by Patrick.  Nelson would see the grin and momentarily frown, but Lee could easily see the sparkle in his eyes.  They’d both glance at Cookie, hovering around until all of his chosen charges were rounded up and in their spots.  Chip made an offhand remark about sheepdogs and their flocks, but it was said quietly enough that the chef was left in the dark about why the four officers had suddenly burst out laughing.


Lee occasionally poked his nose into the lab as he wandered around the boat during the day.  Patrick ignored his comings and goings, which was just fine with Lee, but Nelson would at least offer a comment or two on what, if anything, they were finding in the samples.  Friday afternoon Lee made a point of asking where they’d like to do Saturday’s dive and how deep they were planning to go, tremors permitting.


“Dale and I were just discussing that,” Nelson told him.  Such close contact had finally allowed the two men to progress to a first name basis from the formalities they’d maintained the early part of the cruise.  “From what we’re finding so far we’d like to continue to do maximum dives as much as possible.  If we have to cut one or more short, so be it.  But I can’t even begin to tell you all the ‘finds’ we’re making.  It’s extremely exciting.”


“Absolutely,” Patrick agreed, one of the few times he actually acknowledged Lee’s presence.


Lee nodded.  “And continue slowly headed north?”


“Seems to be working fine,” Nelson told him, and Patrick agreed.  “It’s actually easier,” Nelson continued, “to keep the graphs and charts of the samples in order rather than maybe jumping back and forth.  Oh,” he added, “New Zealand is ecstatic over the sensor information we’re relaying.  That was an excellent idea you had.”


Lee grinned shyly before he and Nelson both had to bury grins at Patrick’s soft harrumph as he went back to studying his microscope.  “Just seemed logical,” Lee told Nelson.


“And I’m kicking myself for your having beaten me to it,” Nelson faux-grumbled.  Almost instantly he beamed at Lee.  “We’ll make a marine biologist out of you yet.”


Lee sent his boss a half-glare.  “Fat chance,” he grumbled a little himself.  But they both shared a grin before Lee returned to the Conn to plot the next day’s dive.


Chip wasn’t overjoyed with the news that all future dives would be, unless circumstances interrupted, deep dives.  It was a given now, with Seaman Lawrence’s injury, that Chip would be the third member on the rest of the dives – however many more that entailed.  Lee teased him about how much experience that would give Lt. Bryson in the Conn even if Seaview was basically station keeping.  Chip sent him a glare, but they both had to grin at how well Chris James was doing.  The Conn crews were getting more comfortable around him as he spent more time actually in command instead of just Chip’s second.  And he was getting more comfortable being in command.  It wasn’t an easy transition for some junior officers, switching from just responsible for their own department to having to oversee the entire boat.  Chip could easily look back on his first days, after being handpicked to XO Nelson’s pride and joy, to how unfit he felt for the duty.


Lee nodded at that.  He remembered the letters Chip would send him, and the occasional phone calls Lee would make when he was able to manage them around his own frenetic schedule.  Chip had been extremely nervous.  Lee had tried to encourage him, reminding him that most of the job revolved around keeping things organized.  He’d teased Chip that he was born to organize – everyone and everything!  Chip had grumbled.  Loudly!  But he’d also been extremely complimentary to Seaview’s first captain.  John Phillips had understood Chip’s hesitation and had guided him and instructed him in everything he needed to know to be a first-rate XO.  Chip’s people-skills had always been first rate.  The gregarious blond had a little more difficulty learning the discipline portion of his new job.  Lee had burst out laughing when Chip had mentioned that, reminding Chip of how easily he bossed around his siblings, into which category Lee had almost immediately been included when they first met at Annapolis.  Chip had muttered a few words that Lee figured Chip’s Mom didn’t know he knew, but they’d both eventually chuckled.  Over the years Chip had perfected the talent to the point that now he rarely had to say a word around his crew – one look and he’d have them totally under his control.


Both men recognized Lt. James’ style as being more in line with Lee’s laid-back demeanor than Chip’s more disciplinarian one, but they were both extremely comfortable having him in charge of the Conn – no matter how much Chip muttered about it.  Now Lee and Chip went over the chart, marking possible dive locations semi-equidistant from each other, from where they were toward the northern end of the trench.  They ended up with five suggestions.  Chip had opted for three, hoping that it might help limit Nelson’s enthusiasm.  Lee, knowing exactly what Chip was plotting, suggested a minimum of eight before they both grimaced thinking about a few of Nelson’s previous projects, and finally settled on the compromise.  Lee would run it past Nelson later but for the moment he headed out on a walk-through of the boat.


He was expecting everything to be pretty much routine everywhere, what with the time off and the relatively calm conditions outside the boat.  He was, therefore, somewhat at a loss to explain the high level of activity he found going on in the Missile Rom.  Chief Sharkey had a detail of eight men running the cables used for the diving bell between the main spool and an auxiliary one that they rarely used.  They were going slowly, and most eyes were glued to the cables as they ran between the spools.  “Chief?” Lee pointed an eyebrow at the COB.


“Just inspecting the cables sir,” Sharkey informed him, barely taking his eyes off the equipment.


Lee nodded.  “Which you’ve been doing between each dive,” he acknowledged.  “And, which has already been done during this interim.”


Sharkey sent him a slightly disgruntled look.  “Yes, sir.  But that was before we had a slight…ah …miscalculation… with an equipment box.”  Lee noticed downward glances on several men’s faces.  But Sharkey didn’t make any accusations and Lee wasn’t about to ask.  He knew that the COB would deal with the matter in his own way.  “On first inspection there didn’t seem to be any damage to the cables,” Sharkey continued.  “Just running another check to make sure.”


Lee sent him another nod, and buried the grin that was threatening to appear.  Sharkey’s disciplinary actions were never malicious or unfounded.  But they could be devious – Lee suspected that Sharkey had been taking lessons from Chip on the sly.  Not wishing to get caught up in whatever punishment Sharkey was preparing, he slipped quietly back out the hatch.


The rest of the boat, as expected, was quiet, and Lee eventually headed for the Wardroom for dinner, comfortable that everything was as under control as he could make it.  On his way he once again poked his nose into the Missile Room but all was quiet there as well, all the equipment once more carefully stowed.


He mentioned the incident to Chip as the two dished up their plates and Chip nodded.  “The report’s on the chart table,” the blond confirmed.  Lee noticed Chip carefully control his expression but didn’t comment at that point.  He knew that the COB would promptly file a report with the XO, as protocol dictated. 


“I didn’t ask him for a complete explanation,” Lee admitted.  “He had things in order and I knew I’d see the report by this evening.”


That time Chip couldn’t quite bury a snicker.  Lee put his plate down, crossed his arms over his chest, and glared at his XO.  “Report,” he ordered.


Chip made a show of glancing around to make sure that he wasn’t going to be overheard.  “Ah, the crewman with the slight miscalculation…”  Lee started to relax – he had a feeling he knew where this was headed.  “It was Sharkey,” Chip confirmed. 


Lee finally smiled.  “What happened?” he asked, once more picking up his plate.


Chip shrugged.  “Just one of those little goofs.  Sharkey had one of the big tool boxes in his hand, carrying it back to the cabinet to stow it, someone said something to him and he turned to answer.  He didn’t realize he was standing so close to the cable equipment and smacked it.  Not that hard, he said,” Chip assured Lee.  “But, just to be on the safe side…”  Both men nodded, finished dishing up their food, and sat down in their usual spots.


Lee’s previous thought came back and he sent Chip a bit of an evil grin.  “Wonder what extra duty he’ll assign himself,” he asked.


A pretty good rendition of Lee’s wicked expression hit Chip’s face but before he could comment there was a growl from the doorway.  “Whatever you two are plotting,” Doc told them firmly, walking in and catching the look on both younger men’s faces, “I don’t want to hear it!”


“Wasn’t us,” Lee told him all too innocently.


Will’s scowl was cut short by a voice behind him.  “What have they done now?”  Nelson grinned as he walked through the door.


“I’m afraid to ask,” Will grumbled.


“You always say that you hate surprises, Jamie,” Chip told him.


Lee took pity on the two older men.  “We were just wondering what punishment Chief Sharkey would set himself for a minor miscalculation in the Missile Room.”  It caused both Nelson and Will to smile softly.


Nelson looked at Chip.  “I assume that you’ll make sure it’s commensurate with what he’s dished out to others for similar circumstances.”


“Absolutely, sir,” Chip got out with a straight face before both he and Lee cracked huge smiles.


“Nothing serious, I gather,” Nelson addressed Lee.


“Could have been,” Lee told him, and explained.  “The last thing we need is damage to the cables.”


“Amen,” all four breathed softly.


“Any idea of how many more dives you think you’ll want to make?” Lee asked Nelson, trying to sound casual.  Chip’s foot nudged his ankle under the table.


“You mean,” Nelson pointed an eyebrow at his captain, “besides the five you’ve already plotted?”


Lee’s foot returned Chip’s tap and both of them sent their boss guilty looks.  “Guess you came by way of the Conn,” Lee told Nelson.


Nelson relaxed and chuckled.  “Actually, that looked about right,” he admitted.  “If we can get through tomorrow, and those five, without being interrupted by major turbulence, I’d say we could call this trip a total success.  And that’s not counting all the data Dale and I are collecting.”  He sent Lee a broad grin.


“How many new species of bugs are you up to?” Lee asked, giving Nelson an opening.


Nelson opened his mouth, caught the sparkle in Lee’s eyes, and didn’t totally take the bait.  “So far only sub-species,” he corrected Lee.  “And if our initial findings aren’t overruled by further study, seventeen.”  He got a sparkle in his own eyes as he added, “But there’s no telling what the rest of the dives will bring.”


“Yes, sir,” Lee told him.  There was resignation in his voice but the sparkle was still in his eyes.


The four men went on to other topics for the rest of the meal, although Nelson every so often sent Lee a bit of a grin.  He knew that Lee had been setting him up to deliver a long dissertation on the marine research he was doing in the trench.  It was a tactic that had started when they first met at Annapolis, although back then it had been less obvious.  Lee – or sometimes Chip – would ask an innocent question and try to get then Captain Nelson off on a different tangent from what he was supposed to be teaching.  Lee still did it occasionally.  Nelson knew that in most cases it was just Lee’s way of giving Nelson a release to expound on subjects he found totally fascinating, but was forced to keep to himself for the most part on the boat because he was surrounded by men who didn’t particularly care one way or the other; they were just there so that Nelson could do the research that so fascinated him and occupied most of his waking minutes.  It was another manifestation of Lee looking out for his crew.  While Nelson might privately mutter at being relegated to that category, he knew that that’s not how Lee actually saw it.  Nelson was just one more person in Lee’s sphere of influence that he felt it his responsibility to look after.


Now, listening to the two younger men continue to ponder what Chief Sharkey would consider fitting extra duty for his minor miscalculation, Nelson decided that he’d find a chance over the next couple of days to move the slug – a little reminder that as Lee watched over his crew, so was he cared about and watched over by his friends.


* * * *


Lee was a happy man.  Well, as happy as he could be with his submarine sitting barely above crush depth and the bell dangling nearly 20,000 feet below it inside the Kermadec Trench.  But despite all of his misgivings over this cruise, so far everything was going pretty well.  There had been a few dicey moments during Saturday’s dive.  The sensors along the trench had gone quiet for long enough, soon after they’d launched the bell, that Lee had advised limiting the depth.  He could hear Dr. Patrick in the background as he and Nelson discussed it try to get the Admiral to blow him off.  Thankfully Patrick was outvoted, with both Nelson and Chip agreeing to stop where they were at that point, 16,000 feet.  They took as many samples as they could from there and returned to the boat.  It was just as well – they weren’t quite back yet when both boat and bell were rocked by a hard underwater wave.  There were no damages to either vessel but Lee could read the relief on even Patrick’s face when the bell was safely back aboard and the hatch was cracked.  Nor was either he or Nelson displeased when it turned out that the extra samples, taken mostly in that one area, turned out to be some of the richest that they’d gotten so far.  Lee teased the Admiral over dinner the following day that perhaps the rest of the dives should go no deeper than that one.  He caught Chip giving him a look that said all too plainly he was all for the idea.  Nelson, however, had frowned, and Lee instantly shrugged it off as a joke.  They’d all smiled, even Nelson, but Lee could still see the glint of ‘scientist on the prowl’ in Nelson’s eyes and the subject was dropped.


Lee did have to laugh as he finished his evening walk-through of the boat that night and entered his cabin.  In the center of his desk was the banana slug, sitting on top of a glass holding just over a finger of amber fluid.  Normally Lee would not have allowed himself even a taste of alcohol during a cruise – especially one with as much potential for disaster as this one posed.  But it was barely more than a swallow, and Lee recognized Nelson’s efforts to thank Lee for being as patient as he’d been, allowing Nelson as much latitude as he had despite his misgivings and concern.


The following Tuesday’s and Friday’s dives went off without a hitch.  While they’d been hit with the occasional heavy wave on off days, Seaview was much higher in the water and the crew was getting used to handling the ‘action’.  The two days off between dives was also going a long way toward letting everyone get as much rest as possible between the 18-hour stretches of deep dives. 


Today’s dive, Monday, was also staying calm and the bell was on its ascent, about halfway back to the boat.  Lee was in the Conn, half-listening to the dive channel as Nelson was telling Sharkey that he was thinking about making some minor changes to one of the collection container designs.  With all the practice he’d been getting of late, he thought that a slight alteration to how it fit on the arm would make it easier to attach.  Since the arm on the bell was so similar to that on FS1, which Sharkey most often worked with, the two were casually discussing how the small change might affect future missions.  Lee grinned ever so slightly when Sharkey said something about having to take a refresher course once Nelson finished the new design since he was getting so little chance to practice this trip.  The grin died when there was no response from the bell to that crack.


“Sparks?” Lee instantly questioned the radioman. 


Lt. Sines, who no one ever called anything else but ‘Sparks’, was already flipping switches and he tried to call the bell himself, with no luck.  “All’s okay at this end, Skipper, as far as I can tell,” he almost apologized to Lee.


“Chief?” was Lee’s next demand, grabbing up a mic.


It took Sharkey an extra moment to respond.  “Green across the board here, Skipper.  I don’t know what happened.  All of a sudden they’re just not there.”


“The bell?”


“Still coming up smoothly, sir,” Sharkey assured him.


Lee was just about to head for the Missile Room when Nelson’s voice came over the speaker.  “Seaview, can you read me?”  Lee answered at the same time Sharkey did, but the Chief immediately gave way to Lee.


“Everything okay down there, Admiral?  We lost communication for a bit.”


“Seems okay now,” Nelson confirmed.  “Just suddenly you weren’t there.  The line went dead.  We could feel Seaview continuing to bring us back, but…”  He let the thought drop.


Lee nodded, realized that Nelson couldn’t see it, and half-smiled.  “Maybe Neptune’s just playing a little trick,” he joked as he saw how tense everyone in the Conn had gotten.  The grin grew slightly as he started to see shoulders relax around the room.


“Harrumph,” Nelson muttered back.


“We’ll go over everything extra carefully before the next dive,” Lee assured him.


There was ‘something’ over the dive channel, too low to be understood, but Nelson chuckled.  “Chip says he may yet have to come up with a sacrifice to appease the ocean gods.”  Lee just shook his head and as if Nelson could see him, the Admiral continued.  “Apparently it has something to do with a crack Doc made to him.”


“In that case, sir, I think I’ll stay out of it.”


There was a grin in Nelson’s voice when he agreed.  “Might be for the best.”


Happily all went well the rest of the dive.  Will took pity on Lee while they ate dinner together in the Nose and explained Chip’s comment, causing Lee a soft snort of laughter.  Lee was waiting in the Missile Room when the bell was brought safely back aboard about 2300 hours and he teased Chip about it as they watched the crew get everything settled for the night.  Sharkey was all set to assign a detail to finding out why the radio had blinked out momentarily but both Nelson and Lee immediately put a stop to it.  They reminded Sharkey that they had two full days to figure out the glitch and it would be a whole lot easier if everyone got a good night’s sleep.


* * * *


Lee’s first stop Tuesday morning, once Chip persuaded him to eat breakfast before getting sidetracked, was the Missile Room.  As expected, he found Chief Sharkey and a handpicked detail already working on a thorough check of the diving bell’s cables, with emphasis on the communications line.  Chip had told him over the meal that he’d okayed the COB adding Sparks to the detail, an addition that Lee also endorsed.  The Communications specialist knew the lines better than anyone else on board.  When Nelson had designed the system he’d opted for a solid line instead of transmitters, hoping to avoid the possibility of thermal layers in the water disrupting any conversations that could prove critical in the deeper depths he’d designed the bell to go.  If there were even a minute flaw, Sparks would be a major help in finding it.  Chip teased Lee that his money was still on Neptune’s warped sense of humor; that Seaview’s crew kept her equipment in tip-top shape.  Lee agreed with Chip’s assessment of the boat’s extremely competent and well-trained crew but he wasn’t quite ready to lay the blame on Neptune just yet.


He watched the activity for a bit as the crew meticulously ran the cables from the main winch to the spare spool, examining each inch as it slowly moved along.  Both Sparks and Sharkey had theories of their own as to what had caused the minor glitch.  The communications line was part of the bell’s main cable, but accessible for maintenance.  Sharkey thought that there was a small nick in the insulation layer, maybe from his minor oops with the toolbox that hadn’t shown up on the first inspection.  Sparks acknowledged that possibility but had his doubts.  If that were the cause the line should have stayed dead until it was patched, not come back on again so fast.  He was more of the opinion that somewhere along the line there had formed a tiny kink that had straightened out again as the cable was wound back onto the winch.  They knew the exact depth of the bell when the glitch happened and would examine the cable especially carefully in that area.  Lee nodded and left; they didn’t need him watching over their shoulders to do their jobs properly.


His next stop was the lab – Nelson hadn’t been in the Wardroom while he was there.  As expected, both the Admiral and Dr. Patrick had their heads glued to their microscopes.  Nelson looked up after several moments and sent him a quick smile.  “Any word on the bell?”


Lee shook his head.  “Not yet.  Sparks is helping out as well.  He and Chief Sharkey are trading theories, but so far nothing concrete.”


“They’ll find the problem if anyone can,” Nelson told him, and he and Lee both nodded.  “How are the sensors?” Nelson changed the subject.


“A bit quiet when I went through the Conn first thing this morning.  I was just headed back to check them.”  The words were barely out of his mouth when Seaview rocked awkwardly.  Lee grabbed the worktable with one hand and gathered in several slide-mounted samples with the other as both Nelson and Patrick did the same thing.  As the sub settled down, Nelson and Lee shared a look and a sigh.  “Back to work,” Lee told his boss philosophically.  Nelson sent him a sympathetic look and Lee headed for the Conn.


Chip looked Lee up and down as he walked up to the chart table and Lee pointed an eyebrow at him.  “Just checking for any smudges on the uniform being an indication of new bruises.”


Lee backhanded his XO lightly as Lt. James ducked his head behind a clipboard and tried unsuccessfully to choke off a snicker.  It caused both Lee and Chip to grin, and Chris returned it sheepishly.  “I was in the lab,” Lee told them both.  “Had a table handy to grab.  The boat?”  He’d listened to Chip getting damage reports over the intercom as he’d walked forward so he knew that there weren’t any major problems.  But he also appreciated Chip’s straightforward and slightly more detailed report now.  Then they went over the sensor readings.  While they had been slightly quiet it was still a little curious that there had been that strong of an underwater wave.


Lee decided that he’d give Dr. Corcoran back at NIMR a call to see if there might have been any changes in tidal surges noted since Lee had talked to him three weeks previously.  With Sparks in the Missile Room Haskins was on duty in the radio shack.  It didn’t take him long to connect Lee to NIMR’s expert in marine seismology and geophysics.  Corcoran told him that he’d had no reports to contradict what he’d already told Lee, but that he’d double-check and get back if he found anything.


Lee reported the call to Nelson over lunch.  Patrick momentarily stared at Lee before once more burying his head in his meal, and the Admiral sent Lee a quick grin as he commended Lee for checking that possibility, however out in left field it might have been.  But he, too, acknowledged that, if the sensors were suddenly not going to be as helpful as they had been, that meant being even more vigilant on the last two scheduled bell dives.


Sparks was back in the radio shack when Lee and Chip returned.  At both of their questioning looks, the radioman shrugged.  “Couldn’t find a thing to explain the problem, sirs,” he almost apologized.  “Everything looks fine.”


“Neptune, for sure,” Chip muttered, and headed for the chart table.  Lee and Sparks shared a quick grin before Lee joined his XO.


The rest of the day went fairly quietly.  Partway through the afternoon Chief Sharkey entered the Conn by way of the aft hatch and walked forward.  He laid the clipboard he was carrying on the table, gave both Lee and Chip a quick nod, and headed back out.  The two officers exchanged a look and Lee reached for the clipboard, barely beating his XO.  An almost giggle broke through before he could cut it off as he read, and he handed the clipboard to Chip.  The blond was a bit better at keeping a straight face but his blue eyes were twinkling as he finished reading.


“A little more overboard than I would have considered appropriate punishment for his minor oops,” Lee barely got out without more snickers.  The clipboard was an inventory tally of the foodstuffs Admiral Nelson kept aboard for his lab specimens.  The ingredients were smelly and messy, and no one enjoyed the necessary task, so Sharkey tended to reserve it for particularly grievous lapses in protocol – of which there were few given the close knit nature of Seaview’s crew.


“No doubt that he considered it more serious, probably because of yesterday’s minor glitch,” Chip told him.  While his voice was under control, his expression still showed extreme merriment.  Lee nodded and they both went back to what they’d been doing – Lee studying the sensor printouts and Chip puttering with crew assignments.


There were more smiles over dinner when Lee informed Nelson and Will of Sharkey’s self-imposed ‘punishment,’ before Nelson asked if the communications glitch had been resolved.


Lee shook his head while swallowing the bite of pork tenderloin he’d just taken.  “The cables seem to be in perfect order.”  He glanced at Chip with a quick grin.  “It’s looking more and more like somebody’s somehow ticked off Neptune.”


“Maybe I’ll throw him Rawn, just on general principles.” Chip muttered.


“What’s he done this time?” Lee asked cautiously.  The young hydrograph specialist was finally starting to settle in but his abrasive personality still came out at odd moments.


Chip shrugged.  “Nothing much,” he admitted.  “He’s just the least objectionable crewman to lose.”


Lee nudged his shoulder into Chip’s and they both grinned.  “He can be top of the list for extensive bell training when we get back.  Then you’ll have an excuse for tossing him off the boat from time to time,” Lee teased his long-time friend.


“Already bored with bell duty?” Nelson asked.  His smile belied any accusation but Chip still ducked his head and turned several shades of red.


“Just rather stay in the Conn,” he admitted, and the others chuckled.


“Two more dives,” Nelson told him.  But his own eyes twinkled merrily as he added, “unless Dale and I decide to do a few more.”  Lee choked on the swallow of coffee he’d just taken and Chip pounded his back – a little harder than seemed necessary.  But all four finally chuckled and went on to other topics.


Wednesday was another quiet day – sort of.  The sensors went quiet about midmorning and the whole boat got edgy, the longer the gap in activity.  When the expected tremor finally came, about 1930 hours that evening, it was everything they were expecting.  Seaview was tossed about like so much flotsam and jetsam and it took several minutes to get everything under control.  But as had happened before, the sensors went back to their periodic burps and Seaview’s crew quickly settled into normal evening routines.


Lee thought that he was up in plenty of time Thursday morning to get things going for the day but he’d no more than stepped into the shower when he felt Seaview start her slow descent to just above crush depth, where she’d remain during the bell dive.  He grinned softly.  Obviously Chip is up even earlier, he acknowledged, as he knew that Lt. Keeter wouldn’t start the maneuver before being given the okay from one of the senior officers.  As expected, Chip was in the Conn running through the overnight status reports when Lee came down the spiral stairs.  The sensors were continuing to burp fairly steadily and the pair headed for the Wardroom nattering at each other about who besides Rawn would be assigned the extra duty of learning the bell’s list of idiosyncrasies.  Chip had reconsidered overnight, deciding that Seaview’s newest crewman might not be temperamentally suited to such close confines.  Lee wanted at least one JO on the short list and thought that Lt. Bryson might be a good candidate.  Chip countered by questioning if Bryson had enough experience with visiting scientists.  By definition, the bell was pretty much only used on deep-water explorations.  Any crewman assigned that kind of duty needed to be confident enough to go toe-to-toe with whoever was doing that kind of research and experience told both Lee and Chip that, for whatever reason, visiting scientists tended to be pains in the tail!  But they were also, for the most part, paying customers, so whoever was assigned the duty needed to be assertive but tactful.  Both agreed that that might be a problem for Rawn.  Chip had his doubts about Bryson but was at least willing to offer the young lieutenant the extra training.


The pair was kicking around several crewmen’s names as they entered the Wardroom and found Nelson and Patrick dishing up Cookie’s breakfast offerings.  Will was already seated, having beaten everyone.  Lee sent him a quick grin along with a pointed eyebrow.  “Afraid Chip would stock up for his day aboard the bell and not leave you anything to eat, Doc?”  He immediately got a choked off snort from the CMO, a chuckle from Nelson, a backhand from Chip, and a “You know I’d never let that happen, Skipper,” from the chef, keeping watch from the Galley doorway.  Patrick just stared at him.


“Merely keeping up my energy level,” Will drawled.  “Don’t dare let my guard down for an instant around here.”


Lee started to open his mouth but, “You better quit while you’re only a little behind,” was muttered into his ear by Chip.  Lee sent him a frown but nodded, and the pair started dishing up their own meals.  Lee heard Nelson chuckle again but kept his focus on filling his plate.  Will and Nelson were both grinning when he and Chip sat down opposite them but Nelson’s first comment got everyone back to business.


“Sensors?” he asked Lee.


“Burping nicely,” Lee assured him.  “A bit longer than they have been between the normal small tremors.  But still fairly regularly.”


“Excellent.”  Nelson paused and sent Lee a look that had the younger man almost holding his breath.  He’d seen that look too often over the last few years not to instantly recognize it, and knew that Chip did as well when the forkful of food headed toward the blond’s mouth paused in mid-flight.  Nelson recognized that both men were waiting for whatever he was about to hit them with and sent them a half-grin.  “I was just thinking that we might go an extra one or two thousand feet into the trench, just to see what we might find.  If everything stays quiet,” he quickly added.


Lee let out the breath he was holding and took another deep one before saying anything.  Chip quickly stuffed the food into his mouth, Lee figured, to keep himself from uttering whatever he was thinking – from the barely covered frown Lee was pretty sure that it wouldn’t have been even close to proper protocol.  Lee kept himself firmly in control as he answered with a simple, “Yes, sir.  I’ll inform Chief Sharkey of the change in dive parameters.”


Nelson nodded, along with a quick grin.  “Only if everything stays controlled,” he added, trying to get Lee’s suddenly tense shoulders to relax.  It seemed to work as his captain took another deep breath but finally went back to eating.  Nelson then had to keep Dr. Patrick from getting so excited at the prospective change in plans that Lee and Chip didn’t go ballistic from his babbling.


Lee had to keep a small grin of his own from popping out as he finished eating, admitting to himself that he was actually surprised that this was the first time Nelson had suggested the slightly deeper bell dive.  He figured that there had been enough in the samples already taken to keep the Admiral’s scientific curiosity under control until now.  He did wonder about why Nelson had chosen this particular dive but decided that, with just two more dives scheduled, he wanted to see as much of the trench as he could since there was no way of knowing when, or even if, he’d get back here again.  Lee hoped that Nelson wouldn’t want to come back any time soon and had to quickly stifle a groan at the all too real possibility of that happening.  Now that the sensors were in place, and were proving to be fairly reliable, there was no telling what the Admiral was already plotting.  Hopefully, by doing a deeper dive than planned, that would scratch what Lee was deciding to be a definite itch in Nelson’s mind.  On the other hand it could just as easily whet his appetite for more, Lee admitted.  That groan Lee didn’t quite get buried and everyone stopped eating to look at him.


With a sheepish grin he waved them off.  “I’ll just be glad to get home,” he tried to sidetrack his friends.  He knew that they weren’t buying it from the looks he got in return.  Especially Nelson.  The Admiral sent him a nod and a look that said all too plainly he understood what Lee had been thinking, and it caused Lee to grin a bit more openly.  Once again he was reminded of just how little got past the Admiral.  The grin spread as a thought slipped in and out of his brain about where he’d find the slug the next time he walked into his cabin and decided that his first stop, once the bell was launched, would be Nelson’s cabin to dot the scotch bottle.  And this time I’ll draw a swallow for Chip as well, he plotted.  Nelson will probably think I drank it myself.  A kick from his right stopped his plotting.  “What?” he demanded from his XO.


“That grin was far too evil to be healthy – for the rest of us,” Chip muttered.  That drew snorts from both Nelson and Will but Lee chose not to reply, and conversation was general as everyone finished eating.


Chip headed for the Conn for a last minute check once he was done eating and Lee headed for the Missile Room to alert Chief Sharkey to the possible change in plans.  As expected, the COB wasn’t overjoyed either.  But, like everyone else aboard, he was used to the Admiral’s explorations taking the occasional twist and turn.  He did frown at Dr. Patrick’s expression when he and Nelson entered, but nodded as the Admiral sent him a small grin.  Lee was a bit concerned when Chip, following them in, had his ‘XO on Duty’ look plastered very firmly in place and his posture was a bit stiffer than it usually was.  Lee sent him an upraised eyebrow but Chip shrugged it off and followed Nelson and Patrick into the bell. 


Once the bell was launched and everything was under control in the Missile Room, Lee headed for the Conn to find out what had apparently put a burr up Chip’s six.  Unfortunately neither Lt. Keeter, who still had the Conn, or Lt. James, who was just about to take it over, was of any help.  Both indicated that Chip had been his normal self as he gave the day’s checklists a final look before heading to the Missile Room.  Lee waited until Lt. Bryson reported for duty and the rest of the shift had settled into place before heading to the Admiral’s cabin for his little errand.  After Chip’s apparently private little tantrum, whatever the reason, Lee was doubly determined to have a small splash of alcohol waiting for him on the bell’s return.


Lee made a quick stop in his own cabin to retrieve the hip flask that his former XO aboard the Sea Horse, Jim Roche, had given him.  It would make an ideally safe container in case Seaview was hit with any turbulence.  Lee smiled to himself as he poured a healthy swallow into the flask, and ended up not marking the bottle with an extra dot before replacing it in the bottom drawer of Nelson’s desk.  The amount he’d taken out was almost too small to notice.  If he did happen to, the Admiral knew Lee well enough to be sure that he hadn’t drunk it himself without permission.  If Lee were lucky, Nelson would accuse Doc of swiping it.  That thought putting a broad grin on his face he left the flask on Chip’s bunk, half-tucked under the pillow, and returned to the Conn.


The grin returned when Will wandered down the spiral stairs about 1100 hours.  Lee had spent the intervening time between the Conn and the Missile Room.  So far all was running smoothly.  Nelson was making fewer stops higher up in the trench in anticipation of going a bit deeper this time.  They had just reached 14,000 feet, the beginning of their main focus area, so stops were now more consistent.


Will spotted the broad smile as he glanced around the Conn before settling against the starboard bulkhead in the Nose.  While he was happy that Lee was that relaxed, he still gave a thought to what might have caused the expression, unusual when there was this kind of a mission in progress and especially with Chip, the normal instigator, off-boat.  But when Lee wandered forward during his casual stroll through the Conn he chose not to ask.  There were times when it was safer not to know what Lee and/or Chip were plotting.  In this case Lee didn’t say anything either, although he still had some of his private smile in place.  He gave Will a quick nod as he poured himself half a cup of coffee and returned to his casual prowl.


Concentrating on the dive, Lee wasn’t paying much attention to the time and was surprised when Cookie appeared with lunch for he, Jamie, and Lt.’s James and Bryson.  He sent Will another quick grin as he officially took the Conn and sent the lieutenants forward. Once they’d eaten and taken a short break he ambled forward but kept an eye on the Conn and an ear tuned to the dive channel, softly kept open.  Lee had spent the morning listening for any hint in Chip’s voice that might indicate what had apparently ticked him off.  But what little he did talk he sounded totally under control.  Even slightly embarrassed at one point as Nelson teased him about breaking out the sandwiches and coffee Cookie had sent along.  Mostly, though, the chatter had been between Nelson and Sharkey coordinating stops, or between Nelson and Patrick speculating on what if anything they’d find in the extra-deep samples they were hoping to take.  While the sensors were continuing to burp fairly regularly, the gaps between each one were longer.  But when questioned by Nelson, Lee was still willing to okay the deeper dive.


Will asked about that, only about halfway through his own lunch when Lee finally came forward.  Lee shrugged.  “Been keeping a close eye on them,” he admitted.  “But there’s no reason to limit the dive.  At least at this point,” he added.


“Just noticed a not-so-regular pattern this morning,” Will told him.


Lee smiled.  Will may claim to be just a simple doctor but he always kept his ear on the pulse of the boat.  Lee wasn’t sure if even most of the crew realized how he watched over everyone, so casual was he about it.  And along that same vein the doctor had also, obviously, picked up on the sensor patterns, such as they were.  “When they go totally quiet, that’s when I get nervous,” he told Will.


Will nodded.  “How much longer will the bell be out, with the extra depth?”


“Depends on the Admiral and what catches his attention down there.”  Lee gave him a philosophical, almost put-upon, look.  “You know the Admiral.”


“Oh, yes,” Will totally agreed.


“With luck maybe a couple hours more, make them back between 0100 and 0200 hours tomorrow morning.”


“A long day.  For everyone,” Will added with a pointed glance at Lee.


“Yes, sir,” Lee used the old joke with another slight grin.


This time Will wasn’t so quick to let the grin go.  “I know that I’m going to regret this, but what are you plotting, Skipper?” he asked firmly.


Lee’s grin spread.  “Not plotting, Jamie.  Already accomplished.”


“Help,” Will muttered, causing Lee to snicker.


“You’re safe,” Lee told him, but added with a twinkle, “until the Admiral gets back, at least.”


“What did you do?” Will demanded, slowly and succinctly.  Lee merely smiled at him and continued to eat.  Will did one of his better Nelson ‘harrumph’ impressions and concentrated on what was left of his own meal.


But privately Will was very happy.  The crew took a majority of their own moods and temperament from the senior officers.  Lee smiling meant that the whole Conn crew was relaxed, and it would spread through the boat as Lee wandered down to the Missile Room and back.  When this cruise had been announced, with all of its inherent challenges, the crew as a whole had been a little on edge.  Even through the first several bell dives there was an underlying air of tension kept just below the surface of normal activity, noticeably different from the day-to-day focus on maintaining the normal high level of conscientiousness.  While a certain amount of that was extremely comforting to someone like Will, who worked mostly on the edges of any actual boat’s functions, because he was responsible for the crew’s health he was never comfortable when the stress levels went up.  Heaven knew there was enough of that during even basic cruises on occasion.


And one of the men he kept most careful watch over – much to the man’s dislike – was Lee.  Because the young man took ‘everything’ on his own shoulders, more so than any officer Will had ever worked around, he was less aware of how he himself was conversely affected.  Will had seen early on that he’d have to watch the man carefully.  It didn’t help at all that Lee absolutely hated being what he called ‘mother-henned.’  Thankfully Will was ably aided and abetted by both Admiral Nelson and Chip, especially the latter.  He still kept eyes and ears wide open to watch for any signs of impending trouble.  But he was more apt than not to point Chip or Nelson in Lee’s direction, depending on the circumstance, than he was tackling Lee himself.


In this case it was precisely those two being off-boat that had the potential for causing problems so Will was much more up front about his observation.  He was perfectly aware that Lee was perfectly aware of what he was doing.  And despite that knowledge, to still see Lee as open to being teased as he was, and to tease right back, brought Will a great deal of comfort.


Unbidden – but not unwelcome – the circumstances of this cruise’s first twenty-four hours slipped into Will’s mind, causing him to smile broadly.  He’d always been aware that Seaview’s ruling triumvirate held him in high esteem – despite their occasional mutterings when his duties happened to get in the way of theirs.  And that they considered him a friend he’d had no doubt.  But to discover just how deep that friendship went had been a revelation.


Will’s smile turned introspective.  Finding Lee settled next to his bunk in Sick Bay, in the middle of the night because it was the first chance he’d had to get there, had both embarrassed Will and ultimately pleased him no end.  And he knew that it had actually embarrassed Lee somewhat – being caught out, as it were.  It would not be spoken of openly.  And it would in no way lessen the intensity, or the decibel levels, of any future ‘discussions’ that would no doubt erupt between the two strong-willed men.  But it would be there nonetheless – a special ‘something’ to be shared and treasured, and help both to get through whatever the future chose to throw at them.


Will was still in the Observation Nose, ostensibly reading but spending just as much time observing what was going on in the Conn, when the bell passed the 23,000 foot level, as deep as it had gone this cruise.  Will noticed that Lee’s smile, that had remained fairly evident after lunch, disappeared.  All was okay from both the bell and the Missile Room controls but the tension level was nonetheless higher.  Thankfully the extra depth did not translate into extra problems.  Nelson and Patrick were able to take a number of samples as they descended to just past 25,000 feet before, with a sigh heard clearly over the dive channel, Nelson okayed returning to Seaview.


Will finally went back down to Sick Bay – he’d finished his book and things seemed to be going well.  He had every intention of returning to the Nose about 1700 hours if for no other reason than his presence would remind Lee to eat dinner.


Lee watched Will leave.  He knew what Seaview’s CMO was up to, and actually appreciated that the doctor kept such a close watch over the crew.  He didn’t always appreciate Jamie getting into his face, especially on those occasions when Lee knew that he had everything under control if certain people would just leave him alone!  But mostly the two kept up their casual harassment of each other from the mere fact that they both enjoyed it so much.  He had wondered at Jamie’s private smile shortly after Lee returned to the Conn once he was done eating.  But sometimes it was best not to know what the doctor was thinking!




Sharkey had taken his lunch break, relieved by Lt. O’Brien, in time to be back before the bell dipped below the 23,000-foot level.  So far everything was going well but he was still relieved when Nelson called a halt to the descent, took a few more samples, and then told the COB, and the Conn, that it was time to come home.  Sharkey noticed that Nelson’s voice had an almost sad quality to it as he gave the order – the Chief knew him well enough, had been on enough bell dives with him in the past, to know that the Admiral would have preferred trying to go as deep as the bell would go.  But given the instability of the area he was also trying very hard not to try his Skipper’s patience.  A wry grin crossed the COB’s craggy face as he thought back on a few of the ‘discussions’ that had occurred in the years since Sharkey had taken over as Seaview’s COB.  They weren’t as much fun as watching Commander Crane go up against Doc, mostly because if Nelson and Crane got into an argument the whole boat would suffer any and all consequences that came out of it.  But they still had their moments.




Lee started getting a bit antsy about 1400 hours.  While the sensors were continuing to burp, the tremors were becoming a bit lighter than they had been.  Nothing to panic about, but Lee was still very happy to have the bell on its way up.  He wandered down to the Missile Room and pointed an eyebrow at Chief Sharkey when the COB sent him a bit of a whimsical grin.  But the Chief shrugged it off as he responded to a question Nelson directed at him about the same time, and Lee didn’t push the issue.  He visited with a couple of the crewmen on duty monitoring the bell’s systems before meandering out again, headed for the Conn.




Chip didn’t quite get a deep sigh covered before Nelson caught it and sent him a quick grin.  “Dale and I are greatly appreciating your help, Chip.”  The blond sent him a bit of a shy look.  He didn’t think that Dr. Patrick looked all that enthused but he nonetheless appreciated Nelson’s praise.  “With you so nimble with the bell’s controls,” Nelson continued, “you’ve made sample-taking go a good deal faster.”  He sent his XO his own version of a shy smile.  “Good for keeping your CO from going quite so ballistic.”


Chip grinned despite his attempt to keep it covered.  “Have to admit,” he said softly, “Lee’s handled everything a lot better than I was anticipating.”


“We can thank Mother Nature, or Father Neptune, or whatever ocean gods rule this territory, for that,” Nelson told him with feeling.


“Yes, sir,” Chip agreed.  “The whole crew has been grateful for the good weather and lack of major tremors.  Well,” he amended, “with the possible exception of Riley and a few of the other younger seamen.”


Nelson chuckled.  “Can’t ever make everyone happy.”  He barely nodded his head in Patrick’s direction.  When Chip took his own glance, the scientist had his head down writing notes in his sample log and Chip sent Nelson a quick nod back.  Sharkey calling out a decompression stop got both officers back to business.


Nelson was adjusting the air mixture in the bell according to both his and Sharkey’s statistics list, and Chip was charting the correction, when Sharkey’s voice suddenly disappeared.  Nelson tried twice to reach Seaview, then looked at Chip.  “I wonder how long the glitch will last this time?” he told Chip with a shrug of his shoulders.


“Too long,” slipped out before Chip could stop it and he turned red.  Nelson gave him a sympathetic nod and sat back to wait out the silence.




Lee had just come back into the Conn by way of the aft hatch and was meandering his way forward glancing at all the instrumentation when suddenly the conversation over the dive channel stopped in mid-word.  “Not again,” he muttered, and turned back toward the radio shack.  Sparks could only send him a quick shrug as he flipped switch after switch and tried to raise the bell.  Lee watched his obviously futile efforts, sent him an encouraging nod, and continued his way forward.




Sharkey finished his string of figures and waited for Admiral Nelson to confirm, but finally realized that the communications line had gone dead.  “I know we went over every last inch of that cable and there wasn’t so much as a pinhole,” he growled a little louder than he’d been talking and got back nods from several of the crewmen present, those who had been a part of his hand-picked inspection crew.  Once more muttering under his breath, he started checking switches on his console.




Lee wasn’t halfway to the chart table when Seaview was violently and without any warning rocked nearly onto her back by the concussion force of a massive shock wave.  Lee was fortunate to be standing close enough to the periscope island that he was able, just barely, to grab hold and ride out the turbulence.  Several of the instrument panels shot out fireworks displays as they short-circuited internally.  Even while issuing his own orders getting the submarine back under control he was extremely pleased at how well Lt. James was handling the chaos, and delegating to Lt. Bryson what he needed help with.  Lee’s immediate concern turned to the bell.  He sent one glance Sparks’ way, watching the radioman obviously still trying to reach the bell with no success.  Another glance showed Chris with the Conn under as much control as possible and collecting damage reports from the other areas of the boat, so far all reporting getting themselves and their departments back in order.  He sent the young lieutenant a thumb’s up and headed with all due haste to the Missile Room.




Sharkey wasn’t sure what happened.  One minute he was trying to reconnect with the bell and the next he was picking himself up off the deck.  Crewmen were scrambling to control two wayward torpedoes that had somehow escaped their racks.  As Lt. Bryson in the Conn demanded a damage report Sharkey quickly ran through his own instrumentation.  Except for communications, all the other dials and gauges for the bell were showing green.  With no way to check for sure he could only report that everything appeared to be normal for the bell, and he would resume the ascent once the decompression stop was over in approximately six minutes.




While they were hanging quietly during the decompression stop, Chip unbuckled his harness so that he could readjust how several of the sample containers were stacked.  He’d just heard Nelson’s harness unclip and turned to find out the reason when he happened to glance out one of the bell’s small windows and saw debris flying upward through the water, illuminated by the bell’s exterior lights.  He could never say later what caused him to throw himself in front of Nelson across the small interior deck space.  But he was almost immediately flattened against the deck and among the containers by the Admiral’s suddenly flying body and the pain caused his own senses to shut down.




Lee paid close attention to the damage reports flying back and forth over the intercom as he ran toward the Missile Room, extremely thankful that there seemed to be no major disasters.  He immediately noted the escaped torpedoes when he came through the hatch, but crewmen were rapidly getting them secured on the deck against the bottom of one of the racks where they’d be safe and out of the way until repairs could be made to the damaged racks and he hurried up to Sharkey.


“How much longer?” he asked the Chief.  He didn’t need to explain that he was asking when the decompression stop would be over.


“Just over two minutes,” came Sharkey’s immediate response while he continued to check gauges.  He stepped around and the two of them went over the winch, but all looked in order after Seaview’s flip-flop.  They both took deep breaths and waited impatiently for the seconds to tick away.




Chip slowly came back to consciousness, and immediately wished that he hadn’t.  He didn’t think he could hurt in so many places all at the same time.  He couldn’t even decide what hurt the worst and found himself actually wishing that the oblivion would return.


“Chip?” made it’s way slowly through the waves of pain and he did his best to respond.


“Waaaaaaa,” was all that came out.


“Easy, lad.  Don’t try to move.”


Chip groaned.  “Not sure I could if I wanted to,” he thought he muttered.  It must have been fairly intelligible as he heard Nelson harrumph softly.


“It would appear that I need to have a talk with you about the inadvisability of throwing yourself between me and something you deem dangerous,” Nelson growled, albeit gently.


Chip hurt so bad that he wasn’t being his usually cautious self, speaking to his boss.  “Hasn’t done you much good with Lee,” came out.


It caused Nelson to snort.  “I thought that you’ve always insisted you’re smarter than he is.”


“Just shot that theory all to hell.”  Again Chip spoke without thinking and again Nelson snorted softly.  Chip coughed and that simple movement caused another round of pain to hit seemingly every part of his body.  As he tried to relax against it he felt Nelson’s hand on his shoulder.


“Try not to move,” Nelson said again.  “I need to figure out what you’ve managed to damage.”


“We’re still stopped?”  The bell’s lack of motion finally sank into Chip’s scrambled brain.


“The decompression stop should be just about over.”


“If Seaview’s still in one piece.”


“We are,” Nelson reminded him.  “And they’re holding us steady.”  Chip tried to respond, but once more the darkness closed in.




“That’s it,” Sharkey told Lee, and engaged the winch control to continue hauling in the bell.  Nothing happened.  Sharkey hit the switch again with the same result – nothing moved.  He and Lee started checking every power connection but could find nothing amiss.


“Lock it down,” Lee suddenly ordered, “until you can find what’s got it jammed.  If it won’t come up, the last thing we need is the winch suddenly letting it go back down.”  Sharkey scrambled to put the locking mechanism in place while Lee reached for the nearest mic.  “Missile Room to Conn.”


“Conn,” came almost instantly in Lt. James’ slightly frazzled voice.


“Damage report,” Lee demanded.


“Minor injuries only, sir.  Some boxes shifted in the aft storage locker and you already know about the damaged torpedo racks.  Cookie reports that the Galley’s a mess.”  Sharkey and Lee shared a grimace – an irritated Cookie was not a pretty sight.  “But,” James continued, “all systems, with the exception of a few circuit breakers, are functioning normally.”


“Good,” Lee told him.  “We have another problem down here – the winch is malfunctioning and we can’t move the bell.  Sparks having any luck raising them on the radio?  We’re dead in that department here as well.”


“No, sir,” James answered.  “He’s still trying, but so far no response.”


“Very well.  Unless you need me up there I’ll stay here and try to help Sharkey.”


“Under control here, sir.”  Lee let a quick smile show – Chris was turning into every bit the watch officer that he and Chip thought he would.  While Lee could detect an edge of nervousness in the young man’s voice he was maintaining as confident an attitude as he could.  Of course it didn’t hurt at all that, because of the dive, the Conn was staffed at the moment by some of Seaview’s most experienced seamen.  But James was still handling all the details of an incident at sea with a calm confidence that belied his semi-lack of experience.


All that went through Lee’s brain in an instant as he turned back to Sharkey and the winch.  Five more tension-strained minutes and they were no closer to finding the cause of the problem.  Lee stood for a second, glaring at the winch as if it were a recalcitrant crewman he could growl into compliance, and finally looked at Sharkey.  “Are the arms on FS1 strong enough to grab the cable and haul up the bell?”  He already pretty much knew that they weren’t – they were not designed to take that kind of load.  But sometimes it just helped to talk things out.


“I doubt it, Skipper,” the Chief confirmed.  “And FS1 couldn’t go deep enough to help the bell anyway.”


“What if we gradually raised Seaview, bringing the bell up with us?  How far is the bell below us?”


“Just less than 10,000 feet,” Sharkey answered instantly.  “With Seaview on the surface it would still be below FS1’s crush depth.”


“But theoretically, if we could grab the cable as far down as it was safe to go, we should still be able to bring it up – with the bell’s help.”


“Without communications…” Sharkey started, but Lee cut him off.


“One step at a time,” and he reached once more for the mic.




Will felt Seaview start to move slowly under his feet and shot his two corpsmen a look.  It was far too early for the bell to be aboard, which would then allow the submarine to move to a safer depth.  The three of them were just finishing up with the few injuries that had occurred – the CMO was grateful that the crew was taking so many precautions that, even with the unexpected and crazy maneuvers, there had been only a handful of men caught unaware.  One seaman had a concussion from a box falling on him, and several others had a variety of sprains and strains.  But all things considered they’d gotten off very lucky.  Will did need to track down his CO – past experience told him that Lee wouldn’t admit to an injury under any circumstances.  With both Nelson and Chip in the bell there was not only no one who would rat him out if he had suffered any damage, he’d be too worried about the bell to slow down anyway.  Will had caught enough of the intercom chatter to know that there were issues with the bell and he needed to check on that as well.  With Sick Bay under control he headed for the Conn.


With a critical eye he quickly scanned Lee’s body as he came down the spiral stairs.  He was pleased to see no outward signs of damage and even more pleased when Lee quipped, “Don’t think Cookie will be serving dinner in the Nose tonight.”  But Lee barely looked at him when he said it and immediately went back to studying what was on the clipboard he was holding.


Will decided to stay with the lighthearted wisecrack.  “Just came to see what damage you were hiding,” he smarted right back.


That caused Lee a quick grin.  Lt. James too smiled briefly.  Lt. Bryson wasn’t sure what to do so he didn’t do anything.  “Unscathed – barely,” Lee told his CMO, still staring at the clipboard.


“The bell?” Will asked carefully.  He had a strong feeling that the silly crack from Lee was mostly for the Conn crew’s benefit and began to get an uneasy feeling.


“We lost contact with them right before the tremor,” Lee confirmed.  “Still haven’t been able to raise them.  And the winch is jammed.  They’re not falling,” he quickly told Will.  “We have it blocked.  But we can’t bring it up, either.”


“That’s why you’re raising Seaview.”


Lee nodded.  “At the surface I can try to get to the bell using FS1.”


“You won’t be able to join the hatches – not with the cable in place.”  Will knew that he was uttering the obvious but he was trying to keep Lee talking naturally.  When he got upset he had a tendency to get way too quiet.


Lee nodded again.  “I’m hoping to be able to grab the cable with one of the arms and haul it up.”  He finally looked at Will.


“Is that possible?”


Lee shrugged.  “Won’t know until we try.”


Will opened his mouth, thought better of what he was about to say, and closed it again.  Lee was obviously trying to remain upbeat for the benefit of the crew, even knowing that what he was proposing hadn’t ever been tried and was probably beyond the capabilities of the little craft.  At this point they had no way of knowing how well the bell and its occupants had survived the massive wave that had hit the much larger Seaview.  Will was once again hit with how the crew took their lead from the senior officers, and how much Lee was aware of that by giving them a calm, seemingly under control exterior.  If Will looked close he could see the signs of strain in Lee’s body.  But he wasn’t about to upset the balance Lee had managed to obtain in the Conn.


What he did do, however, was risk life and limb – from a thoroughly ticked off Cookie – and hit the Wardroom.  As expected, it wasn’t a pretty sight.  The chef had been in full swing for the evening meal and very little had survived the onslaught.  Cookie spotted him from the Galley serviceway and sent him a glare that dared Will to make a comment.


The CMO chose his words carefully.  “Any chance that I could grab a sandwich to take up to the Skipper?  He’s got a long night ahead of him trying to figure out how to get the bell back aboard.  There are issues.”  Using the ruling triumvirate as a reason just might save Will from having the temperamental chef lop off his head.


There was a long enough gap before Cookie answered so that Will was starting to get nervous and begin to consider his escape route when Cookie finally spoke.  “I’ll manage something,” the chef told him.  “Come back in half an hour.”


“Will do,” Will said politely, and got out while the getting was good.




Admiral Nelson was at a loss.  He knew that the decompression stop should have been over.  The bell, after it’s initial somersault, was hanging firm and steady.  But they weren’t moving.  Then, suddenly, they were, but the movement itself had a very different feel from the winch.  He finally decided that Seaview was moving up, bringing the bell with it.  Communications were still dead so he could only speculate about what was happening above him.  He was just glad that, with the exception of the intercom, everything else seemed to be working aboard the bell.


Well, and with the exception of Chip.  Nelson was concerned for his XO.  He was perfectly happy ignoring the fact that his own head had bounced off the interior of the bell before he’d landed awkwardly on top of Chip but at least he’d never lost consciousness.  He’d assumed that the blood on Chip’s uniform belonged to the blond until Patrick gasped and pointed to Nelson’s head.  There was a small gash just above his right ear that, as head wounds will do, was bleeding profusely.  Thankfully Chip hadn’t noticed the bandage Nelson had quickly put in place with Patrick’s help, the couple of times Chip had been conscious.


Patrick had been firmly strapped in when the chaos had erupted.  Nelson kept expecting him to needle Nelson about having unbuckled his harness, after being chastised himself so many times for doing the same thing.  Happily the scientist chose to keep quiet on that subject.  He’d helped Nelson with the bandage and then the two of them made Chip as comfortable as possible on the deck, shifting sample containers as best they could to make a flat spot for Chip’s torso and head.  They lifted his legs up onto the small seat he’d been using – with the concussion symptoms it seemed a logical move, besides the fact that it was about the only place for them.  That put Chip’s head close to Nelson’s feet and Nelson examined the younger man, finding a rapidly growing lump on the back of the blond’s head and what he suspected were at least a couple of broken ribs from being jammed on top of a bunch of sample containers.  Opening Chip’s shirt he could find only bruises, not any torn skin, thankfully.  A tear in Chip’s left pant leg caused a moment’s panic, but ripping it open they found only a small cut on the outside of the knee which they bandaged.  Nelson made a crack to Patrick about being glad Will demanded that the bell carry such a well-equipped first-aid kit; he’d seen Patrick eye it a couple of times when they were looking for space to pack in a few more sample containers.


Nelson did notice that Patrick seemed to be holding his emotions under tight rein when he jumped as the bell started to move upward.  “Looks like the cable’s jammed,” he said offhandedly, as if it weren’t an unusual occurrence.  The last thing he needed in the cramped quarters was a flipped out marine scientist.  “Lee’s raising Seaview until we’re at a workable depth.”  Patrick took a hesitant breath but seemed to pull himself together again.  Mostly.


“How long will that take?” he did ask.


Nelson flipped a hand.  “Depends on what’s wrong with the winch,” he said.  He decided that it might not be a good idea to tell Patrick about the times the brake had failed and the bell had been nearly lost completely.  “Lee will have things under control,” he assured Patrick instead, and then sent a silent prayer that he was right!




Once Lee got Chris James comfortable with how Seaview was rising he quizzed Sparks about the dead communications.  Coupled with the stuck cable Sparks was once again convinced that there was a kink in the lines.  He couldn’t explain why the communications line went dead the other dive with no apparent difficulty in the main cable, or why it had gone dead today when the bell was not moving, but it was definitely still at the top of his list.  Lee then headed back to the Missile Room where Sharkey was doing everything except tearing the winch apart to find the problem.  He passed along Sparks’ observation and he and Sharkey pondered the possibility of, once FS1 gave the cable a bit of slack – if it could even be managed with the little craft’s arms – that maybe the kink if there was one would release and they could bring the bell in normally.  At this point, until they could reach more reasonable depths, there was just no way of knowing.




Will was disturbed not to find Lee in the Conn when he brought a tray of sandwiches and coffee to the Nose.  Swell, he muttered to himself when Lt. James explained.  He put the food on the table, keeping his fingers crossed that there were no more tremors, and headed to coax Lee back up.  He considered taking the food with him but Cookie had made plenty, and Will knew both Lt.’s James and Bryson would benefit just as much as their Skipper.  Higgins, Cookie’s assistant, had been taking more sandwiches to the Crew’s Mess, and Will knew Seaview’s crew well enough to know that everyone would be pitching in to see that everyone else was given time to get themselves back under control and issues dealt with.  Will always concerned himself more with the senior officers in times like this.  All three would forego their own personal comforts – to their own detriment – until everyone else was safe and sound.  He could only speculate what was going on in the bell; for now he needed to concentrate on Lee.


He wasn’t encouraged by what he found in the Missile Room – both Lee and Chief Sharkey were laying on the deck underneath the winch, with bits and pieces of machinery scattered around them.  The cable was taut, running from the winch up to the pulley and down through the small opening in the hatch doors in the deck that opened to allow the bell through.  A couple of Mechanics Mates were helping them and Will assumed that the problem was in the winch itself.  But listening to the conversations back and forth he started to realize that that might not be the main issue.


About that time Lee crawled out.  He noticed Will standing there but continued his conversation with Sharkey.  “If we don’t worry about having to retract the arm, is there a way to add some strength to it while it’s still docked?”


Sharkey also crawled from under the winch.  “That’s not the problem, Skipper.  The arm will hold.  But the grasping mechanism wasn’t designed to take that kind of pressure and I’m afraid that it will just snap off.”


“If I can get it up even a little, that would be enough to take the pressure off the cable.”


“If there’s a kink,” Sharkey agreed.  “I just don’t know…”


“We don’t have a lot of options here, Chief,” Lee cut him off.  “We need to get the bell back aboard.  We don’t have any way, without communications, to know if they’re okay down there.  And they don’t have an unlimited air supply so we don’t have time to drag them onto a seamount where we could reach them with FS1 – there isn’t one close enough.”


“Agreed,” Sharkey told him, but his expression wasn’t happy.


“You need something, Doc?” Lee finally acknowledged Will.


“Yes.  You.  In the Conn.  Eating the sandwiches I brought up,” Will told him firmly.  Lee shrugged him off but Will had expected that.  “However you’re planning to get the bell back aboard, you need to be strong enough yourself to pull it off.  Food!” he ordered.


Lee was all set to blast his CMO into the next time zone but the snort Sharkey didn’t quite get cut off at Will’s ordering around his CO put an extremely put-upon expression on his face instead.  He knew that Will was right.  He just didn’t believe that he was in need of sustenance right at the moment when he had more important things on his mind.  However, he also knew that arguing with Jamie was going to be a waste of time, and right now he couldn’t do much else until Seaview was nearer the surface.  He might as well surrender now, and hopefully that would keep the doctor out of his face later.




Chip heard someone groan but it took him some time, and someone’s hand holding his shoulder down, to realize he was the one making the noise.  He relaxed muscles he’d tightened, in preparation for moving from the position he discovered himself in, and opened his eyes.  “Sir?”


“I know that you can’t be very comfortable,” Nelson told him, “but try not to move.  Dale and I have given you as much room as we can.”


Chip was at least aware enough this time to make more sense of his surroundings.  “Seaview?” was his immediate thought.


“We don’t know for sure,” Nelson told him.  “Communications are still dead.  We’re moving up but it doesn’t feel like the winch. More like Seaview is surfacing and bringing us with them.”


“How far are we below the boat?”  He took a deep breath, decided that might not be such a good thing to do again, and finally, belatedly, added a soft “sir.”


Nelson sent him a grin despite the seriousness of the question and the instant concern generated by the pain that washed over Chip’s face when he tried to breathe deeply.  “We’ll be okay once Seaview is on the surface,” he tried to reassure his XO. 


But Chip wasn’t ready to give it up.  “We were still about 10,000 below, that last stop.  What have I missed?”


Nelson sent Patrick a quick glance to check if Chip’s questions were undoing all of Nelson’s earlier assurances.  The scientist didn’t look happy, but he wasn’t coming totally unhinged either although he was listening intently to the conversation.  Nelson answered carefully.  “It will be interesting to see how Lee plays this,” he told his XO with a bit of a conspiratorial tone to his voice, and hoped that Chip was coherent enough this time to catch it.  “It will depend on whether the winch is damaged beyond repair.  I can only guess that’s what happened,” he added.  “We won’t know until we get back aboard.”  Chip tried once more to get up and once more Nelson held him down.  “Are you cold?” and he started to take his sweater off. 


It apparently finally made Chip notice the bandage on the side of Nelson’s head.  “Sir?” he uttered, and pushed against Nelson’s once more restraining hand.  “Your head?”  But it was obvious to everyone, even Chip although belatedly, that Chip was in far worse shape.


“Easy, Chip,” Nelson soothed him.  He folded up the sweater and used it as a pillow under Chip’s head as he eased the blond back down.  “It’s just a little cut.  You got the worst of it.”  He forced out a short chuckle.  “You and Lee can compare techniques on how to fall under another person.  You might need a few lessons,” he told his XO quasi-sternly.


“He had more room,” Chip told his boss, finally catching on to what Nelson was trying to do as Patrick was almost hyperventilating.


“Harrumph,” Nelson muttered, but a quick glance showed Patrick trying hard to relax and get his breathing back under control after he’d started to react badly to Chip’s questions.




Lee had originally thought to force down half a sandwich around half a dozen cups of coffee before returning to see if there was any way he could help in the Missile Room.  But once back in the Conn, knowing that Sharkey was doing everything he could, Lee decided he’d stay there – at least for awhile.  Crewmen were coming and going – no matter who actually had the duty, everyone was helping out everywhere they could.  He could see that Lt. James was feeling a bit in over his head – and Lee almost groaned at that terrible pun – by crewmen semi ‘doing their own thing’ as it were.  But some of those crewmen had been aboard Seaview even longer than Lee had and understood what was needed almost better than Chris.  Lee munched the half sandwich that he’d grabbed to placate Will, who had followed him forward, and listened as Chris gave him updates. And he took the opportunity to make several little jokes about Chris having to keep ahead of his crew.  It helped Lt. James to relax a bit as he realized that this was actually SOP aboard the submarine; he just hadn’t experienced it – especially on his own.  And poor Lt. Bryson, looking totally shell-shocked when Lee returned, started to actually breathe more normally.  Belatedly Lee realized that he’d been counting on the crew ‘helping’ Lt. James – he’d just forgotten to tell Chris that.  He was so used to how he and Chip ran Seaview that that not-so-small detail had gotten past him.  Chip would never let him live that one down.


It was Lee’s turn to take a deep breath.  He was trying not to think about what was going on in the bell.  Seaview could only surface so fast and still maintain optimum conditions for those in the bell.  He realized that the hand holding the coffee cup – somewhere along the line he’d finished eating the half a sandwich – was shaking as he tried to control his own nerves.  His best friend and his boss/mentor/whatever Nelson had become over the years were unreachable, in unknown shape, and it was still going to be several hours at least before Lee could even make an attempt to reach them.  With another deep breath he headed forward to pour himself more coffee.


That, unfortunately, put him back under Will’s watchful eye and the CMO took the opportunity to shove the replenished plate of sandwiches in Lee’s direction.  Lee was going to ignore Will and return to the Conn but a loud clearing of Will’s throat had him stopping and turning toward the older man.  “I can’t,” Lee told him honestly.


Will’s hard expression instantly softened.  “Just try, Skipper.  You won’t be any good to them, when the time comes to act, if you’re too frazzled to think clearly.  Food will help.”


Lee nodded.  Logically he knew Jamie was right, but the inability to actually do anything was churning his stomach.  Nonetheless, he tried.  He surprised himself and, he suspected, Jamie as well, by getting another half sandwich down before Sparks called forward.  Lee nearly spilled what was left in his coffee cup grabbing for the nearest mic.  “The bell?” he asked, almost breathlessly.


“Sorry, Skipper.  Still silent.  Just wanted to let you know that I’ve been monitoring the weather topside.  It’s not good.”


A couple of words Lee was rarely heard uttering slipped out before he could stop them.  Will figured that they were said quietly enough that he was the only one who heard them.  Lee took a deep breath, sent Will a slightly sheepish look, and keyed the mic.  “How bad?” he asked Sparks.


“Winds 30 knots, anticipated to build to 60 or more over the next several hours.  Heavy wave action.  Not supposed to break for at least 18 to 24 hours.”  The radioman’s voice was almost apologetic for having to pass on the lousy news.


“Thanks,” Lee told him.  He stood still, contemplating how this new piece of bad news was going to affect getting the bell back home.


“Means we can’t go all the way to the surface?” came from his left, and Lee glanced at Will like he’d forgotten that the doctor was sitting there.


“Not comfortably,” Lee answered him.  “We’re borderline reaching the bell with FS1 as it is.  The further we have to stay from topside the touchier it’s going to get.  And with that kind of rough weather, the more Seaview is affected it’s going to go straight down the cable to the bell.”  He frowned and reached again for the mic.  “Missile Room,” he all but demanded.


“Missile Room, aye,” Sharkey almost instantly answered.


“Anything new with the winch?”  Lee knew that there wouldn’t be or the COB would already have informed him.  But he asked anyway.


“Jammed good, Skipper.  And I still can’t figure out why.”  Like Sparks, Sharkey’s voice was almost apologetic.


“Weather topside is breaking down.  I’m going to need you on FS1 when it comes time to try to retrieve the bell.”


“Understood, Skipper.  But Lt. O’Brien will be in the Conn by then.  If we manage to get it unstuck…   Ah, and even getting the bell back aboard…”


Lee could feel for the COB.  He knew exactly how Sharkey was feeling – he wanted to be everywhere at once, too.  “Suggestions, Chief?”


“I sent Macklin and Carlson off-duty a couple of hours ago,” he named two of Seaview’s most experienced Damage Control specialists.  “Either, or both, should be rested enough to go with you, and both have helped me work on the arms.”


“Very good, Chief.  You keep Carlson for your crew and I’ll take Macklin with me.  Conn out.”  He glanced at Chris; the lieutenant was already on the intercom, having heard the conversation and now informing the two crewmen of the new orders.


Will noticed.  “It must make you feel good, how well the whole crew responds to the occasional chaos around here so well do you have them trained.”


“Now if I could just get you to mind so well,” slipped out, a little louder than Lee had intended it to.  Will choked, he started laughing so hard despite the seriousness of the situation, and even Lee finally smiled.


“Don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen,” Will finally got out halfway firmly.  “Somebody has to keep you in line.”  Lee sent him a quick glare but his eyes were sparkling ever so slightly as he headed back to the chart table.  Will was happy that he’d been able to get Lee to relax even that small amount.  It wouldn’t last long, but right now every little bit was helpful.  He also noticed that some of the Conn crew caught the bit of humor on Lee’s face and a few tense shoulders momentarily relaxed as well.  Will sighed heavily – it was going to be a very long next few hours!




Chip was lying quietly, trying not to tick off the Admiral.  Able to stay conscious – finally – after drifting in and out a couple more times, he’d realized that Nelson was fighting a nasty headache.  The bell was continuing to move but every so often there was a slight jerk, like Seaview was encountering some minor turbulence.  Chip could just read the depth gauge from where he was laying and knew that the bell was still too deep to be reached by FS1.  He’d tried once to feel Nelson out about what Lee could be planning – that’s when he discovered that Nelson wasn’t in the mood to kibitz.  Since then he’d stayed quiet, nursing his own injuries.


But another bounce had even Nelson looking at the gauges.  “Rough weather topside, the most likely cause,” he muttered.  “Seaview has to be getting close to the surface.”


Risking an explosion from Nelson, Chip suggested softly, “Perhaps you should buckle your harness, sir.”  Chip wasn’t positive from the position that he was laying in but he couldn’t remember seeing Nelson buckled in since the accident.  He’d apparently wanted to be sure that he could reach down to Chip.


Nelson sent Chip so fierce a glare that Chip quickly faked feeling enough pain of his own to have a reason to close his eyes so that he wouldn’t have to face the older man.  Apparently it worked, for whatever reason, and he heard Nelson snort softly, followed by the sound of a harness clicking together.  He risked glancing at Nelson and caught the Admiral still glaring at him.  “You have definitely been hanging around Lee far too long,” Nelson growled at him.


“Contradiction in terms,” Chip answered softly, and sent Nelson a little grin.  Anything Nelson might have replied, however, was cut off as the bell was jerked a little harder and Patrick squeaked.


“Make sure your harness is tight, Dale,” Nelson ordered the man.  “It would appear that we’re about to have a bumpy ride.”




Lee had just started pre-flighting FS1 when Seaman Macklin slipped down the ladder, dogged the hatch, and stowed the ladder in its travel position.  One of Seaview’s most experienced Damage Control members, he was an extremely well-trained mechanic and experienced maintaining the Flying Sub’s systems.  Lee had brought Seaview to a depth of 150 feet before the topside weather started battering the submarine so bad that he called a halt and headed for FS1.  As Macklin settled into the co-pilot’s chair and buckled himself in he told Lee, “Chief Sharkey filled me in as best he could on what you have planned, Skipper.”  Lee merely nodded as he continued to run through the checklist.  “Couldn’t you just grab the cable higher up?  The bell has enough buoyancy to hold it in position while we re-grip closer to it.”


Lee had been nodding.  “And if we had contact with the bell and knew that they have control of the bell’s systems that might work,” he told Macklin not unkindly.  “But Sharkey and I have real doubts about the arm’s ability to hang on to the cable even once without snapping the mechanism.  If that happens, our only hope is to get under the bell and push it up to the hatch where it can be grabbed from inside.  We can’t count on any help from the bell.  At least at this point.”


“Understood, sir.”


“If we get really, really, lucky, taking pressure off the cable will unstick whatever has apparently gotten stuck.”  He sighed heavily.  “But we can’t count on that, either.”


“One step at a time, and do what we have to do,” Macklin told him philosophically.  Lee nodded, sent him a grim grin, and prepared to launch the little craft.


He’d had a moment’s hesitation in the Conn, wondering if he should have snagged Kowalski to accompany him, but had almost immediately changed his mind.  While Macklin couldn’t pilot FS1, Lee was more concerned about the stresses he’d be putting on the little craft, asking her to do things she wasn’t designed to do and how that would affect her own systems.  Macklin had much more experience actually fixing FS1 than the senior rating.  Lee wasn’t sure if that’s what Chief Sharkey had been thinking about when he suggested the DC specialist but quickly realized that it was the wiser of choices.


The launch didn’t go as smoothly as most.  Just as they were leaving the bay Seaview was rattled by more turbulence from topside and FS1 bumped both sides before dropping clear.  “FS1 to Conn,” Lee keyed the throat mic.


“Conn, aye,” came back immediately in Lt. O’Brien’s calm voice.


“Make a note to Chief Sharkey.  That batch of repainting is on my chit, not the Admiral’s.”  With all the tension on board right now Lee figured that the bit of silliness, tied back to what everyone by now knew had happened when Nelson arrived with Dr. Patrick, wouldn’t at all be a bad thing.


“Yes, sir,” came back, humor in the lieutenant’s voice.  Obviously Lee’s ploy worked as he could hear a few other chuckles in the background as O’Brien continued.  “I’ll be sure that the COB gets the report.”


“We’re going to swing under Seaview and see if we can see any hang-up in the cable,” Lee got back to business.  But with all outside lights on neither he nor Macklin could detect any reason whatsoever for the cable to have stopped its ascent.  Once that was reported to the Conn they started following the cable down into the blackness below.




Chip’s already throbbing head bounced as the bell’s cable was yanked.  Thankful for the Admiral’s cushioning sweater, he glanced at Nelson.  “You may have to revoke Lee’s Master’s Ticket if he can’t do any better than that.”


Despite his own pounding head, Nelson snorted at Chip’s attempt at humor.  “Remedial piloting lessons at the very least,” he agreed.  But they both paused as there was a new ‘feel’ to the bell and they both realized that they were once again rising.


“What’s happening?” Patrick all but demanded.  He was trying to maintain his calm in the face of how both Nelson and Morton were dealing with the problems they’d encountered.  But as the hours wore on it was becoming more and more difficult not to give in to his growing panic.


“Not sure,” Nelson admitted.  He glanced at Chip.  “Doesn’t quite have the feel of the winch reengaging.”


“No, sir,” Chip agreed.  He didn’t try to move – a few experimental attempts over the last couple of hours had not only been unsuccessful, they’d also been extremely painful.  “But it’s not like Lee could just send out divers to haul us up by hand, either.  FS1?”


Nelson shrugged.  “I wouldn’t think her arms would be strong enough.”  There was a bump and the bell stopped before she started to settle back down.  Nelson quickly adjusted the buoyancy controls and the bell stopped sinking.  Into the quiet, Patrick asked, “You can’t make it go up?”


Nelson sent him a headache-induced glare and an angry, “Don’t you think I would have if I could?”  But he gave himself a small shake and continued in a more congenial tone – barely.  “We have minimal side to side maneuverability, as you’ve seen.  Nothing up or down – we have to depend on the cable for that.  But I can adjust the buoyancy enough to maintain a level – sort of.  It’s not 100% effective, but knock on wood it seems to be holding at the moment.”


“Everything in the bell is metal, sir,” Chip informed his boss whimsically.


“Chip?” Nelson gave him a hard look.


“Hanging in there,” he told Nelson, who harrumphed at the bad pun. Chip finally sent him a sheepish grin.  “Sorry about that.  Been better,” he admitted.


“We both know Lee will be…”  He stopped as the bell once more started up, slowly but steadily, and all three men inside practically held their breath.




“Damn,” came out softly as Lee watched the grasping mechanism on one of FS1’s arms snap off under the strain of trying to pull on the bell’s cable.  However, after a brief drop, the cable hung slack and Lee and Macklin sent each other a glance.


“Someone in the bell is alert enough to adjust the controls,” Macklin told his CO softly.


“Hallelujah,” Lee breathed.  Macklin brought the damaged arm in and started to send the second arm out, but paused.  “What?” Lee asked


“If we angle the arm down as far as it will go instead of keeping it straight, we might put just a tad less strain on it as we pull up.”


Lee nodded.  “Do it,” he ordered, and positioned FS1 for the only other attempt they could make with the arms.


It worked for a longer time, but both men swore slightly as the second grasper also failed.  Lee checked the depth gauge and called Seaview.


“Conn here,” came in O’Brien’s calm voice.  They hadn’t been keeping in constant contact, but Lee had been making regular calls to keep both he and Sharkey apprised of what was happening.


“We’ve just broken the second arm.  The bell’s still with us as the cable is steady.  What’s her depth?”


There was a quick check.  “Almost exactly your crush depth, sir,” O’Brien said, not overly happily.


“Okay.  Thankfully we got her that far,” Lee told him.  “No choice now but to get underneath her and push her up.  Keep your fingers crossed,” he added.


“Once you get her started, do you want us to come down to meet you, sir?”


Lee gave himself a mental kick where it would do the most good for not having already thought of that.  “Excellent, Bobby,” he told the lieutenant.  “Just be mindful of how you come, and what the cable is doing, if at all possible.  The last thing we need is for FS1 to get tangled.”


“Aye, Aye, sir,” Lee could hear the barest of inflection in O’Brien’s voice, pleased that he’d come up with the idea.  “If you’ll come at it from the west, we’ll come down ever so slightly east as we descend.”


“Roger that,” Lee told him.  “Just wait to start down until I tell you.”  Getting an affirmative, he swung around before starting his own descent.




“What…?” came out of both Chip and Nelson’s mouths at the same time as they felt the soft thud on the bell’s bottom.  Chip’s pain-fogged brain was at a total loss but Nelson started to grin softly.  “I think Lee’s found us,” he told his XO.


Chip was a bit slower to catch on but he finally also smiled slightly.  “There goes more paint.”


Nelson chuckled softly as he monitored the bell’s controls.  “Somehow I don’t think anyone is going to have a problem with that,” he said as the bell was bumped again before there was a more smooth contact, and the bell started a steady ascent.




“There she is,” Macklin excitedly pointed out the obvious as the bell’s interior lights shown through the small portholes.  He sent Lee a bit of a sheepish look but Lee merely returned a quick smile.  He was too busy monitoring FS1’s gauges to let himself get too excited.  He’d never pushed the little craft this deep and he was getting decidedly nervous.  There had already been a few ominous groans from the outer shell.  Lee took a deep breath and started to ease the small craft the bit more needed to get below the bell.


Suddenly there was a pop, and a spray of ice cold water entered from just over Lee’s head coming from the side panel.  There was momentary panic until Macklin could quickly unbuckle his harness and reach Lee who was by then thoroughly soaked.  But thankfully it was only a small internal ballast line and Macklin quickly had it turned off.  Lee had sat as still as he could, thankful that the water hadn’t sprayed more forward, over the controls.  He wiped the water off his face and ran a hand backward through his hair, suddenly a riot of curls from the dousing.  He exchanged looks with Macklin as the seaman once more secured himself into his seat, and started to position FS1 under the bell.  He considered hovering by the porthole long enough to try to determine what was going on inside but immediately bagged the thought.  With FS1 already straining to stand the pressure, he didn’t dare take even a minute longer than absolutely necessary.


The first contact was a little rough.  He needed to hit the bell’s flat bottom with the relatively flat hatch cover on FS1’s top, and with no outside cameras with that kind of angle he was flying blind.  A groan escaped as that terrible pun hit his brain and he shared it with Macklin as he carefully maneuvered into what he hoped was the right position.  He knew immediately he didn’t have it quite right as FS1 tilted to port, and he backed off and gently tried again.  This time was better.  He worked the controls with a light but steady touch as he struggled to maintain the contact while starting to raise FS1 in a stable upward motion.  It wasn’t easy – the little craft hadn’t been designed with this type of movement in mind and Lee had to concentrate hard.  He left keeping in communication with Seaview to Macklin as he didn’t want to take his hands off the controls even the short time it took to key the throat mic.




Once Sharkey knew that FS1 had made contact with the bell, and Seaview started down, he ran once more through everything he could think of that might unstick the winch.  When nothing worked he pondered out loud wishing that there was some way they could bring the slack aboard, more out of the way of it causing trouble.  The problem was, what to do with the stiff, unwieldy mass.


“It will make a mess, Chief,” Seaman Lawrence spoke up.  While his injury kept him from doing much physically he was still adding as much moral support as he could.  “But can’t we just coil it on the deck for now and worry about getting it under control later?”


“Make it so,” Sharkey told his crew, and everyone started scrambling.  The lower hatch doors were opened to give them more room to manhandle the cable up into the Missile Room, and Sharkey let the Conn know what they were trying to do.  Lt. O’Brien held Seaview still for a few minutes to give Sharkey’s crew a steady platform to start the process.  


It wasn’t easy.  But everyone was motivated to do everything that they could to help, knowing who was on the other end.  As word got out nearly a dozen more crewmen showed up to help.  The Missile Room was going to end up a jungle of cable scattered around but they’d deal with that later.  The only space everyone tried to keep clear was around the lower hatch, and leaving a path between there and the corridor hatch.  Sharkey set several of the men to putting together a temporary cable and pulley system that they could attach to the top of the bell once the Skipper pushed it up to the hatch so that they could manually lift it aboard.  That made and set where it was handy, everyone went back to hauling in the growing slack of the unwieldy main cable.




“Skipper?” Macklin asked softly.  He was becoming concerned about his captain.  While the dousing with cold water hadn’t actually been all that damaging to the man, the combination of that and the constant tension of maintaining a steady upward push on the bell was beginning to have it’s affects.  Thankfully there had been no more problems with FS1 as she’d climbed to depths she was more comfortable handling.  At one point Macklin had unbuckled himself long enough to go in search of something to at least soak up some of the water off the deck.  He’d found extra blankets and some towels in one of the storage units under the bunk.  Asking permission first he’d gently ran a towel over Crane’s wet head and then laid it around Crane’s neck.  Now he wondered if he should replace the wet towel – Crane was beginning to shiver.


“What?”  Lee was a little slow in answering, so hard was he concentrating.


“How ‘bout I wrap one of the blankets around your shoulders, sir?  You look cold.”  Macklin had served around Lee long enough to expect the negative shrug that he got.  But he’d also served with the man long enough to know that, that being a fairly typical response, Lee wouldn’t likely object if he just did it anyway as an offer of help.  When Lee made no objection to his unclicking his harness Macklin knew that he was in the clear and quickly ditched the soggy towel behind him on the deck.  Grabbing one of the blankets he tucked it in around his CO as best he could, careful to not disturb Lee’s arms and hands.  He knew that he’d done the right thing when he got a brief nod and a quick smile in return, but was almost immediately sidetracked by another update from Lt. O’Brien and settled back into his seat.




“We may have to rename FS1 the ‘Hummingbird’,” Nelson told Chip.  They’d both been amazed at how well Lee was managing.  There was absolutely no doubt in either’s mind that that’s who was piloting the craft.  Lee had always, from the first time he’d taken her out, been able to get Seaview’s bright yellow offspring to do things no one else, even Admiral Nelson who’d designed her, could manage.


“He for sure has to tell me how he’s doing that,” Chip agreed.  “Not that I’ll ever be able to match it.”


“Let’s just hope that you never have to,” Nelson told him with feeling.  “How you doing, Dale?” he asked Patrick.  The scientist had all but hyperventilated again when FS1 had first bumped the bell.


“Better,” Patrick admitted.  “I don’t know how you stay so calm,” he admitted shyly.


Nelson sent him a smile that wasn’t quite all grimace.  “I know my crew, and especially I know Lee.  While his solutions to problems are occasionally…inventive…”  He sent Chip a grin as the blond snorted rather indelicately.  “He always manages to figure something out.  Although, I think he’s outdone himself this time.”  He glanced at the bell’s gauges.  “Shouldn’t be much longer now.  He’s been making steady progress.”  The words were no sooner out of his mouth than there was a clank on the top of the bell.




As Seaview continued her downward path, Lt. O’Brien kept a careful eye on the trench sensors.  He’d avoided telling the Skipper that they’d once more gone ominously silent.  He had sonar monitoring the bell’s progress up, as well as Seaman Macklin’s reports, and he was reporting Seaview’s depth to Macklin.  He did wonder at Cdr. Crane’s silence but Macklin, at the beginning, had told him that the Skipper was concentrating on the controls and nothing more was said on the topic.  Macklin, at Lee’s order, hadn’t reported the pipe burst.  It hadn’t caused any problems for the mission at hand and it could be dealt with once the bell was safely rescued.


As Seaview and the bell were nearing a meeting at approximately 2000 feet O’Brien halted Seaview and started vectoring Lee in, aiming him toward the open bottom hatch.  Sharkey’s actions with the cable had taken what could have become a major headache mostly out of the equation.  He had his crew ready to grab the bell the instant it hit the open hatch and O’Brien, as well as every man aboard, was ready for this nightmare to be over!


The first attempt to get the bell to the hatch ended up a little off target and it bumped about ten feet aft.  Lee backed off, let the bell fall a couple of feet, and the second attempt was closer but still not quite dead center.  The mics were left open and the Conn as well as the Missile Room was treated to a decidedly other-than-normal commentary from their Skipper.  Thankfully, the third attempt proved successful and the bell bobbed up in the open hatch to be immediately snagged and attached to the decking until she could be securely brought aboard.  A glance through one of the portholes had a crewman telling Sharkey to call for Doc and everyone jumped to get the bell the rest of the way aboard since the hatch couldn’t be cracked until she was clear of the water.


Will and both corpsmen scurried through the corridor hatch about the same time that the bell was being lifted.  The lower hatch wasn’t able to close securely with the cable pulled through somewhat haphazardly but they did the best they could, got the bell settled on the deck, and cracked the hatch as fast as possible.  There were covered snickers all around as the first words they’d heard from the bell in too many hours was Chip’s rather snidely muttered, “It’s about flippin’ time!”




Lee wasn’t sure that he could keep his hands from trembling long enough to dock FS1.  Now that the bell was safely home his body reacted to the hours of tension and stress, not to mention the cold water shower, and he nearly passed out.  Somehow he managed to keep his concentration long enough to slide forward.  By the time FS1 slipped into her locking clamps O’Brien was reporting that with the exception of some relatively minor damage, all things considered, everyone in the bell was safe.  That more than anything added to Lee’s sense of sudden relief.  He didn’t even notice when Macklin steadied his sagging head from behind as everything went black.




Lt. O’Brien wasn’t exactly sure what to do.  He’d been waiting for his CO to get back aboard before reporting the quiet trench sensors but suddenly Macklin was yelling for medical attention aboard FS1.  At the same time he was getting reports from the Missile Room that both the Admiral and XO had injuries, although nothing terribly serious, thankfully.  He was just about to make his own decision to get the heck a lot higher in the water table, more in line with where they’d been staying between dives, when Lt. Keeter joined him in the Conn.  Keeter had been in and out as all hands on board were involved one way or another in the bell’s rescue, either actually on duty or relieving those who were so they could get a few minutes’ respite from the tension.  O’Brien hadn’t been about to give up command of the Conn, even though his shift had been over at 0200 and it was now 0550.  Keeter had totally understood but he’d stayed close, letting O’Brien make hits on the coffee and sandwiches that had continued to appear on a fairly regular basis for both officers and crew around the boat.  But now that disaster had been averted once more by their extremely clever but self-effacing captain it was time to get things at least a little back to normal.  Keeter agreed that a depth of about 400 feet sounded a nice balance point between the rocky weather topside and the possibility of tremors from below.  Frank, the senior corpsman, had come forward and tried to get down into FS1 to check on the Skipper.  Unfortunately, the hatch had suffered enough damage from manhandling the bell that it was jammed so Frank headed one deck down, to the entrance to the little craft’s aft hatch.  O’Brien hung around until he heard the intercom call from Frank to Doc, reporting that the Skipper was a bit hypothermic from getting drenched by a busted pipe aboard FS1 – O’Brien and Keeter just looked at each other and shook their heads.  Typical Skipper that he hadn’t bothered to report that little incident.  Frank told Doc that other than that, and signs of severe tension-instigated exhaustion, the Skipper seemed to be okay.  They grinned when Doc told Frank to drag the Skipper’s hide down to Sick Bay, even if he had to hog-tie him to do it.  On that note O’Brien decided that it might be decidedly safer to hide out in his own cabin.  By that time he and Keeter both knew that crew was once more getting itself sorted out as to who was on duty where, and who could finally crash now that everyone was safe.  They were both surprised that Lt’s James and Bryson weren’t hanging around as well until it was reported that Bryson was manning his duty station in Electrical and James had been helping out in the Missile Room.  Ordering both to their bunks, O’Brien headed to his own.  Time enough after some sleep to get everything else sorted out.




Lee was in a particularly foul mood.  He’d come to staring up at the slight grin on Frank’s face.  It took him a second to realize that he was laying on FS1’s deck, one blanket under him and another one on top.  He’d sent a glare seaman Macklin’s way but it hadn’t lasted.  He wasn’t overly thrilled with himself for passing out, and he certainly wasn’t about to blame Macklin for seeking help.  He immediately demanded updates on Nelson and Chip, which Frank was happy to give him as he continued to check Lee.  Lee was ticked at the mandated trip to Sick Bay but didn’t argue too much as he wanted to see his boss and best friend for himself anyway.


Lee had been a little wobbly when he’d first gotten up – with some carefully offered help from Frank.  He’d looked askance at the back hatch and Macklin told him about the upper one being damaged.  “One more thing to repair,” Lee had muttered.


“Don’t think the Admiral will be in too big a hurry to make you pay for it,” Frank teased him.  Lee had grinned, nodded to both he and Macklin, and made his way fairly steadily to Sick Bay.


He’d stopped as he stepped through the door – Admiral Nelson was sitting in a chair, drinking a cup of coffee while Jamie taped a clean bandage in place.  “I’ll live,” Nelson told him immediately, flinched as Jamie put some tape in place, and added with a growl, “unless I’m convicted of killing a certain CMO.”  That got chuckles from everyone else except Chip, laying on one of the exam tables.


“I’ll help,” the blond muttered.  At that Doc growled something mostly under his breath and it was Nelson’s turn to chuckle.


“You,” Will walked around in front of Nelson and pointed a finger at him.  “Bed.  Either here or your cabin, I don’t particularly care.”  Nelson momentarily glared at the CMO but surrendered fairly easily.  He did point an eyebrow at Lee.


“I’m fine,” Lee uttered his by now rather infamous line when asked anything about his health.


“That remains to be seen,” Will growled, and pointed to the other exam table.


“Don’t I get a cup of coffee?” Lee asked innocently.  Now that everything was sorting itself out Lee was happy to be a little silly.


“Not until I do, too,” Chip muttered.  “I’ve been without it longer than you have.”


Nelson apparently decided that he needed to get himself out of the line of fire and made a hasty retreat.  John appeared, ready with the x-ray machine to check Chip’s ribs, and Lee surrendered fairly peacefully, okay to wait until Jamie was done with Chip now that he knew that nothing too bad was wrong.


That’s where the trouble started.  Lee knew that he hadn’t passed out again.  He’d merely closed his eyes while Jamie was busy with Chip and somehow fell asleep.  But he woke up in a lower bunk, the doctor nearly ready to start an IV on him.  Lee wasn’t sure what was in the bag, and he didn’t care.  He was just fine, he was going to check the boat to make sure everything was under control, and then he’d hit his own bunk.


Jamie didn’t even bother to argue with him.  The CMO glared Lee into silence, jabbed the needle in place, and opened the valve wide open.  His continued glare defied Lee to debate the issue further, and suddenly Lee didn’t particularly care.  While his brain registered that Jamie had once again played dirty pool, his body was registering the comfortable mattress under him as well as the softness of the pillow.  He never even heard Jamie’s soft chuckle as the CMO snuggled the blankets around Lee’s shoulders.


* * * *


Lee was in the middle of a rather…emotionally detailed…dream when his head connected with the bulkhead and he snapped himself awake.  “Easy Skipper,” came from the doorway to Jamie’s office and the doctor appeared, wiping something dark and wet off the front of his uniform shirt.  “The sensors went quiet a while before you did last night…”  He frowned.  “Or rather, earlier this morning,” he amended, “and we were all warned.”


“Apparently not well enough,” came in Chip’s sarcastic voice from one bunk over.  Lee swung his feet to the floor and sat up, sending the blond a grin.


“How you feeling?” Lee asked.


“Good,” Chip told him.


“For a man with two broken ribs, a bruised hip, a cut on his knee, and a concussion,” Jamie added dryly.


Lee glanced at the clock, groaned when he realized it was nearly 1130 hours, and stood up before glancing at his arm.  “I took it out an hour ago,” Jamie referred to the IV.  When he made no further comments Lee headed for the door.  “Ah,” Jamie held up a hand.  Lee was prepared to do battle until the CMO walked over to the closet and pulled out a robe.  Not until seeing it did Lee actually realize that he was wearing nothing but his skivvies.  He ducked his head as he heard Chip snicker, but grabbed the robe and headed for his cabin.


He hit the Conn barely fifteen minutes later after a two-minute shower and donning a fresh uniform.  Admiral Nelson was at the chart table with both Lt.’s Keeter and James.  The Admiral sent him a grin as he joined them.  “Doc release you?” he asked Lee.


“Didn’t argue that I left after the turbulence woke me up,” Lee told him with a small frown, and looked to the two lieutenants for further information.


Chris James glanced at the Admiral but when Nelson stayed quiet, he obliged.  “We were expecting ‘something,’ with the sensors being so quiet so long.  They’re burping, as you call it, fairly regularly again.”


“When did they go quiet?” Lee wanted to know.


Keeter gave him a bit of a guilty look.  “A while before you got back,” he told his CO carefully.


Lee opened his mouth to question him further, thought better of it and turned to Nelson, who was carefully controlling his own expression.  “I really hope that you’re ready to go home, sir,” he told his boss with feeling.


Nelson chuckled softly.  “Yes, Lee, you can point us home.  After the last twenty-four hours Dr. Patrick has decided that he has enough samples from the trench to keep him happy for quite some time.”  He sighed heavily.  “And even I’ve had my fill of the area.”  His eyes started to twinkle merrily.  “For now, at least.”


Lee could only shake his head.  Nelson gave his shoulder a soft backhand and Lee got busy pointing Seaview’s nose east before Nelson could change his mind.


* * * *


Lee was enjoying the return of relative normalcy aboard Seaview as he headed for the Wardroom for dinner the following night.  They were still getting the occasional underwater wave pushing against their stern, but after everything else they’d been through the last few weeks no one was so much as batting an eyelash.  Once more leaving Lt.’s James and Bryson with the Conn, Lee had spent the previous day and most of today wandering around the boat watching his crew get everything back in order.


The biggest mess was in the Missile Room.  Once the bell was safely back, Chief Sharkey and his handpicked crew totally tore apart the winch.  Lee was glad that he was standing around when the problem was finally found that morning or the COB might have blasted a hole in Seaview’s side from his ranting, he was so mad.  It turned out that a simple little cotter pin had failed.  When it did, it allowed the small metal guiding arm it controlled to fall out of place inside the braking system.  Unfortunately, it fell directly into the path of the sprocket that, in conjunction with three other sprockets, controlled the cable’s movement up and down.  Sharkey was absolutely furious that it hadn’t been found before now.  Lee finally got Sharkey calmed down by reminding him that, with the bell out, they hadn’t dared dig that far into the system for fear of releasing the brake and dropping the bell completely.  Lee very carefully controlled his own expression as he noticed the other crewmen who’d been helping hide looks of relief that Lee was there to deflect a good portion of the COB’s temper tantrum.  No one had any doubts that the entire winch assembly wouldn’t be gone over with a fine-toothed comb, and that that particular part of the braking system wouldn’t get a special inspection before every bell dive from now on.  Still staying close to Sharkey to make sure there weren’t any additional tantrums, Lee had eaten lunch in the Crew’s Mess.


He was wandering aft following a quick check in the Conn, just about to the Wardroom, when he saw Jamie and Chip headed there as well from the direction of Sick Bay.  Lee had checked on his friend every chance he got during the intervening time but almost every time Chip had been sleeping.  Lee had a feeling that it was self-defense on Jamie’s part, keeping Chip mildly sedated to save his own ear drums, so he was surprised to see the blond actually up and walking.  Well, limping, and dressed in pj’s and a Sick Bay robe.  The CMO was staying fairly close but not offering any assistance.  Lee entered the Wardroom and then stood aside for them to enter before he closed the door.  It wasn’t until then that he realized Admiral Nelson was already sitting down, eating.


He was totally amazed to see Jamie stop when he spotted Nelson, get a disgusted look on his face, and turn and glare at Lee.  “Make sure he,” the doctor indicated Chip, “eats a decent meal, then put him to bed in his own bunk.”


Lee raised an eyebrow at the order.  “You’re releasing him?”


“I’m tired of listening to him whine,” and the doctor turned as if to leave.


“I was not whining,” Chip refuted the statement.  “I was merely pointing out, in logical detail, why there was no earthly reason for you to be keeping me there.”


Lee grinned.  “Sounds like things are back to normal,” he quipped lightly.  He was totally unprepared for the snarl Nelson sent over his shoulder and the equally ticked-off one Jamie sent back.  “Whoa,” he held out a hand to stop Jamie’s retreat.  He was just noticing the look of total puzzlement on Chip’s face when it finally dawned on him what had to be the problem and he ducked his head.


“Lee?” came from Nelson at the same time Jamie growled, “Commander?” and Chip muttered, “What did you do?”


Lee sent them all a sheepish look.  “You haven’t been to your cabin, have you?” he asked Chip.


The blond frowned down at his clothes.  “Does it look like I’ve been to my cabin?” he grumbled.  Lee sent him a quick grin and then shared an apologetic look between Nelson and Jamie.


“You?” Nelson practically thundered before he, too, sent Will a look of apology.


Lee looked back at Chip.  “I knew that you weren’t happy having to go down in the bell after Lawrence was injured.  I’d actually meant to do it the dive before but I got sidetracked.  Took the little flask that Jim Roche gave me, poured a swallow of the Admiral’s scotch in, and tossed it on your bunk.  Then all hell broke loose and I totally forgot all about it.  Until just now.”  He looked at Nelson.  “Sorry, sir, but I really didn’t think that you’d miss it.”  He very carefully kept to himself his thought about Nelson blaming Jamie – he really did think that the two friends would only tease each other, not declare war as apparently had happened.


Nelson snorting finally broke what had become a very tense moment.


“Probably should have figured it out,” Will sent Nelson a look of contrition.


“You and me both,” the Admiral agreed.  The two older men shared a look before both sent Lee a stern stare.


“Oops,” Lee said softly.  At that moment a very small wave hit Seaview, as if the trench was getting in one last good-bye.


“I’m really glad we’re headed home,” Chip muttered, all four grinned, and prepared to enjoy the evening meal together.










Mrs. Will Jamison (Lu-Tsi) and her background with Will used with permission of her creator, Cris Smithson.


*      see Cobwebs by R. L. Keller

**    see Code by R. L. Keller

***  see Anybody Know What Normal Is by R. L. Keller

****see Submarine Sunk Here