First off, I’d like to thank to Sue who graciously agreed to beta this for me and thanks to the Friday-Sunday chat room ladies for their ideas and input. Disclaimer: Dr. Robert Campbell, Dr. Rea Crane, and Palala do not belong to me. I'm sort of borrowing them at the moment. I'll put them back when I'm done.
The quick sure step down the stairwell was as distinctive as fingerprints to Chip Morton as he stood patiently at the plot table, the latest satellite readings on a clipboard in front of him. He knew Lee Crane’s step as well as he knew the back of his own hand.
“Chip, what’s our position?”
Chip didn’t bother looking up from the table but instead quipped smartly, “Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.”
Lee mocked growled and snatched the clipboard away from Morton’s long fingers. “You can be replaced, you know,” he snapped back good-naturedly.
“You can try. You know you’ll never be able to replace me. You can’t function without me and you know it.”
Lee snorted. “You might have a point. Who else can I pawn my paperwork on?”
“You can always do your own, how ‘bout it?” Chip shot back and got a friendly shove in return. He just grinned and accepted the teasing. Lee was obviously in a good mood, despite the sudden change in plans.
Lee pushed the clipboard back toward Chip and then glanced over the carefully plotted charts. “Is this our position?” he asked.
“Yes, sir. Like I told you, we’re somewhere in the Pacific. Our trim is good and we’re holding steady. We’re only about fifty miles from the nearest shipping lanes. At our present position, the nearest port is Callao, Peru. I can only assume we’re rendezvousing with another ship.”
“Not that I’m aware of. The admiral just asked to change course, said we had new orders from the State Department. When I asked why, he said he’d brief us when he had more details. Since then he’s been in his cabin, in a video conference.”
“Three weeks out to deliver supplies to three sealabs and suddenly we get new orders to change course. Lee, that was four hours ago. For the last hour we’ve been hovering on the edge of the continental shelf. You don’t have any idea what all this is about?”
“None. I’m sure the admiral has his reasons for cutting short the trip home.”
The words had hardly left Lee’s mouth when the admiral’s voice hummed over the intercom. “Lee, I need to see you in my cabin.”
“Looks like we’re finally going to get some answers,” Lee replied as he snagged the mike. “Yes, Admiral, I’ll be right there.” Lee shot Chip a quick grin “You get to mind the store for a bit.”
“Don’t I always? Bring me back all the juicy details,” Chip replied.
Halfway up the stairwell, Lee tossed back. “Don’t I always?”
Chip just grinned as Lee vanished up the stairs. Turning his attention back to the charts and reports Lee so kindly left for him, Chip could only ponder his employer’s state of mind and wonder what Seaview was about to get involved in.
A knock at this cabin door distracted Nelson from the files on his desk. He didn’t even bother glancing up, just uttered a quick, “Enter,” knowing by the pattern of the knock that it was Lee.
He wasn’t wrong.
Crane closed the door behind him and stood at attention for a second, not sure just what playing field he had just stepped on to. The hastily ordered change of course, the mysterious destination in the middle of nowhere, they all indicated something of the top-secret nature, but Nelson’s tone seemed far too casual for a top-secret mission.
“Relax, Lee, this is serious, but not clandestine. I figured by now you and Chip are full of questions about the course I handed off. Time I gave you some answers.”
Lee dropped his lanky from into a chair and folded his hands in his lap. “We’ve been wondering why we’re hugging the continental shelf. Our nearest port is Callao, Peru. Are we rendezvousing with another ship?”
Nelson shook his head. “No, the flying sub will be taking off and to be on the safe side, I want Seaview in international waters while we’re gone.”
Lee blinked. “Gone, sir?” Clearly he had missed something.
“It would seem that we are being asked to play humanitarians. We’ve been asked to evacuate a group of scientists from the Peruvian rainforest. There are six of them, three anthropologists, two biologists and a botanist. They are studying the effects of global warming and deforestation in the Amazonian region. Three members of the group have come down with something. There is the risk that whatever they have is not indigenous to the area and could infect the local tribes. So we’re being asked to evacuate them.”
“Evacuate? The whole team? Why us?” Lee asked, tilting his head slightly in curiosity. Tapping the pen in one hand against the top of his desk, Nelson tilted his head to glance over to the younger man.
“We are the best hope of getting this group out. We will not be bringing them back to Seaview. Our job is simply to find them and get them to Moyobamba. The main goal is to prevent them from spreading whatever they may have and keeping them from contaminating the local tribes.”
Lee leaned forward and rested the fingertips of both hands on the edge of the desk. “That's all fine and dandy in theory. I don't have to remind you there are thousands and thousands of miles of jungle to search. We could wander around for weeks and not find any sign of them. Do you even have a starting point?” Lee asked. If there was one thing Lee hated, that was going off with half a plan.
“It's not like we're going to be wandering around in the jungle, Lee. You know me better than that. We will be getting assistance from Dr. Robert Campbell. He knows the area, he knows were the group is holed up and can take us directly in. Campbell assures me that there shouldn't be any problems.”
Lee threw one of those glares at Nelson, practically snarling. He was unable to sit still at this point and rose to his feet, like a panther uncoiling for the pounce. “How many times have I heard that before?”
“Calm down, Lee. This is not one of your little joyrides for ONI. We've got the blessing of the Peruvian government, we've got an experienced guide, and I'll not be taking anyone along who hasn't had field experience.”
“Who? How many are you planning on taking? I hope you've marked me down. Try leaving the sub without me,” Lee replied, with more than a touch of venom.
Nelson was a bit surprised at the ferocity of Lee’s tone. “I would never dream of it. I’d be a fool to ignore your considerable field experience. I plan on going, of course, along with Will and either Frank or John and possibly Kowalski, unless you have a better commendation. I want Chip along as well.” This was where Nelson expected the explosion. Lee might not like the idea of leaving Seaview in the less experienced hands of Bob O'Brien. But Lee was nodding as he stopped the habitual pacing. He faced Nelson with a calculating look in his eyes.
“That might not be a bad idea. Chip can monitor communications between Seaview and us should we have any problems. It will give him the chance to test out the new GPS. Besides, he needs to get off the boat more often.” Crane said finally, with a mischievous glint in his eye.
“You're not going to argue about leaving Bob in command?” Nelson asked, his voiced touched by amusement.
“Admiral, if O'Brien can't handle a quiet little babysitting job while we take a hike through the jungle, he's not worth his stripes.”
“I still don't understand why you need me. Ski can handle communications. I don't like the idea of leaving O'Brien in charge right now. Have you seen the forecast? Tropical Storm Chloe is moving in this direction. Seaview is a setting duck in these waters,” Chip Morton said quietly, leaning over the plot table.
Crane only smiled. He knew Chip would have a fit about leaving the boat. The exec was more agitated about leaving O'Brien in charge than Lee was about going on this mission. He wasn't about to let Morton off the hook. “If the weather turns sour, all Bobby has to do is take her deep and wait things out. How hard can that be? With any luck we can be in and out before Chloe makes landfall. It's all the more reason I want you along. You can test out these new laptops and the software the admiral authorized and what better testing ground than the Peruvian rainforest. You can track Chloe and keep us updated, as well as handle communications. This is your chance to test out your GPS upgrades to the satellite uplinks. Besides, once we find the group, Will, John and Ski are going to have their hands full. You know how the admiral is. Once he meets up with Dr. Campbell, the two of them are going to start talking plants and biology and I won't understand half of what they’re talking about. With you along, at least I'll have somebody to complain to,” Lee reasoned with a grin.
Chip rolled his eyes but didn't press the issue. Lee had a point. The admiral was a brilliant man, but put him in the same room with another scientist and it was very difficult to get his attention. He turned into a one track-minded, focused individual who had to be coerced into doing the simplest things, like eating and sleeping.
Morton laid a flattened palm on the chart table. “Alright, if it keeps you quiet, I'll go. Since the admiral's going to be preoccupied, somebody has to go along to keep you out of trouble.”
The party of Nelson and Lee, Chip and Jamieson, as well as Kowalski and John Anthony, one of Seaview’s senior corpsman, flew into Moyobamba, landing FS1 in an open field used as a landing strip, forgoing the airport in favor of being closer to their starting point for the trek into the rainforest. The local villagers, used to seeing planes come and go, had never seen anything like the flying sub and stared curiously as the party unloaded.
“So where's this Dr. Campbell? Is he meeting us or are we meeting him?” Lee asked, dropping a pack of supplies to the growing mound already unloaded.
Just then a deep voice, tinged with hint of a Scottish brogue, cut across the air. “Admiral Nelson and company, I presume?”
Lee looked up to see a broad-shouldered, older man, with a short gray beard and long graying hair pulled back into a ponytail. His purposeful stride carried him quickly across the field to the small group. Following closely was a tall woman with long sun-streaked hair pulled back in a long braid. Woven into her hair was a collection of feathers, stone and beads. From one ear she wore a long decorated feather and across her forehead was a long curving blue tattoo. It would have looked out of place on most people but on her it seemed right somehow. Several natives clustered around the two as they made their way across the field.
“Looks like he found us,” Nelson stated and walked forward to meet the oncoming group. “Dr. Campbell?”
“Glad you could make it. I hope all your people have been immunized? If any one so much as has a case of the sniffles, they can trot back to that submarine of yours. I already have one bunch of nitwit blunders. I do not need a second, ” Campbell said without preamble.
Nelson motioned for Jamie and the doctor came forward to stand by the admiral, crossing his arms over his chest and standing up to the brisk tone of the older man. “Every one of these men have had all the necessary immunizations and passed a physical. We wouldn't dream of bringing some invasive illness into this region, doctor. The problem as I see it is the chance one of my people could come down with something we can’t vaccinate for,” Jamie said. Campbell gave the group a long, lingering glance.
“For crying out loud, Campbell, what were you expecting, the Mayo clinic? You wanted the group evacuated, not set up a hospital on the damn site,” the woman spoke up, a strong Bronx accent coloring her voice.
Campbell ignored her and turned his attention to Nelson. “My research assistant, Dr. Rea Crane,” he replied dryly, almost chewing on the words.
“Crane? Any relation, Lee?” Nelson asked. Lee and Rea looked at each other intensely, both with a curious look on their face. Rea spoke first.
“I’d think I’d remember if I had any cousins like you running around. You wouldn't have family in New York, would you?” she asked.
Lee grinned. “Sorry. Rhode Island.”
“Alright Bronx, you can flirt later. Who's the rest of your team, Admiral and how soon can you be ready to head out?
Nelson gestured at each man in turn. “You know my captain, Lee Crane, Commander Chip Morton, our Executive Officer, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Will Jamieson, corpsman John Anthony and senior rating Leon Kowalski. Kowalski also happens to be a trained field medic. Say the word and we're ready.”
Campbell was nodding his approval. “Sounds like a good strong group. We shouldn't have an trouble with a group this large.”
Lee turned a concerned eye to Campbell then back to the admiral. “I wasn’t aware the natives in these parts were unfriendly. Are you expecting any trouble, doctor?”
Campbell shook his head. “I told you, not with a group this large. Natives aren’t the problem. Palala!” Campbell turned his attention to the group of natives, one, clearly the leader and braver than the others, rattled off something in a local language and Campbell answered back in the same.
Seconds later, all the gear was picked up and a line was waiting for Campbell's word to move out. Lee shot the admiral a concerned look, but Nelson shook his head. Lee had a bad feeling about this trip that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Instead of dwelling on it, he tried to pay attention to what Campbell was saying.
“Gentlemen, we have a hard two day hike to the river. Past the river it’s another two days into the valley. Shall we get going?” Campbell asked, taking a pack from Palala and shouldering it over his back. Nelson and his party did the same with their own gear and Nelson made the first move.
“That's what we're here for. Lead the way, Dr. Campbell,” the admiral invited.
Including the natives that followed Campbell, the group was fifteen strong. True to Lee's prediction, Nelson and Campbell had quite a bit to talk about. It wasn't long before the two took lead on the trail, deep in discussion about plants, local wildlife and all things scientific.
Chip and Lee took the trail side by side. “Looks like you were right, Lee,” he said with a nod in the admiral’s direction. Lee glanced up, but didn’t say anything. Chip eyed his friend with suspicion. “Alright, pal. Spill it.”
Lee snorted. “It is that obvious?”
“Only to me. But then, I know you. What’s eating you, other than the mosquitoes?” Chip asked, defining the statement with a slap at his neck. Since landing, Chip had been plagued by the blood-sucking insects. They didn’t seem to be bothering Lee half as much.
“I don’t like walking into something I don’t know anything about. Campbell says he’s not worried about the natives but his tone said he was worried about something. What? I hate unanswered questions, you know that.”
“Yeah, I know. Talk to Rea. She’s should know as much as Campbell about this area.”
“Good idea. Shall we?”
“Lead on, skipper.”
Lee and Chip shared double grins and slowed their pace to fall back until they were side by side with Campbell’s assistant.
“What do you think about Peru, gentlemen?” Rea asked as blond and brunet fell into place.
“Looks like most jungles I’ve seen. Anything different about this one? Campbell was kind of vague.”
Rea shrugged. “No different than most. Poisonous spiders, poisonous snakes, the occasional big cat. Most of the larger game has gone deeper into the jungle. The weather is our biggest problem. We get rain everyday up here. The terrain can be brutal if you’re in less than top shape.”
“Then why the big secret? Just come out and say so,” said Lee.
“That’s the way he is. Campbell’s just old school. You have to look over him. Seriously, about the only thing you have to be concerned with is the occasional treasure hunter. We get groups of them on occasion. They’re obnoxious and they don’t take no for an answer. Some of them can be down right dangerous and don’t think twice about attacking isolated groups of travelers. That’s why our group is as large as it is. No one is going to risk taking on a group as large and as organized as us.”
“The things people do for money,” Chip responded, tinkering with the small GPS tracker. He glanced up at Lee and raised an eyebrow in silent question. Lee shrugged. He wasn’t entirely happy, but any answer was better than none. Rea must have picked up on Lee’s unease.
“Relax. We know the terrain. Campbell was right, with a group this large, it’s doubtful that anyone is going to bother us. We’re making good time. We’ll have everybody out and back to Moyobamba before you know it. “
Mother Nature was about to announce her arrival—loudly and violently.
What had started out as a tropical depression in the Pacific was now growing with alarming strength for a Pacific-born storm and was headed straight for the western coast of South America, with Peru dead in Chloe's sights. On the first night out, the team set up a temporary camp and Chip kept busy tracking the growing storm. This was the first chance he had to test out the new waterproof laptops and he was like a kid in a candy store. With a strong connection to the Institute's communication, Chip was able to keep up with Chloe's every twist and turn.
It was late in the afternoon when the group came to a halt for the evening. The air was thick and humid with the expectation of the coming rain and the smell of mud was heavy, considering how close they were to the river. Already the frogs were lending their voice to the coming twilight. Chip was using the break to make one more check on the tropical system.
“What track is the old girl going to take?” Nelson asked, coming up to stand at the exec's shoulder as Chip's long fingers danced across the keyboard. Chip called up the most current satellite maps showing Chloe's anticipated track. The Institute’s meteorology department was keeping close tabs on the storm and Chip was able to tap right into the system.
“Doesn't look good, admiral. Chloe's growing much faster than they originally predicted. She could make land fall in less than six hours. At her present track, she's going to dump a lot of rain on us,” Chip said, studying the maps and forecasts.
Nelson dropped and hand onto his shoulder. “Keep on eye on it for me, Chip. Let me know the second she makes landfall.”
“Aye sir.” Chip turned his attention to the data streaming across his screen. Nelson glanced up, looking for Lee and Campbell. He found both on the edge of the camp, Campbell gesturing down stream, obviously explaining something to the dark haired skipper. Nelson causally joined them, both hands shoved in the pockets of his green field trousers.
“Gentlemen, we may have a problem,” he began. Campbell gave Nelson his full attention.
“I don't understand. We're making good time, the supplies are holding out well. At the rate we’re going we should reach the river by sunset tomorrow,” Campbell said. His brown eyes studied Nelson for a second before shifting back to the horizon.
“Chip says Chloe could make land fall in less than six hours,” he said. The message was not lost on the two men.
“We have to get in and out before the river rises. We can't risk contaminating the local tribes. These people have no defenses against European diseases and a common cold could wipe out this entire region, ” Campbell said.
Lee folded his arms across his chest. “What do you suggest, Admiral?” he asked quietly.
Nelson snorted. “I was about to ask you the same thing. I think we should break camp now and get moving. A couple of hours could be the only thing between getting out and being stuck for weeks.”
“I agree. I'll gather everyone one up and spread the word.”
An hour later the search party was on the move.
“Sir, Mr. Morton calling,” James Sparks called out, his voice echoing slightly from the intercom over the plot table.
Lieutenant Robert O’Brien calmly picked up the mike and thumbed the catch. “Go ahead and put him through, Sparks.” With a quick glance at his watch, O’Brien confirmed Morton’s scheduled check in time.
”Aye sir.” There was a pause and the slight click as the connection switched.
“Bob, are you keeping busy?” the exec asked. Bob could hear the smile in the exec’s voice and grinned himself. Things must be going well to put Mr. Morton in a good mood.
“Yes sir. We’re just taking the time to do some routine cleaning. By the time you get back, Seaview won’t have a speck of dust. She’s gonna shine like a brand new penny.”
“Very well. Keep up with Chloe. She moves too close, you know what to do.”
Bob was nodding even though he knew Morton couldn’t see him. “Yes sir. I’ll take her deep and we’ll ride out Chloe down here. Everything okay on your end, sir? Have you reached Dr. Campbell’s valley yet?”
“No, we’re still a few hours hike from the river. We’re making good time though. I’m keeping an eye on Chloe and sending you our own track. Is the GPS still working?”
“Yes sir. We’ve been monitoring your position ever since you landed. The signal is strong and clear, we haven’t had any problems. Any special orders, sir?”
“No, sounds like you’ve got everything under control. Monitor the weather and keep an eye on us. I’ll report back again in six hours. Oh, and Bob?”
O’Brien grinned suspecting what the exec was about to say. “Yes, sir?”
“Don’t scratch the paint. Morton out,”
With a smile, O’Brien replaced the mike and turned his attention back to the charts. Once more, he thanks the powers that be for whatever had drawn the admiral’s eye to him. He never once regretted going Reserves. There wasn’t a day that didn’t go by when he didn’t learn something from the skipper or Mr. Morton. He had never worked with anybody else quite like them. They gave you enough space and if it looked like you were floundering, one or the other would step in, offer a quiet suggestion then back off. His watch was his watch, even if he was under the scrutiny of someone else. He never felt resentful, but grateful that they were there to offer guidance and feedback. He couldn’t imagine either man not being there. He heard Jimmy’s familiar step behind him, pulling Bob out of his musings.
“Hey, I’m going off duty. You’re up in another hour, right?” Jimmy Sparks asked.
“Yeah, I’m going to grab a bit to eat, then I might wander back up here. I want to be here when Mr. Morton makes his next call-in time. I’ll join you for dinner, though.”
“I can give you a hand with the reports. We’ll keep everything caught up. I’m sure the last thing they need when they get back is a Mt. Everest-sized stack of paperwork.” Jimmy said.
Bob grinned at his best friend and kept his brown eyes from rolling too much. “Thanks. It never ceases to amaze me how much paperwork is needed just to report we’re holding trim and position at two hundred feet. We can keep this boat in one piece, let’s just hope they can come back to us in one piece.”
By not stopping as originally planned, the group just barely beat the setting sun to the river, a deep wide swath that cut through the rainforest, stained green from algae and vegetation swept in from upstream. From there, Campbell turned the group north and began the slow trek upwards into the hills.
Chloe made landfall five hours later, sooner than anticipated. Chip was busy keeping up with the constant updates from the Institute. He watched radar as she tracked further north than the group was headed, which was both a blessing and a curse. It kept the worst of the storm away from the trail, but the torrential rains had to go somewhere. The streams and rivers were slowly rising as the group climbed over steep hills.
By now Campbell was leading them over a series of trails that seemed literally perched on the sides of the hills, hanging directly over the raging water that two days ago was a gently flowing river. Nelson could practically watch the waters rising inch by destructive inch. It was mesmerizing, the swirl of dark green water, now taking on a darker hue as overland floodwater began to empty into the river. They watched it turn from a calm, slow entity to a raging torrent in the space of just a few hours, setting the stage for the events to come.
“The river’s rising, people! Let’s get a move on!”
Through the pouring rain Harriman's words carried up the line. Ten feet in front of him, Lee passed the word up to Dr. Campbell who was breaking the trail for the fifteen-member rescue party. Chip, walking tail at the end of the line behind Rea, looked behind him at the narrow ledge they had just crossed and tried not to look down. Below them the river was steadily rising as floodwaters from upstream continued to drain into the waterways, a present from Chloe. There was only one bridge out of this valley and if they couldn’t make it out before the floodwaters got too high, it might be weeks before they could get out. Chip looked behind him at the narrow stretch of trail they had just come across. It was fast washing out in the downpour. He pulled the tan hat down lower on his head, pulled the jacket collar up and checked the tether line that was tied off around his waist one more time. Campbell had insisted they tether to one another, saying if one person slipped off a ledge, they had something they could haul them up with. Rea had grumbled something foul but didn't argue as Campbell tested each and every line.
Morton adjusted the laptop case that hung over his chest and shoulder, making sure the radio and the GPS were safely stowed away. Seaview was keeping up with their track should they need it and he didn’t want anything happening to their gear. Day light had faded about half an hour ago. Darkness fell quickly, brought on sooner by the overcast sky and falling rain.
Ahead of him, the admiral half turned to address the end of the line, water dripping steadily off his own hat, mud caked to his knees.
“Campbell says the trail widens ahead. We’ll make better time!” he yelled, and turned back to the trail. Chip was about to say something else when a roar and a terrific crack split the air. The hillside shook and the ground under the exec's feet rolled. Before Chip could react, the terrain under his feet gave way and he and three guides went down. Chip was aware of someone screaming his name, the roar of the wet earth as he slid down the hillside heading straight for the flooded river and the sound of his own heartbeat pounding in his ears.
Suddenly he was jerked to a halt and hanging some seventy-five feet above the rushing water that churned below. He swung as the tether line stretched. Around his waist he felt something slip. Chip glanced down and saw the knot in the line was slowly coming undone. Bloody hell.
“CHIP!” Lee Crane screamed his name over the cliff side, leaning over as far as he could. Below him, Morton swung back and forth, like some kind of spider. Loose debris from the cliff continued to pelt down, bombarding Chip with mud and rocks. Lee watched as Morton righted himself, clinging to the line with both hands. God, if that line snapped before they could get him to safety…
“I'm okay!” Chip shouted back up, just as the knot slipped again and he dropped a few inches.
“Hang on! We'll figure something out!” Lee yelled back and then disappeared. Chip grabbed the tether rope with both hands, wishing for a pair of sturdy gloves. Rope burns were nothing to laugh at.
“Oh, I’m hanging in there. Me and Tarzan.” He dropped again. Below him three guides swung and jabbered something in their native language.
“Hang on! We’re coming after you!” Nelson shouted back and then he too vanished from the edge. Seconds later a second rope snaked over the edge of the cliff, slowly feeding toward Chip.
Morton felt the tether line give again. This time he was jerked hard and dropped about a foot. Suddenly the line snapped under him and three terrified screams cut through the gloom as the guides below him fell, seventy-five feet into the raging river.
Before Chip had time to register the event, his line snapped. His bare hands weren't enough to stop him. Time stood still as Chip dropped like a rock then hit a narrow ledge below him. There was a crunch and a snap. Pain shot through his right leg and the ledge crumbled under his weight.
“CHIP! NO!” Lee surged forward as Chip’s body hit the ledge then over into open space. Something jerked him around the waist and he spun to see Nelson gripping the back of his belt.
“Lad, I can’t lose you both,” Nelson pleaded. Lee dropped to his knees, faced with the stark reality below him. Chip’s body hit the water and he was gone, vanishing into the angry waters below.
Lee closed his eyes as something inside him broke, clenching his fists at his side, unable to push past the anger and grief.
Four hours later:
“Lee, we have to press on. We've already spent time we don't have. Our window is closing fast, we have to get those researchers out,” Nelson said. Lee gazed down river, his hands clenched into tight fists. Finally the skipper turned to face Nelson. In all his years, Nelson had never seen such a look of grief, loss and despair. With a final glance down river, Lee called out to the researcher who had led them this far.
“Campbell! Take us back to the main trail!”
Harry watched as Lee climbed up out of the river bottom, caked in mud and gravel. Nelson made on last visual sweep of the valley. Four hours and nothing. No sign, to trace, no anything of Chip Morton or his body. Not even his equipment had been found. With a bone weary sigh, Nelson climbed out of the river bottom and followed after the retreating form of Seaview's captain. He should never have brought Chip along. He’d still be alive if he had stayed aboard Seaview. Nelson grabbed for his own radio, dreading the call he was going to have to make. He couldn’t wait till they got back to the boat. The crew needed to know now.
“Nelson to Seaview, Nelson to Seaview. Come in Seaview,” Nelson called out with as much calm as he could muster. Sparks responded promptly, but Nelson could still hear the confusion in his radio operator’s voice.
“Admiral Nelson, sir?”
“Connect me with Mr. O’Brien, Sparks.”
“Yes, sir. One moment, sir.” Seconds later, Nelson was greeted by Bob O’Brien.
“Sir? Everything alright? Mr. Morton is late with the check in.”
“Mr. O’Brien, see if you can get a fix on the GPS Mr. Morton was carrying and I want the last five hours of updates. I want to know immediately if that tracker is still sending updates.”
“Yes sir, I’ll get Sparks on it right away. Sir, if I may ask…”
Nelson took a deep breath before plowing forward, knowing there was no way to make this any easier. “Mr. Morton is MIA. He was caught in a landslide and swept into a river. He’s been washed down stream and we don’t have any idea how far. Our window to do what we can here for is running out and we can’t stay.”
There was a long silence on the other end as Nelson imagined O’Brien, staring, not sure of what to say. Finally the young lieutenant spoke. “Any chance of finding him, sir?”
“We’re looking, Bob. I’ll let keep you updated.”
“Ah, Admiral, how’s the skipper?”
“Mr. O’Brien, I’m not going to dignify that question at the moment. Get me those readings, ASAP! Nelson out.” Shoving the radio back into its case on his hip, Nelson headed back to the top of the bank, still haunted by O’Brien’s question and the look in Lee’s eyes.
At the top of the bank, Rea was waiting to lend Nelson a hand. She too had seen the expression in Lee's face. “Those two were close, weren't they?” she asked, having seen how they interacted with each other over the last few days.
Nelson nodded, running a hand through his hair. “I've seldom seen another pair closer.”
“I don't want to burst your bubble, admiral, but the chances that Morton is alive aren't very good. If the current doesn't drown him, the debris will.”
Chip hit the water and sank beneath the surface. He came up sputtering, trying to aim for the banks, but the current had him in an iron grip and it wasn’t giving up its prize so easily. It was a struggle just to keep his head above water.
The mangled and twisted bulk of what was left of a tree slammed into Chip’s left side. He couldn’t stop his scream of agony as the limbs scraped by him, ripping up a gash in his midsection. Chip grabbed for the trunk, trying to pull himself out of the water but his right leg wouldn’t work. Trying to move it just sent wave after agonizing wave of pain that left him gasping. The best he could do was wrap his arms around the trunk and hold on as the current carried him farther and farther away from any chance of being rescued.
Chip was aware of a roar, growing louder and louder with every minute. Puzzled, he couldn’t understand what it was. He pushed past the pain fogging his mind and as the current picked up, Chip realized what the roar was.
Panicking, he released his death grip on the tree and tried to make it to shore. But his broken right leg refused to work and all he could do was flounder in the grip of the storm-flooded river. More debris pummeled his battered body and pushed him along. He saw the same tree he had been holding on to start to twist in the muddy water. The treetop drifted in his direction and Chip was unable to get out of the way. He was trapped in a mess of tangled and broken tree limbs, carried along in the wild, untamed current.
The roar was getting louder, deafening, leaving no room for thoughts or images. Chip was helpless as the tree was carried him along and over the waterfall.
It felt like an eternity as he fell over into open space. For the second time in one day, Morton found himself in free fall. He hit the water and felling nothing but pain with the impact. This time Chip dropped once more, into a darkness that reached out to claim him with icy cold fingers.
Three days later the search party with the three stricken scientists made their way out of Campbell's valley. Will had his hands full with the ill researchers and keeping a close watch on Nelson and Crane. Lee had closed himself off, seldom speaking, focusing totally on the mission at hand. As they neared the river, Will noticed Lee getting fidgety and jumpy. Finally, Lee approached Nelson.
“Admiral, Leave me Kowalski. Give me a few days to search the riverbed downstream, if there is any chance I can find Chip, I have to try,” Lee's eyes pleaded with Nelson, desperation in his words.
Something in Harry almost broke. He knew Lee was going to ask to stay and he’d been trying to think of a tactful way to tell Lee no. There just wasn’t anyway to soften the blow of his answer. “Lee, I can’t let you do that.”
Hazel eyes smoldering with grief and need locked into Nelson’s. “Sir, I can’t just leave him out there. He could be hurt, waiting for us. We have to try,” Lee replied briskly. Nelson only shook his head.
“Lad, this entire valley is flooded and getting worse by the minute. I can’t risk losing you.”
Lee’s voice dropped, imbued with all the warmth of a snowstorm. “You’re denying my request to rescue Chip.”
“I’m denying this request. Captain. When the floodwaters subside, we can come back and launch a proper rescue. We still have to get these scientists to safety,”
“Admiral…” Lee wasn’t ready to give up and it took every ounce of training for Nelson not to give in. Instead he turned away from Lee so his friend couldn’t see the grief in his own eyes and channeled the fiery Irish temper that had earned him such a reputation.
“That’s enough, Captain Crane! We have our orders and we don’t have the time or the resources to deviate from that mission. Have I made myself clear?”
Lee Crane drew back in alarm from his superior officer. He had pushed too hard, asked for too much. But this was Chip. He couldn’t just walk away and leave him there. He had to make an effort.
When Nelson spoke again, his soft had softened “Son, I know. But we can’t risk it now. When the weather breaks. We have to get these people to safety first,” Nelson said finally.
Lee nodded, ignoring the grief and pain threatening to overwhelm him and he pushed past the admiral. “Aye sir. Understood. Sir,” he snapped.
Nelson watched Lee stalk past him. One of the most difficult things Nelson ever had to do was watch Lee walk away from him. The lost look in Lee’s eyes would haunt him for weeks.
It was a dejected and depressed group that returned to Seaview. Every last man was covered from head to toe in jungle mud and slime. Their trip back to Moyobamba was slow going and took a day longer than planned. While Chloe had moved inland, the flooding continued downstream. There was simply no way to get a party in to search for Chip. While the rest of the party dispersed to their respective quarters to clean up, Crane stayed behind in the Control Room. He registered the movement of the admiral on the stairwell but he paid no further attention.
Lee made one circuit of the control room, his cold amber eyes lingering at the plot table. He felt his gut twist up as he thought about the man who should be standing there. It was his fault. He insisted Chip go along. If he had left well enough alone none of this would have happened. Chip would still be alive and ribbing him about looking like forty miles of bad road.
Lee paused, resting his hands atop the table, almost as if seeking a connection to the lost officer. Finally, he then turned his attention to O'Brien. In tones that demanded no argument or questions, Lee addressed the junior officer. “Mr. O'Brien. Set a course for Santa Barbara. All ahead full. I'll be in my cabin.” With that Lee vanished up the stairs, leaving the entire control room watching in stunned disbelief. The rumors where true. Commander Morton was lost.
Lee shut the cabin door and for a breath he contemplated locking it. Never before had he ever felt so lost. There had been a time when they had thought the admiral’s plane had blown up1, that Nelson had been killed but it proved to be a mix up. There was no mix up here.
Lee moved to his bunk and sat down on the edge. He stared down at his shoes, at the mud encrusted footwear, scraps of vegetation, tiny bits of rock. It didn’t seem real. Surely this was all a bad dream. He hadn’t seen his best friend and brother fall into a raging river, washed away like so much driftwood. It wasn’t possible.
But it was. Lee knew that. Chip hadn’t been in the Control Room, where he should have been. He was gone. The light knock on the door went nearly unheard until the door eased cautiously open.
“Lee?” Admiral Nelson’s concerned voice called out to Lee and pierced the fog the younger man was slowly sinking into.
The skipper looked up with unseeing eyes. “Yes sir?” he asked, automatic in response to being addressed by a flag officer. Nelson perched on the edge of the desk and watched Lee closely. He had thrown on his blue robe, and a damp towel was wrapped around his neck. His auburn hair was wet and tousled from the quick shower he’d managed to grab.
“Lad, maybe you should let O’Brien handle the rest of this cruise. It’s a straight stretch back home.”
“I can still command Seaview,” Lee replied hollowly. He never moved, though his gaze dropped back down to his filthy mud covered boots.
Nelson took a deep breath and stepped lightly. After how he had barked at Lee earlier, their friendship was on unstable ground right now. “No one’s debating your ability to command, son. I just thought you might need some time.”
“I’m coming back. He’s not dead. I can feel it. He’s alive out there somewhere. If he dies now, it’s because I abandoned him, because I left him in that stinking jungle to rot. If I don’t bring him back, his family will never forgive me.”
“Now, Lee. I know the Mortons. They don’t think like that and you know it. Give yourself a few days and we’ll organize another search party. Just don’t do anything rash, just yet. Please. Give me some time to work something things out. “
“Aye sir. “ Again the answer was automatic, like a recording. Nelson wanted to say more but honestly, for all his brilliance there was nothing left to say. He stood and crossed the distance to the door. Lee continued to sit on the bed.
“Son, get a shower and some rest. I’ll have something hot brought up. You need something in your stomach. I doubt you’ve had a decent meal since Chip . . . Lee? Lee, are you listening?” Nelson reached over and touch Crane’s arm. In response, as if he were sleep walking, Lee stood. Fumbling for the buttons of his filthy shirt, Lee walked toward the head. Nelson stood there for a moment, then turned to leave. He pulled to door shut behind him, but stood there, leaning back against the door, feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders. This had really taken a lot out of Lee. He wasn’t sure if Crane would be the same after this.
If they couldn’t find Chip, Nelson wasn’t sure he would ever be the same.
Over the next four weeks, Lee spearheaded three trips, leading a second team back to Peru. Each search was as futile as the last. The first and second trips Lee took to Peru, Nelson had gone with him, hoping beyond hope that at least they could recover Morton's body so his grieving family could have something to lay to rest. But there was nothing. Each time he returned, Lee was more depressed and seemed more lost than before. After the third trip back, Crane refocused and threw himself into Institute work. He picked up Chip's paperwork and spent long hours at the office, coming in early and often not leaving until after dark. Despite Nelson's repeated attempts to get Lee to talk about it, Chip's disappearance was the one thing Lee wouldn't open up about.
The worst was the weekend Lee went to Chicago. Obligations with a group of genetic researchers kept Nelson in California when he really wanted to go with Lee. Harry felt that it wasn’t fair that Crane had to shoulder the burden of telling Chip’s family that their only son was lost but he was unable to share the responsibility. When Harry saw Lee again on Monday, the younger man looked like someone who hadn’t slept in a week.
“Lee, maybe you should take some time off. Get off the grounds for a while. I know this is hard son but you’re not helping yourself by pushing yourself like this,” Nelson suggested, after catching Lee on his way to the office early one morning.
Lee had only turned those empty golden eyes to his employer. “And do what, sir? I just told my best friend’s family I lost their son. I don’t even have a body to give them. There’s no closure, no nothing, just loss. If it’s all the same to you, I’d just as soon stay busy. I have reports to look over, if you don’t mind, sir.” With that statement, Lee vanished into his office without waiting to be dismissed.
Nelson could only watch as over the next few weeks, Lee’s condition continued to worsen.
He began to loose weight he could ill afford to lose. His clothes hung on him and dark circles colored under his eyes. Lee looked like a picture of the walking dead, a zombie of sort, with no heart and no soul. Short of kicking Lee out of the office, there was nothing Nelson could do to help Crane. Nelson was battling his own demons about the missing exec and his own health began to suffer. He smoked pack after pack of cigarettes and found himself drinking more than usual. His already famous temper grew sharper and more explosive. Angie, his personal assistant, wasn’t fazed by her employer’s foul mood but she did keep her distance and worked to keep others, unless absolutely necessary, from disturbing the admiral. Harriman avoided Will like the plague and like Lee, threw himself into paperwork while Seaview sat still in the quay, as if the great submarine also mourned the lost officer.
Nelson pushed off requests for Seaview's services, rejecting projects that a month ago would have held an interest for him. At some point, Nelson knew Seaview would have to go out to sea, without her exec.
~~Four weeks later~~
Daniel Priest pushed through the lush undergrowth, the blade of his machete slicing neatly though branches and broad leaves. Ahead of him, Marcus English broke the trail for the six members of the missionary group, his own machete flashing in the sunlight as he hacked through the trail. English stood exactly six feet tall, not an inch of fat on his frame. He kept his hair cut to a short buzz, and gazed at the world with cold brown eyes, quite a difference from Daniel's own 5'10” frame and dark blond mop of hair that he constantly kept pushing out of his pale blue eyes.
Marcus was an enigma to the young missionary. Marcus had approached Daniel's group before they even left Moyobamba, offering his services as a guide and bodyguard. Daniel had accepted, against his judgment of some of the others. If Marcus wanted to ally himself with men and women of God, who was he to say no? Whatever the man might have done before, it wasn’t his place to be judge and jury. Marcus could make his own peace with the Creator when that time came. In the meantime, Daniel needed a guide and someone who knew the area and Marcus seemed perfectly willing to lead them anywhere they asked. Daniel felt he couldn’t have been blessed with a better guide.
“How much longer till we reach the falls?” Daniel called out to Marcus. The guide paused, twisting slightly to address the younger man.
“If you listen, you can just make out the roar. I figure another thirty minutes and we should be at the base,” English said and turned back to the trail. Daniel said nothing more, but passed the word on to the others in the group. They'd been on the trail for weeks, hunting down the various scattered tribes that hid in the isolated pockets of the rain forest. By now everybody was ready for a break and Marcus had promised them the base of the falls would be perfect for camp.
True to his word, thirty minutes later, the small party found themselves at the base of a magnificent waterfall. The party took the time to freshen up and wash the sweat from their hair and faces. Daniel stripped down to his trousers and was wading along the river's edge, letting the cool water sooth tired and worn muscles.
He found more than he expected.
A body dressed in dark green clothes lay half hidden among the foliage growing along the riverbank. Daniel moved to get a better look at the anomaly, trying to figure out where in the world a body could have come from. Daniel dropped to his knees. The body lay on its left side. Daniel grasped the shoulder and rolled the body over. He was a young man, in his early thirties, with wheaten blond, almost white hair. Daniel was shocked when the young man opened his eyes, staring up at him with sky blue orbs. Daniel could feel the heat radiating off the stranger. He was running a very high, dangerous fever. Taking the blond man by his shoulders, he lifted him up and half carried him down into the water, hoping the cool lake water would take the edge off the fever.
“Marcus!! Martha!” Daniel called out. Marcus might know who the stranger could be, and where he came from and Martha was a nurse. Whoever this young man was, he needed more help than a rag tag group of missionaries could give him. They had to get him back to Moyobamba. If they could get him to the mission he could get real medical help.
Harriman Nelson stood looking out the double windows, deep in thought. Eight weeks of waiting. It seemed like an eternity for Harriman Nelson. Nelson had contacted every official he could think of in Peru and left behind detailed descriptions and pictures of his lost officer. They had taken party after party into the jungle and scoured every inch of that river. His last contact had been with an American doctor stationed at a mission there in Moyobamba. If anyone found any sign of Chip Morton, the doctor had promised to contact Nelson.
But there was nothing. Not a hint, not a sign, not a whisper. The Peruvian rainforest had taken Chip and refused to give him up.
Nelson’s gaze was drawn to the still water of the quay below where Seaview rested, waiting for her next mission. He had stalled long enough and after eight weeks he had finally run out of excuses. Seaview was scheduled for a two-week cruise, picking up a group of marine researchers and taking them out to an archeological recovery site. Nelson wasn't sure how he was going to manage that, leaving port without Chip Morton. Chip had been there since day one, from the time the first rivet was put in, till Seaview's launch. He was one of the few people who knew Seaview inside and out, all her secrets, all her majesty. Was. Past tense. Nelson fought the urge to pace, forcing himself to face reality head on. Chip Morton was dead. He had to accept that, just like it was his orders that sentenced that man to death.
Harry ran a hand over his eyes, trying to block out the stricken look on Lee's face when he had called off the search. He had no choice, the river was rising and if they didn't move, they'd miss their window of time to get in and out of Campbell's valley. They had to push on. Nelson never forgot the look in Lee’s eyes, like something had died, some piece of Lee himself had also vanished in that raging river. It still haunted Harry.
Somehow he had to replace Chip. Replace Chip? Not possible. Chip was the finest exec Nelson had ever known, anticipating needs that sometimes Nelson hadn't even considered. His calmness in the face of adversity, his rock hard steadiness that the crew relied on, his solid belief in Seaview's skipper, to back him when ever Lee needed it. How could he be expected to replace that? The mostly likely candidate was O'Brien. Was Bob ready for this? Maybe he could look back to the Navy for a replacement? Jiggs could help him find an agreeable person, some one who knew computers, who could run code blindfolded, with one arm tied behind his back, who could navigate by smell and who wouldn't be intimated by Lee Crane. Someone the crew could trust and respect. Nelson sighed. He wasn't sure there was such a person. Chip had been unique, like all of Seaview's crew. This was one of the few times in his life that Nelson felt truly lost.
With another tired sigh, Nelson pulled the drapes shut and walked back to his desk. Gathering up his briefcase, he took one look around the office to make sure he hadn't forgotten anything. Seeing nothing, Harry made his way to the door, feeling every one of his years on this earth weighing heavy on his shoulders. The problems of tonight could wait another day. With one hand on the doorknob, Nelson was about to leave when the phone erupted in a fit of ringing.
“Now who the devil is that this time of night?” Nelson growled out loud, debating whether of not to even answer it. Whoever it was, they were persistent, and the phone continued to ring. He wracked his brain, trying to recall the scant dozen or so people who had the direct number to his office. Against hope, he remembered he had left his number with several of the doctors in Peru. With a few strides, Nelson reached the phone and picked up the receiver.
“Nelson here,” he said, his strident tones clearly on edge. Nelson waited as the connection cleared then an unfamiliar voice came on the line.
“Admiral Harriman Nelson?” slight timidity and uncertainty tinged the young sounding voice.
“Speaking. Who is this?”
“You may not remember me, sir, but my name is Jason Garvin. I'm a doctor with the Our Lady of Innocence Mission, in Moyobamba, Peru.”
The thick jungle seem to part for Lee as he plowed forward, driven by his need. The path opened into a clearing and in the center of the clearing was a mound of dark jungle soil, covered with a scattering of leaves. At the head of the mound, a white cross had been jammed into the ground. One word was burned into the crosspiece: Morton.
Lee stared in horror as the dirt from the mound slid to the sides as something from below clawed its way to the surface. Long fingers appeared, one hand then another, pulling up an emaciated and bruised body to the surface. Chip Morton heaved himself to his feet and stood, his eyes glowing like blue sparks as he stared at Lee, unblinking. It was the stare of something long dead.
Chip reached out for him and spoke with a rusty, hollow sounding voice, “ Why did you leave me? Lee, why? I thought you were my friend. You just left me in this hell. I’m all alone. I thought we were brothers but you just abandoned me. Why, Lee? Why did you just leave me to die?”
Lee Crane gasped and bolted upright in bed, his chest heaving as he gasped for air, the night air chilling his sweat dampened skin. He couldn’t stop shaking. Another damn dream. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and put his face in his hands, running his fingers though damp, dark curls. He glanced over to the clock. 3:35 am. If Jamie saw him like this, he'd more than likely have something to say, probably with the business end of a needle.
He got his breathing under control and stood up, moving down the hall in the dark. He made his way down stairs to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. He grabbed a beer from the bottom shelf, thumbed off the top and killed half the bottle before coming up for air.
He knew this wasn't the answer. It wasn't even a temporary fix. Oh sure, he could probably get drunk and for the span of a few hours, he might be able to forget that his best friend's last resting place was in the middle of some damn stinking jungle. But at the end of the day, nothing changed. Chip was still gone and there was nothing Lee could do to change that.
Lee moved into the living room and collapsed onto the couch. Turning the bottle in one hand, he took another long pull from it, feeling the alcohol burn on the way down. He sat in the darkness of his living room, letting the relative nothingness surround him.
Nothingness. That’s what Lee felt now. Just a hole, raw and bleeding where once his soul resided. For eight weeks he had believed that maybe, just maybe, Chip would come home. But that never happened. He still had Seaview. He still had the admiral's friendship, a man who was more than just his teacher and mentor, who was more of a father than a friend. Chip Morton had been his brother. That piece of him had died when Lee realized that he couldn't even recover the man's body to bring home.
Dear God, I didn't even have a gravesite to visit. Lee took another pull off the bottle, closing his eyes against the emotions that threatened to overwhelm him. It wasn't supposed to end like this. They were supposed to grow old together, watching kids and grandkids carry on the family name. Either that or go down together in one final blaze of glory in defense of their country. Chip hadn't even wanted to go and Lee had insisted. If he hadn't pushed, if he hadn't pressed the issue, Chip would still be alive. Seaview was scheduled to go out to sea in a week. Lee wasn't even sure he could sail again without Chip by his side. Without Chip to watch his back, Lee felt lost.
This time he couldn't stop a lone, hot tear from spilling down his face. Absently he wiped it away with the back of his hand. He hadn’t cried since his father died. Men weren’t supposed to give into this kind of grief and sorrow. In his mind's eye, he could still see the panic in Chip's sky blue eyes as the ledge below him gave way. There had been absolutely nothing Crane could do as Chip's body hit the water and that raging river carried him away. He wasn’t sure what he felt most guilty about. The fact that he had been unable to find and bring his friend home or that after eight weeks he was ready to admit that Chip Morton was dead.
The ringing of the phone pulled Lee out of his growing depression. He glanced over to the phone, but the caller id was out of sight. Lacking the energy to get up and see who it was, Lee simply leaned back and took another pull off the nearly empty bottle. Vaguely, he registered his voice on the answering machine, giving the unknown caller instructions. Seconds later the firm commanding tones of Harriman Nelson blasted over the speaker.
“Lee! Son, I need you up, lad. They've found him. I don't know how yet, but they've found him. Chip Morton is alive!”
Lee was the first one to see him. Until now, he'd been expecting the whole thing to be a wild goose chase. But the man lying in the iron frame bed was none other than Chip Morton. He was thinner, and something about him seemed to emanate a fragility Lee had never seen in the once robust commander. He sported a scraggly beard and ratty mustache. His blond hair was longer and seemed thin and lank, not touched with its usual healthy glow. Lee felt his breath catch in he lungs, felt his heart flip as Chip tossed restlessly. It was apparent to everyone that Morton was not a well man.
There was a chair beside the bed. Without even taking off the black flight jacket, Lee dropped bonelessly into the chair, reached over and took one of Chip's limp hands up in his own. The long fingers curled over Lee's palm, almost as if Chip were trying to respond to Lee's presence, but just didn't have the strength. How many times had Chip been there for him when an injury had left him out of his mind with the pain? Crane was aware of Jamie's voice, talking to a younger American doctor but the conversation was lost in a haze of joy. Nothing mattered now. They had found Chip. They had found his brother. Somehow, against everything, Morton was alive. They could pull him through this.
Nelson came to stand on the other side of the bed. He reached down and brushed a lock of hair out of the young man's eyes. At the admiral's touch, Chip stirred weakly, muttering something unintelligible. Nelson leaned in closer to better listen.
“Tinaca . . . Lee . . .. Pacari . . .Find . . . Lee . . .” then Chip settled down. Lee sent a worried glance up at Nelson.
“What's he saying, Admiral? I don't recognize the language.”
But Nelson was at a loss and only shook his head. “I don't know, lad. Something he picked up while he was out there.”
Jamie joined the two men hovering over the young man. “Dr. Garvin says Chip has malaria. He's been shifting between chills and fever since they found him and brought him here. Admiral, I don't like the idea of moving him, but I want him in Med Bay, yesterday. Heaven only knows what other kind of parasites this man is carrying around. I have no idea what other injuries he may have that Garvin hasn't uncovered. Garvin says they've been treating the malaria, and as has been the case with recent strains, this nasty little bug is being resistant to regular mediation. Once I get him back to the States I can treat him with a more aggressive regiment of drugs,” Will announced, coming to stand by Nelson. He looked down at the young man who they all thought dead.
“Keep an eye on him. I want to talk to this Dr. Garvin,” Nelson said, heading out of the room. He found the young doctor hovering outside the room, in conversation with a slightly built young man, with an untidy mop of blond hair that he keep brushing out of his eyes. Both men turned when the saw Nelson.
“Admiral, this is Daniel Priest, the young man who found your young man,” Garvin explained with a slight grin. Nelson came forward and grasped the other man's hand in a tight two handed grip.
“Lad, I can not begin to thank you enough. Captain Crane and I have moved heaven and earth trying to find Chip. We thought he was dead. Do you have any idea what might have happened to him?”
But Daniel only shook his head. “God works in mysterious ways, Admiral. Where ever your friend has been, only the good Lord knows. Perhaps when he comes to his senses he'll be able to tell you. You should know he’s been mumbling things from time to time.”
“What kind of thing?” Nelson asked.
“Since we found him on the river bank he would mumble snatches of sentences, sometimes in English, some times gibberish we couldn't make out. He called out several time for someone named Lee, and he called for you. Once or twice he said something about a shark I think, something about skiing. Most of it didn't make sense,” Daniel said, pushing his hair out of his eyes.
Nelson could not stop the smile. “Chip and Lee are as close as brothers. They've known each other for sixteen years at least. Sharkey is our Chief of Boat, and Kowalski, most of the men call him Ski. They think a great deal of their officers and are going to be thrilled when they hear Commander Morton is alive.
“Admiral, I take it you'll be wanting to take your friend home as soon as possible?” Garvin asked
“Yes. Dr. Jamieson wants him in the Institute Medical unit, ASAP.”
“I agree. We only have the most basic of treatments available here. Your young man is fighting a very virulent form of malaria. Like most of the recent strains coming out of the jungle, this one has been resistant to traditional drugs. The best we've been able to do is slow the progression down. He needs something far stronger than we have here. I must admit, I was surprised when Daniel and his group came carrying him in. I remembered your last visit and if ever there was any one who matched your missing officers description, it was this young man. He had no ID on him and it was only a miracle I still had your card with your contact information.”
“You both have my sincerest, deepest gratitude. I can safely say I speak for Captain Crane, as well,” Nelson said, extending his hand to the young doctor. They shook, Nelson surprised at the strong firm grip of the young doctor.
“Admiral, you and your friends have my prayers. I hope God sees fit to see your friend through this. If you'll excuse me, I need to round up the rest of my group. We're heading back into the rain forest. God's work is never done.” With that, Daniel turned and made his way down the hall. Nelson watched until the missionary vanished around the corner.
“I'll get things started so you can take Commander Morton home. He'll recover faster in familiar surroundings than he would here.”
“You certainly right about that, Dr. Garvin. You won’t believe the improvement you’ll see once we get him home.” Nelson replied. Watching as Lee hovered protectively over his friend, Nelson acknowledged that Chip wasn’t the only one who needed healing.
Daniel watched the setting sun from the rooftop of the mission, the strange words spoken by the commander running through his head like a broken record. Tinaca. A legend. A myth. The locals said Tinaca was a city hidden deep somewhere in the jungle, where the last of the Incas had fled taking with them the wealth of a nation, to hide it from the invading Spanish. Had Morton been there? Could he remember how to get there again?
“Hello, Priest.” Marcus's voiced called out to him from the doorway. Daniel didn't look up, but could hear English's footsteps as he walked over to the roof’s edge and joined Daniel leaning against the waist high stucco. “You know, I've always thought that was funny. A missionary of God named Priest. Your parents must have been amused as hell.”
Daniel sighed. “Did you want something, Marcus?”
“I want to know what Morton knows,” Marcus said in a low voice.
Daniel cast the man a sideways glance. “What are you talking about?”
“Don't play dumb, Priest, I know you better than that. You heard him. He talked about the city. He's been there. He can takes us to it. Thank about it, Priest. The wealth of the Incan nation. Just waiting for us, somewhere out there in that jungle. This Morton fella knows.”
“Morton is fighting for his life against malaria. He doesn't even know his own name right now,” Daniel replied. Marcus's only comment to that was a disgusted snort.
“And when he's well? What then? That’s where you come in.”
“Don't talk in riddles. Just cut to the chase, would you?”
“Aren't you tired of living like a vagabond? Just the clothes on your back, no home, no nothing. How long do you plan on hiking through the jungle, trying to convince a bunch of pre-Columbian holdovers to see the ways of the Lord?”
“I'm a man of God. I'm doing the Lord's work. Why would I help you? How could I help you?”
“Half of what we find. Thank of it. Think of the good you could do with that amount of wealth. All you have to do is get close to him, be his friend. I’ve been searching for a break like this for years. If he knows, we can get him to tell us. Get him to trust you. Leave the rest to me.”
One week later:
He ached. All over. Muscles. Joints. Arms. Legs. Everything. He kept his eyes closed, taking in the smells, the sensations. Antiseptic. Clean sheets. Soap. A steady rhythmic beep. A steady pressure on his right hand. Experimentally he squeezed against the pressure around his hand and got an answering squeeze.
“Chip? Chip, can you hear me?” That was Lee's voice. Lee's voice! God, he thought he'd never hear Lee again. Chip wanted to open his eyes but he was afraid of what he might see. Why was he afraid? Searching through his memories, Chip realized he had a gap, an empty spot in his mind, just a jumble of confusing images and shadows. The trail collapsing, the snap of the tether line, the impact of hitting the water, then nothing. Just a mass of colors, sounds, a terrifying visage that seemed to rise up out of the substance of the jungle . . .
With a gasp, Chip shot upright, gasping for air. He felt strong, yet gentle hands on his shoulders, pushing him back down. This time he opened his eyes. The first thing he saw was Lee.
“Easy Chip, it's okay. We've got you. You're going to be fine, just relax,” Lee was saying, leaning over Chip, his eyes reflecting back worlds of concern and worry.
Overwhelmed, Chip managed to croak out, “Lee, it that really you?”
Lee took a deep breath, and for the first time in weeks, smiled. Really smiled. “It's really me, Chip. You're really in Med Bay and you've been really sick.”
“How long? How sick?” Maybe that’s why he had a memory gap. There wasn’t much to remember when you were out of your gourd with fever.
“Hang on.” Lee got up and disappeared out of Chip's vision. He came back with a Styrofoam cup filled with crushed ice. He handed the cup to Chip, helping him grasp the cup, knowing Chip would want to do this on his own. Gratefully, the young officer tilted the cup back and shook out a few chips into his parched mouth. They felt good and cool on his throat. Turning his attention back to Lee, he waited. Crane sat down in the chair nest to the bed, one hand on the exec's arm.
“Were do you want me to start?” Lee asked finally.
“From the beginning. The last thing I remember is hitting the water. How did you find me?”
For a long minute Lee was silent as he tried to gather his thoughts. Finally the words came tumbling out and Crane couldn't stop them.
“We searched the river for you when you went over the ledge. But we couldn't stay though, the river was rising and we had to get the researchers out while we had the chance. I came back and, with Rea and Ski, we searched the river again. We couldn't find anything. No trace of you. Chip, it was . . .it was like the earth swallowed you up. Once we got back home, we spent every spare moment we had looking for you. I lost track of how many trips we made to Peru. We must have hit every village and town along the river. We left descriptions of you with everyone we could find. Still nothing. God help me, but I gave up hoping. All this time and I had nothing. Then a week ago, this group of missionaries found you on the banks of the river we practically dredged. They took you back to the Our Lady of Innocence mission and Dr. Gavin there recognized you. He had the admiral’s contact information and called him late one night to say you were alive.”
Lee looked puzzled. “How long since we found you? Since you've been sick?”
Chip shook his head. “How long since I went I went over the edge? Lee, you look like death warmed over. How long till you found me?”
When Lee spoke it was with a voice so low Chip could barely make out the words. “Eight weeks, hell, it felt like eight years. You've been home for seven days now. You have malaria and Jamie had a devil of a time finding the right combo of drugs to treat you. The strain you had turned out to be resistant to most common drugs. Trying to find a combination of drugs you wouldn’t have an adverse reaction to has proven Jamie is worth his caduceus.”
Chip could only stare at his friend. “Eight weeks? Where have I been? Lee, what happened to me?”
Lee heard the slight tremble of uncertainty tinged with a touch of fear in Chip's voice. He tightened his grip on Morton's arm, hoping to give the blond some reassurance. “Easy. Don't worry about it. You're safe now, we've found you and I'll be damned if I let you slip away from me again. You just rest. I'll be here when you wake up.”
Chip couldn't fight the fatigue that ate at him. His eyelids felt like they weighed fifty pounds each and it was all he could do to keep them open. He felt Lee take the cup from his sack hands. Once more he felt Lee's hand grasp his and squeeze. With all his strength, Chip answered with a squeeze of his own.
“Promise you'll be here?” Chip whispered, slowly giving in to the demands of his exhausted body.
“I promise, Chip. You're home now. I'll stand your watch, bro.”
Chip Morton drifted off into a healing sleep, the comforting presence of his brother in soul at his side. Home. He was home. Everything would be fine now that he was home.
“How is he, lad?” the deep voice from the door got Lee’s attention. The younger man glanced up to see Nelson waiting patiently to be noticed.
“A little confused but I think he’ll be fine. Admiral, he doesn’t remember what happened to him.”
Nelson stepped forward, shifting his gaze from blond to brunet. “Not surprising, considering the damage Will found in the X-rays and CT scans,” he said.
Lee only shrugged and leaned back in the chair. “He’s alive. I can’t ask for anything more.”
“I just wanted to check on you both and let you know I’ve arranged for the R/V Deepsong to shuttle that group of researchers out to Marcanda. Dean was more than happy to pick up for us when I explained the situation.”
“Admiral, we could have gone out.” Lee protested, but Nelson just rested a hand on Lee’s shoulder.
“Son, Chip needs an anchor right now, he needs you. I’m no fool. You have your own healing to do and I’d be an idiot to think you would be of any use to anybody right now. I’ve arranged for some rather detailed maintenance that’s long overdue. Sharkey seems to think it might be another month before Seaview’s in shape to sail again.” Nelson replied with a very familiar smirk.
Lee raised a dark eyebrow. “Four weeks. Funny, that’s how long Jamie said it might be before he could release Chip to light duty.”
“Really? Odd how these things work out. Get some rest of your own, Lee. Chip’s not going anywhere. You’re cleared to visit anytime. Go home and get some rest.”
“I will, sir. I just want to sit here a little while longer.”
Nelson stepped back and watched the two men, vowing silently that he would do everything in his power never to let something like this happen again.
“Santa Barbara?” Daniel Priest asked curiously. It was the day before his group was suppose to head north. Marcus had asked to meet him at the mission and for some reason, Daniel found himself agreeing to the meeting. Why? He was still asking himself that question. Marcus was leaning against the waist high wall, once again looking out over the city.
“You heard me. Santa Barbara. They took Morton back to Santa Barbara.”
Daniel dropped the pack he was carrying and leaned against the wall by Marcus. “And you want to go after him? You want me to be his friend, to get him to talk about Tinaca.”
“Can you think of a better way? You found him, brought him back from the edge of death. If you hadn’t come along when you did, Morton would have died. Don’t you think he’d like to meet you?”
For a long time Daniel was silent. What is wrong with me? Why on earth am I listening this man? Surely I don’t believe all this talk about treasure and lost cities? But Morton was missing for eight weeks. He didn’t wander around in the jungle, catch malaria and then stagger back to the very river he’d vanished in. He had to have been somewhere. Could Marcus be right? Had Morton seen Tinaca? “And if it exists?” he finally asked.
“Like I said earlier. Half of everything. You could build schools and churches, real hospitals and clinics. Think of the good you could do.”
Again Daniel fell silent. Real clinics, real doctors, schools to teach the word of God. He could save lives. With that kind of wealth he could make a difference. He could touch the lives of hundreds and leave his mark in this world. He turned to face Marcus and gathering his courage, he answered.
“When do we leave?
1. The Blizzard-Makers. Season One: Volume One Disk 3 Side A
…to be continued with “Twist of Fate.”