By R. L. Keller


(follows “First Duty” and “The Incident”



Lt. Cdr. Cory Mains, XO aboard the nuclear submarine Nautilus, paused as he walked past the captain’s cabin door.  No, that couldn’t have been laughter I just heard, he muttered to himself.  Not the mood the ‘Old Man’ has been in lately.  Shaking his head, he continued on to the sub’s Control Room.


Cory wasn’t sure what had put a burr up his CO’s six.  That the man had a temper had become only too evident the first day Cory assumed his post.  And it didn’t take much to trigger it.  But he’d quickly come to realize that the man didn’t go off without reason.  And while he might have a short fuse, that worked both ways.  He went off quickly but usually, just as quickly, got himself back under control.  And there was rarely any doubt about what lit the fuse.  A crewman making a careless mistake (and it had to be careless and stupid; the Skipper was fairly patient with anyone who simply needed more training with a position), a bureaucratic snafu or, heaven forbid, a political one, would have the whole boat walking softly around the man.  At least for a few hours.  That was usually about all it took before the Skipper reined himself back in.


But this time there had been no obvious trigger.  And it had now lasted almost five days.  Cory was spending almost as much time calming down his crew as he was attending to his normal duties.  He considered himself a pretty mellow man.  Most of his naval career had been spent in submarines and it took a stable personality to handle the tight quarters for long periods of time.  But even he was beginning to feel the strain.


However, it didn’t do to let the crew see it, and he entered the Conn with a benign expression on his face.  “Didn’t feel us hit anything while my back was turned,” he addressed the young lieutenant who was serving as his second this morning.  Cory wouldn’t usually be that flip, but he instantly saw grins spring up around the Conn, as he’d intended, to help relieve the almost palpable tension so very evident throughout the boat the last few days.


“No, sir,” the lieutenant told him seriously.  But Cory was beginning to read the man well enough, after four months of serving together, that he detected a noticeable sparkle in the man’s hazel eyes.


Cory nodded.  “Figured ‘A’ watch could keep you out of trouble,” he assured the young man.  “At least for a few minutes.”  Again he caught quick grins, some of them from men a good deal older than the sub’s newest JO.


“Yes, sir.”  There was no mistaking the soft grin that touched the young man’s face.


But almost immediately the man straightened up to nearly ‘Attention’.  Cory noticed the whole duty crew stiffen.  He turned, knowing instinctively who had entered.  “Good morning, Skipper,” he addressed the boat’s captain carefully, preparing himself for whatever the man chose to find fault with this morning.


* * * *


Capt. Harriman Nelson took another glance at the slip of paper he’d discovered on his desk when he’d returned from a breakfast that he didn’t particularly want.  He’d smoked so many cigarettes over the last several days that he was in danger of running out before Nautilus reached her next port of call, and it had spoiled his normally hearty appetite.  Point taken, lad, he said silently.  And it’s nice to have my suspicions confirmed all these years later.  He sipped on the coffee he’d brought back from the Wardroom, leaned back in his chair, and thought back to the first time he’d been confronted in this manner about a mis-directed temper tantrum.




It was the final few weeks of the academic year at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD.  He’d spent the last handful of years dividing his time between teaching courses there, giving lectures at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and short tours of active duty at sea.  As he walked across the Yard, what the campus was called, headed for the lecture hall he was assigned to for his classes on Advanced Tactics, he was muttering somewhat savagely to himself.  While he did, actually enjoy his time instructing, he was anxious to get back full-time to his beloved sea.  Maybe particularly now, because the two Midshipmen he was most fond of were in this year’s graduating class.  Not that he’d ever allowed anyone to think that he was playing favorites.  Just the opposite.  When he had either of them in his classes – as he did now – he went out of his way to push both just that much harder.  He could tell that both were going to make topnotch officers; had, in fact, been numbers one and two in their class all four years.  But he had a reputation on campus for being very ‘no-nonsense’, and a stickler for details, and he wasn’t going to get caught letting his guard down. 


He was fairly sure that there were those who knew he had a special ‘feeling’ for these two – the Commandant, for one.  He and Nelson had shared a glass or two on occasion, discussing whatever recent ‘incident’ the two Midshipmen were being credited with – or accused of, as the case may be – but couldn’t prove.  The pair weren’t troublemakers – far from it!  They just had a knack for finding ways to lighten the mood for the rest of their classmates; make the four years a little less stressful, and encouraging the kind of camaraderie that was so necessary in the military.  At least, the prevailing theory was that they were usually responsible, after the incident at their graduation ceremony from Plebe to 3rd Class Midshipman. *


Night and day, those two, Nelson often compared them.  One dark-haired, one blond.  One serious and studious, the other gregarious and fun loving.  But both sharp as a tack, dedicated, and headed for long, storied careers in the Navy, if he was any judge.  Most of their hijinks were blamed on the blond.  Gunnery Master Sgt. Zitka for one was firmly convinced of that.  Nelson wasn’t so sure.  The other one had the ability to think totally outside the box at times.  But whichever was responsible, their entire class had benefited on multiple occasions, and was considered to be among some of the finest classes Annapolis had ever produced.


All of which had nothing to do with Nelson’s present foul mood.  Or, maybe it does, just a bit, he admitted.  As much as he’d enjoyed the last few years, he was going to miss the two.  And, he feared, some of his pleasure at teaching would leave with them.  He’d therefore applied for duty elsewhere; hopefully back to full-time command of a submarine – his first love.  Unfortunately, he’d just been informed that the Navy, in their infinite wisdom, deemed him such a good instructor that he was being considered for permanent assignment to the Academy.  They’d sweetened the pot, so to speak, by intimating that he was next in line for the Commandant’s position, and the promotion to Rear Admiral that came with it.


Instead of quietly accepting, Nelson had gone just a tad ballistic.  He had enough respect for Admiral Johnstone, the current Commandant and the one who had just passed along the news, that he hadn’t totally blasted the man into the next time zone.  But he was fairly sure that he’d made his displeasure known when his expression went nasty and he’d stalked out of Johnstone’s office without another word.  He’d thought that he had gotten his expression fairly well back under control, especially since he’d taken a walk down to the Severn River, on the banks of which the Academy sat, and spent a couple hours mulling over what he was going to do.  But from the faces of several Midshipmen he now met on the way across the Yard – Midshipmen who gave him a wide berth – he figured that he still wasn’t doing a very good job of it.


When he entered the classroom he noticed a slip of paper lying on the lectern.  He started to just toss it in the trash, but curiosity made him glance at what was printed in plain block letters.


“That they may have a little peace, even the best dogs are compelled to snarl occasionally.”   William Feather.


Nelson snorted.  He was vaguely familiar with the author but he’d never run across this particular quotation.  He had no idea how the slip of paper had come to be there, but he couldn’t knock the timing.  Obviously news traveled just as fast now across the Yard as he remembered it doing in his Midshipman days.  It put enough of a grin on his face that as the current 1st Class Midshipmen started entering, none of them seemed unduly concerned by what his expression was now saying.  He had a moment’s thought, as he noticed one blond head in quick conference with one dark one as they sat in approximately the middle of the rows of seats, if one of them hadn’t left the paper there for him to find.  But as class started, each gave him identical looks that bespoke nothing more than alert attentiveness to the subject at hand.  Nelson gave himself a mental shrug and got down to today’s material.


Nelson spent that evening on the phone, talking with half a dozen trusted friends both in and out of the military, seeking their advice on what he should do about his future plans.  Every one he called gave him a slightly different opinion, until he was more confused than when he’d started, and he finally just went to bed.


The next day he headed to teach his classes with still no clear idea of what he wanted to do.  If he played the military game he’d no doubt end up with a nice cushy position right here.  If he bucked the system he might get back to sea, but further promotions could be problematical.  He was no longer sending Midshipmen scrambling out of his path, but he was no closer to a decision about his future, either.


Once again there was a slip of paper laying, waiting for him, on the lectern.  Today it said:


“A man must not deny his manifest abilities, for that is to evade his obligations.”  William Feather.


Nelson’s first thought was, What the hell does that mean?  As Midshipmen started entering he sent particularly stern looks toward one blond head and one dark one.  As they found their seats they sent questioning looks back.  It took Nelson only a moment to get himself back under control.  Even if one of them was responsible for the notes, he’d learned only too well these last four years that there was no way that he’d get them to admit it – they both had the best ‘poker faces’ Nelson had ever run across.  That is, when they chose to employ it.  Nelson had personal experience that, between the two and their closer friends, there could be fourteen kinds of conversations crossing their faces without benefit of actual words.  One more mental shake and he got down to the business of today’s lecture.


But that evening he tracked down the one person he’d been unable to reach the previous night.  On purpose, actually, he acknowledged to himself.  He wasn’t overly anxious to hear what Capt. Jiggs Stark would have to say on the subject of Nelson’s future in the Navy.  As he waited for Jiggs to join him at the Army-Navy Club in Washington, DC, he pondered why.  Jiggs was Nelson’s closest friend, in or out of the Navy.  They’d attended and graduated Annapolis together and had stayed in touch as much as military life would allow.  They knew how each other thought – well, most of the time.


And therein lies the problem, Harry admitted to himself as he got a head start on the double scotch he’d ordered as he waited.  Jiggs, while an accomplished mariner, had quickly made a home for himself behind a desk.  He was comfortable there.  And people were comfortable working under his direction because they knew that he wasn’t there because he couldn’t be trusted in a more hands-on position – as so often happened, unfortunately.  Harry was pretty sure what Jiggs would have to say.  So, when his old friend showed up, he came at the question sideways.  After the usual catching up between friends, Harry pushed today’s piece of paper across the table.


“What the hell is this?” Jiggs sputtered in his usual bluster.


Harry gave him a somewhat enigmatic grin.  “Call it my horoscope for the day,” he said, and signaled the waiter for another round of drinks.


The snort that erupted from Jiggs included a smothered expletive and he glared at Harry.  “You don’t believe that hogwash.”


Harry shrugged.  “Today, Jiggs, I don’t know what I believe,” he admitted, and explained the problem.


Jiggs guffawed loudly, before the glare Harry sent him helped him to get back under control.  “Harry, you’d die in a desk job,” he told his friend emphatically.  Harry just stared at him.  “I can’t believe you’ve lasted this long at Annapolis without killing a few Middies.  Or yourself,” he added.  “You can’t honestly be considering it….”  He looked hard at Nelson.  “Or are you?”


“Been considering the consequences to my future advancements if I don’t.”


Jiggs’ snort made another appearance.  “Not a chance,” he assured his friend.  “The powers that be aren’t that stupid.”  He hesitated a moment when Harry pointed an eyebrow at him.  “Well, most of them, anyway,” Jiggs amended.  “They don’t want you that close up in their faces, trust me.  The offer is either someone’s idea of a joke, or else you’re threatening someone else’s chances at advancement and they are trying to get you to resign.”  Jiggs pushed the slip of paper back across the table.  “As much as it goes against the grain to admit it, this is one time you need to listen to your horoscope.  Your ‘manifest abilities’ are at sea, Harry.  Always have been, and always will be.”


Harry nodded, and sent Jiggs a grin.  “Just needed my friends to remind me, I guess.”




Nelson chuckled again at the old memories and picked up the current ‘reminder.’


“Deliver me from all evildoers that talk nothing but sickness and failure.  Grant me the companionship of men who think success and men who work for it.  Loan me associates who cheerfully face the problems of a day and try hard to overcome them.  Relieve me of all cynics and critics.  Give me good health and the strength to be of real service to the world, and I’ll get all that’s good for me, and will will what’s left to those who want it.”  William Feather.


Thank you, Lee, he saluted Nautilus’ newest JO with his coffee mug, for reminding me of what’s important.  So Edith is suddenly being courted by some gigolo who’s only after her money.  It’s happened before and she’s always handled them – and herself – just fine.  Don’t know why I let it get to me so badly this time.  And there was sure no reason to take it out on my crew.  But…  Harry got a decidedly determined expression on his face.  You and I definitely need to discuss this habit you seem to have for kicking your CO in the six!  Harry grinned sheepishly.  Even if you have, so far, been right on target.  He abruptly stood up and left his cabin.


* * * *


Captain Nelson glanced around the Conn, taking note of all the carefully correct postures.  Oh, Harry, he chastised himself.  See what you’ve done?  You have serious fences to mend this time.  He allowed himself a small grin.  Although, a little shaking up of the crew, to keep them on their toes, isn’t always a bad thing.  He brought himself back to the task at hand, walked casually up to the chart table, and checked the boat’s position in the Pacific Ocean, just where it met the Sea of Okhotsk on the far Eastern coast of Russia.  “All’s quiet?” he asked his XO.


“Yes, sir.”  Taking note that the frown plastered on Capt. Nelson’s face for most of the last week was noticeably absent he added, “Apparently nobody wants to come out and play today.”


“They must have been taking note of the especially sharp drills we’ve been running the last few days and aren’t taking any chances.”  He allowed himself an inward nod as the comment took some of the starch out of his uptight XO’s shoulders, at the same time mentally kicking himself for having unnecessarily put the tension there in the first place.  “Gives us all a chance to take a deep breath.”


“Yes, sir,” Mains acknowledged, now totally puzzled at the unexpected, but greatly appreciated, change in his CO’s demeanor.  “But we’ll keep an eye out, just the same,” he added.


Nelson sent him a nod.  “Wouldn’t expect anything else,” he said, and sent a seemingly casual glance around the Conn.  It came to rest on the young lieutenant.  As all those years before there was absolutely no way to tell, from the young man’s expression, that he had any knowledge whatsoever of the slip of paper left on Nelson’s desk – and Nelson wasn’t buying the act for an instant!  Of course, there’s also no way I’m going to spoil the moment and call him on it.  But that doesn’t mean that I can’t put him on the spot.  Just a little bit.  “How’s our newest JO handling the chance to work the Conn?” he asked.  While his gaze stayed on the young lieutenant, the question was obviously meant for XO Mains.


“So far Lt. Crane has given me no reason to question his fitness for duty, sir,” Cory answered carefully, with a glance also at the younger man.  He wasn’t quite sure how to describe the expression on the Skipper’s face, but young Crane seemed to be holding up well to it.


“Good, good,” Nelson said.  He left his gaze on the lieutenant just a second longer, but Crane was giving him nothing but a correctly attentive look.  Or, wait.  Was there the barest hint in the man’s eyes of indecision; of maybe having crossed the line just a bit?  With the faintest hint of a smile and a nod, Nelson turned once more to the chart table.  “I was told about an interesting rock formation just…about…here.”  He marked a spot on the chart, ignoring the rolling eyes that he got from his XO and which were very quickly covered.  “Since it looks like we have a quiet day in front of us, Mr. Crane, suppose you see how close you can get us to this spot.”


“Yes, sir,” Crane responded instantly.  Nelson backed off a few feet, and watched the lieutenant quickly plot the course and start issuing the necessary commands.  XO Mains also backed off a step, casually listening and watching, and not interfering.  But Nelson knew that he was still carefully following the lieutenant’s – and the submarine’s – progress.


Nelson buried a grin.  He’d warned Cory when Lee came aboard that life was about to get very interesting.  And then, Harry, you totally forgot your own warning.  He squashed another grin.  You’re slipping, Harry.  He was obviously going to have to keep a much closer eye on this one.




*see “Cobwebs” by R. L. Keller