By Sue James
Damn! Admiral Harriman S Nelson swore at nothing in particular as he tore the top from a new pack of cigarettes and expertly withdrew one of the little white sticks. Raising it to his mouth, he reached for his lighter and then paused…cigarette in one hand, lighter in the other…as the Chief Medical Officer’s words at his recent medical came unbidden to the forefront of his mind.
“I know I’ve told you this before and I know that you’ll likely ignore my advice but you really need to cut down on the smoking, Harry,” Jamie had said a resigned smile on his face. “You’re compromising your health and shortening your lifespan. This might sound a bit patronising but I know you have a lot you still want to achieve so stop lighting up so often and give yourself a chance of living long enough to achieve it!!”
Irritated by the memory of Jamie’s words Nelson frowned as he dropped his lighter on to his desk although he kept the cigarette firmly between his fingers. As a man of science he couldn’t deny that the doctor’s words made sense and he had been trying to cut down on his habit but he’d taken up smoking when he was only seventeen in an age when it was seen not just as socially acceptable but as socially desirable and it was a tough addiction to break. He did some of his best thinking with the help of nicotine; it helped to calm his infamous temper and focus on a problem clearly and rationally and right now he needed that support because right now Harriman Nelson was angry…angry, disappointed and frustrated at his own actions and the circumstances that had led to him acting out of character and potentially destroying the wonderful team he had been so fortunate to establish around him.
Although he was essentially a practical man not given to introspection and self-recrimination Nelson reflected that there were times when he needed to think more deeply about his actions and their consequences and this was one of those times. The conversation he’d just had with his young Captain had disturbed his equilibrium. He was almost ashamed to admit now that he had noticed the atmosphere he had inadvertently created on his beloved submarine but had chosen to ignore it. Keen to devote his energies to his new project he hadn’t wanted to waste time on an incident he considered to be history and he had been irritated by the fact that at least one member of his crew appeared to be holding a grudge. Although, on one level it had bothered him that a valued colleague was obviously uneasy around him, on another level he had dismissed it as the other man’s problem and had been intending to tell the Captain to sort it out. And then, before he had actually got around to doing anything Lee Crane had come to him and completely upset his peace of mind. If he was honest Lee had made him feel guilty whether he had intended to or not and now he needed to decide what he was going to do…because he had to do something and he had to do it first thing tomorrow…but he needed to think about what Lee had said first and, damn it, he needed that cigarette!
Reaching for his lighter a second time Nelson ignited the rolled paper now held between his lips and inhaled. As the smoke was drawn down into his lungs Harriman felt his muscles begin to relax and he sat down at his desk to reflect on the conversation he had just had with his young friend and Skipper.
He and Lee had been discussing the dives that Lee had undertaken that day on an old wreck they had come across en route to the site where the Institute hoped to set up a new undersea lab. It had been an interesting conversation, serious and yet relaxing as they shared thoughts and ideas and their plans for the following day but Nelson had been aware that his young companion had something else on his mind. Every now and then Lee had frowned unintentionally before hurriedly straightening his face again and as the talk about the wreck came to a natural end he had taken to rotating the ring on his finger; a sure sign that something was bothering him.
Yet when Nelson had asked if there was anything else he wanted to discuss before turning in Lee had answered in the negative.
“Are you sure?” Nelson had been concerned. He didn’t like the thought that there might be something happening on the boat that Lee was unwilling to share with him but he was also keen to relieve his young friend of any stress he was intent on shouldering alone.
“Yes, Sir,” Lee had smiled, rather ruefully, Nelson thought and stood up, stretching his lanky frame. “I guess I’ll just go take one last tour of the boat before I hit the sack.”
He had walked to the door then and had his hand on the polished knob as he turned and bade the Admiral “Goodnight”.
“Goodnight, Lee,” Nelson had smiled warmly before adding. “And remember I’m always here if you need to talk….about anything…it doesn’t have to be about the boat.”
Lee had hesitated then, his hand already turning the knob, the door starting to open a crack. Nelson had heard the expelling of air as a sigh had escaped the younger man’s lips and then the Captain had let the door shut and swivelled to stand with his back against it, his expressive golden eyes full of concerned anxiety.
“There is something,” he had admitted, his shoulders sagging slightly as he returned to twisting his ring a look of tortured resignation on his face.
“I’m listening,” Nelson had remained seated at his desk, his blue eyes taking in every detail of his young Captain’s expressive countenance.
Slowly Lee had walked the few steps back to Nelson’s desk where he stood looking down at his friend and mentor. “I think…” he’d paused and another sigh had escaped his lips before he continued, “I think you and Chip need to talk!”
“I see,” Nelson had responded calmly his eyes still on Lee’s face. He had been glad to see that once the words were out Lee appeared to relax slightly and he had wondered why his young Skipper had been so anxious about saying what was on his mind. Lee, however, had solved that mystery in his next words.
Running a hand through his dark curls Lee had emitted yet another sigh before perching on the edge of the Admiral’s desk and looking at him intently.
“I know it wasn’t your fault, sir,” he had begun almost apologetically. “And I think, deep down, Chip does too but he doesn’t seem to be able to let it go.”
“I had noticed,” Nelson had admitted. “He’s been giving me the ultra formal treatment as if we were total strangers and he’s determined not to give a senior officer any reason to reprimand him. And away from the control room he’s barely speaking to me at all. I met him at breakfast this morning and all he could manage was a very rigid “Good Morning, Sir”; no eye contact, no smile, no casual comments. Not the Chip I know at all!”
“I didn’t know about that,” Lee’s worried look had intensified. “But I had noticed how rigidly formal he’s been whenever you spoke to him in the control room so I called him on it.”
Lee had smiled ruefully as he recalled his first attempt to question his executive officer’s strange attitude the previous day. “He said he didn’t know what I was talking about and when I pressed him he got all frosty with me and asked if I had a problem with the way he was doing his job!”
“And what did you say?”
“Well…” Lee had rubbed the back of his head absently, “I wanted to say that I did have a problem but it wasn’t the time or the place so I let it go but I’ve been observing him and although he’s been a bit stony faced and uncommunicative with me I noticed that it’s you he seems to have the real problem with. He’s been fine with the crew but they are noticing the exchanges between the two of you which is why I challenged Chip on it this evening.”
“And?” Nelson had prompted curiously.
Lee had sighed again and looked so apologetic that Nelson had wanted to laugh. After all, it wasn’t Lee’s fault and it wasn’t his place to apologise for the actions of his executive officer.
“He thinks you’ve got it in for him, that you don’t trust him so he can’t relax around you,” Lee had shaken his head in disbelief. “I know it sounds really stupid, Admiral but that’s the way he feels.”
“Why’d you think it’s stupid?” Nelson had been curious.
Lee had sat up straight then, and a surprised look flittered across his face. “It wasn’t your fault, Admiral, was it? It was the gas! You weren’t responsible for your actions any more than I was when I was brainwashed. Doc explained it to the crew and you apologised for everything that happened. And yet Chip is holding a grudge!”
“You sound as if you disagree with him,” Nelson had spoken carefully aware that there seemed to be more to what Lee was telling him than a simple case of his exec holding a grudge. “I admit I can’t readily understand why he seems to have a problem with what happened but if he has then he must have a good reason.”
“You think so?” Lee had regarded him with thinly disguised amazement.
“Don’t you?” Nelson had countered. There had been silence then and Lee had looked away to focus his attention on the deck. Patiently, Nelson had waited for whatever was coming next…whatever it was that his young friend was finding hard to confess.
“I guess so.” When he finally spoke Lee’s words had been almost begrudging.
“But you think he should do as everyone else has and forgive and forget?” Nelson had suggested.
“I don’t really understand why he can’t,” Lee had frowned now. “I admit you did appear to target Chip and you did say some hurtful things to him but he’s a logical, practical man; he should know you didn’t mean it, that it was just the gas talking!”
“I hope you and Chip haven’t fallen out on my behalf,” Nelson had been suddenly worried by his Captain’s implication that his exec was being disloyal and difficult by his apparent refusal to forgive and forget.
There had been a long silence again after Nelson’s comment until Lee had admitted with a grimace that he and his best friend had had words.
“But it was more to do with his feelings about my actions than yours,” Lee had shrugged and attempted another rueful smile.
“Your actions?” Then it had been Nelson’s turn to be surprised. “What did you do?”
“It’s more what I didn’t do,” Lee’s slight smile had grown into a self-depreciating grin at Nelson’s look of surprise. “But that’s between me and Chip and, before you ask, yes we did sort things out between us but I know he still feels slighted by you and I think it would help if you talked to him too.”
“Does he know you’re talking to me?”
“Yes, he wasn’t too happy about it but he refuses to come to you himself so I didn’t see that I had a choice.”
“Well, I’ll certainly talk to him,” Nelson had spoken determinedly, “But you’ll have to help me here, Lee because I admit that I don’t actually know what I did. I’ve heard a few rumours but I think it would help if you told me exactly what it is I said to Chip and why he thinks I targeted him.”
There had followed a lengthy explanation about the extent of his “verbal attacks” on his executive officer, all of them in front of the Control Room watch and culminating in his declaration that he had never trusted the young man he’d personally chosen to be his exec before Seaview had even become a reality.
“You did seem to zero in on him,” Lee had admitted.” I was there the first two times and I have to admit that if it had been me I would have had difficulty holding my tongue no matter how many men were listening in.”
“But Chip was the ultimate professional?” Nelson had guessed. “Kept his cool, never put a foot out of line even when I was intent on humiliating him in front of the men?”
“That’s about it,” Lee had confirmed unhappily. “He didn’t see that he had any choice at the time but to take what you threw at him although he admits he had to bite his tongue. The trouble is he seems to believe that you really meant what you said to him especially about the trust issue. Chip’s argument is that you must have held these views in your subconscious and the gas bought them to the fore rather like someone might babble long-held secrets when they’re sedated or anaesthetised.”
“He’s got a very good point,” Nelson had been impressed.
“You mean you do think those things about him?” Lee had been understandably aghast.
“No, of course not but I can see where he’s coming from. Strange though,” Nelson had been genuinely surprised by Lee’s revelations. “Chip’s the last person I would have expected to react like this. He’s normally so pragmatic and even if I hurt his feelings I would’ve expected him to accept the gas was responsible and move on.”
“Me too,” Lee had concurred. “But I think there’s more to it than a simple case of damaged feelings.”
“Well, I already told you he has issues with my role in events,” Lee had sighed. “And then there’s Chief Sharkey!”
“What did Sharkey do?”
“Apparently, after Jamie had explained what had happened and how you weren’t responsible for your actions Sharkey said something to Chip along the lines of, “that must be a relief for you, Mr. Morton, knowing that the Admiral trusts you after all! “ I’m sure Sharkey was only joking but to Chip it was like rubbing salt into the wound!”
“Yes,” Lee had hesitated again as if debating with himself whether to elaborate on what he had just said. “It seems that Chip was already harbouring some hurt feelings over the Mason incident.”
“Ah!” Nelson had understood at once. “He wasn’t happy that we took Sharkey into our confidence and left him struggling to manage a situation that he didn’t understand?”
“Exactly. From Chip’s point of view that reinforces his belief that you don’t trust him! I think he was more angry than hurt over that and he does understand why we acted as we did but it’s still left him feeling that he’s not really trusted by either of us!” Lee had paused and grimaced guiltily at that point before continuing. “I can see where he’s coming from; I can think of a few more occasions when we haven’t always been straight with him while expecting him to run the boat in a crisis. And he just gets on with it. He’s never complained before although he has sometimes been a bit moody after a mission but he’s always claimed he’s just tired whenever I’ve asked him if he’s okay.”
“So this was the final straw?”
“That’s about it an….”
“And what?” Nelson had pounced as Lee hesitated.
“Well….It’s probably not relevant and please don’t mention it to him but I think he’s a little sensitive right now because he’s worried about Kate.”
“Scared she’s going to have the baby while he’s at sea?”
“Yes. I mean she’s got nearly two months to go but there have been a few problems and his sister’s youngest was premature so Chip’s got it into his head that Kate might be as well.”
“But he knows he can fly home at a moment’s notice?”
“Of course he does but I think when he’s off duty it does consume his thoughts a lot and possibly he’s allowed himself to brood about the gas incident to stop from worrying about Kate!”
Nelson had shaken his head at that point genuinely astounded by all of his young captain’s revelations. He had then thanked him for his honesty and assured him that he would speak to his exec first thing in the morning…”when we’re both refreshed.”
Now, as his cigarette burned down to the butt and he debated whether or not to light a second one Nelson wondered what exactly he could say to his executive officer to convince him that he really hadn’t meant any of the things that he had said to him except that he couldn’t tell what he was thinking. That bit was actually true and Nelson had to admit that sometimes he found it exasperating especially as Lee could usually read his friend’s face even when everyone else couldn’t. However, the important thing was that none of the crew could read him and it kept them on their toes; it was part of the complex personality that made Chip Morton such an excellent executive officer.
Although he had probably never said as much to them Harriman Nelson had frequently thanked the good fortune that had bought him two such talented and dedicated young officers and the friendship between them that made the pair such a formidable team. The last thing he wanted was to destroy that team and that was what was making him feel angry now, not at Lee or Chip or himself but at the stupid circumstances that had bought them to this situation.
It would be easy to blame Chip and accuse him of being unreasonable but Nelson had known his exec for a great many years now and, although he sometimes found him infuriating, he had a huge amount of respect and affection for the younger man. If Chip was hurting because of something he had inadvertently said or done then it was up to him to do his utmost to make things right because in the long run a disaffected exec wasn’t going to be good for any of them.
Deciding against a second cigarette Nelson pushed back his chair and stood up. It was almost midnight and time he turned in if he was going to be fresh in the morning. Knowing Chip Morton’s stubborn streak and his dislike of sharing his feelings it wasn’t going to be an easy task to convince him that he was very much valued and trusted and Nelson didn’t want tiredness to ignite his own quick temper if Chip proved too obdurate.
As he went through the
rituals of getting ready for bed Nelson reflected on the words Lee had allowed
to escape which indicated he and his exec had been arguing over the issue and
he hoped Lee had been honest when he had said that they had worked it out.
Lee Crane stood in the passageway outside the Admiral’s cabin and glanced back at the door he had just closed. The blue paintwork stared back at him, and the electric light above reflected off its shiny surface.
Lee frowned back at it. He had been pleasantly surprised at the Admiral’s reaction to what he had just told him. For some reason he had gotten it into his head that Nelson would be none too pleased to hear that his executive officer hadn’t been able to move on from the events of their previous disastrous mission so he had been relieved that Nelson appeared to support Chip’s views even if he didn’t entirely understand him.
“Which is why I feel such a heel,” Lee admitted to himself as he turned and walked slowly down the corridor intent on one last tour of his boat before turning in. “I more or less told Chip he was acting dumb. No wonder he got mad at me!”
Stopping outside his friend’s cabin Lee listened briefly at the door but heard only silence. Hopefully, that meant his blond haired friend was already asleep. He certainly hoped so; he didn’t like to think that he might be brooding over their argument. They had made it up before Lee left to meet with the Admiral but Chip hadn’t been happy that Lee was going to tell their superior how he felt and Lee was worried that might play on his mind overnight. He thought about knocking to check Chip was okay but didn’t want to wake him if he was asleep so he moved on down the corridor letting the familiar sights, sounds and smells of his boat soothe his troubled thoughts as his earlier confrontation with his exec replayed itself in his tired mind.
“I know I asked you this yesterday and you denied that there was a problem but I’ve been observing you, Chip and for some reason you do seem to have it in for the Admiral,” Lee had come straight to the point seeing no advantage in procrastinating with banal pleasantries.
“You mean you’ve been spying on me?” Chip had been instantly defensive, his sparkling blue eyes flashing angrily as they faced each other across the small space of his cabin.
“No!” Lee had fixed his best friend with a glare. “Of course I haven’t been spying on you, Chip and you know it. I’m just going by what I’ve seen in the control room and you’re not yourself when the Admiral is around. It’s almost like you’re wary of him and its making you react very formally and unnaturally around him. It doesn’t make sense.”
“It does to me,” Chip had muttered with a scowl. “But I promise I’ll try not to be so formal. I don’t want to upset the boat.”
“Fair enough,” Lee had smiled at that point hoping to diffuse the rather heavy atmosphere that had descended upon the exec’s cabin. However, he wasn’t about to accept his friend’s apology and move on. For everyone’s sake and especially Chip’s he needed to get to the bottom of the problem. Taking a deep breath he had looked directly at his friend’s closed expression and enquired in a light hearted tone. “What do you mean by saying that it makes sense to you?”
“None of your business,” Chip had growled his reply.
“It is my business if it threatens to upset the smooth running of the boat,” Lee had countered.
“I already said I’d try not to be so formal,” Chip had snapped back. “Just leave it, Lee. It’s my problem, not yours.”
“So you admit there is a problem?”
“I just said so, didn’t I?” Chip wasn’t bothering to try and disguise his irritation.
“Between you and the Admiral?” Lee had been genuinely surprised. He racked his brains for anything that might have occurred since they set sail just two days before but nothing came to mind.
“Just leave it, Lee….please!” Chip’s plea had been heartfelt and Lee had felt a twinge of guilt as he looked at his friend’s face. Chip might be the master at hiding his true feelings but Lee had had years of practise reading his inscrutable friend and he hadn’t missed the troubled look that flashed briefly across his blue eyes. For a long moment there had been silence in the small room. Sitting in his desk chair Chip had busied himself doodling on the blank pad on his desk, his eyes downcast while Lee had gazed at his bent head and sought inspiration to deal with a situation he knew he couldn’t allow to fester even though he dreaded a possible angry confrontation with his closest friend.
For a brief moment his mind had gone back in time to previous arguments and disagreements between the two of them. There hadn’t been many but there had been one or two very angry exchanges that had been regretfully necessary at the time. The positive thing about those encounters, Lee had realized with a jolt was that the angry words hadn’t come between them permanently. Rather issues had been resolved and their friendship had continued, stronger than ever.
Encouraged by these thoughts Lee had cleared his throat and said quietly, “I know you don’t want to talk about whatever is troubling you, Chip but I’m not leaving here until you do. There’s no point ignoring it, pal so let’s get it out in the open and deal with it.”
“Is that an order?” Chip had looked up then, the glimmer of a smile on his lips.
“No,” Lee had grinned at him across the spotlessly tidy desk. “But I can make it one if you want.”
“I don’t take orders from you off duty,” Chip had reminded him of the pact made between them when Lee had taken command of Seaview.
“I know, so we can just talk now…off duty… as friends or I can let you stew all night and call you to my cabin in the morning for a formal meeting; your choice, pal!”
“Some choice,” Chip’s frown had returned but he had continued to talk if somewhat reluctantly. “Okay, I’ll talk but I warn you, Lee you’re not going to like it.”
“Why don’t you let me be the judge of that?”
“Because I know you,” Chip had snorted, “and because even at the height of a crisis that threatened every man aboard you cared more about your loyalty to the Admiral than your loyalty to the rest of us.”
“Whoa!” Lee had interrupted then stunned by his friend’s words. “Are you talking about the Admiral and the gas incident?”
“Uh huh,” Chip had scowled back at him. “I know as far as you and everyone else is concerned that incident is history but it’s not history to me.” He’d paused then, a challenging expression on his face but Lee had remained silent his eyes never leaving his friend’s slightly flushed face and after a while Chip had continued, “I know it was all an accident, I know that the Admiral wasn’t acting of his own violation and I know that he has apologised to us all and we’re now on another mission entirely but I can’t forget it, Lee. I’ve tried, believe me I’ve tried and all the time we were ashore it was okay but as soon as I stepped back in the Control Room at the start of this mission and saw him there his words came back to haunt me…and they keep coming back every time I see the Admiral….” Chip’s last words were said almost apologetically and he had shrugged as he stopped talking to stare almost challengingly at his friend and Skipper.
“Which words were they exactly?”
Chip had swallowed, obviously uncomfortable with the thought of repeating them and he took refuge in an almost bitter retort that was completely out of keeping with his level headed personality, “You mean you haven’t heard?”
“I don’t think so,” Lee had hedged. He had a fair idea but he didn’t want to jump to conclusions. “I admit that the Admiral did seem to target you whenever he entered the Control Room and for what it’s worth I thought you handled him brilliantly. I probably would have hit him if he’d cut into me like that in front of the whole watch but it….”
“Don’t patronise me, Captain!” Chip had interrupted at that point, his eyes dark with raging fury as he stood up suddenly and paced across his cabin spinning on his heel when he reached the door and turning to face his stunned friend. “I shouldn’t have had to deal with him; you were there but did he pick on you? No! He picked on me! Even when I told him to take it up with you he continued to put me down in front of everyone and you didn’t even back me up! You just bowed to his authority even though it was obvious he’d lost his marbles and was intent on getting us all killed!”
“I did question his order to dive,” Lee had protested stung by his exec’s accusations. “I admit I didn’t force an argument with him but at the end of the day it is his boat and he has the right to call the shots. I wasn’t about to get into a confrontation with him in front of the crew.”
“Even though it was obvious that he was insane?” Chip’s tone had been derisive. “You had the authority to stop him, Lee and you didn’t. You just stood there and let him force me into following those orders while the whole crew were watching. Have you any idea what it felt like to give that order to dive and, then….then…” he had emphasised the word “…to invite certain disaster by demanding flank speed? I’ve never been so close to disobeying an order in my whole career!”
“I did take her back up as soon as he had left,” Lee’s defence seemed weak even to his own ears and Chip’s next comment that “…it was too late then…” added to his own growing sense of guilt. Maybe he should’ve acted sooner to have the Admiral confined but he’d acted…or hadn’t acted…in the heat of the moment and removing a senior officer from command wasn’t a decision to be taken lightly. Obviously Chip hadn’t been happy with the situation but it was over now so why was his level-headed, practical exec seemingly bearing a grudge? It really wasn’t like him.
“Okay, I admit that maybe I should’ve acted sooner but I didn’t and we can’t turn back the clock,” Lee had attempted to apologise and also to absolve Chip from the guilt he appeared to be carrying. “But you’ve got nothing to be guilty for, Chip; you were just obeying orders. You did your job. Period. And you know the Admiral wasn’t responsible for his own actions. He’s feels very badly about what happened.”
“I’m sure he does and I don’t blame him,” Chip’s temper seemed to have run its course at that point and his shoulders sagged as he crossed back to his desk and sat down on the chair he had vacated minutes before. ”Just forget it, Lee; I’m just being dumb.”
“Maybe, but I’m not going to forget it, Chip. You’ve been a naval officer for too long and you’re too damn sensible to let an incident like that upset you long term…and don’t you dare accuse me of being patronising!” he’d thrown out the warning as Chip looked ready to get to his feet again, his blue eyes dark with suppressed anger. “I know it was hard for you but you’ve faced tougher challenges and accepted them as part of your job so what was different this time and what did you mean earlier about the Admiral’s words haunting you? Surely you don’t mean the orders he forced you to follow?”
“You really haven’t heard?” Chip had sounded resigned at that point as he leant across the desk and stared into Lee’s face. “You haven’t heard the scuttlebutt that the great Admiral Nelson doesn’t trust his executive officer; that he’s never trusted me even though I’ve been working for him for the best part of a decade!”
“Yes, ah! You did hear it! Everybody heard it!”
“Yea, I did but it was all part of his paranoia,” Lee had tried to be reasonable. “Everybody knows that, Chip and you should too. Would he have employed you if he didn’t trust you? Would he agree to leaving you to run things on board when we’re both off chasing other problems? He didn’t mean it and I can’t understand why you would think he does to the extent that you’re letting it upset you weeks after the event.”
“It’s upsetting me because he does mean it!” Chip had been intent on believing the worst. “Oh, I know he was under the influence of the gas but those words came from his subconscious; he’s just never bothered to voice them before.”
“He’s never voiced them because he doesn’t think them,” Lee had fought to stay reasonable when he really wanted to knock some sense into his stubborn friend.
“You’re entitled to your opinion and I’m entitled to mine.”
“Oh don’t be so damned intractable!” It had been Lee’s turn to stand up then and he had glared down at his friend. “What the hell’s got into you, Chip? Are you actually feeling sorry for yourself? Just because you had to obey orders in a difficult situation and the Admiral said a few harsh words he didn’t mean?”
“You never heard him!” Chip had also stood up and the two had faced each other across the desk, angry golden eyes challenging darkened blue. “He meant them and that’s why he picked on me, he was undermining me because he doesn’t trust me.”
“Rubbish! Where’s your evidence? All his actions until now have shown that he does trust you and actions speak louder than words.”
“Well, maybe you’re right. Maybe he did trust me once but not lately. And I’m not sure you do either,” Chip had worked himself into a fury; fists clenched, jaw so rigid Lee was surprised he could speak clearly. “Did either of you bother to tell me what was going on when Mason was running around loose impersonating any damn person he chose? Did you trust me then? No! I could’ve stopped him leaving the boat on FS1 if I’d had some idea what was going on but I just thought you were acting weird! But no you were perfectly sane and content to let me try and keep order when I didn’t have a clue what was going on. The crew were looking to me and I was clueless because the Admiral and the Captain would rather take the Chief into their confidence than their XO! Hell Lee, why does Sharkey get trusted with confidential information you can’t tell me unless it’s because you don’t trust me? Do you know what he said to me after Admiral Nelson apologised to the crew?” With difficulty Lee realized Chip had now switched back to the gas incident and he flinched inwardly at his friend’s increasingly bitter tone as Chip continued angrily “It must be good to know that the Admiral does trust you after all and then he laughed! He actually thought it was funny. Well. I’m not laughing, Lee. I’m not laughing at all.”
A sudden silence had swept over the cabin broken only by Chip’s heavy breathing as he sat back down in his chair, broad shoulders slumped as he cradled his head in his hands. For a long moment Lee hadn’t responded because he didn’t know how to respond without possibly making the situation worse. He was totally stunned by Chip’s accusations and more than a little hurt. How could his best friend think that he didn’t trust him? What did that say about their friendship? Lee trusted Chip with his life; there was nobody except, possibly the Admiral that he trusted more than he trusted his closest friend and it hurt to realize his friend didn’t appreciate it. And yet, even as he absorbed the full implication of Chip’s angry words, Lee knew that his pain was nothing compared to what his friend must be feeling. And, Lee had to admit, Chip’s feelings were quite justified. There had been incidents such as he had just recalled so bitterly where it must have seemed to him that he hadn’t been trusted to know exactly what was going on. Truth was, it wasn’t so much that they hadn’t trusted Chip but that they had been guilty of taking his cool, calm professionalism for granted; that they had overlooked his need to know exactly what was happening because they took it for granted that he would maintain control in the most difficult of situations, that he would obey orders, no questions asked and then carry on after the crisis as if nothing had happened. It was part of what made him such a brilliant XO and, to be fair to himself and the Admiral, Lee had had no idea until this moment that Chip harboured any resentment about his role in the scheme of things. There had obviously been lack of communication on both sides but would Chip, who was well-known for keeping his feelings close to his chest, accept that it wasn’t entirely everybody else’s fault? Or would any attempt by Lee to point out that although guilty as charged he and Nelson weren’t entirely to blame bring about another tirade?
Lee had sighed inwardly as he stared down at his friend’s blond head. It was tempting to walk away and hope Chip might feel calmer later but, in reality, Lee knew that to postpone the continuation of this admittedly unpleasant conversation would just make it worse in the long run. Running his right hand through his dark curls he took a deep breath and said clearly, “I’m sorry, Chip. I could give you a number of reasons why we apparently kept you in the dark but at the end of the day it doesn’t change the fact that we were wrong and all I can do is apologise. It wasn’t personal; it wasn’t even intentional, it just happened. We just depended on you and because you always cope so brilliantly we…or at least I…never even realized that you didn’t always know what was happening; you certainly always act as if you do.”
“Oh, so it’s all my fault!” Any hope that Chip was going to accept an apology were dashed as he lifted his blond head, blue eyes flashing with angry indignation. Placing his hands palms down on his desk he started to push himself up out of his chair but Lee forestalled him.
“No, it’s not your fault!” Moving to stand directly in front of his friend’s desk Lee leant forward placing his own hands on the polished surface as he fixed Chip’s angry glare with one of his own. “It’s everyone’s fault, Chip. Mine, the Admiral’s, Sharkey’s, the almost impossible missions that we get involved in and…” he paused steeling himself for another angry retort “…yours! I know we shouldn’t have taken you for granted…” he hurried on when Chip didn’t respond “…I know we should have made sure that you had more idea what was going on but to be honest, Chip I often haven’t realized just how much you didn’t know because you carry on as if you are in perfect control. Sometimes a situation moves at such a rapid pace that it’s all over before I have time to think whether I’ve told you everything you need to know and you act as if everything is fine. You’re so damn cool, Chip you fool everyone into thinking that you are in total control of everything. You keep everyone calm and you’ve never complained before so how were we to know that you’ve felt slighted?”
For a moment after Lee’s impassioned speech there was silence in the room. Hazel eyes remained locked on blue until Chip looked away and fixing his gaze on the floor said quietly, “Maybe I should’ve said something before now.”
“Maybe,” Lee had agreed. “We’re not mind readers, Chip. You’ve never given any indication at all that you’ve been unhappy with the way that you’ve been treated at times.”
“I guess that’s because it’s never really mattered that much,” Chip returned his gaze to his friend’s face and Lee was relieved to see that the anger that had darkened his fair features appeared to have evaporated. “I’ve usually been too relieved that a crisis is over and too tired to start complaining. Besides, I’m not the complaining type.”
“True,” Lee risked a grin and was inordinately pleased when it was returned. “So what’s different now?”
Chip sighed and a dejected expression spread across his face. “Now I know that the Admiral doesn’t trust me. You may’ve been too caught up in a situation to remember to tell me everything, Lee but the Admiral excludes me because he doesn’t trust me and I don’t think I can carry on here knowing that.”
Lee sighed in exasperation. They were back to square one! Rightly or wrongly Chip was fixated on the idea that Nelson didn’t trust him. Lee was astute enough to realize that although he could give his friend plenty of examples to try and prove that the Admiral did trust him Chip needed to hear those things from the man himself if there was any chance of him actually believing that he was trusted.
“I think you should go and talk to the Admiral,” Lee had held his breath as the words left his mouth, his muscles tense as he awaited Chip’s reaction.
“And say what?” Chip’s tone had been derisive.
“Tell him how you feel,” Lee had said honestly. “Tell him that his words hurt you and how you now feel undermined.”
“Oh, yea,” Chip had laughed bitterly. “Please, Sir, did you know you hurt my feelings, sir? He’ll wipe the floor with me, Lee. As far as he’s concerned it’s over and done with. He’s not going to be too happy to learn that an officer, no less, can’t get over it!”
“I think you’re underestimating him,” Lee had responded evenly taking care not to sound too defensive on the Admiral’s behalf. “He values you too much to dismiss your feelings and if you value your role here then you need to do everything you can to sort this mess out.”
Chip had sighed heavily at that point and he looked to his friend as if he had the whole weight of the world on his shoulders. He also looked very tired and unhappy and Lee was suddenly seized with a need to protect his friend from any more upset. Admittedly he did feel that Chip was being unreasonable but he could also accept that, in Chip’s tired mind, his feelings were entirely justified. Reaching out with his right hand Lee had clasped his friend’s left shoulder and had been relieved when Chip hadn’t pulled away.
“How about I speak to the Admiral then?”
“Do my dirty work you mean?”
“No, but he doesn’t have a clue that he’s upset you, Chip so let me talk to him, find out how he feels about things before you talk to him.”
“If you must,” Chip had sounded grudgingly resigned.
“I’m trying to help you,” Lee had felt irritated and resisted an urge to shake his stubborn friend.
“I know; I’m sorry,” Chip had shrugged unhappily. “I didn’t set out to feel like this, Lee and I’m sorry that I can’t seem to let it go but that’s the way it is.”
“Fair enough,” Lee had said quietly. “And I’m sorry, Chip if I upset you by my actions on that mission; I didn’t mean to. I just reacted in the way I thought best and, for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t have managed the situation without you.”
Chip had allowed himself to smile then which had morphed into a sudden prodigious yawn.
“Maybe you should get some rest,” Lee had observed with a grin. “Goodnight, Chip.”
“Goodnight, Lee,” Chip’s parting smile had been warm and Lee had left his friend’s cabin confident that their own disagreements were behind them. Now as he came to the end of his tour around his precious boat he paused again by Chip’s door and listened. Silence. He hoped Chip was asleep as he headed to his own cabin. He wasn’t sure if he would manage to sleep; not until he knew that Nelson and Chip had sorted out the problems between them. The thought that the two most important people in his life might remain at odds with each other twisted Lee’s stomach into painful knots as he entered his cabin and flicked on the light. Both Nelson and Chip had very strong stubborn streaks and, as he got ready for bed, Lee hoped fervently that neither of them would allow that trait in their personalities to encroach on their conversation the next morning.
Harriman Nelson observed his Executive Officer critically as they stood opposite each other in the younger man’s cabin. He had hoped that by going to Chip’s cabin instead of summoning him to his own the blond haired man might feel more at ease but the tactic didn’t appear to have worked…at least not outwardly. Chip stood stiffly at the side of his desk and a casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that the younger officer was being inspected. Chip’s uniform was immaculate, the only creases being those that had been ironed into his shirt and pants. His tie was perfectly aligned, his shoes shone and his hair had been combed with almost military precision. Nelson was suddenly seized with a childish desire to giggle at his exec’s extreme formality but he stifled the urge, aware that Chip Morton would just see it as evidence that his employer didn’t trust him or respect him.
Chip’s startlingly blue eyes were guarded as he fixed his gaze on the door behind Nelson’s head and the older man sighed inwardly as he stared back at him. In his mind he snapped the words,” At ease man! You’re not being inspected!” but the words that actually came out of his mouth were calm and measured, “Sit down, Chip; I’m not here to inspect you!”
Chip had been standing so stiff and formally that for a moment Nelson wasn’t sure that he had heard his words but then the younger man’s eyes met his own and he nodded briefly before perching himself on the edge of his desk chair. He was obviously not relaxed and knowing that to order him to unwind would only make him worse Nelson pulled up another chair and sat down opposite him. Clearing his throat he spoke in a warm and friendly voice, “I suspect that you know why I’m here so I’m not going to beat about the bush. Lee tells me that you think I don’t trust you any more; in fact he says that you believe that I’ve never trusted you!”
Chip swallowed several times but didn’t respond. He continued to stare levelly at a point somewhere beyond Nelson’s right shoulder and the older man had to resist an urge to slap his inscrutable XO across the face. Instead he forced himself to remain calm as he said quietly, “Is that true, Chip? Do you really think that I don’t trust you?”
Chip frowned heavily but still didn’t answer. Whatever he had shared with Lee it was obvious that he wasn’t going to find it easy to admit his feelings to his employer. Nelson sighed and allowed an edge of irritability to creep into his voice as he said honestly, “You can say what you want, Chip. This is completely off the record. I’m not here to reprimand you. I just want to sort this problem out for your sake.”
Chip’s frown deepened as he removed his gaze from the bulkhead and looked levelly at his superior, “You said that you don’t trust me, sir. You said that you have never really trusted me and that you can never tell what I’m thinking. Those were your words and the whole watch heard them. I realize that you were under the influence of the gas at the time but I believe you still said what was in your mind all along. The gas just freed you to be honest in the same way that alcohol loosens people’s tongues.”
“Fair enough; you do have a point there, Chip and I confess that part of what I said is true.”
Chip’s eyes narrowed and his hands balled into fists as the Admiral’s words hit home. Obviously he hadn’t expected Nelson to confess that there was some truth in his words and the Admiral felt a huge pang of sympathy as he realized that he was probably going to hurt the younger man’s feelings further as he continued, “I do find it very difficult to know what you are thinking a lot of the time. You hide all your thoughts and feelings behind your official executive officer face and I find it impossible to guess what you are really thinking or feeling but….” Nelson was careful to put huge emphasis on his next words, “…that is not a criticism. It’s one of your strengths, Chip; you don’t let your emotions dictate your actions or your dealings with others. You confuse our more difficult guests and you keep the crew on their toes constantly. It’s one of your gifts, Chip and I was wrong to make it sound as if I was complaining about it although I do admit that I find it frustrating at times to be kept in the dark especially as Lee seems to have the ability to read you even when nobody else can.”
Chip’s frown lessened and Nelson was sure that he saw the younger man’s mouth twitch with the beginnings of a smile although it could have been wishful thinking. “I think you have to admit that what I just said is true,” Nelson pressed on when Chip failed to react. “Isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir,” Chip nodded slightly knowing that what the Admiral said was undeniably true. Even as a child he had confounded his family, friends and teachers with his ability to hide his thoughts and feelings behind an impenetrable mask. As a small boy it had been a necessary tool in his battle to deal with the horrendous emotional trauma he had suffered when his parents and brother had been killed and only his much elder sister and his brother-in law had been able to see beyond the mask to the very vulnerable child underneath. If he was honest it rather pleased him to know that he had been successful in confounding the great Admiral Nelson but he was careful not to allow that satisfaction to show on his face as he waited to hear what else the older man had to say.
Confident that Chip was now more willing to listen than he had been when Nelson arrived in his cabin the older man cleared his throat and continued, “Just because I can’t always guess what you’re thinking, Chip doesn’t mean that I don’t trust you. I do trust you and I have always trusted you. If I didn’t trust you, you wouldn’t be working for me and I think that if you think about that statement you will acknowledge that it’s true. I don’t employ people I can’t trust and especially not in the very important position of executive officer. And yes…” he held up a hand to stop Chip from interrupting as the younger man opened his mouth in protest “… I know what I said under the influence of the gas and I understand why you think that I was just voicing thoughts from my subconscious but, in this case, I wasn’t. It was purely the gas talking.” He paused, his expression grave as he faced the younger man who stared back emotionlessly. “I’m sorry,” Nelson said quietly. “I know that I hurt your feelings, Chip and I know that it’s made you very uneasy around me but I never intended to hurt you and I’m truly sorry.”
Chip stared completely taken aback by Nelson’s sincere apology. The last thing he had expected was for his often fiercesome employer to come and humble himself to a junior officer. If he was honest he had expected Nelson to chew him out for being too sensitive or childish and, for a moment, he was too overcome with guilt to respond.
Thinking that his words hadn’t been enough to convince his solemn young exec Nelson sighed as he leant forward in his chair, his elbows resting on his knees, “You might think I’m just saying these words, Chip but I need you to understand that I mean them so I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told you before and I want you to listen and accept what I say. I…”
“I said listen,” Nelson’s voice was
commanding, drowning the protest on Chip’s lips and he sat back in his chair,
his blue eyes fixed on his superior’s face as the older man continued, “I stuck
my neck out for you, Chip. When I first mentioned that I was going to offer you
the post of executive officer I was told, to put it bluntly, that I was being
ridiculous. The general consensus was that you were far too young and
inexperienced and that I would be better hiring somebody older, somebody who
had seen more action than you had. And those detractors had a point…” Nelson
smiled slightly. “You were young and to make matters worse
you looked even younger but I had followed your career…yours
and Lee’s…because you had shown so much promise at
Nelson paused and sat back in his chair, running a hand through his red hair before leaning forward again and fixing his intense stare on his exec. “This may all sound like a lot of hot air to you but I hope you can understand that it’s not and that the only reason I’m telling you this, Chip is because I want you to know how I really feel, so that we can put this whole incident behind us and move forward.” He stood up abruptly and looked down at the younger man. “Maybe I should give you some time now…to think about what I’ve said…” he moved towards the door aware that his words seemed to have had the effect of rendering his always taciturn exec totally speechless. “Come and see me later, before you go on duty…” he paused, one hand on the door knob “…and that’s an order, Mr Morton!”
For a long while after Admiral Nelson had left his cabin Chip sat unmoving, staring at the closed door as if in a daze. He felt like such an idiot now for getting upset over Nelson’s words and he felt guilty too for doubting his superior and believing that he had meant the cruel words he had spoken weeks earlier. It was obvious now that they had ….for the most part….been empty words and that the words spoken just moments earlier were the truth. The Admiral wasn’t a man to say things he didn’t mean and his actions in coming to Chip’s cabin and speaking so sincerely and honestly had touched the younger man deeply. It was good to know that he was trusted and, if he was honest, it was very satisfying to know that he could confuse his superior with his official, unreadable face.
Feeling suddenly a lot brighter and more light-hearted than he had since the start of this current mission Chip stood up and opened the door; he had another twenty minutes before his watch began, time to visit both Nelson and Lee and make his peace before focusing his entire attention on his beloved job secure in the knowledge that he wouldn’t need to resign after all!