Command Decision (by Theresa)

Synopsis:  A missing scene for the episode, “A Day of Evil”

Category:  Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea
Genre:  Sci-Fi
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  7,595


 

Author’s Note:  This story takes place between the missile launch and the epilog of the aired episode, Day of Evil. Much gratitude and heartfelt thanks to my beta, Kate (CMT), who not only insisted that I write more Voyage, but inspired the ending to the final scene.

 

Lee’s first awareness was that of floating on a bed of the softest cotton. He nestled in safety and comfort as gentle, reassuring fingers caressed his burning neck and shoulders. Savoring the unexpected attention, he relaxed into earnest hands that rubbed away the soreness and eased the tension from his body. Inexplicably, he felt a wonderfully familiar stirring in the center of his body, a curious warmth that fanned out and engulfed his entire being.

And then, disembodied hands touched tender flesh, rudely yanking him from his contented dreamlike state into cold, harsh reality. He came awake with a start and a deep gasp, opening his eyes to the blurry vision of Admiral Nelson bending over him.

“Stop … please…” He heard his own voice croak out the embarrassing plea.

“Easy, Lee,” the unfocused lips said reassuringly. “Will’s on his way. I’ve got to check you over for broken bones. That nuclear blast almost slammed Seaview to the bottom. I think we’re all a bit bruised and battered right now.”

He wrinkled his brow at the puzzling words, sucked in a dry, ragged breath as something again stoked the blazing fire in his side. He groaned and instinctively moved his hands to his belly to grasp and still the instruments of torture – freckled, thick-fingered hands.

“Admiral … the fleet … I’ve launched … oh, my god …” Lee said haltingly. He recoiled against the spreading fire that long ago had ignited in his palm and now blazed within his body, but his jerky movement only heightened the intensity. Cramping muscles tore at his self-control, and he moaned and gnashed his teeth against the onslaught.

“I’m sorry!” an anguished voice apologized. “But I’ve got to make certain …”

He felt his grip being loosened, his fingers gently pried open. Someone moved his hands carefully but deliberately to his sides, then Nelson continued with his ministrations, checking for injuries. The resulting agony sent him over the edge into a blazing inferno.

*****

The rumors had all been true; it was an oven in Hell. Smokeless, soundless flames soared around him, licking hungrily at his semi-nude body. He squirmed helplessly, trying in vain to move away from their burning touch, but his efforts were to no avail. He stood uncomfortably, alternating on tiptoe, then on the balls of his bare feet, ineffectually striving to lessen the damage  Beneath him, in the center of a fiery pit, stretched a gallows and standing alone on the structure, noose pulled tightly around his neck, was the form of his friend, Admiral Nelson.

“Admiral! Up here.”

Familiar eyes stared up at him, eyes that simmered fiery ice and cold accusation. “Don’t do it, Lee! Don’t kill us!” With the taut rope around his neck making it difficult to move, Nelson nodded to his left where a line of more than one-hundred uniformed men stood, oddly calm and silent, each awaiting his turn on the stockade. Second in line was Lieutenant Commander Morton, at attention, white choker dress uniform immaculate.

“Chip! Admiral! I could never … I …” A crackling sound crescendoed into the obscene sizzle of radioactive steam, and Lee cringed involuntarily.

“So! There you are, Captain!” a chillingly, recognizable voice said. “Ready to press the button and forever seal our bargain?”

“Who are you? Why are you doing this?” he shouted, raising his volume to be heard above the continuous hissing.

“You know who I am, Lee,” the disembodied voice said as the ominous vapor grew closer.

“I don’t know …you …” he replied, but the rest of his sentence was cut off as the steaming mist found and enveloped its target. The torture was a two-edged sword with agony coming from all sides. He felt white hot fire singe his already seared flesh until, at last, he sagged, ragdoll limp, naked torso scorched and blistered. Laughter pierced the red haze of pain, assaulting his ears with maniacal glee. Someone grabbed his hair and pulled hard, jerking his drooping head backward so abruptly he almost blacked out. His stomach lurched sickeningly, and he tried to swallow but his throat had constricted. He drew in a ragged breath and forced himself to focus on the visage in front of him.

“Now do you recall my name, Lee?” the blurry face said. “Lee? Can you hear me, Captain Crane?”

He struggled with the indistinct form, blinking furiously until the fuzzy image sharpened into an all-too-familiar face.

“No!” he gasped in stunned surprise as his own eyes stared back at him. A frighteningly evil smile curled lips that were identical to his.

“Press the button, Captain! Preeeesssss it!”

In horror, he felt his own will dissipate, watched as his right hand rose of its own volition, reaching out to lightly skim the trigger of destruction that suddenly solidified before him. “What? Where did that come from?”

“It doesn’t matter, Lee. The only thing that matters is that you … press … it … now! Now!”

He hurt. Dear God, he hurt so badly that he couldn’t help himself. From a heightened state of awareness, he saw himself push the gallows button, heard the clunk of the trap door opening and the strangled cry of his best friend. Admiral Nelson fell swiftly and certainly to his death.

Utter despair ripped through Lee. He heard a gasp from the crew below, magnified by the malicious, cackling delight of the monster beside him. All other sound was swallowed in a billowing tumult of flame. He couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe, his mind stripped raw by the shocking knowledge he’d just killed one of his closest friends. He writhed in agony as the blaze grew ever hotter, reaching out to deliver indiscriminate jabs of torment.

The last thing he heard before Hell disintegrated was the malevolent, echoing laughter of his double. It reverberated around him, growing in volume until, finally, the sound drowned out everything, and he saw and heard no more.

*****

Washington D.C. was fit to be tied. Likewise, Moscow was throwing temper tantrums, and the ‘People’s Republic’ threatened imminent retaliation for a ‘blatant act of aggression’ on the part of the United States of America. The United Nations’ Secretary General demanded an emergency meeting of its Security Council, calling and awakening several ambassadors at exactly midnight, New York time. This was followed five minutes later by a call to the President, who, in turn, contacted his Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense. At the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs were hurried into a pre-dawn staff meeting where they immediately placed NATO and SEATO on high alert status. And the press … well, the press had gone totally berserk.

All because Lee Crane had armed, aimed, and fired a nuclear missile.

For the fourth time in as many minutes, Harry slammed the telephone receiver down so hard his untouched coffee lapped over the lip of the cup and spilled onto an adjacent notepad. Incensed, he plundered his desk drawers, searching for a dry wipe or towel. How in the unmitigated hell television and newspaper reporters were gaining access to his personal line, he didn’t know! What he did know was that heads would roll as soon as he could get a call through to Institute Security!

Growling at the unprecedented breach, he fisted his hand around a single, yellowed-with-age kim-wipe. He inspected it, deciding it was still absorbent enough to be of some use, and dabbed at the mess. Immediately, the video-phone across the room buzzed. Disposing of the sodden towelette, he grabbed one of the three still-smoldering cigarettes from his desk ash tray, dangled it between his lips, and crossed the room. The ‘on’ switch opened a grainy screen which took several long seconds to coalesce into the blurred outline of his N.I.M.R. personal assistant. The image was indistinct and lacked clarity, but Harry could still see that his perfect, poised and always unflappable ‘girl friday’ was completely frazzled.

“Yes, Angie.” The situation was far from amusing, but he couldn’t help the shadow of a smile that tugged at his lips.

“Admiral … sir … I hate to bother you, but …”

He sighed, pulled a long, calming drag from his cigarette, held it for a moment, then exhaled in a single breath. “It’s all right. You’re doing a great job. What’s up?”

His assistant smirked at the compliment, but Harry could see that she was somewhat distracted by something off-screen. “Sir, at the moment there are more than two dozen reporters trying to enter the Institute grounds without proper credentials or prior approval. Three state representatives and the mayor of Santa Barbara are in the outer office asking to talk to you via vidphone on a one-on-one basis. The senator from Idaho is on line one and Representative Williamson of Oklahoma, Senator Sutton of Maryland, and Vice-Admiral Langford are all holding and … and … well, sir, I just don’t know what to tell them.”

Harry felt the first pangs of annoyance creep up the back of his neck, threatening to ignite his world-famous temper. With some difficulty, he kept his manner calm and unemotional. “There’s nothing to tell them, Angie.”

It was obvious that his assistant hadn’t picked up on the tone or the visual signs. “Admiral … I’m sorry, but the phone lines are so full, it’s threatening to crash the entire Institute communications system.”

If possible, his voice was even quieter and deadlier this time. He emphasized each word. “Then. Let. It. Crash.” He punctuated the order with a stern look.

A puzzling frown drew her perfectly-plucked eyebrows closer together. “Sir?”

“You heard me. I’ve already talked to the President and the Secretary of Defense. They’ve scheduled a press conference for 0800 Eastern, at which time all of these nosy-bodies will get the ‘official’ who, what, when, where and why Seaview launched a nuclear missile. Until then, they can just reach out and touch each other.”

“But Admiral Nelson … these are VIPs, and they’re not just asking for you, they’re demanding to …”

“Tell them for me that they can take their demands, fold them five ways, and stick them where the sun doesn’t shine.”

Taken aback, Angie’s brows shot up and her mouth rounded to a perfect O, but Harry had lost all patience … with her … with politicians … with the media … with the world!

“Shut … it … down … Angie. Now! Nelson out!” Punctuating the outburst, he flicked the off button. As if on cue, the desk phone behind him buzzed. He barreled toward it, picked up the receiver, and hurled it with all his might across the room. It struck his cabin door with a resounding thud just as someone opened it from the other side. Chip Morton stood in the doorway, sky-blue eyes sparking, lips drawn into a thin bloodless line.

Harry strode forward, bent to retrieve the phone, and beckoned with his hand. “Well, come in. Come in. Didn’t they teach you to knock before entering at the Academy?”

Morton came fully into the room, turned purposefully and eased the door shut, then swiveled back to face Harry. “Yes, sir. They taught decorum. They also taught me to sit back and rationalize instead of going with my first gut instincts. But, in this particular instance, I don’t believe either lesson applies.”

Placing the receiver back in its cradle, Harry blanched at the unexpected words and unusual tone. In all situations, Commander Charles “Chip” Morton was the consummate military professional, yet this response bordered on insubordination. If nothing else, it was downright rude.

He studied his executive officer; the younger man was red-faced, his breathing quick and shallow, as if he’d run a long way. “What’s wrong, Chip?” he asked solemnly.

“How dare you!” Morton snarled the words.

Aghast, Harry froze where he stood, rooted to the spot. From somewhere, he heard his own voice sputter embarrassingly, “I don’t know what …”

“Lee Crane was terminal! Dying. He had less than 48 hours to live! And you didn’t see fit to let me in on that fact!”

Harry looked into the blue ice of his commander’s eyes. “I … the mission … Chip, I considered it a ‘need-to-know’ basis.”

“Bullshit!” Morton moved closer, breathing hard, his hands curled into rigid fists. It was obvious he was fighting for self-control. “Why? Why didn’t you tell me? If nothing else, regulations required it. Goddamnit, Admiral, I’m your second-in-command! I would think that would make the imminent death of Seaview’s captain a ‘need-to-know’.”

Harry’s legs went suddenly weak, and he turned around, sought out the single desk chair in his tiny quarters. He let his exhausted body sag into it. “It was enough that I knew. Lee was beyond help, and Sharkey and I were already distracted by our personal concern. Seaview was in crisis, and I needed one clear head making decisions in that control room. You were it.”

Morton swallowed hard, his voice barely above a whisper. “Did you really have that little faith in me, Admiral? Did you really think that I would shirk my duty because of a ‘personal concern’?”

Harry fumbled in his breast pocket for the pack of Camels he habitually kept there, but it was empty. Yanking open a desk drawer, he pulled an unopened one from the carton. Absently, he poked a hole in the top with his forefinger, extracted a fresh cigarette, placed it between his lips and tossed the pack onto the desktop. “There was nothing you could’ve done for him, Chip,” he said matter-of-factly.

Morton’s reply was soft, laced with melancholy and regret. “I could’ve been there! I could’ve talked to him, held his hand, let him know what I thought about his asinine decision.” He reached for a breath, deliberately closed his eyes. “He wouldn’t have died alone.”

Harry grasped his lighter, thumbed the lid open. “And if you had been with your dying friend, sitting beside him, holding his hand, and cursing his choices, who would’ve been in command of Seaview?”

Stricken, the younger man lowered his gaze. “I would’ve stayed at my station, Admiral.”

“I know that.” A tiny flame ignited, flared as Harry puffed the cigarette to life. “But, in all honesty, Chip, I didn’t withhold anything because I thought it would interfere with your duties. I think I just wanted to spare you the pain of knowing. But I was wrong. And for that I owe you an apology. And I ask for your forgiveness.”

The single cabin ceiling light haloed Morton’s blond hair, making him seem almost ethereal in the now silent room. Looking more boy than man, he shuffled one foot forward, then met Harry’s intent gaze. “Accepted, sir,” he said.

There was an almost palpable stillness, broken abruptly by the shrill screech of the tablephone; both men flinched involuntarily. It rang again, harmonizing with the sudden beep of the resurrected videophone.

“Blast!” Harry planted his cigarette in the overflowing ashtray and reached for the receiver. “Admiral Nelson here …. Who? How did you get this number? No, I don’t have a statement!”

Morton shot his superior officer a sympathetic look and began to back out of the room. He reached the door, palmed the knob, just as Harry slammed the receiver down.

The videophone buzzed again and then once more. Harry stood, headed purposefully toward the accursed screen and reached for the ‘on’ button. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Morton open the door, place one foot over the threshold. “Chip …”

His exec paused. “Aye, sir?”

“He wouldn’t have died alone.”

The door latch clicked into place just as the videophone screen brightened.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the press, we have a statement to read from the President of the United States, and then Admiral Harriman Nelson, live from onboard the S.S.R.N. Seaview, will take your questions.”

Harry lifted a hand to finger-comb through his hair, then paused as his eyes locked on the still-tender burn in the center of his right palm. The brand of the beast, he thought, just as the President’s Press Secretary began the prepared statement.

*****

Oblivion was as busy as Hell but much, much cooler. Lee lay quiet and unmoving on the sickbay bunk, listening intently to the clamor around him. He purposefully confirmed that he was in partial possession of his five senses – touch and hearing were definitely in working order. Although his skin still felt hot and super-sensitive, the burning had eased enough that the feel of brushed cotton sheets against his naked flesh was not intolerable. But his eyelids were much too heavy to open. Likewise, the rest of his body seemed weighted down. He supposed he was restrained. That’s what normally happened when a crewmember went mad, fired a nuclear missile, and started World War III.

“…set it and get him into a cast …”

Doctor Will Jamieson’s voice drilled past the constant ringing in his ears like a klaxon, at first blaring loudly in volume, then going whisper-soft.

“…possible skull fracture … x-rays back to me stat …”

A new voice joined the doctor’s. “Will! What’s the situation?”

Admiral Nelson! But he was dead! He’d heard the gallows’ floor open, could still hear the sickening snap of neck bones as his friend fell through. Relief so overwhelming that he could feel both carotid arteries pulsating in his throat washed through him.

“…two crewmen with broken arms … another in serious condition, but not life-threatening …”

“And Lee?” Nelson asked, concern rife in both monosyllables.

Alive!

He heard footsteps drawing nearer. Vocal grunts accompanied the sound of protesting middle-aged joints as both men hunkered down beside him.

“…oooofff…getting too old for this. He’s conscious, but very weak … anemia … not going to be doing marathon duty anytime soon … may … packed cells …but he’s better … ”

“Will, his skin … why does he … look …”

“…radiation is caustic … the redness … something akin to very bad sunburn … just got him … tepid bath of Epsom salts …right now, I’m injecting …”

Something skewered the already-stinging skin of his bare hip, something thin and razor-sharp. Stunned, he drew in an abrupt breath, held it for the length of time he was impaled.

“…shot of B-12 … easy, Captain …”

“Admiral …you’re alive?” Lee heard his own voice, shockingly feeble and kitten-weak.

Nelson huffed a breathy laugh. “Well … I can assure you, I am. For that matter, so are you.”

Abruptly, a cool hand descended onto his forehead, rested there for a moment, then moved on to palm his cheeks. “He still seems a bit warm, Doc.”

Jamieson, whose long fingers encircled his wrist in search of a pulse, grunted in assent. “Just a low-grade fever, Admiral. Nothing to worry about now that he’s past the crisis. Skipper, how are you feeling?”

Before he could answer, the intercom crackled to life, and another familiar voice echoed loudly across the room. “Admiral Nelson! This is Morton.”

“…damn …” Regulation military shoes tap-tapped across the hard submarine deck. “Nelson here. I’m in sickbay. What is it, Chip?”

“Washington wants another word with you, Sir. And how’s Lee?”

“Doc says he’s better. Are they on this channel?”

“Negative, Sir. They’re coming through Sparks’ radio … encrypted and coded.”

For a moment, Lee heard only the rustling sounds of busy corpsmen and their patients. Then, “On my way.” Another pause. “Will?”

“Yes, Admiral?” Jamieson’s breath, a not-unpleasant mixture of coffee and cigarettes, with just a hint of Listerine, whisper-tickled his nose. A third sense had returned.

“Keep me informed.”

There was no reply. He heard a door open, then close decidedly.

“Captain?” Jamieson spoke again.

He opened his mouth to answer but could only manage an embarrassing squeak.

“Corpsman Smith is going to apply an antibiotic cream to your skin. It’ll be uncomfortable going for a while, but it should take the bite out of your radiation burn. I expect the redness to dissipate soon. As for the overall weakness you’re experiencing, that’s going to take awhile to go away. I know your body must feel like it’s weighted down, but I assure you that it’s only temporary. If you’re a good patient and mind your doctor, you’ll probably be out of here and ‘on quarters’ in three days. If not … a week … maybe more.”

Jamieson ‘oofed’ an audible groan as he stood erect.

“Y’know, Captain …” The doctor’s tone was lighter, almost teasing. “… any other place, any other time, and some might think you’d just been too long on one of those nude Mediterranean beaches.”

Lee didn’t need to open his eyes to know that Jamieson was smiling from ear to ear.

*****

The mist of cool water on his still-tender skin felt delightfully soothing. Lee ducked his head under the shower spray, closed his eyes, and shivered as the water ran in rivulets down the angular plane of his back. He squirted a generous dab of Doc Jamieson’s prescription Phisohex into his right palm, wincing as the liquid soap stung the healing third-degree burn there. The resulting pain rekindled urgency. Because of his ordeal, his energy levels were almost at the minus level. In spite of the relaxing pleasurable aspects, it wasn’t wise to linger.

He lathered, rinsed, and toweled off in the tiny latrine. Stepping into a pair of regulation briefs, he yanked them up, then gingerly rubbed the soreness in his hip. It had been more than 24 hours since Jamieson’s B-12 injection, yet the puncture site still hurt like hell. The sudden thought of Seaview’s doctor brought a grin to his face as he recalled Jamie’s distinctive gritching.

“Are you out of your mind? There’s no way I’m allowing you to leave sickbay right now! You’re anemic, wobbly as a newborn colt…” Frustrated by a lack of control over his oh-so-stubborn patient, Jamieson shook his head and headed back to his desk to cool off and regroup.

Lee ignored the outburst and continued dressing. “Which means all I need are vitamins, a couple of good meals and rest, all of which I can accomplish in my cabin.” He raised his voice to be heard in the next room, then shrugged carefully into his long-sleeved khaki shirt, involuntarily wincing as he eased it over his raw shoulders. He managed to fasten three buttons before his hands were trembling uncontrollably and his knees dissolved into warm jelly.

“Captain …”

Jamieson’s voice from around the corner signaled his imminent return. Plunking down on the nearest bunk, Lee shoved his uncooperative hands beneath his buttocks, out of sight. And just in time.

The doctor reemerged into the ward room, viewed his patient with a mixture of awe and irritation, then released a heavy sigh. “I’m sorry. I just can’t sanction your release yet, Captain. As weak as you are, you could fall or lose consciousness … or both.”

He felt sweat droplets form on his forehead, just beneath his hairline. There were more covering the back of his neck, but he couldn’t risk raising a hand to mop them away.

“I’m fine, Will.” Forcing himself to stand, he used the last vestiges of his fading strength to shove his shirttail into the waistband of his pants, grabbed his tie and draped it over his neck and shoulders. It was taking all his reserves, but he hurried on. “Look, I promise to go directly to bed and stay there. I won’t pass ‘Go’, I won’t even collect $200.” He beamed his patented ‘Lee Crane special’, guaranteed to break feminine hearts and change the mind of even the most steadfast doctors.

As usual, it worked like a charm. Against the doctor’s better judgment (which he reiterated at least three times), Jamieson released him on his own recognizance. Since then, he’d kept his promise, staying in bed most of the day, but the prescribed healing sleep never materialized. Instead, his mind seemed locked on the horrific nightmare of his best friend’s ‘death’.

And on his singular career-ending misstep.

That sole issue had engrained in him such a degree of self-condemnation that he could find neither peace of body nor mind. Until ‘nature’ called. Afterward, the close proximity of the shower stall made him yearn for the soothing rain of cool droplets on his abused skin. In spite of the discomfort and debilitating weakness, he’d chosen what he deemed necessary hygiene to cleanse both his battered body and psyche. The result had been a respite from his constant contempt and derision. But the momentary relief took its toll.

Shooting out both hands to correct his balance, Lee tottered forward on trembling, unsteady legs. Somehow he was able to stay on his feet long enough to get back to his bunk. Once there, he managed a controlled fall onto the mattress, and the bliss of dreamless slumber finally claimed him.

*****

As Harry rounded the corner and started down the long corridor to officer country, the ceiling lights dimmed suddenly to artificial night. He paused, checking his wristwatch to confirm the time – 1900 hours, seven p.m. Santa Barbara time – and continued down the hallway to his captain’s quarters.

It was the second time today that he’d called on Lee. The first visit had been a quick ‘welfare check’ where he had discovered Seaview’s doctor shared the same idea and concern. They’d found Crane sleeping soundly on his bed. Being careful not to disturb his patient’s slumber, Will took a cursory vitals, then both older men tiptoed out, closing the door quietly behind them. They’d conferred in the hallway just outside Lee’s cabin. Jamieson was optimistic and pleasantly surprised to see his instructions weren’t being ignored. He had then departed for sickbay. Harry, made mentally and emotionally buoyant by Will’s optimistic outlook, returned to the forward conference room for yet another telecom meeting on Seaview’s recent indiscretion. It had lasted well into early evening and, at its conclusion, Moscow and The People’s Republic were still pouting, but at least all threats of imminent and complete annihilation had ceased. This had brought a collective sigh of relief from Washington and the Allies. All in all, everyone involved seemed reasonably assured that the latest ‘missile crisis’ was now over. At least, that was Harry’s fervent hope.

Wary of waking his recovering friend, Harry used his master key, opened the door, and let himself in. He found Lee lying on his bunk, arms pillowing his head, very much awake.

Holding up the key, he grinned sheepishly. “Sorry for breaking and entering. I didn’t want to wake you if you were still sleeping.” He moved across the dimly-lit room, noting a tray of what appeared to be untouched food on the desk. “Dinner wasn’t to your liking?”

“Liver and onions,” Lee said with a grimace of distaste. Acknowledging Harry with a half-nod, he used his hands to slide his bare torso back and upward into a half-sitting position. It was obvious he was struggling with the task. Impulsively, Harry reached out to help him, arranging and plumping the pillow behind his back until he appeared comfortable. Spent, Lee leaned his head into the softness and closed his eyes. Long velvet-black lashes, as lush as any woman’s, rested on his upper cheek bones. “Doc said he’d have something more appetizing brought down,” he whispered, exhaustion edging his voice.

“Well, that could be good or bad, depending on how you look at it.” Harry took a single step back and grinned his understanding. “Do you need anything else?” he asked.

The captain kept his eyes closed, his tone unusually bland. “My pajamas. They’re hanging on the back of the door in the latrine.”

“Are you chilled, Lee?” Harry said, moving the short distance to the tiny bathroom.

“A little … I had a shower earlier. Warmed me up quite a bit.” His voice seemed stronger, less breathy.

Harry retrieved the brushed-cotton shirt and pants from a hook behind the door, then returned to Lee’s bedside. “I’m sure Jamie briefed you on the dangers of overheating…”

For the first time since he’d entered the cabin, Lee lifted his gaze and smiled. His eyes, golden brown in the darkened quarters, stared intently at his admiral. “It’s got nothing to do with health, Admiral. I’ve got a stage-three sunburn on every inch of my skin. To be honest, if it weren’t for ship’s regulations, I wouldn’t even have my skivvies on.”

Harry chuckled and held out the pajama top, positioning it so his friend could slip a bare arm into the sleeve. As expected, Crane hesitated, inwardly chafing at his need for any assistance. Harry saw his expression sober, his jaw clench in characteristic stubbornness, but the reaction was only momentary. Abruptly, Lee relented, accepting his frailty and shoving his arm into the sleeve. He leaned forward so Harry could easily drape the garment across his shoulders. Pulling the shirt completely on, he threaded his left arm through the sleeve and cautiously eased his sore body against the wall.

“Thanks,” Lee said hoarsely. “I … can do the buttons myself.” In spite of the declaration, he didn’t move to complete the task. Leaning back further, he sank into the pillow and closed his eyes once more.

“Of course.” Harry dropped his hands and stepped back, giving the younger man some distance. “Are you feeling any better?”

There was no immediate reply and, for a moment, he thought Crane had fallen into an exhausted slumber.

But his friend was not only wide awake, he was obviously scheming. “Seaview?” he asked in the no-nonsense tone usually reserved for subordinates.

Wisely accepting the captain’s obvious change of subject, Harry obliged him with a status report. “Temporary repairs are almost complete. We’re underway back to Santa Barbara to make them permanent. Of course, ETA is dependent on the reactor but, if all goes well, we’ll make port in the next three or four days.”

Crane bobbed his head in acceptance, then turned his face to the wall and sighed gloomily. “I suppose Washington was a circus.”

Harry snorted. “With all three rings! Pompous windbags, all of them. They weren’t exactly pleased, but it went out over the air as a ‘nuclear missile test’ kept secret from the public to prevent any pre-test alarms or protests. The president and I assured everyone the ‘test’ was successful and would never happen again without prior notice. End of soap opera.”

“I should be in irons.”

“You should be in sickbay!” His friend’s sudden mood plummet spurred him into action. He leaned forward, fastened the first button of the captain’s pajama top and continued. “Don’t frown at me, Lee! I know exactly how you got out of spending another night as a guest of the good doctor.” He reached for the next button, but Lee grabbed his right hand, stilling it in mid-grasp.

Harry started to pull it free, but Crane’s surprisingly strong grip held it immobile. His other hand splayed all five freckled fingers until he could clearly see the palm. He stared long and hard at the mark burned into the skin; it was identical in every aspect to his own.

“You had that in sickbay, right after Patterson and I both miraculously recovered from fatal doses of radiation poisoning. How did you get it, Admiral?”

Harry studied the wound for a moment before liberating his arm from the captain’s grasp. He took Lee’s right hand in his own, turning it palm-up to display a matching brand. Quietly, he said, “You already know the answer to that.”

Crane’s ever-changing eyes darkened to near black as realization suddenly dawned. His tone was accusatory. “You made the same deal!” he said with certainty. “My life for nuclear war!”

Moving away from the bedside, Harry sagged heavily into the nearest chair. Desperate for a calming dose of nicotine, his hands automatically moved to his shirt pocket and came up empty. He sighed his disappointment, but it was probably for the best. His throat was stripped raw, his voice raspy and tremulous from the three full packs he’d already smoked that day. “Jamieson said you were going to die and nothing on earth could save you,” he related matter-of-factly. “At the time, I honestly didn’t know or care what the consequences were. Only that I … um … that Seaview … wouldn’t lose you. So I made a deal with the ‘devil’ … your life for my silence … and a little ‘favor’. But when it finally came down to paying the piper, I couldn’t go through with it.”

“Well, that makes me a selfish bastard, doesn’t it?” Crane said bitterly.

“Why? Because you had a second chance and chose to live? That’s not being selfish, Lee. That’s just being human. Besides, if you want to define it … which of us really had the more ‘selfish’ motive?” Harry looked at his palm once more, examining the burn. “I signed an open contract, without an inkling of what I’d have to do to complete the bargain.”

Crane kept his eyes averted. “Just fire a missile into the Pacific Fleet and start a nuclear war,” he said sarcastically. “That’s all.”

“I couldn’t do it, Lee. Not even to save you.” Harry’s focus remained on the wound. “But because I made that deal, you had to face a life and death decision not once, but twice in less than twenty-four hours. No one should have to bear that kind of burden.”

“I’m a professional soldier, Admiral, sworn to protect and defend my country, my ship and my crew. With my life, if necessary. But I let them all down…I let you down.”

The naked anguish in Lee’s voice made Harry swallow a surge of sudden righteous anger that threatened to engulf him. “You didn’t let anyone down! You saved 125 lives with your selfless act. When you went to shut the reactor down, it was with the certain knowledge that you’d never live to see another day.” He leaned forward, lifting his hands to his face and slowly massaged his suddenly throbbing temples. “I know you’d accepted death.”

“It was my decision to make.”

This time he didn’t tamp down the fury. Bounding to his feet, Harry crossed the short space to Crane’s bunk in two strides. “No, it was not!” he roared, shaking a finger at his obstinate friend.

Momentarily stunned, Lee stared up at him, clearly bewildered at his superior’s action. He opened his mouth to speak, but Harry continued his rant.

“You had no right to make that kind of command decision on your own, Lee! No right!”

Abruptly, Crane’s eyes clouded to storm-grey with unchecked fury. In spite of his fatigue, he sat up in bed, ramrod straight, reached out and gripped Harry’s hand once more. “I had every right. It is, after all, my life.” As he spoke, he rotated the captive hand so that the brand was visible once more. “And since we’re talking about ‘rights’, Admiral Nelson, you exceeded yours when you overruled my decision.”

Livid, Harry jerked his fingers free, coiled his hand into a fist and raised it as if to strike his friend. Then, just as suddenly, he let it drop and hang limply at his side. He retreated, seeking out the office chair again. As he sagged into it, his rage drained away, leaving him spent, void of all emotion. “I know,” he said hollowly. “My interference put you through unimaginable hell. He told me you would suffer unbelievable agony…that I would still have the power to save you… until the last… ”

“I’d never felt pain like that before. It was like my guts were being slowly ripped
apart…” There was an uncharacteristic hitch in Crane’s voice. Embarrassed, he cleared his throat and turned away but not before Harry saw a glint of telltale moisture on his lashes.

He felt his own emotions intensify, an odd mixture of hate and resentment at the level of pain that could cause Lee Crane to weep. It took all the willpower he possessed not to rise from the chair to comfort his friend. There was a time and a place wherein Seaview’s captain would allow overt sympathy and caring. But Harry instinctively knew this was not one of them.

When Lee spoke again, it was obvious he had regained his treasured self-control. “’Press the button’… he just kept ordering me to ‘press the button’…that monster with my face, my voice…taunted me, telling me all I had to do to stop it was…press…the button. Admiral, I didn’t give a damn about the fleet…or Seaview…or the men under my command. All I cared about was making the pain go away. So… I pressed it.” He turned suddenly, aimed and locked his somber gaze on Harry. His voice dripped with self-derision. “I get to live with that transgression the rest of my natural life.”

“Lee…” Harry began, but Crane interrupted him once more.

“Sir,” he said formally. “You’ll have my resignation on your desk as soon as I’m well enough to tender it.”

Harry’s reaction was both immediate and emphatic. “I won’t accept it.”

“I’m afraid you’ll have no choice in the matter, Admiral,” the captain said with determination. “I won’t let you overrule me a second time.”

“Hear me out, Lee. I admit I overstepped my boundaries as your commander. I should never have interfered in any decision you made to save the ship and the crew. But you have to understand that I’m not only Captain Lee Crane’s superior officer. I’m also Lee Crane’s friend.”

At Lee’s sudden sharp intake of breath, Harry hurried on. “Think about it! This alien…this devil…sat back and observed each of us until he knew exactly which personal buttons to press to make both of us do his will.”

“Only you didn’t cave. You didn’t…”

“Blast you, I did! I don’t know why you can’t see that!”

“Because you didn’t launch the missile,” Lee snapped, his voice dripping self-contempt.

“I didn’t have to. Don’t you see? He manipulated both of us, using our friendship…our close relationship…to achieve his goal. And it was all my fault.”

“I don’t understand, Admiral. How can you blame yourself for something I did?”

“Because I opened the door, lad. When Jamieson told me you were going to die and no power on earth could save you, I made a statement…an avowal of sorts.”

Crane eyebrows knit together in puzzlement, but he remained silent.

“I said aloud that I’d make a deal with the stars if it could save you. With that simple declaration, he’d found my Achilles heel. When I returned to my cabin, still in shock from what I’d just learned, that’s where he first appeared to me, my own doppelganger, offering hope and life. Just like you, I didn’t care about my oath of office or my country or Seaview. And, just like you, I only cared that he could take away the awful pain of losing…”

“But…that’s different…it’s…”

“How is it different? Are you trying to tell me that the emotional pain I felt was any less intense than yours?”

Aghast, Lee turned stricken eyes on his friend. “Admiral, I would never… how can you even think that I would…”

Harry held up his hand – his right hand – once more displaying the burn mark they shared. “Listen to me, Lee. The only reason you launched the missile is because he had more time to torture you and, God help me, I’m the one who gave him that time! If I hadn’t been so selfish…if I had only let your decision stand…” His voice wavered, and he turned away, reaching deep within to find a tenuous control. It took several moments for him to calm the whirlwind of emotions swirling inside him.

His voice a hoarse whisper, Lee broke the uncomfortable silence. “I’d be dead now,” he said with certainty. Unexpectedly, his chin fell forward, resting on his chest. His thumb and long fingers reached upward, massaging suddenly heavy eyelids.

Immediately contrite, Harry stood and made ready to leave. “I’m sorry, Lee,” he said. “It’s getting late. I know you’re exhausted. We’ll discuss this later.”

“No,” Crane said resolutely. “There’s no need for anymore.”

Stricken, Harry stopped in his tracks. He ran a freckled hand through his mop of carrot-red hair, then rammed it into his pants pocket. “So…there’s nothing I can do to convince you…to persuade you…to stay on as…”

“I…” Crane started, but an unexpected knock at the door startled him to silence. Shooting a veiled glance at Harry, he called, “Come in.”

The door opened, and Will Jamieson, followed by a galley ensign, entered the room. Automatically clicking on the overhead light, the doctor led the tray-laden crewman to Crane’s bedside. “Good evening, Admiral…Captain,” Jamie said as he positioned himself beside his patient. Not waiting for a return greeting, he opened the medical bag he carried, whipped out a glass thermometer, and popped it unceremoniously into Lee’s open mouth. Simultaneously, he grasped the captain’s wrist to get a pulse reading and shuffled aside so the young sailor could place the bed-tray over Crane’s lap.

Silently moving his lips to count the beats, Jamie nodded his satisfaction, then pointed to the serving dish and addressed his patient. “As requested,” he said, gesturing for the crewmember to remove the previous dinner of liver and onions. Acting relieved at the dismissal, the sailor grabbed the untouched tray and hurriedly left, closing the door quietly behind him.

“Captain,” the doctor continued, “Your replacement dinner consists of ribeye steak, medium rare…a baked potato with butter and sour cream, green bean almandine, and a walnut brownie.” He reached into his med bag again, pulled out a small plastic bottle. Like a prestidigitator preparing a spectacular feat of magic, he held it up, displaying it for the captain. “In this hand, I hold a vial that contains a vitamin tablet, two iron pills, an antibiotic, and a light sedative which will help you get that sleep I prescribed.” With flourish, he placed it on the tray in front of Crane, reached back into the bag and removed an even tinier glass container. He presented it the same way. “And in this hand, I hold a shot of vitamin B-12 which I will not hesitate to inject if you don’t eat all the food on that tray and take all the pills in the first bottle.” He accentuated these declarations with a warm grin, but it was plain to everyone in the room that he meant business. He turned to Harry. “Admiral, can I get you to please instruct your captain that he is to follow my orders to the letter?”

Harry looked questioningly at Lee who returned an unreadable gaze. In the brightness of the overhead fluorescent light, the captain’s eyes shone catlike, emerald-jade and amber. “Captain Crane?” he said, softly, inquiringly. “As commander of this boat, it is your responsibility to ensure the welfare of every member of the crew, to include its captain. In two weeks, Seaview will set sail for Iceland where she will get back to her original mission of scientific exploration and investigation. I’m certain you’ll see to it that her skipper is in topnotch shape?”

As Harry watched, Lee reached up, deliberately removed the hated thermometer from his lips and casually handed it over to the waiting doctor. Jamieson had ceased his momentary fussing, sensing that there was something more going on between the two men than mere words. Something private. Something important. Like Harry, he waited for Crane’s reply

“I guarantee you, Admiral Nelson, Seaview’s skipper on that mission will be one-hundred percent, sir,” Lee finally acknowledged and, for a moment, Harry couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or sincere.

Disheartened and disappointed at the vagueness of the reply, he continued. “Mind what the good doctor says, Lee. I’d hate to have to replace you.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” The reply seemed automatic as Crane turned his face away and focused on the tray on his lap.

Clearing his throat of a sudden lump, Harry harrumped, then addressed Jamieson. “Does that fulfill your request, Doctor?” he asked as he headed toward the exit.

Jamie made himself busy with the tray, removing covers and lids, positioning the napkin at his patient’s neck. “It does,” he said absently.

“Good evening then,” Harry said and reached for the door knob.

Peering over the solicitous doctor’s balding pate, Crane called to him. “Admiral?”

He paused in the doorway but didn’t look back. “Yes, Lee,” he said expectantly.

“I hear Reykjavik’s beautiful this time of year.”

A weak smile tugged at his lips, and he closed his eyes in silent thanksgiving. “It is,” he said, nodding his head. “It most certainly is.”

“Good night, sir.”

“Good night, Lee,” Harry said. As he started to pull the door closed behind him, he heard Jamie’s voice, precise and professional as ever.

“…by the way, Captain, I found one more tube of that burn cream that worked so well for you. Here, take it and apply it liberally …”

“That little thing?? Doc! Give me a break…this is the sunburn from hell. I don’t need a tube. I need a vat!”

With a relieved smile, Harry closed the door and headed down the corridor toward his cabin. He needed a nightcap, and he knew exactly where that 1952 bottle of Napoleon brandy was stashed. And after that, there was a warm bunk for his tired body. But, first and foremost, he needed that pack of Camels.

*****End*****

 

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