Synopsis: Admiral Nelson returns the FS-1 to the Seaview with an injured Captain Crane on board.
Category: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea
Word Count: 31,120
Author’s Note: AWARD WINNER! REPRISE was selected as the # 1 “favorite fan-written Voyage story of all time, any venue/format from anywhere” by other Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea fans!
“Reprise was first published in Anchors Aweigh #3, edited by Pat Ames, F.O.L.W. (Finder of Lost Writers). This story is dedicated to her and to those talented people who brought us Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea; to Richard Basehart and David Hedison who made Nelson’s and Crane’s friendship so special! May the Voyage continue long into the 21st Century.”
“Stand by to berth the flying sub,” Chip Morton’s voice was uncharacteristically loud, a definitive sign to the crew that he was worried. When the exec had heard an “Aye, sir,” he immediately switched frequencies, “Sickbay, acknowledge!”
“Doc here, Mr. Morton.” The answer was quick, almost as though Jamieson had been standing at the intercom.
“The admiral’s back, and Captain Crane should be onboard within the next five to ten minutes, Doctor…”
“I’ll send a stretcher down to the control room. Try to get him here as soon as you can. Any word on his condition?”
“None yet. We’ll bring him down as soon as the Flying Sub’s docked.” Morton replaced the mike and eyed the landing bay instrument panels. All lights were still blinking red, signaling docking hadn’t yet taken place. Slowly … ever so slowly … each light changed color until they all flashed green. Morton heard the muffled thunk of the flying sub as it latched onto the mothership. He stifled an almost overpowering urge to run to the hatch, throw it open, and snatch Lee into the safety of Seaview. Instead, he deliberately made himself follow procedure, ordering the berth closed, then rechecking the docking lights.
Finally, he threw a stern glance at the incoming corpsmen as they practically tripped over themselves delivering the stretcher.
“FS-1 docked.” The admiral’s voice boomed over the intercom.
This time Morton didn’t wait. He sprang to the hatch, twisted the wheel savagely, and lifted it open. He peered down into the semi-darkness and waited.
Admiral Nelson yanked the throat mike from around his neck and quickly and methodically shut down the flying sub. Its machinery protested his abruptness with a shrill, metallic whine, then went deafeningly silent. Now, the only audible sounds in the tiny cubicle came from the injured man stowed away in the alcove. Nelson noted with growing concern the labored gasps coming from Crane.
He had managed only a cursory examination of Lee’s wound when they first reached the flying sub following their escape from Molio. It had seemed much more important at the time to get the hell out of there. But Nelson knew the location of the bullet made it one of the most painful wounds a gun could inflict.
He shuddered as he recalled walking, trancelike, through the hushed corridors. He remembered descending the long, spiral staircase into the quietly busy observation deck, watching as his captain circled around the periscope, flipped the handles upward, and flicked the toggle switch to lower it back to its resting position. He saw Crane’s face — calm and unsuspecting, still boyish even in his middle thirties. Yet worry lines had come to rest on Lee’s forehead over the past few days, lines he knew he had put there with his unpredictable obsession with Kruger.
He had tried to resist, yet before he could let himself think any other thought, he had aimed the pistol at Lee. It had been a slow motion nightmare, a dream from which he couldn’t awaken, with Kruger’s incessant voice hypnotically chanting, over and over, ‘You will shoot Captain Crane…you will shoot Captain Crane.’ He had fought … fought with ever fiber of his soul … not to pull the trigger. But he had. And he would live with Lee’s look of shocked betrayal for the rest of his life. Ignoring the scantily clad woman still buckled into the chair beside him, he rose from the cockpit seat and moved to check his friend.
Crane lay curled on his side in the storage recess, his breath catching painfully with every intake of air. As Nelson approached, he saw that Lee was conscious and, at his advance, the captain’s dark, expressive eyes opened wider and locked on his. The admiral saw fever and pain mirrored back at him, and he saw another, more disturbing emotion, one Lee Crane never allowed anyone else to see … fear.
“Lee, we’re back on Seaview,” Nelson said soothingly, reassuringly, reaching out to help Crane down.
The captain’s reaction was immediate and unexpected. He recoiled in horror from the admiral’s outstretched fingers. “No! Don’t touch me … I don’t want your help…” The knife-edged words hung heavy in the air between them, and the movement cost Crane dearly. He threw his head back against the cold steel and closed his eyes in agony. A pain-laced whimper escaped through clenched teeth, and the sound stabbed at Nelson’s soul. He stumbled backward as though slapped, retreating to the ladder base. Looking up to the streaming light above, he saw his exec’s concerned face staring down at him.
“Mr. M … Morton!” Nelson heard the faltering emotion in his own voice, cleared his throat, swallowed and tried again. “Chip.” This time his voice held steady.
“Sir?” Morton was already on his way down the ladder. He gave the still-seated woman a sharp, inquiring look, then turned to the admiral.
“Get Lee to Sickbay immediately.” Nelson’s head nodded toward the alcove.
Morton followed the motion, seeing Lee for the first time since the captain had slugged him nearly 45 hours earlier. ‘Correction,’ he told himself, ‘since Kruger slugged me.’
“Chip …” Crane’s breathless voice came to him, and he moved closer.
“Easy, Lee,” Morton said, trying to make his outward demeanor calm when inside he was shaken by Crane’s pallor. “No one’s going to do anything you don’t want them to. I’ll try to get you back on board with as little discomfort as possible. Let me do most of the work, but help me if you’ve got the strength.”
He reached into the recess and eased Crane’s legs forward. Because every movement seemed to intensify the pain, maneuvering Lee from the cubicle was agonizingly slow work, but Morton finally succeeded in getting Crane into an upright position. He curled one arm around the captain’s slim waist and draped Lee’s right arm around his own shoulders, holding fast to Crane’s wrist with his right hand. He took a tentative step forward, and Lee’s knees began to buckle, pulling them both downward. It was a struggle to stay upright, and Chip shot the admiral, who seemed dazed or disinterested, a resentful glare as he worked to keep them both standing. Then, from out of nowhere, help appeared in the form of Chief Sharkey.
He immediately took possession of the captain’s left side, flashing Morton his crooked grin and nodding. “I’ve got him, Mr. Morton.” To Crane, “Easy there, Skipper. Lean on the both of us, sir.”
Together, they moved him up the ladder and into the control room. There they stopped momentarily, and Morton prepared to ease Crane onto the stretcher, but the captain of the Seaview balked, refusing to be carried to Sickbay. Sheer courage and determination kept him upright; the strong arms of his executive officer and CPO moved him forward. They made their way through the control room shakily, past the crew whose eyes were filled with respect and concern, and into the corridor beyond.
Halfway to Sickbay, Crane suddenly froze. He swallowed convulsively and brought his shaking left hand up to eye level. It was crimson. Both Sharkey and Chip looked down to see rivulets of blood coursing down the captain’s right trouser leg. Something inside Lee … something important … had just given way. As Chip’s eyes returned upward, he watched the last of the color drain from the captain’s face, and Crane went limp between them.
The dark-haired woman suddenly made her presence known, unbuckling her seatbelt and standing to her full height. She was impressive, in a wild, untamed way, and Nelson shook himself from his preoccupation with Lee. He was still shaken by Crane’s rebuff, but another crisis was presenting itself, taking his mind away from the current problem of Lee’s condition. Depending on what Kruger/Crane’s relationship with this woman had been, legal problems might be ahead for Lee, the Institute or even the United States Government.
“I want to go home now! I don’t understand what happened on Molio, and I don’t know who that man was … or is … or …” she shook her head, appearing momentarily to be at a loss for words, then continued, “Damn it, I don’t want to know! There are things that have happened in the past two days that I would just rather forget.”
Nelson closed his eyes wearily and rubbed his stiff neck. “Miss … uh …” It occurred to the admiral that after all they’d been through together, he still didn’t even know this woman’s name.
“Maria … Maria Ailoni.”
“Miss Ailoni, I am Admiral Harriman Nelson of the USRN Seaview, the vessel we are inside … or almost inside.” He indicated the ladder and motioned for her to ascend. She complied, and he followed her up. They emerged into a stunned and silenced control room.
Kowalski stopped what he was doing and did a double take, his eyes and mouth open wide in shocked surprise. Riley and Patterson merely stared coldly. The rest of the control room personnel followed suit.
“As you were!” Nelson snapped sternly to his crew. They obeyed sluggishly, and the admiral noted a resentful glare from Patterson before the man quickly turned his head back to his screen. Nelson felt his spine tingle as the room temperature seemed to drop around them. He smothered a shudder, then turned to the woman. “Miss Ailoni, we will take you anywhere you want to go just as soon as we’ve had a little talk, and I’ve got a complete picture of all that occurred on both Molio and your home island. Right now, I’d like for you to follow Kowalski.”
Kowalski stood immediately, his face and mannerisms unreadable. “Sir?”
Was that said with just a hint of disrespect? Nelson couldn’t be sure. The seaman’s tone was emotionless, but his eyes flashed puzzlement and … it wasn’t possible, not from Kowalski … contempt!
“Take Miss Ailoni down to Supply and help her pick out an outfit, something a bit more appropriate for the boat.” Nelson made himself calmly check his watch and then went on. “Then take her to the Galley and treat her to whatever food she’d like.”
“Admiral, I don’t want any …” Maria broke in.
Nelson continued, ignoring the interruption and the prevailing attitude in the control room. “Then take her to my cabin and wait with her until I get there.
“Miss Ailoni, I’m going to Sickbay to check on my captain’s condition. We’ll talk as soon as I’m certain that he’s out of danger.”
“Like you give a damn …”
Nelson heard the unbelievable words but couldn’t place the under-the-breath voice. All around him the air positively crackled with resentment. //They all hate me,// Nelson thought suddenly. //Can’t see that I blame them either.//
He shrugged his shoulders and put on his best authority face and stance. If they no longer respected the man, they would at least respect his rank. He looked around at his ship’s crew once more, nodded at the woman, and strode deliberately toward the back hatch.
Maria Ailoni opened her mouth to protest once more, but Nelson was already disappearing into the corridor beyond the control room. She looked around at the crew.
All were still very much aware of her presence and the admiral’s abrupt departure, but training and conditioning returned them to their duties, their eyes on their work stations. But their minds were on the man who commanded Seaview. It was well known that Captain Lee Crane ran a tight ship. The very least they could do for him was keep her in trim, on course, and safe.
Their unexpected guest huffed once, then gave Kowalski a withering glance and motioned him ahead toward the corridor hatch with a wave of her hand.
Nelson entered a room of organized chaos. Two PAs scurried from cabinets to the centrally-located gurney with surgical instruments, linens, and medical paraphernalia. Everyone was intensely involved with saving a life. Even Morton had been recruited and was methodically cutting away an unconscious Crane’s uniform. His efforts were obviously much too slow for Jamieson who barked orders to one of the PAs to take over the job. Chip relinquished the scissors, relief obvious on his face, and the corpsman finished snipping away Lee’s clothing in record time. He handed the bloody remnants to Chip, who absently clutched them, then quickly went back to his original job.
“I think he’s going sour, sir,” one of the physician’s assistants noted, and Jamieson’s quick, concerned glance at his patient’s ashen face struck an alarm bell in the admiral’s brain.
“Plasma … now!” Jamieson worked over his patient, his mouth alternately pursing and drawing into a thin line as he searched frantically for the nicked artery.
He was covered in blood, and his frustrating search was going to be in vain if he didn’t find the bleeder soon. “Damn … Damn! Where are you?” he breathed through clenched teeth. “Suction! Right there … there it is!” He felt the pulsing gushes and clamped down on the vessel with his fingers. Two digits held in the captain’s life while Jamieson motioned for more suction. When he could finally see inside, a tiny needle quickly and efficiently repaired the damage.
The artery was closed. Jamieson stepped back from the gurney, almost slipping on the blood-splattered floor. His unspoken question to the PA was answered immediately.
“Blood pressure very low but starting to recuperate. Heart and respirations rapid but slowing.”
“Two more units of plasma,” Doc ordered, and then, almost to himself, “…we may have to do a one-on-one transfusion if he doesn’t stabilize in the next half hour.” He shook himself mentally and refocused. “I want an IV of antibiotics, slow drip. He’s been hurt a very long time, so we don’t want to shock the body any more than necessary. Vitals every ten minutes.” He reached for his exam light, started to check Crane’s pupils, then stopped as he realized his hands were sticky with drying blood. There hadn’t been time for surgical gloves. He re-pocketed the light and turned toward the Sickbay washroom. “And get a Foley into him. It’ll be easier to do it now. Monitor the output and include it in the vitals.” He threw the afterthought over his shoulder and hurried to wash up.
“We almost lost him, didn’t we, Will?”
The admiral’s hushed voice startled him, and he stopped. Jamieson hadn’t been aware of Nelson’s presence, but he nodded solemnly. “I’ve still got to get that bullet out of him, but I can’t do anything until he’s stable.” He entered the tiny washroom, turned on the warm water, and put his caking hands under the stream. The conversation ceased until the last vestiges of Lee Crane’s blood circled down the drain of the lavatory. Jamieson reached for a towel, patted his hands dry, and looked closely and professionally at the two men flanking him.
Of the two officers, Morton appeared to be in better shape physically, but his fair skin was as colorless as Doc had ever seen it, and the glazed look in his eyes signaled a considerable lack of sleep. He stood beside the admiral, seemingly unaware that he still held fast to the wadded ball of blood-soaked rags that had once been Lee Crane’s uniform. Jamieson motioned a PA to take them away, and Chip relinquished them without comment, then turned to the wash basin and scrubbed his own hands.
Admiral Nelson was the same story but in epic proportions. He seemed to be in his own private hell with an internal inferno mirrored in his steel-blue eyes.
If ever a man was suffering, the admiral showed every sign. He trembled, even while standing still, and his voice quivered. “How is he, Doc? Will he live?”
Jamieson quickly calculated just how much of the truth Nelson could take. “Well, he’s not out of the woods just yet, sir, but I think he’s got a good chance.” It was a generic diagnosis, one he’d used hundreds of times before and would probably use again. It calmed worried relatives and friends while saying nothing concrete about a prognosis.
Once again, it appeared to be the right thing at the right time, a soothing ointment for the open wounds in Nelson’s eyes.
“Why don’t you get some rest, Admiral? I’ll call you if there’s any change, one way or another.” He regretted those last four words almost immediately. Nelson’s lids shot up.
“What do you mean, ‘one way or another’? You just said he had a good chance.”
Jamieson slapped himself mentally. The old man was practically bleeding guilt onto the floor, and he had stupidly opened the door to something other than the outcome Nelson wanted. He sighed and looked the admiral directly in the eyes. Reality time. “Admiral, he’s young. He’s in good physical condition, and we’re doing everything humanly possible for him right now, but we must face facts. The captain has been walking around with a bullet in him for more than two days. I don’t want to alarm you, sir, but if he’d stayed in the flying sub five minutes longer, there’d be no need for this conversation right now. It’s a miracle that damaged vessel didn’t give way any earlier.”
Nelson felt, rather than saw, Morton move to stand beside him. It was a protective step, and the admiral appreciated the gesture. Morton was the only one who knew the truth, the only one who didn’t blame him for Crane’s condition, and the only one, including himself, who wouldn’t condemn him if the unthinkable should happen.
“He didn’t start bleeding badly until after we moved him from the flying sub,” Morton broke in, almost defensively.
“I’m not accusing anyone, Mr. Morton. The captain should never have walked out of Sickbay to begin with. So if you must blame someone, maybe it should be me. I couldn’t keep him here long enough to remove the bullet. But placing blame is irrelevant. Right now, we have to get his blood pressure and blood levels back up to normal or near normal before I can attempt to remove that bullet. It’s just much too dangerous to try it right now.”
“So, what is your honest opinion of his condition, doctor?” The admiral was coldly distant.
Jamieson replied in kind. “If we can get him stabilized in the next hour or so, I’ll operate. From what I could tell while sewing the artery, the internal damage isn’t too serious. He should survive the operation.”
Morton heard the unspoken word and mouthed it. “But …?”
“But … there’s a chance of infection. If the bullet put a hole in an artery, it may have put a hole in an organ. If the intestine was torn, peritonitis is possible. If … Admiral, the possibilities are almost endless. I could stand here all night long and tell you what could happen. It’s meaningless to conjure up ‘what ifs’.”
Nelson sagged visibly. “You’re right,” he whispered, almost inaudibly. “Of course, Will, you’re right. I’m sorry. I apologize. It’s just that I feel –”
“Admiral, I understand. I honestly do. Listen, you really need to get some rest. You look beat. Here!” He reached into a cabinet and withdrew a vial. “Take two of these when you get to your cabin. No … no,” he said reassuringly at Nelson’s look of annoyance. “They’re not sleeping pills. If you’re needed here or elsewhere, you’ll be able to respond immediately. But they will help you relax so you can sleep. Sir, if you don’t get some rest soon, the captain may have company here in Sickbay.”
Chip placed a hand on the admiral’s shoulder and took possession of the medicine bottle. He gently, but firmly, led him from the room, glancing back at Jamieson with a ‘notify me first’ look.
Jamieson nodded, watched their departure with mixed emotions, then headed back to his patient.
Kowalski absently nibbled his thumbnail and sighed. Accompanying this gorgeous woman had appeared a dream come true when Nelson first assigned him to the task, but she had changed his opinion almost immediately. Nothing in Supply had been to her liking. The coveralls were either too big or too small, too tight or too loose … or too red. She’d finally settled on a long-sleeved blue workman’s coverall that fit her like a second skin, hugging every luscious curve and leaving nothing to the imagination. If possible, she was even more provocative in the everyday garment.
The Galley was no different. She seemed to have an aversion to any kind of meat, turning down Cookie’s tempting offerings of beef-ka-bobs, leftover fried chicken, or salmon croquettes. Her final choice of a lettuce-and-tomato salad with bleu cheese dressing and a bowl of sliced apples and bananas seemed bland to Kowalski.
He swigged down a steaming cup of black coffee and noted the time: 3:37 a.m. Almost an hour since Captain Crane had been brought back aboard. He glanced at the silent PA speaker on the bulkhead. No word yet. Doc Jamieson knew how the crew felt about their captain; certainly, if he had any good news, he would broadcast it to the entire ship. He was worried. The skipper hadn’t looked too well when he’d been helped through the Control Room. Kowalski took another sip of coffee and tried to keep his eyes open. He stifled a tired yawn and let thoughts of his nice, comfortable bunk drift into his mind.
“All right, I’m done. Where to now?”
Kowalski shook himself. His night watch had been officially over for more than half an hour. “I believe Admiral Nelson requested that we wait in his cabin until he returned, ma’am,” he said formally.
“Then lead on, sailor.”
To Kowalski’s relief, Nelson and Morton were waiting for them when they arrived.
“Sir, Kowalski reporting to your cabin with Miss Ailoni as ordered,” he said formally and frostily, speaking to the admiral, yet looking at the exec. An exhausted-looking Morton dismissed him casually, and he felt a sudden twinge of pity for the executive officer. “Sir, is there any word on the Skipper?”
“He’s holding his own right now, Ski.”
“Can I let the crew know?”
Morton looked away and shook his head. “Let’s hold off for a while yet, okay?”
Kowalski winced. Morton’s reaction and reply meant Crane wasn’t out of danger yet. “Aye, sir.”
“Go get some rest, Kowalski.”
“Yes, sir.” He offered the woman a formal good-bye and strode down the hallway, his long legs carrying him briskly. He wished the two officers better luck at dealing with her than he’d had. Down three corridors and to the right a warm bunk and warmer dreams awaited. And Sickbay just happened to be on the way…
“Miss Ailoni, have a seat please.” Nelson gestured toward a chair placed strategically in the middle of the room and directly in front of his desk. The proffered pills were already stashed in the middle drawer, forgotten. There was still work to do; rest could come later.
Morton draped himself over a backward-facing chair positioned at a 90-degree angle to both the woman and the admiral. He rested his chin on his arms and stared intently at her profile with his gray-blue eyes. Overt intimidation was always useful when questioning what might become a hostile witness. He saw her squirm under his gaze and felt a satisfied smirk almost make it to his lips. He squelched it just in time and waited for Nelson to begin.
“All right, Miss Ailoni …”
“Maria, please,” she interrupted. “Call me Maria, Admiral. I detest formality.”
“All right, Maria. First, let me apologize for the hour, but we really must get a statement from you before we can go any further with our investigation.”
“It’s not really late for me, Admiral. My profession usually keeps me up until dawn.”
Both Morton and Nelson let the statement stand untouched, but they exchanged knowing glances. Maria didn’t seem to notice and Nelson went on.
“Fine. I’d like to introduce you to Commander Morton, my executive officer. He’s here to act as witness and chaperone.”
Chip nodded and flashed her a grin that didn’t quite reach the cold steel of his eyes.
Nelson continued. “Later, after we’ve talked out all the details, I’ll call a clerk-stenographer, and we’ll take down an official statement. After you sign it, we’ll have it notarized. Now, why don’t you tell me exactly what happened from the moment you met my captain until you arrived on Seaview.”
She appeared thoughtful for a moment, as if she didn’t know precisely how to begin. Then she started talking, and the story slowly poured out. She related how earlier in the evening she’d been performing a native Polynesian dance. She did so nightly for the regulars at the Club Cabana, but this particular night, there was a new face in the audience. When she had finished her performance, she felt compelled to go to his table. He offered her a drink, and she accepted. They left the club together around 11:00 p.m., and he took her to a strange-looking yellow craft that was both a boat and a plane. When they landed, they rowed to Molio in an inflated raft he’d had on board the yellow boat/plane.
She totally avoided any details of the hour or so spent on the deserted island and, Nelson noted, continually referred to Lee as “Captain Kruger.” She finished with, “And then he grabbed my neck, threw me on the ground and was strangling me when you arrived.”
“Do you know about what time we left the island?”
She shrugged her shoulders and shook her head.
“It was about 1:25, sir,” Chip broke in. “That was when you called and ordered me to fire the missile at Molio.”
“Yes … I think you’re right. Now, Maria, is there anything else you’d like to add?”
She nodded. “I do wish to leave here as soon as possible, Admiral. I feel as though I’m a prisoner here.”
Nelson allowed himself a half-smile and spoke to the woman as a parent would speak to a pouting child. “You’re definitely not a prisoner here, and you will be allowed to leave soon. But first, we need a few more details.”
“I don’t know anything else I can add, Admiral.”
“Well I have a few more questions that I think will fill some of those holes in your story.”
She appeared disgusted and heaved a very deep sigh. Finally, “Okay, fire away.”
“Thank you. Now tell me, did you notice anything unusual about my captain?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary. He was very good looking, and he seemed to want and enjoy my company. Of course, neither of those is unusual … oh …” she said, almost as an afterthought. “He had a very distinct accent, if that’s what you mean.”
“What kind of accent?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know … maybe German or Austrian?”
Nelson nodded thoughtfully. “And when you left Club Cabana, you went directly to Molio?”
“About what time was that?”
“I think we got there a little after midnight.”
Her answer seemed to disturb the admiral, and Chip shook himself mentally. Nearly 48 hours without sleep was telling on his cognitive abilities. He leaned forward and listened more carefully.
“O-kay.” The admiral said the word in two clipped syllables, a clear sign of agitation, and he steepled his fingers together. “Then can you tell me why it took you over an hour from the time you left the club until you arrived at Molio?”
Maria looked down at her hands and pretended a sudden great interest in the condition of her nails. She was thinking and thinking hard. When more than a minute had passed without a response, Chip joined the questioning.
“Maria, did you or did you not go directly to Molio from the club?”
It was obvious that she was uncomfortable with this question. She swallowed and looked down at her lap again. Her answer was inaudible.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that. What did you say?”
She locked eyes with Nelson. “I said ‘no.’” She straightened in her seat and finished with contempt. “We did not go directly to Molio.” She put a decided emphasis on ‘not.’
Chip felt a cold chill grip the base of his spine. He shivered involuntarily as he finally understood where Nelson’s questions were leading.
“Where did you go then?”
“We went to my apartment. It’s only five minutes away from the club. We talked for a while, and he made drinks for us. He said they were special Bavarian drinks that would make us …” she trailed off and became silent again.
“Maria, please understand, you don’t have to reveal anything that happened between you and my captain if you don’t want to. I’m only trying to keep this a private matter instead of a criminal one.” Nelson returned the word emphasis, this time on ‘criminal.’ “If we involve the legal profession in this, there’ll be a trial, and you’ll be forced to testify to even more than you already have.”
She appeared thoughtful for a moment, the implications of his words penetrating. “I understand, Admiral. It’s just hard for me to talk about … what … there are things that I will not speak of because I simply don’t believe they happened.”
Nelson had her right where he wanted her, and all three occupants of the room knew it. “I also understand, Maria, because I know they did happen, and there are ramifications to everything that we say and do now. If we make a mistake in this room, lives other than our own may be affected forever. So, let me make it easier for you, for me, for my captain – will you answer a very personal question please?”
She sighed and nodded reluctantly. “All right,” she said. “If it will put an end to this episode of my life, I’ll answer anything you ask.”
“Did you and my captain have sexual relations?”
She was matter of fact. “Yes, we did.”
Her answer was almost drowned out by Morton, who jumped to his feet, knocking his chair over. “God damn the bastard!”
Maria jerked her head toward Morton, her eyes opened wide in shock and misunderstanding. Then all three emotions turned to anger. “I’m over 21, Mr. Morton, and I certainly was no virgin. What happened happened between two consenting adults.”
“Oh, no, you’re very wrong about that, Miss Ailoni. Not all parties were ‘consenting’!” Chip spat the words out as if their bitterness choked him.
“Chip …” Nelson rose from his chair and motioned for calm. “Chip, try to remember. She was just a pawn. He used her to further his plan just like he used me.”
“And Lee.” Morton’s anger dissipated as quickly as it had come, leaving only a hollow sadness in its place. He righted the chair and slumped back into his seat, resting his forehead on his crossed arms and closing his sleep-weary eyes. He reopened them to find both Nelson and Maria staring at him. “I’m sorry, Miss Ailoni,” he apologized. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“You didn’t, Mr. Morton,” she said in a quiet, controlled voice. She turned her dark brown eyes back to the admiral. “I’ve done everything you’ve asked of me. May I leave now?”
“Will you provide a written statement absolving my captain and my Institute of any and all possible present and future liabilities related to this incident?”
She appeared to consider her options, then locked eyes with Nelson. “I will, Admiral,” she said with a satisfied smirk. “That way your Captain Kruger won’t have to worry about any charges or legal ramifications either, right?”
Nelson let a half-grin tug at his lips. The woman was definitely a quick study. “Touché, Maria,” he said.
She grinned back. “Thank you, Admiral.” She stood and looked at Morton expectantly. Nelson did the same. “Chip, get our clerk-stenographer.” He paused and checked his watch. 4:30. One hour before first report time. “You’ll have to wake him up. Take Maria to the lower observation deck and witness the statement. Do we have a Notary Public on board?”
“Good. Get him to notarize the statement and then bring it to me. When I’ve read and okayed it, have Chief Sharkey fly Maria to any destination she wishes.”
“Aye, sir.” Chip opened the door, and Maria started to step out into the corridor, but Nelson called her name.
She turned back and smiled sweetly. “Yes, Admiral.”
“Just for the record, Maria. My captain is American, born and raised, and he doesn’t have a German accent. And when you’re absolving him of all guilt in your statement, please use his correct name. It’s Lee Crane.”
The smile froze in place as an unwanted memory pushed its way into her mind.
//I … I didn’t mean to hurt you … believe me … I didn’t mean to hurt you.//
Maria Ailoni remembered the different voice, softer, gentler, filled with both concern and regret, and the agonized effort it seemed to take for her assailant to get the words out. And she recalled the other man, not so handsome, not so young, edging through the mist, his eyes full of hatred and malice. Those were the eyes of the man who had hurt her. She remembered the older man staring at her as he took a position at the injured man’s feet. He ignored her questions, dismissing her as if she were not there, then lay down over the injured man and … disappeared … into him.
That something from the supernatural had touched her life was a truth she didn’t want to face. That she and … it … had shared more than just a friendly drink was something she refused to accept. Shuddering involuntarily, she closed her eyes, willing the horrifying memory away. “I will use his correct name, Admiral. Your captain need not worry about any future reprisals.” She exited quickly into the corridor.
Nelson felt a pang of guilt course through him. But he had no choice in the matter. She could be dangerous later. This way, she would think twice before filing charges against Lee.
“Chip.” Nelson’s voice was lower, and Morton stopped where he was, turning back with an inquisitive expression. “Monitor what she says closely.”
“I understand, sir.” Morton started to step out the door again, but the admiral called him back once more.
“Oh, and Chip …”
“As soon as she’s finished and I’ve okayed the statement, I want you in your cabin and in your bed. That’s an order.”
Chip smiled tiredly, suddenly aware that every bone in his body ached. That Nelson had pulled off an academy award-winning act was amazing; that he was losing the battle with exhaustion himself was readily apparent. “Right back atcha, sir,” he said.
Crane slept peacefully in the dimly-lit Sickbay. He had stirred only once, tossing his head sideways and mumbling incoherently. Will Jamieson checked his patient’s vitals and nodded to himself, satisfied that the captain’s body was recovering at a quicker pace than originally thought.
Around 6:00 a.m., Captain Crane was stabilized enough to operate and, twenty-five minutes later, the bullet fired from Admiral Nelson’s gun clinked into a stainless steel kidney bowl next to the doctor’s right elbow. Jamieson did a general internal examination, checking and rechecking the organs near where the bullet had entered. The liver and gall bladder were intact, with the former showing a slight swelling, evidence that the bullet had creased the organ. The peritoneum was torn only at the wound site, but he noted with rising alarm some bleeding in the area. On closer scrutiny, he failed to detect any tears or leakage in any organ, and he heaved a relieved sigh. The captain was fortunate this time. He sutured the rupture, suctioned away the last remnants of blood and fluid, and closed the incision. He then shot Crane full of antibiotics and left his assistants to finish. He considered retiring to his cabin for what was left of the ship’s artificial night, then remembered that Commander Morton had asked for a report. He sank tiredly into the firmness of his swivel desk chair and reached for the phone.
“Sickbay to Morton. Commander, this is Doc, are you awake?”
Jamieson heard a cough, and then a hoarse, sleep-filled voice replied. “Morton here.”
“The captain’s out of surgery, Chip.”
“How is he, Jamie?”
“Lucky. Very, very lucky. I’ve removed the bullet, and he’s in recovery right now.”
A relieved sigh. “That’s good news. When can we see him?”
“Anytime, but he’ll probably sleep most of the day. I’m monitoring him every quarter of an hour, and if there’s any change in his condition, I’ll notify you.”
“Thanks, Doc. I’ll let the admiral know as soon as he wakes up.”
“He’s asleep? Did he actually take the medication I prescribed?” There was a pause, and Jamieson could picture the amused smile he knew was now playing on Morton’s expressive face.
“Now what do you think?”
“I think he hates for me to fuss over him,” he said good-naturedly.
“Don’t feel like the Lone Ranger, Doc. He won’t take it from any of us.”
Jamieson grinned, then turned suddenly serious. “You will check in on him for me, won’t you, Mr. Morton?” I’m really concerned about his mental and emotional well being right now. And I should run a few tests on him. We’ll probably need the results when this mess goes to trial.”
“There won’t be a trial, Doc. Lee would never let it go that far.”
Jamieson didn’t seem surprised, but he said, “Then you obviously know something about this situation that I don’t. Care to fill me in?”
“Soon. Some of it’s still on a need-to-know basis. Just take my word for it right now, will you, Doc? Lee will drop the charges as soon as he wakes up. Besides, the admiral’s as sane as you or I.”
“That’s not saying much, Chip. Look at what we do for a living … and where we do it. That’s proof positive that neither one of us is text book sound.”
“Is anyone ever?”
The doctor chuckled softly, then grew thoughtful again. “Did you know Nelson hasn’t been down here once to see the captain? And he hasn’t called either. It’s not like him.”
“You’re right, it’s not. I’ll check in with him.”
“Promise. Thanks, Doc. Morton out.”
Jamieson replaced the phone in its holder, leaned back in the swivel chair and stretched the tension out of his body. Now that he had the captain of the Seaview relatively out of danger, his mind could concentrate on other, less urgent but just as important, matters. He found himself puzzled by Admiral Nelson’s apparent lack of concern for the captain’s condition. It was uncharacteristic for him to stay away from Sickbay when any of his crewmembers were under the weather, but it was well known that his and Crane’s relationship ran much deeper than superior and subordinate. Of course, that was the underlying issue – why would the admiral, who treated Crane like the son he never had, shoot him down in the control room? And why would he then risk everything to retrieve him from Molio? And why would Crane, who obviously loved and respected Nelson, file attempted murder charges against him?
Jamieson shook his head. He knew the answers all hinged on one man — Captain Gerhard Kruger. And the implications scared the living hell out of him. He sighed and forced his mind to shelve the mystery. The situation was just too complicated for someone as tired as he. But the fact that Nelson hadn’t even bothered to check on Crane was inconceivable. In spite of Morton’s assurances, he found himself growing increasingly concerned about the admiral’s emotional state.
Nelson was depressed and guilt-ridden, feelings he knew the man was well acquainted with and had experienced time and time again in the past. The difference was he had always managed to shrug them off before. He pondered the circumstances for several moments more, then sighed in defeat. Fatigue was weighing heavily on him, and the end of the current medical crisis had his thoughts rearranging their priorities to a more personal level. He suddenly realized that he had not eaten in over a day. As if in response to this revelation, his stomach gurgled to life. At the same time, his head pounded an excruciating beat of discordant thrums.
Physician, heal thyself, flitted through his weary brain, and he reached for a pain pill, swigged it down with a glass of tepid water. Food could wait another couple of hours. What both he and his unconscious patient needed most right now was rest and plenty of it. He considered retiring to his cabin, then changed his mind and, after reassuring himself with a quick once-over of Crane and giving instructions to the one remaining on-duty corpsman on how to care for a post-op patient, he curled up on one of the Sickbay bunks and fell immediately into an exhausted slumber.
The slender fingers of consciousness reached out, tickling each of his senses, one by one, to wakefulness. His first awareness was of motion. The boat lurched ever so slightly beneath him, listing somewhat starboard and then to port. Someone unacquainted with submarines, and Seaview in particular, wouldn’t have noticed the gentle upward tilt of the bow followed by the soft easing recovery to the original position. But to Lee Crane, even in his semi-conscious state, it was second nature; all these signs indicated the launch of FS-1.
He filed these facts absently in the part of his brain where he kept such information and made himself a mental note to find out who had launched and the destination. When he did, he came dangerously close to the threatening shadow of a man lurking in the corner of his subconscious. The specter seemed familiar, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on who or what it was. He felt as though he should investigate, considered doing just that, but an inner alarm system warned him away. He gingerly sidestepped the apparition and wove his way back to near wakefulness.
Hushed, unfamiliar voices, sounds from all around the boat drifted into his realm of awareness. He heard his name … or rather one of them … Skipper … but he couldn’t muster enough strength to focus on the conversation. The invasive scents of alcohol and Lysol disinfectant permeated the air around him. He absorbed all this input and came to the satisfying conclusion that he was still alive. And he was home. And the knowledge was instantly overwhelming, overloading his senses and emotions.
The sudden stark realization made a huge lump rise in the back of his throat. He swallowed and let himself be engulfed back into the dark, protected depths of unconsciousness.
Morton hung up the private line phone and padded wearily back across the cold cabin floor to his bunk. He settled between the covers, flung his arms upward and pillowed his head between them. He was both physically and emotionally drained, but sleep had become an elusive mistress, taunting and tempting him, yet pulling away when he came near. Tossing and turning for several minutes more, he finally gave up, savagely yanking the covers and tossing them aside. He showered and shaved quickly, shrugged into a clean uniform, then bolted from the cabin into the corridor. He knew he was breaking crew rest regulations, but he didn’t care.
“Good morning, Mr. Morton, sir.”
He mumbled something in reply to the two crewmen headed for breakfast. He had no time for amenities, military or social. He pulled up at Sickbay and walked into the office. A PA whom Morton had never seen before acknowledged his presence.
“Mr. Morton, sir. Good morning.”
“Morning,” he returned. “Doc around?”
The PA motioned into the next room with his head. “Sleeping, sir. It’s been a long night.”
“For all of us,” Chip said quietly. “Captain Crane?”
“He’s still in the recovery section, sir. Doc says no one but command personnel and no more than five minutes.”
“I promise I won’t stay one second past.”
“I know you won’t, sir.”
Morton considered the words and tone. It was more a threat than a statement. Jamieson was training his new assistants well. Smiling to himself, he strode carefully into the recovery/exam room.
The overhead lighting was set to artificial night, and Morton found Lee propped in what appeared to be an uncomfortable sideways position on the elevated gurney. Extra firm pillows had been shoved against his backside to prevent any movement, and both side rails had been drawn up.
Chip studied his friend for a long moment. Jamieson had Lee on a dual hook-up IV, with two bottles carrying different colored medications in separate tubes intersecting midway to form a single artery into the captain’s vein. Oxygen sprayed into both nostrils from a clear tube, and he was covered only to his waist with a supply-issue sheet and blanket. Morton noted that Doc had skimped on bandages. Instead of the normal wraparound dressing, he had applied only a small rectangle of gauze over the wound.
Lee’s complexion appeared to be healthier, only two or three shades lighter than its normal olive tone, and his cheeks sported a dark shadow of overnight beard growth. As he watched, Crane grimaced and tried unsuccessfully to move his body. On impulse, Chip reached out and laid his hand on the captain’s shoulder. “You’re gonna make it, Lee,” he whispered. “I know you went through hell, but you’re home now.”
Crane felt his eyes quiver beneath the almost translucent lids as he tried once again to shift his position. He was frustrated in the attempt by an object pushed against his back. Curious, he let his eyes slit open slightly and froze in horror as the dark form of a man met his watery gaze. Groaning inwardly, he tensed his body, preparing himself for the nauseating jolt of penetration.
“Please … not again … I can’t take anymore …” He sucked in a ragged breath, heard it catch in his throat as a sob, and felt his cheeks flame with shame.
A cool hand pressed against his forehead, and he cringed from the contact. The slight pressure disappeared almost immediately.
A familiar voice … but in his terror he couldn’t quite place it.
“I’ll leave if you want me to. I just wanted to check on you.”
‘Chip!’ He blinked, then opened his eyes completely. When his vision cleared, he looked up into the anxious face of his friend. Momentarily relieved, he glanced cautiously around the room, his eyes darting to every darkened corner. A reassuring hand squeezed his bare shoulder, and this time he didn’t pull away. “Where are we?”
Crane’s voice was stronger, his bearing more alert. Chip felt relief wash over him. “About 72 hours from Pearl. You scared the living hell out of all of us for a while there, but Doc’s got you patched up. Looks like you’ll be doing a tour of the Naval Hospital again. You’re getting to be a regular there you know.”
Crane sighed heavily, reluctantly acknowledging the truthfulness of Morton’s statement, then reached up to scratch at the itchy stubble. He halted in mid-air as he felt the tug of an IV needle. Frustrated, he dropped his arm, frowning with displeasure at his own helplessness.
Morton smiled sympathetically. “What do you need, Lee?”
The dark head shook a negative reply. Then, “The flying sub … I felt it launch…”
Chip shook his head in disbelief. “I swear, Lee, even lying here in Sickbay, unconscious, you still know everything that goes on on this boat. I guess Nelson was right when he said you could maneuver the flying sub in your sleep.”
“When …” The captain paused, reached for a deep breath, and continued, “…did he say that?”
Morton replied. “Right after you…I mean, right after Kruger…launched the flying sub.”
It was like an off switch had been thrown. At the mention of the phantom’s name, Crane’s face and body grew suddenly rigid. His breathing became forced and labored, and his eyes closed tightly as if he were in pain. Worried, Morton leaned closer. “Lee, are you all right? Do you want me to call Jamieson?”
Crane didn’t answer. He squirmed helplessly under a sudden onslaught of unwanted memories flooding into his brain. No, not all right. Maybe never all right again. And no one can help…no one… A series of disjointed scenes played in his mind.
This can’t be happening! He gripped the periscope island railing, desperately steeling himself to stay upright while his brain and body slowly slipped into mind-numbing shock. Time ceased to exist in the control room – no one moved, no one breathed – everyone seemed frozen in place. His eyes locked and held on his assailant – Admiral Nelson stood on the spiral staircase, the still smoking automatic clutched tightly in his hand.
//Not you … anyone but you …// He stared deeply into suddenly unfamiliar steel blue eyes.
There was something he wanted to say, but his mouth wouldn’t work. All feeling drained from his fingers, his legs refused to hold him anymore and, in slow motion, he fell a long, long way. A bone-jarring impact with the hard control room floor restored everything to its proper perspective, and Chip Morton’s worried face was the last thing he saw before reality faded away.
“Kruger’s gone, Lee. You’re safe now, back aboard the Seaview.”
Morton swallowed the rising panic inside him. Lee’s unexpected reaction to Kruger’s name had caught him off guard. //Idiot!// He cursed himself mentally. //You should’ve known he’d react in some way. God knows what else he went through with the monster inside him.// He reached for the captain’s clenched hand, pulled it open and squeezed it reassuringly. “Lee? I’m going to get Doc Jamieson. I’ll be right back.”
There was no outward reaction. Crane’s body remained tense, his eyes closed, unwilling or unable, to respond.
His essence hunched resentfully in the corner of his subconscious, aware of all and yet controlling none of his own bodily actions. His first reaction to Kruger’s invasion had been a shocking disbelief so great that he considered withdrawing forever into a catatonic state. But his outrage at Kruger’s mistreatment of Chip Morton yanked him free of his trance. He had felt his own fist ram into the exec’s jaw, saw the hurt and incredulity reflected back at him by his friend. This spurred an anger and rebellion so great that his own life didn’t matter anymore. He kicked and clawed for his freedom with every fiber of his soul and, when these efforts proved to be in vain, he resolved to kill himself by crashing the flying sub into the sea.
//It won’t work, Captain. I know your every thought, your every plan. Soon, it won’t matter to you anymore what I do with your body because it will no longer be your body.//
//Get out! You’re dead, Kruger. You had your life. This is mine, and you have no right to take it.//
//I have every right – I’m stronger than you, and the strong always win. Death couldn’t defeat me, and neither will you. It is unfortunate that the admiral’s bullet didn’t kill you immediately. But you will die soon.//
“Your five minutes are up!”
Morton jumped guiltily, momentarily caught off guard. “Doc!” He sighed his relief. “Thank God! I was just coming to get you. Lee’s awake, but there’s something terribly wrong!”
The feigned irritation left Jamieson’s face and was immediately replaced with concern. Behind the doctor, the new PA, who had been grinning broadly and gesturing pointedly at his watch, also reacted swiftly and professionally.
“Blood pressure’s up, temp’s 101.6. He’s hot inside but cold and clammy outside.”
Morton watched closely as Jamieson acknowledged the report and did a hasty examination. His expression was unreadable, but he barked quick orders to the physician’s assistant, who bolted from the room, reappearing almost immediately with two filled syringes. Jamieson injected one into the IV tube and the other into Crane’s hip.
“Infection. This is one of the things that I was worried about.”
“Not good. He’s already weak from loss of blood. I don’t know if he has the strength to fight off anything big. Hopefully, this medication will arrest whatever’s causing the fever.”
Morton started to ask another question, but Jamieson put up a hand to stop him. “I don’t know, Chip. I just wish we were closer to Pearl.”
“It’s still nearly three days away.”
“Well, we’ll just have to cross our fingers and trust in Lee to want to get well. Did he say anything before this happened?”
“He was disoriented at first, almost like he was waking from a nightmare. But we started talking, and he was fine, Doc, just fine. Asking questions. Then I made the stupid mistake of mentioning Kruger, and he just closed up. Everything shut down, and he’s been like this ever since.”
“What do you mean, ‘shut down’?”
“Just what I said,” Morton said harshly, worry and exasperation filling his voice. “When he first came out of it, he was talking to me like Lee always talks. He wanted to know where we were, why the flying sub was launched. Then…boom! He closes his eyes and goes stiff as a board.”
Scowling, Jamieson straightened and stretched the knots out of his sore back. He rubbed a tired hand over his face. “I think it’s time you let me in on what happened to Lee.” At the closed look on Morton’s face, he continued, “Need-to-know and top secret be damned, Chip! He’s not in any immediate danger of dying, but what makes him Lee Crane may not survive intact. I’m no psychiatrist, but if this reaction was brought on by something you said, then he’s going to need one. I can treat the physical ailments but, for an underlying psychological problem, I have to have more than just instruments and medicine.”
Jamieson paused to catch his breath, then went on emphatically. “I’m not a stupid man, Mr. Morton. I know Captain Kruger was involved in this situation. In fact, it’s taken me a little while to figure the whole thing out, and I’ve got a fairly good idea of what actually happened to Lee, but you know a bit more about what occurred after the initial possession.” The doctor met Morton’s look of astonishment head on. “I can’t help him if I don’t know everything else.”
Astonishment was replaced by thoughtfulness, then, almost reluctantly, Chip nodded his assent. “You’re right, as usual.”
Jamieson gestured with his head toward his private office. “Wait for me in there. I’ll get a pot of coffee.”
//The Deity has nothing to do with this, Captain. Relax and enjoy the moment. You are destroying my concentration, and I’ve waited an eternity to be a man again. It is my first time all over…and your last. Enjoy it while you still can.//
Crane’s outrage was monumental, yet he was powerless to do anything.
His own hands roamed over the unbelievably beautiful body of the woman. He felt his lips press firmly against her soft, warm ones. Responding to his kiss, her lips pulled away and reappeared almost immediately on his neck. She paused for a moment to nibble lightly at his ear, then moved on, leaving liquid trails of fire coursing down his chest. Finally, she reached the very heart of him, and he felt Kruger’s instant surge of pleasure rushing through his body.
Sickened, Crane let despair wash over him in a tidal wave of hopelessness. He was nothing more than a voyeur, albeit reluctant. He squirmed weakly, desperate to break free, but his efforts were so feeble that Kruger failed to even acknowledge them. Ashamed and utterly defeated, he crawled back into the unoccupied recesses of what was left of his mind. Huddled there, naked against an onslaught of unwanted sights and sounds, he wept silently at a loss for which he had no name.
Still stunned by the exec’s revelation, Jamieson checked his patient over once more. His ministrations were less casual, his bedside manner warmer than usual. He spoke cheerfully to the semi-conscious captain, focusing on the day’s events, a steady stream of meaningless chatter filling the too-quiet room. Abruptly, he stopped and stared wonderingly at his patient. Beside him, Chip Morton also watched in dumbstruck horror as a single drop of moisture welled in the corner of Lee Crane’s closed right eye. The tear rolled sideways down his nose, dangled for a moment, then dropped to dampen the wrinkled green sheet.
In all the years they had known each other, Chip Morton had never seen Lee Crane cry, and the sight of him now, lying defenseless in Sickbay with needles and tubes protruding from his body, made his blood boil. Hatred bubbled inside his chest like molten lava, a loathing so fierce that had the son-of-a-bitch been accessible, there was no doubt in Morton’s mind that he would have killed Gerhard Kruger with his bare hands. But the man was already dead … and had been for more than half a century.
Feeling helpless and frustrated, Chip reached out and squeezed his friend’s limp hand. “The nightmare’s over, Lee,” he said comfortingly. “Sleep now. Get your strength back. Doc is here if you need anything. I have to go on duty right now, but I’ll be back in a little while.”
To his astonishment, long, slender fingers curled around his hand in a feeble grasp. The pressure was brief, and Crane’s eyes remained closed, but it was a sign, a signal that Lee had heard him and understood … and that he was still fighting. Relief surged through his veins, and Chip felt his own eyes go moist. He turned quickly on his heels. “Take care of him, Doc. I’ll be in the control room.” His own emotions were border-line, and he didn’t wait for a reply. He burst into the corridor and headed forward.
A quick check of his watch indicated he was already late for his normal tour of duty, but he wouldn’t be missed. Every crewman on board knew where the executive officer was and how he could be reached. Even so, he paused at a corridor intercom and reported his whereabouts and destination to the watch. Only one more task to perform, and he could assume temporary command of Seaview.
The corridors of Seaview bustled with busy crewmen, most of them already midway through their morning tour. Some greeted Chip as he passed by; others forewent acknowledging his presence and went straight to questions about their captain’s health. He answered as truthfully as possible and made himself a mental note to have Jamieson issue a curtailed and censored announcement of Crane’s condition over the boat’s intercom as soon as he logged in at the conn. But first things first. At Admiral Nelson’s door, Chip knocked tentatively. When there was no response, he opened the door and crooked his head in.
The light inside was dimmed, and it took a moment for his eyes to adjust. When he could finally see, a familiar form coalesced in a cloud of cigarette smoke.
Nelson was seated at the centrally located desk, and he appeared to be leaning back in the plush chair. Morton’s first impression was that the admiral had been working and had pushed himself away from the desk to take a catnap.
“Admiral?” It was a whisper.
“Come in, Chip.”
Startled by the flat, lifeless voice, he felt his skin crawl at the unexpected answer. He entered the room and flicked on the overhead light.
Nelson’s response was immediate; he held trembling hands up to cover his eyes. “Turn it off,” he roared.
Morton sprang back to the switch and snapped it off; the room was flung into semi-darkness again. This seemed to calm Nelson somewhat, and he slid back into his original position.
“Admiral…sir, are you all right?”
“No, I’m not all right,” Nelson said matter-of-factly. “My God, Chip, I shot my best friend. I nearly killed him.” There was an uncharacteristic quiver in his voice. Embarrassed, he turned his head away from Morton’s steady gaze and cleared his throat. When he had regained control, he sighed heavily and covered his face with both hands. “How could I possibly be ‘all right’?”
Before Morton could answer, the admiral dropped his chin to his chest dejectedly, lowering his voice to an almost inaudible level. “Did you know that just after we shoved off from Molio in the raft, Lee came to and called out to me to help him? But I couldn’t go to him; I was too busy trying to get us all away before the island blew up. The girl … Maria … I asked her to help him, try to stop the bleeding with my handkerchief, but she was still in shock from what she’d seen. She wouldn’t move, probably doesn’t even remember. It was totally up to me to save all our lives, my own and the girl’s, and Lee had to come in second … as usual. I remember him staring at me while I rowed, but he never said another word. He just kept looking at me. And when we docked, he refused to let me do anything to help him.” Nelson shook his head and shot his graying eyebrows upward. His face was such a naked mask of unbridled grief that Morton felt compelled to look away.
“I’ve lost him, Chip. Even if he survives, even if he stays on Seaview, this is something that will always come between us.”
Morton took a long, thoughtful breath, considering his reply. Finally, he began. “Sir, Lee’s still alive. He’s going to be okay.” Chip said the words slowly and distinctly, reaching for just the right ones. Nelson was exhausted and distraught, close to a breakdown, otherwise, the exec knew the admiral would never have revealed such outright anguish or despair to his second-in-command. “Right now, Lee’s hurt and confused. He’s not thinking clearly. Later, when he’s had time to consider what happened, he’ll understand why you shot … why you did what you did. If you hadn’t followed Kruger’s instructions to the letter, every man on board would be dead right now and Seaview would be just another sunken pile of junk at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.”
“So what you’re saying, Chip, is that after he has time to ponder the matter, he’ll come to the conclusion that I was quite willing, even eager, to offer him up as a sacrificial lamb in order to save everyone … including myself.”
Nelson’s open attempt at sarcasm was ignored. Morton was determined that his commander would hear the truth.
“Yes, sir,” he said emphatically. “He’ll arrive at that very same conclusion. Lee’s a trained military man, Admiral, one of the best, and he’s had to make life and death decisions before, some of which haunt him to this very day. But don’t sell him short, Admiral. Right now, you both just need a little time and a little understanding.”
“Understanding! That’s a laugh, Chip! Would you ‘understand’ if Kruger had ordered me to shoot you instead of Lee? Could you find it in your heart to forgive me after I’d handed you over, body and soul, to evil incarnate? Would you feel the pain and betrayal, the same humiliation Lee must’ve felt while that madman abused him?” He paused as words seemed to fail him. At last he burst out, “My God, Chip, what Kruger did to him was tantamount to rape. Not just of his body … but his mind as well. And I not only let Kruger do it, I helped him!”
“What would you have me say, Admiral? It’s a moot point. Are you looking for understanding for Lee … or sympathy for yourself?” Overlooking Nelson’s outraged glare, Morton hurried on. He knew he was treading on very thin ice, but something had to be done to shock the admiral out of his potentially crippling preoccupation with guilt. “Frankly, you don’t need me to feel sorry for you. You seem to have enough self-pity to go around. Why don’t you take some of it down to Sickbay and share. I’m sure Lee could use a dose of it himself right now. We could all wallow in it together. After all, whining and crying about leadership choices is a command prerogative. Right, Admiral?”
Even in the dusky light, Chip could see that Nelson’s complexion had gone dangerously dark. Unchecked fury flashed from his eyes, and both hands drew into tight fists that rammed solidly onto the desktop. The impact made a loud thunk that echoed in the sparsely furnished cabin, and Morton began to think that he might have miscalculated.
“Are … you … quite … finished … Mr. Morton?” spewed venomously from tightly clenched teeth.
“Only …” Chip croaked, his mouth suddenly devoid of all moisture, “…only if you’re finished blaming yourself. You did the only thing you could do. You saved over a hundred of your crewmen’s lives; you saved a multi-million dollar submarine; and you saved the life of an innocent woman who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Think about it, Admiral. If your positions had been reversed, you know for a fact that Lee Crane would’ve made the same command choice. And you would be the one lying in Sickbay right now.”
Nelson didn’t reply. He stood, ramrod straight, fists still at the ready. The room suddenly became like its tenant, deathly still and stifling hot.
Chip sucked in a deep breath, licked salty beads of perspiration from his upper lip, and waited for the fist that he knew would soon connect with his cheek.
It never came.
“And instead of my cabin, you’d be in Lee’s right now jerking his ass back to reality. Am I right, Chip?” Faint amusement interlaced the admiral’s words as he threw Morton’s back at him.
The exec exhaled a long, deep sigh. “Aye, sir! That’s exactly where I’d be right now.”
With the guilt and anger that had held his body together for the past several hours dissipated, Nelson suddenly deflated, and his body collapsed heavily into the office chair. He was spent, both physically and emotionally.
Concerned, Morton reached out a hand, but Nelson waved it away. “I’m all right now, Chip.”
Still hovering nearby, Morton nodded. “You could do with a rest, sir. Let me help you get into your bunk.”
Nelson moved to stand. He swayed in the attempt, and Chip reached out again, steadying him. This time the admiral didn’t wave away Morton’s helping hand. “I guess I could use some sleep.” Nelson allowed himself the small luxury of leaning on his executive officer.
When the admiral’s head fell forward, Morton thought for a moment that Nelson had passed out, but his superior officer continued speaking.
“You know, you’re the only one who really understands, Chip. I never knew you had such an intuitive nature.”
Not knowing how to respond, Morton said nothing, but Nelson didn’t seem to expect a reply.
Almost asleep standing up, the admiral began to clumsily undress, all the while continuing a nonstop, singsong conversation. “Lee didn’t deserve any of this. Damn Kruger to hell …”
“Amen,” Chip said quietly, then reached once again for Nelson’s arm. “Come on, sir. Let’s get you to bed.”
Allowing himself to be led to his bunk, Nelson climbed in. Morton covered him with the sheet and layered a fleece blanket on top. The admiral was still muttering under his breath. Morton caught the final two words.
“Goddamn … Kruger …” Then he was asleep.
Smoothing the blanket once more, Morton made a cursory inspection of the cabin for lit cigarette butts. Then, satisfied that Nelson was comfortable and his room reasonably safe, Chip headed for the control room and his abbreviated tour of duty.
The familiarity of the voice and the absurdity of it actually being heard again in his cabin made Nelson’s lips curl into a disbelieving grin even before he reached total wakefulness. He surveyed his darkened cabin, lit only by the anemic bulb of his overhead reading lamp, and saw nothing. No living being was present in the room. No one but he.
But the voice he had heard was not that of a living person. She was dead … had, in fact, died a long time ago. But it was over, all of it. Her bones and the island on which they were buried now mingled with others that had perished in the great Pacific.
Convinced that he had had a bad dream, the admiral turned over onto his side, nestled deeper into the warm covers, and slid easily back into a light slumber.
“Admiral, I must speak to you!”
Nelson’s eyes flew open. It wasn’t a dream after all. Unnerved, he jerked his body into a sitting position and wrenched his neck toward the voice. The ghost of Lani, Kruger’s lost love, stood in the middle of his cabin. She was dressed as she had been during their previous encounters, a short, blue sarong encircling her slim body, but her eyes no longer held the haunted, blank stare.
They were alive, a deep, warm brown flecked with celadon and gold, almost identical to …
“Why have you come back? I did as you instructed. The island is gone. You and Kruger are free again.”
“Yes, thanks to you our souls have been released from an eternity of bondage. But I had to return one last time to correct a grievous wrong. Your friend, Captain Crane, is in great danger.”
“From Kruger? Is he still trying to…”
“No, Admiral,” Lani interrupted. Her tone took on a sadness, and her eyes dropped from his direct gaze. “My love awaits our time together. He regrets what he did, but I am not at liberty to apologize or speak for him.”
“Then why? Lee’s safe. He’s asleep down in Sickbay.” The admiral stopped abruptly and checked his wall chronometer. Realizing that he hadn’t seen his friend in nearly nine hours, he quickly swiveled his legs over the side of the bunk and dropped to the floor. “I … I have to go to him.”
“Wait! Before you see your captain, you must listen carefully to everything I say. My time here is very limited. I only have a few moments to tell you what you must know. If you do not act immediately, Lee Crane will die before his time. Captain Kruger brought harm to your friend, but he did it out of love for me. He wanted us to be together forever. But it was impossible for me to save your friend and keep Captain Kruger’s dream alive too. When Molio sank into the ocean, his wish that we be together was destroyed also. We are apart again.”
“What does this have to do with Lee being in danger?”
Lani lifted her chin and smiled a cheerless smile. “I want to spend forever with my love, Admiral. Is that so wrong? But I also want to undo some of the harm that he did while he was on your ship. In order to accomplish both, I will need all your trust. I will help you save your friend. All I ask is a small favor in return.”
There was no need for hesitation. Once before, Lani had appeared to help him save Lee and the Seaview. Her assistance then had been unconditional. If it were not for her, Lee would be dead now, and Gerhard Kruger would possess his body.
Whatever she wanted or needed, he would find a way to repay her this time. “Tell me what to do.”
“Your friend is gravely ill. He will die in less than 24 hours if you do not get him to Pearl Harbor. Do you understand?”
Nelson nodded, but confusion was plainly stated on his face. “I can get him to Pearl on the flying sub in less than three. But he’s with our ship’s doctor, being monitored around the clock. I would’ve been notified by now if he were in imminent danger.”
“Believe me, Admiral, his wounds are fatal. But it will not become apparent to your medical personnel until it is too late for them to do anything about it. I would not lie to you about this. It is imperative that Captain Crane arrive at the Naval Hospital before six o’clock tomorrow evening, or he will not survive.”
“I’ll see to it.” Nelson waited, but the apparition appeared hesitant to continue. “Go on, Lani. How can I help you?”
The ghost turned away for a moment. When she again faced forward, she held a tiny wooden box in her hands. Unlike her ethereal image, it appeared substantial, with no aura reflecting from its surface. “When your captain is well enough, give him this. He will know what is to be done with it.”
“Save your friend, Admiral, and you will save my love also. Farewell.”
“Wait … Lani, I must know what else …” His voice trailed off as she vaporized into a sparkling mist. The haze dissipated almost immediately, and Nelson was alone again in his cabin.
The silence was deafening, and he found himself doubting the reality of the experience. Reaching for his robe, he shrugged into it and headed for the bathroom. Flicking on the light, he stared intently at his reflection in the lavatory mirror. What gazed back at him was a tired old man whose sanity was doubted by almost every crewman on board the Seaview. And if the truth be known, he was beginning to wonder about it himself.
He brushed his teeth quickly and splashed some cold water on his face. Lani was gone, her remains destroyed along with an entire South Pacific island. She had not returned from the grave. Toweling off his face, he raked a comb through his unruly carrot-colored hair and returned to the main cabin, thoroughly convinced that what he had just experienced was merely another in a long string of nightmares.
A clean uniform hung in his closet. He laid it carefully on his bunk and began to dress slowly. He reached for his trousers, then, as an afterthought, turned to his desk and pressed the intercom. “Nelson to Sickbay. Come in, Doc.”
“Doc here, Admiral. How are you feeling?”
“I’m fine. Good night’s sleep. Those pills really hit the spot.”
A chuckle of disbelief. “Uh huh …”
Nelson hurried on. “How’s Lee?”
“He’s awake. We had a couple of little scares earlier today, but everything’s under control right now. Our star patient is grouchy and complaining which means he’s getting better. If he keeps improving like this, he’ll be on solid foods by lunchtime tomorrow.”
The admiral smiled. Lani had been a dream after all. “That’s good news, Will. I’ll be down in a little while to see him, that is, if he’s up to visitors yet.”
“You might have to take a number, Admiral. He’s a pretty popular patient right now.”
“I’ll wait. Thanks, Doc. Nelson out.”
Smiling to himself, the admiral reached down to switch off the intercom. As he did so, his right hand brushed against a hard object; it fell with a heavy clang to the floor. The dim light made it difficult to see what had dropped and, cursing his clumsiness, he fumbled in the darkness, running his hand along the polished floor until he found what he sought. Closing his fist around it, he returned it to the intercom’s side. Immediately, the smile on his face vanished.
Lani had not been a dream after all. The box she had given him sat, solid and tangible, on his own desk. She had really been in his cabin; she had really spoken to him. And by this time tomorrow, Lee Crane would be a dead man.
He finished dressing quickly and hurried toward Sickbay.
Early evening on the boat had always been Jamieson’s favorite time of day. The smells of dinner wafting from the galley, sounds of sailors playing board games or watching movies in the day room, or just the knowledge that another watch had gone by successfully and safely always filled him with contentment.
From the odors filling the corridors, Jamieson surmised dinner would consist of baked him, sweet potatoes, some unidentifiable vegetable, honey muffins, and raspberry sherbet.
His patient called. He shook himself from his preoccupation with the upcoming meal and went to the captain. He had shooed all the visitors out moments before, leaving Crane alone with plenty of time to think. Jamieson didn’t yet know if that was good or bad.
He observed his patient with awe. Crane was not only conscious and coherent; he was sitting up in bed. He reached for the captain’s wrist, automatically counting his pulse. Reassuringly strong and rhythmic. But the hand was yanked away by its owner, who glowered at him from beneath furrowed brows.
“Sorry…old habit. Now, what can I do for you, Lee?”
Crane leaned back into the raised mattress and held up his left arm. “Take this out!” He indicated the IV. “And this.” He tugged at the oxygen tube in his nose.
“And especially that!” He nodded his head down at the catheter tube that emptied his bladder.
“Absolutely not!” Jamieson said adamantly. “Just because you’re sitting up and think you feel better doesn’t mean you’re well enough to be on your own. Every one of those tubes has a singular purpose that, combined, will make you better faster.”
“I don’t ‘think’ I feel better, I know I do! I want to get up. I want to walk. I want out of here!”
“You can’t get up, you don’t have the strength. You couldn’t stand or walk if you tried, and if you leave here anytime in the next two days, you’ll ride in a wheelchair. So, behave yourself. Besides, there are some tests I need to run before we get to Pearl, and then you’ll be referred for a few more when we get there.”
Crane’s obstinacy seemed to drain away. “What kind of tests?” he asked suspiciously.
“Just routine,” Jamieson said too lightly, as he mentally kicked himself for making every visitor leave. Even in his severely weakened state, his captain was intuitive and curious. A faint knock at the door and “Can I come in?” saved the doctor from further interrogation.
“Of course, Admiral.”
Nelson entered, and the room went silent for a long, awkward moment. Crane, who had been poised with another question, eyed his visitor surreptitiously for a moment. Recognition made him drop his eyes, and he appeared suddenly at a loss for words.
Jamieson took the reins. “Well, you’re looking more rested, Admiral. At least some of my patients pay attention to what I tell them.” He shot a pointed look at the captain.
Nelson appeared not to have heard. He was noticeably nervous and uncomfortable.
Crane seemed similarly ill at ease. The doctor made a quick decision.
“Admiral, can I see you for a moment?” Jamieson indicated the adjoining office.
“Of course,” Nelson said, appearing almost eager to leave.
When they were both out of the room, the doctor lowered his voice and began the speech he had repeated several times over already to prospective visitors. “The captain’s weak, and he’s angry. And he’s in complete denial about what happened. Whatever you do, don’t mention Captain Kruger. He’s reacted to that name twice already.”
“How?” Nelson’s face showed open concern.
“He withdraws almost immediately into a semi-conscious state. Morton was the first to mention Kruger’s name, and it took Lee almost an hour to come out of it.”
Deep lines wrinkled the admiral’s forehead as he considered Jamieson’s words.
“You say the exec was the first. It happened more than once?”
The doctor nodded. “Kowalski. If you remember, Kruger nearly got to him. Ski’s got his own demons to fight, but he’s meeting them head on. They’re not hidden in the back of his mind and double locked. He can talk about it. Lee can’t, at least not yet. So, be very careful what you say to him.” Jamieson turned away and started to reopen the door to his exam room.
“Uh … Will …”
“…I … I don’t quite know how to bring this up, but is there any possibility that you might’ve missed something?”
“Missed something? I don’t know what you mean, Admiral.”
“Lee seems to be getting better, right? Physically, that is.”
Jamieson pursed his lips and let his shoulders shrug.
“Yes,” he said. “He’s definitely improved, better than I ever could’ve imagined this morning.”
“Would you say he’s out of danger … physically?”
“For the most part, if he behaves himself,” the doctor said with a quizzical look. “Why?”
“But you could’ve missed something…in surgery… in an exam … something important.”
Jamieson started to reply in the affirmative, then, baffled and slightly annoyed by the shift in their conversation, he blurted out, “Admiral, what’s this all about?”
Nelson twisted under his gaze for a moment, then came to a decision. “Will, I want to take Lee to Pearl via the flying sub … tonight.”
“There’s no need to do that. He shouldn’t be moved. Besides, I need the next two-and-a-half days it’ll take us to get to Pearl to do some psychological tests and observances. That way, when CMH takes over at the Naval Hospital, they’ll have some data on his mental and emotional condition already on file.”
“So, there’s no way you’ll okay his evacuation to Pearl?”
“Like I said, Admiral, there’s no reason to move him. It would probably do more harm than good right now.”
“How about if I order you to let me take him!” Nelson persisted, his eyes flashing a challenge.
Jamieson still appeared puzzled, but professional demeanor took over. Quietly, but firmly, “Then you would be overruled.”
“All right, Will,” Nelson nodded thoughtfully and appeared to back down. “If you think it’s best that he not be moved, so be it.”
“I don’t understand why you suddenly feel he needs to be evacuated, Admiral. Don’t you trust my judgment?”
“I do, Will. I’m sorry. If you say Lee’s fine, then he is,” Nelson conceded.
“All right,” Jamieson was still perplexed, but he dropped the subject and headed back into the exam room. Nelson followed on his heels. “I’m going to grab a bite to eat, Admiral, but I’ll be back in about 20 minutes,” he looked at his watch. //That should give the two of them enough time to hash over whatever it is between them// he thought.
“Captain Crane is due for his next dose of medication about that time.” The doctor’s head came up, and he met Crane’s deep-set eyes. “And if he’s not ready to sleep when I get back, I’ll also administer a sedative. I’m not going to have all my hard work go for nothing because of pigheaded patients.” With that, he turned and headed for the galley.
At the doctor’s departure, Sickbay suddenly filled with a palpable tension as Nelson and Crane eyed each other furtively. When several moments of stillness had passed, the admiral cleared his throat. “How do you feel, Lee?”
Crane absently fingered the IV board at his wrist. “I’ll live …” His eyes refused to meet his friend’s, but he continued on, “And you?”
“I’ll live too.”
Uncomfortable silence filled the room again, then both men began at the same time.
Out of the corner of his eye Nelson caught the barest whisper of a smile tug at his captain’s lips, and he felt some of the tension drain away. “You go ahead, Lee,” he said.
“No, Admiral, you first.”
“All right,” he said, running his freckled fingers through a straying wisp of hair. “I just wanted to let you know that … I’m sorry for what happened …and to ask your forgiveness. I’m not going to make excuses or tell you I didn’t have any other choice in the matter or …”
“It’s a good thing, Admiral,” Crane interrupted, “because I don’t want to hear your explanations or excuses.”
Stricken at the curt dismissal, Nelson closed his mouth and sent his gaze to the floor. “I can’t blame you for not wanting to hear me out …”
“And I can’t blame you either,” the captain said softly, again cutting off the admiral before he could finish.
Nelson’s head jerked abruptly up, and he stared at his friend. “You don’t…blame me…” he repeated, almost disbelievingly. “But, Lee, you refused my help in the flying sub. You didn’t even want me to touch you.”
Crane appeared confused. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Admiral.”
“Lee,” Nelson’s voice grew in volume, “I thought you hated me. When I got you back on board Seaview, I tried to help you, but you wouldn’t let me get near. I just assumed …”
“Admiral, I don’t remember anything from after we boarded the raft until a couple of hours ago and, if I did or said anything to make you think that I hold you responsible, then I’m the one who should apologize …” he paused to catch his breath and shift his position. Gasping weakly, he reached down with his open hand to gently support the gauze-covered wound as he sagged back into the now uncomfortably drooping pillows.
Unhesitatingly, Nelson stepped forward and eased Crane up. Rearranging the pillows, he fluffed and positioned them so that when Lee slid carefully back again, they molded to his body rather than resisted it. Exhausted by the brief exertion, the captain relaxed and closed his eyes tiredly.
“I’ll be back after while, Lee,” Nelson said in a hushed voice. Without opening his eyes, Crane nodded almost imperceptibly that he had heard.
“We need to talk some more, but I want you to be rested,” the admiral continued.
He paused to make certain his friend was listening, and when there was no response, he leaned closer. “Lee?” Again, there was no reaction. The captain had fallen asleep.
Satisfied, Nelson smiled to himself. “Sleep well, Lee. I’ve got to map out a plan to get us both out of here, and when I do, I’ll be back.” Reaching out, he patted his friend on the wrist and departed Sickbay.
It was after midnight when Nelson crept down the submarine’s darkened corridors again. He had busied himself the past few hours making out flight plans and packing the accompanying gear. When he was reasonably sure only the essential crew manned Seaview’s stations, he pulled on his leather jacket, grabbed his flight bag and tucked an automatic into his belt. Satisfied that he was equipped with everything he might need, he emerged from his room and headed for Sickbay.
Getting from his cabin to the flying sub, alone, without being seen, would be a difficult task but one he could reasonably hope to achieve. Removing Lee from Sickbay and getting both of them to the flying sub without anyone noticing was a monumental job and practically impossible. Realistically, he didn’t expect to make it out of Sickbay without being caught, but he was confident that he could maintain control of almost any situation.
Since Lee wasn’t ambulatory yet, and because he couldn’t hope to carry the man by himself, at least not safely or comfortably, he knew he had to obtain help. An accomplice, willing or unwilling, was a foregone conclusion. The only problem was who on board would be the most assistance and the least interference.
Will was, of course, his first choice, but that had been a selfish one. He couldn’t leave Seaview without a doctor on board. Besides, Lani had stated that if he delivered Lee to the Naval Hospital before 6:00 this evening, the captain would be saved; therefore, he needn’t risk leaving his personnel unprotected.
Chip, his second choice, also needed to stay in case of an emergency. The other officers aboard were quite capable, but, with Crane indisposed, he couldn’t bring himself to trust anyone else but Morton with his submarine.
That brought his options down to two: Kowalski, whose prevailing attitude toward him was veiled contempt, would probably make the task more difficult by continually trying to thwart his efforts to save Crane.
That left Chief Sharkey, and Sharkey’s loyalty, both to him and Lee, was unquestioned. The chief would see that he didn’t intend to hurt Lee and, he convinced himself, would reach the only logical conclusion – that it was safer and easier to let him fly the captain to Honolulu than fight with him and possibly risk Crane’s life. Nelson nodded to himself as he arrived at Sickbay —
Sharkey would be his accomplice. At this hour, the chief was probably asleep in his cabin. He decided to let him rest; the fewer people involved in what he had to do now, the better and safer his job would be. He would pick him up on the way to the flying sub after he retrieved Lee.
Nelson entered the shadowy outer office of Sickbay and felt an almost instant relief wash over him. Neither Will nor any of his medical personnel were in view. Glancing around, he moved stealthily into the interior recovery room which, at this time of night, had been darkened to near pitch black. Waiting a moment for his eyes to adjust, he finally managed to make out the outline of Crane’s body on the bed. Nestled deep into his pillow, Lee appeared to be asleep. Except for the blanket which was now drawn up almost covering his head, Crane seemed to be in the same position he had been when Nelson left him earlier in the evening. Moving quietly and cautiously, Nelson edged toward the bed.
“Lee?” he whispered, still scanning the area for Sickbay personnel. When there was no immediate reaction from the bed, he reached out and very gently shook the captain’s shoulder. A muffled moan was the only reaction. “Shhhh… I’m sorry… I’m sorry, Lee, but you have to wake up. I’ve got to get you to the flying sub. I know you won’t understand but, believe me, you need to be at the Honolulu hospital before this evening. Will wouldn’t give me permission to evacuate you, so I’m going to have to do this my way. Do you understand?”
Lee muttered something he couldn’t comprehend, but there was no time to waste. Glancing around, he located a folded wheelchair in the corner directly behind him, opened it and returned to Crane’s bedside. He locked the wheels on the chair and positioned himself in front of it.
“I don’t know where everybody is, so we need to hurry, Lee. I’ll try to do this without hurting you too much.” He looked around again. Sickbay still seemed deserted. He was grateful for the slip-up, yet it was troubling to think that Will Jamieson would leave a patient, any patient, but especially the captain of the Seaview, without proper supervision for this long. A nagging worry began to gnaw in the back of his mind, but he couldn’t afford to take time away from his task to fret about it. There would be time to counsel Will and his personnel for the lack of security later.
Positioning himself in front of the wheelchair, Nelson grasped his captain’s shoulders and wrapped his arms in a loose bear hug around Lee’s chest. He pulled Crane upward towards him and slid his right arm beneath the man’s wide shoulder blades. Lee’s head dropped limply sideways onto the admiral’s chest and shoulder, and Nelson’s nose was unexpectedly filled with the scent of freshly washed hair and Old Spice after shave. Alarm bells suddenly tolled a silent warning in his brain, and Nelson froze, instantly aware that the man in his arms was not Lee Crane. He had walked right into a trap.
“Chip,” he whispered to the head on his chest as he reached for the gun at his belt. “It’s not what you’re thinking. Help me to save him.”
“Hold it right there, Admiral!” came from out of the black corner on his left, and the room went suddenly ablaze with lights. When he could see, Nelson found that he was encircled by armed crewmen. Less than six feet away, shock and disappointment plainly evident on his face, stood Will Jamieson. Across the room to the doctor’s right were a cold-eyed Patterson and Kowalski, both brandishing firearms aimed directly at his midsection.
“Please don’t move, sir,” Kowalski said, starting toward him.
The admiral returned a fleeting glance to Jamieson. The look he received from Will said there was no chance of reasoning with him. That left Morton, whose very stance screamed volumes, none in Nelson’s favor. His exec sat on the hospital bed, a portrait of misery with his elbows resting on drawn-up knees. His head hung dejectedly, and it seemed he couldn’t bring himself to look directly at the admiral.
“Chip, it’s not what you think. I’m trying to save his life,” Nelson tried again, but Morton had erected an invisible barricade around himself.
“Get him out of here,” Chip threw the order halfheartedly at Patterson and Kowalski.
Patterson moved immediately to pick up Nelson’s gun. “The brig, sir?” he asked expectantly.
Morton started to nod but the look on Jamieson’s face told him ‘treatment, not punishment,’ and the doctor disappeared into Seaview’s pharmacy. “Belay that, Patterson,” Morton said and waited for the doctor to return.
“Chip, if we don’t get Lee to Honolulu before this evening, he’s a dead man. I know you think I’ve lost my mind but, Lee is going to die if …”
The exec still wouldn’t look his way, and he let his voice trail off. Morton had erected a stone wall, and Nelson had no tools to chip away at it. He decided silence would have to do until later when he could get Morton alone. Then he would make Chip listen. He could force him to hear the truth.
Jamieson returned to the room wielding a filled syringe. “Bring him over here, Patterson … Kowalski, help me get his jacket off and his sleeve up.”
Nelson looked at the doctor with apprehension. “No, Will, don’t put me out! You don’t understand. I have to take Lee to the Naval Hospital. If I don’t, he’s not going to live!” He struggled as Patterson forced him forward, toward Jamieson, toward the needle that would keep him from rescuing Lee in time. Kowalski was yanking his leather flight jacket down, roughly using its sleeves to pin his arms together behind his back. He struggled fiercely, determined that they wouldn’t knock him out before he could get someone … anyone … to listen. Suddenly, Chip was there, shirtless and breathing hard. He yanked at the admiral’s cuff, unbuttoning the sleeve and trying to shove it over the elbow. When it wouldn’t go all the way up, Morton ripped it apart at the seam.
Nelson grappled with all three men, finally succeeding in freeing his arms from the jacket prison. He pulled away from Patterson and Kowalski and grabbed Morton’s shoulders in a last desperate bid to be heard. He knew they all thought him a raving madman; his voice sounded insane even to his own ears. But he had to make them believe him.
“Chip!” he held Morton’s upper arms tightly, peering directly into the younger man’s eyes. He forced himself to speak slowly, enunciating every word in a low, controlled voice. “I’m telling you the absolute truth. I know that Lee is going to die from a medical complication that Will doesn’t even have a clue about yet. I know about it the same way that I knew about how to find Lee on Molio. You have to believe me, Chip! You must believe me!”
Morton’s hands grabbed his in a viselike grip, and their eyes met just as he felt the sting of Jamieson’s needle in his left arm. He tried to jerk away, but Chip’s arms held him firmly until the doctor emptied and withdrew the syringe.
Horror-struck, his eyes twisted from Chip’s frozen steel gray to Jamieson’s pitying hazel. He saw the approaching blackness, heard his own voice cry out in despair, and felt his knees strike the hard tiled floor. Then Chip was there, holding his head and peering down at him with the same anguished expression.
Nelson struggled to stay conscious, fighting to get out one last message before the darkness overtook him.
“Lani …” He nearly choked on the word, but he made himself go on. “Chip …Lani came to me this morning … she told me Lee is going to die … and she told me how to save him … Lani told me …. Save him, Chip! Save … Lee …”
Morton held the admiral for several moments after the fast-acting drug took effect, then, reluctantly, relinquished him to Patterson and Kowalski. He watched as they lifted Nelson gently and, following Jamieson’s orders, laid him on a lower bunk in the middle room. Both men were dismissed by the exec and hurried out of Sickbay.
“God, that was hard!” Chip said in a strained voice. He stood rather stiffly and reached for the khaki shirt he had hung on the coat rack behind the door. “Well, your hunch was right.”
“I was hoping I was wrong,” Jamieson said as he disposed of the used needle and syringe, “but I just couldn’t get the conversation we had this morning out of my mind. I just had a feeling he was going to try something like this.”
Morton finished buttoning his shirt and began tucking the tail into his trousers. “What’s wrong with him, Jamie?”
“I’m not sure, Chip, I can only speculate. The Admiral seems to be suffering from a massive guilt complex. He knows he nearly killed Lee, and I think it’s eating him alive. He’s deluded himself into thinking that the only way he can resolve this guilt is to personally rescue Lee.”
“But he did save him! He got him off Molio and away from Kruger.”
Jamieson fell heavily into his office chair and sighed. “I guess in his mind, he hasn’t done enough to atone for his sin.” The doctor looked up at Morton thoughtfully. “You know, Chip, this is all my fault. I should’ve seen this coming long before it got this far. Yesterday, Nelson was standing in this very same room, practically screaming symptoms, and I just ignored them.”
Morton smiled wanly. “Now don’t you start! Your priority yesterday was Lee. Besides, there’s been enough self-recrimination for one evening. Jamie, why don’t you get some rest. I know you haven’t had much in the last 24 hours.”
Nodding agreement, the doctor looked up, grateful for the understanding. “I think I’ll do just that, but first I’m going to check in on Lee.”
“The Admiral’s got you spooked too, huh?”
“Not spooked. Troubled is a better word. I don’t know what to think, Chip. I’ve gone over the captain’s vitals and checked every test two and three times over. I’ve examined Lee from head to toe at least twice and, believe me, that’s hard enough to do when he’s in perfect health.”
Chip grinned sympathetically. “And?” he said.
“And nothing! In that private room over there, I have a male patient, middle 30’s, who had a bullet in him, which I removed. He had one complication – a potentially fatal aneurysm – which I also corrected. He has a slight infection, but the antibiotics are dealing with it, and I don’t foresee it becoming a problem. Physically, he’s healing nicely. Emotionally and mentally, he’s going to need some therapy and counseling, but he’s even dealing with those problems on his own already. However, my overall evaluation remains the same. He arrived on Seaview in critical condition, dropped to very critical for a few moments with the aneurysm, and right now, I’d rate his condition as satisfactory to good. In fact, he’s in there sleeping naturally with only antibiotics and some residual pain medication.”
“So, Lee’s out of danger and healing. Now, what can we do to help the admiral?”
“I’ll keep him sedated for a few hours, and then I’ll try to talk to him, find out why he feels he’s the only one who can help Lee get well. And when we get to Honolulu, it looks like there’ll be two hospital admissions instead of one.”
Chip sighed, then yawned tiredly.
“Better get to bed, Mr. Morton. Rumor has it we’re heading into a rough storm tomorrow.”
“Yeah, we got the weather warning this evening. Remnants of a tropical storm. It should be turbulent, but I think we can bypass some of it by hugging the bottom. Get some sleep, Jamie. Call me if there’s any change in Lee or the admiral …or if you need me.”
“Thanks, I will. I’m just going to check on Lee one more time before I retire.”
Jamieson stood and started forward, then hesitated. “Chip?”
Morton halted at the Sickbay door. “What is it?”
“Who is … Lani?”
Morton appeared thoughtful for a moment. Finally, “I don’t know.”
The doctor frowned. “Me neither. I’ll have to remember to ask the admiral about it in the morning. Good night, Chip.”
“Good night, Jamie.”
When he estimated he had lain awake in the bunk for nearly a quarter of an hour without anyone suspecting he was conscious, Nelson decided to risk taking a peek around the room. Cautiously, he opened his right eye to a slit and waited a moment for his vision to clear. When he could see fairly well, he centered on a freshly-shaven Lee, now clothed in pajamas, slippers, and his favorite worn, blue robe. Crane was hunched over in an old man’s stance, and he was very slowly and deliberately making his way across Sickbay.
The almost miraculous sight filled him with misgivings, and Nelson struggled inwardly to refocus on the image of Lani in his cabin yesterday, warning him of terrible things to come. His eyes told him Lee was recovering, but the concrete proof of Lani’s visit and her knowledge of the future lay in a sealed compartment of his flight bag – a small box to be given to Lee if … when he got well.
Anxiety almost overwhelmed him. He wanted to jump out of bed, grab Lee, and be on his way in the flying sub right now. Instead, he forced himself to lie completely motionless, pretending to still be in the grip of the powerful sedative administered earlier by Jamieson. He knew that as long as the doctor and his crew thought him incapacitated, they would leave him alone, and he could continue to work silently on a viable plan to get Lee to safety.
Unexpectedly, Seaview bucked beneath him, yawing left, then right in the violent throes of a stormy underwater current. Caught off guard, Nelson clamped down on his own instinct to grab the bed and allowed himself to be tossed around. He stayed limp, but as he watched, across the room, Lee reached out desperately for a safety rail. Clinging to it weakly, his body sagged almost in slow motion to the floor.
Nelson fought down another urge to go to him, but Jamieson and Kowalski were already moving quickly into his limited sight range. Both seemed driven by the same single-minded purpose – coming to Crane’s aid.
“Captain, I shouldn’t have let you bully me into letting you get out of bed. It’s nasty out there right now with this storm wreaking havoc. I’m afraid Seaview isn’t going to be a lady for a while, so you’re just going to have to crawl back into bed and strap in.”
The admiral heard Will’s mild admonishment and smiled inwardly. In a former life, Jamieson must have been a mother hen. But the invisible smile evaporated almost instantly as he felt a pang of guilt. He knew what he had to do, and poor Will was already worried about his state of mind. The doctor had, in fact, already diagnosed him as insane. Hell, maybe he was! But if wearing a label of derangement, even temporarily, would save Lee Crane’s life, he’d strap on a neon sign and proclaim it to the world.
He tentatively cracked open his left eye and watched Jamieson escort a mildly protesting Lee back to his private room.
An armed Kowalski, who had temporarily moved out of his range of vision, now stepped back into view. Ski seemed to hesitate for a moment, not really knowing whether he should assist with the captain or remain at his post. Nelson assumed the crewman’s ‘post’ was guarding him and, as the admiral knew it would, duty finally prevailed with the younger man. Kowalski turned around and headed back toward his bunk.
Nelson quickly closed his eyes and listened to Kowalski’s footsteps draw nearer. A shadow crossed his face fleetingly as he heard the seaman pass him by, and then the footsteps stopped. The admiral waited another moment before again slitting his eyes to check out the room. From his vantage point, it was impossible to tell exactly where Kowalski stood, but he knew the man was somewhere to his left and above his head. Nelson could hear shallow breathing and the rustling of coveralls as Kowalski shifted nervously from one leg to another.
//Wait!// an inner voice whispered, concerned that one more bungled attempt would prove fatal to Crane. But another voice, louder and more urgent, murmured //Hurry, hurry, hurry!// And he knew there was no more time to waste on unnecessary caution. Sickbay’s wall chronometer already showed half-past one o’clock in the afternoon. If he waited any longer, there wouldn’t be any need to fly Lee to Honolulu.
From Crane’s adjoining room, he caught bits and pieces of what appeared to be a one-sided conversation. Jamieson was in the middle of a lengthy lecture, one he hoped would continue for several minutes more.
Grateful for the time to evaluate his own condition before acting, Nelson did a hasty examination of his body, wiggling his toes and alternately flexing and unflexing his leg muscles. He used his aviator skills to form a list and check off each working body part as he evaluated it. His legs seemed to be awake; they would follow orders when he was ready to move. But his fingers, hands and arms were numb. He began inconspicuously to wriggle his fingers and rotate his wrists.
When he was certain that he could move rapidly and efficiently, he opened his eyes again. He saw that Kowalski had shifted position, moving forward and allowing Nelson a partial view of the man’s right side and lower torso.
“I’ll have the galley send up a light snack for you, Captain. Since we took the IVs out, you can have solid food, but we’ll have to keep it bland for another day or two. And your medication’s due. I’ll bring it in in a couple of minutes.”
Jamieson was exiting Crane’s room and returning to the Sickbay ward. Nelson knew this would be his last chance to act, and he looked around clandestinely, trying to find any avenue to create a diversion.
As if she could read his mind, Seaview suddenly provided one for him.
She slammed purposefully into another pocket of turbulence, shaking and rolling furiously again. Kowalski, taken by surprise, was thrown off balance, landing sideways against Nelson’s bunk.
The admiral reacted almost instinctively. With Kowalski’s gun now only inches away, he reached out and furtively took possession of the forty-five.
By the time Seaview settled back into her normal calm, smoothly gliding through the depth, Kowalski had recovered and moved away from the bunk. His hand dropped to check his weapon and, when he found it missing, he responded by looking down at the floor. As he did, he came face-to-face with the barrel of his own weapon.
“Easy, Kowalski,” Nelson whispered. “Back up … nice and slow.”
The younger man seemed shocked and flustered. “Admiral,” he said aghast, “I really think you should let me have the gun back, sir.”
“No, I don’t think I can do that right now, Kowalski. Go on, move back so I can get out of this bunk, and then you’re going to help me save Captain Crane’s life.”
Kowalski took a tentative step backward, never once taking his eyes off the gun in the admiral’s hand. “Sir, I don’t think … that’s a good idea.”
“Saving someone’s life is always a good idea, Kowalski.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Nelson saw Jamieson appear in the doorway of Lee’s private room. “Will, get Lee ready to travel.”
Both Jamieson’s hands spread outward, grasping the door frame. He appeared to be trying to block the entrance to Lee’s room. “Admiral, you can’t take the captain off this boat. There’s a tropical storm raging above us. You know the flying sub isn’t half as seaworthy as this sub, and flying in this storm is simply out of the question. Lee’s safer where he is right now. Can’t you see that?”
Nelson swiveled his legs around and hung them over the bunk. The minor motion created a gigantic wave of nausea. His stomach lurched sickeningly, but he swallowed hard, fighting it down. Finally, he decided to try to mask it by adopting the guise of a madman. Jamieson already thought him capable of murder; perhaps he wouldn’t call his bluff.
“All I see, Will,” he said at last, the bile in his throat making his voice sound even gruffer and menacing, “are idiots standing in my way.” He waved the gun threateningly at Kowalski, whose eyes darted nervously from Jamieson’s to the admiral’s and back to Jamieson’s. “I don’t want to hurt anyone else, Will. Be reasonable and get Lee ready to travel. You have five minutes.”
The doctor dropped his hands helplessly and began to back into the private room, but Nelson shook his head warningly. “Uh uh, Will, stay right where you are until Kowalski and I get over there. Keep your hands in plain sight and stay away from the intercoms.” He motioned with the gun for Kowalski to precede him, and the younger man began walking.
“Sir … if you take the Skipper off this boat right now, you won’t be saving him, you’ll be doing more harm. Please, sir, think about what you’re doing,” Kowalski said over his shoulder.
Nelson forced himself to ignore the plea. His stomach was feeling better but, by the time he reached Lee’s room, his head had begun to pound with fury. Whatever Jamieson had dosed him with was hanging on with a vengeance.
Before he entered the room, Nelson checked behind once again for the absent Sickbay physician’s assistant and clerk. He knew they were due back from their lunch break soon, and he wanted to be long gone before they returned. “Get busy, Will. Kowalski, help him,” he ordered, and then he caught sight of Lee, sitting up in bed, staring at him with wide, questioning eyes. The haunted look he had seen in the flying sub earlier was back in his friend’s eyes, and he immediately felt contrite.
//I’m trying to save your life//, he thought, wishing he could find a way to assure Lee that he was only acting in his best interests. But Will had said he couldn’t mention Kruger; it would be unsettling for Crane to hear the name. But the doctor hadn’t said that Lee would react dangerously to any other name. He made a quick decision and hoped it wouldn’t backfire.
“Lee, I’m going to take you to Honolulu in the flying sub. I don’t know how to make you understand why I’m doing this except to tell you the truth. I hope you can take it.”
“I’m listening, Admiral,” Crane said quietly, but Nelson could hear the apprehension in his voice.
“Admiral, don’t!” Jamieson’s voice warned.
“Do you remember Lani? She came to me this morning and told me …”
He didn’t get to finish the sentence for Crane reacted almost instantly, closing his eyes and drawing in a ragged breath.
Jamieson responded immediately, grabbing for an oxygen mask and slapping it into place over Crane’s nose and mouth. His patient gulped the oxygen greedily and, moments later, when he had Crane relatively calmed, Jamieson swiveled around, his eyes flashing bolts of unchecked anger.
“I told you he wasn’t ready to talk about it, Admiral! Now, will you listen to reason and drop this nonsense. Or are you just trying to finish the job!”
The doctor’s words slashed at him cruelly, flooding his mind with remorse and guilt, but Nelson forced himself to shove the feelings to the back of his mind. He had known this wouldn’t be easy and, in spite of Jamieson’s hateful words, he had to continue on with his plan. Lee’s life hung in the balance, and Nelson knew he was the only one who could see the scales tipping against him.
“Kowalski, help Doc get the captain into a wheelchair.”
Jamieson stood breathing hard and shaking with rage. “I won’t let you take him, Admiral! I will not be a party to this man’s death. Kowalski, don’t you dare touch Captain Crane! Just stand right where you are.”
“I don’t have time to waste, Will,” Nelson made his voice sound deadly serious, “and I’m not going to remain here until someone comes in. Kowalski, help Captain Crane into a wheelchair right now or I promise you, I will shoot Doctor Jamieson!”
Jamieson snorted. “Don’t do it, Kowalski. He’s bluffing.”
“No … he’s not bluffing, Doc.” Crane’s voice came unexpectedly from the bed. He was still wheezing, but his voice seemed more forceful. He looked from a somewhat relieved Jamieson to Nelson and seemed to come to a conclusion. “I’ll go with you willingly, Admiral. There’s no need to hurt anyone else.”
“Lee, I won’t allow you to leave this boat with him. He’s lost his mind. I don’t know what he’s capable of doing in this state.”
“But I do, Doc,” the captain said softly and reached up to remove the oxygen mask from his face. He began to haltingly ease his sore body from the bed. Kowalski moved hurriedly to assist him.
As soon as Crane was in the chair, Nelson ordered Kowalski to tie and gag the still protesting doctor and, when this task was complete, the three left Sickbay and headed for the flying sub.
The cargo door to FS-1 opened easily, and Kowalski rolled Crane in, locking the wheelchair into place and securing the rollers to the floor.
Nelson stored his flight bag safely in a vacant compartment on board the craft and continued to hold his gaze and gun on Kowalski. When he was sure that Crane was safely fastened into the chair with a portable harness, the admiral motioned with the gun for Kowalski to be seated in the co-pilot’s chair.
“Admiral, I’m not checked out in the flying sub.”
“I know you’re not. Just buckle yourself in and keep your hands where I can see them. The person I need to fly this thing will arrive in just a few moments.”
Nelson turned away and flicked several starter switches on the instrument panel, bringing FS-1 to life with a high-pitched squeal. Then he moved behind the ramp ladder and waited.
As expected, his actions triggered Seaview’s silent intruder alarm in the control room. He had known preparing to launch the flying sub would bring a final accomplice. FS-1’s observation deck hatch cracked open tentatively and, as he had anticipated, Chip Morton’s blond head gazed down into the cockpit. “Kowalski?”
Nelson heard the surprise in his exec’s voice, and he shook the weapon at Kowalski as a warning not to reveal his presence.
“What the hell are you doing down there?”
Caution was tossed aside, and the hatch cover opened completely. Light streamed in, and Nelson saw Chip’s polished shoes start down the steps. He melted invisibly into the shadows.
“Chip, watch out!” Crane used what was left of his sparse strength to shout a warning, and Morton stopped halfway down the steps, shocked by the captain’s voice.
“Lee, what is going on…”
“Come on down and join us, Chip! You’re my last invited guest on this voyage.”
Morton stayed where he was, but his head whipped around to the back of the flying sub. “Admiral …”
“Close the hatch and keep on walking down the stairs, Chip. You’re the only one on board beside Lee and I who can maneuver the flying sub in this kind of weather. Lee’s not in any shape to fly, and right now my hands are pretty well tied to this thing.” He indicated the gun. “Get in the pilot’s seat, Mr. Morton. Call Sparks and tell him what’s going on. And you’d better get him to pass along a warning to the crew not to interfere! I mean it, Chip; I’ll shoot anybody who tries to stop me.”
Morton seemed frozen in place, but Nelson cocked the weapon and pointed it at Kowalski’s head for emphasis. “He’ll be the first to die, Chip. He’s just in my way and will probably cause more trouble than he’s worth. Now, get down here and let’s move out.”
“Do it, Chip!” Crane’s voice had lost some of its force, and he sagged weakly against the harness in the chair.
“Lee, I don’t want to be a part of this. You need to be back in Sickbay.”
“And arguing with an armed man isn’t going to get me there. I’m tired … Chip, please, just come down and humor him.”
Morton closed his eyes and, when he opened them again, they were hate-filled and focused directly on Nelson. “I trusted you! Like some kind of fool I stood by your side in Sickbay and let you talk me into believing every word you said. It was all a lie, wasn’t it, Admiral … Kruger didn’t force you to shoot Lee,”
Chip’s face was flushed with anger, and the muscles in his jaw bunched and quivered as he spoke. He shot a quick glance at Lee, realizing that he had spoken forbidden words, but Crane didn’t react to the name this time. Relieved, he went on, “I’ll fly this damned thing to Honolulu for you, Admiral, but I swear to you, if anything happens to Kowalski or Lee, I’ll be the first witness against you at your trial.”
“Mr. Morton, do you need any assistance below?” The sound of footsteps nearing the hatch above made Chip look up. Nelson drew back out of sight again but continued to point the gun at Kowalski in a threatening manner. Morton met his eyes and nodded his comprehension.
“No, Patterson. Stay where you are. Everything’s all right down here. The alarm was just some kind of malfunction, and I’m checking on it.” He paused to collect his thoughts for a moment, then deliberately ascended two steps, closing and locking the hatch forcefully from the inside. He hurried down to the pilot’s seat and, within moments, FS-1 was launched and headed through the savage depths for Honolulu.
Maneuvering the flying sub safely through the quagmire that was now the Pacific Ocean took special skill and Nelson knew he had made the right choice in Morton. His exec’s adeptness at operating FS-1 in this unpredictable environment kept the jostling and jarring within to a minimum.
Even so, the rough ride was telling on the captain, who had long ago dropped all pretenses at feeling better. Each bump or jolt brought a reluctant groan or muffled expletive from Lee. It was nearly two hours later when Morton successfully manipulated the craft through the worst of the storm and broke free from the water. The saucer-shaped craft rose gracefully into the cloud-dotted sky.
Worried, Nelson waited until the flying sub leveled off at 2,000 feet then released himself from the back seat harness and, still keeping a wary eye on Morton and Kowalski, moved deftly to where Crane sat. Lee looked decidedly unwell.
Hunkering down beside his friend, Nelson scrutinized him closely. “Lee, would you feel better lying down?”
With effort, Crane brought his head up from his chest and turned toward the admiral. He seemed to have difficulty focusing, and Nelson noticed that Lee’s chameleon eyes had lost their ability to change color. They appeared drab, an ordinary brown, reflecting only the deep smudges of gray etched beneath them.
“I don’t think … it’ll matter, Admiral, but right now I’ll try anything.” The few words seemed to exhaust the captain, and his head sagged forward again. Nelson checked his watch – after four o’clock – and Lee’s decline was already beginning. With FS-1 over two-thirds of the way to Honolulu, it was time to drop the act …and the gun … and take care of Lee.
He saw Kowalski glance furtively over his left shoulder and imagined what must be going through the younger man’s mind. He met his crewman’s eyes, simultaneously uncocking the weapon and handing it back to him without comment. Kowalski seemed startled, but he took the gun and reholstered it, throwing a bewildered look at the exec, who sat next to him in the pilot’s seat. Morton, who had watched the exchange without comment, looked back over his shoulder. “How’s Lee?” he asked.
“Worse,” Nelson replied as he rummaged through the storage alcoves in search of bedding. There were supposed to be supplies on board for almost every conceivable emergency, but he couldn’t remember exactly where everything was stored. “I suggest you get Hickham Field on the radio and notify them we’re coming in with a medical emergency.” He continued to rummage through the stores, finally locating a sleeping bag and wool blanket. Spreading them out on the floor, he returned to Crane and began unbuckling him from the harness.
Morton switched on the radio and dialed Hickham’s frequency. He didn’t think he could make clear contact at such a close proximity to the storm and, after several futile attempts, he decided to ascend another thousand feet. When he reached altitude, he tried once more, but all he could raise was static.
“Kowalski, help Admiral Nelson make the captain comfortable,” he ordered.
“Aye, sir,” Kowalski said. He was already out of his seat, and, together, he and the admiral lifted the semi-conscious Crane from the wheelchair and laid him on the sleeping bag.
Crane roused for a moment, moaning and holding his side, and Kowalski noticed what appeared to be a dark stain under the captain’s hand. When Crane was lying prone, he untied the robe’s belt and threw open the garment, bringing the spreading blood stain on Crane’s light-colored pajamas into view. “Admiral …”
“I see it, Kowalski.” Nelson rose from his position at Lee’s shoulders and reached for the first aid kit. While he constructed another bandage, Kowalski opened Crane’s shirt and gingerly removed the soaked gauze. Jamieson’s neatly knotted stitches were still intact, but blood was seeping through the incision.
Nelson dabbed at the wound with a sterile cotton ball, and the flow slowed to a trickle and then stopped. As he blotted the last vestiges of blood, he thought he noticed a difference in Crane’s stomach and side.
Directly above and below the wound, Lee’s skin seemed stretched and feverish, the muscles rigid and taut. Yet an examination of Crane’s left side and lower abdomen revealed them both to be soft and pliant.
“Kowalski,” he said, taping the new bandage into place. “Do something for me.”
“Place your hands on Captain Crane’s left side and press. Then move over to his right side … but do it very gently. Then tell me what you feel.”
The sailor’s long fingers pushed delicately, maneuvering slowly across to the injured side. Crane gasped as Kowalski’s manipulations became painful.
“Easy, Lee. We’re just trying to check something out. I know it’s uncomfortable for you, but try to hold on.”
Kowalski stopped the examination and pulled back. He appeared puzzled.
“You feel it too?”
“Yes, sir. I think so. The injured side is stiff to the touch. The other side… isn’t.”
“Damn.” Nelson breathed the curse, then turned his attention back to Morton. “Chip, have you reached Hickham yet?”
The exec turned back around and threw Nelson a resentful glare. “I’ll take care of it, Admiral. Is he any worse?”
Before Nelson could respond, Lee drew in a shallow breath and coughed. The simple act made the captain fold over in agony. A second attempted cough left him limp and breathless, futilely struggling to drag oxygen into his clogged bronchial tubes. He wheezed, gasping thickly through blue-tinged lips, and Nelson suddenly recognized the sound. Lee was suffocating, strangling on his own fluids.
He acted quickly, lifting the captain into a sitting position and striking him forcefully between the shoulder blades. “Get the reserve oxygen, Kowalski …behind you.”
The seaman jumped into action, retrieving the portable oxygen bottle and holding out the attached mask. Nelson reached for it but, before he could place it over Lee’s face, he heard Morton’s voice, filled with heart-stopping horror.
“Oh, dear God … Lee ….”
Nelson laid Crane gently back down onto the sleeping bag. Lee was unconscious, and his head lolled lifelessly on the bedding. His eyes were closed, but his mouth was agape, and a thin stream of crimson trickled out and down the side of his cheek.
“He’s bleeding inside, isn’t he?”
Kowalski’s vocal realization brought out into the open what Nelson had already surmised. The admiral grabbed a tissue and cleansed the blood away from the captain’s lips. He turned the man on his side so he wouldn’t choke further and fastened the oxygen mask into place.
//Lani, help him!// Nelson sent forth a silent SOS, hoping against hope that the woman would come back and reassure him. But the ghost had said her time was limited. She had said she could only come to him one more time. She had said…
//I am here, Admiral, but I do not think I can save your captain.//
She did not appear to him this time, but Lani’s voice reverberated through his mind, at first raising, and then dashing his hopes. Heedless of Morton and Kowalski, he began to speak aloud. “You promised he’d make it if I got him to Honolulu before six. We had an agreement, and I can’t keep my end of it unless you help him. Lani, please … for both of us ….”
//I want to save him, Admiral, but I cannot make him well. There is one chance, though I’m not sure if I can succeed.//
“Anything … will be better than death. What can you do for him, Lani?”
//I cannot reverse what has already occurred, Admiral, but I may be able to sustain Captain Crane as he is until you can obtain medical treatment for him.//
“Then do it!”
//I cannot make that determination, Admiral. And neither can you. Only Captain Crane can decide. I must have his permission first.//
“His permission? He’s unconscious, near death. How can you possibly ask him anything?
//I will do what I can for him, Admiral. Please hurry. Even if he agrees, I don’t know how long I can maintain him in this state.//
“Lani … how will I know that he’s agreed to your proposal? How will I be able to tell?”
//You will know. Hurry, Admiral! He must reach medical help soon!//
“FS-1 to Hickham Field, come in Hickham. This is FS-1 calling Hickham Field. Do you read me? Over.”
“This is Hickham, FS-1; we read you loud and clear. Over.”
Chip breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank God, you’re there! We’ve got a medical emergency with internal bleeding. Our ETA’s approximately 40 minutes. Can you help us? Over.”
“FS-1, the bulk of our Navy and Marine forces are off playing war somewhere near the Philippines, and they took most of the mobile active duty medical personnel with then, but I think Schofield’s got an Army med-evac helicopter on call. Let me check it out. Over.”
“Thank you, Hickham. Over.”
Morton felt the panic rise in his chest and clamped down on it. Losing his head would serve no purpose. Besides, there wasn’t time for emotionalism; he needed a clear head.
A glance over his shoulder revealed Kowalski, the only other person aboard he could count on for assistance. The seaman knelt beside Crane, tenderly covering him with the wool blanket.
And then there was the admiral, sitting morosely at the captain’s head. Nelson seemed to have withdrawn back into whatever delusion drove him to madness in the first place. Chip could see his lips moving, but he couldn’t hear the words. His eyes moved unwillingly to Lee, and he had to fight himself to keep from tearing his eyes away immediately. With Crane’s eyes closed and his skin a deep shade of blue-gray, Lee looked dead already. Morton scanned his friend’s chest for movement. After what seemed a very long moment, it rose and fell almost imperceptibly. Any hopes he might’ve had for Lee’s recovery disintegrated. They were still a half hour away from landing. Thirty minutes. It might as well have been 30 hours. Either way, the captain wasn’t going to make it.
“FS-1, this is Hickham Field. Over.”
The unexpected voice startled him. Grateful for the chance to look away, he replied immediately. “FS-1 here. Go ahead, Hickham. Over.”
“FS-1, what are your landing capabilities? Over.”
“We’re seaworthy, Hickham, but we can beach this thing if need be. Over.”
“Then that’s what you need to do, FS-1. I’ve got a med-evac UH-1 equipped with two corpsmen on its way to rendezvous with you. Are you ready to copy coordinates? Over.”
“Roger, Hickham. Fire away.” Chip wrote down the area. The landing site was a beach not far from the Naval Hospital. He was familiar with the area, open sand and surf with a few palm trees and tropical plants added for scenery. “Okay, Hickham. I have it. ETA’s now about 25 minutes. Over.”
“Roger, FS-1. B the way, we’ve received word from your mother ship that there might be some trouble on board your craft? Do you need further assistance? Over.”
Morton looked at the still unmoving Nelson. “No trouble, Hickham. Just make certain that chopper’s waiting for us when we get there. Out.”
“Roger again, FS-1. But just the same, my superiors are telling me to include two more personnel on that med-evac flight. Out here.”
Chip knew the two extras would be military police. Seaview had already been in contact with the authorities in Honolulu about Nelson. //Well, they can have him and good riddance//, he thought and began going over his checklist in preparation for the landing ahead.
That the end was near was becoming more and more obvious, and the realization shocked, but didn’t frighten, Lee Crane. The physical pain had long ago subsided. All sensations deserted his body and, in its place, an army of icy numbness spread upward starting at the tips of his toes. The chill bivouacked in the center of his chest, camping there for a moment before sending frozen offshoots circling outwards in an ever-expanding march toward his arms and neck. He was suddenly, overwhelmingly tired and, resigned to his fate, he accepted, even welcomed, the eternal sleep he knew was nearing. He made ready to surrender to death.
Words that had never been associated with any segment of his life would now be forever connected to his death. This fact disturbed him immensely and, somewhere deep inside, little pockets of resistance surged. Other words, forced upon him by a well-meaning English teacher so long ago became his final battle cry … ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ … Lee Crane was proud of the fact that, despite the odds, he had never quit anything he had ever attempted. Now, at the end of his life, he didn’t intend to start. He refused to go gently. He rallied for a moment and felt mildly gratified when a vague tingling sensation reawakened the feeling in his arms. But the satisfaction was temporary, only a tiny victory in a war that was already lost. He didn’t have the strength to beat back the ever-encroaching darkness.
A woman’s voice echoed faintly in his mind. Curiosity replaced his focus on impending death, and he waited for her to speak again.
//Captain, I am Lani. Do you remember me?//
He searched his rapidly fading memory and found almost forgotten impressions: a muggy South Pacific island, humid, damp, reeking of moss and decaying foliage… stone gods and tall pillars standing inside an ancient cemetery and a lovely native girl, seen, unbelievably, through someone else’s eyes, emerging from beneath a tombstone that read….
//Yes, Captain//, she interrupted, again speaking into his mind. //I am the reason for your pain.//
/I … can’t fight anymore … if you’re here to help Kruger claim my body, you won’t have long to wait …/
//We will not bring any more harm to you, Captain Crane. Listen carefully to what I have to say and, when I am finished, you must decide if you want to live or die.//
/I don’t understand …/
//Shhhhhh, conserve your strength. Your friend, Admiral Nelson, is risking everything to save your life, but I now know that even his sacrifice won’t be enough. You are correct in your assumption; you will not survive the voyage. Unfortunately, I cannot reverse what has happened to your body already, but I think I can keep you alive until your friends reach medical help. It is not yet your time to die, Captain. Let me help you stay alive.//
She was asking permission to possess his body. He understood that much.
/But, why… why would you try to save me after Kruger…/
//There will be time for explanations once we have joined, Captain Crane. Hurry, you must give your permission before I can assist you. If you delay much longer, it will be too late.//
He knew she spoke the truth. His insides were growing cold again, and reality was starting to take on a soft fuzziness.
/All right, he acquiesced…you have my permission…/
Unlike the savage jolt of penetration that occurred each time Kruger seized his unwilling body, Lani entered gently, and a sudden velvet softness enveloped him in a tender embrace. He floated in a sea of calm serenity and let the essence of a woman who had lived long, long ago hold him captive.
He felt oxygen rush back into his lungs, filling them to saturation, clearing his mind. Blood pumped steadily again through his veins. Voices whose messages had been suppressed by the roaring advance of death clarified.
“He’s breathing again, and I’ve got a pulse. It’s thready but seems to be holding.” The admiral’s voice, sounding uncharacteristically strained, but filled with relief, came to him in a muffled fog. He felt drugged, wonderfully lightheaded and floaty but very much aware of events occurring around him. He struggled to open his eyes.
//No, Captain//, resounded in his brain. //Lie still and be quiet! You mustn’t expend any energy. You will need it later when I have to leave you.//
/But my friends, they’re worried. I want to show them that I’m all right./
//They know. Now close your mind to everything around you. When you are well, Admiral Nelson will give you something that once belonged to me. I need you to deliver it to a special place. Do you understand?//
As though hypnotized, Crane repeated her instructions, /You want me to take it to a special place./
//Correct. When you are released from the hospital, you must leave Honolulu and go to New York City. From there you will continue on …//
Crane listened with his subconscious mind, storing the instructions. When Lani had finished, he indicated to her that he understood.
//Then you will comply?//
As he answered, the peace that had come with Lani grew to envelop his entire being. He felt tired and drowsy, but it was a positive tired, a sleepiness born of exertion and labor not illness and pain.
//Sleep now, Captain, for when you awaken, you will have to fight very, very hard to live. I will stay with you and keep you alive for as long as I can. There is in you a great love of life and the people around you. I know you won’t let it or them slip through your fingers easily. Resist death with all your might! And remember, our future destinies are entwined. If you do not win your battle for life, my love and I are doomed to spend eternity alone. Fight for your life, Captain Crane! And for our eternal future also.//
“Easy with him. Easy!” Morton barked the orders to the two corpsmen rushing with the stretcher to the waiting Army helicopter. Behind them, Kowalski and a handcuffed Admiral Nelson, flanked by two military policemen, scrambled to keep up. The whirling rotor blades of the UH-1 beat the tropical Hawaiian winds into a biting frenzy of sand, dirt and leaves, and Chip hunched protectively over the captain’s body as they loaded him on board.
The pilot glanced questioningly over his shoulder to his crew chief who shot back a thumbs-up gesture. Nodding, the Army pilot pulled pitch, and the aircraft rose effortlessly into the air.
Morton held tightly to his seat as the helicopter banked left. He hadn’t had time to buckle his seatbelt. He surveyed the other passengers. Nelson had been strapped into a shoulder harness by an attentive Kowalski who, likewise, was fastened securely into the adjoining seat. Both MPs dangled their legs out the still open doorways and hung on to the hand railings.
Crane lay unmoving on the stretcher, his unconscious body intersecting the passengers. Morton observed the corpsmen closely as they busied themselves positioning IVs and checking vitals. One of the men slipped a portable respirator mask over Lee’s nose and mouth, and Chip caught the unguarded look he threw to the other corpsman, a glance that said in an instant that all their work was for nothing. Almost imperceptibly, the other corpsman lowered his eyes and nodded agreement.
His heart sank, and the exec lifted his eyes to find Admiral Nelson staring at him from across the aircraft, the smile he had worn since Crane rallied back in the flying sub still pasted on his worn face.
//He’s insane//, Morton thought. //Totally, completely mad. //He mentally chastised himself again for ever believing the admiral’s stories. From the very beginning when Nelson, perspiring and straitjacketed in Sickbay, had convinced him that he had been forced by Kruger to shoot Crane and that the ghost of the U-boat commander had possessed the captain’s body, he should have known that it was all a heinous lie, a hallucination born of a deranged mind. But he had wanted to believe that Nelson wasn’t guilty of trying to kill Lee; he had wanted to believe that Kruger was the underlying cause of everything that had gone wrong; and he had desperately wanted to believe that Kruger, not Lee, had struck him before leaving Seaview in the flying sub. But now the reasons didn’t matter; his own gullible nature had probably cost Lee Crane his life and, for that, he would never forgive himself.
He felt the Huey helicopter touch down unexpectedly on the hospital roof, its skids bowed with the weight of the landing. Unprepared, Chip was thrown forward slightly, then rocked backward as the craft settled heavily onto the helipad.
When he recovered, he realized that Lee was already loaded onto a gurney and being wheeled away. He exited the aircraft just behind the second MP and watched somberly as the hospital’s automatic glass doors closed behind Lee and the corpsmen.
A pressure on his right shoulder made Chip turn his head. Two manacled hands softly squeezed him. Admiral Nelson flashed another reassuring smile up at him, and he felt his stomach lurch sickeningly.
“Don’t worry about him, Chip; he’s going to be fine. Lani will keep him alive until the doctors can find and repair the problem. He has a rough road ahead of him but, eventually, we’ll have Lee back aboard Seaview.”
Over the admiral’s head, Kowalski looked directly into Morton’s face. The sailor’s contempt and bitterness had long since dissipated, and Kowalski seemed to have only pity and concern for Nelson mirrored in his eyes. Morton found it difficult to be as forgiving.
Not knowing what else to say, Chip tried to return the admiral’s smile. “Yes, sir,” he said simply and, turning away, he began the short walk to the hospital entrance.
Nelson, Kowalski and the two MPs fell in beside him. As they did so, Morton’s eyes darted again to the admiral’s shackled wrists. Shame and depression swelled inside him; Harriman Nelson, the world-renowned scientist, peacekeeper, and engineer was totally, irreversibly insane. But he wasn’t a criminal. He didn’t deserve to be treated like one.
“Gentlemen,” he said to the military police as they entered the air-conditioned building, “thank you for all your help. You can return to Schofield now.”
The men exchanged glances that said they didn’t understand their dismissal, and Chip went on. “Since Seaview is a civilian vessel, owned and operated by Admiral Harriman Nelson,” he indicated the handcuffed man, “then it isn’t against the law for him to fly his own craft from the submarine to port.”
“But, sir, we received word from the Seaview that the admiral had kidnapped a patient and stolen the flying submarine.”
Morton stopped in the corridor and motioned for Kowalski and Nelson to continue on toward the emergency room. He locked eyes with the older of the two MPs. “Sergeant,” he emphasized the man’s rank, “Admiral Nelson has had an emotional breakdown. He will not be taken to jail or locked up in prison until he has had a thorough mental and physical examination by qualified professionals, all of which can be found in this building. Do I make myself perfectly clear?”
“Good. Now if you would be so good as to remove the handcuffs from Admiral Nelson’s wrists, you can return to your place of duty.”
“Yes, sir,” the shorter man, an Army corporal, snapped to attention and hurried forward to where Nelson stood waiting with Kowalski. He unlocked the admiral’s handcuffs, removed them, and returned to his partner and Chip. “Admiral Nelson is free, sir.”
Morton nodded his appreciation and dismissed the men again. They left, quietly conferring between themselves as they stepped into the elevator. Chip watched them go, unconsciously shaking his head. The military rumor mills were already churning out story after story of Seaview’s mad admiral. This would just provide fodder for more.
The exec sighed. He was powerless to do anything to stop the stories, powerless to help the admiral, powerless to aid Lee. He felt useless and despondent, but there would be plenty of time for self-recrimination … after Lee Crane’s funeral … after Admiral Nelson’s trial … after Chip Morton’s resignation.
They were looking at him – Nelson and Kowalski – watching him bathe in fathoms of self-pity. He shook himself, straightened his back and shoulders, and started for the emergency room.
When they arrived at the ER desk, a receptionist informed them that Lee had already been rushed into surgery on the third floor.
“Your friend was taken to OR #2. There’s a waiting room on that floor.” She seemed to assess their states of mind and body and added, “Snack bar’s down the hall and to the right on this floor. There’s fresh coffee. You all look like you could use some right now.”
Chip shot her a grateful smile. “Thanks. You’re probably right. Ski, do you think you could ….”
Kowalski nodded. “Three coffees, coming up. I’ll meet you upstairs, sir.”
The exec took charge of Admiral Nelson, and the two men rode the elevator in silence, emerging into an antiseptic hallway. Looking left, Morton saw two double doors at the end of the aisle. SURGERY was printed in large black letters above the entrance. Instinctively, he headed in their direction and, just as he reached them, another room to his right indicated WAITING ROOM. He opened the door, paused for Nelson to enter, then closed it behind him.
The vacant room appeared to have been furnished with castoffs from a secondhand store. A garish orange and brown paisley print sofa was pushed flush against the left wall. An equally bright, overstuffed chair sat in the corner. Artificial plants that should have been ashamed of themselves were placed strategically around the room, and the entire place smelled of stale cigarette smoke.
Nelson walked immediately to the only window. It was a large single-paned glass that currently displayed a picture-postcard view of the tropical setting sun.
Morton watched the scene himself for a moment then dropped his weary body into the flat cushions of the musty smelling sofa. He rubbed his eyes tiredly, silently wishing for Kowalski’s quick return with the coffee.
“You think I’ve lost my mind, don’t you, Chip?” Nelson’s voice seemed too loud in the small, sparsely furnished room, but the admiral had almost whispered the words.
Chip looked at the man, standing alone against a backdrop of paradise. Suddenly, his ever-present smile was gone, his posture straighter, but the admiral hadn’t even turned around to look his exec in the eyes when he spoke.
“No, Admiral, I don’t think that,” he lied. “I do believe you’ve got some emotional problems. As soon as Lee’s … out of danger, we’ll get you admitted for a few tests.”
Nelson straightened his shoulders but kept his back to Morton. “I know you don’t believe Lee’s going to live, Chip. But he will! And as soon as he wakes up, he’ll confirm everything I’ve told you.”
“Whatever you say, sir,” Chip said flatly. He was too tired to argue, and he knew if Nelson continued along this line of conversation, the anger and resentment he had barely managed to hold in check for the past few hours would surface. He wished desperately again for Kowalski to reappear.
But Nelson wasn’t finished. He persisted, and this time his voice was loud and forceful, the ‘command’ tone Chip had heard him use at least a hundred times aboard Seaview.
“Don’t placate me, Chip! There’s not a damned thing wrong with my mind. You were right about one thing though, I’ve been wallowing in guilt and self-pity for far too long. I know now I’m not responsible for what happened to Lee. You made me see that truth yesterday in my cabin, even if you don’t believe it anymore today. And right now, Lee knows the truth too.”
“Lee Crane is lying on an operating table next door with his guts shot to hell, Admiral, and I was in the room when you pulled the trigger!” Chip had reached the breaking point. He heard himself spewing forth the terrible words, felt himself rise from the disgusting couch, saw himself move across the room to within inches of the admiral’s face. His hands grabbed Nelson’s jacket and he shook the man roughly. “Lee Crane doesn’t know your ‘truth,’ Admiral, and he never will1 He’s going to die … today … and if you’d just left him with Jamie, if you hadn’t been so goddamned gung-ho to take all the credit and save him yourself, he might’ve survived this one!”
“Mr. Morton, stop it, sir!”
All of a sudden, Kowalski was there, yanking Morton’s fists free of Nelson’s lapels, shoving both men roughly apart and moving between them. Chip stood for a moment, trembling with unused adrenalin, then turned away and went back to the couch. The coffee Kowalski had brought sat on a tray on the sofa table. He reached out and took a cup. His hands were still shaking, but he brought the cup to his lips and sipped the lukewarm liquid greedily.
Across the room, Kowalski checked Nelson for injuries and, when he was satisfied that the admiral was unharmed, he escorted his superior across the room to the overstuffed chair. He retrieved another cup of coffee and brought it back to Nelson.
“I’m all right, Kowalski. Mr. Morton didn’t mean anything, he’s overly tired and under a lot of stress right now. We’ll just forget this ever happened, okay?”
Kowalski listened to the admiral’s words and, at the mention of Morton’s name, sent Chip a look that seemed to say, ‘how could you?’.
Unrepentant, Morton looked away and, without tasting it, finished off his drink. He checked his wristwatch. It was almost six o’clock – Nelson’s ‘witching hour.’ Replacing the now empty cup on the tray, Chip lay back on the ancient sofa and curled his body into a fetal position. He suffered in silence for another half hour and then, exhausted, he slept.
Lani left as she had come, with a soft, easing departure that neither jostled nor disturbed his mind or body. A vague sadness hovered near him for a moment, sorrow at the loss of his benefactor. And then Lee Crane opened his eyes to tangible reality.
Consciousness rolled back on a tidal wave of pain that crested and crashed into his chest. His hearing, the first of his senses to return, caught the gurgling gasp of his initial, unaided attempt to breathe and the flurry of activity that followed.
“What’s happening to him, doctor?” Chip Morton’s voice, laden with concern, filtered through the haze of confusion around him.
Another voice, one he didn’t recognize, answered. “Right now, he’s having a little trouble breathing, Mr. Morton, but we’re getting him on a ventilator. That’ll give his body a chance to rest and let it concentrate on healing the injuries but, to be frank with you, I’m still at a loss to understand how he managed to survive the trip with a lacerated liver. When he arrived in our ER he was, to all intents and purposes, dead. He had no recorded pulse, barely detectable blood pressure, intermittent and involuntary respirations, and only a minimum percentage of brain activity, in fact, the exact amount we have to have in order to justify a revival attempt. You know, in over 21 years of medical practice, this is the first genuine miracle I’ve ever seen.”
“No miracle, doctor. He had the help of a very dear friend.”
The admiral sounded close by and, with the machine inflating his lungs with oxygen via a large tube he could barely discern protruding from his mouth, the captain opened his eyes to find Nelson’s anxious face peering down at him.
Crane saw the admiral’s eyes soften as he noticed the captain was awake. “Doctor … Captain Crane’s eyes are open.” After he’d made the announcement, the admiral disappeared from his eyesight, and two new faces simultaneously moved into his vacated place. The first man, a balding middle-aged stranger, shone a light into his left eye, then his right, temporarily blinding him and making him wince involuntarily. The second man, Chip Morton, his unshaven face and unkempt hair evidence of a long and anxious wait, appeared to be in shock. “Lee? Are you really in there?”
With no other method of communication, Crane winked up at him. The tube in his throat was a tolerable discomfort, but he couldn’t speak. It was frustrating, for right now he wanted to shout to the world that he was alive and going to stay that way.
“Can you hear me? If you can, blink again.”
Crane fluttered his eyelids again, and he saw Chip’s face light up like a Christmas tree. He tried to smile himself, but it was too uncomfortable.
“He heard me! Doc, he heard me!”
The admiral’s pleased face was suddenly back in his view, opposite Chip’s. The tops of their heads seemed to meld together over him in a rainbow arch of red and gold. “Lani’s gone now, isn’t she, Lee?”
From Crane’s vantage point, Morton’s face went suddenly linen white, and he saw Chip throw the admiral a look of undisguised animosity.
Confused, Crane let his eyes close once more in answer to the question, but this time he also nodded his head in emphasis.
“I don’t … believe it. It’s not possible.” Chip’s voice filtered to him again; the exec sounded overwhelmed.
“Lee, I know you must be tired and a bit confused, but would you please tell Chip who saved your life.”
The captain furrowed his brow, puzzled at the admiral’s request. Nelson knew he couldn’t speak aloud.
“Lee, can you blink once if you mean yes, twice if you mean no to answer a question for me? You don’t have to nod or shake your head; I know how uncomfortable it must be for you. Do you understand?”
Hazel eyes glanced first from the admiral, then to the exec, and then he closed them for a definite yes answer.
“Good! Lee, Chip doesn’t believe my story about Lani. I can’t say that I blame him, but could you tell him the truth, please? Did the ghost of Lani come to you in the flying sub and keep you alive until you reached the hospital?
An involuntary smile of remembrance tried to pull at his lips, but he squelched it before it became painful. He stared up into the oh-so-different faces of his two best friends and blinked once.
When he opened his eyes again, Morton’s face was no longer in view, and the admiral was staring at something in another part of the room. Then Nelson suddenly stepped out of Crane’s range, leaving only the freshly painted ceiling in his line of sight.
From somewhere nearby, a strange noise filtered to his ears. He struggled with the sound, trying to identify it. It was unusual in that it sounded like muffled coughing or weeping, he couldn’t be sure which, but the voice seemed familiar.
There was a soggy apology, and someone else, someone who sounded like Nelson, comforted the person, telling him that he understood and didn’t blame him. It was perplexing, and Crane felt mildly disturbed by it.
Then the balding doctor was there, once more peering down at him with his round, owlish eyes.
“Hello, Captain. I’m Doctor Ortiz. It’s nice to finally meet you. I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to make your friends clear out of here. You need a lot of rest right now. Relax. I’m going to give you something to help you sleep for a while.”
Before he could absorb all the man’s words, Crane felt the biting sting of a needle in his thigh. Startled, he shot the doctor a shocked look of betrayal. “Now, don’t you worry about a thing, Captain, your friends can come back to visit tomorrow. Everything’s going to be just fine, and we’ll have plenty of time to get much better acquainted in the morning when you wake up.”
Crane scowled up at him, convinced that he never wanted to see the man again. The doctor’s face continued to grin obscenely down at him until the edges of the scene went fuzzy, and he couldn’t seem to keep his eyes open anymore.
Reluctantly, he let them close, but he wasn’t yet ready to go back into the darkness.
Struggling furiously to stay awake, he forced his eyelids up one more time. As expected, a blurry Chip stood above him. He was joined almost immediately by an equally hazy admiral. Side by side, both men grinned down at him. Reassured, he felt himself relax, and his friends’ smiling faces faded slowly away…
Comfort and relaxation were paramount when, three weeks later, a still pale Lee Crane boarded the 747 for Frankfurt. Crane chose the closest window seat and eased his sore body and long legs stiffly into it. Although he wouldn’t admit it to himself or to the others, the long flight from Honolulu to New York the previous day had been rough on him. For the rest of the trip, Admiral Nelson had subsequently forked over a small fortune to reserve the plane’s entire first class section.
Morton, ever solicitous, stowed their carry-ons and retrieved a pillow and flannel blanket for the captain. Lee cast a distasteful glance at the bedding, but Chip was adamant. Stray air conditioning drafts could be unsettling at 36,000 feet, especially to those patients who had been ambulatory for only five days before escaping from the hospital.
Crane considered arguing, but a quick peek at Nelson’s face quashed the effort.
Besides, he was too tired to fight it, so he allowed himself to be tucked in. He was fast asleep before the plane leveled off, and seven hours later when it touched down at Rhein Main, he had to be awakened to deplane.
Rail travel had been Nelson’s choice for the final segment of their journey. Morton, not an ardent world traveler, had fretted about possible delays, but he was pleasantly surprised to find that the 8:05 a.m. eastbound train from Frankfurt to Nuremberg actually left at 8:05 a.m. Nelson assured him that their arrival time would be just as prompt, and the exec set off for the diner car to retrieve a snack.
Rested, but still uncharacteristically reserved, Lee gazed silently out the window of their private berth. Alone with his thoughts he barely noticed the fleeting glimpses of once powerful castles, their ruins now nestled amidst the almost naked grape-vined bluffs of the Rhineland. They were in the Federal Republic of Germany – a country beaten and divided – a complex land of enigmatic people whose history ran the gamut from bold Emperor Charlemagne to crazy Ludwig who spent money and built castles unceasingly until he drowned mysteriously one night; from Franz Gruber, composer of “Silent Night,” to Martin Luther, the church reformer. This was the birthplace of the brothers Grimm, Kaiser Wilhelm, Otto von Bismarck, Johann Gutenberg, and … Gerhard Kruger.
The unexpected thought of Kruger brought about an involuntary shiver, and his forehead suddenly beaded with cold drops of perspiration. Exasperated with himself for this perceived weakness, he reached deliberately for his handkerchief and dabbed furiously at the moisture on his face.
“Lee? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” His tone was unintentionally hateful, and Crane caught a glimpse of Nelson’s hurt expression before the older man masked it. Immediately contrite, Lee replaced his handkerchief and straightened carefully in the seat. “I’m sorry, Admiral. I didn’t mean to sound so …”
“No, I’m not angry,” he heard himself lie and dropped his eyes to his lap. “I was just thinking of … of him.”
“Don’t deny your anger, Lee. Remember, I was there when the doctors told you it was healthier to feel the hatred and let the anger out when it threatened to surface. But they also warned you against dwelling too long on what happened. You really should try not to think of ‘him’ anymore. He’s long gone.”
Crane shook his head and held his hands out. “That’s where you’re wrong, Admiral. He’s all around. Just thinking of his name … damn, I still have difficulty even trying to say it. Kruger! Every time I think of … Captain Kruger … it all comes right back. I feel like some little kid who’s seen a horror movie too many times. I can’t erase the pictures from my mind.”
“You’ll be able to – in time. And Chip and I will be there every step of the way. Besides, there’s only one more thing you have to do, and it’ll all be over. Forever.”
“And that’s another thing, Admiral. I still don’t know what it is I’m supposed to do.”
“You knew where you needed to be, and here we are.”
Lee frowned. “I don’t know how I knew that either.” He sighed and ran slender fingers through what were now black ringlets on his head. His eyebrows rose as his gaze shot upward. “But I do know one thing for certain. Tomorrow, first thing, I’m getting a haircut.”
Nelson smiled and nodded agreement, but his reply was cut off by the return of Morton who breezed into the berth, arms full with German breads and cheeses.
Behind him, a garcon juggled two large steins of foamy lager beer in one hand and lukewarm spaetze, a combination orange/cola soda, in the other. The steward handed one beer to Nelson and started toward Crane with the other, but Chip jumped between them.
“Nein! Das bier ist nicht fur meine freund. Das ist meine bier!” Morton smiled a Stan Laurel grin, quite pleased with himself at his ‘instant grasp’ of the German tongue.
“Chip! I think I can handle a beer,” Lee protested.
“Not when you’re still taking the pain medication Jamieson prescribed! Alcohol and medicine don’t mix, Lee.”
Crane opened his mouth to admit that he hadn’t had a pain pill in over twenty-four hours, but the look on Morton’s face told him that the beer wouldn’t be worth the lecture he’d have to endure. Resigned to his fate, he held out his hand for the bottle of spaetze.
It was past noon when the train pulled into a picturesque little Bavarian village, and the conductor announced a ten-minute layover. Morton peered out the large window, but the only view was of the railway station and several passengers waiting to board.
“I wouldn’t leave the train if I were you, Chip,” Nelson said with a faint grin on his lips.
Morton returned the smile. “I know, I know! Ten minutes means ten minutes. I’ll wait until we get to Nuremberg.”
“No, we have to get off here!” Crane suddenly sat bolt upright, his entire demeanor one of great urgency. He stood and gathered his belongings purposefully. Chip seemed frozen in place, while Nelson watched Crane expectantly.
“Are you sure?” finally came from the admiral’s mouth. Crane was already out the berth door and heading down the corridor to exit the train. “I’m positive,” he threw back over his shoulder. “This is where I have to be.”
Nelson watched him disappear from view and quickly began to gather his gear. He nudged Morton, who was still trying to comprehend that they were disembarking in this out-of-the-way place, and the exec shifted into overdrive. They both hurried after Crane and, when the train pulled away, the three men were left standing on the railroad tracks watching as it disappeared around the bend.
“Well, now what, Lee?” Morton asked expectantly.
Crane appeared to be dazed, but he shook himself. “I … I don’t really know, Chip. I just know I need to be in this town.” He swayed a bit, and both men reached for him, but he waved their hands away irritably.
“Well, Lee, if you’re sure we need to be here in… what’s the name of this town…” The admiral glanced up at the railway sign, “… Bad Kissingen…if we need to be in Bad Kissingen, then we’ll have to find a hotel. Think you can walk a bit?”
“I can make it, Admiral,” the captain said, trying to keep the defensive edge out of his voice. He didn’t quite make it.
Admiral Nelson chose to ignore his moodiness. “All right then, let’s go.”
Hotel Suden was a large, rose-colored building standing six stories high at the far end of the town’s marktplatz. Nelson and Morton reached the double-doored entrance first; both glanced back to see Crane shuffling sluggishly toward them. Although both men had taken possession of Lee’s luggage, the walk was still long and tiring for him. The captain took the porch stairs slowly, one at a time, flashing both men a weary smile as he passed them on his way to the lobby.
“And the turtle wins again. Cunning and intelligence always win out over brute strength,” Crane said teasingly as he brushed back a stray lock of hair that now clung determinedly to his sweat-beaded forehead.
Both the admiral and the exec exchanged grins. Lee’s sense of humor was returning. It was a good sign. They gathered their gear quickly and followed him into the hotel.
Because late September was well past the prime tourist season, Nelson’s rusty German found several rooms available, including the penthouse. He signed immediately for the suite, and they rode the ancient elevator to the top floor of the building.
Chip was pleasantly surprised to find that the penthouse consisted of a luxurious main room surrounded by three side-by-side bedrooms. Off to the far right was an ornate dining room that would be useless to the current occupants. Dotted sporadically throughout the suite were three bathrooms, or rather one room with a lavatory and toilet, one room with a lavatory and oversized bathtub, and a final room that looked like an ancient Roman bath set used in every cheap Italian movie he’d ever seen. The large rectangular spa was set deep into Grecian tiles that were laid out in a mosaic of circles and geometric figures.
Someone had gone to great expense to be gaudy.
Too tired to explore, Crane collapsed immediately into the soft, centrally-located cream-colored sofa. He was still breathing hard with exertion and seemed totally exhausted.
Wary of stepping on his recovering friend’s toes again, Nelson made himself do the normal things first, checking out their surroundings, opening the large windows and balcony doors to let fresh air in, and stowing his luggage in the far right bedroom. Returning to the parlor, he dropped into the Queen Ann chair.
“Lee,” he began, “this jet lag’s getting to both Chip and me. I think we’re going to lie down for a couple of hours.”
Crane looked across the room at the admiral, then grinned crookedly. “Sounds like one of your better ideas, Admiral.” He indicated the bedrooms. “Which one is mine?”
“Take your pick of the two on the left. I’ve got the one on the right.”
As Crane struggled to his feet, Nelson resisted the urge to help him. Lee’s face was turned away from his, and the admiral shot Morton a ‘don’t you dare’ look across the room that froze the exec in his tracks. Both men watched their friend plod slowly and resolutely to the first bedroom. Once inside, he turned, flashed them a triumphant smile, and closed the door.
“That was clever, sir,” Morton said quietly.
“He seems to do better if we don’t try to help. I’ve noticed his spirits tend to brighten if he’s allowed to fend for himself. He’ll be weak for some time yet, but he’s doing okay, Chip.”
“I know.” Morton kept his voice low even though the European doors were thick and heavy. “It’s just hard not to try and help him. I keep remembering what he looked like in the flying sub. I really thought he was dying.”
The mood of the room suddenly darkened considerably, and Morton drew in a deep breath. “Well,” he said in a cheerier toned voice, “when’s the next time you’re supposed to check in with Jamie?”
Nelson glanced at his watch to find the correct date; he’d lost track of the hour several time zones back. “It’s the twenty-second of September. I promised to keep him abreast of Lee’s progress every other day, so I guess I need to call him this evening. That’ll make it late morning on the west coast.”
“How do you think Jamie’s really taking it?”
“You know, the guilt….”
Nelson snorted impatiently. “It wasn’t his fault, Chip. You know that. Besides, I think Doctor Ortiz convinced him that the liver damage was practically undetectable. Will explained to me that there was a tear on the back side of Lee’s liver but the bleeding was inside the organ. It had clotted and formed some kind of plug preventing any leakage. Will thinks that it may have been dislodged when Lee fell in Sickbay.”
“So Lee was bleeding inside even before we took off in the flying sub.”
“That’s what the doctor thinks. And Dr. Ortiz told Will that even if Lee had been hospitalized under constant monitoring, it still would’ve happened. It would’ve just been taken care of sooner, and Lee’s condition wouldn’t have deteriorated quite so badly.”
Chip nodded. “I guess we’ve all had our guilt crosses to bear, huh?”
“Fortunately, we’ve all survived them.” Nelson sucked in a deep breath and exhaled it in a huge sigh. “Well, enough of the doom and gloom, Chip. Seaview is getting a good going over and a new coat of paint in Santa Barbara; our crew is finally getting their long-promised shore leave; our doctor will be leaving for a seminar at Walter Reed sometime tomorrow, and you know for him that’s the vacation of a lifetime; and our captain is recovering nicely. And, as for our admiral, he’s going to go take a short nap, and then I think he’ll find the best little gasthaus in town, order the biggest schnitzel they’ve got and swig it down with a bottle of very fine cognac. Care to join me?”
“It’s a date,” Chip smiled and then his face went somber once more. “What about Lee? When will he know what it is he’s supposed to do?”
“The same way he’s known everything else, I guess. He seems to be reacting to something akin to post-hypnotic suggestion. We’ll just keep an eye on him, and when the time comes, we’ll be there for support,” the admiral said, turning and heading toward his bedroom. As an afterthought, he turned back toward his exec. “It wouldn’t hurt you to get some rest too, Chip.”
The blond head bobbed in the affirmative. “I will. I’m going to stay up for a little while, sir … unpack … look around ….”
“…be there in case Lee needs you?” Nelson finished.
Caught, Morton grinned sheepishly. “I’ll get some rest before dinner, sir. I promise.”
“See that you do, Mr. Morton,” Nelson said in mock command tones and disappeared behind his bedroom door.
“Yes, sir.” Morton replied in kind. He waited for a moment, expecting one of the bedroom doors to open, but both remained steadfastly closed.
Bored, Chip passed the time emptying his suitcases and storing his clothing and toiletries in the antique chifferobe in the corner of his room. He kept a watchful eye and alert ear for any sign or sound from Crane’s room, but after an hour had passed with no indication of movement, his own body clock caught up with him. He entered his own bedroom, snuggled cozily into the warmth of the huge down comforter, and let his tired body surrender to sleep.
Crane awoke with a start. Disoriented and covered with a cold sweat, he sat up immediately, gazing around the quiet, lushly furnished room in an attempt to orient himself to his unfamiliar surroundings. It took several moments for him to conclude where he was and, satisfied and relieved that he remembered, he relaxed back into the body-hugging down mattress. He didn’t know why he had wakened, but, resting in the cocoon-like comforter, he felt pleasantly refreshed. The ever present ache in his side had eased to only an occasional twinge, and the lightheaded feeling he’d experienced before his nap seemed to have disappeared altogether.
He let himself listen beyond the door for a moment, but only silence came from the main room. On his right, someone had opened the balcony door. It stood wide open, letting the fresh, late afternoon breezes filter in, making his room the perfect climate for restful sleep.
The common sounds of life outside his four walls reached up from the streets below and broke the silence of the room. Birds twittered cheerfully, and school children played noisy games as they headed home for the day. Relaxed and comfortable for the first time in weeks, Crane felt his eyelids growing heavy again, and he turned carefully on his side and let them shut.
He’d only lain there for a few seconds when a familiar overwhelming urge began to grow in the back of his mind. By now, he was acquainted enough with the sensation not to fight it, instead letting it grow to fruition. Experience had shown that it was easier to just let it happen and go with it. This time the command pulled him from the cozy bed to his unpacked luggage.
Wiping his face with a handkerchief, he zipped open the flight bag and grasped the tiny wooden box Nelson had given him the day he was discharged from the hospital. Holding it in the palm of his hand, he moved to the balcony and stepped out. The coolness of the late autumn afternoon caressed his face and, awaiting further instructions, he leaned over the cement beam to view the countryside below.
His bedroom faced away from the town, toward a large unpopulated field now overgrown with golden alfalfa grass. Beyond the meadow lay groves of large oak and maple trees, and dotting the barren hills in between were raspberry and hazelnut shrubs, long ago picked clean of their fruit by the local wildlife.
Lee felt drawn to the grove on top of the farthest hill, a yellow square of ground surrounded by splotches of varying shades of red, green, and brown. Suddenly, he felt a compulsion to return to his room, then to the main room.
Glancing around the empty parlor casually, he noted that Chip and the admiral were absent and concluded that they were still asleep in their separate rooms.
They would be worried about him when they awoke, but there was nothing he could do about it. There wasn’t even time to leave a note. Without a backward glance, he exited the penthouse suite. He rode the elevator to the lobby, nodding politely to the family of three that waited on the first floor to ascend, then he continued out the door, circling around the hotel, and beginning the long, laborious trek toward the edge of the farthest hill.
He had walked for at least thirty minutes when he found he could make out the remnants of an ancient iron fence on the hill above him. The few rusty spikes visible rose up out of tangled weeds and briar patches. As he drew closer, a feeling of foreboding welled inside of him. He knew that his actions, whatever they would be, would close the door on this part of his life forever. It was the end for everyone involved, but he wasn’t yet ready to confront it. He knew he wasn’t prepared to face whatever it was he had to do.
Panting with exhaustion, he tried to swallow, but his mouth was too dry. Fatigue overtook him halfway up the hill, and he allowed himself to plop down to rest in the fresh-smelling knee-high grass. As the sun dipped out of sight below the tallest treetops, the air around him suddenly grew noticeably cooler. To the south, storm clouds brewed ominously, and he knew the wind was blowing rain in his direction. Shivering, he wondered to himself how he could have neglected to bring a sweater or jacket. Clothed only in a thin oxford shirt and black Levis, he had, in fact, neglected even to tuck in his shirttails after his nap.
Sighing, he glanced reluctantly back up at the hilltop, focusing his sights on a single jutting spire. That was where she wanted him to go. That was where he would repay her for saving his life … twice. And that was where he would finally gain his freedom … from Lani … from Kruger … from himself…..
Resolved, he heaved his tired body into a standing position and headed up the hill again.
By the time he reached the top, sweat poured profusely from his face, and, in spite of the cooler temperatures, the back of his shirt was soaked through with perspiration. Knees bent, he hunched over gasping for breath, keeping himself upright only by balancing his hands on his knees. It took several moments for him to recover enough to stand and inspect his surroundings.
Beyond the hillside and far into the second valley below lay an immense graveyard. Ancient and decaying, with only an occasional tombstone peeking out from the overgrowth of weeds and shrubs, it looked as though it had been neglected for years.
Something nudged him forward and, for the first time, he balked at the command, but the invisible force was stronger than his will. He was pushed to take one step, then another and another until, at last, he meekly followed the unseen guidance. Finally, he stopped and found himself standing at the foot of a grave that had apparently gone undisturbed and unvisited for many years.
His gaze began at his own feet and moved forward and upward, following the telltale mound of weed-covered earth to the base of the almost hidden, granite stone.
“Beliebter Bruder” was almost obliterated by black grime and mold. “Beloved brother,” he translated aloud. His eyes moved upward again, continuing to read and absorb the information. “1873 – 1918.” Whoever was buried in this grave had been 45 or 46 years of age.
Old by some standards, young by others.
Above these dates were several unintelligible letters, but the single, large word above them all gave him the answer to everything.
He whispered the word and, as he did so, his blood ran cold. At the same time, the icy wind finished covering the early evening sky with dark storm clouds. He shivered again and not just from the weather. Glancing down at the tiny box he still held clasped in his palm, he looked from it to the tombstone marking Gerhard Kruger’s grave and, slowly, he began to shake his head.
“No … no, I can’t do it! I won’t ….”
He let the box fall from his suddenly limp fingers as emotions he’d held in check for more than a month suddenly would not be locked away anymore.
“Goddamn you to hell, Kruger!” he said venomously to the tombstone. His teeth clenched in anger, and his nostrils flared as the raging fury he’d restrained for so long overflowed inside him.
Crane reached the tombstone in two swift strides of his long legs and began to kick it repeatedly until it fell backwards with a muffled ‘whoompf’. It broke into several large pieces. Satisfied, he bent down, hefted the largest piece and, with all the strength he could command, threw it spitefully down the hill. He watched it fall only to be swallowed up by the tall grass around it. He did the same with several other pieces until his side flared into agony.
Exhausted he fell suddenly to his knees, but his anger still boiled within, and he began to pull determinedly at the weeds covering the grave. Exposing black soil, he started to dig, slowly at first then faster and faster. He didn’t even notice the rain droplets that began to fall in quick succession from the gray skies. They stung his cheeks and face, soaking his dark, curly hair and running down into his eyes, but he was oblivious to everything around him. Singlemindedly, he dug and dug and dug furiously with his hands and fingers until they were cut and bleeding from buried briars and stones, but still he continued on, following a blind purpose that drove him to tear open the grave.
All the while, he screamed viciously at the corpse beneath him.
“You son of a bitch … I hate you … I hate you … I hate you,” he screamed over and over while still pulling handfuls of what had now become mud from the top of the grave and strewing them everywhere.
Suddenly, he pulled up as the realization that trying to unearth Kruger’s remains with his bare hands was hopeless struck him wholehandedly. The conclusion only enraged him further. His bleeding hands closed into fists, and he began to beat the ground, pounding savagely over and over again until finally he began to tire. He brought his fists down again and again, slower each time, until as last he lay spent and sobbing, crumpled in a heap over the dirt and sludge.
“Lee?” A hand touched his back tentatively. Startled and a little frightened by the unexpected contact and soft inquiring voice, he jerked his head up from its cradled position to find Admiral Nelson, his dark red hair plastered stickily to the top of his forehead, bending down beside him. The admiral’s face was a mask of concern. Behind the admiral stood Chip Morton, equally soaked to the skin, equally disturbed by what he saw.
Miserable and ashamed at his uncharacteristic display, Lee turned away from his two friends. “I can’t do what she wants, Admiral. I can’t …” His voice broke, and he swallowed the sobs that threatened to erupt again. Turning back, he stared directly into Nelson’s eyes, searching for an answer, a command, anything to take the decision off his own shoulders.
Nelson obliged him. “Then don’t do it,” he said. The admiral’s voice was strong, an oasis of solid calm in the midst of an emotional tempest. “I’ve known all along what it was she wanted you to do, and I was fairly certain that she would leave the final decision on the matter strictly up to you.”
“But why? Why didn’t she just compel me to bury the box with Kruger and let me leave in peace?”
“Maybe it’s because she wanted it to be your own decision, Lee,” Nelson said, standing and brushing his wet hair from his face.
Morton had noticed the tiny box lying in the mud where Crane had dropped it. He retrieved it and, perplexed, held it out in his hand for Nelson to see. “Is this the box he’s supposed to bury with Kruger?”
Nelson nodded. “Lani,” he said with a conviction, “or whatever it is that made Lani who she was.”
“You mean, this box holds her remains?”
“Or her soul or her essence or whatever name you want to give it, Chip. Lani told me that after she stopped Kruger from stealing Lee’s body and we destroyed Molio, it put an end to his dream of being together with her for eternity. For some reason, they’re both on the other side, but they’re still separated. When Lani came to me in my cabin to warn me that Lee would die if I didn’t get him to Honolulu, she asked me for a favor. She wanted me to give the box holding her remains to Lee. She said he would know what to do with it.”
Chip moved forward deliberately. “Well, hell, if all it takes to end this is a simple burial, then I’ll be happy to …”
“No!” Crane’s voice stopped him in his tracks. “Thank you, Chip, but you can’t be the one. She saved my life, and I made a promise to her. I have to be the one to do it.” He reached out his hand, and Chip relinquished the tiny chest.
“Lee, you know you don’t have to do this,” Nelson said.
Still huddled on his knees, Crane sighed and wiped the remnants of tears from his grime-streaked face.
The face he turned to stare into Nelson’s seemed different to the admiral somehow, calmer, more settled. “I know I don’t! I’m not worried about compromising my integrity, Admiral. I made a deal with someone, and she kept her part of the bargain.”
“And what about Kruger?” Chip asked tentatively, watching Lee closely for any reaction.
“I hope he burns in hell for all eternity. I’m not doing this for him, Chip. If I could hurt the man without hurting her, I would, but I won’t renege on my promise to Lani to spite him.”
He had come to the decision on his own and, relieved, he took the tiny vessel that contained Lani’s spirit and held it out over the gravesite.
“Good-bye, Lani,” he whispered, gently placing the chest into the hole he’d already dug and tenderly covering it with handfuls of wet earth. Once he had completely buried the box, Nelson and Morton knelt beside him and helped him finish the task. When they were done, Crane felt the eyes of his friends on him.
“I’m … I’m all right, Admiral … Chip,” he said in a hushed voice.
He didn’t look all right. His clothing, hands and face were caked with mud and dirt and tracks of tears ran down his grimy cheeks. He was soaked to the skin, rumpled and bedraggled, but there was a noticeable change in the squareness of his shoulders, and the haunted look that had been an ever-present shadow in his eyes was no longer there.
He struggled to stand, allowing the assistance, even leaning on Chip after he had successfully made it to his feet. He looked at both his friends and smiled. It was a genuine ‘drop dead’ Lee Crane special, and both Morton and Nelson exchanged looks of joy.
“It’s all over,” Lee said simply and turned to walk away. Chip went with him, still holding tightly to his friend, but he suddenly realized that Crane no longer needed his help. He let go, and Lee continued walking away. The captain didn’t look back.
Nelson watched his friend depart, felt Chip’s look of expectation settle on him. “Go ahead Chip. I’ll be along in a moment.”
Morton swiveled on his heel and walked briskly away, striving to catch up with Crane.
Nelson turned back to the grave and walked around it, examining it for reasons even he didn’t know. At the head of the site, he stubbed his toe on a chunk of granite. Reaching down, he picked it up and smiled knowingly and, without another thought, planted the stone at the top of the grave.
They were together now, Lani and Kruger; he could almost feel the palpable peace and serenity in the air around him. Nodding to himself in satisfaction, he stepped back and surveyed his handiwork. The homemade tombstone now read simply “BELIEBTER.”
“Beloved,” he said and thought about the appropriateness of the single word.
“Good-bye, Lani, and thank you.. for my friend’s life.” Smiling to himself, Nelson took one last look at the grave site, then he turned away and hurried to join his friends.