Who’ll Stop the Rain (by Theresa)

Synopsis:   The Seaview is under order to escort Dr. Jonathan Matthews on his latest ‘classified’ research project.

Category:  Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea
Genre:  Sci-Fi
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  14,795


 

The soft thrum-thrum of the ship and the accompanying bleeps and whines of medical machinery played their familiar, monotonous tunes in Sickbay. On his desk, the chronometer noisily clicked off another minute, and Will Jamieson sighed, dropped his pencil and pushed his chair away. His shift had been officially over for more than three hours, and he was dead tired. He yawned loudly, stretching his arms high above his head, winced as he heard the dull crackling of bones and joints realigning themselves.

“You’re getting old, Will,” he said aloud.

“Aren’t we all!” came unexpectedly from behind him, and he swiveled around, found himself staring into the amused eyes of Lee Crane.

“Yeah, but on some of us it looks good. Come on in, Captain. Sit down.” He automatically reached for the coffeepot, set two Styrofoam cups on the desk and filled them, all the while scanning the younger man.

Still pale . . . that’s to be expected . . . some pain . . . he’s trying to hide it from me . . . movement’s stiff . . . but he’s lucky to be here at all . . .

“What are you doing out of bed again? I thought we had an agreement – I let you up once a day for an hour, and you stay put for the other twenty-three.”

A sheepish grin, a slight shrug of the broad shoulders were the silent replies. Lee Crane was a small boy with his hand caught in the proverbial cookie jar, and Jamieson felt a sudden rush of paternal affection course through him.

“How’re you feeling, Captain?”

“Fine.”

The answer was too quick, the smile too bright, making the lie all the more obvious. Something was troubling him, something that went much deeper than mere physical discomfort. Concerned, Jamie leaned closer. “Something wrong, Lee?”

Crane sighed, absently rubbed at his forehead with the palms of his hands. Jamieson noticed they were trembling.

“It’s that transparent, huh?”

“Very.”

“ . . . I don’t know how to explain it, Doc. It’s a feeling I have . . .”

“About what?”

“Admiral Nelson.”

“The Admiral? What about him?”

“You mean you haven’t noticed the difference?”

“Not really, but then I’ve been pretty busy with a certain patient of mine who’s constantly reneging on an agreement he made with his friendly…” Jamieson stopped abruptly, confused by the lack of response to his mild chiding. “You’re really worried, aren’t you?”

“He’s just not himself, Jamie.”

“How do you mean?”

“I don’t know how to explain it. He’s … he’s just different somehow. I think … he’s been avoiding me.”

“Avoiding you?” Jamie was incredulous.

“Sounds kind of silly, doesn’t it.”

The doctor shook his head. “You forget. I’ve seen him in some of his stranger moods.”

“This goes deeper than a ‘mood’. How long have I been here?”

“Nine days.”

“And how many times in those nine days have you seen the Admiral?”

“Several. On the bridge, in the reactor room, all over the boat and . . .”

“No, Jamie,” Crane’s voice took on an edge. “I meant, how many times in those nine days have you seen him here?

Jamieson opened his mouth to reply, then slowly shut it as he realized he couldn’t quote an exact number. Finally, “Three . . . I think.”

“That’s twice more than I’ve seen him, and the only time we’ve spoken was when I regained consciousness. I was foggy then, but I could see that something was wrong; he was different somehow . . . formal . . . distant.”

“Lee,” Jamieson tried a soothing tone. “You were unconscious for a long time. He never left your side those first two days after we brought you on board, but when you passed the crisis . . . well, with Chip still TDY, he is doing three jobs now. He’s working ‘round the clock.”

“Don’t try to make excuses for him, Jamie. He’s not that busy! Something’s wrong. I know it.” Crane again ran his hands over his sweat-beaded forehead, massaging the temples furiously.

“Does your head hurt?”

“No, my-head-does-not-hurt!” The words were clipped, each syllable emphasized, and Jamieson saw the child return, lips pouting, stubbornness evident in a sudden straightening of the spine, but Crane couldn’t hold the act. He sighed tiredly, relaxed back into the foam-cushioning of the chair. “Yes – hell, everything hurts. I think I’m beginning to get used to it.”

Jamieson reached for his stethoscope, but Crane protested, waving the instrument away. “Don’t fuss, Jamie. I’m okay.”

“Sure you are. I can tell without examining you that your blood pressure and heart rates are up. I know your temperature’s at least half a degree higher than it was an hour ago. I want you back in bed … now!”

“Jamie …”

The visual confrontation was swiftly decided. Reluctantly, Crane dropped his gaze. “All right, you win, but on one condition.”

“No conditions, Captain. I didn’t spend the better half of the last two weeks trying to save your life only to watch you undo all my hard work in one day. No, sir. Now you just come along willingly, or I’ll carry you back to bed myself.”

This brought a crooked grin from Crane who raised himself gingerly, refused the proffered helping hand and began a slow, steady shuffle toward the door. “I can make it all by myself, Doctor, thank you. Besides, I wouldn’t want you to strain yourself.”

Jamieson snorted. “Don’t you believe it. I may be a little bit older than you, but at the moment, you wouldn’t stand a chance against me,” he said in a half-teasing tone. Then, lower, more serious. “Lee.”

The hazel eyes turn back, waited expectantly.

“Don’t worry about him. I’ll check it out. It’s probably just some new experiment keeping him away. You know how preoccupied he gets.”

Crane nodded slightly. “Yeah, I know how he is. That’s why I’m so concerned. Thanks, Jamie.” He smiled again, then continued his awkward progress until he disappeared from view.

Jamieson stared at the empty doorway for a long time. Crane was right, of course. He’d been too busy to see the change in Nelson, but now that the situation had been brought to his attention, he recalled the strange, haunted looks in the Admiral’s eyes, the greater-than-usual preoccupation with his Seaview and Nelson Institute duties, the disturbing absence from Crane’s side. Even their own good-natured bantering had ceased.

Something definitely was wrong, and the doctor sighed, sank back into his chair and reached for the small decanter he kept hidden away in a side drawer. Uncorking the stopper, he poured a generous shot into the almost empty Styrofoam cup. He watched the yellow liquid swirl around and around, creating a miniature whirlpool in the white cup. A frown settled on his brow. Age and alcoholism. He hated them, yet both seemed to be taking a firm grip on his life.

Age. He hated it the most, hated the whole damned idea. What was it Nelson had said? “Age is merely a chronological measure for the passage of time based upon elements created by man and, therefore, meaningless.”

An ironic smile creased his features, and he remembered the conversation of two weeks ago. Two weeks – a short eternity, an anachronism, chronologically wrong, grammatically incorrect, meaningless to those who had not experienced the past fourteen days.

Jamieson lifted his glass in a mock toast. “To age and time,” he said and brought the cup to his lips. A moment of hesitation and he continued, “. . . . and to Kororpalau, who made them meaningless …..”

*****

The amended orders were officially sealed when they arrived from D.C., but Nelson called an immediate conference of his depleted officer corps even before he’d opened them. When everyone was seated, he tore into the envelope, silently scanned the contents, then expelled an exasperated huff.

“In spite of my request to be relieved of this mission due to lack of personnel, the powers-that-be are still insisting that we continue with our original mission of delivering medical supplies to several islands in Micronesia.”

Crane, sitting to the right of the Admiral, shook his head. “First they take three of our best officers TDY to Connecticut to pacify some defense contractor … and now Seaview’s become the most sophisticated cargo ship in the known world.”

Nelson lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. “That’s not the worst of it, Lee,” he said through a cloud of exhaled smoke. “Now we’ve been elected to detour to Polonu to pick up a Dr. Jonathan Matthews.”

Jamieson leaned back in his seat. “I’ve heard of him. Top of his class at Harvard Medical, three PhDs before he was twenty-five. Last I read he was working as an archaeologist/anthropologist for some civilian research group based in Washington state.”

“That’s him,” Nelson nodded. “We’re tasked to deliver him to Kororpalau.”

Crane looked thoughtful. “Never heard of it.”

“It’s a rather large land mass located in the south Pacific, seven hours from Palau and, until about six months ago, no one knew it even existed. Anyway, there are two research stations set up to study the landscape and local populace with four scientists at each outpost. They’ve requested Dr. Matthews join them, and we’ve been elected.”

“So now we’re a very expensive taxi. What a monumental waste. If the taxpayers only knew what their hard-earned money …”

“I can’t argue with you on that, Lee,” Nelson commiserated. “I requested assignment of another boat, but these orders are ironclad. There’s no other scientific research boat within range of Kororpalau, and these VIP scientists, although not affiliated with the Institute, are working in its so-called ‘interest’. So, Seaview is, indeed, a cargo ship and a taxi.”

Crane raised his hand for recognition.

The Admiral frowned his impatience. “Questions, Captain?”

“Two, Admiral. First, where do you want me to install the meter? And second, how much should we charge per nautical mile.”

Nelson didn’t reply, but everyone present caught the hint of an amused grin as he turned away. “We’ve have a mission, gentlemen,” he said briskly. “Let’s get to it.”

*****

Seaview’s arrival and departure from Polonu and subsequent appearance off the coast of Kororpalau in less than eleven hours was a tribute to Admiral Nelson’s design and construction of the craft. But another ninety minutes passed without so much as a single word issuing from Outpost I or Outpost II. When pressed for information, Dr. Matthews explained that although both research stations were well equipped with communication devices, they were kept inactive. This way the separate findings and individual theories of the scientists could be formulated without worry of another scientist’s finds and theories contaminating them. Periodic radio safety checks were the norm in situations like this. Matthews suggested that Seaview and her crew sit tight until the next scheduled check-in.

“Forty-seven hours? Out of the question!” Crane paced the length of the observation deck, did a one-eighty, and strode back to the object of his aggravation. “Dr. Matthews, are you aware that the medicines we have on board are perishable, and if we don‘t deliver them within the next twelve hours, they‘ll be useless to the stricken people of Micronesia?”

The young scientist nervously adjusted his glasses and swallowed hard. “No, Captain, I wasn’t aware of those facts. But, neither were …”

“This is totally unacceptable. There must be some way to get them to acknowledge our radio transmissions and retrieve you.”

“I’m sorry, Captain Crane. The outposts are strictly forbidden to radio anyone except in an extreme emergency situation. The integrity of their research must be preserved.”

“I understand completely about experiments, Dr. Matthews. Believe me, I’m inundated by them constantly. But when lives are at stake, sometimes we have to make exceptions.”

“Exceptions?”

“Get your gear together and meet me back here in thirty minutes. We’re not going to wait for them to come get you.” Crane cast his eyes heavenward and sighed heavily. “I guess now we’re a delivery service … when it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight …” Shaking his head, he descended the spiral staircase and headed toward his cabin.

*****

“You’re going to what?” Nelsons’ voice over the intercom was incredulous. “You can’t do that, Lee. Barging into an isolated research station could infect the data already retrieved. Millions of research dollars could be made worthless just by your presence.”

Crane shrugged into a cream-colored shirt, deftly fingered the pearlized buttons through each slit, then reached for a pair of navy blue slacks. “I don’t intend to go near either outpost, Admiral. I’m just going to take Matthews onto the beach and dump him.”

“Lee …”

The single syllable screamed of mild scolding, and Crane felt a slight flush of temper at his cheeks. He quickly donned his trousers, arranged himself carefully, and zipped up. He dragged a comb through his unruly hair, then reached for the mike. “Do you have any better ideas, sir?” he said formally. “That medicine on board has a short expiration date. If we do it Matthews’ way, we’ll be sitting out here for two more days waiting for radio contact.”

There was a slight pause. Then, Nelson‘s voice came again. “The flying sub is out of the question, Lee. This island is probably the last refuge from civilization left on earth, and it needs to stay exactly as it was found. We can’t take anything with us that might upset the locals or damage the environment.”

Crane froze in the middle of putting on his Sebago loafers. “’We’?” he said.

“I’m going with you. Less chance of any infectivity. And call Jamie. We may need him, depending on how long Seaview takes to get back to pick us up.”

“Admiral! You’ve just doubled the odds of contamination. We can’t all leave the boat! With Chip in Connecticut, there’s no experience left in case of an emergency situation.”

“O’Brien can handle the delivery of medical supplies. It’s a milk run anyway. Besides, he’s got Sharkey as his right-hand man. That’s more than enough experience.”

“You’re not fooling me, you know.”

The mike keyed to the sound of someone rummaging through drawers. “About what?”

“There’s a mystery out there in the Pacific, and you want ‘in’.”

A muffled expletive issued from the speaker and more sounds of scurrying about were heard. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Right,” Crane grinned knowingly as he imagined his superior frantically tossing clothes and gear into a waiting duffel bag. “I’ll give O’Brien his instructions. He can take Seaview ahead, deliver the medicines, then rendezvous with us back here in 72 hours.”

“Sounds like a plan, Lee. Get with Doc. I’ll meet you in the control room in …” There was a pause, then Nelson continued. “… 15 minutes.”

“Roger, Admiral.”

Thirty minutes later, Admiral Nelson, Captain Crane, Dr. Will Jamieson and their ‘live cargo’ headed for Kororpalau and Outpost I. They found the former to be lush and tropical; they found the latter in ruins.

*****

The scene was one of total devastation. What remained of Outpost I were dozens of large mangled pieces of tin, several mounds of broken glass, and a single jutting metallic spire that had anchored the porta-building. What had once been plastic eating utensils were now bright multi-colored clumps strewn artfully across the campsite. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of perforated sheets of white computer paper decorated the surrounding trees and brush. To the right of the ruins lay what remained of an assortment of containers. Their contents – red tomatoes, green bell peppers and some unrecognizable golden tuber – lay scattered among the ruins.

First to arrive, Jon Matthews, freckles livid against his pale complexion, stood open-mouthed and silent. Next came Jamieson, who adopted a similar stance as he ambled onto the incongruous scene. His mumbled, “Looks like friggin’ Christmas,” wasn’t lost on his captain.

Crane shot him a scathing glance, surveyed the area, then shook his head in undisguised disgust. “Civilians!” He spat the word. “Just look at this place! Out in the middle of nowhere! Open to any kind of predator!” His voice held a hint of fury barely held in check. “Won’t these people ever learn that this kind of expedition also requires specialists in the basic skills of survival?” He stooped to retrieve a charred, misshapen object, stared at it a long moment, then hurled it with all his might toward the horizon. He loathed waste, and Outpost I was a prime example of the worst kind – a needless forfeit born of ignorance.

“Did that make you feel any better?” Straightening from a crouch, Nelson appeared suddenly at his side.

Crane sighed heavily. “Not really.” He turned serious eyes on the Admiral. “Any sign of the scientists?”

Nelson scratched his cheek. “None. But whatever happened here, I don’t think anyone died from it.”

“What makes you say that?”

“No bodies or body parts, no blood. Looks like some kind of explosion, possibly equipment malfunction.”

“What kind of equipment could cause all this? “

“A faulty porta-cooler could account for an explosion of this magnitude. There’s one right over there.” He pointed to a twisted hunk of metal near one of the glass heaps. “Or one of their experiments could’ve gone awry.”

“They’re examining flora and fauna, Admiral.” Crane mopped the film of perspiration beading his forehead with his shirt sleeve. “What on earth could be dangerous about that?”

Nelson’s blue eyes twinkled and a slight chuckle escaped his lips. “With everything we’ve been through in the past three years, you can still ask that, Lee?”

Crane’s lips echoed his superior’s grin. “Touché, Admiral!”

“Besides, from what I can gather of their equipment, they weren’t just studying flowers and ferns. Some of those instruments were used to gauge the atmosphere and air quality. Since we’ve been here, I’ve noticed a slight metallic odor to the air … and a pulsing hum. It’s just below my audible range, but I can feel it. It’s like the air here is … almost touchable.”

“Okay, okay, you’re spooking me. Any other theories? What about an attack by natives?”

“We don’t even know if there are natives, Lee. Although …” He held out a misshapen ball he’d been fingering. “. . . that could be a third possibility.”

Crane reached out, took the object, examined it closely and then returned it to the Admiral. “Looks like some kind of quadruple fishhook, except the points seem to have been fused together. What is it?”

Nelson frowned. “I don’t know. But I don’t think it’s used for fishing, looks more like something for hunting.”

“Why?”

“Because once upon a time there was a wooden shaft attached to this little ball of metal.”

“You mean it’s a weapon?” Jamie suddenly appeared from behind the spire.

The Admiral nodded. “I think so, Will. The metal’s primitive, but the design’s pretty sophisticated. It looks like these ‘hooks’ expand once they pierce flesh. Makes removal damn near impossible.”

“Sounds inhumane if you ask me,” the doctor added, holding up a handful of the spiked balls. “I found these scattered around what used to be the windows, some with, some without their shafts.”

“So they’re arrowheads – which means natives – which means this place was probably attacked, but before or after the explosion.” Automatically, Crane let his eyes rake over the surrounding area. He was beginning to feel uneasy, and the Admiral’s revelations about pulsing atmospheres and solid air were wrecking havoc on his senses. He felt a droplet of cold sweat trickle down the side of his face. It slid eerily down his neck, then disappeared into the fabric of his khaki shirt. A shiver shook his slim frame.

Beside him, Nelson observed his captain’s uncharacteristic demeanor. “You feel it too, don’t you, Lee … a vague apprehension.”

Crane’s gold-flecked hazel met the Admiral’s soft blue. “My sense of fight or flight is kicking in big time. What’s going on? Why are we so edgy all of a sudden?”

Nelson mopped his own sweaty brow, then turned to Jamieson. “Will … what …” He didn’t get to finish the question.

“I’ve been feeling it ever since we got here. It’s almost like someone or something out there’s got a finger on our panic buttons, and he’s pushing hard.”

“Any rational medical explanation?”

“I can’t think of any, Admiral. Do you have any theories?”

“I don’t know enough about this island to form any. Matthews!” Nelson turned, loudly addressed the sole reason for his irritation and inconvenience.

The impossibly young scientist turned toward him. His green eyes were still vacant with shock.

“Dr. Matthews.” Nelson’s voice took on a gentle, more understanding tone. “Will you please join us, Jon?”

The boyish face brightened, the carrot-top head bobbed a quick assent, and the man quickly joined the trio of Seaview sailors. “Do you think they’re all right? Did they get away in time?”

“We don’t know for sure, but the fact that we’ve found no remains is a good sign that they’re safe and well. But, tell me, Jon, what do you know about this island? We’ve been here less than an hour, and I’ve already concluded that some things here are way off the scale for any normal indicators. The atmosphere seems ‘charged’, the air’s extremely heavy, and …”

“And the natives don’t look anything like us – at least that’s what Dr. Cannon’s initial report indicated.”

“So the island is inhabited,” Crane stated. His voice sounded strange and distant to his own ears.

Matthews hesitated for a moment.

“You’ve already spilled the beans, doctor,” Crane chided. “Right now, we’re looking at another 47 hours in this godforsaken place, so you might want to fill us in on the rest of what you know.”

“I … I don’t know if …”

The young scientist seemed confused, and his face colored to one shade darker than his hair.

Nelson quickly interceded. “Jon, the rules have changed. It appears that Outpost I and all the research it gathered is gone. There’s no reason to worry about contamination when lives are at stake.”

“Whose lives?” Matthews frowned and wrung his hands. He seemed on the verge of tears.

The Admiral moved closer to the boy, reached out and squeezed his forearm reassuringly. “Ours,” he said quietly.

Matthews gulped in a breath, held it, then let it out slowly. Then he met the older man’s eyes and nodded. “All right, I’ll tell you what I know. But we have to find Outpost II, Admiral. We need to make certain that these researchers made it there.”

“Do you know where it’s located?”

“There’s no map of this island yet, but the research stations were to be established on separate coasts. Outpost I – this one — was on the extreme southern side of the island. Outpost II is to the north, about twenty-five miles that way.” He stretched out a freckled hand, pointed upward.

Crane’s eyes followed where the young scientist indicated. The immediate terrain was lush, jungle-like greenery, but he could see that higher elevations yielded sparse clumps of vegetation and rock-strewn hills. Even farther lay a range of what could only be described as mountains. “Twenty-five miles,” he sighed and shook his head.

*****

The trek was long and arduous. A maze of thorny vines and thick brush lay between them and the relief (or danger) of open terrain. The fact that they were ascending the entire time also made it more difficult but, only moments after they broke through the initial overgrowth, they found what remained of a trail. It was several days old; some of the hardier vines had already maneuvered back to their original positions. But there were definite signs that someone had gone this way before them. They could only hope that the ‘someone’ was friendly.

For the better part of four hours, the men walked, crawled, and fell in single file through the stubborn foliage. Crane led the group, taking the brunt of scrapes and scratches. He kept up a slow, but steady pace, all the while scanning the underbrush for unfriendlies. Nelson followed behind, listening attentively as his youthful counterpart chattered endlessly. It was obvious that Jon Matthews’ spirits had lifted, and his knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, Kororpalau bubbled over like an unwatched pot. Pulling up the rear, Jamieson found that he was also fascinated by the revelations.

“According to Dr. Cannon’s research, the first recorded site of this island occurred in the winter of 1889. A frigate, bound for Australia, noted its coordinates in a journal. When it returned to the area seven months later, the island had vanished. There are exactly eight verified sightings of Kororpalau in recorded history, and there are twelve others wherein ships passed this way, and the island wasn’t where it should have been. Ouch!” Matthew’s forehead impacted with a particularly thick vine. He repositioned the obstruction but still had to crouch in order to continue through. He held the vine in place until Jamieson passed underneath it, then hurried to retake his position a few feet behind Nelson.

“Anyway,” he went on, “three years ago, Dr. Cannon and his team flew over the spot where the island was supposed to be. They did a 500-mile search radius, but it couldn’t be located. So, he returned to Olympia and delved into the archives again. What he found was extraordinary – Kororpalau was only visible during the autumn and winter months of the southern hemisphere. All verified sightings and landings on the island seemed to occur between the months of March through the end of August. All the non-sightings were between September and February. So, he waited until July and flew out again. This time, he found the island exactly where it should’ve been.”

Nelson swatted at a particularly large mosquito. “Missed!” he grumbled. “So, Cannon must’ve theorized that the appearance and subsequent disappearance had to have something to do with the earth’s axis and position around the sun during these months.”

“Exactly!” Matthews was beside himself with excitement. “He surmised that there is some kind of interdimensional rift at exactly the same coordinates as the island and, depending on the position of the earth, now you see it – now you don’t.”

Crane pulled up abruptly, swiveled around to face his three companions. “Great! An island that plays peek-a-boo. Far be it from me to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm here, but does anybody happen to remember today’s date?”

Nelson and Matthews looked at each other expectantly. Both scientists shrugged and turned their gaze to Jamieson.

The doctor and Crane swapped sympathetic glances, and both shook their heads in disbelief. Then Jamieson spoke up. “Today’s date is …” he lifted his right arm, glanced at his watch. “… September 16th.”

“Which means that this island is going to go … wherever the hell it goes … in about four days.”

Matthews’ expression showed confusion. “Of course it is! The research stations were scheduled to stay for an entire year. Part of the experiment was to find out what happens when the island goes away.”

Crane stalked back to where the young scientist stood, positioned himself directly in front of Matthews. “Did it ever occur to you that maybe some of us don’t want to disappear from the face of the earth for six months?”

Matthews seemed unaware or unaffected by the intimidation. “Actually, we don’t expect it to be that long,” he said matter-of-factly. “This year’s solstice will occur a little earlier than…”

“Argh!” Crane clamped a hand over his mouth to keep anything else from escaping, then headed back to his lead position.

*****

By early afternoon, the group was wearying of the journey. Although the terrain had changed considerably, making passage through the tropical foliage much easier, the heavy air, incessant low-decibel hum, and perspiration-soaked garments made tempers flare. After a third blow-up between Crane and Matthews, Admiral Nelson took charge and signaled for a rest stop. No one argued, and each man collapsed where he stood.

He had no idea how long he’d slept, but when Crane awoke, the sun had half-hidden itself behind several white, puffy clouds. The heat of the day seemed to have dissipated somewhat, and a slight breeze ruffled and cooled the damp coils of hair clinging to his forehead and the back of his neck.

A glance to his left showed Jamieson and Matthews stretched out and snoring on the vine-covered ground, but Nelson was nowhere to be seen. Alarmed, Crane forced his exhausted frame up and stumbled forward. “Admiral?” he whispered loudly.

“Over here,” was returned in kind, and Crane followed the sound, past another clump of greenery, and through several layers of thick, hanging vines. He emerged to an unexpected sight — a clearing, dotted generously with boulders and unusual rock formations. Nelson, a lit cigarette clenched securely between the first two fingers of his right hand, leaned heavily against a four-foot monolith.

“Feeling better, Lee?”

The captain continued his examination of the landscape as he eased his body against an adjoining boulder. “Yeah,” he said remorsefully. “I don’t know what got into me. I’m not usually this disagreeable.”

Nelson smiled, took another long drag of his Marlboro. “There are some crewmen on the Seaview who’d argue that point.”

A sheepish grin brightened the handsome face. “I guess.” He reached for his canteen, uncorked the top and took a swig of lukewarm water. “So, what’s your hypothesis, Admiral? Can we make it across that mountain to Outpost II?”

“We’ll make it. It’ll be rough, but we can do it.” He looked at his captain expectantly.

Crane wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and continued, “Agreed. Now what are our odds of getting off this island before it moves into another dimension for six months?”

Nelson’s blue eyes lit up with enthusiasm. “It’d be something to see, wouldn’t it, Lee? Another realm where time and space are totally different?”

“I’ve got a golf date with Chip in Santa Barbara in three weeks. I’d kinda like to keep it.”

The Admiral sighed, finished his cigarette, dropped it to the ground, then extinguished it with his shoe. “Ahhh, the younger generation! No insatiable curiosity! No drive to explore! No …” The half-smile on his face faded as his eyes caught the glint of something metallic. The ‘signal’ flashed once, twice, then continued intermittently.

“Lee!”

Crane followed his gaze. “I see it, Admiral. Wake Jamie and Matthews. I’ll check it out.”

“Be careful. We still don’t know what’s out there,” Nelson said as he hurried back into the thicket to awaken the doctors.

Wary of the open terrain, Crane maneuvered carefully across the clearing, using the huge rocks as occasional cover. He headed purposefully for the area where the suspicious object lay. As he drew closer, it became increasingly apparent that the ‘signal’ was a reflection off a pair of broken Foster-Grants. Disappointed, he reached down, took possession of the twisted glasses. His eyes flicked over the rock-strewn valley, searching for the owner of the high-priced spectacles and any other telltale signs of life.

There were none. His nostrils caught the faint trace of death long before his eyes focused on the bodies. He slowed his pace, looked around to find Nelson, Jamieson and Matthews closing the distance between them. He hand-signaled the others to be more cautious, then stepped into another scene of mass destruction.

The first body was sprawled in a grotesque position, its mouth wide and gaping; the other three lay in a semi-circle amidst another pile of wrecked equipment and scattered papers.

Crane stooped to examine the first man. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jamieson, medical utensils in hand, checking each man in turn.

“Dr. Matthews?” He addressed the scientist who had again gone white at the grisly scene. “Are these the members of the Outpost I expedition?”

Matthews swallowed hard and nodded. “That’s Dr. Cannon. He’s in charge of … I mean, he was in charge of the expedition.” He looked at the other bodies, identified them one by one. “Dr. Picot, Dr. Huse and Dr. Purdin.”

“Admiral? Doc?” Both officers peered up from their investigations.

Jamieson spoke first. “Looks like they’re all dead from massive injuries. Some have penetrating wounds; others appear to have been beaten to death. Of course, I’d have to perform autopsies to get the specifics.”

Nelson joined the trio. “How long, Will?”

Seaview’s doctor hunched down beside the lifeless body of Dr. Cannon. He lifted the left arm, bent it, then examined the fingers. “Hard to tell in this heat, Admiral, but I’d say about 7-10 hours.” He moved to stand, halted abruptly as a sudden prickle of fear plucked at the hairs on his neck. He saw Nelson also stiffen.

‘You feel it too, don’t you, Admiral?”

Nelson looked toward him, nodded. “Anxiety, uneasiness? A sudden fear of ‘something’ out there?”

“Somebody’s pushing those buttons again,” Jamie said quietly. “Jon? Lee? Do either of you feel it?”

“I do.” Crane glanced up, his eyes were drawn toward the base of the first mountain. There was nothing there, only the apprehensive feeling stayed with him. “Let’s get out of here.” Without waiting for a reply, Crane started back toward the safety of the jungle foliage. He barely managed to squelch a sudden, almost overpowering urge to break into a run. He had almost crossed the rock-strewn clearing when a deep booming sound froze him in his tracks.

“Admiral?” He swallowed the uncharacteristic panic welling in his throat, swiveled toward the auburn-haired man.

“Drums … vaguely reminiscent of the native tribes of North America.”

“What are we going to do?” Matthews sounded on the verge of hysteria, and Crane felt his own control slipping away. The drumming sounds were ominous, but the unseen, unknown musicians were even more terrifying.

“Try to make it back to the trees, Doctor.” He finally answered Matthews’ question, glanced around again, then headed once more toward the lush greenery. “This way!”

Three steps brought him nose to chest with a large, half-naked native of Kororpalau. The man, if he could be called that, was nearly twice the size of a normal human and was covered in coarse, curly hair. The head was thick, almost square, containing the standard homo sapien features: two eyes, a nose, a mouth.

Crane recoiled in horror, backpedaled into Nelson, then turned and grabbed the Admiral in a bear hold. “What’s causing this?” he practically screamed the question.

For a moment, Nelson seemed frozen to the spot, then he took Crane’s face in both palms, stared deeply into his eyes. “It’s got to be some kind of chemical reaction, Lee. Do you smell it? That musky scent we’ve had with us off and on ever since we got here. These … people…. must secrete some kind of body odor that causes panic in anyone nearby. It’s a defense mechanism. Close your eyes and breathe slowly, shallowly. Tell yourself, it’s not real.”

Crane followed the instructions of his superior; almost immediately, a calm descended over him. He took several short cleansing breaths, then opened his eyes and nodded to the Admiral. His control back, he twisted around. The lone native had now been joined by at least eleven others. In clusters of three – one individual, armed with an ominous-looking spear, was strategically flanked by two unarmed drummers — they surrounded the group on all sides. As unmoving as granite statues, the Koropaluans stared at the intruders.

Three to one – the odds definitely aren’t in our favor, tiptoed lightly through Crane’s conscious mind. Swallowing his revulsion, he stepped forward. “I’m Captain Lee Crane of the SSRN Seaview. We mean you no harm.”

This made no impression at all on the first tall being who reacted to the words with a menacing lunge forward. He yanked Crane’s canteen from the man’s utility belt, brought it up to his bulbous nose and sniffed it noisily.

“It holds water,” Crane said slowly and carefully. “I can show you how to open it so you …”

The interchange was terminated by a wild, high-pitched scream. Crane jerked around, saw Matthews struggling with one of the drummers for possession of his canteen. “Doctor, let him have it. Don’t …” he started, but the scientist was too far gone. He beat frantically at the startled giant’s chest. The native reacted by dropping both the drum and canteen and grabbing Matthews’ wrists.

The next few moments were a confused blur. Matthews jerked loose from the native’s hold, somehow managed to snatch Nelson’s pistol from its holster, then succeeded in shooting several of the large beings.

With at least four of their compatriots dead or writhing on the ground in silent pain, the unarmed drummers backed away in fear. But the four who held large spears in their equally large hands advanced threateningly on the Seaview men. The first giant snatched Crane’s weapon and threw both it and the canteen several yards away. Another grabbed Jamieson’s medical kit, tore it open, and scattered the drugs and equipment everywhere. Vials of morphine and penicillin, plastic bottles of aspirin and Tylenol, and delicate instruments were crushed beneath the heavy feet of the Kororpalauns. They seemed intent on destroying everything and everyone in their path.

Crane’s towering native shoved him roughly to the ground, then turned his attentions to the panic-stricken scientist. Grabbing the young man by the shoulders, he drove a ham-sized fist against Matthew’s head. The doctor’s knees buckled, and his wildly waving pistol discharged into the Kororpalaun. Both the native and Matthews went down, but the scientist, urged on by his monumental fear, aimed the pistol once more at the giant. It discharged the same instant another blow struck him from behind. The shot went wild, missing the huge wounded target and impacting the side of Nelson’s skull. Without so much as a whimper, the Admiral collapsed.

*****

As suddenly as it had begun, the conflict ceased. From his vantage, face down on the rocky ground, Jamieson saw the three armed natives freeze where they stood. As one, they moved slowly away from their intended victims to encircle the native wounded by Matthews. Oblivious to the invaders, the drummers joined them, and they maneuvered into a tightly closed circle around their fallen companion. The stricken giant knelt where he had fallen, and Jamie was astonished to see a blue flame suddenly engulf his large frame. It glowed brightly for several moments, then dimmed, flickered and winked out completely. When it had totally extinguished, he saw that the natives were now cloistered around nothing. The huge body had disappeared.

From somewhere among the group of tightly-packed beings, a blood-curdling howl started. Its volume intensified to an unpleasant level, and Seaview’s doctor drew his hands up to shield his eardrums from the piercing wail. An intense odor, not unlike that of an electrical fire, suddenly stung his nostrils, and he was alarmed to see lightning bolts pierce the very air around him. As he looked on, they became more and more numerous, expanding in length and size until they ignited the atmosphere. Within moments, the sky was ablaze, dripping jagged fiery bombs and stinging bolts of blue electricity.

Through a dense wall of smoke and flame, Jamieson saw Crane rise slowly to his feet and stagger toward the prostrate blood-covered body of Jon Matthews. To his right, Admiral Nelson, his face and head crimson with blood, lurched to his feet. Jamie started toward him, dodging the painful bolts of hot electricity.

“Admiral!” He reached Nelson, made a cursory examination of the man’s wound, and went weak with relief. “It’s just a graze, but you’re gonna have one helluva headache,” he said. He draped one long arm around Nelson’s shoulders, another around his waist, and started away from the valley toward the shelter of the rocky cliffs.

Still dazed and confused, the Admiral stumbled, pulling Jamieson off-balance. The doctor went down on one knee just as a whistling spear, aimed at his midsection, buried itself in the ground beside them. The natives were back, and he swore, pulled Nelson into an upright position, all the while glancing back for some sign of Crane and Matthews.

Black smoke billowed around him, swelling in great masses of wilting heat. His eyes streamed water, and he coughed, fought vainly for an unhindered breath, then choked on another searing lungful of smoke. Tiny white lights danced enticingly in front of his eyes, and he felt himself beginning to pass out. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the deadly cloud of electrical energy dissipated, and he found himself in a clearing.

//The eye of the hurricane,// he thought to himself and took a great satisfying gulp of fresh air.

Nelson extricated himself from the doctor’s grasp, swayed, then regained a tenuous control. “I can make it now, Will,” he said.

“Are you sure?”

Jamieson extended his hand again, but the Admiral pushed it away.

“I said I’d be okay.”

It wasn’t the truth, but Jamieson didn’t have time to argue. “Good. I’ll help the Captain with Matthews. Admiral, we need a place, some cover ….” Jamieson didn’t have the chance to finish. Nelson was already disappearing into a far cloud of smoke.

Sounds of sputtering and coughing brought his attention around in time to see Crane and Matthews emerging into the clearing. He ran toward them, took possession of the captain’s limp burden.

On closer inspection it was apparent that Matthews was in grave condition. All traces of color had drained from the man’s face, blood gushed from his mouth and nose, but he managed a weak smile as Jamieson wrapped an arm about his waist.

“I’m sorry . . .” bubbled from his blood-flecked lips.

“No need to be … you couldn’t help yourself.” Jamieson tried to return the smile, failed, and focused his attention on climbing the hill.

“Where’s the Admiral?” Crane’s worried voice came from somewhere behind and to his right.

“Up ahead, looking for a place to hold up until help comes or . . .” He promptly forgot the rest of his sentence as Nelson suddenly appeared beside him.

Together, they hoisted Matthews into a four-arm fireman’s carry. Nelson steered them into a roiling cloud of smoke, emerging at the foot of two gigantic boulders.

“Lee!” The Admiral called out to Crane who had fallen farther behind and was still lost in the cloud.

“Don’t stop for me!” was faint but reassuring, and Nelson trudged on, rounding a corner, pulling Jamie and Matthews along with him, then abruptly reversing direction and slipping between the two boulders.

Jamieson suddenly found himself in a dark, foul-smelling cavern. He paused, but Nelson pushed him back into motion, continuing on toward the rear of the cave. At the farthest edge, the Admiral halted, helped Matthews down, and then disappeared with him into an invisible slit in the wall. Seconds later, he reappeared minus Matthews.

“Where’s Crane? He should’ve been here by . . .”

Worried, Jamieson started back for the entrance, but Nelson was already moving in that direction. As he passed the Doctor, he shoved him back roughly. Jamieson felt a surge of indignation but squelched it. This wasn’t the time or the place for a temper tantrum, and the Admiral was right, if not in method, then in purpose. He turned and eased himself through the slight opening.

The narrow crevice turned out to be the entrance to a much larger, brighter cave. From some underground spring, water splashed and gurgled. Far above, minute pinpoints of sunlight filtered through the layers of rock and soil, turning the darkness inside to a dusky gray.

Jamieson reached for his medical bag, and his hand came away empty. He swore, turned to break the news to the young scientist. “Jon …”

Matthews was dead, and he viewed the body with an ironic sense of relief. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise – he couldn’t have treated the man anyway.

Muffled voices jerked his attention away from death, and Jamieson rushed back to the inner cave entrance. He stood there, waiting expectantly, then started a sigh of relief when he recognized the Admiral’s baritone. Stepping out to greet them, the breath caught in his throat. Nelson was half-carrying, half-pulling Crane along, and Lee was bent double in some unseen agony.

Jamieson rushed to them and discovered the source of pain – a broken spear protruding from the Captain’s abdomen. He took Crane’s arm and, together, they eased him into a reclining position.

Nelson hesitated for a moment, then returned to the entrance, searching the outer cave with his eyes. He then pushed a large, obelisk-shaped rock in front of the narrow opening. It slid into place reluctantly, tottering for a moment, then righting itself. The Admiral stepped back to view the scene and nodded. The rock would effectively disguise the entrance to the inner cave. If the camouflage worked, they would be safe … if they were silent … if they were lucky … if, if, if . . .

Jamieson crouched down beside Crane just as the natives arrived noisily in the outer cave. Their shouts and screams played havoc with his nervous system; he felt the familiar uneasiness building, clamped down on it, then redirected his concentration to Crane. The wounded man lay frightfully still, staring up at him with huge, dark eyes. He put a finger to his lips, a sign for Lee to keep silent if he possibly could, and the man nodded, closing his eyes as his whole body quivered in a spasm of pain. He didn’t make a sound, and Jamieson laid a hand on his shoulder, patted his understanding.

A sudden uproar near the entrance brought his head up. The panic was back in full force. Hovering near the door, Nelson, armed only with a rock, poised to attack at the first sign of entry, but after an interminable wait, the Kororpalauns seemed to tire in their search. The outer cave grew silent, making the slight panting sounds of the injured man almost deafening in their intensity.

Nelson waited a moment, then climbed up the side of the pitted wall, gained a precarious hold and peered through a slit in the doorway. He glanced at Jamieson, gave the Doctor the ‘all clear’ signal. Seconds later, he joined his two friends, positioning himself at Lee’s head. His fingers, stained with his own blood, brushed lightly against his friend’s cold cheek, then settled on his shoulder and squeezed reassuringly.

“Lift him, Admiral. We’ve got to get him under one of these beams of light. I can’t see how bad it is over here in the shadows.” Jamieson lifted the feet, heard a sudden sharp intake of breath from Crane. “Easy, Captain. Just hang on for a few more minutes.”

Crane’s only reply was a hissing breath exhaled through clenched teeth.

“Hold it right there, Admiral. This is fine.”

“Matthews . . .” Crane gasped out the name. “Where is …”

“He didn’t make it,” Jamieson said. No use mincing words at a time like this. “Now just lie still. Let me take a look at you.”

The Doctor stared at the protruding piece of wood, trying to formulate some plan of action. The slim weapon’s position created an immediate problem. At the point of entry, waist level, it had passed through Crane’s linen shirt and trousers, pinioning them together and making any examination of the wound impossible. Jamieson struggled to tear the thick fabric, but only succeeded in jiggling the shaft.

Crane flinched, and the color drained from his face. “Jamie!” A desperate, blood-drenched hand came up to grip Jamieson’s arm. “For God’s sake … pull it out!”

“I can’t, Captain. It’s not going to be that easy. I think it may be barbed …” He didn’t finish, turned a grim face to Nelson.

“The fused fishhooks?” the Admiral asked, meeting his eyes.

“Probably. I can’t be sure until I examine the skin around the wound.” He reached for his medical bag again, but it still wasn’t there. Frustration made him lurch to his feet! “Admiral, I don’t have anything to help him. They took everything I had …”

“Will …” Nelson’s voice was deadly calm. “They didn’t get this.” He removed a Swiss Army knife from his pants pocket, held it out. “Can you use it?”

Shame threatened to overwhelm him, but Jamieson merely bit his bottom lip, nodded his thanks. He returned to Crane’s side, flipped open the blade and used it to cut through the fabric, but when he drew back the clothing, he found his worst fears realized.

It was bad. The broken shaft protruded scant centimeters to the left of Crane’s navel, and it was an ugly, seeping wound. Blood welled around the stick, a red moat surrounding a tall, thin castle, and the wood absorbed it, drawing it upward, staining the stem an ominous crimson. Jamieson pressed the skin around it gently, dabbing at the overflow of blood with bits of Crane’s uniform.

“Damn!” The single syllable said it all.

“Will . . .?”

“I can’t remove it here, Admiral. It’s too risky. The head’s already expanded inside him and . . .”

“Doctor.” Nelson’s eyes bored into his through the shadowed darkness. “Surely there’s some way … it may be hours, even …” He didn’t finish the sentence, let the silence hang for emphasis, then started a new one. “He can’t endure this indefinitely. There has to be something you can do!”

“Well, there’s not a goddamned thing! I’m not a miracle worker, Harriman! I need tools, medicine, bandages to treat a patient.” Jamieson winced, heard the crack of emotion in his voice as he finished. “I don’t even have an aspirin to give him.”

“Tell me what you need,” Nelson said.

“What the hell kind of nonsense are you talking, Admiral.”

“No … Jamie, don’t … let him ….” Crane’s barely audible voice joined the conversation. His long fingers reached up, vice-clamped the Admiral’s thigh.

“Lee.” Nelson’s hand brushed the sweat damp curls tenderly from his friend’s forehead. “I’ll be careful. It shouldn’t take me more than a few minutes to retrieve the things Will needs.”

A long silence pervaded the cavern, a silence broken only by the heavy, wheezing breaths of the injured captain.

“All right, Admiral.” Will Jamieson couldn’t bring himself to look at either man. He already knew their reactions. Crane would be staring up at him, eyes speaking an inner pain much greater than any physical torment he was already enduring. And Nelson … Nelson would have assumed that same, smug, self-satisfied look he always adopted when he won an argument, gave an order or hypothesized correctly.

“Jamie … please no. I can’t allow him to . . .”

Ignoring him, both men rose to their feet.

“While you’re gone, I’ll try to find something that’ll hold water. I’ll need enough to wash whatever instruments you can find and a little more to… just bring me what you can, Admiral.”

Nelson nodded. “Take care of him, Will,” he said, as he pushed the obelisk stone away from the entrance. Without a backward glance, he disappeared into the darkness.

*****

The wait for Admiral Nelson’s return seemed interminable. Jamieson busied himself locating a rock with a recessed middle. Luckily, the cave yielded many such stones. He chose a particularly deep one, then walked to the nearby underground stream. Bending down, he washed his hands in the cool water first, then cleansed the makeshift bowl. When he had filled it with water, he returned to the Captain’s side and positioned it in a strategic place.

Next, he relocated Jon Matthews’ body to the farthest corner of the cave. “I’m sorry, Jon,” he whispered as he removed the man’s shirt and undershirt. “I’m going to need these for bandages.” He paused for a moment of reflection, turned away when the Captain spoke his name.

“Jamie?”

He was at the man’s side in an instant. “What is it, Lee?”

“The Admiral … he’s been gone too long. You have to … go …”

“He hasn’t been gone that long yet. We’re pretty far up. Probably took him a good five or ten minutes to get back down…”

“I … I want you … to go . . . he’s alone out there … unarmed …” Crane attempted to rise, but the slight movement cost him. A cramping pain assaulted his mid-section, and he gasped as the gray world around him threatened to break apart. There was a long pause while he waited for the scene to tilt back into focus. He slowly became aware of Jamie bathing his face with a cool cloth. He looked up at the doctor, surprised to see his lips moving, but no sound emerging. It took a moment for the words to begin to register loud and clear.

“. . . damn fool thing . . . do . . . a gut wound … start to bleed inside. Now you listen to me, Captain! You lie back and you lie still! That’s an order!! Do you hear me?”

Crane started to nod his head, then remembered the doctor’s instructions not to move. He forced a whispered ‘yes’ past his swollen tongue.

“That’s better,” Jamieson said. “The Admiral and I are doing everything we can, but I need your cooperation too. Do you …”

A noise at the entrance to the cave silenced him. Stiffening with apprehension, he hunched protectively over the Captain’s body. A sigh of relief escaped when he saw Nelson’s frame squeeze through the narrow fissure, but relief turned to fear when the Admiral’s knees buckled, and he pitched forward.

Alarmed, Jamieson hurried to his side. “Admiral! Where are you hurt?”

Gasping for breath, the older man lifted his head, then his upper torso. Jamieson helped him into a sitting position, then reached for his wrist.

“I’m all right, Will,” Nelson said testily, jerking his hand away from the doctor’s grasp. He fumbled in his left pocket, removed a paltry assortment of bent and broken instruments. “These are all I could only find,” he said. Reaching into his right pocket, he pulled out several pills and capsules. “I don’t know what these are, but they were the only undamaged ones.”

The doctor took the proffered items, scanned them quickly, then tossed half of them to the side. He focused on the Admiral. “The natives…did they…”

“They were gone,” Nelson wheezed, reached for a breath that wasn’t quite there.

Jamie frowned, grabbed the man and pulled him upright. “Come this way. Let me check you out.”

“I’m all right, Will. See to Lee. He needs you …”

“In the light, Admiral! Now!” Jamieson maneuvered the recalcitrant man under a beam of sunlight, lifted first one eyelid and then the other with his long-fingers. “Just as I thought. A concussion. You’ve been hiding a concussion from me.”

“I’m fine, Will.”

“No, you’re not. Look at you! You can barely stand. What the hell were you thinking?”

Nelson’s gaze locked and held the doctor’s. He lowered his voice to a whisper, indicated the wounded man on the floor nearby. “What do you think I was thinking.”

Jamieson sighed a weight-of-the-world sigh. “I’m sorry, Admiral,” he said. “It’s been a helluva day.”

“For all of us. Now, tell me what you need me to do.”

*****

From his position on the floor, Crane found himself watching the two men gather supplies for his makeshift surgery. He viewed the goings-on from another level of existence. It was unreal. It wasn’t happening. It couldn’t happen! Yet, he remembered clearly the hard clubbing blow that had knocked the breath from him, sending him somersaulting through the air. He remembered the strange numbness that spread throughout his body until it enveloped him, leaving him sprawled, thick-brained with shock, on the warm ground.

“Captain.”

He shook himself mentally, came back to the present. Jamie was bent over him, his lined face drawn with worry and concern.

“Admiral Nelson found some of the things I need, but all of my painkillers were destroyed. I can remove the fishhook, but I don’t have anything to give you to ease the pain.”

Crane nodded his comprehension. “Go ahead, Jamie. Just get it over with.”

“Okay. You just hang in there the best you can. This isn’t going to be pleasant. Admiral, I need you to hold him as still as possible.”

“I will.”

A tilt of his head backward brought Nelson into view, and Crane met the Admiral’s eyes. They warmed to his gaze, then clouded over with dread.

“We’re ready to begin.”

Crane closed his eyes, nodding, and stiffened as Jamie began to cleanse the wound. The chill water burned like a red-hot poker, and the Captain bit his lip to keep from crying out.

“Admiral?”

Jamieson’s voice resounded hollowly in the empty cavern, and Crane looked up again, saw a blood-encrusted hand descend to brush lightly across his forehead. Seconds later, fingers clamped tightly around his biceps and held him immobile. Crane closed his eyes, waited for the nightmare to begin.

The doctor didn’t hesitate. The first incision was a super-hot nova, rocketing agony throughout his lower body. A scream started, and he half-gagged himself cramming it back into his throat. His body jerked upward involuntarily.

“Lee, be still! Admiral, hold him down!”

Through the red-throbbing darkness, he heard Jamie’s words and tried to force his body to relax as the scalpel bit deeper and deeper into his flesh. The torture wore on forever. His world was a carousel of blazing red horses, bobbing up and down on an endless journey to nowhere. He sat astride a wildly bucking steed who tossed him roughly to the ground, leapt after him, rearing, pawing. He squirmed away from the deadly ruby-shod hooves, only to be snared by a crimson-clad sorceress who caressed him, squeezed him, held him in her awesome power. He suffocated in her embrace, fought to free himself, finally succeeding, twisting away to fall…fall…fall…into a tangled, sticky web of spun blood.

Abruptly a huge, tearing pain wrung a grated yell from him, jerking him back to the cold azure blueness of reality.

“It’s out!”

He heard Jamieson’s voice, bone weary with exhaustion, and sighed, but the sound that issued forth was a heavy moan. With a tongue void of all moisture, he licked his lips, heard his own voice from a thousand miles away croak, “Water.”

A damp cloth touched lightly at his lips bringing almost instant relief, then continued on to cool his burning cheeks, forehead, wipe the drops of moisture from his eyes.

“Lee?”

Nelson’s voice broke through the narcosis of shock and pain, and he opened his eyes for a moment, saw the Admiral’s drawn and haggard face. Cloisters of black oblivion tugged frantically at him, but he resisted. “You … look awful,” he managed.

The admiral’s smile was faint, made even more so by the impending abyss surrounding him. He was too tired; he didn’t have the strength to fight anymore. Nelson’s, “You look worse,” was the last thing he heard as he yielded to unconsciousness.

*****

The small fire crackled in the stale cave air, casting huge eerie shadows on the walls. Jamieson, ignoring the images and the ever-present gnaw of hunger in his stomach, knelt beside his unconscious patient, maneuvered so as to take advantage of the meager light. Even in the faint, colorless glow of the fire, the Doctor could see that Crane’s face was flushed and sweating. A quick examination confirmed his suspicions – the Captain’s condition had deteriorated alarmingly in the past three hours. His pulse was weak and thready, his skin clammy, and his temperature was climbing steadily by the hour.

Jamieson rocked back and forth on his haunches, barely noticing when the Admiral joined him.

“Is he worse?”

The doctor ignored him, continued his silent rocking a moment longer, then abruptly began to undo the bandages.

“Will?”

“Get out of my light, Admiral.”

Obediently, Nelson moved aside, and Jamieson stared at the swollen, distended stomach, quickly re-bandaged the wound. “One of us has to go for help,” he said matter-of-factly.

Nelson looked at him, his eyes dark in the glow of the fire. “The fishhook was poisoned.” It wasn’t a question, merely the same conclusion Jamieson had reached a moment before.

He nodded. “He’s got all the classic symptoms and, from what little I can gather without any lab tests to confirm it, it’s not a slow type either. These natives really mean business – if those damned pronged fishhooks don’t tear you up effectively enough inside, the poison finishes the job.”

“Very efficient.” Admiral Nelson’s voice was icy.

“And very deadly if not treated immediately.”

“How long, Will?”

Jamieson shook his head, stood up and brushed the dirt from his pants. “I don’t know. If the symptoms keep accelerating at this rate … less than a day.” He paused, looked around the cave, then continued. “I should be back before he gets too bad.”

“You?” With effort, Nelson also regained his feet. “Will, you can’t leave him like this. He needs your knowledge, your skill …”

“Admiral, if my diagnosis is correct, by this time tomorrow, Lee Crane won’t need me or any other doctor this side of the planet, and before you start listing all the reasons why you’re the only one for the job, let me tell you why you’re not. I’ve been watching you closely for the past few hours. That concussion you sustained is a little more serious than either of us first thought, isn’t it? No, don’t try to deny it; I’ve seen the lapses, the momentary blackouts. Your reaction time is off, and you’ve probably got the mother of all headaches right now. Face it, Admiral. In your present condition, you couldn’t walk for more than fifteen minutes before collapsing! Am I right?”

Anger flashed, and the emotion-filled blue eyes stared at him through the thick gray light, but Nelson said nothing.

Jamieson shrugged, taking the silence as an affirmative answer. “All right, we’ve made history. We’re both in total agreement. Now, when I leave here, Outpost II is supposed to be due north, over this range of mountains, and to the opposite side of the island. Am I right?”

“Will,” Nelson began, hesitated a moment, then continued in a quiet voice. “There’s a good possibility that Outpost II was also destroyed.”

Jamieson stopped in his tracks. “I know,” he said. “But do you have any better ideas, Admiral? Seaview won’t be back for another day or so. That’ll be at least 24 hours too late to save Lee. We’ve got to … I’ve got to believe that that research station is still functioning and that the scientists there have some medical supplies that will be useful. That’s possible too, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Will. It’s possible.”

“Good. Another obstacle out of the way. Now, the faster I leave here, the faster I get back with help.”

*****

Jamieson finished off the remainder of his drink and set it aside. He didn’t want to think about the events that had followed … the dangerous night trek through the native-occupied countryside, the boundless relief at finding the occupants of Outpost II not only alive and well but with an equally healthy medical supply, including a cure for the local poison, the race via OH-6 helicopter back to the cave, the agony of not knowing if he would arrive in time . . .

Memories flowed back, an undammed river, thwarting his will not to recall the moment of arrival, the shock of seeing Nelson, pale as death, frantically trying to breathe life back into the limp form of Lee Crane. He remembered the Admiral’s dazed expression as he shoved him aside and injected Crane with the antidote, remembered Nelson’s weak attempts to get back to Lee . . .

The present returned, and Jamieson sighed, pushed himself up from his chair and left Sickbay.

The dark, deserted corridors matched his mood as he moved swiftly to his destination. Kowalski passed him, nodded courteously, and Jamieson returned the gesture absently before stopping in front of the Admiral’s cabin. He knocked and waited. When there was no answer, he knocked again, then opened the door and entered. The room was dark and somber and smelled of alcohol and stale cigarette smoke.

“What can I do for you, Doctor?” Admiral Nelson’s voice was polite, but there was something about the tone that bordered on resentment.

“I want to talk to you.”

“It’s late and I’m tired, Will.”

“I know what time it is, Admiral and, to tell you the truth, I’m just as bushed as you are, but this can’t wait.”

Nelson sighed, motioned for the doctor to take a seat opposite his desk.

“Captain Crane sent me to see you. He’s very worried, says you’ve been avoiding him.”

A muscle twitch in his jaw was the Admiral’s only reaction. “I haven’t been ‘avoiding’ anyone. Surely he knows and understands the situation. He’s out of the picture, Chip’s still TDY … I’m much too busy to nursemaid ….” he faltered uncharacteristically.

“That’s the very same excuse I quoted Lee twenty minutes ago. He didn’t swallow it from me then any more than I do from you now. What’s wrong, Admiral? Why can’t you face the Captain … or anyone else for that matter? You’re acting like you’ve done something you’re ashamed of.”

Nelson stiffened visibly at his last sentence. He fumbled in his desk drawer for another cigarette, lit it with trembling fingers. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.

Jamieson leaned closer. “That’s it, isn’t it? I’ve hit the nail on the head. Are you punishing yourself for something that you think you’ve done?”

Abruptly, the Admiral stood, turned his back on the doctor. “Dr. Jamieson, this conversation is at an end. You will leave now!”

“Leave, hell! I’ve just discovered what the problem is – and I’m not leaving until I get to the root of it. Come on, Admiral. Crane saw through you before he was even fully conscious and, if I hadn’t been so blamed worried about his condition, I’d have seen it too. You’ve changed since Kororpalau. You’re moody . . . withdrawn . . . throwing yourself into your work. It’s obvious you’re hurting inside. But that’s not enough for you, is it? You’ve got to pull the Captain in with you. Well, I can tell you right now, Admiral, it’s not good for him. His condition isn’t all that –“

“I’m am NOT hurting Lee! I would never …” Nelson cut himself off again, clenched his trembling hands together. He was visibly fighting for control. He took a long quaking breath, exhaled slowly. “This is none of your concern.”

Jamieson leaped to his feet, moved to stand inches away from the enraged man. “It IS my concern, Admiral Nelson! The well-being and health of each and every member of this crew are my PRIME concern. Now, if I can’t get you to relate the problem here, I can order you to Sickbay for a complete workup – physical, mental and emotional!”

“NO!”

The doctor backed away a step, stunned by the vehemence in the single syllable.

“You will not involve Lee Crane any further in this, Will, because if you do, I won’t be responsible for what I… ”

“Then, for God’s sake, let me help you. Tell me what’s troubling you. How is Captain Crane involved in it?”

Nelson slumped defeatedly back into his swivel chair and hung his head. “I can’t tell you, Will. I can’t tell anyone. What I did … is too despicable, too cowardly to ever be known.”

Jamieson reached out a hand, touched the rigid forearm, but the Admiral pulled away. He would not let himself be comforted by the doctor, and the only other person who could help him lay fast asleep in Sickbay. The Doctor dropped his arm, retook his seat. “Tell me, Harriman.”

Nelson dropped his head into his palms, wrestling with his conscience. ‘Tell me,’ Will had said. But was it fair to drop a burden of this size at the good doctor’s feet? On the other hand, was it fair to keep avoiding Lee? Sooner or later, the Captain would confront him with the same questions, and he knew Crane would succeed in persuading the truth out of him.

A mathematical equation formulated in his head: A (Refuse Jamieson) + B (Will Goes to Lee) = C (A Situation He Preferred to Sidestep). Raising his head, he viewed Jamieson’s concerned face and decided upon the lesser of two evils. He opened the bottom drawer of his desk, pulled a bottle of bourbon and two shot glasses out, poured them both a generous portion. He downed his drink in one gulp. “This will not leave this room.”

The Doctor took a sip and nodded. “It’ll be our secret.”

Satisfied, Nelson took a deep breath and slowly began to relate the story.

*****

Darkness, pain and death: a trilogy that formed the basis of his whole universe and kept him from a total concentration of the situation. How long had Jamieson been gone? Minutes? Hours? Days? (No, not days . . . Lee still lay on the floor of the cavern, still struggled for each breath, still fought the poison that invaded his body.)

A grunt from Crane jerked him back to a vague awareness, and he reached over in the inky darkness, removed the drying cloth from the man’s hot forehead, replaced it with a damp, cool one. He checked the vital signs, frowned at his findings. Jamieson’s estimate on the fast-acting poison was proving to be correct and, if help didn’t arrive soon, there would be no Lee Crane to rescue.

“Admiral . . .”

“Yes, Lee.”

“How long. . . since Jamie left?”

“I don’t know. It was almost dark…” He glanced upward at the porous ceiling. “It’s still night out … less than eight hours, I guess.”

“. . . what are the . . . chances he’ll find . . .”

The sentence trailed off into a long, wavering moan, and Nelson reached out, took the too-warm hand in his own, felt it squeeze in a pathetically weak grip. “He’ll get through, Lee. Try to get some rest.”

“Damn it, I don’t want to rest . . . I want . . . I want . . .” Another spasm of pain cut the outburst short.

“What, Lee? What can I get for you?”

It took a full minute for the man to reply. Finally, “Water . . . I need . . .”

“Lee, it’s not wise to aggravate the wound. Water might cause . . .”

“. . . please . . . I’m so thirsty . . .” The thinly disguise urgency in Crane’s voice dwarfed the reason for withholding liquids. Reluctantly, Nelson rose. “All right, Lee. I’ll be back in a minute.”

*****

Crane heard, rather than saw, Nelson leave and, as the muffled footsteps grew fainter, he breathed an anguish-laced sigh of relief. With each passing moment, the pain in his stomach intensified. It was becoming more and more difficult to hold back the moans. He tried to shift his body into a more comfortable position, froze when he felt his stomach muscles begin the familiar bunching sensation. He braced for the full brunt, but the orchestra of pain played on, accelerating, finally shattering his self-control with its mind-searing crescendo. He barely managed to stifle the scream, felt a sudden, overwhelming wave of nausea grip him, tasted blood and bile as the violent contractions drove the contents of his stomach upward. He heaved, crying out as the action made the pain almost unbearable.

“Lee, relax! Don’t fight against it!”

From some distant realm of reality, the calm voice of the Admiral came to him. Strong arms suddenly supported his head, fingers cleared the blood and spittle from his mouth and throat, gentle hands massaged his back in a rhythmic, circular motion, and he found himself relaxing, felt a vague surprise when it did, indeed, seem to decrease the agony. After an eternity, the pain in his body subsided to a more tolerable level, and he slept.

*****

The same scene replayed itself over and over again. Crane, caught up in a whirlwind of pain and fever, became more delirious as the hours passed and, throughout the lengthy night, Nelson ministered to his friend’s needs. But just as dawn was breaking, his own body reached its limitations, and he succumbed to sleep.

When he awoke, thin streams of white light shone through the cavern’s ceiling. Nelson’s body clock estimated it was mid-morning. He quenched his thirst with a handful of water, dribbled a few droplets of the liquid into Crane’s parched mouth, chastised himself when the well-meant gesture only succeeded in causing the man a severe coughing spasm. Gathering the feverish body into his arms, he patted Crane’s back until the seizure was over and Lee lay flushed and sweating. His breaths came in short, ragged gasps that shook his entire frame. His fever had been dangerously high for much too long, and Nelson felt a growing dismay at their situation. If Jamieson didn’t return soon, brain damage was a certainty.

Desperation drove him to search for a solution. It came to him in the echoing sounds of the cave’s inner stream. “Lee, can you hear me?” Nelson laid a hand on the burning forehead, stroked the fiery cheeks.

“. . . hear you? . . . hot … so hot . . .”

“Yes, I know. Do you think you can stand being moved?”

“. . . moved . . . yes . . . too hot here . . . “

Crane’s answers seemed merely to echo Nelson’s words, and the Admiral swallowed his rising panic. Exhaustion crowded around him, beckoning him to rest, lie down. It was ridiculous for one to struggle so against the odds. The battle was already won. Death would be the final victor, for his strategist was Time.

The ache in his head chimed in, urging him to listen to his tortured body, but he shrugged it off, ignoring the combined messages. With some effort, he lifted Crane and staggered toward the back of the cave. The brief exertion caused his head to throb, his legs and arms to shake uncontrollably. Black spots clustered around his eyes. Annoyed at his own weakness, he rested for a moment, then methodically began to undress Crane, removing the loafers, trousers, undergarments, stripping away the expensive linen shirt. He moistened the soiled bandage with water from the stream, gently peeled it from the still-seeping wound. Even in the faint light, Nelson could see the skin around the puncture blackening. Tearing a section of cloth from his own shirt, he sponged the wound. Crane stiffened, clenched his teeth together firmly, but didn’t cry out.

“Lee, I’m going to try to bring your temperature down. It’s an old remedy, but I believe it’ll lower the fever. Can you understand me?”

To the Admiral’s surprise, Crane answered. “. . . been a long time . . . since I went . . . skinny-dipping . . . .”

Nelson almost smiled with relief. The Captain’s moments of lucidity had been infrequent, but they served to bolster his own sagging optimism. “Skinny-dipping? You?” he asked, pulling off his own shoes.

Crane’s face seemed peaceful with only an occasional tensing of the jaw muscles revealing any sign of discomfort. “. . . used to go … all the time … back home . . .”

As Crane spoke, Nelson slid his hands beneath his friend’s shoulders and knees, raising him carefully into his arms. “I’ll bet your mother had a conniption when she found out,” he said.

“. . . she didn’t know . . . mmmnnh . . . until Jenny . . . Westmoreland’s brother … spilled the . . . beans . . . on us . . .”

Trying to minimize the shock of immersion, the Admiral slowly eased Crane into the shallow, quick-flowing stream. He settled into a seated position, legs spread apart, and rested Crane’s head and upper torso between his submerged legs.

It was uncomfortable; the chilled water increased the throbbing ache in his head and made him shiver, but the water seemed to bring almost instant relief to Crane. Within minutes, the Captain’s fever had decreased, and his rigid body relaxed against Nelson’s thighs.

“Never did forgive that little snitch,” he continued.

Teeth chattering from the cold, Nelson asked, “Who?”

“Alexander … Westmoreland. He told about Jenny and me…got both of us in trouble. That’s when my mother started talking to my father about … military school . . . damn that Alexander Westmoreland.”

*****

Throughout the lengthy morning, Nelson repeated the procedure, periodically immersing Crane’s nude body in the chilled water of the stream, but by noon the treatment no longer offered any respite. Crane was suddenly seized by intermittent convulsions, each attack making huge withdrawals on his already depleted strength reserves. Between the seizures, he lay deathly still, fiercely struggling to fill his lungs with oxygen. Each inhalation was a draining effort; each exhalation, a pitiful moan.

By late afternoon, the conflict had become a battle of wills – Crane’s will to live and Death’s will to claim another victim. The Captain was hanging on by sheer courage alone, and Nelson could only stand helplessly by, trying to give comfort when there was none to give.

As the bright sunlight streaming through the ceiling faded into early evening gray, there was a change in Crane’s condition. His breaths became harsh and strained, signals of another approaching convulsion. Nelson lunged for the flattened stick he’d used too many times already, shoved it between the clenched teeth, gathered the weakly thrashing body into his arms and just held on. The seizure lasted forever, leaving Crane rag doll limp. His head lolled on the Admiral’s arm, and Nelson gently removed the blood-streaked stick from the slack mouth, stared down at the familiar features of his friend, committing to memory the damp, slightly curling hair, the now peaceful, unlined face, the tricolored lashes resting on the gray smudges beneath the hazel eyes, the thin film of moisture dotting the nose and upper lip. An eerie silence permeated the darkness.

Crane had stopped breathing.

*****

Nelson halted his verbal recollection, swallowed hard and turned away.

“Go on, Admiral,” Jamieson urged, but the man shook his head.

“I can’t.” he whispered.

“Why? What did you do?” The Doctor leaned forward in his seat.

“Nothing . . .”

“I don’t understand. What do you mean?”

“Exactly that, Will. I did … nothing.”

*****

He sat in the darkness, holding the nearly lifeless body close. He could not — WOULD NOT — allow such suffering to continue when there was no longer any hope of rescue.

Gently, he lowered Lee to the ground, felt his stomach muscles tighten when the body jerked reflexively as though refusing to surrender even though the battle was over. He turned away, closing his eyes as the barest hint of a sigh escaped Crane’s lips.

From some untapped inner source, he found the strength to rise and start for the cave entrance, but another sound stopped him, riveted him to the spot. It came again, a strangled half-gasp, and he swiveled around, saw Crane’s face turning a ghastly gray as the Captain struggled to get just one last breath.

Without hesitation, the Admiral flung himself to his knees, jerked his friend’s head back, clamped his own mouth over the blue-tinged lips and breathed deeply into him. He continued the process – two long breaths into Crane, three short ones for himself – until the dizziness and lack of oxygen almost overcame him.

Suddenly, arms were pulling him away, preventing him from breathing for Lee. He fought them off, crawled back to his position over the prone body, but again the hands caught him, held him captive. They couldn’t do this! He had to get back to Lee . . . had almost let him die . . . CAN’T let him die . . .

*****

“I…was going to let him go. It seemed kinder after all he’d been through . . .”

“But you didn’t, Admiral! All that really matters is that you saved his life. You were doing all the right things when we got there . . .”

Nelson looked up at him with anguish-filled eyes, and Jamieson suddenly saw past the hurt and guilt. The naked truth was laid out all over Admiral Nelson’s face.

“That’s the crux, isn’t it?” Jamieson said softly. “If you’d allowed him to die, we would’ve arrived only moments later. All his suffering would’ve been for nothing.”

“God forgive me, I almost killed him, Will!” Overcome, Nelson dropped his head into his hands.

The doctor reached out a comforting hand, let it rest lightly on the older man’s shoulders. “So you played God!” he said sympathetically. “I probably would’ve done the same thing, only much sooner. No, don’t look at me that way; I’m not just saying this to ease your guilt. You weren’t wrong, Admiral. Lee Crane was going to die within the hour had we not arrived to save him. But you had no way of knowing we would get there. Your timing was a little off, but your decision wasn’t wrong.”

“But the fact remains, Will, after all the suffering and pain, I was the one who gave up, not Lee. It wasn’t my decision to make.”

“Why don’t you let Lee decide that!”

“I . . . can’t face him, Will . . . can’t let him know what I almost did to him.”

“So you’re going to sell him short a second time.”

The words were meant to shock — not hurt – but, for a moment, Jamieson thought he had erred.

Finally, “I guess … I owe him that much, don’t you think?”

The Doctor nodded and downed the remainder of his bourbon in one gulp. His voice sounded hoarse and gravelly when he answered. “I think you’re right, Admiral. By the way, remember our little discussion about age and time a few weeks back?”

Nelson crushed the stub of his forgotten cigarette in the desk ashtray and nodded.

“Well, you were wrong. Time isn’t meaningless at all … at least in this instance it wasn’t.”

Jamieson rose from his seat, walked carefully toward the door. The Admiral’s bourbon mixed with his earlier round of scotch made him off kilter. “Well,” he swayed, grasped the doorknob to steady himself. “It wasn’t as earthshaking as I thought. I’m going to go get some sleep, but first, I think I’ll stop by and get a bite to eat. Care to join me?”

Nelson shook his head, and the Doctor shrugged. “Suit yourself. Oh, before I forget, there’s a certain patient down in Sickbay who’d probably enjoy your company right about now. Why don’t you run on down there and talk to him.”

The door opened, emitting light from the corridor. Nelson winced and shielded his eyes. He could barely make out Will’s form as the man continued.

“”Just don’t stay longer than ten minutes.” With that, he was gone, and Nelson found himself alone again. After a moment, he stood. He reached to pour himself another drink, then thought better of it. He sucked in a deep breath, exited his cabin, and headed in the direction of Sickbay.

*****

The pillow was lumpy, and Lee Crane savagely thrust his fist into it. He couldn’t get comfortable; he wasn’t sleepy, and he wasn’t allowed out of bed. He was miserable, and there was no one around on whom he could vent his frustrations.

Behind him came the soft click of a door opening, then closing. He turned over carefully, preparing to launch into a forty-five minute tirade on what Jamieson could do with his damned orders, but instead of the doctor’s slim frame, he found the late night visitor to be his elusive admiral.

“Hello, Lee. Are you feeling better?”

Something in the depths of those blue eyes told him that whatever had been bothering Nelson was gone. A burden had been lifted, and the Admiral almost bounced when he walked, but something in Nelson’s manner also told him that it was personal and would be revealed to him in time.

“No, I’m not feeling better. Jamie has me hogtied to this damned bed for another whole week. The pillows are full of rocks. It’s too dark in here to read, too light to sleep.” He threw his arms up in a gesture of frustration.

“Hmmm…” Nelson frowned and scratched his chin thoughtfully. “… guess you’re not up to a hot cup of coffee and some light conversation then?”

“Are you kidding! Admiral, you’re just what the doctor ordered,” Crane said, eagerly sitting up and pulling the portable food table closer. “Dr. Crane, that is,” he added as an afterthought.

Nelson bit back the smile that threatened, then looked around the small room for the coffee pot Jamieson habitually kept filled. When he didn’t find it in Crane’s room, he moved to the outer office. Behind the doctor’s desk, almost hidden in the corner, was a small Mr. Coffee, filled to the brim with an aromatic hazelnut blend. The admiral poured two steaming cups, returned to Crane’s room and placed both on the bed table. He positioned a single chair nearer Lee’s bed, eased carefully into it. Reaching for the cup, he suddenly froze and locked eyes with his captain. The hand that had been poised to take the steaming drink hesitated, then dropped back into his lap. “Lee… I…there’s something I need to tell you…” He broke the link by bowing his head. “… something happened on Kororpalau … something I need to …”

Crane noted the confusion, the mixture of dread and guilt creasing his friend’s forehead. He reached out, laid a hand on Nelson’s shoulder. “Later, Admiral,” he said kindly. “Whatever it is, it’ll wait until you’re ready to tell me. Right now, I’m just happy we’re both here. After what we went through on that island, I think we’re due some R&R time.” He smiled encouragingly, and his words brought about the expected reaction.

Nelson’s body visibly relaxed, and his hand brought the cup steadily to his lips. He took a long, slow sip. “Gak!” Crane watched in amazement as his friend bolted upright, his mouth wide open in shock and surprise.

“Admiral?”

Struggling to get an unhindered breath past his constricted throat, Nelson managed a hoarse croak. “Jeez, what the hell is in this stuff?”

Crane brought his own mug up and took a tentative sip, then grinned knowingly. “You got this from the little table behind Doc’s desk, didn’t you?”

Eyes tearing, Nelson reached for his handkerchief and wiped them dry, then blew his nose loudly. “Yes. What is it?”

Crane took another swallow. “Oh, about 90 proof, I’d say,” he said, tipping the cup one more time. “It’s his ‘off duty’ tonic.”

“I hope that’s the only time he drinks this.” The Admiral sniffed the concoction. “Hmmm… I smell hazelnuts…and coffee… and brandy,” he said in his most professional scientific voice. “… mostly brandy.”

“Fifty percent or more,” Crane laughed as he drained the remainder of his ‘tonic’. He held out the empty cup for a refill.

Nelson eyed him suspiciously. “Wait a minute! You’re still on medication. You don’t need to be drinking anything like…”

“Ahhh, lighten up, Admiral…” Crane said, and a mischievous grin suddenly brightened his features. “I’m jusss…” He belched. “’Scuse me…justtt…on some residual…pain medication.” He glanced down at his torso, then with effort brought his head back up. “Hey, d’ja ever notice how godawful these pajamas fit…I mean, really…” He held out his arm, shook it until the cuff covered his entire hand. “See!” he said, indicating the ‘missing’ appendage.

“I see,” the Admiral said indulgently. He drew the cup to his lips, stared into the dark contents, took a deep breath and gulped down half the liquid.

“Hey!” Crane said, his lips in an exaggerated pout. “Tha’s not fair, sir.” Again, he held out his own empty cup.

“Just trying to keep up with my captain, Lee,” Nelson said as he took possession of his friend’s mug. “Hang on. I’ll get us some more of Doc’s ‘off duty’ tonic.” Walking on suddenly wobbly legs, he returned to where Jamieson kept his stash and replenished both mugs. “Okay,” he announced as he returned to Crane’s bedside, “I’ve got refills.”

Soft nasal snores were his only reply.

“Lee?” His vision was suddenly doubled, but he forced his eyes to focus until two unmoving forms became one. Crane was sprawled on the bed, limbs and bedding askew, fast asleep. A whisper of a smile tugged the corners of his mouth upward.

A sudden rush of paternal affection welled up inside him. //I nearly let you go …// he thought, involuntarily reliving the nightmare on Kororpalau. He shook his head, refusing to see the images his mind threatened. //But we’ll get past it…no…// he corrected mentally. //I’ll get past it.//

Taking exaggerated care, the Admiral placed both coffees on the bed table, then rolled it aside. With it out of the way, it was easy to arrange Lee’s long legs and arms back onto the mattress. He repositioned the pillow, fluffing it just so, then pulled the sheet and blanket up to Crane’s chin, tucking it carefully around the man’s broad shoulders. Stepping back, he viewed his handiwork and nodded in satisfaction. Lee looked like he was sleeping comfortably.

Reaching for the pack of Camels in his breast pocket, Nelson lit one and inhaled deeply, pulling the smoke all the way down to his toenails and holding it there. When he finally released it, he felt dizzy, light-headed and strangely elated. Dragging the chair closer to Lee’s bedside, he sat down, absently collected a mug of cooling coffee, brought it to his lips and downed it. This time the burn was only momentary, and the warmth it left in its wake made him relaxed and drowsy.

He picked up Lee’s untouched refill, lifted it in a toast to the sleeping body on the bed. “To the past, the present and the future,” he said, “… but most of all, to life.”

*****End*****

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