by Grace Anastasia
Looking out through the smoky grey of the terminal windows, Lieutenant Commander Chip Morton became aware that he had ceased noticing the sleet falling, but had, instead, been observing his own reflection -- rather critically, he thought. The water droplets cascading down the window kept changing his image, like a painting whose colours had become smeared, whose focus had become blurred.
Was this all he had been these many years? A faceless, nameless drone, only recognizable to the world because of the uniform he was wearing? He felt his anger rise; as it had been doing since his decision three weeks ago.
Standing up from the cramped seat -- Why is it that airport chairs are never designed for interminable waits -- he stretched his long, lean frame, and walked over to the window.
The storm hadn't grounded anything -- only a major blizzard could close O'Hare -- but it had slowed things down. Flights were taking off sporadically, and a couple of the super jumbos had been rerouted to Detroit. His plane was still at the gate; a maintenance team was busily defrosting ice and snow from the wings.
Chip was glad he had convinced his folks not to wait at the airport with him. Interstate 94 was always a mess during evening rush hour, but a bit of Chicago damp turned the road into a driver's nightmare. Besides, he didn't need another argument with his father about his career decision.
Pulling a pack of Marlboros from his uniform jacket pocket, he lit a cigarette. Another New Year's resolution shot to hell. He felt the tobacco smoke creep into his lungs, slowly calming his irritation. Hell, it was all psychological anyway. He'd never liked the taste of the damned cancer sticks, but it was a habit he'd picked up as a Midshipman, and that nicotine addiction was nearly impossible to break, unless of course you were . . . Damn it! The sonuvabitch beat me on that, too. Angrily, he stamped out the cigarette.
Looking up from the ashtray, his eyes alit on one of the countless advertisements in the terminal. He'd seen it before and heard its slogan on the radio, but it was the first time Chip really noticed it. And its words hit him with a clarity that summed up exactly what had been bothering him since he'd handed in his resignation: We're Number Two. . . We Try Harder.
Admiral Harriman Nelson rocked back and forth on his heels as he stared from his office window at the Nelson Institute of Marine Research. The fog was slowly creeping in from the Pacific, giving the few holiday decorations that had been put up an eerie, surreal appearance.
Perhaps, he thought sadly, what happened could have been avoided, if only he'd seen the warning signs -- the tension and growing hostility between his two senior officers.
"What's really bothering you, Harry?" came a gravelly voice from behind him.
Still looking out the window, Nelson changed his focus from the Pacific to the reversed image of his chief scientific advisor, Commodore Emery.
"Lucius," he answered the reflection, "I've spent a lifetime looking for the truth. . . facts. . . out there." He pointed abstractedly toward the ocean. "Yet, I failed to see what was going on around me." Nelson turned to face the Commodore. "And I lost one of the best damned Execs. . . "
"As I recall, you didn't lose him. He quit," Emery snorted. "Rather loudly if the gossip around base is true."
"All right, he quit," Nelson conceded that point with a wry smile. "Seaview's crew was hand-picked -- from the Captain to the cook -- they're the best at what they do."
The Commodore nodded.
"Psychological profiles, aptitude tests, skills development. Everything was covered when I assembled this crew. Everything, except the human factor. I failed to take that into account."
Emery sat up suddenly as he heard the meaning behind Nelson's words. "You failed? This isn't about his quitting. You're mad as hell because you can't see into the future. You chose the best men, at the time, for the job. What they do with twenty-year-old grudges isn't your problem, it's theirs."
"And," continued Emery in a tone he usually reserved for lecture halls, "as much as I didn't like him, at least he and the Captain maintained a professional working relationship right up until the end."
Ladies and gentleman, welcome aboard Trans Global Airways Flight 2-2-2. Non-stop 7-2-7 service from Chicago O'Hare to Los Angeles International.
Chip shifted irritably in his seat, as he heard the preternaturally perky voice of the stewardess reminding him that in the event of a water landing his seat cushion could be used as a flotation device. Luckily he had dozed off and missed the pilot's welcome aboard; no doubt chirpily explaining why a minor winter storm had caused a -- he glanced at his watch -- four hour delay.
"You going to be AWOL?" asked a nasally voice in his left ear.
He turned slightly in his seat to look at the ruddy, fleshy face of his row companion. The man's wrinkled appearance, and the pervading pong of scotch spoke volumes -- salesman. "No," he replied simply, with a vain hope that his indifference would end the conversation. He was sadly disappointed when the man continued.
"When I was in Korea. . . " began the salesman.
Oh God, not another one who wants to reminisce about his combat experiences. Chip made a mental note that the co-ed in the window seat had screwed up her face in distaste at both of them, and was angrily turning the pages of her text book. Obviously, not a fan of the military. Talk about being trapped between a rock and a hard place.
". . . we had to travel in cargo planes. Now it looks like you guys all get the VIP treatment."
Chip was about to say something about flying coach and being stuck at the back of a cramped plane with a drunk was not his idea of getting preferential treatment, but stopped, as he heard the rest of what the man was saying.
"Your buddy up in first class sure seems to be enjoying himself."
He idly reached for a magazine in the seat rack in front of him, hoping the man next to him would take it as a sign that the conversation was over.
The first page he opened to was that damned advertisement.
First class. Second class. It all came back to that, didn't it? No matter what he did. No matter the successes he had on his own; there was always someone better. . . someone he had never been able to beat in nearly 20 years of trying.
Suddenly conversations that he hadn't thought about in years were as fresh in his mind as though he had them only yesterday.
No matter what you do, you'll always be in Crane's shadow. Life wasn't fair. He had worked hard throughout his elementary and high school years to graduate with top honors. Lee had stumbled into Annapolis on a dare; luck had gotten him through the initial interview process. As an alternate, he'd have never even entered if Chip's original roommate hadn't backed out.
They're going to keep comparing you with Crane. Number two to number one. It made no difference that the ones doing the comparing were numbers 55 or 82 or 147. If you came in second, no one let you forget it.
Crane's well on his way to being an Admiral by the time he's 40. They're already thinking about giving him his own command. What do you think you'll be doing when you're 40? Let Crane make Admiral; it didn't matter any more. He had quit. Given up his career. Going where no one would be comparing him to Lee Crane. . . no one but. . .
That was what it was all about wasn't it? He'd been the one making the comparisons all along. Allowing himself to be swept up in the envy that his buddies had not just for Crane, but for himself. For the first time since he'd submitted his resignation, Chip felt at peace. His decision to resign was right, on some gut level he'd always known it; the reasons he had been giving himself for it were what were wrong.
Nelson had gone over the preliminary list of candidates for a new Exec. Five names culled from the best the Navy had to offer.
Well, not exactly offer, thought Nelson dryly. Even though Seaview did act under U.S. Naval authority at times, her crew was not officially Navy. There had been hell to pay when he had originally staffed up. The Navy had lost nearly 250 of its best and brightest; now they were about to lose one more.
Nelson's thoughts were interrupted by the buzzing from the phone on his desk. Picking up the handset, he barely gave his secretary time to announce his visitor.
"Yes, I'm free. Send him in." He stopped himself from slamming the handset down; he was not looking forward to this meeting.
The door opened, and Angie stood beside it as Seaview's Captain strode past. Nelson nodded toward her, and she closed the door. The woman was almost telepathic, he mused. Without a word spoken between them, she had told him that she expected it to be a long meeting and was calling in for sandwiches and coffee from the commissary. If she wasn't such a damned good secretary, he smiled inwardly, he'd have made her Executive Officer.
Nelson motioned to the chair across from the desk.
"I see we've been working on the same problem, Admiral." He indicated the stack of files.
The Admiral nodded. "Looking at capabilities, intellect and ability to work within our structure, I've selected the top five candidates. Your opinion?"
Taking the proffered list, the Captain reviewed the names, unconsciously shaking his head or nodding as he read through the pages.
"We're in agreement on numbers two and four; I think either of them would work well aboard Seaview. I'm afraid I don't know the fifth's record."
Nelson was a bit surprised that his Captain didn't mention his primary candidate for Executive Officer. "You don't agree with my first choice, I take it?"
"He'd never fit in at the Institute, Admiral. He's all flash, no substance. A wunderkind destined for burn-out before he's 40."
The warm LA sunshine streamed into the baggage claim area; its blinding glare having found exactly the spot he'd managed to squeeze into to grab his bags from the carousel. Chip silently cursed himself, as he searched through his pockets. He'd forgotten his sunglasses back at his parents' house, and would have to buy a new pair before he did any driving up North.
Fortunately, his two bags would be easy to spot; one of the advantages of being in the military. Now, if they'd only come out together.
As if reading his thoughts, two standard military-issue pieces of luggage were disgorged from the bowels of the airport onto the carousel.
He reached for the first one, as someone else grabbed for the second. Chip turned to say something, and was shocked to find himself staring at the last person in the world he was expecting to see.
"Lee?" He hoped his voice didn't sound as irritable as he felt at the moment. He might intellectualize his feelings of envy at Crane's successes, but emotionally, that was going to take a while.
"Chip?" The smile on his face and the tone in his voice were genuine. "It's been a long time." Crane grabbed his hand and shook it warmly.
He nodded in agreement. They'd kept in touch sporadically with postcards and a few letters, but the last time they'd seen each other was nearly six years ago, shortly after Lee's divorce.
"I didn't know you were on that flight," mumbled Chip, "I didn't even seen you board."
"Not likely. I was supposed to be on a non-stop from Logan. The weather forced us down, and TGA sandwiched us in." Crane reached over and grabbed another bag from the carousel. "Congratulations about Seaview. I hear she's quite a lady." He laid the bag next to his other one.
"Guess it's me who should be congratulating you." Chip saw his other bag moving around the carousel and grabbed for it. "Your taking command of the Montana moved me to the top of the list." He had tried to be flippant. It sounded like sour grapes, and left a decidedly bitter taste in his mouth.
Lee had earned his braids; as he had as well. Neither of them would have had it any other way.
He shook his head, and Chip wasn't certain if he saw a bit of hurt or perhaps envy flash briefly across Crane's face.
As he picked up his bags to leave, Lee smiled at his friend. "I wasn't even in the running, Chip. Looks
like the best man got the job."
Copyright 1999 by Grace Anastasia
Please send comments to Grace at: DreamRider_1@hotmail.com
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