by China Jade
It seemed to Lieutenant Commander Chip Morton that he had been wandering these same cold, dark city streets for hours. And in all that time -- if indeed it had been hours, instead of minutes or even days -- he had never seen another human being. There were shops and restaurants, but they were empty: even the police stations and firehouses were abandoned. Half-eaten food was congealed on plates in the restaurants, money and merchandise were scattered on shop counters. . .but there was no sign of the people who had ordered the food or made the purchases.
It's as though they were all snatched up in the middle of whatever they were doing before they even knew what was happening to them, Morton thought wearily. Why am I the only one left here. . .wherever 'here' is?
He paused for a moment, leaning heavily on his crutches. Strangely enough, the broken leg didn't seem to be bothering him, no matter how far he had walked today. And that leg had hurt like the devil earlier, when he had been doing nothing more strenuous than sitting in front of a sonar screen. But vanishing aches and pains were the least of the peculiar things that had happened to the Exec today -- the very least.
Morton had been aboard the Seaview earlier in the day, he knew that much -- or thought he did, in any event. I was down in the Lab, helping the Admiral with. . .something. And then the electrical system must have failed. At least I guess it did, Morton frowned, trying for perhaps the twentieth time to piece together what had happened to him.
All the lights went off, anyway, and when I woke up, I was here. Everything looks so familiar, and yet it's all wrong, too -- like something out of a dream. Maybe that's it. . .maybe I'm just dreaming all this. But if I'm dreaming, why can't I wake up, no matter how much I try?
He stopped automatically at a street corner and checked in both directions, even though he knew there was no point in it. He crossed the street, then moved slowly down the sidewalk past the store fronts. A window display of scarves and gloves caught his eye, and he stepped inside the store, blowing on his half-frozen fingers.
"Anyone here?" he called out, but there was no answer -- not that he was expecting one. He automatically glanced up at a wall clock and shook his head in bewilderment: five thirty. Still.
The electricity was on, and the clock's second hand was moving -- just like all the other clocks he'd seen that day. But the minute and hour hands remained fixed at five thirty, and Morton had no way of knowing if it was morning or night.
For that matter, the light hadn't changed at all since he'd awakened in this place with no memory of where he was or how he got there. The sky was still the same dull gray color that could pass for twilight or early dawn in the absence of any other clues.
Only the snow was consistent: thick, heavy flakes that fell endlessly without ever seeming to accumulate, no matter how long they drifted down. Morton shivered in real discomfort as he fumbled through the window display with numb hands, looking for gloves in his size.
There -- those'll do just fine, he managed an exhausted smile, finding a pair of gloves that both fit and matched his black flight jacket.
But before he put the gloves on, he reached in the jacket's inside pocket for his wallet, and his fingers came in contact with a small packet. The papers! Morton cried to himself as he touched the manila envelope. How could you have been so stupid and forgotten to check that the papers were still all right?
Frantically, he pulled out the envelope and inspected it, then sighed heavily in relief. Everything was as it should be: the seals were intact, and the contents were still dry. Only a drop of melting snow splashed from his eyelashes and fell on the bright red "Top Secret" stamp, leaving a little star-shaped stain. You've got to keep your head together, Morton -- I don't care how cold and tired you are, he admonished himself.
He took a ten dollar bill from his wallet and started to toss it onto the counter as payment for the gloves. . .not that it really mattered to anyone except Morton himself at the moment. But there was something wrong with the bill -- something fractionally too large or too bright about it -- that caught his eye.
Morton picked up the money and inspected it carefully. He turned the bill face up. . .and a cry of anger mixed with terror surged up before he could stop it. "No!" he groaned, crumpling up the ten dollar bill and tossing it to the floor like a discarded candy wrapper. "I don't believe it! I won't believe it!"
He limped out of the shop as quickly as he could and then hurried down the street. Now at last, his arms and shoulders were aching from supporting his weight on the crutches, and even the broken leg itself was sending stabbing reminders up to his bewildered mind. Not that any of the cold or discomfort mattered, just as long as he could escape -- somewhere, anywhere to get away from the implications of what he thought he had just seen on that ten dollar bill.
A gust of wind from the open shop door lifted the money and sent it flying across the floor. The bill was still crisp and sharp as though it had just come from the press recently, and its lettering was bold:
"Legal Tender: The People's Republic."
Admiral Harriman Nelson seldom swore, but this morning, he permitted himself the luxury of thinking a string of oaths that ranged from the merely mundane to the nearly poetic. The object of his wrath was not the tall blond figure that lay without moving on a cot down in the Laboratory, however -- but rather, the bank of electronic equipment above him.
Morton wore a pair of goggles attached by leads to the computer itself, while a tangle of electrodes monitored the slightest fluctuation in the Exec's heart rhythm and breathing. The lights and dials did their complicated dance, but it was what they weren't saying that was infuriating Nelson so badly at the moment.
The only reason I agreed to this experiment in the first place is because the Seaview's mainframe is one of only three computers in the country that's powerful enough to run a program of this magnitude, Nelson sighed sharply.
The Admiral had been able to do his share of the programming from the Seaview. Even downloading his colleague's portion of the work had been a relatively easy matter, as well -- including all those last minute little changes that always seemed to crop up.
The experiment had seemed like such a perfect opportunity to advance the cause of science and help a colleague at the same time. . .what in heaven's name could have gone so terribly wrong? Nelson asked himself in frustration.
"Still no change, Admiral?" a quiet voice from behind him made the Admiral jump.
Captain Lee Crane had entered the Laboratory so quietly that Nelson hadn't heard him. Having someone sneak up behind him only added to the Admiral's current stock of self-disgust: he seemed to be unable to control anything that was going on around him at the moment.
"No, Lee -- not as much as a mumble or the twitch of an eyelid in almost forty-eight hours," Nelson sighed sharply. He picked up a heavy crockery mug and took a sip of coffee that had only been lukewarm hours ago. "I should never have agreed to this experiment in the first place, Lee. The technology is still much too new to take this kind of risk. . .I should never have let my scientific curiosity over-ride my better judgment."
"You can't blame yourself, Admiral," Crane retrieved the Admiral's coffee mug and dumped its contents down the Laboratory sink, then refilled it from the pot he had brought with him. "You checked and double-checked all the data, then checked everything again -- just the same way that Chip would have done if your places were reversed. He wouldn't blame you for any of this."
"No, but then again, Chip never does," Nelson snapped in helpless anger -- an anger that Crane knew was not directed at anyone but the Admiral himself. "He follows orders to the letter: my orders. Out of the fifty-three candidates for this experiment, I chose Chip because he was the most level-headed and sensible of the lot -- for all the good that it's done him! I thought that it might make a nice change for him from staring at a sonar screen all day. You and I both know how restless he's been ever since he broke his leg."
'Restless' was putting it mildly! Crane chuckled to himself. On the last day of a recent special school, the Exec had been engrossed in a discussion with the instructor over one of the finer points of the subject material. (And the fact that the instructor's name was April might or might not have had anything to do with what took place next, Lee snorted.)
So engrossed, in fact, that Morton had failed to see the 'Wet Floor' sign at the top of a staircase. The Exec had slipped -- neatly shattering his leg in what Doc called a 'ski boot' fracture.
Since then, trying to keep Morton strictly within the letter of the law about "light duty" had posed a considerable challenge -- far easier at the logistics level than it actually was at the operational stage. More like trying to orchestrate an explosion, if the truth was to be told! Crane grinned.
Nelson saw the bemused look in Crane's eyes and answered it with a sour smile of his own.
"Why do you think that I chose Chip to be our guinea pig for this experiment? It was that or throw him in the Brig for disobeying direct orders not to over-exert himself! But the bottom line, Lee, is that I agreed to this experiment, knowing that the technology is only barely powerful enough to provide a measure of safety. As a matter of fact, there are parts of the programming that I don't completely understand from the psycho-medical standpoint. Don't misunderstand me: I trust Leila implicitly. But this entire experiment was risky from the beginning. I should never have agreed to it."
"If anyone's responsible, Harriman, it's me, not you," a soft voice from behind them made both men jump this time. "I created this experiment, I invented every piece of special equipment, and if something's gone terribly wrong here, the blame should be laid on my doorstep, not yours."
Dr. Leila Harker walked over to the computer and inspected the current data. Nelson's protégé leafed through a stack of printouts, then shook her head sadly at what she read there. Harker's green eyes were edged with grief as she gently touched Morton's pale, still face with one hand. The black-haired woman's affectionate gesture was so unself-conscious that even Nelson had to turn away and hide a smile, despite the seriousness of the situation.
The attraction between Chip and Leila was unmistakable from the first moment that Leila came aboard the Seaview! the Admiral thought as he made a 'crucial' eighth of an inch adjustment to a dial. Funny thing, that -- I've known Leila as long as I've known Chip, and who would have ever thought the two of them would have been attracted to each other!
When he had mastered his momentary amusement, Nelson turned back to Crane and Harker: now the Admiral's expression was almost unreadable. "Blaming ourselves isn't going to help Chip," Nelson said quietly. "The only thing that's going to do him any good now is putting our heads together and trying to figure how exactly what went wrong and how we're going to fix the problem."
"Harriman, I've been over my notes a dozen times, read and reread every scrap of information in Chip's personnel file, and dug through all the Navy's psychological profiles on the man," Harker shook her head. "I can't come up with a single reason why we can't unhook Chip from the CGRS system without sending him into cardiac arrest or respiratory failure."
CGRS -- Computer-Generated Reality Simulator, Nelson thought with a small sigh. A kind of shore leave for the mind: explore the depths of the ocean or the far reaches of outer space, climb the Himalayan mountains or learn to speak French with a native tutor. . .all without leaving your armchair.
But more importantly, CGRS had enormous potential as a therapeutic tool -- a concept that had piqued Nelson's interest from the very start. A therapist would be able to "see" and share a traumatic event instead of relying on the patient's description of it -- especially if many years had gone by since the incident had first happened, Nelson nodded to himself, still awed at the idea. A patient could experience the old fears and traumas in the safety of the controlled simulation, knowing that the therapist was only a thought away if the situation became too threatening.
Even in its primitive state, the CGRS concept was complex and stretched the available technology to its limits, Nelson knew. But there was nothing in the current simulation that would explain why Morton had cried out in fear only five minutes into the program, then collapsed. It had been the last time in two days that the Exec had voluntarily moved or made a sound: any attempt to disconnect him from the CGRS sent his vital signs plummeting to dangerous levels.
"A simple walk through the streets of downtown Chicago -- that's all it was supposed to have been," Nelson continued his thoughts out loud. "We chose those very streets for the simulation because they're the ones Chip knew when he was growing up. What could have terrified him so badly about a simple re-creation like that? Lee, you know the man better than I do. Any ideas -- anything that you can remember Chip saying about his past that might account for this?"
Crane shook his head. "You know how Chip is, Admiral, especially when it comes to his personal life. But I've tried to remember every detail he ever told me about his childhood back in Chicago, and I can't come up with anything serious enough to cause this kind of reaction."
"Not that Chip would have necessarily said anything even to his closest friend if something terrible had happened," Harker sighed. Once more, Nelson was amazed at how well she had come to understand Morton in such a short time. "But there is one thing that I'm certain of, and that's the fact that Chip would never have deliberately concealed information from Navy psychiatrists for any reason. You know how conscientious he is when it comes to things that could affect his job."
Nelson nodded thoughtfully. "You're absolutely right about that. But you used the word 'deliberately.' What if Chip had been so traumatized that he simply blocked out an entire event -- something that could only be accessed in an unconscious state like a dream. . .?"
". . .or by a computer simulation!" Harker winced at the idea. "Admiral, what if Chip's unconscious mind is altering the images we put into the simulation? If that's the case, we could have tapped into some traumatic experience that we never intended to!"
"Are you saying that Chip could be trapped inside his own mind, reliving some terror from his past over and over again?" Crane's expression was a mixture of both outrage and fear for his friend's sanity.
"I'm afraid that's about the size of it, Lee -- if all this speculation is correct, in any event," Nelson nodded grimly. "But the worst of it is that we have no way of knowing what else has been distorted by the program. In his own mental landscape, Chip could be any age from five to twenty-five. And if he is reliving some traumatic event in his life, it could take on any form that his unconscious mind chose. Monsters, ghosts, demons. . .Chip Morton may be battling whatever terrors the human mind is capable of inventing for itself, even now."
"I think I understand all of that," Crane shrugged, "but what I don't understand is why Chip's heart almost stops every time that we try to unhook him from the computer. If something that terrible is going on inside his mind, you'd think he'd welcome the chance to escape, wouldn't you?"
Harker shook her head. "His conscious mind, yes, Lee -- but not necessarily his unconscious mind. I'm only theorizing here, but what if his unconscious finally found a way to over-ride the waking mind's repression until Chip confronts his fears, once and for all? Things like breathing and heart beat aren't under our control, anyway: it may be like a mutiny inside Chip's mind right now. Someone other than the conscious mind -- the Commanding Officer, if you will -- has taken over and won't let go of the controls without a fight."
"So what do we do now?" Crane shrugged helplessly. "Sit back and wait until Chip fights things out with himself. . .and hope that the man we know ends up the winner?"
Nelson had walked across the lab and now stood in front of a packing crate. He reached into the box and took out a second pair of the goggles, then held them up for the others' inspection. "Maybe we don't just have to sit here and wait," the Admiral smiled knowingly. "If Chip can't or won't come to us, maybe we can find a way to go to him."
Crane and Harker exchanged worried glances. "No, Admiral, it's much too dangerous!" Harker protested. "We can't risk getting caught up in Chip's nightmare and possibly adding fuel from our own fears and traumas to the fire that's already going on inside his mind."
"What other alternative do we have, Dr. Harker?" Nelson chose his words deliberately, hoping that the formal title would shock his colleague into using her reason -- instead of her emotions. "Wait and hope that Chip is strong enough to overcome whatever it is that's trapping him inside his own mind? Or give him the only kind of support that we can by letting him know that he has an ally in the fight?"
"I agree with Lei -- with Dr. Harker," Crane said. "Admiral, we can't risk losing you to whatever's got Chip so traumatized. Dr. Harker told me that you're the one who did most of the actual simulation programming and that you know the technological aspects of the experiment best."
Harker nodded with more than a little embarrassment. "It was a collaborative effort, Captain," she nodded, "but I'm afraid you're right about one thing. I know the psycho-medical portion of the experiment, but I'm not quite as competent with the simulation programming as Admiral Nelson is."
Harker paused and looked at the two officers with that peculiar blend of pleading mixed with defiance that Nelson knew so well. "Which means that if anyone is going to link up with the CGRS system, it's going to be me," Harker continued calmly. "I have the psychological skills to help Chip, he trusts me. . .and quite frankly, I'm expendable. I'm the one who's responsible for getting Chip into this mess in the first place, and I'll be the one who gets him out of it if anyone can. That or else I'll be the one who stays with him in his nightmare."
Nelson frowned and shook his head once more. "No, I won't allow it, Leila. You're too emotionally involved to link into the system right now," he said quietly, waiting to see what effect this latest bait might have. The Admiral hated testing the woman who was both his colleague and his friend in this way -- but under the circumstances, he had litttle choice. "You're thinking like a woman who cares deeply for a man, instead of reasoning like a scientist. It would be too dangerous to let your emotions color the existing computer simulation."
Harker's face underwent a number of transformations in only a matter of seconds -- everything from pure outrage to blatant disbelief. But when she managed to speak again, her voice was as dispassionate as her expression had become.
"I am a scientist, Admiral, and I'd appreciate it if you'd remember that from now on," Harker's tone was ice-edged. "This may be your laboratory and your computer, but this is my experiment and I have the ultimate control over it. . .and I'd appreciate it if you remember that, too. I have the skills -- not the emotions, the skills -- to save Chip Morton's life and his sanity. And I intend to do just that. Now, if you'll both excuse me, I have some notes to review before I link up with the CGRS."
The small woman swept past Crane and Nelson and out of the Laboratory: Harker's imperious grace would have done credit to a Chinese empress, Crane thought with a little smile. There was no denying that Dr. Harker was a beautiful woman, but she was too intense for Crane's taste. Much too intense, in fact.
Face it, that woman would not only intimidate a bronze statue. . but the horse it was sitting on, too! the Captain shook his head with a grin. How on earth Chip ever worked up the nerve to talk to that woman -- let alone volunteer for her experiment -- is more than I can figure!
"Poor Chip. . .he just doesn't know what he's about to get hit with. Dr. Harker may actually make those monsters and demons look tame by comparison, Admiral!" the Captain managed a feeble joke.
Nelson shook his head, and there was no amusement in his eyes or face. "Let's just hope that there's still enough of Chip's mind left to find by the time that she gets there."
This place isn't exactly a four-star accommodation, but at least it's warm, Morton thought as he stumbled into a small shop. Booths and tables took up part of the store, and he collapsed wearily onto a cracked vinyl seat, propping his crutches against the table. An untouched plate of food sat before him on the speckled Formica table top.
Well, at least some things never change, he smiled as his stomach growled. He picked up the bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich and bit into it, almost without thinking. If this is a dream, it's certainly better than the nonsense I usually come up with, he managed a tired grin. The bacon's crisp, the tomato is still cold. . .and if that's not a cherry Coke and a side order of onion rings, I'll be a monkey's uncle.
Morton was still too cold and exhausted to think -- not that thinking seemed to be doing him much good at the moment, anyway. I couldn't have seen what I thought I saw on that ten dollar bill -- nah! the Exec told himself. . .but at the same time, he made no move to reach for his wallet and pull out more money, either.
However, Morton did touch the manila envelope to make sure that it hadn't somehow gotten lost: the gesture was almost unconscious on his part by now. The papers are still safe -- you haven't let anyone down yet, Morton, so just relax and try to get warmed up enough to think straight. Wandering around in the snow isn't doing you any good. . .you have to figure out what's happening and how to get some help.
The onion rings were still warm, and the Coke was laced with exactly the right proportion of cherry syrup for Morton's taste. I haven't had a BLT and a cherry Coke this good since Anderson's Drug Store went out of business twenty-five years ago! Morton thought, crunching down happily on a golden circle of batter-dipped onion.
In fact, this place looks enough like Anderson's to be its twin -- right down to the black and white floor tiles and the old Regulator clock behind the counter. Five thirty. . .right on the dot. Still.
This store couldn't be Anderson's, though, the Exec knew: the small drug store and its lunch counter had been an early casualty in the war of "cost versus caring." And there had been something else, too, some other reason that Anderson's had closed, but Morton was too tired to remember what it was.
Funny thing -- I haven't thought about Anderson's in years, Morton frowned, struggling to call back the memories. And I used to love that place when I was in grade school. . .Mr. Anderson always treated me like I was somebody special, instead of just a shy, gawky kid.
But the only image he could summon up was as blurred and faded as an old sepia photograph. A man standing behind a counter like that one, Morton struggled to bring the mental picture into sharper focus. He could only see fragments of the man's face and body, however -- the wide smile under a big white mustache: the outstretched hand that beckoned a painfully shy little boy to take the proffered gift of a tootsie roll or lollipop.
The Exec winced at a sudden stab of pain that skewered his temples. A low hum like the sound of an electrical transformer magnified a thousand times abruptly filled the air. Morton cried out, instinctively putting his hands over his ears to block out the maddening noise.
His awareness seemed to be divided between three different places at once -- as though his mind had become a shattered mirror reflecting many images in its pieces. He felt as though he was standing apart from himself: there was the Morton who watched himself eating a sandwich, and at the same time, he seemed to be part of a motionless figure in some distant, shadowy place, as well.
But it was the third image that terrified Morton in a way that he could not explain. His body seemed to shrink until it was much smaller than its normal six foot height. He felt far lighter than his usual compact one hundred and sixty-five pounds, too: no part of his body seemed to be in proportion to the rest of his frame. I haven't felt like this since I was eight years old -- all knees and elbows! Morton thought frantically.
Even that was not the strangest part of the experience, however. All those turbulence-related injuries -- the cracked ribs, the separated shoulder, and even the aching knee -- all those things seemed to melt away again, leaving him pain-free once more. "What. . . is. . .happening to me?" Morton gritted his teeth against the overwhelming sound of the hum, and he could feel his sanity slipping away.
He fell to the ground, unable to bear the sound any longer. And at that, both the hum and the sensation of being split apart from his own mind and body disappeared, leaving him normal again. Or whatever passes for normal in this place, at least, Morton managed a small, if shaky smile. The Exec pulled himself up awkwardly, then sprawled across the bench seat for a moment until he recovered a little from the exertion.
But there were other things to occupy his attention than mere pain -- far more important things. For perhaps the hundredth time since the strange ordeal began, he reached up to touch the precious documents that had been placed in his care: for the hundredth time, he felt relieved to find that they were still in his jacket pocket.
And that's something else that doesn't make any sense, Morton shrugged. I have no idea of what's in those papers or why I was picked as a courier. . .for that matter, I don't even know who I'm supposed to give them to, assuming that there was anybody else in this crazy place besides me.
Whatever else that strange hum had done, at least it had shaken some of the cobwebs out of his thoughts. Morton's expression was intense as he leaned forward in his chair. He seemed to be doing nothing more important than aimlessly doodling figures in the condensation from his Coke glass, but his mind was racing.
Somebody had to give me these documents, he thought, and the frown line between his eyes deepened. Could that person still be alive here, somewhere? How was I supposed to contact him and when?
And that's another thing: I'm wearing my flight jacket -- was I going somewhere in the Flying Sub and just can't remember why or where? If those papers just seemed to "appear" in my coat pocket when I woke up, then maybe there's something else in my pockets that'll help me figure this mess out.
The idea was certainly worth checking out, Morton decided. He emptied his pockets onto the table and inspected the contents. Nothing out of the ordinary: silver Cross pen and pencil set, some change, a small notepad with the most mundane of personal reminders written down. . .and that black tri-fold wallet whose contents had caused him so much distress earlier. Morton took a deep breath and opened the wallet.
Well, the good news is that there isn't any money in my wallet at all now, and the bad news is that I'm broke, he thought with a wry smile. Looks like I'll be washing dishes to pay for lunch!
In fact, the wallet was completely empty: driver's license, military ID, family photographs. . .everything was gone. Everything, that is, except for one scrap of yellow paper that Morton couldn't ever remember seeing before. He reluctantly opened the folded piece of paper and stared at the handwriting. The script was distinctive: bold and yet somehow delicate at the same time.
"I should know that handwriting," he told himself, needing to hear another voice -- even if it was only his own.
The string of numbers was obviously a phone number, even if there was no dash between the number and the prefix -- Morton instinctively knew that much. "O.K., Morton. . .I dare you," he grinned at his reflection in the watery green mirror behind the lunch counter. "What're you going to do if you dial that number. . .and somebody actually answers?"
Morton seldom read science fiction: there were too many technical manuals and work-related journals to take up the small amount of leisure time that he permitted himself. But now he remembered overhearing Patterson and Kowalski discussing a short story in one of Kowalski's pulp magazines -- something about the last man in the world sitting alone in his room.
How did that ending go? Morton shook his head. He retrieved his crutches and stood up, then limped towards a pay phone hanging on the wall at one end of the lunch counter. Something about a knock at the door. . .?
He was tense at the thought of actually dialing the number on the paper, and he didn't notice that the quarter he took from his pocket did not bear the likeness of George Washington. Drawing on the legendary Morton will power and courage, he reached for the telephone's handset. . .
. . .just as the phone began to ring.
"Admiral, I really have to protest this decision," Doc said. "We've already lost one person to this experiment. . .must we risk losing Dr. Harker, as well?"
The Seaview's Chief Medical Officer had stopped by the Laboratory for the hourly check on Morton's vital signs. It was a bootless exercise, Doc knew, especially since the electronic monitoring equipment gave far more accurate readings than his blood pressure cuff and thermometer ever could. But like everyone else, Doc had been reduced to doing whatever he could to feel useful -- even if it only amounted to so much make-work.
Now, Doc watched in disbelief as Harker and Nelson thoroughly checked out the spare set of CGRS goggles. "There isn't any other way, Doc," Harker smiled reassuringly at the physician. "You and I both know that we can't keep Chip alive indefinitely like this, and there's no way to take him out of the simulation without sending him into cardiac arrest. Someone has to go into the simulation with him, someone that he trusts. We need Admiral Nelson here to monitor the equipment, so that leaves me. Don't worry about me -- I'll be fine."
Doc had his doubts about that, too. There was something about this entire situation that didn't make a great deal of sense -- like adding one plus one and coming up with a negative three. With the exception of Lee Crane, no one aboard the Seaview could be said to truly know and understand Chip Morton. . .and even the Captain freely admitted that Morton sometimes seemed like a stranger, even after all these years.
So just how did Dr. Leila Harker manage to insinuate herself so quickly into the Commander's life, anyway? Doc wondered. And not only into his life, but into his heart and mind, too!
"Dr. Harker's right," Nelson interrupted Doc's thoughts with a grim nod. "I had the same concerns you did at first, but I've come to see that she's right. Chip trusts Leila, and I'm needed here. And that's the end of the discussion."
The Admiral's words clearly drew the line between acceptable and unacceptable responses, and Doc knew better than to cross that boundary. As though to emphasize his words, Nelson turned and walked away from the medic toward the far end of the Laboratory. The Admiral busied himself with last minute adjustments to the CGRS, his back turned towards Doc and Harker.
Doc, dismissed! The medic shook his head wryly. The reference to losing Commander Morton to the experiment was a mistake -- a big mistake.
And in any event, the Doctor had come down to the Laboratory on a far different mission than arguing with his superior officer. He took a hypodermic and several glass vials out of his medical kit, then lifted Morton's unresponsive arm and searched for a vein.
"Excuse me, but just what do you think you're doing?" Harker looked up from her checklist and frowned. "If there's blood work that needs to be done on the Commander, I think I should be the one to do it, don't you?"
What happened to all that sweetness and light you usually put out, lady? Doc thought to himself. Aloud, he said quietly, "You and the Admiral were busy with the important things, so I thought I'd do a blood work-up on Commander Morton. I checked through all the print-outs and no blood has been drawn since the first samples you took at the beginning of the experiment. I thought it would be a good idea to check blood gas levels, electrolytes. . .the usual routine medical procedures. Especially since I can't seem to find the results of the first blood work-up you did anywhere in the Commander's chart."
There. . .got it! Doc wisely hide a smile as the hypodermic filled with blood -- he'd managed to stall Harker long enough to get the sample he wanted. And if I play my cards just right, maybe I can get some real answers for Admiral Nelson about what's going on with Commander Morton -- not just what Dr. Harker wants the Admiral to know.
"Now I'm the one who really must protest," Harker snapped, and if her expression had been a knife, Doc knew at whose back it would have been aimed. "I've been monitoring Chip's vital signs carefully for the past forty-eight hours, and I resent the implication that I've haven't done my job properly."
"Not at all, Doctor, and if you thought that's what I was implying, then I apologize," Doc said smoothly, tucking the vials into his medical kit before she could reach for them. "I just thought I'd do some routine blood work and leave the esoteric details to someone more qualified than just a simple Navy medic."
The answer seemed to mollify Harker. Or maybe the right word is 'flatter,' Doc thought with a sardonic smile that he once more kept to himself. But in either case, the Seaview's physician took advantage of the momentary lull in 'fighting' and disappeared out of the Laboratory before anyone could force him to surrender the blood samples. Harker started to say something to Nelson, then thought better of it.
As soon as Doc was gone, Nelson turned back towards Harker, but she was too busy to notice. Her hands flew over the leads, checking each of the connections, and she finished the procedure so quickly that even Nelson was amazed at her speed. "There, that'll do just fine," she managed a tired smile for the Admiral's benefit. "I'll just hook these up, and. . ."
". . .not so fast, there," Nelson held up a hand in protest. "There's no need to jump headfirst into this. Chip's vital signs are holding steady, and unless there's a sudden change, I see no need to rush into a second link-up without making sure that we don't repeat the same mistakes."
Harker shook her head angrily. "Why must everyone aboard this ship question every decision that I make?" she snapped. "First Doc, and now you, Harriman. Every time I turn around, someone treats me as though I'm five years old and can't cross the street by myself without help!"
Harker saw the questioning look in Nelson's eyes and then the way that his face lost all expression. "I'm sorry, Harriman," she apologized quickly, dropping her head a little to avoid Nelson's gaze. "It seems like I've been battling someone all my life just to get anywhere in the scientific field -- you know that as well as I do. First it was my dad with his 'A woman's place is in the home.' And then it was all those professors who consistently downplayed my ideas and gave me lower grades just because 'everybody knows that women think with their emotions and not their minds.' You were the only one who never treated me that way. . .I had no right to land all over you just now."
"I understand -- apology accepted," Nelson replied quietly, but there was still a questioning edge in his tone. "My only concern right now is for your safety. No doubt you disobeyed a direct order and stayed up all night, going over all the data and trying to find out what went wrong. You're tired and worried about Chip -- I just don't want to see you end up in the same condition he's in."
"Guilty as charged, sir -- at least the part about staying up late, anyway!" Harker managed a passable imitation of a snappy salute. "I did stay up until. . . now how does Chip put that? Oh yes: O-dark hundred hours. But I also did manage to get a few hours of sleep before I came down here, and that's more than you got, from the looks of it. I'll be fine, but the question is, will you?"
Nelson nodded, amazed as always at the way that Harker could turn his own concerns for her safety back onto himself. "I dozed between hourly equipment checks -- horses and mules aren't the only ones who can sleep standing up in their stalls. And that's not the first time I've been compared to those particular animals. . .or at least half of the horse, anyway," he smiled wryly at her. "But just to be on the safe side, I think we'll call Doc back down here while you're linked with the CGRS system. He'll be our safety line."
"That's not really necessary," Harker shook her head. "From what I understand, he has his hands full with a flu epidemic. It seems Captain Crane came back from shore leave with some new and exotic strain of virus."
Was it just the fact that Nelson was tired and a little muddle-headed -- despite his brave words -- or was there a shadow of distaste flickering behind Harker's eyes whenever the Seaview's Chief Medical Officer was mentioned?
"Even so, I want Doc down here just to watch the monitors while I run the simulations," Nelson said firmly. "We have enough corpsmen to take care of the flu epidemic, and I'd feel better if Doc was down here in case of. . .problems."
The Admiral did not elaborate on exactly what kind of problems he meant -- not that Harker needed any further explanations. The image of Morton going into full-blown cardiac arrest yesterday was still too vivid in everyone's mind as matters stood. Reviving the Exec had been relatively easy, but that had been a matter of luck -- not to mention Chip's strong heart and will.
"All right, Harriman," Harker nodded reluctantly. "I suppose you're right. But please, make sure that Doc understands that he can't do anything drastic like unhooking me from the machine just because he thinks that something's going wrong."
"I'll see to that," Nelson replied firmly, then gestured at a second cot that he had set up beside Morton. "We still have a few more things to do first, and then we'll call Doc back down here and go ahead with the link-up."
Harker gave Nelson a questioning frown, clearly annoyed at the thought of another delay. But something in the Admiral's expression told Harker that she could not hope to win this time, and she sighed sharply. Harker walked over to the cot, then bent down and ruffled Morton's thick blond hair.
"Don't give up on us, Chip," she said in a voice that was almost a whisper, and Nelson turned away to hide an affectionate smile. "We're going to find a way to help you -- just hang in there. I'll be there with you soon."
Nelson was busy with an elaborate last-minute check of monitoring equipment -- whether it needed that fourth and fifth inspection or not. So busy, in fact, that he failed to see the first movement that Morton had made in almost two days.
It was nothing extravagant: only the smallest fluctuation in the Exec's expression, but it was not lost on Harker. She saw the Exec's face briefly register panic and fear -- two emotions that had not been there just a few seconds earlier.
Harker watched for a moment. . .and smiled.
Morton stared at the telephone for what felt like the longest twenty seconds of his life. The noise was deafeningly shrill after so many hours of silence: he gritted his teeth, desperately wishing that it would end -- and praying that it wouldn't.
There had been any number of times that Morton had been afraid aboard the Seaview. . .and with much justification. But nothing -- no monstrous creature or apparition of the dead -- had ever terrified him as much as that ringing telephone did now.
Summoning up all his courage and resolve, he picked up the receiver but wisely said nothing. For a second or two, there was nothing but the faint hiss of an open telephone line, and he permitted himself a small sigh of relief. Nothing but some glitch in the telephone lines, he thought and started to hang up the receiver.
". . . be there soon. . ." the voice was eerily high-pitched, each syllable drawn out with a faint hiss that sent cold chills down the back of Morton's neck. ". . .soon. . ."
To his credit, Morton did none of the things that a man of lesser willpower and bravery might have done. Instead of crying out in terror or slamming the receiver down on the hook, he took a firmer grip on the handset. "Who are you, and what do you want?" he snapped into the mouthpiece.
". . .soon. . .be there with you soon. . ." the voice echoed in the same hollow whisper, and at that, the line went dead.
Morton replaced the receiver on the hook, and his hand was steady -- but only by the most extreme effort of will. Instead of returning to his table by the window, he stumbled over to a booth that provided him a view of both the main entrance and the back of the store, as well.
His face was ashen, making his blue eyes seem much larger and darker than they actually were: for a moment, all that the Exec could do was stare around the room in fear and panic. Snap out of it, Morton! You wanted to know where you are and what's happened to you -- well, here's your chance! he admonished himself, feeling not unlike a lost and frightened child.
A frightened child. . .the image was a powerful one, and once again, Morton felt the sensation of splitting apart. He frantically clutched the edge of the table to keep from falling face-down against the Formica table top. Something sweet, something dripping from the edge of a table just like this one and puddling up on the floor under the booth. Something red like cherry syrup. . .
His vision was playing tricks on him -- first growing dark and then magnifying the shop's lighting until it seemed unbearably bright. For a second or two, it seemed as though his body was undergoing the same Wonderland permutations, now shrinking to the size of a young boy, then shooting back up to his normal height and weight.
No mind could endure such bizarre shifts in perception for long: in spite of his efforts to hold on, Morton felt his awareness slipping away. He landed heavily underneath the table, desperately wanting the safety of the darkness -- and yet feeling terrified of it, too.
It was dark under the table that day, too, he thought, but the words made no sense. Images and sensations all but overwhelmed him: darkness; a loud noise and then a dull thud on the table overhead; an acrid smell that mixed with the sweetness of the spilled soda. . . and then something splattering his face and chest, something that smelled like a copper penny.
Morton fought back a moan: something was out there, just beyond the booth. It was the leaden color of a winter afternoon; it wore the smell of terror like a woman might splash on cologne; it had a hundred faces, all of them carved from his deepest fears and secret nightmares. . .and it was waiting for him.
But a soft sound like a sigh quickly brought him out of the trance-like state into which he had fallen. "Chip. . .where are you, sweetheart?" someone called quietly, and the Exec exhaled with a great shuddering rush of air -- he had been holding his breath until his chest and sides ached.
Leila! Morton managed a smile, crawling out from underneath the booth. His crutches had fallen beside the table, and he picked them up, struggling to get back onto his feet. That's odd, he thought, finally managing to stand up. You'd think Leila would have given me a hand-up -- wouldn't you? Maybe she just didn't want to run the risk of hurting my leg, trying to help me up. . . yeah, that's probably it.
He could feel his face flush at the thought of what he must look like to the elegant Dr. Harker right about now. Dust from the floor streaked his khakis, his jacket now had a triangle-shaped tear in the sleeve where it had gotten caught on a loose strip of metal from the table's edge, and his hair was as tousled as that of a child who'd just awakened from a nap.
"There you are! We've been so worried about you," Harker cried. She took Morton's arm and steadied him, but the pressure of her fingers on his arm was just a little too tight to be comfortable.
Easy there, girl! Morton shifted to one side, forcing Harker to relax her grip a little. That's better. . .she must've been really worried about me, the Exec thought with a smile.
"Am I ever glad to see you!" he laughed, but even that slight tremor of laughter was enough to make him wobble backwards on his crutches. "For a minute there, I thought you were the bogeyman. That, or whoever's behind all the crazy stuff that's been going on around here."
Harker shook her head with a bemused smile. "Careful, there!" she warned, pulling up a chair for Morton. "You look like -- now how does Harriman put that? Oh yes. . .like forty miles of bad road on a cold, rainy afternoon."
Morton sat down heavily on the chair, still shaken by whatever had just taken place a few moments ago. But the mention of Nelson's name shook some of the fuzziness out of his mind, and he frowned a little. "Leila, what's happened to me?" he asked. "The last thing I remember was being down in the Laboratory with Admiral Nelson when everything went dark, all of a sudden. When I woke up, I was here. . .wherever 'here' is."
"We'll talk about that later." Leila shook her head. She held out a glass of water that had been sitting on one of the tables: gratefully, Morton took a deep drink, hoping that it would wash away some of the coppery taste still in his mouth. "Right now, the important thing is that we have to get you back on your feet and in good enough shape to travel."
"Travel? You mean back to the Seaview?" the Exec shrugged. "Now there's an idea I could go for. Just where the heck are we, anyway?"
Harker shook her head once again. "Like I said, Chip, all that will wait. You just sit here and get your strength back, O.K.?" she smiled. She walked around behind Morton's chair and began to massage his shoulders.
Morton's muscles were cramped and sore after long hours of using crutches: once again, the pressure of Harker's fingers was too strong to be entirely comfortable. But he was too happy at the thought of escaping this strange prison world to care a great deal about anything else at the moment.
"There -- feeling stronger now?" Harker asked after a few minutes.
"Not with you doing that," Morton sighed. He could feel the knotted muscles in his neck and back starting to relax. "A few more minutes of that, and you'll be scooping me up from the floor like a puddle of melting snow. . ."
It was the wrong thing to say -- Morton knew that before the words left his mouth. Not a puddle of melting snow -- not spilled soda. . .it was a puddle of blood on the floor of Anderson's Drug Store! he thought in horror.
I remember now! It was an afternoon just like this one -- cold, snowing. . .I was eight years old. Mom and I went Christmas shopping, and we stopped off at Anderson's to get something to eat because Dad had a meeting that night and wasn't going to be home for supper!
But before he could pursue the thought any farther, the room filled with that gigantic hum again, like a thousand electrical transformers about to overload. He cried out in pain: even so, he managed to grab his crutches and stagger to his feet. "Cover your ears. . ." he began, instinctively reaching out to protect her even at the cost of his own discomfort.
But if Leila heard the maddening sound, she gave no signs of it. She stood before Morton with a thin little smile -- a smile that was too knife-edged to be born of genuine amusement. Or if she was entertained, it was the glee of a small child mindlessly pulling off the wings of insects, not caring about any pain that she might be inflicting on another creature.
"That's right, Chip -- you remember now, don't you?" Harker taunted with a scornful smile. She reached into her large black shoulder bag and pulled out something that gleamed under the store lights. "The robbery at Anderson's Drugstore. . .your mother and father were nice enough to tell the 'lovely young Navy psychiatrist' all about that little incident when I showed up at their house a few weeks ago. Oh, and just in case you're thinking about pulling some of that macho man garbage and trying to overpower me -- don't."
The object in her hand was a .45 -- a sleek weapon that was now pointed directly between Morton's eyes.
Admiral Harriman Nelson seldom swore, but at the moment, he was giving considerable thought to taking up invective as a hobby. It had been 1550 hours when he had last looked at the Laboratory's wall clock, and now -- a half hour later or so later by his calculations-- he glanced at the clock again. 1555 hours, he thought with a sigh.
Despite Harker's desire to hurry ahead with the computer link-up, Nelson had found reasons to stall her. He'd managed to delay the link-up by almost two hours -- and why that had seemed so necessary, not even the Admiral himself could have said for certain.
Something was subliminally nagging at him, something about Doc's quiet insistence on doing a blood work-up -- even though Doc himself could give no good reason for wanting the tests done when the Admiral had asked him about it privately. And getting those test results back took time, the Admiral knew.
But finally, Nelson had run out of plausible excuses to postpone the inevitable, and in the end, Harker's persistence won out. She had linked into the system long before the results of the blood work came back from Sick Bay: now, the Admiral sighed heavily once more at the thought.
That sigh was echoed from across the Laboratory. Doc inspected the computer print-outs and shook his head. "Admiral, it's been over half an hour. I thought you gave Dr. Harker instructions to report back out of the simulation every fifteen minutes," the medic said grimly. "According to what you and Dr. Harker both said when this experiment began, the program was designed to self-interrupt at that interval, just as a safety precaution."
"That was under controlled experimental conditions, Doc," Nelson managed to keep a grasp on his temper -- with considerable effort. Few things infuriated the Admiral quite as much as being told the obvious. . .and Doc was a master of that particular habit. "Dr. Harker and I disabled the auto-interrupt program after Chip collapsed. We were afraid that Chip's unconscious mind might interpret any interruption as a threat and send him into cardiac arrest."
"I. . .see," Doc said slowly, and his expression made it clear that he didn't approve of the deviation. "Admiral, do you really think that was. . .?"
Nelson felt his blood pressure beginning to rise, but before it could reach critical levels, a young corpsman stepped into the Laboratory. "I have the results of Commander Morton's blood work-up," the corpsman handed a clipboard to Doc. "We put a rush on it, just like you asked us to, sir."
"Thanks," Doc nodded. He began to leaf through the papers even before the corpsman left the room: in a moment, the medic whistled softly under his breath. "Admiral -- you need to take a look at this."
Nelson took the clipboard and ran a practiced eye down the columns of numbers. Some of the figures were low, but given that Morton had been fed intravenously for the past two days, it was hardly surprising. But when he turned the first page over and inspected the second sheet, he stared at the words in shock.
"I don't believe this!" Nelson snapped. "If this is accurate, then Chip Morton is a walking pharmacy -- he's taken every tranquilizer and mood-altering drug on the market. . .and probably a few that aren't!"
"Took. . .or was given?" Doc shook his head. "Admiral, think about something, please. How long did it take the Commander to work up enough nerve to ask Angie out on a date? Angie, for heaven's sake!"
Nelson had to smile, in spite of the current situation. It had taken Morton several weeks of finding reasons to drop by the Admiral's office at NIMR before the quiet young officer had finally worked up the courage to invite Nelson's secretary out for dinner and a movie. Angie -- about as distant and unapproachable as an old house slipper! Nelson chuckled, then grew serious again.
"I think I know what you're getting at, Doc, but why don't you go ahead and explain it to me, anyway," the Admiral nodded slowly. For once, he was almost willing to have someone explain the obvious to him. Almost.
"Commander Morton isn't the kind of man who wears his heart on his sleeve -- you and I have both known him long enough to know that much. It took him nearly four weeks to ask Angie out on a simple date, and yet in just two weeks' time, he and Dr. Harker were. . .involved, shall we say?" Doc shrugged with a wry smile, remembering the times he had seen the Exec and Harker together.
Those two might have been talking about chemistry, the medic thought, but it certainly wasn't the kind that came in a test-tube!
"Involved? Those two were tighter than twelve layers of barn paint," Nelson snorted.
He frowned a little now at the memory of finding Chip and Leila together down in the Laboratory -- they'd been working on a far different experiment than the CGRS, unless I miss my guess! the Admiral thought.
"You're right, Doc, now that I stop to think about it. Chip is far too professional for a shipboard romance. It would compromise his position of authority with the crew, and if I know our Executive Officer, he would never willingly do anything that might cause problems later on," Nelson nodded thoughtfully.
"That's exactly what I was thinking, Admiral," Doc stared at the clipboard, then looked over at the two figures laying side by side on the cots. "Dr. Harker has a degree in psychiatry. That's why she devised this experiment, as a potential therapeutic tool -- one that might someday replace pharmaceuticals as standard treatment for certain mental disorders. She's also an expert in the field of psychiatric drugs, isn't she?"
"Yes, but I don't think I like what you're implying, Doc," Nelson's voice was cool, and his face was nearly expressionless -- both signs that he deeply resented any allegations against his protégé.
"Admiral, I don't like what I'm thinking any better than you do, but I can't get these facts to add up any other way," Doc chose his words carefully -- very carefully. "Dr. Harker has access to every one of these psychiatric medications, and all of them can be administered in liquids without the other person's knowledge. You and I both know how often Dr. Harker and Commander Morton had coffee together, and she was always coaxing him to drink milkshakes to gain back some of the weight he lost after he broke his leg. It's that touchy stomach of his -- the least upset to his system and he can barely eat anything without becoming nauseated."
Doc paused long enough for that information to register with the Admiral before firing the last salvo. " No, Admiral, there's something strange going on here, if you ask me. In the past few weeks since Dr. Harker's been aboard the Seaview, Commander Morton has gone from quiet and introverted to outgoing and almost boisterous, at times."
Nelson was clearly torn between two possibilities -- both of them too painful to even consider. "You're accusing Dr. Harker of deliberately drugging Chip Morton in secret," Nelson spoke quietly, but his eyes were full of agitation. "And yet the only alternative is that Chip acquired these drugs illegally and self-medicated to overcome his shyness around Leila. . .but that's preposterous!"
"That's the understatement of the year, Admiral," Doc nodded his head adamantly. "Commander Morton hates drugs of any sort -- you ought to have seen the fight that it took to get him to take even the mildest of pain medicines when he first broke his leg. He was in so much pain that he couldn't sleep, but he balked at taking anything that might 'impair my decision making ability,' as he put it. A man who refuses codeine and fights taking even the lowest dose of analgesics when he's hurting that badly isn't the kind of man who tosses down amphetamines and anti-depressants just because he's nervous around a woman."
Doc paused for a few seconds, then finished quietly, "And being in pain and unwilling to take medication would have made Chip even more vulnerable to any drugs he might have inadvertently ingested, Admiral. On a subconscious level, he would have associated Dr. Harker's presence with relief from the pain he'd been feeling. It would have made him an easy target for whatever trap she might have led him into."
Lee Crane had come into the Laboratory just as the corpsman had left, and the Captain listened grimly to the exchange between Nelson and Doc. "I'm afraid Doc's right," Crane said and handed several sheets of paper to Nelson. "Take a look at this, Admiral -- it's a verbatim transcript of a conversation that I had with Chip's parents half an hour ago. I thought I'd follow up with the idea that there might have been something traumatic in Chip's childhood. . .here, see for yourself."
Nelson read the words quickly, fighting back the urge to smash his fist into the bulkhead or throw something breakable against the deck. "A 'Navy' psychiatrist came to the Mortons a month ago, wanting to talk to them about any traumas that Chip might have suffered as a child," Nelson paraphrased portions of the transcript for Doc's benefit. "They thought it was a little unusual, but the woman's credentials all appeared to be in order, and she seemed genuinely concerned about an incident that she thought might have an impact on Morton's job performance. She said that it seemed as though Morton might have repressed the memory, however, and could they help her understand what had happened so that she could treat Chip more effectively?"
"A little fishing expedition, in other words -- and did it ever pay off in spades!" Crane said. "Mrs. Morton told this alleged Navy psychiatrist about a drug store robbery and shooting that Chip witnessed when he was eight years old. The owner of the drug store, a Henry Anderson, was shot and killed right in front of Chip -- literally, in front of him. Mrs. Morton said that Chip ended up covered in Anderson's blood and was so traumatized that he didn't speak for almost three days afterward."
"But then when he could speak again, he would never talk about that day to anyone. Chip acted as though nothing never happened, because as far as his conscious mind was concerned, it didn't happen. How am I doing so far?" Doc asked -- not that he really needed the answer.
Crane nodded. "You've got the picture, Doc."
Doc frowned a little, trying to put the last piece of the puzzle in place. "Admiral, do you have any idea why Dr. Harker would want this kind of information from Chip's parents? It obviously wasn't to protect the integrity of the experiment and the safety of the participants. If that was the case, she should have disqualified Chip immediately."
At the moment, the Admiral's weary expression made him look far older than he really was. Nelson sat down heavily on a chair and closed his eyes for a moment, massaging the back of his neck. When he looked up at Crane and Doc again, his face was full of sorrow and anger mixed in almost equal proportions. "My guess is that Harker wants whatever information she thinks that Chip has about Project Shadow."
Doc whistled softly -- he'd heard rumors about the top-secret project. And if even half of the scuttlebutt was true, it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what Harker's reasons had been. The medic saw Crane and Nelson exchange knowing glances, and it only confirmed what he had just so correctly guessed.
"She had access to all Chip's training records as part of the psychological profile she did to determine if he was a good candidate for the CGRS experiment. Project Shadow is probably the singularly most important item in those records at the moment. And you know as well as I do, Lee, what price the Shadow technology would bring on the international market," Nelson shook his head, glaring down at Harker's immobile profile. "If we're right, Leila has almost gotten away with the perfect crime. She just didn't count on Doc's tenacity when it comes to the health and well-being of every man on this ship, thank God."
Doc smiled sadly: praise from the Admiral didn't come anyone's way on a daily basis, but the cost of those rare words might well be a much higher price than the medic was willing to pay. For his part, Crane fought back a little shudder: if he and the Admiral were correct, Morton had been lured into a trap that he might never escape.
Project Shadow, Crane thought, the Navy's latest advancement in submarine warfare and the kind of top secret information that any enemy government would kill to acquire.
Admiral Nelson had been one of the scientists involved in developing the Shadow technology, and the Seaview itself would be the beta test site in a few months, when the final details were worked through. Not that the Shadow material itself was all that impressive -- it looked like a few gallons of ordinary house paint. . .and not necessarily high quality house paint, at that, Crane thought with a small sardonic smile.
But when the Shadow material was bonded to the surface of a plane or ship, its value became immediately apparent. It absorbed some radar or sonar waves while dispersing the rest: the result was a blurry echo on the screen that might easily be mistaken for a much smaller object. Only a highly trained observer could distinguish the signature echo of a whale or a school of fish from that of a Shadow-camouflaged submarine. And Morton was one of only five such observers in the country at the moment, Crane knew.
Originally, Crane himself had been the one selected to attend the Shadow training school, but a bout with the flu had forced him to cancel out at the last minute. Nelson had chosen Morton as a replacement: the Exec had leaped at the opportunity, always looking for ways to improve his already formidable array of skills and abilities.
It could have been me in the middle of this nightmare instead of Chip, Crane thought sadly, turning slightly towards the cot where Morton lay unmoving. Hang in there, buddy -- we'll find some way to get you out of this!
But there was something that the Captain couldn't quite figure out -- and that was what Harker hoped to gain by this elaborately staged charade. "I don't understand, Admiral," Crane shook his head. "I thought you said that Chip and the others were trained in reading sonar patterns -- not how the Shadow material was actually formulated and made. Something about not compromising security."
"That's right, Lee, I did say that," Nelson nodded in agreement. "The trained observers only know how the Shadow material affects sonar and radar. Other than that, they were deliberately left in the dark concerning chemical composition and exact formulation."
The same thought occurred to Doc and the Captain at almost the same moment. "If that's the case, then what good would Commander Morton's knowledge do without the formula to recreate the Shadow material in the first place? And if he doesn't have the information that. . ." Doc's voice faltered as he realized the full implications of the situation.
"You're right about that, too, Doc," Nelson said quietly. "Chip is caught up in the middle of his own private hell right now, along with a woman who may very well be a spy and a traitor -- or worse. And the worst thing of it is that there's nothing we can do to help him. . .nothing that doesn't put him at more risk than he already is, that is."
"Admiral, what happens to Chip if he's 'killed' in the computer simulation?" Crane asked, knowing that he probably wasn't going to like the answer. "Does he just wake up as though he's had a nightmare, or will his mind react as though he's actually been shot or stabbed?"
The uncertain look in Nelson's eyes gave Crane the only answer he needed. "Now what do we do?" the Captain gestured over at the two motionless figures linked together by fear now, as well as by wires. "Can't we just unhook both of them from the CGRS?"
"It's much too risky, Captain," Doc shook his head. "At this point, we could send them both into cardiac arrest if we try to take them out of the simulation. Commander Morton survived one episode, but there's no guarantee that we'd be able to revive him a second time, especially in his weakened condition. There's just no way to predict what would happen if we do something as abrupt as terminating the program."
Crane's patience was wearing thin. "Surely there's something we can do to help Chip, isn't there?" he demanded.
"The only things we can do, Lee," Nelson ran his fingers through his short-cropped red hair in frustration. "Wait. . .and pray."
The hum grew until it seemed to fill every corner of the room -- and every corner of Morton's mind, as well. The Exec groaned, struggling to reason with his usual clarity, but it was impossible. Logic and understanding all disappeared under that tidal wave of sound, leaving Morton helpless. He tried to block out the onslaught of noise by concentration, but if anything, the sound only grew louder.
"Don't fight it, Chip, 'sweet heart,'" the endearment dripped sarcasm, and Harker laughed again at the sight of Morton's pain -- a pain that was not merely physical now. "That sound you're hearing is just a little symbol that I programmed into the simulation to represent the repression mechanism. Get too close to those buried memories and presto! They're blotted out of your conscious mind. After all, I still need you sane and functional -- for a little while at least."
"Why, Leila? Why are you doing this to me?" Morton gasped. He stumbled backward and managed to land on a chair, but there was no way that he could overcome the pain of that noise. "I thought you cared about me."
Harker smiled sweetly. "Of course I care about you, Chip," she walked towards him, but the gun never wavered. "You're the most important thing in my life right now -- you, and the million dollars that I'll be getting from the Leader of the People's Republic when I hand over the formulas from Project Shadow."
Project Shadow. . .of course! Morton thought, and the memory was enough to drive the blurriness out of his mind. "I understand now!" he cried. "The CGRS experiment -- you weren't interested in data from the simulation. You wanted to trap me here in my own mind, so that you can find out everything you think I know about Project Shadow!"
The hum stopped as suddenly as if a record player's cord had been pulled out of the socket. "Give the man a cigar. . .or maybe that should be a CGRS," Harker laughed at her own witticism. "That's funny, Chip, 'darling.' Why aren't you laughing?"
Morton shook his head with a sardonic smile. "I'm afraid that my sense of humor tends to be inversely proportional to the caliber of the gun that's pointed at me -- even if it is just a left-over stage prop from one of my nightmares."
"Oh, the gun might be just an image from your memories, but it'll have the same effect as a real .45 if I were to pull the trigger right about now," Harker sat down on a chair opposite Morton. "I programmed the computer simulation subroutines to interact with autonomic nervous system functions, Chip. All done subliminally, of course, and nearly impossible to trace in the original programming. . .and don't I wish that I could rub Nelson's nose into that little fact right now. Nelson, the great computer genius -- what a joke! But in any event, Chip, your mind and body won't know the difference between a simulated bullet between the eyes and the real thing. You'll be scared to death -- quite literally."
"Is that what this is all about?" Morton shrugged, slowly beginning to piece together the puzzle. "Showing the Admiral and all those other scientists you've told me about that you're smarter than they ever gave you credit for being? Prove to them that you're as good as anyone who ever put down you and your research. . .?"
"As good as?" Harker snorted derisively. "Try ten times smarter and more creative than any of my male colleagues -- the ones that have either sabotaged or stolen my work outright all these years! The Leader of the People's Republic is the only one that's ever treated my work with the respect that it deserves. He told me how much he admired my research -- he said that he'd build me a state of the art research facility in his country and provide all the money I'd ever need to do my work. In exchange, all I had to do was get the Shadow formula for him. . .and that's where you come in, 'darling.'"
Morton said nothing, but he continued to gaze steadily into Harker's eyes. In a few seconds, the scientist dropped her head a little to avoid the Exec's unwavering expression. She glared at Morton for a moment, then smiled mockingly at him.
"Oh, I know, I know -- good old loyal, faithful Commander Morton who would never dream of betraying his country for either love or money. It's a wonder that the Admiral doesn't have to buy you a rabies tag every year. . .you act more like Nelson's little tail-wagging collie dog than a real man most of the time, anyway!" Harker laughed derisively. "Well, I'm going to let you in on a little secret, Chip: the Leader trusted me with an assignment this important because he knew I have the guts to do whatever it takes -- and I do mean 'whatever,' Commander."
Pain that had nothing to do with physical injury stabbed at the Exec. "I believed in you and your work," he said quietly, and his face was full of immense dignity. "That's why I volunteered to be your guinea pig in the first place, Leila. I thought that you cared about people and wanted to help them with the things you could learn in your research. I believed in you."
Harker laughed again, then gestured with the gun at Morton's flight jacket. "Enough of the chit-chat, Commander -- heavens knows, I've had to listen to enough of your love-sick nattering over the last few weeks, even if I was partially to blame for loosening up all your inhibitions with the drugs that I've been giving you. But like I said, enough is enough. Hand over the Project Shadow information. . .now."
Morton's expression never wavered, despite the tangle of thoughts and emotions that were going through his mind and heart at the moment. Think, Morton, think! he told himself urgently. Don't let your hurt feelings and wounded pride get the better of you. . .you've got to figure this thing out and in a hurry!
"Sure, Leila, no problem," he nodded suddenly, and a smile touched the corners of his mouth. "These papers aren't worth dying over, after all. I mean, they're just symbols, right, like something out of a dream? That's all any of this has been -- just symbols of things from my past."
What he was about to do definitely fell into the category of a calculated risk, the Exec knew. But under the circumstances, he didn't seem to have any other choice than to trust his instincts. He slowly reached inside his flight jacket and removed the manila envelope. "Don't get any ideas, Commander," Harker warned. "Try anything and you'll end up just as dead as your friend Mr. Anderson."
The buzzing noise cut through Morton's mind once more, then abruptly stopped -- much to his astonishment. It was as though another image was superimposed over the computer-generated building, and Morton flinched at the memory.
The darkness -- that was when Mom made me hide under the table, after she saw the man pull out the gun to rob Mr. Anderson, he thought. The loud noise was the gun going off when Mr. Anderson struggled with the robber, and the thud was Mr. Anderson's body hitting the table. I saw him slide down from the table top. . .and I got splattered with blood when he hit the floor. I remember now -- I remember!
If Harker saw the kaleidoscope of emotions in Morton's face and eyes, she said nothing. Instead, she concentrated on breaking the envelope seal and opening the packet with one hand, all without lowering the gun in the other.
She eagerly pulled out several sheets of computer paper and started to read through them -- then stopped suddenly. "What kind of game do you think you're playing, Morton?" she snarled, tossing the print-outs onto the table. "Oh, you think you're so clever, don't you -- repressing your memories so that I can't access the information. Well, I have news for you, Commander. . .I created this simulation, and I can use it to break you until you're nothing more than a vegetable laying in some hospital bed for the rest of your life. So I suggest that you cooperate -- at least that way you won't have to suffer before you die."
Morton shrugged, then gestured at the papers with an ironic little smile. "Sorry, 'sweet heart,'" he chuckled, turning over the documents. Both sides of each sheet were totally blank. "You picked the wrong person to give you the Shadow formula. Even in this computer simulation of yours, I can't tell you what I don't know. That was something even you couldn't have known about, Leila -- the fact that none of the trained observers were given the actual Shadow formula. And that's the one thing that's going to ruin this whole elaborate charade of yours."
"You miserable. . .!" Harker snarled as the implications of what Morton had just said sank in. But she mastered herself in a second or two and pointed the gun between the Exec's eyes again. "Well, be that as it may, 'darling,' you're still not going to live long enough to tell anyone what happened to you while you and I were linked into the simulation together. So sorry, sweetheart, it's been fun and all that, but I really must be running along. I'm sure by now that our dear, meddling Doctor has gotten the results of your blood work back. I'm afraid that I just can't let him run to sweet old obtuse Harriman with his findings."
For a brief moment, Morton felt disoriented: it was as though he was once more seeing this false room superimposed onto the genuine one -- the one that still lived in his memory. But even more terrifying was that sensation of splitting into three people at once: the adult Chip Morton here in the simulation; the terrified young boy he had once been; and the motionless figure lying on a cot in that ghostly, far-away place.
No! Morton cried out silently, but the word was not meant as a denial of the sensations and the images he now experienced -- quite the opposite, in fact. No more secrets-- no more fear. If you're going to die, Morton, then die at peace with yourself!
In less than a heartbeat, Morton recognized the terror that he had buried for so long -- the secret grief that had made him keep the world at arm's length all his life. He had never fully given his heart to anyone because of it, always holding back his deepest feelings for fear of losing the people he loved. He saw that all too clearly now as he faced what might be his own last moment of life.
And in that split second, he was free: free to accept the fear itself. . .and to reject the power it had held over him. Without really understanding what he did, Morton instinctively began to laugh out of sheer relief. It was a laughter that was almost indistinguishable from a sob at times -- but it was still the laughter of peace and freedom, nevertheless.
But even as Morton felt himself growing stronger by the moment, something quite different seemed to be happening to Harker. "What. . .?" Harker looked wildly at the Exec, and her expression made it plain that she was hearing something that he could not. "Stop it! Blast you, Morton. . .stop laughing at me!"
Is Leila being affected by the simulation in the same way that she planned to use it against me? Morton thought in confusion. He watched Harker stagger back as though her legs would barely hold her. Harker put her hands over her ears, struggling to shut out the unbearable sounds: her expression was identical to the one Morton had worn earlier when he had heard that terrifying noise for the first time.
It is true! the Exec whistled softly under his breath. Somehow the repression mechanism must be affecting her the same way that it did me. Now who's the mouse in the maze, Leila?
The image of the sophisticated doctor in a mouse costume, complete with tail and whiskers, was more than Morton could stand. In spite of the danger he now faced, he began to laugh even harder. "I said stop it, Morton!" Harker screeched again, and for the first time, the gun trembled in her grasp. "Stop laughing at me!"
"Sorry, Leila -- no can do," he gasped. "Seems like old Chip isn't the only one with a few repressed traumas! I'd be willing to bet my bank account against a Snickers candy bar that the one thing you can't stand is to be laughed at. Remember how you told me that your dad used to laugh at you when you told him that you wanted to be a scientist? And how all those professors would look at each other and snicker whenever you brought up an idea in class? That sound you're hearing is laughter, Leila. . .all those people laughing at you for all those years!"
Even under these desperate circumstances, Morton hated to inflict pain on another person -- and especially someone that he cared about. It's her or me -- but blast it all, I hate having to do this! he thought.
He turned away a little, unwilling to watch Harker's pain and humiliation. But it was clearly working: her face was a warped mask of pain and rage under the onslaught of the noise that only she could hear.
"Make the noise stop or I'll shoot you, Morton!" she hissed through clenched teeth and stamped her foot in fury. "I mean it. . .stop laughing at me or I'll kill you!"
But the Exec could not control his laughter, any more than he could stop the beating of his own heart. Harker screamed in rage and panic, then pulled the trigger again and again. Involuntarily, Morton felt his muscles tense as he waited for the impact of the bullets into his head and chest. . .an impact that never came.
Instead, Harker's small body shuddered as though she had been struck by the same high-caliber bullets that she had meant for Morton. "What. . .is. . .happening. . .to me?" she unknowingly echoed his earlier words. She slowly slid off her chair, and the gun fell from her limp fingers. "Help me, Chip. . .please, help me."
Pity over-rode Morton's common sense, and he tried to stand up. But one of his crutches slipped in a puddle of something red and sticky, and he sprawled out full length on the floor, a few feet away from Harker. He groaned and tried to reach out to her, but he was too weak to drag himself even such a short distance.
Morton was left staring into the flat, unblinking eyes of the woman he loved -- knowing beyond any doubt, now, that he had begun to love her. . .or at least the person she might have once been. We were so much alike, you and I, he winced at the realization. We've both hidden our hearts away all these years to keep ourselves from being hurt again. . .but that's not what hearts are meant for. And now you'll never get the chance to know that because you're too afraid to face your own fears!
"No. . .it doesn't have to be like this, Leila. You don't have to let your fears kill you!" Morton cried out, suddenly angry at the unfairness of it all. He summoned up some last desperate measure of strength and sat up with more energy than he knew he possessed at the moment. . .
. . .only to find himself in a tangle of wires and test leads. Above him, an alarm shrilled from one of the monitors: Morton was vaguely aware of some frantic activity nearby, but he was too weak to remove the goggles that blocked his vision.
"Quick. . . resuscitation gear set up. . .into v-fib. . .we're losing . . .!" the voice was one that the Exec should have recognized, but he seemed to be hearing only fragments of the orders being given around him.
The Exec frantically tried to call up enough strength to free himself. . . without success. He started to fall back heavily against the cot, but someone grabbed his shoulders and managed to keep him upright. That same person removed the goggles that covered Morton's eyes but left the computer leads attached to his head and chest, as though afraid of upsetting some delicate balance.
"Project Shadow. . .Leila. . .sabotaged computer program. . .tried to kill me," Morton gasped. His mind was a blur of ghostly images, and for a moment, he failed to recognize the man who tried to help him. He struggled weakly, trying to escape the other man's firm grasp on his shoulders. "You don't understand. . .simulation is interacting with Leila's autonomic nervous system. . .have to. . ."
"Easy, Chip, you can tell us all about it later," Crane said soothingly, seeing the incomprehension in Morton's eyes. Morton's words meant nothing to Crane at the moment -- the Captain's only concern was the for the Exec's safety and sanity.
And at the sound of that familiar voice, Morton quit fighting, finally recognizing his 'captor.' "That's right -- just take it easy, Chip. We'll sort it all out later," Crane nodded, relieved to see the panic in the Exec's eyes lessening as the seconds went by.
Lee. . .that's Lee, and this is the Laboratory, Morton explained the situation to himself, trying desperately to understand what was going on around him. There's the Admiral and Doc. . .but what's Doc doing with that resuscitation gear?
Crane forced Morton to lie back down -- not that he would have been able to remain sitting up for long, even with help. But the light was too bright for eyes that had been covered for two days, and the Exec winced, shutting his eyes tightly. He struggled to separate dream images from the strange reality he had been thrust into. . .again, with little success.
Time passed -- but how much time, Morton could not have said. His mind was still clouded with dream-like images, and it took all his will power to remain focused on the real world around him. He heard a series of dull thumps, but they were meaningless to him at the moment. Slowly, the Exec's dazzled eyes adjusted to the light level, and he managed to summon up enough energy to turn slightly towards the sounds. What he saw only made him wish that he had kept his eyes shut.
"It's no good, Admiral," Doc shook his head, reluctantly setting down the electro-shock paddles. "Dr. Harker is gone. I'm so sorry, sir."
Nelson nodded and pulled a sheet over Harker's waxen, unmoving face. "You did your best, Doc," he said quietly, but his voice was thick with grief. "You have another patient, though -- one who needs you right now. Let's concentrate on getting Chip down to Sick Bay, shall we?"
". . .no, Admiral," Morton protested, trying to touch the silent figure beside him on the other cot. "Not Leila -- not like this! This is all my fault!"
Gently but firmly, Nelson prevented the Exec from removing the sheet that covered Harker's body. "There's nothing more that we can do for her, Chip," the Admiral shook his head, then started to disconnect the monitor leads taped to Morton's head and chest.
Even if Morton's words had meant nothing to Crane a few minutes ago, Nelson had understood them perfectly. The Admiral thought back over the simulation programming: now he was beginning to understand all those last minute subroutines that Harker had so glibly explained away when he had asked her about them earlier.
Nelson continued the thought aloud as he started to remove the last lead. "I don't know everything that happened to the two of you while you were in the computer simulation, of course. But I heard what you told Lee a few minutes ago, and it's my guess that Leila's unconscious mind was affected by the simulation in the same way that she intended yours to be," Nelson said. Then he quietly added, "You didn't kill her, Chip, if that's what you're thinking -- she died by the same weapon that she intended to murder you with."
"No. . ." Morton groaned, finally shaking the last cobwebs out of his mind. He struggled to touch Harker's arm despite Nelson's restraint. "It doesn't have to be like this. Come on, Leila. . . you don't have to let your fears win!"
Morton made one last desperate attempt to evade the Admiral's hold, and this time, the Exec managed to touch one corner of the sheet covering the doctor's body. The make-shift shroud slipped away from Harker's arm, leaving her hand uncovered. Morton's fingers barely made contact with Harker's hand, but at that, the scientist's body snapped upward as though she had received another jolt of electricity from the resuscitation paddles.
For a second or two, nothing seemed to be happening, but then Harker took a deep, shuddering breath -- and then another and another. Lights and dials on the monitors above her came back to life, charting the impossible events taking place below them.
It was though Morton's will was strong enough to pull Harker back even from death! Nelson thought, watching in amazement at this latest turn of events.
"I don't believe this!" Doc gasped, watching color flood back into Harker's gray, rigid face. "We worked on her for over thirty minutes without getting as much as a heart beat or a brain wave, Admiral. . .and now she's breathing on her own."
Nelson smiled, in spite of the grim thoughts that were going through his mind at the moment -- thoughts that involved trials and prison terms. The Admiral reached down to remove the last connecting wires taped to Morton's forehead. But the Exec seemed to be concentrating intently on something only he could see and hear: now the sight of deep sadness and regret in Morton's eyes brought the Admiral out of his momentary elation.
"What's wrong, Chip? I don't know how you did it, but you managed to bring Leila back from the edge of the grave," Nelson asked quietly. "Based on what you told Lee a few minutes ago, she'll be facing some serious Federal espionage charges when we get back to Santa Barbara. But at least Leila's alive. I'd think you'd be happy about that, if anyone would."
Morton's voice was barely above a whisper as he looked up at the monitoring equipment above him. "There's more than one way to put someone in prison, Admiral, just like there's more than one way to die. And dying isn't the worst thing that can happen to someone you love. I. . .only wish I'd understood that sooner," the Exec said slowly -- and understanding broke over Nelson in a great wave of sorrow.
It would seem that the computer-generated link hadn't been entirely broken between Harker and Morton a few minutes ago. . .and Chip knows more about Leila's real mental condition than any piece of monitoring equipment in this Laboratory, Nelson thought sadly as corpsmen arrived to transport both the Exec and the unconscious Harker to Sick Bay.
But Nelson said nothing, not even to Doc before the medic left the Laboratory and headed back to Sick Bay. I should say something, tell him what I think has happened to Leila, Nelson sighed. But I suppose Doc'll run all the usual tests and come up with the answer for himself soon enough as matters stand already.
. . .and maybe the bottom line is that you don't really want that confirmation a minute sooner than you really have to, now do you, Harriman? Nelson shook his head, busying himself with shutting down the computer simulation and securing the area.
But the Admiral was not the only one doing make-work of the simplest kind -- anything to keep his mind off the events of the last few days. Crane was quiet as he wrapped monitor leads into neat circles and secured them with ties, but there was a questioning look in his eyes.
Finally Nelson looked up and managed a small, tired smile. "Go ahead, Lee, what is it that you want to know?" the Admiral asked, knowing that Crane was deliberately being tactful and considerate of Nelson's mood.
"What now, Admiral? I mean, what happens to Dr. Harker once we get back to Santa Barbara?" Crane shrugged. "How do you go about prosecuting someone for a crime that was only committed in the mind and the heart?"
"I don't know that you can, Lee -- even if that is where all crimes begin. 'The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; who can know it?'" Nelson sighed, quoting the familiar verse. "Besides, Lee, I have an idea that justice for what Leila did to Chip has already been handed down and carried out far more effectively than any court system ever could."
"I don't understand, Admiral," Crane watched as Nelson sat down wearily on a chair beside the now-empty cots. "Are you saying that Chip did something to harm Dr. Harker's mind while they were linked together in the computer simulation? I have a hard time believing that Chip would deliberately hurt anyone if he could avoid it -- especially not someone he cares . . .cared about."
Nelson shook his head. "Not deliberately, Lee -- inadvertently is more like it. I won't know for sure until Doc runs some tests on her, but I have an idea that Leila Harker has just traded a laboratory and a prestigious career for a bed in a nursing home and twenty-four hour a day care. Between the oxygen deprivation and the backlash from whatever she tried to do to Chip, I doubt that her mind ever functions above the level of a six month old baby again."
That could have just as easily described Chip if things had gone just a little differently, Crane thought with a little wince. Something must've given Chip an edge -- some fundamental difference between the way Morton's mind worked and how Harker had responded to the same situation.
Aloud, Crane said, " I wonder if we'll ever know how Chip managed to survive everything that he went through in the simulation, Admiral. He must have gone through hell in there, confronting his own fears -- and yet the first thing he tried to do when he was free was to help someone else. The same person responsible for putting him through that hell, as a matter of fact."
Nelson leaned back and closed his eyes: Crane could almost read the thoughts that were going through the Admiral's mind at the moment. Disappointment in Harker's betrayal; annoyance at his failure to separate his own feelings from the situation; and more than a little pain -- all those emotions fought for preeminence in Nelson's heart and mind.
But then something shifted faintly in Nelson's expression, and it took no guess work on Crane's part to understand those thoughts, either. Memories, Lee thought with a quiet smile, and a few images drifted across his own mind. Memories of the Academy and all the students who had gone on to be quiet heroes -- men and women who'd done tough jobs forr no other reason than they had to be done. Men like Chip Morton, in other words.
"I have an idea that there may be a one word answer to your question, Lee. I once heard a minister preach at a funeral service. He said that the highest praise he could give anyone was that the person was no different in his private life than he was in public," Nelson smiled philosophically at Crane. "If the word 'integrity' doesn't sum up Lieutenant Commander Charles Philip Morton as well as anything could, then you tell me what does."
Crane nodded quietly. "You know, Admiral, I think you're right about that."
"You think?" Nelson said with mock indignation, and suddenly, the pain he felt seemed to melt away a little. "Of course I'm right! I'm the Admiral, and the Admiral is always right. Didn't I teach you anything at the Academy?"
There was very little that Crane could have said to that. Actually, that wasn't exactly true, either, Crane muffled a grin. There were probably quite a few things he could have said. . .and wisely enough, he refrained from saying any of them. Nelson met Crane's amused gaze with a wry smile of his own.
"All right, then, maybe the Admiral isn't always right about everything," Nelson gestured towards the empty cot that Harker had occupied, "but at least I was right about one thing. I made a wise choice when it came to the Seaview's Captain and Executive Officer, didn't I?"
"You'll get no argument from Chip or me on that one, Admiral," Crane smiled as he followed Nelson out of the Laboratory. "No argument at all!"
Snow drifted down softly over the small cemetery: thick, heavy flakes that fell endlessly without ever seeming to accumulate, no matter how long they floated down. But occasionally, a thin shaft of sunlight managed to break through the pewter-colored clouds, briefly gilding a marble gravestone or shyly touching a granite marker.
A tall blond man stood in front of a simple granite column, his head bowed as he leaned heavily on a pair of crutches. Neither the snow nor the injured leg seemed to be bothering him at the moment -- not that he would have paid much attention to them even if they had been causing him any discomfort.
A soft chime from the carillon tower in the middle of the cemetery brought him back to the present: he'd been so wrapped up in his thoughts and prayers that he'd almost forgotten where he was. The flowers, Morton -- don't forget the flowers, he chided himself gently, removing the green tissue paper from the spray that he held.
He placed the bouquet in a bronze vase at the foot of the marker, and for a moment, the deep red roses filled the cold December air with the perfume of a summer's afternoon. A second chime, this one more insistent than the first, made him nod his head, and there was a peace and finality to the gesture.
"Good-bye, sir," Morton smiled as he reached out and brushed the lacy flakes of snow away from the deeply incised name on the marker. "Thank you for everything you did for me. . .and thanks for just being my friend."
He opened his eyes just as a metallic-sounding voice announced, "Auto-interrupt sequence complete. Simulation terminated."
Morton removed the goggles that he wore and then looked up from the cot where he lay in the Seaview's Laboratory. "Thank you, sir," Morton's eyes were full of peace, and he met Admiral Nelson's questioning gaze with a deep smile.
"Thank your parents, Chip. They're the ones who went to all the trouble of making the film for the primary images," Nelson shook his head, but he still wore a pleased expression, despite his protest. "The rest was just a matter of spending a little time on the computer, adding the appropriate effects."
Nelson smiled to himself as Morton stretched and yawned. Two weeks of detoxing from the drugs had left the Exec thin and shaky but with no other apparent side effects -- physical or mental. After another week or so of recuperation, he'd been cleared for light duty. . .and one of the first things that he'd done was to request a meeting with the Admiral.
It had taken no guesswork on Nelson's part to know that Morton wanted to volunteer for any further experiments with the simulator. The Admiral had spent those three weeks cleaning up all the subroutines that Harker had added to the CGRS program: finally, he'd satisfied himself that the simulator was working properly -- including all the newly-installed safety procedures.
Before Morton could say a word that afternoon, Nelson had launched into an explanation of the latest experiment that he proposed to perform -- one designed specifically with the XO in mind. Even now, Nelson secretly relished the memory of Morton's thunderstruck expression when he'd handed the Exec the package containing film for the simulation.
From the looks of it, I'd say I made a good decision, Nelson thought with a smile. Chip needed to deal with any residual trauma caused by the CGRS -- and what better way than by using it to let him say goodbye to someone he cared about? But speaking of that. . .
"Chip, I'm not sure that we'll be able to get permission from the nursing home to film inside the facility. No doubt there'll be issues of patient privacy. . ." Nelson began with some hesitation in his voice.
"That's all right, Admiral. I need to make that trip in person, anyway, once we get back to Santa Barbara," Morton shook his head firmly. . .and if Nelson had expected to see a wince of pain or a look of sadness in the Exec's eyes, there was no such reaction.
Apparently his mind is healing even better than we'd hoped it would -- and that's something that Leila could have never foreseen, the Admiral thought, rolling the test leads into neat circles and securing them with wire ties. 'As for ye, ye thought evil against me, but God meant it unto good.'
Morton sat up slowly, and judging from his expression, there was another request that he wanted to make, but was too shy to ask. "Uh, sir. . .?" he began hesitantly.
"Yes, Chip, I will. As a matter of fact, I'm honored that you'd ask me to go with you. I have a goodbye of my own to say," Nelson answered the Exec's question before he could ask it -- and once more, the Admiral secretly savored Morton's look of discomfiture. "Now, I have some work to do down here, and you have a report to write about this morning's experiment. . .after you eat lunch, I might add."
"Aye-aye, sir," Morton said with a wry smile. He retrieved his crutches where they had been propped against the wall: Doc had promised him only that morning that the cast could come off at the end of the week.
But Morton paused by the hatchway for a second or two and turned back toward Nelson, who still studied his clipboard of notes. Without looking up, the Admiral said, "You're welcome, Chip. . .again. Now get out of here and go get something to eat. And that's an order, Commander!"
"Don't worry about that, Admiral," a quiet voice from the corridor made both men jump a little. Crane grinned, secretly enjoying Nelson and Morton's disgusted expressions at having someone sneak up on them. "I came down to check on how things were going with the CGRS experiment. And now I'll see to it personally that this character gets some chow."
"Fine. . .excellent. . .wonderful idea," Nelson muttered, rolling his eyes. "You do that, Lee." The Admiral turned back to his clipboard of notes, continuing to grumble under his breath for a few seconds.
Captain and XO. . . dismissed! Crane thought with a little chuckle as he carefully closed the hatch after Morton.
When Crane turned around, Morton wore the pleading look of a man who could think of any number of things that he would rather be doing, instead of 'wasting time' eating. It was an expression that Crane had ignored before.
"Oh no you don't, Mister!" he shook his head with mock sternness. "You can just forget pulling that 'my stomach's upset, so I think I'll just go down to my cabin and work on my portable computer' sad-eyed puppy routine on me! Besides which, you have your orders. . .straight from the Admiral, I might add."
"You're right, Lee," Morton shrugged ruefully. "I guess that's why Rules One and Two were the first things we learned in the Academy."
Crane paused in mid-stride. "Rules One and Two?"
"Oh, you know, Lee. Rule Number One: the Admiral is always right," Morton said with a philosophical shrug, then continued down the corridor.
They walked together in silence for several minutes, while the Captain contemplated several large, inexplicable holes in his memory. "Hold it just a minute," he said suspiciously. "Rule One, I know. But I don't think I ever even heard of Rule Two, let alone remember it."
"Lee. . .Lee. . .Lee -- you never heard of Rule Two?" the Exec shook his head with a mildly reproving click of his tongue. "They must have covered it on one of those mornings after you and Sheila. . ."
". . .all right, enough strolling down Memory Lane!" Crane snapped, just as they reached the Officers Mess. His voice may have been stern, but his expression was definitely sheepish. "Are you going to tell me what Rule Two is, Chip -- or do I have to break your other leg just to keep the first one company?"
Morton charitably ignored the Captain's momentary loss of self-control. "Simply stated, Rule Two is as follows: if the Admiral is wrong. . ." he paused for dramatic effect.
From Crane's vantage point, the Exec's smile was nauseatingly beatific. "Will you just get on with it, man? 'If the Admiral's wrong'. . . then what?" Crane snapped.
". .if the Admiral is wrong," Morton grinned just before he ducked inside the Mess, "then there IS no Rule Two!"
Copyright 1999 by China Jade
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