by China Jade
In his best mood at its finest hour on its most shining day, "acerbic" would have been the kindest description of Admiral Harriman Nelson's basic personality. Today was definitely none of the above.
Nelson stalked towards the Missile Room, carrying a cylindrical metal object between his thumb and forefinger, and he wore the delighted expression of someone who had just taken a well-throttled small animal away from a cat. The immediate object of his wrath looked up just as the Admiral walked towards him. . .and now Lieutenant Commander Chip Morton braced himself for the inevitable explosion
Not that the Admiral's visit was exactly unexpected: Morton had flinched a little every time someone opened the hatch since the beginning of watch. And since crewmen were in and out of the area on a regular basis all morning, at times the Exec looked like a marionette controlled by a puppeteer with a bad case of hiccups.
Morton sighed and shut off the butane soldering iron he was using. . .he'd been supervising the modifications to the small satellite that Nelson needed for his latest experiment. Those modifications were well ahead of schedule, and the Exec was counting on that very thing. He'd hoped that those extra minutes would allow him to get down to the Laboratory before the Admiral could begin assembling his part of the experimental equipment. . .
. . .but no such luck. Morton groaned to himself when he saw what Nelson was carrying. The Admiral obviously figured out what I already knew. . .and tried to tell him before we left port, as a matter of fact. But he was too busy with all of the theoretical aspects of the experiment to pay attention to what I had to say.
Without as much as a word of greeting, Nelson held up the Remote Data Collection module for Morton's inspection. He waited for a moment until he deemed that the Exec was suitably nervous, then launched directly into his tirade.
"I specifically ordered twelve RDC modules, Commander. . .would you care to explain why there are only six aboard the Seaview at the moment?" Nelson growled. "And while you're at it, why don't you explain why only three of them seem to be in working order? You know that we only have a small window of opportunity during the developmental stage of the typhoon to launch this satellite!"
He glared down at the module and then over at Morton. . .and with that, the entire work crew found perfectly good reasons to be somewhere -- anywhere -- other than the Missile Room. Feeling like the proverbial sinking ship, the Exec muffled another small sigh.
"Admiral, I'd mentioned to you before we left port that there weren't twelve working RDC's in the country. . .and that I'd called in every marker I owned to get the six that we do have, sir," Morton said quietly, choosing his words with great caution. "The Supply Officer at NIMR is pulling every string he can, and we anticipate having the other six modules by late this evening. I can take FS-1 back to Santa Barbara as soon as I get done with the modifications to the WEX-SAT this afternoon. I'll pick up the rest of the RDC's and be back here before morning. We're well ahead of schedule with the modifications, so it won't matter if I'm gone for a few hours, sir."
Never mind a few small details like food or sleep, but hey, you knew those were optional for XO's, anyway -- right, Commander? Morton shrugged. Just for once, I wish the Admiral knew what it's like to be in my shoes. . .just once!
"That's all well and good, Commander, but in the meantime, what exactly am I supposed to do with the three non-working modules?" Nelson grumbled, only moderately mollified by Morton's explanation.
It took every ounce of Chip Morton's legendary self-control not to make the obvious suggestion. Complete with detailed instructions and diagrams, if necessary.
"According to the Supply Officer at NIMR, sir, those three RDC's only need a resistor replaced, and then they'll be fully functional again, sir," Morton managed to keep his voice level. . .but only with considerable effort. "I taped a note to that effect onto the three non-functioning modules, sir."
"Oh, is that so?" Nelson snapped as he held up the module for Morton's inspection. "Would you care to show me this alleged message, Commander?"
Even as he spoke, Nelson could hear the petulance in his own voice. . .and the rational, sensible part of his personality recognized the unfairness of the tongue-lashing that he was currently administering. Morton's face was as impassive as ever, but now Nelson could see the hurt in the Exec's quiet blue eyes as he reached out to take the module.
"I taped the note on the inside of the module, sir, along with a diagram with the specific resistor marked in orange highlighter," Morton said levelly as he opened the RDC's case and held it out for Nelson's inspection. "I know that you usually check out components thoroughly before you install them, Admiral, and I thought you'd see the note when you opened the housing. With all the activity going on here and down in the Lab, I was afraid that a note taped to the outside of the module might get lost, sir."
A small piece of paper inscribed with Morton's neat handwriting was now clearly visible inside the metal shell, and Nelson sighed heavily. An apology was clearly in order, but even though he knew that he should say something, a hard lump of irrational anger seemed to choke off anything the Admiral might have wanted to tell Morton along those lines.
Nelson turned away for a few seconds, trying to master his anger and annoyance. . .with only moderate success. There were times when he wondered if anyone else aboard the Seaview had the slightest idea of the pressure that he lived with.
Doesn't anyone around here realize that I'll have the grant committee breathing down my neck if a multi-million dollar weather experiment goes down the drain -- all because of a hundred dollar module? Nelson grumbled to himself.
Maybe I expect too much from Chip. . .but blast it all, it's the Exec's job to see that things run smoothly aboard this ship! Well, isn't it?
It was a rationalization at best, and Nelson knew it. For a second or two, the Admiral teetered between unrighteous indignation and the apology that he knew he should make. But something about the Exec's phlegmatic personality always seemed to trigger the worst in Nelson's mercurial nature. . .and this morning was no exception.
"All right, Commander, I'll go replace the resistors -- even though that particular job should have been done before we left Santa Barbara," Nelson nodded coolly.
Those weren't the words he originally intended to say to his Exec, but they slipped out before he could stop them. The Admiral was used to dealing with Lee's moodiness and Sharkey's perpetual nattering, but understanding Morton's basic nature had always eluded him, somehow.
And like most scientists, Nelson's own inability to solve a mystery was intolerable to him. Feeling far more annoyed with Morton than the situation actually warranted, the Admiral reached out to take the module once more. Leaning awkwardly over the satellite, Nelson all but ripped the RDC from Morton's hand.
As a result, his fingers didn't close securely over the device's oddly-shaped metal casing before it left Morton's grasp -- sending the module hurtling towards the satellite. Morton had been about to replace the satellite's protective panel when Nelson walked into the Missile Room. At the moment, its components were still exposed. . .including its power supply. The high voltage power supply.
"NO!" Morton yelped in frustration, seeing an entire morning's work about to be destroyed in a matter of seconds.
"NO!" Nelson snarled, picturing the faces of the grant committee members who had approved the funding for the experiment in the first place.
Neither man was thinking clearly, or else they would not have done what they did next. Both Nelson and Morton made a dive for the module at the same instant, and both men's hands closed on the device at precisely the same time. Their efforts were swift, precise. . .and only marginally too late to prevent the RDC's metal case from touching the exposed wiring inside the satellite -- thus completing the circuit.
An enormous blue spark arced between the satellite and the module, then passed through any material that was both conductive and part of the circuit. Human hands simultaneously touching a metal object met both criteria nicely. . .and for a second or two, Nelson and Morton felt a sensation like a million needles and pins stabbing up through their arms and then throughout their entire bodies.
An eerie green glow surrounded them, followed by a series of bright flashes of light. Always the scientist, Nelson found himself fascinated by this latest development, and he carefully observed the peculiar aura around him.
It must have something to do with the modifications we made to the satellite, he thought with calm detachment. I wonder what we. . .?
But delicate components -- both mechanical and biological -- were never created to withstand such a violent overload. In a few more seconds, the satellite's power supply shorted out with a spectacular shower of sparks and a dense cloud of smoke from burning circuit boards and insulation. Nelson felt himself falling heavily to the deck, and his mind was a blur of strange images and disjointed thoughts. . .no doubt the result of the electrical shock.
The Admiral struggled to stand up, but his legs refused to obey his commands, and he collapsed once more, snarling an oath or two under his breath. The microphone with its promise of help was only a few feet away, but it might as well have been at the other end of the solar system, as far as the Admiral's ability to reach it was concerned.
Some commanding officer you are! Nelson snapped to himself, furious at his own weakness. One of your people needs help, and you can't even manage that much for him!
Once more, he fought to crawl the short distance to the microphone, but even that small amount of effort exhausted his tiny reserves of strength. He only had time for one final thought before the darkness totally engulfed his mind. . .and at that, it made absolutely no sense to him: ". . .my. . .once!"
It might have been minutes or it might have been hours later, but when Nelson finally awoke, he felt as if every bone in his body had been broken. His head ached intolerably, and there was a sour taste in his mouth -- much as if he had gone bobbing for anchovies floating in a barrel of used motor oil.
He looked around the Missile Room -- or as much of it as he could see while laying on his back, at any rate. Added to that was the blurred vision that he was experiencing at the moment, too: apparently, the electrical shock had made his notorious short-sightedness even worse than it normally was. But then a groan from the other side of the satellite reminded him of the reason that he was in his present condition.
Chip! Nelson thought, shaking the last cobwebs from his mind. I've got to get some help for him. . .that was quite a jolt we both took, and he could be seriously injured!
He tried to sit up, but no part of his body seemed to respond, despite his frantic insistence that it do so. Finally, he managed to roll over onto his side, but only with extreme effort. Now he could see his arm and hand a few inches away from his eyes. . .and he frowned at the sight.
For one thing, his fingers seemed much longer than he remembered, and for another, there was a little scar shaped like the constellation Orion on his wrist that for the life of him, he couldn't ever recall seeing there before. And that was to say nothing of the fact that the electric shock had somehow bleached the red hair on his arm to a much lighter color than it had ever been.
I wonder what else that jolt of electricity has done to me? Nelson thought with a frown.
Despite his best efforts to remain alert and focused, he was still light-headed and a little disoriented. But for the moment, there were far more urgent considerations than his own physical and mental condition. With a nearly superhuman effort, the Admiral managed to sit up, and when he did, he was amazed at the sudden amount of strength and energy that flooded his body.
This is incredible. . .I haven't felt this good in twenty years. he grinned to himself. As a matter of fact, I feel like a new man!
Still feeling that incredible rush of strength, Nelson stood up quickly. He walked around the smoldering satellite and headed towards the microphone hanging on the wall, intending to call for help for Morton.
The violence of the force field had been enough to throw Morton several feet away from the satellite, over in the shadow of the missile silos. The Exec had fallen face down on the deck, and now a worried Nelson paused long enough to kneel down beside Morton, intending to check his vital signs.
That's odd. . . I always thought Chip was a lot taller than he really is. . .to say nothing of having much lighter hair, the Admiral frowned as he grasped the Exec's shoulder and started to roll him over onto his back. I hope this blurred vision isn't a permanent side effect of all that electrical current.
But one thing's for certain -- Chip's going to have to lay off all the fudge and cookies that his mom's always sending him. He's getting downright portly!
Despite the seriousness of the situation, Nelson permitted himself a small chuckle at that thought. With an effort that taxed even his new-found strength and energy, the Admiral finally succeeded in turning Morton over onto his back. Nelson started to reach towards the Exec's throat, intending to check the carotid pulse. . .
. . .and found himself staring down at his own face.
What. . .the. . .devil? the Admiral's eyes widened in horror, but he was unable to tear his gaze from that familiar face -- the one that looked back at him in the mirror every morning when he shaved.
Like a camera lens that had just been adjusted, Nelson's eyes suddenly focused perfectly once more, whether he wanted them to or not. He felt a roaring in his head as he stared at the impossibility there in front of him, and a dozen disjointed thoughts went through his mind.
If I'm alive, then why am I standing here, looking down at myself? he thought with a bewildered shrug. But then again, if I'm dead. . .why does my skull feel like I've been using it to drive railroad spikes?
He bent down a little and inspected the body more closely. Like many people, Nelson usually paid very little attention to the parts of himself that weren't in immediate view: his hands, arms, chest, and stomach were probably the only things that he could have identified with any degree of accuracy as being his own.
Now Nelson peered down at the form, trying to determine several things: first, if it was alive, and secondly, if it was anything that might possibly have been attached to his own mind at one time. He could see the chest rising and falling, which pretty well eliminated the possibility that he was dead. . .if indeed that was his physical form.
Continuing his inspection, Nelson made note of other details: that crescent-shaped scar on the forehead from the time that his cousin had clocked him a good one with a socket wrench; the collar pips of an Admiral on the khaki shirt. There was even the odd little angle of the left hand, from the time that he had broken his wrist in a plane crash and the fracture had never healed properly. Now there was no doubt in his mind.
That is definitely my body, he decided with a little shiver.
That thought was followed quickly by, What the devil are all those lines doing around my eyes? I'm not that old. . .I can't be!
A metal toolbox sat near the satellite, its bright stainless steel sides catching the Missile Room's light and reflecting it back just as a mirror would have done. Still badly shaken by what he had just experienced, Nelson staggered over to the tool box and stared down at his reflection. But far from reassuring him, what he saw there was every bit as frightening as seeing his own body stretched out on the deck had been.
It's not possible, but there's the evidence right in front of "your" very own eyes, Harriman. . . so to speak! the Admiral groaned dully, running his fingers through his hair in his customary gesture of frustration or disbelief.
Hair that was now blond instead of red -- to say nothing of eyes that were a cornflower blue instead of Nelson's own stormier shade of that same color. The sharp jab of thoughts going on behind those eyes definitely belonged to Admiral Harriman Nelson, but that was more than could be said for the face in the 'mirror.'
The familiar, unmistakable face of Chip Morton.
'If you ain't what you is, then you is what you ain't,' the old saying came back to haunt him with an ironic little twist that it had never possessed before.
For a moment, Nelson was torn between laughing. . .and crying. For one of the few times in his life, he wasn't in control of a situation, no matter how bizarre that incident might have been -- and the Seaview had certainly seen more than her fair share of the weird, the grotesque, and the downright peculiar. But then the scientist reasserted itself in him, and he shook his head, trying to "ponder the imponderable and unscrew the inscrutable," as one of his old Biology professors would have said.
The Admiral fought to keep his thoughts focused, despite the nausea and disorientation that he felt at the moment. If my consciousness has somehow been transferred to Morton's mind, then I wonder if his consciousness has been switched to my mind?
But the first order of business is to call Doc and get some help for Ch. . .for my. . .for that body over there. Preferably the kind of help that will keep "my" mind heavily sedated -- no matter who's occupying it at the moment. I need to buy myself some time so that I can sort through this muddle and figure out what's happened here. . .and two "Admiral Nelsons" would only complicate the equation at this point!
Nelson managed to stumble the short distance over to the microphone, feeling as if he were tottering on a pair of stilts. "Tall" and "svelte" were not adjectives that had ever been successfully applied to the Admiral's stocky frame, and now Nelson struggled to master the use of Morton's lean, lithe form like a man learning to drive a new car.
"Ne. . .Morton to Sick Bay," he managed to correct himself just in time, despite the shock of hearing "his" own voice for the first time -- one that was at least half an octave higher than his own bass growl. "There's been an accident down in the Missile Room. Report down here on the double."
"I'm on my way, Commander," Doc's response was quick, and Nelson sighed in relief, then settled back to wait for the medic and his corpsmen.
The Admiral had already formulated a plan to make sure that things went the way that he wanted them to when Doc arrived in a few minutes. And that left him with a little time to consider his current predicament.
It's finally happened -- my worst nightmare has come true. I've turned into my Executive Officer, the Admiral shook his head. Good old dull-as-dishwater Chip Morton with a mind as sharp as Jell-O!
Shaking aside that thought, Nelson turned his entire focus on the problem at hand: unfortunately, he had more questions than answers to go along with them at the moment. But before the Admiral could continue with his analysis of the situation, he heard footsteps out in the corridor, coming towards the Missile Room.
What he was about to do was definitely a calculated risk and one that might have appeared callous to anyone but an admiral or a scientist. But under the circumstances, the benefits seemed to outweigh the dangers. . .and that was Nelson's usual yardstick for any plan of action, irregardless of who was involved.
Seeing himself in my body is bound to be a shock at first, but then again, I've managed to adapt here in just a matter of minutes. And if I can adjust so quickly, then Morton should be able to cope with it, too, Nelson thought with the detachment that came so naturally to him. But he'll still be a little disoriented when Doc gets here. . .and that's exactly what I had in mind.
He stood behind the Exec so that Morton couldn't see him, then reached down and shook his own body by the shoulder. Morton (or whoever it was that now occupied Nelson's form) cried out at even that small touch, but in spite of the pain, he still didn't fully awaken.
Oblivious to anything else except the need for Morton to be partially alert when Doc arrived, Nelson shook him a little harder this time. Even without being jarred, muscles tended to cramp after receiving an electrical shock, and now the Exec moaned softly as his eyes fluttered open.
"Chip. . ." Nelson said sharply, and he instinctively knew that his tone of voice would be enough to bring Morton even more alert. "Chip, wake up. There's something you need to know."
Nelson watched as Morton struggled to wake up. And when the Exec finally managed to fight his way back to awareness, Nelson could instinctively tell from the changes in his body's posture and expression that Chip Morton's consciousness did indeed inhabit the Admiral's physical form now.
"Admiral, I'm so sorry about the satellite. . ." it was obvious that Morton was still badly shaken, but he began to apologize almost before he was fully coherent. . .
. . .then stopped in obvious shock at the sound of his own voice. "I don't understand," the Exec groaned as Nelson quickly helped him to a sitting position before Morton could see his own body standing behind him. "My voice sounds funny, and I don't feel. . ."
At that moment, Morton caught a glimpse of "himself" in the toolbox's polished side. He stared in obvious bewilderment for a second or two at the impossible sight in front of him: then he reached up and touched the face that couldn't be -- but obviously was -- his own.
His fingers only confirmed what he was seeing, and Morton began to shake violently. "I don't understand. . . it's not possible," the Exec's voice was little more than a low moan at first.
He turned slightly and started to say something to Nelson who was still standing behind him, out of Morton's direct line of sight. But when the Exec looked up and saw his own body standing over him, it was more than his already overstressed and badly fogged mind could cope with.
The moan became a shrill scream of terror, and Nelson was stunned by the sound. He hadn't really believed that his plan could or would send Morton over the edge of sanity altogether. . .but for one of the few times in his life, Nelson had apparently made a serious miscalculation. Morton fell back against the deck, clawing violently at the face he now wore, as if he could somehow tear it away like a strange and suffocating mask.
I thought he'd just be disoriented enough to be kept under sedation, the Admiral shuddered at the mindless fear he now saw in Morton's eyes. I never dreamed this would happen!
At that moment, Doc ran into the Missile Room, followed by Lee Crane and two corpsmen, and the medic took in the sight of "Nelson" thrashing wildly on the deck as he tore at his face. Immediately, Doc reached into his medical bag for a sedative -- the only part of the Admiral's plan so far that had actually gone the way he'd hoped it would.
"Admiral, no! Don't do this to yourself!" Doc cried, then gestured desperately at the two corpsmen who had followed him down to the Missile Room. " Give me a hand, here. . .I don't know what's going on, but he'll hurt himself badly if we don't get him sedated in a hurry!"
The corpsmen were solidly built, but even so, it took all their combined strength to subdue "Nelson" long enough for Doc to prepare the hypodermic of sedative. The medic quickly administered the shot, and in less than a minute, Morton's terrified cries died away into blessed silence.
"Chip, what happened here?" Lee Crane demanded, as he took in the sight of the badly damaged satellite and the obvious smoke and burn damage to the Exec's uniform.
There was no response, and Crane's voice became sharper with concern. "Are you all right?" he demanded. "What the devil happened down here? Chip!"
The Admiral was still badly unnerved by everything that had just taken place, and it took him a second or two to realize that Crane had asked him a question. Now he looked at Crane with what he hoped was a suitably conciliatory expression -- the kind he imagined an Executive Officer would wear when confronted by his Captain.
Easy does it, Harriman, he admonished himself. You've been an Admiral for so long that you've forgotten what it feels like to take orders from a Captain!
"The satellite, Lee. . ." Nelson gasped, trying to imagine what Morton would have said under the circumstances. "I was working on the satellite when Admiral Nelson came down to ask me a question about the RDC units. He had one of the modules in his hand when he leaned over the open satellite panel. . .and he dropped it. We both made a dive for it at the same time, but we didn't catch it before it shorted out the satellite's power supply."
"You're both doing good to be alive, then, Commander," Doc looked up momentarily from his field assessment of 'Admiral Nelson' 's medical condition. "No wonder the Admiral was in such a terrible mental state. . .an electrical shock like that can do unbelievable things to your mind."
Tell me about it, Nelson thought wryly. But at least Lee seems to be buying my Chip Morton impersonation, and that's all that counts at the moment.
"I'll say they're lucky to be alive!" Crane whistled, inspecting the puddle of copper wire and burnt insulation inside the satellite. "Chip, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snap at you a minute ago. It was just a shock to walk in here and see the Admiral going off the deep end, that's all. How is he doing, Doc?"
"We'll transport him down to Sick Bay and keep a close eye on him," the medic nodded at Crane and 'Morton.' "Other than some electrical burns to his hands and arms, he seems to be in remarkably good physical condition, especially given the nature of the accident. Commander, I want you to come with us, too. You need a thorough examination to make sure that you're not suffering from residual effects of the shock -- a heart arrhythmia or some other condition that isn't immediately obvious."
"Chip, I want you to do what Doc tells you and take it easy," Crane nodded in agreement, and his voice was full of compassion and concern for his friend. " Now as hard as this may be for you to believe, we'll figure out a way to manage without you for awhile. It'll be tough. . .but we'll survive."
"Aye, sir," Nelson managed a small smile at Crane's good-natured teasing.
"Captain Crane is right, Commander. I want you to come with me now down to Sick Bay," Doc said soothingly, as he took 'Morton' 's elbow and steered him towards the Missile Room's hatch. "You need some food and rest. . .we'll get you back to your old self in no time."
If only it was that easy, Doc, Nelson thought as he followed Doc down to Sick Bay.
. . .if only it was that easy!
There had only been a few times in Harriman Nelson's life when he had been more glad to see a day come to an end. The only serious contenders for that dubious honor were the day of his father's funeral or the time that he'd had an emergency appendectomy in the middle of a mission in the Arctic.
Trying to stay in character as Chip Morton had left Nelson more physically exhausted than he had been in years: it had taken every bit of his skill and alertness to keep up the pretense, and now he yawned for the fifth time in less than two minutes. But the Admiral's mind was a tangle of restless thoughts, and sleep didn't seem like a possibility at the moment, even with the assistance of the medication that Doc had insisted upon giving him.
Good old Doc. . .if Babe Ruth was the Sultan of Swat, then Doc is the Viceroy of Valium, Nelson snorted to himself as he rolled over onto his side and stared at nothing in particular.
His amusement was short-lived at best. Even that small sound of laughter was enough to disturb Sick Bay's only other occupant: Morton groaned and tossed restlessly on the bottom bunk, despite the amount of sedation that Doc had poured into him.
But to Nelson's relief, Morton quickly fell back into the shadowy world of artificial sleep before he could completely regain consciousness. Earlier in the evening, the Exec had awakened briefly before Doc could administer a fresh round of sedation. . .and even now, several hours later, Nelson was haunted by the memory of Morton's agonized cries.
But that wasn't the only port of call on the Admiral's current guilt trip. Every time that he closed his eyes, he could still see the hurt expression in Morton's eyes when Nelson had unfairly accused him of lying about the note on the RDC module.
Well, I didn't actually accuse him of lying -- not really, anyway, the Admiral shrugged to himself. . .and then shook his head. Oh come on, Nelson, stop kidding yourself. You didn't believe Chip, and you certainly didn't give him a chance to explain what had happened, either, now did you?
But this isn't solving the problem, he sighed. . .but quietly this time, in order not to disturb the occupant of the bottom bunk.
For perhaps the twentieth time since the accident had happened that afternoon, Nelson replayed the entire incident in the theater of his mind. And from there, his line of reasoning became an intricate web of questions that encompassed a dozen or more scientific fields -- biology, psychology, anatomy, physics, and chemistry among them. But nothing in Nelson's training or research had ever prepared him for a situation like this.
The entire idea of transferring personalities from one body to another was more than just absurd. . .it was positively ludicrous from a scientific standpoint.
Like something out of a pulp science fiction magazine, the Admiral snorted to himself. But then again, what is "personality," if not the sum total of our knowledge and memories stored in the brain and activated by minute electric impulses .. . .just like a computer sending and receiving data, Nelson frowned a little to himself, suddenly serious again.
Could the modifications to the tracking satellite somehow have generated a force field strong enough to transfer the electrical energy that we think of as "ourselves" from one physical form to another? Just like networking two computers together and transferring data from one to the other.
Admittedly, it was nothing more than a theory, but it was the best explanation that Nelson could come up with at the moment -- especially when thinking with a brain whose neurological "circuits" were wired in much differently than the one he'd been born with. As if a layer of water had been poured into a beaker already containing oil, now Nelson could sense the differences between his own conscious thoughts and the subconscious patterns of the real Chip Morton.
The Admiral was used to thinking at a lightening pace: in contrast, working with Morton's brain was like driving a rented Lincoln while one's own Lamborghini was in the shop. None of the buttons and dials were precisely where they "should" be, and the radio was set on channels that Nelson would never have selected, left up to his own devices. And no matter how comfortable, practical, and reliable the Lincoln might be, speed would never be one of its long suits.
Not only that, but we use entirely different methods of thinking! Nelson nodded, as a piece of the puzzle that was the Exec now fell into place. No wonder we've gotten along the way that we do. . .I've been speaking Latin, and he's been speaking in Sanskrit.
I fit the pieces together to make a pattern. He sees the pattern and then looks at the pieces. No wonder he's such a good Exec. . .he can see the "big picture" and troubleshoot any potential problems before they actually take place!
With that thought, Nelson yawned and rolled onto his back: apparently Morton's tolerance for medication was considerably less than his own body's would have been. In a few more minutes, he was peacefully asleep -- a deep, dreamless rest that was in stark contrast to his usual fitful sleep. And when he awoke in the morning, he felt as if he had somehow spent the night engaged in a mysterious search for a buried treasure and was on the verge of making that great discovery even now.
That's it! Nelson suddenly exclaimed to himself, delighted at his own cleverness. We rebuild the satellite, using the same modifications as we did before. Then we recreate the accident down to the last detail -- and with a little bit of luck, maybe we can reverse the effects of the transferal.
It's risky, and there's no guarantee that it will actually work, but it's the best chance that we've got at this point!
And for a few seconds, he was inordinately proud of himself and his ability to reason. . .at least until it occurred to him that there was more than a small possibility that he hadn't arrived at those conclusions strictly on his own. In fact -- the more that he thought about the way that the solution had come to him in one seamless piece, the less likely it seemed that he had been the one who'd formulated the plan at all.
For once in his life, Nelson was in awe of his quiet, unassuming Executive Officer: obviously, Morton's basic thought patterns were still active at the subconscious level, and that was the real source of the solution. Admittedly, there were still more obstacles to overcome than the Admiral really wanted to think about. But between his own conscious mind and Morton's engrained abilities, they'd find a way -- Nelson was confident of that.
Someone had walked into Sick Bay in the middle of Nelson's ruminations, but he'd been too wrapped up in his thoughts to pay much attention. Now he listened closely as Doc and Crane conferred together in hushed tones. . .and what they were saying gave Nelson a shock that was worse than the satellite's power supply had done.
". . .hate to do it, but it's the best possible thing," Doc was saying quietly. "Nothing I'm doing seems to be working, and the longer we wait to get profession psychiatric help for him, the more serious the problem could become."
"All right, Doc, I trust your judgement," Crane nodded sadly in agreement. "I'll ready FS-1 for the trip back to Santa Barbara, and you prepare the Admiral for transport. We need to take what's left of the satellite back to NIMR, anyway. "
NO! Nelson snarled to himself as he peered cautiously around the bunk towards Doc and Crane. If they take "the Admiral" and the satellite back to the main land, we may never get a chance to recreate the original accident and reverse the transfer!
But for once, Nelson's vaunted logic seemed to have deserted him, and he scrabbled frantically to come up with an idea to stop them. Think, Nelson, think! he desperately ordered himself, but his mind was as blank as that of a high school student taking a test in an eight a.m. history class.
Nelson groaned to himself as he heard Doc and Lee walking towards the bunks, and he quickly pretended to be asleep, hoping to buy himself a little time. He could hear Morton tossing restlessly on the bottom bunk, mumbling under his breath as he struggled to wake up.
Blast it all! That kind of rambling will just confirm Doc's diagnosis, the Admiral snapped to himself. Of all the miserable timing. . .Morton, why couldn't you have stayed asleep until I came up with a way to talk Doc and Lee out of this plan of theirs!
No doubt the medic had a hypodermic of sedative in his hand -- ready to sedate "the Admiral" for the trip. And even now, work crews were probably loading the satellite aboard FS-1 to transport it back to NIMR.
Once the satellite and "the Admiral" left the Seaview, Nelson knew that it might take weeks, even months before he could find a way to bring the necessary elements for the transfer back together again -- if it ever took place at all. But just Nelson was about to give up in despair, a familiar raspy voice made him jump a little. . .especially since it came from less than four feet below him.
"Belay that, both of you," the voice said in a more than passable imitation of Nelson's own growl. "You always did say that a good night's sleep was the best medicine, Doc, and here I am this morning. . .living proof of it."
That's. . .Chip? Nelson was more stunned than he had been in some several years. And for the second time in less than five minutes, the Admiral was awe-struck by his Executive Office.
"Thank God! " Crane crowed triumphantly as "Nelson" sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bunk. " Admiral, you're acting like your old self again!"
"I wouldn't go quite that far, Lee," Morton replied with a double entendre that left Nelson convulsed in silent laughter on the top bunk. "But I am feeling much better, thanks to a good night's sleep. And with a little luck, maybe our Executive Officer has benefited from the same treatment. If we hurry, we can still affect repairs to the satellite and proceed with the launch before we lose our window of opportunity."
Somehow, Chip has not only managed to recover from the trauma I put him through yesterday. . .but he's also come to the same conclusions that I have about recreating the accident. I'd bet on it! Nelson whistled softly to himself.
Not bad, Commander -- especially since all you had to work with was my poor little Lamborghini of a brain!
"I'm awake and feeling a lot better," Nelson sat up and yawned elaborately as if he had just awakened. "I'm glad you're doing better this morning, too, Admiral."
"No thanks to your snoring last night, Commander. . .I've heard steam calliopes that make less noise!" Morton grumbled sarcastically. He stood up slowly, then turned to face his own body and the person who now inhabited it.
It was a moot point as to which was more of a shock to Nelson: the sight of his own physical form standing there in front of him. . .or Morton's perfect imitation of Nelson's usual cynical tone whenever he addressed the Exec. Either way, it was obvious to the Admiral that he had met his match when it came to the fine art of the sardonic.
We have met the enemy. . .and he is us! the Admiral shook his head ruefully.
"I'm sorry, Admiral," Nelson said quietly -- hoping that his impersonation of Morton was even half as good as the Exec's imitation had been. "You said something about wanting to get started on repairs to the satellite. . ."
". . .of course I did, man!" Morton glared at Nelson, then rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Thanks to other people's carelessness and poor planning, a multi-million dollar experiment has been jeopardized. And as usual, I'm the one who has to cope with the aftermath of someone else's negligence!"
"Uh, not so fast, Admiral. . .I think you and the Commander shouldn't try to rush right back to work," Doc protested. "The two of you were in a serious accident yesterday, and frankly, I'm amazed that you've both made such a rapid recovery. It's my professional opinion that you need to take a few days off and. . ."
"And it's my professional opinion that you can be a thundering ass at times, Doctor!" Morton roared, and Nelson watched as his own face turned an amazing shade of red from the Exec's theatrics. "Is there anyone aboard this ship that understands the concept of governmental grants and fiscal responsibility? If this experiment fails to produce tangible results, then NIMR's credibility will be seriously compromised. . .and do I have to remind you three gentlemen where the money for your salaries comes from?"
Two thoughts ran through Nelson's mind as he listened to Morton's accurate -- if acerbic -- analysis of the situation. Well, it looks like Chip is a lot less out of it when it comes to financial matters than I always thought he was, Nelson shook his head in amazement.
That astounding notion was quickly followed by an equally confounding concept. Is that really the way that I look when I'm chewing someone out?
"Admiral, Doc is only looking out for your health and welfare -- and not only yours, but Chip's, as well," Lee interjected quietly, appealing to Nelson's well known protective nature when it came to "his" people.
This is going to be the acid test of how well Chip really understands me, Nelson groaned to himself. Come on, Morton. . .you've done so well up to this point. Don't blow our cover now!
And to the Admiral's enormous relief, Morton sighed sharply. . .then nodded his head in agreement. "You're absolutely right, Lee. . .and I apologize for what I said a minute ago, Doc," he said calmly. "Sometimes I get so caught up in my work that I forget the real reason that I'm doing all this research in the first place. It's for the benefit of humanity, and as the old saying goes, charity begins at home. Even if that home happens to be a nuclear submarine."
The Admiral suspected that Morton's comment was as much a reminder as an explanation. . and there was no question in Nelson's mind who the Exec's real target was, either. Even so, it had been the perfect thing to say.
Even Nelson felt a little choked up by "his" own words, and the little smile and wink at the end of his sentence was the perfect lagniappe. And it was obviously having the desired effect on Doc, as well: the medic was a push-over for the old "soft soap" routine.
"No need to apologize, Admiral," the medic smiled. "How about if we do this: you and Commander Morton eat a good breakfast, then rest for awhile longer. I'll monitor your vital signs for the next few hours, and if there's no indication of problems, I'll release the two of you for light duty. I'd rather that you don't do any heavy lifting or strenuous work for the next couple of days, but you can supervise the work crews. How's that?"
"Excellent," Morton nodded in approval, and his hearty smile was an exact copy of Nelson's. "How about you, Chip? Sound good to you?"
"That's fine with me, Admiral," Nelson replied.
Morton turned to face Crane, and the Exec's intense gaze was a perfect copy of Nelson's usual expression when the Admiral was formulating a plan. Once again, Nelson held his breath: it had been difficult for him to assume the mannerisms of a subordinate officer, and now he anxiously waited to see how well Morton could manage the opposite situation.
"Lee, have Sparks radio NIMR and tell them that the satellite launch will be delayed by eight hours due to a failure of the electrical system. But be sure to tell them that the launch will take place, and emphasize the fact that we're still well within the critical developmental period of the storm," Morton said coolly. . .as if giving orders to a Captain was something that he did every day. "Then have a work detail install the back-up power supply that we brought with us in case of just such a problem as this. In the meantime, Chip and I will follow our orders and get some rest. Then the two of us will supervise the remaining repair work this afternoon."
"I'll get right on it, Admiral," Lee gave the thumbs-up sign at this unusual amount of cooperation from the normally intractable Nelson.
Crane turned to go, then paused and looked back at his two friends. It was obvious that he wanted to tell them something, but the words weren't easy ones for him to say.
"I'm glad that you're both all right this morning," his voice was as level as always, but Nelson could sense the relief that hovered just below the Captain's disciplined surface. "I'm not sure how we. . . how I would managed without the two of you."
It was as close to a declaration of friendship and loyalty as Crane's military dignity and machismo would permit. Forgetting that he was supposed to be in character as Morton, Nelson started to make the reply that he would have done as Admiral. But before he could say anything, the Exec shook his head almost invisibly, telegraphing with his eyes that "Chip" should remain silent.
Instead, Morton grumbled in the heavy Irish accent that Nelson used when something had affected him more deeply than he was comfortable with, "Go on with you and your blarney now, and leave a poor old man in peace!"
With that, the Captain grinned and disappeared through the door, clearly none the wiser about the masquerade that had just been played out in front of him. Nelson and Morton could hear him whistling cheerfully as he walked down the corridor, headed towards the Control Room.
Morton crawled back into his bunk, and in a few minutes, there was only the sound of snoring from the bottom bunk. Nelson groaned to himself at the assortment of gurgles, blats, snorts, and snuffles that Morton was making in his sleep. . .at least until it occurred to the Admiral that it was actually his own nasal passages producing that effect.
And as he stretched back out on the top bunk, Nelson sighed heavily, feeling more than just a little embarrassed. For all of his highly-touted intelligence, the Admiral still hadn't been a match for Morton when it came to preventing a crisis of catastrophic proportions. . .to say nothing of a few minor ones along the way, too.
Somehow, the Exec had fought his way back from the edge of insanity with no other weapons than his own inner strength and determination -- and for no other reason than it had to be done. Now the Admiral shook his head, wondering just what else he'd been blind about, during all the years that he'd thought he'd known Morton.
Nelson, you may have enough college degrees to choke a mule, he thought to himself with a rueful smile. But somehow, I get the feeling that your real education has only just begun!
Waiting patiently had never been high on the Admiral's "To Do" list. . .and the next four hours went by as quickly as "a herd of turtles stampeding through peanut butter," to quote one of Grandmother Nelson's favorite sayings. Now, as the hands of the clock oozed towards 1200 hours and its promise of freedom, Nelson's temper seemed about to erupt in a spectacular cloud of smoke and sparks, like an explosion in a Chinese fireworks factory.
It was taking every bit of Nelson's formidable powers of concentration not to fidget -- something that the phlegmatic Morton would never have done under the circumstances. But the Admiral did have one momentary bit of satisfaction: after the sixth or seventh time that Morton sighed heavily for no obvious reason, Nelson suddenly realized that the Exec was going through the same problem. . .in reverse.
Hard to fake a fidget, isn't it, Chip? Nelson thought with a wicked grin.
He watched as the Exec attempted to perform Nelson's usual "tiger in a cage" routine. Morton desperately tried to appear as if he was looking for any opportunity to escape. . .but to the Admiral's admittedly prejudiced eye, the Exec looked more like a tree sloth on tranquilizers as he ambled from place to place.
But if Doc or any of the corpsmen had noticed the anomalies in the two officers' behavior, no one said anything. At last, the hands of the clock inched into the straight up position -- but Doc didn't pay any attention as he sat at his desk, intent on his copy of "War and Peace."
Will you make a noise, stomp your foot. . .do something, anything to let Doc know that you want out of this place! Nelson mentally snapped at Morton, who seemed quite content at the moment just to inspect the autoclave.
The Admiral "harrumped" under his breath, and Morton jumped a little, as if startled to hear Nelson's usual sound of displeasure coming from his own body's throat. But at least it had the desired effect. . .with a barely concealed grin, the Exec "accidentally" knocked a small metal tray off the counter.
It hit the deck with a clang that made Doc look up from his book, and when the medic glanced at him, Morton aimed a glare in his direction that would have made the frozen steppes of Russia look like Death Valley at high noon. The medic smiled at the "subtle" hint that he had just been given, then gestured at the door.
"All right, Admiral. . .Commander," Doc nodded with a smile and a resigned shrug. "You're both free to go, but please keep in mind what I said about light duty and letting someone else do the heavy work."
"Thanks, Doc," Morton nodded, then gestured at the occupant of the top bunk. "Well, Chip, shall we get to work? That satellite is a long way from being ready to launch this evening."
"Aye, sir," Nelson nodded, still finding it difficult to use the formal term of address.
He vaulted down lightly from the bunk and was half way to the door before "the Admiral" caught up with him. Nelson may have been enjoying this chance to be young again, but Morton was panting from the effort of keeping up with him. And it was obvious that the Exec was having a great deal of difficulty adjusting to a body that was several inches shorter, a number of years older, and a great many pounds heavier than the one he was used to.
Out in the corridor, Nelson gestured in the direction of Officers Country, and for a second or two, he dropped all pretense of being Chip Morton. "We'll discuss all of this down in my quarters," he said quietly, and the real Exec nodded in reply as they set off down the corridor.
It took them several minutes longer than usual to reach the Admiral's cabin since Nelson had obligingly slowed down his pace to allow Morton to keep up with him. When they reached Nelson's cabin, there was a long moment's pause as the Exec stood patiently in front of the locked door, waiting for the real Admiral to open it.
Only when Nelson raised an eyebrow meaningfully at him did it occur to Morton that he no doubt had the key in one of "his" uniform pockets. Nelson nodded towards the right trouser pocket, and Morton retrieved the key, then tried to turn it in the lock with awkward fingers.
The Exec fumbled with the key for another second or two, then stared down at "his" hands with the shorter, thicker fingers that were so unlike his own. Morton's patience suddenly collapsed under even that tiny bit of added stress, and the corridor echoed for a moment as he slammed his fist heavily into the metal wall.
Nelson started to snap a rebuke, then thought better of it. He reached out and turned the key in the lock, then spoke calmly to the still frustrated Exec.
"It's all right, Chip. The lock is a bit testy at times. . .just like its owner," Nelson said. "You're under enormous stress right now -- don't let something as inconsequential as this upset you even more."
It was probably the kindest thing that Nelson had ever said to his Executive Officer in all the years that he'd known Morton: now the XO swallowed hard, then managed a small, grateful smile in reply. The Admiral opened the cabin door and then gestured for Morton to follow him inside and close the door.
Nelson sprawled on the chair behind his desk and immediately loosened his tie with an enormous sigh of relief. But when he looked up, Morton had just straightened his tie until it was regulation once more. Now the Exec stood at attention. . .or as close to it as he could manage, given the Admiral's slightly stooped shoulders and somewhat arthritic knees, anyway. The two men met each other's eyes, and they immediately broke into laughter.
"Well, Chip, it seems that some things never change," Nelson chuckled, still shaking his head.
He expected Morton to laugh even harder at the joke. But to his surprise, the Exec paused. . .and then merely smiled.
"Then again, some things do change, sir," Morton said quietly. . .and there was a wealth of meaning behind that simple statement.
Under ordinary circumstances, the Admiral might have batted aside the gratitude and understanding that lay underneath the Exec's calm words -- or worse still, never even known that those things were there at all. But now Nelson nodded, and it was his turn to swallow hard.
Except for the rush of air through the ventilation system, the cabin was silent for a moment as Nelson struggled with himself -- knowing what he should say and yet finding it difficult to break old habits. But before he could say anything, Morton shook his head.
"Admiral, I'm starting to understand things a little better now," the Exec's voice was so quiet that Nelson could barely hear him. "You're always under a lot of pressure, and you don't really have anywhere else to go with that kind of stress. Chewing out your Exec is probably the only thing that's keeping you from having a heart attack or a stroke, sir. Before all this happened, I didn't really understand that. . .not consciously, anyway."
"No, Chip, this is something that I need to say to you," Nelson shook his head and took a deep breath. "I. . .apologize for all the times that I've chewed you out unfairly and for all the times that I haven't made any attempt to understand why you are what you are. At best, it was callous -- but at worst, it was sheer arrogance on my part. Believe me, all this isn't easy for me to admit, but then again, it usually is difficult for people to confess that they've been prejudiced all their life. Oh, maybe not when it comes to race or religion or the more obvious ways that people are different from one other. But I've been biased, just the same."
Nelson paused, then went on. "No, my prejudice has always been in the area of intelligence and reasoning. never occurred to me that there was any other way of thinking than the one that I've learned over the years. And if someone else's mind didn't work as fast as I thought it should or if he used a different approach to solving a problem, then I essentially wrote that person off as being unworthy of my time and concern."
There was more that Nelson wanted to say, but somehow, it didn't seem to be the right thing to do at the moment. He was learning to pay attention to those instincts, whether they were "borrowed" from Morton's mind or legitimately the product of his own growing awareness.
And if he hadn't listened to that quiet intuition, Nelson might never have heard what Morton had to say next. Just a handful of calm, unpretentious words. . .ones that he knew would haunt him at odd hours for years to come.
"Admiral, my grandfather was just a farmer from a little town down in southern Illinois. He had to drop out of high school when his own dad died, in order to support his mom and younger brothers and sisters. Grandpa Morton may not have had much 'book learning,' as he would have called it. . .but he was still one of the smartest men I ever knew. He once told me that if you judge a man by his mind, you're basing your opinion on what he's learned from someone else and how much he's forgotten over the years," Morton smiled at the thought.
But then the Exec added softly, "But if you judge a man by his heart, then you're basing your opinion on what he's learned from life. . . and how much he's been wise enough to remember."
There was another long moment of silence as Nelson struggled to find the words that he wanted to say. Ordinarily, a quote from some great work of literature would have come to mind, or something he had heard in a lecture by a world renowned professor. But now the words seemed flat and dry in comparison to the ones he had just heard -- like swallowing stale saltines when a loaf of bread fresh from the oven and dripping with butter was sitting in front of him.
Finally, Nelson gave up the attempt and simply nodded his head with a quiet smile. There was still something that he had to tell Morton, however -- the real reason that he'd wanted to talk to the Exec in the first place. Under normal circumstances, Nelson would have presented the facts of the situation with a directness that sometimes seemed almost brutal in its disregard for any emotions or reactions that other people might have.
Now, however, he looked over at Morton, who still attempted to stand at attention, despite the fact that "his" legs were shaking a little. Clearly, the accident had drained what few reserves of physical strength that Nelson's overworked and overstressed body had possessed.
But what disturbed Nelson even more than Morton's deteriorating physical condition was the sudden look of sadness in his face: the Admiral would have been willing to bet that the Exec was starting to realize what Nelson already understood and had been about to tell him. Nelson stood up and gestured for the Exec to sit down behind the desk. Morton stumbled that short distance, then collapsed onto the chair with a quiet groan of relief.
Nelson busied himself for a moment refilling the carafe that always sat on his desk: he poured a glass of water for Morton, then waited until the Exec managed to drink a little of it.
Now, the Admiral put all the compassion and kindness that he possessed into his voice as he looked down at the person who now inhabited his physical form. "Chip. . .you know that even if we can rebuild the satellite and recreate the original accident, it still may not reverse the effects of the force field," he said gently.
"I know, sir. I came to that same conclusion a minute ago, myself," Morton tried to speak calmly, but there was a tremor in his voice that he couldn't disguise. "It must have something to do with the fact that I'm using your intellectual skills and abilities. It's been an interesting experience, Admiral -- like trading an abacus for the most up-to-date computer."
Nelson chuckled a little at the analogy, then sobered quickly. "We're going to have to get started on repairs to the satellite here in just a few minutes, and we're going to have to stay in character as each other while we do," the Admiral continued quietly. "Right now, letting everyone know what's happened would generate more problems and questions than we can handle. . . and might even prevent us from recreating the accident, if someone else decided it was too risky."
"You're absolutely right about that, sir, especially when it comes to Lee. He would never approve of taking that kind of a chance with your life and sanity, Admiral," Morton nodded in agreement. . .and Nelson felt another stab of pain at those simple, guileless words.
You obviously think that my well being is the only thing that Lee would be concerned about -- never mind that it's your life and your sanity that's on the line, too, Chip, Nelson groaned to himself.
"If all goes well, we'll be able to reverse the personality transfer this evening. But if the process fails or is incomplete, one or both of us may be incapacitated -- physically or mentally," Nelson managed to master his feelings, keeping his tone level and factual. "I'm going to write a letter explaining what's happened to us, and you're going to keep the envelope in your shirt pocket so that whoever finds us will see it immediately. I'll leave detailed instructions about what's to be done with us. . .I can guarantee that we'll receive the finest treatment that's available, no matter what it costs or where we have to be taken to get it."
For the first time since the whole ordeal had begun, bitterness flashed across Chip Morton's borrowed face, followed by a look of quiet despair. He looked down at his hands again, the knuckles still puffy and dark from their earlier encounter with the wall.
"Custom tailored strait jackets and only the thickest padding in our cells," the Exec mumbled to himself.
For a second or two, the 'old ' Admiral Nelson surfaced, and he walked over to Morton with a grim expression. He looked down at the Exec and shook his head sharply.
"That will be enough of that, Commander!" Nelson said, counting on the Exec's instant obedience to one of his orders. "The last thing that we need right now is to give in to our fears!"
But this time, Morton's expression crumpled, and he turned stricken eyes towards Nelson. He began to tremble, whether in exhaustion or fear: despite his earlier calmness, it was obvious that the stress and strangeness of the situation was taking its toll on the Exec's mental and emotional reserves of strength. Nelson started to snap at him in the way that he would have done before the accident. . .then caught himself just in time.
For the first time in his life, the Admiral was beginning to understand the fragile balance that was the human mind -- really understand it and not just the dry facts that he had learned in textbooks and laboratories. Now he put his hand on the Exec's shoulder and waited for a few seconds until Morton stopped shaking so badly.
"Chip, we'll get through this somehow," Nelson said gently. "The officers of the Seaview have always been an unbeatable team. No matter what challenges we've had thrown at us, we've always found a way to overcome them. And we'll do it again this time, as well. You have my word on it, and has your Admiral ever lied to you? Leaving aside the times that he's been possessed by the occasional alien, ghost, werewolf. . .or Executive Officer, of course."
It was the perfect thing to say. Morton looked startled for a moment, then broke into the kind of laughter that did more to relieve stress and fear than a truckload of tranquilizers ever could have. Nelson waited until the Exec's amusement had subsided to the occasional snort and chuckle, then gestured up at the wall clock.
"Well, let's go see what we can do to repair the satellite, shall we?" the Admiral asked. "We have a great deal of work to do and a short time to do it in, if we're going to stage a reenactment of the original accident before 2000 hours."
Morton nodded in agreement, and when the Exec stood up, Nelson was relieved to see that there was more color in his face. Even his step seemed livelier as he walked towards the door: Nelson followed him out of the cabin, and this time, Morton had no trouble locking the door after them when the Admiral handed him the key. Nelson set off down the corridor towards the Missile Room, and the Exec followed a few steps behind, lost in thought for a moment.
The Admiral was absolutely right, Morton decided as he rounded the corner. The officers of the Seaview were an unbeatable team. . .
. . .and this time wasn't going to be any exception to the rule, either.
The afternoon passed in a blur of activity down in the Missile Room, as work parties scurried to replace burned out circuit boards and repair damaged wiring. Thanks to Morton's usual efficiency and Nelson's technical knowledge, the work was well ahead of schedule, and by 1800 hours, Nelson was beginning to feel confident that their plan had every chance of success.
Reconstructing the satellite hadn't been half as difficult as staying in character for so long -- especially while dealing with the number of people who had been in and out of the Missile Room. But if the work crews noticed that "the Admiral" frequently deferred to the Exec on theoretical matters or that Nelson sometimes seemed to know more about the practical aspects of the work than Morton did, no one said anything.
At 1815 hours, the first real problem of the day walked into the Missile Room in the person of one Francis Ethelbert Sharkey. At the moment, Morton was preoccupied with a tricky solder joint -- one that he had insisted on doing himself, despite the difficulty in reaching that particular portion of the wiring and the odd overhead angle in the satellite.
The satellite's service hatch was large enough for Morton to wedge himself into the opening -- although Nelson's wider build was making it more difficult than it usually was. All that was visible of the Exec at the moment was his posterior and part of his back as he leaned into the satellite with a butane soldering iron in his hand.
Chief Sharkey walked into the Missile Room, and his expression clearly said that he was a man on a mission. Still in character as Morton, Nelson quickly busied himself with the task of replacing burnt-out resistors on one of the circuit boards -- even as he continued to watch Sharkey's every move out of the corner of his eye.
I don't dare talk to Sharkey, Nelson thought nervously as he bent the resistor wires to fit on the board. He knows me too well. . .maybe even better than Lee does. If anyone could see through this charade, it would be the Chief.
Sharkey walked up to the satellite and waited patiently for "the Admiral" to finish what he was doing. In the Chief's case, "waiting patiently" was measurable in terms that only a scientist normally used. . .words that had prefixes like "milli" and "nano" in front of them.
And today was no exception to the rule. After a few seconds, Sharkey cleared his throat, but Morton was too engrossed in the solder joint to pay attention. When a second throat clearing failed to produce results, followed by an equally ineffectual scraping of one foot against the deck, Sharkey shrugged with a heavy sigh. And at the moment, he looked for all the world like a bull dog begging for a bite of its owner's steak. . .only to find itself completely ignored.
"Uh, begging the Admiral's pardon. . ." Sharkey began, then followed up his words with actions. . .
. . .in this case, knocking on the side of the satellite like a particularly persistent encyclopedia salesman. By Nelson's calculations, Sharkey's fist was less than six inches from Morton's left ear and separated from it only by a shell of titanium alloy -- a situation very much like pounding on a large bass drum while the conductor of the orchestra was inside it.
Even though the Admiral was almost eight feet away from the "scene of the crime," he could still hear a sizzle like a steak being tossed onto the grill as a startled Morton dropped the soldering iron. And if Nelson was hearing the Exec's somewhat muffled expletives properly, a large glob of hot solder fallen down his shirt collar, which he now wore open as the real Admiral would have done.
The satellite's service hatch was also proving to be somewhat more difficult for Morton to exit than entering it had been. Still snarling a string of fragrantly couched phrases, the Exec tried to untwist himself from the opening -- only to find that Nelson's thicker frame had gotten jammed as tightly as a cork in a bottle of fine old wine.
Finally Morton managed to untangle himself from the satellite. . .but not before he left several inches of scalp and a few red hairs against the top of the service hatch. Under the circumstances, very few people would have been able to keep their own composure -- much less that of someone else.
Before Nelson could think of a way to distract Morton from any delightful ideas of ax-murder that he might have been entertaining, the Exec made his first mistake as "the Admiral." If he had been himself, strictly speaking, Nelson would have made a comment or two in a voice that dripped sarcasm. Morton, on the other hand, would have crossed his arms over his chest, raised an eyebrow meaningfully, and then given Sharkey a look that would have made the Chief an instant candidate for a cryogenics experiment. . .
. . .and the Exec promptly proceeded to do just that. The body might have been Admiral Nelson's, but line for line, the stance and expression was that of Chip Morton -- a fact that he seemed unaware of at the moment. And when he did realize what he had just done, Morton was too rattled to cover up his mistake.
Sharkey and the rest of the crewmen had already braced themselves for the Admiral's inevitable explosion. But when it failed to materialize, they stared at each other in confusion -- much like someone about to be executed would have done if the firing squad's rifles had all failed at the same instant.
Now, Nelson saw Kowalski whispering something to Patterson, and it was obvious that neither man could understand why the Admiral was suddenly acting so much like Mr. Morton always did under circumstances like these. Quickly, Nelson moved in, hoping to salvage the situation as much as possible.
"That's great, Admiral," he chuckled, giving his best imitation of Morton's 'possum-eating-briars' grin. "You need to lean back a little bit farther, though, and raise your eyebrow just a little higher next time. Then you'll have the patented Chip Morton glare down perfectly!"
Morton began to laugh in a perfect facsimile of Nelson's usual sardonic tones, and there was nothing but relief in his eyes when he met the Admiral's gaze. Nelson nodded almost imperceptibly at the rest of the crewmen, and the Exec quickly resumed his role as the Admiral.
"I'll keep that in mind, Commander. The relentless pursuit of perfection is what makes life worth living, after all," he nodded with a sardonic smile, then turned to Sharkey. "What did you come down here to tell me, Chief? Or is this a test of how well my telepathy is working today?"
It was obvious that Sharkey was still every bit as confused as the rest of the work crews, and he frowned at "Nelson" in concern. Voice, stance, expression -- everything seemed to check out, but there was just something not quite right about the Admiral, Sharkey decided with a little frown of concern.
"Uh, Admiral, are you sure you're OK?" he asked cautiously, and it was obvious that he was trying hard not to stare at the Admiral in concern. "Doc said you and Mr. Morton took a pretty bad jolt of electricity yesterday. Somehow, you just don't seem like yourself this evening, sir."
For a second or two, Nelson thought that Morton was about to lose his composure again over Sharkey's unfortunate choice of words. But this time, the Exec caught himself before even the smallest flicker of dismay could show in his eyes. With a cool smile, he launched into an explanation that left Nelson breathless with fear. . .and admiration.
"Chief, I'll let you in on a little secret. In the accident yesterday, Commander Morton and I switched places. . .he's really me, and I'm really him," Morton leaned forward and spoke in a low, confidential tone. "That's why I'm not acting like myself because you see, I'm not myself. . .he is. But don't tell anyone else. It's classified, top-secret information. We intend to sell the rights to our story to the tabloids and the Movie-of-the-Week people. Then I'm going to buy a small island in the Caribbean and set up my own dictatorship. Commander Morton plans on going to the Middle East and purchasing a harem."
Morton's voice was level and factual as if he had been reciting from a law textbook. Sharkey looked in bewilderment from Nelson to Morton and then back again. . .at least until the Exec's last statement finally sank in.
"Oh, I get it, sir," Sharkey breathed an enormous sigh of relief. "That's a joke. . .uh, right, Admiral?"
"Of course it's a joke!" Morton snapped in his best imitation of the Admiral's exasperated tones. "As I was saying, Chief, do you have a message for me. . .or did you simply come down here to admire the scenery?"
Sharkey was clearly not convinced that all was well with the Admiral and Commander Morton, but if the Chief had learned anything from life, it was that pushing was for brooms and playground equipment. . . not one's luck. Now he smiled brightly at "the Admiral" like a schoolboy about to recite a carefully memorized verse in front of the whole class.
"Uh, I've got a message from Doc and one from the Skipper, sir," Sharkey said quickly, then added all on one breath, "First off, Doc wants you and Mr. Morton to go get something to eat, Admiral. He said that knowing you and the Exec, you'd both get too wrapped up with the repairs to remember that you're supposed to be taking care of yourselves."
"Very well, Chief," Morton replied in his best non-committal tone of voice. "And the message from Lee?"
"The Skipper just wanted to let you know that some members of the government grant committee just radioed us about fifteen minutes ago," Sharkey gestured at the satellite. "Seems they wanted to know if they could watch tonight's launch at 2000 hours via Seaview's satellite uplink -- something about being more convincing when they talk to their constituents about all the money that's being spent on research. The Skipper didn't want to disturb you and Mr. Morton. He said he figured you wouldn't mind, so he went ahead and told them that it was OK. Sparks will activate the uplink at 1945 hours."
"Tell him that's fine, Chief," Morton nodded, but there was a sudden edge in his voice -- one that told Nelson he understood the desperateness of their present situation. "As far as Doc's message is concerned, tell him that Chip and I have less than an hour's work down here, and we'll get something to eat when it's finished. It's not the sort of thing that anyone else besides the two of us can do, so the rest of you men are dismissed. That goes for you, too, Chief."
Good thinking, Chip! Nelson applauded.
"Aye-aye, sir," Sharkey acknowledged with a nervous little smile, then turned to the work party. "All right, you jokers, you heard the Admiral! Move it!"
With that, the entire work party disappeared like a pocketful of twenty dollar bills during a three day shore leave. Sharkey reluctantly followed them, then turned around and started to say something to the Admiral. The Chief's face was furrowed with concern, and it took no guess work to know that he was about to ask one more question about the Admiral's health. . .a question that might very well shove Nelson's temper right over the edge.
Without saying a word or even looking up from the work that they were doing, Nelson and Morton simultaneously thumbed at the Missile Room hatch. And even their expressions were identical -- looks that suggested an explosion was imminent if Sharkey didn't vacate the area forthwith, posthaste, and tout-de-suite. . .not to mention now. If not sooner.
With that, the Chief vanished through the hatch -- no doubt intending to report everything that had just happened to Doc and Captain Crane. For his part, the Exec heaved an enormous sigh of relief, then dropped his head a little in embarrassment. He was reluctant to meet Nelson's gaze, and it took no guesswork on the Admiral's part to know why.
"Admiral, I fouled up the detail. . ." he started to say, but Nelson raised a restraining hand and smiled patiently -- something that he ordinarily would never have done, even as recently as yesterday.
"Chip, it's all right," the Admiral said. "You've covered for me, and it was my turn to cover for you. We're a team, and we watch out for each other. By the way, your explanation to Chief Sharkey for our behavior was a stroke of genius. I'm not sure I could have done it at all. . .let alone as well as you did."
"Grandpa Morton used to say that the best place to hide something is in plain sight and that the best 'lie' is usually the truth," Morton chuckled at the thought. But then he glanced over at the satellite and shook his head. "Admiral, I don't know how we're going to do this. We still have almost an hour and a half's worth of work to complete before the satellite is fully functional again. And even if we can complete the repairs before then, how are we going to recreate the original accident with half of Washington watching us?"
"Well, your grandfather said it best. . .we're going to hide in plain sight," Nelson's grin was every bit as 'wicked' as the real Morton's would have been. He gestured over at the hatch, then smiled. "You keep working on the repairs while I go take care of a few minor details that "the Admiral" ordered me to. Trust me on this one, Chip."
Nelson winked and turned to go, but not before he heard Morton say something. The Exec had picked up the piece of "perf board" with the circuit that the Admiral had been rebuilding, then spoke so quietly that he might have been talking to himself.
"I always do, Admiral," Morton said softly. "I always do."
Nelson was gone for well over an hour, and if it had been difficult for Chip Morton to fake a fidget earlier in the day, the Admiral's prolonged absence was the equivalent of a Berlitz course in the subject. By the time that Nelson walked calmly through the hatchway, Morton was pacing and snarling around the Missile Room like a Siberian tiger stuffed headfirst into a very small cage.
Nelson glanced up at the camera high up in the corner of the Missile Room, then gestured for Morton to join him, in the relative privacy of the area behind the missile silo. The Exec quickly slipped out of camera range, even if he didn't understand everything that was going on.
"I was beginning to get worried about you, sir!" the Exec exclaimed, relief showing in every line of his borrowed face and body.
"I'm fine, Chip," the Admiral nodded. "Operation Hide-in-Plain-Sight is in place, and we're well on our way to successfully completing this mission. Here, I brought you something to eat. It took a few minutes for Cookie to find the left-over sandwich filling in the freezer and then thaw it out. . .that's I was gone so long. Sit down and relax while you eat your sandwich, and you can fill me in on how the repairs are going."
Nelson handed Morton a foil-wrapped packet, and the Exec took an appreciative whiff of warm Italian beef garnished with lots of spicy pepperocini -- his favorite. He sat down on the chair that had been brought down to the Missile Room for him by order of "the Exec," and now Morton smiled at the Admiral before he took a bite of his sandwich.
"The repairs are complete, Admiral, and all systems are online and ready to go. . .I guess being nervous was a good incentive because I got everything done in less than an hour, sir," Morton smiled after a few bites of his meal. "I've checked the RDC module, as well, and made sure that it's in the same condition it was yesterday -- right down to the bad resistor."
Nelson glanced down at Morton's watch -- 1935 hours.
Ten minutes to show time, the Admiral thought with a grin. Excellent planning by the team of Nelson and Morton. . .as always!
Nelson nodded his approval. Morton smiled once again --but sadly this time -- and then looked down at his sandwich like a prisoner eating one last meal before his execution. The Exec started to set the food aside in order to go ahead with the re-creation of the accident, but Nelson shook his head and pointed at the sandwich.
"Finish your sandwich, Chip," he said as he pulled up a low metal toolbox and used it as an impromptu bench. . .something his own knees would never have permitted. "We're still ahead of schedule, and before we proceed with the reenactment of the accident, there are some things I want you to know."
Without being aware of what he did, Morton flinched again, just as he had done earlier down in Nelson's cabin, but he recovered quickly this time. And when he looked at Nelson again, there was no bitterness or despair in his eyes and face.
"Go ahead, Admiral," he nodded calmly at Nelson. "I'm listening, sir."
Nelson took a deep breath before he could speak. "Chip, I've never been good at saying the important things. I'm an Admiral first and a scientist second, and I've always dealt in the realm of facts, not feelings. But if something does go terribly wrong here in a few minutes, there is something that I want you to know while you're still capable of understanding it and while I'm still capable of saying it. It's about the way that I've always treated you, as opposed to the way that I've treated Lee."
"I think I've already figured that out, Admiral, just by seeing things from your perspective for awhile," Morton shook his head. "You and Lee have always made a good team because his mind works a lot like yours does, sir. He's a lot like you in other ways, too, sir -- all brains, brilliance, and dazzle. Compared to that, I must have always seemed like poor old plodding Chip Morton. . .about as dazzling as a wet skyrocket. But sir, if you hadn't known what kind of person I really am and what I'm capable of -- I mean, really known it at some level -- you would never have picked me to be Seaview's Executive Officer."
For the third time in twenty-four hours, Nelson was in awe of his Exec. In four short sentences, Morton had just summed up several years of complicated interaction between the Seaview's top officers. . .summed it up far better than a ream of Nelson's complicated psychological analysis ever could have done, as a matter of fact. Under the circumstances, there was only one thing to say, and the Admiral now found the simple words of gratitude far easier than he had ever dreamed possible.
"Chip, you're a very wise and very compassionate man," the Admiral said quietly. "It's been a privilege to serve with you, and even though I've never told you this before, I appreciate everything you've done to make this submarine run as smoothly and efficiently as it does. I just wanted to say, 'Thank you.'"
Morton nodded and closed his eyes, as if to savor the words privately for a moment. And when he looked at Nelson again, the Exec's expression was as peaceful as the Admiral had ever seen it.
"All right, Chip -- it's 1945 hours," Nelson gestured at the clock. "Operation Hide-in-Plain-Sight has already commenced, and we should have a window of several minutes to re-create the accident before anyone can get down here to check on us. Any questions?"
"Instead of dropping the RDC module and hoping that we catch it at the same time, I think we should both hold onto it and then deliberately touch the power supply with it," Morton said as calmly as any scientist discussing an experimental procedure. "What do you think, Admiral?"
"I agree, Chip. . .that's a good idea," Nelson nodded in agreement, then stood up and reluctantly crossed the short distance to the satellite.
Morton, too, stood up and walked towards the satellite. . .but not before he had neatly folded up the square of aluminum foil that his sandwich had been in, then put it in a nearby trash basket. Nelson chuckled at such typical behavior from the Exec, in spite of the seriousness of what was about to happen to him.
Only Chip would wash the dishes after his last meal, hang up the dishtowel with the edges neatly squared, and then go contentedly to his own execution, Nelson thought with a small smile.
But then he quickly grew somber. The moment of truth was about to arrive, and even the Admiral flinched a little at the thought.
Ah, well, might as well get it over with. . .in for a penny, in for a pound, he shrugged -- then realized what the real source of such a stoical attitude had been. Chip, no matter what happens here in a few minutes, these past few hours have been a real learning experience. Even if all does go well and we manage to accomplish the personality transfers without a hitch, I still won't ever see the world in quite the same way again!
Nelson walked slowly over to the satellite and stood in approximately the same spot as he had on the previous afternoon, while Morton retrieved the little RDC module. The Exec also stood in the same place as he had been when the accident took place, and he held out the module for Nelson to grasp, too.
"On the count of three," Nelson said, once he was sure that both he and Morton had a firm grip on the metal casing.
Morton nodded, and Nelson began the countdown. "One. . ." he said, bracing himself physically and mentally for the shock that was to come. "Two. . .three!"
Simultaneously, Nelson and Morton bent down to touch the power supply with the RDC module's metal casing. But the module suddenly went flying out of their hands and skittered across the deck where it came to rest against a missile silo with a little clang of metal.
That's odd, Nelson thought with a little frown as a sensation like being hit by a tank went across his back and legs. We haven't even touched the power supply, yet. And I wonder why Chip just changed his mind about this whole thing?
The deck was rushing up to meet him, and he really didn't have time to think about anything except trying to break his fall. But once he was actually on the deck, the Admiral had time to think about several things. Specifically: why he was sprawled out there in the first place and who had actually shouted the word, "No!" at him.
Uh-oh. . .we've been caught, Nelson winced, as Lee Crane all but dragged him to his feet.
And now he could see that Chief Sharkey was doing much the same thing to "Admiral Nelson" on the other side of the satellite. "See, Skipper, I told you!" the Chief announced in outraged tones. "I told you that the Admiral and Mr. Morton were acting screwy! Didn't I tell you, sir. . .uh, begging the Admiral's pardon."
"Yes, and it's a good thing that you did, too, Chief. Finding the modifications that you made to the communications system just confirmed it, too, Chip. Sparks thought that there was something strange about those modifications -- especially when he did some checking and found that the uplink had been programmed with a subroutine to shut down automatically at 1945 hours," Crane snapped. "It would have just looked like some kind of a technical glitch to the people back home, and we would have wasted time running a lot of unnecessary diagnostic tests on the system. Time that you obviously intended to use for whatever crazy stunt you two were about to pull down here."
Hmm, I guess I wasn't quite as subtle as I thought I was, Nelson sighed. And certainly not half as subtle as the real Chip Morton would have been.
Crane stared at the other two officers, clearly expecting one of them to tell him what was going on. But when no answers were forthcoming, he snarled, "Admiral, Chip -- would one of you care to explain what's going on here? What in blazes were the two of you thinking about just now? Well, will one of you answer me!"
Before he stopped to think about what he was saying, Nelson snapped, "I don't owe you an explanation, Mister! Since when does an Admiral owe a Captain any. . .?"
But then Nelson's voice trailed away when he saw the looks that Crane and Sharkey were giving him. Crane continued to stare in dumbfounded disbelief at the impossibility standing in front of him -- Nelson's mannerisms superimposed on Morton's body, and the Admiral's voice issuing from the Exec's lips.
"What. . .is. . .going. . .on. . .here?" Crane demanded. "Have the two of you gone mad. . .or have I?"
"Well, if you're off the deep end, Skipper, make that two of us," Sharkey was still staring at "the Admiral," who now stood in Morton's customary pose when the Exec was upset: arms folded across the chest, eyebrow raised, and a disgusted frown on "his" face. "For a minute there, I could have sworn that. . ."
". . .that what, Chief?" Morton asked. "That the Admiral was acting like me, and the person in my body was acting like the Admiral? Well, guess what? You're right."
"That is the craziest thing I ever heard in my life. . .begging the Admiral and Mr. Morton's pardon again, sirs," Sharkey snapped, then apologized hastily when he saw both officers' cool stares. "This is just another one of your jokes, right, Admiral?"
With their cover shattered irreparably, Nelson saw no reason to keep up the pretense. And besides, each new example of switched personality was one more rung up the ladder of persuasion. . .that, or else one more lock on the door of the rubber room. He looked over at Morton and shrugged, as if to say, 'Why bother any longer?'
"It's no joke, Sharkey. . .during the accident yesterday, the modifications to the weather satellite generated some type of unknown force field," the Admiral's voice was level and unemotional -- exactly the way it always was when he was describing an experiment. "Somehow, that force field created a link between Chip's mind and mine, like networking two computers together. In the process, we switched personalities, like transferring data from one of those linked computers to the other one."
Crane listened to Nelson's explanation, then shook his head. "That's ridiculous!" he snapped. "People don't just trade personalities like picking up someone else's umbrella by mistake. I think that the two of you are suffering from some kind of mental disorder as a result of that accident yesterday, and I'm going to go call Doc right now. And I'm warning you -- if either of you try to stop me, so help me, I'll nail your hides to the bulkhead!"
In his present frame of mind, Crane was probably capable of doing just that, Nelson knew. Now the Captain stalked towards the microphone, intent on calling the Seaview's Chief Medical Officer for assistance. And as if to emphasis his agreement with Crane, Sharkey took a step forward and interposed himself between the other two officers and Crane -- clearly intending to do whatever was necessary to restrain them.
Nelson knew that there was no point in ordering Crane to belay that call, and he shook his head in helpless anger. He watched as Crane's hand closed over the microphone, and now his mind was a desperate tangle of thoughts.
We were so close! he thought bitterly to himself. Another few seconds, and we could have re-created the accident and attempted the transfer. But if Lee calls Doc now, we may never get another chance. Think, Nelson. . .what would it take to convince Lee that we're telling him the truth?
Crane had already picked up the microphone, and he started to hit its Push-to-Transmit button. But before he could make the call for Doc, Morton took a step forward and began to speak quietly, almost as if he was talking to himself.
"This is Delta Charlie Bravo one niner zero seven," the Exec calmly recited the seemingly meaningless string of phonetics and numbers. "Code name Blackjack: priority one distress call. Do you copy, Delta Charlie Bravo one niner zero six?"
The microphone fell out of Crane's hand and hit the wall with a clatter, as he turned around and faced "the Admiral." Now, Crane's olive-tinged complexion was the color of bleached linen as he stared in disbelief at the other two officers.
"Repeat priority one distress call, Blackjack," Crane could barely force the words out.
"Delta Charlie Bravo one niner zero six, this is Delta Charlie Bravo one niner zero seven," Morton fought to keep his voice level, despite the tension in his face. "Do you copy, Aces High?"
This time, there was no mistake: the words had indeed come from the Admiral's lips. Crane clenched his fists at his side, and the muscles along his right jaw quivered: for a moment, it appeared that he was ready to lash out at whoever -- or whatever -- it was that regarded him with such calm eyes. Eyes that looked out at him from the familiar face of someone who was now a total stranger to him.
"Only Chip Morton, the real Chip Morton could have known that," Crane snarled at what could only be some kind of shape-shifting alien or bizarre undersea creature with the ability to mimic another's face and voice. "So just how did you know, whoever. . .or whatever you are?"
For a moment, Morton said nothing as he continued to meet Crane's enraged glare with his usual unflappable dignity. And when the Exec did speak again, he chose each word for its optimum effect on the already badly-shaken Captain.
"Aces High, this is Blackjack. If you copy, acknowledge as per special orders," something in the Exec's words was clearly a tacit appeal to Crane. "How 'bout you, Aces High. . .you holding a full house, buddy? Or just a pair of jokers?"
Nelson had no way of knowing for certain, but he would have been willing to bet that Morton was employing some kind of code that he and Crane had used during a recent top-secret rescue in a Communist country known for its human rights violations. Nelson had reluctantly agreed to let them go on the mission, but only after much persuasion from Admiral Jiggs Stark and a covert request from the President, himself.
All Nelson had ever known about the rescue attempt was that it had involved Morton and Crane getting themselves thrown into the same prison as the two American diplomats who had been accused of 'spying.' Beyond that, Nelson hadn't been able to piece together any further details of the assignment. And if Morton's nightmares and Crane's insomnia afterward were any indication, the Admiral was positive that he really didn't want to know, either. . .even if there hadn't been security matters to consider.
Now Crane stumbled forward until he stood directly in front of Morton, and the Captain shook his head a little, as if trying to wake up from a long and particularly strange dream. He looked directly into the other man's eyes for a few seconds, unable to determine if he was really seeing what he thought he was.
The eyes were Nelson's, true enough -- but the person behind them was a different matter altogether. The sum of all his military experiences and his scientific knowledge, everything that made Nelson uniquely what he was. . .those things simply weren't there anymore.
Instead, Crane found himself looking at the unmistakable personality of his Executive Officer. Morton's quiet strength, his impish sense of humor, even his legendary determination -- all those things were clearly present behind those eyes.
It might have sounded insane to anyone else, but to Crane, it was as if one man had put on another man's uniform by mistake. The clothes may have fit reasonably well, but they did nothing to camouflage the second man's true identity. With that realization, recognition flooded the Captain's face as the wall of disbelief suddenly shattered in his mind.
"It is you, Chip!" Crane yelped. "I don't understand how. . .but it really is you!"
Morton nodded and heaved a noisy sigh of relief that made even the Captain smile a little, despite the strangeness of the situation. For his part, Sharkey continued to stare at the Exec, and like Crane had done a moment ago, the Chief staggered forward until he could look directly into the other man's eyes.
"OK, if you're really the Admiral, then you'd know about that night in Hong Kong three years ago. . ." Sharkey began suspiciously.
". . .her name was Jade Orchid and you two had been drinking plum wine all night. It took me nearly half a month's pay to keep the mama-san who owned the bar from having you thrown into the hoosegow for getting into a fight with Jade Orchid's ex-boyfriend and almost destroying the place," Nelson finished up smoothly.
"There were a lot of our guys there that night. You could have. . ." Sharkey began, but Nelson held up a hand in restraint.
"Kowalski called me, and I came down to the bar to get you. I brought you aboard Seaview and sobered you up before Lee got back that night. Because if you'll recall, he'd told you earlier that if you got into one more bar fight during shore leave, you were going to be pushing pencils back in the States for the rest of your military career," Nelson said with a knowing smile. "And we never told Chip, either, because he'd threatened to make you paint the hull with a toothbrush once we hit Santa Barbara if he had to bail you out of jail about one more time."
"You really are the Admiral," Sharkey's expression was as astonished as Crane's had been earlier. "Did you hear that, Skipper, he really is. . ."
The Chief's voice trailed away as he saw Crane's cool stare over such duplicity -- an expression that momentarily included Admiral Nelson, as well. But there were more pressing matters to consider, and now the Captain turned to the real Nelson with a worried frown.
"Admiral, you say that the accident yesterday generated some kind of a force field, and it's pretty obvious that you and Chip were about to reenact the original accident, trying to reverse its effects," Crane gestured at the satellite and the RDC module, then shook his head. "But it's much too risky. . .what if something goes wrong with the transfer? The two of you could end up with your brains scrambled like eggs! Surely there's some more controlled way to attempt this procedure instead of just hoping that you've come to the right conclusion and made the right choices."
Nelson sighed heavily: he'd anticipated just such a response from Crane. He walked over to Crane and put his hand on the Captain's shoulder, then met his gaze with an intense expression of his own.
"Lee, there is no other way," Nelson's voice was calm and level. "Believe me, if there was another, safer alternative, I would have chosen it. Even in a controlled laboratory environment, we may not be able to duplicate the exact combination of variables that produced the force field. This way, at least we have all the original conditions in place. No matter what factor or combination of factors caused the force field, everything is the same here in the Missile Room as it was as yesterday. And the sooner we proceed with this, the better off we'll be. . .before we inadvertently change some element that may be critical to the whole transference process."
For a moment, there was no other sound except the rush of air from the ventilation system and the faint hum of the satellite's components. Crane's eyes and face were full of pain as he struggled with the choice that only he could make: obviously, something had to be done, but the thought of risking the Admiral and Chip's lives and sanity was unbearable to him.
He continued to struggle with the choice for a little while longer until beads of sweat stood out on his forehead and his clenched fingers were white-knuckled. At last, Crane closed his eyes for a moment, then looked at Nelson and nodded.
"All right, Admiral, we'll do it your way," he said reluctantly. "Chief, I want you to stand guard outside the hatch. . .we can't risk any outside interference that might affect the reenactment. I'm going to call Sparks and tell him not to proceed with the satellite uplink as we'd originally planned. We'll tell the folks back home that there's been a problem with Seaview's computer system. And then I'm going to call Doc and put him on standby."
"All right, Lee," Nelson nodded, relief showing in every line of his borrowed face.
Beside him, Morton smiled at Crane in gratitude, then reached into his shirt pocket and took out an envelope containing the letter that Nelson had written in case something went wrong with the transfer. Morton handed the packet of instructions to Crane, but the Captain merely tucked it into his own shirt pocket without looking at anything except the words, "To be opened if I am found incapacitated" scrawled on the front.
And whether that was because he wouldn't even consider the possibility that something might go wrong or because he was afraid that something would happen. . .no one but Crane himself could have said. But something occurred to Nelson -- a question that he needed to ask the Captain before the re-enactment got underway.
"Lee, what will you be doing while Chip and I are attempting the transfer?" the Admiral asked with a slight edge in his voice. "It's imperative that no one else be in this area during that time. Another person would be at severe risk of being injured. . .not to mention throwing in another variable into an equation that's already complicated enough."
"Just think. . .we could all end up as Lieutenant Captain Harriman Lee Morton," the Exec winked at the others. "Wouldn't that be a riot down at the Drivers License Bureau? We'd each end up with a driver's license the size of the Los Angeles telephone book -- just to accommodate all those names, Social Security numbers, and ID photos!"
Nelson and the others groaned at Morton's gallows humor, but at least it had accomplished what the Exec had intended for it to do. Nelson nodded knowingly to himself: if the unthinkable should happen in a few moments, at least Lee and the Chief would remember their friends' faces as being alight with laughter -- instead of grim with apprehension.
"No fear of that, Chip. . .I roomed with you at the Academy, remember? I'm not about to share a brain with you, too!" Crane rolled his eyes in mock disgust.
But while Crane was speaking, the Exec had unobtrusively retrieved the RDC module, then edged himself into the same spot he had been standing in during the accident. Taking his clue from Morton, Nelson also had managed to slip unnoticed into the same place as before, and now he reached out across the satellite to hold onto his side of the module's metal casing.
Crane nodded, then nudged Sharkey and gestured towards the hatch. Reluctantly, the two men trudged towards the corridor: then, as if they had planned the maneuver in advance, they simultaneously stopped and looked back for one last glimpse of their friends. Nelson and Morton smiled once more at them, and with that, both Crane and Sharkey walked away as quickly as they could.
Nelson waited until the hatch swung shut: then he looked across the satellite at Morton and nodded. "All right, Chip -- same drill as before," he said, and the Exec signaled his affirmative. "We'll touch the satellite's power supply on the count of three. One. . .two. . .three!"
The two men reached down and touched the power supply with the RDC module that they held, and there was an enormous sizzling sound like a thousand pounds of butter hitting a red hot skillet the size of a football field. That noise was followed by a hollow boom as dozens of components shorted out all at once. And for a moment, nothing seemed to be happening around Nelson and Morton, despite the painful sensation that twisted them as if they were no more than paper dolls in the hands of a heedless small child.
But then the atmosphere around them once again took on that eerie green glow, just as it had the day before. And as before, a series of brilliant pulses of light stabbed at their eyes, until it seemed that the very fabric of time and space was about to be torn apart by the violence being done to it.
Unlike the day before, however, Nelson remained fully aware of everything that was happening to him for a much longer time. Now he felt like a tightly-wedged cork being pulled out of the neck of a champagne bottle -- he almost expected to hear a loud pop at any second.
Something dark was coming towards him. But whether it was just the deck again or some strange phenomenon related to the re-creation of the accident, he couldn't have said at the moment. He was vaguely aware that Morton had already fallen face down, just as he had the day before, and now it was Nelson's turn to land with a thud against the metal flooring.
It might have been minutes or it might have been hours later, but when Nelson finally awoke, he felt as if every bone in his body had been broken. His head ached intolerably, and there was a sour taste in his mouth. . .much as if he had gone scuba diving in a lake of cod liver oil where a tanker loaded with Limburger cheese had just collided with a rock and sank.
At least he was somewhere comfortable for a change, instead of that blasted deck. The Admiral waited for a moment until the world stopped doing cartwheels and back flips all around him before he tried to sit up. His vision was badly blurred once more, and he struggled to focus on some small detail that might tell him where he was. But when he finally did manage to shake aside the fuzzy vision and decipher his whereabouts, Nelson had only one thought.
"Chip!" the Admiral struggled to sit up, and he looked frantically around Sick Bay for any signs of the Exec. "We've got to help him. . ."
He managed to roll onto his side, but before he could actually sit up, someone held him down firmly by the shoulder. Nelson snarled under his breath as he fought to escape from the person who restrained him -- but without success.
"Doc, he's coming to," a voice floated down to the Admiral from a long distance away, and the medic hurried over the bunk.
"Admiral, are you awake?" the medic started to ask the usual round of questions. " How are you feeling this morning?"
I just survived my second electrocution in less than forty eight hours, my skull feels like a watermelon dropped out a twentieth story window. . .and you're asking me how I feel? Nelson rolled his eyes.
Even on a good day, the Admiral had seldom suffered fools gladly. . .and today was anything but one for the diary. For a few seconds, he spluttered to himself, torn between administering the verbal equivalent of thirty lashes or simply chalking the whole thing off to Doc's basic nature. The latter notion finally won out, and with that, the Admiral stopped struggling against the blurry "assailant" who still pinned him down.
Nelson fell back against the bunk like a marionette whose strings had been cut, and the tall blond man standing above him sighed in relief. He gave Nelson a grin that could only belong to one person aboard the Seaview -- a fact that was confirmed a second later as the Admiral's eyes focused sharply once more.
"Chip! You're yourself again. . .at least you look like yourself, anyway." Nelson exclaimed, then paused to consider the implications of what he had just said. "But if that's really you, then I must really be. . .at least I think I am who I thought I used to. . .oh, blast it all, will you just hand me a mirror, man!"
"Certainly, Admiral," Morton smiled and gestured for Doc to bring him one of the small hand mirrors that patients in Sick Bay used when they shaved.
Nelson took the mirror from the Exec, then peered into it anxiously as if half-afraid of seeing some strange apparition or impossible hybrid of features looking back at him. Instead, his own familiar features gazed back at him: forehead, eyes, nose, lips, and chin -- they were all his own.
Even the lines around his eyes didn't seem quite as bad at the moment. At least they're my wrinkles and not someone else's, the Admiral thought to himself with a resigned shrug.
Doc re-entered the blur that was Nelson's distance vision at the moment, and the medic busied himself for a moment with the usual details of checking the Admiral's vital signs. Morton sat on the edge of Doc's desk and watched with an anxious expression that he couldn't quit conceal.
Finally, the medic was satisfied that all was in order, and he nodded cheerfully at Nelson. A little too cheerfully to suit the Admiral, but with considerable effort, he managed to summon up a little of his newly acquired patience. Nelson smiled at Doc -- the way that Morton would have done under the same circumstances.
"I just notified Captain Crane a few minutes ago that you're awake, Admiral, and he's on his way down here now to see you," Doc nodded. . .and relief at not being chewed out showed in every line of his face. "That was quite a dangerous risk that you and Commander Morton took last night. And yes, Admiral, before you even ask, Commander Morton has already filled me in on what happened yesterday. If anyone else besides you or Chip had told me something like that, sir, I would have said that you were either drunk or crazy."
"You think it sounds crazy? Try living it," the Admiral met Morton's amused eyes with a knowing nod. "But to answer your question, I'm feeling fine and looking forward to getting out of here ASAP."
"Uh, not so fast, Admiral. . .I think you and the Commander shouldn't try to rush right back to work," Doc protested cautiously. "The two of you suffered another severe jolt of electricity last night, and frankly, I'm amazed that you've both made such a rapid recovery. It's my professional opinion that you two need to take a few days off and. . ."
Doc's voice trailed away as he thought back to the last time that he had made such a recommendation. . .and now he and Morton braced themselves for the inevitable Admiral Nelson explosion. But Nelson merely smiled and nodded in drowsy agreement.
"You know, now that I stop to think about it, that sounds like an excellent idea, Doc," he said. . .between yawns. "I work too hard as it is, and so does Chip. A few days' rest for both of us is exactly what the doctor -- and the Admiral -- ordered! When Lee gets here, tell him that I'll talk to him later. And whatever you do, don't wake me up until lunch."
And with that, Nelson rolled over and fell asleep almost instantly. For a moment, Sick Bay was silent. . .except for a sound very much like an old-fashioned steam calliope issuing from Nelson's bunk. Doc stared down at the Admiral for a moment, then turned to the Exec with an uneasy little shrug.
"I. . .think I'd better do a full neurological work-up on the Admiral," Doc said nervously as he reached for Nelson's chart to make a notation on it. "That, and a complete psychological evaluation, as well. I've. . .I've never seen him act quite so, that is to say, he's so. . .uh. . ."
". . .relaxed? Normal? Human?" Morton grinned, then yawned and stretched. "Doc, I don't think there's anything to be worried about. In fact, you're probably going to find that this whole experience has made a new man out of the Admiral and me both. In more ways than one."
The Exec smiled once more and nodded contentedly to himself. Then without saying anything else to the thoroughly bewildered physician, Morton crawled into his own bunk and fell asleep in just a few minutes.
With a knowing little grin still plastered on his face.
"You know, it's a good thing that I'm actually standing here watching this," Lee Crane shrugged to Angie, Admiral Nelson's secretary. "Because if anyone else tried to just tell me about it, I would never have believed it!"
"You and me both, Lee. . .you and me both," Angie shook her head. "A year and a half ago, he would have volunteered to have a root canal to avoid one of these receptions. In fact, he would have volunteered for sixteen root canals with no anesthetic if it got him out of this kind of chore. And now will you just look at him over there with all those bigwigs -- he's Mister Congeniality this afternoon!"
The little dark-haired woman clutched her glass of champagne like an anchor to reality as she watched the amazing events unfolding in front of her. And at the moment, she and Crane wore identical expressions of surprise. . .much as if a Martian had landed in their midst and started giving a travel monologue.
One of NIMR's large conference rooms had been transformed into a reception hall: now it was filled with an assortment of Senators, Pentagon brass, distinguished scientists, journalists, and what Chief Sharkey would have called 'those high society muckety-mucks.' In one corner of the room, a large sign proclaimed, "Congratulations on Your Achievement, Admiral Nelson."
But the scientist himself was only one of a group of people who now stood in a semi-circle, listening intently to a tall blond man in dress blues. Chip Morton finished his story with the easy grace of a born raconteur, and the gathered V.I.P.'s roared with laughter -- including Admiral Nelson.
The Admiral slipped away unnoticed to join Crane and Angie, and Nelson was still chuckling as he signaled to a waiter for a glass of champagne. He took a sip of his drink, then turned to his two companions with a smile.
"Your Executive Officer has turned into quite a social butterfly, Lee," Nelson gestured towards the crowd of people around Morton. "As a matter of fact, I introduced him to Mrs.Wellingham-Smith a few minutes ago. She's already invited him to a reception for Senator Avery next week. Not me, mind you, not even Chip and me. . .just Chip. And I've known that woman for fifteen years!"
"I think I'll just go over and say something to him," Crane put his champagne glass down and started to walk towards Morton. "After all, you're the one who won the award for your work in advanced weather tracking methods, and this is your reception -- not Chip's."
"Belay that, Captain," Nelson grumbled good-naturedly, and Crane turned back to his two companions. "You know as well as I do that if it hadn't been for Chip and all the hard work he put into that experimental tracking satellite, I would never have been able to complete the research under budget and on time. And besides, the stories he's telling them are all about my accomplishments and achievements. Never turn down free publicity, Lee. . .especially when your press agent is as good as Chip Morton!"
Still chuckling to himself, the Admiral wandered off to rejoin the rest of the crowd. Angie waited until he was out of earshot, then met Crane's eyes once more.
"And that's another thing, Lee," she shrugged in bewilderment. "There have been times over the last year and a half when I could have sworn that's not the real Admiral Nelson that I'm working for. . .more like his twin brother."
"You mean his evil twin?" Crane asked with a wicked sparkle in his eyes.
"Nope," Angie winked at Crane. "Seriously, I don't know how he's been aboard the Seaview, but when he's here at NIMR, he's been more patient and relaxed than I've ever known him. He doesn't lose his temper as often when people don't have all the answers that he thinks they should, and he hasn't chewed anyone out for ages. It's as if he's a completely different person than he used to be."
"Well, maybe not completely. . .but part of him certainly is," Crane shrugged.
Angie raised a questioning eyebrow, and the Captain added, "Let's just say that Admiral Nelson took an advanced course about a year and a half ago."
"In what, Lee?" the secretary shrugged in confusion. "Surely I would have known if he'd taken any courses. . .I would have been the one who had to type all his papers for him!"
Crane paused until the latest round of laughter from the crowd died away, then took another sip of his champagne. He wore a thoughtful expression for a moment before he turned back to Angie.
"You might say it was a class on shoe making," he smiled mysteriously. "And believe me, Angie. . .the Admiral is now an expert on other people's shoes!"
Copyright 1999 by China Jade
Please send comments to China at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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