by Middie Rosie
Lee Crane, Captain of the world's most famous research submarine and ONI agent extraordinaire, fought to stifle a yawn. He could feel the eyes on the back of his neck as he stood by the chart table in the long narrow room that served as the SSRN Seaview's command center. Sometimes it seemed to him that half of the crewmen on his boat were closet mother hens, with him as the only chick.
"Of course," he thought ruefully, "the rest don't even bother with the closet." He glanced around and caught Chief Francis Sharkey, Seaview's chief of the boat, watching him worriedly.
"Something on your mind, Chief?" Crane asked pointedly.
"Uh, begging the Captain's pardon, but are you feeling all right, sir? You looked a bit, um, tired, and I thought maybe you might like to go, you know, lie down."
Lee stared nonplused. "Chief, how long have we been out here?"
"Uh, this cruise, sir? 24 days, sir."
"24 days. And Chief, how many emergency repairs have we made? How much time have we lost due to breakdown?"
"Absolutely none, Skipper! She's running like a top!" Sharkey's voice was filled with almost paternal pride, and he absently patted the periscope railing like rewarding a well loved dog.
"Well, Chief, have you seen any leprechauns lately? Any bug-eyed monsters? Little green men? Murderous ghost pirates?"
"No, sir!! Things have been downright quiet, Skipper!"
"Exactly, Chief. In 24 days, the only excitement has been that 'sponge of a different color'. I have had enough sleep to last a year. Now, I want you to stop trying to find something wrong with me. I am fine. I have no intention of being anything BUT fine. Understand, Chief?"
Lee had tried to keep the exasperation out of his voice, but three weeks of surveying sponges on the ocean floor had him ready to tear his hair out. A look of annoyance flitted briefly across the Chief's expressive face, only to be replaced by a mask of contrite apology. "Sorry Skipper. I understand sir. If that will be all, I need to get down to the missile room."
"Ah, damn it!" Lee really hated that hurt puppy act that Sharkey had down so pat, but he couldn't help but respond to it. "Look, Chief, I do appreciate your concern, but it's misplaced. The only person on board who is even close to being overworked is the Admiral, and he's hardly in a state of breakdown, now is he?"
Lee felt a fleeting thrill of glee as he watched the good hearted Chief process his statement. The Captain was not above a little trickery at Admiral Harry Nelson's expense. The designer and owner of the Seaview would probably not even notice Sharkey's anxious attention.
The moment passed, and as Lee expected, Chief Sharkey accepted the unstated apology with a flick of his fingers. "Um, no, Skipper, I don't suppose the Admiral is doing much more than, uh, counting more sponges. By your leave, sir?"
"Dismissed, Chief." Lee watched as Sharkey made his way to the spiral staircase that marked the division between the Control Room and the Observation Nose and incidentally led to the Admiral's lab. He was tempted to remind the Chief that the Missile Room was the other way, but decided any comment would draw the man's unwanted attention back to him.
Lee heard a muffled snigger, and turned a gimlet stare across the chart table to Seaview's second officer, Lt. Bob O'Brien. "Was there something you wanted to add, Lieutenant?"
Eyes sparkling with humor, the young officer hesitated for a moment then said, "Skipper, that was smooth, sir." After a beat, O'Brien continued. "Much smoother than Mr. Morton, sir."
With a hint of a smile playing around his lips, Lee prompted. "C'mon Bobby, don't keep me in suspense. What exactly did Mr. Morton do?"
"Oh, a little bit before you came on duty, the Exec caught the Chief doing that 'he'll break if I don't keep my eye on him' routine."
"And so what did he do?"
"Well, he called the Chief over and asked if he had noticed how tired you looked."
"Oh, he is dead!! Bob, expect a promotion to XO soon."
O'Brien laughed. "Aye aye, Captain!"
The two men returned to their work chuckling quietly. The shift proceeded in the same monotonous fashion that shifts had run for the last few weeks. The crewmen of the Seaview were all handpicked. Each man was an expert in his field, and all were rigorously cross trained so that literally anyone from the Admiral on down to the cook's assistant could theoretically take the helm in an emergency. The current mission was to sweep back and forth across a wide swath of the ocean floor while a newly installed sensor system counted those sedentary sea creatures called sponges. The sensors were guided and monitored by computers back at the Seaview's home base in Santa Barbara.
At the initial mission briefing, Admiral Nelson tried to instill some of his scientific excitement into his command team, but none of the ship's officers had been able to generate much enthusiasm. Nelson had been peeved. He had a scientist's curiosity about all living things, and was convinced that changes in populations of simple animals like sponges could help predict more dangerous changes further up the food chain.
Chip Morton, the Seaview's Executive Officer, had complained that using the sub for a mission like this was overkill along the lines of using a thermonuclear device to open the lock on a little girl's diary. Although Lee privately agreed, he had wisely held his peace. Morton was paying the price for his comment even now. The Admiral had requested the XO's assistance in designing a computer program to tally the results of the study. Lee thought that such a program would be meat and potatoes to Morton who readily admitted to being a computer geek, but when he had mentioned it, the XO had shrugged his shoulders and said it wasn't much of a challenge.
The challenge as far as the Captain was concerned was to keep his crew alert in the face of overwhelming boredom. Although the Seaview was a large boat, she really could be quite delicate. She could take a pounding, but her highly advanced systems required constant attention. The crew could probably handle their main functions in their sleep, but Lee Crane had no desire to prove that literally. He glanced at his chronometer. The general quarters drill he had scheduled was due to start at any moment.
Almost as if in answer to his thought, alarms rang throughout the boat and Chip Morton's deep voice intoned "General quarters… General quarters… Man your battle stations."
Lt. O'Brien pulled out a stopwatch, and an air of purposeful bustle took over the control room as manned stations were efficiently checked to verify optimum readiness. Several stations that were unmanned in the course of a normal day suddenly bloomed crewmen as if by magic. Departments started calling in their readiness within moments of the first alarm. O'Brien stood with the mike in hand, acknowledging the various reports. In a quicker time than Lee thought possible, O'Brien clicked the stopwatch.
A low whistle emanated from the young lieutenant's throat as he checked the time. With a grin, he turned the watch face toward his Captain. "This is a whole 45 seconds off of our previous best!"
Lee had to work hard to keep the grin off of his face. His men were the best, no doubt about it. Sometimes it was just plain hard not to just surface the boat so he could go up to the bridge and crow like a rooster! Of course, he could never do that. It would breach the decorum of his position and set a bad example. A very bad example. But maybe . . . if he did it late at night . . . .
Lee put this tempting thought aside, and gestured to O'Brien for the microphone. "Sparks, put this on shipwide." At the radio officer's acknowledgment, Crane started speaking. "Attention all hands. I am pleased to announce a new ship's record. This drill was successfully completed in three minutes and sixteen seconds."
Lee paused as a general whoop went up throughout the boat. He couldn't help but wince, thinking every sub listening post between here and Moscow now knew exactly where they were. Even though the Seaview was technically a research vessel, Crane's instincts had been honed in the secretive hide and run school of the US Navy. Sighing he continued, "This time is the new standard for this boat, and I will expect performance this good, no, make that this spectacular with all future drills. That is all."
Lee handed the microphone back to O'Brien. He felt a surge of pride as he looked around the Control Room. A lesser crew would have been dismayed and angry if their Captain had set so high a standard. But the looks he saw were looks of pleasure and self-satisfaction. These men were the best and they knew it.
Lee looked up as his boss entered the room followed closely by his Executive Officer. Both men were wearing smug little grins. Lee felt a similar grin blossom on his own face.
"Not bad, Lee. Not bad at all."
Admiral Harriman Nelson was a tough bantycock of a man. A head shorter than the Captain, he made up for his lack of height with a towering intellect. Despite being one of the most brilliant scientists in the world, Nelson was no ivory tower intellectual snob. He was a doer as well as a thinker. The president of the United States, in a speech given when Nelson was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor likened the Admiral to a modern day Thomas Edison. There were few men on board the Seaview who would challenge that contention.
"Congratulations, Captain. That was indeed a spectacular drill. Perhaps we should do a sponge census more often." Admiral Harriman Nelson's comment was only half in jest, and Lee caught Morton's barely perceptible wince as he responded to the comment.
Grinning, Lee said, "If it gets results this good, we can count sea cucumbers for all I care."
Lee watched as Morton started to roll his eyes heavenward, then abruptly halted the movement, instantly schooling his features to polite alertness as the Admiral turned his attention to him. Lee admired his XO's ability to change his aspect so quickly, but at the same time, the man shouldn't be letting his feelings be known in front of the crew. Lee reflected it was time for a talk. Morton was a good friend, and one of the best Executive Officers in or out of the Navy, but that didn't cut any ice when it came down to ship's discipline.
Lee turned his attention back to what Nelson was saying. "... but for the most part, I'm happy with the results that I have gotten." The Admiral swung around and addressed the Captain. "Lee, I think we can wrap this up tomorrow. I'd like one more sweep along sector 23G, then we can head for home."
Lee grinned again, this time with relief. "Yes, sir! Mr. O'Brien, plot a course to run parallel to the last sweep in that sector. Mr. Morton and I will be in the observation nose."
Admiral Nelson was already halfway up the spiral staircase when he paused with a frown. Lee glanced up with a wary look. He wasn't prepared at this point to explain why he wanted to talk to the XO, but Nelson just said mildly, "You know, Lee, a sea cucumber census might not be such a bad idea. I really would like baseline information on several different species. No, that's not a bad idea at all."
With a distracted air, the Admiral continued on his way. The Captain felt a wave of affection for his erudite friend as he watched him disappear up the staircase. He turned quickly to his other friend, but wasn't fast enough to see anything other than Morton's trademark look of bland attention. In a soft voice, Lee said, "Let's go have a talk."
Lee turned on his heel and walked forward to the observation nose, gesturing for Morton to press the button that would close sliding metal doors and cut off the nose from the bustle of the control room beyond. Both men watched as the doors slid silently shut. Lee rounded on the XO, "Okay, Chip, you're causing a problem."
"Me? What do you mean, Lee?" Lee felt some satisfaction at Morton's confused and alarmed look. It was good to know that he could still surprise the man.
"I am going to assume you're getting tired. That's the only explanation I can come up with for your behavior just now."
Bewildered, Morton replied, "Behavior, sir?"
"I saw that look on your face, Chip, and so did half of the crew in that room. Each time you roll your eyes you're undermining the Admiral's authority. You know as well as I do that those men in there can read either of us like a book. They think you're disparaging the Admiral's projects and they're going to start thinking less of them too."
Lee knew it was a minor transgression that once mentioned would never happen again but Morton's reaction caused Lee to sigh. Morton had paled significantly, and stood rigidly at attention, his eyes focused straight ahead. He swallowed hard, apparently against the reprimand sticking in his craw. In a toneless voice, he said. "Understood, sir."
Lee saw his friend slide his eyes over the Captain, obviously trying to judge whether a further comment was needed to mollify him. Shaking his head, Lee said in a calm voice, "Chip, this isn't a big deal. I just wanted to let you know. I know you won't let it happen again."
"Lee, I'm sorry. I just wasn't thinking. You know I would never, ever do anything to cause the Admiral grief, and..... What in Blazes?"
Both men froze. The movement was not much, just a short jerk as if a subcompact car rammed into the rear of an eighteen wheeler. On a highway, the truck driver would barely notice it, but under the sea, even a small collision could result in disaster. After an eternity that actually lasted less than five seconds, the two officers sprinted for the control room, Morton slamming his hand on the door control, and Crane squeezing his way through, not willing to wait the precious moments it took for the doors to open. The control room was a riot of activity, the klaxons ringing again for general quarters, men verifying operational readiness, and reports coming in over the intercom. Crane sensed rather than saw a slight list to port. "O'Brien, what happened?"
"Sir, we have an outer hull breach in frames 45 and 47. We still have watertight integrity on the inner hull, but it's just a matter of time before it goes. No men are reported down, and Chief Sharkey is leading a work crew to assess the damage."
O'Brien looked up with a worried frown. "Sir, I don't know what we hit. The ocean is all sandy bottom in this area."
"All right, Bob. You get on down to the breach. I don't want to lose that watertight integrity. Chip, you have the con, Kowalski, come with me. We're going to suit up and check this breach from the outside."
Crane was already through the aft hatch before the flurry of "Aye, sirs" acknowledging his orders could reach his ears. Halfway to the Missile Room with it's diving hatch, the corridor lights flickered then went out. It seemed to Crane as if the list was much more noticeable in the dark. As he reached out his hand, to use the corridor wall as a guide, the red emergency lights finally kicked in. Lee tried not to worry about the delay. In theory, the emergency lights should come on immediately. The delay was telling him that his ship was in serious trouble.
He arrived at the Missile Room at full speed, but he was minutes behind the Admiral, who was already halfway into his wetsuit. A quick nod, and Lee started stripping, Kowalski half a step behind. "Lee, I want you and 'Ski to bring along the patch kit. I don't know if it will do any good, but I don't want any delay if it proves to be repairable."
"Yes, sir." Lee acknowledged quickly and turned to give the order, only to see Seaman Patterson coming through the hatchway with the bulky repair kit on a dolly. "Good work, Pat, get it into the diving hatch."
Lee normally would have double-checked the kit to insure that it was intact, but time was of the essence. Patterson was a seasoned veteran of the ship, and Lee had faith that the man had already done the necessary check. With the help of two yeomen, Patterson and Kowalski loaded the patch kit into the hatch. Crane and Nelson both climbed into the diving hatch. Although designed to hold several divers, the addition of the repair kit with its quarter ton steel sheeting patches put space at a premium.
Kowalski waited his turn in the Missile Room, anxiously watching the flood control on the hatch as it opened to the sea. Nelson immediately swam out as Lee used compressed air to inflate bags that would float the heavy kit out of the hatch. Once he and the kit were out, he signaled the Missile Room to send out Kowalski. Impatient to check the damaged hull, he adjusted the airbags to neutral buoyancy, and started the tedious job of towing the kit toward the boat's port side.
After a few moments, 'Ski joined him and they moved quickly to the side of the boat. The murky water only allowed visibility of about 30 feet, and the huge size of the hull was daunting. Nelson was not in sight, but Crane knew his ship, and he led Kowalski aft, keeping one hand on the repair kit, and the other on handholds spaced along the boat's side.
Although it felt to Crane as if they were only inching along, it was just a few minutes before he could see a pinprick of light ahead and below. Almost as soon as he noticed it, 'Ski gestured toward it. Vigorously nodding his head to acknowledge the sighting, he let go of a handhold and indicated they should free swim the rest of the way.
Together, the Captain and Kowalski towed the repair kit to where Nelson waited impatiently. Nelson waved towards the hull, and Crane felt relief when he saw the damage. It was a rip about two feet long, with one end a basketball sized hole. It was definitely repairable. A patch on the outside, followed up with another on the inside of the hull, once the water had been pumped out, and the Seaview would be seaworthy again.
As he looked at the small rip, Lee felt his confusion grow. What could have caused such a small hole? The outer hull of the Seaview was of titanium, and anything that could hole her, should have done huge amounts of damage. Lee noticed the Admiral running his hand over the jagged edge. Putting his hand to his throat mike, Lee asked, "What do you think caused this, Admiral?"
"Lee, run your hand around here. Feel that? This hole was blown out, not in. Something on the ship caused this."
Lee felt his stomach clench. Even through the facemask, he could see the worry on the Admiral's face. Taking a deep breath, he said, "Well, in or out, we still need to get it patched. Sir, why don't you head on back. 'Ski and I will get this repair done, and then we will figure out what happened."
"Lee, these patch jobs can be tricky. I think I'll just stick around in case I can lend a hand."
Lee sighed inwardly. He would rather the Admiral was safely back on board, but he couldn't deny the wisdom of having a third set of hands when dealing with the bulky patch. Nodding his head strongly, Lee turned to the patch kit, and with Kowalski's help maneuvered the large square of steel over the hole. He appreciated the Admiral's wisdom in staying as the senior officer immediately started welding the ungainly metal sheet to the hull.
After several spot welds, the Admiral surrendered the torch to Kowalski's more experienced hands and with Captain Crane floated back to let the man get on with his work. 'Ski was quick and efficient, and less than an hour after they had found the breach, the three men arrived back at the hatch. Once back on board, Lee ignored the fact that the red emergency lights were still on, and turned to compliment Kowalski. "That was good work, 'Ski. I want you to take a shift off. You've earned it."
Kowalski flushed under the praise, but said, "Skipper, if it's all the same to you, I'd just as soon return to my post."
Lee reflected that this kind of dedication was why he felt his crew was the best. "Very well, 'Ski. I'll tell you what, tell the Exec I said you were to have double desserts for the next week. I hear Cookie is making chocolate cream pies today."
Kowalski's face split with a wide grin. "Aye, Skipper! Thank you, sir!" The man strode proudly off, Crane watching him go.
Lee turned at a quiet chuckle behind him. "Doesn't take much, does it, Lee?" The Admiral sobered. "All right, Captain, let's go figure out what went wrong."
"In a moment, sir." Lee reached for the intercom mike. "Control room, this is the Captain. Why haven't the lights been restored?"
Lee stared at the intercom, willing a response when the crewman who had assisted in removing his wetsuit spoke up. "Skipper, the intercom is out. They're using runners throughout the boat."
"All right, Morrell, get up to the control room, advise Mr. Morton that the exterior of the hull has been patched, and that I am heading to frame 45. Tell him I want a full report on our condition. Got it? Then go."
Lee looked over to where Admiral Nelson awaited him at the hatch, pensively rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Admiral, are you okay? You look a bit pale."
With an irritated wave of his hand, the Admiral started out the hatch, "I'm fine. Let's get going."
Crane had to jog to keep up with the older man's fast pace. "Sir, what do you think caused the breach?"
"Lee, I have no idea. I keep running over the schematics in my mind, and for the life of me, I can't think of anything in that area that could've caused this."
"Neither can I. It had to be pretty powerful to go through the hull like that. What I don't understand is why if it was that powerful, it didn't shred the inner hull, too."
"Well, we will just have to find out, won't we?" Lee permitted himself a grim smile. With a mind the caliber of Nelson's on the job, Lee had no doubt that they would indeed find the answer to this mystery.
As the two officers neared the site of the breach, they could hear they sound of men working. Entering the affected corridor, Lee saw temporary braces had been installed. A large hose ran from a small service hatch down a cross-corridor towards the starboard side of the ship. Spotting Chief Petty Officer Sharkey, Crane called out, "Chief, where do we stand?"
Sharkey looked up and an expression of relief came across his face. "Skipper, the bomb ripped out the main electrical conduit for the entire port side. We lost maneuvering, the ballast controls, lighting, communications, the whole shootin' match. We're re-routing everything now, but its going to take time, sir."
"Whoa, Chief! You said bomb? What makes you think it was a bomb?"
"Admiral, we know it was a bomb, because there are more of them down there. They're like limpet mines, sir. They're strung out all along the inside of the hull. Mr. Morton thinks they're all set to go off at the same time, but that this one was defective or something, and it went off early."
Crane felt his pulse start to race. "How the hell did these things get onboard my ship?"
"Well, I been thinking about that, Skipper. Remember those Swedish guys that came aboard last week to look at the sponges? Well, they came with an awful lot of equipment, didn't they? And remember how we were always finding them in restricted areas? It seemed all innocent at the time, but now, I'm thinking they weren't so innocent, if you catch my drift."
"Norwegian. They were Norwegians, Chief." Admiral Nelson replied distractedly, his mind already racing ahead to the problem of the mines.
"Admiral, I have to get in there, do a damage survey. Chief, have the tanks been pumped?"
"Skipper, Mr. Morton is already in there. We've got the tanks about half-pumped. We can't do it any faster without overstressing the starboard pumps. "
Crane started stripping off his shirt in preparation to entering the ballast tanks, a series of linked reservoirs that were the key to the Seaview's ability to sink beneath the surface of the ocean. A firm hand on his forearm arrested the motion. "Lee, wait a moment. Sharkey, have they brought up any of these mines, yet?"
"Uh, no sir. Mr. Morton said he wants you to take a look at them before he tries removing them. Neither he nor Mr. Kelly is familiar with the design." Chief Sharkey responded uncomfortably.
Lee had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. While Morton had a fairly decent knowledge of ordinance, Lieutenant Kelly, the boat's master at arms, had a phenomenal expertise. If Eli Kelly hadn't seen this mine before, then the ship's danger had increased tenfold.
"All right, Chief, the Captain and I will both go. Send somebody up to the control room, and tell Mr. O'Brien that this could be a trap. Tell him not to surface until he is absolutely sure there is no one up there waiting for us."
"Uh, sir, Mr. O'Brien isn't in the control room. He's in the tank fixing the inside of the breach."
Lee felt the little niggle of fear that had been his companion since the beginning of this mess dissolve in a wash of irritation. What was Morton thinking? With Admiral Nelson and himself in the water, the XO should have stayed in the control room. And to put himself, and the boat's second officer in harm's way? Did he sleep through the Academy's classes on delegation of labor and chain of command? Lee felt that little twitch of the jaw that indicated his stress level was through the roof. Glancing up, he noticed the Chief's anxious attention.
"Now, Chief, do we have a radio link with either Mr. Morton or Mr. O'Brien?"
Chief Sharkey produced a small two-way radio. "Here, sir."
Before the Chief could hand off the communication device, there was a clatter at the small hatch that led to the ballast tank. Lee's attention was drawn to the dark head that appeared. Lt. Bob O'Brien rapidly climbed out of the hatch, wet and bedraggled.
Spotting the Admiral he called out, "Oh, Admiral! There you are. Sir, take a look at this. Hand it up here, Riley." O'Brien crouched at the hatch opening, reaching down to take a small black object from a pair of hands reaching up from below. Gingerly cradling the small boxy shape he held it up for the Admiral to see. "We found it on the floor of the tank. It looks like whatever was attaching it to the wall was defective. There's maybe thirty, forty of these things down there."
Lee peered curiously at the small device. It seemed harmless enough. Just a black metal box with some epoxy residue on one side.
Nelson rubbed a thumb over the residue. "It looks like it has simply been glued in place. Uh, Riley, kindly take this to my lab. Bob get on up to the control room, now. There's an even chance that whoever is behind this is lurking around, waiting for the big blow. If they are, I want to catch them. Make sure we are ready, understand?"
"Aye, sir!" O'Brien turned on heel, and trotted away up the passageway.
"Lee, I am going to head to the lab, see if I can identify this glue, come up with a reagent to get those mines off the walls. You get on in there, see if you can pull them off without jarring them too much."
"I'm on my way, Admiral." Lee finished stripping off his shirt and tie.
Lee climbed down the ladder into the knee-deep cold water of the ballast tank. Chief Sharkey handed down a large flashlight, and the Captain of the Seaview slogged forward in the murky dampness.
The inside of the tank was confining with a low ceiling and sloping sides and floor. Flourescent paint indicated location, but Crane ignored the markers, and moved confidently forward. In the Navy, a Captain had command for a relatively short time, and while any good Captain would know his ship based on the study of blueprints, very few got the kind of belly-of-the-beast, bolt by bolt knowledge that Lee Crane had. He had been the Captain of the Seaview for several years and there was not a compartment, serviceway, or even vent that he had not had a personal experience with. The interior of the ballast tank system was an old acquaintance.
As he moved slowly forward, he came upon a team just shutting down from patching the interior side of the breach. The hole was slightly above the midline of the tunnel like tank, and Lee paused, watching Patterson inspect the finished product.
"Oh, hullo, Skipper. The patch is holding just fine, sir. I'd say we have a watertight fix here, sir."
"Good job. Where's Commander Morton?"
"He and Lt. Kelly are forward, sir. Skipper, why would anyone want to blow up the Seaview?"
"That's something we are going to find out, Pat. Get your team out of here now, and report to Mr. O'Brien in the control room." Lee pressed himself up against the side of the tank, allowing Patterson and two other crewmen to skinny their way past. "Oh, and Patterson? Be sure to tell Mr. Morton that you three are to have double desserts for a week, for a job well done."
With a hoot of delight, the three crewmen headed toward the service hatch. Lee permitted himself a small grin. We could save a ton in salary increases if we just instituted a double dessert policy. The Captain thought wryly, as he continued to make his way forward.
Any humor Lee may have felt died as he spotted the first of the mines attached to the hull. He felt a growing rage as he gazed at the ugly device blemishing the smooth beauty of his ship. Lee wanted to reach out and rip the black box from the wall, but common sense told him that giving into his desire could cause an explosion the ship could ill afford.
A mutter of voices drew Lee's attention forward, and he moved forward around an obstructing pipe. He found Lt. Kelly bent over peering closely at something cradled in Chip Morton's hands. Morton's head came up at the wash of light over his face. "Skipper, that you?"
Lee moved forward into a circle of light cast by the two officer's' miners' helmets. "The hull is patched. What have you got here?"
Kelly responded, "Captain, I think you had better get out of here. This thing could go off at any moment."
"Mr. Kelly, I suggest you find a way to prevent it from going off. " Lee said dryly.
"Lee, we're trying to get the damned thing open. If it's booby trapped, I'd rather it didn't take all three of us out."
Lee thought momentarily. "We're not even going to try and disarm them. The Admiral is working on a solvent to dissolve that glue, but in the meantime, we are going to try just pulling them off and dropping them out the pressure hatch."
Even in the dim light, Crane could see Kelly pale. "Sir, until I get a look at the mechanism, I strongly recommend against pulling at them. A jerk might be all it takes to set them off. Please, sir, let me just pry this one open, and see how it's set up."
"Well, how did you get this one off?"
"We didn't. It came off on it's own. I practically tripped over this one and the one Riley brought out." Morton eyed his captain speculatively. "Lee, Eli and I can handle this, but this is as far as we have gotten. There may be more loose ones further on. Watch your step, will ya?"
Lee shared a glance with his XO. They both knew if the apparatus cradled in Morton's hands went off, there was no place in the tunnel-like ballast tanks that would save any of them from a fiery death.
Turning his attention to the lieutenant delicately prying around the edge of the innocuous looking device, Lee said "Kelly, I need to know what kind of time frame we are looking at."
"Understood, sir. As soon as I get a look at the timer on this baby, I'll be able to tell."
"Very well. Once you have that answer, I want you both out of here, is that understood?"
"No, Chip, I don't want to hear it. I need you in the control room in case this thing goes south on us. You take care of things, got it?"
The reluctant 'yes, sir' eased Lee's mind. He trusted the Exec implicitly, and he knew even if the Seaview could not be saved, Morton would save the crew if it were at all possible.
Nodding, he eased his way past the two men, and continued up the confining passageway. At a thought, he paused and called back, "Chip, what about the starboard tanks?"
Without looking up, Morton replied, "We checked, they're clean. But that makes sense. These things had to have been planted within the last seven days, because the maintenance gang was down here checking on the valves on the fifteenth. Remember those environmentalists the Admiral brought aboard? That one, Halvorsen, kept disappearing. Sharkey found him coming out of the 45A service hatch at one point, and so I assigned Patterson to keep an eye on him. I think we stopped him from finishing the job."
Lee grunted and after a moment's thought said, "Now, Chip when you get up to the control room, I want you to have Sparks put in a call to the police, have them pick those people up."
"Already handled, Skipper. Intraship communication is out, but Sparks was able to get the radio up and running within a few moments."
"All right, carry on then."
Lee turned away at Morton's murmured 'aye' and continued carefully up to the end of the primary tank. The Seaview's ballast tanks were strung out like fat sausages along the flanks of the huge sub. They were connected by short sections of pipe that could be shut off at either end. Admiral Nelson had originally designed these pipes to be large enough to accommodate a man, so that maintenance and repair crews could move easily from tank to tank. Later design revisions had cut the diameter of these pipes almost in half, and in truth, the crew rarely tried to squeeze through them, preferring to enter each tank through a system of service hatches.
Lee pointed his flashlight through the pipe to the tank beyond where he could just make out the ugly shape of one of the bombs on the tank wall. Cursing under his breath, he ran his light around the inside of the pipe. Well, if the enigmatic Mr. Halvorsen could do it, so can I. Lee decided.
He hitched his way into the pipe, and started to worm his way forward. He barely got started, when he realized that he was stuck. He couldn't quite reach the lip of the pipe in the second tank, and his feet were dangling in the first tank with no purchase. Lee squirmed a bit trying to shinny back and felt his belt catch on something.
Lee paused a moment considering. His arms were thrust forward, and his feet were dangling up to his mid calf. The walls of the pipe were smooth, except for a treacherous welded seam that had caught his belt. He was stuffed into the tube with no way to move forward or back. If it weren't for the bombs, this would probably be pretty funny. Lee thought.
He realized the only way to go was to somehow free his belt and push himself back. Unable to bring his hands back, Lee wriggled fiercely trying to get the belt loose. Pausing to catch his breath, he heard a mumbled voice behind him. Before he could call for help he felt strong hands bracing his feet. Immediately realizing the intent, Lee pushed strongly feeling his snagged belt release with barely a tug. As the pressure on his feet continued, Lee reached forward to grab the lip of the pipe and pull himself through. Just as he was about jump down into the tank, his foot caught and he tumbled gracelessly into the foot of cold seawater on the tank floor.
Lee closed his eyes for a moment sending a heartfelt prayer to heaven, please don't let it be Chip, please don't let it be Chip.
"Lee? You okay?"
Ah, rats. "Yeah, I'm fine Chip. What are you doing here? I thought I told you to get up to the control room." Lee's voice bit sharply into the cold damp air.
"I'm on my way," Morton replied placatingly. "I just wanted to let you know we got the bomb casing open. The good news is, it's fairly shock resistant. The bad news is, the timer is set for 45 minutes from now so we need to hustle here. Eli is looking to see if he can get one off by tugging on it. Lee, you can't do this alone there are too many of them. Let me get some volunteers down here to help, okay?"
Lee had already come to the same conclusion. Even if the mines could be removed easily, he was going to need help to get rid of them all within the allotted 45 minutes. "All right, Chip. But I want you in the Control Room, now, or I swear, I will put you on report."
"Okay, okay, I'm going! Sheesh, what a grouch!" Chip's voice was unrepentant. "Oh, Lee, one more thing."
"Chip, I don't have time and neither do you!"
Lee started to turn away, but turned back at Chip's hard response. "Captain, your standing orders are for hardhats at all times in maintenance areas. Take mine, please, I won't be needing it in the Control Room."
Lee caught the hat as it came skidding through the pipe. Lee mentally groaned. Chip had a way of making him feel like a louse at times. I'll make it up to him later. As Lee surveyed the mines lining the tank, he permitted himself a private smile. Double desserts! That'll do it!
With the hardhat light, Lee stepped over to the first of the mines in the tank. Curiously, he reached out and nudged it with his hand. To his great surprise, the mine fell off, and Lee found himself juggling to keep it from falling. He ran his thumb thoughtfully along the bottom of the mine where it had been attached to the wall. The glue-like adhesive felt rubbery and soft. Lee snorted softly in contempt. Nothing more ridiculous than an inept saboteur. .
He heard the sound of a hatch being opened and as he looked forward, he could just make out the form of Chief Sharkey as the man climbed down into the tank. "Skipper! The Admiral says we don't need any solvent to get these things off the walls. He says the glue they used is water-soluble!! What a bunch of knuckleheads, eh, sir?"
Two other crewmen followed Sharkey. "Mallory, you start up here at this end, Reisdorf, you come on back here to where the Captain is. Sir, we've set up a relay to dump 'em out the pressure hatch."
Lee could hear voices through the connecting pipe indicating that a cleanup crew was being set up there, too. Realizing that his efficient crew had things under control, Lee said, "Very well, Chief. I want you to get these things off my boat. And I don't have to tell you what will happen if you miss any."
"No, sir, you sure don't. Don't worry, Skipper, we'll have these things gone in no time."
Lee clapped the CPO on the back. "I know you will, Chief."
Lee made his way to the service hatch ladder, and climbed up. Willing hands helped him through the hatchway, and he found himself in a corridor lined with crewmen waiting to form a 'bucket brigade' to pass the mines back to the pressure hatch. He frowned at the number of men involved, but before he could comment, Lt. Kelly came up the corridor saying, "Okay, I want every other man to return to their regular duties. Let's clear this corridor out, people!"
With some shuffling and rearranging, the corridor cleared just as the first of the perfidious mines came up through the hatch. Eli Kelly's voice rang out "Maack!!! That mine is going to blow up in your face if you handle it like that!! Gently, man, gently!"
Satisfied that the young officer could handle things, Lee made his way toward the labs looking for Admiral Nelson. He was halfway there when Kowalski hailed him. "Skipper, Admiral Nelson's compliments, and he would like to see you in the Missile Room, Sir."
"Very well, 'Ski."
Lee turned on heel and headed aft. As he passed the line of crewmen carefully handing the mines from person to person, he called out to Lt. Kelly. "Eli, you have a handle on it? Are we going to make it in time?"
The young officer looked up with a grin, "No problem, Skipper. We should have this wrapped up with time to spare."
"Good man! If you run into any problems, I'll be in the Missile Room with the Admiral."
Lee continued aft, passing man after man. He kept up a continual stream of comments, encouraging and praising the crewmen as he walked, calling each by name. In his wake he left men smiling with pride, each heartened by the Captain's personal attention.
Before he reached the end of the line of men, he turned off at a cross-corridor and before long reached the heavy hatch guarding the missile room. As he spun the wheel to gain access, the lights suddenly flared. Lee's spirits rose with the level of light. Once again his boat had beaten the odds and survived the evil designs others had placed on it.
As he entered the room Admiral Nelson hailed him, "Lee! Over here. How is the bomb removal going?"
"Fine sir. Mr. Kelly expects to be finished well before the 45 minutes is up."
"Great, Lee, great." The Admiral managed a weak smile. "You know, I've been thinking over what Sharkey said, about that team of Norwegian scientists we had on board. It seems unbelievable to me that any of those people could have had a hand in this. I have known some of these men for years, and they are all highly respected in their own fields."
Lee hesitated before voicing his own thoughts. "Sir, I wonder if it could have anything to do with your speech before that whaling commission. I heard it rumored that the Japanese and Norwegian governments were both pretty peeved about it. I wonder if any of those scientists had any ties with the whaling industry?" Lee paused, then changing his tack said, "Chip seems to think that Dr. Halvorsen is the prime suspect. He reminded me that Halvorsen was the one who kept wandering away."
Nelson frowned thoughtfully. "Ingomar Halvorsen is actually the one of that group that I don't know personally. Lars Ivers brought him along as a research assistant. I seem to recall Lars mentioning something about Halvorsen being a whiz at getting research grants. When we get back to base, I will have that looked into. I would be interested in seeing who those research grants are from."
"Well, he may be a whiz at grants, but his sabotaging abilities are a bit weak. A water soluble glue?"
Nelson snorted. "I agree, the man made a serious mistake. One that has probably been the salvation of this ship. I, for one…"
The Admiral was interrupted when a young seaman ran into the room, pale as death. "Skipper! Mr. Kelly's compliments, and he needs you right away!"
The words were scarcely out of the man's mouth before Crane and Nelson took off at the run. Lee was surprised to see the corridor that had formerly been filled with men was now empty. Turning a corner, he came to a halt, practically running into Lt. Kelly.
"Eli, what's going on?"
"Sir, we've got a problem. A big problem."
"What? Spit it out, man!" The Admiral bleated.
"Oh, Admiral! Two of the mines, Sir. They fell behind the control circuit piping in tank 43. We've been trying to get to them, but they are beyond reach, and there is no way we can cut through the pipes to get to them in time."
"All right son. Are the rest gone?"
"Yes, Sir. We've done three sweeps to be sure, and it is only these two. Admiral, I'm afraid the location is critical. If they both explode at the same time, they're going to take out a big chunk of the hull, and most of our major systems. I'm sorry, sir, but I just can't think of a way to prevent this from happening."
Lee felt his stomach clench, but only allowed confidence to show on his handsome face. "Alright, Eli, let's go have a look. Admiral, perhaps you should stay here."
Nelson ignored the meaningful look that his Captain tried to throw him. With an abrupt wave of his hand he said, "Lee, we are wasting time." The Admiral moved quickly to enter the service hatch.
Stifling a mix of irritation and fear, Lee moved to enter behind his friend and mentor. In the confining space of the tank, the two men followed by the young lieutenant moved forward in single file. Halfway through the tank, they came upon Sharkey and Morrell. Seaman Morrell was by far the smallest member of the crew, and Lee watched as the man pushed to get his hand and arm into the space between the tank wall and the series of pipe-like conduits that ran the entire length of the tank.
It was obvious that even Morrell's small size was not going to help. Straining as he was, he was unable to make any headway against the hard metal. Pressing his face against the tank wall, Lee could just make out the two deadly bombs. His heart sank as he realized the impossible nature of the situation. The conduits and tanks were both made of a titanium alloy developed by Admiral Nelson and the scientists of NIMR. The section in question was securely bolted to the wall. Cutting through would simply take too much time.
"Admiral, can we cobble up something to get those bolts out quickly?" Lee asked. He knew that in port, a power wrench would make short work of the problem. He cast about in his mind for an onboard tool that could be adapted to the purpose. When Lee did not get an immediate reply, he glanced around to find Nelson pensively staring at the pipes. "Admiral?"
Nelson looked up startled. "Uh, Lee. No, we don't have enough time. Why don't you go on up to the Control Room, and see about getting us topside, just in case."
It was Lee's turn to be startled. "Excuse me?"
"Let me handle this, you go on up to the Control Room. If I fail, I want you there."
Lee Crane looked at his boss in astonishment. The man was actually suggesting that he run from this… "Admiral," Lee started formally, "Commander Morton is fully capable of handling the evacuation of the men if that becomes necessary. I feel that I am of better use here."
Nelson looked hard at the Captain, then seemed to dismiss the issue, instead turning to CPO Sharkey. "Chief, I want you and Morrell in the Missile Room. Get the other patch kit and suit up. If you feel an explosion, get out there. Heaven knows, Mr. Kelly is probably right and the bombs in tandem will open her up, but if there is any chance, the timing might be critical."
"Aye, sir." The worried chief said crisply and left at the trot, Nelson watching him go.
Lee's eyes narrowed as he took in the Admiral's demeanor. The man looked almost… guilty. "Sir, what did you have in mind?"
Nelson's look became defiant. "Teddy."
"Te… THE RAT?" Lee's voice displayed his tension. Teddy was a small robotic spy device designed to look like a wharf rat. Admiral Nelson had used the device to 'stir things up', much to Lee's disgust.
Admiral Nelson held his head high and called to Lt. Kelly, "Kelly, take these keys. Go to my quarters, in the closet you'll find a gray metal case. Bring it here. On the double, man! There's not much time left."
Lee Crane was nothing if not quick-minded. "Admiral, how are you going to do this? Can that… thing lift weight?"
"It will have to, Lee."
Crane looked nervously at his watch. A little less than five minutes remained on the bomb's countdown. In a conscious effort to ease the tension Lee asked conversationally, "So, Admiral, what are you going to tell Chip?" Chip Morton was deathly afraid of rats.
Looking down the tank for any sign of Lt. Kelly, Admiral Nelson smiled a small grim smile. "I'm not telling him. And if you value your Executive Officer's peace of mind, you won't tell him either."
Lee shook his head ruefully. "I don't know, sir. You know how he is. If he finds out after the fact, he'll be hell to live with."
"For you, maybe," Nelson replied loftily, "he never gives me any… Ah, good! Bring it here lieutenant."
Kelly held out the heavy case resting it on his forearms so that his superior had a level platform to open it on. Nelson snapped his fingers impatiently saying, "Keys, please." The younger officer juggled the case, pulling the admiral's keys from his pants pocket. Handing them over, he again presented the case, a look of intense curiosity on his face.
Quickly unlocking the case, Nelson pulled the control box and joystick out. Lee's face fell as he saw a heavy duty power cord dangling from the box. "Admiral, we don't have the time to get a power connection down here."
Nelson followed his Captain's eyes to the dangling cord. "The batteries are fresh. I don't need a connection. Lee, put Teddy over on that pipe."
The Captain fought down his revulsion. The little robot looked exactly like a dead rat. With a glance at Kelly, Lee reached in and gingerly picked up the small body. It lay stiffly in his hand, and Crane could feel the metallic components through the thin covering of artificial fur. He stepped over to the nearby conduit and placed the rat on top, keeping a hand on it to prevent it from falling off.
Suddenly the small robot came to life, very realistic life. Lee fought the urge to jump as the rat scrabbled down between the tank wall and the heavy conduits. As he pressed his face against the wall trying to watch the rat's movements, he heard the Admiral urgently telling Kelly to get out of the tank and wait by the service hatch.
Lee glanced around to see the Admiral working the tiny joystick with a tense expression. Looking back, he was astonished to see that not only had the small robot managed to lift the first of the offending bombs, but it had already pushed it up to the point that it was almost within reach of Lee's fingertips.
"That's it! Just a little further, Admiral. Got it!" Lee snatched the black box as soon as it was in reach and spinning on his heel raced to the service hatch. Kelly was there, hands stretched out to take the bomb.
Lee handed off the black box with a shouted order "Go!" then ran back to where the Admiral worked hunched over the small control system. Lee strode to the wall watching expectantly. The rat pushed up the second bomb. Lee's mouth was dry as he grabbed at the dangerous box. He knew time was running out, and he could lose it all if he wasn't fast enough. He turned to run, and out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of the rat hanging from the bottom of the bomb by a paw caught on a protrusion.
Lee had no time to consider. He ran for his life and for the lives of every man on his ship. He vaguely heard Kelly ahead of him yelling to clear the corridors, but Lee's whole being was caught up in his run, leaping over a sill here, sliding around a corner there. At last, the open hatch to the moon pool beckoned and with a final lunge he was through and he heaved the deadly bomb, with the rat still dangling from it into the pool where it and Teddy quickly sank from sight.
Lee stood gulping air staring at the pool. Long moments passed before the expected double thump shook the ship. Lee heaved a heavy sigh of relief and looked around. A damp and bedraggled Harriman Nelson climbed through the open hatchway, robot control device hanging forgotten from his hand.
Lee took in a low shaky breath and grinned at his superior officer. "That was close, sir."
"Too close, Lee." The Admiral's smile mirrored the relief both officers felt. After a shared look, Nelson looked around. "Uh, Lee, where's Teddy?"
Lee shook his head, suddenly weary. "I'm sorry sir. There was no time. The rat went out the hatch along with the bomb."
"Ah." The Admiral stood quietly, staring at the water of the pressure hatch. After a few moments he said, "Well, I suppose it was as good a way to go as a robot could expect."
"Teddy. He did actually save the boat. Even you have to admit that, Lee."
Lee considered his panicked run through the corridors of the ship. He thought of the men who had lined up to willingly handle death in the form of small black boxes. He thought of Kelly and Morton in the ballast tank prying open one of the boxes not knowing if it would explode in their faces. He thought of Kowalski asking to go back to work as if welding a lifesaving patch on the hull of the ship was just another job. He looked his friend in the eye and said. "Yes, Admiral. Yes, he did."
Two days later, the Seaview was well on her way home. Having just completed a surprisingly profitable conversation with the blustering Adm. Jiggs Starke, Lee strode down the corridor, satisfied with his ship, his crew, and his life.
Starke had told Lee that the Norwegian Halvorsen was in custody and confessed that he had indeed been responsible for the attempt to sink the Seaview. And in spite of the scientist's refusal to name his accomplices, Starke had no doubt that the entire dirty plot would be shortly uncovered.
Lee in turn had briefed Starke on the 'death' of Admiral Nelson's robotic rat, and was surprised at Starke's immediate offer of a replacement. Lee's doubts had been readily apparent because the Admiral had quickly advised him that the technology was advancing so quickly that he could offer one of several different 'packages.' The end result of their discussion was that Lee had agreed to allow another robot to be delivered to Santa Barbara. I wonder how Chip feels about ferrets.
As if conjuring the man by that thought, when Lee came around a corner, he heard the muffled voice of his Exec coming from the ship's Wardroom. General laughter to something Morton said told Lee that his friend was not alone. Lee quietly opened the wardroom door, to find Chip Morton relaxed and jovial with his back to the door. Bob O'Brien and Eli Kelly were listening with rapt attention.
"… Then I came upon this big butt-ugly obstruction in the tank."
"Chip?" Lee kept his voice low.
Both O'Brien and Kelly winced at the implicit threat in the Captain's voice, but Morton swung smoothly around. "Oh, hullo, Lee. Been there long?"
Lee had to admire Morton's cool. "Long enough, Chip." Lee narrowed his eyes. "I have a little job for you. I want you to handle it personally."
Lee was gratified by his friend's reaction. Morton closed his eyes, awaiting the pronouncement of doom. Lee waited just until Chip squinted one eye open, face screwed up as if expecting a blow. "Two things, actually."
"Yes sir?" Lee had him hooked. Admiral Nelson had on occasion said that Morton was as inscrutable as they came. Lee knew better. You just have to know what buttons to push.
"First, I want you to talk to Cookie, see if we can manage double desserts for the entire crew."
"Aye sir!" Morton visibly relaxed, a grin starting to spread.
"Then I want you to go down to the Admiral's lab and get one of the cages ready for occupancy."
Lee watched coolly as Morton's smile faded. "And while you are doing that, I want you to remember the old saying 'Loose lips sink ships.' And that's not all that will be sinking if a certain Exec tells a certain story."
"Yes sir. Is that all sir?" Lee looked askance at his friend. Unrepentant. That was the only word Lee could come up with to describe the bland look on his XO's bland face.
With a sigh, Lee shook his head. Obviously he was going to have to bring out the big guns. "Walk with me, Commander."
Morton quickly hid a look of alarm, then stepped out into the corridor with his Captain. Lee threw a friendly arm over the Exec's shoulder, and walking him down the hall started, "Chip, I didn't want to do this, but let me tell you how the Admiral and I got to those bombs…."
Copyright 2001 by Middie Rosie
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