by Middie Rosie
Picking up a clipboard from the corner of his desk, Lt. Cmdr. Chip Morton headed for the door. Preoccupied by the cargo manifest he was carrying, he opened the door to the hallway and ran into a blue suited crewman. Looking up in annoyance, he had just enough time to register who are you? before the man shoved him back into his quarters, and pushed a wet cloth in his face. Morton got a good whiff of the cloth, found his legs immediately going wobbly, and back pedaled, trying to escape. The attacker, a large man with black curly hair, pursued Morton across the room, slamming him against the bulkhead. Already weakened by the first dose, Morton was no match for the larger man, and despite his struggles, quickly succumbed to the drug. The bogus crewman walked to the cabin door, and looking both ways down the corridor, quietly closed it.
Capt. Lee Crane was not a happy camper. "Chief, get down to cargo hold two and ask Cmdr. Morton to join me here."
Crane had been paging the XO for the last hour. It was Morton's responsibility to help get the ship underway. When he had not appeared in the control room, Crane had taken on the whole job himself. Lee had expected Chip to show up mortified at being late, but he was still absent. The only place that he could be was the refrigerated cargo hold that Admiral Nelson had installed for the upcoming weapons test. Lee had noticed that the small hold was so insulated that he couldn't feel the normal vibrations of the ship. Chip had been helping the Admiral install some crucial systems. Lee had finally figured out that that was where his missing Executive Officer had to be. Sparks, the communications expert, had reported the comm system in the hold on the fritz. He had also said it was repaired, but it obviously was not.
Lee mentally went over what he would say to his Exec, who was also one of his best friends. It was entirely out of character for the man, but the stress lately had been incredibly high. Maybe he should order a complete physical. Yes, that was an idea. Lee didn't really believe that Chip was ill, but there had to be some explanation why a man known for his punctuality would unexpectedly be late. Suddenly the intercom came to life.
"Control Room, this is Nelson."
Lee picked up the mike and replied, "Yes, Admiral, this is Crane."
"Lee, Chief Sharkey just came in looking for Cmdr. Morton."
"Yes, Sir. I need him up here for the moment."
"Well, he's not here. Chip left over an hour ago. I assumed he was with you."
Crane felt a twinge of concern. The Seaview, while the largest submarine afloat, was not exactly a place that people could get lost in. For Chip to be missing for over an hour was a strong indication that something untoward had happened. Lee lifted the mike and said, "All right Admiral, I'll check it out."
Looking around the control room, Lee called to Lt. O'Brien, "Bob, I'm going down to Cmdr. Morton's quarters. If he shows up here, call me immediately."
Crane left the control room determined to solve the mystery of his missing XO. He moved quickly through the corridors heading toward officer's country. As he turned a corner, he found himself looking at a blue-suited stranger coming toward him. Frowning he stopped and asked, "Who are you? What are you doing here?"
The large curly haired man, sprang to attention and barked out, "Sir. Jablonski, Peter J., mechanic specialist, 1st class, Sir!"
Lee's response was automatic. "At ease, sailor. Now, what are you doing in officer's country?"
Jablonski replied sheepishly, "I'm sorry, Sir. This is my first time aboard, and I've kinda gotten myself turned around."
"All right, where is your duty station? The engine room? Yes, well, you're more than a little turned around. Go down this corridor to the second cross corridor, turn left, go to the T intersection, turn right, then go down the stairwell on the right."
Lee watched the man walk away. Morton had handled the interviews and hiring of Jablonski and another man, Garcia. Lee found it disconcerting to see new faces on board, and he wondered why Chip had not mentioned the size of the new man. The guy had to be 6'5", and weigh 260 pounds. A man that size required special exemption to serve on subs. Chip must have been very impressed to give him the job. But why hadn't he mentioned it? Probably some obscure Morton joke.
Reaching the Exec's quarters, Lee knocked on the cabin door, and called out, "Chip, it's Lee."
When he received no response, Lee tried the knob, and was surprised to find the door locked. Chip had an 'open door' policy that was just that. Anyone could walk in at anytime. Frowning slightly, Lee pulled out his master key and called out, "Chip, if you're in there, answer me! I'm coming in."
Lee unlocked the door and entered the cabin. There was no sign of his friend. Lee looked around the tidy room. Feeling somewhat foolish, he checked the closet and the head, and looked behind the desk. Absently adjusting a slightly crooked picture on the wall, Lee sighed in relief. No body. Well, he would just have to have Sharkey track the man down. Lee left the cabin, and as an afterthought, re-locked the door. Chip had to have some reason for locking it. Picking up a corridor mike, Crane ordered, "This is the Captain. Chief Sharkey, please report to my cabin."
Putting the mike back, Crane traveled the short distance to his own cabin. When Sharkey appeared a short time later, the Captain waved him to a seat.
"Chief, when did you last see Cmdr. Morton?"
"Mr. Morton, Sir? Oh, I dunno, this morning some time."
"Chief, he's missing. I want you to take a couple of men, and do a thorough search of the boat. I have a feeling he's fallen or gotten himself stuck or something."
Sharkey smiled briefly at the thought of Mr. Morton being 'stuck'. "Don't worry, Skipper, we'll find him."
"All right Chief, I'll be in the control room if you need me."
Two hours later, both Captain Crane and Admiral Nelson were in the control room, when a worried looking Chief Sharkey approached with the new man, Jablonski trailing behind. "Skipper, I think you better hear this."
Crane and Nelson turned as one. "Yes, Chief?"
"Sir, Jablonski here says that Mr. Morton left the boat just before we sailed."
"What? Left the boat?" said the Captain, startled.
"Okay, Jablonski, tell the Captain what you saw."
Jablonski stepped forward looking concerned at having to face both the Captain and Admiral. "Uh, Sir, I was on special detail, we had just shipped the forward gangplank when I saw Mr. Morton running down the aft gangplank. He took off like a bat out of hell. Uh, I mean, Sir, he ran away up towards the Institute. I just figured that he forgot something. Sir."
Admiral Nelson spoke up, "Jablonski, is it? Did you see Mr. Morton return?"
"No, Sir. I was working on casting off the forward lines, and my back was to the stern."
"Did anyone with you see Mr. Morton leave?"
"I don't know, Sir. No one mentioned it, and I didn't know if it was unusual for him to take off like that or not."
Crane was at a loss. He couldn't imagine any circumstance that would cause Chip Morton to leave without saying anything. He looked to the Admiral and saw the anger building in the older man's eyes. Lee started to shake his head, thought better of it, and turned to the waiting crewmen. "All right, Jablonski, return to your station. Chief, wait here for a moment, please."
Lee turned to Nelson. "Admiral, I'm going to radio the Institute, then I think we should discuss how to handle this."
In a low voice shaking with rage the Admiral said, "The man is AWOL."
"Yes, Sir. Let me just make sure he's okay, and then we'll talk about it."
Nelson nodded curtly and stalked off saying, "Come to my cabin when you've contacted him."
Lee sighed. Admiral Nelson was a very demanding boss, and Chip had certainly screwed up this time. Frowning, he glanced at the still waiting Sharkey, and said, "Well, c'mon Chief, let's go hear what he has to say for himself."
As Lee made the short walk to the boat's radio cubby, he was aware of the tension in the control room. One of the disadvantages of working on a submarine was the lack of privacy. Crane knew that the entire crew would know of the XO's absence within fifteen minutes of the next change of the watch. He saw Sparks watching him coming, and nodded his head. The young communications officer immediately flipped a switch, and by the time the Captain had picked up the handset, he was connected with Nelson's
Administrative Assistant, Angie.
"Hello, Lee. What can I do for you?"
"Angie, is Chip there?"
"Chip? Why would he be here? Aren't you sailing soon?"
"Angie, we left port over three hours ago. Chip isn't on board, and one of the men saw him leave the ship just before we sailed. Could you check his office for me?"
"Oh, Lee! Harry must be livid! Hold on, I'll check with his secretary."
Livid wasn't the half of it. Lee ignored the stares and straining ears of nearby crewmen, instead looking off into space, wondering what possibly could have gotten into his wayward friend. When Angie returned to the phone, concern colored her voice. "Lee? Dorothy hasn't seen Chip all day. She's checking with security to see if he's left the Institute grounds, but I can see his car from the window. This isn't like Chip at all."
"No, it's not. Okay, have security do a thorough search. If they can't find him on the grounds, have them check his home, and anyplace else they can think of."
"Will do, Lee. I'll call you as soon as we locate him."
'Hmmm. Well, we'll be going to radio silence at 1600 this afternoon. If you haven't found him by 1545, give the Admiral a call, okay?"
"Of course. Don't worry Lee, we will find him."
"All right Angie, thanks."
As Lee returned the handset, his eyes clouded with concern. "Chief."
"What do you know about this Jablonski?"
Sharkey's eyes reflected his Captain's suspicion. "Not enough, Sir. He showed up at the gate right on time, with all the right papers. Do you think he's lying, Skipper?"
"I don't know, Chief. . . . I want you to go and find every member of that detail. See if anyone remembers Mr. Morton leaving. Oh, and Chief, keep it quiet for now."
Lee made his way to the Admiral's cabin deep in thought. Jablonski was an unknown, but that did not necessarily mean he was lying. He knocked on the Admiral's cabin door, and entered at Nelson's gruff "Come."
Nelson was at his desk, impatiently tapping a pencil against his finger. "Well?"
"Sir, there is no sign of him at the Institute. Nobody's seen him since you did."
"Oh? And what about Jablonski?"
"I've got Sharkey checking his story."
"You don't believe him, then."
"Sir, for Jablonski to be telling the truth, Chip would have had to first leave the ship without telling anyone, then miss the departure, not immediately call us, then leave the Institute without his car, and without signing out at the gate." Lee shook his head, "Do you think Jablonski's telling the truth?"
"I think we need to beef up security around the new laser equipment. Whether Chip has been kidnapped or left to turn off the iron at home is essentially irrelevant. Something out of the ordinary has happened, and that puts this whole weapons test at risk."
"Yes, Sir. I'll double the watch."
"Good. Oh, and if Sharkey can't find anybody reliable to back Jablonski up, have him get together a detail to sweep the boat stem to stern. If this is something sinister, we need to find out quick. I want proof that Chip is not on board, alive or dead."
Lee felt the muscles in his jaw tighten. Aside from being a good friend, Chip Morton was a damned fine officer. The best in the business as far as Lee was concerned. If he had been killed. . . . The Captain of the Seaview felt a small fiery knot of anger growing in his mind. If Chip was dead, heaven help those responsible!!
A knock at the Admiral's cabin door interrupted Crane's thoughts, and he turned to see Jeff Beiler stick his head in. "Hey, Lee. Admiral, can you spare a couple of minutes to take a look at some preliminary data? Or am I interrupting something?"
Nelson ran his hand through his hair, mentally shifting gears. "Of course, Jeff. Just give me a few minutes. I'll meet you in the hold."
"Okay, boss. Oh, and I want to talk to Chip about that test schedule. It seems a bit tight to me. When's he off duty, Lee?" A brilliant if somewhat erratic scientist, Beiler apparently had not heard the scuttlebutt about the missing XO.
"Ah, well, we can't seem to find Chip at the moment, Jeff"
"Oh, he didn't make it back on board? Well, I'm not surprised. I saw him take off just before we left Santa Barbara. Can we go back and pick him up? He helped me a lot with this project, and it seems a shame for him to miss it."
Lee felt a curious mixture of relief and anger. Beiler had been with NIMR for the last three years, and his word was beyond reproach. If he saw Chip leave, then Chip left. He noticed that Nelson had turned beet red, and was barely containing his rage. Beiler noticed too, and in a timid voice said, "Admiral? Did I say something wrong?"
Nelson visibly took control of himself, and said, "No. No, Jeff, everything is fine. Why don't you go on down to the hold, and I'll be along shortly. I need to discuss something with the Captain."
"Um, yes, Sir." Beiler departed with alacrity leaving Lee to face the Admiral's wrath.
"Sir...." Lee began then paused when Nelson held up his hand.
"I know what you are going to say, Lee, and you're right, Chip would not desert his post without good reason. But the timing....." Nelson hit his desk with his fist. "These new superconduction units for the lasers could revolutionize weapons technology. Chip's been working with Jeff from the first. I've followed Beiler's work, but Chip has been doing the hands on construction. I have half a mind to do just what Jeff suggested, and go back and pick the man up."
Lee shifted uneasily, "Will Washington allow a delay in the tests?"
Nelson slumped. "No, I suppose not. Lee, I'm going to have to go over those blueprints and project notes again before I trust myself to assist Beiler. Damn it! I should have followed the work closer! Well, there's no help for it now."
"What about Chip, Sir?"
Nelson stood shaking his head. "Heaven help him when I get my hands on him!"
"Yes, Sir." said Lee with a tight little grin. He was still uneasy about the lack of communication from the man, but like Nelson, he trusted Chip to have a good reason for his truancy.
Chip Morton floated in gray nothingness, uncaring, unthinking. Gradually awareness seeped into his fogged mind. At first, he ignored the sensations coursing through his body, but slowly, the feelings became more persistent, and the XO of the Seaview woke up. Thirsty! He realized that his throat was so
dry he wanted to gag. He moved to rollover, and found he couldn't. He was bound on all four sides by walls. He tried to bring his hands down from above his head to explore the walls and found by the tugging sensation that his wrists were circled by handcuffs. He felt no fear, just confusion. He discovered his mouth was covered with tape, and when he attempted to pull himself up to his bound hands, discovered his ankles were cuffed too, and he was trapped in an extended position.
It took many long minutes before the officer was able to analyze what had happened. But eventually he came to the conclusion that he was bound and gagged and stuffed into an air duct on the Seaview. He had never felt a thirst like this before. He was unable to produce any spit, and the dryness was a torture. The cuffs that pinioned his wrists and ankles prevented him from beating on the walls of the duct. And there was almost no light. Trying to ignore the dryness in his throat, Morton laid there gathering his wits. There was a way out of this, he just had to figure it out. After all, he was on the Seaview. His ship mates were somewhere just beyond the metal walls of his prison.
His thoughts were interrupted by a tiny sound. Chip was unsure if he actually heard or imagined it. He closed his eyes and strained to catch any sound. When the sound came, it was actually quite loud. Footsteps! Footsteps approaching his prison. Despite the discomfort, Morton worked on making noise, any noise to attract whoever it was coming near. To his disgust, his best efforts resulted in little more than weak chuffing sounds, but it seemed to be enough as the footsteps came closer. He fell quiet in an attempt to localize the sound. It seemed to come from above and behind his head.
Morton was taking a deep breath to renew his efforts to be heard, when a voice called out. "Chip? Chip, hush up now. I need to talk to you, explain a few things."
For a brief moment, Chip confusedly thought he had been rescued, but then the meaning of the words sunk in. He had immediately recognized Jeff Beiler's voice. Anger drove out confusion, and Morton twisted uselessly trying to get a look at his captor. He heard sounds that his mind identified as a ventilation duct grille being opened.
"Chip, settle down, now. You aren't going anywhere. Nobody is close enough to hear you. I only heard you because I came in here to give you another shot and believe me, you weren't loud enough to attract attention. And you aren't going to be able to knock around in there. My friend took care of that. Just relax, and I will tell you what is happening, okay? Look, I'm really sorry about this, but we didn't have any choice. . . . Well, let me start at the beginning.
"Chip, do you know how much money I make? I make a pittance, slave wages compared to what my work is worth! Yes, I was happy with it, until Julius pointed out how much I could make, if I sold my work on the open market. Oh, you met Julius in the corridor yesterday. That's why we had to lock you away like this. Remember, you told me how no one other than you had the time to interview the new guys? Well, Julius pointed out if you were out of the way, he could take the identity of one of the new guys, and nobody would be the wiser." Jeff's voice was calm and collected, as if he discussed nothing more important than the disposal of used office equipment.
"You know what? It worked! He's got everyone convinced his name is Peter Jablonski!" Chip felt icy fingers of fear grip his spine as Jeff giggled with delight. Beiler was obviously mad, and just as obviously capable of anything.
"Anyway, let me tell you what's happening. We are on our way to the rendezvous to start field trials of the prototype lasers, but we are not going to make it. In about ten hours, the Seaview is going to be diverted to rescue people off a sinking cabin cruiser. Those people are going to take over the control room just long enough for a fast cutter to pull up and take aboard the prototype equipment and me and Julius. Oh, and you too. Julius wanted to, you know, kill you, but I didn't think that was very fair. I mean, you've always been real decent to me, Chip, and I really do like you. So, anyway, I convinced the people that are buying the prototype to buy you too. You just kind of go along with them, and you'll be fine. Julius and I will be going to South America. He says the beaches are beautiful, and if you have money, you can live like a king. And nobody cares if you, you know, live with another guy."
Chip listened to this with growing anger. Was Beiler really that dumb? Did he really believe that these people, whoever they were, would just pull up and take away the prototype and leave the Seaview unmolested? And just who was this Julius, anyway? In three years of working with Beiler, Chip had never heard the man mention any Julius. Was he really Beiler's friend, or was he an agent trained to subvert high strung scientists? Chip knew he had to convince Jeff not to give him another shot. He tried to make more sound, and surprised himself and Jeff with a loud grunt.
"Whoa, Chip! Be quiet! Geez! Julius didn't think you'd be able to make any noise! I'm going to give you that shot. No, don't try to struggle! Hey, you could show a little gratitude, you know! I told you, I saved your life! Julius was going to knock you in the head, and drop you overboard. Lie still, Chip. I don't want to hurt you, and if you keep moving around the needle won't go in straight. There, that's got it. I hope it didn't hurt too much. You know I hate needles, Chip. I would think you would appreciate the fact that I came to do this instead of Julius. He wouldn't be careful. Well, have a good sleep. When you wake up next, we will be with your new...masters, I guess you'd have to call it."
Morton fought to hold on to consciousness, to hold on to the anger, but it all slipped away like water through his fingers.
"Skipper! I have a surface contact, bearing 170 relative, at 5000 yards."
"What? There aren't supposed to be any ships in this area! 'Ski, check it. What kind of ship is it?"
"Sir, it reads like a small pleasure cruiser. It's dead in the water. On our current course, we'll pass within a couple hundred yards."
"Are you reading any detection gear?"
"No Sir, nothing like that. It's just sitting there."
"All right 'Ski, keep an eye on it. If it moves, sing out."
Lee ran his hand over his face. He was growing weary already, and his doubled watch still had six hours to run. Wherever he was, Crane hoped Morton was okay, but he couldn't escape the nagging fear that his friend was in deep trouble, or worse, dead. He wanted nothing more than to dock in Santa Barbara, and find Chip there waiting. Of course, if that happy scene should occur, he would be obligated to make the Seaview's Exec's life hell for a while. Chip himself would expect it, and the admiral would demand it, whether Lee wanted to do it or not. With a sigh, Lee turned back to the routine duties of captaining the ship. He had just finished updating the ship's position, when three voices rang out virtually in unison.
"Sir, that cruiser..."
"Captain, we have an SOS"
"Easy, men! One at a time!! 'Ski, what have you got?"
"Skipper, that cabin cruiser, Sir, they appear to have launched a tender of some sort. I'm now reading two contacts, one much smaller than the other. They're still both dead in the water. But that second boat appeared just as we passed them."
"All right, Kowalski. Patterson, what are you picking up?"
"Sir, the hydrophones picked up a small explosion. I make it as coming from that cabin cruiser. There wasn't any sound, then boom, then nothing again."
"Could their engine have exploded?"
"No, Sir! That's what I mean. We are close enough to hear the engine start, but there wasn't anything like that. If I had to say, I would say it was a bomb of some sort."
"Okay, Pat. I want you and 'Ski to stay with this. I want to know exactly what these people are up to."
Lee made the short trip to the radio shack, where Sparks was listening intently to something on his earphones. "Well?" Lee asked.
"Sir, I am picking up an SOS from that cruiser up there. They are identifying themselves as the Attagirl, out of Dana Point. They say they are outbound to Hawaii and their engine has caught fire."
"Their engine? You're sure?"
"Yes Sir, that's what they're saying. They've got eight people aboard, and they are transferring to the lifeboat. "
"Is there any response to the SOS? Coast Guard, other ships?"
"No Sir. Their transmission is pretty weak. Weaker than I would expect it to be. I doubt anyone more than ten miles away would be picking this up at all."
"Okay, Sparks. Keep monitoring. Oh, and call the Admiral to the control room."
Lee turned his back on the radio shack, and called out, "Mister O'Brien, all stop, ease her up to periscope depth."
"All stop, periscope depth, aye."
Within a few minutes, O'Brien called out, "Captain, we are at periscope depth."
Lee tossed his pencil on the chart table and headed for the periscope island. Chief Sharkey hit the periscope control, and by the time Lee reached the island the periscope was up and waiting for him. Setting his eyes to the binocular pads, Lee adjusted the focus, and swung the 'scope around until it settled on the distant boat. He could just make out the 40' cruiser's sleek lines, and near the stern, the smaller form of a Zodiac pontoon boat. An oily black smoke was rising from a point near the cruiser's bow, but Lee could see that the boat was riding high in the water, and in no apparent danger of sinking. Nelson's gruff voice called out, "Lee? What's going on?"
Lee glanced away from the periscope, and saw the Admiral approaching. "Sir, we've picked up an SOS from a cabin cruiser. We are within three hundred yards of her. Would you care to take a look?"
With a frown, Nelson stepped up to the 'scope, and steadying himself, looked out at the troubled boat. After a moment, he pulled back, then looked again. The face that he finally turned to the Captain was puzzled. "Lee, I don't understand this. Where is that smoke coming from? The engine on these kinds of cruisers are in the rear. If that's a galley fire, why is the smoke so black?"
Lee nodded. "I agree. Sir, we are well within the restricted area, and this boat conveniently has a problem just as we arrive. Sparks says their radio can't be heard more than ten miles away, and this so-called 'engine fire' occurred when Patterson says the engines were not engaged, and in a part of the boat that does not house engines. I don't know what they are up to, but I want no parts of it."
"Yes, Lee, I agree. Let's give this a wide berth. But just in case......." The Admiral moved off to the radio shack. "Sparks, is there any way that you can boost the signal from that cabin cruiser so that the Coast Guard can hear it? I don't want you to break radio silence, but I want those people 'rescued'. By the Coast Guard, not just any ship in the area."
Sparks grinned wolfishly. He lived for these kind of communications puzzles. "Yes, Sir. I can tight beam it straight to Coast Guard Headquarters in San Diego."
"All right, do it. And let me or the Captain know as soon as you get an acknowledgment and ETA."
Five tense minutes later, Sparks called out, "Skipper, I've got that acknowledgment. They will be on site in less than two hours."
"Good job, Sparks." Lee called as he moved once again to the periscope. A second check indicated no change in the situation, which to Lee's mind confirmed his suspicions. The Zodiac had made no effort to move away from the supposedly burning cruiser. The black smoke was still roiling upward, but the boat was riding just as high as before. With a sardonic look, Lee gave way to Nelson, who just nodded his head after looking and coming to the same conclusion.
Chief Sharkey, who had been listening and watching the entire sequence of events spoke up, "Admiral, why don't we really sink their boat? I could have a torpedo loaded and ready in no time."
Nelson snorted. "No, Chief, we'll let the Coast Guard worry about them. We have more important things to do. Lee, I'll be in my cabin. Get us underway again, and then meet me there."
As the Admiral turned to go, Crane in turn secured the periscope. As he watched it retract down into position, Lee heard Jeff Beiler call out, "Hey, Admiral! I heard we got an SOS. Can I watch?"
Lee looked down at Beiler, confused. Before he could form a question, Nelson asked it for him. "Watch? Watch what, Jeff?"
"The rescue. I promise I'll stay out of the way. It's not often a fellow gets a chance to witness a rescue at sea, you know."
The confusion cleared for the Admiral, if not his Captain. Rubbing his tension stiffened neck, Nelson smiled a grim little half smile. "I'm sorry to disappoint you, Jeff, but there isn't going to be a rescue. We're not responding to the SOS."
"What? I thought it was the law! You HAVE to respond! You HAVE to rescue those men!!"
"Calm down, Jeff! We've analyzed the situation, and we've determined they are in no danger. The Coast Guard is on it's way, they'll be here within a couple of hours. Now, that's the end of it. Why don't you go down to your quarters and rest? We will be reaching the test site coordinates within a couple of hours."
"NO!!! No, that's not right! You have no right to leave those men out there for hours!! The law says the closest ship HAS to respond! You HAVE to, don't you see, Admiral? You HAVE to!!"
During this tirade, Jeff was only prevented from grabbing and shaking the Admiral by Chief Sharkey's hand pressed warningly against his chest. Lee Crane relieved Sharkey of that duty by interposing his body between Nelson and Beiler. Beiler changed the focus of his tirade when he noticed the Captain. With increasing desperation, he cried, "Lee! Lee, you understand, don't you? It's the law! You don't have a choice, you have to respond! Tell me that you understand!!"
In a quiet controlled voice, Lee said, "Oh, I understand. I understand better than you think. What did you do to Chip Morton?"
Beiler's face clouded with confusion, but not before Lee caught a betraying glimpse of sly calculation quickly covered. All of Lee's nascent suspicions were confirmed in that momentary look. He grabbed Beiler by the front of his shirt, and gave him a hard shake. "Where is Chip Morton? What did you do?"
"Hey, let go! What are you talking about? We need to rescue the men off that cabin cruiser! Chip's got nothing to do with it! Admiral, make him let me go!!"
Never taking his eyes off of Beiler, Lee said, "Admiral, this man is behind Chip's disappearance."
"I don't know what you're talking about!! I just know the law says you have to rescue those men out there, and I don't want to be an accessory to a crime. Admiral, he's crazy. I saw Chip leave the boat, he didn't disappear! He just didn't come back, that's all."
In a dangerously quiet voice, Lee asked, "Why men? Why not families? And how did you know we received an SOS? There was no announcement, no change of the watch. How did you know?"
Nelson, Sharkey, and the tense crewmen nearby, listened to Crane's accusations with mounting comprehension. Nelson with a look somewhere between alarm and bewilderment asked, "Jeff? Did Chip leave the boat?"
Beiler was spared answering by a voice coming from the observation nose. "It doesn't matter, Admiral. Jeff didn't do anything, I did. I've killed once and I will kill again. Captain, let my friend go. Jeff come over here."
It was Jablonski, holding an AK47 pointed directly at Admiral Nelson. Crane stared at the man with growing hate. Jablonski had as much as admitted killing Morton, and was now threatening Admiral Nelson. He looked at the gun the man was carrying and fought the urge to swallow hard. This was a gun that could tear up every man in the room, as well as annihilate half of the critical systems on the boat. Lee slowly released his grip on the now smiling Jeff Beiler, who moved to Jablonski's side.
With childlike delight, Beiler looked back to the Captain and Admiral, and said, "Okay, fellows, now we can go rescue those men. Captain, take us up to the surface, and get us over to that boat."
When the enraged Captain made no move to comply, Beiler's face screwed up in a frown. "I already told you, Lee, I am not going to let you break the law. The law says you have to respond. Now Julius, here, is an impatient man, and if you don't do what I say, he might shoot someone, and you don't want that to happen, and once we surface everything will be okay. So just bring the Seaview up to the surface, and everything will be all right."
Lee ignored Beiler, and Jablonski, and turned to Admiral Nelson. "Admiral?"
Nelson had been intently watching Jablonski, watching for any sign that the man's resolve was wavering. He concluded that Jablonski was indeed capable of carrying out his threats. The fact that he would be the first to die never entered Nelson's mind. His ship, his people were under threat, and at the moment, the odds were stacked against them. Nelson had no intention of allowing Beiler to turn over the weapons prototype to a hostile government, which could be the only purpose of this little exercise. But by appearing to go along, he would buy the time needed for a solution to this mess. "All right, Lee, take her up."
"Mr. O'Brien, surface the boat."
"Aye, Captain, surface the boat," Bob O'Brien hid his fear and anger in well drilled obedience, but his hand shook slightly when he picked up the mike, "Surface, surface, ten degree up bubble on all planes, blow all ballast."
As the submarine gracefully approached the surface, Beiler practically danced in place. "God, I love watching you guys do this! It's like being in a movie!"
Chief Sharkey moved along the ballast panel, making sure the tanks all cleared. His movements were so natural, so professional, that neither Jablonski nor Beiler noticed that he had come almost within touching distance, albeit with his back turned. Lee Crane, however, saw the move immediately, and moved to distract the gunman. "Kowalski, where is that ship now?" He asked turning his back to Jablonski. As expected, his sound and movement pulled Beiler and Jablonski's attention just enough to give Sharkey his chance.
Sharkey dove at Jablonski, shoving the gun upward, where it stuttered a quick burst of deadly bullets. Nelson, Crane and O'Brien, moved to assist, Bob O'Brien getting there first and decking the much larger man with a hard right to the chin. Throughout the short melee, Beiler had stood stunned. When Jablonski collapsed in a boneless heap, Beiler wailed "NO!!" and flailed at the nearest man, Lee Crane. Lee grabbed the hysterical man by the throat, and delivered a right cross to the chin that immediately stopped all resistance.
A change in the quality of light in the area told Lee that they were on the surface. He looked up at the observation nose and saw blue skies. A quick thrill of fear reminded him that Beiler and Jablonski were not acting alone. "O'Brien, all dive! Get us down below!"
"Aye, Sir! Prepare to dive! Dive, dive!!" And as gracefully as she had appeared, the Seaview slipped elegantly back below the waves.
"Bob, take her down to 200 feet, and resume course and speed. Chief, get these men to the brig, and I want a damage control party up here. I want to know what those bullets hit."
"Skipper, I have a surface contact, 5000 yards and closing fast!"
Nelson joined Crane at the sonar station. "That must be the Coast Guard. They're early."
"No, I don't think so, Sir. It's the right size and all, but it's coming from the wrong direction, and it's zeroing in like a homing pigeon."
Lee frowned in disgust, "I was wondering how they hoped to overpower an entire sub with just eight men." Lee turned and reached for a mike. "Now hear this. This is the Captain. Rig for silent running. Rig for silent running." Replacing the mike, he turned to O'Brien, "Bob, how deep is the bottom around here?"
"Not deep, Sir. Runs between twelve and fifteen hundred."
"Okay, take her down to a thousand feet, then I want dead stop. Let's see if they can find us."
"Aye, Sir. One thousand feet, then dead stop."
Having given the orders, there was nothing more to do than wait. As Lee stood with Nelson and O'Brien at the chart table, he noticed O'Brien flexing his hand. "Bob, are you okay?"
When O'Brien looked his Captain in the eye, he said simply, "I should have killed that bastard."
"Easy, Bob, he'll get what's coming to him. Is your hand okay? I think Doc should have a look at it."
Over the intercom, a voice rang out. "Control room, this is Sharkey. Come in, control room!"
Lee picked up the mike, and responded. "Chief, this is the Captain. What's going on?"
"Skipper, Beiler and Jablonski got away!"
"What? How? Chief, what happened?"
"Sir, that Jablonski, or whatever his name was, came to on the way to the brig. He grabbed Wilson and threatened to break his neck if we got in his way. He locked me and the men up in the brig, and picked up Beiler and took off. Sir, I think he was headed to the missile room. The Master-at-Arms let us out, and I'm gonna head there."
"All right, Chief, keep me informed." Replacing the mike, Lee took out his key to the arms locker, calling out, "Bob, I want the entire control room crew armed, got it?"
Before O'Brien could finish distributing the sidearms, Sharkey's voice was heard again. "Control room, this is Sharkey."
Admiral Nelson picked up the mike, "What is it, Chief?"
"Sir, we were too late. They went out the escape hatch."
"What? Didn't anyone try to stop them?"
"Yes, Sir, but that Jablonski was a big guy. Our guys are knocked out all over the room. Admiral, there's more. Sir, they apparently didn't realize that we weren't on the surface. They went out without any gear. Sir, those two are goners."
"All right, Chief, secure the detail, get the casualties to sickbay, then get back up here."
The ship's three surviving senior officers looked uneasily at each other. Were Beiler and Jablonski really stupid enough to have flooded the trunk and then opened the hatch, or did they have some 'help' leaving the ship? O'Brien was the first to speak, "Sir, you don't think Chief Sharkey....."
Admiral Nelson cut off the question with an impatient wave of his hand. "I am not interested in any speculation in this matter. Let's deal with the situation at hand."
The Admiral suited action to words, and went to stand over the sonar screen. Over the next hour, they watched as the unknown ship approached and picked up the lifeboat, and presumably it's occupants, then slowly circled the area. At one point, the ship stopped next to the cabin cruiser, then continued in it's search pattern. When Kowalski announced a third contact from the general direction of San Diego, both the mystery ship, and the supposedly crippled cruiser took off in a seaward direction.
After a short discussion the Admiral and Captain decided to maintain radio silence. The Seaview got under way, headed for the sea trials of a weapons system that neither of its designers had survived to see fired. Shortly thereafter, Sparks reported that the Coast Guard was still searching the area after having found two bodies, but no wreckage.
It had been a long, wearying day. Admiral Nelson, as he was wont to do, went to sit in the observation nose. After a while, Lee Crane joined him. "Sir, we are in position for the trials. We can start any time you are ready."
"Mmmm? Oh, Lee. Yes, well, we can delay a few hours, I suppose. Sit down, sit down." The Admiral was pensive, his gaze distant. Knowing his moods, Lee waited patiently for Nelson to speak. When he finally did, the words were like a knife in Lee's gut. "Chip's dead."
"Yes, Sir, I know."
Nelson startled, as if he had forgotten that Lee was there. "Do you? Lee, I just wonder. Something Sharkey said. Remember? Sharkey said 'Jablonski, or whatever his name was'. That's really the question, isn't it? Was that man Peter Jablonski?"
Lee's confusion was reflected in his voice, "Does it really matter, Sir? Whatever his name, he murdered Chip."
"Yes, he murdered Chip. Let's think about that. Why would he murder Chip Morton? What did Chip know or see that made Jablonski kill him?"
"What are you getting at, Sir?"
"Follow me on this, Lee. Beiler was betraying his country, but he couldn't do it alone. He needed someone to help."
"Right. Jablonski. Beiler needed to find a way to get Jablonski aboard the Seaview. The way I see it, he had two choices, there. He could smuggle the man aboard and hope he wasn't discovered, or he could replace a new man. Someone that nobody would recognize."
"Except Chip! That's right, Sir! He was the only one who could recognize a ringer! So that's it. That's why they murdered Chip."
"Lee, let's take this a step further. Let me ask you, what happened to the real Peter Jablonski? Where is he?"
"I.... I don't know. Back on shore, somewhere?"
"Possibly. But why didn't he report in? Does it seem likely that Beiler and his friend would risk having the real Peter Jablonski show up?"
"So the fake Jablonski killed him? No, wait, Jablonski said he had already killed once. Once. Chip."
"Was it Chip or Jablonski, Lee? Where is Chip Morton's body, Lee?"
"Wait a minute, Sir. Let's apply your logic a little further. Why wouldn't they kill Chip? He would expose their plot the instant he found out about it. Why keep him alive?" As Lee asked his questions, he couldn't help but feel a sense of unreality. He was sitting calmly discussing his friend as if he were reading a mystery novel, or playing Clue. Mr. Jablonski, in the conservatory, with a candlestick.
"Lee. I think we need to search the boat."
Nelson said it so calmly, so quietly, that Crane at first did not grasp what his friend was saying. When it dawned on him, Lee frowned, "Admiral, you think Chip's body is still onboard? You think Jablonski hid it somewhere?"
"Lee, I am almost positive Chip is on board. Probably dead. But I think there is at least an outside chance that he's tied up somewhere, hidden away."
"But why? What reason could they have for keeping him alive?" Despite his doubts, Lee had stood up, ready to act.
"Oh, I don't know. Maybe as a hostage, maybe something to do with the trials. The thing is, if he IS trapped somewhere, we need to find him. And if he's.... gone, then we still need to find his body. Captain, I am formally asking you to begin a search."
"Aye, Sir." Lee went aft to make the arrangements. He was concerned by what he saw as Nelson's reluctance to accept the fact that Chip Morton was dead. He called Chief Sharkey over to instruct him. "Chief," Lee said in a quiet voice so the Admiral wouldn't hear, "I want you to get together a detail to search the ship. I have reason to believe Mr. Morton never left. He was murdered on board, and I want him found. Look anyplace a body could be hidden."
Sharkey's grief and anger was plain. He had long believed it was his personal responsibility to take care of the senior officers on the boat, and the death of the Exec was hitting him hard. "Aye, Sir. Don't you worry, we'll find him." Sharkey's voice cracked with emotion.
Lee put his hand on the Chief's shoulder, and with a grim smile said, "I know you will, Chief. Carry on."
As Crane watched Sharkey leave the control room, a stray thought crossed his mind. Before he could pin it down, he was distracted by the common place responsibility of running his ship. A few minutes later, he tried to pursue it, but it wouldn't come. Something about a crooked picture.... Where had he seen it? He wanted to dismiss the thought, but it kept drifting across his mind, tantalizingly near, but just out of reach.
The Admiral appeared at his side, "Lee...."
He spun to face Nelson, grabbing him by the shoulders, "Admiral, I know where they hid the body."
Before Nelson could think of anything to say, Crane strode out of the control room. Nelson hurried to catch up. "Lee? Lee!! Where are you going?"
Crane stopped and turned to the Admiral, "Sir, it was right in front of me all along. When Chip first went missing, I came down to check his cabin. I ran into Jablonski in the corridor right outside. He said he was lost. He must have been coming from Chip's cabin. Chip's door was locked. You know he never locks that door. I went in, but there was no sign of anything. Except a picture on the wall was crooked. How likely would it be for Chip Morton, of all people, to allow something as untidy as a crooked picture to hang in his cabin. Sir, he's there, somewhere."
Nelson slowly nodded his head, then went to a mike hanging on the corridor wall. "Sickbay, this is Nelson. Have Doc Jamieson meet Captain Crane and I outside of the Exec's quarters."
The Admiral looked up into Lee Crane's worried eyes. "Don't look at me like that, Lee. I want nothing more than to find Chip alive, but I know it's not likely to happen. Keep in mind, if they did murder Chip, the body has probably been decomposing for the last few days. I don't think either of us want to face that alone."
It was obvious that that particular thought had not occurred to the Captain. The worry turned to pain as he considered it. With an abrupt nod of his head, Lee Crane set off to the cabin, but at a much slower pace. Doc was standing outside the cabin, when they arrived. "What's happening, Sir?"
"Doc, we suspect that Chip was murdered here on board, and we think the body may be hidden here in his cabin."
Doc grew pale at the thought. "Well, we'll know pretty quickly once the door is open. If he is in there, the smell will tell us."
Lee looked at the door for several moments before decisively taking out his masterkey and unlocking the door. With a glance at the others, he took a deep breath, turned the knob and pushed the door open. Doc shouldered his way past the two superior officers, and standing in the middle of the room, took a tentative sniff. He turned around and frowning, shook his head. Lee heard the Admiral's exhalation, at the same moment as his own, and he wondered if Nelson realized he had been holding his breath. He entered the cabin, and glanced around. It appeared no different than when he searched it before. There really was no place to hide a body. The Admiral and Doctor took the same short tour he had when he had originally examined the room, checking the closet, head and desk. Lee sat on the bed in a blue funk. He'd been so sure.... His eyes roamed around the room, not really seeing anything until they settled on a bit of grime on the floor against one wall. Curious he went over and picked it up, inspecting it. A dust bunny. The hair on the back of his neck went up as he looked up the wall to the ventilation grille directly above. Both Nelson and Jamieson were drawn by the Captain's sudden stillness, and their eyes too were drawn by the grille.
Lee stood up, and reached over for a nearby chair. In silence, he mounted the chair, and used his fingers to pop the grille open. Lee discovered that a flashlight was unnecessary. Within the duct opening, he found himself staring at the top of the blond head, and the outstretched arms of Chip Morton. Emotion that had been tightly contained overwhelmed the Captain now that he was faced with the reality of his friend's death. He stepped back, and would have fallen if not for Nelson's steadying hand. Doc said softly, "Lee, come down from there. I need to confirm Commander Morton's death."
Lee looked down with grief-stricken eyes, and stepped down off the chair. Jamieson climbed up and reached into the duct. "Wha.....? My God, he's alive. Admiral! He's still alive! Wait, wait... He's hung up in here, they have him cuffed, it's too dark, I can't see how to release..... Damn! Captain, we're going to need some help here. Chip is still breathing, it looks like he's been drugged, but he's tied up somehow, and I can't see how to free him."
Lee took control of his wild elation and asked, "Doc, can you feel what they used? Is it rope, or chain? Is he okay, will he be all right?"
"It's definitely rope, maybe a quarter inch thick, tied to handcuffs. It's pretty taut, and I think we'll have to cut the knot. I can't tell for sure without a close examination, but the pulse is strong, and he's breathing steadily, I think he'll be okay."
Nelson was already on the intercom, ordering a detail with cutters. Doc hopped down, and called down to sickbay to order a stretcher, and then ordered a corpsman to the guest quarters that Beiler had been using, telling him to tear the place apart if necessary, but find the drugs that Beiler had been using on Cmdr. Morton. Lee in the meantime, climbed back up and reaching in a comforting hand, began to offer encouragement to the unconscious man and reassurance to himself.
Within an hour, the Exec had been released from his prison, and safely installed in sickbay. Doc's examination revealed that except for moderate dehydration, Morton was in good shape, and would recover within a few days no worse for his ordeal.
With a sense of euphoria, Nelson and Crane led the Seaview through the sea trials of the weapons prototype successfully. Admiral Nelson at the end of the tense trials ordered the Seaview home, then went to the nose to reflect on the past few days.
After a while, Crane joined him. "Sir, I just checked on Chip in sickbay."
"How is he?"
"Still pulling the Rip Van Winkle routine. One improvement, now he's snoring. Doc says he's in normal sleep, and should wake up anytime now."
With a smile, Lee sat back and stretched his legs. The two men sat in companionable silence, watching the crash of waves against the transparent bow. Eventually Lee shook his head, "I just can't understand what makes a man like Beiler tick. He betrays his country, and causes one man's death, then lets another live."
"Well, he was obviously mad, Lee. I doubt we will ever know the whole story." Nelson fell silent, brooding. "Lee, find out about the real Peter Jablonski for me. I want to make provisions for his family if he has any. It's a terrible thing when a man dies. And to die for no reason......"
"I will, Sir. And in the meantime, why don't we go down to sickbay? Doc is probably pretty sick of that snoring, and if I know Chip, he'll sense brass as soon as we come in the room, and wake up."
A smile bloomed on Nelson's face, and he got up clapping his Captain on the back saying, "Let's go see the Exec!"
When they reached sickbay, they found Doc Jamieson nursing the beginnings of a shiner. Admiral Nelson asked, "What happened?"
Doc replied dryly, "Chip came up fighting."
"He popped you a good one, huh? Is he all right? Can we talk to him?"
If Doc felt any resentment for the lack of concern over his own injury, he did not show it. "Yes, he's awake. He's shown good response to all the neurological tests, so he should be fine. Don't worry about any slurred speech, that's just a side effect of the dehydration. Oh, and I want to keep him here for another twelve hours, just to be on the safe side. Don't let him convince you he can go back to duty right away. Okay?"
"Sure Doc." Lee replied with a smile. He had no problem in ordering others to stay in sickbay when he wouldn't stay himself under identical circumstances.
Lee and the Admiral moved to the other end of sickbay where Chip Morton lay with his eyes closed. Making a show of standing back out of range, Lee said "Careful Admiral, you never know what he'll do when he's surprised."
Chip's eyes flew open, then immediately narrowed as he said with some exasperation, "Aw, c'mon, Lee, I told Doc I was sorry!"
Crane and Nelson both chuckled, and the Admiral said, "How are you feeling, Chip?"
"Thrilled to be alive, actually, Sir. That twerp Beiler could have overdosed me so easily. . . . Doc says he's dead."
"Yes, both he and his accomplice went out the escape trunk and drowned."
"Well, I'm sorry for that. The guy was brilliant. It's just a shame he was so crazy. Did you know he thought I was supposed to be grateful that his buddy didn't kill me? He was going to turn me over with the weapons system, and he honestly thought he was doing me a huge favor."
"So that's it!" Lee exclaimed. "Chip, that's what took us so long to find you. We, that is I, couldn't see any reason they would keep you alive. Admiral Nelson was the only one who was sure you were still on the boat. I think everyone else was convinced you were at the bottom of the ocean somewhere. At least, I was."
"Well, let's be fair, Lee. I was confident that we would find you on the boat, Chip, but I was as surprised as anyone when we found you alive. It was Lee who figured out that you had to be in your cabin somewhere."
"Zhat where I was?" Chip frowned at the slurring, but continued on, "I knew I was in a vent, but I had no idea where. I'm just glad you found me. Admiral, how did the testing go?"
"Fine, Chip, fine. There are a few bugs to work out, but I think that you and I can get it up and running once you're on your feet."
"Oh, no you don't!" Lee put his hands on his XO's shoulders to keep him from rising. "Doc says you stay put until tomorrow."
"Doc's just mad because he didn't duck fast enough. Lee, I'm fine. I want to look over the test results."
"You can look over the results tomorrow. We almost lost you, Chip. Neither Admiral Nelson nor I are going to let you take an unnecessary risk right now. You need to rest up. I've been pulling your duty watches for you, so you owe me, and I intend to collect."
Admiral Nelson chuckled at the Exec's dismay. "Yes, you need to save your strength, Chip. You know how the paperwork backs up when you are off. Lee, shall we count this as vacation days?"
"I don't see why not, Sir. All he did for three days was lie around."
Chip Morton crossed his arms, cocked his head and said haughtily, "I refuse to be baited by the likes of you two! As a matter of fact, my physician has advised me to sleep some more, and I intend to do exactly that!" With that, Chip pulled the blankets up, and turned his back on his two friends.
"Well, Captain, I guess that is that! Shall we allow Mr. Morton his rest?"
"Yes, Sir, we shall." replied Lee with a grin. And the two officers, grinning widely, walked away.
Copyright 1999 by Middie Rosie
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