The Monster and Mehrisout
by naloma

Chapter Before the First
. . . or . . .
Jumping Right Into the Middle

Seamen Kowalski and Patterson were taking turns glancing nervously at the peripatetic cloud of smoke in Seaview's Observation Nose. While not an unfamiliar phenomenon, neither was it particularly comforting.

"Will you put out that smelly thing and stop fidgeting!" Dr. Eleanor Mehrisout wrinkled her nose with mixed amusement and disgust.

"Fidgeting!" Admiral Harriman Nelson glared in exasperation at the woman he had - perhaps too magnanimously - invited to join him and Seaview's captain. "I don't fidget," he harrumphed, pounding out the cigarette. "And isn't there something else you should be doing, Doctor, besides that . . . that . . . whatever it is!" He waved a hand in her direction.

"Knitting," the Doctor supplied helpfully. "And no, there isn't."

For just a moment both Nelson and Captain Lee Crane stopped their nervous pacing, and the beginning of a smile crept in to do cautious battle with the Admiral's tense scowl. It lost.

After enduring sixty more seconds of their synchronized pacing, Mehrisout set yarn and needles purposefully in her lap.

"Admiral, Captain," she frowned at the two men, "no amount of puffing or pacing, worrying or fretting, knitting or purling, is going to move the numbers on that clock one bit faster."

She paused for a moment, allowing an impish glint to invade her dark eyes. "But, when all this is over, Admiral, you will have yellow teeth and black lungs. And you," she turned toward the Captain, "will have ulcers. I, on the other hand," she smugly displayed her project, "will have an afghan."

This time the Admiral's frown lost the engagement, a wry grin claiming its territory. Lee Crane, apparently unmoved by either logic or humor, halted and turned to face their accuser. "You seem pretty sure of yourself, Doctor."

"Of myself? Not at all, Captain," the Doctor replied quietly. "But I am sure of Mr. Morton and Stu Riley. Just as sure as you two are."

Crane grunted, his face softening for an instant . . . before he remembered the rest of his problem. "You're forgetting that submarine out there, and the men on it. Not to mention that alien they're with," he added, flinging his hands upward in frustration. "Are you sure of it, too?"

"You know I am. Just as sure as the Admiral, and Mr. Morton, and young Riley are."

Nelson turned away in to hide his smile, and even Crane's scowl was only half-hearted as the two men resumed their . . . fidgeting.

The pseudo-serious bickering between Nelson and Mehrisout had been going on ever since the linguistic specialist came aboard in Santa Barbara two days earlier. She was being transported ("Along with the rest of the crates and sacks," was her description.) to a research facility on Rakahanga in the northern Cook Islands. Scientists from the Nelson Institute, there to assist an international team studying communication in the higher sea mammals, had requested her assistance with an isolated pod of dolphins. It had arrived only two weeks earlier, exhibiting a radical variation on the normal communicative utterances.

At first the officers and crew had resented the newcomer's nagging and needling of their admiral. ("Who the heck does she think she is anyway?") But after a while most recognized that it was just a defense mechanism: her effort to make the best of a situation as awkward as it was unfamiliar. That hurdle cleared, they stepped back to enjoy the show, made all the better by the fact that Nelson - and not a few others - put at least as much into their parts as Mehrisout did into hers.

Until yesterday, that is. But that's getting ahead of the story. To begin at the beginning . . . .

October 10, 1978

<^> Tuesday 1400 <^>

"Cargo Bay to Control Room." The Chief of the Boat's voice crackled over the intercom.

Lt. Cmdr. Morton thumbed the mike already in his hand. "Go ahead, Sharkey, this is the Exec."

"Mr. Morton, everything's aboard and we're all secure back here."

"Very well, Chief, seal the hatches and report to the Control Room." After a final check of cargo manifests, work stations, and duty rosters, Seaview's Executive Officer turned to her captain and reported formally, "Captain, all crew present, supplies and cargo secured. We're ready to cast off on your order."

Looking up from his own collection of orders, charts, and memos, Lee Crane nodded his dark head in acknowledgment. "And our passenger?"

"She's been loaded," a feminine voice confided with a wry chuckle, "but - ow! - I'm withholding judgement on the secure part."

Both officers turned to see a short, grey-haired woman being assisted into the Control Room by Adm. Harriman Nelson. A conspicuous unfamiliarity with the step-and-duck concept of submarine hatch navigation was making her entrance rather less than graceful.

That operation completed, the Admiral shepherded his charge toward the chart table. "Doctor, I'd like you to meet our captain, Lee Crane; and our executive officer, Chip Morton. Gentlemen, Dr. Eleanor Mehrisout."

"Ma'am," Lt. Cmdr. Morton nodded politely but somewhat absently as he shook hands with the visitor.

Extending his hand in greeting, Capt. Crane shot a questioning glance over the woman's shoulder to Nelson. A civilian in the Control Room while we're getting under way? "Dr. Mehrisout, welcome aboard."

"Thank you, Captain." Mehrisout smiled and shook Crane's extended hand. "But I suspect this isn't really the best time and place for introductions, is it?"

The Captain's gracious smile barely faltered as he glanced around the room. "I'm afraid we are pretty busy up here right now, ma'am."

"Now, there's no reason for you to apologize when I'm the one who's in the way." Her own smile flickered in embarrassment. "Adm. Nelson suggested I might enjoy watching the departure from the Observation Nose, but I see now that it's not such a good . . ."

"Nonsense, Doctor . . ." Nelson interrupted.

"No, Doctor, of course not," Crane, taking his cue from Nelson, interrupted in his turn. "If you can stand the accommodations up there, you won't be in the way." He paused for a second before continuing, "A warning, though: the first couple of hours are going to be pretty rough. I trust you're not prone to seasickness?"

Sensing sudden alarm in several eavesdropping seamen, Mehrisout laughed again. "No, Captain, I'm a good deal tougher than I look, and have never been known to lose my . . . composure . . . over so small a matter as some rough seas. As for the accommodations . . . they have to be an improvement over the broom closet where the Admiral just found me." She paused just long enough to elicit a noisy sigh from that quarter, but didn't notice the bristling of the Executive Officer's hackles. "I'll be fine," she finished, "as long as you're sure I won't be in the way."

"Not at all," he exaggerated. Seeing the COB enter the rear hatch, Crane called him over. "Chief Sharkey, will you escort Dr. Mehrisout up to the Nose? And maybe she'd like some coffee."

Sharkey's fleeting grimace made it evident that he wasn't pleased with having a civilian - A woman, no less!-underfoot, either. But a crisp, "Aye, sir," was his dutiful response. As the two turned toward the Nose, the Chief extended an elbow, and asked hopefully, "Do you take your coffee black?"

"Ummm . . ." she began hesitantly, " no . . . I actually don't take coffee at all. I don't suppose you'd have any tea handy, would you?"

Tea! The officers left standing at the chart table felt, rather than saw, the roll of Sharkey's eyes; and imagined, rather than heard, his disgusted Dames!

Morton barely held his tongue till she was out of earshot. "Broom closet!" he exploded. "Isn't she assigned to the guest cabin?"

Adm. Nelson chuckled. "Relax, Mr. Morton. Yes, that's where she is, and no, that was not a complaint . . . not really. She was just continuing a conversation we started earlier." He glanced up at her retreating form and chuckled again before turning back to his officers.

Nonplused, Crane and Morton exchanged a sideways glance. Then, clearing his throat to regain the Admiral's attention, Crane said, "Sir, I have a few questions about the scheduling of these depth tests on the SCUTR."

Nelson looked at the file Crane was holding. "Is there a problem, Lee? It will take us almost a week to get to Rakahanga," Crane nodded in agreement as the Admiral continued, "and I've allowed most of that time to get it calibrated and surface tested. Sparks and I have already completed most of the installation."

"So we're not going to do the deep sea testing until after we drop off the Doctor and supplies?"

"No, no need to," he shook his head. "Besides, the main reason Dr. Mehrisout is traveling with us, rather than by air, is that she can't tolerate the severe atmospheric pressure changes that would result from either air travel or those deep dives."

"What to you mean 'can't tolerate' pressure changes?" Morton's eyebrows shot up in renewed indignation. "What's she doing on a sub? And what if . . . "

"She's here because I deemed it both expedient and necessary." Neither Nelson's tone nor his stormy countenance invited debate. However his voice softened somewhat as he arched an eyebrow, continuing, "And may I suggest, gentlemen, that you avoid any 'what if's'."

Ignoring the protest written across the faces of both his senior officers, Nelson went on with his explanation. "And, as I just said, before we can even think about sending transmissions from beneath the surface, we have to test the SCUTR on the surface, and during ionospheric disturbances." As he straightened and turned to leave, his glare defied challenge. "We all have a lot to do," he rapped his knuckles on the table, "and no surplus of time to do it."

"All personnel secure. Ready to cast off lines and get underway." The Admiral's departure punctuated Lt. O'Brien's announcement from the Flying Bridge, and belayed any further discussions of either their mission, or their delicate passenger.

<^> Tuesday 1800 <^>

"So what is this scooter I've been hearing about?"

Dr. Mehrisout's question fell upon the comfortable clatter of dinner in the Wardroom that evening. "I suspect it has nothing to do with the two-wheeled push-bikes constructed from orange crates by small boys of my . . . um . . . ," she raised a rueful eyebrow, ". . . distant childhood memories."

Several pairs of eyes turned in deference toward Adm. Nelson, who - smiling around a mouth full of pot roast - nodded to Capt. Crane.

"No, ma'am, it doesn't," the Captain smiled. "SCUTR stands for Self-Contained Universal Transmitter-Receiver. It's a radio that can both send and receive reliably from a submarine running deeply submerged."

"But can't all . . . ?"

"No, Doctor." Nelson took over the explanation. "Seaview, here, already uses such technology, but we rely on our more advanced computers and nuclear generators. This new design is small, self-contained, yet powerful enough to not only overcome ocean depths, it also has added technology to cut through atmospheric disturbances caused by sunspots or solar flares. Once perfected, it will be an invaluable asset, not only for strategic advantage, but also as a lifeline for submarines in distress."

"So, it's essentially a device for communications, rather than research or tactical advantage."

"Exactly," Nelson nodded in agreement. "And speaking of communications, I think my officers would be interested to hear about your work." At this every man at the table dutifully smiled his polite encouragement. "Especially the reason why you're here aboard Seaview, rather than in the comfort of the Institute's jet."

Fully aware of her audience's dubious enthusiasm, the linguist nevertheless smiled cheerfully and plunged in. "I think you probably know that I'm on my way to have a chat with some dolphins in the Cook Islands," she began. "Most of my work has involved deciphering human speech patterns, but the Institute's researchers thought I might be helpful in this particular case because of the nature of this pod's highly developed - and highly unusual - language. But I suspect the main reason they wanted me was for my own . . . um . . . peculiarities.

"Three years ago - as the result of nothing more dramatic than a bout with the flu - I lost a portion of the hearing in my right ear, and all hearing in my left. Since, as you might imagine, hearing is absolutely essential in my work, it put an end to my research. But several months later I was contacted by Dr. Jacques Briere at Manhattan Eye, Ear, and Throat Hospital. It seems he had constructed a self-contained, semi-permanent implant to replace the delicate mechanism of nerves, membrane, and bones in the inner ear. He'd had a good bit of success in the lab, but he wanted a high profile human guinea pig to catch the attention of the business world. I was it.

Sparing you all the boring details, the surgery worked rather too well. My hearing was not only restored, but it is actually much more acute than it ever was before; I can hear and interpret a wider range of sounds than most humans - most mammals, for that matter - are even aware of. A dolphin has a hearing range fourteen times broader than your average human; a dog about seven times broader. I fall somewhere between those two."

"Does that mean, ma'am," Sparks blurted out eagerly, "that you can hear somebody whispering half a mile away - like the 'Bionic Woman' on TV?"

"What's the matter, Sparks? Afraid the Doctor might hear you and O'Brien comparing notes on the steno pool?" It was the Exec's voice, but the expression of ingenuous concentration on his mashed potatoes never wavered . . . until he deemed enough time had passed. Finally dropping the other shoe, he favored the hapless young communications officer with a blank stare enlivened only by one arched eyebrow. All pretense of decorum was lost, and the table erupted in a chorus of guffaws, while Spark's complexion darkened to the shade of the ruby-red bug-juice in his glass.

"Gentlemen, gentlemen," Nelson chided. "You're going to give our guest a very poor first impression. And to answer your unspoken question, Lieutenant: No, you are safe in your cabin. Correct, Doctor?"

"Yes, indeed, young man, I'm a perfectly tame houseguest. Unlike your Miss Sommers, there is no change in the decibels I can hear, only in the frequencies. So while sounds are not any louder, I can hear more of them, if that makes any sense. Jim - my husband - finds me invaluable when he's tuning the car engine. I can hear, rather than feel, the wind of an approaching weather front. And once, on a camping trip, I had a lovely conversation with a bat," she said with a roll of her eyes.

"But," she added drily, "it's not all fun and games. At the park on a Sunday afternoon, all those dog whistles reduce me to one tattered nerve," she winced. "What's worse is my inability to equalize pressure in that ear. Due to what amounts to a bad circuit breaker - a design flaw which Dr. Briere hopes to correct in future models - any sudden external pressure change will damage or destroy the intricate circuitry. And, as an added bonus," she arched her eyebrows in mock enthusiasm, "in the process of self-destructing, the little monster would also do more internal damage - accompanied by excruciating pain."

After a wide - and slightly demented - smile, Mehrisout sighed before resuming her account. "Consequently, in any building over three floors I have to go up the elevator in stages - or walk. I can't travel by plane, and even driving on a particularly hilly road can sometimes cause problems . . . which makes life interesting in Middlebury, Vermont!" Her gentle smile belied the sarcasm of her words. "So, in spite of what you've seen on TV, this bionic woman doesn't think it's all that it's cracked up to be!"

No one had noticed that it was Stu Riley clearing away their dishes - filling in on mess detail in payment of a lost wager - until he blurted out, "But ma'am, why go through all that? Wouldn't it be easier just to use an oscilloscope?"

"Riley!" The Exec's bark made him suddenly aware of where he was, and the breach of etiquette he had committed. The glares from Adm. Nelson and Capt. Crane were more reinforcement than he really needed.

"Sir!" He nearly dropped his tray of dirty plates in Morton's lap in an attempt to come to attention. His wild juggling act brought forth poorly suppressed grins from the junior officers, deepened the ire of the Lt. Commander, and sent the Admiral into a coughing fit.

"Riley," the Captain said with admirable poise, "you're dismissed."

"Aye, sir," he replied gratefully.

"Excuse me," Dr. Mehrisout interjected, "but may I answer his question? I suspect it's one that others have been thinking, but were afraid to ask."

"Certainly, Doctor," Nelson said, with a passably straight face. "Riley, you can . . . uh . . . set those dishes down."

"Aye, sir." This time the confused seaman didn't know whether to feel vindicated or condemned .

"Yes, it certainly would be easier not to have to deal with a prototype implant," Mehrisout began quietly. "But no matter how complex, no combination of oscilloscope, transducer, and spectrograph would be nearly so useful. Those instruments can measure, record, and even analyze a wide variety of sounds. They can report on their amplitudes, frequencies, and phase variances. They can tell precisely how each sound is formed. What they cannot do is interpretsound. Man has produced some wonderful advances in technology, making our work much easier. But none of that ever has - and I trust never will - replace the human brain. In order for me to interpret a sound, I have to be able to hear it, not just see colors or wavy lines on a screen."

The Doctor's voice had risen during her speech, but now dropped abruptly. "End of sermon," she said, sheepishly regarding her half-finished dinner. "And I believe I'll step down from this rather drafty perch atop my soap-box."

"There's no need to apologize, Doctor," Nelson reassured her. "This group has heard similar lectures from me on more than one occasion; another will do them no harm." The nods, sighs, and grimaces around the table attested to the truth of his words.

Mehrisout flashed a brief smile of thanks, then said to Riley, "Did that answer your question, young man?"

"Uh, yes, ma'am, it did. Thank you, ma'am."

"Now, Riley, you are dismissed," Crane reminded him.

"Aye, sir. Thank you, sir." And the flustered seaman finally made good his escape . . . just as Cookie arrived with cake, a frown, and fresh coffee. After a few impolite snickers at the brash young man's expense, conversation deferred to dessert.

Several minutes later, toying with the last of his crumbs, Capt. Crane asked, "Dr. Mehrisout, what do you plan to do with yourself for the next six days? I'm afraid we don't offer much in the way of diversion or entertainment."

"And you want to make sure I'm well occupied in my little broom closet, and not getting underfoot, right?" She cut off his sputtered protests with a raised hand and a grin. "Fear not! I brought an entire briefcase of correspondence, both professional and personal, twenty seven hours of recordings of dolphin chatter, enough technical articles to sink a battleship - you should pardon the expression - and an eclectic mix of paperbacks to share on the island. And if all else fails, there's always my knitting."

The ill-concealed epidemic of rolling eyes fazed Dr. Mehrisout only slightly. "I know," she smiled, "the image of little old grey-haired ladies sitting in their rocking chairs knitting booties and sweaters for their grand-children is comical enough on land, let alone on a submarine, but I assure you it's an excellent form of therapy. It soothes the nerves, engages that part of the brain generally allocated to worrying, occupies otherwise fidgeting hands, and," she laughed, "how many oscilloscopes do you know who can produce an afghan in their spare time?" Her I-dare-you smirk went unanswered as the call for change of duty watch came over the intercom.

<^>

Since it was impossible for anyone to leave the crowded Wardroom benches without everyone else leaving, too, there was a well-choreographed exodus through one door, as a white-coated steward entered the other to clear and set up for the off-coming watch. As the officers scurried away to their duty stations, only the Doctor and Adm. Nelson were left plastered against the side of the narrow corridor.

"Madam, may I escort you to your broom closet . . . er . . . cabin?"

"You may indeed sir, as long as you're not implying that I should make use of one of those implements for transportation out of here," she laughed. "Even though some of your crew might find that neither an unexpected nor unwelcome turn of events." She looked behind her, then whispered conspiratorially, "I sense that my presence here has not met with universal approval."

Nelson snorted. "You noticed. You must understand that Seaview has long been an all-male stronghold, and intruding females are not lightly welcomed. Especially females with the temerity to question long-standing traditions and practices."

"You mean the ones like, 'Real men don't drink tea,' or 'Never speak to an enlisted man,' or 'Never, ever tease a senior officer.'?"

"Those are the ones!" Nelson laughed.

Mehrisout exhaled a poignant sigh. "Then I guess I'm doomed to failure as good-will ambassador for my sex."

Nelson snorted a laugh. "Tell me, what does your husband think of your expeditions?"

"Whenever he can, he comes with me, and we've had some wonderful experiences together, but for the last year or so we've been regular homebodies . . . both teaching at Middlebury." Her expression darkened somewhat, "This urgent 'request' of yours - or should I say 'summons'?" she grinned, "- took us by surprise, though, so he couldn't get the time off. This will be the longest we've been apart since . . . heavens - I don't know when."

"But he will be joining you, won't he?"

"Oh, yes," she said more brightly. "He's already applied for and received a leave of absence for next semester, so he should be in Rakahanga in time for Christmas."

As the two rounded the corner to enter Officers' Country, they nearly collided with Riley, just ducking out through the hatchway. He stopped short and nodded. "Sir, Ma'am." He was momentarily held in that position, electrified by their inquisitive gaze. Nelson opened his mouth as if to question him, then shut it in a grimace. The only other movement in this tableau was the deep blush spreading over the seaman's features.

"As you were, Riley," Nelson finally rumbled.

"Aye, sir."

As the seaman shrunk away, Dr. Mehrisout stared after him, a half-smile on her lips. "Is that boy often in trouble, Admiral?"

"Trouble? No, not real trouble," Nelson shook his head as he assisted Mehrisout through the hatch. "'Hot water' might be a better term for it. But the 'often' is certainly fitting," he chuckled.

Arriving at her door, the Admiral opened it and stepped aside. As Mehrisout entered, she stopped short. "Hot water indeed . . ."

There, sitting on her desk, was a small electric hot pot, a mug, and a saucer of tea-bags and sugar packets.

"Looks like your ambassadorship is more successful than you thought, Doctor."

"Do you suppose I have Riley to thank for this, or did someone put him up to it?"

"Perhaps you should ask him."

"Perhaps I should just enjoy my tea without making any more waves," she sighed.

"Not a bad idea, at that," Nelson agreed. "Would you care to join me later in my cabin for some coffee . . . and tea?" At her quizzical look, he added quickly, "I'm expecting the Captain and Mr. Morton, too."

"No, thank you, Admiral. I'm really pretty tired, and I have quite a few things to sort and arrange - not the least of which are my thoughts. I think I'll just do a little work here, enjoy a well-earned cup of tea, and turn in."

"In that case, Doctor, good-night," he nodded. But as he turned away he stopped short and looked back. "By the way, would you be interested in seeing the 'inaugural performance' of our SCUTR tomorrow morning?" he asked. "I doubt that it will be very spectacular, but it is rather significant."

"I'd be delighted, Admiral. What time?"

"Sometime in the mid-morning, I expect. I'll send someone to get you."

"I'm looking forward to it."

<^> Wednesday 0015 <^>


Several hours later, Lee Crane knocked on the Admiral's open door. "Permission to enter?"

"Of course, Lee, come in and sit down." When he looked up, however, the Captain saw that there was no surface that wasn't piled high with technical manuals, spec sheets, or miscellaneous file folders. "Just put that pile on the floor," the Admiral waved to the nearest chair.

Crane smiled at the chaotically systematic disarray that was so typical of any space the Admiral occupied for more than fifteen minutes. "How's it coming?" he asked, settling into the vacated seat.

Nelson looked up with a half-serious grimace. "Are you sure you want to know?"

"If it's as bad as all that," Crane laughed, "I think the captain ought to know about it, don't you?"

Nelson leaned back in his chair and stretched. "Actually, it's coming fine, Lee. If all goes well, we should be able to send out the first transmission tomorrow."

"So what's the problem?"

Nelson's answer was pre-empted by another knock. "Enter."

Chip Morton's blond head poked through the doorway. "Sir, Sparks just reported that he connected the last relay and finished running your diagnostics. Everything checks out and he's hitting the rack for a few hours."

"Good, Chip. Thanks," Nelson smiled. "Come in and sit down, I want you to hear this, too."

Morton entered and surveyed the greater-than-average anarchy in the room with mild disdain.

Crane caught his look and laughed, "Standing room only for those below the rank of full Commander."

After leveling a pained scowl in the direction of his commanding officer, the Exec found, emptied, and folded his tall frame into the other chair as the Admiral continued. "As far as our equipment is concerned, there are no problems. But I've just been going through some of these reports, and I don't know quite how to take some of them - with a grain of salt, an aspirin, or something considerably stronger," he sighed. "Look at this one," he said, handing over a thick file. "An amateur group - the SETI League - from Ohio State claims to have received an anomalous transmission from what could only be a location outside our solar system. They also argue that it's a signal originating from an 'alien intelligence'."

"Oh, come on, Admiral," Crane scoffed, "the Institute gets reports from crackpots like that every day. They all claim sightings of sea monsters, space aliens - you name it; they've seen it."

"What makes you think these jokers are any different?" Morton added. "What is this SETI League, anyway?"

"This is not a crackpot group. The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence has been in existence for almost twenty years, mostly under government sponsorship."

"Did you say the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence?" Morton sputtered. "They're hunting for aliens? Do they have any idea what kind of trouble they're asking for?"

"Chip, they're scientists," the Admiral said patiently. "They're searching for knowledge."

"Knowledge? I'll give 'em knowledge: Nine out of every ten 'extra-terrestrial intelligences' contacted are intent on wiping out the planet. Think that will satisfy them? Or would they like details?"

"Chip!" Nelson said sharply. "What they do or do not do with their spare time is not our concern. Our concern is getting SCUTR successfully tested and approved for use on our submarines."

"Yes, sir." The First Officer deflated as he sat back down. "Sorry, sir. I got a little carried away."

"A little?" The Captain's barely audible comment provoked the expected glare . . . followed shortly by the equally expected grin as his friend's agitation dissolved into a shared snicker.

His blue eyes still twinkling, Nelson asked, "May I continue?"

As both officers focused once again on the business at hand, they saw the Admiral's chuckle replaced with a worried frown. "This signal - regardless of its source - is very well documented, and certainly seems legitimate. But the most disturbing aspect of it is the timing. They picked up the signal at 22:16 local time on August 15th of last year: precisely one minute after our first full-blown test of the SCUTR in Santa Barbara."

"Couldn't they have just intercepted a bounce from our own transmission?" Chip asked.

"No," Nelson shook his head. "Fragmentation and bounced signals were ruled out immediately by the pattern of the sequence itself. Also ruled out were the possibilities of stray signals from man-made satellites. Finally," the Admiral stabbed the report with a finger, "the signal was on a frequency reserved for radio astronomy - where all radio transmissions are strictly prohibited by international law."

For several moments both younger men pondered the disquieting information. Finally the Captain asked, "But are you sure this has anything to do with us? The timing could have been simple coincidence."

"Coincidence? Maybe," Nelson snorted, "but scientists wouldn't get very far if they brushed off every oddity they encountered as mere coincidence." He stood and rubbed the back of his stiff neck. "No, gentlemen, I'm not willing to dismiss this report as coincidence just yet. Beyond that, I'm not sure of much else except that it will not hold up our tests." His last words were cut short by the half-stifled yawn of his First Officer. He glanced down at his watch. "And that we all need some sleep!"

Taking their cue, Crane and Morton both stood to take leave of the Admiral. "What will the first test involve? And when are you planning it?" Crane asked.

"Tomorrow at 0900 hours. The first few tests should only involve Sparks and I exchanging routine messages with several transmission stations," he said as he stood beside his open door. "But the real proof will depend upon atmospheric conditions: the worse they are, the tougher SCUTR's job will be. Since we're in an upward cycle of electromagnetic radiation activity from solar flares, I'm expecting to have plenty of opportunities to test its mettle between here and Rakahanga."

Both officers nodded. "Good night, Admiral," the Captain said.

"Good night, sir," the Exec echoed.

As the door shut behind them, the two men ambled off towards their respective quarters.

"What do you think of our passenger?" Morton asked, nodding back toward Mehrisout's door after they passed.

First Lee Crane shrugged his shoulders noncommittally, then a sly grin spread across his face. "A little old for you, don't you think?"

"Me!" Chip Morton sputtered. Then he glanced toward her door again and lowered his voice. "I meant her and the Admiral."

"I read her file, Chip. She's happily married, with three children, two grandchildren, and a respected career. I doubt she's on the prowl." Stopping in front of his cabin, Crane added. "I think the Admiral is old enough to take care of himself. Besides - it really isn't any of our business."

"Yet."

Before Crane could respond, his First Officer had stepped into his own cabin and shut the door.

<^> Wednesday 1300 <^>

"Hellfire and damnation!" were among the more temperate words heard after the latest fireworks display.

"Upon whom?" Adm. Nelson asked mildly, "the SCUTR, its inventor, or electronics in general?"

The communications officer pulled his head out of the acrid-smelling console far too quickly, resulting in a sharp crack, and yet another outburst of invective. His anger, however, soon turned to crimson chagrin when he saw who had addressed him. "Adm. Nelson, sir . . .sorry." Gingerly, he probed his scalp. Finding a exquisite lump - but no blood - he looked up. "I had this working last night, but now . . ."

Yet another pop - sizzle from inside the console cut off the younger man's words, and sent him lunging for the main power switch.

"You've been at it for hours, Lieutenant; take a break." When it appeared that the offer might not be taken up, the Admiral crossed his arms and arched an eyebrow in mock impatience. "That, young man, was an order. Go. Now. And don't come back till you've had lunch. Understood?"

"Yes, sir," he said, standing up. Then, as the implication sunk in his eyes grew wide. "Lunch! What time is it?" When he looked at his watch his dejection was complete. "Oh man! Sorry, sir. I know you wanted to get started . . ."

"I believe I said now?"

"Yes, sir. I'm going, sir." As he brushed the last of the dust off his khakis, he remembered to smile. "And thank you, sir."

"Go!"

After seeing Sparks safely out of the Missile Room, Nelson wedged himself into the spot recently vacated. Soon his own muttering, though not as loud as Sparks's, was equally eloquent. Pulling himself out of the cramped quarters, he contemplated the spaghetti of wires - singed and otherwise - within the console. Not a very auspicious beginning . . .

"Anything I can do?"

Nelson looked around to see Lee Crane squatting beside him, sympathetically regarding the jumble.

"No, Lee," Nelson shook his head. "I think the simplest course is to start over: disconnect each wire in sequence and replace it." He reached for the spool of wire and pliers, and started cutting short lengths and stripping the ends.

"What's the problem? Anything serious?"

"No," Nelson sighed, "I don't think so. But each interconnecting circuit is affecting its neighbor to such a degree that it's impossible to see the source of the problem."

"You don't think it could be intentional, do you?"

Nelson looked up sharply from his work. "You mean sabotage?" The Captain's anxious gaze was his only answer. "To what end?" Shaking his head, he went back to his cutting and stripping. "No, this isn't the work of a saboteur. I'm afraid this is the end result of too much . . . ah . . . youthful enthusiasm." He nodded toward the hatchway through which Sparks had just departed.

"I see," Crane frowned. "I'll speak to him about it."

"No, no, Lee, that won't be necessary. Our prototype here has exacted its own revenge," he grinned. "When he gets back from lunch, we'll straighten it all out."

"Very well." Regarding the growing pile of freshly cut wire, Crane asked, "How long do you figure it will take to get running?"

"Considering how much practice we're getting," Nelson grimaced, "it should only be a couple of hours." He looked at his watch. "Barring further obstacles, we'll start testing at 1600 hours."

"Shall I get someone down here to help you?"

"No," he said, eyeing his surroundings, "there's barely room for one in here. But have Matthews try sending a message to the Institute informing them of the delay and revised starting time."

"Aye, sir."

<^> Wednesday 1600 <^>

"Ready here, sir."

"Let's see what she can do then, shall we?"

"Yes, sir!" Sparks grinned.

Neither Admiral nor Lieutenant were unaware of the epidemic of crossed fingers and held breath raging through the small group of men - and one grey-haired woman - in the Missile Room. As Nelson watched, the young communications officer flicked a switch and said, "SSRN Seaview calling the Nelson Institute."

No fireworks . . . no smoke . . . no expletives.

"Nelson Institute, Thompson here. We read you Seaview."

Two contented sighs.

With a broad smile, the Admiral picked up the mike. "Nelson here. How do you read, Thompson?"

"Good afternoon, Admiral. We read you clear and strong. Is the SCUTR responsible for this? Yours is the only transmission we've received for hours that isn't so static-riddled as to be nearly indecipherable."

"So you're observing sunspot activity going on right now?"

"Yes, sir, it started - "

"Sir!" Sparks interrupted, "What's that sound?"

<^>

"Yow!" Patterson jumped out of his seat, whipping the headphones off.

"What is it, Patterson?" Before the words were out of the Captain's mouth he knew what it was. The shriek emanating from the abandoned headphones was not only audible, but quickly becoming painful to the entire Control Room.

While Patterson leaned over his chair, trying to hold this head together, Kowalski reached across and turned down the gain on the hydrophone station. It didn't do any good. The keening assault was now coming through the hull, and had every man in every compartment holding his ears in pain. Crane looked at his First Officer, who had opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out . . . at least none that could be heard over the blinding, suffocating sound.

That sound, like feedback times ten thousand, was by now so all-encompassing that any other sound - any thought of any other sound - was impossible. Any thought at all besides that of escape was out of the question.

As the sound intensified, time slowed. It no longer flowed; it oozed, like lukewarm lava. It stopped altogether. The notion of eternity became tangible, concrete . . . no beginning . . . no end . . . nothing in existence but white, incomprehensible pain and . . .

. . . silence. Sudden, complete, and overwhelming.

Eons later, there was a shuffling of feet . . . a chair squeaking . . . a tentative grunt . . . until gradually the men began to hope that maybe, maybe they had not lost their sanity.

Morton opened his mouth again. "Wha . . . .?" The bizarre sound of his voice startled both officers. It was too loud in the silence, yet pitifully weak.

Crane shook his head as if shuddering out of a nightmare. "The Admiral - SCUTR!" Picking up the mike he keyed the Missile Room. "Admiral, is everything OK down there? What happened?"

Silence.

"Admiral, do you read?"

"Sir?" Matthews' voice straggled forward.

"What is it, Matthews?" Crane whirled around to face the Radio Shack.

"He can't answer, sir. The intercom is out. All communications are out."

"All?"

Not until that moment did it hit them that there was silence in the Control Room. No pings, no beeps, no chirps. Besides the gentle - and usually inaudible - thrum of the engines, there was not a single sound that hadn't been generated directly by the humanity present.

Captain and First Officer caught each other's eye for a brief moment before orders began flying.

"Matthews," Crane called, "see what you can do about communications. Use Morse if you have to; we need something!"

"Pat," Morton asked the still-pale young man, "are you fit for duty?"

"Yes, sir," Patterson answered. "I think so, sir."

"Start backtracking that sound. When did it start? Where did it come from? What did it come from?" Turning to his left, he continued, "Kowalski, give him a hand."

"Henderson," Crane ordered, "go get status reports from all department heads, and bring them back to Mr. Morton."

With Aye, sir's coming from every quarter, few heard the Captain's worried words to his friend. "Chip, take care of things here; I'm going down to the Missile Room."

The entire episode had lasted less than ninety seconds.

<^>

Those in the Missile Room were no less stunned by the effects of the assault, but only one had not recovered.

"Dr. Mehrisout!" Riley looked up from the woman's slumped form. "Admiral, she's out cold! Like, out of it completely!" Kneeling on the floor, he cradled the woman's shoulders as her head lolled over onto his arm. "Ma'am! Can you hear me?"

"Riley!" Nelson commanded, "Shouting is not likely to do her any good. Get her to Sick Bay."

"Aye, sir."

"Clark, give him a hand. Sharkey, call and let Doc know they're coming."

"Aye, sir."

As the two seamen gathered the Doctor up, she groaned softly, and fluttered open her eyes. Any further attention she might have received, however, was usurped by Sharkey standing by the escape hatch.

"Admiral, I can't raise anybody."

"What do you mean, anybody?"

"I mean nobody, sir. Not in Sick Bay, not in the Control Room. Nobody, nowhere. D'ya think that noise knocked the intercom out?"

Before Nelson had time to absorb this new complication, there was yet another bid for his attention. "If that wasn't spectacular, Admiral, please don't invite me to the next performance." Eleanor Mehrisout was struggling awkwardly off the deck, in spite of the ministrations of Clark and Riley. "If you could just explain to these nice young men that I really don't need to be carried . . . "

"Doctor! Are you all right?" Nelson nodded to the seamen to assist her to her feet.

"Nooooo - " she said slowly, holding her hand over first one ear, then the other. "- not entirely. My implant isn't functioning." She attempted a smile. "Other than that, though, I don't seem to be any worse for the wear." However, as the full impact of the loss hit her, her countenance crumpled, and she was grateful for the support of Riley's arm.

"Well I'm afraid your hearing aid is just one of many casualties." Capt. Crane's impatient frown was only mildly eased by relief at finding Nelson and the crew safe.

"Lee, what was it? Did you get a fix on its source? Any serious damage?"

"I don't know; we're working on it; and I don't think so. In that order. What I think I know is that it seems to have knocked out all our sound: no sonar, no intercom - no communications at all - no alarms, sirens, buzzers, or klaxons. No sound but what we physically make ourselves."

Nelson pondered a moment. "Any injuries? And what about other systems? Navigation? Helm? Engines? Reactor?"

"No injuries that we know of, and as far as we can tell, nothing else was affected. Henderson is getting reports now. What about the SCUTR?"

Both men turned to find Sparks in his now-familiar position, half buried in the communications console . . . mumbling.

"What have you got, Lieutenant?" Nelson asked.

"Nothing, sir." The young officer emerged with a bewildered shrug. "As far as I can tell, there's nothing wrong with it at all, except that it doesn't work."

"Dr. Mehrisout, is that implant of yours functioning at all?" Nelson said loudly.

"No. I have no hearing in that ear now. It's completely dead." After a moment's hesitation she added, "But there's no need to shout. I'm pretty good at lipreading."

Remembering the previous evening's dinner conversation, he asked more moderately, "And when it quit, did it - ?"

"Did it 'blow up' in there?" She shook her head. "No, I don't think so.

"All right . . ." Nelson thought out loud, while smoothing the hair on the back of his head. "Riley, you escort the Doctor to Sick Bay." At Mehrisout's objections he raised his hands, "No if's, and's, or but's, Doctor. Your hearing is as valuable to the Institute's project as your health is to your family." Turning back to Riley he added, "When she's done with Doc, see that she gets safely back to her cabin." This time a glare was enough to stop her protests.

"Aye, sir," Riley replied.

"Yes, dear," Mehrisout murmured . . . to the undisguised amusement of her escort.

The civilian safely away, Nelson allowed more of his impatience to show. "Lee, how can you not have seen the source of that much power? What was the activity in the area?"

"None was reported. Chip has Patterson and Kowalski backtracking now. And Matthews is trying to get some kind of communications restored." Crane turned his back to the men, and lowered his voice. "Admiral, do you have any idea what it could have been?"

For a moment, Nelson stared past Crane to the small console in the middle of the room. "Yes," he nodded, "I have an idea." As he turned and stalked out, pointedly ignoring his captain's unspoken questions, he said, "Let me know when you have a full report. I'll be in my cabin."

<^> Wednesday 1700 <^>

"You're limping, ma'am." Riley extended a gentlemanly elbow. "Here, grab hold."

"It's nothing," she shook her head. "Just twisted my knee a little when I fell. It'll work itself out."

The elbow was insistent. "How often to you get a chance like this, ma'am? I mean, being escorted by a cool lookin' guy like me? Better take it while you can." The Doctor shook her head, grinned, and "grabbed hold." Thus Riley fell in step beside her.

"Well, Mr. Riley . . ."

"No, ma'am, just call me Riley. Or Stu. 'Mr. Riley' sounds like you're talking to my Pop."

"OK, Riley, I guess I can handle that. It looks like your duty has been fulfilled: you've delivered me safely back to my quarters. Now you can get back to doing your real job."

"Are you sure you're all right now, ma'am?"

"I feel fine, and your doctor says there's nothing wrong with me. So that makes it unanimous: I'm 'all right'," she smiled. "As long as you speak into my right ear, that is. Loudly."

"But that's what I mean . . . about your implant. Will you be able to do that talking dolphin thing, now that you can't hear? I mean, you won't have to like, bag it all, will you?"

"Temporarily, maybe. But I'm sure I can have the little monster replaced, maybe even with a new and improved model." Her dark eyes twinkled with the thought.

"But how long will that take?" the young seaman blurted. "I mean, won't you be out of commission for a while? Will the dolphins still . . . " Then, seeing a change in the Doctor's expression, he stumbled over an apology. "I'm sorry, ma'am. You don't have to answer that. I was like, way outta line . . ."

"Oh Riley, you really are sweet," she smiled, reaching out to touch his arm, "and I do appreciate your concern, but there's no need to worry about me. As Jim is so fond of reminding me, the good Lord doesn't send anything without a good reason." She began chuckling as she opened her door. "I just can't wait to see what it's going to be this time!"

The young seaman shook his head, turned away from her closed door, and started bouncing down the corridor to the beat of "Little Old Lady from Pasadena."

<^>

He'd barely gone ten feet when he felt a chill. Shivering, he stopped to look for the source of the draft, but couldn't feel any air moving. . . in fact, he couldn't feel any air, period. He opened his mouth to call out, but couldn't draw a breath. He twisted around to see what was attacking him, but could see only an empty corridor. Fighting panic, he tried to get back to the Doctor's door, but couldn't move or even breathe. Something was smothering him, but nothing was there. Agonizing moments later, overcome by terror and claustrophobia, he slipped into silent, black oblivion. Paradoxically, his last thoughts were of the immense emptiness of outer space.

<^>

"Stu! C'mon, Stu, settle down!" Kowalski tried vainly to prevent his friend's flailing limbs from doing any more damage to nearby ribs, jaws, or noses. "Ma'am! Look out!"

Too late. A backhand across Dr. Mehrisout's face slammed her against the bulkhead, and sent her eye-glasses skittering down the corridor.

"Are you OK, ma'am? Here, why don't you just let me . . ."

Ignoring Kowalski's protests and Riley's terrified thrashing, the Doctor knelt beside the young man and began speaking firmly to him. "Riley, can you hear me? Listen! It's all right now. Your friend is here, and you're safe." Riley stiffened, but stilled, as his eyes darted wildly about the corridor. A few seconds later his body began to relax, and his eyes to focus.

"Ski? Ma'am?" He took a long, deep breath. "Air . . ." he murmured.

Kowalski relaxed his grip on his friend's arms. "What was it, man? What happened?"

Blinking a few times, then rubbing his eyes to be sure, Riley finally responded. "Nothin'. Absolutely nothin'. There was nothin' there."

Dr. Mehrisout and Seaman Kowalski exchanged glances. "C'mon, buddy, we're gonna let Doc have a look at you."

"Nah, I'm fine, Ski. Really." But when he tried to stand dizziness overcame him, and he very nearly ended up back on the deck.

"Yeah. Right, kid."

After the Doctor pocketed her newly redesigned eyewear, she and Kowalski each took an arm to escort the young man to Sick Bay.

<^>

Fifteen minutes later, Stu Riley was pronounced physically sound. "But he's been through a tremendous shock," Jamieson told the Captain, "I've given him a mild sedative. I expect he'll be fine after a good night's rest."

Crane glanced at Riley and Mehrisout, occupying opposite ends of the same examining table, then turned to Kowalski. "Tell me what happened," he said quietly.

"Well, sir," the seaman began, shaking his head and rubbing the side of his nose, "I was just coming round the corner there by Officers' Country when I heard this thud, and then the Doctor there, she comes chargin' out of her cabin. I was looking at her, and didn't even see Riley at first - but there he was, out cold on the deck." He looked over his shoulder to check out his friend again. "Well the Doctor, she saw me, and started yelling for me to come help. I guess all the racket scared him, because, man, he came up swingin'! I caught a coupla punches," he said, rubbing his jaw for emphasis, "and he gave the Doctor a good whack, too - broke her glasses, I think. Anyway, it took a while, but we finally got him settled down; then we brought him here and sent for you."

"Are you OK now, Ski?"

"Yeah, sure, sir. He didn't really have his heart in it. He was just flailin' really."

"You say Dr. Mehrisout was hurt?"

"I don't know for sure, but he hit her mighty hard, sir. That's why Doc wanted to look her over again, too."

"I see. Thank you, Kowalski." Crane started to turn away, then asked, "Why were you in that corridor anyway? Aren't you supposed to be helping Patterson in the Control Room?"

"Oh, jeez, what with Riley and all," he hit himself on the forehead, "I almost forgot." Straightening to give more formality to his report, he continued. "Yes, sir, we were working on the backtracking, but Mr. Morton sent me to give you a progress report."

The Captain brightened. "You found something?"

"No, sir. Nothing like that," he shook his head. "He just wanted you to know that all departments have reported in, and there are no serious injuries, and all systems are working fine - except for communications."

"Very well," he sighed. "Did Mr. Morton send anyone to tell the Admiral?"

"Yes, sir. He was next on my list."

"He's in his cabin. Give him the same report, and tell him about Riley, too. Then report back to Mr. Morton."

"Aye, sir."

As Kowalski left Sick Bay, the Captain turned to Dr. Mehrisout. "Doctor, Ski tells me you were hit pretty hard. Were you hurt?"

"Not enough to worry about. I did see a perfectly lovely imitation of the Perseids, but I'm fine now." She looked down at her misshapen glasses, and sighed. "I'm not so sure about the old bifocals, though."

"Not to worry." Jamieson took them out of her hands. "Give me ten minutes and these will be good as new." Setting them aside, he took up a small light and directed it into her eyes. "How are you feeling now, Doctor? Really."

"I'm feeling fine, really. I keep trying to tell people I'm tougher than I look, but no one seems to pay me much mind."

"Well, Captain," Jamieson said, paying her no mind, "I don't see any signs of trauma. I'll keep her in here for observation, though, if you want."

Crane's tense frown held as he thought, That would keep her out from underfoot for a while. But his face softened as he recognized the same treatment he so often received. "No, Doc, I don't think that will be necessary," he said, earning a grateful smile from the lady in question. "About your other patient, though - can I have a few minutes with him?"

"Just a few. I want him to get some rest."

"I won't take long." Crane pulled a chair up to the rack where Seaman Riley had just been directed to lie down. "Stu, tell me what happened. Did you fall? Were you hit? Did you see or hear anything?"

Riley looked as confused as Crane looked concerned. "I can't really tell you what it was, sir. First there was this weird cold spot in the corridor. And then I couldn't breathe - there was like, no air at all. I tried to look around, but there was nothin' there . . . nothin' at all. It felt like somebody put a plastic bag over my head, only the cat must've been invisible, I guess . . . and I couldn't feel the bag, either . . ." His voice drifted off for a moment in confusion. "But something was there, all right, crushing me."

"Did you hear anything?"

Riley thought for a moment, then shook his head. "No, sir. In fact, that part was weird, too. It wasn't just cold, it was dead quiet, too, kinda like I was deaf . . . or in a tomb. Now that I think about it, that's what the whole thing reminded me of - a tomb. Cold, quiet, no air, and creepy . . . y'know, sir?"

Crane nodded. "So what happened? How did you end up on the deck? Did this 'thing' hit you?"

Again, Riley shook his head. "I don't think so, sir. I just couldn't breathe at all, and it felt like I was being smothered, and . . ." His face reddened. " . . . and I was really scared. I guess I just passed out, sir."

As Crane stood to leave, he rested a hand on the drowsy seaman's shoulder. "Don't worry about it, Riley. We'll find out what it was. You get some rest now."

The Captain walked into Jamieson's office, where Dr. Mehrisout was having her glasses refitted. "Doc, do you think he could have imagined all this?"

"No, I don't." He glanced at his guest who gestured her agreement. "There's no doubt that Stu Riley has an active imagination - not to mention a flair for the dramatic - but I don't think he could have simply conjured up an image so vivid and frightening that it would cause him this sort of trauma." He shook his head. "No, I'm convinced there wassomething there."

The Captain frowned. "That's what I was afraid of." He started out the door, then paused. "If anyone comes looking for me, I'm on my way back to the Control Room."

<^> Wednesday 1800 <^>

"Anything new, Chip?"

The Exec shook his head. "I wish there was . . . I think. Have to admit, though," he grinned, "it has been mighty peaceful around here the last hour or so without that intercom squawking." Lowering his voice, he continued, "By the way, what's this about Riley?"

Lee Crane cast a grin in Kowalski's direction. "Who needs an intercom?" Turning back to his friend, he replied, "Riley's fine. He seems to have met up with something - he doesn't know what - in the corridor outside Dr. Mehrisout's cabin. He didn't see or hear anything, but whatever it was - or wasn't - it really scared the wits out of him."

"That's not the kind of 'new' I'm interested in. Any ideas on what - or if - it was?"

"No. In spite of what Doc says, I'm still hoping it was just overstimulated imagination. We have enough troubles as it is."

"Speaking of which, did the Admiral have any ideas on what that noise was?"

"He had an idea," Crane grimaced, "but he wouldn't say what."

The First Officer rolled his eyes. "How about you? What do you think? Could it have been the same kind of signal the Admiral was telling us about last night - the one those intergalactic friendship nuts intercepted?"

Crane snickered at the description, raising the eyebrows of nearby crewmen. "I don't know, Chip . . . he said that signal was very faint; it wouldn't even have been noticed if they hadn't been monitoring just the right radio frequency. It doesn't sound to me like this could be the same thing. Unless of course," he looked up grimly, "the source has moved closer . . . much closer."

"I don't think I like the sound of that."

"Now that you mention it, neither do I."

"Making three of us." At the sound of Nelson's voice, Crane and Morton straightened from their huddle. "But right now it seems like the best explanation we have." He turned to the Exec. "Chip, have you located a source for the probe?"

"Probe?" Crane interrupted, "Is that what you think it was?"

"Judging from the files I've just been reading on the original signal, I'm very nearly sure that's what it was," Nelson frowned. "Chip?"

"No, sir. It was so sudden and intense that it completely overwhelmed our instruments; we don't even have enough information make a speculation as to its origin. And there was no movement - either natural or manmade - on either sonar or radar within an hour before contact."

"But the one thing we do know is very telling." Nelson tapped a pencil on the chart table for emphasis. "It began within seconds of SCUTR's transmission." He straightened and crossed his arms in front of him. "I think, gentlemen, that someone - or something - is trying to answer our 'greeting', and find out why we called."

While neither the Captain or First Officer were truly surprised at the Admiral's statement, both were unsettled by having their own shadowy suspicions voiced.

"And the incident with Riley?" Crane asked. "Do you think it has anything to do with . . ."

Nelson interrupted. "You do remember what I said last night about coincidences?"

Crane's only reply was a barely perceptible slumping of his broad shoulders.

"So what do we do now?" Morton demanded. "We have to stay on the surface to see anything, so do we just drift along here like a sitting duck and wait for them to attack again? We can't see or hear them, but they obviously know right where we are - and how to get to us."

"Don't be so quick to jump to the conclusion that we've been attacked." Nelson patiently waited for the anticipated noises of dissent, then continued. "There is no reason to believe - at this point, anyway - that that sonic probe was anything more than a polite knock on the door. And while Riley - quite justifiably - perceived his experience as threatening, you notice that he was not actually harmed."

It seemed to take every ounce of Chip Morton's will power to keep from rolling his eyes derisively in the face of Adm. Nelson's assessment. Lee Crane's tight-lipped silence was no less skeptical.

"But to get back to your question, Mr. Morton. As far as I can see there's nothing we can do but wait until we're contacted again."

"Again? . . . Until?" Morton enunciated through gritted teeth.

"Unless I miss my guess, we will be hearing from them again, and we probably won't be waiting long," Nelson replied with infuriating calm. "And since - with no sonar and no radar - we need to stay on or near the surface, we won't be able to travel very fast or . . ."

"What about SCUTR?" Crane interrupted. "Couldn't we . . ."

"Do what? It's working no better than any other communication equipment on this boat."

There was silence as the three men considered and discarded options. "What about the Flying Sub?" Morton asked. "Why couldn't we . . . "

"Yes!" Crane immediately interrupted and took up his train of thought. "I could take it out for a look around; see what's out there, then come back with a report."

"That could work," Nelson said, his face brightening. "As long as Seaview is on the surface we can keep in visual contact, find out whether this phenomenon is localized or not, and maybe get a message out. Good thinking!"

"Chief!" Crane called to the COB, who was overseeing several diagnostic routines. "Is the Flying Sub ready for launch?"

"Yes, sir," Sharkey called back from his station. I checked it out personally just this morning."

"Very good. You and I are going on a little scouting mission," Crane said. "You get started with the pre-flight - "

"Wait a minute, Lee." Chip Morton grabbed his friend's arm and pointed him toward the Observation Nose. "It's almost dark out there. By the time you're up, it will be pitch black - and with that cloud cover, there'll be no starlight." He shook his head. "You won't be able to see a thing."

"Chip has a good point. Going out now would serve no useful purpose."

"You're right," Crane said dejectedly. "Sharkey, belay that. It looks like we'll be going out at the crack of dawn tomorrow."

"Aye, sir. I'll be ready."

Turning back to the table, Crane asked, "What can we do in the meantime? What other options do we have for right now?"

"We can still fight."

"Fight what, Chip?" Crane slapped the table in built up frustration. "We're playing blind man's bluff, except we're not just blind - we're deaf, too. And on top of that, we're playing with a phantom!"

"Gentlemen, may I remind you again that so far we've been given no reason to fight?" The Admiral's voice lowered. "We are obviously dealing with something very powerful. If the intention had been to harm or destroy us, we wouldn't be standing here talking about it."

"They probably need us alive to help them blow up the world," Morton grumbled under his breath.

Nelson's glare at the culprit softened quickly to a small chuckle. "Maybe you're right, Chip. But let's wait and see before we jump to that particular conclusion, shall we? Besides, at the moment we don't have many choices: we can neither run, fight, nor communicate."

The silence which met the Admiral's statement only proved its validity. For a few moments the three men stood in silent unison with the nearly stilled equipment surrounding them.

It was Chip Morton who finally broke that silence, repeating his earlier question. "So what do we do?" This time it was not a demand. It was a quiet question, born not of defiance, anger, or fear; but rather of trust in the man to whom it was addressed.

"Well, in just twelve hours we'll be able to do some exploring," he reminded, "But in the meantime, we do what we've always done, Chip. We keep this sub running, we use every resource at our disposal to protect our men and our mission, we continue to find ways to expand the horizons of our scientific knowledge, and," he paused to arrange a small, wry grin on his face for the benefit of his First Officer, "we try not to jump to an excessive number of conclusions." The confidence now written in the Admiral's smile was not only reassuring, it was contagious.

Gradually, the easy, bantering voices of the next watch began filtering into the quiet of the Control Room. Nelson's smile broadened to a wide grin. "But we can't do any of that on an empty stomach, can we?" he chuckled, forcing his men out of their contemplations. "Shall we continue our discussion in the Wardroom?"

"Sounds good to me, Admiral," Crane roused himself to a smile. "I need to stop in my cabin first, then I'll join you." He turned toward Morton as Nelson left the room. "See you there, Chip?"

"When have you known me to miss a meal, Skipper?" he grinned slowly. "I'll be along as soon as I've finished briefing O'Brien."

<^>

Nelson was waiting for the Captain in the corridor. "I'll walk with you, Lee. I told the Doctor I'd pick her up for dinner. And she just may have something to contribute on the subject of communicating with our recent visitor. I think she'll be just as fascinated by the implications of this contact as I am."

A grin spread across Crane's face. "Scuttlebutt has it you're rather taken with our passenger, Admiral."

"Taken with her?" Nelson huffed. "What exactly do you mean by that, Commander?" Even through Nelson's ruddy complexion, it wasn't difficult to see scarlet rising from his collar.

"Charmed . . . enchanted . . . smitten . . ," the Captain expanded.

"You are aware of the fact that she's . . ."

"Married, in fact, very happily married. Yes, I know that, and I wasn't implying that there was anything . . . unwholesome going on. Simply that you were . . . taken by her," he repeated. "Are we right?"

"She is engaging," Nelson admitted, "and unpretentious . . ." A moment later he raised one impish eyebrow. "And it's flattering to think -- "

Crane suddenly cleared his throat. Loudly. "Good evening, Doctor."

Not realizing how far they had walked, Captain and Admiral were now standing before Dr. Mehrisout's open door. And Dr. Mehrisout.

Half a second later, Nelson recovered his own composure. Extending his elbow, he said, "Dinner is now being served in the main dining room. May I escort you?"

Regarding the matched pair of smiling, reddening faces, she shook her head in mock consternation. "From the looks of those guilty expressions, if I didn't know to expect better from officers and gentlemen, I'd say that it's a very good thing I no longer have a bionic ear." Her frown soon melted, however, into a boys-will-be-boys smile. She chuckled softly as she hooked her hand through the Admiral's arm.

"So, Captain, we'll see you in the Wardroom?" Nelson suggested pointedly.

"Yes, sir. I'll join you in a few minutes." Crane nodded a hasty farewell as he headed off down the corridor to his own cabin.

<^> Wednesday 1830 <^>

With all the junior officers on duty, Nelson and Mehrisout had the Wardroom to themselves for a few minutes.

"Capt. Crane said there was little in the way of entertainment or diversion aboard Seaview, but I assure you, Admiral, I've been exceedingly diverted almost ever since my arrival," Mehrisout chided. "So what is our situation? With all this tumult about, should I be sitting in my broom closet trembling?"

"No," Nelson chuckled, "I don't think trembling is warranted yet. However, some concern might be in order. We're not entirely sure that the two phenomena - the sonic probe and Riley's incident - are linked, but it seems likely. And it also seems likely that they are both the result of some . . . extraterrestrial intervention." He paused to see her reaction.

If he expected shock, he was disappointed; there was none. There was a brief thrill of fear, which was quickly replaced by an expression of almost gleeful curiosity. Followed by embarrassment.

"This sounds very exciting, but I suppose I should be looking at things more pragmatically, shouldn't I? This could be quite dangerous for you and your crew, couldn't it? What are the chances of this 'intervention' being hostile?"

Chip Morton's entrance delayed Nelson's answer temporarily. And by the dour expression on the First Officer's face, it was obvious he had heard the question.

"In the past," Nelson began carefully, "we have had occasion to deal with such phenomena from time to time. Those dealings were not always cordial. On the other hand . . . do you remember a UFO scare about five years ago up and down the west coast?"

Mehrisout nodded.

"That was our first experience with a non-human being. And it was a good experience . . . one that we would all do well to remember," he said, pointedly avoiding his First Officer's grimace.

"You mean that really was a UFO? They explained it as being an experimental NASA flight gone wrong."

"Well, it was experimental," Nelson chuckled, "and it certainly did go wrong. But it was not NASA." He shook his head. "However, this situation seems different. If indeed this is the work of a sentient being, it is most likely not initiating contact, but only responding to our inadvertent signal via SCUTR. So far there has been no hostility or aggression," he continued, this time casting a sidelong glance at the Exec, "but we should nevertheless be prepared for such a turn of events." Turning his full attention back to Mehrisout he confided with animation, "Frankly, I'm very excited about the possibilities."

As if in response to Nelson's last statement, a sharp CRACK was heard through the open doorway.

"What was that?!" Chip Morton jumped and ran; as he bolted through the door there were several more explosive bursts.

Cookie, laden with the dinner tray, poked his head around the door. "It sounded like gunfire, sir."

"Yes, yes, I know that, man," Nelson snapped. "Where did it come from?" By this time Morton was long gone, and the Admiral himself was already through the door.

"From that way, sir." He nodded towards Officer's Country.

<^>

Morton was kneeling beside Lee Crane's still form when the Admiral arrived.

"Lee! . . . Lee! Can you hear me?" As he removed his hand from Crane's neck he looked up at the Nelson. "His pulse is racing, like he'd been scared half to death."

"Is he wounded?"

"Not that I can see. But here's his gun," he picked up a service revolver from the deck. "The clip is empty."

Crane groaned and attempted to push himself up.

"Whoa, Lee. Slow down. What happened?"

At the sound of Morton's voice, Crane's eyes snapped open, and he flinched away from his friend's hand. As he focused on his surroundings, he gasped, "Did you see it?" His eyes darted about the room in suspicious fear. "It can't have gotten far, I . . . I shot it . . . I think." His agitation melted into bewilderment as the concern on his friends' faces registered. "You didn't see anything, did you?"

After exchanging a glance, both Morton and Nelson shook their heads. "No one saw Riley's 'monster' either," Nelson reminded. "But that didn't stop either him or Drs. Jamieson and Mehrisout from believing it was real."

"Oh, but I saw this one, all right," the Captain assured them, as he slowly rose. "It nearly filled the compartment - I couldn't see anything but it."

As Chip steadied his friend toward a corner of the desk to sit, Jamieson and two security guards bustled into the room. While the physician began a cursory exam, Nelson asked, "What did it look like, exactly?"

Crane thought for a moment, then waved Doc's away with an impatient, "I'm all right." Finally, concentrating on a point in the center of his cabin, he began to relive the experience.

"It was like . . . animated seaweed, green and brown. But it wasn't all leafy; the center was solid . . ." He hesitated. "No, not solid exactly. It almost looked . . . inflated . . . like a huge air bladder." He stopped and thought again. "But the worst part wasn't its appearance, it was the feeling it projected - almost as if it were broadcasting dread. As soon as I saw it, I was terrified, and that feeling just grew as it came closer."

"Then it tried to attack you," Chip said flatly, throwing an accusatory look in the Admiral's direction.

"I don't think so," Crane shook his head as he thought. "At the time I was nearly paralyzed with fear, but as I look back, the thing didn't ever really make any threatening moves. But that didn't stop me from emptying my gun into him. Or did I? Did I imagine that, too?"

Nelson grimaced as he picked the .45 off the floor. "No, you didn't imagine it. Here's your evidence." He handed the empty clip to Crane, while nodding toward the bulkhead, now embellished with several new chinks and niches.

Still unconvinced of the creature's good intentions, Morton asked, "What did it do when you shot at it?"

"I don't know. I only remember picking up the gun and pulling the trigger."

"So you don't know if it made any move to retaliate?" Nelson asked.

Crane shook his head. "No. I don't remember anything."

Nelson nodded to Jamieson to continue his examination while he dispatched the security guards to spread the word of a possible intruder.

"I'm finding much the same symptoms I saw in Riley this afternoon," Jamieson reported. " Strong, erratic pulse, elevated blood pressure, muscle tension - all signs of a traumatic shock. And my recommendation is the same, too." He reached into his bag and pulled out a syringe and small vial.

"Oh no, Doc, you're not going to knock me out. This is no time for the Captain to be taking a nap. I'm fine, period." He looked to the Admiral for support. It was grudgingly given.

"Very well, Captain," Jamieson frowned, "but if you feel any other symptoms, you are to report to me immediately." This time it was he who looked for - and received - Nelson's nod of cooperation. After packing up his instruments, he said, "Remember, Captain, any problems at all . . . "

"Yes, yes, Doc. I'll take it easy."

With a resigned sigh, the Doctor turned to leave, but not before adding, "And I will be seeing you at dinner, right?" Satisfied with the three nods, he made his exit.

"So what do you think," Crane asked as he buttoned his shirt, "is this a different creature? The same one in a different form? Or," he grimaced tightly, "a totally unrelated coincidence?"

Nelson chose to ignore the attempt at a joke. "I think we have to assume that the incidents are all related. Whether these are different creatures, all responding to the same signal, or the same entity trying to contact us under different guises is, at this point, impossible to tell."

"You don't still think these things are friendly, do you?" Morton asked.

"So far, no one has been harmed, and Seaview has not been seriously damaged; so I still don't see that we've been given reason to think otherwise." Nelson's expression turned sober, however, as he regarded the empty weapon in his hand, "I just hope that whatever kind intentions may have been harbored toward us have not been altered. If they're as powerful as I think they are, I don't want to see them riled."

Seeing a flare of guilty realization burst across Crane's face as he glanced toward the gun, Nelson continued as if uninterrupted, " . . . and I'm not sure any of us would have reacted any differently, given the same circumstances." He then moved between his two senior officers, turned, and caught both men by the elbow to guide them toward the door. "I will say this, though: If this thing or things - what or who ever they may be - want to talk to us, I hope they find a more practical method, and soon!" he chuckled, obviously much more confident than either of the younger men. "In the meantime, we have even more to discuss, and," he arched an eyebrow, "we've left a lady waiting dinner for us."

As the three moved out into the hall, Morton lagged behind. He looked back into the room, as if searching for something that wasn't there . . . any more. Finally he shook off the feeling, and trotted down the hall to catch up with the others.

<^>Wednesday 1900 <^>

"When you slammed and locked that door, Lee, the look on Tobin's face was priceless," Nelson laughed. "It's a shame you couldn't have been on my side to see the result of your handiwork."

During the lull between crises, easy laughter floated from the Wardroom as the officers and guest enjoyed their meal, lukewarm though it was. Nelson, Jamieson, and Crane regaled Dr. Mehrisout - and each other - with tales of the lighter and more fruitful aspects of their previous "extraterrestrial encounters", while Morton, equally entertaining, provided a running counterpoint of dry, sarcastic commentary. By the time dessert was served they had all nearly forgotten that they were waiting for another "monster" to appear.

Until Sharkey appeared in the doorway. "Beggin' your pardon, sirs," he said, seemingly undecided as to which officer would be safest to disturb, "could I speak to you for a minute?"

"Yes, Sharkey, what is it?" Nelson responded with some impatience.

"It's Kowalski and Patterson, sir. They've . . . uh . . . well, sir, they both say they've . . ."

"Both what, Chief? Spit it out!"

"Well, sir, y'see, both of them came to me saying that they'd . . . uh . . . seen things."

"What kind of things, Chief?" Crane asked. Suddenly he - and everyone else in the Wardroom - was giving the Chief full attention.

"Were either of them hurt?" Doc asked.

"No, sir."

"When and where did this happen, and what did they see?" Nelson demanded.

"Maybe I'd better let them tell you, sir." He backed up a little to allow both seamen to stand in the doorway.

"You go first, Ski," Patterson said softly.

"Well, sir," he began tentatively, "I was in coming down the companionway - the one right there next to Sick Bay - when I heard a noise: a kind of chattering, whirring sound. I looked down the corridor, and there was this little silver gizmo on the deck, coming at me. It looked like a miniature robot, or maybe - I dunno," he scratched his head, "a knight in armor? And it was kinda shuffling along."

"How big was it?"

"Not very. Maybe yo high," he said, measuring about eight inches between his hands. "I know this sounds strange, but it looked just like one of those wind-up toys that old guy brought aboard a coupla years ago. You remember - the ones that were really weapons from those aliens that tried to pulverize Seaview?"

"Yes, Kowalski, I remember all too well," Nelson frowned. "What did it do?"

"That's just it, sir. It didn't do anything but scare the daylights outta me. I half expected it to open up and zap me, but all it did was wobble along."

"Where did it go?" Crane asked, poised to dash out and corner it.

"I wish I could tell you, sir." Kowalski hesitated before going on. "I . . . uh . . . guess I can understand what Riley was feelin' now. I stared at it for a few seconds, like I was rooted to the deck, then . . . " He shuffled his feet once and poured out the rest of his story in one breath. "Well, then I lit out the other direction, but as soon as I got out of sight of it I felt kinda stupid, so I turned back to go see what it was." He stopped. "It was gone."

"Gone?" Doc asked, already half out of his seat. "Did it go into Sick Bay?"

"No, sir. There wasn't time. It couldn't have been more than two seconds. It was just . . . gone. I looked up and down both corridors, and checked all the doors and hatches, but it just wasn't there."

After a moment or two of silence, Kowalski nudged his friend forward. "Go ahead, Pat. Tell 'em what you saw."

"It was pretty close to the same time as Ski was talking about. I was coming out of the Missile Room, on my way to dinner. I stopped in the Crew's Quarters to get a letter home I wanted to finish, but before I even got through the door I could feel the heat."

"Heat! From what?"

"There was a fire in there, Captain. Well, not exactly a fire, but a flame. It was shooting up from the floor like a flame thrower. It was about three feet high, but was putting out a lot more heat than I would have thought. It stunned me for a minute, but then I ran out to the corridor to get a fire extinguisher. By the time I got back, it was gone."

"Why didn't you hit the fire alarm?" Morton asked.

"I guess I wasn't thinking too clearly, sir. In spite of the heat it was putting out, it didn't seem to be spreading, and I thought I could handle it alone, then report it."

"How much damage did it do?" the Exec asked.

"That's the oddest part, sir. None. There's no sign of it left at all, even though it should have charred the floor and the side of the table, hot as it was."

"But both of you are . . ." Crane hesitated " . . . sure you saw these things," he asked, looking from one man to the other. "They couldn't have been shadows, or practical jokes, or lack of sleep?"

The two men frowned in frustration, looked at each other, then at the Captain, shaking their heads in unison. "No, sir," Kowalski voiced both their thoughts. "We've already talked it over with each other and with the Chief. I'm sure I saw that thing."

"So am I, sir." Patterson confirmed.

"And neither one of them seemed to make any moves to threaten you?" Nelson asked.

Both shook their heads again.

"Very well. Chief, have written reports on my desk as soon as possible," Nelson said, then nodded dismissal to all three. "Are you seeing the same pattern I am, gentlemen?" he said, turning back to his officers. "Decrease in the intensity of the encounter, duration, and level of perceived threat. And, except for Riley, they all resemble some alien life form or device we've had contact with in the past: the entity from the Saturn probe, Sam Burke's 'toys', and Dr. Bergstrom's heat monster."

"But what does that tell us, sir?" Morton asked. "We still don't know if it's one, or more than one creature, and we still don't know what it, or they, want."

"True, but it does tell us that either they know us and our history, or they can read our minds."

"Neither one of which is particularly comforting."

"Maybe not, Lee, but think of it this way: They know us, and our limitations, but they have not harmed us. In fact, they seem incapable of even communicating effectively with us. That tells us that even though they must be very advanced in some areas, there are others where we may still have a tactical advantage, although I'm hoping we won't need to employ it in our dealings."

A seat squeaked, and the sound seemed to remind Nelson that there were still others in the room. "Dr. Mehrisout and Dr. Jamieson, do either of you have any insights?"

Jamieson shook his head in bewilderment, but Mehrisout, who had been toying with the last of her cold dinner looked up. "Having never dealt with a culture quite this foreign," she said, "I don't know if this is pertinent to the current situation or not, but I do know that in the classic model, whenever there is a failure to communicate, frustration naturally rises. That frustration can easily be misread by the recipient - in this case, us - as aggression. This may happen because 'A'," - she held up her thumb as a visual aid - "the communicator may truly perceive the fault to lie with the recipient, who seemingly refuses to understand; or 'B'," - her index finger joined the demonstration - "the misunderstanding puts the recipient on the defensive, so that any action is regarded as hostile." Mehrisout stopped for a moment to see if her "class" was with her.

"So you're saying that nothing that's happened should be interpreted as aggression, but frustration?" Nelson asked.

"I'm saying that it's possible there was no threat intended," she corrected. "But nevertheless, the recipient - us - may very well feel threatened, especially if he or she is not aware of the phenomenon, and equipped to handle or diffuse it."

"But if we believe that, then doesn't it make sense that this so-called frustration level would be rising?" Morton asked. "The Admiral just pointed out that exactly the opposite is happening. How do you explain that?"

"I don't," the linguist answered. "I've only presented you with the classic pattern: initial mis-communication, followed by frustration and the perception of hostility, which typically dissolves after the first breakthrough in understanding. That is true for human cultural situations. But if what you say is true - that we're dealing with the possibility of several different extraterrestrials who don't have the benefit of each other's experience, or don't necessarily react according to human psychological patterns - then anomaly would be expected, would it not?"

"Hmpf," the First Officer grunted. "Maybe."

"Also - and again I'm describing the process in terms of the human pattern - this whole process of reaching the initial platform of understanding can take anywhere from a few days to, more typically, a month or more. A number of factors are involved: native intelligence of the subjects, level of trust and security, and perception of necessity or urgency are just a few. When I go into a new situation, I generally plan to spend at least a week doing nothing but observing and taking notes, without attempting to utter a single word."

The discouragement her words elicited prompted her to add, "But each case is unique, even in human terms; and as we've already established, this is already an exceptional situation."

"Anomaly or not," Nelson said, "we need to make every effort to see that frustration doesn't escalate into enmity." Pinning each of his officers in turn with a sharp look, he jabbed the table for further emphasis. "It is of utmost importance that we meet these overtures half-way."

"I'll get the word out to all Department heads to inform each watch to be aware of the likelihood of further attempts at communication," the Captain said, looking at the notes he had scribbled on the back of a copy of yesterday's duty roster, "and that such encounters should not be regarded as threatening unless actual, physical aggression is exhibited. Any such encounter - or any other unusual event should be reported to the Control Room at once." He looked up. "Anything I missed?"

"No, I think that covers it, Lee."

Nelson stood and looked at his watch. "It's only been three hours since the SCUTR signal went out. In that short period of time we've had four attempts at contact, and it's only reasonable to assume that they'll continue at the same or greater frequency as the night progresses. Chip, put extra details on standby alert, but don't make security so tight as to alarm the men; tension would only make them more vulnerable to panic." Morton's nod of assent triggered another question from Nelson, and as he stepped through the door, he turned back to ask, "Are repair crews still hunting for conventional sources for our communications outages?

"Yes sir," the Exec answered, "we've checked and rechecked, and now I'm having a second team check again."

"Good," Nelson nodded. "What's our current speed and heading, Lee?"

"We're still on track to Rakahanga," the Captain answered, looking up at the array of dials and gauges on the wall, out of Nelson's view, "but we're only making about seven knots to avoid outrunning the lookouts' vision."

Still standing half in, half out of the room, Nelson said, "I don't believe there is anything more we can do than wait. I have some work to do in my cabin, and I trust you'll be busy too, gentlemen. See you in the morning."

As the Admiral turned to leave, three "Good night, sir's" echoed from the officers present. They, in their turn, also slid from the efficiently packed confines of the Wardroom, and moved on to their evening duties.

"Capt. Crane," Dr. Mehrisout called as soon as she reached the corridor, "would I be in the way if I came to sit for a while in the Observation Nose, just to see what the sea and sky look like from there at night."

"Not at all, Doctor," Crane answered. "You're more than welcome. I need to make a detour to see the Department heads, though. Can you find your own way?"

"I think I can manage that," she smiled. "After all, there aren't too many places to get lost."

<^> Thursday 0523 <^>

Nelson looked at the clock for the thirty-seventh time. 0523. In spite of his avowed confidence and optimism, he had spent a restless night planning, calculating, and imagining worst case scenarios. The fact that there had been no more incidents reported only deepened his vague uneasiness.

"Control Room? This is Nelson. Anything to report?"

Impatience threatened to turn to anger before he remembered that the intercom wasn't working. He slammed the device back down on his desk. Irritated by his inability to sleep, annoyed at his own forgetfulness, and anxious about the status of the boat, he glanced briefly at his tangled bed-covers . . . and dismissed the idea. Ten minutes later he was washed and dressed. As he started to comb his hair he found himself looking into the face of a short, stocky middle-aged man with reddish brown hair. That vision wouldn't have been startling had he been in front of his mirror. He was not.

The man facing him didn't say anything, but simply stood staring, an enigmatic smile on his lips. After several moments, the smile broadened, and he reached out as if to shake hands. Nelson, spellbound, did the same, but at that moment the boat swerved to port, and the deck fell away. The Admiral was sent tumbling to the floor, and the apparition into oblivion.

Before he could regain his balance, there was another, more violent lurch, and a sickening scream of metal on metal. This time he was knocked across the compartment, his shoulder barely softening the impact of his head against the bulkhead. Dazed, he sat for a moment before clambering up beside the still-unmade bunk. Slowly he tested his balance, found it adequate, and aimed for the desk. This time, however, he remembered the uselessness of the intercom, and turned instead toward the door. Hearing footsteps in the corridor, he opened it just as Patterson skidded to a stop.

"Admiral, sir . . ." he said breathlessly.

"What's going on, Patterson? What was that?"

"Torpedoes, Admiral. Lookouts saw them in time to avoid a solid hit. One missed entirely, one glanced off our starboard bow."

"Where did they come from?"

"Astern, sir. I don't know much more than that."

"Very well, Patterson. Are you going back to the Control Room?"

"As soon as I get Mr. O'Brien."

"Check on Dr. Mehrisout, too. I'm on my way forward now."

"Aye, sir."

<^>

Moments later, Nelson entered an eerily quiet Control Room. Normally, under the order for silent running, there would be the subdued twitter and chirp of passive systems, hushed, overlapping orders for offensive and defensive actions, and a general feeling of purposeful commotion. Now there were only sporadic, tense commands to helm and placeman, and to engine-room runners. Their game of blind man's bluff was no longer being played against a phantom, but against a very real, very deadly enemy.

"What do you know, Lee?"

Crane finished a slow scan of the surrounding sea before he straightened to answer the Admiral. "I know somebody fired two torpedoes at us. I know we barely missed a date with Davy Jones. I know there's nothing visible on the surface." His already grim expression hardened further. "And I know Seaview's still a sitting duck."

"I see," Nelson said slowly. For a full minute he glared sightlessly at the charts, supporting himself against the chart table on clenched fists,. "I should have seen this coming!" he finally hissed, pounding one of those fists on the table before turning and stalking forward.

Crane glanced at Morton, who took his place at the periscope. Following Nelson, he reached the relative privacy of the Observation Nose as the Admiral grabbed the back of his neck, and turned suddenly to face his captain. "If I hadn't been so engrossed with SCUTR and these . . . these . . . contacts we've been receiving . . . "

"But Admiral, you said that there was no reason to suspect . . ."

"Sabotage, Lee. I didn't suspect sabotage because it would have served no purpose. Attack and theft is another story altogether. This technology is coveted by any number of groups, national and otherwise - and mostly hostile; but I was just as moonstruck by the idea of a friendly alien intelligence as one of Chip's intergalactic friendship nuts. I lost sight of our primary mission, and now that a solid, human enemy has made a move, we're powerless to defend even ourselves, let alone the transmitter."

"Then there's no question in your mind of this having a connection to our . . . visitors," Crane stated.

"Of course they're connected - both are a result of SCUTR being present on Seaview. But that's their only connection; the two encounters have come from very different sources, you can be sure of that!" Nelson thought for a few moments more, then glanced aft to the periscope island and the blond officer keeping watch there. "And you can be sure of something else," he continued pensively. "Chip was not off base in his concerns about Dr. Mehrisout: She's another one of the things I allowed myself to be distracted by."

"How did you . . . ?"

A taut smile flitted across Nelson's countenance. "You'd be surprised the things an Admiral can hear, Captain, even without an implant."

Taken aback by Nelson's uncharacteristic self-recrimination, Crane hesitated a moment, then said quietly, "But what could you have done differently, Admiral? Assuming there had been no alien visitors - or congenial guests - to distract you, what could you have done to avoid this?" Crane asked. "Absolutely nothing," he answered without waiting. "Think about it: Even if you had anticipated the very moment of this attack, there is nothing we could have changed."

Staring into the dark sea, Nelson pondered the younger man's words. Gradually his stiff shoulders relaxed. Sighing, he turned back to his captain, his men, and his boat. "You're right, of course, Lee," he smiled. "What we need to do now is work on the solution."

After another moment of reflection, the two walked forward to the chart table. "Well, at least there haven't been any more of those mysterious visitations lately," Crane said, "if that's any consolation."

"Ah," Nelson put his hand to his forehead as he remembered, "but there have been, Lee, there have been."

However, before he could complete the thought, a stir at the aft hatch caught their attention. Chief Sharkey was conducting an animated, whispered debate with Eleanor Mehrisout. He beckoned to the Admiral.

"Adm. Nelson. The Doctor here just came from Sick Bay. Mr. O'Brien's been hurt, sir."

"Seriously?" Nelson turned to ask Mehrisout.

"It's hard to tell. Dr. Jamieson was examining him when I left, and he was still unconscious," she said. "Patterson is going to stay with him, and report back here when they know more." Seeing that her answer was far from satisfactory, she added, "We didn't find any serious wounds."

"How did it happen?"

"We assumed he fell and hit his head when the ship lurched."

"Very well. Thank you, Doctor." Nelson turned to go, but saw a look of expectancy on Mehrisout's face. "Was there something else?" Nelson asked gruffly.

"Um . . . well, with all that's going on, I'm probably the last thing on your mind, and I didn't want to be getting in the way, but it might be important. . . "

Nelson softened. "Come along. Give me five minutes, then we can talk." He helped her through the hatch and guided her toward the table, where he told the senior officers about O'Brien.

"Are you sure it was just an accident?" Morton asked.

Nelson stared hard at the table in front of him before raising his eyes to answer. "No, Chip, at this point I don't think we're sure of anything at all.

"Henderson," Capt. Crane called softly, "lay back to Sick Bay and find out what's keeping Patterson. If Mr. O'Brien's awake, find out everything he can tell you about how he got hurt. Send Patterson back with that report, and a list of other injuries reported, too. You stay there; I'm sure Doc will need runners."

Those details dealt with, the Admiral turned to Mehrisout. "Now, Doctor," he smiled, "what do you need to tell us? Are you all right? You weren't hurt in the dive, were you?"

"No, not at all, and that's what I wanted to tell you." She took a deep breath. "We all know very well that the only reason you were inflicted with my presence here on Seaview in the first place was that I couldn't fly because of my implant. That same implant also limited your freedom to make sudden or deep dives. But now that the implant isn't working, there's no longer any need to avoid the aquabatics. I don't know if you were avoiding them on my account or not, and I may be assigning myself a much higher priority than you did, but I thought I should nevertheless make sure you know that there's no need to."

The entire speech had been uttered in that one breath, and she now sighed deeply. "There, I've said my piece, and I'll get out of your way." As she turned away, it was hard to tell whether her face was red from the exertion or embarrassment.

For several seconds the three men simply stood, wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the torrent. It was Nelson who recovered first, calling her back from her retreat.

"Doctor!" She continued, unhearing, until Nelson nodded to the Captain, who lunged and tapped her shoulder. She turned to see the Admiral's smile as he beckoned her back. "Thank you, Doctor. I'm glad you brought it to our attention. I'm afraid that we're more used to our visiting scientists bringing us compound bad news in crisis situations, so you'll have to forgive our momentary lapse in manners in the face of your comparative good news."

Mehrisout nodded with a faint smile, and turned once more to leave, but the Admiral caught her arm and said, "If you don't mind, we could use your input on another matter. Do you mind staying?"

"No, of course not, but what can I do to help?"

"First things first. Chip, what's our depth keel to bottom - best guess?"

"According to our 0430 reading, we were right there," he indicated on the chart spread before them. "Allowing for our turn, inertial drift, and the prevailing currents, I'd say we're about here," he pointed to a spot about half an inch southwest of the first position, "almost right over the Mokuhina'i Seamount. Assuming no recent geologic transformations, there should be a sturdy plateau or shelf that's not too deep nearby." He looked up. "If we had to crash land, there ought to be a place here."

"You read my mind, Chip. Lee, what if we just drift to the bottom? We can shut down all but minimal life support, and make them think we're either dead, gone, or vanished. We still won't be able to see them, but neither will they be able to see us."

"What about the Flying Sub? We won't be able to launch her from the bottom."

"I think we'll just have to forgo your scouting expedition for the time," Nelson said. "If someone is gunning for us, then the Flying Sub would not only give away our position, she just might make an easy target herself."

"But I could outrun-- "

"No, Lee," Nelson shook his head. "And that's final."

Crane stood studying the chart for several moments. "Does it strike you as odd that they haven't attacked again? By this time they must know that something's not right here: we didn't try to contact them, we didn't turn and fight, and we didn't run very far. Yet we've heard nothing." He paused. "Do you think it's possible that they shot from just below the surface after a visual sighting, and that they're just as blind, deaf, and baffled as we are?"

"It's possible, it's very possible," Nelson nodded. "In which case playing 'possum really isn't necessary. But neither will it hurt anything."

"I agree." The Captain straightened. "Chip, take us down, slow and easy. Oh, and try not to bump into anything on the way . . . I understand it creates excessive diversion among guests." He aimed the barest hint of a wink at the guest.

Morton looked pained. "Why, Skipper," he said, "I'm wounded by your lack of confidence."

Runners were sent out to warn all hands to stand fast, and the descent began. Guided by lookouts and their forward cameras to avoid the worst of the assorted rocks, hills, and canyons, the First Officer sought a safe resting place. Less than fifteen minutes later a thump - considerably stronger than the helmsman or Mr. Morton might have wished, but nevertheless, gentler than many previous "crash" landings - signaled his success. As the messengers filtered back in, the four were still around the chart table talking quietly when Patterson arrived.

"Here's the list of injuries you wanted, sir. Doc said to tell you none of them were serious."

Crane looked it over briefly, before handing it to Nelson. "And Mr. O'Brien?"

"He's just coming around now, sir. Doc said it would be an hour or so before you could talk to him."

"Did he give any indication of what happened to him?"

"Not really, sir. He's still pretty groggy. I did hear something about torpedo attack; and he really wanted to get to the Control Room. He was giving Doc a pretty hard time."

"That, at least, sounds good," the Captain grinned.

"Hmm, perfectly normal," Nelson agreed.

"Very well, Patterson. Dismissed." Turning back to the chart table, the Captain continued, "Now what was this you said about there having been another visitation, Admiral? Who? When? And why wasn't I notified?"

"Me, about thirty minutes ago, and because there hasn't really been an opportunity until now." Nelson arched an eyebrow and grinned at his captain. "In that order." Having gained their rapt attention, he described the visit from his own likeness, explaining to Mehrisout - who had been following their conversation like a tennis match - that this was not the first time he'd experienced such a phenomenon.

"And were your previous experiences as un-cordial as the ones recalled by the other men's visitations?" Mehrisout asked.

Nelson and Crane exchanged an uncomfortable glance. "Yes and no, Doctor," Nelson finally answered. He didn't elaborate.

"In other words, we don't know any more than we did before." Morton changed the subject.

"On the contrary, we know quite a bit more," Nelson said. "The part of my story I left out is undoubtedly the most important. Just before the torpedo attack, the entity - after studying me for some moments - extended his hand in what I construed as a conciliatory gesture of friendship." He frowned. "But nothing came of it, because at the moment of the attack, he simply vanished."

"Vanished!" Morton asked. "How?"

"Unknown, Commander," Nelson replied. "I saw him, then I didn't."

There was a minute or so of silence as this new information was digested. "So, Doctor, in your professional opinion, what might we be seeing next in the way of communication?" Nelson asked.

"Well," she thought aloud, "if we are looking at a breakthrough - and if we were only looking at a single entity - then we could expect rapid escalation in the number of contact attempts, the beginning of a meaningful dialog, as well as a growing confidence and trust on both sides." Her face, though, did not illustrate the optimism of her words. "However, there are a lot of things we really don't know . . ."

Nelson took up her train of thought, "For instance: How many entities are there? Are they working together or independently? Are they appearing randomly, without any knowledge of who or what they may encounter, or are they trying to find a willing listener? - at least one who doesn't either run in fear, or attack. Since I did neither, one just may return to me. But if the appearances are purely random, there's no way of knowing when or where another may show up next. So far no one has been visited twice, and the same entity hasn't been seen twice, but we don't know if that's by reason or by chance."

Mehrisout nodded in agreement, then added, "Finally, since that initial 'conciliatory gesture' was not fully realized, we may find ourselves in a back-to-square-one situation, anyway - in which case all bets are off." She shrugged. "Sorry, I know that's not particularly specific . . . or encouraging."

Crane ran a hand over his head, ruffling his hair. "So you two are telling me that one of these things may return to the Admiral, or another one may show up anywhere at all; and who or whatever does show up may be friendlier than average, or may not." He puffed out a sigh and shook his head. As his gaze reached his Exec, the Captain quirked a smile and continued, "And you may be the next to receive a visit . . . or you may not."

Although Morton did not appear to be particularly amused by the prospect, he managed a tepid smile.

"So let's lay low here for five or six hours, at least." Nelson said. "If we've had no more contact with our more tangible - and, let's hope, confounded - companions in that time, we'll take our chances with moving on."

"Agreed." Crane said, reaching into his pocket for a coin. "Mr. Morton, I'll flip you for the privilege of remaining on watch while I go get some breakfast."

"Ahem." The Exec straightened and continued with exaggerated deference, "I believe I'll let Lady Luck confer that particular honor, Captain. Heads."

"No need for that," Nelson said, grabbing the coin in mid-air, and pocketing it. "I can handle things here for a while. You both need a break, and I can use the spare change," he winked.

"Thank you, Admiral . . . I think," Crane said. "Chip, are you ready?"

Morton stretched tiredly. "I'm more than ready, Skipper." Then straightening into a semblance of attention he added, "And thank you, sir," to the Admiral.

<^> Thursday 0600 <^>

"Mr. Morton, have you heard a single word I've said?" Lee Crane asked with mock exasperation.

Huh? Something about Patterson . . . or was it Kowalski? . . . or was that yesterday? Once the adrenaline rush from the torpedo attack drained away, Chip Morton found himself bone-weary, and nearly giddy. "Of course I have," he said indignantly. "You're going to keelhaul Cookie about the purple dye in the mashed turnips, and throw Sharkey in the brig for streaking through the Missile Room to announce watch changes." While he waited for the double-take, a lopsided, sheepish grin momentarily graced his features.

The Captain rolled his eyes. "OK for you, Mister. I'm hereby placing you on inactive duty. If I see you so much as set one foot . . . "

But as soon as Crane started talking again, Morton went back on autopilot. I'm so beat, maybe I'll just skip breakfast, and go to straight to my cabin, he thought, hesitating briefly at the junction of two corridors. But then I'd just catch more flack from Lee.

With a sigh, he followed his captain toward the Wardroom. His inattention wasn't helped by the fact that his mind was attempting to juggle several disparate trains of thought: The enemy above - Sounds like a good movie title; The battle between his stomach and his eyelids - After seventeen innings, the score stands tied at eyelids nothing, stomach nothing; And the Captain's words about who might be next. There oughta be a law against aliens showing up when I pull a double watch, he snorted. The last thing I need is another trip to Venus.

Morton suddenly realized he was alone in the corridor. Now where the heck did Lee go? He shook his head and walked a few steps farther. Hearing a movement ahead, he said, "Wait up, Lee! I'm ri-- "

He stopped mid-word as his mind attempted to make sense of the sight before him. There's nothing to be afraid of, he thought calmly, none of these things has hurt anyone yet. What did the Admiral say? . . . 'should not be regarded as threatening unless actual, physical aggression is exhibited.' Well, so far so good.

But suddenly the pieces fell into place, and he realized what he was looking at. The tall, reptilian creature had huge, frog-like eyes, and leathery scaled armor. Morton's eyes momentarily rested on a large pendant hanging from the monster's neck. But in a blink of an eye, it wasn't there any more. In fact, nothing was there. Nothing at all. Chip rubbed his eyes, shook his head, and blinked several times, but it was no use. "You've blinded me!" he shouted angrily.

Terrible, frightening memories exploded into his consciousness, blotting out all else. He flailed about helplessly, searching for some reference point - some way to find and subdue this enemy. No actual physical aggression? Not a danger? Now maybe now the Admiral will listen! Finally, his hands found what they sought. With his fingers firmly around the unprotected neck, he worked at crushing out its life. He was vaguely aware of others surrounding him, trying to pull him off their comrade. Not likely, you bastards. Not this time. He lashed out savagely with feet and elbows. At least not before I inflict some damage of my own! But, as he lost consciousness, he was dimly aware of having missed his goal, again.

<^>

"Chip! Are you all right?" Lee Crane yelled as he ran down the corridor. "Chip, what's wrong?" He tried to grab the man's arms, but found himself being throttled for his concern. "Chip!" he gasped, "What're you doing! It's me! It's Lee!"

Soon there were several other bodies in the melee, and in the tangle it was hard to tell whose limbs belonged to whom. When the frantic activity stopped, the two lead characters in the drama sank to the floor - one insensible, and the other on hands and knees, taking great, greedy gulps of air.

"Take . . . Mr. Morton to . . . Sick Bay," the Captain gasped. "And tell Doc . . . to sedate him!" he added as Kowalski and Patterson carried him off.

"Skipper, ya gotta slow it down," Sharkey advised, leaning over him. "You're gonna hyperventilate if you keep this up."

"I know, Chief, I know." He rolled off his knees and sat down heavily on the deck, heaving one last sigh. "I'm OK now."

"Yeah, maybe so, but as soon as you can stand up we're gonna take a little walk to Sick Bay."

"No, Chief, that isn't necessary. I'm fine."

"Those bruises on your neck say otherwise, Capt. Crane." Having followed the sounds of the scuffle all the way from the Control Room, Adm. Nelson now squatted beside Crane. "What happened? Was that Chip?" He jerked his thumb toward where Patterson had just disappeared around a bend.

Still rubbing his injured neck, Crane replied, "It looked like Chip, but that's as far as the resemblance went." He winced and pulled his hand from his throat. "As for what happened, your guess is as good as mine. One minute he was walking beside me, the next minute I was talking to myself. By the time I realized he wasn't with me, I was already around the corner. I looked back, and he'd gone wild: yelling and throwing himself at the walls. When I tried to help, he attacked me."

"I see," Nelson murmured, rubbing the back of his neck. Then, nodding to Sharkey to help the Captain to his feet, he rose himself and said, "Chief, see that the Captain gets to Sick Bay. Then send a runner to me in the Control Room as soon as there's a report," he said, emphasizing soon.

"Aye, sir," Sharkey replied. "Come on, Skipper. The sooner we get there, the sooner the Admiral gets his report, and the sooner you can get that breakfast you were looking forward to . . . that is, if you can still swallow. That throat looks mighty sore."

"It is, Chief," Crane answered. "But at this point a bed sounds a lot more interesting than food, anyway."

"Yes, sir," Sharkey nodded, "and I'm sure that's just what Doc will order."

"Oh no, not now," Crane shook his head. "With Mr. Morton out, and Mr. O'Brien's condition unknown, I'm not about to let Doc-- "

Stu Riley came through the doorway to Sick Bay, stretching leisurely. His outstretched fist collided with his Captain's head. "Sorry, sir!" he stammered, then, seeing Sharkey's glare, looked more closely at Crane's bruises. "Bummer! What happened to you, sir? You look worse than Mr. Morton. You both get hit by the same truck?"

"You might say that, Riley."

"Move it out, sailor," Sharkey barked. "Can't you see the Skipper's hurtin'? Report to the Missile Room, pronto."

"Sure, Chief. I mean aye, sir. I mean . . ."

"Scram!"

As the chastened young man retreated, Sharkey rolled his eyes at his incorrigible charge, and hustled the Captain through the open door.

<^>

"How's Chip?"

"There doesn't seem to be any serious damage. We'll know better when he wakes up." Jamieson frowned. "However, a better question might be, 'How's the Captain?'" Guiding his patient to a better light, the doctor attempted a cursory exam of the damage. Not an easy task.

"You mean he hasn't come around yet? Or did you sedate him already? Where is he?"

With a deep sigh, the Doctor said, "Captain, if you persist in squirming while I'm trying to do my job, you'll find yourself in the same restraints your First Officer is wearing. I hear they're being seen in all the best sanatoriums this year." Seeing he'd gotten Crane's full attention, he continued his exam while he talked. "He is in exactly the same condition he was in when they brought him in: unconscious. But after Patterson told me about your altercation, I thought the restraints would be a wise precaution to keep him from harming himself - or me."

"So you don't know what happened to him? Was he wounded?"

"No, I don't, and he doesn't appear to be injured. I suspect you're in worse shape than he is. Physically, that is. Does this hurt?" he said, probing the Captain's neck.

"Ow! Yes!" Crane flinched. "How about O'Brien? Patterson said he was coming around. What's his condition?"

"I expect he'll be fine in a day or two. He has some badly bruised ribs, and a mild concussion; he's not to be left alone for the next twelve hours. After that I might be able to certify him for light duty. How does this feel?"

"That's not so bad. Did he tell you what happened?"

"It seems he was thrown against a chair the first time the boat pitched, which accounts for the rib damage. He doesn't remember how he hit his head - which is not uncommon for a concussion - but judging from what Patterson told me, I'd say he was probably still off balance when the torpedo hit; he simply fell against the bulkhead."

"So you see no reason to suspect any kind of attack?"

"Attack?" Jamieson pondered briefly. "No, there's no reason to suspect anything other than natural causes for his injuries - if you consider a torpedo a 'natural cause'." After a few more moments, he stepped back from the Captain. "Well, it's a good thing the Commander didn't have had his heart set on killing you today." An arched eyebrow complemented his grimace. "There doesn't seem to be any damage to your larynx, but those bruises will be sore for a few days." Offering the Captain a small capsule, he said, "With a little rest, I think you'll be good as new."

But before Crane had a chance to decline, a moan - more like a bellow - was heard from the other room, followed closely by the corpsman's call.

Almost instantly, Jamieson was at the Exec's side, checking vitals. On his other side, Lee Crane demanded, "Chip, are you all right? What happened?"

"Lee, didn't you see . . . " Upon saying that word, Morton's own eyes widened, as his mouth dropped open in shock. His first reaction was to rub his eyes, which action he found impeded by the straps on his wrists. "What the . . .?"

"I'll take them off, Mr. Morton, if you promise not to engage in any more murderous assaults on your captain."

Only the educated eye could chart the course of Chip Morton's thoughts by the nuances that flitted behind his cornflower eyes. But when the last wisps of fog had finally been driven from his brain, he focused on the Captain's throat. "Did I . . .?"

Seeing the nod of assent, he made no attempt to finish the question. As confusion and enlightenment collapsed into shame, so Chip Morton collapsed back upon the bed he had been so anxious to leave just moments ago. But soon that shame burned into anger. "That . . . that thing made me almost kill you, Lee! When will the Admiral see how dangerous these things are?"

"What exactly did you see?" Crane asked.

Morton opened his mouth to speak, but a shudder ran over his body, and instead of answering, he looked up at Jamieson. "Can I get up now?"

The doctor, having satisfied himself of the Commander's condition, and that no one was in any physical danger, complied. "You may sit up, but you may not leave until I've checked you over thoroughly. Is that clear?"

"Abundantly," Morton grunted, rubbing his wrists.

"And that goes for you, too, young man," Doc said to O'Brien, who had joined the group.

"Don't you worry, sir. I won't be traveling very far from that head." As if on cue, the young officer turned a particularly lurid shade of green, and charged for the small door.

"No need to worry," Jamieson said to the senior officers, "it's just a side-effect of his concussion. Unpleasant, but not unexpected."

As the Doctor went about his exam, Crane asked again, "Now tell me, Chip, just what did you see?"

Chip Morton gazed, unseeing, at the wall for a moment, teeth gritted. Finally he took in a breath, and focused on his friend. "Do you remember our encounter with the Centaurans on Venus?"

"How could I for- " He stopped. "Is that why you attacked me? You were blind?"

Morton nodded once.

Interrupting, Jamieson worriedly asked, "Is there any residual effect? Are you having any trouble seeing now?"

"No," he shook his head, "it's as if it never happened."

After several more minutes of intense peering, questioning, and examining, the doctor announced, "I can find no evidence of any damage to your eyes, Commander. I'm afraid my opinion is that - like so much I've been seeing lately - the blindness was psychosomatic: your body reacting to stimulus from your mind."

The two officers pondered in silence for a few moments, before Morton asked quietly, "Are you OK, Lee? What was I doing?"

"Well," Crane began sternly, "you were doing a first-rate imitation of the Incredible Hulk." But his look softened before he added, " . . .on PCP."

"Yes, sir, Mr. Morton," the Chief snickered. "The next time there's a fight, I want you on my side!"

"If there's a next time - which I hope there isn't - I don't want to be in it at all," the Captain chuckled. Then, remembering Nelson's order, he said, "Chief, everything seems to be under control here. Take a report back to the Admiral in the Control Room, and tell him that Mr. Morton and I will be up there as soon as we've had a chance to follow his orders."

"Speak for yourself," Morton muttered. "I've had about enough of this stinking alien. When's the next bus out of here?"

Crane, startled by the bitterness of those words, looked sharply at his companion. The gloom he saw there was quickly replaced by a tired attempt at a reassuring smile.

"Sorry. It's not every day I get to see a phantom alien, go blind, and nearly kill my captain - all before breakfast. Takes a little getting used to."

Crane studied his First Officer, then turned to Jamieson. "Will you be needing Patterson and Kowalski, or can I send them back to the Control Room, too?"

"No, I think we're fine down here for now. I still have Henderson and Lopez if I need anything."

"Pat, Ski, report back to the Control Room. And as for you, Mister," the Captain said, with exaggerated enthusiasm, "you and I have a date with an order of eggs, a clean shirt, and a pillow."

"Aye, sir," Morton replied, allowing himself to be led out the door.

<^> Thursday 0900 <^>

"No word from our friends?" Crane asked when he re-entered the Control Room three hours later.

Chip Morton barely looked up. "Which friends?" he muttered, "The ones with torpedoes, or the ones with telepathic paranoia?"

Furrowing his brow in concern, Nelson hesitated before overriding Morton's answer. "It's been quiet here. Get some sleep?"

"Yes, sir, I did."

"How's the throat?" Nelson asked, glancing at Crane's colorfully mottled neck.

"It's still sore, but I suspect I'll live," he chuckled, "as long as my First Officer doesn't mistake me for another bug-eyed monster."

The joke - apparently intended to lighten his friend's mood - produced a only brief scowl, followed by a half-hearted smile, and silence. Crane shrugged shoulders and asked, "So there's been no activity at all?"

This time Morton answered more firmly, "Nothing reported. It's been quiet as a tomb,"

At his friend's choice of words, Crane narrowed his eyes, and signaled silently to the Admiral.

Nodding back in understanding, Nelson started aft toward the Radio Shack. "I'm going to see how Matthews and Sparks are coming with that jury-rigged radio set."

As soon as the Admiral was out of earshot, Crane moved closer to Morton and said quietly, "Look, Chip, I didn't mean - "

Without looking up from his calculations, Morton answered, "I know you didn't. Let's just drop it, OK?"

"You don't really believe anyone blames you, do you?"

"Of course not. You don't. But I do." He forced himself to look up. "I could have killed you, Lee. In another few seconds I would have. Try thinking about that in the dark for two hours and thirty-seven minutes."

"But Chip - you can't hold yourself responsible. You thought you were attacking an enemy."

"Oh, and that's supposed to make me feel better, is it? Knowing that at any moment that same enemy could return and I could do the same thing again - this time successfully?"

The silence lasted for several seconds between the two friends. When Morton spoke again, there was discouragement in his voice. "Lee, I fell apart. I thought I could handle this. I thought I was prepared, but when the time came, I completely lost it, and Seaview almost lost her captain because of it." He stopped, and leaned heavily on the table as he looked down. "I can't be trusted, and that's all there is to it."

"Can't be trusted?" Crane exclaimed, rather more loudly than he intended. "Listen here," he said with less volume than intensity, "who nearly broke Kowalski's jaw when he thought he was being suffocated? Who hid away from an imaginary toy? Who ran for a fire extinguisher to put out a non-existent flame? And who shot his cabin full of holes, for crying' out loud! And you think you can't be trusted? What makes you so special?"

Lee Crane hadn't intended to shout, neither had anger been part of his plan, but there he stood, flushed dark with exasperation. Chip Morton stood through the entire speech with his eyes fixed on the last set of numbers he'd recorded, his ears reddening with each word. He remained in that position while the rest of the Control Room fell into uncomfortable silence. And his countenance never altered during the entire time it took his commanding officer to regain composure. Finally, he moved.

It wasn't a big grin, but a grin nonetheless. "Talk about losing it." Chocking his head ever so slightly, he checked to see if the coast was clear. It was: He found a matching grin creeping across his friend's face. A short gust of laughter released what was left of their tension.

"You're right, Lee. I over-reacted."

"I'm getting used to that," the Captain rolled his eyes, earning what could only be classified as an if-looks-could-kill glare. "And speaking of over-reacting," he conceded , "I guess we're ev-- "

As he spoke, however, he saw the humor drain from Morton's face, and a strange reflected gleam come into the wide blue eyes.

<^>

"Chip? Chip, what is it!" Whirling around to see the source of the light, he was confronted with the apparition he'd seen in his cabin fourteen hours earlier.

"Chip," he whispered, "can you see it?"

"Uh huh," he said, marveling at his own calm in the face of the Centauran. "Can you?"

Nelson, having started forward from the Radio Shack at the sound of their laughter, now stood next to them, facing the very image of himself, standing at the foot of the spiral stairs. "Gentlemen, are you seeing what I'm seeing?"

"The Centauran- " "That monster from the space probe- " both officers said simultaneously.

There was a moment of startled silence . . . broken suddenly by a sound which no one could later agree on; some likened it to a waterfall, others to a stringed instrument, and yet others were reminded of the babel of a yodelers' convention in a small gym.

After several long seconds Adm. Nelson stepped forward to once again attempt a handshake. "Welcome." The entity seemed to cringe back as another wave of sound washed across the room. Whether Nelson understood, or ascertained, or simply guessed at the meaning, he said - as if in reply - "We were frightened before, and acted only out of our fear."

Seconds ticked audibly past before the alien language was heard again. As before, the origin of the sound was unfocused. Nelson's "Nelson" had not opened his mouth, Crane's "monster" had not spoken, and Morton's "Centauran" stood mute. Rather, the voice - if one could call it that - was simply there: pervasive, non-directional . . . and utterly unfathomable. This time, however, the response to its attempt at communication came not from the Admiral, but from Dr. Mehrisout, arriving at that moment at the aft hatch of the Control Room.

"Oh!" she gasped. "I had no idea . . . ." Her eyes were filled with awestruck wonder. Another rush of sound, and her face fairly glowed with excitement. Without taking her eyes off the alien, she attempted to negotiate the hatch, and would have fallen if Riley - her self-designated escort - didn't already have a firm grasp of her elbow.

Having stepped through the hatch sideways, that young man hadn't noticed anything amiss, but as soon as he saw her expression, he twisted around to see what held her attention. His eyes widened, and an appreciative grin spread over his face. "Fa-ar out!"

The two of them, Riley and Mehrisout, walked forward arm in arm, mesmerized. "Admiral," Mehrisout asked, finally tearing her eyes away, "Is this one of the aliens everybody's been talking about?"

"From the look on your face, I doubt it," Nelson said.

"No, ma'am - there's no way this cat's the same thing that was outside your door yesterday," Riley confirmed.

"Are you sure, Riley?" Mehrisout arched an eyebrow at him.

As yet another billow of sound engulfed the Control Room, Mehrisout asked, "May I, Admiral?"

"May you what?" Nelson asked gruffly. Then, considering her background he demanded, "Can you understand it?"

"No, not yet," she replied evenly. "But this is right up my alley, and I'd certainly like to try."

After an unspoken conference with Crane and Morton, Nelson nodded. "Go ahead."

She paused for a moment, closing her eyes as if to gather strength from an unseen source, then stepped forward, smiling. As she slowly spread her arms to indicate the entire room, and said, "Welcome to the Seaview." Then, pointing to herself, she said, "My name is Eleanor Mehrisout."

Another less chaotic - but no more meaningful - noise answered.

"My name is Eleanor Mehrisout," she repeated slowly. Then, pointing, she added, "His name is Harriman Nelson."

"Why don't you just say your name, ma'am, instead of confusing him with all that other stuff?"

Mehrisout favored Kowalski with a schoolmarm's over-the-glasses grimace. It was accompanied by a less indulgent glare from two-thirds of the officers present, Chip Morton being too absorbed in his study of the intruder to have even heard the remark.

"Sorry, ma'am," the red-faced seaman murmured.

Turning her attention back to the task at hand, she again acted out, "This is the Seaview. My name is Eleanor Mehrisout. His name is Harriman Nelson," this time adding, "and his name is Lee Crane."

Less than a second later, six clear, melodic tones were heard. The linguist grinned broadly, even though the rest of those present heard nothing more than a short, chiming melody. But when they were repeated, a few were able to distinguish an alien-accented "el-ea-nor-meh-ri-sout".

"Yes!" the doctor chirped, bouncing on her toes, and clapping unselfconsciously. But as soon as she saw the scandalized looks of the solid military types around her, she contained her exuberance. "Sorry," she said. "I do get carried away sometimes." After looking around for fresh victims, she started her routine over again, and with similarly encouraging results. "My name is Eleanor Mehrisout, his name is Harriman Nelson, his name is Lee Crane, their names are Chip Morton," she turned and pointed to her right, "and Stu Riley."

"That's rather ambitious, Doctor," Nelson muttered. "Aren't you expecting a little too . . .?"

His comment, unheard by its intended recipient, was superceded by an other-worldly rendition - accompanied by appropriate gestures - of the five names she had just spoken. Not one syllable was out of place.

With a quick "I-rest-my-case" glance, the Doctor pressed on toward her ultimate goal. Pointing again, she said clearly, "My name is Eleanor Mehrisout. Your name is . . . ? "

After a long silence, ever more discouraging as its duration increased, the visitor seemed to flicker several times, then simply melted away, leaving the Control Room in silence.

After such a build-up of first promise, then tension, the let-down was audible as the group let out a collective sigh. Only one person seemed unaffected.

"You have to expect setbacks," Dr. Mehrisout said. "We both need time to think this over a little. Perhaps he didn't understand the question, or maybe he understood, but had no way of translating his name, or maybe . . . "

"Or maybe it's already gathered all it needs to know about us, and doesn't care to reveal anything about itself."

Mehrisout happened to be looking directly at the First Officer, and clearly understood each of his words. They utterly defeated the linguist's optimism. She looked back and forth in confusion between Morton and Nelson. "Oh," she said slowly, "I've gone too far, haven't I? And I've put you in danger." Her complexion deepened with shame, and the edges of her mouth twitched with the effort of control. "I should have thought," she said softly. "I should have asked . . ." Her voice trailed off for a moment, and her whole body slumped.

"Nonsense, Doctor," Nelson said, as her words echoed in the silence. Riley opened his mouth to speak, but the Admiral shook his head, allowing her the dignity to rein her emotions without interference. "It doesn't seem that there's anything more to be done here right now," he continued briskly, looking toward the spot just vacated. "I want to meet in the Wardroom in say . . . fifteen minutes. Chip," he said, looking around the Control Room, "find somebody to keep an eye on things here, I want both you and Lee in on this." Then, as an apparent afterthought he added, "Riley, you come along, too."

Mehrisout nodded stiffly, and with tear-blinded eyes, managed to navigate the Control Room and get through the hatch with dry cheeks. But the act didn't last long. Once out of sight of the crew, she fished out a hankie and proceeded to make good use of it.

<^>

"Not many women carry those any more," Nelson said quietly, pocketing the handkerchief he'd been ready to offer.

"Oh! Admiral," she started guiltily, "I didn't hear you coming."

"I wouldn't think so," he arched an eyebrow, "through all that sniffling."

"Sorry . . . again," she said, pushing away from the bulkhead where she had been leaning. "It seems like I have a lot to apologize for today." She blew her nose as they walked down the hall. "It just seemed so exciting, I forgot myself." Her face showed a weak imitation of a smile. "It's a bad habit of mine."

"Dr. Mehrisout, what do you take me for, anyway?" Nelson said with feigned gruffness. "You don't really think I would have allowed you to give away any damaging information, do you? "

Giving her eyes one last swipe, she looked up in surprise. "You mean . . . ? But what about Commander Morton? He certainly thought-- "

"-- nothing of the sort. Chip Morton is our resident Eeyore: an invaluable part of any command team, but not always the one you want to look to for encouragement," he winked.

"So he's not really angry . . . "

"Not at you, anyway. He's angry at the situation, and he's fulfilling his duty as official devil's advocate by presenting to us the worst-case scenario." While his eyes continued to twinkle, he raised one eyebrow. "It's something he's very good at."

Seeing that she was now in a better frame of mind to think clearly, he continued. "It seems to me that I recently heard someone say that we should expect setbacks, and that's all I see here: a setback, not a defeat. In the last few minutes we've learned a great deal more that we were able to find out in the previous twelve hours. I'm now assuming we're dealing with a single entity with the power to assume a variety of forms. We now know this entity has a desire to communicate with us, and that it is capable of doing so. Shall I go on?"

"No, sir," she said contritely. "I stand corrected . . . and properly chagrined. I acted perfectly . . . well . . . female in there, didn't I? Taking everything personally, and falling apart at the first sign of trouble."

"First of all, if you were acting like a female, you have a pretty good reason, wouldn't you agree?" He paused just long enough to make her look up. "Secondly, this was hardly your first sign of trouble. Between losing your hearing - and thus your main occupational tool - being walloped by young Riley, and dealing with rampant male chauvinism, it seems like you've had nothing but setbacks, opposition, and obstacles since you set foot on the boat."

Her smile was now genuine. "Do you always treat your passengers so graciously?"

Nelson snorted. "Most of them don't deserve it."

Having arrived at her door, Nelson opened it and stepped aside. "I suspect you have just enough time for a cup of tea before our meeting. See you in fifteen minutes, Doctor?"

"Yes, sir," she smiled.

<^> Thursday 0945 <^>

"No, no, Commander. There is nothing whatsoever that you need to apologize for."

A very formal Executive Officer stood before their guest in the otherwise empty Wardroom. "Nevertheless, I regret -- "

"I appreciate the thought," Mehrisout interrupted, "but I'm the one who regrets causing the scene in the first place. Shall we call it a draw?" She offered a hand, which he accepted and shook politely, if not quite cordially. Wrapping her hands back around her warm tea mug, she continued. "My over-reaction was just a combination of misunderstanding and what my family calls the 'Leaky Faucet Syndrome'. The misunderstanding is entirely cleared up, and the faucet has been tightened . . . at least for the time being."

"And over-reactions seem to be the order of the day," the Captain reminded as he stepped through the door, followed closely by Adm. Nelson and Seaman Riley. "Chip, who's minding the store?"

"Sparks didn't have much to do," the Exec dead-panned, "so I promoted him to captain."

"Great," Crane rolled his eyes. "On top of everything else, now we'll have to deal with his delusions of grandeur."

Clearing his throat to get his officers' attention, Nelson said, "The situation - not surprisingly - has everyone on edge." He settled in and accepted a mug of coffee from Riley. "First of all, I want to know what everybody actually saw in there just now, since it's fairly obvious we didn't all see the same thing."

There was silence around the table, as each man studiously inspected the table top, coffee mugs, and dirty spoons for possible flaws or hidden dangers.

"Well, since I don't have any face left to save around here," Mehrisout finally said, "I'll start. My first impression was of a cloud of mist, but when I really looked at it, I saw that it wasn't dispersing, but was contained in a definite, but changeable, form. It was diaphanous, iridescent, fluid . . . almost like a column of sheer quicksilver." She looked around for some kind of accord, but only Riley seemed to be on the same wavelength, and even his forehead was wrinkled in confusion.

"Di-what-in-us?" he asked.

"Diaphanous. It means translucent . . . see-through."

"Oh, yeah . . . right," he nodded, smiling. "And what about those outta sight colors?"

"Astounding," Mehrisout nodded, with a faraway smile. "It was like a rainbow, but . . . " Then she seemed to awaken from a dream. " . . . but not in any spectrum I'm familiar with," she continued efficiently. "It was an incredible array, and just like the form, the colors shifted and rippled in rhythm with the sounds we heard."

"Riley," the Captain asked, "you're saying you saw the same thing?"

"Yes, sir."

"Do you think this was the same presence you felt yesterday outside Dr. Mehrisout's door."

"Yes, sir. I'm sure of it."

"What makes you so sure?" Nelson demanded. "Yesterday said you saw nothing, and that the presence you felt was very threatening. In the Control Room you told Dr. Mehrisout that this couldn't be the same creature. Yet now you're telling us it is the same."

Riley considered. He scratched his head. And finally he shrugged his shoulders. "I can't explain it, sir. I know what I saw and what I felt, but I'm sure this is the same cat." He grinned, "Freaky, huh?"

"At least," Nelson grimaced. "Lee, what did you see? Was it the same form that appeared in your quarters last night?"

"Yes, sir. Exactly the same appearance, but without the oppressive . . ." He frowned, searching for a word.

"Vibes?" Riley suggested.

"Vibrations . . ." Crane murmured, then nodded. "For lack of a better word I guess that'll do. They weren't there this time, even though visually it was the same creature."

"And you, Chip? Same story?"

"Yes, sir. It looked like the same Centauran I saw in the corridor, but I didn't feel the . . . terror."

"And, for the record," Nelson said, "what I saw - or thought I saw - was the same mirror image of myself that appeared in my cabin this morning." He bounced the eraser end of his pencil idly on the table. "So while we were each looking at the same thing, each of us - with the exception of Dr. Mehrisout and Riley -saw something completely different." He paused for a moment before adding, "Comments, gentlemen? Suggestions?"

"Hallucination?"

"Another bad batch of salt?" sniggered Riley, before he caught the glare of the blond officer who prepared his daily duty schedule.

Silence.

"Hologram?"

"If so, projected from where?" Nelson asked.

Silence.

"Aliens," Morton said with disgust.

Nelson sighed. "I'll admit, I didn't have much better luck coming up with an explanation. But setting that enigma aside for the moment, we're still left with the question: where do we go from here? In spite of predictions to the contrary," he shot a glance at the Exec, "I have every confidence that our visitor will return. When he does, we would do well to have a plan. Doctor," he said, turning toward her, "what can you tell us about the communications problem?"

Mehrisout set down her empty cup, and looked around. "It is fairly obvious that this . . . entity is so far beyond us intellectually as to put us on a level with your average Irish Setter. The fact that he was able to isolate and repeat our names so quickly - even though his speech is based on principles and means of production utterly remote from ours - tells me that it will most likely be him, not us, who breaks the language barrier."

"But what's the big deal about repeating names? Can't any mynah bird do the same thing?" Riley asked.

"Yes, but not in the context I gave. I purposely encased the names within our grammar, and you'll notice that he repeated only the names, not the context; he could distinguish between the two."

"Can you give us a time frame?"

"I'm a pretty fair linguist, but the name is Mehrisout, not 'The Amazing Kreskin'," she laughed. "I can't begin to measure any aspect of this situation. All I can venture to guess is that it will be short. Days, maybe, as opposed to the months it takes to establish reliable communications with a previously unknown human culture."

"Days . . . " Nelson frowned, "with our newest complication I'm hoping we have days." Taking a deep breath of resignation he said, "Very well. Lee, do you have any objections to putting Dr. Mehrisout in charge of establishing communication?"

"No . . ." Crane frowned for a moment. "No objections, but I think we should assign someone to--"

"Keep me put of trouble?" the linguist grinned.

"Precisely," Nelson cut in. But his stern look soon softened to a wry grin. "Riley, I'd like you to assist the Doctor. You seem to have seen something that the rest of us didn't. And I'd also like--"

But the Admiral never finished the thought, because the subject of their discussion was suddenly among them. A quick gasp of recognition from Crane and Nelson, followed by tentative, puzzled smiles, provided a stark contrast to the expression on Chip Morton's pale face. "What is it, Chip? What's wrong?" Crane asked.

"Can't you see it, Lee?" he whispered hoarsely. "It's different!"

"Yes," Crane said slowly, "it is." He moved his gaze from his First Officer back to their alien visitor. "It's exactly what Dr. Mehrisout described."

Morton turned to his friend with wide-eyed confusion. "What! What are you talking about? It's what you saw - that . . . that monster from the Saturn probe." He pointed in frustration. "Can't you see it?"

The other four briefly exchanged glances before Lee confirmed, "No, we're all seeing exactly what Riley and the Doctor just described from the Control Room."

As Morton stared at the repugnant creature, the creases on his forehead deepened along with his confusion. "You're right," he finally said, shaking his head slowly.

"What do you mean, I'm right?" Crane glanced quickly back at the creature, confusion giving way to impatience. "Do you see a monster, or not?"

After a deep sigh, the Exec blinked and looked at the Captain. "I did see your monster, but then it flickered, and just melted into . . . whatever it is you're seeing: an iridescent, translucent . . . blob."

Nelson, meanwhile, had been listening intently, and studying their newly-arrived visitor. "So we're all seeing the same thing now, right?" Receiving nods of assent all around, he frowned before continuing. "Doctor," he said, nodding to the visitor, "will you do the honors again?"

"Certainly, Admiral." She rose to greet the visitor when Crane interrupted.

"Do you think you can trust it?" he asked, glancing at his First Officer.

"It's not a matter of trust yet," Nelson said, trying to temper his impatience with what he hoped was a welcoming attitude. "You can neither believe nor disbelieve something you haven't even heard; and so far we've heard nothing. Once we know what it has to say, we'll begin to evaluate motives."

At those words, everyone turned back to the alien as the same pervasive, chiming voice they'd heard in the Control Room intoned, "el-ea-nor-meh-ri-sout, har-ri-man-nel-son, lee-crane, chip-mor-ton, stu-ri-ley," while inclining toward each one in turn. It then settled into a corner of the room in silence.

"Welcome back," Mehrisout smiled, and with a good bit of body English, she went on to ask, "How may we help you? Have you come to observe us? Have you come to learn?"

The answer took the form of an undecipherable medley of harp, carillon, and babbling brook.

Mehrisout sat back down as if entranced by the sounds . . . as if by focusing her entire being upon listening, she could will clarity and order from the chaos. After a few seconds, though, she shut her eyes and slumped into her chair in discouragement. "It's no use," she shook her head, "I'm missing something. It's so . . . " Her voice trailed off in frustration. "It's as if complete understanding was just on the other side of a door, but I can't find the knob." She shook her head dejectedly. "I just can't hear well enough."

Nelson himself also was listening with the same rapt attention, but his seemed to yield some reward. He nodded his head briefly in acknowledgment of Mehrisout's words, but then said excitedly to his own men, "Tell me, gentlemen, what did you just hear?"

"Noise," Crane said. "Why, did you hear something else, Admiral?"

"How about you, Chip?" Nelson pursued. "Did you hear anything more?"

"Well, I only heard noise, but it seemed like there was something else there . . . I can't quite put my finger on it, though."

"And you, Riley? Could you make any sense out of it?"

"Not really any sense, but I kinda got a feeling . . . y'know . . . like vibes. Like he was tryin' to be polite, but he just couldn't wait to get started on something. You dig?"

"Yes!" Nelson said triumphantly, "I know exactly what you mean! Lee, Chip, did you feel that?"

"Yes," Crane nodded along with Chip, "now that you mention it, that was at the back of my mind. Do you think it's telepathic?"

Ignoring the question, Nelson turned to Mehrisout. "Doctor, did you receive the same impression?" Barely waiting for her nod of agreement, he continued, "Have you ever run across anything like it in your experiences?"

"No, nothing at all. But you have to remember," she added, "I've led a very sheltered life compared to you - dealing only with humans, I mean." After thinking for a few moments she went on. "But is 'telepathic' really the right term? If he," she nodded in the visitor's direction, "were truly telepathic - according to my extensive reading of the current crop of science fiction - it seems to me that we would have no trouble understanding him."

"Empathic, then," said Nelson. Seeing Riley's wrinkled brow, he went on to say, "Able to read - and in this case project - attitudes and emotions." After a pause to allow the idea to settle on his listeners' minds, he went on. "And that would explain a lot of things."

"Like what?" Crane asked.

"Like the fact that most of our encounters involved the impression of fear. He himself was probably frightened of us, and that feeling was projected. And the reception some of us gave him," he frowned briefly at his two senior officers, "was not one designed to allay those fears."

"But what about you, sir?" Morton asked. "You didn't mention feeling anything like that."

Nelson shrugged, then quirked a wry grin. "Perhaps I'm not very intimidating."

"But all of this is irrelevant to the fact that we still have a number of problems left to solve," Nelson said. "As Dr. Mehrisout has already pointed out, he is undeniably more advanced both intellectually and technologically than we are; I can't think of a better source for help - especially since he may well have been the inadvertent source of many of those problems."

"With all due respect, sir, I still don't think we should trust it," Morton said quietly.

"Right now trust isn't even on the table." This time Nelson didn't bother trying to hide his impatience. "Until it is, we're going to treat him like we'd treat any other visiting dignitary - with kid gloves."

Thus setting aside the obvious misgivings of his officers, the Admiral turned to face Mehrisout. "I suspect you'll find this easier without a lot of people hanging over your shoulder, Doctor, and we have our own problems to solve. We'll leave you to your work." Nodding to Morton he added, "I'd like you to stay, Chip. You have some background in languages, and I'll want your perspective."

Nelson rose and started to leave, but then turned back. With a nod he said to the extra-terrestrial, "Good bye. I hope that next time we meet, we'll be able to speak to one another."

Taking his cue from the Admiral, Crane also nodded a polite farewell.

As soon as both men were in the corridor, the First Officer slid out of his seat and followed.

<^>

"Admiral?"

Surprised, Nelson turned back and said, "Yes, Commander, what is it?"

From behind a deceptively bland expression, Morton asked, "With all due respect, are you sure I'm the right man for this job, sir?" He hesitated, "After what just happened, are you sure--"

"You can be trusted?" Nelson finished. His face softened almost imperceptibly. "Yes, I'm sure you're the right man, and it's because of what just happened that I have so much confidence. You saw something none of the rest of us saw. What it means, I don't know, but I do know that you have a healthy scepticism of the entire situation, and that's exactly the attitude I want to see balancing the . . . rampant enthusiasm being exhibited by some others." Nelson gave him a backhanded swat on the arm as he walked away. "Just remember, though, to keep your mind as open as your eyes."

But Morton's crisp, "Aye, sir" was followed by a sigh.

<^> Thursday 1030 <^>

The Exec reentered the room to find two humans contemplating their altogether non-human visitor.

"What do we do first, ma'am?" Riley was asking eagerly. "Find out his name? Where he's from?"

"Look, Riley," Morton said through his teeth, "this isn't some college girl you pick up on the beach and ask, 'What's your name, what's your major, what's your sign?'" He had not taken his eyes off the alien, and his back grew straighter as the seconds ticked past.

"Actually, Commander," Mehrisout ventured gingerly, "that would be a pretty good place to start. Maybe, now that he's had some time to think, he can give us a name."

Without asking for permission, Riley blurted, "My name's Stu Riley. What's yours?"

"My-name-is . . ." but the rest of the answer was lost to the listeners.

Mehrisout shook her head sadly and said, "We can't understand." Then, to prove her point, she made a noble attempt to imitate the other-worldly sounds. Even Morton almost cracked a smile at her efforts. Almost. "Pretty feeble, wasn't it?" she admitted.

"Your-name-is-el-ea-nor-meh-ri-sout. His-name-is-stu-ri-ley. His-name-is-chip-mor-ton. My-name-is- . . ." but the answer, though recognizable this time, was still outside the reach of human capabilities.

"How about this?" Riley asked. "My name is Stu Riley. Your name is Oscar."

"Oscar?" Mehrisout asked. "Why Oscar?"

"I dunno," Riley shrugged. "He just kinda looks like an Oscar to me."

"Any objections, Mr. Morton?"

If he had any, they were overruled by their visitor. "Your-name-is-stu-ri-ley. My-name-is-os-car."

"Far out!"

"Far-out," came the sonorous response.

"Oh, no, Riley," Mehrisout chuckled, buoyed by their small success, "you're already teaching him bad habits!"

"Now that we don't know his name, how do you propose to not find out where he's from?" The tone of Morton's voice cut short their amusement.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Morton," Mehrisout said. "What did you say? You're on the wrong side of my good ear."

"I said," he repeated while looking directly at her, "how are you going to find out where he's from?"

With the briefest of sighs, Mehrisout replied, "The same way we got his name."

"We don't have his name."

Mehrisout smiled. Very sweetly. "We do have his name, we just can't pronounce it. And in the same way, we'll get his home: by showing him ours, then asking him to reciprocate. We'll need some kind of map or chart of the stars, and a globe, if you have one. If not, a map will do."

"Are you sure that's wise?" was the First Officer's only response.

"What would you suggest?" Mehrisout said carefully.

"Only that we don't give this thing any more information about us than necessary."

After a few seconds of exasperated silence, Dr. Mehrisout said, "This thing is a highly intelligent creature who can probably read our emotions as easily as you read a duty roster. And since he managed to get here, I'm pretty sure he already knows where 'here' is. So, I don't think it will make much difference whether I tell him my hometown or not, but you can keep yours a secret if you wish."

She was still smiling.

"Whatever you say, ma'am," Morton said after half a minute, thus tying for the gold medal in the "icy civility" event. "Go ahead, Riley," he continued, "get the charts from the Control Room, and ask the Admiral if we can borrow his globe."

"Aye, sir," Riley said, beating a grateful retreat down the corridor.

<^>

"Sir?"

"Riley! What are you doing here?" Crane asked. "Is anything wrong?"

"No, sir. Mr. Morton sent me to get the celestial charts, and to ask the Admiral if we could borrow his globe."

While Crane pulled the charts from beneath the table, he asked, "How's it going in there?"

Riley shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other, and tried to look anywhere but at the Captain. Finally he smiled brightly, "We named him Oscar!"

"You named him?"

"Yes, sir. We figured he needed a name we could pronounce." Then, to head off any questions about where the name might have originated, he blurted, "And he really seems to dig it!"

"I see."

"And whose idea was 'Oscar'?"

"It was mine. Sir." Riley's complexion contrasted patriotically with his blue jump-suit.

"I see," Crane repeated, barely hiding a grin. "And what did Mr. Morton have to say about it?"

The young seaman thought carefully before answering, "He must have thought it was cool, because he didn't say anything."

"I see." This time the grin did not remain hidden. "And you weren't burnt by any of the sparks, were you, Riley?"

"Sparks, sir?" He cast a quick glance toward the Radio Shack.

"The ones generated by the clash between the good Doctor and our First Officer," Adm. Nelson chuckled as he walked forward from the Radio Shack. "I'm assuming there were a few."

"Oh, those," Riley grinned. Moments later, however, he succeeded in controlling his amusement. "I wouldn't know, sir."

"Very diplomatic, Seaman." Nelson chuckled.

"Uh, thank you, sir." Riley gathered the charts, and was halfway out of the Control Room when he turned back. "What about the globe, sir? Can we borrow it?"

"Globe?" Nelson asked. But before Riley had a chance to explain himself, the Admiral nodded. "Ah, a visual aid - good idea." He dug in his pocket and pulled out a ring of keys. Selecting one he handed the bunch to Riley and said, "Take Kowalski along with you to bring back the keys."

"Aye, sir."

<^>

"Oscar?" Mehrisout addressed their alien guest. After a slight inclination in her direction of his upper body, she continued. "This planet is called Earth. We are from Earth. Can you tell us where you are from?"

The incomprehensible sounds which followed convinced her that he could not.

"Riley is going to get some maps and charts to show you where we are, and to help you tell us where you are from." Her body language may not have been quite kosher, but it was certainly enthusiastic. "Until he returns, we will just have to wait." With that, she sat back down, folded her hands in front of her on the table, and stared straight ahead. After a few seconds of that, she turned back to the alien and repeated, "Wait."

"El-ea-nor-meh-ri-sout-wait. Os-car-wait."

But it was less than ten seconds later that he spoke up again. "Stu-ri-ley-re-turn. Os-car-re-turn. El-ea-nor-meh-ri-sout-wait." And he disappeared.

The Executive Officer's face lost just a shade of color, as trepidation contended with irritation for precedence. Irritation won. With jaw clenched, he reached for the intercom, and thumbed the mike. "Control Room, this is the Exec."

After watching Morton's mood descend even further, Mehrisout volunteered - very meekly, "The intercom isn't working."

The flash of annoyance on the Lt. Commander's face lasted only an instant. He did not, to his credit, slam the mike back down on its cradle, but neither did he thank the Doctor for her information. Evidently debating the necessity of finding and dispatching a runner to the Control Room, he settled on the course of wait-and-see, because without another glance in Mehrisout's direction, he went back to work on his ever-present stack of reports, rosters, and requisitions. Thus five minutes of complete silence passed between the two as the linguist sat with her hands still folded, fighting the urge to fidget.

And how long do I just sit here, staring into space? There isn't a thing I can do about Oscar, she grinned again at the name, until he and Riley come back. She looked at Morton. And what's with him? You'd think I was Typhoid Mary, Rasputin, and Barney Fife, all rolled in one. Finally, her hatred of the distraction of unresolved problems overcame all other considerations. She leaned forward on her elbows.

"Mr. Morton," she stated flatly, "you don't like me very much."

The officer looked up, startled.

"I can deal with that;" she continued, "I don't enjoy it, but I can deal with it. And I can understand it: my presence has contributed nothing but chaos and disorder to the routine of this ship. But you also don't trust me, and that I cannot and will not suffer without a fight. You don't trust my abilities, you don't trust my judgement, and you don't trust my intentions." She paused to gain control over her voice and indignation. "Can you tell me why?"

"I'm sorry if I've given you that impression."

"What other impression was I supposed to get?" With a quick glance at doorway, she again yanked down her rising voice. "You've opposed every suggestion I've made, and taken every opportunity to show your displeasure at even being assigned to this project. If you explained your reasons, then maybe we could get on with our work."

After another silence, Morton said carefully, "I'd rather not discuss it, but I assure you, Doctor, my reluctance has nothing to do with you, your abilities, your judgement, or your motives."

Again Mehrisout pondered in uncomfortable silence. She studied his impassive face, and seeing nothing to contradict his words, said, "Then I apologize for misreading your actions." She paused before continuing. "Why did the Admiral order you to babysit me, in light of your lack of . . . enthusiasm?"

"Neither he nor I would call it baby-sitting, and he didn't order me; it was a request. But to answer your question, it's just as he said: I'm an officer, and I do have some ability with languages," he said patiently. But as he went back to his notes he added, as a careless afterthought, "That, plus the fact that there's no job too small for the Executive Officer."

As the words sunk in, and her self-righteous indignation exploded toward the red zone, she aimed a withering glare at the man and his display of unchivalrous arrogance. But even as her exasperation mounted, she caught a fleeting grin ruffle his poker face. Her mouth dropped open as she remembered all she'd seen of this man in action over the past day and a half. Then it closed in a grin.

"You got me," she chuckled.

"I believe I did." The voice wasn't one decibel louder than it needed to be for the linguist to hear, and his blond head hadn't moved from its position over his work.

But you still didn't answer my question.

<^>

As soon as the two seamen reached the safety of the upper corridor, Kowalski snickered, "Is Mr. Morton really that steamed, Stu?"

Riley grinned. "I don't know if he's steamed, exactly, but if he were any stiffer I could take him to the beach, wax him, and catch some waves."

"That flaky dame's really gettin' to him, huh?"

Riley's grin faded a little. "She's not all that flaky . She sorta reminds me of-- "

"Well if you ask me, she's just another trouble-maker scientist."

Relenting, Riley answered, "Yeah . . . maybe."

They had walked a few more feet before Kowalski asked, "So what's with the name?"

"Name? Oh, you mean Oscar?" Riley shrugged, "He needed a name, and . . . well . . . he sorta reminded me of that ghost on TV when I was a kid. I always dug him." He looked at Kowalski's blank expression. "Y'know - the friendly one on the cartoon."

"You mean Casper?"

Riley stopped short. "His name was Casper?"

"Yep."

"Oh," he said, crestfallen. "Bummer." After a few seconds of thought he asked, "Hey, Ski, gimme a break, huh? Don't let this out? Especially to Sharkey?"

Kowalski snorted. "Yeah, " he shook his head, smiling. "Sure." A few steps farther on he added, "You owe me one, kid."

<^>

"This galaxy is the Milky Way." Seaview's Exec printed the two words in precise letters at the top of his sketch.

As soon as Riley had returned to the Wardroom with his paraphernalia, Oscar returned also. However, it soon became obvious that none of the charts were suitable for showing an alien where Earth was; they all showed the layout of the skies from Earth, not including it. So the reluctant officer was forced to draft his own version.

"This star is the called the sun," he continued, again labeling the drawing. As he spoke he didn't look up at all, but focused his all his attention on his own presentation. " . . . and this boat, the Seaview, is located here, in the Pacific Ocean," he finished, indicating on the globe a remote part of that ocean.

"Mil-ky-way" the alien chimed, forming an appendage and pointing to the first drawing. This was followed by "sun, earth, pa-cif-ic-o-cean, sea-view," and finally, "here."

"Wonderful!" Mehrisout cried, giving the alien a thumbs-up. "May I?" she asked Morton, gesturing toward the globe. He nodded, and she repeated, "The Seaview is here, but my home," she pointed to herself, "is there, in Vermont." Then she handed the globe over to Riley, nodding encouragement.

He pointed to the southwestern United States and said, "My home is there, in California."

Without any further prompting, their pupil said, "El-ea-nor-meh-ri-sout-home-is-there-in-ver-mont. Stu-ri-ley- home-is-there-in-ca-li-for-nia." He stopped, as if to ponder, then continued, "chip-mor-ton-home-is-here-in-sea-view."

"No," Morton shook his head. Hesitating only briefly, he continued, "My home is there, in Illinois," pointing just southwest of Lake Michigan on the globe. With a quick glance at the Doctor, he moved directly to, "Where is your home?"

"Os-car home is in . . . " But as before, the answer was lost to the humans. Morton spread the charts on the table, offering them to the alien, but there was no further communication, and after several seconds, there was no alien, either.

"Riley, lay up to the Control Room and let the Admiral know that he's gone . . . again."

"Riley?" Mehrisout asked as the seaman was ducking through the door, "While you're gone, do you think you could do a favor for an old lady?"

"Sure thing, Dr. M.," he snickered, "Shoot."

"Could you get me another cup of tea?" she asked, holding out her mug.

"Gotcha . . . er . . . yes, ma'am," he stammered, when faced with the Exec's narrow glare. "Back in five."

Mehrisout let out a long, noisy sigh. "I guess it will probably be a while, don't you think?"

He looked up briefly from the notepad he was filling. "Most likely."

Not waiting this time for the silence to become oppressive, Mehrisout said, "You seem a little more relaxed, Commander."

"Relaxed?"

"Yes, relaxed," she smiled. "I thought I was the deaf one in here."

"In that case, you probably haven't heard," he said, poker-faced. "The Exec never relaxes. It's in the contract." He went back to work.

<^> Thursday 1230 <^>

Mehrisout's tea was long gone, and her own legal pad filled with notes, questions, observations, and doodles - doodles that might have been the beginnings of an alphabet, if she could have just gotten a handle on the language. But she couldn't - not yet, anyway. Riley had been and gone several times, running messages throughout the boat. Finally, even Morton showed signs of restlessness.

"I'm going up to the Control Room to see when we're getting back underway," he said while disentangling his tall frame from the chair and table.

WHOOMPH

The dull explosion reverberated through Seaview's hull, accompanied by a jolt which knocked the Doctor out of her seat. Surrounded and festooned with pens, papers, and one overturned chair, she found herself staring across the tilting floor at the bloodied face of the First Officer.

"Mr. Morton!" she cried, scrambling to a better position in the cramped quarters. "Commander!" Still nothing. "Chip! Can you hear me?"

"Yes, ma'am," he groaned, "perfectly." Opening one eye, he surveyed his position and groaned again.

"Oh dear," she wrinkled her nose. "You're bleeding a lot from that cut over your eye."

"Well, good," he said drily. "Anything that hurts this much needs to have a little blood," he probed his forehead gently, grimaced, then continued, "otherwise I get no sympathy at all." He tried to get up, but was stopped when his head hit the table again, this time from the opposite direction.

"Maybe you should just stay there," Mehrisout suggested. "Are you hurt anywhere else?"

"No. To both," Morton said, gathering his feet and legs under him, more cautiously this time.

"Well at least let me help you get up and cleaned off a little," she said, grabbing an arm to steady him. "Then we can see how bad it is."

Lightheaded, the Exec allowed himself to be shoved into a chair - no mean feat considering the disparity in their sizes and the twenty degree list to the deck - and cradled his head for the few seconds it took for Mehrisout to find some ice and clean, white napkins in the officers' galley.

"You're pretty good at this," he commented. "Had a lot of practice?"

"You're forgetting that I'm a mother," she grinned. "When my son Ben was two years old he fell and cut himself in just the same place. There was blood everywhere - scared his father and me half to death. Here, hold this," she placed his hand over a folded napkin above his left eye. "That was the beginning of my long and distinguished career in emergency medicine."

At the sound of running footsteps in the corridor, Mehrisout stuck her head out and flagged down Patterson.

"Mr. Morton's been hurt, can you help me get him to the Doctor?"

"Belay that, Patterson," Morton ordered as the seaman stepped through the hatch. "What happened? Were we attacked? What about damage?"

"No damage that I know of, sir. And the Skipper doesn't know what happened except that there was an explosion, and we're settled in a little tighter than we were."

"Anyone hurt?"

"That's what I was sent to find out, sir. You're the first one I've found." He looked anxiously at Morton's bloody uniform, and the spreading stain on the napkin he was holding. "I think Dr. Mehrisout's right, sir. You oughta get to Sick Bay."

"You're definitely going to need stitches in that, Commander, and the sooner you get it over with, the quicker you'll stop leaking," Mehrisout reasoned.

Morton debated a moment, then shook his head. "No, I need to--"

"Get to Sick Bay, mister." Capt. Crane, attracted by the voices, had skidded to a halt on his way to the Missile Room. "Patterson, make sure he gets there, then get back to the Control Room." Before Morton had a chance to protest, Crane was gone again.

"Then let's get it over with," he sighed. Feeling steadier, he shunned both Patterson and Mehrisout's aid, but grudgingly allowed their company.

<^>Thursday 1300 <^>

Thirty minutes, seven stitches, and one clean shirt later, Chip Morton finally made it to the Control Room.

"You're looking better." Crane's relieved smile turned suspicious, though, as he said, "Doc let you out pretty quick."

"He didn't have any charges to hold me on: I stopped bleeding, I refused to pass out, I didn't see any monsters, and," he grimaced, "there were no superior officers around to attack. So - barring relapses - I've been released on my own recognizance." Looking around, he asked more seriously, "What's our status?"

"We were all set to surface when the explosion occurred, somewhere off our starboard quarter. We estimate it was about a fifteen hundred yards off, but can't be sure."

"Any idea what caused it?"

"Depth charge, torpedo, the other sub - it could have been almost anything," he shook his head. "Without equipment, we have no way of telling what. " He lowered his voice and jerked his head toward the Observation Nose, where Nelson was peering vainly into the black water. "And if we don't find out something soon, I think he's going to drive me crazy."

"No damage to the boat?"

"Nothing permanent . . . " his voice trailed off as he looked over his friend's shoulder toward the aft hatch. "Looks like we have company." Morton turned to see Mehrisout standing uncertainly just outside the Control Room. Crane beckoned her in. "What can we do for you, Doctor?"

"Nothing, really," she said. "Dr. Jamieson ran out of patients for me to interfere with. I was heading back to my cabin when I wondered if there was anything I could do to get in the way up here."

Morton nodded first toward the new arrival, then up toward Nelson, shrugging a question.

Crane smiled. "Maybe you could help the Admiral, ma'am. I think he could use a fresh sounding-board about now."

Mehrisout brightened. "Now that sounds halfway useful. Thank you."

"By the way, how's O'Brien doing?"

"Dr. Jamieson seems to think he's doing fine, but the young man himself would probably voice a different opinion." She grimaced. "The concussion is still wreaking havoc with his stomach."

"Oh," Crane said, unconsciously wrinkling his nose.

WHOOMPH

This time the Exec had both feet firmly planted on the deck, and a sturdy handhold within reach. With his free hand he grabbed Dr. Mehrisout before she flew headlong into the silent sonar console. When the boat suddenly shifted to port - conveniently bringing the deck back to level - the two of them were thrown into an unexpected embrace.

Hiding her embarrassment behind a coy smile, Mehrisout looked up and whispered theatrically, "Why, this is a change of heart, Mr. Morton!"

"Are you all right?" he asked gruffly, attempting to extricate himself with ungentlemanly haste.

"Sorry, Commander," she smiled, with no visible sign of contrition, as she stepped backward. "I just couldn't resist. And yes, I'm-- "

"You are safe?"

With a startled jump Mehrisout whirled around, seeking the source of the pervasive sound. It took several seconds to comprehend that this perfectly understandable sentence had come from the newly-returned alien. "Yes, we're safe," she finally managed. "Are you safe?"

"I am safe."

After another half-minute of open-mouthed silence, Mehrisout stated the obvious: "You're speaking English."

"Yes. I listen much. I learn fast." He hesitated a second, then went on. "You learn slow."

Lee Crane was one of the few to succeed in suppressing a snicker at that observation. His worried scowl emphasizing his impatience, he demanded, "Do you know who is attacking us?"

"Yes. There are other men in another seaview."

Nelson had joined the group at the table, and after a only moment of confusion he said, "Seaview is a submarine. Is the other submarine nearby?"

"Yes. It is above."

The three senior officers exchanged worried looks. "We don't know who they are, but we think they are trying to kill us," Nelson continued.

"Why?"

"They want to steal something we have."

"Why don't you give it to them?"

Nelson hesitated barely an instant at the unexpected question. "We're afraid they would turn it into a weapon."

"What is this weapon?"

Crane jumped forward in protest, "It is not a weapon," he said firmly. "And before we reveal any more, we'd like to know a little more about you. For instance, where are you from? How did you get here? And why are you interested in us?"

"I am from . . . " and again the answer sounded more like an stately door-chime than anything else.

"Yes, we know that," Mehrisout said. "But that name doesn't mean anything to us. Do you know the name in English? Or can you show it to us on our chart?"

"Yes," was the only answer, and then he was gone.

"Now what!" Crane sputtered, slamming the chart table yet again. "Every time we ask him a question he disappears!" Whirling to face Nelson, he demanded, "And you're not really going to tell him anything, are you, Admiral?"

Treating the question as rhetorical, Nelson turned to Mehrisout. "How did you know where he came from?"

"Because he told us just before he left. I recognized the 'word', even though I have no idea what it might represent." She hesitated uncertainly before continuing, "I don't think it would be polite to keep him waiting."

"Waiting? Where?" Crane asked with rapidly waning tolerance.

"I betcha he's in the Wardroom, sir," Riley said, "waiting to show us where he's from on the chart we left in there."

Nelson looked to Morton for confirmation, which was given by a shrug and a nod.

"Well then, let's get going," he said as he stalked out of the room.

"Sparks!" the Exec called from the plot table.

"Aye, sir?" he said, emerging from his domain. "Another field promotion, sir?" he grinned.

With a warning grimace, Morton hooked his thumb toward the table and said, "Watch it, mister, or I'll promote you to Exec."

<^>Thursday 1315 <^>

"The left star in Orion's belt . . . that's Mintaka," Nelson read from the paper in front of him. "You're from Mintaka?"

"No. Mintaka is a sun. No one can live on a sun," the alien voice explained patiently. "I'm from the fourth earth away from Mintaka."

While it took some time to get used to the chiming, resonant "accent", once their ears were accustomed to the sound, there was very little difficulty understanding the alien's words. Not smiling at his way with those words was another challenge entirely.

"I think you mean the fourth planet from your star, Oscar," Mehrisout said. "'Earth' is the name of our planet, and 'sun' is what we call our star."

"Dig," said the alien.

"What did he say?"

"I believe he's learned a lot of his English from listening to Riley," Mehrisout said.

Nelson rolled his eyes. "I see." But this time it was impossible to conceal the accompanying grin.

"That answers the question of where you are from, but why did you come?" Nelson asked. "How did you get here?" His eyes narrowed to a frown before he asked his final question. "And what do you want from us?"

"We came because you signaled."

"We!" Nelson blurted. "How many of you are there?"

There was a lengthy silence, accompanied by various flickerings, which threatened to end once again in Oscar's disappearance. But at length, the alien form seemed to coalesce, and an answer came. It was not, however, in English.

After the entity solidified from fluid translucence to a nearly opaque, uniform alabaster, his exotic voice ascended in a gentle threnody. The mournful notes, if they could be called notes, cascaded up and down the audible frequencies. They rippled and swelled, weaving themselves into an elegiac fugue of incredible complexity, the final, sweet notes of which resolved into a blossom of determination and hope. The silence which filled the Wardroom swirled with the bereavement, isolation, courage, and beauty of the requiem, and for what seemed like hours the five humans sat in mute contemplation, while their otherworldly visitor undulated gently, enigmatic in his luminous repose.

Very quietly Mehrisout asked, "Can you tell us what happened?"

"Yes. We were sent to . . . investigate your signal."

"The SCUTR?" Nelson asked.

"Yes. That is the name you give it. We are scientists. We were sent to find the source of this sound. We came to answer and help those in trouble."

"Nobody was in trouble until you arrived," Crane muttered irritably, catching the Admiral's glare from the corner of his eye.

"Your signal said . . . otherwise," the alien said simply. "But we encountered difficulties as we approached. Your star was . . . violent. Our vessel was damaged, and my companion rashly attempted to make repairs before . . . determining the safety of his actions. He is no more." He paused only an instant before continuing. "Therefore, I am only one now."

It was several seconds before Nelson responded, "We are very sorry for your loss." He didn't have a chance to say more before the voice again took up its melodic explanation.

"We were aware of the dangers of the journey before we came. We also knew we would be in a . . . hostile place. We were both prepared for the consequences."

Ignoring the blunt assessment, Mehrisout asked, "What do you mean, 'your signal said otherwise'?"

"The frequency you have been attempting to use is . . . universally . . . recognized and reserved for distress signals. We were . . . honor-bound to respond."

"I see," Nelson said.

"In spite of your objections, danger is imminent."

"What do you know about that?" Crane demanded.

"Yes," Nelson said more moderately, "Can you help us?"

"It would be . . . unwise for me to . . . intervene in minor barbaric conflicts," the visitor intoned solemnly, ignoring the Captain's rising ire, "but I observed that you were attacked without . . . provocation, and I wish to know why."

After shooting a warning toward the Admiral, Crane leaned back and sighed in resignation. "I believe we've already told you that," he said flatly. "They want something we have."

"Yes, the weapon."

"It is not a weapon!" Crane repeated his earlier assertion.

"But it could be used as one, correct?"

"It could be used as an aid in war," Nelson intervened, "but that is not our intention. We intend it to be used only to aid communications and rescue operations."

"But intentions can change," the alien said, "and often do."

"Unfortunately, you are right," Nelson admitted. "But it is our wish that this research be used for peaceful, humanitarian purposes."

After a long pause that was far too long for the Captain's stretched nerves the alien spoke again. "Yes, you are speaking the truth. Perhaps we can help each other."

<^>

Each time the alien vanished it was a little less shocking. But it was no less irritating to the Captain. "Chip, you don't think we should trust this thing, do you?"

With a quick glance at Mehrisout, Chip winced at the terminology. "He's telling the truth, Lee. We can trust him."

"How do you know that?" the Captain asked incredulously. "How can you know it? You, of all people!"

"Lee," Nelson reasoned, "it's obvious we have a problem. Can you think of a better resource? Further, does it make sense to try to hide our modest achievements from such a technologically advanced individual? It would be like my nephew hiding his tin-cans and wire from the president of Bell Telephone, for fear he'd steal the technology."

"Beyond that, Captain," Mehrisout continued the argument, "you yourself sat in that very seat not four hours ago and said that you had felt 'vibrations' from him. And can you tell me you felt nothing when he just related the loss of his friend? The Admiral gave us his theory about Oscar's ability to project and read emotions and attitudes. It's that projection that lets me - and Mr. Morton and Riley - know that Oscarr is not lying. I don't think this is something he can turn off and on at will; it's a part of his make-up, like your black hair, and Riley's blue eyes. He can't read your mind, nor could you read his, but you can read each other's attitudes and intents." She paused. "In other words, even though you can't understand what he's saying, you couldn't lie to each other if you tried."

Crane's dark eyes smouldered as he looked around the table. "Then I guess I'm outnumbered."

Now it was Chip Morton's turn to be concerned about his friend's bitterness. He glanced toward Admiral . . .

WHOOMPH

. . . but saw neither him nor anything else for the next several seconds. The impact was milder than previous ones. Nevertheless, by the time the emergency lights were doing their jobs, there was no thought of exchanging worried looks.

Crane grabbed the mike from the wall. "Damage Control, report!" The fact that there was no response from the nonfunctional equipment didn't improve his state of mind.

"Chip, get to the Control Room and find out what happened," Crane ordered the already-moving officer. "And," he called down the corridor, "I want you to issue sidearms to all officers."

"Lee!" the Exec exclaimed as he whirled around, "Guns? . . . Why . . .?" But the look on the Captain's face left no room for questions. The dutiful "Aye, sir" didn't mask his misgivings.

"Riley, get to the Missile Room and see what's happening there. Report to Mr. Morton as soon as you find out."

"Aye, sir."

"There were some signs of weakening up at Frame 48 after that last blast," Nelson said. "I'm going to go check on it." He paused a fraction of a second before adding, "Come along with me, Lee." It didn't sound like a request.

Biting back anything else he might have been thinking, the Captain simply said, "Aye, sir."

"You," said Nelson, turning back to Dr. Mehrisout, "stay here. Our friend just may come back, and-- "

"-- you don't want me cluttering up the corridors. Understood, Admiral. I'll be right here."

<^>

It didn't take long to see that the Admiral's concerns had been well founded.

"How bad is it, Sharkey?"

"Not as bad as it looks, sir." He was standing shin deep in murky water, as were Patterson and Clark. At least his uniform was still dry in a couple of spots. "I think the impact just knocked the seal outta whack on the coupling here," he jerked his head toward the ceiling. "We'll know for sure in a minute."

"Very well, Chief," he nodded. "I'll be back to check. Carry on."

The two officers turned down the corridor to continue looking for trouble spots. But Nelson was hard-pressed to even keep up with his harassed Captain, let alone confront him. Finally, after rounding a corner into a relatively private accessway, he caught Crane's elbow. "Lee, wait."

"Wait? For what? For them to pound us to death? Should I just roll over and play dead? Or maybe I should--"

"Maybe you should stop and think about what you're doing."

"Admiral," he snapped with pent up frustration, "how do you know this . . . this . . . creature isn't just a diversion, setting us up for an attack and providing the coordinates to carry it out? Has it presented us with one, single shred of evidence to back up its story?" He stopped, but Nelson just stood there, hands in pockets, waiting for his friend to finish what he'd started. "Just because the 'good Doctor' has convinced Chip and Riley that it's telling the truth . . ."

His voice trailed off, and he slowly relaxed against the bulkhead, running a hand roughly through his hair. "Did you ever think . . . " He paused again. "Isn't it just possible that everybody's been hoodwinked by its high-sounding morality? Am I that far off-base?"

There was silence for a few seconds. "No, Lee," Nelson finally said. "You aren't off-base. You're doing what you were trained to do - what I want you to keep on doing. You're protecting this boat and her crew. There's nothing off-base about that."

"But why am I the only one who doesn't seem to trust him? Why are you showing him such deference? Why does Chip - Chip, of all people! - trust him? What do you see that I don't?"

"First, I'm not so sure I do trust him entirely. But I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt until I have reason to believe otherwise. I remember our very first encounter with an extra-terrestrial life-form, and the fact that if I hadn't trusted his good intentions - and persuaded you to do the same - we wouldn't be here today." Nelson paused to allow that memory to surface in Crane's mind. "But that doesn't mean I want you to stop being the devil's advocate. That's usually Chip's job," he chuckled, "but now it's up to you, because without that balance we're liable to tip the wrong direction."

"Aye, sir," a somewhat calmer Captain replied. "I'll keep that in mind."

<^>

"There you are, sir," Patterson said, sloshing to a halt at the intersection. "The Chief says to tell you that the leak is all tight now. And Riley's looking for you to tell you that the alien is back in the Wardroom."

"That was quick," Nelson said. "Any other problems reported?"

"None that I've heard about, sir."

"Good," Nelson nodded. " Now get up to the Control Room and tell Mr. Morton that as soon as he can be spared I want him back in the Wardroom."

"Aye, sir."

"And after that," the Captain added, "get into something dry."

"Aye, aye, sir!" Patterson grinned broadly as he squelched away.

<^> Thursday 1345 <^>

"You need to explain this to Admiral Nelson, Oscar. I'm not part of Seaview's crew. I'm just a passenger."

"Explain what?" Nelson said as he stepped through the door.

"Admiral Nelson, you do not need to worry about the other submarine," the visitor intoned politely. "It is going away now."

"How do you know that?" Crane asked.

"Because it is following the dolphins."

Nelson coughed. "And why is it following dolphins?"

"Since their equipment is functioning no better than yours, it was easy to mislead them. The men inside think the dolphins are Seaview."

"And how do you know that?" Crane asked.

"Because I heard them." The alien paused before continuing his explanation. "It seemed wise to have the dolphins lead it away from here. So I asked them."

There was a stunned silence in the room.

"You asked them," Crane repeated slowly.

"Yes. I taught them what to do. Even though the task was dangerous, they wished to help."

"They told you that."

"Yes," the alien said matter-of-factly.

"That's it!" A flash of sudden comprehension illumined Eleanor Mehrisout's face. "That's what I've been reaching for!"

"What's it, Doctor?" Nelson asked, "What do you know about this?"

As Chip Morton and Stu Riley stepped into the room, Dr. Mehrisout started babbling excitedly.

"Do you remember when I said that the answer was right on the other side of the door? Well, that's it! That's the door! That's where I've heard Oscar's language before."

Seeing no logical reason for her euphoria within those few words, Nelson prompted, "Go on."

"The tapes! Don't you remember? All those tapes I brought along of the dolphins from Rakahanga. Well, since things got so entertaining around here I haven't really had a chance to listen to them, but I should have, because they hold the key! Their 'anomalous'," she crooked her fingers to make quotation marks, "language is really Oscar's language. He must have taught it to them."

She stopped to take a breath. "So of course he can talk to them, and understand them, and he's even managed to get them to reply in a semblance of his own language. And that's why I felt so close to understanding it - it was like déjà vu, only I didn't realize it . . . and it was déjà heard," she grinned, "instead of vu." She had wound down somewhat, and now stopped to look around. "Did any of that make sense?" she asked sheepishly.

"I can dig it," Riley offered.

Ignoring him, Crane said, "So you're saying that you have evidence to back up this alien's claim of being able to communicate with dolphins."

"Yes," she said, suddenly defensive. "And 'this alien' has a name. Even though we can't pronounce it, he has a name."

"You can pronounce it," the alien in question broke in. "My name is Oscar."

The Captain's eyebrows raised at the outburst - and its response. "Excuse me," he said with forced civility, "but I'm still getting used to the idea that he's talking at all."

"Lee," Chip intervened, "I think I can confirm that the sub is gone. Lopez was up in the Escape Hatch re-checking one of the communications lines, and he reported hearing what sounded like propellers start up, then fade as if they were moving away. Sparks and Kowalski both think they might have heard the same thing from the Control Room. I don't know why the rest of us couldn't hear it; maybe we were making too much noise of our own."

Through all this, Admiral Nelson just stood, hands in pockets, wry smile on his lips, occasionally rocking up on his toes. "So Captain, what do you think? Is this enough evidence to convince even a stand-in Eeyore?" He arched an eyebrow at the Exec, and aimed a wink at Mehrisout.

Crane persisted. "I've heard dolphins 'converse' hundreds of times, Doctor, and what I've heard from him," he nodded in the alien's direction, "doesn't sound a bit like them." While the words still evidenced his reservations, his tone was considerably less combative than it had been five minutes earlier.

"It's not the sounds I recognize, precisely, it's the patterns, the intonation, the inflection. The dolphins that I'm going to study at Rakahanga - the ones that are so unusual - they have those same patterns, the same intonation. It's as if you heard a the Star-Spangled Banner being played by a harmonica, in a minor key, backwards. It certainly wouldn't sound the same, but you'd be able to recognize it, even if only to say, 'Don't I know that?'"

She stopped a moment to gather her arguments into one final volley. "I'm convinced that Oscar is the one who taught those dolphins to talk, so no wonder they sound strange to the researchers - they're speaking Mintakan!"

Capt. Crane stood contemplating the Wardroom table for some time, then finally said, "If I accept all this - which, in light of the still-unanswered questions is a big 'if' - but assuming I do," he turned to the Admiral, "what do we do next?"

"Well, it seems to me the first thing we should do," Nelson turned toward Oscar with a gracious smile, "is thank our guest."

"Don't . . . mention it," said guest answered. "Is that the correct response?"

"Yeah," Riley nodded. "That's cool."

The alien then inclined his form toward Crane and continued. "And I also wish to say to the Captain that I am not disturbed by his distrust. It is necessary to investigate before assigning trust. I would do the same thing in the presence of a being so far beyond my small comprehension."

Crane's forced smile reflected his ambivalence toward their brutally polite visitor.

"I have offended you again."

"No, no," Nelson shook his head with a rueful grin. "It's just that we don't often hear our shortcomings described so . . . bluntly."

"Please accept my apologies." Oscar's form inclined in a fluid bow. "Now may we begin work on your SCUTR?"

While Crane didn't look particularly pleased, he didn't object. "Yes, yes, of course," Nelson answered. "First, though, you said you 'heard' the men on the other submarine." He cocked his head. "How? Were you on their boat, too?"

Oscar pondered a moment. "Yes, I suppose you could say I was there, just as you could say I am here."

"Then can you tell us who they are?" Morton asked. "Or where they're from?"

"Why do you ask? I thought you knew," the alien said. "If you do not even know who they are, how can you know what they want?"

"We have very strong suspicions as to who they are, based upon the way they are acting. Your information could confirm our belief."

The Mintakan then described the black uniforms, and spoke several sentences in the sing-song guttural language he'd heard on the other sub.

"People's Republic," Morton muttered.

"No doubt about it," Crane concurred. "Probably the new Vulcan II."

Nelson nodded his agreement. "These are a people who lack integrity, but abound in a desire for power," Nelson explained.

"I have seen that already," Oscar replied.

"May I ask you another question?"

"You may," the alien said patiently.

"How do you materialize and vanish so quickly?" Nelson thought a second before adding, "And how did you manage to appear in so many different guises? How did you know which persona to use for each different man? Where did you get your information?"

Oscar's luminous form percolated for nearly a minute before he answered. "Your questions confuse me. I did not change."

"But each person who saw you, saw a different likeness."

"It was your seeing that was different; not my being." After several seconds of baffled silence from his listeners, Oscar produced the Mintakan equivalent of a deep sigh, then continued. "You all saw what you wanted to see. I am different from you. My form - my true form - is not easy for you to see. Instead, you see a mirror of your preconceptions. When you sensed my alien-ness, you expected something hideous and frightful; you found it comforting to believe you were the only sane, kind, wise race in the universe. Even after you found out I was not a threat, you still saw what you expected, or wanted, to see: a monster from outer space. Eleanor Mehrisout had no preconceived notions about what an alien ought to look like. She saw me without the veil of prejudice. That is why she, and Riley, were able to help the rest of you look beyond yourselves and begin see who I am."

"Saint-Exupéry ," Nelson murmured.

"Santa who?" Crane asked.

"It's a line from a children's book," Nelson said. "'It is only with the heart that one sees rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eyes.' It's from The Little Prince, by Saint-Exupéry."

"Precisely, Admiral," the alien said, like a long-suffering teacher whose backward student has finally grasped an elementary concept.

"Well, now," Nelson said, returning to their previous objective, "hadn't we better . . . "

"But you didn't answer the Admiral's other question, Oscar." Riley blurted, undaunted by - or unheeding - his superiors' impatience.

The alien pulsated briefly before answering. "How do I materialize and vanish so quickly?" he repeated. "I do neither. I am not here at all; I am aboard my vessel."

"Then you're a hologram?" Nelson asked, after brief silence.

"That is a primitive explanation, Admiral, but it will do. I am a . . . hologram." Then, as if he had just announced tomorrow's weather forecast, he asked, "May we work on the SCUTR now?"

<^> Thursday 1500 <^>

"Hello, Riley"

The young sailor dropped the tray he was carrying, sending plates skittering, utensils clanging, and soup splattering in fifteen different directions. "Oscar!" he said, woefully surveying the damage, "Aren't you supposed to be with the Admiral?"

"He has no need of me now. I wanted to talk to you. You are not so . . . uptight as the others."

"I'm gonna be up tight in trouble if I don't get this policed in a hurry."

"Do you need assistance?"

"Thanks for asking, Oscar, but I can do it myself. Besides, there's nothing a hologram could do anyway." But when he looked up he realized he was talking to the bulkhead. "Split the scene again . . . " he mumbled.

"Oh my goodness, Riley! What happened here?" Dr. Mehrisout knelt down and started to pick up shards of broken china.

"Now where'd you come from, Dr. M.?" he asked. "If people don't quit popping up on me, I'm gonna flip out for real!"

Mehrisout grinned. "Oscar came and told me you 'needed assistance'; so here I am." She looked at the creamy red liquid coating the bulkhead, deck, and Riley's left shoe. "What is that, anyway?"

"It was your lunch tray. Mr. Morton told me you were staying in your cabin to listen to those dolphin tapes, and that you hadn't had anything but tea to drink all day. He thought you needed some food." He looked down at the floor. "So here it is," he finished glumly.

"That was very sweet of both of you, but I was just on my way out anyway. I needed a study break. Where can I find a rag?"

"I'll get a mop, Ma'am. You just stay here, and divert Sharkey if you see him coming."

"Will do."

Ten minutes later - corridor spic and span and broken dishes stowed - Riley and Mehrisout were sitting together in the enlisted mess with sandwiches and coffee . . . and tea.

"Hello, Dr. Mehrisout. Hello, Riley."

"Hiya, Oscar, whatcha been up to?" Riley asked cheerfully. "Besides scarin' the livin' daylights outta me?"

It took several moments of cogitation to decipher his comments, but finally the alien answered Riley, "I have been assisting the Admiral. However, the remainder of his task is physical, and he is being assisted by Chief Sharkey."

"And were you successful?" Mehrisout asked.

"We were."

"So he cut you loose?"

After translating time, Oscar replied, "Yes."

"He didn't want you hangin' over his shoulder, huh?" Riley grinned.

"I was not hanging anywhere, Riley."

"I didn't mean--"

What sounded like an exotic, chiming chuckle was heard. "I know what you meant, Riley. I was . . . pulling your leg."

"Oh," the bewildered young seaman murmured. "Hey! Where'd you learn--"

"Ahem. Riley, maybe we should change the subject before we confuse you even more." Turning to their visitor, Mehrisout picked up her tea mug and said, "Since you're here, Oscar, tell me about your dolphins. When and where did you meet them?"

"The dolphins greeted us on our arrival."

"So you weren't alone then," Mehrisout asked gently, "or -- "

"I was soon alone. They offered companionship."

"You mean you just started rappin' with 'em?" a fully recovered Riley asked. "Could ya understand what they were saying?"

"Their language is even simpler than yours;" Oscar explained, "it was quite easy to learn. But since they are inquisitive, imitative creatures, they also wished to learn my language."

"And could they?" Mehrisout asked. "Could they actually make the sounds?"

"No, as with humans, their physiology prevented them from making the necessary sounds. But they could, as you noted, mimic the patterns, and intonation."

"And they weren't scared?"

"No," Oscar seemed to chuckle again, "they were able to keep their living daylights. They saw only reflections of themselves. As they learned more about me, their perception quickly changed, just as yours did. But it never included fear."

Several minutes passed. But Riley, abhorring silence almost as much as nature abhors a vacuum, asked, "So Oscar, what is your name? I mean your real name?"

"The concept of names is very different in our society than in yours. I do not have a 'real name' as you conceive of it. But I like the idea, and I may keep Oscar." He hesitated. "Perhaps I will revolutionize our society." Again there was a burbling sound that may have been laughter.

"Oh jeez," Riley said, looking at the clock on the bulkhead, "I'm late, and if Sharkey catches me one more time--"

'But he won't catch you," Mehrisout reminded him. "He's in the lab with the Admiral."

"Oh yeah," Riley suddenly grinned. "But I'd better get going anyway. Word might get back to him."

Quick footsteps were heard in the corridor. "Riley!" Kowalski poked his head into the room. "You'd better make tracks for the Missile Room, kid, cause Sharkey's on the warpath - and it's your scalp he's after!"

"Uh oh, I guess they got done quicker than we expected." He turned as he hopped over the knee-knocker, "See you guys later . . . if I'm still alive!"

"Is he in danger?" Oscar asked Mehrisout.

"He didn't look particularly worried," she laughed, "so I don't think we need to be . . . But then, I've never seen a Chief on the warpath."

<^> Thursday 1600 <^>

"As you can see, Gentlemen, I think that at least one of our problems is solved, and quite satisfactorily."

Nelson had just finished an overview of the improvements made upon the SCUTR. While his Captain and First Officer were marginally interested in the scientific aspects of the Admiral's work, Dr. Mehrisout wore the glazed expression of polite boredom, and Stu Riley was in need of an elbow in the ribs . . . which Mehrisout thoughtfully administered.

"That's all well and good for the SCUTR, Admiral," Crane said, "but what about our communications?"

Nelson arched an eyebrow. "There's not a thing wrong with our communications."

"Nothing wrong!" Morton nearly shouted. "Then how come--"

"You didn't let me finish, Mr. Morton," Nelson said with obvious relish. "There's nothing mechanical, electrical, or in any other physical way wrong with our communications. All Oscar needs to do is . . ." He nodded toward their guest.

"When it is safe, you will both see and hear," the alien stated without further explanation. "But Admiral Nelson and I have decided that your best course of action is to maintain the silence."

"Why?" Crane asked. "Wouldn't it be better to be able to know exactly what the Vulcan is doing out there?"

"If you could hear them, then they could hear you. That would not be advantageous."

The Captain's somewhat tenuous grip on equanimity was developing stress fractures. "So what do you propose we do?" his artificial smile did nothing to mask his irritation. "Hide here till somebody comes to rescue us?"

"No, Lee, I do not," the Admiral answered. "We've come up with a plan."

<^>

"I don't like it, Admiral. It's not safe," Lee Crane frowned fifteen minutes later. "In fact, it's downright crazy."

"It may be crazy, Lee, but I'm convinced it's our safest course of action." He paused a moment before adding, "And it's a fantastic opportunity to see inside their newest, state-of-the-art submarine."

"Is that your only reason? You're going to risk the lives of my men for your scientific curiosity? Right now that sub doesn't know where we are, and I'd like to keep it that way. While they're away on their supposed wild dolphin chase why can't we just leave - sonar or no sonar - while we've got the chance?"

"Because, Captain, my ability to render their equipment useless is spatially limited; it will not take them very long to realize they've been fooled. They will return."

"Just as important, Lee, we want to find out how much they know about SCUTR. Then we need to make them think that it is either too utterly worthless, or dangerous to have in their possession."

Crane weighed his thoughts before continuing. "And how do you propose to carry out this little charade?"

"With two volunteers. The only criteria, really, are an open mind and quick wit. Even speaking the language isn't necessary, although it might be handy. A flair for the dramatic wouldn't hurt either," he added with a slight grin. "The rest is in Oscar's hands." Throughout his explanation, Nelson had pointedly avoided his First Officer's gaze, but now he allowed himself to glance in that direction.

"I'll do it, sir."

Nelson solemnly regarded his First Officer. "Are you sure, Mr. Morton?"

"Yes, sir," he nodded simply.

"But Chip!" Crane's exasperation exploded again. "Think about it: Do you really want to swim who knows how far to a phantom space ship - whose existence we can't even verify - only to put yourself into a contraption we don't understand, to be magically transported by some kind of fantastic voodoo into the middle of a hostile enemy's submarine? And all under the direction of an questionable alien claiming to be from a planet whose existence we also can't verify, because it's a thousand light years away?"

Chip Morton's only answer was a nod and a glance in his friend's direction. There was neither fear nor uncertainty in that look; only a calm determination illumined the clear blue eyes.

Crane pondered for a moment before he turned his attack back upon Harriman Nelson. "Admiral, please . . . you can't really be serious about this." Seeing that Nelson was serious, he set his jaw and continued, "I won't allow my men to be--"

"Lee," Morton said quietly, "let it go. I'm the one volunteering. If you don't trust him," he indicated Oscar, "then trust the Admiral. And trust me."

Crane looked helplessly from one friend to another. Finally, he puffed out a long sigh, raising his hands in resignation. "I don't understand, and I guess I'll never understand. It's your game, Admiral."

Nelson nodded his acknowledgment. "Now, Mr. Morton," he continued, "we need another 'volunteer'. Who would you suggest?"

Stu Riley had been squirming in his seat for nearly five minutes, as Chip Morton well knew. However, he elaborately avoided looking in that direction as he made great pretense of pondering the question. Finally, after long and careful deliberation, he said, "Do you think Riley has enough experience?"

With only the hint of a twinkle in his blue eyes, Nelson said. "I might have suggested one of the older men." He paused slightly. "Maybe Kowalski, or Patterson."

Seldom had Riley's determination to maintain protocol been so taxed. But determined he was, and even though his face was the shade of a ripe pomegranate, he resolutely kept his body planted and his mouth closed.

"I considered them, but there's that matter of the 'open mind'," Morton explained. "They tend to be a little set in their ways."

"You may be right," Nelson nodded gravely. "Well, why don't you ask him if he's interested?"

Too much. The young man exploded. "I'm your man, sir," he grinned broadly. "I can't speak the language, but Mr. Morton can, can't you?" Barely waited for affirmation before continuing. "So he can handle that end, and I'll handle the 'dramatic flair' business." Riley never noticed the look of mild resentment at this impugnation of his First Officer's theatrical abilities. "I think the whole thing sounds like a trip and a half, and I can't wait to see Oscar's pad."

"Mr. Morton?" Nelson asked.

"Sounds like we have a volunteer." He finally turned in Riley's direction, revealing just the passing shadow of a fiendish grin.

"Good, then let's get started."

"Uh, sir?" Riley wrinkled his brow, suddenly deflated from his recent enthusiasm. "I understand what you want to accomplish, but . . . um . . . what exactly is supposed to happen once we get aboard the Vulcan? I mean, besides acting, we can't actually do anything, can we?"

"No, Riley," Oscar answered. "You will be unable to affect your surroundings, because you will not be there; you will be aboard my vessel. You will observe, and be observed."

"'Be observed' . . ." Chip asked, "what do you mean by that?" He leaned forward in his seat. "Just how will they see us?"

"They are even more suspicious and easily alarmed than you are," a fact the Mintakan seemed to find difficult to comprehend. "They should see you in the same way you first saw me: as projections of their own fear."

"But I thought you said that it was only you - Mintakans - who were mirrors," Riley said. "Won't they see us as us?"

"That is possible - "

" - but not very likely," Nelson quickly interjected. "Oscar is confident he can adjust the settings on his device so that you will appear as Mintakan."

"But what if he can't?" Crane objected. "What if they recognize Chip and Riley over there?"

"They can't shoot us as spies, can they?" Riley looked just the slightest bit worried.

"You won't be there to shoot," Mehrisout leaned in to remind him in a theatrical whisper. "Remember?"

"Oh, yeah."

"However, it would put a serious wrinkle in our plans," the Admiral continued. "I'm assuming they know little or nothing of the purpose and function of the SCUTR. If they see members of our crew, they might assume we used it to put them there, and be all the more desperate to get their hands on the technology."

"If you don't mind the interruption, can I ask a silly question?" Mehrisout said. Receiving an encouraging nod, she continued, "Why do they have to see anything? Is it possible to just turn the picture off, the same way you might on a TV?"

"I regret that I can not do that," the Mintakan answered. "The equipment was not designed for the purpose of espionage, and I do not have the knowledge or skill to modify it. I am not a communications specialist; that was the jurisdiction of my partner."

"It was a good thought, though, Doctor," Nelson said. "One which we had already explored and discarded, however."

"But you still haven't said what we are supposed to do there," Riley persisted.

"First, a little espionage: you're going to see what kind of equipment they have. But beyond that - and more importantly - you're going to persuade them to leave. And if you can further dissuade them from any future interest in the SCUTR, you'd have more than fulfilled your mission."

"Any advice as to how they're supposed to do all that?" Crane asked.

"That's where the dramatic flair comes in." Nelson's eyebrow arched over a twinkle in his eyes.

And Lt. Commander Morton looked considerably less sure than he had just a few moments earlier.

<^>Thursday 1900 <^>

"Exactly how confident are you about all this, Chip?"

"You really don't want to be asking me questions like that," he snorted. Seeing that his attempt at humor went unacknowledged, Morton sobered some. "Hey, I'm a sane man, Lee," he said, "I understand the risks, and I think the goal is worth taking them."

Three hours had passed since the conference in the Wardroom began, two of which were spent with Adm. Nelson, Lt. Cmdr. Morton, Seaman 1/c Riley, and one elusive alien brainstorming details, plans, contingency plans, and emergency plans. Now the Captain and Exec were sitting in the Captain's quarters, finishing a final review of the mission.

"Then why . . . "

"Because it needs to be done," he said dispassionately. "Look, the Admiral's right; it's the perfect opportunity to see the replacement for the Vulcan we blew up. ONI would kill for that information . . . literally," he grimaced. "But all that aside, we have to keep them from getting their hands on SCUTR. You know as well as I do what they'd do with it - and it wouldn't be saving lives. Oscar's handed us an opportunity to do both at once." He looked up and added with another wry grin, "Besides which, I'm almost looking forward to seeing this ship of his."

"Looking forward to--! " Crane sputtered. "Isn't this Mr. Probably-Need-Us-To-Blow-Up-The-World Morton?"

"Listen, Lee," he leaned forward earnestly in his seat, "I'm not saying that I'm as eager-beaver as Riley, or that I have the scientific curiosity of the Admiral, but since I am going, I'm going to make the best of it. You have to admit, it is a unique opportunity, and if it works, it's a perfect solution to several problems."

"If it works," Crane emphasized darkly.

After a minute, the Captain tried one more assault on his friend's resolve. "We could still run, you know. Let 'Oscar'" - he said the word as if it had an odd taste - "give us back our eyes and ears, and then we could fight it out on an even playing field."

"And how many of our men might be killed on that field? We have no idea of this new sub's capabilities. They just might be able to outfight us."

Crane frowned unhappily, then took another tack. "But why you? Wouldn't it be better to let-- "

"Let who? The Admiral?" Morton shook his head. "O'Brien can't go, and no one else would know what to look for." He thought a moment. "Besides you, of course, but that's out of the question."

"What do you mean?" Crane asked, first puzzled, then suddenly defensive. "Just because I don't trust our new-found friend doesn't mean--"

Morton waited a moment before he stated what was, to him, the obvious. "Because I'm expendable, Lee. You're not."

In the flat silence that followed Morton's statement, footsteps were heard pounding down the corridor.

Crane barely acknowledged the urgent knocking. "Come in!" the Exec called over his shoulder.

"Sir, they're back," Patterson reported.

"The sub?" Morton asked.

"Yes, sir. Lopez, up in the emergency hatch, thought he heard them about ten minutes ago. And we can hear their engines in the Control Room, now, although the sound kinda comes and goes, as if they're following a search pattern."

"I see," Crane finally responded. "Very well, Pat. Thanks. And tell the Admiral I'll be up directly."

"Aye, sir."

As Patterson shut the door, Morton pulled his feet under him and said, "That seals it."

"You really think Riley can handle this?"

"Look, Lee, we may not go for his taste in music, women, or lingo , but he's a good seaman. You know it and I know it. He knows this sub as well as anybody - considering his track record in escaping Sharkey, maybe better than some," he grinned. "He can follow orders, and - more important - he can think on his feet and improvise. Add to that the bonus that he's particularly attuned to this visitor of ours, and the sum is that he's the best man for the job."

"I suppose you're right."

"You know I'm right."

Crane nodded grudgingly. "When?"

Morton looked at his watch. "Now."

"It'll take you a few minutes to get suited up. I'll see you down in the Missile Room before you take off."

"OK." Morton rose and pulled a packet of envelopes out of the file folder he'd been holding. He handed them quickly to the Captain. "Here. That's both mine and Riley's. You'll see that they get to the right people?"

Crane stared at the envelopes, and clenched his teeth. Finally, he nodded. "Of course." Placing them inside his desk, he also rose. "Ten minutes?"

"Aye, sir."

<^>

"You psyched, Mr. Morton?" Riley asked as he pulled on his wet-suit.

"Probably not the word I'd use," the Exec rolled his eyes. "But I'm ready."

"Wonder when Oscar's gonna get here?"

"He is here."

Riley whirled around. "You gotta quit doin' that, man." Riley grabbed his chest dramatically. "You're gonna be the death of me yet."

"That would be unfortunate."

Morton was still wincing at Riley's choice of words when he saw Crane step through the hatch, followed by Nelson and Dr. Mehrisout. "Any further instructions?" he asked the Admiral.

"No, you seem to have everything well in hand." He turned toward the alien. "Is everything ready on your ship?"

"I have adjusted the environmental controls for their safety and comfort," Oscar said. "When they leave Seaview, I will guide them."

"How long will it take to get there?" Crane asked.

"Very little time. I am nearby."

Wondering what "nearby" might mean to an alien who had just traveled a thousand light years, Crane merely nodded.

"Then that's it," Morton said, donning the last of his gear.

"Hey, how about a kiss for good luck, Dr. M?" Riley was bouncing with energy and enthusiasm.

"Huh?" Was the linguist's inarticulate reply. She glanced over at Adm. Nelson for guidance.

"Well it's hardly orthodox," he chuckled, "but I can't recall any specific prohibitive regulations."

Stepping forward, Riley leaned down to accept her peck on the cheek. "How 'bout you, Mr. Morton?" he grinned mischievously.

"Never let it be said that I turned my back on good luck." Seaview's First Officer offered a handshake, but when Mehrisout, blushing mightily, reached out to accept, he instead bowed formally and kissed her hand. With a gallant smile - and a wink - he said, "Thank you, ma'am."

"And they say chivalry is dead." After curtseying her thanks she retreated, chuckling, behind Crane and Nelson.

Chief Sharkey spun open the hatch and placed their pack of dry clothes inside. Motioning for Riley to enter, Morton turned back and nodded his farewell. "I'd like to say we'll report back every fifteen minutes . . ."

"And I'd like to hear it. But under the circumstances, we'll just have to make do." Nelson patted him on the shoulder. "Good luck, Chip. See you in a couple of hours."

"Aye, sir."

Crane, who had been silent, stepped in to assist his friend through the hatch. "Just so you know, Chip," he said quietly, " . . . you're not."

Chip Morton allowed himself a fleeting smile, and momentarily grasped his friend's arm. "See ya soon, Lee."

The hatch sealed, the chamber filled quickly with seawater. As soon as it was verified that the two men had made a safe exit, Sharkey walked over to the Captain, shaking his head in confusion. "Not what, sir?"

"What?" Crane shook himself out of a reverie. "Oh . . . nothing, Chief. Nothing." Still preoccupied, he hurried out of the room.

<^> Thursday 2100 <^>

"It's been too long." Crane said. "We should have heard something by now."

"I know, Lee, I know."

Two hours later, Seamen Kowalski and Patterson were taking turns glancing nervously at the peripatetic cloud of smoke in Seaview's Observation Nose. While not an unfamiliar phenomenon, neither was it particularly comforting.

"Will you put out that smelly thing and stop fidgeting!" Eleanor Mehrisout wrinkled her nose with mixed amusement and disgust.

"Fidgeting!" Nelson glared in exasperation at the woman he had - perhaps too magnanimously - invited to join him and the Captain. "I don't fidget," he harrumphed, pounding out the cigarette. "And isn't there something else you should be doing, Doctor, besides that . . . that . . . whatever it is!" He waved a hand in her direction.

"Knitting," the Doctor supplied helpfully. "And no, there isn't."

For just a moment both Nelson and Crane stopped their nervous pacing, and the beginning of a smile crept in to do cautious battle with the Admiral's tense scowl. It lost.

After enduring sixty more seconds of their synchronized pacing, Mehrisout set yarn and needles purposefully in her lap.

"Admiral, Captain," she frowned at the two men, "no amount of puffing or pacing, worrying or fretting, knitting or purling, is going to move the numbers on that clock one bit faster." She paused for a moment, allowing an impish glint to invade her dark eyes. "But, when all this is over, Admiral, you will have yellow teeth and black lungs. And you," she turned toward the Captain, "will have ulcers. I, on the other hand," she smugly displayed her project, "will have an afghan."

This time the Admiral's frown lost the engagement, a wry grin claiming its territory. Lee Crane, apparently unmoved by either logic or humor, halted and turned to face their accuser. "You seem pretty sure of yourself, Doctor."

"Of myself? Not at all, Captain," the Doctor replied quietly. "But I am sure of Mr. Morton and Stu Riley. Just as sure as you two are."

Crane grunted, his face softening for an instant . . . before he remembered the rest of his problem. "You're forgetting that submarine out there, and the men on it. Not to mention that alien they're with," he added, flinging his hands upward in frustration. "Are you sure of it, too?"

"You know I am. Just as sure as the Admiral, and Mr. Morton, and young Riley are."

Nelson turned away in to hide his smile, and even Crane's scowl was only half-hearted as the two men resumed their . . . fidgeting.

<^>

Two hours earlier, as Morton cleared the escape hatch, he peered into the murky water, searching for Oscar. Nothing. Riley shrugged a "which way?" How should I know? Morton thought. But he indicated port and they pushed off into an unexpectedly strong current. After only two strokes, Morton blinked, then wiped a hand across his mask. Tapping Riley's shoulder, he jabbed a finger forward.

There, in the open water he would swear had been empty fifteen seconds earlier, was . . . what? The object was ovoid, nearly half the length of Seaview herself, and unencumbered by ports, hatches, antennae, or any other attachments, whether functional or aesthetic. To all appearances, it was a perfectly sleek, iridescent silver egg.

The two men gently propelled themselves toward the ship. Morton pointed to Riley, then upward, while he himself swam downward, searching for an entrance. A mutual shrug on the opposite side communicated their lack of success.

"Come in."

Startled, both men sought, but could not see, the source of those words. It was Riley who first noticed the change in the side of the egg. Where there had been no hint of deviation from the perfect surface, a hatchway slid open, revealing a tiny chamber. Riley started toward it, but was stopped by Morton's outstretched arm. Shaking his head, the Exec held him back, indicating that he would go first. Reluctantly, the seaman nodded.

Sure hope this wasn't a really bad idea, Morton thought as the hatch imprisoned him in the claustrophobic air-lock. Seconds seemed to stretch into hours.

"Welcome, Mr. Morton," Oscar said as the inner door opened.

Seaview's First Officer found himself in a compartment roughly half the size of Seaview's Control Room, but just as sparely furnished as the outer shell of the ship might have suggested. The feeling was of a much larger room.

"It is safe to remove your breathing gear," Oscar prompted, reaching out to help. Morton involuntarily started back from the alien's touch as he realized that in this environment, the Mintakan really existed. The shock of seeing a solid, non-holographic being startled him, and for one stomach-churning moment he was revisited by the specter of a bug-eyed Centauran.

However, this "new" alien bore as little resemblance to the wisp of ethereal enigma he'd seen on Seaview as the warmth of a loving embrace does to a tinny voice on a telephone. His form was solid - firm, even - although it moved fluidly, as if whatever passed for bone and muscle could be summoned and dismissed as needed. His tranquil, reflective surface was of the same prismatic silver color as the exterior of the vessel, with the exception that he seemed to be encased in a transparent sheath.

In the Mintakan's presence, for the first time in hours - or was it days? - Morton felt himself relax into something that resembled optimism. After unconsciously letting out a deep sigh, he realized with a start that he'd been staring, and hurriedly set to work extricating himself from the tangle of straps and hoses. "Is Riley on his way in yet?"

"You may call him yourself, if you wish."

"How?" Morton asked, looking for a microphone.

"Simply speak to him." Oscar replied. "He will hear you."

Feeling slightly foolish, standing in the middle of an alien spacecraft in half a wet-suit and bare feet, he said, "Riley? Come on in."

Seconds later, the wall resolved into a door, which opened, admitting an stumbling and awestruck Stu Riley.

"Outta sight, man!" His round eyes took in the elegantly simple room, nearly featureless, but with such graceful contours that there was no feeling of austerity. "It's like being inside a thermometer!"

When his companions failed to pick up on the reference, he explained, "Y'know - like a room made out of mercury."

"You are correct, Riley," the Mintakan confirmed. "Our forms are based on mercury, as yours are based on carbon and iron."

"Cool."

At the mention of mercury, Morton's eyes narrowed, but he only asked, "How does it hold its form at this temperature?" nodding toward the bulkhead.

"The ship is constructed of an alloy, just as your Seaview is."

"Is it as soft as it looks?" Riley asked.

"Test it yourself."

Riley reached out to a bulkhead, which gave slightly under his hand. "Far out! Even the floors bounce! But how come it doesn't just collapse?"

"I'm afraid that is a concept that I could not explain to in terms you would understand."

"That's OK. I don't understand herculite, either," the young seaman grinned, "but I know it makes a wild windshield!"

By now, the two humans had sorted out and put on their dry clothes, equipped themselves with notepads and pencils, and were ready to embark upon whatever lay before them. "So what do we do first?" Riley asked, still bouncing with enthusiasm.

"I have reconsidered our original plan, and wish to suggest an alternative."

Like a man still testing the trustworthiness of new equipment - or confidence - Morton's back stiffened almost imperceptibly before he relaxed again and answered, "Go ahead."

"Perhaps it would be wise for you to contact your Seaview first, before contacting the other submarine," he said. "It would allow you to become acclimated to the process in more comfortable surroundings."

Morton thought for a few seconds before nodding his head. "Sounds reasonable, as long as it doesn't take too much time. It won't be long before Vulcan comes shooting for us again."

"Time is relative, and I believe this time will be well spent." The Mintakan turned and gestured toward a slight indentation in the bulkhead. "Over there is our communications center."

Morton stepped toward the alcove, and found it was considerably larger than it had appeared. As Riley ambled in behind him, he gaped at the eye-fooling walls, which were as chaste as the rest of the room.

"This is the Radio Shack?"

Oscar slipped past them, and went to the rear of what was now a small room. "Yes, Riley, it is." Thus saying, he extended an arm and passed it over a section of wall, which receded to disclose a huge, wrap-around view screen.

"How'd you do that?"

"I did nothing but open the view screen."

"But there wasn't anything there to open! It was just like that crazy air-lock outside."

The Mintakan's surface rippled slightly. "We have learned to make very tidy seams."

In the silence that followed the Mintakan's comment, the Exec's self-control barely flickered. How did an alien without a face learn to deliver a deadpan line like that?

As if in response to that thought, Oscar said, "I am afraid you, too, have taught me some bad habits, Mr. Morton."

Meanwhile, first confusion, then a bolt of embarrassment, and finally his natural good humor galloped across Riley's face with all the subtlety of a vaudeville act. Looking from Morton's blank face to Oscar's non-face, he shook his head and grinned. "Yeah." He nodded. "I dig."

Then, as if nothing had interrupted him, the alien continued. "When I contact Seaview, you will receive visual input from approximately 180 degrees around you. You will be able to speak and be heard. You may gesture, but of course, it will be impossible to touch anything."

"Gotcha."

"And will they see us, or reflections?"

"I cannot be sure. Perhaps they will at first be confused, but since they have become accustomed to my form, they may recognize you immediately." He turned back to his console. "Shall we begin?"

At Morton's nod, Oscar once again brushed the wall, then touched several points. "What the heck does he see that we don't?" Riley asked.

"The control panel, I hope."

"Oh yeah. Right."

<^>

"What control panel?" Lee Crane replied automatically. The sound had stopped him mid-pace. He looked up toward the overhead speaker before finally remembering that it still wasn't working. Shaking his head, he said to an equally perplexed Adm. Nelson, "I could have sworn I just heard Chip."

"You did."

This time both Crane and Nelson found the source of the familiar voice: Two ghostly images stood at the bottom of the spiral stairs.

"Chip? Riley?" Crane said with increasing confusion. "What happened? What's wrong? We never picked you up on camera."

"Nothing's wrong, Lee," Morton assured him. "This is just a trial run."

"But you've been gone," he looked at his watch, "over two hours!"

"No way!" Riley blurted. "We just got here."

"We've only been here . . ." this time Chip looked at his watch, and did a double take. "That's not possible. The ship was less than fifty yards off, and -- "

"May I interrupt, please?" the Mintakan inquired politely.

"If you can shed some light on this, we'd certainly appreciate it."

"I am afraid that I may have inadvertently deceived these two men. In an effort to spare them the tedium of the journey - and since I could not risk moving the ship closer - I telescoped the time. It did not occur to me to explain. I apologize."

"You 'telescoped' . . . ?" Nelson asked, "How?"

"It is a complex process. I don't believe you would understand it."

Nelson frowned. "Things are proceeding smoothly otherwise?"

"Absolutely, sir," Morton answered.

Riley, standing behind the Exec, was on his toes, craning his neck to see everything possible from that vantage point.

"And you Riley," Nelson arched an eyebrow, "have you anything to report?"

"Uh . . . yes, sir," he stammered as Morton stepped aside. "It's . . . like . . . really outta sight here, sir," he grinned happily. "There's nothing here. I mean, it's like blanksville till Oscar raises his hand, then these crazy rooms start growing, and . . ." he stopped for a second. " . . . well, you'd really dig it if you saw it." He suddenly noticed Mehrisout, sitting in the background. "Hey, Dr. M! You gotta see this place, too - it's all silver. Everything's made of some kind of mercury - even Oscar. It's enough to blow your mind."

The linguist smiled at her young friend's enthusiasm. Nelson was less amused. "You say that mercury is the structural material?"

"It's a mercury alloy, according to Oscar," Morton clarified.

"I see."

Morton turned to look behind him and said, "Understood." Turning back he said, "The calibrations are complete now. Any further instructions, sir?"

"Just watch yourself. And you, too, Riley."

"Aye, sir."

Before anything else could be said, the images were gone.

"And this was supposed to be the easy part," Crane sighed.

"Hmmm."

"Is something wrong?"

"Mercury . . . " Nelson stood staring absently at Mehrisout's knitting for another minute before he announced, "If you need me for anything, I'll be in Sick Bay."

"You think there's enough to be worried about?"

"I'll let you know."

<^>

"How much did you say there was?"

"According to Riley, it's everywhere. The primary building material, evidently, is an alloy, and the body chemistry of the Mintakans themselves is based on an organic mercury."

"Organic? Methyl mercury?" Jamieson narrowed his eyes. "I suppose we can hope that they won't be eating anything over there."

"What are you getting at?"

"Admiral, mercury poisoning is nothing to fool around with. Mercury can be ingested - which I hope they have sense enough not to do - absorbed through the skin, or inhaled as a vapor." He squatted down at the small case beside his desk, and rummaged among the books. "The research isn't complete, so these results are by no means conclusive, but the evidence so far is very disturbing."

Pulling out a medical journal, he stood and leafed through it. "While long term, low level exposure is undeniably the most common type of acrodynia, there is considerable work being documented which is more germane to this situation. Ah, here we are."

He tapped on a page and began to read. "After the first one to four hours following acute exposure to high air concentrations of mercury vapor, symptoms start abruptly and may include headache, rapid heartbeat, fever, chills, sweating, nausea, general malaise, and respiratory difficulties. These symptoms escalate quickly to tremors, pains in the extremities, deterioration of vision, hostility or withdrawal, and memory loss. In severe cases, pulmonary edema may cause death within days. Even with vigorous chelation therapy, exposure may result in numerous permanent neurologic abnormalities, including memory loss, emotional instability, visual impairment, tremors, and weakness or even total paralysis of the extremities."

He closed the journal and shook his head. "But even this describes isolated industrial spills, or laboratory accidents. The sort of concentrations you're describing are unheard of. They could put a whole new chapter in the book."

"And the cure?"

"Cure? For elemental mercury the only known treatment is chelation; it becomes a cure only if there has been no irreversible damage. But according to these findings," he opened the journal again, "and I quote: There is no treatment for organic mercury poisoning."

"And do we have an effective chelate on board?"

"That's the one bit of good news," Jamieson said. "We do carry DMSA, which will work equally well for mercury as for lead."

"Do we have enough?"

Jamieson shrugged. "I won't know that until I examine them, Admiral."

There was silence for a few moments between the two men, before Jamieson broke it by asking. "How long do you expect them to be there?"

"Two hours, maybe more."

Another long silence.

"Keep in mind, there is simply not enough information to make a determination at this point," Jamieson said, suddenly aware not only of his own limitations, but of the toll his information had taken on the Admiral, as well. He attempted a reassuring smile. "Perhaps two hours won't be long enough to produce irreversible effects."

"Maybe," Nelson said absentmindedly, but there was no optimism showing in his craggy face.

"There's nothing to be gained by worrying, Admiral. I'll begin preparing the treatment right now," Jamieson said, guiding the Admiral gently toward the door, "and I'll run toxicity tests as soon as they return."

Nodding, Nelson turned and left.

<^> Thursday 2130 <^>

The Mintakan communications center was now double the size it had been a few minutes before, with two blank view screens in two corners of the room.

"I will place you as near as possible to areas you wished to view," Oscar told them. "You must each stand forward of these lines," he indicated softly glowing stripes in the resilient floor, "in order to maintain the signal. By manipulating these controls," he indicated luminous disks on the floor, "you can move your view forward and backwards, left and right. It is important to resist the temptation to step backwards, or the holoscope will break contact." The two men nodded their understanding. "Remember that even though no one can see you from behind, you can be seen by anyone within your field of vision. Also remember that you can be heard by anyone in the area."

"I think we're ready."

"Me, too!"

"Then let us begin." Oscar brushed and tapped the wall in front of him, and suddenly the two men found themselves standing in remotely different parts of the Vulcan II. Each stood perfectly still for several seconds, then started manipulating his positions via the floor-mounted control.

"Oscar," Morton whispered after several minutes of peering and note-taking, "I'm done here; you-- " The screen was blank before the end of his sentence.

"Where would you like to go next?"

Morton raised a hand to stay the question. "Riley, are you doing OK?"

The young man bobbed his head up and down, scribbled his entry, then turned and grinned.

"Are you ready to continue?"

Before Morton had even finished the nod, he was viewing the next area of the enemy sub, and it was Riley's turn to switch scenes. This back and forth, game board espionage - Cmdr. Morton did it in the Conservatory with a holoscope, Morton smiled to himself - continued for well over an hour. Finally, he stepped completely out of his alcove.

"Riley, have you gotten all the information you want?"

"Yes, sir," he nodded, finishing off a final notation. "They've got some wild stuff in there, but I've got a suspicion they're lost in the sauce when it comes to using it. I saw a lot of head-scratchin', and a lot of CPO's chewin' out poor seamen. I gotta feeling that sub is all show and no go."

"That's reassuring . . . at least for the time being." He turned to their host. "There's just one more place I'd like to see. Can you put me in the Officers' Wardroom? If they do as much paperwork in there as I do, I just might pick up something interesting."

"I can, but there is no way of telling whether it is occupied or not, and there are few places to conceal you."

"Understood."

"I will attempt to put you in an inconspicuous place."

But, as Oscar tapped the wall, Seaview's First Officer found himself staring directly into the face of his Vulcan II counterpart. At first, both men froze. Then Morton allowed his face to go slack as if with terror; his eyes widened, his jaw dropped, and just as he was ready to give voice to his "fear", the screen went dark.

"He saw me."

"No fooling'," Riley snickered. "Er, I mean . . . I think you're right, sir.

"Any guesses what he saw?" Morton asked. "A Mintakan? A monster from his own past? Or me?"

"Whatever it was, man, that guy was like ready to spaz out. Could been a ghost, or it could been an officer." He grinned, "First officers can be pretty scary, y'know."

"It is difficult to determine," Oscar agreed. "Shall I try to place you in a less conspicuous place?"

"I thought you said that was inconspicuous."

"I will make another attempt."

The next attempt found the compartment empty, but a babble of incoherent shouting told part of the story. The rest of the story, however, was in the form of the explosion which knocked both men off their feet.

"What the heck- "

"That felt like a depth charge!"

<^>

Nelson stepped slowly through the aft hatch to the Control Room. He paused there momentarily, then took a breath and proceeded more resolutely to the table, where Lee Crane was trying to estimate their enemy's course and position.

"Lee," he said hoarsely, "in my cabin; right away." That said, he headed directly up the spiral stairs.

Those of the crew who had overheard exchanged troubled glances. Crane himself placed his pencil far too carefully on the table, and strode silently back to the Radio Shack, where Sparks was behind the console, occupying himself with relays and circuits. "Sparks," the Captain said quietly, "you have the Con for a few minutes. I'll be with the Admiral in his cabin."

"Aye, sir," he said, cheerfully. But when he saw the somber expression on Crane's face, he added, "Anything wrong, Skipper?"

But the Captain didn't respond.

<^>

"Dammit, Lee!" Nelson pounded his desk, "We were both so concerned about whether or not we could trust this alien and his technology, it never occurred to me to worry about the ship itself." He picked up a cigarette, put it into his mouth, then took it out and threw it down. "I talked you into this, and now my bullheadedness may very well have destroyed the lives of two good men."

This time there were no encouraging speeches about the impossibility of avoiding the problem; they would have rung false. Crane did, however, make one effort. "There was no reason for any of us to suspect this. Yes, we might have been able to take the extra precautions, but we've never been in a situation like this. No one could blame you-- "

"No one could blame me! Oh, that's good. That's very good," Nelson said bitterly. "You blamed me before they even left. Now that you've been vindicated, you can afford to be magnanimous."

Crane stood impassively, his grip on the back of a chair the only indication that he was even aware of the caustic outburst.

The Admiral sat down heavily, and pressed both hands against his temples, as if to crush some image out of his mind. A minute later his hands dropped to the desk and looked up. "I'm sorry, Lee. You didn't deserve that."

"Didn't deserve what, Admiral?" Crane smiled wearily as he sat down. "I didn't hear a thing."

His forbearance was rewarded with an equally haggard smile.

"Doc is sure?"

"Based on what Riley said, and what research has been done, he's sure."

"But there's a possibility- "

"Of course there's a possibility," Nelson snapped. "There's the possibility they won't die. There's a possibility that they'll only be blind, or paralyzed, or emotionally crippled." Nelson rose from his desk to catch up with his rising voice. "Or maybe they'll only have enough nerve damage to keep them from dressing or feeding themselves for the rest of their lives!" Suddenly he sat back down. "Of course there's a possibility . . . there are always possibilities." He massaged the back of his neck before finishing grimly, "But they aren't very good ones."

After several minutes of silent brooding it was Crane's turn. He stood up and started pacing. "There has to be something we can do. Call them back right now . . . send out another dive team to bring them back . . . lift Seaview off the bottom and send the Flying Sub to look for them . . ." But as he realized the futility of each suggestion, his energy drained away as quickly as it had exploded. He, too, collapsed back into his chair, more dispirited than before.

But - as if to save them from the suffocating pall that Nelson's words had cast - a different sort of wrenching blow resonated through Seaview's hull.

"Another torpedo?" Crane asked, starting from his chair.

"That was no torpedo - that was a depth charge!"

<^> Thursday 2300 <^>

"It was a depth charge," Oscar confirmed.

As the two men clambered to their feet, the explosions continued.

"Bad news!"

"Did you see SUBROCs in there, Riley?" Morton searched vainly for a hand hold.

"Yeah . . . I mean, yes, sir . . . but I didn't think they could launch them. That missile room was a mess and a half." The compulsion to study the floor was too much to resist. "Guess I blew it, huh?"

"There's nothing we could have done anyway," Morton said gruffly, as he attempted to push off from the wall. "So you can feel sorry for yourself, or we can do something about it."

"Aye, sir," Riley nodded, encouraged by the mild reprimand.

"The news is not so bad, Riley," Oscar said. "From the pattern of these explosions, it would appear that they are firing blindly. They do not know where we are."

"Aimed or unaimed, they're still lethal. This is exactly the situation SUBROCs were designed for."

"I see. So they no longer wish to steal your SCUTR, but rather to destroy it?"

"It . . . would appear so," Morton managed to get in between detonations.

"Then I suggest you finish your work quickly."

Morton rubbed his forehead. "You ready for 'Plan B', Riley?"

"I can't wait--" he bounced off a springy wall "--to freak those guys out!" A second later he frowned. "Did you hit your head, sir?"

"No," Morton said, abruptly dropping the hand. "OK, Oscar," he said to their host, "Whatever you did to try to make us look like Mintakans - undo it. We want them to see exactly who we are."

"It has already been done."

"And Riley, don't forget to keep your eyes open; now's the time to see how they really operate."

"Don't you worry," Riley bounced, "I'll give the Admiral a report he'll never forget."

That's what I'm afraid of, Morton sighed wearily . . .

. . . And found himself standing in the middle of a chaotic scene in the Control Room of the Vulcan II. "It's gonna blow!" he bellowed, and after seeming to stagger dramatically backward, he yelled again, "Find the SCUTR and destroy it!" Suddenly, he found the scene shifted to the equivalent of their missile room, where he repeated the performance. "Somebody's got to stop that lunatic, Nelson!"

Meanwhile, Riley - "We're all gonna die!"- was putting on a similar show - "Get outta here while you still can!"- in various other compartments, corridors, work areas - "The Admiral's really gone off the deep end this time - he's tryin' to kill us all!"

Oscar's nimble handling of the controls had them spending no more than a few seconds in each place. The overall effect - if one didn't look too closely - was of dozens of ghostlike people, all wailing inconsolably, as if they'd been deprived of their very souls . . . or bodies, as the case may be. It didn't take long for the officers and men of the Vulcan II to start paying more attention to their visitors than to the attack. The effect was doubly satisfying as the concussions gradually ceased, and panic began to set in.

Morton stepped out of his alcove, grabbed for a wall, and reminded Riley, "Let 'em hear 'SCUTR' and 'Nelson' loud and often. Overkill is the order of the day: we want to be sure they know exactly what's causing all the havoc."

"Aye, sir!" Riley grinned happily. "This is a real blast!"

Another fifteen minutes was more than enough to convince the entire crew of the enemy sub that SCUTR was not worth hanging around for. Not knowing how widespread the effects might be, its captain chose to exercise the better part of valor, or in Riley's words, to "split the scene".

"I guess we showed them, huh, Mr. Morton?" Riley crowed.

Morton rubbed his eyes and grinned weakly, "I think we did, Riley, I think we did."

"Hey, you don't look so hot."

Morton's body was that moment convulsed by a fit of coughing which left him gasping for breath, and his muscles contracted with the strain.

"Here, sir," Riley shot forward to grab him, "you'd better sit down."

"No," Morton snapped, "I'm fine." But he nevertheless found himself sliding down the wall to rest on the floor.

"Is there any way I can assist you, Mr. Morton?" Oscar inquired anxiously.

"Yeah, Oscar," Riley answered, "You have any water or anything here?"

"I regret I do not have any nourishment suitable for humans."

Riley frowned, "We've gotta do something but quick. He's burning up with fever."

<^>

"Report!" Crane demanded as he entered the Control Room.

"I sent runners, sir; no news yet," Sparks said.

"Lt. O'Brien, reporting for duty."

"What are you doing here?" Crane whirled around in surprise. "Did Doc release you?" The obvious relief on his face didn't quite make it to his voice.

"Yes, sir," he smiled. "What can I do?"

The Captain looked his Second Officer up and down quickly. "All right, Lieutenant, you have the Con. Sparks, find out what's holding up those runners. I'll be in the Missile Room."

"Aye, sir."

<^>

The detonations escalated, and continued long enough to give rise to real concern for the integrity of Seaview's hull, and the safety of her crew. The reports coming in reflected little damage, but a growing feeling of helplessness among both officers and men as they cowered - at least that's what it felt like - among the rocks on the bottom. Blind, deaf except for the deafening reverberations of the bombs, and unable to retaliate, they waited out the storm.

Then - when the explosions became more sporadic, and finally stopped - there was suddenly enough time to think about how the bombardment may have affected the alien's ship. But Seaview was still on the bottom, and unable to even lift her head to look around.

"Skipper!" Kowalski called down from the top of the escape hatch, "I think I hear their engines again. They may be moving off."

"Are you sure?"

"Not yet, sir, but they seem to be fading."

A few tense minutes later, Crane, who had been standing at the bottom of the well, called up softly, "Ski? What's the verdict."

The seaman leaned down with a grin, "I can't hear a thing any more. I'm pretty sure they're gone."

"Are you sure they're not just playing possum?"

"I doubt it. The engines faded away real natural, not like they 'em shut down." He grinned again, "Sounds like Riley and Mr. Morton did OK. You figure they're on their way back yet?"

Crane's brief optimism crumbled. "I hope so, Ski," he said with a forced smile. Stepping out through the hatch, he said to the newly arrived Nelson, "What do you think, Admiral? Is it safe to send out the Flying Sub?"

"What would it accomplish? Where would you look? And for what? Furthermore, even if the Vulcan II is headed away, you couldn't break the surface without being seen immediately, possibly drawing fire back not only on yourself, but on the very men you'd be trying to rescue."

Crane's ran an agitated hand through his hair. "But we can't just sit here!"

Nelson forced his clenched fists to relax. Pulling one hand from his pocket, he reached up to clasp the Captain's shoulder as he stepped past on his way out. "All right. Give it another half hour," he said. "If we haven't heard anything by then, we'll give it a try."

"Permission to return to Seaview, sir?"

This time it took them only a moment to find the visual that accompanied the disembodied voice.

"Chip!" Crane shouted, "Are you all right?"

"We took a good shaking over here, but no damage," Morton replied slowly. "Seaview?"

"We're fine here," Nelson answered levelly. "Are you and Riley ready to come back?"

"Yes, sir. We'll be--"

The image crumbled downward, replaced a moment later by Riley's. "Skipper! Mr. Morton's--"

His image vanished, too, and after a few seconds Chip Morton's reappeared. "Sorry, sir. I . . . uh . . . lost my footing," he said with concentrated deliberation. "We'll be starting back as soon as we suit up."

"Chip," Crane said, walking forward, as if he could see more from that vantage point, "is there something wrong over there?"

Looking a little bewildered, Morton shook his head slowly. "No. Nothing wrong here." Suddenly a forced smile appeared. "See ya soon." The image disappeared.

While the rest of the Missile Room crew cheered to hear the good news, the echo of those final words left a chilling impression on the Captain.

<^> Thursday 2330 <^>

"Mr. Morton, why'd ya lie like that?"

The Exec looked upward, unable to control his shaking.

"Lie? I didn't lie," Morton said, blinking and squinting. "And that sounds like insubordination, Seaman," he tried to growl, but only succeeded in coughing. "How do you feel?"

"I'm fine. You're the one that's sick, remember?" He looked up at Oscar. "I gotta get him back to Seaview. Help me get that wet-suit on him, will ya? I don't care what he says this time. We're going back."

"I believe you are right, Riley. I will assist."

"You will not," Morton thundered. The tremor passed, and he dragged himself to his feet, nearly collapsing again with another coughing spell. "Riley, you pack up our gear, then suit up."

"Aye, sir," the young seaman said dubiously. "You sure you don't need a hand?"

It only took one Executive Glare to provide the answer. "Oscar," Morton said, turning toward their host, "Thank you for your assistance, and for the use of your equipment." He smiled warmly, and painfully extended a hand of friendship, which was rewarded with the appearance of a similar appendage. The two shook "hands" briefly before Morton was once again overcome. Had Oscar not caught him and lowered him gently to the floor, he would have fallen there on his own.

Each time he went down, Morton felt himself growing weaker. The pain in his legs and arms was now intolerable, and coherent thought was almost out of his reach. When Riley essayed one more time to lend some assistance, the Exec wiped his dripping face with an already-soaked sleeve and made a partial concession. "Bring the gear over here. I'll get into it."

"Aye, sir," he said, but quietly went about giving as much aid as he could get away with. There were no objections.

By the time the two were ready to depart, Oscar had finished his operations at the control panel. "If you are prepared, I will open the air-lock."

"You go first," Morton said to Riley. "And take the bag with you."

Riley took a deep breath, and looked like he was about to swallow a live scorpion. "No, sir," he said meekly. "We'll go together."

Morton pushed off from the support of the wall and drew himself painfully to his full height. "I said 'Move', sailor," he half-bellowed, half-wheezed. "I'm not used to issuing orders a second time."

Riley hesitated a moment longer, perhaps considering not only the Exec's obvious pain, but also the Exec's dignity, and decided to comply. Only then did Morton allow Oscar to assist him into the tiny chamber, where he soon found himself in unbearably cold water. He tried swimming a few strokes, but his limbs were made of lead - searing hot lead.

If I didn't know better, I'd say I had the bends. He squinted behind the mask, and finally found a blurry form he hoped was Riley. Commanding his arms and legs to move, he followed the blur, trusting that it knew which way to go. This was definitely a mistake . . . never gonna make it . . . no sense pulling Riley down with me . . . I'll just head back to Os . . ."

<^>

"Adm. Nelson?" the Mintakan inquired politely.

He had found both the Captain and Admiral in the Control Room, evaluating damage reports with O'Brien.

"Mr. Morton and Stu Riley have just left my vessel, and should be arriving shortly."

"Shortly?" Crane asked curtly. "Is that what you call two hours?"

"No, Captain. I have moved my vessel closer to your Seaview."

"Why?" Nelson asked. "Why now, and not before?"

"Earlier I did not wish to increase your danger by drawing attention to my movement. However, the other submarine has now retreated." The Mintakan paused, and not even the Captain could deny the concern he was projecting as he explained further. "Also, Mr. Morton has been stricken with an illness. I wished to spare him unnecessary exertion."

Neither Crane nor Nelson trusted himself to look at the other. Nelson asked in a barely audible voice, "How sick is he?"

"He is quite ill. Riley was very concerned for him."

"And what about Riley?" Crane asked. "Is he sick, too?"

"No, he did not appear to be, although Mr. Morton also asked him more than once." Another pause. "Did you expect him to become ill?"

Throughout the conversation, the rest of the Control Room crew looked on with growing unrest. Now they began to shift uncomfortably in their seats, exchanging worried glances.

After an awkward pause, Crane took it upon himself to answer. "Yes, as a matter of fact we did," he said curtly. "It seems you didn't bother to tell us--"

His words were cut off by Patterson's exclamation, "There they are, sir!" he pointed at the video screen. "They're just coming into view from our port side."

There on the screen two divers were becoming visible through the dark waters. One, in a black suit, did not seem to be moving at all. The red suit had his companion in a life-saving hold, and was slowly dragging him upward toward the escape hatch.

"Mr. O'Brien, you have the Con," Crane called over his shoulder as he followed Nelson out. "And get Doc to the Missile Room now!"

<^>

It was all Lee Crane could do to shorten his long strides so as not to outpace the Admiral and beat him to the Missile Room. When they arrived, Sharkey and Kowalski were lifting an inert form from the escape hatch. Suddenly, however, that lifeless body contorted with violent coughing.

"What happened, Riley?" Nelson asked.

"He got real sick over there, Admiral," he said, starting to unload his gear. "Looks like the flu or something. Then when we left, I guess he just passed out in the water."

Now that his task was completed, the adrenaline that had kept the young seaman going drained from his body, leaving it shuddering with worry and fatigue. "If Oscar hadn't given us a lift," he coughed, "we wouldn't have made it."

"Chip," Crane bent over his friend. "Chip! Can you hear me?"

"Captain, he's in no condition to answer." Jamieson gently moved Crane aside, and knelt beside his patient. "Get that oxygen on him," he said to Lerner, "then get him out of this suit and start cooling him off now." While he continued his cursory examination he looked up, "You, too, Riley," he added. "Patterson, give him a hand."

Riley obeyed instantly, but nevertheless asked, "Why me? I'm not the one who's sick." As he fumbled, shivering, to unbuckle, unzip, and peel off the suit, he realized that the worry of the officers was even deeper than his own. "What's wrong, anyway?"

The question was ignored as Jamieson and the corpsman worked single-mindedly on their first patient.

"Doc," Morton whispered hoarsely.

"Don't try to talk, Commander," Jamieson answered. "Leave that mask on; it'll make breathing a lot easier."

Ignoring the advice, Morton persisted. "It was the mercury?"

"I'm afraid so."

"How come Riley--" he coughed "--How come Riley doesn't have it?"

"He does," the Doctor answered, glancing up to see that his instructions were being followed. "His resistance to the symptoms is just a little higher. Now be quiet and let me do my job."

The Exec started shaking violently as they wrapped him in wet blankets, but he brushed off the mask one more time to ask, "Wh-what are his ch-chances?"

The question stopped Jamieson cold. "Riley's chances?"

Morton nodded.

Jamieson once again looked beyond the blond head to the young man standing a few feet away, just starting to show signs of the poisoning. Then he looked at the stone-faced Admiral before answering hoarsely, "Even . . . maybe."

Morton nodded again, and gave no more trouble.

<^> Friday 0030 <^>

"I've done all I can for the time being, Admiral," Jamieson quietly explained again. "His temperature is down to 103, and with the respirator I can keep him breathing, but I'm not sure how long. Unless I can get the mercury out of his system," he paused long enough to look into the next room before turning back to Nelson, "I'm afraid there's no hope at all."

The Admiral remained impassive. "And Riley?"

"Riley is showing less sensitivity to the effects, but is nevertheless very sick - and likely to get sicker." He frowned before adding, "And we have only one respirator."

"What do you need?" Crane roused himself from the mesmerizing motion of the respirator pump.

The Doctor opened his mouth, then closed it again. Finally he answered, "A miracle."

Not satisfied, the Captain said, "You just said you need another respirator. Do you have enough of the - what do you call it? - DSMA?"

"DMSA," Jamieson corrected. "No, I don't have enough, but I'm not sure that more would be the answer anyway. What they need is something more efficient."

"Why can't we just take them in the Flying Sub back to Santa Barbara - or wherever else there's help?"

"Well?" Nelson prompted.

Jamieson's expression was not gauged to encourage hope. "Assuming I thought there was anything they could do, maybe Riley could go, if I could spare Lerner to go with him. But moving the Commander is out of the question;" he shook his head, "he's far too weak."

"So you're giving up!" Crane exploded. "Just like that. He'll die if he goes, he'll die if he stays, and you're just going to let him!"

"Captain, there is nothing more I can do," Jamieson said quietly. "I doubt if there's anything anybody could do." His voice was sorrowful, but firm. "If there was, you know I'd be doing it."

Crane turned and stalked out of the room.

"He knows," Nelson said, looking after the Captain. "He knows."

The heavy silence stretched on, punctuated only by the rhythmic hiss of Morton's respirator.

<^>

"Captain, please, just hear us out."

Less than ten minutes later, the voice of Eleanor Mehrisout broke through the silence of the corridor outside Sick Bay. Seconds later she and Crane entered Jamieson's office.

"Admiral," Mehrisout nodded, "Dr. Jamieson, I think I have some good news."

The expressions on all three officers made plain the fact that there was very little in the way of good news they expected to hear from her. Undeterred, she plowed onward.

"I was just talking to Oscar, and he may have a solution. It seems he--"

At that moment, the image of the Mintakan himself appeared in their midst. His initial words were prefaced by a short, haunting melody reminiscent of the elegy for his lost companion.

"Dr. Mehrisout has just informed me of the nature of the affliction from which Chip Morton and Stu Riley are suffering," he began. "Please know that I share your sorrow." His form bent low in a solemn bow. "I deeply regret that my lack of foresight may have been the cause of their suffering. I am very sorry."

"You're sorry? You're sorry? Is that all you can say?" Crane spat. "You're telling us you could have anticipated this, but you - with all your 'superior intelligence' - just didn't happen to think of it? And now being sorry is supposed to make it all right?" His face darkened with angry reproach. "He trusted you!"

"Lee . . . Lee, there's nothing to be gained," Nelson reached out to settle the younger man, but his gesture was shaken off.

"Please, allow me to help."

"I think you've 'helped' enough," Crane said bitterly.

"What do you have in mind?" Nelson asked, betraying the first shred of hope he'd felt in hours.

"There is a compound we use to treat poisoning. Would you find it useful?"

"What makes you think that something from the very planet that poisoned them would help them?"

"They are not suffering from a reaction to my planet, but from one element: mercury. This compound contains none. It is an otherwise inert binding agent which will attract and adhere to an element, rendering its properties impotent."

"A chelate. We've already tried that," Jamieson said flatly. "It hasn't been effective."

"This will be."

"How do you know? How do you know it will bind with the mercury?" Nelson asked. "And how do we know that it isn't a poison to humans itself?"

"As I said, it is inert except for the function of binding and removing the target element."

"How does it know which is the target element?" Crane asked, grudgingly interested. "How do you know it won't remove all the iron from their bodies? Or oxygen for that matter?"

"I will tell it."

Once again the enormity of the simple statement stunned his listeners - a fact of which the Mintakan seemed unaware. "If you feel uneasy, you may test it first. Shall I prepare a sample?"

Shaking off his amazement, Jamieson answered, "I can certainly test it for known toxins, but the unknowns are . . . nearly infinite," he grimaced. "Admiral?"

Nelson looked from Morton, to Crane, to the Mintakan before his eyes settled back on the too-still forms lying in the next room. "What are our alternatives?"

No one, not even Crane, had an answer.

"How soon can you bring it?" Nelson asked.

The Mintakan hesitated longer than could be attributed to confusion or language difficulties. "I regret that I cannot bring it at all," he finally said. After a long pause, he once again took up the gentle notes of his exotic lament. Then, as if suddenly regaining consciousness, he said, "I must remain aboard my ship. Just as our mercury proved harmful to you, your ocean and your atmosphere have proven deadly to us."

Nelson nodded. "Is that how your companion died?"

"It is."

Chief Sharkey, who had remained at Riley's bedside, alternately fretting over the two men and listening to the officers' discussion, now came forward. "I'd like to go, sir."

"Chief?"

"Over to that . . . that . . . spaceship gizmo. If it will help Mr. Morton and the kid there," he nodded in Riley's direction, "I'd sure like to give it a try."

"Please be assured, Admiral, that I will take every precaution possible to assure the safety of your men. I will place a safe container inside the airlock so that there need be no danger of contamination."

Nelson nodded. "Very well, Sharkey. Find a volunteer to go with you."

"Aye, sir," he beamed, and as he walked out of the room, his eyes lit upon a red suit. "Congratulations, Kowalski, you just volunteered."

<^> Friday 0130 <^>

"Piece a cake, Skipper," Kowalski said as he and Sharkey removed their dripping gear less than thirty minutes later.

"Here you go, sir." The Chief handed Adm. Nelson a tiny vial, encased in a solid crystal sphere, about the size of a tennis ball.

"That's it?" Crane asked. "That's all there is?"

Nelson examined the orb curiously. "Fascinating . . . " Then, evidently remembering the urgency of the original mission, he looked up and said, "Thank you. Now go get some sleep. It's been a long night."

"Uh . . . if it's just the same to you, sir, I think we'd rather stick around," Sharkey requested, "just to see how things go." Kowalski seconded the request with a confirming nod.

"Very well, Chief, but I'm afraid the Doctor won't want you underfoot," Nelson answered. "He has his hands full."

Panic flashed across Sharkey's face. "They're OK, aren't they?"

"They've been better," the Captain said grimly. "Riley took a bad turn, but Doc has him stabilized now."

Sharkey's worried face was suddenly cracked by a wide smile. "Doc'll pull him through - him and Mr. Morton both."

Crane said nothing, leaving Nelson to respond. "We'd better get this down there."

"Don't you worry, sir," Sharkey said, looking around the Missile Room. "Lopez! Come take this to Sick Bay for the Admiral. And make it snappy!" That small burden lifted from his superiors' shoulders, the Chief said, "If you'll pardon my saying so, sirs, I think you could both use a rest, too. How long have you been up, anyway?" he frowned. "A little shut-eye wouldn't hurt either one of you."

Nelson consulted his watch and sighed. "The thought is appreciated, Chief, but I could no sooner sleep than you could." He patted him on the arm, "I'll see you in Sick Bay."

<^>

"Well, Admiral, I got the package, but there don't seem to be any instructions." Jamieson rolled it around in his hands several times. "I'm not even sure how to go about opening it."

Nelson tapped it with a fingernail. "I wonder what it's made of?"

"It is very similar to your carbon," a familiar, chiming voice announced.

Without any sign of surprise at the new arrival, Jamieson asked, "How do I get into it, and how do I administer it?".

"Strike it sharply, and the package will fall away."

"Then what?"

"You must place the compound in contact with both men. That is all."

"In contact. . .?" Jamieson asked. "How? Orally? Intramuscularly? Intravenously?"

"Any of those ways will be adequate, or you may apply it to the skin. "It is very easy to use; I prepared it especially for you."

Jamieson rapped the globe with the handle of his reflex hammer, and watched as it disintegrated into fiery bright fragments. What was left was a tiny ampule filled with a brilliant blue substance the consistency of heavy cream.

"How long will it take to screen it?" Nelson asked.

"Twelve hours . . . "

Nelson narrowed his eyes. "But . . . ?"

A long second later Jamieson added, " . . . but neither of them has that much time."

"You said--"

"Admiral, that was before I knew the full extent of their trauma, and the speed at which it's progressing. They're both in a deep coma. I don't know how much longer I can control the Commander's fever, and that respirator is the only thing keeping him breathing. If Frank stops ventilating Riley," he nodded toward the corpsman patiently hand pumping air into the young seaman's lungs, "he'll also go back into respiratory arrest."

"If the mercury were removed from their systems right now - this instant - chances are they'd both live, although probably with residual impairment.

"If I wait two hours - the time it will take to run a shallow screening for the most common antigens - they might still live, but I couldn't guarantee what kind of a life it would be.

"After the twelve hours it will take to get full test results - and by 'full' I mean screening for only those poisons the scientific community on earth has had experience with - Stu Riley will probably be dead." He glanced into the next room. "And Chip Morton . . . " He shook his head.

After several seconds he concluded, "The question is, what would they want us to do? How much risk would they be willing to take? How would they want to live the rest of their lives?"

"Like this." Lee Crane had come into the room a minute earlier, and now handed two handwritten papers to Nelson.

"What are those?" the Doctor asked.

"Letters. They each wrote one just before the mission," Crane said. "Chip left them with me."

After the Admiral had scanned the two brief notes, he handed them to Jamieson.

The Doctor read them both carefully. "While this certainly makes my decision clearer," he hesitated, "I have to tell you, I'm not especially optimistic."

"Optimism is not necessary for the compound to work."

In their tense deliberations, the men had forgotten that the Mintakan was still with them, but they now realized that part of the worry and impatience they were feeling was being projected from him. "I urge you to work quickly, because as effective as the -" he inserted an untranslatable chime "- is, it cannot renew a life which has expired."

Jamieson picked up the ampule, and looked from it to Nelson, who nodded his approval "You said that it can be introduced intravenously?"

"Yes, that is safe."

"How much?"

"The amount is not of great importance. I have given you sufficient to treat both men."

Over the course of the previous minutes, the corridor outside Sick Bay had been quietly filling. Chief Sharkey, Patterson, and Kowalski gathered behind Dr. Mehrisout, who stood just inside the doorway, arms crossed self-consciously across her body. They watched as the Doctor loaded two syringes with the blue liquid and injected one into each man's IV. The spirit of the room was suddenly fortified with relief and hope, although this time no one realized that it was once again the projection of their guest.

"How long?" the Captain asked.

"It will begin to work immediately. The bound mercury will be eliminated through whatever means is natural for you. It will cause no more harm."

"How can such a small amount be effective?" Nelson asked.

"It will multiply as needed within the body."

"But how does it do that?" Sharkey asked. "Some kinda magic or something?"

"No," the alien burbled melodiously. "It is a programed response."

Nelson chuckled, too. "I'm afraid, Oscar, that your technology is so advanced that it's hard for us to separate it from magic."

The atmosphere of hope was short-lived, however, as both men first stiffened with backs arched, then began to convulse. Immediately Jamieson tackled Morton, and Lerner, Riley.

"Is there anything- "

"Grab their arms! And watch those IV's!"

But almost before the help could be given, the episode was over, and both men lay quietly once again, the only sound coming from the soft hiss of oxygen.

"What was that?" Crane asked as both men's vitals were checked. "Are they OK?"

"Yes, Captain, they seem to be fine," the Doctor finally answered. "I suspect it was their reaction to the . . . cure."

"They will begin to improve now, Doctor."

Before anyone could question the alien, or respond in any way, however, his image was gone. Several seconds later it reappeared. "Admiral," Oscar said, "I apologize for my abrupt departure. But there is another urgent matter I must attend to."

<^> Friday 0400 <^>

"Doctor? Dr. Jamieson?" Eleanor Mehrisout gently shook the man sleeping at his desk. "I think Riley's waking up."

Instantly alert, Jamieson stepped to the bedside, and started examining him. "Welcome back," he said, as Riley's blue eyes fluttered open. "Can you tell me how you feel?"

"Uh . . . like I just wiped out on a thirty footer at the Banzai Pipeline . . . " He was overcome with coughing, but the episode seemed to pass more quickly than previous ones had. "Unnnnh" he groaned. "What happened anyway?"

"I wish I could tell you," Jamieson grimaced, "but suffice it to say that you were a very sick young man, and now you appear to be much better."

"Then why do I feel like last week's guacamole?

Jamieson snorted. "Maybe because you're a little green and fuzzy?

Riley managed a weak grin in response, then turned to see the Exec lying on the next bed. "How's Mr. Morton?"

"He's breathing on his own now," Jamieson looked over at the still-motionless figure, "but he hasn't awakened yet."

"Hey, Dr. M," Riley squinted, "I didn't see you there." When he raised a hand to shade his eyes, however, his smile dissolved. "Hey Doc, what's wrong with my hand?" He tried grabbing the trembling arm with his other hand, "It won't hold still." Then he tried focusing on his arm. "And what's with all the tubes and stuff?"

"The tremors should decrease over time," Jamieson said calmly. "And the 'tubes and stuff' are flushing your system." As he continued his examination, he asked, "How's your vision? How many fingers am I holding up?"

"Whad'ya mean, 'tremors', and how long is 'over time'?" Riley was now fully awake, trying to push himself up on his elbows. "And what's wrong with my eyes?"

"Lie back, Riley." Jamieson gently pushed him back onto his pillow. "You had a reaction to the mercury."

"Mercury poisoning? Is that what was wrong with Mr. Morton?"

"Yes, and with you. But you both seem to be over the worst of it, and I'm confident that you'll soon be back to chasing girls, or waves, or whatever it is you do with that surfboard of yours." Jamieson's confident words, however, were contradicted by his frown and wrinkled brow. Fortunately, Riley's blurred vision spared him that sight. "For right now, I want you to get some more sleep."

<^>

"Do you see any reason for us to stay here?"

"Is there any reason we have to move?" Nelson answered his Captain.

"None except that if I don't do something constructive soon, I may do something I'll regret." The Captain's clenched teeth soon gave way to a half-hearted grin.

Nelson snorted. "I understand, Lee, but until we hear from our guest, I think it would be better to sit tight." He shrugged. "At least for a while longer, anyway."

"How do we even know he's coming back?"

"I apologize for my inconvenient absence, Admiral. And to answer your question, Captain, it is no longer necessary to remain hidden."

"Why not?" Crane asked.

"The Vulcan II is now fifty-four point seven nautical miles from here. You will not be detected."

"Welcome back, Oscar," Nelson greeted their visitor with a wry smile.

"Thank you, Admiral. May I inquire about Chip Morton and Stu Riley?"

"You may. They are both breathing on their own now, and improving," Nelson told him.

"I am very pleased to hear that."

"Now, about the Vulcan, you say they're not likely to be returning?"

"I cannot read their minds, however, they were exceeding the normal safe operating speed of their vessel. They also communicated with their superiors requesting immediate assignment elsewhere, and suggesting a quarantine for the area."

The thought of their enemies in headlong flight from the phantom theatrics of their First Officer evidently appealed to both Crane's and Nelson's sense of poetic justice, because each chuckled appreciatively.

"That tells me about as much as I need to know," Nelson said. Turning to Seaview's Captain, he ordered gruffly, "Capt. Crane, prepare to get this boat off the bottom and under way."

"Aye, aye, sir!" came the enthusiastic response. Crane picked up the hand mike to call engineering when Oscar interrupted.

"Would it not be helpful to have your communications and surveillance systems restored before you depart? Or is that no longer necessary?"

Crane looked the mike, at Nelson, and finally at their guest. "I'd almost forgotten how quiet it is around here," he admitted.

"It will take only a moment."

<^>

"Oowwwch!" Dr. Mehrisout cried, holding her left ear .

"What's wrong, Doctor?" Jamieson himself jumped not only at her yell, but at the sudden onslaught of noise throughout Sick Bay.

"It's my - my implant . . ." she stammered. "It's working again!" As the shock abated, her elation grew. "I can hear again! I mean, I can really hear!" She was standing now, and covering and uncovering her ears to appreciate the difference. "Wow! This is better than I remember! Did you hear that, Riley? I can hear!"

"Hey . . . good news, ma'am," he murmured through Jamieson's sedative.

She clapped a hand quickly over her mouth. "Sorry. I'm babbling again, aren't I?" But no chagrin was evident in her broad grin.

"Nelson to Sick Bay."

Jamieson sighed. "So much for peace and quiet," he mumbled to no one in particular. Picking up the intercom he answered, "Sick Bay here, Admiral. Go ahead."

"Is everything all right down there?"

"Yes, Admiral. All the equipment is functioning, and Riley has awakened."

"How about Chip?"

Jamieson looked over to where the Exec still lay motionless, and frowned. "Sorry, Admiral, but there's nothing to report, yet."

After a moment, Nelson said, "Keep us posted."

"Don't worry, Admiral, I will."

There was a change in voices as Crane got on the mike. "Doc, we're going to be getting under way in a few minutes. You'd better batten down, because it's bound to be bumpy."

"Thanks for the warning, Captain." Once the line was clear, Jamieson double clicked his mike. "Sick Bay to Crews Quarters, is Lerner there?"

"Nope, he's right here, sir," Lerner said as he walked through the door. "I figured you'd need some help in here once things started hopping again."

"According to the Captain, we're in for a bumpy ride, so if you'll make sure Riley's secure, I'll take care of Cmdr. Morton."

"It looks like you won't be needing me any more for a while," Dr. Mehrisout said, "so I think I'll go make myself scarce in my cabin."

Jamieson looked up. "Thank you again for your help," he smiled. "Those two hours of sleep were just what I needed."

"Don't mention it. It felt good to do something useful."

<^> Friday 0700 <^>

"I'm sorry, Admiral, but there's really nothing more I can tell you," Jamieson said. "He's breathing more easily on his own, his vital signs are approaching normal, and the tremors have all but stopped. But," he paused, "he's shown no signs of waking from the coma."

"When do you expect -- "

"I don't think you understand the nature of a coma, Captain," he said in exasperation. "I don't know what to expect - or when." Fatigue mixed with frustration in his eyes. "Truth be told, I never expected him to even li. . . " But he caught himself before saying the words they had all been thinking.

Seaview had been underway for three hours, once again on her original heading to Rakahanga. The Institute at Santa Barbara had finally been contacted and given the short version of the previous two days' events. The little damageSeaview had sustained was set aright. The Control Room was once again abuzz with pings, beeps, chirps, and crackles.

Shifts had changed in an orderly fashion, so that fresh men were on duty throughout the boat. Ten minutes earlier Lt. O'Brien had chased both Nelson and Crane - who were still on their feet after forty-eight hours of almost nonstop duty - out of the Control Room with a solemn promise to not sink the boat anytime within the next five hours. Almost everything was back to normal.

Except, that is, the pale stillness of the First Officer in the next room.

Jamieson didn't apologize for his near-blunder. He knew it wasn't necessary, and he simply didn't have the energy. "I assure you that if there's any change at all in the Commander's condition . . . " He stopped short of saying they'd be the first to know. They needed sleep more than they needed good news, and if the news was bad, there'd be nothing they could do anyway.

"Very well," Nelson finally nodded.

"Now if you'll both go and--"

"Grph um khmf"

A movement from Morton's bed informed them that the muffled growl had come from that direction. Nelson and Crane first surged forward, then hung back to allow the Doctor to do his work.

"Commander?" Jamieson leaned into the Exec's field of vision. "Can you hear me?"

Chip Morton opened his eyes slowly. "Doc?"

"I think I still am," he smiled tiredly.

After wide-eyed pause, Morton continued, "Wh-what am I doing here?"

"Where exactly did you expect to be?" Jamieson asked as he repeated the same examination he'd given Stu Riley several hours earlier.

Morton's eyes took in the bunks, cabinets and grey walls of Sick Bay before answering. "Not here, Doc," he barely whispered. "Not here."

The Doctor paused to indulge in a relieved sigh before recalling himself and asking, "Are you in any pain?"

After a moment to take inventory, Morton answered, "A little. Nothing I can't deal with." He tried to sit up, and was rewarded by the coughing which earlier had nearly undone him. When he went to raise his hand to his mouth, he discovered the same array of tubes that Riley had found so distressing. "You going into the Frankenstein business?" he rasped.

Jamieson snorted. "You sound like Riley. No, we're flushing the mercury out of your system."

"You can do that?"

"Not without the help of your alien friend, I couldn't."

"Oh." The Exec appeared to be confused, but not concerned enough to ask for clarification. "Do we have communications back?"

"It sounds that way," Jamieson answered absently, as he continued checking both patient and equipment. "How many fingers am I holding up?" he asked, displaying a "victory" sign.

"Three." Morton squinted. "No, four. Are we under way?"

The Doctor frowned. "For a couple of hours now."

"What about the Vulcan? Is it gone? Are we pursuing it?"

"Listen, Commander," Jamieson interrupted his examination, "I'm not privy to what goes on in the Control Room, and neither will you be unless and until I certify you fit for duty - which I won't do unless you quiet down and let me finish."

"Testy, isn't he?"

"Lee? Is that you? " Morton twisted around to see, trying the Doctor's thinning patience even more.

"Well it's about time you decided to wake up and start pulling your weight around here," Crane grinned.

"How long have I been--"

"Long enough to give us a good scare, Commander," Nelson said.

"Admiral!" he twisted around the opposite direction, earning a second scowl from Jamieson.

Nelson came beside Morton's bed, his face contorted with the struggle between fear, relief, and something akin to guilt. "Chip," he asked, "you knew the danger from the mercury?"

"I figured."

"Then why . . . " his voice choked with emotion, " . . . why did you stay?"

"We had a job to finish." Chip Morton's surprise at the question turned to disappointment. "You thought I'd leave, sir?"

Nelson's face softened to a weary smile as he laid a hand on Morton's shoulder. "No, Commander," he shook his head, "I never thought that."

"What about the Vulcan?" the Exec asked. "Did the plan work?"

Crane grinned. "They high-tailed out of here about," he consulted the wall clock, "seven hours ago."

"And we don't think they'll be back any time soon," Nelson added with a grin. "You and Riley can be quite satisfied with your performance."

Morton digested those words for a couple of moments before turning back to the Doctor and asking, "Riley?"

"He's improving. He was awake a couple of hours ago, and asked about you." Jamieson held up three fingers. "Now how many?"

Morton blinked a couple of times, then said, "Three?"

"Good guess," Jamieson snickered. "What you need now is more rest. I'm hoping that some of these readings are due simply to exhaustion." He looked up. "And I'm prescribing the same thing for you two." He arched an eyebrow and grimaced. "You both look awful."

"Just what we were on our way to do, Doc," the Captain said. "Chip, we'll see you in a few hours."

"Um hmm," came the sleepy reply.

<^> Friday 1130 <^>

"Kowalski! I wasn't sure if I'd heard someone knocking or not."

"Sorry, ma'am, but the Admiral said not to disturb you if you were asleep, so I tried not to make much noise."

"Very kind of you, but I haven't gotten much sleep," she smiled ruefully. "Oscar was in here earlier helping me try to make some sense out of these dolphin tapes. But I've been on my own for about two hours now."

Kowalski looked over her shoulder into a cabin littered with stacks of tape cassettes and their corresponding official NIMR report folders. "Oh . . . right, ma'am. Anyway, the Admiral wanted to know if you'd join him for lunch in the Wardroom."

"That sounds wonderful," she smiled. "I could use a break. When?"

"Well, he's in Sick Bay talking to Mr. Morton right now, so - "

"Mr. Morton's awake?" Her voice cracked.

"Yes, ma'am. At the beginning of the last watch . . . four hours ago. But then Doc wanted him to get some rest, so he's just wakin' up again now."

"Do you suppose I could go see him? Or are they conducting official business?"

"I don't see why not, ma'am. I don't think the Exec is feeling quite . . . 'official', yet," he grimaced, "if you know what I mean."

She nodded and chuckled. "How about Riley?"

"Yes, ma'am, he's awake, too," he smiled, "and lookin' a lot better." He glanced down at his feet and back up before continuing. "About that, ma'am," he hesitated. "I just wanted you to know that we heard what you did for Riley and Mr. Morton . . . y'know, convincing the Skipper to let the alien help them out, then sittin' up with them last night. And . . . well, I just wanted to say, 'Thanks'." His face was only slightly redder when he ended than when he'd begun.

"Oh goodness, Kowalski - that was noth--" but she stopped herself mid-word, realizing that while it may have been 'nothing' for her, it was certainly 'something' for him. "You're very welcome, and thank you for being kind enough to mention it. It does an old lady's heart good," she smiled broadly. Now let me just wash my hands--" Suddenly she hesitated, frowning. "You know, maybe I should wait, though . . . since I wasn't actually invited. I really don't have any business being there."

"Tell you what, ma'am," Kowalski crooked an elbow and a grin for her, "I'll escort you to Sick Bay, and run interference - just to make sure the coast is clear."

"All right, Kowalski, it's a deal," she grinned back, "I'll just be a second."

<^>

After Kowalski gave her the "thumbs up," Dr. Mehrisout stuck her head tentatively around the doorway into Sick Bay.

"Dr. Mehrisout, come in!" Admiral Nelson beckoned. "We were just talking about you."

"About me?" Her face reddened at the thought of possible topics.

"Yes, Doc tells me you took a watch earlier so he and Lerner could get some sleep."

"Just for a couple of hours," she shrugged.

"Well, if you hadn't given him that sleep he'd have been even more cantankerous when I woke up," Morton grumbled. He glanced toward the office doorway, then raised his voice another notch. "And as it was, he was --"

"I was what, Commander?" Jamieson asked as he reentered

"Professional," the First Officer smiled beatifically. "As always."

Nelson, Riley, and Morton shared ill-concealed grins, while Jamieson rolled his eyes and asked, "And how about you, Doctor. Did you get some sleep?"

"No, I'm afraid I didn't get much," the linguist shook her head ruefully. "While the ship was quiet and I couldn't hear, there was too much going on to even consider sleeping. Now that things are settled down, I'm having trouble getting used to hearing noise again." She shook her head, "There's just no pleasing some people."

"I'd completely forgotten about your implant," Nelson said. "It's working again now?"

"Yep, good as ever," she answered. "In fact, it may be better."

"How so?"

"Well, I was expecting some problems when we surfaced--"

"The pressure change!" Nelson exclaimed. "What happened? I never even thought . . ."

"Not to worry, Admiral. I remembered, but it didn't seem worthwhile to say anything, since I really didn't want to spend the rest of my natural life at that depth, and there didn't seem to be any way to avoid that fate unless we surfaced."

"But if you'd said something, we could have made the ascent much slower, and in stages."

"I didn't think of that," she frowned. Then, shrugging, she continued, "Either way, I didn't want to cause any more problems."

"So what happened, ma'am?" Riley

"Nothing," she shook her head then shrugged. "Not a single thing. It was almost as if I was hearing with my own eardrum. I swallowed a couple of times, and that was it."

"But in the past . . . ?"

"Oh, yes indeed," she nodded. "I wasn't just stating theory the other night at dinner, those were real-life experiences."

"I am pleased that I was able to effect some change for the better. I suspect your hearing device may simply have needed to be reset."

"Oscar! You're back!" Riley tried to sit up straight in his bunk, earning him a scowl from Jamieson.

"Yes, I wished to make sure that both Mr. Morton and Stu Riley were in good health."

"Thanks to you, Oscar, they are," Nelson said. "Thank you."

"And there are no after effects?"

Nelson looked to Jamieson. "We can't be sure yet," the Doctor answered. "At the rate the residual deficiencies are clearing, however, I may have an answer for you within a few hours. I'm frankly amazed at their progress."

"I am . . . gratified to hear that good news. I could only wish that I had not been the cause of any suffering at all."

"I have a question about that," Nelson said, "if you don't mind answering it."

"Shoot," said Oscar, earning a grin from Riley.

"If your atmosphere is poisonous to us, and our atmosphere is poisonous to you, how did you manage to survive in your ship when you had the environment altered for Mr. Morton and Riley?"

"He wore an environmental suit," Morton answered.

"Yeah, like a big baggie," Riley added.

After a pause to interpret, the Mintakan said, "That is essentially correct. I was able to generate a temporary protective mantle."

"But how did you breathe?" Morton asked. "I didn't see an air tank or air supply hose."

"Our bodies are different from yours," Oscar stated, rather unnecessarily. "We do not need to respirate with the same frequency that you do. I had a more than adequate margin of safety." He paused before continuing. "I regret that I was unable to provide you with the same protection."

"All things considered, Oscar - " Morton started to say.

"It was one far out scene!" Riley finished.

Morton's visage threatened to turn stormy with irritation at the interruption, but suddenly it cleared, and he smiled - more to himself than to anyone in the room. "Yeah, far out," he murmured.

"But why . . . if you don't mind my asking . . . were you able to do that, when your companion wasn't?" Nelson persisted. "You did say that he died from exposure to our atmosphere, didn't you?"

"Not precisely. His death was caused by your water. The mantle is not an effective shield against the corrosive effects of that solution. It is a fact which we discovered too late."

"Then is water not common to your planet?"

"It is not the water that is dangerous, but the elements dissolved in it which are poisonous to us. Sodium chloride, in particular, reacts . . . detrimentally with our biology. His mantle was simply not strong enough to withstand its caustic nature."

"What are your suits made from?" Nelson asked.

While the discussion of environmental suits droned on, Mehrisout found her eyes drawn to the crystals still littering a tray on the medications cabinet. "What are these?" she asked when there was a lull in the conversation. "They almost look like diamonds." She idly fingered the glittering fragments.

"Yes, I believe that is what you call them. The compressed carbon makes an excellent packing material, but we've never found a suitable function for the refuse."

Nelson looked with renewed interested at the brilliant crystals, and shook his head, "This 'refuse' is very highly valued on Earth, Oscar. Not only are they useful for cutting, they are prized for ornamentation."

The Mintakan considered that information for a few seconds before asking, "Ornamentation? Are you serious? Or are you . . . putting me on?"

"I'm completely serious," Nelson answered.

"See? Look here, Oscar," Dr. Mehrisout extended her left hand, where a small but fiery gem sparkled from a ring. "This is a gift my husband gave me when we were engaged."

"And you welcomed this gift?" Oscar asked.

"Very much so. Not only because of its monetary value, but because of the sentiment behind it."

"I see. Then may I suggest that you take the rest of these shards and enjoy them, also."

"Oh my goodness, no!" Mehrisout laughed. "I think Adm. Nelson could find much better use for them." She trickled the sparkling handful into Nelson's cupped hands. "One diamond is more than enough for me; I'd never be able to handle a whole dish full of them!" Then she added solemnly, "But I thank you very much for the kind offer. It really was sweet of you."

"Lunch, anybody?" Lerner appeared in the doorway with a tray of cups and bowls of various clear liquids for the patients.

"Lunch?" Morton scowled as he surveyed his portion,"You call this lunch?"

"Yeah," Riley said in his best imitation of a four-year-old's whine, "This isn't even food."

"Bold words from men who less than twelve hours ago couldn't even breathe, let alone eat," Jamieson chided. "But if you really need something more solid," he arched an eyebrow, "I'll have Cookie make you up some Jello."

The First Officer's baleful glare of pure death was enough to wilt even the Doctor's healthy self-assurance.

"If you do well on this," he conceded, "we'll see about something more substantial later on."

"Meanwhile," Nelson said, "I believe I invited a lady to lunch in the Wardroom, and she's probably getting impatient."

"Impatient, no," she laughed, "hungry, yes." And on cue, an unladylike gurgle was heard emanating from the area of her mid-section.

"Doctor? Oscar? Will you accompany us?"

"No, thank you, Admiral. There are preparations I need to make aboard my vessel before I can return home."

Nelson stopped, suddenly very serious. "Then you'll be leaving soon?"

"I have completed my work here, so there is no reason to remain. However, I've been instructed to collect many samples. It will take approximately two days."

Nelson nodded slowly. "Is there anything we can do to assist you?"

"No, Admiral, but the offer is kind."

With that, the image blinked out, and the humans were once again alone on Seaview.

After a few seconds, Jamieson announced, "Does your offer still stand, Admiral? I think I'd be well advised to be elsewhere while my patients indulge in their bouillon and juice."

"Of course, Doctor," Mehrisout said. Her left hand hooked onto the Admiral's right elbow, she now extended her right for Jamieson's left elbow.

<^>

"So your implant is working perfectly now, Doctor?"

"Y'know, I don't want to offend you two," Mehrisout said, forking a healthy portion of tuna salad onto her toast, "but you're both rather old," she winced, "to be my students. And since students are about the only ones who call me Doctor, you calling me that makes me feel . . . rather old." She picked up her fork and waved it for emphasis. "So, do you suppose that the moral integrity of Seaview would suffer terribly if you called me Eleanor . . . at least once in a while?"

Nelson chuckled, "I suppose we could give it a try."

"But, please," she begged, "don't ask me to call you by your first names . . . I just know the crew wouldn't be able to handle that one!"

"Very well, Eleanor," Jamieson said. "About your implant?"

"It really does seem to be better than ever," she nodded. "When it first went out, I told Riley that I wondered what the good Lord had in mind, and now I know: He just shut it down for repairs," she grinned. "I never should have doubted. I can almost forget that I even have it in there now, the sound quality is that much improved. I just wonder what Dr. Briere is going to do when I tell him about it . . .if I tell him about it," she grinned mischievously.

There were several minutes of relative silence as they each tackled their sandwiches.

"Speaking of such things," Jamieson said thoughtfully, "I have to say that when I asked for a miracle last night, I wasn't really expecting one. But what I saw in the way of healing this morning is nothing short of just that."

"Remember what I said about technology and magic?" Nelson reminded, "A hundred years ago penicillin would have been considered a miracle, not to mention chemotherapy, and cochlear implants," he added, nodding towards Mehrisout.

"Say what you will, Admiral, but there's every reason to believe those two young men would have been dead by this time had it not been for Oscar's intervention. There's nothing I could have done to stop it." He shook his head. "No, I'm a doctor, and a doctor knows a miracle when he sees one," he smiled, "even if it's only a miracle of timing."

<^> Saturday 1245 <^>

"Good, we'll contact you again in six hours."

"How's she working, Admiral?"

Nelson and Sparks both looked up from SCUTR's console. "Beautifully, Lee," Nelson said. "That was Jiggs Stark on the line. I explained our dilemma, and he's going to handle that end of things."

"So," Crane grinned, "tell me what really happened back there?"

"Well, it seems that in SCUTR's first sea-trials it showed great promise, but there is considerable work necessary before final implementation."

"In other words, it was a dismal failure."

"Exactly."

"And . . .?"

Nelson held up a hand to Crane, "Sparks, when you get that last batch logged, take a break and get some food. I'll see you back here at, "he consulted his watch, "1400."

"Aye, sir," Sparks returned to his work.

As Captain and Admiral headed out of the Missile Room, Nelson continued. "And Adm. Nelson was taken ill before he was able to complete the testing. He'll be recuperating both aboard Seaview and at a special facility at the Institute."

"He was declared mentally incompetent, and has been forcibly confined until he's no longer considered a menace to society."

"You're very good at this, Captain," Nelson chuckled.

"So we should have little or no more trouble with the People's Republic trying to steal our worthless technology from our demented scientist cum admiral."

"I figure that a month or two of lying low ought to satisfy them," Nelson said. "And by that time we should have SCUTR very nearly ready for production."

"So," Crane repeated, as he stepped through the hatch into the corridor, "how's she working . . . really?"

"Like I said - beautifully. Even though the number of solar flares is at a ten-year high, we had no trouble getting through to Santa Barbara, or either of the other two stations we tried. I didn't test too widely, because until we know where the leak is coming from it wouldn't do to let just anybody know how well things are going." He rubbed his hands together in anticipation. "I think we're more than ready to start the next phase of testing."

"Any feedback from our neighbors?" Crane glanced upward.

"Oscar did pop in once to tell us that he was reading our signal, but that it wasn't reaching beyond this system."

"How does he know . . . Or shouldn't I bother asking?"

"It seems he's been talking to his superiors, and they've commended him for a job well done."

"I suppose that from their point of view, that's true. He did manage to get the distress signal stopped."

"From our point of view, as well. He showed me how to improve the SCUTR far beyond my original expectations, and his 'resetting' of Mehrisout's implant has it working better than its inventor ever dreamed. And that's on top of allowing us to see what the People's Republic's newest top-secret submarine looks like on the inside."

"The stories Chip and Riley had to tell about that boat are out of this world," Crane said, stopping at the corridor leading to Sick Bay. "And I had no idea Riley was such a good artist. Once they see those diagrams and schematics of their reactor, the Navy just might steal him away."

"Let 'em try."

<^>

"How many fingers?"

"Three," Stu Riley yawned, "and your nails are dirty."

Jamieson quickly checked the offending digits - which were scrupulously clean.

"Ha!" Riley crowed, "Made ya look!"

Chip Morton's fleeting grin was not quite quick enough to evade the Doctor's notice.

"I suppose you know more than the Doctor, too, Commander?"

"No, sir," Morton shook his head in innocent protest.

"In that case, tell me about the pain in your legs."

"It's fine, not a problem at all."

Jamieson snorted, and handed the Exec a small plastic cup. "Good. Go fill this for me."

Morton rolled his eyes, and slowly - painfully - eased his way out of the bed. Lerner hovered nearby, but as the Exec straightened to his full height and walked carefully across the room, he made it plain that he wanted no assistance.

"How long are we gonna have to keep this up, anyway?" Riley asked, frowning at his own cup.

"Until I'm not finding any more mercury, that's how long."

Fifteen minutes later, Jamieson pronounced both men substantially free of the poisonous metal.

"Does that mean we can split?"

"It means you can move back to your own quarters, as long as you report here three times a day. In a couple of days you might be ready for light duty."

"Outta sight!"

"May I emphasize," Jamieson continued sternly, as both Capt. Crane and Chief Sharkey entered Sick Bay, "that you are to remain in bed. You may take your meals in the Mess, but that is the only exertion you are allowed."

"And we're here to enforce that," Crane added, his arms folded across his chest.

"Captain, Chief," the Doctor nodded, "they're all yours. And I'll be happy to get them out of my hair," he added, rubbing what he had left.

<^>

"I'm fine, Lee, really. I don't need a jailer, and I don't need a baby-sitter." Morton groused as he eased himself onto his bunk.

"Gimme a break, will ya, Chip? As long as I'm in here, they'll think I'm doing something important, and even though we both know this isn't necessary, I could use the break. OK?"

"Well, if you put it that way . . . " Morton conceded, knowing full well that the truth was nowhere to be found in the Captain's words.

Crane dragged his friend's desk chair over to the bedside, and stretched out in it with a satisfied sigh.

"How long till we get to Rakahanga?"

"Remember? No exertion. Either of body or mind." After a few moments of silence that threatened to become uncomfortable, Crane asked, "So what was it like over there? I mean really, not the official version. What's Oscar like in 'real life'?"

"Solid," Morton grinned, "Literally. You can't appreciate either his strength or his warmth just from seeing the ghost he projects over here. And that empathic business is all the more powerful when you're right next to him. It wasn't till I got over there and actually saw him that I realized how terrified I'd been - and for how long." If the Seaview's First Officer was embarrassed by the confession, he showed no sign of it to his friend. "But when that fear suddenly dissipated, I finally relaxed and felt some confidence in the possibility of success."

"But before you left you said - "

"I said it was a risk worth taking," Morton reminded his friend. "I never said I expected to succeed."

"Then why . . . ?" Crane didn't finish the question; he already knew the answer. "But," he continued on another track, "it wasn't until after you 'relaxed' that the real danger began - from the mercury."

Morton crooked a grin. "I also never said I was sensible."

Crane snorted and shook his head. "What about the ship?"

Morton thought a minute before beginning. "It was like nothing I've ever seen before. If you can imagine a springy, stainless steel room, then that's it: almost liquid in its lines, and . . . empty." Morton cocked his head while he thought another moment or two. "I guess if I had to boil it down, I'd say that 'empty' is about the best description I can think of. I mean, there was plenty of equipment hidden away in those walls, but there was very little . . . spirit there. It seemed like a place in mourning." He refocused on Crane's face. "Y'know what I mean?"

"Mm hmm. It's the same feeling Oscar projects when he's not particularly projecting anything else." There was another, easier silence as the two men contemplated aloneness. "I wonder how close he was to this 'companion' of his." There was no answer to the rhetorical question, and after another silence, Crane spoke again. "I'm just glad I don't have to find out what it's like to lose a 'companion'. You know you really had us worried for a while."

Morton's only response was vague embarrassment, and a mumbled, "Same here." After several seconds he added, "To tell you the truth, lying there in the Missile Room I didn't think I had a snowball's chance in hell," he grinned lopsidedly. "I was never so surprised in my life as I was to see Doc's face leaning over me in Sick Bay . . . "

Not giving the silence long enough to turn sentimental Crane asked, "So how are you feeling now, besides the pain in your legs, I mean. What has Doc told you?"

"Nothing," he said brusquely. "All I know is that if I have to read that eye chart, touch my nose with my eyes shut, or 'count by sevens starting with sixty-four' one more time . . . we may have a medic in worse shape than the Exec."

"Your cough sounds better."

Sighing in resignation, Morton recited, "My lungs have pretty much stopped burning, and the peripheral vision is almost back to normal. Satisfied?"

"Almost," Crane answered. "What does he have to say about the weakness?"

"I keep trying to tell you that my legs are fine- "

"Uh huh," Crane nodded skeptically, but decided to drop the subject. "Did Riley do as well over there as you expected? I was pretty impressed by his report - especially the diagrams."

"Not half so impressed as I was. He ought to be recommended for OTS, if you ask me."

"And rob the Institute of a future CPO?"

Morton looked at the ceiling as if trying to imagine the unimaginable. "Riley as Chief of the Boat," he murmured. "Nope," he grimaced. "Never happen."

"Never say never, mister. Given time, he just might out-Sharkey Sharkey himself."

Morton shook his head. "Maybe yes, maybe no. But either way, you're looking at one officer who owes his life to him . . . several times over." Morton lowered his voice, "And don't tell anybody, but there's another reason why he was handy to have around," he glanced around guiltily and grinned, "He asked all the dumb questions so I didn't have to."

The two friends laughed aloud, now thoroughly relaxed, and when the Captain reported to the Control Room half an hour later, Chip Morton was sleeping peacefully, and Crane was wearing a smile that had been missing for quite some time.

<^> Sunday 1000 <^>

"Penny for your thoughts, ma'am?"

Eleanor Mehrisout looked up to see the reflection of Adm. Nelson standing behind her, his smile visible in window of the Observation Nose.

She turned slightly to face him. "I've listened to about as many of those dolphin tapes as I can handle for a while," she said, motioning to the chair beside her, "and I'm just not sure how I'm going to handle the situation once we get to Rakahanga."

"What seems to be the problem?" he asked.

"I can't very well tell them how I know the language, can I?" she asked.

"I'm afraid that would be . . . unwise at best," he agreed.

"So what do I do? Play dumb? Dazzle 'em with my brilliance?"

"How much of it do you think you would have figured out without Oscar's help?"

"Oh, I would eventually have come up with some kind of grammatical structure, and sorting out vocabulary is not all that difficult . . . "

"But . . . ?"

"But I would never have been able to answer the biggest question: Why? Why are these dolphins suddenly 'speaking in tongues'?"

"Hmm . . ." Nelson thought for several comfortable minutes, finding again - as Mehrisout had found - the sight of sea passing by Seaview's nose particularly conducive to ordering one's thoughts.

"How would you have gone about finding the answer to that question?"

"I wouldn't," she answered simply. "That's not really my area. I deal with the language itself: the sounds, the meanings, the nuances. I'm really not much more than a glorified translator. The evolution of a language - its origins, its developments, its mutations - all that is a specialty unto itself."

"Then what seems to be the problem?" he repeated. "Let the specialists handle the development angle, and you just do your job, and sit back to see what they find out."

"Seems a little dishonest," she frowned.

"Not really. We know that this 'anomalous' pod appeared less than a month ago - probably soon after Oscar arrived. They'll already have teams out searching for other dolphin pods with similar linguistic characteristics, and that could tell us a lot about where this pod was when he first contacted them, and how many other pods they came in contact with along the way. You don't know that, do you?"

"Nooo . . " she admitted.

"Then just say nothing," he said. "Stick to what you do know. Listen to those dolphins, use our equipment to simulate their utterances, and communicate with them. Maybe they'll be able to tell you things you didn't know."

"Something that does have me intrigued," she said, now warming to the discussion, "is finding out if they can teach Mintakan to other dolphins . . . or will the 'dialect' just die with those individuals?" She smiled excitedly, "Now that would be an interesting - and useful - study."

"Then do it, my good Doctor!" Nelson smacked the arm of his chair. "The area is wide open, and I can think of worse places to do research than on a south seas island paradise."

Her happy smile suddenly faded. "But it will take months . . . maybe years . . ."

"And you'd miss your family," Nelson guessed.

"I miss them already," she nodded, turning away to pull a hankie from her pocket.

"Well, first we need to get you there, and size up the situation before you make any long-term plans for terminal homesickness." He rose and placed a hand gently on her shoulder. "It's never wise to cross bridges before they're even in sight."

<^> Sunday 1800 <^>

"Greetings, Admiral."

While the Mintakan's entrances were no longer upsetting, they were often startling, especially when one had a spoonful of soup in mid-air.

"Welcome back, Oscar," Nelson said, mopping the table with his napkin. "Is there something we can help you with?"

"No, Admiral. I will be departing shortly, and wished to bid you farewell."

Nelson's smile turned to quick frown, and then back to a rueful version of the original smile. "I'm sorry to hear that, Oscar. I wish you could have stayed longer." He glanced around the table to see similar reactions on the faces of the other officers present. "Have you spoken to Riley?"

"Yes, sir, he has," Stu Riley said from the Wardroom doorway.

"Here, Riley," Mehrisout said, slipping sideways into another chair, "sit down."

The young man looked at the Nelson, "With your permission, sir?"

"Of course."

As Riley settled in and found a place to rest his make-shift cane next to Morton's, Oscar began to speak in his native language. While Mehrisout could understand a concept or two here and there, and Morton and Riley occasionally heard something familiar, Nelson, Crane, and Jamieson simply enjoyed the harp-like cascades . . . or was it oboe . . . or waterfall maybe? They never would be able to agree on anything except the sense of well-being it conveyed.

When he was finished, he bowed deeply. "Please forgive me for not speaking English, but there is no way to render our farewell. It is not so much a collection of words, as it is an expression of emotion. I wished to share it with you."

"We are honored," Nelson said, "and while we have nothing similar with which to respond, please know that we value the friendship that has begun here, and hope that it will have an opportunity to develop and prosper."

"Perhaps I will return. Or perhaps your people will some day venture as far as our home. In the meantime, I will remember you. I will remember you for your enthusiasm," he nodded toward Mehrisout and Riley, "your courage," toward Riley and Morton, "your desire to learn and your willingness to help," toward Nelson, "and for your loyalty to each other." His final bow was toward Crane and Jamieson. "Each one of you contributes uniquely to the whole in a way that is not known in our world."

"Thank you. These are qualities we strive for, and your recognition of them is indeed an honor."

"I said that our farewell could not be translated into English," Oscar continued. "That is not entirely true. There is one concept that I am able render." He paused for a moment, bowed low, and said, "There will never be another day for the rest of your life that I am not a part of; there will never be another day for the rest of my life that you are not a part of."

<^>

There was a momentary silence in the vacuum left by the Mintakan's departure.

"Is his ship still hanging off our port quarter, Lee?"

Crane nodded. "In exactly the same position he's been maintaining ever since we got sonar back."

"Is there anything stopping us from watching the take-off?" Nelson's eyes twinkled with anticipation.

"Do you think we'll be able to see it?" Riley asked.

"That's right, Admiral," Crane agreed. "After all, nobody seemed to notice when he arrived. Maybe he has some kind of concealment technology."

"I don't think so. From what he told me in the lab a few days ago, they were concerned about being visible, and probably only missed being spotted because the solar storms were disrupting our scanning."

"Then I don't think another slight delay will hurt Seaview's mission." Crane grinned, reaching for the hand-mike. "Control Room, this is the Captain. Slow to one third, and bring us to the surface."

O'Brien's voice answered, "Reducing speed to one third and surfacing, aye."

<^>

It required some strong arguments - veiled threats, actually - , solemn vows, and gritted teeth on the part of Seaman Riley and Lt. Cmdr. Morton to get them as far as Seaview's deck, but their efforts were well rewarded. Ten minutes after they arrived, as the sun hung low in the sky, it illumined a growing mountain in the water, which suddenly erupted into a smoothly elegant capsule. Freed from the sea, the sleek vessel was momentarily burnished by red-gold rays as it seemed to hang motionless for a long second. But just as quickly as it appeared, it darted ahead, then swooped upward, disappearing into the evening sky in the space of a sigh.

Unwilling to return to the all-too-ordinary task of running a submarine, the group - Nelson, Crane, Morton, Riley, and Mehrisout - remained above to watch the tropical sun dip below the western horizon.

"Far out," murmured Riley.

"Our guest, or the sunset?" Nelson asked.

"Uh, both, I guess," the seaman stammered. "I mean, the sunset's pretty far out, but Oscar . . . well him and that ship of his are just plain outta sight."

"I agree," Nelson chuckled.

Several more minutes passed before anyone spoke again.

"About fifty years ago," Nelson said, "an English biologist said - and it's always struck me as being more true than even Mr. Holdane himself probably knew - 'The universe is not only stranger than we suppose, it's stranger than we can suppose.'"

Riley pondered that for a while, then nodded his head thoughtfully.

By this time the sun was gone, and the short tropical twilight had turned into inky darkness. "Well, I don't know about you," Crane said, "but I have a boat to run. If you'll excuse me, Admiral."

"Certainly, Lee. I'll join you shortly."

Morton stretched lazily and said, "And if I'm going back on duty tomorrow, I'd better get myself back down that ladder and report to Sick Bay, or Doc'll have me up on charges of medical insubordination."

Riley grinned, "I'm right behind you, sir."

Mehrisout and Nelson remained above only long enough to allow the two men time to descend the ladder privately and at their own pace. Within five minutes, they too were below, and five minutes after that Seaview was on her way back down to cruising depth and speed.

"May I escort you to your cabin, ma'am?"

Mehrisout rolled her eyes at him. "I suspect that, in a pinch, I might be able to find my way there alone. But as long as you're offering the company, I'm accepting." She fell in step beside him. "I guess I might as well give up on 'Eleanor'," she complained.

"You're probably right about that," Nelson chuckled. "You know the one about old dogs and new tricks."

As they rounded the corner into Officers Country Lt. O'Brien walked by, having just been relieved by Capt. Crane.

"Good evening, sir, ma'am" he nodded.

"Evening, Lieutenant."

"Good evening Mr. O'Brien," Mehrisout said with an arched eyebrow and a knowing smile.

The young man blushed deeply and hurried on.

"What was that all about?" Nelson asked. He stopped and looked at his companion. "You haven't been-- "

"Eavesdropping?" she laughed. "Heavens, no! I couldn't if I wanted to." She lowered her voice to a stage whisper, "But neither he nor Sparks seem to believe that!" She grinned impishly. "And I'm having such wicked fun."

<^>

"Admiral?"

Nelson picked up the hand mike from the side of the Plot Table. "Nelson here."

"I have Miss Hamilton on the line from the Institute."

"Good," he said, looking aft to the radioman. "I'll take it back there."

As he entered the Radio Shack, Sparks handed him a phone handset. "Angie, did you get my message?" As he listened to her reply, he nodded and smiled with pleasure. "Good . . . very good . . . when? . . . and you've-- . . ." he chuckled, "I should have known . . . . Perfect! Good work, Angie. . . . What's that? . . . "

Nelson grinned again. "He's just fine. Taking his meals in the Wardroom, and terrorizing the lieutenants. He'll be back on light duty tomorrow, I expect . . . yes, Riley's fine, too . . . I'll certainly do that. Nelson out."

<^> Tuesday 1200 <^>


"What time will we get to Rakahanga?"

Lunch's main course was finished, and Dr. Mehrisout was busy stacking the plates that were passed her way.

"We passed the Tongareva beacon a couple of hours ago, so I'd make it about," Nelson looked at his watch, "1400 we should be sighting it. But it's only an atoll, so we'll be practically on top of it before we see anything."

"And how long before we can actually get ashore?" she asked, handing the stacks of dirty dishes to the steward.

"There's no harbor, so we'll have to offload all the cargo . . . and passengers," he nodded her way, "onto launches to take ashore."

"Well, I've sorted, packed, and repacked all my crates, made the bed three times - but I'm still having trouble bouncing that quarter - and swept out the broom closet so it will be ready for the next lucky occupant."

"You wouldn't be having an attack of nerves, would you, Doctor?"

"Who, me?" She grinned sheepishly. "Anybody have any socks that need darning?"

Cookie arrived bearing a mounded platter of cookies, a pot fresh coffee, and a pitcher of milk, which Mehrisout began serving to the officers present. The cook lingered, and finally asked, "Ma'am, do you think we could have the recipe for these?"

There was a simultaneous chorus of appreciative moans as the men took their first bite of the tender molasses cakes. "I haven't had these in years . . . My mother always made these at Christmastime . . . I'd almost forgotten how good they are . . . "

"Really? . . . um . . . sure," she answered, "I could write it down for you. It's kind of an old-fashioned recipe - one of my mother's specialities."

"You mean you made these?" Crane asked as he picked up cookies number two and three.

"When did you have time?"

"I couldn't sleep, so Cookie very kindly let me putter around a little bit after hours last night. I hope I left the galley in order," she looked up.

"Yes, ma'am. Everything was in its place."

"Riley helped me with that," she said. "Said he was having trouble getting back into his routine."

"Maybe that's why he was late to watch this morning," Morton mumbled through number four.

"And it might explain the rather off-key rendition of the Beach Boys greatest hits I was hearing at oh two hundred," Jamieson feigned a scowl while snagging his third. "But who's complaining?"

"Ooh," she winced, "I didn't realize we were so loud. Singing in the kitchen is a bad habit I picked up from Abby and Liz . . . my daughters," she added by way of explanation.

"Correct me if I'm wrong, Doctor," Nelson said, "but didn't you tell us that when you were nervous you resorted to knitting? As a matter of fact, I've seen you engaged in that particular form of therapy."

Mehrisout sighed deeply. "You're right, as usual, Admiral. When I'm nervous, knitting can be wonderful therapy." She hesitated. "But when I'm panicking, only baking will do the trick," she confided. "Besides, there's not much use for an afghan in this climate - but I figure cookies are always welcome."

<^> Tuesday 1430 <^>

"Bridge to Control Room"

Lt. Cmdr. Morton thumbed the mike already in his hand. "Go ahead, Bridge, this is the Exec."

"We have land in sight, sir."

"Very well." Receiving a nod from Capt. Crane he added, "the Skipper's on his way up."

"Chip, you have the Con."

"Aye, sir. I'll notify the Admiral."

"And don't forget Dr. Mehrisout," Crane added over his shoulder from the ladder.

<^>

After you, Doctor," Nelson said, motioning toward the ladder.

"How far up should I go?"

"I'm afraid you'll have to go all the way if you want to see much of anything."

She looked up the forty odd rungs above her. "Are you sure I won't be in the way?"

"Yes," he snickered, "you'll make it just fine. Remember," he arched one eyebrow, "you're a good bit tougher than you look."

"Maybe I am," she laughed as she started up, "but I'm not so sure about my knees."

Upon reaching the Bridge, she found that quarters were indeed tight, but since the lookouts were up on the Sail, that left just enough room for the Captain, Admiral, and her.

The cluster of small islands making up the atoll of Rakahanga was not much more than a green smudge above a white stripe sandwiched between the incredible blues of the sea and sky.

"Wow," she murmured. "How far away is it?"

"About fifteen miles," Crane answered. "It should take us maybe half an hour to reach the settlement."

"And how far is the research station from town?"

Nelson chuckled. "I think we told you that the island is small. So is the town. As a matter of fact, the research station is the town. There's a slightly larger settlement, Nivano, on the other side of the atoll, but it caters more to the few tourists imaginative enough to consider this as a vacation spot. They're a hardy bunch."

"And the dolphins come right up to the station?"

"As you can see - and as Oscar found out - dolphins are very sociable, and they'll come right up to almost anything and anybody." He pointed to the pod which was gleefully escorting Seaview to her destination. "Perhaps they're some of your newest students."

For the next fifteen minutes she was captivated by the sleek grey animals frolicking in Seaview's bow wake. When she next looked up, she was astounded to see how close they were to the land, and that it was even more beautiful on closer inspection than it had been from afar. Small boats were approaching: one official government emissary, two or three institute launches, and a number of friendly greeters, some with goods to sell, and some with flowers to give.

Both Nelson and Crane had been busy scanning the boats for familiar faces. Nelson suddenly smiled. Nonchalantly he removed the binoculars from around his neck and handed them to Mehrisout. "Would you like to try the glasses?

"Sure."

For a minute or more she looked at the beach, the trees, the flowers, and the small dock. Finally, she turned the glasses on the approaching boats. Several seconds later she gave a small gasp. Her mouth fell open and she turned to Nelson. "Is that Jim?" she whispered.

"Jim? Jim who?" Crane asked.

But Mehrisout didn't hear the tease in his voice, so busy was she smiling, and waving . . . and crying.

"How are your knees now?" Nelson asked.

She stopped long enough to give him a questioning look. "My knees?"

"You've got quite a climb ahead of you," he reminded, nodding toward the ladder. "Perhaps I'd better go first. It wouldn't do for your husband to find you in a soggy heap down in the Control Room, now would it?"

Ten minutes later, as the equivalent of a harbor master exchanged permits, clearances, and pleasantries with the Admiral, the Captain supervised the special sea detail setting anchors and preparing the deck for visitors, and Sharkey was already barking orders aimed at offloading their cargo into the awaiting launches.

However, the merry cacophony of voices, machinery, and distant breakers went unheeded by one distinguished doctor of linguistics, who was in the arms of her somewhat bewildered husband, smiling broadly . . . and sobbing uncontrollably.

<^> Thursday 1830 <^>

"How long will her husband be staying there?" Crane said as he watched the tiny atoll grow even smaller in the distance.

"Till tomorrow. He'll be shuttled to the airport at Rarotonga, and catch the Saturday flight to LA."

"Why did you go to so much trouble to bring him half way around the world for three days?"

Nelson pondered the play of light across the waves before he answered. "Because it was important to her. She's a professional; she would have adjusted, and would have functioned perfectly well without seeing him until Christmas." He shook his head.

"But we didn't request her because she was a machine who would 'function well'. We sought her out partly for her extensive knowledge, partly for her unique abilities, but mainly because she's known for her quick, intuitive understanding of people and how they interact in their own environment. But we're demanding a lot in asking her to transfer that knowledge and intuition from humans to dolphins, . . . and two days ago she was woman who felt overwhelmed by her task and her isolation."

"And you think he helped."

The Admiral turned to his Captain and smiled. "Did you see them together?"

The peaceful silence continued until the blond head of Seaview's First Officer appeared at the top of the ladder.

"Room for one more?"

"Chip! What are you doing all the way up here? Are you sure . . ."

"What Doc doesn't know won't hurt him," he said, bending over to catch his breath. "Besides, I'm feeling perfectly fine, and I'm really tired of being treated like an invalid."

"Uh huh," Nelson grimaced. "But since you're here, you might as well stay and admire the view with us."

As the sun hung on the edge of the sea, spilling its last rays over the gentle waves, Crane roused himself enough to ask, "Will we be able to resume testing on the SCUTR any time soon?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact, we will," Nelson said. "I was on the phone with the Institute today after I finished the inspection tour, and Adm. Stark told me that they've identified and eliminated the leak. So we're free to continue without fear of the news of my 'miraculous recovery' getting back to the People's Republic."

"Where was it?" Morton asked.

Nelson frowned. "It was an idealistic young technician we'd just hired to work do maintenance in the lab. It seems he thought the People's Republic program for 'peace and world harmony' was far more convincing than ours."

Morton rolled his eyes. "And how did he reach that conclusion?"

Nelson shook his head. "A wiser man than I once said that a conclusion is simply the place where someone got tired of thinking." He sighed. "I'm afraid that's true more often than we'd like to think about."

Had the light been stronger, Nelson might have seen the slight wince on his officers' faces as they considered their own faulty conclusions of the recent past. But it was not . . . nor did it matter.

"I wonder if it's true . . . " Crane murmured.

"What?" Morton asked.

"Oscar's farewell," he answered. "There will never be another day for the rest of your life that I am not a part of --"

"-- There will never be another day for the rest of my life that you are not a part of," Nelson finished for him. Catching one last gleam of the atoll they were leaving behind, the Admiral pushed off from the gunwale and said, "I certainly hope it's true, gentlemen." His smile was wistful. "It would be tragic indeed if we were to lose such treasures."





Copyright 2002 by naloma
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