NIMR Reports is a Fan Fiction Magazine on the World Wide Web for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea starring Richard Basehart and David Hedison


A Penny for Your Thoughts

 

by

 

Deb Riley

 

You'd think I'd be used to this by now, Lieutenant Commander Chip Morton groaned to himself. The deck under his feet pitched wildly and threw him to one side of the Control Room -- along with anything else that wasn't firmly attached to some part of the Seaview. Let's see, how many turbulence-related injuries have you racked up -- three broken ribs, a separated shoulder, and a knee that isn't ever going to let you forget your days as a submariner. OW! 

"Sorry, Chip!" Captain Lee Crane shouted over the squall of the klaxon and the general uproar of voices that always seemed to accompany the submarine in violent turbulence. Crane managed to stagger to his feet and grab for the microphone, leaving the 'pillow' he had landed on a moment before looking a little worse for the wear.

Morton tried to assess this latest round of damage -- and not necessarily to the Seaview, either.

"Damage Control, report!" Crane ordered.

"No structural damage, Captain, and only minor injuries reported."

The Damage Control Officer's response was quick, if not entirely accurate, as far as a certain Executive Officer was concerned.

"Admiral Nelson says the next explosions will occur in approximately three minutes, sir."

"Now hear this," Crane's voice echoed throughout the ship over the loudspeakers. "All hands, brace for turbulence. Mark: three minutes."

Morton stood up and then made a dizzy grab for the Chart Table.

"You'd think there'd be an easier way to do an experiment like this, wouldn't you, sir?" Chief Sharkey asked the Seaview's Exec. "Blowing up fake submarines and rusted out old hulks, and then counting every little scrap of metal scattered from here to kingdom come. Seems like that's what they've got all those fancy computer simulations for, doesn't it, sir?"

Privately, Morton couldn't have agreed more with the Chief Petty Officer's assessment, but loyalty to Admiral Nelson demanded a response in the negative. "I don't get paid to think, Chief," Morton snapped. He surreptitiously massaged the bruised spot on his side where Crane's elbow had attempted to violate a law of physics: the one about two objects not occupying the same space at the same time. "I get paid to follow orders. And right now, those orders include accounting for every single piece of metal in the debris field -- right down to the last rivet."

"Yes, sir," Sharkey nodded, meekly accepting the dressing-down from his Exec. Just Mr. Morton's way of saying, 'You said a mouthful, sailor!' Sharkey grinned to himself. Sometimes I swear that guy can read my mind!

"Belay the chitchat," Crane snapped, tossing a clipboard brusquely onto the Chart Table. "These experiments will provide the baseline data to test counter-terrorist measures -- measures that could save our lives in the future, gentlemen. So I suggest that you return to your posts and keep your comments to yourselves."

"Aye-aye, sir," Morton nodded. There was not a hint of amusement left in his eyes. Man, what is with Lee? Morton turned away quickly to hide his worried frown from the person who was the cause of that expression. I know this is an important experiment with a lot riding on its success, but ever since Lee got back from shore leave, he's been like Jekyll and Hyde -- even-tempered one minute and jumping down everybody's throat the next.

But something in Morton's expression or stance must have betrayed him to the one man who knew him as well as the Exec ever permitted anyone to know him.

Crane reached over and lightly cuffed his Exec's shoulder. "I know I've been a real bear to live with these last few days."

Lee's tone sounded light. But was it Morton's imagination, or was there still a brooding darkness hiding behind that familiar, affable smile?

"The government is putting a lot of pressure on the Admiral to develop these counter-terrorist measures, including the new super materials to implement them, and you know what they say -- 'When the Admiral ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.'"

"I know, Lee," Morton nodded, trying to match Crane's bantering tone with an equally light reply. "But you know me -- worrying about everybody is part of my job description. I only wish that telepathy and ten pairs of hands were standard issue, too."

Crane chuckled, then glanced up at the clock. "Well, here we go again, and this time, I'll try not to use you for a cushion. After all, we can't afford to have you down and out for the count, now can we?"

A wave of turbulence cut off any chance for reply. Morton grabbed onto the side of the Chart Table, fighting to maintain his balance. At the same moment, Crane made a lunge for the other side of the table, frantically trying to hold onto something -- anything -- to avoid crashing across the tilting, slippery deck once more.

Morton made a desperate grab for the Captain's arm. "Hang on, Lee," Morton called out, mentally calculating where the Captain's present trajectory would take him . . . and not liking his conclusions in the least. Well, add a concussion to the grand total -- wonder if this beats Patterson's record for the most injuries suffered by one crewman? Morton managed one last coherent thought as his head hit the edge of the Chart Table; the force of impact was doubled by Lee's solid weight slamming into him. And what's the prize . . . an all expense-paid trip to scenic Bethesda? Above him, Morton could hear people shouting orders and making noises that he assumed were meant to let him know that help was on the way, but none of it seemed very important at the moment.

Crane's tone was soothing as he knelt beside the injured Exec. "It's going to be OK, Chip. Just take it easy -- Doc's on his way. Everything's going to be OK."

But there was another voice, a voice that seemed to be Lee's. Even as Crane's lips continued to make the quiet, calming sounds, that same familiar voice hissed down at Morton in the last thin second between pain-filled awareness and blessed darkness:

Everything's going to be just fine . . . now that you're out of the way!

 

****

 

The first person to make that tired old joke: "He'll be OK. After all, he landed on his head, didn't he?" is going to get slugged. I don't care if it is the Admiral and I spend the rest of my life in the Brig!

It wasn't much of a thought, Morton was willing to concede. But it was the first coherent one he'd managed in a considerable length of time, and he was proud of it in a slightly fuzzy fashion.

"Admiral, he's coming to," Doc said somewhere out in the blur that passed as Morton's field of vision for the moment. "Commander, are you awake? Can you hear me?"

"You don't have to yell, Doc." The Exec groaned at the onslaught of noise as a second figure, this one unshaven and wearing an expression of weary concern, floated into something like focus beside the Seaview's Chief Medical Officer. "It's my eyes that aren't working very well right now, not my ears."

That's great, just great -- a multi-million dollar project that's two months behind schedule, and now my Executive Officer is down and out for who knows how long!

The familiar growl of Admiral Nelson's voice was as loud as an explosion, too, just as Doc's had been. Morton winced but the pain was not purely physical this time.

Does the Admiral think I did this deliberately just to goldbrick? Morton sighed heavily; but as he looked at the Admiral, a sensation like a jolt of electricity went down his spine.

Nelson's lips were still moving, forming other words even as his first exasperated sentence seemed to hang in the air. ". . . little down time, and you're going to be right as rain again, Chip," the Admiral was saying cheerfully now, even as Morton stared in bewilderment at him. "You had us all worried about you."

"You've been unconscious for almost twelve hours, and Admiral Nelson's been here with you for the last five of them." Doc nodded, and this time, the medic's lips were definitely not moving even though the words were clearly audible: . . . and you try putting up with that for five hours in tight quarters, buddy, not to mention sweating out whether or not we were going to have to med-evac you back to the States. And all this in the middle of trying to get supplies inventoried! That's some timing you've got there, Morton!

"I'm . . . sorry," Morton apologized in confusion, looking first at Doc and then at the Admiral -- and seeing nothing but relief and concern in the two men's faces. "Between the experiment and the inventory, I know this couldn't have happened at a worse time, but it was an accident. Lee lost his balance and was going to land head-first against the edge of the Chart Table, and I . . . "

Morton's words faltered, but another voice was quick to pick up where he had left off.

. . . was just playing the hero and grandstanding, as usual, which was exactly what I wanted you to do!

Crane had stepped into Sick Bay just in time to catch Morton's last few words; there was nothing but pride in the Captain's face as he patted the Exec's shoulder. "Doc says you probably saved me from a fractured skull, Chip. That says a lot about the kind of officer and friend you are . . . you pathetic little goody-two shoes!"

"I couldn't have said that any better myself, Lee. Chip, I don't want to hear you apologize again for saving another man's life. And that's an order, Commander." Nelson smiled; if he had heard the last part of Lee's sentence, the Admiral gave no signs of it. "We're going to clear out of here now and let you get some rest -- and that's another order, Mister."

Crane grinned and winked as he turned to go. "I'll be back at the end of watch to check up on this character, Doc. If he gives you any trouble about taking it easy, you have my permission to throw him in the Brig." Better still, throw him overboard -- that's where the Admiral is going to end up in a couple of days. Might as well give the sharks a little appetizer before the main course!

This time, Morton's eyes and mind were both clearly focused, and there could be no mistake: Crane's lips hadn't moved once during those last two sentences.

Crane paused at the door long enough to give Morton a crisp salute of thanks -- a gesture that appeared to have no hint of malice or sarcasm.

I'm hallucinating, Morton groaned to himself as he tossed restlessly on the narrow bunk. The Exec turned on his side and stared in numb fear at the light above Doc's desk. The concussion's done something to my mind, and I'm imagining that I can read other people's thoughts. Worse still, I'm hallucinating that Lee's planning to kill the Admiral . . . and if that doesn't prove that you're about two volts shy of a full charge, Morton, I don't know what does!

Doc's voice was loud enough to make Morton jump -- even from the other end of Sick Bay: I wish people would put things back where they belong when they're finished with them. Where did that corpsman put the Commander's chart this time?

"It's over there on your desk, under that stack of inventory forms." Morton gestured weakly at the desk, and even that small movement was enough to send a stab of pain through the dull ache that was his head at the moment.

"Uh . . . thanks, Commander," Doc said.

Was it Morton's imagination again or was there something strange about the medic's expression -- something very much like fear?

The physician sat down heavily in his chair as he fumbled for the clipboard. "I must be more tired than I thought. I didn't know I was talking out loud."

 

****

 

The sedative that should have bought eight hours of pain-free sleep only left Morton in some fearful half-lit world that was neither consciousness nor oblivion. He tossed wearily, listening to the constant barrage of voices in the corridor outside Sick Bay. It was traditional aboard ship to lower one's voice while passing Sick Bay, out of respect for the ill or injured, but tonight, it seemed that no one bothered to observe the custom; if anything, the crewmen were even more loud and boisterous than usual. Strange, one-sided arguments, people singing in various keys -- or lack thereof -- even someone composing a love letter aloud, all conspired to keep Morton from escaping into the peace and silence of sleep. By end of watch, he stared at the bunk overhead, longing for a moment's respite from the sound of voices.

"Uh, begging your pardon, Doc, but if Mr. Morton's awake, I've got this Get-Well card to give him." Chief Sharkey's familiar rumbling voice shattered the silence of Sick Bay. "Me and the guys all signed it."

Doc stole a quick glance over at his patient, whose unblinking expression bore an uncomfortable resemblance to that of a catatonic schizophrenic. "The Commander's awake, and you can see him, but only for a few minutes. Commander Morton had a pretty rough night," Doc nodded reluctantly. And hopefully, a few minutes of your nattering will be enough to knock him out better than any sedative I could prescribe!

No, not again! Morton fought back a cry of fear and panic as Sharkey pulled up a chair beside the bunk and sat down -- apparently unable to hear the medic's remarks. Not another hallucination!

"Easy does it, sir -- it's just me, Chief Sharkey."

Strangely enough, the Chief Petty Officer's voice didn't seem to have the buzz-saw effect on Morton's aching skull that everyone else's did.

"Sorry, sir, didn't mean to startle you like that. Doc said you had a bad night."

"Just the noise out in the corridor all night long, Chief. Seems like anybody with anywhere to go aboard this ship picked that corridor to get there last night. And you can tell Kowalski for me that if he walks past Sick Bay howling that stuff that he calls music one more time, I will personally see to it that he spends the rest of this duty tour scrubbing the Head with a toothbrush!" Morton bantered, despite the panic he was feeling at the moment.

The 'feud' between the Exec and Seaman Kowalski about what did and did not constitute music had generated many such good-natured grumblings from Morton, but this morning, the humor seemed to fall flat. Morton noticed Sharkey and the Doctor exchanging glances.

"Uh, noise, sir?" The warning glance that Doc aimed in Sharkey's direction clearly told the Chief to humor Morton's strange notions. "I gave those turkeys specific orders not to use this corridor unless they absolutely had to and then to keep their big yaps quiet if they did. Looks like I'd better go give a little personal instruction about how to obey a direct order, isn't that right, sir? Anyway, here's a little something from the guys, sir, and we all hope you get back on your feet real soon."

Yeah, like sometime around the 32nd of Octembruary, a passing corpsman snorted, although he still wore the same look of respect that Morton's presence seemed automatically to evoke among the crew. Enjoy it while it lasts!

"Thanks, Chief," the Exec nodded, aiming a hard glare at the corpsman who suddenly seemed to stand a little straighter -- as though yanked upright by strings. "Tell the crew that I appreciate it, and, uh, by the way, come back any time."

"Sure thing, sir." Sharkey managed a nervous little smile at the unheard-of familiarity in Morton's voice. "You take care, Mr. Morton, and we'll all be thinking about you, you can bet on that, sir."

Not that, Chief, anything but that! the Exec muffled a sigh, closing his eyes so that he didn't have to see the worried look that Sharkey exchanged with the Doctor.

Doc pointed silently at the far end of Sick Bay and gestured for Sharkey to follow him. The two men's voices were barely above a whisper as they discussed what had just taken place.

With a little concentration, Morton found that he could ignore what they were saying about him. That's better -- much better, the Exec smiled, feeling as though someone had turned off a particularly loud and obnoxious television program. Discovering that he had some control over the situation made Morton let his guard down; soon he was relaxed enough to drift into sleep. Someone else came into Sick Bay, but the Exec was too drowsy to know who was walking towards him -- or even care.

Bad night, Chip? Don't worry, you don't have that many more nights left, anyway! Crane's voice was a silky purr of malice as he bent over the Exec's bunk.

Morton 's eyes flew open in terror.

"Easy, Chip, it's just me! Doc, give me a hand here!" Crane fought to restrain the wildly-thrashing Morton long enough for the sting of a hypodermic needle to do its work. The Exec collapsed back against the bunk, his eyes never leaving Lee's face for even a moment. "What's wrong with him, Doc? He looked like he thought I was out to murder him."

"Uh, can we discuss this outside, Captain?" Doc gestured at the doorway with a knowing glance down at Morton's sweat-beaded face, and eyes that were still impossibly alert despite the massive dose of sedative that he had just received. "I think it'd be best that way."

They think I can't hear them. Morton shook his head, struggling past the haze of sedation to reason with something of his old logic and clarity. How are you supposed to keep a secret from someone who can read your mind? But that's impossible -- all that mind-reading garbage is just for cheap paperback novels and Johnny Carson's swami skits . . . isn't it? Think, Morton, think! How can you tell what's real and what's an hallucination?

But before he could pursue the idea to any kind of a conclusion, the drug finally overwhelmed even the legendary Morton resolve, and the sleep that had eluded him when he had so desperately wanted it now swallowed up his will to remain alert.

"That's right, go to sleep, Chip." Lee's voice was calm as he sat down in the chair that Sharkey had just vacated. "It's all right . . . just get some rest now." And who knows? I may not have to kill you after all, as long as you stay out of my way until Nelson is neutralized tomorrow. After all, who's going to believe the word of a poor brain-damaged lunatic?

Who, indeed? Morton shook aside sleep long enough for one last desperate question. And I think I may just have the answer to that, too!

 

****

 

"Uh, you want me to pick a number between one and . . . how many, sir?"

There were times in his life that Chief Sharkey regretted his impulsive and generous nature, and this was rapidly shaping up to be one of those moments. Promising to visit the Exec in Sick Bay had been one thing. Baby-sitting that same Exec while Doc and the corpsmen were busy with inventory was something entirely different, especially since the word had gotten around that the Commander was a lot less than compost mentalist -- or whatever it was that the Skipper had called it while he was explaining the situation to Admiral Nelson down in the Control Room that morning. Francis Sharkey, you have got to be out of your ever-loving mind . . . oops, no offense, sir, Sharkey hastily amended even the thought with a quick glance at the Exec, as though poor Mr. Morton could somehow have heard what he was thinking.

"None taken, Chief." Morton replied calmly, trying to hide a bemused smile at Sharkey's expression. If your eyes get any bigger, Chief, we won't need search lights on this tub to find explosion debris!

"Man, you'll have to excuse me, sir. I must be more bushed than I thought . . . I could've sworn I was just thinking to myself and not talking out loud!" Sharkey stammered, knowing that his face had just gone a particularly vivid shade of magenta.

"That's just my point, Chief. You weren't talking aloud. Now will you please just pick a number between one and a billion and write it down over there on that note pad on Doc's desk?" Morton struggled to keep the excitement out of his voice, knowing that the smallest suggestion of 'manic' behavior would be enough to earn him another hypo of sedative.

"Sure thing, Mr. Morton, you bet, sir." Sharkey smiled nervously, standing up so quickly that the chair flew out from under him and landed against the deck with a crash. Easy does it, man, the Chief admonished himself. Doc said we've got to stay cool, calm, and collected around the Exec so he doesn't go off into one of his no compost things . . .

"That's non compos mentis, Chief -- unless you're implying that I have fertilizer for brains," Morton snorted, in spite of his best attempts to remain level-headed, unemotional, and calm -- much like his normal self, in other words. That's it, Chief -- write down the most off the wall number you can. And I'll know in just a minute or so whether they're going to be fitting me for a strait-jacket . . . wonder if you can get one with French cuffs?

Sharkey scribbled something on the pad of paper. He looked over at the Exec, whose eyes were as tightly shut as if he had fallen asleep. "Uh, Mr. Mor --" Sharkey began, only to be cut off by an imperious gesture.

"I know you're finished, and the number you wrote down is 555-1317. Oh come on, Chief, couldn't you have been more original and picked something other than your telephone number?" Morton grumbled. "Pick another number; something random this time; and add a decimal point to it, just for fun."

There was no response. When Morton opened his eyes, Sharkey was still sitting behind the doctor's desk, mouth open as he stared down at the paper in his hand.

"That was a great trick, sir." Sharkey's voice was full of genuine awe. Loco in the coco or no, Mr. Morton must be one heck of a magician!

"It was no trick, I'm not 'loco in the coco,' and will you please just write down another number while I roll over so that there's so chance you'll think I'm cheating!" the Exec snapped, turning away from the Chief. In a second or so, Morton heard the scratch of pencil against paper, and almost without thinking about what he was doing, he called out, "Four million, nine-hundred thirty-six thousand, eight hundred twenty one, point zero, zero, two, one, two. Make that two, one, two, three."

"How . . . did . . . you . . . do . . . that?" Sharkey gasped, for once too shocked to remember the courtesy of 'sir', until he saw Morton's raised eyebrow. "You were calling out those numbers while I was writing them down. Like you were reading my mind or something, uh, sir. But how did you do that?"

Morton grinned, the worry and fear of the last few hours momentarily washed out of his face by pure relief.

"Come back over here and pull up that chair, Chief. It's a long story, one that I think you're going to find very interesting."

 

****

 

The amount of debris created by an explosion, and the distance that it scattered on the ocean floor, never ceased to amaze Harriman Nelson -- in spite of his familiarity with the equations and simulations that calculated those figures with reasonable accuracy. No string of numbers could provide the hard, cold reality that imagination did: bodies drifting down silently along with once treasured possessions; man and artifact both to suffer the same fate on the sea bottom. No matter how many times he went on a diving mission like this, Nelson could never manage to shake one of the starker images captured by the team who had found the Titanic -- a simple pair of leather boots lying side by side on the ocean floor, at approximately the same distance apart as a pair of human feet. Mute testimony all those years later to the fate of one passenger aboard the doomed ship.

And there was no comfort in knowing that he was never more than a few yards from the other divers on the team; nor, that his every movement was monitored by dozens of pairs of eyes watching the viewing screen aboard the Seaview, and via satellite link back to the Senate Committee in Washington. A diver in trouble at this distance was essentially a man alone, no matter how many other divers surrounded him -- a fact that kept tickling the back of Nelson's mind like a spider crawling over his neck.

Face it, Nelson, you wish Morton was back on this mission, no matter how many other competent divers you have on the recovery team. The Admiral shook his head as he reached down to retrieve a large piece of metal; he carefully noted its location on the grid map. A job like this required meticulous observation on a diver's part, complete awareness of everything taking place around him, and the ability to make a life and death decision instantly -- all of which pretty well summed up Morton's talents.

And to think that I once wrote Chip off completely because I couldn't tell what he was thinking about -- the way that I can read Lee!

But there was no time to think about anything other than the job before him, one that would take every ounce of his concentration to do properly. Playing to an audience had never been one of Nelson's long suits, but it was absolutely necessary to convince this particular set of trained observers that they were seeing the situation correctly.

Might as well go for the grand finale and hope that everything comes off as planned, he thought. Otherwise you're going to have some serious explaining to do, Nelson.

A piece of debris half-hidden behind a rock caught Nelson's interest, and he swam towards it. But before he had covered half the distance, he stopped suddenly as a small tremor shook him -- a movement that was clearly visible to the ring of officers and crew who watched aboard the Seaview.

"What's wrong with the Admiral, sir?" Sharkey's worried expression gave him an uncanny resemblance to a bull-dog who'd spent the morning chasing parked cars. "And what's with that bunch of boneheads out there? They're supposed to be watching out for each other! Shouldn't we let them know that the Admiral might be having trouble, sir?"

"Stow it, Chief. It's probably nothing more than a leg cramp," Crane snapped. He leaned forward to catch every nuance of the Admiral's stocky frame as Nelson straightened out. "They know what they're doing out there. They don't need our assistance."

"Aye-aye, sir," Sharkey nodded.

Nelson reached the rock formation and bent down to retrieve the fragment of metal. But before he could touch it, a second tremor rocked him, this one far more violent than the first. To an expert diver, it could mean only one thing -- the worst possible thing.

Sharkey's face drained of color. "Look, sir -- it's the Admiral! There's something wrong with his diving gear!"

A cloud of bubbles all but obscured the writhing, twisting form. It was terribly clear that even if the other divers had been closer to Nelson, the situation was far more serious than they could have handled. In a matter of only seconds, Nelson's thrashing had stirred up a dense screen of muck from the sea floor, hiding the grim scene that was playing out in front of everyone.

Crane swore viciously, grabbing for the microphone behind him. "Medic, report to the Missile Room on the double! One of the dive team's blown a regulator!" Crane tossed the microphone at Sharkey and spun in the direction of the hatch, all in one smooth movement. "You've got the conn, Chief. And for God's sake, Sparks, off-load the satellite link. The senators back home shouldn't have to watch this."

"Aye, sir," Sharkey nodded grimly at Crane's retreating back. Was it just the Chief's overwrought mental state, or had there been a little grin flickering in the Skipper's eyes just before he turned around to face the crew -- a grin that was quickly extinguished when some one else might notice it?

On the video screen, all violent movements had stopped; a somber procession of men now moved swiftly through the murky water towards the Seaview, carrying a motionless figure with them. It didn't take a Ph.D., or even an MD. for that matter, to know that the diver in the black suit was beyond any help that Doc could give him. For many long moments, there was nothing but stunned silence in the Control Room.

Sharkey turned away from the monitor, and for one of the few times in his life, the Chief's expression was unreadable. "All right, you men get back to work," he ordered curtly. "You heard me, move it."

The crew reluctantly did as they were ordered, and a subdued ripple of voices traveled the length of the Control Room. Anger, sorrow, and disbelief were all mixed together in the sound.

". . .should have been able to . . . not the Admiral, it's not . . . if you ask me, something's awfully . . ."

Down in Sick Bay, Morton listened intently, ignoring the corpsman's stares. Steady, Morton, steady, the Exec told himself -- all but overwhelmed by the thoughts and emotions crashing down around him. Mind-reading may not be in the manual, but it's the only weapon we've got to save Lee and the Seaview now . . . God help us.

 

****

 

It had been a long day, Lee Crane groaned, rubbing the back of his neck as he headed for the relative sanctuary of his cabin. Notifying Nelson's family and Naval brass had taken up most of his time, not to mention all the funeral arrangements that had to be made -- after all, a man as important as Admiral Harriman Nelson couldn't just be dumped overboard for shark food -- at least not without everyone saying Grace first. Crane giggled, then was immediately horrified at his own reaction. "Stress, Lee, that's all it is," he admonished himself aloud, knowing that there was no one in officer's country right now to hear him. Stress and grief over losing the Admiral . . . may the pig rot in American hell tonight!

But before Crane could pursue that strange thought to its origin, a wave of blackness crashed down over his mind, and he collapsed onto his knees, clutching his skull in agony. The attack was over almost before it started; when Crane stood up, his was the blank stare of someone just recovering from a petite mal seizure -- the events of the last moment entirely blotted out of his consciousness.

Crane staggered down the corridor past the Exec's cabin, pausing for a few seconds outside the door and listening to the silence behind it. Poor Chip . . . It was obvious that Morton knew he'd suffered some kind of brain damage, and yet he was powerless to control his own mind and actions. That made the situation twice as terrible for him.

There hadn't been any way to conceal Nelson's death from the Exec that afternoon. Crane shivered, remembering Morton's agonized sobs as he rocked back and forth in misery, curled up tightly on his bunk in Sick Bay. "You killed him, Lee -- you killed him," Morton had screamed until his voice grew hoarse. "You killed him . . . I heard what you were thinking. You --"

The sedative that Doc administered at that point had quickly done its work; Morton soon collapsed, his lips still forming the words "You killed him" for a few seconds until the drug's effect was complete.

In the abrupt silence that followed, Doc sighed heavily. "Don't pay any attention to him, Lee. He's been having these hallucinations on and off all day, thinking that he can read people's thoughts. That wasn't Chip talking just now. That was the brain damage talking."

And that's just fine with me, too, Crane grinned. As long as everyone thinks that Chip's accusations are the ramblings of a madman, then I don't have to worry about figuring out a way to dispose of him -- like I did with the Admiral. Amazing how effective little things can be. A relatively small blow to just the right area of the skull, a tiny flaw in a SCUBA regulator, and my job is all that much easier. With Nelson and Morton out of the way, I'll be able to deliver the Seaview before the rest of these poor American fools even know that they're citizens of The People's Republic. And if that doesn't please the Leader himself when he hears about it in a few minutes, I don't know what will!

Crane laughed again as he reached his own cabin and unlocked the door. A sudden thought occurred to him. Wouldn't it be something if that blow on the head really had affected Morton's mind and he actually could read another person's thoughts? Say, my mind for instance . . . wouldn't that be rich? Here I kill Nelson, and no one will believe the only person who knows the truth because they think he's a poor brain-damaged madman! Makes me almost wish you really could read my mind, Chip, 'old pal.'

"But I can read your mind, Lee, 'old pal.'"

A quiet voice from the darkened cabin made Crane's heart lurch; he fumbled frantically for the light switch just inside the cabin.

"Don't bother -- I disabled the switch. It's just you and me and our thoughts, Lee, all alone in the darkness."

"Chip . . . listen to me," Crane spoke soothingly, grateful that Morton couldn't see the .38 that the Captain had swiftly removed from a concealed ankle holster. "I know you're upset about the Admiral, and I know you blame me for his death. But I also understand that you've been hurt and aren't responsible for your actions. So why don't we just give Doc a call and he'll give you the help you need." Come on, Morton, say something so I can get a fix on your position, blast it all!

"Forget it, Lee. I know all about the kind of help you have planned for me. I can read your mind, remember?"

This time Morton's voice was somewhere over near the wardrobe along the bulkhead; Crane spun lightly, grinning wolfishly in the darkness as he raised the gun.

"Be serious, will you, Lee? Did you really think I was going to just sit there and wait until you drew a bead on the sound of my voice so you can shoot me? And no doubt tell everyone that poor, crazy, brain-damaged Chip attacked you and you had to kill me in self-defense. How am I doing so far?"

Blast you, Morton! Crane ranted to himself, trying to fix Morton's position -- a position that seemed to constantly be changing: first over by the desk, then across the cabin by the wardrobe, and now nowhere in particular at all.

"Chip, it doesn't have to be this way." Crane tried the firm approach, taking another step into the cabin. "My orders were to kill Nelson, no one else. In two days' time I'm going to be back home with the Leader in our country, and if you cooperate with me and surrender right now, I won't have to kill you, too. You can stay right here in your own country and get the help you need." There he is, over by the bunk again!

The flash from the gun's muzzle lit up the cabin for a brief second, but its brightness was too much for eyes struggling to adjust to darkness. Crane winced in real pain, straining to hear any clue -- a moan or a whimper -- that would let him know he'd hit his target.

"You just don't get it, do you, Lee?" Morton taunted, somewhere near the desk again. "I know all about your plan to hand over the Seaview to this so-called Leader of yours. And as a little bonus, eliminate Admiral Nelson and all those annoying experiments of his that might just keep you and your kind from killing more innocent people than you already have."

Stall him until you can get a Security Detail down here! Somebody must've heard the gun go off. Crane snarled silently and flattened himself against the wall. "You have no proof of anything, Chip. And whose word to you think they're going to believe -- the Captain of the Seaview or his poor, brain-damaged luna --?"

Morton snorted in disgust. "Oh, give that old song and dance a rest, too, will you, Lee? I have your transmitter, the one that you've been using to keep in touch with whoever it was that brain-washed you. I found it in your desk a few minutes ago. And since I'm wearing gloves, the only fingerprints that they're going to find on it will be yours, Lee; just like the only fingerprints on the Admiral's oxygen regulator will be yours, too. I think even you are going have a hard time explaining that to the Security Detail when they get here in just a couple of minutes. See, I've been holding down the microphone's Push to Transmit button the entire time. The whole ship's been listening in on our conversation."

"You miserable son of a dog!" Crane screeched, emptying the gun in random burst around the cabin in a blind rage and panic.

By the microphone, eh? Fine, then read this thought before you die, you stinking American pig!

Morton's voice dissolved in a chuckle. "Sorry, Lee, but that suggestion isn't exactly anatomically feasible."

Crane continued to click again and again on the empty chamber, then slid down the wall and began to sob in futile anger. Abruptly, the cabin's overhead light came on just as the first of the Security Detail reached the Captain's quarters. Crane stared in dull rage at bullet-shattered speakers that had been scattered on the bunk and desk. High in one corner was a remote controlled infrared camera -- the camera that had been Morton's link from the Sick Bay to Crane's cabin.

"Take him down to the Brig until we can get him back to the mainland for a healthy dose of de-programming," a deep voice growled just outside the door.

Crane's expression crumpled completely as a very much alive Harriman Nelson stepped into the cabin.

"It's going to be all right, Lee. You may not believe that right now, but you will after we undo whatever the 'Leader' and his people have done to you."

". . . but I killed the American dog of an Admiral, my Leader," Crane said -- his voice flat and dead as he stared blankly at the deck. "I obeyed my orders, and I killed the enemy of our people . . . I tell you, I saw him die! No -- do not punish me, my Commander . . . I did not fail you! Nelson is dead, I tell you -- I saw him die. I saw him . . . "

The sound of Crane's voice continued for a moment as the Security detail half-carried, half-dragged their prisoner -- their Captain -- towards the Brig. Nelson turned away, wincing in pity. Whoever this self-styled 'Leader' was, and how he had managed to break Lee's will and brain-wash him, it was a sure bet that it had been a long and pain-filled process for Crane -- one that Nelson shuddered to even think about. There was some small comfort, though, in knowing that the Navy's own crack team of psychiatrists was waiting back in Santa Barbara with all the latest in technology and know-how at their disposal to heal the damage done to Crane's mind.

And the best brain surgeons in the country were standing by to bring the same kind of help to Morton as soon as he, too, was med-evacked back to the mainland for treatment. A second set of x-rays taken that afternoon had revealed a tiny fragment of bone pressing on Morton's brain; tissue swelling had concealed the sliver's presence earlier. But the doctors will soon have everything put to rights for Chip, as well as for Lee. Nelson nodded in weary satisfaction as he walked back to his cabin for some well-deserved rest. Even if Sparks hadn't already reported that he'd heard unidentified transmissions and traced them back to Lee's cabin, I would have still trusted my instincts and checked out Morton's story. At least I've learned that much about my officers and myself! And then there was the look on Sharkey's face when he told me that Chip wanted to talk to me. Anything that can shake a crusty old Chief Petty Officer that badly is well worth checking into!

Nelson chuckled to himself, then grew somber, remembering the sabotaged regulator. Unmasking Crane's duplicity for everyone to see had taken expert planning and timing -- not to mention some excellent acting by the dive team and the three other men who were involved in the scheme: Sharkey, Doc, and Morton.

There had been plenty of time for Nelson to talk to the Exec that afternoon after the carefully staged accident and the "grieving" crewmen had brought down the body bag containing their Admiral's "remains" down to Sick Bay -- ostensibly to be autopsied. Nelson still found it nothing short of amazing; somehow Morton had managed to overcome a severe head trauma and sense that something was terribly wrong with the man who was his friend as well as his Captain.

If it hadn't been for Morton . . . Nelson didn't finish the rest of the thought as he paused in front of the Executive Officer's cabin for a moment. Thank God that I've learned to trust your instincts and mine, Chip. Nelson nodded at the lovingly polished brass tag on the Exec's door. You may not completely understand that now -- but you will.

 

*****

 

It's good to be back home, Nelson thought as he emerged through the Flying Sub's hatch into the Seaview's Control Room. Crane and Morton were at attention. And if two weeks in Washington testifying in front of a Senate Subcommittee had left Nelson feeling as though he'd been permanently dry-docked, he shuddered to think what his two officers felt like after all those many weeks in the hospital!

"Welcome aboard, Admiral," Lee smiled. "How was Washington?"

Nelson shook his head ruefully. "The same as always, Lee, nothing but cold, wet fog -- and the weather wasn't much better, either."

Crane laughed, and Nelson was still secretly relieved to see genuine emotions in the Captain's eyes -- instead of the carefully calculated manipulations and subterfuge that had taken their place during the time Lee was brain-washed. But the Admiral's mood changed suddenly as he reached into the pocket of his flight jacket. "Heads up, Lee. I thought you might like to see what nearly caused the Seaview to lose not one but three of her top officers. The Subcommittee was quite impressed with the latest development in terrorism, I can assure you."

Crane caught the small glass vial and inspected its contents: a silver-colored pellet that the doctors had discovered just under the skin at the base of his neck. "I still have trouble believing that something so tiny could have done so much damage." Crane shook his head as he inspected the time-release implant. "A drop or two of some exotic neurological chemical, a few standard brain-washing techniques, and I was ready to do anything that the 'Leader" wanted me to . . . even if that meant killing my two best friends in the process. And all because of something not much bigger than a shotgun pellet."

Nelson shrugged philosophically. "Well, Lee, the small things usually do cause the most trouble, I suppose -- petty little men with petty little ambitions to rule the world, for example. Just the small things."

Crane shook his head with a wry smile as he handed the vial back to the Admiral. Nelson tucked the tube back in his pocket and then nodded at Morton.

"Sorry, Chip, but you've already gotten your souvenir from all of this."

There was a similar vial marked "Morton, C." down in the Exec's desk drawer. The grayish-white sliver of bone had scarcely been larger than the head of a pin, but its constant pressure had produced results every bit as devastating to Morton's mind as its artificial counterpart had done to Crane. Simply removing the drug's source had been enough to eliminate any disruption of Crane's thoughts within a few days. Psychiatrists had been able to undo the damage of standard brain-washing techniques with relative ease once the chemical reinforcement was gone. Morton, however, had not been so fortunate.

Nelson thought back over the weeks of physical and psychological therapy that Morton had endured after surgery; the Admiral had spent many hours serving as silent encouragement when the going had gotten tough. But that was all behind them now. Crane and Morton were both fully recovered and cleared for duty. Nelson nodded to himself with satisfaction as he followed the other two officers over to the Chart Table to inspect the course they had been plotting when Sparks first announced FS-1's imminent arrival.

The debris field experiments had been postponed during the time that Crane and Morton had been gone, and there was no mistaking the excitement in the Captain's eyes and voice as he discussed the area that had been selected to conduct the next round of tests.

"We'll position the targets here, here, and here . . ." Crane pointed to the locations on the charts.

Abruptly, Nelson found himself more interested in what was being left unsaid. Morton stood quietly on the side of the Chart Table where the long ordeal had begun all those many weeks ago, absent-mindedly running his fingers along the spot where his head had hit the edge.

If Crane noticed anything unusual about Morton's expression, he said nothing. In a moment, the plans had met with Nelson's approval and were already being put into place -- with Lee's usual efficiency and skill.

Although there were a thousand and one small details that demanded Nelson's attention, he chose to ignore them for a moment and sat down instead at the small table in the sub's Nose -- ostensibly to go over some paperwork. But his real intent was to watch, without appearing to watch, as the Exec went about the regular business of preparing Seaview for departure in a few hours.

There it was again, Nelson realized grimly -- that faint air of distraction as though Morton were listening to something only he could hear; just as he had done in the hospital so many times. Not again! Nelson pleaded. The thought was a prayer whether he realized it or not. Come on, Chip, snap out of it, man!

As if responding to an unspoken command, Morton shook his head a little, and resumed the check-list he was going over with his usual thoroughness. The relief Nelson felt was short-lived at best. In only a few minutes, the Exec paused in mid-gesture as he reached for a pencil on the Chart Table; his eyes were distant -- as though straining to focus in on something that was not apparent to Nelson.

But even the faint 'tink' of a small object hitting the Chart Table from a short distance was enough to bring Morton back to the present; a small frown line cut across his forehead where the surgical scar was rapidly fading into little more than a thin pink thread.

"A penny, sir?" Morton asked with a little shrug of confusion, as Nelson joined the Exec at the Chart Table.

"For your thoughts," Nelson teased, trying to keep even the faintest hint of concern from his face. "You looked like you were a million miles away just now."

Morton smiled and shook his head.

"It's not what you're thinking, Admiral," the Exec chuckled as understanding flooded his face. "No voices, no hallucinations, no mind-reading, sir. It's just that I was trying to figure out what I did with that materials check-sheet you gave me, the one with the special detonators and explosives supply list. I had it just a minute ago and must have set it down somewhere, and now I can't find it. I wanted to double-check the material list and make sure we had everything you'll need for building those new timers. You know, the ones you developed especially for this phase of the experiment, sir."

"Oh, that, " Nelson casually waved his hand back towards his attache case still resting on the small table. "I borrowed that back from you when you weren't looking. I'll bring it back when I'm finished with it. Don't worry about yourself, Chip -- you're doing just fine."

"Aye-aye, sir," Morton nodded. Then he hesitated, as though he was unsure whether or not what he wanted to say was inappropriate for this setting -- with crewmen well within earshot. "Uh, permission to speak freely, sir?"

"Go ahead, Chip -- you don't have to be afraid to speak your mind around me, man. You should know that by now." Nelson's tone of voice was gruff but his eyes were full of amusement and compassion.

Morton's voice was level, and he wore his usual calm, unemotional expression, but it was Nelson's turn to pick up on -- uh, what had that doctor called it? Oh yes, 'induced hypersensitivity to physical and emotional clues.'

"I know I've said this to you before, Admiral, but I just want you to know again how much I appreciate what you did for me over these past few weeks. I'm not sure that I would ever been able to make it through everything without your help and support, sir."

"It's all right, Chip." Nelson reached down and retrieved the penny from the Chart Table, and handed it to Morton with a smile. "Keep that in your pocket, and whenever you wonder whether or not I trust and understand you the way that I do Lee, you'll have that to remind you what an important place you have . . . and not just in the day to day operations of this sub, either."

"Aye, sir. Thank you, sir." Morton's salute was crisp as he turned back to his duties . . . but not before Nelson saw him slip the penny into his shirt pocket with a wide smile and shining eyes.

The End


Copyright 1998 by Deb Riley


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