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.


The Running Man

 

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea: Episode #123

 

Copyright 12 February 1998

by

Debra S. Post

Sixth Revised Shooting Final

 

 

". . . And if our demands are not met, we will annihilate seven cities in seven days," screamed the televised voice. "To convince the peoples of all nations that the Church of the Right Hand of God has been chosen by the Almighty to bring about a new worldwide dominion, we shall destroy one city this very day." The voice paused ominously, then pronounced one word: "Paris."

Broadcasting on an unauthorized hookup to CNN, the worldwide cable television network, the terrorist defied the world. Audiences around the globe watched the crisis with anxious eyes.

In New York City, in the United Nations General Assembly chambers, shocked silence met the terrorist's declaration. Paris?! A viewscreen spread across the width of the dais showed the anonymous telecast. Ambassadors, staff members and ushers alike watched in breathless attention.

The spokesman for the Right Hand of God stood mostly in shadow; only his maniacal eyes were clearly visible. Behind him was a cavernous space. The unseen cameraman drew back to reveal a maze of electronics and cables laid out along a sturdy workbench. The equipment was brightly illuminated. At the far end of the bench, wires connected to a metal casing having the ominous conical shape of a reentry vehicle. As the camera panned, it became clear that the terrorists had achieved the unthinkable. They had assembled that modern messenger of Armageddon -- a thermonuclear bomb. The terrorist, his eyes shining with the wild light of fanaticism, pointed to a square box about a foot high at the near end of the workbench. It was a timer. Bright red numbers were clearly visible, counting steadily down towards zero.

"See and believe! The end of your world is come! You have twenty minutes, Paris! This thermonuclear device is fully armed and the fuze is locked. Nothing can bypass our electronic security devices -- nothing!" yelled the man triumphantly. "And, we are hidden in the maze of tunnels deep beneath your most cherished treasures -- try to find us, if you will -- ha, ha! Fools! You are out of time, Paris!" The man enjoyed the moment. Then, sounding hoarse with menace, he advised, "Pray, people of Paris . . . pray. Pray for your very souls, for today, you will see the face of God in His Heaven!" The man finished with a shout: "And I shall meet you there!"

Hoisting an assault rifle high, the terrorist motioned off-camera. Immediately, a squad of armed men joined him. They climbed into two waiting jeeps. The television image centered precisely back on the nuclear device and then rocked slightly. Apparently the cameraman had secured his equipment, for a single figure passed in front of the camera and took his place in a jeep. Visible beyond the terrorists was a double-wide, open doorway such as is common on shipping docks and warehouses. A wide corridor led straight away from the camera until its far end was lost in the dim distance. With a screech of tires, the jeeps roared off down the corridor and were lost to sight. Silence fell. Only the numbers on the timer moved. Sixteen minutes of life were left to Paris.

In the United Nations, the image of the nuclear device and ticking clock filled the viewscreen. Silence froze the audience for a dozen heartbeats. Then a single sound was heard -- hysterical sobbing from the daughter of the French ambassador. Her grief shattered the stillness -- bedlam erupted around room. Calls for action mingled with general protests which overrode the clashing of the President's gavel. Wildly gesticulating figures stood in agitation while others sat with heads bowed in horror. Confusion swept through the cacophony of speech.

The same picture of the nuclear device also loomed large on other viewscreens. On the research submarine, SSRN Seaview, steaming smoothly beneath the mid-Atlantic, the Wardroom monitor broadcast this image of doom. Admiral Harriman Nelson, owner and principal designer of the mighty vessel, intently watched the drama unfold. Impotent fury darkened his face. The timer continued to count down. Around him, the officers of Seaview clustered silently in helpless frustration.

"Can't we do anything, sir?" pleaded young Lieutenant O'Brien, his voice filled with anguish.

"There's nothing to be done, Lieutenant," snapped Admiral Nelson. "We don't know where in Paris the device is located -- and there's no time!"

The young Lieutenant dropped his head in despair.

No one else took his eyes from the monitor during this exchange. All officers were held by the bright red numbers on the timer. Only thirteen minutes were left now.

"If only the Skipper . . ." Lieutenant O'Brien's voice trailed off under the stern gaze of Nelson. The Skipper had failed to return from a mission four weeks before -- and Nelson was unaccountably touchy on the subject. The Admiral did not seem to be grieving as though the Skipper were dead. No . . . Nelson was just . . . touchy. What on Earth had gone wrong?

Putting his worries regarding Captain Crane aside for the present, Lieutenant O'Brien returned to studying the monitor. The nuclear device dominated the foreground and was assembled on a solid steel workbench the size of a billiards table. Beyond, O'Brien could see a large space roofed with immense beams. These supported at least two multi-ton, overhead cranes. One corridor led directly away from the camera in the far background. O'Brien could just make out another corridor in the extreme right of the picture, heading downward at an oblique angle. Its walls trickled with moisture. Must be some water down there, he thought. Scattered around the main chamber were packing crates, stacks of empty wooden pallets, tangles of scrap metal, and assorted debris. A large forklift stood near the central corridor. Clearly, no one was using this location as a regular place of business. Something intangible about the construction suggested the underground. O'Brien had heard that Paris had vast catacombs and train tunnels far beneath the city.

Silence filled the air -- and still the timer counted down.

Sounding like a herald of doom, Lieutenant Commander Charles Phillip Morton, or 'Chip' to his friends and superiors, began reading off the remaining time. "Eleven minutes," he stated in a flat voice.

O'Brien shifted uncomfortably as his heart sank at Morton's words. To himself alone he repeated his thought: If only the Skipper had made it.

* * *

Four weeks earlier . . .

Admiral Nelson entered the cabin of his Captain.

"Well, Admiral, I'm off," smiled Lee Crane to his best friend, "wish me luck." Crane made a slight adjustment to his shoulder holster, rotating his shoulders to ensure his .45 would ride easy under his well-worn, brown leather jacket. Dressed in black jeans and a dark green turtleneck sweater, Crane could drift through any city in the world. Consciously altering his body language, Crane ensured no aura of military training clung to him. Grinning like a sailor on shore leave, Crane relaxed his posture and adopted a devil-may-care expression. He was ready to go undercover. 

"Good luck, then, Lee." The Admiral's voice was warm as he returned the smile. The rapport between these two friends was an almost tangible thing, bridging differences in rank and years. The Admiral offered some last minute advice. "Remember, all ONI wants is information -- they'll decide what action to take if and when you locate the drugs or the kingpins."

ONI, or the Office of Naval Intelligence, often gave Seaview special assignments. When official government agencies had their hands tied due to bureaucratic inertia or diplomatic considerations, an independent civilian organization often became indispensable.

Crane shrugged. "Information it is, Admiral. Sounds to me like these Right Hand of God characters are just trying to set up their own little empire somewhere, and are willing to traffic in drugs to raise the funds. They don't sound like too much trouble to me."

"Do you have a reporting schedule set up?"

"Yes, sir. I had Sparks establish a transmission frequency, scrambler sequence and a schedule." Crane bent down to pick up a scuffed knapsack.

"Is that all you're taking, Lee?"

"No, sir. Kowalski already stowed the rest of my gear in the FS-1."

The FS-1 was a rather special experimental vehicle designed by Nelson. Small and maneuverable, the craft was perfect for engaging in covert operations.

Crane hesitated, deciding on one last question. "Admiral, are you sure ONI is reading this situation right?"

"What do you mean, Lee?"

"Well, granted twenty-three million dollars worth of diamonds should be an effective bait for these Right Hand of God scoundrels -- but that's an awful chunk of the taxpayers' money to put at risk. If something goes wrong . . ."

"Well, just you be sure nothing does go wrong, Captain Crane," ordered Nelson with mock seriousness.

"Aye-aye, sir," acknowledged Crane with a laugh.

Together, the friends headed out the door and down the corridor towards the waiting FS-1.

 

Aboard Seaview, day followed day in an uneventful stream. Uneventful, until the day Crane missed his checkpoint.

"How long has Captain Crane been overdue, Sparks?" rapped Admiral Nelson.

"Twelve hours, sir," replied the imperturbable radio officer, Lieutenant Junior Grade Nick Peatty (or 'Sparks' to everyone from the Admiral to the second assistant steward). Seated calmly in Seaview's Radio Shack, Sparks stated, "The Captain has been as regular as clockwork the last two weeks. He's only been late twice, sir, and for no more than three hours."

"Well, keep trying to raise him," directed Nelson, his voice harsh. He turned as Seaview's Executive Officer came up beside him.

"Any word from Lee, yet, Admiral?" asked Morton.

Nelson only shook his head.

Never one to downplay the situation, Morton said, "Doesn't sound good, sir. That sting operation was set to go down last night. We should've heard from Lee hours ago."

Before Nelson could answer, Sparks interrupted. "A call for you, sir. A Senator Brandt and a Colonel Jefferson -- they request videophone hookup."

"Very well, Sparks," acknowledged Nelson. "Pipe it through to the Observation Nose. Chip, come with me."

Walking briskly forward to the bow, Nelson exuded his usual aura of intense impatience with anything bureaucratic. Junior officers, noncoms and sailors alike steered clear of their advancing employer.

In the Observation Nose, a unique compartment fronted with transparent hull plates giving a view of the ocean, Morton turned on the monitor while Nelson settled himself in front of the camera. The screen flickered to life, showing the well-appointed office of the senior Congressman. Senator James F. Brandt of New York State was of medium height with penetrating gray eyes and immaculate salt-and-pepper hair. Colonel Christopher P. Jefferson looked every inch a leader of commandos -- which he was. A former Green Beret, he was currently attached to the Office of Naval Intelligence. Well over six feet in height, with the shoulders of a football linebacker, he stood at quiet attention behind the Senator.

"Admiral Nelson," stated Senator Brandt, clearly dispensing with any pleasantries.

"Senator Brandt, Colonel Jefferson." Nelson nodded to each man. "This is my Executive Officer, Lieutenant Commander Morton."

Brief nods acknowledged Morton's presence.

"What's the report on your man?" The Senator wasted no breath in getting to the point.

"No word since Operation Medusa commenced, Senator."

"Really?" said the Senator. "I find it highly irregular that your agent failed to report after what is unquestionably the largest and most expensive sting operation that this Administration has ever engaged in. How do you explain this?"

"I have no explanation at present, Senator." Experienced in dealing with incensed politicians, Nelson gathered every ounce of his patience and kept his voice level. "When Captain Crane contacts us, we will forward his report immediately."

The Senator huffed in frustration and sat for several moments tapping his forefinger against the desktop. "Very well, Admiral Nelson. We'll be standing by." The monitor flicked off.

"Politicians!" exploded Nelson.

Morton merely sighed to himself. This is going to be long wait.

Several anxious days passed. Again, Admiral Nelson was summoned to the videophone.

"Admiral, I want Crane and I want him now!" said Senator Brandt. "Bring him in!"

"Senator, what are you talking about?"

"Colonel Jefferson's agents spotted your Captain in Greece, of all places. He was carrying an attache case and entering a district riddled with disreputable banking houses. All quite capable of establishing unmarked Swiss bank accounts -- and asking no questions."

"Senator, I highly resent your implication. Captain Crane is a professional -- whatever he is doing, he is doing for good reason!"

"Admiral -- we are talking about twenty-three million dollars! I don't care if your fair-haired boy was an Eagle Scout -- "

"That's enough, Senator!" shouted Admiral Nelson. "I will inform you at once when I receive word from Commander Crane. Nelson out." Nelson slammed his hand down on the videophone controls. The screen went blank. Where the devil are you, Lee?

Far into the night, Admiral Nelson sat brooding in his cabin. His agile mind followed a dozen potentialities to their conclusion, reviewing all he knew of the operation and the players involved. Towards morning, he slammed a fist against his desk. To his weary, anxious mind, all futures seemed ill.

* * *

Ten days later, the world held its breath, waiting for the City of Lights to die.

In the tense atmosphere of Seaview's Wardroom, her officers clustered around the wall-mounted monitor. They watched a timer buried beneath Paris counting down to Armageddon.

"Eleven minutes to zero," read off Lieutenant Commander Morton in a hopeless voice. There was nothing he could do -- nothing anyone could do. Paris was under a sentence of death.

Lieutenant O'Brien focused on the monitor, unable to tear his eyes away. He did not move -- hardly dared to breathe. Moment followed moment in long, relentless strides. The sound of his heart began to pound in his ears, like drums beating in a midnight jungle -- or gasoline drums falling over in a distant alley. What? O'Brien cocked his head, straining to listen. Could he dimly hear a commotion down the central corridor? Was that the echo of gunfire? Glancing around, he saw that the other officers had heard something, too. O'Brien took a half-step forward and tensed every muscle in his desire to penetrate the shadows.

A flicker of movement at the corridor's far end caught the attention of every man. For a long moment, all was still. Then, orange light flashed outwards and the dull thump of the distant explosion jostled the camera lens. The televised picture rocked back and forth, then settled abruptly.

Mr. Morton's voice sounded again: "Ten minutes."

O'Brien focused on the corridor. Now he saw a figure advancing towards the camera, silhouetted by the distant flames. It was a man -- a running man! Long legs pummeling the concrete, the man sprinted towards the camera. All O'Brien could make out was a running man dressed all in black -- black hair, black fatigues, black weapon. O'Brien was struck by a sudden thought: while all around Paris people were struggling to flee the nuclear holocaust, only this lone man was racing into its very heart. Hope dared to rise within O'Brien. He briefly wondered about the watching millions elsewhere . . .

In the United Nations, frantic ambassadors and aides became quiet as all eyes sought the figure in black . . . the figure of the running man.

In the White House, the President demanded to know the allegiance of the approaching figure -- theirs or ours? Had an agent gotten through somehow?

Throughout the huge submarine Seaview, sailors clustered eagerly around monitors in the Aft and Forward Crew's Quarters, Crew's Mess, Rec Area, and even the Missile Room.

O'Brien watched the running man advance swiftly. He was nearly at the corridor entrance now. Reaching the doorway, the man dived through, rolling to his feet in a crouch against the forklift. Holding a .45 automatic in an extended, two-handed marksman's grasp, he pointed the weapon towards each corner of the room. He moved quickly, pivoting on the balls of his feet and making maximum use of the cover afforded by the forklift. After this rapid survey, the man apparently detected no opposition for he sprang fully erect. Jumping back to the doorway, he took a few precious seconds to activate the door closure mechanism. A heavy steel door started slowly to descend from the ceiling, grinding in metallic protest.

The man then took three steps into the room and scanned the space with frantic intensity. Almost immediately, he spotted the nuclear device and flung himself forward. The man vaulted over packing crates and discarded equipment. As he covered the yards between the door and the camera, his features became discernible.

"It's the Skipper!" shouted O'Brien.

In Seaview's Wardroom, all officers sprang to their feet or took a step closer to the monitor. Yes, the running man was, indeed, Commander Lee Benjamin Crane, Captain of the SSRN Seaview and sometime agent for the Office of Naval Intelligence.

"C'mon, Skipper," breathed O'Brien. He was aware of the unspoken support filling the room.

Mr. Morton's voice cut across the tension: "Eight minutes."

Chest heaving from exertion and sweat pouring down his face, Crane leaped upon the broad workbench and crouched next to the nuclear device. He set his weapon down at the edge of the bench. The young Captain was dressed in black fatigues, with black camouflage paint darkening his face and bare hands in uneven patterns. A utility belt strapped around his slim waist was hung with numerous equipment pouches.

O'Brien bit his lip as he examined his commanding officer. He saw hasty bandages around the Skipper's left hand and upper arm, and bruises on his face. Was that dark stain on his shirt blood? I don't know where you've been, Skipper, but looks to me like you've really been through it.

Crane crouched tensely, completely focused on the nuclear device. Though panting and obviously near the end of his physical stamina, his grim visage concentrated totally on his task. First, Crane expertly assessed the device, scrutinizing the network of electronics and cables attached to the bomb casing. His long, sensitive fingers lightly touched a wire here or a circuit board there. Apparently satisfied with his initial examination, Crane quickly unloaded tools, wires and a small electronic device about the size of a packet of cigarettes from his equipment belt.

O'Brien glanced at Admiral Nelson as the older man murmured to his Executive Officer, "Good, Chip . . . see there? Lee has an X-13 decoder . . . very good . . ."

Morton answered equally quietly, "Yes, sir -- Lee has a real chance with that gadget of yours . . ."

Mildly reassured, O'Brien turned back to the monitor. Each of Crane's deft movements was performed with a kind of frantic economy of motion. Time was too short for even one wrong or wasted move.

"Seven minutes," declared Mr. Morton.

O'Brien pressed his lips together. Only seven minutes? There was not enough time! The timer seemed to loom larger and larger in the foreground, overshadowing the images of the device and the Skipper which filled the rest of the screen.

Crane assembled a pair of electronics probes and a ribbon cable to the X-13. He bent low over the terrorists' fuzing circuitry which was set to fire the weapon.

Was it as tamper-proof as they had claimed? wondered O'Brien.

With infinite care, Crane gently attached the two probes to the maze of wires and checked the display of the X-13, now cupped in his injured left hand. Crane nodded to himself. Next, he took up the free end of the ribbon cable. The cable was similar to that used inside computers to allow parallel communication between the motherboard and peripherals. The end of the ribbon cable had a saw-toothed clamp connector for biting into and tapping other cables. Crane carefully aligned the connector with a similar cable on the fuzing circuitry, and clamped it down with a swift twist. Crane let out a long breath. The terrorists' circuitry apparently did not respond to the tap.

Now Crane embarked on a maddening mental battle. Frowning with manic intensity, Crane studied the X-13.

O'Brien was aware of Nelson speaking softly.

"Yes . . . yes . . . that's the way . . ." Nelson was rigidly focused on Crane's every move, seemingly giving him support by sheer force of will.

"Admiral, what's Captain Crane doing now?" ventured O'Brien as the Skipper continued to stare at the X-13.

Nelson answered, "He has to decode the structure of the weapon's message protocol and insert an abort command, Lieutenant."

O'Brien mouthed a silent "oh" and continued to watch. Whereas minutes before, the Skipper had been the epitome of motion, fairly consumed with the need for physical speed, he was now the embodiment of stillness. O'Brien was reminded of a meditating priest he had seen during their last port of call in Hong Kong.

Perspiration trickled down Crane's face and dampened his shirt. Impatiently, he wiped the sweat from his eyes with the back of his right hand. Then, he was again motionless, tense with mental effort. A long minute passed. Crane carefully typed two commands into the X-13 and again studied the display. His face grew dark, straining with the desperate need for thought. As the seconds ticked by, he periodically entered another command.

O'Brien couldn't breathe. No one moved in the Wardroom. No one spoke. Absolute stillness reigned as each man urged the Skipper towards success. Could the Skipper do it? O'Brien dragged his eyes reluctantly to the timer and sucked in his breath sharply.

Mr. Morton pronounced, "Two minutes."

"Admiral," O'Brien gasped, "two minutes . . . can't Captain Crane, uh, go faster?"

Nelson responded in almost a whisper, as if afraid to disturb Crane's concentration. "The Captain is giving the decoder commands to talk to the fuzing system. He has to be careful, now . . . see there . . . he's working steadily through layer after layer of programming . . . right into the heart of the their circuitry."

"But Admiral -- the time . . ." appealed O'Brien.

"Captain Crane cannot hurry this process . . . if he makes even one wrong move . . ." Nelson let the thought trail off.

O'Brien reluctantly nodded his understanding.

"One minute," came Mr. Morton's voice.

Crane's face suddenly lightened. "Ah," he muttered. "It's this . . . this or nothing." He punched a final code sequence into the X-13, then paused, his thumb hovering above the green transmit button. "Kyrie eleison," he breathed. Lord have mercy. Clenching his teeth, Crane pushed the button and closed his eyes involuntarily.

Crane remained crouched -- frozen in place now.

Time seemed to stand still for O'Brien. Yes, to stand still. Stand still?! What was he thinking? It was the timer that had stopped!

"He did it!" whooped O'Brien. "The Skipper did it! Look! Look at the timer!"

All eyes looked. The red numbers were stationary, no longer ticking away the life of Paris. The display indicated thirty-eight seconds . . . and holding. Cheers erupted across the Wardroom. Men clapped each other on the back, releasing the tension. Noisy speech surged across the room which was now brimming with smiling faces. Even the stoic Chip Morton smiled and began shaking hands with everyone.

Only O'Brien could not take his eyes from the monitor. The Skipper was still immobile. "I think the Skipper is afraid to look," smiled O'Brien.

The room quieted somewhat as the men focused again on the monitor. Laughter rippled just below the surface in each man.

Crane appeared to be holding his breath. For many seconds he did not move. Abruptly, Crane opened one eye and peered over at the timer. He waited for the beat of five seconds. The timer was still holding at thirty-eight seconds.

The tension visibly drained out of Crane. "Oh, dear Lord in heaven above," he breathed, running a trembling hand through his damp, curly hair. "Thank God . . . ah . . . that was too close . . ."

Man, the Skipper looks kind of ill, thought O'Brien. So this is what the Old Man is like when he's had the living daylights scared out him. I guess he's . . . well . . . human after all, concluded O'Brien, surprised at his own observation.

"I'm getting too old for this," continued Crane to himself. "Got to ask the Admiral for some shore leave . . ."

This remark caused a bemused Admiral to raise one eyebrow and favor the monitor and then the Wardroom in general with a quizzical look.

Laughter splashed over the room. The assembled officers were enjoying this window into their Captain's private thoughts.

Crane gingerly set the X-13 down on the workbench and sat back on his heels. Scrubbing his weary face with his uninjured right hand, he pursued his theme. "And a raise . . . yes . . . definitely a raise and shore leave . . . a beach barbecue would be nice . . . could invite Katie . . ."

The watching officers grinned broadly at this! Katie was Admiral Nelson's extremely capable executive secretary, and a very handsome woman. Clearly, the Skipper had no idea he was on a world-wide broadcast! Eager ears continued to listen:

". . . and Carol . . . and Denise . . . and every woman I'm still on speaking terms with . . . yeah . . . that'll do for a start . . ."

Crane took several deep breaths and glanced over the defuzed bomb. He shook his head sadly and grew somber. Reaching inside his shirt collar, he pulled out a small, round metallic object hanging around his neck on a chain. He crossed himself after the manner of Catholics, cupped the holy medal in his hands, rocked forward onto his knees, and bowed his head. His lips moved silently in prayer, face quiet in concentration. No one doubted the sincerity of the act.

On Seaview, the men became quiet, aware that they were intruding on a very private moment. Those who were of religious bent smiled softly or bowed their own heads in prayers of thanks. The remainder stood silently, respectful of their Captain's beliefs.

In a minute, Crane finished. He matter-of-factly tucked the medal back inside his shirt, then wearily stood and placed hands on hips. Taking a deep breath, Crane transformed once again into a man of purposeful action. He quickly surveyed the room, looking off-camera upwards and all around, as if at a large open space.

"Very well," he told himself and jumped lightly off the workbench onto the concrete floor. He strode rapidly off-camera and immediately sounds of metal-on-metal echoed through the warehouse. Then, a screech of hydraulics announced the operation of some unknown piece of machinery. Soon, the Captain walked slowly backwards into camera view, staring upwards. He held the control box of an overhead crane. Thick cables ran from the box upwards and out of sight. A large hook swung into view. With deft manipulation of the controls, Crane positioned the hook directly over the heavy metal casing of the nuclear device. He quickly disconnected the X-13 from the tangle of wiring and returned the components to his equipment belt.

Crane once more disappeared briefly off-camera, then returned with a three-foot section of heavy metal piping about two inches in diameter. Grasping the steel like a baseball bat, he swung downwards with all his strength onto the terrorists' circuitry. He steadily smashed the fuzing equipment into a jumble of useless metal and plastic. As he worked, he gave vent to his feelings, punctuating each blow with words: "You . . . crazy . . . fools!"

Dropping the piping and panting slightly, Crane stared at the wreckage. He allowed himself a final observation: "Idiots." Then, he savagely ripped free the heart of the device centered in the bomb casing. He indiscriminately tore loose cables and shoved the destroyed circuitry onto the floor.

Nelson sighed. "I would have liked to have studied their design," he explained to the room at large.

O'Brien swallowed a smile. The scientist in Nelson would desire more knowledge, whereas O'Brien was certain such an idea had not occurred to the Skipper at all. 'First things first' was his motto. O'Brien continued watching the monitor for a few moments, and frowned. He had seen the Skipper lean against the workbench momentarily and once again rub his face with his good, right hand. Geez, the Skipper really does look ill. O'Brien considered calling the Skipper's behavior to Nelson's attention and inquiring about the radiation coming from the plutonium core of the stolen bomb. What kind of dose rate was the Skipper getting? Could he be suffering from radiation poisoning? O'Brien started to speak, but was forestalled by the Exec.

Mr. Morton had been observing the general situation with growing concern. "Admiral, is there any way we can contact Lee? He needs some backup -- like right now. Sir, the corridors in that place must still be lousy with unfriendlies."

The atmosphere in the Wardroom became tense once again. The Skipper was still in grave jeopardy.

Admiral Nelson made a gesture of frustration. "Lee clearly doesn't know there's live communication gear in the room . . . we don't even know where he is . . . we certainly don't know how to transmit on his frequency."

Morton was urgent. "Sir, we may be right back where we started if the terrorists recapture that bomb." Morton was well known for pointing out the worst case scenario -- and he had saved lives by doing it. His fear for his friend he kept in his private heart -- he did not want to think about what would happen to Lee if those fanatics caught him. Morton pressed his lips together and shook his head in negation of the Admiral's pronouncement. "Admiral, we've got to make a move. We can -- "

Morton stopped, his attention caught by Lee's sudden movement on the monitor. Lee had been working steadily, in close contact with the heart of the nuclear device. The bomb casing with its radioactive materials was now packaged and ready for transport, hanging from the overhead crane. Chip's eye had been drawn when Lee suddenly wheeled towards the outer corridor door. The door was firmly closed by inch-thick steel -- its simple locking mechanism was also engaged. Crane's .45 materialized in his hand. Chip had not even seen him pick it up. Crane appeared to be straining to listen with every muscle in his body.

Chip cursed, then observed unnecessarily, "Lee's got company."

Lee held still for only a moment, then broke into a flurry of activity. He smoothly holstered his .45. Then, with a massive heave, he knocked the workbench over and out of the way. Sprinting to the forklift, he leaped into the seat. After several seconds, the engine rumbled to life. Lee lurched forward and, after a few jerks in different directions, appeared to get the hang of driving the vehicle. He maneuvered the forklift under the heavy nuclear device. Jumping out of the cab, he scrambled over to the dangling crane control box. He began to gradually inch the bomb down onto the waiting forklift tines.

Lieutenant O'Brien mentally urged him to hurry, then realized that this overhead crane, probably meant to hold and manipulate loads of up to twenty thousand pounds, was incapable of rapid movement. The Captain had no choice but to proceed slowly. Crane continually cast glances at the outer door. After anxious minutes, the bomb was finally positioned on the forklift tines and the Captain unhooked the crane.

Simultaneously, a shower of sparks erupted from the top of the steel door. A rent with glowing edges began to worm its way across the metal. The terrorists were cutting through -- and fast.

Crane fairly vaulted onto the forklift, slammed it into gear, and roared out of range of the camera.

O'Brien recalled the damp corridor he had spied sloping downwards to the right. But surely that was a dead end that went only deeper into the Paris sewer system? Otherwise, the terrorists would have guarded that corridor as well. O'Brien bit his lip and trusted to his Skipper's judgment.

The glowing cut reached almost all the way across the door now. Abruptly, Crane reappeared in front of the camera. With practiced ease, he attached several small canisters to the remains of the circuitry. Then, drawing his .45, Crane turned and ran out of view.

The door collapsed inward with a tremendous crash of steel on concrete. Machine gun fire began raking the room at waist height. The terrorists poured into the room, spreading out in all directions with professional, para-military tactics. The spokesman rushed to the pile of broken circuitry, surveying the wreckage with a face red with fury. He stooped and picked up a tangle of wiring. Immediately, a thick, white gas boiled out of one of the cylinders Crane had left behind. The spokesman fell to the ground and was immediately lost from view in the noxious fog. A comrade dashed to his assistance, wielding an assault rifle. As he, too, was overcome, he must have involuntarily clutched the trigger of his weapon. The resultant burst of fire raked the communications gear, and the monitor went suddenly white with static.

"Dear God," cried O'Brien, not impiously. "What . . . the Skipper . . . we've got to do something!"

Admiral Nelson shook his head in frustration. "We're six hundred miles away, Lieutenant." Nelson continued to frown for long moment, then apparently came to a decision. "Chip, head for France -- flank speed."

* * *

Near the bottom of a murky, sluggish river rested a remarkable yellow craft that served her masters both as a submarine and as an airplane. The vehicle had been named Flying Submarine Number One, or FS-1, by the pragmatic designers at the Nelson Institute of Marine Research. Captain Lee Crane, her principal pilot and tinkerer, called her 'my baby'. Normally, the craft was berthed in a bow compartment in the huge research submarine, SSRN Seaview. At present, the FS-1 held position in the muddy water of the Seine River which flowed through the heart of Paris. FS-1 beeped softly to herself. In standby mode, she awaited the return of her pilot with endless, mechanical patience. She had waited thusly for many hours now.

Abruptly, a series of lights on her central panel began blinking faster in a repetitive pattern. Her proximity scanner had observed an approaching submerged object. Protected from casual detection by an anti-electromagnetic field generator and a prototype anti-sonar transponder, the FS-1 took no overt action. Her hull was electrified in case of contact and would effectively neutralize any unauthorized personnel attempting to penetrate the hull or open the hatches.

Now, a single tone sounded from the pilot's console. The electrifying circuits shifted to standby. An external source had correctly transmitted the stand-down code sequence. Soon, the main compartment was filled with the sound of swirling water. The airlock set in the center of the lower deck was being cycled. With a final hiss of pressurized air, the sound of water ceased. The deck hatch rose, pushed slowly from below by a weary swimmer.

Hampered by sharing the tight space of the airlock with the nuclear device, Lee Crane heaved his SCUBA equipment up onto the deck. The device was wrapped in waterproof plastic and surrounded by a buoyancy blanket. When filled with a precise amount of air, the blanket was capable of floating loads of up to one thousand pounds. Crane now let the air out of the blanket, and held the weapon tightly as it settled onto the bottom hatch of the airlock. Then, he clambered up into the FS-1 cabin, rummaged in a supply cabinet, and returned to the airlock carrying tie-down straps. In a few minutes, the nuclear device was thoroughly secured from shifting during even the roughest of FS-1's maneuvers.

Crane had now spent nearly an hour in close proximity to the device. It contained kilograms of plutonium, one of the most deadly toxins known to man.

Crane leaned heavily upon the rim of the airlock before dragging himself up into the FS-1 once again. He massaged his face with one hand, then bent to close the hatch. Staggering slightly, he let the hatch slam under its own weight.

"Whew . . . I'm so tired . . . must be . . . must be the radiation." Crane's voice was a mere whisper.

Shaking his head to clear it, Crane stripped out of his dripping wetsuit and laid out some dry clothes. He took several precious minutes to dress his wounds. Bullet creases gashed the skin of his upper left arm and left side. These he dressed in compression bandages. Also, his left wrist was swollen and his left hand was bruised and scraped. He wrapped an ace bandage around these injuries. Then, Crane snapped open the small cabinet containing FS-1's emergency store of medicines. Leaning heavily against the bulkhead, he selected a mild painkiller and a hypodermic filled with an anti-radiation treatment. Crane frowned at the serum: developed by the Department of Nuclear Medicine back at the Nelson Institute for reactor accidents, he hoped it would be effective against plutonium poisoning. He injected the solution into his forearm, and restowed the supplies. Then, Crane pulled on a black turtleneck sweater, denim workshirt, and jeans -- one of his standard, undercover uniforms.

He surveyed his appearance in the tiny mirror in the Head. All in all, he decided, I've been very, very lucky today. In fact, all of Paris has been lucky. As Grandmama would say, I've been making my Guardian Angel work overtime -- again. Crane smiled briefly, then grew serious. I pray God the world never learns what happened this day. I hate to think of the twelve kinds of panic that would let loose if Parisians ever heard of this fiasco.

Crane swallowed a couple of aspirin with a full cup of water, then settled into the pilot's chair. Sighing deeply with weariness and a pounding headache, he began preflight procedures. Within minutes, he was moving down the Seine and out of the city. The FS-1's advanced sonar design allowed Crane to maneuver in these murky depths. Visibility was zero, and he proceeded on instruments alone. Finally, he cleared Paris and reached an open stretch of water. From his previous reconnaissance, he knew this spot to be free of power lines, bridges, and nearby buildings. Topside, it would now be night. He was clear for a water takeoff. Slanting steeply upwards to the surface, Crane punched the throttle wide open. Within moments, he broke free of the river and was airborne. The FS-1 rocketed away from Paris, flying low in a terrain-following flight pattern. Crane followed his previously established exit route at maximum speed, beneath radar coverage and out of sight of most civilians. In an hour, he was far out over the Atlantic ocean.

Crane breathed a sigh of relief. I've done it! I have the weapon and the jewels. I have their data -- yes, I know who the key players are now -- and they'll play my game. Now, I am the one holding all the cards . . .

Holding the FS-1 to a level flight pattern a mere three hundred feet above the waves, Crane examined the long-range scanning equipment on the central console. Seeing no indication of ships or aircraft in his vicinity, he reached up to the port control panel and set three switches in a prearranged pattern. He pressed the transmit button once.

A burst of electromagnetic radiation flashed from the FS-1, potentially giving away her position. But the transmission lasted only a millisecond, and then she was once again virtually invisible to all known tracking equipment as she raced through the night air. Her pilot judged the risk of detection worth taking for only one craft carried a receiver designed to detect this signal: the SSRN Seaview.

Suddenly, Crane's vision blurred and the FS-1 lurched sickeningly into a steep dive. Crane fought to stay conscious and regain control of the craft. Blinking furiously, he slowly brought the instrument panel into focus and righted the FS-1.

"That's it," he muttered. "I'm going to crash if I don't get some sleep. ONI will just have to wait for its precious report." Studying his electronic map database, Crane picked out a nearby patch of ocean. Filled with half-awash islets and reefs, the area was shunned by all commercial shipping.

Crane dived the FS-1 into the ocean and set an underwater course for the archipelago. Within thirty minutes, after two more alarming episodes of near unconsciousness, he found what he wanted. Before him was a deep overhang in an underwater canyon. Once under the protection of the rock, no detection equipment in the world could find him. Crane was confident. He did not for one moment imagine that anyone might be looking for him -- aside from members of the Right Hand of God. And the terrorists had no assets left with which to threaten him here.

Crane positioned the FS-1 into his refuge and shut down her engines. Pausing only to wash down a few, unsavory bites of emergency rations with a cup of water, Crane crawled into the top bunk. He was asleep within seconds.

* * *

"I don't know where Commander Crane is, Mr. President," asserted Admiral Nelson for the nth time. Only his deep respect for the office of the Presidency allowed him to keep his exasperation in check.

"Harry, we have a Broken Arrow situation going on -- and I need answers!" The President's face looked harassed on the Wardroom monitor. Also visible on his right and left were various members of the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of State. The President continued, "Crane is your man -- why didn't he report immediately? Surely he understands that with the CNN coverage we have a public crisis on our hands -- people are just plain scared, Harry."

"Listen, Mr. President -- it was obvious to me that Commander Crane was unaware of the public broadcast. He is probably making his way, incognito, to one of several prearranged rendezvous points and will make contact. Given that he is alone and has the nuclear device, he knows he is in a tenuous tactical position and won't take any chances such as breaking radio silence. He's vulnerable, Mr. President."

"Well, that's hardly a comfort, Harry. Do you think he still has the weapon?"

"Yes, sir. The network of tunnels beneath Paris where the French militia captured those members of the Right Hand of God include many access passages to the city's aqueduct system. And that leads to the Seine River. My belief is that Commander Crane made his exit via water."

"No one saw your Flying Submarine departing the area."

"They wouldn't -- not with Commander Crane at the helm."

"Oh, all right, Harry -- but just what do you suggest we do now?"

"Wait, Mr. President . . . just wait." Nelson gestured to Morton and the Exec reached over and turned off the monitor. With a deep sigh, Nelson shook his head and took two paces forward, then stood looking out through Seaview's transparent hull plates at the swirling waters of the eastern Atlantic Ocean.

Morton considered his superior for a long moment. "Admiral? Do you think Lee --"

"I don't know, Chip!" snapped Nelson. He slowly ran the fingers of his right hand through his fine, reddish-gray hair.

The PA system crackled, then spoke with Sparks' voice: "Admiral Nelson, please come to the Radio Shack immediately. It's important, sir."

Wheeling, Nelson met Morton's eyes, then led the way aft to the Radio Shack. "What do you have, Lieutenant?"

"A burst transmission, sir. It checks out OK -- matches the code sequence for the Flying Submarine. I ran it through the scrambler and got two code groups, sir: 'Medusa Alpha', and '2200'."

"It's 1900 hours now! Mr. Morton, head at flank speed for waypoint Alpha -- on the double!"

 

Twenty-one hours later . . .

The Seaview was at full stop at a nondescript location near a submerged seamount two hundred miles off the coast of France. The location had no significance except one -- it was the site of rendezvous point Alpha -- and Lee Crane was eighteen hours overdue.

Anxiously, Admiral Nelson haunted the Radio Shack. Sparks continuously monitored the Captain's G-frequency. This frequency had been established at the start of his mission over four weeks ago; it guaranteed Crane unjammable communication with Seaview, and at an unbelievable range. Unbelievable, that is, to anyone outside of a very small circle of US Department of Defense scientists.

Admiral Nelson sighed in frustration. "Aren't you getting anything, Sparks?"

"No, sir," replied Sparks calmly, well used to the volatility of Seaview's senior officers. "I am monitoring all possible communication frequencies."

"Oh, very well," muttered Nelson. He rubbed tired neck muscles with one hand, debating whether to go to his cabin and make a long overdue visit to his bunk. Probably no use -- the President or the Secretary of State or the UN Ambassador or . . . or anyone and everyone will be calling to learn whether we've any news . . . Dammit, Lee -- where are you?

Abruptly, Sparks adjusted a dial and cocked his head as if listening. "Message coming through on scrambler, sir," he murmured and flipped switches to engage the decoding electronics and tape recording system. After a moment, he said, "This is SSRN Seaview. We read you, Saratoga. Come in, over." Sparks again listened, ignoring the four-star Admiral breathing down his neck. "Roger, Saratoga. Message received. Seaview over and out." Sparks calmly addressed his agitated superior. "Senator Brandt and Colonel Jefferson are on their way here in FS-2, sir -- to 'personally oversee the situation'. Washington directs that you are to extend every courtesy. Their ETA is twenty minutes, sir."

Sparks stoically ignored the unfortunate language he now heard from Seaview's owner and creator. Poor Admiral Nelson -- I guess he's got the world on his neck until the Captain comes back. I sure hope Captain Crane is all right. A troubled frown gently furrowed Spark's normally serene countenance. Gosh, I wonder where the Skipper is?

* * *

On the Flying Submarine No. 1, Lee Crane struggled against a dark terror. Thrashing back and forth in the bunk, he feverishly cried out, but the evil dream held him fast. Distorted visions of his nightmare ordeal revolved through his sleeping mind.

"No! Got to get . . . get to . . . Paris! Got to . . . run . . . run . . . run!"

Weeks earlier, Crane had infiltrated the Right Hand of God, working his way deeply into the organization once he had caught wind of the horrible magnitude of their terrorist aspirations. With the drug deal giving him a kind of disreputable credibility, he pushed his reputation mercilessly. Finally, he learned of their headquarters on an innocuous, rocky island in the Mediterranean. He had dared not risk any kind of contact with Seaview or the Office of Naval Intelligence -- he was watched far too closely.

One moonless night, he had penetrated the island facility, learning of their plans and their technology by listening from below the floor partitions of their high-tech, computerized conference room. He was forced to abandon all caution when he learned of the death sentence of Paris -- only hours away. He had had to break cover and fight his way out -- but he had escaped -- and the Right Hand of God would not delay the destruction of Paris over a single unknown man.

Trapped in his dream, Crane relived his flight from the island: the terrible climb down from the ancient citadel tower; the run down the stony path to the beach with bullets whizzing around him; the sprint across the beach where the bullets now bit deeply into his side and arm; the agonizing swim out to the rock point and his SCUBA gear; the swim to the FS-1; the frantic flight to Paris and the desperate need for concealment; and, finally, the terrible, brutal run through the endless subterranean tunnels of the Paris sewer system. And in the way of dreams, Crane ran endlessly, knowing he would not make it. In his mind's eye, he saw the fireball sweep over the innocent city.

"No!" With a shout, Crane sat up, panting as if the run had been real. He looked wildly around the cabin, and recognized his surroundings immediately. Still in the grip of nightmare fears, he tumbled out of the bunk and opened the airlock hatch. When he had reassured himself that the nuclear device was safely secured, he began to relax. Thank God I was in time. He secured the hatch and stumbled over to the supply cabinets.

After three cups of water and several deep breaths, the pounding in his head subsided enough for him to check his instruments. All was quiet outside his rocky, undersea refuge. All of his equipment showed nominal readings. Sighing, he settled into the pilot's chair and buckled in. "Time to get this show on the road," he muttered. "What in the name of ?!" He had spied the chronometer. "Eighteen hours?! Blast, I'm overdue with a vengeance -- the Admiral is not going to be pleased." He fumed at himself for a moment, then let it go. He felt awful, and he simply could not have piloted the Flying Sub all the way to the rendezvous point the day before. "Well, it's time to go now," he concluded, rubbing his aching forehead with his uninjured hand. Setting his jaw determinedly, Crane began his preflight checklist. I wonder if anyone will be there to meet me?

* * *

"All right, Admiral Nelson, what kind of game is Crane playing?" demanded Senator Brandt. He had just been escorted into Nelson's cabin along with Colonel Jefferson. Brandt's emphasis on Nelson's rank was just short of insulting. The Senator continued in an accusing tone, "Where is this Captain of yours?"

Nelson put on his most diplomatic facade. The Senator from New York wielded a great deal of power in Congressional circles. Besides having the ear of the President and chairing the Senate's Armed Services Committee, he also strongly influenced the disbursements of hundreds of billions of dollars. Dollars which included funding for the Federal Bureau of Marine Research, the parent organization for the Nelson Institute of Marine Research, or NIMR. Nelson politely addressed the Senator, "I hardly think Commander Crane is playing a game, Senator."

"Come off it, Admiral," exploded the Senator, "Crane is your employee. I've checked around. Word has it he's one hundred percent loyal to you. So why didn't he contact you immediately?"

"Captain Crane," snapped Nelson, "is an experienced agent. I am sure he has everything under control and --"

"Then tell me where --" The Senator broke off and studied Nelson's face intently. The Senator had earned his power in Washington. He had an uncanny ability for sifting truth from lie; for separating fact from fiction; for judging what a man truly believed. Though he failed to personally understand the allure of concepts such as 'patriotism' and 'duty', he knew these to be genuinely motivating factors for so-called military men such as Nelson and Crane. He also knew the motivating power of avarice and the attraction of power. Given the Senator's reliance on his own perceptions, it had become mandatory for him to personally seek out the hub of this nuclear crisis. And so he came to Seaview. Now, examining the four-star, retired naval officer before him, the Senator came to two frightening conclusions: Admiral Nelson did not know where Crane was -- and Nelson was worried.

The Senator turned to address Colonel Jefferson: "I think you had better alert your European and Mediterranean networks, Colonel. It looks to me as if we have a renegade on our hands."

"Senator Brandt! I must protest!" thundered Nelson. "Lee Crane is not only a fine officer -- he is a patriotic American. He knows his duty. We'll hear from him, believe me." Even to his own ears, this last sounded less than convincing.

"Oh, we will, will we?" mocked the Senator. "Well, I'm sorry I can't share your . . . your faith, Admiral Nelson. I've seen too many men corrupted by power and wealth. It happens all the time."

"Not to a man like Lee Crane." Nelson struggled to bring his wrath under control.

"Then where is your employee, Admiral? Where is the twenty-three million dollars in diamonds? Where is the Paris device? Where is the arsenal of the Right Hand of God? With these in his possession, Crane could go anywhere -- demand anything -- hold any nation hostage. And you're asking us to trust, to hope, to . . . to dream that all will be well?" The Senator hammered each word. "I can't do that, Admiral." The Senator turned to the Colonel from ONI. "I advise you to alert your superiors, Colonel. Bring in Crane. Bring him in now."

* * *

There she is! Seaview -- home at last! Lord, she's a beautiful lady -- like a great silver leviathan from a tale by Ulysses. Captain Crane eased the Flying Submarine towards her mother ship -- careful lest the dizziness return. Yet now, in the home stretch, he could manage to cope with the migraine slamming into his skull -- just a little longer. At last, it was safe to break radio silence. "FS-1 to Seaview. FS-1 to Seaview. Come in, Seaview."

"FS-1, this is Seaview," came the immediate response.

Crane surmised that Sparks must have been monitoring FS-1's G-frequency pretty closely.

"Welcome back, Skipper!"

"Thank you, Sparks. Have a detail standing by with anti-radiation gear -- I have a special cargo to unload."

"Understood, sir. We are apprised of the nature of your cargo."

Wow, fast work, Admiral. Crane shook his head in admiration of the Admiral's connections in the Intelligence world. "Uh, good -- I want it unloaded and secured as soon as I dock. Alert the Master-at-Arms to provide a round-the-clock security detail."

"Aye-aye, sir."

"And give Admiral Nelson my compliments and tell him that I'm ready to brief him at his convenience."

"Yes, sir -- he's ready and waiting for you, sir."

"OK, Sparks . . . tell the Control Room to prepare for docking. FS-1 over and out." Crane sighed happily. What I've been through . . . it sure is good to be home.

A full complement of officers and ratings bustled into position around the access hatch to the Flying Submarine berth. The hatch was surrounded by a waist-high railing and was centered in the forward deck of Seaview's Observation Nose. At the insistence of Chief Sharkey and the junior officers, Boatswain's Mate Arnie Yoshimura held his whistle in readiness to properly pipe Captain Crane aboard -- a formality seldom observed on the SSRN Seaview. The entire crew had vied for the honor of being personally present when the Flying Submarine docked. Lieutenant Commander Morton had had to be quite firm about limiting the assembly to fifteen men.

Now, Morton joined the assembled men. All waited in eager anticipation as the FS-1 rose into her berth in the bow compartment of the huge submarine. With a solid clunk felt through the soles of his shoes, Mr. Morton heard the magnetic couplers latch onto the small submersible aircraft. More metallic noises followed as the ship-to-ship access tube automatically fitted into place and water was pumped from over the Flying Sub's top hatch. One by one, the indicator lights on the launch panel turned green.

"Open the hatch," directed Morton the moment the board showed all clear.

Seaman Kowalski promptly knelt, spun the wheel, and lifted the heavy hatch.

Unconsciously, the waiting men pressed forward, all eyes on the circular opening in the deck.

After an interminable pause, slow steps sounded on the Flying Sub's access ladder. Officers and ratings alike exchanged glances. Crane was mounting the ladder without his usual energy.

Man, Lee, you look like twelve miles of bad road, thought Morton as Crane climbed into view. You look worse now than you did yesterday on the televised broadcast.

As Crane stepped wearily out onto the Observation Nose deck, Yoshimura piped the traditional Navy fanfare for an arriving Captain of the Ship.

Startled, Crane gave Yoshimura a sharp look, then glanced around at the unusually large gathering. Beaming faces surrounded him. Shaking his head slightly, Crane acknowledged the greeting with a half smile. Everyone grinned back with the exception of two strangers whom Crane now spied. They were both in dark suits, standing behind Admiral Nelson. Crane frowned slightly.

"Welcome back, Lee!" greeted Nelson warmly, shaking Crane's hand.

"It's good to be back, sir," said Crane in a slightly hoarse voice. "This is quite a home coming -- thank you." Crane looked around to include all the men in his appreciation, then lowered his voice. "I, uh, take it you know the circumstances of my mission, then."

"Yes, Lee," replied Nelson in a normal tone, "we know about the nuclear device which you defuzed in Paris. Speaking of which," Nelson nodded to Chief Sharkey standing in readiness and clad in a full-coverage, anti-radiation suit.

Stepping smartly forward, Sharkey and three ratings, also dressed in protective gear, disappeared down the hatch into the FS-1.

"Well, that's some intelligence network you have, Admiral," concluded Crane. "I sure could have used your source a couple of weeks ago."

"Uh, my source wouldn't have been much help, Lee," grinned Nelson. "I'll explain later. First, tell me --"

Senator Brandt stepped forward. "Captain Crane, I want a full report of your activities. Immediately."

The assembled crew members tensed and neutral expressions dropped over their faces. Though outwardly respectful, they inwardly disapproved of the United States Senator and the Colonel from ONI. How dare the Senator use that tone of voice with their beloved Captain?

A flash of annoyance crossed Crane's face and he looked a question at Nelson.

Nelson quickly introduced Senator Brandt and Colonel Jefferson.

Nodding in understanding, Crane assumed a formal stance and addressed Senator Brandt. "I am prepared to give you a briefing at once, Senator. I --" Swaying slightly, Crane took hold of the railing around the Flying Sub hatch to steady himself. Closing his eyes briefly, he rubbed his forehead until his vision cleared.

"Lee, you're hurt," worried Nelson. "The briefing can wait until Doc --"

"Admiral Nelson," interjected the Senator, "We have a potential crisis on our hands of international proportions -- we need to know the status of the Right Hand of God. Can they repeat the Paris incident? Is a nuclear holocaust looming over any other major metropolis? The President is waiting. I need information and I need it now."

Nelson made ready to argue, but was interrupted by Crane.

"Of course, Senator." Crane turned to Nelson. "Admiral, I'm fine. I'm just tired." With an effort, Crane released the rail and took a step forward. Looking directly into Nelson's eyes, he managed a wry smile. "It's been a long mission -- that's all." Crane spoke over his shoulder. "Kowalski, as soon as Chief Sharkey has the device secured, get my briefcase from the FS-1 -- it's in the second locker -- and bring it to the Wardroom. Put my knapsack and the rest of my gear in my cabin."

"Aye, sir."

Crane started towards the spiral stairs leading to officers' country and Seaview's Wardroom. "If you will follow me, sirs, we can start the debriefing immediately."

A grueling hour later . . .

"You were entrusted with twenty-three million of the tax-payers' dollars. So just where are the diamonds, Captain Crane?" Senator Brandt put a nasty emphasis on 'Captain'.

His head still entertaining a major headache, Crane missed the accusing tone of the Senator's words. Lord have mercy, but I'm tired. A little shore leave would sure be nice -- just a bonfire, some congenial company, and a stretch of quiet beach. Hang on a bit, Lee, old boy, and get the brass satisfied. Good heavens, but everyone has a right to be upset after this last fiasco. The city of Paris almost destroyed -- that was too close.

"I'm waiting, Captain."

Crane wearily realized he had drifted into his own thoughts for too long. He moved his eyes across the three men facing him in Seaview's Wardroom: Admiral Nelson, the Senator, and Colonel Jefferson. All were totally silent, waiting for his reply. Crane concentrated on assembling some words to satisfy the Senator from New York. "I do not have the diamonds, Senator."

"I thought as much." The Senator sat back as if he had successfully won his point in a Congressional debate. He exchanged a significant glance with the Colonel from ONI.

Crane sensed something odd about this debriefing session. The mood in the room was unaccountably tense. Granted, the brass had a right to demand to know everything that had happened as soon as he returned to Seaview, but now the Senator was hung up on the money angle. It figured. Politicians! Mentally shrugging, Crane continued doggedly, "I'm sorry, Senator. Perhaps I have not made myself clear. The attache case containing the diamonds is in a -- safe place."

"Oh, it is, is it?"

Crane felt his grasp of the conversation slipping away. If only he wasn't so tired. "Yes, sir. I can have it retrieved within twenty-four hours. But neither retention of the jewels, nor conversion of them into currency was necessary to fulfill my primary mission objective."

"You expect us to believe that, Captain Crane?"

Crane just failed to keep the exasperation out of his voice. "Senator. Colonel. Sirs." Crane took a deep breath and massaged his temple with his uninjured, right hand. "I'm sorry, but if I was in error, I cannot see in what way. I just don't understand what you are driving at." Crane frowned, mentally reviewing his actions during the recent mission. "I assure you, I had no use whatsoever for twenty-three million dollars."

At this patently sincere statement, a look of quiet pride appeared on Nelson's face and he settled back in his chair. It was really true -- Lee only saw those millions as a potential mission resource -- not as a source of personal gain. How in the world did a man with such an uncluttered outlook on life get to be a senior officer?

"Then where is the attache case, Captain?" demanded the Senator.

Instead of replying, Crane reached beneath his shirt collar and pulled out a brown square of wool about an inch long hanging on a brown cord around his neck.

Nelson recognized it as a brown scapular, a Catholic symbol of protection and devotion to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel.

Borrowing a penknife from Nelson, Crane teased open the threads along one side of the small square which was made of several layers of material, sewn together at the edges. From the inside of this pouch, Crane pulled a small strip of microfilm. Crane looked around the profusion of papers on the conference table. "Hand me that envelope, will you Admiral?" Crane carefully placed the film into the empty envelope held out by Nelson.

"What's this, Lee?

"This microfilm contains the location of the cache of diamonds, as well as the names of key personnel in the Right Hand of God, the location and detailed layout of their headquarters, and the coordinates of their plutonium stockpile."

"Good, Lee. The 101st Airborne has been alerted. With this information, they'll be able to finalize their strike plans. Their commanding officer reports that they'll be ready to deploy in six hours. The question is -- do we have time to act?"

Crane nodded. "The Right Hand of God scientists will need at least seventy-two hours to construct another bomb."

Nelson casually rested the envelope in his lap. He gaze flicked across Jefferson and Brandt -- the edge of the table blocked their view of the envelope. Nelson then leaned forward and flipped the intercom switch. "Sparks, report to the Wardroom on the double."

Conversation ceased until Sparks entered the room two minutes later.

"Have this data decoded at once," ordered Nelson, "and make copies for Senator Brandt, Colonel Jefferson, and myself. Mark them 'eyes only'. Now move!"

"Yes, sir!" Sparks hurried out of the room. When he reached Seaview's photography lab, he carefully opened the envelope. In addition to the microfilm, it contained a note in the Admiral's handwriting. Sparks eyes widened as he read his additional orders.

Back in the Wardroom, Admiral Nelson smiled as Sparks disappeared into the corridor. A silent observer during most of the discussion, Nelson's voice was honey sweet with an unspoken 'I told you so' as he addressed his guests, "Well, Senator . . . Colonel . . . I think that wraps up today's meeting. You'll want to review the data before we go on. I would like Captain Crane to visit our Sick Bay for a full medical evaluation before further debriefing." Nelson smiled fondly at his Captain, fatherly pride warming his voice. "And from the looks of him, gentlemen, eight hours of sack time are in order as well."

Lee Crane shifted uncomfortably at Nelson's concern over his health. It was clear he was in for considerable pestering by the ship's Doctor. Crane gave Nelson a rueful smile, mentally surrendering to the inevitable. Crane had to admit his left arm and side were beginning to throb. Something stronger than aspirin would be welcome -- and sleep! He could almost feel his bunk now.

Nelson continued, "I believe all of your immediate concerns have been addressed by Captain Crane's presentation."

Reluctantly retreating in the face of the Admiral's adroit diplomacy, the Senator and Colonel murmured agreement. After a shuffling and gathering of papers, the two men left, not without several backwards glances at Crane.

"Whew!" breathed Crane after the door had shut firmly. Once again he massaged his temple with closed eyes.

"Lee -- I meant what I said. You are due for a visit to Sick Bay. Now."

Crane ignored these words and turned to face his friend. Gesturing in frustration at the closed door, he said, "I don't get it, Admiral. I haven't been grilled like that since I was a JG. What is going on?"

Nelson's stern expression relaxed and his lips formed a half-smile. He crossed his arms and sat back, considering his Captain. "Lee -- you are an enigma."

"What do you mean?"

Nelson shook his head slightly -- Lee had a refreshing naivete at times. "Did it ever occur to you that twenty-three million dollars is a lot of money?"

"Why, Admiral, of course it is. A tremendous asset -- but you heard what I said to our . . . guests."

Nelson had the impression that only his years of Navy discipline prevented Lee from using a stronger word to describe the Senator and Colonel.

Lee continued, "On this particular mission, I didn't need to employ any monetary leverage to prosecute my objectives. I know, I know -- there's usually a lot of advantage to be gained, but this particular group of terrorists are religious fanatics -- the worst kind. Completely unsusceptible to bribery. So that twenty-three million ended up being a real liability -- I could hardly carry an attache case full of diamonds around with me. I lost most of a day sidetracking to Greece and a banker I know there." Crane looked down and shook his head at the obvious annoyance of immense wealth.

Nelson swallowed a smile. Lee was really quite remarkable. He was that rare treasure: an honest man. Nelson decided to try once more, then give up for the time being. Lee was clearly exhausted.

"Look, Lee -- to you, maybe, the diamonds were just an asset. But a lot of people, indeed, most people would have been tempted to enhance their own fortunes, so to speak. And you were overdue returning here. In fact, the Colonel had quite a posse out looking for you. Suspicious minds couldn't help but think that maybe--"

"Admiral, you can't be serious!"

"I'm afraid I am, Lee."

"ONI didn't trust me? After all the years I've worked for them?" Crane stared at Nelson: the older man's expression was grave. For a dozen heartbeats, Crane remained silent. All the stress and tension of the last month welled up -- the cautious infiltration of the underworld, the chances he had taken to gain information, the final and desperate search for the bomb. He had put his life on the line for weeks, and now . . .

Crane exploded: "Admiral, I will NOT have my integrity questioned by a couple of . . . of bureaucrats!" Crane's tone made the word a dire insult. He began to pace the room. "I have had it with ONI! The Government can find someone else to do their . . . their dirty work!" Taking a deep breath, Crane returned to the conference table and snapped open his briefcase. Hardly seeing what he was doing for fatigue and temper, Crane blindly started shoving paperwork into the briefcase. Dear God Almighty, I'm tired . . . tired of risking my life for two-faced bureaucrats and countrymen who don't even know I exist. Through his pounding headache, Crane dimly realized that perhaps he was not quite thinking straight -- that his missions for ONI truly made a difference in the world -- that his duty lay in danger. Then the anger at the Senator's accusations boiled up again. Abruptly, the room began to spin. Leaning heavily against the table, he was unable to hold himself upright.

"Lee! What's the matter?" Nelson jumped to his feet and started towards his friend.

Crane slumped slowly to the floor. Darkness pulled him downwards and he lay still.

Nelson knelt quickly to check Crane's pulse, then hurried to the nearest mike. "Sick Bay, emergency! The ship's Doctor will lay up to the Wardroom on the double! Captain Crane is ill!"

* * *

"Well, Doc, how is he?" demanded Nelson. "Can I see him yet?" As Dr. Jamieson entered the Admiral's cabin, Nelson shoved aside a stack of his never-ending paperwork.

"Well, we're treating him for a bad case of radiation poisoning -- no, no -- he'll recover nicely -- but it could have been serious if the proper treatment had been delayed much longer."

Nelson knew Doc's disapproving look was meant to convey his low opinion of senior officers who allowed their subordinates to stand through a brutal debriefing session instead of getting urgently needed medical care. Yes, Nelson admitted to himself that he was guilty of a breach of regulations. All personnel returning from off-boat missions were required to pass through Sick Bay without delay -- and especially a certain Commander who consistently feigned ignorance of his own injuries.

Satisfied that his silent point was made, Dr. Jamieson continued, "The Captain also has two cracked bones in his left hand and a hairline fracture in his forearm, a bullet crease on his left arm and side, possible remains of a concussion -- maybe two weeks old -- and the usual assorted bruises and minor abrasions." He shook his head. "About par for the course, I'd say."

The Admiral sighed. The news was both better and worse than he had feared. Nelson stood up. "I want to see him now."

"Of course, sir, only try to let him get as much rest as possible. He's showing all the signs of classic exhaustion -- he has a fever of 103, but we're on top of that. Right now, I'm afraid you'll find him rather delirious. We have to keep a Corpsman with him at all times to make him stay put."

"Make him stay?" Nelson looked alarmed. "Where does he want to go?"

"He keeps saying he has to defuze that bomb. We have to keep reassuring him he's already done it. All in all, this last mission has been extremely detrimental to Captain Crane's physical and mental health -- I would advise light duty, or at least shipboard-only duty, for awhile."

"As you say, Doctor," agreed Nelson.

"Thank you, sir." The Doctor paused, obviously not through with his report. "Admiral? The Captain mumbled something about resigning from ONI -- is that right, sir?"

"Oh, that," scoffed Nelson. "The Captain is temporarily fed up with the Office of Naval Intelligence, that's all." Nelson explained the situation, concluding, "The Senator and Colonel Jefferson really got to Lee with their blasted suspicions. With the stress of the last mission and his injuries, he . . . uh . . . just lost his temper."

The Doctor frowned. "Hmmmm . . . I don't like the sound of that, Admiral. Captain Crane's sense of duty is very strong -- and he highly values his work for ONI. Medically speaking, the Captain's overreaction could possibly indicate the onset of a stress disorder -- initiated, of course, by his exhausted state and the strain of an intense and sustained mission."

"What can I do, Doc?"

The Doctor considered. "Take some of the pressure off for awhile, Admiral. Being a submarine commander is job enough for anyone, let alone harrying off on dangerous missions for ONI."

"Hmmm . . . well I imagine I can remind ONI that they do have other agents to call upon, at least for the next few months," offered Nelson.

Dr. Jamieson nodded seriously. "Good. Besides, I don't think anyone is going to let the Captain do anything but answer telegrams for awhile." The Doctor alluded to the correspondence flooding into the Nelson Institute of Marine Research from around the world.

Nelson chuckled. "Yes, Lee did make quite a stir. I wonder if he realizes that he's a world-renowned celebrity?"

"No one's had a chance to tell him, yet -- and they won't -- not until he's stronger," asserted the Doctor. "Somehow, I don't think he'll like it much, sir, and he doesn't need the worry."

The Admiral thought for a bit. "True -- Lee is hardly a publicity hound. But then again, why not? A little limelight will be good for him, I think. Let him be wined and dined a bit -- and by heads of state, no less. Once you release him from Sick Bay, that is," Nelson hastened to add.

"I think you may have something there, Admiral," mused the Doctor. Turning, he led the way back to Sick Bay and his most difficult patient.

 

Three days later, a very pale Lee Crane entered the Wardroom, his left forearm enveloped by a fiberglass cast and held immobile in a sling. He was dressed in a gray Navy sweatsuit and running shoes. His off-duty officers greeted him cordially.

"What did you do, Lee, bribe Doc to let you out early?" jibed Chip Morton, relaxing over a cup of coffee and the Navy's All Hands journal.

"No," said Crane with a puzzled expression. Ignoring Chip's levity, he said, "I asked Doc to get me a ship's status report, and he said I might as well not bother because I was going to be busy for at least a month onshore. He said you'd explain." Crane looked expectantly at Chip.

"Ah, I might perhaps have an explanation for you, Lee." Chip looked around the Wardroom, a half smile on his lips.

Crane followed Chip's gaze. A positive atmosphere filled the room. Crane sensed a great pride in his men . . . for him . . . and an eager sense of anticipation. He noted that almost every officer was present, including a few of the noncoms. His eyes narrowed suspiciously. They're definitely up to something.

Crane focused on Chip, "Well?"

"Hmmm?"

"What's going on?" Crane was starting to become annoyed.

"Oh, yes," drawled Chip, "well, Lee, you have some duties to perform -- some of the high brass really want to talk to you -- ASAP. They had to wait until Doc gave the OK, though."

"Oh, great, just what I need," sighed Crane, rubbing his right hand through his curly, black hair. For once, he failed to hide his discomfiture regarding his superiors from his subordinates.

Unaccountably, this sentiment was met by poorly concealed amusement throughout the room.

"Here, maybe this will explain," grinned Chip as he flipped the switch on a table-mounted intercom. "OK, Sparks, run the tape."

Instantly, the Wardroom viewscreen sprang to life. Still puzzled, Crane sat down slowly and prepared to watch -- he did not know what.

The familiar strains of the Cable News Network, or CNN, theme music played, and then a serious-faced newscaster launched into an account of the infamous terrorist organization, the Right Hand of God. The newscaster droned on about the group's fanaticism, the startling announcement of world domination through the threat of nuclear annihilation, the collapse of the group following an attempt to destroy the city of Paris, and the continuing search for the group's kingpin, Antonio Spalazzo. During this recital, film clips of various people and events were shown, highlighting the previous week. Of special focus was a clip showing a terrorist spokesman in an abandoned section of the Paris underground with an actual nuclear device, and the subsequent actions taken by a US agent.

"Hey! That's me!" Crane shot to his feet and took several steps towards the viewscreen. His mouth hung open and total amazement covered his face.

Chip Morton drank in every moment, a barely restrained grin lighting his face. Ah, but Lee was surprised -- he really had had no idea he was on-camera . . .

The tape continued to run, showing Crane entering the room and disarming the weapon.

"Oh, my God . . . only thirty-eight seconds . . . oh, my God . . . that was too close . . ."

Chip saw that Lee looked distinctly paler than when he had first entered the Wardroom, and took immediate charge of him. Sliding a chair forward, Chip sat the stunned Crane down.

Crane looked incredulously up at Chip, gesturing vaguely with his good arm at the viewscreen. "CNN?!"

"Yes, Lee." Chip smiled gently at his friend and commanding officer.

"CNN? A commercial broadcast?"

Chip nodded.

"But what . . . but how . . . but they . . . CNN?" concluded Crane and he lapsed into a frantic kind of silence.

Chip explained patiently, "The terrorists broadcast their threat on CNN -- and left the line open."

"CNN?" repeated Crane, still disbelieving.

"You, Captain Crane, were watched by millions."

"CNN?!"

Chip thought Lee sounded a bit like a broken record.

"That's right, Skipper," piped up a smiling O'Brien. "We all watched you from right here."

Crane turned a puzzled scowl upon the young officer, then slowly panned the expression over the roomful of grinning faces, diminishing their cheeriness not one bit. "Ah, I see," he acknowledged at last, giving the monitor an extremely odd look. Now the tape showed him kneeling in prayer. "Hmmm . . ." Crane ruefully rubbed the side of his face with his forefinger. "Good thing I didn't do anything, er, rude, huh?"

General laughter flowed around the room.

"What's that around your neck, sir?" asked Lieutenant Junior Grade Ed Chang. The young Asian American from San Francisco sat watching the proceedings in awe -- his Captain was a very mysterious man, it seemed.

"Huh? Oh, a St. Christopher's medal." Crane fished under his collar and pulled out the small metal disk. "Seaman Rodriguez gave it to me last year -- said St. Christopher would always see me safely home." Crane let the young officer look at it, then reverently replaced the medal inside his gray sweatshirt. Obviously ill at ease, Crane watched the drama continue to unfold on the viewscreen.

When the film clip completed, the newscaster came back online, generously praising the US agent: "Commander Lee Benjamin Crane of the SSRN Seaview is still unavailable for comment. Earlier today, a spokesman for the Nelson Institute of Marine Research stated that the highly-decorated, former US Navy officer is still recovering from the injuries he received during his death-defying retrieval of the so-called Paris device. All over France, this courageous man is being hailed as the Hero of Paris --"

"Oh, here now -- that's enough," sputtered Crane, color rising in his cheeks. Someone must have relayed his request to Sparks, for the monitor went blank.

"What's the matter, Lee -- don't you like being a world famous hero?" queried Chip.

"Now stop that, Chip," snapped Crane, unreasonably annoyed. "I just did what had to be done -- what this ship and crew have done countless times." Crane paused, then admitted, "Uh, usually without quite this level of publicity, though."

"Publicity is right, Commander."

"Admiral!" greeted Crane as his stocky superior entered the Wardroom.

"You're looking a bit pale, Lee," said Nelson, eyeing his young friend judiciously. "Maybe Doc shouldn't have let you out of Sick Bay so soon."

"I was feeling fine when I came in here, sir," countered Crane, "but all this . . ." Crane waved his right hand at the viewscreen.

Nelson smiled broadly. "You're rather popular right now, Lee." Nelson's smile increased as he observed Crane shifting uncomfortably. "I'm afraid I'll have to assign you to light duty for awhile -- and not just for that arm." Nelson lightly tapped Lee's cast. "Some VIPs want to meet you."

"Oh?" Crane evidenced a marked lack of enthusiasm. "Who?"

By way of an answer, Nelson started dropping telegrams on the table next to Crane. "The Joint Chiefs . . . the President . . . UN Secretary General . . . President of France . . . and," Nelson paused for effect, "the Pope."

Crane leaped to his feet, snatching up the last telegram. "His Holiness!" he exclaimed.

Nelson waited a moment for this to sink in. "And these are just a few. The Institute has been deluged with mail about you." Nelson was enjoying Lee's reaction. Was Lee actually blushing? No -- yes, he would -- well, Lee deserves the recognition.

"And so, the Institute's sending you on a . . . a good will tour, shall we say? While you're wined and dined around the world, you can mention our latest plans for research and our desire for mutually beneficial partnerships . . . that is, if you're still willing to represent the US Government?"

"Oh, Admiral -- you know I didn't mean it, sir."

"Sounded like it to me," teased Nelson.

"With all due respect, sir, I request that you consider my words unspoken," asserted Crane in a formal tone.

Nelson examined Lee for a moment, then addressed the room at large. "Well, what do all of you think -- should I keep him?"

Cheers erupted around the room.

"C'mon, Lee -- you have some videophone calls to make." Nelson put his arm on Lee's good shoulder and steered him out the door.

Entering the Admiral's spacious cabin, Nelson directed, "Take a seat, Lee. You've a bit of catching up to do."

Crane settled himself in a chair and regarded Nelson across the latter's paper-strewn desk. "Sir?" asked Crane with an open expression.

"Wheels have been turning during your jaunt in Sick Bay," Nelson's eyes sparkled, then became hard. "Incidentally, Captain Crane, you will not, repeat not, violate regulations again -- your own regulations, I might add. You should have checked yourself through Sick Bay the moment you set foot back aboard Seaview." Nelson sternly regarded his Captain. "Is that clear, Commander?"

"Yes, sir," stated Crane, meeting Nelson's glare dead-on. "I understand perfectly. However, sir, the Senator was clearly in urgent need for information, and it was my decision to begin the briefing immediately. Furthermore--"

"Lee . . . Brandt and Jefferson could have waited."

"No, sir -- my information had been delayed long enough -- and there's more, sir, that I have to tell you . . . and you alone."

"All right, Lee," gave in Nelson, throwing up his hands. "Just be more careful next time, eh?"

"I don't believe in taking unnecessary risks, sir," asserted Crane seriously, then pursued what he saw was the main business at hand. "Listen, Admiral, what I haven't told anyone yet is that there must be a leak, and within the US Government."

Nelson leaned forward in attention.

"The Right Hand of God was getting the materials to make their bombs from US munitions depots, sir. Someone with a lot of authority and inside information has been arranging for shipments to be diverted and inventory records to be falsified. The drug deal that ONI sent me to investigate was nothing -- just a means for the terrorists to raise some quick cash -- and to cover up their real target."

"Nuclear weapons components," concluded Nelson.

"Yes, sir, and . . ."

Nelson looked sharply as Crane paused.

"And they also have the equipment to make rhyolite thermal bombs, sir."

"Rhyolite!" exclaimed Nelson, then spoke thoughtfully, "The poor man's nuke. I understand that thermal bombs have no moving parts and are impossible to defuze once the chemical reaction has begun."

"Yes, sir. The bombs are so tough they could be activated and then shipped to a target. They work above and below water, in any temperature extreme. One the size of a packing crate could generate enough heat to melt everything in a two hundred foot radius. That's enough to knock the foundation out from under a skyscraper, or sink an oil tanker, or incinerate an airliner." Crane stopped as the horrible possibilities passed before his mind's eye.

"What's the time delay on the fuze, Lee?"

"The chemical reaction is started in a catalytic core which permeates the heart of the weapon. Once the catalyst is saturated with ions, a chain reaction ensues which essentially causes the entire weight of the rhyolite to burn hyperthermically. The process takes about six hours to reach the event horizon, then one minute for full detonation. No way to stop it -- even disassembly would just premature part of the bomb."

"Well, Lee, thank Heaven you discovered the headquarters and weapon stockpile of these . . . these terrorists." Nelson said the last word as if it left a bad taste in his mouth.

"But Admiral, surely the Right Hand of God members have moved since they failed in Paris. They must have escaped by now. And we still haven't located the leak on our side." Crane looked down. "If only I had been able to return to Seaview at once."

Nelson did not like Crane's tone. "Belay that, Commander. It wasn't your fault -- plutonium poisoning is very serious -- and unavoidable in your case since you had to remove the Paris device personally and without proper protective gear." Nelson looked proudly at the young officer. "Doctor Jamieson tells me he can't figure out how you managed to get back here at all. You shouldn't have been able to even climb out of the Flying Sub." Nelson eyed Crane. "I told Doc to put it down to just plain stubbornness." Nelson was rewarded by the ghost of a smile crossing Crane's wan face. "But you're wrong about one thing, Lee -- the Right Hand of God did not escape, not entirely anyway. We were able to act on the information in your report."

Crane sat forward in anticipation. "You mean?"

"Here -- I think this video should summarize it nicely." Nelson flipped a switch on his intercom. "Sparks, this is Nelson. Please run tape five."

"Not another tape," muttered Crane inaudibly, then turned to view the monitor set into the starboard wall of Nelson's cabin.

Soon, the Cable News Network theme music filled the cabin. The CNN logo dissolved into the face of an earnest, dark-skinned anchor woman. She spoke with a trace of a Mediterranean accent. "This just in. Today, the United Nations Security Council announced a successful strike against the headquarters of the infamous terrorist group, the Right Hand of God. In a joint sea and air operation, a combined task force representing many nations seized the island fortress of St. Gabriel in the Aegean Sea. Two hundred and thirty-three members of the terrorist group were arrested after a furious, but brief, resistance. Twelve terrorists died in the attack while the UN peace keeping force reported seventeen wounded and no fatalities. The entire stock of weapons-grade plutonium held illegally by the terrorists has been recovered. Now people around the world can breath easier, free from the threat of nuclear holocaust. The UN Secretary General went on record saying that the success of the strike was in large part due to information obtained by Commander Lee Crane of the United States. Commander Crane became the Hero of Paris earlier this week when . . ."

Nelson chuckled to himself as he saw Crane blush during the announcer's accolade. Get used to it, lad -- you're the man of the hour.

The announcer continued, "Unfortunately, the terrorist leader, Antonio Spalazzo, escaped during the attack. The task force commander was quoted as saying that Spalazzo had apparently planned for such a contingency and had a pre-established escape route. Spalazzo apparently took flight the moment the task force struck. Also still at large is a man believed to have been Spalazzo's principle arms supplier -- an American named Christopher P. Jefferson."

"Jefferson!" Crane looked astonished. "I thought the leak was Senator Brandt!"

The newscast proceeded: "The involvement of the American Colonel is a considerable embarrassment to the current US administration. The Colonel distinguished himself in numerous campaigns . . ." The announcer went on to outline Jefferson's military career, omitting all reference to his recent assignment at the Office of Naval Intelligence.

"That's enough." Nelson made contact with Sparks and the monitor faded to black.

"How did you figure it out, sir?" Crane could see the hand of Nelson in this.

"Well, I didn't Lee -- not entirely. But I narrowed it down to either Jefferson or Brandt, or someone very close to them. So, I just made sure that when the Senator and the Colonel received copies of your microfilm report, the location of the that attache case of diamonds was clearly delineated -- and wrong. Then, I requested that ONI create some bait . . . and waited to see who showed up."

"And the diamonds that Senator Brandt was so worried about?"

"Are safely back in the custody of the Treasury Department. Colonel Jefferson made off with rather exquisite paste and," Nelson smirked despite himself, "several tracking devices."

"So what are we waiting for?" Crane stood up. "Let's go get him!"

"Not so fast, Lee. The experts at ONI need Jefferson at large for awhile. They want to follow him and learn of his contacts. They plan to wait about three months before hauling him in."

"Yes, but surely he'll discover he's been duped. As soon as he tries to sell the jewels --"

"Sit down, Lee. Jefferson is no fool. He knows that diamonds of that quality can't be sold just anywhere -- they're too large and well known to dispose of easily. He may even have to have them cut smaller -- at a considerable financial loss to himself, of course. No, I think Jefferson will just lay low for awhile -- and keep the diamonds near at hand. Who can he trust now?" concluded Nelson. "Lee, will you please sit down!"

Crane slowly resumed his seat and smiled at Nelson. "Well, sir, you've thought it through from every angle -- as usual." Crane shook his head. "I just wish I could get my hands on that guy."

"I suspect you'll get your chance at Jefferson," predicted Nelson, "but in the meantime, I have a job for you."

"Yes, sir?" Crane looked eager, sensing a mission in the offing.

"Yes, Commander. As I mentioned earlier, you're to go on a little trip for the Institute. I hope you like French cuisine."

* * *

"Snap it up, Bob, you're gonna miss the newscast!" called Sparks through the doorway of the cabin he shared with O'Brien.

"OK, OK, I'm coming," replied the young engineering officer. Hastily tying his tie, O'Brien half jogged down the corridor and into the Wardroom. Off-duty officers packed the room, none wanting to miss the evening newscast with its daily installment of the doings of their beloved Skipper.

". . . in France today, we bring you the latest news on the man hailed as the Hero of Paris, Captain Lee Crane. Captain Crane is popularly known as L'Homme Courir, or The Running Man, referring to his spectacular race to save the city from a nuclear holocaust. In a formal ceremony yesterday, the French President awarded Captain Crane the Legion d'Honneur . . ."

The monitor showed Crane standing proudly in full dress uniform in a broad square. He was flanked on all sides by the cream of French military might, and faced by a variety of government dignitaries.

The announcer went on: "Today, at his request, Captain Crane visited the historic Eiffel Tower . . ."

A film clip showed Crane, dressed now in a black suit and tie, grinning and waving to the crowd before entering the large express lift on the north pylon of the immense tower.

". . . Captain Crane also attended Mass at the famous Roman Catholic Cathedral, Notre Dame, a historic building which . . ."

The film showed Crane walking calmly into the immense church from a state limousine parked amidst cheering crowds.

". . . on the steps of the Cathedral following the religious service, Captain Crane addressed the crowds of well-wishers in fluent French, saying quote: 'I ask all who love this beautiful City of Paris not to thank me, but to thank God Almighty for her deliverance', end of quotation. Citizens cheered the American Captain repeatedly and threw yellow Castillian roses, purported to be favored by the Blessed Virgin Mary who is held in high regard by Roman Catholics. Parisian houses of worship of all faiths reported record attendance yesterday, while the Paris police reported a 6.2 percent drop in violent crime . . ."

"Way to go, Skipper!" whooped O'Brien, himself not unfamiliar with the inside of a church. Laughter rang around the Wardroom.

The newscast continued, ". . . yesterday, Captain Crane once again visited the base of the French Army's Third Infantry Corps to join in the morning physical training regimen. The American officer apparently values fitness very highly . . ."

Theatrical groans echoed around the Wardroom. Captain Crane's addiction to running and sports of any kind was well known, in addition to his insistence on fitness checks for the entire crew -- which were twice as tough for officers. His 'Captain's Award' program was a real kicker: any crew member who road a hundred miles on a bicycle, or ran a twenty-six mile marathon, or swam three miles could qualify -- if his time was in the top fifteen percent of his age class. The Captain had qualified for his own award several times, much to the dismay of the junior officers.

"When you need stamina, you need it now, men -- so you have to build it up and keep it up -- now move out!" mimicked Lieutenant Sam Rosch in perfect imitation of the Skipper's oft repeated speech. The laughter which followed was a kind of tribute to their Captain. Each man knew that the Skipper had, indeed, needed every ounce of his endurance in order to reach the Paris bomb in time.

"Wow, those French soldiers look like linebackers," observed Sparks.

The newscast was showing a collage of images: sweatsuit-clad men running around a track; streaming down a tree-lined cross-country trail; clambering and shouting over the obstacles of a confidence course. Prominent in all pictures was the distinctively tall, slim form of Lee Crane -- generally out in front or urging the others to greater efforts.

In one priceless clip, the newscast recorded Crane showing a dozen members of the 35th Airborne -- the exclusive French Commando Battalion -- how to play softball. Laughing and smiling, Crane stood at an impromptu home plate, batting easy grounders and pop flies to Commandos positioned in the infield and outfield. A close-up of Crane showed him shouting instructions in French with sparkling eyes and a grin stretching from ear to ear.

O'Brien exchanged a private look with Sparks, who responded with a nod. O'Brien sat back with a satisfied smile. The Skipper sure looks better -- man, he looked awful when he came back after this last mission. Geez, speaking of which I hope he'll get back here soon -- I'm getting run ragged pulling extra shifts. C'mon, Skipper -- come home where you belong. Seaview needs you.

A week later, Mr. Morton and Admiral Nelson sat watching a newscast in Nelson's cabin.

"Today the President of the United States conferred the National Security Medal upon Commander Lee Benjamin Crane, Captain of the submarine, SSRN Seaview. The National Security Medal is one of the highest honors that an American citizen can receive. The Medal is rarely conferred, and only for extraordinary and life-long service to the nation. Commander Crane is the youngest American to ever receive the Medal. The President stated that he has chosen Commander Crane to receive this award not only for the salvation of Paris, but for a career of excellence . . ." The announcer went on to highlight Crane's career.

The video switched to a clip of Crane in full dress uniform facing a crowd from the White House steps. The Medal hung around his neck on a red, white and blue striped ribbon. Crane's voice echoed over a dozen loudspeakers. "I would like to accept the National Security Medal on behalf of all American servicemen at sea, in the air, and on land. By their continued readiness and training every day of every year, they ensure the continued safety and security of this great nation . . ."

The anchorman concluded, "After completing his good will tour in the nation's capital, Captain Crane announced his intention of returning home to Santa Barbara, California, to resume his duties at the Nelson Institute of Marine Research."

"Well, Chip, it's going to be good to have Lee back. Are you ready?"

"Yes, sir -- there's a little matter of a beach barbecue to arrange, but I think we'll be able to welcome the Captain home in proper style."

 

A few days later in Santa Barbara, California . . .

"It certainly is good to have you home again, Lee!" greeted Admiral Nelson as Captain Crane walked through the door. The Admiral stood by the window in his spacious first floor office suite at the world-renowned Nelson Institute of Marine Research. "I see you survived the party last night." Nelson took a close look into Crane's somewhat bloodshot eyes. "Or did you?"

"Well, sir, after all the trouble the crew went to, I figured I should enjoy myself," grinned Crane.

"And did you?"

"Fully, sir," replied Crane with mock seriousness. Then, laughing, he joined his employer by the window. "That was some good will trip you sent me on, Admiral, but," he took on a pose of extreme exasperation, "if you make me talk to one more reporter, I'm goin' back to the Navy!"

The Admiral chuckled at the threat, a long standing joke between them. When the Seaview had needed a new Captain after the murder of John Phillips, Nelson had requisitioned the Navy's best sub commander: Lee Crane. And after the successful conclusion of the mission, a desperate race to the arctic to prevent a devastating earthquake, Nelson had arranged to make the situation permanent. The Navy had deactivated Crane's commission, freeing him to accept Nelson's offer to be the new Captain of Seaview. Ever since, Crane jokingly threatened to return to his roots whenever Nelson made exceptionally arduous demands upon the young officer -- such as talking to the media.

That was five years ago. Now, side by side, the two friends gazed through the double glass doors. Before them lay the tastefully landscaped Institute grounds, the parking lot where Crane's red convertible flashed with color, and the sparkling Pacific Ocean. Just out of sight was the immense dock area where Seaview was moored, hidden from view by the forty foot seawall bordering the harbor. They could see a constant stream of trucks and forklifts disappearing down wide ramps to the dock area. Seaview was undergoing re-supply for her next mission.

"How soon will Seaview be ready, Lee?"

"We can depart by 1500 hours this afternoon, sir. I checked in with Chip this morning. Most of the crew should be onboard or at dockside by now. The officers will be ready for a mission briefing as soon as we clear the harbor. Speaking of which?" Crane raised an eyebrow at Nelson.

"Where are we going this time, Lee?" smiled Nelson. "We'll be touring the Deep Sea Research labs for re-supply and to upgrade their nuclear power plants and emergency medical facilities. We have some civilian specialists coming along this time: a Dr. Ridgeway and her colleagues from the Department of Defense' Nuclear Medicine Center at Brookhaven."

"Civilians," commented Crane with a sour face, recalling other cruises where the presence of visitors had caused complications. "Well, I'll make sure Seaview puts her best foot forward for your guests, Admiral."

"Thank you, Captain," replied Nelson in good humor. "Should be a quiet mission for once, I --"

The intercom on the Admiral's desk crackled to life with the voice of Katie, the Admiral's secretary. "Urgent video call for Captain Crane, sir. Please acknowledge at once, Admiral. Please?"

Crane looked sharply at the intercom. Katie's voice had held an edge of . . . of fear. What in the world? Katie is as brave as a lioness.

"Who is it, Katie?" inquired Nelson mildly, apparently oblivious to her unusual tone.

"He says his name is Colonel Christopher P. Jefferson, sir."

Nelson and Crane exchanged a startled glance, then both hurried to the video phone mounted on Nelson's wide mahogany desk.

Nelson sat down in his chair and leaned over to switch on the monitor. Crane took up position behind him, leaning one arm on the desk and looking over Nelson's shoulder. The face of Colonel Jefferson soon filled the screen.

"Well, Crane, Nelson -- we meet again," sneered the errant Colonel.

Crane was shocked at the change in the Colonel. Gone was the professional military man with crisp uniform and precise crewcut. The face looking out of the monitor was haggard, with a wild look about his eyes. His scraggly beard and non-regulation length hair gave the suggestion of a man on the edge . . . a desperate man.

"What do you want, Colonel?" said Nelson levelly. "I trust you're calling to turn yourself in?"

"Hardly," scoffed Jefferson. "No, I thought we'd have a little conversation -- you, Captain Crane, and I."

"Conversation?" asked Crane. "With you -- a traitor?" His voice was deadly cold.

"Traitor? Perhaps -- what does it matter now? You've ruined me, you and your precious Admiral with all his fancy gadgets. You shouldn't have stood a chance with our nuclear device in Paris, Crane." Jefferson's eyes stabbed at the Captain. "And were you tempted by wealth beyond your wildest dreams? No, you threw it all away. You're a fool, Crane, with your ridiculous adherence to duty and your blasted patriotism."

Crane's eyes narrowed dangerously, but he made no reply.

Jefferson continued, "Now half the world is looking for me. I imagine it's just a matter of time before I'm caught. So, I thought I'd indulge in a little good old-fashioned revenge while I still can."

"What do you mean?" demanded Nelson.

"Why, Admiral, I have a very useful circle of friends -- all of whom share my opinion of you and Crane. Especially Crane. Beware, Captain -- the Right Hand of God has a long reach . . . long indeed . . . long enough to reach out and crush that which you hold most dear --"

"Seaview," gasped Crane, "the crew . . ." A vision of the fully-loaded submarine moored down at the dock filled his mind -- one hundred and twenty-three officers and crew would be aboard her now, or on the adjacent dock. Immediately, Crane turned and ran to the glass doors, wrenched them open, and plunged through.

"Lee!" cried Nelson after him.

"They're after Seaview, sir!" was all Crane had time to shout.

Nelson took a few steps after Crane, then remained standing at the open doors. Over his shoulder, he could hear Jefferson continue to taunt him.

"Oh, no, Admiral -- we won't be stopped this time. Crane cannot defuze this bomb -- it's rather special."

Realizing he had to obtain more information, and hoping to keep the terrorist talking while Katie had the call traced, Nelson turned back to the video phone. He stood behind his desk, looking out through the open windows towards Seaview. "What do you want, Jefferson? Money? Will that stop this madness?" demanded Nelson.

"Oh, no, Admiral. I have plenty of money. I have the twenty-three million dollars in diamonds that Crane cached on Greece. Thank you very much, by the way, for so thoughtfully handing me the location. No, my tastes are simple -- I just want you and Crane dead. I'm afraid your precious submarine is on my list, too," smiled the Colonel.

Nelson's face turned red with rage. "What kind of a madman destroys innocent civilians, Colonel?" he exploded. "If you detonate a bomb here, the nuclear fallout will surely blow southwards over Santa Barbara --"

"Oh, tsk, tsk, Admiral. This is not a nuclear weapon. Not this time. Your attack on our headquarters depleted our supply of, shall we say, special materials. But this bomb is quite enough to substantially rearrange Seaview's interior. I can't imagine you'll be able to rebuild what little is left."

"Why, Jefferson? Why are you doing this? You have an exemplary military record -- your whole life has been dedicated to protecting American citizens. And now this. Why?"

"Don't give me that patriotic double talk, Admiral. Did the government lift one finger when my boy disappeared on a mission? Did they help heal his shattered mind when the other side finally traded him back?"

"I wasn't aware that your son was an agent, Colonel." Nelson spoke quietly now.

"Oh, yes, Admiral. My son -- he believed in duty. And he was completely broken by their . . . their interrogation. He no longer knew his mother and me. He was afraid of us. One day, he lost control and . . . well, he has peace now."

"He took his own life, then?"

Jefferson merely glared murderously at Nelson. "After going berserk and killing my wife."

"I am truly sorry to hear that, Colonel. That must have been a . . . difficult time for you."

"Spare me your platitudes, Admiral, and don't try and placate me with empty words of duty towards king and country. There's going to be a new world order established one day -- and then I'm going to call the shots."

Nelson thought quickly, keeping his face neutral. "Then the leader of the Right Hand of God is still alive . . . and with you, I presume?"

"Oh, no, Admiral -- do not think you can pump me for information."

Before Nelson could formulate a reply, a brilliant flash lit the room from outside. Reflexively, Nelson covered his ears and dropped behind his desk. A thunderous concussion smote the building, sending a shower of broken glass across the room. Nelson leaped to his feet and looked out into the burning air. His face took on a terrible light. Slowly, he lowered his gaze to the smirking man filling the monitor.

"Damn you, Jefferson! You've killed them!" Nelson's voice shook with rage and grief. "You've killed them all!"

 

Meanwhile, somewhere off the coast of southern California . . .

Two men lounged in plush chairs in the well-appointed cabin of a large luxury yacht moored in the lee of Catalina Island. Smiling with cruel amusement, they watched the videophone before them. An anguished voice filled the room:

". . . killed them all! Just wait Jefferson. Wherever you are, wherever you go, I'll find you! You'll pay for this! I will avenge Crane and the Seaview! I will --"

"I think not, Admiral." Colonel Jefferson leaned forward and flipped a switch, breaking the connection. He turned to the heavy-set man next to him. "Well, I think we can call the mission a success, Mr. Spalazzo."

The large man smiled slowly, relishing the taste of death which still lingered in the air. "Yes, Colonel, congratulations. That was well done . . . well done indeed," said Antonio Spalazzo, known in another place and at another time as His Supreme Eminence, the leader of the Right Hand of God. Spalazzo glanced down at the table at his side. Several large diamonds lay on a black velvet cloth. On the deck rested a battered attache case. Spalazzo reached down and carefully picked up the largest jewel. As he turned the diamond over in his thick fingers, it sparkled with an inner fire. "Hmmmm. Men will do much for wealth of this nature, no?"

Jefferson's only answer was to pick up his glass of beer.

Spalazzo continued, "The world is corrupt, and men are corrupt." Under heavy lids, he sent an evaluating glance at the Colonel. "Though we must remain hidden at present, the future will yet see the rule of the Right Hand of God! Thus has God spoken to me, and thus I obey."

Jefferson made no reply. Fanatic! he thought to himself. Your day is over. But for now, I need you . . . Settling back in his chair, Jefferson looked out through the wide portholes surrounding the cabin. Outside, the setting sun glinted off the calm Catalina waters and made the nearby island glow with green-gold highlights. Ah . . . life was sweet. Carefully, lest his expression betray his true feelings, Jefferson began to make plans. Spalazzo was beginning to outlive his usefulness . . .

* * *

Ten minutes earlier, on the grounds of the Nelson Institute of Marine Research . . .

Captain Crane burst out of Nelson's office, a single thought racing through his mind: Dear Lord, not again . . .

He raced across the lawn, leaping over shrubberies and dodging around trees. A bomb . . . they must have a bomb planted at dockside . . . in the cargo probably . . . easy enough to slip another crate into a standard shipment . . . must be a rhyolite thermal device . . . please let me be in time . . .

Skidding to a halt beside his bright red Alfa Romeo, Crane threw himself behind the wheel. In seconds, the engine roared to life and he burned rubber accelerating out of the parking lot towards the dock.

Tires squealing, he negotiated the tight turns down to the loading ramps using all the driving skills taught him by his ONI instructors. The image of Seaview erupting in flames sickened his heart, urging him to greater speed. Honking furiously, he drove straight down the loading ramp and onto the dock. Expertly applying the handbrake, he slid the convertible around in a one hundred and eighty degree turn. Now the front of the car was pointed back up the ramp -- ready for a quick get away.

A dozen curious sailors, Chief Petty Officer Sharkey, and the Officer of the Deck, Lieutenant O'Brien, stood watching him, unaware of danger. Seaview's cargo hold stood open and a hoist held a load of netted crates, ready to be swung out from the dock and lowered into the heart of the ship.

"You men, come here!" ordered Crane, jumping onto a large crate. "Now hear this! There's a bomb here somewhere -- pipe down and listen up!" Crane began a flurry of orders. "Look for anything unusual and notify me at once. Chief -- get down to Electrical Stores and break out some of those MZ-11 scanners -- the ones we used for mineral exploration last year. Calibrate them for heavy metals over atomic mass fifty! Henderson -- take four men and spread out dockside. Jenkins -- take a detail into the hold. Kowalski -- you're with me. Now fall to!"

The sailors fanned out, alarm written on every face. A siren began to wail in the background.

O'Brien must have alerted base security, thought Crane, then focused on the task at hand. "Kowalski, get that hoist unloaded. Forget lowering it, we haven't time! Just cut it loose!"

"Yes, sir!" Kowalski raced over to the hoist controls and hit the emergency release. The load of extremely expensive and specialized equipment, much of it marked 'Handle with Care', crashed across the dock.

Frantically, Crane leapt upon the pile, pushing the crates apart looking for . . . he didn't know what. He saw crates marked as electronics gear, diving equipment and computers. C'mon . . . c'mon . . . where is it? Got to be here somewhere . . . those swine . . . not Seaview . . . please . . . we still have time . . . Jefferson wanted to gloat before he destroyed her . . . Frantically, Crane shoved crates apart, oblivious to the damage he was causing as boxes of delicate equipment tumbled across the concrete.

Meanwhile, Chief Sharkey scrambled out of the forward deck hatch and jogged across the gangplank. Cradled in his left arm were three scanners. He hurriedly passed out one each to Henderson and Kowalski, then recrossed to Seaview and disappeared into the cargo hold.

Kowalski paused only long enough to activate his scanner and check the readings. He crossed to the pile of crates where Crane still searched and began panning the device across the cargo. "Um, Skipper, shouldn't we take it easy? I mean, if there is a bomb . . ." Kowalski continued to scan while keenly aware of Crane's ungentle treatment of the crates.

Crane did not pause in his search. "Most likely it's a thermal bomb, Ski. No moving parts and practically indestructible. We've got to get it out of here!"

Both men continued to search the scattered crates.

"Is this something, sir?" called Kowalski. "I don't recognize the logo."

Crane scrambled to the seaman's side. He saw a crate about the size of a suitcase. Along one side was an unusual picture: a clenched fist surrounding the Earth in a merciless grasp -- the Right Hand of God. "That's it, Ski! Help me carry it to my car -- quickly, man!"

Together, they lifted the heavy crate, staggered over to Crane's convertible, and heaved it into the back seat.

"Now take off, Ski!" cried Crane. "Hit the deck!"

"Skipper, what are you going to do?" Kowalski did not like how this was adding up. "No, sir!" Kowalski moved to restrain Crane who was moving towards the driver's seat.

Without hesitation, Crane spun and planted a swift right hook on Kowalski's jaw, knocking the burly sailor to the pavement. Then, the Captain slid behind the wheel and, tires squealing, accelerated up the ramp.

Bemused crewmen, officers and dock workers watched breathlessly as their Skipper's sports car sped along the seaside road, away from buildings and towards the perimeter of the Institute. Crane's car must have been approaching sixty miles an hour when it crashed through the chain link fence surrounding the main Institute compound. The car raced along the gravel perimeter road, then headed off cross country, making for the top of a sharp ridge which bordered the Institute property to the south. The red car flashed through the sunlight, then disappeared over the crest of the ridge. Ten endless seconds passed. Then, a bright flash blinded the watching men. As they instinctively raised their hands to protect their eyes, a tremendous explosion shook the air. Across the Institute, glass windows shattered, showering the grounds with shining fragments. Looking up, the crewmen saw a great cloud of black smoke laced with flame billowing up into the summer sky.

"Oh, no," someone said.

"Skipper!" shouted Kowalski in denial. Turning, he sprinted up a loading ramp and into an Institute jeep. He cursed the engine to life, then took off with a merciless clash of gears. He raced along the Captain's path, his gut clenched with fear. "Skipper, don't do this to me," whispered the senior rating, his eyes fixed on the crest of the south ridge. Behind him, Kowalski heard the continued wailing of the Institute's emergency sirens. He followed the gravel road to the bottom slope of the ridge, then turned off, following the tire marks outlined in the crushed grass. He jounced across the uneven ground. He still saw no sign of his Captain. "C'mon, sir, c'mon!" he breathed, frantically searching the slope ahead.

Against all hope, a bedraggled figure staggered into sight on the ridge top and stood swaying slightly. He was outlined against the unholy light of the fire and smoke still rising from the blast.

"Skipper!" cried Kowalski in relieved joy. He jammed his foot down on the gas pedal.

Behind Crane, the flames gradually died down and the heavy smoke began to dissipate inland on the clean ocean breeze.

Crane squinted at the approaching jeep, then leaned against a boulder. As nausea washed over him, he fought against the pain thudding through his skull. I feel like the Hand of God has hit me, all right. Is this how Jacob felt after wrestling with the Lord all night? Crane shook his head to clear his thoughts, and immediately regretted the act. Flecks of light danced before his eyes. Putting a hand to the top of his head in an effort to keep it from coming apart at the seams, he closed his eyes.

Abruptly, a concerned voice spoke in his ear: "Skipper?"

Crane dropped his hand to his side and slowly focused on Kowalski. The seaman was wearing a very worried expression. "I . . . I'm fine, Ski," managed Crane in a hoarse voice.

Kowalski quickly examined his Captain for serious injury. Although Crane's uniform was torn and soot-stained, his exposed skin scraped and streaked with black ash, he did not appear seriously injured. Kowalski suspected a concussion -- that was a powerful explosion. Kowalski glanced down the far side of the ridge. A grass fire was spreading outwards from a blackened acre of meadow several hundred feet away. A twisted heap of metal in the center was all that remained of the Captain's beloved Alfa Romeo. Kowalski understood that the Skipper had rebuilt the vintage sports car from the ground up. What a waste. I guess the Skipper must have jumped out near the ridge crest here and let the car take the bomb on down the hill, Kowalski thought. He heard sirens approaching -- the Institute's fire department was on its way. "C'mon, sir," he urged, "I've got to get you to the Infirmary." Kowalski took Crane's arm.

Crane shook his head a fraction of an inch. "No, Kowalski! There's no time."

"Sir, you're hurt --"

"Listen, Ski -- do you want to get the swine who did this?"

"Yes, sir!" Kowalski had seldom seen the Skipper so angry. Well, Kowalski was pretty angry himself.

"Good!" approved Crane grimly, "then you just volunteered. We're going after these cretins."

"Aye-aye, sir!" beamed Kowalski.

"OK, then -- get me back to the Admiral's office -- we've got work to do!"

Kowalski settled Crane into the passenger seat, and started back down the ridge.

Meanwhile, Admiral Nelson had not been idle. "Katie -- get me base security! And raise Admiral Johnston at ONI! And get me that file on Jefferson!"

Within ninety seconds, a slightly built, Asian Pacific man walked briskly into Nelson's office: Lieutenant Jim Chen, head of the Institute's Security Department.

"Ah, Chen -- just the man I wanted to see," said Nelson. "Form details and have every inch of this base combed. I want to know how that bomb was smuggled into a shipment slated for Seaview's hold. The miscreants could still be on base. Under no circumstances is anyone to leave the Institute or communicate with the outside. Pass the word to all Institute personnel: Seaview is destroyed and her crew are dead until further notice. Also, we need to prepare a little show for the news media -- get the Institute locked down, then return here for details."

"Yes, Admiral Nelson." The feisty security man left at once to implement Nelson's orders. Soon, his crisp voice could be heard over the Institute's radio network and PA system.

Outside, Kowalski and Crane arrived at the private parking area adjacent to Nelson's office. The Admiral rushed out, clearly delighted at Crane's survival. The two senior officers conferred briefly. Soon, a consensus was reached, and Nelson hurried back inside. Under Crane's direction, Kowalski put the jeep in gear and soon they pulled up at the dock.

Most of the crew now milled about on the wharf or on Seaview's deck. They let loose a cheer as Crane climbed out of the jeep and up onto a large packing crate. A glow of pride filled the ranks. Their normally immaculate commanding officer stood straight and tall before them, splotched with dirt and soot. A tiny trickle of blood flowed down his left cheek. Nevertheless, their Captain radiated purposeful energy.

Crane addressed his men. "Now hear this! Now hear this! This attack was the last stroke of the terrorist organization, the Right Hand of God."

Angry murmurs met this announcement.

"Pipe down!" ordered Crane. "Listen carefully! We now have a window of opportunity to locate and neutralize these criminals. But I need your help -- we have only one shot at this."

The crew settled down to listen, eager to make a strike of their own. Each man was outraged by this assault upon the Seaview and the Institute. This was their home.

Crane began an avalanche of orders. "First, base security has sealed all gates -- no one in or out. We have ceased all outgoing communication. We have to make the terrorists believe that they have succeeded. Until further notice," Crane swept a stern eye over the assembled men, "you are all casualties and Seaview is sunk. The only communication with the outside world will be controlled through Admiral Nelson and the Institute's main office."

Crane scanned the men, willing compliance with this difficult order, knowing the stress it would put on hundreds of family members. The men stood firm, acknowledging Crane's leadership.

"Very well. Mr. Morton!"

"Yes, sir!"

"Prepare Seaview for immediate departure. News choppers will be swarming over the Institute as soon as Admiral Nelson issues a press release. Seaview must be gone -- take all of the crew with you and belly down in the harbor. Maintain radio silence. Move it!"

"Aye-aye, sir!" Seaview's Executive Officer began quietly cascading a stream of orders over the waiting men.

Crane continued his preparations. "Chief! Kowalski! Front and center!"

The two men came forward while all around them, men began to hustle in purposeful motion in response to Mr. Morton's expert direction.

Crane addressed his Chief of the Boat. "Chief! Break out the X-23 gear and load it onto the FS-1. Enough for you, six men and myself. I want diving gear and standard weapons as well. Start the preflight checklist. Get her ready to fly in twenty minutes. Turn to!"

"Aye-aye, Skipper!" The rugged noncom jogged off and soon disappeared into the interior of the great submarine.

"Kowalski!"

"Aye, sir!" piped the attentive sailor.

"I liked your work last year at San Dominguez. You kept your wits about you in a difficult situation. If you could choose a squad, who would it be?"

Kowalski did not hesitate, "Patterson, Jenkins, Riley and Rodriguez, sir."

"Very well," approved Crane. "You've worked together before. Round them up and notify Chief Sharkey. Get Henderson, too -- he's got a good head on his shoulders. We depart in twenty minutes in fatigues and full gear."

"Aye-aye, sir!" Kowalski hustled off to do his Skipper's bidding.

* * *

The Flying Sub erupted from the ocean in a spray of golden foam, headed towards the setting sun. She was well out of sight of the Santa Barbara coastline. The small craft should have been destroyed with her mothership, and Crane was taking no chances. Flying low over the water, her yellow reflection raced along the waves. A small beep flashed rhythmically from a small monitor located on the central console. Captain Crane sat in the pilot's chair while Chief Sharkey occupied the copilot's position. Six sailors and gear were packed into the remaining space.

Crane glanced over his shoulder at the determined faces of his men. He nodded to himself, then glanced sharply at Kowalski. A concerned expression settled on Crane's face. He gestured towards the burly seaman's chin where a bruise was starting to develop. "You all right, Kowalski?" he said over his shoulder.

"My jaw's a little sore, sir -- it'll be all right."

"I'm sorry I had to do that." Crane frowned. "Hmmmm . . . that's the second time in five years. This is getting to be a bad habit," said Crane with a half smile. He thought back to his first visit to the SSRN Seaview as her new Captain. Choosing to test Seaview's security, Crane had dropped into the Control Room unannounced and been forcibly restrained by the crew -- but not without first delivering some hefty punches. Kowalski had been on the receiving end of Crane's best.

"Sorry I got in your way, sir," answered Kowalski. Heedless of his aching jaw, Kowalski studied his commanding officer carefully. He was sure the Captain still felt pretty bad after being caught in the shock wave of the thermal bomb, but Crane wasn't letting on. But Kowalski's sharp eyes had recorded Crane's slightly stiff movements as he adjusted dials on the port control panel, and his slight wince when he nodded too quickly in response to a comment from Chief Sharkey. Kowalski mentally shrugged and resolved to stick close to his Skipper -- just in case.

Chief Sharkey now asked, "I hate to be nosy, Skipper, but where are we going?"

"We're going to catch Colonel Jefferson and the high and mighty leader of the Right Hand of God in their lair," ground out Crane between clenched teeth.

The Chief glanced doubtfully at Crane. "How do we know where to find them, sir?"

"Well, when Colonel Jefferson took the Admiral's bait and went after those diamonds from the original sting operation," explained Crane, "he got more than he bargained for."

"A vanadium transponder?" guessed Kowalski, referring to a long-range tracking device developed by the Nelson Institute. The transponders had been originally invented to allow scientists to tag and then locate large marine mammals over transoceanic distances. Only a tiny crystal need be planted beneath the skin to allow tracking without harm to the animal. The transponders had obvious military uses -- and the Institute's Defense Program Division had arranged for certain modifications to the civilian design.

Crane nodded in approval of Kowalski's quick thinking. "That's right, Ski. ONI has been monitoring our friend, but didn't want to move in until Jefferson rendezvoused with the leader of the Right Hand of God. Jefferson is nothing. Spalazzo is the dangerous one -- a true fanatic. I don't know how, but he has the gift of getting men to follow his leadership -- even to the death. If we don't get him, he is fully capable of trying a stunt like Paris again. And," asserted Crane with a glittering eye, "I do not want a repeat of last month's mission -- I did not care for running through the sewers of Paris at all, I assure you."

Kowalski acknowledged the Skipper's sentiment with a brief nod.

Sharkey was more vocal: "You can say that again, Skipper." Glancing back at the eager crewmen listening to the conversation, he took in the stacks of black wetsuits, air tanks, night vision goggles and weapons crowding the small compartment. "Well, we're right behind you, sir. What next?"

Crane fell into his command voice. "All right, Chief, here's how we're going to work it . . ."

The Flying Sub streaked onwards through the growing twilight. As the California sun disappeared in a blaze of glory beyond the far reaches of the Pacific, the exotic little craft plunged beneath the waves.

 

Meanwhile, on a yacht off the southeast coast of Catalina Island . . .

"You have done well, my friend," said Antonio Spalazzo in a silky voice. His Supreme Eminence, the leader of the Right Hand of God, settled back into a plush chair. At his elbow stood a decanter of fine liqueur while around him glowed the polished brass and warm mahogany of the yacht's opulent main cabin. "Sit down, Colonel," urged the terrorist. "You make me tired with your pacing."

"Sorry, Mr. Spalazzo -- I feel restless tonight."

"Ah, yes -- the excitement of the kill, is it not? The joy of executing the commands of God?" The leader's dark eyes narrowed. "Let us look in upon our friend, Nelson, eh?" Picking up a remote control in his thick hand, Spalazzo flicked on a large viewscreen on the forward wall of the cabin. The evening newscast was in progress.

". . . this just in from Washington. In an unprovoked and egregious act of terrorism, the right wing religious organization, the Right Hand of God, bombed the Nelson Institute of Marine Research today. The principal target was the research vessel, SSRN Seaview, the world's largest submarine. The body count is still climbing as divers search the wreckage of Seaview and the adjacent warehouses." The film showed a confused scene of dark water, search beams, and divers working amidst piles of twisted metal. "Among the dead is Commander Lee Crane, well known for his selfless act of heroism which saved the city of Paris from annihilation last month." The viewscreen showed a line of body bags stretching ominously across the fire-blackened dock.

Spalazzo chuckled with pure delight at the carnage. "Marvelous, Colonel -- simply marvelous. This calls for a celebration." Reaching over to the ornate table at his side, he pressed a button to ring for the yacht's steward.

Colonel Jefferson merely glanced at the viewscreen. "Nelson -- I want him dead, too. Him and his blasted inventions. If it wasn't for the X-13 decoder, Crane would have failed in Paris." Jefferson leaned against the bar and poured himself a stiff whiskey. "How shall we kill Nelson?" he asked mildly.

Spalazzo frowned slightly and rang for the steward once again.

"Well?" asked Jefferson.

Diverted by the contemplation of inflicting violent death, Spalazzo's face broke into a broad smile. "How shall we kill the great Admiral Harriman Nelson?" he asked jovially. He paused, then spoke one word with relish: "Horribly."

Satisfied with this answer, Jefferson looked down and sipped his whiskey.

"Yes, this is a great day, Colonel. We shall drink the wine of my homeland and toast the demise of the enemies of God." Frowning at the continued absence of the steward, Spalazzo became impatient and rang again. "What can be keeping the man?" he complained. Suddenly, the lights flickered and the main generator cut out. After a few seconds, red emergency lighting came on.

Colonel Jefferson pushed himself away from the bar. "Something's wrong!" He looked around through the cabin's portholes, but could see nothing but the blackness of night. With a curse, he drew his automatic from a well-concealed shoulder holster, and approached the double doors leading onto the fantail. With a glance back at Spalazzo, he opened the door and ducked through in one smooth motion.

Once on the fantail, the Colonel ducked under the cover of the superstructure and looked around. He should have seen several crew members standing guard or moving purposefully on their endless errands. He saw nothing but a black figure huddled in the bow. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a wetsuit-clad figure swing up over the starboard rail and disappear into shadows. He breathed curses and ducked down the port-side companion way leading to the yacht's hold. Jefferson heard no voices as he passed the Galley and Crew's Quarters. Hearing footsteps, he slipped into a storage locker and stood breathing heavily. With a brief glance, he established that he was alone, surrounded only by crates of miscellaneous supplies. In the silence, voices in the corridor carried to him clearly.

"All secure topside, Chief."

"OK, how about this Right Hand of God joker?"

"Patterson and Riley have him in irons now, sir. Colonel Jefferson wasn't with him."

"Oh, great -- listen, Kid, we've got to catch that guy. The Skipper is searching aft. I'll check in." The speaker apparently activated a hand-held radio for he began a status report.

Colonel Jefferson's eyes grew wide as he heard the exchange. Crane! He's alive! He's here!

Chief Sharkey's voice now ordered, "Ski, you take Henderson and Jenkins and start a sweep from the bow on the lower decks. And watch your back, Kid."

"Sure thing, Chief."

Jefferson drew back from the compartment door and looked around desperately. Trapped! Well, they won't take me alive! They won't put Colonel Jefferson on trial for all the world to jeer at. The Right Hand of God, eh -- well, let's all go meet God together! It's you and me, Crane! This time I'll make sure!

Seizing the moment when the corridor was clear of Seaview personnel, Jefferson slipped out of the locker, dashed down companionways, and dropped into the yacht's hold. It was filled with the equipment for terrorism. Dodging in and out of the narrow spaces between crates and shipping containers, Jefferson soon found what he sought: a very nasty bomb. It was the brother of the one which had blasted the Institute grounds earlier that same day. Quickly, Jefferson wrenched open the shipping container and worked expertly on the fuzing mechanism. With maniacal glee, he whispered silently to himself, "You'll die, Crane. You are mine. You will not escape my vengeance . . ." Thoughts of the nearby island and the diving equipment loaded on the yacht's stern platform surfaced in his mind. In the aftermath of the blast, why, perhaps he could escape after all. Plans formed and reformed in his mind. Then, with a final adjustment, he made ready to activate the timer.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you, Colonel."

At the first sound of the steely voice, Jefferson froze. He heard the unmistakable sound of the hammer being drawn back on an automatic sidearm. The metallic click sounded unbearably loud.

"Put your hands up and turn around slowly," continued the cold voice.

"Crane," whispered Jefferson. His lips drew back into a snarl as he raised his hands high. With pure hatred in his eyes, he turned slowly around to face his Nemesis.

Standing twenty feet away, Crane eyed Jefferson with a deadly expression. The .45 in his hands fixed on Jefferson's heart without wavering so much as a hair's breadth. "It's over, Colonel Jefferson."

"Is it, Captain Crane? Why, I believe you're right!" With a sudden motion, Jefferson slammed his hand down on the timer.

Simultaneously, Crane's weapon fired. The spout of flame lit up the dimly illuminated hold and the report was deafening in that confined space. Crane jumped forward. He was in time to hear Jefferson's last words.

"You'll never make it, Crane -- see you on Judgment Day, you --" Jefferson's head suddenly lolled and his body slumped in death.

Frantically, Crane's eyes sought the timer: forty seconds to go. No time remained for defuzing the bomb. With an exclamation, Crane seized his radio and began issuing orders as he ran towards the ladder leading from the hold.

Meanwhile, just off the southern coast of Catalina Island . . .

Three well-armed Coast Guard vessels surged around the southern point of the island, summoned by a signal from the Office of Naval Intelligence. They had lain in waiting for hours while ONI established the presence onboard the yacht of the terrorist leader and the errant ONI officer. Clearly visible under the full moon, their prows threw up clean white foam while their searchlights pinned the yacht in circles of light. A dozen pairs of binoculars focused on the luxury ship. These watchers were treated to a remarkable sight: from every rail of the yacht, men dived over the side. Men clad in black wetsuits as well as those in more traditional garb. Then, for a long moment there was no movement on the yacht. The very ocean breeze seemed to hold its breath.

Kabooooommmmm!!!!

The yacht leaped out of the water on a fountain of flame and foam. Immediately, she broke into two pieces along the massive rent in her hull. Her bow and stern began to sink beneath the moonlit waves as desperate men swam outwards from the wreck in all directions.

The next hour was a hectic confusion of struggling men and darting lifeboats and dark water. A flurry of communications between the Nelson Institute of Marine Research, the Office of Naval Intelligence and the Coast Guard Headquarters clarified the situation for the local Coast Guard commander. Soon, the entire crew of the yacht was under the custody of the authorities. Protesting loudly, the terrorist leader was confined under heavy guard in the brig. At the same time, the Seaview's men were dried out, warmed up and fed hot food.

On the main deck of the principle surface vessel, Chief Sharkey and Captain Crane took a breather. Both had now doffed their dripping wetsuits and were wearing borrowed jeans and sweaters.

"Well, that was sure a squeaker, eh, Skipper?" concluded Sharkey, punctuating his remark with raised eyebrows.

"Are the men all right, Chief?" asked Crane.

"Yes, sir. Patterson has a few burns from some hot debris he tangled with, and Kowalski has a couple of gashes. The ship's Doctor turned them both loose, though. They're having some chow down in the Mess with the rest of our men." Sharkey said this last remark rather hopefully. He was hungry!

Sharkey's hint was not lost on Crane. Smiling he said, "Better go grab a bite yourself, Chief. After I finish up some loose ends with Captain Moorer, I want you to take the men back home on FS-1. I'll stay here. When we reach port, the authorities are going to have a lot of questions."

"Aye, sir," acknowledged Sharkey.

Crane looked out into the night. Burnt pieces of the yacht still floated on the surface of the dark waters. He sighed with a great weariness.

"You all right, sir?" Sharkey's voice was concerned, and then suspicious. "Are you injured?"

"No . . . I'm fine, Chief. The Doctor here already gave me the once over, so you can stop looking at me like that."

"Yes, sir . . . but there is something, isn't there?" pushed Sharkey. He did not like the forlorn look underlying the Skipper's professional facade.

Crane glanced at Sharkey. Despite Crane's melancholy, a brief smile curved his lips at the sight of his loyal Chief Petty Officer. "Oh, it's nothing . . . only . . . I can't believe my . . . my car is just a pile of scrap metal right now." Crane sighed heavily. "I loved that car, Chief."

"Yes, sir -- a fine machine -- you put a lot of work into it."

Crane looked Sharkey in the eye, then laughed. "Never mind, Chief, it's not important. C'mon, let's eat. I want to go home." Clapping Sharkey's shoulder companionably, Crane led the way inside the ship.

 

Epilogue

 

One week later in Santa Barbara . . .

Captain Lee Benjamin Crane and Admiral Harriman Nelson stood pouring over charts in Nelson's spacious conference room. In the morning, Crane would be ready to brief his men on the upcoming mission to re-supply the Deep Sea Research labs.

Finishing a notation, Crane straightened and stretched his back. Glancing out the window, he was just able to see a corner of the parking lot. He winced slightly as he caught sight of the loaner car the insurance company had provided: a low-key, gray sedan. How he longed for the brilliant red paint of his Alfa Romeo. I'll never be able to afford a car like that again, he mused. When am I going to find the time to rebuild another one?

The direction of Crane's gaze was not lost on Nelson, and the older man smiled to himself.

Still looking out the window, Crane noticed a number of staff and crew members walking across the Institute's grounds. They appeared to be heading towards the far side of the parking lot which was just out of sight. Crane checked his watch and shrugged. A little early for quitting time, but it's been a long week for everyone. A sudden thought struck him. I hope this isn't another press conference. One more reporter and, so help me, I'll--

Nelson's voice broke into Crane's thoughts. "Well, Lee, I suppose that's all for today. We'll reconvene at 0800 hours for the final briefing." Nelson grinned at his friend. "I think you should take the rest of the day off -- you look tired."

"Sir!" protested Crane. "Have you seen the paperwork stacked on my desk? I can rest after we sail --"

"No, no, Lee," admonished Nelson. "You know Doctor Jamieson advised regular hours and plenty of rest for you. I want you at maximum fitness for this cruise. Besides, I have a feeling you'll, er, want to enjoy a long drive home tonight."

"Sir?" puzzled Crane, looking hard at his friend.

From Nelson's hand dangled a pair of car keys. The key chain gleamed in silver and brilliant red and was adorned with a very distinctive, Italian logo.

"You're kidding! No, you're not! Where is it?" Crane took the keys reverently.

"Out in the parking lot, Lee. It's just a little sign of appreciation from everyone here at the Institute --" Nelson broke off. He was addressing empty air.

A laughing crowd was assembled in the parking lot around a sparkling new sports car. Institute employees and Seaview crewmen alike watched the doors of Nelson's office building in eager anticipation. Suddenly, the doors flew open and a running man emerged. He leaped down the steps two at a time, sprang over shrubbery, and came skidding to a halt next to the car: an Alfa Romeo 2000. Cheers erupted from the onlookers as Crane walked slowly around the car, caressing the paint lovingly. After disappearing under the hood for a minute, Crane climbed behind the wheel. With wave and a shout of thanks, he maneuvered through the smiling crowd and drove towards the Institute's main gate.

Soon, the car turned onto the winding coastal highway and raced into the distance -- sparkling with color against the brown California hills. Rounding a far curve, the car disappeared from view in a flash of red.

 

The End


Copyright 1998 by Debra S. Post


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