Pandora's Box

 

 

 

 

Captain Lee Crane stalked down the empty corridor; his irritation increasing exponentially as he heard muted whispers from just around the corner in the direction of the visitors’ cabin.  

“So what do you think they’ve got in that box, Stu?” Patterson was asking. 

It was the same question everyone on board the Seaview had been asking since they had picked up the two sunburned shipwreck survivors two days ago.  Somehow, the fact that the box had been examined with various scanning equipment and shown to be empty was not a deterrent to the speculation, especially among the ratings who (a.) believed that the officers were hiding the real contents of the box, which was either gold, jewels or a combination of the two, or (b.) that the officers had somehow been hoodwinked, or (c.) in a related manner, the two little men were capable of some kind of magic that hid the real contents of the mysterious box—the jewels, gold, etc.   Crane sighed and paused; waiting for Riley’s response before he let the two men know he was there. 

“Get real, man.  Gotta be something top secret or they wouldn’t have their arms around the thing like my babe has around me on a date.”

Patterson laughed.  It was a standard joke that Riley’s girlfriend was an octopus when the sub was in town and Stu was on shore leave. 

Crane only restrained his own laughter because of the irritation he was feeling.  He stepped around the corner.  “Don’t you two have a duty station?”

“Yes, sir, Captain,” Patterson said quickly, almost jumping out of his skin when Crane spoke. 

“No, sir, Skip,” Riley piped in.  “We just got off our watches and were killin’ a bit of time before hangin’ ten in the galley.”

Crane almost laughed, but cleared his throat instead.  “Which is it, gentlemen?  Are you on duty or not?”

“Not, Skipper,” Patterson answered.  “You, uh, just kind of took us by surprise.”

“And you hang ten in the galley this time of day and Cookie might just have you peeling spuds, Stu,” Crane added. 

“Sir, what do you think’s in that box,” Patterson asked innocently.

Lee almost said ‘nothing,’ but knew that wasn’t the right answer right now, even if it was the technologically correct one.  “You know, I think I’ll go find out, because that little wooden box has me stumped, too.”

“You mean you don’t believe the scans, sir?” Patterson asked.

“I mean that I have seen way too much to put total trust in scans . . . or any thing else in a case like this.”

Riley just grinned and did a thumbs up.  Sometimes the captain could be a real stuffed shirt, but all in all he also had a touch of one cool dude in him.  He thought someday he’d like to entice the skipper on a surfboard and see what he could do.  He’d already asked several times with no success.  “You want us to tag along, sir?”

Crane chuckled, some of his good humor restored.  “No, Riley, but I’ll be happy to let you know the results.   If these two little men are leprechauns and I get the gold, I’ll be sure to share it with the both of you.”

“Way out, Skipper,” Riley said with a laugh.  He took Patterson by the arm and steered him in the direction of the galley. 

Shaking his head, Lee headed toward the visitors’ cabin and knocked.  The captain heard a high-pitched ‘come in’ but before he could enter, someone opened it from inside.   It was Hengle, the taller of the two.  Of course that wasn’t saying much.  Hengle couldn’t have been more than five feet and Crane was being generous.  His partner, Menchen was even shorter.  They both had dark brown, almost black eyes, white hair and ruddy complexions.  The pair had been spotted in a small sailboat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean two days ago.   There was no registry for the boat and no supplies.  Both men had appeared to have suffered severe sunburns, but no other injuries or deficiencies.  They weren’t dehydrated and weren’t suffering from want of food.  They only had one thing besides the clothes on their backs—the locked wooden box.   After two days, their skins were still red, but they had given the crewmembers enough scuttlebutt speculation to last for ten missions. 

Of course, when they had been spotted, Lee had ordered the sub to surface to rescue the two men, he leading the party to the deck.   The pair, upon sighting the Seaview, had guided their boat in their direction and calmly climbed aboard, thereafter ignoring their little vessel.  Their first word was unintelligible—‘alanaharash’ but after that they had spoken in flawless English.  Now after two days, no one in the crew knew any more about them.  The box had stayed locked, despite his protests that it had to be examined.  The admiral’s compromise of scanning it with several detection devices had been agreeable to the two men, but it had raised more questions than it had answered.  The idea that these men were so possessive and protective of a box that was empty was in itself a mystery.  It bothered Lee.  He didn’t know where these two were from; they had been evasive, simply pointing to the east.  They were evasive about how they had ended up in the middle of the ocean, or what ship or plane they had been on.  And when asked where they had been heading, they simply pointed to the west. 

He didn’t like it.  He didn’t like the idea that these two and their box could be dangerous to his boat and so far he hadn’t a clue what to do about it.  Except to come and see them.  “Gentlemen,” he said as Hengle looked up at him in anticipation.  “I’m wondering if I could come in?”

“Of course, Captain.  Do come in, please.  Not much room as you well know, but there is a seat and you’re welcome to it.”

Lee nodded and entered the cabin.  They were right, of course.  Most of the cabins were small.  Even his and the admiral’s weren’t palatial.  The egg carton-sized box was sitting on a small nightstand, still locked and still looking like the most enticing treasure chest on earth.  He remembered the story of Pandora’s box and then wondered why that had come to mind.

“What can we do for you, Captain?”

“Mr. Hengle, you and Mr. Menchen still haven’t answered my questions,” he said bluntly. 

“What questions, sir?” Hengle asked.  Menchen sat quietly as he did most of the time when Crane had talked to them.

Lee gave an exasperated sigh.  “I don’t know if you are aware of this, but I have the lives of 125 men to think about.”

“And we might be some kind of threat?  Or maybe our box over there?”

Frustrated, Crane bit out, “Yes!  You two or your box.”

“But you had the box examined, Captain, and it showed nothing.”

“Then why so protective?  Why is it locked?” Crane demanded.  “And scanners can be deceived.  Heaven only knows that many strange things have happened on the Seaview; things that defied the senses or instruments.”

Hengle nodded knowingly.  “Would you like to see into it then?” 

Hengle asked the question so nonchalantly, so disarmingly that Lee almost gasped.  Then he became suspicious.  “Why the change of heart?  Almost everyone on this boat has asked the same things I have and you didn’t offer them a look.”

“Because the time wasn’t right and because the person wasn’t right.”

“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” Lee asked tersely, his frustration reaching again toward the stratosphere.  Then he reined himself in.  These men hadn’t done anything—yet.  He didn’t need to be rude, even if he was suspicious.  “I’m sorry, Mr. Hengle.  It’s just that I do have to be careful.”

“Yes, the 125 men.  I know.  But again, I ask you, do you want to see into the box?”

“Why don’t you just tell me what’s in it?  That should be sufficient to ease my concerns.”

“Oh, no, Captain, that wouldn’t be.  This box is unique for each individual who possesses it.”

“Huh?”  Lee felt as though he had been lost somewhere between Route 66 and the Twilight Zone. 

“The box’s lock works by a simple rule,” Hengle began.  “It works on the desire of the person holding it.”

“I still don’t follow you.”

“What do you wish for more than anything, Captain Crane,” Hengle asked. 

Crane almost snorted in derision and was ready to walk out of the room.  These two men were crazy.  A box that only opened because someone made a wish?  “And I suppose that it also grants the wish,” he said sarcastically.   “You know Aladdin’s lamp was a story.”

“Oh, yes, Captain.  Now you are beginning to see the principle of the box.  And the lamp story is based in fact.”

Lee gaped at Hengle for a moment and then at the innocent, intricately carved wooden box on the table by the bunk.  He had seen stranger things in the past few years.   So what would he wish for if such a thing were possible?   His dad—the man he had missed for over twenty-five years?   Could such a thing be possible?   Then he thought of the men of the Seaview.  How many had been lost?  Phillips, Farrell, Curley, Collins, Blake, Foster, the list seemed to continue.  What if their deaths could be recalled?  What if that little box could do such a thing?

“Go ahead, Captain Crane.  Test what I’ve told you,” Hengle coaxed.  As though to help the captain make up his mind, he walked over and picked up the box.  Walking back, he put it in Crane’s lap.  It felt warm on his legs, but not heavy.  Then he thought, this is ridiculous!   But what if?   Many times he had wished he could turn back the clock and bring the dead back.  What made now any different?  A box?  I wish all the seamen who have died on the Seaview could return.  Could live, he thought.  In shock, Lee saw the lock twist, turn and fall off the box.  The lid snapped up and Crane saw all those he had named and others he had not, walking, talking, kissing their loved ones, or simply looking confused on the dock at NIMR, on the sub, in their homes.  Lee looked up at Hengle, who was standing by his side, and sucked in a tremulous breath.  “I’m seeing them alive, right?  That’s all this box can do?”

“Oh, no, Captain, it can make the wish real.  Do you want that?”

Crane thought of the mission the Seaview had just completed and the letter he had to write to the loved ones of the young man who had lost his life on that mission.  Despite the fact that he had analyzed and re-analyzed the situation, and could find no way it could have been prevented, Lee still felt responsibility.  He couldn’t ignore feelings he had that he could have prevented that death and most of the others if he had only tried harder, given different orders, given in.  “Yes, I do.”

“There is a price, though.”

Lee looked up, startled.  Wasn’t the wish enough?  “What do you mean?” 

Hengle laughed.  It wasn’t evil or superior, just a laugh, as though the captain had told some colossal joke.  “We aren’t some of your leprechauns whom you have caught and forced to give you something.”  Lee did gasp now.  Hengle smiled knowingly.   “We have excellent hearing.  But back to the present situation.  The box has to have payment in order to grant a wish.”  

“What’s the payment?”

“You.”

“What?”

“You can release all of those people from death; you can bring them back, but you will have to take their place.”

Deathly cold horror gripped his heart, and squeezed his lungs.  If he left now, how would the boat fare?  Probably just as well.  Maybe better?   Phillips would be back, Curley would be back.  Those men with families would be able to raise their children.  But to die?  Many times Lee had faced death and had come close to it, skirted it, defied it.  Many times, but never had he seriously considered willingly entering into that realm.  It was like suicide and he didn’t believe in suicide.  He felt cold, as though ice was flowing through his veins.  But some of these men would have been alive anyway if….   Lee shook his head.  He had been told many times that their deaths were not his fault, but still the nagging doubts had been there.  Were still there.   Regardless, wouldn’t this be benefiting the many?  Wouldn’t it be better this way?  He looked in the box again and saw the seamen whose wives he had written after their husbands had died, kissing and hugging their children.  Now that he had the chance, how could he take that away from them?   Now that he had made the wish, how could he back out?  “All right.”

“You are willing?”

“Yes.”  His voice was a whisper, then it was gone.   The box sat on an empty chair. 

   

                       ======================

 

Captain John Phillips felt his irritation level rising steadily.  Why, he didn’t know.  He had strange thoughts of the admiral in danger; of a car ride that ended over a cliff, but it had gone away in the blink of an eye.   Then it struck him.  Those two rescued sailboat survivors and their idiotic box.  Why didn’t the crew understand that the box was clean?   With a sigh, he heard Ralston and who?  Oh, Stu discussing that infernal box.  He rounded the corner.  “Gentlemen, do you have duties?”

“Aye, sir,” Ralston said immediately, jumping as though caught with his hand in a cookie jar.  

Stu grabbed his arm and steered him toward the galley.  When they were away from the Skipper, Riley stopped and then leaned against the wall. 

“You okay, Stu?”

“Real bummer, man.  I didn’t feel too well there for a minute.  It was as though I didn’t know that guy,” Riley breathed.  “You know what I mean?  I kind of saw someone else, someone different who should have been there and then . . . then.  I don’t know.  But it’s okay now.” 

Ralston stared at him a moment.  “You’re kidding, right?” 

Stu didn’t say anything, but wondered why only a moment ago, he had considered asking the skipper to go surfing with him.   And a quick picture of another man flashed in his mind; one who was taller, thinner, and younger, with dark hair.  The other thing he didn’t say to Ralston was that for a brief second, he hadn’t known who his buddy was either.

 

                                     ==========================   

 

Chief Curley Jones swiped his hand over his face and stared around the missile room in confusion.  What was he doing here?  He felt the beginnings of indigestion and the tingling and pain in his arm.  Angrily, he wiggled his fingers.  Thought I’d gotten rid of this, he mused and then wondered when that had happened.  He sighed and continued the adjustments on the pump mechanism, then he cursed when the wrench slipped from nerveless fingers.  He would eventually have to go do Doc about this.  Hell, he thought. Might as well type up my resignation paper while I’m at it.  Then he caught a flash of a dark-haired young officer reading a piece of paper and looking sad.   But it passed even as Curley wondered who he had been.   Now, he just wished the pain would go away. 

“Hey, Chief,” Kowalski began and stopped, blinked and blinked again.

“What are you lookin’ at, knucklehead?” Curley growled. 

“Uh, it was kind of weird, but for a minute I thought you were someone else,” Ski said, his voice puzzled. 

“Who’d you think I was?  Santa Claus?” Curley snapped, feeling the pain intensify. 

“Uh, no, Chief.  Need some help?” 

“No."

Both men worked on their respective jobs in silence, but neither noticed a slight waver in the air, a slight blurring of edges around the perimeter of the room. 

 

                                    =============================

 

Lt. Commander Chip Morton was dreaming of a girl.  Not just any pretty girl, this little dish was dark-haired, with long dark lashes that batted precociously over deep green eyes.  Her lips were full and he’d have already tasted them, had it not been for the presence of Lee and his date, an almost as pretty, leggy redhead.  The captain had the amused look of one who knew just exactly what his friend was thinking.  

With a not-so-subtle clearing of his throat, Lee proposed a toast.  “To the completion of a successful mission.”

Chip gladly joined in that toast.  No one had been lost, only minimal injuries and no damage to the boat.  He was glad to see Lee so happy, knowing just how hard any loss under his command was for him.  It bothered him, too, but Chip knew that Lee personalized it so much more. 

Then the picture wavered and swam and Chip saw a dark cloaked man walk up to the table, quickly, but nonchalantly pull out a pistol and shoot Crane in the back of the head.  Chip had not moved, had not blinked until the deed was done.  Now he heard screaming, then darkness.  The XO found himself bolt upright in his bunk, crying out a name.  “Lee!  Lee!”

Chip swiped his hand across his eyes and found his palms wet.  Lee?  Who is Lee? he wondered.  The dream was now only a fuzzy blur of emotion and the main emotion was grief.  For whom was he grieving?  Then he remembered the crewmen lost during the past few years and he felt another pang of loss and guilt.  Seemed there had been so many.  Collins, Blake, Foster, Farrell, Patterson, O’Brien, Crane.  Crane?  Who was that?   Had there been so many that he couldn’t even remember the names?  With that thought in mind, he felt a new wash of grief, one so strong that it flowed toward darkness.  It was so strong that he felt tears trying to reform in the corners of his eyes.   Then the darkness intensified and surrounded him, choking him and threatening to cut him off from everything—even life.

 

                       ==================================

 

Admiral Harriman Nelson woke with a shout.  His body was drenched in sweat, his heart beating wildly.  Lee was in danger.  Lee, where was he?  In his mind, Nelson saw the young man as he first walked on his boat, the old Nautilus.  Skinny, wide-eyed, enthusiastic, if not somewhat intimidated and uncertain about his captain.  Then there was the entrance onto the Seaview.  It was definitely unorthodox, but memorable.  Lee had then proceeded with only a few bumps, to entrench himself into the routine, and become part of the heart and soul of the Seaview and her crew. 

But what had happened.  Where was Lee now?  Why was he in danger? 

The memories wavered, became like the water that boiled against the herculite hull windows of the Seaview.  But Nelson clung to them, kept saying the name over and over again—Lee.  Who was Lee?  His captain.  No, John was his captain.  No, John was dead.  Lee.  Lee was his friend.  Who the hell was Lee?  Then he felt as though his heart had been ripped out; the way he had felt when he had lost his parents.  In some ways this was worse, though.  It was like a knife wound when you didn’t even know why it had happened, who had done it—when or how.  Why?  

Darkness gathered around him and he saw, through closed lids, the Seaview on the ocean floor, her hull breached, the sea creatures already taking hold of her nooks and dark spaces.   White skulls leered at him.   He sucked in a shuddering breath.   Lee—it had to be this mysterious Lee that he could/couldn’t remember.

He tried to think back.  What was going on now that would cause this horrible vision?  The two mysterious strangers they had picked up a couple of days ago.  John had ordered the box scanned.  It had shown up empty, but that didn’t stop the scuttlebutt and it hadn’t eased his feeling of danger.  Even as the corners of his vision seemed to waver and darken, Harriman pulled on his trousers and threw on a shirt.  He was going to go and see the two little men.  If it was the last thing he did, he would get the truth out of those two.  Slipping on his shoes, he ran a trembling hand through his hair and opened the door of his cabin. 

 

                              ==============================

 

 Stu Riley continued to work quietly in the missile room, checking the mini-sub, the diving equipment, everything, twice, trying to hide his uneasiness.  As he worked he began humming a Beach Boys tune, letting the ‘bar, bar, bar, bar- Barbara Ann’s’ range louder and higher.  That helped him feel better, even if it didn’t do a thing for the nerves of his crewmates.  Again, he began to wonder what those two gnarly little dudes had in their box.  Despite what the skipper had said, it had to be something valuable.   What would he do with gold or jewels?  What he could do with some extra bread, right now.  Stu let his mind wander.  He would buy his own house on the beachfront.  A groovy house, too.  The house would be built on top of the shop.  He’d sell surfboards with his baby for part of the day and shoot the curls the other half.  Nirvana, man; that would be the life.

Looking at the time, Stu realized that it was past the end of his watch.  He put his tools in the locker and then sauntered out of the missile room, still humming “Barbara Ann”.  For some reason, he found himself near the guest cabin. He paused in front of the door.  The skipper had put a curfew on this cabin.  Too many men had come by, just as he was, eye-balling the cabin and wishing they could see what was in that locked box—wasting time.  He was about to turn away when the door opened and the smaller of the two little men smiled at him.  “Why, Seaman.  How good to see you.  Why don’t you come in?” 

“Uh, rad, dudes, but I’m not even supposed to be here,” Stu responded. 

“Surely if we told your captain that we had invited you.”  The man’s name was Menchen, Riley remembered. 

That, Stu thought, was a different proposition.  “Groovy!”  He walked in.  The taller of the two, Hengle, was sitting on the bunk, studying him carefully. 

“Sit down, Seaman….”

“Riley, sir,” Stu said.  

“Well, sit down, Seaman Riley and make yourself at home,” Menchen said.   Riley sat in the only chair in the room.   Menchen’s smile grew broader.  “You are curious about the box.”

“Man, I’d be cuttin’ the rope short if I said I wasn’t.  All the boys and girls are curious.  Even the skip is….”   Stu paused.  Since when was Phillips curious about this box?  He had been the one giving the ultimatum to steer clear.   Again he wondered why he was confused; why the signals seemed mixed.

“I suppose you want to know what’s in it?”

“Yeah, you have to have some stash there, despite what the khakis have been sayin’.”

Menchen laughed.  It was pleasant and put Riley at his ease a little.  “And if there was?  What would you do with it?”

Riley was pleased that these two cats were aware enough of his lingo that they didn’t automatically ask what he had said.  But that made him wonder, too.   “Oh, man, what I wouldn’t do.  A little surf shop, a sweet beach house, endless surfing.  And my sweet dish by my side.”  He sighed. 

Menchen went over to the little stand and picked up the box, carrying it carefully to Riley.  He laid it in Stu’s lap and stepped back. 

“You tellin’ me I can just open this and see?”

“Oh, no, Seaman, you wish for what you want, then you’ll be able to open it,” Menchen said eagerly. 

Just a touch too eagerly, Stu thought.    He wondered what the trick was.  “You jivin’ me?” he asked cynically. 

“Test it, Seaman and see if we’re jiving you,” Menchen said softly.

Seemed groovy enough, Stu thought.  And what could he lose?  No one else was in here to see if he fell for the joke.  Wish there was enough dough, Stu began and thought he’d better say it less hip and more literally, just in case.  Wish there was enough money in there to get me a beach house and a surf shop.   To his astonishment, the lock twisted and fell off.  Then the lid opened. Several gold bars were stacked to one side. And showing like a TV screen on the bottom of the box was his surf shop, even to the sound of the breakers in the background.  It was a dream come true.  “Radical!” 

“Is this what you want?”

Patterson would be so impressed.  Patterson?  What am I thinking?  Patterson died in the mission to Merigos three months ago.  I wish I knew what the hell is going on here.   And in a blink, the gold and the surf shop disappeared, but before he could utter a sound of disappointment, he saw an officer enter this cabin and talk to the munchkins.  The skipper!  But wasn’t Phillips the skipper?   Stu simply watched as this skipper was handed the box and coaxed into a wish just as he had been.  Crane, testing the box just as he had—something about the dead coming to life, the munchkins said. Captain Crane?  Yeah, the skipper he knew.   Radical wish, Stu thought.   He saw what was inside the box, even though it was hard to see the tiny pictures.  Bunch of shipmates, some dead, some alive.  The skipper, who was so familiar to Stu now, sat entranced.  “Do you want this?” Hengle asked him.   After a great deal of time, the skipper finally said yes and suddenly he disappeared.  Stu sat horrified.  They had said that the price of the skipper’s wish was his own life. 

Stu heard Menchen’s footsteps coming closer.  What to do?  What could he do?  Whatever the captain had done had sent things cuckoo.  “I wish that things were the same as they were before Captain Crane made his wish!” he shouted. 

“No, you can’t change….” Menchen began, but was cut off.

The air seemed to crack like doom itself.  The air was filled with ash and smoke and something like a bitter Arctic wind blew through.  Stu felt himself hurtled to the ground, where he lay dazed and dizzy.  He only vaguely heard the door crash open. 

 

                             =============================

Lee woke up in sickbay.  He felt as though he had been beaten with a Mack truck, his head pounded unmercifully and he didn’t have the slightest idea how he had gotten here.  When his eyes could focus, he saw the admiral and Doc staring at him. 

“How do you feel, lad?” Nelson asked softly. 

“Do you want me to give you the abridged version?” Lee muttered, then winced.  Even his throat hurt. 

“I think that would be all right,” Harriman said, his eyes showing their relief. 

“Like hell.” 

Doc smiled softly.   Nelson made a sound in his throat. “Well, since you have been to one version of it, I guess that would be an appropriate response.”

“Huh?”

“Lee, before I explain what happened after your foolish trip to see Hengle and Menchen, let me just say that if you ever do anything like that again, I will personally make you want to hide in hell.”  Then his voice softened.  “Do you have any idea what you nearly did?”

Crane frowned and thought.  He remembered feeling his guts wrenched sideways to yesterday after he had agreed to Hengle’s deal.  There was the horribly biting cold and the feelings of being in limbo.  His whole body felt dis-incorporated.  And he was scared spitless, thinking, rather more clearly than he had thought in the cabin, just what his ‘noble gesture’ could do.  By bringing Curley back, he removed Sharkey, the same with so many other men.  Somehow by letting some men live, others had died.  He had heard the voices of those who had died in the new normal reality, and many of them were the men he had tried to save from ‘his’ reality.  Somehow, the alternate reality had still resulted in the deaths of some of the same crewman, only later, he guessed.  It was confusing.   “I think so, Admiral,” he finally admitted. 

“Well, first of all, the cards were a bit stacked against the players, namely you and Seaman Riley,” Nelson said gently.   Lee looked puzzled.  “What I mean to say is that these two, and I use the term loosely, gentlemen, whom we picked up had a bet going.”

“What?” Lee cried and then groaned as even the sound of his own voice made his head hurt.  Doc turned toward his medicine cabinet.  “A bet?” he asked in a softer voice.  “What kind of bet?”

“It’s hard to explain it the way they did, or rather it’s hard to understand just what they were doing.”  Harriman cleared his throat to give himself time to gather his thoughts.  “Hengle and Menchen are from another star system.”

Not in the least surprised, Lee thought back to his conversation with the two men.  “Not the first time, I gather.”

“No, not the first time.  Seems they enjoy interacting with humans.”

“Interacting, or causing mischief?  They’re Jinn.”

“Not bad, Lee.  How did you figure that one?”

“The same way I should have figured it when I was first with them.  Hengle mentioned that Aladdin’s lamp was based in fact.”  Lee was beginning to feel well enough to feel disgusted with himself.  Doc returned to his beside with a glass in his hand.

Nelson nodded.  So far, Lee was taking this better than he expected, although he could see the signs of self-recrimination, one of the things, in its more serious form, that had almost led to the downfall of the sub.   “Hengle bet that he could pick out, from a small group of people, someone who would be willing to sacrifice himself for the rest of the group.  Menchen bet that it couldn’t happen twice.”

“So they scouted things out and picked the Seaview.”  Lee sighed.  “And I was the perfect patsy.”

“Lee, you were perfect because you would put yourself in harm’s way for your men in the blink of an eye.  You and I both know that,” Harriman said.  “I’ve raked you over the coals for that a time or two.   It’s your most shining attribute as well as your Achilles’ heel.”

“But I can’t imagine that I actually went that far.  It seems so perfectly clear what could have happened by making the choice I made.”

“Normally, yes, but we had just come off that last mission and Crowley’s death was particularly gruesome.  It wasn’t just you who happened to be affected, but as the captain of this boat, you were the one who internalized it the most,” Harriman said gently.  He saw Lee relax a bit at his words.  “And even though they vowed that they were exerting no undue influence, it’s in their nature.  I could feel sympathy for them even while they were telling me all of this.”  

Frowning again, Lee studied the two men who had been watching him intently.  Doc was strangely silent.   “How did Riley figure it out?  And by the way, is he all right?”

“Stu is fine.  But that was where Hengle and Menchen made their mistake, although I think they could have used any of the crew and the result would have been similar.   That is, any of the crew would have wished for something unselfish.”  Harriman smiled.  “But Riley was a particularly good choice, or bad one, depending on which side you look at it.  Menchen thought Riley was perfect.  He wanted money to buy something for himself.  The problem, though, is that Riley is one of the newer crewmembers.  He never knew Capt. Phillips, or Curley, and he had bonded very tightly with Patterson, more tightly than any of us truly realized.  Another bonus is that he has a great deal of respect for his skipper, too.” 

At that, Lee did a double take, but said nothing. 

The admiral continued.  “He noticed the difference in CO’s immediately and he questioned the loss of Patterson.  Those questions in his mind brought forth a wish—‘I wish I knew what was going on here.’   The box, being able to pick up wishes telepathically, immediately showed him what had happened and Riley, being more astute than many people think he is, promptly wished for things to be back to normal.”

Lee said nothing for a moment, knowing that he owed the young seaman a great deal.  Maybe he would take him up on his offer of a day learning how to surf when they got back to Santa Barbara.   “What’s happened to Hengle and Menchen?” 

“They were escorted off planet by a small contingent of their peers,” Harriman said with a twinkle in his eye. 

“Ah, the Alpha Centauri version of the Marines caught up with them,” Lee quipped.

“Indeed, because apparently their little game could have had serious consequences.” 

“A very real disturbance in the flow of time?” Lee offered.

The admiral nodded.  “And all of this showed me something else, Lee,” Harriman said seriously.  “I realized that as much as I respected and liked John Phillips, he couldn’t have taken the Seaview to the level that you have taken her.”

“What do you mean, Admiral?” Lee was taken aback.  After what he had done, the praise seemed totally undue.

“I mean I woke up seeing images of the Seaview lying destroyed on the ocean floor and then I saw the very tenuous in-between existence beginning to unravel.  I understood enough, especially when I found out what had happened, to realize that without your presence, your leadership, this boat would been destroyed long ago.”  Lee started to say something but the admiral cut him off.  “What I’m trying to say is that no matter how bad it seems, and even if, God forbid, someone else dies in the future, you are right for the Seaview and for her crew.”

“Thanks, Admiral,” Lee said, feeling a warmth spread through him that had nothing to do with the blanket covering him.  Doc handed him a tablet and the glass of water.   He took both without argument and swallowed the tablet.

“Now you get some sleep, lad.   I want you up and able when we undertake that mission to the sea lab in four days.”

“Aye, aye, Admiral,” Lee answered sincerely.  He closed his eyes and soon fell asleep.  

 

 

 

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