I'll Be Home for Christmas--
by Sue Kite
December 20th, 1900 hours, UTC+8
The president smiled. "You recognize me."
"Yes, sir. The recent election was very much publicized," Lee answered.
Kocerin nodded. "And instant results were expected," he replied dryly.
"Sir, I think that is normal for any leader."
"You speak as from experience."
"Commander, I won't waste my time and yours asking what you were doing in my country. I suspect I know. You are the best person to recognize if something similar to your Seaview is being built in The People's Republic. Did you find out?"
"Sir, you realize that whether true or not, I couldn't tell you that, either." Crane studied the man and found that Kocerin had been elected for more than his rugged good looks. Down inside was a man to be reckoned with. Lee wondered why he had been brought to speak with him.
"Yes, you have been trained well." Kocerin sat down behind his large, highly polished wooden desk. "Sit down on the couch, Captain. I will have someone bring us some coffee."
Lee sat. The two plus hours standing in that courtroom had done nothing good for his back, shoulders and arms.
"You present me with a problem," Kocerin said after sending the prison guard to get the beverage.
"I thought your court took care of that, sir," Crane responded hesitantly. He continued to wonder just what in the world was this guy up to? A different approach to interrogation?
"Let's not play games, Commander," Kocerin said with a frown. He pulled on one side of his full mustache. "General Zu-shin and the rest of the court don't have to sit in that summit and hear the recriminations of the western heads of state."
"Personally, Mr. President, I would have been perfectly happy to have not put you in that situation," Lee replied, deadly serious. "I feel I am most productive in a submarine, not a dungeon." For some reason, he felt the president's candor was genuine and not part of a game, so he was going to respond in kind. He was here for the duration, so nothing he said would make anything better and it certainly couldn't be any worse. Kocerin could have his chat, send him back and be done with him.
"And from what I have been told, you most likely would have been back on your submarine except for one little thing," Kocerin said, pulling out a pipe and filling it with great deliberation.
Through the door came the little girl Lee had thought never to see again and was shocked to see now.
"Andjen!" Neera cried, rushing toward him, jumping into his lap, unmindful of the chains. She hugged him briefly and then stroked his stubbly cheek. "Are you all right?"
Crane didn't answer, only gazing at the president in horror. Somehow, they had found out and brought Neera here to corroborate her involvement. "She didn't know, Mr. President. She really didn't know who I was. It . . . it was only by accident we met."
December 20th, 0900 hours, just east of the International Date Line.
Commander Chip Morton, acting captain of the largest research submarine in the world, stood in the observation nose of the same watching the dark, foamy waves break against the herculite windows. The darkness of the waves, the blackness of the sky above them matched his mood. He felt his eyes smart and he willed the anger, frustration and despair he felt inside to stay there. Why the hell did you keep taking these things on, Lee Crane? Why would you continue to flirt with death this way? Death would have been easier, he thought somberly. It would have been easier for all of them, he thought guiltily.
"Mr. Morton, shouldn't we take her down below the storm?" O'Brien asked softly from just behind his shoulder. "We're starting to get the motion."
Chip brought himself back to the present and realized Frank was right. He could feel the exaggerated sway now. "Take her down to ninety feet, Mr. O'Brien."
"Aye, sir." But still O'Brien stayed by his shoulder. "Sir," he began and cleared his throat. "What are we going to do in Korea? What can we do there?"
"Be a presence, an escort for the president," Chip said, keeping the bitter edge from his voice. "And because we have been asked to." Again, it was duty; always duty. It had been duty that had prompted Lee to take that assignment into The People's Republic simply for verification purposes. A seemingly simple assignment with only a couple of contacts and almost no one knowing that he was coming. He hadn't even known until several days after Lee had left that day a week after Thanksgiving. So what had gone wrong? They would most likely never know unless the Republic decided to make a propaganda circus out of this. And then it would have to be taken with about ten tablespoons of disbelief.
At least Frank hadn't done what some of the rest of the crew had done, asked why they weren't going in and springing Lee out of that prison. Not that he wouldn't have been first in line to do just that, if there had been a snowball's chance in hell of succeeding and if the repercussions would not have precluded such a move. Politics! Blasted politics!
Chip noticed that O'Brien had moved into the conn and was issuing the orders. The waves were over the tops of the observation windows and he felt the slight shift as the boat slipped below the waves. Chip noticed the box under one of the windows. Christmas decorations. If they didn't feel like celebrating Christmas on the boat, the men should have been able to celebrate with their families, he thought irritably. Christmas on the boat was going to be bleak this year. Even the men who were newest on the sub, those who knew Lee the least, were affected. He sighed. He was the head of the boat right now and he should take the lead at establishing some sort of normalcy.
"Kowalski," he called as he turned and faced the conn.
"Sir?" the senior rate called out from his sonar station.
"Get someone to put up the decorations up here," he ordered. "And in the mess, too. We'll be in Korea or enroute back to the states on Christmas Day and we need to observe it properly."
The look he received briefly was 'why?', but 'Ski simply said, "Aye, sir," and passed the order along.
Chip remembered Kowalski's initial impression of their incarcerated captain and it hadn't been flattering. Of course, Lee hadn't done anything to impress the young rate, but that hadn't been long in changing. With effort, Chip dragged his mind to the boat's operations and away from that which would distract him.
"Mr. Morton?" Sparks called out from the radio shack.
He answered as he walked aft. "What is it, Sparks?"
"Communication from the admiral, sir."
Chip picked up the headset and responded.
"Chip, I am heading toward Korea, ETA approximately four hours ahead of Seaview."
"Packages aboard, sir?"
"Package. Other packages coming conventionally," Nelson responded. "They left before I did and will arrive about the time I do."
"Yes, sir. Any instructions, Admiral?"
"No, Chip. Nothing I haven't already told you."
"Very well, sir. We're at flank speed and should be docking at Seoul by mid-day local time."
"All right, Chip. Carry on."
"Aye, sir and have a good trip," Chip told him. There was no response before the admiral cut the communications, not that he really expected one.
Nelson loosened the throat communicator and turned to the President of the United States. Behind him sat two Secret Service agents. One appeared nervous, his hands gripping the ends of the seat with white-knuckle force. The other was watching everything he did, while seemingly enjoying the trip. He smiled reassuringly to the admiral, who nodded in acknowledgement. Nelson turned back to the president. "If we continue at the same rate of speed, sir, we should be at Cheju approximately 0900 local time."
"Good. And Harry, I appreciate you doing this."
"I volunteered, if you remember, Mr. President," Nelson said with a tight smile.
"Yes, I know, but I still appreciate it. I know this is painful."
"Restraint is painful, sir. Having to sit on my hands is what's painful." Nelson felt the president's eyes on him as he flew through the clouds into the bright sunshine at 40,000 feet. He put the Flying Sub on auto-cruise and felt the power of his revised and well-tested ion drive kicking into effect. The clouds seemed to flow below him. With deliberate attention, Harry studied all the systems, from the propulsion to the defensive systems. Finally satisfied, he turned to his passenger. "How do you like her, Mr. President?"
"I am very impressed, Harry. She is a wonderful addition to all your other inventions. Maybe I'll have a few built to replace the presidential jets," he said with a laugh.
"Not a bad idea, sir. I will more than cooperate with any builders, or I can have one built. I have several as you know."
The president nodded. He was a resolute man, slightly prematurely aged from his presidency, but then, Nelson thought, that was par for the course. The man beside him was still as vibrant as the one who had been nearly killed in that undersea bunker four years ago. There were a few more lines and a little more gray hair, but the energy and fire was still there. "Harry, I will do my best to talk to President Kocerin about Lee, but there are no guarantees."
"I know, sir."
December 20th, 1900 hours, UTC+8
Kocerin studied the American. He had received a verification of the suspicion he had had earlier today at the trial. With that verification came an even higher regard for the man across the room from him. The prison guard came in with a tray, on which a pot and several cups sat. Steam wafted from the pot. Kocerin directed the man to set it on his desk. "You may wait outside the door. My personal guard will be more than adequate to protect me if anything should happen," he told the man. With a nod, the man left the room. "Kroshna, would you pour us all a cup of coffee?"
"Yes, Mr. President," the large man said.
He turned his attention back to the anxious man, Neera sitting on his lap looking puzzled at her American friend's behavior. "Captain Crane, I suspected this morning when you were answering the judges questions, but your reaction now confirmed that suspicion. You had no idea that Neera is my daughter."
Crane's anxiety turned to stunned relief and he looked down into the young face before turning back to the Republic president. "No, sir, I didn't. I didn't ask Neera for any background any more than I gave her any of mine."
"Not that I suspect it would have mattered that much," Kocerin said with a smile.
"No, sir, although at first, I was tempted to turn around and walk out the door that first moment."
"But you didn't and for that I thank you. My daughter is very precious to me, as is my father."
"How is your father, President Kocerin?"
"He is doing really well, thanks to you," the president replied. He took the cup Kroshna gave him. The bodyguard handed a cup to Crane, who accepted it gratefully. To his amusement, the American held the cup under his nose for a moment before taking a taste. Kocerin continued, "He wanted to meet you while you were here. I suspect the smell of the coffee will bring him in shortly."
Crane smiled. "I can understand. It's very good."
Kocerin returned the smile. "Now do you understand my dilemma?"
"Sir, I'm afraid that I don't understand anymore than I did before."
"I owe you a great deal, Captain, but I have limits to my power, whether you believe that or not. My daughter seems to think I can simply give the word and you will step blithely back to your submarine without any repercussions to me or my administration."
A nod indicated the American's understanding. "You have to do your duty, sir," Crane said quietly. "I can ask nothing of you, beyond what you can realistically do."
Kocerin had seen several emotions pass over the man's face, not the least of which was hope, but he saw the American will them all away. The president was impressed, but it didn't change the situation in the least. "I could ask for a promise that you would never return to my country," he ventured.
"Are you offering me a deal, sir?" Crane asked and then shook his head. "President Kocerin, as much as I would like to promise anything to get out of that . . . uh, prison," he began, glancing quickly at the girl still in his lap. "Such a promise isn't mine to give. I have been sworn to defend the Constitution of the United States and to protect my country from any threat. If I was ordered to return, I would be duty bound to do so."
"I realize that, Captain, which I somehow expected you to say," Kocerin said. He still couldn't see any mutually satisfying solution to the situation. They sat and drank their coffee in companionable silence until Neera broke the silence.
"May I still call you Andjen?" she asked. She was still sitting in his lap. "And I want Kroshna to take these off you," she added, with a frown.
Crane laughed softly, but it had a slightly bitter edge, which Kocerin knew his daughter didn't notice. "Yes, Neera, you may call me Andjen or Lee, whichever you prefer."
"And would you tell Papa the Christmas story you told me?"
"Which one?" he asked.
"The one about the grinch," she said.
Crane looked at Kocerin with a questioning look. The president simply said, "I can assume that is some American legend or tale?"
"A children's book that has become very famous, sir. A poem that I retold Neera one night when she had trouble sleeping. I'm afraid that I don't know the poem by heart."
"Be my guest, Commander. The least I can do is spend time enjoying your company for a few hours."
Crane looked grateful and like Scheherazade, Kocerin suspected that the American would stretch out and enjoy the moments as long as he feasibly could. He stroked his mustache and then settled back to hear the story.