I'll Be Home for Christmas--
by Sue Kite
December 24th, 0500 hours, Seoul standard time
Nelson awoke from his slight doze to the insistent buzzing of his personal phone that lay by his side. He had been extremely irritated when told to go to his room and get some sleep an hour or so after midnight without any kind of news. The president said that some things were pending. Pending? What the hell did that mean, Harry wondered? But he wasn’t going to question. He had trusted the president for the past five years; he wasn’t going to stop now. So he went to his room to rest. Sleep? That was a joke. It was only the fact that he was so bone weary that he had even dozed off.
He groped for the phone and put it to his ear. "Nelson."
"Harry, get a hold of your exec and have him meet Crane at the Kimpo Airport," the voice on the other end came. "Private gate 26."
It still felt like a dream. "Mr. President?"
"You awake, Harry? Tell Morton to get to the airport before the newsies do. I suspect that Crane’s not going to be amused to be released into the custody of the press."
"How did you do it, sir?"
"Later, Harry. I am tired and I want to get someplace where I can get some uninterrupted sleep—namely your boat. Make that call and let’s get the hell out of here."
"Yes, sir," he said even as the connected was terminated.
It still seemed like a dream.
December 24th, 0505 Seoul standard time
"Mr. Morton," Sparks called from the radio shack. "Call for you, sir."
Chip straightened up slowly, trying to coddle his sore back muscles a bit. "Who from?" he asked. He was only in the control room at this unholy hour because he hadn’t been able to sleep. Doing the charting work for the next mission was only a diversion, but it wasn’t a good one. He had calculated the last coordinates at least four times.
"The admiral, sir," came the prompt answer. "He sounds like he’s in a hurry, sir."
Morton nodded and headed the short distance to where Sparks was on duty. The lieutenant handed him the headset and sat back. "Yes, sir?"
"Chip, get to the Kimpo Airport on the double. You’re meeting him at gate 26, private landing area."
"Admiral?" Chip began.
"And have the OOD make ready for the president and me to come aboard within the hour. Nelson out."
"But Admiral…." But the call had been terminated abruptly. Sounded like the admiral was tired as well as in a hurry. He and the president were coming back aboard immediately. And he, who, at the Kimpo Airport? Stunned insight brought him fully aware. There was only one ‘he’ that Chip could think of. Lee! But the admiral hadn’t come right out and said it. Was that fatigue or the possibility that he thought someone might be listening? And could he be sure the admiral was talking about Lee? Who else? Still….
Rojas was on duty, due to be relieved in an hour. Well, that wouldn’t happen exactly on time, not with the president coming back on board. "Mr. Rojas!"
"Yes, Mr. Morton?"
"Make ready for the arrival of the president and Admiral Nelson within the hour, Miguel."
The lieutenant’s eyes widened, but he didn’t question. "Aye, sir."
"I’m going into Seoul—to the airport. I should be back in a couple of hours."
"Admiral’s orders." Morton felt excitement growing, but tried to curb it as best he could. Sleep was totally gone now. Rojas turned and began issuing orders.
"Mr. Morton?" Sparks asked near his elbow.
"Are you going to the airport for the skipper?"
Chip had always been amazed at Sparks’ powers of perception. He seemed to have a built-in radar. "Sparks, the admiral was in such a hurry or was afraid of a security leak that he didn’t say. I can only assume so. But don’t say anything until I can confirm it. I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up only to dash them."
"I understand, sir. I’ll be waiting for word."
Chip nodded. "Put in a call for a cab, please. I’m going to get my jacket and cover and I’ll be right back."
"Aye, sir. It will be waiting by the time you get to the end of the dock. Would you like someone to accompany you?"
This time Chip shook his head. If it was Lee, he would rather do it by himself.
The trip to the airport seemed interminable as even this early there was already traffic. Apparently Christmas Eve, even in a largely non-Christian country was still a factor. However, Chip didn’t know how long the trip was supposed to take, so he had no way to judge. He couldn’t help but wish he could have taken the Flying Sub and shortened the distance that anxiety, narrow roads, traffic and weather seemed to be making longer. The wind was bitingly cold. Thankfully there was no snow, but in his experience, it would probably have been warmer had there been some.
Finally they were there and he was dropped off at the terminal. An extra twenty guaranteed that the man would remain for at least an hour. If it were Lee coming in soon, neither of them would want to stay. That would be even more likely if there was a press presence. As he entered the terminal, Chip saw that it was reasonably quiet and there didn’t seem to be more than typical travelers. He breathed a sigh of relief at that. The last thing he wanted to do was deal with reporters. The news of the trial had come out about the time the summit had begun and some of the men on liberty had mentioned being asked questions, but why Lee’s release would be so quickly pounced on was anyone’s guess. Typical newsman’s nose for a story, he guessed. A quick check at a ticket counter told him where the gates for the private jets were and he strode hurriedly down the concourse.
It was even quieter on this concourse than in the terminal. The numbers above the doors were in Korean and English and Chip quickly found gate twenty-six. The window showed that dawn was near. Already, he could see several small private jets and airplanes, but none were near his gate. Chip began pacing, wishing something would happen soon.
"Sir," a soft, heavily accented voice came from behind him and Chip started.
Turning he found himself facing a diminutive, dark-haired young woman. "Yes?" he asked, tempering his growing anxiety.
"You are waiting for the jet from the People’s Republic?"
"Yes, do you know when it’s supposed to arrive?" he asked.
"It is approaching and will be landing shortly after the sun rises," she replied calmly and she consulted her watch. "Probably fifteen minutes. I believe it was asked that someone meet the passenger on the tarmac. If you are that person, I can show you where you need to wait."
"Please and yes, Admiral Nelson asked me to come."
She bowed and walked toward the gate door, putting a code into an access pad. The door opened and they walked through, the cold hitting like a slap on the face. Ribbons of snow lay on the distant hillsides, accentuating the chill of the air here on the dark concrete.
"Here you will be safe and you will be able to meet your American captain." She gazed up into his eyes and smiled. "I know he will be happy to see one of his countrymen again."
"Yes," he said hoarsely, feeling the anxiety welling up again with the casual confirmation.
"Because you are in an area that could be unsafe, I am obligated to remain with you until the jet lands."
"That’s okay," Chip said casually, even as he scanned the increasingly brighter skies.
December 24th, 0640 hours, Seoul standard time
"Commander Crane," a soft voice intruded into his restful sleep.
There were no dreams, unless the jet was a dream. Lee opened his eyes and saw the comfortable surrounding, then he saw Kroshna. His puzzlement grew. "You were at the President’s residence," he murmured in English and at Kroshna’s puzzled look reverted to the language of the Republic.
"Yes, and I am now on the President’s private jet. The auxiliary one," Kroshna said with a smile.
"Why?" Lee asked, still feeling a bit of stupor from a deep sleep he hadn’t enjoyed for over three weeks.
Kroshna smiled even more broadly. "Do you not know a release when you see it?"
"Release?" Then it fully dawned on him. "I’m being released? I’m free?" he asked, then looked at the jingling chains that held his hands and feet bound, frowning. "But how?"
"President Kocerin in his gratitude to you and his feeling of good-will, pardoned you. He wished me to give you a greeting from him and his daughter." He paused dramatically. "Merry Christmas." He motioned the other guard out of the seat next to Crane and then he sat down. "I will take off the restraints when we arrive in Seoul," he said, noting Lee’s appraisal of the hated chains. "There is supposed to be someone from your submarine awaiting your arrival."
"How soon?" Lee asked, his head swimming. It was almost too much to take in. A miracle had happened. It was the only explanation.
"We are approximately thirty minutes out. I can only offer you basic amenities to clean up for your meeting with your crewmates."
"That’s fine, thank you," Crane said eagerly.
Kroshna motioned to the guard who handed him a key. The bodyguard took off the ankle chains and then showed Lee a head that was not much bigger than his in his cabin on Seaview but luxurious compared to his previous two plus weeks accommodation. There was a razor and shaving cream and Lee took care of the almost one week’s growth of beard. There was nothing he could do about the length of his hair, which was long enough to hide the tops of his ears. A new toothbrush was put to quick use and he finished off by washing his face as best he could with his cuffs on.
The man who gazed back at him in the mirror was a bit thinner than when he had left for The People’s Republic, a bit older, a bit more melancholy. Then he recalled Kroshna’s words and grinned. The age and melancholy melted away. He was free—well, almost free. But he was going home. The Gray Lady—home. Suddenly he laughed and the man in the mirror laughed with him. Euphoric wonder bubbled inside and he had to work hard to contain it. Never had he had a present like this—even when he was a child. It was almost more than he could bear. He had hoped, but never dreamed it would really happen.
Taking control of his emotions, Lee Crane finished cleaning up and left the head. Kroshna motioned him back in the seat, neglecting to reattach the manacles to his ankles. The sun had just risen and spots of residual snow glistened brightly on the hills outside the city. The lights of the airport came into view and Lee watched eagerly, like any child would, leaning forward in front of the bodyguard.
He had never flown into Seoul, but it could have been Timbuktu for all he cared. The pilot circled the airport and Lee saw the long runways, the terminal and neighboring roads and buildings. The jet approached its designated runway and Lee saw the ground rush upward toward them. Then the bump, whine and screech of brakes and the little jet coasted toward the terminal. Again, Crane had to contain his excitement.
Finally the jet came to a stop at the end of a small concourse and Kroshna undid his seatbelt and stood up. Lee did the same. They moved toward the outer door where the other guard undid the latch and pulled the door open. Bright light made him blink, but still Lee sucked in the cold air of freedom, reveling in it.
"I will not see you again, most likely," Kroshna said and Lee reluctantly pulled his eyes from the sight outside of the doorway. "But I wish to thank you for saving the little one and her grandfather. The president’s family is very precious to me. Miss Neera said she believed her father would indeed find a way to let you go home and she was right. Please realize that this is going to be difficult for President Kocerin, but he wanted to do this as well."
"Thank you," Lee said huskily, his realization of what the Republic president had done hitting him as well. "Please give all of them my thanks and regards."
"As I said, Miss Neera believed that you would be able to go home and she wanted you to have something to remember her." Kroshna handed him a tin foil and string ornament. In shock, Lee realized that it was the ornament he had hidden the microfilm in. Had she known? Had they known? Coincidence, but now it gave him conflicting emotions. Still he thanked Kroshna and put the ornament into his pocket.
"It is time, Captain Crane," Kroshna said. He had the key and placed it into the right cuff, then the left. He caught the chain as it fell from Lee’s wrists.
"Good luck, Captain," Kroshna said. "I will accompany you to the bottom of the steps and then you should see the crewman you are meeting."
Slowly, then more quickly, Lee descended the steps, then he looked up and saw Chip coming from the shadows. Chip’s grin had to match his own. Soon Chip’s arms had embraced him in a bear hug that threatened the breath in his lungs.
"Oh, thank God," Chip murmured as Lee reciprocated the embrace. For several heartbeats the two men remained locked in their friendship, their joy and rejoicing.
Feeling his eyes smart in unchecked emotion, Lee blinked and worked to regain control. Finally, he pulled away slightly. "I figured it would be you," he said, his voice cracking a bit.
"The admiral didn’t say much, was either too anxious, or too much in a hurry to do more than tell me to come to the airport."
"Where is he?" Lee asked.
"Back on the boat by now, I suspect. With the president," Chip replied. "By the way, the admiral hinted that the press might be on to this, so let’s get the hell out of Dodge."
With little problem, the two men made their way down the concourse and to the cab. Lee had received several looks at his disheveled appearance, but he couldn’t worry about it. The trip to the boat would have been too long if it had been only five minutes, but it was longer. Chip began plying him with questions, but Lee was suddenly reticent to speak of what had happened in The People’s Republic. Chip seemed to sense that and only spoke of what the men had planned for their Christmas celebrations. Lee laughed at the rendition of Sharkey’s and Riley’s antics and felt warm in his impending family reunion. Family…. What more could a man want—only his family and that was what the men were.
They arrived at the dock where the Seaview was resting quietly. Several crewmen were on guard and snapped to attention when the cab pulled up. When he stepped out with Chip, their jaws dropped. "Skipper!" they chorused, their grins wreathing their faces, ‘attention’ forgotten.
Lee couldn’t help it, he grinned back. "It’s good to be back," he responded, clapping them each on the shoulder.
When he actually stepped aboard the boat, he was formally piped aboard. Despite his appearance, the men awaited him as though he was in dress blues at an official function. The admiral embraced him and Lee again had a hard time containing his emotions.
Later, after he had showered, changed into his uniform and been to a Christmas service in the mess hall, he thought about what had happened. It was still hard to believe he was on the boat. He had walked through every part of Seaview, opened every door, even visited in the crew’s quarters with the men who had been off watch. As the sub headed out into the Pacific Ocean, he had stood for over an hour on the ‘front porch’ watching as they slipped through the ocean. It had mesmerized him, calmed him and almost seduced him. During that time, he had heard the comforting noises of the conn, but no one had done more than bring him a fresh cup of coffee.
Now, late at night, still pumped in his freedom, he was in the mess with another fresh cup of coffee. Lee pulled out the ornament, which he had placed in his uniform pocket when he had changed, and looked at it, straightening the bent wings of the tin foil angel. Inside was the information for which he had been sent to The People’s Republic. He had paid a great price for this triviality, but not as high as he could have paid. Now came the decision—to turn it over or not. Somehow, it wasn’t a real decision to him anymore. Somehow, if he did turn it over to ONI it would cheapen the gift he had been given. It would also cheapen the sacrifice he knew President Kocerin had made in his behalf.
The president told him of the deal that had been made and Lee knew that he was done with ONI. Not that he was entirely sorry. As far as the microfilm was concerned, he knew what was in it. He had seen the shipyard where the sub was being built. If they couldn’t believe his word, then that was too bad. Somehow Lee suspected the intelligence community knew pretty much everything, too. He pulled the tinfoil apart and was surprised to see that there was no microchip. Why that sly old dog, Lee thought. Kocerin had put two and two together and figured it out. Had figured it out and not used it against him. Or Kroshna had. Either way, he was grateful.
Lee finished fixing the little ornament and approached the tree.
"What have you got there, Lee?" Admiral Nelson asked, watching him.
"An ornament that Neera and I made up in the cabin. I’m going to put it on the tree. It seems right." He fixed the ornament and hung it on the tree. Then he watched it sparkle. "Merry Christmas, Neera," he said softly, glancing at the clock on the wall. Midnight. "Merry Christmas, Nirhan Kocerin. Merry Christmas, Nicoli and Kroshna." Who would have thought, he wondered? Who would have dreamed there would be such wonders in a country that had been feared and hated for so long?
"Amen," came a familiar voice behind him. The president.
"Amen," Lee echoed. "Merry Christmas, Mr. President."