I'll Be Home for Christmas--
by Sue Kite
December 9th, 1300 hours, EST
Admiral William Johnson looked at the top secret decoded message and uttered several luckily indistinct oaths. He sighed and then punched his intercom. "Becky?"
"Yes, Admiral," came the quick reply.
"Call Harriman Nelson for me. Make sure itís on the secure line."
"Yes, sir," Becky said.
This was when he wished he hadnít quit smoking. Johnson drummed his fingers, read the report again and then reached for his coffee mug before he realized he had finished it just before the message came. He looked up at the clock on the wall and sighed. It would probably take a while to get Nelson; the man was so busy. It was simply a busy time of year. And that was something else. What the hell had possessed him to even send someone over there this time of year? What the hell was making him think this way? Since when did a season, month, day or an event have anything to do with intelligence gathering. Johnson sighed. He was getting to be a sentimental old fool. But he couldnít help it.
When the word came that confirmation of CIA information had to be acquired ASAP, he had sent in his closest available agent. Seaview was working on a research mission north of the Philippines, planting a device to study the effects of tsunamis. So it had been very easy to call on Captain Crane. Lee Crane, who had skirted death way too many timesónot just with ONI but with the Instituteís own dangerous assignments. This one should have been very easy, though. Go in and get the intell before the summit. Damn them and their dirty stinking politics! All this just because of that blasted summit! The one the press was now calling the Christmas summit.
He was startled out of his guilty reverie when the intercom buzzed and Becky said, "Admiral Nelson on the line, sir."
"That was quick," he muttered under his breath. Then he took a deep breath to speak to Nelson. The man was going to be livid. Understatement, William, old boy, he thought morosely. Nelson would probably reach through that blasted vid-phone and strangle him. "Put him on," was all he told his secretary.
It was an almost instantaneous voice connection. "Bill? Whatís up? And it canít be good if youíre calling me personally."
"Of course it is, Bill," Nelson snapped. "What do you take me for?" The video followed the acid remark. No, Harry didnít look at all happy.
In fact, Nelson had the look of having been up all night. He had known the timetable just as Johnson had. What the hell could have kept Lee from the rendezvous? Johnsonís inner wrangling continued even as he addressed the admiral. "Sorry, had to ask. And no, Harry, itís not good." No use pussyfooting around this one. "He was captured by the Peopleís Guard and taken to Zinitch Prison at about mid-day, Republic time."
There was a sharp intake of breath, then several explosive expletives. Finally, "Admiral . . . Bill, you know and I know that this was simply a ploy by an overzealous cabinet member to have something dirty for the president to hold over the Republicís president at that summit."
"No, Harry, we needed that information. We needed verification of what had been leaked to us last month. We have to know if the Republic is working on that top-secret sub project."
"Need to know? Youíre clutching at straws, Bill! Besides, I thought that was supposed to be one of the main topics of discussion at that Christmas Eve summit. Couldnít all this verification crap have waited until our side and the Republicís side met? And what the hell difference does it make anyway? We built Seaview as more than a research vehicle and we knew it and they knew it. Hell, the whole world probably knows it." Nelson rubbed his hand through his ginger-colored hair and shook his head.
Again, Johnson sighed, heavily enough that Nelson picked it up on the other end.
"Sorry, Bill, but I canít believe but what Iím right about the timing of this"
"You are probably right, dammit," Johnson said softly, starting to rub his hand over his eyes. There was a lot that Harry could have said right thenóthings about him being too quick to act on directives without asking questions, too trusting, throwing lives into the fire, so on and so forth.
"Anything . . . any strings you can pull?"
There was a lot of held back emotion in those six hopeful words. "No, Harry, I donít think so. They have him dead on this time, but you know I will take all measures . . . Iíll do anything I can to get Lee out of there if there is any possible way."
"I know, and I also know that nothing short of a miracle will get him out of this one." There was a pause. "But try, please. Try, Bill."
Johnson felt his eyes smarting. Yeah, he knew about Zinitch Prison. How itís reputed to be a one-way tripÖ. He blinked fiercely and reined in his emotions. All the times he had given Crane assignments; all the times he had sweat bullets; all the times his part-time operative had pulled them offÖ. Now, the inevitable had happened. He had had a bad feeling from the beginningÖ. "Iím sorry, Harry. So close to the holidays. Iím sorry."
"Iíll talk to you later," Nelson said, not unkindly, and closed the connection.
December 9th, 0800, HST.
Nelson briefly held his head in his hands, then rubbing his eyes fiercely, he got up. No use to delay the inevitable. Morton, hell, all of them were awaiting word. They didnít know where their skipper was, they didnít know exactly what he was doing, but they knew it was another ONI errand and they always worried and fretted.
He almost bumped into Chip when he left his cabin. "Chip."
"Admiral. Any word?" Worry lines furrowed his execís forehead.
The same litany. "Yes. Come into my cabin, please."
"Not good," Chip said, but did as he was told.
"Sir?" But Chip Morton again did as he was told.
"I just got a call from Admiral Johnson."
Nelson pulled a cigarette out from a half finished pack and lit it. "YeahÖ." And he proceeded to tell his exec what he had been told, sparse though it was.
"The men deserve to know," was Mortonís only verbal response. However, the stricken look on his face, the anger that flashed in his sapphire blue eyes, showed the turmoil and anguish the young exec was feeling.
"They deserve to know, but they also canít say anything to anyone off boat. Despite the virtual impossibility of anyone being able to do anything, we have to let ONI, the State Department and anyone else who has some clout to try and get Lee out."
"And what can we do, Admiral?" Morton asked pointedly.
Harry leaned back and sucked in a deep breath, unmindful of the cigarette in is hand. "Iíll try to get a hold of my contacts," was all he said. Not that he felt they had a snowballís chance in hell, but heíd try, all the way up to the president.
"Thank you, sir," Morton said woodenly. Nelson knew that Chip understood the situation as well as he did. "Do you want me to tell the men?"
Nelson shook his head. "No, I think I should."
"Aye, sir. Anything else?"
"No, Chip." Again, he paused. "I guess all we can do is hope . . . and pray." Silently, Morton got up and left. Nelson didnít even hear the door shut behind him.
December 9th 1400 hours, EST
Secretary of State Vince Walland pinched the bridge of his nose hard with fingers that would rather have been playing racquetball at the moment. "What a hell of a situation," he muttered, as he looked over the secret dispatch he received about the time that he had received the call from the Office of Naval Intelligence. Johnson was on the line with him, but didnít say anything in response to his comment. "Donít your agents know the dangers when they go in? Donít they know the risks?" Walland snapped angrily.
"Of course they do, Mr. Walland, but they also have reasonable expectations that they have the backing of their government and the backing they need to get the job done." There was a throat clearing sound and then Johnson continued, "And that what they are doing is indeed the only viable way to do it," the admiral said.
The man sounded as though he had just sent his own grandson into the Peopleís Republic. Not good for the head of an intelligence organization. When you lost your ruthlessness, your objectivityÖ. "It was the only viable way to get the information!" he barked. "We needed to know what they have and what they are doing. We needed that before the summit! And you needed to send your best man inósomeone who could go in, know what he was looking at, get it and get the hell out! What the hell was Crane doing in there, playing cards with the head of the Peopleís Guard?"
"I donít have that information, sir. I only know that he missed his two rendezvous and it was another day and a half before we got the word that he had been taken."
"So he was AWOL for over two days and no one knows where." At the admiralís affirmative, he continued, his voice terse. "Then he is stew meat, Admiral. Our operatives, whether Navy, CIA or anyone else, know what the risks are if they are caught. We canít acknowledge them or their missions. You know that."
"He is also the captain of SeaviewÖ."
"So? Makes it easier to point fingers, Admiral. We didnít send him in, Nelson must haveÖ." Even as he said it, Walland knew he had gone too far. Even if the statement hadnít been so crass, Harriman Nelson had too many friends in too many high places, including the Oval Office. One of them obviously was Admiral William Johnson. Walland cleared his throat.
There was a dangerous, but short pause on the other line. Then, "So the State Department isnít even going to protest the imprisonment without trial of a U.S. citizen?" Johnson asked evenly, his voice holding a very hard edge. "So Crane is going to be left to dangle?"
"Iím sorry, Admiral. That was callous of me. No, I will make inquiries, see if I can find out if heís being treated with some degree of civility, then get back to you." He took a deep breath, needing to say something that might make clear his position without getting back into hot water. "You do know, however, that there is little we can do if they want to try Crane and then execute him as a spy. He was there covertly."
"Yes, I know."
Walland cut the connection and sighed again. Who would he get to call the Republicís diplomatic envoy? He snorted. There was a spy network if he ever saw one. Sure as hell wished he could nail one of Kochinís operatives as easily as the Guard had seemed to catch Crane. Damn him. What the hell was he doing over there? No, he needed to do this himself, Walland supposed. He leaned over, "Nancy, get Kochin at the PR consulate. Tell him itís important, no matter what excuses he gives."
December 9th 1430 hours, EST
Linwood Macon, personal secretary of the President of the United State looked at his message board in dismay. There was a call from Sergei Kochin, the Peopleís Republic envoy, from Admiral Harriman Nelson and from the Secretary of State. That was just the calls he had taken. The president had direct wire and computer links, too. So among the calls, who got the first grab at the president? Eenie meenie miney moÖ. Taking a stab at something that might be slightly pleasant, even though all of the parties had claimed urgency, Macon chose Nelson. The president liked Admiral Nelson. The retired four-star had saved the presidentís butt politically and physically on more than one occasion.
He sent a prayer heavenward and pushed the button that would have him speaking with the president. "Mr. President, do you have time to talk to Admiral Harriman Nelson?" There was a pause as Macon listened. "Yes, sir, I will have the admiral on the line in five minutes."
More button pushing, and within five minutes, Nelson was on the line. Okay, thought Macon, go to it, gentlemen. Hopefully this phone call would net him a wee dram of Nelsonís gift to the president this year, too. Smoothest Scotch that had ever touched his palate, it was.
December 10th 0700 hours, UTC+8
President Nirhan Li Kocerin studied the report with a mixture of irritation and glee. The glee was that he finally had another one of the agents who had been a thorn in his side for the past several years. Commander Lee Crane had about as many lives as a proverbial cat and had been slipperier to catch than that submarine of his. Now he had both. He had Crane, who would eventually die for his crime of spying and anything else he could lay at the Americanís feet, and before the man died, Kocerin would have his secrets.
He stood up behind the massive oak desk and gazed out the window at the rising sun. The light turned the room a warm gold, matching his mood. He was a well-muscled man of almost fifty, above average height for the norm in his country. Kocerin had always had good health, and he worked hard to maintain it as he got older, exercising when his schedule would allow. He was endowed with a great deal of energy as well, allowing him to work long hours and sleep for few. With hands he had been told were more suited to a piano playerís, he toyed with the handlebar mustache that was also a great pride of his. It wasnít huge, but considered elegant by the women citizens of the Republic. His dark eyes watched the skyline of the capital city of Jinzhou as the sun turned it to gold as well. Too bad it wasnít real. He was well aware of the horrific poverty beneath the appearance of vitality and progress.
Kocerin frowned. Because of a variety of reasons, the Republic had not fared well these past few years. Overzealous predecessors had thought the destiny of the Peopleís Republic was to conquer and own the world. Or destroy their enemies by any means. His immediate predecessor had tried several times to launch nuclear attacks on the United States. His failure and the resulting censure had cost him his life.
Idiots! Why couldnít they see that there were other ways to conquer these days? Hadnít they studied the rise and fall of men like Hitler? Now, with the excesses of the past, the failures of war and aggression, the country was almost in a state of economic ruin. Thankfully, he had been able to keep a tight lid on that information, but still, Kocerin was sure that the western nations had a pretty good idea. Negotiation was the only way to deal with the enemy now. Even if to lull them into a false sense of their own superiority.
It would be nice to have the ability to trade with more than those countries in as much or more trouble than the Republic. So this capture, while ultimately satisfying to him, was going to be a sore point when he went to Cheju Island for the summit later in the month. But the man was spying! While the United States, its president and that other thorn in the side, Admiral Harriman Nelson could and would squawk and protest, he had Crane. And they knew it.
Of course, the trial would have to be conducted in a manner so that no one from any of the enemy nations could say anything about torture, coercion or the like. Crane would be tolerably treated, the trial conducted with the proper decorum, with even the American envoy in attendance, if he so desired, and then the sentence of death pronounced, all quite legal. After the furor had died down, the real interrogation would begin.
Besides that, Kocerin had his own questions that he wanted answered. What was Crane doing up there in the mountains all that time? Where had he stayed? This was a case he had every intention of keeping a close eye on, even as he tried to figure out a way to control the damage that Craneís capture and trial would have at the negotiation table.