I'll Be Home for Christmas--
by Sue Kite
December 10th, 2000 UTC+8
Commander Lee Crane, dressed only in a towel wrapped around his waist, looked at the course, grayish prisonerís garb that had been thrust into his hands in distaste. Peering more closely, he noticed that one of the specks of dirt was moving. Vermin. He looked up at the guard who had given him the clothes and said, "Why bother with all the stripping, fumigating and examining if Iím going to get something infested with bugs?" A little of his question was in English, because he didnít know all the words in the Sino-Slavic language.
Suddenly he found himself down on the floor, his diaphragm on fire from the hard blow of the rifle butt, his breath gone. Lee was jerked up by a hand grasping his hair and he gulped in air savagely and made ready to knock the manís teeth out. His fellows with cocked rifles quickly changed his mind and Crane rose to his feet as the man raised the fist still clutching his hair.
"You will only speak when you have been addressed and given permission to speak. Do you understand?"
Lee said nothing for a moment, but backed down when he saw the hard gleam in the guardís eyes. "Do I have permission to speak?" he asked tersely. Two could play this game, he thought, still feeling sick, as well as humiliated, despondent and contrary at the same time.
He had awakened from knockout gas in the back of a military transport vehicle, been violently ill again, and felt totally debilitated by the mother of all headaches. So sick had he been, that he hadnít even felt the chains that bound his hands together until the end of the journey. Then he had been jerked from the transport just as the sun was rising over the eastern hills and half dragged into a prison, which he later realized had to be the notorious Zinitch Prison. He had vaguely remembered hearing about the execution of a British spy here only a few months ago, as well as mass executions of dissidents about a decade ago.
The guard almost growled and then he grinned, nothing humorous, and replied, "Yes, you may speak, prisoner."
"Yeah, I understand."
The guardís eyes glittered with even hotter anger, but then cooled. "The only bugóverminóin here is you." That sentence was in English, a detail that wasnít lost on Crane in the least. The large man reverted back to his native tongue, probably for the benefit of the other guards, Lee later thought. "Get the clothes on unless you wish to sleep nude, because the towel stays with us. You donít need it anymore." With that, he ripped the towel off his prisoner and then laughed. His fellow guards laughed with him.
Fuming, Lee quickly threw on the clothes. The pants were too large in the waist, so he had to hold them up with one hand. They were also too short in the leg, but that was of no consequence. The shirt was a shapeless piece of material that could have been a gunnysack with holes in strategic places for all that it fit him.
"Now, you will come with me. And do not try to do anything. Although we would love to see your change of attitude slowly, if you force us to, we will be happy to change it quickly with a bullet," the guard warned him. Lee said nothing. The guard stepped a pace closer. "You understand that, donít you?"
"Permission to speak?"
The guard growled his irritation and then nodded.
"I understand perfectly and if I stay here long enough to change my attitude for the worse, Iíll remember your promise." It was dangerous, Lee thought, and stupid, as the open-handed blow to the side of his face reinforced, but a bit of defiance was all he had right now. The only thing he had, he thought as he quietly followed the guard down the cold and dank hallway, past barred doors and followed by the other guards with guns pointed toward his back.
The walk seemed interminable, ending in a flight of stairs, then another corridor. Halfway down that corridor they stopped at a small door with no window. The guard unlocked it, and pointed. Crane ducked and entered the dark room even as the door began to shut behind him.
"Your new home, prisoner. Get used to it." Then the door clanged shut with an echoing boom and Crane was left in the dark, his only companion the cold hard floor beneath his bare feet.
With a sigh, Lee rolled the waistband of his pants until they would stay up by themselves and then he began an examination of his cell. Hands outstretched, he encountered the left wall almost immediately. He slowly moved ahead, his fingertips brushing on the wall, coming up short when he barked his shins against a metal frame. It was the bed, he noted, feeling along the edges, running his fingers up the heavy, solid chains that were linked to rings on the wall. Those were set into the wall, held at a level angle by the chains, he catalogued.
Moving around the bed, Crane noted its size, about a foot and a half too short. Not surprised, he continued and found the far wall to be not so far after all, barely past the edge of the so-called bed. He continued to follow the wall around the room, feeling a depression with his toes and backing off slightly. His nose told him the use for that particular spot. Now to the wall that had been to his right when he entered the tiny cell. This time he made it to the door without any other obstacles. That was the extent of his explorations. He felt the walls up and down near the doorway. No switches, not that Crane was expecting any.
The far wall was the same. No windows or openings of any kind. He carefully climbed up on the bunk, a true rack, he decided with a wry twist of his mouth that was not the least like a smile. Reaching above his head, Lee found that the ceiling wasnít more than a foot above the top of his head. Cracker box. He stopped and pondered his next option. There really wasnít any, so he felt all along the top of his bed. No blankets, mattress, nothing but a hard concrete slab. With a sigh, he sat down and drew his knees toward his chest for warmth. It was damnably cold and the clothes, though coarse, werenít holding in much warmth.
His stomach grumbled and Crane licked his dry lips. How long had it been? He had only tasted the soup the day before, not that it would have mattered. The gas has made him so ill that nothing could have stayed on his stomach. They had given him nothing after bringing him in. No wonder he had been light-headed when they had shipped him through the de-whatever it was chamber. That had been cold, too. He felt the walls. They were dank, but not wet. Maybe by morning, he thought. And with that he laid his forehead on his knees and tried to rest.
All that came to him, though, was the memory of the past fifteen or so hours. He had been interrogated, the Republic goon alternately shouting in his face or snarling out threats. However for some reason, the only physical force was a couple of times when an interrogator slapped him or shoved him back in his chair. Still and all, he had only repeated his name, rank and serial number ad nauseum. Almost drove himself crazy with it along with his interrogators. He wondered why they didnít dose him with some truth serum. Maybe that was coming. Such wonderful thoughts, he decided, werenít going to help him get to sleep.
There was one thing that puzzled him, though. They were accusing him of killing a citizen. Other than Neera, Nicoli and his contacts, he hadnít been near anyone. There was no way he had shot anyone in the head like one of them had accused him of doing. But then, it would just be a bit more to nail his coffin with. Still, Lee wondered who might be dead that he was being accused of killing? He didnít think theyíd make up that part.
Again, Crane tried to shut down his thoughts and concentrate on how to get out of this mess. Problem was, he couldnít. With everything he had seen while here, Lee couldnít figure any way possible. No wonder this place had gotten the reputation it had. Finally, though, he began dozing, only to wake up shivering when he leaned against the cold wall. By morning, the dozing-shivering cycle was alternated by dreams of glasses of cold, delicious water, iced tea, and coffee. The dream coffee steamed and warmed, not only his throat and stomach, but also his hands and face as he held it close to him.
December 11, 0700 hours, UTC+8
Crane woke fully, stiff and sore, as well as horribly cold, to the sound of a key scraping in the keyhole of his cell door. He had no idea what time it was, as he was in a downstairs, windowless cell. Somehow, though, he got the impression that it must be morning. Above him he heard slight, indistinct noises that he took to be activity upstairs. He had to get up and move around, but first he was going to see what visitors this new day brought. Instead of a visitor, though, it brought a container through a little door at the bottom of the big one.
Crane immediately peered in while there was still a little light from the rations door, and deduced that it was water. It was hard to keep from snatching it up and gulping the precious liquid down, but he resisted. The door was closed and it was back to almost pitch darkness. Carefully, Lee felt for the container and wrapped his hands around it. Instead of quaffing it, he first stuck his finger down into the container and then licked it. Water! Plain, wonderful, beautiful water! Again, Lee almost started gulping it down, but again, he restrained himself and pondered. He took a sip. There wasnít a taste that indicated any additives, but stillÖ.
If there were something in the water, heíd find out. Somehow, Crane didnít think that they would want him dead just yet. There was political hay to be made of captured spies and the like. If the water was laced with some kind of truth serum, there would be nothing he could do about it. He picked up the small jug and began drinking. It slid down his throat so smoothly. Nectar wouldnít have been tastier; some of the Admiralís Scotch would never be this pleasant on the tongue, palate and on down the throat.
Lee drank about half of it before setting it down again. Just in case, if they didnít bring him anymore today, heíd need to save some of it. It was hard, though. He kept reaching out and touching the jug, almost caressing it before he realized what he was doing and forced his hand away from the precious container.
Some time later, he didnít know how long, the rasping of the smaller door heralded a kind of bucket. Again, the brief light told him that this time he had received some kind of food. When the light was gone, Crane put the container of water next to the wall in the corner nearest the door and examined the bucket. It was only slightly warm to the touch, so he stuck a finger in as he had done with the water. No utensils inside and the stuff in the bucket was somewhat gloppy, like the oatmeal he had fixed for Neera and Nicoli. He hadnít been that interested in it, not ever having been fond of oatmeal, cream of wheat or any of that boyhood stuff. Now he wished for that concoction more than anything. At least it had had a semi-appetizing smell. This stuff? He held the bucket to his nose and simply couldnít figure out what it was. At the same time his stomach told him to put up or shut up and he took a taste of the stuff.
The best he could figure it was some kind of rice pudding, gruel or something similar. The bite he ate stayed on his stomach and he used two fingers to scoop up more, careful to not let any drop to the floor. He ate several handfuls and then he stopped and leaned against the hard rim of the rack to let it digest. The way it was growling, his stomach wasnít amused, but at least the food was staying down and hopefully would give him a bit of energy. For what, he wasnít sure. After a while, hunger drove him to eat a little more. The lumpiness of his breakfast made him glad he couldnít see it. Lee didnít want to know what was in his meal. As long as it sustained him, heíd have to be grateful. When he finished, Lee exercised as much as the dark and the tiny space in his cell allowed him. After stretching, bending, doing push-ups and sit-ups, he ran in place. While he rested, he scratched the beard that had been almost three days in the making, then he scratched places where the vermin were beginning to make in-roads.
After that, in an effort to take his mind from his cellmates, Lee tried to out guess the Peopleís Republic leadership, wondering why he hadnít been hauled out and interrogated some more. When the futility of that became apparent, he thought about Christmas, remembering some of the stuff he had told Neera. He wondered what she was doing right now. Had she gotten in trouble with her father? And Nicolióhow was the old man doing? With a sigh, Lee slid into thoughts of Christmases with his grandparents when he was a little boy. It was pleasant and almost took his mind from his surroundings.
December 10th, 1900 hours, HST
Harriman Nelson walked into the control room of his submarine and felt all eyes on him. The men had been told the bare bones facts yesterday, not that there was much else to tell them. Since that last announcement there had been little news. The president could only promise that diplomatic channels would be used and inquiries made, but beyond that? No, there were no promises of anything, much less getting Lee Crane out of Jinzhou and the Peopleís Republic. There had been the implication that the president would bring up the situation at the summit in twelve days if nothing had been accomplished in the meantime. Patterson had followed him all the way in with eyes that made him think of a pet from his youth. Chip waited anxiously, the mike in his hand.
Harry shook his head. "Nothing new. No promises, no additional information." Both men knew that Nelson had been on the horn almost the entirety of the past twenty-four hours.
Morton nodded and looked around the room. "As you were, men," he said softly.
"Admiral?" It was Chief Sharkey.
"Isnít there anything we can do? Anything at all? I meanÖ."
"No, Chief. Captain Crane knew the risks when he went in." Nelson took a deep breath. "Where he is now, we canít do a thing. Itís up to the diplomats and heads of state."
Sharkey snorted and then shook his head sorrowfully. The man sometimes wore his feelings on his sleeve, but this time, Nelson couldnít fault him.
Harry wished he could do somethingóanything to get Lee back. The summit would be the only chance, he was afraid; that is, if the Peopleís National Court didnít convene, sentence and carry out the sentence before the next twelve days. No, they probably wouldnít do that. The court would most likely convene, and may even get the sentence before December 22nd, but an execution? No, that wasnít likely. From what he had heard, the Peopleís Republic needed this summit more than anyone else involved did. They were in dire straights insofar as economics were concerned. Shortages of just about everything due to embargoes and bad weather.
He had also heard that the new President, elected only a scant six months ago, wasnít the power hungry despot that his two immediate predecessors were. Not that it was a great deal of consolation. Harry had heard that Nirhan Kocerin was still a tough as nails, truly patriotic and dedicated to making the Peopleís Republic a viable voice on the planet. That wasnít a bad thing either, provided that the voice was aimed at peaceful coexistence. Then he began wondering about the summitóthe Christmas Summit they were calling it. How many countries were involved? Many of the Pacific Rim countries. He wondered how it would be received if he was there. Of course, Seaview wouldnít be allowed within a hundred miles since she was nuclear armed and fueled. But he and a couple of the crew? Indeed, there was nothing wrong with that, he thought. And Seaview would be harbored near Seoul, which was beyond the limitation, in case she was needed.
Harry looked up and saw Chip gazing at him curiously. His thoughts must have been very apparent; or at least his emotions had been. "Just a notion. Iíll fill you in later, Chip, if there is anything to fill in." And he strode toward the radio shack. Bending down, he murmured, "Secure line to the White House, Sparks. And then pipe it through to my cabin."
"Aye, aye, sir."
"And when Iím through with that one, get the Institute for me. Angie preferably."
"Aye, sir," Sparks said, his eyes showing curiosity, but not asking anything. The man knew when the OOM had an idea or a plan, Harry thought in slight amusement and he was usually right.
With a purposeful stride, Nelson climbed up the stairs and headed to his cabin. By the time he got there, Sparks had been able to scare up someone at the White House. Now came the hard part.