A Matter of Time

 

 

 

Seaman Kowalski

CPO Francis Sharkey, COB of SSRN Seaview

 

 

Chapter 14

 

 

Everyone gaped at him for a moment, including the boat builders who had known Zorro was there. 

“You are . . . real?” Nelson asked, very much taken aback.  Then he seemed to shake himself out of his amazement.  He studied the masked man carefully. 

“Indeed,” responded Zorro with a reassuring smile.  “And you give the same reaction your captain did when we met.  “You are Admiral Nelson, are you not?  Captain Crane gave a most complete description.”

“Yes, I am.  But Lee, where is he?”

Zorro frowned.  “Possibly in great danger, Admiral.  He was in his boat diving near Santa Rosa Island when this very unusual storm hit.”

Nelson blanched.  “No!”

“He did not make it back to harbor before the storm was upon us,” Zorro elaborated.  I was here to ask Seńor Costa to take his boat out to search.”

“Our submarine….”  Here Nelson paused to see if he had lost the supposedly, but apparently, very real fictional character. 

Shaking his head, Zorro only said, “If your Seaview can find him faster, that is all the better.”  He paused and then added.  “He told me all about you and his vessel when we first met.”

Nelson pulled a small box from the inside of his jacket, then he gazed at the still gaping fishermen.

Zorro understood immediately what Nelson planned on doing. “I will explain something to them, Admiral.  You do what you need to do.”

Nelson nodded and spoke into the device.  Lee had told him about such communication devices but still it was a bit of a shock when Zorro heard a different voice speaking from it.

After the exchange, Nelson looked back up at the black clad man.  “Would you like to accompany us, seńor?” he asked, knowing that Zorro would not be overly frightened of the small, discreet motor they would use on the return to the submarine.

Without hesitation, Zorro answered, “Yes!”

 

 

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

 

 

Lee sat on the beach, just beyond the high tide, gazing out at the still boiling waves.  He felt the bruises from the buffeting on his ribs; indeed, he felt bruised all over.  The small craft, sturdily built as it had been, just hadn’t been able to withstand the fury of this storm.  After the impact with the rock had stove in the side, Lee had leaped clear and swum ashore.   Right now, in the growing light of the clearing sky, he could see nothing of his little boat.  Apparently he had been lucky, the boat had been sucked back into the ocean.  Diego had been right.  He should have waited a day or two.

Only the idea that he had the resources to build another sailboat offered him any solace at all.  That is if he got off this rock, he thought morosely.   He got up and began to limp toward the interior, figuring he would be stuck here for the night at least.  With surety, Diego would have Luis out searching for him, but it wasn’t that long before sunset and it would be highly dangerous for anyone to be out during the night.  He growled an expletive as he stumbled and fell.  The sand would not allow him to walk easily and his bum leg shot messages of pain up and down his side.  Without the cane to help him, he wouldn’t be able to easily get off the beach.  Two steps got him to a rock where he rested and looked back out to sea.  

The sun was low and the western sky was a burnished gold reflecting on the remaining clouds.  Lee began scanning the ocean to the south and east.  The wind was rapidly dying and along with it, the waves’ choppiness.  Despite the heat of the day, it would become cold during the night, especially since he had nothing on but his cut-off swimming pants.   The sand would be warm for a while, and then he would just do the best he could.  Studying the island terrain, Crane decided that he had better work his way toward the shrubs before it got too late.  He checked the ocean one last time and was shocked to see a flashing wink of light to the southeast.  A reflection on something?   If so, it would be a metallic object.  What would be metallic and on the ocean during this time?

Unable to believe what he saw, Lee continued to stare.  He saw the reflection again and again as the sun slowly sank.  When it came again after the sun had set, he found that he had been holding his breath.  It was not just a reflection against something man made and it wasn’t something like a search party with a mirror.  This was a man-made light and it wasn’t a torch or lantern, he was sure of it.  Then what?    Hope flared and almost closed his throat.  What else?   Could the Seaview have made it?  Was that what he was seeing?   He continued watching.  Again—another one.   He mentally counted between the flashes.   Another one.   Waiting, then another one.  It was on a cycle that was machine precise. 

Painfully, Lee made his way up the top of a large boulder.  He was sweating profusely by the time he made it and the light was fading rapidly, but still he scanned the area of the manifestation and was rewarded with a dark, indistinct shape barely illuminated against the flashing light.  This was not an industrial society here in Mexican California.  Agrarian to the hilt, they hadn’t even discovered gold yet.  There were no real machines.  Pulleys and winches served to augment muscle.   So if that was a machine out there, something making that light appear in precise intervals, it could only mean one thing!   Seaview!  It had to be!   Half falling, half sliding, Lee made it back down to the tide line.  He stumbled and then straightened up. 

Crane looked around with a desperate eye.  He had nothing to start a rescue fire with.  There was no mirror to reflect the light and signal with, and even if he had one there was no light.   He didn’t have his boat; he didn’t have his timepiece anymore.   They wouldn’t have any notion that he would be on a non-inhabited island, and so wouldn’t be looking.   He growled his frustration between clenched jaws.  By the time daylight came again, they could be gone, having decided that he wasn’t around this place and time.   There was only one thing he could even consider doing, as foolhardy as it seemed.    

With increasing hope, Lee focused on the distant object and swam into the now more sedate surf.  His strokes were sure and powerful, and he began swimming out, further and further from shore.  Lee judged the sub to be about three quarters of a mile distant, maybe a bit more, but he was determined to do it.  He had been working his muscles, had been diving at depths that insured the strengthening of his lungs and chest.   His strokes were smooth, even as excitement increased the adrenalin that increased the power of his swimming.  He could do it; he would do it.   He had to do it or stay stranded forever.

Stroke, stroke, his mind chanted.  Get there; keep going.  Further, keep going; keep the rhythm.   The admiral had come and it was up to Lee now to reach the boat.   He felt his lungs expanding and contracting; his muscles were strong.   He felt something brush against his leg, but couldn’t determine what it was.  A shark?   No, he wouldn’t think about that.  He wasn’t in a dark wetsuit that seemed to attract them.  Of course, a small part of his mind reminded him, it was dark, period.   It was too late to think about that now.  Either it was or it wasn’t.  If the former, he was shark kibble.  If not, a curious seal or otter or dolphin was just investigating him.  He had seen all of these mammals in his dives and they had been curious, especially the otters and dolphins. 

His lungs were beginning to labor to suck in enough air.  Keep going, Lee continued to tell himself mentally.  It was almost his mantra.   There was a stitch in his side, but still he continued to swim.  The thing that had touched him was gone.  There had been no further disturbance.   He continued, not knowing how far he had gone, only that he still had farther to go.   When Lee thought he had gone the distance, he paused long enough, treading water to scan ahead of him.  He sucked in air and tried to calm his heaving chest.  The light flashed again, a bit more starboard, brighter, he thought.  With a deep breath, Lee began swimming again.    It was getting much harder to pull up the energy; he was swimming more slowly.  It was mechanical by now, one arm ahead of the other.  No thought, just one arm ahead of the other.  He continued this way for another seeming eon.

Lee stopped again, panting.  A wave slapped him in the face.  He couldn’t see the light anymore.  He couldn’t see anything in the darkness.  It was all he could do to stay above water in the more choppy, cooler current.  A little more . . . Kowalski, can’t you pick me up on your scope?   If he could just reach the side of the sub, he could create enough noise for someone to get curious.   He began to swim again, but his arms were leaden.  His legs were numb.  It had been a good try….   

Crane thought he heard something grinding when his head was underwater, but he was too busy trying to stay afloat to think about it.   Just stay afloat.  Rest; regain breath.  Rest….

 

 

                             

Flying Sub

 

 

“Mr. Morton!” Kowalski called from his sonar station. 

“Do you have something?” Morton asked, his anxiety level threatening his usual even-keeled equanimity.  The exec rushed over to the sonar screen.  Admiral Starke, gazing out of the observation windows, turned to watch.

“I’m not sure, sir.  I have been picking up a variety of ocean life, mostly sea mammals, but there’s one I’m getting now that’s different.”

“A boat?” Chip asked.

“No sir, but it’s on the surface.  It’s been pretty precise since I started getting it, but slow, extremely slow.  It’s even slower now, almost at a stop not quite a mile starboard.”

“What direction?”

With his eyes still glued to the sonar screen, Kowalski answered.  “Been coming directly toward us.  From that island that the admiral asked us to check out.”

Chip sucked in a horrified breath.  “How far is the island from our position?”

“About a mile and three quarters, Mr. Morton.”

Chief Sharkey was at Kowalski’s other shoulder.  “Open the hatch to the Flying Sub,” Morton ordered him.  “I’m taking her out now!”

“Sir?”   Sharkey looked puzzled, but he turned to do the XO’s bidding.

Everyone else looked at the commander in bewilderment as well, except Admiral Starke, whose face had turned white in shock.   “Kowalski, how fast would you say that object was traveling when you first noticed it?” Chip asked tersely.  “About the speed of a good swimmer?”   He didn’t wait for an answer.  As soon as Sharkey had the hatch part way open, Chip was climbing down. 

“You want me to come, too, sir?” the chief asked, still puzzled. 

“Yes, I might need your help.”  The hatch closed almost before the last syllable was uttered. 

Kowalski continued to stare after the two men, even as the communicator came to life.  A swimmer, he wondered.  Then it dawned on him.  “Oh, Lord,” he murmured.  “Please let him get there quick.”

 

Morton was in the seat, had the throat mike around his neck and was flipping switches almost in one motion.   He had not even buckled himself in when he called out, “Begin launch sequence . . . Now!”  Before the electro-magnetic arm had fully extended, he called out, “Launch!”

The little craft shot out from under the belly of the submarine and toward the object in question.  Chip didn’t take her above the surface; he could get there more quickly below the waves for the short distance he had to cover.  “Get a fix on it, Chief,” he ordered. 

“Aye, sir.”

“Distance.”

“875 yards and closing fast,” Sharkey quickly barked out. 

Morton knew he couldn’t get more speed from the little craft, but he tried and heard the engines whine as the machine sped up the tiniest fraction.   “Let me know when we’re right under the swimmer.”

“Swimmer, sir.  Who . . . oh,” he ended in a tiny voice.  “You think it’s the skipper.”

“Who else would be crazy enough to swim toward a flashing light in this time?” 

“500 yards, Mr. Morton.”

Morton nodded.  Seaview, follow as quickly as you can and get Doc to the bridge,” he ordered over the communicator.  He ignored the response.   “Chief?”

“200 yards, 175 yards.”  A slight pause.  “100 yards.  Skipper’s not moving, sir.”  Sharkey lunged forward as though not believing what he was seeing.  “Sinking!”  Then he said, “We’re right under him!  Take her up slow!”

“Don’t have time for cautious slow, just slow enough to keep him from sliding off,” Morton returned abruptly even as he worked the controls and eased the Flying Sub toward the surface.  He cringed at the slight thump he heard, held his breath as he continued to rise toward the surface.  “Get ready to open the top hatch, Chief!”  Then the craft was on the top of the waves.

Sharkey opened up the top hatch so fast, the water sluiced inside.  Chip was right behind him.  In the dark it was impossible to make any kind of identification other than that this was a swimmer, but as the body began to slide back into the ocean, Sharkey grabbed an arm.  Chip squeezed past him and onto the top of the Flying Sub.  He grabbed Lee’s other arm and pulled him closer to the hatch where the chief could get a better grip.  In the light of the interior lights, Chip made out dark curls.  It had to be Lee!  But the body was so limp; so deathly limp.  “Let’s get him inside, then we can work on him!” 

Sharkey got a good grip on the swimmer and began to descend back into the Flying Sub.  Chip guided from the hatch only releasing the inert form when he saw Sharkey firmly on the deck with both hands free to hold Lee.  He quickly climbed down, closing the hatch behind him.  It was Lee! 

“It’s the skipper, sir,” said the chief in an awed tone as he studied the man lying on the deck.  There was no movement.

“But he’s not breathing,” Chip said as he jumped to the deck.  “Turn him over and start first aid.  I’ll get the oxygen.”  He rushed toward a nearby cabinet, so very afraid that their rescue had been too late.

Sharkey shook himself out of his stupor and began the training he knew well enough to do in his sleep.  With the skipper on his side, he slapped him on the back. Crane began coughing and retching the seawater he had swallowed when he had been unable to swim anymore.  He continued gagging and bringing up seawater for several more minutes, while the two men supported him. 

Chip supported his friend; indeed held him tightly as though Lee might disappear on him again.  Did he think this day might never come?  Yes, he had.  He had despaired that his captain, his comrade in arms, his friend—was lost forever.  Even as Lee gasped in air, choking out the last of the water in his lungs, Chip shoved the oxygen canister away with his foot.  “You’re safe, Lee,” Chip said softly, kneeling by his commander’s side, still hanging on to him.  “You’re safe.”    

Crane finally took a shuddering breath and weakly tried to push himself upright.  Chip helped him and let Lee lean against him.  He’s back!  Thank God, he’s back!   The seawater had soaked his uniform, but for once, Chip didn’t mind in the least; it only made the rescue more real.  Lee shuddered, whether from his near drowning or from cold, Chip couldn’t tell.  “Chief, get a blanket!” 

“Aye, sir.”

Lee rubbed his eyes, pulled away slightly and then looked into the concerned, relieved and increasingly elated face of his exec and friend.  “I . . . I was . . . right.  Seaview.  It was Seaview.   He coughed again and then smiled weakly. 

Chip nodded, unable to trust himself to speak at the moment.  Then he did something that would have surprised anyone who didn’t know him well.  He wrapped his arms around Lee in a fierce bear hug.   “Damn, you’re a sight for sore eyes, Lee,” he said fervently, only loud enough for Lee to hear.   He had dreamed of his friend often since Lee’s disappearance.  Most of the time they were dreams of futility, nightmares, in reality.  Chip prayed that this was not a dream. 

Crane didn’t say a thing for a moment, only returning the heartfelt greeting Chip had given him—hanging on to the friend he didn’t think he’d ever see again.  Finally, Lee pulled away.  “Look . . . who’s talking.”  He looked around and saw Sharkey, standing with a blanket in his hand, gaping at his long lost captain.   “That for me?  Hope so.  I’m cold.”

“Oh, yes, sir.”  Sharkey handed him the blanket, which Lee promptly wrapped around him.   It was only then that the trio noticed the noise of frantic voices on the communicator.   “I guess I’d better get that,” Sharkey said.

“I guess you’d better, Chief,” Lee said, gazing, almost in rapture around the craft he thought never to see again.  Then his eyes shifted to the observation port where he saw the approach of the Seaview.

“Tell them that the mission was successful and that we’ll be back on board in a few minutes,” Chip said joyfully. 

For his part, Lee was mesmerized at the sight of the Seaview’s bow that loomed larger and larger in the view port of the Flying Sub.  Finally the sub stopped about fifteen yards in front of them.   He could see movement through the observation windows and felt his throat constrict with joy.   “I knew she was beautiful, but never realized just how beautiful she was until now,” he murmured.  

Chip followed his gaze even as cheers erupted over the radio.   “Shall we go home, Lee?”

“Yes, please, Chip….”

 

 

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