Spirit of the Brown Bear

(Torar Angiyok Aklark)

 

 

 

 

Chapter 6

 

 

Almost three weeks after the admiral’s disappearance, Crane finally felt he had the Flying Sub ready.  He rubbed tired eyes and then kneaded sore muscles in his back.  They had arrived at the Port of Anchorage only a day and a half before and while he wanted to head to the airport before they had docked, he knew how close he was to having the small submersible ready and how invaluable it would be.  To assuage his impatience, he had left Sharkey to do some of the final adjustments and had gone various government offices in Anchorage, demanding some kind—any kind, of search and rescue report or action.  The only item of interest that came through during those tense days of waiting was a report that one of the presenters at the conference the admiral was supposed to attend had been arrested in connection with the downing of the admiral’s plane.  And that had been on a local news channel.  Maria Machetanz.    She would be the first contact he would look up when he flew into Fairbanks.  

After a day of being stonewalled, the captain came back in a temper that would rival the admiral’s in his worst mood.  The only people who weren’t either frightened or impressed by his moods were Doc and Chip, and Lee tried his best to avoid both of them.  For the most part he succeeded with Doc.  He wasn’t quite as successful with Chip. 

He only had one more minor adjustment to make and then he could take the Flying Sub out for a test flight—a test flight to Fairbanks.   Crane felt relief that he could also finally go to the scene of the crash and do some looking of his own.  It was an action that he felt was long overdue.  Just then the intercom came to life.  “Captain Crane,” Sparks called out.  “Report to the radio shack.” 

The captain jerked up from his final adjustment.  “Finish this up, Chief,” he said after a moment’s hesitation.  “When I get back, we’ll take her out.”

“Yes, sir,” Sharkey replied, also glad to be able to do something positive.

“Oh, and lay in a flight plan to Fairbanks,” Crane added. 

“Aye, aye, sir.”

It only took a few minutes to get to the radio shack, but later Crane would see it as a moment that became frozen in time.  “Yes, Sparks?” he asked the young man. 

“I just got this, sir,” Sparks said, his voice almost a whisper.

Crane took the piece of paper and scanned it. Then he read it again.  ‘Several agencies have come to the same conclusion following extensive investigations.’  Extensive, my deep six, Lee thought savagely.  ‘We regret to inform you that Admiral Harriman Nelson has been officially declared dead.  Seaview will immediately return to Santa Barbara where a memorial and graveside service will be held in three days.’  They don’t waste time, do they, the vultures?   ‘Following that, the Institute board of directors will consider future projects and assignments.’  

Crane stood stock still for several minutes, his face a blank mask, but his mind in turmoil.  How could they give up so easily?  He took a deep breath and picked up the mike.  “Now hear this.  This is the captain speaking.  Admiral Nelson has been officially declared dead.  Seaview will be returning to Santa Barbara for services.  Prepare for immediate departure.  That is all.”

Almost immediately, Chip, who had the conn, was at his shoulder.  “Lee?”

Crane put the mike back in its cradle and turned to his executive officer.  “You’ll take her back home, Commander,” he said woodenly. 

“And you?” Chip reached out to lay a hand on his CO’s arm, but didn’t quite touch him.  In his friend’s present frame of mind, he didn’t want his gesture shrugged off. 

“Me?” Crane asked, his eyes scanning the men gathered around the radio shack before turning back to his exec.  He favored Chip with his full attention now, something he hadn’t done for the past couple of weeks.  “Mister Morton, you have the conn and the boat.  Consider yourself the captain of the Seaview until further notice.”  He glanced again at the men who were now staring at him in shocked silence, before addressing Chip again.  “But I do expect full use of the Flying Sub,” he said with a wan smile.

“Lee,” Chip tried again. 

“I’ll be in my cabin gathering a few things.”  Crane nodded and was gone. 

Morton also stood in shocked silence.  Finally he turned to the men nearby and snapped, “As you were.”  Everyone hustled back to his respective duties.  “Lay in a course for the Institute,” he ordered.  He walked to the chart table and perused the charts spread three deep.  Most of the top layer consisted of the specifications of the admiral’s new propulsion system. Lee had been as one obsessed, trying to figure out the admiral’s notes of his modifications of the new propulsion system.  While Lee Crane was savvy in almost all aspects of the boat, he couldn’t match the admiral’s genius for coming up with new ideas.  Nor was it easy for him to translate many of Nelson’s ideas from paper to practical application, although he had become better at figuring out Nelson’s shorthand.  

The admiral had wanted to include Lee and Chip in his work on the new unit, especially considering the captain’s role in getting him the last component, but there had been simply too many other projects, missions, and similar distractions in the past several months.  It was always that way and now Lee was taking out a jury-rigged Flying Sub on what was most likely a wild goose chase.   And Chip dearly wished he could go with him. 

When the giant sub was underway, he turned the conn over to Lt. Bannon and headed to Lee’s cabin.  As he expected, the captain was almost ready to leave.  “Lee, you have time to talk for a few minutes?”

Lee sighed and set down his duffle bag.  It couldn’t have contained more than one or two changes of clothes and a few personal items.  “Sure, Chip.  I guess I owe you that much.”

Chip nodded.  “Yeah, we go back too far not to.”

“And been through too much,” Crane added.  He sat down heavily on his bunk, but said nothing for a few moments.  

“Okay, Lee, talk to me.  Not as captain, but as friend to friend.”

Again, Lee sighed.  “A couple of weeks ago I said something to Chief Sharkey that I firmly believed.  I told him that there was something inside of me that told me that the admiral was alive.”  He looked deeply into Chip’s eyes.  “I fully believed that; hung on to it.  It became my mantra through these past few weeks, especially when I began seeing myself as I know others have been seeing me.” 

Morton knew exactly what Lee was talking about.  The scuttlebutt that the captain was possibly cracking up had surfaced once or twice, even if most of the men wished they had that dedicated, almost obsessive drive for something other than what was being reported to them.  “And now?”  Chip’s voice was soft.  He sat down on the only chair in the room and faced his friend.  This time his hand made contact, touching Lee’s arm in a gesture that spoke volumes of the friendship and respect he had for the man across from him. 

“Chip, that announcement was so final.  I still want to believe that little personal declaration of mine, but it’s so hard.  The evidence screams that I’m a hopeless dreamer; that I can’t face reality or the truth.”  He took a deep breath.  “Right now I can’t stay on this boat.  I can’t pretend its business as usual.”

Chip smiled wanly.  “You weren’t doing a heck of a good job of it before, Lee.”

“You know that mission….”

“Yeah, I know,” Chip said quickly.  The mission for ONI that had nearly killed him; where ONI had nearly killed him. 

“Everyone helped me on that one, but it was the admiral who really pulled me through it.”  Crane paused.  “Like my own father would have, had he been around.”  He got up and paced a few minutes before sitting down again.  “I feel the same way I did when my dad died.  And yet I can’t really believe it’s true.” 

“What if it is, Lee?” Chip asked, hating that he was even saying it.  He had been on the sub longer than Lee and while he felt close to Nelson and thought he had understood the man as well as anyone, he had seen how the relationship between Lee and the admiral had developed beyond that of a commander and his subordinate.  And now Lee had finally verbalized it.  If Nelson were truly dead, how would Lee Crane deal with it?

“I don’t know, Chip.  All I do know is that I have to go and see the area for myself.” 

“I understand, Lee, but don’t take too long.”  Chip stood up and gently clapped his hand on his friend’s shoulder.  “The Gray Lady and the men need you.”

Lee nodded.  “I’ll keep you apprised.” 

“Good, and take one of the men,” Chip suggested.  “In fact, I don’t think it would hurt to take one of the search and rescue members.”

“Porter.”

“Good man.”   He knew he was bantering now.  “Take Chief Sharkey, too.” 

“No,” Crane said.  “He wants to go, but I think he should be here for the men.

“You’re right, of course,” Chip conceded.  “RJ will be good to have along.”   He couldn’t think of anything else to say for a moment.  Then he gazed deeply into Lee’s amber hued hazel eyes.  “Lee, you know more than anything I want you to succeed.” 

“Yeah, I know, Chip.”

“But if you don’t . . . find him, Lee, come back.”

“I will.”

There was nothing else to be said.  Chip informed Porter of his mission and within the hour, the Flying Sub was launched.  Soon she was in the air, winging north over Anchorage and heading toward Fairbanks. 

 

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

 

Aklark, Utaq and several others had been out on the ocean in the umiaks and he had harpooned a large beluga.  Several other umiaks had converged to tow the carcass onto the shore and the messy but satisfying job of butchering the whale began. 

But for a few minutes, Aklark could only stare at the dead beast.  When he was taking aim out in the boat, he had almost lost his opportunity.  For a split second, he had seen in his mind a harpooned dart, the kind used for tagging.  It was shot from a torpedo tube and that in a submarine.  In his brief vision he had felt very comfortable in the craft and had sensed a kind of loss when the memory had dissipated. 

Coming back to the present, Aklark felt amazement as he stood watching the entire camp take part in the butchering that he had even retained the slight vignette from his hidden past.  Aklark felt excitement that perhaps he might begin to remember.  With that happy thought, he gathered his man’s knife and joined the chanting, happy throng.  First the blubber was peeled away, cut in large blocks and then stacked.  Much would be rendered for later use in cooking and in the oil lamps, but some would be cut into smaller strips for snacking on later.  Aklark had not been able to bring himself to eat any, although out of politeness he had tried a tiny bite once.  A large pot was being readied to make a stew that everyone would enjoy for dinner, heated with hoarded driftwood. 

The skeleton was being exposed as Aklark helped cut away the tongue.  Suddenly he paused as another memory slid from the forgotten past.  It was the inside of a whale.  He saw others in scuba gear coming toward him.  A diving bell, another person—a woman.  They were trapped in the belly of a whale.  Someone was calling out to him.  What were they calling him—admiral?  He was an admiral?  But in the belly of a whale!  It was incredible! 

“Aklark!” a voice called to him and the dream shut off as quickly as it had come, disappearing like smoke into the wispy tendrils of his mind.  But like the other one, he retained the vision after he had come back to the present.

Utaq was staring at him, calling his name.  “Aklark, what is wrong?”  Others were staring at him as well.  

“I . . . I remembered something,” he said, his voice shaky.  His blue eyes held excitement. 

“You said something,” Utaq began.  “About being inside a whale.”

Aklark didn’t know he had said anything aloud.  “I saw it,” he said.  “There was a diving bell.  I was in it and a huge whale swallowed it.  There was a submarine and divers.  But what was most incredible was actually being inside a whale.”  Some of his words were of necessity in English, but the other Eskimos stared in amazement, obviously able to understand enough of what he had said. 

“That is truly amazing,” Utaq admitted.  “Do you remember anything else?”

Aklark shook his head.  “No, but when I see something now, it doesn’t leave me like when I wake up from a dream.”

The others were silent in their wonder.  Then they resumed their work, wondering about this powerful emissary from the land of spirits. 

Before he returned to the carcass, Aklark asked Utaq, “In my memory I was called ‘admiral.’

“But no name?”

“No name.”  Again Aklark wondered just how much his companion might know about him.  But Utaq said nothing else and the white man resumed his work. 

That night he dreamed two dreams that merged into one horrifying vision.  They were about two beings—a vengeful whale and a vengeful ghost.  The whale had almost destroyed the huge submarine and the ghost had almost destroyed a—man!  Someone on the submarine with him.  Someone whose amber tinted brown eyes held trust in their depths that changed to astonishment and then fear when he saw the gun.  Where did the gun come from?   Aklark realized that it was his gun.  It was in his hand.  He was pointing it at the one who trusted him.   It spoke and the fear in the hazel eyes turned to pain.   “No!  Lee, watch out!” 

Aklark jerked up in a sweat that had nothing to do with the proximity of bodies in the tent they were sharing that night during a brief storm.  Amoroq, Utaq’s brother, and Utaq were by his side in an instant. 

“What is it?” Kotik, Amoroq’s wife joined them, her baby on her hip.  Her dark eyes were large with fear. 

“Who is Lee?” Utaq asked.

“Someone I work with—a friend,” he replied.  But if he was a friend, then why would he shoot him?  Was Lee dead now?   Dead by his own hand?  Was that why he was here?  “On the submarine I saw before.” 

“But why were you shouting to this Lee?” Amoroq asked. 

“Something terrible was happening,” Aklark answered evasively.  Was he here because he had killed someone? 

“Can you remember what it was?” Kotik asked.  The baby took the opportunity to nurse and the only sounds were that of suckling and the slight wind rustling the skin tent covering.

The ghost, Aklark thought.  What did the ghost have to do with this?  What had he done?  “No, only that something terrible was happening,” he replied, left only with questions and a deep sense of guilt. 

 

 

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