The brilliant underwater lights streamed from the nose of the submarine, Seaview, illuminating the ocean floor and the huge rock formation from which teams of divers were collecting ore samples.
Admiral Harriman Nelson, standing in the Observation Nose had a good view of the proceedings. He and his submarine had been commissioned by the U.S. Government to collect ore samples from the Centurian Mountain Range in the South Pacific. Nelson had been reluctant to take on such an undertaking that he assumed could be done by any of the fleet of subs in the U.S. Navy. But, because Seaview happened to be in the area, having just completed a mission and on their way home, the Powers that Be had thought it was a good opportunity to collect a few ore samples on the way back.
"Trying to save a few bucks, I suppose," Nelson thought out loud.
"Excuse me, Sir, did you say something?" asked Chip Morton, the Executive Officer, who had just entered the Nose to make his report.
Nelson chuckled, "Nothing important, Chip. How is the "mining expedition" going?"
"Everything is proceeding well, Sir," replied Chip. "The Skipper says it's a nice day for a swim and the men are not finding it too difficult to obtain the samples. They should be finished in about ten minutes."
"Very well, Chip, carry on."
Chip walked back to the Control Room, smiling to himself. He remembered how quickly the Skipper, Captain Lee Crane had volunteered himself to assist with the ore sampling. Lee loved to dive and took any opportunity he could to strap on the scuba tanks.
Morton settled himself once more at the chart table sifting through the papers, rechecking the course that had been plotted for their return trip to Santa Barbara.
"Mr. Morton!" yelled Kowalski, who was manning sonar.
Chip quickly ran over to the sonar station, recognizing the urgency in Kowalski's voice.
"What is it, Kowalski?"
"Undersea quake sir!"
Chip grabbed the microphone. "Battlestations! Battlestations!" He ran over to the radio shack. "Sparks, recall the divers. Emergency!"
The divers stopped their work at the sound of the emergency claxon coming from Seaview and then they heard Sparks recalling them. They dropped their tools and quickly started heading back but it was too late.
The quake hit with a vengeance, tossing the submarine around like a child's bath toy. The mountain rumbled in reply and the entire side of the rocky formation slid down, creating an avalanche of rock and mud. Most of the divers were able to swim clear but it was too late for two of the men who had been working under an outcropping far down at the base of the mountain. As the boulders continued to tumble down, the two men were encased in a watery tomb of rock.
Nelson watched in horror from his vantagepoint in the Observation Nose. As the Seaview righted itself and the turbulence created by the quake subsided, the crew manned their stations once more and checked for damage.
"Patterson to Seaview, Patterson to Seaview."
Nelson ran to the Radio Shack and indicated for Sparks to patch him through to Patterson.
"Nelson here. Go ahead, Patterson."
There was a slight hesitation in Patterson's voice. "Admiral, sir, we have lost contact with the Skipper and Chief Sharkey. They were working down the bottom and . . . ."
"I saw what happened, Patterson. We are sending out more divers with rescue equipment. Those of you already out there are to return and get fresh tanks."
Nelson turned to Chip who was already working on sending out the rescue team. Chip looked up at Nelson and his unspoken question was soon answered. "I know, Chip. There isn't much time." Or much hope. The whole side of that mountain came down on Lee and Sharkey.
It was dark, so dark that Crane couldn't even tell if his eyes were open or not. There had been no time to escape; the whole mountain just fell on him and Sharkey. He remembered the force of the water that had thrown the two men against the side of the rock. He knew he was hurt. His left hand had smashed against the wall and he gritted his teeth in pain. With his one good hand he fumbled for his flashlight and turned it on.
The beam of light barely penetrated the darkness but it was enough for him to see that he was trapped in a small enclosure barely ten feet square. Overhead, the rocky outcropping that they had been working under had protected them from the wall of rock that had rained down on them. But the rock had piled up all around them creating a small cave. As he continued to shine the light around, he spotted a dark shape in the corner. Sharkey!
Crane swam over to the Chief and with his uninjured hand, checked to see if he was still alive. He was relieved to see that Sharkey was still breathing but there was a large gash on the Chief's forehead that was spreading crimson drops into the water. Crane pulled the unconscious man next to him and checked his regulator and then checked his own. They both had barely twenty minutes of air left. Crane knew that there was little hope that the men of Seaview would be able to find them in time.
Nelson stood at the Observation Nose of the Seaview, engrossed in the rescue operation that was taking place a few hundred yards in front of him. He glanced at his watch for the third time in as many minutes. Twenty minutes of air left. He knew his men were working as hard as they could to free the Skipper and the Chief. But there was no way of telling how much of the rock formation had fallen on them. Nelson also knew that chances were that if they did find them, they would probably be already dead; killed by the rockslide.
Chip Morton came and stood beside the Admiral, joining him in his vigil. They both knew there was nothing else to do but wait. Sparks had relayed the signal and piped it through the intercom so that the whole boat could hear the voices of the divers as they worked frantically to clear the rocks that were piled up in the area that the Captain and Sharkey had been working. They knew that as soon as the divers found something they would hear.
Nelson slammed his fist on the bulkhead, "Ore samples! They risked their lives for ore samples!"
Chip remained silent. There wasn't much he could say.
The two men stood together, staring out the window, each praying in his own way that Crane and Sharkey would somehow come out of this but each knowing deep down that it wasn't likely.
Chip turned to the Admiral and said, "Sir... I..."
Nelson, seeing the concern in the Exec's eyes, answered before Chip could finish, "Go ahead Mr Morton. Suit up and join the rescue party. Lee needs you now. I'll handle things here."
Crane lay there for a while, unsure if he had been asleep or not. It was no longer dark; everything was white, very white. He felt no pain, in fact he felt surprisingly well. He looked down at his hand that had been injured. Nothing. No blood, nothing broken. He looked down at himself and was surprised to see he was dressed in a white turtleneck and white pants. White. Everything is white. Must be some kind of hospital. Can't be the Sickbay, though..
"Are we dead, Skipper?"
Crane jumped at the sound of Sharkey's voice. He quickly turned his head to see the Chief lying in a bed a few feet away, staring at him with a puzzled look in his eyes.
Crane leapt out of bed and hurried over to Sharkey. "Chief, are you all right?"
Sharkey managed to sit up in bed, carefully checking himself for injuries. Crane noticed with amazement that the large gash on the Chief's forehead was gone. He, too, was dressed in white.
Sharkey still seemed a bit dazed as his eyes took in the dazzling whiteness of the room and its furnishings. "This must be heaven, right Skipper?"
Crane thought about the possibility for a moment. "I don't know, Chief. I honestly don't know. The last thing I remember is that you and I were trapped underwater. There must have been a quake that sent the whole side of the mountain down on us. The overhanging ledge protected us somewhat but the falling rocks had sealed us in."
"But how did we get here?" Sharkey looked around the white room again. "And just where exactly is here?"
Crane ran his hand through his hair, trying to make sense of the situation. He reached over and gingerly touched the Chief's forehead. "The last time I saw you, Chief, there was a big cut on your forehead, but now . . . . it's gone."
Sharkey reached up and felt his forehead to check for himself. "There's nothing there, Skipper. No pain, nothing."
Crane held up his hand that had been injured. "And my hand was busted up pretty good, Chief, but there's nothing wrong with it now." He flexed his fingers again as if to ensure himself that the hand was indeed, all right.
The two men began to make a more detailed check of their surroundings. They couldn't find any windows or doors. All the walls were white from end to end. The furnishings were sparse; two beds and some equipment that looked like computer consoles but with controls that were very unfamiliar. Despite there being no one else around, both men had the eerie feeling that they were being observed.
Finding no way out and no way of contacting anyone, Crane and Sharkey sat down on their respective beds to contemplate the situation.
YOU HAVE NOTHING TO FEAR!
Both men jumped off their beds at the sound of the voice. They looked around but could not detect anyone else in the room. It was a voice unlike anything they had ever heard. It was like it was floating through the air. A disembodied voice.
"Who are you?" asked Crane.
MY NAME IS DARVOL. I AM A PHYSICIAN.
"How did we get here?" Crane continued, looking around the room trying to detect the source of the voice.
ALL YOUR QUESTIONS WILL BE ANSWERED IN DUE TIME, CAPTAIN CRANE.
Crane answered quickly, "How do you know my name?"
WE HAVE BEEN OBSERVING YOU FOR SOME TIME. YOU AND THE OTHERS ON YOUR VESSEL.
THERE ARE MANY THINGS THAT YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO UNDERSTAND, BUT YOU ARE SAFE HERE.
"Show yourself, then," demanded Crane.
There was a bright glow in the center of the room and two figures materialized, dressed in white robes. Their faces were obscured from view by white visors.
Crane and Sharkey took a few steps backward and stood close together in a position of defense.
One of the figures stepped a bit closer and held his hand up with his palm facing toward Crane and Sharkey.
I AM DARVOL, GENTLEMEN. He indicated the other white robed figure. MAY I INTRODUCE OUR LEADER? YOU MAY ADDRESS HIM AS ARAGON.
The leader stepped forward and bowed his head slightly in greeting to Crane and Sharkey who returned the greeting warily by also bowing their heads.
I SINCERELY HOPE THAT YOU TWO GENTLEMEN ARE COMFORTABLE. OUR PHYSICIAN HAS HEALED YOUR WOUNDS.
Crane and Sharkey looked at each other in wonderment. They were both thinking about what kind of creatures these were that could heal them so quickly.
"We would like to know where we are?" asked Crane guardedly.
YOU ARE ABOARD OUR OWN VESSEL, CAPTAIN. AFTER YOU HAVE RESTED, WE WILL SHOW YOU OUR FACILITIES AND ANSWER ALL YOUR QUESTIONS. MY PHYSICIAN AND I WILL LEAVE YOU FOR NOW AND WILL RETURN SHORTLY.
Before Crane could respond to Aragon's words the two figures disappeared as quickly and as mysteriously as they had appeared only a few minutes before.
Sharkey, somewhat shaken, turned toward Crane. "Oh, man, Skipper. I don't know about you but those two guys give me the creeps."
Crane held up his hand quickly to stop the Chief from continuing. "I have a feeling we are being monitored, Chief, so we had better be careful what we say."
Sharkey nodded in agreement. "Right, Skipper." He looked around the white expanse of the room and sighed. "So what do we do now?"
Crane allowed himself a smile at the exasperated look on the Chief's face. Sharkey was totally frustrated. There were no skylarking crewmembers to sort out, no mechanical problems with the Seaview to fix, nothing that he could see to do to help his Captain.
"What we will do, Chief, is sit back and relax and enjoy the hospitality. If they wanted to harm us then they wouldn't be taking such good care of us, right?"
Sharkey nodded, "If you say so, Skipper, but I would sure like to know what they have in mind. Do you think they will help us find our way back to the Seaview?"
"I think they want us around here for a while, Chief, or else they would have already found a way to take us back to the sub. We will just have to wait and see what happens next." Crane looked over at Sharkey who was lying down on his bed again. "It's up to them to make the next move." As Crane saw Sharkey's eyes close, he too lay down on his bed. The sudden urge to sleep was too much to resist.
Crane was surprised to find that he had fallen asleep again. He had no idea how much time had passed. These people in the white robes had taken their watches along with all their diving equipment. If he and Sharkey were unable to convince Aragon to take them back to Seaview then they were going to have to make it back on their own, somehow.
He rolled over on to his side to see if Sharkey was awake but was shocked to see that the bed next to him was empty. He quickly searched the room with his eyes but there was no sign of Sharkey. He was alone!
"Aragon!" Crane yelled. "I know you can hear me. Answer me!"
YES, CAPTAIN CRANE?
"Where is Chief Sharkey? he asked angrily. "What have you done with him?"
HE IS UNHARMED. HE WILL BE RETURNED TO YOU WHEN WE HAVE FINISHED WITH HIM.
"What do you mean? What are you doing to him?"
WE ARE EXAMINING HIM FURTHER. IT WILL NOT BE MUCH LONGER.
"I want an explanation, Aragon! What do you need him for?" Crane was frustrated at not being able to help Sharkey. He felt helpless and concerned for the Chief's welfare.
WE WILL SPEAK LATER. I WANT YOU TO REST UNTIL THEN. THIS DISCUSSION IS TERMINATED.
"Aragon! Aragon!" Crane's calls were greeted with silence. He sat down on the bed again. Once more he felt sleep overtake him. He tried to fight it but he couldn't. He lay down, struggling to keep his eyes open but soon he drifted into a troubled sleep.
The diving parties were concentrating their rescue efforts on the spot where Crane and Sharkey had last been seen working together. They hoped that the turbulent waters hadn't swept the two men elsewhere. The pile of rocks that had fallen on that area seemed formidable and there was little else to do except to pick the rocks off one by one.
As Nelson continued to watch the rescue operations, his frustration and concern increased with the passing of time. There had been no contact from the Skipper and Sharkey. That meant that either they were buried too deep or their communications equipment was no longer working. Or, they were unconscious or dead. Nelson didn't want to think about the latter. I can't count the number of times the Skipper has gotten himself into difficulty and we have given him up for dead. Let's just hope that this is one of those times.
"Morton to Seaview!"
Nelson quickly grabbed the microphone. "Yes, Chip, what is it?" he asked eagerly.
"We have found one of the drills they were using, Sir. It looks like we are digging in the right spot at least."
"That's good news, Chip," agreed Nelson, knowing that it was possible that the drill could have been swept out of their hands and could have landed far from where they were. "Keep me informed."
"Skipper, wake up." Sharkey shook the Captain's shoulder gently, trying to rouse him.
Crane opened his eyes groggily and was pleased to see Chief Sharkey standing over him, seemingly in one piece. He sat up quickly and tried to clear his thoughts.
"Are you all right, Chief? They didn't hurt you?"
"I'm fine, Skipper. Are you okay?"
"I feel a bit groggy. I seem to be sleeping a lot." He looked up at Sharkey. "What happened to you? Where did they take you?"
Sharkey sat down at the foot of the Captain's bed and rubbed the back of his neck with one hand, trying to think. "I'm not sure, Skipper. I woke up in another white room and there were a bunch of these guys in white robes standing over me. They had some wires or something attached to my head and the wires were connected to some machine. They didn't tell me what they were doing and when I asked what was happening they just ignored me. Then I think I must have fallen asleep again and when I woke up, I was back in here."
"But you're feeling okay?"
"Fine, Skipper." Sharkey looked searchingly at Crane. "But how are we going to get out of here?"
Crane sighed and gave Sharkey a grin. "How about if we just ask them politely to take us back?"
Crane raised his eyes toward the ceiling where the voices seemed to come from. "Aragon!"
YES, CAPTAIN CRANE, WHAT DO YOU WISH?
"We wish to be taken back to our submarine."
I'M SORRY, CAPTAIN, BUT THERE ARE THINGS WE MUST DISCUSS FIRST.
Crane thought for a moment, "Aragon, there are people back on our submarine who will be worried about us. Let me contact them and let them know we are safe."
THERE IS PLENTY OF TIME FOR THAT, CAPTAIN.
"Plenty of time! We have been gone for a long time. They must have searched for us and given up by now!"
DO NOT WORRY. ONLY A SHORT TIME HAS PASSED SINCE THE EARTHQUAKE. WE HAVE ADEQUATE TIME TO DISCUSS THINGS. YOU MUST BOTH COME WITH US NOW.
Before Crane could reply to Aragon's statements, he and Sharkey found themselves standing in a large room filled with machines. It was not unlike the control room on the Seaview, with people manning the various machines but of course everything was white. There were no other colors, only white. Aragon was there standing next to them.
THIS IS OUR CENTRE OF CONTROL FOR OUR VESSEL. I SEE YOU ARE FASCINATED WITH OUR MACHINERY, CAPTAIN CRANE. UNFORTUNATELY, IT WOULD BE IMPOSSIBLE TO EXPLAIN TO YOU HOW OUR MACHINES WORK. YOUR WORLD IS NOT YET READY FOR THESE ADVANCEMENTS.
"I don't understand what you want with us, Aragon. We are thankful to you for saving our lives but all we wish is to be returned to our submarine. Can you do that for us?"
LET ME EXPLAIN SOME THINGS TO YOU, CAPTAIN. WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING, WE TOOK THE OPPORTUNITY TO EXAMINE YOU AND YOUR COMPANION. Aragon saw the surprised look on Crane's face. YES, WHILE YOUR CHIEF WAS SLEEPING WE ALSO TRANSPORTED YOU TO OUR EXAMINING ROOM. WE WISHED TO LEARN AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE ABOUT HOW THE HUMAN BRAIN WORKS. WE REQUIRE THIS INFORMATION BEFORE PROCEEDING TO THE NEXT LEVEL.
"The next level?" asked Crane, still wondering what Aragon was getting at. "You haven't answered my question. Will you return us to the Seaview?"
THERE IS STILL TIME.
Sharkey could no longer stay quiet, "You keep saying there is still time. What are you talking about?"
Crane cautioned Sharkey with a look. "Please explain, Aragon. You must understand that we are worried about our friends on our vessel. They may have given up looking after all this time and will be leaving."
I ASSURE YOU, CAPTAIN, YOUR PEOPLE ARE STILL SEARCHING. YOU HAVE AT LEAST 15 MINUTES OF AIR LEFT IN YOUR OXYGEN SUPPLY.
Crane's mind was reeling. What is this Aragon talking about? We've been in this place for hours. "Aragon, I don't know how long we have been sleeping but when you rescued us we had less than 20 minutes of air left. How can we still have 15 minutes remaining?" Crane hesitated for a moment then added, "You are talking as if we are still trapped under the rocks."
Crane was stunned. He looked over at Sharkey who also seemed to be having a hard time figuring out what Aragon was talking about. "Please explain yourself, Aragon."
OUR CONCEPT OF TIME AND YOURS ARE QUITE DIFFERENT. WE ARE ABLE TO MANIPULATE THINGS IN TIME AND SPACE IN SUCH A WAY THAT YOU WOULD FIND DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND. QUITE SIMPLY, YOU AND THE CHIEF ARE STILL TRAPPED AND INJURED BUT WE HAVE BROUGHT YOU INTO OUR VESSEL FOR A SHORT TIME TO EXAMINE YOU BOTH AND TO MAKE OUR PROPOSAL.
"Go on," continued Crane, trying to make sense from what Aragon was telling him.
YOU SEE, ONLY A FEW OF YOUR EARTH MINUTES HAVE PASSED SINCE THE EARTHQUAKE. YOUR PEOPLE HAVE JUST STARTED SEARCHING FOR YOU. YOU HAVE ABOUT 15 MINUTES OF AIR LEFT TO BREATHE. ONE MINUTE OF YOUR EARTH TIME IS EQUIVALENT TO ONE HOUR OF OUR TIME.
Sharkey couldn't believe what he was hearing. "We are standing right here next to you. How can you say we are still trapped?"
IT IS A DIFFICULT CONCEPT FOR YOU TO UNDERSTAND.
Crane was silent for a few moments trying to digest this information. "The fact of the matter is, Aragon, that our people on the submarine will be trying to rescue us. Can we not inform them that we are safe?"
BUT CAPTAIN, YOU ARE NOT SAFE. NOT YET. YOU ARE STILL TRAPPED, REMEMBER?
Crane could feel his anger building. This Aragon was playing games. He obviously wanted something from them and if he didn't get it, then it looked like he was just going to return them to the place where they were trapped, probably sentencing them to death in the bargain. He doubted if the crew would be able to reach them before their air ran out. "What do you want with us, Aragon?"
COME WITH ME, GENTLEMEN.
Crane and Sharkey followed Aragon as he left the control center and came to a long hallway with doors on both sides. Each door had a window in it and as they came to the first door, Aragon stopped and indicated for them to look through the window.
Looking into the room through the window, Crane and Sharkey could see a lone occupant in a sparsely furnished room. The occupant was standing with its back to them and was wearing long white robes like the others on the vessel. The figure slowly turned around to reveal its lizard-like face.
THIS SPECIMEN COMES FROM ALTUS 4, A WATER PLANET IN A GALAXY MANY OF YOUR LIGHT YEARS FROM HERE.
"Specimen?" With a sickening feeling, Crane was beginning to understand what Aragon was going to propose. "And I suppose you have other specimens behind each door."
WE ARE VERY PLEASED WITH OUR COLLECTION.
Sharkey couldn't contain himself any longer. Before Crane could stop him, he leapt at Aragon, intending to knock him down. Instead, he traveled through the white-robed figure as if he didn't exist, landing hard on the floor.
GENTLEMEN, WE ARE A PEACEFUL RACE. WE DO NOT WISH TO HARM YOU. WE ABHOR VIOLENCE OF ANY KIND.
Sharkey picked himself off the floor and was going to launch another attack when Crane restrained him. "Let me at him, Skipper. I'm not about to get locked up like some zoo specimen!"
"Hold on, Sharkey. Let him finish," Crane gently restrained the irate Chief.
WE WISH ONLY TO INVITE YOU TO JOIN US ON A WONDERFUL JOURNEY. YOU AND MY OTHER GUESTS WILL BE WITNESS TO MANY FASCINATING PEOPLE AND PLACES ON OUR TRAVELS. THIS IS AN UNPARALLELED OPPORTUNITY FOR SUCH AN ADVENTUROUS PERSON AS YOURSELF, CAPTAIN. WE BELIEVE IN FREE WILL. YOU WILL BE ABLE TO MAKE YOUR OWN CHOICE AND WE WILL HONOR THAT CHOICE.
"And if we refuse to come with you?"
THEN WE WILL RETURN YOU FROM WHENCE YOU CAME.
"Meaning we will be trapped under the rocks again."
PRECISELY. BUT I DO HOPE YOU WILL CONSIDER OUR OFFER CAREFULLY. I WILL SPEAK TO YOU AGAIN IN A SHORT WHILE.
Crane and Sharkey suddenly found themselves back in their room with no sign of Aragon.
"Oh, man, Skipper. Do you believe this guy?" Sharkey was livid as well as frustrated. "We have two choices – we either join this guy on his trip through space or we go back to that nice little spot under the rocks where we die when our air runs out?"
Crane nodded, "That about sums it up, Chief."
"Are you going to let this joker get away with this, Skipper?"
"There don't seem to be any other alternatives, Chief." Crane looked over at Sharkey who was pacing the floor. "Any ideas?"
Sharkey shook his head. "We have no weapons, Skipper. No way of getting out of here." He looked around the room. "Can't even break down the door because there isn't one!" He kicked at the bed in frustration.
"Take it easy, Chief. Let's think about this calmly." He put his finger to his lips and pointed towards the ceiling, reminding Sharkey that anything they would say would be overheard.
Sharkey nodded, took a deep, calming breath and sat down on his bed.
Crane came and sat next to him, lowering his voice as he spoke. "You know, Chief, I might just have to go along with their proposal."
"You mean go with these guys? Join their collection?" asked Sharkey in bewilderment, not quite believing that the Skipper would give up without a fight.
Crane smiled at the look on the Chief's face. He pointed to the ceiling again and winked.
Sharkey immediately understood that whatever Crane was saying was for the sake of whoever was listening in on their conversation. Sharkey nodded his head in understanding. He began to feel a surge of hope. The Skipper was up to something.
Chip Morton could feel the strain in his arms as he picked up another chunk of rock and tossed it behind him. He knew that time was running out. The divers would never be able to move enough of the rock in time. There had to be some other way.
Nelson, watching again from the Observation Nose, seemed to be on the same wavelength as Chip. The divers were being careful not to send more rock down on the trapped divers. But it was time now to take more drastic action. Nelson eyed the laser that was mounted on the ceiling just above him. Decision made, he walked over to the chart table and grabbed the microphone.
"Mr. Morton, recall the divers!"
"You heard me, Chip. You and the others are to get away from there now. I'm going to try using the laser to move some of the rock."
"You realize, sir, that ...."
"I know, Chip, I know, but they have less than ten minutes of air left. Moving that rock by hand just isn't going to do it."
Nelson watched as the divers swam quickly back towards the Seaview. He waited until they were out of range of the laser and any rock that may fall. Pulling the laser down from its mount, he aimed it at the section of rock where Crane and Sharkey were buried.
"Hold her steady, Mr. O'Brien," he ordered as he took careful aim.
"Holding steady, Admiral," replied O'Brien who understood that if the Seaview were to drift even slightly the whole mountain could come down from an errant laser shot. The men in the Control Room watched in silent anticipation as Admiral Nelson fired the laser.
Lee Crane knew that Sharkey was counting on him to do something, anything, to get them out of this predicament. He had a plan, or at least the beginning of one but needed more information.
"Before I can make any decisions, I require some more information."
WHAT DID YOU WISH TO ASK?
Crane ran his fingers through his hair as he paced around the room. He had to do some fast thinking. "What happens if time runs out before we make up our minds?"
THEN YOU WILL RUN OUT OF AIR AND DIE.
"Unless we are rescued by our men before that time?"
"What if we agree to come with you and then change our minds?"
YOU WILL NOT HAVE THAT OPTION. IF YOU DECIDE TO COME THEN YOU MUST COME. THERE IS NO TURNING BACK.
Crane decided to play his trump card.
"What if one of us decides to go and the other decides to stay?"
"Aragon, are you still there?"
IT IS NOT POSSIBLE FOR ONE TO GO AND ONE TO STAY.
Crane noticed the hesitation in Aragon's voice. "Why not?"
OUR TECHNOLOGY IS WELL ADVANCED OF YOURS CAPTAIN, BUT WE ARE NOT ABLE TO ADJUST THE TIME CONSTRAINTS TO REMOVE ONLY ONE OF YOU FROM THE ROCK. YOU MUST BOTH COME OR BOTH STAY.
Crane pushed the advantage, "But I wish to go with you and the Chief wishes to stay."
Sharkey had been listening with great interest to the conversation between Aragon and the Skipper. He felt a glimmer of hope. Perhaps there was a way out of this after all.
YOU MUST BOTH MAKE THE SAME DECISION. I WILL LEAVE YOU TO MAKE THE CHOICE TOGETHER. YOU HAVE FIVE MINUTES OF AIR LEFT; FIVE HOURS OF OUR TIME. YOU MUST DECIDE BEFORE THAT TIME IS UP.
Nelson fired the laser repeatedly at the same area. Rocks tumbled down the side of the mountain. He seemed to be making a small dent in the area where they had been digging. He ordered the divers to return to assess the situation. If more rock needed to be removed then he was prepared to keep blasting away. It was too late to be careful now. He glanced at his watch again – five minutes left.
Chip Morton and Patterson were the first to reach the area where Nelson had been directing the laser.
"Admiral, it's working!" Chip's voice showed the first sign of hope since the quake.
The two divers were soon joined by others. The rocks were much easier to remove now and the divers frantically pulled at the boulders searching for any sign of the two men.
Patterson swam around the area, examining the rock formation. "Mr. Morton, look!"
Chip swam over to where Patterson was shining his flashlight. There was a small opening, barely large enough for a hand to reach through. The two men clawed desperately at the opening trying to widen it. They were soon joined by the others as the seconds ticked away. Two minutes left.
Crane had no idea how much time had passed since he had last spoken with Aragon. His ploy had not worked. He had hoped that Aragon would offer them another choice, one that both would accept. And the choice that he had in mind would be for Aragon to return them directly to Seaview. His gaze settled on Chief Sharkey who continued to pace around the room looking the picture of total frustration and misery.
"How are you holding out, Chief?"
"Man, Skipper, I don't know about you but I feel so helpless. This Aragon joker seems to be holding all the cards and no matter what we choose, we lose."
Crane could easily sympathize with Sharkey's feelings. With time running out he began to realize that he would have to make a decision, they both would. But not one of their own free will. Free will, that's what Aragon said. He said that we would be able to make our own choice. He said he believed in free will.
YES, CAPTAIN. HAVE YOU MADE YOUR DECISION?
"Aragon, you told us that you believe in free will. That we are able to make our own choices."
YES, THAT IS OUR WAY. WE WILL NOT FORCE YOU TO CHOOSE. YOU CAN DECIDE FOR YOURSELF.
"Yes, but if I want to go with you and Sharkey wants to stay then one of us is not going to get our own choice. You are forcing one of us to choose something that is not of our own free will."
Crane continued, "I propose, Aragon, that you offer us a third choice. One that will be agreeable to both of us."
I WILL CONSIDER YOUR PROPOSAL, CAPTAIN.
Crane looked over at Sharkey. "He's not answering."
Sharkey had brightened up a little after hearing what the Skipper had proposed to Aragon. "Do you think he will send us back to the Seaview?"
Crane glanced down at his wrist, wishing that he still had his watch. "I don't know, Chief. I only hope he doesn't take too long figuring out what to do."
CAPTAIN CRANE AND CHIEF SHARKEY.
Both men leapt off their beds as the sound of Aragon's voice broke the silence.
"Yes, Aragon. We're listening," replied Crane, suddenly aware of how fast his heart was beating.
I HAVE CONSIDERED YOUR PROPOSAL. WE ARE UNABLE TO RETURN YOU TO YOUR VESSEL. WE MUST RETURN YOU TO THE EXACT SPOT WHERE WE FOUND YOU.
Crane's heart sank, "But then you are not allowing me my choice. I didn't choose to return to the rocks."
ALLOW ME TO FINISH, CAPTAIN. WE HAVE BEEN OBSERVING THE RESCUE EFFORTS OF YOUR PEOPLE. IT SEEMS THEY WILL BE ABLE TO REACH YOU IN TIME. YOU HAVE BARELY ENOUGH AIR LEFT, BUT IT WILL BE ENOUGH.
Crane and Sharkey exchanged looks of surprise and relief.
"Then I choose to go back to where you found us!" Crane knew he was putting his trust in this being, hoping that he was telling the truth.
CHIEF SHARKEY, DO YOU STILL WISH TO CHOOSE TO GO BACK?
Sharkey answered without hesitation, "I sure do!"
THEN, GENTLEMEN, YOU HAVE MADE YOUR CHOICES AND WE WILL HONOR THEM. I REGRET THAT YOU DID NOT CHOOSE TO JOIN US. BUT PERHAPS WE MAY BE ABLE TO RETURN TO YOUR PLANET ANOTHER TIME. WE MAY MEET AGAIN.
"Thank you, Aragon. We appreciate the offer but we prefer to remain here.
TIME HAS RUN OUT GENTLEMEN.
A very relieved Admiral Nelson opened the door to the Sickbay and quietly watched Doc Jamieson as he stood watch over his two sleeping patients.
"How are they, Will?"
"Doing very well, Admiral." Jamieson looked down at Captain Crane and checked the splint on his left hand. "I believe the Skipper has used up another of his many lives."
Nelson chuckled and shook his head, "It's hard to believe that we found them at almost the exact moment that their air had run out. I checked their air tanks personally and there was barely a breath of air left." He glanced over to the bed next to Crane's. Sharkey lay there, his forehead covered with a large white bandage.
"Has Sharkey come around yet?"
"Not yet, but there's no sign of concussion. Both men were suffering from hypothermia. I had to put Lee under to set the bones in his hand. He should be coming out of the anesthetic in about an hour." Doc turned to the Admiral and motioned for him to follow.
Doc led Nelson over to a corner of the Sickbay and lowered his voice. "There is something else, Admiral."
Nelson immediately became concerned. "What is it, Doc?"
"Well, Lee keeps mumbling something about a white room and bright lights. It's probably just a dream he's having while he's coming out of the anesthetic and he . . ."
Nelson raised his eyebrows, "And he what, Jamie?"
"Well, he keeps calling out a name. It sounds like Aragon."
"Yes, something like that."
Nelson clapped Doc on the shoulder, "I wouldn't worry about it, Doc. A lot of patients talk while they are coming out of the anesthetic, don't they?"
"Well, yes, of course, but . . . ." Doc hesitated. "You hear stories about near death experiences. You know, people seeing a bright light and a tunnel and . . ."
"A white room?" interrupted Nelson.
"Precisely. I was just wondering if that is something that might have happened to Lee. When he and Sharkey were found, they were about as close to death as anyone could be and still live."
"Well, Jamie. We will just have to ask him when he wakes up."
Admiral Nelson stood once more in the Observation Nose, watching the waves crash against the windows, marveling in the sight of the sea and the sky as the submarine Seaview glided along the surface of the water. His thoughts were interrupted by a call over the intercom. "Admiral, this is Doc. Could you come to Sickbay please?"
Nelson picked up the microphone from its hook. "I'll be right there, Doc."
As Nelson entered Sickbay he was greeted by the sight of Crane, awake and sitting up in bed.
"Admiral, I have just been listening to a most amazing story," Doc greeted Nelson as he came in the door. Nelson followed Jamieson to Crane's bedside.
"Well, Lee, you are looking much better. How are you feeling?" inquired Nelson.
"I feel fine, Admiral. I was just telling Doc about what happened to Sharkey and me."
"I think we have a pretty good idea about what happened, Lee. We're just thankful we found you and Sharkey in time."
Doc motioned for Nelson to sit down on the chair next to Crane's bed. "You had better take a seat, Admiral. This is quite an interesting story." Doc indicated for Crane to continue. "Go ahead, Skipper. Start over please and tell the Admiral what you have been telling me."
Ten minutes later, after Crane had told the Admiral all about the White Room and Aragon, Nelson turned and looked thoughtfully at Doc who was standing a few feet away. Doc simply smiled and shrugged.
Nelson cleared his throat and hesitated a few moments before making any comments. He looked down at the young Captain. "Lee," he began gently, "you must have had a near death experience. You know what I mean, don't you? People who have come close to death often talk about seeing bright lights and a long tunnel and ..."
"No, Admiral," interrupted Crane. "It wasn't like that. We were really there – in the White Room. We talked to this being, Aragon. He made us this offer, he ..." Crane stopped and looked at the faces of Nelson and Doc. He knew they didn't believe him. He realized that it was a very unbelievable story. Maybe I did dream it all. Or maybe I did have one of those near death experiences.
"Skipper, sometimes the anesthetic produces quite vivid dreams. That could be one explanation also," added Doc helpfully. Seeing that his patient was getting a bit agitated he added, "I want you to get some rest now, Skipper. We can discuss this again later when you are not so tired." He held up his hand as Crane started to protest. "That's an order, Skipper."
Crane reluctantly settled back down in his bed and lay thinking. He could hear Doc and the Admiral talking quietly over by Doc's desk but he couldn't make out what they were saying. Probably discussing how soon we will be back in Santa Barbara so they can get me to a psychiatrist. But it seemed so real! I can't believe it was only a dream. Crane finally closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.
Nelson glanced over at the sleeping Captain, "Well, Doc, I'll leave you to it. I better get back to the Control Room and make sure O'Brien has the boat pointed in the right direction.'
Doc laughed and started to walk Nelson to the door when he heard a moaning sound coming from Sharkey. "Looks like our Chief is finally waking up."
The two men walked over to stand at Sharkey's bedside. Doc began taking his vitals as Sharkey slowly opened his eyes. As things started to come into focus, Sharkey sighed with relief, "Thank goodness, no more White Room. I never imagined I would be so glad to wake up in Sickbay."
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