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 The Only Thing That Counts

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Anthony van
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PostSubject: The Only Thing That Counts   Thu Oct 19, 2017 4:14 pm

Chapter 17-Reunion

 

            A scrabbling noise shook Steve out of his restless sleep. He remembered the dream. Sitting up he watched the door open and a dishevelled man tumbled face forward across the floor. The door slammed shut. Steve made his way unsteadily across to the prone form. Turning him over, he caught his breath.

“Jimmy!” the cry crackled hoarsely from his dry throat.

            Jimmy was a mess. His nose was bloodied, his right eye was closed and his shirt was half torn off. A moan emanated from his friend.

“Jimmy, are you all right?”

Jimmy moaned again and tried to open his eyes.

            Steve went and retrieved some tissue paper from the bathroom. He wet it and attempted to clean up Jimmy’s face. The dried blood came off with some difficulty and he flinched when Steve wiped his swollen eye.

            “...that you Steve?” Jimmy managed. He was becoming more clear-headed. He slowly focused his good eye on Steve and gripped his arm with both hands. Relieved by his steady revival Steve joked, “You’re going to have a huge shiner buddy. What happened?”

Putting an arm under his head he began his recount, while still lying on his back. “They rang me at about 11pm...” he uttered throatily.

“Just stop there,” Steve insisted, “Let’s get you onto a bunk and make you a bit more comfortable.” After some effort he half dragged, half walked Jimmy onto the other lower bunk and then got him a glass of water. Steve then listened quietly while Jimmy related the drama of the last several hours.

            Jimmy had received a phone call from the plant centre. They said it was the police and there had been another break in.

“It sounded genuine,” explained Jimmy, “They said they couldn’t get on to you. They wanted me to come and check the damage.”

            Jimmy went on unfolding the story, how he had turned up and saw a plain car outside. He walked in to find Jodie tied to a chair and gagged. He described how he just ‘lost it’ and swung at the nearest guy. He thought he probably broke the guy’s nose before others were all over him beating him. The man he’d hit retaliated by punching him in the nose, but it was a bash to the side of the head that subdued him, knocking him unconscious.

“It was thinking of what they did to Pete, and seeing Jode’s like that, that did it. I just went berserk,” Jimmy elaborated. After ranting about ‘next time’ briefly, he returned to his account.

            When he came to he was tied. They threatened to beat Jodie if he didn’t show them all the trays of cultures already prepared. A truck came in; they loaded it and shoved the two of them in the back with a couple of commando types. Jimmy finished his story: “Well it took us a while to get here. They questioned us separately about ‘your plans’, and then they threw us into a cell for a few hours. The guy I hit roughed me up bringing me over here.”

            Steve sat on his bunk quietly for a few moments while Jimmy complained derisively about brave people with guns.

“Is Jodie all right?”

“Yeah, apparently they rang her and told her the same story as they told me. Last thing I remember was that she was walking in front of me to here.”

“She might be with Kelly, next door.”

“Have they got Kelly?” Jimmy looked startled at the unexpected news. “Why would they grab her, a reporter? It doesn’t make sense... “He sat up a little like a punch drunk fighter getting off the canvas. “...unless she found out about them doing her own investigations.”

Steve chose to hold off on an explanation until after he had rested.

 

                                    ----------------------------------------------

            At the time that Jimmy was thrust into the first secure quarters, Jodie was being ushered into the room confining Kelly. Kelly was awake and the two women looked at each other for an awkward moment, then Jodie walked over and hugged Kelly.

“Are you okay?” she asked noticing her injured lip as they stepped back a little.

“Yes thanks... and you?” Kelly returned, feeling a bit tense still about what to say next.

“I’m trying not to be afraid... what are they going to do?” Before allowing Kelly even a chance to respond Jodie continued... “How did you get here?” and then concern shrouded her face... “Have you seen Steve at all?”

            Kelly couldn’t help but smile. “Hey, one at a time will you? I’ll tell you what I know and then you can tell me what happened to you.” The two girls set themselves down on a bunk to unravel their personal mysteries.

“Firstly,” Kelly began, “I owe you an apology. I haven’t been very honest with you guys; partly because of the nature of my job, and partly because I didn’t know who to trust. And, I know that sounds like I’m just making excuses, but I’ll explain.”

            Kelly took considerable time to go over the story she had shared with Steve. They both sat on the bunk and Jodie listened with some consternation about the unknown plight of her father, the General. Her sympathy for Kelly increased greatly when she understood something of her motivations and misconceptions about what had occurred to derail the real program, and Steve’s possible involvement. Jodie became concerned when she heard of the brutal treatment that Steve had endured. She felt empty inside and Kelly noticed her expression.

“You’ve got real feelings for Steve don’t you?” Kelly said.

“What do you mean?” Jodie replied softly, turning towards her but still responding defensively.

“Love?” she looked at Jodie. “Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I felt a bit of hostility when you were around, and it sort of makes sense.”

            Jodie was struggling to come to terms with this direct discussion. A little sheepish she apologised. “I guess I ...” she got tangled up with her words and started again. “I’m sorry. I had no right. Steve thinks of me just as a friend...” Her head tilted enquiringly as she went on, “You love him, don’t you?” Now it was Kelly’s turn to struggle with words.

“Well... I find him attractive... and I think I could love him, but...” she smiled uncomfortably, “You deserve first shot.”

Jodie stared dully, not sure what that meant. She didn’t operate on the same system as Kelly and her response was a somewhat bland... “Thanks.”

            Kelly looked at Jodie for a minute and a slightly crooked smile crept onto her face. Jodie got up and stretched her legs and walked to the door.

“You don’t get it do you?”

“What do you mean?” Jodie turned and looked quizzical.

“You’re waiting for Steve to notice you... but he’s too thick, either that or he just finds it too much to risk rejection. Whatever the reason, you’re not helping by just being a good friend. Show him you really care.” Kelly was warming to the topic.

“I really do care, but maybe he prefers me as just a friend.” She paused looking a little rattled, “I don’t know, maybe I’m afraid of rejection too.” Jodie looked up, her eyes were moist and Kelly got up to put her arms around her. But Jodie deflected her and continued with a wavering voice, “I’m all right. Anyway, that’s the least of our problems. What are we going to do? How are we going to get out of this?” They stopped abruptly when they heard a key turning in the door.

            A young sailor opened the door carrying a tray with plates of hot food. Another serviceman stood behind him holding an automatic weapon.

“You’d better eat up,” he stated, not unkindly, and then continued, “It may be the last meal you have for a while.” He half winked as he stepped past them and placed the tray on the bed. Jodie watched his face and searched his green eyes for any further sign of acknowledgment, but he impassively withdrew, closing the door firmly behind him.

                                                ---------------------------

 

            Next door Steve and Jimmy had both run out of things to say and had flopped in aching exhaustion on the bunks, when they were similarly interrupted by the young sailor with the food trays. Jimmy was completely out to it, but Steve stirred and stared into those familiar green eyes in disbelief.

“Eat up,” said Malcolm as he placed the tray on the floor. “You’ll need your energy because you’ve got work to do.” The gunman behind him shuffled impatiently as Steve and Malcolm locked eyes and both knew a mutual campaign had begun.

            As the door shut, a myriad of questions flooded Steve’s mind. What had happened after his chaotic departure from the Cormorant? How had Malcolm managed to escape capture on the submarine? What was he up to now?

Steve had no answers, but he had hope. Malcolm had to be on their side after what he’d been through. Somehow they had to talk.

            It was a short while later that Jimmy stirred, groaning involuntarily. The battering he had received was evident in the puffiness of his bluish splotched face and the accentuated caution with which he gained a slightly hunched sitting position. He was barely awake when Steve almost hissed in his face, “We have a friend.”

“What?” Jimmy’s good eye opened wider but the comment still didn’t register.

“I just saw Malcolm.”

“Who?”

            Of course it was unfair of Steve to expect Jimmy to be alert and receptive to this news, but that didn’t prevent his annoyance.

“Will you wake up?” He finally gained Jimmy’s full attention as he gradually woke and was reminded of his predicament.

“You know Malcolm, the guy I escaped on the sub with?”

His friend nodded briefly as he studied Steve with interest.

“Well, he’s here. And that means we have a chance. We might be able to do more than just try and survive.”

“You mean stop them?” returned Jimmy tersely, half asking half stating.

This time Steve nodded. They were both quiet for a minute thinking before Jimmy continued, “So what now?”

“It’s really up to Malcolm, but I think we should eat. He said we’d need our strength, so I think we should follow his advice... eat and rest and try and be as ready as possible.”

            While eating the lukewarm meal, they both mused about what they might have to be ready to do. It was an important lift to their morale. Someone was working with them. They had hope. Strangely to Steve, the situation seemed to allude to his recent understanding of his life. ‘Someone was working with him, and he had hope.’ He breathed a word of thanks for his refreshed eternal perspective. There was a greater calm in him than he thought possible in this threatening state of affairs.

 

            After eating they chose to rest quietly rather than speculate on the possibilities brought about by Malcolm’s presence. Drifting fitfully into unconsciousness they were both startled by the racket of Malcolm and another bursting into their quarters. Malcolm’s voice was harsher and Steve briefly imagined he may have had a misconception about Malcolm’s involvement in the whole event.

“You two listen up,” hollered the unfamiliar tone of an agitated former associate. “You’re going to work for us loading the plants and other stores, but we’ll only use two of you at a time. If you try anything silly the other two will suffer. Got that?”

They nodded meekly in reply, confused by the angry demeanour of someone they had considered briefly to be their ally.

            “Okay, follow me.” Slowly they got their aching limbs moving and followed Malcolm to the docks. The soldier with the automatic rifle menaced them from the rear whenever the pace slackened, roughly using the weapon in a forceful thrust to hasten their progress.

            A little the worse for wear, Jimmy stumbled groggily a number of times. Steve tried to support him and get them moving before they were beaten any more. On their arrival Steve saw the two submersibles. One was the Cormorant the other was the identical sister ship. Malcolm addressed them in a steadier voice this time. “We’re particularly concerned that the plants are stored properly, so that they will survive the journey. That’s your first responsibility. Then we’ll load the other equipment. Follow me.”

 

They moved from the wharf through a large double door pressure hatch of the Skua. Steve was intrigued that he hadn’t noticed the side cargo access before. The outer panel peeled back outward while the inner opened inward. Glancing at the other craft Steve marvelled how flush and neatly the hatches melded with the hull, making them difficult to detect. Trays of plants arrived from the plant labs and green houses. The plants arrived on layered pallets, piled on flat trailers which were in turn towed by a small electric vehicle. Steve and Jimmy loaded the cell cultures first in climate controlled containers, and then loaded the slightly larger single and double leaf growths. Their guard soon lost interest and wandered off.

“Keep working and I’ll explain,” said Malcolm out of the side of his mouth. He was looking in an altogether different direction from the two labourers and pointing at some stack of pallets in the distance.

“I’m sorry for all the yelling but the hierarchy didn’t appreciate my friendly approach, so I had to put on a show for them. They’ll be watching so don’t let your guard down. Think and act... I’m a prisoner being harassed and I have no hope.”

            Steve couldn’t believe the animal cunning that Malcolm had gained by necessity over such a few days. But he bent over a little more and dragged his feet a little more wearily.

            As they took things onto the craft there were moments when Malcolm could fill them in on his exploits of the past few days. He interspersed this conversation with loud commands and authoritative directions whenever other bodies came into earshot, to lend authenticity to his new found toughness.

 

Malcolm explained that after a lengthy panic period when he was left on the sub by himself he became sure that he would be captured and dealt with. The submarine was travelling rapidly to some destination and he felt totally at their mercy. Then he suddenly felt a calm come over him and realised that they didn’t know he was on board. If he returned everything he’d gotten for himself he might be able to hide and somehow escape. Meticulously, Malcolm made it look like Steve was the only passenger. A passenger who had barely escaped the airlock, and who they may have thought they’d killed judging by the high-speed remotely controlled manoeuvres. He then found another sailor’s uniform and looked around for a place to hide.
 

Once he found a place, he waited there till the vessel showed some evidence of slowing and then crawled into the torpedo tubes.
Steve and Jimmy quizzed him. Well, of course he knew the torpedo tubes were risky but they were his best option.
He had rewired the hatch sensors to read closed even though they were slightly ajar. It wasn’t long before he glimpsed two officers. They only gave his area a cursory inspection, being far more interested in removing Paul’s body and the clutter left by the mysterious intruder.
The new crew that boarded two hours later seemed unaware of the commotion occurring beforehand. Their relaxed mood gave Malcolm opportunity to sneak atop deck through a forward hatch, re-enter through the main entry, and greet the captain with an apology for his lateness. The apology was so convoluted and long-winded that the captain dismissed Malcolm with a query about his orders. Malcolm explained that Colonel Klein had ‘requested his presence’ and had had no time to draw up orders as there was some sort of emergency. His story had some parallels with information the Captain had received, and indicated to him that Malcolm had been privy to more information than the rest of the crew. Fortunately this, and his audacity, was enough to convince the Captain of his bona fides. 
 

            When they had to move outside the ship the story stopped. Steve and Jimmy were under casual scrutiny and Malcolm occasionally yelled at them to keep moving. But inside, as they struggled with the large trays, Malcolm was free to continue his interrupted account.

 

He surmised that Captain Craddock and the new crew were unaware of the true nature of Colonel Klein’s plan. When Craddock explained Malcolm’s presence to Lieutenant Shelley as the result of special orders from Klein, Shelley accepted it as something the Colonel would do. To put someone on board to keep an eye on things made sense. Malcolm explained how Shelley and the other few remaining conspirators gradually relied on him and accepted him as one of them. Should Klein appear, Malcolm tried to make himself scarce, but those occasions were rare as Klein seemed to have much to do.
 

            Clattering footsteps on the submarine deck abruptly suspended Malcolm’s narrative. A hulking, menacing Lieutenant Shelley filled the hatchway above the storage area of the Cormorant.

“Stewart, Come here!” he bawled. Then turning and barking sharply at the minion trailing behind he said, “Private, take those two under guard to the mess. They can have something to eat.” Shelley then swivelled back to face them, “Stewart, I need you to help me,” he added enigmatically.

            The surly soldier that had escorted Steve and Jimmy previously, accompanied them on the march to the mess impelling their tired bodies with his customary angry shove. They were sweating profusely and relished the opportunity to rest and have a refreshing drink.

“What do you think Shelley wants with Malcolm?” Jimmy asked as he scoffed a muffin and took another gulp of soft drink.

“...Don’t know. Maybe something that only someone he trusts can do. Makes me think it can only be something bad.” Steve looked preoccupied.

“Do you think Malcolm’s in danger?” Jimmy spoke full-mouthed. He was still giving the plate of muffins his full attention. Steve looked across at the bruised face of his friend. It seemed a redundant thing to say, but he knew what Jimmy meant. He mused on the way he examined every comment literally. At least the thought wasn’t accompanied by a sarcastic retort. He came back to the question.

“If they discover he’s not with them, he’s dead.” Steve said quietly and then continued, “I wonder where the others are. Malcolm said that he was counted among the few remaining that are in the know. Where did the others go?”

“You don’t think they were killed?”

“I don’t think they can pull this scheme off without a significant support group.”

“So, what are you saying?”

“I don’t know, maybe they’re at another base.”

            It wasn’t long before they were ushered back to the dock and Malcolm was there to direct the loading of the more mature plants. This was a much more physically demanding task and soon another soldier was sent to get help.

As soon as they were alone with Malcolm and had hefted a tray into a rack securely, Steve began, “Where are the oth...”

“Wait!” Malcolm had butt in, both hands raised insistently as if ready to fend him off.

His eyes were open, excited, “I’ve got something that might give us a chance of stopping them.”

“What?” Jimmy blurted and Steve drew nearer as Malcolm reached into his pocket. Slowly he withdrew a phial. The three of them stood silently, transfixed by the object in front of them. Jimmy broke the silence.

“The virus...” he said quietly but in an elated tone.

One of the virus cultures...” replied Malcolm with similar volume and delight.

            Steve stared at it. He was more subdued and a knot twisted in his stomach as he imagined how their little band might use it. They would certainly die. He wondered if there were some way that some of them could escape. He was particularly thinking of Jodie and Kelly. How could they survive? He contemplated his own position. Maybe this was why he was here. He considered the possibility of doing the deed himself, after the others had an opportunity to escape. His thoughts became audible.

“Give it to me,” he stretched out his hand. “There’s no reason why we should all die.”

The other two stopped short, realising what Steve was saying.

“If you take it, I’m with you.” It was Jimmy. He put his hand on Steve’s shoulder and looked seriously at Malcolm. Malcolm in turn calmly put the phial back into his pocket and a small smile played upon his lips.

“Looks like we’re all going to be heroes...” he tapped his pocket, “But it will be much safer with me. You guys might be searched.”

That was a possibility they all agreed on, and after a brief talk they also decided only to act when the girls were safe; if that was at all feasible.

            As the three went out to get another tray they were met by Jodie and Kelly struggling with a load of plants. Yells and threats from supervising soldiers prevented either pair from communicating other than nodded acknowledgements and mouthed greetings. Any plan they attempted would affect all of them and Steve felt a heavy weight of concern that Jodie and Kelly, two women for whom he was just discovering a confusion of affections, could not be spared the likely outcome of their resistance. Steve’s list of questions for Malcolm had grown, but he had no chance to satisfy his curiosity. His head ached almost consistently now and his jaw was also painful.

            All four were worked hard for the next four hours loading both crafts. At the completion of the loading the soldiers led them, exhausted, back to their rooms.  
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