With the companionways now clear, the walk back through the vast grey rabbit warren took half the time. They walked in silence, each deep in his and her own thoughts. They’d seen and heard things beyond any normal experiences or beliefs. Now they had to try and process them. How do you do that?
They seated themselves around the lunch table. A steward came out and asked if they still wanted their meals. Eric Kennedy cocked an eyebrow towards his guests, who weren’t quite sure how to answer. Half their party was elsewhere, and what about the guest of honour?
“Perhaps just a cup of coffee at the moment until the others are able to join us again,” Sarah suggested. Her statement did more than just answer the question; it broke the uneasy silence they were all feeling. It was a silence that needed to be broken, and they were all grateful she had done so.
“That’s cool with me,” said Terry.
“Can we serve ourselves, perhaps?” asked Eddie Nolan.
“I’m sure they can bring us a couple of pots and a few cups. Can you arrange that, please?” Kennedy asked the steward. The man nodded and disappeared.
“I have just seen something I still can’t believe. It was truly incredible. Have you ever seen your father involved in anything like that before, Sarah?” the chaplain asked.
“No, Eric. The closest is what Bjorn and I saw back in the village, but it was pretty much over when we got there. I have no idea what those people were like before Dad arrived, but they certainly were excited afterwards.”
“I can tell you about that,” Bjorn added. “There were about, I don’t know, perhaps 35 to 40 people in that place we called a hospital. We had no real drugs or equipment; we just looked after people as best we could. Most of them had sustained major injuries from the waves that came ashore. Three died of those wounds, and most others were in pretty bad shape. I certainly couldn’t do very much to help them.”
“How long were you away from the hospital when Dad was there?”
“I was on my way to get some lunch when I saw you. I couldn’t have been away for more than 10 to 15 fifteen minutes. But I don’t know when he arrived. I was as surprised as you were when we saw him there.”
“And he was speaking to them in a language I didn’t recognise,” Sarah added. “Was it the local dialect?”
A pause in the dialogue allowed two stewards bearing coffee and cups access to the table. Kennedy thanked them, the others concurred, and then the stewards withdrew.
“Sorry, I don’t know,” the Swede answered, as the cups were passed around and filled. “I don’t speak more than a word or two that I picked up since I got there. I relied on a nurse who had spent some time training in Djakarta. She knew enough English for us to get by. But you saw him there. The locals certainly understood him.”
“Does your father speak other languages, Sarah?” Eddie Nolan asked.
“I don’t ever recall him speaking anything but English,” she replied, idly toying with her coffee cup. “I never knew of him ever studying other languages. And even if he had, what are the chances it would be the obscure dialect spoken only in that one village?”
She looked across to the two clergymen to see if they had accepted her answer before continuing. “I’ve begun to get my head around the healing thing. We’ve been hearing about it for a week or more, but we’ve seen some evidence. This thing with the helicopter, him seeing the future, and him speaking in some strange dialect—does any of it make sense to you, Eddie?”
Eddie Nolan smiled his version of the easy smile. It lacked the potency of what they had seen in Sam, or even the recently healed Mike Seymour, but it was still there. “I’m not sure about you Eric, you a good Protestant and all, but I have to say it fits with what we have seen. All those things are mentioned in the Bible. People disappeared and reappeared in other places, people could understand outsiders who spoke their language, and people were shown the future.”
Kennedy nodded. “I’ve seen people go down under the power of God when they have been prayed for. It’s never happened to me, or when I have prayed for people, but I know it happens. I saw what happened as Sam was walking down the corridor; he just held out his hand and touched people or spoke a blessing on them, and…well you saw it too, didn’t you?” He turned from Nolan to Sarah and said, “Your father is carrying something we clergymen have read about, but never seen, let alone experienced. I don’t know how, or why, or anything else, but he seems to be moving with the power of God Himself. I can’t think of any other way to describe it.”
Apart from the sound of the occasional coffee cup being replaced on its saucer, uneasy silence descended on the table again, leaving them to ponder his statement. Their silence embarrassed them or at least made them uneasy. How do you follow a statement like that? You ask an appropriate question is how. Eventually, Eric Kennedy did. “Tell me, Sarah, was your father a particularly religious man?” the chaplain asked in a much more casual tone.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “As far as I know, he never went to church and didn’t have much time for most of the people who did. I think he genuinely admired people like Mother Theresa, but that was about as far as it went for him. Having said that, I haven’t seen all that much of him in recent years. He became a bit of a recluse after my mother was killed.”
“I am sorry,” the chaplain uttered the universally accepted statement of sympathy.
“It happened more than a year ago,” she said. “Dad was very cut up about it. They weren’t perfect, but they were a close couple who loved each other very much. He really did miss her. We were quite worried about him for a while. He sort of dropped out of everyday life. I ended up being away a lot and lost contact with him, apart from the odd phone call. He seemed to be alright. I guess I was so much into my own life and my own problems that I sort of forgot about him. I’m not exactly proud of that now.”
The naval chaplain waited to see if she had finished. Then he said, “For what it’s worth, Sarah, he must have done something during his time as a recluse. He seems to have found that thing many of us have looked for our whole lives, but failed to find. We glibly talk about people ‘finding God’, but most of us find the Church, which as we all know falls short in so many ways.”
“Is that the only possibility, Eric, Eddie? There are plenty of other groups and faiths out there that are into spiritual things. How do we know that he’s on your god’s side and not one of those other things?”
The two clerics exchanged looks to see who would attempt an answer.
Eddie accepted the challenge. “It’s a good question, Sarah. I suspect the answer is we don’t really know. We can judge by the fruit only. What have we seen? We have seen people healed and people blessed in various ways. That sounds like good fruit. He’s not wanting anything in return and actively avoids any recognition. So, as things stand right now, he’s a lot more likely working with the good guys.”
“Let me get this right,” Terry spoke for the first time. “You’re suggesting that Sam is somehow working with God?”
Both Nolan and Kennedy nodded, although with different degrees of conviction.
“I can’t really think of any other explanation, Terry. But if you have any other ideas or suggestions, I’m all ears. This is new ground for me too. Fair comment, Eric?”
The navy man nodded again—this time with considerably more enthusiasm.
Terry wanted more. “I guess I was intrigued by the idea of ‘working with God, working with the good guys’,” he said. “I’m not sure why, but it seems vaguely off to me. I would have expected ‘working for God’. You seem to be saying they’re partners. Is that how it’s supposed to work?”
The two clerics looked at each other again, neither sure they could do his question any justice. Finally, Eric tried. “I really don’t know, Terry. Sam obviously knows something we don’t. Only he could answer you. I wish I could. I’ve always seen God as the Master and me as His servant—or worse. But, Sam? He shatters that mould. Eddie?”
“I’m with you,” Nolan added. “Christians often casually talk about having a relationship with God. But by Sam’s standards, very few of us have one at all. For most of us, it’s like having a wife whom you might speak to on a long distance call every day, only to leave a message on her answering machine. Then, if we were lucky and well behaved, she might ring us back once a year, and we would feel good if she didn’t scold us for not ringing often enough. What sort of a relationship would you call that?”
“Sounds a bit like mine,” Terry answered ruefully.
Nolan laughed aloud. “Sorry, Terry. I didn’t mean to point any fingers. But in some ways, you are the ideal one to answer the question. Or you, Eric. What about all that sea time, away for many months at a time? Does that make for an ideal relationship?”
Kennedy smiled. “That’s not such a problem for you, though?”
“Not so you would notice it, no,” Eddie replied lightly. “But Sam is in a very different place. How did he know about the helicopter? Who told him?”
Another uncomfortable silence. None of them had an answer.
“I’ll say this,” Sarah offered. “I have never seen him like that before. He was the sort of guy who would rarely speak out in a crowd. He certainly wouldn’t just come up with a statement like that. He would need to be sure it was true before saying anything like that in public—especially in a place like this.”
Kennedy was thinking aloud. “I’ve seen men and women working in what we call words of knowledge—they know things about others that no natural person ever told them. But the clarity of what Sam saw has to be so much more than anything I’ve heard of before.”
“So now you’re saying God talks to him?” It was Terry again.
The chaplain didn’t want to sound certain because he wasn’t. “Yes, I guess I am saying that. Again, I can’t pretend I understand it, but I can’t come up with any other possibility.”
There was another long pause, during which most of the remaining coffee was consumed. The steward reappeared, but no one showed any interest in a refill. They sat there, alternating between looking at one another and staring at their cups on the white linen tablecloth. None of them had an answer that would trump the one dealt by Eric Kennedy.
Sarah again finally broke the silence. “I wish I knew where he was.” She spoke quietly and with much feeling. “We can sit here and try to figure it all out, but why bother when he can tell us himself. I wonder where he is. Why would he just take off again, Eddie?”
The priest heard her cry. “I don’t know, Sarah. I’m sorry, lass. I would love to help, but I don’t know. All I can say is if he is indeed working with God, he’s undoubtedly in good hands. He’s quite safe, far safer than you or me; of that you can be sure.”
“Amen to that,” confirmed the chaplain. “On that, Father Nolan, we can agree.”
As if on cue, the door opened and Captain Creen, complete with his entourage, trooped into the room and sat down. The chaplain obviously knew his earthly boss and signalled to the steward for more coffee. It arrived before the complete gathering had found and settled into their seats.
Captain Creen opened the batting. “Miss Long,” he said calmly, “I hate to admit it, but I seem to have lost your father. He’s not anywhere aboard the ship. We’ve searched everywhere. He has simply disappeared.”
All eyes were on the captain as he took a mouthful of java, and only after he returned it to its temporary home on the table did anyone else follow suit. Creen looked across towards Sarah and gave her a wan smile. “I have to confess I have no idea how to explain that.”
Neither she nor anyone else was tempted to say anything. Captain Creen wasn’t surprised. People rarely interrupted him.
“But then,” he continued, still watching her intently, “the same can be said for a lot of other things that have happened since you arrived. There isn’t a man or woman on this ship who doesn’t know what happened when he was here. More incidents are being reported every few minutes. People who needed glasses can now see perfectly well without them. People with all manner of health issues have been cured. The men in the brig are claiming he visited them for a few minutes and then disappeared—without bothering to open the door.”
Sarah smiled at his dry humour. But, as before, no one felt free or had cause to speak.
“Miss Long,” he repeated before continuing in a measured, slightly curious tone. “Every journalist on my ship is clamouring to get the story out. All except you. You’re just sitting here.”
“Perhaps we have much the same problem, Captain,” she replied. “I’m not at all sure what to do next. I have to confess my first thought was not about getting the story out. That will no doubt distress my boss a great deal. Perhaps, like you, I was still trying to understand what was happening and hoping my father would come back and tell me.”
“And I assume he hasn’t?”
“No, sir,” she replied. The others in the group shook their heads almost in unison as silent confirmation.
Captain Creen leaned back and surveyed the group. He seemed to be wrestling with a decision he needed to make. “Miss Long, gentlemen, you each have some knowledge of recent events, and I would be grateful if you remain here with us for the meantime as we decide on a course of action. I acknowledge you are not in the Navy or even US citizens. I can’t force you to help us. And I accept you will want to report what happens within these walls. But I’m not sure I have many other options. All I ask is that if things arise that require some discretion, you will understand our situation and respect that. If you feel unable or unwilling to do so at any time, please tell me. Then we might review things.”
Looking around the room, Sarah could see not everyone agreed with their captain. But they were Navy; they would obey orders.
Captain Creen waited. She could tell he wasn’t used to waiting.
“I wonder if you would give us a moment or two to talk about it, Captain. Would you mind if we stepped out into the corridor for a moment?”
“Of course,” he said, standing up in an act of old fashioned gallantry.
The four civilians quietly trooped out and were surprised to see guards posted on either side of the door, with others further down the corridor. The four moved to a quiet spot equidistant between those steadfast pillars and went into a huddle.
Terry spoke first. “I’m not sure I want to get too deep into what is happening in there. If I stayed out, it would provide you an insurance policy here on the outside.”
“I don’t know if I want to be in there without you, Terry. You’re my watchdog on matters professional. I really prefer to keep you in with me if I stay.”
“Are you seriously thinking of not staying?” Eddie asked.
“Are you saying I should stay, Eddie?” Sarah asked.
“It’s not my place to influence you, Sarah. But I think you’d be very disappointed downstream if you missed out on the real inside story, don’t you?”
“Perhaps I can resolve the dilemma,” Bjorn offered. “I’m the new kid here, and I don’t know much about all this. But I can see why you might want someone on the outside who is keeping them honest and looking after your interests. How about I drop out and do that?”
“Would you really?” Sarah asked. It was a good solution.
“Sure. Let me loose out there. I’ll give the baying hounds enough of the story to make them slobber and drool. They won’t let the navy spirit you away to some deep, dark black hole. They will all be your safety net.”
Sarah looked at the others. They nodded. “Right, let’s do that. Thanks, Bjorn. I really do appreciate that.”
“Let’s get back before they come hunting us down,” suggested the big Swede.
They shuffled back into the room again. Before Sarah could speak, Bjorn said, “Captain, I am not really a part of this group. I only accepted the offer of a ride back to civilisation. Would you please excuse me from your conference?”
Creen didn’t look surprised by his request, although Sarah suspected he wasn’t exactly happy with it. “Very well, Mr. McAllister. Mr. Stanley, would you arrange quarters for Mr. McAllister.”
As the two men left quietly, Creen turned back to Sarah and said, “Thank you for your cooperation.”
Sarah nodded, and the remaining three resumed their seats.
The captain turned back to his Executive Officer and said, “Carry on, Commander.”
The XO stood to begin his summary. “Sir. At approximately 1100, a Sea Hawk with its crew and Miss Long, Mr. Gunn and Father Nolan landed at the remains of a village here.” He pointed to a large-scale map that had been fixed to the wall while Sarah and the others were in the corridor. “At 1127 hours, Lieutenant Seymour reported that the local people were acting very strangely, claiming a man had cured some of them.” XO Bush turned briefly away from Captain Creen and nodded towards Sarah. “At that time, Miss Long was the only one absent from the immediate area of the aircraft. Shortly afterwards, Seymour’s co-pilot reported that Miss Long had returned to the aircraft with two men we now know to be Mr. McAllister, and Miss Long’s father, Sam Long.” His eyes were front and centre as he went on. “Lieutenant Seymour then advised Flight Ops that Mr. Long was in some way involved in the healings.”
“What did he actually say?” the captain asked.
Commander Bush managed to catch himself from smiling too much. “He said something like, ‘He’s here. We’ve found the angel’. Seymour sounded quite excited. He’s not normally like that.”
Sarah smiled too. It was a good reading of Mike Seymour’s nature.
“I directed him to bring the party back to the ship.” Commander Tony Bush caught Terry Gunn’s stare and had the grace to look a little sheepish as he carried on. “I arranged for another aircraft to carry on with the original mission and extended your invitation for the group to join us for lunch.”
How much of that is what really happened? That guy has his tongue so far in his cheek that it’s amazing he can even get the words out. I’m glad I’m here to at least keep them a little bit honest. Thanks, Terry. I owe you another one.
“The aircraft arrived back at 12:20, and the passengers assembled here for lunch. At approximately 12:45, Mr. Long made reference to a helicopter experiencing a problem. At that time, Lieutenant Seymour’s crew were taking off on another task, here.” He used a small laser pointer to identify a village on the map. “Their aircraft lost power shortly after take-off, and they were lucky not to ditch in the sea. All three of the crew sustained impact injuries and superficial burns. Three of the ground crew near the impact sustained minor injuries too. The fire and medical crews carried out a text-book response, and the injured were taken to sick bay. Lieutenant Commander Hosking reported that all aspects of the evacuation to sick bay were done to standards. His teams were beginning their preliminary examination of the wounded men when Mr. Long arrived at sick bay, accompanied by Chaplain Kennedy.”
Silence descended as the assembled officers considered what they heard. They made mental notes of any questions they may want to ask or may have to field. But no one would speak other than at the captain’s invitation.
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Brendon Hosking stood formally facing Captain Creen to deliver his report. “Aye, sir. I was doing my initial triage when the padre and a civilian I now know to be Mr. Long arrived. None of the injuries were life threatening, but we still needed to move quickly to minimise the effects of trauma, especially the burns. I wasn’t surprised or concerned to see the chaplain there,” he said as he looked across at Eric Kennedy. “But I didn’t know who the civilian was.” Eric Kennedy gave a brief confirming nod in the general direction of Captain Creen. Then the doctor drew himself up again to continue as he had begun. “We don’t require complete sterility, but the man’s clothing wouldn’t help us maintain a clean environment. I turned to tell him to leave, but I found I was unable to speak or move. I watched as Mr. Long moved to each of the patients in turn. He seemed to murmur a few words to each one and to touch them gently on the shoulder or hand.”
At this point the doctor’s voice broke slightly. He was having trouble maintaining the image of the professional navy doctor reporting to his captain.
“I just stood there, sir. I tried to move, but I couldn’t. And as he touched each man, the burn marks just faded away. I discovered later that injuries consistent with the crash as reported by the medevac crews were no longer there, sir. All the patients were completely healed, sir. I don’t understand it. I’m not sure I even believe it, but that’s what I saw.”
Hosking reverted to a more formal mode. “Mr. Long then asked to go to the head. I was then able to answer him. He left. And to tell the truth, sir, I forgot about him. We were all so astounded by what had happened. Then Miss Long arrived asking for her father, and we realised he had not returned. I sent a man to look for him, and he couldn’t find Mr. Long. There is no other access to that head, sir. And no one saw him leave. I asked the chaplain to escort Miss Long’s party back here. I then contacted Commander Bush and asked him to initiate a search.”
The rigid formality of it surprised Sarah, but the officers involved obviously knew the rules for the meeting. No one expected Brendon to say he had finished. He’d said all he felt was necessary to summarise the events. If more was required, he would be told. He waited, ready to answer any questions, but since there weren’t any, and after receiving unspoken permission, the doctor sat down again, grateful it was over—for the moment.
Creen turned back to Bush and raised an eyebrow. The commander immediately stood and picked up the story.
“I initiated a search immediately, sir. No one could find Mr. Long. On the basis of what Doctor Hosking told me, I closed all communication links for the media parties on board and advised Fleet accordingly. I also said we’d send a full SITREP immediately. I then called everyone in for this meeting.”
Again Bush paused to wait for a green light before continuing. Captain Creen may not have been taking notes the old-fashioned way, but Sarah knew he was weighing, sorting and filing away the information he might need to support or provoke future decisions. Then another flicker of the same eyebrow.
Bush read it and continued with his briefing. “There are some additional issues we need to take into account. One: we had crew members collapsing when anywhere near Mr. Long. Two: we have other people, including media personnel, apparently affected, even though they didn’t see Mr. Long. Three…”
“Can you please elaborate on point 2, Commander?” The request came from the Media Liaison Officer, the same man whom Sarah had suspicions about on her last voyage.
Bush nodded. “I’ve had reports that two media personnel have apparently regained full use of their eyes after needing glasses for years. One woman reported that the arthritis she had been coping with for some years was now gone. And one man, who had one leg an inch or so longer than the other, was now having problems walking in his specially built up shoe. There are possibly others, but those are the ones I can remember.”
Bush looked back to Captain Creen for a steer. Should he carry on? He got the nod.
“Three: the media people are going ballistic about not being able to get their stories out. That’s why I posted a guard outside the media area. And four: we have no idea where Mr. Long has gone. We can only guess that he has left the ship by the same means he arrived at the village this morning.” He prepared for the expected period of ruminating with “That’s it, sir.”
“Right.” The captain assumed the lead from his chair. “There isn’t much we can do about Mr. Long if he doesn’t want to enjoy our hospitality. That leaves us with a crew trying to cope with what we’ve seen, and a media contingent in a similar situation, but with the story of all stories to tell the rest of the world. And we have to tell Fleet what’s happening.”
There were sympathetic smiles around the table. No one was in a hurry to try and explain the unexplainable. Who would believe them, even in the face of overwhelming evidence?
“Miss Long,” Captain Creen continued, turning towards her, “can you tell us anything more that might help us make some progress here? Did your father give you any indication of his plans?”
Sarah looked away from meeting the Creen’s eyes and looked around the room. They were all staring at her, waiting for her. Waiting for me to what? What do these people expect me to be able to do or say that will make any difference to what has happened here? I don’t know any more than they do. Or do I? Maybe now is the time to stir the pot a bit? Perhaps we might find a bit more about what they do know.
Sarah returned to meeting the captain’s gaze and allowed herself a big swallow, and an even bigger breath, before answering.
“Since you are being straight with me, Captain, I will endeavour to be with you too. I had no idea my father was the man doing the things we have read about and seen here today. And I have no idea where he’s gone or what plans he has. I got a shock when I saw him this morning. He definitely is my father, but nothing like the father I remember.” She noticed Creen doing his eyebrow thing again and felt obliged to expand on her answer. “He was speaking in a language the locals understood, even though, as far as I know, he never studied languages in his life. And he looked … very different.”
She was surprised but pleased when she received a silent acknowledgment from her inquisitor. He appreciates that I’ve picked up on how it’s supposed to work here, and I’m making an effort to play the game his way.
Having received a blessing from on high, Sarah relaxed slightly before she went on. If I can have it out with Dan Williams, I should be able to handle this guy. “I admit I expected to find something or someone unusual in that village today. That is part of the reason we came back to your ship after our brief visit to California last week. We missed Dad there, probably by only a matter of minutes. But you know that. Your people would have told you. When I say your people, I mean the people behind the scenes that you may or may not know a lot about.” Aha! Some stray glances there? It’s a reflex thing—everyone looking at that Lieutenant Commander in the background, trying to look inconspicuous. He must be the resident spook! “They’re the ones who cleared the path, so we could move freely to and from the States.” Sarah turned and looked straight at the man who was doing his best to impersonate the Invisible Man. “I’m grateful for your help, Commander, but I’m not quite so sure about the price tag.”
An uncomfortable silence followed. She decided to fill it. “We’ve known that people have been spying on us ever since they worked so hard to get me out of my quarters to lift material from Terry’s laptop during our last voyage.” This time she eyeballed the media minder for several seconds, just to make sure he and everyone else got the message. Then she switched back to the spook. “And it’s not just me and Terry is it?” She turned back to Captain Creen and said, “We know they’ve been working on my boss back home too. Of course, you may choose to neither confirm nor deny it. I believe that’s the phrase used within your service,” she said with a wry smile. “It gets aired when declaring the presence of nuclear weapons when visiting supposedly friendly nations, like ours.” There was the merest hint another smile. “Of course, you may not have known the details, but it’s a little pointless to pretend now, don’t you think?”
If the silence was uncomfortable before, then it was a lot more so now. This time she decided not to fill it. She looked across at Terry, who was grinning like a mouse who’d just discovered a cheese factory. His look said, “Good on you, girl.” She turned her head slightly to check with Nolan, and his grin sent the same message.
She then turned back to Captain Creen. Their eyes met. She tried to read what he was thinking, but she failed. No flickers or hints now. This guy is one very good poker player.
“You have raised some issues we might more usefully discuss elsewhere, Miss Long,” the captain said noncommittally. “Thank you for your frankness. But right now, I’m focussing on what’s happening here and now. We need to tell the crew something, we need tell the media something, we need to tell Fleet something, and we need to prepare for the onslaught that will undoubtedly follow.”
It was the ideal riposte. It took the wind completely out of her sails. But Sarah knew she had scored some hits, and that the spooks would have to do some quick re-evaluations about how to move on. And Creen was right. He had immediate issues to deal with. She had to admit that he did it with such a delicate touch. Credit where it’s due, Horatio; you’re very good at what you do. I would bet you have a bright future in this man’s navy.
“So what do we know?” the captain continued as if nothing had happened. “What do we really know, not speculation? And what don’t we know?”
Sarah began to tune out from the ensuing discussion. She was thinking her own thoughts. Terry would give her a good recounting of what was said, and Eddie would keep watch on the more esoteric aspects of the whole business. Eddie was probably the ideal man to advise them. His credentials were impeccable, and he’d worked in the States long enough to be checked out and found to be non-threatening to a people who were becoming more fearful every day.
Where are you now, Daddy? Have you any idea of what’s coming your way? Once the world knows you’re the angel, there’ll be nowhere to hide. You’ll be hounded by the media, by cynics and critics, by the desperate, and especially by those you threaten with what you can do. Where will you go? What can you do?
“…so we’ll have to reopen comms for the media. They’ll crucify us if we try to stall them any longer. It’s not like we can pretend it never happened.”
“You come from that august body, Miss Long. What should we do to meet their needs?” The collective eyes of the meeting were upon her again. Sarah was grateful she’d at least heard the immediate past comments.
“Well, I’m probably not the ideal person to ask, I mean we’re talking about my father here, so I’m a suspect witness. But speaking as a journalist, I suggest you open the floodgates as soon as you can. Any delay you might achieve won’t change the outcome and will generate more aggravation than you need right now.”
As she paused briefly to draw breath, Sarah noticed that the atmosphere had shifted from ritual formality to one of more uncertainty about how to deal with this unprecedented scenario.
“Can you give us some an idea of what they want?” Creen asked, still poker faced.
Why would he ask me that? These guys all do media awareness training. Is he humouring me because of the spook thing or because it’s my father we’re talking about? But does it matter? What’s the real issue? We all want to find the angel. If I can smooth the path, then things should go better for everyone involved, especially me.
“First up, the event itself,” she began. “They’ll want to know what happened, who was involved, the impact on those people, the ‘how did you feel’ stuff, and so on.” That garnered a few nods to indicate agreement with what they had been told in training. “Then the follow-up phase, like the impact on the functioning of the ship, the longer-term effects, questions about what really happened and how they can be explained, and the way it may impact other people like in the national interest, the Church and other religious communities. Then giving details for the ‘so what should we do about all that’ stories. They’ll probably be directed to leaders in higher pay grades than I see here.” She smiled. “No offence intended, Captain.”
Did I just see another hint of his cerebral smile? Yes, I’m sure I did.
“None taken, Miss Long.” Creen added. “Quite frankly, they’re welcome to the attention. I have a warship to run, and we still have a mission to complete. People out there still need us.”
Many people could, and probably had, said such things about being in the media spotlight, but in his case, Sarah believed him. The captain didn’t dwell on it, but moved on by asking, “What sort of people would you want to talk to?”
She marshalled her thoughts to give him the answer he deserved, “I guess to you, sir. After all, you’re the man in charge. I would want to know how things have changed on board since the events, and you’re the obvious candidate. Then Doctor Hosking, and those who saw what happened down in sick bay. I’d want to talk to Mike Seymour and the other guys who were healed after their crash injuries. It might be handy to have a representative sample of any crew members who were affected by what happened—for good or for bad. And I’d want to talk to the journalists who were here, for a balanced and independent view.”
She paused, wondering if she could lighten up things a bit. “You know, Captain, I love the story about the angel visiting the guys in the brig and then leaving without bothering to open the door. That’s the sort of quirky thing journos love. Give them anything like that and they will forgive you for all sorts of shortcomings, real or imagined.”
She was on a roll now. That could have been her fourth or fifth award of appreciation. But all he said, “You have left out a couple of people, though, haven’t you?”
“You mean me? And Terry and Father Nolan?”
Creen said nothing, obviously expecting more.
“Well, you did say who would I want to talk to. I guess I don’t need to talk to myself. I do enough of that already.” Does that give me the full half dozen? Hell, looking at the way they do business, that must be a record. He might even decide he likes me. A breakthrough in military media cooperation! “But I take your point. Yes, I would expect them to want to talk to us and to Bjorn McAllister as well.”
“So will you help us cope with your predicted fallout?” Creen directed the challenge to all three of them. But there’s something more here, just below the surface. Look at the spook; he’s not happy. Creen knows if the press get to us, we may say things they don’t want said.
“Do we have an alternative, Captain?”
“I could arrange for you to be flown back to civilisation if for any reason you felt your presence here was in some way, shall we say…” Creen paused as if looking for the right word, although Sarah doubted it was for anything other than effect. Then he completed his sentence. “…compromised.” The delicate touch again, but there was an underlying message being delivered too—perhaps more than one.
If we stay, we’ll be hounded—and not only by the visiting media. We’ll be watched. But if we go, the same will occur. Wherever we go, the media and the spooks will follow.
“I’d like to consider it among ourselves first. I’m sure you understand we would prefer to do that in private,” she said. “I’d also like to speak to my boss before we decide on our next step. He has an interest in this too. In the meantime, I would be grateful if we can still enjoy your hospitality, Captain.”
“Very well.” No smiles this time. “But I do have one request. I expect us to receive a lot of calls in the near future. People will want to talk to us, especially to you. I do not want to be diverted from our primary mission here by having to return to port to accommodate the media interest, so I propose we hold a press conference here, allowing those journalists on board to ask the questions on behalf of the rest. They can ask about all the typical things, and photos can be sent out to any relevant agencies.” Interesting choice of words – ‘relevant agencies’. “Are you willing to participate?”
Do I really want to put up with the inane questions I know they will ask? They’re the same stupid questions I would ask! Do I have a choice? One way or another, they will get to us. We always do. And what can I tell them? Not a whole lot. They will presume I’m hiding something. Then we’re into the leading questions, the provocation, the innuendo and straight out hostility. I’m beginning to understand how our victims feel! Ain’t that a laugh, me feeling sorry for them! How many of them will be laughing at me when the tables are reversed, and the shoe is on the other foot? Can I ever go back to the way it was?
“I guess I don’t have many options, Captain. And like you, no doubt, I would appreciate some time to think about it and to prepare for the onslaught.”
“I know what you mean,” Captain Creen mused. “I suggest we call a press conference for…” he stopped and looked at his watch “…1600. Is that enough time?”
“Do you want Terry and Father Nolan there too?” she asked.
“How do you feel about that, gentlemen?” Creen asked.
“I doubt I can add much,” Terry suggested, “but I’m happy to come along as moral support.”
Eddie added, “I can see why people might want to know what I think in my ‘official’ capacity—as if I had one. But no doubt Eric has as many thoughts about that as I do. But I don’t see much value in our debating them on international TV. I wouldn’t like to see it degenerate into something like that.” His eyes were still twinkling. “I’m willing to front up, but I’m not sure I can say a great deal, except to confirm what I saw. I certainly can’t explain it, Captain. I would love to be able to. But right now, I don’t understand it any more than anyone else.”
“Thank you, Father. I appreciate the offer,” the captain acknowledged. “I suggest we all get on with preparing for it.”
The navy men stood up and allowed their leader to leave first. Sarah noticed that the spook was one of the last to go. For a moment she thought he might speak to her, but he seemed to think better of it. Was that a pity? Would it come up again later? Probably. Only the chaplain and the doctor nodded any form of farewell. As far as the rest of the officers were concerned, the three of them may as well not have been there.
“We need to talk, and we need some peace and quiet, as well as some privacy to do so. I doubt our quarters will be safe. Any suggestions?” This was Sarah in charge.
Eddie had one. “The only place I can think of is the chapel. I don’t imagine Eric Kennedy would have any problem with that. He may even guard the doors for us. That would certainly help.”
“Right,” she replied, still very much in charge. “Let’s go there now. Do you know the way, Eddie?”
Sometime later, when trying to remember what had occurred, she realised they still hadn’t had lunch. But no one wanted food. They were now only hungry for answers.