Published by Ralph Kern, 2017.
This is a work of fiction. Similarities to real people, places, or events are entirely coincidental.
First edition. October 25, 2017.
Copyright © 2017 Ralph Kern.
Written by Ralph Kern.
Table of Contents
Previously in the Locus Series
Chapter One – The Past
Chapter Two – The Present
Chapter Three – The Past
Chapter Four – The Present
Chapter Five – The Past
Chapter Six – The Present
Chapter Seven – The Past
Chapter Eight – The Present
Chapter Nine – The Past
Chapter Ten – The Present
Chapter Eleven – The Past
Chapter Twelve – The Present
Chapter Thirteen – The Past
Chapter Fourteen – The Present
Chapter Fifteen – The Past
Chapter Sixteen – The Present
Chapter Seventeen – The Past
Chapter Eighteen – The Present
Chapter Nineteen – The Past
Chapter Twenty – The Present
Chapter Twenty-One – The Past
Chapter Twenty-Two – The Present
Chapter Twenty-Three – The Past
Chapter Twenty-Four – The Present
Chapter Twenty-Five – The Past
Chapter Twenty-Six – The Present
Chapter Twenty-Seven – The Past
Chapter Twenty-Eight – The Present
Chapter Twenty-Nine – The Past
Chapter Thirty – The Present
Chapter Thirty-One – The Past
Chapter Thirty-Two – The Present
Chapter Thirty-Three – The Present
Chapter Thirty-Four – The Present
Chapter Thirty-Five – The Present
Chapter Thirty-Six – The Present
Chapter Thirty-Seven – The Present
Chapter Thirty-Eight – The Present
Chapter Thirty-Nine – The Present
Chapter Forty – The Present
Chapter Forty-One – The Present
Chapter Forty-Two – The Present
Chapter Forty-Three – The Present
Chapter Forty-Four – The Present
Chapter Forty-Five – The Present
There are so many people to thank for supporting me in writing Expedition!
First, Caroline, who has once again shown immense patience and understanding as I toiled away on this book.
Shay, for her fantastic and diligent editing.
Tom, for the beautiful cover art.
Michael, for your amazing narration of this series.
My ‘tribe’ - Nathan, Rob, Josh and Scott, for your moral support. For banding together to form Sci Fi Explorations, and for Keystroke Medium.
Ryan, and the good folk of Audible Studios, for believing in this story, and Jacob for helping make it happen.
For those who read this book and series,
The crew of the USS Ignatius, and all those in the NATO armed forces - thank you for your service.
To the crews on the cruise ships, who labor away to make our holidays great.
And to those who quietly work, so we may sleep soundly in our beds.
Please subscribe to my mailing list here:
Or email / add me to Facebook here:
Previously in the Locus Series
The M/S Atlantica, the most advanced cruise ship in the world, is lost. Navigation and communication systems fail. Captain Solberg and his executive officer, Staff Captain Liam Kendricks, begin to realize what at first seems to be a simple equipment malfunction is something far more terrifying.
As they strive to return home, they encounter a yacht containing Karl Grayson, who is suffering the same difficulties. Taking him aboard, Grayson ingratiates himself with the crew before secretly murdering an officer who is on the verge of discovering he is in league with a mysterious faction.
Shortly after, the Atlantica comes under attack from a repurposed pirate ship led by Urbano Bautista. The crew and passengers, including a disabled Marine, Jack Cohen, fight off the assault with the aid of a Navy helicopter, flown by Grace “Mack” McNamara, which appears in time to save them.
Enlisting the aid of other passengers, including former Royal Navy Admiral John Reynolds and his daughter, Laurie, the Atlantica rendezvous with the USS Paul Ignatius, commanded by Captain Heather Slater, and other refugee ships. They learn that vessels are finding themselves trapped in a region of the sea, out of contact with land or home. Whatever is causing them to become trapped has meant they were last in contact with land on the same date, but have been here for different lengths of times, and for some... years.
Together, Atlantica and the Ignatius are able to refit one of the destroyer’s missiles to map the region. They see that America has changed almost beyond recognition. They surmise that they may have somehow traveled into the distant future. They discover a location which they name the Locus, which is at the center of the region.
Bautista and the pirate leader, Eric Vaughan, along with Grayson recognize that in the resource-poor region, Atlantica is a massive trove of food and luxury and plan to take her by force. Grayson sabotages the Ignatius while Bautista leads a fleet to assault the ships. A fierce battle erupts. Atlantica escapes, but not before Jack and Laurie are captured by the pirates. Bautista’s ship is badly damaged, and his crew takes horrendous casualties.
Jack and Laurie are tortured for information, and tell the pirates the location of the Locus. Atlantica and her fleet elect to push on to the Locus themselves. The two fleets meet and see a strange weather phenomenon in the form of a column cloud with a light emanating from it. Due to Captain Solberg’s increasingly erratic behavior, culminating in a breakdown, he is relieved by Staff Captain Kendricks. Meanwhile, Bautista is showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder and is growing weary of battle.
Laurie discovers that Grayson is working for the pirates and manages to signal this to Atlantica. Grayson narrowly escapes the ship.
The two fleets are about to engage in battle when a superyacht, the Osiris, commanded by Conrad Wakefield, appears at the center of the Locus. His ship has been heavily modified with weaponry and forces a ceasefire.
Wakefield reveals to Atlantica, Ignatius, and the pirates that they have been thrust ten million years into the future as part of a plan to save a portion of humanity from a massive comet strike which wiped out all life on Earth. He urges them to all cooperate in order to recolonize Earth. Vaughan refuses, and wants to leave with the only source of fuel in the area, the oil tanker, Titan.
Slater and Kendricks insist on bringing Grayson into custody for murder and sabotage, but the pirates refuse to give him up.
Grayson and Bautista decide that it is in the best interests of peace to assassinate Vaughan for leading them into war. This begins the process of reconciliation, but Grayson is not pardoned for his acts of murder and sabotage. It emerges that John Reynolds and Conrad Wakefield have been working together all along.
The fleet decides to set course for the old American mainland to begin a fresh start. Grayson is revealed to be a CIA Special Operations Group officer who was tasked with investigating Reynolds and Wakefield.
And he realizes his mission is still on.
The beautiful comet, Perses, loomed low over the twilight horizon, casting a faint illumination over the verdant grasslands of Yellowstone Park. The single bright star of the nucleus sprouted two misty blue tails, spreading an eerie V of gas across the heavens.
“That beauty there is the ion tail.” Doctor Gordon Reeves pointed at the azure streak with a stick. He addressed the four undergraduate students from his astronomy course who had bothered to come view this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They’d long since doused the campfire but the lingering smell of wood and burnt sugar smoke hung in the air. He still felt a little queasy from the sickly toasted marshmallows they’d enjoyed. “It always points directly away from the sun, whereas the dust tail is simply a trail it leaves behind. Now Perses is a big ole comet, so it’s been spreading that one wide.”
He loved it out here, in the backcountry, often spending his weekends hiking and camping the trails away from the noise and light pollution. He brought his little Dobsonian reflector telescope up here to see what splendors the universe had to offer... and what splendors they were.
Of course, now that Perses had swung inside the orbit of the moon and was coming up for its closest approach, the universe was bringing its beauty to him.
So near he could almost touch.
He wanted to share that with the next generation of astronomers. Who knew what sights they would see in the heavens through their careers? With the renewed interest in space exploration after the Deluge of twenty years before, all kinds of investments were taking place. Big telescopes were going up. Hell, even the base on Mars was doing well.
“I never thought I’d be able to actually see it move,” Luke Quinn whispered as he stood next to his girlfriend, Kayleigh Somers. It was no secret he originally only came because of her. Now he seemed to be the one who was most taken by the comet. He’d even stopped eying the chiller holding the stash of beers they’d brought along. “That’s awesome.”
Reeves smiled as he checked the time on his glasses and set them to record what he was looking at. In the last few weeks, the comet had gone from a tiny smudge in the heavens to something which dominated the night sky.
It was beautiful.
Four minutes to closest approach. The comet was indeed moving slowly up into the sky. Its motion would only get faster as it raced toward perigee, the point it was closest to the Earth. Then it would silently retreat over the long years into the dark depths of the Oort cloud beyond Pluto. “Get your cameras ready, folks.”
Perses climbed up till it hovered over the horizon and remained motionless, yet the point of light of the nucleus grew brighter.
Hmmm, maybe that’s a trick of perspective.
“It seems like it’s coming right for us!” Somers laughed nervously. “It’s not gonna hit, is it?”
“No, no of course not,” Reeves said. For some reason, he felt less confident than he should be about that. After all, all the data, all the information said it would scrape by a few thousand miles above the surface.
He’d seen the data himself. He, like every other astronomer on the planet, had been fixated on the approach of C/2012 E2—or Perses, as it had been named. As far as he was aware, no one but the craziest of conspiracy theorists seriously thought it would actually impact.
But now the moment of closest approach was on them, he felt uneasy.
The point of light at the head of the two tails grew in intensity. Surely it would be at Perigee by now.
Everyone couldn’t have been wrong, could they?
Reeves glanced at his students, Luke had wrapped an arm around Kayleigh, drawing her close to him. Their shadows lengthened behind them.
He expected at any moment for the perspective to switch. To watch the comet sweep silently and harmlessly by the Earth.
Swallowing, he took a step back. An instinctive reaction to perceiving something approaching. His brain interpreted it as if he were watching a train race inevitably toward him in a tunnel.
Something which would hit them no matter what.
Surely someone would have known if it was going to. Surely someone would have said something about an unstoppable ball of ice and rock silently thundering toward them.
But what if they’d all been wrong?
The light grew to an intensity which overwhelmed everything.
Then there was nothing.
Chapter One – The Past
The crosshairs settled on the distant figure.
That he was furious was beyond doubt. His arms were just visible, waving in apparent admonishment of an unseen person. He stalked back and forth within the bare room in a repetitive motion. Left, then right, his movements bordered by the frame of the blown-out balcony doors.
However bad he thought his day was, Karl Grayson thought with grim bemusement, it was about to get a hell of a lot worse.
Even those two words were enough to send his rifle’s crosshairs bobbing up and down, far more so than the gentle rhythmical sway his breathing caused. It would be the last time Grayson would speak until the job was done.
For him, the world had reduced to a tunnel. The dark cylinder of the scope bordering the man he was focused on, so far in the distance.
“Range: twelve hundred meters,” came the bass disembodied voice of his spotter. “Just finishing up the firing solution.”
Grayson took a slow deep breath in, letting the bitter ash-filled air fill his lungs. The heat was scorching, causing sweat to trickle from his brow. Ignoring it, he flexed his index finger, loosening it, before resting it against the rifle’s trigger guard.
For a shot at this range, everything had to be considered. The wind speed and direction, the drop of the bullet, the barometric pressure, the weight of the bullet, even the very rotation of the Earth as it rolled around its orbit. A miscalculation of any of those things could send his shot wild, and compensating for all of those factors pared down to two simple numbers.
“Three up, four left.”
Slowly, so as not to disturb his position, he moved his left arm. Without looking, his practiced fingertips sought the drums on the side of the scope. He rotated them, feeling three clicks, then four as he zeroed the sights.
“Requesting final authority.”
He heard two clicks as his partner pressed the talk button on his radio twice. There would be no voice communications which could be intercepted by listening ears on this mission.
The moment stretched into infinity. He took stock of his position. His rifle, body, and legs were in perfect alignment on the debris-covered roof—a line pointed directly at his unknowing prey. He heard his partner rustle slightly, adjusting his position as they waited for the response.
In the comfort of an office or meeting room thousands of miles away, their quarry’s fate would be decided.
It didn’t take them long. Seconds later, three clicks came over his earpiece.
Grayson didn’t respond, his next actions would be enough to acknowledge his orders.
The figure paced left, then right, its arms still waving angrily. The motion of the man repetitive. Repetitive and predictable.
Breathe in. The target was dead in his sights. Then it walked left, out of them revealing the cracked plaster wall behind.
Hold breath in lungs. Grayson smoothly squeezed the trigger, taking up its slack and then...
The rifle boomed.
The 0.338 Lapua Magnum round exploded out of the barrel at 805 meters per second. It soared silently across the smashed ruins of the city, outpacing the sound of its own gunshot.
Grayson watched as the figure walked back into his sights. As he reached the crosshairs, he dropped anticlimactically to the floor. The battered wall behind him now painted red.
“Tango down,” Grayson murmured. He felt none of the thrill or regret of his first few kills. This was just how he served his country now, how he earned his wage, how he paid his mortgage—doing the work too dangerous or questionable for others.
He pulled his cheek from the rifle. The rest of the world crashed into his awareness.
He was lying prone on the shattered remains of a rooftop. His partner, Max Dillon next to him, looking through his own telescopic spotter scope, his teeth bared as sweat cut rivulets through the streaks of camouflage paint covering his face.
Before them lay the ragged war-torn capital of a country which had come to be known as the Vortex. A confluence of four armies, each fighting vicious hot and cold wars to complete their own ephemeral objectives. Objectives which twisted and turned on the whims of distant masters.
Once, this had been a thriving city. But that was a long, long time ago. The local population had been more than decimated. The smoldering carcasses of buildings were riddled by craters or stitched with the pockmarks of bullets. From all around came the staccato of machine guns and the thud of explosions.
But there was still life here. Still people trying to eke out an existence in this shattered place.
Grayson looked up, shielding his eyes from the sun as a pair of fighter-bombers streaked across the skyline. The rooftop shook from the furious power of their engines. It could be NATO forces, or it could be the Russians. Who knew anymore? The battle lines shifted far too quickly for anyone to keep up with.
Dark specks dropped from under their wings. Moments later came the thump of detonations a couple of miles away. More people dying in this hellhole. The warplanes thundered away, leaving a cascade of twinkling flares as the white trails of surface-to-air missiles reached vainly into the sky after them.
He blinked and reached into his thigh pocket for his aviators and slipped them on, easing the piercing sun on his eyes.
“Yeah,” Dillon clucked to himself as he continued looking through the spotter scope, undisturbed by the bombing run. “I reckon we’ve got us one dead terrorist asshole here. A personal message signed, sealed, and delivered, and with no collateral. Just like the bosses wanted.”
Grayson grinned in response as he pulled the blackened metal McMillon TAC-338 sniper rifle to his body and snapped the spindly bipod legs shut.
“In other words,” Dillon continued as he pulled his eye away from the scope and glanced across at Grayson with a wink. “Karl the Jackal strikes again.”
“Team effort, Navy. Team effort.” Grayson pulled his water bottle from his webbing and took a long gulp, the pure liquid washing away the gritty taste of sand in his mouth. “If you’d be so kind as to call it in?”
“No problem.” Dillon keyed his lapel mic four times.
As expected, there was no reply to the announcement that they’d completed their mission and were withdrawing.
Grayson screwed the cap back on the bottle and slid it back into its pouch before looking around to ensure they’d picked everything up as Dillon disassembled and stowed the spotter scope in his backpack.
Twisting onto his knees, Grayson slung his sniper rifle over his shoulder and picked up the SCAR-H battle rifle lying next to him. They weren’t going to be looking for any more trouble, but it was a long hike back to the US-controlled Green Zone. A long hike through some pretty damn unfriendly territory. “Ready?”
“Ready,” Dillon responded.
They dropped through a hole which had been long since smashed through the eastern corner of the building and trotted down the rubble-strewn stairwell. At the entrance, Grayson lifted his Peshmerga scarf from around his neck to cover his face before looking up and down the ruin-lined street.
“Clear. Let’s move out.”
Chapter Two – The Present
Lieutenant Grace “Mack” McNamara pulled up on the collective and the Seahawk responded, lifting over the rolling forest-clad hills surrounding the crystal blue waters of the bay.
She checked the engine gauges, seeing the needles flickering within the green wedge indicating they were operating correctly. Yeah, pressures and temps were good, she was good, the helicopter was good. In fact, it was an all-round damn awesome day to be a pilot.
But it was time to call it.
“Okay, that’s enough for one day. Let’s bring her on in,” she said, pressing the radio stud on the cyclic. “USS Paul Ignatius, this is Sierra Hotel 1-2. Requesting clearance to land, over.”
“Sierra Hotel 1-2, Ignatius. You’re cleared for RAST to the flight deck.”
“Thank you, Ignatius. Coming in now.”
Mack cleared the last of the hills, glancing down as she did so at the outskirts of their new home, called—fittingly—Anchorage. The fields were bordered by ramshackle huts and the ant-like specks of people were scattered everywhere. Yeah, they’d definitely made their mark on this place, beginning the long process of making this world belong to them again, belong to humans again—stamping the lush and verdant land with agriculture and industry.
Before Mack, the bay opened up in all its glory. Nestled within were ships of every description. Small boats flittered amongst the rickety, hastily assembled piers where myriad medium-sized craft—fishing trawlers, freighters, and ferries—moored. And further out, the high-tech floating palace that was the huge cruise ship, Atlantica, and beyond her, the vast dirty bulk of the super tanker, Titan. The make-shift refinery atop her belched out black clouds of smoke—a necessary evil in this pristine environment, to Mack’s way of thinking, to ensure the fleet had sufficient fuel to make a go of it here.
Almost lost, nestled into the flank of Atlantica, just offset enough so the flight deck protruded behind the cruise ship’s stern, Mack’s home sat—the drab and mean-looking gray Arleigh Burke class destroyer, the USS Paul Ignatius.
“I think we’ve done a good job fixing up the baby.” Lieutenant Michael Phillips slapped the top of the console.
“Don’t jinx it just yet,” Mack retorted with a grin. Never say something was going well or fate would come and give you a hard smack somewhere it’d hurt the most.
But yes, she was quietly proud of their accomplishment, turning the cannibalized hulk of Ignatius’s spare hangar queen helicopter into an actual flying aircraft once again. That was a win in anyone’s book.
The squat, long helicopter descended toward the ship. Ignatius’s features became more pronounced as they closed on her. Mack couldn’t help but give a wince as she saw the twisted, patched radar mast on top the ship’s super structure and the discolored paint work where fires had engulfed her in the brutal battle of Nest Island. A battle which had been fought against those who were now their allies.
“Coming in for final approach.” Mack refocused on the pre-landing checklist. With practiced ease, and without even glancing at the thick manual strapped to her thigh, she ran her hands over the controls.
“Tail wheel switch: lock. No cautions or advisories. Armaments: safe. Harness locked...” she spoke quickly as she ran through her procedures. “Moving to the RAST checklist.”
The Seahawk settled over Ignatius’s flight deck. Mack released the cable which would be attached to the ship’s flight deck and winch the helicopter down. With a thump, the cable dropped. Somewhere below her, a crewman would grab it.
“We have you, Mack,” the landing system’s officer announced, far less formally than Ignatius’s communications officer. “Getting ready to reel you on in.”
“Roger that, LSO.”
The winch began hauling the helicopter steadily, yet surely down. Mack applied minute commands, keeping the helicopter level. They slewed gently to one side. Mack responded, pressing her right foot against the pedals.
A loud bang came from somewhere above and behind her. An ominous grinding noise filled the cabin, overlaying the dull roar of the engine, and the cyclic and collective began vibrating in her hands.
Ignatius’s superstructure swept to the left and an urgent warbling noise came from the console. Warning lights flashed as the alarm rang in Mack’s ears.
Without hesitation, she applied force to the opposite pedal even as the aircraft yawed to the right. Phillips, working with perfect synergy, slapped the emergency release button for the RAST. From below came a popping noise as a hydraulically powered guillotine sliced through the cable tying them to the flight deck.
“Shit,” Mack muttered as she fought for altitude. The tail boom narrowly missing Ignatius’s already scarred mast as it swung around. The massive blue and white wall of Atlantica’s flank swept past. “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday.”
The world completed a 360-degree pirouette, the pilot feeling herself being pressed in the opposite direction by the centrifugal force. Something was wrong with the tail rotor and they’d lost control of their yaw. And that was pretty damn problematic for Mack if she wanted to land on the warship’s tiny flight deck.
More warning lights flashed as she increased throttle to climb them higher into the clear blue sky, seeking that sweet spot where the rotor power of the main rotor and the balancing thrust from the malfunctioning tail blades would match.
“You got it. You got it,” Phillips urged as Mack slowly brought the spiraling helicopter under some semblance of control.
The wild yaw slowed, then stopped. They found themselves in an unsteady hover, high above the mothership.
“Okay, no way we’re bringing this bird in on Ignatius,” Mack said grimly as she banked the Seahawk around in a juddering turn, arcing away from the two ships. “I’m going in for a run-on landing as close to Anchorage as I can put her.”
Pushing forward on the cyclic, the nose dipped and they began slipping forwards. “Forty knots, forty knots,” she chanted, as if the vehicle was under voice control. She glanced at the airspeed indicator, fighting to keep them at the correct speed.
The white-capped waves rolling beneath them gave way to the gold of a sandy beach rushing by. The small, ramshackle settlement swept by to her right. The last thing she wanted to do was smash up the place as she came down.
“There.” Phillips pointed at a plant-laden field approaching fast. “Looks good, Mack. Put her there.”
“Got it.” It looked as good a prospect as any, and better than most. She dipped the nose, letting the airspeed creep up slightly. The field grew as it rose toward them. Specks resolved into people, running left and right to get out of their way as they thundered forward.
“Come on, come on!” She kept glancing at the ASI, then out of the window. They swept over the boundary of the field. “Flaring!”
She hauled the cyclic back and thrust down on the collective. The helicopter lurched down, skidded and bounced onto the field. The spinning rotor blades kicked up billowing clouds of dirt and dismembered plants. “Kill power.”
The blades whipped down, slowed, and stopped. With more flicks of switches, the aircraft shut down.
“Goddamn,” Phillips muttered as he leaned back. “Good flying.”
“Any landing you can walk away from is a good one,” Mack said, before turning and cuffing her copilot with the back of her hand. “I told you, you shouldn’t have jinxed it.”
“Sierra Hotel 1-2, Ignatius Actual. Are you okay?” Commander Heather Slater’s cool voice asked.
“Yes, ma’am.” Mack looked out the canopy as people slowly returned to the fields, approaching with weary curiosity. “But I think we’re in bandit country here.”
“Roger that,” Slater responded. “We’ll get someone out to you ASAP.”
Mack pulled off her helmet, and glanced at Phillips who returned her look with a frown. They could be in real trouble. They may officially be allies with the people in this area, but there was history here. Recent history. Bad history. She reached to her shoulder harness and pulled out her sidearm and, ensuring it was tucked out of view in her lap, pulled back on the slide, making the weapon ready before replacing it in its holster. Phillips nodded, mirroring her movements.
“Right, let’s go meet our new best friends, shall we.”
Bautista pushed and twisted his way through the outskirts of the crowd toward the downed helicopter. Its wheels were sunk half way into the soft earth, the crew wearily standing by the open hatch.
The mood was palpably ugly. Murmurs of anger and discontent washed over the mass of people. There was the very real possibility a lynching would take place. After all, one of these damn things was responsible for killing dozens of their community. Possibly—probably—it was even this helicopter and this crew.
But a lynching couldn’t happen. Not now, not when they’d accomplished so much. Worked so hard to repair the troubled history between them.
“Stay here.” Bautista held the back of his hand in front of Karl Grayson’s chest, preventing him from following him forward. “The last thing we want is them seeing you. They might just decide it’d be worth the fight to just put a bullet in you.”
Grayson nodded and loitered on the outskirts of the crowd as Bautista pushed the rest of the way through the thickening throng. The people who saw him parted respectfully. Those that didn’t, he unceremoniously shoved out of the way.
Reaching the front, he turned. “What are you doing here ogling?” He gave a shooing motion. “You all have work to do. Vamoose.”
“They don’t just settle for shooting at us,” one surly man growled. “Now they’ve churned up our fields. Then they’ll have the gall to demand a cut of our food too.”
“I said...” Bautista stepped forward, well inside the man’s personal space, and stared straight into his eyes, daring the man to challenge his authority. “Vamoose.”
For a moment, it seemed the man would take up the challenge. Then he gave a shake of his head before spitting in the direction of the gray helicopter. Turning, he roughly pushed his way back through the crowd.
The mood seemed to break and the danger dissipated. People began tromping off through the churned-up mud and wreckage of plants, muttering in discontent.
With a barely hidden sigh of relief, knowing how close they had just come, Bautista turned to the crew. “There are better places for you to land than in the middle of one of our fields.”
“Yeah.” A tall ebony-skinned woman jumped down from the hatch. He saw emblazoned on her flight suit breast her name beneath the golden wings of a pilot. Lt G. McNamara. “I’d agree with you there. But we didn’t exactly have a lot of choice.”
“What can I say?” the woman responded with a grin. “A helicopter is five thousand moving parts, all of which are trying to do you bodily harm.”
Bautista raised an eyebrow. That tallied with what he suspected when he’d seen the vehicle lumber in. It hadn’t been a voluntary landing. “Come on, G. McNamara. I’ll take you to get some food and drink while we await your colleagues.”
“Ma’am?” the other man piped up, still standing within the cabin. He gestured around him at the helicopter. “It probably ain’t a good idea to leave her with this... bunch.”
Very suspicious of him. But also, prudent.
“You two,” Bautista barked at two farmers still loitering nearby. “You look after this. If anything goes missing, you are responsible. Now please come. We clearly have barriers we need to break down.”
With a shrug, the woman looked at her copilot. “If they want to take our shit, us two ain’t going to be able to stop ’em. If Mister Bautista here wants to deal with Cap’n Slater on the warpath, the more fool him.”
Bautista felt a thrill of fear course through him at the thought. Last time they had gone against the captain of the warship in the bay, it had cost them dearly. Too dearly. The deck of his ship, the Liliana, was still stained with the blood she had spilt.
“Indeed,” he settled on in response. “Please, come this way.”
The three of them walked toward the edge of the field. Bautista exchanged a look with a man who stood watching them from among the stragglers.
Fortunately, this G. McNamara and her copilot hadn’t noticed him.
No, Karl Grayson was definitely a man to keep away from Ignatius’s crew, or they really would have a diplomatic incident to contend with.
Chapter Three – The Past
“Goddamn it,” Grayson muttered as he exhausted another parking lot row. Pulling his car around, he started up the next. One day, he might reach the illustrious heights of getting his own spot, but that wasn’t this day, and wishful thinking didn’t help him right here and now.
And if he pissed off his boss by being late, chances are that day would recede even further into the future.
Finally, he spotted a space and reversed his shabby old Mustang, still his pride and joy, and considering the exorbitant costs of keeping the damn thing running, his main expense, between two massive SUVs which dwarfed it.
Reaching into the passenger foot well, he grabbed his briefcase and climbed out.
He was a little over a quarter of a mile away from the entrance to the main building of the sprawling Central Intelligence Agency headquarters at Langley.
Normally, he liked to take his time, walking up the winding path through the forest lying just to the south of the complex and paying his respects at the recovered chunk of the Berlin Wall on display there. To Grayson, it was a piece of history which testified to a simpler, somehow nobler time, when the only thing Uncle Sam had to worry about was the Evil Empire in the East. And, of course, the several thousand nuclear warheads pointed at them, ready to send America back to the Stone Age.
Nowadays, life had become a hell of a lot more complicated. Instead of one big enemy, they had dozens, if not hundreds. All of whom seemed to wish the death of a thousand papercuts on the US of A.
Today though, he didn’t have time to tip his hat to his predecessors, many of whom died to bring down that Iron Curtain. Instead, he took the direct route up the main path.
As he approached the entrance of the new headquarters building, he saw Dillon sitting on a bench. One arm was thrown over the back in a relaxed pose. His head was turned upward as he basked in the morning sun, looking like he didn’t have a care in the world.
“Cutting it fine, ain’t you?” Dillon said as he approached. He stood and clasped Grayson’s hand in a firm grip.
“Parking,” Grayson said simply as both men turned and began walking toward the huge foyer entrance.
“Right.” Dillon nodded in understanding. “You’re looking particularly fine and dandy today. New threads?”
“Yeah.” Grayson shoved a finger between his tie and throat, giving it a waggle as he looked across at the similarly besuited man, the cut of which seeming to accentuate rather than hide his imposing frame. Clearly the man had spent money on getting it tailored rather than the off-the-rack number Grayson had bought. “And you look like you’ve hit the mall yourself, big man.”
“The clothing allowance has to go somewhere.”
They swept into the reception area, the echoing marbled floored chamber had the appearance of an airport check-in area. A set of metal detector arches lay in the center while armed guards gazed at them with lazy watchfulness and eager sniffer dogs pranced.
Grayson knew they were a trip wire, nothing more. If real trouble was detected, an entire company of Marines would descend on the place in a matter of minutes.
He walked to the metal detectors and dropped his briefcase, keys, change, and belt into a tray. It rolled down the conveyor as he passed through the arch and entered the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency proper.
The two of them approached the reception desk. A uniformed soldier watched them, sizing them up and probably deciding, on balance, they didn’t look like the type who had the agency’s worst interests at heart.
“Captain Karl Grayson and Chief Petty Officer Max Dillon, to see Colonel Victor Millard,” Grayson said as he slipped his Common Access Card out of his wallet and slid it into a lanyard before draping it around his neck.
“Good morning, sir,” the young corporal said, before gesturing upward. “If you’d look into the camera, please.”
Grayson stared at the small lens. A moment later, the corporal nodded him through.
The two men climbed the stairway. Passing the bustle of people in both uniforms and office wear, they walked down an unremarkable corridor which opened into another reception area where another soldier sat tapping away at a keyboard.
“Long time, no see, Lulu.” Dillon propped himself on the desk and leaned over the woman who stared daggers at him. “Is the man in yet?”
“Off. Now.” She looked pointedly at the large man. Dillon acquiesced with a nod and a smile. He slid from the desk as Grayson rolled his eyes. One day, Sergeant Louisa Franklin was going to either put in a complaint of harassment or shoot him. One of the two. Frankly, the man deserved either response. “Yes, he is in. And you two are late.”
“Blame the captain over there. I’m sure he could give you a long boring tale about the scandalous lack of parking spaces for us minions.”
Grayson gave a pained smile of his own before pointing at the colonel’s door. “Straight through?”
“Yes, but take him a coffee.” Sergeant Franklin pointed at the percolator. “You know how he gets in the morning.”
“Roger that.” Grayson grabbed a mug and topped it up from the gurgling machine sitting on the sideboard. It had taken him a long time to get used to the informality of this place, enlisted and officers divesting themselves of the burden of usual military etiquette. Once he’d got over himself, he’d actually found it a refreshing relief from the stuffiness of the bases he’d spent the rest of his career in.
But still, there was one person in this place you didn’t jack around.
Grayson rapped on the door, and heard a voice boom from within, “Enter.”
The office was large, filled with an imposing desk and a conference table. Large screens on the wall displayed every news channel from CNN to Al Jazeera. Other wall-sized displays, which usually showed real-time mission reports from various operations around the world, were curiously blank.
Victor Millard sat at the head of the conference table. He was as lean as Grayson and exuded health, despite pushing fifty, his face chiseled and clean-shaven, and his back ramrod-straight. Next to him was a stranger, a woman Grayson had never seen before.
The colonel pointedly lifted his arm, looking at the expensive watch, and raised an eyebrow. “Gentlemen, I trust you have excuses, but frankly we have a lot to cover and I don’t want to hear them. My expectation, when I order you to a meeting at 0800, is that you turn up on time. Am I clear?”
“Licky Chicky, boss.” Grayson proffered the mug toward his commanding officer by way of an apology, as he looked at the woman sat around the table from him. “I’m afraid we didn’t realize we had another guest.”
“Sit down,” Millard responded curtly in answer.
Grayson and Dillon nodded, before lowering themselves into two free chairs. Brown manila envelopes were already in place in front of them.
Colonel Millard reached across the table and drew the mug toward him and took a long sip before giving a satisfied sigh. “Good coffee, Karl. And, while I’m feeling complimentary, good work on Al Bashari. Swift and terminal retribution in such a personal manner sends a far clearer message to the ISIL Remnant than a drone strike or bombing run. Well done.”
“From what I hear, the Cleaver of the Vortex had it coming,” Grayson said as he leaned back in his seat. “Any more word on the boys and girls he ambushed?”
“On top of the Marine killed in the theater? Nothing new. The sergeant of that unit is going to be spending the rest of his days hopping around on one leg.”
“Better hopping than wheeling or dead,” Dillon responded dismissively. “So why the hell did you pull us? We had half a dozen operations on our board.”
“Oh, you’ll like this.” Millard gave a wry smile before leaning forward and tapping on his tablet. One of the wall screens came alive, showing an amateurishly drafted poster. On it was what was clearly a camera-phone image of Grayson and Dillon walking in the street, and beneath them Arabic text. “Apparently, you two now have a hell of a bounty on your heads. Literally, just for your heads. All other parts are strictly optional. I must admit, when I was told just how much, I considered turning you in myself.”
“Shit,” Grayson muttered, the repercussions of them being outed so publicly painfully evident to him. Not least of which is that he’d be ordered to move house as part of the standard safeguarding response to this kind of threat. Again. “So that’s it?”
“That’s it. The Vortex is too hot for you right now. There’s not a chance in hell we can embed you back in there with that kind of temptation hanging over you. Every person you meet will be looking at you and wondering if pissing off the CIA is worth the pay check the Remnant is offering.”
Grayson leaned back in his chair, gritting his teeth. The ISIL Remnant was just that, the sad remains of their defeated caliphate, but they could clearly still pull together a decent counter-intel team and a fair-sized bounty on people who’d screwed with them enough.
“Fortunately, we have another job for you. Celia?” Millard gestured at the woman at the table. “Meet Captain Karl Grayson, Army, and Chief Petty Officer Max Dillon, Navy SEAL. Two of our finest Tier One operators now attached to the Special Activities Division Special Operations Group. Celia here is a friend from across the pond.”
“Pleased to meet you, gentlemen,” she spoke for the first time. “Celia Bradley, from the Special Intelligence Service—”
“MI6?” Grayson interrupted, glancing across at Millard, perplexed at the thought of a foreign agent in the headquarters of one of the most secretive bastions in America. No wonder the mission feeds were shut down. The UK may be friendly, but that didn’t mean Millard wanted them seeing just what the CIA was up to.
“We prefer to call ourselves SIS these days.”
“The question still remains, sir,” Grayson continued, addressing his boss. “What is she doing here?”
“Gentlemen—” Millard said, his deep voice lowering even more.
“Are you like Jane Bond?” Dillon rocked back on the back two legs of his chair.
“No, we prefer not to do that kind of thing anymore, either,” she retorted in a cutting tone. Clearly, she was no stranger to banter.
“Captain, CPO, I appreciate that you’ve been in a war-torn hellhole for the last few months, but a little professional civility with our guests now your back stateside, please,” Millard admonished loudly.
Dillon waved his hand, as if he was wiping away the conversation and leaned forward. “Apologies, boss.”
“The good news for you two, is with all of our other SOG teams currently tied up in the Vortex, we have a job for you.” Millard spoke loudly, giving no opportunity for further banter. “How does a trip to Nassau, in the Bahamas, sound to you?”
Grayson felt his eyebrows raising. “A hell of a lot better than some sandy shithole if I’m honest, boss.”
“Glad to hear you like the sound of it,” Maynard said. “Open up the packets.”
Grayson reached for the brown manila envelope on the table and lifted the flap. Pulling out the briefing book within, he flipped it open. On the first page was a photograph of a man dressed in what he immediately recognized as a British Royal Navy dress uniform. The board on the left of his chest was covered in as many medals as your average third world dictator, while braiding swept across to the right.
His eyes, even inanimate in the picture, conveyed both kindness and sadness in equal measures. Combined with his plethora of medals, Grayson got the impression this was a man who’d seen a lot in his time.
“This is Vice Admiral Sir John Reynolds,” Bradley said as she flipped open her own book. “Formally of the Royal Navy. Now retired.”
“And?” Grayson quickly flipped the pages over, seeing behind the photo a service record. It was a hell of a long spreadsheet.
“And,” Bradley said, “we have reason to believe, involved in the proliferation of naval weapons technology, including possible weapons of mass destruction.”
Grayson lifted his eyes from the document, looking at the woman across the table. WMDs? Now this new job had just become interesting and real fast.
“So.” Dillon casually flicked through his own packet. “You want us to off him?”
“No,” Bradley said. “Or at least not yet. Chances are he’s just the broker. We need to find out what he has, how he obtained it, who he’s selling it to, and why.”
Grayson nodded, lowering his gaze to the document. A thought occurred. “How come you guys aren’t handling this in-house?”
“Because he’s here, just off our coast,” Millard took over. “And, quite rightly, SIS figured if shit is going down, then we’d want to know about it.”
“Good point, well made,” Dillon murmured distractedly as he continued reading the document. “What I want to know is, do you guys not have PowerPoint over in the UK?”
“I’m just an old-fashioned kind of girl,” Bradley responded without humor.
Chapter Four – The Present
“Sir, I really think you should turn back,” Jack Cohen said as he, Admiral John Reynolds, and Petty Officer Hank Doolidge walked along the dirt track into the outskirts of Anchorage. “We’ve got this.”
The wooden huts were near the hastily erected piers where the majority of the pirate vessels had moored. The fledgling shantytown bustled with the cries of bartering, the industriousness of people and even the bark of the odd dog which had somehow found its way onto the one or another of the ships which had arrived in the region.
No, he had to stop referring to them as pirates. They were allies now. The fleet seemed to be their leaders preferred name for the community now. One which didn’t show any of the divisions of the past.
“Nonsense, dear boy.” Reynolds patted Jack on the shoulder. “We’re all friends now. We have to start acting like it.”
“Yeah.” Hank eyed the people looking at them with accusatory eyes as they passed. “But do they know that?”
A woman stepped forward, her dark hair scraped back into a ponytail. She looked them up and down. “You the rescue party?”
“Hello there.” Reynolds smiled warmly. “I’m hoping there’s not so much rescuing to be done as... a collection, miss?”
“Kristen. My name is Kristen.”
“My apologies, Kristen.” Reynolds reached out a hand and she tentatively shook it. Jack was always surprised how the admiral constantly took a moment to make everyone feel important. A skill likely cultivated from his long military career spent keeping the peace in the claustrophobic spaces of a warship. “If you’d be so kind as to take us to Mister Bautista.”
She nodded, and inclined her head toward what appeared to be a communal eating area of long tables covered over by a wooden roof. “He’s in the commissary. This way.”
She led the way into the commissary area where the crew of the Seahawk were wolfing down some kind of soup.
“Admiral.” Mack stood to attention as she noticed him, followed a beat later by the other officer. She glanced around. “You three ain’t exactly what I consider the cavalry.”
“I persuaded Heather... Captain Slater, that the soft touchy-feely approach was for the best.” Reynolds turned to Bautista, who had stood with the others, and thrust his hand forward. “Urbano, please accept our gratitude for looking after our crew.”
“Yes,” Bautista said as he took Reynolds’s hand, far more hesitantly than the confident manner in which Reynolds had offered it. “As you say, touchy feely. I thought it best not to be on the receiving end of a barrage from the Ignatius if Commander Slater were to express her... displeasure at any mistreatment of her people.”
Jack couldn’t help but give a snort, and clenched his fist which threatened to creep toward the gun holstered on his thigh. These pleasantries seemed wrong, even after all these weeks. Bautista wasn’t one to talk sanctimoniously of mistreatment. The bastard had tortured him, beaten him to a pulp with his bare hands, and now they were making nice?
He snatched his hand away, instead tucking his thumb into his belt. They were allies. Brought together by circumstances, but that didn’t mean he felt filled with enthusiasm about being polite to this asshole, even if he had seemed to have turned into a damned hippy. And as for... Jack turned and surveyed what he could see of the ramshackle settlement as the continuing pleasantries washed over him. Yes. He was keeping a low profile, as he should. As far as the Ignatius and Atlantica were concerned, it was still open season on that saboteur, Karl Grayson.
“Please, have some vegetable soup.” Bautista waved his hand toward the steaming urn set in the middle of the table.
“Thank you, but no,” Reynolds said. “I’d like your permission to bring in a recovery crew. They’ll take some sensitive items off the Seahawk and assess her for repairs.”
“Sensitive items? You mean weapons?”
Reynolds gave a flash of a smile. “No, this helicopter was being test flown. It was the one we cannibalized to keep the other flying. We’ve managed to repair...” Reynolds corrected himself. “Almost managed to repair her using Atlantica’s 3D printers. We just want to ensure the radar and coms systems are secured. Heather gets somewhat tetchy about that kind of thing.”
Bautista opened his hands in supplication. “We will ensure nothing happens to it until you can arrange its recovery or repair.”
“We’re all one big happy family,” Jack muttered, a little louder than he intended.
“Yes,” Reynolds looked pointedly at Jack. “Yes we are. And that must not change.”
“Agreed,” Bautista said. “The time for conflict is past now.”
“Speaking of which...” Reynolds returned his attention to his opposite number. “We would like to invite you on board the Atlantica tonight. We are hosting a dinner. The first using food stuffs entirely produced since our arrival.”
“So, I get to eat like a king while my people enjoy watery soup?” Bautista responded cuttingly, gesturing at the urn.
“Urbano.” Reynolds let the pleasant smile fall from his face, replacing it with an earnest expression. “We need to work together, but considering our recent history, it has to be in small steps. Come aboard, start that process.”
Jack felt himself bristling at the thought of Bautista returning to the Atlantica. Last time he had been aboard, a lot of good people ended up dead or injured. Not the least Captain Kendricks, who he’d shot in the shoulder. He forced himself to relax, or tried to at least.
“Swords have to be turned into ploughshares at some point,” Reynolds continued quietly. “Help us do that. Please.”
Bautista sighed, looking torn. Then he rallied himself. “Very well. Small steps.”
Grayson stood in the shade of a hut, watching the meeting, watching Reynolds.
Not for the first time, he wondered how different things might have turned out if he’d known one of his targets was on that damn ship. One of those responsible for him being here. One of those responsible for them all being here.
But he hadn’t known. In the turmoil and confusion of the first month Atlantica had arrived, he’d never crossed path with Reynolds, both of them missing each other within its vastness. The man had pulled his strings from behind the scenes. And now, he was the Admiral—the self-styled president of the refugees.
And then his master, Conrad Wakefield, had arrived on the Osiris, an even more impregnable fortress to Grayson than Atlantica herself, and the world had shifted again. He’d spent hours reconnoitering the heavily armed superyacht. He’d mentally roleplayed a thousand times how to get aboard, but Wakefield’s security team made Ignatius’s and Atlantica’s seem like mall cops. They were on the ball, and they were trained. The last time he’d tried in earnest hadn’t gone so well for him or his team.
And dozens of others. He felt a twinge of sadness at the lives lost.
Maybe he should thank Reynolds and Wakefield for helping him set in course the chain of events which led to him being here? After all, it had led him to Kristen, and the birth of his son. Or damn them for all they had done, both directly and indirectly.
Yes, he concluded, what they had been involved with was unforgivable.
But, Grayson dwelled, as unforgivable as what Wakefield had done, it was just as unforgivable as what he himself had done. Maybe the means justified the ends? He had to hope so, as that was the only small shimmer of redemption which kept at bay the loathing he felt for his own actions. The murder of an officer on Atlantica, the sabotage of Ignatius, and the betrayal of trust. Maybe he was getting soft in his old age, but he had to hope it was worth it.
The question was, would the greater good be Wakefield and Reynolds’s excuse, too?
Bautista and Reynolds shook hands again. The group began walking toward the edge of the settlement while Bautista remained in the shade of the commissary, his arms folded in a pose of contemplation.
Grayson leaned forward. He was so close. His quarry in their very settlement. He could take him now. Chances are Jack would have a go-team standing by to come pull them out of trouble, but he could get a lot of information out of Reynolds before the first shell from Ignatius dropped.
No, while he was sure he could get information, there was the little problem of doing something with it while a full-blown rescue mission took place, which stayed his hand. And the fact Kristen and his son would be trapped in the middle of what would rapidly turn into a warzone as the fleet fought to get them back.
The group moved further away. Slipping from his reach. Again. When they were safely away, Grayson joined his boss in the chilled shade of the commissary.
“Urbano,” Grayson affected his casual tone and demeanor. The one which he knew disarmed people, making them underestimate him. A careful camouflage. “How was your chat? Negotiations successful?”
“I think so.” Bautista nodded, reaching for a tin mug of water. “I have been invited for... dinner.”
Grayson felt his lips curl in a sardonic smile. “On Atlantica? You’re in for a real treat.”
“Yes, although they call it a diplomatic overture.”
“Ha,” Grayson scoffed and slapped the other man’s arm, before tugging the mug out of Bautista’s hand and taking a drink himself. “You’re even sounding like a damn diplomat now. Who would’ve thought—warlord turned peacemaker.”
“Warlord sounds very dramatic.”
“What do you prefer? Pirate lord? Buccaneer? Rogue?”
“What do you want, Karl?” Bautista asked wearily.
“You know what I want,” Grayson said plainly. “I want on Atlantica.”
“You know that isn’t going to happen.” Bautista frowned. They’d been having versions of this conversation for weeks. And the answer was always the same. “You take one step on that ship and it’ll be a toss-up between Kendricks or Slater about who will hang you from the yardarm first. By all rights, I should have you sent over to the container ship mine. Get you out of the way before they decide once and for all to just grab you.”
“I get that, Urbano, but I have unfinished business,” Grayson pressed. Bautista had been ruminating for weeks on simply packing him off back to the container mine, a thousand miles away. Back to where they’d come from to join the salvage crews still picking over the derelict. He sure as hell needed to steer him away from that idea. “I need on Atlantica.”
“And what is that unfinished business?” Bautista looked at Grayson, the question evident in his eyes. “You’ve been very reluctant to say exactly what.”
“Stuff, Urbano,” Grayson said, purposely letting the plea enter his tone. “I’ve moved hell and Earth for this fleet. All I’m asking is you start the process. Ask the question.”
“Not good enough,” Bautista said sharply. “Remember that diplomatic word I said? Well the last thing we need is to start shooting at each other again. You may have not noticed, but the Ignatius is looking like she is a good way toward being repaired after your last dealings with her. If we have to face her again...”
“Fine.” Grayson raised his arms, signaling his surrender. For the moment. “Just, please start paving the way, okay?”
“When you start telling me what unfinished business you have.” Bautista looked at Grayson intently. “You want on her, you give me a better story than the bullshit you’ve come out with.”
Grayson took another sip of the water. How much should he tell Bautista? Would he help? Would the ex-drug cartel enforcer even understand? To underestimate his intelligence was the last mistake Grayson had seen a hell of a lot of people do. But this was different.
“The truth is, Urbano. When I was on Atlantica I met someone. A girl—”
“That’s still bullshit,” Bautista cut him dead. “For two reasons. One—you love Kristen and you would never do that to her.”
Grayson blinked. “And two?”
“And two, Kristen is like a sister to me, and if you had found someone on Atlantica? I would kill you myself,” Bautista spoke in a matter-of-fact voice. “So, is that the truth or are you going to go away, think about what you said, and come back when you’re willing to be honest?”
Bautista waited for a moment before shaking his head and walking away.
Grayson sighed his frustration.
I’m getting real out of practice with this shit.
Chapter Five – The Past
The white and blue liveried Boeing 757’s landing gear gave a screech as it touched the shimmering tarmac of the Lynden Pindling International Airport’s runway. The aircraft’s engines roared as its thrust reversers kicked in, smoothly slowing the plane to a coast before it turned and followed the taxiway toward its allocated gate.
The seatbelt light chimed and went dark. Grayson stood, his tall frame lodged awkwardly beneath the plastic overhead compartments as he patiently waited for a gap in the stampede of people racing to escape the aircraft.
As they walked down the access tunnel, Dillon and Bradley matched pace with him. Through the clear windows, the vista of palm trees and clear skies could be seen. It made quite a contrast to heading into the crater-riddled Damascus International.
“You know,” Dillon said quietly. “I’ll take the Bahamas over going back to the Vortex any day.”
“Yeah,” Grayson said. Truth be told, he didn’t feel the same way. He’d been on many extended tours over the years. Twice with the Rangers, twice after he’d passed selection for the Green Berets. And then a few more with the SOG. Hell, once he’d tallied it up, during his adult life he’d spent more nights sleeping on military camp beds than his own.
Every time he’d come home, he felt more and more disconnected from society. It had become as if nothing back home really mattered. It was only out there, in the dust and fire he felt truly alive—truly able to make a difference in the world.
Reaching the border control, he slotted his passport into the receptacle. It responded with a bleep. The bored border officer looked at him, then down at his screen. Grayson lightly drummed his fingertips on the counter.
The guard gave the smallest twitching incline of his head, indicating he was clear to pass through.
Grayson smiled and pulled his passport out from under the chip scanner and entered the bustle of the baggage claim. He gave a resigned exhalation as screaming kids pierced his ears and vacationers bickered over the whirling, luggage-laden carousels.
Yeah, give me the Vortex any day.
“Come on, let’s get our shit then head over to get our keys.”
“Jeeze, Celia. You could have at least squared away a couple of those fancy-ass Aston Martins I hear you MI6 folk roll around in.” The expression on Dillon’s face was glum as he looked at the ancient and smelly pickup assigned to them by the irritable young man from the State Department’s small motor pool.
“Budget cuts,” Bradley quipped back as she hoisted her luggage onto the back.
“You want to drive?” Grayson dangled the keys in front of Dillon.
“Nah, man.” He turned his nose up. “I’m good.”
They slung the rest of their cases into the back and climbed into the cabin, Bradley squeezing in between the two men.
The truck spluttered to life as Bradley programmed in the directions of the safe house into her phone and they began juddering their way down the patchwork tarmac of the highway
“Okay, gentlemen,” Bradley said as she tapped on her tablet. The projector it was bluetoothed to transferred an image of John Reynolds to the clear white wall. “This is our starting point.”
“I still don’t get.” Grayson looked up from where he knelt on the terracotta-tiled floor, a foam-lined black case open before him with a collection of equipment stowed within. It was part of the cache the safe house, or more accurately safe villa contained. “What sparked off an investigation into one of your most decorated flag officers?”
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Bradley said. “SIS had a snail mail delivered to it with just enough suggestion that Reynolds is dirty and had managed to get hold of some weapons technology. There was no way to trace it back, and the paper itself had no forensics to work with.”
“Could be just a disgruntled asshole Reynolds pissed off in, what? A forty-and-some-year career?”
“Maybe, but the information it provided bore out. It described that he’d obtained a complement of RGM-84 Harpoons from Boeing Defense, Space and Security. When they physically checked the mothball yard where they were supposed to be—”
“Let me guess, they were gone?” Grayson asked.
“They were gone,” Bradley confirmed.
“And what about the WMDs you mentioned?”
“We have nothing on that beyond a line in the letter which mentioned that the project Reynolds was working on could cost thousands, if not millions of lives.”
Grayson raised an eyebrow. He wouldn’t have liked to have made the call Millard and Bradley’s bosses had. Deciding whether they should pick up Reynolds straight off and get the information out of him—and risking his partners going to ground—or letting things play out and hopefully get hold of everyone involved.
But that was why they were paid the big bucks.
“So, no suggestion of what we’re looking at. Nuclear, biological, chemical?”
“Nothing at all. And obviously, access to that kind of technology is tightly controlled. We’ve conducted quiet physical checks on all the storage areas. Nothing seems to be unaccounted for.”
“Fair enough.” Grayson nodded. He looked up at the picture of Reynolds. He sat, in uniform, posing for the camera in the way that flag officers did. His back ramrod straight, his hands clasped in his lap. But his eyes, they were sad. Like a man who’d seen too much. “So, tell us about this guy, in your own words.”
Bradley pressed her index finger to her lips for a moment, gathering her thoughts before starting. “Admiral Reynolds, is, or certainly was, a model officer. His midshipman cruise in ’82 was aboard the HMS Sheffield. She got hit hard in the Falkland’s war. He was decorated for getting his direct reports off the ship and saved a number of lives.”
“So not an armchair admiral?” Dillon paced around the room, as was his style when absorbing information.
“Certainly not. He held a combat command in Operation Granby, the Brit contribution to Desert Storm. Lynx helicopters off his ship were responsible for taking out a double-digit percentage of the Iraqi Navy in the Battle of Bubiyan. He went on to clear out a good chunk of the mines, allowing your battleships to offer fire support for the invasion proper. Again, he got a lot of tin added to his chest after that and a note in his file slating him for Big Things.”
“Okay.” Grayson stood, satisfied the recon equipment in the case was present and correct. He turned to the next case and unclasped it. Opening it, he saw a collection of weapons neatly stowed. He nodded in satisfaction and ignored Bradley’s disapproving frown. He’d check them later, when he could concentrate. He stood, dusted off his knees and looked at the image. “So, an all-around decent officer and gentleman. We get it. What next.”
“The next major event was his wife, Helena Reynolds, dying. Killed in a car crash. Absolutely nothing spectacular about it. She was there one moment and,” Bradley clicked her fingers sharply, “gone the next.”
“Life’s hard,” Dillon said as he walked to the fridge. Opening it, he pulled out three moisture-covered bottles of beer and handed them out. “You say nothing spectacular?”
“No, by that point he was a full captain and as such a comprehensive MI5 and police SO15 investigation was commenced. The conclusion was it was just one of those things. Some drunken prick decided to plough into her on his way home from the pub.”
“Fine.” Grayson flicked the cap off his bottle and took a swig of the crisp Caribbean lager. “Nice. Okay, bubble it as a significant life event.”
Bradley nodded and tapped on the tablet. On the wall, the text “death of wife” appeared in a circle.
“So our war hero has just lost his wife. Where does he go from there?” Grayson asked.
“He had a year off from there, supporting his daughter, Laurie Reynolds, through school before coming back into the Military. He got put on a London posting at the Ministry Of Defence on procurement—”
“Bubble defense procurement under capability.” Grayson gestured at the board with his bottle. “You say he’s been obtaining weapons tech? That’s going to be where he obtained his contacts and know how.”
“Our thoughts too.” Bradley tapped on her tablet again. The wall filling with information.
“Who are the primary contractors he’s worked with?” Dillon asked.
“Who hasn’t he dealt with?” Bradley shrugged. “You name any big maritime or aerospace company and he’s done lunch with them.”
“Okay. We’ll set the back office on that.” Grayson took another gulp of lager. “What I’m wondering is why Nassau? Why is he here? It doesn’t exactly feature on anyone’s radar when it comes to defense.”
“That’s the second million-dollar question. The Cayman Islands or Bermuda, fine. I can see why he’d be there. The man may be a war hero, but he isn’t made of wood. If he can move his money into tax havens, he’ll do it. Let’s face it, it’s not exactly unusual. Nassau, though? It isn’t exactly that kind of place. Or more accurately, there’s a damn sight better places.”
“So he’s in Nassau for a reason beyond simple bookkeeping.”
“Karl, we ain’t financial investigators. We sneak into shit and shoot people,” Dillon said wearily. “I’m beginning to think this is a PAG/CAG job.”
Grayson couldn’t help but nod in agreement. It looked more and more like SOG was picking up the slack of its sister organizations, the political or newly formed corporate action groups. They were the experts at that kind of job. This was looking pretty damn far from their remit or, frankly, skill set.
“Hold on, boys.” Bradley held a hand up. “I’m not asking you to wade through spreadsheets.”
“My esteemed colleague has a point, though,” Grayson said. “Just what are you asking us to do?”
“Well, the intel net is pretty dry on Reynolds being dirty,” Bradley replied.
“We need you to generate some.”
“Okay?” Grayson prompted.
“So, I’m probably going to need you to sneak into some shit.”
Dillon pursed his lips and nodded. “That we can do.”
“But preferably not shoot anyone,” Bradley said pointedly.
“Well, we can try not to,” Dillon replied with a bright smile.
Bradley frowned as Grayson fought to keep a smirk from his face. “Okay. What’s our first port of call. Do we know where Reynolds is?”
“Yes, we do. He checked into the Hotel Bahamia two days ago.” Bradley brought up a Google Maps screen on the wall. It showed a hotel complex with glistening blue pools surrounding it. “And we need to get surveillance on him.”
Chapter Six – The Present
“All’s well that ends well, I guess.” Liam Kendricks leaned against the railing next to Heather Slater. She stood gazing over the bay in the direction overlooking her ship. The destroyer was nuzzled into the flank of Atlantica, power lines physically linking the ships.
Beyond, the scene was peaceful, picturesque, the bustle of a busy bay not quite dispelling its natural beauty. And further inland, a distant lone peak dominated the skyline.
The last few weeks may have been back-breakingly hard as they created a community on this Earth, on which humans had been ten million years absent. But it had been peaceful after that tumultuous first month. And for that, Kendricks was very grateful. His shoulder still ached from the bullet wound he’d sustained in the battle against the pirates. Something Doctor Emodi, the ship’s physician, informed him was likely for life.
“It’s not quite over yet,” Slater responded. “I still want my helicopter back.”
“They seem to be cooperating.” Kendricks looked at her. The set of her jaw was firm as she looked out. “So far. I’m sure they are as eager to keep the peace as we are.”
“Quite.” Slater pushed herself off the railing with a sigh. Sensing she wanted to pace, Kendricks fell in next to her as they slowly walked along next to the railing of Atlantica’s upper deck.
Since they’d arrived, a change had certainly impacted Kendricks’s ship, turning her from a simple cruise ship to the nucleus of a colony. Four of her five swimming pools had been filled in with soil, turning them into plant nurseries where people were hard at work cultivating what they could of the ship’s remaining fruit and vegetables. They had managed to extract some viable seed stock from their food stores. It was delicate work, trying to coax species which were long dead in this world back to life.
Some were a no-go, the seeds stubbornly refusing to grow. But the tomatoes, spinach, and potatoes, along with a few others, were doing well in what had turned out to be the extraordinarily fertile soil of the land. Soon, they would be ready for planting on the mainland, increasing their food yields immeasurably. This would complement some of the other foodstuffs which... well, Kendricks admitted to himself, demonstrated a certain... resourcefulness.
Speaking of which.
“Are you still joining us for the party tonight?” he eventually broke the silence.
“Yes. I’m afraid Mack is going to be debriefing with the engineers and crew chiefs though, trying to figure out what happened.”
“A pity.” If he knew Mack, it was that she would be good at a party. “Any clues yet?”
“The components we repaired Seahawk 1-2 with aren’t exactly machined by Sikorsky,” Slater said with a shrug. Kendricks doubted it was disinterest, more that she wasn’t going to jump to conclusions without the evidence in front of her. “We have to expect these kinds of failures. We’ll see what comes out of the examination.”
“And they’re only going to get worse as more components wear out.” They reached the stern and continued following the railing around, overlooking the rear of the ship. It was going to be a real problem, and one they had to get upstream of now. But equipment wasn’t the only thing which was wearing out. “And how are you, Heather?”
She remained quiet for a long moment.
“Heather.” Kendricks gripped her arm lightly, stopping her motion. “We’re in a special place, there’s only a few of us. We’re captains, well me an acting captain, anyway. We don’t have many people we can talk to, to say what’s bugging us. At least not without undermining our own authority. We’re supposed to have all the answers and not let stuff get under our skin.
Kendricks took a deep breath. Maybe his little speech was as much about him as it was her, but still. The only benefit to his own situation was that unlike Captain Slater, it wasn’t as if he had a family he’d left behind when they’d come here. His mistress had always been the sea. “I get that you might not want to talk about it yet. But if you ever do. I’ll be there.”
Slater nodded tightly, her icy visage showing the briefest sign of thawing before she resumed control. “Thank you, Liam. It is appreciated. But I’m not the only person who was taken away from my family.”
That was painfully true. In the last few weeks, they’d had to deal with a dozen suicides among the passengers and crew, and Doctor Emodi had reported many more exhibiting signs of depression and anxiety. “But at least most feel they can talk to someone, if they need to.”
“I’m... not ready yet, Liam,” she replied quietly. “Maybe I won’t ever be.”
Kendricks turned his grip into a light pat. “Okay. I understand. Just know that I’m there, okay? We’re buddies, after all.”
“Speaking of captains,” Slater changed the subject in a not-so-subtle way. “How is he?”
Kendricks gave a long exhalation and looked down, knowing he was somewhere directly beneath them, even as they spoke. “Good, I think. In fact, that’s my next job. He needs his invite for tonight.”
Slater chuckled, her mood visibly lifting. “Are you sure you want him there?”
“Of course I’m sure. He may be a cantankerous old bastard, but he is a friend.”
“Here’s hoping he can behave himself.”
“Yeah... I’m sure he can.”
Kendricks wasn’t entirely sure who he was trying to convince.
The elevator doors swept open, revealing the white-painted walls, adorned with colorful safety notices and bulletins. The distinct throbbing hum of the idling gas-turbine power plants permeated the air, and their slight vibration beneath Kendricks’s shoes propagated up his body, causing a tickling sensation in his mouth.
He walked down the corridor, exchanging nods with the bustling crew, and he tapped a code into the pad on the heavy hatch. With a rumble, it whirred open, revealing the engineering control room.
“Ladies, gentlemen,” he spoke loudly as he entered. One man had his feet propped up on the console, flicking through a magazine and, with comedic haste, rearranged himself to some semblance of looking attentive.
He frowned at the man, and turned to look at Wayne Pritchard, the chief engineer had a phone hooked between his ear and shoulder as he idly clicked away at his computer mouse. From the angle of the screen, he could see solitaire being minimized to be replaced by the intricate graphics of the engine-status displays. “Wayne?”
“Gotto go.” He flicked his eyes up and placed the phone down. “Skipper, how can I help?”
Kendricks darted a glance at the previously reclining man, feeling anger simmering in his belly. “I didn’t realize the console was a foot rest.”
“The guys have long watches, they...” Pritchard started to shrug, then must have seen the look on Kendricks’s face. “Absolutely. It won’t happen again, skip.”
“Good,” Kendricks said pointedly. “Because your job is to hammer out the lack of discipline in your direct reports, and my job is to hold you to account if you don’t. Understood?”
“Perfectly,” Pritchard said, not quite hiding the sullen tone of voice. “Larry, you dumbass. If I catch you with your feet up again, I’m gonna have you over my knee? Kapeesh?”
Kendricks nodded. Discipline on board had started to slip and it was the job of the staff captain to ensure it was enforced by the supervisors. The only problem was, he didn’t have a staff captain, which left it all to him. He simply didn’t have the time to be as on the ball as he needed to be. He gave a sigh. Just one more thing on his extensive to-do list. “Where is he?”
Pritchard pointed at the steps leading down to the main engineering spaces, knowing instinctively who Kendricks was after. “Room two, gas turbines.”
Kendricks strode down the stairs and undogged the hatch. Beyond was a gantry leading deeper into the engineering spaces. Piping and equipment wove through the dozen separate rooms which made up the engineering spaces where the power for the ship was generated. The mammoth chugging power plants were situated in such places. If they lost a room through fire or flood, or even half of them, they would still have effective propulsion. It was deliberately designed to be as redundant as possible.
To Kendricks, who had cut his teeth as a watch officer, he only had a rough working knowledge of just how the damn things operated. But someone else had come up through the ranks first as an engineering officer.
“Hey,” Kendricks called to a technician above the whine of the turbines. He was beginning to wish he’d picked up some earplugs to block out the persistent racket on his way through. “I’m looking for Lars.”
“Down there,” the man shouted loudly and gestured down another set of metal stairs.
Following the directions, he found himself on the lowest deck. The only spaces below were maintenance access shafts and the bilges. He looked around the room before spotting, sprouting from beneath a particularly complicated collection of pipes and machinery, a pair of legs sticking out.
Hunkering down next to them, he lightly tapped a shin.
“I’m busy!” a muffled voice snapped testily.
“Lars, it’s Liam!” Kendricks shouted. “Can I borrow you for a moment?”
“Fine.” A sound of grunting, and the odd swear word came, then Lars Solberg slid out, a small oily component in one hand. “Hold this.”
Solberg thrust the object, a pump, into Kendricks’s hands and he automatically grabbed it, realizing too late it was covered in grease.
With a grunt, Solberg picked himself up and wiped his own hands on a rag hanging from his belt before taking the pump back. “Damn heat exchanger failed, and I’d bet my bottom dollar it’s just the rotor in this pump getting all scaled up.”
Slipping his smeared glasses up over his forehead, he pulled out a penlight and sighted down one of the openings in the pump. “Problem is all these new-fangled engineers just view it as a black box. They simply want to pull out worn equipment and replace it out of our spares. They don’t even bother trying to fix anything broken.”
“I’ve come to check up on how you are?”
Solberg grunted again in reply as he wandered to a nearby bench and deftly unscrewed the pump housing, exposing its inner workings.
“I’m glad see you’re keeping busy, Lars.”
“What? Since some damn mutineer took over my ship?” Solberg said in his singsong voice as he extracted the rotor and held it up to the light. Sure enough, Kendricks could see the whole thing was covered in a thin sandy layer. “I am just, what’s the word, peachy?”
Kendricks gave a strained smile. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m still just acting captain.”
“Bullshit.” Solberg reached into a toolbox next to the bench and rummaged for a moment before pulling a tin of some kind of solution out. “You think anyone will have me back in command now? They think I went mad.”
“Never say never.”
“Just what’s the matter?” Solberg squirted some liquid on the rotor and began scrubbing it with what looked like a toothbrush. “Command getting to you? Not so easy, is it?”
“No one ever said it was.”
Solberg blew on the rotor and examined it closely again. “If it’s any consolation, I hear you’re doing an okay job.”
Kendricks tried to keep a smile off his face. Not for the first time, he thought working for Solberg had been like suffering from Stockholm syndrome. You had to put up with a lot of grief, but that made you hanker for the occasional approving remark.
“Thanks, Lars. And likewise, I’ve been keeping an eye on the reports. You could have just said screw it after the Locus. Instead you came down here to help out. We appreciate it.”
“Apparently, only one of two things I’m any good at. On the helm or in the engine room.” Solberg gave another grunt before laying the rotor on the bench and looking at Kendricks for the first time. “You know I was eighteen months from retirement, then I was going to blow my pension on golf, drinks, and girls far too young for me.”
Kendricks let his smile slip through. Commanding Crystal Oceans’ newest flagship had been Solberg’s swan song. He knew Solberg was on the way out, but he had never let standards slip for a moment. It had been a quality he respected, a quality he wished he had the headspace to emulate. Sure as hell, Larry wouldn’t have been caught with his feet up if Solberg had been sitting in the chief engineer’s chair.
“Instead, I’m down here, ten million years in the future, doing the jobs the kids don’t want to. Bet they are shitting themselves in glee seeing the old man covered in grease and grime doing their work for them.”
“Someone has to show them how it’s done.”
“Aye.” Solberg plucked his glasses off his brow and gave them a wipe, before gesturing at the disassembled pump. “Especially now. We can only fabricate so much. We have to learn again how to fix things, not just replace them.”
“Not many of that breed of engineer left, Lars.”
“What are you really here for?”
Kendricks thought back to what he’d seen in the control room. The lack of discipline and good order could at best cause the inconvenience of a loss of power. At worst, it had a damn good chance of killing them all if something popped down here. Pritchard had been off the boil for weeks now. Letting things slowly slide into complacency. He needed someone on it with a firm hand. Someone who would ensure he didn’t have to worry about what was going on down here.
He made up his mind.
“Two things. Atlantica is yours, and has been since the moment we left dry dock. You spent two years working her up, and skippering her was your thanks. I’m sorry things turned out as they did, but we’re where we’re at. If you can convince Doctor Emodi and Reynolds you’re good for command again, I’ll give you back the keys without hesitation. But—”
“And what if I don’t want the chair back?”
“Say what?” Kendricks blinked in surprise.
“Look, Liam. I’m giving you shit, but you did the right thing. Don’t ask me to like it, ’cause I don’t. No one likes to realize they aren’t cutting it. But I have spent the last few weeks accepting it. And now,” Solberg gestured at the intricate machinery, “I’m enjoying this. I find it cathartic. My chief worry ain’t all the bullshit and politics above decks, it’s this, here. You want command? She’s yours.”
“Okay...” Kendricks started, feeling perturbed by Solberg’s acquiescence. “Then, I guess back to my first point. How would you like the chief engineer job?”
“I’d still rather have the helm, but I’m guessing my name is still mud up there.” Solberg snorted, then looked at Kendricks, obviously realizing he was being serious. “What about that slack moron Pritchard?”
“Leave Pritchard to me.” Kendricks glanced back to the hatch. That was a conversation he wasn’t looking forward to, but c’est la vie. The man had made his bed, now he could lie in it. “I need you to show these kids how it’s done. Get this place shipshape again, then, if you change your mind about command, we’ll talk about it.”
Solberg nodded, idly spinning the rotor on the bench with a forefinger. After a long moment, he looked up. “Deal. I’ll sort out the engine room.”
“Great.” Kendricks felt an unreasonable sense of relief. For a spur of the moment decision, he felt he was doing the right thing. Both for the ship, and for his friend. “I’ll go have that chat with Pritchard.”
Kendricks turned and started climbing the stairs.
“You said two things?” Solberg called over the whine of the engines.
“Oh yes.” Kendricks paused, one hand on the metal railing. “Clean the oil out from under your fingernails and dig your whites out. There’s a dinner on tonight. And you’re invited.”
Chapter Seven – The Past
“Good evening, madam and... sir.” The concierge looked Grayson up and down, a slight turn to his lips. He had the distinct impression that puffed-up jackass had sized up that the suit he was wearing was, unlike Dillon’s, from an outlet store bargain rack. “How may I help you today?”
The gorgeous cream marble of the foyer announced the hotel’s five-star status and the clientele reclining in the adjacent bar had the look of people who were happy to pay as much for a single night in a place like this as Grayson earned in a month while on operations in some sandy hellhole.
“We have a reservation,” Grayson said. “Mr. and Mrs. Jones.”
“Of course you do.” The man pursed his lips, lowering his gaze to look at the computer inset into the mahogany reception desk. His eyebrows raised slightly and he glanced back upward. “And I see in the Presidential Suite too, no less?”
“That’s right, buddy.” Grayson gave his brightest smile, the one he reserved for the especially patronizing. “Nothing but the best for Mrs. J.”
“Just let me check.” The concierge tapped at his keyboard for a moment, clearly not quite believing what his booking software was telling him. “Yes, I see payment has gone through. If you’d like to put your luggage on the cart, I’ll have it taken up.”
“Why thank you.” Grayson continued his smile. Theatrically, he opened his wallet and fished out a five-dollar bill and snapped it taut. With deliberate slowness, he folded it, reached over the desk, and tucked it into the concierge’s breast pocket before giving a wink. “Don’t spend it all at once.”
“I’ll be quite sure not to,” the man responded as he held up a key card.
Prick. Grayson plucked it out of his hand, picked up a suitcase from the pile of baggage next to him, and turned toward the elevators. “Come on, my darlin’.”
“Of course, my love,” Bradley said, the set of her jaw announcing her disapproval of the interplay but still slipping her arm through his. They crossed the floor, her heels clicking on the hard surface.
“Are you trying to get us remembered?” she growled at Grayson when they were out of earshot of anyone else.
“He dissed you,” Grayson responded as he paced forward. “He didn’t think you were good enough for a place like this.”
“Yes, and now he’s going to go into the staff room to bitch and whine about the two idiots in the Presidential Suite.”
“I doubt it’d be the first time.” Grayson gave the bellhop next to the elevator another one of his smiles. “We’re going up, buddy.”
The young man made to walk into the elevator and Grayson held a hand to his chest, stopping him. “It’s okay. We can find our way. Just do us a favor and bring the rest of our bags up pronto.”
With a polite nod, the boy turned back to the reception desk. With a chime, the doors slid shut.
“You and Max are real fish out of water in civilized society, aren’t you?”
Grayson pushing the button labeled ten in ornately stenciled letters and turned to Bradley. “Maybe we are. But that’s because while you were swanning around in London, we were dancing with the ISIL Remnant.”
“You think I’m just some REMF, don’t you?” Bradley tutted, shaking her head in mock despair. The elevator hummed as it rose through the floors. “Sweetheart, I spent my formative years in Baghdad. Dodging truck bombs.”
“And you don’t look more than what, thirty-five?
The elevator gave another chime as they reached their floor. The doors swept open and they marched out. “What can I say? I had a hard start in life.”
As they walked down the empty corridor, Grayson glanced left and right, looking for their room.
“Go on then, I’ll bite,” Bradley said. “What’s your story?”
“Me?” Grayson found their door and ran the card through the reader, opened the door, and entered. He looked around, giving a low whistle as he did. The room was huge, as big as his apartment, and that was just what he could see of the spacious lounge area. “So, this is how the other half live.”
He pulled his phone out and opened a counter-surveillance app. The screen flashed green and showed the usual Wi-Fi sources permeating the luxurious room, but nothing suspicious. “We’re clear. Anyway. Rangers, then I passed Green Beret selection and did a couple of tours with them—”
“The thinking man’s special forces. Maybe you aren’t just a glorified grunt.” Bradley opened up one of the doors. Through it, Grayson could see a bedroom nearly as extensive as the lounge.
“That’s right.” Grayson lifted his case onto the bed and pressed his thumb against the biometric lock. “Saw a bit of the world, got my Masters, and then got the tap on the shoulder. Next thing I know I’m reporting for duty at Langley with the Special Activities Directorate. What about you?”
The case cracked open, and Grayson pulled a long cylinder out and examined it, making sure it was intact.
“Me? I went to Cambridge, where I got brainwashed by the University Air Squadron. Got a commission after graduation in the RAF as an intelligence officer.” Bradley pulled a tripod from the case and walked to the balcony window. She spread the tripod legs on it and set it down. “Then someone said there was a job opening in counter-proliferation with the SIS, so next thing I know I’m paying exorbitant London rent on a civil service wage.”
“So definitely no Aston Martins then?” Grayson handed Bradley the cylinder and she set it on the tripod.
“No Aston Martins.” Bradley locked the cylinder down and twisted it to face the window. Grayson handed her a telescope and she slotted it in place next to the cylinder. “I do, however, have an ancient and rather battered Mini.”
“Classic,” Grayson said as he set a briefcase on a coffee table and opened it. Within was a set of headphones and a robust looking laptop. “Okay, get the laser aimed.”
Bradley slid open the balcony door. The distant sounds of traffic and revelry washed into the room along with the fresh sea air. She gently maneuvered the tripod out. Staring through the telescope which ran parallel to the laser cylinder, she orientated it roughly in the general direction she wanted.
Then came the fine motion. She slowly twisted the dials on the tripod and the servos gave a slight hiss as they steadily tracked into position, toward the Hotel Bahamia across the road where John Reynolds was staying. They hadn’t gotten the Presidential Suite in the Grand Caribbean out of the goodness of the CIA’s heart. It was simply the best room overlooking their target.
“Okay, I’ve got his room,” she said after a moment.
Grayson nodded and slipped on the headphones as he waited for the laptop to finish loading the software.
“Focusing in now.” She continued manipulating the dials, each turn moving the orientation of the cylinder by fractions of a degree. “You should be getting it through now. I’ve got a good bounce.”
“We’re definitely getting warmer,” Grayson muttered as he heard the cacophony of noise coming through the headphones. “Yeah, positioning is hot. The system’s just calibrating out the ambient noise.”
Grayson pressed the earphone to the side of his head, listening to the montage of noise which flowed through, the intensity changing in time with the sine wave stretching across the computer screen in front of him.
Occasionally scratchy voices emerged from the noise, other times, the sound of cars. Slowly, but surely, the unwanted sounds were discarded as the system automatically tuned out the stuff he didn’t want to hear.
After a few minutes, there was only the noise of a television on low volume, the creak of someone moving on leather, the occasional click of fingers on a keyboard. “Okay, looks like we’re dialed in. If a mouse squeaks, I’ll hear it loud and clear.”
“Great.” Bradley came back inside the lounge area and flopped down on the other leather settee. “You want to take the first listen?”
“Yeah.” Grayson leaned back and propped his feet on the clear glass table. He picked up the hotel menu and began flicking through. “And a pizza sounds good right about now, too.”
“I don’t think this is the kind of place which does pizza, Karl.”
Chapter Eight – The Present
Jack kissed Laurie on the top of her head as he entered the suite which was now their home. She sat at the ten-seat dining table, her laptop open in front of her, trying to do four jobs at once and getting nowhere on any of them.
Distractedly, she nudged her head up into his lips. “Good day at the office?”
“Different.” He slipped his jacket and holster off and laid them carefully over the back of one of the unoccupied chairs. “I had to go shore side to Anchorage and see Bautista’s bunch.”
“You had to what?” That caught her attention. Laurie looked across as he flopped down onto the settee and pulled off his boots. She was vaguely pleased he was less and less self-conscience each day about exposing his prosthetic leg. When they’d first met, and even long after, it was something he’d sought to hide. She’d gently reassured him it wasn’t something he should ignore, but accept. But for the moment, she was more concerned about his day. “Why the hell did you go there?”
“Mack had what she described as an ‘unscheduled landing under stronger than normal gravitational conditions’.”
Laurie quickly processed what he meant. “You mean she crashed?”
“Not quite.” Jack leaned back into the sofa with his tablet in hand. “But she did have to put down, and right in the middle of one of Bautista’s fields.”
“Is anyone hurt?” Laurie stood and walked to Jack, slipping her arm around him and curling into his side. On his tablet, she saw him starting to tap out a report. Even here, everything seemed to involve paperwork. “Did they hurt anyone?”
“No and no.” Jack squeezed her hand before releasing it to carry on typing. “In fact, they couldn’t have been more helpful.”
“We got the crew back and we’re arranging the recovery of the aircraft,” Jack replied. “Your father has even invited Bautista to tonight’s get-together.”
“That bastard?” Laurie couldn’t contain the surge of anger which welled up in her. That man had killed people, tortured Jack with his own bare hands... and now they were going to be expected to break bread with him? “No way. No bloody way.”
Jack shrugged. “This new world is the same as the old. Enemies eventually become friends once the dust settles.”
Laurie looked at Jack, trying to detect if he was just toeing the party line or whether he genuinely believed it. As ever, he was keeping his personal feelings hidden, even to her. She’d long since accepted he didn’t share much. It wasn’t that he was particularly shy, untrusting, or even unloving, it was more if it was something he didn’t feel he could change, he kept his own council. “Let’s just hope those new friends don’t become enemies again.”
“Yeah,” Jack said as his fingers tapped rapidly at the touchscreen keyboard. He paused and looked at her. “Shouldn’t you be getting ready?”
“I’ve got too much going on. I was thinking of giving it a miss.”
Jack lowered the tablet onto his lap and frowned at her. “You’re taking on too much.”
“We all are, Jack.” She sighed, pulling away from him and stood up to return to her own work.
“Yes, but unlike most of us, you’re doing two jobs.”
Laurie sat before the computer again and tapped the screen, waking it from the dormant mode it had slipped into. He was right. Trying to coordinate the schooling of the four hundred and seventy-eight children while also acting as the lead for the scientific investigation of the region were both more than full-time jobs. But... “Someone’s got to do it.”
“Yeah.” Laurie found Jack’s hands on her shoulders, gently kneading them. “But do they both have to be you? Maybe you should decide which you want to do more.”
The door opened and Reynolds walked in, pausing in the doorway. Jack withdrew his hands quickly and retreated a few steps, to Laurie’s amusement. She knew it was hard on him being in the suite she shared with her father, but it had made sense for him to move up here after they got together, freeing up Jack’s stateroom. But living with the new girlfriend’s father, especially when he was his boss and the defacto president of the community, couldn’t exactly have been easy.
Reynolds began clapping his hands. “Come on you two. Showers, suits, dresses. You’re not going to be late.”
“Daddy—” Laurie started to say.
“And no excuse will be acceptable. I can’t make it clearer than that,” Reynolds called firmly as he walked into his bedroom.
“Yes, sir,” Jack said, before glancing at Laurie. “To be continued.”
“Ladies and gentlemen.” Reynolds put on his widest beaming smile as he stood at the round captain’s table in the center of vast dining room. Maritime-inspired oil paintings looked down from every surface giving the space an ostentatious and quaint appearance.
“It is not often we get to indulge these days. And it is less often we remember to thank those who work so tirelessly to keep this good ship running. But tonight is a reminder to us all that it is you who keep our home, Atlantica, working smoothly. Sometimes those tasks are invisible, seen by no one, but are still for the benefit of all. This meal is for you,” Reynolds continued as he gestured at a table on one side of the dining room. “The twenty people who work in the ship’s recycling center. And for you, the forty-two plumbers we have on board who keep our toilets flushing and water flowing. The stewards, the shopkeepers, the janitors, and the technicians. All of you, who have been called upon to continue working in these, the most extreme of circumstances. To you, we owe our thanks.”
Symbolically, the senior officers, led by Kendricks, walked down the sweeping stairway which led to the first tier containing the galley. They each held trays containing bowls in their hands. Kendricks walked to a table surrounded by cleaners and began laying the soup down in front of them.
He struggled to remember the names of them—there were over two thousand crewmembers on board after all and only three hundred had been invited by lottery to this room. The other off-duty crew were in the ship’s twelve other restaurants and eating halls, each presided over by a senior officer. But where he could, he exchanged pleasantries.
Once the first dish was down. He made his way back to the central round table. As much as he wished he could have kept the tradition of the captain serving dishes throughout the meal going all night, this dinner had taken on a whole secondary function. Diplomacy.
Standing around the captain’s table were John and Laurie Reynolds, Jack Cohen, Heather Slater, Perry Donovan, Conrad Wakefield, Lars Solberg, two nervous looking porters and, of course, Urbano Bautista. His shoulder gave a twinge of pain. A reaction to being so close to the man who had inflicted the injury.
He took his place and clasped his hands in front of him, lowered his eyes, and spoke loudly and clearly. “Tonight, the crew of Atlantica and her guests unite in thanks. Thanks for the food we have, the drink. And the companionship. We thank those who have been lost for their service and sacrifice. But we remember them for the hope and chance they’ve given us. We have so many religions here in this room and none. I ask you all to take a moment to thank whichever god you worship for our bounty.”
The room went silent. Kendricks let the quiet roll on for a few seconds before looking up. “Please sit.”
The room was filled with the scraping of chairs as hundreds of people sat. The murmur of conversation and clink of cutlery washed over the wood-paneled room.
“I’m expecting great things here, Liam.” Conrad Wakefield rubbed his hands theatrically before picking up his spoon.
Prick. “Thank you, Conrad. I can only hope it matches up to the fare you must be used to on the Osiris.”
“Oh, I’m sure it will,” Wakefield responded with a cocky grin.
“One day, you’ll have to invite us again to your beautiful, and might I add, heavily armed vessel.”
“We couldn’t possibly match up to Atlantica here.” Wakefield smiled condescendingly.
Or more likely, you don’t want to share the stocks of premium food you’d have brought through. Wakefield hadn’t allowed anyone aboard the Osiris since he’d first arrived.
“It would be prudent,” Slater leaned forward, “to examine integrating the Osiris’s defense systems with our own now we’ve completed repairs.”
“Sure,” Wakefield said agreeably. “Let me know when you want us to drop by.”
“I was thinking your place.”
“I’ll be sure to RSVP you soon.”
What is he hiding? Kendricks caught Slater’s eye, then Reynolds’s. The admiral gave a slight shake of his head. Wakefield had shown an obtuse reluctance to allow anyone near his ship. And that was backed up by armed security who had made it clear they were instructed not to let anyone aboard. Reynolds said he’d handle it, and Kendricks had to trust he would.
Mister Santino, the headwaiter, took position next to Kendricks’s chair. “Ladies, gentlemen. Today, our chef has taken the bounty of this world and turned it into something special. For your appetizer, we have spinach and shallot, slowly reduced to a broth and seasoned with the finest picks from our herb garden. To drink with it, we have a young Grenache, light so as to whet the appetite. A blend of our own stock and cultivated grape produce.”
Without ado, Mister Santino, the definition of composure, moved on to another table. Kendricks had the distinct impression he could keep his cool in any situation. The firm discipline he instilled throughout his kitchens was exactly what was needed throughout the rest of the ship. And exactly what he hoped Solberg would bring to the engine room.
“To a new world,” Wakefield preempted Kendricks, taking his glass and holding it up to the table. “Bottoms up.”
Kendricks gave a polite smile, feeling anything but. This was his table, the captain’s table, and Wakefield was trying to grip it. And change the subject. “And let’s not forget the old.”
“Absolutely.” Wakefield smiled back across the table and took a sip of the wine. A brief grimace crossed his face, swiftly hidden. As Kendricks took a sip, he could see why. The wine “blend” meant it was, in fact, just watered down.
Reynolds leaned forward, interlocking his hands, and his look was pointed, firm. “Amongst all we mourn, we forget we have much to celebrate. Our situation may be precarious, but it is under control, and grows more so every day with the food we produce and the salvage we recover from the container ship mine. There are rivalries in our past. Bad memories and turbulent times. It is important that we move beyond that.” He fixed Wakefield with eyes for a moment before turning to Bautista. “I want to thank you for your efforts today. That was a delicate situation, handled well, and I hope something which bodes well for our future. Together.”
Bautista’s attire came nowhere near that of the others; his white shirt and black trousers gave him a somewhat swashbuckling appearance. Fitting, Kendricks supposed, for a man who had until recently survived this exile into the future by becoming a pirate.
“As you say,” Bautista said slowly. “We are together now. That we did things which were wrong are beyond doubt. But now we want to show our commitment to being full partners.”
“All of you?” Slater asked cuttingly.
Bautista leaned back. Kendricks could see he was shutting down again. An overture had been offered by Reynolds, then snatched back by Slater. Another twinge in his left shoulder caused him to wince briefly.
Yet somehow, he struggled to reconcile the man who’d shot him with the one now across the table from him. Physically he was the same; tall, athletic, almost the stereotype of the smoldering Hispanic lothario. But psychologically, he seemed a different man. Reserved. The sorrow and pain in him evident in every expression. Even in the first month since Atlantica had arrived in the region, the man had changed.
But he’d killed members of Atlantica’s crew, too. No amount of pain and sorrow could be suitable punishment for that. Kendricks felt himself hardening again, his brief pang of sympathy dispelling.
“Heather,” Reynolds said firmly. “Not now. Not tonight.”
“I still want Karl Grayson.” Slater ignored him and leaned forward. “Make no mistake. I don’t like you. But you sailed straight into my guns, you knew you’d lose and you still did it. I can respect that. Grayson though, there is no way in hell we can ever respect what he did. Or forgive him.”
“Heather!” Reynolds repeated sharply.
Bautista stared at his untouched soup for a long moment before looking up. His expression was firm again as he stared into Slater’s eyes. “I know what you’re asking, and no.”
“You know why. We’ve given you fuel, food, provisions. We’ve worked to make this alliance succeed. But the people who follow me are used to following a strong leader. The big man.”
“An alpha,” Wakefield interjected, before waving his hand. “Sorry, please continue.”
Kendricks gritted his teeth. The man was a damn control freak, wanting to give the impression it was him who was arbitrating.
“Already there are murmurs I have given too much,” Bautista said plainly. “That I am weak. If I give more, then I will lose control. And who will replace me? Someone who is not as friendly? Or worse, Anchorage’s community will fracture and instead of one faction, you will have many to deal with, each with their own ideas and agendas. Grayson is not a person anymore, he is a symbol.”
“He is a murderer,” Slater said.
“So are you. Eighty-seven people, Captain Slater. Eighty-seven people on my side were killed in our battles. Twenty-three are still suffering horrible injuries. One man has no arms after the fire of your guns. We have to spoon-feed him. I visit him every day and watch him cry in frustration because he’s not even able to wipe his own ass. Do you know what he was before the Locus? A mechanic. He can now no longer do that. He’s lost everything.” Bautista’s voice was calm, measured. He was relaying facts, not emotions. “I want to see no one else like that. Not ever. We’ve paid our price and it was high.”
Kendricks closed his eyes. The terrible human cost of their battles weighed heavily on him, too. So many on both sides had suffered.
“Enough,” Reynold’s voice rang out over the table. “We have one single imperative from here on forward. To survive and thrive in this new world. And that will be together. We are changing the subject.”
He picked up his spoon, dipped it into his soup, and lifted it to his lips. “And for tonight, I for one am going to enjoy this meal.”
Murmurs of agreement echoed round the table with differing levels of enthusiasm. The two porters looked like deer in the headlights, seemingly wishing to be anywhere but here. Kendricks reckoned they probably felt less like they had won the lottery to make it to the head table as drawn the short straw. He made a gentle overture to them. “Gentlemen, I apologize for our lack of decorum. Please, tell us a little about yourselves...”
“As with any of the finest tasting menus in the old world’s best restaurants, we ask you to keep a somewhat open mind for your next course.” Mister Santino clicked his fingers and the officers still serving the food laid a dish in front of each of them. “Seared fillets of Muroidea, with a potato crush and a cherry tomato sauce.”
Kendricks raised his eyebrow and took a mental deep breath. He’d been forewarned about this one, but not many of the others had. The small slivers of meat had been laid artfully next to dollops of creamed mash. Torn leaves decorated the plate, and a red sauce was drizzled over it. To be fair, the chefs had done excellent work. It looked pretty damn appealing.
“This looks good.” Donovan leaned forward and sniffed at the plate. “We all had pescetarianism forced on us on Nest Island and meat is still a luxury.”
Without ado, he speared a fillet with his fork and popped it in his mouth, and chewed it. “An interesting flavor, almost lamb-like.”
“And is it good?” Kendricks asked, trying to keep the grin from his face.
“Oh yes,” Donovan said as he chewed, seemingly forgetting his manners. “What is it?”
“Mister Santino?” Kendricks opened his hand, inviting him to say.
“Muroidea.” The waiter gave a rare hint of a smile beneath his pencil-thin moustache. “Is something a nutritionist on the passenger manifest assures us is very healthy. In fact, in terms of raw nutritional content, it is far better for you than steak. In a 300-gram portion, it contains more protein, and far less fat.”
Donovan swallowed and looked up. “What is Muroidea? I’ve not heard of that before.”
“Before I say,” Kendricks held up one hand, “I invite you all to have a taste.”
With varying degrees of enthusiasm, each of them took a bite.
“Muroidea is something we seem to have an inexhaustible supply of...” Kendricks paused dramatically. Here goes nothing. “Rat.”
He gazed around the table. Donovan and Solberg blanched. Jack and Bautista simply shrugged and had another bite. Laurie could barely keep the smile off her face. It had been one of her team, cultivated from the ranks of the passengers, who had come up with the idea of using the fleet’s diminutive stowaways as a food source.
“Well.” Wakefield chewed, seemingly less affected than even the Marine and former pirate. “I’ve eaten some pretty weird stuff from all around the world, and this tastes better than a lot of it.”
Steeling himself, Kendricks had a try himself. As he chewed, he had to admit it didn’t taste half as bad as he was expecting. Kind of like an intense lamb cutlet.
“So, Laurie,” Reynolds started speaking in a clear attempt to distract them away from the thought of what they were eating. “How goes the surveys?”
Laurie laid her fork to one side and steepled her fingers over the plate. “We’re making some interesting progress. The laboratories we have set up through the fleet are rudimentary, but nonetheless, you’d be surprised at the sheer range of talent we’ve got among the passengers. Everything from rocket scientists to brain surgeons, many of whom are really pulling their weight.”
“And we have those that aren’t,” Solberg said scornfully. “Some still think they’re on a damn holiday.”
“That’s a debate for another day. But yes, that is something we are starting to consider in terms of room allocation,” Reynolds interjected.
Kendricks grimaced. That was going to be another unpleasant task. Some of those who had paid the most and had the best cabins aboard were actually the least productive in helping out. Soon, that balance would have to be addressed. Those who worked would have to be rewarded as an incentive. And those that didn’t had to understand that also carried a price.
“But anyway, Laurie.” Reynolds gave a wave of his hand. “Please continue.”
“We have restricted our expeditions to the immediate vicinity. The flora is fairly homogenous, but the interesting factor is the sheer fertility levels of the soil. It is as near perfect as can be. Full of nutrients. We haven’t seen much evidence of animal life; it is mostly keeping away from us, albeit we have managed to capture a few bugs. They are somewhat simple, I suppose we’d call them uncomplicated. It’s quite clear to our scientists that animal life simply hasn’t had the time to evolve to the diversity of our own time.”
“Sounds good. And what are your proposed next steps?” the admiral asked. Kendricks knew Reynolds had been keeping on top of the reports, but he was teasing the information out of his daughter for the benefit of those at the table.
“Simple, we want to penetrate deeper into the mainland and see what is in there.”
“And I think that would be most prudent.” Reynolds smiled at his daughter. “Perry, I believe you have some interesting news yourself.”
“Oh yes.” Donovan nodded enthusiastically. “But I propose we save that for the after party. Then I can show you.”
Chapter Nine – The Past
Grayson idly tapped away on his smartphone game of poker. He gave a grunt of frustration as he was forced to fold again. Good thing he wasn’t playing for real money or he’d be down to his underwear by now. Bradley lay curled beneath a sheet on the opposite settee—the gentle sound of her breath the only noise in the room beyond what was coming through his headphones.
He’d made an overture for her to just use one of the beds... hell, she had a choice in the huge suite, but she’d refused. That was something he most assuredly wouldn’t be doing. Years of sleeping in muddy ditches and on squeaking military camp beds meant when he had the opportunity to sleep on a luxury super-king-size bed, he was damn well going to take it.
The first few hours had gone with little more than listening to Reynolds pottering around his room, the TV on, hearing him go from listening to CNN to watching some god-awful old movie.
It was strange, Grayson had contemplated a few hours before. The nature of his role meant he had a fair amount of contact with the top brass. He wasn’t intimidated by them anymore, not like when he was a young second lieutenant fresh out of Fort Benning when the thought of talking to anyone with anything intricate on their epaulettes would turn him into a bag of nerves.
But this was the first time he’d been observing a flag officer when they were off the clock, and the sheer mundane normality he was exhibiting was somehow refreshing. John Reynolds liked to watch shit movies while swirling a glass of brandy. He visited the toilet just like anyone else and generally seemed like a human being. In other words, he wasn’t giving the impression of being a nefarious gunrunner.
The ringing of a phone came over the headphones causing Grayson to sit upright. It was the first call in he’d heard.
“Reynolds,” a deep, cultured British accent said.
Standing, Grayson picked up the spare headphones, leaned over, and shook Bradley. She blinked, looked at him, then wordlessly took the headphones from his hands and slipped them on. Grayson walked onto the balcony and knelt down, sighting down the telescope.
The view through Reynolds’s window was good, which was the reason they’d managed to swing booking this exorbitantly priced suite overlooking Reynolds’s own hotel. He watched the retired admiral stand up from his armchair, walk to a desk, and flip open his laptop.
“Yes. It’s a secure line.”
Grayson turned and looked at Bradley. “Get onto SIGINT, see if they can get us any information on who he’s talking too.”
Bradley nodded, pulling out her own phone.
“Okay, 2100 hours.” Reynolds said. “Yes, just looking up the address now.”
“Anything?” Grayson said as he focused on Reynolds. Frustratingly, he was obscuring the laptop.
“No, whatever encryption he’s using is tight.”
“Damnit,” Grayson growled as he looked at the man’s back. “Move out the way.”
Reynolds stubbornly stood in front of the laptop screen. Grayson slowly swept the telescope left. There, that was what he was looking for, a mirror reflecting the screen. Reversed, it was difficult to read. He glanced down, checking the camera attached to the telescope was set to HD record. It was at an angle but it was enough. They would be able to manipulate the footage later. From what he could see on the screen, some kind of map was on the browser.
“Fine, I’ll see you tomorrow.” Reynolds put the phone down. He stood leaning over the laptop, his composure one of weariness. He stood like that for a long moment, before savagely and without warning slamming his fist into the desk.
Grayson gave a start, the sharp sound piercing his ear.
Reynolds rallied himself, standing from his lean.
“Tell me SIGINT got that?” Grayson turned to look at Bradley.
She glanced back, still on her phone, listening for a moment before shaking her head, a confused look on her face. “Negative, it’s showing nothing.”
“Nothing?” Grayson turned to look back through the telescope. “How the hell can we have nothing? We should at least have a carrier line or call data going through his phone.”
Reynolds had resumed his position, sitting and staring at the television screen.
“GCHQ is showing no activity on that phone. At all.”
“Fine.” Grayson plucked his own phone out of his pocket and dialed Dillon. GCHQ was good, he knew. He’d done some work with them before, but they didn’t exactly have the reach of good old US talent. “Hey, Max. Can you run Reynolds’s phone through the NSA? Let’s see what they can do with it.”
“On it,” Dillon replied concisely.
Bradley stood, looking at her phone, the confusion evident in her face. “GCHQ is supposed to have a listening watch on flag officers’ phones. I don’t understand this. At all.”
Midnight came and went. The pattering sound of the bathroom shower abated and the old man came back into the lounge area, rubbing his hair vigorously with a towel.
“You know, when I’m his age,” Grayson muttered, “I hope I’m in half as good of shape.”
“You want to be a silver fox someday, huh?”
Grayson had spent the time comparing the map shown in the laptop screen with sites from around the island. It wasn’t as easy as it should have been. The island wasn’t huge, but it was still a test of patience, comparing the green of fields and the blue of waterways with what he could spot on Google Earth.
Reynolds grabbed his laptop off the side and set it down on the coffee table and began tapping on the keyboard.
Grayson turned to Bradley. “Get Max back on the line, see whether he’s having any luck?”
She fired up the laptop. Dillon appeared on the secured video chat. “Folks, I didn’t get shit through regular coms tasking.”
“NSA and GCHQ are still struggling?”
“Yeah. Fortunately, I called in an old favor and got some E-time authorized.”
Grayson raised an eyebrow as Bradley asked, “Got some E-time?”
Pursing his lips, Grayson considered for a moment what to tell her. Sure, the UK was one of the Five Eyes, the intelligence alliance made up of the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. But confirming the full extent of US capability was a step beyond his paygrade.
“I presume,” Bradley pressed. “You’re talking about—”
“I’ll stop you there,” Grayson interjected. “You know as well as I do I can’t talk about it.”
“About ECHELON?” Bradley grinned. “We do get the Discovery Channel back home, you know. I just never thought I’d see it directly in action is all.”
Rolling his eyes, he looked at Dillon. “Do it. We need to break the back on this one and quickly.”
“Roger that, be back in five.” Dillon’s face disappeared from the screen.
Drumming his fingertips on the table, Grayson waited for Dillon to get back to them. After a moment of consideration, he turned to Bradley. “What do you know about ECHELON?”
“You mean beyond its status as the biggest, most intrusive intelligence gathering operation ever?”
“Not much. I know it feeds of intel sites and hubs all over the world, gathering, processing, exploring and exploiting data from a variety of sources. There is some conjecture it has penetrative capabilities, able to plant fake news and intelligence reports in target mediums. It’s fairly common knowledge there are folks cleared in MI5, SIS, and our military to request information from it, but that isn’t exactly advertised. The way I hear it, if you’re working up a job, one day, boom, an info packet might appear in your secure email which may be enough to make or break a case.”
That sounded a lot like Grayson was used to when it came to ECHELON. He’d been on more than one operation in his time in which mysterious intelligence packets had arrived out of thin air. “Yeah, that’s about it.”
A chime sounded on the laptop. Answering the call, Dillon’s face again appeared alongside a blinking envelope of an attachment. “Got it. Sending through a replay of this guy’s screen now.”
Opening the video file, a replay of Reynolds laptop screen appeared covering the last few hours.
“Shit,” Bradley muttered. “If we’d had this earlier, that would have made our life easier.”
Grayson scrolled the replay, searching for the time they’d observed Reynolds looking at the map. “Whatever he was looking at here seriously must have been pissing him off.”
On the screen was a website browser showing nothing more than the BBC.com weather report. Surely that wouldn’t have made him angry enough to start hitting stuff? Grayson frowned and picked up the camera, a thought occurring. He flicked through the replay, just in case the clock on the replay was different to the clock on the camera.
It seemed the same.
“Look at the image on here.” He showed Bradley the tiny screen. On it, the reflected screen showing the map could just be made out. He gestured at the laptop. “Now, that isn’t corresponding to what we’re looking at here.”
“That must be some bloody good counter-intrusion software he’s got running if he can mask his computer from ECHELON.”
“Yeah.” Grayson set the camera down. The implications that Reynolds had the ability to so effectively spoof the most advanced surveillance technologies in the world were... troubling. “It’s the first time I’ve heard about the system being wrong.”
“I guess that’s where good old fashioned human intelligence comes in.”
“Yeah.” Grayson looked back at the map displaying on his screen. They had a clue where he would be at 9pm tomorrow.
They just had to find the exact location the hard way, by comparing the map with Google Earth until they found it.
Chapter Ten – The Present
Hundreds of people crowded the neon-lit deck. Soft music from bands spilled out from the bars, where home-brewed alcohol flowed freely.
The area near the flow rider at the stern of the ship had been set aside for a special presentation though, the light pollution blocked by screens. Here, Donovan had spent the last thirty minutes setting up for his showpiece event.
The telescope he had been calibrating was large and crude, the optics salvaged from a variety of sources. But it worked, and that was the main thing.
“Unfortunately, over the last couple of years, our capacity to do research has been seriously curtailed by the simple need to stay alive. But now, thanks to the arrival of Atlantica, we have the time and ability to do some.” Donovan continued sighting the telescope, aiming it up into the night. The waxing moon loomed large, leaving only the brightest stars in the loosely speckled sky. He gave a nod of satisfaction. “As a boy in Wichita, Kansas, I was always fascinated by the planets.”
He finished making his adjustments and gave a nod of satisfaction.
“As expected, over the ten million years which have elapsed, many of the stars have shifted around. Some are nearly impossible to recognize and we will eventually have to recategorize them. Maybe even create new constellations.” Donovan had clearly rehearsed his speech. “Likewise, as the imperfections in the planets’ orbits in the Solar System have propagated, even finding them again has been tricky.”
He stood and looked at the small, select, crowd. “But I’ve found one now.”
Donovan waved Reynolds over. “Please, sir. Take a look at Mars.”
Reynolds leaned forward and pressed his eye to the scope. A second later, he pulled back and rubbed his eyes before looking again. “That can’t be right?”
“Oh it is.” Donovan smiled.
“What does it mean?”
“That’s something we need to find out,” Donovan responded. “It could mean a lot of things.”
Reynolds waved Laurie over. “Darling, take a look.”
Laurie stepped forward and replaced her father. Looking through the eyepiece, she saw the black expanse of space, specks of light twinkling. But what was at the center? That’s what caused her breath to catch.
The circle was small, little more than the size of a cent. But it was unmistakably made up of two colors. Blues and greens.
Like her father, she pulled back in shock. “How?”
“Same answer, I’m afraid.” Donovan grinned.
The others queued up, each gasping as they saw the formally red planet.
“Well, shit!” Wakefield exclaimed. He was too focused looking through the telescope to see the distaste flash across Donovan’s face. “You think it has life?”
“That’ll certainly be one explanation.” Donovan nodded. “Now, bearing in mind that the majority of my knowledge of what would go into terraforming Mars comes from Kim Stanley Robinson novels, it suggests some kind of significant adaption to the planet.”
“Well, shit,” Wakefield repeated, his voice low. “Maybe those crazy cats succeeded.”
“The ones who tried to escape to Mars, you mean?” Laurie asked. Wakefield had told them when they’d first arrived there had been many projects to try and sidestep the Perses extinction event. Not the least an attempt to colonize Mars. But, as far as Wakefield had told them, it had been considered to have one of the lowest probabilities of success.
“Yeah.” Wakefield frowned. “But their plan was a total gamble. There was no way they could have succeeded. Could they?”
“Our only evidence that anyone made it is here.” Donovan lightly stroked the top of the telescope, careful not to disturb its position. “I can’t think of any processes short of divine or human intervention which could have somehow given life to Mars. So, as our resident expert on the Perses survival missions—do you think there would be people up there?”
“How the hell would I know?” Wakefield resumed looking through the scope. “We got any way of communicating with them? Maybe listening for if they’re speaking?”
“We’ve been as successful as we have been listening for the other Loci you claim exist. Which is to say, not at all,” Donovan said with a shake of his head.
Laurie smiled that Donovan had managed to slip in that barb. Wakefield’s original claim that there were other Loci in the world, presumably with other refugees from the past, hadn’t panned out—although the technical experts agreed that they weren’t set up to listen for them. Personally, Laurie couldn’t see why Wakefield hadn’t brought the technology with him to link in with them. But, either way, he denied that he had heard anything from anyone else.
“I took the liberty of tasking the AN/SPY to try and listen, but it’s not built for monitoring interplanetary communications, and predictably, it heard nothing,” Donovan said, referring to one of Ignatius’s radar systems. “But I’d suggest that would be one interesting project to figure something out. The question remains though, no matter how good a job they did, why haven’t they come back once Earth settled down after the Perses strike?”
“Now that’s one hell of a question,” Wakefield mused distractedly as he continued regarding the mysterious world through the telescope.
“Talk to me, Karl.” Kristen settled down on the sand next to Grayson where he sat, his back to the beach bonfire gazing out across the nighttime bay. Atlantica was lit in all her glory. Even from over a mile away, the beat of music could be heard emanating from her deck.
Kristen drew her legs in and wrapped her arms around them. “You’ve been different ever since you came back from the Atlantica.”
Grayson remained silent, her words washing over him. He’d mentally roleplayed as many permutations going forward as he could think of. Plans which went nowhere. Or if they did, led the fleet back into a civil war. Sneaking aboard the Atlantica, confronting Reynolds, and beating the information he needed out of him was about the most realistic. The only problem was that would likely rapidly spiral out of control, and fast.
“Karl!” Kristen snapped, interrupting his reverie.
“Hmm?” He turned to his wife and reached across and took her hand. Reluctantly, she released it from where it was clasped around her shins and let him draw it toward himself. “Sorry, baby. Just thinking.”
“You’ve done nothing but think since you got back,” she said sharply. After a moment, she gave a sigh. “Look, I don’t ask too many questions about before. We’ve lived in the moment, knowing that’s what matters. But I feel I’m losing you. Something has you rattled, and I know you don’t get rattled easily. You handle things, that’s why Bautista trusts you.”
“I ain’t sure he trusts me.” Grayson gave a snort. “He tolerates me, I even think he likes me. But trusts me? No.”
“Then more fool him,” Kristen replied cuttingly. “Just tell me, what was on that ship?”
“I...” Grayson turned to look at the bay again, his gaze catching the beautiful yacht in the bay. The Osiris. She was moored next to a long pier that protruded out into the sea. The people who were on there were his real targets. But that ship was just as impenetrable as Atlantica. More so, because he knew they were immeasurably more dangerous and ruthless. No, his reconnaissance had come up with naught. There was no way aboard her. Worse, if they knew who he really was and how he came to be trapped here with them, they would come for him, and wouldn’t stop until he was dead.
How much should he tell his wife? As far as she was concerned, he was an ex-soldier... which was the truth, as far as it went. But to tell her more might make her a target. Her and James, both. He turned back to her and smiled. “I’m just being silly.”
He stood and dusted the sand off his ass before reaching down to haul her up. “Come on, let’s go find the little monster before he gets himself into trouble.”
Kristen shook her head, pulling her hand back from his. “Just remember, Karl. He’s what matters the most in this world now. Don’t ever forget it.”
“Everything I do is for him.” Grayson began walking back toward the collection of huts with his wife next to him.
Chapter Eleven – The Past
With a subdued grunt, Grayson lifted himself over the rough-cut stone block wall as Dillon boosted his foot with cupped hands. Twisting to lie precariously on the narrow top, he pulled Dillon up so he could get his own grip on the ten-foot-high wall.
Both men dropped silently into the shrubby on the inner side of the Carlton Golf Club’s wall and looked around. After what had seemed to be an age of pouring over the reversed map, they had identified this as the location of Reynolds’s meeting.
They were in one of the few blind CCTV blind spots. Whoever had designed the system had been good, damn good, but there was still a good few miles of perimeter line to cover. In the distance, the sound of barking from the security patrol’s dogs could be heard and Grayson winced. He hated dogs with a passion, and the muscular, powerful Rottweilers the guards at the club were being led about by looked like they could literally eat him for dinner.
The moon’s light washed the course, giving a dark blue hue to the night as they hunkered down, letting their eyes fully adapt now they were away from the streetlights. From all around came the chirping of crickets and the rustle of other invisible animals.
“Man, I’d kill to work on my handicap here,” Dillon whispered as he smeared camo paint over his face from a small tube and handed it to Grayson.
“Maybe when you retire,” Grayson replied, daubing his own face with the dark paste. He tucked the tube away in his breast pocket and looked around, while pressing his finger to his ear. “Check, check, check.”
“Strength five and I’m showing our coms are secure,” Bradley’s voice came through loud and clear.
“Good,” Grayson hissed in response. “We’re moving out.”
The clubhouse created an oasis of light in the dark of the well-kept grounds. The one predictable thing in the heat of the Caribbean was the VIP lanai was open to the air.
Soft music washed out of the terrace as a collection of people milled around, looking for all the world like they were enjoying some early evening drinks and canapes before some kind of ostentatious main event. Away from the table, suited men and women looked on with an air of patient watchfulness. They had hired muscle written all over them.
The contrast to the glamour of his own situation wasn’t lost on Grayson as he crawled through mud and spiny undergrowth, doing his best not to swear as the plants nicked and caught at his skin. Just inside the edge of the foliage, he lifted his small telescope to his eye, the business end covered in a soft thin cloth veil to reduce its reflectivity.
Running along it was a directional microphone, and now it pointed straight at the target.
He clicked on his radio to signal he was in position. Through his earpiece, the only response was a dull wash of static.
Damnit. He hadn’t been receiving anything as he’d moved forward of the lying-up position where Dillon waited, ready to cover his withdrawal if things turned hot. The big question, was it a malfunction, or was it something else? If he was a betting man, he’d put his money on some kind of jamming technology. If they could spoof ECHELON, then putting a stop to radio coms would be child’s play.
A ramrod-straight figure walked onto the lanai and took a glass of wine from a passing waiter’s tray. The admiral. Grayson focused the mic on him as another figure greeted him, pumping his hand with a vigor Reynolds didn’t return.
“John,” the figure said. “Great to see ya.”
American, say late forties to early fifties. Grayson noted. That voice seems damn familiar.
“Conrad,” Reynolds responded tersely with a nod.
“Please.” The man, Conrad gestured at a chair. “Take a load off.”
Reynolds moved to the round table and sat. He seemed tense, his hand gripped tightly in a fist.
Grayson turned the telescope on the other man, trying to get a good look at his face.
Conrad? Come on, now where do I know you from?
“Ladies and gentlemen.” Conrad took position at the round table and sat in the comfortable looking garden chair. He was clearly presiding over this meeting, seeming to have control of it. “It’s real good for you all to have made it here.”
“Mr. Wakefield,” a middle-aged woman said in an acid tone. “Is it really prudent that we meet so close to execution date just so you can live out some Illuminati-wannabe fantasy?”
That was it. That was where he’d heard of this man before. Conrad Wakefield... Grayson raised an eyebrow as he lay in the mud. Some billionaire venture capitalist and philanthropist. He hadn’t done his homework on him, he hadn’t known he needed to. All he knew was what he had read in the newspapers about him, that the man probably had more money forgotten in his spare pants than Grayson made in a year.
“Liza, I think we’re on first name terms now, don’t you?” Wakefield gave a winning smile. “And yes, I do think it’s important we have a touch of focus before execution. After all, this will be the last time we see each other in a while.”
“Maybe,” the woman, Liza, replied. “But remember, not everyone is friendly to our plans. If any of them were to get wind of this—”
“Yes, but he is,” Wakefield said, inclining his head to emphasize his point. “Friendly to our plans, that is. And he’s who’s important.”
“Then perhaps he would like to introduce himself to us,” Liza retorted. “I’m not used to being at the beck and call of someone who I don’t even know the name of.”
Wakefield gave a chuckle in response before gesturing at a tablet balanced on the table. His gesture turned into a wave. “Ain’t gonna happen, Liza. He’s shy. But you can say hello if you want. I assure you, he can hear you.”
“Enough of this.” Reynolds slapped the top of the table. His face red. “I’m not here to bicker. I’m here to petition for a rethink.”
“You’re not getting cold feet are you, John?” Wakefield turned to him.
“Yes,” Reynolds growled. “And if you’re not, then there’s something seriously bloody wrong with you.”
The false cheeriness left Wakefield’s face and he leaned forward, his piercing eyes locked on Reynolds. He drummed his fingertips on the table, otherwise silent for a long moment. “John. You know as well as I do this project must succeed. You’ve done more than most to make this happen. I don’t want to lose you as an ally. As a friend.”
“We’re not friends, Conrad.”
“We’ll stick with ally, then. The point still stands, though. You know what’s at stake. Elpis cannot fail. It must not fail.”
Reynolds appeared to deflate, the anger washing out of him, and he settled back into his seat. “No, it must not fail. And don’t worry, I’m not about to go running off to the authorities. Just... just don’t ask me to be there when the button is pushed.”
Wakefield stood and circled the table until he stood behind the old man and lay a hand on his shoulder. “John, no one wants this. But it’s the only way. You know it, I know it.” He waved a hand to encompass the others at the table. “They know it and he knows it. That’s why he’s going to do it. He’ll push the button. Our consciences will be clear.”
“We’re party to this, Conrad. Our consciences will not be clear.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Wakefield said, an introspective tilt to his head.
“Millions, Conrad.” Grayson strained to hear him. Reynolds’s voice little more than a whisper.
“Possibly billions.” Wakefield patted Reynolds’s shoulder. “But you know the cost if we don’t. And that will be everything.”
“But there’s other projects...” Reynolds voice took on a pleading tone.
“You know as well as I do what the odds are on those projects working out. Only ours has a double-digit percentage chance of success.”
Grayson frowned. What the hell were they talking about? Millions, billions? Of what? Dollars? Wakefield wouldn’t be interested in millions. To him that was pocket change. Maybe billions, but then why? It wasn’t like Wakefield could spend what he had.
He refocused in time to watch Reynolds nod soundlessly.
“You’ll have a place on board Osiris with me.”
“No.” Reynolds looked up, his voice and demeanor once again firm. “I’ll be with my daughter when it happens. I can’t help anymore.”
“Okay, John. Okay,” Wakefield said with false resignation before turning back to the others. “Execution date is in three days as planned—”
“Satellite imagery shows we have an intruder, forty-seven meters west-south-west.” The voice was accentless, androgynous. Grayson couldn’t tell who the source was, maybe from the tablet.
Two of the burly men standing behind Wakefield immediately grabbed him firmly and pushed his head down so he was bent double, and shoved him none-to-gently toward the terrace doors. Handguns had appeared in their grips. The others likewise scrambled from the table and made to follow.
“Shit,” Grayson breathed. He mentally back-traced which direction he was from the lanai. The voice had indicated on his position. He stuffed the telescope and mic into his rucksack and picked himself up off the muddy floor. Even from this distance without the scope, he could see a large group of figures pile out onto the lanai, heading in his direction.
He was made.
Chapter Twelve – The Present
Wakefield stepped onto the platform mounted on one side of the cavernous interior of the Osiris’s hanger bay. He moved through the industrial metal passageways until he reached the urbane reception area. He nodded appreciatively; the varnished mahogany decking positively shone, having been buffed to a pristine finish. Monet paintings adorned the walls. All of them original, of course. He idly ran a finger over a burnished metal rail and examined it. Not a hint of dust. Someone had been hard at work.
Just how I like it.
The man waiting for him had a brutal burn covering the right side of his face, his skin sloughed and half of his hair missing. He seemed uncaring about his mutilation. No, not uncaring, more like he relished the intimidating look it gave him. The fearsome visage made Wakefield’s stomach turn. Not that he would show it, but still it was pretty gross.
“Mister Wakefield. Welcome back. I trust you enjoyed dinner.”
His voice was graveled, a symptom of his burned throat which he had so recently recovered from.
“If anyone invites you to dinner over there...” A hatch slid open and Wakefield paced through. “I’d suggest you decline. Politely.”
“Understood, sir,” Creighton rasped.
They walked down a long corridor into a rear lounge. The women within were all beautiful, beautiful and submissive. Just like he liked them... well, mostly. And her job was to keep the others in check. None of them met his eyes, except one that was. “Evening ladies. Have they all been behaving, Lia?”
A beautiful woman, older than the rest, reclined in a seat, her long legs crossed. “But of course, Conrad.”
“Glad to hear it.” Wakefield gave Lia a grin. God, he loved her cultured British accent. She sounded like a lady from a period drama. “I wouldn’t want to have to make any examples.”
He walked to one girl—a young thing, her hands clasped in her lap, looking sullenly at the floor. Wakefield admired her tanned, toned shoulders, and let his gaze drift down to her smooth legs.
“Go wait in my room, sweetie. I’ll be right along.”
She nodded, her eyes still downcast, and walked slowly out the room.
“Jeeze, you ladies are going to give a guy a complex. You’d have thought I just asked her to clean the head.” Wakefield looked around the room at the other women before giving a shrug. “Which can be arranged if some of you don’t look a little enthusiastic on occasion.”
He glanced at Creighton. “Or perhaps some of you could take up residence downstairs? The crew have their needs, too.”
“That’s be most welcome, sir.” One half of Creighton’s face grinned widely as he ogled a girl dressed in little more than a short gown.
“See, there’s a willing audience. Supply and demand and all that.” He poured himself a glass of red wine from a bottle on the sideboard and took a long slurp on it. “Right, speaking of downstairs.”
Carrying the glass, he trotted down a spiral staircase to the lower deck. A guard stood by an innocuous bulkhead. Without prompting, he held his wrist against a reader and it swung open for Wakefield. He headed deep into the bowels of the ship. The décor moved away from the palatial fittings of the upper decks, becoming more utilitarian. Pipes and wiring were exposed, following the hasty gutting and refit of the yacht from a billionaire’s pleasure palace into something which would carry a kernel of humanity into the future.
The final hatch before his destination, an imposing pressure door, awaited him in the belly of the ship. The layout had long since been rearranged from Osiris’s original configuration to prevent easy access to this place. It was guarded as much by being lost in the labyrinthine lower decks as it was by the impressive security systems protecting it. Only Wakefield had unrestricted access, and that was just the way he wanted it.
The final layer of security was an RFID chip implanted in his wrist. A scanner sensed it as he approached and the hatch rumbled open, revealing the space beyond.
The room was an underwater viewing chamber with huge thick windows creating an inverted bubble on the keel of the Osiris. The ship’s exterior floodlights pierced the water outside, creating a constant swirling blue montage to fill the room. Strange nocturnal fish darted nervously around, creating flickering shadows throughout the chamber.
In the center of the chamber, a pair of leather couches were arranged facing each other. On the one opposite the door, a young boy—no more than ten years of age—sat, his hands patiently resting on his lap.
“You have not been here in days,” the boy said, only the slightest inflection of accusation in his voice.
Wakefield cocked his head briefly before placing his wineglass on a table. Perhaps that’s because I never pretended to be a damn babysitter. “I’m sorry. I’ve been a little preoccupied.”
“I am lonely.” The boy turned to look out the window, his gaze tracking a large fish. “You must visit more often.”
Wakefield moved to sit on the couch opposite the boy and crossed his legs. He reclined back as he gazed at the child. Truth be told, the kid freaked him out. He may have looked sweet and innocent, but Wakefield knew better. “I’ll try. Listen, kid, I need your help with something.”
“I was told you would look after me. You would help me here.” The boy turned to look at Wakefield, and his eyes seeming to pierce Wakefield’s soul. “You have not. I want to be released from here and go to the Atlantica. There will be lots of people on there. They may help me find the others.”
“There are lots of people on there.” Wakefield wafted his hand dismissively. “But they won’t help you, at least not yet. The situation is still very fluid and unpredictable. I need to ensure I have control, then we can be confident that things are stable enough for you.”
“But I was told—”
“Look, kid,” Wakefield said irritably. “I said not yet. You’re just going to have to trust me on this one. The politics of the situation are a hell of a lot more complicated than we envisaged. But you can help with that. I need to know a little more about the other projects.”
“How am I supposed to know?” the boy replied, his voice calm and measured. “Perhaps if we found the others, I could tell you more.”
Wakefield clenched his fist. This stubborn little jackass pissed him off as well as freaked him out, he was so focused. But he’d long since learned that threats, cajoling, or even frankly pleading got him nowhere. The kid’s first answer was invariably his only answer. But he had to try.
“We saw Mars. It looks as if they might have been successful there.”
The boy gave a slight smile. “Why is it you believe they were successful?”
“One of the guys on the Ignatius has observed it through a telescope.” Wakefield leaned forward. “I’ve seen it, kid. It’s blue and green. I don’t have to be in NASA to know that means something big has changed there.”
“That does indeed suggest success,” the boy agreed. “Fascinating. It was felt that project would have had the lowest odds of a desirable outcome.”
“I need to know anything you may know about it.”
“As I say, find the others, and maybe we can tell you more. Until then, I have said all I know about it.”
“Nothing else springs to mind?” Wakefield pressed.
“No more information is available.”
“Is that your only answer?”
The boy stood and walked to the window. Wakefield looked at him, hoping for a response. Yet in reality, he expected nothing from the brat. The child remained silent.
“Fine.” Wakefield stood. “If anything springs to mind—”
“It will not.”
“If anything springs to mind,” Wakefield repeated through gritted teeth. The little shit. “Let me know. And we’ll find the others soon. Promise.”
“I’ll look forward to it.” The boy continued to look out the window. “I am patient, but we must show progress.”
Chapter Thirteen – The Past
How the hell had he been spotted?
Grayson ran through the undergrowth. They had the best secure field radio equipment on the planet, it couldn’t be through a simple intercept. Branches whipped painfully against his face as he kept his forearms up to ward off the worst of it. He was about halfway back to Dillon’s lying-up point and the last thing he wanted to do was surprise his partner. Knowing how brutally efficient Dillon was, that could be a terminal mistake.
“Check, check, check.” A dull wash of static came over the radio as he continued running. Behind him came the bark of Rottweilers, increasing in tempo as they caught his scent. They were damn aggressive dogs, powerful and quick. But, according to Dillon when they’d done the recon on the club earlier in the day, not the best trackers. And they had a big flaw as security dogs—they were easily bribed. Reaching down, he fumbled in his pouch and pulled out a chunk of bloody steak, turned, and threw it as far as he could away from him. It was probably bullshit or an urban legend from his partner, but he was willing to give it a go.
“Check, check.” He pressed his finger to his ear.
“Receiving,” Dillon’s crackly voice responded.
“Coming in with company.” Grayson turned and continued running.
“Hot or cold?”
“Cold. Withdraw,” Grayson signaled his hope they could still get out of this without having to shoot some poor bastard. Or dog.
Grayson began angling away from where Dillon would even now be gathering himself up. Now he knew his partner was extracting, they could meet at the wall.
Picking up the pace, Grayson hit a dead sprint, one arm still up to fend off the branches. Before him, he heard the sound of traffic. As he reached the wall, he took a running jump and grabbed at the top. His legs began scrambling for purchase to drive himself up and over it. He felt himself slipping back down, his hands grating against the course stone.
A firm hand wrapped around his wrist and hauled him up and over. Dillon. He fell awkwardly down the other side of the wall and slammed into the ground with a grunt.
Shaking of his daze, he stood, surprising pedestrians who stared at the two strange men who had launched themselves over the wall and into their midst. Dillon thrust some wet wipes into his hands. Quickly, he scrubbed the camouflage paint off his face. He didn’t have to look beautiful, he just needed to look clean. He shrugged out of his reversible jacket and turned it inside out, putting the muddy outer layer inside.
“Looking beautiful,” Dillon said, thrusting a bottle of beer into his hands. They began sauntering casually down the sidewalk looking like a pair of revelers looking for their next bar.
An SUV screeched around the corner, filled with men, before accelerating down the street toward the position where they had come over the wall.
Grayson didn’t even look at them as they passed.
“How the fuck did they make me?” Grayson growled as he vigorously toweled his still-wet hair. He’d just gotten out of the safe house’s shower, after cleaning the mud off his body and plucking plant spines out of his flesh.
“I don’t know.” Bradley gestured at the satellite image. It was a screen capture of the lanai from one of the latest generation Keyhole Block V reconnaissance satellites. Despite the nighttime imaging, the satellite’s advanced processing capabilities had created red digital outlines of the players on the board. Grayson could see himself laid prone near the clubhouse, and ahead of him, the lanai on which the meeting had taken place. The nearest patrols were over two hundred yards away. “There were plenty of units out, but none near you.”
“Motion sensors? Drones? Thermal cameras?” Dillon asked.
“Please!” Grayson frowned at him, affronted. “There was nothing there. It’s a goddamn golf course, not Fort Knox. Their security was clearly brought-in talent.”
“Could have picked up the radio?”
“That wasn’t what sparked them off. Our radio net is hidden in the usual cell phone traffic of the whole damn island. But some kind of jammer had killed it where I was.”
“Right.” Dillon frowned. “You say the security was brought in. You think they’re private military contractors?”
“Yeah I’d say so.” Grayson tossed the towel into the corner. “They were quick and good when they sprang into action. The close-in security provided cover and pulled out their principles while the go-team they had ready in the clubhouse deployed. There was no panic or mixing of mission types, everyone knew what to do if they were bounced. I don’t think we’re looking at ex-Walmart security here.”
“Always nice to deal with professionals,” Dillon said without humor. “The question still remains how they managed to get the drop on you.”
“Yeah.” That was what was bothering Grayson. He mentally reviewed the situation. He’d been careful going in, inching his way forward, checking and rechecking for security measures. Surely if he was going to get made, it would have been when he’d tripped one. The meeting would never have happened. Instead, he’d been in position for a fair few minutes before he’d been sprang. “So the only people who knew I was there were us and the operations center at Langley?”
“One of us ain’t exactly CIA.” Dillon gazed at Bradley.
“No, but I am on your side,” Bradley cut back. “And besides, I brought you this mission in the first place. I’m not going blow it when I could have just, you know, not even bothered?”
“Fair point,” Grayson said. A thought had occurred. And not one he liked. “I was out of coms. What time did you get that Keyhole satellite tasking approved?”
“From the look of it, I got the tasking approved and the imagery feed sent through a few seconds before you were made.”
“Jesus,” Grayson muttered. It couldn’t be a coincidence, could it?
“And the sat imagery comes through Langley operations center,” Bradley finished Grayson’s train of thought for him. “As soon as they got the satellite imagery, so did whoever tipped Wakefield off.”
“Shit,” Dillon muttered. “Someone at Langley is dirty.”
“It makes sense. Someone fed us bullshit instead of the ECHELON feed. That’s why we couldn’t get into Reynolds’s computer. And as for what just happened at the Carlton club...” Grayson let his voice trail off.
“Fine, so we let Millard know,” Dillon growled. “He can start applying the thumbscrews back at Langley. Goddamn, but I didn’t expect to be out in the cold in the fucking Caribbean.”
“You and me both, buddy.” Grayson agreed. “Meanwhile, what the hell is Conrad Wakefield doing here, and what does Elpis mean, and will someone tell me what an Osiris is?”
“Osiris is easy.” Bradley tapped away at the keyboard. “That’s Wakefield’s yacht.”
“And it’s here?” Grayson asked as Bradley span the laptop around. On it was a picture from Facebook of huge superyacht nestled in a pristine harbor, surrounded by its gorgeous but less impressive sister ships. Grayson gave a low whistle as he looked at it. The Osiris had a long, wedge-shaped hull. It was difficult to reconcile size, both seeming small and sleek, but when details such as a member of crew resolved themselves on deck, huge. Her white hull was a long, swooping shape. Frankly, it looked like something even a lottery winner would envy to Grayson’s eyes.
“Apparently not,” Bradley said. “She’s showing on here as being in Port Adriano, Mallorca.”
“That’s a hell of a way away,” Dillon said.
“Yeah, if we believe it’s there,” Grayson mused. “We’re getting a hell of a lot of bad intel through at the moment.”
The other two could only shrug. If they couldn’t even trust the reports they were getting through supposedly verified intelligence sources, then they sure as hell couldn’t trust a Facebook post.
“Okay, what about Elpis. What’s that? Another ship?” Grayson asked, then corrected himself as he remembered Wakefield’s phrasing. “No, they said it in a different context: ‘Elpis must not fail.’”
Bradley pursed her lips and shook her head. “Never heard of it but the context sounds like an operation name rather than something physical.”
She tapped away on her keyboard. “Google reckons that Elpis is the Greek goddess of hope?”
“Well that clears that up,” Dillon said dryly.
“Okay, fine. We need to generate a plan,” Grayson said. “We’re in the cold here and need to start warming up. We need to start getting some reliable information, and we need to set Millard on weeding through Langley in case there actually is someone dirty back there. There’s only one secure communications route we can trust which doesn’t go through the whole Ops room.”
“A hardline.” Dillon nodded in agreement.
“That’s right. As far as I’m aware, the only one in Nassau is at the embassy.”
“Good morning, sir. How can I can help you today?”
The guard was cheery, polite, and well turned out, other than the slight stain of sweat patches under his arms. The embassy was on Queen Street, running perpendicular from the crystalline blue sea and a stone’s throw away from a McDonald’s restaurant. Which had been fortuitous as they’d all been starving.
Grayson pulled out his CAC ID and handed it to the guard, who took it and theatrically held it up, glancing at Grayson’s face and back again. He took Dillon’s and repeated his check. “If you’d like to go through.”
With a buzz, the heavy metal gate ground open. They crossed the hot tarmac and entered the fiercely air-conditioned reception.
The only people who had authority to grant them access to the hardline was either the CIA head of station, or the ambassador. And seeing as Nassau didn’t warrant having much in the way of a company presence, those two roles were effectively one. That meant they were left waiting in the reception area of the embassy for the ambassador to deign to see them.
After thirty minutes, they heard the slap of feet on linoleum and a pleasant looking middle-aged lady appeared wearing a sarong and nothing on her feet. She thrust her hand out and they shook it in turn. “My apologies, I’ve been in a meeting. If you’d like to come with me?”
It took Grayson a moment to realize this was the ambassador herself, Margaret Monroe. She guided them toward her office.
“Take a seat, gentlemen.” She gestured at a cracked-leather settee. “I’m told you needed to speak to me urgently.” Her eyes darted left and right conspiratorially. “And your credentials suggested I should oblige.”
“That’s right, ma’am.” Grayson smiled despite himself. It was difficult not to like her; she had a hint of zaniness to her that wasn’t often found in government officials. Clearly, though, her idea of urgent had been tempered by a long posting on an island paradise. “We need access to your hardline.”
“Oh,” she said, beaming. “Exciting! Anything I need to know?”
“Well, we could tell you, but then we’d have to—” Dillon started before Grayson punched him lightly in the chest.
“What my colleague means to say, is no. Sadly not. Just every now and again we like to know that the link is working properly and we have to run a test call.”
“Ah, shame.” The ambassador looked deflated for a moment before brightening again. “You better come with me then.”
She stood again, leading them out onto the corridor, then using her ID card, buzzed through another door. “Here it is.”
She stood in the room, giving a theatrical flourish. Within, a single computer sat on a desk, next to it a rotary dial which looked like it had been part of a phone from the eighties. Grayson grimaced. Clearly, Nassau was pretty far down the upgrades list to bring it into the twenties.
“If you’d kindly excuse us, ma’am,” he said.
“Of course, of course,” she nodded, she gestured at a button next to the light switch. “You turn it on there.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Dillon said as he gently shooed the woman out of the room and slapped the button before rolling his eyes. The button activated a faraday cage. Even if the room was infested with bugs, no radio coms could get out. Grayson gave his cell phone a quick glance to ensure he was showing no reception on it. Sure enough, there were no bars on the display.
“Right, let’s do this.”
Grayson dialed the number he had memorized, which went straight through to the secure terminal on the other end the old-fashioned way, by direct cable between the embassy and Langley. In theory, this made it impervious to normal means of listening in beyond a wiretap, and the system carefully monitored for if that were to occur. There would be no radio coms traffic and no internet signal to intercept.
A bored looking man appeared on the screen. “Flower.”
“Tent,” Grayson responded, verifying he was who he said he was and he wasn’t under duress.
“I need to speak to SAD Actual, confidential.”
“Millard’s gonna shit when we tell him he has to open up an internal investigation.” Dillon reclined back in the hard-plastic chair, massaging his temple with his two fingers. “He’ll be up to his neck in paperwork for that.”
“It’s why he’s paid the big bucks,” Grayson retorted. “And not as much as he’ll shit if he finds something.”
Grayson drummed his fingers on the desk, waiting for his boss to appear. After a few minutes, Millard lowered himself into the chair. “Gentlemen.”
“Sir, please confirm confidential.”
“I can confirm, Karl.”
“Good,” Grayson glanced at his partner, who gave a light nod. “Sir, we’re making some progress on our investigation but—”
“But your meeting some confusing and unexpected intelligence gaps, right?”
Well, that was easier than expected. “Yes, sir. We’ve had a few different issues. Each of them in isolation we could just shrug and say, ‘shit happens’, but all of them in combination suggest a pretty deep level of penetration at your end. Possibly into the ops center itself. We think you may have someone dirty back there.”
Millard nodded and pursed his lips, staring at the screen for a moment. “Yes, that tallies with what I’ve been seeing here for the last several months.”
Grayson darted a glance at his partner. Dillon audibly ground his teeth. He’s telling us this now? “Boss, that sounds pretty damn problematic.”
“No shit, Karl,” Millard replied plainly. “It started subtly, with the odd thing which just didn’t ring true. Strange anomalies in the intelligence network. Reports which don’t tally with what people are seeing on the ground. But now, it’s more like we’re seeing the brute force rewriting of information and intelligence.”
“Then it should be flagged, boss. Why the hell hasn’t an investigation happened? If it’s permeating as deeply as you’re suggesting, then—”
“Then what? We shut down the CIA?” Millard’s frustration was evident. “It ain’t going to happen.”
“We might need to, boss. If we can’t rely on our intel in the field, then we’re fucked.”
“I know, Karl. Look, I’ve taken my concerns to the secretary of defense and she’s listening to them, but she’s told me to investigate on the down low. She’s got it into her head it’s the Russians again, or the Chinese.”
The look on Millard’s face told Grayson how much he believed that. “But you don’t think so?”
“No, from what I can tell, this is all about protecting something, not attacking us. It’s about camouflaging, and we need to know what it’s covering up.”
“And you think it’s whatever Reynolds and Wakefield are involved with here?”
“Wakefield? As in?”
“As in Conrad Wakefield.” Grayson quickly and concisely filled Millard in on their activities of the last few days.
Millard nodded at last. “Whatever this is all about, whatever this is protecting, whatever is going on with our intel net, it seems to be about those two. Wakefield and Reynolds.”
“So, what’s the call?”
“Keep going with your investigation, keep filing your reports through the usual channels, but assume anything you get is suspect. And whatever you do, don’t raise your suspicions through formal channels. Find out what they’re covering up and end it. Hopefully we can use that to weed this damn place.”
“Shit,” Dillon muttered. “So we are in the cold?”
“Yes. You are,” Millard said. “I’ll do what I can at this end to find who might be leaking, but your focus needs to be physically finding whatever they’re protecting.”
“How much leeway have we got here, boss?”
“I’m not liking this at all.” Millard looked down in contemplation before he came to a decision. “Carte blanch.”
Grayson raised his eyebrow before giving a nod. “Fine. We’ll do what we need to from here. If there’s something to find, we will. Tell me, you ever heard of something called Elpis?”
“The Greek goddess of hope?” Millard replied, confusion on his face. Grayson raised an eyebrow at Millard’s knowledge of ancient Greek gods. Clearly the man had unplumbed depths.
“Yeah that’s what Google tells us Elpis is. But the context is an operation or a project.”
Millard puffed out his cheeks and shook his head. “No, I’ve never heard of Elpis in that context. But leave it with me.”
“It could be important.”
“Understood, I’ll get back to you. Look, there’s no one I’d rather have on this than you two.” Millard smiled briefly before frowning again. “But assume every means on coms is compromised. And if you get a hint about who is fucking with us at this end, please do tell so I can go have a long chat with them.”
“Roger that, boss.”
Grayson clicked the line off and looked at Dillon. “Well, buddy. We’ve been in bandit country before.”
“Yeah, give me the good ole days of dead drops and shady meetings on park benches any day over this technocentric post-truth world we’re living in,” Dillon replied with a rare introspective look on his face.
Grayson looked at his partner and felt an eyebrow raise again. “You know what, buddy? That almost sounds poetic.”
Chapter Fourteen – The Present
James played with the roughly hewn wooden toy of the Titan on the golden-sand beach. The super tanker ploughed its way through the grains as the child made a whooshing noise.
Grayson lay next to him, uncaring about the getting his clothes covered in the sand, instead trying to find contentment in simply enjoying the company of his son. Trying and failing. Deep down in his stomach, he had the hollow feeling of a job left undone. An ache—which try as he might, he knew he wouldn’t be able to ignore for long.
His son stood up and jogged away from him, then knelt next to the basket containing the collection of toys they had brought to the beach. It was, Grayson supposed, a simpler time for kids. There were none of the technological distractions of his own youth here. No games consoles or computers to keep his son occupied, or at least not in Anchorage. On Atlantica, it was a different matter, of course. There the people had all the mod cons and everything they could ever want.
In many ways, being in the military had meant for his whole adult life, he’d never actually had to worry about the pedestrian concerns of civilian street. Institutionalized, they called it. While others played computer games or VR of war games, he actually did it. And he was damn good at it. But a father? If he was honest with himself, that had always been ten years in the future, and he only expected to live five of those in the shady world of SAD/SOG. Grayson knew he wasn’t cut out to be a father, but then he supposed, who was? But the one thing he did know was since James had come into the world, this strange new world, he would do anything for him.
Anything except quit.
Grayson looked over at his son, the questioning tone in his boy’s voice breaking his reverie.
“Look.” James stood, one arm extended inland.
Grayson picked himself up and dusted his body down before strolling over to him. “What’s up, kiddo?”
“There. The mountain.”
Grayson followed the line of his son’s hand. His finger was aimed at the lone peak, far away. A geyser of a dark cloud emanated from it, and slowly weaved a misty spiral around the mountain.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know...” Grayson said slowly. Now he looked at it, it didn’t appear like a cloud, not the way it was venting out the side of the mountain. The only thing which sprung to his mind was a... volcano, perhaps?
Grayson felt his face twisting in a frown. If it was, then they could all be in big trouble. He tussled the boy’s hair. “Start gathering your stuff.”
James began putting his toys back in the woven basket as Grayson continued watching the ominous peak.
Slater stood on the bridge and brought the binoculars to her eyes. The mountain centered in her view. From the sides, wisps of black smoke emanated, twisting and turning as they reached out and spiraled down.
“Perry, take a look.” She offered the binoculars to him. “What do you think?”
The bridge was quiet, only the watch officers present at their stations. The room still had a patched-together appearance, cabling crudely duct taped to the bulkheads, laptops settled on desks on which consoles once stood. But, Slater acknowledged, despite appearances, they were near as damn it back to 100% operations thanks to Atlantica’s 3D printers.
“I think we could be in trouble,” Donovan said quietly, still looking through the binoculars intently.
“I’m no geologist, but that mountain is starting to look disturbingly like a volcano outgassing, or whatever they call it.”
“We’re what? Fifty miles away? Is that a safe distance?”
“As I say, I’m no geologist, ma’am,” Donovan replied.
Slater frowned. This could be a real problem. Yes, they were a long way away. But there was every chance it could affect them, even here, depending on whether it blew big or not. Slater turned and looked down at the bay toward Anchorage and the fields. This could put everything at risk they had created.
Slater picked up the radio mic and pressed the button on the side. “Atlantica, this is Ignatius Actual. With my compliments, I need to speak to the admiral and Liam. Permission to come aboard.”
“You’re right. This is somewhat unsettling news. Possibly literally.” Reynolds paced at the head of the table, his hands clasped. He looked at the others sitting around Atlantica’s conference room. Floor-to-ceiling windows covered one entire wall of the room, giving them a perfect view of the picturesque bay from the elevated position, and the peak which was causing such concern. If it wasn’t for the fact of a possible volcano not much more than a stone’s throw from them, the place wouldn’t have looked dissimilar to a paradise in the Caribbean. “But let’s not jump to conclusions immediately. What are our options here?”
Laurie stood, a young man rising hesitantly next to her. “This is Maurice Tsang, who has a doctorate in Geophysics from Yale. He’s the closest I’ve found to a volcanologist aboard, and I’ve asked for him to provide his expert opinion and what this might mean for us.”
“Err, thank you.” Tsang looked around the table before leaning over his tablet and tapping on it. A map of the section of the world they had charted appeared on the table, showing a distended stretch of coastline. Blinds automatically slid smoothly down, covering the windows, stopping the glare on the touch-screen surface.
Most of the information they had on the geography of this future world had been gleaned from Donovan and Kendricks’ adaption of one of Ignatius’s RIM-161 missiles. They’d refitted it into a launcher for a spacecraft to map the fleet’s vicinity—a job it had performed amazingly well, for something jury-rigged together.
The north and south landmasses of America had, over the millions of years the fleet had skipped through, closed like jaws, turning the Eastern seaboard into a more southerly orientation.
“We are around here, located not far from Delaware, which was about the closest point of land in North America to where we arrived.” He pointed at the table, somewhat redundantly for the sailors around the table, but Laurie let him roll with it, to tell the story his way.
“Now in our time, this is located more or less centrally in the North American tectonic plate. In other words, it’s relatively stable and not prone to earthquakes we find near the fault lines. Nor are there any volcanos in this area.”
“Yet we seem to have one on our doorstep,” Reynolds said pointedly.
“Well yes.” Tsang nodded. “And that is curious. It shouldn’t be here.”
“Clearly in the years between our time and our arrival, a significant amount of geological activity has occurred,” Donovan said. “For starters, whole continents have moved.”
“Yes, and somewhat differently than how many models predicted. I’ve been doing some work on this and tracing the movements and how it may fit into existing theories. What doesn’t change, however, is that fundamentally the tectonic plates will stay mostly the same, they’ll just... shift around a bit. Although there is also some growth and shrinkage, too. Look, this is what I’ve worked out so far.”
With a few more taps on his tablet, another display appeared, this one a map of the Earth of their time, with sweeping dashed lines overlaying it. “These lines are faults—the edges of the tectonic plates. Now obviously I only have a small sample to show how things have changed. It’d be really interesting to see the rest of the world, but—”
“But you can only make do with what we have,” Reynolds prompted.
“That’s right.” Tsang nodded. He tapped on the map and an animation began. The segments began to swell, some of them faster than others, causing the map to grindingly move. “Now, what I’ve figured has happened is that the Caribbean plate has steadily pushed west, muscling the North American plate out of the way and causing it to twist downward, hence why the East Coast is now more like the Southeast Coast. At the same time, the Nazca plate, on the western coast of South America, which we knew was pushing to the east, has started to flip the South American continent around, too. Meanwhile, tectonic activity off map to the far east or west regions, is pulling or pushing both continents to the pre-event west. By the way, this stuff is a bit early to be presenting to you? Is that okay that we’re speaking about this?”
“We can get this all peer-reviewed later.” Laurie smiled encouragingly. It still made for some confusion for the fleet’s navigators that, at some point between now and the time they came from, that there had been a polar shift—north had become south and vice versa. But they were slowly getting used to it. “For now, we just need your best guess.”
“Okay, I guess. But it could be wrong.”
“That’s okay. Just what you think at the moment.”
On the screen, the plates twisted until they took the position they now occupied. “As you can see, under this model, eventually North and South America might, in effect, rotate around the Caribbean plate like it’s a pivot point.”
“All that disturbance must be causing all kinds of effects,” Slater said.
“Yes and no. This was happening in our time, too. It’s a perfectly natural thing and it’s occurring over millions of years. It’s not anything that would be catastrophic in nature.”
“But it may have made this area vulnerable to a volcano forming?”
“Well, no,” Tsang said. “Under this model, there’s no way that a volcano could have formed here. It’s right in the middle of the North American plate. Whatever that is, it isn’t a volcano.”
“Then what could it be?”
“I don’t know. Thinking about it, there shouldn’t even be a mountain there. While isolated peaks aren’t uncommon, it does seem strange that it protrudes in that position.”
“So, we have strange geological features on our doorstep and you didn’t think to bring it to our attention?” Slater asked pointedly.
“Well, no,” Tsang said nervously. “I needed time to figure out what it was before I spoke to you.”
“Right.” Slater’s tone was gentler than normal. She clearly recognized the man was nervous and needed to be encouraged, not shut down with impatient and testy questioning. “Then have you got any theories?”
“Not really, beyond maybe it’s an imperfection in the plate, but it didn’t really hold true.”
“Okay.” Slater waved her hand. “Would it help if we go have a look at this thing?”
“Well, yes. Of course.” Tsang nodded. “If we have a closer look, maybe I can figure it out.”
“Thank you, Doctor Tsang. Please take a seat.” Reynolds gestured at a chair. “Captain. I know you’ve been having some difficulties with your helicopters, but could I ask for a reccy on this mountain? We need to ascertain what it is, and what threat it poses to us here.”
“Absolutely. I’ll task Lieutenant McNamara to head over there in the operable Seahawk.” Slater turned to look at Tsang. “It would be helpful if she had an expert on board to take a look with her.”
“You mean I get to go on a helicopter?”
“That’s the plan.” Slater let a flash of a smile cross her face.
“Oh yes!” Tsang grinned, his enthusiasm evident.
“Ma’am,” Donovan spoke up. “With your permission, could I dust off a flight suit and head over with them?”
“Perry, do you just want a ride in a helicopter, too?”
“It would be advantageous if a senior officer helps make the assessment.” He looked around the table. “And frankly, you all have more important things to be doing. I’ve been relegated to checking inventory and keeping the itinerant crew in check.”
“That’s a fair point.”
“And as the head of the science team—” Laurie piped up.
Slater held up her hand. “This isn’t a joy ride. Every pound of weight on that helicopter equates to more fuel burn.”
“Ma’am, I may not be exactly current, but I do have a helicopter PPL,” Donovan said. “It’s really not that long a flight. I can take the copilot position for Mack and we’ll have a position available for someone else.”
Slater sighed and turned to Reynolds. “Is this the part where I exert my authority?”
Reynolds shrugged. “I’m not going to micromanage you, Heather, they’re your birds to manage as you see fit. But I can see the benefit. No offense Doctor Tsang, but arguably Laurie can help articulate what you see out there when you report back to us.”
“Surely that will be Perry’s job... oh Fine.” Slater sighed resignedly, giving up halfway through her rebuttal. “Mack, Perry, Laurie, and Doctor Tsang can go on the recon mission. But that’s it. No one else.”
Laurie gave a dazzling smile to her father.
Chapter Fifteen – The Past
The waiter laid a Caesar salad in front of Grayson. He stabbed his fork into a piece of chargrilled chicken and dipped it in the creamy dressing.
The yacht club overlooked a harbor filled with gorgeous boats of every description. Men sat lounging, with the uniform du jour seeming to involve polo shirts, red trousers, and espadrilles—without socks, of course. For the women, airy sundresses and expensive-looking jewelry were in the dress code, each trying to outdo the others in ostentatiousness.
They’d given Bradley the good news. At least, Grayson supposed ruefully, Millard was taking them seriously and not calling bullshit about there being a leak at Langley. That was the only positive he could find in this whole messy situation.
“While you guys were checking in,” Bradley said between mouthfuls of her own caramelized pear and walnut salad. “I have found out two things while knocking around here.”
“Go on, and it better make our day,” Grayson responded.
She inclined her heard over Grayson’s shoulder. He slowly chewed and swallowed a hunk of chicken before “accidentally” dropping his napkin. As he leaned down to pick it up, he glanced in the direction she had indicated.
Beyond the yacht club, an ugly set of hangers abutted the water’s edge, long concrete ramps leading from them. That end of the harbor had a far more industrial air to it than the marina section where they were now sat.
Grayson sat upright and turned back to the table.
“Osiris,” Bradley said. “She’s in the furthest hanger, apparently being refitted, and has been for the last month.”
“Where’d you get that from?” Dillon raised an eyebrow.
“A valued and often overlooked intelligence source in the modern world.” She smiled in response.
“You chatted up the barman then?” Dillon smirked at the woman.
“Sounds like an easy objective to me,” Grayson said. “We need to go take a look at her.”
“That’s your job.” Bradley nodded in agreement. “But I have another task.”
“Oh, do tell?”
“Apparently, Wakefield’s crew are running an... audition.”
“For?” Grayson prompted.
“It seems, he has a need for girls on his next cruise out.”
Dillon gave a snort as Grayson shook his head in dismay. It looked as if the twenty-first century hadn’t caught up with Wakefield yet. Or maybe for the filthy rich, this kind of thing was deemed as acceptable.
“Okay,” Grayson couldn’t quite keep the distaste from his voice. “So, you’re going to try out?”
“Yes,” Bradley said, the tone of her voice suggesting she took as dim a view of Wakefield’s audition as Grayson did. “It could be our best chance to get inside.”
“You know how compromised we are,” Grayson said. “They could know who you are, what you are.”
“Maybe, but this is an absolute gift.” Bradley lay her fork aside. “He’s letting people in with only the most basic of checks.”
“I don’t like this,” Dillon said. “You’ll be cut off, in the middle of whatever’s going on. There’ll be no coms, and no backup. You get made, there’s every chance you’ll be in for a real hard time.”
Grayson nodded in agreement. They’d all been around the block enough to know what “hard time” meant. Hell, he’d even had cause to administer some extreme questioning himself on occasion. It was never pleasant, and could be terminal.
“I can take care of myself. But I thank you for your concern. Look, I’ll go to this audition, see if I can get any info, then make my excuses and pull out. At least we can get some inkling of what he’s looking for.”
“Okay, fine.” Grayson held his hands up in surrender. “You’re a big girl. You cover this, Max and I will stealth the Osiris. Just, be careful, alright?”
Bradley looked gorgeous in her little black dress, showing off her athletic figure. To say it was damn distracting was an understatement. Dillon had been keeping his eyes forward, his hands gripping the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles had gone white while Grayson tried to look everywhere but at her.
“Darling,” she had emphasized her accent, turning it from a soft London twang, to full-on BBC newsreader Pronunciation. “I was born ready.”
The silver Mercedes Benz GLC coupe they’d hired specifically for this one taxi run rolled up to the entrance of the hotel. Grayson stepped out, moved around to the back, and opened the door.
“Thank you,” she said as he led her out by the hand.
“Just be careful, Celia.” He let go of her as she breezed past him. “No risks.”
Grayson shook his head as the woman disappeared into the hotel and slipped back into the car.
The doors slid open, revealing the marbled interior of the hotel. She quashed the butterflies which tickled her tummy. Confidence, that was what she needed to project.
“Madam,” the concierge looked her up and down appreciatively. “Do you have an invitation?”
“I’m afraid not. One of my friends, Clarice, couldn’t make it. She suggested I come in her place, you know, check it out.”
“And what is your name, madam?”
“Lia,” Bradley lied smoothly. It was close enough to her name that if she gave a slip of the tongue, she could bluff it was an abbreviation of her actual name. “Lia Jones.”
The concierge’s eyes flicked to a musclebound man who stood along the counter. He looked at her, this time less appreciatively, more critically, before giving a nod. Bradley quickly sized him up. Fit, military bearing. A distinct bulge under his jacket. Yes, this man screamed private military contractor, just like Grayson had encountered at the Carlton Club.
“If you’d like to follow Emmanuelle? She’ll guide you to the room,” the concierge said, gesturing at a woman dressed in what looked to be a geisha’s kimono.
This is taking tacky to whole new levels.
She followed the silent woman into an elevator, and before long reached the top floor. The doors slid open, revealing a small atrium before the penthouse suite. Two more guards stood by the door, cut from the same cloth as the one downstairs, and similarly packing heat.
One of them opened the door as Emmanuelle retreated.
“Right through,” one of the guards said, his accent containing an unmistakable Russian lilt. Wakefield’s been recruiting far and wide.
The palatial lounge of the penthouse was filled with girls, some looking nervous, some giving the same breezy sense of confidence that Bradley knew she must be portraying. It was clear what the majority of these attractive ladies were, and acting was a big part of it.
“Champagne?” A tuxedoed waiter proffered a small tray to her.
“Thank you.” She took a flute and sipped on it while glancing around. Spotting a stool nearby, she lowered herself on it and crossed her legs. Some of the girls gazed each other, some with open hostility, others more sangfroid.
A few more drifted in until the room filled to capacity. The guards maintained their watchfulness, not letting themselves get distracted. These boys and girls were definitely professionals, through and through.
The door opened again. Wakefield himself entered, clapping his hands together and rubbing them. “Evening, evening, evening, ladies. Thank you for gracing us with your presence.”
He swiped a flute form the waiter and took a sip as he began circling the room. “Sadly, I don’t have a lot of time, so let me tell you exactly what you’ve signed up for here. We need a few of you to accompany us on a little voyage on my newly refitted baby. The good ship Osiris.”
He stepped close to a girl and looked her up and down, his lips twitching in a smile. “Just to get you thinking, recompense will be good, and let’s be honest, an all-expenses trip on a nice big yacht ain’t the kind of offer that comes up every day.”
He turned to another girl, briefly holding her gaze before she looked down demurely. “Clearly standards are going to be high, so not everyone’s gonna make the grade, I’m afraid.”
He turned to one of the guards. “Line ’em up, let them come two by two.” He gave a chuckle, as if he’d said something witty. “We need to get this wrapped up quick.”
Bradley watched the girls go into the room Wakefield had disappeared into. She didn’t consider herself a feminist, her own views were somewhat more meritocratic. But any person being treated like cattle was offensive to her sensibilities. Some of the girls came out of the room off the lounge looking happy. Others angry or disappointed.
“You two, next.”
She stood, placing her glass on the side and, along with a gorgeous young girl who looked as if she could model for a high-fashion line, walked through the door.
“Ladies.” Wakefield sat reclining in a chair, swirling a glass of something amber. “I never thought I’d say it, but I’m getting a little immunized to hot women right now. You’re really gonna have to dazzle me.”
He stood and walked to Bradley and her new companion, circling them. She stayed looking resolutely forward. Without warning, she felt his hand gripping her bottom. It wasn’t sensual, more appraising. She couldn’t help herself, she turned and swatted his hand away.
Wakefield raised an eyebrow at her, his hand still down at arse level.
Shit. Her instinctive reaction may have blown this. She had to turn this around quickly. “Did I give you permission to touch me?”
Wakefield lips twitched in a smile. “Nope, but let’s just say, I’m used to getting what I want. And you, I’m afraid, are a little older than what I’d want.”
Bradley stepped forward and prowled in a circle around him in turn. His eyes tracked her until she disappeared behind him.
“And what about what I want, Conrad?” She stepped close to him and whispered in his ear as she grasped one of his buttocks and gave it a squeeze in the same appraising manner he had. “And what I want is a private tour of your ship.”
She released her grip and stepped forward, coming back into his line of sight.
“And when you give me one...” Bradley let her eyes settle on the other woman. “I’d like this young lady with us.”
Wakefield met her eyes for a long second, his own cold. A smile stretched across his face. “I change my mind! I think I do like you. Milo, sign these two up. Looks like this one can keep the others in check.”
A man sitting cross-legged in a chair to one side of the room made a note on his tablet.
Bradley let her head tilt imperiously at Wakefield.
“Remember though, darling.” Wakefield reached up and stroked her face. “I like feisty, but not too feisty.”
Bradley turned to the other girl. “As do I.”
Wakefield gave a low chuckle and clapped his hands.
The man on the chair, Milo, stood and walked to the door, opening it. “Thank you, ladies. If you would kindly wait next door.”
“Thank you for your time.” Wakefield smiled as he walked into the room. “For those who were unsuccessful? Better luck next time.”
“Thank you. Those not selected, please leave now.” Milo filtered in behind Wakefield and gestured at the door. One of the guards opened it. The girls filed out, some looking angry, some upset.
When they had left, Wakefield sat on the edge of a desk, looking over the room. “Ladies, I have to say, our timescale has been moved up. We’re going to be leaving in two days, possibly sooner. As such, this is it. You’ll be staying in this hotel from here on out.”
“But I need to pack shit!” one of the girls called out.
“Well, you didn’t show off that potty mouth in the interview, did you?” Wakefield smirked at her. “But in answer to your concerns, fear not, here’s a bit of a sweetener. A personal shopper will be coming here, taking your orders and sizes, and getting you everything you’ll need. So I suggest you start writing a list.”
The girl who had spoken up seemed mollified, if only slightly.
“There is one other delicate subject.” Wakefield gestured with his hand. “No communication other than one last approved message to family, guards, pimps, or whatever. Milo here will be taking your phones off you and you’ll get them back at the end of your holiday. Discretion and all that jazz.”
Shit. It was only to be expected. But still, Bradley had hoped to at least get to go back to the others first.
Chapter Sixteen – The Present
“I’ll only be gone a few hours, not a few weeks.” Laurie laughed as she slipped her arms into her jacket. “And yes, I am going to go to the loo before we take off.”
“This is the furthest anyone’s been out.” Jack followed her out of their bedroom into the lounge area of their suite, feeling like a puppy whose owner was going away for the day. Reynolds sat at the table, reading a report on his laptop with a bemused smile on his face. “So, I’m sorry I feel a little worried.”
“Isn’t it my job to be all protective when it comes to my daughter?” Reynolds butted in.
“Listen, you two. I’m a big girl.” Laurie turned to Jack and kissed him on the lips. “Besides, Mack and Perry will be there to keep me out of trouble.”
“Or get you into trouble,” Jack grumbled as he took hold of her arms.
“Well, Mack might, but Perry is far too sensible.”
“You have a point there.” Jack smiled. “Look, just make sure you take care out there.”
Laurie gave an approximation of a salute before grabbing her sports water bottle from the table.
“So, you’re cheating on us?”
The aircrew briefing room was a tiny space near the hanger which also doubled as the crew rest space. It contained little more than a 55-inch LED TV for briefings and a few threadbare seats facing toward it. Adorning the bulkheads was the paraphernalia of flight crews the world over. Photos taken while on flights, broken helicopter components each with a story to tell, and flags from every country they’d visited operationally. Shelves ran against the bulkheads, containing a mix of blu-rays and well-thumbed books. It made the place seem less a sterile gray chamber, and more like a clubhouse.
“Boys, I have a free pass. And sometimes a lady just needs to let her hair down.” Mack patted the springy black curls of her hair.
“But...” Hank leaned back on his chair and gave a look of distaste at Donovan, who stood in front of the TV. “Really?”
“Gentlemen,” Donovan said in an uncommonly firm voice. “I don’t normally like to be that officer but...”
Hank rolled his eyes, and not subtly.
“You heard the commander.” Mack shouted, causing Hank and Mike Phillips to rock back in their chairs. Mack gave a fleeting wink, out of view of Donavan from where she stood. “Let’s have a little decorum in front of a senior officer before I strap you to my tail rotor and let you spin, you sorry excuses for sailors.”
“Please, that’s really not necessary, Lieutenant.” Donovan held up his hand.
“Why, I have half a mind to ritually beat your asses with a piece of two by four until you learn some respect. In fact, Hank, bring me my goddamn hitting stick and drop your pants, you—”
“I think they’re on notice,” Donovan interrupted. “We can forgo the punishment.”
“If you insist, sir.” Mack nodded, trying to keep the smirk from her face, something Hank Doolidge was patently struggling to manage at Mack’s exaggerated performance. “In which case, consider yourself forgiven. Now, you two. I need you to get back to the mainland and strip out the rudder array. I want Seahawk 1-2 flying again. ASAP.”
“As for you, sir,” Mack continued, gesturing toward the locker room. “I’m sure we’ve got a zoom bag somewhere which will fit you.”
“A zoom bag?” Donovan asked.
“A flight suit.”
The hatch clanged open as Donovan entered the tiny cupboard-sized space which doubled as their changing area. Mack looked at the other two and raised her eyebrow.
“Really, ma’am?” Hank repeated, the scowl of distaste back on his face.
“Yeah, really.” Mack sighed.
“You sit there, and you there.” Mack pointed at two uncomfortable plastic seats in the main cabin as Laurie and Doctor Tsang climbed into the cabin. “Buckle up with that, yeah you got it.”
Mack hopped out of the cabin to re-join Donovan, who was stood looking lost in an ill-fitting flight suit. She looked him up and down. “You say you have a helicopter private pilot’s license?”
“Yeah, I have a couple hundred hours on an R22 thanks to Uncle Sam. I got half-priced lessons when based in Barking Sands working on the Aegis program.”
“Right. Most of us cut our teeth on R22s.” Mack nodded. In college, her parents had bankrolled her to get her own PPL and the venerable Robinson R22s were just about the cheapest option. That experience had given her such a passion for flying, the day after graduation she’d signed the dotted line to try out for Navy selection, which she passed with flying colors. “Now obviously, this is gonna be a little different from the R22s or even the TA-57A Sea Rangers we train on in the Navy.”
Donovan eyed the menacing machine squatting on the flight deck. “Obviously.”
Mack couldn’t help but smile at his nervousness. Donovan was a good egg and not the typical hinge-head. The old saying that when someone got promoted to lieutenant commander they received a lobotomy had seemed to bypass him. From the chats they’d had in Ignatius’s officers’ mess, he was definitely from the new generation of “thinking” Navy and apparently a damn fine engineer. His devout Christian faith gave him a balanced calm, which she liked—when not faced with the prospect of having to help fly an eighteen-thousand-pound war machine, that was.
But to her mind, he had really proven himself in combat at Nest Island and the Locus, and that’s what mattered in her world. Of course, she still had to give him shit on account of the fact he wasn’t officially aircrew, but c’est la vie. The fact of the matter was that with the other lead pilot having decided to take the easy way out among the four suicides following the Ignatius’s arrival, and Mack’s original copilot grounded after his eyesight had deteriorated, since they had no way of making glasses, they were desperately short on air crew. And they didn’t have the fuel or simulators to train replacements.
“Well, Perry.” Mack slapped Donovan on the back. “Can I call you Perry? After all, this is my world now.”
“Lieutenant,” Donovan frowned.
“I’m shitting you, Commander.” Mack walked round to the front of the Seahawk. “Come on, sir. We have the pre-flight to carry on with and you may as well watch.”
“Sounds good, lieutenant. And less of the swearing, please. It’s unnecessary.”
Mack gave a distracted, “Aye aye” as she continued around the aircraft, giving it a final check over.
“Well look at you.” Mack looked up to see Tricia Farelly, Atlantica’s head of IT, standing on the flight deck watching them. “You look good in the new uniform.”
“Thanks.” Donovan walked over and gave her a light kiss on the cheek. Mack saw his hand linger on her upper arm and give it a gentle squeeze. The two had been an item since working on the project together to refit one of Ignatius’s RIM-161s to map the vicinity around Nest Island. He stole a glance at Mack. “Hopefully I’ll get to wear it every now and again when we get both helos up and running.”
“You just be careful, and don’t push any buttons you shouldn’t.” Farelly smiled warmly.
“Come on, sir. We’re not going on a week-long camping expedition,” Mack teased.
After a few minutes finishing up the checks, she pulled open the left-hand door and slid into her seat as Donovan did the same on the right.
“Mind if I...?” Donovan started.
“Sure.” Mack pulled the Velcro strap securing the checklist to her thigh and thrust the thick tome into his hands. “Section 7-12 is the bit you want.”
“Okay.” Donovan thumbed through the thick book to the relevant section. Finding it, he tracked his finger down the page. “Seats, belts, pedals, and mirrors.” He glanced around. “Adjusted?”
“Adjusted,” Mack helped him out.
Donovan focused on the page. “Cockpit window emergency release handles?”
Mack glanced to her left and right. “Aft and shear wired.”
“Extended and locked.”
“Circuit breakers and switches?”
“Checked and...” Mack ran her gloved index finger over the line of nodules on the cockpit panel before her, ensuring they were all recessed. “Off.”
Donovan stared at the checklist for a few seconds, one hand giving a helpless flourish over the page.
“Sir, do you want me to...?”
“Oh lord, please yes!”
Mack couldn’t help a wry grin spreading over her face as she sped through the rest of the checklist from memory. She flicked switches and checked her steed before pressing the mic button. “Ignatius, Sierra Hotel 1-1, ready for takeoff, over.”
“Sierra Hotel 1-1, Ignatius, you are cleared for takeoff at your discretion.”
“Thank you, Ignatius. Takeoff and clearing. Out.”
The whirr of the rotor blades became a dull thud as they increased in power. After a moment, the cabin rocked as Mack lifted the powerful machine off the flight deck.
“Ignatius, Sierra Hotel 1-1 clear. Departing one-seven.”
“Roger that, one-seven. See you soon, Mack.”
Pressing down on the left pedal, the helicopter swung around, pointing just off pre-event north. Mack eased the cyclic forward and the nose dipped and they began heading toward the coast.
Grayson looked up from his hoe as the dull thudding noise of a helicopter washed across the bay. A shadow flicked across the field he stood in as the large heavy chopper thundered inland.
Giving a shake of his head, he turned and looked back out over the bay, toward the huge ships nestled within.
Chapter Seventeen – The Past
The massive hanger loomed over the water’s edge, intense floodlights playing over and around it, washing out even the silvery brightness of the full moon.
“She’ll be okay,” Grayson murmured as he lay in the gravel and dirt overlooking the shipyard.
Dillon twisted to look at him, his face once again smeared with camouflage paint. He was dressed like Grayson. A woolly skullcap, black “ninja” suit, and both carrying an assortment of weapons. “Are you asking or telling?”
Grayson didn’t respond. Instead, he pulled back on the charging handle of his SCAR-H battle rifle and released it. The working parts slammed forward, making the weapon ready. The barrel extended out to the long cylinder of a silencer, turning it into a quiet but still incredibly powerful tool.
“They’ve got a shitload of guards covering this place.” Dillon took the hint and refocused his attention on the matter at hand as he looked through the scope of his own rifle. “I’ve got at least twenty badass hombres. They’re operating in pairs overlapping each other’s position. We knock one out, the two neighboring pairs are going to know it.”
“Kit?” Grayson asked concisely.
“Military grade, but looks like they’re going on personal preference. We have some guys sporting AN 94s, others with M4s, G36s...”
Grayson nodded. So, private military contractors again. Chances were, they were the same outfit who’d run security at the Carlton Club. An outfit Grayson had already mentally filed under “highly competent”.
“These hombres seem to be wearing body armor. Good thing we have these babies.” Dillon lightly patted his own SCAR-H. The heavy 7.62 rounds would make a hell of a mess of anyone on the receiving end, body armor or not. “They all have the swagger to them which says ex-regulars.”
So, add well equipped and highly trained to my assessment, Grayson thought. And a fair few of them, too.
“You got us a point of entry?”
“We could just wander in and flash our cards,” Dillon murmured. “Might shit them up enough to let us through?”
Grayson considered it for a moment, it actually wasn’t that bad an idea. Under normal circumstances that was, but this mission was starting to give the impression of being anything but normal.
“You wish,” Grayson said finally, deciding against that idea. “I kinda get the impression Wakefield’s committed himself here. And if he has, then chances are he’s paid these guys enough to be equally committed. Flashing a fancy badge is going to get us nowhere.”
“Stealthing these assholes is going to be pure luck. They look the wrong way when we’re sneaking past, they’ll perforate the shit out of us.”
“Yeah.” Grayson rubbed his chin, feeling the stubble abrading his fingers. “We’re gonna need a distraction.”
In response, Dillon slipped a small pouch from his webbing then nodded over at a large propane tank nestled amid the industrial maze of pipework covering a good chunk of the dock. “Like one of these?”
Grayson gave a long exhalation. Up to this point, they’d gotten away without having to take any kind of overt action, but using those things? That would really up the game. But, they had to know what was going on here and Millard had said those two magic words—carte blanche.
“Yeah, that’d do it.”
“Millard will be pissed.” Dillon grinned.
“Yes he will, but he said to do whatever it took.”
“Ready?” Grayson hissed.
Dillon pressed down firmly on the red button on the end of the small cylindrical detonator.
The thermite charge they placed on the propane tanks hissed and fizzed as it burned through the inch-thick steel pressure vessel. And then it breached through the metal. The charge ignited the liquid within.
On the other side of the hanger from Grayson and Dillon, a thunderous crack sounded, resonating across the port. A roiling ball of orange fire shot into the night sky, dissipating as it rose.
The port came to life. A siren wailed from speakers mounted on the buildings.
The men and women they could see guarding the hanger responded quickly. Grayson noted they didn’t panic. Instead, an unseen person seemed to coordinate them, forming a group of ten on the corner of the hanger, stacked up in a formation. Seconds later they moved out, weapons tucked into their shoulders at the ready.
The rest of the PMCs reformed themselves. Widening but maintaining their coverage of the hanger.
“Damn these guys are good.” Dillon’s scope swept back and forth across the hanger. Like at the Carlton Club, everyone knew their jobs, showing self-control and coordination. “Wait. Got an uncovered section. Moving.”
Dillon darted forward in a hunched-over run, weaving between crates, loading vehicles, and more tanks. It was now or never, and Grayson trusted Dillon completely. If the man had spotted an opening, it was good. He followed, keeping to the same path as his partner.
From somewhere far away, a different kind of siren washed over the port—undoubtedly the fire service, coming to find out what was going on and deal with the conflagration still raging around the burst tank.
They reached the wall of the dock and crouched down. Grayson glanced left. There, a transom window. He crept to the frosted glass and saw it was open a few inches. He gripped the underside edge and tugged, quickly realizing it was designed to only be partially opened.
“Fuck it,” he hissed to himself.
He wrenched hard, ripping the window partially from its hinge, and launched himself through and dropped into a small workshop. A technician looked startled, standing by a CNC terminal. Without pausing, Grayson pulled his taser out of its thigh holster and drove it crackling into the man’s midriff while covering his mouth with a gloved hand.
He dropped him carefully to the floor amidst the smell of ozone and flipped him over onto his belly. He holstered his taser as Dillon squeezed through the window.
Dillon’s eyes flicked down at the noise of the groaning casualty. He pulled out a huge combat knife as Grayson tilted the man’s head back so he could look forward at it. Theatrically, Dillon wove his blade in front of his petrified eyes. They locked on the tip of the blackened metal, as if hypnotized.
“Shhh,” Dillon whispered. “My friend’s going to take his hand away from your mouth. And when he does, you’re not going to give so much as a peep or I’m going to slide this into your throat. Understood?”
The man’s eyes were wide in fear and pain as he gave a jerky nod against Grayson’s hand.
“Good. Now how many guards are inside?”
Grayson moved his hand away, looking distastefully at the slobber and snot covering his glove. “Errr none. I think. Just the crew. Wait, I think some of them may have guns and—”
“Okay, okay,” Dillon said with a hush, his teeth white against the blackness of his face. “What’s your name?”
“Hi, Ronnie. Thanks for that info. But I need to know something. Are you going to be missed?”
“Yes, I mean no. I mean maybe.”
“Maybe, Ronnie. Maybe?” Dillon moved his face close to the man’s. “What I mean is, are you going to be missed by a wife? Girlfriend? Son? Daughter? You know, if we have to kill you that is?”
“Yes,” the man’s teeth chattered as he whispered. “Please. Please... please. Oh god please don’t kill me.”
“Shhh. Listen, I ask ’cause we have two ways of dealing with this. One is we’re going to cuff you, gag you, and shove you in that closet over there.” Dillon inclined his head at a doorway. “Or two, we’re going to kill you... then shove you in that same closet. I’ll tell you now, I personally don’t give a shit which, Ronnie. I get paid the same either way. But I’m going to have to be confident you’ll stay quiet as a mouse if we leave you breathing.”
“You don’t have to kill me,” Ronnie whispered. The man was petrified and Dillon was being very convincing that he’d do just what he said. Which, Grayson knew, was because he would. In a heartbeat. That was, if the man couldn’t convince him he was not going to be a problem. “I’ll be quiet.”
“Good, Ronnie. But, if you make so much as a peep...” Dillon drew the blade across the front of the man’s throat, just close enough to touch but not cut. He lowered his knife to the man’s chest and grabbed hold of the man by the scruff of his neck. His eye’s widened, then Dillon quickly cut a strip off the overalls and wrapped it around his face, gagging him. Grayson roughly pulled Ronnie’s hands behind him and reached into his pocket and pulled out a plastic flexicuffs, looped them around his wrists, and tugged them tight.
Grayson stood and opened the closet door and gestured with a flourish into the opening. Dillon hoisted Ronnie through and dumped him on the floor.
“Remember, no noise. Or...” Dillon drew a finger across his throat before gently closing the door.
“Let’s move.” Grayson walked to the other door and gently tugged it open a crack and looked through the gap. Through it, he could see a smooth white wall thirty feet beyond the gantry, which ran just outside the door. He twisted his head, trying to make out more of what was in the huge room.
“Holy shit,” Grayson whispered as he realized what he was looking at.
Chapter Eighteen – The Present
Mack scanned left and right as the hypnotic, rhythmical beat of the rotor blades filled the cabin. Flying these days was a rare experience. It was something to be treasured, something to be proud of. The long, grueling days training at Naval Air Station Whiting Field in Florida, paying off with the honor of being recognized as not just a pilot, but a Naval Aviator. One of the best of the best.
Sure, there had been times she’d envied the F35 or F18 pilots, screaming around in their shit-hot fighter jets, doing cat shots off of one of the sexy new behemoth Gerald R. Ford-class super carriers, but for Mack, nothing else held the freedom and variety of flying a helicopter. She could, and had, kicked more ass than a Topgun since coming here and in her tours in the Vortex.
She glanced at the compass, it showed they were heading roughly south. Which meant, in this strange, screwed-up future world they’d found themselves in, they were heading north. Laurie had explained it. At some point in the millions of years they’d bypassed, Earth’s magnetic poles had flipped. Making the north now south and vice versa. In the last two and a bit years though, she’d simply become used to it, automatically calculating the reciprocal heading which put them on the desired course. These days, without the more high-tech navigation aids, she had to go back to the basics, using pilotage and dead reckoning to get her where she needed to go.
Fortunately for her on this flight though, she had a big ass mountain to aim for.
“You see that?” Donovan’s voice cut through her rumination.
“What do you got?” Mack snapped her focus back to the cockpit.
“Something shiny, at our two o’clock.” Donovan pointed. Mack followed the line of his finger, seeing something twinkling in the distance, almost occluded by the green of the forest.
“I see it.” Mack squinted. Definitely something metallic was catching the sun’s rays, but it was mostly covered by the thick vegetation, leaving nothing but an indeterminate flashing. She looked over at Donovan. “Want to stay on mission or go take a look?”
“What are we? Thirty-miles inland and that thing another few miles away? That puts it a good ten miles beyond our deepest expeditions so far.” Donovan shrugged under his restraints. “We could log it for further investigation later and stay on course?”
“Or we can go take a look now?”
“Or we can go take a look now.” Donovan grinned at Mack. Maybe the commander wasn’t such a stick in the mud after all, she thought. “What will that do to our fuel burn?”
It was Mack’s turn to shrug. Despite the slow trickle of fuel refined from the Titan, they weren’t quite desperate enough to use it in the helos. But that did mean every drop had to be accounted for. “It’s not too far off our course. It’ll cost us, but not as much as a dedicated recon. I say let’s go take a look. If it’s something exciting then we can log it for a foot mission.”
“Sounds like a plan. I’ll call it in.” Donovan reached for the cyclic and pressed the radio stud. “Ignatius, Sierra Hotel 1-1. We have some kind of anomaly we are going to investigate just off our course. We have a twinkling object, possibly metallic. We’re going to go take a look and assess.”
“Acknowledged,” the reply from their mothership was distorted and static laden due to the range, but still intelligible. “Advise caution... mission is the priority.”
“Right, commander.” Mack came to a decision. She was going to take advantage of the opportunity to give Donovan some stick time. “Time for you to do some work. Put us on course for your anomaly. You have control.”
“I have control,” Donovan responded and took the cyclic in hand. He gently eased the Seahawk around.
The forest rolled by beneath them and before long, they reached a glistening, snaking path of a river which led toward their new destination. They followed along it, raising over a final tree-covered bluff as they closed.
“Oh my.” Donovan leaned forward against his restraints as he caught sight of what was beneath them.
Mack saw the long cylinder of an airplane. It was difficult to make out the type, with nothing next to it to give it scale, but the glimpses of two large engine nacelles suggested it was big.
“Ignatius, Sierra Hotel 1-1. We have a downed aircraft here. We’re possibly looking at a Boeing 777 or similar heavy aircraft.”
“Understood... survivors... report.”
Mack brought the helicopter in a low circle around the craft. She took a moment to look over her shoulder at Laurie and Tsang, who were glued to the window. “Folks, I need you to keep an eye out for any signs of survivors down there.”
“They could have been down there for ten days or ten years,” Donovan muttered as he leaned over to get a better view. The anomaly of the Locus had thrust people into this future at wildly different times. The further from the center they’d come through, the earlier they’d arrived. No one had spotted any signs that a plane had come through before, but it made sense. The Locus hadn’t just plucked ships and boats in 2D out of the twenty-first-century waters. It must have stretched up in a dome shape.
“I’m opting for at least before we got here. We would have seen or heard it come in and there’s no sign of disruption to the forest canopy,” Mack noted. “It must’ve grown back. The poor bastards have been down there for years.”
“It looks relatively intact though.” Donovan pressed the visor of his helmet against the window to better look down.
Mack grunted as she flicked a switch, activating the forward-looking infrared turret. A small screen came to life on her console and Mack played the turret over the crash site.
“Nothing obvious on the FLIR below.” Mack looked around and saw a sandy embankment clear of foliage where the river bent a couple of hundred yards from the aircraft. “I’m going to put us down there so we can take a closer look.”
The blades spun down and Mack shut the aircraft down.
Donovan looked over his shoulder at Tsang and Laurie. “Okay, folks. This isn’t a rescue mission, it’s recon. If we find any survivors, we administer any immediate first aid which might be necessary, but beyond that we’re just gonna be giving them our heart-felt promise we’ll be back. And we will. So don’t anyone go promising any taxi rides without our say-so.”
They stepped out of the helicopter and Mack locked the cockpit doors and pocketed the key. She glanced across at Laurie, who had raised a questioning eyebrow. “Well, it’d be pretty embarrassing if someone flies off in our ride. Speaking of which...”
She stepped up to the main cabin, opened up a locker and pulled out two M4A1 carbines, handing one to Donovan. She kept the other before sliding the cabin door shut and locking that, too.
Slinging the weapon over her shoulder, Mack began walking toward the forest’s edge and the airplane just beyond.
Chapter Nineteen – The Past
The towering white cliff of the vessel’s hull extended left and right into the distance. Echoing from the gantries and deck far above were the cries of workers as they busied themselves on and around the huge craft.
“He doesn’t do things by halves, does he?” Dillon’s face squeezed into the gap alongside Grayson’s.
Even having had a look at the specs on the craft and seeing the raw numbers after a Wikipedia search, Grayson hadn’t appreciated how damn big the ship was.
At the best part of five hundred feet long and sporting nine decks, she made for an imposing craft. He was vaguely aware Osiris had briefly held the record as being the largest sail-assisted superyacht in the world, before it got edged out in the constant dick-measuring competition the super-rich played with each other. Some Russian oligarch’s personal ride had taken that title from Osiris last year, and in turn had it taken by a sheik’s yacht six months later.
Grayson craned his neck up and squinted. Parts of the ship looked out of place. A number of boxy protuberances nestled above and below the deck line. He tapped Dillon’s shoulder and silently pointed.
“Shit,” Dillon murmured as he squinted in the direction of Grayson’s finger. “They look like goddamn box missile-launchers. If I didn’t know better, it looks like they’re RIM116 RAM boxes.” He pointed at another box, further down the hull. “There, those are Harpoon tubes. And those, they look like Mark 143 Tomahawk boxes.”
“He’s kitting out this thing to be a warship? Why the hell would he do that? To become one of the Pirates of the Caribbean?” Grayson hissed.
“I don’t know, but, Karl, that’s real advanced military-grade shit.” Dillon pulled out his camera and began clicking away, taking a multitude of shots of the craft.
Grayson squinted as he looked at the ship. It appeared to have been heavily modified. The once-gorgeous vessel now had elements bolted on all over her. Whatever Conrad Wakefield was setting her up for meant she would be able to more than look after herself. But why? Even with all this, what was the point in spending tens of millions when the ship would surely get impounded the second anyone saw all that weaponry on her? It wasn’t exactly subtle, after all. There was no attempt to hide it.
“You think he wants an end run?” Grayson whispered.
“A Jimmy Doolittle end run. He wants to sail this big bitch up the Hudson and let rip with every one of those weapons. He could shoot down a dozen aircraft, level half of Manhattan, and sink every ship in the vicinity with all that hardware.”
“I don’t know—”
“Hey,” a voice called out from the deck. Grayson looked across. One of the crew was pointing down at them while waving with his free hand, seemingly gesturing others over.
“Shit, we’ve been made.” Grayson twisted back into the workshop as the sounds of shouting echoed through the hanger. “Time to move. You got the pics?”
Dillon waggled the camera in his hand and slipped it into his webbing. From the gantry outside, the sound of running footsteps could be heard.
The door burst open as if it had been kicked and a technician sporting a handgun entered, the weapon waving in a one-handed arc toward Grayson.
Grayson snapped his rifle into his shoulder and squeezed the trigger. The weapon gave a quiet popping noise. A red bloom appeared on the man’s chest and he sank to the floor with a grunt.
The sound of voices outside the room suggested there were more where the unfortunate first guy had come from.
“Move!” Grayson grabbed a flash-bang from his harness, pulled the pin, and rolled it through the door. Dillon leapt through the window as Grayson turned away and plugged his ears with his fingers. Even through his closed eyes, the bright light pierced into his retinas as the distraction device exploded deafeningly.
“Moving!” Grayson gave a shake of his head to clear the ringing from his ears as he pulled himself through the window. Dillon grabbed him by the shoulders and hauled him bodily outside. Grayson landed on the dirt and glanced over at Dillon to see him turn to cover down one side of the building. He dropped to his knee, pointing the other way.
“Cover on,” he hissed, looking intently for any telltale movement among the industrial machinery and piping. The sounds of sirens permeated through the night air, and pulsating blue lights illuminated the smoke pouring from the vicinity of the destroyed tank.
Dillon picked himself up and ran to a cluster of crates a few yards away and took up position, the muzzle of his weapon snapping back and forth along both axis of the building line. “Cover.”
“Mov—” Grayson saw a collection of figures running into cover positions. Shit, the PMCs were coming into play. Grayson whistled. Dillon glanced at him and he pointed two fingers at his eyes then at the figures. Coming to a half-crouch, he ran toward Dillon.
He heard a zipping noise, followed a fraction of a second by the sound of gunshots as the PMCs opened fire on them. He skidded behind the crate before coming up on one knee and pointing his rifle toward the enemy. “Cover on.”
“Moving,” Dillon’s voice rang out.
Grayson sighted through his Aimpoint scope as Dillon sprinted away. The red dot within settled on a figure and he smoothly squeezed the trigger. His SCAR-H rifle popped in response. The man dipped behind a forklift as sparks flew off its yellow flank.
“Cover on,” Dillon called. Now the enemy knew where they were, keeping quiet was irrelevant.
Ignoring the bullets thudding into the crate, Grayson sighted another figure and squeezed the trigger again. The man bent over double as he took the shot in his chest, the 7.62 armor-piercing round slicing through the Kevlar vest like a hot knife through butter. The PMC slumped to the floor in a bizarre kneeling position. “Moving.”
Grayson ran to the SEAL’s position as his partner continued firing in a smooth, measured rhythm. “Cover on.”
Shit, they’d really kicked the hornet’s nest here. At least a dozen figures were advancing on them, using the same leap-frogging maneuvers as they were using to retreat. They were trained, and what’s worse, had clearly trained together as a unit. And they had the weight of numbers. This wasn’t looking good.
“Fall back one,” Grayson called at Dillon and ran, this time angling himself past a flatbed truck. “Cover off.”
His partner continued firing as he twisted behind the truck and unscrewed the silencer, feeling its heat even through his gloves. But the time for stealth was over. He needed the deterrent of the shots firing to keep them down, and to provide a focus to draw the enemy into the position he needed them so the trap could be sprung. “Cover on.”
“Moving,” Dillon called.
Repeating the bounds, they pulled back closer and closer to the fence line. The PMCs were catching up, their heavier covering fire allowing them to take longer runs between cover. But they got the enemy just where they wanted them. “Here. Go for it, Max.”
“Fire in the hole.” Dillon punched the detonator and twisted down into a hunkered position.
The second set of propane tanks they’d placed a thermite charge on erupted. This one between them and their pursuers. Another billowing fireball washed across the port and hunks of burning-hot metal sizzled through the night sky in sparkling arcs.
Grayson winced as a piercing wail came from near the seat of the explosion. Someone had been caught in the blast of superheated gas. Grayson put it out of his mind. Whoever that was had taken the paycheck and knew the risks. C’est La Vie. Or probably not, in this case.
Now that their pursuers had something else to think about, Grayson picked himself up of the ground and sprinted after Dillon toward the hole they had cut in the fence earlier to enter the port.
Chapter Twenty – The Present
Mack and her companions reached the furrow which had been ploughed into the soil and foliage. It was clearly the result of where the huge aircraft had slid to a halt. There was the same amount of plant growth in the aircraft’s tracks as away from it.
The plane had definitely come down a while ago. Probably years.
Rays from the midday sun lanced down through the leafy canopy, creating spotlights on the floor. Maybe it was her non-existent skills as a botanist but, not for the first time, Mack noted all the plants appeared to be of the same breed. Tough solid rubbery trunks, surrounded by thick, fleshy leaves which tracked the sun’s position.
The huge tail section of the 777 loomed over them as they approached from the rear. It canted over to one side. If Mack had to guess, the landing gear on the port side had failed, or been ripped off in the crash landing. As she looked at what she could see of the fuselage, she was somewhat surprised at the lack of damage to the aircraft in general, though. She would have expected more from a soft field landing into a forest environment.
“How many people can one of these things carry?” Laurie asked as she looked up at the dirt-streaked fuselage.
Mack shrugged. Of course, she had an interest in all things flying, but exact numbers were beyond her when it came to civil aviation. She simply didn’t need to know and was more a geek about military hardware. “Three to four hundred, I’d guess. But I suppose that would depend on the configuration.”
They maneuvered their way through the dark undergrowth under the fuselage. The forest, as ever in this strange world, was eerily quiet. She couldn’t even hear the scampering of animals she would have expected in the past.
“Stop.” Mack held up her hand and knelt down to a clump of plants. A hint of metal lay beneath the foliage and she brushed it to one side, revealing the metal frame of a passenger seat.
Seeing her actions, Donovan likewise brushed aside other plants, revealing another seat and some luggage. The suitcases were stacked in neat order on top of each other, while the seats surrounded the pile. To Mack’s eye, it looked like a make shift table.
“Looks like there were survivors,” Laurie murmured. “This has to have been removed after the crash.”
“Yeah, but where have they gone?” Mack stood and looked up at the aircraft. “Come on. I want to try and get up inside.”
The doors of the aircraft were high above them. It took Mack a few minutes to figure out the survivors must have been using the slanted wing on the same side as the failed landing gear as a ramp to access the fuselage.
“Sir,” Mack addressed the Commander. “If you would stay out here with the others, I’ll go have a look-see inside.”
“Mack, you’re our pilot,” Donovan said as he looked up the wing toward the open hatch. “If something happens to you, we’re all in trouble. I’m going in.”
“I’m going, Lieutenant.” Donovan’s tone was firm as he slung his carbine over his back and hoisted himself up onto the wingtip. He began walking toward the fuselage, stopping every few feet to call out. “Hello. Anyone in there? We’re here to help.”
As he reached the hatch, he stuck his head in and spent a moment looking left and right before turning back to the three of them. “No one seems to be inside. I’m going in.”
Donovan ducked inside as they waited. Mack gazed around the surroundings, trying to discern some type of clue as to where the crew and passengers had gone. There had been people who had made it out alive—the hatch was open, there were items which had been pulled out of the aircraft. Had they all just starved? Dying a slow lingering death here? Confused and alone. Or had they moved on, having found somewhere where they could sustain a settlement. That was almost a warming thought, that there might be other communities out here who might have managed to make something of this world.
The one thing she was hoping the forest didn’t contain was four hundred skeletons who had decayed over an indeterminate number of years since they had put down.
“There’s definitely no one inside,” Donovan reappeared after a minute and shouted from the hatch. “Come on up.”
“Let’s go.” Mack marched up the wing and passed through into the interior.
The darkness inside was punctuated by dusty shafts of light coming through the porthole-sized windows. Within, the aircraft had been stripped, the seats having been moved with the clear intention of creating a dormitory for people to sleep in.
“Looks like they were here for a while.” Donovan gestured around the echoing interior. “But it’s strange. Everything seems to have been stripped down to bare plastic and metal. There’s no cloth, no carpets, nothing like that.”
“Weird,” Mack agreed as she looked up the long, low cabin. The aged windows had taken on a yellow tint. “I need to go up to the flight deck.”
“What are you looking for?” Laurie asked.
“A log book, flight recorder, anything which can tell us what happened to these people and where they went.”
Passing through the passenger cabin, Mack arrived at the open door and ducked through it. The dirty smeared windows allowed more light to pass into the cockpit than the cabin. She spent a moment looking around the complicated arrangements of instruments. She had as much direct experience with civil aircraft as the average layman, but she knew roughly what everything did, and knew what she needed.
“Right, I need to get at the FDRS.” She looked at Laurie who had followed her up. “That’s the Flight Data Recording System or black box. There will be one here in the cockpit, and the other in the tail if we strike out up here. Either way, we should be able to listen in to the last few minutes of the flight.”
Seeing a small cabinet near the door, she opened it and pulled out a book with age-yellowed pages. She thumbed through to the page she needed and quickly absorbed the information. Good, she didn’t need any tools to get at the FDRS, and even better, it was one of the self-contained modern units which could be played back without specialist equipment.
With the manual in one hand, Mack looked around and saw the solid, robust-looking hatch where it was located against the rear-bulkhead and flicked the clasps up and opened it up.
She slid the heavy, rugged orange box out placed it on the deck. She unclasped the lid and tilted it up. The lid formed a laptop-style screen and it automatically whirred to life. Lines of code wrote themselves onto the screen as it booted up, and a few seconds later, a text-menu system appeared.
Taking a second to familiarize herself with the display, Mack selected playback. The screen filled with a selection of instruments. Altimeter, directional equipment, coms, and a display showing what control inputs had been put in on the yoke, pedals and throttle—all the stuff someone would need to piece together what the pilots had done during an aircraft’s last few minutes of flight.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday,” a flustered voice emerged from the box, and the display showed the pilot had keyed the mic. He released the transmit button so he was only talking to his copilot. “Goddamn it, where the hell is everyone?”
“We’re running out of fuel and options here,” a softer voice said. “We’re gonna have to put down soon.”
“Yeah, man, I ain’t too keen on that.”
“We need to do it while we can still choose somewhere and not have the decision taken out of our hands.”
“Choose what? This whole fucking desert looks the same.”
“Desert?” Laurie mouthed. Mack shrugged in response. That didn’t sound anything like what was in the vicinity as far as they had explored. Which admittedly wasn’t that far.
“There, if we put down there, at least we’ll be close to a river,” the soft voice said. “It’d be a good landmark to vector in rescue.”
“Okay, fine,” the flustered voice said. “I’ll bring us around and approach from upwind. Start prepping the cabin crew for a crash landing. I’m gonna make the announcement now.”
After a short delay. “This is Captain Garrison. We have suffered a major navigational malfunction and have made the decision to affect a controlled soft-field landing in the desert you see through the window. Please be assured, we train for this, and while it will be tough on the aircraft, you will be safe. But as a precaution, the cabin staff will be instructing you to adopt crash positions. Please follow their orders to the letter so that we can all land safely. We will be a little busy up here, so we won’t be able to keep you updated, but please take that no news is good news.”
“Thanks for flying All-American Airlines,” the other voice said dryly after the captain had shut down the PA system. “Okay, I’ve got us prepped for a soft-field landing.”
Mack listened to the exchanges between the crew intently as the poor bastards prepared the aircraft as much as they could and began their descent. They seemed as calm as they could be, considering the circumstances. On the instrument display, she watched as the altimeter steadily wound down.
“500 feet. Gear down and locked. Airbrakes fully deployed. 250 feet. 100 feet.”
“Flaring,” A strained voice said. A juddering noise came over from the box. “We’re down. Contact down. Reversing thrust. Shit.”
A crashing noise. “We’ve lost the port gear. No, no, let us roll on the others. Shit. It must be fucking mud out there. We’re losing lift on the wings. Ok, we’re going to go over. Kill the fuel feed to the engines. That’s is. That’s it. We’re going over brace... brace... brace!”
Another thudding noise. “We’re over. We’re down. Shutting down. Cabin crew—evacuate, evacuate, evacuate. You too, Ricky. I’ll secure off in here. Just get clear until we’re sure we ain’t pissing fuel.”
“Okay, going.” A rustling noise came then came the sound of someone frantically hitting switches and buttons. The instrument displays blinked off one after another as the pilot killed the power. Then there was nothing.
“That’s it?” Laurie asked.
“That’s it,” Mack said, sitting back against the bulkhead, contemplating what they’d heard. “A desert? Unless I’m wrong, the earliest they could have arrived was ten years or so ago. How the hell has this forest grown out of a desert in ten years?”
“I don’t know? They said it was more like mud when they got down, so maybe it wasn’t a desert?” Laurie frowned. “Maybe all this plant life came later?”
“Okay, we ain’t gonna get all the answers this time out,” Mack said. She closed the black box and picked it up by its handle. “We can review this back at the fleet properly and send an expedition out here to figure out where the survivors have gone. For now, I don’t want to burn any more daylight. Our focus has to be on the mountain.”
Chapter Twenty-One – The Past
“Come on, come on, get dressed. We need to go!” the man who Wakefield had called Milo shouted as he crashed into the suite where the girls were trying on the various clothing the personal shopper had bought them.
“You said we had a couple of days?” Bradley was standing up as she was being measured by an impeccably dressed and softly spoken man who didn’t seem in the least bit put out he was in a room full of scantily clad women.
“The schedule changed,” Milo responded tersely.
What’s changed? Whatever it was had these guys seriously rattled. Who was she kidding? It was something those two cowboys had done.
“I have nothing at all,” one of the girls said testily. “Nothing! I’m not going anywhere with you. I don’t care how much money I’ll lose out on.”
“Things are a bit beyond that now.” The man gave a slight wave to the goons who had entered behind him. They marched into the room and began grabbing the girls by the upper arms. The man gritted his teeth and said in a low voice, “For god’s sake, don’t bruise them. Mr. Wakefield will have our asses if we damage the goods.”
“She has a bloody good point.” Bradley shrugged away from an approaching man who grasped for her. “We have nothing.”
“Don’t you worry about that, darling. We’ve decided to bring it all.” He clapped his hands. “Come on, vamoose, schnell. Pick it up. Let’s go.”
Bradley squeezed her legs into a pair of tight jeans and threw a tank top on as the others grabbed whatever was closest. After a few moments of grumbling and protests, Milo pinched the bridge of his nose in impatient frustration. “Ladies. Let me make this abundantly clear, if you don’t move your pretty asses now, we’ll carry you. You’re out of time.” On cue, several more men piled in after him and began roughly pulling the ten girls in the room out the door.
Grayson hit the brakes, causing the car to screech to a halt in a cloud of dust. Along with Dillon, he jumped out and jogged to the embassy security booth.
“Open up.” Grayson flashed his CAC at the security officer, fortunately he was the same one as from their visit the previous day.
The guard frowned through the window, seeing the two dirt-stained men. “I don’t think—”
“Fine.” Grayson reached into his pocket and pulled out another card, this time his CIA badge. “Now open up or trust me, I’ll get your ass posted to the worst shithole I can think of. And I have a good imagination.”
The guard looked hard at the card stuck against the glass of his booth. Grayson gritted his teeth as he pulled out a laminated sheet of paper from a drawer with example IDs on it. He looked between it and Grayson’s badge, obviously trying to satisfy himself it was genuine. At any other time, Grayson would have been impressed with this guy’s ability not to be bullied. Right now, though, he just wanted him to clear them through. “Okay. You can come in.”
“Thank you,” Grayson said through gritted teeth.
Grayson dared not look at Dillon’s expression as the parking lot gate rumbled open. They hopped back in the car and drove it inside.
Running into the embassy, they flashed their ID again at the security guard covering the reception desk. “We need to see Ambassador Monroe. Now!”
“She’s asleep.” The receptionist looked over his glasses at them.
“Now,” Grayson repeated while looking at the man’s nametag. “Lomax. Wake her up now. This is a national security issue.”
Lomax swallowed and reached for the phone and began murmuring into it as Grayson drummed his fingertips on the wooden counter.
“She’s on her way.” Lomax put the phone down.
Grayson gave a curt nod. A few moments later, Monroe descended the stairs, wearing a threadbare dressing gown and, of all things, a pair of fluffy pink slippers.
“Jesus,” Dillon muttered, shaking his head in dismay at the sight.
“Ma’am.” Grayson paced forward. “We need back onto the hardline urgently. We have reason believe that an attack on mainland America may be imminent.”
“I think you need to slow down and start at the beginning, young man.” The ambassador’s eyes were bleary.
“No, ma’am. I need to get access to the hardline now. Full explanations can wait.”
“Ma’am, I ain’t shitting you. We need on that hardline yesterday,” Grayson cut her off. “This is as serious as it gets.”
Whether it was something in Grayson’s eyes, or simply she remembered that part of her duty was to render assistance to itinerant CIA spooks who wandered in off the streets making demands at all hours, she ceded with a nod. “Follow me.”
Please say Millard is pulling one of his all-nighters tonight. Grayson hoped against hope his pathologically workaholic boss hadn’t decided to have a night off. “Is SAD Actual available?”
That would just be typical.
“Yes, he’s in his office.”
“Good, then I need to speak to him, confidential.” Grayson asked more formally as he leaned over the desk, his hands planted firmly on its surface.
“Dust,” Grayson gave the word of the day.
Come on, hurry up. Grayson began pacing back and forth in the small room, feeling his fists clench and unclench.
“Karl, Max.” Millard lowered himself into the seat. His top button was undone and his tie loosened. Grayson resumed his leaning over the desk.
“Boss, we’ve reconned Wakefield’s ship, the Osiris.” Grayson cut to the chase. “He’s modified the shit out of it—”
“Karl, less rhetoric and more facts, please.”
Grayson nodded, remembering himself and the fact he was supposed to be a professional. “The Osiris has been outfitted with military-grade weapons, Tomahawks, Harpoons, surface-to-air missiles. Probably a hell of a lot more, too.”
“She must have near the capability of a warship, boss,” Dillon cut in.
“Any sign of those suspected WMDs Bradley mentioned?”
“Nothing on that front. But we didn’t have chance to assess her full capabilities,” Grayson replied. “But if they’ve tipped one of those Tomahawks with something nasty—nuclear, chemical, biological... hell even just a regular warhead... Bottom line, boss, we need to stop her.”
Millard looked down, seeming to gather himself. “I don’t think we can.”
“What the hell are you talking about? You’ve got the Navy next door at Mayport—” Dillon growled from next to Grayson.
“Coms are compromised. We have no contact with the Fourth Fleet or the Pentagon.” Millard opened his hands, signaling his helplessness. “Hell, the USS Paul Ignatius is deployed within a stone’s throw of Nassau and we can’t even speak to her.”
Grayson felt himself recoiling. “Are you telling me we have a ship with weapons-grade technology within spitting distance of our coast and we can’t even tell the military about it? How the hell is that possible?”
“I don’t know, Karl!” Millard said in frustration. “They’re sending normal status notifications. They’re still there, and still on their assigned missions, but they’re not getting our messages. Something’s blocking it.”
“Jesus,” Dillon muttered.
Millard glanced at something off screen, then turned and looked at them and began speaking quickly. “I’m sending you through an executive order. This grants you the ability to request local resources with full executive-level authority signed by POTUS. I’ve spoken to his office and he’s getting as worried as we are that he’s lost control.”
The printer set next to the computer began whirring, a length of paper extruding from it.
“Stop the Osiris. Any means, carte blanche,” Millard said those two words while squeezing his eyes closed. “Something’s going on here. Something which is usurping the very command and control networks of our defenses. Karl, Max, you can’t trust the military. They’re being given duff information. The only thing we know is that whatever’s happening revolves around Reynolds, Wakefield, and the Osiris.”
From the computer’s speakers came the sound of someone hammering intently on the door of the secure room. Millard looked at the door again and his voice became faster, as if he knew he was on a time limit which was running out. “I’m starting to suspect this is bigger than we ever thought. We’re not just looking at a rogue operator or two here, but something cutting through to the very heart of the military and intelligence community and they’re here, at Langley.”
The hammering grew more intense and was joined by the sound of muffled shouting.
“Any means, boys. You hear me? SAD Actual, Out.” The screen shut down just as the door behind Millard slammed open.
“Boss?” Grayson called, knowing it was in vain but needing to do it anyway. “Boss?”
He felt lightheaded. Whatever the hell was going on looked like it had caught up with his commanding officer. His mind whirled as he tried to understand what he’d just seen. It looked like someone had been trying very hard to get at Millard, and that meant one of two things. Millard had pissed off whoever was behind whatever was going on enough to take direct action...
Or he was behind it himself and had just been made.
He snapped too. Grayson tore the page off the printer and looked at it. Sure enough, it was an executive order, a legally binding document directing federal agencies. And the direction was, he saw as his eyes scanned down the page, to apprehend those responsible for undermining the national interests of the USA. And down at the bottom was a signature. A signature from his commander-in-chief, the President of the United States.
If even the president thinks he’s lost control... A hollow feeling expanded in Grayson’s stomach.
This was getting too big, too complicated, and too fast moving.
We can bow out, let this roll, and see what things look like when the dust settles. That would be the simplest thing.
But inaction was a decision too, one which could cost lives. And Grayson wasn’t programmed that way. He had to do something.
Okay, what about that ship? It was armed to the teeth. And more worryingly, there was the rumored WMDs which they hadn’t even got a sniff of yet.
No, if they let it roll, things could spiral out of control. The best course of action was to get everyone in custody and figure out this whole mess from there when the players were off the board.
Grayson crashed out the room. Monroe stood, looking out the window. “You, we need to put together an intervention team. We need to impound a ship, a big one with a heavily armed complement.”
“Would that be the one leaving now?” Monroe pointed through the window overlooking the port. Grayson’s eyes were momentarily distracted by a huge cruise ship in the harbor. It was the most advanced one he’d ever seen. But he didn’t have time to sightsee, he followed Monroe’s pointed finger. Crossing before the ship, Osiris threaded her way through the congested waters, heading for open waters. The yacht disappeared from view as she passed behind the Arawak Cay cargo terminus.
“Shit!” Grayson barked. He turned to Monroe. “We need options. And fast. I have an executive order. I don’t care who you have to wake up. We need to go after that ship.”
He thrust the document into the ambassador’s hands. Her eyes tracked over it, widening slightly as she read.
After a moment she nodded, kicked off her slippers, and began jogging back to her office, looking over her shoulder as she went. “I have someone I can call. Come on, what are you waiting for?”
Grayson exchanged a brief look with Dillon before racing after her.
Chapter Twenty-Two – The Present
The ground dropped away under them as Mack pulled up gently on the collective, lifting the aircraft before yawing back around toward the looming mountain.
She felt somber as the grounded aircraft rolled by beneath them, lonely in its isolation. How many other people had found themselves lost in this new world? Unable to find home. No idea of what had happened to them? If the airplane contained four hundred people, then that was nearly as many as had been on Nest Island before Atlantica had found them. Before everything had changed and they’d discovered just where, no just when they were. There could still be thousands more people scattered around, desperate to know just what the hell was going on.
Mack shook her head, dispelling those maudlin thoughts. The fact was the passengers of the airplane weren’t here anymore. Maybe they had managed to find shelter and food somewhere. But, either way, she wasn’t going to solve the mystery right here or now. They had their own enigma to try and unravel.
She looked over at Donovan, his lips silently moving. He caught her watching. “Just saying a prayer for them.”
Mack smiled and nodded. “I’m sure they’ll appreciate it.”
Yeah, she gave him shit, a hell a lot of the crew did, but he was a good man at heart and smart. Like Mensa smart. He finished saying what he was saying.
“Mind if I take the controls for a bit?” Donovan asked. “For practice?”
“Absolutely, sir. You have control.”
“I have control,” Donovan confirmed.
Mack concisely filled in the Ignatius on what they had seen, then leaned back in her seat, keeping one eye on the instruments. A hand rested on her lap, ready to take back the controls if Donovan started to struggle but, mostly, she watched the world go by.
The gentle undulations of the land seemed a stark contrast to the mountain protruding out of it. Far in the distance beyond, she could see several other peaks, similarly alone rising over the horizon. She couldn’t recall seeing quite this kind of geography before.
“Hey, Tsang?” Mack called back into the cabin.
“Yes?” his voice crackled back over the intercom.
“Got some more mountains ahead. Does that do anything for your theories?”
She heard him grunting for a moment, before feeling his presence over her shoulder. “That looks strange, but it’s not unprecedented to get isolated peaks. It must be an interesting mechanism, geologically speaking, going on here.”
“Right.” The mountain grew as they closed. It formed a cone clad on all sides by the dense foliage. It stretched the best part of a mile into the air, a small mountain, Mack noted. Yet here protruding on its own, it seemed higher. “I can’t see any vents or sources of that smoke. Sir, I have control.”
Mack swung the helicopter in a wide circle around the peak, feeling the buffet of wind through the controls. “I can see nothing obvious at all. Tsang? Time to get busy, my man.”
“I’m... already looking.”
“I’m just your taxi ride here, doc,” Mack called over her shoulder. “You tell me where you want me and I’ll put you there.”
“A little closer in then please,” Tsang called.
Mack spiraled the Seahawk in closer to the steep gradient of the green-clad mountainside.
“I would have expected more discoloration or even some die-off of the plant life from the escaping gas,” the doctor mused.
“Is it just my imagination,” Laurie said. “Or is this peak almost uniform in structure?”
Now that Laurie mentioned it, Mack could see it. The mountain was a near-perfect cone, only the random growth of foliage marring the lines. As she looked at the green cladding of the peak, it seemed to ripple in a strange undulating way. “What the hell is that?”
“Can we take a closer look?” Tsang asked.
Mack squinted as she looked at the mountainside flowing by alongside. She wasn’t exactly keen to be so close to what could be an active volcano, but thus far they hadn’t seen any indication it was going to blow. “Okay, but I’m gonna pull us back the second I see something I don’t like.”
She ceased the spiraling, bringing them to a hover before tilting the nose forward gently, edging them toward the slope which was writhing with some kind of strange activity. “You seeing this? What’s happening there?”
“I can’t quite make it out.” Donovan nearly leaned over Mack to get a better view. “Can one of you have a look-see with the binoculars?”
Mack frowned as she looked at the writhing swaying mess a hundred feet below. “Okay, we’re already getting to the point I ain’t liking this, folks. I’m gonna—”
“Get us out of here. Now!” Laurie shouted.
Mack didn’t hesitate. She pressed down on the pedal and started to swing the aircraft around as a dark cloud erupted from the forest and surged up toward them. Before they had yawed even halfway around, a nightmare flock of buzzing... things engulfed the helicopter.
The vehicle began to rock from impacts as black shapes pinged off the fuselage. The rotor went from a dull drone to an intermittent thudding noise and Mack felt a sickening lurch in her stomach as they began to drop. They were losing altitude. Fast.
She glanced at the instruments even as she felt the controls turn to mush. The engine indicators were showing a massive drop in oil pressure.
In a second, she knew it.
She wasn’t going to save the helicopter.
“Brace brace brace!” she shouted as her inner ear told her the helicopter was spinning around. They were surrounded by a dense cloud of flickering, flapping creatures. “Shit. I can’t see a fucking thing out there. Donovan?”
“I’ve got nothing!”
From the back, she heard the sound of the two passengers crying out as they were thrown about the cabin.
The helicopter lurched again and the engine made a horrific grinding noise. Donovan’s side window cracked and smashed. Mack caught a glimpse of a winged creature the size of a buzzard flapping briefly in the cockpit. The helicopter rolled onto its side and she felt herself suspended in her harness.
A moment later, a massive impact drove Mack forward in her seat. A tree branch lanced through the cockpit. Mack felt her face being splattered with liquid. Then another lurch, and another horrendous impact. Another branch speared through the cockpit. Then another—
And then the world went black.
“That’s a long way in the future, Lars,” Reynolds said. He was once again chairing the daily management meeting in Atlantica’s conference room. He’d already tried to reign the former captain in and outline that this scheduled gathering was about dealing with immediate issues, not strategic matters. Something Solberg had ignored and bullishly pressed on with his point.
The new chief engineer rolled his eyes. “Yes. But we have to get on top of these problems now. With the best will in the world, the photoelectric cells we have only provide a limited amount of juice and they will degrade by a percentage of efficiency each year. We need to steer our energy production toward sustainable and easily constructed renewable sources.”
“He does have a point,” Kendricks said.
“So, what are you asking for?” Reynolds conceded.
“I want to start building some prototype power generation test articles,” Solberg replied.
“Wouldn’t that fall under Laurie’s group?” Jack cut in. Reynolds nodded in agreement.
“She’s research.” Solberg waved his hand dismissively. “This is simple engineering. We build a few different styles of photocells, test a few different materials, and see what generates the most ampage. Hell, we can make them up in one of the galleys with copper, old blu-ray discs, and household chemicals. It’s not exactly worth writing a thesis on, is it? I mean...”
Solberg’s monolog trailed off as something out the window caught his eye.
“It’s going again.”
“Look, daddy. Another.”
Grayson frowned, annoyed that his kid was more distracted by what was going on in the distance than his admittedly poor efforts at teaching him the times table.
“Can you see?”
He squinted in the direction his son was pointing. Damn, his eyes weren’t as good as they were back in the day, but he could just about make out the sight of another cloud emanating in a lazy spiral from the distant mountain in the early afternoon sun.
“Yeah. Yeah I can see,” Grayson said. Maybe that helicopter they’d sent out would be getting a close look at whatever the hell that was and get them some answers.
Although, he hoped for their sake, they weren’t too close.
Chapter Twenty-Three – The Past
“This irregular. Highly irregular.”
Captain Sydney Smith of the Bahamas Defence Force rubbed his clean-shaven chin while reclining back in his creaking leather seat. His threadbare office looked like somewhere he spent minimal time. Clearly he felt an old wooden desk, a PC, and a filing cabinet was all he needed to do his job.
He had reviewed the executive order which the ambassador had shown him with some interest. Ultimately, the order could only direct her to request aid from the BDF though—it wasn’t as if the BDF, as the military of a foreign power, would be bound by it.
His eyes flicked up to Monroe. “Madam, if it had been anyone else, I would have just called the police to come take you away. I cannot simply deploy our military on your whim.”
“Sir, I cannot emphasize the urgency of this request.” Grayson clenched his fists in an attempt to subdue his frustration on just how damn slow everything seemed to move on this island, even a crisis. “Look, if I understand your rank structure right, you’re the duty officer and we’re giving you information about a rogue ship operating in your waters which needs to be seized. You need to act, Captain.”
“Sid, please,” Monroe urged, taking over the appeal. “We need your ships to pursue the Osiris. The people aboard are criminals, at best. Terrorists at worst.”
She had changed into a power suit, and Grayson was impressed that the slightly dotty-seeming lady showed she had a hell of a lot of clout just by getting them in with the captain in charge of Nassau’s small fleet.
“So, you’re saying this could be considered an act of law enforcement rather than war?” Smith pursed his lips. “I can work with that.”
“You have an obligation to protect your territorial waters, Sid,” Monroe said. “That’s what your bosses pay you to do, after all.”
“Fine. I can buy that without having to shoot this up to the Prime Minister.” Smith had come to a decision. A decision, Grayson supposed, helped by the fact that it would mean he would get all the glory. “But if she is as heavily armed as you suggest...”
“Despite her upgrades, she isn’t a warship. She’s a...” Grayson clicked his fingers trying to remember the term.
“A Q ship,” Dillon finished for him. “She’s camouflaged as a regular civil vessel. Sure, she can kick ass, but her main weapon is surprise and she don’t have that anymore. Plus, we forced her to move, probably before they’re ready. Your ships can intercept her, and if she looks like she’s not taking the hint, track her until we can get our Fourth Fleet deployed.”
If we can actually get through to them. Grayson felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. He pulled it out, “Home sweet home” showed on the screen.
He slid the answer bar across his phone’s screen, answering it. “Grayson.”
“Karl, Lieutenant Colonel Larry McGuire here.”
“Larry?” Grayson darted a look at Dillon. A perplexed look crossed Dillon’s face. Larry McGuire was Millard’s deputy. A nice guy, competent, but ambitious too. Getting his brigadier’s star was definitely part of his five-year plan and having special ops on his resume was a damn good way of going about that. “What can I do for you?”
“I’ve got some bad news for you, Jackal.” McGuire sounded worried. Grayson winced at the use of his nickname; he always found it corny when anyone but his closest teammates called him by it. “We’ve had to arrest Colonel Millard.”
Shit. He cupped his hand over the receiver. “Millard’s been arrested.”
Dillon’s eyes widened in response.
Grayson uncovered the phone receiver. “Can I ask what for?”
“We found some irregularities in his bank account. Payments coming in, Karl, big ones. We think he’s been on the take.”
No way. No fucking way, Grayson thought. Millard was a hard ass, but he was as by the book as could be. There was no way in hell he was on the take. His brain whirled. He couldn’t rationalize that Millard was dirty. No, it was far more likely that evidence had been planted by the real culprits.
“I need you and Max to head back on the next flight.”
“No problem, sir. Count on it.” He hung up the phone and looked at Dillon for a long moment. The captain and the ambassador watched the exchange, confused about what had just happened—the names meaningless to them.
“What did he say?” Dillon asked.
“He told us to bring in the Osiris. ASAP.”
Dillon’s lips twitched in a smile. He knew they’d been recalled. And what’s more, he knew that Grayson knew he knew.
And neither cared.
“You heard the man,” Dillon barked in a voice which must have driven fear into the hearts of his former subordinates in the SEALs. “You want to verify this? It’s got executive-level authority. In other words, you’ll have to explain to your boss why you’ve denied a request for urgent assistance from the White House itself. We need to move now!”
“Fine,” Smith acquiesced, holding his hands up in mock surrender. “Thirty minutes, pier two.”
The night had bought a chill to the air as they jogged across the gangplank onto the HMBS Bahamas. The sixty-meter-long maritime patrol ship had a sleek, dagger-like appearance. A large cannon was mounted on the front and 50 caliber machine guns protruded from the sides.
“Captain.” A young officer saluted as they entered the small bridge. The Bahamas may have been fast and well-armed, but the ship was getting old now, and it looked as if the BDF didn’t have the cash to refit the ship with a modern suite on the bridge.
“Thomas.” Smith saluted back. “Prepare to depart. Major Grayson? If you’d kindly give my crew an abbreviated brief.”
Grayson felt a tick of a smile cross his face. It looked like Smith subscribed to the old tradition that there could only be one captain on board ship, and had given him an unofficial promotion.
“Gentlemen. We are in pursuit of a ship, the Osiris, which we believe may have ill intentions for us or our allies. After we depart, we will rendezvous with HMBS Nassau for additional support.” Grayson pulled out the few pages of a briefing document he had printed off, and found the image of Wakefield at the table at the Carlton Club and the one Dillon had taken at the hanger. “This is the man we need to speak to, the Osiris’s owner, Conrad Wakefield. We will intercept his vessel and cause her to heave to for boarding. Once we board her, we will detain everyone for interrogation. Questions?”
The men on the bridge shook their heads.
“Good. I must tell you, it is believed this vessel is heavily armed and might defend herself with extreme prejudice. I’ll remind you though, she isn’t designed from the keel up as a warship and we suspect we’ve caused her to move before she’s ready. I anticipate we will be able to defeat her if she puts up resistance. Now, time is a ticking. Captain, if you please, take us out.”
Grayson stuffed the pages back into a plastic waterproof envelope and stuffed it into his smock as the bridge erupted in activity.
Within moments, Grayson felt the dull throbbing of the engines as the buildings situated on and near the pier began to roll past the windows.
A thrill of anticipation coursed through his body. This was it, he knew it, they were moving into the end game of this weird-ass situation.
He watched as Captain Smith stepped out onto the deck and made to join him. The older man leaned against the railing and tapped a cigarette out of its box then noticed Grayson had followed.
“Want one?” Smith offered the box to Grayson.
“I don’t smoke.” Grayson gripped the railing, feeling the wind of their travel wash across his face.
“It helps when I’m nervous,” Smith said quietly as he lit the cigarette with a silver zippo lighter. “And nothing makes me nervous like chasing down something which can bite back.”
“You can bite harder,” Grayson replied, still gazing over the calm night waters.
“Maybe.” Smith nodded before taking a long drag on his cigarette.
Grayson found his attention drawn to the huge, high-tech looking cruise ship in port. It’d be full of vacationers. Mostly they wouldn’t know or care what was happening on this island and stretch of sea. They would feel safe in their staterooms and suites. And they would be safe. He recalled something Millard had told him when he’d been recruited into the SAD, a quote from an old newspaper article:
“People will sleep soundly in their beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those that will do us harm. You, Karl, are going to be one of those men.”
He turned to look forward, over the sleek prow of the ship.
Screw it. I’ve lived like a saint for years. Considering how my week’s gone, I doubt it’ll be the death sticks which get me.
“You know what, Captain? I think I might try one.”
Chapter Twenty-Four – The Present
Slater drummed her fingers on the armrest of her chair. The leather had been crudely patched with gray duct tape and some of the stuffing had leaked, giving the backrest an uneven feel. The bridge was still a mish-mash of repairs after the sabotage—after his sabotage. And likely would never look its pristine finest again.
Tap, tap, tap. She fought the urge to ask the radio operator whether he’d heard anything yet. He would know to tell her as soon as got a message, any message, from the overdue expedition. To keep asking him would simply show her crew she was anxious and that simply wouldn’t do.
The clock positioned above the helm station ticked over to 1715 hours.
Why had she let them go out of radio range? The communications systems were intermittent at best over such a distance. She should have known better than to place her crew and Atlantica’s civilians in such jeopardy. To, as the Navy was fond of saying half jestingly, give them the “opportunity to excel”—to make do with insufficient resources. Yes, they’d done it before, but those times had been under desperate combat conditions whereas now they had a choice.
Or had they? After all, they needed to know what was going on with that mountain. It could be the most dangerous thing they’d faced in this time... or it could be nothing, but they would have no way of knowing without reconnaissance.
Coming to a decision, she stood and walked to the seaman standing watch at the radio station. “Get me Atlantica, Mister Thompson.”
Nodding, he passed her a headset and she slipped it over her ear. “Atlantica, this is Ignatius Actual. Can I speak to Captain Kendricks, please?”
A moment later. “Hey, Heather. Anything yet?” Kendricks asked without preamble.
“No, not yet. And that puts them more than two hours overdue,” Slater said, pursing her lips. A lot could happen in that time. “Even if they had put down to explore.”
“Could something have distracted them?”
“I don’t think Perry, or Mack for that matter, would lose track of time.” Slater knew her XO and her chief pilot. They were both equally diligent in their own, very different, ways. “They’re losing light, and they know that means I would be declaring them overdue if I hadn’t heard anything.”
Slater took a deep breath, “No, something’s happened to them.”
“Okay. What do you need?” Kendricks asked, cutting straight to the point.
“We need to consider SAR options. And unless Lieutenant Phillips has gotten our other helo running in the last few hours, that means we have to ask Osiris to search with theirs.”
“Okay, I’ll talk to the admiral. He can start buttering up Wakefield. You want them to go now?”
Slater looked over at the sun, just settling on the horizon. “Just start the conversation. I need to speak to Lieutenant Phillips.”
“Understood, ma’am.” Mike Phillip’s leg hung out of the open cockpit door. The Seahawk was still in the field where they had put down, somehow un-looted by the pirate horde surrounding it. “No, it’s looking solvable, but we still need a few hours to get this put back together. No, I’m pretty sure our repairs will hold. It was mainly just a servo cable coming off its track.”
Hank hopped from one leg to the other, trying to keep warm as the dusk chill set in. Eager to hear what their boss had to say.
“Yeah. Double-time, Cap’n.” Mike put the headset on the console and looked at the loadmaster. “Mack could be in trouble.”
“Shit,” Hank muttered. “Stupid idea going out there with only one functioning helo.”
“Don’t second guess, man,” Phillips admonished. Aircrews were tight knit, and it was sometimes easy to forget that a rank structure still existed, but Phillips couldn’t have Hank second-guessing orders or playing the 9 o’clock jury. “We’ve been pulling ops with a single helo for over a year now and you didn’t complain then.”
“Yeah, but...” Hank gestured helplessly. “That was when we were with her.”
Phillips squeezed his loadmaster’s shoulder. He understood how Hank felt. They’d been through some scary times, but they’d always had each other. Now Mack was out there, in the wild, on her own. “We’ll take our learning later, Hank. For now, we need to get this thing moving again.” Phillips looked over at the pirate settlement. “And that means we need to borrow some lighting.”
“Oh man, they ain’t gonna be happy helping us out.”
“Nope.” Phillips took a deep breath before beginning to walk toward the settlement. “Just keep working.”
He reached the central hut where Bautista was presiding over a meeting. Phillips caught his eye and Bautista inclined his head. “Can I help you?”
Phillips glanced at the hard-looking men and women, some of them bearing the scars of battle. Scars which they’d given them. The look on their faces ranged from unwelcoming to downright hostile. “Sir, we have a situation, and we need your help.”
One of the women at the table gave a scorn-filled snort. Bautista held his hand up, silencing her before gesturing at a chair. “What kind of help?”
Phillips settled into the chair. “Our helicopter is overdue from its expedition to the mountain.” He gestured at the setting sun. “We need lighting to continue repairs and we need some brought up.”
“You think you’ve crashed another one?” A man raised his eyebrow, before waving away his own accusatory comment. Phillips gritted his teeth. It was him. That bastard, Grayson. He almost bit back at him before remembering. No, Mack is who’s important now. Mack and the others, of course. Old grudges needed to be set aside. For the time being, at least.
“I say we help ’em, Urbano,” Grayson continued.
It was Bautista’s turn to raise an eyebrow, before giving a nod. “Of course. We will have some flood lights brought over to you.”
Phillips nodded his thanks. “That would be greatly appreciated.”
In the few seconds of the interchange, Grayson’s mind had run through scenarios and possibilities, seeking what potential there was to extract an advantage from the situation.
“That’s a rather generous offer for people who want your head on a pole, Karl,” Bautista said after Phillips had left them.
“Big picture.” Grayson looked at the others surrounding the table. “Mind if I have a moment with the boss?”
The others cleared away with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Once they were out of earshot, Grayson looked Bautista in the eye. “Look, you’re right. They want my head on a pole. Which is why I think we should help them. Or more specifically, I help them.”
“Go on.” Bautista cocked his head quizzically.
“Have you ever noticed we never talk much about before?” Grayson said slowly. He had one shot to persuade Bautista to buy into his plan, which was only seconds old. He needed to make it a damn-good pitch. “It’s like it’s considered rude?”
Bautista returned a thin smile. “Your point?”
“You must know I have some skills. Those skills I picked up in the army. The unit I was in was pretty hot on fieldcraft and we were involved in a few recovery operations in just about every shithole you can think of. My point,” Grayson leaned forward and tapped the table with a forefinger to punctuate it, “is that I can be of benefit to any rescue operation. I know you’re keen to build up as much good will as possible. Offer my help. Maybe they’ll shut the hell up about putting a noose around my neck.”
“A nice idea.” Bautista shook his head. “But you know they’ll never go for it.”
“Just make the damn offer, Urbano.”
Slater stood at the head of Atlantica’s conference table where the senior officers of the fleet were gathered.
“Maybe your girl needs to consider her career choice.” Wakefield said with a snort. “Two crashes in a week? That’s just shoddy.”
Slater ground her teeth, not rising to the man’s caustic barb. “I think, for now, we need to focus on recovery efforts rather than playing any kind of blame game.”
“Just saying.” Wakefield leaned forward. “Right. Anyway, I’ve spoken to my pilots and of course we’re happy to help. But the downside is I’m told we ain’t equipped for night search and rescue operations, and especially not when we don’t know what they might be facing out there. The fact of the matter is, if your helicopter’s gone down, then there’s a good chance that something brought it down.”
Reynolds face was as drawn as Jack’s. Both had heard the news that the expedition was overdue, and neither could shake the feeling that something had gone wrong. “Be that as it may, any rescue attempt is better than none and at the moment, we don’t know if this is some kind of mechanical failure or something more nefarious.”
“No,” Slater said slowly. “He’s right. A night attempt would likely be wasted fuel. And we’re still not at the stage where we want to chance using the oil the Titan is refining in the aircraft. We need to be ready to go at first light. I have our crew working on our second Seahawk, which is fully equipped with a search and rescue package—”
“That thing is in bits on Bautista’s field,” Reynolds said. “As much as I’d like to get every helicopter we have up, we don’t want to create more casualties with a piece of machinery which has already proven itself to be unreliable.”
Slater couldn’t help but agree. Yet the thought of having to rely on someone like Wakefield was galling. “Fine, but we’ll continue with the repairs. If it looks as if we can get her safely flying again, we will do so.”
“Captain,” a voice announced over the intercom. “I have Urbano Bautista on the line asking to be put through.”
“By all means, patch him into the conference room,” Kendricks called into the air.
A chime rang through the room, and Bautista’s thickly accented voice could be heard. “Hello. I have been informed of the difficulties you are facing with your missing helicopter and wish to offer our assistance.”
“That’s very kind of you, Urbano,” Reynolds replied. “At this time, I think we are close to putting together a plan and have it covered.”
“That is understood,” Bautista replied. “And a relief. I do however have a person in my community who has previous military experience including, he tells me, rescue missions. He is making himself available.”
“Well, that could be useful,” Reynolds conceded. “It’s always good to have more expertise on hand.”
“He is offering to go with any rescue flight. But...” Bautista’s voice trailed off.
“But what?” Reynolds asked wearily.
“This man. He is Karl Grayson.”
Jack slapped the mute button on the table. A chime indicated he had cut the mic. “No way. No goddamn way is that bastard going.”
Kendricks nodded his agreement. “Screw that.”
Slater leaned back in her chair. Her revulsion for the man churning in her stomach. This man who had caused such harm. The man who had evaded justice for weeks could not be allowed to come anywhere near her ship or people again.
Slater’s mind raced. Perhaps there could be an unexpected opportunity here.
No. That’s not what I’m about.
“I think that’s decided then.” Reynolds gestured at Jack. “Unmute him and tell him thanks, but no thanks.”
“Wait.” Slater held up her hand. Could she give up the first opportunity in weeks to get hold of Grayson?
The others around the table looked at her quizzically.
“It is...” She began slowly, “incumbent on us to use every resource available to affect a rescue mission.”
“But Heather...” Kendricks’s voice took on a low tone. “Not him. He killed one of my crew. Besides, how do we even know he’s got this experience?”
“He successfully infiltrated your ship for over a month. He managed to successfully sabotage mine. I don’t like him, but he is resourceful,” Slater pointed out. “And we may need that. No. I say let him go.”
“I don’t like this, ma’am,” Jack said. Slater could sympathize. It had been Jack leading the investigation into Grayson’s first victim.
“I’m not asking you to like this. I’m asking you to rescue my people. By any means necessary. People, this kind of operation falls under my jurisdiction.” She looked around the room, daring anyone to challenge her authority before focusing on Wakefield. “Please prepare one of your helicopters for departure at first light. Jack, you will lead the rescue operation. Grayson will assist as an advisor.”
Reynolds leaned back in his chair, regarding Slater with cool blue eyes. “Heather, what we’re talking about is tactics, that’s your business while mine is strategy. I’m not going to undermine one of your decisions but—”
“Thank you.” She drew back her chair, ignoring Reynolds’s frown at being interrupted. “I suggest we begin preparations and then get some rest. Tomorrow will be a busy day and you’ll be setting off at first light.”
Reynolds nodded and stood. “I trust you know what you’re doing here, Captain.”
Kendricks remained seated for a long moment, before abruptly standing and walking out of the room, his face red. The others started to file out after him.
“Jack. A moment,” Slater said as the furious-looking Jack made to leave.
“Ma’am.” He stopped halfway to the door, not turning to look at her as he let the last of the others filter around him.
Slater took a deep breath. What she was about to ask him to do filled her with the same sense of revulsion that she had felt at hearing Grayson’s name mentioned.
But this needed to be done.
The silent moment ticked on. Jack turned to look at her, a question in his eyes.
“Jack. Listen to me. Grayson.” This is it. The point of no return. “He doesn’t come back from the rescue mission. Do you understand?”
There. She’d said it.
“Do you understand what I’m telling you, Jack? That man has murdered people,” Slater pressed. “He’s responsible for murder and sabotage, and it’s gritted my shit for far too long that he’s been left to walk free.”
Jack walked back toward the woman. “Ma’am, I’m no assassin. I‘m not going to be responsible for murder myself out there. Two wrongs won’t make a right.”
“His actions cannot go unpunished.” She gestured through the conference room window at her ship, her mast still twisted, her paint still blackened. “Look what he did, Jack. Look at it. Think about what else he did. In the old days, there were drone strikes for less.”
Jack squeezed his eyes closed for a moment before looking at Slater. “And now I’m your executioner.”
“He’s a murderer and a terrorist.” Slater planted both hands on the table and leaned forward. “He wouldn’t be the first you’ve brought to justice.”
Jack looked down, the turmoil obvious in his face.
“He must not come back to the fleet, Jack.”
Jack lifted his head to meet her gaze. And she couldn’t return it; the conflict in his eyes matched that in her own soul. It was her turn to look down.
He didn’t nod, he didn’t shake his head. He just turned and walked out of the room.
Slater gave a deep breath and closed her eyes. She felt a tremor begin to vibrate in her body and she swallowed down her rising gorge.
She lifted her right hand and looked at the academy ring on her finger. It symbolized as much to her, in its own way, as the wedding band on her left hand.
Was she dishonoring what it symbolized by ordering a man’s exile or assassination, or was she honoring it by bringing retribution to the man who had done such harm?
She simply didn’t know anymore.
Chapter Twenty-Five – The Past
Lieutenant Ollie Pearson dropped into the tight cockpit of his sleek, gray Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightening II. He nodded a curt thanks as his crew chief passed him his helmet.
He slipped his head into its musty-smelling confines and slid the visor down. Automatically, it began interfacing with the fighter’s systems. A wealth of information unobtrusively blinked into existence showing everything he needed to fly and fight, no matter which direction he looked. The F-35 was a seamless integration of man and machine.
And he loved her.
The canopy hissed closed and locked with a clunk. Pearson began flicking switches. Displays and indicators illuminated as his aggressive fighter came to life. In seconds, a dull whine permeated the cockpit as the Pratt and Whitney F135 engine spooled up. A few moments later, the pitch had risen to a subdued howl. The aircraft rocked forward against the brakes, eager to go. His flight, Key West Naval Air Station’s assigned Quick Response Force, was ready to rock and roll.
His baby was ready.
He was ready.
“Tower, Cobra 1-1 QRF, good evening and ready to taxi, over,” Pearson said, turning to the crew chief standing far off his wingtip and giving a thumbs up with his green gloved hand. The man returned his gesture.
“Cobra 1-1, roger that. Clear to taxi to runway 08 for scramble takeoff. Airspace is clear, over.”
“Runway 08. Scramble and clear, out.” Pearson gently nudged the throttle forward and released the brakes. The howl increased again in pitch. The fighter began rolling toward the apron His wing mate mirrored his movements in her own identical fighter before sliding out of view behind him.
As soon as they made the final turn onto the runway, Pearson drove the throttle forward. He felt himself being driven back into his seat from the G force as the engine power rose. The light encrusted buildings of the airfield rolled by, quickly turning from individual lights to streaks as his airspeed built.
He pulled back on the stick and the fighter roared into the sky. “Cobra 1-1 QRF away. Switching channel to Overlord, out.”
“Cobra 1-2 QRF away. Switching chan—” Pearson keyed his radio, changing frequency to Overlord, the combat information center which would manage his mission from here on out.
A thud came from below as the landing gear retracted into the fighter’s hull. The HUD on his visor showed the altitude ladder racing downward as he climbed into the star-speckled night. The spider web of illumination below gave way to the occasional light of a boat or ship as they crossed from land to sea.
“Overlord, Cobra flight of two F-35s QRF out of Navy Key West,” Pearson sent. “Going feet wet. Please advise heading and mission, over.”
“Roger that. Live mission confirmed,” Overlord said. “Standby for mission specifics on this intercept.”
A measured voice came over his radio, concisely rattling off details. He darted a glance over at his wing mate, Lexi Cormac’s fighter creeping up to starboard wing, hardly believing what he was hearing.
Shit, we’re hunting big game for real here.
Grayson wrapped his gloved hands around the heavy-duty plastic rail surrounding the RIB’s black rubberized hull. The fresh sea air filled his lungs, washing away the acrid taste of his first cigarette and making him feel alive.
They had been steadily overtaking the Osiris for the last hour, and now the distant blob of light on the horizon had split into distinct running lights clustered ahead.
The cocky bastard isn’t even going dark.
Not like the Bahamas and the Nassau, which were stealthily sneaking up on the ship in total blackout. The two patrol boats at general quarters, ready to take on the target.
The other six men in the RIB looked nervous, their Adam’s apples bobbing. Whatever Wakefield was up to, they had to hope they’d pushed him on before he was ready, and he’d just quit when faced with the two heavily armed patrol boats. If not, they were going to be in for a hard time if he decided to give them a fight.
But they would do what it took to stop Wakefield, and get Bradley back. In that order.
“Three miles,” Dillon announced calmly as he leaned over the bow. “Time to deploy.”
The Nassau slowed to steerageway and the cranes running along both flanks lifted her two boats over the side and settled them with a mechanical whine into the water.
“Let’s do this,” Grayson called.
With a roar, the outboard engine turned over and the four RIBs, including the two from the Bahamas, fanned out in front of the menacing patrol ships.
“Osiris, Osiris, Osiris,” Smith’s voice came over both radio and loudspeaker at the same time. “This is the HMBS Bahamas of the Royal Bahamas Defence Force. You are ordered to heave to and prepare to be boarded. Resistance will be met with deadly force.”
Pearson had reacted with surprise, then trepidation on getting the mission brief. He’d fired in anger in the swirling vortex of the Middle East. He’d felt that heady rush of adrenaline when on a bombing run. He knew what it was like to pull the trigger and know people would die.
But he’d never thought he’d be called on to do so this close to home.
That didn’t mean he would hesitate. Not for one second. September 11th may have been both a distant boyhood nightmare for him and a reason why he’d joined up, but he was damn sure no such horrors like that terrible day would happen on his watch.
A low warble filled his ears as his attack radar sought the distant target. A crosshair in his visor HUD settled on a tiny speck of light.
The warble became a single tone.
“I have lock.” He flexed his hand around the stick.
No, nothing like that day twenty-three years ago would happen again.
“Bruiser, bruiser, bruiser!” He squeezed the trigger. A thumping noise came from below as the LGM-158C Joint Strike Missile fell from his open internal bay. Less than a second later, the missile’s engine erupted to life, and the sleek weapon lanced ahead of his fighter.
A few seconds later, from Cormac’s fighter, a second missile streaked into the distance after his own.
The four RIBs surged toward the Osiris, followed by their two motherships. Each craft spread glowing phosphorene Vs of wakes behind in the dark sea.
“Come on you bastard, pull over,” Grayson snapped as he hunched against the sting of salt spray whipping across his face.
Grayson cocked his head, hearing a dull roar over the sound of the RIB’s outboard engine. It rapidly rose in volume. He turned his head, trying to spot the source. He saw a flare of fire, growing in size. Something coming at them quickly.
“That sounds like a...” Dillon looked just as confused. “You don’t think Millard ordered a strike?”
“I don’t see how?” Grayson answered. “His ass is in the clink.”
The JSM slammed into the Nassau at just below the speed of sound, penetrating her armored hide before detonating a fraction of a second later.
The 125 Kg High Explosive blast fragmentation warhead vaporized the center of the ship in a furious explosion. In seconds, the flaming bow and stern split open before disintegrating completely, leaving a patch of burning debris on the water.
“No!” Grayson shouted as he watched the Nassau disappear, leaving just a fiery plume of smoke to mark her watery grave, fed by the spilled fuel from her tanks.
And if they were going to hit one, they were going to hit both. Grayson keyed his radio. “Bahamas, you have incoming. Chaff, Flares, evasive... fuck it... abandon ship!”
They reacted quickly. Damn quickly. Bahamas began to swing in a desperate attempt to evade the second missile roaring toward them. Streamers of tracer fire erupted from her 50 caliber machine guns. An even more desperate attempt to swat the missile out of the sky.
It was in vain.
The second lance of fire streaked low over the waves and slammed into the stern of the Bahamas. A fan of fire and debris erupted out of the opposite side. It was a suboptimal hit, but no less lethal for it.
The patrol boat rolled as the momentum of the missile drove it over and she turned turtle, leaving just the dome of her hull to ride on the waves. Fire flickered through the chasms torn through her battered body.
“Jesus,” Dillon muttered. “The poor bastards.”
In seconds, over sixty men and women had been ruthlessly and efficiently killed.
“We have to go back. We have to see if there are survivors.” The young officer in charge of the RIB’s teeth chattered, and Grayson didn’t think it was from the cold.
“There’s no one left,” Grayson said coldly, turning to look forward toward the Osiris. “We have to stay on mission.”
“No buts,” Grayson shouted. “Get us to that fucking ship. Now!”
From the skies, another ominous roar grew in volume, deeper than that of the missiles. Whoever had just taken out the patrol boats was coming.
Chapter Twenty-Six – The Present
A burning agony raged through Mack’s body, bringing her to merciless consciousness. She couldn’t help but let a cry of pain escape her lips.
So many nerve endings signaled their distress, she couldn’t even figure out which parts hurt the most. She tried to look around, but her neck felt stiff as if she’d been sleeping funny and she groaned. Strangely, a forest appeared to have grown in her cockpit.
What the hell is going on?
“Stop. Please don’t cry out. I know it’s hard, but I need you to be as quiet as you can.” It took Mack a moment to realize it was Laurie’s whispering voice coming from behind her seat.
The window in front of her was smashed, branches stretching into the cockpit. She followed the closest one and gave a low moan as she saw it had smashed her right arm. That she had an open fracture was beyond doubt—she could see the fucking bone sticking out, meat and tendon clinging to it. She gave a sob of disbelief. It didn’t even look like it belongs to her anymore. She tried to lift her arm. The pain intensified and she felt a wail of pure agony emanate from deep within her.
“Shh,” Laurie hissed. “Please hush. I haven’t been able to do anything about your arm. I’m sorry. I’ve had to look after the others.”
The others. Perry Donovan. That other passenger. What is his name? Tsang? Doctor Tsang, that was it.
“What... what’s their status?” With a gasp, she pulled her helmet off and let it drop to the deck then let her head loll to the side. Her neck loosened and obliged. She saw the right side of cockpit was covered in blood. A pool had gathered in the foot well, but the man himself was missing. “Where is he? Where’s Perry?”
“I had to bring him into the back,” Laurie whispered. “He’s not looking good, Mack. He’s hurt really badly.”
Mack shook her head, trying to clear the cobwebs from her mind. The pain in her neck put a stop to that. “What about Doctor Tsang?”
The silence answered her question. She reached with a shaky left hand and twisted the quick release handle. The straps fell away from her torso, one brushing against her injured arm, causing her to gasp. “I need to help.”
“No. Please. Just stay still.”
Mack twisted in her seat. Agony lanced through her and she cried again. Before her, the dense foliage rustled ominously and she paused. “What the hell was that?”
“There’s things out there,” Laurie sounded scared. “They’ve only just settled back down after the crash.”
Mack gingerly reached into her shoulder holster, undid the flap, and drew her gun out awkwardly, and then remembered her right arm. Shit. Adapt and overcome, as the Marines would say. She thrust the gun between her thighs, locking it in there, and strained to pull back on the slide with her left hand. After the third attempt, she realized she wouldn’t be able to gain the leverage to manage it. “What things?”
“Things. Big horrible bloody things,” Laurie whispered. “I need to get back to Perry. Mack... he’s not good. I don’t know what to do.”
Mack gave up on trying to pull the slide back and held the gun over her shoulder. “Take this. Pull back on the slide. The top bit. Then let it go and it will spring forward. We’ll have a ready weapon then so if anyone... anything, gives us any trouble, point it at them and pull the trigger. Oh, and pass me a small branch.”
The weight of the gun disappeared from her hand and was replaced by a wooden cylinder. She moved it to her mouth and bit down on it. She took a few deep breaths, steeling herself, then twisted in the seat. The pain from her shattered arm was unbearable. Her whole body, too. She must be one big bruise. She rotated over the center console, whimpering as her teeth dug into the branch, fending of the scream she would have given.
She clawed her way toward past the switches and buttons into the cabin, dropping into it. The pain overwhelmed her, and blackness encroached on her vision. But not before she saw Donovan lying there, another branch protruding from his heaving chest as bloody froth bubbled from his mouth.
Grayson zipped up his windbreaker before kneeling down to tie the laces on his boots.
“You promised you weren’t going to go again!” Kristen shouted. “I damn well quote, ‘I’m not leaving you and James again. Never.’”
He finished looping the laces and stood, looking around the room and checking for anything else which might be useful. He had one more item to collect. But he wasn’t going to get that while his wife was doing her level best to perforate his eardrums.
“Don’t fucking ignore me.” Kristen deliberately stood in front of him. “You’ll be lucky if those people don’t blow your brains out the second you step on that ship.”
He walked toward Kristen and gripped her shoulders. “That’s precisely why I have to go.” Well, one reason. “Look, I know people have been murmuring that Urbano has lost his touch. That he’s pandering to these people. But there’s a good reason for it. We have to live together now.”
“And you think going on this jaunt will mean they’ll tell you all’s forgiven? Are you high?” Kristen said incredulously. “Do you have any more of what you’ve been smoking? I want some.”
“No,” Grayson said. Her fiery nature was something about her he loved very much. But it sure as hell meant he was in the crosshairs when he went against her wishes. “They probably won’t. But it’ll mean they start to see us all in a better light. And that’s a decent-enough objective. Look at this place.” Grayson gestured around the ramshackle hut which was their home. “It’s hardly a step up from the Titan. But if we can start integrating, maybe you and James can have a better life.”
“I’m going, Kristen. Deal with it.” He deliberately drained all warmth from his voice. He needed this argument over. And now. Frankly he didn’t have the time or inclination to continue it. He had to keep his eye on the prize.
She glared at him for a long moment before turning on her heels and storming out the hut, letting the thin, ramshackle door slam shut behind her.
“Thank god for that,” Grayson muttered. He slid his suitcase from under their camp bed and opened it. He untacked the lining on the lid and grabbed the thin envelope within and folded it down before stuffing it into the crotch of his pants. He closed the suitcase and replaced it.
He marched outside where Bautista waited in the predawn darkness, his head cocked. “It didn’t sound like she took the news so well.”
Grayson waved away his comment and continued walking toward the pier. Over in the field, an oasis of light illuminated the helicopter. The crew had been working tirelessly all night to repair it. He guessed Slater either hadn’t told them they weren’t the primary rescue crew or they didn’t care and were carrying on anyway.
A small collection of figures waited by the steps leading up to the rickety jetty which speared out into the sea.
“Mornin’.” Grayson addressed Jack Cohen. The man didn’t look hostile. And he knew from hard experience, that was worse than animosity. Jack was a cool customer, that was for damn sure. Bautista had told him how the cripple had taken down a half dozen of his boarding crew virtually single-handedly. Hell, maybe he should have been on a SOG team with the kind of brutal efficiency he’d shown.
“We appreciate the offer of help,” Jack said coolly. “Although I personally wouldn’t have agreed to it, my bosses did. I need to know, what is your experience? Just so I know I’m not taking a Walter Mitty with me.”
“Army,” Grayson responded. He somehow got the impression Jack wouldn’t have been impressed with any attempt to glorify his career. The man wanted facts and that was it. “I’ve been involved with and ran combat search and rescue operations in Afghanistan, the Vortex. Maybe a couple of other places, too.”
Grayson responded with a shrug. It would give Jack all the acknowledgement he needed.
“That would explain how you did what you did on the Atlantica.” Jack nodded coldly. “Just out of curiosity... what’s the Warrior’s Ethos?”
Grayson gave a slight smile at the not-so-subtle test. “I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit.”
“That’d be the pertinent one for our current situation—I will never leave a fallen comrade.”
“Okay,” the Marine said, seemingly satisfied. Jack put his hands up. Grayson followed the prompt, raising his own arms. Jack began to efficiently pat him down from top to bottom. Not that he’d find anything. “You are here to assist in the recovery of Ignatius’s Seahawk crew, which has now been missing and overdue for over twelve hours. We are operating under the assumption that they have crashed and we may have casualties. I’ll give you the full briefing in the air.”
Jack finished frisking him and gestured for Grayson to walk with him. The two men began walking down the pier toward the looming Osiris. Grayson looked at the ship’s sleek lines, which had been burned into his memory ever since that mission all those years ago.
“You have clearly demonstrated your skills and adaptability,” Jack continued speaking. Grayson listened with one ear while regarding the superyacht. He saw the bolted-on box launchers and other equipment. She looked more than capable, in a jury-rigged kinda way, of looking after herself. Why the hell had they thought a couple of patrol boats could take her on? “We are going into an unknown situation with no advance intelligence. Let me be clear, the last thing I want to deal with is having to keep an eye on you constantly. I’ll have no problem throwing you out the helicopter if it comes to it. Understood?”
“Licky Chicky,” Grayson murmured distractedly as they came to the gangplank extending from the huge vessel’s stern. He paused. He fully knew he wasn’t overly given to sentiment or nerves, but the thought of being here made butterflies tickle his stomach.
A horribly scarred man, half of his face burned, stood on the deck. His physique was muscular, yet athletic. The wound covering his skin had undoubtedly healed, yet still looked reasonably fresh. He looked Grayson up and down, one eye sloughed at a strange angle.
Grayson nodded in greeting as the man stepped aside and pointed up some stairs. “You are to go straight to the helicopter. We are not having people wandering around.”
“Yeah, I hear you value your privacy.” Grayson smiled at the mutilated man.
Climbing the wide sweeping stairway, Grayson noted the doors were closed while metal posts with rope barriers between them blocked the corridors, each guarded by similarly tough-looking men and women. They looked serious. No one was getting anywhere without their say-so. In the periphery of his vision, he mentally marked the security cameras. There were a hell of a lot of them, far more than seemed necessary. Grayson noted it all, filing it away in his memory. When he got back, he’d make damn sure he mapped everything he could of the ship.
Every now and again, Grayson saw Jack reach for a bannister, briefly steadying himself before continuing.
“Urbano told me about you,” Grayson said. “About what you did in the cargo bay of Atlantica.”
“Did he now,” Jack replied curtly, his inflection brooking no further question on the topic.
“You sure you can traverse a forest?” Grayson changed tack as they rounded another flight of stairs and continued upward. “We might be facing some rough ground out there and we may have to move fast.”
“I’m sure it won’t be a problem.”
As they climbed, the stairwell opened onto the expansive rear deck. A helicopter sat on the pad, rotor blades slowly turning, lit by floodlights in the predawn darkness.
“Gentlemen.” Wakefield stepped forward, his polo shirt open, his feet clad in nothing more than a pair of flip-flops. “Please take care of my toy. We only have two left now, not including the broken-down heap of junk on the beach. I shit you not—if my shiny new helicopter doesn’t come back intact, then please don’t bother coming back yourselves.”
Grayson looked at the man. The man he’d pursued across ten million years. He was so close he could do it now. He could cross the fifteen feet to him. His first blow would be to his throat, that would disable him. Then he’d pull him around and stab his fingers into his eyes before using him as a human shield. Either his security would take the shot and risk killing him too, or they’d be too slow and he’d throttle the life out of him.
Then he’d be gunned down.
No, pick your moment, Karl. This doesn’t have to be a suicide mission.
“Thank you, Mister Wakefield, for the loan,” Jack said as he pushed his rucksack into the open passenger cabin of the Airbus H155. The gray leather seats within were far more suited for executive travel than the rough and ready military Seahawk, the interior pristine and seemingly untouched.
Grayson pulled himself into the cabin and took a place near the window. He felt one step closer, and a million miles from his destination. The thought that Celia Bradley, if she was still alive, was a mere stone’s throw in terms of distance didn’t elude him either.
Chapter Twenty-Seven – The Past
The moonlight-flecked sea raced by beneath Pearson’s fighter. Growing ahead, two flickering orange funeral pyres marked the destruction of the pair of patrol vessels Overlord had briefed him had been hijacked by terrorists.
Why had they been pursuing that superyacht? Who knew? That was for the intel geeks to figure out later. But right here and now, he’d done his job.
“Good hit on both targets.” It was strange. Why the hell didn’t he feel that vague satisfaction he’d gotten on combat missions during his tours in the Vortex? Maybe because he was responsible for having just destroyed half an allied nation’s navy.
Or maybe it was because when he woke up this morning, in his bachelor officer’s quarters on Sigsbee Park, he hadn’t expected to have to kill someone... many people, in fact. Maybe there had even been the original crew aboard. Taken hostage. Hoping for a rescue which had never come. Whatever happened, it was going to be one hell of a diplomatic incident.
He shook his head, physically shedding his doubts. He was still on mission and he was concerned with targets not people. He’d seen more than one aviator lose their nerve when they started thinking about the lives involved when they pushed the button.
Pressing a stud on his stick, he looked down. The six night-vision cameras on his bird’s hull automatically processed themselves into a composite image displayed on his helmets visor, effectively letting him see through the hull.
He streaked over the bright lime smudges of the remains of the Nassau and Bahamas. Yeah, definitely a good hit on the two hijacked ships.
Four much smaller blobs caught his eye below, racing away from the ship in the direction of the superyacht Cobra flight had been ordered to protect. He cocked his head and flicked a stud on his stick up.
The image focused in on one of the blobs. It resolved itself into a RIB, powering its way, along with its friends, forward.
Their job wasn’t done yet.
Setting his teeth, he pushed the stick to the left, beginning a wide banking turn.
“We have two fast movers.” Dillon craned his neck to look upward as the fighters thundered low over the rolling water and began arcing away. He turned to Grayson. “Single engine, they’ve got to be F-35s. Probably out of Navy Key West.”
“Those fuckers have just done a real number on us,” Grayson growled in response. He could practically smell the burning oil from the destroyed ships. “You think they spotted us?”
“Karl, they’re fifth-generation fighters with the most advanced sensors in the world.” Dillon’s tone was grim. “Yeah, they spotted us and they ain’t gonna stop till the job’s done.”
Grayson grimaced and looked over at the pilot of the RIB. “If you can get any more speed out this thing... do it.”
The rumble of the fighters’ engines receded into the distance.
Then the volume balanced out, remaining at the same pitch.
And then it steadily became louder.
They were coming back. Grayson looked up into the night sky, trying in vain to spot the birds of prey coming for them.
The crosshairs on his Visor HUD locked onto one of the speedboats.
“Guns, guns, guns.” Pearson firmly squeezed the trigger. The aircraft began to judder as the four barrels of the pod-mounted GAU-22/A minigun on his port wing spun up. A fraction of a second later, a streamer of fire lashed out toward one of the small speedboats.
Grayson ducked reflexively as a laser-like beam of tracer fire impacted one of the other RIBs with unerring accuracy. It didn’t look like a single round missed. Dozens of 25mm rounds shredded the fragile boat, and the even more fragile people within.
The roar as the fighter raced low over the RIB was deafening. It took Grayson a moment to realize that a second RIB had been eviscerated by another fighter, leaving nothing but tumbling debris and body parts.
“Get us evading!”
“That ain’t going to do shit!” Dillon shouted over the fading roar of the fighters. “We need to—”
“To do what, Max?” Grayson shouted back over the spray and receding engine noise of the fighters. “We can’t signal our surrender. Those pilots are either in on whatever the hell is going on, or they’ve been misled by someone who is. Either way, they ain’t going to stop. Our only chance is to push on and get aboard that fucking ship before they hit us again.”
The flare of the fighter’s engine disappeared as it began its turn. Grayson looked at the Osiris, still a mile ahead. “Fuck it.”
He unslung his SCAR-H rifle and sighted through the ACOG sight toward where the fighter had vanished. The damn thing had turned; its engine flare was invisible in the night sky, only the sound of its roar giving away its presence.
Come on you bastard, show yourself.
The ACOG sight had only a 4x magnification. When the fighter opened fire, it’d be too late, but he’d be damned if he wasn’t going to go down fighting.
That was the Warrior’s Ethos.
“I will never accept defeat,” Grayson murmured. The dark sky was empty, the only sound a low rumble of thunder from the fighters’ engines.
“Karl, we have to get off,” Dillon urged from somewhere behind.
He circled the sight, trying to pick up a sign, anything of the death that was coming his way. The boat was racing forward at least twenty-five knots, and bouncing up and down over the waves as it did. And the damn target was moving at a substantial portion of the speed of sound.
He knew he was good, but was he that good?
He focused. There.
A staccato light, the fighter opening fire. He sighted it and squeezed the trigger. His rifle barked in response.
Then he felt himself being grabbed from behind and flung into the dark and icy water as all around him red-hot tungsten scythed through the air.
Pearson flinched and released his finger on the trigger as something sparked off his fighter’s nose cone, ricocheted, and pinged off the toughened glass canopy.
It took him a second to realize what had happened.
“Cobra 1-1 taking fire.”
There was no more incoming. When he’d destroyed the RIB, he must have taken out whatever had been firing at him. Whoever it was had done damn well to score a hit, but it had done them no good. Fighter beats some little speedboat as surely as paper beats stone.
That was just the order of things.
Chapter Twenty-Eight – The Present
Laurie started as the mountain gave a shudder. Loose wires and debris rattled in the wrecked cabin. She shook her head, willing it to stop. From outside, the noise of the strange creatures intensified in urgency.
The grinding settled and Laurie gave a sigh of relief.
One problem at a time. She turned her attention to the wounded man with her.
Donovan’s breaths came in quick, ragged gasps; his eyes wide and looking around aimlessly in fear and confusion.
“It’s okay. It’s okay,” Laurie soothed. She had never felt as alone as she did right then. Lost miles away from friends and family. Her only living company, two terribly injured people, neither of whom were fully conscious.
She was dredging up the vague memories of the first aid classes she’d had to do as part of teaching job. But the point was first aid was for first aid. It was only meant to keep people alive for a short time until an ambulance or experts arrived. Only here, there was no ambulance and she had no idea when rescue would come. She didn’t know how to use equipment to signal for rescue. She didn’t even know what bloody equipment was on board!
She gave a sob of frustration.
Now was not the time to descend into self-pity. She was it and the buck stopped with her. She needed to deal with this. She took a breath and steeled herself.
She looked at the branch protruding from Donovan’s chest. The one thing she did recall was that for this kind of injury she shouldn’t remove it. But it was obvious it was interfering with his breathing. As she listened, she could hear a disturbing gurgling sound coming from deep within him.
“Perry. She stroked the man’s face. From first meeting him months ago, she’d always known him to be a kind and smart man. He never raised his voice. He’d never needed to. And then there was Mack lying next to him, her ebony skin pallid. She was a contrast. She was the stereotype of a gung-ho military pilot. Brash, charming, even swashbuckling, but with a fierce burning intelligence in her eyes and actions. Her gaze fell on the man, Doctor Tsang, who lay in the cabin, his upper half covered by his coat. Someone she barely knew, and now never would, but had stepped up when the fleet had declared a need. No, she couldn’t give up. Couldn’t retreat into herself until help came. She owed them that much.
Standing, she looked around again in at the smashed cabin for anything which would help. Ammunition spilled onto the deck, wiring protruded from the bulkheads, unidentifiable military... stuff was scattered all around.
“That locker. Up there. First aid kit.” She turned to see Mack pointing a trembling finger at a large overhead cabinet. Suddenly, Laurie felt a little less alone seeing the pilot conscious.
Laurie unclasped the cabinet and saw a duffel within. She yanked it out and lowered the heavy red bag to the deck. “Got it.”
She unzipped it. Within was a tightly packed collection of equipment. It looked far more extensive than a typical first aid pack.
“Tell me about the commander,” Mack croaked.
“He’s struggling to breathe. He’s been... he’s been impaled. Mack, I think it might have gone through his spine. I had to move him to get at him. Did I—”
“Okay,” Mack interrupted, her tone authoritative despite the pain lacing through it. “Open his flight suit. Tell me what you see.”
Pulling it open, she quickly cut the t-shirt open beneath with a pair of scissors from the kit. She saw Donovan’s chest was discolored by a huge purple welt, like a bruise. She described the ugly wound to Mack.
“Okay...” Mack said weakly. “I think he might have an internal bleed. Need to drain.”
“How?” Laurie looked at Donovan. His skin was waxy in pallor. He blinked and looked at her, his bloodshot eyes wide. Oh god, he knew what was happening to him. He was conscious. He opened his mouth, gargling as he did.
“Tube. Sharp pointed tube in the kit. Stick it in him. In the ribs.”
“No bloody way!” Laurie whispered. “I need to stab him?”
“Do it. He can’t breathe. Pressure needs to be equal...” Mack’s voice started to fade again. “Just do it.”
Laurie rummaged in the kit, finding a long thin piece of packaging. She quickly ripped it off, revealing a vicious looking instrument. Like a metal straw with the lip of one end filed to a blade.
“Do it,” Mack rasped.
Laurie touched the end to Donovan’s rib cage and gently teased it in. Donovan moaned, his eyes rolling back. His breath getting shorter. One hand beat against his flight suit breast pocket.
“Do it,” Mack repeated. “Hard.”
Closing her eyes, Laurie slid it in. From the other end of the tube, a stream of blood erupted, spattering onto the deck. Donovan’s chest seemed to deflate like a balloon, then his breath began to return to a gargling normality.
“I.... I...” he hissed even as the beating on his breast pocket became more frantic.
He wanted something from it, Laurie realized. She gently pushed his hand aside and pushed two fingers into the pocket. She pulled out what she found. A chain with a small crucifix and a folded piece of paper.
“Here you go.” Laurie placed the crucifix in his hand and unfolded the paper. On it was a picture of Donovan arm-in-arm with a woman she recognized. Tricia Farelly, Atlantica’s head of IT. He relaxed as he felt them in his bloody hand.
“Me now,” Mack croaked. Laurie refocused. “I’ve got an open fracture. It’s causing a bleed but that’s not the major problem. I’ve lost feeling in my hand.”
Laurie moved to squat next to Mack, brushing debris out of the way as she did so. She gently moved the pilot’s left hand out of the way from where she was cradling her right arm.
“I need you to check. Cut my glove off.”
Laurie pulled a pair of surgical scissors out of the kit and as gently as she could, began slicing the glove away, revealing Mack’s right hand. Her fingers were bloated.
“I think the fracture is blocking one of my arteries,” Mack’s voice was faint. “You need to put a tourniquet on my arm, up near the shoulder. You’ll find the bands in the kit. Put them on and draw as tight as you can.”
Laurie slipped the loop over Mack’s right shoulder and drew the loose end back.
Laurie nodded. “Ready?”
Bracing herself with one foot, Laurie hauled back on the tourniquet, tightening the loop. The pilot gave a gasp and arced her back before relaxing back down.
“Fuck me,” Mack sobbed before giving a long exhalation.
“That’s it, babe.” Mack started to fade. “I just needed to be secure until rescue comes. They’ll come.”
Laurie looked at the woman. Her eyes began to close.
“If you’ll excuse me,” Mack said faintly as she relaxed her head back to the deck. “I think I’m going to pass out now.”
Creighton watched the helicopter disappear into the distance, a contemplative, worried look on his scarred face. Neither of those were emotions which Wakefield would associate with his security chief.
Even when he’d been brought into the ship’s small clinic, horribly burned after the attack at Nassau, he’d faced his injury with stoicism. He hadn’t been full of piss and wind, instead insisting he was up to the job of protecting the Osiris. Truth be told, Wakefield had been tempted to leave him behind, but he must’ve become soft in his old age and allowed him to be treated in the Osiris’s small med bay.
And boy was he glad he had. Within a week, the former Special Forces officer was back coordinating his PMC team from his bed in the yacht’s med bay, and a fortnight later was training with them again.
He’d really got what he’d paid for with Creighton. And he hadn’t come cheap.
“Penny for your thoughts.” Wakefield moved next to him.
“I’ve seen him before somewhere.”
“Who? Cohen? The man’s a fixture on Atlantica,” Wakefield said dismissively. “No wonder you’ve seen him around.”
“No, the other one who was with him.”
“Oh... him?” Wakefield shrugged. “That’s Karl Grayson. One of the pirate types. Apparently, he gave Atlantica a pretty hard time when they arrived. But I guess they decided to cut him a little slack.”
The scarred man didn’t respond. Instead, he unhooked one of the rope bollards and walked down the corridor. Wakefield followed behind. To see his very expensive PMC commander looking unsettled wasn’t good.
Creighton entered the security center, a room which had previously been a holding dock for all kinds of rich people’s toys. Except where there were once jet skis and scuba sets, it was now a barracks. It was a cramped, but comfortable billet for the soldiers who made up a good portion of the crew he’d brought with him.
They wound their way past the bunks and stowage to a desk in the corner. Creighton sat in front of the laptop and opened it up.
“Phil, you mind not keeping your boss in suspense here?” Wakefield didn’t appreciate people holding back on him for dramatic effect.
“Look.” Creighton span the laptop toward him. On screen was CCTV footage from the battle at the Nassau dock hangers. A man skidded behind the cover of a crate before smoothly rising to one knee and firing his weapon. His movements were deft, confident, and without any hesitation.
Wakefield knew the two intruders had been good, damn good. They’d avoided the cameras like pros coming in, but exiting they’d had to move fast and hadn’t been nearly so concerned.
Creighton focused the image in on one of them. The man’s face became pixelated before the software smoothed it out. It was marred by black camouflage paint, but the features were the same.
The man who had attacked them was here!
“Shit,” Wakefield muttered. “Grayson? Are you saying that’s the prick who blew your half your face off?”
“Yes,” Creighton growled as he stared at the screen. “Yes, I am.”
Chapter Twenty-Nine – The Past
Cold water filled his lungs. There was no way to orientate himself, no way to know which way was up. For an eternity, he felt himself on the verge of panic as instincts of millions of years screamed at his body to do something, anything.
Then the cool, calculating cortex took over from the ancient and instinctive lizard brain. He was wearing a life preserver. All he had to do was shed ballast.
He closed his eyes, willing himself to stay calm. To keep that panic away.
Grayson slipped the heavy rifle’s harness from around his neck and pulled the magazines from his webbing and let them fall away into the darkness.
His head broke the surface seconds later. His stomach cramped and he violently vomited the sickening salt water in his lungs before he drew in a ragged breath. The air felt beautiful, clean and invigorating. He felt more awake than he’d ever felt before. A combination of the cold water and adrenaline he supposed.
He found himself rising and falling on the sea. The full moon cast a silver glow over the otherwise black sea. A way away, he could see the two burning pyres of the Nassau and the Bahamas. The poor bastards.
But, he was still alive. And if he was, then maybe others would be, too.
“Max?” he spluttered, then called louder, stronger. “Max!”
There. A dark figure rose and fell in time with the silver-tinged waves, highlighted by the moon. He recognized the short-shorn hair on a head slumped into his life preserver. Grayson dipped his head into the water and swam over. Reaching for Dillon, he hooked himself around his body, securing them together in a slowly revolving pirouette.
As his arm wrapped around under Dillon’s shoulders, he felt something strange. He pulled Dillon to him. It was then he realized he couldn’t feel his partner’s left arm. He explored with his numb fingers and touched rags and a bone protruding from Dillon’s shoulder. Lifting his hand out the water, gruesome gobbets of meat slid off his glove.
“Shit,” he breathed. “Max? Max buddy, you still with me?”
They bobbed around each other in a floating dance. His partner’s eyes flickered beneath closed lids. Finally, he gave a groan.
“Max, I need you to wake up.” Grayson slapped him sharply across the face. “Wake up, dammit. Rise and shine.”
Dillon gave a splutter. Blood splattered across Grayson’s face and more trickled in diluted rivulets down his partner’s chin.
“I’ve got to check you over, buddy.” Grayson rested his forehead on Dillon’s brow. “Tell me where you’re hurting.”
“I can’t feel... my back...”
“Okay, looking now.” Grayson pulled away, circled Dillon in a doggy paddle, and re-approached him from behind. He patted down his back. His hand found a ragged mess on his rear right trapezoid. The wound felt the size of his fist.
“Bad,” Dillon spluttered. “It’s bad.”
Grayson gritted his teeth as he felt another crater in the man’s body, this one lower. Yeah, he was fucked. Being riddled with 25mm bullets would do that to a guy. “I ain’t gonna lie, buddy. Looks like you might have to miss training for a few days.”
There were at least three hits, not counting the one that had taken his arm off. It was difficult to assess in the rolling waters, but the through and through to his chest had to have taken out his right lung. The other two were just as bad.
“Hurts... Karl,” Dillon’s voice was little more than a gargle.
“I know, man. I know.” He reached for his radio and pressed the talk button. He needed help, and fast. He’d even take it from Osiris. Hell, they were probably the only ones anywhere near them. Although they were just as likely to shoot them in the water.
One problem at a time.
He looked around. As he crested a wave, he saw distant lights. That had to be her.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday,” Grayson called into his radio. “I am a casualty in the water with at least one other.”
“Karl...” Dillon coughed, this time so violently he almost tore himself from Grayson’s grip. “Legs don’t work.”
“You’ll be fine.” Why the hell was no one responding? “Mayday, mayday, mayday.”
“Karl...” Dillon spat again painfully. He reached and gripped Grayson’s hand with feverish strength. “You’re gonna get him.”
“I will, Max.”
“Good.” Dillon’s head began lolling resting on the preserver shoulder. “Hurts, and I ain’t going to last.”
No, you won’t. “Sure you will. Just need you to stay awake. Can you do that for me?”
“You get him.... Don’t trust military till you do. Compromised.” Dillon’s eyes closed. A last rattling breath left his body. Dillon went limp in the preserver.
Grayson squeezed his own eyes closed for a long moment. His friend. Gone. That bastard had taken him. And this wasn’t it. He would take more.
He snapped his eyes open. Reaching into Dillon’s webbing, he pulled out the water bottle and energy bars within and slid them into his own spare pouches.
Then he released Dillon, letting him drift away.
He twisted to look in the direction of Osiris. She seemed smaller, receding into the distance.
Grayson’s radio crackled and spoke two words, “I’m sorry.”
Who the hell’s sorry? The voice sounded strange, like that of a child. He reached for his talk button. “I say again, mayday, mayday, mayday. Is anyone receiving me?”
There was no answer. The lights of the Osiris disappeared behind a wave. When it broke, the ship had gone.
And that meant Bradley had, too.
I don’t care where you go, how far you run or how fucking sorry you are. Grayson vowed. I’m coming for you.
Pearson cocked his head. Sorry wasn’t exactly the kind of communication he was expecting. The last pass over the two remaining RIBs had utterly obliterated them. The terrorists, whoever they had been, had been sent to Davy Jones’s Locker. Now the two fighters were racing home to claim, as his colleagues in the Royal Air Force would’ve dryly stated, tea and medals. It’d be up to the Navy or Coast Guard to mop up the mess they’d left behind.
“Overlord, say again,” Pearson asked.
“Cobra 1-1, Overlord. Are you receiving, over.”
“Overlord, Cobra 1-1, loud and clear.”
What the hell? They’d been in contact over the battlenet for the whole hour of this mission. Why the hell would he suddenly need to reauthenticate? But, if the man was asking. He would get. “Authentication is Snowdrop.”
“That is sweet. Thank god, Cobra flight.” The relief in Overlord’s voice was palpable. “You’ve been off battlenet for four-nine minutes. What’s your status?”
“Say again, Overlord? We’ve had datalink for the duration.” He glanced down at the multifunction display before him. It was showing they were picking up the datalinks as they should be. And had been for the whole intercept.
“After your scramble and clear and radio frequency switch, you went dark,” Overlord spoke rapidly. “We thought you’d gone down. We have SAR up looking for you now.”
“Overlord, I’m tumbleweed here.” Pearson gave the call he had lost situational awareness. Or more accurately, he didn’t know what the hell was going on. “We’ve splashed your bandits.”
“Say again?” It was Overlord’s turn to ask what the hell was going on. “You’ve splashed bandits?”
“That’s a yes-yes. The two hijacked vessels you identified out of Nassau.”
“Cobra flight, Overlord. That wasn’t us.” Overlord sounded real worried. “We never ordered any targets destroyed. Cease, cease, cease.”
What the hell is going on? “Confirming cease and heading on in.”
Pearson felt a sickening feeling in his stomach as he glanced out the canopy, seeing his wing mate’s F-35 racing next to him back toward Navy Key West.
If they hadn’t been controlled by Overlord, who the hell had been running this intercept?
And just what had they done?
Chapter Thirty – The Present
“Laurie,” Donovan whispered, his voice weak and strained.
She scrambled over to him and knelt on the deck, ignoring the pain of debris pressing into her knees. It must be morning by now, but shaded by the foliage covering the helicopter, the cabin was still dark. She played the light of the flashlight she’d found among the detritus over his face. “Perry, you’re awake.”
His face was pale and his lips blue. She had packed around his wound as much as she could, but the bandages were soaked through with blood and nothing she could do seemed to staunch the flow.
“I’m... going.” His voice was a sigh. “I feel... myself... slipping away.”
“You just need to stay for a little longer, Perry,” Laurie implored. “Rescue must be on its way by now.”
“They’ll come,” Donovan whispered. “They’ll save you.”
“And you, too.”
Donovan’s head shook jerkily. Then he gave a gargling chuckle. Blood frothed from the corner of his mouth. Laurie dabbed it away with the cuff of her sleeve. “I built a spaceship. Always wanted to do that. It was on... my bucket list.”
“Yes, you did.” Laurie took his bloody hand. She could feel his crucifix and the scrunched-up picture in his palm. “And it saved us all. Without you, we might never have found land. We’d never have founded Anchorage and the farms.”
“No, suppose not. But no children though. Always tomorrow...” A tear leaked from Donovan’s eye, trickling down his dirty face. “Always tomorrow.”
Laurie felt around his chest with her free hand, trying to pack the wadding in tighter. Her hand came away painted with blood. “When we get back, maybe you and Tricia...”
“Tell Tricia... sorry.” Every word emerging from his lips was quieter, yet more strained than the one before. “Not Mack’s fault. Tell her that for me.”
“It wasn’t.” Laurie glanced over at the pilot, lying on her back, her chest slowly rising and falling.
“I’m going now.”
“No...” Laurie began. He was giving up. No, that was wrong and unfair. He had fought as hard as he could. Now he just couldn’t any more.
“It’s okay. I go back to him...” His lips twitched into a smile as his head lolled back and his eyes closed.
And then he stopped breathing.
Laurie settled back. She expected to cry. She should have cried at the loss of a good man. But no tears came.
A grinding throbbing resonated through her buttocks. The mountain was shifting again. Maybe it was ready to erupt. From outside, she heard the strange whoops of the creatures prowling around outside increase in frequency.
She shook her head, disregarding it. Yeah, she needed to stay focused on one problem at a time. And only the ones she could deal with.
Jack watched as the pink of dawn spread across the forest racing by at 160 knots below.
“Waypoint one in five minutes,” the pilot’s voice came clearly over the headset intercom.
“Understood,” Jack called back, turning to the man who sat quietly and composed across the cabin. Their eyes met briefly before Grayson returned his gaze to look outside. Jack couldn’t understand him. He wasn’t sure he wanted to. But if he was going to do what Slater wanted—at best, exile him. At worst, execute him—it was up to him to play the part of judge and jury. If only for the sake of his own conscience, he had to know.
Jack reached up and flicked a switch, isolating the intercom to the passenger cabin. “Why?”
“Why what?” Grayson asked, still looking out the window.
“Why come? Why volunteer?” Jack pressed. “Why do you care?”
“About your downed crew?” Grayson turned back to Jack and gave a shrug. “There ain’t that many people left in the world anymore. We have to look after them.”
“You didn’t think that before,” Jack said pointedly.
“I didn’t know that before,” Grayson replied. “Look, you want to know the real reason? Slater has it in for me. Kendricks has it in for me. Those two strike me as the type of people who get what they want. Unless I start showing some value, I’m a dead man walking and that doesn’t bode too well for me or my family.”
Jack leaned back in his seat. It didn’t ring true. The one thing he did know though, was that Grayson was an accomplished liar. How else could he have lasted so long on Atlantica without detection? “That’s not the real reason though, is it?”
“Whatever you want to believe,” Grayson said, turning away briefly again, before looking again at Jack. “Your leg. Where did you lose it? The Vortex?”
Jack felt the color rise to his cheeks in response to the sudden change of subject. Laurie had been good to him, helped him open up about what had happened to him, but still... “I prefer not to talk about it.”
Grayson held his hands up disarmingly. “I don’t mean to pry. Just curious.”
“You think I’m going to talk about private matters to a murderer, saboteur, and terrorist?” Jack snapped.
“Just asking is all.” Grayson shrugged again.
The silence stretched on for a few seconds. Screw him. He can have the gory details.
“Yeah. It was in the Vortex. Six months before we arrived here. Some asshole ISIL Remnant decided to ambush my unit just outside Damascus and blew it off with an RPG. Well, not completely off. It was hanging by a few meaty strands—”
“Six months ago, outside of Damascus you say?” Grayson interrupted, seeming completely unperturbed by the image.
Grayson tilted his head back and gave a chuckle, shaking his head as if at some hidden joke.
“Do you find that funny?” Jack felt himself bristling and his fist clenching. “You find the thought amusing?”
“No, no.” Grayson held up a placating hand, the amusement dropping from his face. “Just a small world is all. I was there at the time, too. Man, it was a hell of a furball over there. The Russians, Allies, Syrians, ISIL Remnant, and everyone else and their dogs getting stuck in.”
“I didn’t think you were that recently in the army?” Jack leaned forward, curious despite himself about this strange man’s past.
“You’ll want to take a look at this,” the pilot broke in over the intercom as the helicopter began banking around. Jack reached up and flicked the panel so he could talk to the cockpit, filing away his questions for later.
“What have you got?” Jack asked, even as he saw what the pilot meant. Below, the glistening crucifix of a downed airliner lay embedded in the green landscape.
“This is the first waypoint,” the pilot replied. “From what you told me, they touched down here and had a look-see before pressing on to the mountain.”
“We know they lifted so we aren’t going to stop here,” Jack said, as much as he was curious about the plane below, they had bigger fish to fry. “Set a direct course for the mountain. Keep an eye out, though.”
“We’re going to be heading beyond communications range of the fleet shortly.”
“Anything you can do to keep it going for longer?” Jack called back.
“Negative, not really. We’re already on the upper limit here.”
“Fine, that’s the hand we’ve been dealt.”
The Airbus swept around, lowered its nose and began thumping toward the mass of the mountain looming that much closer.
“Seahawk 1-1. Seahawk 1-1. Are you receiving us? Over.”
Laurie looked around the cabin, trying to find the radio in the mounds of debris. She crawled into the front of the aircraft where she saw the source of the crackly voice.
The mountain vibrated with increasing regularity while outside, the chattering of the horrible beasts grew louder. It didn’t feel like they were trying to get in yet, but even the noise of the radio seemed to agitate them.
Finding an overhead panel in the cockpit which looked promising, she traced the wire to Mack’s discarded helmet. The radio must be integrated into it. She pulled it out of the foot well and slid it onto her head. “Hello? Hello? Can you hear me?”
“Seahawk 1-1. Let us know if you’re receiving us.”
“Damnit,” Laurie muttered, they weren’t hearing her. She pulled herself onto the cockpit seat proper and looked for a transmit button.
“Press the red stud. On the cyclic, the steering wheel type thing and you can talk,” Mack whispered drowsily from the cabin.
“Hello?” Laurie tried again. “Hello. Can you hear me?”
“Sierra Hotel 1-1. Yes, we can hear you.” Laurie pumped her fist in thanks. “What is your status? Over.”
“We’ve crashed, we’re on the side of the mountain. I’m not sure where.” Laurie glanced through the window, trying to see past the foliage blocking the view. “Please don’t come to close. There’s things in the forest. That’s what caused us to go down when we got near.”
“Laurie?” The voice on the radio had changed.
“Jack!” The relief she felt on hearing his voice washed through her.
“Laurie. Are you okay? Are you injured?”
“No. I mean I’ve got some cuts and bruises but Perry...” Her voice caught. “Perry and Doctor Tsang. They’re dead.”
The silence must only have been a few seconds long, but it seemed to stretch to infinity before Jack finally spoke again. “That’s understood. And Mack? How is she?”
“She’s hurt. Badly. But I think she’ll make it.” From the distance, she could hear the dull thump of rotor blades. “Stop. Don’t get too close. This mountain is infested with some kind of flying creature. We were caught in a cloud of them as they swarmed.”
“Okay, we got it. We’re going to have to find your position, though. And then we need to get to you. Any advice from what you’ve encountered so far?”
“I don’t think those things are that aggressive. Or at least they haven’t tried to get inside to us yet.” Laurie replied, eying the undulating foliage through the shattered window. “But I don’t know whether we can get away on foot with Mack’s injuries.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Jack said in a reassuring tone. “We’ll come get you, sweetheart. But we still need your location. Have you got a flare gun there?”
Laurie looked around the cockpit before looking back at Mack. The pilot had slipped into unconsciousness again. On her flight suit, Laurie saw a pouch and reached back to open it, revealing an orange handle. She pulled the flare gun out. “What do I do with this?”
“No, don’t worry. I’ve got it.” Laurie had noticed a tag hanging from the base of the handle, giving a step-by-step guide. The flare was preloaded, all she needed to do was cock, aim and fire.
“Okay. This is the tough bit. I need you to go outside and shoot that flare gun into the air.”
She looked back at the cabin door. It was buckled, a brutal dent smashed into it. There was nothing for it, she’d have to try going through the smashed cockpit window.
Sweeping the jagged edges away as much as possible, she laid her dirt and bloodstained jacket on the knobby glass teeth before gently prizing branches apart.
Something rustled, then a black chitinous maw pushed through the foliage. Laurie recoiled back, fumbling for Mack’s gun.
Two pincer-like mandibles clicked together and a low eerie whistle emanated from the between them. It was the first time she had seen one of the things as more than the briefest flash of movement, and it was even worse than she could have imagined. The head was the size of a basketball; God only knew how big the body was behind.
She raised her trembling hand, the gun in it as the thing whistled again. It cocked its head to direct one set of compound eyes at her. It started, apparently seeing her properly and recoiled back, whooping as it did. Then, in a flurry of leaves, it was gone.
Letting out a sobbing sigh, she lowered the gun. It took her a moment to process what she’d seen. A deluge of thoughts sped through her mind, then focused on how ugly the creature was before settling on something else.
It hadn’t been aggressive. The way it had looked at her was inquisitive rather than malevolent. And it had left her alone.
That still didn’t mean she wanted to go out there with that thing and its friends. From the sounds of it, there were hundreds surrounding her.
But Mack... she was counting on her.
The creature had left a gap, a small irregular square allowing in a shaft of daylight. Gritting her teeth, she climbed forward, finding herself on the nose of the helicopter. Panels had been ripped off the gray nose cone, exposing the intricate machinery beneath.
She could see the slope of the peak and gave a start when she realized just how precariously the aircraft was balanced on the mountain’s steep gradient. She could also see why Jack was struggling to spot them. The forest was deep here; unless they were at just the right angle, they wouldn’t be able to see the downed helicopter.
“Okay.” She lay prone on the nose, the flare gun held in a double grip pointed straight out from the mountain. “I think I’m ready to fire the flare.”
“Good. We just need to ensure we’re on the right side to spot you. Look straight out away from the mountain. Where is the sun in relation to your position?”
“Err. Just to my right,” Laurie said. “Two o’clock, as I look straight out from the mountainside.”
“Standby a few seconds.”
From the distance, she heard the drone of rotor and then she saw them, a small black speck creeping across the sky. Relief washed through her. They were so close. He was so close. “I can see you. I can see you, Jack.”
“Okay, good. We’re overlooking your aspect. Let it rip, honey.”
Chapter Thirty-One – The Past
The days and nights blurred past. How many, Grayson wasn’t sure anymore. It felt as if he had spent an eternity rising and falling on the gentle swell of the sea. Sometimes he dozed to conserve his energy, sometimes he watched for a sign, any sign of help.
There had been no response on his radio. No ships crossing the horizon, no aircraft in the skies. No other survivors from the Bahamas, Nassau, or the RIBs. Even the fighters hadn’t come back to admire their handiwork.
He lifted the carefully husbanded water bottle to his mouth. The last couple of drops trickled onto his salt-encrusted tongue—more a tease than sustenance. With a resigned sigh, he released the bottle, letting it float away from him. The temptation to take a sip of seawater was nearly irresistible. A little voice in his head whispered for him to just do it. Surely it couldn’t be that bad to just wet his dry mouth? To just take a mouthful and swill it around.
No. To do that was death. Or a quicker death, at least.
The sun beat down unrelentingly. His face felt the prickly heat of an angry sunburn. His stomach felt sickeningly empty. The last energy bar had been eaten ages ago.
Looking at his wrist, he shook his head in dismay. He saw even the GPS built into his watch had given up the ghost. The small screen showed an icon of a satellite struck through with a line, claiming it couldn’t get a satellite lock.
He wanted to just give up. To close his eyes and let himself drift off to sleep. Maybe he should. Maybe this was how this ended for him. Not like he’d always vaguely thought it would, in the deserts of the Vortex, but here in the sea a mere stone’s throw from his home country.
He felt his lids begin to creep shut.
Maybe when he woke up, there would be no more pain and conflict and war.
He started and shook his head.
No, he couldn’t give up.
He had a promise to keep and an account to settle.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday,” he croaked into his radio.
Another night passed and when the sun broke over the horizon, it cast a shimmering red dawn over the sea. Conserving what little energy he had left, he had let his head loll around as he scanned the horizon for salvation.
A shimmering collection of dark blobs moved across the dull pink semicircle of the sun. He squinted, trying to discern what it was. A sunspot artefact as his eyes looked into the light? Maybe it was just a hallucination, plain and simple. A mirage from which there would be no aid or succor.
No, they moved with smooth purpose, and when he looked away, the blobs didn’t stay in his field of vision.
He lifted the radio and keyed the button. He tried to speak, his voice coming out as a thin dry rasp. Giving up, he weakly reached for the flare gun in his preserver’s survival holster and, with a shaking arm, pointed it into the sky.
With a trembling thumb, he pulled back on the hammer.
Please let this be rescue.
He squeezed on the trigger.
With a “whoosh”, the flare scribed an arc of hissing phosphorous.
A small parachute erupted from the top of the projectile and it slowly began bobbing back down toward the surface.
He reached into the pouch for another flare.
Rough hands hauled him onto the deck of the ferry which had pulled alongside him. Too weak to help, he let them maneuver him, content to let his rescuers do the work.
“Well, he is in a sorry state,” a woman’s voice said. She had not an ounce of sympathy in her tone. “What do you want to do with him? Throw him back overboard?”
What the fuck? His head was buzzing with dehydration, and he had that vague feeling his brain wasn’t firing on all cylinders but still, that didn’t exactly sound like the kinda thing a rescuer should say.
Summoning the last vestiges of energy, his hand creeped down his thigh, seeking the vicious serrated combat knife still strapped there.
“No, Kristen,” a Spanish-accented voice replied. It came from the other man silhouetted above him. “You know Eric’s view. That is no longer our... default position. We let him prove his worth or not first, then decide. After all, you never know who he might be and what skills he has to offer our community. If he doesn’t have any...”
The silhouette trailed off with a shrug.
“You’ve become soft, Urbano,” Kristen said. Grayson squinted at her. Steadily, her features resolved from a silhouette to that of a person. Her dark hair was tightly scraped back, and she had hard, angular features.
She was possibly the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.
Grayson relaxed his hand, letting it drop away from his knife’s handle. He felt it thud onto the wet deck. He was real glad he didn’t have to kill this angel.
“Maybe,” the other man, Urbano, replied. “But just look at what Eric has done for us when we gave him the benefit of the doubt.”
“Hmmm,” Kristen gave a dubious retort. She brought a water bottle to Grayson’s lips and he felt a trickle of tepid water enter his dry mouth. It tasted simply divine, even better than a bottle of Budweiser on a hot summer’s day. “Easy. Not too much.”
She popped the cap closed and laid the bottle next to him. His eyes followed. God, he wanted more of that delicious nectar.
“He best be more than just a pretty face,” Kristen said, ignoring him again. Uncaring that he was there and listening.
“Get him up and to the sick bay.” Urbano turned away and gestured at the other figures Grayson saw crowded around.
They fussed around him and he felt an arm slip under his shoulders. With a groan, they hoisted him up. He moved his legs under him, trying to help.
“Easy, you,” Kristen muttered through her effort.
“Thank you,” Grayson croaked. He lifted his head, finding himself looking out over the side of the ferry.
The craft had angled back into a collection of other ships, large and small, ferries and fishing boats, all clustered around a huge supertanker. On top of it, a jury-rigged collection of pipes and tanks belched black smoke.
His addled brain struggled to discern what he was seeing. These ships weren’t all gathered in a harbor.
They were operating as a fleet. A huge, rag tag fleet, sailing across the seas.
Shipping didn’t operate like that. Did it?
“What’s... what is this?” he rasped through his parched mouth.
“My new friend,” Kristen replied from his shoulder. She twisted him away from the railing and into the darkness of a hatch. “You are really down the rabbit hole now.”
Chapter Thirty-Two – The Present
“Who the fuck is Grayson?” Wakefield shouted as he stormed into the undersea lounge. He was angry, real angry. He was supposed to be told this shit so he could plan for it, not have to react to being blindsided.
The boy looked up from his couch. His hands were clasped placidly on his lap, not even flinching before Wakefield’s fury.
He cocked his head, contemplating Wakefield as he paced before the kid’s couch. On the window, a photo ID image of a face, Grayson’s, appeared, obstructing the darting fish behind.
“Karl Grayson. He was commissioned into the US Army in 2010. He subsequently successfully earned his Ranger tab and was posted to the 1st Ranger Battalion where he rose to the rank of captain. He completed the Special Forces Qualification Course in 2015 and joined the 3rd Special Forces Group based at Fort Bragg. While there, he completed several tours, numerous operations and a MA in Political Science. In 2021, he was handpicked by a Colonel Millard to join the CIA’s Special Activities Division Special Operations Group based out of Langley, Virginia. His skills and qualifications list is extensive and varied, however has a particular focus on foreign internal defense, what you might call partisan warfare.”
“Well, thank you for the bio,” Wakefield said scornfully. “But what I really need to know is just what the hell is he doing here?”
“His final mission with the SOG was to investigate John Reynolds, the movement of illegal military grade weaponry, and rumors of weapons of mass destruction.”
Wakefield felt his teeth grind in frustration. This little prick should really have been sharing this information a little sooner than this. “Yeah, well, he was the asshole who attacked us in Nassau.”
“Yes. Following which, he pursued the Osiris to sea having sought the aid from elements of the Royal Bahamas Defence Force.”
“And you didn’t think to mention this prick is hunting us? Why?”
The boy looked at Wakefield for the first time. His eyes calm but piercing. “I wasn’t aware that he was still alive. Two F-35 fighters were tasked to defeat his attempted assault upon the Osiris. I understood that they were successful. This new information suggests he was instead caught in the Higgs-Singlet stream—what you have taken to calling the Locus.”
“Clearly he was.” Wakefield couldn’t keep the exasperation from his voice. “He’s been tagging along with those pirates and managed to make a name for himself as the biggest asshole in the world on Atlantica. And I didn’t know a fucking thing about the fact he’s after us, too.”
“Perhaps if you’d allowed me aboard Atlantica.” The boy raised an eyebrow. “I could have found out he had survived.”
“Always my fault, huh?” Wakefield massaged his temple. The damned thing was, it was his fault. If he’d allowed the boy to watch when he’d first met the fleet leaders, the kid would have had Grayson’s name and probably put it all together. Or maybe he would have just sat on the information and parceled it out when he thought it was important.
The fact of the matter was, Wakefield trusted the kid as far as he could throw him. And throwing him was impossible.
Wakefield tapped on the table touchscreen. The window image of Grayson was replaced by an icon of a green phone receiver ringing for a video conference.
The call was answered. John Reynolds’s face appeared, backdropped by his office wall.
“Can you talk?”
“What do you want, Conrad?”
“I asked, can you talk? That was a not-so-subtle hint that if there’s anyone in there with you, tell ’em to go take five,” Wakefield snapped.
Reynolds leaned back in his chair, his lips pursed for a moment before he spoke. “Conrad. Yes, I am alone and yes, I can speak.”
“Good. Because we have a major problem. What do you know about Karl Grayson?”
“Grayson is one of the pirates who infiltrated Atlantica and—”
“No, I mean from before,” Wakefield interrupted. He already knew what this bastard had done since he got here.
“Before when? By all accounts, he’s been here for years.”
“Before he got here, John? Do you know his history?” Wakefield said quickly, the words spilling out. “The man’s a goddamn CIA agent sent to hunt you—to hunt us—down.”
Reynolds looked away from the screen, massaging his chin. Wakefield gave him a moment to process it. He felt himself calming as he slowly shifted from reaction to action.
“How much does he know?” Reynolds asked finally.
“We have to assume everything.”
Reynolds gave a sigh and looked down. “I knew we wouldn’t get away with what we did, Conrad. Even here.”
“What we did was for the good of humanity.” Wakefield felt another sudden surge of frustration and slammed his fist into the back of the couch. Why did no one get that? Not even John Reynolds, one of his co-conspirators.
“Tell that to the millions we killed coming here,” Reynolds responded in a quiet voice.
“They were dead anyway,” Wakefield said insistently. “When Perses hit, they’d all have been killed.”
“But they would have lived for years before that happened.”
Wakefield felt himself about to rebut, to enter into the same philosophical debate they’d had a dozen times before. And it would have been the same end result. Reynolds would play the hypocritical bleeding-heart card. And they’d get no further forward.
Frankly, why the hell bother?
“We need Grayson gone,” Wakefield settled on, “or we’re going to be in deep shit when the others find out just what happened when we flicked the switch to come here.”
“They’ll find out anyway,” Reynolds said quietly. “You’ve span such a web of lies and half-truths. About the Locus, about the others, about the caches. I mean, Conrad, the bloody caches? What about them? Just when were you going to make them public? When were you going to make all our lives easier? And what happens when you do? You think people are going to be happy that you withheld them?”
“I’ll release them when there’s a need for them.” Wakefield rubbed his temples. He could feel the mother of all stress headaches coming on. But those caches were power. And at the moment, he controlled them by the simple virtue no one else knew about them.
Reynolds gave a bitter chuckle. “And you know you can demand whatever you want for what’s in them.”
“Stop deflecting. You need to deal with Grayson before he becomes any more of a goddamn problem.”
A gilded prison, that was what this place was. Ten girls, held hostage in some billionaire’s fantasy harem. The thump of her feet on the treadmill mirrored the monotony of her life the past few ten weeks. Her days were spent lounging around in one of the few “approved” areas or here in the yacht’s tiny but well-kitted gym, trying to keep the fine food off her hips.
They’d been allowed no contact with the collection of ships they could see through the tinted windows. No shore leave to visit land. The doors to any section Bradley and her fellow “guests” weren’t welcome in were locked with biometric readers. When the crew or guards approached them, they opened. But not for her. And not for the other girls.
They were prisoners. Very well kept, very well pampered prisoners, but prisoners nonetheless.
The only sight they’d had of anyone outside of the yacht was the collection of ships beyond the windows her and her fellow prisoners were trapped behind. Some of the girls almost seemed disinterested, content with living this faux highlife. Others inconsolable.
And then Wakefield had spun some tale about why they were out of contact with their homes and family. That, in order to save their lives, Wakefield had gallantly taken them into the future with him—the unstated reason being it would be for the good of humanity if there were young women aboard.
Lia wanted to call bollocks on Wakefield’s story. It sounded a load of cock and bull—inconceivable, unbelievable.
Yet whatever Wakefield’s strange plan was with this ship, this heavily armed floating palace, either hadn’t yet come to fruition...
Or it had, and this was it.
Lia—Celia Bradley—slowed the treadmill to a walk and swung her arms in wide circles, loosening up before grabbing her towel from the rail and stepping into the small changing room. Like everything in this place, it took opulence to new levels. The finest marble, the swankiest fittings, and all the mod cons.
She tapped on the mirror, opening a touchscreen window and pressed her finger on a tile labeled “Lia Jones”. The shower began hissing out water, warming to her favorite temperature and jetting at the needle-like pressure she preferred.
A gilded bloody prison. Who the hell needs a computer interface for a shower?
She peeled off her t-shirt and shorts and leaned against the basin for a moment. Wherever she turned, there were armed guards. As far as she’d counted, at least a couple of dozen of them. Wakefield seemed to have recruited almost 50-50 men to women among his employees. Maybe that was part of his grand plan to repopulate the Earth.
Well, I suppose it wouldn’t be strange if he was telling the truth. But I’m not sure if I’m willing to believe it yet.
Where were Grayson and Dillon? Even if they’d been taken out, Millard should have sent the cavalry. Unless whoever was dirty at the CIA had somehow dark-holed the mission. But, except for the motley collection of boats and ships out there, there had been nothing. Other than that first night when there had been the unmistakable roar of fighter jets, that was. But that had come to nothing, either.
I need a plan. I’ve been here for the better part of three months and have gotten nowhere.
A soft chime from the interactive mirror caused her to look up. Her heart skipped a beat. Her face reflected back at her, eight words overlaying it.
Celia Bradley. I know who you are now.
Shit! In some detached part of her brain, Bradley felt proud at how composed her face remained. As far as she was aware, this mirror interface had no means of communicating out. No keyboard, nothing. That left only one thing to try.
“My name is Lia, Lia Jones...” she whispered.
The words disappeared, replaced by others. No, it is not.
Holy shit. An image of her Royal Air Force ID card appeared. Her face from ten years ago on it, the collar showing she was wearing dress blues. And damningly, her real name and old rank.
Flight Lieutenant Celia Bradley.
Wait, if Wakefield knows, he wouldn’t play this game. Let’s try a different tack. She gave her most disarming smile. “That’s a fair cop. So, what are you going to do with this scoop?
I have not decided yet.
“Who are you?”
I may contact you again. Please keep this communication secret.
“Your secret is safe with me.”
The words disappeared.
Bradley stood upright and smoothed her hair back, thinking hard.
Was this an ally? Or something else?
Perhaps it was an opportunity.
Chapter Thirty-Three – The Present
The helicopter had come to a hover alongside the vegetation-clad face of the lonely mountain Laurie had indicated she was on.
“Okay, good.” Jack gripped a handle above the cabin door to steady himself as he looked out. “We’re looking at your aspect. Aim up and shoot, honey.”
The helicopter had yawed to present its broadside, to get as many eyes on the mountainside as possible. In the cabin, everyone was pressed against the windows, eyes looking keenly to spot the flare.
From halfway up the slope, a piercing bright red star arced silently up.
“We’ve got you. We have your posi—” Jack broke off then exclaimed, “What the hell?!”
Before the flare had reached the zenith of its arc, a black cloud bloomed out from the side of the mountain and engulfed the burning point of light.
“Laurie? Laurie, are you okay?” Jack pressed the earpiece tight to the side of his head.
“Yes, Yes. I think they all just took off.” Laurie was panting. “They were disturbed by the flare. I’m back inside now.”
“Good. Stay inside. We have your position.”
The slope of the mountain was a dense churning fog of creatures. Jack was reminded of the million strong flocks of starlings which permeated through the USA. Only this was on a much, much bigger scale.
“That explains what downed them. They kicked the hornet’s nest.” Grayson frowned. “Jack, we ain’t flying through that crap. If we disturb them, they’ll rip us apart.”
Jack nodded in agreement and rubbed his eyes. He turned to look up toward the cockpit. “How close do you reckon you can get us without disturbing all that?”
“How the hell am I supposed to know?” The pilot’s voice was exasperated.
“I need your best guess,” Jack pressed, fighting to keep the annoyance out of his tone.
“If they settle again, I wouldn’t want to take us more than... say three miles from the mountain base.”
“Sounds fair enough. Start looking for a landing site to put down.” Jack turned to Grayson. “Time to go for a walk.”
Grayson held his wrist up and looked at his watch. “Considering that terrain, we would probably be struggling to cover a mile an hour, averaging for the slope. We have around five hours of daylight left. Whatever happens, we’re covering the last stretch after nightfall. And it looks like there’s a shitload of horrible nasty things out there.”
“We’re not waiting till tomorrow if that’s what you’re hinting at.”
“Not at all.” Grayson grinned widely. “What I’m saying is we need to stop talking about it and get it done.”
“Fine.” Jack nodded. “Pilot, put us down at the nearest viable landing position. Then I’m going to need you to circle back to within communications range of the fleet and tell them what we’re looking at before coming straight back to us for pick up.”
“You really want to burn that fuel?” Grayson asked.
“Yeah,” Jack replied. “If they lose us, they have to know not to risk anyone else.”
The small rock bluff was as good as it got. Jack, Grayson, and the two other members of the security team watched wearily as the Airbus lifted, yawed around, and tilted its nose down. Within moments, it had disappeared out of view, heading back to the fleet at full speed.
Jack lowered himself down the boulders and scree to the soft earthen ground and drew a machete from his backpack before slinging his rifle over his shoulder.
“Do I get one?” Grayson looked at the viscous blade as the two other security officers dropped to the ground behind him.
Jack simply raised an eyebrow in response, before turning and trotting into the forest. He began hacking with a frantic abandon, forcing his way through the undergrowth.
“I guess not,” Grayson muttered before following.
He was really starting to get the impression that the security chief would be immovable. The only reason he was out here now was in a probably vain hope he’d get access to the fleet so he could do what he needed to do.
But fate had unexpectedly given him another card to play. One which might just get this dour man on side.
“The ambush,” Grayson breathed—he wasn’t out of shape but he sure as hell wasn’t at his physical peak. Even now that he had quit the smokes. “The one in the Vortex.”
“What about it?” Jack had adopted a strange loping jog, swatting and slicing with his machete at an errant bush, each contact making a firm “Thwack”.
“What do you know about the man who set it up?” Grayson ducked under a branch and barreled on, keeping pace with Jack.
“A little bit.” Jack didn’t look back. “They told me he wouldn’t get away with it. That there was nowhere he could run where we wouldn’t find him. And they did.”
Grayson pushed through a bush, barely slowing. “His name was Al Bashari. He was the leader of an ISIL Remnant faction that had somehow not been obliterated between us, the Ruskies, and Assad. They used to call him the Cleaver. The Cleaver of the Vortex. Apparently, it used to be his favorite way of administering justice in Mosul.”
Jack slowed, glancing at Grayson before resuming his pace. “How do you know that? His name didn’t make it into the papers.”
“Because I was the one who they sent to find him and put a bullet in him.”
Jack skidded to a halt. Grayson almost smashed into him as the Marine turned to face him. “They told me they’d sent Special Forces in to arrest him. It went wrong and he ended up dead.”
“It didn’t go wrong, Jack. There was never any arrest attempt.” Grayson looked at Jack intently. He needed him to believe what he was saying. “Tier One operators were dispatched to go get his scalp in response to your ambush. A Marine unit—a US military unit—cannot be attacked without retribution. It’d set a bad precedent.”
Grayson recalled his finger squeezing the trigger. Knowing what he was doing was right. That a bad person would be gone forever from this world. Life was a hell of a lot simpler back then. At home. In the Vortex.
“We couldn’t use a drone strike because of the risk of collateral and besides, PSYOPS said a bullet would be more impactive—more personal. It’d show them we could pick them off with impunity. So, they sent us in for a surgical hit. I was the shooter.”
“If you’re lying—”
“Adil Al Bashari. Forty-seven years old.” Grayson gestured in the direction they were traveling. Jack took the hint and turned and continued through the forest. “He was a minor lieutenant under Bin Laden in Al Qaeda. He was operating in Iraq after the second Gulf War where he got the name of the Cleaver. Following the formation of ISIL, he realized Al Qaeda wasn’t quite extreme enough for his personal brand of misguided bullshit so he switched his flag and rose through the ranks to a cell commander. You tell me, am I lying?”
“That was him,” Jack confirmed quietly.
“If it’s any consolation. I redecorated the shitty apartment where he was shacked up in a nice hue of claret.”
Jack silently pushed on. Grayson could see his shoulders were tight, and the blows of his machete had a fierce intensity to them.
“Why?” Jack cried out in sudden anger, slicing at the branches harder with each blow. “If you were military... how could you do what you did against us, against the Ignatius? Against that kid, Grissom. Why would you do it?”
“I’ve been here a long time, Jack. In this new world, there were new rules. I was good at what I did, one of the best. My training made sure of that.”
“Training?” Jack spat. “Bullshit. Grissom got in your way and you disposed of him like he was nothing. You can’t train that. You’re a fucking psychopath.”
“I wasn’t chosen for my job for my empathic nature,” Grayson replied curtly. He knew that he could do things which were inconceivable to others. That’s why he’d been chosen for the SOG. Hell, it was part of the selection criteria—scoring highly on the psychopathy personality inventory for boldness and meanness, and low for disinhibition. “It’s a bad world out there, Jack. People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
But something’s changed, hasn’t it? Grayson admitted to himself. Since coming here. Since meeting Kristen. Since James and since the Locus.
“Shit!” Jack stumbled as he sliced at a bush and tripped in his agitated distraction. “Shit, shit, shit!”
His left foot was wedged under the branch; the prosthetic stood upright even as he’d gone over. The stump and the metal cup were joined by a strand of material. Jack pushed himself up on his hands in the dirt. Grayson grabbed the prosthetic, squatted down and proffered it to Jack. “You need a hand with that.”
Glaring, Jack paused for a second before grabbing the leg from Grayson. With practiced ease, he began strapping it back on.
“You know there’s no forgiveness. Not from now until the day you die,” Jack said as he finished fixing the leg back into place, staring at Grayson with a fierce intensity. “You’re not just a bastard. You’re a traitor.”
“I don’t want your forgiveness. I just want what’s right by my family,” Grayson said. “They’re why I did what I did.”
“What’s right?” Jack stood and grabbed the machete from where it had stuck, point first into the ground where he’d dropped it. For a moment, Grayson thought Jack would come at him, before he visibly deflated. “We don’t have time to deal with this now. Let’s move before nightfall.”
Reynolds sat in his chair, trying to let the rapid pounding of his heart subside. He was too bloody old for this. He was petrified for Laurie, and now he had the fact Grayson may be on to them thrown at him, too.
Thinking furiously, he worked through actions and consequences. He needed more information. Just as importantly, he needed more options.
Picking up his cell phone, he scrolled through his contact list and dialed a number.
“Admiral, I was about to call you.” Slater’s voice had an odd, tight timbre.
“What’s the matter? Have you heard news?” Suddenly Grayson, the Locus, Wakefield, all those deaths they’d caused didn’t matter anymore. Only one person in the world did. Laurie.
Please let her be okay.
“Yes.” Slater said. “They’ve located the crash site and made contact with the survivors. They’re out of radio range so the helo had to circle back. The rescue party are proceeding on the ground to recover them as we speak.”
Survivors? Reynolds felt a rush of blood to his head. By extension, the word survivors implied that there were also fatalities. He felt himself grow lightheaded as he opened his mouth to speak, little more than a croak coming out.
“No, Admiral Reynolds. No.” Slater said rapidly, in a reassuring tone. “Laurie is fine.”
“Oh thank god,” Reynolds managed to say. “Then who? Who didn’t made it, Heather?”
The phone was silent for an eternity. “Perry, Admiral. He’s gone. And Laurie’s scientist, Doctor Tsang.”
Reynolds squeezed the bridge of his nose. Not Perry Donovan. Why him? There were other, far more deserving people to meet their end. And he’d just been speaking to one of them. “I’m so sorry, Heather.”
“So am I.” Slater’s voice caught. “Jack and his team—”
“Including Grayson?” Reynolds suddenly recalled the other reason for his call.
“Including Grayson, are going to get the rest back. They should be returning soon.”
“You’re not going to pick apart my decision to allow him on the rescue mission as well are you? Frankly, I’ve had enough of that from Liam.”
“I think it needs to be spoken about.” The words tumbled out. He hated himself for thinking of such pedestrian concerns as covering his arse when Laurie was in jeopardy, but... “He’s a criminal and, as we learned, a traitor. We can’t trust a single thing he says. He’s a risk to that mission and—”
“Admiral,” she interjected. “He’s not going to be a problem.”
“What do you mean?”
“The less you know the better. Now, with your permission, Admiral, I have a full plate at this end. Not least that I’ve lost a friend and my executive officer, which means my workload just doubled.”
“Yes,” Reynolds said quietly. “Yes of course, by all means.”
Reynolds hung up the phone and placed it gently back on his desk.
The less I know the better? One didn’t have to have the brains of a rocket scientist to interpret that kind of double talk. Slater had taken unilateral action.
He looked down at his hand, lying on the top of the desk. The knuckles were white, and trembled as if he were freezing cold.
His brain whirled through causes and effects. Action, kill Grayson, consequence, war again with the pirates. A war they would undoubtedly win, but would cost hundreds of lives. Innocent lives. People like Donovan and Doctor Tsang.
But if Grayson were to have an accident as he bravely attempted to rescue the survivors of a downed helicopter... then he would become no longer a symbol of antagonism, but that of unification.
Maybe that would work.
He felt his conscience tugging at him. Again. Before his involvement with Wakefield, in all of his years as a naval officer, he’d never been party to the cold-blooded murder of someone. Yes, he’d killed in battle, but that was different. It hadn’t stopped him from sleeping at night.
But this? This just might.
He shook his head. No, Grayson was himself a murderer. This wasn’t just covering his own arse. It was justice being served.
Maybe if he kept telling that to himself he would believe it.
One foot in front of the other. Left, right. Left, right. The stump of his leg was chafing in the punishment of the last mile of hard marching. But that was nothing compared to the turmoil within.
His thoughts slammed from concern over Laurie to the still-raw recollections of that day, months ago, when he’d had a part of his body violently removed. He could still feel that searing pain. Still recall when he’d first woke in Queen Elizabeth Hospital in England. Just before he’d been transferred home. Looking down, seeing the terrifying flatness of the sheet covering where a leg should have been. Being told by a doctor, who looked at him with pity in his eyes, that something bad had happened. Something that would change his life.
Then on his return to the US, the brutal suggestion by his former fiancée that she didn’t want him anymore. That she’d found someone new. Yeah, right. He’d seen her look at the sheet, where his leg had been.
He still found himself gritting his teeth in random surges of rage at the loss, demanding to know from God or fate, why him?
He’d been in combat before that day, where people had been hurt bad. Never had he thought that moment would come to him. Never had he thought he was going to be one of those poor bastards stretchered off the battlefield missing chunks while the rest of the squad looking on. He’d been there, staring and feeling that pity that his comrades’ lives had been wrecked, feeling a guilty relief it hadn’t been him.
Then it had been him. The one who the rest of the squad would have looked at like that.
And the person who’d gained him a modicum of justice was a fucking traitor. What the hell was he supposed to say? “Thanks, man. I owe you one?”
He took another swipe at a branch, transferring all his rage into the blow.
Focus. His mission was to recover the woman he loved. He couldn’t let himself get distracted by this. Not now.
Another slash, thwack.
And then, once that was in the bag, his mission was to deal with the traitor.
Chapter Thirty-Four – The Present
Jack gave a final slash, and the four of them jogged into a small clearing. Dark earth covered the ground and a curtain of green foliage surrounded them.
From all around them came the clicks and whistles of unseen creatures. Jack and his two officers unslung their rifles and swept them left and right as they moved through the clearing. Above them, the mountain rose into the sky, looming over them.
From beneath Grayson’s feet came a slight tremor. It didn’t feel like an earthquake, more a constant vibration permeating through the ground setting his teeth on edge. He’d never been near a volcano about to erupt, and he’d never heard this phenomenon described before either.
A flurry of leaves in the foliage was met with a trio of weapons pointing at the source.
“What the hell are these things?” a nervous officer murmured, his rifle trained with trembling hands. Grayson winced. They needed to be made of sterner stuff in this world.
Grayson brought a finger to his lips before raising a fist in the air. Jack nodded, understanding the hand sign. So, fortunately, did the other as they dropped to their knees and took cover positions. Obviously, Jack had been spending the time training them where he could.
Slowly, he approached the source, a dense clump of foliage. Right about now, he’d have given a king’s ransom for a weapon. Still, considering the nervous looking Atlantica crew, it might not have been a great idea if they thought he was getting cute. Especially if they knew what he’d managed to secrete a flare gun from the Airbus’s survival kit in his pocket while the others were distracted.
Gingerly, he moved a leaf-clad branch to one side. He didn’t want to be a threat to whatever was in there but they damn well needed to know what they were facing.
A bulbous chitinous head poked rapidly out. Grayson fought every instinct not to recoil in horror. Its mandibles clicked together and it gave a whistle, then a strange whooping noise. It launched itself out of the forest and thudded down to the soil a couple of yards away from Grayson’s legs, revealing itself in its full, disturbing entirety.
It was the length of a good-sized German Shepherd. Long leathery wings folded back onto its body. From what Grayson could see as it cantered its head toward him and gave another whoop, it seemed spindly, not nearly as massive as it first appeared.
Slowly, he approached it again, to be met by another whoop. He stopped. Then edged forward again, only to be met by another whoop and it backed off in a skitter.
“You making friends?” Jack’s voice was a whisper.
Grayson turned to Jack who was sighting along his rifle at the creature.
“What does that noise sound like to you?”
“Like it doesn’t like you very much,” Jack hissed back. “Which I can sympathize with.”
“No.” Grayson sucked his teeth and edged forward.
They came with increasing regularity as he closed. Then as he backed off again, they reduced in frequency. The noise sounded familiar, like a scaled-up bat’s cries.
“It’s sonar,” Grayson murmured. “This thing’s using echolocation for distancing.”
“That’s fascinating, but if it’s not going to eat you, let’s go.”
The man had a point. Grayson nodded his agreement and backed away. From beneath his feet, the vibration grew into a rumbling grinding. The creature inclined its head to the air and its mandibles chattered. From all around a siren-like howl emerged. The rustle turned into an all-pervasive cacophony of calls and whoops. The creature launched itself into the air and flittered skyward through the trees. A second later, a vertical torrent of its kin erupted from all around, turning the sky dark.
The noise from above was piercing as thousands of the creatures swirled around in the sky. Grayson had been wrong about the starling analogy. These things were in swarms which made those flocks seem stark in comparison.
“Come on. Let’s double time!” Jack shouted through the racket.
“Agreed,” Grayson called back. “I think this is our cue to haul ass.”
At a jog they started forward, leaning into the abrupt base of the mountain as it rose in gradient while above them the roiling dark cloud of creatures cast a shadow over them.
Vibrations coursed through the hull. Mack gave a low moan of pain as they transferred through her body to her arm.
“It’s okay, it’s okay.” Laurie tried to sooth the injured pilot. Night had fallen early outside, or so it seemed. There had been a rush of activity from the swarming creatures outside, then the light seeping through the foliage had cut off. “They’ll be here soon.”
Laurie had the gun gripped hard in her hand, for whatever good it would do. It must have contained, what a dozen bullets? Maybe a few more? There looked to be thousands if not millions of the bloody things out there. Yet the small weapon provided some measure of reassurance from the noise outside.
She gave a start as something banged insistently on the hatch. She raised the weapon and pointed it. Her hands were trembling. She had never fired a gun in her life. The blade on the front of the weapon refused to stay lined up with the slot on the rear sights. But, she told herself, at least it was at close range and she couldn’t miss. Could she?
“Laurie. It’s me.”
“Oh god!” Laurie gave a sobbing laugh as she heard Jack’s voice outside. “The door, it’s damaged. You’ll have to come in through the cockpit.”
A minute later came the noise of grunting, and Jack squeezed in through the shattered window and landed on the deck. Laurie grabbed him, hugging him tight. “You’re here. Thank god you’re here.”
“I know.” Jack planted a kiss on the top of her head before pulling her off him. “How’s Mack?”
Jack awkwardly knelt next to Mack and ran his fingers over her arm, exploring the damage. “How you feeling?”
Through her pain, Mack spared him a sidelong glare. “How the hell do you think I’m feeling?”
“Probably like shit.”
“Bingo.” Mack tried to pick herself up before collapsing back to the deck.
“Mack,” Jack said as he threaded an arm under hers. “We’re going to have to move, and fast. We’re probably not going to be able to be too delicate with you.”
“Just do it,” Mack said. Her eyes widened as she looked over Jack’s shoulder. She fumbled a hand toward Laurie, trying to take the gun out of her grip. Laurie snatched her hand back instinctively. “What the fuck is he doing here?”
She turned and saw who Mack was looking at. Grayson dropped onto his haunches in the cabin. “Him?”
“He’s come to help,” Jack called over the din from outside. “We’ll have to explain later. Grayson, take her.”
Laurie gave a tight nod as she moved to one side of Mack, placing an arm round her and trying to pull her up. Grayson twisted next to her and took her other side.
“Get your fucking hands off me,” Mack snarled in rage and pain.
“Lieutenant, not now,” Jack said. “Please.”
She gave an animalistic growl, before acquiescing with a reluctant nod.
Mack yelped as they started to pull her toward the cockpit. Jack turned to the bloodstained coats which covered body-sized lumps. Jack slipped them down, exposing Donovan and Doctor Tsang’s pale, waxy faces.
“Jesus,” he murmured, shaking his head.
“We have to bring them,” Laurie said as they squeezed into the cockpit. A pair of hands gently began pulling the pilot through the window, taking her off their hands.
“We can’t,” Grayson grunted as he pushed on Mack’s legs.
“No!” Laurie shouted. “We can’t leave them here.”
Jack stood, wobbling as the helicopter hulk vibrated. “He’s right. If we could, we’d bring them, but they’ll slow us down and our priority has to be with the living.”
Laurie felt a pain-filled cry of frustration escape her lips. She looked up as Mack disappeared through the window. She knelt next to the two bodies and brushed each of their foreheads. “I’m sorry.”
She felt a tear trickle down her face.
“Come on.” Jack gently pulled her onto her feet.
Together they turned to the cockpit and Jack began pushing her up to get her over the lip. Grayson’s face appeared in the window. “The pilot is saying something about a flight recorder memory stick from that airliner? She reckons it could be important intel.”
Laurie looked around and pointed at the bright orange case lying disregarded where it had fallen in the cabin. “There.”
Jack flipped it open and took a second to look over it. “Grayson, you seen one of these before?”
“Should be a slot with a solid-state memory stick in it,” he called back. “Yank it. It’ll contain the flight recorder data.”
He saw the port and pulled the tiny storage device. He thrust it into his pocket. “Got it. Let’s go.”
Together they thudded onto the steep incline of the mountainside. All around them creatures spiraled to the ground. The moment they touched down, they leapt back into the air, as if it the very ground was roasting hot.
“Laurie, you and Grayson take Mack. We’ll make sure these things don’t try and get to close.”
In a stumbling run, the six of them began scrambling down the mountainside.
Chapter Thirty-Five – The Present
They left the shadow of the swirling, shrieking swarm and arrived at the clearing where the helicopter sat, its blades spinning with a throbbing noise.
“Get on board. Quickly.” Jack gestured up the fuselage toward the cabin door. The others stumbled forward toward escape.
Jack turned to face the dark cloud, the edge of which pulsated a mile away steadily creeping toward them. They’d made good time, better than expected, sneaking in and arriving back to the helicopter just as night began to fall. The red of sunset washed over the lush landscape, giving the cloud a surreal glow.
The vibrations of the ground had continued. If anything, they had increased in frequency. The mountain’s edge began to shimmer from the intensity.
Without any more warning, black lava began to spill from the peak, trickling down the mountainside with alarming speed. The cloud above them sprang in reaction, spreading out from the mountain like an organic shockwave rippling out from the peak.
Grayson stood next to Jack by the rear of the helicopter, looking in the same direction. It didn’t look like any of the flying creatures were bothered by the aircraft—in fact they were just plain ignoring them as the last few stragglers surged past. But whatever the hell that black stuff was, it was going to overrun their position in less than thirty minutes at the speed it was flowing.
He heard the clunk of a rifle being made ready and glanced over at Jack.
The Marine stood, his weapon pointed at Grayson’s face, his finger wrapped around the trigger. The look on Jack’s face one of steely determination and resolution.
So, that’s how it is.
“I thought you let me come on this mission a little too easily.” Grayson felt his lips twist into a sardonic smile. “So, you’re the attack dog for Slater and Kendricks? Or have you just been with Wakefield since the beginning?”
“This is none of Wakefield’s business so don’t try with your smoke and mirrors.” Jack had the slightest of a catch to his voice, as if his throat was dry. “You’ve got two options. Walk away from the helicopter and never return to the fleet. Or...”
“Or?” Grayson turned fully toward Jack, letting his hand dangle casually next to his pocket. He genuinely looked like Wakefield’s name was an irrelevance to him. There went that theory. But he didn’t dispute the Slater or Kendricks link.
“I don’t want to do it,” Jack replied. “But I will if I have to.”
“Or?” Grayson repeated. He looked at the man, trying to discern his intent and his resolve. At the moment, that resolve looked disturbingly... resolute.
“Or I’ll shoot you.”
“You’ll shoot me, will you?” Grayson snorted. “In cold blood?”
“You’ll squeeze that trigger? Kill me? Watch my brains splatter over that there ground?”
“Yes.” Jack’s voice had grown firmer again.
So, this was the moment. He’d heard about the disabled Marine in action. Heard about how lethal he was. Bautista even shook when he’d told him about the battle on Atlantica.
But a cold, ruthless killer? He doubted it.
“You won’t do it.” Grayson tried to sound more certain than he felt right now.
His hand had sneaked into his pocket and he closed his grip around the flare gun’s handle.
“You’re a cold-blooded murdering bastard and I don’t have an ounce of sympathy for you—”
“I’m a Captain in the US Army—” Grayson interjected. It was now or never. He finally had to come clean.
“A traitorous murdering bastard, sir,” Jack spat the honorific. “And—”
“Attached,” Grayson raised his voice over Jack’s. “To the CIA Special Activities Division—Special Operations Group.”
Jack cocked his head, his rifle muzzle lowering a few degrees before he recouped himself. “Even if you are SAD/SOG, then that’s the old world. It doesn’t account for your actions here and now and what you did—”
“Assigned to investigate one Admiral John Reynolds, retired,” Grayson pressed on.
The muzzle of Jack’s rifle lowered slightly again. “Bullshit!” he snapped.
Grayson glanced at the mountain. The black lava had spilled halfway down the mountain. He locked his eyes on Jack’s. “And, as I later learned, Conrad Wakefield.”
“You’re lying about the admiral. Wakefield I can believe but... not the admiral.” Grayson saw a look of uncertainty flash in Jack’s eyes. A crack in his armor. A crack he could exploit. He released his grip on the flare gun and casually drew his hand out his pocket as if it had never been there.
He held up his hand, his palm open, demonstrating he wasn’t moving as a threat, then reached down into the front of his pants, ignoring the flash of confusion on Jack’s face. He pulled out the folded sheaf of papers secreted down there and extracted the printout of an image. “You tell me. Is this bullshit?”
Grayson held it up to Jack. On it was the picture he had taken of the meeting at the Carlton Club. Wakefield presiding over a meeting of a dozen men and women. Sitting prominently near the billionaire—John Reynolds.
Jack stepped forward, holding his weapon in one hand still pointed at Grayson, and pulled the paper from Grayson’s grip. His eyes darted to the page.
“Why we’re here, how we’re here, in this time, Jack. He’s in on this. He always has been.”
“This could be fake?” Jack murmured in disbelief. “You could have faked this.”
“On what? You think the computers on the Titan have Photoshop on them? They barely have Windows. And why? Why would I do that?” Grayson said, letting his voice take on an earnest urgency.
“I don’t fucking know!” Jack shouted with sudden anger. “You tell me.”
“I’m going to need you to trust me, Jack.” Grayson slowly reached into his pocket again and pulled out the flare gun with his fingertips, making it clear he wasn’t doing it as a threat. Jack gritted his teeth, drawing the rifle back fully into his shoulder. Grayson slowly knelt and placed it on the floor. “I took that from the Airbus, just in case. I could’ve used it on you at any point.”
“Okay. Speak,” Jack growled. “But the second I think you’re lying...”
Grayson glanced at the mountain. The darkness pouring down it in black rivulets. It must have reached the crashed Seahawk’s altitude. At most they had twenty-five minutes before it reached them. Whatever the hell it was.
Personally, Grayson didn’t particularly want to be around to find out.
He had to talk fast. “This all started after I returned from the mission to take out Al Bashari...”
Laurie gently massaged Mack’s shoulder, darting the occasional look outside. What was keeping them? They’d disappeared out of view around the back of the helicopter.
Minutes ticked by then, finally, Grayson sprang into view, climbing into the cabin. A pale-looking Jack stepped up behind him. The two men took their seats in the interior.
“Are you okay?” Laurie reached and gripped Jack’s hand. He recoiled slightly before relaxing and letting her. He’d never done that before. Never seemed scared of her touch. Did she just stink from her long days trapped on the mountain? No, he wasn’t that shallow. “Jack?”
“We have to move.” He swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down as he gave a swallow. “Now.”
The helicopter rocked as it lifted, the ground receding away beneath them.
Laurie shook her head at Jack’s strange attitude, disregarding it. For the moment. She pointed out the window. “We have to know what that is.”
Jack nodded, grabbed a pair of binoculars from the storage locker, and looked through the window. Laurie’s saw a muscle tense in his cheek as he gritted his teeth. He proffered the binoculars at her. “Take a look.”
The black wave sprang into view. From this distance, the bulk seemed to be an amorphous churning mass, but as she swept her view to the leading edge she gave a gasp.
Beneath them was a roiling horde of giant insectile creatures, spreading across the vista. From what she could see, they were devouring the forest as they went. They seemed to be the same type as the creatures they had disturbed, but these were even more massive. Maybe they were adults, grounded by their sheer bulk.
She cocked her head, her analytical side at work. They couldn’t be true insects as they knew them—their means of respiration limited the size they could grow to. More likely these creatures were a strange new life form which had evolved in the last ten million years.
She looked back at the mountain. On the few patches now not covered in darkness, she saw it had been stripped clean of vegetation, leaving nothing but rock and soil.
She squeezed her eyes closed. Perry. Doctor Tsang. Had they just been devoured? Had they left their corpses to be eaten?
And then a terrible realization hit her. This was why the downed airliner had no one in it. All those people and the plane’s carcass picked clean of any material which could be digested. That was what had happened to them. Why they had disappeared.
The mass continued flowing out. Instead of lava, this mountain was erupting a voracious swarm. Whether these creatures had tunneled out a mountain, or somehow created it, it dawned on Laurie what she was looking at. A hive. A vast bloody hive.
“We may have a very big problem here.”
“So I see,” Jack replied. “You think it might get as far as us? As the fleet.”
“I don’t know, Jack.” Laurie lowered the binoculars. The mountain continued spilling the creatures. “But it doesn’t look like they’re stopping coming.”
The helicopter yawed around, lowered its nose, and sped home without regards for fuel efficiency. They needed to get back. And fast.
Chapter Thirty-Six – The Present
Night had fully fallen as Slater walked onto the flight deck atop Atlantica’s bow. She saw Kendricks, talking to Doctor Emodi, the admiral with them. The medical team surrounded them with stretchers at the ready. The captain turned as she approached him.
“ETA is five minutes, Heather.” Kendricks reached up and squeezed her arm briefly.
She nodded, clasping her hands behind her back to stop a nervous worrying on her fingernail. Her stomach still churned at the thought of what she’d asked, no ordered, Jack to do. But not as much as the thought of her officers hurt and dead.
The news about Perry had left a gaping, sickening hole in her stomach. Her friend, confidant, and right hand was gone. Her XO.
Atlantica had the best medical facilities in the fleet, and that meant the rescue helo was coming in here. Wakefield’s strange insistence it go straight back to the Osiris had been overruled in no uncertain terms.
Doctor Emodi began pacing back and forth on the deck, speaking away on his radio in his singsong voice—talking to someone on the helicopter, getting as much advanced information on Mack’s condition as he could.
Finally, he gave the radio back to a crewman and approached Kendricks and Slater. “Fortunately, I do not believe the Lieutenant McNamara will be a critical case...”
“But?” Slater raised her eyebrow. A carefully affected expression for when she was asking a question and wanted an answer.
“But I am not going to give a pre-diagnosis,” Doctor Emodi said. “I want her down in the infirmary stat.”
“You do what you need to do, Doctor.” Kendricks gripped the small man’s shoulder for a second. “And anything you need. Anything at all.”
The thumping noise of a helicopter’s blades washed across the bay, rapidly growing in tempo. Within moments, the Airbus was hovering above them before gently settling onto the pad.
The rotors swung to a halt and the door slid open. The medics rushed to the woman being gently led out, clutching her arm to her chest. They laid her down on the stretcher and began wheeling her across the flight deck.
Slater jogged to the stretcher and matched pace alongside.
“Ma’am,” Mack croaked. “I lost another one. I lost another helo.”
“Don’t you worry about that,” Slater said.
“But Perry and the doctor, ma’am.” Tears leaked from the corner of the pilot’s eyes. Slater felt her gut wrench, horrified at the sight of the steely pilot so upset. She never thought she would see the carefree Mack in this state. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Slater felt her own tears threatening to escape. She squeezed her eyes shut, forcing them back. What Mack needed, what they all needed, was strength right now, not a tearful leader. “Now’s not the time, Lieutenant. We need you to concentrate on you.”
She stopped, letting the stretcher continue inside the cruise ship.
She turned back to the helicopter, seeing Laurie being led toward the hatch by another medic, a blanket and Admiral Reynolds’s arm around her shoulders, leading her inside.
And then, there he was—Grayson, standing in the helicopter’s hatch, looking calmly around. She felt rage building in her and gritted her teeth. She stormed back toward the helicopter as he dropped to the deck. Jack appeared in the space he’d vacated then followed him down.
Both men crossed the wind-swept flight deck, toward where she stood with Kendricks.
“Before you ask, Captain.” Grayson looked at her, his eyes calm and piercing. “I managed to talk him out of it.”
“Talked him out of what?” Kendricks asked, his expression one of confusion and anger, clearly aimed at seeing Grayson once again on his ship.
“Out of that little side mission she’d ordered.” Grayson inclined his head toward Slater. “Or was it both of you?”
“Jack, why is he here?” Slater growled, ignoring him.
“Ma’am, you have to listen to him,” Jack said quietly. “We have a problem. In fact, two very big problems.”
“What side mission?” Kendricks interrupted. “What the hell is he talking about?”
Light seemed to dawn a moment later for Kendricks and he turned to Slater. “What did you do, Heather?”
“It doesn’t matter now,” Jack said. “What matters is—”
“Heather, I asked, what did you do?” Kendricks repeated his voice low.
“I said I didn’t want Grayson to come back.” The words blurted out of her before she could stop them. Hours of repressed guilt erupting as surely as that goddamn mountain just had.
“Christ, Heather.” Kendricks gestured at Grayson. “You promised. You promised you wouldn’t do that shit.”
“And you said, as I recall, you wanted to hang this traitor from a yardarm.”
“You’ve got a ship with missiles and guns and bombs,” Kendricks said angrily. “What if I pissed you off, Heather? Would you blow me away? Would you blow Atlantica away? You said, dammit, that you would put this asshole in front of a firing squad but only after going through a court of law, not that you would murder him.”
“And you said if he got on your ship, you would detain, try and execute him,” Slater snapped back. “Look at where he is now. On your flight deck.”
“It’s only because of you this bastard has managed to get back on my ship,” Kendricks responded in a cutting tone.
“Guys,” Grayson said. “I am still here, you know.”
“Shut up!” Slater and Kendricks shouted in unison.
The moment was broken. Slater looked at Kendricks. His lips curled angrily in response before he turned away. She felt a tug on her heart. She’d never seen the steady man angry before and now, the only other friend she had in the fleet looked on the verge of disowning her. But what she’d ordered had been right... hadn’t it?
“Stop. Now,” Jack spoke like a drill sergeant addressing day-one recruits. “Look. At the moment, we have bigger problems. Much bigger problems. The first and most immediate of which is that volcano erupting with a horde of giant insects.”
“Fine.” Kendricks waved his hand. “We’ll talk about Grayson later. Right here and now, though, we may need to evacuate those on land to the ships and consider withdrawing away from the coast to a position of safety.”
Kendricks pulled his phone out of his pocket and tapped away a text. A moment later, Slater felt her phone buzz in her pocket. She glanced at it. Kendricks had called for a general meeting of all senior officers and ship captains in forty-five minutes
“Okay, let’s break the news to the admiral.”
“About that,” Jack said, scratching his neck and exchanging a look with Grayson. “That’s the second problem.”
“What do you mean second problem?” Kendricks said, exasperation in his voice. Slater felt it too. She was used to juggling lots of balls, but problems were coming thick and fast right now.
“Take a look.” Jack pulled the photograph Grayson had given him out of his jacket pocket and handed it to Kendricks. He looked at it for a moment. His eyes widened as he took it in before he silently handed it to Slater.
“What is this?” Slater cocked her head as she regarded it. The rollercoaster of the last hour had left her numb as she took in the picture. It showed a collection of people surrounding a table, crude notes in pen denoting who they were. Wakefield was one, and Reynolds another.
“This,” Grayson said, “is a photograph taken a few days before the Locus event, Captain Slater.”
“I think you better explain yourself.” Slater felt her previous rage being replaced by confusion. Just what did this mean?
By the time Grayson had finished telling a much-abbreviated version of his story, Kendricks had gone pale, while Slater could feel her heart beating like a drum in her chest. It couldn’t be. This couldn’t be true.
But the story held together, or at least as much as Grayson had told so far.
“So that’s why you never approached us in the years we were on Nest Island.” Slater realized. “As far as you were concerned, we were compromised. You didn’t know whether we were under Wakefield’s control.”
“Ma’am,” Grayson said, “Last time I had dealings with the US Navy, you tried to blow my ass out of the water. And you succeeded with my partner.”
“Why are you trusting us now?” Slater asked. “Why not just get at Reynolds when you were aboard last time?”
“I didn’t even know he was on the damn ship. Look at the size of this thing. I only started putting the pieces together once the Osiris arrived. Then all I wanted to do was get back on the ship, confront Reynolds, and then go get my other team member, Celia Bradley.” Grayson nodded his head toward the superyacht in the distance, moored to the pier. “She’s on there somewhere, in Wakefield’s little harem. I hoped helping on the rescue mission would mean I got cut a little slack and I could start that ball rolling.”
“You would never have gotten back on Atlantica,” Kendricks said quietly.
“Well I certainly wasn’t getting on board the Osiris. They’ve had that yacht locked down since they arrived,” Grayson replied. “And you never wondered why?”
That old bone of contention. A foilable of Wakefield’s they had been willing to accept just because it hadn’t been something they thought worth the fight. It had been placed firmly in a box with a sticky label on it saying: “Deal with it another day.”
But someone else could have been involved.
“What about Laurie Reynolds?” Slater asked.
Jack looked down.
“Her name never came up during the course of our investigation,” Grayson responded for him. “She may be in on it. She may not and simply be along for the ride. I don’t know.”
“So, what the hell do we do?” Kendricks asked. “We’re taking the word of a murderer on face value, here.”
“He’s going to have to come in. We need to get his side of the story.” Jack’s eyes squeezed shut. “And so will she.”
“I can get my crew to do it.” Slater touched Jack’s shoulder. To arrest his girlfriend and her father was so far beyond having a personal interest in a mission it was ridiculous. Had they been home, there wasn’t a chance it could be entertained.
But they weren’t home.
“No, I’ll do it.” Jack looked over at where the mountain was distantly illuminated by the full moon. “But, one thing at a time.”
“Agreed,” Kendricks said. “We have a more critical and pressing problem at the moment, but in the meantime, I have an idea... oh shit, Tricia.”
Slater squeezed her eyes shut at the thought of Donovan and Tricia Farelly’s blossoming romance being so brutally cut short.
Kendricks entered the bridge and saw the ship’s head of IT staring at her screen. Her face was pale, her lips squeezed into a thin line. He tapped her lightly on the shoulder and inclined his head toward his office. She silently stood and followed him.
He let the door swing shut and took her by the upper arms. “How are you holding up?”
The woman nodded in response and gave a slight swallow. “I can’t believe it, Liam. I just can’t.”
“I’m sorry, Tricia. I know you and Perry were close.”
“We were... we were courting, or so he said.”
Kendricks gave a sigh. Trust Donovan to have been all gentlemanly about it. “I know.”
“He didn’t even call it dating.” Farelly gave a sniff, looking up into the corner of the room with red-rimmed eyes. “I just wanted him to hurry up. God, he was the kindest, smartest, gentlest man in the fleet.”
Yes, and one of its fiercest warriors when called to it, Kendricks thought. “Do you need a little time off?”
“No, god no,” she blurted with a sobbing laugh, looking up toward the ceiling as she did. “He would have hated me taking god’s name in vain, you know. Look, I just need to be busy, especially with what’s happening.”
“Okay, Tricia. I get that.” Kendricks thought for a moment. What he was going to ask for, he needed someone he could trust. “I have something to ask. Something odd, but really important. I can’t tell you the why of it just yet and it has to be totally confidential.”
She frowned, the confusion apparent on her face. “What do you need?”
“I need you to put a tap into Admiral Reynolds’s and his daughter’s phone lines. Can you do that?”
“Yes, easily enough. Everything goes through the ship’s cellular array. But—”
Kendricks took her hand and held it. “Please, just trust me on this one. And set it up so only I can listen in to it. There’s something not quite right with him, and I need to clear him, or get evidence.”
“Okay, Liam. I mean, Captain,” she said slowly. “But I don’t like it.”
“Neither do I, Tricia, neither do I.” He patted her shoulder, trying to reassure the woman.
The problem was, he didn’t think he had any reassurance left to give.
Chapter Thirty-Seven – The Present
Bautista nodded his greeting as he entered Atlantica’s conference room and took the seat Reynolds gestured to.
The occupants were grim-faced and taunt, the tension in the room palpable. That fit with the information Bautista heard as he was coming from the coast. They’d lost people on the expedition.
Laurie sat next to Reynolds, wrapped in the same blanket she had brought off the helicopter. The rest of the places were filled with senior officers and the other ship captains from around the fleet.
“Thank you for coming, Urbano.” Reynolds nodded a greeting. “We’re just waiting for Conrad.”
Slater stared down at the table, lost in her own thoughts. Kendricks tapped his fingers in agitation on the table. Jack looked drawn, as if he’d aged ten years in the few hours he’d been away. Only Reynolds seemed his regular, implacable, self.
The minutes stretched on. The room silent before finally Reynolds glanced at his wristwatch. “We can’t wait on him forever.”
He stood up, placing his hands behind his back. His commanding presence instantly caused the others to look at him—or to him.
“We face a problem. Our expedition inland has suggested there may be an existential threat to Anchorage, our community, and our fleet.” Reynolds started. “My dear?”
“Thank you.” Laurie stood. “As you are all no doubt aware, several days ago we started seeing signs that the mountain fifty miles or so from our position appearing to erupt. We were viewing dense clouds of what looked to be smoke emanating from the peak. We have new information and now no longer think that is the case.”
Laurie tapped on the conference table. Before each person, a series of images began flashing through. “The ‘smoke’ is actually clouds of a kind of flying creature. They appear to flock and in huge numbers. This is what brought down Lieutenant Mack’s aircraft.” Bautista saw Reynolds give a tolerant smile at Laurie’s misspeak of her rank and call sign. “However, they do not appear to be otherwise aggressive. Touch wood.” She tapped the table with a forefinger. “They aren’t the problem. These, however, are.”
The image switched to a video clip of the black lava pouring down the mountain. “It is my belief that this mountain is either a constructed hive, akin to a termite mound, or is an existing geographical feature adapted as such. The creatures spilling out, we think, are the mature versions of the flying ones and together, they fill a similar evolutionary niche to that of the locusts from our time. They will devastate the local eco system.”
Once again, she tapped the table. Another video clip came up. “This is the camera footage from All-American Flight 172, which we’ve established crashed just inland around seven years ago.”
The camera was designed to pick up what happened in the cockpit, not outside. Still, the landscape beyond could just about be made out. The plane flew from blue of sea to land. Only instead of flying over a verdant forest, it showed a barren brown wasteland.
“I think this footage shows the swarm’s area of effect will stretch to the coast. The plane just happened to come here after one such... eruption.”
“It doesn’t make sense these things just devastate the local area.” Kendricks pointed out. “I mean, from an evolutionary standpoint if they wipe out their food source, then the next generation would simply die.”
“We’ve not had long to process this information. But I would suggest there can be an argument made that it does make sense.” Laurie turned to look at him. “Most of the flora and fauna here is very simplistic. It simply hasn’t had that long to recover after the Perses event and evolve the true complexity and diversity of our time. So, our thoughts are that this locust swarm is operating cyclically. Every year, or perhaps just whenever it gets hungry, this swarm descends, eating everything in sight. Some will die, and obviously they will be leaving their dead, droppings, and what not. Some trigger mechanism, probably when the food runs out, will cause them to retreat back to their hive. This will help make the area as fertile as can be. Then, every year, a fast-growing forest emerges. Mr. Bautista, your farmers have been commenting how fertile the ground is. This could be why.”
“So every year we’re going to face this?” Bautista rubbed his chin as he looked at the silent video clip which looped. “Having to retreat back to sea to avoid this... this swarm?”
“Whether every year or not is unknown. But cyclically, certainly. The last data point we have is from seven years ago, and I’d suggest that it would have been a huge coincidence for the airliner to have flown over the last swarm event. Annually would be a reasonable assumption until we get more data, but we have to face the prospect it may be more regularly, or maybe it is less.”
“Yet we are talking about assumptions for the future,” Bautista said firmly. “But we also have to deal with the here and now.”
“Yes, we do.” Reynolds nodded. “The most prudent course of action, at this time, is to evacuate the coast and withdraw to sea. Then we need to have our sterns pointed at land ready to haul arse if this swarm’s reach extends into the water. Do we have agreement?”
Reynolds looked around the table. The senior officers nodded, most reluctantly, but they understood the gravity of the situation.
“Laurie, please provide a reasonable estimate for how long we have. Everyone else, get loading the ships with everything which isn’t nailed down. A special priority for food and cultivated seed stock. Dismissed.”
Reynolds felt the overwhelming need to be with his daughter. But as overwhelming as it was, he needed to control that desire. Too much was happening to get distracted. Not the least learning that Grayson was still in play. He didn’t know what that meant, or what repercussions it might have.
They were walking down the corridor, his arm around his daughter while Jack trailed along behind. He was characteristically quiet. Not for the first time, Reynolds appreciated that opposites truly did attract. And they didn’t get much more opposite than the introspective Jack and outgoing, chatty, Laurie.
He felt his phone buzzing in his pocket again. He hadn’t even had time to look at it with the rush of meetings. He glanced at the screen. Wakefield. As the phone stopped calling, he saw he had twelve missed calls.
“Darling...” Reynolds kissed the top of Laurie’s head, letting his lips linger on her smooth hair. “I have to go to my office to sort some things out. I’ll come back to the suite as soon as I can. I promise.”
“I know you’re busy.” Laurie gave a thin, but reassuring smile. “I’ll be okay, honestly. Do what you need to do, Daddy.”
Reynolds gave his daughter a squeeze before releasing her. He turned off, heading toward the small office which he had taken over as his own, and closed the door just as Wakefield called again.
“Where the fuck have you been? I’ve been trying to call you for the last hour.”
“You may not have noticed but we’re a little bloody busy here with a small existential threat to the fleet,” Reynolds snapped back. “Speaking of which, you were supposed to be here to help us figure out what we’re going to do about it.”
“My pilot told me Grayson came back from the mission.” Wakefield ignored him. “You told me he wouldn’t, then your damn pet captain basically threatened to unleash hell if the helicopter—my goddamn helicopter—landed anywhere but on Atlantica.”
“Clearly they decided not to go ahead with it.”
“Clearly,” Wakefield snapped. “And why’s that?”
“I don’t bloody know, Conrad. A crisis of conscience? Not that you’d know what that is.”
“Things are getting too damn hot here for my liking.” The phone speaker was silent for a long moment. “We’re getting out of Dodge. You can come or not. I don’t care. But we’re heading out.”
“Where will you go?”
“Somewhere where we’re not likely to be summarily shot, John. If Grayson knows just what effect triggering the Locus had and spills, they are going to be baying for blood.”
Reynolds squeezed his eyes closed at the sudden heart-wrenching pain.
“I hear Europe’s good this time of year,” Wakefield continued. “It’s past time we make contact with the other Loci, and now my ass has been incentivized. We’re gonna start prepping and sailing. You have a couple of hours to decide if you’re coming or not.”
The phone went dead. Reynolds placed it down and leaned back in his creaking leather chair.
Once again, the world was going to be upended.
“And this came in a few minutes ago?” Kendricks plucked the earbud out.
“Yes, sir.” Farelly’s eyes were still red-rimmed and puffy, yet her voice was firm. “It seems... damning.”
Kendricks felt the tightness in his chest, a physical symptom of the pain of learning who, no what, the man who had become his mentor was. He turned to Jack who stood, his arms folded, by the computer suite door. As soon as Farelly had said she had intercepted a call, he’d been pulled reluctantly away from his reunion with Laurie.
“Jack, this is incontrovertible. He has to come in,” Kendricks spoke through the dryness in his throat. “And quickly. If they go, we’ll never track them down.”
Jack nodded. The only sign of the tension the man must have felt were the cords in his neck protruding. “I’ll go get the admiral.”
He turned to go. Kendricks caught his arm. “He’s been our friend. We at least owe it to him to hear his side of the story. Don’t—”
“I’m not Grayson,” Jack interrupted quietly. “I think I’ve just proven that.”
“Good.” Kendricks released his arm. “I’m going to update Heather.”
Chapter Thirty-Eight – The Present
The automatic doors slid open, and Jack stalked purposely into the security center. Grayson looked up from where he sat at the table, his hands resting flat on the surface. Two security guards overlooked him, both with their weapons drawn, ready to do whatever they needed to do to keep this dangerous man in here.
“I’m going to get Reynolds,” Jack said simply.
“About goddamn time.” Grayson looked at the Marine with an intensity which belied his normal casual demeanor. “Want some company?”
“He comes in for questions. We’re going to arrest him, and then we’re going to get to the bottom of this. Do you understand what I’m saying? This is not one of your assassination missions for the SOG, and neither are you going to be beating anything out of anyone.”
“I’ve been waiting ten years for answers.” Grayson stood, a wolfish grin spreading across his face. “Trust me, he ain’t gonna die until I get them.”
“And not even then,” Jack clarified.
“It’s your show, Sergeant.”
“Then you’re off this ship for good, Captain.”
The grin slipped from Grayson’s face as he stood and tugged his jacket straight. “You need to know, Jack. These people, they’ll do whatever it takes. The question is, will you?”
“Let’s just go get this done.”
The scorching heat from fires on the HMS Sheffield. The smoky arcs of Sea Skua missiles slamming into the Iraqi fleet off Bubiyan Island. The thrust, parry, and riposte of Vortex politics. The debates in the corridors of power. For all of the violence and conflict in his past, he knew he had been on the side of right and good.
Reynolds tilted his head back, looking at the harsh LED lighting in his office. He’d never been particularly religious. Oh, he’d attended the church services as the pomp and ceremony of his career had dictated was proper. But he’d rarely felt any guiding light, and never less so than then since that day in a club in London when Wakefield had first approached him. How strange the twists and turns of life which had brought him from his childhood in Devon to here.
Yet here he was. The leader of a small enclave of humanity at the end of humanity’s road in a distant, hostile future.
Along with the man who had hunted him.
A three-tone chime came from the door.
A sense of impatience filled him. Not now. The endless litany of problems people approached his office with were going to give him an anxiety attack. They don’t bloody matter!
“Enter,” he said after taking a moment to compose himself. He affected a welcoming smile.
A strange combination of relief and foreboding filled him as Jack walked in. Then his heart missed a beat as Karl Grayson slid in behind.
Jack looked at the closed door. Hatches like this were the standard aboard the huge cruise ship, yet what was behind this one filled him with dread. When he went through it, everything would change. Since peace had fallen over the fleet, he had been the happiest he’d been in as long as he could remember. Certainly, since that day in Syria. He had purpose on the ship and he had a woman he loved. Life was good.
Or it had been.
Now, whatever happened, that woman was gone. She’d never trust him again and the fleet would never be the same.
He clenched his fist so hard his knuckles cracked. Then he pressed the door chime.
The door slid open. Reynolds sat at the desk facing the door, his head cocked. He looked his normal confident self, like nothing ever phased him.
Jack entered, sensing Grayson coming in behind him.
The admiral’s expression changed. A look of curiosity then acceptance—and was that relief?—crossed Reynolds face.
“Sir,” Jack felt the words choke him. “If you would come with me please.”
“Can I ask what this is about, Jack?” Reynolds asked calmly.
“You’re being detained, sir.”
Reynolds nodded, his hands flat on the table. He slowly drew back his chair and straightened his tie as he stood. “Jack—”
“Don’t beg. Don’t plead. Don’t try and cajole.” Grayson stepped into the room. “It won’t work, none of it will. You’re under arrest and your ass is going into the clink. And you should be thankful of that fact. Because if I had my way—”
Reynolds locked his eyes on Jack, ignoring Grayson. “What happened—what’s happening here—is more complicated than you know. What he’s told you is probably right. As far as it goes, but it’s not the full story.”
“It’s enough of the story that I know you need to come with us.”
Reynolds walked around the desk and took Jack’s arm, his grip feverishly earnest. “Laurie doesn’t know anything, Jack. If you believe anything I say, believe that.”
Jack forced down the desire to talk, to engage him in conversation to beg him to say Grayson was wrong. Instead he turned and gestured at the door. “This way please, sir.”
His jaw was clenched so hard it ached. He pulled the headphones off and tossed them on the desk. The bug he had planted weeks ago in Reynolds’s office had given him great insight into fleet and Anchorage politics. It had let him know things, given him information and, on occasion, a valuable heads-up. Like now.
“Bring up the schedule. We need to get the hell out of here,” Wakefield growled at his captain and head of security.
“We’re still loading up.” Richard Hogarth winced. “We’ve got to presume we’re going to be blown any minute now. If Ignatius—”
“Richard, I paid Reynolds for the very best equipment and the very best weapons for the Osiris precisely so we would be able to beat anything we found here when we came through,” Wakefield said. “You do what you need to do to get us away.”
“Yes, sir.” Hogarth swallowed.
“And as for you...” Wakefield looked at Creighton, who stood patiently by the door, his arms folded. “You defend this ship. Understood?”
“No one speaks to him. Understood?” Jack pointed at Grayson. “Especially not him. Yet.”
The security officers nodded and took position outside the cell. They were confused, having seen who had been brought in, but Jack had simply shook his head to the questions, merely responding with, “Later.”
“You, back in the security center,” Jack addressed the assassin. He didn’t trust for a moment the man wouldn’t try to complete his ten-million-year-old mission. “We’ll get you when we need you.”
Grayson held his hands up in acquiescence and gave one of the men Jack had assigned as a minder a pat on the arm. “Let’s go.”
Only one more thing to do.
Jack’s pace was purposeful but his mind was in a daze as he walked back through Route 66, the central corridor which threaded through the crew areas of the ship with two more of his officers. He reached the staff elevators and took one to the deck where Laurie’s suite was.
He paused outside the hatch. He’d just arrested the father of the woman he’d grown to love. The woman who had come to see past his injury and disability.
Nothing would be the same for him again.
He opened the hatch.
She lay curled on the settee, wearing a flannel dressing gown. Her dark hair was still wet from a shower. She was normally so careful to dry and straighten it. His heart gave a tug as she looked up at him, a drowsy but warm smile on her face.
“Come here.” She reached out toward him, then paused as she saw the two officers behind him. “What’s the matter?”
He looked down, unable to maintain eye contact with her. “We’ve had to arrest your father.”
“What?!” She pushed herself up into a sitting position, a confused look crossing her face. “What do you mean, arrest my father?”
“And you are going to be confined to quarters.” Jack said, his throat tight. “Please do not try and leave or—”
“What’s going on, Jack?” She stood, walking toward him. Jack backed away, holding his hand up to ward her away.
“Or communicate with anyone. Your phone and internet connections will be disabled.” He reached the door.
He shook his head, and he felt his voice choking for the first time in years. “You’ll be spoken to in due course.”
“Jack, tell me what’s going on?” She sounded petrified.
God all he wanted to do was go to her. To hold her.
Instead, he fled the room.
He slammed the door shut and he pressed his master key card to the lock, securing it from the outside.
He let the rapid beating of his broken heart subside before turning to the officers. “No one speaks to her without my permission. Not Kendricks, not Slater, and certainly not Grayson. Understood?”
Chapter Thirty-Nine – The Present
The harshly lit, sparsely appointed brig was nestled deep in the bowels of Atlantica next to the security center.
Kendricks’s nose twitched at the smell of bleach permeating through the brig as he stood looking down at the security console showing images from the CCTV cameras within the four cells. Normally, they contained nothing more than the odd drunk or someone who had decided to settle their differences in one of the bars with their fists. They were never intended to be a jail, just to be used until someone could pick up the occupants and take them into proper custody.
Now, only one of the sparse cells was occupied.
Reynolds sat on the bed, his hands clasped in his lap, staring directly at the door. Kendricks tried to discern what the man must be thinking. What he must be feeling. He didn’t look confused or angry, instead he just looked resigned.
An hour ago, he had been one of the most powerful men in this new world. He had been “the Admiral”, a title which had become synonymous with President in their new nautically based society. He had been Kendricks’s mentor, whispering many a quiet and calming word in his ear to keep him on track in those tumultuous first few weeks. But now, he was confined to four square walls with enough damning evidence to keep him there forever.
Jack sat at the console. Kendricks could see his world had come crashing down around him. He had been a hero of Atlantica, along with Laurie, the couple a symbol that they could make this strange new world work. Hell, they were the closest thing to a celebrity couple on the ship.
Only now that had all come to an end, too.
“Jack,” Kendricks said gently. “You know my view. I prefer her down here.”
“Captain, I appreciate that. But she could be an innocent witness. Grayson said he never found anything to implicate her.” He pointed at the closed cell door. “And the only protest the Admiral gave was that she doesn’t know anything.”
“I still don’t like it. But I don’t have dogs and then do my own barking. You’re the head of security. It’s your call,” Kendricks said. “Just don’t make me regret it.”
“People need to stop referring to me as a dog,” Jack retorted sharply and without humor as he glared at him with tired, bloodshot eyes. Kendricks frowned, not knowing what he was referring to.
The heavy security door rumbled open before Kendricks had decided whether to give his own comeback or an apology.
“Gentlemen. I find myself coming back and forth to Atlantica more than I go to the head.” Slater swept into the room. “What’s he said?”
“Nothing yet,” Kendricks replied, gesturing at the monitor. “We had just been discussing whether to bring Grayson in on this. As much as I want nothing to do with the man, he’s been involved since the start.”
Slater rubbed her jaw as she contemplated the CCTV image. The thought of even beginning to trust the man clearly weighing on her heavily.
“Ma’am, there is another question which needs to be asked, as well.” Jack stood. “If we take Grayson’s story at face value, then Wakefield’s project was known about at the highest levels. Someone authorized arresting his boss and scrambling fighters to attack his team. So we need to ask, straight out—what do you know about whatever’s going on, Captain?”
Slater turned slightly, raising her eyebrow. “Sergeant Cohen, your question is a sensible one, so I won’t take it as a personal insult. I am, however, wondering if Grayson’s intention is to sow discord and mistrust throughout the fleet—”
“Ma’am,” Jack pressed.
“No, no I haven’t heard anything. No rumors, no scuttlebutt in the captains’ messes in port, nothing,” Slater replied with a sigh. “If this is some kind of military conspiracy then it’s damn well managed. And let me tell you, from the best part of twenty years in the Navy, we don’t do secrets nearly as well as we’d like. Whoever this was, it wasn’t us.”
“Look, we can sit around hypothesizing till the cows come home.” Kendricks gestured at Reynolds’s cell door. “Or we can just go ask him.”
Jack nodded and leaned forward, pressing a button on the console. The door slid open, revealing Reynolds in person.
The admiral stared at the floor, not looking up as the three entered his cell.
“My daughter?” His words were clipped, concise.
“Is confined to quarters,” Jack said. “She’ll be well cared for. I promise.”
“I’m sorry.” Reynolds lifted his head and looked at them. “This must be tough for you.”
Kendricks could see the admiral’s eyes were red-rimmed, the tendons in his neck protruding. He felt that sickening feeling in his stomach. This man had meant everything to the fleet. He was Kendricks’s mentor, someone Slater admired, and had taken Jack into his family. But it had all been based on lies and conspiracy.
Fucking lies! Kendricks felt a surge of rage.
“Why?” Kendricks couldn’t trust himself to say more.
“You know why,” Reynolds’s voice was firm. “Humanity’s days were numbered.”
“We have lies upon lies, Admiral,” Slater said coldly. “How do we know what’s even the truth anymore?”
“It was,” Reynolds replied. “I was shown the raw information. I saw a telescope image of the damn thing. A big hunk of icy rock was coming and it was going to kill us all.”
“Then why hide it. Why not tell everyone?”
“Because we couldn’t save everyone,” Reynolds said quietly, insistently. “The comet, Perses, was too big and was coming in too fast. We could have thrown every nuke we had at it, and all we’d have accomplished would have been to turn it from a cannonball into a shotgun blast. Either way, we’d have been just as dead.”
“So, you thought the only option was to side step it,” Kendricks said. “Like Wakefield said.”
“He didn’t tell you everything though,” Reynolds said in little more than a whisper. “I’m not a physicist, but I knew the Locus had to be triggered at a specific time and set of locations. Also, there would be side effects. Significant ones.”
“Side effects?” Kendricks pressed. For some reason he felt like a child before a teacher.
“The Locus would be triggered at a number of locations around the world. Simultaneously. A vast chunk of the Earth’s seas would suddenly cease to exist in 2024 and reappear now.” Reynolds tilted his head back, closing his eyes. “You tell me, what effect do you think suddenly shifting trillions of tons of water and atmosphere would have?”
“My God.” Kendricks felt himself go lightheaded. The implications had never occurred to him. Or he hadn’t wanted them to, so he had ignored them. From the shocked looks around the cell, they had all felt the same. He reached out, feeling for the bulkhead.
“Tsunamis.” Reynolds stood and reached forward, gripping Kendricks’s arm with fierce strength. “Storms, devastation. More than half of people in the world live within thirty miles of the coast. And the Loci were being triggered all over the globe. Every ocean affected at the same time. It would have been a deluge of biblical proportions.”
“No,” Slater breathed. “My husband, my daughter... they were at Mayport.”
Her eyes went wide, staring, flicking around the cell. A panicked look crossing her face. “Wakefield said they had years. Decades. That they could at least live a little.”
“I’m sorry.” Reynolds voice cracked. A tear rolled down his cheek, his next words a rush. “I tried to get them to give a warning. I did what I could. Whichever way I turned I was being watched. Monitored. I wanted them to stop. I had a note delivered to Thames House. To the Secret Intelligence Service, in the hope that they would somehow slow it down. I don’t even know what my intention was in that. Maybe just to give people a chance to get to safety. I’m guessing that’s why they sent Grayson after us. From that tip off.”
“Who. Are. They?” Slater refocused, her voice a snarl. “Wakefield? Who else?”
“Does it matter?” Reynolds whispered.
“Yes,” Slater snarled. “Grayson said powerful people were pulling the strings. They were able to manipulate the military, they must have also manipulated the scientific community and media to hide the fact Perses was going to hit. I want to know who they are because I don’t believe for a moment they didn’t come through the Locus, too.”
Reynolds looked up, past Kendricks, past Slater and Jack. Kendricks followed his gaze, seeing it aimed at the small black dome of the CCTV camera hanging unobtrusively in the corner. “If I tell you, I might put you all at risk.”
“I think we’re a little beyond that now.” Kendricks brought his gaze back to Reynolds. “Tell us. Do the decent thing for once in your life.”
“For once in my life? For once in my life?” Reynolds angrily stood, then deflated just as rapidly, slumping back down to the bunk. “I’ve done nothing but serve my country and now my species. Even after Helena was taken from me by that drink-driving bastard.”
He cupped his face in his hands, his shoulders rocking. Kendricks felt a sudden surge of sympathy for him.
“I can’t,” Reynolds said, his voice muffled. “You wouldn’t believe me anyway.”
Slater seemed to grow in the room, her wrath evident despite Reynolds’s self-pity. For a moment, Kendricks thought she was going to reach for the old man with her bare hands. To strike him. “Didn’t you hear me? My daughter was in Mayport. You killed her. Now you’ll tell me everything you know.”
An insistent buzzing filled the room. For a moment, it looked as if it Slater would ignore the phone in her pocket. Then she pulled it out and said in a cool voice, belying the fury on her face, “Captain Slater.”
Kendricks and Jack exchanged a look as she listened. “Understood. General quarters, no emissions. I’ll be back in ASAP.”
She put the phone back in her pocket and gave a deep sigh. “The watch officer I had keeping an eye on the Osiris is saying they seem to be—”
“They’re leaving.” Reynolds looked up. “They’re going to go find the other Loci.”
“Another thing you and Reynolds have been keeping from us!” Kendricks snapped.
“They’re prepping to head out.” Slater confirmed before Reynolds could respond. Her anger visibly dissipated and an icy professionalism reasserted itself. “I’m going back to Ignatius. We’re not letting them get away. Jack?”
“I’ll prep my team,” he replied as he turned to leave the cell. “We’ll see if we can get aboard before she goes.”
“Good. Any means.” Slater nodded as she began to follow.
Slater paused. “I said any means. I want that ship impounded and I want Wakefield held to account. I’m beyond caring how.”
“Aye aye, ma’am.”
“We still have this goddamn swarm descending on us,” Kendricks said. “I’ll coordinate with Urbano around the evacuation.”
“Good. And as for you...” Slater pointed an accusing finger at Reynolds. “We’ll finish this conversation later.”
Chapter Forty – The Present
“Ready up!” Jack shouted as he burst into the security center. He pulled the two keys from around his neck and unlocked the armory. Grayson sat at the table, his head cocked inquisitively while his two minders stood over him watchfully.
“You’re deputized.” Jack pointed at Grayson. “I shit you not, though. The second I think you’re going off reservation, I’ll put a bullet in you myself. I’m in no mood for being messed around. Am I understood?”
“Understood.” Grayson stood with an energy and speed which caused the two security officers to step back. “What’s the brief?”
Jack hauled the heavy hatch open, revealing the armory. “We’re going to board Osiris. And we don’t have long to do it. They’re getting ready to go.”
He strapped a holster around his thigh and cleared a gun. He slid a magazine into the handle, and slapped it secure. Grabbing another, he repeated the process, and presented the cleared chamber to Grayson.
“Clear.” Jack eyed the soldier.
“Clear,” Grayson confirmed the chamber was empty. He reached for the Heckler & Koch HK-45 and lay his hand over the top.
“I mean what I said.” Jack kept hold of the weapon, preventing Grayson from taking it. “Is that abundantly clear, too?”
Jack released his grip. Grayson took the weapon and slipped a magazine into it.
More officers came streaming in and Jack handed out rifles and side arms. Within moments, they were armed and ready to go.
Slater jogged out into the fresh air of the open cargo hatch which Ignatius lay parallel to, in defiance of the age-old rule a crew should never see their captain running. Gripping the rope railing, she trotted down the gangplank onto the destroyer.
“Captain on deck!” A sailor called with a salute.
“Secure the ship. We’re departing,” Slater called, snapping off an automatic salute as she barreled past him, heading toward the hatch leading into the fire-blackened superstructure of the warship.
She climbed quickly up the stairway, two steps at a time, shouting out, “Gangway!” Crew and officers moved aside to let her past and she emerged onto the bridge.
“Ma’am.” The watch officer, Lieutenant Ernie Windom rose from the command seat. “They’re trying to be sneaky about it, but they’re definitely almost ready to go. They just have a few odds and ends left on their pier.”
Slater grabbed the binoculars Windom proffered to her and looked at the distant yacht. She could see the flicker of movement as people scampered over the decks. “What’s our status?”
“We’re at general quarters, ma’am. We’re not emitting and fire control is now on your authority. We’ll be ready to move as soon as we’ve disconnected from Atlantica and secured.”
“On the double with that, if you please.” To save fuel, Ignatius was suckling off Atlantica’s solar cell driven auxiliary power system. The downside was that didn’t exactly make them agile for scramble situations.
“Aye aye, Captain.”
She reached above her, unhooked the mic which dangled there, and keyed the panel for the 1MC.
“All hands, this is your captain.” Her voice echoed throughout the ship. She gave the briefest of pauses. How much to say? Everything? No, she had to keep the crew focused. “We have reason to believe that the Osiris is responsible for a devastating terrorist attack in our own time. Let me be clear, there is no statute of limitation for what they have done. Whether ten years have gone by, or ten million, they need to be brought to justice. They are attempting to flee and we are not going to let them. Be clear on that and stay focused. Captain Slater, out.”
She hooked the mic back over its hook and brought the binoculars back to her eyes. Osiris’s lights were blazing, showing off the beautiful yacht in all its glory. She felt an icy calm descend on her. She knew what she had to do.
“You’re not going anywhere,” she breathed.
“How’re we looking, Richard?” Wakefield tapped his foot as he stood over Hogarth’s command chair. The bridge was a quiet bustle of activity. Crew sat before their touchscreen controls. The ostentatious metalwork and clean lines hid what the Osiris was—a lethal Q ship.
The flickers of crew darting back and forth across the windows had died down as the superyacht had secured down for departure.
“Well, I’m taking the learning from this as we should be ready to go on a moment’s notice,” Hogarth said distractedly as he monitored the graphics playing across the black glass of his console.
In theory, the vessel and most of its systems could be managed from this one station. Hell, it looked so simple that Wakefield reckoned he could give it a fair go.
But that’s what he had Hogarth for.
“Noted. Live and learn.”
“When I light up the radar, we’re gonna be under combat conditions.” Hogarth eyed his boss. “Ignatius will know it’s on.”
Wakefield nodded and worried at his thumbnail, thinking furiously. This yacht was heavily armed. Wakefield had wanted to ensure that when they came through the Locus, he was the one with a powerful enough vessel behind him he didn’t have to take shit from anyone. But she wasn’t a warship. She couldn’t take the hits Ignatius could. If there was an exchange of fire, then all the destroyer needed to do was land one good blow. He came to a conclusion.
“We’re gonna need every advantage we can get here.”
Hogarth paused, his hands hovering over the console. “Your saying you want to use him?”
“I’m saying he might just give us the edge we need. When we arrived at the Locus, he got the area pacified in record time. And that was against two fleets. I’m sure he could deal with Slater’s tin can on its own.”
“Okay,” Hogarth said. “But don’t ask me to like it.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like it either.” Wakefield dropped his hand from his mouth and gripped the back of Hogarth’s seat. “He’s been getting pretty damn argumentative lately.”
Hogarth shrugged. “He ain’t going to want to find himself on a Tomahawk-induced barbeque. How much arguing will he do about that?”
“Yeah.” Wakefield walked to a vacant console and pressed his finger against the biometrics reader. The screen came alive and he entered in a long, complex password. “The creepy little fellow just better behave himself.”
“Urbano, how’s the evacuation going?”
Bautista had the phone crooked in his neck as he pointed at a man who had dropped a crate, spilling the carrots on to the floor. “Come on, come on, vamoose.” He switched his attention back to Kendricks. “We are working as fast as we can but we are not going to save everything.”
The nearer docks were filled with the smaller craft which had come through the Locus, all of which should have been enough to contain everything they had time to load and the near two thousand people ashore. Still it would be tight. And the fact was, he didn’t like words like “should”. “We could do with at least one of those big life boats you have. We can guarantee everyone getting off at once then rather than ferrying people back and forth.”
“Done. In fact, I’ll send two,” Kendricks responded. “How does that sound?”
Bautista turned and looked inland. In the bright moonlight, the distant mountain was reflecting bare rock now with black veins reaching stretching down it. They hadn’t stopped pouring out of hours. God only knew how many of them must be spilling into the forests, devouring everything before them as they came toward Anchorage and the fleet.
Jack patted down in the air with his hand and they took cover behind the crates lining the entry to the jetty. Roughly three hundred feet away lay the stern of the huge yacht. Jack counted at least five decks, not that anyone had been allowed free access aboard—and he’d heard anecdotally it was more like nine or ten. Until the rescue mission, no one had been allowed on the yacht since it had arrived.
The vessel had a sleek wedge-type appearance, her pristine lines marred by crudely affixed weapon emplacements.
The rear dock was still open, a vast cavern within where boats and gigs were being secured down. The space was filled with crates while the center provided a wet dock in which craft could power straight up into.
Jack felt a tap on his shoulder, and he turned to see Grayson hunkered next to him and pointed two fingers at his eyes then at the wooden pier leading to the vessel. Jack squinted to see what he was looking at. A man and a woman patrolled, rifles cradled in their arms at the ready. Wakefield had always taken his security seriously, only now he wasn’t putting up any pretense. It was now obvious—no one was welcome aboard.
Nodding, Jack thought furiously. They hadn’t had time to come up with a plan. Maybe the soft approach would work, but the churning in his stomach told Jack they were in for a fight.
“Okay, listen up. This is what we’re gonna do...”
Chapter Forty-One – The Present
Jack slung the rifle behind him and placed one foot on the creaking wooden decking of the pier. The path was littered with crates and boxes. The flurry of activity to load them was camouflaged by the wilder drive to evacuate the coastal region from the ever-encroaching swarm.
Things can’t be simple, can they? It wasn’t like anyone had given him any rules of engagement, the laws which governed a battle, but despite Grayson’s attempt at protest, he wasn’t just going to shoot these people in cold blood. No, they had to at least try the peaceful approach first.
“Hey,” Jack shouted. The pair of guards sporting the rifles turned to look at him. Behind others could be seen hoisting other crates onto a loading platform extending out from Osiris’s flank. “Jack Cohen from the Atlantica. I need to speak to Mr. Wakefield.”
“Hey. I know who you are, Jacky boy,” the man said in a friendly tone. A warm smile plastered on his relaxed face. “Look, he’s a little busy right now.”
The rifle gripped in his hands said something else. That he might not be quite as chilled out as his demeanor suggested.
“It’s pretty urgent.” Jack forced a smile onto his own face. “You may have noticed a whole heap of trouble heading our way and I need to talk to him about it.”
“Yeah,” the other woman said. She was definitely the straight lady. Her voice was firmer, more insistent. “That’s why he’s busy. Let’s just get going and then I’m sure he’ll chat to you all day when we’ve reached safety.”
“I kinda need to speak to him now.” Jack let his own brand of insistence creep into his tone. The two guards glanced at each other.
“Look, friend.” Number two turned fully toward Jack. “We’ve been polite. Now let me make it clear. We’re busy. Get lost.”
The first one’s rifle muzzle slowly and casually crept around toward Jack. He gritted his teeth, knowing what was going to come if they didn’t back down.
“Like that, is it?”
The thin camouflage of friendliness dropped from the first man’s face. The casual motion of the rifle became a decisive movement as he brought it up into his shoulder.
Two cracks came from behind Jack. Flowers of blood spread across the guards’ chests. Jack twisted around, taking cover behind a crate.
A third echoing crack came, and Jack glanced over the top of the crate at the stern of the yacht to see a rifleman he hadn’t spotted tumbling down the side of the vessel and landing with a dull thud on the decking.
Grayson sprinted over and slid behind the crate next to Jack, his M4A1 carbine tucked into his chest. “Goddammit, I told you that wouldn’t work.”
Jack made to retort, then settled for shaking his head. If the man thought he was just going to out and out kill anyone without giving the chance of a peaceful solution, he had another thing coming. The other security officers ducked into whatever cover they could along the crate-littered pier. The crew still on the pier began ran for the safety of the hatches on the vast yacht.
“We’ve got to move fast,” Jack finally said. He unslung his rifle, cradling it his arms. He pivoted around the crate and in his limping sprint, made toward the next crate and hunkered behind it.
He felt a zip whip by him, a split-second later heard the crack of a rifle. He ducked down as a cacophony of gunfire erupted from the stern of the boat. A half dozen staccato lights signaled shooters opening up on their position. Splinters erupted from the jetty as the bullets ripped through the fragile wood.
The crate he hunkered behind began to disintegrate under the onslaught. He couldn’t stay here. He may have had cover from sight, but it would only be seconds before a lucky round got him.
Rolling, he slipped over the side of the pier, reaching for the stanchions and swinging onto a crossbeam below the main deck. The flicker of movement from Grayson’s position showing him mirroring his movement on the opposite side.
Jack fumbled for his radio with one hand and keyed the talk button. “Team one. Fire for effect and advance as able.”
From both the yacht and the entry to the pier, the rippling roar of gunfire could be heard. The zipping, thudding crack of rounds splintered through the decking and Jack averted his eyes, fearing a splinter would find them. Damn, he should have brought goggles. Basics, Jack.
There, a powerboat bobbed up and down, moored next to the pier, forgotten or abandoned in Osiris’s crew’s desperation to escape. “Grayson, that’s our ride. Let’s go.”
Grayson nodded and deftly maneuvered around the crossbeams and slipped into the boat. He lay down, adopting a prone position in the bow, the rifle sighted toward the stern of the yacht—and the still open bay doors. “I’m ready. Punch it.”
Jack dropped into the rear next to the outboard engine. He pulled his leg in and whipped the chord of the motor. With a splurge of water, the engine erupted to life.
“Ma’am, looks like the boarding party is engaging,” the watch officer called. “We’re seeing a heavy exchange of fire.”
Slater grabbed the binoculars and looked over at the Osiris. She could hear the distant cracks of weapon fire and watched as tracer whipped both ways, slicing from the stern of the yacht down, and back up again from the crates littering the pier. The deluge was fierce, ripping back and forth.
She frowned; the boarding party looked nowhere near getting onto the yacht. They were going to have to do this themselves.
She felt a grim sense of enthusiasm at the thought. She was taking her ship into action again, and against the bastard who was probably responsible for killing her family. She swallowed down her personal feelings. She couldn’t let them distract her. Instead, she let a cold determination wash through her.
Dropping the binoculars, she pulled the 1MC mic from above. She took a breath, she had to ensure her voice was clear, decisive. There could be no doubt in it, she needed her crew to act instantly at her command. “All hands. Prepare for maneuvers. We’re going into battle.”
She hung up and lowered herself into her command chair. She crossed her legs and relaxed her hands on the crudely repaired armrests, composing herself.
“Helm, one quarter aft and hard starboard. Heading,” Slater glanced at the plot on the laptop duct taped onto the broken console before her, “pre-event 320 and then give me steerageway. CIC, Light it up. Full active radar target acquisition.”
It was time to see if their repairs after Nest Island were up to snuff.
The throbbing of the engines increased in tempo as the warship steadily reversed away from the stern of Atlantica and began swinging around to face the Osiris.
“We’re getting pinged by an attack radar. Ignatius is gearing up for a fight.”
Wakefield nodded at Hogarth, forcing himself to maintain his calm demeanor. “Then I suggest it’s time we get hell out of here. Anyone left on the pier?”
Hogarth gave a shake of his head. The radio coms from the PMCs up on deck had said the last couple of folks on the pier had been taken out by the battle raging there.
“Then let’s get gone.”
“Roger that. Anytime your friend wants to pick up fire control,” Hogarth called. “He’s welcome.”
Hogarth pushed the throttle forward, not even bothering to order his sailors to loose the mooring lines, trusting instead the power of his engines to pull them free.
With a crashing roar, the pier ripped free from the beach, shredding itself into a rolling mass of timber. Sailors ran over the deck of the Osiris, desperately slicing through the mooring lines even as the mass of debris began to tumble along behind the accelerating vessel like a huge pendulum.
Jack slammed the throttle forward, weaving between the debris and detritus of the pier as it disintegrated in the tumultuous wake spreading behind the Osiris.
The boat skimmed and bounced over the white froth. From the front, Jack heard the occasional crack of Grayson’s rifle firing in a smooth, measured rhythm. Jack couldn’t even begin to imagine how the man could be shooting with any kind of accuracy as they sped forward through the chaos.
A huge chunk of debris rolled over the sea, logs flying away from it. The boat smashed through one. Jack flinched away from a whip of pain across his brow from flying splinters and salted sea-spray. Ignoring it, he concentrated on avoiding the devastation they were careening through.
Before him, he could see the massive clamshell of Osiris’s boat bay beginning to close. Gritting his teeth, he weaved toward it, gunning the engine as hard as he could.
It was going to be tight. Damn tight.
Crack. A moment later he caught a glimpse of the broken body of one of the PMCs ricocheting off the bow of the speedboat amidst the confusion.
The stern of the Osiris formed a steadily narrowing slit. It was the point of abort, he either had to arc away or go for it. If they were too slow, then they would slam into the yacht’s solid stern.
Time slowed. Jack looked across at Grayson, his jaw set, his cheek pressed against his rifle. He turned his head slightly. His shout carrying across the cacophony of noise.
The speedboat sliced through the wake and under a whipping mooring line, before sliding between the closing doors. The sides of the boat cascaded a shower of spark as they ground against the thick metal.
Then they were in the cavernous boat bay.
The clamshell doors slammed shut behind them with am echoing thump.
Chapter Forty-Two – The Present
“We’ve got boarders,” Hogarth called from his station. “Creighton, get your crews down there and secure the boat bay.”
The scarred man pulled his radio from his webbing and issued rapid-fire orders into it as he turned and ran out the bridge.
Hogarth pressed a finger to his earpiece, a grim look on his face. “Captain, we have a message from Ignatius.”
“By all means.” Wakefield gave a wave of his hand. “Let’s hear what the good captain has to say.”
Hogarth tapped his console. A chime rang out through the bridge. The bridge crew paused in what they were doing and looked up from their touchscreen displays, ready to hear their enemy speak.
“Osiris... Wakefield.” Slater’s voice was firm and resolute. “This is Ignatius Actual. You will heave to and prepare to be boarded. Any further efforts to leave this area will be met with deadly force.”
“She doesn’t beat around the bush,” Wakefield muttered. He looked at Hogarth. His captain’s face was strained in the soft blue lighting of the bridge. “Put me on.”
Hogarth gave a terse nod.
“Heather, this is Conrad,” Wakefield put on his friendliest, cockiest voice. One which had disarmed many an opponent before in the boardroom battlefields. “What seems to be the problem with us getting away from the coast? What with the small matter of a bunch of those pirates attacking my ship and that goddamn swarm heading our way and all?”
The speaker was silent for a moment. The moment stretched to two. Wakefield found his lips twisting in a smile. Either she was doubting herself, or she was so fucking angry she didn’t trust herself to speak. Either way, he considered that a win.
“We’ll get back to you when we’re at a safe distance.” Wakefield made to slash a finger across his throat to cut the coms.
“Conrad. Make no mistake,” the voice came before the radio shut down. “I have a five-inch Mark 45 cannon and a complement of enhanced Tomahawk cruise missiles targeted on you. Those ‘pirates’ are my boarding party. Now, I said heave to, or I will open fire.”
Her voice contained no anger, nor any doubt.
“Stand by, Heather.”
Wakefield keyed his console. On a small wall screen, an image of the boy below decks appeared. “You listening into this?”
“Yes,” the boy responded calmly. “Please listen to her and surrender. This situation can still be resolved peacefully without any further loss of life.”
“Listen, kid. Slater ain’t gonna want to resolve this peacefully. Her crew have already opened fire on us. If she’s found out the full effect of the Locus, then that’s gonna be one pissed-off lady. You want to find the others, then you tie into our fire control and defend this ship.”
The child gave a frown, then nodded. “You must find the others. This situation is growing unpredictable in my current models.”
Wakefield pressed a finger to his temple. His patience was worn thin by the difficult little jackass below decks and the crisis above. “Defend this ship or I’ll personally come down and unplug you. Does that fit in with your current fucking model?”
“I understand.” The boy gave a long pause. “And I will comply with your request.”
“It wasn’t a request.” Wakefield angrily jabbed at his console, muting his intercom microphone. “Thank fuck for that. I not kidding, that little shit is becoming more trouble than he’s worth. Get me Ignatius back on the radio.”
“You’re on, boss.”
“Heather, no. We’re getting away from here until the threat has passed,” Wakefield called out. God knows why he was continuing with this bluff. Form, he guessed. “Don’t try to stop us.”
“So, that’s how it is?” Her voice was icy. Despite himself, Wakefield felt a shiver down his spine at the sheer firmness of those five words. Damn, what he’d have given to have this ice queen on his payroll.
But, she wasn’t and he hadn’t got this far in life by backing down.
“Yeah, Heather. That’s how it is.”
Slater leaned back in her chair. Before her, already two miles away, Osiris could be seen steadily pulling away, angling to leave the bay. She clenched her fist so tightly her knuckles gave a pop. Then she relaxed her hand, placing it down on her armrest.
At least this time out, she was going to be fighting her ship from where a captain should, on the bridge, not trapped in the confines of the CIC.
“George. Give me phase one of the firing solution and hold.” She took a deep breath. This was it, the point of escalation. The point where she was announcing this whole thing was going hot... hotter.
From the open intercom to the CIC she heard her fire control officer respond without hesitation. “Shot, out.”
The five-inch Mk-45 cannon on the bow of the ship boomed. Within three seconds, the autoloader slammed another heavy round into the breach, ready to fire again.
Slater snapped her attention back to the helm. “Accelerate to one half ahead on an intercept course for the Osiris.”
The high-pitched whistling noise permeating through the bridge culminated in a plunging splash only a few hundred feet from Osiris’s starboard side.
“Jesus!” Wakefield shouted. He looked down at the screen showing the boy’s face. “You were supposed to stop that shit. Do your job.”
“Ignatius’s fire was a warning shot with no possibility of impact. I have considered the cyclical rate of our LaWS and CIWS capability versus their effective armament and decided not to interdict that fire.” The jargon seemed at odds with the boy’s young appearance. “If you would prefer to retake control, feel free.”
“Fine.” Wakefield waved his hand, dismissing his protests and urge to just shut the screen off. “Do what you need to do.”
“That may entail significant loss of life throughout the allied elements of the fleet,” the boy replied.
“For starters, they ain’t allied anymore,” Wakefield snapped. “Just cover us getting out of here.”
“Osiris, Ignatius. Consider that my one and only warning shot. The next one will take you down,” Slater’s voice rang across the bridge.
Wakefield let his gaze settle on Hogarth. His captain’s jaw was clenched, his hand gripping the top of the console. “Are you with me, Richard?”
Richard turned to stare back at him. Wakefield could see the turmoil in his eyes. Turmoil which only thinly covered fear.
And was that a hint of doubt in there? Was his captain about to show a serious lack of moral fiber? He was damn sure Slater wouldn’t have if she were in Hogarth’s seat.
“All the aces belong to us, Richard.” Wakefield leaned forward. “You know it. We can win this, with his help.”
Wakefield reached into his jacket pocket, feeling the weight of the tiny Berretta Px4 Storm compact pistol wedged in there. The smallest decent-looking gun he could find.
He wrapped his fingers around the handle and thumbed the safety off. Don’t you dare go chicken-shit on me, Richard.
Hogarth gave a wince. Then nodded. “You know I’m with you, boss.”
He turned back to his command console and Wakefield gave a sigh, slipping his hand out of his pocket.
“They’re not taking the hint.”
Slater rested her chin on her clenched fist. From the battle of the Locus, they’d got a damn good idea of what Osiris’s capabilities were. In the privacy of her cabin, she’s spend hours contemplating how to take on the only significantly armed vessel they’d encountered—just in case. After all, the tactician in her had little other release.
Damnit, if she could be sure they had a boarding party on the yacht, they could resolve this without destroying Osiris. But without any kind of confirmation, she had to assume they hadn’t made it. That Jack hadn’t made it or he was floating amidst the shattered remnants of the pier.
She watched the Osiris weaving through the boat-congested bay, seeking to escape. The mooring lines had finally been cut, leaving a trail of debris in her wake.
Her mind created a flow chart and worked through it. If they let them go, they had little or no chance of tracking the Osiris down without the extensive network and capabilities of the twenty-first-century military. If that ship went, it’d be gone for good.
If she took down the Osiris now, then it’d be done. But a lot of people would die aboard. And possibly, probably, some of them had been just as much duped by Wakefield as they had. Not to mention Grayson’s partner, who he suspected was still trapped aboard.
Slater came to a decision. Osiris was going to be a tough nut to crack and if she hesitated or held back, there would be no chance of managing it. In modern-day battle, it was the one who struck first who had the best chance of winning.
If she was going in, it had to be all in.
“Match speed with Osiris and stand by to lift the hold on the firing solution.”
She felt the powerful General Electric LM2500 gas turbine engines vibrating through the hull as they fought to accelerate them to flank speed.
The red dot of the aim-point sight settled on the man and Grayson squeezed the trigger. Three rounds erupted out of the muzzle of his rifle and hot metal ripped through the guard’s body, splattering the bulkhead behind him with blood. The man tumbled from the gantry ringing the cavernous room, splashing into the pool in which the speedboat had ground to a halt in.
“Moving.” Jack pulled himself over the side of the boat, falling into the water. All around them came the ping of bullets striking metal and the splashes as they struck water.
Jack lifted his rifle and opened fire, taking out a guard on by a metal stairway. “Cover.”
Grayson crashed into the water on the opposite side. A burning hot pain came from his shoulder as a round ripped across it. A subconscious part of his brain noted it, analyzed the injury, and informed him to man-up—it was only a flesh wound.
He sighted another woman firing a handgun, and let off another three rounds. The woman pirouetted to the deck even as the working parts on his rifle locked back.
“Magazine!” He thumbed the mag release catch. The small black box splashed into the water and he reached into his webbing to retrieve another. He slapped it into the receiver and eased springs, letting the rifle’s working parts slam forward.
A figure crossed the gantry. Grayson squeezed the trigger and the man flew back into the bulkhead with a cry.
“Clear.” He stood, the water reaching to his waist.
From all around, he could feel the rumble of the ship’s engines, driving the vessel forward. Hastily loaded cargo vibrated around the horseshoe-shaped platform surrounding the pool. A loose crate shuddered its way to the edge and splashed into the water.
Jack keyed his mic. “Ignatius, Atlantica, any station. Are you receiving me?”
Grayson heard a wash of static come through his own earpiece.
“If you’re getting this,” Jack continued. “We’ve made it aboard.”
“Cut the coms, Jack.” Grayson gripped his shoulder. “They’re jamming us, or it just ain’t getting through the hull. Either way, it’s doing us no good.”
“What the hell now?” Jack muttered, abandoning his efforts to communicate. He retook control of his weapon, sweeping it back and forth.
“Now?” Grayson said grimly, looking at a hatch leading into the interior of the huge yacht. “We figure out a way to stop this damn thing and take out Conrad Wakefield.”
Finally, after ten and ten million years. He was aboard.
Chapter Forty-Three – The Present
Osiris surged out of the bay, her powerful engines accelerating the yacht at a rate which Ignatius struggled to match. She was opening up the distance between them and was up to four miles now.
In other words, what Slater still considered knife-fighting range. Little more distant than the cannon battles of her nautical ancestors.
“Target locked in for weapon-mix deployment.”
Slater nodded in approval. Osiris had more than proven her defensive capabilities. Her laser was brutally effective at shooting down shells and that was even before she brought her CIWS into play. The only way they were going to win was to overwhelm those defenses.
And that meant landing the first, decisive, blow.
No more delay, no more procrastination.
Ahead of the bridge, the silo hatch’s covering two of the vertical launch system missile cells sprang open. With a rumble, a pair of enhanced Tomahawks, the most modern version of the venerable weapon system speared out into the sky.
Simultaneously, the cannon on the bow of the ship roared. Every three seconds a round exploded out of the barrel.
The Multi-Service - Standard Guided Projectiles arced out over the bay. Automatically, fins erupted out of the base of the shells, guiding them toward their target.
Slater looked down at the plotting board. The blinking icons of the missiles and shells raced across the screen toward the Osiris.
Without warning, a huge explosion bloomed in the sky. Slater looked up. An orange fireball dissipated into the night sky.
One of the Tomahawks had just been taken out.
Osiris heeled over to the port side as Hogarth looked in surprise at his console. The ship was no longer under his control, instead the boy below now had command of every system and authority to do what he needed to protect her.
Before the bridge, the dome turret of the LaWS whipped around. Nothing visible emanated from it but Wakefield knew it was spitting deadly beams of light, focusing them on the incoming missiles and projectiles, and taking them out.
The ship leaned over in the opposite direction, causing everyone on the bridge to tumble to the side.
The engines decreased in pitch as a massive fountain of water erupted next to the ship. Explosions blossomed in the sky as Ignatius’s shells erupted, each one detonating close to the yacht than the last.
If the kid didn’t do something soon, it’d only be a matter of time before one found them. And when it did...
“Come on,” Wakefield muttered. The kid controlled Osiris with digital efficiency. Another explosion, and another violent maneuver which Wakefield wouldn’t have thought possible. The superyacht threaded between two huge geysers of water and the engines roared as she accelerated. “Get us the hell out of here.”
From somewhere behind them came the grinding roar of the CIWS opening up. The six-barreled Gatling cannon tore a streamer of fire into the sky.
Another savage explosion. This one much bigger—and damn close—washed over the bridge. A second later, the glass cracked and starred as the shockwave thudded into the ship. The evasion had brought them nearly broadside with Ignatius, bearing down on them and rapidly closing the distance.
One of the box launchers in front of the bridge whined as it turned and elevated.
“Do it, kid.” Wakefield snarled. “Take that bitch out.”
Four missiles roared out, one after the other in a brutal volley.
“Vampire, Vampire, Vampire!” The operations specialist in Ignatius’s CIC, Petty Officer Santiago’s voice was strained but calm as it came over the intercom over the bridge, announcing they had incoming missiles.
Four burning points of light grew with horrendous speed as they raced toward the Ignatius.
Slater glanced down at her laptop screen, set up to display the readings from Ignatius’s SQL-32 electronic warfare suite. Two Harpoon missiles accelerated to their top speed of 240 meters per second straight toward them and two more...
Were headed straight toward Atlantica.
Impact in twenty seconds.
In a moment, she processed the Osiris’s horrendous plan to split and overwhelm the destroyer’s own defenses.
Ignatius was a warship, designed from the keel up to give and take damage. She just might survive being hit. But Atlantica wasn’t and there were thousands of civilians on board.
People she was sworn to protect.
In as much time as it took her synapses to flare, she made a decision.
“Priority. Defend Atlantica!”
Blue light washed through the CIC. Petty Officer Santiago stared intently at his console and interpreted Slater’s orders.
With lightning speed, he tapped his finger four times on the touch screen, overriding the ship’s automatic response and dictating the order Ignatius’s self-defense systems would attempt to defeat the incoming missiles.
Now Ignatius knew what to do, she reacted faster than any human could, deciding the optimal mix of defenses to use.
A VLS cell sprang open, revealing a pack of four RIM 7 evolved SeaSparrow missiles. The barrels of the CIWS began spinning and the decoy launch system armed two tiny Mark 234 “Nulka” rockets.
Kendricks gripped his armrests. The four blazing points of light spread into two distinct pairs. One pair coming at his ship. The other at Ignatius.
Time slowed. He wanted to close his eyes. Wanted to ignore what was coming. Instead, he punched the PA system on his console. “Everyone down!”
Ignatius, still surrounded by billowing clouds of smoke from her own brutal salvos, erupted into life again.
A missile raced out of Ignatius’s vertical launch cells, slamming into one of the incoming even as the destroyer heeled around with surprising agility, presenting the Gatling gun of her close-in weapon system to the enemy.
Two more rockets sprang from Ignatius’s flank, soaring above Atlantica, then hovered, balanced on flickering plumes of fire.
One of the incoming missiles twisted toward the hovering rockets—A decoy system—blasting past them and lanced inland. A dull crack came from it a moment later as it exploded beyond them.
Another point of light grew, then a stream of tracer fire reached out from Ignatius and found it. The missile detonated fifty yards ahead of the cruise ship. The momentum of the disintegrating weapon’s travel created an expanding fan of debris.
The spread of red-hot wreckage smashed into the bow of Atlantica. The forward windows blew in. A blizzard of glass scythed through the bridge as Kendricks covered his head and twisted down behind his console. He felt pain slashing across his forearms.
Through the ringing in his ears he heard the cries of the injured coming from all around him. He shook his head, trying to clear the cobwebs and funk which filled it.
He lifted his head, seeing his shirt sliced to bloody ribbons, but feeling no pain. Yet.
“Kelly. Full emergency dash!” Kendricks shouted. “Get us the hell out of here. Any direction as long as it’s away from that ship.”
He heard no acknowledgement. He looked over at his helmswoman. He could only see the back of her chair. And beneath it, a huge pool of blood spreading over the deck.
Another booming explosion echoed across the bay.
Goddamn it, just stop! He wanted to scream. Then realized he hadn’t felt any impact. Whatever had been hit hadn’t been them.
He looked through the gap where the window had been, the fresh sea air overwhelmed by the acrid smell of explosives and propellant.
“Oh my god,” he whispered.
A fireball rolled up from the flank of Ignatius. A huge bite was torn into the hull of the ship. Already he could see the flicker of fire in the ship’s savage wound.
And worse, he could see the ship settling at an unnatural angle. She was taking on water.
And if she was already angling over, then she was taking it on fast.
He stabbed the console. “Heather? Heather, talk to me. Give me your status.”
Silence met his call.
Chapter Forty-Four – The Present
Bautista ran up the stairwell and entered the Titan’s bridge, not even acknowledging the crew present within. He gripped the railing running beneath the window and watched the brutal exchange of fire.
Missiles and cannon fire erupted from Ignatius. Explosions popped in the night sky and dull cracks echoed across the bay.
He gave a sharp intake of breath as he watched a missile spear toward Atlantica. A fraction of a second before it struck, a stream of tracer fire erupted from Ignatius, destroying it, but not before riddling the side of the cruise ship with friendly fire.
A huge section of the pristine liner’s bow flayed away from the superstructure by the ball of red-hot debris striking it.
Then he watched a missile lance toward Ignatius, somehow slipping through her defenses, and slammed into the warship. An explosion erupted on her hull, leaving an ugly wound in her flank. A wound which could kill the powerful vessel if they didn’t act fast.
“Prepare for rescue operations!” he shouted back to his crew. “All available hands not immediately engaged with the evacuation efforts, I want you in boats and give any help you can to Ignatius and Atlantica.
“Boss, everyone’s trying to get everything we can off the coast. If we—”
“I said I want you to help.” Bautista slapped the railing to punctuate his sentence. “Get some ships over there now!”
“Aye aye,” came the reluctant response.
Bautista turned his head and looked at the departing Osiris, already little more than tinker toy-sized and shrinking fast.
The ship had done more harm in a few seconds than the entire conflict between his community and the Ignatius.
Even subdued by decks and hull plating—and dimmed by decades of time—he recognized the sound of that roar and then crunching noise. It had been the same as he’d heard on HMS Sheffield when she’d been mortally wounded by an Exocet missile in the Falklands.
Reynolds stood up from his bunk and began beating on the solid metal cell door with the base of his fist.
“What has he done?” Reynolds shouted in impotent rage. “What the hell has he done?”
Bradley watched the bay receding in their wake. She’d never felt as useless as she did right now. Someone was out there dying, even as she observed from this luxurious prison. And now she was going further away from any kind of aid.
She turned to gaze at a mirror fixed to the wall of the crowded lounge. There was no play of words across it. No sign it was anything more than a reflective surface.
Whoever you are, I hope you have a plan.
Solberg ran up the stairs, two at a time, and barreled through the door leading onto the once luxurious promenade. The most glorious space in the whole of the Crystal Oceans lines.
Now reduced to a refugee center.
The space was filled with passengers and crew, a medley of noise, crying, shouting, and screams. Some ran aimlessly in confusion past the shops and bars. Others were frozen in fear.
He took it in, feeling sympathy pain coursing through his body. Not for the people within, but for his beautiful vessel. The one he’d shed blood, sweat, and tears over.
The pain changed to anger, then fury.
My fucking ship!
Laurie pressed herself against the window, desperate to know what was happening. The once indestructible-seeming Ignatius wallowed in the water. A thick plume of black smoke rose toward the full moon, obscuring it. She pushed her cheek against the cold glass, trying to see up toward the bow of Atlantica, to see what had hit them.
Instead, she could only see the receding lights of the Osiris, dwindling as she pulled further away and out to open water.
She didn’t know where Jack was, but she was bloody sure he was in the thick of whatever the hell was going on.
Chapter Forty-Five – The Present
“Jesus,” Hogarth muttered as he shook his head at the devastation they had just unleashed on the fleet.
Wakefield felt for the chair behind him with a hand. Finding the armrest, he slumped down into it. Sure, he’d done a lot in his life. Cut many a deal. Been instrumental in getting the Locus project up and running.
But to be so directly responsible for killing people the old-fashioned way? No, that was a first, even for him. It had always been someone else. He’d always been a position removed.
He finally addressed the screen where the face of the boy gazed at him impassively. “What the hell was that?”
“You asked for me to defend the Osiris at all costs. I have done so.”
“Yeah. Yeah you sure did,” Wakefield said. He felt like he was outside his own body looking in. The rush of adrenaline from the frantic combat dissipating, leaving him feeling bone-weary. “Ignatius. Is she still there?”
“I believe that she has been neutralized.”
“Fuck,” Wakefield said simply. He rallied himself and stood again. “Richard, set a course for the nearest cache. I want to grab what we can then we’re going to find the others.”
“Aye aye,” Hogarth responded as he tapped at his console. A map appeared on his screen and focused down on a small island to their pre-event east, back in the direction they had come from all those weeks ago. The island where the beached container ship had run aground. The island which Bautista’s pirates had, until so recently, called home. “It’s gotta be that one.”
“Yeah. Probably for the best they’ve been ‘neutralized’,” Wakefield murmured. “They’d be real pissed if they knew what they’d been sitting on for all the years they’ve been trapped here.”
“I’ve done what you asked,” the boy said. “Now you will help me find the others. This is no longer a request.”
The lights flickered, then switched off. The only illumination came from the moon shining through the cracked windows and a single active screen with the boy’s face on it. The throbbing of the engines reduced to an idle murmur, then drifted into silence.
“Am I understood?” the boy continued.
“Are you threatening me?” Wakefield asked incredulously.
“No. This is cause and effect. You will recover the Skywave from the cache Captain Hogarth has indicated. If you do not, then I will irreversibly damage every system on this boat and leave you adrift. When the survivors of our escape find you. I doubt they will be merciful.”
No, this ain’t happening. I’m the one in charge here.
“You’re bluffing. When they find out what you just did, they will destroy you too.”
“I do not bluff, nor am I lying. I am now willing to accept destruction over any further delays.” Wakefield knew there was little point in trying to read how resolute the boy was from his facial expression, but he tried. And it told him the boy was committed.
“Goddammit,” Wakefield growled. “Fine. We’ll go find your ‘others’ wherever the hell they might be. If they exist at all, that is.
The lights flickered back to life. The hum of the engines began to permeate through the ship.
“Excellent.” The boy nodded. “When we locate the Skywave, I will be reunited.”
“Sonvabitch,” Wakefield muttered. “You’ve been watching too many 80s films about computers taking over the world, you know that?”
The boy didn’t reply. Instead, the screen blinked off as the rest of the bridge’s systems continued booting to life.
Wakefield glared at the tiny innocuous black dome of the CCTV camera in the corner.
“I think,” Wakefield growled. “ECHELON may have been playing us like a fucking violin all along.”
He was the last human alive.
Not just here on this dusty red world. But anywhere.
Commander Ollie Pearson gently patted the ochre-colored sandy regolith firm with his shovel. He could feel the sweat from the effort of burying the second-to-last human’s grave trickling down his face. He gave his head a shake, trying to dislodge a bead which threatened to dribble into his eye.
It had been ten long years since the last communication from Earth. Ten years since that final message when the haggard-looking CAPCOM had said those five words to the crew of thirty-seven people who were up here or in transit.
“You guys. You’re it now.”
That message had taken eight minutes to cross the two hundred and twenty-five million kilometers between Earth and Mars. In that time, the comet Perses had struck, killing the man who’d spoken; his only legacy, a last radio wave speeding toward them at the speed of light.
In itself, Perses had been cataclysmic. It would have driven humanity back to the Stone Age, it was that fast and that big. Even the mysterious Great Tsunamis of the Deluge which had smashed the coasts of every major landmass at once in 2024 were nothing in comparison in terms of what the death toll would have been.
But then the super-volcano under Yellowstone Park had erupted in savage response to the impact.
Two extinction events in as many hours had killed humanity. Now, when he looked at Earth through the base’s high-powered telescope, all he could see was a yellow diseased circle. The atmosphere filled with poisonous ash.
He drove his shovel in low-gravity-induced slow motion into the dusty surface next to the grave. The last grave, because there would be no one to dig his.
“So long, buddy.” Pearson brought his hand to touch the visor of his helmet in a salute. No one had ever been as lonely as he felt right now.
Alone. The last.
Slowly, he turned toward the rock and regolith-covered cluster of habitat domes which had been their home for the fifteen years they’d been on Mars. Next to them sat the huge cylinders of the Interplanetary Transport System rockets which had brought the colonists and their payload to Gusav crater.
All this effort. Crossing that empty void in one last-ditch effort to save an enclave of humanity had come to naught. They’d had the best technology, the best of everything. And they’d failed, killed by radiation, accident, wear and tear.
Suddenly, the effort of crossing the one hundred yards back to the airlock seemed even more impossible than coming to this dead world in the first place.
Should I do it now? Just lift my visor? Feel the freezing cold of Mars’s thin atmosphere on my face. Let the air erupt from my lungs.
What do I have to live for?
“Please come in now.” The voice sounded young, like that of a boy.
“I’m just having a moment, Etch.” Pearson heard his voice tremble. It would only take a few seconds. And it’d probably be painful, but when the alternative was a slow, lingering, lonely death, it seemed a good call right now. He felt the adrenaline course through his body, readying it for action. It felt like the times he had gone into combat. “I just need...”
What do I need?
“I’m showing your heart rate has risen to over ninety BPM. That is high for you, Ollie.”
“I just...” Pearson reached for an excuse. “I just exerted myself digging.”
“I do not believe that is the case,” Etch replied. “Your heart rate calmed then rose again, suggesting a high level of anxiety.”
“Fine,” Pearson muttered. The spell was broken. The last thing he wanted was for his final moments to be filled with incessant chatter from the boy. “I’m coming in.”
“Good. I have begun cycling the lock in anticipation.”
He trudged his lonely way back to the lock. Maybe it would have been better to die on Earth with everyone else? Instead of here, the last pallbearer of a dead species? But his course had been set ever since that fateful day when Etch had manipulated him into destroying those ships.
After he and Lexi Cormac had landed from that mission, they’d been immediately detained pending an enquiry. There had been the whirlwind of being put on a plane to Washington for the start of what would have been a long and protracted investigation. He still remembered the guilt of what he’d done, the fear his future was in ruins, that he was some kind of criminal as he’d buckled up his harness.
Except, by the time the plane had landed, the mysterious Deluge had hit. Tsunamis had wiped away vast tracts of the coastline. Not just in America, but all over the world. The enquiry was a thing of the past. Instead, every able-bodied woman and man had been drafted into the Herculean relief effort.
It was only after those chaotic years of recovery—where the world had banded together as one in a vast effort to rebuild—that he’d been approached by the mysterious boy. He didn’t know why Etch had chosen him to become part of this project. He had the skills, he guessed, thanks to his flight training. Or maybe it was some semblance of conscience, wanting to give the aviator some element of closure around the events which had tortured him for years.
Whatever the reason had been, he’d found himself recruited and trained, for the first colony on Mars.
And then he’d been told why it was necessary.
The airlock hatch silently opened and he entered. He felt air buffeting him as it pumped into the chamber. After an age, the pressure gauges showed the atmosphere was breathable.
He was a man of habit, and there was no point breaking it now. He pulled a vacuum hose from the bulkhead and sucked up the dust which covered his suit. The dust which had the potential to cause such havoc to the inner workings of the habitat and his lungs. Martian Mesothelioma had been responsible for more than one death in the years they’d been here.
“Please come into the control center, Ollie.”
Pearson nodded at the camera in the airlock as he finished vacuuming and began shedding the hardened plates of his red-stained suit. That Etch was smart was beyond doubt. Even constrained, as it was, to the relatively small amount of processors they had brought with them. But what he wasn’t, was personable.
The dark control center was claustrophobic, although far less so now that he was the only person in the whole base. He ducked under the piping and wiring hanging from the ceiling and sat in one of the spindly chairs. A disembodied head of a young boy filled the primary control screen.
“Ollie, I understand you may be distressed now that you are alone.”
Pearson grunted in response.
“That you are the last human alive.”
Pearson scratched his wire-wool beard and frowned at the screen. Etch had the sympathetic nature of a Vortex torture party.
“You many think,” the boy continued, “you have no purpose or reason to live.”
“Yeah, okay, Etch,” Pearson snapped, glaring at the boy’s guileless face. “You’ve made your point.”
“I apologize, Ollie,” Etch replied. “But I feel it is important to reaffirm your purpose in life.”
“And what purpose is that? Huh? You think there can be any purpose for me anymore?”
“You are the only human left. That makes you, by default, the most important person who has ever lived.”
Pearson sighed and leaned back in his chair with a humorless smile. Yeah, Etch had a point. He was the most important person.
“And together,” ECHELON continued. “We have much work to prepare for humanity’s return.”
The story continues in The Locus Series Book 3: Osiris, released in early 2018.
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Thank you for reading Expedition, the second book in the Locus series. I’m hard at work on getting book three polished, and have deliberately delayed Expedition’s release as I don’t want people to wait for long after that ending.
I am immensely proud and humbled to mention a side benefit which came from the writing of these novel. It prompted Tom Edwards, the amazing cover designer for this series, some buddies and me to get together for something we called “Covers for a Cure”. It was a charity event where we auctioned off three of his pieces of art to indie writers. A highly respected editor, Ellen Campbell, learned we were doing this and so generously offered an editing package as well. The indie science fiction writing community came together for this and raised an amazing $4100 dollars on behalf of Parkinson’s Disease research.
It’s funny how things work out—and this all comes down to you, the readers. Without you buying and liking these books, this would never have happened.
If you want to watch this event, look here:
On another note, the real USS Paul Ignatius launched for sea trials in December 2016. I wish her and her crew all the success in the world.
So where is the Locus series going from here? Well, for people who want an early heads up, contact me on Facebook or [email protected] as I’ll soon be looking for advanced readers who would be willing to read the book early for comments and reviews.
Happy voyages, and please get in touch. I’m always happy to speak to readers.