Editor’s Note: An extortionist code-named “Viking” has seized control of a private warfare technology, pitting a U.S. Defense corporation against terrorist conspirators in a bidding war. His leverage: a threat to destroy the luxury liner The Pearl Enchantress and its 3000 passengers.
This excerpt begins after the Pearl Enchantress has lost power and been boarded by pirates working for Viking. The passengers have been ordered to stay in their sleeping quarters, and the pirates have vowed to shoot and kill any passenger who disobeys. Defying the order, retired Air Force combat weatherman Jack Rove slips out undetected for a risky deep dive to investigate the extent of the danger.
Hovering along the hull of the Pearl Enchantress made him feel like he was gliding over a barren seafloor, no carnival of marine life to admire, just a smooth, gray surface and endless stretch of wall. He plunged deeper yet, level with the upper keel, and drifted between two propeller blades. Over eighteen feet in diameter, the propellers had once whipped a force that could move megatons. Now they lay dormant.
Thoroughly he searched every blade. Nothing there. He checked his air gauge and figured he had twenty minutes to spare. He hadn’t descended below thirty feet and wouldn’t need much time to decompress. With an extra cylinder in tow, he had a few good breaths before he would be forced to surface. He ascended on the port side and resumed his examination of the hull, his light guiding the way. Occasional gold shimmers floated by his mask, reflections of plankton, debris, and other particles.
His hand struck something, making him pause. Circling back, he held the glow stick closer to the ship.
There it was, finally, as he’d suspected. No wonder he hadn’t seen it before: The gray of the ship’s plates had camouflaged its color. He defogged his mask again to allow for better scrutiny, then eyeballed his find, assessing the power of the explosive device.
One blast would hardly be enough to take down the cruise liner. Larger cruise ships were divided by watertight bulkheads into six or more flood-proof sections, preventing horizontal flow along lower decks in case of a breached hull. The craft could endure a single mighty explosion without sinking, but multiple discharges, yield and placement calculated correctly, could do her in. Rove noted the depth of the device, then swam on with renewed purpose.
A hundred feet forward, he found another. Sure enough, someone had placed charges around the perimeter. He examined the device up close, wondering if he could disarm it.
A foreign light emanated from the distance, the rays perpendicular to the ship. Judging by the clarity and brilliance, Rove guessed it was coming from a probe.
Swimming nearer, he discovered otherwise. Someone was hard at work, fixing more explosive charges to the hull.
Rove knew his glow stick would give him away. He considered tucking it into his vest but decided against it. There were spares if he needed them. Unstrapping a lead weight from his waist, he hooked it to the rod, then let the stick plummet, watching the glow fade like a firefly in fog. Altering his angle of approach, he took a diagonal route around the back of the light. He had no idea whether the other diver was armed, but there was no reason to risk it. The surprise factor was his, so he moved in.
His body parallel with the seafloor, Rove chose an attack depth level with the other diver’s shoulders. He kicked his fins and drifted until he could reach out and touch the man, making sure to hold his breath to remain soundless. As the man worked, Rove studied the fastening method, memorizing how the charges were being fixed to the ship’s plating.
After a few moments, he’d seen enough; soon he would need to exhale. The buildup in his lungs left little time to devise an assault. He had options, the best of which did not involve letting the man bleed. He had no idea what predators infested these waters. He considered using the man’s regulator as a garrote, or turning his own breathing device into one. Throttling the other man would be easy if Rove could position himself well. Or he could simply slice the cords of the hijacker’s regulator and puncture his vest, then hold him submerged, forcing the hijacker to inhale that painful lungful of water . . .
The scuba light swung around and shone into Rove’s eyes, momentarily frying his optic nerve. Suddenly all bets were off. His first impulse was to reach out and grab the light. His arm was met with a yank, and the light flung out of both their hands, hovering a yard away and gradually sinking.
Were his retinas not suffering from the flash, he’d have been able to form a clear visual of the diver, but the effects persisted, and he wasn’t quick enough. An elbow dug into his stomach. He recoiled, lurching toward the light, then reached for it again. A fin knocked his arm out of the way.
Rove blinked in his mask, still blinded. He looked left and right, unable to find the scuba-jacker. The man had fled, possibly for a better vantage point. He was still out of sight, and Rove was working without any sense of cardinal direction or up and down.
He had to move fast; the other diver would descend upon him. He fluttered his fins and jetted seven feet outward. A three-sixty degree pan of his surroundings revealed nothing. Somewhere in the third dimension the hijacker waited, planning a move.
The knuckles came fast and hard. A sidelong blow sent pain spearing through Rove’s neck, and was followed by a kick that jarred his rib cage and nearly splintered bone. A hand clenched his hair and tugged hard while the other wrenched off his mask and snorkel, leaving him blinder than before.
A skilled fighter would have gone straight for his regulator and probably killed him already. This
enemy was no trained professional. Rove focused, reining in his pulse. He had forfeited the element of surprise; the mistake had been his, though his opponent hadn’t fully taken advantage of it.
He needed a swift recovery. He squinted, seeing only a blur, then grabbed a spare glow stick and cracked it, allowing him to discern a long, pointed object in the hijacker’s hands. The object rotated to face him. He thrust himself out of the way in time to evade the speargun’s projectile.
Ducking, Rove realized he had literally brought a knife to a gunfight—but, for all he knew, his aggressor might have just wasted his only shot. Maneuvering to the hijacker’s backside, Rove rammed a fist into the man’s spine and seized his regulator. He wrenched out the mouthpiece and used the tube as a noose, cutting off the air supply. The hijacker thrashed, flailing the waters in search of his spare. Rove snatched it away and held the tube out of reach. His face changing from bright red to blue, the hijacker wrestled with Rove for control of the regulator. Edging his fingers between his neck and the tubes for leverage, he finally wriggled free of the stranglehold and buried his nose in the bubbles of a purging mouthpiece. Not about to lose his advantage, Rove thrust a knee against the man’s tailbone, buying time to unclasp his knife and drive his blade through the man’s vest.
His BC torn, the hijacker scissor-kicked, shooting toward the surface. Rove grabbed hold of an ankle and yanked him down, while reducing his own buoyancy. The hijacker threw a cascade of punches, whipping the water like a blender yet striking nothing. Still recuperating from the blinding flash and the loss of his mask, Rove retained his rear position and sealed off the man’s air valve.
The hijacker’s bubbles stopped streaming. The man resorted to poking Rove with the empty speargun. Rove jabbed back with his knife, slashing into the man’s dry suit over his arm. Torn neoprene pulled away, and Rove caught a flash of the horned helmet insignia.
A cloud of blood was oozing from the wound. So much for the clean attack, he realized.
Apparently recognizing he had thirty seconds or less until he had to breathe, the hijacker turned around and began wrestling with Rove for the knife. It was oxygen against sight; Rove had the air supply, his opponent a mask. The hijacker’s hands clenched around Rove’s wrist as the man cast his worthless regulator aside and made for another assault.
He pulled Rove’s palm toward his open jaw and tried to sink his molars into a finger. Rove bashed him in the nose before he could break flesh. Still gnashing his teeth, the hijacker managed to loosen the knife from Rove’s grip.
The blade glimmered, its edge reflecting the sinking light. Now armed and poised to lacerate, the hijacker drew near and swung the knife wildly. In an effort to stop the blade, Rove reached forward and clasped the man’s forearm, at the same time letting go of his spare regulator. The man took hold of it and stole a breath. In that moment of confidence, the man had relieved his lungs but forfeited position, giving Rove the angle he needed.
The hijacker had moved dangerously close to his opponent and suddenly lost sight of him. Rove clamped his arms around the man’s neck, constricting in an irreversible headlock. The hijacker grappled, but Rove was too powerful and too carefully placed. His thumb, bent into a small hook, reached under the man’s mask and gouged a path through an eye socket.
His face contorting, the hijacker writhed, letting out a muffled scream as his eye began to hemorrhage. Rove released his lock, retrieved his knife and suspended mask, and swam slowly away, leaving his foe sightless, airless, disoriented, and floundering in a pall of crimson water.
Rove’s victory had not gone as planned. The scent of open flesh had long since drifted, and he knew it. The waters had the illusion of chilling and congealing around him. He wasn’t sure why; perhaps the scuffle had drained him of strength, and fatigue had turned the water into molasses—or perhaps it had been the sight of death where he’d always imagined it, in the deep. Whatever the cause, he felt a violent desire to flee and kicked out of there as fast as he could. He glanced back in time to witness the materialization of a razor-like dorsal fin and a pair of sunken eyes, eyes without comprehension or malice. A whiplash snapped through the porbeagle’s body, and the hijacker’s screams were subdued.