GEOMAGNETIC PALSY HIT THE satellite navigation again.
Peter Mitchell scowled at the rebellious LEDs and the radar static, rubbed his chin stubble, and watched the compass in its plexiglas bubble dip and spin aimless as an oracle. It was built-in and he hadn’t seen any point to removing it. Anyway he liked it, part of the old bucket of bolts, like the crude mermaid some forgotten seaman had painted inside Nereid’s wheelhouse.
He pulled off his shades, rubbed bleary eyes, and squinted into morning-after sunlight over the purple-blue Aegean. The “wine-dark sea.”
With a groan, he groped for his binoculars and scanned, wincing at the sun dazzles. Was that a distant froth of boat wake? A border patrol? Or worse? He shook his head—all he could see now was glare. He lowered the lenses and fumbled through a bundle of old paper charts. More solar flares were hitting, amplified in effect by a geomagnetic null phase, garbling navigation signals. All the satellite systems getting damn shaky. And with the accelerating geomag field wobbles, the communications blocs weren’t bothering to maintain the satellite grid, so the gaps even during stable intervals were getting bigger. A lot of useless junk in decaying orbits up there. Like the “Peace Shields” the Reds and Feds had sucked their budgets to launch.
Scanning the charts and his scribbled updates, he snorted. Big boys had their horns clipped now, down to ground level with the rest just trying to read the maps. Momma Earth not a hell of a prize any more, what with the pollution and global warming, rising sea levels, quakes, ozone holes, and solar radiation showers—not to mention the human hordes on self-destruct.
Fire and brimstone. Retribution? Daddy Reverend righteous-right after all?
Peter shrugged. Looked like nobody, meek or not, was going to inherit. Just keep paying the price of progress right along with one of the geomagnetic polar alignment reversals that had maybe happened last time to herald the Flood. This time it was a new pandemic, Rapid-Proliferating Hansen’s—leprosy on fast-forward. He’d seen them go, like the guy at the shipyard. You start with a rash, some bumpy “sunburn blisters,” and the next thing you know your fingers are just lumps, your face a horrorshow blob choking the breath out of you. No cure in sight.
On the plus side, the powers that be were too busy to worry about one Peter Mitchell, “freelance import expediter” and NorthAm AWOL from the latest un-greatest war, or a missing Turkish spy boat dressed down as a fishing trawler, impounded during that same illustrious Gulf War Three. All things considered, he was sitting pretty to watch the world go to hell in a handbasket.
A lopsided grin cracked his stubble. He checked the radio and radar again—still nothing but static. Could be anything out there, he was cruising blind. And he couldn’t shake the itchy feel of something closing in, a sort of useful sixth sense from his Navy days, much as he hated to admit it. Unrolling another chart, he swore, then leaned down to rummage in the console cubby for the right tube. He straightened, clipping his head hard against the wheel. “Son of a bitch!”
He slammed the cubby closed, flinching as the clatter tromped spike-shod through his hangover. Frowning at the nav readouts, he popped the heel of his hand against the tried and true spot on the console. Gauge needles jumped, but the digitals kept up their drunken dance.
Clutching the charts and a coffee bulb, he left the wheelhouse, sucked in a fresh salty lungful, and hauled himself up the ladder to the flying bridge. He nudged its wheel, dropped into the pilot seat, pulled off his shades and lifted closed eyes to the morning sun already simmering. He stifled another groan and rubbed his throbbing temples. Reaching for the fifth-liter in its handy slot, he thought better of it, took a sip from the lukewarm coffee, and made a face.
Peter grasped the wheel. “Captain Mitchell surveys his domain.”
Up here on Nereid’s bridge, bathed in light shimmering over the distant stark-stone islands of the Cyclades and skimming closer above the purple-blue depths, he could almost forget looming Doomsday. These islands had been honed to the bare bones for centuries. They’d somehow gone beyond time and change, despite the recent earthquake and volcanic upheavals rearranging map contours, like they’d survive anything mere humans could throw at them.
He peered edgily from his chart to an approaching scatter of bare islets. Hadn’t taken this route in years, not since the big Number Three. Most of the old drifting mines, at least, had been cleared out by pukes like himself—ex-puke—but he didn’t like running unknown waters without his depth-sounder. The geomagnetic fluctuations screwed up more than just radio transmissions. Right now, they were getting one of the unstable shifts to null in the global field, as the north and south poles wavered in and out or split into random islands of magnetic charge. Played hell with fine-tuned circuits. And he wasn’t in the mood to appreciate the irony that advances in nanocircuitry miniaturization had come just in time to make the electronics even more vulnerable to the electromagnetic field pollution.
He studied the chart, made a course correction, and stood to scan 360 with his binoculars. No sign of border patrols. Or pirates. Or Sons of the Prophet.
He sat, drumming his fingers, still keyed up. Too easy. So why look a gift horse? If he couldn’t monitor the patrol radio bands, they couldn’t get spotter reports on him. Maybe he’d make it clear. He leaned back, riding the dip and surge over low swells as the twin diesels hummed high. The sea glimmered around him, breeze freshening, sky gem-clear. Off to starboard, toward one of the rock islets, a gleaming curve broke the surface, then two finned backs—dolphins, breaching in a burst of spray.
Despite his jitters, Peter smiled. Greek sailors counted them good luck. He just liked to see them around, liked to cruise in the midst of a rough-and-tumble of sleek dolphins riding Nereid’s bow wake, grinning up at him. No hate or fear in their eyes, laughing through it all at the lunacies of Homo sapiens.
He wanted to believe the islands and the dolphins would survive after all the wars and warriors were long gone. Somehow he needed to believe that something beautiful and pure would outlast human stupidity. His own Noble Quest had certainly been a roaring farce.
Another leap, a splash, and the dolphins were gone. Peter shook his head, checked the radio and radar. Still no go. His fingers drummed on the armrests. He took another look at the chart, tempted to veer off on a shorter course, but that would put him right through a recent pirate hotspot.
Damn. He wanted to get this run over and done with, gold standard stashed in the kitty, maybe invest in an engine upgrade for a little more edge, and thank you ma’am Kali nichte Good-bye.
He blew out a breath and leaned over the spray shield to peer down through the forward deck’s open hatch to the bunks.
His client was still sleeping. Pricey fantasy material for certain tastes, the pale, coltish limbs and blond tousle so fair it was almost white. A delicate blue artery pulsing beneath her firm little chin. Face half-hidden, smoothed out in dream, the only hint of color in barely parted pouty lips. And dark-smudged lids hiding the feral glitter of her eyes. Even asleep, she screamed Trouble.
Peter shook his head, gripping the wheel. Sunlight on the swells pulsed hypnotically, rippling through him like the high of the night before. . . .
Taverna Georgios. Smoke and drunken splashes of light from antique neon signs washed over dim faces and scratched plastic tabletops. The insistent beat of bouzouki, Greek sailors on weekend leave dancing and tossing plates onto the floor. Peter and his drinking buddy Chen laughed as off-duty barmaid Viv shouted dirty jokes over the ruckus.
“—didn’t tell him he got the wrong end.”
Peter groaned. “Jesus, where do you dredge them up?”
“She’s an Amazon.” Chen raised his glass to her.
Viv punched him. “Lay off that.”
Chen reached over to lift the crystal pendant hanging above her cleavage, turning it to display the little plasticized portrait of Saint Ariadne, the trendy new Gaea Incarnate who was supposedly healing RIP-leprosy by laying on hands. Could have been any young Greek girl—braided dark hair, straight nose, level brows over wide-set eyes. Nobody had recent photos, so maybe she was just an urban myth, like the scattered “sightings” and miracle cures.
Chen swung the pendant. “So why the denials? Isn’t that what your Corybantes want—blow all us male pigs off the face of Gaea?”
“They’re not my anything! They’re a bunch of extremists.” Viv yanked the chain from his fingers. “I told you, those Corybantes aren’t the same as Gaea Speaks. We want to use Gaea power to heal, not kill.”
“So you say Gaea speaks? Maybe you do better to listen.” It was Georgios, lips quirking behind his droopy mustache as he whisked away the empty ouzo bottle and plunked down a fresh one. “Listen, this land, she gives us every kind of death and destruction. For centuries. You do not cure her. You endure her angers, as always.”
Viv stiffened. “Oh, so it’s her fault! You think the earth wants these Alpha-male assholes with their bombs and germ warfare and ozone depletion and—”
“Remember the old tales.” Georgios gave one of those expansive Greek shrugs. “The Furies were women.”
He sauntered off as Viv spluttered, “That’s the same old macho crap! World-hating, woman-hating male culture and technology destroying the natural order.” She was quoting from some Goddess bible now. “Ariadne will never come out of seclusion to lead us if we swallow the same old patriarchal bullshit—”
“Hey. Drink up.” Peter grabbed the bottle and sloshed more ouzo into the glasses. Last thing he needed was another goddamn sermon, heard enough as a kid to last a dozen lifetimes.
“Well, if it ain’t Sir Galahad!” Now it was Crista, snapping a wad of bubblegum and nudging the other hooker with her, both barely-dressed in the ripped satin babydolls all the rage in the redlight district.
The other girl giggled, under the makeup and bleach another fourteen-year-old refugee.
Crista winked. “Come on, Mitchell, give you a discount.”
Peter just shook his head. They headed off to troll the sailors, heads together, Crista whispering and her friend laughing.
Viv smirked. “Hey, Mitchell, she’s the one—?”
Chen elbowed her and pushed the ouzo bottle at Peter, who scowled and poured. Big barrel of laughs. So he’d tried to “save” the little snot from her pimp who’d given her a black eye, back when he’d first arrived in Piraeus. Story just wouldn’t lie down and die.
Peter tossed back a shot and poured again. “Yia sas.” Bottoms up—which come to think of it was the perfect conclusion all round: The girls. The drinks. The North and South Pole flags. He shoved the Pai-gow dice at Chen, and soon the second bottle was ebbing to the point where the sailors’ dance on the broken dishes looked like fun.
A ripple of louder excitement washed through the dancers. The ripple wove its way past the hooting sailors to Peter’s side, planted spike heels, and tossed back a short fringe of platinum blond. “You Peter Mitchell?”
He didn’t know her—definitely not a local gal—but the face and voice were somehow familiar. And those narrow eyes, glitters of oddly pale azure.
Viv gasped. “But . . . you’re Leeza Conreid! Celebrity Smackback. We get it almost on schedule over Athens Cable.”
“The producers will be thrilled to hear it.”
“Yeah, catching shows got dicey when wireless crapped out with all the geomag static. It’s cable now, or chip download.”
The stranger lifted an eyebrow. “You’re wired?”
Viv shuddered. “No implants in this bod, Bless Goddess.”
Ms. Conreid rolled her Siamese-cat eyes. “NeoLuddite?”
“No, Gaea Speaks. We’re—”
“Yesterday’s news, dolly.” The gal reached down to snag Viv’s crystal pendant, studying its Ariadne icon. Her nostrils flared and her jaw clenched, then she was dropping the talisman with a dismissive flick of her blood-red fingernails. “D’you mind? I’ve got business with Mr. Mitchell.”
Chen, grinning, tugged Viv away into the smoke haze as the Conreid gal appropriated a chair. She was all skin-hugging black leathers and studs and big spiked bracelets and hair spiked out, too, crimsoned lips and pale pale skin, and it was really a ridiculous getup but maybe she was setting some nostalgia trend. He had to admit he liked it.
So he sat back while she made him her business proposition in a staccato spiel that managed to sound bored while her red-tipped fingers moved from stroking the bottle to running over his biceps. “. . . so all you have to do is get me through the closed Med League border. I’ve got a pass to interview Her Royal Highness Saint Ariadne.” Venom suddenly eating through the cool mask.
Peter sat forward. “You think she really is the Demodakis heiress? I thought they’d denied it.”
“No shit, Sherlock. But I’ve got the inside skinny.”
He rolled his eyes. “It’s a wild goose chase.”
“Yeah, for the golden egg. Don’t you catch the news feeds here in the boondocks? ‘Where is Ariadne? Who is Ariadne?’ Fifty-three percent media saturation with these Savior healer stories. I get the scoop, it takes me up to prime time.”
“Big bucks riding on it, whoever finds her first—look at that cool million the Sons of the Prophet are offering for the privilege of snuffing her. By this point, they don’t care if she’s for real or not.”
“Planning to cash her in?”
“Aren’t you a gem.” She shook her head. “But it’s all ripe for debunking. Maybe she’s not so saintly. . . .” She shrugged. “They said you were the best at slipping through patrols. You in, or not?” Her index finger sidled up his arm, under his rolled-up sleeve as her lips parted for a glimpse of a pink tongue.
Something was off, that venom the only real glimpse under the come-on. A scam? Nobody knew if Ariadne was for real, let alone how to find her. But Conreid had contacts all right. A NeuroLink celebrity, however minor, didn’t just wander into a Piraeus bar and pick up a Peter Mitchell. So what the hell, he had a nice buzz going. And he’d made the connection:
The iceberg-blue eyes, the lanky stalk, the promising pout right here in the flesh. That data chip one of his “relocating” clients had left onboard—a pirated Triple-X reissue from before Ms. Conreid had graduated to the networks, when she’d been just another NeuroPorn actress. “Hot Kitten.”
Now it looked like she wanted to plug him into the picture. He didn’t tell her she could stop talking him into the job. He was going stale, settled into the cozy smuggler’s milk run, Greece-Italy-Spain, throw in a pinch of North Africa. He did tell her fair enough they had the proverbial camel’s chance of getting through the Med League patrols and the Aegean pirates, not to mention he’d heard the Sons were in the area on a purge. Maybe it had to do with those Corybant warrior women blowing up an Arab chem-weapons plant in the name of their “Goddess reincarnate.” But for the kind of gold standard Conreid was talking he wouldn’t mind giving Saint Ariadne the finger, her and her duped devotees—one more holy scam. Ms. Media didn’t need to clinch the deal.
But somehow they ended up at the docks. Grin gone lopsided, he swayed with the bottle and watched her prowl Nereid’s cabin in those skintight black leathers. The crimson talons jittered over his stuff on the built-ins. She snapped her fingers, took the bottle, pushed him through the doorway of his dinky stateroom onto the bunk.
And they’re playing out the scene. He lets her direct, quick hands and flash of white silky skin beneath the unlaced vest, high little round breasts. He’s fuzzy on details, but the flesh is willing, spirit weak, and God knows she’s an expert, sucking him in, sucking him up and up and hot red dances behind his eyes. He looks down then.
Crimson lips, devouring him. Her eyes lock his—ice cold.
His gut goes empty and he’s spinning into black alien space, up down onto a white cratered moon exploding over him and she’s launching herself onto him, launching him into her, thrusting, demanding, her gleaming nails sweep down and a jolt of fire detonates and it’s over.
He’s blinking in a daze, chill white face of the moon floating over him. A red-smeared exultant smile.
She rolls off and away, watching the ceiling as she arches on her back, dips one businesslike fingertip in his spilled fluids and brings herself to a violent climax. She wipes her hands on the blanket, jumps up, says they’ll leave in two hours. She’s gone.
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