“—sighted off the coast.” The wheelhouse radio finally cut in, crackling static and broken phrases.
“Huh.” Peter jerked in his seat, swiveling to adjust the tuner.
“. . . limited resolution . . . appears to be a flotilla of small sailboats and dories . . . coastal patrol attempting to stop their. . . stated they must reach Saint Ariadne’s healing water on Tinos . . . . Conflicting witness reports—” More static, then a briefly clear voice, “Just received: The ecoterrorist Corybantes are claiming that Ariadne Demodakis has joined their forces. Sources are attempting to . . .” Hissing swallowed the rest.
The intermittent radio bursts kept him from nodding off at the wheel. More of the same. The wave of pilgrims converging on Tinos might be a good thing, muddy their tracks. His gaze shifted from sonar to the still-schizoid navigation readout to the gray-black cinders of the islets swelling ahead. He could almost see those crimson X’s inked over them.
He gripped the wheel, caught somewhere between sleep-deprivation and the relentless gritty drive of the second hit of speed, nerves firing the gut response to cut sharp to port, swing wide and run far. But not fast enough.
That troublesome high-speed boat on radar had veered off the regular route and was surging east. Right toward Nereid.
He had some choices, if it was the pharmco’s mercenary hydrofoil out for Ariadne’s healing “formula.” He doubted it was Med League, or they’d have tried to hail him. He could keep on his eastern swing around the long east-west band of the Zone—nuke-blasted islands, contaminated ship wreckage, spilled nuclear fuel still hot as a pistol. Use his missile if they attacked. A nasty little voice whispered he could give Ariadne up if it looked hopeless, and hopeless was the operative term. The mercs might keep the exotic blonde to sell for a sex slave, but Peter Mitchell? He’d be toast.
Or he could use the bolt-hole he’d plotted as a last resort—through the Hot Zone. Speaking of toasted. . . .
Closing his eyes, he could see the fuel facility at the Navy training center, that deep tank where they stored the spent rods waiting to be processed. Through the shielding water, you could see the Cherenkov’s radiation. The unnatural deep blue of the luminescence had an unearthly beauty, pulsating, the color not really in the water but his own eyes, sizzling bursts of rods and cones. Like those sapphire eyes of hers. X-ray vision.
“Damn.” He glanced over his shoulder. Should he tell them?
Leeza was Linked in, goggles on, fingers twitching on the control spindle. Ariadne sat at the galley table, her face just as zoned-out as she stared down at that big double-pointed crystal from the Tinos cave. Whatever she’d done on that little excursion to town had clearly exhausted her.
He swivelled around, rubbing his eyes. Bottom line, he knew damn-all about this Ariadne Demodakis. Maybe her father was right, keeping her locked up. Maybe she was crazy. Sure as hell Peter was nuts, dodging the Med League, the mercenaries, the suicide fanatics. For some gold standard he’d most likely never see. He didn’t need this.
He could try to call in some Med League air support right now, turn their Saint over. Take a vacation. Nice long stretch in the home islands off the Pelopponese, laze around swimming and fishing, take it one day at a time. Who needed Judgment Day and Papa Reverend’s voice whispering guilt and duty?
Peter shook his head. Up ahead, the contaminated islets were looming closer. Better tell them now, though he didn’t relish another Conreid panic attack. That boat on sonar was getting closer, definitely heading their way.
“Damn!” His fist pounded the armrest. Sweat broke out on his back, hand reaching for the fifth-liter in its slot.
“Mr. Mitchell?” Radiant blue gaze on him.
He blew out a breath and gestured at the view outside. “We might have to take a detour. Through the periphery.”
“I don’t understand.” Beside him, she leaned over the console, bringing a tantalizing aroma of skin and some kind of fresh herbal scent. “Is that. . . ?”
“That’s right.” He rubbed his face.
“But. . . why?”
“What? What’s going on?” Leeza was crowding into the wheelhouse, too, jostling behind Peter.
Ariadne gave Peter her considering look. She was back in her Scientist mode, and right now he was glad of it. She turned to Leeza. “It’s a Hot Zone. Tactical nuclear weapons were used against ships in this area.”
“Hot Zone!” Leeza grabbed Peter’s chair and spun it to face her. “What kind of bullshit detour is this, Mitchell? Now you want to fry us? I told Ri you were clueless, but this is just plain—”
“Can it.” He turned back to the radar display. “You’re the boss, Despoina. I headed this way to throw off pursuit, thought we’d circle east around the Zone, but it looks like a fast-moving boat is closing in on us. I think it’s the mercenaries. They’ll be sure to outgun us. Radio’s erratic, but I could try to hail your father’s forces to bail us out. Or I could try running through the fringes. Most people are too freaked to even come near the Zone. They might turn back.”
“Are you out of your mind? I did some research on this area, Captain Shit-for-brains! People were dropping like flies, anyone who came near this place!”
“That was right after the attack, lots of particulates still stirred up, and the short half-life stuff hadn’t decayed. There’s still contaminated wrecks and windblown dust, of course, but the spilled fuel’s the major—”
“No way! Ariadne, you’re not going to let him—”
“Wait.” She grasped Leeza’s shoulder. “Please don’t call my father’s troops. Are there alternatives?”
“We can’t outrun them. We could fight it out. They wouldn’t want to kill you, if they’re after your healing secrets, but. . . .”
“They might decide to simply eliminate the competition. And they would not hesitate to kill you or Leeza if we were captured. Go in now, Peter. Straight south through the middle of the Zone.”
“Are you out of your freaking mind?” Leeza grabbed Ariadne’s arms. “Give it up, call up the troops! Haven’t you seen what those fry-babies look like? Even the ones who survive. Cell damage, skin ulcers, immune systems shot, all their hair falls out and—”
“Leeza!” Ariadne pulled her arms free and grasped Leeza’s shoulders. “Yes, I’ve seen them. I’ve healed many of them.”
She turned to Peter. “People here call these Satan’s Islands. The fear is so strong I think no one would follow us.”
“Locals aren’t the only ones afraid.” He shot another look at the radar, the blip closing in. Hands clenching on the wheel, he curved in closer to the islets, roaring in full throttle as long as he dared before he’d have to slow down to weave his way in. He tossed back at her, “Look, I’m not cutting through the heart of it, no way. I’ve plotted a course along the periphery.”
“Madre de Dios! I don’t believe this shit!” Leeza spun around, tore through the cabin gathering up her gear, and disappeared down below.
“You don’t understand, Peter. We can go through the heart of the Zone. If we’re exposed, I can cure us. Even with significant dosage, and especially in acute versus chronic cases, my experiments with activated mineral water have demonstrated clear reversal of damage in—”
“Jesus!” Peter jerked the wheel, swerving around a barely-submerged rock reef. He had to cut back the throttles and check the chart. “Look, Despoina.” He glanced at her, bracing himself against the lure of her eyes, clear blue with those purple glimmering depths, or was that just in his own eyes, like the Cherenkov’s? “Maybe you’re a genius or a saint or maybe we’re all out of our minds, but I don’t care if you can make the dead rise, I’m not taking us into the heart of this Hot Zone.”
He swerved again, Nereid bucking over the waves, taking them past the first charred islet and in. One last glimpse on radar before the islets blocked behind them. “Shit!” The pursuing boat had picked up even more speed, closing in fast.
“Please, Mr. Mitchell—”
“—boat bearing Ariadne Demodakis—” The radio scanner locked in on a fragmented burst as they cleared the first islet. It cut out, then crackled in again, “—last warning. . . . out of the Zone and prepare to be boarded—”
“Fat chance!” Peter cut the wheel again, taking Nereid behind another islet, curving around it. He pointed at the channel running ahead between reefs toward a larger island, burned and lifeless. “Can you handle the boat, keep her on this course while I get the missile launcher set up? Good, go on up to the bridge, take the wheel up there.”
He waited until she was up there, then he hustled back to the deck to pull the fishing net and tarp off the launcher. He hefted a wire-guided missile into position, activated the guidance scope. Panting, he raced back into the wheelhouse to grab the chart and one of the assault rifles. No sign of Conreid, probably cowering below.
He scrambled up onto the bridge, thrust the chart at Ariadne, took the wheel. “Here. Keep us on that pencilled-in course, help me spot for reef.”
“Firing in sixty seconds. Turn around now and—” The radio sputtered through the shriek of the turbos.
Peter kept on, weaving around another jagged little islet as Nereid heeled hard starboard and spray lashed and he tried not to think about the contaminated dust swirling off the rocks in the breeze. Ahead, the bigger island swelled on them. They’d have to skirt it to the outside, couldn’t risk going in deeper around the other side. There were only a few of the smaller islets sheltering them from the open sea before his course would take them in a little deeper again, past the edge of the island.
“Damn!” He could see the hydrofoil now, closing in but still staying out beyond the Zone. “Hold on!” He shoved the throttles full forward, praying the chart was right, Nereid leaping ahead as Ariadne grabbed the sprayshield for balance.
“Peter!” She clutched his shoulder, pointed back.
The mercenaries were launching a missile. Peter punched the button to release a floating electronic decoy, hoping to hell the geomag static would screw it up less than it would their attacker’s missile guidance system as he cut the starboard throttle, spun the wheel and nearly broached taking her sharp around and back past a reef in a foaming whitewater loop as the missile corrected, started to re-seek, and exploded in a roar on the reef.
Peter pulled Ariadne down, ducking as rock fragments sprayed past, then he popped back up to grab the wheel and ride out the churning chop.
“Take the wheel! Back on course toward that channel. You okay?”
She nodded tersely, face set as she grasped the wheel, and he was dropping onto the deck, running back to guide the missile while he still had an open shot at the hydrofoil.
“Christ!” They were closing in. “Come on, come on. . . .” His hands were shaking with the adrenaline rush. He couldn’t fix on the target dancing in the scope sights. Nereid jouncing up and down on the chop, the hydrofoil jittering along, but then he had the target locked and was about to trigger Fire when the blank gray of another islet blocked his view.
“Damn!” That was the weak point with wire-guided—hitting a moving target from a moving target.
Whoomph. Another short-range from their attackers exploded behind Nereid under the surface, throwing up a gout of spray, soaking Peter and surging them forward. Merc’s tracking systems had to be off from the electromag interference—the weakness of non-wire-guided these days. He took a deep breath, steadying the target scope, waiting for the hydrofoil to reappear from behind the islet.
“You said they wouldn’t follow us in!”
He jerked his head up, saw Leeza in her hazmat jumpsuit and stocking cap, cowering by the rail, portable camera-goggles on over the filter mask. She shrilled in a shaky voice, “You said they wouldn’t attack Ariadne!”
“So write your Congressor!” He reached over to snap open the launch control for the defensive mines. “Here.” He tugged her closer. “If I give you the word, hit this button a couple times, releases a mine each time. Got it?”
Her goggles fixed onto the control pad. Clutching the rail with gloved hands, she nodded jerkily.
“Good. Stay down here behind the gunwale. Safer.” He shot a look ahead, then back to see the hydrofoil behind them now. “Bloody hell.” They were following Nereid in. Gut knotting, he swiveled the mounting, focused on them jiggling in the sights. “Keep her steady!” he shouted up to Ariadne as he clung to the scope.
He touched the trigger. With a jolt and a gout of vapor, the missile launched. He stayed with it, had to keep the target in his sights, guiding with the unspooling control wire until it hit, just a few seconds.
Back in the distance, the hydrofoil veered, and he followed it in the scope, grip slippery with sweat on the controls as Nereid bounced over some chop, he still had the hydrofoil in his sights, had to be close, but then it veered again. His missile ripped past their stern and into the sea. A muffled explosion and white foam sprayed the hydrofoil as it slewed sideways but kept after them.
“Damn it. Damn!” Peter raced up the deck, onto the bridge, grabbed the wheel and took them into a lurching evasive course. The hydrofoil was closing the distance between them.
“Conreid! Now! Conreid!” Nothing. “Ariadne! Yell back to her, dump those fucking mines now!” He gave the wheel another hard pull, goosing the throttles to pull them off to starboard.
“Peter, look out!” Ariadne grabbed his arm, jabbing a hand at an approaching reef. She staggered back to shout down at Leeza. “Release the mines!”
Peter never saw if she did. He was wrestling the wheel, barely missed the reef, closing in on the end of the big island and the blasted hydrofoil still on his tail. Ariadne groped forward beside him again, hair whipping, shouting as she pointed off to starboard. “That way! We will be safe then. They will not follow us that far in!”
He started to shake his head, no way was he taking them into the hot heart of it, but then he looked back and the mercenaries were launching another missile, all he could do was dump his last decoy, it was now or never as they shot past the end of the big island and he hit the port throttle, cut the wheel hard starboard, roared into the narrow cut taking them straight into the Hot Zone.
Their missile held on his old course, exploded on the decoy. Peter shoved the chart at Ariadne. “Start navigating!” He shot a look back. The hydrofoil was looping back, around to the cut. It slowed. Stopped.
Nereid flew on into the angled passage, island blocking off his view of the hydrofoil, taking them out of radar range. He cut speed, looked back again. Waited.
“Phew.” Dicey little skirmish. And he hadn’t even winged the hydrofoil. Would the Despoinis cough up for expenses on top? Re-arming on the black market would be pricey. . . . Just better hope they didn’t run into any more action before they made Crete.
“They are no longer following.” Ariadne had straightened, raking the hair off her face to peer back over the stern.
“They’ll be waiting for us to turn back.” He swallowed and gestured with his chin.
She turned to look. “Oh.”
The narrow cut between islands opened out into a natural harbor sheltered by the high cliffs now blasted into a lifeless moonscape. Twisted, blackened masses—most unrecognizable as former pieces of ships and a nuclear sub—were scattered over the rock slopes. A jagged thirty-foot length of twisted metal was imbedded in the cliff face to starboard. Sharp spires and melted blobs hulked out of the water, making the bay into a bizarre obstacle course. Gray ash drifted in the breeze off the lifeless islands.
“Here. Cover your nose and mouth.” Peter handed Ariadne his bandanna, then pulled up his T-shirt to cover his own lower face. He cut the engines way back, edging cautiously forward to grope out a passage.
Through the crystal-clear water as they passed over some shallows and more sunken wreckage, he could see them etched sharply: scattered, broken fuel rods. The sea shimmered a harsh radiant blue.
“Hellfire and damnation. . . .” he whispered.
Beside him, Ariadne stirred, then laid her hand on his bare arm. He turned to look into the steady, deep blue of her eyes. The color wasn’t at all like that sizzling virulent Cherenkov’s.
“Holy shit!” Leeza scrambled up from her huddled crouch on the deck, camera-goggles craning back and forth. She stepped forward, jerked back, hesitated, finally scurried forward to the rail. She aimed the goggles over the side, into the shimmering blue glow of radiation. “Subliminal. . . .”
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