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U.S. Marine Corp Combatant diver, Jessica Whitaker stepped off the edge of the boat and into the Pacific Ocean, barely making a splash as she entered the water.
With the setting of the sun, the submarine world off Oahu, Hawaii, was dark but also as warm and familiar as her own skin. For a few seconds, the only sound she heard was her breathing inside the full-face mask. Then the rest of her team entered the water, breaking the silence. She counted the splashes. One. Two. Three.
A small team, but this was a training exercise, and in the initial stages, she found training to be much more effective if the recruits had personal attention.
Not that they needed or demanded the one-on-one time. They were Marines. They didn't need anything but water, air and the burning desire to do the right thing.
She could train larger groups, but Jess knew one axiom to be true: there was nothing more detrimental to a mission than a half-assed operative who didn't know what he was doing.
Or worse, thought he knew but thought wrong.
"Sound off," she said, adjusting the vocals of her mask's transmitter and receiver.
"Latham." Newbie One.
"Taylor." Her first in command and a trusted friend, the older, weathered Marine was an excellent teacher with an innate patience that the recruits responded to.
"Eielson." Newbie Two.
The three men gathered around her, their dark, wet-suit-covered forms making them almost invisible in the night water. "As you know, our objective is the enemy ship, Sushi," she said. "She's approximately one mile away, and her coordinates were downloaded into your personal GPS systems before you entered the water. Upon arrival, Latham and I will set a charge atthe bow of the ship. Taylor and Eielson, you're taking the stern. Latham" she addressed her partner for the exercise "tell me our objective."
"Disable and distract. Once she's crippled, the surface team will board her and retrieve the hostages."
"Good," she responded. "Questions?"
Nothing but silence. Not even the sound of burbling SCUBA tanks since they wore rebreathers to give themselves an unlimited amount of time underwater.
Not that we have unlimited time, Jess thought. Nor did they need it. Marines did not screw around.
"Move out," she said. In unison, they swam to the diver propulsion vehicles, DVPs, that drifted in the water next to the boat that had transported them to the drop spot. Taylor and Eielson left first. Sinking below the waves, they'd parallel her and Latham as they made their way to the ship.
She gave a short wave to the boat captain, who stood on the deck watching them depart, then powered up her DPV. Using the GPS coordinates for guidance instead of the running lights, she and Latham headed toward the Sushi.
She almost chuckled at the name but kept quiet. Each new training group gave the ship a different name. Some serious. Some funny. Some as imaginative as blank paper.
In this case, the name was given when the entire squad of nine went to a Japanese restaurant a few weeks ago. They'd eaten questionable sushi and sucked down sake.
They'd spent the next day hungover and sick with food poisoning.
She'd used the opportunity to take them on a five-mile run. Cruel, she mused. However, they'd all finished, proving their tenacity and strength of spirit not just to her but to themselves.
"How you doing, Latham?" Jess asked when they were a few hundred feet closer to their objective.
"Good, ma'am," he replied.
"It's just us for the next few minutes," she said. "If you have any questions, now would be the time."
She didn't think he'd have any. One of her best recruits, Chuck Latham was a husky young man from the Atlanta inner city. He'd been given a choice when he was sixteen and standing in front of a judge for theftjoin ROTC and get his life in line or go to juvenile hall.
Despite the ridicule of his peers, he chose ROTC. After graduation, he'd put himself through college. He was one of those rare recruits that had brains, instinct and heart. One day, he'd make captain or better. She was sure of it.
"You understand how the charges work?" she asked.
She sighed, hating the formal term. She was only a few years older than Latham, and whenever he ma'amed her, it felt like a decade of difference in age.
She was not ready to feel that old. Not yet. "Latham, quit ma'aming me. It's Whitaker."
"Yes, ma'am. Whitaker, ma'am."
Newbies, she thought, rolling her eyes.
The DPV sputtered, almost coming to a halt. Jess let up on the power, smacked the console, and it lurched forward. Damned machines.
The combination of night and their depth in the water column left them blind as they motored along, but Jess knew the water around them teemed with life. Lobsters. Snappers. An occasional white-tipped reef shark. Moray eels hunting for food.
And her favorite animal, mantas. Gentle giants that fed on plankton, their ten-foot-plus wingspans created pressure waves that she sensed, even through the skintight wet suit. Occasionally, one passed close enough that its wake rocked the DPV, making her trainee tighten his grip.
"They won't hurt you, Latham," she said, a chuckle tinting her voice.
"I know, ma'am. Whitaker," he corrected himself. "They just startle me sometimes, and you have to admit those horns are a little creepy."
"They're not horns. They're cephalic lobes that help them funnel plankton into their mouths," she said. "Stop thinking of them as horns, and they won't make you jump when they catch you off guard."
"I'll try, ma'am," he replied, his deep voice taking on a drawl that he managed to hide except when he was nervous.
"You do that," she said, not bothering to tell him to stop ma'aming her. "There's nothing that'll get you killed faster in the ocean than lack of knowledge and being unprepared."
Ten minutes later, they arrived at the ship, and Jess checked her watch. Right on time.
Opening the case attached to the front of the DPV, she pulled out the explosive device. Flicking on a small, pencilsized light attached to her helmet, she checked the mine. It wasn't much. This was a training exercise, and they didn't want to actually blow a hole in the ship.
Or a recruit.
She handed the device to Latham. "Tell me what you know." Flipping on his light, he turned the cylinder over in his hands. "Limpet mine. Magnetic. Capable of a range of charges and producing a range of responses from barely noticeable to what the fuck, there's a hole in my ship."
She chuckled at his description but nodded in approval. "Time to get away before it blows?"
Latham examined the timer. "Anywhere from three seconds to three hours, depending on the required settings."
"Give me fifteen minutes," she said, even though the explosion would be little more than the equivalent of a child's cap gun and fifteen seconds was plenty. In a real-life situation, they'd need those fifteen minutes, and she preferred to treat this as real even though it was a teaching situation.
Latham set the charge, and in the small line of light from his mask, she saw him freeze. "What's wrong?"
He shook his head. "I'm not sure. I entered the correct numbers, I swear, but the countdown is starting at sixty seconds."
"Hand it over."
He handed her the mine, and she punched in an abort code. Nothing happened. Fifty seconds.
She punched it in again. Still nothing.
She'd have to speak to someone about this equipment. Whoever was supposed to maintain it was doing a lousy job. Irritated, she took the all-in-one tool kit from her belt and flipped out the Phillips screwdriver.
The screws turned. And turned. But otherwise, didn't move outward. They were stripped. She brought the explosive device closer to her mask and noticed scratches around the outside of the case with the majority being around the screws.
Underneath her tight black wet suit, the hairs on the back of her neck strained to rise, as she realized the problem with the timer was not accidental. Quite the opposite.
Then true horror washed over her. If someone had taken the time to change the timer and strip the screws then it was a sure bet there was a reason.
Like blowing a huge hole in the ship.
Which meant a larger charge.
"Oh my God," she whispered.
The console blinked the countdown. Twenty-five seconds. She dropped the mine, pushing it toward the bottom of the ocean and away from the ship, herself and her trainee. "Latham, get to the DVP and get moving. Now!"
He swam over to the idling machine and set it in motion. The engine sputtered, stopped. He pushed the start button. Still, nothing happened.
Her heartbeat pounding in her ears, Jess pushed him aside and pounded on the console. "Start, you bitch." The machine refused to engage.
Perhaps this was a bad joke, she told herself. Taylor, hoping to make her late for the rendezvous so he could win their ongoing bet of who bought the beer.
The bitter taste of fear in her mouth told her different. "Taylor, you there?"
There was no reply, but neither did she expect one. Mission protocol, after all. Damn. "If you can hear me, get out of here. We have a problem," she shouted into the microphone.
She prayed Taylor and Eielson were where they were supposed to be. Sushi was a big ship. They would be fine unless the charge was so big it disintegrated the entire ship.
However, she and Latham were much too close. "Swim," Jess said to Latham. "Fast."
Latham followed her into the dark water away from the ship, the miniscule beams emanating from their flashlights a thin, bright path into the dark void. "Ma'am, what's wrong?" he asked, his drawl more pronounced than she'd ever heard and his breathing hurried and harsh in her earpiece.
Fifteen seconds. They weren't going to make it. "I'm not sure," she lied. "Just swim."
She pumped her legs and within seconds was ahead. No one was better in the water. She'd never lost a race in school or since she joined the Marines.
If left to herself, she might even outrace the explosion.
But that would mean leaving Latham. A trainee. A young man who trusted her to be a commander and do the right thing.
The right thing did not mean leaving a man behind to die.
She slowed, grabbed his arm and pumped her legs again, pulling him along beside her. He was heavy, slowing her. She refused to let go. He was not going to die. Not here. Not like this.
Neither was she.
"Ma'am, we're not going to make it," Latham said, his voice laced with fear.
"Yes, we are, and Latham, stop ma'aming me," Jess snapped.
Behind her, the limpet mine exploded.
Definitely bigger than a cap gun.
Next to her, Latham's eyes widened in fear. Her gaze shifted, adjusted, and she saw her reflection in his mask. Her dark eyes were wide. Panicked.
Then the percussion wave rolled over them, tumbling them in its wake. Someone screamed, and for a brief, agonizing second she thought her head would explode. Blackness claimed her, and she sank into the dark.
The darkness surrounding Jess was absolute. Almost tangible with its thickness. She swam through it like water. But somehow, she knew it was different. Something evil. Slick. Oily.
Still, she swam. She'd lost something. Something important.
No, she realized. Not something. Someone.
"Latham!" She screamed for her recruit. Out of the blackness, she spotted him next to her, sinking facedown into the ocean's depths. She grabbed his arm and tried to pull him to the surface, but the darkness dragged her down.
Kicking harder made no difference. Pulling at the dark with her hands didn't help.
Still, she fought. She had to save him.
Then the pull of the abyss flipped Latham over, and she froze in horror. His mask was shattered. His eyes wide and sightless. His mouth gaping in horror.
She tried to let go of the corpse that was once a mana boyunder her guidance but found herself unable to release her grip. Instead, he acted like a stone, dragging her into oblivion. The farther she sank, the faster she went. Soon, she sped past animals that were the stuff of legends. Giant squid. Eels as long as a barge. Fish with lights for eyes.
Something came from below and grabbed her feet. Shook her like a doll. She lashed out, fighting with every ounce of her being.
She refused to die. Nature would not beat her. "Jess."
A voice called to her, pushing past the fear and the panic. "Jess." She recognized the insistent, familiar baritone. Taylor.
She opened her eyes, blinking at the lights around her. There was no ocean. No depths pulling her down. No darkness that went all the way to hell.
There were white walls. Stainless steel fixtures. Air. A bouquet of daisies on a small table. She was in a hospital.
Disoriented, she untangled her feet from the sheets and yanked the oxygen tube from beneath her nose. Taylor tried to take her hand. She flinched.
He took a step back, waiting. Patient, as always.
Jess blinked again then scrubbed her face with her palms trying to make sense of the world. How had she gotten to the hospital? Why was she here?
"You back with us?" Taylor asked.
Back with them? She didn't understand. "What?" she asked, her voice croaky. Her throat felt as dry as the desert.
Taylor handed her a glass of water.
She gulped down the tepid liquid then handed the empty glass back to her friend.
"Better?" he asked.
"Yeah. Thanks," she said, feeling more grounded with each passing second. "What am I doing here?"
"You don't remember?"
She shook her head. Trying to make sense out of her jumbled memory.
Taylor took her hand, and this time, she didn't pull away. "We were on a training mission. There was an accident. An explosion."
"An explosion?" The incident came back to Jess in broken, disjointed frames. The stripped screws. The wrong count-down. The disabled DPV. The fear in Latham's eyes as the explosion ripped him from her grasp.
Latham. "Latham. Where is he?"
Taylor's gray eyes softened, and he ran a hand over his military short, salt-and-pepper hair. "ICU."
She opened her mouth to ask if he was okay then stopped herself. If he was in ICU she had her answer. She clenched the sheet in her fist, wishing she didn't have to go to the next obvious question. "Will he live?" she whispered.
"No idea. If he does, there might be brain damage." He sighed. "He went quite a while without oxygen."
"His mask broke," Jess said, remembering the nightmare. An image of Latham, his face twisted in death, flashed across her thoughts. Just a dream, Jess. She reminded herself. Just a dream.
"Yeah," Taylor confirmed. "You were holding on to him when we located you. His mask was cracked. Flooded. It took us almost a minute to convince you to let go of him."
"I was awake?"
She shook her head as both her nightmare and reality converged until she didn't know which was true. Latham had been unconscious, unable to save himself. She'd tried to take him to the surface. She thought.
Whatever the truth, she told herself, he's alive, and where there's life, there's hope. "Take me to him."