Written for the 2010 TIWF Ficswap Challenge.

You know those moments when time slows? That split second when the world stops spinning, and if you open your eyes wide enough you can peer between the spaces in the air, feel every beat of your heart as it pulses across the surface of your skin?

This is that moment. An elastic space in time as gravity deserts me and blood pools sticky and hot on the deck beneath my back. I can taste metal. Red rust that slides thick across my tongue and spills from the corner of my mouth.

He laughs, and I wonder why he is making me wait.

At first I thought I’d come to the wrong coordinates.

The pitted road led straight to a freshly ploughed field, dug up and littered with clods of broken earth and scraps of decaying vegetation. I rolled the car to a halt, leaned forward and squinted up at the grey clouds overhead, checked my watch, then double-checked the coordinates on the GPS.

Right place, right time. 

The clouds sank closer to the ground as I stepped out of the car, and a dusting of rain spattered in a wave across the field. There was nothing to see beyond the barren earth and the grey mist that lowered over everything on the horizon. The wind kicked cold into my back and I jammed a hand into my pocket, fingers opening and closing around the data stick that nestled there.

I didn’t have long to wait.

A faint whine carried across the fields and I turned, the clouds shuddering as Thunderbird One screamed out of the grey sky to land abruptly on the sodden field in front of me, the roar of her engines bringing down a curtain of rain that hissed and crackled against her superheated manifold.

I slammed the car door shut and dashed for the open hatch of Thunderbird One, clambering awkwardly into the confined cockpit. ‘Hi,’ I said, looking up at the man in the suspended pilot’s seat. ‘Daniel Miller.’

‘John,’ the pilot replied, nodding towards the rumble seat beneath him. ‘Strap in.’

I hesitated for an instant, then picked my way through the debris that littered the cockpit floor. Sludgy boot-prints mostly, a wad of blood-soaked towels and a tangle of bloodied gauze. Flipping the seat down I slipped as fast as I could into the restraining straps.

‘Secure,’ I called out over the whine of the engines, but Thunderbird One had already lifted off, lurching abruptly upwards and rolling to the left before gaining altitude and hitting supersonic. Ears popping, my body flattened itself into the seat as the cabin pressure kicked in, the entire frame of Thunderbird One pulsing through the bulkhead at my back.

The pilot moved efficiently in the gimballed seat above, adjusted his yaw, cupped a hand around his headset mic so I couldn’t hear what he was saying, his feet twitching on the footplate in what might have been irritation or impatience. His boots were caked with mud and sand, the legs of his cover-all damp and spattered with blood.


I looked up to find a pair of gray-blue eyes staring down at me.

‘The boss wants to speak to you.’

I adjusted my tie and straightened in my seat.

I had met Jeff Tracy only once, over lunch at the Nassau Yacht Club one of those bright hot days when the sky burns blue and the glare from the water makes spots dance before your eyes. Tracy had brought his assistant, Miss Kyrano, with him – at least that’s how he had introduced her, and wearing an expression that dared me to doubt him.

I doubted him.

Over grain-fed porterhouse – because Jeff Tracy said he was entirely sick of seafood – we discussed my military service, the kind of work I was doing now, the kind of work Tracy now wanted me to do. And when the dessert cart rolled by Miss Kyrano produced a wad of contracts to sign, asked for my account details, turned up her nose at the Cointreau profiteroles and slipped a platinum credit card to the waiter.

So, with the light from the harbour dancing in my eyes and the perfectly balanced weight of Jeff Tracy’s pen smooth as a stone in my hands, I had willingly signed my life away. And now Jeff Tracy, astronaut, billionaire, philanthropist, recluse, stared gravely at me from Thunderbird One’s forward screen, come to claim what he had paid for.


I had worshipped Jeff Tracy when I was a kid – the man who handed me his Mont Blanc across the crisp white tablecloth that day so incredibly familiar from vidcasts, cereal boxes and NatGeo fold-out specials that he felt like a treasured relative.

‘I know this isn’t what we put on your job description, but we’re a man down and we could do with your help.’

Tracy had aged since his glory days, been watered down by the years, his dimples replaced with a stern maturity and an abundance of laughter lines. But today his face was etched with something else... Jeff Tracy looked haggard, worn out. Worn down.

‘My pleasure, sir.’ My eyes flickered to the bloodied towels at my feet.

‘Were you able to obtain the schematics?’

‘Yes, sir.’ Sourcing the schematics for one of Russia’s twentieth century submarine bases in under an hour hadn’t been as difficult as I had at first imagined.

‘Good man. Can you give the data to John.’

‘Yes, sir.’ I transferred the data stick to the hand that appeared above my head, and there was a brief pause as John downloaded the packet.

‘Thanks John, we’ve got it.’ Tracy’s mouth hardened as his eyes focussed on something out of camera range. ‘Okay then. You know where you’re headed.’

‘Yes, sir.’ Christ. I couldn’t stop with the yessirs, could I.

The screen greyed out. I removed my tie and balled it into my suit pocket, stared at the blank screen in front of me, focussed on the screaming, freezing wind buffeting the aircraft, wondered how Thunderbird One handled the build-up of ice outside. And then I attempted to break the ice on the inside.

‘I idolised that man as a kid. Had bubblegum cards with his face on them.’

If there was a response from the seat above, I didn’t catch it. I looked at the bloodied towels again, took a deep breath.

‘I hope your buddy’s gonna be okay.’

The feet above my head shifted on the footplate, and then John spoke. ‘We’ll be on site in twenty minutes.’

All that blood. I should have realised then what I was walking into.

There’s a light bulb in a cage directly above me. It’s an old-fashioned globe, twentieth century, yellowed, the wire cage around it rusted from the seawater that has been seeping in for the last forty years. A droplet forms and swells on the wire, sets itself unexpectedly free.

Nothing could have prepared me for the size of this.

Thunderbird Two rested like a great green mountain at the edge of a muddy tidal flat, her main body raised on four metal legs to reveal a cargo hold into which John had disappeared at lightning speed. I followed at a trot, my shoes squelching into the muck with each step, every dirty slurp releasing the stench of rotting seaweed and other dead things. Despite a career with the Navy, I’d never liked the stink of the seashore. I much preferred the clear clean swell of the ocean, the ozone tang of salt water as it rushed burning up your nose. 

I followed John’s muddy prints up the ramp that was extended from the hold and skirted along the side of a small DSV that was secured inside. ‘Thunderbird Four’ was marked across her in black on yellow, and she dripped a steady stream of water from her intakes onto the hangar floor.

At the rear of the hold John had huddled close to two other men. I could hear snatches of conversation as I approached, the words ‘don’t know’ and ‘dad’ and ‘screw this’ bouncing like bullets from the curved metal walls. They turned to eye me silently as I approached, taking in the crop of my hair, the creases in my shirt, the mud encasing my Harry Contin loafers.

I stiffened under the scrutiny, felt myself slipping into an old skin, years of training sliding smoothly back into their old places. ‘Daniel Miller,’ I announced loudly, resisting a sudden urge to snap to attention.

‘Right,’ said John. ‘Miller, this is Virgil.’ A smooth-faced man in the famous International Rescue uniform – blue suit and sash – wordlessly offered his hand. ‘And Gordon,’ John finished as a barefoot young man in a wetsuit stepped forward and shunted me towards a portable monitor butted up against the wall.

‘We came up with a plan of attack while you guys were en route,’ Gordon said, sliding his thumb along a touchpad.

‘Show me,’ said John.

‘Here,’ said Gordon as he adjusted the screen and motioned for me to move closer. ‘The station should still be two-thirds viable. The explosion took out this module’ – he tapped a broken fingernail on the monitor – ‘but the centre module has a moon pool.’ He looked pointedly in my direction.

‘And what? You’re just going to swim in?’ John turned sceptically to Virgil. ‘And you agreed to this?’

Virgil’s eyes were fixed on an old-fashioned wedge hat he had been methodically crushing in his hands. ‘It’s that, or we pack up and go.’

John turned decisively back to Gordon. ‘I’m coming with you.’

‘John, we’ve discussed this already. We need somebody who…’

‘What, Gordon?’

‘We need a diver. Somebody with…’ Gordon looked at me sideways, ‘…experience.’

For want of a better word.

Blood rushed to John’s cheeks and he leant forward, body tensed, as if he were getting ready to jump. ‘You always forget I spent three months in a hydrolab.’

‘And you always forget that was for astronaut training!’ Gordon let out a grunt of exasperation and turned, disappearing into the rear of the hangar.

‘Don’t give me that shit,’ John called to Gordon’s retreating back. ‘Do not give me that shit!’

‘John.’ This was Virgil. ‘It wasn’t our decision. You know that.’

‘Fuck that.’ John looked like he was ready to hit something. Or somebody. I shifted in my wet shoes uncomfortably.

Gordon returned with a bundle in his arms. ‘We ready?’

‘No,’ John replied as he and Virgil began securing loose equipment.

‘Here.’ Gordon thrust a watch into my hand. ‘It’s a comms device. Press here. It’s waterproof to 1000 metres. Just in case.’

‘In case of what?’ I strapped the watch to my wrist.

‘In case we find you floating at the bottom of the ocean,’ he replied calmly. ‘We can use it to identify the body.’

It was a joke.

I’d hoped.

I can see Gordon from where I am lying. He is sprawled limp on the metal floor, eyes closed, and there is blood on his mouth and in his hair.

There’s a man kneeling by his side, and it is he who is laughing.

I paused at the open hatch of Thunderbird Four. Scrapes and gouges scored the yellow paint, the titanium hull showing through in a series of bright silver scars. I rubbed the deepest score with my thumb, a slice of paint coming loose and drifting to the hangar floor.

‘Take a hit?’ I asked as I stepped into the rear compartment and into an inch of murky seawater. A jumble of equipment had been strewn haphazardly across the deck, and a shredded wetsuit had been tossed into a corner. Shrapnel. I eyed the jagged tears in the neoprene. Poor bastard.

‘The bilge is failing.’ Gordon avoided the obvious as he sealed the hatch behind us. He used his feet to clear some walking space across the deck and handed me the bundle he’d taken from Thunderbird Two’s storage locker. I unfolded the wetsuit he had thrust into my arms. Despite the size, it was pink, with blue racing stripes. Definitely not regulation issue.

‘Should I ask?’ I dangled the suit questioningly as I kicked off my shoes.

Gordon smiled half-heartedly, the first ray of sunlight I’d seen since I got out of bed this morning. ‘It’s all we had in storage, sorry.’ He sobered as he turned his attention to assembling tanks and regulators, setting aside masks and swim fins as the closing of Thunderbird Two’s hangar door clanged dimly through the hull. It was followed by the screech of hydraulics and a juddering vibration that carried all the way through the metal deck of the sub.

Gordon re-clipped the tanks into place and moved into the tiny cockpit. ‘So,’ he called out, ‘no word on personnel or what the Russians were working on?’

I shook my head. ‘The Russians aren’t involved. They sold the facility to a private research corporation a year ago.’ I stripped off my shirt and came to stand in the hatchway. ‘Four technical personnel, at last count.’

Gordon activated the comms. ‘Thunderbird Two from Thunderbird Four. Systems check. And can you download the specs?’

“Two seconds.’ John’s voice. ‘Lift off in sixty.’

‘This airlock is useless,’ Gordon tapped a finger on the cockpit monitor as the schematics appeared on-screen. ‘The outer hatch was booby-trapped and the explosion would have flooded the whole compartment.’

I peered over his shoulder at the screen. ‘Is that what happened to your man?’

‘Yeah.’ The compact frame of Gordon’s body tightened visibly as he studied the specs.

‘So.’ I stooped to pick up the wetsuit, the bundle of neoprene in my hand feeling heavy and suddenly unpleasant. ‘Are you saying this was a set up?’

‘From the get-go.’ He said it calmly, but there was a hard edge to his matter-of-fact.

‘Any idea who’s responsible?’

The muscles of Gordon’s jaw twitched. Only once, but it was enough to tell me he was keeping something from me. ‘No.’ 

I stepped back into the aft compartment, kicking at the debris that had butted up against the bilge and began wrestling myself into the wetsuit. The whine of Thunderbird Two’s engines filtered through the hull, and the unaccountable sound of metal sliding against metal. There was an indistinct sensation of moving, as if we were in an elevator, gently going up.

Unlike the pilot of Thunderbird One, Gordon proved far more talkative as he continued with his systems check. ‘World Navy, huh?’

‘Yup.’ Does he think I don’t know International Rescue has a nice fat file on me?

‘So…’ He swivelled slightly in his seat. ‘Were you on Sentinel when…’

‘Nope.’ I knew where that question was going. ‘But I’m assuming that was you they took on board? I heard you made quite an impression on the crew.’ I looked questioningly at his unassuming profile, tried to picture Gordon as the unforgiving SOB that was talked about at WNHQ for months. ‘The captain went out on stress leave as soon as he hit New York, you know.’

Gordon snorted lightly and returned his attention to the console. ‘What was your last posting?’

Vanguard. But I’ve been in Intel for the last three years.’ Which was why International Rescue had payrolled me in the first place. After Sentinel ploughed a missile into the belly of one of his rescue craft, Tracy realised he needed someone on the inside to provide a regular update of military deployments around which he could plot his flight plans. Technically, I was engaging in treason, but as long as International Rescue insisted on flying un-transponded aircraft, I had landed myself a very lucrative sideline.

Well… for as long as it had lasted. 

I tugged at the crotch of the wetsuit and moved into the cockpit. ‘You were Navy?’ I asked.

Gordon shook his head. ‘WASP.’

That was interesting. WASP commissions weren’t easy to come by, and they weren’t easily given up. ‘What happened?’

‘Mmm.’ He continued to work through a series of checks as I peered over his shoulder at the console. ‘Lotsa things...’

These guys sure were cagey bastards. But before I could press him further, the cockpit comms engaged.

‘Over target, Gordon.’ Virgil’s voice crackled loudly from Thunderbird Four’s onboard speaker. ‘Ready to drop on your mark.’

Gordon swivelled in his seat to look at me. ‘Ah…you might want to hold onto something.’

‘On what?’ I clutched at the back of his seat.

‘Um, no.’ He pointed to the floor. ‘Down there. Brace.’

Brace? I jammed myself into the corner and tucked my head between my knees.

Gordon returned to the comms. ‘Okay Virg. Disengage.’

There was a hollow popping sound, a metallic clunk that reverberated through the hull of the sub, and then the world dropped out from under us as Thunderbird Four, and the hold she was secured in, went into sudden freefall.

‘Holy shit!’ My ass lifted centimetres off the floor, weightless, and then came crashing back to pressed metal as the pod smacked hard onto the surface of the sea. ‘Jesus Christ! What the hell was that?’

‘The fun part.’

Gordon was all business as he powered up the engines, the aft powerplant emitting a low hum as we idled in position. The pod door lowered into the sea, letting in the light from a dark grey sky and an endlessly churning ocean. The swell tossed the pod violently, pushed leaden waves up the ramp that spilled foamless across the pod floor, the forward window of the DSV covered with a film of salt spray before we had even begun to move.  

Gordon hit the acceleration and we shot with surprising speed down the ramp and into the murky depths of the darkening sea.

A shadow passes over me.

His smooth head is like a moon eclipsing the sun, a palpable force that stills my trembling hands. The caged bulb above me flares and dies, and I am covered in shadow.

He has seen me tremble and he smiles. Eyes that burn with satisfaction and suddenly glow bright. My heart flutters in my chest, but there is little blood to fuel it. My lungs shudder and I gasp at air that is heavy with the odour of sweat. And of fear.

I won’t panic.

I won’t give him the satisfaction.

Thunderbird Four came to a drifting standstill, pointed nose-down to face the station though the heavy murk. Decades earlier the Russians had sunk it into the silt of the sea bottom, perching it a hundred metres from the edge of a deep undersea trench. It had been built in sections, three rounded metal cylinders on legs that linked themselves together via interconnecting airlocks, a large corporate logo testifying to the station’s current incarnation as a research facility.

We drifted silently in the murk, the only sound the steady ping of equipment as Gordon studied his monitors. He lifted his head and stared into the depths ahead of us.

‘There were six lifesigns on that station when we first arrived. Now I can only find three.’ He recalibrated the scanner, expressionless, then scooted the sub forward and flooded the ocean with light.

‘No...’ he breathed.

A body drifted between us and the station. A grotesquery that was once a man, eyes wide, hair a bed of dark weed atop a bloated head, lab coat illuminated starkly by Thunderbird Four’s floodlights. The body hovered ghost-like, and it had that look... when the sea sucks all the life and all the colour out of you.

Something, somewhere, had gone horribly wrong.

‘Gordon…’ I had to ask. ‘Is this a rescue, or a retrieval?’

Gordon stared grimly at the seascape ahead of us. ‘I don’t think it’s a rescue, Dan. Not anymore.’

‘Then what?’ I studied his profile, the half-light from the sonar display riming the lines that creased their way faintly around his eyes and the corners of his mouth. ‘Gordon, listen, I understand ‘need to know.’ I do. I get it. But if we’re going to have any chance of getting out of this alive, then I need to know.’

The drowned technician drifted slowly ahead of us in an invisible arc, caught in a deep-sea current that pulled him inexorably towards the darkness beyond Thunderbird Four’s floodlights.

‘You’re here,’ Gordon said, in a voice that was edged with resignation, ‘because there’s a man on that station that wants us dead.’

There was silence in the DSV as I digested that bit of information.

‘And because,’ he continued, ‘I can’t be trusted not to kill him.’

A vision of the bloodied cockpit of Thunderbird One flashed into my brain. ‘Are you saying this is a detainment?’ I watched the bloated body as it spun slowly into oblivion. ‘If we’re going to detain this son-of-a-bitch, then I need more information. Name. Weight. Height. Preferred weapons. Anything. Whatever you’ve got.’


‘What are you telling me?’

‘We’ve got nothing!’ Gordon shook his head. ‘We don’t know what he looks like, who he is, where he comes from. Nothing.’

‘Nothing?’ I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

‘He uses disguises.’ Gordon barked a bitter laugh. ‘I know. It sounds crazy, but we never know where he’s going to show up, or what he’s going to look like next. But he’s always at our backs, hounding us like a fucking curse. And he’s dangerous, Dan. He’ll stop at nothing to get what he wants.’ He indicated the body as it drifted into the gloom. ‘Civilians… people… they mean nothing to him. They’re just obstacles that get in his way.’ A tremor ran through him as his hand dropped back to the console, and then he was calmly, eerily, still.

‘How have you dealt with him before?’

‘We haven’t!’ Frustration tainted his words with anger. ‘We haven’t dealt. We’ve skated by on dumb luck. Evaded him only by the skin of our teeth.’

‘So why not take him out of the equation altogether?’

Gordon shook his head. ‘Tracy would never go for that. He wants justice. He needs to know his enemy.’

I pointed at the corpse ahead of us. ‘Is that what you’re going to tell his family? That he died because Jeff Tracy wanted justice?’

‘No.’ The hazel eyes slid towards mine. ‘He died because the son-of-a-bitch on that station wants Jeff Tracy. And everything he has.’

I met his gaze, the meaning of his words becoming instantly clear. Somehow, this man knew who was behind International Rescue. He represented a breach in security, a dangerously leaking hole that had to be plugged. I understood now why they needed him alive, but snatch and grab hadn’t been a big part of my training. I stepped back into the aft compartment – there had to be weaponry on this boat somewhere.

‘Port locker,’ Gordon called out, intuiting my intent.

I quickly found what I was looking for. The pistols were of unfamiliar design, shorter, stockier, but the standard features seemed to be in the right places. I returned to the cockpit, dropping one into Gordon’s lap. ‘No promises. If this thing gets out of control, I shoot to kill.’

‘I can live with that.’ He slid the gun into his belt, slipping off the safety with a practised hand.

‘So what’s our POA?’ I hefted the weapon experimentally, settled it comfortably into the sweet spot of my palm.

‘Life signs are concentrated here,’ he placed a finger on the schematics, ‘and the moon pool’s in the centre module. We’ll enter there. Hopefully undetected.’

It wasn’t much of a plan – we were open to ambush, but he was right. It was the only way in, short of blasting a hole through the superstructure and flooding the bastard out. I surveyed the monitor, processing the layout, memorising the distance from the pool to the access hatch, putting faith in old man Neptune that the forty year-old specs were accurate.

‘Gordon,’ I said as movement on the sonar caught my eye. ‘Biological directly overhead, one point five metres.

‘Where?’ He rose from his seat and peered up through the plexi-shield, jerked abruptly backward as a gloved fist slammed down hard onto the outside of Thunderbird Four’s forward window. There was a brief glimpse of a black-clad diver tumbling away from the sub as my eyes were drawn to the neat package of H-6 that had been attached to the cockpit window.

‘Move!’ Gordon shot out from behind the steering yoke and cannoned into me, hurtling the both of us bodily into the aft compartment and sealing the inner hatch. There was a muffled thud and the dull sound of rushing water as Thunderbird Four tilted nose-down, the weight of the ocean pouring into her shattered cockpit pitching her abruptly forward. We tumbled together in a rain of loose equipment as the sub’s orientation shifted and she began a slow spiral towards the ocean floor.

‘Shit.’ Gordon collided with the forward bulkhead as the sub rolled out of control. ‘Shit!’

I scrambled for the masks under the jumble of equipment that had rained down on us as Gordon unclipped the oxygen tanks from the wall. We tumbled together again as Thunderbird Four settled hard onto the ledge over which she’d been drifting, then toppled slowly onto her side. There was a moment of quiet in the little hold as we hefted our tanks onto our backs, and then the sub shifted again, a deep metallic screech reverberating through the superstructure as the sediment gave way beneath us and Thunderbird Four slid towards the edge of the trench.

I jammed the regulator into my mouth and gave a thumbs-up as Gordon cranked open the top hatch, a torrent of frigid water crashing in and knocking him to the deck. The lights inside the compartment flickered as connections shorted, then failed completely as salt water breached their casings and the compartment filled with black water. Gordon’s mask-light bloomed in the darkness and he gestured, grabbed my arm and propelled me towards the open hatch and the shadows beyond.

With a groan that was felt more than heard, Thunderbird Four slid over the lip of the trench as I kicked off from the hatch and into the turbulent vortex left in her wake. Gordon slipped free as the DSV spiralled down into the depths, the air trapped in her ballast struggling vainly against the weight of the ocean that had rushed into her. We watched the sub sink helplessly into the abyss, the yellow beam of her floodlights knifing feebly through the murk. And then even they failed, sputtered, and went out

He kneels.

Up close I can see the black frame of his eyelashes, track the stubble that peppers darkly across his chin. For a moment my eyes wander across the broad expanse of chest, following the outline of ink that has been traced along the contours of his body. A black snake curls from shoulder to wrist, fangs bared, the sharp teeth incised boldly into the golden skin.

He flexes his arm. The snake writhes, and I am transfixed.

The plateau that supported the research facility was a barren plain of debris dotted with muddy boulders, and a deep gouge where Thunderbird Four had rested momentarily before she toppled over the edge. A hundred metres ahead the portholes of the station burned yellow in the dark, bright little beacons luring us like moths to a dangerous flame. The black-suited diver lay atop the silt where the pressure wave from the explosion had tumbled him over and broken him against the sea floor. He’d misjudged the detonation of the H-6, been caught in the shock wave when it hit. His regulator hose had been shredded, the mask torn from his face, the exposed skin of his throat ripped by shards of metal and glass.  

Gordon hesitated for a moment, turned to survey the black depths around us, took hold of my arm and steered us towards the beacons shining in the murk. The station rested stark and uninviting on the mud, a mass of twisted metal scarring one end of the superstructure – the blasted portal of the main hatch, the visible remains of International Rescue’s earlier, aborted, entry.

We drifted slowly between the station’s support struts, clouds of silt kicking up beneath us as we headed for the patch of light that filtered down through the moon pool, illuminating the dull mud of the ocean floor beneath it. We halted at the threshold, hovered silently at the demarcation of light and dark, as if unwilling to leave the safety of the gloom and expose ourselves to whatever lay above. I signalled Gordon and kicked off from the bottom, slid silently upwards into the light, tilted my head to find him following smoothly in my wake.

From beneath the station the pool had looked calm and inviting, a safe haven of dappled light shining directly overhead. But from within it was clouded by shadow, a cumulus of blood that clung in dark tendrils to the body of a drowned man. His outstretched limbs splayed limply on the rippled surface, blood casting a dull red umbra upon us as we passed silently beneath its shade.

I hauled myself up the access ladder and stepped over the lip of the pool, almost tripping over another body slumped in a congealed puddle of blood. A bullet had punctured the forehead neatly, the entry wound smooth and sharp and charcoal grey around the edges. The man’s eyes were closed behind a pair of wire-frame glasses, and despite the fact that a hole had been carved through one end of his brain and out the other, he looked at peace, not a hair on his head out of place.

Gordon heaved himself from the pool and stared at the body bleakly. These poor guys had been bait. Breadcrumbs. Our way had been marked by a nasty trail, and we were lurching recklessly along it.

‘You’re insane.’

I want to say it loudly, I want him to know that I know. But my voice fails, the words catching in my throat, emerging barely as a whisper.

He leans close, breath hot on my face, as though a furnace burns inside him.

‘Some have said so.’ He smiles, but it is a dangerous smile. Feral. ‘My own father said those very words the day he left me to the mercies of the Sarawak.’ His lip curls and he stands, aims a kick at the white-hot hell inside me.


The pain is blinding, sparks spinning hot across my vision. And when my eyes clear I see his feet are stained with blood.

My blood.

We peeled away our tanks and masks, stood dripping cold seawater onto a painted steel floor. Our eyes met, goosebumps rising in an icy trail along my spine as the hazel eyes quested into mine. I pulled the gun from my belt, hoping it was the ocean seeping into my skin that caused the hair to rise on my scalp, and not some foreboding of whatever lay beyond the access hatch before us.

‘No promises,’ I reminded Gordon, raising the gun. And then I cranked opened the hatch.

There was silence at first, a moment of stillness as the heavy metal door swung wide and our eyes were flooded with dull yellow light.

The laboratory was lit with a series of antiquated bulbs, the harsh glare revealing a series of workbenches, fume chambers and a decontamination station. And one lone civilian, standing exposed against the far wall. More bait, staring wide-eyed at us across the sterile room.

I paused on the threshold, hefted the gun in my hand as Gordon pressed in close behind me. I could feel his desperation to move, his palpable desire to bring the situation to a close winding him up tight like a spring. I pressed a hand against his stomach, pushed him back away from the door.

I blame myself. Three years of intel have made me soft. Dulled my instincts.

I stepped into the lab, ducked and rolled as a gunman appeared to my right and fired repeatedly in my direction. I scrambled for the workbenches and slid behind them, a series of bullets digging a trail of holes in the floor behind me.

I made a mistake.

There was a pause, the sound of feet scuffing across the steel floor as the gunman moved closer, and in that moment I stood and pulled the trigger, a single bullet ripping through the side of his face and crashing him bloodied to the floor. And then I fired at him again, right between the eyes.

I underestimated the enemy.


The voice seems to come from everywhere, a deep baritone that echoes around the metal chamber and vibrates through the walls of my chest.


I spin to find the barrel of a gun mere centimetres from my face.

Where the hell did he come from?

‘Drop your weapon.’ Black eyes gleam from a thickly fleshed face. He is huge, and he’d peeled down the top of his wetsuit to reveal a heavily muscled chest, sinews twisting beneath sun-darkened skin as he tightens the grip on his weapon.

I have only to raise my arm and pull the trigger.

‘Drop your weapon.’ He says it again, the voice calm and measured.

I stare into the black eyes and tense myself to bring the gun to bear.

Too easy.

I’m wrong. The weapon in front of my face lashes out like sudden lightning, the butt slamming hard into the side of my head, a powerful kick following through and smashing the gun out of my hand. 

Jesus Christ.

‘You are not International Rescue.’ It isn’t a question.

My mouth fills with blood and I spit onto the metal floor.

The gun twitches in his hand. ‘Who are you?’ The black eyes slide towards the airlock. ‘And who is still to introduce himself?’

The kick rolls me away from him, and despite the pain I curl inwards, arms coming up to protect myself. The movement brings the watch within my reach, and I activate the comms.

A voice bursts from the communicator, tinny and weak, but it carries clearly over the air filters, and over the breath that rattles loudly from my lungs.

‘Thunderbird Four from Thunderbird Two. Come in.’

The tiny voice galvanises him. His hand darts out like lightning, grasps my arm and twists, the watch tearing like tissue from my wrist. He holds it in his hand, triumphant, as if it were made of solid gold.

The gunman gestures silently, backs me up against the wall beside the technician. Abruptly he fires at my feet, the bullet ricocheting from the floor and embedding itself into the wall. There’s a yelp of surprise, the technician beside me jumping in pale-faced fright.  

‘Come out,’ he calls angrily toward the airlock, ‘because next time I won’t miss.’

I feel sweat forming on my lip, can see it glisten dully on the back of the bald head as the gunman stands with his weapon outstretched towards me, his face turned attentively towards the airlock.

‘Ah. International Rescue,’ he says into the air when satisfaction fails to materialise. ‘Such noble little men.’ I watch as the thick finger curls inward on the trigger. ‘What happens when you have nobody left to rescue?’

The gun fires again, the detonation deafening inside the metal chamber, the scientist beside me propelled off his feet by the impact of the bullet and slumping to the floor.

‘Are you deranged?’ I tense, preparing to spring forward.

‘Dan, don’t…’ Gordon’s gun slides into the lab ahead of him, the warning coming too late as the black eyes turned menacingly in my direction.

The gunman smiles, a sickening twist of the lips as his expression dissolves into something very dangerous. He takes a measured step forward and studies my face closely. ‘I don’t know you… Therefore, I don’t need you.’

There is a flash of heat in my gut as the weapon discharges once more, the close range knocking me off my feet and back into the bulkhead.

‘Son of a bitch.’ I slide to the floor as the inside of my wetsuit begins to fill with warm, sticky blood.

The head swivels again on the thick neck. ‘But you,’ he says to Gordon, ‘I know you as if you were my own son.’

It is John, I think. A small voice that calls futilely from thousands of feet above.

‘Come in. Miller?’ A burst of interference. ‘Miller?’

There is an explosion of static and the voice from the communicator dies.

The gunman caresses the watch, his thumb rolling lovingly across its face. And then he activates the connection and speaks.

‘International Rescue.’

The words roll thick and slow across his tongue. As if he has honey in his mouth, and he must savour every drop of it.

The bullet in my gut is like a burning stone, buried deep and moving deeper, a lead weight that pins me to the cold floor. I will my body into motion and lash out, my feet connecting with ankles like steel pylons as I tangle the huge legs with my own and the gunman topples heavily to the floor. I slide free as Gordon leaps across the room and onto the barrel chest, one knee coming down hard onto the exposed throat. He clamps his hands onto the enormous wrist and slams it hard onto the metal deck. Three slams and the gun clatters free, bouncing loudly across the steel flooring.

There is a grunt from the big man as he heaves himself out from under Gordon, his free hand colliding with the younger man’s throat and lifting him bodily, the massive thighs bringing them both upright as he raises Gordon high before slamming him down hard onto the floor. It is a heavy fall and Gordon’s face betrays his pain, his assailant dropping down and lashing out with a solid fist. Two hard blows and Gordon sprawls limp upon the deck, face falling slackly towards me.

The big man kneels quietly for a moment, presses his knuckles to his lips and turns to face me, grinning through bloodstained teeth.

I guess the wait is over…

He crouches by my side, pushes the watch into my face.

‘Tell them,’ he says, ‘that you need them.’

‘Go to hell,’ I say. Clichéd, but from the anger that flies across his face, gratifyingly effective.

‘I can see,’ he says, grasping me by the jaw and squeezing my face tightly between fingers made of steel, ‘that you are going to need some persuasion.’

He glares down at me, the black pools of his eyes flaring into sudden brilliance. Above us the yellow bulb flickers back to sudden life inside its cage, casts a pallid corona around the high dome of his head.

This is Death, I think, descending in a blaze of glory.

Laughter swells in my labouring chest, a high-pitched giggle that is bordering on hysteria. Sweat pricks into my eyes and I blink it away, focus unwillingly on the black eyes that hover above me, piercing like obsidian into my skull.

‘Talk about Ming the fucking merciless...’ My tongue is thick in my mouth, the words slurred almost beyond recognition.

‘I’ll show you mercy,’ he says. He’s bored, I can tell. He wanted to play, and everything has happened far too fast.

He takes hold of the zipper at my throat, draws it down and exposes the wound, the blood inside my suit released like a sticky red tide. He immerses himself in it, slides a palm across my bared chest, probes hard with his fingers for the centre of my pain. He presses hard against me and I struggle in the iron grip, my fingers latching feebly onto the thick wrists as my eyes flutter wildly around the room.

Beyond the menacing bulk of his body there is movement – Gordon stirs, rolls silently onto his stomach and reaches for the gun he had earlier slammed out of the big man’s hand. Our eyes meet as his fingers settle around the stock and he slowly draws the weapon closer, the message in his gaze as sharp as splintered glass.

This is it. The penultimate moment, as the world divides into life or death.

I steer wildly towards life, my grip on the big man tightening, the hard wrists beneath my fingers compressing, sticky with blood. I bring up my legs, kicking wildly as I try to dislodge him from his position atop me. He laughs at my renewed energies, breaks free of my grip and brings a forearm down onto my throat, testing the strength of me with his weight. My body tenses, chest heaving as air ceases to flow into my lungs, fingers fluttering wildly as the oxygen drains from my blood.

The world becomes a pale thing, distant and far removed, the pressure at my throat all encompassing as he bears down upon me, the black eyes burning into mine as he concentrates on slowly pressing the life out of me. Concentration so fierce that he fails to notice Gordon rising, taking aim, and bearing down hard upon the trigger.

I close my eyes, and a rain of blood explodes over me.

‘Dan?’ There’s a gentle tapping at my face.


‘C’mon buddy. Open your eyes for me.’


‘How’s the breathing?’ Gordon’s hands probe gently across my throat.

‘Air’s going in...’ I cough, a hard spasm that sends a spike of pain shooting through my stomach.

Gordon sits back on his heels, surveys the mess of my abdomen. ‘There’s a hole in you big enough to poke my head through, but the bleeding’s stopped.’ He grins crookedly through his split lip, aims a gentle punch at my shoulder. ‘Hard to believe, but you’re gonna live.’

He says it so matter-of-fact that I actually believe him. Can almost feel the strength returning to my limbs, riding on the power of his words. My eyes light on the bloodied heap beside us. ‘He dead?’

The smile fades from Gordon’s lips as he turns to the crumpled body, a thousand conflicting emotions chasing across his face. ‘No.’

‘So old man Tracy got what he wanted.’

Gordon spills the contents of the station’s first aid kit across the floor. ‘The old man always gets what he wants.’

Heaviness hangs in the air. Silence, the weight of the water pressing on us from above, the tang of blood and death as Gordon presses gauze into my gut.

‘So what happens now?’ The words emerge rough as sandpaper from my throat.

‘We wait.’

That wasn’t what I meant, and he knows it.

‘For what?’

He shrugs at me, as if I should already know the answer.

‘For rescue.’


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