Val’s race led her to a watery end. Specifically, the water filled end of the ship where Geoffery St Laurents had finally run out of room to escape his doom.
“You shouldn’t have followed me,” he said, glancing back and forth between Val and the water that was bubbling up from the flooded stairs below.
“Yeah, maybe, but you’re going to follow me now,” Val said. “Either that or I’m going to drag your unconscious body up the ten flights of stair, and neither of us is going to be very happy about that.”
“I can’t go up there,” St Laurents said. “I can’t leave this ship.”
“Unless you’ve got gills, you’re going to have to,” Val said, advancing slowly on him. He looked terrified enough that he might try to plunge into the water that was rising and covering one step after another. Val guessed that out swimming St Laurents wouldn’t be difficult, but out swimming a sinking ship would present a few unique and unpleasant challenges.
“No, I can’t,” St Laurent’s said. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with.”
“You worked for PrimaLux,” Val said. “We’ve run into them before. They’ve regretted it each time.”
“They’re not what you think,” St Laurents said. “I can’t go against them. I have to stay here.”
“You ran away from them once,” Val said. “Work with us and we can make sure you get away from them for good this time.”
“I didn’t run away from them,” St Laurent’s said. “I mean I tried to, but they found me before I left my condo. I wasn’t going to hide on a cruise. I was going to buy a bus ticket to Yosemite and hike as far into the wilderness as I could.”
“This ship has a lot better food than a forest does,” Val said, tensing to grab St Laurents if he tried to flee.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Don’t you see? I failed them, and they caught me trying to abandon them. They can find me anywhere, and they showed me the things they’ll do if I don’t play the part they want. They’re the ones who sent me here. They knew you were coming for me. They’re sinking this whole ship just to get to you.”
“That’s flattering, I guess, but they’re not going to get rid of us that easily,” she said.
“They already have,” St Laurent’s said. “There’s another bomb on board.”
“How do you know?” Val asked.
“They told me. They told me everything that would happen. From the three of you finding me, to you chasing after me, to this.”
The ship gave a sudden lurch and the terrible sound of tearing metal screamed through the wall on Val’s left.
Instinct took over and she leaped back up the stairs an instant before a torrent of water crashed onto the step she’d been standing on. Her jump took her back as far as she could go but it wasn’t quite far enough. As she landed on the top step of the flight of stairs, the inrushing current clutched her leg up to the knee. She struggled to escape the ocean’s grip and cursed when she saw that it had already swept St Laurent’s away.
With another tortured scream of metal buckling, an additional section of wall burst open, burying Val beneath a surge of ocean water.
She fought to rise above it but with the lights shattered, everything around her was lost in darkness.
Tam didn’t like how much smoke her palm dragon was collecting.
“That’s a pretty useful trick,” Cynthia said, nodding at growing beast as the hurried to join the rescue efforts.
“Yeah, useful for now,” Tam said. “If it absorbs too much smoke though, I’m not going to be able to control it.”
“How much is too much?” Cynthia asked, her eyes narrowing as the smoke dragon swelled like a slowly filling balloon.
“We’ll know when it decides to take off on its own,” Tam said. “Until then though, it’s our best bet for making it to the survivors.”
Up ahead of them, the hallway was blocked by debris from the partially collapsed deck above.
“Please, can someone help us!” a man on the far side of the debris wall said. “We have two people injured here.”
“Hang on. We’ll get you out of there as soon as we can,” Tam said. “We’re going to clear the air to buy you some more time while we’re at it too.”
She extended her hand and allowed the smoke dragon, which had grown to the size of a corgi, to inhale a steady stream of smoke from the area beyond the fallen debris. The sound of the wind it was generating was out of proportion to the effect it was having. The tornado cacophony heightened Tam’s worry. Elemental spells were tricky under the best of circumstances and having a living patch of smoke running amuck on a sinking ship wasn’t going to end well for anyone.
She pushed those worries out of her mind though and considered the problem before her. The collapsed deck had formed a new walls on either end of a long stretch of the corridor, creating a box which had trapped several passengers inside it. While the deck hadn’t been strong enough to survive the bomb blast, its twisted metal was still strong enough to resist Tam’s efforts to create a gap in it.
“Got any tricks for cutting metal?” Cynthia asked.
“Not on me,” Tam said, adjusting the smoke dragon so she could hold it in both arms.
“Let me check something then,” Cynthia said. “See how the injured are doing are ok?”
“Sure,” Tam said, and turned back to barricade, raising her voice to speak over the wind the dragon was generating. “How bad are the injuries. Is anyone in immediate peril?”
“Jaleh got hit by the falling floor but she’s conscious. Might be concussed. Shoichiro has a bad cut on his arm and he’s pretty woozy. I think he was hit too.”
“Ok. We can handle that,” Tam said. “I’ll guide you through the first aid you can do there, and the medical staff can handle the rest once you’re safe. We just need a little time to get you out of there.
Unfortunately, time was the one thing they didn’t have.
Anna swallowed a string of curses that would have made the sailors around her blush. She needed to have faith that Val could handle herself. Charlene didn’t invite people to the team who she wasn’t certain could deal with extraordinary challenges. Val being out of contact simply meant that a challenge had arisen that required an unusual amount of focus.
It had to mean that.
“Are any of the ship’s security in the vicinity of the last freezer?” she asked.
“I can find out,” Kellman said, picking up her phone.
Anna turned plans over in her head, trying to work out the inevitable problems before they arose.
The last bomb, and she was certain there was a last bomb, wouldn’t be wired into the freezer. There wouldn’t have been time. But it could be detonated remotely, as the two earlier bombs had proved.
What was the bomber waiting for then?
If the plan was to drive the ocean liner to be bottom of the sea before help could arrive, then the earlier the bombs detonated the better.
In that case though, why not explode them all at once? The additional damage would have been exponentially harder to deal with and would have made the goal of sinking the ship a certainty.
Unless the goal wasn’t to sink the ship.
The first bomb had destroyed Geoffery St Laurents primary cabin. Not the one he was in, but the one he had publicly rented. That blast hadn’t endangered the ship, it had sent a message.
The bomber knew St Laurents, and he wanted someone to know that. Someone who was aware that St Laurents was on the ship, and knew who was out to get him. Someone like Anna.
PrimaLux was telling her that they knew she was on the ship as well.
“There is a security team sweeping that level for passengers and staff,” Kellman said. “They’re heading to the freezer now.”
What had the second bomb said though? Why damage the ship badly enough to sink it but let it go down slowly enough that people could get off it safely if they weren’t killed in the initial blasts?
The second bomb caused chaos. It convinced the Captain to order the evacuation.
And it drew Tam and Val deeper into the ship.
Anna sighed as the pieces came together. The bombs weren’t meant for Geoffery St Laurents. They were meant for the representatives of the Second Chance Club.
The third bomb was the one to seal their fate. It hadn’t exploded yet for one reason only. Tam and Val were both deep into the ocean liner, but Anna was far removed from where the explosion would occur. She would live no matter how fast the ship sunk.
If she came within range of the bomb though, its controller would set it off.
If she fled the ship and left her friends to their fates, the bomb would go off then too.
There was no good answer, just several really bad ones.
The third bomb blast wasn’t what killed the ocean liner. The flooding from the second one had guaranteed that it would sink, all the third did was hasten the time frame on that to the point where the evacuation couldn’t be completed.
At least not without outside help.
The bed onboard the navy medical helicopter wasn’t exactly spacious, but it was a lot warmer than the cold, life stealing waters of the Atlantic and in Val’s mind that meant that it was perfect.
“I am sorry I was not able to send help sooner,” Charlene said over the satellite radio link. The medical helicopter wasn’t a particularly quiet environment either, but her voice carried with crisp and perfect clarity.
“How did you know we were in trouble?” Anna asked. She was breathing from an oxygen mask to help with the smoke inhalation she had suffered.
“The last time we spoke I believe I mentioned that I was looking into PrimaLux,” Charlene said. “I’ve had dealings with them before, and this fit the pattern of escalation they tend to employ.”
“How did you get an aircraft carrier to show up on time to help us out?” Tam asked.
“I have contacts in a variety of places,” Charlene said. “Please though, give me the details of what occurred. I was only able to guess at the broad picture and the official reports are still being assembled.”
“Well, I almost drowned,” Val said. “And I let our target get away. Or get swept away I guess. What’s weird is, he knew that was going to happen, and it was like he accepted it?”
“That’s what those behind PrimaLux do,” Charlene said. “They closed off every avenue of hope Mr St Laurents had and left him as nothing more than a weapon to strike at their enemies with. I am just glad he did not take you down to share his fate.”
“We can thank Jessica for that,” Val said.
“That’s the girl you were with right?” Tam asked. “The one you carried up to the decks?”
“I was only able to carry her because she carried me first,” Val said. “She has trouble walking, but as a swimmer she’s kind of amazing. Give her fins and she’d be a mermaid. When the stairs flooded I tried to swim back up to the air but I hit my head on a railing or something. I’d gotten close enough though that she saw me and dived in to fish me out. I helped her get up the next few flights of stairs until we ran into you.”
“What had brought you below decks Tam? Were you looking for Val?” Charlene asked.
“Yeah. Cynthia and I went down to free some trapped passengers and once we were finished I realized that Val’s communication bracelete was offline. Since they weren’t proof against water and she was chasing St Laurents even deeper into the ship the last I heard from her, I was worried that she’d hit one of the flooded sections.”
“Good guess,” Val said. “Next time we bring waterproof radios by the way. Oh, and we owe Jessica a new cellphone. I was going to use hers to call you two but things got a bit busy. And then, you know, the drowning stuff happened.”
“You were able to rescue the passengers?” Charlene asked Tam.
“Yeah. There was an open cabin door on our side of the barricade and Cynthia used that to get into a stateroom, break through the connecting door to the next room over, unlock it’s door, and lead the people out before the water reached us,” Tam said. “The ship medics said the two injured people were going to fine apart from the smoke inhalation they all suffered.”
“And you Anna? The reports I’ve seen said you were helping coordinate the efforts on the bridge until you left?”
“I did,” Anna said. “When I worked out what the last bomb was waiting on, I knew I couldn’t stay in a safe position for too long.”
“What do you mean?” Tam asked.
“The last bomb was positioned to destroy the ship’s power grid, in addition to sinking it,” Anna said. “The only reason it was saved till last, I reasoned, was because whoever was detonating them was linked into the ship’s security systems. They were watching where we were going.”
“We never went near the bomb though?” Val said.
“Exactly,” Anna said. “When I saw where it was, I convinced the security team to prioritize evacuations away from it’s blast radius. I knew the bomber was waiting until they could either catch us all below decks, or see conclusive proof that one of us, me in this case, was going to abandon the others.”
“So you left the bridge why?” Val asked.
“I think I get it,” Tam said. “If you stayed there too long, they would have blown up the bomb and accepted that Val and I would have been the only casualties they cared about. If you or anyone else went straight for it, then they’d blow it before you could disarm it.”
“So what did you do instead?” Charlene asked.
“I went below decks to give the bomber the impression that I was falling into his trap,” Anna said. “Captain Starling agreed to falsify the video feeds when I gave him the signal. I wandered down towards you two slowly enough to let the rest of the passengers get off the ship and then signaled for the video loop to begin. That’s why we had to flee so quickly. We were the last few who were still onboard.”
“What about the two others you mentioned?” Charlene asked. “Jessica and Cynthia?”
“Jess was waiting for her father and grandmother, but they’d had to take a different path up when one of the decks started flooding. We ran into them a few decks above where Tam found us after they looped back to find Jess,” Val said.
“Cynthia lead the passengers out while I went for Val,” Tam said. “I saw her when we were leaving and we exchanged contact info. We’re going to get in touch in a few days, once things settle down, and compare notes.”
“I am glad you escaped disaster,” Charlene said. “After all, even you, my dear ones, deserve your second chances.”