“The Fisherman’s Request”
If anyone were watching him closely, the observer might’ve seen salt dripping from his sea green eyes. Or sweat. And if he were looking up, probably some tears; that was, if he had given the observer a chance to see what he was hiding on the inside, what he hid behind his sea green eyes.
As the ocean rolled over the southern shores of Sandy Smack Island, the out-of-work surfer dug his fingers in the white sand, avoiding the looks of the locals that he knew were watching him. A lime green sailboard lay dead at his feet, barely touched in the months since he had moved to the secretive island of New Switzerland. And though the wind blew, he had no intention of riding it today. His nerve was shot and his desire, broken. He had brought it to this island for nothing.
Long after darkness had set in, his T-shirt clung to his back from him sweating so much. And it was only mid-February. His pulse thumped and the moisture on his forehead cooled in the sea breeze. His sailboard was back at the Smack Inn, and even if he wanted to ride it, the breeze wasn’t strong enough to carry him far. Never mind that the choppy winter waves would’ve knocked him back to shore. He shook his head. Think.
Next to him, a house wall reinforced with bamboo and plywood siding blocked his view of the ocean. Or more importantly, blocked the ocean’s view of him. Mildly content with his position, he brushed his fingertips along its edge to steady his body. Then he leaned against the wall and knelt in the sand, uncertain of his next move.
The growl from the powerboat’s engine drew closer, rising from a distant hum to a rumbling thunder. Before long, if he didn’t find a way out, the machine would find him. And it wasn’t alone. Both men were riding it—he had seen them—and they were leading the hunt. Their presence left him tense in the shoulders, tight in the neck, and quick with the pulse. From what he knew about them, they were exceptional hunters.
Even if he could escape Sandy Smack Island through the northern bridge, the cliffs below Cannonball Peak offered him no ladder or passage to the Mountain Road. He’d have to travel the lengthy Statue Beach to reach the highway, and that would leave him exposed. He wasn’t sure if he could make it, especially when it was so easy for them to skim the coast.
Landon McHale had been hiding all night. Now that morning was racing in and his cover of shadows was quickly diminishing, he didn’t know where to go. The window over his shoulder was locked, the cedar storm shutters closed, and the house’s owner was still inside.
The island’s mayor, Dr. Robert Smack, told the community to keep watch for him; he had eavesdropped on a small group discussing it the night before. If anyone were to find a man matching his description—medium height with scruffy, dirty blond hair and deep tan, a surfer who didn’t belong there—they were instructed to stop him. Fear of the future nipped at his throat. Someone would try if he couldn’t find a way out of there.
The powerboat’s engine circled to the south of the island.
A sudden breath, and it was time to move. Landon crawled to the north of the house, scraping through pockmarked sand, leaving a faint drag trail behind. That journalist in the passenger seat had been stalking him since Hawaii. Maybe even before. Nose of a bloodhound, eyes of a detective, and he’d follow that trail all the way to the back of his feet if Landon didn’t throw new mounds of sand on it first.
A cloud of dust blew by. He wiped his nose. It had been like this all night. Up until the last hour, two motorboats and a cabin cruiser had been watching the perimeter, shining high-beam flashlights across the narrow width of the oval island. Between the constant shift of security and the steady blast of the Caribbean winter—white sand was as good as snow in this part of the world—Landon had no time to sleep. Now he was exhausted.
When the boats retired, he almost made a break for it. But the captains lingered on the beach and were in direct line of sight between him and the northern bridge. Then the powerboat sped across the sea from South Island and began circling the beaches like a starving shark. By the time the captains finally went to their cottages, Landon was too tired to run. And the powerboat—the one with the relentless fisherman and the piranha like journalist—refused to rest.
He crawled to the east, pressing flat against the plywood wall. The sound of the powerboat’s engine moved to the west. He could see the black frothy ocean again, and in the horizon, the dangerous tongue of sunlight rising.
Dawn began as residents emerged like zombies from their wooden homes, clawing at the air as they yawned, scratching at their bellies as they stimulated awareness to morning. Soon he would be caught. Seagulls bounded from royal palms to private docks, hunting for elusive breadcrumbs chiseled from Smack Burgers. Clouds of sand blew past him as he gazed across the sea, past the twin peaks of South Island and into oblivion.
There was nowhere to run now. They had won.
Something chinked, then ground in his ears, and a hard wooden tapping followed.
“Hey,” said a voice from the window that was now opened beside him. A man, half-asleep, peeked through. “You that guy Smack was telling us about?”
Landon didn’t care anymore. Didn’t care who could see him. He refused to let that journalist torment him again. He jumped to his feet and ran, kicking dust to the side of the house.
“Hey, stop him!”
Other residents in earshot, staggering between the boundaries of sleepwalking and a confident stride, glanced in his direction. Most of them didn’t comprehend the situation, judging by their blank faces.
Most of them.
“Not so fast, sport-o,” said a beefy guy with purple hair. He was still in his boxers. His shorts had the shapes of anvils running down the legs. “You’re a marked man.”
Landon froze. The beach punk rushed him from next to a royal palm, dust swirling around his ankles. Landon’s eyes trailed toward the ocean, toward the west, toward Hawaii so far away.
The waves were churning, but small, and in no state for a man of his ability to call adequate. His tournament surfboard had long since vanished in his transition from Hawaii to New Switzerland, and the mid-February breeze only reminded him of the barrels he was missing in Oahu’s North Shore Banzai Pipeline.
A contest was underway that morning and he had to forfeit. How the mighty had fallen, he thought. His heart was broken.
And so was his concentration. The beefy punk slammed him to the ground.
Sand swished behind him. He glanced over his shoulder. A large man of about six-and-a-half feet stood over him and looked down on his floppy blond hair.
“You busy?” The man’s voice was husky, commanding.
“In a sense,” said the surfer.
He thought about the sadness he wanted to embrace, and how doing anything might’ve upset that plan. He also thought about running again, but was fully aware of the length of the brooding man’s arms, and the power in those fingers that could grab him by the neck and throw him back in the sand.
“Good, I need your assistance.”
The man was bald and had sharp facial features. A celestial pattern of burn marks scarred his shoulders and parts of his back. He carried a tackle box in one hand and a wetsuit in the other. Whenever he turned, one could see the tattoo of a hawk spreading its wings on the nape of his neck. The locals called him Fisherman Steve.
Behind him, the journalist with an Einstein hairdo jogged into Landon’s sight, bent past Fisherman Steve’s waist, and, using a digital camera, snapped a photo of Landon lying there supine in the sand. Then he glanced up at the fisherman and patted his thick biceps.
“We’re even,” the journalist said, that obsessive little man. Then he looked down at Landon. “I’ll make you a star, yet, boy.”
Then he ran off toward the boats.
The fisherman, meanwhile, folded his arms.
“Well, you getting up? Been a long night you know.”
The surfer shook his head.
“Don’t think I’m available today.” The sun was destined to rise over Oahu in six hours. The annual surfing competition was starting in eight. “Have to lament some things.”
Fisherman Steve lay his tackle box by his feet and extended his hand to Landon.
“So, you’re the one Manjoman Bobbinski writes about.” The fisherman knew his facts. “The one he calls ‘Rectum’.”
Landon snorted. “That hack? He’s been following me around since my Malibu Beach days.”
Landon sat up and glanced past Fisherman Steve’s waist, toward the western shore. The journalist, who tried to build his fame off of Landon’s fame, had already passed several bamboo houses. “Don’t believe a word he writes. And that’s not my name.”
“I like his stuff. Weird as hell. The one about scarecrows scaring aliens was probably my favorite. And I know you’re some surfing star overseas, and frankly, I don’t care that you need to lament some things. I need your help. You’ve got an ability most people on this island don’t have.”
Landon searched his mind for any quality about him that would seem important to a supposed hero or man rumored to have history with the Navy SEALs.
“An ability to hold your breath. For quite a while, if Manjoman is right about you.”
Landon hugged his knees, refusing to move from his spot. The fisherman would have to drag him away from here.
“There’s a reason his segment is called the Completely Fake Documentaries,” he said.
“Right, a journalist who doesn’t research. But like you said, he follows you around. He knows a lot about you. He says you got strong lung capacity. Says you went under for three minutes once when your cord trapped you against a rock. Don’t think he’d make that up.”
“You’d be surprised what he makes up.” That hack, that fame-stealing hack.
Fisherman Steve leaned over as far as he could without tipping over and rested his hand on Landon’s shoulder.
“I’m pretty sure he’s not making that up. You’re tired. Probably scared. We had you on the run all night. The mind does strange things when it’s on heightened alert. Time to come back to reality now. No need to deceive yourself. He’s not making it up.”
“Hate to break it to ya, but he was making that up.”
Fisherman Steve raised his eyebrows.
“So you weren’t trapped underwater for three minutes?”
“Really?” Fisherman Steve’s right eyebrow fell, while his left remained arched.
“Yeah.” Landon stared into the horizon, remembering the day well. “It was six minutes.”
Less than an hour later, nearly dragged against his will, Landon found himself sitting in the passenger seat of the white offshore powerboat, clutching his fingernails to the seat and sucking in his stomach for nerves. The boat combined water sports and luxury into a tight, sexy package: v-hull, bow cabin, and gelcoat image of a fishing pole intertwining with a machine gun. If not for his virtual kidnapping and imprisonment on the vessel, he would’ve found it awesome. With Fisherman Steve at the helm, his hands barely touching the steering wheel, the boat sped toward South Island as a hunter in search of camp, skipping across the ocean’s undulating surface in a show of acrobatic grace. Droplets of saltwater splashed Landon’s face in the crosswind and got into his eyes and mouth. Salting the prey with an aquatic missile before drowning him at the great island roast. Landon rubbed his eyes.
“I still don’t know what you need me for,” he said, trying to shout above the engine roar.
“It’s better I don’t tell you until I know for sure myself.”
Several boulders protruded from the turquoise waters ahead of them, dotting the oceanic vista between Sandy Smack Island and South Island with dark warts. Rays with three-foot wingspans glided along either side of them, casting animated shadows along the shallow sea grass-carpeted floor. The ocean breeze whipped past their foreheads as the powerboat zigzagged among the boulders in exaggerated arcs, hopping tiny waves like a rabbit. Landon would’ve wanted to cheer if it weren’t for the fact that he was supposed to be depressed, and confused.
“I liked my perch in the sand,” he said, not willing to admit that he liked the boat ride more.
“There’s plenty of sand on South Island, but I don’t think you’ll be spending much time on it.”
They coasted to a canoe that was moored to an isolated dock via pulley and suspended several feet over shoal waters. Once Fisherman Steve dropped anchor, they climbed into the canoe, and Steve lowered them into the water. Then, a few minutes later, they rowed ashore, parking the tiny vessel on the white beach between three sabal palms.
The rocky slopes of the twin peaks, which covered the majority of South Island, towered before them and bent slightly toward each other like a lobster’s claw, with a single alley of beach cutting through the cliffs to the other side. Past the alley, another white beach and long stretch of ocean awaited. Beyond that, the island was pretty featureless.
Fisherman Steve stomped off the boat and jogged across the narrow shore into the alley, carrying his tackle box and wetsuit with him. Landon followed.
“This is where I keep my stuff,” Fisherman Steve said as he maintained a heroic stride through the soft sand. “People don’t usually bother me here.”
“Why would anyone bother you? Who would want to?”
“The better question is why I don’t want them bothering me. Of course, too much has happened in the last year for me to ignore them. Either way, the question’s not important.”
The island was so small that they managed to travel half the length of the alley and penetrate the heart of the island in just a matter of minutes. Fisherman Steve stopped to catch his breath just beyond the halfway mark. Landon still had some wind left in him.
“Why don’t you want them bothering you?”
Fisherman Steve stared across the alley toward the southern shore. A royal palm waved just beyond the mouth.
“There are things about me that are better left unstirred. But as I said, it’s not important.”
“It’s really not important.”
“The more you say that, the more I think it is.”
Fisherman Steve resumed his jog toward the other side. Landon continued after him.
“We’re almost there.”
“What’s not important?”
Once again, the bald fisherman stopped. Landon nearly ran into him. He turned to face him.
“It’s possible I might’ve been responsible for all of this.”
Fisherman Steve’s eyes bore into Landon’s soul. Through the mixture of intensity and vacancy, a few red veins popped out of his corneas. Landon stared back.
“Responsible for what?”
“Come on, just a little further.”
Past the alley, the southern coast opened up with multiple palms and boulders flavoring the beach. A grassy scent wafted down from the cliffs above while the scent of coconuts swirled around them. And the rumble of the ocean’s waves drowned the cries of gulls nearby.
A cave burrowed into the face of the western cliff, and a sign next to it warned unwanted visitors to Keep Out. Fisherman Steve advanced toward it.
“In here,” he said, as he passed through the pitch black opening.
The light drained away quickly, and the echoes of bats took precedence over the songs of the sea. A wide floor with a low ceiling stretched into deep shadows. A tiny structure, either a house or a woodshed, stood in the middle. Next to its front door, a single light bulb with generator attached glowed.
“I’ve spent all year trying to find the right equipment for this mission,” Fisherman Steve said as he stomped toward the dimly lit house. “Found some of it in Primex, but had to scour most of it elsewhere. And none of it was cheap.”
Fisherman Steve opened the front door. The house’s interior was so dark that Landon couldn’t see inside.
“I have to make sure it wasn’t my fault.”
He stepped inside the house and disappeared in the shadows. Landon had no desire to follow him in.
A short time later, Fisherman Steve parked the powerboat and dropped anchor in a turbulent region of the ocean where the seafloor dropped from the continental shelf and the shallow turquoise water familiar in the shoals melted into a deep, sinister murk. They were about half a mile southwest of the island. The whitecaps stirred the remainder of what used to be a minefield of crates. A plank with some perverse resistance to water brushed against the hull.
Landon rested his elbows over the fiberglass side as he took in the sights around him.
“Seems you guys got this place pretty clean,” he said. “I remember the water being twice as polluted when I came here on the Cannonball Queen in November.”
“Should’ve had it cleared out nine months ago, but we kept hitting snags. Seems it’s gotten harder to dump stuff in the Forgotten Junkyard in the last year. Junkyard Bob installed a security system at some point and most of the citizens here don’t know how to bypass it. So I’ve been doing most of the cleanup myself.”
“Must be exhausting.” Landon paused. His stomach churned as the unthinkable crossed his mind. “Wait a minute. You didn’t bring me out here to help you clean the place, did you?”
Fisherman Steve killed the engine. It spluttered, spat a few water drops out the back, and died. The boat bobbed in silence over the choppy surface. His seafood-stained teeth flashed like a string of flattened pearls.
“No, you’re out here for something much more complicated.”
There wasn’t much on the boat’s floor. The tackle box lay beside the captain’s chair. A fishing pole rolled around between it and the passenger seat. A bucket with a couple of foil-wrapped hamburgers or chicken sandwiches sat just behind Landon’s left right wrist. There was also that potato sack that Fisherman Steve had lugged out of his cave and into the canoe, which was now below deck in the powerboat’s cabin. Landon shrugged.
“I give up,” he said. “How am I supposed to help you?”
Fisherman Steve jabbed his forefinger at the ocean.
“I’ve been looking for answers all year, trying to scour the wreckage for clues about what happened. Every time I think I get a little closer, something stops me, like a shark or a dried up air tank. And every time I get a little sicker inside because I can’t find it. But in my last excavation, I found a glimmer of hope.”
“The Tropica Hardcore? Are you talking about excavating the Tropica Hardcore?”
Fisherman Steve leaned over from the captain’s chair and reached for the plastic hatch in front of Landon’s knees. Once he popped it open, he pried himself off the chair and stomped below deck into the interior cabin. Landon caught a glimpse: It was narrow with ceiling low to the floor and hardly the epitome of comfortable lodging. The hatch door drifted to a close behind Fisherman Steve’s low-slung body before Landon could evaluate the plush sofa lining the wall or the polished metal sink next to it. He twiddled his thumbs while he waited for Steve to return. Whatever he was doing in there, he caused the boat to shake. When the hatch opened again, Fisherman Steve ducked out with SCUBA equipment cradled in his arms and laid it on the floor. From the pile he removed a wetsuit, unzipped it, and stepped inside.
“A few weeks ago I found the entrance to the security office where all the ship’s logs were stored. And I think it’s possible to salvage the monitoring tapes from the night the ship sank. Problem is—” he pulled the suit over his shoulders and zipped it up, “the door is too small for me to fit through with an air tank on my back.”
“So you want me to get the tape for you?”
Fisherman Steve winked at him with gun-shaped index fingers drawn.
Landon scanned the pile of SCUBA gear at his feet. While there was another wetsuit on hand, Fisherman Steve claimed the only tank with buoyancy compensator and regulator mouthpiece.
“How do you expect me to get down there without a spare tank?” he asked.
“We’ll have to buddy breathe, obviously. You have SCUBA experience?”
“No, and I don’t want to put that thing in my mouth after you’ve sucked on it. I don’t know where you’ve been. And what about the tank? How is there even enough air for both of us?”
“Relax. The saltwater will wash away the germs. And you’ll only be breathing one-sixth of the tank. You can hold your breath for six minutes, remember? But if it’s that big of a deal to you, I can at least pass off the octopus to you, that’s the second stage regulator, but only if you’re about to panic. I don’t want you taking the entire emergency supply. Okay? I need this.”
“Can’t it wait until you get a spare tank, and until, say, I have time to learn how to SCUBA dive? People die from inexperience, you know.”
“I’m fully aware of that. And no. I’ve witnessed treasure hunters diving in the wreckage for the last couple of months, and it’s only a matter of time before someone else gets the tape in his hands. I can’t sit on this another day. I may already be too late.”
Landon stared into the darkened sea, trying to find the bottom. A bulky silhouette formed where the shades of turquoise deepened, but it was too far away to identify as an object. It could’ve been a shadow.
“I should’ve been in a contest today,” he said. “The biggest one in Hawaii. I was the favorite, the one to stand the best chance at prestige. I would’ve died for it. But I had to leave because a group of crazed fans wanted to kill me.” He stared at Fisherman Steve, who stared back. “Ironic, huh? Would’ve risked my life in more ways than one if I’d stayed. And now, in spite of my flight, you would have me, on the same day in another part of the world, risk my life for a security tape? From a dead ship?”
Fisherman Steve tossed him the spare wetsuit.
“It’s still the ocean, man,” he said. “What difference does it make if you’re on the wave or below it?”
“I’m in no mood for this.”
Fisherman Steve stomped across the boat and opened his tackle box. He removed a scanner and a pair of pliers.
“In one of Manjoman Bobbinski’s articles he explained why your fans called you ‘Rectum.’ He said it was the nice way of describing what you’re like to your opponents whenever you’re near. Personally, I think you’re being the whole ass now.”
Landon contemplated his words as he stared at the empty wetsuit before him. It was never his intention to be considered that big of an ass. He entered the competition each year because he liked the admiration; he didn’t want them thinking of him as the bad guy.
“I just don’t know why I should do this. You’re asking for a result I can’t promise against an odd that’s unreasonable. And for what reward? How will this bring the Tropica Hardcore or its victims back from the dead?”
Fisherman Steve strapped the buoyancy compensator and its air tank to his back.
“It’s about justice. I saw what happened last year. The explosion was violent.”
“Explosions generally are. Doesn’t mean anything. Something in the engine probably caused a chain reaction. You really don’t need me for this.”
“Both ships are checked and rechecked before launch from Ophelia City. They’re thoroughly examined for defects whenever they leave port from Cannonball Harbor. Whatever happened to the Tropica Hardcore didn’t happen as a result of mechanical failure. It was something external. I’m certain of it.”
“And did you see what?”
“No, but I have my suspicions. That’s why I need the security tapes.”
“But if you didn’t actually see anything, then how do you know it’s external?”
Fisherman Steve lunged for Landon’s neck but stopped short a few inches shy of his collar. He closed his fingers into a fist and pounded the air instead.
“I know our ships. Something else sank the Tropica Hardcore. End of story.”
Fisherman Steve returned to the SCUBA pile and reached for his flippers.
“Now, enough of this screwin’ around,” he said. “I’ve got you here now, so you may as well suit up and take the dive with me. As for your reward, if I’m right, you may just end up winning your prestige. If I’m wrong, then at least I got your mind off your precious surfing contest for a while. Either way, shut the hell up and get your rectum under that water. And listen closely to what I say now because once we’re under, there’s no room for improvisation. The fact that you have no SCUBA experience is gonna make this a helluva lot tougher on both of us.”
He was given a suit, a pair of flippers, a mask, a safety line, and a diving tutorial specific to their need. Nothing more.
Bubbles clouded his vision when he stepped off the back of the boat in a move that Fisherman Steve called the “giant stride.” Water glided past his mask, and pinched fingers prevented air pressure from building in his ears. Closed lips sealed a small pocket of savored air, and his lungs would hate him later. There was no way this could work. He would panic, drown, and Fisherman Steve would drown trying to calm him. That was the only thing that could happen today. He never should’ve come to Sandy Smack Island.
Fisherman Steve led the way into the deep, waving through schools of parrot fish and butterflyfish over the shallow ocean floor, swimming only with his fins, occasionally stopping to allow Landon and himself to equalize the pressure in their ears and to adjust the amount of air in the buoyancy compensator so they could descend, or to give Landon access to the octopus—a bright orange device hooked to a hose leading to the main tank—that he decided at the last minute he’d allow Landon to use for the descent. He swam past fingers of seaweed to the edge of an underwater cliff, taking fistfuls of the plants as he streamed over the edge. His air tank rocked like a metronome as he moved, swirling pockets of seawater around. Landon caught tiny liquid tornadoes against his cheeks as he swam into Steve’s wake.
He had to keep close; his life depended on it. And though his speed convinced Landon otherwise, Fisherman Steve had left him room to catch up. Just over the cliff, Steve came to a halt and beckoned Landon on.
He breathed a few times and dislodged the regulator from his mouth before handing it over. Landon, losing his endurance, exhaled into the regulator first, on Fisherman Steve’s surface instruction, pressed the purge button to clear the device free of water, and then took a breath of compressed air. The rule they had established was for one deep breath and three smaller breaths to push the regulator out per transaction. It was the only way to ensure they completed the journey. He passed it back after a single breath.
About thirty feet below the edge of the cliff, a large, kite-shaped piece of metal leaned against the continental slope. It was rusted, faded red, and connected to a vast wooden floor further down.
Both men descended into the chilling abyss, scaling the rusty funnel, taking turns inhaling air. Occasionally Landon’s mask fogged, and he had to press a button to fill it with air. He also felt the pressure of the mask on his face, and many times in the descent he was tempted to pull it free. Fisherman Steve warned him that the deeper they went, the harder it would be for them to breathe, for the tanks weren’t designed for pressures more than roughly a hundred feet, and that by the time they reached the decks, Landon would start to feel lightheaded. As he pressed the button to clear the mask of condensation for the fifth time, he realized how true that statement had become.
Between the funnel and the sundeck, there was a window to the lounge. According to Fisherman Steve’s briefing during the prep phase, it was through there that they had to swim.
Pressure increased, squeezing Landon’s eardrums into pulp. His lungs, nearing empty, pushed against his sternum. The closer they came to the end of the funnel, the less the air tank seemed to help. And with the depth stealing farther away from sunlight, it seemed that he was swimming to the bottom of his own grave.
It took Landon three breaths to reach the shattered window. Fisherman Steve tied the cable from his wreck reel to an exposed hook and swam through the opening. He beckoned him inside.
Releasing a swarm of bubbles, lightening the pressure in his lungs, Landon kicked in a new direction, pushing through the perimeter of jagged glass like a mini-torpedo. Fisherman Steve pulled him into the lounge by his shoulders. A glass shard caught Landon by the flipper, tearing it off his foot.
Landon, concerned about stability, reached out for the flipper, but Fisherman Steve pulled him back. The gray eyes behind the mask were intense, then relaxed. Fisherman Steve shook his head. Landon understood. There wasn’t time for recovery. Even with the mixed gases that Fisherman Steve used, they had only an hour before the tank ran dry, and they had already burned through half of it.
They swam into a stairwell, gripping the handrail for leverage. With only one flipper, Landon had difficulty keeping his path straight. He pulled himself along the railing, descending into pitch black.
A light flicked on, illuminating a small radius before them. A silver flashlight protruded from Fisherman Steve’s hand, darting back and forth as he skimmed down the stairwell.
On the next landing, a fire door flitted open and shut. Fisherman Steve checked it with his shoulder and passed through the gap. Landon followed close, reaching for the crash bar. But the light dimmed as the door bounded back. Fisherman Steve forgot to hold it.
A wave zoomed across Landon’s face as the door closed and the faded light went out. Again he was left in pitch black, this time alone. And without breathing equipment.
But his safety line continued to pull.
The door was just a few feet away, somewhere outside of his reach. Sensing that the line pulled him toward it, he wiggled his fingers as far from his body as possible, bracing for the wall, stabilizing as best as he could with a single flipper, trying not to panic. He’d already gone close to two minutes without oxygen and his head started to spin. At the current depth, his six-minute record was meaningless. The pressure in his chest might’ve brought him down to three. Four, if he was lucky.
His exposed toes were cold. His flipper caused him to spiral. He no longer knew which way was up.
Then the line stopped pulling.
He kicked as hard as he could, scrambling for the place where he had seen the exit, uncertain if he was still heading in the right direction. Two minutes had already passed—one minute beyond comfort and one minute into madness. His lungs were on fire.
The echo of the water superimposed over distant sounds and muffled under closer ones. Something banged against metal and the noise reverberated into the stairwell.
Then a splinter of light crawled out of the darkness before him and grew to the size of a circle. An oval piece of plastic reflected the beam from behind. Then Fisherman Steve emerged in the doorway and beckoned him to hurry.
Oxygen tasted sweet; Landon nearly gasped from relief. And then it was taken away almost as quickly as it was given. Fisherman Steve grabbed his wrist and pulled him into the hall. There was little air left in the tanks, and they still had to ascend when all this was over. No time to panic.
It took about ten minutes to swim down the great hall to the other side of the ship. Potted plants, brown from saltwater overdose, rolled along the slightly angled floor, bobbing against burnt lamp stands. Magazines were wadded into clumps next to the walls while old rugs hung from dead ceiling fixtures.
At the end, they found the control room.
A rusted panel lay on its side, blocking half of the doorway. It belonged to an old navigation computer by the looks of all the buttons that had blinked to death. Levers were fused with barnacles and the remains of a monitor was dripping with seaweed. It was like Davy Jones’ Locker had coughed something up in the twenty-first century and tried to swallow it again.
Fisherman Steve pointed to the shallow gap between the fallen panel and sloping floor. And he was right: there was no way for the larger man to fit. Landon clawed at the doorway as he let the question of whether he could even fit swim through his mind. If not for his scrawny yet athletic surfer’s body, it was possible he’d become wedged in the gap himself.
The plunge into the ruins of the Tropica Hardcore had already weakened his endurance. With two minutes of stilled breath already behind him, he didn’t have much time to think about success. He would have to take that last breath in a matter of seconds, and then he would have to embark on the toughest leg of the journey. He’d have to go the remainder of the way alone. Without the air tank.
The bubbles flew as the regulator ejected from the fisherman’s teeth. His steely eyes hid behind the foamy curtain rising to the ceiling. Parrot fish darted into the hall from a nearby cabin and raced past the deceased plants. Landon felt his head spinning. Now or never, he thought.
He devoured his last breath like a starving lion devours a lamb. Inhaling as deeply as possible, air filled his lungs so completely that he thought he might’ve risked bursting them. He passed the regulator back before he could decompress himself.
With his body conditioned as best as possible, he took the flashlight from Fisherman Steve, reached under the panel, and pulled himself downward. His belly scraped the floor as he slid under. Then he wiggled on his back to grab the opposite edge and pulled himself through.
Somewhere in the dilapidated room, the secret to the Tropica Hardcore awaited. When Landon lifted his single flipper out from the gap, he exhaled slightly, and rose to a standing position. Then he kept rising, and rising, until he nearly hit the ceiling. He waved his hands over his head to bring himself back to the floor’s level. He adjusted his buoyancy compensator to ensure that it stayed that way.
The control room was trashed. The panel wasn’t the only thing lying on its side. Old rolling chairs bunched up in a corner of the room. Navigational controls had char marks dotting their buttons. Monitors displayed the blackness of silence, one year dead. Only the window overlooking the vessel’s nose remained intact, which was fortunate considering the hammerhead shark hunting for food just a few feet beyond.
Landon didn’t have time to guess, only to use logic. Fisherman Steve had said the recorder was hidden in a black box inside a closet, and that thanks to the rapid end of the ship’s life and its crew there was no time for anyone to swap the video. It was still in there, unless one of the treasure hunters had already come for it. But that would’ve rendered this mission futile, and he wasn’t about to throw his life away for nothing; there was no prestige in death without something to show for it. With a minute’s worth of air already gone, he had to chance his information.
The closet door was rusted, and not so easily moved. Landon planted his feet against the doorjamb, stuffed the flashlight under his arm, tugged on the handle—
The door trembled. Another round of bubbles escaped his lips. His lungs were tightening.
He pulled again. The handle shook. Though it was faint, he could hear it squeak. Unwilling to risk breaking it off, he released the handle and kicked at the door instead.
More bubbles. Less air. The three-minute mark was nearing. His lungs began to squeeze together, clearly taxed from the constant strain he had been placing on them. He kicked at the door again. It budged.
A layer of rust cracked and peeled from the doorjamb, swirling, then floating to the floor. Landon tried the handle again.
The door squeaked open. Three minutes had come.
Over his shoulder he heard a thumping. He turned slightly, just enough to send a signal to his heart that it was time to start panicking. Beyond the control room’s monitor station, the hammerhead shark circled around a small area outside the window and pounded at it. A cloud of bubbles escaped Landon’s lips as he accidentally gasped.
There wasn’t time to search the closet; his air supply was almost depleted and the shark was determined to get through the glass. Whether he picked the right thing or the wrong thing, it didn’t matter now. He just had to get out of there. He reached in and grabbed for the first dark object he found—a square device lodged between two clamps and a bank of electrical equipment—and tugged. Wires tangled around it as he pulled, vying to keep it locked in place for eternity. They were still vivid in their multiple colors and senseless in their organization and entangled enough to risk his strangling himself. They were also as dead as the rest of the ship and ultimately useless.
He yanked the device free, snapping it from its wire captors. He had hoped it would suffice.
With his lungs near empty, he paddled toward the fallen panel as calmly as possible. When he reached it, he stuck his hand under the gap and let his body go slack.
Fisherman Steve grabbed his wrist and pulled him through. The regulator was already waiting to suckle him back to life. By then, more than four minutes had passed, and Landon inhaled faster and harder than he was supposed to. Fisherman Steve had warned him to control his breaths and to continuously decompress with the pinching of his nose and squeezing of his ears whenever he took the regulator. This was important if he wanted to avoid narcosis.
In his near panic, Landon forgot to pinch his nose, or clear his ears, or control his breathing when he took the regulator, and as they moved down the hall, back toward safer waters, he became euphoric and blacked out.