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Authors: Colin F. Barnes

Salt (9 page)

BOOK: Salt
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Handing him the light, she took the key and relocked the chains, forcing them taut and closing the hatch. With okay signs all round, she followed with a thumbs-up.

Time to return to the surface.

Ade gave her back the light and let her lead the way. She felt more comfortable being the one with the light. She swept a full three hundred and sixty degree circle, making sure there wasn’t something sitting there waiting for their lunch to be handily delivered right to them.

Apart from the smaller, darting fish, nothing alerted her.

She exhaled a sigh of relief and kicked out with her flippers, aiming for the flotilla.

They weren’t deep enough to have to worry about getting the bends, so she moved as quick as she could, ensuring the files in the bag were firmly locked in place.

When they were about twenty feet from the surface, Eva noticed a string of bubbles around her. She slowed, and a shape swam past in her extreme peripheral vision. She spun round but couldn’t quite see what it was. That’s when she noticed Ade was not behind or below her.

Panicked, she brought the light round, trying to illuminate the water to find him. She couldn’t see him, but in his place there was a cloud of blood. Through the cloud, something moved, knocking the light from her hand.

Eva reached out to grab it, but she couldn’t move fast enough, and instead she grabbed uselessly at the water as the light fell through the swirling blood, shining as though it had a life of its own. When the light dropped low enough, she caught a glimpse of Ade’s body sinking, his arms and legs limp.

Something grabbed her tanks and yanked at them; she flailed her arms and spat her regulator out with an attempted scream. With one hand over her head to fend off her attacker and the other trying to grab her regulator, she fought like a wildcat, kicking out, and spinning—anything to free herself.

She felt something firm as she struck out with a kick.

It had her flipper and was pulling her closer.

With bubbles rising from her mouth and her lungs straining, she pulled the knife from her belt and thrust out into the dark.

Her flipper came free as her knife bit into something meaty.

She kicked away, managed to grab her regulator, and took a deep breath of air as she aimed for the surface. But her hope was short-lived, no air left… whatever had attacked her must have punctured or disconnected the tanks.

Her lungs burned, and adrenaline flooded her system. She kicked hard for the surface, all the while wondering who or what had attacked her and whether it was even now chasing her down.

Without the light she couldn’t tell, and she didn’t want to stop and take a look around.

She breached the surface and inhaled a mixture of air and spray, making her cough and choke. The image of Ade’s bleeding body sinking to the bottom came to her.

She couldn’t help him now, had to get to safety.

Looking around, getting her bearings, she saw a few amber lights from within the cabins of the flotilla. Fixing the position, she kicked out and swam as hard as she could. With each stroke she felt a pain in her ribs.

She stopped, dabbed at her ribs, and cried out. Blood covered her hand.

A cut ran deep; she must have caught it in the struggle. Had she done it herself, with her own knife? She felt light-headed and thought she was going to vomit, but she sucked in a deep breath and continued to the flotilla. It was no more than fifty feet away, but each stroke required everything she had just to keep going.

Only once she looked back and thought she saw a fin break the surface.

For all she knew, it could have been a panic-induced hallucination, but it didn’t matter; the panic and fear was still real. She tried to block out the image of Jean being ripped apart by a shark and focussed on getting to the flotilla.

Don’t look back; just keep going.

She said it over and over in her mind, a survival mantra. With all the effort she could muster, she kicked and swam, every breath laboured and painful, every second expecting something to take her down, drag her below the water. Her vision dimmed with each stroke, the world growing darker.

The pain no longer registered, and she forgot for a moment why she had to swim. Where was she going? The tiredness overwhelmed her. She just needed to rest…

Eva lost consciousness before she reached the flotilla; her last waking memory was of someone standing on a raft lashed to the edge of the flotilla, screaming her name.

C
hapter 14

Jim stood mesmerised at the door to Mike’s quarantine room. A sheet of plastic had been fixed across the door, an extra precaution because of his condition.

The way Mike’s milky eyes turned to stare at him through the small, square window gave Jim a cold shiver.
He must recognise me
, Jim thought. Did he know that Jim had sent him to the other place on purpose? Did he know that he was a “resource”?

Odd sounds and words continued to emerge from Mike’s mouth. It was as though he had discovered a new language. For a brief moment it reminded Jim of Faust and her wild, gibberish outbursts spoken in “tongues”. He tried to discern a pattern in Mike’s words, but they were too random, too… different. The murmurings of a madman.

Just what had he seen to turn him into this? Was everyone over there like this now? Without any response via the radio, Jim had nothing to go on. He considered taking a boat and going out there himself, but feared what he might find, feared that he would end up like Mike.

Jim dragged his attention away from Mike’s eyes and left the quarantine room. “He’s still not saying anything.”

“You should get some rest, Jim,” said Dr Singh from behind her desk. “I’ll let you know as soon as there’s any progress.”

He regarded the doctor. “Have you any idea of what this is?”

“Early tests seem to indicate this is similar to the current bacterium. It reacts the same way to the salt tests, but it’s far more aggressive. I’ll know more in the next few days.”

“Transmission?”

“Hard to tell right now. If it were airborne, both you and I would be showing symptoms. How are you feeling?”

He shrugged. “Okay, kind of.”

“Oh? Something playing on your mind?”

“No, nothing more than usual.”

“I know stocks are low, but I could prescribe something to help you rest.”

“I’m fine, thanks.”

“I’m worried about you, Jim. You look rundown, stressed. We need you fighting fit.”

“I said I was fine.”

“But you—”

“Are you deaf, woman?”

Doctor Singh sat back from Jim’s outburst.

He leant in. “I just want you to do one thing. Make sure I’m the first here if and when Mike ever says anything understandable. I mean that. Just me. Do you understand, Doc?”

“Jesus, Jim, I get it. What’s got into you? What’s going on?”

Jim clenched his fist, gritted his teeth and shook his head before turning his back and leaving.
Why can’t everyone just do their damn jobs?
he thought.
Always questioning.

A few seconds after slamming the door behind him, Jim saw Duncan ease into the corridor with Eva in his arms, her head and legs hanging limply. He sidestepped through the narrow corridor towards Singh’s clinic room.

Blood covered Duncan’s hands. It stained a dark patch on the front of his white Alonsa crew shirt.

A bandage hastily made from one of his sleeves wrapped around Eva’s ribs.

“Duncan, what’s happened?”

“She’s cut, unconscious. Help me.”

“Doctor, we’ve got an emergency,” Jim yelled as he rushed to open the clinic door and let Duncan through.

“Duncan? Eva? What happened?” Singh helped Duncan take Eva into a room on the left. Inside was a small theatre of sorts.

She had Duncan lay Eva on the bed. Jim came in after them.

“Son, tell us, what happened?

“I… I… don’t know. I just found her like this. She’s been badly cut about her ribs. I don’t know how much blood she’s lost. She was unconscious when I found her.”

Jim clenched his fist again, turned his back and suppressed a yell of anger and frustration. If there was one person on this Godforsaken flotilla he didn’t want to lose, it was Eva. She was one of the few capable, good people left.

“It has to be the same person who killed Jean,” Duncan said.

Jim didn’t think he sounded too convinced.

“You two, leave me to it,” Singh said as she pushed them out of the way. “You’re just getting in my way.”

She urged them out of the room and returned her attentions to Eva’s unconscious body. Jim caught a glimpse of the ragged wound as Singh removed the makeshift bandage.

With the door now closed, Jim turned to his son and raised an eyebrow. “You tell me the truth. What happened to her?”

“I’m telling you the truth,” Duncan said, glowering.

“Where did you find her?”

“On the west side. She’d slipped between that old catamaran and the tug. Someone must have stabbed her and left her there to die.”

“And you just happened to find her?”

Duncan’s brow furrowed. “What are you saying? You think I’m lying about this? Why would I?”

Jim shrugged; he knew Duncan was holding something back, but he didn’t know what. And, surprisingly, he realised he just didn’t care any more. When not even his own son could be honest with him, he knew his time on the flotilla was rapidly coming to an end.

“Have you seen Stanic this evening?” Jim asked.

“What? No, why? How’s that important right now?”

“I need to speak with him, about the repairs.”

“Eva’s in there, probably dying, and you’re more concerned about some goddamned repairs?”

“The repairs are important. I want you to go find him and get me a progress report on the hydropower and wind turbines. We need those desalination units up and running as soon as possible. As for Eva, are you going to tell me the truth?”

“It’s like I told you,” Duncan said, slowly and clearly, as if Jim were getting old and needed things explained to him more carefully, “I found her in the water with a stab wound. What do you want me to say?”

“If that’s what you’re going to stick with, then I guess that’s that. I still need that progress report. Do your duty first, and then you can check on Eva. The flotilla comes first. You understand me, boy?”

Duncan glared at Jim, his nostrils flaring. Jim stood his ground, waiting for his response.

“Fine,” Duncan said, storming off toward the door. “But if anything happens to her while I’m away, that’s all on you… Captain.”

Jim turned away and watched as Dr Singh cleaned the wound and began to stitch Eva up. She’d be okay, Jim thought. Singh was as good a doctor as he had met. But even so, he didn’t buy Duncan’s explanation. That left the question of what had actually happened. He’d wait until Singh was done and then question her.

If there was something going down on this flotilla, it was his business to know.

***

Jim yawned and jolted in his chair, nearly toppling out of it. He blinked, realising he had dozed off for a while. The smell of coffee made his stomach tighten.

Dr Singh placed a steaming mug on the desk in front of him. She sat opposite and cradled a mug in her hands. She had changed out of her blue uniform and was wearing an old shirt and jeans.

“I didn’t want to wake you,” Singh said. “You clearly needed the rest.”

“But?”

“Eva’s awake. I thought you might want to talk with her.”

He nodded. “Thanks for the coffee. There can’t be much left now?”

“A personal stash,” she said with a smile. “I’ve been saving my rations for emergencies.”

He took a sip of the hot, bitter liquid and sighed. “I’m sorry for the way I acted earlier. It’s just… this place, you know? It’s… getting strained, fractured.”

“And you’re trying to hold it all together alone. You can’t do the job of holding everything and everyone together on your own. You can confide in me, take some of the strain off. We’ve been friends long enough, Jim. I know you. I’m on your side.”

He realised she was right. She had been the doctor assigned to the Alonsa when he first took charge of the ship. She, along with Duncan, had been a constant throughout the last few years, and he felt terrible about the way he had acted, the way he had snapped at her.

The strain was too much for him to deal with on his own, but he did it out of necessity.

No one could know what he knew. It would split the flotilla, make all their chances of survival that much slimmer. Not to mention that if the truth got out, he would likely be exiled or, worse, killed.

“Thanks,” Jim said. “I appreciate it.”

He stood and entered Singh’s theatre. Eva sat up on the bed, her ribs bandaged and wrapped, and forced a smile in greeting. Jim offered her his mug of coffee.

“Need a brew?”

She shook her head. “No, thank you, I’m okay with water. Where’s Duncan?”

“He had to attend to other duties. But I’ll let him know you’re awake. What happened?”

“I don’t really know, or at least, things happened too quick, so it was hard to tell.”

“Well, remember what you can and tell me.” Jim kept his voice low and calm, a mask for the anxiety and anger he felt, both for her condition and Duncan’s lies. He didn’t expect Eva to tell the truth, but perhaps between the two of them he could read between the lines, discover a thread of truth.

“I saw someone scoping out Mike and Jean’s cabin, so I followed. I tracked them into the west end when I lost sight of them. The next thing I know, I’m in the water, bleeding, losing consciousness. I vaguely remember Duncan pulling me out. Beyond that, there’s not much else to say.”

“Did you get a look of this person?”

“No, they were wearing dark overalls or perhaps waders. I must have spooked them when they ran off. It was too dark to see much else beyond that.”

“You think they were Jean’s killer?”

“Perhaps, but it’s hard to tell.”

Jim was no detective, but he could tell she was holding something back. He thought about pushing her, but realised that if she wanted to keep something from him, then that was her choice, and Duncan’s. He was too tired to fight any more. People would do what they wanted, and he couldn’t stop that.

“Well,” he said, “I’m glad Duncan found you in time. The doc says you should be fine. It’s just a flesh wound.”

“I’ll continue my investigation as soon as I can,” Eva said. “I want to catch this bastard, even if it’s the last thing I do.”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” Jim said. “You just take it easy for now. I’ll have some of the crew take watch over Jean’s cabin in case they decide to come back. You think they were looking for something?”

“It’s possible. But what, I have no idea.”

“Must be something valuable if they’re willing to kill for it.”

“I guess so. Oh, by the way, how’s Danny? Is he being looked after?”

“Yeah, he’s with the crew on the Bravo. They’re teaching him how to play poker.”

“Good, good. Listen, don’t tell him about this. I don’t want him to worry.”

“Sure.” Jim placed his hand on the door handle. Turning back to face Eva, he added, “If you remember anything, let me know, won’t you?”

“Sure thing, Jim.”

Jim headed out into the cold night with a maelstrom of thoughts floating around in his head. He was quickly losing his grip, and at that very point he started not to care.

He decided that when he got back, he would just release Frank and Susan and let whatever would happen, happen.

Why should he bother trying to hold these people together when they didn’t trust him? If they wanted to hide secrets and fight among themselves, so be it.

As far as anyone knew, they were the only humans left, everyone else drowned or dead through starvation and disease. If this lot wanted to end humanity, then who was he to stop them? Was there any reason to go on anyway?

Living aboard a floating collection of junk was no real life.

And even this small number of people couldn’t agree on how best to live.

Perhaps it was a sign that humanity’s time was up.

Perhaps
, he thought.
Perhaps it is.

BOOK: Salt
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