We plunged into the ocean together, Jake, the Navy SEAL who was charged with my transfer to the Nimitz, and me, strapped to him like a child in a Baby Bjorn. We hit and immediately went under. A blast of cold seized my body and I had to force myself to not to suck in a lung full of ice water. The ocean shoved us sideways and downways and I was sure that we we going to sink a mile below the surface until I felt Jake’s legs kicking behind me. He hung onto me with one hand and I assumed was swimming with the other, and within seconds we surfaced into the roaring swells of the South Atlantic.
There’s nothing like the desolation of the open ocean. It looks ominous enough traveling by ship, as I had done a few months earlier when I began my journey to Antarctica. The meandering churn of the ocean seems insignificant, something you might even be able to dog paddle through, but when you’re in it, when it’s just you and the fucking ocean, even a minor ripple is a towering, unemotional shredding machine, pounding and wrenching your body with the force of the planet.
But for some reason I had God on my side that day. The very God that I had even failed to call out to as I plummeted through the sky. He had cupped me in his gentle hands and delivered me softly into the waves, and it was there that I promised Him that I would not forget or squander his kindness.
“Hell of a day!” Jake screamed over the clamor of the ocean. He unhooked the parachute and let it loose in the ocean. A wave blew by and swallowed it. Jake laid back against the swells, the strap still binding us, and held out a small yellow box with a row of LEDs on the face. Only two of the nine or ten lights were illuminated. They were red and the rest were dark.
I turned my head. “What’s that?”
“It’s a beacon for the Zodiac,” he replied.
I was trying to process what in the hell that might be when he answered the question for me. “It’s a rubber boat. I kicked it out the back of the chopper before I jumped.”
Apparently jumping was simply a choice he’d made, whereas I had practically been ejected from the helicopter. If I hadn’t been feeling totally helpless and inferior before, that definitely sealed the deal.
A swell lifted us out of a valley of water and I caught a glimpse of the wide ocean, and plumes of smoke in the distance.
“Should be along any moment now,” he assured me. “Then we’ll scoot our asses back to the group.”
I frowned at that. “Doesn’t that thing have a beacon or something so they can come pick us up?”
Jake chuckled in my ear. “Robertson, I’m not going to be the laughing stock of the entire Navy by calling for help. We’re got a perfectly good boat and we’re driving home.”
Right. Of course. Wouldn’t want to look like a pussy. I guess I’d spent way too much of my life in laboratories or in front of computers; I didn’t understand any of that machismo crap.
“Here it comes,” Jake said, shaking the yellow box in my face. All but one of the LEDs were lit. The first few were red, then a set of yellow, and then green. I was wondering what kind of range the tiny transmitter had, and how the signal could possibly travel effectively, even in rough seas, when the last green lamp popped on. I scanned the area, looking for an inner tube or something, when a black, rounded rubber boat crested the wave in front of us and rumbled over obediently.
“Grab onto the ropes,” Jake said. “I’m going to unstrap you.”
I reached up and grabbed the ropes that crisscrossed the length of the raft and felt myself sink into the water as the strap came loose. Jake gave me a shove and I pulled myself in and crashed onto the soft rubber deck, turned over, and took a deep, resolving breath. I hadn’t noticed the sky since we landed. It was a beautiful day.
Jake followed. He strained as he lifted himself up and over the edge. He tumbled inside, breathing hard. I remembered his injury and watched in anticipation. He removed his helmet and set it aside. He appeared much different than the scowling, ultra-serious military die-hard I had faced in the Sea Dragon. He had short black hair, a square chin, bushy eyebrows, and friendly green eyes. But I had to remind myself that I was still his prisoner and these last few minutes of congeniality would soon be swept away by the reality that I was by all accounts, a traitor to my country.
He looked down at me. I swear he read my thoughts because he narrowed his eyes suspiciously, then went back to his business. He removed a few clips and things from his vest, his hands shaking. He unzipped his jacket, and slowly eased out of it, then gently and slowly peeled off his camouflage tank top.
I gasped and sat up.
“Fucker,” he hissed.
His abdomen was perforated by a dozen or so metallic fragments, all of them probably survivable. But in the middle of all of that, a jagged, six inch scrap of scorched steel stuck out below his ribs. On the inside, it had probably severed his liver. I’m no doctor, but I was astonished that he was actually still alive, much less talking and swimming and saving lives. Blood dribbled out of the wound in a small, but steady stream.
“Gah,” he moaned, leaning back against the rubber hull. His mood soured, having actually seen the wound. He closed his eyes as the waves punched the boat.
“You’re losing a lot of blood.”
“It’s fine,” he responded. “I’ve had worse.”
I struggled to believe that. But what the hell did I know. Perhaps he would survive. Perhaps he had had worse. He was a Goddamn Navy SEAL for Christ’s sake.
“You’re the skipper, Robertson. Take us home. Head for the smoke.”
Head for the smoke. Head for the place where he’d be given medical attention and maybe a medal or two, and I’d be imprisoned for crimes against the United States.
“Move it,” he demanded. And as I had predicted, our roles as guard and prisoner had resumed. I cursed under my breath. Was this God’s plan for me now? Save my life so I could waste away in some dirty cell? He could be a cruel bastard sometimes. Sometimes I thought He enjoyed inflicting misery on the human race.
“Robertson!” Jake screamed. He had on hand on his gut and in the other was his sidearm. He glanced at it suggestively. “In case you’ve forgotten.”
“I’m going,” I said.
The boat had a basic outboard motor and it was still running. I grabbed the controls, squeezed the throttle, and pointed it into the waves. The Zodiac was much quieter and powerful than I had expected and easily pitched over the swells. At the top of each wave I could see the distant smoke rising up into the air, but we were still too far out to see the ships.
“You’re stalling,” Jake said, his voice slightly weaker. “Open it up.”
I snarled and squeezed the throttle and the Zodiac jumped forward. We hit the waves harder, slamming into them, and water sprayed into the boat. Jake didn’t seem to care. He had lowered the gun to his side and was staring up at the sky. An inch of reddish water sloshed around inside the boat.
I was going to prison. A military prison for Christ’s sake. Spegg was dead, or worse. Either way I’d never see him again. My life was nothing. I had promised God that I wouldn’t squander this second chance, but I had no idea what that meant if I was just going to sit in a cage for the rest of my life.
I steered the Zodiac around a larger wave and bared down on the throttle. One of the battleships appeared on the horizon. Jake mumbled something. His eyes were closed now and the barrel of the gun had dropped into the water.
Surely God didn’t save me for this. I stared out at the smoke and the hazy figures coming into view in the distance. The Americans and the Russians were destroying each other. Even if we made it to a ship, we might not even make it out of the battle alive. No. This wasn’t God’s plan. God may be cruel, but He isn’t stupid. He’d saved me for a damn good reason. I was his Instrument.
I let go of the throttle and leapt up. Jake gasped as I dropped my knee into his chest. He tried for his weapon but I slapped it away. I closed my hand around the shard sticking out of his gut and pulled.
“You mother fu-”
Blood gushed out of his wound and spilled into the boat. He heaved forward, his hands batting at my face. I stuck the shard back in and yanked it out, five, ten, fifteen times. The soldier got a hold of my neck, but he was too far gone. His hand dropped, his face whitened, and his body jerked and spasmed…. And then, just like that, I was free.
I wasted no time. I put the shirt and jacket back on the body, put the gun back in the holster, and dumped the corpse into the swells. It bobbed up and down for a few seconds and I feared that it might not sink, but another big wave happened along, like the hand of God, and yanked it under.
I used the soldier’s helmet to wash the blood out of the Zodiac, then dropped it over the edge as well. I stared at the smoke and the ships on the horizon for a moment, then steered the boat in the opposite direction, and punched the throttle.