Cover by Neevebrody
Steve breathed deeply, savoring the faint scent of salt, the air burning his lungs. The sky was a deep gray, always gray, but today sunshine broke through the clouds. It was a gorgeous sight. He scratched his stubble covered cheek, aware he needed a shave, but his straight-edged blade needing sharpening before it touched his face.
After a few minutes, he turned his head, studying the rows of large solar panels lining the sides of the deck. The last few days had been typically overcast, but today, the forecast called for clear skies. He'd take every minute; they couldn't afford to expend fossil fuel this far out.
"What the hell are you doing?"
"It's called enjoying the morning," Steve said, straightening. "You should try it sometime."
"I was." Danny stomped over, adjusting his suspenders over his sleeveless white undershirt. He sported an impressive bedhead and two days' worth of scruff. "That was until I rolled over and found a cold, empty spot."
"I'll leave an extra blanket in my place next time."
"We have a sixteen hour day ahead of us. I know sleeping-in is a challenge, but how about trying to be a little lazy, hmm?" Danny moved closer, shaking his head. He looked at his watch, mouth twitching. "Have you even checked the rads for today?"
"The wind's from the east this morning."
"Do you know what amount of absorbed rads is considered acceptable in a given year? See, while you pace and bark orders on the bridge, I split my duty between the engines and the solar sensors. That's hours, outside, on the freaking deck –"
"We both know it doesn’t matter if we're topside or not. Twenty millirems of radiation is the accepted maximum allowed in a given twenty-four hours.”
Low-level ultraviolet radiation was their biggest enemy; delayed effects from years ago. Even thousands miles away, they had to worry about the sky above.
Steve buttoned up his coat against a strong gust of wind. He eyed Danny in annoyance. "You're on deck without a weapon."
"I'm sorry; I don't sleep with one under my pillow."
"You should always carry one." Steve ignored Danny's indignant huff. He would never back down; the open sea was filled with people and things that would love to kill them.
But Danny continued staring at him with mock annoyance, tracing a hand over Steve's stubble with a soft smile. "I see a few more flecks of gray. It's nice."
Steve chuckled, running his fingers through his hair. "Matches the rest."
"Hints of silver, babe. Just hints."
Steve smiled and looked over Danny's shoulder at the ship. "Why don't you complete your equipment check and I'll see you during the afternoon briefing."
Danny's eyebrows rose and he stood at attention. "Aye, aye, sir."
Steve sighed. "I'm sorry."
"Yeah, yeah." Danny flapped his hand. "You can take the sailor out of the Navy, but you can't take the Navy out of the sailor."
If only it had been that simple. "You should talk."
"Hey, I did my required bit. You're the one who stuck around for three more tours."
But Steve hadn't worn the uniform in a few years and he'd really didn't know how he felt about it.
Feeling Danny's weighty gaze, Steve pulled out his sunglasses and slid them on. "I'm going to conduct my morning survey. See you at 1300."
The Hoku was an off-shore patrol vessel with enough artillery to take out pirates or machines. Ninety years ago, when the world had been alive, she had been stacked with stealth tech and missiles. After being gutted and stripped down, she now helped hunt down the enemy deep at sea.
Steve knew all about reversals of fortune and the need to adapt or be left behind. He patted the bulkhead. "You're still a beauty."
It took a few minutes to walk the length of the deck and Steve used his flashlight to inspect for safety and sanitation, moving toward the stern. He looked up at the glass-enclosed wheelhouse and could barely make out the helmsman behind the ship's wheel, but he noticed the sun reflecting off the giant set of binoculars one of the lookouts used. He smiled to himself. Before they left port a month ago, they had a new magnetic compass installed. Chin and Danny had been ecstatic.
He walked around checking the gun turrets, noting a coating of oil on the outside of the long barrels. Every area of the ship was examined on a daily basis, but with a crew of eighty, everyone's duty roster was packed.
"A penny for your thoughts, keiki?"
Steve looked over at Mamo who slowly pushed a mop bucket onto the deck. Steve would tell him to stop, but he knew it'd fall on deaf ears. "What does that phrase even mean?"
"A penny was a coin made of copper. Worth very little," Mamo chuckled. He rested his hand on the butt of his sidearm; it was such a contrast to the innocent mop.
"I'm not sure how to take that," Steve said, shaking his head.
"It means generations ago, people must have been pretty stupid considering how rare copper is today." Steve chuckled and Mamo clapped him on the back. "It is good to laugh every once in a while. Even when contemplating things like who has to crawl inside those gun barrels to clean them."
Mamo stared at Steve through his good eye, the pale blue one drifting to the right. Steve wondered if the man was a mind reader. "I thought the scut duty could go to the loser of this week's poker game."
"You're a wise captain, Stevie."
Steve's comm beeped twice, signaling his immediate attention. He grabbed the end of his radio and clicked it three times in acknowledgment. "Sorry, I need to get to the bridge."
Mamo sloshed the mop into the bucket. "I'll have a good breakfast waiting for you and the crew."
The islands were far enough from the mainland that they were not heavily affected by the winds that carried long-term fallout. Regulations ensured all food was stored inside shelters. But most of their diet on the islands consisted of recipes made of beans, corn, macadamia nuts, grains, and pineapple. Staples with the most essential nutrients. If it weren't for Mamo's skills with zesty sauces and spices, most of their rations would be inedible.
"I'm looking forward to it," Steve said and patted Mamo on the shoulder before hurrying toward the bridge.
Steve climbed the ladder to the command deck, pausing inside the corridor long enough to write the time he'd spent outside into the weekly rad log. Unbuttoning his coat, he hung it with the others on a hook before walking onto the bridge.
He scanned the weapons station, eyes landing on Lori, who monitored her console like a hawk. She was a ferocious specialist with a sharp wit and a love for nineteenth century strategy. It made for good conversation during nights they both roamed the deck during odd hours when sleep eluded them.
Steve glanced at the communication stations, watching Chin who stood in front of Duke Lukela as he listened intently to his headphones. Steve had been given the rare opportunity to handpick his entire crew. Where most people saw age, he recognized years of invaluable experience.
Duke slid his headphones down around his neck. "We lost the signal to the underwater relay in Quadrant Fifty-Two.”
"The entire quadrant?" Steve demanded.
"Affirmative," Chin said grimly. "Lines A through Z."
The grid was a large surveillance system of underwater microphone arrays that could monitor for enemy vessels from facilities thousands of miles away. Since the microphones only produced electric signals when subjected to pressure changes caused by sound, it didn't violate the High-Tech Ban.
Steve looked over at Duke. "When did you first notice the disruption?"
"Ten minutes ago. I altered frequencies then pinged the main array. When I couldn't get a signal, I immediately informed Chin."
"And the surrounding quadrants?" Steve asked.
"Still functioning." Chin folded his arms over his chest. "I woke up Toast. He'll pull a double shift and take over monitoring for any possible threats to the ship while Duke continues testing the defense grid."
Steve nodded; the safety of the Hoku was their first priority.
Chin motioned at Steve to follow him toward a large bulletin board with a map of the Pacific Ocean. "This is the sixth interruption to the outer grid in the last three weeks."
Steve studied the map. "I think the governor was right about probable malicious activity."
"All six affected arrays are here," Chin said, pointing toward several red pushpins. "They're all points along the edge of the Northeast Pacific Basin." He shook his head, confused. "You'd think the navy would be on higher alert regarding such a possible threat."
"These arrays cover over two thousand square miles," Steve said, thinking out loud. "Dozens fail and have to be repaired on a daily basis." But those were the cables lining the Hawaiian Ridge. "The navy's main focus is possible threats closer to the islands. And Quadrants Fifty through Sixty are within six hundred miles of the mainland."
Chin's shoulders sagged. "No large ship dares patrol that near the coast, but the governor expects us to."
"The navy thinks big and reacts big. You know that," Steve said.
Pain flickered behind Chin's expression, his whole posture stiffening. Steve bit his lip, words failing him. The weight Chin carried sat firm on his shoulders no matter how hard Steve tried chiseling it away.
"This type of investigation requires finesse and speed," Steve continued, focusing. "Denning asked us to look into this because we're the only ones suited for the job. And we both know that the relationship between the civilian government and the military is tenuous at best."
Chin relaxed somewhat, his expression reflecting that he was back in the game. "If we examine the dates and locations when each array was disabled, we might find a pattern, maybe even predict the next target."
Steve nodded. "In the meantime, we'll set course for Quadrant Fifty-Two and investigate what might have caused it to go offline."
Chin's brow furrowed, his gaze drifting toward wheelhouse. "We're going to be awfully far away from the nearest naval backup. Do you want me to activate the radar?"
Lori glanced up from her station, ears perked before glancing back down at her display. Duke glanced over but quickly looked away.
"No," Steve said, ignoring the extra attention.
"Are you sure?"
Steve curled and uncurled his fingers when the muscles in his hand twitched. "I don't want to initiate Level Three Tech right now."
"We've got a lot of open sea out there," Chin said, pressing his point. "It might be our best tool for figuring out what's going on.
"I know we've been granted the use of classified equipment, but that doesn't mean I want to risk exposing the ship."
Chin cocked his head, undoubtedly piecing together Steve's thoughts. After working side-by-side for over a decade, it was as if the man had a sixth sense into Steve's mind.
His expression softened along with his voice. "Do you really think the machines might be responsible?"
Steve stared at the red pushpins, how they skirted the furthest edge of the defense grid. He balled his hand into a fist when the muscle twitching turned into a spasm. "I don't think we're dealing with pirates. They wouldn't sabotage the grid this far out, not to mention there aren't any populated islands to terrorize or ships to hijack."
Chin's inched closer to the map, studying it with the same intensity as Steve. He nodded to himself. "Given the distance, we should arrive in about two days. Do you have a plan?"
"Yeah," Steve said, feeling a familiar flash of adrenaline flood through his veins. He tapped his fist against his hip. "We'll send in our divers and see what the hell is going on."
Every inch of space of the ship was utilized to the fullest, but a small cargo hold had been converted into a gym and it was one of the most popular spots to disappear into for a few hours. Steve took the ladders down to the bottom level and found his quarry.
Kono circled the heavy bag, her green tank top soaked through with sweat as she unleashed a series of punches. The bag swung away then back, and Kono gave it a roundhouse kick while she balanced on her right J-shaped prosthetic. She gave the bag several furious elbows strikes before stepping away, chest heaving.
"You just gonna stand there, boss?"
"No, I thought I'd give you one of these," Steve said, grabbing a towel from a hook on the wall.
He tossed her the towel and she caught it one-handed, mopping her face. Walking toward a bench, she grabbed a thermos of water. "What's up?"
Steve crossed his arms, raising an eyebrow. "You don't know?"
Kono gave him a devilish smile. "You want me to dive and inspect what caused part of the grid to go down."
Steve shook his head. Controlling scuttlebutt on a small ship was impossible. "I figure we could meet after today's briefing and go over things."
"When were the last maps made of that area of ocean floor?"
"Three years ago during the last maintenance check."
"I'll need a level one computer to help me calculate my dive table and how many minutes I'll need to decompress before resurfacing." Kono watched him, waiting.
Steve gave a terse nod. "I'll authorize one for this afternoon."
"Are you accompanying me or –"
"I think you should partner up with Fong. Since we're dealing with an unsecured area with a possible threat, I want to remain topside."
"Then there's nothing to worry about," she said with confidence.
"Nothing to worry about?" Danny entered the gym, arms thrown out wide. "Are you kidding me?"
Kono sat down on the bench with an amused glint in her eyes. "We'd never kid around you, brah. We know you don't have a sense of humor."
"Oh, ha, ha," Danny snorted. "Keep pushing. We'll see what happens."
"Will I?" Kono rested her head against the wall, stretching out both legs on the bench.
Danny stabbed a finger at her, but Steve moved between them, Kono's smile growing wider. "Okay, before you get all bent out of shape," Steve said, holding off a Williams tirade. He nodded at Kono. "Do you need anything else from me?"
"I have Max adjusting my flipper prosthesis. I'll need to test it out before the main dive."
"I'll arrange for us to stop tomorrow morning," Steve said. "Will that work?"
Danny looked between them. "Can I talk now?"
"Since when do you ask permission?"
"Bite me, McGarrett." Danny turned his back to him. "I actually came down here to see if Kono could lend me a hand recalibrating the tenth and eleventh solar panels?"
"Sure. I have a few hours before it's my turn at the helm." Kono folded the towel over her neck. "I'll need to change first."
"How much speed will we lose if those are taken offline?" Steve asked, crossing his arms. He didn't want a delay.
"Maybe five knots."
"We're on a time schedule, D."
"I'm sorry, but if you haven't noticed, there are only a few hours of sunlight a day."
It was totally unacceptable. Steve held his arm close to his side when he felt the familiar twitch begin. "A loss of five knots will cost us six hours over the next two days."
"I think the arrays will still be broken when we get there." Steve glared, agitated, but Danny ignored him. "Don't give me that look. Do you think whoever is responsible is going to be still hanging around?"
"Or whatever is responsible," Steve insisted.
Steve watched Kono's shoulders tense.
"Steve," Danny said softly. "We haven't seen a drone in months. And the ones still functioning have very low-level programming."
Kono sat up, swinging both her legs around, her right one clacking loudly on the floor. She shook her head at Danny. "There are still hundreds roaming the ocean, gathering intel, and causing destruction to ships."
"And most have been eliminated." Danny looked back and forth between them, lips pressed together in frustration. "We've been pursuing more human criminals recently because they've been able to sail around more with less fear of an attack. There's even speculation that –"
"I don't care about speculation," Steve snapped, stepping closer to Danny, his heart thumping loudly in his ears.
Danny obviously wasn't about to voice his opinion on the matter. Instead, he held up his hands in the air, waiting until Steve noticed them, then he gently took Steve by the shoulders, slowly rubbing his hands up and down Steve's arms until his breathing slowed with the motion.
"Babe," Danny said quietly. "We're damn good investigators. We'll keep an open mind when it comes to theories. But let's see what the evidence tells us. Okay?"
Steve took a deep breath, nodding, and the quiver in his arm receded. "Yeah. Okay. I..." He clamped his mouth closed.
Kono stood up and slapped Danny on the arm. "Come on. You want my help with those panels, or what?"
"Yeah. I'll grab some chow and meet you topside." Danny gave Steve a pointed look.
"I need to prepare a communiqué for the governor before the briefing." At Danny's continued scrutiny, Steve exhaled heavily. "I'll also go through our records on all our recent arrests, see if I can find any group that'd have some kind of stake in sabotaging the grid so far away from the islands."
Danny gave him a half smile before walking away. But Steve still planned on conducting a thorough inspection of their EMP weapons.
Danny felt dirty and hot. His shoulder hurt from meticulously angling each solar panel, adjusting the mirrors, tweaking them and his old rotator cuff injury in the process. Kono didn't complain once, not even after the sixtieth tiny modification. He owed her a dessert of her choosing, anything this week. He wept at the loss of his powdered chocolate pudding.
Before he took a shower, he walked by his and Steve's quarters, and knocked on the hatch across from them.
He stood there, tapping his foot until Grace opened the door. "Hey, sweetie. I brought you lunch," he said, shaking a cloth bag. "Tomato soup and a chicken jerky sandwich."
Grace stared at the bag, contemplating, with a strand of hair falling in her face. Danny resisted the urge to fix it.
"I'm not really hungry," she said.
"It's made with real chicken," Danny teased.
Her eyes lit up and Grace moved aside in her version of an invitation. "Okay."
Livestock on the islands consisted mainly of poultry and cattle. The soil they grazed on was tested weekly for any miniscule radioactive particles. It didn't really matter, most of the population's main source of protein came from powdered milk and eggs. Meat was expensive and usually only consumed on the weekend. A chicken sandwich, even a dried salty one was a rare treat for a Tuesday.
“Um, sorry,” Danny apologized for drifting away with his thoughts. He handed Grace her lunch. “Don't forget your daily vitamin when you're done.”
Grace's quarters had a single bed, a set of drawers, and a tiny chair and desk, but she slept alone, and that type of privacy on a ship was priceless. He sat on the folding metal chair while she plopped down on the bed, digging eagerly inside the bag.
"How were this morning's lessons?"
Grace shrugged. "Okay, I guess. I have an algebra test tomorrow."
Grace was the only child on board the ship, which made life rough for her, not being able to socialize with others her age. But they did the best they could and three crewmembers donated ninety minutes a day to help with her schooling.
The eleventh anniversary of Rachel's passing was next month and Matty was serving his sentence for burglary by working at a metal factory. Grace was safer with Danny on the Hoku than on the islands.
He pushed down a wave of guilt and kept his tone upbeat. "If you want help with it, I could come by after dinner mess?"
"That's okay," she said, munching on the sandwich. "It's fractional equations. I'm good with those."
"As long as you take time to study and don't spend all day in the munitions room."
"But Catherine needs help with the ammo supplies. Don't you think I do a good job?"
"You put petty officers to shame, molding the ammo casings we need," Danny said proudly. "But your job is to study your schoolwork."
"If we run into trouble, we need to have as many extra shells as possible. It's not like we can get more."
Danny's heart broke into a million little pieces. It was a fact of life that his little girl helped out with the ship, but she shouldn't be aware of the dangerous nature of limited supplies while at sea. "That isn't your job to worry about."
Grace carefully put her lunch aside and she looked at Danny with the most earnest of expressions. "I need to pull my own weight."
Oh, no, no, no.
"Pull your own weight? Sweetie –"
"I'm thirteen." Grace stood up, brushing crumbs off her shirt, her head held high. "In five years, I have to go into –"
"No," Danny snapped. "We're not going to talk about that right now."
Danny hated the fact they were sending their own children off for obligatory four years' service, but with such a limited population they had no choice
"Danno." And his heart broke all over again when she used that nickname. "I need to pick which branch of service to enter in by next year. I was thinking maybe the Air–"
"You are not going to fly those death traps with wings. Over my dead body," he growled. The fatality rate for pilots during a possible mainland bombing was astronomical. "No arguments."
"But they make the most difference."
"There's no such thing. Ever. We all pull our own weight, no matter which branch. And that includes civilian life when we're done. From farmers that feed us to the hospital workers who care for us when we're ill. This is why you should study hard so you'll be prepared to do whatever you want after you complete your tour."
In the Navy was left unspoken. And if Danny had his way, once Grace finished basic training, he'd have Steve use his influence with the governor to have her placed on their team for her active duty. It'd be a huge challenge, but that's why they were called special favors. And given the reason for Steve's notoriety, they were owed a few.
Grace grew solemn, her lips stretched in a frown. The guilt nibbling at his bones started to a dig a trench inside him, and Danny started to apologize for his outburst when Grace looked up at him, her face shy and timid.
"May I ask a question?"
"Of course. Anytime." He smiled at her in reassurance, resisting the urge to grab her knee. Ever since she turned twelve, Grace had squirmed more at physical displays of affection. She was growing up too fast.
"Have you ever seen a machine? I've seen the sea drones. They look like big metal tubes."
"Well, yeah. The ones we encounter are built for the ocean. They're designed for functionality."
"I just...I've seen pictures...of the machines on the mainland. And..." She lifted up her head, the worry in her eyes belaying her true age. "Are they really going to try to kill us?"
"Oh, sweetie. No, they're not."
"But they've bombed us."
"And we do whatever we can to intercept their weapons, but yes, baby, some still get through and hurt people. But we keep building better systems and we patrol the ocean before they come near us."
"But they could...could they invade us with a big army?"
"No. That's why we sometimes bomb the mainland, to keep them from building up their numbers. It prevents them from launching any real big offensive," he said.
"That is what Steve did, right?" She had dropped the uncle when she turned twelve, too. "He fought the ones on the mainland? Everyone on ship says -- says it was really bad."
Everyone referred to it as the meat grinder, but the crew knew better to say that around his daughter.
Danny chose his next words carefully. "He was in a very specialized unit and he did very, very scary things. Things he doesn't like to talk about it."
"Is that why he sometimes yells at night?"
Danny froze, caught between too many trains of thought.
She rolled her eyes. "Please, Dad."
Danny groaned inwardly, wondering about the logistics of soundproofing the walls.
Grace actually smiled before her face went serious again. "It's just...Sometimes he seems...he gets so upset."
It was like getting sucker punched. Steve had issues, they were deep-seated and messy, and no matter how hard he tried to bury them, they were never truly hidden.
Danny wrapped his arms around her, not caring if Grace thought she was too old for giant hugs. But he relaxed when she squeezed back, hard. "It's okay. And it's okay that even Steve gets scared sometimes. So, you don't have to worry about a thing."
"I'm not worried," she said, pulling away. "Promise."
Danny gave her a kiss on the cheek and smiled, projecting a confidence that he didn't have a hundred percent of the time.
After another seven hours of duty in the engine room, Danny was filthy and soaked with sweat for the second time today. There were grease smears across his forehead and his shirt stank of solvent. But when the engines ran on fuel and the rest of the ship on solar, it doubled the required maintenance. It was nice and all that he could use a Level One computer to monitor temperature and oil pressure, but he really needed a level two CPU that could help with the analysis of the readings.
And hell if he could get Steve to budge on that. Maybe he could say it was needed for the EMP array? The man clung to his weapons.
Danny yanked down his suspenders, shedding his clothes all over the floor of his quarters, and walked inside his tiny shower, allowing his thoughts to drift for a couple of minutes.
With his paranoia of high-level technology, it was amazing that the governor had made Steve captain of the Hoku. Danny understood Steve's fear. Everyone did. Anything with a central processor involved complex algorithms, coding, and multiprocessing. And that made everyone scared shitless. Because that could lead to the really scary tech stuff like learning, communication, and perception.
It could make one's head spin. Things that used long-range signals, radios, radar, anything that could be synced-up, hooked-up, networked – the machines could track or eventually take over. Even the most innocent piece of tech could lead to disaster. Danny had heard the stories growing up, been taught all the precautions regarding High-Level Tech. But he couldn't walk on eggshells his entire life.
His water timed out and Danny forced his tired legs to move. Three minutes was too short, but they could only store so much recycled ocean water. Wrapping a towel around his waist, he searched the tiny bathroom shelf for something for his sore shoulder. Moving Steve's prescriptions bottles out of the way, he found something for inflammation and popped two tablets.
"You left all your clothes all over the floor."
Danny rolled his eyes at Steve's annoyed tone from the other side of the shower hatch. "I did it so I could just listen to you complain."
Walking out of the bathroom, he took in Steve's damp hair, the sweat stains to the front and down the sides of his t-shirt. His gaze lingered on how Steve's running shorts hung to his hips, accented by his thigh holster. "When did you have time to change and run around the ship?"
"Forty-five minutes ago." Steve brushed past, tapping his fingers against his thigh. "I knew you'd be annoyed if we put down anchor so I could swim."
"Are you serious? Of course I'd chew you out for swimming in those death waters."
"At two bits per billion, I don't think I have to worry." Steve started pacing. "And it's not like I swallow any of the water."
It didn't make Danny feel any better; there were too many scientific studies contradicting each other. They had bombed the mainland four times in the last ninety years, according to the navy. All that destruction, all the damage with very little time to heal in between.
With each bombing, virtually all radioactive debris and dust had climbed into the atmosphere, the heavier materials settling out. But the lighter particles penetrated high into the stratosphere, up to twelve miles in altitude, remaining there for years. Wind circulation and diffusion spread the material around the world. Into the ocean, the soil, damaging the ecosystem far more than the any initial blast. Experts still insisted more people died daily from poor nutrition and lack of medicine than from an increase in cancer-levels.
Danny never really trusted anything the government said.
He watched Steve pace around like a powder keg with a slow fuse. Steve went from the far wall, to the hatch, and back again, his right arm in constant motion, fingers dancing a jig on his thigh.
Danny was going to suggest Steve go to the gym; sometimes, a combo of running and beating on a heavy bag, or on people dumb enough to spar with him, helped calm him. Danny should have expected this, given their newest assignment.
"Babe, doncha think you might make better use of all that energy, huh?"
Steve froze mid-step, his eyes slowly settling on Danny's chest, his rapid breathing growing deeper. He licked his lips, curling his hand into a fist and pressing it hard into his leg.
That wasn't what he meant, but Danny couldn't help grinning at the sudden intense focus. He knew that look, loved knowing that he was the center of Steve's world at this very second. "See something you like?"
Steve moved lighting fast, hooking his arms around Danny's waist and kissing him. His hand slid over Danny's hip and roughly shoved his towel to the floor. Danny reciprocated the kiss with vigor and reached between their bodies to cup Steve's cock through his shorts.
His body shuddered. "Come on," Steve growled.
Gripping Danny's biceps possessively, Steve walked them backward the short distance to the bed. It was as if Steve's hands were electric conduits, creating waves of heat through Danny's pulse-points. "Your shirt's in the way."
Steve grabbed at the hem of his tee, but Danny couldn't wait, batting Steve's hands away. "Arms."
He obediently raised them and Danny helped work Steve's shirt over his head, tossing it to the floor. But he wanted more skin and he unfastened the gun holster and jerked Steve's shorts down around his thighs.
"Sit," Danny ordered, loving Steve's eager expression.
Steve sat heavily on the edge, eyes fixed on Danny's face with addictive focus. Danny knelt between Steve's legs and slowly pushed them apart, running his palms slowly down Steve's inner thighs, pressing his lips against the fine scars along the left one.
He felt a shiver run through Steve's body. "Danny," Steve said, his voice rough.
Danny couldn't erase what the navy did to Steve, what horrors the machines left on him, but that wouldn't stop him from trying. Danny ran his tongue alone the jagged, faded marks that ran from knee to pelvis, causing Steve's hips to tremble beneath his lips.
Danny could do this all night, kiss and map out Steve's body, learning it all over again.
Steve reached down, caressing Danny's face with his hands and drawing him to his feet. "Danny," he whispered, sweeping his hands through Danny's hair, his eyes dark and needy. "Please. God. Fuck me."
Steve always asked and Danny always said yes, happy to do what Steve needed, taking over the wheel for a while. But only here, in the sanctuary of their tiny bedroom. Away from the world.
Danny yanked open the drawer to their tiny nightstand and fumbled for the palm oil they used for lube as Steve watched wide-eyed and breathless. Danny smiled with excitement, taking the lube and squeezing some onto his hand. Steve inched closer, dabbing his fingers into the lubricant as they started to tremble.
Danny quickly covered Steve's hand with his own, calming the quiver. "It's more fun together," he whispered. And he wrapped both their fingers around his cock, slicking him slow and careful. The sensation of both their hands was such a turn on, his erection swelling with every stroke.
"Oh, yeah. Come on," Steve growled urgently.
"Patience," Danny teased, knowing the word was not part of Steve's vocabulary.
Steve scooted back a little and Danny crawled onto the edge of the bed with his knees, taking Steve's right leg and hooking it over his shoulder. He slowly slipped a lubricated finger inside Steve, watching Steve's beautiful face as he prepped him. It wouldn't take much. Steve was still loose from the previous night, but Danny added a second finger for good measure.
Steve made a wonderful noise in the back of his throat. "Now. Please, Danny."
"Okay," Danny breathed.
He pulled his fingers out and slid a hand under Steve's ass, lifting up his hips, slowly entering him. Steve groaned, huffing for air, shifting along with Danny. And fuck, it felt good, always so damn amazing, every second compounding the pleasure.
Danny braced a hand on Steve's shoulder, trying for the perfect angle.
Steve's breath hitched. "Oh, god, like that, Danny."
The words were music to his ears. His rotator cuff twinged from the effort, but Danny didn't care. The heat and sensation of Steve tight around him caused him to sweat, dots of color sparking behind his eyelids. Danny grunted, shifting with harsh long strokes, trying to make it good, make it last.
But Steve was wound up and eager, meeting Danny's thrusts with energy. It took monumental effort to slow things down, find the perfect motion as Steve muttered incomprehensible nonsense.
Time stretched and compressed; Danny had no idea for how long, his body curved over Steve as Steve's fingers dug bruisingly into his shoulders. They'd done this more often than not, rough and frantic; Steve lost somewhere where Danny couldn't touch.
He started reaching a point of no return, but he couldn't, not yet, not until he exhausted Steve into the mattress, given him what he so fiercely desired. So, Danny varied his rhythm, his climax hovering tantalizingly out of reach, Steve's cock flush against Danny's belly, hot and thick, and, so, so close.
Danny bent over and kissed Steve's throat, nibbled on Steve's shoulder, the buildup keeping him teetering on the edge.
Danny watched Steve push up on the mattress with both his hands, improving his leverage, sweat running down his chest and the faded scars on his shoulder. Danny arched into him, hitting a beautiful sweet spot, the shock waves coursing through his body.
"Now, please, Danny," Steve begged.
Balancing with one hand on the mattress, Danny wrapped his fingers around Steve's cock, sliding his hand up and down, running his thumb over the head. Steve gave a strangled, sharp breath, clenching even tighter around him.
Danny finally gave in, his orgasm overtaking him, Steve climaxing across his stomach and chest a few seconds later. Done in, he lay over Steve, wrapping his arms around Steve's shoulders, riding out a high of blissful pleasure.
He dug his hand into Steve's short hair, trying to bring them both back, Steve's breath hot on his neck.
After several long seconds, Danny finally shifted, pulling out. "Steve," he breathed, chest heaving.
Wrapping his arms around Danny's sweaty back, Steve looked up at him, the tension finally drained away from his face, his body relaxing into a rare beautiful exhaustion. "Danny..."
"I know," Danny whispered. "Me, too."
Steve woke up, his breath caught in his throat, chest tight. And like dozens of previous nights, he forced himself to lie still, wait it out, until his hammering heart slowly resumed its normal beat. After several painstaking seconds, his breathing gradually evened out as his eyes scanned the room. Everything was where it should be, the desk on the far wall, his oak armoire, the nightstand with his pistol.
His gaze landed on Danny sprawled out on his back, his hair all mussed up, his lips slightly parted as he dozed soundly. Steve resisted an overwhelming urge to crawl over him and nuzzle all that peach fuzz, lick his skin, channel all his need to go, go, go into early morning sex. But Danny wasn't some human sedative and he deserved to sleep.
With a heavy sigh, Steve quietly pulled back the sheets and got out of bed, mentally telling himself to slow down, relax, ignore all the restlessness in his muscles. Just breathe. Taking another breath, he grabbed a long-sleeved black shirt and cargo pants out of the armoire and walked inside his tiny bathroom so he could shower.
The leather chair in his office was well worn in all the right places and it made sitting for hours at a time bearable. He flipped through files on the biggest criminal organizations to see who had the wealth, infrastructure, and equipment to sabotage the defense grid.
The Tong were old school with roots going back hundreds of years. They had a variety of stolen navy vessels in addition to their own ragtag fleet. They used old, heavily armored ships to attack supply frigates and board them from a dozen small, fast corvettes to steal the cargo. While they were murdering thieves, they lacked the scope to go after the grid.
He shuffled additional files, his foot tapping impatiently on the floor. He pulled open his desk drawer to fiddle with whatever was inside and grinned at the rubber ball inside. A note was attached. Use Me. He knew Danny had slipped it there. Steve shook his head, a tiny smile tugging at his lips, and closed the drawer and continued reading.
Steve pored through the latest intel on the Triad; those bastards were more organized and skilled. They specialized in sabotaging shipping lanes with mines between the outer islands in order to extort protection money from people who couldn't afford heavy escorts. In recent months, they had grown bolder, attacking and plundering the settlements along hundreds of small islets surrounding the main islands.
But the navy was too thin and too occupied patrolling for the machines and international threats from Asia and Russia. Relations between those countries were strained, and often fringe groups and terrorists would attack navy ships in the Sea of Japan and the Bering Straits.
Denning was the first governor in years to recognize the growing non-military threat at sea, adding heavy resources to police forces with the Hoku as the flagship. In the last two years, Steve's crew had arrested over two hundred criminals, smashed up dozens of pirate rings, and weakened both the Tong and Triad. But staring at their intelligence, and at the map of the defense grid, Steve couldn't connect the dots.
There was nothing to be gained from destroying parts of the grid that warned of approaching vessels from thousands of miles away. Why sabotage something so far out? If it was a test to see if the inner island defense arrays could be taken offline, then why try? The Hawaiian Islands were always on alert for an invasion or machine attack.
A human enemy didn't make sense. Steve stood up, walking a circuit in his office. He thought better when he was moving, his blood pumping, refocusing all his hypersensitive adrenalin receptors toward the task at hand.
A knock at his door pulled Steve from his thoughts. "Come in."
Max Bergman appeared, dressed in his usual cardigan sweater and bow tie combination. He'd put on his white lab coat, which meant he was here on ship's business.
Steve sat on the edge of his desk, raising an eyebrow. "It's 0445, Max. It's kind of early for you."
"On the contrary, it is rather late. But I knew you'd be here, so I thought I'd come by with my quarterly reports before turning in." Max handed him a stack of folders. "Here are the crew's last set of physical evaluations in need of your signature."
Steve put them on his desk without looking. "I'll read them later."
"I included a copy of your physical that I'm required to send to Governor Denning, but it does not contain anything that we have not already discussed." Steve didn't feel the need to say anything and Max didn't seem to notice. "Also while I was here, I'd thought I'd ask how you were reacting to your newest medications, since I know you'll find a reason to cancel our monthly appointment."
Steve crossed his arms over his chest. "Everything's fine." Max peered at him through his glasses, somehow broadcasting his disbelief without saying a word. "When I say I'm fine, it means nothing new."
"Very well," Max said satisfied. "I still need a blood sample to evaluate all of your endorphin and epinephrine levels."
"Sure. No problem."
"By the end of the week, if that is good for you?"
"Yeah. I'll drop by on Friday."
Max began to leave, but he stopped in the doorway. "I noticed you're due for a refill on your Sildenafil. Has the switch from a weekly to a daily dose worked for you? Have you been able to have an erection when–"
"Max," Steve snapped. Max canted his head at him in curiosity. "I'm sorry," Steve said. "The switch to a daily dosage works fine. And there are no side effects with my other meds. Thank you."
Max nodded unperturbed. "Very good, Captain. I'm glad it is working."
"It has. Thank you again. And Max, you don't need to call me captain."
While protocol demanded it, Steve preferred things less formal. He'd spent twelve years wearing the uniform and addressing people by rank, but the crew aboard the Hoku was his team. His family.
"Apologies," Max said with slight tilt of his head. "It is habit."
"It's fine." Steve smiled. "Have a good night."
Steve stood on the bridge of the wheelhouse; he loved it up here because wherever he turned, the ocean stared back at him. He crossed his arms in front of him to keep the thrum of energy running through him in check.
"All stop," Steve called to the helmsman.
"All stop, sir."
Chin studied the giant compass then consulted a chart sprawled out at a table to his left. "I've visually confirmed our position." He clicked on his radio. "Duke, ping the grid and verify our depth and distance from Quadrant Fifty-Two."
"Affirmative, we are over Quadrant Fifty-Two. Line C. Depth is one hundred and fifty feet."
Chin looked over at Steve, waiting on his okay for the next order. For the briefest of moments, Steve wanted to deny permission, but he gave a curt nod, crossing his arms even tighter over his chest.
"Helmsman, switch over to radar," Chin said. "Alert us to any suspicious activity."
Radar could locate objects five miles out, and while their use of radio waves could actually be detected, Steve would use whatever means necessary to protect his crew. He activated his radio to the engine room. "Danny, are we ready?"
"If we have to engage an enemy, we'll have full engines."
Steve switched channels. "Catherine, status?"
"Guns one through three are ready. The EMP array is at full power," she said over the comm.
"Copy that," Steve replied, then switched on the shipwide radio. "Attention, all hands. Sounding general quarters, man your stations, and stay on full alert."
Steve unlocked the metal door to the gun locker and put on his vest. Chin grabbed an EMP pistol and slid it into his hip holster. He handed the other one to Steve before scribbling both their names into the log sheet.
"Thanks," Steve said double-checking the charge on his pistol.
"Dude." Chin gave him a sharp smile. "I don't want Catherine to kick our asses. She's mean when it comes to paperwork."
"No, she's mean when it comes to protecting her ordinance."
Steve pulled out a rifle and waited until Chin slipped on a vest before he opened the door that led up to the deck. He didn't care if he was being overly cautious. The nearest navy vessel was over nine hundred miles away – they were the only authority out here.
Steve and Chin walked toward the bow of the ship where Kono and Fong loaded their gear onto the launch boat.
Steve nodded at Kalani, their boatswain mate, as he readied the winch that would lower the boat over the side of the ship. He was a hefty man with complexion darker than mahogany with large intricate tattoos down his arms. "The chop's eased up a bit, so we're good to go."
"That's what I like to hear," Steve said, standing off to the side.
Kono looked ready to go in her black and yellow wetsuit, her hair pulled back into ponytail. She meticulously went through her equipment, ensuring each piece of gear was in proper condition. She had six years of dive experience, four with the EOD unit, and two working on the Hoku. Steve loved diving with her; she had a grace under water with a keen sense of focus.
"If I didn't know any better, I'd say you were going to jump in with me," she teased Steve without looking up.
"Sorry," Steve said embarrassed.
The ocean was one of the few things that could block out the world and sharing that kind of peace with another person was something special.
Chin clapped Steve on the shoulder. "Maybe when this assignment's over, we'll all go on a dive together."
"That sounds like a plan," Steve said fondly, but he couldn't allow himself the luxury of pleasant thoughts and he quickly focused to the task on hand. "Okay, your water temp is fifty-five degrees. The current's steady and we'll keep up with the drift curve."
Kono re-checked the gauges and gas mixtures of the oxygen tanks stowed inside the boat. "It's going to take us fifteen minutes to descend, about forty minutes to explore and thirty minutes to ascend. We both have high-PSI tanks, so we're set."
Fong put on his buoyancy belt and adjusted the mask that dangled around his neck. "Even the tank of nitrous?"
"That's all we need, you laughing your ass off at all the pretty fish."
Steve watched Chin fidget with a combination of wanting to help and give them room. Steve casually walked over and gave Chin's arm a squeeze until the tension in his shoulders eased. Chin gave him a grateful look.
Fong adjusted his headset and nodded at Chin. "Testing my radio, one, two, three."
"Copy that," Chin answered, clicking on the mic to his com. "I can hear you loud and clear."
Kono repeated the same procedure with her radio then took a seat on the boat, opening up a silver equipment box. She carefully removed her J-shaped prosthetic along with its harness and laid them next to her on the bench. Then she rolled a silicone stocking over her thigh, took a yellow cup, and attached it where her knee used to be.
Her swimming prosthesis was beautiful in its simplicity; a fin-shaped flipper connected to a folding joint. She took the leg part and slipped into the cup, securing it in place by clicking the limb supports around it like a belt buckle. Then she gave the swimming fin a playful bat and watched it flap back and forth.
Fong's eyes lit up. "Did you get it modified?"
"Uh-huh." Kono gave Fong a sideways smile. "It's pretty cool. Now I can lock the fin straight in place so I swim freestyle. Or check this out." She adjusted the folding joint. "It twists it at a ninety-degree angle so I can do the breaststroke."
"Awesome," Fong said. He practically beamed at her.
Chin cleared his throat. "You guys ready?"
"Ready to rock and roll," Kono said with a wink.
Steve signaled Kalani the go-ahead, and the big guy got behind the boat controls while Chin operated the winch and slowly lowered the small vessel until it touched the ocean.
Steve stood there, hand on his rifle, looking out at the water, and he waited; for what, he wasn't really sure. He never was.
Steve huddled around the communications station, listening to Kono and Fong's progress over the speakers. It was amazing how time stood still when you didn't want it to. Chin was inside the wheelhouse overseeing the helm, ready to execute any needed emergency maneuvers at a moment's notice.
"Making the final leg of our descent," Kono announced over the radio. "And we should reach the target in five, four, three, two, one. We're at the array. Will keep you updated as we inspect the lines."
Steve kept a watchful eye between Duke at radar and Toast, who monitored communications. He noticed the second Danny walked inside and make a beeline toward him.
Danny didn't say a word, his hands on his hips as he listened in on the dive. Normally, Steve would chew someone out for leaving their station, but Danny's engine crew was the best, and this was an investigation, not a naval mission. He needed Danny's ear, his presence.
"The lines seem intact, over," Kono said.
"Completely intact?" Steve asked. It didn't make sense. "No signs of explosions?"
"What about the microphones?" Danny asked.
"No visible damage." There was a burst of static before Kono's voice returned. "Checking line E."
"The easiest method of sabotage would be from some type of explosive device," Steve said, thinking about the heavily protected cables. "We're talking about massive visible damage."
Danny shook his head, obviously breaking things down like an engineer. "Those lines are miles long. Depending on what caused them to stop operating, we have no idea what the damage might look like."
"This is Fong; I think I've found something."
"Report," Steve barked.
"It looks like...like the lines were cut," Fong said.
"Do you see any tool marks?" Danny asked.
"None." Fong breathed heavily. "They look severed."
"They're perfect cuts, guys," Kono's voice came over the speakers. "Like with a laser."
"McGarrett," Duke said from his station.
But Steve held out his hand, his total focus on the radio. "Are you sure, Kono?"
"I won't be hundred percent until I bring some pieces back with us for examination."
Duke turned in his chair. "Captain."
"Bring more than once piece from multiple lines," Steve ordered. "I want a variety of examples."
"Steve," Danny said loudly, poking him in the side.
Steve looked sharply over at Danny, then over at Duke. "What is it?"
"Something very strange," Duke said, shaking his head. He sounded anxious.
"Define strange," Steve pressed.
Duke stared at his read-outs. "I'm picking up something on radar, four miles out. And it looks...it looks like it's coming from the air."
Steve leaned his hands on the edge of Duke's station and stared at the green blip. He activated his radio. "Chin, we have an unknown target at six hundred feet above sea level, I repeat, it's an airborne target. Coming in at the starboard side at approximately one hundred and thirty miles an hour. ETA..."
"ETA is eight minutes," Toast confirmed.
Steve dug his fingers into the metal console. "Can you clean that up at all?"
"No, sir." Duke shook his head. "We send out a pulse and it bounces back to give us speed and distance. But that's it."
It wasn't enough information. Steve had swimmers in the water and a crew to protect.
"There hasn't been a reported case of a machine aircraft in six years," Danny said in warning.
He stepped closer until their shoulders touching. "Could it be one of ours?"
Steve looked up at Danny and back down at the display screen, the blip inched closer.
"Do you want me to try to radio them?" Toast asked.
"Catherine, status," Steve hailed, switching radio channels.
"Target will be in EMP range at one point three miles. Guns in nine hundred meters."
They would only have seconds to react once the aircraft was within weapons range. Steve gestured at Toast to switch channels back to the dive. "Kono. With your given oxygen, how long do you and Fong have, including safety stops for your ascent?"
"We can stay down here an additional hour before we have to come back up."
Staying that long at those depths was too dangerous. "I want you to start your ascent at the planned time, but hold at three hundred feet until I give you the all clear."
"Roger that," Kono replied.
Steve straightened his shoulders. "Danny–"
"I can give you full speed in ninety seconds and emergency maneuvers in thirty," Danny rattled off not missing a single beat.
Toast spun around in his chair, eyes wide. "We've got an incoming message from the aircraft."
Steve monitored the radar, weighing his limiting options. If they responded, it would allow the aircraft to lock them on target.
"They switched to Morse Code," Toast reported. "They're identifying themselves as a Navy Blackwing."
Steve felt his jaw drop. A Blackwing? What the hell was one of those doing out here?
He glanced at Toast. "Are they using today's cipher?"
"Affirmative. They're requesting us to acknowledge and switch over to radio."
It was the right code, but why hadn't the Navy notified them ahead of time? Why hadn't Denning?
"ETA?" Steve demanded.
"Four minutes," Toast said.
Steve tapped his radio. "Catherine, lock on that aircraft as soon as they're in range. Open fire on my mark."
"Toast, give the target the frequency to our secured channel." Steve waited until Toast gave him the okay to speak. "Unknown aircraft, this is Steve McGarrett of the Hoku. Identify yourself and state your intent."
"This is Commander Gutches of SEAL Team Nine. Please clear a spot for us to land. We are here to conduct a special operation. Over."
Steve stared at the radio, mouth open in shock as everything started to buzz and hum loudly around him.
"Are we cleared to land, over?" Gutches repeated.
Steve shook his head and rubbed a hand over his face, thinking.
"Hoku, are we–"
"Roger. You are cleared to land." Steve licked his lips and switched channels. "Catherine, stand-down on weapons." He looked over at Toast who stared at Steve with a perplexed expression. "Radio Kono; let her and Fong know it's safe to return to the ship."
Everyone worked around in perfect synchronicity while he stood transfixed by the green blip, a chill running down his back.
Danny placed a hand on Steve's shoulder. "You–"
"I'm fine," Steve snapped, pulling away.
"The hell you are," Danny growled, gesturing at the radar display. "Tell me what the hell is going on? Do you know this, Gutches?"
"Wade Gutches and I served on the same SEAL team. We were part of..." Steve felt a bone deep pain in his hip. "We know each other."
"Okay," Danny drawled out, watching Steve with a frown. "And now we're letting them land their..."
"Blackwing. It's a classified special ops helicopter."
"Right. Awesome," Danny muttered. "And do you have any idea why a SEAL team is landing on our ship?"
Steve clenched his jaw as a flare of pain like tiny knives dug into his thigh. "The only reason they'd land under these circumstances would be...Would be to take over the Hoku."