HMAS Hammersley, Coral Sea
HMAS Hammersley slid effortlessly through the black water. ET leaned on the railing, watching the flick of dark spray in the ship’s external lights. He took slow, deep breaths, waiting for the cool air to calm him. He shouldn’t even be out here... but what the boss didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. The officer of the watch, at least, knew where he was. She had watched him storm out, after all.
Finally, his heart-rate slowed, and the anger drained away. He had been stupid, of course, to think they could talk rationally about this while she was on watch. Nav liked to pretend on board that there was nothing going on - even if their illicit relationship was the ship’s worst-kept secret. Despite himself, he banged his wrist on the railing in frustration. She was right about one thing: one of them had to leave the ship. He just didn’t understand why it had to be him. After all, he was still useful on the ship!
Wincing, he wished he hadn’t said that part out loud. That was when it had all fallen apart. He needed to go back inside, he knew, but he would have to go through the bridge - just so she knew he hadn’t fallen overboard. But she would be expecting him to apologise. For once, he thought bitterly, what would it be like if he waited for her to apologise?
He was so wrapped up in his thoughts that he didn’t hear the soft whine of the small motor or notice the little waves lapping at the back of the boat. The moon was a thin crescent, and most of the deck was darkened, but it was a flicker of motion that finally caught his attention. Then came the unexpected sound of a boot stepping on metal and realised he wasn’t alone. His first, crazy thought was that Nav had come out to find him; then he realised the sound had come from the back of the ship, and a second later came the soft clink of someone unlatching the safety chain. Frowning, he walked towards the RHIB housing, peering through the night. Now he heard the motor, and in a flash of moonlight saw an irregular pattern of paint on a small motorboat.
They were being boarded . It was so incongruous, that for a moment he was filled with indignation. He caught a glimpse of one figure in black helping another onto the deck. By now there were at least four of them on board, spreading out, pistols drawn, and ET instinctively ducked. He needed to get back to the bridge, he realised, and sound an alarm. Whoever these people were, they were trouble.
Then he heard steps coming towards him and knew he would never make it to the door before they caught him. Without thinking, he rolled under the RHIB, squirming into the shadows and pressing his body against the cold metal. If it had been daylight, or they had been looking for him, they probably would have spotted him quickly. As it was, several pairs of heavy boots moved past his face with surprisingly light steps. He held his breath, listening hard. He could hear other feet moving around the other side of the ship, the group splintering to infiltrate the entire ship.
And he realised there was no-one to stop them. Most of the crew was asleep. Charge was with a couple of the guys in the engine room, doing minor repairs, and -
His mouth went dry. Nav. She was alone on the bridge. That would surely be one of their first targets. Automatically, he began sliding himself forward, ready to sprint for the ladder, then froze as a black boot stepped down only a breath from his nose. He peered upwards, trying to see anything of the boot’s owner; all he could make out was a heavy figure dressed all in black, including some sort of head covering. As well the clear outline of a pistol held at the ready, the stranger’s chest was bulky, evidence of some sort of protective vest. There was also a utility belt around his waist, and ET noted several shiny cylinders which might have been grenades.
The silent curse didn’t make him feel any better, or do anything to calm his fears for Nav, so he repeated it.
He tried to work out how long he’d been here. A minute? More? They had to have reached the bridge. He hadn’t heard any gunshots. That was good. He hadn’t heard the ship’s alarm, either, which was bad. Nav must have been taken completely by surprise. Guilt threaded through him; if she had heard anyone approaching, she had probably thought it was him.
Finally, the boot stepped away, the solitary figure slowly moving towards the closest door. ET waited until he heard the door open, and then close, before worming his way out from his hiding place. He peered around the back deck, checking for any more of the men in black, before dropping into a crouch and trotting up the side of the ship, listening for any sound. He needed to get to the bridge. The fastest route would be to climb up, but that left him extremely exposed - he didn’t know how many of them were in there at the moment. Better to go inside and through the internal door, he decided. Then he could hide at the bottom of the stairs until he could figure out how many there were and what they were doing. What he would do then… shrugging mentally, he reasoned that there was no point thinking about that until he had more information.
He opened the door as slowly and quietly as he could. He didn’t like to think what they would do if they realised he had seen them. His heart was pounding painfully, worse than it had on any boarding. He was unarmed, unprotected, and alone. The woman he loved was in terrible danger and he had no idea what he was going to do about it.
Once inside, he left the door open. A breach of protocol but he had bigger concerns right now. If one of them spotted him, he wanted a place to run. He knew this ship, better than they ever could. He knew every hiding place.
He peered down the main corridor. Empty. Where had they all gone? Not all to the bridge, surely? Then he realised the galley door was open. It was too early for Bomber to be up, wasn’t it? He looked inside. Empty. They must have gone in just to check. Then he heard a noise behind him and turned. Someone was in the garbage room.
Galley, HMAS Hammersley
Bomber resisted the urge to slam the metal bowl against the counter. Just because she couldn’t sleep didn’t mean she had to wake the entire ship. Not this early, at least. Listening to her roommate’s snoring hadn’t done anything for her, so she had decided to get up and do something useful. Would she get any thanks for a special breakfast, though? Probably not.
She grabbed a box of eggs from the fridge, and cracked the first into the bowl. Almost instantly, she wrinkled her nose at the smell. It was off! She grabbed another and, without even breaking it, could feel that it was wrong. She checked two more and then, with an annoyed huff, dropped the whole box into the bin. Then, not wanting the rotten smell to permeate the whole galley, tied the bag and carried it across the corridor into the garbage room. She let the door shut behind her, and had only just dropped the plastic bag into the garbage, when she heard the sound of footsteps in the corridor.
Puzzled, she went back to the door, her fingers touching the handle. Several people, at least three or four. What were they doing up at this time of day? Then she heard the unmistakable sound of the external door closing. Someone - a few someones - had been out on deck at this time? That wasn’t right. She was about to step out and tell them so, when she heard the door to the bridge quietly open and shut. Several pairs of feet were heading down the corridor. Something was very wrong with this scenario.
She opened the door a crack, caught a glimpse of black-clad figures disappearing around the corner, and pulled her head back. She crossed to the other side of the room, her mind racing. Was this a drill of some sort? Get a few of the crew to dress up as hostiles to see how the others would react? She knew of some captains who loved to organise that kind of thing, but the CO wasn’t one of them.
Swallowing, she wondered if that meant this wasn’t a drill. Could there really be intruders here? How would they have got on board? Any incoming vessel would have been spotted on radar long before it reached the ship. Then she decided it didn’t really matter. If it was a drill, she wouldn’t get any points for throwing up her hands and refusing to participate. If it wasn’t... she needed to be very, very careful. She should pretend it was real and take appropriate action.
Only problem was, she didn’t know what that would be. She took a step back and felt her foot kick one of the bins. She could continue hiding in here, she thought, but that was not a long-term solution. Where else could she go? The CO, she decided. Her first move should be to alert the CO. Drill or not, he would then be able to give her more instructions.
She nodded to herself and moved back to the door. As she reached for the handle, however, it began to turn. Casting a glance around, she saw the two halves of a broken broom handle and grabbed the longer end, wielding it like a baseball bat.
The door opened abruptly and someone stepped through the opening. Despite herself, she was swinging her makeshift weapon before she had time to recognise the grey overalls or the dark blonde hair. That, and the sudden surge of relief she felt when she realised it was ET, made her understand how anxious she had been. She couldn’t pull the blow completely but she was able to divert it so that the wood thunked into ET’s shoulder.
“Ow!” he hissed.
“Sorry,” she began, relaxing. Then he was slipping inside, pulling the door shut quietly behind him, and pressing a finger to his lips. She went silent, listening, and heard the bridge door again. She stared back at him, not daring to speak. They waited in silence for several minutes. Finally, when they had heard nothing else, she whispered, “Do you know what’s going on?”
He shook his head. “No. But we’ve been boarded.”
“You think it’s a drill?” she asked. They were barely breathing the words, which was already answer enough.
“A drill?” he repeated, his expression incredulous. “God, I hope so.”
“But you don’t think so,” she said flatly.
“There’s about a dozen of them, they’re armed, and they came in on a shielded craft,” he summarised. “No, I don’t think so.”
“What do we do?” she asked. This was not a situation for which she had been prepared, and she rather hoped ET would take charge. For once.
“We need to get to the bridge,” he said. “Nav was on watch and I - we - need to find out what’s happening.”
Or, she thought, maybe it would be better if the lovesick idiot wasn’t in charge. “That is a stupid idea,” she hissed. When he went to protest, she held her half broomstick up to cut him off. “Going up there will only get you captured or worse. That won’t do us, or Nav, any good.”
“So what’s your bright idea?”
She reverted back to her original plan, and pointed at the wall on her left. “Six metres that way. CO’s cabin.” ET followed her finger, brow furrowed. “Did you even consider that everyone is in danger, not just Nav?” He turned his gaze back to her, still confused. She rolled her eyes and slapped him up the side of the head. Rank be damned. “And this is exactly why they invented the Fraternisation Rule,” she hissed as he blinked, some comprehension coming back into his eyes.
Chastised, he nodded. “You’re right. I’m sorry. How are we going to make it to the boss’ cabin without being seen?”
“Uh, well,” she began, then squeezed past him to the door. She opened it the slightest crack, listening intently. “I don’t hear anything. I guess we make a run for it.” Then she paused, and looked at him. “One at a time. If I get caught, stay here, wait until they’re gone.”
“I’ll go first,” he offered, but she only snorted at his ill-timed gallantry, and opened the door just enough to squeeze out. Obediently, he pulled it back closed as she crept past the main corridor. There was no shout of alarm or the sound of anyone else. “Stuff it,” he said to himself, and followed. He caught up to her as she was gently opening the captain’s door, too intent on remaining undetected to bother knocking. Manners faded in the light of an emergency.
ET’s first thought on looking in was that it was just typical for the boss to be sleeping peacefully while all this was going on. Then he felt a wave of dizziness, and blinked heavily, his eyes staring uncomprehendingly at the silver canister on the floor of the CO’s cabin. Then Bomber grabbed his arm and tugged him back, shutting the door again. “In here,” she hissed, going to the comcen. This room was empty, though there were signs that someone had been in here; most of the equipment had been disabled or destroyed.
“Some sort of knockout gas,” ET said, shaking his head. “They probably chucked one of those into every cabin.”
“Should we try and get him out of there? Wake him up?”
“If we had gas masks, maybe,” he replied, still whispering. “Maybe we’d better give it some more time to dissipate.” He was looking over all the comm equipment, searching for anything that was still functional.
She followed his gaze. “Any chance we can call for help?”
He lifted the radio and it fell to pieces in his hand. “Not with this,” he said in disgust. “I wonder if RO still keeps…” He trailed off, dropping to his knees to search under the desk. With a grunt of success, he pulled out a fat blue plastic box and flipped it open. “Portable sat phone.” It was undamaged, but when he flicked the switch, there was no response. He checked the back of it and sighed, the low volume unable to mask his irritation. “Of course it’s not charged.”
“How long will that take?” she asked.
He found the charger in the box and plugged it in. “To fully charge, hours. Half an hour at least before we can use it.” He checked his watch. “It’s almost five.”
She sat on the edge of RO’s desk, tapping the fingers of one hand on her opposite arm. “So, we hole up until five thirty, then call in the cavalry,” she said, nodding nervously to herself.
His head snapped up, blue eyes glaring. “We are not going to just sit here ,” he snapped, not troubling to keep his voice down.
“Shh!” she remonstrated and, though he closed his mouth, he didn’t soften his expression. She jumped up, moving closer so she could jab a finger in his chest. “You know what, fine. Go. Go up to the bridge and get yourself caught, so that Nav can see what a hero you are. I’ll be safer without you and your rescue complex.”
He opened his mouth to protest, when she suddenly reached out and clapped a hand over his mouth, her eyes going wide. He understood immediately, straining his ears. He could hear footsteps in the corridor outside and then the sound of the outside door opening and closing. The intruders weren’t trying to be quiet anymore. They had the ship well in hand. Bomber uncovered his mouth.
He continued, very quietly. “I wasn’t going to suggest that,” he said, and it was only a partial lie. In fact, he’d been planning on peeking in from outside the bridge, rather than going up the stairs, but she didn’t need to know that. “But Charge was in the engine room with Boomer and Dan.”
“They’ll have found them, too,” she said.
“Probably,” he agreed. “But we should check. Maybe we can get them free.”
She bit her lip, thinking. He didn’t try to interrupt, knowing that she was as eager for someone of higher rank as he was at this point. He was out of his depth in this situation and probably would have done something stupid already if not for Bomber.
“Okay,” she said. “But we go by the armoury.”
He lifted his eyebrows. “Now that’s a good idea.” Then paused. “It’s locked.”
She gave him a quick grin and pulled a hairpin from her pocket. “Not for long.” Surprised, he only nodded. They moved to the door, listening through it intently. There was no sound, but they didn’t move. After a minute, Bomber cast him a bemused glance. “You still want to go first?”
Lower decks, HMAS Hammersley
ET never had a chance to find out whether Bomber’s lockpicking skills could break into the armoury. When they reached it, it had already been broken open and cleaned out. They did consider the Kevlar vests, but eventually concluded that the extra weight and bulk would only slow them down when they needed to be fast and silent. After all, against a dozen armed hostiles, a vest wasn’t going to do much good. Without delay, they headed down to the lower decks.
The sight of the empty corridor made ET jumpy. If anyone came after them, or from the other direction, they’d be trapped. “You reckon the gas has dissipated?” he asked Bomber, as they passed the first cabin. Without replying, she strode to the door and pushed it open. She stepped tentatively in, then waved ET after her. She was examining Buffer, who looked for all the world to be deeply asleep.
“Can you wake him?” he asked.
She slapped him a few times, then pulled up an eyelid, getting no response. “If there was anyone we could have on our team right now,” she began, then grimaced. ET privately agreed.
He located the gas canister under the racks, examining it carefully. “No idea what this stuff is,” he said. “No markings, no instructions. Privately made?”
“So we’ve got no idea how long it will last,” she said with a sigh. She took her fingers away from Buffer’s wrist. “His vital signs are good. He’s just out.”
“Lucky bastard,” ET muttered.
They backed into the corridor again, though ET was dwelling on the gas. Whoever had boarded them had incapacitated the crew using non-lethals. That had to be a good sign. Though maybe it was just a matter of convenience. Tossing a gas grenade into each cabin had certainly been simple and effective. Shooting everyone was loud and messy.
As they passed the XO’s cabin, ET stopped to check inside. As much as he didn’t want Nav to be knocked unconscious by some strange gas, he would rather see her lying in her rack than to be where he knew she was. Bomber squeezed past him, trying her best to wake the X, again without success. They left the cabin, and were almost at the end of the corridor when they heard footsteps coming up the stairs ahead of them. Without even a look, they both leapt for the closest door, pulling it shut behind them. They were in one of the junior sailors’ cabins and ET barely spared the room a second glance.
Bomber, however, peered at the sleeping figures. “Spider?” she called quietly. ET frowned, about to shush her, when she pointed at one clearly empty rack.
He was puzzled for a moment, then realised the door to the tiny bathroom was shut. He jerked his head toward it. To his surprise, Bomber’s eyes lit up. “If he was in there when the gas went off, he might not have had a full dose,” she whispered. Without waiting for his reply, she opened the door. A second later, he heard her sniggering. Though the room was not really large enough for three people, he followed her.
Spider lay on his side, eyes closed peacefully. His Spider-Man boxers were pooled around his ankles, grey t-shirt scrunched around his stomach. ET felt a moment of embarrassment and wished Bomber wasn’t having such a good look. Then the unconscious figure moaned softly, his hands twitching.
“See if you can wake him,” ET suggested, but Bomber was already crouching down, shaking Spider’s shoulders.
“Spi?” she called softly. She tugged on one ear, at which point his face wrinkled unhappily. “Come on, Spider, wake up. We need you.” Though he stirred a little, he didn’t wake. “Wake up, or I’m going to twist your balls off,” she hissed.
His eyes flickered. “Wha?”
She slapped his cheek again. “Wake up and get your pants on.”
Slowly, he returned to consciousness, shaking his head repeatedly and blinking blearily. “What’s going on?” he asked, a second later realising his clothing situation. “What -”
“Shh,” ET said, but Bomber simply clapped a hand over his mouth.
“Bad guys on board, you were knocked out, keep your voice down,” she summarised quickly.
Spider blinked a few more times, then nodded slowly. With a bit of embarrassed squirming, he was able to pull his boxers up, then reclined against one wall. ET sat beside him, realising that he was exhausted.
“What’s going on?” Spider asked again, rubbing at his face with one hand. He was at least keeping his voice down.
“Armed strangers boarded us,” ET began. “We don’t know who or why. They’ve got control of the bridge. The rest of the crew was knocked out with gas.”
“You’re lucky they didn’t check that everyone was sleeping where they were supposed to be,” Bomber told him.
“What’s the plan?” Spider asked. Then he glanced between them. “Did you say the rest of the crew? All the rest of the crew?”
ET nodded glumly. “Including the X and the CO.” He hesitated before adding, “Nav was on watch. We don’t know what’s happening on the bridge, except that they’ve definitely been up there, and there was no alarm.”
“So who’s in charge?” Spider asked.
He felt Bomber’s eyes on him, and sighed. “Technically, I guess, it’s me.” What he wouldn’t give to have Buffer or the X here right now!
Spider nodded calmly, apparently unconcerned with ET’s reluctance to be the leader. “So what’s the plan?”
This time ET was well aware of Bomber’s smirk. “We’ve got a satphone charging in the comcen,” he said. That was definitely part of the plan. “Meanwhile, we need to find out what’s happened to Charge and the others in the engine room, find a way to get Nav off the bridge, and hopefully figure out what these guys want and how to stop them.”
“No pressure,” Bomber added.
Looking slightly green, Spider nodded. “Not a problem,” he whispered.
ET was just opening his mouth to speak once more when he heard something outside the cabin, and his eyes widened. A split second later, they heard a voice.
Junior Sailors’ Cabin, HMAS Hammersley
Spider was still trying to understand what was happening. He was sitting on the floor of the bathroom in his cabin in his pyjamas with ET next to him. The small room was cramped with the two of them in there. At least Bomber had retreated to the doorway. Every time she looked at him he was reminded that they had literally found him with his pants around his ankles. He’d had a lot of embarrassing experiences in his life, but today had to be right up there with the worst.
ET had said something about the ship having been boarded, but Spider hadn’t really understood what that meant until they heard the voices. He and ET froze, then looked at one another. The voices were coming closer, becoming clearer, and he realised they were right outside. Spider hoped that the fear curling in his gut didn’t show on his face, but when he saw ET, he realised they were all just as scared.
Bomber, meanwhile, opened the bathroom door so he and ET were hidden behind it, between the shower and the wall. Then she dropped into his lap. His recently naked lap. If he was honest with himself, he had imagined her seeing his lower half naked before - funnily enough, this particular scenario had never come up. For starters, he was usually awake.
ET’s arm moved across his vision, reaching for the bathroom door, but Bomber grabbed it. She thrust the arm back at ET, and mouthed, Trust me!
The cabin door opened, and the voices crystallised into two distinct male ones.
“Everyone out up here?” one voice said.
“Yeah, this is the last cabin. They’re all still in dreamland. Just collecting the canisters, now.”
“Any trouble in command?”
“Nah, only one officer up there, taken out with no problems.” ET tensed beside Spider, his hands balling into fists. “But damn, she certainly has a mouth on her.” Spider felt ET’s body relax, and had to exhale in relief himself; if Nav was alive, that meant the hijackers hadn’t yet killed anyone, which gave him hope they would get through this with their lives.
“Female officer, hey? She hot?” ET scowled, and Bomber shot him a warning glance.
“Hey, none of that, focus on the job.”
“Just saying, wouldn’t mind finding out what else that mouth can do.” At these words, ET pushed Bomber’s legs off his lap and rose halfway to his feet before she could pull him back down. She mouthed, Stay , and planted her booted foot on his thigh, pressing down firmly.
The sound of a smack echoed through the silent corridor. “What did I just say? How did it go downstairs, anyone down there?”
“Yeah, I left three guys guarding the prisoners.”
“Why didn’t you just knock them out?”
“One of the engines was offline, we need them to finish fixing it.”
There was a grunt of annoyance. “Explains why we weren’t moving at full speed. Boss wasn’t happy about that.”
“How long until we get there?”
“Mid-morning is my guess.”
“So we’ve got a few hours to relax.”
“I find you or any of your mates relaxing, I’ll ditch you over the side. Keep patrolling these corridors, it’s always possible we missed someone, or they don’t respond properly to the gas.”
“Yes, sir,” came the reply, and Spider had used that exact reluctant tone enough times to know the man wasn’t happy about his orders.
Then they heard the sound of someone entering the cabin, a flash of light as they swung a torch through the room. Spider held his breath, wishing Bomber had shut the door. One peek into the bathroom and they’d be caught, with nowhere to run and no room to fight.
The check was cursory, however. Only seconds later, the light disappeared and the cabin door was closed. They heard two sets of footsteps moving away in opposite directions, then the corridor was silent once more.
All three of them exhaled in unison, and Spider realised he hadn’t been the only one holding his breath.
ET pushed Bomber’s feet off him and stood up to smack a fist against the wall. “If they hurt her, if they even touch her…”
Bomber scrambled out of Spider’s lap and pulled ET away from the wall. “You heard the other guy, he was completely professional. They will keep that one guy in line.”
Spider tried to get to his feet, but the room was too small for all three of them to stand, so he was forced to sit practically on Bomber’s feet while she calmed ET down.
“Remember that you can’t help her if you lose your head and go rushing in. We need to follow the plan.”
“What is the plan, again?” ET rested his head against the wall, sounding resigned. Spider couldn’t imagine how he was feeling, knowing that the woman he loved was in danger and he couldn’t do anything to help her.
Bomber pushed ET out of the bathroom, which allowed Spider to stand up. He shook the tingles out of his legs and joined the others in his cabin. Though the room was dark, he could make out the shapes of his roommates, fast asleep in their racks. For a moment, he wished he could join them in the oblivious world of sleep. Seeing his overalls on the floor beside his rack, he grabbed them, wanting to wipe the memory of his recent nakedness from his mind. More importantly, from Bomber’s.
“I don’t think there’s much point heading down to the engine room,” Bomber said, still keeping her voice low. “There’s nothing we can do against three of them.”
Spider found it interesting that, despite ET’s rank, Bomber seemed to have taken charge of the situation. Just like on the snake boat, he remembered, when she had calmly started ordering Buffer around. It occurred to him that she had got them out of that situation… in fact, she was as good at getting out of trouble as he was at falling into it. Perhaps she was good luck. If ET wasn’t going to complain about her leadership, Spider certainly wasn’t. “What do these guys want, anyway?” he asked.
“No idea,” ET replied. “Does it matter?”
“The ship,” said Bomber suddenly. She looked between the men. “They want the ship, obviously.”
“What would they want with a patrol boat?” Spider wondered, pulling his overalls up over his shoulders.
ET rolled his eyes. “This is a warship, Spide. It’s got firepower that most terrorists could only dream about.” Then he froze. “Imagine what would happen if they used the typhoon on a civilian vessel, or a coastal town…”
Spider swallowed, feeling sick. He’d fired that typhoon before. He knew how much damage it could do. “So, you think they’re terrorists?”
“Close enough,” Bomber said sharply. “I don’t care what their ideology is. They’ve got our ship and I doubt it’s so that they can give her a new paint job. We have to stop them.”
Spider nodded, sitting on his rack to pull on his boots. “We can’t do it unarmed, though.”
“Armoury’s empty,” ET said glumly.
“Then improvise,” Spider countered. He looked at Bomber. “Any idea where we might be able to find some knives, chef?”
Her eyebrows rose in approval. “That’s a start,” she agreed. “Better than being sitting ducks, at least.”
ET looked at his watch. “If we’re going back upstairs, we might as well try to contact Navcom. At least they’ll know what’s going on.”
“It’s not like they’ll be able to do anything, though,” Spider said, his spirits sinking. Even if Navcom diverted the closest ship, it would be hours before it arrived.
“We’ll figure out the rest of the plan later,” Bomber decided. “For now, arm up, and get word to Navcom. Maybe they’ll have orders.”
Spider had never wanted orders so much in his life.
Galley, HMAS Hammersley
Bomber felt the balance of the chef’s knife, reassured by the feel of it in her hand. Back in the galley, armed, with a goal in mind, she felt more confident. They had avoided detection for over an hour. A knife might not do much good against a gun, but in close quarters it could make a difference. The boys were rifling through the cutlery drawer, looking for suitable weapons.
“I’ll meet you back in the comcen,” she said. “Don’t take too long.”
As she stepped out of the galley, she barely noticed that the door on her left was still open. ET had opened it earlier, she knew, so there was no reason it shouldn’t still be open. She had taken two steps towards the comcen when she was grabbed from behind, an arm encircling her throat so tightly that she couldn’t have screamed if she’d wanted to, and a strong hand gripping her right wrist. Her grip on the knife loosened, and she heard it clatter to the ground. She tried to elbow him in the stomach, but it was like hitting steel.
“Go ahead, struggle,” a voice whispered in her ear, the tone husky. “I like it when girls move.” The hand that had been holding her wrist moved up, pressing against her body through her overalls until he reached her breast. “I was going to try and get a peek at the hot officer upstairs... but look at my luck!”
Bomber twisted her shoulders in an attempt to free herself, only succeeding in making the arm across her throat pull even tighter. She stomped on his foot, but he didn’t react, and she realised his boots were probably steel-capped like her own. Suddenly, she dropped her weight, making him take her entire deadweight; it put him off balance enough to take a step forward, but he didn’t release his hold.
Just as she was wracking her brain trying to think of something else to try, she heard a ringing thud. The arm around her neck went loose and the hand on her breast fell away, as did the heat at her back. She turned around to see the guy on the floor, ET standing over him with a cast iron skillet, a stunned expression on his face.
For a few seconds she stared back at him, equally stunned. Then he lifted an eyebrow in inquiry. “Still have a problem with my rescue complex?”
“Did you just dent my frypan?” The words tumbled out before she could process them, and she tried to grin, but then realised she was shaking.
In an instant, Spider pushed past ET and folded her into his arms. She felt tears pricking at her eyes but blinked them back, instead wrapping her own arms around Spider and revelling in the comfort he gave so willingly. As she inhaled, she let his more familiar smell replace the pungent musk of the guy at their feet, and had to stop herself from burying her face in his neck so she could smell nothing else. She could feel ET staring at her, and wondered vaguely if she would have hugged him so tightly if he’d reached her first.
In fact, ET was less concerned about who Bomber chose to hug and more about how exposed they were. He glanced back at the starboard external door, and tucked the frypan under his arm so that he could shut the door. At least with it closed, they would have a warning before anyone came in. By the time he turned around again, Bomber and Spider had separated, the latter looking confused but pleased.
His gaze fell back on the unconscious figure on the floor, and he scowled at it. He had recognised the voice instantly, which had led to him being perhaps a tad overzealous with the frypan. “Let’s get him out of sight,” he muttered, casting a nervous glance at the bridge door. If the hijackers were patrolling the corridors, someone could come down at any second. He jerked his head towards the garbage room door, and Bomber jumped forward to open it. ET grabbed the guy’s legs, while Spider took him under the arms, and they carried him into the small side room.
“This is more like it,” Bomber said, reaching down to relieve the hijacker of his utility belt and weapons. As well as a pistol, he had a serrated hunting knife, and several silver canisters which looked the same as those used in the cabins downstairs.
“Are these more of those sleep grenades?” Spider asked, looking thoughtful. Bomber passed one to ET, who turned it over in his hands. It looked the same as the one he’d examined downstairs - or was it slightly smaller?
“I can’t be sure,” he said. “If they’re using privately made stuff, they could have the same basic casing on different devices.”
“Better not risk it, then,” Bomber said, taking the canister back and tossing it into the nearest bin.
“What do we do with him?” Spider poked the unconscious guy with his toe.
She shrugged. “Leave him here, I guess.” She bent down to examine him, and ET wondered how she was so easily able to touch someone who had been assaulting her just a few minutes ago. He supposed it was a product of her medic training, learning how to treat someone regardless of your own feelings. Personally, he hadn’t looked at the guy’s face since first knocking him out; it was the only way he could keep his emotions under control. Bomber stood up and nodded. “You whacked him good. It could be hours before he wakes up.”
“And if his friends find him?” ET asked, crossing his arms over his chest. “Not only do they revive him, they know we’re here.”
“So what are you suggesting?” Bomber asked softly, and he could hear in her voice she knew what his answer would be.
But he didn’t want to say it out loud. He took a deep breath and looked down at the unconscious face at their feet, felt the rage bubble up inside him, as it had when he’d been standing inside the galley door and heard the voice. It was the same guy who had made the crude comments about Nav while they were in the bathroom. He had to resist the urge to stomp on the guy’s face until he was unable to say anything again. Raising his eyes back to Spider and Bomber, he spoke quietly. “We could kill him. Ditch him over the side.”
Spider’s mouth twisted uncomfortably, and he turned his eyes away from ET’s. Bomber frowned, glancing at Spider then back at ET.
He knew they needed more convincing, so continued in a low voice. “These are not good people we’re talking about! Hijackers, terrorists, whatever you want to call them, they came on board our ship, they attacked our crew. They might still want to kill us. They brought this on themselves.”
Bomber raised an eyebrow. “And you’d feel alright, would you, just killing him?”
“Yeah, I would.” He set his jaw and turned his gaze away from hers, unable to look at her while discussing death. As long as he kept his thoughts on what the guy had said and done, he could stoke the bloodthirsty rage. He stared at a spot over her head as he tried to explain his reasoning. “Listen, if we cut these guys down, one at a time, we might have a chance. If they figure out we’re here, though, we’re done. They’ll search the ship properly.” He returned his eyes to Bomber and raised his own eyebrow. “You want another one feeling you up? Maybe we won’t be there to rescue you next time.”
Her lip curled at the word ‘rescue’, but he could tell she still wasn’t convinced.
Spider looked at the guy dubiously. “But it just seems… wrong. He’s just… lying there.” He punctuated his statement by nudging the man’s leg once more.
“Makes it pretty easy, then,” ET pointed out, his voice harsh.
“Spider’s right,” Bomber said, and ignored the incredulous glance Spider gave her. “When he grabbed me, yeah, I might have killed him if I’d had the chance. But that would have been self-defence.” She gestured at the body between them. “Right now, he’s unconscious, he’s not a threat.”
“He’s a threat just being here.” ET was running out of ideas for how to convince them. “Listen, I don’t want to do it, but we have to consider it. This might be the only way.”
Spider opened his mouth, but Bomber shook her head and he closed it. She stared at ET thoughtfully for a minute and, though he felt uncomfortable under her scrutiny, he squared his shoulders and stared back. “Okay. Fine,” she said eventually, and handed him the wicked knife she had taken off the hijacker. “If you want him dead, make him dead.”
Well , ET thought, that didn’t quite go to plan . He stared at the knife in his hand, and wondered if he really could do this. His eyes strayed back to the man at his feet, willing the rage to come back. If he felt the blood pounding in his ears once more then he might be able to go through with it. But there was nothing except his own heartbeat. He looked up at Spider, who was still looking uncertain, then over to Bomber, who raised a challenging eyebrow.
With a grimace, he kneeled down and put the knife to the guy’s throat. All it would take was one quick slash and it would be over. The guy would never touch another woman without her permission again. If he could only force his hand to press down. Nav’s face swam into his mind, echoing the trust and love she showed him when they were alone. If he did this, would he ever be able to look at her the same way? How would she look at him, if she knew he had murdered a man in cold blood? He sighed in aggravation. That was the crux of the matter, really; doing it like this would be nothing less than murder. Maybe not in the eyes of the courts, but in his own mind. Bomber and Spider were right.
“No,” he said as he stood and set the knife gently on top of one of the bins. “We’ll tie him up. Gag him. Stuff him behind the bins. Hopefully they won’t be able to find him, even if they come looking.”
Bomber didn’t say anything, for which he was exceedingly grateful; she would be well within her rights to say “I told you so”. Instead, she examined the utility belt in her hands, then held up a fistful of zip ties with a muted shout of triumph.
“Perfect,” ET said, taking a couple and bending down to tie the guy’s ankles.
“How do we gag him?” Spider asked, now on his knees next to the door.
ET snickered. “Use your Spider-Man boxers.”
Spider glared. “How about his own underwear?” Both men looked at the guy’s pants, then back up to one another.
Bomber rolled her eyes. “Let’s use a sock.” ET nodded, and set about stripping off the boots in front of him. He handed over one black sock, then looked at Bomber in confusion when she indicated the other boot as well. “If he comes to, he’ll push the sock out. We need to tie the gag around his head,” she explained calmly, and he had to marvel at her attention to detail. His thoughts had already moved onto the next step of the plan, but she was busy making sure his impetuous actions wouldn’t cost them later.
“Who gets his gun?” Spider asked, and ET’s eyes strayed to the pistol. Would he have found it easier to kill the guy if he’d been able to shoot him? Possibly. They couldn’t alert the whole ship to their presence with the sound of a gunshot, however.
“I’ll take it,” he said.
“Rank or not, we all know you’re not thinking properly,” Bomber said, her glare daring him to deny the accusation. He could only look down at his shoes.
“I’m the best shot,” Spider said, though his tone suggested he didn’t want the gun.
“We’re trying to avoid shooting anyone,” she countered. “This is a last resort.” She checked the safety and then dropped it into her pocket.
ET shrugged. “Come on, let’s get back to the comcen before anyone else comes along.”
Bridge, HMAS Hammersley
Boredom was dangerous, Nav thought. It left her with way too much time to think about everything that had happened, and to wonder what would happen.
When the hijackers had first arrived on the bridge, they had surprised her. That, in itself, was a stab of shame in her gut; it was her job to watch for intruders. Nevermind that these guys were obviously trained in infiltration tactics - her mind hadn’t been fully on the job. This was exactly why ET needed to leave the ship! Neither of them could do their jobs properly when he kept bringing up their relationship at work.
She had heard the footsteps on the stairs and assumed it was him, coming back to apologise. By the time she had realised there was more than one pair of boots, three guys with guns had come through the door. She jumped to her feet, staring blankly for a critical second. The alarm was a metre away at her station; why had she moved to the captain’s chair after ET stormed out? She had moved one boot in its direction, only for a calm voice to tell her not to think about it. When she’d raised her eyes to the owner of the voice, she found a man who looked completely in control of the situation. He was dressed completely in black, but his face was uncovered. His eyes were a pale grey, almost white, and his face showed no emotion as the two men behind him fanned out across the bridge without instruction; they knew their roles. One of them had moved to the helm to adjust their course slightly, while the other had moved directly toward her console. She had bristled when the guy sat in her seat, but the leader still had his pistol aimed at her, so she didn’t dare move.
She did, however, speak up. “What do you want? Who are you?” No response. “If you tell me what you want, I can help you. We can negotiate something, you don’t need to hurt anyone.” The continued to ignore her, and her mind raced. She hadn’t heard any gunshots or screams; did that mean they had somehow taken the ship without injuring anyone? Her stomach dropped as a new thought occurred to her. ET had been outside, on deck. Had he seen the hijackers come on board? He wouldn’t have been so stupid as to try and stop them on his own… would he?
Now all three of them were focused on the radar screen, so she tentatively stepped towards the leader. She only made it off the platform before there was a gun in her face once more. She glared up at him, trying not to let her terror show. “I’m an officer. I have the power to help you, if you tell me what you want.”
“Right now, I want you to stop talking,” the leader said, so politely she didn’t anticipate the blow. His boot struck the bottom of her rib cage on the right side, spinning her around and knocking the wind right out of her. She had narrowly avoided smacking her head on the side of the captain’s chair as she crumpled to the floor. “Now shut up,” he continued just as politely, as if he hadn’t viciously kicked out.
They had left her alone after that, and she hadn’t bothered trying to get them talking again. Shallow breathing had eased the pain in her ribs, but she was pretty sure at least one was fractured. The stark light of a new day did nothing to improve her situation. It wasn’t the first time she had been taken hostage, but this time was undeniably worse. She was alone, the hijackers had control of the entire ship, and there was no-one around who could help her. For a while, the sheer impossibility of her situation left her trembling. Then, as they continued to ignore her, and the minutes ticked quietly by, the urgent fear drained away.
Boredom had set in after about an hour, when the updates from the hijacking crew had ceased, and those on the bridge had continued to ignore her. They were incredibly calm and organised, which frightened her more than the initial chaotic entry had; they were obviously well-trained and had a sophisticated plan, and no good plan would end with keeping hostages alive. The only question was: for how long would they consider her to be useful?
She had noted the silver canisters on the utility belts of some of the men, and hoped they contained some kind of incapacitating gas. They wouldn’t have killed the entire crew, would they? No, she would have heard some kind of noise, or something . They couldn’t have killed everyone in silence. Her friends were still alive. They had to be.
She absently ran her fingers along her leg, and stilled when she touched the hat hanging off her overalls. The last words she’d said to ET were ones of anger, horrible, petty words she didn’t even mean. What if that was the last thing she ever said to him? She’d yelled and he’d shouted and stormed out; since they were both stubborn they argued fairly frequently, but always made up quickly. The blue fabric crumpled under her fingers as she balled her hand into a fist. No, he couldn’t be dead. This was not the end of their story.
“Lieutenant, come here,” the leader broke her train of thought, and she raised her gaze to see him staring at her from Charge’s console.
She gingerly pushed herself to her feet and made her way over, wrapping an arm around her sore ribs to stop jostling them. As she moved, she realised he had pronounced her rank as ‘lef-tenant’, in the traditional Australian way. Then she looked carefully at him and saw how comfortable he looked, sitting and moving around the bridge, and it clicked. He was ex-Navy.
“This console controls your CCTV.” It wasn't a question, so she didn't say anything. “How do I switch it from this view, to the cameras in the engine room?” She thought for a moment, and in that second of hesitation, he struck out, his elbow hitting her low in the abdomen. “Don’t hesitate. Don’t take the time to think of how you’re going to lie to me.”
She sucked in a breath, but controlled her face to show no reaction to the pain. If she couldn’t lie, the best way to defy him was not to show she hurt. He raised an eyebrow, as if daring her to make him ask once more. With a sigh, she leaned over to press the correct sequence of keys to change the camera view… then ‘accidentally’ tapped one more key as she stood up.
The screen went black. “Oops,” she said, in her best innocent tone.
He spun to look at her, and she quickly erased the smirk tugging at her lips. His eyes narrowed and, without further warning, his fist landed on her damaged ribs. She couldn’t help but double over, gasping as she tried to get air into her lungs. Despite the pain, she found a grim satisfaction in defying him, in seeing the annoyance on his face. It was a petty revenge, and would do her no good in the long run, but it felt better than meekly submitting to his demands.
“Tell me how to fix it.” His voice was still calm, despite his irritated expression. She lifted her head to meet his impassive gaze, tried to extend an arm, but drew back with a gasp. “Use your words, I’ll do it.”
“Con… Control… F… F8,” she eventually got out, having wrapped her arm back around her ribs. The pressure helped ease the pain slightly and she was able to straighten her back. The screen was now showing two different views of the engine room, and she grimaced at the sight of Charge and two of the junior engineers bent over the port engine. She hoped they were working as slowly as possible. Two engines would get the hijackers to their destination much sooner, which was less time for some sort of rescue to take place. Not that there was much chance of that.
“Now.” He looked up at her, and pointed at the communications console. With her arms around her ribs, she staggered towards it. He followed smoothly. “What’s your usual radio frequency?”
“Six-five,” she replied, before he could lash out again. Another blow like the last and she might not be able to breathe at all.
“And the emergency frequency?”
The question shouldn’t have surprised her; she had already guessed that he was ex-military, after all. Even so, she hesitated, until she saw his fingers curling into a fist. “Five-eight,” she said, trying not to flinch.
He made no comment, but stepped around her, moving to the other side of the bridge. “Come,” he said, and she reluctantly followed. He was leaning over her chair, looking at the radar screen. As her lip curled, he lifted an eyebrow curiously, the first real expression she had seen him make. “Yours?” he asked, and she nodded curtly. “Now, why would an Armidale class have a Navigator?”
She couldn’t reply. Wasn’t that the exact thing ET had said earlier? This ship doesn’t need you. Now she understood why that comment had pricked her so sharply. He was right. Hammersley didn’t need her.
Then she realised he was checking their course and shifted to her left, trying to peer at the screen. They were heading nor-nor-west, but she already knew that. What were they aiming for? New Guinea? If he noticed her interest, he didn’t care. A moment later, he straightened, and then glanced at the EOD.
“What is this?” he asked.
“EOD,” she said, and didn’t wait to be prompted. “Electro-optical device.”
“What’s its purpose?”
“It functions like a long distance camera,” she said. It wasn’t a lie and she didn’t need to stop and think about it. She was just being very careful not to think about the EOD’s other use. She was sure he had Navy experience, but his knowledge was clearly outdated. “It allows us to view and record things happening within radar range.”
“Show me,” he said.
She bit her lip as she reached forward to activate the monitor. “Nothing to see at the moment,” she said, scanning over the gentle waves.
A few seconds passed, and she swallowed. “And?” he prompted, and she saw his eyes narrow.
“And what?” she asked.
She saw it coming, but there was no way of avoiding it; his fist slammed into her stomach, driving the air out of her lungs and bringing tears of pain to her eyes. She gasped for air, reassuring herself that at least it wasn’t her ribs this time. Before she could recover, he grabbed her jaw, fingers tightening until she thought he might try to rip it out.
“What is this?” he asked, twisting her head and using his other hand to point at the controls for the typhoon.
She met his gaze, understanding too late that he was far more knowledgeable than she had assumed. He probably knew all about the typhoon, probably even knew how to use it. He released her jaw, his hand drawing back slightly. Gritting her teeth, she just glared back at him. This was one thing he wasn’t getting from her.
“Go on, then,” she said, hiding her fear behind bold words. “Hit me again. I’m pretty sure you already know, but I’m not going to tell you.”
She braced herself for the pain, knew he’d target her ribs again after that show of defiance, but for those few seconds she didn’t care. Then his hand dropped to his side, and surprise mingled with relief. The moment didn’t last. She didn’t see him draw his pistol, barely even saw the blur of movement as he swung it at her face.
There was an instant, before the pain, when the butt of the gun smashed into her face and she heard a sharp crack as her cheekbone fractured. Then pain ripped through her, and she couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe, felt her knees hit the deck and fell sideways, curling in on herself as she tried to regain control of her body. She heard a soft whimpering in her ears, and then a new pain as he grabbed her hair and pulled her head up so that she was looking at him. Her left eye didn’t seem to be working properly; it took a moment before she realised the skewed vision was a result of her rapidly swelling cheek.
“How about now?” he asked, voice grim and dangerous.
She sucked in a breath, aware of her whole body trembling, her throat still emitting that soft, pathetic noise. She met his gaze once more, this time knowing exactly what the cost would be. “Go to hell,” she whispered.
His foot lifted, and she instinctively raised her arms to protect her head. But he wasn’t aiming for her head. The first kick caught her in the thigh, the second in the abdomen. Curling into a ball, she bit her lip to stifle the moan of pain as she waited for the rest of the blows to land. But the footsteps moved away, and she realised the punishment was over. Even so, it was a long time before she could find the strength to move.
Comcen, HMAS Hammersley
ET turned on the satphone with a silent plea to whichever god oversaw the functionality of comm equipment. The tiny green light was one of the most beautiful things he’d ever seen. The satphone was larger and bulkier than most smartphones. It had a long antenna, making it look a lot like an early mobile phone. He carefully adjusted the output volume, so there was no chance of someone outside hearing his conversation.
Then he stopped. This was a backup phone and, unlike the main phone in the bridge, had no contacts saved into it.
“This, perhaps?” Bomber asked, pointing to a laminated sheet of paper taped to the wall. The number for Cairns Naval Command was at the top.
“Yeah,” he said sheepishly, and punched in the numbers as Bomber read them out.
Considering how well this day was going, he wouldn’t have been surprised if the call had failed; but it was answered almost immediately.
“This is HMAS Hammersley,” he started, speaking quietly but clearly. “Our ship has been hijacked. Hostiles boarded our ship and took control of the bridge. I repeat, we have lost control of our ship.”
For a second, he could almost hear the shock and confusion his words elicited. Then a voice said, “Please hold, Hammersley, we’re going to wake the Commander.”
ET felt a wave of relief. Commander Marshall would know what to do. He wouldn’t be happy, of course, but he would help them. At the very least, Navcom would know what was going on and that, in itself, was a victory. The hijackers had gone to great lengths to ensure that the ship was taken quickly and quietly, with no witnesses.
Several minutes passed. He looked at Bomber and Spider several times, unable to think of anything to say. They would have to wake Commander Marshall, brief him on the situation, then patch him through to this call. How long would that take? He checked his watch again. Were the hijackers likely to come in here again, for any reason? They had destroyed all the equipment, as far as they knew - why else would they look in this room?
Then the Commander’s voice came through the phone, equal parts tired and annoyed. “This is Commander Marshall, who am I speaking to?”
“This is Leading Seaman Josh Holiday, ET on board Hammersley,” he replied quickly. “Hijackers have taken control of the ship, sir.”
There was an ominous pause as the Commander processed that information. “Can you put me through to Lieutenant Commander Flynn?”
No surprises there. “He’s unconscious, sir. As is the XO, and... well, pretty much everyone. As far as I'm aware, I'm... I'm the highest ranked sailor available.” He kept his voice as calm and professional as he could as he added, “They have the Nav hostage on the bridge, sir.”
He heard a sigh. “Okay... Okay... just... summarise for me. Who are they, what are they doing?”
The two things we don’t know, ET thought with a grimace. “We don't know who they are. They boarded from the back of the ship at approximately 0430 hours. I believe their vessel was shielded from radar detection. There are at least ten of them. They used knock-out gas in all the cabins to incapacitate the crew, and took control of the bridge and the engine room. They have at least four hostages. They disabled all the comm equipment, but we found a spare sat phone.”
“Who is ‘we’?”
“Myself, Able Seaman Brown, and Seaman Webb, sir. We checked all the cabins, but we're... we're all that's left, sir. We couldn't rouse any of the crew.”
He might have imagined it, but the Commander’s voice seemed a little gentler as he continued. “I assume these hijackers are armed?”
“Yes, sir. We managed to take one by surprise, knock him out. He's currently tied up and unconscious in the garbage room. We have his pistol and knife.” At that moment, Bomber caught his eye. With a sudden grin, she mouthed, And a frypan! He repressed a snort.
“Where are you now?” the Commander continued.
“In the comcen, sir. We're... hiding, sir.” He tried not to sound too embarrassed about that admission. As Bomber had already pointed out, at least twice, there was no point running out and getting captured. Hiding had resulted in taking down one hijacker already, and making a call for help.
“Good call. Your priority right now is to keep yourselves safe. Do not attempt to take on these hijackers alone.”
Bomber met his gaze again, and he could see what she was thinking. That was one command he couldn’t obey. “Sir,” he began, suddenly remembering. “We overheard two of them talking. Wherever they’re going, they expect to get there around mid morning.”
“Alright.” The Commander was taking control, and ET could hear the decision in his voice. “I’m going to divert the closest ships to intersect your expected course and make a few calls. I’ll call you back once I know how long it will take.”
“Sir, I’d advise against that,” he said, trying not to think about the career consequences of contradicting the Commander. “We’re trying to remain undetected.”
“Hm. Alright. I’d like you to call in at least once every thirty minutes, then. Otherwise, just keep on as you have been.”
“Sir,” he began, then swallowed. “Don’t let them use the guns, sir.”
There was a pause, and from the shocked look on Bomber’s face, she knew what he meant. The Commander did, too, and this time his voice was definitely softer. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”
When he finished the call, he noticed Spider was frowning at him. “What did he mean at the end? What do we hope it doesn’t come to?”
ET looked down at his hands. “You remember the end of the Avengers movie, Spide?”
The boys had gone to see the movie together, each of them identifying with a different hero. “Yeah,” Spider said.
“Well, this is like that. Except we’re New York and the aliens are threatening to take over the world.”
Bomber finished for him. “They’ll sink us,” she said, expression shadowed. “Rather than let these guys use Hammersley against her own side.”
For a long time after that, no-one spoke.
Lower decks, HMAS Hammersley
Brad Armstrong was unlucky. All his life, things went badly for him. Some people said he was too lazy, or too hot-tempered, or just too stupid to climb the ranks as quickly as he wanted to. He figured it was just that the world had it in for him. Eventually, he had offered his talents to people who appreciated them, and who could help him strike back against the world that had no room for men like him. Men who wanted to live by the old rules, where what you had was governed only by what you could take.
This mission was the latest in a string of successes. That was enough to tell him he’d made the right choice. He was stuck patrolling the lower decks, which was the most tedious duty he could imagine. After all, the entire crew was asleep, and would be for hours yet.
Then he turned the corridor, and had a brief glimpse of grey. His team wore black; the crew wore grey. Frowning, he strode down the corridor, peering around the corner. Another flash as someone ducked into a room on the left. Someone was definitely awake down here. Grinning to himself, he placed one hand on the hilt of his knife. Strangely enough, people - especially those in the military - were more likely to cooperate if you held them at knifepoint, rather than gunpoint.
He paused outside the door, which was pulled to but not closed. He tried to peer in, but the crack wasn’t wide enough, so he pushed it open and stepped inside. First, he spotted a terrified-looking kid, backing up against a washing machine. Then he saw the crumpled body of one of his fellows on the ground, and saw one of their knives in the kid’s hand.
“Why, you little -” He took two steps forward, pulling his knife free, and then something slammed into the side of his head. He dropped to his knees, his vision swimming, and tried to turn. He caught a brief flash of something round and black descending, and then it hit him again, and he fell into darkness.
The frypan was lifted up, hovering over the hijacker, but his limp form didn’t move again. Bomber relaxed her arm, and Spider offered her a high five before bending down to bind the hijacker’s ankles and wrists with zip ties.
“I told you it’s not as easy as it looks,” ET said. “You’ve really gotta swing it.”
“I did swing it!” she protested.
“Only took me one hit,” he said, giving her a brief grin to show that he was joking.
“He’s got a thick skull,” she replied, glaring at the man on the floor. She was glad for the teasing, though, since that made it harder to brood on what they were doing. It wasn’t as bad as killing an unconscious prisoner, but there was something dishonourable about bashing someone from behind. Honour won’t win this fight , she reminded herself.
“How many times do you think we use this trick?” Spider asked. The bait-and-strike tactic had given them two victories. Having finished gagging their latest victim, he was adopting a pistol for himself. All three of them were now armed. They wouldn’t last long if it came to a shootout, but this evened the odds quite a bit.
“If we want to try again, we might need to change room,” said Bomber. The laundry room was getting rather crowded, with three of them and two unconscious bodies. “We’d better hide these two, too.”
“Here, get them into the corner,” ET said, grabbing one guy’s feet. Once they were both against the wall, which would be partly shielded by an open door, he grabbed a basket full of dirty laundry and upended it over the two bodies. Bomber helped rearrange the pile so that there was nothing obviously human. It wouldn’t survive a thorough inspection, but hopefully if anyone looked in here they wouldn’t notice anything straight away.
“It’s almost time to call Navcom again,” Spider said, checking his watch. “What are you going to say? He did say not to try taking these guys on ourselves.”
ET grinned despite himself. “He also said to keep on doing what we had been. Having just knocked out one guy, I thought that meant he wanted us to do that again.”
“Looking forward to that court-martial, boss?” Bomber asked wryly.
Without a trace of humour, he nodded. “I cannot wait.”
Bridge, HMAS Hammersley
The pain kept her from succumbing to boredom again. She had eventually crawled away from the EOD, to where she could sit with her back against the support pillar in the middle of the room. Her abdomen hurt more in this position, but at least she could watch him as he moved around the bridge. She might not be able to evade him when he came for her again, but he wouldn’t catch her by surprise.
After the last beating, however, he simply ignored her, and she did nothing to draw his attention. Every now and then, one of his people would come into the bridge to report. She quickly gained a sense of hierarchy from how they addressed him. He was clearly the leader. A heavyset man with a scar across his shaved head seemed to be second in command. She gathered that they were patrolling the corridors downstairs, and felt her spirits lift when one of them reported that “everyone is still out”. That seemed to support her theory that they had knocked out her shipmates rather than killing them. It made it much less likely, however, that ET had somehow evaded their attention. If he wasn’t dead, and she couldn’t let herself consider that option, then he must be unconscious somewhere. He certainly couldn’t help her.
The ship seemed unnaturally quiet. Normally at this time of day, she should be able to hear Bomber in the galley, the good natured arguments of sailors lining up for breakfast, the yawns of the forenoon watch as they entered the bridge. She hadn’t realised how comforting those natural sounds could be.
Eventually, it was the unsettling silence that prompted her to speak. He was standing beside the captain’s chair, watching the ship’s progress forward. It had been at least ten minutes since he had moved, and she guessed - hoped - that he was starting to feel a little bored, too.
“What’s your name,” she said, her tone too flat for it to be a real question. “I’m Nikki.” He didn’t respond, didn’t even turn. She swallowed, wondering how far she wanted to push him. He hadn’t told her to shut up, at least. “I’ve got to call you something,” she said, adding a wheedling tone. “Or, I suppose, I can just keep calling you ‘dickhead’.”
At that, he snorted softly, and she hoped it was amusement. “You can call me Don,” he replied, and she felt a brief surprise that her gambit had actually worked.
“Why are you here, Don?” she asked, trying to sound more bored than insistent. “How many things had to go wrong for you to be standing here now?”
“What makes you think anything went wrong?” He still didn’t look at her, but his tone was pleasant enough to make her think he would allow further discussion.
“You went from legit military service to… whatever you are now.”
From the sudden tightness in his shoulders, he was surprised she had figured out he was ex-military, and she hid a smile. “Why are you on a ship that does not require a Navigator?”
Her smile fell. “Better than a shore posting while I wait for something better.” She injected as much lightness into her response as she could, though she didn’t expect him to believe her. Before he could probe at that answer, she said, “You know you’ll never get away with this.”
“Haven’t you anything more original?” he said, and she noticed his gaze flick back to the radar. Hers did the same, though there was nothing visible.
“It’s true,” she insisted. “You can’t just go stealing a warship.”
“Borrowing,” he corrected. “Not stealing.”
She tried to snort derisively, but didn’t have the breath to make it audible. “Now who’s using cliches.”
“It is true,” he said, and this time he was definitely amused. “I’ll give it back when I’m done.” Her eyes narrowed, her face showing her disbelief. “Why do you think I haven’t killed the crew?”
Her expression didn’t change, but it took everything she had to hide her sudden elation. Assuming he wasn’t lying, the crew was alive, and her chances of getting out of this alive had just increased exponentially. “When you’re done ,” she repeated, deliberately keeping her tone flat.
“Why did you take the port engine offline?” he asked, ignoring the not-question.
“Routine cleaning and maintenance,” she replied. She recalled his burst of temper when he’d found out they were only running with one engine, limited to half speed. For the sake of prudence, she chose not to comment on the fact that his schedule was off.
“Your engineers are taking their sweet time putting it back together,” he said, and she smirked. At the darkening of his expression, she tried to hide her amusement.
“People tend to slow down when you threaten them,” she said more sombrely. “The CO usually offers them beer.” He ignored the implication, and glanced back at the radar. “So it’s a boat,” she said suddenly. “Your target.”
He frowned. “Why do you say that?”
“Because for the past two hours, you’ve been angling slightly away from the coast. I can’t think of any reason you’d try to attack one of the islands around here. And you’re in a hurry, which makes me think the target is moving. So it’s a boat.” She stared at him, suddenly wondering how far she would go trying to stop him. What if allowing him to carry out his attack was the only way for her to survive?
“What makes you so sure I want to attack anything?” he asked.
She lifted one corner of her lip in a humourless smile. “You stole a warship. Sorry, borrowed . I don’t imagine it was because it seemed like the easiest target.”
To her relief, he didn’t decide to punish her impertinence. However, he looked away and didn’t reply, and she accepted the implicit warning. She was sure of her supposition, though. She found herself desperately hoping he was after some lonely, rich guy in a yacht, and not a packed cruise liner. Hammersley’s typhoon could reduce either to floating splinters.
Turning her thoughts away from that horrific image, she began mentally cataloguing her hurts. The cheek was the worst. She was sure it was broken, and could only imagine what it looked like. She touched a fingertip to it as delicately as possible, feeling the hard swelling. It would heal. Then she probed the lowest few ribs on her right side, biting her lip against the pain. Two were broken, she thought, maybe three. They hadn’t splintered, at least, or pierced her lung. They would heal. Lower down, her abdomen and thigh ached from where he had kicked her. Her leg at least wasn’t broken, but she was sure there was a colourful bruise growing under her overalls. That, too, would heal, she reassured herself.
Swallowing, she realised that she was also thirsty. Pain and fear had kept her from feeling it so far; now that she had, however, she couldn’t get her mind off it. Her throat itched and her mouth was dry. She looked hopefully over at the drinking fountain in the corner and wondered if she dared move towards it. Looking at the gleaming silver, her thirst intensified, and she turned her head to study Don. His face was impassive, professional. He had hurt her, but not indiscriminately; each time, it had been due to her defiance. The message there was clear.
“Don,” she said. He didn’t move. “Could I have some water?”
He glanced at her, and she looked pointedly at the fountain. His expression was inscrutable and she stared back as guilelessly as possible. Finally, he gave a curt nod.
The only problem was that now she had to stand up. Bracing herself against the pillar, she pushed herself onto her feet, swaying a little, one arm wrapping around her ribs. She closed her eyes against a sudden wave of nausea.
“Make it quick,” he said sharply. She took small steps, doing her best to hurry without jostling her ribs or cheek. Bending over was a new type of agony. She sipped at the cool water quickly, rinsing her mouth and savouring the moisture. Not too much , she advised herself. She very much doubted he would let her use the head, however politely she asked.
Then she reluctantly returned to her previous position. Before she could sit, however, the phone rang. She froze, her eyes automatically moving to the phone next to the captain’s chair, then to Don. She wondered whether she would get kicked again if she suggested she answer it. An hour ago it had rung, but she had been reeling from the beating, in far too much pain to even consider speaking up. Now, having been congenitally chatting for the past twenty minutes, she felt bolder.
“I should get that,” she said blandly, though she didn’t make any attempt to move closer to the receiver.
“I should get a gag on you,” he said, as casually as if he was making an observation about the weather. She shuddered at the thought, which was just one way that her current predicament could be worse.
Despite the threat, she wasn’t ready to give up. It was essential that she alert someone to the situation. “If they keep calling and no-one answers, they will know something’s wrong.” She chose her words carefully, trying not to allow any semblance of pleading to enter her voice.
“And why would I care?”
She automatically raised an eyebrow, even though he wasn’t looking at her. “You came on a boat shielded from radar, made a stealth entry and incapacitated the entire crew without a sound. Seems to me you don’t want anyone to know you’re here.”
Now he did turn to meet her eyes. “So you’re offering to answer the phone and tell them everything is fine?”
Squaring her shoulders, she kept her expression open and relaxed. “Yes. I’ll say whatever you want me to say.”
His mouth twitched in what might have been a smile, if not for the cold look in his eyes. “I’m sure you would.”
The phone stopped. Then rang again. Neither of them looked toward it, still staring at one another; his gaze calculating, hers submissive. Inwardly, she was cursing her earlier defiance; if she’d done as asked earlier, gained his trust, would he have allowed her to answer the phone now? Probably not. But now it was a definite no.
Nevertheless, she had to try. “If I just -”
He cut her off immediately. “Enough.” His tone was polite, but she wasn’t fooled this time. With a soft groan of pain, she lowered herself back onto the floor and did her best to ignore the persistent trill of the phone.
Comcen, HMAS Hammersley
“He told us to stay put,” ET fumed. “How does he expect us to have learned anything about these guys?”
“We didn’t stay put,” Spider replied, shrugging. Their second call to Commander Marshall had been met with a barrage of questions, apparently on behalf of the AFP, who seemed to have some mysterious idea about who these guys were, but not what they were planning.
“But he didn’t know that,” ET said, still scowling.
“You reckon?” Bomber gave him a look. “I’m sure he never expected us to sit quietly in the comcen and wait for a rescue that might not turn up. That’s why he said, ‘stay safe’, not, ‘stay out of trouble’. He wants this ship under our control as badly as we do.” Privately, Spider thought it also had something to do with the boss’ influence; their CO was well known for walking a fine line between cowboy and insubordination, and Marshall probably expected his sailors to follow his lead.
ET met her gaze squarely. “Not half as much,” he countered, and Spider was suddenly reminded that for ET, stopping the hijackers was only the second most important task. “What do you two think, play that game downstairs again?”
“We need to try taking one of them prisoner,” Spider said seriously. “Maybe we can get some answers for the Commander.”
“Might need to leave him conscious,” ET mused. “Maybe Bomber should hit him then.” He smirked and dodged Bomber’s half-hearted slap.
“Or, maybe we try a new idea,” she retorted, looking thoughtful. “If we could slick the stairs somehow, wait for one to fall, then grab him.”
“There’s plenty of grease in the engine room, but I don’t want to try taking on three of them at once, even if we are now armed.” ET tapped his chin.
“What about butter?” Spider spoke up. “That’s plenty slippery.”
“Speaking from experience, there?” Bomber asked with a smirk.
Spider rolled his eyes. “The galley is also badguy-free.”
“Lead the way then, Spide,” ET said, motioning toward the door.
It was becoming all too routine to listen at the door, Spider thought. And he hated having to sneak around his own ship like an outlaw. But he had to admit, as he tiptoed toward the galley, he was almost having fun.
He pulled a couple sticks of butter out of the fridge, and turned back to the door, only to be pushed back as Bomber and ET crowded in behind him.
“That won’t smear properly, you need to melt it a bit first, Spi,” Bomber said, snatching the sticks from his hand. She tossed them back in the fridge then moved to the counter and picked up a bowl. “How about we use these ones I prepared earlier?” she said with a smirk, and led the way downstairs.
In a matter of minutes, and with a minimum of whispered arguments, they greased up the stairs and took cover in the nearest cabin. Now, all they had to do was wait.
Spider stifled a yawn. This was no longer seeming like such a good plan. Every minute they spent sitting here took them closer to the hijackers’ destination. “You sure we didn’t get them all already?” he whispered.
“There were ten of them,” ET replied. “I think. There’s definitely a few still wandering around.”
“Shh,” Bomber hushed them, and pointed up. Spider listened, and could hear footsteps coming down. ET crouched down, frypan gripped tightly in one hand. If their target survived the stairs, they would have to take care of him the more old fashioned way.
As it turned out, half-melted butter was just as slippery as he remembered. Two black boots came into view, hit the first buttered step, and staggered. The man tried to regain his balance, took another step down, and fell forward. He gave a shout of surprise as he flailed for the railing, only for his hands to lose all grip, sending him headfirst into the hard floor in front of the trio of sailors.
ET jumped into action, grabbing the guy from behind and wrapping an arm around his throat so that he couldn’t cry out. A second later, he frowned.
Spider followed her into the corridor, nodding to himself in satisfaction. “I told you that would work,” he said.
“A little too well,” Bomber remarked, peeling up the man’s eyelid and shining a torch into his unresponsive pupil. “He’s out cold.”
“Help me with him,” ET said, struggling to hold up the hijacker’s dead weight. “Into the cabin.”
As he grabbed hold of the black boots, Spider thought that if he never had to lift another unconscious body again, that would be too soon. “Better put him in the bathroom,” he grunted. “In case his friends check the cabins again.”
“Well, we didn’t get any answers, but that’s one more down,” Bomber said as she began collecting weapons. She ejected the magazine from the gun and pocketed it. “Let’s stay here, wait and see if we get another one.”
“No way,” Spider protested. “We could be waiting hours.”
Bomber looked like she was going to argue, but ET came to his side. “We can’t waste time, Bomber,” he told her. “And Spi could be right, the rest might all assume that someone else is down here.”
“So, upstairs?” she asked. “Am I the only one to think that’s riskier?”
“You want to wait in the comcen?” ET asked, and Spider knew that Bomber would rather cook tarantulas than hide while the boys took care of the invaders.
“I want you to keep your mind on the job,” she snapped back. “Fine, let’s go.”
Ship’s Office, HMAS Hammersley
It took some argument, but Bomber eventually agreed to act as bait.
“You notice that not one of these hijackers is a woman?” ET pointed out. “They see you, they’re going to assume you’re not a threat. I want the next person through that door to be as off guard as possible.”
“You seriously think Spider looks more dangerous than I do?”
“Hey, I am taller!” Spider protested.
“I’m just saying that’s what they’ll think,” ET said placatingly. “And we need him to step through the door. Sorry, Spide, but I don’t think you’re their type.”
Which was how he found himself pressed against the wall of the ship’s office, the door on his right so that he would be hidden behind it when it opened. One thing he had learned from today, he was going to be much more careful next time he went through a doorway on a boarding. He had a knife in his right hand, having passed the frypan to Spider.
They didn’t have to wait nearly so long this time. After a few minutes, they heard the clump of heavy boots in the corridor, and he gave Bomber a nod. Grimacing, she picked up the mug at her side, and then let it drop to the floor. It didn’t shatter as noisily as they had hoped, but it hit the ground with a resounding crack , and ET heard the footsteps on the other side of the wall falter. He gave Bomber a reassuring nod, his hand tightening on the knife. If this went wrong, she could wind up dead. They were assuming that whoever walked in wouldn’t shoot on sight. If it looked like he was going to, ET’s job was to stick the blade into the hijacker’s neck before he could shoot. The thought made him queasy, and he could hardly believe that only a few hours ago he had been arguing for the right to kill someone.
The door opened slowly, and ET held his breath. Spider was on his left, pressing himself as close to the wall as possible. As expected, the person in the doorway fixated immediately on the young female sailor standing in plain view. ET could just see her, as her eyes went wide with fear and she glanced desperately around the room.
“Alright,” a male voice said sternly. “Get out here.”
ET grimaced. They needed the guy to come in! Bomber carefully didn’t look at him or make any sign that someone else was in the room, but he could see the sudden tension in her jaw. She lunged to her left and grabbed one of the computer keyboards, holding it in front of her like a bat.
The man sighed. “Come on, I’m not going to hurt you.” And he stepped forward once, twice, and then cleared the door. ET leapt forward, kicking the door shut and wrapping one arm around the man’s neck to press the blade against his throat.
“I can’t say the same for you,” he snarled. He spoke to Spider without turning or relaxing his grip. “Get his weapons.”
The man sensibly stayed quiet as Spider took his gun and knife, and carefully detached the four grenades on his belt. ET felt him start to lift an arm, and pressed the blade into skin.
“Who are you?” he asked. There was no response. “What are you people doing here?”
After several more seconds of silence, Bomber pulled out a knife and brandished it in the man’s face. “Start talking or I’ll cut out your eye,” she said, and ET swallowed at the venom in her voice. If they all got out of this, he would never tease her again, he promised himself.
“You wouldn’t have the guts,” the prisoner said, not troubling to keep his voice down.
“The woman I love is currently being held hostage by your friends on the bridge,” ET replied, giving voice to all the fear and rage that had been lurking under the surface ever since he had seen these people boarding. “ Do not push me. ” It came out as a growl, and he felt the guy stiffen under his hands.
“Alright,” he said, far too calm for ET’s liking. “Take it easy. What do you want?”
“Let’s start with who you are and what you’re doing on our ship,” he said.
“My name’s Lee,” came the easy reply. “I’m a mercenary, I go where the money is. This was a high paying job.”
“And what is the job?”
Lee gave a short bark of laughter. “Truth is, I don’t know.” ET tightened his grip on the mercenary, wrinkling his nose at the sharp stink of sweat. “Honest. Me, Hugh, Craig. We’re just money men, making up the numbers. We take our orders from the Boxer, and wait to get paid.”
“Who’s the Boxer? Your leader?”
“Nah, Wayne Gleeson, second in command. Huge guy, big scar on his head.”
“Who’s in charge?” Bomber asked. She sounded frustrated, and ET realised that so far their prisoner had told them nothing useful.
“Don, don’t-know-his-full-name Don. He’s former Navy, I know that much. He’s a ruthless bastard, but it’s Wayne you’ve got to watch out for. He likes hurting people.” ET grit his teeth against a surge of fear. “Aw, don’t worry,” Lee said, his tone mocking. “So long as your girl does what she’s told, Don won’t let anyone hurt her.”
“And if she doesn’t?”
“He’ll hurt her.” Lee’s tone conveyed a dismissive shrug, though he didn’t move.
Bomber cast him a warning look and ET forced his temper under control. The thought of Nav alone in the bridge with some sadistic enforcer left him struggling to think of any more pertinent questions. He returned Bomber’s look and she nodded in understanding.
“How many of you are there?” she asked, adding, “You’d need at least twenty to take down a warship.”
“You might,” Lee replied smugly. “We only needed eleven and, honestly, one girl on watch and a bunch of sleeping sailors? We could have done it with half that. We were supposed to be twelve, but one of their guys blew off his own face the other day.”
The scorn in his voice convinced ET that at least some of what he’d been saying was true; they were facing a mix of mercenaries and true believers. He met Bomber’s gaze, knowing they were thinking the same thing. They’d already knocked out four of them. Once they were done with Lee, they’d be almost halfway there.
“What’s in the grenades?” Spider asked. He peered at the one he had taken from the mercenary’s belt, then placed one finger on the end.
“Please don’t do that,” Lee said, sounding strained. “They’re a mix. Some sleep gas, some nerve gas, some flashbangs.”
“Which is which?” Bomber asked. As much as he didn’t want to toss a grenade at Nav, ET had to admit that a sleep grenade would be the easiest way of retaking the bridge.
“Left side of belt is sleep, right are the poppers. Nerve gas at the back.” Spider looked down at the four grenades he had taken. Lee gave a sly grin. “Nice one.”
“And you don’t know why you’re actually on this boat?” Bomber narrowed her eyes disbelievingly.
“Mercenary trick, girl. Do what you’re told and don’t ask for details. There’s a thing called knowing too much.”
“Any idea what they’re going to do with the crew?”
“They’ll be fine,” Lee said, and again, his voice was mocking rather than reassuring. “By the time they wake up we’ll be gone and they’ll be none the wiser.”
“And what about the hostages?” ET asked.
There was a brief pause. “They know too much.”
He wasn’t even aware of moving the knife until he felt blood dripping onto his knuckles. Bomber glared at him, and he forced his hand to relax. Whether out of self preservation or just a lack of loyalty to the mission, Lee was more useful alive.
Until he glanced to his left and said, “You three should have stayed in bed.”
ET felt the chest under his left arm swell as Lee took a breath, at the same time as he heard a door slam, further down the corridor, and he realised that the prisoner had only been stalling them until he heard one of his companions come within shouting distance. One shout was all it would take, and he doubted they’d be able to grab whoever came to investigate as easily as they had taken the mercenary.
Silence him , he thought. He felt unnaturally aware of the muscles in his arm, the exact combination of force and twist it would take to rip open Lee’s throat. This time, it was him or them, and he shouldn’t have hesitated.
Then there was a crunch and a gurgling cry that cut off abruptly as Spider swung the frypan into Lee’s face. As the mercenary’s nose exploded, ET felt blood spray across his arm, and automatically pulled away, letting the body slide to the floor. He swallowed the bile that rose in his throat, and from the puzzled expression on Spider’s face, knew the young sailor didn’t yet realise what he’d done. Then he heard footsteps coming closer, and turned to Bomber.
“Shut him up,” he whispered urgently, and she understood, slapping one hand over Spider’s mouth, her eyes round with shock. Spider didn’t protest, listening as the footsteps passed their door and continued downstairs, but he was still frowning, staring down at the mercenary in confusion.
Bomber removed her hand, and Spider protested in a whisper, “Why’d you do that? I’m not stupid.”
“He’s dead, Spi,” she replied softly.
“What?” He looked down. “No, he’s just knocked out.” The knees were folded under the crumpled body, so he looked a little like he was trying some painful yoga position. Face down, he could have been unconscious.
Bomber used one boot to roll the body over and ET had to look away. The force of the blow had crushed Lee’s nose, forcing the cartilage back into his head and into his own brain, killing him. His wide eyes stared blankly at the ceiling. Spider stared down at the bloody pulp, his face getting whiter by the minute.
“I didn’t,” he said stupidly, looking desperately between Bomber and ET. “I swear, I didn’t… I didn’t mean to. I just wanted to shut him up!”
“It’s alright, mate,” ET said. “You did what you had to.” A part of him wished he hadn’t hesitated. As soon as he knew his prisoner was planning on calling out, he should have cut his throat. Then Spider, barely a year out of high school, wouldn’t have had to do it. At the same time, he couldn’t help a sense of relief. It didn’t make the mercenary any less dead, but at least he, ET, hadn’t been the one to kill him.
“I don’t… I don’t…” Whatever Spider was thinking, he couldn’t get the words out, but his voice was increasing in both pitch and volume. ET thought about slapping him, before he lost it completely and broadcast their location.
Then Bomber had grabbed his cheeks, and learned forward, her lips touching his for the briefest of moments. Shocked into silence, Spider stared at her. “Shut up,” she said sweetly. “Or you’ll have to do it again.”
ET was too focused on the blood on his skin to notice the kiss. The hand that held the knife was covered in it, and a fine spray coated his bare forearm. He moved to wipe it off on his overalls, then hesitated, not wanting to keep the mercenary’s blood near him for any longer than absolutely necessary. This wasn’t the first time he’d felt someone else’s blood on him, but he’d never been quite so close before. Using a knife was a whole different experience to using a gun. He blinked, realising his fist was still clutching the knife, and let it drop onto the desk.
“Bomb, help me get him into the cupboard,” he said quietly, looking back at her. She nodded, once.
Spider gaped at them. “You’re going to move him?”
ET sighed in irritation, wishing Spider would hurry up and get over the shock already. They didn’t have time to baby him at the moment. “Well, we can’t leave him here for his friends to trip over.”
When Spider continued to stand there, frozen, Bomber huffed at him. “Spide, you can either help carry the dead guy, or you can start wiping up the blood.” Spider’s white face took on a tinge of green, and he looked like he was about to throw up. “Choose, Spider, or this time, I’ll slap you.” Bomber glared at him, and he swallowed thickly.
“Can I carry his feet?” he asked, voice barely more than a whisper.
“Fine.” ET moved to grab Lee’s shoulders, wiping his bloody hand off on the man’s black shirt as he did so. “Now hurry up, and quietly.”
Bomber disappeared out the door to find something to clean up the blood with, while he and Spider did their best not to smear the blood any more than it already was. ET was struck by how much heavier it felt to manoeuvre deadweight; it wasn’t the first time he’d had to do this, but the realisation still came each time. This was, however, the first time he’d tried to keep a body upright while pushing it into a small space. The ruined head flopped forward when they first stood him up, causing Spider to cringe and let go, which left ET staggering under the weight.
“Spi!” he hissed, and Spider took hold once more.
“We need to turn him around, face away from the door,” Spider muttered, eyes fixed firmly on the guy’s stomach.
Bomber slipped back inside as they turned him, her arms full of paper towels and garbage bags. “Put one over his head, so you don’t get blood all over the cupboard,” she said, and ET was once again struck by her attention to detail; she thought of everything.
He and Spider sheathed the head in plastic, then resumed the slow progress of getting it inside the cupboard. Though it was as tall as the ceiling and almost a metre wide, it seemed too small for the body.
“So, do you think all that stuff he said was true?” Spider asked.
ET grunted. “Bastard was just stalling, hoping someone would come past.”
Moving a handful of paper towels through the blood on the floor, Bomber looked thoughtful. “Maybe, but if he thought he’d get his friends to finish us off, he wouldn’t bother lying, would he? It’d be easier to just tell us the truth.”
“Guess so,” ET replied distractedly, as he pushed the shoulders into the cupboard. “You think he really didn’t know the plan?”
“Doesn’t matter now, does it?” she said humourlessly.
Spider closed the cupboard door after ET shoved the head in, and placed a chair against it for good measure. ET made a mental note not to forget the guy was here. It was a good hiding place and no-one would find the body until they opened the cupboard. If they got through this unscathed, he would ensure this area was thoroughly cleaned. Then he glanced at Spider, saw the tortured expression on his face, and knew he would not forget this man.
With a sigh, ET crouched down next to Bomber and took a handful of paper towels for himself. “You think he was telling the truth about the numbers, though? Eleven?”
“That did ring true. You said you saw ten?”
He stared through the floor as he scrubbed, trying to visualise the scene in his mind. “It was dark; I think at least ten.”
“Sounds likely, then.” She looked over at Spider, who stood at the door, staring at the wall. “Spide, if you’re not going to help clean, can you at least hold a bag for us to put the used towels in?”
Spider turned at the sound of his name, eyes still lost, and ET felt his stomach clench. Even if - no, when - they got through this, all of them were going to have scars from this experience. Though Spider refused to look at the rapidly diminishing blood pool, he did open a garbage bag and hold it out to them.
“If we could wake up the rest of the crew, we’d be able to fight them off!” Spider’s tone didn’t convey any excitement despite the inflexion in his words.
“Six,” ET said suddenly, sitting back on his heels.
Spider’s brow creased in confusion. “What?”
“Eleven mercenaries. Including this guy, we’ve already taken out five. That leaves six. Remember, that guy said they left three in the engine room.” His mind was racing through the options, words spilling out before he could fully process them.
“ET…” Bomber tried to break in, but he wasn’t listening.
“So there can only be three, at most, on the bridge!” His eyes stayed on Spider, whose face said he shared ET’s train of thought.
“In a closed room, with a hostage!” Bomber hissed, throwing her used paper towel into the bag.
“Three of us, three of them, we’re armed,” he continued.
“And we have the element of surprise,” Spider broke in.
Bomber now sat back as well, arms crossed over her chest. “And how do you know they haven’t left one armed guard in the engine room and brought the others back upstairs?”
ET shrugged dismissively. “What does it matter? Three, four, are the odds likely to get any better? The longer we wait, the more likely they find one of the bodies or see us or get to wherever it is they’re going.” He didn’t have to say out loud the other thing on his mind, could see in Bomber’s eyes that she knew what he was thinking. The longer they waited the more likely it was that Nav would do or say something to make the Boxer angry. If she hadn’t already. The more he learned about their foes, the more anxious he was to get to her; taking action helped to calm his nerves better than any logical words could have.
“He’s right,” Spider agreed. “That other guy said ‘mid morning’. That could be only an hour or two away.”
Bomber’s mouth twisted, and ET knew she was about to agree. “Alright. Okay, this is what we’re going to do. First-” He opened his mouth to make a suggestion, only for her to hold up a finger. “-we’re going to call Navcom again, let them know what we learned from this guy, even if it wasn’t much. We’ve got at least one name for them. Then, I’ll try to get a look inside the bridge.”
He blinked at her, trying to comprehend her words. Why would she want to look? “Why-”
She cut him off, obviously anticipating his rebuttal. “What are you going to do if you look in and see them hurting her?” He bristled at the thought; it would be hard enough if he had to see her injured, but to watch them hit her - or worse - his fists clenched hard enough for his nails to dig into his palms, and he suddenly understood why Bomber had to go. She shot him a look. “Her best chance is if we take this one step at a time. I will look, and see whether we’ve got a chance to take the bridge.”
Bridge, HMAS Hammersley
The minutes ticked by in near silence, and Nav didn’t dare attempt any further conversation. The pain in her ribs had settled into a constant, dull ache, but the sharp throbbing in her cheek didn’t ease, and the tightness in her thigh seemed to be getting worse. As long as she remained quiet and still, however, the hijackers ignored her, so she hadn’t suffered any new injuries. After the last ineffective suggestion, she ignored the phone each time it rang. Don had made his decision, and she wasn’t going to risk another broken bone arguing with him. At least she was right about one thing - the lack of an answer meant that Navcom would know something was wrong. But ‘something’ could be anything from a broken radio to Mike Flynn taking off with another harebrained scheme his bosses wouldn’t approve of. If she could get to the phone, one word was all it would take to sufficiently explain the situation. Without the secrecy he had worked so hard to achieve, would Don’s plan still work? She didn’t expect to have a chance to find out. With her injuries, he would be on her before she could even stand. Unless he left the bridge, there was no way of getting a message out. With no plan, and rapidly shrinking hopes, she could do nothing but sit in place and try to conserve her strength.
It was only when footsteps on the stairs woke her that she realised she had actually drifted off. She wasn’t really surprised; she had slept badly the previous night and the hijackers had given no thought to her caffeine addiction. For hours, adrenaline and pain had kept her awake. Now she was more exhausted than ever.
The person entering the bridge was a new face and it only took one sentence for her to realise why. “The engineers are almost finished repairing the engine. We should be able to pick up speed in a few minutes,” he said, standing formally in front of Don and his second, in a stance that would have been ‘at attention’ if they had been Navy.
“About damn time,” the second growled. “How bloody long does it take to put one engine back together?”
“Gleeson.” Don’s voice was calm, as always, but carried a ring of authority. “Go check the deck again.” Nav watched in fascination as the second - Gleeson, apparently - instantly obeyed, heading downstairs. She revised her estimate of Don’s prior rank; he was definitely an ex-officer.
“Well, it’s done now,” said the guy from the engine room. In an unconcerned voice, he added, “You want me to kill them when they’re finished?”
“Not here,” Done said, sounding irritated, as if he was repeating an instruction for the tenth time. “When we leave the ship.”
She kept her eyes on the floor, so he may not have known she was listening - not that he seemed to care - but she heard, and she knew it meant her as well. Vaguely, she was aware of the third guy going back downstairs, but her mind was on the last words spoken. After all this time speaking to Don, she shouldn’t have been surprised at his nonchalance about murder, but she was. Maybe it was the realisation that, this time, he was speaking about her murder.
She had always known that the armed serviced carried a degree of risk; but she had never anticipated anything like this. A stray gunshot, a machete wound, those were the kinds of injuries she expected on a patrol boat. Then again, she thought with a wry grimace, if the past year had taught her anything, it was that Hammersley attracted trouble.
Despite the pain it added to her sore ribs, she drew her knees to her chest and hugged them, needing the small semblance of comfort it provided. Tears pricked at her eyes and she blinked them away, not wanting to give them the satisfaction of seeing her cry. They may have hurt her, but she was not broken - physical injuries would not break her spirit. It wasn’t over yet. She could think of something to stop them. Anything.
She wished ET was there, even if it meant he would die, too, because at least then she wouldn’t die alone. It was a horrible thought, but she would have given anything to have his arms around her one last time, feel his lips on hers, see the love shining in his eyes. A single tear escaped her lashes and slipped down her swollen cheek as she realised he would wake up to find her gone. There would be no bittersweet goodbye, no last longing look. Would they even realise she was dead? Or would her body disappear into the waves, never to be found? She knew he would never give up until he found her.
The thought strengthened her resolve, and she sat up a little straighter. She wouldn’t give up while there was still a chance.
It was clear, however, that she was running out of time. Don came towards her, then walked past, leaning over the helm to adjust their course. She felt the steady sway of the ship as it picked up speed, and she knew they must be almost at their destination. Yet again, she wondered what it could be that these men hoped to achieve. She had no doubt, however, that it was her duty to do whatever she could to stop them.
She heard the door to the bridge open again, and her eyes automatically followed Don as he moved toward the stairs. It was Gleeson, the scarred thug she figured was second in command. He was a big guy, with small, angry eyes, but that was reassuring in its own way. He was as dangerous as he looked. It was Don who scared her, with his cold smile, pleasant voice, and brutal reactions. Even as she thought it, her chest tightened, and she wondered if they would protest if she stood up and stretched.
The two of them were discussing something in low tones, looking serious. She couldn’t quite hear what they were saying but she wasn’t really worried about trying to listen in. They seemed to have forgotten she was even in the room, for neither had so much as glanced at her since Gleeson’s arrival on the bridge. Using the column she had been leaning on as support, she slowly got to her feet, stretching out her tight abdominal muscles until she was able to take a deep breath. The additional oxygen made her a little light-headed, so she closed her eyes and breathed deeply once more.
Then the phone rang.
Without hesitation, she made a break for it; it was only three steps away, they were at least five, and she was already on her feet. She had barely moved when her feet were swept out from underneath her and she landed hard on her left knee. There was a crunch, but before the pain could register she was hauled up by her plait and backhanded across the mouth, the blow sending her crashing into the base of the captain’s chair.
She was still half-stunned by the impact when someone grabbed her legs and pulled her away from the platform, then straddled her knees and drove a huge fist into her stomach. The air was driven out of her lungs and she started to gag, when another blow caught her in the same place, and another. Though she couldn’t see through the tears of pain, she knew from the strength and size of the punches that this wasn’t Don; it had to be Gleeson. The man was huge, taller than Spider, built like Buffer, and his fists were like iron rams into her abdomen.
The hits came too close together for her to draw in a breath, and she could feel herself suffocating. Her fists battered uselessly against the rock-hard chest of the man sitting astride her. She tried to lift her head, only to be slammed back into the floor, a fresh pain bursting through her skull. Dark spots began to obscure her vision.
Dully, she wondered if she was going to die here and now. This wasn’t how she had expected it to happen. Her arms fell limply to her sides as she surrendered to the explosive pain. It took her a few moments to realise the attack had stopped; the man above her had been pulled away. She blinked dazedly, aware of a deafening silence around her. It wasn’t until she turned her head that she heard Don’s voice, though it seemed strangely distant.
“-hell do you think you’re doing? Now she’s bleeding! What happened to not leaving any sign we were here?”
Bleeding? So far they had done a very good job of causing her pain without spilling blood. Her fingers traced her her face, avoiding the swollen cheekbone, until she felt the large cut on her lip. Yes. Blood. She hoped it wouldn’t leave a scar.
The raw pain in her abdomen was beginning to ebb, fading to an intense throbbing. Her stomach already felt tender; he must have ruptured something with those ferocious blows. Automatically, her arms curled around herself, as if trying to protect her body from further harm, though the damage was already done.
Don was suddenly in front of her, looking annoyed once more. “I thought you were smarter than that,” he said calmly. He made no comment about her injuries; he seemed more concerned by the spot of blood on her lip than the massive damage his second had inflicted. He produced a pair of zip ties and pulled her hands roughly away from her stomach, tying her wrists together. Her stomach dropped when he pulled them tightly closed, leaving almost no room for movement. A third zip tie bound her to the base of the captain’s chair, with just enough give that she could sit on the floor without straining her shoulders. He said nothing else and made no attempt to check her injuries. Behind him, she saw Gleeson glowering at her, as if it was her fault he had just been berated.
As soon as she was properly restrained, the two men returned to the head of the steps and continued their conversation as if nothing had happened. She stared at them, touched her tongue to the split in her lip, and let the tears roll down her cheeks. No-one was coming. No-one knew what was happening to her. She couldn’t move, let alone stop whatever they were planning. She was going to die and now there was absolutely nothing she could do about it.
Comcen, HMAS Hammersley
When ET reported that five hostiles had now been incapacitated, Commander Marshall made no sound of surprise or complaint, leading him to believe that Bomber had been right; the Commander knew they weren’t going to sit idly while the ship was in trouble. He listened carefully to ET’s quick summation of what they had learned from the mercenary, little as it was.
Just as he finished, the comcen door opened, and the boys tensed, but it was only Bomber. “Sleeping like the dead, but otherwise fine,” she reported.
“Sir, Bomber reports that the CO is still unconscious,” ET reported. To his relief, the Commander had switched to calling him ‘ET’ on this call, which was somehow comforting. It made him feel more like he was reporting to his own supportive captain, rather than the Commander himself. “But no other signs of poor health.”
“Could be worse,” Marshall grunted. Then his tone changed. “Listen, I’ve got Andy Cho from ASIO here. That name you gave confirms his suspicion. Wayne Gleeson, aka The Boxer, is part of an anarchist group with terrorist connections. His partner is probably Liam O'Donoghue, and they’re as dangerous a pair as you could be facing. Gleeson in particular has a long history of violent offences. O’Donoghue is smart and completely ruthless.”
“Any idea what they’re planning, sir?”
There was a short pause, and ET waited impatiently. These were the people who had Nav? He desperately hoped she was cooperating, but he wouldn’t have bet on it. She was too stubborn for her own good and used to ordering people around. That didn’t make for a good hostage.
“ASIO have a few ideas, but can’t confirm anything at this point,” Marshall finally replied. “It’s going to be bad, though. ET, I don’t want to have to ask this…”
“You need us to take back the bridge,” he guessed, quickly adding, “Sir.” He met Bomber’s gaze, and she looked grim.
“I’ve directed every ship in your area to your location. Pirie was closest, and might have intercepted within half an hour, but according to GPS, your course changed about fifteen minutes ago. You’re now moving north-east. Maroubra is coming down from the north. If you maintain your current heading, she should reach you in about 90 minutes.” There was another short pause. “ASIO thinks that might be too late.”
“So it’s up to us,” ET said, wishing desperately that it wasn’t.
“I know this isn’t what you’ve been trained for, and I’m asking you to do something extremely dangerous.”
“No offense, sir, but we’re in danger just being on this ship right now.”
“Right enough.” Marshall took a deep breath. “The air force have scrambled a Hornet.”
He didn’t need to say anything more. Even Spider understood, this time. Whatever these terrorists were planning, they wouldn’t be allowed to succeed. “We’ll take the bridge, sir,” ET promised.
“Whatever means necessary,” Marshall added, and ET swallowed. He hadn’t exactly been worried about the rules of engagement, but they had just been given permission to use lethal force without so much as a warning.
“Understood, sir.” He hesitated, for the briefest second, wondering if he could ask the Commander to pass a message on to his family if he didn’t make it through this. Then he pushed the thought aside. He couldn’t consider failure. Nav’s life depended on success. All of their lives did.
Replacing the sat phone in its charging station, he looked at the other two, wondering if his face was as pale as theirs. “Let’s go get our ship back.”
Port Side, HMAS Hammersley
Outside, Bomber was momentarily dazzled by the brilliant sunshine. It was strange to think that such a beautiful morning could be filled with such danger. Well, Marshall had agreed with ET that the bridge was their priority, and she had no desire to see Hammersley sunk by a missile, but she wasn't going to leap in without a few safety precautions. It was ironic, she thought, that she should be the one urging someone else to control their temper. Then again, she had plenty of experience; ET’s explosions were much rarer and therefore all the more shocking.
The three of them had come through the armoury, peeking through the rear door cautiously. The back of the ship appeared to be deserted. That surprised her - she would have thought they'd have someone patrolling the aft deck. Well, no point wasting time while it was clear. With a backwards glance at the boys, warning them to stay put, she moved into the open, scaling the ladder quickly. Outside the bridge, she ducked into a crouch, knowing that as soon as she stood, she would be as visible to those inside as they would be to her. She shuffled along until she reached the first clear window, just behind the engineer’s console. They would need to be at just the right angle to see her peeking in. She took a deep breath and wiped her sweaty palms on her overalls. What happened next would depend on luck.
She raised herself up, the familiar sight of the bridge made strange by its unusual emptiness. She saw Nav almost straight away, but scanned the room until she saw two men in black, standing at the top of the stairs, their heads together. As best she could tell, there was no one else in the room. That worried her a little. By ET's count, that meant one more unaccounted for. She did recognise one of the figures from Lee's description, and thought that “the Boxer” was a good name for him. He was one of the largest and heaviest people she'd ever seen, and she would have bet her galley that every kilo of him was pure muscle. The other one - she assumed it was O'Donoghue - was tall but not as heavy. Neither looked like someone she wanted to mess with, but she was starting to get an idea of how best to surprise them. Then she turned her eyes back to Nav.
The officer appeared only half conscious, feebly stirring at the foot of the captain's chair. Her wrists were bound and, trying to think positively, Bomber told herself that that would make it hard for the hijackers to lift her up as a human shield in a hurry. Then she felt her breath catch as Nav lifted her head, her eyes aimed fearfully at the two men. One side of her face was horribly swollen, turning black, and Bomber knew something was broken. Her hair had come loose of its usual plait, leaving tangled strands floating around her cheeks. Her eyes were unmistakably red, and the very fact that she had been crying told Bomber how badly they had hurt her. Her movements were slow and hesitant, and the medic knew there had to be more injuries that she couldn't see. She felt a surge of grief and rage on behalf of her friend.
She glanced back at the black-clad hijackers, before ducking out of sight again, her mind whirling. Two of them, neither holding a weapon at the ready. If she opened the closest door, how quickly would they see her? How quickly would they duck for cover or draw their guns? She bit the inside of her cheek, reminding herself that this was exactly why she hadn’t allowed ET to come up here. He would have gone charging straight in. Stick to the plan! she told herself firmly. Nav was alive, and they were unlikely to kill her out of hand after keeping her this long. A mistake now could jeopardise everything.
So, with one final glance inside, she crawled back to the ladder and climbed down. ET was waiting for her at the bottom and, with a flash of annoyance, she noticed Spider investigating the aft deck. She should have known neither of them would stay where they were told.
“Well?” ET asked, before she could speak. Not wanting to stay beside the ladder, she pulled him over towards the port side railing.
“She’s alive,” Bomber told him first. “Two on the bridge - Gleeson and O’Donoghue, I think.”
“Alive?” he repeated, not sounding at all reassured. “And? Is she hurt?”
“Well, she doesn’t look particularly happy,” she replied, evading the question. From the look in his eyes, he understood what she wasn’t saying. His mouth thinned and his hands clenched into fists. She met his gaze squarely and put her hands atop his fists. “She’s alive, just focus on that, and stick to the plan!”
“So let’s do it!” he said forcefully, banging a fist against the railing.
Whether it was the sound of his voice or just their none-too-subtle presence beside the rail, there was a sudden shout. A man was standing halfway along the port side, staring at them. Bomber automatically pulled away, as if to get back inside, but ET pushed past her, leaping up two stairs and charging the narrow walkway on the side of the ship. Surprised by his attack, the black clad figure drew his gun, but had no time to aim; ET lowered his shoulder and rammed into him.
Moving towards them, Bomber heard the muted sound of a gunshot but it must have missed; as the hijacker staggered backwards against the railing, ET reached down, grabbed his knees, and tipped the man backwards and over the side of the ship. There was a soft splash, then a spluttering cry, and she felt a moment of pity for the doomed man. His companions wouldn’t stop the ship for him, she was sure.
Then she saw ET grimacing, lifting his hand away from his thigh. It was streaked with blood. “Just a graze,” he muttered, seeing her concerned face.
“ET!” Spider’s shout turned them both around, in time to see a massive figure leaping from the bridge to the back deck. Bomber swallowed, recognising the Boxer instantly. He turned towards them, pulling a gun.
“Run,” she said as she turned and pushed ET ahead of her, aiming for the closest door. If they could get to the door first, Gleeson would be vulnerable as he stepped in. Five, she reminded herself. Five of them left. If they could position themselves somewhere defensible, they might survive a shootout.
She kept an eye on ET, wondering if he had been understating his injury, but he had no trouble reaching the door ahead of her. It wasn’t until they got there that she realised Gleeson wasn’t following them; he must have gone after Spider instead.
“Spider?” she called, and ET turned. Then she heard the gunshot.
Aft Deck, HMAS Hammersley
When Bomber ran after ET, Spider was distracted by a sound above them. It was the bridge door, and a moment later a massive figure came into view, and he spotted the lone sailor on the back deck instantly. “ET!” Spider yelled, pulling out his gun. He looked towards the door, wondering if he could reach it before the hijacker climbed down the ladder.
Except he didn’t come down the ladder. There was a flash of movement and then a massive thud, as Gleeson leapt over the railing and dropped to the deck below. Spider had only a second to process the unexpected descent before Gleeson was drawing out a gun. Bracing his feet against the motion of the ship, Spider sighted and fired a single shot which took Gleeson in the wrist. He dropped the gun with a curse, but he didn’t retreat. His face twisted with hatred, he ducked behind the port side RHIB. Spider scrambled backwards, taking cover behind the starboard RHIB. He clutched his gun tightly, ready. This time, he decided grimly, he wouldn’t go for a disabling shot.
With Gleeson between him and the back door, he had no escape. He wondered where ET and Bomber had gone. If they had run up the port side, it would only take them a minute to move through the interior of the ship and come back through the armoury, popping up behind Gleeson. Spider just to hold him off long enough. He tensed, waiting for Gleeson to come into view, determined to force the hijacker to make the first move. Seconds passed.
A rattling sound was his first warning, and he glanced down to see something rolling towards him. As the sun glinted off the silver canister, he felt a moment of panic, and threw himself backwards as the grenade exploded. Later, he wondered if he lost consciousness for a few seconds; the next thing he knew, he was lying on his back at the rear of the boat, unable to see through the thick black spots dancing in front of his eyes, a piercing whistle echoing through his aching ears. His head throbbed and he couldn’t quite remember why.
He blinked rapidly, his vision clearing just enough for him to make out a humanoid figure standing over him. “Bomb?” he asked, though the silhouette was far too large to be hers. Then he saw the gun, being held awkwardly in the figure’s left hand, pointed at his face.
He heard the gunshot as a distant, muted pop; then the dark, blurry shape above him staggered, dropping face-down onto the deck between Spider and the back of the boat. Spider forced himself into a sitting position, shaking his head and rubbing at his eyes. A vague noise caught his attention just as an arm caught him around the shoulders. Startled, he looked into Bomber’s terrified face, and for a brief instant thought she was going to kiss him again. Not that he would complain, but -
“Spi?” Her voice pierced through the ringing.
“Yeah?” he asked, and from the wince gathered that he had overcompensated a little with the volume. “Sorry,” he said, and she shushed him. His vision was clearing slowly, the details of her face no longer blotted out by the intense afterimage.
“You’re okay,” she said, a hand cupping his cheek. “I shot him, that’s one more down.”
“I shot him, too,” he said, feeling the need to explain. “In the wrist. I didn’t want to kill him…”
“I wasn’t really fussed,” she replied, with a small smile. His hearing seemed to be coming back in good order, and his vision was now no worse than if he had just stepped from a dark corridor into bright daylight. “I just shot him in the back.”
There was a problem with that, he thought. His instincts said that shooting someone in the back was just… well, dishonourable. But this wasn’t the sort of situation where they had much choice. Marshall had even given them tacit permission to kill. For some reason, his mind flashed back to the time they had been searching for the man who had stabbed Charge. Another dishonourable mercenary, he thought, exactly the sort of person who would shoot someone in the back -
“Isn’t he wearing a vest?” Spider asked suddenly, his eyes going wide as he stared at Bomber. At the same moment, he heard ET shout a warning. Bomber was already twisting in place, trying to see the downed hijacker when he grabbed her from behind, one arm wrapping firmly around her throat. Spider scrambled to his feet, fumbling for his gun, aware of ET approaching with his weapon drawn.
“Drop it,” Gleeson growled. He held a knife in his left hand, the tip resting against Bomber’s cheek, just below her left eye. His right arm held her throat, and Spider could see her gasping for breath, her hands automatically scratching at the muscled forearm. For an instant, her fingers touched the bloody hole in his wrist, but instead of loosening, his grip tightened as he snarled in pain.
“Let her go,” ET ordered. Spider could see him looking for a shot, but Gleeson was holding Bomber too close to his body. They might be able to wing him in the arm or leg, but he’d almost certainly kill her.
“I’ll make this real simple, kids,” Gleeson said. The knife moved so that the tip was resting above Bomber’s left breast, pointing directly at her heart. “Drop your guns. Get on your knees. Or I kill this bitch in front of you.”
To illustrate the point, he jabbed downwards, the tip of the blade slicing through Bomber’s overalls. Blood welled up, and Spider heard her whimper in pain. Her face was turning red as she struggled against the arm crushing her windpipe. “No,” he whispered. “Stop, stop!” And he lowered his gun.
Gleeson stared at ET. “And you.”
ET’s lip curled. “Kill her, I shoot you,” he said.
Gleeson’s eyes flickered for a moment, as he glanced behind him, and took a step backwards, dragging Bomber with him towards the back of the boat. “Try it, then,” he said scornfully. He was now standing at the top of the rear steps, and Spider knew firsthand how precarious that position was. “Shoot me now and the sharks get her.”
“ET…” he began.
“We do as he says, we’re all dead anyway,” ET said harshly. Spider watched as Bomber’s arms dropped to her sides; she seemed to slump, and he realised she was losing consciousness.
“Last chance,” Gleeson said, the knife sliding deeper into Bomber’s chest.
“No!” Spider yelled, half-stepping forward, with no clear plan in mind. From what they had been told about Gleeson, if he thought he was going to die he would surely try to take Bomber with him.
Then there was a blur of movement, as Bomber heaved against his grip, her right arm swinging backwards, and a roar of pain from Gleeson. She tugged herself free and Spider instantly aimed at the hijacker’s heart. He didn’t need to fire. Gleeson stumbled back, Bomber’s knife sticking out of his thigh, his arms windmilling for a few seconds as he tried to maintain his position on the back of the boat. For a moment, his furious eyes widened, and one arm reached out to Bomber - to beg for assistance or to pull her off as well, Spider couldn’t tell. For a moment, she simply stared at him, blood dripping down the left side of her overalls. Then she took a half step forward, lifted one boot, and kicked Gleeson in the stomach.
He fell backwards into the water with a heavy splash. As his head and arms broke the water, Spider gained a new appreciation for how quickly the ship was moving. It took only seconds for Gleeson to be out of reach of even the longest of their lifelines. In those seconds, however, Spider could clearly see blood staining the water.
Then he turned away, grabbing Bomber in a hug and holding her until his heartbeat began to slow.
Bridge, HMAS Hammersley
She had expected to be scared. This was her plan, and she expected it to work, but it was still risky. She probably should be scared. Instead, all she felt was an eerie calm as she opened the door to the bridge and walked up the stairs. She had her gun in the pocket of her overalls but kept her hands open and away from her body, to show that she wasn’t a threat.
Even when O’Donoghue turned to look at her, eyes wide with confused anger, she retained the sense of calm. Her bold entry had unnerved him, particularly as he was probably expecting Gleeson. He had been standing near the open port-side door, and after a few seconds began to walk slowly towards her. He drew his gun, but held it at his side, studying her through ice-blue eyes.
“Where’s Gleeson?” he finally asked.
The question elicited a cold smile. “Dead,” she replied.
As the starboard door swung open, he took his eyes off her, turning to stare as ET stepped in, gun raised. A sound from the other side of the bridge had him twisting back as Spider entered, similarly prepared. His expression twisted in rage as his eyes flickered back and forth between them. He could only look at one at a time, and he automatically took a step back, towards where Nav was tied.
Don’t look at her, Bomber told herself. Don’t feel. Don’t get distracted. The exact things she had told ET before coming in here.
“Drop your weapons and get on the ground,” she said aloud, anger giving strength to the command.
O’Donoghue froze, his expression slowly clearing. A polite smile crossed his face. “So,” he said pleasantly, as if discussing the weather. “I thought we might have missed one. Three, though... where were you all hiding?”
“We know every part of this ship better than you ever will,” ET said with a touch of contempt.
Before he could focus too long on ET, Spider spoke. “We’re not messing around. Last warning. Put the gun down.” His voice was filled with a fury Bomber had never heard before and never wanted to hear again.
O’Donoghue glanced at Spider, then turned his attention back to Bomber. He looked her up and down, and whatever he saw left a confident smirk on his face. He scoffed. “Not a bar among you. Couple of junior sailors out of their depth.” He looked back at Spider. “Think it through, boys, you’re outnumbered and outgunned. My people are all over this ship.”
Bomber’s lips quirked in what might have been a smirk if her eyes hadn’t been blazing. “Not anymore.”
“I saw you come aboard,” ET spoke up, drawing the hijacker’s attention back to him. Though his voice was as soft as velvet, the look in his eyes was murderous. “Eleven of you, isn’t it?” If Bomber hadn’t been studying O’Donoghue so closely, she wouldn’t have seen the split second of tightness in his jaw. “Let’s count. There’s three of your guys in the engine room. You up here. That makes four. We just knocked two of your friends overboard. That’s six.” With each count, O’Donoghue’s face turned whiter and the fury in his eyes deepened. “Two unconscious in the laundry room, one in a cabin. Nine. There’s the dead merc in the office… am I forgetting someone?”
Spider nodded once. “The one in the garbage room.”
“Of course.” ET smiled dangerously. “Eleven. So, the only one outnumbered here is you.”
Bomber reached into her pocket and drew her own gun, aiming it at O’Donoghue’s chest. “I’m going to tell you once more. This is our ship. Drop your weapons and get on your knees, or we’ll shoot.” She watched for a movement, anything that would give them an excuse. But he was stock still. Her eyes slid to ET’s, saw the barely controlled fury, then she allowed herself to look down at Nav. Only one eye was fully open, due to her swollen cheek, but there was no mistaking the agony in them. Bomber felt a wave of rage flow over her, and her finger tightened on the trigger instinctively. Then she forced herself to relax. “He’s yours, ET.”
ET barely heard her, and wasn’t even aware of making the decision, but he suddenly had permission to do what he’d wanted to do since stepping onto the bridge. His fingers tightened on the trigger, never questioning his aim. He heard the gunshot, saw a spurt of blood from the hijacker's neck, then the black clad figure began to fall towards him. ET felt a moment of confusion, until he saw the hole in the back of O’Donoghue’s head. He and Spider moved forward together. The man was clearly dead, but Spider still went to work stripping him of his weapons, double checking that the grenades were still secure.
It was only when he was sure that the job was done that ET allowed himself to look at Nav, lowering his gun and stepping towards her. Guilt and grief and unspeakable fury surged through him at the sight of her bruised and bloodied face, and he couldn’t meet her eyes. His body seemed to be working without his brain; he was turning away from her, his eyes falling on the nearby corpse, his arm lifting until the gun was aimed at its chest. He fired, again and again, until the explosive gunshots drowned out the roaring in his ears.
When his gun clicked empty he dropped it and turned back toward Nav. Without further thought, he dropped to his knees beside her, took her bruised face in his palms and kissed her. He tasted blood and felt a cut on her lip, and suddenly realised that this had to be hurting her, so pulled away.
Her eyes were swimming with tears when they met his. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, voice hoarse. At first he wasn’t sure why she was apologising. Then the memory of their argument returned, the last thing she had said to him, and he had never been less gratified to hear the word ‘sorry’ in his life. “I’m sorry,” she repeated, then, in a single breath, “I’m sorry so sorry sorry I’m sorry I’m -”
“I love you,” he said simply. He didn’t need any apology. For a moment, she stared at him, and anxiety twisted in his gut; was it still too soon? He couldn't have stopped himself from telling her, but if she wasn’t yet ready…
“I love you, too,” she said, smiling through the tears. Then her eyes flickered with pain, and the smile dropped. His fists clenched, and he had to force himself to relax before placing a gentle palm on her shoulder, knowing she needed the contact.
Bomber cleared her throat, and he suddenly remembered there were other people on the bridge. He looked up to see her frowning at the body. “That was unnecessary.”
He looked back at Nav’s bruised face, then responded calmly, “It was necessary. How about you give Commander Marshall the good news before he sinks us?”
“This isn’t over yet,” Bomber countered. “There are still three of them in the engine room, remember. We need to get Charge and the others out of there.” She glanced at Spider, who was still holding his gun ready. “Cover the doors,” she told him.
“Yes, Bomb,” he replied, moving towards the EOD. From there he could see all three entrances simply by turning his head.
ET’s attention was drawn back to Nav, who was murmuring under her breath. “Get them off, get them off,” she whispered, sudden movement bringing his eyes to her wrists. He sucked in a breath when he saw the raw, broken skin.
“Oh, Nikki,” he breathed, his chest aching.
“Get them off,” she said again, tugging harder. “Please.”
“Okay, okay,” he said, concerned by the wild fear in her eyes. When he reached forward to touch her wrists, she yanked at them again, and again, each movement more frantic.
“Get it off!” she shouted.
“Let me see,” he said, trying to calm her with his voice, without success.
Her eyes were wide, her entire upper body twisting as she fought the ties. “Get it, get it off, let me go, please, Josh…”
“I am,” he reassured her. “I am, but Nikki, you have to hold still.” One hand reached up to cup her uninjured cheek, the other pulling the knife from his belt. “Look, I’m doing it. But hold still, I don’t want to cut you.”
Her desperate movements stopped as she seemed to regain some semblance of control, but she was still trembling. Tears slid down her cheeks as he looked for the safest way to free her. The zip ties were so tight, and her wrists so damaged, that he couldn’t see a way of cutting her loose without also cutting her skin. At the join would be best, he decided, but he couldn’t fit the heavy blade underneath - he would have to cut down.
“Hold still,” he repeated. “This might hurt, but it’s the only way.”
“Just get it off,” she pleaded.
He nodded, and began to saw at the plastic. It was easier than he expected. With two quick movements, the serrated knife severed the first tie, and her left hand was free. Maybe she moved as he started the second, or he guessed the force wrong - she gave a soft whimper of pain as he made the cut, and his mouth twisted as fresh blood welled up. Then the tie snapped and her arms were free, and he had to drop the knife in a hurry as she flung them around his neck.
He wrapped his arms around her and returned her embrace, careful not to hold too tight. For a few moments, he closed his eyes and let himself just enjoy the feel of her in his arms once more. She was alive and he was with her. That was all that mattered right now.
Naval Command, Cairns
Steve Marshall swallowed the painkiller with a sip of water, one hand moving to rub his temple. There was a crisis to deal with and he didn’t have time to nurse a headache. Perhaps, if there wasn’t a crisis, he wouldn’t have a headache; but it was academic.
“Sir?” The voice pulled him out of his thoughts. “Hammersley on the phone.”
He picked up his receiver immediately, and gestured for the call to be patched through to his office phone. “Go ahead, Hammersley,” he said.
“This is Bomber Brown, sir,” replied a young, female voice, and he swallowed a sudden shiver of dread. Had something happened to Holiday? “We have the bridge, sir.”
His eyes slipped closed and he felt relief surge through him. “Confirm, Bomber, you have the bridge?”
“Yes, sir. We have control of the ship. Currently maintaining previous course. There are still three hostiles on board, and cameras show them in the engine room. They have three hostages.”
He pressed a hand against his forehead. Situation wasn’t exactly resolved, then, but this was about the best news he could have hoped for. “Any injuries among your team?” he asked.
There was an ominous pause before she answered. “Minor on our side, sir. But Lieutenant Caetano wasn’t as lucky. They roughed her up pretty badly.”
Marshall’s face twisted in sympathy. He didn’t know the lieutenant well on a personal level, but Mike was always singing her praises. Though, as much as he hated to hear that any of his people had been injured, he did believe she was lucky to be alive. He checked the monitor in front of him.
“Alright, Bomber. I understand that you want to relieve the engine room, but I’m guessing they don’t realise you’ve taken the bridge?” He waited for her quick agreement, before continuing. “Your priority now is to hold the bridge. We cannot risk them regaining control of the ship. Maintain your current course and Maroubra will be able to come alongside in about thirty minutes. Commander Johnson will send over a tactical team to retake your engine room, as well as medics for your injured. What’s the status of the other hostiles?”
“O’Donoghue is dead,” she reported, and Marshall felt a moment of grim satisfaction. His superiors had been ready to sink one of their own patrol boats. He wouldn’t lose a moment’s sleep to know that the leader of the terrorists was dead. “As is one of the mercenaries. Gleeson and one other went overboard.”
“I’ll get Pirie to do a search for them,” he said. He didn’t really care about preserving their lives, but he would prefer to have them in custody - dead or alive - rather than missing and presumed dead. “She’s following your course at the moment, about an hour behind. And the other -” He did a quick mental count. “Four?”
“Unconscious, bound, and gagged. Stuffed in various places around the ship.” He could hear her thinking to herself as she added, “Well, they were unconscious, we probably should make sure of that.”
“No,” he countered. “Stay in the bridge. You’ve done an outstanding job, Bomber, and pass that on to your companions. But stay in the bridge, wait for Maroubra to assist.”
“Yes, sir,” she said promptly.
“Contact me immediately if anything changes,” he told her, before the call ended.
He took a deep breath, rubbing at his face. Now that the immediate crisis had passed, he was already thinking about the weeks of cleanup that would be required. Not to mention the paperwork. They would all be filling in incident reports for a month.
And his head still ached.
Bridge, HMAS Hammersley
When Bomber returned to the bridge, medical kit in hand, Nav lifted her head from ET’s chest. She sighed, knowing it was time to find out just how much damage had been inflicted. Though it was the last thing she wanted to do, she slowly began to push ET’s arms away.
“Nikki?” he asked, brow furrowed.
She pointed her chin at Bomber and reluctantly extracted herself from his embrace. Being in his arms had provided more comfort than knowing that they had the bridge, that the situation was on its way to being resolved, even more than seeing Don die. Desperately, she wished ET wouldn’t find out how injured she was; he had been so irate when he saw her face and she knew it would only get worse. But there was no way he would leave, even if she could bring herself to ask, and neither did she want him to. Their relationship may have only been in its infancy, but she didn’t want to lie to him, especially not about something as important as her health. Not to mention, his presence was the only thing keeping her calm at the moment.
At Bomber’s instruction, ET helped her up onto the chart table to be examined, then he climbed up behind her. Without being told, he knew exactly what she needed right now. He was a warm, reassuring presence at her back as she turned her attention to Bomber.
The medic peered at her damaged wrists with concern. “How long were you bound to do this much damage?”
Nav just shook her head, unable to express the rabid fear that had consumed her when she was tied up. Her brothers had taught her to escape most bindings, and when they had practised at ADFA her fellow trainees had always underestimated her strength, making it fairly easy for her to escape. Don had not. At the time, she hadn’t realised how hard she had been pulling; the pain was so all-consuming she couldn’t have separated out each of the hurts. It wasn’t until she heard Spider shout ET’s name, when she realised he was alive and fighting back, that she really tried to escape.
Bomber pressed a gauze pad over the fresh cut on her wrist and Nav felt ET tense behind her. She knew he hated that he had caused that injury, though it was her own fault for moving while he was cutting her free. Besides, a little cut was the least of her problems.
When her wrists were appropriately wrapped, ET slid a hand into hers, leaning his chin on her shoulder. Though it hurt to move her face, she couldn’t help but smile at how well he knew her. He had learned about her love of touch well before they gave into their feelings, and always had time for a gentle squeeze of her hand.
As expected, Bomber quickly diagnosed a broken cheekbone and gave her an icepack to hold against the swelling. She checked Nav’s eyes with a flashlight and probed her aching skull, deciding the concussion was minor. Then it was time to remove her overalls. Too late, she realised it would have been easier to get undressed before she’d sat on the table. She gritted her teeth against the fresh ache as she twisted her abdomen; despite the help of both Bomber and ET, the overalls were not easily removed.
Bomber held up a pair of scissors with a questioning look, and Nav nodded. It was the easiest way to remove her t-shirt, and she knew Bomber wouldn’t be able to examine her properly until it was off. Despite the situation, she quirked a half-smile when Spider averted his eyes as Bomber cut up the centre of the white fabric. Her bra covered more than her bikini did, and he’d never had a problem looking at her in swimmers.
ET growled and Bomber grimaced when they saw her bare stomach. Curious, she looked down and saw that her skin was an angry red, some parts already darkening to maroon. She resisted the urge to poke it, knowing it would only hurt. Bomber did not.
Though the gloved hands were gentle, Nav still hissed in pain when Bomber touched her sore ribs. “Most likely fractured,” she said, counting upward until Nav relaxed. “Two, I think, possibly three. You’re not moving around, so I won’t strap them yet.” Then her touch moved downward, over the mottled red of Nav’s stomach, and Nav couldn’t stop the pained moan from escaping her lips. Bomber inhaled shakily, and whispered, “How many times did he hit you?”
Nav shrugged. It wasn’t a lie; she really had no clue how many times Gleeson had pummelled her.
“Can you lay back, so I can get a better look?” Bomber asked.
ET shuffled backward so Nav could lay down with her head in his lap. He threaded his fingers through her hair, massaging her scalp gently. She closed her eyes and let it distract her from the pain as Bomber probed her abdomen. For a minute there was a calm silence, until Bomber’s finger touched a particularly sensitive spot and Nav gasped, eyes flying open. Bomber’s eyes widened in alarm, then met Nav’s; they both knew what it meant.
“Abdomen is rigid,” Bomber began tentatively.
“What does that mean?” ET spoke up, concern evident in his voice.
“There are a few possibilities. She’ll need scans, some more tests, before we know anything for sure.”
“But what are the possibilities?” ET was getting frustrated with Bomber’s obfuscation, he had obviously seen the dismay in her eyes earlier. Nav knew he deserved to know, even if they weren’t certain, but she was worried about how he would react; the events of the morning had left him more emotional and less rational than she had ever seen him.
Bomber hesitated, exchanged another look with Nav. “I’m not a doctor, I d-”
“Just tell him,” Nav said dully, and felt ET’s fingers tighten in her hair. She twisted her head slightly, trying to extract herself before Bomber could give him the news.
Bomber sighed, and looked up at ET’s face. “Most likely it means she’s bleeding internally. She’ll need surgery.”
“That… doesn’t sound so bad? If surgery will repair it, she’ll be fine.” He was still confused by their grave faces, and Nav felt a fond pang at his naivety.
Bomber shook her head. “She needs to be in a hospital. Now.”
For a second he froze, then his whole face crumpled. “ What? ” He slid off the chart table and stormed over to Bomber. “So what are you waiting for, get on the radio and get a medivac chopper here, now!”
She glared back unflinchingly. “I haven’t finished my examination. She is my patient.”
“And she’s my girlfriend! Whose life is in danger while you follow protocol. Can’t you make the call and finish the exam while they’re on the way?” He finished with a pleading look at Bomber, and Nav could see the fear in his eyes. She knew he had spent hours afraid for her life... now he was still scared she was going to die even after he’d rescued her.
Struggling to sit up, she reached out a hand to him. “Josh.” His head instantly snapped back to her, and he was by her side in an instant, his hand sliding into her proffered one. “She needs to finish.”
“There’s more ?” he asked incredulously. “What the hell did these guys do to you?” He grasped her hand and moved to the side, allowing Bomber to move closer.
Bomber grasped the material of Nav’s overalls then looked back at ET with a smirk. “Sure you don’t want to do this part?” They all recognised the comment for what it was, an attempt to lighten the mood.
Though his lips quirked in a smile, he shook his head soberly. “I’m good right here.” Nav turned her head to brush her lips over their joined hands, then squeezed his fingers.
After tugging the material down over Nav’s hips, Bomber paused. “You’ll need to lift up so I can get these off.”
“Just cut them off,” Nav answered, knowing they wouldn’t get past her swollen knee intact anyway.
Bomber went to work with the scissors and had the overalls off in a matter of minutes. For a moment, Nav stared at her bare legs, bemused by the concept of being half naked on the bridge with ET by her side; it was everything she had been studiously trying to avoid even thinking about for months. Then Bomber poked at the bruise on her thigh and she grimaced.
“It’s already knotting. This happened early on, didn’t it? Probably just a cork.”
Nav was grateful Bomber wasn’t waiting for her to answer the questions. Quite aside from the fact it hurt her ribs to draw in enough air for speech, she didn’t feel like talking. There would be plenty of time for that later, when they would all be forced to debrief. Now, she just wanted to relish the time she could spent with ET, knowing it would come to an end as soon as reinforcements arrived.
Bomber bent Nav’s left knee slowly, causing her to wince. Something crunched as the joint moved. “Stop, stop!” she gasped.
“Something’s broken,” Bomber diagnosed. “Did they kick you, or did you fall on it?”
“Fell, my whole weight on the knee,” Nav replied, groaning as Bomber straightened her leg once more. Once it was fully straight, the pain lessened.
“Then it’s probably the knee cap, rather than the long bones.” Bomber’s mouth twisted in an attempt at a smile. “Guess that’s one piece of good news. Any other injuries I need to check?” Even as she said the words, she continued moving her hands down Nav’s legs, searching for any other signs of damage.
Nav began to shake her head, then stopped as the motion caused her headache to spike. “No,” she said instead, putting a hand to her forehead.
“Can we give at least her something for the pain?” ET asked, worried eyes raking her face.
Bomber nodded as she moved to the communications console. “There’s paracetamol in the kit. She shouldn’t have anything stronger until the doctors have seen her.”
“Water,” Nav whispered, realising how thirsty she was.
ET took a step toward the medical kit on the floor, then stopped and looked at their joined hands. With a squeeze, she pulled her fingers free and motioned for him to keep moving. As quickly as he could, he collected the tablets from the kit, then filled a bottle with water from the fountain and moved back to her side. An arm went around her back to support her as she grasped the bottle in both hands and drank greedily.
Not too much , she had to remind herself, forcing her hands down. She was probably dehydrated; she had barely drunk anything in five hours. Taking a few deep breaths, she stared at the bottle in her hands and leaned sideways into ET’s chest. His arm tightened around her back and his other hand came up to bring a plastic packet into view. She held out a hand and he pressed two pills out to land in her palm. This time, she only allowed herself one big swallow, just enough water to wash down the pills, before lowering the bottle again.
Turning her head, she used her free hand to pull ET’s lips down to hers for a soft kiss. When she tilted her head to deepen the kiss, his nose touched her swollen cheek, and she had to pull away to grimace. His mouth twisted at the sight of her pain, but before he could say anything, she brushed her nose along the curve of his jaw and whispered in his ear, “Thank you.”
He looked at her questioningly, and she tried to show with her eyes what she meant. She didn’t want to even try putting into words how thankful she was that he was here, that he had rescued her and freed her and held her and just loved her. Whether he understood, she wasn’t sure, but he didn’t press her for an answer, just cupped her uninjured cheek and returned her loving gaze.
She shivered slightly, suddenly cold. “Hold me?”
“Anytime.” He grinned, releasing her to climb back up onto the table behind her. A leg settled either side of her hips and his arms came around her, pulling her back against his chest. His warmth quickly spread through her, making her feel completely safe, despite everything that had happened that morning.
Her eyelids dropped of their own accord and she realised how exhausted she was. All the adrenaline that had flooded her body during the hostage situation had now drained away. Not to mention, she hadn’t had any caffeine in over five hours.
A hard shake caused her to open her eyes, to see Bomber standing in front of her. “You have to stay awake, Nav.”
She murmured an assent, and rubbed at her good eye, then took another drink of water. But her eyes closed again, and this time ET was the one to shake her awake.
Time passed, and each time she felt herself drifting off, either ET or Bomber would force her back to wakefulness. She didn’t understand why they wouldn’t let her sleep... just for a few minutes before the Maroubra arrived. Her eyes closed again. Despite the hand that rattled her shoulder, she couldn’t resist the inviting lure of pain-free darkness.
Bridge, HMAS Hammersley
When the commander of HMAS Maroubra rang to announce their arrival, ET gestured for Bomber to answer the phone. Nav was in his arms once again, and he wasn’t going to let her go. She seemed to be drifting in and out of consciousness, no longer reacting when they tried to wake her, and he couldn’t help but repeat Bomber’s words in his mind.
Internal bleeding… need surgery… needs to be in a hospital…
The Maroubra had a helicopter, but it would still be an hour or more before Nav could receive proper treatment. Bomber had been unable to give him a reasonable answer about how long Nav could last without surgery. As soon as possible , she had told him, and refused to say anything more specific. He sighed to himself. He knew he owed most of the success of this rescue to Bomber and, like Swain, she wasn’t a doctor. There was only so much she could do.
“No, sir, no better. She needs treatment as soon as possible, sir,” Bomber was saying, and he glanced up. She met his gaze, pointed at the phone and then at Nav. “That would be Leading Seaman Holiday.” ET glared, guessing that Maroubra’s captain wanted to speak to whoever was in charge. “No, sir, he’s unavailable. He is… tending the Nav’s wounds.” He gave Bomber a grateful smile. “Last we checked, sir, they were all still unconscious.”
He let his mind disengage from the conversation at that point. Bomber was handling it, just as effectively as she’d handled every other part of this day. Could he have done this without her, or Spider? He doubted it. Without her, the terrorists would at this moment be celebrating their victory and killing the hostages. A shiver ran through his body, and he felt Nav stir in his arms.
Without thinking, he pressed his lips against her hair, trying to impart as much comfort with his touch as he could without adding any pressure to her injuries. He didn’t look up again until he heard Bomber return the phone to its cradle and felt her eyes on him. Her gaze was tender as she watched them and he realised he had never questioned for a moment that she knew how deep his feelings for Nav went. Of course the whole crew knew there was something going on; the fact that his latest performance review had the X’s signature rather than Nav’s meant that even the bosses knew and - well, if not approved, weren’t trying to throw them off the boat. However, he had always thought they had done a decent job of hiding exactly how much they felt for one another. Until today, he had thought only Swain knew just how much he loved her.
“Bomber,” he started, without even knowing what he wanted to say. She gave him a tired smile. “Thank you. I never could have done this without you.”
“You are aware I didn’t save the ship just for you?” she asked testily, though her soft expression belied her tone.
He looked behind him. “You too, Spide. You were amazing.”
“Thanks, ET,” the young seaman replied, torn between a proud grin and the need to watch the doors. There was a new maturity to him, and ET found himself impressed.
“Take a break, Spi,” Bomber said suddenly. She pulled a gun from her pocket and shooed him away from his vantage point. “I’ll take a shift. Reinforcements should be here in a few minutes.”
This time, ET didn’t miss the way Spider’s eyes lingered on Bomber as he nodded and stepped away. As if in a dream, he suddenly remembered the way she had kissed him in the ship’s office to shut him up, the way he had held her after she had freed herself from Gleeson. Was that new? Or had he just been too caught up in his feelings for Nav to have noticed?
Spider came and stood beside them, the smile fading from his eyes as he looked at Nav. “How is she?” he asked quietly.
ET brushed her uninjured cheek with a fingertip. She didn’t stir. “In and out,” he said, his chest tightening with fear. It wasn’t possible, surely, that they could have made it this far, reclaimed their ship, only for her to die waiting for medical treatment? His left arm shifted on her chest, so that his hand rested above her heart, and he let the steady beat soothe him. “She’ll be okay,” he said, as if he could make it so.
“I’m glad he’s dead,” Spider said, his voice harsher than ET had ever heard it. He followed Spider’s gaze, to the corner of the bridge where he had dragged O’Donoghue’s body.
“So am I,” ET said. Then he noticed the tortured look on Spider’s face, and added, “I mean it, Spider. You did great today. I’m glad you had my back.”
The crease between Spider’s brows cleared, and he pointed his chin towards Bomber. “But we’d both have been screwed without her, right?”
“Without a doubt,” ET said, chuckling. Then he noticed Spider’s gaze hadn’t left Bomber’s face, and he leaned forward to whisper, “You know what? I think she’d say yes if you asked her out.”
“Are you kidding?” Spider said, giving ET a shocked look. “She’d rip my nuts off.” Yet there was a thoughtfulness to his expression as he considered the idea.
ET thought about it for a moment. “Maybe ask her from the other side of the room. When she’s not holding anything. Better yet, on the phone.” At that, Spider grinned.
“What are you two whispering about?” Bomber asked suddenly, glancing over at them. They both froze, but she wasn’t waiting for an answer. “Maroubra is coming up alongside.”
Spider instantly jumped to his feet and went to peer out as the Anzac-class frigate approached. ET looked back down at Nav. He didn’t want to let her go, but he knew she needed medical attention, and nothing he said or did would convince the Maroubra’s captain to let him go with her.
He felt the boat slow and looked up to see Spider at the helm. “They want to board us underway,” Bomber told him. “But not at full speed.”
Everything seemed to be happening very quickly. Some part of him had been planning on stepping away from Nav before the medical crews arrived, knowing how little she would like their relationship to be broadcast, but he couldn’t bring himself to let her go. It also occurred to him that she was also significantly underdressed; her shirt was cut up the middle and she only wore underwear beneath it. He knew they had only minutes before company arrived, so he shifted his head around to place a kiss on her good cheek. To his relief, her eyelids flickered and opened, her eyes filled with love as much as pain.
“They here?” she asked.
He took his chance to press his lips against hers, trying to impart all the reassurance he couldn’t find the words to say. “Almost,” he replied. “You’ll be fine. When you wake up, I’ll be right there.”
Then ET heard the bridge door open and, despite himself, tensed. Nearby, Bomber and Spider both readied their weapons, though kept them politely lowered. Even the sight of grey overalls wasn’t an immediate relief. The man ascending the stairs wore full tactical kit, though the visor on his helmet was raised, and he looked between the two young sailors calmly. His weapon was holstered and he held his hands to his sides, obviously prepared for a less than hospitable welcome.
“At ease,” he said. “I’m Lieutenant Commander Stark, Executive Officer of the HMAS Maroubra.”
That seemed to be the magic word; Bomber and Spider both lowered their guns, expressions of relief on their faces. ET released a breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding. Then Stark entered the room, allowing his companions to enter the bridge.
“We have a tactical team ready to retake your engine room,” he announced. He seemed a little unsure about who he should be addressing, and ET didn’t blame him. Their only officer was half naked and lying in his arms. He outranked the other two, and he wondered if he should say something.
“And medical?” Bomber asked, saving him yet again.
“Coming over as we speak,” Stark replied. “We have a chopper ready to go and doctors ready to do a full evaluation of your crewmates.”
ET felt Nav stir slightly in his arms, and watched Stark’s gaze move to her. He started to bristle, then caught the expression of anger and sympathy on the officer’s face and realised Stark was more concerned about her injuries than her state of undress.
“She was in too much pain lying down,” he said when Stark’s eyes moved to him, as if that explained everything. To his relief, his statement was met with no visible reaction. Whatever Stark thought of the situation, he was keeping it to himself.
“Are you three injured at all?” he asked.
“Minor wounds,” ET said, trying not to think about the blood covering his left thigh. “Though Spider was knocked down by a flashbang.”
Stark looked at the young seaman. “Any residual dizziness, headache, hearing or vision loss?”
Spider shook his head. “No, sir. I’m fine.”
Stark studied him for a moment, and apparently liked what he saw. “Then, Seaman, would you be willing to accompany us to the engine room? It’s been years since I was on a patrol boat.”
“Yes, sir,” Spider replied, a strange light coming into his eyes.
If Nav had already been taken away, ET would have volunteered as well, despite the pain in his thigh. He couldn’t cut short these last few minutes together, though, not even for the chance at taking down a few more hijackers.
He had even less time than anticipated before three sailors carrying medical kits entered the bridge. In the lead was an officer with the name Flint on her uniform, and a red stripe through the gold bars on her shoulder indicating her medical expertise. Following were two medics, a woman named Gonzales and a man named Parker. Their eyes moved quickly to where he sat on the charting table, Nav in his arms, unconscious in her underwear.
“I’m Lieutenant Flint,” the doctor told him. If she thought anything of the situation, she was too professional to comment, though Parker raise an eyebrow. “Hop down and I’ll have a look at her.” Without a word, ET slowly extracted himself, lying Nav down on the table. Though she didn’t regain consciousness, she groaned in pain at the movement. Flint’s eyes wrinkled in sympathy. “Are you the ship’s medical officer?”
ET only shook his head, glancing across at Bomber. “I’m second medic,” she filled in. “The first medic is... sleeping.”
Flint nodded. “I’ve got a team sweeping the cabins as we speak. We’ll transfer you all over to Maroubra for full checks.”
Immediately, he stiffened, and saw Bomber react the same. “All of us?” he asked.
Flint had moved around him to examine Nav, Parker at her side. Gonzales was opening her kit and moving towards Bomber. “That’s right,” Flint said, slightly distracted.
Bomber met his gaze, her eyes narrowed, and shook her head. “All due respect, ma’am,” ET started. “But no.”
Surprised, she looked away from Nav. “I don’t understand.”
He hoped Bomber would once again take the reins, but she was glaring at Gonzales as if daring the medic to touch her, and he knew he had to explain this one as best he could. “Ma’am, we… we just took our ship back. We can’t leave her.”
It came out even more weakly than he intended but, rather than ridicule, Flint was gazing at him with sympathetic understanding. “I see. You are both injured, I heard?”
“Barely,” ET said.
To his surprise, Bomber turned her sour expression on him. “You got shot,” she pointed out.
“You got stabbed,” he reminded her.
“Scratched,” she corrected, one hand dabbing unconsciously at her chest.
“Grazed,” he countered.
“Alright,” Flint said, bemused by the argument. “We’ll examine you here. If I say you go to Maroubra for further treatment, you go. Otherwise, take it up with Lieutenant Commander Stark.”
ET nodded. “Yes, ma’am.” That was about as good as he could expect to get. Bomber submitted to the examination with a scowl, taking off her overalls and shirt to expose the bleeding cut on her chest. The knife had penetrated several centimetres into her left breast, stopping just short of her ribs, Gonzales reported. He tried not to smirk as she was also instructed to take her bra off, thinking how much Spider would have regretted going to the engine room if he had known this was coming. Something must have shown on his face, for she glowered at him.
“Get your pants off,” she growled, the top of her breasts exposed as the medic started to stitch the cut. She sat there with an aloof dignity, and he looked down at his injured thigh in resignation. Rather than wait to be told again, he stripped off his overalls, staring at the spots of blood on them. He couldn’t even tell whose was whose.
There was a gasp from his left, and he looked over at Nav, ready to glare at the doctor; but her eyes were open and she was gazing at him in anguish. “Josh,” she whispered. He looked down at his leg and frowned. He was sure it had been only a graze, but it had done a good job at coating his entire thigh in blood. Ignoring the medics, he moved to her head, his fingers stroking her hair.
“I’m fine,” he said reassuringly.
“Lieutenant, look this way, please,” said Flint, turning Nav’s head and shining a torch into her eyes. Though she squinted at the sudden light, she obeyed, and ET backed off, slightly embarrassed.
“Alright, Holiday, let’s see it,” said Gonzales, gesturing for him to sit in a nearby chair. He did, averting his eyes as she probed at his leg, trying to distinguish the injury from the dried blood.
“I think it’s just a graze,” he reiterated, though more doubtfully. Strange. The wound had barely hurt at the time.
Gonzales poked him sharply and he bit back a yelp. Of course now it would start hurting. “It is,” she agreed. “By definition. It’s taken a good chunk of your leg out, though. Bleeding has stopped, so I’ll just wrap it. You’ll need to get it treated properly back at base.” He was surprised that she, or Flint, couldn’t treat it here - then caught her smile, and realised that they would need to transfer him back to Maroubra for that.
“Thanks,” he said meaningfully. He watched as she efficiently placed a gauze pad over the wound, then wrapped a bandage tightly around his thigh. The movements of her hands kept his gaze from straying back to the cluster of people surrounding Nav, though he couldn’t help but hear the sound of the stretcher being moved to her side, nor the soft instructions of Flint.
When she moaned, however, he couldn’t stop himself reacting, head snapping up and hand brushing away the fingers of Gonzales. They were transferring Nav to the stretcher, which meant she was close to leaving the ship and getting the help she so desperately needed. For a few moments, he was able to control his emotions, breathing deeply and reminding himself that he needed to remain professional if they were going to let him stay to see the ship home.
Then she reached out a hand, said his name, and it all went out the window. The pain in his thigh was nothing compared to that in her eyes, but it lessened as soon as he grasped her hand. “You promised...” she murmured, lacing her fingers through his.
He didn’t have to ask for clarification, knowing exactly what she was referring to. “You’re going to be okay,” he told her, trying to inject as much confidence into his voice as possible. His other hand moved to stroke her hair, and her eyes flickered shut with a smile.
Then he was brusquely pushed away, as the two medics lifted the stretcher. As they carefully carried it down the stairs, Flint met his gaze. “We’ll take very good care of her,” she said reassuringly. “I’ll tell Stark you’re fit to remain on board. As soon as he’s finished downstairs, that is.”
Engine room, HMAS Hammersley
To Spider’s intense disappointment, he was pushed to the back of the group once they reached the door to the engine room. He understood why. He had already been through a lot that morning, including being mildly blown up, and he wasn’t wearing the same protective gear as Maroubra’s tactical team. At least he was there, where the action was, ready to help his trapped crewmates. Once they had regained the bridge and liberated Nav, his thoughts had been with Charge, Boomer and Dan. He had checked the CCTV a few times to confirm that they were still alive, sitting with their hands tied since finishing their repairs to the port engine.
There were six sailors in the group with Spider; another four were waiting above the hatch to austere, preparing to enter through the other door. They had been in position here for several minutes, but so far nothing was happening. The XO named Stark was a tall, thin man whose stern confidence reassured Spider immensely. He couldn’t help but reflect that this takedown was going to be dangerous, particularly for the hostages. To make matters worse, they couldn’t just open the door and start shooting the hijackers; they had to offer them the chance to surrender.
A few hours ago, Spider wouldn’t have frowned at that. Today, he had personally killed a man for the first time in his life - and he had done it with a frypan . He hadn’t meant to do it, hadn’t ever seriously thought a kitchen utensil could kill a man with a single hit. Even worse, ET had seemed more concerned about mopping up the blood and hiding the body than the fact that a man was dead, a man who only seconds before had been talking to them. That he was a bad guy didn’t really enter the equation. If not for Spider, he would still be alive.
That was why, when Gleeson had leapt down from the bridge, Spider had aimed to disable, not kill. He had assumed that a wrist shot would cause the hijacker to drop his weapon and surrender. He had been wrong, and that mistake had almost led to Bomber’s death. Would it have been wrong to shoot Gleeson in the head straight away, without so much as a warning? Yes, but it would have been much worse if his own friend and crewmate had paid the price for his nobility. Afterwards, in the bridge, they had given O’Donoghue several warnings. Spider hadn’t waited to see whether ET’s shot was good - he had followed it with his own, unwilling to take the risk that O’Donoghue would get up and hurt anyone else. The sight of Nav’s bruised and bloody face had horrified him even more than Lee’s sudden death at his hands.
He saw Stark nod to another of the Maroubra’s crew, and took a deep breath. Offering them a chance to surrender was the right thing to do. He just hoped it didn’t lead to the death of any of his friends.
Stark’s second reached down and unlatched the door to the engine room, peering down cautiously before turning and descending the stairs. The corridor was empty, and the team was waved down. Spider brought up the rear, unable to help remembering the last time he had come through this part of the ship carrying a gun. Nav had been a hostage then, too, he remembered; but these guys had hurt her more more in five hours than Zahn had in an entire day.
The man ahead of him stopped suddenly, and Spider came to an abrupt halt, telling himself to concentrate. It was Stark who called out, his voice cold and clear. “This is the Australian Navy! O’Donoghue and Gleeson are dead. We have you surrounded. Put your weapons down!”
From the direction of austere, Spider could hear another voice shouting similar words, and he could only imagine the panic among the hijackers. Their plan had failed. Their bosses were dead. The only question was whether they would come quietly, or take out their rage on the hostages.
Then, before Stark could order an advance, there was the sound of gunshots; three of them, almost simultaneous, and the tactical team charged forwards, weapons raised. Spider could feel a now-familiar sense of rage and futility pulsing in his head. What was the point? Why hadn’t they just given up? What did they get from snatching the lives of three more innocents?
What they found in the engine room surprised him. There were three dead bodies, but the hostages remained in place, exclaiming in relief as their hands were freed and they were led out of the engine room. Spider stood, staring at the dead hijackers, carefully standing away from the spreading pools of blood. Though he was relieved that it wasn’t his friends that were dead, he still didn’t understand.
“I thought that might happen,” Stark grunted, seeing his expression. “They risked a lot coming on this venture. They didn’t want to deal with the consequences.”
Spider could only nod. “Is it over now?” he asked.
“We’ll do a thorough search of the ship, in case any of them are in hiding. But yes, I think it’s over. A good result.”
Spider nodded in agreement, and then wondered at himself. Six hours ago, he could never have looked at three dead men and thought it was good. Six hours ago, he hadn’t been a killer. It had been a long morning.
Medical office, HMAS Maroubra
He woke slowly. Something was wrong. He was lying down, but this wasn’t his rack, and it wasn’t his cabin. He could feel a distant motion, so he was on a ship - but it was wrong. This wasn’t his ship. He tried opening his eyes, but they were heavy and the brief flickers of vision were blurry. There was a distinctive smell of artificial cleanliness, the sort he knew from hospitals. Had he been injured? A knock on the head that had wiped out his memory of the accident?
“Mike, can you hear me?” Something yanked up his eyelid and flashed a light in his eye, and he groaned. “He’s coming around. Faster than the others, I’d say.”
The light disappeared, and he made an effort to keep the eye open, peering around. Multiple treatment tables, machines to monitor vital signs, an assortment of medical instruments. That was all he needed to see. He was in an on-board hospital.
“What happened?” he asked, but his voice croaked and the words were unintelligible. Someone held something to his lips, and he sipped obediently, the water soothing his rough throat. His mind was working faster now, and he blinked rapidly, his vision starting to focus more clearly. “What happened?” he repeated.
“We’ll explain everything in a minute,” the voice repeated. Female, unknown. “You’re alright. Your crew is being treated. We have your ship under control.”
That was supposed to be a comfort, he supposed. It had the exact opposite effect. Until she had said that, he had assumed the ship and crew were safe, that he had been the only victim of some accident. He opened his eyes properly, and saw a woman with close cropped grey hair and warm brown eyes.
“What ship is this?” he asked.
“HMAS Maroubra,” she replied. “I’m Lieutenant Flint, MD.”
He used his elbows to push himself into a sitting position. As far as he could tell, he wasn’t injured at all. There was no pain except for a throbbing in his temples. He was a little dizzy, his stomach roiling. Was he concussed, then? He felt hungover, more than anything.
“We won’t give you anything for the headache, I’m afraid,” Flint said, as he lifted a hand to his skull. “We’re not sure if the gas will cause any cross reaction. Wait a minute before you try to stand, the dizziness passed quickly in the others.”
“Gas?” he repeated. “Others? My crew? Where are they?”
“Most of your crew is onboard with us,” she said, ignoring the first question. “More than half have already woken, the others showing signs of improvement. Injuries all being treated.”
“Injuries?” he echoed, now starting to feel annoyed. It felt as though she was deliberately avoiding giving him any information. “Lieutenant, do you know how to debrief someone?”
Her gaze sharpened as she reached out and wrapped a blood pressure cuff around his upper arm. “I do, sir,” she replied. “Right now, sir, that is not my job.”
“I’m fine,” he said, but allowed her to take a reading. “Will someone please tell me what has happened!”
“Careful now, Mike, you’ll pop something,” said a voice behind him. As Flint removed the cuff, he pushed himself to his feet and turned.
“Andrew,” he said, feeling a tingle of relief. He and Andrew Stark had served together in the past, and he was sure that here was someone who could give him some answers. “It’s been a while,” he said, reaching out to shake hands.
“If you’re feeling up to it, I’ll take you to command for a debrief.”
Twenty minutes later, he almost wished he was still unconscious. His ship had been hijacked, his crew knocked out, his Navigator beaten nearly to death… and he had slept through the entire thing.
“So Holiday, Brown and Webb managed to take down the hijackers with a combination of guerilla tactics and dumb luck,” Stark finished. “I don’t need to tell you how close we all came to total disaster.”
“No, you don’t,” he agreed softly. He shook his head in amazement. “And why? What were these hijackers hoping to achieve?”
Stark lifted one side of his mouth in a half smile. “Commander Marshall is keeping that information quite close to his chest for the moment.”
Mike thought for a moment. There was a steaming party on his ship, and that rankled. The only comfort was that several of his sailors had insisted on staying aboard Hammersley. After everything they had done, he knew he could trust them to look out for her. “I want to be put back aboard,” he told Stark.
“Ah, yes, Commander Johnson thought you might,” Stark said, nodding. “He said no.” At Mike’s furious expression, he shrugged. “It’s a free ride, take it.”
“That is my ship!” he protested.
“We can’t be sure what was in that gas they used or whether it will have any delayed effects. It also seems to vary person by person. Several of your crew were significantly ill when they woke.”
Mike frowned, his attention diverted. “You didn’t mention that before,” he said. “Who?”
“Your XO, the RO, and two junior sailors.”
“Where are they?” he asked, standing.
“Lieutenant Flint is taking care of them,” Stark replied. “Though if you like, I can show you to where the rest of your crew is resting.”
That was the best offer he was going to get, he realised, and resisted the urge to scowl. As Stark led him through the long corridors of the HMAS Maroubra, Mike’s thoughts turned to the only person to have suffered serious injuries in this whole fiasco. “Any word on Nav?” he asked.
“I haven’t heard,” Stark said sympathetically. Then he gave Mike a slightly curious expression, and added blandly, “Your three sailors were very worried about her.”
He didn’t miss the unspoken comment. “One in particular, I take it,” he said. That, perhaps, had been the hijackers’ biggest mistake; ET would have ripped the ship apart once he knew they had Nav.
“It’s rather irregular,” continued Stark. “For a patrol boat, particularly.”
“And?” Mike worked to keep the irritation from his voice. He didn’t like anyone questioning how he ran his ship. “It’s not the first time they’ve said that about me,” he added. In fact, considering some of the things he had done to upset Navcom in the past, the idea of two of his sailors in a relationship was hardly worth mentioning.
“No, that’s true,” Stark agreed. “They’re a good crew. Those three did an unbelievable job. I don’t imagine we would have been anywhere near as capable when we were their age.”
Mike chuckled. “I can tell you, we weren’t.” What would he have done as a junior sailor if he’d woken to find his entire crew unconscious, the ship under the control of armed terrorists? He would have tried something, he was sure, but would he have been successful? Not on his own, he decided. Just as clearly, he understood that ET would not have managed it on his own; he was too good at following orders to create and execute a strategy like that. No, he thought with a smile, guerilla warfare was much more Bomber’s territory. She thrived on action; it was enforced boredom that made her unreliable. Then throw Spider into the mix, whose natural cautious instincts would have balanced out the volatility of Bomber and an emotional ET. The seaman had an uncanny ability to get into trouble… but was just as talented at getting out of it. If he’d had to handpick a team to save his ship, could he have gone with anyone but those three?
Yes, he thought wryly. Kate, Buffer and Swain would have been his first three choices. However, he couldn’t deny that the three younger sailors had succeeded, and that was enough. He was still trying to wrap his mind around the fact that all of this - including the decision to shoot down his ship if necessary! - had happened without him having the slightest inkling.
“Your crew are resting in here,” Stark told him, opening the door to a large common room.
Resting, Mike thought, was not quite the right word. As soon as they saw him, he was mobbed, and he found that his crew hadn’t been offered as much information as he had. Though some were sitting down, all were tense, and the mood was sombre. By the time he had finished recapping all of what he’d been told, made more difficult by frequent interruptions, they were drawing close to home port. It still rankled to think that strangers were bringing his ship in without him, though he was sure that the lieutenant in charge was highly capable.
At Buffer’s insistence, he asked for an update on Nav’s condition, but the answer was as expected; she was still in surgery and they would have to wait for news.
Shortly after, RO joined them, having recovered from whatever reaction he had had to the gas. He was still suffering from a tremendous headache, but the disorientation had passed. The doctors were confident the others so affected would be fine with a few more hours.
As the heavy ship was carefully manoeuvred into port, the crew of the HMAS Hammersley grew even more restless with the news that they would need to go straight to hospital to be monitored. “An unknown, homemade gas which caused over eight hours of unconsciousness?” Flint said, her tone firm. “They’ll need to run quite a few tests to ensure there’s no residual damage.”
Mike took the time to give his thanks to Commander Johnson for his ship’s timely assistance. “And now,” he finished, “If you’ll excuse me, I need to see my ship.”
“Hospital, Mike,” Johnson reminded him.
“Yes, sir,” Mike agreed. “Straight away. After I see my ship and my sailors.”
“Sir, by the time you convince him, he could be there and back,” Stark commented wryly.
Johnson snorted, but nodded. “Alright. I’ll be telling Marshall where you’ve got to, though, so you better have a good explanation ready.”
As it turned out, Johnson didn’t have to tell Marshall; Mike spotted the Commander on the rear deck of Hammersley, supervising the removal of several black body bags. When he saw Mike, he sighed in exasperation.
“Aren’t you supposed to be getting yourself checked out?” he asked.
“Just as soon as I check a few things out for myself,” Mike replied. He stepped aside as two strangers - Maroubra’s steaming party, he guessed - began leading out a small group of prisoners. All four looked like they had recently woken up, and one had a black eye. Mike hid a smirk as he wondered whose fist had caused the bruise.
Mike looked up at the elated cry to see ET limping down the side of the ship, Bomber and Spider in his wake. Mike saluted their approach, and they responded with more enthusiasm than he had ever seen. And then, faced with the three sailors who had together saved his ship, he found himself completely lost for words.
“You have some talented people here, Mike,” Marshall said approvingly. “There’s not many could do what they did.”
He could only stare, hoping his relief and gratitude was visible on his expression, because he didn’t think he could ever put it into words. Then his brows knotted as he glanced down.
“ET,” he said. “You have a frying pan.”
ET looked down at the pan in his left hand, but made no effort to explain it. “Any word on Nav, sir?” he asked instead. There was an intensity to the question that didn’t surprise Mike, but which caused Marshall to look over curiously.
“She wasn’t looking good, sir,” Bomber added, with almost as much feeling, diverting the Commander’s attention.
“I haven’t heard yet,” he replied. He looked over his three sailors, already seeing the changes that today had wrought. Bomber and ET wore fresh overalls, while Spider’s were streaked with blood and dirt, but it was their faces that spoke volumes. All three looked older and harder, somehow, and their eyes were haunted. He had been told at least three of the hijackers were dead, killed in close quarters, and knew from experience how taking a life like that changed a person. Today’s events would be spoken about in awed tones for years to come; he only hoped they had the mental fortitude to get through it.
As he watched, Spider stood a little up straighter, Bomber squared her shoulders, and ET met his gaze with chin held high. He smiled. Yes, they would be okay. They were scarred, but not broken, not his sailors.
“There’s Cho,” Marshall muttered, looking to where the prisoners were being loaded into a van. “I’d like to speak to him before ASIO shuts us out completely. Excuse me.”
When Marshall walked away, Mike asked again. “What are you doing with that frypan, ET?”
“They took away our guns, sir,” ET replied, pan twisting in his hand.
Mike’s confusion must have shown on his face, for Spider pulled a wicked-looking knife out of his pocket. “We didn’t get them all,” he said. “This might not be over.”
“Put that away,” Mike said quickly, re-evaluating just how well his sailors were coping. It wasn’t just the presence of a knife in Spider’s pocket; it was the ready grip of his hand, as if he was prepared to use it. “I get that you’re a little on edge, which is perfectly understandable. But you can’t go waving weapons around.” He cast an amused glance at ET. “I think you can keep the pan, though.”
“How are the rest of the crew, sir?” Bomber spoke up, stepping in front of Spider.
“Everyone’s awake, most are feeling fine. They’ll be waiting for us at the hospital.” As expected, ET’s head snapped around at the mention of the hospital. Frankly, Mike was surprised - and impressed - that he had shown so much composure in front of Marshall. “I think you might need a doctor, too. Why are you limping, ET?” He had been told of their injuries, but wanted to hear it from the man himself.
Apparently ET wasn’t interested in playing it down. “Bullet took a chunk out of my thigh,” he said without pause. “But it’s stopped bleeding. Barely hurts anymore. Guy was a crap shot, he missed from a foot away.”
Bomber snickered. “If I saw you charging at me like a raging bull, I might be a tad wobbly, too.”
“Since when does bad-arse Bomber get scared?” ET shot back, and Mike had to smile. If they were bantering like usual, maybe things would be okay.
Then he made the mistake of trying to touch ET on the shoulder, only for the leading seaman to flinch away and raise the frypan in defence, eyes widening in instinctive fear. Mike pulled his hand back, the palm facing outward. “Just me. We need to go to the hospital before they drag us away.” He gestured to the pier, where Marshall was watching them, arms crossed impatiently.
“That, I will do,” ET agreed, looking embarrassed as he lowered his arm.
“You’ll get that leg seen to first , ET,” Mike added sternly.
ET opened his mouth as if to argue, but it was Spider who spoke, nudging ET with an elbow. “You know what she’ll say if you’re still bleeding,” he said.
With an abashed look down at his leg, ET nodded. “Yes, sir,” he agreed meekly, and led the way across the gangway, saluting as he finally left the ship.
ICU, Bennett General Hospital
“ET!” The shout came from outside, and the sound of Spider’s voice caused Nav’s head to snap up. She ignored the sharp ache in her skull caused by the sudden movement. He was alive. He was awake and, if Spider’s shout was anything to go by, he was fighting back.
A smile spread over her face, despite the tightness in her cheek. He was coming for her. There was no question in her mind that he would rescue her. Despite their argument, she knew he would do whatever it took to get back to her. The same thing she would have done if he was the one being held hostage.
Then she heard a gunshot, and her smile fell. Who had fired it? Was anyone hit? ET might have just been shot, he might have died and she had no way of knowing. Or Spider, who was out there, too.
Gleeson had left the bridge, and was probably the one battling Spider and ET. She knew he was armed; had her boys managed to seize weapons? There was a sudden, explosive bang from the back of the ship, which set off a painful ringing in her left ear. Her right ear felt strangely numb.
Don moved to the open port-side door and peered out. He was distracted. If she could break free, she might be able to surprise him.
Before she had finished processing the idea, her hands were moving of their own accord, tugging fiercely at her bindings. There may have been pain - from the blood coating the ties, there should have been - but she was oblivious, too focused on the opportunity. Wrapping her fingers around the zip tie that bound her to the chair, she pressed her feet against the floor and pulled, hard. Was there some give? She wasn’t sure. If there was, it wasn’t enough to make any difference, so she pulled again.
Another gunshot made her pause, but only for a split second, then she was tugging even harder. Even if that was both boys down, she might still make it to ET before he died, if she could only break the tie. She felt something hot drip onto her arm, and realised tears were slipping down her cheeks. There were no more noises outside.
The only sound in the bridge was the faint scrape of the plastic zip tie rubbing against the metal of the chair. But even that eventually faded, Nav’s hands stilling as she realised she couldn’t break her bonds. Sniffling, she rested her head on her bound hands and closed her eyes. He was dead. They both were. There was nothing more she could do.
It seemed an eternity before a soft click broke the silence. The sound of the bridge door used to signal something good, whether a new crewmate to chat to or someone doing a coffee run. Now, she knew it would be Gleeson, coming to gloat.
But the footsteps on the stairs were much too light for the bulky frame of Gleeson, and she was astounded to see Bomber walk in. Don was also taken aback, even more so when Bomber said Gleeson was dead. Nav felt a savage joy streak through her at the news, which escalated to pure elation when the starboard door opened and ET stepped in. Quickly, she twisted her body around to face him, ignoring the twinge in her wrists and abdomen. He was alive and he was here to rescue her.
Only… he didn’t so much as look at her. His sky eyes were firmly fixed on Don, his gun following the hijacker’s movements as Don twisted around to look at person entering on the port side. Presumably, that person was Spider, though Nav didn’t bother turning to check. If ET and Bomber were alive, the third person coming in was also an ally. Her assumption was confirmed a second later when Spider spoke, his voice more furious than she had ever heard.
She kept her eyes on the side of ET’s head, trying to implore him to look at her. But he never even glanced her way. With a sinking heart, she realised he had come to save the ship, not her. He must still be angry over their argument, all those hours ago. If it was a normal day, it would have been forgotten by now, they would have made up and gone back to the playful flirting that was their time on the same ship. Instead, she would never forget the look on his face when she’d blurted out how replaceable he was, as just a junior sailor. Her eyes drifted down his body, and her heart skipped a beat when she saw the blood covering his thigh. The other spots were probably someone else’s blood, but his overalls were soaked through on the left side, from groin to knee. He was injured.
Then he spoke, and the tone he used caused a shiver to run through her. Usually, he yelled when he was angry; she was the one who went calm when she was furious. This polite voice reminded her too much of the way Don had spoken to her all morning, and she hated hearing it come from the mouth of the man she loved. She’d been so focused on what was happening to her, she hadn’t even considered what he would be going through. What had they been forced to do, to make it up to the bridge? A split second later, he answered her internal question as he counted off the eleven hijackers and the various ways they had been incapacitated. When he spoke of a dead guy without even a hitch in his voice, she inhaled shakily. She wouldn’t be the only one with scars from today’s events.
Two gunshots sounded in rapid succession, loud enough to make her skull throb, and she stared as Don’s body fell toward ET. She was positive the hijacker hadn’t made any threatening move - but neither had he dropped his gun as instructed. They had warned him, twice. So why did she feel sick to her stomach? She didn’t care that Don was dead; if anything, she was relieved he wouldn’t be able to hurt her anymore. But the satisfaction on ET’s face as he stared at the dead man scared her. How much had today changed him?
Then he was lowering the gun and turning toward her, but he still wouldn’t meet her gaze. She stared at him, trying to impart an apology without words. All she could see in the sky eyes she loved was fury and anguish. There was a depth of rage that she’d never seen before and it took her breath away. Before she could say anything, his lip curled in a snarl as he turned around and filled the corpse with bullets. Each shot was like a hammer to the side of her head, and she pressed her right ear against her shoulder. Alarm curled in her gut and a tremor shook through her body.
When he stopped firing, it took her a moment to process the sudden silence. Then he was kneeling in front of her, and kissing her. Instantly, tears sprang to her eyes and she kissed back, despite the pain in her cheek. All too soon, he pulled back and finally, finally , looked into her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, forcing the words over the lump in her throat. She couldn’t let another second go past without him knowing she hadn’t meant those terrible words. Her mouth continued repeating the phrase, even as his eyes changed, anguish melting into affection.
“I love you,” he said. His eyes were bluer than ever when he took her hand. “When you wake up, I’ll be right there.”
Nav opened her eyes. She had known she would wake in a hospital room, so the off-white walls and plastic bed didn’t alarm her. The empty chair at her side did. He had promised he would be there when she woke. The terror began rising in her throat, and she clenched her fists, trying to stifle the urge to scream his name. The only reason he would have broken his promise was if he was more hurt than he’d let on, or if something had happened after she’d been taken from the ship.
Then she felt something warm next to her left hand. She had to turn her head to look down with her good right eye, but what she saw made her exhale in relief. He was asleep on her left side, his head cradled on his arms next to her left hip. Without thought, her hand carded through his hair, causing his eyes to blink open.
When he saw her awake, he grinned. “I told you I would be here.”
And just like that, the dam broke. She burst into tears as all the emotions she had been holding at bay flooded through her. His brow furrowed in concern, and he took her hands, squeezing tightly.
She knew she needed to explain, but wasn’t sure how to say all the things she was feeling. Her head felt like it was stuffed full of cotton wool, though the pain was muted. He looked like he was about to call in the doctor, though, so she forced herself to make words. “I love you…” she began, and saw his shoulders relax. Then she just let her mouth talk, not trying to make sense. “It’s not enough… thought I would never see you again…”
“It’s okay, you’re safe -” She barely heard the comforting words.
“Was going to die… so sorry…”
“No-one’s going to hurt you -”
“Didn’t mean it… need you... st -”
He cut her off with his lips, leaning up out of the chair. Just as she began to kiss back, he pulled away with a curse. “Fuck, I’m sorry, you’re hurt.”
Effortlessly twisting her fingers out of his grasp, she put both hands on the back of his neck and pulled him back down to her. “Don’t stop,” she whispered against his lips, then kissed him again. Though he was hesitant initially, when she opened her mouth under his, it was him that moved first. His tongue swept into her mouth as his hand came up to cradle her uninjured cheek. One of her hands moved up from his neck to thread through his curls, tugging gently the way she knew he liked.
Far too soon for her liking, she was forced to break the kiss. Her sore ribs didn’t allow her to take deep breaths, so she wasn’t getting as much air as she normally did.
He kept his hand on her cheek as she pulled away, gazing into her eyes with an anguish that was becoming all too familiar. “I want to kill them for hurting you,” he said softly, his other hand stroking the bandage on her wrist. “But they’re already dead.” Suddenly, she understood the rage in his eyes when he’d first seen her, and why he had emptied his gun into the lifeless body.
“Were you the one to kill Gleeson?” she asked, curling her fingers to grasp his.
His lips curled in a wry smile. “Actually, Bomber got him. Fed him to the sharks.”
“That’s some girl power,” she murmured, smiling as much as she could. Then her face fell as a new thought occurred to her. “But are you sure he’s dead? His people had a boat somewhere, they could have picked him up.”
“Well, Pirie found his arm.” He twisted his body to sit on the bed, carefully avoiding her bandaged knee.
“All three of you killed someone today,” she commented. “Are you okay with it?”
He nodded slowly. “Today I found out the difference between killing an enemy and murdering him. My conscience is clear.” Her heart thudded painfully at the tormented expression on his face, and she wished he hadn’t had to go through today to learn the lesson. His mouth twisted as he wrestled with something, then he spoke again, “O'Donoghue wasn’t the only one. I threw a man overboard. Spider killed one with a frypan to the face.” His gaze moved away from hers as he spoke, until he was staring at the wall behind her head.
Bringing their entwined hands up to her lips, she kissed his fingers. “It was them or you. And I’m so glad you’re here.” He continued to stare at the wall, so she poked him gently in the chest. “Hey, if you’re not going to look at me, will you at least hold me?” It came out more pleading than playful, but he still didn’t move.
“I don’t want to hurt you more,” he replied, voice flat.
“Josh, look at me.” Finally, he returned his eyes to hers. “I only feel safe when I’m in your arms. You’re not going to hurt me.”
Giving in, he helped her move to one side, then climbed onto the bed beside her and carefully folded her into his arms. “Just let me know if I need to stop.”
She let out a contented sigh as his body warmed her more than blankets ever could. “Never stop.”
ICU, Bennett General Hospital
As soon as the nurses were looking the other way, Kate ripped off the hospital gown and dressed herself. Just because she had to stay here didn’t mean she had to walk around feeling half naked. She then proceeded down the hall, entering the ICU quietly. She didn’t much care if anyone saw her but if they started complaining about “visiting hours” or the like, it could delay her.
She found Nav’s room easily enough, and opened the door slowly. Then she paused, watching the slow, rhythmic rise and fall of her friend’s chest. She’d been told all of what had happened that day, and knew Nav had suffered life threatening abdominal injuries, but she couldn’t take her eyes off the black and swollen cheek. It might not be as dangerous an injury, but it looked terrible, and she could only imagine how much it had hurt.
For a minute, she simply stood there, unaccountably relieved to find Nav sleeping. She didn’t know what she would have said; how did one apologise for the simple luck that had seen Nav on watch this morning and not Kate?
“I’m not asleep,” Nav said suddenly. If she hadn’t seen the lips move, Kate might have thought she imagined the voice, because Nav was still lying motionless, eyes closed. “It just hurts less when I breathe slowly.”
Swallowing, Kate stepped forward, moving to the empty chair beside Nav’s bed. That, in itself, was interesting. “I thought ET would be here,” she said, sitting.
Nav’s eyes opened. The left one squinted over the swollen cheek while the right stared dully. “They’re still debriefing him,” she said. “They’ve had him for hours.”
“That’s not a surprise,” Kate said, half to herself. The brass would be chasing up witnesses for weeks. She hoped they at least had the decency to wait until Nav’s injuries started to heal before starting on her. “I barely believed it when they told me what had happened.”
“I barely believed it when it was happening,” Nav replied, and there was the faintest flicker of her usual humour. Then it was gone. “Bomber said you didn’t wake up with the others. Are you okay?”
The question brought a lump to Kate’s throat, and she couldn’t reply immediately. Even after everything, Nav was asking about her. “Fine,” she forced out. “But they insisted on keeping me here overnight.” Something ugly stared back at her through Nav’s eyes but, before she could identify it, it passed. She turned away, looking at the monitors and lines binding Nav to the bed. “They said you were in surgery. Internal bleeding.”
She didn’t know how to phrase it as a question, but she didn't need to. This time the flicker of bitterness lasted longer. “They had to remove my spleen,” Nav said. Her voice was soft, little more than a whisper, and completely devoid of emotion. “But apparently I can live without it.”
Confused and unsettled by the uncharacteristic apathy, Kate tried for an optimistic approach. “It could have been worse, then,” she said, forcing a smile.
Nav stared back at her. “Yes,” she agreed, but without enthusiasm. “It could be worse than a ruptured spleen. I could have torn up my own wrists trying to escape. If I had been unlucky, I might have bruises across my chest, stomach, legs. I might have two broken ribs and a bruised kidney, which would need to be monitored carefully in case it swelled any further and needed to be removed as well. The blows to my head could have left me concussed, with a ruptured eardrum. I could have fractured my kneecap or been pistol whipped so hard I heard my own cheekbone crack.”
The entire time she spoke, her voice didn’t break out of the hollow monotone. Kate could feel her hands shaking. Tears threatened to fall, and she blinked them away, seeing that Nav’s face was clear. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“For what?” Nav asked, and this time she didn’t attempt to hide the anger or bitterness. “It’s not your fault I took the morning watch. It’s not your fault they chose our ship. It’s not your fault that we weren’t prepared.” Her nostrils flared and she lifted a hand to press against her ribs as she continued slowly. “It’s not your fault that you were sleeping... while I was being tortured.”
Kate wanted to protest that she hadn’t been sleeping ; she had been knocked unconscious, along with everyone else. But Nav’s words, however cruel the tone, were correct. It had not been Kate’s fault, or anyone else’s. That didn’t undo the damage that had been inflicted, however, or change the fact that seven people were dead. “I’m sorry, anyway,” she finally said.
The moment passed, and Nav’s eyes slid closed, her expression relaxing. One hand was still pressed against her injured ribs, the only outward sign of the effort her speech had cost her. A minute passed, and Kate looked around the empty room.
“I do know why, though,” she added. Nav’s eyes didn’t open, but Kate knew she was listening. “Marshall got it out of ASIO. O’Donoghue and most of his men were members of an anarchist group trying to bring about another world war. They were going to use our ship to attack a Russian diplomat sailing into Australia -”
“I don’t care,” Nav interrupted, without opening her eyes.
Kate stared at her. “You don’t want to know why this happened?”
“They failed. O’Donoghue and Gleeson are dead. It doesn’t matter, now.” She opened her good eye, and looked at Kate for a few thoughtful seconds. “There is something I want to know.”
“Anything,” Kate promised without thinking.
“I don’t know why I was even on that ship,” Nav said, her tone insipid once more. “Why did you and Mike keep a navigator on a ship that doesn’t need one?”
The question surprised Kate. Nav had always been happy with her role on the ship, lending support to the two senior officers, sharing the workload and building her skills. “When Mike offered you a place on the new ship, he didn’t know I wanted to stay,” Kate began. “He needed at least one officer he could trust. He’s never regretted it.”
“Now he has you,” was all Nav said in response, but the implication caused Kate to frown.
“Take all the time you need,” she said. She was sure that, once her wounds healed, Nav would be right back with them.
“Thank you for visiting,” Nav said, and Kate bowed her head at the dismissal.
“Get some rest,” she said, feeling foolish as she said it. Rest alone wouldn’t cure Nav of what had happened. Before she could say anything else, she backed out the door, making it halfway down the corridor before the tremors in her knees forced her to stop. Tears of regret stung her eyes. Something had happened to Nav, something worse than physical injuries. Wondering if she should have, could have, said anything else, she glanced back just in time to see a dark blonde head entering Nav’s room.
Despite herself, she backtracked, stopping before the door and peering through the blinds into the dim room. ET was sitting on the edge of Nav’s bed, their entwined hands in his lap. Her eyes were fixed on his face, a relieved smile on her lips as she listened to him. The lines of bitterness in her face had cleared and her expression was, if not happy, then at least peaceful.
Kate slowly returned to her room, secure in the knowledge that there was at least one person who could still reach Nikki.
Two months later
As he unlocked the front door, ET felt some of the tension in his body drain away. “It’s me,” he called out. There was a second as he waited for her to reply, and he felt his heart start to pound.
“Kitchen,” she called back, and he shook his head in self-derision. It was still hard to shake the fear that something could have happened to her in his absence - whether it was for a day or an hour. He put his keys back in his pocket with a smile, thinking about how this was now his place as much as hers and how, even though he’d only been living here for a month, it felt more like home than naval housing ever had. He climbed the stairs to the main floor, his nose confirming her location. As he stepped into the room she was switching off the radio, cutting off the music mid-note.
“Thanks,” he said, standing behind her and taking her into his arms. He leaned forward, his left cheek brushing her right.
“How was the shrink?” she asked, leaning back into his chest.
“He’s fine,” ET replied blandly. “He blabbered on a bit.”
“Did you tell him about Buffer?”
ET groaned. “Yes. At least he didn’t laugh.” He could feel her smirking, and so stepped away, crossing his arms. “It’s been two months, Buff should know better than to sneak up behind people.”
“You’re just lucky he didn’t hit you back,” she said, still grinning as she faced him. Then she reached out to stroke his cheek with one finger. “Hungry?”
His eyes fell on the stove, brows raising. “This is a pleasant surprise,” he said. “You’re feeling better, I take it?”
As long as he’d known Nav, she had always loved cooking, and would often provide an alternate to the ubiquitous barbecue at crew gatherings. When they had begun dating, he had spent many a relaxing evening watching her cook, loving the confident way she moved around the kitchen, and the pleasure on her face as she shared the recipes passed down to her by her mother and grandmother. For a long while, her injuries had prevented her from standing for any length of time, so it had been up to him to navigate the kitchen. It wasn’t like he was a terrible cook, but ten years of living in Navy accomodation hadn’t exactly honed his skills. Before, she might have instructed him from the bench, but lately she hadn’t had the heart for even that.
“Maybe I just couldn’t stand another bowl of overcooked spaghetti,” she said with a nudge to his stomach, and he accepted the teasing graciously.
He peered into the saucepan. “This is a lot,” he commented. “Trying to make up for lost time?”
“Spider and Bomber are joining us,” she explained, and he nodded in understanding. Though they had all been friends before, the four of them had grown much closer since their shared trauma. ET found Spider a better sounding board than any mandatory counsellor, and Bomber’s directness kept him from sinking too deeply into melancholy thoughts.
“Before they get here, then,” he said. “There is something we need to talk about.”
She turned back to the stove, stirring the sauce with more focus than necessary. “Hm?”
He didn’t let it deter him. “The ceremony.” Though she didn’t turn, he felt the glare she aimed at the pan. A few weeks ago, that would have stopped him. This time, he ignored the implicit warning and continued. “It’s next week. You have to go.”
“Why?” she asked, her tone one of false nonchalance. “What are they going to do if I don’t show up, fire me?”
“No, they’re not going to fire you. But they’ve postponed this thing twice, because you said you needed time to heal. It’s happening, and they’re expecting you to be there.” He still didn’t understand her attitude; when the brass demanded your presence, for whatever reason, it didn’t matter how injured or how traumatised you were - you turned up. When they were in the mood to award medals, you didn’t protest, even if the entire event was just to help them gloss over the shocking breach of security. She had tried to get out of it by citing her injuries, the worst of which were still healing, but that plan had backfired; each time, they delayed the awards ceremony instead of having it without her.
“Then I’ll fail to meet their expectations,” she replied, rinsing a chopping board.
“It’s not going to be that bad,” he protested, taking the board from her hands to place in the dishwasher. “We just have to stand there while, the Vice Admiral makes a speech, the PM shakes our hands, someone chucks some medals at us, and then we all get roaring drunk.”
“Standing hurts,” she countered, glancing to where her crutches rested against the side of the fridge. She was using them less and less each day, but still kept them within arm’s reach.
“No-one expects us to be a hundred percent recovered,” he said. “They just want to celebrate the fact we stopped the attack.”
She scowled at him, an expression she rarely used on him these days. “You stopped the attack. I got beaten up.” Turning away, she moved back to the oven to check on its contents. Despite the conversation, he couldn’t help but smile at the ease with which she kept track of the numerous tasks she was performing; it was like she had never stepped out of the kitchen.
“Charge gets a medal, and all he did was fix an engine, which, to be fair, was what he was going to be doing all morning anyway.”
He knew exactly how she would counter that point, and she didn’t disappoint. “Charge and the others completed the slowest engine repair in Naval history. They risked their lives to slow down the hijackers, which is the only reason you had time to take the bridge.”
“And you refused to tell them how to use the typhoon, and tried to get to the phone, and kept trying to negotiate,” he reminded her, seizing the opportunity.
“Trying,” she repeated bitterly, turning away. “That’s all I did. I tried, and I failed.”
“But you were very brave,” he said, moving forward to hook his chin over her shoulder, one hand reaching down to take hers. Almost unconsciously, her fingers twined through his.
“I was scared out of my mind,” she disagreed. There was a long pause before she added quietly, “I’ve been scared ever since.”
He waited until she twisted her neck to look at him, then leaned forward to kiss her. “Are you scared now?” he asked.
The warmth in her gaze filled him until he thought he would melt from it. “Not as much,” she whispered, her lips curling upwards.
“I will be right there by your side the entire time,” he promised. “So will Spider and Bomber.”
He felt her relax. “And no-one would dare try anything with the three of you ready to face them,” she said lightly.
“That’s right, no-one would dare take us on.” He passed his thumb and forefinger over her chin, eliciting a smile. “There’s the smile I love.”
The moment ended far too abruptly, as she swung her head back to the stove, lifting the saucepan away from the heat before the contents could burn. He sighed, and decided that one more push might do it.
“They’re not going to change their minds,” he told her, releasing her to lean against the sink. “Let’s just get it over with so we can get back to our lives.”
“Get back to what? Are you going to go back on board?”
He didn’t like thinking about that question, the same one Bomber had asked twice already. “Are you ?” he asked.
“Not on Hammersley, no,” she said.
It was the complete assurance in her tone that shocked him most. “What?”
“I shouldn’t have been there in the first place. You were right. The ship doesn’t need me.” She stirred the pasta in the other saucepan, and he waited, hoping she would continue to explain. “It seemed so safe and comfortable, and I never wanted to leave. I held my own career back rather than take the next step... but that’s gone, now.”
There was a fear in her tone he hadn’t heard before, and when she looked at him he could see the terror in her eyes. In a second, everything clicked. Her vehemence at not attending the ceremony, how she never even wanted to visit their friends on the ship; she was afraid of going back on board Hammersley.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he whispered, moving to take her in his arms.
She shivered and pressed her face into his chest. “I tried, I just… I couldn’t find the words. I can’t go back on that ship.”
Nodding, he pressed a kiss to her hair. “I understand.” He didn’t say anything else, just held her until a soft chime broke the silence.
“That’s my timer,” she said, moving out of his embrace and back to the stove.
He rubbed a hand through his hair, wondering how she was so easily able to switch on and off like that. “So what will you do?” he asked eventually.
“I want to keep studying,” she began. “But not just as a medic. I’m going to be a doctor.”
He stared at her in surprise. He knew she had enjoyed her medical training so far, assisting Swain and Bomber with emergencies on board, but had had no idea she would want to take it further. “Dr Caetano?” he asked, trying out the sound, and found he liked it. But then he stopped, puzzled. “But in the meantime? You’re going to take a shore posting?”
“Shipboard life just doesn’t leave the time,” she said. “And I think it’s about time for a change.”
“How long have you been thinking about this?” he asked, wondering if it had only occurred to her since the hijacking.
“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while,” she replied. “Years, even. I decided I don’t just want to be another officer shouting orders. But it would have meant a huge change, and I wasn’t ready for it. Now, everything’s changing anyway…”
“It doesn’t have to,” he said, then slowly shook his head, hearing the lie in his own words. Some part of him had just assumed that, with enough time, they would recover from their wounds - physical and mental - and then everything would go back to how it had been, Nav and ET flirting under the amused glares of Hammersley’s CO.
This time she was the one to move toward him, wrapping her arms around him and resting her head on his chest. “It already has.”
He returned the embrace, resting his cheek on the top of her head and breathing in her smell. It still amazed him how quickly and easily they had reached this point. Before, he had only known that he loved her. On his mission to save her he had realised he would die for her. Now, he couldn’t live without her. The psychologist called it co-dependence; he called it true love.
She lifted her head, seeking his lips. He kissed her back warmly, cupping her cheeks in his palms, no longer hesitant about touching the left one. The undisguised passion and love in her kiss proved to him that his feelings were returned, so he didn’t care what the shrink said. As long as she gazed back at him with such trust, he would never need anything else. She clutched at his back to pull him closer, making an approving noise when his body came flush against hers. Then, almost without conscious thought, his hands were moving down her body, sliding under her shirt until -
The doorbell rang.
“Later,” she promised him, smirking at his annoyance. “Get that?”
With an irritated huff and one last peck to her lips, he moved through the dining room then trotted down the stairs. The ache he sometimes felt in his thigh was no worse than a pulled muscle now. Despite expecting guests, he checked the peephole before opening the door.
“It’s us,” Spider called, even as ET confirmed that fact for himself.
He opened the door with a wide grin. “Hey, guys.”
Bomber stepped in and kissed him on the cheek. Then she gave him a significant look. “Mission update,” she ordered.
He sighed. “Almost. I’m very close.”
She pushed past him and led the way up the stairs. “Well, if you can’t do it the easy way, we’ll do it the hard way.”
“Not tonight, Bomber,” he appealed, wondering whether he should share his revelation. There was no time to add anything more; they stepped into the kitchen and Bomber moved forward to hug Nav.
“You cooked,” she said in obvious delight. She placed a tupperware container on an empty corner of bench, and Nav eyed it appreciatively.
“You made dessert,” she replied, turning to hug Spider as well.
Spider was sniffing the air with keen interest. “I was worried that you were going to be cooking again,” he said to ET. Then, realising the insult, added, “Not that you’re a bad cook. You just…”
“Burn things,” Nav interjected. “Boys, perhaps you could set the table, unless you want to be eating with your fingers.” As if on cue, Spider and ET exchanged a conspiratorial grin. “Now.”
Without further comment, ET began pulling out bowls while Spider gathered cutlery. As they moved back to the dining room, ET shoved Spider with his shoulder. “Like your cooking is any better than mine. You even burn the sausages.”
Spider smirked at him. “Why do you think I’m dating a chef?”
They put everything down on the table and began to set four places, still exchanging light jibes. In between their voices, he could hear Nav and Bomber talking in the kitchen.
“Is ET back to scrambled eggs, yet?” Bomber was asking.
Nav must have made some gesture of dissent, as a moment later she said, “And Spider?”
“Won’t even touch the pan,” Bomber replied sadly.
In the dining room, ET found that he couldn’t meet Spider’s eyes. Perhaps he shouldn’t have been surprised, but after everything that had happened he was unable to see frying pans the same way. He could no sooner use one to prepare food than he could use a tea towel as a weapon.
“Heard anything about the promotion, yet?” he said Spider, changing the topic.
“Not yet, but Buff thinks it should be soon. So long as I don’t stuff it up again.”
“You could set an embassy on fire and they’d ignore it right now.” He winked at Spider. “You’re a hero, it gives you a bit of wiggle room.”
The sound of his name drew his attention back to the conversation in the kitchen, and he held up a hand to keep Spider from walking back in.
“He’s still trying to be gentle all the time,” Nav was saying. “Which is very sweet, but there are times when a girl has needs.”
Bomber chuckled. “Still making you do all the work, hey?”
Nav then proceeded to describe their most recent sexual interaction in detail, and ET stared at the table, cheeks burning with embarrassment. He knew the girls talked, but did they really have to do it right here, where he could hear what they were saying about him? And worse, Spider could hear as well. So what if he was a little hesitant about getting back into the physical side of their relationship? He would challenge anyone who had spent two weeks at their loved one’s hospital bedside to be any different. It wasn’t as if he wasn’t satisfying her! He just wanted to make sure he didn’t hurt her. When she asked him to go harder, or faster, however, he couldn’t shake the memory of her bruised and bloody face out of his mind.
A hand on his shoulder caused him to look up at Spider. To his surprise, there was no pity or amusement in the brown eyes, only understanding. He realised there was no reason to be embarrassed or shy in this company. They all understood. He smiled gratefully at Spider, then nodded.
Awkward moment over, Spider’s face cracked into a grin. “Guess who finally sealed the deal last night?”
“Bomber,” ET replied, straight-faced.
The smile faltered, but only momentarily. “Well, yes… but whose idea was it?”
“Bomber’s.” He stared at Spider for a second longer, then let his smile show. “I told you she was into you,” he said, nudging Spider in the ribs.
“Who’s into who?” Bomber asked as she walked around the corner bearing a salad and garlic bread, Nav right behind her with a platter of pasta and sauce.
Spider shot ET a warning look, which he ignored. “You’re into Spider,” he said with a grin.
“I thought I smelled garlic bread, score!” Spider interjected, snatching a piece as soon as Bomber set the basket down, only to drop it a second later.
“Careful,” Nav said after a beat. “It’s just out of the oven.”
Spider stuck his fingers in his mouth to cool them, glaring at her as he did so.
Bomber stared back at ET, the faintest trace of a smile belying the stern expression. “I wasn’t in the mood to be pestered, and I could either say yes once, or no a thousand times.”
Spider just grinned at her. “And it was the best decision you ever made.”
She chuckled. “We’ll see.”
There was no formality as they settled down to eat. Spider and Bomber were more like family than friends at this table, and for a few minutes ET listened to the conversation as he reacquainted himself with his favourite food: Nikki’s cooking. Meanwhile, she and Spider were discussing her favourite drink.
“Did you like the Campos blend?” Nav asked Spider, who nodded.
“Much milder,” he commented. “Easier to drink in large quantities.”
“Once you get used to it, I’ll introduce you to some of the harder stuff,” she promised. “You compensate for the taste with sugar.”
“Lots of sugar,” Bomber interjected wryly. “I’d prefer if you helped him get a bit more sleep, rather than teaching him how to mainline caffeine.”
“At least I’m not having nightmares,” Spider said pointedly.
He was the only one of them to be able to brag of that. “Only because you never sleep,” ET retorted. Not that he was ever able to get a full night’s rest himself; he suffered almost as many nightmares as Nav and Bomber, though his typically involved their deaths rather than his own.
“Whereas you wake up screaming,” Nav said to him sadly. She forced a smile as she looked at Bomber. “He kept yelling your name the other night. I almost thought he was cheating on me.”
Bomber laughed, but it was a haunted sound, then looked at ET. “Was it the one with the sharks, again?”
“No. It was Gleeson holding you, and I had to choose who to save - you or Nikki.” He couldn’t hold her gaze at that point. She didn’t need to ask why.
“The other night, huh?” She lifted an eyebrow. “How long did you last, then? I made it six days.”
“Four,” he replied. “You win this round.”
She grinned. “You owe me a beer.” A genuine gleam of amusement entered her eyes. “Just try not to punch anyone at the pub, this time.”
Sighing heavily, he said, “It was an accident. Is Buffer still mad?”
“I think he was more shocked than angry,” Nav commented. “It’s been a while since anyone tried to hit him.”
“Even longer since he didn’t try to hit back,” said Spider. “I did tell him, he shouldn’t sneak up on people.”
“Except illegal fishermen,” Bomber said. “You should have seen him yesterday; this guy pulled a machete, Buff just pulled his visor down and crossed his arms, and the guy dropped it.”
“How is work going?” Nav asked. ET cast her a quick, curious glance; would she tell them about her decision to retrain? She caught his eye and gave the slightest shake of her head.
“Oddly normal,” Spider replied. “Though the X has gone a bit… weird. She doesn’t yell at me any more.”
“She did yell at Jumper when he tried stand on the RHIB and fell in,” Bomber said, and the two of them laughed at the memory.
“Who’s Jumper?” ET asked.
“New seaman,” Bomber replied. “Tim Cross. He worships Buffer. Tries to do whatever Buff does.”
“He hates you, by the way,” Spider told ET. “He was at the pub when you punched his hero. The guy with the shaved head and the mermaid tattoo.”
The description wasn’t enough to recall the young sailor, and ET shrugged.
Nav looked amused. “What does Buffer think of him?”
“Takes advantage of the work ethic, ignores the rest of it.” Bomber lifted one shoulder. “What else would he do?”
“How do you find it?” ET asked, quickly clarifying, “Being back?”
Bomber and Spider exchanged a look, and he passed the question to her by deftly shovelling a large forkful of pasta into his mouth. “It’s good,” she said, thinking about the question carefully before replying. “As Spider said, it’s so normal . I know who the bad guys are and what to do about them. I’ve got Buffer and Swain and the X all watching my back.”
“And me,” Spider interjected, speaking around his full mouth.
Nav snickered. “I don’t think it’s her back you’re watching.”
“I dream less on board, too,” Bomber continued, ignoring the exchange. “There’s not enough time between watches.”
A frown appeared on Spider’s face as he swallowed, looking around the table before saying, “I can’t. I lie there and I’m afraid that if I fall asleep, I won’t wake up.”
Before ET could think of anything to say to that revelation, Bomber was reaching out, her arm going around Spider’s shoulders, her forehead briefly touching his shoulder. His hand lifted to clasp hers and ET realised in that moment that the young seaman was well on his way to being in love.
“I will always be there to wake you up,” Bomber said, so softly ET barely heard her.
Accepting that this was almost a private moment, he looked at Nav, and found her watching him intently. She grasped his hand and mouthed, “I love you,” to him.
The moment passed without prompt or comment. ET continued eating, and when he looked up Bomber was looking at him curiously. “So, when will you be joining us?”
Nav’s raised eyebrow showed that she also wanted to hear the answer, which he had avoided earlier. “I’m not sure,” he said. “According to my shrink, I do need to wait until I stop hitting everyone who touches me.”
The reminder of the incident with Buffer was too much; Bomber snorted once, then burst into laughter, her voice echoing loudly around the room.
“Shh,” ET reprimanded, wincing.
She bit her lip, her amusement settling as she saw the brief flicker of fear in his eyes. “We’re safe here,” she said gently. “We can make as much noise as we like.”
“Yeah, I… know,” he said, embarrassed. “Sorry.”
“Still can’t listen to the radio, then?” Bomber asked Nav, who shook her head.
“I think the shrink is going to look at that soon, though,” she said, a query in her words as she looked at ET.
“Next week,” he said with a firm nod.
A glint appeared in Bomber’s eyes as she looked between them. “Speaking of next week,” she began.
Nav cut her off. “I’m not going.”
“You have to go,” ET reiterated. He rather wished Bomber hadn’t brought it up again and hoped she remembered her promise to let him convince her the nice way.
“You could say you’ve got the flu,” Spider suggested, and ET frowned at him.
“Don’t help ,” he said, irritated. “She will be there.”
“This isn’t your decision,” she protested. “I’m not going to stand there and take the attention away from you three, who were actually the heroes who saved the ship.”
“Alright,” Bomber growled, half standing.
“Bomber,” ET warned, but she ignored him.
“That’s enough. If you want to pretend that you weren’t a bloody legend on that bridge, fine, but you’re not going to convince us of it and you’re certainly not going to convince the powers that be. I don’t know what stories ET has told you about his heroic efforts to retake the ship, either, but it sounds like you’ve got a pretty skewed idea of what happened. We hid a lot. We hit some guys on the back of the head. We called for help. At which point we had a choice between risking our lives fighting back, or sitting there until the Air Force blew us out of the water, which was honestly a pretty easy choice. It was self preservation as much as anything, and we were scared witless most of the time. It wasn’t brave and it wasn’t selfless. We didn’t ask for medals and if we could say no, we would. But we can’t. And as little as we want to stand in the sun for hours listening to some old geezer drone on about honour and integrity and bravery, that is the unfortunate side effect of not letting your ship get blown up, and I’ll tell you this, Navigator: if we have to go, then so do you!” She took a deep breath, her eyes narrowing as she glared at Nav. “I swear to you, if Tuesday morning rolls around and you’re not dressed up and standing on that pier, I will drive around here, drag you into my car, and take you there myself!”
There was a long silence. ET looked intently at his empty plate, trying to peek at Nav out of the corner of his eye. Finally, reluctantly, she dipped her head in agreement.
Bomber smiled sweetly. “Who’s ready for dessert?”
As if the argument had never happened, the two women went back into the kitchen, leaving ET and Spider to collect the dinner things. “Do you get used to that, at all?” ET asked.
Spider gave a noncommittal hand gesture. “Not exactly. But if you look really apologetic, she stops quickly enough. And one time I pretended to faint and she stopped mid-sentence… at least until she realised I was faking.”
“I can’t imagine that helped,” ET said wryly, carrying a stack of plates to the kitchen.
“Not much,” Spider agreed, following with the empty bread basket and salad bowl. Bomber carried the tupperware container past them into the dining room, and Spider watched her progress intently. They stacked the plates into the dishwasher as quickly as possible; even Nav’s cooking, which had not suffered from the hiatus, had not blunted their appetite for Bomber’s desserts.
Nav led the boys back into the dining room with smaller plates. She placed them on the table as Bomber opened the container to reveal a massive triple-choc brownie. Nav held out a hand. “Spider.”
Without hesitation, Spider pulled a knife from his pocket and offered it to her. She flicked open the switchblade and began cutting the brownies.
As she served each of them a large slice, ET couldn’t help but reflect on how much things had changed. Before the hijacking, would any of them have suspected - let alone expected - Spider to be carrying a knife at all times? Would Nav have chosen to spend years in a shore posting while she retrained? Would Bomber have admitted her feelings for Spider so quickly? Would he have ensconced himself in silence as much as possible, the better to hear if anyone was approaching?
There were times when he felt that all of them had been damaged beyond repair. His ongoing contest with Bomber, to see who could go the longest between nightmares, was as much a symptom as it was a coping mechanism. Nav was afraid of ever returning to Hammersley, and he was afraid of leaving her. Spider had forever lost the youthful innocence that had amused and frustrated them all.
Then he took a bite of the brownie, sighing in contentment. At least these days it was always the four of them. When he needed someone to understand, he didn’t have to look far. He remembered the first time Bomber had arrived at Nav’s place in the middle of the night, still trembling from whatever nightmare had gripped her, and the two of them had held her until she finally slept. He remembered the time he had locked himself in his room and hidden under the bed when the neighbour’s smoke alarm went off one sunny morning, and stayed there until Spider came crawling in beside him to convince him that everything was okay.
After all of that, though, brownies were real and tasted as good as they had ever done. Their physical injuries had healed, which gave him hope that some day the deeper scars would also fade. Each day he was able to hold Nav in his arms and rejoice in the fact that they were alive and together. For now, that was enough.