Tom awoke to a steady throbbing sensation, both as a pounding ache in his head and as the shiver of what must be a running engine transmitting its vibrations through the floor of wherever he was and into his back. Whatever he was lying on was hard and felt like it was rocking, but that could have been the motion of a boat on water, or it could have been his inner ear rebelling against whatever treatment had left him in this condition to begin with. As if these circumstances were not already bad enough, the thing which had triggered Tom's return to consciousness was the sensation of somebody putting their hand on his neck. Not knowing if the person was friend or foe, he wasn't sure if he wanted them to know he was awake now. However, he must have done something to give himself away though, because the hand was immediately retracted with a rustle of fabric and a mutter of, "Just making sure you hadn't gone and died on me, Commodore."
"Tex," Tom managed to croak out through a mouth that felt like it had been filled with cotton. Of course it was Tex here with him, wherever here was. Since meeting, it seemed like Tom and Tex rarely ever got into trouble without each other. It would be nice if just once they could do something together which did not involve a fight for their lives. That thought stirred the ghost of a memory, but it could wait, because there were more important matters to deal with right now.
Figuring that Tex would have said something if there had been a need to hide his discomfort (they had had a very pointed talk about the importance of being forthcoming with pertinent information when Tex first came aboard the Nathan James, so as to prevent a repeat of being told almost too late about men pointing rockets at his ship), Tom groaned and opened his eyes. The groaning did not help on a physical level, nor had he expected it to do so, but at least it let him express his general displeasure with his current state of affairs. Tom levered himself into a sitting position and looked around. The rocking motion that he felt continued. Definitely on a boat then; the motion was too regular to be vertigo.
There was not much to see. They were somewhere that was maybe the size of a walk-in closet. There was no overhead light, but a few small, irregularly shaped holes scattered around the walls let in just enough illumination to be useful. The space appeared to be about five or six feet wide by seven or eight feet long. Tom was near the center of the floor, while Tex had backed up and settled against one of the walls. One corner of the ceiling had been filled in with a triangular metal plate with a small dark hole in the center. It looked to have been welded in place, probably a makeshift protective housing for a video camera.
On the floor, one corner held a section of metal pipe about a foot and a half tall and and maybe slightly less in diameter, arranged vertically and, once again, welded in place, probably intended as a latrine. The corner situated diagonally from the latrine held a few small objects which Tom couldn't identify at first glance but suspected were some kind of food and a collection of small disposable water bottles held together with shrink-wrap. One end of the shrink-wrap had been pulled apart and one of the bottles had been removed. The bottle in question sat on the floor next to Tex. Apart from the aforementioned objects and themselves, there was nothing else. Tom did his best to ignore his headache and start thinking strategically. His eyes returned to the water bottle at Tex's side.
As if reading Tom's mind, Tex picked up the bottle and began idly tossing it from hand to hand. "No such luck," Tex lamented. "They're the supposedly eco-friendly kind of bottled water, made with the bare minimum of plastic to cut down on waste." On the next pass of the bottle, he squeezed when he caught it, demonstrating how easily it flexed. "It might be better for the planet, but it makes for a crappy weapon. I've seen Nerf toys that were sturdier. Even if you hit someone with the whole case, you'd probably just surprise 'em without doing any damage, might not even slow them down." He contemplated the bottle in his hand for a moment longer and then added, "Could try to jab someone in the eye with the cap end, but at that point it's probably easier to use your thumb." He sighed, twisted the cap off, smelled the contents, took a tentative sip, and then handed the rest to Tom. "At least it tastes like they haven't done anything to it."
"They?" Tom asked. He took a few sips of the water and then replaced the cap. His head was still pounding like he had a world class hangover, but there was no telling how long he and Tex were going to need to make this water last, so better to start rationing it now than later. He passed the bottle back to Tex, who took one more sip before continuing his report.
"Sounds like they're Russian," Tex said, then leaned forward and continued in a lower voice, "From time to time, some of them will walk past outside, talking to each other." He twitched a thumb in the direction of one of the holes in the wall. "No one's come in here yet, but I've spotted four different guys so far, two with AK-103s and two with just sidearms."
"But there could be others," Tom said, just as quietly, moving closer to Tex, until their left knees were pressed against each other and their foreheads were almost touching.
"Probably are," Tex agreed.
"What have they been saying?" Tom said.
"How should I know?" Tex said with a shrug. "You're the one who speaks Russian, not me."
"After our stay on the Vyerni, you were making a lot of noise about how you planned to learn at the first opportunity."
"And there haven't been any opportunities since then. Although," Tex added with a grin, "once I found out St. Louis still had working internet, I did manage to get online and look up how to say, 'Kiss my ass,' just in case we ever run into that particular language barrier again."
Tom had to laugh at that. "At least you have the most important base covered," he said.
They shared a brief chuckle, and then Tex grew serious again. "We were already in here and under way when I woke up a few hours ago," he said. "Somebody did a really good job of searching us for weapons. They even took the little blade I started keeping taped to the dogtag in my bootlaces after the last time. He thumped his boot heel against the metal floor of their makeshift prison. "This looks like some kind of mini-shipping container."
Tom took another look at the dimensions of their makeshift prison and said, "It's a 1F sized ISO 668 intermodal freight container." The US military used them sometimes, which was how Tom recognized the exact size designation, but countless civilian companies used them as well. Catching sight of the sudden hopeful look gracing Tex's face, Tom sighed and elaborated, "The 1F isn't as popular as some of the larger sizes, but it's not rare either. In and of itself, it doesn't tell us anything. It could have come from just about anywhere."
Tex's shoulders slumped. "I'll take your word for it," he said. "The only experience I have with these things in any size is knowing that you need to lift with your knees and not with your back when the contents out of one and that the metal walls usually aren't thick enough to provide decent cover in a firefight unless someone is plinking at you with a .22 or buckshot." Tex reached over and flicked the jagged edge of one of the holes for emphasis before continuing, "Whatever it is, it looks like it's been done up special, just for us." He scowled, then added, "or maybe just for you."
"What do you mean, just for me?"
"I mean you're basically head of the Navy these days," Tex said, "for all the good it does anyone while the Nathan James is in dry dock, whereas I'm just the lowly guy who used to get paid to shoot stuff back when there was such a thing as paychecks. Besides, whatever they dosed us with, they must have given you extra, or I don't think you would have been out for so much longer than me. What do you remember?"
"I had decided I'd had enough for one night and came home early from the party," Tom said, refusing to mention exactly who or what the party had been for, because he had no way of knowing how sensitive the microphone attached to that security might be, and he was not in the mood to tempt fate right now. Officially, Dr. Rachel Scott had been murdered on the night of President Michener's inauguration, and the international scientific community mourned her passing. Unofficially, she had been discovered in the nick of time to save her life and then spent several weeks recovering from her injury at an undisclosed location. The party had been to celebrate the news that she had safely landed in Tokyo, finally ready to continue her long-delayed mission of mercy under a false identity. No one expected the ruse to hold forever, but the longer they could keep attention away from her, the better it would be for everyone with an interest in seeing that the contagious cure to the so-called Red Flu reached the maximum number of people in the world.
"You showed up on my doorstep an hour later," Tom continued. He did not mention that his children, expecting their father to be gone most of the night, had been spending the night at a friend's house. His captors probably knew about his children, but on the slim chance that they did not, he did not want to risk alerting them to their existence now. "You were drunk."
"I was not drunk," Tex said, more sharply than Tom would have expected. Given the circumstances they were probably about to start discussing, Tom was not sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing.
"Fine, you showed up on my doorstep after I had seen you drinking earlier in the evening," Tom amended.
"You said you wanted to ask me something," Tom said.
"And?" Tex prompted again.
"And then it all gets a kinda fuzzy, Tex" Tom lied, because if Tex was having a strong enough case of regret now that he was sober that he wanted to talk about it right now of all times, then Tom would pretend to have no memory of the question which Tex had asked and Tom had happily agreed to, if that was what would be required of him to preserve their friendship. "I must have asked you to come inside." That part was the truth. "I probably offered to call a cab for you." That was another lie, though Tom would have made the offer in the morning if they had been allowed to get that far. "But then you said, 'Ow,'" Tom continued, "and a moment later your eyes rolled back in your head, and I had to catch you before you fell on top of me," and all of that was the unfortunate truth.
The look Tex was giving Tom was mostly unreadable in the dim light, but it did not look happy. Neither of them spoke for several minutes.
"And then what happened?"
And this time the question required more concentration to answer, because this was the point where Tom's memories really did start getting fuzzy. "Something hit me in the neck," he finally said. "It must have been a tranquilizer dart, because I couldn't keep myself standing, let alone hold you up at the same time, so we both went down. Somebody came and stood over us. I think they shot me with another dart, and then everything went black."
"See, they give you two to make sure you stay down and treat me like some bystander they only brought along because I was at the wrong place at the wrong time," Tex said. "It's like they don't even think I'm a threat." He leaned back against the wall and crossed his arms over his chest. "It's insulting."
"We'll just have to show them the error of their ways," Tom said. He mentally ran through their meagre inventory again, and a plan began to take shape. "Pass me a water bottle and some of whatever food is over there."
"We're starting whatever you're planning with snack time?" Tex asked but wasted no time in complying with the order, because even with his pride apparently hurting, he trusted Tom enough to go along with whatever seemingly crazy suggestions he came up with under pressure.
"Yes we are," Tom said, "and if that goes well, we're going to have a singalong."
An hour later found Tex still singing. He had just finished a credible rendition of Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner and was starting Lawyers, Guns, And Money. They had taken one of the packaged food items, which turned out to be a gritty Ukrainian protein bar that tasted like it was left over from the cold war, chewed it into a paste and used it to completely cover the lens of the security camera. When that action drew no response from their captors, they were able to assume that either no one was actively watching the video feed, or it had never been functional. This allowed them to move on to phase two of the plan, which involved Tex singing any song that came to mind in order to drown out any sound of them attempting to sharpen the necks of the water bottles, the only place where the plastic was thick enough to potentially hold an edge or a point. Tex had cycled through the work of various country singers, the Beatles, and one brief, ill-fated Lady Gaga impersonation before he had settled on the idea that Warren Zevon seemed to suit the mood.
"Well, I went home with the waitress, the way I always do," he sang. "How was I to know she was with the Russians, too?" Only, instead of continuing the song, Tex trailed off, lost in thoughts of his own. "Damn cock-blocking Russians," he muttered, probably louder than he had meant to.
Tom looked up from his latest attempt at turning an eco-friendly bottle into something decidedly less human-friendly, raised an eyebrow and smiled. "Oh, so you do remember that part of the conversation," he said.
"You're damn right I remember it," Tex said. "Though, I hadn't meant to mention it unless you did, and then you were acting like you either didn't remember or just plain wanted to pretend that it hadn't happened now that you were sober."
"I hadn't had that much to drink!"
"Neither had I!"
Somebody pounded their fist on the outside of the shipping container, causing Tom to wince from the noise. Tex did not look particularly happy about it either. "Shut up in there," a heavily accented voice shouted.
"When we get out of here, I am going to kick all their asses, every single one. I don't care how many of them there are," Tex said though gritted teeth, trying to remember where he had left off in the song so they could get back to work. Or maybe he should just start over.
"Too bad you never learned how to tell them that in Russian," Tom said.
"Potselui mou zhopy," Tex said. His pronunciation was terrible, but Tom knew what he meant.
"Not yet," Tom said. "That can be your reward for once we've gotten home."
Tex grinned. "I'm going to hold you to that, Commodore."
"I wouldn't have it any other way, Tex."
Then there was another banging on the door and a shout of, "The Admiral will see you now," and they were out of time and had to make do with what they had. The door to the container opened, flooding the interior with bright sunlight. The Russians, who turned out to be old friends of Ruskov looking to continue his legacy, never knew what hit them, except for one, who had a brief but clear view of a sharpened plastic bottle going into his eye before getting his neck snapped and his gun taken away.
After that, it was a slow and boring ride home, but Tom and Tex found ways to pass the time together.