Dripping wet and freezing cold, David Nash stood in the airlock of the large shark-like vessel and waited for the small door that would let him inside to open. Next to him, the man named Thresher hadn’t said a word the entire time they were standing here. They had remained in silence for what felt like ages before the groan of the metal door finally echoed in the chamber.
“Nice job out there.” David turned to see a middle-aged man with a receding hairline looking at them both with a gentle smile as he entered the airlock.
“I’m not happy about what had to be done,” Thresher replied. “Did the other two escape?”
“Yeah, looks like they’re making a straight shot to Section Eleven.”
Thresher closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “I told you to have the Barracuda on an intercept. I need one of those two buffoons.”
“We did,” the man replied sharply. “Then the Intrepid showed up and nearly punched through their hull, so we had to fall back.”
“We need one of them,” Thresher repeated.
“Well you were the one in their base,” the man rebutted. “Perhaps you might have brought one of them back? Who’s the new guy?”
Thresher looked at David and seemed almost surprised to see him there.
“He’s not one of the Guardians. He’s from the town we visited.”
The man nodded. “Ah, gotcha. The other pilot?” The man extended his hand toward David in a welcoming way. “My name is Pete. What’s yours?”
“Uh, David Nash.”
“Listen,” Thresher said, his voice agitated. “Is the Barracuda in range?”
“Any minutes. Like I said, they took a beating earlier.”
“Get them here. I’ve got a mission for them.”
“Yes, sir,” Pete said, looking a little annoyed. “Right away.”
The man spun around and left the airlock, but Thresher didn’t follow. Instead, he turned to look at David Nash and started to unlatch his outer suit attachments.
“Tell me David, how did you end up with the Guardians?” he asked. “Your friend Flynn was trapped in the cockpit of your vehicle when we found him.”
David frowned. “I couldn’t get him out. We decided I’d go call for help. When I left, I was captured by the two you saw. We went to get Flynn, but he was already gone. They made it seem like that was a bad thing, but it sounds like it worked out better for him than it did for me.”
“I’m going to have the Barracuda take you home,” Thresher said as he slid the large apparatus off his shoulders so that he was free to move around. “You and Flynn were very brave for coming up here, but this place… this isn’t for you.”
“Maybe not,” David admitted. “That doesn’t mean I don’t deserve some answers. From you… from my captors. I’ve been running in the blind for too long.”
“Once you’re back home you won’t need to worry about—”
“Enough!” David shouted. “I appreciate your gesture and the ride home. I really do. That doesn’t change the fact that I’ve seen things that cannot be unseen. If you just bottle me up and send me home, I’m never going to stop trying to figure out a way to come back. You want me to go away for good? Then tell me what is going on here.”
Thresher was silent a long time. David started to worry that he’d just burned the one bridge that was going to get him home. Still, he stood his ground and waited. He had to know.
“Fine,” Thresher finally mumbled. “You have until the Barracuda arrives. What do you want to know?”
“Where are we? Right now.”
“Why are we under the water?”
“This area of the ship was purposely designed to be flooded so that it would create an archipelago, tropical climate, and also generate energy through hydroelectric facilities that border the Section Six bulkhead.”
“What is Section Six?”
“That’s the area where you crashed.”
David nodded. “In town we call that area the Upper Level Plateau.”
“A lovely description, but the ship’s schematics label it as Section Zero-Six.”
“Do you know about the Core?” David asked.
“How did you get from the Core to the Upper Levels?”
Now, Thresher smiled. “Who said I came from the Core?”
“What does that mean?”
Before Thresher could answer, the radio speaker buzzed above them. “Hey Captain, the Barracuda is in position to dock. We are awaiting passenger for transport.”
“Roger that,” Thresher answered. “Thank you for the quick response.”
“Wait,” David interjected. “I have so many—”
“I’m afraid our time is up, David Nash,” Thresher said, gesturing toward the airlock where the Barracuda was making its connections. “I understand your morbid curiosity, but I’m afraid you are going to have to keep it in check moving forward. I made a promise to your people back in that nice town… I’m extending it to you. Go home. Stay in your town. Explore to your content down there, but if you ever attempt to return to the Upper Levels, I will destroy any vessel you send.”
“We just want answers,” David said. “Knowledge.”
“That’s your first mistake,” Thresher replied while the door behind him began to hiss from the pressure valve that indicated the exterior hatch was opening. “Now, your ride awaits.”
The Barracuda was still a large vehicle compared to Thresher’s own ship, but David didn’t have room to move around once he was pushed into the back of the vehicle by Pete, who seemed to be joining him on this trip.
“Who are you people?” David asked as they started to break away from Thresher’s ship and push through the waters ahead.
“People just like you,” Pete answered, without looking away from his scopes. “At least, we used to be. Believe it or not… I used to own a pizza shop.”
“A pizza shop?” David asked, perplexed. “How did you get here from there?”
The pilot turned to look at David sporting a smirk. “You really wanna know?”
“Of course, I want to know.”
“Well, alright then. The truth is, I lived in the Hub with Ronin and all the others. Thresher did too. All of us. Of course, Thresher was never happy with the situation. Me? I made pizza. Truth be told, when he started up his organization, Thresher just needed someone that could cook food. I was sympathetic to his cause.”
“What is his cause?” David pressed. “Who are the Guardians?”
“It’s too long a story to tell on this trip,” Pete answered. “Truth be told, none of the history behind any of it will make you feel better anyway. The best thing for you to do is go on home. Tell your friends and family about this wild adventure you had, and then stay away from here. You’re safe. That should be enough.”
“You have to know that’s not enough. I can’t just go back home and forget about all the things I’ve seen here. You guys have these vehicles, water as far as the eye can see, laboratories, and who knows what else. I want to know everything.”
Pete chuckled. “The explorer and adventurer to the core. Yeah, we’ve got a lot of things figured out up here, but we also have danger and—”
An alarm sounded on the vehicle’s console. Pete looked at it for a long moment and then picked up his radio and started buzzing the airwaves. “Thresher, we have incoming. I think it’s the Intrepid.”
“We are unable to assist at this time,” Thresher’s voice crackled over the radio. “Pete, push forward. Get out of Section Ten.”
“Negative, I cannot comply. Enemy is on intercept.”
“Do not engage,” Thresher said, his voice louder than a moment ago. “You have… and I…”
Static claimed the transmission. Pete cursed and tossed the radio aside. “They’re scrambling the signal.”
“The Guardians,” Pete answered. “The people that operated the base we just destroyed.”
“They’re coming for us?”
Pete reached down to take some controls, and the Barracuda started to pick up speed. They were pushing through the water at a fast clip, but as David scooted toward the cockpit he could see the enemy blip, on what was likely the ship’s RADAR, drawing ever closer. When Pete turned and saw that David had nearly snuck up on him, he grunted and pushed him back toward the ship’s rear. “Don’t come up here!”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Just… don’t panic,” Pete said. “I’m taking us up.”
The floor felt like it was suddenly lifting, and the entire vehicle tilted upward until Pete was on a steep angle high above David’s head. The ship hummed along, pushing ever closer to the surface of the water. When they breached the surface, it felt like a brief moment of weightlessness.
Pete pressed a few buttons, and the hum of repulsors echoed inside the Barracuda. Pete had activated a repulsor mechanism, and they were resting in the air at least a dozen feet above the slate of blue water below.
The enemy was still getting closer.
“We can go a lot faster out of the water,” Pete explained, pressing forward on the controls. “Once we have some distance between us we can—”
Pete stopped short when he saw that the single blip had become two blips, with one of them closing in much faster than before.
“That… can’t be right,” he said. “They don’t have weapons like that.”
“What?” David asked.
The small blip was coming in way too fast.
“Sit down!” Pete yelled. “Buckle up!”
David did as he was told, trying to figure out what was going on. He struggled to find some kind of seat restraint as he sat in his chair. He had just managed to find the two pieces of the harness when he saw the front half of the Barracuda vanish in a blazing fireball.
The hum of the repulsors slowly died. The wind, both hot and cold, whipped through the open ship that was lowering toward the water’s surface. David grabbed the railing inside the vehicle as it started to tumble. The more the wind kicked against it, the more violent the spinning became. David couldn’t keep track of which way was up or down.
The last of the sounds faded away, leaving him in a silent freefall for several moments before the ship collided with the water’s surface.
The force of the collision propelled him forward. He was thrown free from the wreckage, remained airbourne a moment longer, and then skipped across the water’s surface a few times before coming to a halt.
As he started to sink below the waves he kicked furiously a few times, but he was far too tired to tread water. He gave it a few moments of effort, but the dizziness from the fall and the chaos of the entire event had overwhelmed him.
He surrendered himself to the waves.
He went still, letting himself be submerged.
He knew this was the end.
Then, his wetsuit safety feature kicked in. As it detected no movement, it triggered an automatic deployment of an inflatable life vest. His body rushed back to the surface, and he gasped for air when he arrived at the top.
His blurred vision made out the black smoke that billowed from the surface of the water where debris and fuel now burned. He was fortunate, that he had not been crushed by the wreckage, and with some furious kicking he distanced himself from the burning remains.
Within a few minutes, the last of the large pieces sank into the dark waters, while the fires burned on. David positioned himself as best he could, leaning back on his life vest so that it kept him above the waterline. Still, the water was not very calm, and he struggled to keep water from splashing up in his nostrils or mouth.
As time continued to march on, he began to wonder if he had really survived the crash at all. He was alone and adrift in this sea, with no idea where he might find land, or anyone that might rescue him. The light was fading fast and darkness was absolute here in the water. Floating there, be began to wonder if there would be a morning for him at all…