Amber swung her flashlight in a wide arc, stopping on Ishmael’s face. He raised his hand to shield his eyes. Annoyance, not concern, twisted his features. He grabbed Amber’s wrist and lowered the flashlight to the deck. Served him right. Lack of light discipline was a newbie mistake. An experienced diver, he should have known how challenging this dive would be for Amber.
Mer gathered them together. She had a job to do, and time was wasting. Each breath they drew depleted their air, and Amber’s anxiety level increased her air consumption. They’d have to return soon.
Mer used hand signs to tell Ishmael to stay close to Amber, and for both of them to follow her. She placed more glow sticks along the way: a trail of high-tech bread crumbs to mark their way home.
The Spiegel Grove was five hundred and ten feet long—far too big to explore in a single dive. It once carried a crew of three hundred and fifty, and a full detachment of U.S. marines who would deploy in smaller vessels launched from the stern.
Two massive cranes spanned the vessel midship. Forward, several levels of decks cantilevered like a pyramid. Hatches had been removed and swim-throughs ran the length of the deck and encouraged divers to explore the hallways. During the day, the openings acted as beacons, guiding divers through the passages, pointing the way out. At night, the ship became a maze, dark and disorienting.
The Spiegel Grove had never lost a crewman’s soul to combat, but she had claimed the lives of several divers who had penetrated the wreck deep below her decks, trespassing where they didn’t belong.
A shiver ran down Mer’s spine. She wasn’t afraid of dying. As a scientist, she recognized that death was just another stage of life. But she still remembered the moment—that last second before her body convulsed and she inhaled what should have been air. It was an eternal instant of pure hopelessness. And that had scared her more than anything.
She looked behind her. Shook off the memories. The green glow of the light sticks still marked their path back to the surface.
Ishmael floated next to an opening in the side of the ship. Mer had been through that passage numerous times. It cut across the beam of the ship and created a wonderful path for divers to use—during the day.
Make the proper turns and divers could see the Spiegel Beagle—a fading image of Snoopy painted on the hallway floor. The mascot, clad in a sailor hat, rode an alligator encircled by the words “USS Spiegel Grove.” Silt often obscured it from view, and plenty of divers had passed over it without ever seeing it.
Ishmael gently tugged on Mer’s fin to get her attention and signaled that he wanted to affix the recording device to the hull. Magnets would hold the encased electronics to the ship and the data would be collected over the next several hours and long after they’d left for the night.
She kicked away from the ship and hovered above the blackness. Another thirty feet separated her from the sand. Jacques Cousteau had once said that the ocean realm was silent. It wasn’t. The sea was full of clicks and chomps, scrapes and rasps. But even though sound traveled faster through water than through air, it lacked the frenetic pace of urban life. It hummed. And that comforted Mer.
She drew a breath. The air in her tank was drier than the humid air above the water. When she exhaled, bubbles floated past her mask, beads that merged and separated like quicksilver in their race to the surface. She checked her gauges and then Amber’s. They had about a minute before they would have to turn around and ascend.
Ishmael directed Amber to take a photo of him placing the listening device against the hull, but then held up his finger to delay her. He examined the bottom of the plate, wiped it with his gloved hand, and tried again. He beckoned Mer. Keeping an eye on Amber, she swam over. He pantomimed for her to hold the equipment against the hull.
The device weighed more than she’d anticipated. Ishmael fiddled with it, his fins kicking up silt from the passageway that reflected in the beam of her flashlight. The seconds ticked away. At last, it seemed to hold.
Ishmael signaled Amber to take the photo. Mer bit her regulator. They didn’t have time for this nonsense. Anyone with a modicum of photographic experience knew that all the silt Ishmael had kicked up would ruin the picture. Before Mer could object, Amber raised the camera to her face. The strobe lights on either side of the camera gave her the appearance of horns.
A bright light rent the darkness. The camera flash continued to strobe, illuminating the swirled silt and blinding Mer. The magnet failed and the listening device slipped past her fingers. She lunged for the box, pinning it against the hull until she could readjust her grip.
Light. Dark. Light. Dark. Her movements looked robotic. Disjointed. She turned her face and tried to shield her eyes. She couldn’t see past the lights. Couldn’t see anything beyond the spots in her own vision. The box shifted again. Ishmael still didn’t help.
The scream came from all directions at once. Distorted but recognizable.
Amber dropped the camera. The strobe continued to fire. Stabbing the darkness. Chiseling her face into unnatural angles.
Mer blinked several times, flushing the light from her eyes like tears.
Another scream. Tortured.
The listening device slipped from Mer’s grasp. She let it go. It didn’t matter. Amber’s screams, a jumble of bubbles and fear, whimpered into silence. Mer grabbed Amber’s hand before she could claw the mask from her face and bolt for the surface.
Below them, the light flickered. Feeble now. Dying.
Amber stopped struggling, stopped doing anything but clenching her eyes shut.
Mer moved behind her and held her regulator in her mouth. Passive panic could morph into aggression at any moment, and Mer wanted to be in a better position if that happened.
She had to get Amber to the surface. Safely. That meant slowly. Too fast, and they’d both run the risk of decompression sickness. Getting bent meant no diving for a minimum of six weeks—possibly forever. That’s if they survived it.
She swept the beam of her light across the coral-encrusted hull and the yawning hatch. Where was Ishmael? She pointed her light toward the area where she’d attached the three glow sticks. A dark shadow swam toward the mooring line. Ishmael. Nice of him to wait.
Bubbles rose from Amber’s regulator in short, quick bursts. She’d be out of air soon. Mer took her by the hand and squeezed. Amber squeezed back. Good.
The green glow sticks marked their way. Mer dragged an unresisting Amber back to the mooring line and started to ascend. She calculated time in her head. Sixty feet per minute, a two-minute safety stop at fifty feet. A three-minute safety stop at fifteen feet. As long as Amber didn’t have another panic attack, they’d be back on the boat within nine minutes. Within ten minutes, Mer would be throwing Ishmael overboard for breaking ranks and abandoning them.