Toby Auchmann worked at his laptop, studying satellite photos, maps and charts. By process of elimination, they were working their way across the south Pacific, hopping from island to island with helicopters, looking for Dr. Julian Connors' secret laboratories. As Toby sat in his office in the Oscorp building in Brisbane, the air conditioners could not keep the sweat from rolling down his back. Perhaps it was also the thought of spending another ten hours in a helicopter, searching for an island that wasn't on the map. But, he had a feeling that they were getting close. His office door opened and Frank Castle walked in the room.
"What news, Colonel? Has Dr. Kasady returned?"
"Indeed, sir, and Lieutenant Soria is here to report."
"Good. Send her in." Adriana Soria, former US marine, now private security contractor, was soon standing at attention in his office. "I could use some good news for a change, Lieutenant. Tell me you have something for me."
"Dr. Kasady sends his respects, Doctor, along with your information packet."
Toby opened the envelope handed to him by Adriana and he cast his eyes over the information within. His interest was particularly fixated on the photos that Guy had sent. "This could certainly be something, Lieutenant. Where were these photos taken?"
"On an uninhabited atoll, close to Samoa. We ran low on fuel and had to return. But I believe it was Dr. Kasady's intention to return for a closer inspection, pending your approval Dr. Auchmann."
"Certainly. Here he comes now. Great work, Guy! Based on what I've seen so far, I think you may have found it!"
"I figured you would agree with me. You see these small buildings? You can just make them out at the edge of the jungle? Those could be dormitories of some sort. And if you look at the satellite photos here, blown up, these…" he pointed to some square images. "...look like they could quite possibly be solar panels."
"Well we started off with the unenviable task of looking for a needle in a haystack, but it seems that our hard work and persistence could finally be paying off. And not a moment too soon. I've just gotten word that Iraklis is coming here, with his new pet, Harold Osborne." Toby pronounced the last name with particular disdain. "And I have a feeling that the time for back room bargaining and negotiations are over. Iraklis will be out for blood, so that's why we have to get to this island first before they can destroy the evidence and murder us."
"Lieutenant! How soon can we be back in the air?" Guy barked at Soria.
"We can have the heli's refuelled and packed in under four hours, sir," she replied.
"We should go in hot, with all of our troops." said Toby. "If Iraklis wants to launch an attack, then we'll already be dug in and ready to put up a fight."
"Right behind you, sir!" smiled Castle.
Tom examined his thin paper coffee cup, regretting the bitter taste of its contents. If this wasn't cheap instant coffee he was drinking, then someone had demonstrated his great incompetence to prepare it so poorly. He licked his lips, trying to get the weak yet burnt taste off his tongue.
He looked out the window of the airport and sighed, not looking forward to what the next few days would hold. He also lamented that he found himself in Sydney, a city he had always dreamed of visiting, and all he would be able to see would be the airport. Resigning himself to what would have to be done to accomplish his goals, he choked back the rest of the warm, brown liquid and prepared himself to return to the Oscorp jet. They were scheduled to fly to Brisbane in an hour.
As he made his way back to the plane, he found Iraklis poring over different maps while comparing these with what he saw on his laptop.
"Any luck?" Tom asked.
"We know where we're going. A small, uninhabited volcanic island known as Noble's Isle. We think that Doc Ock's team are also aware of its location and have a head start on us."
"So what's the plan?"
"That's what I'm working on right now. But I know where I'd like you to be. Our objective is to secure the island with all of its contents, and seal it off. Now it's a safe bet that Ock knows we're coming, so he will no doubt try and to either get evidence off of the island to incriminate us, or film and photograph what he finds and then transmit this information to a server on the mainland. Our first priority will be to block any transmissions coming from this island. I read in your CV that you have a background in computers. Is setting up the equipment and operating it to effectively block any communications on and off of the island something you can handle?"
"Shouldn't be problem. I'll just need a few things."
"You'll get whatever you want. You'll just need to operate everything until we land. Then you'll probably want to stay in whatever hiding place you can find until we've got the island secured. Something tells me that this is going to be a rough ride."
"Great. Well, as long as I'm in the lab or at a computer desk, I should be fine."
Iraklis just looked at Tom gravely, and nodded.
Toby loaded the rest of his gear into his backpack, and prepared to run across the tarmac to his waiting helicopter. He saw that Guy was already loaded up and waiting to go. Toby just had one thing to do. "Dr. Morgan." he said, talking to Peter. "We need you to buy us some time. We don't know exactly what will be waiting for us on the island, so we need you to do whatever you can to slow down Iraklis and his team of knuckle-draggers. We've always been one step ahead of them, and if we remain true to ourselves that is not going to change. Although we have the intellectual advantages, we cannot underestimate their savage resolve. We will have to be meticulously cold-hearted as well if we are to stop them, calling in every resource."
"I understand completely, Toby. Good luck."
"To you as well, Peter," he said, shaking his hand.
Tom and Harry were on their way to the helicopters they had requisitioned for their mission to Noble's Isle when airport security pulled them over in their truck. "I'm sorry, gentlemen, but you're going to have to come with us." They later learned that they had received a tip that drug smugglers were using their helicopters and they needed to analyze their equipment, cargo and personnel manifests, and a hundred other details before they would clear them for take off. Until they were satisfied, their helicopters were grounded. Iraklis started calling in favours through various contacts that he had to expedite the process, but it was still very slow. They sent Tom to take his equipment to the dock and try and head to the island by boat.
"That will take hours, maybe days!" Tom protested.
"Then get going!' was the response.
Tom managed to find a boat that was big and fast enough to get him and his equipment close to the island, where he could start jamming their signals from the ocean. He got a crew together from the sailors who were hanging around the docks looking for work. Most of them were of Vietnamese origin, with a few Chinese and Malay mixed in. As they equipped the boat and headed out to sea, Tom felt confident with his motley crew of experienced mariners. Most were former fishermen in their countries of heritage, and seemed calmly confident on the open sea. Tom did not have much experience as a boat captain, but since he was paying for the voyage, he was in charge.
As they headed out to the open ocean, Tom felt freer than he had in a long time. Something about the bracing sea air, the salty spray that would splash his face, the dolphins that played in their wake, and the seagulls that followed them for a time, Tom felt like he was escaping from some of his problems and worries.
After a few hours of sailing, when they found themselves far enough out in the open sea that there was no land in sight, a boat was spotted by one of the sharp-eyed deckhands. The news of an approaching motorboat seemed to set the crew on edge, "What's the big deal?" asked Tom. "It's probably just fishermen or something, right?"
"No, captain, sir. Not this far away from shore," replied Khai, the one who seemed to have been promoted to first mate.
"Then who would they be?" asked Tom, looking through the binoculars. "They're not my rivals in my company." He had tried to explain the basics of what their mission was with our freaking them out. Basically he had said that they were competing for a prize in their science group, and that if they could get to the island as soon as possible, they would win the award.
"No sir. These are not, er, round eyes. These would be pirates."
"Pirates?" Tom peered incredulously through the binoculars. "They really just look like some average guys in a boat."
"Believe me, we know sir. Every one of us here from Vietnam had to escape the pirates to arrive safely in another port. These pirates, they come from Thailand. They terrible. They kill and rape, everybody. They not care if you woman, child, baby. They kill you with hammer when done." Khai was very visibly shaken up, like he had just had an unwelcome visit from a ghost with whom he had old animosity, but had not been seen nor heard from for a long time.
"And you're sure that's who this is?" asked Tom, askance. "Why didn't you say something when we left Brisbane if we were heading into pirate territory?"
"This isn't normally pirate water!" Khai was almost yelling. "They're not usually this far south. I don't know what they doing here or how they found us, but those are pirates, and we need to get all hands below!"
Khai's face that was bordering on hysteria was enough to convince Tom that something was seriously wrong. He sounded the alarm and Khai informed the crew. They didn't have much in the way of weapons, but whatever they could find was soon in the hands of the frightened looking crew. The majority of them had faced pirates before, or at least had heard the horror stories. Most of them wore a grave countenance and clutched their bludgeons, knives or machetes or whatever tool they had for self-defence.
Some of the sailors were talking excitedly in Vietnamese. When Tom asked Khai what was the argument, he translated, "Some think that if we put up a fight, it will mean death for us all. So they are saying we should just surrender."
Tom felt a knot tighten in his gut. "Surrender? They want to just give up? Okay, listen up everybody," Tom addressed the crew. "We're going to try to get you out of this. But we're going to have to work together. These guys, these pirates, they don't want prisoners. They want to kill us. I'm sorry, but it's true."
"How do you know?" asked a terrified sailor.
"Because they were hired by our enemies." A blended mix of oaths in a many languages erupted in the cabin. "But – but," Tom tried to get their attention, waving his hands. "But we have one weapon that these pirates are not counting on. I am a trained soldier, and I am an expert in hand-to-hand combat. If we can just hold on and stay safe and alive until the pirates come close, we should be able to overpower them. So everyone hide down in the hold and we're going to let these pirates come aboard. The longer we can stay out of sight the better, and we have to hope that they won't just sink us. Hopefully they're counting on us carrying some valuable cargo, and they would be right."
Tom was interrupted by a bunch of sailors excitedly talking in Vietnamese all at the same time. Tom didn't need a translator to understand their mutinous intentions. He needed to choose his next few words carefully if he was going to salvage this mission. Thankfully for the time being, he seemed to still have Khai's support, as he whistled loudly and said something that got everyone to stop talking and listen as Tom continued.
"If I can appeal to their greed then maybe I can convince them to capture me for ransom. That way I can keep all of you safe. Remember: hunker down here. Don't come out unless I tell you. You're all getting out of this safely, as long as we follow the plan. Now let's prepare for battle."
As the sailors busied themselves around the boat, looking for a place to set themselves so that they could hide, but yet take a stand when the time came, Tom looked pensively back at the fast approaching pirate boat. Obviously he had lied. He wasn't a soldier, and he had no training in combat. "I really should think about getting some martial arts training," he said aloud, gloomily. No one was bothering to pay attention to him now. They were getting their adrenalin up, begging their gods to save them or allow them to die with dignity.
While Tom had fibbed to try and instil some confidence in the crew so that they would rally behind him and defend themselves, now he was having trouble maintaining the brave face of a battle leader. His plan was simply to rely on his enhanced abilities to win this fight, but the uncertainty and stress of engaging in a bloody battle was beginning to overwhelm him. He had never faced a group of experienced killers before, and he had never had a group of people whose lives depended on him.
Tom closed his eyes momentarily and breathed deeply. Well, there was no time for second guessing now, he told himself. He would fight, and he couldn't let fear of death or failure slow him down. He reminded himself of why he was doing any of this. Why was he in this situation? He pulled out his phone and looked at a photo of Mariah. Maybe these pirates felt they had their reasons for their life choices. And maybe they felt justified in carrying out atrocities here close to their homelands. But just as they had made choices that resulted in destiny pitting them against him, he also had made choices and was highly motivated to be successful. Fate had placed them at loggerheads, and unfortunately for these hapless wretches, they would have to go down. It wasn't anything personal. It was the way of the world.
Tom set his jaw and steeled his nerve and got ready to take his position. He lay low on the deck, and swiftly went to the far side of the yacht away from the approaching attackers and hung off the side, spider-like, waiting to convert the hunters into the prey.
As the pirate boat got close, they called from a megaphone, "American boat! Stop your engines and prepare to be boarded! None of you will be hurt! But you must give up and surrender! If you do not stop your engines, we will shoot all of you and sink your vessel! American boat! Stop your engines and prepare to be boarded!"
Tom held his breath. Khai had orders to keep the engines at full throttle and to keep down and out of sight. Without any further warnings, the pirates made good on their threat. Machine gun fire started peppering the deck and shattering the windows. Everyone kept out of sight and survived this first assault. As the pirate boat paused their shooting to get a better angle, they swung around closer to the side that Tom was hiding on near the bow. He was having trouble staying out of sight, but he was trying to hold on until they got a bit closer. Soon they were going further to the side to try and lay some more machine gun fire, but on the other side of the boat this time. They were a little further out then Tom would have preferred, but he decided that this was the time to make his move. He just held on a little more as they tried to get into better position for their gunners.
As the lead pirate squeezed his finger on the trigger of his assault rifle, Tom rapidly swung up onto the deck and leaped the distance to land on the pirate boat. His heart was pumping so hard, time seemed to slow down. The bullets started to slowly rain down on the deck as Tom watched furtively to see if his calculations were correct, to leap from one speeding boat to another. As he descended on the pirate boat as an angel of death, he could see the whites of their eyes. Twelve straining eyes. Eight eyes bugging out to aim their guns and see if any of their bullets were finding human flesh to occupy. Two popping eyes of their pilot, skilfully guiding their boat in the attack. And two young eyes, with his gun lying dormant at his side, desperately watching everything that happened, perhaps observing his first violent enterprise. But as all were intensely focused on the boat, none of these wide opened eyes could be distracted to look up, to perceive from where the danger was actually coming from.
And even when Tom landed in their boat, knocking a gunner into the foamy ocean, the rest took a long time to react to this most unpredicted form of counterattack. Their sheer surprise and disbelief gave Tom the opportunity to kick another gunner in the throat, who then also fell back and plunged out of the boat. Tom plucked the machine gun out of the hands of an absolutely shocked looking third pirate, who couldn't even gather together his wits to respond with a defensive stance as Tom rifle-butted him across the face, knocking him to the floor of the boat.
Now it is true, that the aggressive introduction of this counterassault took place in a few short seconds. And impressively quickly, realization began to descend on the pirates that there was a near and present danger in their very midst. As they began to respond, Tom, although acting against his strong aversion to using firearms, felt that the desperation of his situation called for an exception, and he shot the pilot three times in the chest and watched him get knocked back and tumble into the roiling sea at the stern.
Now, the remaining two fully recognized the need to engage this threat that now faced them in their own boat. They trained their guns on Tom, and as he dodged their shots, he closed the little bit of distance between them to engage them in hand to hand fighting. He grabbed the gun out of the hand of the closest pirate, and pulling down hard on his left arm, rose up and delivered a punishing blow down on the side of the pirate's neck, knocking him senseless. The pirate boat was proceeding to slow down, so when the pirate went down and Tom kicked him out of the boat, Tom watched him float in the water for a few moments. Tom's attention was focused on the remaining pirate, but a sudden blue flash in the water caught Tom's eye. He turned in horror to watch a long rounded dorsal fin emerge to the surface followed by a thrashing body and giant bloody mouth with razor teeth and bright pink gums attack the screaming man in the water.
The remaining pirate took advantage of Tom's distraction, and delivered a full broadside in the face with the butt of his rifle. Tom staggered back, and while reeling, only managed to dodge the main force of the next blow, with the tip of the gun still catching him in the chin as the pirate swung his gun from the barrel like a battle axe. Shaking off the pain, Tom dropped and rolled to avoid the next swing and coming up from under his deft opponent and grabbing the doomed man by the crotch and the collar, he threw him into the ocean, where three hungry whitetip sharks were voraciously waiting. Tom looked back to see a hand momentarily rise, and then sink below the surface.
Feeling blood on his teeth, Tom spat into the water and wiped his face with his sleeve. His bloody saliva drew a curious, shadowy visitor as Tom saw the pointy face, followed by the long fins that nimbly spun in the water until Tom only saw a long mottled coloured tail that gracefully caused the water to churn. Like a phantom that rises from the abyss and just as quickly vanishes, Tom's attention was momentarily captured by what looked like a bite mark out of the upper lobe of the shark's tail. But as this sea predator was not an immediate threat, Tom looked now to the one unconscious pirate that had managed to fall and remain inside the boat. Tom tied him up and then went in search of his own yacht to let the crew know that they could lower the red alert. Danger, for now, had been averted.
Back in his yacht, Tom pored over maps and charts with Khai. "So if the pirate boat came from this direction, then the pirate mother ship would most likely be in this direction. Wouldn't you agree?" Tom looked to Khai for guidance.
Khai shrugged his shoulders. "It's possible, but more likely is that the bigger boat would be on the move and that they would have a previously planned meeting point. One where they could also hide our boat and then divide the stolen products."
"Well good thing we have one of them here with us."
Khai splashed cold water into the face of the bruised and bound pirate. As the man started to come around, Khai held back his head so that his prisoner could see him and hear him clearly. He began to fiercely interrogate the pirate in Thai. The defeated man just rolled his head down, almost to try and block out his predicament and his tormenter. Khai persisted his questioning, until finally the man mumbled an answer. Apparently it was not the response Khai was seeking, as he got more menacing and started slamming his fist into the steel bulkhead behind the man. The man started mumbling what sounded like the same expression over and over, in an almost whiny tone. Then Khai changed tack. He stopped his questioning and went to get the man some water. Then he offered him a bowl of rice, with a bit of chicken in it. When he had finished eating, he spoke to the man in a kind, almost fatherly tone. Slowly, the pirate began to speak, but as if he was politely protesting against something he strongly did not want to do. Khai kept up his gentle remonstrations, as his prisoner began to accept the futility of resisting the inevitable. Finally, with his head dropped to his chest, he declared something that brought a smile to Khai's face. He looked up at Tom who had watched the whole painful process from a bit of a distance. Khai said a couple more words and patted the man on his shoulder and head. Standing up, he kept grinning. "I got the meeting point."
Under cover of darkness, Tom piloted the pirate boat with his prisoner tied up and gagged, sitting in front of him. He had left Khai and the rest of the crew on the yacht with instructions to sneak up as close to the island as they could without being detected and to turn on the satellite signal jamming system. Tom had spent the last few hours setting up the equipment so that his crew would have no difficulty turning it on; hopefully. Now Tom was trying to get a bit of an upper hand in this contest. He knew that if the pirates did not report back to their bosses and to whoever had hired them, they would just send more. So Tom was hoping to strike back at them to further disrupt their plans and buy more time for Iraklis and Osborne.
They arrived at the rendezvous point, and Tom cut the motor of his small boat to idle, and waited. Sure enough, the faint silhouette of a yacht could be discerned. Tom and Khai had instructed the pirate to just act normal and call out the expected greeting, so as not to raise the alarm. But as a matter of course, Tom's nerves were on edge as he removed the rag from his prisoner's mouth. As the two boats edged closer to each other, with Tom only gently nudging the throttle, Tom heard a question in Thai called from the yacht. He nudged his prisoner, who cleared his throat and called out something as well. Although Tom couldn't understand Thai, the tone of the pirate's voice betrayed fear. Tom just prayed that the sound of the motor and the waves muffled that somewhat. As they passed within shooting distance, Tom sucked in his breath. He couldn't make a jump from this far away, and he could practically feel a rifle being pointed at him from the other boat. As if he was listening to his fears, the captive pirate called out an alarm in a panicked shout.
"Aw, hell's blazes!" yelled Tom, and immediately gunned his motor, lifting the prow of his boat out of the water and tossing his captive around like a rag doll, who had his hands unfortunately tied behind his back and could not prevent his face from being bounced off the bottom of the boat.
Voices yelled out to alert that they were under attack, and machine gun fire erupted out of the darkness in response to the alarm of Tom's prisoner. Tom was grateful for the speed of his little boat, and between the swift pace and the dark gloom, the shooters had difficulty in locating their target. They also did not expect Tom to be accelerating to ramming speed, so while they were still blindly scattering bullets into the dark night when the piercing sound of scraping metal screamed out as the yacht lurched to the side, knocking the shooters around. Tom had leaped into the air just moments before impact, and while the pirates in the mother ship were still trying to recover their senses, a rapidly moving, wraithlike figure was sweeping through their ranks, knocking them over the side, or beating them senseless.
Finally, one pirate managed to grab hold of his machine gun and began firing hysterically after Tom, as he ran and ducked for cover, rolling down a stairway below deck. There he leaped behind a bulkhead, as three surprised sailors pulled out their sidearms and began firing. Tom was trapped. He wished he had brought a gun, but he still hadn't come around to the idea of carrying one. Now the prospect of being able to defend himself in a pinned down situation was a lot more appealing. Thinking quickly, he grabbed a metal folding chair that was leaning nearby. As the sailors were advancing on his position, Tom moved forward on them as well using the chair as a shield. Once he was in striking distance, he was able to use the chair as an offensive weapon, bashing the face of one sailor, slamming the gun holding arm of the other, and kicking the gun out of the hand of the third. In a matter of seconds, he laid all three down unconscious by swinging the chair around and slamming it into skulls, jaws, and backs.
Tom dropped the chair to face the remaining figure in the cabin. "Hello Peter," he said. "Terrible circumstances to find each other in."
Peter looked positively shocked to find himself facing Tom. "Tom?" he stammered. "Wh-what are you doing here?"
"Call off your man up there," Tom ordered, referring to the sailor still wielding a machine gun. "Tell him that the situation is under control and we're just having a peaceful chat."
Peter wore a defeated expression on his haggard face. After a brief pause, he called to his soldier up on deck to stand down. Then he slowly started to move to the side of the cabin, where he opened a cupboard. "I never wanted any of this, you know."
"You never wanted what?"
Peter pulled out a whisky bottle and two glasses. "I mean I never wanted any of this violence. The politics are part of the job, I know. And I am still a believer in the value of having increased scientific representation in government, so obviously political debate is necessary. But now I feel that we, who were opposing what we believed to be inherently cataclysmic threats to humanity, have lost our moral authority and now we have our own wrongs that we must answer for. It is times like these, when the unadulterated truth of a finely crafted liquor are singularly useful, to help me make sense of an enigmatic problem. So when the world gets, shall we say, too complicated to understand, than I especially appreciate the subtle complexity found in a first rate single malt. Will you do me the honour of having a drink with me?" he asked, uncorking the bottle.
Tom pulled out a stool. "That's the most logical thing I've heard anyone say in a long time." Tom's nose inhaled the vapours from the glass and allowed the velvety, smoky liquid to envelop his tongue. When he exhaled, his throat and nostril burned pleasantly. "Now that... is a fine whisky," he said reflectively. "What is it that you are searching for, this truth that you seek? For you are likely to find it, if you rove about in a sublime spirit such as this."
Peter sighed and stared contemplatively out the window. "I'd say I'm looking for some sort of faith. Faith in my fellow man. Or even, hope in the future for humankind. I used to believe that pollution and climate change were the greatest threats facing humanity. But now I believe that irresponsible technology and reckless corporate agendas will spell the end of the human age, or at least bring twilight to our civilization." He took another sip of his drink.
Tom tapped his glass with his fingers. "Well it might surprise you to hear that I'm not in complete disagreement with you. What's more, I think we can work together for the time being. Although I'm a believer in the positive benefits of transgenic medical treatments, I also would like to see just what Dr. Connors hid away from the world on these secret island laboratories. So tomorrow, we'll quietly take your yacht and sneak onto the island for some investigation."
Peter looked woebegone. "Perhaps after tomorrow, you'll want to re-examine your beliefs as well," he said despondently.