North’s ears popped as the micro-sub rose toward the surface. The vessel’s hull creaked, relaxing against the weakening pressure.
“Almost there,” Jeffers called out. “We’re visible from above by now.”
“I’ll go first,” Holland said.
North nodded. “Works for me.”
They both pulled their ski masks over their heads, leaving only their mouths, eyes and nostrils exposed. North grabbed the release wheel near the top porthole.
The interior brightened as the sub broke into sunlight, bobbing on the water like a discarded bottle.
“We’re up,” Jeffers said, his tone calm but crisp. “Go.”
North spun the lock wheel as fast as he could. The top hatch came loose with a hiss. He braced his feet against the machinery inside the sub and pushed open the small round door, setting it down quietly on the outer metal skin of the sub.
When he stood, the rim of the porthole was at his waist. The white hull of the Sunset Mist loomed above him, open walkways bounded by railings rising all along its side. The nearest railing was several feet above, the hall ending in a service door on one side, a dead end on the other.
North quickly scanned the ship for movement.
He reached down into the sub and signaled Holland with a thumbs-up. She slapped a three-pronged grappling hook into his palm. North pulled, drawing out slack from the cable. He spun the hook over his head once before releasing. It caught the bottom rail with a clang.
North pulled with all his strength on the cable, hand over hand, dragging the sub toward the cruise ship until it gently banged against the much larger ship’s hull. He dropped into the sub.
“Good to go,” he said. Holland was twisting the cable around a metal brace.
Jeffers had spun his chair around and was looking on.
“I’ve got that, Holland,” he said. “You go.”
Holland leapt up through the porthole, grabbed the cable and climbed up, hanging down, going hand over hand until she could grab the railing. She twisted her grip, pulled herself up and vaulted over. She landed on her feet crouched like a cat, her pistol out, watching the nearby service door.
North followed up the cable in the same manner, landing on the metal walkway with a thud. As soon as his boots hit the deck, Jeffers let out the cable until the hook fell loose. North tossed the hook into the water and Jeffers pulled it in.
North took a second to confirm the hall to their back ended in a dead end. He turned and faced the door, gun drawn.
Inside the micro-sub, Jeffers was furiously spinning the wheel to seal the top porthole. He gave a thumbs-up through the glass and retreated to the control panel. The sub quietly sank under the water, until it was gone in the darkness.
Jeffers’ voice sounded in their ears. “Test. Test. Can you hear me?” he said, the volume fading.
North pinched his neck with thumb and index finger, activating the throat mic. “We hear you,” he said, looking to Holland.
She activated her mic. “I’m here, too.”
“We’re all good,” North said. “See you soon.”
“Happy hunting,” Jeffers said.
Holland was checking the door. She tugged on the handle twice while North kept watch out on the open sea. Without warning, Holland stepped back and pointed her gun at the lock. The silencer kept the shots quiet, but the bullets hit the metal with an echoing clang.
She tested the handle again. The door held.
“God damn it,” North said. “Keep it down. Use your knife.”
Holland turned around to say something, but her gaze shot past him.
“Company! Coming around!”
North turned and saw the angular gray shape of a small military vessel in the distance. A white wake spread out from either side. She was approaching fast.
“Down!” Holland yelled.
The railing they had climbed over consisted of three thick pipes with open air between them to prevent the ship from taking on water. Broad, solid supports were spaced every ten feet.
Holland and North crouched together behind one of the supports just wide enough to hide them both.
“Did they see us?” North asked.
Bullets pinged over their heads, sparking on the hull above them. A burning smell filled the air.
“I’m going to say yes,” Holland said.
North peeked from their cover. The dull gray vessel was closing fast. Muzzle flashes erupted as riflemen on the deck shot at them.
North leapt up and threw his weight against the door. The metal bent with a squeal but held. He dove back to cover as gunfire peppered the door, flinging sparks.
“If they get much closer, we’re done,” he yelled. “Get your knife.”
Holland unsheathed her combat knife.
“Go when I fire,” North said.
He leapt up, fired two shots and dropped. The return fire hit the hull above him. With their attackers distracted, Holland rushed the door, jamming her knife into the space between the handle and the lock. She wiggled the blade but the door didn’t budge.
“Come back!” North yelled. “Jump back!”
Holland’s knife bent, and the door gave, flinging open with a bang. She dove in, bullets lancing over her hunched back and into the ship’s interior. North kept low and leapt in after her.
On their knees inside, they slammed the door shut. Bullets ricocheted off the door but failed to penetrate. The firing outside stopped.
They caught their breath in the darkness, creeping backwards, weapons trained on the door.
The sound of the engine grew louder as the ship came closer, idling just a few yards away. They heard men yelling, but couldn’t make out the words.
The engine sound roared, then slowed, then stopped.
Holland stood up. “Not the most elegant entrance, but-”
North grabbed her and pulled her down. He held a finger to his lips.
They waited, listening to the waves gently slap the cruise ship’s hull.
“Come on, they’re gone,” Holland said.
“They only revved the engine,” North whispered. “They’re trying to trick us.”
“Let me peek.”
“No,” North held her with one hand, gun still aimed at the door. She struggled but North held on.
“Patience,” he said.
Holland stopped squirming.
They waited, listening.
Waves calmly brushed against the cruise ship.
Suddenly, the quiet was destroyed by an engine roaring to life. This time it faded away. North let go of Holland’s arm.
She moved to the door and peeked out where her knife had made a slight indentation.
“All clear,” she said, rising from her crouch. “Some of your old Special Forces buddies out there?”
“If they are, we’ll be getting to our target just as this whole thing ends.”
“Then we better hustle,” Holland said. “I don’t want them to get all the kills.”