Chapter 23

 

“Took you long enough,” Toth muttered as Olembe entered the command center.

“My apologies, I was indisposed with our guest.  What do we have?”

“Subaquatic sensors picked it up just now,” Toth told him, watching the target approach.  “It’s too small to be a submersible, but too slow to be a projectile.  It’s also not giving off an IFF signal.”

Sprawled over the wall of monitors ahead was a map of the waters surrounding Argo; from a distance of several dozen klicks, a single blip coasted in the island’s direction.

To the side, a clip from an underwater camera, barely intelligible, played on repeat.  Despite the depth at which the footage was taken, and the consequent darkness, swells and distortions in the water were detectable.  Through the middle of the image, for only a moment, a granulated object passed—a pale, translucent smear.

“We’ve already contacted Stockholm and called for assistance,” Toth explained.  “They’ve ordered the USS Eisenhower to join us, though they’re still en route.”

“They are also unequipped for subaquatic combat,” Olembe added.

“Yes, but the closest NATO-controlled sub is a hundred klicks west of here.  The Ike can get here in a fraction of the time.”

“You think, then… that this is a Q?”

“There’s not a doubt in my mind.”

Olembe focused on the steadily approaching blip.  “We should raise the wall.”

Knowing that raising the walls required both the authority of the commanding officer and her immediate subordinate, Toth gave the order anyway.

Warning sirens blared at the ends of the island’s seven piers, warning incoming ships and aircraft to maintain their distance.  Thereafter, one by one, heavy metal slats circumscribing Argo, rose from the sea, pressing together to sequester the island from the rest of the Mediterranean.

Once the target had entered within fifty kilometers, an officer called to Toth from the rows of computers, “Target is painted, ma’am; depth charges are armed and ready.”  As the officer delivered his report, several high-explosives rose from artificial bays in the seafloor to a depth matching their incoming target.  A countdown was given in the CIC, and everyone watched as the target approached the island’s first line of defense.

“Contact in three… two… one…  Detonation.”  Several heat signatures popped up over the map of Argo’s surrounding waters, and the target, couched at their center, blinked out of existence.  A moment of silence passed between when the target disappeared and when it reappeared past the line of detonations.

“Prep the second line,” Toth ordered.  The further the target traveled into Argo’s waters, the closer it came to another tier of depth charges—it pushed past these, as well.  Hardening her gaze at the screen, Toth called for the third and final line to be prepped.

“There can be no doubt now,” Olembe said.  “This is a Q.”

“And it may very well be psychic at that,” Toth said.

“Target is accelerating,” called a security officer.

The CIC fell back into silence as the target approached the thick barrier separating it from the island; the moment the target’s marker met the wall, it stopped—forty-one degrees clockwise, depth 646 meters.  Footage from just beyond the wall showed vibrations in the water’s surface, and an audible clang came through.

An alert sounded automatically, signaling that the island’s barrier was under attack.  Meanwhile, the target backed away from the wall a short distance, then accelerated at the same spot once again; vibrations in the water and another clang followed.  Again and again, the target rammed itself into the same area of the wall.

“Where are Bissotwo and Unaone?” Toth asked her staff.

A security officer found the two on the island’s security cameras.  “They’re still on their way here, ma’am.”

“Contact them and tell them to go to Pier 2 immediately,” Toth said.  “They’re to suit up and await further instruction.”

“Ma’am?” the officer asked, standing up partially from his computer.  The twisted look on his face was shared by nearly everyone else in the CIC, who had their eyes collectively on Toth.

Toth breathed deeply, mulling her options.  She glanced at Olembe, who was watching her like the others.

 “Whatever you think is best,” he said.

Taking a breath, Toth turned back to her staff.  “Set the island to scarlet alert status.  Contact Stockholm and the Eisenhower; I’m declaring an emergency—we’re under attack.”

As if on cue, a harsher alarm filled the CIC; on the displays, the section of the island’s wall that had been under attack now flashed red, and the target swam through the new opening, penetrating Argo’s last barrier.

Panic surged through the CIC.

“Calm yourselves!” Toth roared, commanding the attention of her fearful staff.  “This island was built to serve as humanity’s last bastion against the Q—we’re not finished here.”

Barreling straight for the island’s underbelly, the Q deftly weaved its way through a labyrinth of underwater support structures.  Under the watchful eyes of cameras, the creature made no attempt to attack secondary supports, nor remain still long enough to provide its spectators with a clear view of itself; instead, it sped forward, traveling no discernible path.

“What’s it doing?” Olembe asked.  “It could very well sink us just by turning its attention on the supports.”

 “This is already a fairly bold assault for the Q,” Toth said.  “Usually they have all the precision of a sledgehammer; but this…  This feels surgical.”

“It’s certainly methodical.  Yet it seems to have no specific place to go.  No…  Rather, it’s like it’s… searching for something.”

“So we’re dealing with a search-and-destroy mission?”

Growing more agile, ascending from its depth, the Q approached Argo’s main column, directly beneath the central terminal.  Before it reached its destination, however, the island’s automatic defenses kicked in.  Several dozen rods extended from the island’s supports and seven piers; locked into place, each was simultaneously charged, flooding electricity into the waters directly beneath the island.  Battered, the Q let out a flurry of pained clicks and pulsed whistles before descending, attempting to escape the charged water.

“Static net is deployed and functioning, ma’am,” came the report as the lights overhead flickered and groaned, before turning off altogether.  Dim red security lights snapped on, while the monitors filling the CIC continued to glow.

“That net was meant for boarding parties,” Olembe warned Toth, “not Q.  It will not hold.”

“No, but it seems to be doing something,” Toth said.  Turning to her staff, she added, “We’ll take advantage of what we’ve got.  I want all personnel moved from Argo’s piers and underwater levels, and brought here to the central terminal.  Divert all MPs and marines, on duty or off—I want it done RFN.”

As the words left her mouth, the Q lurched from its descent, sharply turning back up toward the island.

***

Prompted by the growing sound of alerts and klaxons, Lucas wandered out of his quarters.  He found the hall significantly darker, lit only by red lights along the floor and ceiling, and people walking in packs toward the base of the pier.  He pushed his way from his door to the opposite wall, watching the people pass with strained looks on their faces.

An MP grabbed Lucas, saying, “I need you to keep moving, sir.”

“What’s going on?” Lucas asked.

“There’s a scarlet alert across the island.  You’re to move to the central terminal’s upper levels immediately.  Now go.”  The MP gave Lucas a shove, bringing him up to speed with the stream of people around him.

Bustled on all sides by uniformed bodies, Lucas attempted to stay on his feet and open some sort of personal space for himself.  Approaching the pier’s end, however, he felt another hand grab him by the elbow; following that hand, he found Sam, holding onto him from behind.  Lucas grabbed Sam’s arm and pulled him closer so they could walk together, though neither of them said a word.  Most others around them were quiet.  That was fine by Lucas; his mind was elsewhere anyway, trying to unravel what was happening, all the while wondering where everyone else might be—like Sera, or Elaina.

The floor beneath their feet rumbled with a crash, knocking over the stream of people.  Without warning, water sprayed into the corridor from fissures in the wall.

“A breach, this far up?” a voice cried.

“Keep moving!” an MP shouted over the crowd, lifting people up with a single hand.  “Don’t stop for anything until you get to the central terminal!”

Metal groaned all around them, and the smell of copper filled the air, as everyone scampered forward, moving with far more urgency than before.  Holding onto each other tightly now, Lucas and Sam tried to keep up, minding their footing as water washed over the floor.

***

Freya and Rashid made their way from Pier 2’s dressing room in their Talos-skins, snapping metal collars around their throats, their helmets hanging from their shoulders.  The island rocked once again beneath their feet, shaken by another impact from below.

With a sharp sigh, Freya bemoaned, “This’ll be a real pain in the ass, it will, like trying to pluck a bleeding fish from a river with your bare hands.”

Pushing through the migrating personnel, they found their way to the surface deck, where Lieutenant Webber, along with a team of marines, was already waiting for them.  They had two opened containers with them: one contained a collapsed combat sword, the other a serrated broadsword, with an electrified brace, one each for Freya and Rashid.

“Sorry, but this is all we can give you,” Webber said as they armed themselves.  “Nothing else is likely to have any effect on this Q, not underwater.”

“Hint-hint,” Freya muttered.

Smirking, Webber said, “And there you have it.  If you can force this thing to surface, we might have a better shot at killing it.”

“Will we have any support waiting for us when we get it out of the water?” Rashid asked, having finished strapping the combat sword to his hip.

Pointing to Pier 3, Webber watched as the island’s alert-five F-22 Raptors and F/A-18 Super Hornets lifted off.  “We’re prepared to make an airstrike, but this close to the island, it would have to be reserved.  Otherwise, I’m sorry to say we’re playing this by ear.”

“Right, lovely,” Freya said, approaching the edge of the pier with Rashid.

“Good luck, you two,” Webber called.  “We’re counting on you.”

Both Freya and Rashid leapt from the pier, falling several meters to the water headfirst.  The moment they touched the water, each of them forced their bodies forward, instantly descending at high velocity.  Like torpedoes they arced and flew in the direction of their target.  Their HUDs flashed with a number of alerts, warning them of the high-voltage waters beyond their Talos-skins, but they ignored these—only one marker had their attention, that of the Q.

Within less than a minute, they came within range of the raging Q.  Getting a good look, they saw a membranous bubble, resembling something like a jelly fish, with another fleshy bulb at its center.

“I’ll bet that’s the core,” Rashid said as they made their approach.

“Let’s kill the cheeky bastard already,” Freya replied, speeding up.

Before either of them could get closer, however, an abrupt jolt, like a new underwater current, sent them tumbling back. They straightened themselves out, making a second approach from another angle.

“CIC, this is Bissotwo,” Freya reported.  “Tango is confirmed psychic.”

***

Lucas and Sam, along with hundreds of Argo personnel, were ushered into an auditorium, located in the midsection of the central terminal’s main tower, which was designed to accommodate a large assembly.

All personnel, civilian and military, were separated into their respective divisions for headcounts.  Lucas and Sam found the Esper Program’s division, where they were met by Wren and Heinrich, and reunited with Logan, Aguirre, Wulff, and the rest of their science team.

“Do any of you know what’s happening?” Sam asked.

“Last I heard,” Logan said, “it’s a Q.”

“So close to the island?”

As they deliberated and traded information, Lucas could see their confusion, though the scene was somewhat new to him.  Looking down at his right hand, his stomach tightened, and he thought of his dormant powers.  Clutching a fist, he wondered if this was what it was always like for the others, to be on the other side of a battle with the Q—this unknowing.

Taking a look around their division, Lucas noticed a number of people were still absent.  He looked for Sera, then for Elaina, finding neither of them.  He asked others if they had seen them.

“We’d like to know that ourselves,” Logan replied, pointing away from their group, to Eugene Cohen, who stood at a distance with an MP.

“I don’t think you understand,” Eugene told the soldier feverishly.  “We need to find her immediately.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” the MP replied, as if for the hundredth time, “but we are doing our very best to locate Miss Walker.  I have all available men looking for her, but she hasn’t turned up yet.”

Running to meet them, Lucas asked the MP, “What about Sera?  Uh, the girl you’ve got in the brig—is she here yet?”  Turning to Eugene, he asked, “She would be with us, right?”

“Uh, well,” Eugene stammered, his interest elsewhere, “she’s under the Esper Program’s custody, in a manner of speaking, but NATO makes that call.  So, if she’s in the brig…”

Lucas turned back to the MP.  “So is she here, or isn’t she?”

“Look, you both need to go back to your group and wait,” the MP replied squarely, putting out a hand to move them along.  Lifting his radio, he walked away, speaking into the receiver.

“You haven’t seen Elaina, have you?” Eugene asked Lucas after watching the MP walk away.  “Apparently no one’s seen her.”

“Uh, no, I haven’t,” Lucas lied.  He decided this would be the best choice of words, given that Elaina had ducked away from Eugene and her marine escort to meet with him.  The prudency of it all didn’t matter much to him, however, not now.

Another impact vibrated up the tower, causing the floor to tremble.

Sighing, Eugene said, “I suppose all we can do now is wait.”  He began to walk back to the group, but Lucas ducked away.  Turning back, Eugene called after him, but Lucas disappeared from sight.

Approaching one of the assembly hall’s exits, attempting to appear as if he belonged, Lucas was stopped at the door by a duo of marines.

“I’ve been called to the CIC,” Lucas told them.  “I’m supposed to meet with the CO.”

“Sorry, Specialist, but we need to confirm that first,” one of the marines said, picking up his radio.  Lucas’ heart rate increased as the marine communicated back and forth over the comm, then slowed when he realized no one in the CIC was taking low-profile calls.

The tower rattled again, and Lucas decided to push again.  “Look, you can either hold me up here, or just let me go already.  I told you, I’m needed in the CIC.  This is a Q attack, isn’t it?  I’m a psychic—so let me through.”

The marines traded uncertain looks, then assented, stepping out of his way.  “The rest of the island’s about to go into total lockdown to hold back the breaches, so head straight up to command,” one of the marines told Lucas on his way out.

Free of the assembly hall, Lucas made his way down the tower, headed for the central terminal’s base near Pier 2—to the brig.

***

Assiduously, Toth inspected a live-feedback layout of the island.  Entire sections had flashed from blue to orange, some now were completely red.  Swathes of black and yellow striped off sectors were under lockdown.  And all the while, watching the representation of Argo shift piecemeal in color, Toth listened to Freya and Rashid, whose voices echoed from overhead speakers.

“It’s too fast!”

“Can’t get a hold of it!”

“Almost got it—shit!”

“Come on, keep moving!”

“Argo-actual, this is Bissotwo,” Freya finally said through the comm.  “We’ve got another breach here, below Pier 6, first district.”

Toth watched that section of the island flash from orange to red, before locking down, isolating the incoming water.  She wondered how many might still be in that district, what unlucky souls had not moved along with their colleagues.

“Helena,” Olembe said, leaning toward her ear, his voice quiet.  “The Eisenhower’s strike group has just arrived.  I believe we should begin evacuating personnel from the island immediately.”

Squeezing the edge of the table, her knuckles whitening, Toth forced herself to look up from the island’s layout.  Loosening her grip, she said, “You’re right.”  Taking a breath to calm her nerves, she returned to the layout, tracing out a path from the central terminal to Pier 3 with her finger.  “We’ll prioritize non-essential personnel.  We can funnel them through here to the deck, then shuttle them by helicopter to the Ike.”

“The Eisenhower has a complement of several thousand already, not including the rest of their strike group,” Olembe said, “but I’m sure they can find a place for a few hundred.  And if we combine our own helos with theirs…”

Looking up from the layout, Toth called to her comm officer, “Contact the Eisenhower.”

***

The floor vibrated at sporadic intervals beneath Lucas’ feet, causing the security lights to flicker.  He kept himself focused on his task, however, sprinting faster with every pulsation until he arrived at the brig.

No one stood guard outside, and the door was unlocked.  Stepping inside, in a faint red glow, he could see Sera.  Drawing closer, he then noticed the terror on her face.  The partition keeping her in place had a single door, locked by a keypad.

Checking the keypad, helpless, Lucas looked up at Sera, who watched him closely.  “Where are your guards?”

“They were called out right before the alarm,” Sera said.  “They told me they’d be back.”

Lucas considered their options; the likely reality was that Sera’s guards, perhaps changing shifts, were forced to aid in the island’s migration.  Whatever the case may have been, that left them without the code to her cell.

Another rumble rattled the room around them.  Then a klaxon blared, and an announcement resounded from the intercom: “Attention, all non-essential personnel are to proceed in their respective parties to Pier 3 flight deck for immediate evacuation to the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Please remain with your security escorts and proceed in an orderly fashion.”

“I heard some people yelling outside,” Sera said, close to the partition, her eyes still on Lucas.  “Is it true?  A Q broke through the perimeter?”

But Lucas’ mind was elsewhere.  “Don’t worry, I’ll get you out of there.”  Grabbing an aluminum chair from the corner of the room, he lifted the piece by its back, swinging it like a bat, sinking its feet into the partition separating him from Sera.  The chair’s legs bent from the impact, leaving only a light scuff on the barrier.  Swearing loudly, he took another swing, then another, and another, while Sera watched, her hope diminishing with his.

Finally, Lucas leaned on the twisted chair, his chest heaving, glaring at the white scrapes he had made in the partition.  Exhausted, he looked at Sera; the moment he found her, shame washed over him.

“I really messed up this time, huh?” he said, still catching his breath.  “If I hadn’t lost my powers, I could just—”

With a sharp crack, the entire partition filled with fractures, then disintegrated, falling to the floor in a heap of opaque shards.  Speechless, Lucas stared back at Sera, who was looking past him; turning around, he found Elaina standing in the doorway.

“Looks like you two aren’t having fun,” she said, smiling at the two of them.  “Should we move this party upstairs, then?”

A thousand questions flooded Lucas at once, but they were washed away by a greater sense of relief.  Another rumble shocked the island, knocking him back to reality.  Without hesitation, he kicked through what had been the partition and grabbed Sera by the hand, pulling her out into the corridor.

Together, the three of them started back the way Lucas had come.  After only a few steps, however, the wall ahead burst in on the hall, throwing Lucas and Sera to the floor; water sprayed in and pooled, then congealed, taking unnatural shapes.  Lucas tried to lift Sera, but they were both captivated by the opening ahead, and stunned by the raspy gargling, like that of a broken garbage disposal, coming from the other side.

A membranous sack undulated out of the rupture, rolling onto the floor.

“Elaina…  Elaina, do something.”  Lucas could barely manage the words, but when he looked up at Elaina, he found her standing, watching with reserved interest.  Nothing about her seemed unnerved.

“It’s okay, Lucas,” she said with her pleasant smile, looking down at him.  “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”  She then set her eyes back on the rolling mass ahead.  “It’s just finally found what it was looking for, that’s all.”

Shifting its malleable body around, as if to look at the three of them, the Q gathered the surrounding water, twisting it into serpentine patterns, coiling them back to strike.

“Elaina, please,” Lucas pushed, but Elaina didn’t budge.  “Damn it, Elaina, do something!”

The Q lurched back, then struck.  Watery spikes soared at the three of them.  Lucas and Sera closed their eyes, huddling together, waiting for contact.  But nothing happened.  Opening their eyes, they saw the streams of water pouring in their direction, diverting only a few inches from them, as if washing against an invisible wall.

Incredulously, they both looked up instinctively at Elaina, as if to ask if this was her doing.  Elaina, however, far from satisfied, appeared disappointed, tilting her head at the Q.

“What a pitiful creature,” she muttered under her breath.  “Or perhaps God is having second thoughts.”

Focusing on the Q, her hands still at her sides, Elaina made a move.  The steady flow of water reversed all at once, firing back at the Q, ramming it, shoving it back through the rupture in the wall.  With twisted gargles, the Q wrestled against the assault, but ultimately failed, falling back the way it had entered.

Not waiting to see what would happen next, Lucas grabbed both Sera and Elaina, tugging them back the way they came.  They would need to find another way to Pier 3, he told himself, not daring to look back.  Even so, while he wouldn’t look back, he still couldn’t shake what he had heard Elaina say before she dispatched the Q.

“Elaina,” he called back to her.  “Back there just now…  You said God was having ‘second thoughts’—what’s that supposed to mean?”

“God’s final decision’s close at hand,” Elaina said simply.  “But to choose one thing is to necessarily reject another—that’s what decide meant originally; ‘to cut something off.’  You know how it is, though: the closer someone comes to making a choice, the more uncertain they become.”

Unimpressed, Sera then asked her, “And what did you mean when you said the Q found what it was looking for?  You meant me, right?”

“Yes and no,” Elaina said.  “Truth be told, the Q wants us all.”

“All of us?” Lucas asked.  “How’s that any different from before?”

“Because now it wants the four,” Elaina replied.  “This Q is here to kill the four.”

Picking up his pace, growing ever more intent on putting as much distance between himself and that Q, Lucas mulled over what seemed a contradiction to him.  “If this whole thing’s supposed to end with four psychics, then why do the Q want us dead?”

“That’s the question, Lucas,” Elaina said.  “This all ends with the four—but what does that mean?  Do the four put an end to the Q, or does humanity’s last hope die with the four?”

Grunting in frustration and from a burning in his lungs, Lucas managed to call back, “God’s got a funny way of reasoning things out.”

***

At the edge of Pier 3’s main flight deck, Wren, Heinrich, Logan, and his team lined up with the rest of Argo’s evacuating personnel.  A short way behind them, Sam and Eugene continued arguing with two MPs, who were attempting to push the two doctors forward.

“We can’t leave without our clients,” Sam shouted.  “They’re still on this island!”

“Sir, we cannot locate them,” one of the MP stated with as much fervor.  “For all we know, they might already be on the Ike.  Now get in that line, or we will put you there!”

Begrudgingly, Sam and Eugene rejoined Logan and the others; Eugene sulked, taking frenetic glances in all directions, but Sam only furrowed his brow.

“So, which is it, then?” Logan asked Sam, keeping his voice low.  “Who’re you really worried about?  Elaina or Lucas?”

“Both of them,” Sam snapped.  He then sank.  “But…  I admit, I’m more worried about Lucas.  Elaina’s a psychic, she can take care of herself, but Lucas…”

Watching his brother sink further, Logan’s gaze softened, tinctured with a hint of guilt.  He opened his mouth to speak, but another voice took his place.  He, Sam, and the others turned, hearing their names called out—in the distance, they found Lucas approaching at a sprint, with Sera and Elaina right behind him.

“Oh, thank God,” Eugene sighed.

“Lucas,” Sam said, pulling him and Sera into the line.  “You made it.”

“Looks like we’re just in time, too,” Lucas said, watching the helicopters, still holding onto Sera.  “So they’re really evacuating everyone?”

Before anyone could answer, a horrible rush shook the air, like the sound of an approaching train, coming from over the edge of the pier.  In plain view, a large whirlpool swirled, growing rapidly.  The noise was overwhelmed by the scream of two F-22s.  Both aircraft flew over the whirlpool, then turned for another pass.  As they approached, the whirlpool erupted with a bang; spewed up from the water, a figure dressed in Talos-skin and a large membrane flew straight upward.

All across the pier people screamed in terror, watching the Q and one of Argo’s own psychics grapple with each other in the air.  With a graceful backflip, the psychic broke away from the Q, diving back for the water, leaving the creature in midair; in that same moment, the jets fired two missiles, both locked onto the Q.  Watery spires then flew up from beneath the Q, swatting both missiles away, sending them spinning, detonating them against a nearby pier.  The water then enwrapped the Q again, pulling it back into the sea.

On Pier 3, marines and MPs roared at the island’s personnel, corralling them to the helicopters faster than before.  Nearly everyone moved without complaint, but as the crowd shifted, Logan remained where he stood, his eyes glued to where the Q had just been.  He watched as the water’s surface burst a few more times, then settled as the Q and its psychic aggressors descended once more.

It then dawned on him—a simple idea.

Indecorously seizing an MP by his uniform, he demanded the soldier’s radio.

***

“Major-General,” a comm officer called to Toth.  “Doctor Logan Walker is on the line.  He’s insisting that he speak with you this instant.”

“Tell him we don’t have time,” Toth replied, only glancing up from her own work for a moment.

“But, ma’am, he says it’s about the Q,” the officer added.  “He says he thinks he knows how to kill it.”

Looking back at the officer again, Toth said, “Fine, put him through to me.”  Taking the call through a small speaker embedded in her table, Toth said into the receiver, “Doctor, this had better be good.”

“Have you already deployed the island’s static net?” Logan asked.  “The water—did you supercharge it?”

“We have, but it’s had no effect,” Toth said, watching as more sections of the island continued to lock themselves down.

No effect, or little effect?”

Considering his question, Toth said, “The Q seemed to recoil, but only for a moment.  Why?”

“I just saw the Q in action,” Logan said.  “I don’t think it’s psychic, at least not in any way we’ve seen before.  Just now it deflected your airstrike.”

“I’m aware, Doctor.”

“Well, it didn’t use its mind.  It used the water.  I think the reason it defended itself in that way and the reason it responded at all to the static net is because, in some way, the Q isn’t using the water—its body is the water.”

Glancing at Olembe, whose mind also seemed to be racing, Toth asked, “Your point being, Doctor?”

“The electric field you created under the island didn’t stop it,” Logan said, “not because the Q is immune, but because you didn’t have enough power.”

Toth and Olembe shared another look.

“What do you suggest?” Toth asked Logan.

“Argo runs on a number of secondary reactors, but only one main reactor,” Logan replied.  “Our main source of power is a T4S aneutronic fusion reactor; deuterium-lithium-6 fusion, helium-4 waste.”

“I have a feeling I already know what you’re about to suggest, Doctor,” Toth interjected.  “You’re going to need to come up with a better plan than that.  There’s no way—”

“Major-General, are you under the illusion that you can still save this island?”

The question hit Toth hard; she sank, her head lowering.  She stared down at the same digital layout she had been watching since the attack began.  One by one, more and more districts turned red and locked down, and only moments ago the first reports of critical threats to structural integrity began to pour in.

“What’s your plan, Doctor?” Toth grunted.

“In the event that this reactor were to go into meltdown,” Logan answered, “Argo’s safety system is programmed to deploy the island’s security wall, and to plunge the reactor’s fuel rods into the water for emergency cooling.  The wall’s already raised, effectively trapping the Q, at least for the time being.  All we need to do is lure it close enough to the central terminal, then plunge the reactor.  The reactor’s nuclear pile will irradiate the water, potentially killing the Q, or at least weakening it enough for Freya or Rashid to do it in.”

Before Toth could respond, Olembe interjected.  “That would be willful contamination of the Mediterranean, Doctor!”

“The island’s wall is designed to contain such contamination, Brigadier,” Logan replied squarely.  “Even with the hole this Q’s likely put in it, the wall will prevent the majority of the radiation from entering the rest of the Mediterranean until NATO can patch the opening and geoengineering tech can be brought in to filter and cleanse the water.  Unless you have some other means of frying this monster’s very body, the main reactor’s our best bet.”

Olembe stared deeply into Toth, though he said nothing.  With an apologetic nod, Toth turned away from him.

“What do we need to do, Doctor?” she asked.

“The drop will trigger automatically,” Logan said, “but someone will need to manually bypass the reactor’s safeties; otherwise, once the meltdown begins, it’ll insert its control rods and neutralize the reaction.  We’ll also need to physically sever the metallic hydrogen cabling connecting the reactor to the island.  To my knowledge, the only ones in a position to do anything like that are our two psychics—they’re the ones with the best chance of surviving that kind of exposure.”

No one would survive,” Olembe said, scowling.  “You’re proposing that we turn this island’s reactor into a dirty bomb.”

Both Toth and Olembe could hear Logan sigh over the channel.  “To be honest, it doesn’t make a difference to me.  As far as I’m concerned, I’m about to escape to the most secure warship in the world.  Brigadier Olembe, you’re right, this’ll render the area uninhabitable, and there’s no way to say for sure whether geoengineering could fix that.  But I think we all know Argo’s not going to survive this.  But maybe you can take a little solace in making sure that Q doesn’t survive, either.”

Pushing back from the table, Toth considered their options.

Olembe leaned toward her, saying, “The Security Council would never approve.”

Looking back at him, Toth could see how much this decision weighed on him—she could also see he had at last accepted the reality of the matter, just as she had.

“There’s no way we would have time to tell them,” she said, “not with this Q pounding us to pieces.”

“This Q has left us with little recourse,” Olembe concluded.

“Indeed,” Toth said.  She swallowed hard, then raised her voice to the entire command center.  “I’m ordering Piers 3 and 6 to launch all the aircraft they can; tell them to give priority to the skip-jets, and we’ll come back later for whatever we can’t take with us.  Furthermore, I want our remaining Talos-skins and equipment, including all spare parts and intact weaponry, gathered immediately and transported to the Eisenhower.  Finally, inform Stockholm that in forty minutes, we will be detonating the island’s main reactor…”  For a moment, her words escaped her, and she was left staring at her staff, who waited with bated breath, unmoved by even the rumbling beneath their own feet.

“After that,” she concluded, “all of you are to evacuate to the Eisenhower.”

***

Every minute passed like an hour.  HH-60 Rescue Hawk helicopters transported the island’s remaining personnel beyond the wall.  Logan remained behind until the remaining Talos-skins and attendant equipment were loaded, accompanying them personally.

By the time he departed from Argo, the evacuation was nearly complete.

Among the last, Toth led Olembe to her office before going to the flight deck.  Squatting beside the safe embedded in her desk, Toth punched in her code.  She removed the satellite phone and three transponders; they rattled in her shaking hands.

Lowering himself beside her, Olembe put a hand on her shoulder.

“I have no idea how this is going to work out,” Toth told him in a hush, as if there were others in her office besides Olembe.

“We will face whatever comes,” Olembe assured her, reaching into the safe, removing the photo of himself, Toth, and their old crew on the flight deck of the USS Nimitz.  “We’ve always done just that, and it’s seen us this far.”

Toth pushed the satellite phone and card-sized transponders into Olembe’s hands, not letting go until he accepted them.  “You’re right, the Security Council won’t take my decision lying down.  Right now, you have the best chance of seeing this through.  If things go sideways, I’m counting on you to carry out the Secretary-General’s order.”

“You can trust me,” Olembe said, hiding the phone and transponders in his coat.

“I know,” she said, standing back up.  “Regardless of how this all works out, I should at least say…  Thank you, Jean-Luc.”

Both Toth and Olembe walked out onto the flight deck with the remaining crew of the central terminal.  A metallic screech aggressed their ears, and the deck bounced beneath them, throwing them off balance.  Turning in the direction of the noise, they watched as Pier 4 buckled and started to dip into the sea, the hydroponic fields at its end taking on water.

The last few marines on the island hastily rushed Toth and Olembe onto a helicopter, then took off—the final transport to the Eisenhower.

***

“Unaone, Bissotwo, the evac is complete,” Logan told them through the comm.  “You are now free to proceed.”

“It’s about goddam time!” Freya shouted back.  Checking her timer, she knew she and Rashid had only engaged the Q for less than hour, but it had felt like an eternity.  “Unaone, you know what to do.”

“Romeo,” Rashid replied, pulling away from Freya as she distracted the Q.

Alone, he swam up into the central terminal from below, near the edge of Pier 5, navigating his way from a map overlaying his HUD.  Within a minute, he entered the main reactor’s chamber.  A main silo, thickly packed, stood at the center of the cavernous space, housing the reactor’s nuclear rods.  A number of other containers surrounded the main silo, each drawing heat from the reactor, superheating water into steam, turning turbines, producing power.  Attached to those containers, in turn, was a web of power cables, each leading to secondary power stations.

“We’ll begin by disabling the reactor’s auto-shutdown process,” Logan told him through the radio.  “Follow my instructions exactly.”

By hand, Rashid was instructed to remove a number of modules from the main silo’s exterior, interrupting a number of physical connections between the nuclear pile and its control rods.  After that, using the serrated edge of his broadsword, Rashid chewed through each of the cables connecting to the reactor’s turbines, isolating the reactor from the island’s power grid.  An alarm began to shriek, and an automated voice declared one warning after another.

Logan then directed Rashid to a crooked catwalk, now barely above water, at the end of which was the reactor’s main access terminal.

“Once you remove the control rods,” Logan said, “the reactor will automatically plunge itself.  Without the control rods, the pile will hit critical mass in approximately a minute, then it’ll blow.  That’s when Freya will need to make her move.”

“I’m ready!” Freya yelled back, her voice echoing in Rashid’s helmet.  “Just do it!”

Typing at the terminal, Rashid directed the reactor to remove its control rods.  Looking up at the main silo, he then telekinetically crippled the control rods’ tracks, ensuring they would not reinsert themselves into the reactor.  Another more severe alarm kicked in, and the voice declared a new emergency, with a warning to vacate the premises.

From the end of the catwalk, Rashid dove back into the water, speeding headfirst from the chamber, out through the newly-opened exit just below the reactor.

“Bissotwo, are you ready?” he asked on his way down.

“On my way!”

Ahead in the murky dark, he found Freya, seemingly riding the Q itself, her feet pressed and her fingers hooked into its soft body—they both approached at a fantastic speed.  Meanwhile, the reactor lowered itself through the opening under the central terminal, then opened its bottom, exposing its fuel rods; instantly, the pile’s faint light was obscured by foaming water.

Ignoring the radiological warnings going off in their helmets, Freya and Rashid instead minded the countdown on their HUDs, having estimated the time it would take for the reactor’s power source to hit critical mass.  Diving down further, after Freya, Rashid grabbed onto the writhing Q, guiding them toward the reactor’s frothing mouth.  The closer they brought the creature, the more fearsome it became, threatening to escape their grasp.

Neither of them daring to say a word, their eyes were fixed on the timer, noting every last second, and every fraction thereof.  At last, they hit zero.

Abruptly, their ears felt as if they were packed with cotton, and a silent force slammed into their bodies from the reactor’s direction.  Heat and the sensation of being struck head-on by a bullet train combined, culminating in a disorienting descent as their bodies twirled away from the island’s underbelly.  They then tumbled blindly through the agitated water, the frantic chirps of their radiological alarms their only sure sign that they were still alive.

“Unaone, where are you?”

“I don’t know—I can’t find you!”

Rashid’s marker swept over Freya’s HUD just long enough for her to notice.  Orienting herself by the signal, she forced herself out of her spin, by focusing on the flickering marker.  Reaching for the signal, she suddenly felt herself collide with something human in size—Rashid.  Holding onto each other, they tumbled until they both slammed into the seafloor.  They bounced harshly before they were able to rebalance themselves, planting their feet on the sandy bottom, in time to look up at the gray plume of disturbed water overhead.  Pieces of the island’s supports came raining down all around, yet the island itself remained afloat.  Beneath what remained of Argo, Freya and Rashid waited in silence, watching the blast unfold and dissipate, their Talos-skins searching for any signs of the Q.  They waited for several minutes, until the water was mostly calm, but they found nothing.

 “There’s no way it could’ve sustained a blast like that,” Freya concluded to Rashid.  “And if it survived, it would have made itself known by now.”

“Agreed,” Rashid sighed back.  “It’s most definitely dead.”

Gently, their feet left the seafloor, and their bodies buoyed upward.  They surfaced at the dipped edge of Pier 4.  Climbing aboard, they crawled into a large vegetable field, which had been mostly soaked by the incoming water.  Landing hard on their backs, Freya and Rashid fell still, their bodies at last giving out.

They could hear crackling Geiger counters and a puttering helicopter, but they both passed out before figures in hazmat suits landed near them.