When the homing medallion indicated he had cleared the force field, Jaden swam another thirty feet along the bottom of the ocean, just to make sure, before beginning his ascent.
He surfaced in a dark, unfamiliar world.
Expecting the water to smell as salty as it tasted, Jaden was surprised by the fresh, moist air that greeted him. He punched the coordinates to his contact’s lair into the homing medallion and headed southwest through one of the shallow tributaries. In most places the water was no more than five feet deep now. To either side of him the twisted mangrove roots of the islands clutched like witches’ knuckles ready to snatch him away.
He wove back in toward the center of the channel.
Off in the distance he heard the roar of an engine. He had no intention of sticking around to find out what it was attached to. He balled his fists to make his P.P.G.s accelerate and kept his head down to minimize the glow from his headlamp.
The engine roar grew louder and Jaden could tell there were several of the machines in the area. A voice hallooed, closer than Jaden would have expected. Several lights bobbed in the darkness, charting a path parallel to his.
An engine roared behind him, creating a wake that threatened to knock Jaden off course.
Another machine tore past him, and another, each coming closer than the one before. Within seconds Jaden found himself encircled by a fleet of pernicious pirates with boats unlike any he had ever seen.
Their antediluvian airboats consisted of multifarious antiquated car parts and carved cypress propellers cobbled together with battered tin hulls. Dozens of crews of threes and fours jeered at Jaden. The fiery reflections of torches dotted the water all around him.
Someone gave a sharp whistle, and the fleet coasted simultaneously to a halt. A gruff pirate with shoulder-length black curls maneuvered his airboat within fifteen feet of him. “Get your butt on the boat, Runner,” he said.
One of the two other pirates in the boat with him cast a rope in the water.
Jaden froze, not making a move toward the rope. He was sure if he took hold of that rope the scurrilous pirates would slit his throat, steal his breathing gear, and make for land with his contraband. As indifferent as he was about the last one, neither of the first two was acceptable.
He could dive back down and stay under until they left, but Squeeze had been quite clear that his breathing gear would only get him down to the bottom and back up twice, no more. If he dove to escape, he’d never be able to get back out.
“Stop stalling, Runner. We ain’t got all night. Don doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”
Jaden found his voice. “Don didn’t send you. Nobody knew I was coming.”
A raucous cackle rose from the crew.
“Just get on the boat before I have to send some of my boys down for you,” the curly-haired pirate said.
Jaden hesitated, but realized he didn’t really have a choice, so he took hold of the rope and let himself be hauled aboard. The airboat rocked as he settled into his chair.
“Hand over the booty,” Curly said.
“My instructions are to give it directly to Don.”
“We’s Don’s men,” Curly said with a cunning grin. “We’ll take it to him for you and you can hop right on back in the water and paddle home.”
Unflappable, Jaden willed his voice to stay firm. “Only to Don.” It wasn’t just that his instructions from Squeeze had been very specific on the point, but in order to find out anything at all about Ally he needed to talk to the man in charge.
“Suit yourself. Just thought such a fine fancy as yourself would rather be off playing Groundhog’s Day at the club instead of gallivanting through the swamp.” Curly gave another screeching two-fingered whistle and the posse roared to life.
The mangrove clusters of the Ten Thousand Islands streaked past. The islands varied in size from miles across to only a few feet. Almost every one had a posted sign that read Rip & Release. He thought about Tail’s frightened reaction to his ripping cybernetics and was thankful that the hood of his wetsuit concealed his implants. If the prisoners really did think that rippers could read minds like Tail said, he wouldn’t be a very popular guy. It was better to literally keep it under wraps for the time being.
They zipped on for over an hour, finally docking on a marshy strip of land.
“Take this,” Curly said, tossing Jaden what looked like a walking stick. One end had been sharpened to a point.
“I’m fine,” Jaden said. “I’m in good shape.”
“Won’t stay that way without that stick,” Curly said cryptically, “but suit yourself.”
Jaden took the stick.
Half the eclectic crew stayed with the boats, and the other half, about twenty men, formed a single-file line for the trek through the swamp. Jaden assumed a spot near the end. As the foliage drew in around them, mosquitoes and a host of other insects swarmed around him. His wet suit protected his torso as well as his upper arms and legs, but his half-suit left lots of tender flesh exposed. He swatted constantly, much to the great humor of the resilient pirates, who didn’t seemed bothered at all by the bugs. He couldn’t tell if they simply ignored them or wore some sort of defense.
Within minutes, the tortuous path had them wading thigh-deep through dark water. At first Jaden tried to keep track of each twist and turn, but his attempts were futile. He was lost in the Everglades.
A hardy pirate with a scraggly beard that reeked of kerosene dropped into step next to him. “The gators will mostly leave you alone if you leave them alone,” he said. “Just don’t startle one. They likes to see you first.”
Whether first or last, Jaden had an aversion to the idea of an alligator seeing him at all.
“And watch out for the ones with scars,” the pirate continued. “They’re smart and ornery.”
“And really nasty,” another pirate said, overcoming them from behind. As he passed, Jaden saw that half his upper lip had been sliced away. Jaden shuddered.
“They must be taking the night off, huh?” Jaden asked. “I haven’t seen a single one.”
More mean-spirited laughter echoed through the primeval swamp.
When the laughter subsided, the pirate pointed off to the left. “There’s one.”
Jaden peered into the protean darkness. “I don’t see anything.”
“Bubbles,” the judicious pirate said, pointing at a small stream of bubbles barely breaking the surface. “Stay away from the bubbles.” He shifted to the right and Jaden quickly followed.
“You mean there’s an alligator underneath the water right now?”
“Naw,” the pirate said.
“I’m glad of that.”
“Could be a crocodile.”
Jaden was glad to set foot on dry land again—well, mostly dry land. Despite the mosquitoes, alligators, and crocodiles, he knew each step he took in this poisonous land brought him closer to Ally.
His gaze darted to a rustling motion on the periphery of the trail.
A black, four-foot-long snake slithered across the path in front of Jaden. When it saw him, it coiled and reared back, hissing.
“Where’s your stick?” the pirate behind him asked. “Use your stick!”
Jaden threw his stick at the snake and missed by three feet. The thick snake struck at the movement before orienting back on Jaden.
The pirate pushed him aside and hefted his own stick like a javelin. The snake pressed its head further back into its body, preparing to strike. It opened its jaws wider than the span of Jaden’s hand, revealing a puffy white inside and two very deadly fangs.
The pirate jammed the stick down the snake’s throat, pinning it.
The pirate walked past Jaden, scooping up the stick Jaden had dropped.
“Aren’t you going to kill it?” Jaden asked.
“You can, if you want. Probably better to spend your time getting a new stick.”
Jaden followed the pirate’s advice.
After passing through several guard checkpoints over the next hour, they arrived at a massive compound. Dozens of rudimentary huts on stilts formed the perimeter, their roofs thatched with palm fronds. Instead of stairs, ladders led up to most; those without had probably already pulled them up for the night. He wondered if the stilts were a defense from the water, the wild animals, or the other criminals.
In the center a bonfire raged. Two longer buildings opposed each other in the circle. The basic rectangle of one reminded Jaden of the barracks back in Fort Miami. The other was a more elaborate two-story building on stilts. No ladders this time, but real stairs leading to the second floor.
Curly shepherded him up the stairs. An airy balcony opened up into a large meeting hall. Smudge fires smoldered in cauldrons along the walls giving off smoke that kept the bugs at bay. Lanterns hung from posts down the center, leading the way to a dais where a dark figure sat on an oversized chair. He leaned forward at their entry, and the fire cast flickering shadows on him. He wore black jeans and a black turtleneck, despite the heat. His face was a lumpy oval, and his bald head gleamed in the firelight. His ears were misshapen, and a gold hoop swung from one ear. He wore black sunglasses, even thought it was night. Jaden couldn’t see the eyes behind the sunglasses, but somehow the man’s gaze still chilled him.
“Don, we picked up the runner,” Curly said.
“Dammit, Mitch! I told you to use my pirate name. It’s Gaspar, José Gaspar!” he shouted.
“Sure, Don, sure . . . ” Mitch nodded, his dark curls shaking. He sauntered over to the cluster of rough-looking men apparently playing dice on the floor.
“Gaspar!” Don bellowed.
A scantily clad girl who was reclining at Don’s feet cringed, like a cocker spaniel puppy with a rolled-up newspaper being held over its head. Mitch might get away with being impudent, but not all of Don’s minions were eager to hear him raise his voice.
“What have you got for me, Runner?”
Jaden unzipped the top of his wetsuit and pulled out the collection of sealed packages. “Squeeze sent these for you, Gaspar. I don’t know what’s in them.” Jaden could guess, though. Probably drugs, alcohol, cigarettes—maybe even an MP3 player or two. The low, flat packages were well-cushioned, so it could be anything. Maybe even Joy, not that the addicts inside the U.Z. needed it.
“At least somebody gets it right,” Gaspar said. He leaned in toward Jaden conspiratorially. “I mean, how tough is it to use a man’s name?”
“Not tough at all, Gaspar, sir.”
Gaspar clucked his tongue. “Too much.”
“Okay.” Jaden began to zip his wetsuit back up.
“Hold on.” Gaspar snapped his fingers at one of the girls lounging nearby. A voluptuous brunette wiggled over to a table, picked up a bunch of similar packages, handed them to Jaden, and wiggled back toward Gaspar.
“Take those to Squeeze,” the pirate said, more interested in watching the brunette’s wiggle than talking to Jaden.
“He didn’t say anything about bringing stuff back.”
“It’s what runners do, kid.”
Jaden couldn’t imagine what Unemployed addicts inside might have that employees outside would want, but he had no intention of being truculent. “No problem, then. I’ll just load up and be on my way.” Jaden unzipped his suit again. “One thing, though. I hear you’re a man in the know. I’m trying to find a girl.”
“Well, we’ve got plenty of those around here!” Gaspar guffawed, wrapping his arm around the submissive brunette he had been ogling and pulling her onto his lap.
Jaden ignored the lascivious comment. “Her name’s Ally Fayre. She’s a raver. Just interred last Tuesday.” Jaden described her.
“Don’t know her, but someone else might. We’ve got quite a few ravers in the compound.”
The dice-playing pirates snickered. Jaden had surmised that Gaspar’s harem was made up mostly of captured ravers.
“Lanna!” Gaspar bellowed.
“Dammit, it’s Gaspar!” He pushed the brunette off his lap.
Lanna flinched. “Sorry, Gaspar. I just forgot.”
“Let’s see if you can remember this, then.” He turned to Jaden. “Tell her about your wench.”
Jaden repeated his description.
“Never heard of her, Do—Gaspar.” She turned to go back to the cluster of gambling pirates in the corner.
Gaspar grabbed her long blond hair and yanked her backward. “Think again, you stupid git!”
The girl’s eyes widened. “I really haven’t heard of her. There are lots of ravers, lots of girls.” Lanna tried to adopt a seductive tone, but her frantic fear leaked through. “Not all of them are as lucky as I was to get picked up and brought here to please you. Most get murdered and dumped in the first few days. I swear I’ve never heard of her, Don.”
Gaspar bristled and his eyebrows crushed into one. He seethed deeper and deeper shades of red until it looked like his bald head might pop off at the neck from the pressure.
“It’s Gaspar, dammit!” he bellowed. He grabbed Lanna’s long blonde hair, wrapped it around her throat and yanked.
Lanna gasped out one last breath of surprise and choked, clawing at the rope of her own hair around her neck.