The two sojourners traveled in silence until they cleared all the checkpoints and verified they hadn’t been followed.
“Thanks,” Jaden said.
“I didn’t want to be around when the next idiot called Gaspar Don again.”
Jaden laughed. “He just doesn’t look like a Gaspar.”
“It’s new for him. Tough name to match his infamy. Meanest pirate warlord in the U.Z. Nobody messes with Don.”
“You mean Gaspar,” Jaden corrected, and they both laughed. The bugs still gnawed on every inch of exposed flesh, and alligators still prowled the dark waters, but shared laughter made the trip a bit more tolerable. “So there are others like Don?”
“Oh, hundreds. Each section of land, each island—practically each cabbage palm—has its own pirate warlord. Most warlords pick crews with addictions that correspond to their own. The warlords in the Keys pretty much keep to themselves. Specialty islands with more civilized criminals.
“The warlords in the Ten Thousand Islands are a bit rougher. Mostly drunks trying to hide stills and pirates trying to find them so they can use the alcohol to fuel their airboats.
“The ravers don’t have a warlord of their own. Without protection, they pretty much just cluster near the northern boundary and wait to get picked off.
“Don took over the land nobody else wanted, and takes the baddest of the bad into his crew. Doesn’t matter what they’re into. He’ll raid anyone who’s got it and get it for his men.” Tail paused to stake another hissing cottonmouth.
“So if they’re such ruffians, why do you hang around with them?”
“Maybe I’m a ruffian too. Maybe I only offered to take you back to your boat so I could kill you and steal the packages you’re taking back.”
“Or maybe I’m eleven, Jaden, and I need to keep on people’s good sides.”
“I don’t. I work for them all, and I’m sick of it. I’m tired of moving around all the time so I don’t inadvertently annoy anyone.”
They had reached the bay, and Tail uncovered a flat-bottomed skiff hidden in the bushes down the bank from Gaspar’s airboats. They set it in the water and used two long poles to steer away from the Everglades and into the Ten Thousand Islands estuary. The shallow waters never measured more than five or six feet, and although Jaden figured he’d have made better time with his motorized personal propulsion gauntlets, he appreciated the ability to stay dry.
“Glad not to be swimming?” Tail asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Jaden said. “I’m lucky. If you hadn’t been at Don’s, I’d be boatless right now.”
“It’s not a coincidence that I was at Don’s when you arrived.”
“I can read more than these pithy Rip and Release signs. I can read runner code.”
“There’s a runner code? Go figure.”
“Yeah. It’s a series of light-based semaphores that Ins and Outs exchange. If you know where to look, and you spend a little time code-breaking, you can figure out when people are coming and from where.”
“That must be how Don’s crew knew where to find me.” Jaden’s arms already ached from pushing the boat through the mangrove islands. “Seems like something my boss could have told me.”
They lapsed into silence until they reached the impregnable force field. The ripples from the skiff echoed off the invisible wall.
“Guess this is it,” Jaden said, checking his equipment. “Thanks again, for every—”
“Take me with you!” Tail blurted.
“Oh, kid, I’d like to, but I can’t.”
Tail’s eyes darkened. “You mean you won’t.”
“I mean I can’t. They only provided enough air for one person to get back under the force field.” Jaden immediately regretted his revelation. Miles away from any assistance, all Tail would have to do to take his equipment was pull a knife, or even push him overboard.
“I’m a good swimmer,” Tail insisted. “I could follow you.”
Jaden relaxed. Horrible thoughts shouldn’t pop first to his mind. Tail was just a kid, after all. Unfortunately he was a kid who reminded Jaden far too much of himself at that age. If Tail was one-tenth as devious as Jaden had been, he was right to worry. “It’s too deep.”
“Let me at least try.”
“I can’t. No escapees allowed, or the guard who opens the force field won’t do it anymore.”
“I can’t stay here, Jaden. It’s only a matter of time before I stop being the cute kid. Please, let me go with you.” Tail’s eyes glistened with tears.
Jaden had to look away. “I’m really sorry. I’d take you if I could.” He knew the words didn’t really help Tail as much as he meant them.
“Yeah.” Tail gazed into the dark water.
“Really, I would.” Jaden put his hand on Tail’s shoulder.
Tail backed away. “You still gotta pay me,” he groused.
Jaden frowned. “I really don’t have anything with me I can give you,” he said, slipping his flippers on over his shoes.
“Those.” Tail pointed at his feet.
“I can’t dive deep enough fast enough without them.”
“Not the flippers, the shoes.”
“You want my shoes?”
Jaden shrugged and took off his shoes, handing them to Tail. If the kid coveted them, he could have them. His flippers would be a bit loose, but he’d manage.
“I’m really sorry again, Tail,” Jaden said with empathy in his voice. “I’ve gotta go.”
Jaden put the breathing device into his mouth and jumped into the cold, dark water. He adjusted the coordinates on his homing device and then activated his personal propulsion gauntlets.
Seconds later he heard a splash from above. He turned his headlamp upward and saw Tail swimming toward him.
Dumb, impetuous kid, Jaden thought. Tail couldn’t hold his breath that long. Jaden would just keep swimming and when the kid ran out of air, he’d turn back.
But Tail didn’t. Without flippers and the benefit of his P.P.G., Tail swam slower than Jaden, but he didn’t give up. If he didn’t abort and turn back soon, Tail wouldn’t have enough air to reach the surface.
Jaden gazed over his shoulder. A five-foot-long black tip shark prowled between Jaden and Tail. The shock of seeing the large blue-gray predator ripped the last few bubbles of air from Tail’s lungs, and he pumped quickly toward the safety of the surface.