To Kill Again
A Soldiers of the Umbra Novel
Offshore Molokai, Hawaii
Sunlight dimmed from deepening blue haze into midnight as Val descended into perilous ocean depths. Deepwater chill ate through the thick neoprene of her wet suit, producing a shudder as her body acclimated to the change. A flashing marker on the down line warned her of the impending ocean floor.
She neutralized her buoyancy and hung suspended, fighting off the disorientation of floating with little sensory input. The beam of her high-intensity dive light penetrated a mere ten feet into the surrounding water and illuminated only a few degrees’ swath.
Val slowly rotated until an old wreck’s tail loomed into her beam. The rest of the plane and her fellow diver, Nic, lay hidden by poor visibility.
“Wreck in sight.” Each word took effort as she forced dense air in and out of her lungs.
“Good. Circuit complete.” Nic’s voice squeaked from the helium in the trimix he breathed. “Aircraft is in one piece.”
The C-47 Skytrain’s condition jibed with the surviving World War II crew’s report. The command pilot had ordered the copilot, navigator, and crew chief to abandon the aircraft. As their parachutes had floated to the sea, the three watched the pilot successfully ditch the plane onto the ocean surface. However, none of the crew members reported any fire, engine problems, or mechanical or structural failure to explain the bailout order. None of their stories showed any variation, and not one survivor mentioned why they had left a passenger behind. That action didn’t seem too heroic for a military crew.
“Cockpit windows intact?” she asked. That’s one way the pilot might have escaped after ditching.
“Opaque, but in one piece.”
An irritatingly long second or more passed until her voice-activated transceiver cycled and she could answer. “No egress then.”
“Affirmative,” Nic answered.
If the survivors got out, it had to have been through the cargo door near the tail.
The voice of their seasoned leader, Uncle Phil, aboard the dive boat, came through with a crisp edge. “Deco time, Nic.” Phil set the rules and the down times. On his watch, you stuck to the schedule. Nic had burned his bottom time. For those precious minutes, he earned at least three decompression stops at shallower depths.
“Heading for the down line…master.”
Val imagined her cousin Nic genuflecting somewhere off in the inky shadows. This amusing thought eased some of the heavy mood that had hung over this excursion since they’d first arrived on site. This was the crew’s first time down since her father’s diving accident.
Tears welled. Her heartbeat accelerated. Getting emotional now, while her brain already fought off deepwater narcosis, and she’d be the next fatality. Deep dives had big risks. If she made a quick ascent without adjusting her breathing mix, she’d become hypoxic from low oxygen. Add to that at three hundred feet down nitrogen easily absorbed into body tissues. Rise too fast and nitrogen would bubble freely into her veins like a syringe full of air. Not a pleasant way to die. Should something go wrong, sunlight, fresh air, and a return to the surface were likely two hours of decompression away.
The water lightened nearby. Nic, with a scooter he used for the down-line deployment, came into view. “Careful. Wreck is sloped,” he warned.
He grabbed the line and started his ascent, his fins passing feet from her mask. His form became a shadow against his light until the ebony water engulfed him.
With a tap to the computer on her wrist, her dive time shone red. Bottom minutes ticked away and she had no intention of squandering the honor of first entry into the newly discovered wreck—an honor she dedicated to her father.
Val hooked up a nylon distance line so that, unlike Hansel and Gretel, the way home was clearly marked. Before making the dive, she had studied the old cargo/troop hauler’s configuration along with its history. By all estimations, the cargo door should lie about ten feet along the fuselage from her position.
The entry drill had become second nature. Get in, lay a penetration line down the fuselage from the rear cargo door to the cockpit, then get out. A simple enough job, assuming no cargo or damaged structures blocked her way.
The high-strung government bureaucrat she’d last seen pacing back and forth on the boat had asked for an immediate assessment of anything she discovered. Something in his request set her personal radar on edge.
They all had no doubt that the powers that be knew more about this wreck than the paperwork revealed. Bureaucrats didn’t hitchhike on normal historical recoveries unless something was at stake. Something or somebody important went down with this C-47 during WWII, and now the government thought it worth checking out.
She swam alongside the grunge-covered fuselage until the light beam disappeared into a dark, inhospitable hole. So far the survivors’ scenario fit. The crew chief had reported opening the cargo door for bailout.
Her foreboding increased. She had a strong desire both to enter the wreck and to reel in her string and go home. Perhaps Phil had been right about taking time off after the accident. Snow-topped mountains and a lush, tree-filled valley would have taken her mind away from the water.
Instead, she opted for increased stress and another dangerous government job. None of that mattered. Standing at this door with her father’s presence surrounding and guiding her like powerful energy was the right place to be.
“Going in.” She attached a penetration line to the door and let a tiny reel hang from her hand. “I’ll see who’s home.”
“Government wants a cargo assessment. Remains recovery is a low priority,” Phil reminded her in his bottom-line managerial style.
“I’ll find dog tags.” Or jewelry or anything that might have survived sea exposure. In her mind, no military cargo left in the ocean for seventy-plus years had more value than discovering the identity of loved ones for families.
“There is no record of the passenger’s name,” Phil continued. “Probably some GI catching a ride from Midway to Hawaii. Won’t be much to bring home. The most you’ll find are a few bones, if their calcium hasn’t long dissolved back into the ocean.”
“If it were my granddad”—she drew in a long breath—“I’d want to know.”
A flick of her fins moved her forward and the reel let off line. Stillness abounded. No current tossed her about. No panicked fish escaping her presence darted through the beam.
Only gravelly breaths broke the stillness as air drew in and out of her lungs. The occasional tinkling like breaking glass followed when, unlike Navy SEAL rebreathers, hers released tiny bubbles after every few breaths. The bubbles rose and, unable to escape, gathered like globs of mercury along the aircraft ceiling, mingling with colorless or dark encrustations.
A profound loneliness washed over her, sapping energy and the sanity she had raised against the cold and deep. In this dark tomb, colorless life dominated like sentries for the departed.
“Awful quiet down there, Val,” Phil said.
“I’m trying not to wake the dead.”
“What do you see?”
Plankton and ocean particulates floated in her beam. “Nothing yet.”
She swept the light methodically from floor to ceiling before advancing and illuminating another few feet. Encrusted metal frames of troop jump seats devoid of cushioning were connected to fuselage ribbing along both sides of the plane. According to the C-47 layout, the troop seats continued up to a forward bulkhead. Beyond the bulkhead, the crew and missing pilot had operated.
“Ten minutes bottom time left, Val.”
At this rate, she’d never make it to the cockpit. The thought provoked urgency. Since their dive boat, Aura, named by her father, had arrived over the wreck, the desire to solve its mystery and the pilot’s fate had become imperative to her.
She worried these feelings hinted of hypoxia. Her desires had never compelled her to put personal agendas first, at the expense of a safe dive. Yet the way the surviving crew had talked about the command pilot, they’d idolized his bravery. So much so, they kept secret whatever had gone down with him and the plane. Answers existed, and the place to start finding them was in the cockpit.
The reel jammed as if sensing her haste. She twisted to illuminate the cause. The light surprised a tiny octopus that ricocheted off her leg in its scramble for darkness. She flinched and straightened. Her fin struck the floor, and the reaction propelled her toward the roof. She raised her gloved hand with the mounted light to protect her head. Metal clinked against metal. The bulb blinked out.
Pure, unadulterated black wrapped its blanket around her.
Her heart double-thumped as she drifted down from the ceiling and hung suspended. She punched at the switch on her light, to no avail. Darkness pulsed around her, expanding and contracting like a breathing monster waiting to devour her. Her tongue stuck to the top of her dry mouth. A base instinct to flee tightened muscles down her legs. Panic whispered its siren song.
To survive, she had to be calm, to think calmly. Panic killed faster than any creature of the deep.
She scrunched her eyes shut and listened. A familiar guttural wheezing accompanied air flowing in and out of her lungs. Bubbles tinkled. She had air, freedom of movement, and the line still in hand. Repetitive dive training supplied a direction to focus. She reopened her eyes, accepting the blackness.
“Seventy bucks down the drain,” she announced to Phil, praying the helium-induced tone covered the shaking in her voice. The second waiting for a reassuring answer seemed to take a minute.
“Bulb out, eh?” He instantly absorbed what had happened and concern filled his voice. Some divers freaked in blackouts, with deadly results. If he had any doubt about her sanity, he’d pull her out now.
She had to sound strong, regain control, and get to the cockpit. She had to find some sign of the pilot’s plight. Why the compulsion to uncover his story pulsed through her veins, she didn’t understand. Only the longer she stayed in the wreck, the stronger the urge grew.
“Going for my backup.” Her gloved fingers closed over a rough Velcro strap. With a solid pull the extra HID light released to her hand. Blind, but well practiced with the maneuver, she strapped the device onto the back of her hand and secured the cord that led to the battery pack. The on switch brought a weak streetlight-coming-to-life flicker, but every shiny electron warmed her heart and shoved panic farther away.
She tapped the dive computer for digital readout. Precious time had disappeared. A knot of urgency tightened her stomach. She launched warily ahead, in a hurry to at least get the penetration line to the cockpit. The reel now turned freely, laying out line.
The strobe-like flickering from the warming HID penetrated only a foot into the ocean ink. She oriented along the troop seats and followed the pulsing scene foot by visible foot toward the cockpit. Halfway to the bulkhead, the unsteady light revealed a dark blob near the floor. By the time the light flickered again, she’d passed the object. Temptation to stop and explore surged, but she didn’t give in. She would check it out on the way back if time allowed.
“At the first bulkhead,” she reported while securing the line before moving forward again. “No cargo so far.”
“Be careful. You’re moving into tighter territory.”
Oddly, she felt safer moving toward the cockpit and away from the main cabin. Excitement tingled in her blood as she faced forward while a frigid doom hovered along her spine. Perhaps the nearness of panic during the blackout left an aura of trepidation behind.
The high-intensity beam steadied and stabbed deeper into the plane’s inner darkness. The nav and crew chief station held nothing unexpected, simply rusted lumps where handles and valves had once existed. The navigator’s table had disintegrated. She floated over a hole disappearing downward. Memory recalled a pilot’s hatch. No chance for the pilot to have escaped there. The hatch would have been underwater after landing.
She reached a second bulkhead and stuck her lighted hand and head into the cockpit.
“Shit.” All her training did not prevent her from jerking back into rusting infrastructure. Sediment, encrustations, and loosened parts dumped down over her head.
“Speak to me, kid,” Phil commanded.
She calmed and refocused on the cockpit from a distance. “What did you say about bone dissolving into water?”
“…you see?” The voice activation cycling cut off Phil’s first words. “Dammit, speak to me.”
Inch by inch she drifted closer. The water, clouded with debris, blocked the view. Surely her first look had been a trick of the eyes. Some warped expectation buried in her mind manifesting itself. She had wanted to learn more about the pilot, and her wish had been granted—a little too realistically.
She closed and opened her eyes again. Nothing changed in the scene ahead. She had recovered her share of dead bodies from the water, but this… A shudder shook her core. An arm covered in the disintegrating leather of an aviator jacket waved, moved by the disturbed water. To get a better view, she angled past the bulkhead, maintaining distance between herself and what must be the pilot.
Not that she was superstitious, but common sense declared what she saw impossible.
“Three minutes till deco, Val. Give me an update.”
Fear subsided and curiosity, perhaps empathy, for the pilot drew her closer. He had met the same fate that awaited every diver if they became trapped in water. She tracked the light along the arm to the torso filling out the tattered jacket.
Impossible. The waters at this latitude and depth weren’t cold enough for this kind of preservation. At most, the skeleton should be a pile of bones. And what about crabs and scavengers and…and…impossible.
“There’s a body, Phil.” She forced out the words caught in her throat. “The pilot is still strapped in his seat.”
A black-and-white crew photo had been included in the files on the wreck. The light-haired pilot with an easy stance had stood taller than his crew, but the other men’s postures indicated they operated as one big family. Charisma and energy emanated from the photo, leaving her regretting his loss of life.
Before illuminating the face, she fingered the four-inch knife at her belt. So much for an unruffled diver. Her hands were shaking.
“Move on,” Phil shot back. “You’re running out of time. The military will decide if they want to collect his bones.”
She moved the light to illuminate wax-white skin along the pilot’s chin and cheekbones. “Negative. It’s a body. Bones, skin, and…sweet Jesus…” Light reflected off an eye staring straight ahead in death.
“Eyes.” The last word barely squeaked out. “Green eyes.”
“…on your way up, Val. Now! Follow the penetration line out. I’ll send Nic back down if you need it. Talk to me, kid. I want to hear your voice.”
Phil had assumed something was wrong, that the gas breathing mixture had gone bad and hypoxia had set in or narcosis screwed with her brain. The same thoughts flashed through her mind. No time for judgment. She didn’t have any if she had narcosis. She fought back panic.
“Okay. On my way out.” At that moment, a nice blue sky, a deck under her feet, and Uncle Phil’s reassuring arm around her shoulder sounded pretty damn fine. “This isn’t natural, Phil.” Let Nic recover the dog tags tomorrow—if the pilot were really there and not a result of deep-sea illusions.
The nav station flashed past and then the bulkhead. She didn’t need the penetration line to get out as the beam picked up the row of troop seats along the opposite side to her entrance path. The seats aimed toward the door.
Feeling more secure, she slowed, although not enough to avoid a large shape that loomed in her path. Forward momentum thudded her against something solid yet pliable. She swore and shoved away, stirring up debris. Whatever it was, it lay between her and freedom. The shadow stayed in place. Perhaps this was the cargo the government sought.
Her heart pounded deafeningly in her ears.
“Two minutes,” Phil called.
“Something’s down here.”
“…again. I didn’t catch that.”
“Working around it.” She grabbed hold of the penetration line, knowing her entry had been clear, and slid along it, keeping the light pointing in the direction of the shadow.
“…around what? Say again.”
She had no idea what she’d hit. Her light had been warming up when she passed this spot earlier and had missed this object. It had to be part of the dark blob she’d seen.
She aimed the beam lower where the original object had been. The dark shape reappeared, but too much debris floated in the water to delineate any details. She let go of the line and moved closer. If this was what the government wanted, then she could at least confirm its presence.
The closer she came, the more details emerged. The blob grew into a boot. A tall boot rising to the knee with a rusted piece of metal draped around the ankle and bolted to a tie-down on the floor. That familiar shaking returned to her body, but she couldn’t stop her hand from sweeping the light higher.
“Another body.” Ragged black shards of cloth hung on legs and hips. A black leather belt encircled the waist with a large encrusted buckle.
Recognition seeped into her brain.
“Get out, Val. Get to the down line,” Phil demanded.
No answer rose to her lips as she swept the beam higher. Pale skin of the body shone through remnants of a uniform—a Nazi uniform belonging to the SS. Evil emanated from the body—or perhaps her mind at this revelation.
“Val? Val? Answer me.”
One ashen wrist had a rusted ring of metal hanging loose around it. The remnants of a handcuff? Bits of cloth clung to the head and face as though a bag had been secured over his head. At least now she knew why he’d been left behind.
Her heartbeat drowned out Phil’s voice as he commanded over and over for her to report. Safety. She had to get to the down line. She willed her arms to move and swam toward the door, keeping the beam trained on the body’s face and his empty ice-blue eyes. Cold blue, chilling blue…the word blue pounded in her head. How in the hell could they be blue or even exist after seventy years?
Or how could they blink?
The body’s head whipped in her direction, its expression displaying the desire to kill. Panic didn’t creep up on her, it hit full force. She swung the light toward the cargo door and swam for her life.
A high-pitched chink rang in her ears. The chain around his leg. Please, hold.
An iron grip lassoed her ankle, tearing off the fin. With amazing strength, this horrific creature whipped her through the water to meet him face-to-face. A terrifying cold slithered around her heart. Her light shone up from under his chin, casting shadows on his face.
His blue eyes pulsed with excitement and flared when she struggled. He grinned as she reached for her knife and found the holder empty. He waved the knife back and forth in front of her face before blocking off her vision as his hand locked onto her mask. With ease, he ripped it off, taking her breathing source with it.
She tried to poke his eyes, but slow motion ruled her body. She had little recourse when he wrapped long, living fingers around her neck.
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