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 The Only Thing That Counts

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Anthony van
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PostSubject: The Only Thing That Counts   Tue Oct 17, 2017 4:31 pm

Chapter 15 - Revisitation

            Back at his place Steve changed. After having a bite to eat, he made a phone call and then packed a bundle onto his motorbike, before slowly setting off. Down his street he crawled. Vigilant to any possible tail, he turned left and rode steadily along, scanning his mirrors and the side streets as he went. Again he turned left and accelerated up the hill parallel to his street. Over the crest he turned about and rapidly retraced his route passing a sleek black European car hurtling up the hill. The surprised look of the occupants confirmed to Steve his persistent fear that he was being watched. Squealing tyres as the car braked and slid through one hundred and eighty degrees increased his heart rate.

            Now he knew that the chase was on. In his head a mental indicator shifted from ‘Threatening’ to ‘Dangerous’. His meticulously planned actions now had to be hastily executed. He turned right back at the connecting road, recklessly pulling across approaching traffic and forcing cars going in his direction to slow abruptly. Pushing the revs rapidly before gear changes, he raced along, conscious of the pursuer from a glimpse in his mirrors.

His bike fishtailed precariously as an elderly driver pulled uncertainly away from a small roadside shop. Accelerating past, Steve noted that the black car was drawing nearer. Focusing on the road ahead and weaving crazily through the traffic, he was barely aware of the car horns blaring and the blur of the streetscape. Another car had now joined the chase but neither was gaining much ground.

            He screamed through green lights changing to amber, and watched the receding intersection to see if he’d eluded the relentless stalkers. The first car swung to avoid stationary cars and sliced through the stop light undeterred, just missing a van which then was broadsided by the second chasing car. The second car spun and smashed into the traffic light.

With little traffic now separating them, the dark vehicle charged nearer showing amazing speed. Distracted with what was behind, Steve almost collected a couple sauntering across a pedestrian crossing. Their soundless shock transformed to horror when the chasing car bore down on them and roared by as they stood transfixed by fear.

            A further rear view glance revealed an arm protruding out the passenger window clasping a sinister looking firearm. Steve zigzagged and then increased his pace as much as he dared. Through the throaty snarl of the 500cc Honda he had little hope of hearing the deadly phut, phut as the silenced weapon discharged two lethal bullets. Around a sweeping curve he decelerated and veered left down a side street, then left again down a dead end street, he sped along toward a timber barrier that marked the end of the roadway. As the black threat screeched into the cul de sac another volley of shots sprayed around him. A police car pulled out from behind a hedge and gave chase. Its siren howled behind him as Steve slowed enough to swing past the log barricade, down a bike path, through a narrow gate, across a reserve and onto another road linked to the highway.

            Steve didn’t hear the crash and splintering wood. He didn’t hear the gunfire as Sergeant McGuiness and a constable subdued the assailants and arrested them; but not before one was wounded and a second squad car appeared preventing any possible escape. He exulted as the adrenalin washed through him and he realised that he had gotten away.

Now he relaxed a little, although he kept a wary eye about as he manoeuvred through traffic on the highway. Still not entirely assured of his escape route being undetected, Steve worked a circuitous track across suburbs between the main road arteries, doubling back a couple of times to calm his paranoia.    

            A half hour later, Steve was speeding down a coastal highway on his motor cycle. The mild wind felt a lot cooler as it streamed past his face and tugged at strands of his sandy hair poking out from under the helmet. At Port Westbourne he phoned John and confirmed that things had gone to plan. Omitting any reference to gunfire or the desperate chase, he emphasised the successful entrapment by the police.

The next stage of the journey was along a much quieter stretch of road. He thought about Jodie, about Kelly and about what he might be heading into. The rolling hills and occasional ocean vistas roused his mood.

            Resting at a roadside stop, drinking from a juice bottle and carefully studying a map, Steve began to appreciate the delightful surrounds. Pink and red cirrus streamers graced the late evening sky. Drawing in the fresh, salt tanged air, he examined the rocky coastline, watching the blue green swell foam into white breakers and, seconds later, hearing the associated whump as the sound of the collapsing watery wall resonated up the cliff face. He knew he must be close. It was just a case of matching the features with the numeric location.

            In his mind’s eye he summoned up the coordinates for the area of the subterranean base. Raucous squawks of wheeling gulls drew his attention as wind rustled the map. He pondered the inexplicable sequence of events that had conspired to entangle him in this struggle; the events had hoisted him out of his lethargy and his mundane routine and, perversely, placed him at this scenic vantage point where everything seemed right with the world. It was not the clarity of the coastal panorama that he was in awe of, but the way his inner voice was now demanding answers, demanding direction and meaning. And there seemed to be another voice, quieter, stronger, drawing him on.

“Lord, what should I do? Help me.” His quiet appeal faded in the breeze, but his mood became more resolute—he remembered ‘I’m in his hands’.

            Identifying a large hill to the north as the nearest land to the GPS location first indicated on the submarine, Steve surveyed the area for an access route.  The hill appeared to be one of many ancient remnants of volcanism. Atop the rounded knoll were a few buildings and three cars parked behind chain link fencing. A few communications towers and what looked like an out of commission lighthouse were perched on the crest. The structures suggested another entry point to Steve and he was suddenly wary that the base was probably manned.

            Its cliffs towered over a rough rock platform that was strewn with dark igneous boulders and patterned with tessellating blocks now exposed above the churning waves which were a distance out. Farther back were several other rounded peaks and rolling farmland surrounded them. He saw the worn tracks of car tyres winding off the main road down to the rock platform. To the south of the headland some screening coastal scrub grew along the shore of the bay. It would provide good cover for him, and from there he would search for an entry point. The dark blue colouration of the ocean beyond the rocks, signifying its considerable depth, was further evidence to Steve that he was at the right place.

            Mounting his Honda, Steve travelled the short distance to the down-slope facing the large hill, then wound his way down the little used track and parked his machine under the low hanging branches of a coast banksia. Soon he had donned the scuba gear from his bundle and tentatively made his way to the shore in the fading light. What little he knew of diving from his two previous experiences was swirling through his head. Firstly, he knew that you don’t dive alone.

He was.

You gather information about dive locations, currents and possible hazards.

He hadn’t.

You don’t dive as it’s getting dark—especially if you’re a novice.

He was.

What about informing others of his whereabouts? ... John knew. That’s one out of four. What he was about to do in stepping over the ledge was foolhardy, but he knew his dive may turn out to be the least of his worries.

            Putting on his flippers, adjusting his face mask and testing his air supply were the last things Steve did before stepping clumsily off the rock shelf into the sea. His entry into the surging swell made an ungainly splash and he was instantly buffeted against the craggy face of the cliff. Then, almost immediately, as the wave receded he was drawn away in the undertow of the retreating water. The short reprieve gave Steve time to go deeper, away from the swirling currents near the surface.

            The gloomy water darkened as he descended the sheer drop off at the end of the rock platform. Flicking on a powerful, waterproof torch, Steve followed the beam of light down the slick black columns of volcanic rock. Swimming slowly down under the overhang it soon became almost inky black around him. The pressure, the darkness and the seeping cold shook his initial optimism, and a wave of panic shivered through him. Where was the access? He swam briefly to the left and came eventually to a gradually rising sea floor. Back to the right the seabed dropped away again and he considered whether he should descend even more. After two minutes he estimated that he had passed his dive point and was now searching to the right.

Tiny creatures and plankton formed a blizzard of particles in the torch light as Steve edged still farther along the submersed cliff. All along the impenetrable wall there was alternately dull, jagged rock, smooth rock and, sometimes, glistening, black obsidian.

            Unexpectedly the beam suddenly extended deep into a cavernous gulf. This was what he had been looking for. Steve struck out purposefully into the huge tunnel. Shining the light about him he caught sight of the glimmer of air pockets on the rugged roof of the tunnel collecting from the stream of bubbles venting from his breathing apparatus. The dark enclosed tube seemed to press in on him. Scenarios of being trapped here, running out of air, gave a new urgency to his efforts. His heightened anxiety made him consume more air than he needed to. It also made the traverse of the tunnel seem to take for ever. Steve became aware of his growing frenzy, paused, and tried to steady his efforts. He regulated his breathing and began stroking with a more efficient rhythm.

            The darkness receded gradually. Shimmering bluish white disks of light visible above him, was the first evidence that he had penetrated into the base. Rising as close to the cave wall as possible to minimise tell-tale bubbles, he apprehensively surfaced in the shadows of the far end of the cavern. The lapping water, a small rivulet splashing nearby and a distant humming sound greeted Steve as he raised his mask and strained to sense if he’d been detected.    

            Looking around he saw that there were now two sleek submarines moored at the dock. Drawing nearer he noticed lettering on the side of the first. It was labelled ‘Skua’. It hadn’t occurred to Steve that this big operation could run more than one such craft, but in retrospect it didn’t surprise him.

            After a minute of silently gliding through the murky water the name ‘Cormorant’ became distinguishable on the second craft. He wondered again what had happened to Malcolm. It seemed an age since they had fled the horrific massacre and yet it was less than a week. Scaling the timber supports of the pier, Steve rested a few minutes under the walkway and stored his tank, flippers, mask and torch. The aches and bruises from his injuries were barely noticeable now. He clasped a small water proof bag in which he hoped he might collect some virus samples. Maybe they stored it in ampoules or sealed dishes he thought. He knew this part of his plan was a bit thin.

             Inspecting the area with cautious glances over the top, he waited several minutes before convincing himself it was clear.

“Looks safe,” he muttered to himself. Steve grinned at his own absurdity.

‘So here I am sneaking into the one place where I am sure people want me dead and I’m checking to see if it is safe!’ He shook his head. ‘I’ve got to stop talking to myself.’          Once up top he quickly skittered across to the piles of pallets. From there he waited and watched. There were no bodies. They had been cleared. He assumed that it was because it was becoming later in the evening that only a very few soldiers were about.  Nevertheless, strolling around in a wet suit wouldn’t do.

            Several minutes later Steve emerged from the Cormorant wearing a uniform. After scrambling under the dock he made his way back to his gear and left the wet suit in a bundle. From there he clambered back to near the Cormorant to emerge unseen. Then he casually walked toward the exit of the harbour trying to role play being a ‘native’. In the distance he saw two or three military personnel at the stores entry to the harbour, fairly relaxed, and unaware of him, the intruder.

            Each heartbeat, each step along the walkway to the main corridor took him further into the complex; it closed off any thought of a hasty retreat. Ignoring a casual glance from a worker in overalls, he left the large natural cavity. Instead of travelling to the nexus of the three main corridors Steve chanced the strong likelihood that smaller side corridors were interconnecting. Taking the first door on the right, he walked warily along the narrow hall past rooms with humming generators and the pervasive smell of diesel fuel, past a laundry and through a doorway. There was a basketball court on the right and a gym on the left.

            Before he could take evasive action someone emerged from the Gym. Steve tried to walk purposefully past but was addressed by a man in a track suit.

“Ah, nothin’ like a good workout,” he grinned.

“You’re right there,” Steve replied curtly.

“Is that an Australian accent?” he asked beginning to size up Steve.

“Er, yes, I spent my youth in Australia.”

“What part? I’ve spent some time in Melbourne. It was—”

“Look sorry...” Steve cut him off. He was settling into a conversation that Steve couldn’t risk. “I’m in a bit of a hurry. Maybe we’ll catch up later.” And he quickly strode down the corridor leaving the serviceman rubbing his chin, nonplussed.

            In a short time he had gone through another door and was in the middle passage. He sauntered as casually as he could up to the where the smell of food tantalised his nostrils.

            There was more movement here as a few men were coming out of the dining area. In a moment of fright Steve turned about and, leaving the swimming pool behind, he passed the gym and lounges and sought refuge in the small theatre. All the way there he imagined curious eyes watching him, but he had to continue or look even more suspicious.

            Inside the darkened room he shook briefly, trying to regain some level of calm. Rerunning his plan through his mind—find the labs, find the virus phials, store them safely, escape undetected to have them analysed—simple really, he thought dryly. Now he had to regroup. He took a deep breath determined to present a confident persona. Steve left, walking as though he was gainfully employed, which he was, thinking that that was the only method of blending in. Striding purposefully back along the broad hallway he passed the recreation areas and the lounges with a passage to the kitchen. That passage probably went to the last main corridor but too far from the lab for his liking. He remembered that the labs had been closer to the main junction and started looking vainly for another side passage to the right.

            Alongside was the dining area and just beyond that he saw a door that looked promising. Looking around Steve quickly viewed the main dining area through the window. At first he thought that most diners had already left but then it dawned on him that the base now had only a skeleton crew. Maybe Colonel Klein couldn’t afford to involve any more people than he absolutely needed. Instantly Steve’s interest was caught by the short, blond hair of a girl sitting opposite a middle aged man.

“What!” he gasped, catching his breath at his recognition of Kelly. She was eating in the dining area with a senior military officer. He froze and stared. Hearing footsteps at the end of the way made him conscious of his exposure and he tried to casually turn and then retrace his steps, taking the passage on his left.

Steve then quickly side stepped into the lounge entrance on the right. He waited in the alcove and watched the far end of the dining area as the two talked, not as adversaries, but in a businesslike manner. Emotions blurred his decision making. He had some feelings for Kelly and now he felt betrayed. Trying to hold back the bitterness he felt for her for exploiting his affections, he reminded himself that she didn’t really learn anything from him. He had the consolation that his reservations about her were being vindicated; he hadn’t shared any secrets, any plans and, thankfully, their relationship hadn’t progressed beyond a friendship with possibilities. Yet she must have kept a close surveillance. She had used her charm to start to gain his friendship and, to some degree, his trust. It looked like she had been a plant. He knew he had to find out what was going on.

            Soon the officer left, calling a soldier to the door, and Kelly remained by herself inside. Steve waited for over an hour and noted the sentry occasionally checked inside. Maybe he had misread the situation. Were they keeping her prisoner? After the second hour he checked the hallway and wandered out to the dining hall. Kelly sat close to the front corner. With his face averted in the other direction, he walked past and took the door to the right past the dining area. The glassed area also extended to the side passage so Steve could view from the darkened passage.

            Soon after, the Colonel arrived and started talking with Kelly. Steve snuck close to the glassed in eating area. Keeping low, he was close enough that he heard some of the conversation.

It was Kelly he heard first. “Where is he?”

“Let’s not worry about that now. What have you found out?”

“Not very much ...” She turned away and Steve could only catch snatches of what she said from the garbled sounds. But he did make out ... “He’s very secretive. He knows more ...” Steve strained to hear her dropping voice... “but he seems harm ...”

Steve felt sure now that Kelly was working for them and was now informing her boss.

            He moved to put his ear against the glass when he heard a muffled sound and a slight scuffing of feet. An alarm bell sounded in his brain but his reactions were too slow. Almost in slow motion, it seemed, as he turned, a dark shape came down on him. He tried to duck aside but felt a sharp pain on the back of his head, a flash of exploding colours, and then everything went dark.
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The Only Thing That Counts
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