Skirting away from New York City, he headed south, drawing near the coastline and hoping to pick up a signal. It was best to keep moving if they had his location, and he had no access to anything faster. The boat was guzzling gas though.
Molly hadn’t spoken for a time. He assumed she had been gagged. He still heard the remnant of sounds in his brain, like the noises of a old house at night
Suddenly, he sensed a connection reaching out for him. He opened the line. “Who’s this?”
“Buckethead, General Hugh. You’ve been compromised.”
“I figured that out, sir.” He must have finally made cellular range. “I need transport.”
“We have a helicopter heading your way now, Buckethead. Keep heading south. You’ll meet up with it.”
“Mol—Doctor Hendricks has been taken captive. I’m going to get her.”
“Those aren’t your orders, son. You’re to report to the Pentagon for a data dump. Terrorist chatter’s skyrocketed in the past three hours, and some of the super-villain hideouts have been stirring. We need your mainframe plugged into the systems here.”
“Great. Lovely. Maybe another time. But first I’m going back to base to rescue Molly. I’ll be ready when you need me.”
“We need you now. If you fall into enemy hands—“
Clint cut off the line, surprising himself. He always obeyed orders, because that’s what a soldier did. They could charge him with treason if they wanted to. He was their property; he knew the lawyers could make that case and win in front of a military court. But he didn’t care. He didn’t know what was happening, but he knew one thing: Molly was in danger. The idea of leaving her on her own turned his stomach.
“Molly, I’m coming for you.” He knew she heard him. “You’ll have to buy me a steak dinner, all right?”
He let the coast pass by without a second glance. He watched the sky, looking for the expected chopper. Perhaps they were under orders to shoot him. It wouldn’t be the first time today. The thought reminded him of his injuries, but he pressed the pain into ball and shoved it into the recesses of his mind, along with everything else. He wondered how much he could sweep under the carpet before it started affecting him.
Ode to Joy trumpeted from his lips, bombastic and triumphant now, in poor imitation of the double fugue. He loved that double fugue. It was one of the few things that pulled him out of the world and into a spiritual realm that soared with goodness, the sort of goodness that terrified and overwhelmed and ravished. The chaotic wicked world shrunk to a pinprick, until all the evil in the world seemed no more than an ant crawling upon a flower in a field of beauty.
Softly, very softly, he heard the notes repeated. Molly was humming under her breath.
He knew then that he would rather die than let her be injured. And he knew he never wanted her to know that.
He fell silent, self-conscious, and Molly quieted. So much for that.
He sliced through the water, watching the fuel gauge hover just above the E. Imperceptibly it sank down, splitting the E in half, then sliding below. The boat sputtered and came to a stop. He cursed. Something about coming to a stop got under his skin. Where was the chopper?
There it was. Two of them. Reinforcements. The beat of their propellers grew steadily louder. Soldiers leaned out, guns evident, as they approached. Clint held his hands in the air, showing he wouldn’t resist. At least, not as long as he was stranded in a useless tub. Once he was on board….
The nearest began to lower a ladder as it maneuvered over his position. A motion caught Clint’s eye. Instinctively, he fell to the ground and covered his head. Heat flashed across his skin as the boom of an explosion filled the air. Looking up, he saw the remains of the helicopter spiral down to crash in the ocean just as another silvery dart impacted against the second. It erupted in a fireball that sent shrapnel flying.
Clint sensed the heat signature before he saw it. A spherical sub emerged from the water, its thousands of hair-like tentacles twitching like a sick anemone. The ones exposed to air began to thrash like fish thrown upon the ground.
“These guys? Seriously?”
Gaians, led by the charismatic and mentally unstable Conrad Alimar. They believed the Earth would destroy all mankind with flood and fire and storm and quake, and they had taken refuge in the bosom of Gaia, in the deep places of international water. But these weren’t international waters.
The sub propelled forward, its tentacles lashing out. Clint flung himself out of the boat. The tendrils grabbed it, covered it, crushed it to rubble, and let it sink into the sea.
The Gaians were big on protocol, believing that the Earth had rules and regulations that all men must follow. The rules tended to change to favor the Gaians.
“Parlay!” Clint shouted. No—that was wrong. He shook his head to dislodge the pop culture. It came to him. “Cease! Men must live at peace.”
The sub halted. The voice that emerged was condescendingly British. “Do you claim to be a man?”
“Yes! I am an American citizen and these are American waters. You have no authority to attack me.”
“Ah, yes, but are you a man? You are Clint McCleary, the robot abomination of the great Babylon. You are the idol that speaks and leads men astray. Every true and honest homo sapien has authority to dispatch you with unimpassioned justice.”
Clint ground his teeth. He didn’t have the patience to deal with nutcases right now. “Okay, we’re done talking. Have at me.”
It would have been a cool thing to say if he had had a plan.
The sub rushed forward, tentacles reaching forward. The first leeched around his wrist, then another. As they grabbed him, one after another, he ran through the list of his weapons and gadgets. He was a veritable Swiss army knife, except he was American, so his told were a little flashier and exploded. But in less than ten seconds he was surrounded in a cocoon of vibrating tendrils, hardly able to breath. He sensed the sub’s approach. The single hat signature sat in the center of the sphere, like a spider in a web, and Clint felt the eyes of that man examining him.
“This is the end, hmm?” The voice of the sub mused. The tendrils became to squeeze. “As I destroy you, perhaps I can see how you tick.” A few of the tendrils pressed tiny fibers between the seams of his joints, feeling out his neuro pathways. The pressure of the cocoon threatened to snap his limbs. Inside, he felt as if he was being hollowed out.
“The code,” he muttered, hoping Molly would understand. “Now.”
Molly did not answer, but he felt her probing presence.
“Now!” Clint screamed.
Without a word, he felt the first of the security shields fall. She had initiated his self-destruction. The tendrils hesitated, sensing some change in his inner workings. Even the crushing pressure relented for a moment.
“The next,” Clint managed. He had no idea how Molly was doing it without speaking. She had no equipment with her. Or did she?
There were three security clearances that needed overridden before Clint’s internal generator self-destructed, killing him and anything in a twenty foot radius. Mr. British Maniac couldn’t know that Molly only knew two.
The second security shield fell. A growing heat filled his chest. It was something like heartburn.
“What are you doing, Clint?” the British voice asked.
“Destroying you. The government won’t let me fall into foreign hands.”
The tendrils began to loosen. In a moment he had powered his micron blade. He called it his progressive knife. It shot out of its holster into his right hand, tearing through the tendrils. With a quick twist of the wrist, he freed his hand. Slicing his other hand free, he grabbed a handful and pulled himself toward the sub, slashing at this torso and feet to increase his mobility.
He had one magnet missile left. He let fly, turning his face away as it exploded just in front of him. It opened a gash in the sub’s hull and sent the tendrils in a panic. They came at him like birds from a Hitchcock film. He hauled himself into the gash, forming an alcoved, and swung his knife wildly, chopping off dozens of strands with each swing. The sub began to descend, the tendrils resuming defensive positions. Conrad Alimar had decided it was wiser to run than to fight.
Clint didn’t put much stock in wisdom.
Bracing himself, he sent his last missile into the crater his first had made. He was too close. Shrapnel grazed his arm, opening up a new wound. But the explosion had done its job. Water was rushing into the central command station. Clint let the flow of the water push him through the hole, just large enough for his lengthwise body. Conrad shouted at the computers, his delicate hands punching button on the high-tech control panels.
Interior tendrils had already begun to seal the hole. But Conrad hadn’t looked up in his efforts to save his ship. Clint crossed the distance, vaulted onto the raised control station, and clubbed Conrad with his metal arm. He fell limp upon the floor.
“We’ll talk later,” Clint said.