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The Tomb of Hercules_A Novel

Andy McDermott

  Covered in broken pieces of wood and plaster and tile, Mac sat up. The thick sides of the old bath had shielded him from the direct blast of the grenade. Dust and smoke swirled through the room, but he could still see clearly enough to make out what was outside the broken door-way, a squat cylinder lying on its side on the smoldering carpet…

  “Bastards!” he hissed.

  He knew what it was. He’d used similar devices in his own career.

  It was a fuel-air explosive charge. An antiterrorist weapon, designed to clear large but confined spaces like cave systems by releasing a cloud of highly flammable vapor and then detonating, creating a massive fireball that raced outwards to fill every nook and cranny, consuming whatever lay in its path.

  And it would work just as well in a London house as an Afghan cavern.

  A gray mist spewed from the cylinder.

  “Nina!” he yelled as he stood. “Get out of the house! Get out!”

  Also by Andy McDermott

  The Hunt for Atlantis

  For my family and friends


  The Gulf of


  One hundred miles off the southern coast of Portugal was hidden one of the greatest secrets in human history.

  For now, it would remain hidden, guarded by another secret of much more recent origin.

  Officially, the giant six-legged floating platform was listed as SBX-2, a sea-based X-band radar station. Nicknamed the Taj Mahal for the huge white radar dome dominating its upper deck, the high-tech U.S. Navy behemoth swept the skies to the east for thousands of miles, its stated purpose to monitor North Africa and the Middle East for ballistic missile launches. In function and application, it was what it claimed to be.

  But that was not the real reason for its presence. The truth lay eight hundred feet below.

  Fifteen months earlier, the citadel at the heart of the lost civilization of Atlantis—long believed to be nothing more than a legend—had been discovered directly beneath where the SBX was now anchored. Though the only visible structure, the huge Temple of Poseidon, had been destroyed, radar surveys had revealed many more buried beneath the silt covering the seafloor. Since the discovery of Atlantis had ultimately turned out to be part of a conspiracy to exterminate three-quarters of humanity with a biological weapon, the Western governments that stepped in after the plot was foiled decided that not only the circumstances of the ancient city’s discovery, but also the mere fact of its existence should remain a secret. At least, until a more benign story of its finding could be concocted—and any danger of someone repeating the genocidal plan eliminated.

  So while the SBX stood vigil over the skies, beneath it scientists and archaeologists explored the site in secrecy under the auspices of the International Heritage Agency, a United Nations organization established a year earlier with the mandate of locating and securing ancient sites such as Atlantis. The central leg on the starboard side of the giant radar platform had been converted into a submersible pen, a section of the pontoon at its base now open to the sea. Shielded by concrete walls six feet thick, the IHA scientists were normally able to conduct their explorations with no interference from the outside world.

  But not tonight.

  “Jesus,” muttered Bill Raynes, the IHA’s expedition director, clutching a handrail as the rig swayed again. The SBX was so massive and securely anchored that normally even an Atlantic storm did little more than gently rock it.

  This was clearly a much bigger storm than usual.

  One of the bright yellow two-man submersibles swung on its chains as it was winched out of the water. Raynes watched it anxiously. Its twin was already secured over the dock, but if conditions got much worse there was a danger that the loose sub could become an uncontrollable pendulum.

  “Get a line on the damn thing!” he ordered. Two of his men hurried to obey, staggering around the edge of the moon pool as the floor lurched beneath them. They waited for the sub to swing back towards them, then snagged one of the chains with a boat hook, damping its motion. The dangerous swaying reduced, the winch operator raised the submersible fully into position above the dock, where more chains were quickly attached to secure it.

  “Okay! Good work, guys,” Raynes called, letting out a relieved breath. Both subs were now safely in place, which meant the day’s operations were concluded. On most evenings, that would have been the cue for him to go up to the main deck and enjoy a cigar.

  Not tonight, though. He wasn’t going to set one foot outdoors if he didn’t have to. He felt a brief stab of pity for the Marines stationed aboard the platform, who had guard duty no matter what the conditions. Poor bastards.

  The unexpected weather aside, it had been a good day. The high-resolution sonar mapping of the citadel was ahead of schedule, and the excavation of the first site had already produced results, an exciting haul of Atlantean artifacts valuable in both historical and monetary terms. He may not have discovered Atlantis, but Raynes had already decided that he was damn well going to be the person famous for exploring it.

  The actual discoverer of Atlantis was Dr. Nina Wilde, fifteen years Raynes’s junior and—on paper at least—his IHA superior. He wondered if the red-haired New Yorker had any idea that by accepting a senior post in the IHA she’d effectively ended her archaeological career before even turning thirty. Probably not, he decided. While she was certainly cute to look at, Nina also came across to Raynes as naive. It seemed to him that she’d been given the position of director of operations as a way to keep her—and her bodyguard-turned-boyfriend, Eddie Chase, whom Raynes regarded as little more than a sarcastic English thug—quiet and out of trouble while more experienced hands got on with the real work.

  He made his way to the elevator cage running up the inside of the support leg, glancing at the dark void overhead. The SBX’s main deck, the size of two football fields, was twelve stories above sea level. Carrying the case of artifacts, Raynes slammed the gate closed and pushed the button to ascend.

  Water sprayed up into the dock below as waves slapped noisily against the sides of the pool. He had never seen conditions inside the sub pen so bad before. Normally, the ocean surface inside the moon pool did little more than ripple. If it was this bad inside, he didn’t even want to think about what it would be like outside.

  Spray blasted almost horizontally over the surface of the Atlantic, waves pounding explosively against the forward leg on the rig’s port side. The metal staircase that rose from the submerged pontoon to a ladder stretching up the towering structure rattled and moaned under the onslaught. It was not a place where anyone in his right mind would choose to be.

  But someone was there.

  The man was a giant, six feet eight inches tall, with every hard-packed muscle in his athlete’s body picked out by his skintight black wet suit. He emerged from the water and made his way up the stairs, hands clamping around the railings with the force of a vise, even the thunderous impact of the waves barely throwing him off his stride.

  Once clear of the churning ocean, he paused to remove the scuba regulator from his mouth, revealing perfect white teeth—one inset with a diamond—surrounded by ebony skin, then began his climb up the ladder. Considering the distance and the conditions, most men would have been lucky to make it in under five minutes, and exhausted by the time they reached the top.

  The intruder made it in two, and was breathing no more heavily than if he’d climbed a single flight of stairs.

  Just below the top of the ladder, he stopped and carefully raised his head above the edge of the deck. The blocky gray superstructure of the SBX was three floors high, catwalks running along each level at the platform’s bow. Sickly yellow lights made a feeble attempt
to illuminate them. Rain spattered on the man’s diving mask, obscuring his view. He frowned and pulled it from his face, revealing calculating black eyes before he flipped down another pair of goggles from the top of his head.

  The weak yellow lights disappeared, replaced by shimmering blobs of video-game-vivid red and orange. Almost everything else was either blue or black. Ther-mographic vision, the world represented by the heat it gave off. The metal walls of the rig, lashed by freezing rain, were visible only as shades of blue.

  But there was something else that stood out against the electronic darkness, even in the storm. A glowing shape in green and yellow and white moved closer, gradually taking on human form through the false-color fuzz.

  One of the platform’s U.S. Marine guards, on patrol.

  The intruder silently lowered himself so that he was poised just below the edge of the deck, barely moving even as the storm pummeled him.

  The Marine came closer, boots clanking on the metal as he reached the end of the catwalk. One hand holding the railing, the other on his gun, he peered down the ladder—

  Fast and fluid as a snake, the intruder’s hand snapped up and seized him by his gun arm. Before the startled Marine could react, the giant almost effortlessly yanked him over the edge of the platform and flung him to his death in the spume over a hundred feet below.

  The killer flipped up his thermographic goggles and looked along the catwalk to see his next target only a few meters away. An electrical junction box, protruding from the metal wall. He hurried to it.

  The rat’s nest of wires and cables inside seemed impenetrably complicated, but the man already knew exactly where to find the main feed for the rig’s security cameras. He tugged one particular skein of wires clear of the others, then sliced a combat knife straight through them. A few sparks popped, but the blade was insulated. He returned the knife to its sheath and reached down to click the key of the radio on his belt.


  In the submersible dock, a man’s head broke the surface of the sloshing water. Eyes glinting behind his mask, he turned in a full circle to survey the surroundings. Two of the rig’s crew were on the dock, backs to the moon pool as they secured their equipment.

  He sank back under the dark water and took a gun of unusual design from his belt. Then he resurfaced, raising the weapon out of the water. Trickles of seawater ran out of the drainage holes along its barrel as he took aim. Another man emerged next to him, doing the same.

  Two flat thuds, so close together that they could almost have been the same sound, echoed around the concrete chamber. The guns were gas powered, compressed nitrogen blasting the darts they fired across the dock to slam into the backs of the two crewmen. They gasped in pain, hands clutching behind them … then collapsed to the floor, unable to move. The dart guns were designed to fire tranquilizers. But these were loaded with something else.

  Something deadly.

  The men in the water swam for a ladder leading out of the moon pool. Other divers appeared, following them onto the deck. Seven men in all. They quickly shed their scuba gear and crossed the dock to the elevator.

  The two crewmen lay nearby, frozen, helpless. Only their eyes, bulging in fear and pain, could move. Paralysis of the voluntary muscles had occurred almost immediately.

  Paralysis of the involuntary muscles, specifically the heart, would soon follow.

  One of the intruders bent down to pull out the darts, which he tossed into the moon pool. They sank out of sight. His companions dragged the paralyzed crewmen to the rim of the pool and unceremoniously dumped them into the sea.

  The team entered the elevator cage and closed it. A security camera looked on uselessly with its dead eye. With a rattle, the elevator started its ascent.

  The black-clad giant cautiously raised his eyes just above the level of the rain-lashed top deck. The flat metal expanse was dominated by the giant radar dome. It was illuminated from within, a colossal lantern glowing through the wind-whipped deluge. Everything else on the deck was indistinct, lost in the storm.

  He lowered his goggles again. The view sprang to gaudy life. At the stern, beyond the dome, was a swirling red haze—exhaust from the platform’s power plant, and heat pumped out by the banks of container-size air-conditioning units cooling the electronics of the enormous radar array.

  But other shapes stood out brightly. Two more Marines flared in his thermal sights as distant amorphous blobs, shambling through the cutting rain towards each other. They were following a set path, meeting up to confirm that all was well before turning back along their patrol routes.

  They would never make it.

  The intruder raised a weapon. Unlike the dart guns used by his team in the submersible dock, this was a rifle, a telescopic sight mounted above the grip.

  Flipping the goggles back up, he brought the sight to his right eye. Without the thermographic enhancement the Marines were little more than gray silhouettes, flapping rain capes outlined in yellow by a nearby light. He fixed the crosshairs on his target, the closer of the two men, waited for them to meet, to stop—

  The indistinct figure in the scope spasmed, then fell to the deck. The other man reacted in surprise, dropping to his knees to help him.

  Saw the dart protruding from his back. Looked up—

  The assassin had already reloaded. He barely needed the sights, the rifle almost an extension of his body as he fired again. He didn’t need to see an impact to know that he had hit.

  He ran to the second downed Marine, ignoring the man’s desperate, twitching eyes as he checked where his shot had landed. The dart had caught the man square in the chest, an inch below his heart. The sniper made a noise of annoyance. He’d been aiming for the heart itself. Sloppy.

  But only his pride was affected. The result was what mattered here. He tugged the dart out of the man’s flesh and threw it across the deck, then did the same for the first victim. The darts would be swept away into the sea, lost. And nobody would pay any attention to the tiny puncture wounds when there would be a far more obvious cause of death.

  The radio on his belt clicked, twice. A signal. The second team was in position.

  Right on time.

  The deck was clear. He returned the signal, clicking the key three times.

  Take the platform.

  The seven men had already shot the pair of surprised Marines in the cabin at the top of the support leg, immobilizing them with darts as soon as the elevator emerged. Then they waited for the signal from their leader. As soon as it came they split up into three groups—one of three men, two of two—and headed into the superstructure.

  The group of three quickly made their way towards the platform’s stern and the power plant section. While the SBX resembled a stationary oil rig, it was actually a vessel in its own right, able to move under its own power. It carried a crew of around forty, not counting the platoon of Marines and the IHA contingent. With the radar station itself being highly automated, most of the crew actually performed the same tasks as sailors on a warship: running and maintaining the vessel.

  Which meant the majority of the crew were concentrated in one area.

  Dart guns raised, the trio advanced through the gray corridors, one man checking at each junction before signaling the other two to move on. They went up a steep flight of stairs to B Deck, listening for any sounds of activity around them.

  A door opened ahead. A bearded petty officer carrying a toolbox stepped out, froze in surprise as he saw the three men—

  A dart stabbed into his throat, instantly delivering its toxic payload. The sailor let out a choking gasp, his killer already rushing forward to catch him and his toolbox before they crashed noisily onto the deck.

  The other two men checked the label on the door—an engineering storeroom—and flung it open, guns up as they checked that it was empty.

  It took only a few seconds for the paralyzed sailor to be dumped inside the storeroom and the hatch closed again. The men moved on, ascending more stairs to
arrive at their target.

  A hatch was set into one of the bulkheads, the low thrum of machinery audible behind it. Warning signs told the intruders what they would find within.

  The primary ventilation shaft for the aft section.

  The SBX’s superstructure was essentially a sealed metal box. There were only three windows on the entire vessel, in the bridge at the bow, and even those didn’t open. The only way to get air inside the rig was to pump it through the vents beneath the giant intakes on the upper deck.

  The assault team forced open the hatch, exposing an access panel into the shaft. A huge fan whirled behind it. The three men donned insectile respirator masks before taking a cylinder that one carried on his back and manhandling it through the access panel. A twist of a valve and the cylinder began to pump cyanogen chloride gas into the vent. Colorless, odorless—and deadly within seconds.

  They jogged back to the stairs and slid down the steep banisters to B Deck, heading forward. They ignored the strangled, agonized gasps from dying men and women in the rooms they passed.

  One of the two-man teams stealthily made its way to the platform’s accommodation section. The SBX’s small crew worked on a two-shift system: twelve hours on, twelve hours off. Right now, those on the second shift would probably be asleep.

  Including half of the Marines.

  The long room serving as the Marines’ barracks had two doors, one at each end. One of the men waited by the first door until his comrade reached the other entrance. Then he took a small cylinder of cyanogen chloride from his harness and opened the door.

  Most of the twelve Marines inside were asleep, though one man looked up at him. A moment of hesitation, replaced by trained response as he saw the black breath mask—

  “Marines!” he yelled, before a dart fired from the open door at the far end of the room thudded into his back. Other men jumped upright in their bunks, startled into life by the shout of alarm.