Ten minutes before, Commander Pedersen's stolid calm had given way to controlled excitement. “By gum, it's working out like you said it would!'' he had said wonderingly when Bond came into the attack center. ”They hove to just about ten minutes ago, and since then the Sonar keeps on picking up odd noises, underwater noises, just what one would expect if they were getting things mobilized in that underwater compartment of theirs. Nothing else to go on, but it's quite enough. I guess you and the boys had better get going. As soon as you're out of the way, I'm going to float up a surface antenna and get a signal off to Navy Department, give them a Sitrep and have the missile station warned to stand by to evacuate if things go wrong. Then I'm going to come up to twenty feet or so and have two tubes loaded and keep a periscope watch. I'm issuing Petty Officer Fallon with a second flare. I've told him to keep out of trouble as much as he can and be ready to let off the second flare if it looks as if things are going really bad for our side. Unlikely, but I can't take chances with things as they are. If that second flare comes up, I'm going to close in. Knock a piece or two off the Disco with the four-inch and then board her. Then I'm going to be rough as hell until that bomb's been recovered and rendered safe.'' The captain shook his head doubtfully. He ran his hand over the black iron filings of his crew-cut. “This is one hell of a situation, Commander. We'll just have to play it by ear.'' He held out his hand. ”Well. You'd better get going. Good luck. I hope my boys'll be a credit to the ship.''
Bond felt a tap on his shoulder. It was Leiter. He grinned through his mask and jerked up a thumb. Bond took a quick look behind him. The men lay spread out in a rough wedge, their fins and hands working slowly as they marked time in the water. Bond nodded and got going, moving forward with a slow, even trudge, one hand at his side and the other holding his spear up the shaft against his chest. Behind him, the black wedge fanned out into formation and cruised forward like some giant delta-winged stingray on the prowl. It was hot and sticky inside the black suit and the recirculating oxygen coming through the mouthpiece tasted of rubber, but Bond forgot the discomfort as he concentrated on keeping an even pace and a dead steady course on a prominent niggerhead with waves washing its head that he had chosen as a fix for his first contact with the shoal waters.
Far below, where the dancing moon shadows could not penetrate, the bottom was even white sand with an occasional dark patch that would be seagrass. All around there was nothing but the great pale luminous hall of the sea at night, a vast lonely mist through which, against his will and his intelligence, Bond expected at any moment the dark torpedo of a great fish to materialize, its eyes and senses questing toward the rippling shape of the black intruder. But there was nothing, and nothing came, and gradually the patches of seagrass became more distinct and ripples showed on the sandy bottom as it shelved slowly up from fifty to forty and then to thirty feet.
To reassure himself that all was well, Bond took a quick glance over his shoulder. Yes, they were all there, the oval panes of eleven gleaming masks with the fluttering fins kicking up behind them and the glint of the moonlight on the blades of the spears. Bond thought: By God, if only we can achieve surprise! What a terrifying ambush to meet coming at you through the shadows and shapes of the reef! His heart lifted momentarily at the thought, only to be checked by the deep gnawing of his hidden fears about the girl. Supposing she was part of the enemy team! Supposing he came face to face with her. Would he bring himself to do it---with the spear? But the whole idea was ridiculous. She was on board, safe. He would be seeing her again soon, as soon as this work was done.
A small coral clump showed up below and refocused his mind. Now he gazed watchfully ahead. There were more clumps, the ink splashes of sea eggs, crowds of small glittering reef fish, a small forest of sea fans that beckoned and waved with the ebb and flow like the hair of drowned women. Bond slowed and felt Leiter or Fallon bump into his fins. He made the slowing signal with his free hand. Now he crept carefully forward, looking for the silvery wash of the waves against the top of his navigation mark. Yes, it was there, away to the left. He was a good twenty feet off course. He swerved toward it, gave the halt signal, and came slowly up under its protection. With infinite caution he raised his head through the sucking waves. He glanced first toward the Disco . Yes, she was still there, showing more plainly with the moon now full on her. No sign of life. Bond inched his gaze slowly across the intervening sea. Nothing. A flurry of wavelets down the mirrored pathway of the moon. Now Bond slid round to the other side of the coral head. Nothing but the broken waters of the shoal and, five or six hundred yards away, the clear coastline and the beach. Bond searched the clear channels for unusual turbulence in the water, for shapes, for anything moving. What was that? A hundred yards away, on the edge of a big patch, almost a lagoon of clear water among the coral, a head, a pale head with the glitter of a mask across it, had broken the surface for an instant, taken a quick look around, and immediately submerged.
Bond held his breath. He could feel his thrilled heart hammering against the inside of his rubber suit. Feeling stifled, he took the breathing tube from between his teeth and let his breath burst out of him. He quickly gulped in some mouthfuls of fresh air, got a good fix on the position, crammed the tube roughly between his lips and slid back and down.
Behind, the masks gazed blankly at him, waiting for a signal. Bond jerked up his thumb several times. Through the near masks he could see the answering flash of teeth. Bond shifted his grasp on the spear down to an attacking position and surged forward over the low coral.
Now it was only a question of speed and careful navigation among the occasional higher outcrops. Fish squirted out of his path and all the reef seemed to waken with the shock wave of the twelve hastening bodies. Fifty yards on, Bond signaled to slow, to fan out in the attacking line. Then he crept on again, his eyes, aching and bloodshot with the strain, boring ahead through the jagged shapes among the pale mist. Yes! There was the glitter of white flesh, and there and there. Bond's arm made the hurling signal for the attack. He plunged forward, his spear held in front of him like a lance.
Bond's group came in from the flank. It was a mistake, as Bond quickly saw, for the SPECTRE team was still moving forward and at a speed that surprised Bond until he saw the small whirring propellers on the backs of the enemy. Largo's men were wearing compressed-air speed packs, bulky cylinders strapped between the twin cylinders of their aqualungs, that operated small screws. Combined with the trudge of the fins, this gave them at least double normal swimming speed in open water, but here, among the broken coral, and slowed by the maneuvering of the sled preceded by the electric Chariot, the team was perhaps only a knot faster than Bond's group, now thrashing their way forward to an interception point that was rapidly escaping them. And there were a hell of a lot of the enemy. Bond stopped counting after twelve. And most of them carried CO2 guns with extra spears in quivers strapped to their legs. The odds were bad. If only he could get within spear range before the alarm was given!
Thirty yards, twenty. Bond glanced behind him. There were six of his men almost at arm's length; the rest straggled out in a crooked line. Still the masks of Largo's men pointed forward. Still they hadn't seen the black shapes making for them through the coral. But now, when Bond was level with Largo's rear guard, the moon threw his shadow forward across a pale patch of sand and one man, then another, glanced quickly round. Bond got a foot against a lump of coral and, with this to give him impetus, flung himself forward. The man had no time to defend himself. Bond's spear caught him in the side and hurled him against the next man in line. Bond thrust and wrenched sickeningly. The man dropped his gun and bent double, clutching his side. Bond bored on into the mass of naked men now scattering in all directions, with their jet packs accelerated. Another man went down in front of him, clawing at his face. A chance thrust of Bond's had smashed the glass of his mask. He threshed his way up toward the surface, kicking Bond in the face as he went. A spear ripped into the rubber protecting Bond's stomach and Bond felt pain and wetness that might be blood or sea water. He dodged another flash of metal and a gun butt hit him hard on the head, but with most of its force spent against the cushion of water. It knocked him silly and he clung for a moment to a niggerhead to get his bearings while the black tide of his men swept past him and individual fights filled the water with black puffs of blood.
The battleground had now shifted to a wide expanse of clear water fringed with broken coral. On the far side of this, Bond saw the grounded sled laden with something long and bulky with a rubber covering, the silver torpedo of the Chariot, and a close group of men that included the unmistakable, oversize figure of Largo. Bond melted back among the coral clumps, got close down to the sand, and began to swim cautiously round the flank of the big clear pool. Almost immediately he had to stop. A squat figure was cowering in the shadows. His gun was raised and he was taking careful aim. It was at Leiter, in difficulties with one of Largo's men who had him by the throat while Leiter, the swim fin on his hook gone, clawed with the hook at the man's back. Bond gave two hard kicks of his flippers and hurled his spear from six feet. The light wood of the handle had no momentum, but the blade cut into the man's arm just as the bubbles of gas burst from the muzzle of the gun. His shot went wide, but he flashed round and thrust at Bond with the empty gun. Out of the corner of his eye Bond saw his spear floating slowly up toward the surface. He dived for the man's legs in a clumsy rugby tackle and clawed them off the ground. Then, as the gun muzzle hit him on the temple, he reached a desperate hand for the enemy's mask and ripped it off his face. That was enough. Bond swam aside and watched the man, blinded by the salt water, groping his way up toward the surface. Bond felt a nudge at his arm. It was Leiter, clutching at his oxygen tube. His face inside the mask was contorted. He made a feeble gesture upward. Bond got the message. He seized Leiter round the waist and leaped for the surface fifteen feet up. As they broke through the silver ceiling, Leiter tore the broken tube from his mouth and gulped frantically for air. Bond held him through the paroxysm and then guided him to a clump of shallow coral, and, when Leiter pushed him angrily away and told him to get the hell back under and leave him alone, he put up a thumb and dived down again.
Now he kept well in the forest of coral and began again his stalk of Largo. Occasionally he caught glimpses of individual battles and once he passed under a man, one of his men from the Manta , staring down at him from the surface. But the face under the water, framed in its streaming hair, had no mask or oxygen tube, and the mouth gaped hideously in death. On the bottom, among the coral clumps, there were bits of wrack from the tide of battle---an oxygen pack, strips of black rubber, a complete aqualung and several spears from the CO2 guns. Bond picked up two of them. Now he was on the edge of the open lagoon of battle water. The sled, with its obscene rubber sausage, was still there, guarded by two of Largo's men with their guns at the ready. But there was no sign of Largo. Bond peered into the misty wall through which the moonlight, paler now, filtered down onto the ripples in the sand, their pretty patterns scuffed and churned by the feet of the combatants. Where the sand had been disturbed, reef fish were swarming to pick up minute fragments of algae and other fodder, like seagulls and rooks when the plow has passed. There was nothing else to be seen and there was no way for Bond to guess how the battle, dispersed into a dozen separate running fights, was going. What was happening on the surface? When Bond had taken Leiter up, the sea had been lit by the red flare. How soon would the rescue dinghy from the Manta be on the scene? Ought he to stay where he was and watch over the bomb?