Chapter 1: The ‘Sylvia Earle’, North Sea 1. The Sylvia Earle, North Sea
IT WAS JUST AFTER DAWN, so the black-clad hijackers were barely visible as they moved with military precision across the deck of the marine research vessel Sylvia Earle. There were seven of them, and they wore special nonslip tactical shoes that gripped the damp metal surface, and balaclava ski masks that concealed their identities and shielded them from the cold ocean air. Virtually all of the ship’s passengers and crew were still asleep, so the intruders faced no resistance as they stormed the bridge and caught the duty officer by surprise.
No alarm was sounded.
No desperate call for help was transmitted over the radio.
That meant the best hope to save the Sylvia Earle was one deck below, only half awake and yawning as she groggily looked for her best friend. There was no precision in her movements, and her pajamas were comfortable, not tactical: neon blue sweatpants, a Ravenclaw T-shirt, and wool socks decorated with cartoon narwhals. According to the ship’s manifest, her name was Christina Diaz, but that was just a cover identity created by the British Secret Intelligence Service. Among her fellow MI6 agents, she was Brooklyn.
She was also twelve years old.
Brooklyn had been awakened not by the arrival of the hijackers, but rather the endless snoring of two of her cabinmates. She turned on a small reading light above her bed to see if the same fate had befallen her friend Sydney, only to find Sydney’s bunk empty. At first, she assumed her fellow spy was down the hall using the restroom, or the “head” as they called it on the ship. But when Sydney didn’t return after a while and the snoring got louder, Brooklyn decided to look for her.
She silently lowered herself from the upper bunk and slipped out the door into the passageway. She was on her way to the galley to see if Sydney was raiding the freezer for ice cream when a man’s voice came over the loudspeaker. That was the first sign of trouble. There weren’t supposed to be any men on the Sylvia Earle. The ship was carrying sixteen students, seven crew members, three scientists, and a documentary filmmaker on a weeklong trip meant to inspire girls to pursue careers in the sciences. Everyone on board was female… until now.
Someone had crashed the party.
“Attention! Attention!” He had a mild Scandinavian accent and spoke in a chilling monotone. “I am sorry to wake you, but we have taken control of the ship. Everybody must immediately come up to the main deck in a calm, orderly manner. If you obey our instructions, nobody will get hurt. But if you disobey, then you will be responsible for what happens next.”
Just like that, Brooklyn was wide awake and fully alert as she raced toward her cabin. MI6 had placed her and Sydney on the trip specifically to protect two girls: Judy Somersby, whose mother was a high-ranking member of Parliament, and Alice Hawthorne, who, despite being thirteen years old, was officially Lady Alice Hawthorne, daughter of the Duke of Covington. She was thirty-second in line for the throne, and for anyone who didn’t know that, she managed to work it into conversation with astonishing frequency.
“Get up, now!” Brooklyn commanded as she flung open the door.
The room was cramped—two sets of bunk beds with a narrow space barely shoulder-wide between them. Alice and Judy were on the bottom bunks, and when they failed to respond quickly enough, Brooklyn reached down, grabbed both sets of covers, and yanked them away like a magician.
“I said, get up!”
“I beg your pardon,” Alice exclaimed. “You can’t speak to me that way. I’ll have you know—”
“What?” Brooklyn interrupted. “That you’re thirty-second in line for the throne? If you don’t listen to me, there’s a decent chance everyone from thirty-three on down is going to move up a spot.”
Still sleepy, Judy sat up and mumbled, “What are you going on about?”
“Pirates have seized the boat,” Brooklyn said. “I think they’re coming for the two of you.”
“Pirates?” Judy gave her a confused look. “You mean with peg legs and parrots?”
“Yes, and a crocodile with a loud clock in its stomach,” Brooklyn replied sarcastically. “This isn’t a storybook. These are actual twenty-first-century criminals at sea. And you two are the most valuable treasure on this boat.”
There was a commotion in the passageway, and they could hear one of the hijackers yelling at everyone to get up to the main deck.
“Is this some sort of prank?” asked Alice. “Because it’s not funny at all.”
“Apple jack!” blurted Brooklyn.
“What?” Judy asked, still confused.
“Apple jack,” Brooklyn replied, although this time with less certainty. “That is the code, isn’t it? Didn’t your parents tell you about ‘apple jack’?”
MI6 had given this emergency code to the parents of both girls with the instructions that if someone used the term, they were supposed to follow that person’s directions without question. Neither Alice nor Judy had taken it very seriously, and if at all, they expected it to come from someone in authority wearing a uniform, not a twelve-year-old girl in Harry Potter jammies. But that’s because they had no way of knowing that perhaps the biggest secret in the British Secret Intelligence Service was an experimental team of five young agents aged twelve to fifteen who called themselves the City Spies. Their success relied heavily on the fact that their mere existence seemed unimaginable. Nobody ever saw them coming. And even if they did, who’d believe it?
“Yes, but…,” sputtered Alice.
Just then a massive man filled the doorway. He was so big, his muscles had muscles. “Everybody to the main deck,” he snarled, his yellowed teeth visible through the opening in his ski mask. “You don’t have time to put on the makeup.”
He was menacing. But while Alice and Judy were properly terrified, Brooklyn seemed more… annoyed.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked.
He was only expecting shrieks and screams, so her question caught him off guard. “What do you say?”
“That crack about makeup,” she replied. “You think because we’re girls all we care about is our appearance? Is that it? That’s really sexist.”
“Get to the top of the boat, now!” he bellowed. To punctuate his point, he stepped through the doorway so that he loomed over the foot of each bed.
Which was exactly where Brooklyn wanted him.
She put her arms on the upper bunks to brace herself. Then, like a gymnast using parallel bars, she swung up the lower half of her body and executed a perfect scissor kick to the underside of his jaw. He froze momentarily before collapsing into a heap.
Brooklyn turned to the girls. “So are you coming or what?” she asked. “Because there’s going to be more of him, and, at the moment, there’s only one of me.”
The two of them looked at the behemoth on the floor and then the slender girl who’d put him there.
“We’re coming with you!” they said in unison as they scrambled to their feet.
“Grab your shoes,” Brooklyn said as she jammed on a pair of sneakers. “There’s climbing involved.”
“Climbing what?” Alice asked, alarmed, but Brooklyn was already out the door.
The passageway was pure pandemonium. The alarm system blared and emergency lights flashed. Their shipmates headed toward the stairwell while Mr. Creepy kept talking over the loudspeaker. Brooklyn ignored it all and focused on going in the opposite direction with Alice and Judy right behind her. All the while, she kept an eye out for Sydney, who should’ve come straight to their cabin at the first sign of trouble. Brooklyn couldn’t imagine where she was and that had her worried.
“Where are we going?” Alice demanded.
“I’m not going to say it out loud because I don’t want anyone else to hear,” Brooklyn said. “Just stay with me.”
She turned back and saw that the hijacker had regained consciousness and was now emerging from the cabin. He rubbed his tender jaw as he scanned the passageway, looking for them. When he spied Brooklyn, his eyes filled with rage.
“You!” he roared as he lumbered toward them, swatting people out of his way like a movie monster. “I want you!”
“Pick up the pace,” Brooklyn urgently told the others. “We’ve got company.”
They hurried into a room marked WET LAB and closed the metal door behind them. The lab was filled with display tables, scientific equipment, and shallow saltwater tanks that held the marine specimens they’d studied during the week. Brooklyn checked for a lock on the door, but there wasn’t one.
“What do we do?” asked Judy.
“Hide,” said Brooklyn. “Let me deal with him.”
“How?” asked Alice.
“I don’t know yet,” Brooklyn replied as she scanned a table, looking for anything that might fend him off. “We considered a lot of variables when we planned this op, but unfortunately didn’t come up with any specific contingencies for neutralizing a humongous hijacker with really bad teeth.”
“We?” said Alice, confused.
“Op?” added Judy, equally befuddled.
Brooklyn ignored them and turned off the overhead so that now the only light was coming from the aquariums built into the wall. This gave the room a hazy blue look, while the gentle movement of the water in the aquariums cast ghostly shadows across everything.
Brooklyn kept looking until she heard the door opening. That’s when she dived behind a table and tried to remain perfectly still. She hoped they were lucky enough that he hadn’t been able to tell which room they’d entered.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” he said as he hit a switch and the fluorescent lights hissed to life. “I know you’re in here.”
So much for luck.
He wanted her scared, so Brooklyn decided to be brave. She came out from behind the desk and stood tall. All the while, she kept her right hand behind her back so that he couldn’t see what she’d found.
“You lucky punch me the first time,” he said as he pulled off his ski mask. “Because the balaclava blocked my vision. But not again.”
“Sucker punch,” she corrected.
“You said ‘lucky’ punch, but the term is ‘sucker’ punch,” she said. “English is a confusing language. What do you normally speak? Swedish? Norwegian?”
The man growled, and Brooklyn decided to stop correcting his grammar and asking questions. Instead, she surveyed the situation, just as she’d been trained to do. He was big, but he had an unsteady look about him. With his mask off, she could see the swelling on his jaw. She felt certain she’d given him a concussion. That was his weakness. She couldn’t outmuscle him, but maybe she could outsmart him.
“You should leave right now,” she suggested, still holding her hand behind her back. “Don’t make me hurt you again.”
“What do you have?” he challenged. “Some kind of weapon?”
“Better than that.” She pulled out her hand and held it up in a fist in front of her face to reveal that she was now… wearing a bright yellow rubber glove. She’d grabbed it from the table right before hiding. The reveal was dramatic but not even a little bit intimidating.
“A rubber glove?” He let out a booming laugh. “What are you going to do? Wash the dishes like a good girl?”
She shook her head in disappointment. “Again with the sexist comments,” she said. “Don’t you ever learn?”
He moved toward her, but with lightning speed she grabbed something from a display tank and threw it at him. He reflexively caught it right before it hit his face and smiled for an instant, thinking that he’d foiled her pathetic attempt. Then he let out a yelp of pain.
“Wh-wh-what?” he stammered, confused by what was happening.
“You already feel it, don’t you?” she said with a confident smile. “That’s a flower sea urchin. It’s got a pretty name, but what it does to your body is downright ugly.”
He looked at the spiny sea creature in his hand. It was globular, about four inches wide, with tiny pink petals that resembled flowers. He dropped it to the floor, but it was too late. His palm was already beginning to swell.
“That tingling in your hand,” she continued, “that’s caused by the poison on the petals. Pretty soon it will reach your bloodstream and that’s when the real trouble starts.”
He looked at her with fear in his eyes.
“First, your fingers will start feeling numb and then your lips,” she said. “Once it affects your tongue, you won’t be able to scream for help.”
He went to say something but realized he could barely use his mouth.
“So the question you have to ask yourself is this,” Brooklyn continued. “Do you want to keep chasing us until the poison overwhelms your entire body? Or do you want to leave us alone and drink the antidote that will save your life? It’s totally your choice.”
He tried to answer but the best he could do was “Amp-li-dope.”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry. I can’t understand what you’re saying.”
“Amp-li-dope!” he pleaded.
“I still can’t understand, but I’m guessing it’s probably antidote,” she answered. “That would be the wise choice.”
He nodded frantically.
“It’s in the first aid kit in the back of the closet.” She pointed at a walk-in storage room that held lab samples and scientific supplies. “It’s the yellow bottle labeled ‘antitoxin.’?”
He staggered over and stepped in to look for the antidote. He was still looking when Brooklyn shut the door behind him and closed the latch, trapping him inside. He pounded on the door, but there was nothing he could do to get out. He called for help, but his muffled pleas were completely unintelligible.
The others came out from their hiding places. “That’s the first aid cabinet,” Judy said, pointing toward a metal wall unit with a red cross on its door.
Brooklyn shrugged. “Yeah, but there’s no way to lock him up over there.”
“So you’re just going to let him die?” Alice asked, incredulous.
“Of course not,” Brooklyn answered as she carefully picked up the sea creature from the floor. “Flower sea urchins can be lethal, but this specimen is way too small. The effects should wear off in about fifteen minutes. You would’ve known that if you’d paid attention during the lab session yesterday. I think you were moving around the room trying to find a spot where you could get bars on your mobile, which is pretty funny considering we’re in the middle of the North Sea, where the number of cell towers is exactly zero.” She gently placed the urchin back in the display tank.
Alice looked at her curiously. “Who are you again?”
“I’m the girl you haven’t paid attention to for the five days we’ve been sharing a room,” Brooklyn responded as she yanked off the rubber glove and dropped it on the table. “Now, let’s keep moving.”
She led them to the corner of the lab, where she opened a hatch to reveal a ladder that accessed the engine deck below.
“We’re going down there?” asked Judy.
“Yep,” Brooklyn said. “We found the perfect hiding spot.”
“There you go with ‘we’ again,” said Judy. “Who’s ‘we’ and why were you planning?”
“MI6 received intel about a possible threat that simultaneously targeted Parliament and the royal family,” said Brooklyn. “They assumed it would take place in London, at Westminster or Buckingham Palace, but then someone saw that the two of you were going to be on this trip and decided to put some assets on board just in case.”
“You are an MI6 asset?” asked Alice, disbelieving.
“We’re not going to worry about what I am,” said Brooklyn. “We’re just going down this ladder before anyone else comes through that door.”
In fact, there were three MI6 agents on board. Sydney and Brooklyn had been assigned to protect Alice and Judy, while an adult had been placed among the ship’s crew and tasked with combating any possible hijackers. In keeping with their top-secret status within the Intelligence Service, Sydney and Brooklyn had no idea who the agent was, and the agent had no idea that Sydney and Brooklyn were any different from the other bright students interested in marine biology.
“This is disgusting,” said Alice as they reached the bottom of the ladder. “What’s that smell?”
“That smell’s going to save your life,” said Brooklyn, raising her voice to be heard over the generators that provided electricity for the ship. “It’s a mix of saltwater, diesel fuel, and lubricating oil. It’s the guts of the boat, and it leads us to the stern thruster machine room.”
“Was that something else I missed when we were supposed to be paying attention?” asked Judy with her customary snarky attitude.
“No,” said Brooklyn. “Nobody knows anything about it, which is why it’s such an excellent hiding place.”
Deep in the bowels of the ship, they reached a crowded room filled with machinery. A giant metal shaft ran through the middle of it all, connecting the engine room to the propeller. Because the ship was anchored, the shaft was motionless. Above it was a platform large enough for both girls to hide.
“No one’s going to find you up there,” Brooklyn said, pointing to the platform. “Climb up and wait. Don’t move until I come for you or somebody else tells you ‘apple jack.’?”
Alice took a whiff of the sour smell and was about to make a comment when Brooklyn cut her off.
“And so help me, if you complain about anything, I’m going to lead them right to you. Got it?”
Alice nodded. “Got it.”
“Aren’t you hiding with us?” asked Judy.
Brooklyn shook her head. “No. I’ve got to make sure a distress signal’s been sent. You two will be safe here.”
Alice looked at her. “Thank you, um—” Her words trailed off and it was obvious that she didn’t know Brooklyn’s name.
“Really?” Brooklyn said, incredulous. “We spent five days together in a tiny cabin and you still don’t know my name?”
“I get it,” Alice said. “I’m a total spoiled toff. But I’d like to make up for that. Tell me your name and I promise I won’t forget it. Ever.”
Brooklyn went to answer, but then she caught herself. “Actually, it’s better that you don’t know,” she said. “Because when this is all over and people ask you how you survived, it’s best if you don’t mention me at all.”