It's over, Rachel thought.
She and Tolland sat side by side on the deck staring up into the barrel of the Delta soldier's machine gun. Unfortunately, Pickering now knew where Rachel had sent the fax. The office of Senator Sedgewick Sexton.
Rachel doubted her father would ever receive the phone message Pickering had just left him. Pickering could probably get to Sexton's office well before anyone else this morning. If Pickering could get in, quietly remove the fax, and delete the phone message before Sexton arrived, there would be no need to harm the senator. William Pickering was probably one of the few people in Washington who could finagle entry to a U.S. senator's office with no fanfare. Rachel was always amazed at what could be accomplished "in the name of national security."
Of course if that fails, Rachel thought, Pickering could just fly by and send a Hellfire missile through the window and blow up the fax machine. Something told her this would not be necessary.
Sitting close to Tolland now, Rachel was surprised to feel his hand gently slip into hers. His touch had a tender strength, and their fingers intertwined so naturally that Rachel felt like they'd done this for a lifetime. All she wanted right now was to lie in his arms, sheltered from the oppressive roar of the night sea spiraling around them.
Never, she realized. It was not to be.
Michael Tolland felt like a man who had found hope on the way to the gallows.
Life is mocking me.
For years since Celia's death, Tolland had endured nights when he'd wanted to die, hours of pain and loneliness that seemed only escapable by ending it all. And yet he had chosen life, telling himself he could make it alone. Today, for the first time, Tolland had begun to understand what his friends had been telling him all along.
Mike, you don't have to make it alone. You'll find another love.
Rachel's hand in his made this irony that much harder to swallow. Fate had cruel timing. He felt as if layers of armor were crumbling away from his heart. For an instant, on the tired decks of the Goya, Tolland sensed Celia's ghost looking over him as she often did. Her voice was in the rushing water... speaking the last words she'd spoken to him in life.
"You're a survivor," her voice whispered. "Promise me you'll find another love."
"I'll never want another," Tolland had told her.
Celia's smile was filled with wisdom. "You'll have to learn."
Now, on the deck of the Goya, Tolland realized, he was learning. A deep emotion welled suddenly in his soul. He realized it was happiness.
And with it came an overpowering will to live.
Pickering felt oddly detached as he moved toward the two prisoners. He stopped in front of Rachel, vaguely surprised that this was not harder for him.
"Sometimes," he said, "circumstances raise impossible decisions."
Rachel's eyes were unyielding. "You created these circumstances."
"War involves casualties," Pickering said, his voice firmer now. Ask Diana Pickering, or any of those who die every year defending this nation. "You of all people should understand that, Rachel." His eyes focused in on her. "Iactura paucourm serva multos."
He could see she recognized the words-almost a cliche in national security circles. Sacrifice the few to save the many.
Rachel eyed him with obvious disgust. "And now Michael and I have become part of your few?"
Pickering considered it. There was no other way. He turned to Delta-One. "Release your partner and end this."
Pickering took a long last look at Rachel and then strode to the ship's nearby portside railing, staring out at the sea racing by. This was something he preferred not to watch.
Delta-One felt empowered as he gripped his weapon and glanced over at his partner dangling in the clamps. All that remained was to close the trapdoors beneath Delta-Two's feet, free him from the clamps, and eliminate Rachel Sexton and Michael Tolland.
Unfortunately, Delta-One had seen the complexity of the control panel near the trapdoor-a series of unmarked levers and dials that apparently controlled the trapdoor, the winch motor, and numerous other commands. He had no intention of hitting the wrong lever and risking his partner's life by mistakenly dropping the sub into the sea.
Eliminate all risk. Never rush.
He would force Tolland to perform the actual release. And to ensure he did not try anything tricky, Delta-One would take out insurance known in his business as "biological collateral."
Use your adversaries against one another.
Delta-One swung the gun barrel directly into Rachel's face, stopping only inches from her forehead. Rachel closed her eyes, and Delta-One could see Tolland's fists clench in a protective anger.
"Ms. Sexton, stand up," Delta-One said.
With the gun firmly on her back, Delta-One marched her over to an aluminum set of portable stairs that led up to the top of the Triton sub from behind. "Climb up and stand on top of the sub."
Rachel looked frightened and confused.
"Just do it," Delta-One said.
Rachel felt like she was moving through a nightmare as she climbed up the aluminum gangway behind the Triton. She stopped at the top, having no desire to step out over the chasm onto the suspended Triton.
"Get on top of the sub," the soldier said, returning to Tolland and pushing the gun against his head.
In front of Rachel the soldier who was in the clamps watched her, shifting in pain, obviously eager to get out. Rachel looked at Tolland, who now had a gun barrel to his head. Get on top of the sub. She had no choice.
Feeling like she was edging out onto a precipice overhanging a canyon, Rachel stepped onto the Triton's engine casing, a small flat section behind the rounded dome window. The entire sub hung like a massive plumb bob over the open trapdoor. Even suspended on its winch cable, the nine-ton sub barely registered her arrival, swinging only a few millimeters as she steadied herself.
"Okay, let's move," the soldier said to Tolland. "Go to the controls and close the trapdoor."
At gunpoint, Tolland began moving toward the control panel with the soldier behind him. As Tolland came toward her, he was moving slowly, and Rachel could feel his eyes fixing hard on her as if trying to send her a message. He looked directly at her and then down at the open hatch on top of the Triton.
Rachel glanced down. The hatch at her feet was open, the heavy circular covering propped open. She could see down into the one-seater cockpit. He wants me to get in? Sensing she must be mistaken, Rachel looked at Tolland again. He was almost to the control panel. Tolland's eyes locked on her. This time he was less subtle.
His lips mouthed, "Jump in! Now!"
Delta-One saw Rachel's motion out of the corner of his eye and wheeled on instinct, opening fire as Rachel fell through the sub's hatch just below the barrage of bullets. The open hatch covering rang out as the bullets ricocheted off the circular portal, sending up a shower of sparks, and slamming the lid closed on top of her.
Tolland, the instant he'd felt the gun leave his back, made his move. He dove to his left, away from the trapdoor, hitting the deck and rolling just as the soldier spun back toward him, gun blazing. Bullets exploded behind Tolland as he scrambled for cover behind the ship's stern anchor spool-an enormous motorized cylinder around which was wound several thousand feet of steel cable connected to the ship's anchor.
Tolland had a plan and would have to act fast. As the soldier dashed toward him, Tolland reached up and grabbed the anchor lock with both hands, yanking down. Instantly the anchor spool began feeding out lengths of cable, and the Goya lurched in the strong current. The sudden movement sent everything and everyone on the deck staggering sidelong. As the boat accelerated in reverse on the current, the anchor spool doled out cable faster and faster.
Come on, baby, Tolland urged.
The soldier regained his balance and came for Tolland. Waiting until the last possible moment, Tolland braced himself and rammed the lever back up, locking the anchor spool. The chain snapped taut, stopping the ship short and sending a tremulous shudder throughout the Goya. Everything on deck went flying. The soldier staggered to his knees near Tolland. Pickering fell back from the railing onto the deck. The Triton swung wildly on its cable.
A grating howl of failing metal tore up from beneath the ship like an earthquake as the damaged strut finally gave way. The right stern corner of the Goya began collapsing under its own weight. The ship faltered, tilting on a diagonal like a massive table losing one of its four legs. The noise from beneath was deafening-a wail of twisting, grating metal and pounding surf.
White-knuckled inside the Triton cockpit, Rachel held on as the nine-ton machine swayed over the trapdoor in the now steeply inclined deck. Through the base of the glass dome she could see the ocean raging below. As she looked up, her eyes scanning the deck for Tolland, she watched a bizarre drama on the deck unfold in a matter of seconds.
Only a yard away, trapped in the Triton's claws, the clamped Delta soldier was howling in pain as he bobbed like a puppet on a stick. William Pickering scrambled across Rachel's field of vision and grabbed on to a cleat on the deck. Near the anchor lever, Tolland was also hanging on, trying not to slide over the edge into the water. When Rachel saw the soldier with the machine gun stabilizing himself nearby, she called out inside the sub. "Mike, look out!"
But Delta-One ignored Tolland entirely. The soldier was looking back toward the idling helicopter with his mouth open in horror. Rachel turned, following his gaze. The Kiowa gunship, with its huge rotors still turning, had started to slowly slide forward down the tipping deck. Its long metal skids were acting like skis on a slope. It was then that Rachel realized the huge machine was skidding directly toward the Triton.
Scrambling up the inclined deck toward the sliding aircraft, Delta-One clambered into the cockpit. He had no intention of letting their only means of escape slide off the deck. Delta-One seized the Kiowa's controls and heaved back on the stick. Lift off! With a deafening roar, the blades accelerated overhead, straining to lift the heavily armed gunship off the deck. Up, goddamn it! The chopper was sliding directly toward the Triton and Delta-Two suspended in its grasp.
With its nose tipped forward, the Kiowa's blades were also tipped, and when the chopper lurched off the deck, it sailed more forward than up, accelerating toward the Triton like a giant buzz saw. Up! Delta-One pulled the stick, wishing he could drop the half ton of Hellfire warheads weighing him down. The blades just missed the top of Delta-Two's head and the top of the Triton sub, but the chopper was moving too fast. It would never clear the Triton's winch cable.
As the Kiowa's 300-rpm steel blades collided with the sub's fifteen-ton capacity braided steel winch cable, the night erupted with the shriek of metal on metal. The sounds conjured images of epic battle. From the chopper's armored cockpit, Delta-One watched his rotors tear into the sub's cable like a giant lawn mower running over a steel chain. A blinding spray of sparks erupted overhead, and the Kiowa's blades exploded. Delta-One felt the chopper bottom out, its struts hitting the deck hard. He tried to control the aircraft, but he had no lift. The chopper bounded twice down the inclined deck, then slid, crashing into the ship's guardrail.
For a moment, he thought the rail would hold.
Then Delta-One heard the crack. The heavily laden chopper listed over the brink, plummeting into the sea.
Inside the Triton, Rachel Sexton sat paralyzed, her body pressed back into the sub's seat. The minisub had been tossed violently as the chopper's rotor wrapped around the cable, but she had managed to hang on. Somehow the blades had missed the main body of the sub, but she knew there had to be major damage to the cable. All Rachel could think of at that point was escaping from the sub as fast as she could. The soldier trapped in the clamps stared in at her, delirious, bleeding, and burned from the shrapnel. Beyond him, Rachel saw William Pickering still holding on to a cleat on the slanting deck.
Where's Michael? She didn't see him. Her panic lasted only an instant as a new fear descended. Overhead, the Triton's shredded winch cable let out an ominous whipping noise as the braids unraveled. Then, there was a loud snap, and Rachel felt the cable give way.
Momentarily weightless, Rachel hovered above her seat inside the cockpit as the sub hurtled downward. The deck disappeared overhead, and the catwalks under the Goya raced by. The soldier trapped in the claws went white with fear, staring at Rachel as the sub accelerated downward.
The fall seemed endless.
When the sub crashed into the sea beneath the Goya, it plunged hard under the surf, ramming Rachel down hard into her seat. Her spine compressed as the illuminated ocean raced up over the dome. She felt a suffocating drag as the sub slowed to a stop underwater and then raced back toward the surface, bobbing up like a cork.
The sharks hit instantly. From her front-row seat, Rachel sat frozen in place as the spectacle unfolded only a few feet away.
Delta-Two felt the shark's oblong head crash into him with unimaginable force. A razor sharp clamp tightened on his upper arm, slicing to the bone and locking on. A flash of white-hot pain exploded as the shark torqued its powerful body and shook its head violently, tearing Delta-Two's arm off his body. Others sharks moved in. Knives stabbing at his legs. Torso. Neck. Delta-Two had no breath to scream in agony as the sharks ripped huge chunks of his body away. The last thing he saw was a crescent-shaped mouth, tilting sideways, a gorge of teeth clamping down across his face.
The world went black.
Inside the Triton, the thudding of heavy cartilaginous heads ramming into the dome finally subsided. Rachel opened her eyes. The man was gone. The water washing against the window was crimson.
Badly battered, Rachel huddled in her chair, knees pulled to her chest. She could feel the sub moving. It was drifting on the current, scraping along the length of the Goya's lower dive deck. She could feel it moving in another direction as well. Down.
Outside, the distinctive gurgling of water into the ballast tanks grew louder. The ocean inched higher on the glass in front of her.
A jolt of terror shot through Rachel, and she was suddenly scrambling to her feet. Reaching overhead, she grabbed the hatch mechanism. If she could climb up on top of the sub, she still had time to jump onto the Goya's dive deck. It was only a few feet away.
I've got to get out!
The hatch mechanism was clearly marked which way to turn it to open. She heaved. The hatch did not budge. She tried again. Nothing. The portal was jammed shut. Bent. As the fear rose in her blood like the sea around her, Rachel heaved one last time.
The hatch did not move.
The Triton sank a few inches deeper, bumping the Goya one last time before drifting out from underneath the mangled hull... and into the open sea.
"Don't do this," Gabrielle begged the senator as he finished at the copy machine. "You're risking your daughter's life!"
Sexton blocked out her voice, moving back to his desk now with ten identical stacks of photocopies. Each stack contained copies of the pages Rachel had faxed him, including her handwritten note claiming the meteorite was a fake and accusing NASA and the White House of trying to kill her.
The most shocking media kits ever assembled, Sexton thought, as he began carefully inserting each stack into its own large, white linen envelope. Each envelope bore his name, office address, and senatorial seal. There would be no doubt where this incredible information had originated. The political scandal of the century, Sexton thought, and I will be the one to reveal it!
Gabrielle was still pleading for Rachel's safety, but Sexton heard only silence. As he assembled the envelopes, he was in his own private world. Every political career has a defining moment. This is mine.
William Pickering's phone message had warned that if Sexton went public, Rachel's life would be in danger. Unfortunately for Rachel, Sexton also knew if he went public with proof of NASA's fraud, that single act of boldness would land him in the White House with more decisiveness and political drama than ever before witnessed in American politics.
Life is filled with difficult decisions, he thought. And winners are those who make them.
Gabrielle Ashe had seen this look in Sexton's eyes before. Blind ambition. She feared it. And with good reason, she now realized. Sexton was obviously prepared to risk his daughter in order to be the first to announce the NASA fraud.
"Don't you see you've already won?" Gabrielle demanded. "There's no way Zach Herney and NASA will survive this scandal. No matter who makes it public! No matter when it comes out! Wait until you know Rachel is safe. Wait until you talk to Pickering!"
Sexton was clearly no longer listening to her. Opening his desk drawer, he pulled out a foil sheet on which were affixed dozens of nickel-sized, self-adhesive wax seals with his initials on them. Gabrielle knew he usually used these for formal invitations, but he apparently thought a crimson wax seal would give each envelope an extra touch of drama. Peeling the circular seals off the foil, Sexton pressed one onto the pleat of each envelope, sealing it like a monogrammed epistle.
Gabrielle's heart pulsed now with a new anger. She thought of the digitized images of illegal checks in his computer. If she said anything, she knew he would just delete the evidence. "Don't do this," she said, "or I'll go public about our affair."
Sexton laughed out loud as he affixed the wax seals. "Really? And you think they'll believe you-a power-hungry aide denied a post in my administration and looking for revenge at any cost? I denied our involvement once, and the world believed me. I'll simply deny it again."
"The White House has photos," Gabrielle declared.
Sexton did not even look up. "They don't have photos. And even if they did, they're meaningless." He affixed the final wax seal. "I have immunity. These envelopes out-trump anything anyone could possibly throw at me."
Gabrielle knew he was right. She felt utterly helpless as Sexton admired his handiwork. On his desk sat ten elegant, white linen envelopes, each embossed with his name and address and secured with a crimson wax seal bearing his scripted initials. They looked like royal letters. Certainly kings had been crowned on account of less potent information.
Sexton picked up the envelopes and prepared to leave. Gabrielle stepped over and blocked his way. "You're making a mistake. This can wait."
Sexton's eyes bored into her. "I made you, Gabrielle, and now I've unmade you."
"That fax from Rachel will give you the presidency. You owe her."
"I've given her plenty."
"What if something happens to her!"
"Then she'll cement my sympathy vote."
Gabrielle could not believe the thought had even crossed his mind, much less his lips. Disgusted, she reached for the phone. "I'm calling the White-"
Sexton spun and slapped her hard across the face.
Gabrielle staggered back, feeling her lip split open. She caught herself, grabbing on to the desk, staring up in astonishment at the man she had once worshiped.
Sexton gave her a long, hard look. "If you so much as think of crossing me on this, I will make you regret it for the rest of your life." He stood unflinching, clutching the stack of sealed envelopes under his arm. A harsh danger burned in his eyes.
When Gabrielle exited the office building into the cold night air, her lip was still bleeding. She hailed a taxi and climbed in. Then, for the first time since she had come to Washington, Gabrielle Ashe broke down and cried.
The Triton fell...
Michael Tolland staggered to his feet on the inclined deck and peered over the anchor spool at the frayed winch cable where the Triton used to hang. Wheeling toward the stern, he scanned the water. The Triton was just now emerging from under the Goya on the current. Relieved at least to see the sub intact, Tolland eyed the hatch, wanting nothing more than to see it open up and Rachel climb out unscathed. But the hatch remained closed. Tolland wondered if maybe she had been knocked out by the violent fall.
Even from the deck, Tolland could see the Triton was riding exceptionally low in the water-far below its normal diving trim waterline. It's sinking. Tolland could not imagine why, but the reason at the moment was immaterial.
I have to get Rachel out. Now.
As Tolland stood to dash for the edge of the deck, a shower of machine-gun fire exploded above him, sparking off the heavy anchor spool overhead. He dropped back to his knees. Shit! He peered around the spool only long enough to see Pickering on the upper deck, taking aim like a sniper. The Delta soldier had dropped his machine gun while climbing into the doomed helicopter and Pickering had apparently recovered it. Now the director had scrambled to the high ground.
Trapped behind the spool, Tolland looked back toward the sinking Triton. Come on, Rachel! Get out! He waited for the hatch to open. Nothing.
Looking back to the deck of the Goya, Tolland's eyes measured the open area between his position and the stern railing. Twenty feet. A long way without any cover.
Tolland took a deep breath and made up his mind. Ripping off his shirt, he hurled it to his right onto the open deck. While Pickering blew the shirt full of holes, Tolland dashed left, down the inclined deck, banking toward the stern. With a wild leap he launched himself over the railing, off the back of the ship. Arcing high in the air, Tolland heard the bullets whizzing all around him and knew a single graze would make him a shark feast the instant he hit the water.
Rachel Sexton felt like a wild animal trapped in a cage. She had tried the hatch again and again with no luck. She could hear a tank somewhere beneath her filling with water, and she sensed the sub gaining weight. The darkness of the ocean was inching higher up the transparent dome, a black curtain rising in reverse.
Through the lower half of the glass, Rachel could see the void of the ocean beckoning like a tomb. The empty vastness beneath threatened to swallow her whole. She grabbed the hatch mechanism and tried to twist it open one more time, but it wouldn't budge. Her lungs strained now, the dank stench of excess carbon dioxide acrid in her nostrils. Through it all, one recurring thought haunted her.
I'm going to die alone underwater.
She scanned the Triton's control panels and levers for something that could help, but all the indicators were black. No power. She was locked in a dead steel crypt sinking toward the bottom of the sea.
The gurgling in the tanks seemed to be accelerating now, and the ocean rose to within a few feet of the top of the glass. In the distance, across the endless flat expanse, a band of crimson was inching across the horizon. Morning was on its way. Rachel feared it would be the last light she ever saw. Closing her eyes to block out her impending fate, Rachel felt the terrifying childhood images rushing into her mind.
Falling through the ice. Sliding underwater.
Breathless. Unable to lift herself. Sinking.
Her mother calling for her. "Rachel! Rachel!"
A pounding on the outside of the sub jolted Rachel out of the delirium. Her eyes snapped open.
"Rachel!" The voice was muffled. A ghostly face appeared against the glass, upside down, dark hair swirling. She could barely make him out in the darkness.
Tolland surfaced, exhaling in relief to see Rachel moving inside the sub. She's alive. Tolland swam with powerful strokes to the rear of the Triton and climbed up onto the submerged engine platform. The ocean currents felt hot and leaden around him as he positioned himself to grab the circular portal screw, staying low and hoping he was out of range of Pickering's gun.
The Triton's hull was almost entirely underwater now, and Tolland knew if he were going to open the hatch and pull Rachel out, he would have to hurry. He had a ten-inch draw that was diminishing fast. Once the hatch was submerged, opening it would send a torrent of seawater gushing into the Triton, trapping Rachel inside and sending the sub into a free fall to the bottom.
"Now or never," he gasped as he grabbed the hatch wheel and heaved it counterclockwise. Nothing happened. He tried again, throwing all of his force into it. Again, the hatch refused to turn.
He could hear Rachel inside, on the other side of the portal. Her voice was stifled, but he sensed her terror. "I tried!" she shouted. "I couldn't turn it!"
The water was lapping across the portal lid now. "Turn together!" he shouted to her. "You're clockwise in there!" He knew the dial was clearly marked. "Okay, now!"
Tolland braced himself against the ballast air tanks and strained with all his energy. He could hear Rachel below him doing the same. The dial turned a half inch and ground to a dead stop.
Now Tolland saw it. The portal lid was not set evenly in the aperture. Like the lid of a jar that had been placed on crooked and screwed down hard, it was stuck. Although the rubber seal was properly set, the hatch-dogs were bent, meaning the only way that door was opening was with a welding torch.
As the top of the sub sank below the surface, Tolland was filled with a sudden, overwhelming dread. Rachel Sexton would not be escaping from the Triton.
Two thousand feet below, the crumpled fuselage of the bomb-laden Kiowa chopper was sinking fast, a prisoner of gravity and the powerful drag of the deepwater vortex. Inside the cockpit, Delta-One's lifeless body was no longer recognizable, disfigured by the crushing pressure of the deep.
As the aircraft spiraled downward, its Hellfire missiles still attached, the glowing magma dome waited on the ocean floor like a red-hot landing pad. Beneath its three-meter-thick crust, a head of boiling lava simmered at a thousand degrees Celsius, a volcano waiting to explode.