The weather on the Milne Ice Shelf had settled, and the habisphere was quiet. Even so, NASA administrator Lawrence Ekstrom had not even tried to sleep. He had spent the hours alone, pacing the dome, staring into the extraction pit, running his hands over the grooves in the giant charred rock.
Finally, he’d made up his mind.
Now he sat at the videophone in the habisphere’s PSC tank and looked into the weary eyes of the President of the United States. Zach Herney was wearing a bathrobe and did not look at all amused. Ekstrom knew he would be significantly less amused when he learned what Ekstrom had to tell him.
When Ekstrom finished talking, Herney had an uncomfortable look on his face-as if he thought he must still be too asleep to have understood correctly.
“Hold on,” Herney said. “We must have a bad connection. Did you just tell me that NASA intercepted this meteorite’s coordinates from an emergency radio transmission-and then pretended that PODS found the meteorite?”
Ekstrom was silent, alone in the dark, willing his body to awake from this nightmare.
The silence clearly did not sit well with the President. “For Christ’s sake, Larry, tell me this isn’t true!”
Ekstrom’s mouth went dry. “The meteorite was found, Mr. President. That is all that’s relevant here.”
“I said tell me this is not true!”
The hush swelled to a dull roar in Ekstrom’s ears. I had to tell him, Ekstrom told himself. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. “Mr. President, the PODS failure was killing you in the polls, sir. When we intercepted a radio transmission that mentioned a large meteorite lodged in the ice, we saw a chance to get back in the fight.”
Herney sounded stunned. “By faking a PODS discovery?”
“PODS was going to be up and running soon, but not soon enough for the election. The polls were slipping, and Sexton was slamming NASA, so… ”
“Are you insane! You lied to me, Larry!”
“The opportunity was staring us in the face, sir. I decided to take it. We intercepted the radio transmission of the Canadian who made the meteorite discovery. He died in a storm. Nobody else knew the meteorite was there. PODS was orbiting in the area. NASA needed a victory. We had the coordinates.”
“Why are you telling me this now?”
“I thought you should know.”
“Do you know what Sexton would do with this information if he found out?”
Ekstrom preferred not to think about it.
“He’d tell the world that NASA and the White House lied to the American people! And you know what, he’d be right!”
“You did not lie, sir, I did. And I will step down if-”
“Larry, you’re missing the point. I’ve tried to run this presidency on truth and decency! Goddamn it! Tonight was clean. Dignified. Now I find out I lied to the world?”
“Only a small lie, sir.”
“There’s no such thing, Larry,” Herney said, steaming.
Ekstrom felt the tiny room closing in around him. There was so much more to tell the President, but Ekstrom could see it should wait until morning. “I’m sorry to have woken you, sir. I just thought you should know.”
Across town, Sedgewick Sexton took another hit of cognac and paced his apartment with rising irritation.
Where the hell is Gabrielle?
Gabrielle Ashe sat in the darkness at Senator Sexton’s desk and gave his computer a despondent scowl.
Invalid Password – Access Denied
She had tried several other passwords that seemed likely possibilities, but none had worked. After searching the office for any unlocked drawers or stray clues, Gabrielle had all but given up. She was about to leave when she spotted something odd, shimmering on Sexton’s desk calendar. Someone had outlined the date of the election in a red, white, and blue glitter pen. Certainly not the senator. Gabrielle pulled the calendar closer. Emblazoned across the date was a frilly, glittering exclamation: POTUS!
Sexton’s ebullient secretary had apparently glitterpainted some more positive thinking for him for election day. The acronym POTUS was the U.S. Secret Service’s code name for President of the United States. On election day, if all went well, Sexton would become the new POTUS.
Preparing to leave, Gabrielle realigned the calendar on his desk and stood up. She paused suddenly, glancing back at the computer screen.
She looked again at the calendar.
She felt a sudden surge of hope. Something about POTUS struck Gabrielle as being a perfect Sexton password. Simple, positive, self-referential.
She quickly typed in the letters.
Holding her breath, she hit “return.” The computer beeped.
Invalid Password – Access Denied
Slumping, Gabrielle gave up. She headed back toward the bathroom door to exit the way she had come. She was halfway across the room, when her cellphone rang. She was already on edge, and the sound startled her. Stopping short, she pulled out her phone and glanced up to check the time on Sexton’s prized Jourdain grandfather clock. Almost 4:00 A.M. At this hour, Gabrielle knew the caller could only be Sexton. He was obviously wondering where the hell she was. Do I pick up or let it ring? If she answered, Gabrielle would have to lie. But if she didn’t, Sexton would get suspicious.
She took the call. “Hello?”
“Gabrielle?” Sexton sounded impatient. “What’s keeping you?”
“The FDR Memorial,” Gabrielle said. “The taxi got hemmed in, and now we’re-”
“You don’t sound like you’re in a taxi.”
“No,” she said, her blood pumping now. “I’m not. I decided to stop by my office and pick up some NASA documents that might be relevant to PODS. I’m having some trouble finding them.”
“Well, hurry up. I want to schedule a press conference for the morning, and we need to talk specifics.”
“I’m coming soon,” she said.
There was a pause on the line. “You’re in your office?” He sounded suddenly confused.
“Yeah. Another ten minutes and I’ll be on my way over.”
Another pause. “Okay. I’ll see you soon.”
Gabrielle hung up, too preoccupied to notice the loud and distinctive triple-tick of Sexton’s prized Jourdain grandfather clock only a few feet away.
Michael Tolland did not realize Rachel was hurt until he saw the blood on her arm as he pulled her to cover behind the Triton. He sensed from the catatonic look on her face that she was not aware of any pain. Steadying her, Tolland wheeled to find Corky. The astrophysicist scrambled across the deck to join them, his eyes blank with terror.
We’ve got to find cover, Tolland thought, the horror of what had just happened not yet fully registering. Instinctively, his eyes raced up the tiers of decks above them. The stairs leading up to the bridge were all in the open, and the bridge itself was a glass box-a transparent bull’s-eye from the air. Going up was suicide, which left only one other direction to go.
For a fleeting instant, Tolland turned a hopeful gaze to the Triton submersible, wondering perhaps if he could get everyone underwater, away from the bullets.
Absurd. The Triton had room for one person, and the deployment winch took a good ten minutes to lower the sub through the trap door in the deck to the ocean thirty feet below. Besides, without properly charged batteries and compressors, the Triton would be dead in the water.
“Here they come!” Corky shouted, his voice shrill with fear as he pointed into the sky.
Tolland didn’t even look up. He pointed to a nearby bulkhead, where an aluminum ramp descended belowdecks. Corky apparently needed no encouragement. Keeping his head low, Corky scurried toward the opening and disappeared down the incline. Tolland put a firm arm around Rachel’s waist and followed. The two of them disappeared belowdecks just as the helicopter returned, spraying bullets overhead.
Tolland helped Rachel down the grated ramp to the suspended platform at the bottom. As they arrived, Tolland could feel Rachel’s body go suddenly rigid. He wheeled, fearing maybe she’d been hit by a ricocheting bullet.
When he saw her face, he knew it was something else. Tolland followed her petrified gaze downward and immediately understood.
Rachel stood motionless, her legs refusing to move. She was staring down at the bizarre world beneath her.
Because of its SWATH design, the Goya had no hull but rather struts like a giant catamaran. They had just descended through the deck onto a grated catwalk that hung above an open chasm, thirty feet straight down to the raging sea. The noise was deafening here, reverberating off the underside of the deck. Adding to Rachel’s terror was the fact that the ship’s underwater spotlights were still illuminated, casting a greenish effulgence deep into the ocean directly beneath her. She found herself gazing down at six or seven ghostly silhouettes in the water. Enormous hammerhead sharks, their long shadows swimming in place against the current-rubbery bodies flexing back and forth.
Tolland’s voice was in her ear. “Rachel, you’re okay. Eyes straight ahead. I’m right behind you.” His hands were reaching around from behind, gently trying to coax her clenched fists off the banister. It was then that Rachel saw the crimson droplet of blood roll off her arm and fall through the grating. Her eyes followed the drip as it plummeted toward the sea. Although she never saw it hit the water, she knew the instant it happened because all at once the hammerheads spun in unison, thrusting with their powerful tails, crashing together in a roiling frenzy of teeth and fins.
Enhanced telencephalon olfactory lobes… They smell blood a mile away.
“Eyes straight ahead,” Tolland repeated, his voice strong and reassuring. “I’m right behind you.”
Rachel felt his hands on her hips now, urging her forward. Blocking out the void beneath her, Rachel started down the catwalk. Somewhere above she could hear the rotors of the chopper again. Corky was already well out in front of them, reeling across the catwalk in a kind of drunken panic.
Tolland called out to him. “All the way to the far strut, Corky! Down the stairs!”
Rachel could now see where they were headed. Up ahead, a series of switchback ramps descended. At water level, a narrow, shelflike deck extended the length of the Goya. Jutting off this deck were several small, suspended docks, creating a kind of miniature marina stationed beneath the ship. A large sign read:
Swimmers May Surface without Warning
– Boats Proceed with Caution-
Rachel could only assume Michael did not intend for them to do any swimming. Her trepidation intensified when Tolland stopped at a bank of wire-mesh storage lockers flanking the catwalk. He pulled open the doors to reveal hanging wetsuits, snorkels, flippers, life jackets, and spearguns. Before she could protest, he reached in and grabbed a flare gun. “Let’s go.”
They were moving again.
Up ahead, Corky had reached the switchback ramps and was already halfway down. “I see it!” he shouted, his voice sounding almost joyous over the raging water.
See what? Rachel wondered as Corky ran along the narrow walkway. All she could see was a shark-infested ocean lapping dangerously close. Tolland urged her forward, and suddenly Rachel could see what Corky was so excited about. At the far end of the decking below, a small powerboat was moored. Corky ran toward it.
Rachel stared. Outrun a helicopter in a motorboat?
“It has a radio,” Tolland said. “And if we can get far enough away from the helicopter’s jamming… ”
Rachel did not hear another word he said. She had just spied something that made her blood run cold. “Too late,” she croaked, extending a trembling finger. We’re finished…
When Tolland turned, he knew in an instant it was over.
At the far end of the ship, like a dragon peering into the opening of a cave, the black helicopter had dropped down low and was facing them. For an instant, Tolland thought it was going to fly directly at them through the center of the boat. But the helicopter began to turn at an angle, taking aim.
Tolland followed the direction of the gun barrels. No!
Crouched beside the powerboat untying the moorings, Corky glanced up just as the machine guns beneath the chopper erupted in a blaze of thunder. Corky lurched as if hit. Wildly, he scrambled over the gunwale and dove into the boat, sprawled himself on the floor for cover. The guns stopped. Tolland could see Corky crawling deeper into the powerboat. The lower part of his right leg was covered with blood. Crouched below the dash, Corky reached up and fumbled across the controls until his fingers found the key. The boat’s 250 hp Mercury engine roared to life.
An instant later, a red laser beam appeared, emanating from the nose of the hovering chopper, targeting the powerboat with a missile.
Tolland reacted on instinct, aiming the only weapon he had.
The flare gun in his hand hissed when he pulled the trigger, and a blinding streak tore away on a horizontal trajectory beneath the ship, heading directly toward the chopper. Even so, Tolland sensed he had acted too late. As the streaking flare bore down on the helicopter’s windshield, the rocket launcher beneath the chopper emitted its own flash of light. At the same exact instant that the missile launched, the aircraft veered sharply and pulled up out of sight to avoid the incoming flare.
“Look out!” Tolland yelled, yanking Rachel down onto the catwalk.
The missile sailed off course, just missing Corky, coming the length of the Goya and slamming into the base of the strut thirty feet beneath Rachel and Tolland.
The sound was apocalyptic. Water and flames erupted beneath them. Bits of twisted metal flew in the air and scattered the catwalk beneath them. Metal on metal ground together as the ship shifted, finding a new balance, slightly askew.
As the smoke cleared, Tolland could see that one of the Goya’s four main struts had been severely damaged. Powerful currents tore past the pontoon, threatening to break it off. The spiral stairway descending to the lower deck looked to be hanging by a thread.
“Come on!” Tolland yelled, urging Rachel toward it. We’ve got to get down!
But they were too late. With a surrendering crack, the stairs peeled away from the damaged strut and crashed into the sea.
Over the ship, Delta-One grappled with the controls of the Kiowa helicopter and got it back under control. Momentarily blinded by the incoming flare, he had reflexively pulled up, causing the Hellfire missile to miss its mark. Cursing, he hovered now over the bow of the ship and prepared to drop back down and finish the job.
Eliminate all passengers. The controller’s demands had been clear.
“Shit! Look!” Delta-Two yelled from the rear seat, pointing out the window. “Speedboat!”
Delta-One spun and saw a bullet-riddled Crestliner speedboat skimming away from the Goya into the darkness.
He had a decision to make.
Corky’s bloody hands gripped the wheel of the Crestliner Phantom 2100 as it pounded out across the sea. He rammed the throttle all the way forward, trying to eke out maximum speed. It was not until this moment that he felt the searing pain. He looked down and saw his right leg spurting blood. He instantly felt dizzy.
Propping himself against the wheel, he turned and looked back at the Goya, willing the helicopter to follow him. With Tolland and Rachel trapped up on the catwalk, Corky had not been able to reach them. He’d been forced to make a snap decision.
Divide and conquer.
Corky knew if he could lure the chopper far enough away from the Goya, maybe Tolland and Rachel could radio for help. Unfortunately, as he looked over his shoulder at the illuminated ship, Corky could see the chopper still hovering there, as if undecided.
Come on, you bastards! Follow me!
But the helicopter did not follow. Instead it banked over the stern of the Goya, aligned itself, and dropped down, landing on the deck. No! Corky watched in horror, now realizing he’d left Tolland and Rachel behind to be killed.
Knowing it was now up to him to radio for help, Corky groped the dashboard and found the radio. He flicked the power switch. Nothing happened. No lights. No static. He turned the volume knob all the way up. Nothing. Come on! Letting go of the wheel, he knelt down for a look. His leg screamed in pain as he bent down. His eyes focused on the radio. He could not believe what he was looking at. The dashboard had been strafed by bullets, and the radio dial was shattered. Loose wires hung out the front. He stared, incredulous.
Of all the goddamned luck…
Weak-kneed, Corky stood back up, wondering how things could get any worse. As he looked back at the Goya, he got his answer. Two armed soldiers jumped out of the chopper onto the deck. Then the chopper lifted off again, turning in Corky’s direction and coming after him at full speed.
Corky slumped. Divide and conquer. Apparently he was not the only one with that bright idea tonight.
As Delta-Three made his way across the deck and approached the grated ramp leading belowdecks, he heard a woman shouting somewhere beneath him. He turned and motioned to Delta-Two that he was going belowdecks to check it out. His partner nodded, remaining behind to cover the upper level. The two men could stay in contact via CrypTalk; the Kiowa’s jamming system ingeniously left an obscure bandwidth open for their own communications.
Clutching his snub-nose machine gun, Delta-Three moved quietly toward the ramp that led belowdecks. With the vigilance of a trained killer, he began inching downward, gun leveled.
The incline provided limited visibility, and Delta-Three crouched low for a better view. He could hear the shouting more clearly now. He kept descending. Halfway down the stairs he could now make out the twisted maze of walkways attached to the underside of the Goya. The shouting grew louder.
Then he saw her. Midway across the traversing catwalk, Rachel Sexton was peering over a railing and calling desperately toward the water for Michael Tolland.
Did Tolland fall in? Perhaps in the blast?
If so, Delta-Three’s job would be even easier than expected. He only needed to descend another couple of feet to have an open shot. Shooting fish in a barrel. His only vague concern was Rachel standing near an open equipment locker, which meant she might have a weapon-a speargun or a shark rifle-although neither would be any match for his machine gun. Confident he was in control of the situation, Delta-Three leveled his weapon and took another step down. Rachel Sexton was almost in perfect view now. He raised the gun.
One more step.
The flurry of movement came from beneath him, under the stairs. Delta-Three was more confused than frightened as he looked down and saw Michael Tolland thrusting an aluminum pole out toward his feet. Although Delta-Three had been tricked, he almost laughed at this lame attempt to trip him up.
Then he felt the tip of the stick connect with his heel.
A blast of white-hot pain shot through his body as his right foot exploded out from under him from a blistering impact. His balance gone, Delta-Three flailed, tumbling down the stairs. His machine gun clattered down the ramp and went overboard as he collapsed on the catwalk. In anguish, he curled up to grip his right foot, but it was no longer there.
Tolland was standing over his attacker immediately with his hands still clenching the smoking bang-stick-a five-foot Powerhead Shark-Control Device. The aluminum pole had been tipped with a pressure-sensitive, twelve-gauge shotgun shell and was intended for self-defense in the event of shark attack. Tolland had reloaded the bang-stick with another shell, and now held the jagged, smoldering point to his attacker’s Adam’s apple. The man lay on his back as if paralyzed, staring up at Tolland with an expression of astonished rage and agony.
Rachel came running up the catwalk. The plan was for her to take the man’s machine gun, but unfortunately the weapon had gone over the edge of the catwalk into the ocean.
The communications device on the man’s belt crackled. The voice coming out was robotic. “Delta-Three? Come in. I heard a shot.”
The man made no move to answer.
The device crackled again. “Delta-Three? Confirm. Do you need backup?”
Almost immediately, a new voice crackled over the line. It was also robotic but distinguishable by the sound of a helicopter noise in the background. “This is Delta-One,” the pilot said. “I’m in pursuit of the departing vessel. Delta-Three, confirm. Are you down? Do you need backup?”
Tolland pressed the bang-stick into the man’s throat. “Tell the helicopter to back off that speedboat. If they kill my friend, you die.”
The soldier winced in pain as he lifted his communication device to his lips. He looked directly at Tolland as he pressed the button and spoke. “Delta-Three, here. I’m fine. Destroy the departing vessel.”
Gabrielle Ashe returned to Sexton’s private bathroom, preparing to climb back out of his office. Sexton’sphone call had left her feeling anxious. He had definitely hesitated when she told him she was in her office-as if he knew somehow she was lying. Either way, she’d failed to get into Sexton’s computer and now was unsure of her next move.
Sexton is waiting.
As she climbed up onto the sink, getting ready to pull herself up, she heard something clatter to the tile floor. She looked down, irritated to see that she’d knocked off a pair of Sexton’s cuff links that had apparently been sitting on the edge of the sink.
Leave things exactly as you found them.
Climbing back down Gabrielle picked up the cuff links and put them back on the sink. As she began to climb back up, she paused, glancing again at the cuff links. On any other night, Gabrielle would have ignored them, but tonight their monogram caught her attention. Like most of Sexton’s monogrammed items, they had two intertwining letters. SS. Gabrielle flashed on Sexton’s initial computer password-SSS. She pictured his calendar… POTUS… and the White House screensaver with its optimistic ticker tape crawling around the screen ad infinitum.
President of the United States Sedgewick Sexton… President of the United States Sedgewick Sexton… President of the…
Gabrielle stood a moment and wondered. Could he be that confident?
Knowing it would take only an instant to find out, she hurried back into Sexton’s office, went to his computer, and typed in a seven-letter password.
The screensaver evaporated instantly.
She stared, incredulous.
Never underestimate the ego of a politician.