Corky Marlinson was no longer at the helm of the Crestliner Phantom as it raced into the night. He knew the boat would travel in a straight line with or without him at the wheel. The path of least resistance…
Corky was in the back of the bouncing boat, trying to assess the damage to his leg. A bullet had entered the front part of his calf, just missing his shinbone. There was no exit wound on the back of his calf, so he knew the bullet must still be lodged in his leg. Foraging around for something to stem the bleeding, he found nothing-some fins, a snorkel, and a couple of life jackets. No first-aid kit. Frantically, Corky opened a small utility chest and found some tools, rags, duct tape, oil, and other maintenance items. He looked at his bloody leg and wondered how far he had to go to be out of shark territory.
A hell of a lot farther than this.
Delta-One kept the Kiowa chopper low over the ocean as he scanned the darkness for the departing Crestliner. Assuming the fleeing boat would head for shore and attempt to put as much distance as possible between itself and the Goya, Delta-One had followed the Crestliner’s original trajectory away from the Goya.
I should have overtaken him by now.
Normally, tracking the fleeing boat would be a simple matter of using radar, but with the Kiowa’s jamming systems transmitting an umbrella of thermal noise for several miles, his radar was worthless. Turning off the jamming system was not an option until he got word that everyone onboard the Goya was dead. No emergency phone calls would be leaving the Goya this evening.
This meteorite secret dies. Right here. Right now.
Fortunately, Delta-One had other means of tracking. Even against this bizarre backdrop of heated ocean, pinpointing a powerboat’s thermal imprint was simple. He turned on his thermal scanner. The ocean around him registered a warm ninety-five degrees. Fortunately, the emissions of a racing 250 hp outboard engine were hundreds of degrees hotter.
Corky Marlinson’s leg and foot felt numb.
Not knowing what else to do, he had wiped down his injured calf with the rag and wrapped the wound in layer after layer of duct tape. By the time the tape was gone, his entire calf, from ankle to knee, was enveloped in a tight silver sheath. The bleeding had stopped, although his clothing and hands were still covered with blood.
Sitting on the floor of the runaway Crestliner, Corky felt confused about why the chopper hadn’t found him yet. He looked out now, scanning the horizon behind him, expecting to see the distant Goya and incoming helicopter. Oddly, he saw neither. The lights of the Goya had disappeared. Certainly he hadn’t come that far, had he?
Corky suddenly felt hopeful he might escape. Maybe they had lost him in the dark. Maybe he could get to shore!
It was then he noticed that the wake behind his boat was not straight. It seemed to curve gradually away from the back of his boat, as if he were traveling in an arc rather than a straight line. Confused by this, he turned his head to follow the wake’s arc, extrapolating a giant curve across the ocean. An instant later, he saw it.
The Goya was directly off his port side, less than a half mile away. In horror, Corky realized his mistake too late. With no one at the wheel, the Crestliner’s bow had continuously realigned itself with the direction of the powerful current-the megaplume’s circular water flow. I’m driving in a big friggin’ circle!
He had doubled back on himself.
Knowing he was still inside the shark-filled megaplume, Corky recalled Tolland’s grim words. Enhanced telencephalon olfactory lobes… hammerheads can smell a droplet of blood a mile away. Corky looked at his bloody duct-taped leg and hands.
The chopper would be on him soon.
Ripping off his bloody clothing, Corky scrambled naked toward the stern. Knowing no sharks could possibly keep pace with the boat, he rinsed himself as best as he could in the powerful blast of the wake.
A single droplet of blood…
As Corky stood up, fully exposed to the night, he knew there was only one thing left to do. He had learned once that animals marked their territory with urine because uric acid was the most potent-smelling fluid the human body made.
More potent than blood, he hoped. Wishing he’d had a few more beers tonight, Corky heaved his injured leg up onto the gunwale and tried to urinate on the duct tape. Come on! He waited. Nothing like the pressure of having to piss all over yourself with a helicopter chasing you.
Finally it came. Corky urinated all over the duct tape, soaking it fully. He used what little was left in his bladder to soak a rag, which he then swathed across his entire body. Very pleasant.
In the dark sky overhead, a red laser beam appeared, slanting toward him like the shimmering blade of an enormous guillotine. The chopper appeared from an oblique angle, the pilot apparently confused that Corky had looped back toward the Goya.
Quickly donning a high-float life vest, Corky moved to the rear of the speeding craft. On the boat’s bloodstained floor, only five feet from where Corky was standing, a glowing red dot appeared.
It was time.
Onboard the Goya, Michael Tolland did not see his Crestliner Phantom 2100 erupt in flames and tumble through the air in a cartwheel of fire and smoke.
But he heard the explosion.
The West Wing was usually quiet at this hour, but the President’s unexpected emergence in his bathrobe and slippers had rustled the aides and on-site staff out of their “day-timer beds” and on-site sleeping quarters.
“I can’t find her, Mr. President,” a young aide said, hurrying after him into the Oval Office. He had looked everywhere. “Ms. Tench is not answering her pager or cellphone.”
The President looked exasperated. “Have you looked in the-”
“She left the building, sir,” another aide announced, hurrying in. “She signed out about an hour ago. We think she may have gone to the NRO. One of the operators says she and Pickering were talking tonight.”
“William Pickering?” The President sounded baffled. Tench and Pickering were anything but social. “Have you called him?”
“He’s not answering either, sir. NRO switchboard can’t reach him. They say Pickering’s cellphone isn’t even ringing. It’s like he’s dropped off the face of the earth.”
Herney stared at his aides for a moment and then walked to the bar and poured himself a bourbon. As he raised the glass to his lips, a Secret Serviceman hurried in.
“Mr. President? I wasn’t going to wake you, but you should be aware that there was a car bombing at the FDR Memorial tonight.”
“What!” Herney almost dropped his drink. “When?”
“An hour ago.” His face was grim. “And the FBI just identified the victim… ”
Delta-Three’s foot screamed in pain. He felt himself floating through a muddled consciousness. Is this death? He tried to move but felt paralyzed, barely able to breathe. He saw only blurred shapes. His mind reeled back, recalling the explosion of the Crestliner out at sea, seeing the rage in Michael Tolland’s eyes as the oceanographer stood over him, holding the explosive pole to his throat.
Certainly Tolland killed me…
And yet the searing pain in Delta-Three’s right foot told him he was very much alive. Slowly it came back. On hearing the explosion of the Crestliner, Tolland had let out a cry of anguished rage for his lost friend. Then, turning his ravaged eyes to Delta-Three, Tolland had arched as if preparing to ram the rod through Delta-Three’s throat. But as he did, he seemed to hesitate, as if his own morality were holding him back. With brutal frustration and fury, Tolland yanked the rod away and drove his boot down on Delta-Three’s tattered foot.
The last thing Delta-Three remembered was vomiting in agony as his whole world drifted into a black delirium. Now he was coming to, with no idea how long he had been unconscious. He could feel his arms tied behind his back in a knot so tight it could only have been tied by a sailor. His legs were also bound, bent behind him and tied to his wrists, leaving him in an immobilized backward arch. He tried to call out, but no sound came. His mouth was stuffed with something.
Delta-Three could not imagine what was going on. It was then he felt the cool breeze and saw the bright lights. He realized he was up on the Goya’s main deck. He twisted to look for help and was met by a frightful sight, his own reflection-bulbous and misshapen in the reflective Plexiglas bubble of the Goya’s deepwater submersible. The sub hung right in front of him, and Delta-Three realized he was lying on a giant trapdoor in the deck. This was not nearly as unsettling as the most obvious question.
If I’m on deck… then where is Delta-Two?
Delta-Two had grown uneasy.
Despite his partner’s CrypTalk transmission claiming he was fine, the single gunshot had not been that of a machine gun. Obviously, Tolland or Rachel Sexton had fired a weapon. Delta-Two moved over to peer down the ramp where his partner had descended, and he saw blood.
Weapon raised, he had descended belowdecks, where he followed the trail of blood along a catwalk to the bow of the ship. Here, the trail of blood had led him back up another ramp to the main deck. It was deserted. With growing wariness, Delta-Two had followed the long crimson smear along the sideboard deck back toward the rear of the ship, where it passed the opening to the original ramp he had descended.
What the hell is going on? The smear seemed to travel in a giant circle.
Moving cautiously, his gun trained ahead of him, Delta-Two passed the entrance to the laboratory section of the ship. The smear continued toward the stern deck. Carefully he swung wide, rounding the corner. His eye traced the trail.
Then he saw it.
Delta-Three was lying there-bound and gagged-dumped unceremoniously directly in front of the Goya’s small submersible. Even from a distance, Delta-Two could see that his partner was missing a good portion of his right foot.
Wary of a trap, Delta-Two raised his gun and moved forward. Delta-Three was writhing now, trying to speak. Ironically, the way the man had been bound-with his knees sharply bent behind him-was probably saving his life; the bleeding in his foot appeared to have slowed.
As Delta-Two approached the submersible, he appreciated the rare luxury of being able to watch his own back; the entire deck of the ship was reflected in the sub’s rounded cockpit dome. Delta-Two arrived at his struggling partner. He saw the warning in his eyes too late.
The flash of silver came out of nowhere.
One of the Triton’s manipulator claws suddenly leaped forward and clamped down on Delta-Two’s left thigh with crushing force. He tried to pull away, but the claw bore down. He screamed in pain, feeling a bone break. His eyes shot to the sub’s cockpit. Peering through the reflection of the deck, Delta-Two could now see him, ensconced in the shadows of the Triton’s interior.
Michael Tolland was inside the sub, at the controls.
Bad idea, Delta-Two seethed, blocking out his pain and shouldering his machine gun. He aimed up and to the left at Tolland’s chest, only three feet away on the other side of the sub’s Plexiglas dome. He pulled the trigger, and the gun roared. Wild with rage at having been tricked, Delta-Two held the trigger back until the last of his shells clattered to the deck and his gun clicked empty. Breathless, he dropped the weapon and glared at the shredded dome in front of him.
“Dead!” the soldier hissed, straining to pull his leg from the clamp. As he twisted, the metal clamp severed his skin, opening a large gash. “Fuck!” He reached now for the CrypTalk on his belt. But as he raised it to his lips, a second robotic arm snapped open in front of him and lunged forward, clamping around his right arm. The CrypTalk fell to the deck.
It was then that Delta-Two saw the ghost in the window before him. A pale visage leaning sideways and peering out through an unscathed edge of glass. Stunned, Delta-Two looked at the center of the dome and realized the bullets had not even come close to penetrating the thick shell. The dome was cratered with pockmarks.
An instant later, the topside portal on the sub opened, and Michael Tolland emerged. He looked shaky but unscathed. Climbing down the aluminum gangway, Tolland stepped onto the deck and eyed his sub’s destroyed dome window.
“Ten thousand pounds per square inch,” Tolland said. “Looks like you need a bigger gun.”
Inside the hydrolab, Rachel knew time was running out. She had heard the gunshots out on the deck and was praying that everything had happened exactly as Tolland had planned. She no longer cared who was behind the meteorite deception-the NASA administrator, Marjorie Tench, or the President himself-none of it mattered anymore.
They will not get away with this. Whoever it is, the truth will be told.
The wound on Rachel’s arm had stopped bleeding, and the adrenaline coursing through her body had muted the pain and sharpened her focus. Finding a pen and paper, she scrawled a two-line message. The words were blunt and awkward, but eloquence was not a luxury she had time for at the moment. She added the note to the incriminating stack of papers in her hand-the GPR printout, images of Bathynomous giganteus, photos and articles regarding oceanic chondrules, an electron microscan printout. The meteorite was a fake, and this was the proof.
Rachel inserted the entire stack into the hydrolab’s fax machine. Knowing only a few fax numbers by heart, she had limited choices, but she had already made up her mind who would be receiving these pages and her note. Holding her breath, she carefully typed in the person’s fax number.
She pressed “send,” praying she had chosen the recipient wisely.
The fax machine beeped.
ERROR: NO DIAL TONE
Rachel had expected this. The Goya’s communications were still being jammed. She stood waiting and watching the machine, hoping it functioned like hers at home.
After five seconds, the machine beeped again.
Yes! Rachel watched the machine lock into an endless loop.
ERROR: NO DIAL TONE
ERROR: NO DIAL TONE
Leaving the fax machine in search of a dial tone, Rachel dashed out of the hydrolab just as helicopter blades thundered overhead.
One hundred and sixty miles away from the Goya, Gabrielle Ashe was staring at Senator Sexton’s computer screen in mute astonishment. Her suspicions had been right.
But she had never imagined how right.
She was looking at digital scans of dozens of bank checks written to Sexton from private space companies and deposited in numbered accounts in the Cayman Islands. The smallest check Gabrielle saw was for fifteen thousand dollars. Several were upward of half a million dollars.
Small potatoes, Sexton had told her. All the donations are under the two-thousand-dollar cap.
Obviously Sexton had been lying all along. Gabrielle was looking at illegal campaign financing on an enormous scale. The pangs of betrayal and disillusionment settled hard now in her heart. He lied.
She felt stupid. She felt dirty. But most of all she felt mad.
Gabrielle sat alone in the darkness, realizing she had no idea what to do next.
Above the Goya, as the Kiowa banked over the stern deck, Delta-One gazed down, his eyes fixating on an utterly unexpected vision.
Michael Tolland was standing on deck beside a small submersible. Dangling in the sub’s robotic arms, as if in the clutches of a giant insect, hung Delta-Two, struggling in vain to free himself from two enormous claws.
What in the name of God!?
Equally as shocking an image, Rachel Sexton had just arrived on deck, taking up a position over a bound and bleeding man at the foot of the submersible. The man could only be Delta-Three. Rachel held one of the Delta Force’s machine guns on him and stared up at the chopper as if daring them to attack.
Delta-One felt momentarily disoriented, unable to fathom how this possibly could have happened. The Delta Force’s errors on the ice shelf earlier had been a rare but explainable occurrence. This, however, was unimaginable.
Delta-One’s humiliation would have been excruciating enough under normal circumstances. But tonight his shame was magnified by the presence of another individual riding with him inside the chopper, a person whose presence here was highly unconventional.
Following the Delta’s kill at the FDR Memorial, the controller had ordered Delta-One to fly to a deserted public park not far from the White House. On the controller’s command, Delta-One had set down on a grassy knoll among some trees just as the controller, having parked nearby, strode out of the darkness and boarded the Kiowa. They were all en route again in a matter of seconds.
Although a controller’s direct involvement in mission operations was rare, Delta-One could hardly complain. The controller, distressed by the way the Delta Force had handled the kills on the Milne Ice Shelf and fearing increasing suspicions and scrutiny from a number of parties, had informed Delta-One that the final phase of the operation would be overseen in person.
Now the controller was riding shotgun, witnessing in person a failure the likes of which Delta-One had never endured.
This must end. Now.
The controller gazed down from the Kiowa at the deck of the Goya and wondered how this could possibly have happened. Nothing had gone properly-the suspicions about the meteorite, the failed Delta kills on the ice shelf, the necessity of the high-profile kill at the FDR.
“Controller,” Delta-One stammered, his tone one of stunned disgrace as he looked at the situation on the deck of the Goya. “I cannot imagine… ”
Nor can I, the controller thought. Their quarry had obviously been grossly underestimated.
The controller looked down at Rachel Sexton, who stared up blankly at the chopper’s reflective windshield and raised a CrypTalk device to her mouth. When her synthesized voice crackled inside the Kiowa, the controller expected her to demand that the chopper back off or extinguish the jamming system so Tolland could call for help. But the words Rachel Sexton spoke were far more chilling.
“You’re too late,” she said. “We’re not the only ones who know.”
The words echoed for a moment inside the chopper. Although the claim seemed far-fetched, the faintest possibility of truth gave the controller pause. The success of the entire project required the elimination of all those who knew the truth, and as bloody as the containment had turned out to be, the controller had to be certain this was the conclusion.
Someone else knows…
Considering Rachel Sexton’s reputation for following strict protocol of classified data, the controller found it very hard to believe that she would have decided to share this with an outside source.
Rachel was on the CrypTalk again. “Back off and we’ll spare your men. Come any closer and they die. Either way, the truth comes out. Cut your losses. Back off.”
“You’re bluffing,” the controller said, knowing the voice Rachel Sexton was hearing was an androgynous robotic tone. “You have told no one.”
“Are you ready to take that chance?” Rachel fired back. “I couldn’t get through to William Pickering earlier, so I got spooked and took out some insurance.”
The controller frowned. It was plausible.
“They’re not buying it,” Rachel said, glancing at Tolland.
The soldier in the claws gave a pained smirk. “Your gun is empty, and the chopper’s going to blow you to hell. You’re both going to die. Your only hope is to let us go.”
Like hell, Rachel thought, trying to assess their next move. She looked at the bound and gagged man who lay at her feet directly in front of the sub. He looked delirious from loss of blood. She crouched beside him, looking into the man’s hard eyes. “I’m going to take off your gag and hold the CrypTalk; you’re going to convince the helicopter to back off. Is that clear?”
The man nodded earnestly.
Rachel pulled out the man’s gag. The soldier spat a wad of bloody saliva up into Rachel’s face.
“Bitch,” he hissed, coughing. “I’m going to watch you die. They’re going to kill you like a pig, and I’m going to enjoy every minute.”
Rachel wiped the hot saliva from her face as she felt Tolland’s hands lifting her away, pulling her back, steadying her as he took her machine gun. She could feel in his trembling touch that something inside him had just snapped. Tolland walked to a control panel a few yards away, put his hand on a lever, and locked eyes with the man lying on the deck.
“Strike two,” Tolland said. “And on my ship, that’s all you get.”
With a resolute rage, Tolland yanked down on the lever. A huge trapdoor in the deck beneath the Triton fell open like the floor of a gallows. The bound soldier gave a short howl of fear and then disappeared, plummeting through the hole. He fell thirty feet to the ocean below. The splash was crimson. The sharks were on him instantly.
The controller shook with rage, looking down from the Kiowa at what was left of Delta-Three’s body drifting out from under the boat on the strong current. The illuminated water was pink. Several fish fought over something that looked like an arm.
The controller looked back at the deck. Delta-Two still hung in the Triton’s claws, but now the sub was suspended over a gaping hole in the deck. His feet dangled over the void. All Tolland had to do was release the claws, and Delta-Two would be next.
“Okay,” the controller barked into the CrypTalk. “Hold on. Just hold on!”
Rachel stood below on the deck and stared up at the Kiowa. Even from this height the controller sensed the resolve in her eyes. Rachel raised the CrypTalk to her mouth. “You still think we’re bluffing?” she said. “Call the main switchboard at the NRO. Ask for Jim Samiljan. He’s in P A on the nightshift. I told him everything about the meteorite. He will confirm.”
She’s giving me a specific name? This did not bode well. Rachel Sexton was no fool, and this was a bluff the controller could check in a matter of seconds. Although the controller knew of no one at the NRO named Jim Samiljan, the organization was enormous. Rachel could quite possibly be telling the truth. Before ordering the final kill, the controller had to confirm if this was a bluff-or not.
Delta-One looked over his shoulder. “You want me to deactivate the jammer so you can call and check it out?”
The controller peered down at Rachel and Tolland, both in plain view. If either of them made a move for a cellphone or radio, the controller knew Delta-One could always reactivate and cut them off. The risk was minimal.
“Kill the jammer,” the controller said, pulling out a cellphone. “I’ll confirm Rachel’s lying. Then we’ll find a way to get Delta-Two and end this.”
In Fairfax, the operator at the NRO’s central switchboard was getting impatient. “As I just told you, I see no Jim Samiljan in the Plans and Analysis Division.”
The caller was insistent. “Have you tried multiple spellings? Have you tried other departments?”
The operator had already checked, but she checked again. After several seconds, she said, “Nowhere on staff do we have a Jim Samiljan. Under any spelling.”
The caller sounded oddly pleased by this. “So you are certain the NRO employs no Jim Samil-”
A sudden flurry of activity erupted on the line. Someone yelled. The caller cursed aloud and promptly hung up.
Onboard the Kiowa, Delta-One was screaming with rage as he scrambled to reactivate the jamming system. He had made the realization too late. In the huge array of lighted controls in the cockpit, a tiny LED meter indicated that a SATCOM data signal was being transmitted from the Goya. But how? Nobody left the deck! Before Delta-One could engage the jammer, the connection from the Goya terminated on its own accord.
Inside the hydrolab, the fax machine beeped contentedly.
CARRIER FOUND… FAX SENT