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Chapter 126

“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.

Chapter 127

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.

“Michael!”

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.

Chapter 128

Tolland stood knee-deep in water on the engine box of the sinking Triton and searched his brain for some way to save Rachel.

Don’t let the sub sink!

He looked back toward the Goya, wondering if there were any way to get a winch connected to the Triton to keep it near the surface. Impossible. It was fifty yards away now, and Pickering was standing high on the bridge like a Roman emperor with a prime seat at some bloody Colosseum spectacle.

Think! Tolland told himself. Why is the sub sinking?

The mechanics of sub buoyancy were painfully simple: ballast tanks pumped full of either air or water adjusted the sub’s buoyancy to move it up or down in the water.

Obviously, the ballast tanks were filling up.

But they shouldn’t be!

Every sub’s ballast tanks were equipped with holes both topside and underneath. The lower openings, called “flooding holes,” always remained open, while the holes on top, “vent valves,” could be opened and closed to let air escape so water would flood in.

Maybe the Triton’s vent valves were open for some reason? Tolland could not imagine why. He floundered across the submerged engine platform, his hands groping one of the Triton’s ballast trim tanks. The vent valves were closed. But as he felt the valves, his fingers found something else.

Bullet holes.

Shit! The Triton had been riddled with bullets when Rachel jumped in. Tolland immediately dove down and swam beneath the sub, running his hand carefully across the Triton’s more important ballast tank-the negative tank. The Brits called this tank “the down express.” The Germans called it “putting on lead shoes.” Either way, the meaning was clear. The negative tank, when filled, took the sub down.

As Tolland’s hand felt the sides of the tank, he encountered dozens of bullet holes. He could feel the water rushing in. The Triton was preparing to dive, whether Tolland liked it or not.

The sub was now three feet beneath the surface. Moving to the bow, Tolland pressed his face against the glass and peered through the dome. Rachel was banging on the glass and shouting. The fear in her voice made him feel powerless. For an instant he was back in a cold hospital, watching the woman he loved die and knowing there was nothing he could do. Hovering underwater in front of the sinking sub, Tolland told himself he could not endure this again. You’re a survivor, Celia had told him, but Tolland did not want to survive alone… not again.

Tolland’s lungs ached for air and yet he stayed right there with her. Every time Rachel pounded on the glass, Tolland heard air bubbles gurgling up and the sub sank deeper. Rachel was yelling something about water coming in around the window.

The viewing window was leaking.

A bullet hole in the window? It seemed doubtful. His lungs ready to burst, Tolland prepared to surface. As he palmed upward across the huge acrylic window, his fingers hit a piece of loose rubber caulking. A peripheral seal had apparently been jarred in the fall. This was the reason the cockpit was leaking. More bad news.

Clambering to the surface, Tolland sucked in three deep breaths, trying to clear his thoughts. Water flowing into the cockpit would only accelerate the Triton’s descent. The sub was already five feet underwater, and Tolland could barely touch it with his feet. He could feel Rachel pounding desperately on the hull.

Tolland could think of only one thing to do. If he dove down to the Triton’s engine box and located the high-pressure air cylinder, he could use it to blow the negative ballast tank. Although blowing the damaged tank would be an exercise in futility, it might keep the Triton near the surface for another minute or so before the perforated tanks flooded again.

Then what?

With no other immediate option, Tolland prepared to dive. Pulling in an exceptionally deep breath, he expanded his lungs well beyond their natural state, almost to the point of pain. More lung capacity. More oxygen. Longer dive. But as he felt his lungs expand, pressuring his rib cage, a strange thought hit him.

What if he increased the pressure inside the sub? The viewing dome had a damaged seal. Maybe if Tolland could increase the pressure inside the cockpit, he could blow the entire viewing dome off the sub and get Rachel out.

He exhaled his breath, treading water on the surface a moment, trying to picture the feasibility. It was perfectly logical, wasn’t it? After all, a submarine was built to be strong in only one direction. They had to withstand enormous pressure from the outside, but almost none from within.

Moreover, the Triton used uniform regulator valves to decrease the number of spare parts the Goya had to carry. Tolland could simply unsnap the high pressure cylinder’s charging hose and reroute it into an emergency ventilation supply regulator on the port side of the sub! Pressurizing the cabin would cause Rachel substantial physical pain, but it might just give her a way out.

Tolland inhaled and dove.

The sub was a good eight feet down now, and the currents and darkness made orienting himself difficult. Once he found the pressurized tank, Tolland quickly rerouted the hose and prepared to pump air into the cockpit. As he gripped the stopcock, the reflective yellow paint on the side of the tank reminded him just how dangerous this maneuver was:

Caution: Compressed Air – 3,000 PSI

Three thousand pounds per square inch, Tolland thought. The hope was that the Triton’s viewing dome would pop off the sub before the pressure in the cabin crushed Rachel’s lungs. Tolland was essentially sticking a high-powered fire hose into a water balloon and praying the balloon would break in a hurry.

He grabbed the stopcock and made up his mind. Suspended there on the back of the sinking Triton, Tolland turned the stopcock, opening the valve. The hose went rigid immediately, and Tolland could hear the air flooding the cockpit with enormous force.

Inside the Triton, Rachel felt a sudden searing pain slice into her head. She opened her mouth to scream, but the air forced itself into her lungs with such painful pressure that she thought her chest would explode. Her eyes felt like they were being rammed backward into her skull. A deafening rumble tore through her eardrums, pushing her toward unconsciousness. Instinctively, she clenched her eyes tight and pressed her hands over her ears. The pain was increasing now.

Rachel heard a pounding directly in front of her. She forced her eyes open just long enough to see the watery silhouette of Michael Tolland in the darkness. His face was against the glass. He was motioning for her to do something.

But what?

She could barely see him in the darkness. Her vision was blurred, her eyeballs distorted from the pressure. Even so, she could tell the sub had sunk beyond the last flickering fingers of the Goya’s underwater lights. Around her was only an endless inky abyss.

Tolland spread himself against the window of the Triton and kept banging. His chest burned for air, and he knew he would have to return to the surface in a matter of seconds.

Push on the glass! he willed her. He could hear pressurized air escaping around the glass, bubbling up. Somewhere, the seal was loose. Tolland’s hands groped for an edge, something to get his fingers under. Nothing.

As his oxygen ran out, tunnel vision closed in, and he banged on the glass one last time. He could not even see her anymore. It was too dark. With the last of the air in his lungs, he yelled out underwater.

“Rachel… push… on… the… glass!”

His words came out as a bubbling, muted garble.

Chapter 129

Inside the Triton, Rachel’s head felt like it was being compressed in some kind of medieval torture vise. Half-standing, stooped beside the cockpit chair, she could feel death closing in around her. Directly in front of her, the hemispherical viewing dome was empty. Dark. The banging had stopped.

Tolland was gone. He had left her.

The hiss of pressurized air blasting in overhead reminded her of the deafening katabatic wind on Milne. The floor of the sub had a foot of water on it now. Let me out! Thousands of thoughts and memories began streaming through her mind like flashes of violet light.

In the darkness, the sub began to list, and Rachel staggered, losing her balance. Stumbling over the seat, she fell forward, colliding hard with the inside of the hemispherical dome. A sharp pain erupted in her shoulder. She landed in a heap against the window, and as she did, she felt an unexpected sensation-a sudden decrease in the pressure inside the sub. The tightened drum of Rachel’s ears loosened perceptibly, and she actually heard a gurgle of air escape the sub.

It took her an instant to realize what had just happened. When she’d fallen against the dome, her weight had somehow forced the bulbous sheet outward enough for some of the internal pressure to be released around a seal. Obviously, the dome glass was loose! Rachel suddenly realized what Tolland had been trying to do by increasing the pressure inside.

He’s trying to blow out the window!

Overhead, the Triton’s pressure cylinder continued to pump. Even as she lay there, she felt the pressure increasing again. This time she almost welcomed it, although she felt the suffocating grip pushing her dangerously close to unconsciousness. Scrambling to her feet, Rachel pressed outward with all her force on the inside of the glass.

This time, there was no gurgle. The glass barely moved.

She threw her weight against the window again. Nothing. Her shoulder wound ached, and she looked down at it. The blood was dry. She prepared to try again, but she did not have time. Without warning, the crippled sub began to tip-backward. As its heavy engine box overcame the flooded trim tanks, the Triton rolled onto its back, sinking rear-first now.

Rachel fell onto her back against the cockpit’s rear wall. Half submerged in sloshing water, she stared straight up at the leaking dome, hovering over her like a giant skylight.

Outside was only night… and thousands of tons of ocean pressing down.

Rachel willed herself to get up, but her body felt dead and heavy. Again her mind reeled backward in time to the icy grip of a frozen river.

“Fight, Rachel!” her mother was shouting, reaching down to pull her out of the water. “Grab on!”

Rachel closed her eyes. I’m sinking. Her skates felt like lead weights, dragging her down. She could see her mother lying spread-eagle on the ice to disperse her own weight, reaching out.

“Kick, Rachel! Kick with your feet!”

Rachel kicked as best as she could. Her body rose slightly in the icy hole. A spark of hope. Her mother grabbed on.

“Yes!” her mother shouted. “Help me lift you! Kick with your feet!”

With her mother pulling from above, Rachel used the last of her energy to kick with her skates. It was just enough, and her mother dragged Rachel up to safety. She dragged the soaking Rachel all the way to the snowy bank before collapsing in tears.

Now, inside the growing humidity and heat of the sub, Rachel opened her eyes to the blackness around her. She heard her mother whispering from the grave, her voice clear even here in the sinking Triton.

Kick with your feet.

Rachel looked up at the dome overhead. Mustering the last of her courage, Rachel clambered up onto the cockpit chair, which was oriented almost horizontally now, like a dental chair. Lying on her back, Rachel bent her knees, pulled her legs back as far as she could, aimed her feet upward, and exploded forward. With a wild scream of desperation and force, she drove her feet into the center of the acrylic dome. Spikes of pain shot into her shins, sending her brain reeling. Her ears thundered suddenly, and she felt the pressure equalize with a violent rush. The seal on the left side of the dome gave way, and the huge lens partially dislodged, swinging open like a barn door.

A torrent of water crashed into the sub and drove Rachel back into her chair. The ocean thundered in around her, swirling up under her back, lifting her now off the chair, tossing her upside down like a sock in a washing machine. Rachel groped blindly for something to hold on to, but she was spinning wildly. As the cockpit filled, she could feel the sub begin a rapid free fall for the bottom. Her body rammed upward in the cockpit, and she felt herself pinned. A rush of bubbles erupted around her, twisting her, dragging her to the left and upward. A flap of hard acrylic smashed into her hip.

All at once she was free.

Twisting and tumbling into the endless warmth and watery blackness, Rachel felt her lungs already aching for air. Get to the surface! She looked for light but saw nothing. Her world looked the same in all directions. Blackness. No gravity. No sense of up or down.

In that terrifying instant, Rachel realized she had no idea which way to swim.

Thousands of feet beneath her, the sinking Kiowa chopper crumpled beneath the relentlessly increasing pressure. The fifteen high-explosive, antitank AGM-114 Hellfire missiles still aboard strained against the compression, their copper liner cones and spring-detonation heads inching perilously inward.

A hundred feet above the ocean floor, the powerful shaft of the megaplume grabbed the remains of the chopper and sucked it downward, hurling it against the red-hot crust of the magma dome. Like a box of matches igniting in series, the Hellfire missiles exploded, tearing a gaping hole through the top of the magma dome.

Having surfaced for air, and then dove again in desperation, Michael Tolland was suspended fifteen feet underwater scanning the blackness when the Hellfire missiles exploded. The white flash billowed upward, illuminating an astonishing image-a freeze-frame he would remember forever.

Rachel Sexton hung ten feet below him like a tangled marionette in the water. Beneath her, the Triton sub fell away fast, its dome hanging loose. The sharks in the area scattered for the open sea, clearly sensing the danger this area was about to unleash.

Tolland’s exhilaration at seeing Rachel out of the sub was instantly vanquished by the realization of what was about to follow. Memorizing her position as the light disappeared, Tolland dove hard, clawing his way toward her.

Thousands of feet down, the shattered crust of the magma dome exploded apart, and the underwater volcano erupted, spewing twelve-hundred-degree-Celsius magma up into the sea. The scorching lava vaporized all the water it touched, sending a massive pillar of steam rocketing toward the surface up the central axis of the megaplume. Driven by the same kinematic properties of fluid dynamics that powered tornadoes, the steam’s vertical transfer of energy was counterbalanced by an anticyclonic vorticity spiral that circled the shaft, carrying energy in the opposite direction.

Spiraling around this column of rising gas, the ocean currents started intensifying, twisting downward. The fleeing steam created an enormous vacuum that sucked millions of gallons of seawater downward into contact with the magma. As the new water hit bottom, it too turned into steam and needed a way to escape, joining the growing column of exhaust steam and shooting upward, pulling more water in beneath it. As more water rushed in to take its place, the vortex intensified. The hydrothermal plume elongated, and the towering whirlpool grew stronger with every passing second, its upper rim moving steadily toward the surface.

An oceanic black hole had just been born.

Rachel felt like a child in a womb. Hot, wet darkness all engulfing her. Her thoughts were muddled in the inky warmth. Breathe. She fought the reflex. The flash of light she had seen could only have come from the surface, and yet it seemed so far away. An illusion. Get to the surface. Weakly, Rachel began swimming in the direction where she had seen the light. She saw more light now… an eerie red glow in the distance. Daylight? She swam harder.

A hand caught her by the ankle.

Rachel half-screamed underwater, almost exhaling the last of her air.

The hand pulled her backward, twisting her, pointing her back in the opposite direction. Rachel felt a familiar hand grasp hers. Michael Tolland was there, pulling her along with him the other way.

Rachel’s mind said he was taking her down. Her heart said he knew what he was doing.

Kick with your feet, her mother’s voice whispered.

Rachel kicked as hard as she could.

Chapter 130

Even as Tolland and Rachel broke the surface, he knew it was over. The magma dome erupted. As soon as the top of the vortex reached the surface, the giant underwater tornado would begin pulling everything down. Strangely, the world above the surface was not the quiet dawn he had left only moments ago. The noise was deafening. Wind slashed at him as if some kind of storm had hit while he was underwater.

Tolland felt delirious from lack of oxygen. He tried to support Rachel in the water, but she was being pulled from his arms. The current! Tolland tried to hold on, but the invisible force pulled harder, threatening to tear her from him. Suddenly, his grip slipped, and Rachel’s body slid through his arms-but upward.

Bewildered, Tolland watched Rachel’s body rise out of the water.

Overhead, the Coast Guard Osprey tilt-rotor airplane hovered and winched Rachel in. Twenty minutes ago, the Coast Guard had gotten a report of an explosion out at sea. Having lost track of the Dolphin helicopter that was supposed to be in the area, they feared an accident. They typed the chopper’s last known coordinates into their navigation system and hoped for the best.

About a half mile from the illuminated Goya, they saw a field of burning wreckage drifting on the current. It looked like a speedboat. Nearby, a man was in the water, waving his arms wildly. They winched him in. He was stark naked-all except for one leg, which was covered with duct tape.

Exhausted, Tolland looked up at the underbelly of the thundering tilt-rotor airplane. Deafening gusts pounded down off its horizontal propellers. As Rachel rose on a cable, numerous sets of hands pulled her into the fuselage. As Tolland watched her dragged to safety, his eyes spotted a familiar man crouched half-naked in the doorway.

Corky? Tolland’s heart soared. You’re alive!

Immediately, the harness fell from the sky again. It landed ten feet away. Tolland wanted to swim for it, but he could already feel the sucking sensation of the plume. The relentless grip of the sea wrapped around him, refusing to let go.

The current pulled him under. He fought toward the surface, but the exhaustion was overwhelming. You’re a survivor, someone was saying. He kicked his legs, clawing toward the surface. When he broke through into the pounding wind, the harness was still out of reach. The current strained to drag him under. Looking up into the torrent of swirling wind and noise, Tolland saw Rachel. She was staring down, her eyes willing him up toward her.

It took Tolland four powerful strokes to reach the harness. With his last ounce of strength, he slid his arm and head up into the loop and collapsed.

All at once the ocean was falling away beneath him.

Tolland looked down just as the gaping vortex opened. The megaplume had finally reached the surface.

William Pickering stood on the bridge of the Goya and watched in dumbstruck awe as the spectacle unfolded all around him. Off the starboard of the Goya’s stern, a huge basinlike depression was forming on the surface of the sea. The whirlpool was hundreds of yards across and expanding fast. The ocean spiraled into it, racing with an eerie smoothness over the lip. All around him now, a guttural moan reverberated out of the depths. Pickering’s mind was blank as he watched the hole expanding toward him like the gaping mouth of some epic god hungry for sacrifice.

I’m dreaming, Pickering thought.

Suddenly, with an explosive hiss that shattered the windows of the Goya’s bridge, a towering plume of steam erupted skyward out of the vortex. A colossal geyser climbed overhead, thundering, its apex disappearing into the darkened sky.

Instantly, the funnel walls steepened, the perimeter expanding faster now, chewing across the ocean toward him. The stern of the Goya swung hard toward the expanding cavity. Pickering lost his balance and fell to his knees. Like a child before God, he gazed downward into the growing abyss.

His final thoughts were for his daughter, Diana. He prayed she had not known fear like this when she died.

The concussion wave from the escaping steam hurled the Osprey sideways. Tolland and Rachel held each other as the pilots recovered, banking low over the doomed Goya. Looking out, they could see William Pickering-the Quaker-kneeling in his black coat and tie at the upper railing of the doomed ship.

As the stern fishtailed out over the brink of the massive twister, the anchor cable finally snapped. With its bow proudly in the air, the Goya slipped backward over the watery ledge, sucked down the steep spiraling wall of water. Her lights were still glowing as she disappeared beneath the sea.

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