The nuclear submarine Charlotte had been stationed in the Arctic Ocean for five days now. Its presence here was highly classified.
A Los Angeles-class sub, the Charlotte was designed to “listen and not be heard.” Its forty-two tons of turbine engines were suspended on springs to dampen any vibration they might cause. Despite its requirement for stealth, the LA-class sub had one of the largest footprints of any reconnaissance sub in the water. Stretching more than 360 feet from nose to stern, the hull, if placed on an NFL football field, would crush both goalposts and then some. Seven times the length of the U.S. Navy’s first Holland-class submarine, the Charlotte displaced 6,927 tons of water when fully submerged and could cruise at an astounding thirty-five knots.
The vessel’s normal cruising depth was just below the thermocline, a natural temperature gradient that distorted sonar reflections from above and made the sub invisible to surface radar. With a crew of 148 and max dive depth of over fifteen hundred feet, the vessel represented the state-of-the-art submersible and was the oceanic workhorse of the United States Navy. Its evaporative electrolysis oxygenation system, two nuclear reactors, and engineered provisions gave it the ability to circumnavigate the globe twenty-one times without surfacing. Human waste from the crew, as on most cruise ships, was compressed into sixty-pound blocks and ejected into the ocean-the huge bricks of feces jokingly referred to as “whale turds.”
The technician sitting at the oscillator screen in the sonar room was one of the best in the world. His mind was a dictionary of sounds and waveforms. He could distinguish between the sounds of several dozen Russian submarine propellers, hundreds of marine animals, and even pinpoint underwater volcanoes as far away as Japan.
At the moment, however, he was listening to a dull, repetitive echo. The sound, although easily distinguishable, was most unexpected.
“You aren’t going to believe what’s coming through my listening cans,” he said to his catalog assistant, handing over the headphones.
His assistant donned the headphones, an incredulous look crossing his face. “My God. It’s clear as day. What do we do?”
The sonar man was already on the phone to the captain.
When the submarine’s captain arrived in the sonar room, the technician piped a live sonar feed over a small set of speakers.
The captain listened, expressionless.
THUD. THUD. THUD.
THUD… THUD… THUD…
THUD. THUD. THUD.
Slower. Slower. The pattern was becoming looser. More and more faint.
“What are the coordinates?” the captain demanded.
The technician cleared his throat. “Actually, sir, it’s coming from the surface, about three miles to our starboard.”
In the darkened hallway outside Senator Sexton’s den, Gabrielle Ashe’s legs were trembling. Not so much out of exhaustion from standing motionless, but from disillusionment over what she was listening to. The meeting in the next room was still going, but Gabrielle didn’t have to hear another word. The truth seemed painfully obvious.
Senator Sexton is taking bribes from private space agencies. Marjorie Tench had been telling the truth.
The revulsion Gabrielle felt spreading through her now was one of betrayal. She had believed in Sexton. She’d fought for him. How can he do this? Gabrielle had seen the senator lie publicly from time to time to protect his private life, but that was politics. This was breaking the law.
He’s not even elected yet, and he’s already selling out the White House!
Gabrielle knew she could no longer support the senator. Promising to deliver the NASA privatization bill could be done only with a contemptuous disregard for both the law and the democratic system. Even if the senator believed it would be in everyone’s best interest, to sell that decision flat out, in advance, slammed the door on the checks and balances of government, ignoring potentially persuasive arguments from Congress, advisers, voters, and lobbyists. Most important, guaranteeing the privatization of NASA, Sexton had paved the way for endless abuses of that advanced knowledge-insider trading the most common-blatantly favoring the wealthy, inside cadre at the expense of honest public investors.
Feeling sick to her stomach, Gabrielle wondered what she should do.
A telephone rang sharply behind her, shattering the silence of the hallway. Startled, Gabrielle turned. The sound was coming from the closet in the foyer-a cellphone in the pocket of one of the visitors’ coats.
“‘Scuse me, friends,” a Texas drawl said in the den. “That’s me.”
Gabrielle could hear the man get up. He’s coming this way! Wheeling, she dashed back up the carpet the way she’d come. Halfway up the hall, she cut left, ducking into the darkened kitchen just as the Texan exited the den and turned up the hall. Gabrielle froze, motionless in the shadows.
The Texan strode by without noticing.
Over the sound of her pounding heart, Gabrielle could hear him rustling in the closet. Finally, he answered the ringing phone.
“Yeah?… When?… Really? We’ll switch it on. Thanks.” The man hung up and headed back toward the den, calling out as he went. “Hey! Turn on the television. Sounds like Zach Herney’s giving an urgent press conference tonight. Eight o’clock. All channels. Either we’re declaring war on China, or the International Space Station just fell into the ocean.”
“Now wouldn’t that be something to toast!” someone called out.
Gabrielle felt the kitchen spinning around her now. An eight P.M. press conference? Tench, it seemed, had not been bluffing after all. She had given Gabrielle until 8:00 P.M. to give her an affidavit admitting the affair. Distance yourself from the senator before it’s too late, Tench had told her. Gabrielle had assumed the deadline was so the White House could leak the information to tomorrow’s papers, but now it seemed the White House intended to go public with the allegations themselves.
An urgent press conference? The more Gabrielle considered it, though, the stranger it seemed. Herney is going live with this mess? Personally?
The television came on in the den. Blaring. The news announcer’s voice was bursting with excitement. “The White House has offered no clues as to the topic of tonight’s surprise presidential address, and speculation abounds. Some political analysts now think that following the President’s recent absence on the campaign trail, Zach Herney may be preparing to announce he will not be running for a second term.”
A hopeful cheer arose in the den.
Absurd, Gabrielle thought. With all the dirt the White House had on Sexton right now, there was no way in hell the President was throwing in the towel tonight. This press conference is about something else. Gabrielle had a sinking feeling she’d already been warned what it was.
With rising urgency, she checked her watch. Less than an hour. She had a decision to make, and she knew exactly to whom she needed to talk. Clutching the envelope of photos under her arm, she quietly exited the apartment.
In the hallway, the bodyguard looked relieved. “I heard some cheering inside. Sounds like you were a hit.”
She smiled curtly and headed for the elevator.
Outside in the street, the settling night felt unusually bitter. Flagging a cab, she climbed in and tried to reassure herself she knew exactly what she was doing.
“ABC television studios,” she told the driver. “And hurry.”
As Michael Tolland lay on his side on the ice, he rested his head on an outstretched arm, which he could no longer feel. Although his eyelids felt heavy, he fought to keep them open. From this odd vantage point, Tolland took in the final images of his world-now just sea and ice-in a strange sideways tilt. It seemed a fitting end to a day in which nothing had been what it seemed.
An eerie calm had begun to settle over the floating raft of ice. Rachel and Corky had both fallen silent, and the pounding had stopped. The farther from the glacier they floated, the calmer the wind became. Tolland heard his own body getting quieter too. With the tight skullcap over his ears, he could hear his own breathing amplified in his head. It was getting slower… shallower. His body was no longer able to fight off the compressing sensation that accompanied his own blood racing from his extremities like a crew abandoning ship, flowing instinctively to his vital organs in a last-ditch effort to keep him conscious.
A losing battle, he knew.
Strangely, there was no pain anymore. He had passed through that stage. The sensation now was that of having been inflated. Numbness. Floating. As the first of his reflexive operations-blinking-began to shut down, Tolland’s vision blurred. The aqueous humor that circulated between his cornea and lens was freezing repeatedly. Tolland gazed back toward the blur of the Milne Ice Shelf, now only a faint white form in the hazy moonlight.
He felt his soul admitting defeat. Teetering on the brink between presence and absence, he stared out at the ocean waves in the distance. The wind howled all around him.
It was then that Tolland began hallucinating. Strangely, in the final seconds before unconsciousness, he did not hallucinate rescue. He did not hallucinate warm and comforting thoughts. His final delusion was a terrifying one.
A leviathan was rising from the water beside the iceberg, breaching the surface with an ominous hiss. Like some mythical sea monster, it came-sleek, black, and lethal, with water foaming around it. Tolland forced himself to blink his eyes. His vision cleared slightly. The beast was close, bumping up against the ice like a huge shark butting a small boat. Massive, it towered before him, its skin shimmering and wet.
As the hazy image went black, all that was left were the sounds. Metal on metal. Teeth gnashing at the ice. Coming closer. Dragging bodies away.
Tolland felt himself being grabbed roughly.
And then everything went blank.
Gabrielle Ashe was at a full jog when she entered the third-floor production room of ABC News. Even so, she was moving slower than everyone else in the room. The intensity in production was at a fever pitch twenty-four hours a day, but at the moment the cubicle grid in front of her looked like the stock exchange on speed. Wild-eyed editors screamed to one another over the tops of their compartments, fax-waving reporters darted from cubicle to cubicle comparing notes, and frantic interns inhaled Snickers and Mountain Dew between errands.
Gabrielle had come to ABC to see Yolanda Cole.
Usually Yolanda could be found in production’s high-rent district-the glass-walled private offices reserved for the decision makers who actually required some quiet to think. Tonight, however, Yolanda was out on the floor, in the thick of it. When she saw Gabrielle, she let out her usual shriek of exuberance.
“Gabs!” Yolanda was wearing a batik body-wrap and tortoiseshell glasses. As always, several pounds of garish costume jewelry were draped off her like tinsel. Yolanda waddled over, waving. “Hug!”
Yolanda Cole had been a content editor with ABC News in Washington for sixteen years. A freckle-faced Pole, Yolanda was a squat, balding woman whom everyone affectionately called “Mother.” Her matronly presence and good humor disguised a street-savvy ruthlessness for getting the story. Gabrielle had met Yolanda at a Women in Politics mentoring seminar she’d attended shortly after her arrival in Washington. They’d chatted about Gabrielle’s background, the challenges of being a woman in D.C., and finally about Elvis Presley-a passion they were surprised to discover they shared. Yolanda had taken Gabrielle under her wing and helped her make connections. Gabrielle still stopped by every month or so to say hello.
Gabrielle gave her a big hug, Yolanda’s enthusiasm already lifting her spirits.
Yolanda stepped back and looked Gabrielle over. “You look like you aged a hundred years, girl! What happened to you?”
Gabrielle lowered her voice. “I’m in trouble, Yolanda.”
“That’s not the word on the street. Sounds like your man is on the rise.”
“Is there some place we can talk in private?”
“Bad timing, honey. The President is holding a press conference in about half an hour, and we still haven’t a clue what it’s all about. I’ve got to line up expert commentary, and I’m flying blind.”
“I know what the press conference is about.”
Yolanda lowered her glasses, looking skeptical. “Gabrielle, our correspondent inside the White House is in the dark on this one. You say Sexton’s campaign has advance knowledge?”
“No, I’m saying I have advance knowledge. Give me five minutes. I’ll tell you everything.”
Yolanda glanced down at the red White House envelope in Gabrielle’s hand. “That’s a White House internal. Where’d you get that?”
“In a private meeting with Marjorie Tench this afternoon.”
Yolanda stared a long moment. “Follow me.”
Inside the privacy of Yolanda’s glass-walled cubicle, Gabrielle confided in her trusted friend, confessing to a one-night affair with Sexton and the fact that Tench had photographic evidence.
Yolanda smiled broadly and shook her head laughing. Apparently she had been in Washington journalism so long that nothing shocked her. “Oh, Gabs, I had a hunch you and Sexton had probably hooked up. Not surprising. He’s got a reputation, and you’re a pretty girl. Too bad about the photos. I wouldn’t worry about it, though.”
Don’t worry about it?
Gabrielle explained that Tench had accused Sexton of taking illegal bribes from space companies and that Gabrielle had just overheard a secret SFF meeting confirming that fact! Again Yolanda’s expression conveyed little surprise or concern-until Gabrielle told her what she was thinking of doing about it.
Yolanda now looked troubled. “Gabrielle, if you want to hand over a legal document saying you slept with a U.S. senator and stood by while he lied about it, that’s your business. But I’m telling you, it’s a very bad move for you. You need to think long and hard about what it could mean for you.”
“You’re not listening. I don’t have that kind of time!”
“I am listening, and sweetheart, whether or not the clock is ticking, there are certain things you just do not do. You do not sell out a U.S. senator in a sex scandal. It’s suicide. I’m telling you, girl, if you take down a presidential candidate, you better get in your car and drive as far from D.C. as possible. You’ll be a marked woman. A lot of people spend a lot of money to put candidates at the top. There’s big finances and power at stake here-the kind of power people kill for.”
Gabrielle fell silent now.
“Personally,” Yolanda said, “I think Tench was leaning on you in hopes you’d panic and do something dumb-like bail out and confess to the affair.” Yolanda pointed to the red envelope in Gabrielle’s hands. “Those shots of you and Sexton don’t mean squat unless you or Sexton admit they’re accurate. The White House knows if they leak those photos, Sexton will just claim they’re phony and throw them back in the president’s face.”
“I thought of that, but still the campaign finance bribery issue is-”
“Honey, think about it. If the White House hasn’t gone public yet with bribery allegations, they probably don’t intend to. The President is pretty serious about no negative campaigning. My guess is he decided to save an aerospace industry scandal and sent Tench after you with a bluff in hopes he might scare you out of hiding on the sex thing. Make you stab your candidate in the back.”
Gabrielle considered it. Yolanda was making sense, and yet something still felt odd. Gabrielle pointed through the glass at the bustling news room. “Yolanda, you guys are gearing up for a big presidential press conference. If the President is not going public about bribery or sex, what’s it all about?”
Yolanda looked stunned. “Hold on. You think this press conference is about you and Sexton?”
“Or the bribery. Or both. Tench told me I had until eight tonight to sign a confession or else the President was going to announce-”
Yolanda’s laughter shook the entire glass cubicle. “Oh please! Wait! You’re killing me!”
Gabrielle was in no mood for joking. “What!”
“Gabs, listen,” Yolanda managed, between laughs, “trust me on this. I’ve been dealing with the White House for sixteen years, and there’s no way Zach Herney has called together the global media to tell them he suspects Senator Sexton is accepting shady campaign financing or sleeping with you. That’s the kind of information you leak. Presidents don’t gain popularity by interrupting regularly scheduled programming to bitch and moan about sex or alleged infractions of cloudy campaign finance laws.”
“Cloudy?” Gabrielle snapped. “Flat out selling your decision on a space bill for millions in ad money is hardly a cloudy issue!”
“Are you sure that’s what he is doing?” Yolanda’s tone hardened now. “Are you sure enough to drop your skirt on national TV? Think about it. It takes a lot of alliances to get anything done these days, and campaign finance is complex stuff. Maybe Sexton’s meeting was perfectly legal.”
“He’s breaking the law,” Gabrielle said. Isn’t he?
“Or so Marjorie Tench would have you believe. Candidates accept behind-the-scenes donations all the time from big corporations. It may not be pretty, but it’s not necessarily illegal. In fact, most legal issues deal not with where the money comes from but how the candidate chooses to spend it.”
Gabrielle hesitated, feeling uncertain now.
“Gabs, the White House played you this afternoon. They tried to turn you against your candidate, and so far you’ve called their bluff. If I were looking for someone to trust, I think I’d stick with Sexton before jumping ship to someone like Marjorie Tench.”
Yolanda’s phone rang. She answered, nodding, uh-huh-ing, taking notes. “Interesting,” she finally said. “I’ll be right there. Thanks.”
Yolanda hung up and turned with an arched brow. “Gabs, sounds like you’re off the hook. Just as I predicted.”
“What’s going on?”
“I don’t have a specific yet, but I can tell you this much-the president’s press conference has nothing to do with sex scandals or campaign finance.”
Gabrielle felt a flash of hope and wanted badly to believe her. “How do you know that?”
“Someone on the inside just leaked that the press conference is NASA-related.”
Gabrielle sat up suddenly. “NASA?”
Yolanda winked. “This could be your lucky night. My bet is President Herney is feeling so much pressure from Senator Sexton that he’s decided the White House has no choice but to pull the plug on the International Space Station. That explains all the global media coverage.”
A press conference killing the space station? Gabrielle could not imagine.
Yolanda stood up. “That Tench attack this afternoon? It was probably just a last-ditch effort to get a foothold over Sexton before the President had to go public with the bad news. Nothing like a sex scandal to take the attention away from another presidential flop. Anyhow, Gabs, I’ve got work to do. My advice to you-get yourself a cup of coffee, sit right here, turn on my television, and ride this out like the rest of us. We’ve got twenty minutes until show time, and I’m telling you, there is no way the President is going Dumpster-diving tonight. He’s got the whole world watching. Whatever he has to say carries some serious weight.” She gave a reassuring wink. “Now give me the envelope.”
Yolanda held out a demanding hand. “These pictures are getting locked in my desk until this is over. I want to be sure you don’t do something idiotic.”
Reluctantly, Gabrielle handed over the envelope.
Yolanda locked the photos carefully in a desk drawer and pocketed the keys. “You’ll thank me, Gabs. I swear it.” She playfully ruffled Gabrielle’s hair on her way out. “Sit tight. I think good news is on the way.”
Gabrielle sat alone in the glass cubicle and tried to let Yolanda’s upbeat attitude lift her mood. All Gabrielle could think of, though, was the self-satisfied smirk on the face of Marjorie Tench this afternoon. Gabrielle could not imagine what the President was about to tell the world, but it was definitely not going to be good news for Senator Sexton.
Rachel Sexton felt like she was being burned alive.
It’s raining fire!
She tried to open her eyes, but all she could make out were foggy shapes and blinding lights. It was raining all around her. Scalding hot rain. Pounding down on her bare skin. She was lying on her side and could feel hot tiles beneath her body. She curled more tightly into the fetal position, trying to protect herself from the scalding liquid falling from above. She smelled chemicals. Chlorine, maybe. She tried to crawl away, but she could not. Powerful hands pressed down on her shoulders, holding her down.
Let me go! I’m burning!
Instinctively, she again fought to escape, and again she was rebuffed, the strong hands clamping down. “Stay where you are,” a man’s voice said. The accent was American. Professional. “It will be over soon.”
What will be over? Rachel wondered. The pain? My life? She tried to focus her vision. The lights in this place were harsh. She sensed the room was small. Cramped. Low ceilings.
“I’m burning!” Rachel’s scream was a whisper.
“You’re fine,” the voice said. “This water is lukewarm. Trust me.”
Rachel realized she was mostly undressed, wearing only her soaked underwear. No embarrassment registered; her mind was filled with too many other questions.
The memories were coming back now in a torrent. The ice shelf. The GPR. The attack. Who? Where am I? She tried to put the pieces together, but her mind felt torpid, like a set of clogged gears. From out of the muddled confusion came a single thought: Michael and Corky… where are they?
Rachel tried to focus her bleary vision but saw only the men standing over her. They were all dressed in the same blue jumpsuits. She wanted to speak, but her mouth refused to formulate a single word. The burning sensation in her skin was now giving way to sudden deep waves of aching that rolled through the muscles like seismic tremors.
“Let it happen,” the man over her said. “The blood needs to flow back into your musculature.” He spoke like a doctor. “Try to move your limbs as much as you can.”
The pain racking Rachel’s body felt as if every muscle was being beaten with a hammer. She lay there on the tile, her chest contracting, and she could barely breathe.
“Move your legs and arms,” the man insisted. “No matter what it feels like.”
Rachel tried. Each movement felt like a knife being thrust into her joints. The jets of water grew hotter again. The scalding was back. The crushing pain went on. At the precise instant she thought she could not withstand another moment, Rachel felt someone giving her an injection. The pain seemed to subside quickly, less and less violent, releasing. The tremors slowed. She felt herself breathing again.
A new sensation was spreading through her body now, the eerie bite of pins and needles. Everywhere-stabbing-sharper and sharper. Millions of tiny needle-point jabs, intensifying whenever she moved. She tried to hold motionless, but the water jets continued to buffet her. The man above her was holding her arms, moving them.
God that hurts! Rachel was too weak to fight. Tears of exhaustion and pain poured down her face. She shut her eyes hard, blocking out the world.
Finally, the pins and needles began to dissipate. The rain from above stopped. When Rachel opened her eyes, her vision was clearer.
It was then that she saw them.
Corky and Tolland lay nearby, quivering, half-naked and soaked. From the looks of anguish on their faces, Rachel sensed that they had just endured similar experiences. Michael Tolland’s brown eyes were bloodshot and glassy. When he saw Rachel, he managed a weak smile, his blue lips trembling.
Rachel tried to sit up, to take in their bizarre surroundings. The three of them were lying in a trembling twist of half-naked limbs on the floor of a tiny shower room.