24,275
20.12.2018

Once at the office, Miyuki stepped forward and keyed open the lock. Karen was first through the door. “Miyuki maintains a clean room for her computers,” she explained as Jack entered. She pointed to a row of starched coveralls hanging on the wall. “You’ll need to wear one of those.”

“I don’t know if I have a suit that’ll fit him,” Miyuki said. She sifted through the coveralls. “This might do.” She passed him a large suit.

Jack took it and placed his backpack on a bench by the wall.

Karen was already zipping into her own coverall. “Jack, while you dress, may I show Miyuki your notebook?”

He nodded and nudged his pack in her direction, then applied himself to forcing his large frame into the tight suit.

“Miyuki, come see this.” She tugged free his notebook. As she did, something tumbled from his backpack and rolled across the floor.

Miyuki bent to pick it up.

As Jack struggled to work both shoulders into the coveralls, he saw that Miyuki held David Spangler’s gift box, and an idea dawned on him. “Open it,” he said to Miyuki. “I could use your expert opinion.”

She pulled back the lid. Her eyes narrowed as she peered at its contents.

“What do you think it is?” Jack asked.

Miyuki leaned closer. “It’s an inexpensive switching circuit.” She closed the box with a snap. “Worthless really.”

Jack frowned. What was David’s scam here? The circuitry must contain some veiled insult, but what?

Miyuki handed the box back to Karen. “It’s just an obsolete Chinese design.”

Her words struck Jack in the stomach. He suddenly felt ill. “Chinese? Are you sure?”

She nodded.

Jack’s mind fought for any other explanation. His first suspicion couldn’t possibly be true. But he remembered George’s question a few days back: What if the explosion had been staged? A frame-up? Jack ran various scenarios through his mind, but only one rang true: Spangler had faked the explosion.

“That bastard!” he spat out. Even the little “gift” was David’s way of rubbing his nose in this fact, knowing he couldn’t do a thing about it. Washington had wanted this explanation for the tragedy, and David had handed it to them. No one would listen to anything contradictory.

Bile rose in Jack’s throat. The stupendous gall of the murderous bastard! And how far up did this treachery go? he wondered. Was it just a frame job, or had David played a role in the jet’s downing, too? Jack swore under his breath and clenched his fists, sharpening his resolve. He would discover the truth behind the crash—or die trying!

“What’s wrong?” Karen asked.

Jack finally noticed the two women gaping at him. He sat down, his legs suddenly weak as his anger faded. “It seems I also have a long story to share.”

“About what?” Karen sat down next to him.

“About the crash of Air Force One.”

6:30 P.M., Central Pacific

On his belly in the submersible, David Spangler ascended through the depths of the sea, rising in a slow spiral toward the surface. Over the past three days the Navy’s new prototype sub, the Perseus, had been functioning far better than the estimates from the drawing board.

David lay sprawled on his stomach within the sub’s inner shell, a torpedo-shaped chamber molded of two-inch-thick Lexan glass. Except for the clear nose cone, where his head and shoulders protruded, the rest of the Lexan cubicle was encased in the sub’s outer shell, a top-secret ceramic composite that was lighter and stronger than titanium. Within this outer shell were housed all the ship’s mechanical, electrical, and propulsion systems. This dual shell system was designed for safety. In case of emergency, the entire outer shell could be jettisoned with manual pyrotechnics, freeing the inner Lexan pod to rise to the surface under its own buoyancy.

“Perseus,” a voice said in his ear, “we have you locked in. If you’d like to switch to autopilot, we’ll guide you into the docking bay.”

David answered the topside technician, “I’ll take her in myself.” This was his sixth dive in the Perseus, and he felt comfortable enough with her controls now to do this manually. With his thumb, he flicked a switch, and a heads-up display appeared superimposed over the nose cone’s glass. His trajectory to the bay of the Navy’s salvage ship, the Maggie Chouest, was delineated in red. It was simply a matter of guiding his sub along the designated approach, not unlike a flight simulator.

“I’m hooked into the tracking computer,” he radioed. “I’ll be at the bay in three minutes.”

“Aye, sir. See you topside.”

Slowing the thrusters, David eased the sub upward. Around him, as he neared the surface, the dark waters began to lighten. As he aligned his sub he could not escape the sensation of true flight. On his belly, it was as if he and the ship were one. The sub’s hand controls were as responsive as his own thoughts. The telescoping wings to either side were like the fins of a creature born to the sea, twisting and tucking to guide the vessel.

But this was no creature of the sea. Under its belly a pair of titanium manipulator arms were folded and stored, capable of crushing granite, and atop the sub, protruding like a shark’s dorsal fin, stood a stacked array of minitorpedoes, on a pivoting dolly for ease of targeting. Though small, each missile was tipped with a powerful warhead, able to pierce an armored submarine. They were nicknamed “sub-busters” by the Perseus’s support team, the Navy’s Deep Submergence Unit. The weapons gave the tiny rescue sub an extra advantage in hostile waters.

David ran a finger over the torpedoes’ activation control. Earlier that day he had been informed of the loss of Taiwan to the Chinese. The news had kept him agitated all day. How had they lost the island to the goddamn Communists? It was an embarrassment and a black eye to all of America. If only he could have taken part in the fighting…

The technician came on the line. “Sir, one of your men is here. He says it’s urgent he speak with you.”

“Put him on.”

A short pause, then Rolfe’s voice came over the radio. “Sorry to disturb you, sir, but you told us to let you know if there were…um, any change in your secondary objective.”

David frowned. Secondary objective? He had been so focused on the timetable here and on the growing drums of war that he had momentarily forgotten about Jack Kirkland. “What is it?”

“The target has vacated the zone.”

David bit back a long curse. Kirkland had gone missing. He knew any further details and explanations could not be discussed over an open radio. “I’ll be topside in two minutes. Meet me in my cabin and brief me then.”

“Yes, sir.”

Grimacing, David shoved aside his concerns about Kirkland. Right now he had work to finish. He swept the sub around on a wingtip, aligning its trajectory into the proper approach. He checked the sub’s clock. He had been underwater for almost six hours. After he surfaced, the Perseus would be checked over and reoutfitted for the day’s third dive. An alternate Navy pilot would take the submersible down to the work site on the seabed floor. Then, in another seven hours, it would be David’s shift all over again.

But the two pilots were not the only ones with tough schedules. Since the arrival of the research team and barges from Maui, the entire crew had been working around the clock. Aided by the researcher’s submersible and robots, the sea base’s support framework had already been bolted to the bottom. Starting this afternoon, the three-tiered living units and labs would be sunk to the bottom and assembled. Barring any mishaps, David expected the entire base to be established within the next forty-eight hours and manned soon afterward.

He had been ordered to get this base up in four days, and he would not disappoint, even if it meant cracking the whip. In fact, earlier in the day, when the research team’s leader, a geophysicist named Ferdinand Cortez, objected to the strenuous pace, David encouraged him to call Washington. It had given David great pleasure to see the Mexican browbeaten by Nicolas Ruzickov over the satellite phone. Even from a step away David had heard Ruzickov screaming at the scientist. Afterward, though tensions remained acute, no one questioned his orders nor his schedule again.

He was in sole control of this operation, and he would not let anyone or anything delay its completion—not the embarrassing loss of Taiwan, nor the mysterious disappearance of Jack Kirkland. He would not fail.

Ahead, out of the gloom, the submerged docking bay appeared. David angled the sub with deft skill, gliding her skids onto the submerged platform. He settled the sub between the self-locking clamps. As he released the controls, the sub’s wings retracted and two C-clamps snugged against the vessel’s ceramic sides. “Locked and loaded,” he called topside.

“Locked and loaded,” the technician acknowledged. “Pulling you up.”

Through the Perseus’s hydrophones, David heard the whine of the hydraulics as the captured submersible was drawn to the surface. Around him the seas grew brighter until, at last, he surfaced. Saltwater sluiced over the nose cone and small waves crashed against the sub’s side, but the vessel did not move. And after a few seconds even the waves were no threat. The Perseus and its pilot were hauled up out of the ocean and craned onto the stern deck of the Maggie Chouest.

As soon as the platform settled to the deck, the sub’s five-man maintenance crew swarmed over the vessel. The nose cone’s O-ring was unscrewed and the glass bubble dropped open. David slid like a beaching seal onto the deck. One of the crewmen offered him a hand. After six hours on his belly in the cramped space, his limbs were un-trustworthy.

Once on his feet, David unzipped his wet suit and stretched the kinks from his muscles. Behind him the maintenance crew was already at work: checking seals, blowing the carbon dioxide scavengers, piping fresh oxygen into the two flank tanks. They reminded David of an Indy 500 pit crew. Fast, efficient, and coordinated.

David turned his back on them and found Cortez aiming his way across the deck. Groaning, David straightened. Right now all he wanted was a hot shower and his bunk. He did not want to deal with the geophysicist. He set his face to a hard scowl as the man stopped before him. “What is it, Professor?”