24,277
20.12.2018

An alarm sounded.

Flinging back the small door, he dove out. He rolled across the deck and to his feet. Men were running with buckets and hoses. One stopped and blocked his escape, mouth open in surprise.

As the man dropped his bucket and reached to a holstered pistol, Jack ran at him, elbowing him across his Adam’s apple. The guard fell back, gagging. His way clear, Jack dove over the starboard rail.

Holding his mask, he struck the water, then kicked and dug his way toward the bottom. He flipped on his ultraviolet wrist lights just as bullets began to ping and zing through the water around him. He ignored the threat and searched for where he’d stored his equipment.

He quickly found it. Hidden in the shadow of the crumbling wall, Jack took a quick drag from the pony tank’s regulator, then tossed it aside. Karen would not be needing it. He looked up.

The cutter remained topside, but it wouldn’t be there for long. The exploding fuel tank was the signal for Charlie to call in the police. The original plan was for he and Karen to hide down here until the police chased them off.

As he fit his feet into his fins, Jack spotted movement from the corner of his eye. He twisted around, glancing up.

Small metallic objects, no bigger than soda cans, were sinking into the water around him. A dozen, maybe more. As he watched, one of them struck a tall column fifteen yards away. The explosion threw Jack to the sand, slamming the air from his lungs. His ears flared with pain. Bits of rock pelted him. Blind for a moment, he rolled across the sea floor.

As his vision snapped back, he spotted a dozen other charges falling around him. Another trap. He had less than five seconds until the area was blown to fragments.

Grabbing his buoyancy vest and attached air tank, he twisted the vest around and jammed his arms in the wrong way. The tank, instead of on his back, lay upside down on his chest. Swinging with his hips, he jammed the tank against a nearby stone wall and the valve snapped off. Compressed oxygen exploded out.

The tank, now a rocket, jetted away.

Hugging the tank tight to his chest, Jack rode it away from the cascade of depth charges. Fighting for control, his back slammed into the side of one of the submerged ruins. A rib snapped with a jolt of fire. He bit his lips against the pain and twisted his arms more snugly in the tangled buoyancy vest. Using his fins and legs, he roughly guided his trajectory through the maze of columns and walls, shooting like a pinball through an underwater arcade game.

As he rode, the explosions blasted behind him. He felt each charge as if kicked by a mule. A large chunk of basalt flew past him and bounced across the sand.

In seconds Jack’s flight slowed as the air evacuated from the tank. He swam and kicked to put additional distance between him and the depth charges. Finally, he could not ignore the fire in his lungs. He dumped the expired tank and pushed for the surface.

The upper waters were no longer midnight blue, but a deep aqua. The sun was rising.

He paddled toward the weak light and sucked air as his head broke the surface. His broken rib complained with each breath, but the relief of fresh air overwhelmed the ache. He swung around.

The morning was misty, heavy with the promise of rain. Seventy yards away, the seas still roiled around the police cutter. It looked as if the ship floated on a boiling pan of water. As he watched, one last explosion blew to the surface, casting a geyser of water high into the air.

In the distance, the multiple sirens of police vessels whined. Closer, the diesel motor of Spangler’s cutter began to roar. Its bow end surged up as the ship took flight. Wakes churned and the boat swept away.

Jack watched, helpless, hurt. As he tread in place, a sense of defeat washed over him.

He had survived, but he’d lost Karen. And no matter what she argued, her life was on a short fuse. Once her usefulness ended, she would be eliminated.

Off near the coast, the cutter raced away, moving faster, disappearing around the headlands of Nahkapw Island.

As he stared, hopeless, a light rain began to fall, pebbling the seas around him. Then he rolled onto his stomach and began the long swim back to the Deep Fathom.

8:46 A.M., off the coast of Pingelap Atoll

Three hours after Jack’s escape, David stood in the pilothouse of the sleek cutter. Rain sluiced and beat against the window. The storm was worsening, but he did not care. The cover of rain and mist had allowed them to escape once again. Hidden by the heavy morning fog, they had traveled over fifty miles, putting as much distance as possible between them and Pohnpei Island.

Off to the north, he could see the small atoll of Pingelap. His men were busily offloading their equipment into the cutter’s launch. After they finished and collected their prisoner, they would scuttle the ship and travel to the nearby empty beach. An evac helicopter was already on its way to collect them.

Over the scrambled radio, David listened as Nicolas Ruzickov continued to chastise him. Not only had the mission almost been a total failure, it had been a sloppy one, implicating the U.S. government. The American embassy on Pohnpei was already spinning the events like a whirling top, extolling the local authorities and spouting assurances that they would root out the culprits involved. The ambassador had vigorously denied any knowledge of David’s men or what they were doing at Nan Madol. Funds were already being wired into the private accounts of critical Pohnpeian officials. David knew there was no problem or embarrassment that couldn’t be made to disappear by throwing enough cash at it. By tomorrow, all evidence of U.S. involvement would be muddied away.

Ruzickov finished his tirade. “I have enough problems with the war. I don’t need to be cleaning up your messes, Commander.”

“Yes, sir, but Jack Kirkland—”

“Your report stated that you eliminated him.”

“We believe so.” David remembered the seas erupting around the ship, bobbling and rocking the vessel. There was no way Jack could have survived, he thought, but his eyes narrowed. He could not be sure. The bastard had more lives than a damn cat. “But his crew, sir. We believe they still possess the crystal.”

“That objective no longer matters. The researchers managed to collect their own sample. They’re experimenting with it as we speak, and so far the initial results are intriguing. But more importantly, Cortez believes translating the inscription on the obelisk may accelerate his research. So forget the fragment of crystal. Your mission’s top priority is to bring the anthropologist to Neptune base.”

David clenched his fist. “Yes, sir.”

“After you accomplish this, you’ll help the Navy’s team extract the crystal pillar and return it to the States. Only then will you be allowed to tie up these loose ends.” Anger ran clear in the former Marine’s voice.

Heat rose to David’s face. Never before had he been reprimanded by the CIA director. Three dead, one severely injured. The mission would be a black mark on his record.

“Did you hear me, Commander Spangler?”

David had stopped listening, too filled with anger and shame. “Yes, sir. We’ll evacuate the professor to the sea base immediately.”

A long sigh followed. “Commander, the conditions out East are worsening as we speak. A major sea battle is raging around Taiwan. Okinawa is under repeated missile attacks. And in Washington there is already talk of a nuclear response.” Ruzickov paused to let the significance sink in. “So you understand the importance of your efforts. If there is any way to utilize the power hidden in that crystal, it must be discovered as soon as possible. Every means must be utilized to accomplish this end. Private wars and vendettas have no place here.”

David closed his eyes. “I understand. I won’t fail you again.”

“Prove it, Commander. Bring that woman to the Neptune.”

“We’re already on our way.”

“Very good.” The line went dead.

David held the receiver a moment. Fuck you, he added silently, then slammed down the phone.

In the distance, a whump-whump echoed over the waters. Their evac helicopter was early. David cinched up his jacket and pushed out the door into the rainstorm. He crossed to Rolfe.

The lieutenant commander turned at his approach.

“Get the woman up here,” David ordered him.

“I think she’s still unconscious.”

“Then carry her. We’re leaving now.” David watched as his second-in-command swung away. He placed his fists on his hips. Maybe he had been too rough on the woman, he thought, recalling how after losing Kirkland, he had vented his frustration on her. But he would no longer tolerate failures—not from himself, not from his men, not from her.

Rolfe reappeared, climbing from the doorway with their captive slung over a shoulder.

The rain seemed to revive the woman a bit. She stirred, raising her face. Her left eye was bruised and blood dribbled from her nose and split lip. She coughed thickly.

David turned away, satisfied she would live.

No, I wasn’t too rough.

3:22 P.M., USS Gibraltar, Luzon Strait

The strip of water between Taiwan and the Philippines was tight with ships, many with guns blazing. Admiral Houston watched the fighting through the green-tinted windows of the bridge. Overhead, the sky was choked with smoke, turning day to a gloomy twilight. That morning the Gibraltar had joined the battle group of the USS John C. Stennis, consisting of the massive Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, its air wing and destroyer squadron.

Just as the Gibraltar arrived, an attack by the Chinese air force began. Jets roared across the skies, bombarding the ships below with missile fire. In response, Sea Sparrow anti-aircraft missiles blasted skyward. A handful of jets exploded, tumbling in fiery streams into the ocean—but the true battle was only beginning. The Chinese navy, over the horizon, had soon joined the conflict, bombarding the region with rocket barrages.

All day, the sea war had raged.

Off to the south, a destroyer, the USS Jefferson City, lay burning. An evacuation was under way. ASW helicopters from the Gibraltar were already in the air, rising like hornets to aid in the defense of their section of the sea.

To Houston’s side, Captain Brenning shouted orders to his bridge crew.