24,276
20.12.2018

For a moment Jack’s dome ground against David’s nose cone. Both men lay within an arm’s reach of the other, yet remained untouchable.

Jack grinned up at him. “Time to even the odds, you bastard.”

David glanced to his sonar array. He suddenly understood the trap—but a fraction too late.

The top of the Perseus struck the stone arch overhead. David swore a litany of curses. With a screech of titanium, the torpedo array struck the unyielding rock. One of the minitorpedoes ignited, shooting down the canyon and exploding against a distant cliff face. The remainder of the array broke off and tumbled away.

His trap sprung, Jack’s sub sank away. “As you said…adios!” The Nautilus dove forward, aiming for the sheltering cloud cast up by the stray torpedo’s explosion.

Spitting blood, David flicked a switch. “No you don’t, asshole.”

9:04 A.M., Nautilus

Jack’s grin disappeared as the Nautilus suddenly lurched under him. He jerked hard in his harness as the sub’s progress was halted in mid-dive.

Twisting around, he saw the Perseus had latched onto his sub’s frame with a single manipulator arm, its pincers clamped tight. David was not letting him run. The titanium arm tugged; metal screeched.

Warning lights flashed red across Jack’s computer screen. He was snagged and trapped. Caught from behind, his own sub’s manipulator arms could not fight back.

Titanium continued to protest as the pincers on David’s sub crushed and tore. The computer flickered. The carbon dioxide scrubbers went silent. David had clamped the main power line. This was not good.

Thinking fast, he dove toward the bottom, taking on ballast, dragging the Navy’s sub behind him, meanwhile beginning to circle during the descent. Flashing on his xenon headlight, Jack aimed at the mangled torpedo array on the seabed floor. His lights dimmed as the Nautilus’s power line was crimped. He ignored it, concentrating on his goal.

When he was close enough, Jack reached to the controls for his own sub’s manipulator arms. He extended the right arm and grabbed one of the discarded torpedoes resting on the seabed.

By now David realized the danger. The Nautilus was jostled as David shook the vessel.

Rattled, Jack bobbled and dropped the torpedo, but he deftly snatched it back up with his other manipulator arm. Before he lost it again, Jack wound back the arm and whipped it forward, lobbing the torpedo against the base of the stone arch.

The blast blew out the support. The stone arch broke, falling toward them.

As Jack had hoped, David was not willing to risk his own skin. He freed the Nautilus, spinning away. But Jack spun the other way and grabbed the Perseus’s back frame, turning the tables, catching the shark by its tail.

“Leaving so soon?” he asked.

Overhead, the main section fell toward them.

“Let me go! You’ll kill us both!”

“Both? I don’t think so.”

Smaller boulders landed around them, blasting craters in the silt. Jack monitored both his sonar and the tumble of rock. Using his other manipulator arm, he tore at the Perseus’s main thruster assembly, damaging the propellers, then released his pincers and backed at full throttle.

David’s sub lurched, trying to crawl from under the fall of rock, but it was no use. Boulders crashed deep into the silt.

As Jack watched, a small burst of bubbles exploded from around the Perseus. He initially thought the sub had imploded, but as the bubbles cleared, a small pod of acrylic shot out from the external titanium frame. Spangler had employed his sub’s emergency escape mechanism. The ejected glass “lifeboat” blasted away from its heavier external shell. The abandoned section was immediately pounded flat by tons of rock.

The bastard was escaping!

Jack scowled, climbing with his thrusters above the spreading silk cloud.

Under positive buoyancy, the lifeboat and its single passenger rose rapidly. A tiny red emergency light on its tail winked mockingly back at him. In his heavier sub, Jack had no hope of catching it.

He followed the escape pod’s course with his xenon light as it cleared the canyon walls and climbed into the open sea.

Jaw muscles tense, Jack gripped his controls, unsure about what to do—then a flurry of movement to the side caught his eye.

A large creature stretched from a rocky den, reaching for the escaping glass bubble. The explosions, the threat to its territory, must have drawn it.

Jack touched his throat mike. “David, I think you’re about to be dinner.”

9:17 A.M.

David frowned at Jack’s radioed message. What was he talking about? What harm could he do? Jack’s sub could never catch him. Though his own lifeboat bore no weapons and had no maneuverability, it did have speed. The sleek torpedo of acrylic was light and extremely buoyant.

David tapped in a code on his computer, preparing to patch through to the sea base. He would order the anthropologist killed, slowly. Rolfe was a skilled “interviewer.” He had loosened many a stubborn tongue. David would make sure her cries and pleadings were dispatched to Jack before she was killed.

As he typed in the final connection, the life pod was jolted, tossing David onto his side. He searched the water around him but saw nothing in the weak glow of the blinking emergency beacon in the stern. He rose up on an elbow. Then the lifeboat was jarred again, and suddenly dragged straight down. David’s head struck the thick acrylic.

“What the fu—” Words died in his mouth as he glanced past his toes. In the light of the red beacon, he spotted a large dinner-plate-size sucker attached to the shell of the lifeboat. He watched a long tentacle wrap around the pod, drawing him back into the depths, reeling him in like a hooked fish.

A giant squid!

He had read the report of Jack’s battle with the same monster. He pressed his palms against the glass, panic setting in. He had no weapons. He searched the sea around him. Strobed in the red light, other tentacles and arms flailed, descending on its trapped prey.

The pod was flipped around roughly. David rolled and found a huge black eye staring at him.

A small gasp choked out of him.

The eye disappeared as the pod spun in the monster’s grip. David braced himself. All around was a blur of tentacles.

Staring past his toes, David suddenly sensed danger above his head. He jerked around—and screamed.

An arm’s length away a huge maw opened, lined by razor-sharp beaks, large enough to bite the slender pod in half. Still crying out in horror, he was drawn head first into the hungry creature’s mouth. It gnawed on the glass end, grinding its surface with its viselike beak.

David retreated, cramming himself into the stern half of the lifeboat. As he did, his elbow struck the communication system.

His eyes flicked to its palm-size screen. He still had communications! He could call in a rescue. Perhaps the bulletproof glass would resist the creature long enough. Or maybe the squid would tire of its stubborn prey and simply let him go.

Clinging to this small hope, he forced down his panic, told himself to stay focused, in charge.

Elbowing his way forward, David reached the transmitter. As he called up topside, a horrible noise echoed through the pod.

—crack—

He stared overhead. Tiny cracks skittered across the glass. Oh. God…no… He remembered the way Dr. Cortez had died, crushed, his skull imploding.

The monster continued to gnaw. The threadlike stress cracks spiderwebbed around him. At these immense pressures, implosion was imminent.

David clenched his fists as his hopes bled away. He was left with only one desire: revenge.

His boss, Nicolas Ruzickov, ever paranoid, had built in a fail-safe system in case the pillar site were ever compromised. The CIA director had not wanted the power here falling into foreign hands. “Better no one get it than lose it to another,” Ruzickov had explained.

David called up a special screen and typed in a coded sequence. His finger hovered above the Enter key.

He looked up. The beast’s maw continued to grind against the glass. More cracks.

Monster or pressure…which death was worse?

He tapped the final key.

FAIL-SAFE ACTIVATED blinked for a brief second.

Then the lifeboat collapsed, crushing the life out of him in a heartbeat.

9:20 A.M., Neptune base

Sitting beside her captor, Karen knew time was running out. In a little over two hours the solar storm would hit. She had to contact the Fathom and let them know Dr. Cortez had been murdered. But her bodyguard had refused to let her out of his sight.

As she sat with her hands clutched in her lap, Lieutenant Rolfe leaned over the radio. A call had been wired down from topside. Though he whispered, she managed to make out two words: “evacuation” and “fail-safe.”

Straining, she tried to eavesdrop on more of the conversation.

Finally, the lieutenant hung up the receiver and turned to her. “They’re sending down the Argus. We’re leaving immediately.”

Karen noted the man refused to make eye contact. He was lying—he might be leaving, but she wouldn’t be.

Feigning acquiescence, she stood and stretched. “It’s about time.”

The lieutenant got to his feet, too. Karen saw his left hand drift to the knife strapped to his thigh. No bullets. Not at these pressures.

Turning, she hurriedly crossed toward the ladder that led down to the docking bay. She mounted it first, keeping an eye on her adversary.

He nodded for her to climb down, hand leaving the hilt of his knife.

Karen quickly calculated. She’d been taught the safety systems as soon as she boarded here. Everything was automated. For her plan to work, she had to time this perfectly. She moved slowly down the ladder, a rung at a time. Rolfe followed, keeping close, as usual.

Good.

Halfway down, Karen leaped from the ladder, landing with a thud.

Lieutenant Rolfe frowned down at her. “Careful, damn it!”

Karen thrust herself to the wall and smashed her elbow into the safety glass, breaking the seal. Pushing through the glass, slicing her fingertips, she reached to the emergency manual override. It was a safety feature to lock down the levels in case of flooding.