Jack glanced around as he crossed to the table. Maps and charts hung on the walls, with tiny flagged pins poking out. He recognized a regional map of local currents on a nearby wall. Inked squares were checkered on it. The search parameters. It seemed that the admiral had not been lax on the ride here.
Jack took it all in quickly, then turned to find Houston directly behind him. Again the admiral seemed to study him. “So how’ve you been, Jack?”
He shrugged. “Surviving.”
“Hmm…that’s too bad.”
Jack scrunched up his brows, surprised by this response. He did not think the admiral bore him any ill will.
But Houston clarified his statement as he sank into one of the seats and kicked another toward Jack. “Life isn’t just about surviving. It’s about living.”
Jack sat. “If you say so.”
“Any women in your life?”
Jack frowned. He did not understand this line of questioning.
“I know you’re not married, but is there anyone special in your life?”
“No. Not really. Friends, that’s all. Why?”
The admiral shrugged. “Just wondering. We haven’t spoken in over a decade. Not even a Christmas card.”
Jack wrinkled his brow. “But you’re Jewish.”
“Okay, a Hanukkah card, you ass. My point is that I thought you’d at least keep in touch.”
Jack studied his own hands, rubbing at his chair’s arm-rests in discomfort. “I wanted to put everything behind me. Start new.”
“And how’s that going for you?” Houston asked sourly.
Jack’s discomfort welled toward anger. He bit it back and remained silent.
“Goddamn it, Jack. Can’t you tell when someone is trying to help you?”
Jack glanced to his former C.O. “And how’s that?”
“Whether you know it or not, I’ve been keeping tabs on you. I know the financial straits you’re in. You’re about to lose that rust bucket of yours.”
“Yeah, and you’ll manage a hell of a lot better with several thousand dollars from the Navy for assisting us in the search for Air Force One.”
Jack shook his head. “I don’t need your charity.”
“Well, you need something, you goddamn stubborn fool.”
Both men just stared at one another for several breaths. Houston finally clenched a fist on his knee, but his voice softened with old pain. “Do you remember when Ethel died?”
Jack nodded. Ethel had been the admiral’s wife for over thirty years. A year before the shuttle accident, she had succumbed to complications from ovarian cancer. In many ways, Ethel had been the only mother Jack had ever known. His own mother had died when he was three years old.
“The day before she slipped into a coma, she told me to watch over you.”
Jack looked up in surprise. The admiral would not meet his eyes, but Jack noticed a glint of tears.
“I don’t know what Ethel ever saw in you, Jack. But I won’t let the old broad down. I’ve given you enough time to yourself…to work through what happened on the Atlantis. But enough is enough.”
“What do you want of me?”
He met Jack’s eyes. “You’ve been hiding out here long enough. I want you to come in from the sea.”
Jack just stared, dumbfounded.
“That’s why I recruited you. Not just for your submersible. It’s time you returned to the real world.”
“And the Navy is the real world?” Jack snorted.
“Close enough. We at least come to port every now and then.”
Jack shook his head. “Listen, I appreciate your concern. I really do. But I’m almost forty years old, not a child to be coddled. Whether you believe it or not, I’m happy in my current life.”
His former commander sighed and lifted his hands in surrender. “You are a goddamn piece of work, Jack.” He stood up. “The briefing should be under way shortly. I suppose you understand the importance of our work here.”
Jack nodded, standing also. “Of course. It’s Air Force One. The President.”
“It’s more than just the President, Jack. We’ve lost Presidents before. But never under such circumstances, in the middle of a worldwide catastrophe. As much as the rest of the world disparages the United States and its foreign policy, it still doesn’t stop them from looking to us for leadership during a time of crisis—and now we are leaderless, rudderless.”
“What about the Vice President? Lawrence Nafe?”
“I see you at least keep abreast of current events out here,” Houston teased lightly, but his voice quickly grew sober again. His brows knit with worry. “Washington is screaming for answers. Before Nafe can be sworn in, we need to put the fate of President Bishop to rest. Already rumors are spreading. Some are claiming terrorists—Arabs, Russian, Chinese, Serbian, or even the I.R.A. Take your pick. Some are saying it’s all a hoax. Some say it’s a conspiracy tied to JFK.” The admiral shook his head. “It’s a friggin’ mess. For order to be restored, we need concrete answers. We need a body we can bury with the usual pomp and ceremony. That’s why we’re here.”
Jack had never seen Mark Houston look so worried. “I’ll do my best to help,” he said sincerely. “Just ask, and I’ll do it.”
“I never expected less of you.” Before Jack could stop him, the admiral reached out and gave him a quick hug. “And whether you believe it or not, Jack, I’m glad to see you again. Welcome back to the Gibraltar.”
Jack froze in the man’s embrace, unable to speak.
Houston released him and headed toward the door. “I have a few last minute details to address, but help yourself to the sandwiches, Jack. The egg salad is especially good. Real eggs, not that powdered shit.” The admiral gave him a tired smile, then left, closing the door behind him.
Alone, Jack sank into one of the seats. He wiped his damp palms on his trousers. The gravity of the situation began to press on him. For the first time in a decade, he sensed the eyes of the world again looking in his direction.
Three hours later Jack found himself back on the Deep Fathom, but not for long. Dressed in his blue Norseman dry suit, he climbed into the cockpit of the Nautilus 2000, squeezing into the cramped seat. Once settled, he hooked up the Bio-Sensor monitors and attached his microphone. He ran down the predive safety checklist with Lisa, who was in the Fathom’s pilothouse.
Charlie worked atop the submersible as it floated behind the Fathom, stomping around, visually checking seals, while Robert, in mask and snorkel, swam under the ship. Jack had done his own check, but his crew were taking no chances. “Check everything twice,” he had drilled into them.
Charlie clambered over to Jack. He stared with concern at his friend. “You sure about this, mon? That’s a long way down. Deeper than you’ve ever flown this girl.”
“She’s rated for this depth.”
“On the drawing boards maybe, but this is real life. The ocean has a way of surprising you. She can be a real bitch.”
Jack looked up at the Jamaican geologist. “I’m going, Charlie.”
“Okay, mon. It’s your funeral.”
Jack reached out and clasped the large man’s hand. Then Charlie lowered the acrylic dome over Jack’s head and screwed it into place. Once done, Charlie gave Jack a thumbs-up and dove off the sub, joining the marine biologist in the water as Jack finalized his checklist.
Around the Fathom, the other search ships were spread in a wide circle. Off to the south, the Gibraltar filled the horizon. Overhead, a Sea Knight helicopter buzzed by. All eyes remained on Jack and his tiny sub.
Lisa came on the radio. “You’re ready to go, Jack.” The nervousness in her voice could not be hidden.
“Check and check. Diving now,” he said dryly. He engaged the thrusters, the sub humming under him. He took on ballast and the Nautilus began to lower into the surf. The waterline climbed up the dome, swamping over Jack’s head.
A brief flash of claustrophobia struck him. He ignored it. He knew it was just a base animal reaction, a triggered survival instinct against drowning. Divers had been experiencing it for ages. He breathed steadily past the momentary twinge of anxiety as the sub sank deeper. He had a long way to go.
Six hundred meters. More than a quarter of a mile.
Earlier, on the Gibraltar, the briefing had been curt and to the point. The overnight search had picked up the pinging of the flight’s data recorder, and the NTSB team had localized the most likely dive spot—in water over six hundred meters deep. The Coast Guard’s vice admiral had argued for deploying the Navy’s Deep Drone, a remote-operated deep-sea robot, to explore the seabed. But the Deep Drone, presently stationed in the Atlantic, could not be flown on-site for another two days.
As the situation was debated, Jack had let the group know that his own ship’s test submersible was rated for depths of eight hundred meters and that he would be willing to at least recon the site and attempt to retrieve the data recorders. The NTSB seemed reluctant to accept his help. “Too dangerous,” the team leader had asserted. “We can’t risk the loss of more lives.”
But Jack’s former commander had argued against such caution. “If Mr. Kirkland says he can safely explore the region, then I say let him.”
Even now Jack could remember the flare of pride at Mark Houston’s support. Without it, he wouldn’t be diving to this new depth.
With his other teammates clear, Jack worked the pedals of the Nautilus. He descended in a slow spiral, his eyes on all his monitors, the ping of his own sonar echoing in his ears. The space between the ping and its return were still spaced far apart.
As he sank deeper, the waters grew darker around him. He flicked the battery switch and engaged the sub’s headlights. Cones of brilliance shot forward, disappearing into the infinite blue. Slipping past the two hundred meter mark, the waters became inky, as if he were descending through oil instead of water. Already Jack heard the telltale groan and tick of stressed seals as pressure built outside the sub. But this was just the beginning. At a depth of six hundred meters the pressure would grow to half a ton per square inch, enough to crush him to pulp in a heartbeat.