Under his lamplight, the crystal had a slight aquamarine hue to it, streaked with whorls of brilliant ruby. Though it stood as straight as an arrow, Jack sensed it was a natural structure. Not man-made. Some natural phenomenon, undiscovered until now. With only five percent of the ocean floor explored, such discoveries, like the lava pillars, were being made all the time.
Jack circled the crystalline obelisk. With the communications still garbled, he feared the video feed might also be affected, so he switched the cameras to local recording, saving it all on DVD disk. Once he was done, he turned the sub around and returned to the edge of the debris field.
The mystery would have to wait for now. He had a mission to complete. He would use his own hydrophones and sonar to search for Air Force One’s data recorders. It would make the work harder, but not impossible. Whatever communication glitch had occurred would have to be worked out topside.
As he swung free of the debris field, Lisa’s voice came over the radio, as clear as glass. “Jack…What the hell is going on down there?”
“Jack!” The relief in her voice rang clear. “You goddamn asshole. Why didn’t you answer me? The readings we were getting were all frizzed, and the video feed became garbled nonsense. We didn’t know what was going on.”
“How are my readings now?”
“Uh…fine. Green lights across the board. What happened down there?”
“I’m not entirely sure. There’s something here that I can’t explain. It’s screwing with my compass and must be affecting other systems, too.”
“What is it?” Charlie asked, piping in. “I was getting tiny seismic readings just as you went off-line. You scared me good, mon.”
“I’m not sure, Charlie. But I got it all on DVD. I’ll show you when I get topside, but right now I still have my mission to accomplish.” Jack glided the sub near the jet’s tail fin again. He had come complete circle. “Lisa, can you guide me to the boxes?”
“Y-You’re right on top of them.” Lisa’s voice trembled. She was clearly still shaken. “Grab them and get your ass out of there.”
Jack lowered the sub. “Will do.” He glanced to his compass. It still pointed to the strange pillar thrusting up from the heart of the debris, a gigantic gravestone marking the resting place of the dead.
He began his search through the rubble with a quiet prayer for the men and women of Air Force One, especially one: Rest in peace, Mr. President.
July 26, 1:20 P.M.
Off the coast of Yonaguni Island, Okinawa Prefecture
“Miyuki!” Karen yelled. A second shot blasted from beyond the short tunnel, muffled this time. But who? Karen knelt on both knees. She saw the passage to the outside blocked. Someone was crawling toward her.
She swung her tiny flashlight up.
From the tunnel, Miyuki’s panicked face stared back at her. “Pull me to you,” she hissed. “Someone’s shooting at us.” Miyuki extended her arms.
Karen dropped the flashlight and reached out to grasp her friend’s wrists. Planting her feet, she hauled Miyuki inside the cramped heart of the pyramid’s temple.
Miyuki, panting and wild-eyed, rolled off Karen and sat up. She reached down and unhooked two packages from her ankles: their tote bag of equipment and Karen’s .38 automatic, still in its holster. “I didn’t want to leave anything behind,” she said, handing Karen the pistol.
Karen undid the snaps and shook the holster off her gun. It reassured her to feel cold steel in her palm. “What happened?”
“Men…three of them. They must have spotted our boat and come to see what we had discovered.”
“So you crawled in here?”
“I didn’t know what else to do.”
“Did they see you slip in here?”
“I don’t know.”
Already, harsh voices echoed to them. Their attackers were climbing the pyramid. Karen did not have time to crawl back out and set up an ambush. She scanned around the cramped chamber for another exit. They were trapped. All they had to defend themselves were the eight remaining bullets in her pistol.
Miyuki backed away from the tunnel opening. “What are we going to do?” She crossed to the snake-adorned altar and crouched next to it.
The rasp of boots on stone approached, the voices louder. The looters were not speaking Japanese. It sounded like a dialect of one of the South Pacific islanders. Karen strained to understand, but the language was unfamiliar to her.
A pair of legs appeared at the tunnel’s entrance.
Tensing, Karen flicked off her flashlight, plunging the chamber into darkness. She raised the pistol in both hands. Sunlight blazed beyond the tunnel. She had a clear shot. Three men, eight bullets. If she shot well, they might have a chance. But her hands shook. She was an excellent shot, but had never aimed at a human target before.
The man knelt at the exit, leaning on one palm. Karen noticed a pale tattoo scrawling up his dark arm: a winding snake. The man twisted, barking an order to a companion. As his forearm turned, Karen saw the sprout of feathers about the head of the snake. Its red eyes stared back at her.
Karen suppressed a gasp. It was the same as the altar’s carving! The man’s face leaned into view, flashlight in hand. In his other hand he held her embroidered jacket. He yelled something toward them. Though she didn’t know the language, she knew he was ordering them to show themselves.
Karen ducked to the side as a beam of light pierced their hiding place. She clutched the gun to her chest. She would only shoot if forced. Maybe they would believe that she and Miyuki had fled.
The beam of light vanished and darkness reclaimed the chamber. Karen leaned against the damp rock wall. As long as they sat still, she thought, they were safe. If any of the men tried to crawl inside, she could easily dispatch them with a single shot.
The best defense right now was a waiting game.
The men outside had grown quiet. Karen could hear scuffling and scraping but could not discern what they were doing. Moving quietly, she shifted to peer out of the tunnel again.
In the bright sunlight, she saw a rusted metal canister being tipped and its contents splashed into the tunnel’s entrance. The reek hit her nostrils at the same time understanding clenched her heart.
Karen watched the trail of flammable liquid flow down the slanted tunnel toward them. She covered her mouth against the rising fumes. The looters meant to burn them out or kill them. She backed away from the tunnel, knowing she dare not shoot, not when a spark might ignite the kerosene.
Karen bumped into Miyuki behind her. Her friend had her handheld Palm computer. In the gloom, she saw Miyuki furiously tapping at its tiny glowing screen.
“I’m trying to reach Gabriel,” Miyuki said sternly, all business. “A call for help, but there is too much interference.”
Karen was surprised at Miyuki’s resourcefulness. “What if you were nearer the entrance?”
Miyuki glanced toward the opening. “That might help,” she said.
Briefly illuminated by the computer screen’s glow, Karen’s eye again caught on the ruby-eyed altar serpent. It was similar to the rendering on their attacker’s arm. Was there some connection? But how? The pyramid had been submerged for centuries in these waters.
Miyuki had moved closer to the entrance, with Karen beside her. The flow of kerosene now trailed into the chamber. Karen peered out and saw the canister on its side. No men were in sight, but she could still hear them. Tilting her head, she listened. They were singing—or perhaps chanting.
Shivering, she gestured to Miyuki. “Hurry.”
Her friend knelt into the stream of flammable liquid, her hands trembling. She dropped to her belly, extending her computer to arm’s length down the tunnel, seeking a wireless signal. “I can barely see the screen.”
“Just try. We have to—”
“Good afternoon, Professor Nakano.” Gabriel’s voice seemed explosively loud.
Miyuki froze, sprawled in the stream of kerosene. “Gabriel?”
“I am continuing to collect and correlate your data. May I be of additional assistance?”
The singsong chanting continued uninterrupted from beyond the tunnel. Their conversation had not been heard.
“Can you pick up our location?”
“Of course, my GPS is working perfectly, Professor Nakano.”
“Then please contact the Chatan authorities. Tell them we are under assault by looters at this location.”
Before Gabriel could acknowledge this command, the chanting outside abruptly ended. Karen clutched Miyuki’s arm, warning her to silence. Miyuki yanked back her computer, and the two women rolled to the side. Karen saw the first man’s face appear again at the tunnel’s mouth. This time it was not a flashlight he held in his free hand, but a matchstick.
Time had run out.
He struck the match on the stone. A tiny flame sprouted. Holding the match aloft, the man again called toward them. His words almost sounded laced with regret. Then he tossed the flaming match down the tunnel.
Northwest of Enewak Atoll, Central Pacific
“You’re running out of air, Jack,” Lisa warned through the radio. Her voice had remained edgy since the glitch in communications. She had been calling him every other minute.
“I know,” he snapped back at her. “I can see my oxygen gauge.” Jack worked the pedals of his submersible while simultaneously manipulating the controls to the remote exterior arms. He dragged a large chunk of fuselage out of the way. Silt billowed up from his motion, clouding his view. He had been working now close to an hour, shifting through the debris, following the ping of the wreck’s black boxes. Jack released the chunk of twisted metal and shifted the sub into reverse, using the thrusters to blow the silt clear. He didn’t have time to wait for it to settle on its own.
The Nautilus glided backward, but he watched the water clear ahead of him. Once satisfied, he slowed the submersible and edged back to the work site. Tilting the sub, Jack examined the sandy seabed. A thick sea cucumber rolled across the empty space, disturbed by his passage.