“Then let’s go,” Jack said.
The marine biologist, excited, continued his explanation. “Whatever they found, it has everyone in a buzz. I saw the admiral’s face when he was informed over a scrambled line. He did not look happy. He insisted that a full copy of the cockpit’s final conversation be faxed over to him.”
Jack hurried, climbing the stairs to the main deck, then up the steps to the pilothouse. As he opened the door, he found Houston’s two personal aides inside, in uniform, armed, standing stiffly. They were twin bulldogs, old Navy.
Nearby, the Fathom’s accountant leaned on the pilot seat.
“Where’s the admiral?” Jack asked.
Kendall McMillan pointed toward the closed door to the radio and satellite system. “He’s in there. He told us to wait for him.”
Jack frowned at the closed door. This was his ship. He did not like someone closing him out of his own ship’s heart—even an admiral. He moved to the door, but the two burly aides blocked him, hands on holstered pistols.
Before any confrontation could flare, the door swung open. The first one out was Jack’s dog. Elvis padded from the radio room, tail sweeping back and forth. The admiral followed him. Jack opened his mouth, about to scold the old man, but when he saw the pallor to Mark Houston’s face, he remained silent. Deep wrinkles etched the admiral’s forehead.
“What is it?” Jack asked.
Houston glanced around. The entire ship’s crew was now crammed into the small pilothouse. “Is there a place to get a drink around here?”
Jack waved the others away and turned to his old friend. “Follow me. I have a bottle of twenty-year-old scotch in my stateroom.”
“Just what the doctor ordered.” The admiral smiled, but it came out sickly.
Jack led the way down to the main deck and to his stateroom. He held the door open for the old man.
Once both were inside, Houston nodded back at the door. “Lock it.”
Jack did as ordered. He pointed toward a pair of leather chairs in front of his shelves of nautical memorabilia. Houston crossed to the shelves, touching an ancient sextant. “Is this the one I gave you?”
“After I was accepted to the shuttle mission, yep.”
Huston turned and sank into one of the chairs with a long sigh. For the first time, Jack saw the man’s age. He looked sunken, defeated. The admiral pointed back at the sextant. “So you haven’t completely tossed away your past.”
Jack moved to a cabinet and pulled out a bottle of scotch and two glasses. “Not the important things.”
Houston nodded. He was silent for several moments. “Jack, have you made a decision yet on helping us retrieve sections of Air Force One?”
Jack sighed. He poured a couple fingers worth of his private stash into each glass. He knew Houston liked his scotch neat. “No, sir…we’re still doing some diagnostics on the sub.”
“Hmm…” the admiral mumbled, accepting the glass. He sipped thoughtfully, clearly thinking something through. Finally, he settled the glass on a teak captain’s table. Reaching inside his flight jacket, he pulled out a folded sheaf. “Maybe this will help you decide.” He held out the papers.
Jack gripped the proffered sheets, but the admiral did not release them. “This is confidential information. But if you’re going to help us, you should be kept informed.” Houston let go of the report.
Jack moved to his chair. “This is from the cockpit voice recorder?”
“Yes, the last minutes between the cockpit crew.”
Jack sat down and slowly unfolded the papers. As much as he didn’t want to be drawn further into this operation, his curiosity couldn’t be ignored. He read the report.
(DESIGNATION: VC-25 A)
CAPTAIN: Honolulu, this is Victor Charlie Alpha. Can you update our weather? We’re hitting some heavy pockets out here.
FIRST OFFICER: Why aren’t they answering?
CAPTAIN: Honolulu, this is Victor Charlie Alpha. Please answer. We’re having trouble with our radar and compasses. Can you…Hang on!
[loud rumble and rattle]
NAVIGATOR: What the hell was that?
CAPTAIN: Another pocket. Try climbing higher.
FIRST OFFICER: Climbing to thirty-five thousand.
NAVIGATOR: I’m still getting conflicting readings here from the INS units. The Omega, the radar, the celestial sextant…it’s making no sense. I’m going on dead reckoning.
CAPTAIN: Everyone keep your heads in the game here.
FIRST OFFICER: She’s heavy, sir. Not able to climb.
NAVIGATOR: This doesn’t make sense. I’m picking up land ahead.
CAPTAIN: Must be Wake Island. I’ll try to pick up something local on the radio.
Wake Island, this is Victor Charlie Alpha, we need assistance.
[silence for thirty seconds]
NAVIGATOR: It’s too big, sir. This can’t be right. I’m going to check the manual sextant.
FIRST OFFICER: What are those lights?
CAPTAIN: Just glare off the windshield. Keep climbing.
NAVIGATOR: Where the hell are we?
NAVIGATOR: What is that? What is that?
FIRST OFFICER: Losing altitude. Controls aren’t responding!
CAPTAIN: My God!
NAVIGATOR: We’re over land!
FIRST OFFICER: I can’t see! The light!
[screech of metal, rush of wind]
FIRST OFFICER: Engine number one is on fire!
CAPTAIN: Shut it down! Now!
FIRST OFFICER: Yes, sir.
NAVIGATOR: What the hell is going on!
CAPTAIN: Honolulu, this is Victor—
FIRST OFFICER: Something ahead of us! Something ahead of us!
NAVIGATOR: I’m not reading anything. Nothing on radar…nothing on anything!
CAPTAIN: Honolulu, this is Victor Charlie Alpha. Mayday, mayday!
FIRST OFFICER: The sky! The sky is opening up!
[roaring noise, then silence]
END OF COCKPIT VOICE RECORDING
Jack lowered the sheets. “My God. What happened up there?”
Houston shifted in his seat and reached for the fax sheets. “A chopper is on its way to collect me. I want to listen to the recording myself. But as to the true answer, there’s only one way to find out…. The answer lies down below.”
Jack reached a trembling hand to his glass of scotch. He swallowed its contents in one gulp. The expensive liquor burned all the way to his belly.
Jack filled his glass one more time. He leaned back into his seat, sipping more gently at the smooth scotch, appreciating it this time. He met the admiral’s gaze. “I’ll go,” he said simply.
Houston nodded and raised his scotch. Jack reached over and tapped his old friend’s glass with his own. “To absent friends,” Jack said.
Pieces of the Puzzle
July 29, 12:07 P.M.
Ryukyu University, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan
Karen hurried across the staff parking lot, late for her lunch meeting with Miyuki. Her friend’s office and lab were on the fourth floor of the old Yagasaki Building, once a government office complex. Ryukyu University had originally been founded by the United States Civil Administration in 1950, built upon the site of the ancient Castle of Shuri, but in 1972 the Japanese took over the administration. Since then the university had spread from its original site into the surrounding countryside and local buildings.
Dashing up the steps and through the double doors, Karen crossed to the stationed guard and flashed her identification card.
He nodded from behind his desk and waved her past, checking her name off his list. The president of Ryukyu University was taking no chances. Although the island of Okinawa was climbing out of the devastation, looting remained sporadic. The added security measures were the university’s attempt to protect its assets.
Karen strode to the stairwell, passing a bank of elevators cordoned off with yellow tape declaring them “Out of Service.” She imagined the companies that produced those rolls of ribbon were making a fortune. The same yellow tape was strewn like party streamers throughout the island.
Checking her watch, she picked up her pace on the stairs. Since returning from their harrowing journey to the ruins of Chatan, this was the first chance the two women had to consult one another. Miyuki had called this morning and urged Karen to join her at her lab. She had news about the crystal star but would say no more over the phone.
Karen wondered what her friend had learned. Over the past three days, Karen had been doing her own research—investigating the cryptic language, trying to trace its origin. But progress had been slow. The island was continually plagued by power failures that interfered with communication. For a while, she’d been sure the glyphs were similar to a script found in the Indus Valley ruins of Pakistan, but on closer inspection she realized the similarity was only superficial. This line of study, however, was not a total waste. It did send her down another path, to another similar language, one even more exciting. Still, she needed further study before she was willing to voice her theory aloud.
At the top of the stairs, Karen found Miyuki waiting, dressed in her usual crisp lab coat. “The guard buzzed me that you were on the way up,” her friend said. “C’mon.”
As they walked, Karen asked, “What have you found?”
Miyuki shook her head. “You have to see this for yourself.” She led the way down the hall past other teachers’ offices. “What about the hieroglyphics?”
Karen hesitated. “I may have a lead.”
Miyuki glanced at her with surprise. “Really? I’ve been having Gabriel try to decode it, but he’s had little success.”
“He can do that? Decipher it?”
“One of his base algorithms is a decoding program. Ciphering is a useful model for building an artificial intelligence construct, and if you correlate—”
Karen held up a hand, surrendering. “Okay, I believe you. Has Gabriel learned anything?”
“Only one thing…it’s part of the reason I called you. But he’d have more success with additional examples of the language. More data from which to correlate, cross-check, and build a language base.”