Houston stared out over the smoke and chaos. Both sides were chewing each other apart. And for what?

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An alarm sounded. The Phalanx Close-in Weapons System at the front end of the island’s superstructure swung its 20mm Gatling guns and began firing, chugging out fifty rounds a second. Off on the starboard side an incoming missile, a sea-skimmer, blew apart about two thousand yards away.

Orders were screamed.

Rocket fragments rained down upon the Gibraltar, pounding and peppering the ship’s Kevlar armor panels. The ship bore the assault with minimal damage.

“Sir!” One of the lieutenants pointed. Two of the ASW helicopters, pelted by the missile shards, tumbled into the sea. At the same time, the Phalanx CIWS defensive guns near the fantail sponson rattled as more missiles bore down on the beleaguered ship. Mortars were launched by the SLQ-32, throwing up a cloud of chaff against the attack.

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The Gibraltar echoed and rattled with frag impacts.

Captain Brenning said, “Admiral, we must retreat. The zone is too hot for the helicopters.”

Houston clenched his fists, but he nodded. “Order the flight deck cleared.” As his command was relayed, Houston turned toward the Jefferson, bearing silent witness to the death of so many sailors. He watched as the fires worsened. Tiny lifeboats fled the sinking giant.

Then a huge explosion blew near the ship’s stern and a fireball rolled over the ship. Lifeboats, too near, were thrown through the air. The great ship’s bow rose ominously, its stern sinking. In seconds the Jefferson slipped deeper and deeper. Houston refused to look away.

“Sir!” a lieutenant yelled from the radar station. “I have multiple vampires vectoring in from the north. Thirty missile signatures across the board.”

Captain Brenning responded, screaming orders.

Houston continued to watch the Jefferson sink. He knew the limits to the Gibraltar’s defense systems and made a silent prayer for his crew as the first explosion blew out the fantail section of his ship.

6:32 P.M., en route to Neptune base

Karen sat in the Sea Stallion helicopter. Through the windows, she watched dully as the ocean passed beneath her. Her face ached, and she could not completely swallow away the taste of blood. The beating from this morning had left her weak and sick. She had already vomited twice.

Across from her, Spangler lay slumped in his seat, eyes closed, lightly snoring. Three of his men took up the other seats, strapped in. One of them, Spangler’s second-in-command, stared at her. She glared back at him. He looked away, but not before she spotted the flicker of shame on his face.

She returned her attention to the sea, thinking, plotting. They might hurt her physically, but she would not give up fighting. As long as she lived, she would strive for a way to thwart Spangler and his team.

As she stared at the passing water, she leaned against the cool window. Even with all the horror of the past day, one worry remained foremost in her mind—Jack. Bound to the cell’s bed, she had heard the muffled explosions, felt the ship rock.

She closed her eyes, remembering the pain in his eyes as he swung through the door and left her behind. Was he alive? She made a silent promise to herself. She would survive, if only to answer that question.

7:08 P.M., Deep Fathom, off the northern coast of Pohnpei Island

Jack stood at the head of the worktable in Robert’s wet lab. His crew were seated around its length, including two newcomers to the Fathom: Miyuki and Mwahu. The pair had boarded a few hours ago.

The police had questioned all of them, but it was clear where the blame lay. They were released. The chief of police seemed more interested in seeing them gone from the area, than in getting to the bottom of the night’s attack and kidnapping. Jack suspected an unseen hand urging the whole matter to be brushed under the rug.

Rogue pirates was the final lame answer. The chief of police promised to continue the search for the missing anthropologist, but Jack knew it was a line of bullshit. As soon as they left, the matter would fade away.

“So what do we do from here?” Charlie asked.

With a wince of complaint from his wrapped rib cage, Jack lifted the backpack at his feet. It was Karen’s bag. He dumped its contents on the worktable. The crystal star rattled on the tabletop. Beside it dropped the platinum-bound book recovered from the crypt.

“We need answers,” he stated fiercely. He slid the book toward Miyuki. “First, we need this translated.”

Miyuki opened it. Jack knew what lay inside. Earlier, he had studied it himself. Its pages were thin sheaves of platinum, crudely etched with more of the hieroglyphic writing. “Gabriel and I will get to work on it immediately.”

Mwahu leaned over the book as Miyuki closed it. He touched the single symbol drawn into its top cover. A triangle within a circle. “Khamwau,” he said. “I know this mark. My father teach. It means ‘danger.’ ”

“That’s a real surprise,” Kendall McMillan said sarcastically. Eyes turned in the accountant’s direction. Jack had offered to leave the nervous man on Pohnpei, but he had refused, stating, “With the cover-up going on here, I wouldn’t stand a rat’s ass of a chance getting off this island alive.” So he had stayed on the Fathom.

Returning his attention to the book, Jack said, “Mwahu, since you know some of the ancient language, maybe you could help Miyuki with its translation.”

Next, Jack passed the crystal star toward Charlie. “I need you to research its properties and abilities.”

The geologist smiled, eyeing the artifact greedily.

“George…” Jack turned to the gray-haired historian. “I want you to continue researching the lost ships of this Dragon’s Triangle. See if you can spot any other patterns.”

He nodded. “I’m working on a few theories already.”

Kendall McMillan frowned, speaking up again. “How is any of this going to pull our asses out of the fire? Why don’t we just lay low? Keep running.”

“Because we’d never stop running. They’d never stop hunting us. The only way out is to discover the true reason for the crash of Air Force One.” Jack leaned on his fists. “That answer lies at the heart of it all. I just know it!”

Lisa spoke up from the other end of the table. “But Kendall’s right. What are we going to do in the meantime? Where are we going to go?”

“Back to where we started. Back to the crash site.”

Lisa frowned. “But why? It’s heavily guarded by the military. We won’t have a chance of getting near there.”

Jack’s voice grew tight. “Because if David is heading anywhere, it’s there.”

18

Dark Matters

August 8, 1:15 A.M.

Situation Room, White House

Lawrence Nafe listened to the late night reports from each of his Joint Chiefs. The news was grim. The Chinese naval and air forces were holding U.S. forces at bay.

The Secretary of the Navy stood at the foot of the table. “Following the earthquakes, military bases up and down the West Coast are still struggling to dig out of the rubble, hampering an ability to sustain a prolonged conflict across the Pacific. A second aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, and its battle group are en route from the Indian Ocean. But it’s still three days out.”

“So what are you saying?” Nafe asked, exhausted and irritable.

Hank Riley, Commandant of the Marine Corps, answered, “We’re fighting this battle with one hand tied behind our back, sir. Our supply lines across the Pacific are weak at best. After the tidal waves, Honolulu is still under three feet of water. Its air bases—”

“I’ve already heard from the Air Force Chief of Staff,” Nafe said sourly. “I need answers, alternatives…”

General Hickman, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, stood. “We do have one option left to consider.”

“And what is that?”

“As has been mentioned already, we’re fighting this battle with one fist tied behind our backs. We can change that.”

Nafe sat up straighter. This was what he came to hear—answers, not problems. “What do you propose?”

“A limited nuclear response.”

A hush fell over the Situation Room. Nafe’s hands gripped his knees. He had already discussed such an option with Nicolas Ruzickov earlier in the day. Nafe tried to keep the excitement out of his voice. “Have you formulated a plan?”

The general nodded. “We break the blockade decisively. A balls-out response. Military targets only.”

Nafe’s eyes narrowed. “Go on.”

“From two Ohio-class subs off the coast of the Philippines, we strike three critical zones with Trident Two missiles.” The general pointed out the targets on the highlighted map. “It’ll break the back of the blockade. The Chinese will be forced to retreat. But more importantly, they’ll get the message how serious we are to protect our interests in the region.”

Nafe flicked a look toward Nicolas Ruzickov. A similar scenario had been proffered by the CIA director. It was clear his influence and string-pulling had reached all the way to the Joint Chiefs. Nafe assumed a look of somber thoughtfulness, playing the concerned patrician. “A nuclear response.” He shook his head. “It’s a sorry day that the Chinese have driven us to.”

“Yes, sir,” the general agreed, bowing his head.

Nafe sighed, sagging as if defeated. “But tragically, I see no other choice. Proceed immediately.” After an appropriately long pause, he dragged himself to his feet. “And may God forgive us all.” He turned and strode to the room’s exit, flanked by his Secret Service.

Once out the door, Nicolas Ruzickov was not long in catching up with him in the hall, matching his stride.

Nafe allowed a slim smile to shine for a moment. “Well done, Nick. Well done indeed.”

11:15 A.M., Deep Fathom, Central Pacific

Lisa spotted Jack by the bow rail, staring at the horizon. Overhead, the skies were slate-gray, with thin scudding clouds and a perpetual haze that even the noon sun had failed to burn away. Jack stood in his customary red trunks, a loose shirt open in front.

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