“What’re you thinking?” Jack pressed.

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Charlie shook his head, lost in thought. “Not yet.” He excused himself and crossed to his own lab, closing the door behind him.

They all stared after him until Lisa said, “So, Jack, now it’s your turn. What about Karen? What’s this rescue plan of yours?”

11:45 A.M., Neptune base

The submersible glided toward the deep-sea research station. From the rear passenger compartment of the two-man sub, Karen stared in awe. After twenty minutes of sinking through an ever-deepening gloom, the base had appeared below like a rising sun in the dark, lit by external lamps, its portholes aglow with a warm yellow radiance. She almost forgot about her situation as she gaped at the wondrous sight.

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The sub dove toward the docking bay on the underside of the station’s lowest tier. As the vessel banked around, Karen noted the trundling boxlike robots at work hauling cables and equipment. Among them moved other figures: men in armored and helmeted deep-water suits. They looked like spacemen working on the surface of an alien planet—and considering the hostile environment and strangely twisted landscape of tumbled lava pillars, it was another world.

A lantern fish, attracted by their movement, drew nearer the sub. Karen stared back through the five inches of glass, two strangers from different lands ogling each other. Then, with a flick of its tail, it vanished back into the gloom.

From the forward compartment she heard the muffled voice of the sub’s pilot attending to the docking procedure, confirming and rechecking the station’s status.

An okay must have been given because the sub and its two occupants were rising through a garage-door-size hatch and into the docking bay. In short order the hatch was sealed and the water pumped out. Soon afterward, Karen was helped out of the sub’s cramped compartment.

She stretched a kink from her back. The pilot, Lieutenant Rolfe, ordered her to hold out her arms and then undid her handcuffs.

It was the first time since her capture that she was unfettered. Rubbing her wrists, she gazed around and understood why she was granted this new freedom. Where could she go? There was no better maximum-security prison in the world. Escape was unthinkable.

A door opened near the rear of the bay. A man in his early sixties, gray-haired and stocky, stormed inside to join them. He strode up to the lieutenant. “What is the meaning of this? There was no reason to bring her down here. The professor could have aided us just as well topside. The risks to her—”

“Those were my orders, Dr. Cortez,” Rolfe said curtly. “The prisoner is your responsibility from here.”

Cortez moved to block the lieutenant, then thought better of it. “And what about these new orders? Your commander can’t be serious.”

“You’ve read the reports.” The lieutenant climbed back into the pilot’s seat. “I’ll be returning next with Commander Spangler. Take up your objections with him.”

Cortez’s attention shifted to Karen, his brows furrowing as he took in the condition of her face. “What the hell happened to her?” He reached a tentative hand toward her puffy eye, but she shied from him. Cortez swung on the lieutenant. “Answer me, goddamn it!”

The lieutenant avoided eye contact. “Take it up with Commander Spangler,” he repeated, from the sub’s pilot compartment.

The researcher’s face darkened. “C’mon,” he said brusquely to Karen. “I’ll have Dr. O’Bannon take a look at you.”

“I’m fine,” she said as she followed him toward the exit. Earlier, she had been given a couple of aspirin and a shot of antibiotics. She was sore but not incapacitated.

Once through the hatch, Cortez led her to the upper deck ladders. He gave her a running tour of the facility as he guided her up. Karen listened intently, impressed by her surroundings. She was two thousand feet underwater. It was hard to believe.

She climbed the ladder up to the second tier, where men and women bustled around minilabs. Heads turned in her direction as she stepped forward. Whispers were shared. She knew what a sight she must look.

“…and the level up from here is the living quarters. Tight but with all the conveniences of home.” He tried a weak smile.

Karen nodded, feeling out of place, eyes staring at her.

Cortez sighed. “I’m sorry, Professor Grace,” he said. “This is hardly the most opportune way for colleagues to meet and—”

“Colleagues?” She frowned at him. “I’m a prisoner, Professor Cortez.”

Her words wounded him. “That was none of our doing. I assure you. Commander Spangler has full control and authority over these facilities. With the nation at war, we have little say. Our research here has been labeled a matter of national security. Liberties have been taken in the name of protecting our nation’s shores.”

“It’s not my nation. I’m Canadian.”

Cortez frowned, not seeming to see the significance. “The best way to keep further…um—” He frowned at her bruised face. “—abuses of power from occurring is to cooperate. To work from within. After this is over, I’m sure the government will have a place for you.”

Bullshit, Karen thought. She knew where her place would be: six feet under, shot as a spy. But she saw no need to burst this man’s bubble. “So what have you learned down here?” she asked, changing the subject.

He brightened. “Quite a lot. We managed to harvest a small sample of the crystal. After a cursory study, it has displayed the most surprising properties.”

Karen nodded, remaining silent about her own knowledge.

“But with the newest directives from Washington, any further research has been put on hold.”

“New directives?”

“With the war so close, Washington now considers the site too vulnerable. Just yesterday we were ordered to extract the crystal pillar and ship it back to the United States for further study. But now even that order’s been changed.”

“What do you mean?”

“Initial assays of the sediment and seabed show the spire is but a single pinnacle of a larger sample. Much larger. At the moment, we’ve not even been able to determine the deposit’s true depth and extent. So far the damned thing has defied standard scanning methods. All we know is that it’s massive. Once word reached Washington of our newest discovery, our orders were revised.” His eyes narrowed with worry. “Rather than just the pillar, we’ve been ordered to harvest the entire deposit if possible.”

“How are you going to do that?”

He waved her to one of the portholes. She peered out.

In the distance she could just make out a tall spire beyond the lights. Jack’s pillar! Around the area, more of the armor-suited deep-sea workers labored. “Who are those men?”

“The Navy’s demolitions experts. They plan to use explosives to blast a hole into the core of the deposit, then mine the load from there.”

Karen stared in shock. “When do they begin?”

“Tomorrow.”

She turned. “But the obelisk…the writing…”

He looked stricken, too. “I know. I’ve been trying to urge caution. This whole region is geologically unstable. We’ve had daily temblors and even one serious quake two days ago. But no one will listen to me. That’s why—regardless of the circumstances of your arrival—I’m glad to have you here with us. If we knew what was written on the obelisk, it might stay the government’s hand longer, buy us some time for our own research.”

Karen balked at helping her captors, but the thought of the ancient artifact’s destruction disturbed her even more. She stepped away from the porthole. “What if I can point you in the right direction about the inscription?”

His eyebrows rose with interest.

She lowered her voice. “But we’ll need to trust each other.”

He slowly nodded.

Karen said, “I’ll need a computer and your current research into the language.”

He waved for her to follow him and kept his voice low. “Rick is our team’s archaeologist. He’s still topside, but I can have him transmit the data to an empty workstation.”

“Good. Let’s get to work.”

As Cortez led her to an unoccupied cubicle, Karen calculated, planned. As much as it bothered her to deceive the man, she had no choice. “If you can get me an open Internet line,” she said, “I’ll show you what I’ve learned.”

6:45 P.M., Deep Fathom, Central Pacific

Jack knocked on Charlie’s door. No one had heard from the geologist all day except George Klein, and afterward the historian locked himself into the ship’s small library. The two were clearly working on something, but Jack was losing his patience.

“Who is it?” Charlie called out, his voice hoarse.

“It’s Jack. Open up.”

A shuffle of noises, then the door cracked open. “What?”

Without invitation, Jack pushed inside. What he found startled him. Charlie’s usually tidy lab was in a shambles. The worktable along one wall was covered in equipment and gadgets. In the center of the mess, the crystal star was clamped in a stainless steel vise. Charlie’s computer displayed inexplicable graphs and tables. Jack had to step over piles of journals and scientific magazines. Specific articles were ripped and hung on the bare wall.

It was as if a hurricane had struck there. And Charlie looked no better. His eyes were red-rimmed, his lips chapped. His clothes—baggy shorts and a shirt—were stained with ink, oil, and grease. It was hot and humid in the room, and sweat soaked his armpits and lower back.

Jack noticed that the room’s single fan had been unplugged to make outlet room for Charlie’s equipment. Jack yanked a cord, shoved in the fan’s plug and switched it to high.

“Christ, Charlie, what are you doing in here?”

The geologist ran a hand through his hair. “Research. What do you think?” He kicked aside some of the scattered magazines and pulled up a chair, sitting on its edge.

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