Karen spoke into the microphone. “Jack, if you can hear me, wake up!” She kept an eye on the monitor, focusing Huey’s camera on the glass dome. She used the robot’s arms to shake the sub. “Wake up, damn it!”

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10:42 A.M., Nautilus

Jack swam through darkness, chasing a whisper. A familiar voice. He followed it up toward a bright light. The voice of an angel…

“Goddamn it, Jack! Wake your ass up!”

He jolted in his seat, groggy and blinded. He threw his head back. Lights shone all around him. He couldn’t see.

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“Jack, it’s Karen!”

“Karen…?” He wasn’t sure if he spoke or if it was all in his head. The world swam with light.

“Jack, you have to raise your sub fifteen feet. I need you to enter the bay over your head.”

Jack craned his head up. As his eyes adjusted to the light, he saw a large open hatch above his head. Understanding seeped through to him. “Can’t,” he mumbled. “No power.”

“There must be a way. You’re so close.”

Jack stared up, remembering Spangler’s death. Maybe there was a way.

Karen spoke, desperate. “Jack, I’ll see if the ROV robot’s arms are strong enough to push you inside.”

“No…” His tongue felt thick and slow. He searched between his legs. His fingers found the release brake for jettisoning the external sub frame. He yanked on it. It was stuck, or he was too weak.

“Jack…”

Taking a deep breath, he grabbed it again with numb fingers. Bracing his feet, he used both his arms and his upper back to crank the lever up between his legs. He heard the muffled pop of the manual pyrotechnics. The external frame locks blew off, freeing the inner pilot’s chamber.

Buoyant, the chamber rose from its shell, like an insect shedding its old carapace. Pressures thrust it upward through the open hatch.

Jack saw none of it, passing out again.

10:43 A.M., Neptune base

On the screen, Karen saw the sub appear to crack in half. She gasped with fright until she saw the inner chamber shoot upward—right through the open hatch. She hit a button on the controls, initiating repressurization.

She stepped to the observation window. Jack’s escape pod bounced and rolled along the ceiling. Under it, the bay doors closed. The thump of the pumps began to sound.

Karen watched, holding her breath. Jack hung slack in his harness.

The five minutes to drain and equalize the pressure was interminable. She briefly contacted the Fathom, updating them. She learned that Charlie was working on some plan of his own with Gabriel.

Karen, afraid for Jack, barely listened.

At last the green light flashed above the door to the bay. She twirled the lock and hauled the hatch open. The pilot pod, half acrylic, half titanium, lay on its side. Karen had already been instructed over the radio by Robert on how to open it. Snatching an emergency oxygen bottle from beside the bay door, she ducked through the hatch.

She ran over to the pod, grabbed the manual screw pull, and began winding it around like a car’s jack handle. She stared inside. Jack’s face was blue. She cranked harder, pumping her arms. The seals peeled open with a hiss of escaping air. Karen smelled the foulness to it—stale, dead.

She reached to the loosened dome top and kicked it open. Kneeling down, she freed Jack’s harness and hauled out his limp body. His skin was cold and clammy. She was sure he was dead.

Sprawled on the bay floor, Karen checked for a pulse in his neck. Faint and thready. His breathing was shallow. She slid on her knees and collected the small oxygen bottle, unhooking the tiny mask. She twisted the flow valve and placed the mask over his mouth and nose.

Leaning near his ear, she whispered, “Breathe, Jack.”

Somewhere deep inside, he must have heard her. His chest rose and fell more deeply. She turned and zippered down his neoprene dive suit, freeing his rib cage.

As she did so, a hand rose and weakly took her wrist.

She looked down at Jack’s face and found him staring at her.

He spoke through the mask. His voice was hoarse. “Karen…?”

She began to cry, and hugged him gently around the neck. For a moment neither one tried to move.

Finally, Jack struggled to sit up. Karen helped him. He shoved aside the oxygen mask and minitank. His color was already improving. “Tell me what’s happening,” he asked, teeth chattering.

She did.

Jack rolled to his knees and coughed thickly. “What’s this plan of Charlie’s?”

“He wouldn’t exactly say.”

“That sounds like Charlie.” Jack stood with her help, rubbing his arms. “How much time do we have left?”

“One hour.”

20

Nick of Time

August 9, 11:05 A.M.

Neptune base, Central Pacific

Jack sat buried in warm towels. He was finally starting to feel his toes. Charlie’s image flickered on the computer screen in front of him. “First tell me about this missile strike. What’s that all about?”

“A fail-safe mechanism was initiated from a radio transmission from below. I thought you might know more about it.”

Jack glanced at Karen.

“It wasn’t from here,” she said. “I was with Rolfe at the time.”

“Then it must have been Spangler,” Jack said with a scowl. “His final attempt to kill me from the grave.”

“He must have really hated you, Jack,” Charlie chimed in. “A nuclear-tipped ICBM has our names on it.”

Jack’s eyes grew wide. He forgot about the chill in his limbs.

“How long do we have?”

“From Gabriel’s estimation, fifty-seven minutes. One minute after the solar storm hits.”

Jack shook his head. “So even if we can block this pillar and save the world, we still die in a nuclear blast.”

Charlie shrugged. “Pretty much.”

Jack sat quietly, stubbornly considering their options, then sighed. “What the hell. Heroes aren’t suppose to live forever. Let’s get this done. What’s this new plan of yours, Charlie?”

“It’s a long shot, Jack.”

“Considering our current state of affairs, I’ll take any damn shot.”

“But I really wanted to run my calculations by Dr. Cortez first.”

“Well, unless you have a Ouija board, that ain’t happening. So spit it out. What’s this plan?”

Charlie looked grim. “You gave me the idea, Jack. We overload the pillar with energy.”

“Try to short-circuit it?”

“Not exactly. If we overload the crystal with precisely enough energy, pulse it at exactly the right frequency, it should fracture the crystal without a kinetic backlash, like shattering a crystal goblet by striking the right note.”

“And you know the right note?”

Charlie nodded. “I think I do. But the hard part was finding a way to deliver the note. The energy has to be precise and sustained for three minutes.”

“And you figured this out?”

“I think so.” Charlie sighed. “That’s what Gabriel and I have been working on since you left—and you’re not going to like it, Jack. For this type of sustained power, we’ll need a particle-beam weapon.”

“How are we supposed to get our hands on such a thing?”

Charlie just stared at him as if he should already know the answer.

Then understanding struck Jack between the eyes. He jerked to his feet. “Wait…you can’t mean the Spartacus?”

“Gabriel obtained its specs. It should work.”

“What’s this Spartacus?” Karen interrupted.

Jack sank back down. “It’s a Navy satellite. The one I was putting into orbit when the shuttle Atlantis was damaged. Its equipped with an experimental particle-beam cannon engineered to knock out targets from space. Airplanes, missiles, ships, even submarines.” Jack turned back to Charlie. “But it’s defunct. Damaged.”

Charlie shook his head. “Only its guidance and tracking systems—which, of course, makes it useless to the government. For it to work, they’d need an operator sitting up there aiming the thing by hand.” Charlie paused. “But luckily, we have that operator right here.”

Jack did not understand, but Karen realized the answer. “Gabriel!”

“Exactly. I sent him earlier to try to access the satellite’s central processor. With the current global crisis and with the Spartacus classified as dead in space, he and Miyuki succeeded in slipping past the old firewalls. The satellite’s processor is still active.”

“You’re kidding…after all these years?” Karen asked skeptically.

“It’s solar powered. An infinite energy source.”

As the others talked, Jack sat quietly, flashing back to the bright satellite lifting from its shuttle bay cradle, silvery solar wings spreading wide. He tried to close his mind against what happened afterward but failed. The explosion, the screams, the endless fall through space…

He shivered—not from cold, but from a twinge of superstitious dread. The Spartacus was cursed. Death surrounded it. Nothing good could come from the wretched thing. “It won’t work,” he grumbled.

“Do we have any other choice?” Karen asked. She placed a hand on his shoulder, then spoke to Charlie. “When can we try it?”

“Well, that’s the clincher. We’ll have only the one chance. The satellite won’t come within orbital range until forty-eight minutes from now.”

Jack checked the clock. “That’s three minutes before the solar storm hits.”

“Three minutes is all I’ll need. Either it works or it doesn’t.”

Jack shook his head. “This is insane.”

“What do we have to do?” Karen asked.

“To target the pillar, Gabriel will need an active GPS lock. Something upon which to focus the cannon. We’re going to need you to place the Nautilus’s Magellan GPS homing device over by the pillar. It’ll feed data to the Fathom, and in turn I’ll send it to Gabriel.”

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