Jack shook his head. “Then we have a problem. The Nautilus is still outside the sea base. I had to do an emergency jettison to enter the docking bay. There’s no way to get to the Magellan unit outside.”


Karen spoke up. “What about the ROV robot?”

“It’s too crude to extract the Magellan unit without harming it. Someone would have to do it by hand.”

No one spoke. Everyone sat sullenly.

Then Karen brightened. “I may have an idea.”

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11:44 A.M.

Standing in the docking bay, Jack watched the water level rise past the front port of his helmet. He moved his arms, acquainting himself to the deep-sea armored ensemble. It was one of the Navy diver’s suits. The large helmet had four viewing ports: forward, right, left, and above. The bulbous helmet was so wide that it blended flush with the suit’s shoulders, creating a bullet-shaped form with jointed arms and legs protruding from it. Small lights were mounted atop the helmet and at each wrist. There were also thruster assemblies built into the back, like the old rocket packs in scifi serials.

As Jack moved slowly about the filling bay, he found its operation fairly intuitive, similar to the EVA suits used for spacewalks.

“How’re you doing?” Karen’s voice came through the helmet radio. Through the seawater, he spotted her waving to him from the bay’s observation window. After talking with Charlie, Karen had taken Jack down to the docking level and shown him the “garages” where the huge suits were stored. He had to give her credit. It was a clever solution.

He waved back. “Doing fine.”

“Charlie is jacked into the radio system. He’s monitoring also.”

“Charlie?” Jack called out.

“Right here, mon.”

“How’s Gabriel doing?”

“The little bugger has finished troubleshooting the satellite’s systems. They’re powering up and awaiting our signal. Just get that GPS unit and haul ass. We’re running out of time.”

Jack’s gaze flicked to the helmet’s internal computer screen. Sixteen minutes. “I hear you.”

Karen came back on line. “Careful. The docking bay doors are opening.”

Jack bent a bit, peering down. A few feet away the huge doors slid open. The ocean lay beyond.

Jack stepped toward the opening. “I’d better get going.” From across the way he spotted Karen’s face through the window. She held a fist to her throat. Worried and scared. Jack sensed her fear was more for his own safety than the fate of the world.

With a last wave, he stepped from the bay and sank down to the ocean floor. Using a hand pad, he adjusted his buoyancy and settled in place. The remains of the Nautilus lay two yards away. Playing with the thrusters, Jack spun himself around until he faced the sub, then moved over to its side.

Bending at the knee, he searched the vessel. The Magellan unit was just forward to the portside thruster assembly. He shuffled around until he found it. Reaching with an arm, he used the three-pronged pincer grip to unscrew its cover plate. It took a little prying since it was bent inward from the hard use the sub had recently faced.

The plate fell away.

Jack kneeled lower, awkward in the bulky suit. He shone the tiny wrist lamps inside. Oh, shit… The shoe-box-size device was smashed, its inner components open to the seawater. He groaned aloud.

“You okay, Jack?” Karen asked.

He straightened. “The Magellan is toast. The unit’s fried.” Hopelessness hollowed his chest. “Goddamn that asshole Spangler!”

Charlie’s voice echoed through the tiny speakers. “But Jack, I’m picking up a GPS signal.”

“Impossible. Not from the Nautilus.”

“Step away,” Charlie said. “Get clear of the sea base.”

Using his thrusters, Jack skimmed between two of the steel support legs and out into open ocean.

“It’s you!” Charlie said. “That Navy suit must be engineered with an automatic GPS homing device. A safety feature in case a diver gets stranded!”

Jack felt hope rekindle. “Then all I have to do is reach the pillar.”

“You have eight minutes.” Charlie paused. “But Jack, if the GPS is a part of the suit, you’ll have to stay by the pillar.”

Jack understood what Charlie was implying. It would mean his death.

Karen came to the same realization. “There has to be another way. What about that other plan? The last resort. To reset the explosive charges and blow up just the pillar.”

Charlie argued. “The kinetic energy backlash—”

Fingering his controls, Jack goosed his thrusters. “Folks, either way, there’s a nuke with our names on it already in the air. This is the only viable option.” He swung around and flew across the seabed floor. The pillar lay fifty yards away. “Be ready.”

11:58 A.M., Deep Fathom

Lisa stood with Robert and George by the bow rail. The sun overhead shone brilliantly. There was not a cloud in the sky. They had come up to the deck to await the outcome. With the other four belowdecks, the lab had been too crowded, too cramped. Lisa needed to feel the breeze on her cheek…if only for one last time.

George and Robert had accompanied her. George smoked his pipe. Robert had his Sony walkman over his ears. Faintly, Lisa could hear the tinny sounds of Bruce Springsteen singing “Born to Run.”

She sighed. If only they could run…

But they couldn’t. The Fathom needed to stay nearby to aid in the flow of transmissions between the station below and the satellite overhead. There would be no escape for any of them. Even if their plan succeeded, the area would soon be wiped out, destroyed in a decisive nuclear strike.

George removed his pipe and silently pointed its stem toward the horizon.

Lisa looked. A small contrail rose from the northeast, streaking higher as it arced into the sky. The fail-safe missile.

George replaced his pipe, his eyes on the sky.

No one said a word.

11:59 A.M.

Encased in his reinforced suit, Jack stood with his back to the crystal pillar. The ocean bottom lay dark all around him. A moment ago he had ordered Karen to turn off the grid to the lamp poles, plunging the seas back into darkness. He had also turned off his own suit lights. He could not risk exciting the pillar prematurely and interfering with his GPS signal.

“Are you registering me okay?” he asked.

Charlie answered from the Fathom. “Loud and clear. Transmitting data up to Gabriel.”

He gazed around him. The only light came from the yellow glow through the portholes of the Neptune sea base. Though he could not see her, Jack felt Karen staring back at him. He sighed. He would have liked the chance to have known her better. His only regret.

He waited. There was nothing else for him to do. He was now just a living and breathing target for a space-based weapons system.

He glanced up through the upper port of his helmet, as if he could see the satellite—Spartacus. He had somehow known one day their paths would cross again. A destiny that needed to be fulfilled. He had escaped death once, the only survivor. Now he was standing in the crosshairs of the same satellite. Death would not be denied a second time.

He closed his eyes.

Karen whispered in his ear like a ghost, “We’re with you, Jack. All of us.”

He silently acknowledged her. All his life he had been surrounded by ghosts. Memories of the dead. Now, at this last moment, he let it all go, finally realizing how much power he had given to the shades of his past.

Well, no longer. At this moment he wanted only his flesh-and-blood friends at his side. He opened his eyes and his comlink. “Good luck, everyone. Let’s get this done!”

Charlie’s voice came next. “Here we go.”

12:01 P.M., Low Earth Orbit, 480 nautical miles above the Pacific

Sunlight reflected off the wings of the brilliant satellite. Upon its flank, stenciled markings, as crisp as the day they had been painted, were easy to see: a tiny flag, identification numbers, and broad red letters, spelling out its name: Spartacus.

As it swept over the expanse of the Pacific Ocean, the satellite slowly rotated, an internal gyro spinning like a child’s top. Pinioned solar wings tilted to catch more energy, in turn powering up the high-energy chemical laser.

It was a ballet of power and force.

On its underside, a hatch opened and a telescoping barrel protruded.

Around the awakening satellite, the upper atmosphere began to be peppered with ionized particles, charging the ionosphere with tiny bursts of radiation, like raindrops on a pond. Ripples began to spread. The satellite’s communication system crackled.

Something inside listened and compensated, tuning away the interference.

However, these raindrops were but the first trickle of a coming flood. Overhead, past the orbit of the moon, the true storm rushed toward Earth, a raging gale of wild energy and particles, plunging through the vacuum of space at 1.8 million miles per hour.

Oblivious to the threat, the satellite finished its cascade. The chemical laser fed energy in microbursts to the particle-beam generator. Power levels rose exponentially, building to thresholds that could only be sustained by a whirling pair of electromagnets. Its shielded central processor registered the escalation, making one final adjustment, locking on a signal far below.

Power screamed between whirling magnets, seeking a way out.

At last a switch was opened—energy pulsed out in a narrow beam of neutrons, ripping through the atmosphere, striking the sea below and passing through the waters as easily as it had the air. Fed from space, the beam raced into the midnight depths of the ocean, where even the light of the sun could not penetrate.

12:02 P.M., Neptune base

Karen stood, face pressed to the cold window. Beyond the weak light of the portholes, she searched for some sign of Jack, but could see nothing.

A starless midnight.

Then, in a blinding flash, the crystal pillar burst with radiance.

Karen gasped, blinded. She closed her eyes, covering her face with an arm, but the pillar still shone, the image burned into her retina. She stumbled back, tears running down her face. It took several seconds before she could even open her eyes. When she did, each porthole shone with such brilliance that it seemed the sun itself had descended atop the sea base.

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