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Swimmers May Surface without Warning 4 ñòðàíèöà
William Pickering’s phone message had warned that if Sexton went public, Rachel’s life would be in danger. Unfortunately for Rachel, Sexton also knew if he went public with proof of NASA’s fraud, that single act of boldness would land him in the White House with more decisiveness and political drama than ever before witnessed in American politics.
Life is filled with difficult decisions, he thought. And winners are those who make them.
Gabrielle Ashe had seen this look in Sexton’s eyes before. Blind ambition. She feared it. And with good reason, she now realized. Sexton was obviously prepared to risk his daughter in order to be the first to announce the NASA fraud.
“Don’t you see you’ve already won?” Gabrielle demanded. “There’s no way Zach Herney and NASA will survive this scandal. No matter who makes it public! No matter when it comes out! Wait until you know Rachel is safe. Wait until you talk to Pickering!”
Sexton was clearly no longer listening to her. Opening his desk drawer, he pulled out a foil sheet on which were affixed dozens of nickel‑sized, self‑adhesive wax seals with his initials on them. Gabrielle knew he usually used these for formal invitations, but he apparently thought a crimson wax seal would give each envelope an extra touch of drama. Peeling the circular seals off the foil, Sexton pressed one onto the pleat of each envelope, sealing it like a monogrammed epistle.
Gabrielle’s heart pulsed now with a new anger. She thought of the digitized images of illegal checks in his computer. If she said anything, she knew he would just delete the evidence. “Don’t do this,” she said, “or I’ll go public about our affair.”
Sexton laughed out loud as he affixed the wax seals. “Really? And you think they’ll believe you‑a power‑hungry aide denied a post in my administration and looking for revenge at any cost? I denied our involvement once, and the world believed me. I’ll simply deny it again.”
“The White House has photos,” Gabrielle declared.
Sexton did not even look up. “They don’t have photos. And even if they did, they’re meaningless.” He affixed the final wax seal. “I have immunity. These envelopes out‑trump anything anyone could possibly throw at me.”
Gabrielle knew he was right. She felt utterly helpless as Sexton admired his handiwork. On his desk sat ten elegant, white linen envelopes, each embossed with his name and address and secured with a crimson wax seal bearing his scripted initials. They looked like royal letters. Certainly kings had been crowned on account of less potent information.
Sexton picked up the envelopes and prepared to leave. Gabrielle stepped over and blocked his way. “You’re making a mistake. This can wait.”
Sexton’s eyes bored into her. “I made you, Gabrielle, and now I’ve unmade you.”
“That fax from Rachel will give you the presidency. You owe her.”
“I’ve given her plenty.”
“What if something happens to her!”
“Then she’ll cement my sympathy vote.”
Gabrielle could not believe the thought had even crossed his mind, much less his lips. Disgusted, she reached for the phone. “I’m calling the White‑”
Sexton spun and slapped her hard across the face.
Gabrielle staggered back, feeling her lip split open. She caught herself, grabbing on to the desk, staring up in astonishment at the man she had once worshiped.
Sexton gave her a long, hard look. “If you so much as think of crossing me on this, I will make you regret it for the rest of your life.” He stood unflinching, clutching the stack of sealed envelopes under his arm. A harsh danger burned in his eyes.
When Gabrielle exited the office building into the cold night air, her lip was still bleeding. She hailed a taxi and climbed in. Then, for the first time since she had come to Washington, Gabrielle Ashe broke down and cried.
The Triton fell . . .
Michael Tolland staggered to his feet on the inclined deck and peered over the anchor spool at the frayed winch cable where the Triton used to hang. Wheeling toward the stern, he scanned the water. The Triton was just now emerging from under the Goya on the current. Relieved at least to see the sub intact, Tolland eyed the hatch, wanting nothing more than to see it open up and Rachel climb out unscathed. But the hatch remained closed. Tolland wondered if maybe she had been knocked out by the violent fall.
Even from the deck, Tolland could see the Triton was riding exceptionally low in the water‑far below its normal diving trim waterline. It’s sinking. Tolland could not imagine why, but the reason at the moment was immaterial.
I have to get Rachel out. Now.
As Tolland stood to dash for the edge of the deck, a shower of machine‑gun fire exploded above him, sparking off the heavy anchor spool overhead. He dropped back to his knees. Shit! He peered around the spool only long enough to see Pickering on the upper deck, taking aim like a sniper. The Delta soldier had dropped his machine gun while climbing into the doomed helicopter and Pickering had apparently recovered it. Now the director had scrambled to the high ground.
Trapped behind the spool, Tolland looked back toward the sinking Triton. Come on, Rachel! Get out! He waited for the hatch to open. Nothing.
Looking back to the deck of the Goya, Tolland’s eyes measured the open area between his position and the stern railing. Twenty feet. A long way without any cover.
Tolland took a deep breath and made up his mind. Ripping off his shirt, he hurled it to his right onto the open deck. While Pickering blew the shirt full of holes, Tolland dashed left, down the inclined deck, banking toward the stern. With a wild leap he launched himself over the railing, off the back of the ship. Arcing high in the air, Tolland heard the bullets whizzing all around him and knew a single graze would make him a shark feast the instant he hit the water.
Rachel Sexton felt like a wild animal trapped in a cage. She had tried the hatch again and again with no luck. She could hear a tank somewhere beneath her filling with water, and she sensed the sub gaining weight. The darkness of the ocean was inching higher up the transparent dome, a black curtain rising in reverse.
Through the lower half of the glass, Rachel could see the void of the ocean beckoning like a tomb. The empty vastness beneath threatened to swallow her whole. She grabbed the hatch mechanism and tried to twist it open one more time, but it wouldn’t budge. Her lungs strained now, the dank stench of excess carbon dioxide acrid in her nostrils. Through it all, one recurring thought haunted her.
I’m going to die alone underwater.
She scanned the Triton’s control panels and levers for something that could help, but all the indicators were black. No power. She was locked in a dead steel crypt sinking toward the bottom of the sea.
The gurgling in the tanks seemed to be accelerating now, and the ocean rose to within a few feet of the top of the glass. In the distance, across the endless flat expanse, a band of crimson was inching across the horizon. Morning was on its way. Rachel feared it would be the last light she ever saw. Closing her eyes to block out her impending fate, Rachel felt the terrifying childhood images rushing into her mind.
Falling through the ice. Sliding underwater.
Breathless. Unable to lift herself. Sinking.
Her mother calling for her. “Rachel! Rachel!”
A pounding on the outside of the sub jolted Rachel out of the delirium. Her eyes snapped open.
“Rachel!” The voice was muffled. A ghostly face appeared against the glass, upside down, dark hair swirling. She could barely make him out in the darkness.
Tolland surfaced, exhaling in relief to see Rachel moving inside the sub. She’s alive. Tolland swam with powerful strokes to the rear of the Triton and climbed up onto the submerged engine platform. The ocean currents felt hot and leaden around him as he positioned himself to grab the circular portal screw, staying low and hoping he was out of range of Pickering’s gun.
The Triton’s hull was almost entirely underwater now, and Tolland knew if he were going to open the hatch and pull Rachel out, he would have to hurry. He had a ten‑inch draw that was diminishing fast. Once the hatch was submerged, opening it would send a torrent of seawater gushing into the Triton, trapping Rachel inside and sending the sub into a free fall to the bottom.
“Now or never,” he gasped as he grabbed the hatch wheel and heaved it counterclockwise. Nothing happened. He tried again, throwing all of his force into it. Again, the hatch refused to turn.
He could hear Rachel inside, on the other side of the portal. Her voice was stifled, but he sensed her terror. “I tried!” she shouted. “I couldn’t turn it!”
The water was lapping across the portal lid now. “Turn together!” he shouted to her. “You’re clockwise in there!” He knew the dial was clearly marked. “Okay, now!”
Tolland braced himself against the ballast air tanks and strained with all his energy. He could hear Rachel below him doing the same. The dial turned a half inch and ground to a dead stop.
Now Tolland saw it. The portal lid was not set evenly in the aperture. Like the lid of a jar that had been placed on crooked and screwed down hard, it was stuck. Although the rubber seal was properly set, the hatch‑dogs were bent, meaning the only way that door was opening was with a welding torch.
As the top of the sub sank below the surface, Tolland was filled with a sudden, overwhelming dread. Rachel Sexton would not be escaping from the Triton.
Two thousand feet below, the crumpled fuselage of the bomb‑laden Kiowa chopper was sinking fast, a prisoner of gravity and the powerful drag of the deepwater vortex. Inside the cockpit, Delta‑One’s lifeless body was no longer recognizable, disfigured by the crushing pressure of the deep.
As the aircraft spiraled downward, its Hellfire missiles still attached, the glowing magma dome waited on the ocean floor like a red‑hot landing pad. Beneath its three‑meter‑thick crust, a head of boiling lava simmered at a thousand degrees Celsius, a volcano waiting to explode.
Tolland stood knee‑deep in water on the engine box of the sinking Triton and searched his brain for some way to save Rachel.
Don’t let the sub sink!
He looked back toward the Goya, wondering if there were any way to get a winch connected to the Triton to keep it near the surface. Impossible. It was fifty yards away now, and Pickering was standing high on the bridge like a Roman emperor with a prime seat at some bloody Colosseum spectacle.
Think! Tolland told himself. Why is the sub sinking?
The mechanics of sub buoyancy were painfully simple: ballast tanks pumped full of either air or water adjusted the sub’s buoyancy to move it up or down in the water.
Obviously, the ballast tanks were filling up.
But they shouldn’t be!
Every sub’s ballast tanks were equipped with holes both topside and underneath. The lower openings, called “flooding holes,” always remained open, while the holes on top, “vent valves,” could be opened and closed to let air escape so water would flood in.
Maybe the Triton’s vent valves were open for some reason? Tolland could not imagine why. He floundered across the submerged engine platform, his hands groping one of the Triton’s ballast trim tanks. The vent valves were closed. But as he felt the valves, his fingers found something else.
Shit! The Triton had been riddled with bullets when Rachel jumped in. Tolland immediately dove down and swam beneath the sub, running his hand carefully across the Triton’s more important ballast tank‑the negative tank. The Brits called this tank “the down express.” The Germans called it “putting on lead shoes.” Either way, the meaning was clear. The negative tank, when filled, took the sub down.
As Tolland’s hand felt the sides of the tank, he encountered dozens of bullet holes. He could feel the water rushing in. The Triton was preparing to dive, whether Tolland liked it or not.
The sub was now three feet beneath the surface. Moving to the bow, Tolland pressed his face against the glass and peered through the dome. Rachel was banging on the glass and shouting. The fear in her voice made him feel powerless. For an instant he was back in a cold hospital, watching the woman he loved die and knowing there was nothing he could do. Hovering underwater in front of the sinking sub, Tolland told himself he could not endure this again. You’re a survivor, Celia had told him, but Tolland did not want to survive alone . . . not again.
Tolland’s lungs ached for air and yet he stayed right there with her. Every time Rachel pounded on the glass, Tolland heard air bubbles gurgling up and the sub sank deeper. Rachel was yelling something about water coming in around the window.
The viewing window was leaking.
A bullet hole in the window? It seemed doubtful. His lungs ready to burst, Tolland prepared to surface. As he palmed upward across the huge acrylic window, his fingers hit a piece of loose rubber caulking. A peripheral seal had apparently been jarred in the fall. This was the reason the cockpit was leaking. More bad news.
Clambering to the surface, Tolland sucked in three deep breaths, trying to clear his thoughts. Water flowing into the cockpit would only accelerate the Triton’s descent. The sub was already five feet underwater, and Tolland could barely touch it with his feet. He could feel Rachel pounding desperately on the hull.
Tolland could think of only one thing to do. If he dove down to the Triton’s engine box and located the high‑pressure air cylinder, he could use it to blow the negative ballast tank. Although blowing the damaged tank would be an exercise in futility, it might keep the Triton near the surface for another minute or so before the perforated tanks flooded again.
With no other immediate option, Tolland prepared to dive. Pulling in an exceptionally deep breath, he expanded his lungs well beyond their natural state, almost to the point of pain. More lung capacity. More oxygen. Longer dive. But as he felt his lungs expand, pressuring his rib cage, a strange thought hit him.
What if he increased the pressure inside the sub? The viewing dome had a damaged seal. Maybe if Tolland could increase the pressure inside the cockpit, he could blow the entire viewing dome off the sub and get Rachel out.
He exhaled his breath, treading water on the surface a moment, trying to picture the feasibility. It was perfectly logical, wasn’t it? After all, a submarine was built to be strong in only one direction. They had to withstand enormous pressure from the outside, but almost none from within.
Moreover, the Triton used uniform regulator valves to decrease the number of spare parts the Goya had to carry. Tolland could simply unsnap the high pressure cylinder’s charging hose and reroute it into an emergency ventilation supply regulator on the port side of the sub! Pressurizing the cabin would cause Rachel substantial physical pain, but it might just give her a way out.
Tolland inhaled and dove.
The sub was a good eight feet down now, and the currents and darkness made orienting himself difficult. Once he found the pressurized tank, Tolland quickly rerouted the hose and prepared to pump air into the cockpit. As he gripped the stopcock, the reflective yellow paint on the side of the tank reminded him just how dangerous this maneuver was:
Äàòà äîáàâëåíèÿ: 2015-09-14; ïðîñìîòðîâ: 3; Íàðóøåíèå àâòîðñêèõ ïðàâ