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Caution: Compressed Air—3,000 PSI
Three thousand pounds per square inch, Tolland thought. The hope was that the Triton’s viewing dome would pop off the sub before the pressure in the cabin crushed Rachel’s lungs. Tolland was essentially sticking a high‑powered fire hose into a water balloon and praying the balloon would break in a hurry.
He grabbed the stopcock and made up his mind. Suspended there on the back of the sinking Triton, Tolland turned the stopcock, opening the valve. The hose went rigid immediately, and Tolland could hear the air flooding the cockpit with enormous force.
Inside the Triton, Rachel felt a sudden searing pain slice into her head. She opened her mouth to scream, but the air forced itself into her lungs with such painful pressure that she thought her chest would explode. Her eyes felt like they were being rammed backward into her skull. A deafening rumble tore through her eardrums, pushing her toward unconsciousness. Instinctively, she clenched her eyes tight and pressed her hands over her ears. The pain was increasing now.
Rachel heard a pounding directly in front of her. She forced her eyes open just long enough to see the watery silhouette of Michael Tolland in the darkness. His face was against the glass. He was motioning for her to do something.
She could barely see him in the darkness. Her vision was blurred, her eyeballs distorted from the pressure. Even so, she could tell the sub had sunk beyond the last flickering fingers of the Goya’s underwater lights. Around her was only an endless inky abyss.
Tolland spread himself against the window of the Triton and kept banging. His chest burned for air, and he knew he would have to return to the surface in a matter of seconds.
Push on the glass! he willed her. He could hear pressurized air escaping around the glass, bubbling up. Somewhere, the seal was loose. Tolland’s hands groped for an edge, something to get his fingers under. Nothing.
As his oxygen ran out, tunnel vision closed in, and he banged on the glass one last time. He could not even see her anymore. It was too dark. With the last of the air in his lungs, he yelled out underwater.
“Rachel . . . push . . . on . . . the . . . glass!”
His words came out as a bubbling, muted garble.
Inside the Triton, Rachel’s head felt like it was being compressed in some kind of medieval torture vise. Half‑standing, stooped beside the cockpit chair, she could feel death closing in around her. Directly in front of her, the hemispherical viewing dome was empty. Dark. The banging had stopped.
Tolland was gone. He had left her.
The hiss of pressurized air blasting in overhead reminded her of the deafening katabatic wind on Milne. The floor of the sub had a foot of water on it now. Let me out! Thousands of thoughts and memories began streaming through her mind like flashes of violet light.
In the darkness, the sub began to list, and Rachel staggered, losing her balance. Stumbling over the seat, she fell forward, colliding hard with the inside of the hemispherical dome. A sharp pain erupted in her shoulder. She landed in a heap against the window, and as she did, she felt an unexpected sensation‑a sudden decrease in the pressure inside the sub. The tightened drum of Rachel’s ears loosened perceptibly, and she actually heard a gurgle of air escape the sub.
It took her an instant to realize what had just happened. When she’d fallen against the dome, her weight had somehow forced the bulbous sheet outward enough for some of the internal pressure to be released around a seal. Obviously, the dome glass was loose! Rachel suddenly realized what Tolland had been trying to do by increasing the pressure inside.
He’s trying to blow out the window!
Overhead, the Triton’s pressure cylinder continued to pump. Even as she lay there, she felt the pressure increasing again. This time she almost welcomed it, although she felt the suffocating grip pushing her dangerously close to unconsciousness. Scrambling to her feet, Rachel pressed outward with all her force on the inside of the glass.
This time, there was no gurgle. The glass barely moved.
She threw her weight against the window again. Nothing. Her shoulder wound ached, and she looked down at it. The blood was dry. She prepared to try again, but she did not have time. Without warning, the crippled sub began to tip‑backward. As its heavy engine box overcame the flooded trim tanks, the Triton rolled onto its back, sinking rear‑first now.
Rachel fell onto her back against the cockpit’s rear wall. Half submerged in sloshing water, she stared straight up at the leaking dome, hovering over her like a giant skylight.
Outside was only night . . . and thousands of tons of ocean pressing down.
Rachel willed herself to get up, but her body felt dead and heavy. Again her mind reeled backward in time to the icy grip of a frozen river.
“Fight, Rachel!” her mother was shouting, reaching down to pull her out of the water. “Grab on!”
Rachel closed her eyes. I’m sinking. Her skates felt like lead weights, dragging her down. She could see her mother lying spread‑eagle on the ice to disperse her own weight, reaching out.
“Kick, Rachel! Kick with your feet!”
Rachel kicked as best as she could. Her body rose slightly in the icy hole. A spark of hope. Her mother grabbed on.
“Yes!” her mother shouted. “Help me lift you! Kick with your feet!”
With her mother pulling from above, Rachel used the last of her energy to kick with her skates. It was just enough, and her mother dragged Rachel up to safety. She dragged the soaking Rachel all the way to the snowy bank before collapsing in tears.
Now, inside the growing humidity and heat of the sub, Rachel opened her eyes to the blackness around her. She heard her mother whispering from the grave, her voice clear even here in the sinking Triton.
Kick with your feet.
Rachel looked up at the dome overhead. Mustering the last of her courage, Rachel clambered up onto the cockpit chair, which was oriented almost horizontally now, like a dental chair. Lying on her back, Rachel bent her knees, pulled her legs back as far as she could, aimed her feet upward, and exploded forward. With a wild scream of desperation and force, she drove her feet into the center of the acrylic dome. Spikes of pain shot into her shins, sending her brain reeling. Her ears thundered suddenly, and she felt the pressure equalize with a violent rush. The seal on the left side of the dome gave way, and the huge lens partially dislodged, swinging open like a barn door.
A torrent of water crashed into the sub and drove Rachel back into her chair. The ocean thundered in around her, swirling up under her back, lifting her now off the chair, tossing her upside down like a sock in a washing machine. Rachel groped blindly for something to hold on to, but she was spinning wildly. As the cockpit filled, she could feel the sub begin a rapid free fall for the bottom. Her body rammed upward in the cockpit, and she felt herself pinned. A rush of bubbles erupted around her, twisting her, dragging her to the left and upward. A flap of hard acrylic smashed into her hip.
All at once she was free.
Twisting and tumbling into the endless warmth and watery blackness, Rachel felt her lungs already aching for air. Get to the surface! She looked for light but saw nothing. Her world looked the same in all directions. Blackness. No gravity. No sense of up or down.
In that terrifying instant, Rachel realized she had no idea which way to swim.
Thousands of feet beneath her, the sinking Kiowa chopper crumpled beneath the relentlessly increasing pressure. The fifteen high‑explosive, antitank AGM‑114 Hellfire missiles still aboard strained against the compression, their copper liner cones and spring‑detonation heads inching perilously inward.
A hundred feet above the ocean floor, the powerful shaft of the megaplume grabbed the remains of the chopper and sucked it downward, hurling it against the red‑hot crust of the magma dome. Like a box of matches igniting in series, the Hellfire missiles exploded, tearing a gaping hole through the top of the magma dome.
Having surfaced for air, and then dove again in desperation, Michael Tolland was suspended fifteen feet underwater scanning the blackness when the Hellfire missiles exploded. The white flash billowed upward, illuminating an astonishing image‑a freeze‑frame he would remember forever.
Rachel Sexton hung ten feet below him like a tangled marionette in the water. Beneath her, the Triton sub fell away fast, its dome hanging loose. The sharks in the area scattered for the open sea, clearly sensing the danger this area was about to unleash.
Tolland’s exhilaration at seeing Rachel out of the sub was instantly vanquished by the realization of what was about to follow. Memorizing her position as the light disappeared, Tolland dove hard, clawing his way toward her.
Thousands of feet down, the shattered crust of the magma dome exploded apart, and the underwater volcano erupted, spewing twelve‑hundred‑degree‑Celsius magma up into the sea. The scorching lava vaporized all the water it touched, sending a massive pillar of steam rocketing toward the surface up the central axis of the megaplume. Driven by the same kinematic properties of fluid dynamics that powered tornadoes, the steam’s vertical transfer of energy was counterbalanced by an anticyclonic vorticity spiral that circled the shaft, carrying energy in the opposite direction.
Spiraling around this column of rising gas, the ocean currents started intensifying, twisting downward. The fleeing steam created an enormous vacuum that sucked millions of gallons of seawater downward into contact with the magma. As the new water hit bottom, it too turned into steam and needed a way to escape, joining the growing column of exhaust steam and shooting upward, pulling more water in beneath it. As more water rushed in to take its place, the vortex intensified. The hydrothermal plume elongated, and the towering whirlpool grew stronger with every passing second, its upper rim moving steadily toward the surface.
An oceanic black hole had just been born.
Rachel felt like a child in a womb. Hot, wet darkness all engulfing her. Her thoughts were muddled in the inky warmth. Breathe. She fought the reflex. The flash of light she had seen could only have come from the surface, and yet it seemed so far away. An illusion. Get to the surface. Weakly, Rachel began swimming in the direction where she had seen the light. She saw more light now . . . an eerie red glow in the distance. Daylight? She swam harder.
A hand caught her by the ankle.
Rachel half‑screamed underwater, almost exhaling the last of her air.
The hand pulled her backward, twisting her, pointing her back in the opposite direction. Rachel felt a familiar hand grasp hers. Michael Tolland was there, pulling her along with him the other way.
Rachel’s mind said he was taking her down. Her heart said he knew what he was doing.
Kick with your feet, her mother’s voice whispered.
Rachel kicked as hard as she could.
Even as Tolland and Rachel broke the surface, he knew it was over. The magma dome erupted. As soon as the top of the vortex reached the surface, the giant underwater tornado would begin pulling everything down. Strangely, the world above the surface was not the quiet dawn he had left only moments ago. The noise was deafening. Wind slashed at him as if some kind of storm had hit while he was underwater.
Tolland felt delirious from lack of oxygen. He tried to support Rachel in the water, but she was being pulled from his arms. The current! Tolland tried to hold on, but the invisible force pulled harder, threatening to tear her from him. Suddenly, his grip slipped, and Rachel’s body slid through his arms‑but upward.
Bewildered, Tolland watched Rachel’s body rise out of the water.
Overhead, the Coast Guard Osprey tilt‑rotor airplane hovered and winched Rachel in. Twenty minutes ago, the Coast Guard had gotten a report of an explosion out at sea. Having lost track of the Dolphin helicopter that was supposed to be in the area, they feared an accident. They typed the chopper’s last known coordinates into their navigation system and hoped for the best.
About a half mile from the illuminated Goya, they saw a field of burning wreckage drifting on the current. It looked like a speedboat. Nearby, a man was in the water, waving his arms wildly. They winched him in. He was stark naked‑all except for one leg, which was covered with duct tape.
Exhausted, Tolland looked up at the underbelly of the thundering tilt‑rotor airplane. Deafening gusts pounded down off its horizontal propellers. As Rachel rose on a cable, numerous sets of hands pulled her into the fuselage. As Tolland watched her dragged to safety, his eyes spotted a familiar man crouched half‑naked in the doorway.
Corky? Tolland’s heart soared. You’re alive!
Immediately, the harness fell from the sky again. It landed ten feet away. Tolland wanted to swim for it, but he could already feel the sucking sensation of the plume. The relentless grip of the sea wrapped around him, refusing to let go.
The current pulled him under. He fought toward the surface, but the exhaustion was overwhelming. You’re a survivor, someone was saying. He kicked his legs, clawing toward the surface. When he broke through into the pounding wind, the harness was still out of reach. The current strained to drag him under. Looking up into the torrent of swirling wind and noise, Tolland saw Rachel. She was staring down, her eyes willing him up toward her.
It took Tolland four powerful strokes to reach the harness. With his last ounce of strength, he slid his arm and head up into the loop and collapsed.
All at once the ocean was falling away beneath him.
Tolland looked down just as the gaping vortex opened. The megaplume had finally reached the surface.
William Pickering stood on the bridge of the Goya and watched in dumbstruck awe as the spectacle unfolded all around him. Off the starboard of the Goya’s stern, a huge basinlike depression was forming on the surface of the sea. The whirlpool was hundreds of yards across and expanding fast. The ocean spiraled into it, racing with an eerie smoothness over the lip. All around him now, a guttural moan reverberated out of the depths. Pickering’s mind was blank as he watched the hole expanding toward him like the gaping mouth of some epic god hungry for sacrifice.
I’m dreaming, Pickering thought.
Suddenly, with an explosive hiss that shattered the windows of the Goya’s bridge, a towering plume of steam erupted skyward out of the vortex. A colossal geyser climbed overhead, thundering, its apex disappearing into the darkened sky.
Instantly, the funnel walls steepened, the perimeter expanding faster now, chewing across the ocean toward him. The stern of the Goya swung hard toward the expanding cavity. Pickering lost his balance and fell to his knees. Like a child before God, he gazed downward into the growing abyss.
His final thoughts were for his daughter, Diana. He prayed she had not known fear like this when she died.
The concussion wave from the escaping steam hurled the Osprey sideways. Tolland and Rachel held each other as the pilots recovered, banking low over the doomed Goya. Looking out, they could see William Pickering‑the Quaker‑kneeling in his black coat and tie at the upper railing of the doomed ship.
As the stern fishtailed out over the brink of the massive twister, the anchor cable finally snapped. With its bow proudly in the air, the Goya slipped backward over the watery ledge, sucked down the steep spiraling wall of water. Her lights were still glowing as she disappeared beneath the sea.
The Washington morning was clear and crisp.
A breeze sent eddies of leaves skittering around the base of the Washington Monument. The world’s largest obelisk usually awoke to its own peaceful image in the reflecting pool, but today the morning brought with it a chaos of jostling reporters, all crowding around the monument’s base in anticipation.
Senator Sedgewick Sexton felt larger than Washington itself as he stepped from his limousine and strode like a lion toward the press area awaiting him at the base of the monument. He had invited the nation’s ten largest media networks here and promised them the scandal of the decade.
Nothing brings out the vultures like the smell of death, Sexton thought.
In his hand, Sexton clutched the stack of white linen envelopes, each elegantly wax‑embossed with his monogrammed seal. If information was power, then Sexton was carrying a nuclear warhead.
He felt intoxicated as he approached the podium, pleased to see his improvised stage included two “fameframes"‑large, free‑standing partitions that flanked his podium like navy‑blue curtains‑an old Ronald Reagan trick to ensure he stood out against any backdrop.
Sexton entered stage right, striding out from behind the partition like an actor out of the wings. The reporters quickly took their seats in the several rows of folding chairs facing his podium. To the east, the sun was just breaking over the Capitol dome, shooting rays of pink and gold down on Sexton like rays from heaven.
A perfect day to become the most powerful man in the world.
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,” Sexton said, laying the envelopes on the lectern before him. “I will make this as short and painless as possible. The information I am about to share with you is, frankly, quite disturbing. These envelopes contain proof of a deceit at the highest levels of government. I am ashamed to say that the President called me half an hour ago and begged me‑yes, begged me‑not to go public with this evidence.” He shook his head with dismay. “And yet, I am a man who believes in the truth. No matter how painful.”
Sexton paused, holding up the envelopes, tempting the seated crowd. The reporters’ eyes followed the envelopes back and forth, a pack of dogs salivating over some unknown delicacy.
The President had called Sexton a half hour ago and explained everything. Herney had talked to Rachel, who was safely aboard a plane somewhere. Incredibly, it seemed the White House and NASA were innocent bystanders in this fiasco, a plot masterminded by William Pickering.
Not that it matters, Sexton thought. Zach Herney is still going down hard.
Sexton wished he could be a fly on the wall of the White House right now to see the President’s face when he realized Sexton was going public. Sexton had agreed to meet Herney at the White House right now to discuss how best to tell the nation the truth about the meteorite. Herney was probably standing in front of a television at this very moment in dumbfounded shock, realizing that there was nothing the White House could do to stop the hand of fate.
“My friends,” Sexton said, letting his eyes connect with the crowd. “I have weighed this heavily. I have considered honoring the President’s desire to keep this data secret, but I must do what is in my heart.” Sexton sighed, hanging his head like a man trapped by history. “The truth is the truth. I will not presume to color your interpretation of these facts in any way. I will simply give you the data at face value.”
In the distance, Sexton heard the beating of huge helicopter rotors. For a moment, he wondered if maybe the President were flying over from the White House in a panic, hoping to halt the press conference. That would be the icing on the cake, Sexton thought mirthfully. How guilty would Herney appear THEN?
“I do not take pleasure in doing this,” Sexton continued, sensing his timing was perfect. “But I feel it is my duty to let the American people know they have been lied to.”
The aircraft thundered in, touching down on the esplanade to their right. When Sexton glanced over, he was surprised to see it was not the presidential helicopter after all, but rather a large Osprey tilt‑rotor airplane.
The fuselage read:
Äàòà äîáàâëåíèÿ: 2015-09-14; ïðîñìîòðîâ: 7; Íàðóøåíèå àâòîðñêèõ ïðàâ