Deep Fathom

Chapter 11

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McMillan’s face tightened. “I take affront at your allegation that I’d—”

“I can’t believe you two,” Lisa finally interrupted. “The entire Pacific Rim is trying to recover from a day of horrible disasters, and you two are arguing over pennies and percentages. Can’t this wait?”

Both men hung their heads. McMillan pointed toward Charlie. “He started it. I just gave him my numbers.”

“If he hadn’t—”

“Enough! Both of you get out of here! And if I hear that you dump any of this on Jack, you’ll be sorry you ever stepped on board the Fathom.”

“I’m already sorry,” McMillan grumbled under his breath.

“What was that?” Lisa asked fiercely.

The accountant backed up a step. “Nothing.”

“Get off my bridge,” she demanded, pointing toward the door.

Both men retreated quickly.

Quiet returned to the pilothouse. The German shepherd settled back to his bed, eyes closing. Soft classical music returned to fill the space. Lisa combed her hair back with her fingers. Men! She had enough of all of them.

Swiveling in her seat, she popped out the classical music CD. Why does Jack like this stuff? She shuffled through the stack and found one of her own. After inserting the disk, she hit the Play button, and the all-girl band, Hole, blared from the speakers. Backed by a strident guitar and a mean drum riff, the lead singer’s harsh voice echoed through the cabin, singing of men’s inadequacies and faults.

Lisa sank back into her seat. “That’s more like it.”

In his cabin, Jack lay sprawled atop his bed on his back, still in his robe. He snored softly, mouth hanging open. He sank deeply into a Halcyon-colored nightmare.

Floating in his EVA suit, tethered to the shuttle Atlantis, he was surrounded by the unrelenting darkness of space. Below him, the payload bay doors were open. In the orbiter’s workspace, he saw other crew members manhandling the large satellite into position using the shuttle’s manipulator arms.

The stenciled logo of the Navy’s seal gleamed unnaturally bright on the satellite, as did the weapon’s name: Spartacus. In slow motion, the satellite, a half-billion-dollar test model outfitted with an experimental particle-beam cannon, was lifted from the bay on a system of lever arms. Clear of the bay doors, the satellite’s solar wings and communication array unfolded.

It was a wondrous sight as sunlight reflected off its solar cells. A butterfly climbing from a cocoon.

Beyond the shuttle, the blue globe of Earth loomed bright.

He thanked the stars around him for this opportunity. He had never imagined anything so beautiful—especially knowing he was sharing it with the one woman whose eyes out-shone even these stars.

Jennifer Spangler was the mission specialist for this trip, and as of last night, she was also his fiancée. He had first met her six years ago, when one of his fellow SEALs introduced him to his younger sister. He ran into her again as a fellow astronaut in training. They had quickly and passionately fallen for each other: furtively meeting in empty closets and wardrooms, sneaking off to dance at the Splashdown pub, even sharing midnight picnics on the acres of tarmac around the center. During those endless nights, under these very stars, they had planned their lives together.

Still, when he had corralled her alone aboard the flight deck last night and held out a small gold band between them, he was as nervous as a schoolboy. He did not know what her answer would be. Was he moving too fast? Did she share the depth of his feelings? For an eternal moment the gold ring had hung between them, weightless, shining in the moonlight—then she reached out and accepted his offer, her smile and tears answer enough.

Grinning at the memory, he was interrupted by Jennifer’s all-business voice over his comlink, drawing his attention back to the satellite. “Unlocking arms. One, two, three. All go. I repeat, go for spring launch. Jack?”

He answered. “Visual check confirmed.”

Colonel Durham, commander of this flight, chimed in from the flight deck. “All clear here. Green lights all around. Releasing payload in ten seconds…nine…eight…seven…”

Time slowed as the work crew retreated from under the satellite. Wrench in hand, he maneuvered along his tether to the port side, out of the way. They had practiced the release a hundred times.

As he drifted, he pictured Jennifer’s body and wondered what it would be like to share a bed out here, with the whole blue Earth looking on. What could be a better honeymoon?

“…six…five…four…”

As he daydreamed he was slow to see the mistake. One of the three locking boom arms, built by General Dynamics, had failed to release completely. From his position, he saw the satellite drift a few degrees to the starboard side. Oh, God! He took one second to confirm the error. It was one second too many.

“…three…two…”

“Stop the launch!” Jack screamed into his com.

“…one…”

He saw the springs release, catapulting the satellite out of the bay. The springs had been engineered to thrust the satellite gently into proper orbital insertion, but instead the releasing mechanism snagged.

In dream-time slow motion, he watched in horror.

The five-ton satellite slammed against the starboard bay doors. One of the satellite’s solar wings smashed into the shuttle’s side. Soundlessly, the bay door bent. Hundreds of ceramic tiles cracked from the shuttle’s surface and spun away, like playing cards cast into the wind.

Spartacus spun out into space, its broken wing flailing. It tumbled toward a higher orbit.

He witnessed a brief explosion on the underside of the satellite as it passed overhead. A small panel blew out as its axial guidance system was overloaded.

Spartacus floated away, dead in space.

Hours later he found himself strapped to a seat in the mid deck, wearing his Advanced Crew Escape Suit. Overhead, in the flight deck, he heard the pilot and shuttle commander conferring with NASA. The bay door had been repaired, but the loss of protective heating tiles made reentry risky.

The plan: get as far through the upper atmosphere as possible—then eject if there was any mishap. But the new emergency evacuation system, installed after the Challenger tragedy, had yet to be tested.

Whispers of prayers echoed over the open comlink.

Jennifer sat beside him, in the mission specialist’s chair. His voice sounded far away as he tried to reassure her. “We’ll make it, Jen. We have a wedding to plan.”

She nodded, offering a weak smile, but she couldn’t speak. This was her first shuttle mission, too. Her face remained pale behind her faceplate.

He glanced to either side. Two other astronauts shared the mid-deck seats, backs tense, fingers clutching the seat arms. Only the commander and pilot were on the flight deck above. The commander insisted all the crew be as near the mid-deck emergency hatch as possible.

At the controls, Colonel Jeff Durham checked one last time with Houston as he began their descent. “Here we go. Pray for us.”

A static-filled reply from Shuttle Mission Control. “God-speed, Atlantis.”

Then they hit the atmosphere hard. Flames chased them. Their ship rocked and bucked. No one spoke, breaths were held.

Sweat pebbled his forehead. The heat grew too rapidly for his suit’s air-conditioning unit to compensate. He checked the cooling bib connection, but it was secure. He glanced at Jennifer. Her faceplate had misted over. He wished he could reach her, hold her.

Then he heard the best words of his life from the pilot. “Approaching sixty thousand feet! Almost home, folks!”

A whoop of joy echoed through all their comlinks.

Before their jubilation died down, the shuttle bucked violently. He saw the Earth spin into view as the ship hoved over on its side. The pilot fought to right the ship but failed.

Only later would he learn that the damaged patch of the shuttle’s exterior surface had overheated and burned through a hydraulic line, igniting the auxiliary oxygen tank. But at that moment all he knew was terror and pain as the orbiter tumbled through the upper atmosphere.

“Fire in the bay!”

He knew it was futile as the pilot continued to wrestle his controls. Another violent quake shook through the bones of the ship.

“Fifty thousand feet!” the pilot yelled.

The commander’s voice came over the intercom. “Prepare for bailout! Depressurize on my count!”

“Forty-five thousand!” the pilot yelled. “Forty thousand!” They were falling fast.

“Close your visors and activate emergency oxygen. Jack, open the pyro vent valve.”

He found himself rising from his seat, his personal parachute assembly strapped to his back. He lumbered across the bucking mid-deck and reached the T-handle box. He tugged the vent handle and twisted it. The valve would slowly depressurize the cabins to match external pressures.

“Get ready!” Colonel Durham ordered. “Switching to autopilot!”

The orbiter bucked more violently and he flew up, striking his head savagely. One of the other astronauts, who had been unbuckling from his seat, struck an overhead support bar. His helmet split and the man fell limp.

He started to cross to the man’s aid, but the second astronaut waved him off. “Man your station!”

“Autopilot’s off line!” the commander screamed. “Gonna have to stay on manual!”

He glanced over his shoulder at Jennifer. She was struggling out of her seat, meaning to assist with the injured crewman. But she was clearly having some trouble. She tugged at something by her left arm.

“Thirty-five thousand!” the pilot announced. The shuttle continued to rock viciously. “I can handle it! I can handle it!” The pilot sounded as if he were arguing with himself, then—“Jesus Christ!”

A litany of swearing erupted from Colonel Durham. “Bailout!” he screamed over their comlinks. “Get your asses out of here!”

He knew they were still too high, but he obeyed the direct order. He twisted the second T-handle. The side hatch blew out. Winds exploded out of the cabin. The depressurization had not been complete. He found himself almost sucked out the hatch, only saving himself by clutching the T-handle in an iron grip.


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