She moved on. If she became stuck, she could always use her hands to propel her backward, plus Miyuki could pull her by the ankles. There was no real danger here. Still, her mouth grew dry and sticky as her toes began to slip on the damp stone.
“How you doing?”
Karen opened her mouth to answer and realized she did not have enough air to yell back to her friend. “I’m okay.” It came out in a gasped whisper around the flashlight held in her teeth.
“What was that?”
Karen stretched her arms forward. The fingers of her right hand just caught the edge of the slab’s end. The end was that close! She locked her fingers and pulled, shoving with her toes at the same time. Her body thrust forward. By now her pulse pounded in her ears. Her jaw ached from biting on the metal penlight. “C’mon, goddamnit!” she swore in a short gasp.
Fingers scrambling, she found a purchase for her left hand, too. Grinning, she heaved her body forward, pulling her head free of the tunnel. She paused to crane her neck around, the beam of light casting back and forth.
A cramped space lay open here. No bigger than a half bath. But what caught her eye was what looked like an altar on the far side. Barnacle-covered urns and broken pottery lay scattered about the floor, all frosted with algae. Around the edge of the altar wove a carved snake. Karen followed it with her light until she reached the serpent’s nose. A mane of stone feathers surrounded its fanged head. Its eyes, red stones, reflected back her light. Most likely rubies.
Ignoring the jewels, she moved the light, more excited by the representation of feathers. It reminded her of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered snake god of the Mayas. Could this be a sign that the Mayas had built this site?
She spat out the penlight. Twisting and using her arms as leverage, she hauled herself out of the damp tunnel and into the chamber. Recovering her flashlight, she turned to the entrance. Miyuki should see this.
Karen bent by the tunnel as a shot rang out.
The sharp blast echoed in the small space, followed by a terrified scream.
Karen dropped to her knees, trying to peer down the tunnel. “Miyuki!”
Sounding the Depths
July 26, 11:20 A.M.
Crash site, northwest of Enewak Atoll, Central Pacific
For the first time in over twelve years, Jack placed his foot aboard a United States military vessel—and it was no small tugboat. He stepped from the Sea Knight helicopter onto almost an acre of open flight deck. The USS Gibraltar was two football fields long and half a field wide, a monstrous beast powered by two boilers. Up and down the flight deck, huge painted numbers signaled, landing pads for up to nine aircraft.
Ducking his head, he strode from under the helicopter’s rotors. Overhead, the roar of the blades was deafening. The rotorwash tore at his unzippered jacket. As he cleared the blades, he almost tripped over one of the many aircraft tie-downs. He caught himself, feeling foolish. A rookie’s mistake. It truly had been a long time since he walked this deck.
Past the deadly blades, Jack straightened and glanced out to sea. Near the horizon, he could just make out the tiny dot that was the Deep Fathom. He had been flown here for an organizational briefing due to start at noon. Closer to the huge ship, flanking its two sides, were three smaller destroyers, support ships for the mighty behemoth.
Jack scowled at the sight. Talk about overkill. At least the Vice President hadn’t deployed an entire goddamn battle group.
Turning, Jack eyed the bristling array of weapons systems near the Gibraltar’s superstructure. With that much firepower, he thought, who needed an entire battle group? The Gibraltar could probably take over a small country by itself. Its air contingent consisted of forty-two Sea Knight helicopters, five Harrier attack planes, and six ASW helicopters. Additionally, the vessel bore its own defenses: Sea Sparrow surface-to-air missile systems, Phalanx Close-in Weapons System, Bushmaster cannons, even a Nixie torpedo-decoy system. All in all, one hell of a big stick to shake at the enemies of the United States.
Motors whined on his left. A portside elevator lifted another Sea Knight helicopter from the hangar below. Men and women in red and yellow jackets buzzed around the deck. With the large ship approaching ground zero of the crash site, the great beast was stirring.
Near the stern, Jack noted new additions to the flight deck: three large cranes and winch assemblies. Now he understood one reason for the vessel’s late arrival. Before steaming here, they had clearly readied the ship for the salvage operation.
“Mr. Kirkland,” a stern voice barked from behind.
Jack turned. A trio of uniformed personnel strode toward him. He did not know any of them, but did recognize their credentials. Instinctively, he found himself straightening, throwing his shoulders back.
In the lead was the C.O. of the Gibraltar. “Captain John Brenning,” the man said, introducing himself as he stopped in front of Jack. No hand was offered to shake. He gestured to his right and left, saying, “My executive officer, Commander Julie Knudson, and Master Chief Hayward Lincoln.”
Both nodded. The woman eyed Jack up and down as if he were a bug. The black master chief remained stoic, barely acknowledging him.
“Rear Admiral Houston has requested a private meeting before the noon briefing. Commander Knudson will take you below to the officer’s wardroom.”
The captain and master chief turned away, meaning to cross toward the main deck and the rallying air wing. The female officer spun on her heel, ready to lead Jack away.
But Jack remained standing. “Why the private meeting?”
Three pairs of eyes swung his way. Clearly, their orders were seldom questioned. Jack met their stares, unmoving, awaiting an answer. The sun glared mercilessly off the metal flight deck. Jack knew he was no longer in their chain of command. He was a civilian, his own man.
Captain Brenning sighed. “The admiral did not elaborate on his reasons. He asked us only to deliver you to him ASAP.”
“If you would please follow,” the executive officer said with the barest trace of irritation.
Jack crossed his arms over his chest. He would not be bullied into a subordinate position here. When it came to dealing with the military mentality, it was best to let them know where you stood, to get the pecking order firmly established up front.
“I agreed to lend the use of my submersible in this search,” he said. “Nothing more. I only accepted today’s meeting so I could discharge this duty as swiftly as possible. I am in no way obligated to kiss a rear admiral’s rear.”
Agruff voice called from an open hatch behind him. “And who the hell would want you to, Jack?”
The three uniforms snapped to attention, hands raised in sharp salute. “Admiral on deck!” the master chief barked.
From the shadows of the open hatch a large man stepped into the sunlight. He wore a green flight jacket, casually loose. His battle ribbons were in plain view. He strode forward from the shelter of the doorway. When Jack had last spoken to Mark Houston, the admiral had been a captain. Otherwise, Houston had not changed. The old man had the same thick gray hair cropped short, the same weathered features. His frosted blue eyes were as keen as ever as they stared Jack down.
Houston acknowledged his people with a nod.
Captain Brenning stepped forward. “There was no need for you to come up here, sir. Mr. Kirkland was just on his way down to meet you.”
The admiral chuckled. “I’m sure he was. But there’s one thing you need to learn about Jack Kirkland, Captain. He doesn’t take orders well.”
“So I am learning, sir,” the C.O. said stiffly.
Though Jack stood six-foot-three, the admiral still seemed to tower over him, fists on hips. “Jack ‘the Flash’ Kirkland,” he muttered sternly. “Who would have ever thought to see you on the Gibraltar again?”
“Not me, sir. That’s for damn sure.” Though Jack hated to be aboard another Navy vessel, he could not shake a certain warmth at seeing the old man. Mark Houston had been more than his commanding officer. He had proved a friend and mentor. In fact, it was Mark Houston who had successfully campaigned for him to be awarded the seat on the military shuttle mission. Jack cleared his throat. “It’s good to see you again, sir.”
“I’m glad to hear you say that. Now maybe you’ll cooperate and follow me down to the conference room.”
The admiral dismissed his officers with a nod. “Come. I have coffee and sandwiches below,” he said to Jack, leading the way toward the hatch in the looming superstructure. “The NTSB people have had a long night, so we’re catering this briefing.”
“Thank you, sir.” Jack held his breath as he ducked through the hatch and entered the ship’s bowels. Out of the sun, the cold of the ship struck him immediately. He had forgotten how frigid the inside of the ship’s “island” could be, but the smell of oiled metal triggered old memories. Voices echoed from deeper in the ship. It was as if he had entered a living creature. Jonah in the whale, he thought morosely.
The admiral led him down to Level 2, stopping periodically to bow his head with other officers, to share a joke or pass on an order. Mark Houston had always been a hands-on officer. Before becoming admiral, when Houston was the C.O. here, he had never holed himself up in his room. He could be found as often as not down in the crew quarters as up in the officers’ galley. It was what Jack liked best about the old man. He knew all his crew, and the crew were all the more loyal for it.
“Here we are,” Houston said. He rested his hand on the latch to the door and glanced down the hall, a tired smile on his face. “The Gibraltar. I can’t believe I’m back here.”
“I know what you mean.”
Houston snorted. “They’ve got me berthed up in Flag Country. Seems strange. Last night I almost returned to my old C.O.’s cabin by habit. Funny how the mind works.” The old man shook his head and pulled open the door. He waved for Jack to enter first.
The conference room was dominated by a long mahogany table. It had already been set up for the briefing. Water glasses, notebooks, and pens were aligned precisely before each of the ten chairs. There were also thermoses of coffee and platters of small sandwiches.