He fought the thrusters to maintain some semblance of direction, but was shaken and jarred about. He tasted blood on his tongue. He tried to raise the Deep Fathom, yelling. But static was his only response.
For what seemed an endless time he rode the chain of bubbles toward the surface, fighting for control of the sub. He had to get clear of the volcanic stream. As his ship tumbled, an idea came to him. To survive a riptide a swimmer had to stop fighting it.
He lifted his foot off the right pedal and tapped only the left thrusters. Instead of trying to stop his spin, he made the vehicle spin faster. He was soon pinned to the port side of the sub by the centrifugal forces. Still, he kept engaging just the left thrusters. “C’mon…c’mon…”
Then one of the monster bubbles struck the undercarriage of the submersible. The spinning sub tilted nose-up. The sudden shift pitched the craft end over. Like a skipping stone, the Nautilus shot free of the bubble stream.
As the sub’s tumble slowed, Jack pulled himself back into his seat. His feet worked the pedals and halted the spin. Sighing in relief, he aimed for the surface, noting that the midnight waters had already lightened to a weak twilight. Craning his neck upward, he saw the vague glow of the distant sun.
The static in his ear cleared. “Jack…answer us…can you hear us?”
Jack replaced the throat mike. The adhesive had torn away during his assault. “All clear here,” he said harshly.
“Jack!” The relief in Lisa’s voice was like a cool spray of water. “Where are you?”
He checked the depth gauge. Two hundred twenty feet. He couldn’t believe his rate of ascent. It was lucky his sub was a sealed one-atmosphere vehicle, maintaining a constant internal pressure. If not, he would have died of the bends before now. “I’ll be surfacing in about three minutes.”
Glancing at his compass, Jack frowned. The needle spun around as if still dizzy from the tumble. He tapped at it, but the needle continued to spin. He gave up and touched his mike. “Compass is fried. Not sure how far off I am, but once up, I’ll hit the GPS beacon so you can track me.”
“And what about you? Are you okay?”
“Just bruised and battered.”
Charlie came on the line. “For someone who just survived a volcanic eruption under the seat of his pants, you are damn lucky, mon. I wish I could’ve seen it.”
Jack grinned. The birth of an undersea volcano was surely a geologist’s wet dream. Jack fingered the hard knot atop his head, wincing. “Believe me, Charlie, I wish you had been here instead of me, too.”
Around Jack, the waters grew from a deep purple to a lighter aquamarine. “Coming up,” he said.
“What about the Kochi Maru?” a new voice asked, hopeful. Jack was surprised to hear from Professor George Klein, the ship’s historian and cartographer. The professor seldom left the Deep Fathom’s extensive library.
Jack suppressed a groan. “Sorry, Doc. She’s gone…so is the gold.”
With disappointment, George finally responded, “Well, we can’t even be certain the Kochi Maru’s manifests were accurate. During the war, the Japanese often falsified records to mask their gold shipments.”
Jack pictured the tall pile of bricks. “It was accurate,” he said gloomily.
Charlie came back on the line. “Hey, Jack, it seems you were not the only one shaken up. Reports are coming in from all over. Earthquakes and eruptions have been rattling the entire Pacific, coast-to-coast.”
Jack frowned. What did he care? Since leaving the world behind twelve years ago, he had little interest in the rest of the planet. All that mattered was this single eruption. It had cost him not only a huge fortune, but possibly even his ship. “Signing off,” he said with a long sigh. “Be topside in one minute.”
He watched the water grow lighter. Soon the bubble of his dome broke the surface. The brightness of the afternoon sun stung. He shaded his eyes. Off to the west, the seas burbled with steaming bubbles, marking the site of the undersea volcano. But off to the southeast, he spotted a dark blip. The Deep Fathom.
He hit the distress beacon, activating the GPS locator, then leaned back to wait. As he stared out over the water, a glint caught his eye. Curious, he sat up straighter. He reached and fingered the RMS controls to lift the two external arms. As they were raised, seawater dripped from the titanium limbs.
Jack sat straighter, bumping his head again. “It can’t be….”
Sunlight shone brightly off two large bricks, one clamped in each pincer. He’d forgotten about grabbing them before fleeing the hold of the Kochi Maru. The gold bars had been scrubbed clean by the rough flight to the surface, but luckily, they had remained clamped in the hydraulic grips.
He whistled appreciatively. “Things are suddenly looking brighter.”
George’s voice came on the line again. “Jack, we’ve got your GPS signal.”
“That’s great!” Jack said, jubilant, barely hearing the words. “And make sure you have the champagne chilled!”
George’s response was clearly puzzled. “Oh…okay…but I thought you should know we just received a call on the Globalstar.”
Jack sobered, sensing an undercurrent of tension. “Who’s calling?”
A long pause. “Admiral Mark Houston.”
Jack felt as if he’d been slugged in the stomach. His former naval commander. “Wh-What? Why?” He had hoped never to hear that name again. He had put that life behind him.
“He’s ordered us to a set of coordinates. About four hundred nautical miles from here, and—”
Jack clenched his fists, interrupting. “Ordered us? Tell him to take his order and shove it up—”
Now George interrupted. “There’s been a plane crash. A rescue operation is being gathered.”
Jack bit his lip. It was the Navy’s right to ask for his aid. The Deep Fathom was a registered salvage ship. Still, Jack found his hands trembling.
Old memories and emotions flared brighter. He remembered his awe at seeing the shuttle Atlantis shining brightly in the Florida sunshine, and the pride he felt upon learning he would be the first Navy SEAL to fly in that bird. But shadowing these pleasant memories were darker ones: flames, searing pain…a gloved hand reaching for him, voices screaming…slipping, tumbling…an endless fall.
Seated in the Nautilus, Jack felt as if he were still falling.
“Did you hear me, Jack?”
Shaking, he could not breathe, let alone answer.
“Jack, the plane that crashed…it’s Air Force One.”
Dragons of Okinawa
July 25, 6:30 A.M.
Naha City, Island of Okinawa, Japan
Crouching behind an alley trash bin, Karen Grace tried her best to avoid the military patrol. As she hid, two armed servicemen sauntered into view, flashlights in hand. One of them stopped to light a cigarette. Holding her breath, Karen prayed for them to pass. In the light of the match, she noticed the insignia on a sleeve. U.S. NAVY.
After yesterday’s earthquakes, a state of martial law had been declared throughout the prefectures of Japan, including the southern island chain of Okinawa. Looters had been plaguing the city and outlying areas. The island leaders, overwhelmed by the level of destruction and chaos, had requested support from the local American military bases, to aid in clean-up, rescue, and protection of the damaged city.
The city’s leaders had set a curfew for Naha from dusk to dawn, and Karen was breaking that new law. The sun was still a half hour from rising.
Move…keep walking, she silently urged them.
As if hearing her, one of the men raised his flashlight and shone it down the alley. Karen froze, closing her eyes, afraid any movement would draw his attention. She wore an embroidered dark jacket and black slacks, but she wished she had thought to cover her blond hair. She felt exposed, sure the two servicemen would spot her. At last the light vanished.
Karen opened her eyes. A mumble followed by a bark of laughter echoed back to her. A crude joke. The pair continued on their patrol. Relieved, she sagged against the metal Dumpster.
From deeper in the shadows a voice whispered at her, “Are they gone?”
Karen pushed up from her knees. “Yeah, but that was too close.”
“We shouldn’t be doing this,” her accomplice hissed, climbing out of the shadows.
Karen helped Miyuki Nakano up. Her friend swore under her breath, convincingly, considering English was Miyuki’s second language. On leave from her Japanese university professorship, Miyuki had worked for two years at a Palo Alto Internet firm and had grown fluent in English. But the petite teacher was clearly out of place here as she crawled from under a pile of old newspapers and rotted vegetables. Miyuki seldom left her pristine computer lab at Ryukyu University, and was rarely spotted without her starched and pressed lab coat.
But not this morning.
Miyuki wore a dark red blouse and black jeans, both now prominently stained. Her ebony hair was tied back into a conservative ponytail. She plucked a spinach leaf from her blouse and flung it away in disgust. “If you weren’t my best friend—”
“I know…and I apologize for the hundredth time.” Karen turned away. “But, Miyuki, you didn’t have to come along.”
“And leave you to venture through Naha alone, meeting with who knows what manner of scoundrel? It’s just not safe.”
Karen nodded. At least this last statement was true. Sirens echoed throughout the ravaged city. Searchlights from temporary camps cast beacons into the night skies. Though the curfew had been ordered, shouts and gunfire could be heard all around. Karen had not expected to find the city in such chaos.
Miyuki continued to complain about their predicament. “Who knows what type of men will be waiting for us? White slavers? Drug smugglers?”
“It’s only one of the local fishermen. Samo vouched for the man.”
“And you trust a senile janitor’s word?”
Karen rolled her eyes. Miyuki could worry a hole through tempered steel. “Samo is anything but senile. If he says this fisherman can take us to see the Dragons, then I trust him.” She lifted the edge of her jacket to reveal a black leather shoulder harness. “And besides, I have this.” The .38 automatic fit snugly under her arm.