Where's Michael? She didn't see him. Her panic lasted only an instant as a new fear descended. Overhead, the Triton's shredded winch cable let out an ominous whipping noise as the braids unraveled. Then, there was a loud snap, and Rachel felt the cable give way.
Momentarily weightless, Rachel hovered above her seat inside the cockpit as the sub hurtled downward. The deck disappeared overhead, and the catwalks under the Goya raced by. The soldier trapped in the claws went white with fear, staring at Rachel as the sub accelerated downward.
The fall seemed endless.
When the sub crashed into the sea beneath the Goya, it plunged hard under the surf, ramming Rachel down hard into her seat. Her spine compressed as the illuminated ocean raced up over the dome. She felt a suffocating drag as the sub slowed to a stop underwater and then raced back toward the surface, bobbing up like a cork.
The sharks hit instantly. From her front-row seat, Rachel sat frozen in place as the spectacle unfolded only a few feet away.
Delta-Two felt the shark's oblong head crash into him with unimaginable force. A razor sharp clamp tightened on his upper arm, slicing to the bone and locking on. A flash of white-hot pain exploded as the shark torqued its powerful body and shook its head violently, tearing Delta-Two's arm off his body. Others sharks moved in. Knives stabbing at his legs. Torso. Neck. Delta-Two had no breath to scream in agony as the sharks ripped huge chunks of his body away. The last thing he saw was a crescent-shaped mouth, tilting sideways, a gorge of teeth clamping down across his face.
The world went black.
Inside the Triton, the thudding of heavy cartilaginous heads ramming into the dome finally subsided. Rachel opened her eyes. The man was gone. The water washing against the window was crimson.
Badly battered, Rachel huddled in her chair, knees pulled to her chest. She could feel the sub moving. It was drifting on the current, scraping along the length of the Goya's lower dive deck. She could feel it moving in another direction as well. Down.
Outside, the distinctive gurgling of water into the ballast tanks grew louder. The ocean inched higher on the glass in front of her.
A jolt of terror shot through Rachel, and she was suddenly scrambling to her feet. Reaching overhead, she grabbed the hatch mechanism. If she could climb up on top of the sub, she still had time to jump onto the Goya's dive deck. It was only a few feet away.
I've got to get out!
The hatch mechanism was clearly marked which way to turn it to open. She heaved. The hatch did not budge. She tried again. Nothing. The portal was jammed shut. Bent. As the fear rose in her blood like the sea around her, Rachel heaved one last time.
The hatch did not move.
The Triton sank a few inches deeper, bumping the Goya one last time before drifting out from underneath the mangled hull... and into the open sea.
"Don't do this," Gabrielle begged the senator as he finished at the copy machine. "You're risking your daughter's life!"
Sexton blocked out her voice, moving back to his desk now with ten identical stacks of photocopies. Each stack contained copies of the pages Rachel had faxed him, including her handwritten note claiming the meteorite was a fake and accusing NASA and the White House of trying to kill her.
The most shocking media kits ever assembled, Sexton thought, as he began carefully inserting each stack into its own large, white linen envelope. Each envelope bore his name, office address, and senatorial seal. There would be no doubt where this incredible information had originated. The political scandal of the century, Sexton thought, and I will be the one to reveal it!
Gabrielle was still pleading for Rachel's safety, but Sexton heard only silence. As he assembled the envelopes, he was in his own private world. Every political career has a defining moment. This is mine.
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.