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:
United States Coast Guard
Baffled, Sexton watched as the cabin door opened and a woman emerged. She wore an orange Coast Guard parka and looked disheveled, like she'd been through a war. She strode toward the press area. For a moment, Sexton didn't recognize her. Then it hit him.
Rachel? He gaped in shock. What the hell is SHE doing here?
A murmur of confusion went through the crowd.
Pasting a broad smile on his face, Sexton turned back to the press and raised an apologetic finger. "If you could give me just one minute? I'm terribly sorry." He heaved the weary, good-natured sigh. "Family first."