Ming's lungs were screaming for oxygen. He held his breath, still trying to kick toward the surface. Breathe! He fought the reflex, clamping his insensate lips together. Breathe! He tried in vain to swim upward. Breathe! At that instant, in a deadly battle of human reflex against reason, Ming's breathing instinct overcame his ability to keep his mouth closed.
Wailee Ming inhaled.
The water crashing into his lungs felt like scalding oil on his sensitive pulmonary tissue. He felt like he was burning from the inside out. Cruelly, water does not kill immediately. Ming spent seven horrifying seconds inhaling in the icy water, each breath more painful than the last, each inhalation offering none of what his body so desperately craved.
Finally, as Ming slid downward into the icy darkness, he felt himself going unconscious. He welcomed the escape. All around him in the water Ming saw tiny glowing specks of light. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
The East Appointment Gate of the White House is located on East Executive Avenue between the Treasury Department and the East Lawn. The reinforced perimeter fence and cement bollards installed after the attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut give this entry an air that is anything but welcoming.
Outside the gate, Gabrielle Ashe checked her watch, feeling a growing nervousness. It was 4:45 P.M., and still nobody had made contact.
EAST APPOINTMENT GATE, 4:30 P.M. COME ALONE.
Here I am, she thought. Where are you?
Gabrielle scanned the faces of the tourists milling about, waiting for someone to catch her eye. A few men looked her over and moved on. Gabrielle was beginning to wonder if this had been such a good idea. She sensed the Secret Serviceman in the sentry shack had his eye on her now. Gabrielle decided her informant had gotten cold feet. Gazing one last time through the heavy fence toward the White House, Gabrielle sighed and turned to go.
"Gabrielle Ashe?" the Secret Serviceman called out behind her.
Gabrielle wheeled, her heart catching in her throat. Yes?
The man in the guard shack waved her over. He was lean with a humorless face. "Your party is ready to see you now." He unlocked the main gate and motioned for her to enter.
Gabrielle's feet refused to move. "I'm coming inside?"
The guard nodded. "I was asked to apologize for keeping you waiting."
Gabrielle looked at the open doorway and still could not move. What's going on! This was not at all what she had expected.
"You are Gabrielle Ashe, are you not?" the guard demanded, looking impatient now.
"Yes, sir, but-"
"Then I strongly suggest you follow me."
Gabrielle's feet jolted into motion. As she stepped tentatively over the threshold, the gate slammed shut behind her.
Two days without sunlight had rearranged Michael Tolland's biological clock. Although his watch said it was late afternoon, Tolland's body insisted it was the middle of the night. Now, having put the finishing touches on his documentary, Michael Tolland had downloaded the entire video file onto a digital video disk and was making his way across the darkened dome. Arriving at the illuminated press area, he delivered the disk to the NASA media technician in charge of overseeing the presentation.
"Thanks, Mike," the technician said, winking as he held up the video disk. "Kind of redefines 'must-see TV,' eh?"
Tolland gave a tired chuckle. "I hope the President likes it."
"No doubt. Anyhow, your work is done. Sit back and enjoy the show."
"Thanks." Tolland stood in the brightly lit press area and surveyed the convivial NASA personnel toasting the meteorite with cans of Canadian beer. Even though Tolland wanted to celebrate, he felt exhausted, emotionally drained. He glanced around for Rachel Sexton, but apparently she was still talking to the President.
He wants to put her on-air, Tolland thought. Not that he blamed him; Rachel would be a perfect addition to the cast of meteorite spokespeople. In addition to her good looks, Rachel exuded an accessible poise and self-confidence that Tolland seldom saw in the women he met. Then again, most of the women Tolland met were in television-either ruthless power women or gorgeous on-air "personalities" who lacked exactly that.
Now, slipping quietly away from the crowd of bustling NASA employees, Tolland navigated the web of pathways across the dome, wondering where the other civilian scientists had disappeared to. If they felt half as drained as he did, they should be in the bunking area grabbing a catnap before the big moment. Ahead of him in the distance, Tolland could see the circle of SHABA pylons around the deserted extraction pit. The empty dome overhead seemed to echo with the hollow voices of distant memories. Tolland tried to block them out.
Forget the ghosts, he willed himself. They often haunted him at times like these, when he was tired or alone-times of personal triumph or celebration. She should be with you right now, the voice whispered. Alone in the darkness, he felt himself reeling backward into oblivion.
Celia Birch had been his sweetheart in graduate school. One Valentine's Day, Tolland took her to her favorite restaurant. When the waiter brought Celia's dessert, it was a single rose and a diamond ring. Celia understood immediately. With tears in her eyes, she spoke a single word that made Michael Tolland as happy as he'd ever been.
Filled with anticipation, they bought a small house near Pasadena, where Celia got a job as a science teacher. Although the pay was modest, it was a start, and it was also close to Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, where Tolland had landed his dream job aboard a geologic research ship. Tolland's work meant he was away for three or four days at a time, but his reunions with Celia were always passionate and exciting.
While at sea, Tolland began videotaping some of his adventures for Celia, making minidocumentaries of his work onboard the ship. After one trip, he returned with a grainy home video that he'd shot out of the window of a deepwater submersible-the first footage ever shot of a bizarre chemotropic cuttlefish that nobody even knew existed. On camera, as he narrated the video, Tolland was practically bursting out of the submarine with enthusiasm.
Literally thousands of undiscovered species, he gushed, live in these depths! We've barely scratched the surface! There are mysteries down here that none of us can imagine!
Celia was enthralled with her husband's ebullience and concise scientific explanation. On a whim, she showed the tape to her science class, and it became an instant hit. Other teachers wanted to borrow it. Parents wanted to make copies. It seemed everyone was eagerly awaiting Michael's next installment. Celia suddenly had an idea. She called a college friend of hers who worked for NBC and sent her a videotape.
Two months later, Michael Tolland came to Celia and asked her to take a walk with him on Kingman Beach. It was their special place, where they always went to share their hopes and dreams.
"I have something I want to tell you," Tolland said.
Celia stopped, taking her husband's hands as the water lapped around their feet. "What is it?"
Tolland was bursting. "Last week, I got a call from NBC television. They think I should host an oceanic documentary series. It's perfect. They want to make a pilot next year! Can you believe it?"
Celia kissed him, beaming. "I believe it. You'll be great."
Six months later, Celia and Tolland were sailing near Catalina when Celia began complaining of pain in her side. They ignored it for a few weeks, but finally it got too much. Celia went in to have it checked out.
In an instant, Tolland's dream life shattered into a hellish nightmare. Celia was ill. Very ill.