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Delta‑Three’s foot screamed in pain. He felt himself floating through a muddled consciousness. Is this death? He tried to move but felt paralyzed, barely able to breathe. He saw only blurred shapes. His mind reeled back, recalling the explosion of the Crestliner out at sea, seeing the rage in Michael Tolland’s eyes as the oceanographer stood over him, holding the explosive pole to his throat.

Certainly Tolland killed me . . .

And yet the searing pain in Delta‑Three’s right foot told him he was very much alive. Slowly it came back. On hearing the explosion of the Crestliner, Tolland had let out a cry of anguished rage for his lost friend. Then, turning his ravaged eyes to Delta‑Three, Tolland had arched as if preparing to ram the rod through Delta‑Three’s throat. But as he did, he seemed to hesitate, as if his own morality were holding him back. With brutal frustration and fury, Tolland yanked the rod away and drove his boot down on Delta‑Three’s tattered foot.

The last thing Delta‑Three remembered was vomiting in agony as his whole world drifted into a black delirium. Now he was coming to, with no idea how long he had been unconscious. He could feel his arms tied behind his back in a knot so tight it could only have been tied by a sailor. His legs were also bound, bent behind him and tied to his wrists, leaving him in an immobilized backward arch. He tried to call out, but no sound came. His mouth was stuffed with something.

Delta‑Three could not imagine what was going on. It was then he felt the cool breeze and saw the bright lights. He realized he was up on the Goya’s main deck. He twisted to look for help and was met by a frightful sight, his own reflection‑bulbous and misshapen in the reflective Plexiglas bubble of the Goya’s deepwater submersible. The sub hung right in front of him, and Delta‑Three realized he was lying on a giant trapdoor in the deck. This was not nearly as unsettling as the most obvious question.

If I’m on deck . . . then where is Delta‑Two?

Delta‑Two had grown uneasy.

Despite his partner’s CrypTalk transmission claiming he was fine, the single gunshot had not been that of a machine gun. Obviously, Tolland or Rachel Sexton had fired a weapon. Delta‑Two moved over to peer down the ramp where his partner had descended, and he saw blood.

Weapon raised, he had descended belowdecks, where he followed the trail of blood along a catwalk to the bow of the ship. Here, the trail of blood had led him back up another ramp to the main deck. It was deserted. With growing wariness, Delta‑Two had followed the long crimson smear along the sideboard deck back toward the rear of the ship, where it passed the opening to the original ramp he had descended.

What the hell is going on? The smear seemed to travel in a giant circle.

Moving cautiously, his gun trained ahead of him, Delta‑Two passed the entrance to the laboratory section of the ship. The smear continued toward the stern deck. Carefully he swung wide, rounding the corner. His eye traced the trail.

Then he saw it.

Jesus Christ!

Delta‑Three was lying there‑bound and gagged‑dumped unceremoniously directly in front of the Goya’s small submersible. Even from a distance, Delta‑Two could see that his partner was missing a good portion of his right foot.

Wary of a trap, Delta‑Two raised his gun and moved forward. Delta‑Three was writhing now, trying to speak. Ironically, the way the man had been bound‑with his knees sharply bent behind him‑was probably saving his life; the bleeding in his foot appeared to have slowed.

As Delta‑Two approached the submersible, he appreciated the rare luxury of being able to watch his own back; the entire deck of the ship was reflected in the sub’s rounded cockpit dome. Delta‑Two arrived at his struggling partner. He saw the warning in his eyes too late.

The flash of silver came out of nowhere.

One of the Triton’s manipulator claws suddenly leaped forward and clamped down on Delta‑Two’s left thigh with crushing force. He tried to pull away, but the claw bore down. He screamed in pain, feeling a bone break. His eyes shot to the sub’s cockpit. Peering through the reflection of the deck, Delta‑Two could now see him, ensconced in the shadows of the Triton’s interior.

Michael Tolland was inside the sub, at the controls.

Bad idea, Delta‑Two seethed, blocking out his pain and shouldering his machine gun. He aimed up and to the left at Tolland’s chest, only three feet away on the other side of the sub’s Plexiglas dome. He pulled the trigger, and the gun roared. Wild with rage at having been tricked, Delta‑Two held the trigger back until the last of his shells clattered to the deck and his gun clicked empty. Breathless, he dropped the weapon and glared at the shredded dome in front of him.

“Dead!” the soldier hissed, straining to pull his leg from the clamp. As he twisted, the metal clamp severed his skin, opening a large gash. “Fuck!” He reached now for the CrypTalk on his belt. But as he raised it to his lips, a second robotic arm snapped open in front of him and lunged forward, clamping around his right arm. The CrypTalk fell to the deck.

It was then that Delta‑Two saw the ghost in the window before him. A pale visage leaning sideways and peering out through an unscathed edge of glass. Stunned, Delta‑Two looked at the center of the dome and realized the bullets had not even come close to penetrating the thick shell. The dome was cratered with pockmarks.

An instant later, the topside portal on the sub opened, and Michael Tolland emerged. He looked shaky but unscathed. Climbing down the aluminum gangway, Tolland stepped onto the deck and eyed his sub’s destroyed dome window.

“Ten thousand pounds per square inch,” Tolland said. “Looks like you need a bigger gun.”

Inside the hydrolab, Rachel knew time was running out. She had heard the gunshots out on the deck and was praying that everything had happened exactly as Tolland had planned. She no longer cared who was behind the meteorite deception‑the NASA administrator, Marjorie Tench, or the President himself‑none of it mattered anymore.

They will not get away with this. Whoever it is, the truth will be told.

The wound on Rachel’s arm had stopped bleeding, and the adrenaline coursing through her body had muted the pain and sharpened her focus. Finding a pen and paper, she scrawled a two‑line message. The words were blunt and awkward, but eloquence was not a luxury she had time for at the moment. She added the note to the incriminating stack of papers in her hand‑the GPR printout, images of Bathynomous giganteus, photos and articles regarding oceanic chondrules, an electron microscan printout. The meteorite was a fake, and this was the proof.

Rachel inserted the entire stack into the hydrolab’s fax machine. Knowing only a few fax numbers by heart, she had limited choices, but she had already made up her mind who would be receiving these pages and her note. Holding her breath, she carefully typed in the person’s fax number.

She pressed “send,” praying she had chosen the recipient wisely.

The fax machine beeped.

ERROR: NO DIAL TONE

Rachel had expected this. The Goya’s communications were still being jammed. She stood waiting and watching the machine, hoping it functioned like hers at home.

Come on!

After five seconds, the machine beeped again.

REDIALING . . .

Yes! Rachel watched the machine lock into an endless loop.

ERROR: NO DIAL TONE

REDIALING . . .

ERROR: NO DIAL TONE

REDIALING . . .

Leaving the fax machine in search of a dial tone, Rachel dashed out of the hydrolab just as helicopter blades thundered overhead.