The Coast Guard Group Air Station Atlantic City is located in a secure section of William J. Hughes Federal Aviation Administration Technical Center at the Atlantic City International Airport. The groups area of responsibility includes the Atlantic seaboard from Asbury Park to Cape May.
Rachel Sexton jolted awake as the planes tires screeched down on the tarmac of the lone runway nestled between two enormous cargo buildings. Surprised to find she had fallen asleep, Rachel groggily checked her watch.
2:13 A.M. She felt like shed been asleep for days.
A warm onboard blanket was tucked carefully around her, and Michael Tolland was also just waking up beside her. He gave her a weary smile.
Corky staggered up the aisle and frowned when he saw them. Shit, you guys are still here? I woke up hoping tonight had been a bad dream.
Rachel knew exactly how he felt. Im headed back out to sea.
The plane taxied to a stop, and Rachel and the others climbed out onto a barren runway. The night was over‑cast, but the coastal air felt heavy and warm. In comparison to Ellesmere, New Jersey felt like the tropics.
Over here! a voice called out.
Rachel and the others turned to see one of the Coast Guards classic, crimson‑colored HH‑65 Dolphin helicopters waiting nearby. Framed by the brilliant white stripe on the choppers tail, a fully suited pilot waved them over.
Tolland gave Rachel an impressed nod. Your boss certainly gets things done.
You have no idea, she thought.
Corky slumped. Already? No dinner stop?
The pilot welcomed them over and helped them aboard. Never asking their names, he spoke exclusively in pleasantries and safety precautions. Pickering had apparently made it clear to the Coast Guard that this flight was not an advertised mission. Nonetheless, despite Pickerings discretion, Rachel could see that their identities had remained a secret for only a matter of seconds; the pilot failed to hide his wide‑eyed double take upon seeing television celebrity Michael Tolland.
Rachel was already feeling tense as she buckled herself in beside Tolland. The Aerospatiale engine overhead shrieked to life, and the Dolphins sagging thirty‑nine‑foot rotors began to flatten out into a silver blur. The whine turned to a roar, and it lifted off the runway, climbing into the night.
The pilot turned in the cockpit and called out, I was informed you would tell me your destination once we were airborne.
Tolland gave the pilot the coordinates of an offshore location about thirty miles southeast of their current position.
His ship is twelve miles off the coast, Rachel thought, feeling a shiver.
The pilot typed the coordinates into his navigation system. Then he settled in and gunned the engines. The chopper tipped forward and banked southeast.
As the dark dunes of the New Jersey coast slipped away beneath the aircraft, Rachel turned her eyes away from the blackness of the ocean spreading out beneath her. Despite the wariness of being back over the water again, she tried to take comfort in knowing she was accompanied by a man who had made the ocean a lifetime friend. Tolland was pressed close beside her in the narrow fuselage, his hips and shoulders touching hers. Neither made any attempt to shift positions.
I know I shouldnt say this, the pilot sputtered suddenly, as if ready to burst with excitement, but youre obviously Michael Tolland, and Ive got to say, well, weve been watching you on TV all night! The meteorite! Its absolutely incredible! You must be in awe!
Tolland nodded patiently. Speechless.
The documentary was fantastic! You know, the networks keep playing it over and over. None of tonights duty pilots wanted this gig because everyone wanted to keep watching television, but I drew short straw. Can you believe it! Short straw! And here I am! If the boys had any idea Id be flying the actual‑
We appreciate the ride, Rachel interrupted, and we need you to keep our presence here to yourself. Nobodys supposed to know were here.
Absolutely, maam. My orders were very clear. The pilot hesitated, and then his expression brightened. Hey, we arent by any chance heading for the Goya, are we?
Tolland gave a reluctant nod. We are.
Holy shit! the pilot exclaimed. Excuse me. Sorry, but Ive seen her on your show. The twin‑hull, right? Strange‑looking beast! Ive never actually been on a SWATH design. I never dreamed yours would be the first!
Rachel tuned the man out, feeling a rising uneasiness to be heading out to sea.
Tolland turned to her. You okay? You could have stayed onshore. I told you that.
I should have stayed onshore, Rachel thought, knowing pride would never have let her. No thanks, Im fine.
Tolland smiled. Ill keep an eye on you.
Thanks. Rachel was surprised how the warmth in his voice made her feel more secure.
Youve seen the Goya on television, right?
She nodded. Its a . . . um . . . an interesting‑looking ship.
Tolland laughed. Yeah. She was an extremely progressive prototype in her day, but the design never quite caught on.
Cant imagine why, Rachel joked, picturing the ships bizarre profile.
Now NBC is pressuring me to use a newer ship. Something . . . I dont know, flashier, sexier. Another season or two, and theyll make me part with her. Tolland sounded melancholy at the thought.
You wouldnt love a brand‑new ship?
I dont know . . . a lot of memories onboard the Goya.
Rachel smiled softly. Well, as my mom used to say, sooner or later weve all got to let go of our past.
Tollands eyes held hers for a long moment. Yeah, I know.