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Jack had never seen Mark Houston look so worried. I'll do my best to help, he said sincerely. Just ask, and I'll do it.

Charlie worked atop the submersible as it floated behind the Fathom, stomping around, visually checking seals, while Robert, in mask and snorkel, swam under the ship. Jack had done his own check, but his crew were taking no chances. Check everything twice, he had drilled into them.

Jack looked up at the Jamaican geologist. I'm going, Charlie.

Jack reached out and clasped the large man's hand. Then Charlie lowered the acrylic dome over Jack's head and screwed it into place. Once done, Charlie gave Jack a thumbs-up and dove off the sub, joining the marine biologist in the water as Jack finalized his checklist.

Jack froze in the man's embrace, unable to speak.

And the Navy is the real world? Jack snorted.

I see you at least keep abreast of current events out here, Houston teased lightly, but his voice quickly grew sober again. His brows knit with worry. Washington is screaming for answers. Before Nafe can be sworn in, we need to put the fate of President Bishop to rest. Already rumors are spreading. Some are claiming terrorists-Arabs, Russian, Chinese, Serbian, or even the I.R.A. Take your pick. Some are saying it's all a hoax. Some say it's a conspiracy tied to JFK The admiral shook his head. It's a friggin' mess. For order to be restored, we need concrete answers. We need a body we can bury with the usual pomp and ceremony. That's why we're here.

On the drawing boards maybe, but this is real life. Hie ocean has a way of surprising you. She can be a real bitch.

Check and check. Diving now he said dryly. He engaged the thrusters, the sub humming under him. He took on ballast and the Nautilus began to lower into the surf. The water line climbed up the dome, swamping over Jack's head.

On the drawing boards maybe, but this is real life. Hie ocean has a way of surprising you. She can be a real bitch.

'It's more than just the President, Jack. We've lost Presidents before. But never under such circumstances, in the middle of a worldwide catastrophe. As much as the rest of the world disparages the United States and its foreign policy, it still doesn't stop them from looking to us for leadership during a time of crisis-and now we are leaderless, rudderless.

On the drawing boards maybe, but this is real life. Hie ocean has a way of surprising you. She can be a real bitch.

Houston released him and headed toward the door. I have a few last minute details to address, but help yourself to the sandwiches, Jack. The egg salad is especially good. Real eggs, not that powdered shit. The admiral gave him a tired smile, then left, closing the door behind him.

Around the Fathom, the other search ships were spread in a wide circle. Off to the south, the Gibraltar filled the horizon. Overhead, & Sea Knight helicopter buzzed by. All eyes remained on Jack and his tiny sub.

Three hours later Jack found himself back on the Deep Fathom, but not for long. Dressed in his blue Norseman dry suit, he climbed into the cockpit of the Nautilus 2000, squeezing into the cramped seat. Once settled, he hooked up the Bio-Sensor monitors and attached his microphone. He ran down the predive safety checklist with Lisa, who was in the Fathom's pilothouse.

Jack just stared, dumbfounded.

Jack nodded, standing also. Of course. It's Air Force One. The President.

Lisa came on the radio. You're ready to go, Jack. The nervousness in her voice could not be hidden.

She's rated for this depth.

What about the Vice President? Lawrence Nafe?

Jack shook his head. Listen, I appreciate your concern. I really do. But I'm almost forty years old, not a child to be coddled. Whether you believe it or not, I'm happy in my current life.

On the drawing boards maybe, but this is real life. Hie ocean has a way of surprising you. She can be a real bitch.

His former commander sighed and lifted his hands in surrender. You are a goddamn piece of work, Jack. He stood up. The briefing should be under way shortly. I suppose you understand the importance of our work here.

Houston released him and headed toward the door. I have a few last minute details to address, but help yourself to the sandwiches, Jack. The egg salad is especially good. Real eggs, not that powdered shit. The admiral gave him a tired smile, then left, closing the door behind him.

Jack just stared, dumbfounded.

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