Backfire

A tech billionaire discovers a zero-sum energy device from wreckage located at the bottom of the world’s deepest oceanic trench, and the United States Navy sends for Mallory Capehart – their best salvage officer.

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A tech billionaire discovers a zero-sum energy device from wreckage located at the bottom of the world’s deepest oceanic trench…

Deeper than Mount Everest is tall.

The United States Navy sends for Mallory Capehart, their best salvage officer… Commander Mallory Capehart USN.

She is haunted by memories of a past disaster that killed everyone on her dive team and suffers from acute PTSD.

Her mission? To raise and recover the wreck of a legendary vessel.

Mallory accepts the top-secret assignment to do the impossible and no one knows whether she’ll succeed. Adding to her problems are the Chinese and Russians who also want the zero-sum energy device. And Mallory isn’t quite sure who’s side some of her teammates are on.

Chapter 1

YEAR 2037–800Z HRS, Rancho Bernardo Park, North San Diego County

Without breaking her stride Mallory swerved around the still steaming dog shit and past dense stands of fragrant coastal sage and prickly pear cactuses. To her left lay beautiful Lake Hodges, a popular spot for anglers, boaters, hikers and joggers. And one serial killer, Mallory reminded herself. A sharp chill prickled along her spine at the memory of the lurid news accounts of the three murdered young women, two of them joggers like her. The perp was now a guest of “Hotel California” where he would serve three life terms in exchange for the guilty plea the prosecutor had sought to spare the victims’ families the ordeal of a lengthy trial, and years of endless death-row appeals.

Mallory reflected that the trail was a lonely place to die, to be left like illegally dumped trash among the bushes growing between it and the nearby lake. Now the trail, bright and clean in the morning sunlight, felt like it could become her place of death, too.

Other dark thoughts elbowed their way into her head. Mind-fucking memories of a mission gone horribly wrong—A terrific explosion amplified four times by the water, the tortured shriek of steel as the massive offshore oil platform violently tore itself apart, followed seconds later by it smashing down on her and the other salvage divers, whose frantic cries and shrieks of terror had filled her headset. Shivering in a gray woolen blanket as corpses were lined up on the support ship’s deck, an accusing stare from the only other survivor, whose later testimony during the Naval Board of Inquiry hearing had nearly derailed her career. True, the three flag officers sitting on the BOI had unanimously exonerated Mallory and recommended the Navy retain her. But they’d also ordered her not return to active duty until cleared by a Navy psychologist. The accident was still an open wound that was nowhere near healed. Mallory was aching to get back to work but the shrink was having none of it. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was nothing to mess with, as he never failed to remind Mallory, with professional patience. Invariably adding that a high suicide rate was still a problem in the United States armed forces.

But Mallory was worried that if she stayed out of the game too long because she was in therapy the Navy might decide to cut her loose. She’d seen it happen to others.

She sure as hell didn’t want that shit happening to her.

Mallory poured on the steam, as if she could somehow outrun the poisonous memories and the survivor’s guilt that had shadowed her ever since that nightmarish day. A year of intense therapy had done little to stem the panic attacks that often caused her to seize up, and she’d had started hitting the bottle, hitting it hard. She kept that little tidbit from the shrink. Excessive drinking—she couldn’t bring herself to use the word alcoholism—and, really, who was to say what actually constituted a drinking problem—was a surefire way to get your ass kicked to the curb. Besides, the drinking had only started after the accident. Alcohol soothed her shredded nerves and helped deal with the bag of shit she was carrying around in her head. She was betting that when the time came to get back in harness she’d get the boozing under control—she just had to.

Mallory soon reached the spot on the trail where the sage began to merge with the coastal pines lining the lake’s shore. Her Nike-clad feet pounded the soil, her breath even and measured—two steps breathing in, two steps breathing out.

The sage and pines bordering the trail closed in and Mallory entered the cool blue penumbra of overarching branches. She should have felt sheltered and relaxed, but she felt hemmed in and wary. She heard the drone of insects and birds calling out but all her attention was on the trail ahead and maintaining her form. She slowed to an easier but still challenging pace so she could listen and observe her surroundings better.

The shadows deepened around her, even as the gloom inside her intensified.

Mallory’s runner’s footfalls on the earthen trail were measured and steady; her form was track star perfect—head up, chest out, back straight and forearms parallel with the ground. Years of training and competition were evident in her lean athlete’s body and disciplined technique.

Mallory rounded a bend in the trail.

It suddenly got quiet: No drone of insects or bright birdsong—nothing.

A cloud of birds burst from the trees and brush, wings beating furiously, and Mallory went from Yellow to Red Alert. A man with a shaved head stepped from behind a tree with his arm thrust out toward her. He was built like a heavyweight prizefighter, and his expressionless face was made still more inscrutable by mirrored aviator sunglasses. He wore a dark windbreaker, faded jeans and sneakers, and an air of menace. A thin white scar puckered one clean-shaven cheek suggesting a run in with the wrong end of a knife. He was either some type of cop or a creep. Mallory didn’t have any legal problems. That left Option Two: A creep out to prey on a lone female jogger.

Scarface opened his mouth to speak gruffly. “Mallory Capehart…”

Mallory didn’t hesitate. That he knew her name heightened her alarm—a stalker, then. She slammed the heel of her palm into his nose. As he sprawled backwards, his head thudding into the ground hard, Mallory brought one foot down on his crotch with enough force to turn the family jewels into strawberry jam.

Scarface’s howl sounded like that of a wounded animal. Mallory spun around and flew back down the trail on feet winged with fear, battling the panic coiling up her spine. Scarface must have been stalking her for some time. He knew her name and daily routine. It wasn’t uncommon for a beautiful woman to attract the attention of some weirdo who mistook a polite smile or casual glance in his direction for something more. Everyday somewhere in America some unlucky woman was murdered by her stalker.

Mallory covered the three miles back to her car in eighteen minutes, emerged from the trailhead into the parking lot, and sped toward her beat up old Nissan Sentra, pulling her car keys from her wrist zipper while scanning the trailhead for her attacker. Mallory promised herself that this would be the last time she went for a run without her cell phone, even if having it along was a nuisance.

Suddenly, two unmarked black SUVs tore into the parking lot, red and blue lights flashing behind their blacked out grills. One blocked her car while the other squatted menacingly ten yards away, their occupants hidden by the black tinted windows.

Mallory had a sinking feeling she’d just clobbered a cop. The doors of the SUV blocking her car flew open. Four men clad in dark windbreakers and sunglasses poured out, taking up positions around her with their hands resting on holstered pistols.

Mallory surveyed the scene. The man closest to her was tall with salt and pepper hair. He looked like a man accustomed to being obeyed at once by lesser mortals.

“Step back from the car, and keep your hands where we can see them! I don’t want you beating up anyone else,” he said briskly.

“That was all on him,” Mallory replied unapologetically. “What was I supposed to do when some man lunges out of the bushes at me—swoon?”

Just then, Scarface stumbled from the trailhead with a hand pressed against bleeding nose and the other on his crotch.

The man who had spoken to her looked at Scarface. “You look like hell.”

Scarface nodded toward her and gasped, “She broke my goddamn nose before I could get a word out.” The other men were looking at him, at each other, and at her, amused. He was one of them: Macho, tough, and he’d been taken down by a five foot, five inch tall woman who weighed perhaps a hundred and five pounds! What the fuck!

Mallory cast a dark look at the men. “What do you want with me?”

The leader nodded toward the other black SUV. “Someone wants to talk to you.” He turned and led the way. Mallory followed him slowly to the second SUV, letting space collect between them. “So, who are you guys?”

Silence was the only answer she got. He laid a hand on the door handle and turned to look at her. “Commander, we’re so secret that not even you’ve heard of us.”

“Well, fuck you and the donkey you rode in on. I am not getting into that SUV unless you tell me who you people are.” Mallory turned and started back to her car, her senses hyper aware of the armed men surrounding her. She wasn’t going down without a fight if they tried to force her into the SUV. They were only an hour from the Mexican border. Recently, several American women had been kidnapped by human traffickers then sold to brothels in Tijuana that were operated by powerful drug cartels.

Mallory heard a car door open behind her and someone say, “Get your bony ass back here, Commander Capehart.”

Mallory froze.

She’d know that voice anywhere.

Chapter 2 Project Jules Verne

0945 HRS, Northbound on the 5 Freeway

Traffic moved along slowly with interminable stops and fitful starts. Inside the big GMC SUV there was no traffic noise. There was a distinct absence of sound, as if they had been swallowed up by an aural black hole. Admiral Courtland Haywood, sitting on the seat beside Mallory, turned and smiled at her. He was a handsome craggy-faced older man with the deep tan of one who’d spent a lifetime at sea. Haywood was clad in white from collar to shoe with gold epaulettes on his broad shoulders. He wore his uniform as comfortably as a second skin, as comfortably as Mallory wore a wetsuit.

“You gave that fellow a pretty good beating,” Haywood chuckled.

“He deserved it, the idiot,” Mallory said flatly.

“I am sure he’d disagree with you,” Haywood replied with a smile.

Mallory said nothing to this. A strange man lunges out of the bushes and you damn well better go full ninja warrior on his ass if you didn’t want to end up being a crime statistic. She clenched her jaw and stared at the passing landscape of strip malls, fast food restaurants, auto dealerships, and office buildings beyond the freeway’s concrete sound barriers. She saw the sharp glint of her eyes in the tinted window — the same sharp, cheerless eyes that had haunted her since the accident. She was grateful for the forceful push back to work. It was what she’d been telling her superiors and the shrink for months; she needed work and distraction to recover from the PTSD, and some more successful missions under her belt to overcome the one god-awful failure. But then why do I feel so flat? Mallory wondered, as she stared out the window.

Admiral Haywood touched her arm. “How have you been, Mallory?”

She turned and looked at him, her face neutral, tone flat. “Well enough, I suppose, sir. Bored as hell to tell the truth.”

Haywood nodded, noting the straight cast of her mouth, one that in the past had often displayed a cocky lopsided smile even in the face of the most difficult missions. When Mallory had come to him from the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center, Admiral Haywood had taken one look at her and instantly had his doubts. He’d had her OMPF folder along with her transfer orders on his desk when she first reported to him, and he wondered what he would be getting into if he accepted the young officer into his outfit.

At first sight she seemed completely out of place in the Navy, more so than anyone Haywood had ever met in all his years of service. But there had been something special about the young officer. Haywood had felt it in his gut, and his gut had never failed him. Mallory soon proved her worth by pulling off difficult missions that had elicited cringes from more experienced salvage divers. She was no daredevil. On the contrary, she was sedulously methodical and safety conscious. Haywood never understood how she came up with such innovative solutions to seemingly hopeless salvage jobs—it seemed almost like divine inspiration. Need to recover a B83 thermonuclear bomb from the bottom of the San Francisco Bay? Mallory’s team was the one you sent if you wanted the mission to be successful—in this case without detonating a live 1.2 megaton nuke that would’ve taken out the Bay Area if it had gone off. Haywood sucked at his teeth.

Mallory’s salvage team had certainly earned their pay the day they recovered that broken arrow. An Air Force B52 out of Barksdale Air Force base in Louisiana had accidentally jettisoned the weapon as it headed out to the Pacific. The bomb plummeted into the sea entombing itself in the wreckage of a freighter in two hundred feet of water just inside the Golden Gate Bridge. Worse still, it had somehow armed itself, but Mallory’s team had managed to bring it to the surface where the Air Force’s EOD team could deactivate it. The public’s outrage had been sharp and loud when someone leaked to the press that nuke-laden bombers were flying across the continental United States, but nothing like it would’ve been had word gotten out about the accidental jettisoning.

Mallory homed in on tough salvage jobs like a Mark 48 torpedo. But her career as a navy salvage diver had nearly ended before it began. After she’d come up from her first salvage job—attaching slings to a sunken Navy tug—and peeled off her wetsuit while making her report, Haywood had nearly sent her packing right then and there. The massive tattoo of the sea serpent emblazoned on her back and torso and legs violated regulations and offended his sense of decorum. True, many Navy personnel, including officers, got tattoos on their arms, but there were boundaries that wiser heads never crossed. Mallory seemed blithely indifferent to such considerations. At least the god-awful things weren’t visible when she was in uniform, Haywood told himself. The Navy was the most conservative branch of all the armed services and Mallory seemed to fit in about as well as a hippie at a Tea Party rally. He recalled that she came from a working class family in Philadelphia, her father a retired career navy man, and her mother the owner of a small nursery. Her blonde hair, blue eyes, strong chin and pale skin betrayed her Pennsylvania Dutch and English ancestry.

Mallory was staring out the SUV’s window. Haywood would’ve given anything to know what was going on in her head. More to the point, he wondered if she was ready for what would be the most difficult mission ever assigned to any salvage diver. The uncertainty of her readiness and the wider uncertainty of the mission itself gnawed at him. Was he pushing an emotionally frangible woman into a meat grinder?

Admiral Haywood turned to her and said, “We have a job for you—something big, really big. Are you ready to come back to work?”

Mallory’s eyes met his. “Sir, I have been ready for months.”

“Glad to hear it.” Haywood nodded toward the front passenger seat. “Commander Capehart, meet the fellow you’ll be working with—Special Agent Randal Lester of the Office of Strategic Services.”

A man in a dark suit and tie turned around and flashed a grin. Even behind his dark sunglasses Mallory could feel him taking her measure. “At last, I get to meet Wonder Woman herself! The Admiral here says you’re all that and more.”

Mallory shot the Fed an icy stare. “The OSS was disbanded after World War Two.” She was in no mood for kidding around, especially with the creep in the front seat.

Randal Lester’s grin reminded Mallory of a barracuda’s toothy mouth. “Actually, the OSS was restarted by executive order of George W. Bush way back in 2004 and buried deep within the Department of Homeland Security. We’re so secret you won’t even find us mentioned in WikiLeaks.”

Mallory nodded then looked at Haywood. “Sir, just what is all this about?”

The Admiral smiled. “You’ll find out soon enough, Commander. Let’s just say that it’s going to be one hell of a mission.”

“A global game changer,” Lester chimed in.

“But we can’t talk about it here,” Haywood said with finality.

Mallory was intrigued despite a mild resentment at the intrusion into her morning routine and the unnecessary theatricality of their approach. Really, a phone call or an email would have been just as effective. And she could have shown up in uniform instead of looking like a mess in her sweaty jogging clothes. Mallory settled back into her seat and forced herself to relax. Perhaps they’d lost another nuke or needed to recover the codebooks from some sunken enemy ship. They’d tell her in their own good time. Mallory glanced at the passenger side mirror. One of the SUVs had vanished. Mallory suspected the occupants were on their way to the ER to have Scarface’s broken nose treated.

Haywood leaned slightly toward Mallory and whispered so Lester wouldn’t hear what he said. “FYI, I got Dr. Smith to sign off on your return to active duty.”

Mallory turned her head to look at him. “How did you get him do that?”

Haywood chuckled. “Not many people will say no to an admiral.”

The two remaining SUVs exited the freeway and turned into Camp Pendleton, stopping at the main guard shack where they were waved in without the usual flashing of ID. They turned off the main road onto one that Mallory, who had often been to Pendleton, did not recognize. The narrow road ran past Headquarters Area 15 to a nondescript three story building near the back of the sprawling base. Mirrored windows stared out at the bright sunlit morning. A thicket of antenna masts and satellite dish antennas rose from the roof.

Sentries armed with machine guns patrolled the OSS compound’s perimeter fence. Mallory saw men on the building’s roof studying them through binoculars. The driver pulled up to the gatehouse and flashed his ID. The sentry nodded to a man in the guard shack and the barrier was raised. The SUVs whirled along final stretch of the road.

Agent Lester twisted around in his seat and flashed a grin at Mallory. “Welcome to the OSS Operations Center-West, Commander.”

“They wanted to be able to get some surfing in on their off hours. That’s why they’re here and not in DC or Virginia.” Haywood deadpanned.

Lester unwrapped a stick of gum then shoved it in his mouth. “Actually, quite a few of my guys are surfers, but we selected Pendleton because we’re less likely to draw attention here than the East Coast. It’s worked out well so far.”

Mallory nodded. As far as she was concerned, the OSS could’ve set up shop on the dark side of the moon. She just wanted to know what the mission was. The SUVs rolled into a parking lot at the rear of the building. The driver slotted the vehicle into a space near a guard shack and got out to hold open the door for Admiral Haywood.

The two Marines standing guard at the steel door saluted. One of them swiped Mallory’s military identification in a card reader then nodded to the other. The second one opened the door. Agent Lester and the others swept by. Beyond lay an empty room, about thirty feet square, with concrete floor and walls where all was as quiet as death.

Mallory had the feeling that their every move was being watched. Opposite the outer door was an inner door with a palm reader mounted on the wall beside it.

Lester strode over and laid his hand on the scanner, disengaging the lock. Past the threshold, a forty-two-foot corridor with bare concrete walls and floors led to a third door. “Everyone stand perfectly still,” Lester said.

Three gleaming silvery spheres fell from the ceiling then hovered in front Mallory’s and the other’s faces. Mallory saw her reflection in the orb’s spinning surface. Then it and its two brethren shot back up to the ceiling vanishing into a small hole. The door opened with a soft click into a small lobby with an elevator.

“What the hell were those?” Mallory asked, following him into the lobby.

Lester said, “They’re called Night Porters. They’re designed to stop unauthorized people from making it beyond this corridor.”

Mallory looked at him. “How? They’re the size of golf balls.”

“It’s classified”

Beside her, Haywood whispered, “Get ready for a trip down the rabbit hole.”

“Like we’re not already in it,” Mallory whispered back. “Did you notice the drone circling overhead, Sir?”

Haywood looked at her, perplexed. “No! Are you sure?”

“Yeah. An MQ-24 Hunter-Killer,” Mallory said.

Inside the elevator, Haywood turned to Lester. “What’s the deal with the drone?”

Agent Lester shrugged. “Just an added layer of security.”

They took the elevator to the top floor. The hallways were utterly quiet except for their brisk steps. They passed an open doorway. Mallory caught a glimpse of half a dozen men sitting at workstations dominated by high definition 3D monitors. She saw the OSS building and its grounds on a screen. Another held an image of a caravan of foreign made pickup trucks and foreign made cars moving slowly across some lonely desert at night.

Lester opened a door to a reception area where a beautiful dark-haired young woman sat at a desk typing on the keyboard of her workstation. The soft staccato rattle of the computer keyboard under her nimble fingers was the only sound in the room. One wall of the reception area held file cabinets. Above them a row of flat screen monitors showed the corridor they’d just passed through and other parts of the building.

The receptionist rose from her desk and held the door open, the unmistakable bulge of a pistol evident under her blazer. Agent Lester swept by her with a curt nod.

Mallory followed him and Admiral Haywood into the conference room. A blond man in a dark business suit and red power tie sat at the head of a long conference table.

Haywood said, “Commander, meet Lou Sobel, Director of OSS Special Projects.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Mallory said.

Sobel smiled. “You may not be after you hear what’s on the menu, Commander.” He gestured to the vacant chair opposite his. “You get to sit in the hot seat.”

Mallory pulled out the chair and sat down. Admiral Haywood sat to her immediate left while Lester moved to a chair halfway down the table.

Sobel touched an LCD screen embedded in the table before him. A holographic emitter in the center of the table flashed on—the words Project Jules Verne hung in midair, slowly rotating like a garden mobile stirred by a gentle breeze.

“Last year, an expedition funded and led by the late Ethan Delahaye was searching for the wreck site of a World War Two Japanese destroyer. It was reported to have been carrying a cargo of looted gold bullion when it was sunk by an American warplane. This is what Delahaye found instead.”

An image of a spindle shaped vessel resting on the seabed appeared above the conference table. With its imbricated hull plates and pointy snout it looked like some Jurassic-age sea monster. Mallory studied the hologram, puzzling over the large oblong opening piercing the sides of the hull. Their twisted frames still held shards of glass. At the bow of the ship, a curtain of icicle-like deposits of rust hung from a stubby iron ram, which meant the wreck was slowly being consumed by the same bacterium that had finally reduced the Titanic to an unrecognizable pile of rust on the Atlantic seabed.

“Would you mind rotating it laterally?” Mallory asked.

“Not at all, Commander.” Sobel touched the control panel before him; the hologram began to slowly turn. Ordinarily, a dense curtain of marine snow falling from the ocean’s upper regions would have shrouded the wreck. But, thanks to the sophisticated imaging technology deployed by Delahaye expedition it looked as if the ocean had been drained to reveal the wreck in all its desolate glory. The wreck was thickly blanketed with tan silt, and sat upright on an even keel on the seabed.

Mallory’s first thought was that it might be some sort of icebreaker. Just as quickly she dismissed that idea—the vessel’s freeboard was too low for it to be an icebreaker, at least an ocean going one. And that part of the Pacific wasn’t exactly known for its icebergs. It was widely reported that Delahaye’s vessel the RV Astra had been destroyed when it hit a World War Two era mine west of Guam. Too little of the ship remained to recover and what was left lay strewn along the bottom of the Marianas Trench. So how had the OSS managed to recover the Astra’s data? Mallory wondered. She suspected she’d be told it was none of her business if she asked, so she didn’t.

Every face in the room was turned toward her but all Mallory’s attention was on the ship. She was pretty sure it wasn’t a World War II era destroyer.

It didn’t look like a World War II anything. Mallory had helped raise the Civil War ironclad USS Tecumseh from the bottom of Mobile Bay, and she’d worked on several other underwater archeological projects in her spare time. To Mallory wreck diving was an almost mystical experience that drew her back time after time. She felt that this wreck was special in some way other than its formidable size, as large as a Virginia class submarine, and for reasons she couldn’t articulate she wanted it to be special.

A muted, “What the hell are you?” escaped her throat before she could stop it.

“Why don’t you tell us what you think it is,” Lester suggested.

Mallory recognized a challenge when she heard it. “The building technique is clearly mid nineteenth century. Despite its size, it has a relatively small deck. I am certain the squat structure with the viewports near the bow is the wheelhouse. As for the similar structure at the aft end of the deck…” Mallory stared hard. Now how in the hell had she missed those? There was no mistaking what she was seeing, difficult as it was to believe. She studied the cruciform hydroplanes at the stern and the dive planes near the bow—and the six-bladed propeller with adjustable pitch, a technology that wouldn’t be invented until the early twentieth century. The vessel could only be one thing—a submarine.

Project Jules Verne.

Mallory looked at Haywood, quizzically, her brow furrowed, and then at Sobel and Lester, a question clearly stated in her eyes, “But surely you’re not suggesting that…” Her voice trailed off, unable to voice the outrageous conclusion she’d drawn.

Randal Lester was beaming down the table at her.

“Don’t worry, Commander. You haven’t lost your marbles,” Admiral Haywood said, with a dry chuckle. “That’s Captain Nemo’s Nautilus you’re looking at.”

Mallory gaped at the hologram. “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea was just a work of fiction,” she said. Like every other kid in America she’d seen the ancient Disney movie based on the novel. She didn’t recall the actual movie because it had been so long ago but she did remember thinking that when she grew up she’d one day explore the ocean in a submarine like Captain Nemo’s.

Perhaps that was her first inkling of a life as a diver.

Sobel said, “Verne got the story from an obscure French scientist named Pierre Arronax who had been a prisoner on board the Nautilus until he managed to escape, but much of what Verne put in his novel was incorrect. It seems he was pressured by the French and British governments to leave out some important details, such as Nemo’s true identity. Fortunately, we’ve managed to identify him, thanks to this.”

Sobel reached down for his briefcase and opened it on the table then withdrew an old leather-bound book, which he handed to Lester. The OSS agent rose and brought it over to Mallory then returned to his seat.

“That’s Nemo’s diary,” Sobel said. “It was discovered in a watertight chest recovered from the Nautilus’ safe. Nemo was in fact the famed British naval architect Jonathan de Chevalier Mason, builder of the HMS Warrior and HMS Black Prince.”

Sobel’s revelation stunned Mallory. While in college she had taken a trip to England during Spring Break and visited the HMS Warrior, now a museum ship on the Thymes River, and marveled at its construction. To think that she’d trodden the decks of an ironclad warship built by the legendary Captain Nemo! Ye Gods, how amazing!

Haywood looked at Mallory. “Mason ran afoul of the Admiralty and was condemned to a penal island where he organized a mass escape with a band of followers and obtained hidden treasure which he used to build his submarine. It’s all in his journal. We’ve produced a spiral bound photocopy for you, Commander. I suggest you read it.”

“Thank you, Sir,” Mallory replied. “I will crack it open right away. But why is the government interested in a primitive nineteenth century submersible?”

Admiral Haywood’s mouth twisted up into a smile. “Lieutenant Commander, you’re about to have your running shoes blown right off your feet.”

Sobel swiped the touchscreen with a fingertip. “This is what we’re after.”

The holographic image of the wreck dissolved and was replaced with a Computer Generated Image of a spherical crystal pulsing with bands of multi-colored light.

Sobel went on, “This was the heart of the Nautilus. Nemo called it Poseidon crystal. Based on Nemo’s description, sensor data transmitted by the Delahaye expedition’s UAV, and on assessments we’ve received from several top physicists, we believe this to be some sort of Zero Point Energy device—one that provided enough power to drive an Industrial Revolution-era submersible more than sixty knots through the water—and that was its submerged speed. If that isn’t enough for you, Commander, the Nautilus could dive to thirty-five thousand feet, and hang out down there as long as she wished although her hull was made of the brittle Bessemer process steel produced at the time.”

“The maximum operating depth of our 688-class boats is sixteen hundred feet, and that’s with welded titanium hulls, mind you,” Admiral Haywood pointed out.

Still dumbfounded by Sobel’s revelation, Mallory nodded toward the hologram, and said, “And you think the Poseidon crystal somehow permitted the Nautilus to reach those depths? How do you know Nemo wasn’t exaggerating?” She was pretty sure the nineteenth century had its fair share of bullshitters.

Sobel said, “In his journal Nemo mentions black smokers, hydrothermal vents, and the chemosynthetic ecosystem surrounding them, which would’ve only been possible if he’d seen them with his own eyes. To put it in perspective for you, black smokers were first observed by the crew of the research submersible DSV Alvin II in 1979 on the East Pacific Rise not far from the Galapagos Islands, eight thousand feet below the surface.”

The military implications hit Mallory full force. Captain Nemo’s nineteenth century submarine was more advanced in some very significant ways than even the Navy’s newest fast attack submarines. Whoever could unlock its secrets would in effect control the seas. Then the Director of OSS Special Projects upped the ante.

Sobel clasped his hands together on the table before him. “Aside from the Poseidon crystal’s military applications, our nation is rapidly running out of oil—the Middle East is on the brink of imploding now that the Iranians possess the nuclear weapons. Yes, they have them,” the OSS official said in response to her raised eyebrows, “which is why neither we nor the Israelis dare attack them. After President Trump unilaterally backed out of the deal in back in 2017, he provided them an excellent excuse to resume work on their nuclear program. We estimate they have three hundred Hiroshima size bombs.”

Mallory now realized that Admiral Haywood was speaking with the slow heavy drawl of barely subdued anger. “Thanks to their alliance with the Russians and Chinese Iran now possesses pin point accurate ICBM’s with third generation hypersonic reentry vehicles specifically designed to counter our sea and land based missile defense shields.”

“And with the ISIS Caliphate now controlling most of the Mideast’s oil supply, our collective nuts are in a vise,” Lester cut in briskly.

Sobel continued with a slight edge in his voice, “At the rate we’re consuming petroleum we’ll be down to coal and windmills in ten years, even with our reserves. We intend to raise the Nautilus from the seabed and retrieve the Poseidon crystal, find out how the damn thing works and duplicate it. Your past record of bringing difficult salvage jobs to a successful conclusion makes you the ideal officer for this mission.”

“May I ask a question?” Mallory asked.

Sobel nodded. “Of course.”

“Where is the wreck located?”

“It is at the bottom of the Challenger Deep.”

Holy shit! Thought Mallory. Good luck with that, guys! A descent to the Challenger Deep was every bit as hazardous as a trip to the outer planets, with about the same low odds of survival if something went wrong. Mallory said, “The Soviet K129 wreck was three miles deep and the CIA only managed to retrieve the bow after the recovery vehicle failed. The rest of the submarine broke free and fell back to the ocean floor. Raising a waterlogged submarine seven miles to the surface is a tall order.”

Sobel shook his head. “That’s what the CIA leaked to Jack Anderson. I’ll have more to say about that in a moment. The CIA recovered the entire submarine but cut away the pieces they didn’t want and scattered them on the seafloor to confuse and annoy the Soviets. But there were problems with the method they used: stress cracks in the recovery vehicle’s steel grabber arms, stability issues as the K129 was hoisted to the surface. But we have better materials and computers than they had in 1974.”

Sobel swiped the touchscreen again and the holographic image of the orb changed to an animation of a large drill ship with a tall derrick rising from its main deck.

Mallory recognized the ship—the Hughes Glomar Explorer. She’d once watched a documentary on The History Channel about Project Azorian, the code name for the covert mission to recover the ill-fated Soviet submarine K129. Mallory frowned at the hologram. “I thought the Glomar Explorer was sold for scrap twenty years ago.”

“And so she was.” Sobel gestured toward the screen. “This is her sister ship the Hughes Glomar Endeavor. The most famous ship you never heard of. There’s a good reason for that. Project Azorian was a smokescreen for another mission called Project Galaxy. Consider this: The K129 was a woefully obsolete piece of crap when it went down in 1968. The Glomar Explorer went to the North pacific to raise the Russian sub in July 1974. What possible intelligence value could an outdated wrecked submarine and its six-year-old codebooks have? What we really wanted lay at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, but we had to draw the Soviet’s eyes and ears toward the Pacific. Tidbits of information were fed to several journalists about Azorian for their columns with a view toward misdirecting the Russians. Woodward and Bernstein were approached but they were hot after Nixon, so they weren’t interested. Jack Anderson was approached at a cocktail party and told about the project. He was made to understand that Navy experts had determined that the submarine contained no real secrets, and that the project, therefore, was a complete waste of taxpayer money. He broke the Story in the New York Times over the objections of William Colby, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. What was so special about the Galaxy mission that all this treasure and effort was expended?” Sobel paused a moment then said, “What I am about to tell you is classified Top Secret. On February 3, 1969, two jet fighters shot down a UFO that had been shadowing the USS Saratoga as she steamed for Guantanamo Cuba. Soon after, the Navy sent the Trieste down to the seafloor to map the wreckage and take measurements. The Soviet High Command didn’t give the Glomar Endeavor a second look when she slipped quietly from her port in 1974 and set out for the target site. All their attention was on the CIA’s attempt to recover their submarine. To make a long story short, the Glomar Endeavor succeeded in recovering the UFO, which eventually ended up in a warehouse in Area 51 where it remains to this day.”

“We have an alien spacecraft?” Mallory asked dumbly and instantly regretted it.

“Actually, we have three of them,” Sobel replied matter-of-factly. “A vehicle that crashed in Roswell New Mexico in 1947, the Galaxy UFO recovered in 1974, and another that was brought down by an Air Force General Dynamics F-16 in the Mojave Desert in September 1987, the same month Ronald Reagan delivered his UFO speech to the United Nations General Assembly. There was also a top-secret summit between Reagan and Premier Gorbachev, whose country was having its own UFO problems, about the need to make common cause against a possible invasion from space. I bet they didn’t teach you any of that in your High School history class, Commander.”

“No sir,” Mallory admitted. It was almost more than she could wrap her head around: Captured UFO’s, Area 51, Captain Nemo’s submarine—apparently powered by a 19th century technology superior to 21st century nuclear propulsion.

Admiral Haywood said, “We have pulled the Glomar Endeavor out of mothballs in Suisun Bay and retrofitted her with state-of-the-art equipment, navigation, automated command and control, the whole enchilada. During Project Azorian a drill string of steel pipes was used to lower the capture vehicle to the sea floor. This time we will be using a cable made of spun carbon fiber and Kevlar to lower a capture vehicle to the wreck site.”

Mallory shook her head. “The wreck is embedded in the ooze, and no doubt very brittle. How do you intend to free it from the sediment without shattering the hull?”

“We have thought about that,” Sobel chimed in. he swiped the touchscreen. A spider-like recovery vehicle emerged from the belly of the recovery ship. “Meet Miss Muffet. Now, besides the obvious difference of using cable instead of a pipe string, there is this.” Sobel zoomed in on the recovery vehicle. “See the hemispherical structure with viewports at the top of the capture vehicle. That is a crew cabin where a pilot will operate dynamic high output thrusters to guide the recovery vehicle. Once it reaches the wreck site, the pilot will close the grabber arms around the Nautilus then manage the Capture Vehicle/Payload Package stability as it is hoisted to the surface.”

Sobel swiped the touchscreen again and the holographic animation resumed. “When the Recovery Vehicle touches down, these four extendable breakout legs will descend to make contact with the seafloor. The bottom of each leg has a cookie cutter pad that will dig deep into the seafloor. Miss Muffet is outfitted with hyper pressure water jets to excavate a path for the grabber arms. Once the Nautilus is secured, the breakout legs will be extended with hydraulic pressure to jack it off the seabed. To save weight, they will be jettisoned before you begin your ascent. ”

Sobel highlighted twelve smaller articulated arms on rails mounted to the spine of the recovery vehicle. “These are called looms. They will crisscross the length of the wreck as you make your ascent depositing a watertight material called C-Stop on the surface of the submarine, sealing it from stem to stern. Then you will use the remote cutting torch in a mating collar under Miss Muffet’s strong back to penetrate the deck plates and start pumping out seawater as you rise toward the surface. In a worst-case scenario, if the seawater cannot be pumped out, the cable is strong enough to hoist the submarine to the surface where it will be held snug against the Glomar Endeavors hull. You and another diver will then enter the Nautilus to retrieve the Poseidon crystal from its engine room. If you deem it impossible to do it while at sea, you are to make your way to Pearl Harbor with the Nautilus where it will be placed in a covered dry dock. You’ll take the lead on this, Commander Capehart.” Sobel came as close to smiling as he ever would. “We realize that in some ways, we are out of our depth on this one.”

Admiral Haywood looked at Mallory. “Commander, I can’t overstate the importance of this mission. President Connor has signed off on this mission and is expecting positive results, and I have given her my word that she will get them.”

Sobel said, “And we have to keep this mission under wraps, Commander. The Nautilus lies in an area of the Pacific closely watched by the Chinese navy, and a viable Zero Point Energy device will once again put the United States on top. They won’t be happy to see us energy independent, and neither will our ‘friends’ in OPEC.”

Sobel nodded toward Randal Lester. “Special Agent Lester will have oversight of the mission, but you will have responsibility over the recovery operation itself. An OSS paramilitary task force made up of civilian contractors will accompany him. They’ll provide security for the Nautilus once it’s on the surface and ultimately take the Poseidon crystal into custody once you have retrieved it from the engine room.”

Mallory was dismayed to see Haywood nod at that. Great, just what she needed, she thought, a boatload of civilians to babysit during a difficult mission.

Chapter 3 Alt-Right

TUESDAY—0530Z HRS

Agent Randal Lester, age forty-five, divorced, liked to rise well before dawn to undertake his fitness routine—except on those occasions when his work required him to remain all night at The Western Annex, formally known as OSS Western Regional Headquarters. During the war with Iraq in 2003 President George W. Bush had given up on the CIA after the fiasco with the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. No stockpiles of biological or chemical weapons had been found and there was in fact no connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Inconvenient facts that had made the President’s face take on the hue of boiled lobster as he was briefed by his National Security team. No one had ever seen him so angry. Never again would he allow himself to be misled—”caught with my goddamn britches round my ankles,” as he had put it. An avid history buff, Bush decided to resurrect the Office of Strategic Services and bury it within the labyrinthine bowels of the Department of Homeland Security. The OSS, President Bush declared, would be the switchblade he would reach for when dirty work needed to be done, and no questions asked. It was telling that none of his successors sought to disband the OSS. Just before being removed from office after a trial in the Senate, the late President Trump had ordered the OSS to arrange a false flag attack from Iran so he could declare war.

Agent Lester loved his work and he made sure he was in tip top shape to do it. An array of expensive state-of-the-art exercise machines occupied a portion of the open-plan condominium Lester owned on the top floor of a high rise in Irvine California. The building boasted three gyms but Randal liked to have his own equipment. He was afraid of catching a super bug from some Chinese or Middle Eastern businessman who didn’t wash his hands properly after taking a shit. Irvine, with its forest of high-tech firms and university, was lousy with foreigners. Admittedly, most of them were college educated and affluent—not like the cesspool in Santa Ana which was more like Tijuana than America, and certainly not like Los Angeles which was mostly Hispanic and black with lots of gunfire being exchanged between both groups—vato locos versus homies.

America had been overrun with barbarians, Randal thought for the umpteenth time, as he lay cocooned in organic cotton bedding while the virtual sunrise clock on the nightstand brightened in stages to ease him into wakefulness. Randal yearned for an America where everyone once again knew their place. Where a man rose to the top based on merit and not some damned Affirmative Action program, where the minorities kept to their neighborhoods, gays and lesbians stayed in the closet, and women stayed home to raise children, and if they were in the work place they didn’t go cross-eyed if you asked them to bring you a cup of java. He hated feminists as much as he hated minorities.

His father had been a Los Angeles cop during the George Floyd protests. Back then gang bangers knew their place. No flashing gang signs at the cops—not if said gangbanger didn’t want a telescopic baton shoved up his ass. Nowadays, the hood rats lived in fear of the militarized blue line cordoning off their shitty neighborhoods from the rest of Los Angeles County, contained like cancer with the harsh medicine of Heinkel aerial combat drones, tall concrete walls topped with concertina wire and round the clock police checkpoints, manned by heavily armed cyborg policemen.

In short, Agent Randal Lester was a racist misogynist creep.

Then the sunrise clock’s light brightened. The gentle chiming would’ve brought a smile to a Buddhist monk’s face. Lester kicked off the covers and his mind turned to his morning routine. It was important to begin the day with positive thoughts. Agent Lester considered himself a fine example of white American manhood. In Stay-Dri shorts and tee-shirt, he stretched to prevent injury, worked up a sweat on a treadmill, pushing himself with each workout, then followed a circuit of weight machines that worked every muscle group to a stinging burn. He did a hundred sit ups, reverse sit ups, and side crunches, all on an incline, before he allowed himself to be finished. Randal was lean and hard, a marksman with a pistol, and had a black belt in Brazilian jujitsu.

Randal took a long luxurious shower because a supreme example of the Aryan race must be squeaky clean and well-groomed at all times. After Randal dressed in a dark gray suit, he stood in the kitchen washing down thirty-three vitamin pills with a protein drink. He picked up his beloved Glock 33 from the towel on the granite counter and slid it into a holster onto his belt, checked his receding hair in the mirror by the door and departed for work.

TUESDAY—0830Z HRS

Admiral Haywood smiled from behind his desk. “How is the simulator training coming along?”

Mallory gave a rueful smile. “I actually got the Nautilus to within a thousand feet of the surface. Then it broke into three pieces and destroyed the recovery vehicle.”

No point in sugar coating it, Mallory thought, Not with someone like the Admiral.

Haywood was seated behind his desk, a frown on his face. Even in his sixties he was still handsome and in good shape. He’d always maintained healthy boundaries with Mallory, a fact that puzzled her as she was often hit on by both men and women.

Haywood’s office was spacious and well organized and uncluttered, with only a few mementos to indicate that he was its rightful occupant. In front of his desk were three chairs and beyond them a long conference table with room for twelve people. Photographs of his wife, three children and nine grandchildren were on one wall. Another wall was taken up with degrees and certificates and commendations and photographs of the ships he had commanded over the years—mainly flattops and one heavy guided missile cruiser. There was a photograph of a youthful Haywood wearing a cocky grin and a flight suit climbing into the cockpit of a F-35 Lightning II. Haywood was staring at the photographs on the wall as he pondered Mallory’s news.

Finally he said, “Coffee?”

Mallory nodded. “Thank you, Sir.”

He rose from his chair and came round from behind his desk and went over to a coffee maker and poured two cups. “How do you like yours, Commander?”

Mallory told him she liked it black.

“I am with you. No point in ruining a perfectly good coffee with cream and sugar.” He handed her a mug on the way back to his chair. “No doubt about it, we’ve got a real beast of a mission on our hands. Don’t beat yourself up about the simulator. You’ll get the hang of it—but do it quickly. My time in the F-35 simulator was no picnic.”

Wow, no freakin pressure or anything! Mallory nodded. “Thank you for your confidence, Sir. I will,” She, herself, felt anything but confident.

The intercom buzzed. “Admiral, Agent Lester is here.”

“Send him in.”

Lester came into the room and the temperature dropped perceptibly. Neither of the naval officers cared for spooks in general and this one really got under their skins. “Have a seat, Agent Lester.” Admiral Haywood waved him over to a chair.

Lester plopped down, and got right to the point. “My guys will be here in three days. What’s the status of the simulator training?” he asked, pointedly ignoring Mallory.

“We’re making progress,” Haywood replied casually.

“We’ll need to be at one hundred percent by the time we go into operational mode,” Lester replied, matching his tone. “I hope that won’t be a problem.”

Admiral Haywood took a sip of his coffee then said, “We’ll have all our ducks in a row by the time we set sail, Agent Lester. Additionally, there will be further training en route to the wreck site. It’s all under control.”

“That’s good to hear,” Lester replied. “We’re on a tight schedule.”

Mallory thought she detected the barest trace of a bully’s smirk on Lester’s face. For a handful of change, she would have gladly wiped it off.

Mallory knew a bully when she saw one.


During her freshman year in high school she had gotten into a fist fight with an older boy after school. Mallory had known him. He was a junior named Matt White, an offensive lineman on the football team. Big boned with the broad shoulders and well-muscled arms, and an unruly cap of dirty blond hair and blue eyes, he was fast and agile—and a world-class asshole.

Mallory soon found herself lying on her back pinned to the ground. While a boy held her arms against the littered hard packed earth, her tormentor quickly straddled her and began to slap her face. How do ya like that bitch? How do you like that!”

Mallory tried to throw him off her, but he wasn’t going anywhere. Let me go you motherfucker or I swear to god. I am gonna kill you!” she cried.

Matt laughed. With what, your dirty panties?” Meanwhile a crowd had gathered around them, taunting Mallory and recording the whole thing with their camera phones.

A blond girl in a pleated skirt crouched down to yank up her top.

Someone in the crowd called out. Look at the dykes flat tits!”

Another boy said, Hey Matt, I dare you to grab those ugly ass titties!”

Matt looked up and grinned. Youre on buddy!” Then he looked down at Mallory and bared his teeth. So ya like to lick pussy, eh, freak. This is what we do to nasty bitches like you around here!” Matt viciously tugged at her pierced nipples. Mallory felt his hot breath on her face, little drops of spittle splattered her face. Her mind went numb. Beneath her rage lay a bottomless ocean of shame. Over the jeers and laughter she dimly heard someone screaming then realized it was her voice.

Mallory struggled to free herself then Matt planted a good one on her face and she saw swirling lights.

That night, to her horror and shame, she discovered some asshole had uploaded the beatdown to TikTok. A quick look on Facebook and Instagram confirmed her worst fears. Videos of the assault were all over social media.

There were messages urging her kill herself, calling her a loser and dyke, as if being a lesbian was somehow a bad thing—but Mallory wasn’t remotely interested in girls. Truth was, she wasnt interested in anyone. Shed always kept to herself.

Some of the videos showed closeups of her nipples being yanked until they were taut—just as humiliating as the images were the demeaning insults hurled at her from the crowd. Another video showed her curled in a fetal position with her jeans partly pulled down, the recording abruptly stopping when a teacher pushed his way through the crowd.

The next day she was greeted with smirks and taunts everywhere she went on campus. In the cafeteria a cheerleader dropped a used tampon on her lunch plate. Wadded dirty napkins and crumpled paper cups pelted her as she sat looking down at the tampon lying on the brown mess the cafeteria menu optimistically labeled beef stroganoff. And these acts of cruelty pushed her over the brink—her mind went sharp with an icy fury. Over the next few days Mallory shadowed Matt like a tigress stalking prey. She noticed that on Thursdays the creep showed up an hour early to help get the gym ready, a chore that was shared by the other jocks on a rotating basis. From across the parking lot she watched as he took the same route every day at the same time from the gym to the track for his morning run. After school Mallory curled up with her Xbox 660 and played Assasin’s Creed while exploring her options.

One Thursday morning she nested two long thick gym socks. She had taken care to get the right length from the local Walmart—they extended from the tip of her fingers to her elbow. With one eye on the electric alarm clock on the nightstand she filled her sap with large steel nuts and bolts from her fathers workshop. For good measure she added a couple of rolls of quarters. After knotting the end of the sock, and giving it a good shake, she shoved the homemade weapon into her backpack then set off for school.

From the shadows of a tree she saw her quarry enter the gym. Mallory jogged over to the gym and took position at the corner of the building. She dropped the backpack at her feet then retrieved the sap and waited. She looked at her pink Hello Kitty watch.

As soon as Matt rounded the corner Mallory let fly with the sap. It smashed into Matt’s startled face and dropped him like a bag of flour. She yanked him half up from the ground and slammed her fist into his face—it felt so good so she did it again and again and again. Each blow sent his head whipping around. You ever again lay a hand on me youre a dead man!” She hollered into the pulpy red mess that had once been a pretty-boy face. Nod if you understand.” Matt complied without hesitation.

Mallory released her grip and let him collapse backwards. She twisted around and reached down for her backpack and retrieved a pair of her worn panties from it and shoved them into his bloody mouth. Then she stood above him and snapped pics with her smartphone. Above the panties a pair of frightened blackened eyes stared up at her. Any of your friends give me any more trouble and this will be all over the Internet.”

Predictably, Mallory was the one who got into trouble. Her parents were called and she would’ve been expelled had it not been for their pleadings—reluctantly, the principal relented and suspended her from school for a week, but the boy never bothered her again. No one did.


 

Randal Lester reminded her of Matt White.

Haywood looked at his watch then at Mallory. “Time for you to trot on over to the simulator, Commander.”

“Aye, Sir.” Mallory set down her cup on the table then stood and saluted and left the room. She had a feeling Agent Lester was in for an earful from the Admiral.

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