But nature—fueled by strong drugs—could not be stopped. Minutes later, pressure again rose inside her abdomen, a storm front rising from deep inside her, as relentless as the tide. She squeezed her eyes shut, knowing what was coming.
No … please, no …
Her plea fell to ashes. The next contraction tore through her. She screamed—not so much in pain as knowing she was losing this last battle.
“Push!” Blake said, but he sounded far away.
She fought against it, but her body was no longer her own, transforming into a primitive machine, one forged in the evolutionary furnace of survival. Willing or not, all her flesh drove toward one function: to procreate, to move her genes forward into the future. She had no will but to obey.
Abdominal muscles contracted in a crushing heave.
Pain became purpose.
“The baby’s crowning!” Petra called out, her voice ringing in triumph.
Lost deep in the violence of birth, Amanda cried out to the world, surrendering to the inevitable, driven now by the most basic of all maternal needs.
Someone save my baby.
Seated inside the Ghost, Gray swiveled his chair to face the curved glass wall of the submersible. A pool of light cast by the sub’s headlamps illuminated the dark waters around the vessel as it coasted away from Palm Jumeirah. The sandy seabed flowed a few feet below his toes.
The effect was unnerving. The clear borosilicate shell allowed a full spherical view of the surrounding waters. Like floating in an air bubble, he thought, which wasn’t far from the truth.
The Ghost was little more than a tapered glass cylinder strapped into a hydrogen-cell-battery propulsion drive. Ancillary electrical, mechanical, and engineering systems acted as an exoskeleton around the living quarters.
Curious denizens, drawn by their light, would dart up, stare googly-eyed at the strange sight, then flash back into the blackness.
He could imagine what they saw.
The vessel reminded him of the neon tetras he once raised as a kid. He’d lie on his bed for hours, staring as the tiny fishes darted back and forth inside his aquarium. Tetras were best known for their iridescent blue and red racing stripes, but Gray had always been fascinated by their translucent skin. Their spine, ribs, even their quivering tiny hearts were exposed for the world to see. At the moment, he felt similarly naked, like he’d been swallowed up by a giant version of a glassy tetra.
Still, he had to admit the panorama was stunning.
One passenger was not as impressed.
“This is so wrong,” Kowalski said. He was seated across from Gray; the big man had one palm against the glass window, another on the ceiling. He stared between his legs. “How long is this going to take? What if we run out of air?”
Gray recognized the space was cramped, especially for someone of Kowalski’s bulk. Jack piloted the craft from a single seat up in the nose. The four chairs in back left little room to maneuver. Even Kane had to balance on Tucker’s lap, panting at the view, ears high, trembling all over.
Seichan sat behind Kowalski and reached a reassuring hand to touch his shoulder. “Calm down. We’ve got plenty of air.” She patted his back. “I’d be more worried about us springing a leak.”
Kowalski swiveled in his seat, searching around the cabin with wide eyes.
Gray gave her a scolding look. All they needed was a panicked bull in their midst.
“How much farther?” Kowalski moaned.
The answer came from up front. “We have to cross the entire World to reach your destination.”
Jack tapped a button on a touch-screen interface. A heads-up display appeared above his controls, glowing against the window. It depicted a map of the surface, showing hundreds of tiny islands forming silhouettes of the seven continents.
Gray recognized it as another of Dubai’s projects. The World was one of the city’s latest endeavors: three hundred mini-islands off the coast, each offered for sale to private buyers. But financial concerns and problems with sand erosion threatened the development. The islands remained mostly deserted, with the sea reclaiming some.
On the display, a red blip marked their progress as they navigated through this man-made archipelago.
Beyond the window, a dark hummock of one of the tiny islands loomed. As they circled past it, a large ray, disturbed by their passage, shook out of the sand and sailed away from the light and back into the gloom. Other sea life appeared, growing more abundant as they glided through the shallows and wound past the small isles: hermit crabs scuttled along the sandy floor, pink anemone and green sea grass waved, a lone barracuda torpedoed past them, and schools of fish flashed and swirled in shimmering silvers and dazzling colors.
Tucker suddenly swore. Kane barked.
Gray turned to see a shoal of hammerhead sharks come lancing out of the darkness and shoot past overhead. They all inadvertently ducked. There was no real threat, but it was a sobering reminder of the dangers ahead.
After a few more silent minutes, they left the World behind.
The deeper seas beckoned.
The Ghost sailed out into the blackness, slowly sinking into the depths as the coastal shelf fell away. As they dove, the watery glow of the moon died overhead. The only lights now were their own.
And even that had to end.
“Going dark,” Jack warned. “You’ll find your goggles under your chairs.”
Before Gray could find his, all the exterior lamps clicked off. Blackness crushed around them. Kowalski gasped. The small lights from the control console were the only illumination inside the submersible, and even those went dim.
Gray’s fingers discovered the strap for his night-vision headgear and tugged them free. He pulled the goggles over his head and settled them in place. The world beyond the sub reappeared again, lit now by the infrared LED emitters along the nose of the vessel. The goggles were able to perceive this spectrum of light, turning the world into a grayscale shadow of its former brightness.
“Don’t want to ride up to Utopia with our lights blazing,” Jack said. “Even with the sub submerged, someone might see us coming. Luckily, we don’t need lights. I incorporated this naval IR system to accommodate for night dives. Makes for less of a rude intrusion into the dark world of our deep-sea denizens.”
Or when you need stealth, like now.
The plan was to sneak under the island’s security net. The surface radar defense system was meant to discourage pirate ships, like those in Somalia, from reaching the island’s coast undetected. Additionally, armed security guards watched the docks and shorelines, and a small fleet of jet boats patrolled the waters around the island.
Painter and Jack had already worked out an alternate entry point—but first they had to reach it.
The Ghost traveled another twenty minutes, soaring swiftly with the quiet burble of its engines. Jack worked his pedals and joystick to glide them along the seabed, riding over teeming reefs and across stretches of open sand.
Positioned ten miles from shore, Utopia had been built in waters eighty meters deep. It was an engineering marvel, the first deep-sea artificial island. The heads-up display continued to track their path away from the coast, mapping a bird’s-eye view of their passage. At the top of the screen, the tip of one leg of the star-shaped island poked into view and slowly stretched downward as the Ghost closed in on its destination. More of the island appeared, revealing its unique shape.
But its shape was the least unique feature of the island.
As they neared the tip of one corner of the star, a massive concrete pylon appeared out of the darkness, twenty yards wide. A forest of such towers lay farther ahead. This was the secret behind the engineering of Utopia.
It wasn’t so much an island as a massive fixed platform with a landmass sitting on top of it.
Gray had read the history of Utopia. Its engineering was not new or groundbreaking, but based on technologies developed many years ago, patterned after the Hibernia oil platform constructed off the coast of Newfoundland in 1997. The same engineers and construction company had been hired as consultants for this Dubai development.
In many ways, Utopia was an easier project. The Hibernia platform had been built in deeper waters and constructed in seas prone to rogue waves, Atlantic winter storms, and floating icebergs. The waters here were calmer, and the environmental threats less severe. On top of that, this location had been chosen for Utopia because of a natural coastal ridge. The outcropping had been reinforced and built up with boulders and compacted sand to form a protective crescent, stretching four miles wide.
Within those sheltering arms, Utopia was slowly constructed. Like Hibernia and other oil platforms, the island was basically a gravity-based structure, meaning the more weight on top, the more stable and secure it became. So, while Hibernia was taller, Utopia was wider, the equivalent of twenty such platforms connected in a honeycomb cluster to form a star-shaped base. Atop this massive foundation, whose upper surface lay submerged to the depth of five meters, the same engineering techniques that built Palm Jumeirah were employed here: laying down a thick base of massive boulders on top of the platform, then flooding and covering it with dredged sand and compacting it all to the hardness of concrete.
And within five years, a new island had risen out of the sea.
“Now comes the tricky part,” Jack said.
He guided the Ghost into that Brobdingnagian forest of massive steel-reinforced concrete pylons that supported the island. The columns rose from the seabed, set amid piles of boulders and mountains of ballast. He slowed their pace to a crawl.
Gray craned his neck, staring up through the clear roof. In the distance, he could make out the bottom of the foundation platform. He imagined the crushing weight overhead, pictured the stack of corporate towers topside.
This time, Seichan didn’t tease him.
The sub suddenly rolled, heaving to one side.
Jack swore, fought his controls, and righted them. “Sorry about that,” he said. “Currents are tricky under here. In fact, one of the auxiliary power sources for the island is a series of tidal turbines, driven by the daily ebb and flow of the ocean. That same flow makes maneuvering through here a thorny bitch.”