Lauren heard the unmistakable roar of water as it exploded upward and then cascaded down. The crippled Learjet spun in the current and quickly began to sink. Jolted into reality, she felt the first touch of cold water pouring into the cabin, as it swirled around her ankles. Lauren sensed the airplane was sinking nose first, she turned and saw that the cockpit was already flooded, telling her that the forward fuselage had ruptured in the crash. There was no way to reach the pilots.
She threw off her seatbelt and on unsteady legs went to Daniel. His eyes were closed. A single groan told her he was still alive. In the glow from the emergency lights she could see Kovacs. His eyes were unfocused, his neck bent at an impossible angle. He was beyond help.
As the water rushed in, the torrent almost toppled her. She reached beneath the surface, and by feel, unfastened Daniel's seatbelt and heaved hard to raise him up out of his seat. Lauren rolled him on his back, slid her right arm underneath him, and part swimming, part wading, hurried toward the over-wing exit. She planted her feet and furiously pulled on the handle. The hatch gave way, the open exit only inches above the water level.
She shed her shoes, and gripping Daniel's collar, she climbed out into the darkness and crouched on top of the wing. The rising water level inside the plane let her float him face up. Standing on the wing, she leaned back, and then with all of her strength, pulled Daniel's unconscious body through the emergency exit.
Moments later they were free of the Learjet and floating alone in the pitch-dark water. Lauren kicked away from the airplane and watched the sleek tail pitch upwards and then slip below the surface. The jet was gone. Lauren and Daniel were all that floated away in the swirling current. She cradled Daniel's head in the crook of her arm and used her free arm to tread water. She kicked to inch them closer to the bank, while allowing the current to do the bulk of the work carrying them downstream, away from the crashed jet.
Distant lights had told her there was civilization somewhere up ahead, but she had no idea how far. Lauren was swimming at a slow methodical pace, fighting the urge to panic as she continued to propel them toward the tree-lined shore. When her feet finally touched bottom, she pulled Daniel as far up the bank as she could, so they could hide under leafy branches she'd snap from the low hanging limbs.
Once she felt as if they were somewhat hidden, Lauren knelt and checked Daniel again; he was still breathing. A warm wind rattled the leaves above them and the constant buzzing of insects was the only other sound. The night was cloudless, and the stars of August filled the sky. Lauren waved at the insects that buzzed unseen in her face. She'd been deep in thought about who would come looking for them when the sun rose. A new sound began to fill the air, and it took her several seconds to understand she was hearing the roar from an approaching boat. She pulled Daniel closer and adjusted the leaves as well as she could to camouflage them both.
When she saw the high-powered spotlight searching the water ahead of the vessel, she reacted immediately, taking a handful of mud from the riverbank and smearing it on her face, then repeating the process on Daniel. Then she drew her legs up and made herself as small as possible.
The light pierced the darkness and in the harsh beam she would have been blinded if she hadn't looked away. In that instant she saw that Daniel's eyes were blinking open and she was terrified he'd try to move. She inched closer and whispered into his ear. "Daniel, it's Lauren. Don't move, don't make a sound. Do you understand?"
In the sweeping light from the approaching boat she saw him slowly nod his head.
Lauren thought they'd have until daylight before anyone searched for them. It was a miscalculation she'd not make again. Earlier, she'd been trying to calculate exactly where in Eastern Europe they'd crashed, but all she could say with certainty was they were somewhere between Bratislava and Budapest, which put them in either Slovakia or Hungary. There was a current, so they'd crashed into a river, but it seemed small for the Danube. Her biggest concern was being found by the people who'd shot them down, though being arrested by the police could be just as bad. At times, the Slovak and Hungarian governments were indistinguishable from its criminals. She remembered the detailed briefing she'd received at Langley. The mission was covert. The CIA would maintain complete deniability, which meant no help was coming. She and Daniel were alone in a very hostile environment.
Lauren was almost afraid to breathe as the boat cruised closer, its throaty engine pushing against the current. The search light reached out from the bow and swept both banks and the water in between. She could see the brown, muddy water, as well as the tall trees that lined the shore. In the residual light she spotted armed men along the deck. As the boat cruised past, questions flooded her mind. How deep was the water, was there floating jet fuel from ruptured tanks, or other debris that would reveal the location of their crash? If the authorities found the wreckage, would they have any idea how many people were onboard? Would they be looking for survivors? She pictured the open emergency exit and instantly answered her own question. Of course they would—and then the hunt would be on.
A gurgle sounded from deep in Daniel's chest, and blood trickled from the side of his mouth. His body stiffened. "I'm sorry I drug you into this."
Lauren cradled him protectively in her arms, her eyes fixed on the stern of the passing boat, looking for any sign it was slowing or turning. When she deemed it safe she replied. "Why did you ask for me?"
"I didn't think anyone else would come."
"That's not true," Lauren replied, absently stroking his face.
"I had to try to protect my daughter, Samantha, as well as be heard, and maybe get out of this place," Daniel said as he found Lauren's hand with his. He pressed a rubber covered jump drive into her palm. "It's all in here. It wasn't for me, it was for the others."
"Samantha is safe," Lauren said, relived to see that the drive that Daniel had given her was a high quality military grade. Whatever data Daniel saved would have easily survived the crash and the prolonged immersion in the river. "What do you mean? What others?"
"I built..." He choked and spit up more blood. "A small, stealth-capable jet. Remember the Phoenix? I reengineered it to be invisible to radar. It has the radar cross section of a sparrow."
Lauren remembered the Phoenix, it was a design from their days at MIT, when they were together.
"My design was meant for a surveillance platform." Daniel was now gasping for breath. "They modified it, turned it into a weapon."
"Who are these people, and who do they want to spy on?" Lauren held him more tightly now.
"I don't know." Daniel's voice was barely audible, the gurgling in his chest worse. "They might be Ukrainian, or Chechens. I don't know, but when they do—I believe they will be able to use the Phoenix to deliver a nuclear weapon."
"They have a nuclear weapon and you built them a stealth aircraft?" Lauren felt a cold stab of fear rush through her body as the implications fully registered.
"I didn't know. When I made the discovery, I sabotaged the plane," Daniel said. "I don't know how much time I bought. Not long."
"Where is it? Tell me where you were?" Lauren pleaded, but she knew he was fading.
"I'm sorry," Daniel said his voice weaker. "I changed—different than before. Only you—"