Ahead, the brilliance of the twin lamps drilled a cone of visibility that extended a hundred feet in front of him. He fingered the controls, sweeping the arc back and forth, searching. Out the corner of his eye he checked the analog depth gauge. Approaching fifteen hundred feet. The bottom of the trench must be close. His sonar reading on the computer screen confirmed his assessment. No more than two fathoms. The pings of the sonar grew closer and closer.
Seated, Jack’s head and shoulders protruded into the acrylic plastic dome of the hull, giving him a panoramic view of his surroundings. While the cabin was spacious for most men, it was a tight fit for Jack’s six-foot-plus frame. It’s like driving an MG convertible, he thought, except you steer with your toes.
The two foot pedals in the main hull controlled not only acceleration, but also maneuvered the four one-horsepower thrusters. With practiced skill Jack eased the right pedal while depressing the toe of the left pedal. The craft dove smoothly to the left. Lights swept forward. Ahead, the seabed came into view, appearing out of the endless gloom.
Jack slowed his vehicle to a gentle glide as he entered a natural wonderland, a deep ocean oasis.
Under him, fields of tubeworms lay spread across the valley floor of the mid-Pacific mountain range. Riftia pachyptila. The clusters of six-foot-long tubes with their bloodred worms were like an otherworldly topiary waving at him as he passed, gently swaying in the current. To either side, on the lower slopes, giant clams lay stacked shell-to-shell, open, soft fronds filtering the sea. Among them stalked bright red galatheid crabs on long, spindly legs.
Movement drew Jack’s attention forward. A thick eyeless eel slithered past, teeth bright in the xenon lamp. A school of curious fish followed next, led by a large brown lantern fish. The brazen fellow swam right up to the glass bubble, a deep-sea gargoyle ogling the strange intruder inside. Minuscule bioluminescent lights winked along the large fish’s sides, announcing its territorial aggression.
Other denizens displayed their lights. Under him, pink pulses ran through tangles of bamboo coral. Around the dome, tiny blue-green lights flashed, the creatures too small and translucent to be seen clearly.
The sight reminded Jack of flurries of fireflies from his Tennessee childhood. Having lived all his young life in landlocked Tennessee, Jack had instantly fallen in love with the ocean, enthralled by its wide expanses, its endless blue, its changing moods.
A swirl of lights swarmed around the dome.
“Unbelievable,” he muttered to himself, wearing a wide grin. Even after all this time, the sea found ways to surprise him.
In response, his radio earpiece buzzed. “What was that, Jack?”
Frowning, Jack silently cursed the throat microphone taped under his larynx. Even fifteen hundred feet under the sea, he could not completely shut out the world above. “Nothing, Lisa,” he answered. “Just admiring the view.”
“How’s the new sub handling?”
“Perfectly. Are you receiving the Bio-Sensor readings?” Jack asked, touching the clip on his earlobe. The laser spectrometer built into the clip constantly monitored his blood-gas levels.
Dr. Lisa Cummings had garnered a National Science Foundation grant to study the physiological effects of deep-sea work. “Respiration, temperature, cabin pressure, oxygen supply, ballast, carbon dioxide scrubbers. All green up here. Any evidence of seismic activity?”
“No. All quiet.”
Two hours ago, as Jack had first begun his descent in the Nautilus, Charlie Mollier, the geologist, had reported strange seismic readings, harmonic vibrations radiating through the deep-sea mountain range. For safety’s sake he had suggested that Jack return to the surface. “Come watch the eclipse with us,” Charlie had radioed earlier in his Jamaican accent. “It’s spectacular, mon. We can always dive tomorrow.”
Jack had refused. He had no interest in the eclipse. If the quakes worsened, he could always surface. But during the long descent, the strange seismic readings had faded away. Charlie’s voice over the radio had eventually lost its strained edge.
Jack touched his throat mike. “So you all done worrying up there?”
A pause was followed by a reluctant “Yes.”
Jack imagined the blond doctor rolling her eyes. “Thanks, Lisa. Signing off. Time for a little privacy.” He yanked the Bio-Sensor clip from his earlobe.
It was a small victory. The remainder of the Bio-Sensor system would continue to report on the sub’s environmental status, but not his personal information. At least it gave him a bit of isolation from the world above—and this was what Jack liked best about diving. The isolation, the peace, the quiet. Here there was only the moment. Lost in the deep, his past had no power to haunt him.
From the sub’s speakers the strange noises of the abysmal deep echoed through the small space: a chorus of eerie pulses, chirps, and high-frequency squeals. It was like listening in on another planet.
Around him was a world deadly to surface dwellers: endless darkness, crushing pressures, toxic waters. But life somehow found a way to thrive here, fed not by sunlight, but by poisonous clouds of hydrogen sulfide that spewed from hot vents called “black smokers.”
Jack glided near one of these vents now. It was a thirty-meter-tall chimney stack, belching dark clouds of mineral-rich boiling waters from its top. As he passed, white clouds of bacteria were disturbed by his thrusters, creating a mini-blizzard behind him. These microorganisms were the basis for life here, microscopic engines that converted hydrogen sulfide into energy.
Jack gave the chimney a wide berth. Still, as his sub slid past he watched the external temperature readings climb quickly. The vents themselves could reach temperatures over seven hundred degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough, he knew, to parboil him in his little sub.
“Jack?” The worried voice of the team’s medical doctor again whispered in his ear. She must have noticed the temperature changes.
“Just a smoker. Nothing to worry about,” he answered.
Using the foot pedals, he eased the minisub past the chimney stack and continued on a gentle dive, following the trench floor. Though life down here fascinated him, Jack had a more important objective than just admiring the view.
For the past year, he and his team aboard the Deep Fathom had been hunting for the wreck of the Kochi Maru, a Japanese freighter lost during WWII. Their research into its manifest suggested the ship bore a large shipment of gold bullion, spoils of war. From studying navigation and weather maps, Jack had narrowed the search to ten square nautical miles of the Central Pacific mountain range. It had been a long shot, a gamble that after a year had not looked like it was going to pay off—until yesterday, when their sonar had picked up a suspicious shadow on the ocean’s bottom.
Jack was chasing that shadow now. He glanced at the sub’s computer. It fed him sonar data from his boat far overhead. Whatever had cast that shadow was about a hundred yards from his current position. He flipped on his own side-scanning sonar to monitor the bed’s terrain as he moved closer.
A ridge of rock appeared out of the gloom. He worked the pedals and swerved in a wide arc around the obstruction. The abundant sea life began to dissipate, the oasis vanishing behind him. Ahead, the seabed floor became a stretch of empty silt. His thrusters wafted up plumes as he passed. Like driving down a dusty back road.
Jack circled the spur of rock. Ahead, another ridge appeared, a foothill in the Central Pacific range. It blocked his progress. He pulled the sub to a hovering halt and released a bit of ballast, meaning to climb over the ridge. As he began to drift upward, a slight current caught his sub, dragging him forward. Jack fought the current with his thrusters, stabilizing his craft. What the hell? He nudged the craft forward, skirting toward the top of the ridge.
“Jack,” Lisa whispered in his ear again, “are you passing another smoker chimney? I’m reading warmer temperatures.”
“No, but I’m not sure what—Son of a bitch!” His sub had crested the ridge. He saw what lay on the far side.
“What is it, Jack?” Fear quavered in Lisa’s voice. “Are you okay?”
Beyond the ridge a new valley opened up, but this was no oasis of life. Ahead was a hellish landscape. Glowing cracks crisscrossed the sea floor. Molten rock flowed forth, shadowy crimson in the gloom as it quickly cooled. Tiny bubbles obscured the view. Jack fought the thermal current. The flow kept trying to roll him forward. From the hydrophone’s speakers a steady roar arose.
“Jack, what did you find? The temp readings are climbing rapidly.”
He needed no instruments to tell him that. The interior of the sub grew warmer with each breath. “It’s a new vent opening.”
A second voice came on the horn. It was Charlie, the geologist. “Careful, Jack, I’m still picking up weak surges from down there. It’s far from stable.”
“I’m not leaving yet.”
“You shouldn’t risk—”
Jack interrupted, “I’ve found the Kochi Maru.”
“The ship is here…but I don’t know for how long.” As the sub hovered atop the ridge, Jack stared out the acrylic dome. On the far side of the hellish valley lay the wreck of a long trawler, its hull cracked into two sections. In the dull glow, the shattered windows of the pilothouse stared back at him. On the bow were printed black Japanese letters. He was well-familiar with the name: KOCHI MARU. Spring Wind.
But the name no longer fit the wreck.
Around the ship, molten rock welled and flowed, forming ribbons and pools of magma, steaming as it quickly cooled in the frigid depths. The forward half of the ship lay directly over one of the vents. Jack watched as the steel ship began to sink, melting into the magma.
“It’s smack dab in the middle of hell,” Jack reported. “I’m gonna get a closer look.”
“Jack…” It was Lisa again, her voice hard with a pending command. But she hesitated. She knew him too well. A long sigh followed. “Just keep a watch on the external temp readings. Titanium isn’t impervious to extreme temperatures. Especially the seals—”