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Tema: Robin Cook ~ Robin Kuk  (Pročitano 82922 puta)
29. Avg 2005, 08:35:52
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Underpromise; overdeliver.

Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
mob
Apple iPhone 6s
Abduction

Robin Cook

Abduction
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Glossary
Selected Bibliography
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Underpromise; overdeliver.

Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
mob
Apple iPhone 6s
Abduction
by Robin Cook

   For Cameron.
   Welcome to life, “LITTLE LITTLE”
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Underpromise; overdeliver.

Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
mob
Apple iPhone 6s
Chapter 1

   An odd vibration roused Perry Bergman from a restless sleep, and he was instantly filled with a strange foreboding. The unpleasant murmur put him in mind of fingernails scraping down a blackboard. He shuddered and threw off his thin blanket. As he stood up, the vibration continued. With his bare feet on the steel deck, it now reminded him of a dentist’s drill. Just beneath it he could detect the normal hum of the ship’s generators and the whir of its air conditioning fans.
   “What the hell?” he said aloud, even though there was no one within earshot to provide an answer. He’d helicoptered out to the ship, the Benthic Explorer, the previous evening after a long flight from Los Angeles to New York to Ponta Delgada on the Azorean island of San Miguel. Between the time zone changes and a long briefing about the technical problems his crew was experiencing, he was understandably exhausted. He didn’t like being awakened after only four hours of sleep, especially by such a jarring vibration.
   Snatching the ship’s phone from its cradle he punched in the number for the bridge. While he waited for the connection to go through he peered out the porthole of his V.I.P. compartment on his tiptoes. At five foot seven Perry didn’t think of himself as short, just not tall. Outside, the sun had barely cleared the horizon. The ship cast a long shadow across the Atlantic. Perry was looking west over a misty, calm sea whose surface resembled a vast expanse of beaten pewter. The water undulated sinuously with low, widely separated swells. The serenity of the scene belied the goings-on below the surface. The Benthic Explorer was being held in a fixed position by computer driven commands to her propellers as well as to her bow and stern thrusters over a portion of the volcanically and seismically active Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a twelve-thousand-mile-long, jagged range of mountains that bisects the ocean. With the constant extrusion of enormous quantities of lava, submarine explosions of steam, and frequent miniearthquakes, the submerged cordillera was the antithesis of the ocean surface’s summer tranquillity.
   “Bridge,” a bored voice responded in Perry’s ear.
   “Where’s Captain Jameson?” Perry snapped.
   “In his bunk as far as I know,” the voice said casually.
   “What the hell is that vibration?” Perry demanded.
   “Beats me, but it’s not coming from the ship’s power plant if that’s what you’re asking. Otherwise I would have heard from the engine room. It’s probably just the drilling rig. Want me to call the drilling van?”
   Perry didn’t answer; he just slammed the phone down. He couldn’t believe whoever was on the bridge wasn’t moved to investigate the vibration on his own. Didn’t he care? It irked Perry to no end that his ship was being operated so unprofessionally, but he decided to deal with that issue later. Instead he tried to focus on getting into his jeans and heavy wool turtleneck. He didn’t need someone to tell him the vibration might be coming from the drilling rig. That was pretty obvious. After all, it was difficulty with the drilling operation that had brought Perry here from Los Angeles.
   Perry knew that he had gambled the future of Benthic Marine on the current project: drilling into a magma chamber within a seamount west of the Azores. It was a project that was not under contract, meaning the company was spending instead of being paid, and the cash hemorrhage was horrendous. Perry’s motivation for the undertaking rested on his belief that the feat would capture the public’s imagination, focus interest on undersea exploration, and rocket Benthic Marine to the forefront of oceanographic research. Unfortunately, the endeavor was not going as planned.
   Once he was dressed, Perry glanced in the mirror over the sink in the cubbyhole bathroom. A few years ago he wouldn’t have taken the time. But things had changed. Now that he was in his forties, he found that the tousled look that used to work for him made him look old, or at best, tired. His hair was thinning and he required glasses to read, but he still had a winning smile. Perry was proud of his straight, white teeth, especially since they emphasized the tan he worked hard to maintain. Satisfied by his reflection, he dashed out of his compartment and ran down the passageway. As he passed the doors to the captain’s and first mate’s quarters, Perry was tempted to pound on them to vent his irritation. He knew the metal surfaces would reverberate like kettledrums, yanking the sleeping occupants from their slumbers. As the founder, president, and largest shareholder of Benthic Marine, he expected people to be more on their toes while he was on board. Could he be the only one concerned enough to investigate this vibration?
   Emerging onto the deck, Perry tried to locate the source of the strange hum, which was now merged with the sound of the operating drill rig. The Benthic Explorer was a four-hundred-fifty-foot vessel with a twenty-story drilling derrick amidship that bridged a central bay. In addition to the drilling rig, the ship boasted a saturation diving complex, a deep-sea submersible, and several remote-controlled mobile camera sleds, each mounted with an impressive array of still cameras and television camcorders. Combining this equipment with an extensive lab, the Benthic Explorer gave its parent company, Benthic Marine, the ability to carry out a wide range of oceanographic studies and operations.
   Perry saw the door to the drilling van open. A giant of a man appeared. He yawned and stretched before hoisting the straps of his coveralls over his shoulders and donning his yellow hard hat, which hadSHIFT SU –PERVISOR written in block letters over the visor. Still stiff with sleep, he headed in the direction of the rotary table. He was obviously in no hurry despite the vibration coursing through the ship.
   Quickening his pace Perry caught up to the man just as two other deckhands joined him.
   “It’s been doing this for about twenty minutes, chief,” one of the roustabouts yelled over the noise of the drilling rig. All three men ignored Perry.
   The shift foreman grunted as he pulled on a pair of heavy work gloves and blithely walked out across the narrow metal grate spanning the central well. His sangfroid impressed Perry. The catwalk seemed flimsy and there was only a low, thin handrail to block the fifty-foot drop to the ocean surface below. Reaching the rotary table, the supervisor leaned out and placed both gloved hands about the rotating shaft. He didn’t try to grip it tightly but rather let it rotate across his palms. He cocked his head to the side while he tried to interpret the tremor transmitted up the pipe. It took only a moment.
   “Stop the rig!” the giant shouted.
   One of the roustabouts dashed back to the exterior control panel. Within a moment the rotary table came to a clanking halt and the grating vibration ceased. The supervisor walked back and stepped onto the deck.
   “Chrissake! The bit’s busted again,” he said with an expression of disgust. “This is fast becoming a goddamned joke.”
   “The joke is that we’ve only drilled for two or three feet in the last four or five days,” the remaining roustabout said.
   “Shut up!” the giant intoned. “Get the hell over there and raise the drill string to the well head!”
   The second roustabout joined the first. Almost immediately there was a new sound of powerful machinery as the winches were engaged to do the foreman’s bidding. The ship shuddered.
   “How can you be sure the bit’s broken?” Perry yelled over the new noise.
   The foreman looked down at him. “Experience,” he yelled then turned and strode off toward the ship’s stern.
   Perry had to run to catch up. Each of the foreman’s strides was double his. Perry tried to ask another question but the foreman either didn’t hear or was ignoring him. They reached the companionway and the foreman started up, taking the stairs three at a time. Two decks above he entered a passageway and then stopped outside a compartment door. The name on the door was MARKDAVIDSON, OPERATIONSCOMMANDER. The foreman knocked loudly. At first the only response was a fit of coughing but then a voice called out to come in.
   Perry pressed into the small compartment behind the foreman.
   “Bad news, chief,” the foreman said. “I’m afraid the drill bit’s busted again.”
   “What the hell time is it?” Mark asked. He ran his fingers through his messy hair. He was sitting on the side of his bunk dressed in skivvies. His facial features had a puffy look, and his voice was thick with sleep. Without waiting for a reply he reached for a pack of cigarettes. The air in the room was imbued with stale smoke.
   “It’s around oh-six-hundred,” the foreman said.
   “Jesus,” Mark said. His eyes then focused on Perry. Surprise registered. He blinked. “Perry? What are you doing up?”
   “There’s no way I could have slept through that vibration,” Perry said.
   “What vibration?” Mark asked. He looked back at the foreman, who was staring at Perry.
   “Are you Perry Bergman?” the foreman asked.
   “Last time I checked,” Perry said. Sensing the foreman’s unease gave him a modicum of satisfaction.
   “Sorry,” the foreman said.
   “Forget it,” Perry said magnanimously.
   “Was the drill train rattling?” Mark asked.
   The foreman nodded. “Just like the last four times, maybe a little worse.”
   “We only have one more diamond-studded tungsten carbide bit left,” Mark lamented.
   “You don’t have to tell me,” the foreman said.
   “What’s the depth?” Mark asked.
   “Not much change from yesterday,” the foreman said. “We’ve got out thirteen hundred thirty-three feet of pipe. Since the bottom is just shy of a thousand feet and there’s no sediment, we’re down into the rock about three hundred and forty feet, give or take a few inches.”
   “This is what I was explaining to you last night,” Mark said to Perry. “We were doing fine until four days ago. Since then we’ve gone nowhere, maybe two or three feet tops, despite using up four drill bits.”
   “So you think you’ve hit up against a hard layer?” Perry said, thinking he had to say something.
   Mark laughed sarcastically. “Hard ain’t the word. We’re using diamond-studded bits with the straightest flutes made! Worse yet is we got another hundred feet of the same stuff, whatever it is, before we get to the magma chamber, at least according to our ground-penetrating radar. At this rate we’ll be here for ten years.”
   “Did the lab analyze the rock caught in the last broken bit?” the foreman asked.
   “Yeah, they did,” Mark said. “It’s a type of rock they’d never seen before. At least according to Tad Messenger. It’s composed of a type of crystalline olivine that he thinks might have a microscopic matrix of diamond. I wish we could get a bigger sample. One of the biggest problems of drilling in open sea is not getting a return of circulated drilling fluids. It’s like drilling in the dark.”
   “Could we get a corer down there?” Perry asked.
   “A lot of good that would do if we can’t make any headway with a diamond-studded bit.”
   “How about piggybacking it with the diamond bit. If we could get a real sample of this stuff we’re trying to drill through, maybe we could figure out a reasonable game plan. We got too much invested in this operation to give up without a real fight.”
   Mark looked at the foreman, who shrugged. Then he looked back at Perry. “Hey, you’re the boss.”
   “At least for now,” Perry said. He wasn’t joking. He wondered how long he was going to be the boss if the project came to naught.
   “All right,” Mark said. He put his cigarette down on the edge of an overflowing ashtray. “Pull the drill bit up to the well head.”
   “The boys are already doing that,” the foreman said.
   “Get the last diamond drill bit from supply,” Mark said. He reached for his phone. “I’ll have Larry Nelson get the saturation dive system up and running and the submersible in the water. We’ll replace the bit and see if we can get a better sample of what it is we’re drilling into.”
   “Aye, aye,” the foreman said. He turned and left while Mark lifted his phone to his ear to call the diving commander.
   Perry started to leave himself when Mark held up his hand to motion for him to stay. After finishing his call to Larry Nelson, Mark looked up at Perry.
   “There’s something I didn’t bring up last night at the briefing,” he said. “But I think you ought to know about it.”
   Perry swallowed. His mouth had gone dry. He didn’t like Mark’s tone of voice. It sounded like more bad news.
   “This might be nothing,” Mark continued, “but when we used the ground-penetrating radar to study this layer we’re trying to drill through like I mentioned before, there was an unexpected incidental finding. I got the data here on my desk. Do you want to see it?”
   “Just tell me,” Perry said. “I can look at the data later.”
   “The radar suggested that the contents of the magma chamber might not be what we thought from the original seismic studies. It might not be liquid.”
   “You’re joking!” This new information added to Perry’s misgivings. It was by accident the previous summer that the Benthic Explorer had discovered the seamount they were presently drilling. What was so amazing about the find was that as part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the area had been extensively studied by Geosat, the U.S. Navy’s gravity measuring satellite used to create contour maps of the ocean bottom. Yet somehow this particular undersea mountain had evaded Geosat’s radar.
   Although the Benthic Explorer crew had been eager to get home they’d paused long enough to make several passes over the mysterious mount. With the ship’s sophisticated sonar they did a cursory study of the guyot’s internal structure. To everyone’s surprise the results were as unexpected as the mountain’s presence. The seamount appeared to be a particularly thin-skinned, quiescent volcano whose liquid core was a mere four hundred feet beneath the ocean floor. Even more astounding was that the substance within the magma chamber had sound propagation characteristics identical to those of the Mohorovicic discontinuity, or Moho, the mysterious boundary between the earth’s crust and the earth’s mantle. Since no one had ever been able to get magma from the Moho, although both Americans and Russians had tried during the Cold War, Perry decided to go back and drill into the mountain in hopes that Benthic Marine might be the first organization to sample the molten material. He reasoned that the material’s analysis would shed light on the structure and perhaps even the origin of the earth. But now his Benthic Explorer ’s operations commander was telling him that the original seismic data might be wrong!
   “The magma chamber may be empty,” Mark said.
   “Empty?” Perry blurted.
   “Well, not empty,” Mark corrected himself. “Filled with some kind of compressed gas, or maybe steam. I know extrapolating data at this depth is pushing ground-penetrating radar technology beyond its limits. In fact a lot of people would say the results I’m talking about are just artifact, sorta off the graph so to speak. But the fact that the radar data doesn’t jibe with the seismic worries me just the same. I mean, I’d just hate to make this huge effort only to get nothing but a bunch of superheated steam. Nobody’s going to be happy with that, least of all your investors.”
   Perry chewed the inside of his cheek while he mulled over Mark’s concern. He began to wish he’d never heard about Sea Mount Olympus, which was the name the crew had given the flat-topped, underwater mountain that they were trying to poke a hole into.
   “Have you mentioned this to Dr. Newell?” Perry asked. Dr. Suzanne Newell was the senior oceanographer on the Benthic Explorer. “Has she seen this radar data you’re talking about?”
   “Nobody’s seen it,” Mark said. “I just happened to notice the shadow on my computer screen yesterday when I was preparing for your arrival. I was thinking about bringing it up at your briefing last night but decided to wait to talk to you in private. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a bit of a morale problem out here with certain members of the crew. A lot of people have begun to think that drilling into this guyot’s a bit like tilting at windmills. People are starting to talk about calling it quits and getting home to their families before the summer’s over. I didn’t want to add fuel to the fire.”
   Perry felt weak-kneed. He pulled Mark’s chair out from his desk and sat down heavily. He rubbed his eyes. He was tired, hungry, and discouraged. He could kick himself for betting so much of his company’s future based on so little reliable data, but the discovery had seemed so fortuitous. He’d felt compelled to act.
   “Hey, I don’t like to be the bearer of bad news,” Mark said. “We’ll do what you suggested. We’ll try to get a better idea of the rock we’re drilling. Let’s not get overly discouraged.”
   “It’s kind of hard not to,” Perry said, “considering how much it is costing Benthic Marine to keep the ship out here. Maybe we should just cut our losses.”
   “Why don’t you get yourself something to eat?” Mark suggested. “No sense making any snap decisions on an empty stomach. In fact, I’ll join you if you can wait for me to shower. Hell! Before you know it we’ll have some more information about this crap we’ve hit up against. Maybe then it will be clear what we ought to do.”
   “How long will it take to change the bit?” Perry asked.
   “The submersible can be in the water in an hour,” Mark said. “They’ll take the bit and the tools down to the well head. Getting the divers down there takes longer because they have to be compressed before we lower the bell. That’ll take a couple of hours, more if they get any compression pains. Changing the bit is not hard. The whole operation should take three or four hours, maybe less.”
   Perry got to his feet with effort. “Give me a call in my compartment when you’re ready to eat.” He reached for the door.
   “Hey, wait a sec!” Mark said with sudden enthusiasm. “I got an idea that might give you a boost. Why don’t you go down with the submersible? It’s reputed to be beautiful down there on the guyot at least according to Suzanne. Even the submersible pilot, Donald Fuller, the ex-naval line officer, who’s usually a tight-lipped, straight-arrow kind of guy, says the scenery is outstanding.”
   “What can be so great about a flat-topped, submerged mountain?” Perry asked.
   “I haven’t gone down myself,” Mark admitted. “But it has something to do with the geology of the area. You know, being part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and all. But ask Newell or Fuller! I tell you, they’re going to be ecstatic about being asked to go back down. With the halogen lights on the submersible and the clarity of the deep sea water, they said the visibility is between two and three hundred feet.”
   Perry nodded. Taking a dive wasn’t a bad idea since it would undoubtedly take his mind off the current situation and make him feel like he was doing something. Besides, he’d only been in the submersible once, off Santa Catalina Island when Benthic Marine took delivery of the sub, and that had been a memorable experience. At least he’d get a chance to see this mountain that was causing him so much aggravation.
   “Who should I tell that I’ll be part of the crew?” Perry asked.
   “I’ll take care of it,” Mark said. He stood up and pulled off his T-shirt. “I’ll just let Larry Nelson know."
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Poruke Odustao od brojanja
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Apple iPhone 6s
Chapter 2

   Richard Adams pulled a pair of baggy long johns from his ship’s locker and kicked the door closed. Once he had the underwear on he donned his black knit watch stander’s hat. Thus attired he left his compartment and banged on Louis Mazzola’s and Michael Donaghue’s doors. Both responded with a slurry of expletives. The curses had lost their sting since they constituted such a large percentage of these crew members’ vocabularies. Richard, Louis, and Michael, professional divers, were the hard drinking, hard living sort who regularly risked their lives by welding underwater if that were required, or blowing things up like reefs, or changing bits during submarine drilling operations. They were underwater hard-laborers and proud of it.
   The three had trained together in the U.S. Navy, becoming fast friends as well as accomplished members of the Navy’s UDT force. All had aspired to become Navy Seals, but that turned out not to be in the cards. Their predilection for beer and fistfights far exceeded that of their fellows. That the three had grown up with alcoholic, brutish, abusive, bigoted, blue-collar, wife-beating fathers was an explanation for their behavior, but not an excuse. Far from being embarrassed by their patriarchal examples, the three looked upon their harsh childhoods as a natural progression to true manhood. None of them ever gave even a passing thought to the old adage: Like father like son.
   Manliness was a critical virtue for all three men. They were ruthless in punishing anyone they perceived as being less manly than they who had the nerve to enter a bar in which they were drinking. Their judgment fell heavily on “shyster” lawyers and fat-assed Army personnel. They also condemned anyone they deemed a dork, a nerd, or a queer. Homosexuality bothered them the most, and as far as they were concerned, the military’s “don’t ask don’t tell” policy was ridiculous and a personal affront.
   Although the Navy tended to be lenient with divers and tolerated behavior it wouldn’t brook with other personnel, Richard Adams and his buddies pushed the envelope too far. One hot August afternoon the men retreated to their favorite hole-in-the-wall diver’s bar on San Diego’s Point Loma. It had been an exhausting day of difficult diving. After numerous rounds of boilermakers and an equal number of arguments about the current baseball season, they were shocked and dismayed to see a couple of Army guys jauntily walk in. According to the divers at their court-martial, these men proceeded to “love it up” in one of the back booths.
   The fact that the soldiers were officers only made the divers’ outrage all the more impassioned. They never asked themselves why a couple of Army officers might be in San Diego, a known Navy and Marine town. Richard, their perennial ringleader, was the first to approach the booth. He asked—sarcastically—if he could join the orgy. The Army men, mistaking Richard’s meaning—which was for them to get the hell out—laughed, denied any orgy of any sort, and offered to buy him and his friends a round of celebratory drinks. The result was a one-sided brawl that put both Army officers into Balboa Naval Hospital. It also put Richard and his friends into the brig and eventually out of the Navy. The Army men happened to have been members of JAG, the Army’s Judge Advocate General corps.
   “Come on, you assholes!” Richard yelled when the others still hadn’t appeared. He glanced at his diving watch. He knew Nelson would be pissed. His orders on the phone had been to get to the diving command center ASAP.
   The first to appear was Louis Mazzola. He was almost a head shorter than Richard, who stood six feet. Richard thought of Louis as a bowling ball kind of guy. He had meaty features, an omnipresent five o’ clock shadow, and short dark hair that lay flat on his round head. He appeared to have no neck; his trapezius angled out from his skull without any indentation.
   “What’s the hurry?” Louis whined.
   “We’re going on a dive!” Richard said.
   “So what else is new?” Louis complained.
   Michael’s door opened. He was somewhere between Richard’s rawboned silhouette and Louis’s stockiness. Like his friends he was well muscled and in obviously good shape. He was also equivalently slovenly, dressed in the same baggy long johns. But in contrast to the others he had on a Red Sox baseball cap with the visor angled off sideways. Michael hailed from Chelsea, Massachusetts, and was an avid Sox and Bruins fan.
   Michael opened his mouth to complain about being awakened, but Richard ignored him and set out for the main deck. Louis did likewise. Michael shrugged and then followed. As they descended the main companionway, Louis called ahead to Richard: “Hey, Adams, you got the cards?”
   “Of course I got the cards,” Richard shot back over his shoulder. “Have you got your checkbook?”
   “Screw you,” Louis said. “You haven’t beat me in the last four dives.”
   “It’s been a plan, man,” Richard returned. “I’ve been setting you up.”
   “Screw the cards,” Michael said. “Have you got your porno mags, Mazzola?”
   “You think I’d go on a dive without them?” Louis questioned. “Hell! I’d rather forget my fins.”
   “I hope you checked to make sure you’ve got the mags with the chicks and not the dudes,” Michael teased.
   Louis stopped abruptly. Michael bumped into him.
   “What the hell are you saying?” Louis growled.
   “I’m just checking to make sure you brought the right ones,” Michael said with a wry smile. “I might want to borrow them, and I don’t want to find myself looking at any shlongs.”
   Louis’s hand shot out and he grabbed a handful of Michael’s long johns top. Michael responded by grabbing Louis’s forearm with his left hand and balling his right hand into a fist. Before it could go further, Richard intervened.
   “Come on, you dorks!” Richard yelled, inserting himself between his two friends. With an upward blow he knocked Louis’s arm aside. There was a tearing sound, and Louis’s hand came away with a torn swatch of Michael’s undershirt clutched in his fingers. Like a bull seeing red, Louis tried to push past Richard. When that didn’t work he tried to grab Michael’s top over Richard’s shoulder. Michael howled with laughter and ducked away.
   “Mazzola, you meathead!” Richard yelled. “He’s just trying to pull your chain. Chill out, for chrissake!”
   “Bastard!” Louis hissed. He threw the swatch of torn fabric he’d yanked out of Michael’s undershirt at his tormentor. Michael laughed again.
   “Come on!” Richard said with disgust as he continued down the passageway. Michael reached down and picked up the piece of fabric. When he pretended to stick it back onto his chest, Louis laughed in spite of himself. Then they ran to catch up to Richard.
   When the divers emerged onto the deck they could see that the derrick was raising the pipe.
   “They must have broken the bit again,” Michael said. Both Richard and Louis nodded. “At least we know what we’ll be doing.”
   They entered the diving van and draped themselves over three folding chairs near the door. This was where Larry Nelson, the man who ran all the diving operations, had his desk. Behind him, on the right-hand side of the van and extending all the way down to the far end, was the diving console. Here were all the readouts, gauges, and controls for operating the diving system. On the left side of the van’s dash were the controls and monitors for the camera sleds. Also on the left side was a window that looked out on the central well of the ship. It was down this central well that the diving bell was lowered.
   The diving system on the Benthic Explorer was a saturation system, meaning the divers were expected to absorb the maximum amount of inert gas during any given dive. That meant that the decompression time required to rid themselves of the inert gas would be the same no matter how long they stayed at pressure. The system was composed of three cylindrical deck decompression chambers (DDC), each twelve feet wide and twenty feet long. The DDCs were hooked together like enormous sausages with double pressure hatches separating them. Within each were four bunks, several fold-down tables, a toilet, a sink, and a shower.
   Each DDC also had an entrance port on the side and a pressure hatch on the top where the diving bell, or personal transfer capsule (PTC), could mate. Compression and decompression of the divers took place in the DDC. Once they had reached the equivalent pressure of the depth where they were to work, they climbed up into the PTC, which was then detached and lowered into the water. When the PTC reached the appropriate depth the divers opened the hatch through which they’d entered the bell and swam to the designated workstation. While in the water the divers were tethered with an umbilical cord containing hoses for their breathing gas, for hot water to heat their neoprene dry suits, for sensing wires, and for communication cables. Since the divers on the Benthic Explorer used full face masks, communication was possible, although difficult, due to voice distortion in the helium-oxygen mixture they breathed. The sensing wires carried information about each diver’s heart rate, breathing rate, and breathing-gas oxygen pressure. All three levels were monitored continuously on a real-time basis.
   Larry looked up from his desk and regarded his second team of divers with disdain. He couldn’t believe how slovenly, brazen, and unprofessional they invariably appeared. He noted Michael’s jaunty baseball cap and ripped shirt, but he didn’t say anything. Similar to the Navy, he tolerated behavior in the divers that he would not tolerate with other members of his team. Three other divers who were equally aggravating and obstreperous were still in one of the DDCs, decompressing from the last dive on the well head. When diving to almost a thousand feet, decompression time is measured in days not hours.
   “I’m sorry to have awakened you clowns from your beauty sleep,” Larry said. “It took you long enough to get down here.”
   “I had to floss my teeth,” Richard said.
   “And I had to do my nails,” Louis said. He flapped his hand in a swishy, loose wrist fashion.
   Michael rolled his eyes with mock disgust.
   “Hey, don’t start!” Louis growled while eyeing Michael. He poked one of his meaty fingers in his friend’s face. Michael batted it away.
   “All right, listen up, you animals!” Larry yelled. “Try to control yourselves. This is going to be a nine-hundred-and-eighty-foot dive to inspect and change the drill bit.”
   “Oh, something new, eh, chief?” Richard said in a high, squeaky voice. “This is the fifth time this dive’s been done and the third time for us. Let’s get on with it.”
   “Shut up and listen,” Larry commanded. “There’s something new involved. You’re going to be piggybacking a corer on the diamond bit so that we can see if we can get a decent sample of whatever the hell we’re trying to drill into.”
   “Sounds good,” Richard said.
   “We’re going to speed up compression time,” Larry said. “There’s some brass aboard who’s in a hurry for results. We’re going to see if we can get you down to depth in a couple of hours. Now I want to hear immediately if there’s any joint pain. I don’t want anybody playing macho diver. Understand?”
   All three divers nodded.
   “We’ll lock in chow as soon as it comes up from the galley,” Larry continued. “But I want you guys in your bunks for the compression, and that means no screwing around and no fights.”
   “We’re going to play cards,” Louis said.
   “If you play cards do it from your bunks,” Larry said. “And I repeat: no fights. If there are any, the cards are coming out. Do I make myself clear?”
   Larry eyed each man in turn, who averted his gaze. No one contested the terms of the arrangement.
   “I’m going to take this rare silence as acquiescence,” Larry said. “Now, Adams, you’ll be red diver. Donaghue, you’ll be green diver. Mazzola, you’ll be bell diver.”
   Richard and Michael cheered and then leaned across to one another and high-fived. Louis blew out disgustedly through pursed lips. The bell diver’s job during the dive was to remain inside the PTC to play out the tethers for the red and green divers and watch the gauges; he did not enter the water except in an emergency. Although this position was safer, it was looked down upon by divers. The designations of red and green diver were used to avoid any confusion in communications with topside that might occur if given or surnames were used. On the Benthic Explorer red diver was recognized to be the on-site leader.
   Larry reached down on his desk and picked up a clipboard. He handed it over to Richard. “Here’s the predive checklist, red-diver. Now get your asses in DDC1. I want to start compression in fifteen minutes.”
   Richard took the clipboard and led the way out of the van. Once outside, Louis began a long lament about being bell diver, complaining that he’d been bell diver on the last dive.
   “I guess the chief thinks you’re the best at it,” Richard said while giving Donaghue a wink. He knew he was goading Louis. But he couldn’t help it. He felt relieved that he’d not been selected, since it was his turn.
   As the group passed the occupied DDC3 each man took the time to glance through the tiny viewing port and give a thumbs-up sign to the three occupants, who still had several more days of decompression ahead of them. Divers might fight with each other at times, but they also shared a close camaraderie. They respected each other because of the inherent risks. The isolation and danger of being on a saturation dive was ironically similar in certain respects with being in a satellite circling the globe. If a problem occurred it could be hairy, and it was difficult to get you back home.
   At DDC1 Richard was first through the narrow round entrance port on the cylinder’s side. It required him to grasp a horizontal metal bar, lift his legs, and enter feet first by wiggling through the aperture.
   The interior was utilitarian, with the bunks at one end and emergency breathing apparatuses hanging from the walls. All the diving gear, including the neoprene suits, weight belts, gloves, and hoods, and other paraphernalia, was in a pile between the bunks. The diving masks were up in the diving bell with all the hoses and communication lines. At the other end of the DDC was the exposed shower, toilet, and sink. Saturation diving was a communal affair of the first order. There was no privacy whatsoever.
   Louis and Michael entered right after Richard. Louis climbed directly up inside the diving bell while Michael started sorting through the material on the floor. As Richard called out the names of individual pieces of equipment, either Louis or Michael would yell out whether it was present or not, and Richard would check it off on his list. Anything not present was immediately handed through the open port by one of the watch standers.
   When the four pages of checklist were completed, Richard gave a thumbs-up to the dive supervisor via the camcorder mounted on the ceiling.
   “Okay, red diver,” the supervisor said over the intercom, “close and dog the entrance hatch and prepare to start compression.”
   Richard did as he was told. Almost immediately there was the hiss of the compressed gas, and the needle on the analog pressure gauge began to rise. The divers happily took to their bunks. Richard pulled the worn deck of playing cards from his long johns pocket.
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Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
mob
Apple iPhone 6s
Chapter 3

   Perry emerged from the interior of the ship and stepped out onto the grate that formed the deck of the fantail. He was dressed in a maroon jogging suit over sweats—Mark’s suggestion. He told Perry it was what he’d worn the last time he’d been in the submersible. The quarters were tight, so the more comfortable the clothes, the better, and layers were good because it could be cool. The outside water temperature was only around forty degrees, and it was foolish to expend too much battery power on heat.
   At first Perry found walking on the metal grate disconcerting since he could see down into the ocean surface some fifty feet below. The water had a cold, gray-green look. Perry shivered despite the pleasant ambient temperature, and he wondered if he should go on the dive after all. The strange foreboding that he’d awakened with returned, raising the hackles on the back of his neck. Although he wasn’t claustrophobic per se, he’d never been comfortable when he found himself in a tight space like the interior of the submersible. In fact one of Perry’s most horrid memories as a child was having been caught hiding under the covers by his older brother. His brother pounced on him instead of pulling the covers back and, for a time that seemed like an eternity, wouldn’t let him out. Occasionally Perry still had nightmares that he was back in that cloth prison with the desperate sensation he was about to smother.
   Perry stopped and stared at the little submarine, which was sitting on chocks at the very stern of the ship. Angled over it was a large derrick capable of swinging the vessel out over the water and lowering it to the surface. Workers were swarming around the craft like bees hovering around a hive. Perry knew enough to recognize they were participating in the predive check before launch.
   Perry was relieved that the vessel looked considerably larger than it had when it was in the water, a fact that appeased his recently awakened claustrophobia. The submersible was not as tiny as many were. It was fifty feet long with a twelve-foot beam, and bulbous in shape, like a bloated, HY-140 steel sausage with a fiberglass superstructure. There were four view ports made of eight-inch-thick, conical sections of Plexiglas: two forward and one to either side. Hydraulic manipulator arms, folded up under the bow, made it look like an enormous crustacean. The hull was painted scarlet with white lettering along the sides of the sail. Its name was Oceanus, after the Greek god of the outer sea.
   “Handsome little devil, isn’t she?” a voice said.
   Perry turned. Mark had come up behind him.
   “Maybe it’d be better if I didn’t go on the dive after all,” Perry said, trying to sound casual.
   “And why is that?” Mark asked.
   “I don’t want to be a bother,” Perry said. “I came out here to be a help, not a hindrance. I’m sure the pilot would prefer not to have the equivalent of a tourist tagging along.”
   “Poppycock!” Mark said without hesitation. “Both Donald and Suzanne are thrilled you’re coming. I spoke with them not twenty minutes ago, and they said as much. In fact that’s Donald on that scaffolding, supervising the connection to the launching crane. I understand you’ve never met him.”
   Perry followed Mark’s pointing finger. Donald Fuller was an African American with a shaved head, a neat pencil-line mustache, and an impressively muscled frame. He was dressed in crisply ironed dark blue coveralls with epaulets and a shiny name tag. Even from a distance Perry could appreciate the man’s martial bearing, especially when he heard his deep, baritone voice and his clipped, no-nonsense manner as he called out commands. During the current operation there was no doubt who was in charge.
   “Come on,” Mark urged before Perry could respond. “Let me introduce you.”
   Reluctantly, Perry allowed himself to be led over to the submersible. It was painfully obvious that he would not be able to get out of diving on the Oceanus without a significant loss of face. He’d have to admit to his fears, and he hardly thought that would be appropriate. Besides, he had enjoyed his first ride on the sub even though that had been done in only a hundred feet of water just outside of the harbor on Santa Catalina, a far cry from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
   Once Donald was satisfied with the submersible’s connection to the hoisting cable, he swung down from the scaffolding and began walking around the boat. Although the topside dive team had responsibility for the exterior predive check, Donald wanted to make his own visual check on all the penetrations through the pressure hull. Mark and Perry caught up to him at the bow. Mark introduced Perry as the president of Benthic Marine.
   Donald responded by clicking his heels and saluting. Before Perry knew what he was doing, he saluted back. Only Perry didn’t really know how to salute; he’d never executed the gesture in his life. He felt as pathetic as he probably looked.
   “Honored to meet you, sir,” Donald said. He was standing ramrod straight with his lips pressed together and his nares flared. To Perry he appeared like a warrior about to do battle.
   “Pleased to meet you,” Perry said. He gestured toward the Oceanus. “I don’t want to interrupt you.”
   “No problem, sir,” Donald snapped back.
   “I also don’t have to go on this dive,” Perry said. “I don’t want to be in the way. In fact . . .”
   “You won’t be in the way, sir,” Donald said.
   “I know this is an operational dive,” Perry persisted. “I wouldn’t want to take your attention away from your job.”
   “When I am piloting the Oceanus, no one takes my attention away from my job, sir!”
   “I appreciate that,” Perry said. “But I won’t be at all offended if you feel I should stay topside. I mean, I’ll understand.”
   “I’m looking forward to showing you the capability of this craft, sir.”
   “Well, thank you,” Perry said, recognizing the futility of trying to excuse himself graciously.
   “My pleasure, sir,” Donald snapped.
   “You don’t have to call me sir,” Perry said.
   “Yes, sir!” Donald responded. Then his mouth formed into a thin smile when he realized what he’d said. “I mean, yes, Mr. Bergman.”
   “Call me Perry.”
   “Yes, sir,” Donald said. Then he allowed himself a second smile when he realized he’d slipped again in so many seconds. “It’s hard for me to change my ways.”
   “I can see that,” Perry said. “I guess it’s not a wild guess that you got your experience for this type of work in the armed forces.”
   “That’s affirmative,” Donald said. “Twenty-five years in the submarine service.”
   “Were you an officer?” Perry asked.
   “Indeed. I retired as a commander.”
   Perry’s eyes wandered to the submersible. Now that he’d reconciled himself to the upcoming dive, he wanted reassurance. “How’s the Oceanus been performing?”
   “Flawlessly,” Donald answered.
   “So it’s a good little ship?” Perry asked. He patted the cold steel pressure hull.
   “The best,” Donald said. “Better than anything I’ve ever piloted, and I’ve been in quite a few.”
   “Are you just being patriotic?” Perry asked.
   “Not at all,” Donald said. “First of all, it can go deeper than any other manned craft I’ve piloted. As I’m sure you know, it’s got a certified operating depth of twenty thousand feet and a crush depth not until thirty-five thousand. But even that’s deceiving. With the built-in safety margin, we could probably dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench without a hitch.”
   Perry swallowed. Hearing the term crush depth brought back the shiver he’d experienced a few minutes before.
   “Why don’t you give Perry a quick rundown on the rest of the Oceanus ’s statistics,” Mark said. “Just to refresh his memory.”
   “Sure,” Donald said. “But stand by for a second.” He cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled out to one of the workmen completing the predive check: “Have the TV camcorders been checked out on the inside?”
   “That’s an affirmative!” the worker responded.
   Donald directed his attention back to Perry. “The craft’s sixty-eight tons with room for two pilots, two observers, and six other passengers. We have lockout capability for divers, and we can be mated to the DDCs if the need arises. We’ve got life support for a maximum of two hundred sixteen hours. Power comes from silver zinc batteries. Propulsion is from a varivec propeller, but maneuverability is also enhanced with vertical and horizontal thrusters directed by twin joysticks with top-mounted thumb balls. There’s short-range, narrow-beam, and side-scan sonar, ground-penetrating radar, proton magnetometer, and thermistors. Recording equipment includes silicon-intensified target video camcorders. Communications are with FM surface radio and UQC underwater telephone. Navigation is inertial.”
   Donald paused while he let his eyes roam around the submersible. “I think that covers the basics. Any questions?”
   “Not for the moment,” Perry said quickly. He was afraid Donald might ask him a question. The only thing Perry retained out of the entire monologue was the thirty-five-thousand-foot crush depth figure.
   “Ready to launch the Oceanus!” a voice crackled over a loudspeaker.
   Donald herded Perry and Mark away from the sub. The hoisting wire became taut. With a creak the submersible lifted from the deck. It was kept from swinging by multiple launching lines attached at key points along the hull. A high-pitched squeak heralded the movement of the davit as it swung the boat out off the stern of the ship and started lowering it toward the water.
   “Ah, here comes the good doctor,” Mark said.
   Perry turned briefly to look behind him. A figure was emerging through the main door into the ship’s interior. Perry did a rapid doubletake. He’d only seen Suzanne Newell once before and that was when she’d presented the original seismic studies on Sea Mount Olympus. But that had been in L.A., where there was no dearth of beautiful people. Out in the middle of the ocean on the utilitarian Benthic Explorer with its nearly hundred percent frowzy male crew, she stood out like a lily in a patch of weeds. In her late twenties, she was vibrant and athletic looking. Dressed in coveralls similar to those worn by Donald, she gave off a stunning gender message which was the absolute antithesis of Donald’s. A dark blue baseball cap, with a gold braid embroidered on the visor and BENTHICEXPLORERsewn across the crown, was perched on top of her head. Out of the back of the hat just above the adjustment band protruded a ponytail of thick, shiny chestnut hair.
   Suzanne saw the group and waved, then headed in their direction. As she approached, Perry’s mouth slowly dropped open, a response that was not lost on Mark.
   “Not bad, huh?” Mark said.
   “She’s rather attractive,” Perry admitted.
   “Yeah, well, wait a few days,” Mark said. “She gets better the longer we’re out here. Quite a shape for a geophysical oceanographer, wouldn’t you say?”
   “I haven’t met too many geophysical oceanographers,” Perry said. Suddenly he thought that maybe the dive wouldn’t be so bad after all.
   “Too bad she isn’t a medical doctor,” Mark said under his breath. “I wouldn’t mind her doing a hernia check on me.”
   “If you’ll permit me, I’ll continue getting the Oceanus ready for the dive,” Donald said.
   “Of course,” Mark said. “The new bit and the corer will be up shortly, and I’ll have them loaded directly into the tray.”
   “Aye, aye, sir!” Donald said with a salute. He walked back to the edge of the fantail and looked down at the descending submersible.
   “He’s a bit stiff,” Mark said, “but one hell of a reliable worker.”
   Perry wasn’t listening. He couldn’t take his eyes off Suzanne. She had an unmistakable spring to her step; her smile was friendly and welcoming. With her left hand she was pressing two large books against her chest.
   “Mr. Perry Bergman!” Suzanne exclaimed, reaching out with her right hand. “I was delighted to hear you’d come out to the ship and am thrilled that you’re going to dive with us. How are you? You must be recovering from a long flight.”
   “I’m just fine, thank you,” Perry said while shaking hands with the oceanographer. Then he unconsciously reached up to make sure his hair was appropriately arranged over the thinning spot on the top of his head. He noted that Suzanne’s teeth were as white as his own.
   “After our meeting in Los Angeles I never got to tell you how pleased I was that you decided to bring Benthic Explorer back to Sea Mount Olympus.”
   “I’m glad,” Perry said, forcing a smile. He was bewitched by Suzanne’s eyes. He couldn’t tell if they were blue or green. “I only wish the drilling were proceeding more successfully.”
   “I’m sorry about that,” Suzanne said. “But I have to admit, from my personal, selfish perspective I’m a happy camper. The seamount is a fascinating environment, as you’re about to see, and the drilling problems are getting me down there. So you won’t hear any complaints from me.”
   “I’m glad it’s making somebody happy,” Perry said. “What’s so fascinating about this particular seamount?”
   “It’s the geology,” Suzanne said. “Do you know what basaltic dikes are?”
   “I can’t say that I do,” Perry admitted. “Other than I suppose they’re made out of basalt.” He laughed self-consciously and decided that her eyes were a light blue tinted green by the surrounding ocean. He also realized that he liked the sparing way she used makeup. She seemed to be sporting only the slightest bit of lipstick. Cosmetics were a sore subject for Perry and his wife. She worked as a makeup artist for a movie studio and wore a significant amount herself, to Perry’s chagrin. Now their eleven– and thirteen-year-old daughters were following their mother’s example. The issue had become a full-blown feud that Perry had little chance of winning.
   Suzanne’s smile broadened. “Basalt dikes are indeed made of basalt. They are formed when molten basalt is forced up through fissures in the earth’s crust. What makes some of them so intriguing is that they’re geometric enough to look manmade. Wait till you see them.”
   “Sorry to interrupt,” Donald said. “The Oceanus is ready to dive and we should be on board. Even in a calm sea it’s dangerous to have her moored too long next to the ship.”
   “Yes, sir!” Suzanne said smartly. She saluted crisply but with a lingering, mildly mocking smile. Donald was not amused. He knew she was teasing him.
   Suzanne gestured for Perry to precede her down the companionway that led to a combination dive platform and launching dock. Perry started but hesitated as another involuntary shudder rippled down his spine. Despite his efforts to reassure himself about the safety of the submersible and despite his anticipation of Suzanne’s pleasant company, the foreboding he’d experienced earlier came back like a cold draft through an underground crypt which is what he thought the interior of the Oceanus was going to feel like. A voice in the back of his mind was telling him he was crazy to lock himself up inside a boat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean that was already sunk.
   “Just a second!” Perry said. “How long is this dive going to take?”
   “It can be as short as a couple of hours,” Donald said, “or as long as you’d like. We usually stay down as long as the divers are in the water.”
   “Why do you ask?” Suzanne asked.
   “Because . . .” Perry sought for an explanation. “Because I have to call back to the office.”
   “On Sunday?” Suzanne questioned. “Who’s at the office on Sunday?”
   Perry felt himself blush anew. Between the night flights from New York to the Azores he’d gotten his days mixed up. He laughed hollowly and tapped the side of his head. “I forgot it was Sunday. It must be early Alzheimer’s.”
   “Let’s move out!” Donald announced before descending to the dive platform below.
   Perry followed, one step at a time, feeling like a ridiculous coward. Then, despite his better judgment, he inched across the swaying gangplank. It was shocking how much motion was involved in what appeared to be a calm sea.
   The gangplank lead directly to the top of the Oceanus ’s sail. The deck of the submersible was already awash since the vessel was close to being neutrally buoyant. With some difficulty Perry got himself through the hatch. As he worked his way down into the sub he had to press tight against the steel ladder’s icy cold rungs.
   The interior was as tight a space as Mark had warned. Perry began to doubt the claims that there was room for ten people. They’d have to be packed like sardines. Contributing to the cramped atmosphere, the walls of the front of the sub were lined with gauges, LCD readouts, and toggle switches. There wasn’t a square inch without a dial or knob. The four viewing ports seemed tiny within the profusion of electronic equipment. The only positive was that the air smelled clean. In the background Perry could make out the hum of a ventilation fan.
   Donald directed Perry to a low-slung chair directly behind his on the port side. In front of the pilot’s seat were several large CRT monitors whose computers could construct virtual images of the seafloor to help in navigation. Donald was using the FM radio to talk with Larry Nelson in the dive control van as he continued the predive check of the equipment and electrical systems.
   Perry heard the hatch close above with a thud followed by a distinctive click. A few moments later Suzanne dropped down from the sail with a good deal more agility than Perry had exhibited. She’d even managed to do it with the two large books in hand. She proceeded to hand them to Perry.
   “I brought these for you,” she said. “The thick one is on oceanic marine life and the other is on marine geology. I thought it might be fun for you to look up some of the things we’ll be seeing. We don’t want you to get bored.”
   “That was thoughtful,” Perry commented. Little did Suzanne realize, he was far too anxious to be bored. He felt the way he did when he was about to take off in an airplane: There was always the chance that the next few minutes would be his last.
   Suzanne sat down in the starboard pilot’s seat. Soon she began flipping toggle switches and calling out the results to Donald. It was apparent the two worked as a team. Once Suzanne joined in the predive check, haunting pinging sounds began reverberating through the confined space. It was a unique sound that Perry associated with old World War II submarine movies.
   Perry shivered again. He closed his eyes for a moment and tried not to think about his childhood trauma of being pinned under the covers by his brother. But the ploy didn’t work. He looked out the view port to his left and struggled to comprehend why he felt he was making the worst decision in his life by taking this short, routine dive. He knew it wasn’t a rational feeling since he recognized he was with professionals for whom this dive was commonplace. He knew the submersible was reliable and that he’d recently paid for an overhaul.
   All at once Perry started. A masked face had materialized literally before his eyes. An involuntary, pitiful squeak escaped from Perry’s lips before he realized he was looking into the face of one of the submersible’s handlers who’d entered the water with scuba equipment. A moment later Perry saw other divers. In a slow-motion underwater ballet the divers quickly detached the handling lines. There was a knock on the outside of the hull. The Oceanus was on its own.
   “All-clear signal received,” Donald said into the radio mike. He was talking to the launch team supervisor on the fantail. “Request permission to power away from the ship.”
   “Permission granted,” a disembodied voice responded.
   Perry felt a new linear motion add to the passive roll, yaw, and pitch of the sub. He pressed his nose against the view port and saw the Benthic Explorer move out of his field of vision. With his face still pressed against the Plexiglas he looked down into the oceanic depths where he was about to descend. The sunlight did strange visual tricks as it refracted off the undulating water surface above, making him imagine he was staring into the maw of infinity.
   With another shiver Perry acknowledged he was as vulnerable as an infant. A combination of vanity and stupidity had drawn him into this alien environment in which he had no control of his destiny. Although he was not religious, he found himself praying that the little underwater cruise would be short, sweet, and safe.
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Underpromise; overdeliver.

Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
mob
Apple iPhone 6s
Chapter 4

   “No contact,” Suzanne said in response to Donald’s question whether the sonar echo sounder showed any unexpected obstacles beneath the Oceanus. Even though they were bobbing around in open ocean, part of the predive check was to make sure no other submarine craft had surreptitiously moved under them.
   Donald took the VHF radio mike and established contact with Larry Nelson in the diving van. “We’re clear of the ship. Oxygen is on, scrubbers are on, hatch is closed, underwater phone is on, grounds are normal, and the echo sounder is clear. Request permission to dive.”
   “Is your tracking beacon activated?” Larry’s voice questioned over the radio.
   “That’s affirmative,” Donald said.
   “You have permission to dive,” Larry said with a small amount of static. “Depth to the well head is nine hundred ninety-four feet. Have a nice dive.”
   “Roger!” Donald said.
   Donald was about to hang up the mike when Larry added, “The DDC is nearing depth so the bell will be starting down ASAP. I’d estimate the divers will be at the site in half an hour.”
   “We’ll be waiting,” Donald said. “Over and out.” He hung up the mike. Then to his fellow submariners he added, “Dive! Dive! Vent the main ballast tanks!”
   Suzanne leaned forward and threw a switch. “Venting the ballast tanks,” she repeated so there was no chance for misunderstanding. Donald made an entry on his clipboard.
   There was a sound like a shower in a neighboring room as the cold Atlantic water rushed into the Oceanus ’s ballast tanks. Within moments the craft’s buoyancy plummeted, and once negative she silently slipped beneath the surface.
   For the next few minutes both Donald and Suzanne were totally occupied, making sure all systems were still operating normally. Their conversation was restricted to operational jargon. In a rapid fashion they went through most of the predive checklist for the second time while the submersible’s descent accelerated to a terminal velocity of a hundred feet per minute.
   Perry occupied his time by looking out the view port. The color went from its initial greenish blue to rapidly advancing indigo. In five minutes all he could see was a blue glow when he looked upward. Downward it was dark purple fading into blackness. In stark contrast, the interior of the Oceanus was bathed in a cool electronic luminosity from the myriad monitors and readout devices.
   “I believe we’re a little front heavy,” Suzanne said once all the electronic equipment had been checked.
   “I agree,” Donald said. “Go ahead and compensate for Mr. Bergman!”
   Suzanne threw another switch. A whirring noise could be heard.
   Perry leaned forward between the two pilots. “What do you mean, ‘compensate’ for me?” His voice sounded funny even to himself. He swallowed to relieve a dry throat.
   “We have a variable ballast system,” Suzanne explained. “It’s filled with oil, and I’m pumping some of it aft to make up for your weight forward of the center of gravity.”
   “Oh!” Perry said simply. He leaned back. As an engineer he understood the physics. He was also relieved they weren’t referring to his timidity, which his self-consciousness had irrationally suggested.
   Suzanne turned the variable ballast pump off when she was satisfied with the boat’s trim. Then she turned around to face Perry. She was eager to make his dive to the seamount as positive as possible. Once they were back on ship, she hoped to present him with a case for conducting purely exploratory dives on the guyot. At the moment, the only time she got down there was to change the drill bit. She’d had no luck persuading Mark Davidson of the value of research-inspired dives.
   Adding to Suzanne’s anxiety was the widespread rumor that the drilling operation would be scrapped because of technical problems. Sea Mount Olympus would be abandoned before she could get a closer look. That was the last thing she wanted, and not only because of her professional interests. Just before leaving on the current project, she had what she hoped was the final breakup of an unhealthy, volatile relationship with an aspiring actor. At the moment returning to L.A. was the last thing she wanted to do. Perry Bergman’s sudden appearance on-site was serendipitous. She could take her case right to the top.
   “Comfortable?” Suzanne asked.
   “I’ve never been more comfortable in my life,” Perry averred.
   Suzanne smiled despite the obvious sarcasm in Perry’s response. The situation was not looking good. The Benthic Marine president was still tense as evidenced by his gripping the arms of his seat as if he were about to leap out of it. The books that she’d made the effort to bring were lying unopened on the floor grate.
   For a moment Suzanne studied the taut president whose eyes looked everywhere but into hers. What she could not tell was whether Perry’s anxiety was from apprehension of being in the submersible or just a reflection of his basic personality. Even on her first meeting with the man six months ago, she had found him a mildly eccentric, vain, and nervous guy. He was obviously not her type in addition to being short enough for her to look directly in the eye in her tennis shoes. Yet despite having little in common with him especially since he was an engineer-cum-entrepreneur and she a scientist, she trusted that he’d be receptive to her arguments. After all, he’d already responded positively to her request to bring the Benthic Explorer back to Sea Mount Olympus even if it was only to drill into the supposed magma chamber.
   Sea Mount Olympus had been Suzanne’s main preoccupation for almost a year, since she’d stumbled on its existence by switching on the side-scan sonar on the Benthic Explorer out of boredom when the ship was heading back to port. Initially, her curiosity only involved her inability to explain why such a massive, apparently extinct volcano had not been detected by Geosat. But now, after making four dives in the submersible, she was equally fascinated by the geological formations on its flat crown, especially since she’d only been afforded the opportunity to explore in the immediate vicinity of the well head. But then the most intriguing fact emerged when she took it on herself to date the rock that had been brought up with the broken drill bit.
   To Suzanne the results were startling and a lot more intriguing than the rock’s apparent hardness. From the seamount’s position near the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, she expected the rock sample’s age to register in the seven-hundred-thousand-year range. Instead it had tested to be around four billion years old!
   Knowing that the oldest rocks ever found on earth’s surface or on the ocean floor were significantly less ancient than this figure, Suzanne had thought that either the dating instrument was out of whack, or she’d made some stupid procedural error. Unwilling to risk ridicule, she decided to keep the results to herself.
   With painstaking care she spent hours recalibrating the equipment, and then running additional samples over and over. To her disbelief, the results were all within three or four hundred million years of each other. Still believing there had to be a dating instrument malfunction involved, Suzanne had Tad Messenger, the head lab tech, recalibrate it. When she ran the sample again, the result was within a few million years of the previous one. Still in doubt, Suzanne reconciled herself to waiting until she got back to L.A. so she could use the university lab’s equipment. Meanwhile the results were hidden away in her ship’s locker. She tried to reserve judgment, but her interest in Sea Mount Olympus soared.
   “We have hot coffee in a Thermos aft if you’d like some,” Suzanne said. “I’d be happy to get it for you.”
   “I think I’d be happier if you stay at the controls,” Perry said.
   “Donald, how about turning on the outside lights for a moment,” Suzanne suggested.
   “We’re only passing through five hundred feet,” Donald said. “There’s nothing to see.”
   “It’s Mr. Bergman’s first open ocean dive,” Suzanne said. “He should see the plankton.”
   “Call me Perry,” Perry said. “I mean, why be formal while we’re packed in here together like so many sardines in a can?”
   Suzanne acknowledged Perry’s offer of informality with a smile. She was only sorry he so clearly was not enjoying the trip.
   “Donald, as a favor to me, turn on the lights,” Suzanne said.
   Donald complied without further comment. He reached forward and snapped on the external halogen lamps on the port side. Perry turned his head and glanced out.
   “Looks like snow,” he said.
   “It’s trillions of individual plankton organisms,” Suzanne explained. “Since we’re still in an epipelagic zone, it’s probably mostly phytoplankton, or plant plankton that can carry on photosynthesis. Along with the blue-green algae, those are the guys who are at the bottom of the entire oceanic food chain.”
   “I’m glad,” Perry said.
   Donald switched the lights off. “No sense in using up valuable battery power with that type of reaction,” he explained to Suzanne sotto voce.
   In the ensuing darkness, Perry witnessed twinkling bursts of muted neon green and yellow sparkles. He asked Suzanne what it was.
   “That’s bioluminescence,” Suzanne said.
   “Is it the plankton?” Perry asked.
   “It could be,” Suzanne said. “If so, it would probably be dinoflagellates. Of course, it could also be tiny crustaceans or even fish. I’ve put a yellow bookmark in the marine life book marking the bioluminescence section.”
   Perry nodded but made no attempt to pick up the text.
   Nice try, Suzanne thought glumly. Her optimism about ensuring Perry’s enjoyment sagged appreciably.
   “ Oceanus, this is Benthic Explorer, ” Larry’s voice sounded in the acoustic phone speaker. “Suggest a course two hundred and seventy degrees at fifty amps for two minutes.”
   “Roger,” Donald said. He quickly made the course adjustment with the joysticks and changed the power output to the propeller to the suggested fifty amps. He then noted the changes on his clipboard.
   “Larry has plotted our position by tracking our pinger and relating it to the bottom hydrophones,” Suzanne explained. “By powering forward while descending we’ll reach bottom directly at the well head. It’s like we’re gliding to the target.”
   “What will we do until the divers arrive?” Perry asked. “Just sit and twiddle our thumbs?”
   “Hardly,” Suzanne said. She forced another smile along with a shallow laugh. “We’ll unload the drill bit from the tray along with the tools we’re carrying. Then we’ll back off. At that point we’ll have about twenty to thirty minutes to explore around the site. That’s the part I think you are going to truly enjoy.”
   “I can’t wait,” Perry said with the kind of sarcasm Suzanne was beginning to dread. “But I don’t want you doing anything out of the ordinary on my behalf. I mean, don’t try to impress me. I’m already impressed enough.”
   Suddenly the monotonous pinging of the sonar changed. The sub was nearing the bottom, and the forward short-range sonar had a solid contact. The tiny screen showed the well head and the pipe snaking down from above. Donald jettisoned several of the descent weights and the craft’s gliding plunge slowed. He then began a careful adjustment of the variable ballast system to achieve neutral buoyancy.
   While Donald was busy pumping oil, Suzanne reached behind her and turned on a small CD player. It was part of her master plan. All at once the sound of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring filled the sub’s interior. Taking the music as a cue, Donald leaned forward and switched on the outside lights.
   Perry’s eyes widened as he glanced out the view port. The planktonic snow had all but disappeared, and the clarity of the icy water was more than he imagined. He was able to see for several hundred feet, and what he saw left him flabbergasted. He’d expected a flat, featureless plain similar to what the bottom looked like on his dive off Santa Catalina Island. At most he thought he might see a few sea cucumbers. Instead he was gazing at a misty tableau the likes of which he’d never imagined: huge, dark gray, columnar forms with flat tops dotted the landscape, jutting up in a stepwise fashion like the frozen pistons of an enormous engine. The haunting shapes extended out as far as Perry could see. A few long-tailed, big-eyed fish lazily darted in and around them. On some of the rock ledges sea fans and sea whips waved sinuously in the current.
   “Good God!” Perry exclaimed. He was mesmerized, especially with the dramatic music in the background.
   “Rather exceptional, eh?” Suzanne said. She was encouraged. Perry’s reaction to the scenery was his first auspicious response.
   “It looks like some ancient temple area,” Perry exclaimed.
   “Like Atlantis,” Suzanne suggested. She was intent on milking the situation for all it was worth.
   “Yeah!” Perry blurted. “Like Atlantis! Jeez! Can you imagine bringing tourists down here and telling them that it was Atlantis? What a freaking gold mine this could be.”
   Suzanne cleared her throat. Bringing tourists down to her precious seamount was the last thing she wanted to see happen, but she appreciated Perry’s enthusiasm. At least he was engaged.
   “Current is less than an eighth of a knot,” Donald said. “Coming up on the well head. Prepare to off-load the drill bit.”
   Suzanne swung around to attend to her duties as copilot. She powered up the servos for the manipulator arms. Meanwhile Donald set the Oceanus down expertly on the rock floor. While Suzanne prepared to lift the drill bit and tools from the submersible’s tray, Donald used the UQC phone.
   “On the bottom,” Donald said. “Off-loading the payload.”
   “Roger,” Larry said in reply over the speaker. “I guessed as much when I heard Suzanne’s music. Is that the only freaking CD she has?”
   “It’s the best one for the scenery down here,” Suzanne interjected.
   “If we make any more dives I’ll loan you some New Age CDs,” Larry answered. “I can’t stand that classical stuff.”
   “Am I looking at basaltic dikes out here?” Perry questioned.
   “That’s my guess,” Suzanne said. “Have you ever heard of the Giant’s Causeway?”
   “Can’t say that I have,” Perry said.
   “It’s a natural rock formation on the northern coast of Ireland,” Suzanne said. “It looks something like what you’re seeing here.”
   “How big is the top of this seamount?” Perry questioned.
   “I’d estimate about four football fields,” Suzanne said. “But, unfortunately, that’s nothing but a guess. The problem is we haven’t had enough bottom time to explore the whole thing.”
   “Well, I think we ought to,” Perry said.
   Right on! Suzanne said to herself. She had to resist the temptation to yell out to ask if Larry and Mark had heard Perry’s comment over the UQC.
   “Does the whole top of the mountain look just the same as it does here?” Perry asked.
   “No, not entirely,” Suzanne said. “On the limited amount we’ve seen there are some areas of more typical undersea lava formations. On the last dive, though, we caught a glimpse of what might be a transverse fault, but we were called back before we could check it out. The mount remains largely unexplored.”
   “Where was the fault in relation to the well head?” Perry asked.
   “Due west from here,” Suzanne said. “Just about in the direction you’re looking right now. Can you see a particularly high row of columns?”
   “I think so,” Perry said. He pushed his face against the Plexiglas to try to look slightly behind the sub. There was a row of columns at the edge of his visibility. “Would finding a transverse fault be significant?” he asked.
   “It would be astounding,” Suzanne responded. “They occur up and down the Mid-Atlantic Ridge system, but finding one at such a distance from the ridge, and through the middle of what we assume is an old volcano, would be quite unique.”
   “Let’s go take a look,” Perry suggested. “This place is fascinating.”
   Suzanne grinned in triumph. She glanced at Donald. Even he couldn’t suppress a smile. He’d been sympathetic to Suzanne’s plan but had not been optimistic.
   It took Suzanne only a few minutes to unload everything that Mark had stowed in the submersible’s tray. Once the material was lined up next to the well head, she folded the manipulating arms into their retracted position.
   “So much for that job,” Suzanne said. She turned off the power to the servo links.
   “ Oceanus to surface control,” Donald said into the UQC mike. “The payload has been off-loaded. What’s the status of the divers?”
   “Compression is nearing depth,” Larry’s voice reported over the speaker. “The bell should be starting its descent shortly. ETA on the bottom, thirty minutes give or take five.”
   “Roger!” Donald said. “Keep us informed. We are going to move due west to investigate a scarp we caught sight of on the last dive.”
   “Ten-four,” Larry said. “We’ll let you know when the bell is lifted off the DDC. We’ll also let you know when it is passing through five hundred feet so you can take up an appropriate position.”
   “Roger!” Donald repeated. He hung up the UQC mike. With his hands resting gently on the joysticks he jacked up the power to the propulsion system to fifty amps. He expertly guided the submersible away from the well head, careful to avoid the vertical run of pipe. A few moments later the Oceanus was slowly flying over the strange topography of the guyot’s top.
   “What I believe we’re looking at here is a pristine section of the mantle’s crust,” Suzanne said. “But how and why the lava cooled to form these polygonal shapes is beyond me. It’s almost like they’re gigantic crystals.”
   “I like the idea of it being Atlantis,” Perry said. His face remained glued to the view port.
   “We’re coming up to the place where we glimpsed that fault,” Donald said.
   “It should be just over that ridge of columns coming up,” Suzanne said for Perry’s benefit.
   Donald cut back on the power. The submersible slowed as they cleared the ridge.
   “Wow!” Perry commented. “It certainly drops off quickly.”
   “Well, it’s not a transverse fault,” Suzanne said as she got a full view of the formation. “In fact, if it were a fault at all it would have to be a graben. The other side is just as steep.”
   “What the hell is a graben?” Perry asked.
   “It’s when a fault block falls in relation to the rock on either side,” Suzanne explained. “But something like that doesn’t happen on the top of a seamount.”
   “It looks like a huge rectangular hole to me,” Perry said. “What would you say? About a hundred and fifty feet long and fifty wide?”
   “I’d say that’s about right,” Suzanne said.
   “It’s incredible!” Perry commented. “It’s like some giant took a knife and cut out a chunk of rock just the way you’d take a plug out of a watermelon.”
   Donald powered the Oceanus out over the hole, and they all looked down.
   “I can’t see the bottom,” Perry said.
   “Neither can I,” Suzanne said.
   “Neither can our sonar,” Donald said. He pointed to the echo sounder monitor. It wasn’t getting a return signal. It was as if the Oceanus were poised over a bottomless pit.
   “My word!” Suzanne said. She was dumbfounded.
   Donald gave the monitor a tap, but there was still no readout.
   “That’s very strange,” Suzanne said. “Do you think it’s malfunctioning?”
   “I can’t tell,” Donald reported. He tried changing the adjustments.
   “Wait a sec,” Perry voiced tensely. “Are you two pulling my leg?”
   “Try the side-scan sonar,” Suzanne suggested, ignoring Perry for the moment.
   “It’s just as weird,” Donald said. “The signal is aberrant unless we want to accept the pit’s only six or seven feet deep. That’s what the side-scan monitor is suggesting.”
   “Clearly the hole is a lot deeper than six or seven feet,” Suzanne said.
   “Obviously,” Donald agreed.
   “Hey, come on, you guys,” Perry said. “You’re starting to scare me.”
   Suzanne turned briefly to face Perry. “We’re not trying to scare you,” she said. “We’re just mystified by our instruments.”
   “My guess is there’s one hell of a thermocline just within the rim of this formation,” Donald said. “The sonar has to be bouncing off something.”
   “Would you mind translating that?” Perry said.
   “Sound waves bounce off sharp temperature gradients,” Suzanne said. “We think that’s what we have here.”
   “In order to get a depth readout we have to descend ten or fifteen feet into the pit,” Donald said. “I’ll do that by decreasing our buoyancy, but first I want to change our orientation.”
   With short bursts Donald used the starboard front thruster to turn the submersible until it became parallel with the long axis of the hole. Then he manipulated the variable ballast system to make the sub negatively buoyant. Gradually the submersible started down.
   “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea,” Perry said. He was nervously looking back and forth between the side-scan sonar monitor and his view port.
   The UQC speaker cracked to life: “Surface control to Oceanus. The bell is lifting off the DDC as I’m speaking. The divers will be passing through five hundred feet in about ten minutes.”
   “Roger, surface control,” Donald said into the mike. “We’re about one hundred feet west of the well head. We’re going to check out an apparent marked thermocline in a rock formation. Communications might be interrupted momentarily, but we’ll be on station for the divers.”
   “Ten-four,” Larry’s voice said.
   “Look at the luster of the walls,” Suzanne remarked as the submersible sank below the tip of the huge hole. “They’re perfectly smooth. It almost looks like obsidian!”
   “Let’s head back to the well head,” Perry suggested.
   “Could this be an opening into an extinct volcano?” Donald asked. A slight smile flitted across his otherwise rigid face.
   “That’s a thought,” Suzanne said with a laugh. “Although I have to say I’ve never heard of a perfectly rectilinear caldera.” She laughed again. “Our dropping down in here like this reminds me of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. ”
   “How so?” Donald asked.
   “Have you read it?”
   “I don’t read novels,” Donald said.
   “That’s right, I forgot,” Suzanne said. “Anyway, in the story the protagonists entered a kind of pristine netherworld via an extinct volcano.”
   Donald shook his head. His eyes stayed glued to the thermistor readout. “What a waste of time reading such rubbish,” he said. “That’s why I don’t read novels. Not with all the technical journals I can’t get to.”
   Suzanne started to respond but changed her mind. She’d never been able to make a dent in Donald’s rigid opinions about fiction in particular and art in general.
   “I don’t mean to be a pest,” Perry said, “but I—”
   Perry never got out the last part of his sentence. All at once the submersible’s descent accelerated markedly and Donald cried out, “Christ almighty!”
   Perry gripped the sides of his seat with white-knuckle intensity. The rapid increase in downward motion scared him, but not as much as Donald’s uncharacteristic outburst. If the imperturbable Donald Fuller was upset, the situation must be critical.
   “Jettisoning weights!” Donald called out. The descent immediately slowed, then stopped. Donald released more weight and the sub began to rise. Then he used the port-side thruster to maintain orientation with the long axis of the pit. The last thing he wanted was to hit up against the walls.
   “What the hell happened?” Perry demanded when he could find his voice.
   “We lost buoyancy,” Suzanne reported.
   “We suddenly got heavier or the water got lighter,” Donald said as he scanned the instrumentation.
   “What does that mean?” Perry demanded.
   “Since we obviously didn’t get heavier, the water indeed got lighter,” Donald said. He pointed to the temperature gauge. “We passed through the temperature gradient we suspected, and it was a lot more than we bargained for—in the opposite direction. The outside temperature rose almost a hundred degrees Fahrenheit!”
   “Let’s get the hell out of here!” Perry cried.
   “We’re on our way,” Donald said tersely. He snapped the UQC mike from its housing and tried to raise the Benthic Explorer. When he had no luck, he returned the mike to its cradle. “Sound waves don’t come in here and they don’t go out either.”
   “What is this, some sort of sonar black hole?” Perry asked irritably.
   “The echo sounder is giving us a reading now,” Suzanne said. “But it can’t be true! It says this pit is over thirty thousand feet deep!”
   “Now why would that be malfunctioning?” Donald asked himself. He gave the instrument an even harder rap with his knuckles. The digital readout stayed at 30,418.
   “Let’s forget the echo sounder,” Perry said. “Can’t we get out of here faster?” The Oceanus was rising, but very slowly.
   “I’ve never had trouble with this echo sounder before,” Donald said.
   “Maybe this pit could have been some kind of magma pipe,” Suzanne said. “It’s obviously deep, even though we don’t know how deep, and the water is hot. That suggests contact with lava.” She bent forward to look out the view port.
   “Could we at least turn off the music?” Perry said. It was reaching a crescendo that only added to his anxiety.
   “Well, I’ll be damned!” Suzanne exclaimed. “Look at the walls at this level! The basalt is oriented transversely. I’ve never heard of a transverse dike. And look! It has a greenish cast to it. Maybe it’s gabbro, not basalt.”
   “I’m afraid I’m going to have to pull rank here,” Perry snapped with uncamouflaged exasperation. He’d had it with being ignored. “I want to be taken up to the surface, pronto!”
   Suzanne swung around to respond but only managed to open her mouth. Before she could form any words a powerful, low-frequency vibration shook the submersible. She had to grab the side of her seat to keep from falling. The sudden quake sent loose objects flying to the floor. A coffee mug hit and shattered; the shards skittered across the floor along with pens that had fallen. At the same time, there was a low-pitched rumbling that sounded like distant thunder.
   The rattling lasted for almost a minute. No one spoke although an involuntary squeak escaped from Perry’s lips as the blood drained from his face.
   “What on earth was that?” Donald demanded. He rapidly scanned the instruments.
   “I’m not sure,” Suzanne said, “but if I had to guess, I’d say it was an earthquake. There’s a lot of them up and down the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.”
   “An earthquake!” Perry blurted.
   “Maybe this old volcano is awakening,” Suzanne said. “Wouldn’t that be a trip if we got to witness it!”
   “Uh-oh!” Donald said. “Something is wrong!”
   “What’s the problem?” Suzanne asked. Like Donald her eyes made a quick circuit of the dials, gauges, and screens in her direct line of sight. These were the important instruments for operating the submersible. Nothing seemed amiss.
   “The echo sounder!” Donald said with uncharacteristic urgency.
   Suzanne’s eyes darted down to the digital readout located close to the floor between the two pilot seats. It was decreasing at an alarming rate.
   “What’s happening?” she asked. “Do you think lava is rising in the shaft?”
   “No!” Donald cried. “It’s us. We’re sinking, and I’ve jettisoned all the descent weights. We’ve lost our buoyancy!”
   “But the pressure gauge!” Suzanne yelled. “It’s not rising. How can we be sinking?”
   “It mustn’t be working,” Donald said frantically. “There’s no doubt we’re sinking. Just look out the damn view port!”
   Suzanne’s eyes darted to the window. It was true. They were sinking. The smooth rock face was moving rapidly upward.
   “I’m blowing the ballast tanks,” Donald barked. “At this depth there won’t be much effect, but there’s no choice.”
   The sound of compressed air being released drowned out Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring but only for twenty seconds. At such a pressure the compressed air tanks were quickly exhausted. The descent was not affected.
   “Do something!” Perry yelled when he could find his voice.
   “I can’t,” Donald yelled. “There’s no response to the controls. There’s nothing left to try.”
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Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
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Apple iPhone 6s
Chapter 5

   Mark Davidson was dying for a cigarette. His addiction was absolute, although he found giving them up was easy since he did it once a week. His craving was maximum when he was relaxing, working, or anxious, and at the moment, he was very anxious indeed. For him, deep diving operations were always a walk on the wild side; from experience he knew how quickly things could go horribly wrong.
   He looked up at the large institutional clock on the wall of the diving van, with its monstrous sweep second hand. Its intimidating presence made the passage of time hard to disregard. It had now been twelve minutes since there had been any contact with the Oceanus. Although Donald had specifically warned that there might be a short communication break, this seemed longer than reasonable, especially since the submersible had not responded to Larry Nelson’s last message. That was when Larry had tried to tell them that the divers were passing through five hundred feet.
   Mark’s eyes darted down to the pack of Marlboros he’d casually tossed onto the diving van’s countertop. It was an agony not to reach over, take one out, and light up. Unfortunately, there was a newly instituted prohibition about smoking in the ship’s common areas, and Captain Jameson was a stickler about rules and regulations.
   With some difficulty Mark pulled his eyes away from the cigarettes and scanned the van’s interior. Everyone else present seemed calm, which only made Mark feel more tense. Larry Nelson was sitting perfectly still at the diving operations monitoring station along with the sonar operator, Peter Rosenthal. Just beyond them were the two watch standers, who were in front of the diving system’s operating console. Although their eyes were constantly scanning the pressure gauges of the two pressurized DDCs and the diving bell, the rest of their bodies were motionless.
   Across from the watch standers was the winch operator. He was perched on a high stool in front of the window looking out on the central well. His hand rested on the gear shift for the winch. Outside, the cable attached to the shackle on top of the diving bell was being played out at the maximum permitted velocity. From a neighboring drum came a second, passive cable that contained the compressed gas line, hot water hose, and communications wires.
   At the far end of the van was Captain Jameson, absently sucking on a toothpick. In front of him were the controls that formed an extension of the bridge. Even though the ship’s propellers and thrusters were being controlled by computer to keep it stationary over the well head, Captain Jameson could override the system if the need arose during diving operations.
   “God damn it!” Mark spat. He slammed a pencil he’d been unconsciously torturing to the countertop and stood up. “What’s the divers’ depth?”
   “Passing through six hundred ten feet, sir,” the winch operator reported.
   “Try the Oceanus again!” Mark barked to Larry. He started to pace back and forth. He had a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach, and it was getting worse. He began to lambaste himself for encouraging Perry Bergman to go on the dive. Being personally aware of Dr. Newell’s interest in the seamount and her desire to make purely exploratory dives, he worried that she might try to impress the president to get her way. That might mean she’d pressure Donald to do things he might not normally do, and Mark was aware that Dr. Newell was the only person on the ship who potentially had that kind of influence over the normally strictly-by-the-book ex-naval line officer.
   Mark shuddered. It would be a disaster of the first order if the submersible got wedged in a fissure or a crevice where it may have descended to examine a particular geological feature up close. That had almost happened to the submersible Alvin, out of Woods Hole, and the near tragedy had been on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, not that far away from their present location.
   “Still no response,” Larry said after several unsuccessful tries to raise the Oceanus on the UQC.
   “Any sign of the submersible on side-scan sonar?” Mark demanded from the sonar operator.
   “That’s a negative,” Peter said. “And bottom hydrophones have no contact with their tracking beacon. The thermocline they found must be impressive. It’s like they dropped down into the ocean floor.”
   Mark stopped his pacing and looked back at the clock. “How long has it been since that tremor?” he asked.
   “That was more than a tremor,” Larry said. “Tad Messenger measured it four point four on the Richter scale.”
   “I’m not surprised—it knocked over that pile of pipe on the deck,” Mark said. “And as much as we felt it up here, it would have been a hell of a lot worse on the bottom. How long ago was it?”
   Larry looked down at his log. “It’s been almost four minutes. You don’t think that has anything to do with our not hearing from the Oceanus, do you?”
   Mark was reluctant to answer. He was not superstitious, yet he hated to voice his worries, as if articulating them made them that much more possible. But he was concerned that the 4.4 earthquake may have caused a rock slide that trapped the Oceanus. Such a catastrophe surely wasn’t out of the question if Donald had indeed descended into a narrow depression at Suzanne’s insistence.
   “Let me talk to the divers,” Mark said. He walked over to Larry and took the mike. While he pondered what he wanted to say, he glanced up at the monitor where he could see the tops of the heads and the foreshortened bodies of the three men.

   “Shit, man!” Michael moaned. “You just kicked me in the balls!” His voice came out as a series of squeaks and squeals that would have been mostly unintelligible to normal humans. The distortion was a function of the helium he was breathing in place of nitrogen.
   At the equivalent pressure of 980 feet of seawater, nitrogen acted as an anesthetic. Replacing the nitrogen with helium solved the problem but caused marked changes in voice. The divers were used to it. Although they sounded like Walt Disney’s Donald Duck, they could understand each other perfectly.
   “Then get your balls out of my way,” Richard said. “I’m having trouble getting these freaking fins on.”
   All three divers were wedged up inside the diving bell, whose pressure hull was a sphere a mere eight feet in diameter. Crammed in with them were all their diving equipment, many hundreds of feet of looped hose, and all the necessary instrumentation.
   “Get out of the way, he says,” Michael jeered. “What do you want me to do, step outside?”
   A speaker crackled to life. It was mounted at the very apex of the sphere next to a tiny camcorder fitted with a fish-eye lens. Although the divers knew they were being constantly observed, they were totally indifferent to the surveillance.
   “Let me have your attention, men!” Mark commanded. In contrast to the divers’, his voice sounded relatively normal. “This is the operations commander.”
   “Holy crap!” Richard complained as he eyed the swim fin that was giving him the problem. “No wonder I can’t get this freaking thing on. It ain’t mine. It’s yours, Donaghue.” Without warning Richard clobbered Michael over the head with the flipper. Michael was troubled by the blow only because it knocked off his prized Red Sox cap. The cap tumbled down into the trunk, coming to a rest on the sealed hatch.
   “Hey, nobody move!” Michael said. “Mazzola, get my hat for me! I don’t want it to get wet.” Michael was already fully outfitted for the dive in his neoprene dry suit complete with the buoyancy control vest and weights. The ability to bend over, as would be required to retrieve the hat, was out of the question.
   “Gentlemen!” Mark’s voice was louder and more insistent.
   “Screw you,” Louis said. “I might be bell diver, but I’m not your slave.”
   “Hey, listen up, you animals!” Larry’s voice yelled from the tiny speaker. The sound reverberated around the cramped sphere at a level just shy of pain. “Mr. Davidson wants a word with you, so shut up!”
   Richard shoved the flipper and its mate into Michael’s hands, then looked up at the camera. “All right already,” he said. “We’re listening.”
   “Stand by for a moment,” Larry’s voice said. “We didn’t realize the helium unscrambler wasn’t on line.”
   “So let me have my fins,” Richard said to Michael in the interim.
   “You mean the ones I have on aren’t mine?”
   “Duh!” Richard voiced mockingly. “Since you’re holding yours in your hands they can’t be on your feet, birdbrain!”
   Michael squatted awkwardly, clutching his fins under his arm, and stripped those from his feet. Richard snatched them away disdainfully. Then the two divers clumsily bumped into each other as they struggled to slip on their respective flippers at the same time.
   “Okay, men,” Larry’s voice said. “We’re on line with the scrambler so stop screwing around and listen up! Here’s Mr. Davidson.”
   The diver’s didn’t bother to look up. They slouched against the sides of the PTC and assumed bored expressions.
   “We haven’t been able to raise the Oceanus on the UQC or track it on sonar,” Mark’s voice said. “We’re anxious for you to make visual contact. If you don’t see them when you arrive at the well head, let us know and we’ll give you further instructions. Understand?”
   “That’s affirmative,” Richard said. “Now can we get back to getting ready to dive?”
   “That’s affirmative,” Mark said.
   Richard and Michael stirred, and by giving each other an iota of leeway they managed to get their flippers on their feet. Michael even tried to reach his hat while Richard proceeded to don his buoyancy vest and weight belt, but it was beyond his grasp, as he’d feared.
   Five minutes later the winch operator’s voice told them they were passing through nine hundred feet. With that announcement the descent slowed appreciably. While Richard and Michael tried to stay out of the way, Louis readied the hoses. As the bell diver it fell to him to handle the lines.
   “Powering the exterior lights,” Larry announced.
   Richard and Michael twisted themselves enough to glance out the two tiny view ports opposite each other. Louis was too busy to look out either of the two remaining windows.
   “I see bottom,” Richard said.
   “Me, too,” Michael said.
   With a single main hoisting cable the diving bell was rotating slowly, although its rotation was restricted by the life-support lines. The bell would rotate in one direction for several revolutions and then turn and go the other way. As the bell settled down to the 980-foot mark and stopped, the rotation slowed to a stop as well, but not before each diver had been afforded a 360-degree view.
   Since the bell was suspended fourteen feet above the rock face at one of the higher sections of the seamount’s summit, the divers could see a relatively wide area bounded by the illumination of the exterior halogen lights. Their view was somewhat restricted only to the west, where it was blocked by a ridge of rock. To Richard and Michael the ridge appeared like a series of connected columns whose crest was slightly higher than their line of sight. But even that formation was at the periphery of the sphere of light.
   “Do you see the sub?” Richard asked Michael.
   “Nope,” Michael said. “But I can see the bits and the tools by the well head. They’re all stacked up nice and neat.”
   Richard leaned away from the view port and tilted his face up toward the camcorder.
   “That’s a negative on the Oceanus, ” he said. “But she’s been here.”
   “That means there will be a change in the dive plan,” Larry’s voice answered. “Mr. Davidson wants red and green divers to proceed due west. Can you make out a scarp in that direction?”
   “What the hell is a scarp?” Richard asked.
   “It’s a wall or cliff,” Mark’s voice cut in.
   “Yeah, I guess,” Richard said. He looked back out at the columnar ridge.
   “Mr. Davidson wants you to proceed over the ridge,” Larry said. “How high is the ridge in relation to the bell?”
   “About even,” Richard said.
   “All right, swim over the ridge and see if you can make visual contact with the submersible. Mr. Davidson thinks there might be a crevice. And watch the temperature. Apparently there’s quite a gradient in the area.”
   “Got it,” Richard said.
   “Remember,” Larry added, “you’re limited to a one-fifty deep excursion dive. Don’t rise more than ten feet above the bell. We don’t want any bends to muck things up. Understood?”
   “Got it,” Richard repeated. Larry’s admonitions were the standard for a saturation dive.
   “Bell diver,” Larry said, “the breathing mixture is to stay at one and a half percent oxygen and ninety-eight and a half percent helium. Do you copy?”
   “I copy,” Louis said.
   “One last thing,” Larry said. “Red and green diver, I don’t want any of you macho bums taking any chances, so be careful!”
   “Check!” Richard said. He gave a thumbs-up sign for the camcorder’s benefit while making a scornful face at Michael and saying: “Telling us to be careful down here is like telling your kid to be careful before sending him out to play in the middle of the interstate.”
   Michael nodded but he wasn’t listening. This part of the dive was serious. He was all business while attaching his umbilical and other paraphernalia. When he was ready Louis handed him his full face mask cradled in a bright orange fiberglass helmet. Michael held it under his arm to wait for Richard. Despite his extensive experience he always got butterflies just before entering the water.
   Richard quickly followed suit with his equipment. Then he took two underwater lights, tested both, and handed one to Michael. When he was ready he nodded to Michael, and they both put on their helmets at the same time.
   The first thing they checked after Louis opened the manifold was the gas flow. Next was the hot water, a necessary adjunct since the outside water temperature was only thirty-six degrees; it was difficult for a diver to work if he was cold. Finally they tested the communications and their sensor lines. When all was in order, Louis informed topside and asked for permission for the divers to enter the water.
   “Permission granted,” Larry’s voice responded. “Open the hatch!”
   With some difficulty and a lot of grunts Louis squeezed his bulky frame down into the trunk of the bell.
   “My hat!” Michael yelled, although his voice was muffled by the sound of his escaping breathing gas.
   Louis grasped the baseball hat and handed it up to Michael. Michael gingerly hung it on one of the many protuberances in the bell. He treated it as his most valuable possession. What he didn’t admit was that he considered it his lucky charm.
   Louis undogged the pressure hatch and, with some difficulty, raised it. He secured it against the wall. Below, the luminous aquamarine seawater rose menacingly up through the trunk. All three divers breathed a silent sigh of relief when it predictably stopped just shy of the lip of the hatch. They all knew it would, but they also knew that if it did not there was no place to go.
   Richard gave Michael a thumbs-up sign. Michael returned the gesture. Richard then carefully climbed down through the trunk. Once he was free he dropped out the bottom of the bell.
   For Richard, getting out of the cramped bell was a relief he likened to being born. The sudden freedom was exhilarating. The only part of him that could sense the coolness of the water was his gloved hands. He scanned the area while adjusting his buoyancy. It took him only a moment to see the dark shape cruising just at the periphery of light. It wasn’t the submersible. It was a shark with luminous eyes. The length of the huge fish was more than twice the diameter of the diving bell.
   “We got company,” Richard said calmly. “Toss down my rebar just in case and have Michael bring his.” Of all the fancy antishark paraphernalia on the market, Richard preferred a simple, three-and-a-half-foot metal rod. It had been his experience that sharks avoided the rod like the plague if it was just pointed in their direction. During a feeding frenzy he wasn’t as confident it would work, but in that situation, nothing worked one hundred percent.
   Seconds later the rebar came down and clanked mutely against the rock. A moment later Michael’s legs appeared as he struggled out of the trunk. Once he was free the two divers made eye contact. Richard gestured in the direction of the shark, which now wandered into the light.
   “Ah, it’s only a Greenland shark,” Richard said to Louis, who made sure Michael had heard it as well. Now Richard was even less concerned. It was a big shark, but not dangerous. He knew that another name for the monster was sleeper shark because of its sluggish habits.
   After Michael made his adjustments Richard pointed toward the ridge. Michael nodded and the two started off. Both held their lights in their left hands and the rebars in their right. As accomplished swimmers they covered the distance in a short time without rushing. At a pressure of almost thirty atmospheres the sheer work of breathing the viscous, compressed gas sapped their energy.
   Inside the diving bell Louis was frantically playing out both sets of tethers. He didn’t want to restrict the divers or give them too much slack lest they get tangled up. Until the divers got down to work the bell diver was a busy man. The job required concentration and quick reflexes. At the same time Louis was handling the lines, he had to keep his eye on the pressure gauges and the digital oxygen percentage readout. On top of that he was in constant communication with each diver and with diving control up in the diving van. To keep his hands free, a headset kept a tiny speaker in his ear and a microphone positioned over his mouth.
   Out in the water the two divers swam to the top of the ridge and paused. At that distance from the diving bell the amount of illumination fell off sharply. Richard motioned to his flashlight and both turned them on.
   Behind them, the diving bell glowed eerily like an orbiter nesting in a rocky, alien landscape. A stream of bubbles issued from the bell and dribbled toward the far-off surface. Ahead, the divers faced darkness fading to indelible blackness with only a faint hint of a glow when they looked up toward the surface almost a thousand feet above. In the back of their minds they knew the huge shark was somewhere just beyond their vision. Shining their lights forward provided meager cones of light that penetrated the icy darkness only forty to fifty feet ahead.
   “There’s a drop-off beyond the ridge,” Richard reported. “This must be the scarp.”
   Louis relayed the information up to the dive station. Although the dive control could listen to the divers and talk to them, Larry preferred to use the bell diver as an intermediary. The combination of the helium voice distortion and the noise of the divers’ breathing gas flow made comprehension by those up in the diving van extremely difficult even with the helium unscrambler on-line. It was much more efficient to use the bell diver since he was more accustomed to the speech distortions.
   “Red diver,” Louis called out. “Control wants to know if you see any sign of the Oceanus. ”
   “That’s negative,” Richard said.
   “How about a crevice or a hole?” Louis relayed.
   “Not at the moment,” Richard reported, “but we’re about to start down this rock wall.”
   Richard and Michael swam over the edge and down the face of the cliff.
   “The rock is as smooth as glass,” Richard commented. Michael nodded. He’d run his hand along it briefly.
   “You’re coming up on your last one hundred feet of hose,” Louis said. He quickly took the last loops down from their storage hooks, already cursing under his breath. Soon he’d be coiling it all up again. Divers rarely wandered this far from the diving bell, and it was just his luck to be assigned as the bell diver when they did.
   Richard stopped his descent. He grabbed Michael to stop him as well. Richard pointed to his wrist thermometer. Michael looked at his and did a double take.
   “The water temperature just changed,” Richard reported. “It just went up almost one hundred degrees. Shut off our hot water!”
   “Red diver, are you shitting me?” Louis asked.
   “Michael’s reads the same,” Richard said. “It’s like we’ve climbed into a hot tub.”
   Richard had been shining his light down as they descended, searching for the base of the scarp. Now he shined it around. At the very periphery of illumination he could just make out a wall opposite the one they were descending.
   “Hey! Apparently we are in some kind of huge crevice,” he said. “I can just barely see the other side. It must be about fifty feet wide.”
   Michael tapped Richard on the shoulder and pointed off to their left. “There’s an end to it as well,” he said.
   “Michael’s right,” Richard said when he’d looked. Then he swung around and pointed the light in the opposite direction. “I guess it’s like a box canyon ’cause I can’t see a fourth side, at least not from where we are.”
   “Hey,” Michael said. “We’re sinking!”
   Richard looked at the wall behind him. It was true they were sinking—more quickly than he would have thought possible. There was little sensation of resistance against the water.
   Richard and Michael gave a few powerful kicks upward. To their astonishment there was little effect. They were still sinking. With a mixture of confusion and alarm, both responded by reflex and inflated their buoyancy vests. When that seemed to have little effect, they released their weight belts. Still significantly negatively buoyant, they jettisoned their rebars. Finally with some continued kicking their descent slowed and stopped.
   Richard pointed upward and the two started swimming. Despite the heavy work of breathing they were swimming hard. The strange sinking episode had unnerved them, and to make matters worse, they were beginning to feel the heat through their suits.
   The two were even with the top of the cliff when a sudden sustained vibration swept up from the depths like a shock wave. For a few seconds both men were mildly disoriented. They had trouble breathing and swimming at the same time. The shaking was similar to what they had experienced in the diving bell on the descent, only much worse. They realized this was an underwater earthquake, and both of them intuitively sensed they were at or near the epicenter.
   For Louis, the quake was even more violent. At the moment of impact he’d been frantically hauling in the tethers, which had gone suddenly slack. He’d been forced to let go of the lines to keep himself from being impaled on one of the many wall-mounted protrusions.
   Richard recovered enough to take a breath although doing so was painful. The pressure wave had bruised his chest. As an experienced diver, his first response was to check on his buddy, and he frantically searched by spinning around. For a heart-stopping second he could not find Michael. Then he looked down. Michael appeared to be clawing his way up through the water. Richard reached down to lend a hand. When he did, he realized that they were both sinking—and sinking fast.
   With no other way to decrease his weight Richard joined Michael in an attempt to swim upward. In desperation they even discarded their lights to free their hands. But they made no progress. If anything, they seemed to be going down. Then they plummeted, caroming off the rock wall as they were inexorably sucked into the abyss.
   Inside the bell Louis had recovered his balance enough to grab the tethers, which were still slack. Quickly he pulled in a loop, but before he could get it over the rack, there was a sudden tug in the opposite direction. At first he tried to hold the lines from going out, but it was impossible. Had he held on, they would have pulled him from the bell.
   Louis cursed as he frantically got out of the way of the hoses, which were now being yanked out of the bell at a furious rate. It was as if Richard and Michael were lures that had been taken by a gigantic fish.
   “Bell diver, are you all right?” Larry’s voice asked.
   “Yeah, I’m all right!” Louis yelled. “But something crazy is going on! The hoses are going out at a hundred miles an hour!”
   “We can see that on the monitor,” Larry said urgently. “Can’t you stop it?”
   “How?” Louis pleaded through tears. He glanced at the remaining hose. There wasn’t much left. He froze. He had no idea what to expect. The last loops whipped out of the bell and for a brief moment the lines went taut. Then to Louis’s utter horror they were torn from their housings and disappeared down into the trunk and out into the unforgiving sea.
   “Oh, my god!” Louis cried as he struggled to turn off the gas supply manifold.
   “What’s happening down there?” Larry demanded.
   “I don’t know,” Louis cried. Then to add to his terror the vibration and rumbling started again. Frantically he reached out to grab whatever he could as the diving bell shook as though it were a salt shaker in the hand of a giant. He screamed, and as if in answer to a prayer, the shaking lessened to a mere trembling. At the same time he became aware of a sizzling sound and a red glow that penetrated through the view ports.
   Letting go of the death grip he’d had on the high-pressure piping, Louis twisted to glance out one of the view ports. What he saw made him freeze anew. Over the nearby ridge, which the divers had so recently scaled, came a surreal cascade of glowing, red hot lava. The leading edge sputtered and popped and smoked as it turned the icy water into steam.
   When Louis recovered enough to find his voice, he threw his head back to look up into the camcorder lens.
   “Get me out of here!” he shrieked. “I’m in the middle of a goddamn erupting volcano!”

   The van’s interior had become quiet. A sense of shock hung over the room. The only noise came from the deck-mounted motors driving the winches that were hauling up the diving bell and the life-support lines. Moments before, utter pandemonium had prevailed as it became apparent they’d lost two divers in some kind of pyroclastic catastrophe. The only consolation was that the third diver was okay, and he was on his way up.
   Mark took a long, nervous drag on his Marlboro. Oblivious to the new rules, he’d reached for his cigarettes by reflex at the first rumblings of trouble, and now that the extent of the tragedy had rapidly unfolded, he was chain-smoking out of pure anxiety. Not only had he managed to lose a hundred-million-dollar submersible with two trained operators plus two experienced saturation divers; he’d also lost the president of Benthic Marine. If only he hadn’t encouraged Perry Bergman to make the dive. For that he was solely responsible.
   “What the hell are we going to do?” Larry asked in stunned bewilderment. Even he was smoking although he was supposed to have given it up six months before. As the diving supervisor he, too, felt responsible for the disastrous outcome.
   Mark sighed heavily. He felt weak. He’d never had a single loss of life on his watch in his entire career, and that included hairy diving operations in some dicey locations like in the Persian Gulf during Desert Storm. Now he’d lost five people. It was too much to think about.
   “The bell is passing through five hundred feet,” the winch operator called out to no one in particular.
   “What about the drilling operation?” Larry wondered aloud.
   Mark took another long drag on his cigarette and almost burned his fingers. Angrily he stubbed it out, then lit another.
   “Get ready to launch the camera sled,” Mark said. “We got to look at what’s going on down there.”
   “Mazzola was pretty clear,” Larry quavered. “As we were pulling him up he said the whole top of the seamount as far as he could see was molten lava, bubbling up from behind the ridge. And we’re recording almost continuous tremors. Hell, we’re sitting on a live volcano. Are you sure you want the sled down in that kind of an inferno?”
   “I want to see it,” Mark said slowly, “and I want to record it. I’m sure there’s going to be one hell of an inquiry about this whole mess. And I want to look at the area where the canyon or hole was that the Oceanus disappeared into. I’ve got to be sure there’s no chance . . .” Mark did not finish his sentence. He knew in his gut it was hopeless; Donald Fuller had dropped the submersible down into a volcanic vent just prior to its erupting.
   “Fair enough,” Larry conceded. “I’ll have the crew get the sled ready to go. But what about the drilling? I hope you’re not thinking of sending down another dive team if and when this volcano quiets down.”
   “Hell no!” Mark said with emotion. “I’ve lost interest in drilling into this freaking mountain, especially now that Perry Bergman is no longer with us. It was his foolhearty obsession, not mine. If the camera sled confirms that the vent hole or whatever it was is filled with fresh lava, and we can’t find any trace of the Oceanus, we’re getting the hell out of here.”
   “That sounds good to me!” Larry said. He stood up. “I’ll get the sled ready and in the water ASAP.”
   “Thanks,” Mark said. He leaned forward and buried his head in his hands. He’d never felt worse in his life.
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Chapter 6

   Suzanne was the first to recover enough from the terror of the precipitous descent to find her voice. Hesitantly she said, “I think we’ve stopped! Thank God!”
   For a time that had seemed an eternity to its three terrified occupants, the submersible had fallen like a stone down the mysterious shaft. It was as if they had been sucked down an enormous drain in the bottom of the ocean. During the plummet the Oceanus had been totally unresponsive to the controls no matter which Donald Fuller manipulated.
   Although initially the plunge had been straight down, the boat had eventually begun to spiral and even carom off the walls. One of the first such collisions destroyed the outside halogen lights. Another stripped off the starboard manipulator with a grinding crunch.
   Perry had been the only one to scream during the ordeal. But even he fell silent once the helplessness of their situation had sunk in. He could only watch helplessly as the digital depth recorder whirred into the thousands. The numbers had flashed by so quickly, they’d become a blur. And when twenty thousand feet approached, all he’d been able to think about was the chilling statistic he’d heard earlier: the crush depth!
   “In fact, I don’t think we’re moving at all,” Suzanne added. She was whispering. “What could have happened? Could we be on the bottom? I didn’t feel an impact.”
   No one moved a muscle, as if doing so might disturb the sudden but welcome tranquillity. They were breathing shallowly in short gasps, and beads of perspiration dotted their foreheads. All three were still holding on to their seats for fear the plunge would recommence.
   “It feels like we stopped, but look at the depth gauge,” Donald managed. His voice was raspy from dryness.
   All eyes returned to the readout that only moments earlier had inexorably held their gaze. It was moving again, slowly at first but then rapidly gathering speed. The difference was that it was moving in the opposite direction.
   “But I don’t feel any movement,” Suzanne said. She exhaled deeply and tried to relax her muscles. The others did likewise.
   “Nor do I,” Donald admitted. “But look at the gauge! It’s going crazy.”
   The readout device had returned to its previous furious whirring.
   Suzanne leaned forward slowly as if she thought the submersible was precariously balanced and her movement might tip it over an edge. She peered out the view port, but all she could see was her own image. With the outside lights sheared off from collisions with the rock, the window was as opaque as a mirror, reflecting the interior light.
   “What’s happening now?” Perry croaked.
   “Your guess is as good as ours,” Suzanne answered. She took a deep breath. She was beginning to recover.
   “The depth gauge says we’re rising,” Donald said. He glanced at the other instruments, including the sonar monitors. Their erratic signals suggested there was a lot of interference in the water, particularly affecting the short-range sonar. The side-scan was a bit better, with less electronic noise, but it was difficult to interpret. The hazy image hinted that the sub was sitting stationary on a vast, perfectly flat plain. Donald’s eyes went back to the depth gauge. He was mystified; in contrast to what the sonar was suggesting, it was still rising, and faster than it had been moments before. Quickly he reopened the ballast tanks, but there was no effect. Then he put the dive planes down and added more power to the propulsion system. There was no response to the controls. But they continued to rise nonetheless.
   “We’re accelerating,” Suzanne warned. “Rising like this we’ll be on the surface in just a couple of minutes!”
   “I can’t wait,” Perry said with obvious relief.
   “I hope we’re not coming up under the Benthic Explorer, ” Suzanne said. “That would be a major problem.”
   Everyone’s eyes were riveted to the depth gauge. It passed through one thousand feet and showed no sign of slowing. Five hundred feet shot by. As it passed one hundred feet Donald said urgently: “Hold on! We’re going to broach badly.”
   “What does ‘broach’ mean?” Perry yelled. He heard the desperation in Donald’s voice, and it sent a new chill through him.
   “It means we’re going to leap out of the water!” Suzanne shouted. Then she repeated Donald’s warning. “Hold on!”
   As the frantic whirring of the depth gauge reached a crescendo, Perry, Donald, and Suzanne once again grabbed their seats and held tight. Holding their breath they braced themselves for the impact. The depth gauge reached zero and stopped.
   Immediately following that final click of the gauge, a loud sucking noise emanated from somewhere outside the craft. After that, comparative silence reigned within the sub. Now the only sound was a combination of the ventilation fan and an augmented but still muffled electronic whir of the propulsion system.
   Almost a minute passed without the slightest sensation of movement.
   Finally Perry breathed out. “Well,” he said. “What happened?”
   “We can’t be airborne for this long,” Suzanne admitted.
   Everyone relaxed their death grips and looked out their respective view ports. It was still as dark as pitch.
   “What the hell?” Donald questioned. He looked back at his instruments. The sonar monitors were now filled with meaningless electronic noise. He turned them off. He also dialed down the power to the propulsion system, and its whirring stopped. He looked at Suzanne.
   “Don’t ask me,” Suzanne said when their eyes met.
   “I haven’t the slightest idea what’s going on.”
   “How come it’s dark outside if we’re on the surface?” Perry asked.
   “This doesn’t make any sense,” Donald said. He looked back at his instruments. Reaching forward, he put power back to the propulsion system. The whirring noise reappeared but there was no motion. The craft stood absolutely still.
   “Somebody tell me what’s going on,” Perry demanded. The euphoria he’d felt a few moments earlier had dissipated. They obviously were not on the surface.
   “We don’t know what is happening,” Suzanne admitted.
   “There’s no resistance to the propeller,” Donald reported. He turned the propulsion system off. The whirring died away for a second time. Now the only sound was the ventilation fan. “I think we are in air.”
   “How can we be in air?” Suzanne said. “It’s totally dark and there is no wave action.”
   “But it’s the only explanation for the sonar not working and the lack of resistance to the propeller,” Donald said. “And look. The outside temperature has risen to seventy degrees. We’ve got to be in air.”
   “If this is the next life, I’m not ready for it,” Perry said.
   “You mean we’re out of the water entirely?” Suzanne still had trouble believing it.
   “I know it sounds crazy,” Donald admitted. “But it’s the only way I can explain everything, including the fact that the underwater phone doesn’t work.” Donald next tried the radio and had no luck with that either.
   “If we’re sitting on dry land,” Suzanne said, “how come we haven’t tipped over? I mean, this hull is a cylinder. If we were on dry land, we’d surely roll over on our side.”
   “You’re right!” Donald admitted. “That I can’t explain.”
   Suzanne opened an emergency locker between the two pilot seats and pulled out a flashlight. Turning it on, she directed it out her view port. Pressed up against it on the outside was cream-colored, coarse-grained muck.
   “At least we know why we didn’t tip over,” Suzanne said. “We’re sitting in a layer of globigerina ooze.”
   “Explain!” Perry said. He’d leaned forward to see for himself.
   “Globigerina ooze is the most common sediment on the ocean floor,” Suzanne said. “It’s composed mainly of the carcasses of a type of plankton called foraminifera.”
   “How can we be sitting in ocean sediment and be in air?” Perry asked.
   “That’s the question,” Donald agreed. “We can’t, at least not in any way that I know of.”
   “It’s also impossible for globigerina ooze to be this close to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge,” Suzanne said. “That sediment is found in the middle of the abyssal plains. Nothing makes sense.”
   “This is absurd!” Donald snapped. “And I don’t like it at all. Wherever we are, we’re stuck!”
   “Could we be completely buried in the ooze?” Perry asked hesitantly. If he was right, he did not want to hear the answer.
   “No! Not a chance,” Donald said. “If that were the case there would be more resistance to the propeller, not less.”
   For a few minutes no one spoke.
   “Is there any chance we could be inside the seamount?” Perry asked, finally breaking the silence.
   Donald and Suzanne turned to face him.
   “How could we be inside a mountain?” Donald asked angrily.
   “Hey, I’m only making a suggestion,” Perry said. “Mark told me this morning he had some radar data that suggested the mountain might contain gas, not molten lava.”
   “He never mentioned that to me,” Suzanne said.
   “He didn’t mention it to anyone,” Perry said. “He wasn’t sure of the data since it was coming from a shallow study of the hard layer we were trying to drill through. It was an extrapolation, and he only mentioned it to me in passing.”
   “What kind of gas?” Suzanne asked while her mind tried to imagine how a submerged volcano could become void of water. Geophysically speaking it seemed impossible, although she knew that on land some volcanoes did collapse in on themselves to form calderas.
   “He had no idea,” Perry said. “I guess he thought the most promising candidate was steam held in by the extra-hard layer that was giving us so much trouble.”
   “Well, it can’t be steam,” Donald said. “Not at a temperature of almost seventy degrees.”
   “What about natural gas?” Perry suggested.
   “I can’t imagine,” Suzanne said. “This close to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, it’s a geologically young area. There can’t be anything like petroleum or natural gas around here.”
   “Then maybe it is air,” Perry said.
   “How could it get here?” Suzanne asked.
   “You tell me,” Perry said. “You’re the geophysical oceanographer. Not me.”
   “If it is air, there is not a natural explanation that I know of,” Suzanne said. “It’s as simple as that.”
   The three people stared at each other for a beat.
   “I guess we’ll have to crack the hatch and see,” Suzanne said.
   “Open the hatch?” Donald questioned. “What if the gas is not breathable or it’s even toxic?”
   “Seems to me we have little choice,” Suzanne said. “We have no communications. We’re a fish out of water. We’ve got ten days of life support but what happens after that?”
   “Let’s not ask that question,” Perry said nervously. “I say we crack the hatch.”
   “All right!” Donald said with resignation. “As captain I’ll do it.” He stood up from his pilot’s seat and took a giant step over the central console. Perry leaned out of the way so that Donald could pass.
   Donald climbed up inside the sail. He paused while Suzanne and Perry positioned themselves just underneath him.
   “Why don’t you just undog it but not open it,” Suzanne offered. “Then see if you smell anything.”
   “Good idea,” Donald said. He took Suzanne’s suggestion, grabbing the central wheel and turning it. The sealing bolts retracted into the hatch’s body.
   “Well?” Suzanne called up after a few moments. “Smell anything?”
   “Just some dampness,” Donald said. “I guess I’ll go for it.”
   Donald cracked the hatch for a brief moment and sniffed.
   “What do you think?” Suzanne asked.
   “Seems okay,” Donald said with relief. He opened the hatch about an inch and smelled the damp air that flowed in. When he was satisfied it was as safe as he could determine, he pushed the hatch all the way up and poked his head out the top. The air had the salty dampness of a beach at low tide.
   Donald slowly rotated his head through 360 degrees, straining his eyes in the darkness. He saw absolutely nothing but intuitively he knew that it was a big space. He was staring into a silent, alien blackness as frightening as it was vast.
   Poking his head back inside the submersible, he asked for the flashlight.
   Suzanne got it for him, and as she handed it up she asked what he’d seen.
   “A whole lot of nothing,” he replied.
   Reemerging from the hatch, Donald shined the flashlight in the distance. The mud stretched away in all directions as far as the light could penetrate. A few isolated mirrorlike puddles of water reflected back at him.
   “Hello!” Donald called after cupping his hands around his mouth. He waited. A slight echo seemed to come from the direction of the Oceanus ’s bow. Donald yelled again; a distinct echo came back in what he estimated to be around three or four seconds.
   Donald climbed back down into the submersible after lowering the hatch. The others looked at him expectantly.
   “This is the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen,” he said.
   “We’re in some kind of cavern that apparently was recently filled with water.”
   “But now it’s filled with air,” Suzanne said.
   “It’s definitely air,” Donald said. “Beyond that, I don’t know what to think. Maybe Mr. Bergman is right. Maybe we’ve somehow been pulled inside the seamount.”
   “The name is Perry, for chrissake,” Perry said. “Give me the light! I’m going to take a look.” He took the flashlight from Donald and clumsily climbed the ladder up through the sub’s sail. He had to hook one elbow around the top rung and jam the flashlight into his pocket to raise the heavy, wedged-shaped hatch.
   “My god!” Perry exclaimed after he had imitated Donald’s actions, including testing for echoes. He climbed back down but left the hatch ajar. He handed the flashlight to Suzanne, who took her turn.
   When Suzanne returned the three looked at each other and shook their heads. None of them had an explanation although each hoped one of the others might.
   “I suppose it goes without saying,” Donald began, breaking an uncomfortable silence, “we’re in a difficult situation to say the least. We cannot expect any help from the Benthic Explorer. With the series of earthquakes, they’ll naturally assume we suffered some kind of disaster. They might send down one of the camera sleds, but it’s not going to find us in here, wherever the hell we are. In short, we’re on our own with no communication and little food and water. So . . .” Donald paused as if thinking.
   “So, what do you suggest?” Suzanne asked.
   “I suggest we go out and reconnoiter,” Donald said.
   “What if this cavern, or whatever it is, floods again?” Perry questioned.
   “It seems to me we have to take the chance,” Donald said. “I’ll be willing to go on my own. It’s up to you if you want to join me.”
   “I’ll go,” Suzanne said. “It’s better than just sitting here and doing nothing.”
   “I’m not staying here by myself,” Perry announced.
   “Okay,” Donald said. “We have two more flashlights. Let’s take them but only use one to conserve the batteries.”
   “I’ll get them,” Suzanne said.
   Donald was the first one out. He used the ladder rungs mounted on the side of the sail and the hull to climb down. The rungs were there to provide access to the submersible when it was in its chocks on the afterdeck of the Benthic Explorer.
   Standing on the final rung, Donald shined the light down at the ground. Gauging how deep the Oceanus had sunk, he estimated the mud was twenty to twenty-four inches deep.
   “Is something the matter?” Suzanne asked. She was the second one out and could see that Donald was hesitating.
   “I’m trying to guess how deep the muck is,” he said. Still holding on to a rung, he lowered his right foot. It disappeared into the ooze. It wasn’t until the mud reached the lower edge of his kneecap that he felt solid ground.
   “This is not going to be pleasant,” he reported. “The mud is knee-deep.”
   “Let’s hope that’s our only problem,” Suzanne said.
   A few minutes later the three were standing in the mud. Save for a slight glow emanating from the open submersible hatch, the only light came from Donald’s flashlight. It cast a meager cone of light in the utter blackness. Suzanne and Perry carried flashlights, too, but as Donald had suggested, they were not turned on. There was no sound in the vast dark space. To conserve the submersible’s batteries, Donald had turned off most everything in the sub, even the ventilation fan. He’d left on one light to serve as a beacon to help them find the sub again if they wandered too far afield.
   “This is intimidating,” Suzanne said with a shudder.
   “I think I’d use a stronger word,” Perry said. “What’s our game plan?”
   “That’s open to discussion,” Donald said. “My suggestion is we head in the direction the Oceanus is pointing. That seems to be the closest wall, at least according to my echo.” He looked at his compass. “It’s pretty much due west.”
   “Seems like a reasonable plan to me,” Suzanne said.
   “Let’s go,” Perry said.
   The group set out with Donald in the lead followed by Suzanne. Perry brought up the rear. It was difficult walking in the deep mud and the smell was mildly offensive.
   There was no talk. Each was acutely aware of the precariousness of the situation, especially the farther they got from the submersible. After ten minutes Perry insisted they pause. They had not come to any wall, and his courage had waned.
   “Walking in this muck is not easy,” Perry said, avoiding the real issue. “And it also stinks.”
   “How far do you think we’ve gone?” Suzanne asked. Like the others she was out of breath from exertion.
   Donald turned and looked back at the submersible, which was no more than a smudge of light in the inky blackness. “Not that far,” he said. “Maybe a hundred yards.”
   “I would have said a mile, the way my legs feel,” Suzanne remarked.
   “How much farther to this supposed wall?” Perry asked.
   Donald yelled again in the direction they were going. The echo came back in a couple of seconds. “I’d guess somewhere in the neighborhood of three hundred yards.”
   Sudden movement and a series of slapping sounds in the darkness to their immediate left made them all jump. Donald whipped the light around and shined it in the direction of the noise. A stranded fish made a few more agonal flip-flops against the wet mud.
   “Oh, my gosh, that scared the bejesus out of me,” Suzanne admitted. Her hand was pressed against her chest. Her heart was racing.
   “You and me both,” Perry confessed.
   “We’re all understandably on edge,” Donald said. “If you two want to go back, I’ll continue the reconnoiter myself.”
   “No, I’ll stick it out,” Suzanne said.
   “Me, too,” Perry said. The idea of returning to the submersible by himself was worse than forging ahead through the mire.
   “Then, let’s move out,” Donald said. He started off again and the others fell in behind him.
   The group slogged ahead in silence. Each step into the unknown blackness ratcheted up their fears and anxiety. The submersible behind them was being swallowed up in the darkness. After another ten minutes they were all as tense as a piano wire about to snap, and that was when the alarm sounded.
   The short burst of sound crashed out of the stillness like cannon fire. At first the group froze in their tracks, frantically attempting to determine from which direction the alarm had come. But with the multiple echoes it was impossible to tell. In the next instant they were all slogging their way back toward the submersible.
   It was flight in full panic; a mad dash for supposed safety. Unfortunately, the mud did not cooperate. All three tripped almost immediately and fell headfirst into the odious ooze. Regaining their feet, they tried to run again, with the same result.
   Without a word to establish consensus, they resigned themselves to a slower gait. After a few minutes, their lack of significant headway made the futility of their flight apparent. Since there had been no surge of water refilling the cavern, all three stopped within steps of each other, their chests heaving.
   The multiple echoes from the horrendous alarm died out and in their wake the preternatural stillness returned. Once again it settled back over the inky darkness like the smothering blanket in Perry’s nightmare.
   Suzanne raised her hands. The muck, which she knew was a combination of planktonic carcasses and feces of innumerable worms, dripped from her fingers. She wanted desperately to wipe her eyes, but she didn’t dare. Donald, who was slightly ahead, turned to face Suzanne and Perry. Mud was streaked across the glass of his flashlight, reducing its effect so that he was lost in shadow to the others. They could just make out the whites of his eyes.
   “What in God’s name was that alarm?” Suzanne managed. She spit some grainy debris from her mouth. She didn’t want to think of what it might have been.
   “I was afraid it meant the water was returning,” Perry admitted.
   “Regardless of what its actual meaning is,” Donald said, “for us it has an overarching significance.”
   “What are you talking about?” Perry questioned.
   “I know what he means,” Suzanne said. “He means that this is no natural geological formation.”
   “Exactly!” Donald said. “It’s got to be a remnant of the Cold War. And since I had top-secret clearance in the United States submarine service, I can tell you it’s not our installation. It has to be Russian!”
   “You mean like some kind of secret base?” Perry asked. He glanced around the black void, now more awestruck than frightened.
   “That’s the only thing I can imagine,” Donald said. “Some kind of nuclear submarine facility.”
   “I suppose it’s possible,” Suzanne said. “And if it is, our future is suddenly significantly brighter.”
   “Maybe yes, maybe no,” Donald said. “First, it’s going to make a difference only if somebody is still manning the facility. If there is, then our next worry has to be how much they want to keep it a secret.”
   “I hadn’t thought of that,” Suzanne admitted.
   “But the Cold War is over,” Perry said. “Surely we don’t have to worry about that old cloak-and-dagger stuff.”
   “There are people in the Russian military who feel differently,” Donald said. “I know because I have met them.”
   “So what do you think we should do at this point?” Suzanne asked.
   “I think that question has just been answered for us,” Donald said. He raised his free hand and pointed over the shoulders of the others. “Look over there, in the direction we were going before the alarm sounded!”
   Suzanne and Perry spun around. About a quarter of a mile away a single door was slowly opening inward into the blackness. Bright artificial light spilled from the room beyond into the dark cavern, forming a line of reflection that extended to their feet. The trio was too far away to see any interior details, but they could tell the light was intense.
   “So much for the question whether the facility is manned or not,” Donald said. “Obviously, we are not alone. Now the question becomes how happy they are to see us.”
   “Do you think we should walk over there?” Perry asked.
   “We don’t have much choice,” Donald said. “We’ll have to go at some point.”
   “Why didn’t they just come in here and meet us in person?” Suzanne asked.
   “A good question,” Donald said. “Maybe it has something to do with the welcome they are planning for us.”
   “I’m getting scared again,” Suzanne said. “This is very bizarre.”
   “I’ve never stopped being scared,” Perry admitted.
   “Let’s go meet our captors,” Donald said. “And let’s hope they don’t consider us spies—and that they are familiar with the terms of the Geneva Convention.”
   Straightening himself, Donald started forward, seemingly oblivious to the mud sucking at his feet. He passed his two companions, who had to admire his courage and leadership.
   Perry and Suzanne hesitated for a moment before falling in behind the retired naval commander. Neither spoke as they resignedly trudged in his footsteps toward the beckoning door. They had no idea whether it would provide deliverance or further trials, but as Donald had said, they did not have any choice.
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Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
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Chapter 7

   It was slow going. At one point, Perry slipped and fell back into the mire. He was covered with the ooze.
   “The first thing I’m going to do is demand a shower,” Perry sputtered trying to lighten the mood. He was not successful. No one responded.
   As they approached the open door, they hoped that their misgivings would be allayed. But no welcoming figures appeared at the threshold, and the light spilling out into the darkness was so bright they were unable to see inside. It was even difficult to look at the opening without shielding their eyes.
   When they got close enough, they could appreciate that the door was almost two feet thick with a ring of huge throw bolts countersunk into its periphery. It looked like a door to a vault. The edges of the massive portal were angled in. It was obviously constructed to withstand the enormous pressure of seawater flooding the cavern.
   At about twenty-five feet from the wall Suzanne and Perry stopped. They were reluctant to proceed without a clearer idea of what they were getting into. They studied the door for clues. From what they could tell, it appeared as if the walls, floor, and ceiling within were constructed of stainless steel that gleamed like mirrors.
   Donald had continued ahead on his own, and although he did not step over the threshold, he leaned in. With his forearm acting as a shield against the reflected light, he surveyed the room.
   “Well?” Suzanne called. “What do you see?”
   “It’s a large, square room made out of metal,” Donald yelled back over his shoulder. “There’s a couple of huge shiny balls in it but nothing else. There also doesn’t appear to be any door except this entrance. And I can’t tell where the light is coming from.”
   “Any sign of people?” Perry asked.
   “That’s a negative,” Donald said. “Hey, I think the balls are made of glass. And they must be four to five feet in diameter. Come and take a look!”
   Perry glanced at Suzanne. He shrugged. “Why put off the inevitable?”
   Suzanne was gripping her arms. She shuddered. “I was hoping by the time we got over here I’d have a better feeling about all this, but I don’t. This can’t be a submarine base. We’re talking about an engineering feat that would make building the Great Pyramid seem like a walk in the park.”
   “Then what do you think it is?” Perry questioned.
   Suzanne turned to look back toward the submersible. The light from the open door was illuminating it despite the distance. Beyond it was blackness. “I truly have no clue.”
   When Donald saw that Suzanne and Perry were looking back at the submersible, he went ahead and stepped over the threshold into the room. Immediately he put his hands out to balance himself to keep from falling. A combination of the wet mud on his shoes and the polished metal made the floor as slippery as ice.
   Once he had his equilibrium Donald again scanned the room. Now that his eyes had partially adjusted he could see much better, including hundreds of reflections of himself in all directions. The walls, floor, and ceiling were seamless. The only apparent door was the one he’d entered through. He specifically searched for a source of the dazzling light but mysteriously could not find any. When his line of sight took in the huge glass balls, he did a double take. He was now able to appreciate that the glass was not entirely opaque. They were clear enough to just make out what was inside.
   “Suzanne, Perry!” Donald yelled. “There are a couple of people in here after all. But they’re sealed inside glass spheres. Get in here!”
   A moment later Suzanne and Perry appeared at the door.
   “Careful about the floor!” Donald warned. “It’s as slick as ice.”
   Sliding their feet in short movements as if skating without skates, Suzanne and Perry staggered over to Donald’s side, eager for a better look at the glass spheres.
   “My word!” Suzanne exclaimed. “They’re floating around in some kind of fluid.”
   “Do you recognize them?” Donald asked.
   “Should I?” Suzanne responded.
   “I think I do,” Donald said. “I think it’s two of our divers.”
   Suzanne stared at Donald in disbelief. Then, to get a better look, she cupped her hands around her eyes and leaned against one of the spheres, the surface so opalescent it reflected the room’s bright illumination.
   “I think you’re right,” Suzanne said. “I can just make out the Benthic Explorer logo on the neoprene suit and the side of the helmet.”
   Perry mimicked Suzanne by shielding his eyes with his hands and pressing them against the same sphere Suzanne was gazing into. Donald did likewise from another angle.
   “He’s breathing!” Perry said. “He must be alive.”
   “There’s something like an umbilical cord coming from some kind of device pressed up against his abdomen,” Suzanne said. “Can anybody see where it goes?”
   “It goes under him,” Donald said. “To the base of the container.”
   Suzanne moved away enough to allow her to bend down. The sphere had a flat area on which it sat. She did not see any penetrations, and if there were any they would have come directly through the floor.
   “This is as astounding as the cavern,” Suzanne said while regaining her feet. She reached out and touched the sphere with the tip of her index finger. The material looked like glass but she was not sure what it was.
   The others straightened up.
   “How on earth did they get here?” Perry asked.
   “A lot of questions,” Donald said, “and very few answers.”
   “Are you still thinking this is some kind of military installation?” Suzanne asked Donald.
   “What else could it be?” Donald demanded defensively.
   “If these divers are alive in these spheres, I can’t even guess what the technology is,” Suzanne said. “They look like a couple of giant embryos. Not that I can explain the cavern either. Even this room is a step beyond.”
   “Beyond what?” Donald asked.
   “The door!” Perry cried.
   All eyes shot to the entrance. The massive door was silently closing.
   Frantically the three tried to rush back to it to keep it from sealing them in, but the slippery floor hindered their progress. By the time they arrived the door was almost closed. Collectively they leaned against it to force it back open, but with its mass and the slick floor it was a useless endeavor. With a resounding thud the door closed. Then they heard the muffled mechanical sound of the numerous throw bolts sliding into place.
   With renewed sense of terror the three moved away from the door.
   “Somebody is controlling all this,” Suzanne said gravely. Her worried eyes swept around the seamless room. “And now we are trapped.”
   “It’s got to be Russians,” Donald said.
   “Enough about the Russians!” Suzanne shouted. “You were in the military too long. You see everything in terms of yesterday’s hostilities. This isn’t about Russians.”
   “How do you know?” Donald yelled back. “And don’t you dare denigrate my service to my country.”
   “Oh, please!” Suzanne intoned. “I’m not disparaging your naval service. But look around, Donald! This isn’t anything earthly. Look at the light, for goodness’ sake.” Suzanne held out her hand. “There’s no light source, but the illumination is totally even. And there’s no shadow.”
   Perry held out his hands and tried to form shadows, but it was impossible. Donald watched but did not try it himself.
   “It’s a uniform photon flux that must be penetrating these walls somehow,” Suzanne said. “And if I had to guess I’d say there was a significant ultraviolet component.”
   “How can you tell?” Perry said.
   “I can’t,” Suzanne admitted. “Not for sure since the human eye doesn’t pick up ultraviolet, but to my mind there’s a definite distortion of the blue of our coveralls and the maroon of your jogging suit.”
   Perry looked down at his clothing. To him the color was the same as it always had been.
   “The spheres!” Donald yelled.
   All eyes shifted to the glass balls. Their opalescence had suddenly and dramatically increased so that they were glowing. A moment later there was a cracking sound, and beginning at both apices the spheres opened like enormous flowers losing their petals. With a gush of fluid the divers spilled out onto the floor.
   Donald was the first to overcome his shock. As quickly as he could, he rushed to Richard’s side. Realizing the unconscious diver was trying to breathe, Donald pulled off the man’s helmet and tossed it aside. Richard coughed violently.
   Perry rushed to Michael. While he removed Michael’s helmet he could hear Richard’s coughing. Michael, however, was not even breathing. Calling upon his CPR training, Perry knew what to do. First he hauled Michael from the debris of the collapsed sphere, pulling his still attached umbilical with him. After a quick check to make sure the diver’s mouth was clear, he pinched his nostrils closed, took a breath, and gave Michael a lungful of air. Turning his head to the side, Perry took another breath. He was about to repeat the cycle when he noticed that Michael’s eyes were open.
   “What the hell are you doing, man!” Michael questioned. He pushed Perry’s face away, which was inches from his own.
   “I was doing mouth-to-mouth,” Perry said. He got to his feet. “I didn’t think you were breathing.”
   “I’m breathing!” Michael insisted. He made a face of disgust and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Believe me, I’m breathing.”
   Richard’s coughing jag came to an abrupt end, and he blinked away the tears it had brought on. His first concern was Michael. When he saw that his buddy was alive and well, he glanced around the room before looking up at the others.
   “What’s going on?” he asked. “What happened?”
   “That’s the million-dollar question,” Perry answered.
   “Where the hell are we?” Richard asked. His eyes took a second quick dash around the room. A perplexed expression clouded his face.
   “An equally interesting question,” Perry said.
   “Were you looking for us on your dive?” Donald asked Richard.
   For a moment Richard merely looked confused. Then Donald’s question helped restore his memory. “Oh, my god!” he cried. “We were on a nearly thousand-foot sat dive! We didn’t decompress!” Richard struggled to his feet. His legs were wobbly, especially on the slippery floor. “Michael, we’ve got to get into the DDC!”
   “Take it easy!” Donald said. He grabbed Richard around the upper arm to calm him and keep him from falling. “There’s no DDC here. Besides, you’re all right. Obviously you don’t have the bends.”
   Richard’s confusion deepened. He extended his legs and his arms to check his joints. Blinking repeatedly, he looked around the room again, and while doing so noticed the umbilical connecting him to the base of the collapsed sphere. “What the hell is this?” he demanded. He grasped the composite group of hoses and wires and immediately let go. His lips curled in revulsion. “Jeez, it feels soft, like I’m holding someone’s intestines.”
   “It has to be some kind of life support,” Suzanne said, speaking up for the first time since the divers had emerged from their shells. “Considering the shape you’re in without decompressing, I guess it had something to do with that as well.”
   Richard gingerly touched the device attached to his stomach. It was the size and shape of the head of a toilet plunger. As soon as he touched it, it detached. Catching it in his hand, he looked at its business end. To his horror a series of wormlike appendages protruded from it, their wriggling heads soaked in blood—his blood.
   “Ah!” Richard cried. He dropped the device, which quickly retracted into the base of the flattened sphere like a disappearing vacuum cleaner cord. In a panic Richard unzipped the front of his neoprene suit down to his pubis. When he looked at his stomach he cried out again. There were six puncture wounds in a circular pattern around his navel.
   After watching Richard, Michael struggled to his feet and hesitantly looked down at his own stomach. He was dismayed to see a similar apparatus. With an expression mirroring Richard’s, he reluctantly touched it with his index finger. To his relief it immediately detached and retracted. Opening his dive suit he found the same peculiar pattern of oozing stab wounds around his umbilicus.
   “Holy crap!” Michael voiced. “It looks like we were stabbed a bunch of times with an ice pick.” He shivered. “I can’t stand blood.”
   Richard zipped his suit back up and then tried to take a few steps on shaky legs. He reached out and supported himself against the wall. “Man, I feel like I’ve been drugged.”
   “I feel like I was run over with a goddamn truck,” Michael said.
   “Where’s Mazzola?” Richard asked.
   “We wouldn’t have any idea,” Donald said. “What happened during your dive?”
   Richard scratched the back of his head. At first all he could remember was getting into the DDC for the compression, but then, with Michael’s participation, they both were able to remember sketchy details of the descent in the bell and entering the water.
   “Is that it?” Donald asked. “Nothing after you left the bell?”
   Richard nodded. Michael did the same.
   “How come you guys all look like you’ve been in a pigpen?” Richard asked. He didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, he looked more closely at the walls. “What is this, some kind of hospital or something?”
   “It’s no hospital,” Donald said. “We can’t tell you much else other than how we got here, but that includes how we got dirty.”
   “That’s a start,” Richard said. “Fire away!”
   Donald explained while the two divers slouched against the wall. It was a hard story to swallow, and their eyes narrowed in disbelief.
   “Oh, come on!” Richard scoffed. “What is this? Some kind of a put-on?” He regarded the trio with suspicion. This had to be a prank. Michael nodded in agreement.
   “This is no put-on,” Donald assured him.
   “Just look around this room,” Suzanne said.
   “Listen!” Donald said, trying to be patient. “Can’t either of you remember anything about how you got here? Didn’t you see anybody?”
   Richard shook his head. With his foot he pushed around the deflated segments of the sphere. The material was now limp instead of rigid and brittle. “Are you serious about us being inside this stuff? You said it looked like glass. It sure doesn’t now.”
   “It did just a short time ago,” Suzanne assured him.
   “What we think is that this is a Russian submarine base,” Donald continued.
   “Correction!” Suzanne interrupted. “That’s what you think.”
   “Russians?” Richard echoed. “No shit!” He visibly straightened up. He looked around the room with renewed interest, as did Michael. Both put their hands against the highly polished walls. Richard rapped on the glossy surface with his knuckle. “What is this stuff anyway, titanium?”
   Suzanne started to answer but was interrupted by a hissing noise. Everyone looked back to the locations where the spheres had stood. A vapor billowed out of the exposed holes. Quickly an acrid smell pervaded the sealed chamber, and everyone’s eyes began to tear.
   “We’re being gassed!” Suzanne cried before she was overcome by violent coughs.
   The group shrank back in terror, pressing themselves against the cold metal walls in a vain attempt to get away from the gas. But before long everyone was coughing and squeezing their eyes shut against the burning sensation.
   “Get on the floor!” Donald cried.
   Everyone except Perry flattened themselves on the floor while trying ineffectually to cover their mouths and noses with their hands. Perry stumbled back to the door to the cavern and began pounding on it, while screaming for it to be opened.
   The door did not budge, but Perry had the presence of mind to notice something despite his panic and physical torment. He was not blacking out nor was he even feeling the slightest bit dizzy. The gas seemed not to have the lethal effect he most feared.
   With strength of will Perry held his coughing in check and managed to crack his eyes for an instant despite the discomfort. The room was thick with the foglike vapor. Perry couldn’t see far, but he noticed that his arms were suddenly bare.
   Curious as to what could have happened to the sleeves of his jogging suit, Perry squinted. He saw that his sleeves had fallen into tatters. They were hanging in shreds as if he’d dipped his arms into acid.
   Aware that his whole body now felt cool, Perry patted his hands along his chest. His jogging suit—indeed, all his clothes—were suffering the same fate as his sleeves. The fabric of the clothing itself was progressively losing its structural integrity.
   Perry had had nightmares in the past when he was under stress that he was naked in public. Suddenly it was coming to pass as he felt his clothes peel from his body in strips. He clutched at them and felt them disintegrate in his hands.
   “It’s our clothes!” Perry shouted to the others. “The gas is dissolving our clothes!”
   At first fear kept everyone else from responding. Perry yelled his message again and stumbled forward in the fog, almost tripping over Donald. “The gas is dissolving our clothes,” he repeated. “And I don’t feel any mental effect whatsoever.”
   Donald pushed himself up to a sitting position. His coveralls experienced the same fate as Perry’s jogging suit. Quickly he patted himself to verify that he was indeed becoming naked. But he couldn’t open his eyes; the gas stung too much. Even without the visual confirmation, he was convinced. He called out to the others: “Perry’s right!”
   Suzanne, like Perry, was able to get her eyes open intermittently. She saw that it was true about her clothes. Her coveralls literally fell apart. She also noticed that there was no effect on her mental state despite the discomfort she felt in her throat and chest. Relieved, she got to her feet.
   Richard and Michael pushed themselves up into sitting positions. With the drugged feeling they were still experiencing, they could not tell if the gas was affecting their consciousness, but both were coughing heavily. For them, the respiratory effect was more difficult than it was for the others.
   “My dive suit’s fine,” Richard managed between coughs. But then he made the mistake of running his hand over his shoulder. When he did, the neoprene completely depolymerized. At his touch it fell into tiny spheres.
   Through blinks, Michael had glimpsed the fate of Richard’s suit. He glanced intermittently at his own suit, reluctant to touch it or even move, but Richard reached out and gave his shoulder a sharp slap. The effect was instantaneous. One minute the dive suit looked normal, the next it was running off Michael like so many drops of water.
   Suddenly, an alarm sounded and a red light on the wall opposite the door to the cavern began to flash—moments before, that same wall had appeared seamless. Through the caustic vapor, the five began to discern the outline of an open doorway below the light.
   The alarm ceased after a few minutes but the light continued to blink. Then they noticed the sound of a high-pitched whistle. Air was being forced through a narrow vent.
   Perry advanced slowly toward the flashing light. When he reached the wall, he saw that the outline of the door was more distinct. He felt around its edges. When he did he could feel a steady current of air pushing in. That explained the whistling. He tested with his foot to make sure the floor was level across the threshold. Then he stepped through.
   Perry was immediately relieved. The curtain of fast-moving air kept the acrid gas from the hallway he’d entered. The walls, floor, and ceiling were constructed of the same polished metal as the gas-filled room, but the level of illumination was significantly less. Twenty feet ahead Perry could see that the corridor opened up into another chamber.
   Perry poked his head back through the air curtain.
   “There’s another room,” he shouted. “And it’s clear. Quick!”
   The other four struggled to their feet and moved toward the blinking light. Suzanne had to guide Donald; he couldn’t stand to open his eyes. In a minute, the entire party made it into the new room.
   The gas wore off swiftly. They were so relieved that they weren’t troubled by the complete disintegration of their clothes. All five were stark naked, but other concerns were more pressing. Ahead the second room beckoned.
   “Let’s move,” Donald said. He gestured for Perry to precede them since he was already in the lead.
   Perry flattened himself against the wall and motioned for Donald to pass. “I think you should be first. You’re still the captain of the ship.”
   Donald nodded and pushed past. Perry fell in behind him followed by Suzanne. The two divers brought up the rear.
   “It’s pretty obvious what’s going on now,” Donald said.
   “I’m glad it’s obvious to you,” Perry said.
   “What do you mean?” Suzanne asked.
   “We’re being prepared for interrogation,” Donald said. “It’s a recognized technique to strip away a person’s sense of identity as a way to break down resistance. Our clothes are certainly part of our identity.”
   “I don’t have any resistance,” Perry said. “I’ll tell whoever it is whatever they want to know.”
   “Donald, does that mean you know what that gas was?” Suzanne asked.
   “That’s a negative,” Donald said.
   Donald halted at the second room’s threshold and peered in. It was considerably smaller than the first chamber although it, too, was lined with the same mysterious, metallic material. From where he was standing, he could make out a glass-doored exit as well as a white hall begin with what appeared to be framed pictures on the walls. Within the chamber he noticed that the floor sloped toward the center, where there was a grate, and the ceiling peaked to a central point with a second grate.
   “Well?” Suzanne questioned. From where she was she couldn’t see what lay ahead.
   “It looks encouraging,” Donald said. “There’s a relatively normal looking corridor beyond a glass door.”
   “Then let’s move,” Richard called impatiently from behind Suzanne.
   With both hands on the doorjamb for support, Donald moved first one foot onto the sloped floor and then brought the other to it. As he’d anticipated he began to slide once he let go. He slid for about three feet with his hands flailing to keep from falling. At that point the floor angled out to be almost level. He turned and warned the others.
   Everyone was careful except Michael. Having grown up in Chelsea, Massachusetts, where he’d played hockey since age five, he wasn’t concerned about the slick floor. But its angle took him by surprise. His feet went out from under him on his first step, and he careened into the others like a bowling ball. In a flash the entire group was a pile of entwined naked limbs.
   “For chrissake!” Donald snapped. He extricated himself and helped Suzanne to her feet. The others struggled up by themselves. Michael was hardly remorseful. Now that his eyes were open, he was much more interested in appreciating Suzanne’s body. Richard swore and cuffed Michael on the top of his head. Michael shoved Richard in return, effectively sending them both to the ground again.
   “Knock it off!” Donald shouted. Being careful not to fall, he separated the two divers. Richard and Michael obeyed, but continued to glare at each other.
   “My god!” Suzanne voiced. “Look!” She pointed back at the doorway they’d just come through. Everyone gaped in astonishment. The doorway was silently sealing over, as if the metal wall were fusing together. Within moments the opening was gone without a trace. The wall was seamless.
   “If I’d not seen that with my own eyes, I’d never believe it,” Perry said. “It’s supernatural, like a movie special effect.”
   “I can’t begin to understand the technology,” Suzanne said. “I think it lets the Russians off the hook.”
   A deep gurgling sound then issued from the central grate. All eyes turned in its direction.
   “Oh no!” Suzanne said. “What’s coming now?”
   Before anyone could respond, a clear fluid that looked like water bubbled up through the central floor grate. The group shrank back, then scrambled toward the glass door. The angle and slippery surface of the floor forced them to their hands and knees. The first to the door began to bang on the glass, desperate for a way to open it. Behind them the inrushing water had become a geyser; the water level was rising rapidly.
   Within minutes they were waist-deep in water. Moments later they were all treading water watching with horror as the ceiling approached. Even if they could keep treading indefinitely, there soon would be no room to breathe. Rapidly the group was forced together while struggling for the last remnants of air in the very peak of the ceiling. As the strongest swimmers, Richard and Michael were at the center directly below the grate and, in a desperate attempt to find more air, they stuck their fingers through the holes and tried to pull the grate from its housing.
   But their efforts were fruitless. The grate would not budge, and the water level continued to rise until the room was filled to the ceiling. No sooner had everyone gone under, than the room began to drain, and at an extraordinary rate. Within seconds there was headroom again; within minutes Donald and Richard, the tallest of the five, felt their feet brush the floor.
   Soon there was a loud, rude sucking noise as the last of the water disappeared down the drain, and the group was left in a wet, naked heap in the central basin of the concave floor. For some time no one moved. A combination of utter terror, panic-driven exertion, and having inadvertently swallowed sizable gulps of the fluid left them physically and emotionally exhausted.
   Donald finally pushed himself up to a sitting position. He felt light-headed. He had an odd feeling that more time had passed than he could account for. It occurred to him that they might have been drugged by the water that had filled the room. He closed his eyes for a moment and rubbed his temples. When he reopened his eyes he looked at the others. They all appeared to be sleeping. He looked toward the glass door when his gaze shot back to Suzanne.
   “Good Lord!” Donald muttered. He couldn’t believe his eyes. Suzanne was bald! Donald ran a hand over the top of his head, but he’d kept it shaved for several years. He felt for his mustache. It was gone! Raising his forearm he saw that, too, was totally devoid of hair. He glanced down at his chest; there wasn’t a hair there.
   Donald shook Perry, then nudged Suzanne. When both of them were awake enough to understand what he was saying, he filled them in.
   “Oh, no!” Perry cried. He sat bolt upright. Using both hands he reached up and gingerly touched his scalp. There was no hair, only smooth skin. He pulled his hands away as if he’d touched something hot. He was horrified.
   Suzanne was more curious than dismayed. Something had rendered them completely hairless. How had it happened—and why?
   “What’s happening?” Richard asked. His words were slurred. He sat up, then had to steady himself. “Ooo . . . I feel like I tied one on.”
   “I’m a bit dizzy myself,” Perry admitted. “Maybe there was something in the water. I know I swallowed some.”
   “I think we were drugged,” Donald said.
   “We all swallowed a lot of the water,” Richard said. “It’s hard not to in that kind of ordeal. That was worse than submarine escape training.”
   “I think I know what is going on,” Suzanne said.
   “Yeah, me, too,” Perry said. “We’re being tortured and humiliated.”
   “All techniques of interrogation,” Donald added.
   “I don’t think it has anything to do with interrogation,” Suzanne said. “The strange intense light, the acrid gas, and now the depilation suggests something else.”
   “What’s depilation?” Richard asked.
   “It’s what happened to your head,” Perry said.
   Richard blinked. He stared at Perry, then touched the top of his head. “My god, I’m bald.” He looked over at Michael, who was still slumbering. Then he reached over and gave him a shove. “Hey, you hairless wonder. Wake up!”
   Michael had trouble opening his eyes.
   “I think we’re being decontaminated,” Suzanne said. “I think that’s what all this is about: getting rid of microorganisms like bacteria and viruses. We’ve effectively been sterilized.”
   No one spoke. Perry nodded as he considered what Suzanne had said. He thought it was possible.
   “I still think all this is to prepare us for interrogation,” Donald said. “Sterilizing us doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t know if it is Russians who are behind this or not, but somebody wants something from us.”
   “Maybe we’re going to know pretty soon,” Perry said. He nodded toward the glass door, which was now ajar. “I think the next stage is ready.”
   Donald unstably struggled to his feet. “There was definitely some kind of drug in the water,” he said. He waited until a fresh episode of dizziness passed, then headed toward the open door. Where the slippery floor angled up he had to go on all fours. Once he reached the doorway, he stood up and looked down a white, fifty-foot corridor.
   “I feel drugged but I also feel strangely hungry,” Suzanne said.
   “I was just thinking the same thing,” Perry admitted.
   “Listen, you guys,” Donald called. “Things are looking up. There’re living quarters down at the end of this hallway. Let’s mobilize!”
   Suzanne and Perry got their feet under them and stood up, battling the same fleeting dizziness Donald had experienced.
   “I guess living quarters means beds,” Suzanne said. “And that sounds good to me. Besides, I want out of this room in case that water comes back.”
   “My feelings exactly,” Perry said.
   Richard and Michael had fallen back asleep. Suzanne gave them both a poke but neither stirred. Perry lent a hand.
   “Whatever was in that water affected them more than us,” Suzanne said as she shook Richard to get him to open his eyes.
   “They felt drugged from being in the spheres, even before the dousing,” Perry said. He pulled Michael, who groaned to be let alone, up to a sitting position.
   “Let’s move it!” Donald called. “I don’t want this door to close before you’re all out of here.”
   Despite their groggy state, the warning about the door penetrated Richard and Michael’s stupor, and they got to their feet. As they moved their mental state rapidly improved. By the time the group joined Donald, the divers were even talking.
   “This isn’t half bad,” Richard said as he inspected the corridor with lidded eyes. Instead of mirrorlike metal, the walls and ceiling were a high-gloss white laminate. Framed, three-dimensional pictures lined the walls. The floor was covered with a tight-weave white carpet.
   “These pictures are something else,” Michael commented. “They’re so realistic. It looks like I can see into them for twenty miles.”
   “They’re holographs,” Suzanne said. “But I’ve never seen a holograph with such vivid, natural color. They are startling, especially in this otherwise white environment.”
   “They all look like scenes from ancient Greece,” Perry said. “Whoever our tormentors are, at least they’re civilized.”
   “Let’s go, men!” Donald called. He was standing impatiently just over the next threshold. “We’ve got some tactical decisions to make.”
   “Tactical decisions,” Perry mimicked in a whisper to Suzanne. “Doesn’t he ever relax this military posturing?”
   “Not often,” Suzanne admitted.
   The group walked the length of the hallway and paused, taken aback by the scene in front of them. After the series of stark, industrial chambers, they were unprepared for the room’s sumptuousness. The decor was futuristic, with lots of mirrors and white marble, yet it had a calm, cool, inviting ambiance. A dozen, canopied, couchlike beds with white cashmere blankets lined both walls. Five of the beds were invitingly turned down with folded clean clothes lying atop each pillow. In the background, soft instrumental music completed the mood.
   Down the center of the room stretched a large, low table with chaiselike, deeply cushioned chairs. The table was laid for a meal with covered servers and pitchers of iced drinks. The dishes were white, the tablecloth was white, and the flatware was gold.
   “If this is heaven, I’m not ready,” Perry said when he had recovered enough to speak.
   “I don’t think chow smells this good in heaven,” Richard said. “And I just realized I’m more hungry than tired.” He started forward with Michael at his heels.
   “Hold up!” Donald said. “I’m not sure we should eat anything. The food’s probably drugged or even worse.”
   “You really think so?” Richard said with obvious disappointment. He wavered, looking back and forth between Donald and the laden table.
   “And those mirrors,” Donald said, pointing to the huge sheets that formed the far end of the room. “I’d assume they are two-way, which would mean we’re being watched.”
   “Who the hell cares, if they treat us like this,” Michael said. “My vote is we eat.”
   Suzanne’s eyes fell on the folded garments on each bed. She had not noticed them sooner because they were white like most everything else and blended perfectly with the white linen. She went over to the nearest bed. She lifted the garments and shook them out. There were two simple pieces: a long-sleeved tunic that opened at the front and a pair of boxer shorts. Both were made of a silky white satin, and both were curiously seamless.
   “My word! Pajamas!” Suzanne commented. “Now this is downright thoughtful.” Without a moment’s hesitation, Suzanne pulled on the shorts. The tunic was generously proportioned and came to knee length, covering the boxers. It tied with a gold braided rope. Along the sides were several pockets.
   Suzanne’s dressing reawakened everyone’s self-consciousness. The four men grabbed clothing sets from the beds and donned them.
   Michael eyed himself in the mirrors at the end of the room. “Not much to these things,” he said. “But they’re comfortable.”
   Richard laughed at him. “You look like a faggot.”
   “As if you don’t, asshole,” Michael shot back hotly.
   “That’s enough!” Donald barked. “There’s to be no fighting among ourselves. Save it for whoever it is we’ll be facing. Which brings me to the issue of setting up watches to stand guard.”
   “What the hell are you talking about?” Richard asked. “This isn’t some kind of military exercise. I’m going to eat and then I’m racking out. I’m not standing any watch.”
   “We’re all tired,” Donald said. “But there is a door to consider that we don’t have any control over.”
   All eyes swung around to gaze at the door at the end of the room opposite the mirrors. It was white like everything else and was without a knob, latch, or hinges.
   “We have to stay vigilant,” Donald added. “I don’t want these Russians or whoever these people are sneaking in here and doing whatever they want to us.”
   “Judging by the pains they have taken with these accommodations, I don’t think your paranoia is justified,” Suzanne said. “And I thought we decided we’re not dealing with Russians here.”
   “Well, you people argue about all that,” Richard said. He walked over to the table and lifted the cover of one of the chafing dishes. The savory aroma filled the room.
   “What is it?” Michael asked. He leaned over to look.
   “I don’t have a clue,” Richard said. He lifted the spoon. The steaming food was cream colored and had a pasty consistency, like hot cereal’s. “It looks like Cream of Wheat, and it smells mighty good.” He brought the spoon to his mouth and tasted it. “Well, I’ll be damned! How’d they know? It tastes like my favorite food: steak.”
   Michael took a taste. “Steak? What, are you crazy? It tastes like sweet potatoes.”
   “Get outta here!” Richard complained. “You and your sweet potatoes.” He sat down on one of the chaises and helped himself to a sizable ladle of the food. “You’re always talking about sweet potatoes.”
   Michael sat opposite and took a portion for himself. “Hey, I’m sorry,” he said sarcastically. “I happen to like sweet potatoes.”
   Suzanne and Perry stepped to the table, their curiosity piqued by this exchange. They were experiencing almost irresistible hunger. Suzanne was the next to try the food.
   “That’s incredible,” she remarked. “It tastes like mango.”
   “That’s hard to believe,” Perry said. “Because to me it tastes exactly like fresh corn right off the cob.”
   Suzanne took another taste. “To me it’s mango, without a doubt. Maybe there’s some way it tricks our brains to interpret the taste according to our own predilections.”
   Even Donald was intrigued. He came over to the table and tried a minute amount. He shook his head in disbelief. “It tastes like biscuits to me: fresh buttermilk biscuits.” He took one of the chairs. “I guess I’m as hungry as everybody else.”
   Everyone helped themselves to varying amounts of the curious food. They found it difficult to resist going back for seconds. They also discovered that the iced drink had a similar variable effect. It tasted different to each person, according to his or her preference.
   As soon as the group’s ravenous hunger had been slaked, the exhaustion and sleepiness that they’d experienced earlier returned, and with a vengeance. Fighting against sagging eyelids they pushed back from the table and sought their separate beds. No sooner had they drawn up the covers than everyone but Donald fell into a deep, hibernating sleep. Donald struggled vainly in hopes of maintaining a vigil, but it was impossible. Within minutes he, too, was slumbering.
   The moment Donald’s eyes closed, tiny red lights appeared on the canopy of each bed. At the same time, a glow emanated from the canopy and enveloped the sleeping individual below in a violet halo.
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Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
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Chapter 8

   The tiny red lights above the beds in the living quarters switched momentarily to green and the violet glow faded. A moment later the green lights blinked off.
   Perry was the first to wake up. It was not a gradual transition but rather a sudden change from deep sleep to full consciousness. For a few seconds he stared at the canopy above him, attempting to put the strange structure in context and orient himself. But he couldn’t. He’d awakened to nothing like what he expected: namely, the blank ceiling of the supposed V.I.P. suite on the Benthic Explorer.
   Perry was confused, but as soon as he turned his head, it all came back to him. It hadn’t been a dream. The Oceanus ’s horrifying plunge to unfathomable depths had been a reality.
   There was a simple, black clothes tree standing within reach of his bed. A set of white satin drawers and tunic similar to those he’d put on were hanging on it. Perry realized he felt quite naked under the coverlet. He lifted the edge of the cashmere blanket and looked at himself. Not only was he naked, he detected the same peculiar ring of puncture wounds around his navel as he’d seen on Richard and Michael when they’d emerged from the spheres.
   Perry let out a low-pitched cry, then leaped from the bed to examine his wounds more carefully. He spread the soft skin of his abdomen. The puncture wounds were not deep and they weren’t painful, much to Perry’s relief. Most important of all, they seemed healed.
   As Perry absorbed this discovery, he had another shock. His legs and groin were hairy again! He inspected his forearm and discovered that the hair had returned there, too. He put a hand to his scalp, and smiled.
   Perry grabbed the clothes from the ebony rack and pulled them on as he transversed the length of the room.
   His reflection in the mirror practically made him swoon. His scalp was covered with a full head of hair. It was only about an inch long, but it was as thick and dark as it had been when he was in junior high school. He felt like he’d discovered the fountain of youth.
   Perry heard the others stirring. He turned in time to see Donald and Suzanne slipping back into their clothes. Richard and Michael were sitting on the edges of their beds, gawking at the surroundings. Their clothes were neatly piled in their laps.
   “Just as I thought,” Donald said to no one in particular. “I knew those bastards would be in here screwing around with us when we were sleeping. That’s why I wanted to set up watches.”
   “It isn’t all bad,” Perry said as he sauntered over. “We’ve got hair! Can you imagine? Mine is thicker than it was when I lost it.”
   “I noticed my hair,” Suzanne said with less enthusiasm.
   “Aren’t you thrilled?” Perry said.
   “I preferred the length I had yesterday,” Suzanne said. “Or actually the length I had three days ago.”
   “What do you mean, three days ago?” Perry questioned.
   “Yesterday was July twenty-first,” Suzanne said. “Right?”
   “I guess,” Perry said. He wasn’t sure thanks to the overnight flight to the Azores.
   “Well, my watch, which someone took off my wrist but was nice enough to leave behind, says it’s now the twenty-fourth.”
   Suzanne’s watch had been the only one to last through the gassing. Its gold bracelet band remained undissolved.
   “Maybe whoever removed it advanced the date,” Perry suggested. The idea of being asleep for three days was disturbing, to say the least.
   “It’s possible,” Suzanne said. “But I doubt it. I mean, to grow as much hair as we have, it would have taken more than three days. Maybe we’ve been asleep for a month and three days.”
   Perry shivered. “A month?” he gulped. “I can’t imagine. Besides, the hair growth we’ve had has to have come from some kind of amazing treatment. My hair’s back to the way it was when I was fourteen. I’ll tell you something: as a businessman, I’d kill to find out the secret. Can you imagine? What a product.”
   “They didn’t do me any favors,” Donald said. “I didn’t want hair on my head.”
   “Did you notice the puncture wounds on your stomachs?” Suzanne asked Perry and Donald.
   They both nodded.
   “I think that means we were on life support of some kind,” Suzanne said. “Maybe the same kind our divers had been on in those spheres.”
   “That was my thought,” Perry said. “I suppose they had to keep us on something if we were out so long.”
   “Hey, are you guys okay?” Suzanne called over to Richard and Michael, who were finishing dressing.
   “I’m all right,” Richard said. “Except for the fact that I was wishing this was all a bad dream.”
   “Drugging us is in violation of the Geneva Convention,” Donald growled. “We’re civilians! Who knows what these puncture wounds mean. They could have given us anything—AIDS, or truth drugs.”
   “Actually, I feel really good,” Perry admitted. He flexed his arms and stretched his legs. It was as if his body as well as his hair had been rejuvenated.
   “Me, too,” Michael said. He touched his toes and then ran in place for several strides. “I feel as if I could swim for twenty miles.”
   “I got my hair back but now my beard’s gone,” Richard said. “Explain that!”
   The other men reflexively stroked their chins. It was true. They had no stubble.
   “This is getting more and more interesting,” Perry said.
   “I’d say it’s getting more and more surreal,” Suzanne said. She looked closely at Perry’s cheeks. Previously he’d had a definite five o’clock shadow. Now his complexion was perfectly clear.
   “Hang on, guys!” Richard exclaimed. He pointed at the door on the wall opposite the mirrors. “Looks like we’re being let out of the cage.”
   All eyes turned to see the door silently open. Beyond was another long white corridor with framed holographs. The light coming from the other end of it was bright and natural.
   “That looks like daylight,” Suzanne said.
   “It can’t be daylight,” Donald said. “Unless we got moved somehow.”
   Perry felt a chill go down his spine. Intuitively he knew that everything that had happened so far was a preamble of what was going to happen in the next few minutes. The problem was he had no idea what it was going to be.
   Richard walked to the doorway to get a better look. He shielded his eyes against the brightness reflecting off the glossy white walls.
   “Can you see anything?” Suzanne asked.
   “Not much,” Richard admitted. “It opens up at the end and there’s a wall opposite. It must be open to the sky. Let’s go!”
   “Hold up a minute,” Suzanne said. Then she looked at Donald. “What do you say? Should we go? Obviously our hosts expect us to.”
   “I think we should go but as a group,” Donald said. “We should stick together as much as we can, but maybe we should pick one person to speak for us if we encounter our captors.”
   “Fine,” Suzanne said. “I nominate Perry.”
   “Me?” Perry squeaked. He cleared his throat. “Why me? Donald’s still the captain.”
   “True,” Suzanne said. “But you are the president of Benthic Marine. Whoever is holding us might appreciate the fact that you speak with some authority, especially about the drilling operation.”
   “You think the reason we’re down here is because of the drilling?”
   “It has crossed my mind,” Suzanne said.
   “Still, Donald’s been in the military,” Perry whined. “I haven’t. What if this is a Russian military base?”
   “I think it is safe to say it is not a Russian base,” Suzanne replied.
   “It’s not completely out of the question,” Donald said. “But I think Perry is a good choice regardless. It will give me a better chance to assess the situation, especially if things get hostile.”
   “Richard and Michael!” Suzanne called. “Do either of you have an opinion about who speaks for us?”
   “I think the prez should be the one,” Michael said.
   Richard merely nodded. He was impatient to go.
   “Then it’s decided,” Suzanne said. She gestured for Perry to lead them down the corridor.
   “Okay!” Perry said with more alacrity than he felt. He tightened the golden braid around his tunic, squared his shoulders, and headed toward the corridor. Richard gave him a supercilious glance as he passed and then fell in behind him. The others followed in single file.
   Perry slowed as he approached the end of the hallway. He was even more certain the light streaming in was sunlight since he could feel its radiant warmth. He gauged the space ahead to be an open sky enclosure approximately twenty-feet square.
   About six feet away Perry stopped and Richard bumped up against him.
   “What’s the matter?” Suzanne asked. She pushed past Richard.
   Perry didn’t answer since he didn’t know exactly why he’d stopped. Slowly he leaned forward so that he could see progressively more of the opposite wall. He was looking for the top, but he couldn’t yet see it. After a step forward he tried again. This time he could see the top of the wall which he estimated to be about fifteen feet high. Above that he could see feet, ankles, bare calves, and the hems of outfits like the one he had on.
   Perry straightened up and turned to the others. “There are people on top of the opposite wall,” he whispered. “They’re dressed the way we are.”
   “Really?” Suzanne questioned. She leaned forward to try to see for herself, but she was too far back.
   “I can’t be positive,” Perry said. “But I think they’re wearing these same flimsy satin clothes we are.” He and everyone else had assumed the flimsy, weird, lingerie-like outfits were prisoners’ garb.
   “Come on!” Richard said, even more impatient now. “This I gotta see. Let’s go!”
   “Why would they be dressed like ancient Greeks?” Suzanne asked Donald.
   Donald shrugged. “You’ve got me. Let’s just move out and see for ourselves.”
   Perry led the way. With his hand over his eyes to shield against the glare of a square of bright sky, he looked up. What he saw astounded him to the point that he stopped dead in his tracks and his mouth gaped in wonderment. Suzanne bumped into him and the rest of the group nudged against her all equally dumbfounded.
   They were standing in a penlike enclosure. Fifteen feet above was a glass-enclosed loggia ringed by a marble balustrade and supported by fluted columns whose capitals were encrusted with gilded sea creatures. Fronting the enclosure the entire loggia was packed with people pressed against the glass and staring down in unmoving, silent, intense curiosity. As Perry had surmised from his limited earlier view, they were all dressed in the same identical, loose-fitting satin tunics and shorts.
   Perry had had no specific mental image of what the people were going to look like, but what he was confronted with hadn’t even been part of his imagination which leaned toward expecting fiercer-looking captors. Before he’d caught the glimpse of the satin outfits he’d anticipated uniforms, and he’d expected stern if not openly hostile expressions. Instead he found himself staring at the most beautiful collection of people he’d ever seen, whose faces reflected an almost divine serenity. Although the ages varied from tiny children to vigorous elders, the vast majority were in their early to midtwenties. Everyone radiated good health with lithe bodies, sparkling eyes, lustrous hair, and teeth so white they made Perry think of his own as being yellow by comparison.
   “I don’t believe this!” Richard gushed as he took in the spectacle.
   “Who are these people?” Suzanne asked, her voice an awed whisper.
   “I’ve never seen such a gorgeous group of people,” Perry managed. “Every one of them. There’s not even an average-looking one in the bunch.”
   “I feel like we’re rats in a huge experiment,” Donald said under his breath. “Look at them gawk at us! And remember, appearances can be deceptive! Keep in mind these people have been toying with us for their own amusement. All this show might be some kind of trap.”
   “But they’re stunningly beautiful,” Suzanne commented as she slowly turned to take in more, “particularly the children and even the aged. How could this be a trap? I can tell you one thing for sure, seeing these people certainly puts to bed for certain the idea of this being a secret Russian submarine base.”
   “Well, they’re not American either,” Perry said. “There’s not one overweight person in the entire crowd.”
   “This must be heaven,” Michael said in a dazed whisper.
   “I think it is more like a zoo,” Donald spat. “The difference is that here we’re the animals.”
   “Try to think of something positive,” Suzanne suggested. “I have to say I’m relieved.”
   “Well, there is one thing,” Donald commented. “At least I don’t see any weapons.”
   “You’re right!” Perry said. “That’s definitely encouraging.”
   “Of course they don’t need any weapons, with us imprisoned down here and them up there,” Donald added.
   “I suppose that’s true,” Perry said. “What do you think, Suzanne?”
   “I can’t think,” Suzanne said. “This whole experience continues to be too surreal. Are we looking at a patch of sky up there?”
   “It certainly looks like it,” Perry said.
   “Do you think there is a chance we could have been transported eastward when the Oceanus fell down the shaft?” Suzanne asked. “I mean, could we be on one of the Azores Islands?”
   “The only way we’re going to find out is if they decide to tell us,” Donald said.
   “Who cares where we are,” Michael said. “Check out the women! What bodies! Can they be real or are we just imagining this?”
   “That’s an interesting thought,” Suzanne said. “Last night—or whenever it was that we ate—the food tasted as we wished. Could that be happening now with our vision? I mean, it’s another sense. Maybe we’re seeing what we want to see.”
   “That’s too far out for me to even contemplate,” Perry said. “I’ve never been a big believer in the supernatural.”
   “Hey, who the hell cares,” Richard said. “Look at that chick with the long brown hair. What a figure! Hey, she’s looking at me.”
   Richard smiled broadly, raised his hand, and waved enthusiastically. The woman smiled back and held up her hand, pressing her palm against the glass.
   “Hey!” Richard crooned. “She likes me!” Richard blew kisses, which made the woman smile more broadly.
   Encouraged by Richard’s success, Michael made eye contact with a woman with shiny, jet black hair. She acknowledged him by putting her palm against the glass just as Richard’s acquaintance had done. Michael went crazy jumping up and down and waving frantically with both hands. The woman responded by laughing heartily, although there was no sound because of the glass.
   Suzanne lowered her gaze and got Donald’s attention. “I don’t see any suggestion of hostility,” she said. “They all look so peaceful.”
   “It’s probably just a ruse,” Donald said. “A way of putting us off guard.”
   Perry reluctantly took his eyes off the beautiful people to consult with Suzanne and Donald. Richard and Michael continued their antics for the benefit of the two women. They were both trying to improvise a sign language.
   “What are we going to do?” Perry asked.
   “I personally don’t like standing here making a spectacle of myself,” Donald said. “I suggest we go back to the living quarters and wait to see what happens. Obviously the ball’s in their court. Let them come to us in our office, so to speak.”
   “But who are these people?” Suzanne questioned. “This is bizarre, like a science fiction movie.”
   Perry was about to respond but the words stuck in his throat. He pointed over Suzanne and Donald’s shoulders. One of the enclosure’s walls was mysteriously opening. Behind it was a staircase leading up to the loggia.
   “Well,” Suzanne exclaimed. “Like you said, Donald, the ball is in their court, and I think we’re being invited to a face-to-face meeting.”
   “What should we do?” Perry questioned nervously.
   “I think we should go up,” Donald said. “But let’s go slowly and stay together. And, Perry, you do the talking like we decided.”
   Richard and Michael had not seen the silent appearance of the stairway thanks to their communication gestures which had competitively progressed to pure silliness. Above, the crowd was responding gleefully to their antics which only encouraged them to new heights. But when they caught sight of the stairs, they bolted for them. They were both eager to make more intimate contact with their newfound female friends.
   “Hold it!” Donald barked. He’d stepped sideways to block the divers’ mad dash. “Fall in! We’re going as a group and Mr. Bergman is doing the talking.”
   “I gotta meet this brunette,” Richard said eagerly.
   “I got a date with the raven-haired honey,” Michael added out of breath.
   Both divers tried to step around Donald, but he reached out and grasped their upper arms in a viselike grip. They both started to protest but changed their minds when they saw Donald’s face. The ex-naval officer’s nostrils were flared and his mouth pressed into a grim line of determination.
   “I suppose it can wait a few minutes,” Richard managed.
   “Yeah, sure,” Michael said. “There’ll be time.”
   Donald let go of the divers’ arms, then gestured for Perry to lead the way.
   Perry had a good deal more self-assurance as he started up the stairs than he’d had earlier in the corridor. Confronting a mixed group of handsome individuals in matching lingerie seemed less intimidating than what his imagination had previously conjured up. Yet the uniqueness of the circumstances undermined his confidence as he progressed. He found himself wondering if Michael could be right about the whole scene being a collective hallucination and thereby be an elaborate trap as Donald suggested. But then Perry’s normally optimistic nature had trouble thinking up a rationale for a trap, especially since whoever these people were, they didn’t have to spring any trap since they were already completely in charge of the situation.
   The beautiful people, as Perry called them to himself in his confused musings, had initially surged forward to crowd around the head of the stairs like a group of teenagers anticipating the appearance of a rock star. But as Perry and the others neared the top they shrank back. Even this confused Perry since they retreated as if in fear or at least in attentive respect like people would do around a trained but potentially ferocious animal.
   Perry mounted the top step and stopped. Ten feet away the throng of beautiful people were arranged in a semicircle. No one moved. No one spoke. No one smiled.
   Perry had assumed their captors would be the first to speak. He hadn’t planned to go first but eventually decided to break the ensuing uncomfortable silence with a tentative, “Hi.”
   His greeting brought on a few giggles from the beautiful people but not much else. Perry turned to glance back at his colleagues for suggestions. Suzanne shrugged. Donald had nothing to volunteer. He still seemed far more mistrustful than Perry felt.
   Perry turned back to the crowd. “Does anyone speak any English?” he called out in desperation. “Any English at all or maybe some Spanish?” Perry could speak a little.
   A couple stepped forward. Both appeared to be in their midtwenties, and like everyone else, they were shockingly handsome. They had archetypally perfect features which reminded Perry of images he’d seen on ancient cameos. The man had blond hair of medium length. His eyes were an intense sky blue. The woman had fiery red hair with a prominent widow’s peak. Her green eyes were as bright as emeralds. Both had rosily radiant, flawless skin. Back in L.A., there would be no question: these two were movie star material.
   “Hello, friends, how are you?” the man said with a perfect American accent. “Please don’t be afraid. You’ll not be harmed. My name is Arak and this is Sufa.” The man gestured toward the woman next to him.
   “I’d like to say hi, too,” Sufa said. “What would each of you like to be called?”
   Perry was stunned to hear such regular English come out of their mouths. It was oddly reassuring to hear something so familiar, given the alien quality of everything they’d encountered since the Oceanus sunk.
   “Who are you people?” Perry managed.
   “We are inhabitants of Interterra,” Arak said. His resonant baritone was not dissimilar to Donald’s.
   “And where the hell is Interterra?” Perry demanded. Without meaning to, his voice had a harsh edge. It had suddenly occurred to him that perhaps this whole setup was some kind of elaborate joke, rather than the kind of trap Donald feared.
   “Please!” Arak said solicitously. “I know you are confused and exhausted, and you certainly have a right to be after what you’ve been through. We are well aware how taxing the decontamination sequence can be, so please try to relax. There’s a lot of excitement in store for you.”
   “Are you expatriate Americans?” Perry asked.
   Both Arak and Sufa slapped their hands over their mouths in a vain effort to contain their laughter. All the beautiful people close enough to hear Perry’s question did the same.
   “Please excuse our laughter,” Arak said. “We don’t mean to be rude. No, we are not Americans. We Interterrans happen to be quite accomplished in your languages. English in all its varieties happens to be Sufa’s and my specialty.”
   Suzanne leaned next to Perry’s ear and whispered: “Ask them again where Interterra is.”
   Perry complied.
   “Interterra is beneath the oceans,” Arak said in response. “It resides in a gap between what you people call the earth’s crust and the earth’s mantle. It’s an area your seismic scientists call the Mohorovicic discontinuity.”
   “This is an underground world?” Suzanne blurted. She looked up at what appeared to be a patch of sky filled with sunlight. She was stupefied.
   “Undersea is more correct,” Sufa interjected. “But please . . . we know you will have many questions. They will all be answered in due time. For now we graciously beg for your forbearance.”
   “What’s forbearance?” Richard asked.
   “It means patience,” Sufa said. She smiled graciously.
   “But we do need to know how we should address each of you,” Arak said.
   “I’m Perry, president of Benthic Marine,” Perry said while patting his chest. He then identified the others by their full names.
   Arak stepped forward and presented himself directly to Suzanne. He was a good head taller than she. He held his right arm outstretched with his palm facing her. He gestured toward it with his other hand. “Perhaps you will do me the honor of an Interterran greeting,” he said. “Press your palm against mine.”
   Suzanne hesitated and furtively glanced at Perry and Donald before complying. Her hand was a good deal smaller than Arak’s.
   “Welcome, Dr. Newell,” Arak said once their hands had met. “We are particularly pleased that you have come to visit us.” He bowed and took his hand away.
   “Well, thank you,” Suzanne said. She was confused yet flattered that she’d been singled out for an individual welcome.
   Arak backed away. “Now, my honored guests,” he said. “You will be taken to your quarters, which I’m sure you will find agreeable.”
   “Wait a sec, Arak!” Richard called. He raised himself up on his tiptoes. “There’s a gorgeous brunette somewhere around here who’s dying to meet me.”
   “And there’s a raven-haired beauty that I want to meet,” Michael said.
   The two divers had been scanning the crowd for the women since they’d come up the stairs. To their chagrin they’d not been able to spot either one.
   “There will be plenty of time for socializing,” Arak said, “but for now it is important to get you to your rooms since you’ve yet to eat and properly wash. There will be a gala celebration for your arrival later, which we hope you will all attend. So, please follow me.”
   “This will only take a couple of minutes,” Richard said. He started forward, intending to walk around Arak and Sufa and mingle in the crowd. But Donald grabbed him as hard as he had when they were downstairs.
   “Knock it off, sailor!” Donald snarled under his breath. “We stay together! Remember!”
   Richard glared back for a moment, fighting the urge to tell Donald to drop dead. He was so close to connecting with that beautiful woman, it was hard to deny himself. Self-restraint had never been his strong point. But once the intensity of Donald’s gaze gave him pause, he relented.
   “I guess some chow’s not a bad idea,” he said to save face.
   “You’d better stay in line, bro,” Donald snapped. “Otherwise you and I are going to be banging heads.”
   “Just for the record,” Richard said. “I ain’t afraid of you.”
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