Eight Years Later
Shark!” At almost a hundred feet beneath the Java Sea, daylight was diffused to a dusky turquoise cast, but there was still more than enough illumination for Nina Wilde to see the predator turn toward her. “Shark!” she repeated, her voice rising in pitch. “Eddie, do something!”
Eddie Chase swept past her, using the thrusters of his deep suit to place himself between his fiancée and the shark as he brought up his speargun. He aimed the .357 Magnum cartridge forming the spear’s explosive powerhead at the approaching creature . . . then lowered it again.
“What are you doing?” Nina asked, green eyes wide with fear. “It’s coming right at us!” “It’s only a thresher. Don’t worry, it won’t do anything.”
“But it’s fifteen feet long!”
“It’s not even six. I know the helmet magnifies things, but Jesus!”
The shark came closer, mouth gaping to expose ranks of sharp triangular teeth . . . then turned its head almost dismissively and powered off into the murk.
“See?” said Chase. “Nothing to worry about. Now, if it’d been something like a tiger shark, you’d know about it.”
“ ’Cause I’d be shouting ‘Shit, it’s a fucking tiger shark, aargh!’ and firing off spears as fast as I could load ’em!” The balding, broken-nosed Englishman turned so that the lights on his deep suit’s polycarbonate body lit up the redhead’s pale face through her transparent bubble helmet. “You okay?”
“Yeah, fine,” Nina answered, with a slightly embarrassed smile. She had undergone dive training off the coast of Long Island, near her native New York City, and was still getting used to the enormously more varied marine life of Indonesia. “It’s just that to me, ‘shark’ equals ‘severed head popping out of a boat.’ ”
Chase chuckled; then a hint of concern came into his voice, even through the distortion of the underwater radio system. “How’s your leg?”
“It’s . . . okay.” That wasn’t technically a lie, as the bullet wound she had received to her right thigh four months earlier, now more or less healed, wasn’t actually hurting. But it had definitely stiffened up during the dive.
“Uh-huh.” He didn’t believe her. “Look, if you want to go back to the ship—”
“I’m fine, Eddie,” Nina insisted. “Come on, let’s carry on with the survey.”
“If you’re sure.” Chase managed an approximation of a shrug through the deep suit’s bulky casing.
She gripped the flexible control stalk on her suit’s chest and engaged the thrusters to lift herself off the seabed, using her finned feet to bring herself to a horizontal position before zooming away, Chase behind her.
Their survey led them along a circular route, taking twenty minutes to complete. Nina was disappointed that she failed to discover anything new—but that feeling vanished as they returned to the center of the circle.
Almost a year earlier, a local fishing boat had, by chance, dredged up a handful of wood and stone artifacts from the seafloor. The Indonesian authorities quickly realized they were very old and hence potentially extremely valuable; the lucky fishermen had received a payment to persuade them to “forget” exactly where they had made their discovery, so the site could be properly examined before opportunistic treasure hunters picked it clean.
The job of exploration fell to the United Nations’ International Heritage Agency. Nina, at the time the agency’s director of operations, had already been engaged in a project to chart in detail humanity’s expansion across the world in prehistory; the Indonesian find had the potential to pinpoint a date with great accuracy. It had taken several months for everything to be arranged, but now they were here.
And had made a discovery.
“Nina, look at this!” called Marco Gozzi over the radio. He and another scientist, Gregor Bobak, were using a vacuum pump to clear away the layers of sediment and vegetation that had built up over millennia.
“What is it?” Nina asked. She switched off the thrusters and swam the last few yards to join them: stirring up the bottom would wipe out visibility and cost them valuable time. The deep suits could operate underwater for longer than traditional scuba gear but still had their limits—and on an operation like this, time was money. The research vessel anchored a few hundred yards away, the Pianosa, was privately owned, with other clients waiting to use it after the IHA.
Gozzi aimed a light at what had been exposed. “It’s a net!” said the Italian.
“It is,” Nina said in awed agreement. “Wow, this is incredible!”
Chase, hanging back, was less impressed. “Ooh. A net. Just like the thing that found this lot in the first place.”
“Eddie,” Nina chided, “this isn’t exactly a nylon drift net we’re talking about here.” She reached out with a gloved hand, gently brushing sand off the crudely knotted strands. “Looks like they wove it from the local rain-forest plants. Palm strands, maybe?”
“Or vines,” said Bobak in his strong Polish accent. “Strangler figs, perhaps. There are many on the islands.”
Gozzi dug a finger into the gray sediment. “The mud must have buried it and stopped it from rotting. Could have been caused by a tsunami, or a volcanic eruption.”
“Mark the position,” Nina told them. “If it’s a fishing net, they would have kept it close to the shore.” She checked the little display in her helmet to get their exact depth. “Ninety-eight feet. If I put that into GLUG, I’ll be able to work out exactly how long ago this spot was last above water.” She saw a yellow mesh bag on the ground nearby. “What else have you found?” “Stone tools, we think,” Gozzi told her. He pointed to a spot behind Chase. “We found them there.”
Chase turned in place. An orange-painted stick marked where the other divers had been working. Near it, a little mound of round-edged stones stood out above the seafloor.
He looked back at Nina, who was using a smaller version of the vacuum pump to clear silt away from the net. He swam to the stones, the deep suit’s neutral buoyancy letting him hover just above them. “Anything under these?”
“I don’t know, we didn’t look,” said Gozzi.
“Mind if I do?”
“Wait, you want to do some actual archaeology?” Nina asked, amused. “I guess my influence is finally rubbing off on you.”
“Nah, it’s just that if you’re going to keep oohing and aahing over a bit of old net, I’ll need something to keep me occupied. It gets boring just watching out for sharks.”
Bobak spun in alarm. “Sharks? Where are sharks?”
“There aren’t any sharks, Gregor,” said Nina as Gozzi suppressed a laugh. Still, Bobak surveyed the surrounding waters with deep apprehension before finally returning his attention to the net.
“We have cataloged there,” Gozzi said. “Go ahead.”
“If you find anything, tell us,” Nina added.
“If it’s just some stone knife, then yeah, I’ll tell you,” said Chase. “If it’s a pirate treasure chest, I’m keeping that to myself !” Quickly scanning for sharks or other potentially dangerous marine life—despite his earlier jokiness, part of his job was to look after the rest of the team, a responsibility he took very seriously, especially where Nina was concerned—he prodded at the nearest rock with his speargun. Satisfied that a moray eel or similarly nasty surprise wasn’t going to spring out, he pulled the stone free of the sediment.
While the exposed end had been smoothed off, the rest of it was flat-faced and hard-edged, reminding him of a large brick. Putting it aside, he aimed a light into the new hole. It was sadly lacking in pirate treasure, or even stone knives: nothing but thick sediment and the chipped corners of more blocks.
He extracted another brick, which came stickily free of its home of untold centuries like a bad tooth from a gum. A couple of colorful fish came to investigate the resulting hole, but like Chase they, too, were disappointed to find only more bricks.
“No treasure chest?” Nina asked as he rejoined her.
“Narr, me hearty. Didn’t find anything except some old bricks.”
Nina exchanged shocked glances with the other two archaeologists, then slowly faced Chase. “You found what?”
The brick sat on a table in Nina’s lab aboard the Pianosa. Slightly over a foot in length and about five inches to a side in cross section, slightly curved, it hardly seemed remarkable.
Except for the mere fact that it existed.
“It’s a brick,” said Chase, not for the first time since Nina had raced past him to the pile of stones. “What’s the big deal?”
“I’ll tell you,” said Nina, turning around the Apple laptop on which she had been frenziedly working. On its screen was a map of part of Indonesia and the Java Sea, with Sumatra and its myriad surrounding islands on the left side. “This is the sea level today, right?”
She zoomed in on one area. “This is us, here. The depth of the site is ninety-eight feet below sea level. But if I wind back time to show the last time the site was above sea level . . .”
The program she was using was called GLUG, for Global Levels of Underwater Geology—its full name contrived after the developers had come up with the jokey acronym. Using the most up-to-date radar and sonar maps, the program allowed members of the IHA and its sister agencies to see the topography of the entire planet, above or below the waves, with an accuracy previously available to only the best-equipped militaries. But GLUG could do more than simply show things as they were in the present: using data gleaned from geological and ice-core surveys, it could also raise or lower the sea level on a map to match that at any point in the past . . . or, by a simple reversal of the algorithm, list all the times when the sea had been at a specified level.
Which Nina had done. “This is what Indonesia looked like when the sea level was ninety-eight feet lower,” she said. As Chase watched, the map changed, new islands springing up around the coast. She pointed at a yellow marker on the edge of one of the freshly revealed landmasses. “See? That’s the dig site, right on the coast—sixty thousand years ago.”
Chase scratched at his thinning, close-cropped hair. “So? I thought that’s exactly what you were trying to prove, that early humans spread along the coastlines way back when. The whole Paleolithic-migration hypothesis thing.”
Nina gave him a surprised smile. “You’ve been reading my research?”
“Hey, I don’t spend all my spare time watching action movies. Okay, so sixty thousand years ago, Ig and Ook used to live here, catching fish and making bricks. Isn’t that what you expected to find?”
“More or less—except for that.” She lifted the brick. “You know when the earliest known bricks date from?”
“A week last Tuesday?”
She smiled. “Not quite. The earliest known fired bricks were found in Egypt, and date from around three thousand b.c. Even plain mud bricks only date from at most eight thousand b.c. Kind of a gap between that and fifty-eight thousand b.c.”
“What if it’s more recent? Maybe it fell off a ship.”
“You saw how rounded the exposed parts of the other bricks were. That’s not centuries of erosion, that’s millennia.” She turned the anachronistic object over in her hands. Though battered, its surface still retained the vestiges of a glaze, suggesting a relatively advanced and aesthetic-conscious maker. Neither concept fitted well with a Paleolithic origin.
She put down the brick. “I think we need to expand the survey parameters.”
Chase raised his eyebrows. “Oh, you do, do you?”
“Hey, I’m the director of the IHA. It’s my job to decide these things.”
“Interim director,” Chase reminded her. Nina had assumed the role four months earlier, following the death of her predecessor, Hector Amoros. The U.N.’s decision on the permanency of her appointment was pending. But it was a lock, she was sure; not bad for someone who had only turned thirty that year.
“Whatever. But I still think we should do it. Proving a theory is one thing, but making a discovery that could change everything we thought about early man . . .”
Chase stepped behind her and wrapped his thick arms around her waist. “You just want to be on the cover of Time again, don’t you?”
“No. Yes,” she admitted. “But think about what it would mean! Current theory posits that Homo sapiens didn’t develop anything but the most basic stone tools until the upper Paleolithic period fifty thousand years ago. But if they had kilns able to bake bricks . . .” She trailed off as Chase’s hands made their way up to her breasts. “Eddie, what are you doing?”
“You get so turned on when you’re talking about archaeology,” he said, a gap-toothed, lecherous smirk on his square face. “It’s like your version of porn. Your nipples pop up like grapes.”
“I do not have grape nipples,” Nina told him in a faux-frosty tone.
“Well, they’re still nice and tasty. We could just nip—fnarr, fnarr—to our cabin . . .”
“Later, Eddie,” she said, pulling his hands away. “Come on, I need to talk to Captain Branch and start a sonar survey.”
Chase rolled his eyes as she strode from the room. “Right. Because there’s nothing sexier than a sonar survey.”
Nina leaned against the railing on the Pianosa’s deck, watching the red-and-white de Havilland Otter floatplane nudge up to the L-shaped floating pontoon dock extending out from the ship’s starboard side. Chase waved at her from the copilot’s seat.
She waved back, then headed for her lab. It had taken some time to persuade Captain Branch—a stickler for adhering to the exact letter of a contract—to allow the floatplane to be used for anything other than its agreed-upon purpose of bringing in fresh food from Jakarta over the course of the ten-day expedition. But she eventually got her way . . . with the promise of some extra money from the discretionary budget going his way.
The Otter had been outfitted with a small “dunking” sonar array, then spent the next few hours making short hops along a rough spiral course out from the ship. At each landing, Chase lowered the sonar into the water to scan the surrounding seabed. In theory, if any of the results matched the reading from the dig site, there was a good chance they would find more of the mysterious bricks, perhaps even their source.
In theory. There was an equal chance that the search would uncover absolutely nothing.
Chase entered, carrying the tubular sonar array. Behind him, holding the sonar’s data recorder, was Bejo, one of the Indonesian members of the crew. He was in his late teens, and growing up on one of the vast archipelago’s many islands meant that he had spent almost as much of his life in boats as on land.
“How was the trip?” Nina asked as Chase returned the sonar to its large metal box.
“Pretty good. Hervé even let me hold the controls. For about a minute.”
“I thought I heard terrified screams,” Nina joked as Bejo put the recorder on a table. “Thanks, Bejo.”
“No problem, Mrs. Nina,” Bejo said cheerily.
“Please, I told you,” she said as she connected the recorder to one of the lab’s computers, “I’m not ‘Mrs.’ anything. Not until next May, anyway.”
“Ah! I see, then you will be Mrs. Eddie?”
“No, nonono.” Nina wagged a finger. “Then he’ll be Mr. Nina.”
Bejo erupted with laughter. “Mr. Nina!” he cried, pointing at Chase. “I like that, that is funny.”
“Yeah, hilarious,” Chase rumbled. He joined Nina at the computer. “See you later, Bejo.”
“And you . . . Mr. Nina!” Bejo left the lab, his laughter echoing down the corridor.
“Cheers for that,” said Chase, batting Nina lightly on the back of her head. “Now I’m going to be ‘Mr. Nina’ for the rest of the bloody trip.”
“Ah, you don’t mind, really. Because you lurve me.” She nudged him playfully with her hip.
“Yeah, I need to get my head checked sometime. So what’ve we got?”
Nina was already working. “Let’s see, shall we? Okay, this is the dig site.” An image appeared on the screen, blobs in various shades of gray against a black background. “It’s a composite of four readings—only objects that stay stationary in all four show up, so we don’t have to worry about fish confusing things.” She zoomed in and indicated one particular group of scattered objects. “These are the bricks you found.”
“More than we dug up,” Chase noted. “How far under the bottom can the sonar read?”
“Up to two feet—it depends what’s on the seabed. If it’s just sediment, any more bricks should show up clearly. Okay, let’s see what you found.”
The first composite image came up. Nina examined it, zooming in on everything that gave a strong sonar return, but found nothing resembling the regular forms of the bricks. By the time she had finished, more images had been processed, ready for inspection. She opened each up in turn.
“Oh, oh,” she said excitedly as the eighth reading appeared. “This looks promising.” A jumbled swath of sonar reflections showed up strongly, like a handful of tiny diamonds cast across black velvet. “Wow, it looks like some of the readings we got from Atlantis, remember? Like buildings buried under the silt.” She zoomed in. While the objects were scattered, many of them revealed regular, clearly artificial shapes. “The place looks trashed, though. It’d take a massive earthquake or a tsunami to scatter everything that widely.”
“Or people.” They exchanged looks. “How deep is it?”
“It’s at . . . whoa, a hundred and fifty feet. So it’s not from the same period as the original site.” Nina brought up the GLUG program on her laptop and entered figures. The map changed, sea level falling still farther. “Definitely not the same period. If this is right, then . . . about one hundred and thirty-five thousand years ago.” She turned to face Chase, eyes wide. “Jesus, that would completely rewrite everything we think we know about prehistory. According to current theories, humans didn’t even leave Africa until at most seventy thousand years ago.”
“Maybe it’s not humans,” Chase said with a grin. “Maybe aliens built it.”
Nina frowned. “It’s not aliens, Eddie.”
“Yeah, you say that now, but when we find a crystal skull . . .”
“Can we be serious, please?” She magnified the sonar image still further. The image pixelated, but individual objects were still discernible, strewn across the seafloor. “We have to check this out. As soon as we can.”
“It’s about five miles away,” said Chase, comparing the image’s GPS coordinates to a chart. “Bit of a trudge to get the boats there and back.”
“We’ll move the ship.”
“I don’t think Branch’ll like that. You had a hard enough job getting him to let us use the plane.”
Nina gave Chase a determined grin. “I dunno. I’m feeling pretty persuasive today.”
With very poor grace, even after the promise of another payment to cover the unplanned use of fuel, Captain Branch did eventually agree to move the Pianosa to the new site. It took a couple of hours to bring the pontoons back aboard and get the vessel under way, but after that it didn’t take long to reach the new destination. Once anchored, the crew reassembled the floating dock while the IHA team prepared for the dive. Nina had used the transit time to explain why she had changed the mission so drastically; both Gozzi and Bobak were startled by what she thought she had discovered, but they quickly became caught up in her enthusiasm.
Chase was more pragmatic. “We can’t stay down there too long,” he said as the team went through the involved process of donning their deep suits. “There’s only a couple of hours before sunset. It’ll be darker anyway because we’re deeper, but any daylight’s still better than none.”
“This’ll just be a preliminary dive,” Nina assured him. “I just want to be sure there really is something down there. If there is, we’ll dive again tomorrow morning, and if there isn’t . . . well, we’ll go back to the original site.”
“Bet you won’t find a bit of old net as interesting now, will you? Okay, arms out.”
Nina raised her arms. Like the other divers, she was wearing a modified dry suit, metal sealing rings encircling her shoulders and upper thighs. The ones around her legs had already been connected to the lower shell of the deep suit, which Bejo was supporting from behind. She shifted uncomfortably as Chase mated the watertight rings on her arms to their companions in the heavy yellow suit’s shoulder openings, then closed its polycarbonate front section around her and shut the latches one by one.
“Oh, I hate this bit,” she muttered as Chase picked up the helmet.
“Be glad you never wore the old model,” he said. “The helmet was even smaller.” He had used the first version of the deep suit three years earlier; it had been designed as a way for divers to reach depths impractical for working in traditional scuba equipment, while hugely reducing the risk of the bends. The suit’s hard body let them breathe air at normal surface pressure but still left their limbs relatively free to move. This updated design also allowed its wearer to turn and bend, if only slightly, at the waist, an improvement on the earlier rigid shell, but it was still a cumbersome piece of equipment, especially above the water.
“I’m always worried about getting something in my eye while I’m underwater,” said Nina, making sure her ponytail was safely clear of the suit’s neck. “Or sneezing inside the helmet. That’d be truly gross.”
“Or if you fart in the suit.”
“I don’t fart, Eddie,” Nina insisted as he lowered the helmet over her head and locked it into place.
“She does, she just never owns up to it,” Chase said in a stage whisper to Bejo, who laughed.
“What was that?” Nina asked suspiciously, her voice muffled and hollow through the helmet.
“Nothing, dear. Okay, check your systems.” Chase examined the gauges on the suit’s bulbous back, where the air tanks and recycling systems were contained, while Nina peered at the repeater display inside the helmet. “Seal is good, pressure is good, mix is normal, battery is at full. You’re all set.”
Nina waddled to the ladder on the dock’s edge. Gozzi stood beside it making the final check of his suit’s systems, while Bobak was already bobbing in the lapping waves. He waved at her, inviting her in. For a moment Nina considered jumping in, then took the more prudent course of climbing down the ladder, the fins on her feet flapping against each rung.
Chase donned his own deep suit with Bejo’s help, then fastened the belt holding his knife and other gear around his waist. “All set, Mr. Nina,” said the Indonesian. Chase gave him a look. “Mr. Eddie,” he quickly corrected.
By now, Gozzi had also entered the water. Chase dropped into the sea beside him with a huge splash. “Show-off,” said Nina as Bejo tossed him the speargun.
Chase cocked the weapon, then looked at the oth- ers. “Everyone set?”
“I certainly am,” Nina replied. “Let’s see what’s down there.”
From the Paperback edition.