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July 24, 3:35 P.M.
75 miles SW of Wake Island, Central Pacific
Jack Kirkland had missed the eclipse.
Where he glided, there was no sun, only the perpetual darkness of the ocean's abysmal deep. The sole illumination came from a pair of xenon lamps set in the nose of his one-man submersible. His new toy, the Nautilus 2000, was out on its first deep-dive test. The eight-foot titanium minisub was shaped like a fat torpedo topped by an acrylic plastic dome. Attached to its underside was a stainless steel frame that mounted the battery pods, thruster assembly, that mounted the battery pods, thruster assembly, electrical, can, and lights.
Ahead, the brilliance of the twin lamps drilled a cone of visibility that extended a hundred feet in front of him. He fingered the controls, sweeping the arc back and forth, searching. Out the corner of his eye he checked the analog depth gauge. Approaching fifteen hundred feet. The bottomof the trench must be close. His sonar reading on the computer screen confirmed his assessment. Nomore than two fathoms. The pings of the sonar grew closer and closer.
Seated, Jack's head and shoulders protruded into the acrylic plastic dome of the hull, giving him a panoramic view of his surroundings. While the cabin was spacious for most men, it was a tight fit for Jack's six-foot-plus frame. It's like driving an MG convertible, he thought, except you steer with your toes.
The two foot pedals in the main hull controlled not only acceleration, but also maneuvered the fourone-horsepower thrusters. With practiced skill Jack eased the right pedal while depressing the toe of the left pedal. The craft dove smoothly to the left. Lights swept forward. Ahead, the seabed came into view, appearing out of the endless gloom.
Jack slowed his vehicle to a gentle glide as he entered a natural wonderland, a deep ocean oasis.
Under him, fields of tubeworms lay spread across the valley floor of the mid-Pacific mountain range. Riftia pachyptila. The clusters of six-foot-long tubes with their bloodred worms were like an otherworldly topiary waving at him as he passed, gently swaying in the current. To either side, on lower slopes, giant clams lay stacked shell-to-shell, open, soft fronds filtering the sea. Among them stalked bright red galatheid crabs on long, spindly legs.
Movement drew Jack's attention forward. A thick eyeless eel slithered past, teeth bright in the xenon lamp. A school of curious fish followed next, led by a large brown lantern fish. The brazen fellow swam right up to the glass bubble, a deepsea gargoyle ogling the strange intruder inside. Minuscule bioluminescent lights winked along the large fish's sides, announcing its territorial aggression.
Other denizens displayed their lights. Under him, pink pulses ran through tangles of bamboo coral. Around the dome, tiny blue-green lights flashed, the creatures too small and translucent to be seen clearly.
The sight reminded Jack of flurries of fireflies from his Tennessee childhood. Having lived all his young life in landlocked Tennessee, Jack had instantly fallen in love with the ocean, enthralled by its wide expanses, its endless blue, its changing moods.
A swirl of lights swarmed around the dome.
"Unbelievable," he muttered to himself, wearing a wide grin. Even after all this time, the sea found ways to surprise him.
In response, his radio earpiece buzzed. "What was that, Jack?"
Frowning, Jack silently cursed the throat microphone taped under his larynx. Even fifteen hundred feet under the sea, he could not completely shut out the world above. "Nothing, Lisa," he answered. "Just admiring the view."
"How's the new sub handling?"
"Perfectly. Are you receiving the Bio-Sensor readings?" Jack asked, touching the clip on his earlobe. The laser spectrometer built into the clip constantly monitored his bloodgas levels.
Dr. Lisa Cummings had garnered a National Science Foundation grant to study the physiological effects of deepsea work. "Respiration, temperature, cabin pressure, oxygen supply, ballast, carbon dioxide scrubbers. All green up here. Any evidence of seismic activity?"
"No. All quiet."
Two hours ago, as Jack had first begun his descent in the Nautilus, Charlie Mollier, the geologist, had reported strange seismic readings,, harmonic vibrations radiating through the deep-sea mountain range. For safety's sake he had suggested that Jack return to the surface. "Come watch the eclipse with us, " Charlie had radioed earlier in his Jamaican accent. "It's spectacular, mon. We can always dive tomorrow."
Jack had refused. He had no interest in the eclipse. If the quakes worsened, he could always surface. But during the long descent, the strange seismic readings had faded away. Charlie's voice over the radio had eventually lost its strained edge.
Jack touched his throat mike. "So you all done worrying up there?"
A pause was followed by a reluctant "Yes."
Jack imagined the blond doctor rolling her eyes. "Thanks, Lisa. Signing off. Time for a little privacy." He yanked the Bio-Sensor clip from his earlobe.
It was a small victory. The remainder of the Bio-Sensor system would continue to report on the sub's environmental status, but not his personal information. At least it gave him a bit of isolation from the world above -- and this was what Jack liked best about diving. The isolation, the peace, the quiet. Here there was only the moment. Lost in the deep, his past had no power to haunt him.
From the sub's speakers the strange noises of the abysmal deep echoed through the small space: a chorus of eerie pulses, chirps, and high-frequency squeals. It was like listening in on another planet.
Around him was a world deadly to surface dwellers: endless darkness, crushing pressures, toxic waters. But life somehow found a way to thrive here, fed not by sunlight, but by poisonous clouds of hydrogen sulfide that spewed from hot vents called "black smokers."Deep Fathom. Copyright © by James Rollins. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.