He reached to his computer monitor and tapped up the sonar model for this region of the seafloor. The detail was poor. Scans had revealed only an odd fuzzy detail of the seabed. Even side-scanning sonar had failed to make much headway. The topography of the seabed here was too folded and broken with hills, scarps, seamounts, and other seabed aberrations. Any hope of discovering a telltale sonar ghost of the airplane had long been given up. It would be up to him to search from here.
Jack began to feed his own sonar information into the computer model. Slowly the fuzzy detail began to focus. Details emerged. “Are you getting this?” he asked, touching his microphone.
Lisa answered. “It’s a mess down there. Be careful.”
As the sonar image grew crisper, he could make out a maze of gigantic seamounts and flat-topped guyots on the floor below. Deep canyons and troughs wound around these towering mounts. It reminded Jack of the Badlands of the American West, a maze of crisscrossing canyons and river channels through a landscape of windswept mesas and red rock. He had once taken a horseback trip through those wild lands. Even with a map, it had been easy to get lost. He suspected the same was true here.
The radio hissed for a moment, then Charlie’s voice came over the tiny speakers. “I don’t like what I’m seeing, Jack.”
“What do you mean?”
“Seamounts arise from volcanic activity. This dense clustering looks highly suspect to me.”
“Any seismic readings?”
A long pause. “Uh, no…it’s all quiet, but I still don’t like it.”
“Keep an eye out for me, Charlie.” Jack remembered what happened the last time he had ignored the geologist’s advice. A volcano opened up under him. He did not want to repeat the experience.
He continued to sink deeper in a widening spiral, slowing his descent. He watched his depth gauge climb from the four hundred mark toward the five hundred. Beyond the acrylic dome, tiny flickering lights caught his eye, drawing his attention away from his monitors. At first he thought it was just his imagination, then, as if he were caught in a snowstorm, a flurry of blue lights swelled and fluttered around his sub. Bioluminescent creatures, too tiny and transparent to see clearly.
“Coming up on life down here,” Jack said. He hit the video button, swiveling around to appreciate the storm as it rolled and churned away into the darkness. “How’s the new video feed?”
“Shaky, jittery…but we can make out pretty good detail.”
As quickly as they had appeared, the flock of organisms were gone. Darkness closed in again. Jack settled into his seat. The experimental video system had been loaned to them by the Navy and installed quickly, so others could monitor his progress. He glanced to his depth gauge. He was already nearing the six hundred mark.
The sonar echo narrowed. He had to be near the floor. He slowed his descent from a spiral to a gradual slope, gliding smoothly down, lights spearing forward.
“Oh shit!” He saw it at the same time. He slammed the left pedal, tilting the sub and driving it in a sharp turn to the left. He just missed crashing into a tall gnarled pillar. It had appeared out of the darkness. Jack stabilized his sub, circled past the pillar and found himself in a forest of other twisted columns and spires. Some were spindly, only a hand span wide but tens of meters tall. Others were as thick as redwoods and towered just as high. He had almost crash landed into a stone forest.
Charlie’s voice was full of delight. “Get as much on video as you can.”
Jack had never seen their like. He rose a bit to avoid the densest patches, but still had to weave and wiggle around the larger pillars. “What are they?”
“Lava pillars! Fragile basalt columns formed where lava extrudes up tiny cracks in the mantle, then are cooled rapidly by the frigid waters.”
Jack tilted to view the twisted tangle below and watched a huge octopus climb through the tangle. Fish darted from his light.
Charlie continued, “We still don’t know much about them. They were only recently discovered.”
Jack edged past a monster column that had to be three meters thick and vanished up into the darkness over his head.
“But be cautious, Jack. As I was warning you before, this clustering of lava pillars suggests the region is unstable. A tectonic hot spot. Not a place you want to be hanging around. But I’ve got your back. Any blip on the seismic scale and I’ll send you an SOS.”
“Please do.” Jack cleared his throat. “Lisa, can you hear me?”
“How am I positioned in reference to the NTSB’s estimate of where Air Force One’s black box is pinging?”
A short pause. “I’m feeding your computer the newest data. You should be almost on top of her. About a hundred and twenty meters due north.”
Jack glanced to his compass. The needle jittered in a half arc back and forth. He futilely tapped the glass. It had been working perfectly ten minutes ago. “Lisa, you may have to guide me in verbally. The compass is malfunctioning. Can’t get a clear reading.”
“Fine. Turn the sub’s nose about thirty degrees, then go straight.”
Jack slowly turned the ship, estimating by using one of the pillars as a reference point. “How about now?”
“Perfect. Straight ahead slow.”
Jack depressed the foot pedals, and the sub slid smoothly forward, lights drilling a path forward.
“Good, your trajectory is right on target.”
Frowning, Jack watched his compass begin to swing wildly. It reminded him of the problem he had with his compass when he was caught in the volcanic eruption. “Topside…there’s something screwy with—”
Suddenly, the submersible’s lights reflected back at Jack, blinding him for a few blinks. “Holy—”
“Shit!” Lisa finished for him.
Ahead, a massive sleek triangle of whitewashed metal blocked the way forward, thrusting up from the jungle of lava pillars. The twin xenon lamps lit it up brightly. In the center, a huge American flag was prominently depicted, under it the designation BOEING 28000. It was the tail fin of Air Force One.
“The Eagle has been found,” he whispered.
Jack slowed his sub, engaging the thrusters to lift him up and over the gigantic fin. As he rose he dilated his lights to maximum diffusion, thrusting a fog of brilliance over the landscape below.
Past the tail fin, the remainder of the wreckage appeared. In a rain of destruction, the Boeing 747 lay scattered across the valley in a rough circle. Hundreds of the fragile lava pillars lay toppled amid the debris. Seamounts towered on the far side.
Jack slowly circled the site. Sections of torn wing and chunks of fuselage littered the seabed. He crossed over the crumpled nose of the great plane. Its glass had been shattered out, but Jack could see the instrument panel.
He tore his eyes away, afraid of what else he might find. It was a graveyard down here. Memories of the shuttle crash flashed across his mind. Another fall from the sky. Had this been all that was left of Atlantis, bits and pieces scattered across a seabed floor? Jack shuddered.
The admiral’s firm desire to know the fate of President Bishop had been accomplished. All that remained now were the details.
Who to blame?
Jack closed his eyes for a moment, taking a deep breath. After the Atlantis disaster, he had experienced firsthand the feeding frenzy of blame, and he pitied the person who would bear the brunt of the coming accusations. Opening his eyes, he reached and gripped the controls to his exterior manipulator arms. He had one final duty down here. Retrieve the two black boxes—the flight’s data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder—and bring them to the surface.
“Lisa, I’m going to need more guidance from here to find those boxes.” Jack glanced at his compass, expecting to see it still spinning. Instead the needle remained fixed and steady, pointing toward the debris field. “Looks like I’ve got the compass back.”
“Good, then what you want to do—”
Jack watched the compass needle slowly inch as the Nautilus circled the debris field. “Just a second, Lisa.” Bunching his brows, he accelerated, gliding around the edge of the crash site. He completed almost a full turn, yet the compass needle continued to point toward the center of the destruction.
“That can’t be right.”
“What is it?” Lisa asked. “Do you have a problem?”
Jack slowed the sub, swinging its nose forward. He coned his lights back down to narrow spears. The concentrated light penetrated to the heart of the debris field. A towering pillar lay near the center, at least forty meters tall—but something wasn’t right.
The pillar seemed to glow.
Jack blinked, thinking the seawater must be playing tricks.
He edged the Nautilus forward, passing for the first time into the graveyard. Small hairs at the back of his neck began to tingle. Not from any fear of the ghosts, but something more physical. Even the hairs on his arm began to vibrate.
Lisa’s voice came over the radio, but interference drowned out her words. Not static. It was as if someone had recorded Lisa’s voice and played it back at a higher speed.
“Say again, Topside.”
He concentrated, and he could just make out Lisa’s words. “Your heart rate…it’s dropping significantly. Are you okay?”
Jack glanced to his own pulse reading. It was normal. “I don’t understand.”
Any response was lost in a high-pitched whine. Jack lowered the volume as it began to ache his ear. He thought there must be a glitch with the radio, and glanced to the compass. It still pointed toward the strange pillar.
The damned thing must be magnetic.
As he moved nearer the pillar, the tingling sensation was swept from his body, as if cool water were drenching him. Jack shivered and slowed the submersible. He hovered before the pillar.
Craning his neck, he examined its length. The column continued to glow, but not with its own light. It was simply an optical effect, a reflection and refraction of his own light, like sunlight on a diamond. Though the pillar was clearly stone, it was not black volcanic rock. Instead, it was made of some type of crystal, like a shaft of quartz thrust up from the seabed floor.