“Jack, what are you doing?”
“Where is it?”
“It’s right next to you!”
He sensed the movement before seeing it. He twisted to his left. A huge black eye, the size of a garbage can lid, opened in a wall of flesh. Jack bit back a gasp. The eye blinked against the glare of the sub’s lights.
The monster was lying beside the tiny sub, dwarfing it. Jack caught more movement. He craned his neck farther. Behind the sub’s stern, a tangle of tentacles rose, twisting and churning as the behemoth awoke from its initial shock at its prey’s brilliant display. Jack remembered the vampire squid snatching a hatchet fish, and now sympathized with the tiny fish.
Slamming both pedals, he shot his sub forward and away.
“Don’t run!” Robert yelled in his ear.
“Who’s running?” Jack hissed tightly. He spun the sub around, nose pointed at the gigantic beast. Grabbing the manipulator controls, he raised the sub’s titanium arms and flexed the pincers. They could crush stone.
The creature rolled, tentacles scrabbling and twisting around toward Jack.
“What is it?”
“Video feed is fuzzy, but I think it’s an Architeuthis,” Robert said. “A giant squid of the cephalopod family. Only a few have ever been found. And those were dead, dragged up in the nets of deep trawlers. Nothing this big has ever been seen.”
The beast shied slightly from the direct lances of the sub’s xenon lamps. One tentacle, thick as a sewer pipe, came probing low along the seabed.
Jack backed away, all thrusters on full—but he wasn’t fast enough.
The snaking limb shot toward him, slapping a wide blow.
The sub bounced, its nose driven up. Jack’s forehead struck the acrylic dome. With stars dancing across his vision, he fought the control pedals but found the submersible unresponsive.
At first he feared he was out of power. Then he noticed a platter-sized sucker clamped onto the acrylic dome. He was caught, trapped in its grip. The tentacle wound around the sub, drawing him toward the mass of the beast. The seals around him groaned with the strain.
Ahead, the creature was fully revealed in his lights. Eight muscular arms and two longer tentacles coiled out from its pale body. Its skin was almost translucent, its flattened head flanked by lateral fins. Its two longer tentacles probed the sub, dragging toothed suckers across its titanium frame.
The vessel suddenly jolted. His lights swung. Jack spotted the beaked mouth of the monster opening and closing—only a yard away. Through the hydrophones, he could hear the grind of its maw.
Swearing under his breath, Jack shifted the manipulator arms. He maneuvered the pincers and snatched at the nearest tentacle. The titanium grips tore into the leathery tissue. Black blood bloomed out.
Before Jack could savor his attack, the Nautilus was flung away, tumbling end over end. He released the manipulator controls and braced himself, tried to slow his tumble with his thrusters’ foot pedals, but it was no use. The Nautilus struck the seabed, gouging a trough in the silt. Jack’s shoulder bore the brunt of the impact. The sub lay on its side.
“Jack! Turn off your lights!”
“Playing dead didn’t work before,” he answered, and pushed up on one arm. He searched for the giant squid, but a cloud of silt enclosed the vehicle.
“Listen to me! We’re going to try and draw the creature away.”
“How?” Jack shifted as the silt settled around him. His lights began to pierce through the cloud. It was not an encouraging sight. A mass of tentacles twisted toward him. Rather than intimidating the beast, his attack had only succeeded in angering it.
Jack toggled down his power—but didn’t shut it off. The sub’s lamps dimmed. He refused to go totally dead. He did not want to be blind down here again. “What’s your plan?”
“I’ve just ordered the Navy to activate the second cable’s electromagnet,” Robert said. “The strong electric field might attract the beast away…but only if you disappear.”
Jack bit his lip. He lowered his power further, flipping off the thrusters. The light was now just a weak glow. He could barely see the roiling mass of tentacles. Through the silt, the beast continued to crawl slowly toward him. “Okay. Try it,” Jack ordered.
“We already have. We turned it on a minute ago. Is the Architeuthis taking our bait?”
The squid continued to roll toward him.
“No,” he said with disgust. It wasn’t working. He would have to fight, try to chase it off. Jack reached to power up again. Then a thought occurred to him. He remembered Robert’s initial warning—don’t run! “Robert, try moving the cable! Drag it along like a fishing line!”
“What? Oh…I get it. Hang on!”
Jack turned off all systems, except the sub’s lamps. He searched for the cable, but the light was too weak to reach that far.
The squid edged nearer, a wall of pale tissue, tentacles, and dinner-plate-sized suckers. He watched one of its huge eyes roll in his direction. Suspicion shone forth. He prayed the beast remained wary long enough for Robert’s ruse to play out.
“Where are you, Robert?” he mumbled.
A tentacle lashed out toward the half-buried sub.
Jack reached for his manipulator controls. His thumb shifted to the battery toggle.
Then off to the left a new light suddenly bloomed in the inky gloom, its brilliance sharp.
Both Jack and the squid froze.
Slowly, the beast’s huge eye rolled its attention toward the new source of light. Jack looked over, too.
Across the seabed, a spike of pure brilliance thrust up. It was the crystal spire, aglow with an inner fire.
In the gleam, Jack spotted the winch cable drifting only a few feet from the spire, its electromagnet swinging even closer.
Jack stared, slack-jawed. What the hell…?
Under the sub the seabed began to tremble—at first mildly, then more vigorously. Bits of smaller wreckage began to dance atop the tremoring floor. Great, Jack thought, first a sea monster, now this!
He held on tight. The vibration traveled up his bones to his teeth.
Across the debris field the cable drifted away from the spike. As it moved farther, the brilliance of the crystal faded, and the trembling died away. As the light dimmed, Jack watched the electromagnetic lure float beyond his sight, disappearing into the dark water.
He stared at his adversary.
The giant squid remained near the sub. A hulk of tentacles. It seemed to hesitate, clearly spooked by the tremors and strangeness. Then, slowly, it crawled after the disappearing lure—away from the Nautilus.
“It’s working!” Robert hailed from topside.
Jack remained silent, afraid of distracting the great beast. He watched the squid stalk its new prey. Soon the monster drifted beyond the reach of the sub’s dimmed lamps. He dared not turn them brighter, having to remain satisfied with updates from Robert.
“We’re drawing the cable both up and away. It’s still following….”
Jack allowed himself a long low sigh.
“It’s far enough away. Maybe you’d better get the hell out of there.”
Jack did not have to be told twice. He powered up the sub, dumped his ballast, and engaged the thrusters. Silt coughed up around him as the Nautilus pulled from the seabed. The tiny sub rose rapidly.
Robert’s voice returned. “Damn.”
“We lost it.”
Panic clutched Jack’s throat. “What do you mean?”
“Don’t worry. It’s not heading your way.” Robert’s voice was distinctly disappointed. “It gave up on us and dove back into the deeper troughs. It’s gone back home. Damn, I would’ve loved to see it up close.”
“Trust me…the experience is not as fun as it looked on video.”
“Uh…oh yeah, sorry, Jack.”
“Coming up. Be topside in fifteen.”
“We’ll be waiting for you.”
Jack leaned back into his seat. He wiped his face with a hand towel. Though the terror was still fresh, he grinned. He had survived.
Still, a nagging kernel of concern marred his perfect relief. He pictured the brilliant glow as the cable passed near the crystal spire. He remembered his own experience with the pillar: the odd sensations, the lost time. It seemed there were more mysteries down here than just the crash of Air Force One.
Ryukyu University, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan
“Twelve thousand years? That’s impossible!” Karen exclaimed.
Miyuki pushed away from the bank of monitors. “It might be a mistake. The database of this new language is limited right now. If Gabriel had more information…more examples…”
Karen nodded. “It has to be a miscalculation. There is no way the date could be denoting a real incident twelve millennia in the past. Unless the event were some fable…some creation myth being recounted.”
“Still, how would these people know how to map a snapshot of the night sky from twelve thousand years ago? Gabriel says the position of the constellations and stars is precise to a tenth of a millimeter.”
“It’s not impossible,” Karen argued. “The Mayans of South America had astronomical calendars of such precision that they rival our abilities today.”
“But to extrapolate that far back?”
“If the Mayans could do it, why not these folks? In fact, the builders might even be some lost tribe of the Maya. Who knows?”
“You’re right,” Miyuki said, shaking her head and standing up. “Who knows? There are too many variables. That’s why I didn’t bring it to your attention when Gabriel first told me of his discovery two days ago.”
Karen frowned. “You knew this two days ago?”
Miyuki shrugged. “I didn’t think it was that important. I was just testing Gabriel’s decoding ability. Since you were studying the language, I figured we’d discuss it later.”
“Then if it wasn’t this bombshell, why did you call me over today?”