“I understand. No unnecessary risks.” Jack pushed both foot pedals. The sub shot off the ridge, climbing higher at the same time. As he glided toward the wreck, he watched the temperature continue to rise.
Sweat pebbled Jack’s forehead and his hands grew slick. If one of the sub’s seals should weaken and break, the crushing weight at this depth would kill him in less than a second.
He climbed higher, until the temperature dropped below a hundred again. Satisfied he was safe, he goosed the sub, passing over the valley. Soon he hovered over the wreck itself. Tilting the sub on its side, he circled the broken ship.
Leaning a bit, Jack stared down at the wreck. From this vantage point, he could see the broken stern resting a full fifty yards from the bow. The hollow cavity of the rear hold was turned away from the vents. Across the silt, lit by the fiery glow of the nearby vents, lay a scattering of crates, half buried, wood long turned to black from the decades it was submerged.
“How’s it looking, Jack?” Lisa asked.
Narrowing his eyes, he studied the spilled contents of the wreck. “Ain’t pretty, that’s for damn sure.”
After a studied pause, Lisa came back on. “Well…?”
“I don’t know. I mortgaged the ship and the old family ranch to finance this trip. To come up empty-handed—”
“I know, but all the gold in the world’s not worth your life.”
He could not argue with that. Still, he loved the old homestead: the rolling green hills, the whitewashed fences. He had inherited the hundred-acre ranch after his father died of pancreatic cancer. Jack had been only twenty-one. The debts had forced him out of the University of Tennessee and into the Armed Services. Though he could have sold the place and finished school, he had refused. The land had been in the family for five generations—but truthfully it was more personal than that. By the time his father had passed away, his mother was already long in her grave, succumbing to complications from a simple appendectomy when he was a boy, leaving no other children. Jack hardly remembered her, just pictures on the wall and a handful of memories tied to the place. No matter what, he refused to lose even these slim memories to the bank.
Lisa interrupted his reverie. “I could always try extending my NSF grant and scrounge up more funds.” It was her government money that had allowed them to lease the Nautilus and test its patented Bio-Sensor system.
“It won’t be enough,” Jack grumbled. Secretly he had hoped to garner sufficient funds from a successful haul here to clear his debts, with a stash left over to finance a lifetime of treasure hunting.
That is, if the Kochi Maru’s manifests were accurate….
Jack ignored caution and obeyed his heart. He shoved both foot pedals. The submersible dove in a tight spiral down toward the broken stern of the Kochi Maru. What would it hurt to take a fast peek?
The temperature gauge began to climb again: 110…120…130…
He stopped looking.
“I know. I’m just going to take a closer look at the ship. No risks.”
“At least replace your Bio-Sensor clip so I can monitor you.”
Jack wiped sweat from his eyes and sighed. “Okay, Mother.” He slipped the sensor to his earlobe. “Happy now?”
“Ecstatic. Now don’t kill yourself.”
Jack heard the worry behind her light words. “Just keep one of those Heinekens in the cooler for me.”
As he neared the seabed, Jack lowered the sub behind the wreck’s stern and edged toward the open rear hold. The giant prop and screw dwarfed his vehicle. Even here life thrived. The old hull, draped in runnels of rust, had become an artificial reef for mussels and coral.
Clearing the keel, he spun the sub and aimed his lights into the hold. He glanced at the temperature reading. One forty. At least the rising heat had stabilized in the shadow of the ship’s bulk. Beyond the dark ship, the seas radiated a fierce crimson, as if an abysmal sun were rising nearby. Jack ignored the heat, his back and seat now slick in his neoprene suit.
Lifting the sub’s nose, he pointed the xenon lamps into the heart of the dark hold. Two large eyes glared back at him from the hold’s cavern.
His heart jumped. “What the hell…?”
Then the monster was upon him. It sprang out of its man-made den. Long, sinuous, silver. The sea serpent shot toward him. Mouth open in a silent scream of rage.
Jack gasped, scrambling for the controls to the sub’s hydraulic manipulator arms. He waved the titanium arms, trying to defend himself, but mostly just flailing in his shock.
At the last moment the creature shied from his frantic waving and flashed past him. Jack watched its long silver-scaled body rush past like a sinewy locomotive. It had to be at least seventy feet long. His tiny craft was buffeted by the creature’s passage, spinning in place.
Jack craned his neck around and watched the creature flee, disappearing into the midnight waters with a flick of its tapering tail. Now he recognized it for what it was. A rare beast, but no serpent. It had clearly been as spooked by the chance encounter as he was. Jack forced his heart out of his throat, swallowing hard. “Goddamn!” he swore as he stabilized the sub, spinning in the creature’s wake. “Whoever said there are no sea monsters?”
Static rasped in his ear. “Sea monsters?” It was Lisa again.
“An orefish,” he explained.
“God, your heart rate almost doubled! You must have—”
A new voice interrupted the doctor. It was Robert Bonaczek, the group’s marine biologist. “An orefish? Regalecus glesne?” he asked, using the fish’s Latin name. “Are you sure?”
“Yep, a big one. Seventy feet if it’s an inch.”
“Did you get any pictures?”
Jack blushed, remembering his panic. As a former Navy SEAL, he knew his response to being attacked by a deep-sea monster had been less than heroic. He wiped his damp forehead. “No…uh, there was not enough time.”
“A shame. So little is known. No one suspected they lived so deep.”
“Well, this one was living large, that’s for damn sure. Made its home in the hold of the wreck.” Jack moved his ship forward, lights again delving into the interior. Crates lay stacked and broken everywhere. The Kochi Maru had been heavily laden. Jack spotted where the orefish had nested. A cleared-out cubby near the back. Carefully, he eased his sub into the open hold.
Static buzzed in his ear. “Jack, I’m…don’t know, mon…” Jack recognized the geologist’s voice, but the transmission was blocked by the walls of the hold as the sub glided inside. It seemed even the vessel’s patented deep-water radio could not pierce three inches of iron.
Jack touched his throat mike. “Say again.”
He received just static and garble.
Frowning, he eased off the thruster pedals, meaning to retreat clear of the hold’s walls. Then his eyes caught a bright glint from deeper in the hold. He glided the craft gently forward, nose down. His lamps now splayed the floor.
Amid the crates, against the far wall, was a sight that drew a sharp whistle from him. The swipe of the orefish’s tail as it lunged from its nest had brushed free a few bricks, black with algae, from the top of an impressive pile. The exposed section revealed the bricks deeper in the pile.
Gold, shining brighter than a Caribbean sun in the reflection of the xenon lamps.
Jack inched closer, not believing his luck. Once in range, he settled his hands on the controls to the external hydraulic manipulator arms. Having practiced at length, he was familiar with their use. Manning the controls, he extended the left arm’s pincers to their full length of fifteen feet. He gripped one of the black bricks, bringing it up to the light. With the other arm, he carefully scraped the surface.
“Gold.” There was no doubt. He grinned widely and used the other arm to grab another brick, then tapped his throat mike. He had to tell topside. Static squelched sharply. He had forgotten about the interference by the hull. He backed the sub slowly, careful not to get hung up on the debris, meanwhile running through several different salvage scenarios. Float bags wouldn’t work. They’d have to hook a dredge to the sub and make a few hauls.
The sub finally cleared the hold and reentered open water. He was instantly assaulted by someone yelling in his ear. “Get out of there, mon! Now! Jack, get your ass away from there!” It was Charlie. Panicked.
“What is it?” Jack yelled back. He glanced at the external temperature reading. It had climbed almost fifty degrees. In the fever of discovering the gold, he had failed to notice the rising temperature. “Oh shit!”
“The seismic readings are spiking, Jack. Radiating out from your location. Haul ass! You’re sitting on the goddamn epicenter!”
Jack’s Navy training kicked in. He knew when to obey orders. He swung the submersible up and away, chasing after cooler waters, pushing the Nautilus to its maximum speed of four knots. Jack craned his neck around. “Damn.”
The forward section of the Kochi Maru had melted halfway into the magma pool. The crisscrossing of magma cracks had widened. But the most ominous sight was how the seabed now bulged, like a bubble about to burst.
Jack had both pedals to the floor, jerking the nose of the submersible toward the distant surface. He blew all his ballast. The thruster motors whined as he pushed them to the extreme.
“Damn, damn, damn…” he swore in a continuous litany.
“Jack, something’s happening. The readings are—”
He heard it before he felt it. A monstrous roaring from the hydrophones, like thunder rolling through hills. Then the sub caught the shockwave’s edge, tumbling end over end.
Jack’s head struck the optical acrylic dome. As he spun he caught fleeting glimpses of the seabed.
A flaming wound gaped below him. Magma blew forth, spattering upward. A volcano had opened directly under him. As he flew upward, spinning without control, the seas around him began to boil. Bubbles as big as his sub bombarded his ship, striking like fists.