Page 87 of Deception Point

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"Anything?" Rachel asked.

The pilot let the arm make several complete rotations. He adjusted some controls and watched. It was all clear. "Couple of small ships way out on the periphery, but they're heading away from us. We're clear. Miles and miles of open sea in all directions."

Rachel Sexton sighed, although she did not feel particularly relieved. "Do me a favor, if you see anything approaching-boats, aircraft, anything-will you let me know immediately?"

"Sure thing. Is everything okay?"

"Yeah. I'd just like to know if we're having company."

The pilot shrugged. "I'll watch the radar, ma'am. If anything blips, you'll be the first to know."

Rachel's senses were tingling as she headed for the hydrolab. When she entered, Corky and Tolland were standing alone in front of a computer monitor and chewing sandwiches.

Corky called out to her with his mouth full. "What'll it be? Fishy chicken, fishy bologna, or fishy egg salad?"

Rachel barely heard the question. "Mike, how fast can we get this information and get off this ship?"


Tolland paced the hydrolab, waiting with Rachel and Corky for Xavia's return. The news about the chondrules was almost as discomforting as Rachel's news about her attempted contact with Pickering.

The director didn't answer.

And someone tried to pulse-snitch the Goya's location.

"Relax," Tolland told everyone. "We're safe. The Coast Guard pilot is watching the radar. He can give us plenty of warning if anyone is headed our way."

Rachel nodded in agreement, although she still looked on edge.

"Mike, what the hell is this?" Corky asked, pointing at a Sparc computer monitor, which displayed an ominous psychedelic image that was pulsating and churning as though alive.

"Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler," Tolland said. "It's a cross section of the currents and temperature gradients of the ocean underneath the ship."

Rachel stared. "That's what we're anchored on top of?"

Tolland had to admit, the image looked frightening. At the surface, the water appeared as a swirling bluish green, but tracing downward, the colors slowly shifted to a menacing red-orange as the temperatures heated up. Near the bottom, over a mile down, hovering above the ocean floor, a blood-red, cyclone vortex raged.

"That's the megaplume," Tolland said.

Corky grunted. "Looks like an underwater tornado."

"Same principle. Oceans are usually colder and more dense near the bottom, but here the dynamics are reversed. The deepwater is heated and lighter, so it rises toward the surface. Meanwhile, the surface water is heavier, so it races downward in a huge spiral to fill the void. You get these drainlike currents in the ocean. Enormous whirlpools."

"What's that big bump on the seafloor?" Corky pointed at the flat expanse of ocean floor, where a large dome-shaped mound rose up like a bubble. Directly above it swirled the vortex.

"That mound is a magma dome," Tolland said. "It's where lava is pushing up beneath the ocean floor."

Corky nodded. "Like a huge zit."

"In a manner of speaking."

"And if it pops?"

Tolland frowned, recalling the famous 1986 megaplume event off the Juan de Fuca Ridge, where thousands of tons of twelve hundred degrees Celsius magma spewed up into the ocean all at once, magnifying the plume's intensity almost instantly. Surface currents amplified as the vortex expanded rapidly upward. What happened next was something Tolland had no intention of sharing with Corky and Rachel this evening.

"Atlantic magma domes don't pop," Tolland said. "The cold water circulating over the mound continually cools and hardens the earth's crust, keeping the magma safely under a thick layer of rock. Eventually the lava underneath cools, and the spiral disappears. Megaplumes are generally not dangerous."

Corky pointed toward a tattered magazine sitting near the computer. "So you're saying Scientific American publishes fiction?"

Tolland saw the cover, and winced. Someone had apparently pulled it from the Goya's archive of old science magazines: Scientific American, February 1999. The cover showed an artist's rendering of a supertanker swirling out of control in an enormous funnel of ocean. The heading read: MEGAPLUMES-GIANT KILLERS FROM THE DEEP?

Tolland laughed it off. "Totally irrelevant. That article is talking about megaplumes in earthquake zones. It was a popular Bermuda Triangle hypothesis a few years back, explaining ship disappearances. Technically speaking, if there's some sort of cataclysmic geologic event on the ocean floor, which is unheard of around here, the dome could rupture, and the vortex could get big enough to... well, you know... "

"No, we don't know," Corky said.

Tolland shrugged. "Rise to the surface."

"Terrific. So glad you had us aboard."

Xavia entered carrying some papers. "Admiring the megaplume?"

"Oh, yes," Corky said sarcastically. "Mike was just telling us how if that little mound ruptures, we all go spiraling around in a big drain."

"Drain?" Xavia gave a cold laugh. "More like getting flushed down the world's largest toilet."

Outside on the deck of the Goya, the Coast Guard helicopter pilot vigilantly watched the EMS radar screen. As a rescue pilot he had seen his share of fear in people's eyes; Rachel Sexton had definitely been afraid when she asked him to keep an eye out for unexpected visitors to the Goya.

What kind of visitors is she expecting? he wondered.

From all the pilot could see, the sea and air for ten miles in all directions contained nothing that looked out of the ordinary. A fishing boat eight miles off. An occasional aircraft slicing across an edge of their radar field and then disappearing again toward some unknown destination.

The pilot sighed, gazing out now at the ocean rushing all around the ship. The sensation was a ghostly one-that of sailing full speed despite being anchored.

He returned his eyes to the radar screen and watched. Vigilant.


Onboard the Goya, Tolland had now introduced Xavia and Rachel. The ship's geologist was looking increasingly baffled by the distinguished entourage standing before her in the hydrolab. In addition, Rachel's eagerness to run the tests and get off the ship as fast as possible was clearly making Xavia uneasy.

Take your time, Xavia, Tolland willed her. We need to know everything.

Xavia was talking now, her voice stiff. "In your documentary, Mike, you said those little metallic inclusions in the rock could form only in space."

Tolland already felt a tremor of apprehension. Chondrules form only in space. That's what NASA told me.

"But according to these notes," Xavia said, holding up the pages, "that's not entirely true."

Corky glared. "Of course it's true!"

Xavia scowled at Corky and waved the notes. "Last year a young geologist named Lee Pollock out of Drew University was using a new breed of marine robot to do Pacific deepwater crust sampling in the Mariana Trench and pulled up a loose rock that contained a geologic feature he had never seen before. The feature was quite similar in appearance to chondrules. He called them 'plagioclase stress inclusions'-tiny bubbles of metal that apparently had been rehomogenized during deep ocean pressurization events. Dr. Pollock was amazed to find metallic bubbles in an ocean rock, and he formulated a unique theory to explain their presence."

Corky grumbled. "I suppose he would have to."

Xavia ignored him. "Dr. Pollock asserted that the rock formed in an ultradeep oceanic environment where extreme pressure metamorphosed a pre-existing rock, permitting some of the disparate metals to fuse."

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