Authors: Brian Keene
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For Brindi, from one black sheep to anotherÂ â¦
Thanks to Nicole Sohl; Brendan Deneen; Kelli “Gypsy Smurf” Owen, Mark “Dezm” Sylva, Tod “I Can Drink It” Clark, and Stephen “Macker” McDornell; Cathy and Hannah Gonzalez; Christopher Golden; William Bevill; Paul Legerski; Paul Goblirsch; Weston Ochse and Yvonne Navarro; Linda Addison; Jonathan Maberry; Jeff Mariotte; Mandy Walters (for distracting me with Words); Mary SanGiovanni; Nathan Carson, Mike Scheidt, and Kasey Lansdale; Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis; Comix Connection, The York Emporium, IKO's Music Trade, and Tom's Music Trade (all four of which provide me with weekly fuel); Cassandra Burnham; and my sons.
Off the coast of Mauritius, shrimp and crabs scurried about like soldiers on important missions. Armies of ethereal jellyfish floated on the currents, aimless and drifting. A school of tuna dodged out of their way. Below them, sea anemones perched precariously on the seafloor with their adhesive feet, and waved vibrant, multi-colored tentacles with which to lure and capture their prey. A female octopus rested after the laborious, exhausting task of laying a string of eggs above her lair. A lonely green sea turtle searched for a mateâa sad task that grew increasingly difficult with each passing year. Two dugong gorged themselves on plants, feeling the turtle's plight. They had not seen another of their kind in recent memory. Orange-and-white striped clownfish darted between colorful coral, and massive schools of sapphire devils darted into holes and crevices, changing their color from blue to black, in order to hide from a group of bottlenose dolphins. The dolphins played as they hunted and fed, but their frivolity ceased, and their movements became cautionary as a great white shark slowly cruised by, cleaving the water like a slow moving missile.
Less common, but still present, a blue whale sang out from somewhere in the dark depthsâa haunting, phantom melody that echoed of the pastâbut its mournful, yearning song went unanswered.
There was life here, off the coast of Mauritius. It was a quieter, slower existence, but life still lived. Life still moved amongst the warm, silt-laden waters.
Then, something new arrived in the ecosystem, something dark and predatory, and all other life ceased moving beneath its ominous shadow.
Slowly, the warm waters began to grow colder.
The darkness deepened, spreading in concentric waves.
And life began to fail.
“â¦ while we wait for Carrie Anderson and Peter Scofield to resurface from this unprecedented expedition. But even as the Mouth of Hell continues to open, and preparations for the possible evacuation of Mauritius proceed, there is now concern that the islands of Rodrigues and RÃ©union may need to be evacuated, as well. One researcher, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, saidâ”
“Hang on, Jessamine. We lost the connection.”
Jessamine Wheatley sighed in frustration. “Damn it, Hank.”
“It's not my fault. Stand by.”
Frowning, Hank turned his attention to the equipment. He cursed beneath his breath. Jessamine crossed her arms in frustration. Their cameraman, Khem, tried defusing the tension by smiling at each of them in turn.
“Oh, knock it off,” Jessamine told him. “Just because your name means âone with peace and joy' in Hindi doesn't mean you have to live it every day.”
Khem's smile slowly faltered. “I'm sorry.”
Jessamine handed him her microphone. He accepted it without comment.
“Somebody's in a mood.” Julio, the fourth member of their team, stepped forward with his makeup kit. “Let's do something with your hair while we wait. This tropical climate has made those red bangs go limp as spaghetti.”
He reached for her hair, but Jessamine pushed his hand away.
“My hair is fine. Do something useful for a change. Help Hank get our connection back.”
Julio clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth and gave Khem a knowing glance. The two of them turned their backs to her, whispering amongst themselves. Jessamine immediately felt guilty, and then felt guilty about feeling guilty.
My therapist could have a field day with this,
She'd probably call it displaced aggression against the patriarchal news industryâbecause she says everything I do is that.
Jessamine decided she should try to make peace with them both, but before she could apologize to either man, another swell rocked the ship, lifting it up rapidly and then dropping it back down. Jessamine's stomach roiled. Although she had reported from all around the world during the last five years, this was her first time doing so from a ship. They had been afloat off the southwestern coast of Mauritius for two weeks now, and her seasickness still hadn't abated. She'd tried an assortment of supposedly surefire cures and aidsâscopolamine patches, Dramamine, Bonine, ginger, crackers and bread, chewing gum, and even a wristbandâbut she still suffered from intermittent nausea, headaches, dry mouth, and balance issues.
Her mood was worsened by the fact that this news story was quickly shaping up to be horribly anticlimactic. It shouldn't have been. After all, as a peer from the BBC had put it, the “bottom was falling out of the Indian Ocean.” That should have been newsworthy. It should have been one of the biggest stories ever.
Mauritius was renowned for its stunning beaches, as well as being home to some of the world's rarest animal and plant species, but one of the island nation's main draws had always been its underwater waterfallâan optical illusion created as ocean currents sent sand and silt plunging off the island's coastal shelf to a much deeper second shelf off Mauritius's southern tip. The shelf, as well as the phenomenon, were fairly recent in geological terms, having been created a few million years ago by a slow and gradual spreading of the sea floor. As the silt and other debris drifted downward into the dark depths, it looked remarkably like a waterfall beneath the ocean. The illusion was especially prominent from the air. Long a curiosity for scuba divers, tourists flocked to see it, and the phenomenon had been featured endlessly on various travel and science programs. Private guides did big business in helicopter tours of the area.
Now, for unknown reasons, the seafloor's collapse had gone from gradual to rapid, and the once jewel-colored waters were murky due to the cascade of sand and debris created as the crevice expanded. Mauritius appeared to be the apex of the collapse, though how long the island would remain above the growing abyssâand not sink into itâwas a matter of concern. As the trench, dubbed the “Mouth of Hell” by Jessamine's colleagues in the press, expanded toward the neighboring islands of RÃ©union and Rodrigues, emergency plans were being drawn up to evacuate the entire population of Mauritius island if need be.
Like other recent natural disasters such as the 2004 Christmas tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the Tohoku earthquake, and its subsequent tsunami which had triggered the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, the collapse of the sea floor should have been a riveting news story. And at first, it had been. A plethora of ships congregated off the coast of Mauritius. The largest vessel was the
R/V Aloysious Novak,
named after a Virginian Senator who had been assassinated while on a humanitarian mission to Sumatra. The Novak was a well-equipped, Global Class research ship owned by Alpinus Biofutures, a biotech company that had financed the expedition team and was contracted by the United Nations to investigate the oceanographic and seismological crisis. Manned with scientists, researchers, and crew, it was accompanied by three support vessels (also owned by Alpinus Biofutures), another research ship from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (acting strictly as observers), and two United Nations peacekeeping ships, as well as several Mauritius naval vessels. The rest of the flotilla was composed of various international news teams, all of whom had descended upon the Mouth of Hell in competition for a scoop. One night, while Jessamine, Hank, Julio, and Khem had stayed awake drinking tequila on board their CBS-chartered yacht, Hank had equated their presence to a school of piranha. She had begrudgingly admitted the producer's description was apt.
But as the days dragged on, the story drifted away, just like the sand swirling in the water beneath them. Despite the possible outcome, and the toll it might have on the populace and the environment, this was still primarily a science storyâand science moved slowly. Much too slowly for the twenty-four-hour cable news cycle. The research was slow, the results slower, and the majority of their reports lacked any sound bites that would appeal to the laymen back home. Viewers wanted excitement and drama. They wanted riveting footage and breathless reporting. Instead, all they'd gotten were statistics and data and scientific reports.
There had been a host of other problems, as well. For some unknown reason, both the research expedition and the assembled press corps' electronic equipment and gear were experiencing intermittent but pervasive glitches and malfunctions. Diving robots had shorted out or been lost in the crevasse. Communications coverage was spotty and problematic. Video cameras turned themselves off. Ship engines had stalled, and several vesselsâwhile not collidingâhad bumped into each other to the point that they had to motor to shore for hull repairs. Jessamine thought she'd find more drama if she covered college kids drunk boating at Cairns. Minor electrical snafus did not make for exciting news coverage, and as a result, viewers at home were tuning out, looking instead for the next celebrity meltdown or manufactured political crisis.
Sighing, Jessamine stared out at the water, waiting for her nausea to subside. She'd noticed that the seasickness was even worse back on the smaller, CBS-chartered yacht. But currently, like the rest of the press corps, they were assembled here on the Novak, covering Anderson and Scofield's dive.