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Authors: Steve Alten

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BOOK: The Loch
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The cameraman, a good-natured soul named Hank Griffeth, set up his tripod while his wife, Cindy, miked me for sound. Cindy wore a leopard bikini that accentuated her cleavage, and it was all I could do to keep from sneaking a peek.

Just using the right side of my brain, Lisa…

Cody chirped on endlessly, forcing me to refocus. "…anyway, I'll ask you and David a few questions off-camera. Back in the studio, our editors will dub in Patrick Stewart's voice over mine. Got it?"

"I like Patrick Stewart. Will I get to meet him?"

"No, now pay attention. Viewers want to know what makes young Einsteins like you and David tick. So when I ask you about—"

"Please don't call me that."

Cody smiled his Hollywood grin. "Listen kid, humble's great, but you and Dr. Caldwell are the reason we're floating in this festering, godforsaken swamp. So if I tell you you're a young Einstein, you're a young Einstein, got it?"

David, a man sporting an IQ seventy points lower than the deceased Princeton professor, slapped me playfully across the shoulder blades. "Just roll with it, kid."

"We're ready here," Hank announced, looking through his rubber eyepiece. "You've got about fifteen minutes of good light left."

"Okay boys, keep looking out to sea, nice and casual… and we're rolling. So Zack, let's start with you. Tell us what led you to invent this acoustic thingamajiggy."

I focused on the horizon as instructed, the sun splashing gold on my tanned complexion. "Well, I've spent most of the last two years studying cetacean echolocation. Echolocation is created by an acoustic organ, unique in dolphins and whales, that provides them with an ultrasonic vision of their environment. For example, when a sperm whale clicks, or echolocates, the sound waves bounce off objects, sending back audio frequency pictures of the mammal's surroundings."

"Like sonar?"

"Yes, only far more advanced. For instance, when a dolphin echolocates a shark, it not only sees its environment, but it can actually peer into the shark's belly to determine if it's hungry. Sort of like having a built-in ultrasound. These clicks also function as a form of communication among other members of the cetacean species, who can tap into the audio transmission spectrum, using it as a form of language.

"Using underwater microphones, I've been able to create a library of echolocation clicks. By chance, I discovered that certain sperm whale recordings, taken during deep hunting dives, stimulated our resident squid population to feed."

"That's right," David blurted out, interrupting me. "Squid, intelligent creatures in their own right, often feed on the scraps left behind by sperm whales. By using the sperm whales' feeding frequency, we were able to entice squid to the microphone, creating, in essence, a cephalopod lure."

"Amazing," Cody replied. "But fellows, gaining the attention of a four-foot squid is one thing, how do you think this device will work in attracting a giant squid? I mean, you're talking about a deep-sea creature, sixty feet in length, that's never been seen alive."

"They're still cephalopods," David answered, intent on taking over the interview. "While it's true we've never seen a living specimen, we know from carcasses that have washed ashore and by remains found in the bellies of sperm whales that the animals' anatomies are similar to those of their smaller cousins."

"Fantastic. David, why don't you give us a quick rundown of this first dive."

I held my tongue, my wounded ego seething.

"Our cephalopod lure's been attached to the retractable arm of the submersible. Our goal is to descend to thirty-three hundred feet, entice a giant squid up from the abyss, then capture it on film. Because
Architeuthis
prefers the very deep waters, deeper than our submersible can go, we're waiting until dark to begin our expedition, hoping the creatures will ascend with nightfall, following the food chain's nocturnal migration into the shallows."

"Explain that last bit. What do you mean by nocturnal migration?"

"Why don't I let Dr. Wallace take over," David offered, bailing out before he had to tax his left brain.

I inhaled a few temper-reducing breaths. "Giant squids inhabit an area known as the mid-water realm, by definition, the largest continuous living space on Earth. While photosynthesis initiates food chains among the surface layers of the ocean, in the mid-water realm, the primary source of nutrients come from phytoplankton, microscopic plants. Mid-water creatures live in absolute darkness, but once the sun sets, they rise en masse to graze on the phytoplankton, a nightly event that's been described as the largest single migration of living organisms on the planet."

"Great stuff, great stuff. Hank, how's the light?"

"Fifteen minutes, give or take."

"Let's keep moving, getting more into the personal. Zack, tell us about yourself. Dr. Caldwell tells me you're an American citizen, originally from Scotland."

"Yes. I grew up in the Scottish Highlands, in a small village called Drumnadrochit."

"That's at the head of Urquhart Bay, on Loch Ness," David chimed in. "Really?"

"My mother's American," I said, the red flags waving in my brain. "My parents met while she was on holiday. We moved to New York when I was nine."

With a brazen leer, David leaned forward, mimicking a Scots accent, "Dr. Wallace is neglecting the time he spent as a wee laddie, hangin' oot wi' visitin' teams o' Nessie hunters, aren't ye, Dr. Wallace?"

I shot David a look that would boil flesh.

The director naturally jumped on his lead. "So it was actually the legend of the Loch Ness Monster that stoked your love of science. Fascinating."

And there it was, the dreaded "M" word. Loch Ness was synonymous with Monster, and Monster meant Nessie, a cryptozoologist's dream, a marine biologist's nightmare. Nessie was "fringe" science, an industry of folklore, created by tourism and fast-talkers like my father.

Being associated with Nessie had destroyed many a scientist's career, most notably Dr. Denys Tucker, of the British Museum of Natural History. Dr. Tucker had held his post for eleven years, and, at one time, had been considered the foremost authority on eels… until he hinted to the press that he was interested in launching an investigation into the Loch Ness Monster.

A short time later he was dismissed, his career as a scientist all but over.

Being linked to Loch Ness on a
National Geographic
special could destroy my reputation as a serious scientist, but it was already too late. David had led me to the dogshit, and, as my mother would say, I had "stepped in it." Now the goal was to keep from dragging it all over the carpet.

"Let me be clear here," I proclaimed, my booming voice threatening Hank's wife's microphone, "I was never actually one of those 'Nessie' hunters."

"Ah, but you've always had an interest in Loch Ness, haven't you?" David crowed, still pushing the angle.

He was like a horny high school boy, refusing to give up after his date said she wasn't in the mood. I turned to face him, catching the full rays of the setting sun square in my eyes—a fatal mistake for a migraine sufferer.

"Loch Ness is a unique place, Dr. Caldwell," I retorted, "but not everyone who visits comes looking for monsters. As a boy, I met many serious environmentalists who were there strictly to investigate the Loch's algae content, or its peat, or its incredible depths. They were naturalists, like my great ancestor, Alfred Russel Wallace. You see, despite all this nonsense about legendary water beasts, the Loch remains a magnificent body of water, unique in its—"

"But most of these teams came searching for Nessie, am I right?"

I glanced in the direction of David's boyish face, with its bleached- blond mustache and matching Moe Howard bangs, but all I could see were spots, purple demons that blinded my vision.

Migraine…

My skin tingled at the thought. I knew I needed to pop a
Zomig
before the brain storm moved into its more painful stages, yet on I babbled, trying desperately to salvage the interview and possibly, my career.

"Well, David, it's not like you can escape it. They've turned Nessie into an industry over there, haven't they?"

"And have you ever spotted the monster?"

I wanted to choke him right on-camera. I wanted to rip the shell necklace from his paisley Hawaiian shirt and crush his puny neck in my bare hands, but my left brain, stubborn as always, refused to relinquish control. "Excuse me, Dr. Caldwell, I thought we were here to discuss giant squids?"

David pushed on. "Stay with me, kid, I'm going somewhere with this. Have you ever spotted the monster?"

I forced a laugh, my right eye beginning to throb. "Look, I don't know about you,
Dr. Caldwell
, but I'm a marine biologist. We're supposed to leave the myth chasing to the crypto guys."

"Ah, but you see, that's exactly my point. It wasn't long ago that these giant squids were considered more myth than science. The legend of the Scylla in the
Odyssey
, the monster in Tennyson's poem, The Kraken.' As a young boy growing up so close to Loch Ness, surely you must have been influenced by the greatest legend of them all?"

Cody Saults was loving it, while tropical storm David, located in the latitude of my right eye, was increasing into a hurricane.

"…maybe hunting for Nessie as a child became the foundation for your research into locating the elusive giant squid. I'm not trying to put words in your mouth, but—"

"Butts are for crapping, Dr. Caldwell, and so's everything that follows! Nessie's crap, too. It's nothing but a nonsensical legend embellished to increase Highland tourism. I'm not a travel agent, I'm a scientist in search of a real sea creature, not some Scottish fabrication. Now if you two will excuse me, I need to use the head."

Without waiting, I pushed past David and the director and entered the ship's infrastructure, in desperate search of the nearest bathroom. The purple spots were gone, the eye pain already intensifying. The next phase would be vomiting—brain-rattling, vein-popping vomiting. This would be followed by weakness and pain and more vomiting, and eventually, if I didn't put a bullet through my skull, I'd mercifully pass out.

It was misery, which is why, like all migraine sufferers, I tried to avoid things that set me off: direct lighting, excessive caffeine, and the stress that, to me, revolved around the taboo subject of my childhood.

My stomach was already gurgling, the pain in my eye crippling as I hurried past lab doors and staterooms. Ducking inside the nearest bathroom, I locked the door, knelt by the toilet, shoved a sacrificial digit down my throat, and puked.

The intestinal tremor released my lunch, threatening to implode the blood vessels leading to my brain. It continued on, until my stomach was empty, my will to live sapped.

For several moments I remained there, my head balanced on the cool, bacteria-laced rim of the toilet.

Maybe Lisa was right. Maybe I did need to loosen up.

 

* * *

 

It was dark by the time I emerged on deck, my long brown hair matted to my forehead, my blue eyes glassy and bloodshot. The migraine had left me weak and shaky, and I'd have preferred to remain in bed, but it was nearly time to descend, and I knew David would grab my spot aboard the sub in a New York minute if I waited any longer.

A blood-red patch of light revealed all that was left of the western horizon, the sweltering heat of day yielding to the coolness of night. Inhaling several deep lungfuls of fresh air, I made my way aft to the stern, now a hub of activity. The ship's lights were on, creating a theater by which four technicians and a half dozen scientists completed their final check on the
Massett-6
, the twenty-seven-foot-long submersible now suspended four feet off the deck like a giant alien insect.

Able to explore depths down to thirty-five hundred feet, the
Massett-6
was a three-man deep-sea sub that consisted of an acrylic glasslike observation bubble, mounted to a rectangular-shaped aluminum chamber, its walls five inches thick. Running beneath the submersible was an exterior platform and skid that supported flotation tanks, hoses, recording devices, gas cylinders containing oxygen and air, primary and secondary batteries, a series of collection baskets, arc lights, a hydraulic manipulator arm, and nine 100-pound thrusters.

I caught David leaning against the sub, hastily pulling on a blue and gold jumpsuit—my jumpsuit—when he saw me approach. "Zack? Where've you been? We, uh, we didn't think you were going to make it."

"Nice try. Now take off my jumpsuit, I'm fine."

"You look pale."

"I said I'm fine, no thanks to you. What was all that horseshit about Loch Ness? You trying to discredit me on national TV?"

"Of course not. We're a team, remember? I just thought it made for a great angle.
Discovery Channel
loves that mysterious stuff, we can pitch them next."

"Forget it. I've worked way too hard to destroy my reputation with this nonsense. Now, for the last time, get your scrawny butt outta my jumpsuit."

"We're ready here," announced Ace Futrell, our mission coordinator. "Mr. Wallace, if you'd care to grace us with your presence."

The cameras rolled. David, back to playing the dutiful mentor, animated a few last-minute instructions to me as I slid my feet into the jumpsuit. "Remember, kid, this is our big chance, it's our show. Work the audience. Relate to them. Get 'em on your side."

"Chill out, David. This isn't an infomercial."

The hatch of the
Massett-6
was located beneath the submersible's aft observation compartment behind the main battery assembly. Kneeling below the sub, I poked my head and shoulders into the opening and climbed up.

The vehicle's interior was a cross between a helicopter cockpit and an FBI surveillance van. The claustrophobic aluminum chamber was crammed with video monitors, life-support equipment, carbon dioxide scrubbers, and gas analyzers, along with myriad pipes and pressurized hoses. Conversely, the forward compartment was a two-seat acrylic bubble that offered panoramic views of the sub's surroundings.

BOOK: The Loch
3.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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