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Authors: Steve Alten

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BOOK: The Loch
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Taking my assigned place up front in the copilot's seat, I tightened the shoulder harness, then inspected the controls of my sonic lure, which had been jury-rigged to the console on my right. Everything seemed stat. Looking above my head out of the bubble, I watched as a technician double-checked the lure's underwater speaker, now attached to the vessel's exterior tow hook.

Donald Lacombe, the sub's pilot, joined me in the cockpit, wasting little time in establishing who was boss. "All right, boy genius, here's the drill. Keep your keister in your seat and don't touch anything without being told.
Capische?"

"Aye, aye, sir."

"And nobody likes a smart-ass. You're in my vessel now, blah blah blah blah blah." Tuning him out, I turned to watch Hank Griffeth as he climbed awkwardly into the aft compartment. A crewman handed him up his camera, then sealed the rear hatch.

The radio squawked. "Control to
Six
, prepare to launch." Lacombe spoke into his headset, clearly in his element. "Roger that, Ace, prepare to launch."

Moments later, the A-frame's crane activated, and the submersible rose away from the deck, extending twenty feet beyond the stern. The
Manhattanville
's keel lights illuminated, creating an azure patch in the otherwise dark, glassy surface, and we were lowered into the sea.

For the next ten minutes, divers circled our sub, detaching its harness and rechecking hoses and equipment. Lacombe kept busy, completing his checklist with Ace Futrell aboard the research ship, while Donald showed me photos of his children.

"So when will you and this fiancée of yours start having kids? Nothing like a few rug rats running around to make a house a home."

No problem havin' children, runt. The Wallace curse skips every other generation.

"Zack?"

"Huh?" I shook my head, the lingering ache of the migraine scattering my estranged father's words. "Sorry. No kids, at least not for a while. Too much work to do."

I returned my attention to the control panel, forcing my thoughts back to our voyage. Descending thousands of feet into the ocean depths was similar to flying. One is always aware of the danger, yet comforted in the knowledge that the majority of planes land safely, just as most subs return to the surface. I had been in a submersible twice before, but this voyage was different, meant to attract one of the most dangerous, if least understood, predators in the sea.

My heart pounded with excitement, the adrenaline escorting Angus's words from my thoughts.

Ace Futrell's commands filtered over the radio. "Control to
Six
, you are clear to submerge. Bon voyage, and good hunting."

"Roger that, Control. See you in the morning."

Lacombe activated the ballast controls, allowing seawater to enter the pressurized tanks beneath the sub. Weighed down, the neutrally buoyant
Massett-6
began to sink, trailing a stream of silvery air bubbles.

The pilot checked his instruments, activated his sonar, engaged his thrusters, then turned to me. "Hey, rookie, ever been in one of these submersibles?"

"Twice, but the missions were only two hours long. Nothing like this."

"Then we'll keep it simple. Batteries and air scrubbers'll allow us to stay below up to eighteen hours, but maneuverability's the pits. Top speed's one knot, best depth's thirty-five hundred feet. We drop too far below that, and the hull will crush like a soda can. Pressure will pop your head like a grape."

I acknowledged the pilot's attempt to put me in my place, countering with my own. "Know much about giant squids? This vessel's twenty-seven feet. The creature we're after is more than twice its size—forty to fifty feet—weighing in excess of a ton. Once we make contact with one of these monsters, be sure to follow my exact instructions."

It's okay to use the "M" word when attempting to intimidate.

Lacombe shrugged it off, but I could tell he was weighing my words. "Three hundred feet," he called out to Hank, who was already filming. "Activating exterior lights."

The twin beams lanced through the black sea, turning it a Mediterranean blue.

And what a spectacle it was, like being in a giant fishbowl in the middle of the greatest aquarium on Earth. I gawked for a full ten minutes before turning to face the camera, doing my best Carl Sagan impression.

"We're leaving the surface waters now, approaching what many biologists call the 'twilight zone.' As we move deeper, we'll be able to see how the creatures that inhabit these mid-water zones have adapted to life in the constant darkness."

Lacombe pointed, refusing to be upstaged. "Looks like we've got our first visitor."

A bizarre jellylike giant with a pulsating bell-shaped head drifted past the cockpit, the creature's transparent forty-five-foot-long body set aglow in our artificial lights.

"That's a siphonophore," I stated, fully immersed in lecture mode. "Its body's made up of millions of stinger cells that trail through the sea like a net as it searches for food."

Next to arrive were a half dozen piranha-sized fish, with bulbous eyes and terrifying fangs. As they turned, their flat bodies reflected silvery-blue in the sub's beams.

"These are hatchet fish," I went on. "Their bodies contain light- producing photo-phores which countershade their silhouettes, allowing them to blend with the twilight sea. In these dark waters, it's essential to see but not be seen. As we move deeper, we'll find more creatures who rely on bioluminescence not only to camouflage themselves, but to attract prey."

Jellyfish of all sizes and shapes drifted silently past the cockpit, their transparent bodies glowing a deep red in the sub's lights. "Pilot, would you shut down the lights a moment?"

He shot me a perturbed look, then reluctantly powered off the beams. We were surrounded by the silence of utter blackness.

"Watch," I whispered.

A sudden flash appeared in the distance, followed by a dozen more, and suddenly the sea was alive with a pyrotechnic display of bioluminescence as a thousand neon blue lightbulbs flashed randomly in the darkness.

"Amazing," Hank muttered, continuing to film. "It's like these fish are communicating."

"Communicating and hunting," I agreed. "Nature always finds a way to adapt, even in the harshest environments."

"Two thousand feet," the pilot announced.

An adult gulper eel slithered by, its mouth nearly unhinging as it engulfed an unsuspecting fish. All in all, I couldn't have asked for a better performance.

But the best was yet to come.

It was getting noticeably colder in the cabin, so I zipped up my jumpsuit, too full of pride to ask the pilot to raise the heat.

Hank repositioned his camera, then reviewed the list of prompts Cody Saults had given him. "Okay, Zack, tell us about the giant squid. I read where you think it might actually be a mutation?"

"It's just a theory."

"Sounds interesting, give us a rundown. Wait… give me a second to re-focus. Okay, go ahead."

"Mutations happen all the time in nature. They can be caused by radiation, or spontaneously, or sometimes by the organism itself as a form of adaptation to changes within its environment. Most mutations are neutral, meaning they have no effect upon the organism. Some, however, can be very beneficial or very harmful, depending upon the environment and circumstance.

"Mutations that affect the future of a particular species are heritable changes in particular sequences of nucleotides. Without these mutations, evolution as we know it wouldn't be possible. For instance, the accidents, errors, and lucky circumstances that caused humans to evolve from lower primates were all mutations. Some mutations lead to dead ends, or extinction of the species. Neanderthal, for instance, was a dead-end mutation. Other mutations can alter the size of a particular genus, creating a new species altogether.

"In the case of
Architeuthis dux
, here we have a cephalopod, a member of the family
teuthid
, yet this particular offshoot has evolved into the largest invertebrate on the planet. Is it a mutation? Most certainly. The question is, why did it mutate in the first place? Perhaps as a defense mechanism against huge predators like the sperm whale. Was it a successful mutation or a dead end? Since we know so little about the creatures, it's impossible to say. Then again, who's to say
Homo sapiens
will be a success?"

The pilot rolled his eyes at my philosophical whims. "We just passed twenty-three hundred feet. Isn't it time you activated that device of yours?"

"Oh, yeah." Reaching to my right, I powered up the lure, sending a series of pulsating clicks chirping through the timeless sea.

I sat back, heart pounding with excitement, waiting for my "dragon" to appear.

 

* * *

 

"Yo, Jacques Cousteau Junior, it's been six hours. What happened to your giant octopus?"

I looked up at the pilot from behind my copy of
Popular Science
. "I don't know. There's no telling what kind of range the lure has, or whether a squid's even in the area."

The pilot returned to his game of solitaire. "Not exactly the answer
National Geographic
'll want to hear."

"Hey, this is science," I snapped. "Nature works on her own schedule." I looked around at the black sea. "How deep are we anyway?"

"Twenty-seven hundred feet."

"Christ, we're not deep enough! I specifically asked for thirty- three hundred feet. Giant squids prefer the cold. We need to be deeper, below the thermocline, or we're just wasting our time."

Lacombe's expression soured, knowing I had him by the short and curlies.
"Six
to Control. Ace, the kid wants me to descend to thirty-three hundred feet."

"Stand by,
Six
." A long silence, followed by the expected answer. "Permission granted."

 

* * *

 

A half mile to the south and eleven hundred fathoms below, the monster remained dead still in the silence and darkness. Fifty-nine feet of mantle and tentacles were condensed within a crevice of rock, its 1,900-pound body ready to uncoil like the spring on a mousetrap.

The carnivore scanned the depths with its two amber eyes, each as large as dinner plates. As intelligent as it was large, it could sense everything within its environment.

 

* * *

 

The female angler fish swam slowly past the outcropping of rock, dangling her own lure, a long spine tipped with a bioluminous bait. Attached to the underside of the female, wagging like a second tail were the remains of her smaller mate. In an unusual adaptation of sexual dimorphism, the male angler had ended its existence by biting into the body of the female, his mouth eventually fusing with her skin until the two bloodstreams had connected as one. Over time, the male would degenerate, losing his eyes and internal organs, becoming a permanent parasite, totally dependent upon the female for food.

Feeding for two, the female maneuvered her glowing lure closer to the outcropping of rock.

Whap!

Lashing through the darkness like a bungee cord, one of the squid's eighteen-foot feeder tentacles grasped the female angler within its leaf-shaped pad, piercing the stunned fish with an assortment of hooks protruding from its deadly rows of suckers. Drawing its prey toward its mouth, the hunter's parrotlike beak quickly crushed the meat into digestible chunks, its tongue guiding the morsels down its throat, the meat actually passing through its brain on its way to its stomach.

Architeuthis dux
pushed its twelve-foot torpedo-shaped head out of its craggy habitat, then swallowed the remains of the angler fish in one gulp.

The giant squid was still hungry, its appetite having been teased over the last eight hours by the sonic lure. Though tempted to rise and feed on what it perceived as the remains of a sperm whale kill, the immense cephalopod had remained below, refusing to venture into the warmer surface waters.

Now, as it finished off the remains of its snack, it detected the enticing presence moving closer, entering the cooler depths.

Hunger overruled caution. Drawing its eight arms free of the fissure, it pushed away from the rocky bottom and rose, its anvil-shaped tail fin propelling it through the darkness, its movements alerting
another
species in the Sargasso food chain to its presence.

 

* * *

 

Blip.

Blip… blip… blip…

Donald Lacombe stared at the sonar, playing up the drama for the camera. "It's a biologic, and it's big, headed right for us. Fifteen hundred feet and closing."

"Are we in any danger?" I asked, suddenly feeling vulnerable.

"I don't know, you're the marine biologist. Nine hundred feet. Stand by, it's slowing. Maybe it's checking us out?"

"It doesn't like the bright lights," I countered. "Switch to red lights only."

The pilot adjusted the outer beams, rotating the lenses to their less-brilliant red filters. "That did it, it's coming like a demon now. Three hundred feet. Two hundred. Better hold on!"

Seconds passed, and then the
Massett-6
shuddered, rolling hard to starboard as the unseen beast latched on to our main battery and sled.

My heart pounded, then I nearly jumped out of my shoes when the padded sucker, as wide as a catcher's mitt, snaked its way across the outside of our protective bubble.

Eight more tentacles joined in the dance, each appendage as thick as a fire hose, all moving independently from its still unseen owner.

Even the pilot was impressed. "Jeez-us, you actually did it! And will you look at the size of those tentacles? He must be a monster."

"She," I corrected. "Females grow much larger than males, and this monster's definitely a female."

Ah, the "M" word again. If only I had known…

The pilot flicked the toggle switch on his radio. "
Six
to Control, break out the bubbly, Ace, we've made contact."

We could hear clapping coming from the control room.

BOOK: The Loch
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