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Authors: Steve Alten

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BOOK: The Loch
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"We're getting the feed. Congratulations, partner," David broke in over the radio, "we did it."

"Yeah, we," I mumbled.

The sound of wrenching aluminum caused me to jump. "What was—"

"Stand by." Lacombe seemed genuinely concerned, and that worried me. At three thousand feet, water pressure is a hundred times greater than at the surface, meaning even the slightest breach in our hull would kill us in a matter of seconds.

What if she tears loose a plate? What if she breaks open a seal?

The thought of drowning sent waves of panic crawling through my belly.

"Hey!" Hank aimed his camera at one of the video monitors. The grainy gray picture revealed an impossibly large tubular body and the edge of one gruesome eye, as massive as an adult human's head. Several of the squid's tentacles were tugging at the sealed lid on one of the collection baskets.

"She's only after the fish," I declared, praying I was right. The creature tore the lid off the steel basket as if it were a child's toy, releasing 200 pounds of salmon to the sea.

As we watched, one of the two longer feeding tentacles deftly corralled a fish, while the others resealed the collection basket, preventing more fish from drifting away.

The pilot shook his head, amazed. "Now that's impressive."

"Yes," I agreed, trying to mask my concern. "Her brain's large and complex, with a highly developed nervous system."

"Control to
Six
." This time it was the surface ship's radioman who sounded urgent.

Lacombe and I looked at one another.
"Six
here, go ahead, Control."

"We've detected something new on sonar. Multiple contacts, definitely biologics, not a squid, and like nothing we've ever heard. Depth's seven thousand feet, range two miles. Whatever they are, they've just adjusted their course and are ascending, heading in your direction. Feeding the acoustics to you now. Dr. Caldwell seems to think it's just a school of fish, but we're officially recommending you surface immediately, do you concur?"

Lacombe turned the volume up on his sonar so Hank and I could listen.

Blee-bloop… Blee-bloop… Blee-bloop… Blee-bloop…

The pilot looked at me, waiting for a verdict.

"Way too loud to be a school of fish," I whispered, my mind racing to identify the vaguely familiar pattern. "Sounds almost like an amphibious air cavity."

"Must be a whale," offered Hank.

"At seven thousand feet? Not even a sperm whale can dive that deep." I plugged my own headset into the console to listen privately.

Blee-bloop… Blee-bloop… Blee-bloop …

It was a freakish sound, almost like a water jug expelling its contents.

And suddenly my brain kicked into gear. "I don't believe it," I whispered. "It's the
Bloop."

"What the hell's a Bloop?"

"We don't know."

"What do you mean you don't know?" the pilot shot back. "You just called it a Bloop."

"That's the name the Navy assigned it. All we know is what they're not. They're not whales, because of the extreme depths, and they're not sharks or giant squids, because neither species possesses gas-filled sacs to make noises this loud."

"Are they dangerous?" Hank asked. "Will they attack?"

"I don't know, but I sure as hell don't want to find out this deep." Lacombe got the message.
"Six
to Control, we're out of here."

Grabbing his control stick, he activated the thrusters, adjusting the submersible's fairwater planes.

We began rising, crawling at a snail's pace.

"Look!" yelled Hank. The giant squid had abandoned the catch basket and was now scampering up the bubble, its tentacles wrapping around the cockpit glass, blocking much of our view. "She knows it's out there, too."

"What scares a giant squid?" I wondered aloud, then grabbed my arm rests as the submersible was jolted beneath us and the sound of twisting metal echoed throughout the compartment.

Lacombe swore as he scanned his control panel. "It's your damn octopus. It's wedging itself beneath the manipulator arm."

"She's frightened."

"Yeah, well so am I. That sound you're hearing is our oxygen and air storage tanks being pried away from the sub's sled. We lose that and the
Massett-6
becomes an anchor." The pilot repositioned his headset as he dialed up more pressure into the ballast tanks.
"Six
to Control, we've got an emergency—"

Another jolt cut him off, followed by an explosion that rattled our bones and released an avalanche of bubbles. Thunder roared in our ears as the sea quaked around us. Red warning lights flashed across Lacombe's control panel like a Christmas display, and the once cocky pilot suddenly looked very pale.
"Six
, we just lost primary and secondary ballast tanks. Internal hydraulic system is off-line. Propulsion system's failing—"

And then, my lovelies, the
Massett-6
began falling.

It fell slowly, tail first, but it was worse than any thrill ride I'd ever been on. Metal groaned and plates shook, and my hair seemed to stand on end, rustling against the back of my chair.

The rest of me just felt numb.

The pilot glanced in my direction, his expression confirming our death sentence.

Ace Futrell's voice over the radio sent a glimmer of hope. "Control to
Six
, hang in there, guys, we're readying an ROV with a tow line. What's your depth?"

Lacombe's perspiring face glistened in the control panel's translucent light. "Three-three-six-four feet, dropping fifty feet a minute. Better get that ROV down here quick!"

I felt helpless, like a passenger aboard an airliner that had just lost its engines, accompanied by an inner voice that refused to shut up.
What are you doing here? God, don't let me die… not yet, please. Lisa was right, I should've lived a little. Lord, get me out of this mess, and I swear, I'll—

The sub rolled and rattled, shattering my repentance, and I fell back in my seat, my sweaty palms gripping the armrests, my eyes watching the depth gauge as I tensed for our one final, skull-crushing implosion.

"Jesus, there's something else out there!" Hank cried, pointing between the squid's thrashing tentacles.

I leaned forward. Several long, dark figures were circling us, stalking the squid. I could see shadows of movement, but before I could focus, our bubble became enshrouded in clouds of ink.

The Bloops were launching their attack.

Through my headphones, I could hear them as they tore into the giant squid, their sickening high-pitched growls, like hungry fox terriers, gnawing upon their prey's succulent flesh.

My mind abandoned me then. Too terrified to reason, I squeezed my eyes shut—and was suddenly hit with a subliminal image from my childhood.

Underwater.

Deathly cold.

The darkness—pierced by a funnel of heavenly light!

Get to the light… get to the light—

 

 

"The light!" Opening my eyes, I tossed aside my shoulder harness and twisted the knob on the control station panel, changing the arc lights from red back to normal.

The sea appeared again, and we could see the torn hydraulic hoses and the sub's mangled manipulator arm dangling from its ravaged perch, along with the severed remains of lifeless tentacles, all swirling in a pool of black soup.

"Control to
Six.
The ROV's in the water. Hang in there, Don, we're coming to get you."

"Huh?" Lacombe pulled himself away from the spectacle outside to check our depth. "Control, we just passed thirty-eight hundred feet. Put the pedal to the metal, Ace, we're living on borrowed time."

I was on my feet now, looking straight up through the bubble cockpit at a lone tentacle still wrapped around the sub's tow arm. The arm's death grip was preventing the rest of the dead squid's gushing mantle and head from releasing to the sea.

Lost in the moment, I stood and watched that lifeless appendage as it slowly unfurled. The remains of the giant squid's torpedo-shaped body released, drifting up and away, away from our light.

They were upon it in seconds, long brown forms darting in and out of the shadows, each maybe twenty to thirty feet in length, ravaging the carcass like a pack of starving wolves.

They were dark and fast and were too far away for me to identify, but their size and sheer voracity intensified my fear. I was witnessing a gruesome display of Mother Nature—it was pure animal instinct— and for a brief moment I felt relieved I'd be dead long before their voracious jaws ever tore into my flesh.

Craaaaack…

Death danced before me once more as the hairline fracture worked its way slowly, inch by crooked inch, across the acrylic bubble. The fear in my gut seemed to suck me in like a black hole.

Lacombe grabbed desperately for his radio. "Ace, where's that goddamn ROV?!"

"She just passed twenty-two hundred feet."

"Not good enough, Control, we're in serious trouble down here!"

I fell back in my chair again, then I was up on my feet, unable to sit, unable to keep still, the pressure building inside the cabin, building inside my skull, as the crack in the acrylic bubble continued spider- webbing outward, and the depth gauge crept below 4,230 feet.

I closed my eyes, my breathing shallow, insane last thoughts creeping into my mind. I imagined David Caldwell reading my eulogy at a grave site. "… sure, we'll miss him, but as the Beatles said, oh blah dee, oh blah da, life goes on… bra—"

Just when I thought things couldn't get worse, the Grim Reaper proved me wrong. With a sizzling hiss, the sub's batteries short-circuited, casting the three of us in a sudden, suffocating, claustrophobic darkness.

Panic seized me, sitting on my chest like an elephant. I gasped for air, I couldn't breathe!

Neon blue emergency lights flashed on as the blessed backup generator took over.

I wheezed an acidic-tasting breath, then another, as I watched the blue lights begin to dim.

"Just hang on, just hang on, we'll be all right." Lacombe was hyperventilating, clearly not believing his own lie.

The aft compartment's five-inch aluminum walls buckled in retort.

All of us were losing it, waiting our turn to die, but poor Hank couldn't take any more. Limbs shaking, his eyes insane with fear, he announced, "I gotta get out of here—" then lunged for the escape hatch.

Paralyzed, I could only watch the drama unfold as Donald Lacombe leaped into the rear compartment and tackled the cameraman, pinning him to the deck. "Kid, get back here and help me! Kid?"

But I was gone, my muscles frozen, my mind mesmerized, for staring at me from beyond the cockpit's cracking acrylic windshield was a pair of round, sinister, opaque eyes… cold and soulless, unthinking eyes of death… mythic and nightmarish, eyes that burn into a man's mind to haunt him the rest of his days… as final as a casket being lowered into the earth and as unfeeling as the maggots that reap upon the flesh.

It was death that stared at me, brain-splattering, final as final can be death—and I screamed like I've never screamed before, a bloodcurdling howl that halted Hank Griffeth in his delirium and sent Donald Lacombe scrambling back over his seat.

The dragon can sense yer fear, Zachary, he can smell it in yer blood.
"What? What did you see?"

I gasped, fighting for air to form the words, but the creature was gone, replaced by a blinking red light, now closing in the distance.

Lacombe pointed excitedly, "It's the ROV!"

The mini torpedo-shaped remotely operated vehicle homed in on the sonic distress beacon emanating from our tow hook. Within seconds, the end of the tow-cable was attached, the line instantly going taut. Our submersible groaned and spun, then stopped sinking.

I closed my eyes and continued hyperventilating, still frightened beyond all reason.

"Control, we're attached, but the pressure's cracked the bubble. Take us up, Ace, fast and steady!"

"Roger that, Don. Stand by."

Tears of relief poured from my two companions' eyes as the crippled
Massett-6
rose. As for me, I could only stare at the depth gauge as I trembled, counting off seconds and feet as we climbed. 4,200 feet… 4,150… 4,100 …

To my horror, the cracks in the acrylic bubble continued radiating outward, racing to complete the fracture.

3,800 feet… 3,700… 3,600 …

My mind switched into left-brain mode, instantly calculating our constant rate of ascent against the pattern of cracks and declining water pressure squeezing against the glass.

No good, the glass won't hold… we need to climb faster!

A pipe burst overhead, spewing icy water all over my back. Leaping from my seat, I attacked the shut-off valve like a madman. "Faster, Control, she's breaking up!"

3,150… 3,100… 3,050…

The pipe leak sealed, I curled in a ball, allowing Hank to replace me up front.

2,800 feet… 2,700… 2,600 …

The first droplets of seawater appeared along the cracks in the bubble. "Come on, baby," Lacombe chanted, "hold on… just a little bit longer."

1,800 feet… 1,700… 1,600 …

We seemed to be rising faster now, the ebony sea melding around us into shades of gray, dawn's curtains filtering into the depths.

The pilot and cameraman giggled and slapped one another on the back.

Hyperventilating, I exhaled and inhaled, preparing my lungs for the rush of sea I prayed would never come.

"Thank you, Jesus, thank you," Hank whispered, crossing himself with one hand, wiping sweat and tears from his beet-red face with the other. "Praise God, we're saved."

"Told you we'd make it," Donald said, his cockiness returning with the light.

"My kids… I can't wait to hug them again."

What were they talking about? Didn't they realize we were still too deep, still in danger?

"Hey, Zack, hand me my camera, we need to document our triumphant return."

Like a zombie, I reached to the deck and picked up the heavy piece of equipment, passing it forward, confused about why we were still alive.

BOOK: The Loch
3.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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