From the air, the flickering outline of the Goya loomed on the horizon. At half a mile, Tolland could make out the brilliant deck lights that his crewmember Xavia had wisely left glowing. When he saw the lights, he felt like a weary traveler pulling into his driveway.
“I thought you said only one person was onboard,” Rachel said, looking surprised to see all the lights.
“Don’t you leave a light on when you’re home alone?”
“One light. Not the entire house.”
Tolland smiled. Despite Rachel’s attempts to be lighthearted, he could tell she was extremely apprehensive about being out here. He wanted to put an arm around her and reassure her, but he knew there was nothing he could say. “The lights are on for security. Makes the ship look active.”
Corky chuckled. “Afraid of pirates, Mike?”
“Nope. Biggest danger out here is the idiots who don’t know how to read radar. Best defense against getting rammed is to make sure everyone can see you.”
Corky squinted down at the glowing vessel. “See you? It looks like a Carnival Cruise line on New Year’s Eve. Obviously, NBC pays your electric.”
The Coast Guard chopper slowed and banked around the huge illuminated ship, and the pilot began maneuvering toward the helipad on the stern deck. Even from the air, Tolland could make out the raging current pulling at the ship’s hull struts. Anchored from its bow, the Goya was aimed into the current, straining at its massive anchor line like a chained beast.
“She really is a beauty,” the pilot said, laughing.
Tolland knew the comment was sarcastic. The Goya was ugly. “Butt-ugly” according to one television reviewer. One of only seventeen SWATH ships ever built, the Goya’s Small-Waterplane-Area Twin-Hull was anything but attractive.
The vessel was essentially a massive horizontal platform floating thirty feet above the ocean on four huge struts affixed to pontoons. From a distance, the ship looked like a low-slung drilling platform. Up close, it resembled a deck barge on stilts. The crew quarters, research labs, and navigation bridge were housed in a series of tiered structures on top, giving one the rough impression of a giant floating coffee table supporting a hodgepodge of multistaged buildings.
Despite its less than streamlined appearance, the Goya’s design enjoyed significantly less water-plane area, resulting in increased stability. The suspended platform enabled better filming, easier lab work, and fewer seasick scientists. Although NBC was pressuring Tolland to let them buy him something newer, Tolland had refused. Granted, there were better ships out there now, even more stable ones, but the Goya had been his home for almost a decade now-the ship on which he had fought his way back after Celia’s death. Some nights he still heard her voice in the wind out on deck. If and when the ghosts ever disappeared, Tolland would consider another ship.
When the chopper finally set down on the Goya’s stern deck, Rachel Sexton felt only half-relieved. The good news was that she was no longer flying over the ocean. The bad news was that she was now standing on it. She fought off the shaky sensation in her legs as she climbed onto the deck and looked around. The deck was surprisingly cramped, particularly with the helicopter on its pad. Moving her eyes toward the bow, Rachel gazed at the ungainly, stacked edifice that made up the bulk of the ship.
Tolland stood close beside her. “I know,” he said, talking loudly over the sound of the raging current. “It looks bigger on television.”
Rachel nodded. “And more stable.”
“This is one of the safest ships on the sea. I promise.” Tolland put a hand on her shoulder and guided her across the deck.
The warmth of his hand did more to calm Rachel’s nerves than anything he could have said. Nonetheless, as she looked toward the rear of the ship, she saw the roiling current streaming out behind them as though the ship was at full throttle. We’re sitting on a megaplume, she thought.
Centered on the foremost section of rear deck, Rachel spied a familiar, one-man Triton submersible hanging on a giant winch. The Triton-named for the Greek god of the sea-looked nothing like its predecessor, the steel-encased Alvin. The Triton had a hemispherical acrylic dome in front, making it look more like a giant fishbowl than a sub. Rachel could think of few things more terrifying than submerging hundreds of feet into the ocean with nothing between her face and the ocean but a sheet of clear acrylic. Of course, according to Tolland, the only unpleasant part of riding in the Triton was the initial deployment-being slowly winched down through the trap door in the Goya’s deck, hanging like a pendulum thirty feet above the sea.
“Xavia is probably in the hydrolab,” Tolland said, moving across the deck. “This way.”
Rachel and Corky followed Tolland across the stern deck. The Coast Guard pilot remained in his chopper with strict instructions not to use the radio.
“Have a look at this,” Tolland said, pausing at the stern railing of the ship.
Hesitantly, Rachel neared the railing. They were very high up. The water was a good thirty feet below them, and yet Rachel could still feel the heat rising off the water.
“It’s about the temperature of a warm bath,” Tolland said over the sound of the current. He reached toward a switch-box on the railing. “Watch this.” He flipped a switch.
A wide arc of light spread through the water behind the ship, illuminating it from within like a lit swimming pool. Rachel and Corky gasped in unison.
The water around the ship was filled with dozens of ghostly shadows. Hovering only feet below the illuminated surface, armies of sleek, dark forms swam in parallel against the current, their unmistakable hammer-shaped skulls wagging back and forth as if to the beat of some prehistoric rhythm.
“Christ, Mike,” Corky stammered. “So glad you shared this with us.”
Rachel’s body went rigid. She wanted to step back from the railing, but she could not move. She was transfixed by the petrifying vista.
“Incredible, aren’t they?” Tolland said. His hand was on her shoulder again, comforting. “They’ll tread water in the warm spots for weeks. These guys have the best noses in the sea-enhanced telencephalon olfactory lobes. They can smell blood up to a mile away.”
Corky looked skeptical. “Enhanced telencephalon olfactory lobes?”
“Don’t believe me?” Tolland began rooting around in an aluminum cabinet adjacent to where they were standing. After a moment, he pulled out a small, dead fish. “Perfect.” He took a knife from the cooler and cut the limp fish in several places. It started to drip blood.
“Mike, for God’s sake,” Corky said. “That’s disgusting.”
Tolland tossed the bloody fish overboard and it fell thirty feet. The instant it hit the water, six or seven sharks darted in a tumbling ferocious brawl, their rows of silvery teeth gnashing wildly at the bloody fish. In an instant, the fish was gone.
Aghast, Rachel turned and stared at Tolland, who was already holding another fish. Same kind. Same size.
“This time, no blood,” Tolland said. Without cutting the fish, he threw it in the water. The fish splashed down, but nothing happened. The hammerheads seemed not to notice. The bait carried away on the current, having drawn no interest whatsoever.
“They attack only on sense of smell,” Tolland said, leading them away from the railing. “In fact, you could swim out here in total safety-provided you didn’t have any open wounds.”
Corky pointed to the stitches on his cheek.
Tolland frowned. “Right. No swimming for you.”
Gabrielle Ashe’s taxi was not moving.
Sitting at a roadblock near the FDR Memorial, Gabrielle looked out at the emergency vehicles in the distance and felt as if a surrealistic fog bank had settled over the city. Radio reports were coming in now that the exploded car might have contained a high-level government official.
Pulling out her cellphone, she dialed the senator. He was no doubt starting to wonder what was taking Gabrielle so long.
The line was busy.
Gabrielle looked at the taxi’s clicking meter and frowned. Some of the other cars stuck here were pulling up onto the curbs and turning around to find alternative routes.
The driver looked over his shoulder. “You wanna wait? Your dime.”
Gabrielle saw more official vehicles arriving now. “No. Let’s go around.”
The driver grunted in the affirmative and began maneuvering the awkward multipoint turn. As they bounced over the curbs, Gabrielle tried Sexton again.
Several minutes later, having made a wide loop, the taxi was traveling up C Street. Gabrielle saw the Philip A. Hart Office Building looming. She had intended to go straight to the senator’s apartment, but with her office this close…
“Pull over,” she blurted to the driver. “Right there. Thanks.” She pointed.
The cab stopped.
Gabrielle paid the amount on the meter and added ten dollars. “Can you wait ten minutes?”
The cabbie looked at the money and then at his watch. “Not a minute longer.”
Gabrielle hurried off. I’ll be out in five.
The deserted marble corridors of the Senate office building felt almost sepulchral at this hour. Gabrielle’s muscles were tense as she hurried through the gauntlet of austere statues lining the third-floor entryway. Their stony eyes seemed to follow her like silent sentinels.
Arriving at the main door of Senator Sexton’s five-room office suite, Gabrielle used her key card to enter. The secretarial lobby was dimly lit. Crossing through the foyer, she went down a hallway to her office. She entered, flicked on the fluorescent lights, and strode directly to her file cabinets.
She had an entire file on the budgeting of NASA’s Earth Observing System, including plenty of information on PODS. Sexton would certainly want all the data he could possibly get on PODS as soon as she told him about Harper.
NASA lied about PODS.
As Gabrielle fingered her way through her files, her cellphone rang.
“Senator?” she answered.
“No, Gabs. It’s Yolanda.” Her friend’s voice had an unusual edge to it. “You still at NASA?”
“No. At the office.”
“Find anything at NASA?”
You have no idea. Gabrielle knew she couldn’t tell Yolanda anything until she’d talked to Sexton; the senator would have very specific ideas about how best to handle the information. “I’ll tell you all about it after I talk to Sexton. Heading over to his place now.”
Yolanda paused. “Gabs, you know this thing you were saying about Sexton’s campaign finance and the SFF?”
“I told you I was wrong and-”
“I just found out two of our reporters who cover the aerospace industry have been working on a similar story.”
Gabrielle was surprised. “Meaning?”
“I don’t know. But these guys are good, and they seem pretty convinced that Sexton is taking kickbacks from the Space Frontier Foundation. I just figured I should call you. I know I told you earlier that the idea was insane. Marjorie Tench as a source seemed spotty, but these guys of ours… I don’t know, you might want to talk to them before you see the senator.”
“If they’re so convinced, why haven’t they gone to press?” Gabrielle sounded more defensive than she wanted to.
“They have no solid evidence. The senator apparently is good at covering his tracks.”
Most politicians are. “There’s nothing there, Yolanda. I told you the senator admitted taking SFF donations, but the gifts are all under the cap.”
“I know that’s what he told you, Gabs, and I’m not claiming to know what’s true or false here. I just felt obliged to call because I told you not to trust Marjorie Tench, and now I find out people other than Tench think the senator may be on the dole. That’s all.”
“Who were these reporters?” Gabrielle felt an unexpected anger simmering now.
“No names. I can set up a meeting. They’re smart. They understand campaign finance law… ” Yolanda hesitated. “You know, these guy actually believe Sexton is hurting for cash-bankrupt even.”
In the silence of her office, Gabrielle could hear Tench’s raspy accusations echoing. After Katherine died, the senator squandered the vast majority of her legacy on bad investments, personal comforts, and buying himself what appears to be certain victory in the primaries. As of six months ago, your candidate was broke.
“Our men would love to talk to you,” Yolanda said.
I bet they would, Gabrielle thought. “I’ll call you back.”
“You sound pissed.”
“Never at you, Yolanda. Never at you. Thanks.”
Gabrielle hung up.
Dozing on a chair in the hallway outside Senator Sexton’s Westbrooke apartment, a security guard awoke with a start at the sound of his cellular phone. Bolting up in his chair, he rubbed his eyes and pulled his phone from his blazer pocket.
“Owen, this is Gabrielle.”
Sexton’s guard recognized her voice. “Oh, hi.”
“I need to talk to the senator. Would you knock on his door for me? His line is busy.”
“It’s kind of late.”
“He’s awake. I’m sure of it.” Gabrielle sounded anxious. “It’s an emergency.”
“Same one. Just get him on the phone, Owen. There’s something I really need to ask him.”
The guard sighed, standing up. “Okay, okay. I’ll knock.” He stretched and made his way toward Sexton’s door. “But I’m only doing it because he was glad I let you in earlier.” Reluctantly, he raised his fist to knock.
“What did you just say?” Gabrielle demanded.
The guard’s fist stopped in midair. “I said the senator was glad I let you in earlier. You were right. It was no problem at all.”
“You and the senator talked about that?” Gabrielle sounded surprised.
“Yeah. So what?”
“No, I just didn’t think… ”
“Actually, it was kind of weird. The senator needed a couple of seconds to even remember you’d been in there. I think the boys were tossing back a few.”
“When did you two talk, Owen?”
“Right after you left. Is something wrong?”
A momentary silence. “No… no. Nothing. Look, now that I think of it, let’s not bother the senator this instant. I’ll keep trying his house line, and if I don’t have any luck, I’ll call you back and you can knock.”
The guard rolled his eyes. “Whatever you say, Ms. Ashe.”
“Thanks, Owen. Sorry to bother you.”
“No problem.” The guard hung up, flopped back in his chair, and went to sleep.
Alone in her office, Gabrielle stood motionless for several seconds before hanging up the phone. Sexton knows I was inside his apartment… and he never mentioned it to me?
Tonight’s ethereal strangeness was getting murkier. Gabrielle flashed on the senator’s phone call to her while she was at ABC. The senator had stunned her with his unprovoked admission that he was meeting with space companies and accepting money. His honesty had brought her back to him. Shamed her even. His confession now seemed one hell of a lot less noble.
Soft money, Sexton had said. Perfectly legal.
Suddenly, all the vague misgivings Gabrielle had ever felt about Senator Sexton seemed to resurface all at once.
Outside, the taxi was honking.
The bridge of the Goya was a Plexiglas cube situated two levels above the main deck. From here Rachel had a 360-degree view of the surrounding darkened sea, an unnerving vista she looked at only once before blocking it out and turning her attention to the matter at hand.
Having sent Tolland and Corky to find Xavia, Rachel prepared to contact Pickering. She’d promised the director she would call him when they arrived, and she was eager to know what he had learned in his meeting with Marjorie Tench.
The Goya’s SHINCOM 2100 digital communications system was a platform with which Rachel was familiar enough. She knew if she kept her call short, her communication should be secure.
Dialing Pickering’s private number, she waited, clutching the SHINCOM 2100 receiver to her ear and waiting. She expected Pickering to pick up on the first ring. But the line just kept ringing.
Six rings. Seven. Eight…
Rachel gazed out at the darkened ocean, her inability to reach the director doing nothing to quell her uneasiness about being at sea.
Nine rings. Ten rings. Pick up!
She paced, waiting. What was going on? Pickering carried his phone with him at all times, and he had expressly told Rachel to call him.
After fifteen rings, she hung up.
With growing apprehension, she picked up the SHINCOM receiver and dialed again.
Four rings. Five rings.
Where is he?
Finally, the connection clicked open. Rachel felt a surge of relief, but it was short-lived. There was no one on the line. Only silence.
“Hello,” she prompted. “Director?”
Three quick clicks.
“Hello?” Rachel said.
A burst of electronic static shattered the line, blasting in Rachel’s ear. She yanked the receiver away from her head in pain. The static abruptly stopped. Now she could hear a series of rapidly oscillating tones that pulsed in half-second intervals. Rachel’s confusion quickly gave way to realization. And then fear.
Wheeling back to the controls on the bridge, she slammed the receiver down in its cradle, severing the connection. For several moments she stood terrified, wondering if she’d hung up in time.
Amidships, two decks below, the Goya’s hydrolab was an expansive work space segmented by long counters and islands packed to the gills with electronic gear-bottom profilers, current analyzers, wet sinks, fume hoods, a walk-in specimen cooler, PCs, and a stack of organizer crates for research data and the spare electronics to keep everything running.
When Tolland and Corky entered, the Goya’s onboard geologist, Xavia, was reclining in front of a blaring television. She didn’t even turn around.
“Did you guys run out of beer money?” she called over her shoulder, apparently thinking some of her crew had returned.
“Xavia,” Tolland said. “It’s Mike.”
The geologist spun, swallowing part of a prepackaged sandwich she was eating. “Mike?” she stammered, clearly stunned to see him. She stood up, turned down the television, and came over, still chewing. “I thought some of the guys had come back from bar-hopping. What are you doing here?” Xavia was heavyset and dark-skinned, with a sharp voice and a surly air about her. She motioned to the television, which was broadcasting replays of Tolland’s on-site meteorite documentary. “You sure didn’t hang around on the ice shelf very long, did you?”
Something came up, Tolland thought. “Xavia, I’m sure you recognize Corky Marlinson.”
Xavia nodded. “An honor, sir.”
Corky was eyeing the sandwich in her hand. “That looks good.”
Xavia gave him an odd look.
“I got your message,” Tolland said to Xavia. “You said I made a mistake in my presentation? I want to talk to you about it.”
The geologist stared at him and let out a shrill laugh. “That’s why you’re back? Oh, Mike, for God’s sake, I told you, it was nothing. I was just pulling your chain. NASA obviously gave you some old data. Inconsequential. Seriously, only three or four marine geologists in the world might have noticed the oversight!”
Tolland held his breath. “This oversight. Does it by any chance have anything to do with chondrules?”
Xavia’s face went blank with shock. “My God. One of those geologists called you already?”
Tolland slumped. The chondrules. He looked at Corky and then back to the marine geologist. “Xavia, I need to know everything you can tell me about these chondrules. What was the mistake I made?”
Xavia stared at him, apparently now sensing he was dead serious. “Mike, it’s really nothing. I read a small article in a trade journal a while back. But I don’t understand why you’re so worried about this.”
Tolland sighed. “Xavia, as strange as this may sound, the less you know tonight, the better. All I’m asking is for you to tell us what you know about chondrules, and then we’ll need you to examine a rock sample for us.”
Xavia looked mystified and vaguely perturbed to be out of the loop. “Fine, let me get you that article. It’s in my office.” She set her sandwich down and headed for the door.
Corky called after her. “Can I finish that?”
Xavia paused, sounding incredulous. “You want to finish my sandwich?”
“Well, I just thought if you-”
“Get your own damn sandwich.” Xavia left.
Tolland chuckled, motioning across the lab toward a specimen cooler. “Bottom shelf, Corky. Between the sambuca and squid sacs.”
Outside on deck, Rachel descended the steep stairway from the bridge and strode toward the chopper pad. The Coast Guard pilot was dozing but sat up when Rachel rapped on the cockpit.
“Done already?” he asked. “That was fast.”
Rachel shook her head, on edge. “Can you run both surface and air radar?”
“Sure. Ten-mile radius.”
“Turn it on, please.”
Looking puzzled, the pilot threw a couple of switches and the radar screen lit up. The sweep arm spun lazy circles.
“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.”
Tolland considered it. The Mariana Trench was seven miles down, one of the last truly unexplored regions on the planet. Only a handful of robotic probes had ever ventured that deep, and most had collapsed well before they reached the bottom. The water pressure in the trench was enormous-an astounding eighteen thousand pounds per square inch, as opposed to a mere twenty-four pounds on the ocean’s surface. Oceanographers still had very little understanding of the geologic forces at the deepest ocean floor. “So, this guy Pollock thinks the Mariana Trench can make rocks with chondrulelike features?”
“It’s an extremely obscure theory,” Xavia said. “In fact, it’s never even been formally published. I only happened to stumble across Pollock’s personal notes on the Web by chance last month when I was doing research on fluid-rock interactions for our upcoming megaplume show. Otherwise, I never would have heard of it.”
“The theory has never been published,” Corky said, “because it’s ridiculous. You need heat to form chondrules. There’s no way water pressure could rearrange the crystalline structure of a rock.”
“Pressure,” Xavia fired back, “happens to be the single biggest contributor to geologic change on our planet. A little something called a metamorphic rock? Geology 101?”
Tolland realized Xavia had a point. Although heat did play a role in some of earth’s metamorphic geology, most metamorphic rocks were formed by extreme pressure. Incredibly, rocks deep in the earth’s crust were under so much pressure that they acted more like thick molasses than solid rock, becoming elastic and undergoing chemical changes as they did. Nonetheless, Dr. Pollock’s theory still seemed like a stretch.
“Xavia,” Tolland said. “I’ve never heard of water pressure alone chemically altering a rock. You’re the geologist, what’s your take?”
“Well,” she said, flipping through her notes, “it sounds like water pressure isn’t the only factor.” Xavia found a passage and read Pollock’s notes verbatim. “‘Oceanic crust in the Mariana Trench, already under enormous hydrostatic pressurization, can find itself further compressed by tectonic forces from the region’s subduction zones.'”
Of course, Tolland thought. The Mariana Trench, in addition to being crushed under seven miles of water, was a subduction zone-the compression line where the Pacific and Indian plates moved toward one another and collided. Combined pressures in the trench could be enormous, and because the area was so remote and dangerous to study, if there were chondrules down there, chances of anyone knowing about it were very slim.
Xavia kept reading. “‘Combined hydrostatic and tectonic pressures could potentially force crust into an elastic or semiliquid state, allowing lighter elements to fuse into chondrulelike structures thought to occur only in space.'”
Corky rolled his eyes. “Impossible.”
Tolland glanced at Corky. “Is there any alternative explanation for the chondrules in the rock Dr. Pollock found?”
“Easy,” Corky said. “Pollock found an actual meteorite. Meteorites fall into the ocean all the time. Pollock would not have suspected it was a meteorite because the fusion crust would have eroded away from years under the water, making it look like a normal rock.” Corky turned to Xavia. “I don’t suppose Pollock had the brains to measure the nickel content, did he?”
“Actually, yes,” Xavia fired back, flipping through the notes again. “Pollock writes: ‘I was surprised to find the nickel content of the specimen falling within a midrange value not usually associated with terrestrial rocks.'”
Tolland and Rachel exchanged startled looks.
Xavia continued reading. “‘Although the quantity of nickel does not fall within the normally acceptable midrange window for meteoritic origin, it is surprisingly close.'”
Rachel looked troubled. “How close? Is there any way this ocean rock could be mistaken for a meteorite?”
Xavia shook her head. “I’m not a chemical petrologist, but as I understand it, there are numerous chemical differences between the rock Pollock found and actual meteorites.”
“What are those differences?” Tolland pressed.
Xavia turned her attention to a graph in her notes. “According to this, one difference is in the chemical structure of the chondrules themselves. It looks like the titanium/zirconium ratios differ. The titanium/ zirconium ratio in the chondrules of the ocean sample showed ultradepleted zirconium.” She looked up. “Only two parts per million.”
“Two ppm?” Corky blurted. “Meteorites have thousands of times that!”
“Exactly,” Xavia replied. “Which is why Pollock thinks his sample’s chondrules are not from space.”
Tolland leaned over and whispered to Corky, “Did NASA happen to measure the titanium/zirconium ratio in the Milne rock?”
“Of course not,” Corky sputtered. “Nobody would ever measure that. It’s like looking at a car and measuring the tires’ rubber content to confirm you’re looking at a car!”
Tolland heaved a sigh and looked back at Xavia. “If we give you a rock sample with chondrules in it, can you run a test to determine whether these inclusions are meteoric chondrules or… one of Pollock’s deep ocean compression things?”
Xavia shrugged. “I suppose. The electron microprobe’s accuracy should be close enough. What’s this all about, anyway?”
Tolland turned to Corky. “Give it to her.”
Corky reluctantly pulled the meteorite sample from his pocket and held it out for Xavia.
Xavia’s brow furrowed as she took the stone disk. She eyed the fusion crust and then the fossil embedded in the rock. “My God!” she said, her head rocketing upward. “This isn’t part of…?”
“Yeah,” Tolland said. “Unfortunately it is.”