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An odd vibration roused Perry Bergman from a restless sleep, and he was instantly filled with a strange foreboding. The unpleasant murmur put him in mind of fingernails scraping down a blackboard. He shuddered and threw off his thin blanket. As he stood up, the vibration continued. With his bare feet on the steel deck, it now reminded him of a dentist's drill. Just beneath it he could detect the normal hum of the ship's generators and the whir of its air conditioning fans.
"What the hell?" he said aloud, even though there was no one within earshot to provide an answer. He'd helicoptered out to the ship, the Benthic Explorer, the previous evening after a long flight from Los Angeles to New York to Ponta Delgada on the Azorean island of San Miguel. Between the time zone changes and a long briefing about the technical problems his crew was experiencing, he was understandably exhausted. He didn't like being awakened after only four hours of sleep, especially by such a jarring vibration.
Snatching the ship's phone from its cradle he punched in the number for the bridge. While he waited for the connection to go through he peered out the porthole of his V.I.P. compartment on his tiptoes. At five foot seven Perry didn't think of himself as short, just not tall. Outside, the sun had barely cleared the horizon. The ship cast a long shadow across the Atlantic. Perry was looking west over a misty, calm sea whose surface resembled a vast expanse of beaten pewter. The water undulated sinuously with low, widely separated swells. The serenity of the scene belied the goings-on belowthe surface. The Benthic Explorer was being held in a fixed position by computer driven commands to her propellers as well as to her bow and stern thrusters over a portion of the volcanically and seismically active Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a twelve-thousand-mile-long, jagged range of mountains that bisects the ocean. With the constant extrusion of enormous quantities of lava, submarine explosions of steam, and frequent miniearthquakes, the submerged cordillera was the antithesis of the ocean surface's summer tranquillity.
"Bridge," a bored voice responded in Perry's ear.
"Where's Captain Jameson?" Perry snapped.
"In his bunk as far as I know," the voice said casually.
"What the hell is that vibration?" Perry demanded.
"Beats me, but it's not coming from the ship's power plant if that's what you're asking. Otherwise I would have heard from the engine room. It's probably just the drilling rig. Want me to call the drilling van?"
Perry didn't answer; he just slammed the phone down. He couldn't believe whoever was on the bridge wasn't moved to investigate the vibration on his own. Didn't he care? It irked Perry to no end that his ship was being operated so unprofessionally, but he decided to deal with that issue later. Instead he tried to focus on getting into his jeans and heavy wool turtleneck. He didn't need someone to tell him the vibration might be coming from the drilling rig. That was pretty obvious. After all, it was difficulty with the drilling operation that had brought Perry here from Los Angeles.
Perry knew that he had gambled the future of Benthic Marine on the current project: drilling into a magma chamber within a seamount west of the Azores. It was a project that was not under contract, meaning the company was spending instead of being paid, and the cash hemorrhage was horrendous. Perry's motivation for the undertaking rested on his belief that the feat would capture the public's imagination, focus interest on undersea exploration, and rocket Benthic Marine to the forefront of oceanographic research. Unfortunately, the endeavor was not going as planned.
Once he was dressed, Perry glanced in the mirror over the sink in the cubbyhole bathroom. A few years ago he wouldn't have taken the time. But things had changed. Now that he was in his forties, he found that the tousled look that used to work for him made him look old, or at best, tired. His hair was thinning and he required glasses to read, but he still had a winning smile. Perry was proud of his straight, white teeth, especially since they emphasized the tan he worked hard to maintain. Satisfied by his reflection, he dashed out of his compartment and ran down the passageway. As he passed the doors to the captain's and first mate's quarters, Perry was tempted to pound on them to vent his irritation. He knew the metal surfaces would reverberate like kettledrums, yanking the sleeping occupants from their slumbers. As the founder, president, and largest shareholder of Benthic Marine, he expected people to be more on their toes while he was on board. Could he be the only one concerned enough to investigate this vibration?
Emerging onto the deck, Perry tried to locate the source of the strange hum, which was now merged with the sound of the operating drill rig. The Benthic Explorer was a four-hundred-fifty-foot vessel with a twenty-story drilling derrick amidship that bridged a central bay. In addition to the drilling rig, the ship boasted a saturation diving complex, a deep-sea submersible, and several remote-controlled mobile camera sleds, each mounted with an impressive array of still cameras and television camcorders. Combining this equipment with an extensive lab, the Benthic Explorer gave its parent company, Benthic Marine, the ability to carry out a wide range of oceanographic studies and operations.
Perry saw the door to the drilling van open. A giant of a man appeared. He yawned and stretched before hoisting the straps of his coveralls over his shoulders and donning his yellow hard hat, which had SHIFT SUPERVISOR written in block letters over the visor. Still stiff with sleep, he headed in the direction of the rotary table. He was obviously in no hurry despite the vibration coursing through the ship.
Quickening his pace Perry caught up to the man just as two other deckhands joined him.
"It's been doing this for about twenty minutes, chief," one of the roustabouts yelled over the noise of the drilling rig. All three men ignored Perry.
The shift foreman grunted as he pulled on a pair of heavy work gloves and blithely walked out across the narrow metal grate spanning the central well. His sangfroid impressed Perry. The catwalk seemed flimsy and there was only a low, thin handrail to block the fifty-foot drop to the ocean surface below. Reaching the rotary table, the supervisor leaned out and placed both gloved hands about the rotating shaft. He didn't try to grip it tightly but rather let it rotate across his palms. He cocked his head to the side while he tried to interpret the tremor transmitted up the pipe. It took only a moment.
"Stop the rig!" the giant shouted.
One of the roustabouts dashed back to the exterior control panel. Within a moment the rotary table came to a clanking halt and the grating vibration ceased. The supervisor walked back and stepped onto the deck.
"Chrissake! The bit's busted again," he said with an expression of disgust. "This is fast becoming a goddamned joke."
"The joke is that we've only drilled for two or three feet in the last four or five days," the remaining roustabout said.
"Shut up!" the giant intoned. "Get the hell over there and raise the drill string to the well head!"
The second roustabout joined the first. Almost immediately there was a new sound of powerful machinery as the winches were engaged to do the foreman's bidding. The ship shuddered.
"How can you be sure the bit's broken?" Perry yelled over the new noise.
The foreman looked down at him. "Experience," he yelled then turned and strode off toward the ship's stem.
Perry had to run to catch up. Each of the foreman's strides was double his. Perry tried to ask another question but the foreman either didn't hear or was ignoring him. They reached the companionway and the foreman started up, taking the stairs three at a time. Two decks above he entered a passageway and then stopped outside a compartment door. The name on the door was Mark Davidson, Operations Commander. The foreman knocked loudly. At first the only response was a fit of coughing but then a voice called out to come in.
Perry pressed into the small compartment behind the foreman.
"Bad news, chief," the foreman said. "I'm afraid the drill bit's busted again."
"What the hell time is it?" Mark asked. He ran his fingers through his messy hair. He was sitting on the side of his bunk dressed in skivvies. His facial features had a puffy look, and his voice was thick with sleep. Without waiting for a reply he reached for a pack of cigarettes. The air in the room was imbued with stale smoke.
"It's around oh-six-hundred," the foreman said.
"Jesus," Mark said. His eyes then focused on Perry. Surprise registered. He blinked. "Perry? What are you doing up?"
"There's no way I could have slept through that vibration," Perry said.
"What vibration?" Mark asked. He looked back at the foreman, who was staring at Perry.
"Are you Perry Bergman?" the foreman asked.
"Last time I checked," Perry said. Sensing the foreman's unease gave him a modicum of satisfaction.
"Sorry," the foreman said.
"Forget it," Perry said magnanimously.
"Was the drill train rattling?" Mark asked.
The foreman nodded. "Just like the last four times, maybe a little worse."
"We only have one more diamond-studded tungsten carbide bit left," Mark lamented.
"You don't have to tell me," the foreman said.
"What's the depth?" Mark asked.
"Not much change from yesterday," the foreman said. "We've got out thirteen hundred thirty-three feet of pipe. Since the bottom is just shy of a thousand feet and there's no sediment, we're down into the rock about three hundred and forty feet, give or take a few inches."
"This is what I was explaining to you last night," Mark said to Perry. "We were doing fine until four days ago. Since then we've gone nowhere, maybe two or three feet tops, despite using up four drill bits."
"So you think you've hit up against a hard layer?" Perry said, thinking he had to say something.
Mark laughed sarcastically. "Hard ain't the word. We're using diamond-studded bits with the straightest flutes made! Worse yet is we got another hundred feet of the same stuff, whatever it is, before we get to the magma chamber, at least according to our ground-penetrating radar. At this rate we'll be here for ten years."
"Did the lab analyze the rock caught in the last broken bit?" the foreman asked.
"Yeah, they did," Mark said. "It's a type of rock they'd never seen before. At least according to Tad Messenger. It's composed of a type of crystalline olivine that he thinks might have a microscopic matrix of diamond. I wish we could get a bigger sample. One of the biggest problems of drilling in open sea is not getting a return of circulated drilling fluids. It's like drilling in the dark."
"Could we get a corer down there?" Perry asked.
"A lot of good that would do if we can't make any headway with a diamond-studded bit."
"How about piggybacking it with the diamond bit. If we could get a real sample of this stuff we're trying to drill through, maybe we could figure out a reasonable game plan. We got too much invested in this operation to give up without a real fight."
Mark looked at the foreman, who shrugged. Then he looked back at Perry. "Hey, you're the boss."
"At least for now," Perry said. He wasn't joking. He wondered how long he was going to be the boss if the project came to naught.
"All right," Mark said. He put his cigarette down on the edge of an overflowing ashtray. "Pull the drill bit up to the well head."
"The boys are already doing that," the foreman said.
"Get the last diamond drill bit from supply," Mark said. He reached for his phone. "I'll have Larry Nelson get the saturation dive system up and running and the submersible in the water. We'll replace the bit and see if we can get a better sample of what it is we're drilling into."
"Aye, aye," the foreman said. He turned and left while Mark lifted his phone to his ear to call the diving commander.
Perry started to leave himself when Mark held up his hand to motion for him to stay. After finishing his call to Larry Nelson, Mark looked up at Perry.
"There's something I didn't bring up last night at the briefing," he said. "But I think you ought to know about it."
Perry swallowed: His mouth had gone dry. He didn't like Mark's tone of voice. It sounded like more bad news.
"This might be nothing," Mark continued, "but when we used the ground-penetrating radar to study this layer we're trying to drill through like I mentioned before, there was an unexpected incidental finding. I got the data here on my desk. Do you want to see it?"
"Just tell me," Perry said. "I can look at the data later."
"The radar suggested that the contents of the magma chamber might not be what we thought from the original seismic studies. It might not be liquid."
"You're joking!" This new information added to Perry's misgivings. It was by accident the previous summer that the Benthic Explorer had discovered the seamount they were presently drilling, What was so amazing about the find was that as part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the area had been extensively studied by Geosat, the U.S. Navy's gravity measuring satellite used to create contour maps of the ocean bottom. Yet somehow this particular undersea mountain had evaded Geosat's radar.
Although the Benthic Explorer crew had been eager to get home they'd paused long enough to make several passes over the mysterious mount. With the ship's sophisticated sonar they did a cursory study of the guyot's internal structure. To everyone's surprise the results were as unexpected as the mountain's presence. The seamount appeared to be a particularly thin-skinned, quiescent volcano whose liquid core was a mere four hundred feet beneath the ocean floor. Even more astounding was that the substance within the magma chamber had sound propagation characteristics identical to those of the Mohorovicic discontinuity, or Moho, the mysterious boundary between the earth's crust and the earth's mantle. Since no one had ever been able to get magma from the Moho, although both Americans and Russians had tried during the Cold War, Perry decided to go back and drill into the mountain in hopes that Benthic Marine might be the first organization to sample the molten material. He reasoned that the material's analysis would shed light on the structure and perhaps even the origin of the earth. But now his Benthic Explorer's operations commander was telling him that the original seismic data might be wrong!
"The magma chamber may be empty," Mark Said.
"Empty?" Perry blurted.
"Well, not empty," Mark corrected himself. "Filled with some kind of compressed gas, or maybe steam. I know extrapolating data at this depth is pushing ground-penetrating radar technology beyond its limits. In fact a lot of people would say the results I'm talking about are just artifact, sorta off the graph so to speak. But the fact that the radar data doesn't jibe with the seismic worries me just the same. I mean, I'd just hate to make this huge effort only to get nothing but a bunch of superheated steam. Nobody's going to be happy with that, least of all your investors."
Perry chewed the inside of his cheek while he mulled over Mark's concern. He began to wish he'd never heard about Sea Mount Olympus, which was the name the crew had given the flat-topped, underwater mountain that they were trying to poke a hole into.
"Have you mentioned this to Dr. Newell?" Perry asked. Dr. Suzanne Newell was the senior oceanographer on the Benthic Explorer. "Has she seen this radar data you're talking about?"
"Nobody's seen it," Mark said. "I just happened to notice the shadow on my computer screen yesterday when I was preparing for your arrival. I was thinking about bringing it up at your briefing last night but decided to wait to talk to you in private. In case you haven't noticed, there's a bit of a morale problem out here with certain members of the crew. A lot of people have begun to think that drilling into this guyot's a bit like tilting at windmills. People are starting to talk about calling it quits and getting home to their families before the summer's over. I didn't want to add fuel to the fire."
Perry felt weak-kneed. He pulled Mark's chair out from his desk and sat down heavily. He rubbed his eyes. He was tired, hungry, and discouraged. He could kick himself for betting so much of his company's future based on so little reliable data, but the discovery had seemed so fortuitous. He'd felt compelled to act.
"Hey, I don't like to be the bearer of bad news," Mark said. "We'll do what you suggested. We'll try to get a better idea of the rock we're drilling. Let's not get overly discouraged."
"It's kind of hard not to," Perry said, "considering how much it is costing Benthic Marine to keep the ship out here. Maybe we should just cut our losses."
"Why don't you get yourself something to eat?" Mark suggested. "No sense making any snap decisions on an empty stomach. In fact, I'll join you if you can wait for me to shower. Hell! Before you know it we'll have some more information about this crap we've hit up against. Maybe then it will be clear what we ought to do."
"How long will it take to change the bit?" Perry asked.
"The submersible can be in the water in an hour," Mark said. "They'll take the bit and the tools down to the well head. Getting the divers down there takes longer because they have to be compressed before we lower the bell. That'll take a couple of hours, more if they get any compression pains. Changing the bit is not hard. The whole operation should take three or four hours, maybe less."
Perry got to his feet with effort. "Give me a call in my compartment when you're ready to eat." He reached for the door.
"Hey, wait a sec!" Mark said with sudden enthusiasm. "I got an idea that might give you a boost. Why don't you go down with the submersible? It's reputed to be beautiful down there on the guyot at least according to Suzanne. Even the submersible pilot, Donald Fuller, the ex-naval line officer, who's usually a tight-lipped, straight-arrow kind of guy, says the scenery is outstanding."
"What can be so great about a flat-topped, submerged mountain?" Perry asked.
"I haven't gone down myself," Mark admitted. "But it has something to do with the geology of the area. You know, being part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and all. But ask Newell or Fuller! I tell you, they're going to be ecstatic about being asked to go back down. With the halogen lights on the submersible and the clarity of the deep sea water, they said the visibility is between two and three hundred feet."
Perry nodded. Taking a dive wasn't a bad idea since it would undoubtedly take his mind off the current situation and make him feel like he was doing something. Besides, he'd only been in the submersible once, off Santa Catalina Island when Benthic Marine took delivery of the sub, and that had been a memorable experience. At least he'd get a chance to see this mountain that was causing him so much aggravation.
"Who should I tell that I'll be part of the crew?" Perry asked.
"I'll take care of it," Mark said. He stood up and pulled off his T-shirt. "I'll just let Larry Nelson know."