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Denizens: 6 - Tom

...Cheeseman sat forward in the chair, hands clasped in front of him. “Mr. Stoddard, Professor Kleinman has assured me that I can rely on your complete discretion, and I’m sure that’s true. So I’ll ask you to please forgive me if I stress that everything you hear in this room today is highly classified and top secret, and any unauthorized repetition would be regarded as tantamount to treason.”...

Tom Stoddard, a bright young marine biologist currently teaching at UCLA, is recruited for a top secret mission to investigate sightings of astonishingly huge marine creatures in the Pacific.

Brian William Neal, writing with great style, creates believable characters and situations which fully engage the imagination in his latest sci-fi novel. To read the story from the beginning click on Denizens in the menu on this page. Read also in Open Writing Brian's novels The Last Star Trek and The Kingdom Of The Blind.

Los Angeles, California
July, 2034

Thomas Jefferson Stoddard steered the ancient VW Beetle through north-western LA towards the San Diego freeway, and blessed the twice-restored fifty-five-year-old bug yet again. It had made the trip south without a hiccup, for which Tom was supremely grateful, but he was nevertheless relieved to see the end in sight. Down the Pacific Highway, skirting the Santa Monica hills now, past the gigantic sprawling campus that was the new UCLA, and down to the coast to Santa Monica and he would be there. Maybe another twenty miles to go, and smooth running all the way. The rush hour was long past; traffic was relatively light, and he expected no delays.

He glanced at his watch; 10:28 a.m. The sun, or rather, the glowing orb seen through the smog, was well up over the mountains to the east, and the day was going to be a scorcher. There had been a little mist earlier, but that had long ago burnt off. The weekend provided no respite from the pollution, no slackening in the output of the city’s industry, and Tom coughed as he felt the beginnings of a tickle in the back of his throat. ’Frisco might not be all that much better, he thought, but give me the cool fog on the bay any time.

Tom Stoddard had been born in San Francisco in December 2003, the son of a waste disposal engineer and a personal service manager (read: garbage collector and waitress, he thought cynically). His upbringing had been hard, due to the brutishness of his father, a drunk and a bully, and Tom had counted himself lucky to have survived his childhood with nothing worse than two broken bones and numerous bruises, all sustained while ‘falling downstairs’.

In grade school, his teachers had quickly spotted his exceptional intelligence, and his parents had been urged to encourage the boy to go on to college. The country’s burgeoning population, and a new Federal law that limited almost every college’s entire intake to students from the home state, meant that only about 20 percent of all those wishing to attend college actually got there. A few of the less populous states were permitted to relax the ‘foreigner’ law, as it became known, but Tom preferred to stay close to home if he could; anyway, he needed to be near the ocean. He worked hard, and studied hard, and his mother worked double shifts to make his dream a reality. His father, out of work more often than in, took his frustration out on mother and son in his regular drunken rages.

Fortunately, the young Tom inherited, almost exclusively, his mother’s personality, although he did learn one lesson from his father, never to be jealous of another’s intellect. Tom solved his mother’s financial problems by gaining the top mark in the SAT for the Bay area, thereby winning a full scholarship to Stanford at the age of seventeen. His father put an end to the rest of their woes by having the good grace to drop dead in Murphy’s Tavern one night while attempting an assault on the land speed record for downing a fifth of bourbon. And also by having been persuaded, during one of his rare reasonable periods, to take out a rather large life insurance policy a few months previously by his long-suffering wife.

At college, Tom immediately threw himself into his studies. A keen surfer and beach boy almost from birth, he loved the sea and everything about it, and his choice of marine biology as his major came as no surprise to anyone who knew him. His only recreation was surfing, and he spent as much time as his studies would allow catching waves. He was a natural athlete, with a surfer’s lean body and sun bleached blonde hair, and his good looks attracted the attention of the California beach girls. He took his degree in three years, his master’s in another two, and had been working on his doctoral thesis when the offer had come, totally out of the blue. It was, quite literally, an offer he simply could not refuse. All the way down from San Francisco, he had thought about nothing else; now, he reviewed the last few days again. He thought of the apartment in Palo Alto; a dump, sure, but it had been close to campus and, until yesterday, it had been home. Yesterday, he thought; Christ, had it been only yesterday? It seemed an age had passed since he had received the summons from the Dean, Professor Kleinman, instead of just three days. The call had come in the middle of a lecture. He had been supervising a class of undergraduates when that smarmy little prick Hawkins had strolled in without knocking and announced loudly that the Dean wanted to see him, right away. “I’ll take over here, Stoddard,” he had smirked. “No point in keeping the Professor waiting.” Tom, a gentle man to whom violence was nevertheless no stranger, thanks to his father, and who had studied Tae Kwon Do to black belt level, reflected yet again how much Hawkins’ life would be altered, and how those around him would benefit, by a heel shot to his larynx. At least no one would ever have to hear his nasally whining voice again. The little shit managed to convey that he knew what the Dean wanted, and his tone also insinuated that Tom might be in some kind of trouble.

As it turned out, the little bastard didn’t know squat. Tom was admitted into the hushed atmosphere of the Dean’s office with a smile and a friendly arm about his shoulders. Once he was settled in the “good” chair (Professor Kleinman had two chairs for visitors; one, a sumptuous leather overstuffed, the other a hard, straight-backed job. The chair you were offered set the tone for the meeting, and gave you a pretty good idea what you were there for. Tom had been shown to the leather armchair), the Professor had not wasted any words.

“What do you know about the work going on at Dobb’s Point, Tom?”

Tom had of course heard of the Los Angeles Institute, but only vague rumors; it was all top secret these days, and very little got out. Tom thought the professor seemed unusually reticent, and he wondered what was on the old boy’s mind.

Aloud, he said, “Not very much, sir. Just the occasional word, now and then. They’re pretty close down there right now. Why do you ask?”

The Dean eyed the young man speculatively. “How would you feel about interrupting your post-grad work for a while? Would that pose many problems?”

Tom raised his eyebrows. “That would depend on what I was interrupting it for,” he replied, more mystified than before.

Instead of replying, the professor gestured to a darkened alcove in one corner of the room, and a man whom Tom hadn’t noticed before stepped forward. He smiled disarmingly, and settled into the “bad” chair. He appeared to be in his mid-forties or so, fit looking and tanned, with fair hair close-cropped military style. He wore a plain dark blue suit, white shirt and plain dark tie. Black shoes completed the ensemble. The man smiled again and spread his hands in a gesture that Tom supposed was meant to convey openness and candor.

“I apologize for the cloak and dagger, Mr. Stoddard,” he said, in a strong north-eastern twang. “I guess I’ve been in Washington too long. Let me get right to the point. My name is Robert Cheeseman, and I have been entrusted with the task of the recruitment of personnel, both domestic and foreign, for a research program that is being carried out at the Dobb’s Point Oceanographic Institute. It is a program we would like you to become a part of.” Cheeseman paused for comment, and when Tom made none, he said, “Before I reveal any more, I need to know if you are interested.”

Tom re-crossed his legs and settled into the commodious armchair. “Well,” he said, “as you’ve revealed nothing so far, I’m sure the nation’s secrets are safe for now. But to answer your question, I’m listening.”

Cheeseman sat forward in the chair, hands clasped in front of him. “Mr. Stoddard, Professor Kleinman has assured me that I can rely on your complete discretion, and I’m sure that’s true. So I’ll ask you to please forgive me if I stress that everything you hear in this room today is highly classified and top secret, and any unauthorized repetition would be regarded as tantamount to treason.”

The room was suddenly very still, and he paused again, fixing Tom with his intense gaze. “Now, Mr. Stoddard, are you still listening?”

Tom unconsciously sat a little straighter in his chair. “Yes, sir, I believe so.” He glanced at the Dean, but Kleinman had his back to them, and was gazing out of his window. What the hell? The man in the “bad” chair spoke again.

“A little under two years ago, a United Space Federation mining ship working in the asteroid belt found a rock containing about forty percent of an unknown ore, one that does not exist on earth. Smelting and refining produced a metal that turned out to have a few unusual properties. For one, it was very soft, softer than aluminum, and could be easily shaped and molded. It was also extremely lightweight, yet it possessed a melting point of many thousands of degrees, incredible for so soft a metal. But it was another characteristic, discovered almost by accident, which set the scientific world on its collective can. Its reaction to atmospheric pressure.”

Tom sat forward slightly, his attention focused on the man. “What about it?” he asked.

Cheeseman continued. “A sphere was constructed of the metal; hollow, and of pretty rough design, I’m told. It was then taken to the naval base at Alameda, just across the bay here in San Francisco. There it was placed in a decompression chamber and subjected to a pressure of seven hundred atmospheres.”

The only sound in the room was the ticking of the professor’s antique grandfather clock. Tom glanced across at the Professor, still standing at the window framed by its velvet drapes. He felt perspiration on his hands despite the room’s temperature control, and licked his upper lip. “And?”

Cheeseman smiled faintly. “And nothing. Nada. Zip. The sphere not only resisted that pressure as though it wasn’t there at all, it actually became stronger as the pressure increased.”

Tom frowned. “Stronger? How could it become stronger?” he asked, unknowingly echoing Howard Dutton’s director.

Cheeseman shrugged again, and went on to explain what little was known of the fabulous metal known as Herculeum. When he was finished, Tom sat back in his chair, stunned. A metal whose structural strength increased when subjected to pressure! How could that be? As a freshman, his minor had been geology, and now he ran through some half-remembered chemical combinations, but he found no answer there.

“What does this have to do with the Institute, and me?” he asked.

The man glanced at the Dean, who was looking out of the lead lighted windows at the gardens outside his office. The professor returned to his desk and sat in the large swivel chair behind it.

“It’s an unusual situation, Tom, as I’m sure you’ll agree,” he said. “It could also be a great opportunity for you personally. I can imagine how you must be a little mystified by it all. Can’t say I blame you. Well.” He paused, and looked at the young man again. “What’s happened is, the people at Dobb’s Point have constructed a, er, submersible, I believe it is called, from this new metal. Two, in fact.”

Tom nodded. That was an obvious move. He sat forward again, excitement building in him as Kleinman continued.

“I have been asked by the head of the project, an old friend of mine, to recommend a marine biologist to assist the people at the Institute in the testing of these submersibles. Two of the team members have fallen ill, quite suddenly, I believe. They require urgent replacements, and I immediately thought of you to fill one of the spots. How do you feel about that?”

Tom did not hesitate. “Sounds great, sir. When do I start?”

At this, Cheeseman spoke again. “Right now, as a matter of fact. Immediately. Does that present any problems for you?”

Mentally, Tom ran over the difficulties. He would have to give up his apartment; that was no loss, but the lease still had some time to run. Might be able to sub-let. Better look into that. Have to get the bug serviced, tidy up a few loose ends at the college, arrange for someone to take over his classes…he said, to Cheeseman, “Sure, I guess I could be on my way in a week or so.”

Cheeseman glanced at the Dean, and shook his head. “Sorry, but that won’t do, Mr. Stoddard. When I said ‘right now’, I meant it literally. We need you in place before the end of this week, Saturday at the latest.”

Tom blinked in surprise. “But that’s only three days,” he said. “I don’t think I could possibly arrange things by then.”

“Your apartment will be taken care of, and your effects forwarded to you at the institute. Also, I believe your classes can be transferred.” Cheeseman glanced towards the Dean again, who nodded.

Tom looked at them both. “You sound as if you were pretty sure I’d accept. I’m not sure I know how I feel about that.”

The Dean turned back to the window, and Cheeseman leaned towards Tom again. “No, we weren’t sure of anything, Mr. Stoddard. You’re quite free to refuse, no comebacks. Of course, my earlier admonition concerning security would still apply. If you did accept,” he added, “we would of course pick up the remainder of the lease on your apartment.”

Tom smiled tightly. “What’s that, a bribe?”

Cheeseman smiled back. “No, not at all. Let’s just say we wouldn’t want to see you out of pocket on our account.”

Tom was silent for a few moments, regretting his churlishness. The other man was really being quite fair and reasonable. “I guess you need an answer pretty quick, huh?”

“That’s right,” nodded Cheeseman.

There was a brief silence in the room. Tom could hear the ticking of the clock and, although he was looking at the floor, he knew the man’s eyes were boring into him. Finally, he looked up and shrugged fatalistically.

“O.K.,” he said, “what the hell, I can’t turn this down. I’m in.” He glanced at Kleinman. “But I guess you knew that already, didn’t you?”

Before the Dean could reply, Cheeseman said, “Professor Kleinman only told us that you could be interested. I assure you, there was never any question of coercion on anyone’s part. There are some, ah, very good reasons for the, ah, shall we say, unseemly haste.”

The man appeared, to Tom, almost embarrassed, and Tom wondered why. The answer was not long in coming.

As if on cue, the telephone on the Dean’s desk purred softly. The Professor picked it up, listened for a moment, then said, “All right, I’ll be right there.” Then he replaced the phone and said, “You will have to excuse me, gentlemen. I assume you will be all right here? If you need anything, just call my secretary in the outer office. She will be able to provide anything you require.”

Cheeseman assured the Dean they would be fine, and ushered the older man to the door, then returned and settled himself gingerly behind the desk in Kleinman’s chair. He smiled ruefully, and nodded towards the chair he had just vacated.

“I heard he was still using the good chair/bad chair routine. There are a few people in my line of work who could learn from our Dean.” At Tom’s look of surprise, Cheeseman smiled. “Oh yes, Mr. Stoddard. I’m originally from Massachusetts, but I spent my college years here in San Francisco. Class of ’09. Political Science.” He sat forward in the chair, clasped his hands together on the desk before him, and gazed intently at Tom.

“What you are about to hear is known only to a handful of people in the entire world,” he said. “Although, such is its nature, it could become public knowledge at almost any time.” He paused, but Tom said nothing, and the man continued.

“There have been a few marine…incidents, let’s call them. Understand, our information comes from several reports we have received, both directly and indirectly. I wish to stress, however, that we do not necessarily give all of them credence. In fact, only one report comes from what we would consider to be a completely reliable source.”

He paused again, and Tom thought, I was right, he’s embarrassed! What the hell is going on? Then Cheeseman resumed his strangely halting narrative.

“The reports concern three independent visual sightings in the same area, the same part of the Western Pacific. The first was a radio message sent by a Japanese merchant ship, the Kenshu Maru. The message was sent on a special frequency to the shipping company’s headquarters in Yokohama, and was intercepted by our man in our embassy in Tokyo.” Now that Tom was on board, so to speak, Cheeseman had no qualms in revealing he was in some branch of Intelligence. Possibly CIA, thought Tom, or maybe the NSA.

“I want you to take what I am about to say very seriously,” said Cheeseman, “because I can assure you that the government of the United States certainly does.” He took a deep breath, then continued.

“What the message said was that the Kenshu Maru had encountered a species of marine life unknown to anyone on board. Now remember, these were professional seamen, very experienced.

“What the message described, in very lucid and accurate terms, was nothing less than a sea serpent, a…a dragon.” Ignoring Tom’s gaping, half amused expression, he went on.

“It was described as being up to seventy-five meters in length, with mottled green scales the size of, and I quote, a truck windshield. It had multicolored plumes on its head and back, and large, leathery wings. The radio operator distinctly used the word ‘dragon’.” Cheeseman paused, then said, “If you’re going to laugh, Mr. Stoddard, then I suggest you do it now, and get it over with.”

Tom sobered, and returned the man’s steady gaze. Then the intelligence man went on. “Yes, the message did say that. We do know the Japanese word for ‘dragon’, and the operator was very calm and matter-of-fact, not at all your stereotyped excitable Asian. As I said, a very lucid message.”

“And you believe it.” It was not a question.

Cheeseman nodded. “Yes, we do, but not by itself. A lone report such as this, no matter how rational, would not have been taken seriously without any corroboration. You look surprised. Remember I said we only considered one of the sources to be completely reliable? Even you, a civilian, should know that the only source we would regard as unimpeachable is the military. Our military,” he added.

“Five days after we intercepted the Japanese message, we received another report, this one from our own naval intelligence. The sender was one of our submarines, the USS Puerto Rico, and the message will almost certainly never see the light of day. The captain reported a sonar sighting of what he at first thought to be a pod of whales. However, there were one or two anomalies that caused him to run a closer check on the sighting.”

Tom interrupted, fascinated despite his skepticism. “Exactly where was the sub at the time of this sighting?”

Cheeseman nodded, smiling faintly. “Good question. They were conducting an exercise approximately three hundred miles southwest of the island of Guam, in the Western Pacific, and were cruising at a depth of two thousand feet. I’m sure that you, a marine biologist, are aware of what geographical feature is to be found at that location.”

Tom nodded. “Of course. The Mariana Trench. At the bottom of the trench is the deepest known spot on earth; Challenger Deep, over thirty-seven thousand feet down. The site of the deepest manned dive in history.” He thought for a moment. “What was the anomaly you mentioned?”

Cheeseman continued in the same low voice. “Judging by the strength of the sonar signal, the distance from the sub and all, the captain said the creatures, whatever they were, had to be at least one hundred meters in length, minimum.”

Tom stared at him, incredulous. “But that’s impossible! You’re talking about something more than twice the size of the largest creatures that have ever lived on earth!”

The other man sat back and spread his hands. “I know it. But the sub’s captain was adamant. Both he and his exec checked the sonar reading. There was no mistake, nor was there any equipment malfunction. And there’s something else. The creatures, whatever they might have been, were cruising well down the trench when they were sighted. At a depth of twenty-six thousand feet.”

Tom slumped back in his chair and gaped at the man in undisguised disbelief. “Oh, come on!” he exclaimed. “That’s…that’s ludicrous! No organic creature such as you describe could live at that depth!” He paused for breath, then sat forward again.

“Nothing!” he repeated vehemently. “Have you any idea of the pressure that far down?” Before Cheeseman could reply, Tom went on. “More than eight hundred atmospheres, that’s what! That weight of water would crush such a creature flat as a piece of paper. If such a creature exists, which I seriously doubt.” Tom folded his arms over his chest and added, as a parting shot, “Military reliability notwithstanding.”

Cheeseman waited patiently until Tom had finished, and had settled back into his chair. Then he held up both hands, placatingly. “I hear what you’re saying, and I understand your skepticism. Trust me, no one was harder to convince than I was. Just hear me out, O.K?”

Tom subsided into his chair, and rested his chin on his hands as Cheeseman continued.

“The third sighting was by the pilots of a charter flight that was taking some freight and passengers from Manila to Guam. They were flying at thirty thousand feet when they spotted a school of manta rays on the surface below them. The pilot, co-pilot and most of the passengers saw them. They say there were at least a dozen of the creatures, and they stayed on the surface for about ten minutes before diving out of sight.”

Tom sighed, and leaned forward in his chair again. “Look, Mr. Cheeseman,” he said, his indignation subsiding to weary resignation, “in order to see a Manta from that height, it would have to be the size of a house. A very large house. Now, please; whales, giant rays, dragons…just what the hell is this bullshit really about?”

Cheeseman held up a hand again. “Bear with me, Mr. Stoddard, I’m nearly through. All three of these incidents had one thing in common: they all occurred within one week of the initial testing of the Institute’s new submersibles, those constructed from the alien metal. Those tests took place in the western Pacific, near the Mariana Trench, southwest of Guam.”

Tom frowned. “But I thought you said they were at the institute, at Santa Monica.”

“They are now. They were flown back from Guam two days ago. The official story was a problem with their depth calibration.”

“So the testing isn’t completed?”

“No. They’ve only been tested to about two thousand feet. The team was about to take them into the trench itself when the team members became ill. Since they were part of the dive crew, they needed to replace them before they could proceed, so they brought the subs back with them. They should be just about ready to ship out again by the time you join them.”

Tom glanced sharply at the Intelligence man. “Ship out? Where, to Guam? Nice of you to mention that little fact now. You didn’t say anything about Guam before.”

Cheeseman looked back, all wide-eyed innocence. “Why, is that a problem?”

Tom thought for a moment, then shrugged. “No, I guess not.” He eyed the other man again. “Is there anything else you’ve conveniently neglected to mention?”

Cheeseman stood and massaged his lower back, and Tom kept his face straight only with an effort. “No,” the man said, “just minor details. The institute head, Doctor Katzmeyer, will brief you when you arrive on Saturday. You’ll make your own way down there; we’re trying to keep as low a profile as possible on this for as long as we can.” Tom rose from his chair, and Cheeseman began to guide the younger man towards the door.

“One more thing,” said the intelligence man. “Katzmeyer wants to brief the entire team about the sightings. Not all of them have been told; security, you understand. He wants to wait until they get back to Guam before he tells them. Considering your reaction, I can’t say I blame him. They are scientists, like yourself, and they might find it more difficult to walk out in an indignant huff from there than they would from mainland USA.”

They reached the door of the professor’s study, and Cheeseman opened it and offered his hand. As Tom took it, the other man said, “Good to have you on board, Tom. As I said before, you can make your own way to Santa Monica, so long as you can be there by Saturday morning. Can you manage that?”

Tom looked at the man. “Of course I can manage that,” he said levelly. “What do I look like, some kind of moron?”

Cheeseman smiled properly for the first time. “O.K., don’t get sore, I’m just being thorough.” He looked at his watch. “Gotta go. Good luck, Tom.” He released Tom’s hand and stepped back into the office, closing the door.

Tom stood outside the heavy oak door for a few moments, then started back down the cloistered corridor to his class. As he passed the paneled walls, hung with photographs from Stanford’s famous past, Tom wondered just what he had agreed to, and what he would encounter in the days and weeks ahead. Professor Kleinman intercepted him on the way, and assured him his students were being taken care of, and not by the unctuous Hawkins. They said goodbye at the main doors, and Tom returned to his apartment to begin packing. Considering what he owned, that task did not take him very long at all.


***


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