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Denizens: 14 - Guam

The Mariana Trench, site of the deepest place yet discovered on the planet. The place had been named Challenger Deep, and it was home of…what?...

The research teams prepare to descend deeper into the Pacific Ocean than any human has ever been before, investigating the sightings of giant creatures.

Tension builds in Brian William Neal's brilliant sci-fi adventure. To read earlier chapters of this marvelously imaginative novel please click on Denizens in the menu on this page.

The Mariana Islands
July, 2034

The island of Guam lies at latitude 13’30” north and longitude 144’45” east. It is the largest and southernmost of the Mariana Island chain in the western Pacific, roughly fifteen hundred miles east of Manila. Once a territory of the U.S., it now had its own governor and legislature, although the Americans still maintained a presence there, mainly the Air Force base in the north and the naval station at the capital, Agana, on the central coast of the island.

Geographically, Guam is divided almost perfectly into two halves; the northern half is a flat, raised plateau, while the southern half is comprised of mainly low volcanic hills, the highest of which is Mt. Lamlam, barely thirteen hundred feet above sea level. The shape of the island is long and narrow, with a slight kink in the middle, and it resembles nothing so much as a giant boomerang that some immense deity has attempted, without quite succeeding, to straighten.

Two hundred and fifty miles to the southwest was the massive rent in the earth’s crust that was the expedition’s goal; the Mariana Trench, site of the deepest place yet discovered on the planet. The place had been named Challenger Deep, and it was home of…what?

*

As the expedition members walked along the brightly lit corridors of Anderson AFB towards their welcoming committee, Tom tried not to notice the huge grasshoppers clinging to the outside of the floor-to-ceiling windows, attracted by the lights. He shivered involuntarily, eliciting a comment from John, who was walking beside him.

“What’s the matter, old son? Somebody walk over your grave?”

Tom grimaced, and pointed to the windows. “I never could stand insects, or any bug larger than a bee. Makes my skin crawl.”

John smiled. “Just as well you didn’t choose entomology for your major then, isn’t it?”

“Ha, ha.”

Jennifer, who was walking in front of them, turned and spoke over her shoulder. “If you think these are big, you should be thankful they’re not giant Wetas.”

Tom frowned. “I know I shouldn’t ask, but what’s a giant Weta?”

John grinned. “Native New Zealand insect. Makes these look like houseflies.”

“Thanks a bunch.”

John spoke to Jennifer, enjoying Tom’s discomfort. “You know, Jen, did I ever tell you about the bug I saw while I was stationed in South-East Asia? No? Well, there’s this insect in Thailand called a rice bug that the locals regard as a great delicacy.” Ignoring Tom’s queasy expression, he went on.
“These rice bugs are about the size of an enchilada, and they proliferate during the rice harvest. When the rice is ready, they dive under the water in the paddy fields and eat the grains off the roots of the plants. The water enters their bodies through their exoskeleton, and swells the rice, making them too heavy to fly. So, you end up with thousands of these huge insects wandering around all over the ground.

“The locals love ’em. They organize bug hunts; you see hundreds of Thais, all running around carrying sacks, and they scoop the bugs up and take them home. The guys at the U. S. Air Force bases there told me they have to mount extra guards to patrol the perimeters, or the locals will climb the fences and come onto the base to get these things.”

Tom shuddered again, and said, “I know I’m going to regret asking this to my dying day, but what do they do with them?”

John grinned. “I thought you’d never ask. They put them in a pot of boiling water, and when they’re ready, they snap their heads off and suck out the…”

“OH, GROSS!” Tom yelled, drawing amused looks from the other team members, while John and Jennifer fell about in hysterics. He looked, horrified, at John. “You can’t be serious!”

With an effort, John pulled his face straight. “They’re considered a great delicacy,” he said; and when it looked like Tom might lose his dinner, he added, “Some people even keep them as pets, which is how I first came to see one. It came walking out of the back of a little back country Thai general store like it owned the bloody place. It had its wings crossed over behind its back; they were leaving a trail in the dust on the floor, and it looked mean enough to kick the arse of your average Doberman. The shopkeeper said they were good pets because they kept the rats down.” He looked at Tom. “Can you imagine an insect that kills rats? Jesus, insects don’t bother me as a rule, but I’ll tell you, when I saw that thing I nearly shit myself.”

Tom gave John a caustic look, and said, “Thank you, John. I know I’ll sleep a lot better for your having shared that with me.” With another uneasy glance at the grasshoppers, he hurried on through the administration area to the waiting Air Force officers.

Once the formalities were completed, the team members were shown to quarters on the base. The flight from Los Angeles had been long and tiring, and they all collapsed into bed.

The next morning they climbed into trucks and drove the thirty miles or so to the naval base at Agana. Unfortunately, the base’s small runway could not take the C230’s, and the subs had been taken there overnight by road. When they arrived, they headed for the base canteen to enjoy a late breakfast. After the Navy personnel had left to go about their duties, Arnold took the floor. Following a brief introductory preamble, the project head got down to business.

“As you are all aware, one of the purposes of this project is to test the efficiency of the two submersibles that have been constructed from the new alien metal that they have named, God help us, Herculeum.” Arnold’s views on some aspects of the new metal, including its name, were well known, and there were several smiles around the room. He turned to a large map of the western Pacific that was projected on the wall behind him.

“For the duration of this part of the project, all relevant personnel will be quartered on board the research vessel Halsey. This is necessary because we will be conducting tests at the western end of the Mariana Trench, about two hundred and fifty miles southwest of here. We will therefore be using the ship as a proximity base, and Guam as a home base.

“There will be two dive teams, one in each of the submersibles; however, in the interests of safety, there will only ever be one sub in the water at any given time. The teams will be as follows: Submersible number one will be piloted by Dennis Crafter, and will carry Commander Peel and myself. Sub number two will be piloted by Miss Oates, and will carry Professor van Damme and Mr.Stoddard.”

Tom exchanged a look with John. He had hoped to be sharing a sub with Jennifer, but he also wanted them to all be together. Perhaps Arnold had seen the potential for emotional entanglement, and had separated them in the interests of harmonious efficiency.

Arnold, meanwhile, was continuing with the briefing. “I would now like to bore you for a little while with a summary of the geography, as well as some of the history of the area we will be entering. I know some of you will be familiar with this, but bear with me, if only for the sake of those who are not. Who knows, even you might learn something.

“In the middle of the last century, from 1957 to 1961, the research vessel Challenger conducted a survey of the sea-bed of the western Pacific. On the 23rd of January 1960, the bathyscaph Trieste, manned by Jacques Piccard and U.S. Navy Lieutenant David Walsh descended to what is still the deepest manned dive in history. They reached a point that they thought at the time to be the bottom of the Mariana Trench, some 35,800 feet down. They named this spot Challenger Deep, and proclaimed it the deepest place on earth. At the time, they thought they were right. Now, however, having the benefit of more sophisticated measuring and sonar equipment, we know they were not. We know today that the trench is in fact some two thousand feet deeper, and that depth has never been reached.” Katzmeyer paused for effect. “It is to that place that submersible one will be heading.”
Over the buzz of conversation that filled the room, Arnold signaled to the technician operating the video equipment, and Tom and John exchanged ‘I told you so’ looks. Then Arnold continued as a sketch of a cross-section of the trench was projected on to the wall.

“As can be seen from the diagram, the trench is a sheer drop for the first 25,000 feet, making it unique in the world. There is not another place on earth that falls vertically for such a distance. Or, if there is, we haven’t found it yet.” Arnold cleared his throat, then continued.

“From the 25,000 foot mark to the lower plateau at 38,000 feet, the gradient is about 1:7; in other words, quite a gentle but steady slope. It levels out and becomes flat at the bottom; obviously, the men in the Trieste thought they had reached the very bottom of the trench and explored no further. Indeed, the purpose of the dive was just to touch bottom; doubtless, they were feeling that enormous weight of water over them, and were not disposed to linger.”

There was a general murmur, and a young black technician called out, “Feets, don’t fail me now.”

“Indeed,” said Arnold, over the laughter that rang around the room. “For the record, they took four hours and forty-eight minutes to descend to their lowest point, and three hours and seventeen minutes to ascend to the surface.” He signaled again, and a diagram of the bathyscaph appeared on the screen.

“The Trieste was constructed of cast steel, three and a half inches thick. It had Lucite windows, and carried petrol for ballast, petroleum being lighter than water. A Swiss scientist, Auguste Piccard, father of the pilot, Jacques, designed her. Considering the technology available at the time, almost seventy years ago, this was a remarkable feat of engineering.”

“Not only that,” said John Peel, sitting near the front of the room with Tom and Jennifer. “Can you imagine the balls on those resemble the popular conception of a ‘flying saucer’, and are propelled by water jets, a system invented by one of your countrymen, Jennifer.”

The blonde New Zealander spoke up for the first time. “That’s right, Arnold. Hamilton, I think, back in the nineteen seventies.”

Arnold nodded, and turned to the diagram again. “As you can see, our modern-day submersible is a very streamlined affair compared to the old-style bathyscaph. Not only can it reach far greater depths than most of them could, or so we hope, it can also maneuver at those depths, since it does not have the disadvantage of being tethered to a cable.” He took up a pointer, and began to highlight the sub’s features.

“It is oval, which helps in its maneuvering, and has an all-round view from the cockpit, or bridge, which covers the entire front section of the sub. Powerful lights here, here, and especially here. The raised fins at the rear help the sub to navigate, and they have flaps like an aircraft for maneuvering.
“A miniature fusion reactor supplies the power to the turbofans, which in turn power the water jets. Of course, the reactor powers the rest of the sub as well, the lighting and heating especially. At these depths, the water is just above freezing, even here in the tropics, and the darkness is of course absolute. During the earlier trials we conducted out here, we reached speeds of sixty knots at two thousand feet; with the modifications we have since made, we expect to be able to go all the way to the bottom of the trench.”

John raised a hand. “Speaking of the trench, Arnold, can you tell us a bit about it? How big is it? I mean, we see the dimensions; length, depth, that kind of thing, but what is it really like?”

Arnold brought back the diagram of the trench again. “The Mariana Trench is a vast canyon in the earth’s crust several hundred miles long, but the area we will be concentrating on is about two hundred and fifty miles from here. It is sixty miles wide at the seabed. However,” he raised his voice over the hum of comment that greeted this, “the width at 35,800 feet is only about five miles. We have also determined that the width at the true bottom of the trench is only about one mile. That narrow area, a trench within a trench if you like, seems to run for about twenty miles.” He paused again. “Any questions?”

This time, Jennifer spoke. “Arnold, you said the testing of the subs was only one reason we are here. How many other reasons are there that we don’t know about?”

Arnold leaned on the small desk at the front of the room and looked around at each of them. “All right,” he said, “this is where it gets serious. What you are going to hear now is about as top secret as it gets.” He then began to explain about the sightings and the subsequent reports. With exception of those aware, the people present registered expressions ranging from amused to incredulous to outraged. By the time Arnold had finished, there was such an uproar in the room that the meeting threatened to get out of control, and he had to shout above the din.

“All right, all right, settle down! Please!” The roar died to a murmur as he continued. “All I ask is that you keep an open mind. I will admit it all sounds a little sci-fi…”

“You got that right…”

“Damn straight…”

“BUT…please let’s be scientific about this.” The murmur died, and he went on more quietly. “If there had been only one of these reports, we could probably have put it down to hysteria. But, taken together, the submarine, the charter flight, and the merchant ship…these people are professionals. They are not prone to hallucinations.”

John Peel spoke again. “But sea serpents, Arnold? Giant whales and rays? Dragons, for Christ’s sake?”

Arnold was unmoved. “There are still a few places on this planet where no one has ever been, John. Especially the deep places. Who knows what’s there?”

From the rear of the room, where he had been sitting quietly, Dennis Crafter spoke up. “If these sightings are genuine, why are they occurring now? Why hasn’t anything like this been seen before?”

Several of the people in the room nodded agreement, and Arnold raised his hands. “Those are very good questions, Dennis, and I’ll be the first to admit we don’t have any answers, not yet. But they are the reason we are here.”

Tom raised his hand. “I’d like to say something. I think there has to be a reason for the sudden appearance of these…creatures, and I’ve got an idea about what it might be. I think there has to be a connection between them and the alien metal we used to construct the subs.”

Several of the scientists began to object, and Arnold said, “Go on, Tom. Why do you think that?”

Tom shrugged. “Well, it seems obvious to me. First, nothing like these things has ever been seen on earth before, at least not in the technological era. Before that, there were rumors, legends, whatever. Now, just when we introduce a substance that has never before existed on the planet, they appear, seemingly out of nowhere. And right where the testing of the subs first took place” He glanced around the room. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I just don’t believe in coincidence to that extent.”

There was a general hubbub of comment, and Tom said, “I believe there is a connection, even if I did arrive at the conclusion a little unscientifically. Call it a conviction based on circumstantial evidence.”

Beside him, John grinned. “Feel it in the bones, is that it?”

“Damn right.”

There was some general discussion after that, and the meeting broke up a short time later. The scientists and personnel dispersed and began preparing for the journey to the test site.

*

The next day, the two subs were loaded on board the research ship. The scientific personnel found the accommodations comfortable, if a little basic, but they were not to be enjoying them for long. The Halsey had a cruising speed of twelve knots, and it was just twenty-four hours later that they dropped anchor in two thousand feet of water, close to the designated area of the Mariana Trench. During the course of that single day and night, two lives were changed forever.


***



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