Armed with an LED light array half its length, the robotic sub maneuvered closer to the vestimentiferan colony.
“Hundreds and hundreds of them, it looks like,” Dr. Parish said. “Can you get any nearer?”
“Trying,” Angela said, and sighed in frustration. “The rocky terrain around the vents is tricky. I’m afraid of hitting a jagged outcropping and damaging Deep Fin. We can record from here, and I can boost the magnification. That’s safer.”
“You are now the one in charge of this project?” Dr. Parish said.
Angela said nothing, knowing it was futile to argue with Parish. Besides, she was the pro at controlling the sub unit. Inept at fine controls, Parish nearly crashed it the first few times they had sent it out, and he finally acknowledged that she would be the permanent “pilot.”
She turned on recorder and increased the zoom. At least two meters in length, the tube worms formed dense clumps of slender white cylinders, their deep red gills protruding from the tops. White crabs and other vent creatures clung to the colony like baubles on a giant bracelet.
Parish sighed. “I’d love to spend all of our allotted time on these.”
“But the unit only has about forty-five more minutes before it runs out of battery,” Angela finished.
While the worm colony drew their attention, it was the vents with their bubbling, superheated water they were more interested in.
“Go ahead then,” Parish said.
They sat side by side in the control booth aboard the Searcher research vessel in the Pacific. The day was calm, a counterpoint to the excitement Angela felt at finally getting to examine the vents—even if via robotic sub. She had to keep Parish on track. He often drifted, like a boat in a swift current without an anchor.
Slowly, with a delicate tuning of the controls, Angela moved the sub to the vent they had marked on their map. It had formed within the last year, since they had last examined the area, and was remarkable for its size. The monitor registered a rapid warming of the water as the sub inched closer to it.
Angela, intent on the vent itself, was startled at Parish’s sudden intake of breath.
“What the hell was that?” he shouted, making Angela jump.
“Where?” She concentrated on maintaining the sub’s location. “On the screen?” When she glanced at him, his eyes were wide, alarmed.
“A figure, but it couldn’t be,” he said.
She had seen nothing but the rough terrain the sub was navigating. No time to be studying anything else.
“We’ll run it back later,” she said. Parish must have imagined whatever he thought he saw. “Figure—are you talking human?”
Parish ran a hand over his buzz cut. “It couldn’t be. The pressure down there is like a trash compactor on steroids. But what was it?”
Sensing that Parish was no longer interested in exploring the vents, Angela moved the sub out of harm’s way, slipping back from the rocky outcroppings. “Let’s hold here for a few minutes. I’ll keep a sweep going, and maybe it’ll show up again.” While I’m watching.
“Sure, sure.” Then he fell silent, studying the screen intently.
Angela continued panning the light array across the field of vision. The worm colony lay a dozen meters away, and the rest of the view was the profound darkness of the deep.
A shiver ran down Angela’s spine. He’d probably seen a fish, some odd-ball creature with surprising appendages.
The screen shimmered with momentary static, and when it cleared, she was staring at a face—a human-like face—only centimeters from the sub’s camera.
Almost as quickly as it appeared, the face vanished, and seconds later, the camera went offline.
“It was there, wasn’t it?” Angela whispered, more to herself than Parish.
“I saw it,” Parish said. “We both saw it.”
Looking at the readouts from the sub’s controls, Angela felt sick. “We’ve lost more than the camera feed. All connection to Deep Fin has been severed. It’s gone.” And how many millions of dollars gone with it? She and Parish were responsible.
As if reading her mind, Parish clapped her on the back. “Yes, it’s a huge loss, but the flip side is, the world will be at our doorstep the minute we release the footage. Unbelievable. We’ll be heroes.”
Angela hoped he was right.
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