Prehistoric Beasts and Where to Fight Them
by Sean Hoade (writing as “Hugo Navikov”)
Filmmaker Jake Bentneus directed two of the greatest blockbusters in movie history, one (Lusitania!) a dramatization of the final voyage of the passenger vessel; and later, an even bigger hit (Prosopopoeia!) about human visitors using fictional super-advanced virtual reality to bilk the beings of another planet. Bentneus became fascinated by underwater exploration during the making of Lusitania! and his earlier film, Abyssal Zone, and learned how to pilot a research submersible in order to see the wreck for himself before filming commenced.
Also, during research for Prosopopoeia! Bentneus became deeply immersed in the real-life tech and experience of virtual reality. The twain were to meet, and Bentneus and his team sent Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) to push as deep into the Pacific as possible while he controlled them via a virtual reality interface that made it seem like he was skimming along the ocean floor. He could do this because after he had learned to operate real submersibles, he taught himself how to do it while blindfolded, storing that knowledge in his muscle memory. Thus, he could devote his conscious attention to using the robot’s cameras for his own eyes, its microphones for his ears.
Essentially, his experience was going for a dive at the bottom of the ocean without any gear on his virtual body at all.
Many known and even some brand-new species of the deep were spotted through the robot’s cameras; however, the ROV could reach only the 20,000-foot depths of the abyssal zone.
For Bentneus, however, 20,000 feet down through the eyes of a robot vehicle wasn’t enough. True, the floor of the ocean in this part was as far below sea level as the peak of Mount Denali was above it, and Alaska’s highest mountain was no foothill.
But Denali was also no Everest.
Jake Bentneus wanted Everest deep.
He wanted Challenger Deep.
Challenger Deep is a rip created in the Marianas Trench by active tectonics, a crevasse within a crevasse that already plunges far below the 20,000 feet that killed Nerd Bait. Named after the first ship ever to attempt an estimate of how deep the crevasse went (the HMS Challenger, in its 1872–1876 mission), Challenger Deep is a monumental tectonic artifact plunging from the surface of the Marianas Trench in the Pacific past the benthic, abyssal, and hadal zones, the last getting its name from “Hades,” god of the underworld. The god of the depths of Hell. These names—which describe depths far less than Challenger Deep—may give a sense of how much farther down Bentneus aimed to dive.
Only two people had gone that deep before, and that was back in 1960, their now-quaint technology allowing the team to stay at the bottom for only twenty minutes before they heard troubling cracking noises and saw water seeping in along the inside of their bathysphere, which they didn’t consider necessarily positive developments. They also never were able to photograph or even see the bottom because of all the silt their brute-force submersible stirred up upon plopping down. Anything could have been down there—it’s far deeper than sonar can even estimate well—and they would never have seen it. Still, the two-man team set a still-standing record by descending to the bottom, 36,070 feet deep.
Everest is only 29,000 feet.
Ghost-white animals called to Bentneus, creatures that had never seen light—and had ceased to possess eyes, since those would prove an evolutionarily useless drain on resources down where sunlight never reached. An ROV couldn’t be sent all the way down to the deepest part of the entire ocean, where the seafloor of the Marianas Trench crevasse fell away thousands of feet into that deeper canyon of Challenger Deep.
Bentneus returned from the hugely popular simulcast mission with one purpose, a singular obsession, a monomania that forced itself in front of the making of any sequels to his billions-grossing films … or doing anything else. Perhaps anyone else would be satisfied with skimming the abyssal zone, but the filmmaker demanded the apotheosis of ocean exploration, and had the resources to attempt it.
He would touch bottom in Challenger Deep, and he would stay there long enough to glean real scientific information. Long enough to let settle and dissipate the silt made up of millions of years of diatomaceous sediment, remains of everything from plankton to blue whales. It would take a lot of money, but Jake Bentneus had a lot of money and the will to spend $100 million of it in order to put together a crew to build two submersibles—it was vital to have a backup while exploring such an unpredictable environment—and send one down to the most harrowing section of the crushing deep.
The machine they created was unlike any other research vessel ever devised: It was vertically oriented, so it would conserve resources by traveling much faster to the bottom than did the 1960 traditionally horizontal submersible. Most of the length—or height—of the craft was given over to batteries, lights, cameras and other recording and transmitting equipment, and vertical and horizontal thrusters. It was only at the very bottom of the newly christened Ocean Victory that a sphere of the strongest steel on Earth would hold its lone occupant. The bathysphere’s perfect shape was its trump card against collapsing against the 16,000 pounds per square inch that would be pressing against it from all directions at the Challenger Deep seafloor. (As Bentneus liked to say to interviewers, that was equivalent to having the weight of three Hummer SUVs sitting on your thumbnail.)
Ironically, it was the ultimate desire for freedom that made Jake Bentneus want to crawl inside a claustrophobic metal ball and sink in a straight line for three hours and then sit in an unmoving can at the very bottom of the ocean, where, at that depth, any imperfection in his sphere would make it implode so fast he’d be dead before even realizing there was a problem.
Not only this, but every move of his would be watched not only by his three-ship crew, but also by an estimated 500 million 3D simulcast subscribers around the world. Again, the broadcast would be immersive video and sound, but this time a VR helmet was available for $199.99 at Brookstone. It was designed to shut all else out and see and hear exactly what Ocean Victory was seeing and hearing every second. In fact, if the silt were still stirred up by Bentneus’s extra-soft landing, those cameras stationed higher up on the submersible would actually be able to see better at that moment than the filmmaker-aquanaut himself could.
But this, this was truly freedom. Doing things on his own terms. Ocean Victory was to be his in more ways than one. Nothing could crush him or his spirit. Real freedom would be his, a singularity of self and experience no one else in the history of the world had ever experienced.
* * *
Jake Bentneus grinned and gave a thumbs-up to the video feed going out to his support crew—and also to the simulcast audience. The simulcast director on board the communications and tech ship Sea Legs would switch between cameras and mics for the audience, and a dedicated video archivist would make sure all eight cameras’ videos were recorded and saved in their entireties. There wasn’t just the 3D feature film of the entire project from conception to completion to think of; this was first and foremost a scientific mission with depth readings and core samples and temperature measurements and such. Bentneus had focused most all of his training on operating the many controls of Ocean Victory, which was a full-time job in itself.
Bentneus thought of himself as an aquanaut, the deep-sea equivalent of Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin—or maybe Pete Conrad and Alan Bean of Apollo 12, since the 1960 dive technically preceded him. (He had also been in space—it cost him a mere $20 million to orbit with the Russians—but as a “space tourist,” not as a member of the crew, helping to expand the boundaries of knowledge.) In Ocean Victory, like the lunar explorers, he would operate the machinery, collect the samples, do a little surveying, but then let the marine biologists and oceanographers pore over the data and make theories or whatever they did. But he was the aquanaut here, not a tourist.
His thumbs-up acknowledged by the crew on the main ship, Piranha II, Bentneus settled himself into the narrow seat and checked gauges and monitored the operational status of the main systems. They all changed as soon as the submersible was underwater, as made sense. It amused him to monitor the pressure on his cigar-shaped vessel because of how quickly the pressure increased: for every foot Ocean Victory descended, thirty-three more pounds of pressure pushed on every square inch of the entire vessel.
Everything went smoothly, unlike the day before when choppy seas made them abort, and now that he was completely under the surface—according to his instruments, since he couldn’t see out the small porthole unless he moved the camera out of the way—he felt alone and free. The swaying while being lowered from the A-frame winch ceased immediately upon his immersion, and he was lowered so slowly into the depths that it didn’t feel like he was moving at all.
But the gauges told the story, and he watched them with unabashed glee. “All systems operational,” he spoke into his on-head microphone, the sound of his own voice jarring in the silence of his underwater cell.
“Roger. That makes it a ‘go.’ See you once you’ve made history, Jake.”
He grinned. “Roger that.”
The trip to the bottom of Challenger Deep would take a mere two-plus hours, cutting in half the time the 1960 duo had needed. The big advantage Ocean Victory had was its vertical orientation; the former mission involved an iron bathysphere inside a traditionally shaped horizontal submersible. That took five hours to reach the seafloor, allowing them just twenty minutes at the bottom before oxygen supplies and that troubling cracking (due, they surmised later, to the huge difference in temperature of the ocean and of the air inside their sphere) forced them to ascend, which took another three hours.
Bentneus’s craft would zip to the bottom—at three miles per hour, but that was zippy for a deep-sea vessel—spend two hours doing science at the seafloor, providing commentary to the crew and millions of people around the world, then zip back up to the ship that tethered him with steel wire and the highest-performance fiber-optic cable.
Bentneus and the crew of the support ships knew that hundreds of thousands of VR helmets had been “rented” for free to many, many K–12 schools and thousands more at a discount to hundreds of universities, so the filmmaker took it as part of his job as an aquanaut to explain to the viewers what they were seeing, while his TV director on the surface worked to switch to whatever cameras offered the most interesting visuals.
“Piranha II is lowering me down, but at this point I would continue to descend, regardless,” Bentneus told the camera. “This baby has ballast you wouldn’t believe. But without the team, I would very easily drift off course—fatally off-course—and my telemetry information helps them let me know if and when I need to engage the thrusters. So contact with “upstairs” is vital. And I get to talk to you guys, so it’s a win-win.”
The eight cameras looking out at the ocean conveyed images of a variety of colorful fish and also of those gray denizens of the underwater world, eels and small sharks and other predators. Bentneus uttered a stream of “Wows” and “Would you look at that?” but he really got excited when he saw a larger shark swim past the camera, telling the viewers, “The fish are brightly colored to attract mates and look unappealing to predators since many fancy-looking fish are very unpleasant to eat, even for a shark. So other fish, ones without defense mechanisms such as releasing a bitterant or stinging, evolved to look like the fish no one wanted to eat.”
From another camera, Bentneus could see that the shark that had passed by was sucking in a big, colorful angelfish. “Um, yeah … so, obviously, it doesn’t work 100 percent of the time,” he said sheepishly but quickly resumed using his “expert” voice. “What’s interesting to note is that the predators of the deep are mostly gray and white, maybe mottled, but all of it camouflages them from their prey until it’s too late for the poor fish to get away.
“They say sharks have changed very little over the past 300 million years, and I believe it. As the seas cooled and many species went extinct between then and now, the shark adapted to the lower temperatures and has remained the ‘alpha predator’ down here. They stay nearer to the surface for warmth, even with their adaptation to cooler-water survival. Luckily, Ocean Victory is much too wide, even with its vertical orientation, to fit between the jaws of any extra-hungry sharks or other predators. Maybe a Megalodon—the biggest sea predator ever—could get its mouth around us, but, as it’s 100 million years after they went extinct, we’re highly unlikely to encounter any.
“Try to notice that the deeper we go, the fewer colorful fish we will see. This is because sunlight can’t penetrate very far into the water. Below about 1000 feet—which we’ll be at pretty soon—the darkness is almost absolute and the temperature plummets, neither one agreeing with sea life other than squid, octopus, rays, jellyfish, and other squishy creatures. So we’ll see a sudden thinning of complex organisms like fish and sharks, because photosynthesis ultimately powers every living thing on Earth—except those that live here in the deep.” BAM! That was a super-dramatic way to say that.
He took a moment to check his gauges and report what they were registering to the crew on the surface. Then he resumed his science lesson. “But although the temperature of the water is going to be actually a degree or so above freezing, oceanographers have theorized there is a system of very hot thermal vents shooting up from the bottom due to tectonic activity below. That is because shifting of the tectonic plates beneath the ocean floor creates friction, which creates heat. A lot of heat. Giant, weird creatures like tube worms thrive down there, and who knows? Maybe we’ll find something else that likes warm water and doesn’t need the sun’s energy to survive?”
Bentneus knew this was highly unlikely, at least if people assumed he was talking about vertebrates. But hey, his monumentally popular films were suspenseful, so why shouldn’t the long trip down be as well?
In point of fact, he knew it wasn’t necessarily exciting for the viewers to see him reading off gauges and transmitting data to the surface, so there were probably a lot of people waiting for him to near the bottom so they could watch his landing and exploration. But if some weird creatures showed up—and it seemed like deep dives always observed some crazy animal or other—that would keep everyone watching.
* * *
It had been an hour or so of swimming critters, but for another hour now the cameras had shown nothing but darkness beyond the glow that Ocean Victory’s own lights gave off. This deep—more than 20,000 feet from the surface—the total darkness meant very, very few animals were around.
There was lots of floating or sinking animal detritus, which the average viewer might find boring, so the filmmaker and his broadcast team elected to show segments that would be in the feature film later. These were about the planning for the mission, the construction of the submersible, discussion of scientific goals, and so on.
This was by design. Bentneus and the broadcast crew knew there would be dead spots, dramatically speaking, during his descent and then later during his trip back up to the surface, so these pre-filmed segments took the pressure off Bentneus to keep his patter going. They’d cut off the segments if any creature of note passed by or if something went wrong with the submersible, which would definitely make for suspenseful viewing, but even Jake Bentneus didn’t care for it to be quite that exciting.
“Jake, we’re cut away. How you feeling down there?” his right-hand man and mission chief, Mickey Luch, said into his earpiece. When the feed was on, viewers could hear what Mickey was saying as Bentneus did. “Wanna get out and stretch your legs a little?”
“Har dee har,” Bentneus replied, but with a smile. “I am seeing a slight anomaly in the temperature gauge, though.”
“Should we cut into the segment?”
“Nah, it’s the only thing that seems off. Shows the water being a couple of degrees warmer than expected.”
“You’ll recall that we are lowering you pretty near the vents down there,” Mickey said. “Y’know, the mission plan you designed and all.”
“I’m gonna har dee har you again, and don’t think I won’t. Nobody wants that.”
“Actually … yeah, have Kevin up there take us live again,” Bentneus said, and waited through the lag for Mickey to tell him they were back on the air. “Hey, folks, we have something strange happening here, something no ROVs or the 1960 expedition ever reported. The temperature gauges—and we got a lot of them—are saying the water is at 6 degrees Celsius, so almost 43 degrees Fahrenheit! That may not sound very warm, but I’m thinking something is malfunctioning with the external thermometers. Mickey, what do you think?”
“Yeah, Jake, the internal ones are working just fine, got you at a steady 24 Celsius.” Bentneus harbored an intense dislike for the Celsius scale, because it made impressive numbers look mundane. So he converted the temperatures in his mind: 24°C was about 76°F. “But you’re still 6000 feet from the seabed. The thermocline should have settled down pretty close to one degree Celsius, but no more than 4°C that deep.”
“That’s between 34 and 39 degrees Fahrenheit.”
“What? Jake? Your air scrubbers not working down there?”
“Talking to the viewers, Mickey.”
“Oh, right, shi—um, golly,” Mickey said, sounding as natural as a third-grader in a school play. “Anyway, that temp is much higher than anyone’s ever recorded. I think, yeah, your thermometers are on the fritz.”
The camera inside the bathysphere showed Bentneus flipping some switches and even tapping on some analog dials, whether they were thermometer readings or not. “All of them at once?”
“Kevin, cut back to the documentary stuff.” Mickey waited a few seconds, then said to Bentneus, “This couldn’t be sabotage, could it?”
“What? Did we have some—oh, hell, you mean the Muir murder, don’t you?”
“It just makes me itchy. Her husband—”
“—is safely ensconced in prison. You and I both vetted this team, so relax. Put that shit out of your mind and get the live link back up. I just saw something big pass by down here.”
“At 30,000 feet? Maybe it’s a giant squid—”
“And maybe you could tell Kevin to go live again, now, please. Have them review the video and see if you can get an ID on whatever that was.” The support vessel Sharkasm (motto: “I just love salad”) could access a computer database that would almost instantaneously tell them what they were looking at in any video or still image. Sharkasm was equipped with the most powerful and robust computers and modulator-demodulator technology Bentneus’s vast fortune could buy.
If a statistically almost-impossible (but still extant) coelacanth swam by Ocean Victory’s cameras, the system would name it in nanoseconds. If an extinct ancestor of the coelacanth appeared, the system had the chops to identify that, too.
The truth is that the bottom of the ocean has been explored much less than the surface of the moon. Anything could be down there, and that’s what the stack of servers back in Guam in communication with Sharkasm would identify and Holly Patterson on board would confirm.
Dozens of albino shrimp and twenty-foot squids (not to mention weirder creatures with no immediate zoological analog) were routinely identified during seabed missions 13,000 feet shallower than the bottom of Challenger Deep. But if they ran across something the computer couldn’t identify—an entirely new species!—Jake Bentneus would catch it on camera and advance science for real.
That is, if anyone knew he was doing it. “Mickey, I’m not seeing myself on my video feed. I am feeling … unhappy.”
“Right. Sorry. Here we go.” Mickey conveyed Bentneus’s concern over the radio to Sea Legs and the millions watching were treated again to 3D views of the filmmaker sitting inside his sphere at the top of their screens and the bottom half showing what the exterior cameras were seeing … which was still just blackness with a light snowfall of organic detritus that he would be touching down on soon.
“Welcome back, world,” Bentneus said with a smile. “You’re tuned in at just the right time. The temperature, according to my gauges, is—man, oh, man—seven degrees Celsius, which is forty–one degrees Fahrenheit.” All the vital equipment was digital and could be fine-tuned upstairs, but Jake had insisted that old-school brass instruments be installed in his cockpit (even though they were still operated by computer to expand or contact the mercury in their glass tubes according to exterior digital sensors).
The radio crackled. “Jake, recalibration is done on the thermometers. They’re all operating perfectly. It really is 7 degrees down there.”
“Wow, forty-one degrees. Holy cow, that’s a true scientific discovery—or data, anyway,” Bentneus said, “but we have a lot bigger news. Whatever the real temperature is out there, something large, much larger than anything you’d expect this deep, passed me by just a minute ago. Our support team is poring over the video data to identify what this could have been. The safe guess is a giant squid or sizable octopus, both of which can go deep indeed. Certain species of octopus have actually been seen at the bottom of abyssal zone seabeds, so who knows what we’ll find. Exciting, isn’t it? Mickey, let’s have a look at that video. Sharkasm has to be done with the ID by now.”
“Um, yes, it’s finished …” Mickey sounded perplexed and nervous.
Bentneus waited, knowing his world of feed viewers also waited. “And?”
“It’s probably a computer mismatch, but …”
“Come on already, Mickey. We have enough suspense with me daring to go down this deep.”
“It was a perfect match with, um … Jake, it’s a Liopleurodon.”
Bentneus laughed incredulously, then repeated, “A Liopleurodon, as in ‘Liopleurodon, the species of dinosaur that went extinct ten million years before the meteor wiped out the rest of the dinosaurs?’ That Liopleurodon?” The filmmaker was a bit of a dinosaur nerd.
“That’s what—I, um—do you want Kevin to run the video?”
Bentneus looked into the feed camera, which always kept his image inside Ocean Victory on-screen, and rolled his eyes for the viewers’ amusement. “Yeah, Mickey, I think the world would like to see an impossible dinosaur at 31,000 feet below the surface.”
Mickey told Kevin to “roll tape,” showing his age a bit, and the view popped up on the bottom half of the screens at home. On the top half was Bentneus staring intently at that same video inside the submersible.
It showed the familiar exterior floodlights showing the snow—and then something swam close enough to the camera to be fully illuminated. It moved at a good pace, but not so fast that anyone watching the feed could mistake it for a dolphin or shark or any other familiar sea creature. It had jaws stretching halfway down the length of its stout, striped body; four large paddle-like flippers; and a long, thick tail. There was no way to look at it and think anything other than “dinosaur.” (Maybe “sea monster,” but those were pretty much the same thing.)
Bentneus, mouth hanging a bit open, asked Mickey to replay it. Then do it again. And again. There was no mistaking that this roughly 20-foot-long animal—whether it was Liopleurodon or something just of similar appearance that could not exist this deep—was no familiar fish. The database had returned an ID of “Liopleurodon” because the goddamned thing looked exactly like a goddamned Liopleurodon.
Bentneus typed into a console, its small old-school green screen out of view of the cameras, that was created to be used in the event of radio malfunction but was also quite handy for personal communiques:
MICKEY, IF THIS IS A JOKE EVERYONE IS FIRED.
Mickey wrote back almost immediately:
YOU KNOW ME, BOSS.
THIS IS NOT A JOKE.
The filmmaker did know that his capable, often ingenious, mission chief would not pull a “hilarious” stunt even in a training exercise, let alone with Bentneus’s life depending on him and his crew. He acknowledged Mickey’s reply and looked up at the camera. “Well, ladies and gentlemen, we have apparently encountered our first real surprise of the descent. As you saw for yourself, some kind of vertebrate passed very close to me. Our database of every sea creature that has ever lived, coupled with the most advanced pattern-matching software in existence, tells us this is a … ha … a Liopleurodon, a fearsome ocean predator from the … Triassic period?”
A pause from Mickey, then, “Holly says the Jurassic. I bet she didn’t even have to look that up.” Both men laughed, but Jake’s eyes were wide and his face beamed as he watched the feed repeat.
“Wow. Multiple cameras caught it coming up portside, the front camera got a close-up, and multiple cameras on starboard filmed it swimming away.” He shook his head, an incredulous smile huge on his face. “This dive is first and foremost a scientific expedition, and what we just saw should keep the paleontologists—ha! not to mention marine biologists—busy for a long time!”
He cackled with glee, showing the whole world that he was a big ol’ dork and loved every second of it. “See, ladies and gentlemen, this is what I’m down here for—robot probes are great, but none of them registered warmer water than expected. Certainly none of them caught something like this creature on video. But we are breaking new gr—holy [buzz]! It’s coming back!”
The Liopleurodon had reappeared, its near-albino body coming just barely within the range of the floodlights. It filled Bentneus with awe: this wasn’t necessarily an actual dinosaur, but if not, then it must have been very little changed from an ancient ancestor that was one. That wasn’t unheard of, especially for water-borne lizards and amphibians: the modern crocodile has remained essentially the same since the species developed 200 million years ago. So it wasn’t unprecedented in that way, but no vertebrates, no dinosaurs, could travel this deep, could they? Did water this deep even exist in the dinos’ time, or was there even more of it? The pressure was anathema to creatures with compressible air in their tissues, and the water was far too cold compared to …
Bentneus pulled his eyes from the screen and checked the thermometers.
The water was at 15 degrees Celsius. About 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
He pulled himself away from those and checked his depth gauges. These were only approximations down this deep, but they were in-the-ballpark accurate.
This particular ballpark was about 33,000 feet down. Ocean Victory sank much more slowly in these dense waters, but the very bottom of the world was just over half a mile away. It couldn’t be this warm. Bentneus actually shook his head violently to shake himself awake if he was in a dream. It felt like a dream.
But it wasn’t a dream. The temperature continued to rise, and the pale-striped Liopleurodon moved languidly toward him, pointed slightly to starb—
“What the f—JESUS H. CHRIST!”
The front camera’s view of the Liopleurodon was blocked by something much larger than the flippered dinosaur. Because of the 3D hardware installed within every camera, all could see it wasn’t just closer than the Liopleurodon, but how much larger it was just by calculating its distance. And that calculation revealed it to be huge, indeed—it didn’t eat the smaller creature, didn’t even seem to notice it, but it did turn after a pass to investigate Ocean Victory. It must have been twice as long as the Liopleurodon, something like 45 feet from the tip of its crocodile-looking snout (filled with hundreds of razor-sharp, serrated teeth) to the sharp points of its tail. Its pass in front and then turn by the starboard cameras meant there was more than enough captured on video for Holly to do her magic on board Sharkasm.
“M … Mickey? Did you see that?”
“Roger that, Jake. Sharkasm is already uploading the video to the database.”
“That was another goddamn dinosaur. These are dinosaurs! Holy [buzz]!”
Mickey was glad they had the live feed on a three-second delay so Bentneus’s salty language could be scrubbed before it was broadcast, but he agreed: Holy shit.
“Roger that,” Mickey said. “Boss, I’m going to patch Holly in. She’s the oceanographer and marine biologist, not me.”
“Jake, this is Holly.”
“Hi, Hol. We must have just seen something very unusual, right? I mean, more unusual than even a Liopleurodon at”—he checked the gauges—“33,800 feet and … my god, a temperature of 66 degrees.”
“Fahrenheit,” Holly gently nudged, since scientists and most of the civilized world used the centigrade scale.
“Yeah, right, sorry. It’s, ah, just a hair under 19°C.”
“Right, good … um, Jake, you’re not going to believe this, but … the database reports that we just encountered a Mosasaurus.”
“I just encountered what?”
“Mosasaurus. The alpha predator of the Cretaceous period. It didn’t live during the same epoch as Liopleurodon, Jake. None of this makes sense. There couldn’t possibly be enough food down here for one predator, let alone two, let alone … let alone anything!”
“Maybe Steven Spielberg should be down here instead of me,” he said with a completely false laugh. Steven was a friend, but he got enough attention as it was. “That’s the dinosaur from Jurassic Whatever, right?”
“Jurassic World, I think. I’m not sure—I only watch your movies, Jake.”
“Consider my apple polished.”
She laughed, then said, “Mosasaurus isn’t really a dinosaur per se. It actually evolved from being a land-based lizard to the huge aquatic predator we … um … see today, I guess.”
“Well, I’m gonna keep calling it a ‘dinosaur,’” Bentneus said with not a little pride. “Are the Ocean Victory lights attracting these creatures?”
“I mean, ten minutes ago we didn’t even know there was anything down here, but if I had to speculate, I’d say that every living thing, even at the abyssal level, that we’ve ever discovered is albino, like these maybe-dinosaurs seem to be. Where there’s no light, there’s no point—no evolutionary advantage—to color. And for the same reason, creatures at these lightless depths are most always blind … if they even have eyes. There’s no evolutionary advantage to sight down there. But these, um—”
“Dinosaurs,” Bentneus said, not as a suggestion.
“—right, dinosaurs. These dinosaurs are plainly not blind. They obviously were attracted by Ocean Victory’s bright lights, but it wasn’t because of the heat the floods give off. You can tell because they swam by the submersible, were checking it out, but they very assiduously avoided colliding with it.
“In other words, they can see, Jake. They’re albino, or close to it, and that’s a benthic adaptation. But they can see even though there’s no light down here, no reason for them to be able to see. Add to that the fact that no vertebrate could survive at this kind of pressure, and these are predators, where are they getting their food? And that’s not even taking into consideration—”
She collected herself, cleared her throat a little. “Sorry, Jake. Got carried—”
“No, Holly, look—what in the hell is that?” There was a presence just outside the sphere of illumination, reflecting back a dim … gray … something.
“I can’t see anything. Can you zoom in?”
Bentneus laughed. “The more I zoom, the more light I need. I make movies, remember?”
She shared the laugh, but her voice was cut off by Mickey’s: “Jake, we have something interesting for you.”
“As opposed to these boring impossible dinosaurs?”
“Ha, maybe not, but are you reading the water temperature as 22 Celsius?”
Bentneus was hesitant to take his eyes off the gray shape that appeared and reappeared at a distance just far enough to keep Ocean Victory’s cameras from getting a good look at it. But at Mickey’s words he glanced at the brass gauge. “Wow, holy … holy … wow. That’s 72 degrees. The water’s supposed to be right at freezing, ladies and gentlemen. As in just above 32 Fahrenheit, which is zero Celsius, or maybe zero-point-one.”
He looked hard at the feed screen but couldn’t see the gray shadow anymore. They were down here … prehistoric beasts … it was like he was in one of his own movies. He was startled out of his reverie by Mickey, who radioed, “Jake, we’re nearing the bottom. We need you to do the sonar sweep like twenty minutes ago.”
“Oh, hell, I was caught up with the dinosaurs,” Jake said, a bit abashed. “Doing the sweep right now. Depth gauge shows 35,000 feet, water temp—Jesus—has jumped to 90 Fahrenheit, 32.2 Celsius.”
Mickey withheld his own wow and read back the telemetry figures they were getting on board Piranha II: “Jake, give me a little thrust to starboard. The hot water bumped you off course a few meters.”
“It did? How? That implies an actual heat source beneath me …”
“No way,” the men, both in their 40s, exclaimed simultaneously.
“Do another scan real quick, please, Jake.” Mickey’s voice was tight with excitement. “And move to starboard immediately.”
“Oh my god, right, roger that,” Bentneus used the horizontal thrusters to meet his chief’s urgent instruction. Then he told him, “Scanning.”
The data and thermal imaging popped up on everyone’s screen at the same time, and everyone who saw it—Jake and Mickey and Holly and Kevin and others on the ships and probably a few thousand viewers who understood what they were looking at in the corner of their screens—exhaled some kind of obscenity. It showed a rapidly rising temperature in the final 800 feet or so Ocean Victory would need to travel through to get to the bottom.
Not only that, but the exterior cameras were showing not just the floodlight-illumined water and now, insanely, the detritus being pushed up instead of falling down. Following his curiosity, Bentneus flipped four switches to turn off the eight exterior lamps, and there it was: the water was being lit from below.
“Is this what I think it is, Mick?”
“All signs point to yes. Ladies and gentlemen—”
“Hey, that’s my job!” Bentneus said in a jocular tone but meant it seriously, and flipped the floods back on. “Ladies and gentlemen, I have discovered a brand-new hydrothermal vent at the very bottom of Challenger Deep. The whole team has witnessed a historical—”
“Jake, vertical thrusters UP, right now!” Mickey shouted into the radio link. “Don’t think, don’t talk—thrusters full power—GO, GO, NOW! GO!”
Jake hit the thruster controls, slamming the levers to maximum capacity, which first slowed his descent and then, after some seventy-five seconds of excruciating slowness, was ascending according to Ocean Victory’s instruments. Very gradually increasing in speed, but unmistakably upward.
“Go to footage, Kevin. Mickey, tell him.”
Mickey repeated the order, and the live feed showed footage of the filmmaker and his mission chief looking over a map of the Marianas Trench.
“We were 700 feet from the bottom, goddamnit! There’s things down there we need to see! There’s goddamn dinosaurs down there!”
“Calm down. Calm down and look at your thermometers.”
He did, and they showed 95 degrees inside the submersible. Bentneus hadn’t even noticed it, but he had sweat right through his shirt. And outside … the water was almost at 200°F, 93°C, almost to the boiling point (although actual boiling wouldn’t happen at this pressure). If he had descended much farther, the bathysphere would have turned into a convection oven and roasted him like a Cornish hen. “You want me to go live again? You’ll behave?” Mickey said with a laugh, but it was he who was quite serious this time.
“All right, then. Kevin says we’re live.”
Bentneus continued in his amazed tone, but without as many shouted epithets: “We can’t go all the way to the bottom, ladies and gentlemen, because there is a never-before-seen hydrothermal vent below us. These shoot out jets of superheated water—like 750 degrees Fahrenheit, and I have no idea what that is in Celsius—and this explains why the temperature down here has only risen as Ocean Victory descended the last couple of thousand feet. It should be as close to freezing as water can get without turning to ice.” He shook his head as if in resignation, but the tone of his voice expressed exactly the opposite. “We aren’t getting to the bottom of Challenger Deep, folks. It’s way too hot down there. I can’t lie: I’m extremely disappointed by this, but I’m not as disappointed in that as I am happy about remaining alive, ha! And this gives us a chance to look for more dinosaurs, since I have hours of life support left to stay down here. We were going to use these precious hours with Ocean Victory parked on the seabed. Instead, Mickey, am I right when I say this gives me a chance to do even more of science than we expected?”
“That’s more right than you know, Boss. Touching down would have been a world’s record”—Bentneus audibly groaned in mock-disappointment that was not “mock” in any way—“but now we—I mean you—have found the deepest thermal vent on Planet Earth. Ocean Victory’s instrumentation, guided by you, will give us unprecedented data. I’m shaking with excitement up here.”
Jake grinned and gave a thumbs-up to his interior camera. “Holly, could this explain the dinosaurs we’ve been seeing?”
“Possibly, but we need to be cautious. We don’t know what those animals were. It doesn’t seem possible for them to be this deep.”
“You guys need to stop saying it’s not possible. It’s freaking happening.”
The feed showed Bentneus flipping switches and transmitting data to the surface ships, but he always kept an eye on what the exterior camera feeds were showing. There was something down there, something bigger than even the other dinosaurs. Something—
Holly said, “You are making scientific history even without adding these ‘dinosaurs’ into the mix, you know.”
“Why is everyone denying what we all saw?”
Holly paused. For all his enthusiasm and devoted training to bring an unprecedented mission to fruition, Jake Bentneus wasn’t a scientist. He lacked the caution of a scientist, instead following the intuitions of a dedicated—but decidedly amateur—enthusiast. “Further study” was a byword, especially when dealing with truly anomalous data indicating that “dinosaurs”—which were, by definition, extinct—were thriving at depths they couldn’t have survived back when there were dinosaurs. But hell if she was going to tell Bentneus he wasn’t a scientist on this mission; what would be gained by such an unsolicited opinion? Nothing, and much could be lost for a marine biologist who wanted to continue being invited on cutting-edge expeditions.
“Holly, you there?”
“Sorry, Jake, had a … computer thing. Error.” Smooth. “Listen, let’s put the dinosaurs aside for a minute. Or, actually, no, since this is relevant: the water in the immediate area of a hydrothermal is superheated. Only tube worms and other very specialized animals can live right at the tear in the seafloor, because of its volcanic heat. They’re the first life-forms that biologists have ever found that don’t depend on photosynthesis as the base of their food chain. They use something called chemosynthesis, which means using the heat energy and chemicals like sulfur shooting out of the thermal vents. This chemosynthesis feeds the life at the base of an entirely separate food chain from that closer to the surface. Or, heck, on the surface. It is a unique biome at a hydrothermal vent.”
Jake nodded at this, his hands hitting switches and buttons to take measurements as he had been trained to do, but his eyes remained mostly fixed on the external feeds. “Thank you, Holly. So this higher-temperature environment … is that what explains the dinosaurs living down here? Maybe they travel from thermal vent to thermal vent, where the water is just right for them. Maybe they adapted to eating these chemosynthesis plant- and animal-type things?”
Oh my god, Holly thought, enough about the “dinosaurs” already! But what she said was, “That could be, I suppose—a system of thermal vents could keep the water warm in their general area, more like what the ocean was like during those ages before the Permian event cooled the seas and wiped out 95 percent of everything living in them.”
“The heat supplying the vents comes from friction from shifting tectonic plates, right?”
Holly was surprised but kept herself from saying anything about it—one did not patronize Jake Bentneus, not if she wanted to stay in his good graces. But the filmmaker was correct, and the “dinosaurs surviving in deep warm water” theory had been proposed before. “That’s right. I think it was Doctor Sean Muir who first published speculation on this idea.”
“Sean Muir? The murderer?”
“He was also a brilliant paleoichthyologist. What we’re seeing seems to support his theories, which he has refined and published in peer-reviewed journals over the last seven years—”
“From prison, you mean.”
Again, Holly’s brain screamed Enough! but Bentneus was simply sharing the opinion of many in the paleontology and marine biology and oceanography communities. “Jake, all due respect, but his actions outside the paleoichthyology community don’t hold any bearing on the research he’s done. Doesn’t matter if it was from a jail cell or from Woods Hole—he explains how creatures like our ‘dinosaurs’ could exist down here! I’d think you’d want to consider his theories.”
“Fine, good point,” Bentneus said. “Now, it’s shifting tectonic plates that create the heat that makes these vents bust open, right?”
“How long would the heat from that last?”
Holly’s smile could be heard in her voice over the radio: “As long as Planet Earth is tectonically active—that is, as long as the continents continue to ‘float’ on the crust—the heat will continue. It started before anything had crawled out of the sea and will continue long after humans go extinct.”
Bentneus wanted to say something about the Spaceship: Earth: Experience of Earth film he was developing at Disney (since they held the rights to that title, and he was going to use that title, dammit). It was about a “generation ship” preserving the DNA of every human on the planet and a core crew who would “seed” promising planets throughout the galaxy so the human race would never go extinct. But he held back, cognizant that they were on the live feed and people were expecting exciting science talk, not movie hype.
“What I’m saying is that once a vent opens—and we’ve found they open up all over the ocean floor, usually in a line running along the tectonic edge—it’s not going to close for a long, long time. This is a brand-new vent, it seems, or at least new since 2008, the last time the Japanese sent an ROV this deep, but creatures that can withstand the pressure may thrive along the network of thermal vents. That’s just speculation on my p—”
“Do you see this? Mickey, do you see this?” Bentneus interupted, bouncing in his seat and pointing at the portside camera feed. “The big gray one is coming back! Holly, get ready to analyze the living hell out of this footage!”
Mickey hit the video delay button to skip over the expletive, then looked closely at the monitor showing that camera’s view, and there was something huge out there. A smaller dinosaur—smaller than the original apparent Liopleurodon, which was mind-blowing when they first saw it but which now seemed like an also-ran—moved aft past the port camera and into the wide-field view of the rear camera array. Like the others, it was very nearly albino but moved around the submersible like a creature with sight.
“Jake, she’s on it,” Mickey said as gently as possible. Sometimes, working with Jake Bentneus was like trying to move an ADHD child smoothly through the supermarket checkout. “Trust me, she’s on all of it.”
A moment passed and Holly proved Mickey right by radioing, “Jake, the database calls it a match for Nothosaurus, a small predator from the Triassic period. “I know this probably isn’t helpful, but none of these animals lived during the same epochs.”
“According to scientists who haven’t ventured as deep as I have,” Bentneus said.
“That is technically true,” Holly said, measuring her words carefully, “but the scientific community has been studying fossils for almost two hundred years. Their study has produced consistent results advancing the science—”
“Yes, Holly,” Bentneus said, a little condescendingly, “but those are fossils. These are living dinosaurs.”
The oceanographer/marine biologist sighed. The last thing she wanted was to annoy or even anger the mercurial filmmaker, but the second-to-last thing was for the real science of this expedition—and these creatures were going to require long study—to be buried under overexcited pseudo-scientific gibbering.
“Okay, yes, good point, but just for the benefit of the many students and possible future scientists watching, I need to point out that technically speaking, there never were any totally aquatic dinosaurs. If we want to be exact in our language, the species of the creatures we’ve been seeing, if the database is correct in its identifications, are marine reptiles, not dinosaurs.”
“Comme ci, comme ça,” Bentneus said, and was about to add something about the spirit of adventure being more important than this exact term or that specific distinction, but he cut himself off as he took in what was happening not fifteen feet from where he was sitting.
The port camera, the one the Nothosaur had passed by moments earlier, was suddenly blocked by some moving thing of the nearly white, blanched color of steel, its banding barely detectable, and entered the ken of the rear cameras. Before it was finished getting all the way across, still too close to get a good look at, it turned at a sharp angle away from the camera, giving an idea of its size (colossal) but providing no view of its head.
When it finished its maneuver and could be seen in its entirety, it opened its massive jaws, and swallowed whole the nearby Nothosaurus. They could see all of the beast now, and it looked like nothing less than a mammoth great white shark. Mammoth was almost an understatement—the 3D analysis HUD pegged it at sixty feet long, the size of a school bus.
Mickey said with awe in his voice, “That’s got to be the biggest great white in history.”
Jake smiled and shook his head. “Naw, Mick, I don’t even need Holly’s computer to tell me what this fellow is. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the largest predator ever to hunt the ocean: Megalodon.”
Mickey paused, listening, and said to Jake, “Holly’s database agrees.”
Bentneus nodded absently at his chief’s words. For the moment, he had no reply and just watched the massive predator swim around and around Ocean Victory. Maybe it was trying to figure out what it was looking at—it definitely had eyes and certainly was not blind—or maybe it was trying to check if its jaws would fit around the submersible. (They wouldn’t—a man could stand upright inside of this beast’s mouth, but Ocean Victory was, thankfully, a good bit bigger in diameter than that. However, it could probably knock the submersible over and sever its tether from Piranha II, which would be just as fatal to Bentneus.)
The thing was grandeur itself. “This is some pulp magazine stuff going on right now. This is The Lost World.” He was able to tear his gaze away for a second to look at the camera and add, “Doyle’s, not Spielberg’s.”
Mickey’s chuckle could be heard over the comm.
Bentneus returned to the video. “This is amazing … we’re looking at a creature supposed to have died out 100 million years ago. Megalodon, wow. She’s so graceful—”
Bentneus was interrupted by the graceful and grand Megalodon slowing down to convulse and vomit, propelling the still-living Nothosaurus back into the warm water and making no further attempt to eat it. The filmmaker stammered and tried to say something coherent, but he failed. After a few seconds of shocked silence, he said, “Anybody want to take a stab at what just happened?”
The radio was silent. Mickey certainly had no idea—he was a boat and submersible engineer; everyone else on board Piranha II was a specialist in this or that aspect of sailing and/or deep-sea exploration. They made sure everything worked and the expedition went as smoothly and safely as possible. And Kevin and the rest of the crew over on Sea Legs who weren’t sailors by trade were in charge of communications, a job plenty as complex and difficult out in the open sea as any position involved in actually operating the boat. None of them were paleo-whatever-ologists, oceanographers, or even marine biologists.
So why had it spit out the Nothosaur? Predators ate smaller predators all the time back in the Cenozoic period. He needed to know, and he needed the millions watching to know as well, to see the science that he was helping to produce here. “Holly? Anybody on the S.S. Geek have any ideas at all? Anything?”
Popcorn motioned for the handset and Holly very gladly gave it over. “Mister Bentneus, this is Orville Blum on Sharkasm.”
Jake sighed a tiny bit. He had asked, then told, Blum a hundred times not to call him that, to call him by his first name. But he knew that the brilliant fellow was also half a seeded bun away from full-on Asperger’s Syndrome, so he let it slide. “Orville, tell me what I’m seeing here, please. You’re my only hope.”
Blum let out exactly one chuckle, which for him was nearly hysterical laughter. Then he said, “If this is Megalodon we’re seeing circle Ocean Victory—and I’d be freaking out if I were personally at the center of that circle—”
Jesus, Holly thought, and stifled a laugh with the back of her hand.
“—but let’s take this piece by piece, if you will. First, in order for these creatures—or any vertebrate, okay?—to exist at these depths, they’d have to be porous, like a sponge. Otherwise the water pressure wouldn’t balance itself out and you would have a wholly different kind of flatfish.” At his own joke, he let out a snort, which none of the rest of the crew on board Sharkasm had ever heard from him. With wide grins, they looked at each other like, He’s gone mad! MAD! “Ahem, anyway, so, despite the fearsome size of, say, our Liopleurodon analogue, and certainly the massive Megalodon analogue, they probably lack any real tensile strength at all. Down at the thermal vents, there would be few other vertebrates, if any—if these ‘marine lizards’ even are vertebrates—so the albino arthropods and tube worms and other native life we’ve seen down here would be the food these giants live on. And even then, that’s not much food. Perhaps we were seeing old instincts still around when ‘Megalodon’ swallowed that ‘Nothosaurus,’ but the predator’s system isn’t evolved to eat meat anymore. This is a most exciting turn of events, Mister Bentneus, please don’t misunderstand—but these must be entirely new species descended from the marine lizards of old.”
Bentneus blinked his wide eyes a couple of times, then said, “I wanted a scientific opinion, I got a scientific opinion. Thank you, Orville—but wait, I do have a question: why do they all still have the serrated razor teeth? Wouldn’t they have evolved better without them if they didn’t use them anymore?”
“Heh, that is a common, but unfortunate, mis-understanding of how natural selection works, sir. If the species is under no evolutionary pressure to lose the teeth—that is, if those animals without the teeth don’t reproduce any better than those with them, then the teeth remain. Perhaps if the teeth are thin, hollow, and filled with water balancing the pressure down there, then there would be no crushing of teeth or interference with feeding. That’s what it comes down to—the teeth, especially since everything else down there is blind and can’t see these threatening teeth, serve no actual function for chewing or the intimidation of other predators. You saw how the Megalodon analogue—”
“Stop saying that, please.”
Popcorn abruptly stopped speaking at the interruption, and everyone in the cabin with him thought his time of speaking with Jake was through. He would go back to his desk and watch the instrumentation, responding when one of them spoke to him, otherwise lost in the colors at his end of the autism spectrum.
But they were wrong. Popcorn rolled his head around and got some satisfying pops, then replied calmly into the handset, “I apologize, Mister Bentneus. I was trying only to keep our terminology in line with scientific protocol.” He cleared his throat and said, “Would you like me to continue or is that enough information for right now?”
“No. Please do continue, Orville.” He didn’t do it for very long since he could barely take his eyes off the circling Megalodon—or what-the-hell-ever it “really” was—but he placed his hand over his eyes and tried to breathe himself out of having acted like an asshole in front of half a billion people.
“I shall, sir. Now, we all saw how the, that is, apparent Megalodon swallowed the smaller marine lizard whole. It didn’t bite down; it didn’t chew. I would hazard a guess, although treating it as a hypothesis would be almost certainly premature, that those intimidating-looking teeth are, in fact, no stronger than papier-mâché. They would almost certainly crumble if these animals tried to bite anything with more tensile resistance than one of those tube worms. Does that answer the question adequ—”
He was interrupted by a shout, almost a scream, from Bentneus that saw him momentarily curl up onto his bathysphere seat. That wasn’t all—every person on all three ships who was watching the circling dinosaur either gasped, cursed, or was shocked into silence. It was like every bit of air was sucked up on the surface; and that was almost literally true down in the submersible.
What made every single person watching anywhere in the world jump, do a double take, or just shout in surprise and horror was that Megalodon, the largest and fiercest predator ever to swim the sea, fell into shadow and immediately tried to swim as fast as it could before a titanic pair of jaws clamped down on it. These jaws, filled—overflowing—with teeth that each must have been as big across as a schooner’s mizzen sail and just as tall, tore through the Megalodon like a butcher’s cleaver through Orville Blum’s almost-hypothesized papier-mâché. It was impossible to even estimate how huge the biting creature must have been—the cameras couldn’t capture the whole thing, even though the monster stretched across three arrays. Its mouth alone looked as wide as the entire Megalodon was long.
The gargantuan creature ripped what was left of the front of Megalodon into a rain of flesh … but not a drop of blood was released. The inside of Megalodon looked like a pumpkin’s sticky nest of tendrils, mostly empty space, making Popcorn nod with satisfaction that at least he had gotten the porous bit right.
Then it spit out the back end of the carcass.
“Mister Bentneus, it seems that the, um … the that wants to bite and chew, but not necessarily consume, the flesh of the Megalodon analo—of Megalodon.”
“What the hell happened to It’s got paper-mache teeth?” Bentneus did scream this time. “Orville, answer me, goddamnit!”
A croak came from Popcorn’s throat and that really was all she wrote for the polymath scientist as far as communication was concerned.
Holly gave Popcorn a supportive squeeze on the shoulder and took up the phone. “Jake, how big is that thing?”
“Holly? I asked Orville a goddamn direct question!”
“Jake.” She waited. “Jake! This is new to all of us. Now please focus and tell me: Can you get any read of how big that … thing is?”
For Bentneus, the bathysphere, the instruments and readouts, even the fact that he was epically deep in the ocean, all of that fell away. His knees were up to his neck, and he stared at the monitors showing the thing—dinosaur? Marine lizard of unusual size? Brobdingnagian leviathan?—blocking out three cameras at a time with its ashen gray hide—not quite albino—as it took up swimming in a circle around Ocean Victory.
Around Jake Bentneus.
That’s the end of the excerpt,