Tolland paced the hydrolab, waiting with Rachel and Corky for Xavias return. The news about the chondrules was almost as discomforting as Rachels news about her attempted contact with Pickering.
The director didnt answer.
And someone tried to pulse‑snitch the Goyas location.
Relax, Tolland told everyone. Were safe. The Coast Guard pilot is watching the radar. He can give us plenty of warning if anyone is headed our way.
Rachel nodded in agreement, although she still looked on edge.
Mike, what the hell is this? Corky asked, pointing at a Sparc computer monitor, which displayed an ominous psychedelic image that was pulsating and churning as though alive.
Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler, Tolland said. Its a cross section of the currents and temperature gradients of the ocean underneath the ship.
Rachel stared. Thats what were anchored on top of?
Tolland had to admit, the image looked frightening. At the surface, the water appeared as a swirling bluish green, but tracing downward, the colors slowly shifted to a menacing red‑orange as the temperatures heated up. Near the bottom, over a mile down, hovering above the ocean floor, a blood‑red, cyclone vortex raged.
Thats the megaplume, Tolland said.
Corky grunted. Looks like an underwater tornado.
Same principle. Oceans are usually colder and more dense near the bottom, but here the dynamics are reversed. The deepwater is heated and lighter, so it rises toward the surface. Meanwhile, the surface water is heavier, so it races downward in a huge spiral to fill the void. You get these drainlike currents in the ocean. Enormous whirlpools.
Whats that big bump on the seafloor? Corky pointed at the flat expanse of ocean floor, where a large dome‑shaped mound rose up like a bubble. Directly above it swirled the vortex.
That mound is a magma dome, Tolland said. Its where lava is pushing up beneath the ocean floor.
Corky nodded. Like a huge zit.
In a manner of speaking.
And if it pops?
Tolland frowned, recalling the famous 1986 megaplume event off the Juan de Fuca Ridge, where thousands of tons of twelve hundred degrees Celsius magma spewed up into the ocean all at once, magnifying the plumes intensity almost instantly. Surface currents amplified as the vortex expanded rapidly upward. What happened next was something Tolland had no intention of sharing with Corky and Rachel this evening.
Atlantic magma domes dont pop, Tolland said. The cold water circulating over the mound continually cools and hardens the earths crust, keeping the magma safely under a thick layer of rock. Eventually the lava underneath cools, and the spiral disappears. Megaplumes are generally not dangerous.
Corky pointed toward a tattered magazine sitting near the computer. So youre saying Scientific American publishes fiction?
Tolland saw the cover, and winced. Someone had apparently pulled it from the Goyas archive of old science magazines: Scientific American, February 1999. The cover showed an artists rendering of a supertanker swirling out of control in an enormous funnel of ocean. The heading read: MEGAPLUMES‑GIANT KILLERS FROM THE DEEP?
Tolland laughed it off. Totally irrelevant. That article is talking about megaplumes in earthquake zones. It was a popular Bermuda Triangle hypothesis a few years back, explaining ship disappearances. Technically speaking, if theres some sort of cataclysmic geologic event on the ocean floor, which is unheard of around here, the dome could rupture, and the vortex could get big enough to . . . well, you know . . .
No, we dont know, Corky said.
Tolland shrugged. Rise to the surface.
Terrific. So glad you had us aboard.
Xavia entered carrying some papers. Admiring the megaplume?
Oh, yes, Corky said sarcastically. Mike was just telling us how if that little mound ruptures, we all go spiraling around in a big drain.
Drain? Xavia gave a cold laugh. More like getting flushed down the worlds largest toilet.
Outside on the deck of the Goya, the Coast Guard helicopter pilot vigilantly watched the EMS radar screen. As a rescue pilot he had seen his share of fear in peoples eyes; Rachel Sexton had definitely been afraid when she asked him to keep an eye out for unexpected visitors to the Goya.
What kind of visitors is she expecting? he wondered.
From all the pilot could see, the sea and air for ten miles in all directions contained nothing that looked out of the ordinary. A fishing boat eight miles off. An occasional aircraft slicing across an edge of their radar field and then disappearing again toward some unknown destination.
The pilot sighed, gazing out now at the ocean rushing all around the ship. The sensation was a ghostly one‑that of sailing full speed despite being anchored.
He returned his eyes to the radar screen and watched. Vigilant.