Prologue: Dr. Kanas
Pale turquoise close to the surface, the color of the ocean water deepened through darker and darker shades of cobalt and navy. Secure in their hardened pressure suits, teacher and student descended with ease, taking temperature and salinity readings, and panning their cameras back and forth across the steep wall, their powerful lights penetrating the growing gloom. A slight current nudged them along at a few knots as they descended. A profusion of branching structures, of different textures, sizes and colors, covered the wall, and huge fans, some three or four meters in diameter, waved in the current. Thousands of hand-sized diaphanous polyp structures hung suspended in the water; most were mushroom in shape, but some star-shaped or tubular, all trailing thread-like tentacles.
“Is this coral?” the young woman asked over the suit radio.
“The easiest answer is, yes it is.” Dr. Kanas replied. What the hell was her name? “It seems to have evolved the same structures and to fill the same ecological niche.” That’s it! “Kirsten, can you give me a measurement of the angle of the wall?”
“Kirsten bailed out, remember? She got seasick on the boat ride over from Camp Gregory.”
“Sorry.” He could remember the scientific names of thousands of species on hundreds of life-bearing worlds, but found a simple name impossible to recall. “Can you give me an angle?”
He knew the angle measurement, and the fact that it had varied since they began their descent. He wanted to make sure she paid attention.
“Well, eyeballing it, I think it’s about seven degrees off of vertical.”
“Good. How does that compare to the surface?”
“There’s no beaches on this island, that’s for sure, but the angle at the surface is about twelve degrees off vertical.”
“Excellent. Now, remember on the boat ride over from Camp Gregory? Do you remember the shape of the island on the horizon?”
“It looks like the top part of an egg.” She paused. “In fact, most of the islands are shaped like eggs.”
“Excellent, Kirst-, er, Joanna. In fact, all of the islands have almost the exact same shape. They just vary in size.”
“Yeah, that’s weird.”
“Very. But can you tell me why that’s weird?”
“Well, presumably the islands have been here for a while, given the coral on the wall here, and the vegetation on the island at the surface.”
“There’s no sign of erosion!”
“Excellent, Joanna. Remember the storms we witnessed from orbit? Some had sustained winds of 125 klicks, with precipitation reaching one point five meters over twenty-four hours. Surely a force like that would cause some erosion?”
“So, are there big birds in these islands?”
“No, Joanna. I’m sure there aren’t. However, there’s something warm inside them. Did you take infrared measurements from orbit?”
“Yes. The core of each island reaches several hundred degrees centigrade. So, are they volcanic?”
“That’s a decent hypothesis, for sure. Especially given how the islands are grouped in arcs across the face of the planet, but we haven’t found any evidence for plate subduction or sea-floor spreading, have we?”
The islands presented quite a puzzle. This particular island seemed to be in relatively shallow water, and for size, measured about thirty klicks in diameter. The hardened pressure suits would allow them to descend to 800 meters. Once they finished poking around down there, they would dig through the detritus on the surface to see what they could find.
“Dive 1, this is Carp. Acknowledge.”
“Dive 1, Carp.”
“We’ve picked up a tremor, Dive 1, six point five kilometers north-north-west of your position, fifteen hundred meters depth. What is your status?”
“Haven’t felt anything, Carp.”
“Advise you surface, Dive 1.”
Shit! We just got down here!
They suddenly began to descend much faster. Some new current, like a riptide, clutched them and pulled them deeper. The island wall shuddered, a shower of coral descending with them. Joanna screamed and turned toward him. Kanas could see her face behind the helmet visor of the pressure suit; her wide eyes looked at him. Fear and nausea gripped his stomach, and he gasped as he panicked.
“Use your suit impeller!” Kanas cried. He had almost lost sight of her in the avalanche of coral, but he could still hear her breathing and her screams. The rumble around them grew to an almost unbearable volume. He tried to use his own suit impeller, but it couldn’t counter the force of the current.
The coral almost obscured his vision as it filled the water and descended beside him. He became aware of a soft light, and realized the polyps emitted a faint pink and blue glow. Over the next few seconds the light grew much brighter, and he saw them swarming against the wall. Below him, approaching fast, he saw a huge fissure that seemed to grow even wider as he descended toward it. The polyps seemed to swarm into it, their light illuminating the seabed. He glanced at his gauges and saw that he had reached more than 900 meters in depth. He no longer heard Joanna’s breathing or her screams. He grasped and then held a rocky ledge as the current tried to pull him into the fissure.
Just a few moments after the current began, it stopped. He hugged the ledge, gasping for breath, and then began pulling himself up the wall. As he climbed the polyps grew even brighter. He then noticed streams of smoke or dust ejected out into the water from the wall. Some streams reached two or three meters in length, as if driven by powerful jets. Most of these plumes were dark in color, but some looked blue or green or even white. The polyps swarmed around the jets, swimming through the clouds.
Then he felt it, a cool sensation, in his boots.
Somehow, his suit had been breached, either due to impact or pressure. At this pressure the breach was probably microscopic, but his suit was filling fast, weighing him down. He used his wrist controls to dial up the impeller to maximum power. He made some progress, but the speed of his ascent soon slowed.
Then the voices began.
Am I mad? Is this some sort of pressure sickness?
At first a babble, the voices soon took on familiar tones. Family members and friends, far away, spoke to him from his memories. Their faces appeared on the glowing polyps in front of his helmet visor. His mind’s eye became overwhelmed with memories of his childhood, adolescence, and early adult-hood, several different vision streams flowing through his awareness. The emotions came on fast and strong, and he wept and laughed and felt frustration and anger all at that same time.
He became aware of a looming presence, like an undefined but huge shape above and beyond the memory streams. Vast and alien, it seemed to scream at him with silence, a void so full of meaning he couldn’t even begin to comprehend it.
Just at the edge of his mind, at the very limit of his awareness, he saw The Answer. It was the solution to All Questions and the One Question. It was so wonderful, terrible, vast, obvious and obscure, that he wept at the possibility of it.
Before he could grasp it the water entered his lungs.