Here are the first 8 chapters of my 83-chapter novel. Please give it a read and if you're interested in the rest of it, just click here (Kindle format only, which you can read on any PC, Mac, iPhone/iPad, or Android device through the Kindle app), or hit the book link along the left panel of this blog, or go to Amazon and search for my name or the novel's title.
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.
Seven loud, laughing kids played a fast-paced game on the blacktop with a red playground ball. Nothing organized or structured, really; just a bunch of 6-year-olds throwing it around, with a few keeping it away from the rest. The warm, spring air was gently perfumed by the lilac-blossomed trees in the yard across from the light brown, one-story brick school. Recess was always cruelly short on these perfect weather days, and every last ounce of energy had to be expended before heading back inside for the rest of the afternoon.
Ryan accidentally threw it over the chain link fence, where it slowly bounced and then rolled into the street. It was Sarah's fault; she could have easily reached over her head to grab it, even though the toss was a little high. She didn't even try though, and the rule was, “whoever threw it has to go get it.”
Quickly, before the teachers could see what had happened, Ryan scampered around the fence to get the ball. He'd likely receive a nice scolding if a teacher or playground monitor saw him, but he could not afford to waste precious seconds on getting a grownup to help.
After checking to make sure that no cars were coming, the short, wiry boy with a mop of straight, sweaty, dark brown hair ran out to grab the ball. He wasn't as careful as he had thought. A car materialized seemingly out of thin air and launched him into the sky upon impact. The screeching sound of tires skidding along pavement with brakes completely locked up was accompanied by the noxious odor and smoke of burning rubber. Little Ryan was dead before he landed back on earth.
His best friend Leo saw the whole thing from the fence, keeping a lookout for Ryan in case a teacher headed their way. An instant after the collision between the front of the car and his buddy, Leo saw a bright flash of light engulf the airborne body. It appeared to have silently exploded from somewhere within Ryan, quickly expanded to envelop the child, then dissipated into nothing. All in the instantaneous blink of an eye.
The momentarily paralyzed observer had no idea what he had just witnessed. Then, gripped with a mixture of shock and panic, his terror-stricken cry of “Help! RYAN!!!” echoed off of the walls of the building and across the playground, drawing every child and adult to the bloody scene in a dead run. It was too late, as the rapidly growing crowd of kids and teachers could do nothing but stare helplessly at the lifeless boy on the pavement.
The flash of light with the blinding brightness of lightning that had burst from Ryan’s body was so instantaneous that Leo couldn’t discern where it came from. It might have been his chest, or his stomach, or even his entire torso. It may have been his head. It was just too intense and quick to know for sure. All Leo knew was that something silently exploded out of Ryan’s body and into the sky. Yet even though Leo stood right there, mere feet away, he felt and heard absolutely nothing. The only evidence of the event was the unmistakable visual detection of the incredibly luminous presence, followed by its equally abrupt vanishing.
“Leo, can you please try one more time to draw a picture of what you saw?” The Johns Hopkins psychiatrist’s patience was apparently limitless. After six months of trying to describe the events of that day with the vocabulary and artistic ability of a 6-year old boy, the images that Leo drew made no sense to the people trying to interpret them. The 1st grader was attempting to depict events he did not comprehend, using motor skills that were not yet sufficiently developed.
“I can’t, Dr. Prescott. My hands won’t make the picture of what I saw. I can still see it, right now! But my hands just can’t do it.” He hated the feeling of letting people down, especially grownups. With kids, even though he was different, it did not matter as much. The other kids did not expect any more of him, and were easy to impress. The grownups though, despite any momentary amazement, always seemed to want more. “Just try a little harder, Leo.” Why wasn’t what he did ever good enough for them?
Scans utilizing technologies of the day had been performed on his brain, revealing accelerated neuronal activity with no visible cause. Detailed imaging of his eyes showed photoreceptors that had not been encountered in humans before, leaving the specialists baffled. His DNA obviously contained genetic code that produced eyeballs that were structurally different than other humans, but the differences could only be detected under ultra-high magnification. Genetic defects and abnormalities occur all the time, but this individual’s genetic oddity had heretofore gone without description in the medical literature. Did that make it “miraculous?” Or was it simply a case of there being a first time for everything, including certain human anatomical features?
Dr. Karen Prescott, the psychiatric professional who had volunteered to take on Leo’s case, did not deny the physiological factors in play. Having seen the scans herself, there was no question that the youngster had some unique characteristics. That was precisely the reason she needed him to somehow convey his sensory experiences to her, either through auditory or visual language.
“That’s ok, Leo. I get it. You don’t think you can do it. But here’s the thing: I KNOW you can do it. Lots of grownups have jobs, right? Well, my job is to figure out how to help you help me understand what you see and feel, since you can see some things that I can’t. So, I’m the one who’s sorry, Leo. We haven’t figured this out yet, but I promise, we will!”
Her hopelessness was utterly concealed from the gifted child. “Ok, doctor. Can we maybe go back to looking at pictures and videos? There weren’t any that looked like what I can see, but do you think there is a movie of people dying? To see if I see it again? The light from Ryan that flashed out of his body was a lot easier to see than what I see from other people.”
Dr. Prescott was caught completely off guard. “Other people? What do you mean, ‘other people,’ Leo? Which other people?”
In Baltimore over the months following the light burst incident, Dr. Karen Prescott had helped all of them get a better understanding of what Leo was possibly experiencing with his sight, but she abruptly recommended a change of scenery just when they felt a breakthrough was imminent. As they always did when answering a call from the psychiatrist’s phone number, Leo’s mother put the call on speakerphone for both her and her husband to hear every word.
“Hello Mr. and Mrs. Komnos. I’ve been thinking about the past few sessions with Leo, and it feels like we are so close. It really does. But I’ve seen this time and again: right when we ‘professionals’ sense the finish line, the last piece of the puzzle, the patient cracks. I don’t know for certain that he is at that point, but he could benefit from a change of scenery to take his mind off all of this. Do you have any plans for a vacation this summer? If there’s something you’ve been considering, I encourage you to do it. Something for a week or more if possible; the sooner and longer, the better. Our one-on-one sessions can take a break until you get back to Baltimore.”
Peter, Leo’s father, spoke up. “Doctor, we were actually thinking about visiting my sister and her husband in Texas in June. Fort Worth. Their kids won’t be home this summer, they’ll both be working different college internships, so they have all kinds of room and have been dying to spend some time with Leo. How long are you thinking? I mean, a week or two is fine with us if you need him back that quickly, but I can work from anywhere and my company has really been great through all of this. Would it help to spend the entire summer down there?”
“That is a wonderful idea, Peter! A few months would be perfect! We can set up a weekly call between you two and myself to keep me up to speed on how he’s doing, say for a half an hour to an hour, and Leo can join in whenever he feels like it if he has any issues or just wants to talk. But the more he can just put this out of his mind and get away from offices and meetings and assessments, the better. What do you think, Marie?”
Leo’s mother was eager to get Leo out of the rut in which he appeared to be stuck. “Sure, it’s worth a shot, if you think it would help. As Peter said, we’ve already talked about it, and Leo’s all excited to spend some time out west. What young boy wouldn’t be, right?” Marie Komnos was genuinely willing to try anything if she thought it would help her son, even relocating to Antarctica if they thought it would help. She was an East Coast girl, but did enjoy getting away from the hustle and bustle and spending time in the slower paced, easygoing town of Fort Worth.
As soon as she hung up, Karen searched her phone contacts for “priest.” The number that was found had the 202 area code that she expected, though the other seven digits had never been committed to memory. She touched on the screen to call.
“Hello, Father Raphael? This is Karen. We should be ok, at least through the summer. They will be heading to Fort Worth, Texas in June, and staying with Peter’s sister. It’s longer than you had requested, so just let me know if you need anything else, ok?”
The priest was pleased. “That should be plenty of time, and just what you said they would probably do. I don’t know how you do it, but I believe you know your patients and their families better than they know themselves, doctor. It’s much less troublesome for everyone involved than having to make up an excuse to get them out of town for those first weeks in June; best to suggest it and let them figure it out on their own, as you said. We’ll be in touch, I’ll let you know when it’s ok for him to come back. Until then, I’ll assume they’re in Texas unless I hear otherwise from you. Thank you for your help, Dr. Prescott.”
The summer in Texas turned into a couple of years. Leo, though educated by his parents at home due to his rapidly advancing “otherness,” made friends quickly. Leo’s 9th birthday party provided the perfect escape from his increasingly stressful life.
Splitting his time between acting as a remote psychiatric field test subject and testing the limits of his advancing academic accomplishments through increasingly rigorous workloads and subject matter with private tutors arranged by his parents, the young Greek-American’s parents knew that he was still just a boy who loved many of the same things that other kids his age loved. A roller skating party with his new friends was the perfect cure for what ailed him, as well as the family whose love enveloped him.
The boy’s friends in his newly adopted town of Fort Worth had been bitten by the skating bug, while he had remained too cautious to even strap on a pair. The death of Ryan had made an indelible imprint on Leo, and its lasting, devastating effect was increasingly crippling the experimentation that defined every human existence. The trials, errors, and successes that made each life a unique bundle of experiences were alarmingly limited for young Leo Komnos, and something needed to break him out of his mold. Dr. Prescott knew it, Leo’s parents knew it, but above all, Leo knew it.
After studying the techniques of skaters from the sidewalks and curbs and roller rink snack bar seats at a number of parties, observing every speed boost, turn, fall, and trick with a searingly intense observational focus, something inside of him could no longer be contained. He suddenly had the confidence of the best skater in the world, despite never having been able to even muster the courage to touch a skate; at least, not since he had pinched a finger while trying to help a friend pull off one that was too tight. He visualized what he would look like as he flew around the rink, every minute detail of his clothing flowing from his body as he cut through his own self-created wind, his small knees bending and then extending with each lunge producing ever-increasing velocity. He could see his weight shifting from leg to leg, maintaining his balance through each turn as he leaned in rather than remaining upright in order to counteract the inertial forces that would be acting on his body during those instants of existence. Having no academic understanding of centrifugal or centripetal forces, nor any direct experience of skating, his brain simply connected every relevant input he had ever observed or experienced up until that moment. The result was astonishing.
When the party ended and the parents of the boy’s friends arrived to pick up their children, the buzz among everyone who had witnessed Leo, whether young or old, skater or rink staff, was absolutely electric. “Mom, Leo skated! He was, like, the best I ever saw! The best anybody EVER saw! I’m serious! Go ask Eric, he said so too!”
After further checking and listening, the parents started telling other parents who arrived later, describing the dazzling roller exploits as if they themselves had witnessed them. All the while, Leo humbly accepted the accolades of his friends, as if being congratulated on yet another intellectual feat which others had not dared to attempt. But this was…different. He sensed it. He had figured something out, something that he would keep with him for the rest of his life: he did not have to do things, to practice things, in order to master them. He could learn by watching. By studying, by observing each aspect, each action and the accompanying reactions, every cause and every effect, not only would his mind automatically make the connections for him, but it could also be directed to transfer those connections to his body.
The one thing his mind could not do, however, was reveal why the causes had the effects that they had. There were obviously some kinds of rules to the game of existence, and he was growing ever more adept at learning them. But who had decided what these rules would be, and why?
The aerospace industry’s roots in Fort Worth could be traced all the way back to the airfields set up around the area by the British Royal Flying Corps to train American and Canadian pilots during World War I. Now, the most formidable aircraft ever created was designed and built in Fort Worth by Lockheed Martin, an example of which resided in a hangar right before 13-year old Leo’s eyes.
“It’s so cool! Is it the fastest jet there is?” Leo’s friend Chloe asked the gentleman, a friend of another friend’s dad, who was conducting the informal tour.
“No, there are faster planes, but none that can do what this one can do. It can carry as much as…” the voice went on with details of no interest to Leo. His thoughts remained on the instrument they had just seen through a glass wall, one that could “see inside of things” to analyze pieces of material to determine exactly which elements they were comprised of. “Advanced polymers? Nanoparticles? How did the scientists figure out which elements to combine with which? How do people even come up with the concept of ‘element,’ and every time they discover a new, tinier component of what they used to think was the lowest level of building block, why do they continue believing that they’ve actually gotten to the bottom level? There is always, always still more beneath, isn’t there? Some more basic component, a material or a force or something?” Leo wondered. “Could the light that I see from people be like that? Is it something to do with nano? A ‘nanoforce’ that could be detected by an instrument, which my eye’s freak mutation could be a model for?” Fortunately, he was planning on talking to Dr. Prescott later that afternoon, and he could run these thoughts by her—although more and more of his questions and observations were going unanswered and remaining unexplained, and this would likely just be added to that list.
Karen Prescott was experiencing similar mounting frustration. After consulting with Father Raphael, the Roman Catholic priest at Georgetown in D.C., then being unable to offer any insight to Leo’s positing of nanomaterial science as a possible explanation for his visual abilities, she asked to speak to his mom and dad. They were always nearby, though they had shifted their presence to a room outside of earshot of the calls at the doctor’s request several years ago after their first few long-distance sessions devolved into question and answer meetings for the parents. Leo’s mother was out, but his father was available.
“Peter, I’ve been mulling this over for a while now. I know you are pretty settled into life in Texas, I know it’s quite a change of pace from the hectic East Coast. I’m getting a bit concerned that we aren’t able to make the progress that we are all expecting, and I believe it would really help Leo to have more experts available to him. Not that the ones here are any better than what you could find there, but I simply don’t have the network in Dallas-Fort Worth that I do here. And we’d be able to draw on not just Baltimore and D.C., but also New York, Philadelphia, Boston—there is just a more robust network here. How do you think Leo, and you and Mrs. Komnos of course, would feel about coming back?”
Leo’s father had seen this coming. “We’ve been thinking about this already, doctor. The thing is, I’m not really sure what that would get him. From where we sit, it doesn’t look like a lack of physical presence among experts is the issue. To us, it looks like Leo either focuses on unanswerable questions, which no expert would be able to answer absolutely, or he’s stumping you with technical, scientific subjects that you just aren’t trained in. Which is fine, but I don’t see how moving back East would help. We appreciate your help with Leo, we really do. He loves you, and so do we. But he doesn’t have a psychiatric problem, he has a physical capability that needs explanation. And he has philosophical questions. So what I’d like to ask you is this: could we set up a more permanent team, with some scientist-types and also a philosophical consultant, one who has heard all the questions and is ready with the best, even if not scientifically foolproof, answers? You could act as the point person, but we’d like to all stay here and keep doing it remotely. We’ve been here for over six years now. He’s got quite a group of family and friends down here, far more than we imagined it would become, and the weekly conversation with people can easily be done without moving, don’t you think?”
She did not. “I’ll tell you what. Let’s get you guys back here for a couple of weeks, meet with some people face to face. Have Leo put together a long list of whatever’s on his mind lately. I have all of my notes, of course, and will send you a list of his ‘stumpers,’ as you call them, before you come. If you don’t see the value in him being with these people in person—especially one in particular who I’m thinking of, a philosophical sort—then by all means, get him back to Texas and we can keep trying to make it work remotely but with a new team. Deal?”
“I’ll run it by Marie. Two weeks? Starting when? Do I need to find a place near you in Baltimore, is that where most of the meetings will be taking place?”
“Let me arrange a place for you, say starting two weeks from now if that works for you, and we’ll bring the experts to you. I’m thinking Georgetown is the best location, all things considered. A nice neighborhood for you guys to get a residential feel, and I’m sure it will work for the people I have in mind. One of them is on the faculty at Georgetown University, I know he and the university can help with the arrangements. Have Marie give me a call if she’d like to discuss it, and hopefully we’ll be seeing you in a couple of weeks!”
Leo’s introspection, observations, theories, and tests of those hypotheses were all he needed to answer most of the “what” questions that surfaced: he could learn material at a pace that was orders of magnitude faster than other people; he could solve problems by using seemingly completely unrelated experiences and applying them to the tasks at hand; he could not only recall most everything that he had ever seen, read, heard, or experienced, but could also connect those experiences (“inputs,” as he came to call them) to each other without conscious effort and apply them to producing desired outcomes; and he learned to see the life force, or soul, or light, or whatever it was, within people while they were still alive.
The energy of the living spirit that escapes the body at death is actually present at all times, glowing, emanating from some point or place within. Leo could almost always detect it, at least faintly. It was never as purely, blindingly bright white within a living body as it had been when it escaped Ryan's lifeless one, but it was there, obscured by the physical form.
The questions he could never answer, however, were the “whys.” For that, he had turned to the knowledge and wisdom of other times and places. As he delved deeper into those mysteries, he continually felt simultaneously closer and further away from the truth that he knew was there. He sensed it, he felt it, it was just right around the corner—but then, the moment that the last corner was rounded, another maze was revealed.
Maybe he was missing something. Maybe there was someone who could help him understand something differently? In his experience, other people merely slowed him down, got in the way, distracted his focus, led him down dead-end trails that ultimately required him to backtrack and get back to the path where the real answers lay.
That is, until he met Father Raphael.
The news from the Vatican was not good.
Father Raphael had taken to Leonidas “Leo” Komnos immediately upon meeting him six years earlier. The feeling was mutual. In the space of two weeks, the boy had decided to uproot himself, along with his family, from their home in Fort Worth and relocate to Washington, D.C. After years of searching, he had finally found someone with answers that, though not necessarily provable, at least made sense. Unlike his prior experiences with other experts, he had been unable to poke holes in the philosophical explanations of Father Raphael. Of equal importance to Leo was the revelation of thousands of years of seeking answers to the very same questions with which he now grappled. Not only that, but he could also see and touch the physical documents that contained the written records of those very intellectual and spiritual struggles. It would take far longer than two weeks with the scholar-philosopher-priest to unravel those mysteries; indeed, many a lifetime had been spent on such pursuits.
The priest, a renowned professor of medieval religious philosophy and the classical source documents on which it was based, had an uncanny knack for explaining not only the proper translations from the texts, but also the context within which they had been written. That, as Leo had come to learn, was often at least as important as the texts themselves, if not more so. Knowing what the author was attempting to communicate was, at best, a very well-educated guess. Traveling millennia in time from the hand of the writer to the eyes of a reader, intentions and word meanings were bound to get confused or misinterpreted. Scribes and copyists committed errors; tiny fragments or whole sections of ink, papyrus, or vellum were lost. The question was whether or not the original spirit of the communication remained intact. Father Raphael was among the world's most skilled translators and interpreters of medieval, as well as classical Latin and Greek, texts. Although Leo had no intention of entering the priesthood, he imagined that a life spent following in the academic footsteps of his scholarly Dominican Order mentor could be utterly fulfilling.
Unfortunately, there was no mistaking the Vatican's intent in its email to Father Raphael. Leo was to be “irresistibly persuaded” to cut short his studies at Georgetown and resume a new course of study under the tutelage of an unnamed “Desert Father.” In Egypt. Immediately.
“What? Are you kidding me? How does the Vatican even know who I am?” Komnos would have thought it a joke, but he knew Father Raphael better than that.
The Roman Catholic priest did his best to explain.
“Leo, I'm sorry. But you can see the email yourself. I can tell you that they have taken an interest in your progress for quite some time, but I'm afraid I can't tell you why.”
“Why not, Father? Is it because you don't know, or they won't let you?” Leo had learned not to grow too exasperated by the chain of command in the church hierarchy. It was there, just as it had always been there, going back to Jesus of Nazareth himself. When orders came from the Vatican, priests were expected to obey them, not to question or protest. Father Raphael was certainly no different. Leo had also learned, however, that whenever his friend had any latitude to explain, he would do so. And if he could not, he would be forthright in conveying that inability to Leo.
“Honestly, a little of both. I really can’t tell you any more than what was in the letter, but in my defense, they don’t share the big picture with me anyway. I do know that they did some pretty extensive background checks in order to justify your early admission to the University. They don’t allow just any 13-year old to matriculate at Georgetown, and certainly not one who demands such specialized instruction.” Father Raphael momentarily drifted back to his first interview with the young Leo, when the youth had won him over right in this very office six short years ago. “That’s how they know who you are.”
Leo recalled the circumstances somewhat differently. “Father, if I may respectfully point out, I demanded nothing. I had questions for which there seemed no answers. This institution, and you in particular, appeared to offer some hope in my search for ‘why’ I could see what I see. At first, I was equally concerned with exactly what it was that I was seeing and why it was there in the first place, but I’ve come to realize that that second question may have an answer that is beyond understanding. I’ll keep searching though, because there are aspects of it that make some sense to me.”
He continued. “On the other hand, my ability to see it, whatever ‘it’ is, seemed like it should be explainable by the scientific community in technical terms that my human brain could grasp, and so it was. I have not only the retinal receptors to detect energy particles along a normally invisible light spectrum, receptors which no one else has, but also the neuro-processing power to transform that detected energy into appearing to my brain as different tones and intensities of light. As it happened, the accelerated neuro-processing ability did not solely relate to visual input, but to inputs of every type. In other words, I’m a fast learner. I’ll grant that I did make some requests regarding the University’s faculty and resources, which were approved by the Church, in order to streamline the learning process and dive right in at my own pace. You guys just didn’t know what I knew when it came to my learning style and pace, so I thought it made sense for all of us to be on the same page from the outset.” The young man did his best to avoid sounding condescending, but failed miserably.
“Leo, pardon my word choice. No, you didn’t ‘demand’ anything of us, but on occasion you certainly made it clear that it would be your way or no way. And that was fine. It’s obviously worked to all of our benefit. Now, this stage of the journey has come to its end. For your part, the textual insights you provided, the unseen connections you pointed out, the new work you enabled, all of it has just been a gift from God. There is no other way to put it. The speed with which you learned the nuances of Koine Greek, classical as well as Medieval Church Latin, and biblical Hebrew was simply remarkable, but not nearly as impressive as was your application of it all. As for us, we did our best to accommodate you from the outset and throughout the past six years, to share with you all that we knew and had access to. Your development, as impressive as it has been, was enhanced by Georgetown’s resources and my own humble efforts, I’m sure you would agree. Can you at least give this a shot? You can’t honestly tell me that you aren’t the slightest bit intrigued by a Desert Father in Alexandria!” The Dominican had a rare genius in the persuasive arts, no doubt heavily influenced by the great Roman orator Cicero, whom Father Raphael had studied in great depth.
The contest wasn’t a fair one, with Leo hopelessly outmatched. Resigned to defeat, the young man quickly shifted to the bright side.
“Alexandria, huh? That wasn’t in the email that you showed me. It just said ‘Egypt,’ remember? Anyway, I know that there’s probably more to this story than you’re able to share with me. I do trust you, that’s what matters. If you are looking me in the eye and telling me this is something I need to do, that’s really all I need to make my decision.”
“Leo, I know we’re closer than when we started, but you haven’t found your answers here. We’ve been searching for six years now. It’s time. Go.”
Deep ocean drilling operations were always risky propositions to begin with, but this was insanity.
The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is a volcanic mountain range that runs along the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in a north-south line. It's where the earth regenerates itself, thrusting newly formed molten crust upwards from the interior of the planet. An undersea Grand Canyon-sized valley cuts down the length of the middle of this mountain range. This was the place where the crew of the vessel was supposed to work with an unproven power source, piercing a geologically unstable zone with insufficiently tested drilling material. Exactly the type of mission that Javier Sanchez lived for.
“Javier, what's the holdup? We need to get moving on this ASAP!”
Sanchez replied. “My power systems are all green, ready to commence. I still need confirmation from Kim on the drill, and we'll be all set.”
Javier Sanchez was among the world's foremost experts at hacking together hybrid power systems. He could get the most from the least, and the more bleeding edge the technology, the better. The requirements for this operation were ridiculous as far as Sanchez was concerned, but that's why he was there. If it could be easily done, why bother?
The reply came back through Javier’s headset. The voice from the surface vessel above issued its instruction. “I've checked off with Kim and the drill is ready. The bit took a beating on the last run, but he's confident it will hold. Commence when ready.”
Sanchez was hesitant though. “Sir, the standard procedure that Kim and I have is for me to hear directly from him that he's all set. I'm not sure that it was just the bit that he was looking at. Let's give him another minute or two to verify whatever he's checking and then we'll get started.”
“Son, I know you're not in the Navy anymore, but don't tell me you've already forgotten how to take an order. Our drilling window before the next expected activity is already borderline too short and we need to get moving! Do I make myself clear? Commence when ready!”
“Yes sir” was the only conceivable reply. Sanchez initiated the drill’s independent propulsion and rotation sources, and a few moments later had the bit spinning at unimaginably high revolutions per minute. The key to this capability was the composite material that had been developed for both the tip and the shaft of the drill bit. They were able to withstand not only the heat of the molten crust through which they passed, but also the temperatures generated by the friction of spinning at extraordinarily high speed while being thrust down through the rock and lava as quickly as possible.
Although he had no expertise in materials science, Sanchez still marveled at the breakthroughs that had been achieved in developing the drill. “These are the days of miracle and wonder,” lyrics from an old Paul Simon song, had been emblazoned on the outside of the submersible by the organization that funded it all, and truer words were hard to come by.
As the drill made its way through the melted rock of the earth’s inner crust, the frigid seawater flowed in through an encasement pipe along with it. This had a simultaneous cooling effect on the drill and hydrothermal steam venting effect on the mixture of lava and water. After several minutes, Javier felt a little better about proceeding without authorization from Kim. It was still out of character for Kim to go outside of the standard procedure by talking to the surface commander rather than Javier, but maybe he had more pressing issues to deal with.
The voice that screamed through the headset and into the ears of Sanchez was no longer the mission commander’s. It was Young Su Kim, the materials engineer. He did not develop the advanced composite materials for the drill, but he did come up with the design that would allow it to penetrate deeper into the ocean floor than any prior technology had ever gone. Far, far deeper. Kim was now in a panic.
“What are you doing, Javier?! I didn’t approve the run! The drill wasn’t stable yet!”
“Kim, the chief called down and said he talked to you and that the bit was fine. I put up a fight since I hadn’t heard from you directly, but I had a direct order to proceed.”
Kim was exasperated. “I was very clear that the bit had NOT passed its diagnostics, that we were probably looking at another forty minutes of cooling, minimum. The torque that is exerted at those speeds, combined with those temperatures, requires that it be cooled all the way through to the core of the shaft. Otherwise, if subjected to those forces and that heat again before being sufficiently cooled, it can just melt through and pull apart like hot caramel. We need to kill the drill NOW.”
Sanchez initiated the shutdown procedure, but he knew that it took time to slow down and pull out. It was all automated, which meant that it was not possible to speed up the process. Several minutes would elapse before the drill would be completely extracted from the molten crust and eventually slowed to a stop. Until then, all they could do was wait, and hope.
“Javier, how long does it take to extract and begin the cooling process? If it melts enough to twist off, then—”
“Kim, I know. I know. It typically takes three to four minutes. We picked up where we left off with the last session, and it is way down there, the deepest run yet. All we can do now is wait and see.”
Javier Sanchez knew there was nothing else for them to do. If they were in fact too late, if the shaft of the drill had heated through to the point that the core of it tore apart violently, then the deep hole into the fiery rock beneath them would be completely exposed all at once. The shaft of the drill was encased in a sleeve of virtually melt-proof material, which controlled the flow of the icy seawater through itself as it penetrated the rock-burning furnace of the world. This man-made hydrothermal venting process was therefore controlled as well. Typically, the naturally occurring hydrothermal vents along the ocean floor mixed with the water in a state of equilibrium, sending what appeared to be plumes of black smoke up from the seabed into the water above. But exposing the deep inner crust of the earth directly to an uncontrolled flood of seawater would be catastrophic. The explosive force would be felt from there to Iceland, which coincidentally found itself already dealing with a notably nasty eruption of one of its long dormant land volcanoes. Sanchez and Kim didn’t want to consider the unthinkable scenario that was now well within the realm of possibility.
Something that they would have to consider, however, was why the chief mission commander above had deliberately lied and forced the session to commence too early. Surely he understood the risk as well as anyone. Javier tried him on the headset to apprise him of the situation, but was interrupted by Kim. “Javier, I already tried him before I contacted you. Nothing. He’s not responding.”
“What do you mean ‘not responding?’ Is he up there on the surface boat, or isn’t he? Did you try anyone else?” Sanchez had a rapidly growing empty pit in his stomach.
“Javier, I didn’t take the time to try anyone else. I needed to reach you as soon as possible to get the drill killed and extracted, but I’m showing nobody home up there. It looks like the boat’s still there, but no communicators on board.”
“How are we going to get pulled back up to the surface? Where could they have gone without the boat? This doesn’t make any sense, Kim. The comm link has to be down or something.”
“Javier, the helicopter. There were only three people up on the surface vessel for this drilling run. They could have taken the helicopter. If their intent was for this thing to blow, the helicopter is the only chance they would have had to get clear of it. I’ve played everything out in my head, and that’s all I’ve come up with.”
Young Su Kim seemed resigned to his fate. Quite certain that the damage had been done by the too-soon employment of the drill at the new record penetration depth, all he was left with was an attempt to somehow make sense of it. And this was the best he had.
Javier Sanchez had one final thought to bounce off of his friend Kim. But before he could voice it, they were both vaporized by the largest man-made explosion ever recorded in the North Atlantic.