Today, we have an excerpt from Harry Turtledove‘s latest historical sci-fi mystery, Three Miles Down. Specifically, we have chapter two — if you’d like to read chapter one before reading this excerpt, that is over on The Tor/Forge Blog. Here’s the synopsis:
It’s 1974, and Jerry Stieglitz is a grad student in marine biology at UCLA with a side gig selling short stories to science fiction magazines, just weeks away from marrying his longtime fiancée. Then his life is upended by grim-faced men from three-letter agencies who want him to join a top-secret “Project Azorian” in the middle of the north Pacific Ocean — and they really don’t take “no” for an answer. Further, they’re offering enough money to solve all of his immediate problems.
Joining up and swearing to secrecy, what he first learns is that Project Azorian is secretly trying to raise a sunken Russian submarine, while pretending to be harvesting undersea manganese nodules. But the dead Russian sub, while real, turns out to be a cover story as well. What’s down on the ocean floor next to it is the thing that killed the sub: an alien spacecraft.
Jerry’s a scientist, a longhair, a storyteller, a dreamer. He stands out like a sore thumb on the Glomar Explorer, a ship full of CIA operatives, RAND Corporation eggheads, and roustabout divers. But it turns out that he’s the one person in the North Pacific who’s truly thought out all the ways that human-alien first contact might go.
And meanwhile, it’s still 1974 back on the mainland. Richard Nixon is drinking heavily and talking to the paintings on the White House walls. The USA is changing fast — and who knows what will happen when this story gets out? Three Miles Down is both a fresh and original take on First Contact, and a hugely enjoyable romp through the pop culture, political tumult, and conspiracies-within-conspiracies atmosphere that was 1974.
Jerry had the Thomas Brothers, open to the right page, on the front seat beside him. He checked the road atlas when he stopped at a red light. Yes, the address he was looking for should be in the next block of Ocean Boulevard. The light turned green. He got going more slowly than he might have, but before the guy in the pickup behind him could honk.
There it was! The Long Beach apartment building was an older cousin to the ones that had sprouted like toadstools in Hawthorne. Instead of adobe-colored stucco and a Spanish-tile roof, it wore white stucco with blue shingles on top. Maybe it was supposed to seem transplanted from a Greek island.
He found a parking space and, carrying a suitcase he got out of the trunk, walked back to the building. He walked straight inside, too; it didn’t have any kind of security system. His head swung right, then left.
Apartment 127 was to the left. As he’d been told to do, he knocked twice, then once. It made him feel silly, as if he were in a bad spy movie. But evidently genuine spies did stuff like that, too.
The door opened. A man who looked as if he’d been a leatherneck not real long before eyed him with no expression. “Yeah?”
“My name’s Jerry Stieglitz. John sent me.” Jerry felt silly again.
But the tough-looking fellow stood aside. “C’mon in. Set your suitcase down on the couch. We’ll check it out. Then go over to Vic at the table there. He’ll take care of your paperwork.”
“Okay.” Jerry followed instructions one more time.
Another guy who looked as if he could take care of himself started to unlatch the suitcase, then paused. “Anything monogrammed in here? Shirt? Belt? Handkerchiefs, even?”
“Nope. Not my style,” Jerry said.
“Awright. We’ll look it over anyway.” The man opened the lid and started inspecting Jerry’s clothes.
Vic, behind the table, was older than the other two and seemed milder. “Give me your wallet.” Jerry handed it to him. Vic extracted his driver’s license, Mastercard, and Social Security card. Jerry felt a pang. You weren’t really you unless you had the paperwork to prove it. Then Vic pulled a small envelope from what looked like a cash box. “Here you go.”
The envelope had Steinberg written on it in a script a sixth-grade teacher would have envied. Jerry opened it. Inside were a California license with his photo and address but the name Gerard Sheldon Steinberg, a Social Security card with his number and the same name, and a credit card with that name and a number that wasn’t his.
He held up the Mastercard. “Can I really use this?”
“Oh, hell, yes,” Vic said. “Same credit limit as your real one. It’ll work.”
“What if I need to write a check? My ID won’t match.”
“You’re two days from sailing, so don’t, all right? You gotta get something, pay cash or charge it.”
“Good deal. Now — you’ve taken care of everything you need to do before you leave?”
“Yeah. I’ve said my good-byes,” Jerry said. The one with Anna had been lusty and tearful, the one with his father more along the lines of Well, I’ll see you whenever you get back. He went on, “I’ve graded all my finals, too, and turned in the sheets to my prof and my department. So I’m good to go.”
“Fine.” Vic nodded. “Gotta make sure, you know.” He snapped his fingers. “Oh! One other thing. Before you go, leave your house key with somebody. Just leave your car key — they’ll start it up every so often while you’re away so it’ll run when you get back.”
“Cool!” Jerry’d been worrying about that.
Before he could say anything else, the fellow searching through the stuff in his suitcase went “Ha!” and held up a handkerchief with a red, machine-embroidered J on it. By the way he displayed it, he might have found Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter.
“I forgot all about that,” Jerry said, embarrassed. “My aunt gave me some of those when I turned twenty-one.”
“That’s why we check you out.” The CIA man threw the offending square of linen into a large metal trash can. Jerry wondered how many other people’s clothes and key rings and such already lay in there.
Nothing else in the case seemed to be against the rules. Jerry closed it up. The hired muscle at the door politely opened it for him. He walked out into the courtyard and headed for the street.
An older man lugging a battered suitcase of his own paused inside the entranceway, no doubt also looking for apartment 127. Jerry pointed back the way he’d come. “It’s over there.”
“Thanks,” the man said, and then, “Hi, Jerry.”
“Oh! Steve! Hi!” Jerry hurried forward and shook hands. “Good to see you. I didn’t know you’d be going along on this . . . whatever it is.”
“Whatever it is, is right.” By the way Steve glanced at the apartments surrounding the courtyard, he figured they were full of KGB agents waiting for him to tell them everything they needed to know. The scary thing was, he might have been right. He went on, “But yeah, I’m coming. I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
“Okay. Cool, even.” Jerry was glad he’d have at least one slightly familiar face on the Glomar Explorer. Being more social caterpillar than social butterfly, he didn’t make friends easily, or sometimes at all. He wanted to ask Steve about a million questions. The man from RAND’s worried expression warned him that wouldn’t be a good idea, though. He just said, “I’ll see you there, then,” and went on his way.
He’d be back in Long Beach tomorrow evening. They’d told him to board the Glomar Explorer no later than six p.m. (actually, they’d told him no later than 1800 hours, but he knew what that meant). Since he was one of those people who were compulsively on time — maybe in reaction to his dad, whom he’d heard called “the late Hyman Stieglitz” — that wouldn’t be a problem.
And then . . . a sunken Russian submarine? He understood he was only along for the ride and the cover story, but the idea intrigued him anyway. Could they really bring it up from three miles under the surface of the Pacific? Would they find anything worthwhile if they did?
Even if they did find something, he’d never be able to talk about it. He got that. But he’d know. And if knowing wasn’t what it was all about, he didn’t know — that word again! — what was.
He parked the his car in the lot closest to Pier E, got his suitcase and a hydrophone with a UCLA sticker on it out of the trunk, and trudged toward . . . Toward whatever happens next, he thought.
Not just anybody could get to the Glomar Explorer. A tall chain-link fence secured it from the annoying and the snoopy. As Jerry got closer, he saw that the fence was topped with razor wire. They were serious about not wanting company.
There was a gate in the fence. A sign on it said AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY in big red letters. A booth about twice the size of a phone booth stood on the far side. A security guard came out of it as Jerry drew near. He was somewhere between linebacker and lineman size and wore a pistol on his hip for good measure. He carried a clipboard in his left hand. His right stayed free.
“Your name, sir?” he said.
“Jerry, uh, Steinberg,” Jerry answered. His first chance to use his new alias, and he damn near flubbed it!
The guard checked the papers in the clipboard. He had to flip up a couple of them before he found what he was looking for. Jerry’d long since got used to life toward the tail end of the alphabet. “Steinberg, Gerald S.?” the guard said. At Jerry’s nod, the fellow continued, “Let me see some identification, please.”
“Here you go.” Jerry showed his phony license.
“Thanks.” It satisfied the guard. He unlocked the gate and held it open so Jerry could bring through the suitcase and hydrophone. Once he got inside, the guard locked up again. That felt very final to Jerry. Then, as Jerry’d been told he would, the guard said, “Give me your car keys? You are in the lot across the way, right?”
“I sure am! Thanks!” As Jerry set down the suitcase and dug out his key ring, he went on, “It’s a ’65 Rambler American, light blue. License plate is ONR 541.”
“A ’65 American. Light blue. ONR 541. Steinberg.” The guard wrote in a little notebook he pulled from his breast pocket. Then he looked up. “Okay. We’ll take care of it. Hope you have a safe trip and everything works like it’s supposed to.”
“Me, too. Thanks again.” Jerry wondered whether the guard knew the whole story or thought the Glomar Explorer was going to try deep-ocean mining. He would have bet on the latter, but had better sense than to ask.
As he walked down the pier to the ship, its sheer size smacked him in the face. He’d seen it before in a couple of black-and-white newspaper photos, and in news snippets on his twelve-inch black-and-white TV. Those gave shape, but not scale. The Hughes Glomar Explorer was 619 feet long, with a beam of 116 feet—bigger than some American battleships that had fought in World War II. The central derrick rose more than 250 feet above the keel.
If they’d put guns aboard her . . . but they hadn’t. She carried pipe instead, more than three miles of pipe. They’d join it all together when they got where they were going, join it together and use it to lower the giant grabber to the lost K-129. Then they’d bring it up again.
How much weight did the sub, the grabber, and all that heavy-duty pipe add up to? Had to be thousands of tons. How many thousands, Jerry didn’t know. But he could see why the Russians figured anything that big, lost three miles underwater, was lost for good. Anybody in his right mind would.
Which says what about me, exactly? he wondered as he came up the gangplank connecting the Glomar Explorer to the pier. At the pier end, another armed guard checked his name off a list and examined his counterfeit driver’s license. It passed muster one more time.
A fellow in crisp whites waited at the other end of the gangplank. A steward — Jerry was pleased with himself for finding the right word. “Welcome aboard, sir. You are . . . ?” the man said.
“Jerry Steinberg.” This time, Jerry brought out the name that wasn’t his with assurance.
“Steinberg.” The steward checked a list, too. He nodded to himself. “Okay. We have you quartered with Mr. Dahlgren in cabin 116.” He pointed toward the stern.
“Dahlgren. Gotcha.” Jerry added, “Oh. Thanks,” as the steward handed him a key. He hoped it would work out all right. Except for nights with Anna, he was in the habit of sleeping alone. You couldn’t get much further from that than sharing a cabin with somebody for a couple of months.
He made his way aft. There was a huge square opening beneath the derrick, covered over now. He soon found out everybody called it the moon pool. When they got where they were going, the cover would come off, the bottom would open however it opened, and they would start stringing pipe segments together and lowering the claw toward the K-129.
In the meantime, relatively narrow steel passageways skirted the moon pool to port and starboard. The pipe farm lay aft of the derrick, in front of the bridge near the stern. The pipes were painted in a rainbow of colors: red, white, blue, yellow, and green. The setup looked as if it came from offshore oil drilling.
He wondered if he would have to ask somebody where cabin 116 was. He didn’t, though; signs gave him all the directions he needed. For a moment, he stood outside the steel door with 116 painted on it, gathering his nerve. Then he turned the key in the lock, worked the latch, and went inside.
His new roommate was lying on the bottom bunk. Fair enough — first come, first served. The man turned his head. He and Jerry both started to laugh at the same moment. “Hi, Steve. Long time no see,” Jerry said.
“Yeah, we’ve got to stop meeting like this,” the older man answered. They laughed some more.
“I don’t suppose Dahlgren is your real last name, either,” Jerry said.
“I have the papers to prove it is,” Steve said. “Of course, you’ve got that kind of paperwork, too. They told me I’d be with a fellow called Steinberg. I wondered who that would be. Now I know. I hope I don’t snore.”
“Hope I don’t, too.” Jerry looked around. “This is a pretty nice hamster cage, isn’t it?”
“Could be worse. I’ve stayed in hotel rooms I liked less.” Steve waved toward a pair of tall steel lockers welded to the wall. “I put my stuff in the one on the right. The one on the left’s all yours. They’ve got shelves and hangers and whatever you need.”
“Sounds good.” Jerry nodded.
“Bathroom is through there,” Steve went on, pointing to a door in the side wall. “Shower, two sinks, toilet. Pretty plain, but it’ll do. We share it with the guys in the next cabin over.”
“Okay.” Again, Jerry hoped it would be.
“Anyway, I’m glad they put us together. Nice to be with somebody I’ve at least met before,” Steve said.
Jerry nodded once more. “I was thinking the same thing.” He hesitated, then asked, “Do you mind telling me your real last name?”
“I shouldn’t.” Steve hesitated, too. “But I already know yours, and fair is fair. Who will you blab to? I’m Stephen Dole — Stephen with a PH. On the papers I have here, I’m Steven with a V. What do you want to bet I screw up signing my name at least once before I get home?”
Jerry hardly heard the last bit. He was gaping at the man with whom he shared a cabin. “You’re Stephen Dole from RAND? The Stephen Dole from RAND? The guy who wrote Habitable Planets for Man? I’ve read that book three times. You can’t beat it for world-building ideas.”
“I’m that Stephen Dole, yes,” his roommate said. “Thanks. I didn’t expect you to recognize my name.”
Jerry burbled on regardless: “This is crazy, man! I’d rather meet you than Becker and Fagen, even.”
“Than who?” Steve plainly drew a blank.
“The lead guys for Steely Dan.”
Steve went right on drawing a blank. He and Jerry eyed each other in perfect mutual incomprehension. He’s thirty years older than you are, maybe more, Jerry reminded himself. It’d be scarier if he did know who they were. Steve would have been in his thirties by the time rock ’n’ roll came along. Poor guy was what went through Jerry’s head: the heartlessness of youth.
Then something else occurred to him: “If you write about worlds where we might live or where aliens might come from, what are you doing on a ship going after a Russian sub?”
“That’s not all I do. If it were, I’d write science fiction myself,” Steve said easily. “My job title at RAND is director of communications. If we bring up any of the submarine’s codebooks, I go to work. No, when we bring them up. John P. wants everybody confident.”
“He . . . knows how to get what he wants, doesn’t he?” Jerry said.
“From everything I’ve seen, yes.” Steve swung off the bunk and got to his feet. “Do you know where the messroom is? I just came straight here and threw some stuff in my locker, but it’s getting on toward dinnertime, isn’t it?”
Jerry looked at his watch. Sure enough, it was almost half past six. “Getting there and then some,” he agreed. “I did the same thing. No, I don’t know where it is, but I bet we can find it pretty easy. They’ve got this ship organized.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” Steve said, which was bound to be true.
When they went out into the passageway, they quickly came to a sign informing them the messroom lay one level down. The steel stairway was narrow and steep. “Gotta watch it,” Jerry said. “You can break your ankle here if you aren’t careful.”
“Or your neck,” Steve agreed.
Eight or ten men were eating in the messroom when Jerry and Steve walked in. Several of them nodded to Steve. They eyed Jerry with more speculation. He understood that. He was the youngest guy there, and the one with the longest hair — most of them looked pretty buttoned-down. He sighed to himself. He’d hoped he was done with that first-day-of-high-school feeling forever. What you hoped for wasn’t always what you got, though.
The food was great. He ordered a rare sirloin, with mashed potatoes and string beans. Steve had his medium, and got french fries and a salad on the side. They both demolished their dinners. Halfway through, Steve said, “A beer would go great with this.”
“Man, would it ever!” Jerry said. “But they told me they’d clap me in irons or something if I brought any alcohol aboard.”
“They told me the same thing.” Steve winked. “Once we get hooked into the grapevine, I bet we can find some anyway. The crew is big enough, somebody will find a way.”
“I guess,” Jerry said, and then, “How big is the crew?”
“I heard about a hundred and eighty, counting everybody.”
Steve eyed Jerry. “They didn’t tell you much, did they?”
Jerry shook his head. “Close but not quite. They didn’t tell me anything.” He wondered if that was because he was a longhair. He would have guessed most of the men in the galley were on the other side of the argument about whether Richard Nixon needed to be impeached. People who worried about national security first and democracy later mostly liked Mad Milhous.
But John P. and Fred and Steve would have known beforehand where he stood. He didn’t make a secret of it or anything. They’d taken him on even so. That counted for something.
He had cherry pie for dessert. Steve ate vanilla ice cream. As they went back up to their level, Jerry remarked, “Gonna have to find some way to exercise or I’ll get too wide to fit in this stairwell.”
“You? You’re young enough to burn it off,” Steve said. “I only wish I were. There’s a helipad behind the stern bridge. Maybe we can walk or jog on that.”
“Yeah, I saw it. I don’t know why we have it, though,” Jerry said.
Steve shrugged. Either he also didn’t know or he wasn’t talking.
Signs said there was a movie theater on this deck. Jerry thought about visiting it, but it wasn’t going anywhere. He had The Queen of Air and Darkness, Poul Anderson’s latest collection, to read till he got sleepy. On the first night aboard, he’d keep things simple.
Steve slept in plain blue cotton pajamas. Jerry wore sweatpants and a ratty T-shirt. Odds were that left them both about equally comfortable. Jerry scrambled up into the top bunk. The mattress was better than he’d expected. Goldilocks would have approved. It wasn’t too hard or too soft, but just right. However many millions the CIA had spent on the Glomar Explorer, some of the money must have gone into keeping the crew happy.
He turned off his reading lamp a little before eleven. Steve’s stayed on. It didn’t bother Jerry. He fell asleep right away.
He woke with a jerk after what didn’t seem very long. The rumble of the ship’s engines had got louder. And her motion had changed — she felt like a ship on the ocean, not one peaceably tied up to a pier. They were moving! They were on their way . . . to a spot in the middle of the North Pacific. To a Russian sub. To bringing up a Russian sub, if everything worked the way it was supposed to.
Steve’s reading light was still on. Jerry grabbed his watch off the little steel shelf by his head. The dim light from below was enough to tell him it was a quarter to one.
“You awake up there?” Steve asked quietly. The thrash must have tipped him off.
“Nah, I’m still asleep,” Jerry said.
After a few seconds digesting that, Steve chuckled. “Okay. We’re heading out now to take advantage of the high tide. We draw a lot of water. When the tide’s low, we might not make it over the sandbars.”
“That’d be embarrassing.” Jerry imagined a swarm of tugboats trying to pull the grounded Glomar Explorer free.
“Maybe a little, yeah. Anyway, that’s what’s going on,” Steve said. “But since you’re still asleep, you don’t need to worry about it. G’night.” He turned off his lamp and plunged the cabin into darkness.
So there, Jerry thought. Pretty soon, Steve started to snore. He wasn’t loud, but he was noticeable. Jerry noticed. He didn’t mind Anna snoring when she lay next to him, but this seemed different. He couldn’t have said how or why, but it did.
Having been startled out of deep sleep, he took a while to find it again. Just when he thought he never would, he did. He woke one more time when Steve went to the side door and used the head, but returned to sleep before his roommate came back. They both got up at eight o’clock.
Breakfast was as good and as copious as dinner had been. Jerry washed down two fried eggs, four strips of bacon, and crispy hash browns with two cups of coffee. Steve had his eggs scrambled, and sausages instead of bacon. He remarked, “Not everybody your age drinks coffee.” He was most of the way through his third cup.
“I didn’t till I started working hard getting ready for my exams, or not much,” Jerry said. “But hey, it’s brain cells in a cup.”
“There you go.” Steve nodded.
Neither one of them had much to do after breakfast. Later, when the Glomar Explorer got farther out into the Pacific, Jerry planned to string his hydrophone to a long length of coaxial cable and see what he could get, but they were still way too close to shore for him to bother.
Just how close they were got emphasized that morning, when the ship stopped and a helicopter thuttered in to land on the platform above the fantail. Ten businesspeople — nine of them men — got out and were escorted to the messroom. Curious, Jerry tagged along behind to see what was going on. Nobody shooed him away, so he went on in.
It turned out to be a ceremony formally turning ownership of the Hughes Glomar Explorer over from Global Marine to the Summa Corporation, which, he gathered, belonged to Howard Hughes. There were speeches. A photographer immortalized the occasion on film (Jerry suspected he wound up in the background on a couple of shots). The guys in the galley had even baked a cake. It was a good cake, too; Jerry got a piece.
Then the visiting firemen went back to the helipad, climbed aboard the chopper, and zoomed away again. Before they went to dinner, Jerry asked Steve, “What the devil was that all about? Flying those people out must have cost a ton. Why didn’t they just sign the papers on dry land a week ago or something?”
Steve smiled a thin smile. “Because Philip Watson is a pain in the . . . neck.” He seemed the kind of man who didn’t cuss unless badly provoked. Jerry was much looser about it.
The name rang a vague bell, but Jerry said, “Who?” anyway. Then he said, “Oh,” as he remembered.
“He’s the county tax assessor,” Steve told him anyway. “He wants to tax the Glomar Explorer. He wants to tax Summa because he knows Howard Hughes has money. It’s more complicated than that, but that’s what it boils down to. He has no idea the ship really belongs to the CIA, and nobody’s gonna tell him. Doing the transfer to Summa in international waters takes it out of his jurisdiction, or we hope it does.”
Jerry held his head in his hands. “The farther I stay from lawyers, the happier I am.”
“You sound like a sensible fellow,” Steve said. “Shall we see what’s on the menu tonight?”
“Let’s do it,” Jerry said, and out they went.
Dinner was crab-stuffed flounder. If it was going to be like this for however long the voyage took . . . Jerry was sure he’d never eaten so well for as long as that before, and wondered whether he ever would again. Enjoy it while it lasts, he told himself, which seemed a good rule most of the time.
After he finished — he made himself skip dessert — he thought about finding out which movie the little theater was showing. Before he could separate himself from Steve, though, the older man said, “You want to come with me, see something that might interest you?”
It sounded like an ordinary question. Jerry realized it was really an order, though; his old man talked that way a lot of the time. He nodded agreeably. “I’m putty in your hands. Silly Putty, probably.”
Steve let out a small snort. “Whatever else you do, you should stick with your writing. The left-handed way you think, I bet you can make a go of it.”
“That’d be nice.” A beat later, Jerry added, “Thanks.”
“I meant it,” Steve said. “C’mon.” He headed off like a man who knew exactly where he was going. All of a sudden, he didn’t seem confused about where things were or need to look at signs. Jerry followed, wondering what else the man from the RAND Corporation was sandbagging about.
The Glomar Explorer held a couple of dozen of what looked like cargo containers, the kind that went on freighters and then got loaded onto truck trailers to get where they needed to go. They were maybe twenty by eight by eight. The only thing that made them unusual for containers was that each had a door in the front.
Steve stopped in front of one with SPECIAL MEASUREMENTS stenciled on to the door. Jerry eyed that. It might have meant anything or nothing . . . which, he suspected, was exactly the point. Unlike most of the others, the door also had a keypad next to it that reminded him of the ones at his apartment building and Anna’s.
But the code Steve punched in was longer than three digits. The latch clicked instead of buzzing. As Steve opened the door, he said, “I’ll teach you the entry number. What’s in here is a big part of why you’re along. Memorize the number. Don’t write it down, not anywhere.”
“However you say. I can do that.” Jerry followed Steve into the Special Measurements container.
“It’s important.” Steve flicked a switch. Bluish ceiling-mounted fluorescent tubes came to life, buzzing faintly. Only after the door closed did the older man say, “I mean it. We’ve got this whole story to keep the Russians from figuring out we’re raising their submarine.”
“I know,” Jerry said. “I signed all those papers that promised I’d go to Leavenworth if I ever opened my mouth about that. Hell, you were there.”
“That’s right. I signed those papers, too. But that’s nothing — I mean nothing — next to what’s in here. It’s a cover story under the cover story.” Steve pointed to a chair identical to the ones in Jerry’s TA office. “Have a seat. This will take a little while.”
Jerry parked his behind on the chair. Steve set a tape player with headphones already attached on the Formica work surface in front of him. Then he went over to a safe in the corner of the container. Its door soon swung open. He took out a sheaf of papers and a cassette tape, then closed the safe again.
“You have to sign these before you can hear the tape,” he said, handing Jerry the papers.
“What? Everything I signed back in my apartment wasn’t good enough?” Jerry said.
“That just had to do with the Russian sub,” Steve answered. “That was serious. This is serious.”
Jerry skimmed the new paperwork. The man from the RAND Corporation wasn’t kidding. A phrase jumped out at him: “Sanctions for violations of this confidentiality and nondisclosure agreement may include measures up to and including termination with extreme prejudice.” He pointed at it. “What’s this supposed to mean?”
Steve pointed at the typewritten sheet. “Oh. That.” His laugh held nothing like mirth. “Funny you should spot that. I asked John the same thing. It means that if you talk, they’ll kill you. And they’ll probably kill whoever you talk to, just to stay on the safe side.”
You’re joking. Jerry didn’t say it. Steve sounded, well, dead serious. Jerry did say, “What the hell have I got myself into?”
“You’ll find out, and be part of the team, as soon as you sign that,” Steve said. “You’d find out after we do what we do, of course—if it works. But you wouldn’t be involved in any way. And I think you’d regret that the rest of your life.”
“Fuck,” Jerry muttered. “I’ve come this far. . . .” He signed the agreement.
“Okay.” Steve handed him the cassette. “Now you can listen to this—with the headphones on. Always with the headphones on.”
Before sticking the tape into the player, Jerry read the label out loud: “ ‘Midlothian Pipe Band, Chicago concert, March 1966’?” He stared at Steve. “What the—”
“ ‘Midlothian’ is the code name for the operation inside Project Azorian, the sub-raising operation inside the seafloor-mining operation,” the older man said patiently. “And dates inside Midlothian are shifted back two years to avoid any congruence with the time period in which the K-129 was lost.”
“So it does still have something to do with the submarine,” Jerry said.
Steve didn’t answer. Shaking his head, Jerry fed in the tape, put on the headphones, and hit Play. He hadn’t thought he’d hear Scottish pipers skirling away, and he didn’t. He heard next to nothing, only a faint, rhythmic sound like a faraway washing-machine agitator, barely above the limit of what his ears could pick up. He knew what that was: the noise from a submarine’s prop in the distance. He’d run into it before, on recordings mostly involved with whale songs.
No whale songs here. The noise went on, pretty much unchanged, for five or six minutes. Then, without warning, it sounded as if someone were frying the world’s biggest pan of bacon right in his ears. After that, he heard what could only be the K-129 going down and collapsing in on itself as relentless water pressure crushed the boat’s hull. Silence followed.
Jerry yanked off the headphones. What else could you do when you’d just listened to dozens of men dying? “Jesus!” he said. “What happened?”
Instead of answering directly, Steve stopped the tape and removed it from the player. He went back to the safe with it. “We never leave it out, even inside this container,” he said, working the combination again. “Never. The same goes double for what I’m going to show you.” The door to the safe opened. In went the tape. Out came a full manila envelope of the kind that had traveled in Fred’s briefcase. Steve handed it to Jerry.
He opened the clasp. The first photograph inside was numbered 1. He went straight to the last. Sure as hell, the number in the upper right corner there was 78. Only then did he actually look at the pictures themselves. He went through them slowly. When he got done, he looked through them again.
At last, he said, “These can’t be what I think they are.”
“What do you think they are?” Steve’s voice was gentle, as if he were trying to calm a spooked horse. Jerry was spooked, all right.
“They look like . . .” He had to stop and try again: “They look like pictures of a, a spaceship on the bottom of the ocean.”
“That’s what they look like to everybody who’s seen them, which isn’t very many people,” Steve said, still in that gentle voice. “The camera trailing from the Halibut took them when it was searching for the K-129. This . . . thing is only about three hundred yards from the wreck of the Russian sub.”
“It looks like it’s all in one piece. Not a wreck itself, I mean,” Jerry said.
The older man nodded. “It does, doesn’t it?”
“Did it sink the K-129?”
“We don’t know for sure. We don’t know anything for sure. But that’s the assumption we’re making at this point in time.”
How many people at the Watergate hearings had said at this point in time when they meant now, said it over and over again till the ugly phrase escaped into the language at large? Normally, hearing it would have annoyed Jerry a lot. Now he noticed and then forgot it. He had bigger things to worry about. “How do you sink something from three miles down in the Pacific?” he asked. His mind’s ear replayed that horrible bacon-frying noise.
“That’s an excellent question, Mr., ah, Steinberg. If there are no other questions, class is dismissed,” Stephen Dole said. “Seriously, we have no idea. We’re going to try to raise the spaceship and find out, though. People who get paid to figure these things out have decided that this takes priority over the K-129. I think they’re right. Don’t you?”
“I . . . guess so,” Jerry said slowly. “But what if it doesn’t like that? What if it treats us the way it treated the Russian submarine?”
“In that case, among other things, our beneficiaries collect on our insurance policies. The effort was deemed more important than the risk.”
“Who decided that for me?” Jerry asked.
“This project has approval up to the very highest level. You can be sure of that,” Steve said.
“You mean the President?”
“The very highest level,” the man from RAND repeated.
Considering what Jerry thought of Richard Nixon, that didn’t seem recommendation enough. He asked, “How did you guys pick me, anyway?”
“You’re an expert on the ocean. You know several human languages. Your mind is loose enough to let you succeed at writing science fiction. Who’s likely to be better qualified to communicate with aliens, if there are aliens inside the object there?” Steve spread his hands. He made it sound natural, even inevitable.
It didn’t feel that way to Jerry. “My mind is blown, is what my mind is.” He didn’t smoke a lot of grass. He’d steered clear of acid and coke and uppers and downers. His mind was blown anyway. He added, “ ‘If there are aliens’? You don’t know? We don’t?”
“No. The . . . the weapon that sank the K-129 could have been automated. It could have been the last gasp of dying machinery. One other thing we don’t know is how long the object’s lain at the bottom of the Pacific.”
Jerry looked at some of the photos again. “Not much sediment on it. No more than is on the sub. Maybe even less.”
“If it can sink a submarine three miles above it in a way we don’t begin to understand, why can’t it keep itself clean?”
Jerry broke off. “You got me. We don’t know anything, do we?”
“Know anything? Jerry, we don’t even suspect anything. Except that it’s there,” Steve said. Jerry nodded. It was there, all right — and the world would never be the same.