Meg: Hell's Aquarium

MEG (Volume 4)

Steve Alten

Tor Books

1.

Monterey Peninsula Airport
Monterey, California

Saturday

The black Lexus JX sedan is double-parked outside Gate B, the vehicle’s driver, Jonas Taylor, eyeballing the airport cop who has sent him circling the airport four times already. The sixty-six-year-old paleobiologist glances at his twenty-four-year-old daughter, Danielle, curled up in the passenger seat next to him. The model-pretty blonde, who works part-time for a local NBC-TV affiliate as a news reporter and weekends emceeing shows at the Tanaka Institute, is staring at the digital clock on the dashboard, growing impatient. “Almost four thirty. If his plane doesn’t get here soon, I’ll miss the evening show.”

“His plane just landed. Relax.” Jonas taps the steering wheel to an old Neil Diamond tune on the radio. “Anyway, Olivia can always emcee the show in a pinch.”

“Olivia?” Dani looks at her father as if she just swallowed turpentine. “Dad, the Saturday night show is my gig. Period. Now would you please turn off that annoying song.”

“I like Neil Diamond.”

“Who?”

“Come on, I’m not that old.”

“Yeah, you are. Seriously, Dad, I will pay you to let me change the station.”

“Fine, only no gangster rap.”

“It’s ‘gangsta,’ and get with the times. Ghetto is in. It’s what we relate to.”

“My mistake. I forgot your mother and I raised you as a poor black child in a gang-infested neighborhood.”

The airport cop approaches the Lexus. Before he can signal Jonas to move the car, twenty-year-old David Taylor steps out of the baggage claim exit, an orange and blue University of Florida duffle bag slung over one broad shoulder. Jonas’s son is wearing a gray Gator’s Football tee-shirt, faded jeans, and sneakers. He is fit and tan, his brown hair long, speckled with golden highlights from being in the sun, his almond-brown eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses.

David tosses his duffle in the back seat of the Lexus and climbs in. “Sorry. Plane was an hour late.”

“No worries. We just got here. Right, Dani?”

“Wrong. You know dad, he had to leave an hour early.” She allows David to kiss her cheek. “You look good . . . Jesus, Dad, drive!”

Jonas pulls into traffic, following the signs leading to Highway 68 West.

“You look like you gained a few pounds. Lifting weights again?”

“Yes . . . and no, for the last time, I am not trying out for football.”

“Sure, I know. I just saw the shirt and thought—”

“It’s just a shirt.”

“—because the coach called our house twice last week. He lost two wide-outs to injuries in spring training. With your speed—”

“Dad, enough! My playing days ended in high school.”

“Okay, okay. I just remember my playing days at Penn State . . . those were the best of times.”

“Please, that was half a century ago.” Dani ruffles her father’s thick mane of snowy-white hair. “David, what do you think of Dad’s new look?”

David smiles. “It’s as white as Angel’s ass. It was still gray last time I saw you.”

“Comes from working too closely with monsters.”

“I thought you enjoyed working with Angel’s pups?”

Jonas smiles at his daughter. “I was talking about you.”

Dani smacks him playfully across his head. “I told him he should use that hair stuff that gets rid of the gray.”

“Don’t listen to her, Dad. It makes you look more intelligent. Sort of like Anderson Cooper, only a lot older.”

“Good. I can use all the help I can get. David . . . about this internship—”

“Dad, we talked about this.”

“There are other specialties in marine biology. We just completed the Manta Ray sale with the Naval Warfare Center, thanks, in part, to your piloting demo. The Navy knows you’re the best pilot we have, and the Vice Admiral mentioned they could use a good trainer.”

“You know I love piloting the subs. I just like working with the Megs more. There’s something about big predators—”

“You want big predators? San Diego needs a new trainer for their female orca. I could make a call—”

“Pass.”

“What’s wrong with orcas?”

“Nothing, if you enjoy teaching dog tricks to a whale. Angel’s pups have special needs.”

“Pups? Christ, you make them sound like a litter of cocker spaniels. The three runts are already larger than an adult great white, and the two sisters . . . you tell him, Dani.”

Dani nods, text messaging on her cell phone. “The sisters are evil. They’ll be as big and nasty as their mother.”

“Why do you call them ‘the sisters?’ Technically, all five are sisters.”

“When you see them every day like Dani and I do, you’ll understand. They may have shared the same womb, but the three runts look and act nothing like Bela and Lizzy.” Jonas exits Highway 68, heading south on Highway 1. “How’s Corrine?”

“We broke up.”

Dani looks up. “Seriously? I never liked her.”

“Wait,” Jonas jumps in, “what was wrong with Corrine?”

“She was getting too serious.”

“What’s wrong with serious? Is serious so bad?”

“How’s mom?”

“She’s good. And don’t change the subject.”

“Mom’s stressed out,” Dani says.

“Not PETA again?”

“Worse. A thug off-shoot. They call themselves R.A.W. Stands for Return Animals to the Wild. Dad had to hire a security outfit; they were puncturing the staff’s tires. I’m trying to convince my producer to let me do an exposé. These assholes don’t give a damn about the Megs. They’re just after the free publicity.”

David says nothing, preferring to gaze out his passenger window at the Pacific Ocean peeking through the rolling hillsides.

Jonas weighs the sudden silence. “Go ahead and say it, David. ‘The pen’s too small. The pups are getting too big.’ ”

David looks at his father. “What did the State Assembly say?”

“Same as they’ve always said. No more expansion, at least not along the coast. They offered us six hundred acres in Bakersfield.”

“Bakersfield? Why not Death Valley?”

“There may be another option. Mac and I have a meeting on Monday with Emaar Properties out of the United Arab Emirates. Rumor has it they’re constructing some kind of new state-of-the-art aquarium and hotel in Dubai.”

“I heard about that. The place is supposed to be incredible, ten times the size of the Georgia Aquarium. You think they want one of the pups?”

Jonas nods. “I’d bet the house on it.”

The Lexus heads south on Cabrillo Highway, exiting onto Sand Dunes Drive. David stares at the ocean, mesmerized by its crashing surf, marveling at the differences between Monterey’s rough Pacific and Florida’s calmer Atlantic. He has spent the last three summers interning at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce, completing field work in order to earn his bachelor’s degree in marine biology. Up ahead he sees the familiar concrete and steel bowl, the arena’s ocean-access canal running out to meet the deeper ocean waters like a submerged pier.

The Tanaka Institute and Lagoon: home to the most dangerous creatures in the planet’s history.

Built by David’s maternal grandfather, Masao Tanaka, more than thirty-five years ago, the lagoon had originally been designed to function as a field laboratory to study cetacean behavior. Each year, tens of thousands of whales migrated south from the Bering Sea along California’s coast, searching for shallow, protected harbors in which to birth their calves. The Tanaka Lagoon, essentially a man-made lake with an ocean-access canal, was thought to be the perfect birthing place for pregnant females who were struggling to make it down to Baja.

Masao had mortgaged his family’s future to build the facility, but when rising costs had depleted those funds, he had been forced to seek help from the Japanese Marine Science Technology Center. JAMSTEC was more interested in creating an early-warning, earthquake detection system off the Japanese coast, and Masao held the patents on UNIS—a new Unmanned Nautical Information Submersible. In exchange for funding his whale lagoon, Masao accepted a high-risk contract with JAMSTEC to deploy twenty-five UNIS robots seven miles below the Western Pacific along the seismically active sea floor of the Mariana Trench.

To complete the mission, Masao’s son, D.J., had to escort each UNIS to the bottom using an Abyss Glider, a one-man, deep-sea submersible resembling an acrylic torpedo with wings. It would take months to deploy the robots, but once the system was up and running the network worked like a charm. And then, one after another, the drones stopped transmitting data. JAMSTEC froze funding on the whale lagoon, insisting Masao fix the problem. To do that required retrieving one of the damaged UNIS robots—a two-submersible job—but Masao refused to allow his other pilot—his daughter, Terry—to make the dive with her younger brother. Instead, he turned to an old friend for help.

Before he became a paleobiologist, Jonas Taylor had been the best deep-sea submersible pilot ever to wear the Navy uniform . . . until his last dive in these very waters seven years earlier. Working in a three-man submersible below 33,000 feet, Jonas had suddenly panicked, launching the Navy’s vessel into a rapid emergency ascent. The duress of the maneuver had caused a malfunction in the cabin’s pressurization system and the two scientists on board died. Jonas, the only survivor, claimed he had performed the risky ascent after being confronted by “an enormous, ghost-white shark with a head bigger than the entire sub.”

The Navy diagnosed their prized argonaut with psychosis of the deep. His naval career over, his confidence shot, Jonas set out to prove to the world that he was not crazy, that the unexplored 1,550-mile-long gorge was indeed inhabited by Carcharodon megalodon—a sixty-foot, prehistoric version of a great white shark, an ancient predator long thought extinct.

Masao cared little about Jonas’s bizarre theories. What he needed was a second deep-sea pilot to accompany his son on a salvage operation. Forced to confront his fears, Jonas accepted the mission, but only because he was convinced he could recover an unfossilized white Megalodon tooth—proof that the creatures were still alive.

What he found was a nightmare that would haunt him the rest of his days.

Jonas Taylor was right: The deep waters of the Mariana Trench contained an array of undiscovered life forms comprising part of an ancient food chain dependent on chemicals originating from hydrothermal vents. These volcanic pumps created a tropical bottom layer capped off a mile above the sea floor by an insulating silty plume of debris. For tens of millions of years, this isolated habitat had been a haven for prehistoric sea life, its deadly pressures discouraging man from venturing into its forbidden depths.

After an hour’s descent in suffocating darkness, Jonas and D.J.’s one-man subs managed to penetrate the hydrothermal plume and were soon tracking down one of the damaged UNIS robots. The titanium shell had been crushed, but what Jonas had taken to be a white tooth was merely the severed arm of an albino starfish. Feeling the fool, he assisted D.J. in digging out the half-buried seismic device.

But the vibrations created by the sub’s robotic arms reverberated sound waves throughout the underwater canyon, attracting a forty-five-foot male Megalodon. D.J. was attacked and killed when his sub imploded, while the Meg became hopelessly entangled in the sub’s retrieval cable. As the surface ship unwittingly hauled the entrapped beast topside, an even larger Meg—a pregnant female—showed up and attacked its struggling mate, following its gushing trail of blood topside.

Because of Man’s intrusion into the abyss, history’s most dangerous predatory species had been released from its 100,000-year purgatory.

The Tanaka Institute was charged with the task of hunting down the female. Their goal: to quarantine the monster within the whale lagoon. Jonas was eventually forced to kill the Meg, but one of the female’s surviving pups was captured and raised in Masao’s cetacean facility.

COME SEE ANGEL: THE ANGEL OF DEATH
TWO SHOWS DAILY
ALWAYS YOUR MONEY’S WORTH!

Over the years, Angel had grown into a seventy-four-foot-long, seventy-thousand-pound monster, her presence attracting millions of visitors. Jonas and Terry were married. And then, one day, Angel broke through the giant steel doors of her canal and escaped, making her way across the Pacific to the Mariana Trench, returning to her species’ ancient habitat to mate.

Two decades later, the creature would find its way back home to California waters to birth a second litter of pups in the man-made lagoon.

Masao died tragically in the interim, but Angel’s return gave his institute a new lease on life. With help from the state of California, the Tanaka Lagoon once again became the most popular tourist attraction in the world.

But success is fleeting, bringing its own innate set of problems. Running an aquarium as large as “Angel’s Lair” required an extensive staff: marine biologists and animal husbandry specialists to care for the Meg as well as her new pups; an environmental team charged with maintaining the lagoon and the new Meg Pen; and administrators and public relations staff, security and food handlers. Working with a fully mature, fifty-one-ton Megalodon and her five offspring created its own unique challenges, where any mistake could be a fatal one.

Excerpted from MEG Hell’s Aquarium by .
Copyright © 2009 by Steve Alten.
Published in May 2010 by Tom Doherty Associates, NEW YORK.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.