August 8 50 degrees 0' Lat.; 132 degrees 0' W. Long. Downrange of Northeast Pacific Weather Station "Papa"
The horizon was a featureless gray line in every direction from the R/V Exeter as the ship cruised directly west, out of sight of any land. Except for drifting cloud formations, the view had not changed for ten days. Stretching nearly one-quarter of the way across the North Pacific, the 50th parallel of latitude was known as "Line P" on an alphabetically assigned sampling grid devised by researchers of JGOFS--the Joint Global Ocean Flux Study. Twice each year, survey ships returned to these same positions for up to five weeks at a time, sampling the ocean's temperature, salinity, microscopic fauna, and trace elements to evaluate their cycling and recycling in the sea. Through careful repetition, a model was being devised to determine what the ocean contained, how it continued to evolve, and what predictions could be made about its behavior. Those who believed, and appreciated, that the ship would soon turn back toward solid ground affectionately knew Station P24, the end of this line at 150 degrees West Longitude, as "Papa."
Standing just over six-foot-two, William Brock Garner had learned to duck his head slightly whenever passing through one of the Exeter's hatchways. He was muscular in an understated way, with toned limbs and a naturally athletic stride that suggested more than his infrequent participation in beach volleyball, pick-up basketball, or a Sunday morning jog. Garner's eyes were a sharp, crystalline gray, capable of flicking from compassionate to predatory with a single blink. His features were handsome and defined, smooth except for two minor but noticeable imperfections: a slight curve to the slope of his nose and a small scar that cut across his eyebrow in the shape of a lazy-S. Both were souvenirs from an abbreviated but respectable career in the U.S. Navy that saw him retire early at the rank of Lieutenant Commander.
Another place, another time. Same ocean.
Garner glanced at the depth meter as he moved from the main lab to the afterdeck: 3,520 meters/11,550 feet, roughly the average depth of the oceans worldwide. Having long ago passed over the continental shelf that bordered the North American continent like a submerged geological hoopskirt, the Exeter was now cruising at 13 knots two miles above the ocean floor, the closest point of solid earth. Anything tossed overboard would take more than ninety minutes to free-fall to the bottom.
A massive A-frame boom painted industrial yellow centered the stern of the Exeter, the ship's frothy wake stretched out behind it. Nearly as massive and colorful in his orange exposure suit was Sergei Zubov, the Exeter's chief science assistant. At the moment, Zubov's gaze shifted repeatedly between the winch and a gleaming, five-foot-diameter sphere that gently bobbed against its restraining cables fifteen feet above the deck. The result of Garner's painstaking design, the sphere was an automated plankton sampler. In the previous hundred years of formalized ocean study, there had probably been as many designs for "the definitive plankton sampler," and several had survived the test of time. Many found Garner's elegant but temperamental design unpalatable, if not utterly ridiculous; the rest regarded it as revolutionary. Zubov had subscribed to the latter group the first time Garner brought the gleaming beast aboard the Exeter. While that first impression had ebbed after countless adjustments, blown circuits, and frustrated profanity, Zubov now watched over Garner's invention like the tireless parent of a brilliant but habitually sick child.
The lower hemisphere of the device was cast from weighted titanium, nearly smooth despite its full array of infrared sensors and microfocus cameras designed to count and identify microorganisms in their natural habitat. The equator of the instrument contained openings to a cadre of specimen chambers that automatically captured parcels of water for later analysis. (That the arrangement of the chamber ports resembled a grinning mouth and eyes when viewed from the front wasn't just a functional decision by the device's inventor.) Finally, the top of the sphere renounced all symmetry, blossoming into an ungainly bouquet of instruments for recording temperature, pressure, light, and conductivity as the device was towed through the euphotic zone, the light-penetrated surface waters of the ocean.
Some said the instrument looked like Sputnik on a bad hair day, but Garner selected a more obvious nickname for his brainchild: the Medusa sphere. In the search for vindication, the Medusa supported its mythological moniker. The first several attempts to sample with the device had produced no useful results. After each failed attempt, Garner would bring the instrument back into its deck housing and meticulously check each of its connections to the computerized controls in the lab. Zubov then had to ensure that the instrument was precisely redeployed so it would fly properly as it was towed through the water.
When Medusa did work--had a good hair day--the sphere had to be paced through its sampling regimen under precise parameters over several miles, despite adverse sea conditions attempting to thwart this arrangement and its house-of-cards fragility. If all went right, Medusa could provide more data in a single tow than any two dozen alternatives. The samples were cleaner and more precise and could be processed more efficiently than with any other sampler ever built. But if one thing went wrong, the trial was lost and the entire sampling schedule could be delayed or canceled completely.
The learning curve of such attempts was especially annoying to the Exeter's crew, who were at sea for two hundred days a year and had hosted an unending series of neurotic, obsessive, and (usually) far-from-seaworthy scientists and their brittle equipment, whose racks of Pyrex glassware and schizophrenic electronics did little to earn the respect of those accustomed to gear grease and pig iron. If for no other reason, Garner and Zubov should have been natural adversaries, but Garner proved to be a very crewman-like scientist and Zubov was a very scientific crewman.
Following countless nights shared on a storm-swept deck, inventing new expletives about Medusa or complaining to the bottom of a bottle of liquor smuggled on board, the men had established an effective system of communication. More than that, Garner trusted implicitly Zubov's accuracy in deploying Medusa, so much so that Garner could concentrate on the processing of samples rather than their collection. With the majority of his NSF--National Science Foundation--and NOAA--National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration--research funds invested in a sphere of titanium and PVC flying through space some two hundred feet below them, peace of mind only vaguely covered the ease that Garner felt. For his part, Zubov knew that getting the samples was virtually all that could justify the expenditure of effort. Besides, as he often immodestly reminded Garner, ensuring that the right numbers got collected was his job.
"Fucking whore," Zubov cursed as Garner approached. "The damn sensor array keeps getting caught up." Zubov was two inches taller than Garner and outweighed him by a hundred pounds. With his coal black eyes and coils of shiny black hair flowing down into a thick, matted beard, Zubov reminded Garner of a younger, larger, but more tapered version of Luciano Pavarotti. Zubov had been born in the Ukraine, leaving the rest of his natural-born family there and defecting to America only months before his hometown near Chernobyl rose to global notoriety. Now a permanent U.S. citizen, Zubov retained little evidence of his homeland beyond name, appetite, and a stalwart dedication to duty. Occasionally, only when he was drunk and rarely for more than a few syllables, his accent would slip its Americanized clarity and provide an echo of an almost-forgotten former life. The subtle departure in character often surprised those who didn't know Zubov well; for friends like Garner, former lives were simply another reason to go to sea in the first place.
Excerpted from Sea Change by James Powlik. Copyright © 2000 by James Powlik. Excerpted by permission of Island Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.