WEST OF TONGA
For a long time the horizon had been a monotonous flat blue line separating the Pacific Ocean from the sky. The Navy helicopter raced forward, flying low, near the waves. Despite the noise and the thumping vibration of the blades, Norman Johnson fell asleep. He was tired; he had been traveling on various military aircraft for more than fourteen hours. It was not the kind of thing a fifty-three-year-old professor of psychology was used to.
He had no idea how long he slept. When he awoke, he saw that the horizon was still flat; there were white semicircles of coral atolls ahead. He said over the intercom, “What’s this?”
“Islands of Ninihina and Tafahi,” the pilot said. “Technically part of Tonga, but they’re uninhabited. Good sleep?”
“Not bad.” Norman looked at the islands as they flashed by: a curve of white sand, a few palm trees, then gone. The flat ocean again.
“Where’d they bring you in from?” the pilot asked.
“San Diego,” Norman said. “I left yesterday.”
“So you came Honolulu-Guam-Pago-here?”
“Long trip,” the pilot said. “What kind of work you do, sir?”
“I’m a psychologist,” Norman said.
“A shrink, huh?” The pilot grinned. “Why not? They’ve called in just about everything else.”
“How do you mean?”
“We’ve been ferrying people out of Guam for the last two days. Physicists, biologists, mathematicians, you name it. Everybody being flown to the middle of nowhere in the Pacific Ocean.”
[] “What’s going on?” Norman said.
The pilot glanced at him, eyes unreadable behind dark aviator sunglasses. “They’re not telling us anything, sir. What about you? What’d they tell you?”
“They told me,” Norman said, “that there was an airplane crash.”
“Uh-huh,” the pilot said. “You get called on crashes?”
“I have been, yes.”
For a decade, Norman Johnson had been on the list of FAA crash-site teams, experts called on short notice to investigate civilian air disasters. The first time had been at the United Airlines crash in San Diego in 1976; then he had been called to Chicago in ‘78, and Dallas in ‘82. Each time the pattern was the same—the hurried telephone call, frantic packing, the absence for a week or more. This time his wife, Ellen, had been annoyed because he was called away on July 1, which meant he would miss their July 4 beach barbecue. Then, too, Tim was coming back from his sophomore year at Chicago, on his way to a summer job in the Cascades. And Amy, now sixteen, was just back from Andover, and Amy and Ellen didn’t get along very well if Norman wasn’t there to mediate. The Volvo was making noises again. And it was possible Norman might miss his mother’s birthday the following week. “What crash is it?” Ellen had said. “I haven’t heard about any crash.” She turned on the radio while he packed. There was no news on the radio of an airline crash.
When the car pulled up in front of his house, Norman had been surprised to see it was a Navy pool sedan, with a uniformed Navy driver.
“They never sent a Navy car the other times,” Ellen said, following him down the stairs to the front door. “Is this a military crash?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“When will you be back?”
He kissed her. “I’ll call you,” he said. “Promise.”
But he hadn’t called. Everyone had been polite and pleasant, but they had kept him away from telephones. First at Hickam Field in Honolulu, then at the Naval Air Station in Guam, where he had arrived at two in the morning, and had [] spent half an hour in a room that smelled of aviation gasoline, staring dumbly at an issue of the American Journal of Psychology which he had brought with him, before flying on. He arrived at Pago Pago just as dawn was breaking. Norman was hurried onto the big Sea Knight helicopter, which immediately lifted off the cold tarmac and headed west, over palm trees and rusty corrugated rooftops, into the Pacific.
He had been on this helicopter for two hours, sleeping part of the time. Ellen, and Tim and Amy and his mother’s birthday, now seemed very far away.
“Where exactly are we?”
“Between Samoa and Fiji in the South Pacific,” the pilot said.
“Can you show me on the chart?”
“I’m not supposed to do that, sir. Anyway, it wouldn’t show much. Right now you’re two hundred miles from anywhere, sir.”
Norman stared at the flat horizon, still blue and featureless. I can believe it, he thought. He yawned. “Don’t you get bored looking at that?”
“To tell you the truth, no, sir,” the pilot said. “I’m real happy to see it flat like this. At least we’ve got good weather. And it won’t hold. There’s a cyclone forming up in the Admiralties, should swing down this way in a few days.”
“What happens then?”
“Everybody clears the hell out. Weather can be tough in this part of the world, sir. I’m from Florida and I saw some hurricanes when I was a kid, but you’ve never seen anything like a Pacific cyclone, sir.”
Norman nodded. “How much longer until we get there?”
“Any minute now, sir.”
After two hours of monotony, the cluster of ships appeared unusually interesting. There were more than a dozen vessels of various kinds, formed roughly into concentric circles. On the outer perimeter, he counted eight gray Navy destroyers. Closer to the center were large ships that had wide-spaced double hulls and looked like floating [] dry-docks; then nondescript boxy ships with flat helicopter decks; and in the center, amid all the gray, two white ships, each with a flat pad and a bull’s-eye.
The pilot listed them off: “You got your destroyers on the outside, for protection; RVS’s further in, that’s Remote Vehicle Support, for the robots; then MSS, Mission Support and Supply; and OSRV’s in the center.”
“Oceanographic Survey and Research Vessels.” The pilot pointed to the white ships. “John Hawes to port, and William Arthur to starboard. We’ll put down on the Hawes.” The pilot circled the formation of ships. Norman could see launches running back and forth between the ships, leaving small white wakes against the deep blue of the water.
“All this for an airplane crash?” Norman said.
“Hey,” the pilot grinned. “I never mentioned a crash. Check your seat belt if you would, sir. We’re about to land.”
The red bull’s-eye grew larger, and slid beneath them as the helicopter touched down. Norman fumbled with his seat belt buckle as a uniformed Navy man ran up and opened the door.
“Dr. Johnson? Norman Johnson?”
“Have any baggage, sir?”
“Just this.” Norman reached back, pulled out his day case. The officer took it.
“Any scientific instruments, anything like that?”
“No. That’s it.”
“This way, sir. Keep your head down, follow me, and don’t go aft, sir.”
[] Norman stepped out, ducking beneath the blades. He followed the officer off the helipad and down a narrow stairs. The metal handrail was hot to the touch. Behind him, the helicopter lifted off, the pilot giving him a final wave. Once the helicopter had gone, the Pacific air felt still and brutally hot.
“Good trip, sir?”
“Need to go, sir?”
“I’ve just arrived,” Norman said.
“No, I mean: do you need to use the head, sir.”
“No,” Norman said.
“Good. Don’t use the heads, they’re all backed up.”
“Plumbing’s been screwed up since last night. We’re working on the problem and hope to have it solved soon.” He peered at Norman. “We have a lot of women on board at the moment, sir.”
“I see,” Norman said.
“There’s a chemical john if you need it, sir.”
“I’m okay, thanks.”
“In that case, Captain Barnes wants to see you at once, sir.”
“I’d like to call my family.”
“You can mention that to Captain Barnes, sir.”
They ducked through a door, moving out of the hot sun into a fluorescent-lit hallway. It was much cooler. “Air conditioning hasn’t gone out lately,” the officer said. “At least that’s something.”
“Does the air conditioning go out often?”
“Only when it’s hot.”
Through another door, and into a large workroom: metal walls, racks of tools, acetylene torches spraying sparks as workmen hunched over metal pontoons and pieces of intricate machinery, cables snaking over the floor. “We do ROV repairs here,” the officer said, shouting over the din. “Most of the heavy work is done on the tenders. We just do some of the electronics here. We go this way, sir.”
Through another door, down another corridor, and into a wide, low-ceilinged room crammed with video monitors. A [] half-dozen technicians sat in shadowy half-darkness before the color screens. Norman paused to look.
“This is where we monitor the ROV’s,” the officer said. “We’ve got three or four robots down on the bottom at any given time. Plus the MSB’s and the FD’s, of course.”
Norman heard the crackle and hiss of radio communications, soft fragments of words he couldn’t make out. On one screen he saw a diver walking on the bottom. The diver was standing in harsh artificial light, wearing a kind of suit Norman had never seen, heavy blue cloth and a brightyellow helmet sculpted in an odd shape.
Norman pointed to the screen. “How deep is he?”
“I don’t know. Thousand, twelve hundred feet, something like that.”
“And what have they found?”
“So far, just the big titanium fin.” The officer glanced around. “It doesn’t read on any monitors now. Bill, can you show Dr. Johnson here the fin?”
“Sorry, sir,” the technician said. “Present MainComOps is working north of there, in quadrant seven.”
“Ah. Quad seven’s almost half a mile away from the fin,” the officer said to Norman. “Too bad: it’s a hell of a thing to see. But you’ll see it later, I’m sure. This way to Captain Barnes.”
They walked for a moment down the corridor; then the officer said, “Do you know the Captain, sir?”
“Just wondered. He’s been very eager to see you. Calling up the com techs every hour, to find out when you’re arriving.”
“No,” Norman said, “I’ve never met him.”
“Very nice man.”
“I’ m sure.”
The officer glanced over his shoulder. “You know, they have a saying about the Captain,” he said.
“Oh? What’s that?”
“They say his bite is worse than his bark.”
* * *
[] Through another door, which was marked “Project Commander” and had beneath that a sliding plate that said “Capt. Harold C. Barnes, USN.” The officer stepped aside, and Norman entered a paneled stateroom. A burly man in shirtsleeves stood up from behind a stack of files.
Captain Barnes was one of those trim military men who made Norman feel fat and inadequate. In his middle forties, Hal Barnes had erect military bearing, an alert expression, short hair, a flat gut, and a politician’s firm handshake.
“Welcome aboard the Hawes, Dr. Johnson. How’re you feeling?”
“Tired,” Norman said.
“I’m sure, I’m sure. You came from San Diego?”
“So it’s fifteen hours, give or take. Like to have a rest?”
“I’d like to know what’s going on,” Norman said.
“Perfectly understandable.” Barnes nodded. “What’d they tell you?”
“The men who picked you up in San Diego, the men who flew you out here, the men in Guam. Whatever.”
“They didn’t tell me anything.”