Pressure by Brian Keene is this summer's hot new thriller from the bestselling author and World Horror Grandmaster Award winner (Available June 21, 2016).
Off the coast of tropical Mauritius, an ecological catastrophe with global implications is occurring. The ocean's floor is collapsing at a rapid rate. World-champion free diver and marine biologist Carrie Anderson joins a scientific expedition determined to discover the cause-and how to stop it. But what they uncover is even more horrific. Deep beneath the surface, something is awake. Something hungry. Something…cold. Now, the pressure builds as Carrie and her colleagues must contend with the murderous operatives of a corrupt corporation, an unnatural disaster that grows bigger by the day, and a monstrous predator that may spell the extinction of all mankind.
“… while we wait for Carrie Anderson and Peter Scofield to resurface from this unprecedented expedition. But even as the Mouth of Hell continues to open, and preparations for the possible evacuation of Mauritius proceed, there is now concern that the islands of Rodrigues and Réunion may need to be evacuated, as well. One researcher, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, said—”
“Hang on, Jessamine. We lost the connection.”
Jessamine Wheatley sighed in frustration. “Damn it, Hank.”
“It’s not my fault. Stand by.”
Frowning, Hank turned his attention to the equipment. He cursed beneath his breath. Jessamine crossed her arms in frustration. Their cameraman, Khem, tried defusing the tension by smiling at each of them in turn.
“Oh, knock it off,” Jessamine told him. “Just because your name means ‘one with peace and joy’ in Hindi doesn’t mean you have to live it every day.”
Khem’s smile slowly faltered. “I’m sorry.”
Jessamine handed him her microphone. He accepted it without comment.
“Somebody’s in a mood.” Julio, the fourth member of their team, stepped forward with his makeup kit. “Let’s do something with your hair while we wait. This tropical climate has made those red bangs go limp as spaghetti.”
He reached for her hair, but Jessamine pushed his hand away.
“My hair is fine. Do something useful for a change. Help Hank get our connection back.”
Julio clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth and gave Khem a knowing glance. The two of them turned their backs to her, whispering amongst themselves. Jessamine immediately felt guilty, and then felt guilty about feeling guilty.
My therapist could have a field day with this, she thought. She’d probably call it displaced aggression against the patriarchal news industry—because she says everything I do is that.
Jessamine decided she should try to make peace with them both, but before she could apologize to either man, another swell rocked the ship, lifting it up rapidly and then dropping it back down. Jessamine’s stomach roiled. Although she had reported from all around the world during the last five years, this was her first time doing so from a ship. They had been afloat off the southwestern coast of Mauritius for two weeks now, and her seasickness still hadn’t abated. She’d tried an assortment of supposedly surefire cures and aids—scopolamine patches, Dramamine, Bonine, ginger, crackers and bread, chewing gum, and even a wristband—but she still suffered from intermittent nausea, headaches, dry mouth, and balance issues.
Her mood was worsened by the fact that this news story was quickly shaping up to be horribly anticlimactic. It shouldn’t have been. After all, as a peer from the BBC had put it, the “bottom was falling out of the Indian Ocean.” That should have been newsworthy. It should have been one of the biggest stories ever.
Mauritius was renowned for its stunning beaches, as well as being home to some of the world’s rarest animal and plant species, but one of the island nation’s main draws had always been its underwater waterfall—an optical illusion created as ocean currents sent sand and silt plunging off the island’s coastal shelf to a much deeper second shelf off Mauritius’s southern tip. The shelf, as well as the phenomenon, were fairly recent in geological terms, having been created a few million years ago by a slow and gradual spreading of the sea floor. As the silt and other debris drifted downward into the dark depths, it looked remarkably like a waterfall beneath the ocean. The illusion was especially prominent from the air. Long a curiosity for scuba divers, tourists flocked to see it, and the phenomenon had been featured endlessly on various travel and science programs. Private guides did big business in helicopter tours of the area.
Now, for unknown reasons, the seafloor’s collapse had gone from gradual to rapid, and the once jewel-colored waters were murky due to the cascade of sand and debris created as the crevice expanded. Mauritius appeared to be the apex of the collapse, though how long the island would remain above the growing abyss—and not sink into it—was a matter of concern. As the trench, dubbed the “Mouth of Hell” by Jessamine’s colleagues in the press, expanded toward the neighboring islands of Réunion and Rodrigues, emergency plans were being drawn up to evacuate the entire population of Mauritius island if need be.
Like other recent natural disasters such as the 2004 Christmas tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the Tohoku earthquake, and its subsequent tsunami which had triggered the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, the collapse of the sea floor should have been a riveting news story. And at first, it had been. A plethora of ships congregated off the coast of Mauritius. The largest vessel was the R/V Aloysious Novak, named after a Virginian Senator who had been assassinated while on a humanitarian mission to Sumatra. The Novak was a well-equipped, Global Class research ship owned by Alpinus Biofutures, a biotech company that had financed the expedition team and was contracted by the United Nations to investigate the oceanographic and seismological crisis. Manned with scientists, researchers, and crew, it was accompanied by three support vessels (also owned by Alpinus Biofutures), another research ship from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (acting strictly as observers), and two United Nations peacekeeping ships, as well as several Mauritius naval vessels. The rest of the flotilla was composed of various international news teams, all of whom had descended upon the Mouth of Hell in competition for a scoop. One night, while Jessamine, Hank, Julio, and Khem had stayed awake drinking tequila on board their CBS-chartered yacht, Hank had equated their presence to a school of piranha. She had begrudgingly admitted the producer’s description was apt.
But as the days dragged on, the story drifted away, just like the sand swirling in the water beneath them. Despite the possible outcome, and the toll it might have on the populace and the environment, this was still primarily a science story—and science moved slowly. Much too slowly for the twenty-four-hour cable news cycle. The research was slow, the results slower, and the majority of their reports lacked any sound bites that would appeal to the laymen back home. Viewers wanted excitement and drama. They wanted riveting footage and breathless reporting. Instead, all they’d gotten were statistics and data and scientific reports.
There had been a host of other problems, as well. For some unknown reason, both the research expedition and the assembled press corps’ electronic equipment and gear were experiencing intermittent but pervasive glitches and malfunctions. Diving robots had shorted out or been lost in the crevasse. Communications coverage was spotty and problematic. Video cameras turned themselves off. Ship engines had stalled, and several vessels—while not colliding—had bumped into each other to the point that they had to motor to shore for hull repairs. Jessamine thought she’d find more drama if she covered college kids drunk boating at Cairns. Minor electrical snafus did not make for exciting news coverage, and as a result, viewers at home were tuning out, looking instead for the next celebrity meltdown or manufactured political crisis.
Sighing, Jessamine stared out at the water, waiting for her nausea to subside. She’d noticed that the seasickness was even worse back on the smaller, CBS-chartered yacht. But currently, like the rest of the press corps, they were assembled here on the Novak, covering Anderson and Scofield’s dive.
The sun had just sunk beneath the horizon, and the stars were beginning to come out overhead. She had to admit, no matter how despondent she was over their current assignment, there was something calming and peaceful about seeing stars and constellations that weren’t visible back home. Jessamine breathed deeply and tried her best to relax. A light breeze caressed her face.
Maybe things would pick up again once the evacuation began. Surely, an operation of that magnitude should provide some human drama. But then again, maybe not. As the only African country other than Ghana with full democracy, Mauritius’s National Assembly was generally well-loved by its people, with the government earning high marks of satisfaction from its populace time and time again.
The ship rose high, and the ocean disappeared momentarily. It seemed as if the deck was pointed at the sky. Then the vessel slammed back down again. Jessamine’s stomach mimicked the sudden movements. Fighting back her gorge, she turned away from the churning water and surveyed her peers. Reporters from three-dozen different international networks were lined up on the deck of the Novak, all jostling for position in the small press area that had been set aside for them. She noticed, with some satisfaction, that several of the others were also experiencing technical difficulties with their live broadcasts.
“Okay,” Hank said. “I think we’ve got … shit, nope. Lost it again. Hang on…”
“Maybe we’d have better luck back on our yacht,” Khem suggested.
“The story is here on the Novak,” Jessamine said. “I mean, let’s be honest. Right now, until the evacuation begins, Anderson and Scofield are the only story.”
Khem shrugged. “Yeah, but we’ve got booze on the yacht. Unless Hank drank it all again.”
Jessamine and Khem shared a smile at this, but Hank ignored them. His attention was focused on their equipment.
“What’s the problem, anyway?” Julio asked.
“We’re a major network,” Hank muttered. “And yet we’re working with gear that was new during the first Clinton administration. And move, Julio. You’re blocking my light.”
“GNN doesn’t seem to be having any trouble,” Jessamine said.
“That’s because GNN is owned by the Globe Corporation. They’ve got more money and better gear than we do.”
“Alpinus Biofutures isn’t exactly a small company either, Hank. Their electronic equipment seems to be just as glitch-prone as ours.”
“Well, maybe it’s all just a conspiracy against me, then. Now, let me focus, please. And Julio, I thought I asked you to quit blocking my light?”
Laughing, Jessamine and Khem moved a few feet away, while Julio stayed to tease Hank some more.
“You admire her, don’t you?” Khem asked. “Carrie Anderson?”
Jessamine paused, and then nodded. “Sure. I mean, how could I not? She’s certainly become a favorite figurehead for this expedition. People remember her from when she was a world-class free diver. Now she’s an oceanographer. She’s glamorous. Takes no shit. Able to deliver a sound bite. She’s got … story. People like story.”
“Well, let’s hope she brings back a story when she surfaces. Because right now, we don’t have much.”
“No,” Jessamine agreed, “we don’t. But once the evacuation begins, we’ll have plenty to cover.”
Khem arched an eyebrow. “You almost sound like you actually want it to begin.”
“No, it’s not that. But you have to admit, if it happens, it would be an unprecedented event. To evacuate an entire population? That’s huge, Khem. I just hope…”
She trailed off, distracted by a sudden commotion amongst the scientists. They were rushing over to a bank of computer monitors and huddling around them in what she first took for excitement. After a few more seconds of observation, she realized that what she’d mistaken for excitement was instead panic—and fear.
“Get that,” she told Khem, nodding at the researchers. While he shouldered his camera and focused, Jessamine hurried over to Hank. “We’ve got something.”
“Yeah,” he replied, not glancing up from his equipment. “We’ve all got something. Julio’s got a hard-on. He’s over there talking to that sound tech from NBC. I’ve got a migraine. And you’ve got a big case of boredom.”
“Over there, numb-nuts.” She pointed at the commotion. Crew members hustled about, their expressions grim and determined. More researchers had gathered around the monitors, and were shouting at each other in agitation. “Something’s happening. They’re all stirred up.”
“Shit.” Hank’s eyes went wide. “Khem, get—”
“He’s already on it,” Jessamine interrupted. “Let’s go.”
They hurried toward the excitement, as did the other news crews, each jostling for position and angle, trying to get as close as possible. Jessamine spotted Jennifer Wasco from competing network GNN, and her mood immediately soured. The two were not friends. They’d known each other since they’d both worked for WKNY, a local New York affiliate. Jessamine had gone from there to CBS, but since then her career had faltered. Jennifer, meanwhile, had risen from WKNY to a channel in Austin, and then to GNN. GNN had come onto the scene just a few short years ago, ostensibly presenting itself as a source for unbiased, non-partisan reporting—a counter to the punditry and commentary so prevalent on FOX, MSNBC, CNN, and others. What they didn’t admit publicly was that the news they reported and the stories they covered were all dictated by their shareholders. Despite that, they had dominated in the ratings for the last six quarters, something Jennifer loved to prod Jessamine with every chance she got.
“Jessamine!” Jennifer’s smile was as fake as her breast implants and nose job. “It’s nice to see you. I didn’t realize CBS had the money to keep you guys here this long. I assumed you’d already headed home.”
Jessamine struggled to keep her composure. “We do just fine, Jennifer.”
“Oh, Jess.” Her tone was patronizing. “I’m sure you do.”
Jessamine hated being called Jess. Worse, she knew that Jennifer knew this. She forced a smile of her own.
“It’s nice,” she said, “not taking editorial notes from a military-industrial shell company.”
Jennifer laughed. “You sound like those alternative news nuts on the Internet, Jess. Next you’ll be telling me about how 9/11 was an inside job, or how Black Lodge secretly controls the world.”
Jessamine was about to respond when Hank interrupted them both.
“CBS. GNN. We’re all on the corporate tip. So how about the two of you leave the alpha-kitty bullshit to someone else? There’s news happening. Let’s be professionals for a change.”
Jennifer gasped, clearly offended. Smiling, Jessamine took advantage of her distraction to push past her and get to the front of the throng. Khem and Hank hurried along behind her.
“Good job,” she muttered. “I hate that bitch.”
“Yeah, well, she’s beating us in the ratings, so go kick some ass.”
Nodding, Jessamine grabbed the microphone from Khem and turned her attention to the scientists. One of the expedition’s spokespeople, a scientist named Keith DeMatteis, approached the reporters. He was short and thin, in his late sixties, and constantly peering over the top of his thick-lensed glasses. He often seemed befuddled, but when responding to questions or giving a briefing, he was reliably and consistently acerbic and witty, which had made him a favorite amongst the press corps. Now, however, he seemed neither befuddled nor good-humored. His face had a pinched, nervous look.
He’s scared, Jessamine realized.
DeMatteis swayed on the balls of his feet as the ship rolled again. When the reporters began to all shout questions at him simultaneously, he held up his hands for quiet. When he spoke, it was without his usual charm or sarcasm.
“I’m going to give a short statement, and that’s all. I’m not—I repeat—not taking questions. When I’m done, I’m going to ask all of you to clear this area. We have an emergency situation. Approximately two minutes ago, Carrie Anderson and Peter Scofield reported some problems with their equipment.”
“Just like everything else on this tug,” Jessamine whispered.
“They’re currently about one hundred eighty meters below the surface. Their communications array has now shorted and the oxygen monitor is on the fritz. The … the seals on both of their oxygen tanks appear to be compromised. I would remind everyone that Carrie Anderson is one of the most experienced free divers in the world—”
“What about Peter Scofield?” Jennifer elbowed her way past Jessamine and Khem. “Can they make it to the surface from that depth without their equipment?”
Scowling, DeMatteis shot Jennifer a withering glance, and then pretended he hadn’t heard the question. Jessamine felt a sudden and overwhelming urge to go hug the old man.
“I would caution all of you that…”
DeMatteis broke off as the commotion increased behind him. Researchers began to shout, as their monitors went crazy. An alarm blared overhead, echoing throughout the ship. Then a second alarm began to wail in unison. Crew members rushed to the port side. Some members of the press began to follow them, but DeMatteis yelled at them to get back. Then, distracted by a colleague, he turned his attention away from the reporters. Jennifer and her crew charged ahead.
Jessamine glanced at Khem.
“I’m following you,” he said.
“Is your camera still working?”
He nodded. “For now, at least. Let’s make the most of that while we can.”
Jessamine pushed forward, weaving her way between other members of the press. Khem stayed right behind her, filming everything with his camera, which almost seemed to be an extension of him.
The alarms stopped blaring. For one brief moment, everything fell silent.
Jessamine and Khem made it once more to the front of the crowd just as the commotion began anew. There, lying on the deck in a pool of water, was Carrie Anderson. She was curled into the fetal position and appeared to be unconscious and unresponsive. Freed of her suit and gear, her exposed skin was covered with an ugly red rash, and judging by the discoloration on her thighs, she’d lost control of her bowels during her rapid ascent.
Several crew members crouched next to her in concern. Jessamine heard one of them mutter about “the bends.” Then a scientist shouted at the team to call for a helicopter and to get the hyperbaric chamber ready.
“Hopefully the hyperbaric chamber’s not malfunctioning like everything else,” Khem murmured.
Jessamine turned to him, realized that he had zoomed in on Carrie, and put her hand in front of the lens.
“No,” she said. “Give her some dignity. Let’s go over to the rail. We’ve got a story to report.”
“Is she okay?” Hank asked as the three of them retreated starboard. “What’s going on?”
“News,” Jessamine replied. “News is what’s going on. Do we have a connection yet?”
“Not yet. The damn uplink is still on the fritz.”
“Shit … okay. Let’s go ahead and tape anyway. We’ll send it later. And somebody track Julio down.”
“Speak of the devil and I shall appear,” Julio said, maneuvering between reporters and crew. “You look fine, by the way. I think we can get by with just a quick touch up.”
Jessamine waited patiently while Julio expertly attended to her hair and makeup. When he was finished, she nodded at Khem and Hank, indicating she was ready. The two of them both signaled their confirmation.
“Get the moon in the background,” Hank told Khem. “That will make for a nice shot.”
“I’ve got it. Kind of cloudy, though. I need better lighting.”
“You want to light the moon?”
As Jessamine approached the railing, Hank and Khem’s bickering faded into background noise. As a journalist, she’d trained herself to sort through information she was hearing, focusing on what was useful and disregarding the unimportant. She did that now, and heard several reporters inquiring about Peter Scofield’s status. None of the research team responded to their shouted demands.
Jessamine realized that her seasickness had finally subsided. The research vessel was no longer swaying.
“There we go,” Hank said. “Look at that, Khem. Perfect lighting. Somebody up there must like us.”
The clouds cooperated with the shot, sliding across the night sky, and the almost-full moon shone down upon a dark ocean that had suddenly gone completely still.
Peter Scofield never resurfaced.
Copyright © 2016 Brian Keene.
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Brian Keene is the author of over forty books. His novel, The Rising, is often credited (along with Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead comic and Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later film) with inspiring pop culture's current interest in zombies. Keene has also written for media properties such as Doctor Who, The X-Files, Hellboy, and Masters of the Universe. Several of Keene's works have been developed for film. He has won numerous awards and honors, including the World Horror Grand Master award, two Bram Stoker awards, and a recognition from Whiteman A.F.B. (home of the B-2 Stealth Bomber) for his outreach to U.S. troops serving both overseas and abroad. He lives in rural Pennsylvania.