Vostok: New Excerpt

Vostok by Steve Alten is the sequel to The Loch and the prequel to MEG: Nightstalkers in this crossover novel uniting two of Alten's most popular series (Out now!)

East Antarctica: The coldest, most desolate location on Earth. Two-and-a-half miles below the ice cap is Vostok, a six thousand square mile liquid lake, over a thousand feet deep, left untouched for more than fifteen million years. Now, marine biologist Zachary Wallace and two other scientists aboard a submersible tethered to a laser will journey 13,000 feet beneath the ice into this unexplored realm to discover Mesozoic life forms long believed extinct—and an object of immense power responsible for the evolution of modern man.

1

Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.
—LEWIS CARROLL

Drumnadrochit, Scottish Highlands, Scotland

The village of Drumnadrochit lies on the west bank of Loch Ness, a sleepy Highland hamlet of nine hundred nestled between Urquhart Bay, the Caledonian Forest, and two thousand years of history. I was born in Drumnadrochit. In fact, I died here and was resurrected—twice. I suppose that last rebirth was more of a metaphor, but when your existence is haunted by demons and you exorcize them by staring death in the face, that’s what we Templars call a resurrection.

More about that later.

Drumnadrochit achieved its modern-day fame by proclaiming itself the Loch Ness Monster capital of the world. Two hokey museums, a few smiling plesiosaur statues, hourly tours by boat, and enough souvenir shops to shake a stick at was all it took—that and Castle Urquhart.

No doubt you’ve seen photos of Urquhart, its ruins perched high on a rocky promontory like a medieval memory, the loch’s tea-colored swells roiling against its steep cliff face, the surrounding mountains drifting in and out of fog. Perhaps the photographer caught an unexpected wake or a mysterious ripple, or better still something that resembled humps violating the surface. Such are the sightings that once enticed a quarter of a million tourists to Drumnadrochit each spring and summer, everyone hoping to catch a glimpse of the legendary monster.

My name is Zachary Wallace, and I’m the marine biologist who resolved the legend. Using science, I brought light to seventy years of darkness, separating a contrived myth from the presence of a very real, very large amphibious fish that had become a serious threat to locals and tourists alike. In the end, I not only identified the predator, I baited it, stared into its eyes, and vanquished the miserable beast from its man-imposed purgatory.

In doing so, I turned a thriving cottage industry into a bunch of vacant bed-and-breakfasts, rendered two local museums obsolete, and brought ruin to a brand-new family-owned five-star resort. If you’re curious, the whole story is there in my tell-all biographical thriller, aptly titled The Loch.

This is the story of what followed, a tale I had intended to leave by audio diary to my wife, Brandy, and our young son, William. As usual, it began when I was manipulated into accepting a mission by the most diabolical creature ever known to inhabit the Great Glen—my father.

In his youth, Angus Wallace was a brute of a man who possessed the piercing blue eyes of the Gael, the wile of a Scot, the temperament of a Viking, and the drinking habits of the Irish. Now in his seventies, he’s less temperamental but just as wily, and abuses Viagra and women along with his whiskey.

In his younger days, it was yours truly that he abused, mentally, not physically.

Angus met my mother, the former Andrea McKnown, when she was on holiday. It didn’t take long for the older, dark-haired rogue to sweep the naive American beauty off her feet. I was born a year later, heir to the Wallace heritage. I was small compared to my big-boned Highlander peers, leaving my father to right his namesake’s “bad genes” the only way he knew how—by intimidating the runt out of me.

I won’t bore you with the details, other than to mention one pivotal event that transpired on my ninth birthday. Angus had promised to take me fishing on Loch Ness so I could try out an acoustic fishing lure, my new invention. Those plans changed, however, when I caught my inebriated sperm donor naked in a tent with a local waitress.

Allowing a childhood’s worth of anger to get the better of me, I returned to the loch and launched the boat myself. As fog and night rolled in, my reverberating acoustic device attracted a school of fish and with it a very real creature that rarely left its bottom dwelling. Without warning, my boat flipped over, and I found myself treading in forty-two-degree water. Then something closed around my lower body and dragged me with it into the depths.

Terrifying darkness surrounded me; the growling gurgles of the creature accompanied me into the abyss, my lower body held within its jaws. I saw a flash of white light, which caused the demon to release me, and then those tea-colored waters quenched the fire in my aching lungs … and I drowned.

When next I opened my eyes it was to hellish pain, a veterinarian’s needle, and the frightening face of my rescuer and best friend’s father, Alban MacDonald. At the time Alban served as water bailiff, and it was lucky for me that the man I disrespectfully called “the Crabbit” had happened upon the scene to rescue my sorry, pulseless arse.

When my mother learned what had happened (the Crabbit and the vet claimed I had become entangled in barbed wire and thus the bloody markings), she saw to my recovery, divorced my no-good father, and moved us to the good ole U.S. of A.

America: land of the free, home of the brave—only I was neither free nor brave. In an attempt to escape the mental abuse associated with my drowning, my traumatized brain had compartmentalized and isolated the incident. Buried in denial, the unfiltered memory remained dormant, waiting for just the right moment to return.

That moment occurred fourteen years later.

By the age of twenty-five, I had earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Princeton and a doctorate from Scripps, and my research into deep-sea acoustic lures had been featured in several prominent journals. As a budding “Jacques Cousteau,” I had been asked to lead a National Geographic-sponsored expedition to the Sargasso Sea, in search of the elusive giant squid. To attract the legendary colossus, our three-man submersible was armed with a lure I had designed, that emulated the sounds and vibrations of salmon.

We descended into the blackness of the depths and waited, our patience rewarded with what would be the first visual documentation of Architeuthis dux—the giant squid. Unfortunately, the lure summoned not only a hungry squid but a swarm of unexpected and unknown predatory fish. The squid panicked and tore loose our ballast tank, sending us spiraling into oblivion. The acrylic cockpit cracked and threatened to implode as we waited desperately for a drone to secure a towline. The underwater robot finally reached us in four thousand feet of water.

It seemed we had been spared a horrible death, but as the surface ship drew us out of the depths, the crack in the bubble cockpit continued to spiderweb until the sea burst in on us—233 feet below the surface. The sea rushed in and killed the pilot. Dragging the cameraman from the sinking sub, I kicked for the surface … and drowned again.

This time when I came to, I was in a hospital bed. My colleague, David Caldwell, conveniently blamed me for the pilot’s death and for the loss of the submersible. Fired from my teaching position at Florida Atlantic University, I left the hospital intent on finding a new job.

My brain had other plans.

Unbeknownst to me, this second near-death experience had released long-dormant childhood memories from the first. Sleep became my enemy, as I constantly woke up screaming from night terrors. Worse, I found myself deathly afraid of the water, the anxiety threatening my future as a marine biologist.

In the span of a few months, I had lost everything—my job, my career, my fiancée, and my quickly fading sanity.

I began drinking heavily. Being inebriated kept me from entering the deepest stages of sleep where the night terrors lay in wait. Days were devoted to recovering from hangovers, nights reserved for binging on expensive booze and cheap women, both of which I found in abundance in South Beach, my new haunt.

That’s where Maxie Rael found me. My half-brother, whom I never knew existed, had come to bring me back to Scotland.

The aforementioned five-star resort, known today as Nessie’s Retreat, had been Angus Wallace’s idea, and my father rarely met an idea (or a woman, for that matter) that he didn’t fall in love with. The Wallace clan had left him title to a prime stretch of waterside real estate just south of Urquhart Bay, and once the zoning laws had been manipulated in his favor, Angus wasted no time in leasing the land to Mr. John Cialino of Cialino Ventures. As partners, my father and the well-connected “Johnny C.” intended on bringing luxury accommodations to the Scottish Highlands.

Then one fateful afternoon during the construction phase, my father and John engaged in a heated argument on Urquhart Bluff, and before you could say, “Yer bum’s oot the windae!” Angus struck his younger partner with a right cross, sending Johnny’s arse (and the rest of him) into Loch Ness, “ne’er tae be seen alive again.”

While I was struggling to survive my own post-traumatic symptoms in Miami Beach, Angus was locked away in a Highland prison cell awaiting his murder trial. He had sent Maxie to bring me to Scotland so that my estranged father would have both of his sons by his side in his fight to stave off the gallows and prove his innocence.

Seventeen years away from the old man, and I fell for his lies hook, line, and sinker.

It was all part of a well-orchestrated plan intended to save my father’s neck, jumpstart his new venture, and force me to face the demons of my past—all by placing my head in his noose.

That noose unexpectedly tightened when the creature’s temperament suddenly changed.

*   *   *

Two years have passed. With my demons exorcized, I felt free to marry my childhood sweetheart, Brandy MacDonald, a dark-haired beauty with sultry blue eyes and a body that could have landed her in any swimsuit catalog on the planet. Our son, William Wallace, named after our legendary ancestor, was born fifteen months ago. Last summer Nessie’s Retreat, bankrolled by Angus’s lover Theresa (Johnny C.’s widow), opened to great fanfare.

Ten months later the resort and Drumnadrochit were both on the verge of bankruptcy.

Don’t get me wrong, the hotel is first-class. Every one of its 336 rooms features a balcony view of Loch Ness, and each of its third-floor luxury suites is equipped with a fireplace, sauna, and Jacuzzi.

The problem: no monster.

Loch Ness, without its legendary creature, was just a peat-infested twenty-three-mile-long deepwater trough filled with water far too cold in which to swim. It wasn’t just Angus’s hotel that was hurting. Without Nessie, all of the Highland villages had become destitute, the vacation equivalent of Orlando without Disney World and its other local theme parks. Of course, Orlando is a modern city located in sunny Florida. The Scottish Highlands are an isolated cold-weather region with seasons more akin to Alaska’s. Centuries ago, our Highland ancestors worked the land to feed and clothe themselves; these days the villagers were committed to tourism. It was the feast of summer that got them through the famine of a long winter, and the sudden downturn to the Highlanders’ livelihood threatened an economic and cultural collapse.

Concerned over the state of its villages and the economic toll they were taking on the capital city of Inverness, the Highland Council had been holding monthly brainstorming sessions to figure out how to bolster tourism for the coming season. My father attended these meetings with Brandy’s father, Alban, and her big brother, Finlay “True” MacDonald, my boyhood friend. The imposing Highlander with the auburn ponytail and Viking aura served as master of arms. Although the meetings were open to the public, True’s Do Not Allow to Enter list had one name on it—mine.

In the span of two years, I had gone from local hero to persona non grata. With tourism down, hundreds of villagers faced the prospect of being unable to feed their families without government subsidies, and I soon felt their wrath. Why couldn’t Wallace have subdued the creature without vanquishing it in the public eye? Had he no respect for the legend?

As they say, no good deed goes unpunished.

By December, I had become a hated man and was forced to move my wife and son from our once-rent-free cottage into the near-vacant resort. I no longer visited Sniddles or Drumnadrochit’s other watering holes, preferring the hermit-like quiet of Nessie’s Lair, the resort’s closed restaurant and pub.

To be honest, I never wanted to return to Drumnadrochit in the first place, let alone live here. I was a U.S. citizen, and the American lifestyle was what I coveted. Moreover, I was a marine biologist and an inventor, and most of the serious job offers were coming from the States. But Angus had given me twenty-five percent ownership of the resort and had asked me to be around as a celebrity in our inaugural tourist season, plus my old man was bonding with our newborn. So we stayed.

Then the disaster of summer struck, and my father-in-law Alban was diagnosed with ALS. Suddenly relocating was put on the backburner. By Christmas I felt like a caged tiger.

To make matters worse, Brandy and I argued on a daily basis, most of our spats having to do with money. For nearly a year, I had earned a good living traveling the world, signing books at sold-out appearances where I’d tell enraptured audiences how I had battled a sixty-foot barbed-toothed species the Navy had nicknamed the bloop and our Highland ancestors had called guivres. But fame is fleeting, and my fifteen minutes in the limelight faded quickly, thanks to a myriad of YouTube videos overexposing my tale.

Having gone through most of our savings, we soon found ourselves financially underwater, like the rest of the Highlanders. Unlike the villagers, however, I had options—lucrative teaching and research offers from private facilities and major universities. But my loving wife made it quite clear that until her father passed she would not leave Drumnadrochit.

Brandy MacDonald-Wallace was the yang to my yin, a fiery-tempered Scot who believed in God and faith and that her husband suffered from an addiction to logic. I believed in cause and effect, science and the laws of physics, and that petitioning the Lord with prayer every Sunday was the equivalent of tossing quarters in a wishing well. We had been childhood pals but she was clearly the alpha dog, the one person who could get me to climb a tree to its canopy, jump in a half-frozen pond as part of an initiation into her “club,” or pursue my dreams as a marine biologist. I was Brandy’s emotional ballast, the person she sought when things went bad, like when her father was feeling ogreish—a common occurrence after her mother died. Had we remained together during our adolescent years we’d have married ten years sooner, but my mother had moved me to the States long before our hormones took over, and that was probably a good thing.

While my early years of puberty were chastised by long hours devoted to study and a physical regimen designed to give me a fighting chance on the football field, Brandy’s teen years were spent rudderless and rebellious. Pregnant at sixteen, she found herself abandoned by both her boyfriend and her overbearing father, whose response to his daughter’s loss of innocence was to cast her adrift. Brandy moved into a women’s shelter, miscarried in her fourth month, and spent her remaining years of adolescence in a boarding house run by nuns. Ten years would pass before she spoke to her father again.

When she was nineteen, Brandy met an American stockbroker and accepted his marriage proposal as a passport out of the Highlands. Seven months after the couple had moved to California, Brandy was riding her ten-speed bike on a mountain highway when she was struck from behind by a car. Her injuries were severe and she spent several weeks in intensive care—during which time her husband had an affair. A year later she returned to the Highlands divorced and lonely, with just enough money to purchase a second-hand passenger houseboat from which she eked out a living giving tours of Loch Ness during the warmer months.

Her life changed when she worked winters as a volunteer at the hospital in Inverness.

“Negative energy, Zach. I brought about my own darkness as a wayward teen and attracted negative people to my aura. T’was God’s will that sent me to the hospital on the brink of death, but really I was dyin’ spiritually in a bad marriage, having cast myself from His Light. Volunteering at the hospital in Inverness changed my energy and summoned ye to Drumnadrochit to marry me. It takes a selfless act tae bring one back into God’s heavenly Light.”

Brandy had already gotten into two fistfights with locals who had the bollocks to criticize her husband and his work. Yet as the days of winter grew shorter and the villagers’ desperate hours grew longer, she began to sound more and more like my father.

“Been o’er to the neebs, Zach. There’s bairns bein’ put tae bed hungry. Instead o’ grabbin’ yer daily nips and starin’ at the loch every day, why dinnae ye use that big ol’ brain o’ yers and figure oot a way tae lure another monster into the Ness.”

“We’ve been over this, Brandy. The creature only grew big because she was trapped in Loch Ness and couldn’t return to the Sargasso Sea to spawn. It was a freak situation, one in a million. There’s none like her out there anymore. And even if there was, the tourists flocked to Loch Ness to see a plesiosaur, not a predatory fish that went insane due to hydrocarbon poisoning.”

“Zach, don’t git yer panties in a ball. Ye dinnae have tae lure a real monster; ye could jist claim tae find clues. A few white lies and ye could jumpstart tourism again. Ye could save Drumnadrochit and the other hamlets. Ye’d be a real hero tae yer people.”

“Brandy, I’m a scientist, a respected marine biologist, not a cryptozoologist or some headline seeker feeding fake monster stories to the weekly tabloids. Do you want me to destroy everything that I worked for?”

“There’s wee uns goin’ hungry, Zach. What if it were yer son … yer kin? They’re starving because o’ ye bein’ such a great and respected marine biologist.”

“You’re blaming me? Brandy, the damn thing killed three people!”

“Aye. And far more will go hungry this winter because of yer bravery and brains. But ye can still make things right again.”

“You’ve been talking to Angus.”

“Aye, and he has a plan. But he needs yer help. All ye have tae do is authenticate a monster kill, and the press will do the rest.”

Months of pent-up frustration set my blood to boil. “I won’t do it, Brandy. I can’t do it. It goes against everything I’ve dedicated my life to. My father, on the other hand, has no morals. He’d gamble his own sons’ souls in a poker game with the devil if it meant filling his resort to capacity.”

“And tae whit devil have ye sold yer soul, Zachary Wallace? The one who feeds yer own massive ego?”

That conversation took place in late January. Best friends and lovers, we allowed our desire to be right to overrule our marital vows. Days passed in silence. With each passing week our love grew colder, and the noose of debt around my neck grew tighter, making me resent her even more. My thoughts turning to the previously unthinkable, that maybe Brandy and I were not meant to be together after all.

Without discussing it with my wife, I began contacting private companies and major universities, letting them know I was now fielding offers. By March I had narrowed my choices down to a faculty position at Cambridge University, a research position at Scripps Institute, and an interesting offer from Masao Tanaka at the Tanaka Oceanographic Institute.

Tanaka and I shared a common love for cetaceans. One of the most respected marine biologists in the world, he had constructed a man-made whale lagoon some twenty years ago on the coast of Monterey, California. The idea had been to offer pregnant gray whales migrating south from the Bering Sea a shallow harbor to birth their calves before reaching Baja. Instead, the facility had been sealed off to hold a newborn megalodon pup captured off the coast. Believed to be extinct, megalodon was a sixty-foot prehistoric cousin of the great white. The shark’s pregnant parent had escaped the deep waters of the Mariana Trench after Jonas Taylor, a deep-sea submersible pilot, had dived the abyss with Masao’s son to retrieve an earthquake sensor. The pregnant female had given birth to the pup before being captured and eventually killed (in self-defense) by Jonas. The offspring, an albino named Angel, had grown to monstrous proportions, and for the next four years, the Tanaka Institute had been the most popular tourist destination in the world—until the creature broke free and returned to the trench. That was fifteen years ago, but the megalodon’s scent trail persisted, keeping whales out of the vacated pen. Masao Tanaka was offering me three hundred dollars a week, with free room and board, plus a twenty-thousand-dollar bonus if I could figure out a way to lure whales into his empty lagoon.

Cambridge University’s salary offer wasn’t much higher, but it was guaranteed. And its proximity to the Great Glen would allow me to visit my family on weekends.

But it was the work at Scripps that enticed me the most. I would be set up in my own lab with a staff of my choosing. In addition to a decent salary and benefits package, I would receive thirty percent of any profits generated by my inventions, sharing the patents.

Scripps it was. I would accept their offer and then reach out to Brandy to join me. I would apologize and tell her how much I wanted her in my life, but I would refuse to remain a victim of my circumstances or languish in a loveless marriage. If my happiness and self-worth resided outside the Great Glen, then I needed to follow that road and see where it took me—even if it meant leaving my family.

Then one dreary afternoon in March, I received another offer—one that would change my life and the future of the Highlands forever.

 

Copyright © 2016 Steve Alten.

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Steve Alten is the New York Times and International bestselling author of more than a dozen novels, including the MEG series about Carcharodon Megalodon, the 70-foot, 100,000 pound prehistoric cousin of the Great White shark and Domain trilogy, a series about the Mayan Calendar's 2012 doomsday prophecy. His work has been published in over thirty countries and is being used in thousands of middle and high school curriculum as part of Adopt-An-Author, a free teen reading program, which he founded with teachers back in 1999.

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