PACIFIC OCEAN, NOW
Mark Hawkins reacted to the words without thought. He hadn’t even seen who’d fallen and couldn’t identify who had shouted the words. But he heard the confirming splash and saw several crewmembers on the main deck look over the port rail.
At a run, Hawkins leapt up onto the port rail and launched himself over the side. But he wasn’t on the main deck, which was just eight feet above the waterline. He was on the second deck, twenty-five feet up and six feet in from the main deck’s rail. As he dove out and looked down he saw an undulating, solid mass of plastic, rope, and wood. He had no idea how thick the layer of garbage was, or how dense, but when he didn’t see a body languishing atop it, he knew the crew member who’d fallen overboard was trapped beneath it. He also knew that his landing would hurt.
He heard a gasp as he fell past the main deck, just missing the rail. His feet struck the layer of trash a moment later, punching through like a blunt spear. The rest of his body followed, slipping through the chunky film, but not before becoming tangled in rope. Stunned by the impact and chilled by the Pacific waters, Hawkins nearly panicked, but the memory of someone in need of help kept him focused.
His eyes stung when he opened them. Visibility was poor thanks to a swirling cloud of small plastic chips churned up by his explosive arrival, and worsened by the noonday sun being filtered through layers of colored plastic, casting the depths in dull, kaleidoscopic shades.
He tried to swim, but something tugged at his ankle, rooting him in place. He leaned forward and pulled his leg in close. His ankle was wrapped in a loop of rope bound to a lump of congealed refuse that floated like a giant buoy. Had he landed on the mass, his rescue effort would have been cut abruptly short. Not that it was going well at the moment.
But Hawkins was not completely unprepared. He unclipped the sheath on his belt and freed his seven-and-a-half-inch San Mai Recon Scout hunting knife. The razor-sharp blade cut through the rope like it wasn’t there. After sheathing the blade, Hawkins pushed off the heavy chunk of garbage and swam deeper. Six feet from the surface, he came free from the lowest traces of floating debris and immediately saw the kicking feet of the fallen crewmember just twenty feet away.
As he swam closer, he saw that the small feet were attached to a pair of smooth, lithe legs. The man overboard was a woman.
Dr. Avril Joliet.
Despite being a genius, or damn near close to one, Joliet didn’t always make the best choices. How she’d earned two Ph.D.s in biology and oceanography without getting lost at sea, eaten by a predator, or hit by a bus was beyond Hawkins. It wasn’t that she was absentminded, just impulsive. Quick. But it was those same qualities that allowed her to learn fast, blow the doors off conventional theories, and make discoveries while her peers spent time wondering if they should bother. But this time, Joliet’s speed might have finally caught up with her.
Her quick, jerky movements confirmed his fears. She was stuck. Hawkins swam up behind her and put a gentle hand on her shoulder. Her white blouse billowed as she spun around, eyes wide with fear. There were a number of predators—large sharks, mostly—that prowled beneath the Garbage Patch, waiting for prey animals to become stuck.
When she saw him, she relaxed, but as she turned, a large, beaked face came into view, startling Hawkins. A burst of bubbles shot from his mouth as he shouted in surprise. When the bubbles cleared, Joliet stared at him with a single eyebrow raised. A second glance over her shoulder revealed the face of a sea turtle, its black eyes staring lifelessly into the abyss.
Confused, Hawkins moved around the oceanographer for a better look. She wasn’t tangled at all!
The turtle, on the other hand, looked like a sacrifice bound to a pillar for some ancient god. Loops of rope around the fins held it tight, the struggle for freedom long since abandoned. The loggerhead sea turtle looked like all the others Hawkins had seen, with one startling exception—the body and shell were pinched at the middle, narrowed to a diameter no thicker than Hawkins’s forearm.
What the hell?
Desperate for air, and confused by Joliet’s actions, he hitched him thumb toward the surface and kicked through the layer of trash. Pushing through the refuse, Hawkins took a breath and craned around, looking for the Magellan. The ship cut through the ocean two hundred feet away, coming around in a wide arc.
Joliet surfaced next to him, sucking in three deep breaths and then saying, “You have to help me!”
“The turtle is dead,” he replied.
“Hawkins. Mark. This is an important find. It’s tangible evidence. Provoking. Something like this will be hard to ignore. Who doesn’t love a sea turtle?”
Hawkins didn’t disagree. The loggerhead turtle was an endangered species and images of the deformed creature would make a compelling photographic addition to the article he was writing, but that didn’t mean she had to dive in after it. “It’s not going anywhere. Drake would have come back for it.”
“There isn’t time!” Her eyes were wide. Frightened.
Hawkins had only known Joliet for a month, but in that time he’d seen her step between two fighting crewmen, go toe-to-toe with Captain Drake, and haul in a thirty-pound bluefish, which became a meal for the crew. She wasn’t a timid person. But something had her spooked. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean that usually meant one thing.
“Please tell me it’s not a great white,” Hawkins said with a frown.
Joliet’s eyes somehow widened a little bit more.
He had no doubt she was rethinking the wisdom of her actions. She’d seen the turtle, and then the shark—probably just the dorsal fin—and leapt in without thinking. Like he did when he gave chase.
Just like he did the first time he found himself in a similar situation. And while he had no desire to relive that particular event, they were already in the water, and she was right about the turtle. He drew his knife and held it above the water for her to see. “I’ll cut it free, you hold it.”
Hawkins looked over his shoulder. The Magellan finished its turn and headed back toward them. The crane, which normally lowered submersibles and Zodiacs into the water, rotated out over the water, a line dangling down. If they held on to the wire, the winch would have no trouble plucking them from the ocean. He waved his knife in the air, hoping the glint of sunlight off its blade would alert them to their position. A shark was bad news, but being run over by a two-hundred-seventy-four-foot, three-thousand-ton research vessel could really ruin a guy’s day. “It’s going to be dead weight once it’s free, so we’re going to have to time this right.”
With the Magellan closing in, Hawkins said, “Ready?”
“After you,” she replied.
Hawkins didn’t really understand how he’d become the ring leader of this unauthorized salvage, but he was determined to see it through. He pushed the air from his lungs and descended through the debris.
The turtle, still bound to the lump of plastic detritus, was easy to find, despite the poor conditions. Hawkins kicked over to the loggerhead and began cutting away its bonds. As the first flipper came free, Joliet slipped up next to him and took hold of the turtle. He had no idea if the turtle would be buoyant at all—it might sink like a stone