I want to share an excerpt from a new book with you — Jack Scarlet: Deepfire.
Adventuring ace Jack Scarlet takes a personal interest when an ecological survey vessel goes missing in the Gulf of Mexico under mysterious circumstances. The trail leads to an offshore drilling platform that may be seeking something far more valuable — and dangerous — than oil.
A little background, first, then the story.
As I have discussed elsewhere, the modern day swashbuckling adventurer Jack Scarlet is a character I created in roughly the same middle school writing era as my first Jason Cosmo stories. While Jason Cosmo has gone on to feature in, to date, five published novels and a novella, Jack Scarlet has never seen publication, except for a couple of brief vignettes.
I was working on a Jack Scarlet novel in 2001 … then the events of September 11 made writing a light, upbeat, technopulp modern adventure character seem much less compelling, so Jack went back into the Story Vault. I can’t say the state of the world has improved much since then, but I find the urge to write Jack’s adventures has become stronger lately.
Again, this is a character that I have been developing, revamping and updating since the early 1980s — one of my Big Three, along with Jason Cosmo (The third, I’ll discuss some other day). It makes sense that Jack would very much like to break free of my head and get onto the page.
In 2013, I wrote an opening chapter of a new Jack Scarlet adventure, Deepfire, for NaNoWriMo. I didn’t get much past that first chapter, but I’ve tinkered with Deepfire ever since. Recently, I plotted out the rest of the story and have written a few more chapters in my “spare time” around other projects (such as the forthcoming Jason Cosmo #3: Royal Crush).
Today, I present the current draft of Chapter 1 as a preview. We don’t meet Jack Scarlet until Chapter 2, which I will share next week. The first chapter, in the classic pulp style, sets up the mystery our hero will soon be called upon to solve. Without further ado, here is Chapter 1 of Jack Scarlet: Deepfire…
Jack Scarlet: Deepfire
1: Gulf of Mystery
Something was very wrong in the Gulf of Mexico.
Dr. Cassidy Settles leaned against the port rail and watched the last red sliver of the sun drop below the horizon. Darkness soon followed, broken only by a mantle of stars above, a shimmering haze of light pollution from the mainland, and the navigation lights of other vessels across the water.
Night always brought a certain calm to Cassi, but it did not mean an end to the day’s work. The Sandpiper was an oceanographic research vessel on a mission to study marine plastic pollution. Plastic debris was rapidly accumulating in the world’s oceans, causing problems for humans and sea life, including unfortunate fish and birds that ingested plastic mistaking it for food.
For the past month, Cassi and her team had surveyed the extent of plastic contamination in the Gulf of Mexico. Starting at the mouth of the Mississippi River, they took water samples to measure the concentration of plastic. They also trawled fish at various depths to measure how much plastic was entering the food chain. They were getting good data, but Cassi soon faced an unexpected mystery—where were the fish?
Starting two weeks ago, as they worked their way down the western Gulf, the Sandpiper team were pulling in dramatically fewer fish than expected. By Cassi’s estimate the populations were at least fifty percent below normal. This was significant enough for her to get in touch with other scientists and confirm the decline wasn’t confined to the Mexican coast. It was happening all across the Gulf. And it wasn’t only fish missing—dolphins, turtles, and manatees had vanished too. Anecdotally, both recreational and commercial fishermen were returning to port empty-handed. Shrimpers too.
Yet there was no indication of a major fish kill. No rotting carcasses bobbing in the waves. No red tide of algal blooms. The Gulf did contain a persistent and documented dead zone—several thousand square miles of oxygen-depleted water along the shores of Texas and Louisiana that could not support marine life. But the abrupt depopulation elsewhere was not the result of hypoxia. Nothing about water conditions offered an explanation. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, except that all across the Gulf of Mexico, the animals were simply gone.
Strange. Unprecedented. Disturbing.
But no longer a mystery.
A few hours ago, Sandpiper found the missing fish.
All of them.
And that was a problem.
“This is unbelievable,” said Eric, for at least the twelfth time. The blond Californian was a marine biology grad student, and the expedition’s unofficial videographer. He trained his camera on the water. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“No one has,” said Cassi.
The sea around Sandpiper boiled with life. For at least three miles in all directions, fish breached the surface constantly. Cassi spotted everything from mullet to marlin. Several distinct pods of bottlenose dolphin and striped dolphin leapt in the waves. There were sea turtles too.
Before sundown, the crew ran a trawl and pulled in a catch that strained the motors hauling up the net—and strained belief. Sharks, rays, eels, shrimp, sawfish, striped mullet, red and black drum, amberjack, cobia, snook, pompano—pretty much every species one might expect to find in the Gulf, but not here. Many of these species lived in shallow coastal waters. The nearest coastline was the Yucatán Peninsula, about two hundred nautical miles south.
What could drive — or lure? — so many different species together so far from their natural habitats? It was highly aberrant. So was the apparent lack of feeding behavior. Thousands of sharks, and none seemed to be feeding on what had to be the easiest prey of their lives. Nor were the other predator species taking advantage of the bonanza. It defied all expectations.
“Should we run the trawl again?” asked Eric.
Cassi shook her head. “Maybe later. Let’s see what effect sundown has. Maybe they’ll disperse. For now, keep filming. I’m going to check in with the skipper.”
Cassi climbed the ladder to the bridge. Captain Fred Parker was at the helm. He scowled and spared her a glance.
“Strange tides, Doctor?” He jerked his thumb at the sonar scope. The display was almost solid green, indicating the huge mass of fish surrounding the ship.
“Very,” said Cassi. She scowled. “I wish we had the ROV and a deep acoustic array this mission. I really want to scope this megaschool at depth.”
“Megaschool, eh?” Parker spat tobacco juice into the rusty coffee can at his feet.
“I don’t know what else to call it.”
“Looks more gigaschool to me.”
Cassi laughed. “It may be. Any response from other research vessels in the area? We really need to get someone here with the right equipment to fully document this.”
Parker spat. “None that will get here tonight.”
“Damn! We don’t know how long this phenomenon will last.”
“True enough. We also may have seen all we’re going to see.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’re getting close to San Marcos. They’re touchy about unauthorized vessels in their waters.”
Cassi was unimpressed. “Surely they’ll approve a scientific research mission with this happening.”
Parker shrugged. “Only thing sure about the San Marcos Coast Guard is you don’t want to cross them. Hardcore bastards to the man.”
“How close are we?”
“Closer than I want to be. But they haven’t hailed us.”
“We’ll deal with it when they do.”
“Sure,” said Parker. He spat again. “Who knows? Maybe they’re as freaked out over Fishageddon as we are. But don’t count on it making no difference.”
Cassi sighed. “I understand.”
“Not quite, you don’t. Flip the scope to full-range view.”
Puzzled, Cassi complied. Most of the screen remained solid green, but to the northeast was a quarter-mile radius circle that seemed to be clear of fish.
“My guess, it’s the center of this pot of fish stew,” said Parker. He spat.
“But what is it? Seamount? Reef?”
The captain shook his head. “Platform. Oil rig.”
“There are no drilling leases this far out.”
“Not American, no. That would be San Marcos waters. Leased to LiquiOil.”
Cassi chewed her lower lip, a habit when she was puzzled. “The fish are avoiding the platform. If there is active drilling that might be …” She let the thought trail off as another formed. “If the platform is an epicenter, it suggests this megaschool—assuming an even distribution — is what? Ten, twelve miles in diameter? If the fauna density is the same as we’ve seen so far …” Cassi whistled.
“Big, eh?” said Parker.
“But that’s a lot of assumptions. We need to get closer to the platform.”
“I can ask,” said Parker, reaching for the radio. “But like I said, don’t get your hopes up.”
“Tell them this is a scientific —”
Cassi nodded. “I’ll try to raise NOAA on the sat phone. An official request might help.”
“Worth a shot,” said Parker. “In fact — what the hell!”
A dark-colored, sinuous shape breached the surface thirty feet off the starboard bow. At the same time a sudden wave rocked the 130-foot Sandpiper side to side.
Cassi stumbled. She steadied herself against the bulkhead.
“Was that a whale?” she said, knowing the answer.
“Didn’t look like no whale,” said Parker.
“No,” said Cassi, barely audible.
A hollow rumble echoed through the ship. It came from below, vibrating through the steel hull. It was a low, deep, primal sound like clashing stones or grinding metal. The geologic bass tones were accompanied by a terrible, screeching, high-pitched, organic cry. Cassi felt more than heard the sound, felt it shudder through her body. Her balance fled. Nausea churned her guts.
She never got seasick! Never! What was this?
“That’s … not whale song,” she choked out, fighting the urge to vomit.
The sound subsided.
Eric burst onto the bridge. He looked as though he’d lost his sea legs too. He was completely soaked. Seawater dripped from his long hair. “Did you see that?” he asked, unable to contain his excitement.
“Did you get it?” demanded Cassi.
“Oh, yeah. Almost dropped the camera when the boat pitched, but I got it!”
“No way. What, I don’t know. But it scared everything else away.”
“What do you mean?” asked Cassi.
“All the fish skedaddled. Cleared out like that.” Eric snapped his fingers.
Cassi shook her head. She was having a hard time absorbing these strange events, one after the other. “Interesting,” said Cassi. “What could —”
The rumble and screech returned.
“Brace!” said Captain Parker. “All hands brace!” he shouted into the comm.
An upwelling appeared to port, creating an instant twenty-foot wave that crashed against Sandpiper. The deck pitched hard, throwing Eric against Cassi and both of them against the bulkhead.
“Hold on!” said Eric.
An even bigger upsurge blistered from the surface, big enough to lift the ship with it, raising Sandpiper’s prow to vertical, then past ninety degrees.
Cassi looked up through the windscreen as the ship momentarily stood on its stern. What she saw was beyond comprehension, something that should not, could not exist outside of legends and nightmares.
“Oh my God!” she exclaimed.
Sandpiper somersaulted backward. The ship hit the water topside down and all was wet, rushing blackness.
Jack Scarlet: Deepfire excerpt Copyright © 2015 Dan McGirt
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed this excerpt — post a comment or ping me on Twitter @JasonCosmo and let me know what you think. And stay tuned for Chapter 2 soon, when we meet our hero!