/ Language: English / Genre:sf

The Swarm

Frank Schatzing

For more than two years, one book has taken over Germany’s hardcover and paperback bestseller lists, reaching number one in Der Spiegel and setting off a frenzy in bookstores: The Swarm. Whales begin sinking ships. Toxic, eyeless crabs poison Long Island's water supply. The North Sea shelf collapses, killing thousands in Europe. Around the world, countries are beginning to feel the effects of the ocean's revenge as the seas and their inhabitants begin a violent revolution against mankind. In this riveting novel, full of twists, turns, and cliffhangers, a team of scientists discovers a strange, intelligent life force called the Yrr that takes form in marine animals, using them to wreak havoc on humanity for our ecological abuses. Soon a struggle between good and evil is in full swing, with both human and sub-oceanic forces battling for control of the waters. At stake is the survival of the Earth's fragile ecology-and ultimately, the survival of the human race itself. The apocalyptic catastrophes of The Day After Tomorrow meet the watery menace of The Abyss in this gripping, scientifically realistic, and utterly imaginative thriller. With 1.5 million copies sold in Germany-where it has been on the bestseller list without fail since its debut-and the author's skillfully executed blend of compelling story, vivid characters, and eerie locales, Frank Schatzing's The Swarm will keep you in tense anticipation until the last suspenseful page is turned.

THE SWARM

A Novel of the Deep

by Frank Schatzing

Love, deeper than the ocean. For Sabina

hishuk ish ts'awalk

Nuu-chah-nulth tribe, Vancouver Island

14 January

Huanchaco, Peruvian Coast

Juan Narciso Ucañan went to his fate that Wednesday, and no one even noticed.

A few weeks later the circumstances surrounding his sudden disappearance sent shockwaves around the globe, but Ucañan's name wasn't mentioned. He was one of many, too many. What he'd experienced in the early hours of that morning had been going on elsewhere all over the world. The parallels were striking – once you knew what had happened, and only Ucañan did. Maybe the fisherman, with his simple way of seeing things, had even sensed the more complex connections, but in the absence of his evidence, the mystery went unsolved. Neither he nor the Pacific Ocean on the Huanchaco coast in the north of Peru gave anything away. Like the fish he caught in his lifetime, Juan Xarciso Ucañan stayed silent. When he next showed up, he was just a statistic. No one had time to wonder about his whereabouts: events had entered a new and graver phase.

Not that anyone had ever shown much interest in him anyway, even before 14 January.

At least, that was how Ucañan saw it. He'd never been able to reconcile himself with his village's reincarnation as an international beach resort. For the tourists, Huanchaco was a time-forgotten paradise where locals went fishing in old-fashioned boats. But what use was that to him? To own a fishing-boat at all was old-fashioned. These days, most of his countrymen earned their living on factory trawlers or in the fishmeal and fish-oil industries. Peru's fish stock was dwindling, but its fishing industry was still one of the largest in the world, on a par with Chile, Russia, the US and parts of Asia. Even the threat of El Niño hadn't stopped the coastal city of Huanchaco sprawling out in every direction, the last preserves of nature sacrificed to make way for row after row of hotels. In the end nearly everyone had profited one way or another. Only Ucañan was left with nothing, just his boat, a cabaUito de totora, or 'reed pony', as the admiring conquistadors had called the distinctive craft. But the way things were going, the pretty little vessels would soon he gone too.

The new millennium had decided to pick on Ucañan.

His emotions were already starting to get the better of him. At times he felt as though he was being punished – by El Niño, which had plagued Peru since the beginning of history and that he was helpless to prevent, and by the environmentalists, whose talk of overfishing had set the politicians searching for a culprit, until in the end they realised they were looking for themselves. So they'd shifted their focus from the fisheries to Ucañan, who couldn't be held responsible for the environmental mess. He hadn't asked for the floating factories, or for the Japanese and Korean trawlers lurking on the 200-mile boundary, waiting to tow away the fish. None of this was Ucañan's fault, but even he no longer believed it. That was the other thing he couldn't help feeling – guilty. As though he was the one who'd pulled millions of tonnes of mackerel and tuna from the sea.

He was twenty-eight years old and one of the last of his kind.

His five elder brothers all worked in Lima, and thought he was a fool because he clung to a boat no better than a surfboard, waiting doggedly in deserted waters for the mackerel and bonito to return. 'You won't find life among the dead,' they told him. But it was his father who worried Ucañan. The old man was nearly seventy and had set sail every day, right up until a few weeks previously. Now Ucañan the elder no longer went fishing. Bedridden, his face covered with blotches, he had a nasty cough and seemed to be losing his mind. Juan Narciso clung to the hope that by continuing the family tradition he could keep the old man alive.

For over a thousand years Ucañan's people, the Yunga and the Moche, had been fishing in reed boats. Long before the Spanish arrived, they had settled along the Peruvian coast from the northern reaches to modern-day Pisco, supplying the immense metropolis of Chan Chan with fish. Back then the area had been rich in wachaques, coastal marshes fed by fresh water from underground springs. Vast quantities of reed grass had grown there – the totora that Ucañan and the other remaining fishermen still used to make their caballitos, in the manner of their forebears. It required skill and inner calm. There were no other boats quite like them. Measuring three to four metres long, with an upward-curving prow and light as a feather, they were practically unsinkable. In days gone by thousands of caballitos had cut through the waves of the 'Golden Fish' coast, named at a time when even the worst catches brought more fish than Ucañan could ever dream of.

Eventually the marshes had vanished and so, too, the reeds.

At least you could count on El Niño. Every few years around Christmas time the trade winds would slacken and the cool Humboldt Current would warm up, destroying the feed and scattering the hungry mackerel, bonito and sardines. Ucañan's forefathers had called it El Niño – the Christ-child. Sometimes it was content just to shake things up, but every fourth or fifth year it would wreak God's vengeance on the people as though it was trying to wipe them from the Earth. Whirlwinds, thirty-times the normal rainfall and murderous mudslides – on each occasion hundreds were killed. El Niño came and went, as it always had done. No one welcomed it, but they managed to get by. These days, though, even prayers couldn't help them: the nets that robbed the Pacific of its riches were wide enough to capture twelve jumbo jets at once.

Maybe, thought Ucañan, as his caballito bobbed up and down on the swell, maybe I am a fool. Foolish and guilty. Guilty like the rest of them for trusting in a patron saint who'd never done anything about El Niño, the fisheries or international law.

In the old days, he thought, we had shamans in Peru. Ucañan knew the stories about what the archaeologists had discovered in the pre-Columbian temples near the city of Trujillo, behind the Pyramid of the Moon. Ninety skeletons had been found there, men, women and children, killed with a blow to the head or stabbed with a spear. In a desperate attempt to stop the flood waters of ad 560 the high priests had sacrificed the lives of ninety to their gods, and El Niño had gone.

Whom would they have to sacrifice to stop to the overfishing?

Ucañan shivered. He was a good Christian: he loved Christ and St Peter, the patron saint of fishermen. He always put his heart and soul into the festival of San Pedro, when a wooden effigy of the saint was paddled by boat from village to village. And yet… In the morning the churches were full, but the real fires burned at night. Shamanism was as strong as ever – but how could any god help them when even the Christ-child refused to intervene? Trying to control the forces of nature was exhausting enough, apparently, without attempting to cure the fishermen's latest woes. That was a matter for the politicians and lobbyists.

Ucafian squinted up at the sky.

It was going to he a beautiful day.

At moments like this, north-western Peru looked picture-perfect. There hadn't been a cloud for days. The surfers weren't up yet. Ucafian and a dozen or so other fishermen had set off some thirty minutes earlier, paddling their caballitos in the darkness over the undulating waves. The sun was slowly starting to peep out from behind the mist-shrouded mountains, bathing the sea in its pastel yellow light. Only moments before the vast expanse of water had looked silver; now it turned a delicate blue. In the distance you could just make out the silhouettes of mighty cargo ships as they headed for Lima.

Untouched by the beauty of first light, Ucafian reached behind him and felt for his calcal, the traditional red net used by caballito fishermen. It was a few metres long and tipped with hooks of varying sizes. He inspected the closely woven mesh, squatting upright on his little reed boat. There were no seats inside a caballito - you had to straddle the boat or crouch on top – but there was plenty of space at the stern for stowing nets and other equipment. Ucañan balanced his paddle diagonally in front of him. Traditional paddles made of split guayaquil cane had fallen out of use elsewhere in Peru. His belonged to his father, and Juan Narciso had brought it with him so the old man would sense the energy with which he thrust it through the water. Every evening since his father had fallen ill he had laid the paddle alongside him, placing his right hand over it, so that the old man could feel it was still there – the ancient tradition and the core of his life.

He hoped his father knew what he was holding: he no longer recognised his son.

Ucafian finished inspecting the calcal. He had already looked it over on dry land, but nets were precious and worth the extra attention. Its loss would mean the end for him. He might have been defeated in the bidding war for the Pacific's remaining riches, but he had no intention of jeopardising what was left to him with sloppiness or by turning to drink. He couldn't bear the crashed look on the faces of those fishermen who had left their boats and nets to rot. Ucafian knew it would kill him if he were to glimpse it on himself.

He glanced around. The flotilla that had set sail with him that morning had spread out in both directions, now more than a kilometre from the shore. For once the little ponies weren't bobbing up and down: the water was almost perfectly still. Over the next few hours the fishermen would sit and wait, some patiently, others with resignation. In time they were joined by a few other boats – larger craft made of wood – while a trawler motored past, heading out to sea.

Ucañan watched as the men and women lowered their nets into the water, securing them to their boats with rope. He hesitated. The round red buoys drifted on the surface, shining brightly in the sunshine. He knew he should get started, but instead he thought of the last few days' fishing.

A few sardines were all he'd caught.

He watched the trawler disappear into the distance. El Niño had paid them a visit this winter too, but it had been harmless by comparison. There was another side to El Niño when it was like that – a brighter, friendlier one. Normally the Humboldt Current was too cold for the yellowfin tuna and hammerhead sharks, but warmer water would lure them in, guaranteeing a Christmas feast. Of course, the smaller fish all ended up in the bellies of the big ones rather than in the fishermen's nets, but you couldn't have it all. Anyone who ventured out a bit further on a day like today stood a good chance of bringing home a nice fat specimen.

Idle thoughts. Caballitos couldn't go that far. As a group they sometimes ventured ten kilometres from shore – there was safety in numbers. The little reed ponies had no trouble coping with the swell: they rode on the crest of the waves. The real problem was the current. In rough conditions, when the wind was blowing out to sea, you needed good muscles to get your vessel back to shore.

Some fishermen didn't make it.

Ucañan crouched stock-still on the woven reed of his boat. His back was straight. They'd begun their vigil at daybreak, but the shoals wouldn't come today either. He scanned the horizon for the trawler. At one time it would have been easy for him to get work on a big ship or in one of the fishmeal factories, but not any more. After the catastrophic El Niños at the end of the 1990s, even the factory workers had lost their jobs. The big shoals of sardines had never returned.

And he couldn't afford to go another day without catching anything.

You could teach the señoritas how to surf.

That was the alternative. A job in one of the numerous hotels that loomed above Huanchaco, making the old town cower beneath their shadows. He could go fishing for tourists. Wear a ridiculous cropped jacket. Mix cocktails. Entertain spoilt American women on surfboards or waterskis… and later in bed.

But the day that Juan Narciso cut his ties with the past would be his father's last. The old man had lost his reason, but he would still know if his youngest son broke the faith.

Ucañan's fists were clenched so tightly that his knuckles blanched. He seized his paddle and started to follow in the wake of the trawler, paddling with all his strength, his movements violent and jerky. With every stroke of the paddle he moved further away from his comrades. He was making rapid progress. He knew that today he had nothing to worry about – no vast breakers would appear from nowhere, no treacherous currents, no powerful north-westerlies to hinder his return. If he didn't risk it now, he never would. There were plenty of tuna, bonito and mackerel in the deeper waters, and they weren't just there for the trawlers.

After a while he stopped. Huanchaco, with its rows of tightly packed houses, looked smaller, and all around him there was nothing but water. He'd left the flotilla far behind.

'There was a desert here once,' his father had told him, 'the desert plains. Now we've got two deserts – the plains and the ocean beside them. We're desert-dwellers threatened by rain.'

He was still too close to shore.

As he powered through the water some of his old confidence returned. It was an almost exhilarating sensation. He imagined riding his little pony right out to sea, paddling on and on until he saw glints of silver darting through the water, catching the sunshine in shimmering cascades. The grey humps of whales would appear above the surface and swordfish would leap through the air. His paddle splashed rhythmically, taking him further and further from the stench of corruption in the town. His arms moved almost of their own accord now, and when he finally set down his paddle and looked back at the fishing village, it was just a squat silhouette surrounded by of white specks, the curse of modern Peru: the hotels.

Ucañan started to feel anxious. He'd never been so far out on a cabaUito. It was hard to tell in the early-morning haze, but he was at least twelve kilometres from Huanchaco.

He was on his own.

For a moment he was still. Silently he petitioned St Peter to bring him home safely with a boat full of fish. Then he filled his lungs with the salty air, pulled out his calcal and let it slip into the water. Gradually the web of net and hooks disappeared into the glassy depths until only the little red buoy was visible, floating alongside the boat.

What had he been worrying about? It was a fine day and, besides, Ucañan knew exactly where he was. Not far from here a jagged range of fossilised white lava rose up from the seabed, almost to the surface. Sea anemones, mussels and crabs had made it their home, while countless little fish inhabited its chasms and hollows. Some of the bigger fish came there to hunt, but it was too dangerous for the trawlers: they might rupture their hulls on the sharp peaks of rock. In any case, they were after bigger catches. But for a daring fisherman astride his cabaUito there was more than enough.

For the first time that morning Ucañan smiled. His boat swayed back and forth on the swell. Out here, far from the coast, the waves were bigger, but he was comfortable on his raft of reeds. He stretched out his arms and squinted at the sun as it cast its pale yellow light over the mountains. Then he picked up his paddle and, with a few quick strokes, steered the caballito into the current. He squatted and prepared to spend the next few hours watching the buoy as it bobbed up and down not far from the boat.

IN JUST OVER AN HOUR he had caught three bonitos. Their plump bodies were piled up in the stern, glistening in the sun.

Ucañan felt jubilant. That was more than he'd caught during the past four weeks. There was no real need for him to stay any longer, but now that he was here he might as well wait. The day had got off to an excellent start: perhaps it would end even better.

In any case, he had all the time in the world.

The caballito was drifting leisurely along the edge of the underwater rocks. He let the rope slacken and watched as the buoy skittered away. Every now and then he scanned the water for the lighter patches where the lava reached the surface. He needed to keep the net out of danger. He yawned.

He felt a gentle tug on the rope.

A split second later the buoy disappeared in a flurry of motion. Then it shot up, danced wildly on the surface and was wrenched under again.

Ucañan seized the rope. It strained in his hands, tearing his palms. He cursed. Within seconds the boat was tilting dangerously. He wobbled and let go. Deep beneath the surface of the water, the buoy flashed red. The rope hung vertically below it, taut as a wire, dragging the caballito down by its stern.

Something must have swum into the net. Something big and heavy. A swordfish, perhaps. But swordfish were faster than that. A swordfish would have sped off, taking the caballito with it. Whatever was trapped in the net seemed determined to dive to the seabed.

Ucañan made a grab for the rope. The boat jolted again, pitching him into the waves. Spluttering, he rose to the surface – in time to see the caballito disappear underwater, its bow pointing upright into the air. The bonitos drifted into the sea. He seethed with rage – he couldn't even dive after them. He had to save himself and his boat.

The morning's catch, all wasted.

The paddle was floating a short distance away from him, but Ucañan didn't have time to go after it now – he could fetch it later. He flung himself over the prow but the boat was being pulled inexorably into the depths. In a frenzy he hauled himself towards the stern. With his right hand he fumbled for what he needed. Blessed St Peter – his knife hadn't been washed away and neither had his diving mask, his most precious possession, apart from the calcal.

He sliced through the rope, and the caballito shot to the surface, spinning giddily. Ucañan saw the sky circle above him and his head plunged back into the water. Then he lay coughing on the little reed craft. The boat rocked gently in the waves as though nothing had happened.

He sat up in confusion. The buoy was nowhere to be seen, but the paddle was drifting nearby. With his hands he steered the caballito towards it, hauled it on board and laid it in front of him. Then he looked around him.

There they were: light patches of lava in the crystal water.

He'd drifted too close to the underwater rocks, and his calcal had snagged. No wonder he'd gone under – he shouldn't have been daydreaming. Now he knew where the net and the buoy were: they were tied together, so if the net was caught on the lava, the buoy couldn't rise to the surface. Yes, that was what had happened. Still, Ucañan was shocked by how violently he'd been pulled underwater – he was lucky to have survived. But he'd lost his net.

Paddling swiftly, he steered the caballito to the site of his accident. He peered into the depths, straining to see the net through the clear blue water. There was no sign of it or the buoy.

Was this really the right spot?

Ucañan had the sea in his bones – he'd spent all his life on the ocean – and even without technical equipment he knew that this was the place. This was where he'd cut the rope to save his boat from being ripped apart. His net was down there somewhere.

He had to go after it.

The thought of diving filled him with trepidation. He was an excellent swimmer but, like most fishermen, he had a deep-seated fear of the water. Few fishermen loved the sea, even though they took to it every morning. Some had fished all their lives and couldn't live without it – yet they had trouble living with it too. The sea sapped their strength – making them pay with their lifeblood for every catch they brought home – and leaving them washed up in the ports, withered figures hunched silently at bars, with nothing left to hope for.

But Ucañan had his mask. It had been a present from a tourist he'd taken out on his caballito last year. He leaned back and pulled it out, spat on the lens and rubbed it carefully so that it wouldn't cloud over. Then he dipped it into the water, pressed it over his face and pulled the strap round the back of his head. It must have cost a lot of money: the fittings were made of soft latex that moulded to his face. He didn't have any breathing equipment but he wouldn't need it. He could hold his breath for long enough to dive down and untangle the net from the rocks.

The sharks in these waters weren't usually a threat. Hammerheads, shortfin makos and porbeagles occasionally plundered fishing nets, but that was much further out. It was almost unheard of to sight a great white. Besides, he wouldn't be swimming in the open: he'd be near the rocks and the reef, which offered some protection. In any case, whatever had ruined his net, it hadn't been a shark, he thought.

It was his own fault for not being more careful.

He filled his lungs, dived into the water and sped away from the surface, body vertical, arms pressed to his sides. From the boat the water had looked forbidding, but now a welcoming bright world opened up around him. He had a clear view of the volcanic reef, which stretched into the distance, dappled with sun. There were few fish, but he wasn't looking for them. He scanned the reef for the calcal. He couldn't stay down too long or his caballito might drift away. He'd give himself a few more seconds, then go up and try again.

He'd make ten trips if he had to. He didn't mind if it took all day. He wasn't going back without his net.

Then he spotted the buoy.

It was hanging ten to fifteen metres below the surface, suspended over a tip of jagged rock, the net directly below it. It seemed to be caught in several places. Tiny reef fish were swarming around the mesh, but they dispersed as he swam over. He straightened up, treading water as he tried to free it, his shirt billowing in the current.

The net was in tatters and he stared at it in disbelief. It had taken more than the rocks to do that. Something had been on the rampage. What, in God's name, had been here?

And where was it now?

Ucañan felt uneasy as he fumbled with the net. It would take days to repair. Now he needed to breathe. He would go back up, check on the caballito, then dive again.

Before he could move, a change took place around him. At first he thought the sun had disappeared behind a cloud. The light stopped dancing over the rocks; the reef and weeds no longer cast a shadow…

His hands, the net, everything around him was losing its colour and turning a murky grey. He dropped the calcal and looked up.

Gathered just beneath the surface of the water was a shoal of shimmering fish, each as long as his arm, stretching as far as he could see. The shock made him gasp and bubbles rose from his mouth. Where had a shoal of that size come from? He'd never seen anything like it. It seemed almost stationary, but now and then he saw the flick of a tail-fin or a flash of silver as a fish darted forward. Then, as a unit, the shoal changed course by a few degrees. The gaps between the bodies closed.

It was normal shoaling behaviour, but something wasn't right. It wasn't so much what they were doing that unnerved Ucañan: it was the fish themselves.

There were too many of them.

Ucañan swivelled round. Wherever he looked there were fish. He craned his neck. Through a chink in the mass of bodies he saw the outline of his caballito, a dark shadow on the rippling waves. The darkness thickened and his lungs began to burn.

Dorado! he thought in astonishment.

Everyone had given up hoping that they'd ever return. He should have been pleased to see them. They fetched a good price in the market, and a net packed full of dorado would feed a fisherman and his family for a long time.

But fear surged through Ucañan.

A shoal of that size was unreal. It filled his view. Had they destroyed his net? But how?

You've got to get out of here, he told himself.

He pushed off from the rocks. Trying to keep calm he ascended slowly and carefully, exhaling continuously. He was rising straight towards the expanse of fish that separated him from the sunlight and his boat. The shoal was motionless. A wall of indifference stared back at him through bulbous eyes. It was as though he'd conjured them out of nowhere. As though they'd been waiting for him.

They want to trap me. They're trying to cut me off from my boat.

Terror swept through him. His heart was racing. He forgot about controlling his speed, about the ruined net and the little red buoy. He even forgot his caballito. All he could think of was breaking through the dense mass of fish and reaching the surface, seeing the light, going back to where he belonged, finding safety.

The shoal parted.

From its midst something writhed towards Ucañan.

AFTER A WHILE the wind got up.

It was still a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky. The swell had risen, but it was nothing a man in a boat couldn't handle.

But there was no one for miles.

Only the caballito, one of the last of its kind, drifted on the open sea.

PART ONE

ANOMALIES

And the second angel poured out his vial upon the sea; and it became as the blood of a dead man: and every living soul died in the sea. And the third angel poured out his vial upon the rivers and fountains of waters; and they became blood. And I heard the angel of the waters say, Thou art righteous…

Revelation 16:2-5

Last week a huge unidentified carcass washed up on the coast of Chile. According to statements made by the Chilean Coast Guard, the shapeless blob, which decomposed rapidly on land, was only a small part of a much larger mass of flesh previously seen floating on the water. Chilean scientists have found no trace of a skeleton, ruling out the possibility that the remains could be those of a mammal. The mound was too big to be whale skin and is said to have a different smell. Test results so far reveal astonishing parallels to the so-called 'globsters' – gelatinous blobs that wash up periodically on coastlines around the world. Speculation continues as to what type of creature these corpses belong to.

CNN, 17th April 2003

4 March

Trondheim, Norwegian coast

On the face of it, the city was too cosy for a university or a research institute. In districts like Bakklandet or Møllenberg it seemed almost inconceivable that Trondheim could be a capital of technology. Its old timber houses, parks, rustic churches, colourful water warehouses on stilts, picturesque gardens and courtyards belied the advance of time and knowledge, but the NTNU, Norway's principal university for the sciences, was just round the corner.

Few cities combined past and future as harmoniously as Trondheim, which was why Sigur Johanson felt privileged to live there. His apartment was in old-fashioned Møllenberg, in Kirkegata Street, on the ground floor of an ochre-coloured house whose pitched roof, white steps and lintel would have captured the heart of any Hollywood director. Johanson was a marine biologist and a thoroughly modern scientist, but nothing could persuade him of the merits of his times. He was a visionary and, like most visionaries, he combined his love for the radically new with an attachment to the ideals of the past. His life was defined by the spirit of Jules Verne, whom he admired for his old-fashioned chivalry, his passion for the seemingly impossible and his celebration of technology. But as for the present… the present was a snail, its shell piled high with practical problems and the vulgar business of everyday life. There was no real place for it in Sigur Johanson's universe. He served it, knew what it expected from him, enriched its store of knowledge, and despised it for the uses that it put it to.

It was late morning by the time he steered his jeep along the wintry Bakklandet road, past the shimmering waters of the Nid towards the university campus. He was on his way back from a weekend spent deep within the forest, visiting isolated villages where time had stood still. In summer he would have taken the Jaguar, with a picnic hamper in the boot: freshly baked bread, goose-liver pate wrapped in silver foil from the deli, and a bottle of Gewürztraminer – a 1985, if he could find one. Since he had moved from Oslo to Trondheim, Johanson had hunted out the quiet spots, far from the hordes of tourists and day-trippers. Two years ago he'd come across a secluded lake, and beside it, to his delight, a country house in need of renovation. It had taken a while to track down the owner – he worked in a managerial capacity for Statoil, Norway's state-run oil company, and had moved to Stavanger – but when Johanson finally found him, the deal was quickly done. Pleased to be rid of the place, the owner had sold it for a fraction of its value. A few weeks later a team of Russian immigrants had restored the dilapidated house. They didn't charge much, but transformed it into Johanson's ideal of a proper country residence – a nineteenth-century bon vivant's retreat.

During long summer evenings he sat on the veranda, which looked out over the lake, reading visionary writers like Thomas More, Jonathan Swift or H. G. Wells, and daydreaming to Mahler or Sibelius. The house had a well-stocked library. He owned nearly all of his favourite books and CDs in duplicate – he wanted them with him wherever he was.

Johanson drove on to the NTNU campus. The main university building lay straight ahead, covered with a dusting of snow. It was an imposing, castle-style edifice, dating to the turn of the twentieth century, and behind it lay lecture halls and laboratories. With ten thousand students, the campus was almost a town in itself. It hummed with activity. Johanson sighed in contentment. He had enjoyed his time at the lake. Last summer he'd spent a few weekends there with a research assistant from the cardiology department, an old acquaintance from various conferences. Things had moved swiftly, but he'd ended the relationship. He hadn't been in it for the long term – and anyway, he had to face facts: he was fifty-six, and she was thirty years younger. Great for a few weeks, but unthinkable for a lifetime. In any case, Johanson didn't allow many to get close to him. He never had.

He left the jeep in its bay and headed for the Faculty of Natural Sciences. As he entered his office, Tina Lund was standing by the window. She turned as he walked in. 'You're late,' she teased him. 'Let me guess – too much red wine last night, or was someone reluctant to let you go?'

Johanson grinned. Lund worked for Statoil and seemed to have spent most of her time lately at one or other of the SINTEF institutes. The SINTEF Group was one of the biggest independent research organisations in Europe, and the Norwegian oil industry in particular had benefited from its groundbreaking innovations. The close links between SINTEF and the NTNU had helped to establish Trondheim as a centre of technological excellence, and SINTEF centres were dotted throughout the region. Lund had risen swiftly through the Statoil ranks and was now deputy director of exploration and production. She had recently set up camp at Marintek, the SINTEF centre for marine technology.

Johanson surveyed her tall slim figure as he took off his coat. He liked Tina Lund. A few years ago they'd nearly got together, but instead they'd decided to stay friends. Now they just picked each other's brains and went out for the occasional meal. 'An old man like me needs his sleep,' he said. 'Coffee?'

'Sure.'

He popped into the adjoining office, where he found a fresh pot. His secretary was nowhere to be seen.

'Milk, no sugar,' Lund called.

'I know.' Johanson poured the coffee into two mugs, added a splash of milk to one, and returned to his office. 'I know all about you, remember?'

'You didn't get that far.'

'Heaven forbid! Now, take a seat. What brings you here?'

Lund picked up her mug, but remained standing. 'A worm, I think.'

Johanson raised his eyebrows and took a gulp of his coffee. 'What do you mean, you think?

She picked up a small steel container from the windowsill and placed it in front of him on the desk. 'See for yourself.'

Johanson opened it. The container was half filled with water. Something long and hairy was writhing inside. He examined it carefully.

'Any idea what it is?' she asked.

He shrugged. 'Worms. Two big ones.'

'We'd worked that out, but what species?'

'Ah! So that's why you need a biologist. They're polychaetes – bristleworms.'

I'm familiar with polychaetes…' she hesitated 'but could you take a proper look and classify them?'

'Hmmm.' Johanson peered into the container. 'As I said, they're bristleworms. Nice ones too. The ocean floor is covered with creatures like them. No idea what species, though. What's the problem with them?'

'If only we knew.'

'What do you know?'

'We found them on the continental slope, seven hundred metres down.'

Johanson scratched his chin. They must be hungry, he thought. He was surprised they were still alive: most organisms didn't take kindly to being hauled up from the depths.

He glanced up. 'There's no harm in taking a look at them. I'll be in touch tomorrow.'

'Great' She paused. 'You've noticed something odd about them, haven't you? I can tell by the way you're looking at them.'

'Perhaps.'

'What is it?'

'I can't say for sure. Taxonomy isn't my specialty. Bristleworms come in all shapes and colours and I'm not familiar with them all, but these…'

Lund flashed him a smile. Why don't you look at them now? You could tell me your findings over lunch.'

'I do have a job to get on with, you know.'

'Well, you can't be too pushed at the moment – judging by the time you rolled up this morning.'

How irritating; she was right.

'OK.' He sighed. 'We'll meet at one in the cafeteria. Were you planning on a long-term friendship with them, or can I cut them up?'

'Do whatever it takes, Sigur. I'll see you later.'

She hurried out. Johanson watched her go. Perhaps the two of them could have made a go of it, he thought. But Tina Lund lived life at a sprint. She was much too hectic for someone like him.

He sorted his post and caught up on some phone calls. Then he picked up the container and carried it into the lab. There was no doubt that they were polychaetes, members of the Annelida phylum. Segmented worms, like the common earthworm. They weren't complex, as far as organisms went, but they fascinated zoologists: polychaetes were among the oldest known organisms. Fossil records showed that they'd survived, practically unchanged, since the Middle Cambrian era, more than 500 million years ago. A few species were found in fresh water or on marshy ground, but the seas and oceans teemed with them. They aerated the sediment and provided fish and crabs with a rich source of nutrition. Most people found them repellent, but Johanson saw them as the survivors of a lost world: he found them exceptionally beautiful.

He took a few moments to examine the pinkish bodies, with their tentacle-like growths and clumps of fine white bristle. Then he dripped magnesium chloride solution into the container to anaesthetise them. There were a number of ways to kill a worm, but the most common was to immerse them in alcohol, usually vodka or aquavit. For humans that would mean death by intoxication – not a bad way to go. But worms felt things differently and screwed themselves into a ball to die, unless you relaxed them first. The magnesium chloride slackened their muscles, so that you could do what you liked with them.

He decided to freeze one worm: it was always good to have a specimen in reserve, in case you decided to examine its DNA or do a stable isotope analysis. He fixed the other worm in alcohol, then laid it out for measuring. Nearly seventeen centimetres, he noted. Then he cut it open lengthways and gave a low whistle. 'Well, well, well,' he murmured.

The specimen had all the classic features of an annelid worm. Its proboscis was tucked within its body, ready to unfurl and seize its prey. It was tipped with chitinous jaws and rows of minuscule teeth. Over the years Johanson had examined plenty of polychaetes, inside and out, but those were the biggest jaws he'd ever seen. As he gazed at the worm he couldn't help wondering if it was new species. Few had the luck to discover a species, he thought. His name would be immortal…

He turned on his computer to consult the Intranet, then wandered through the maze of data. The outcome was baffling. In one sense the worm was there, but in another it wasn't.

By the time he was rushing through the glass-covered walkways towards the cafeteria, he was already a quarter of an hour late. He burst into the room, spotted Lund at a corner table and went over to her. She was sitting under a palm tree, and gave him a little wave.

'Sorry,' he said. 'Have you been here long?'

'Ages. I'm starving.'

'Let's have the shredded chicken stew,' said Johanson. 'It was good last week.'

Lund nodded: she knew she could trust his recommendation. She ordered Coke, while he had a glass of wine. When the waiter brought their drinks, she was shifting impatiently on her chair. 'Well?'

Johanson sipped his wine. 'Not bad. Fresh and full-bodied.'

Lund rolled her eyes.

'OK, OK.' Amused, he put down his glass, settled back and crossed his legs. Anyone who lay in wait for him on a Monday morning deserved to be kept in suspense, he thought. 'We'd already established that they're annelid worms, polychaetes. I'm hoping you don't need a full report because that would take weeks, if not months. For the moment I'd treat the two specimens as a mutation or a new species – or both, to be precise.'

'That doesn't sound precise.'

'Sorry, but that's the way it is. Where did you find them?'

Lund described the site. It was a considerable distance from the coast, on the continental slope, where the Norwegian shelf descended towards the deep ocean floor.

'Dare I ask what Statoil was doing down there?' Johanson asked.

'Looking at cod.'

'Cod? Now, that is good news – I thought they'd died out.'

'It's not funny, Sigur. You know how many obstacles have to be cleared before we can even think about drilling. We don't want to be accused of not doing our homework.'

'You mean you're building a platform? But oil yields are dropping.'

'That's not my problem,' Lund said tersely. 'What I'm worried about is whether we can build there in the first place. It's the furthest out to sea we've ever drilled. We've got to get on top of the technological challenges and prove that we're respecting the environment. Which is why we're trying to find out what's swimming around down there and how the site functions ecologically – so that people like you don't complain.'

Johanson nodded. Lund was contending with the fallout from the recent North Sea Conference, at which the Norwegian Ministry of Fisheries had castigated the oil industry for expelling millions of tonnes of contaminated water into the sea every day. It had lain undisturbed in sub-seabed petroleum reserves for millions of years but was now being pumped to the surface by the hundreds of offshore North Sea platforms that lined the Norwegian coast. The oil was separated from it by mechanical means, and the chemical-saturated water discharged back into the sea. No one had questioned the practice until, after decades, the Norwegian government had asked the Institute of Marine Research to undertake a study. The findings dealt a blow to the oil industry and environmentalists alike. Substances in the water were interfering with the reproductive cycle of cod. They worked like female hormones, causing the male fish to become infertile or even to change sex. Other species were affected too. The oil companies were ordered to stop dumping the water and had no choice but to look for an alternative.

'They're right to keep an eye on you,' Johanson said. 'The closer the better.'

'You're a great help.' Lund sighed. 'Anyway, our recce of the slope took us pretty deep into the ocean. We did the usual seismic survey, then sent a dive robot down seven hundred metres to take a few shots. We weren't expecting to find worms so deep.'

'They're everywhere. How about above seven hundred metres? Did you find them there too?'

'No. So what are we going to do about them?'

Johanson rested his chin on his hands. 'The trouble with your worm,' he said, 'is that it's really two separate worms.'

She looked at him blankly. 'Well, I know that. I gave you two.'

'That's not what I meant. I'm talking about its taxonomy. If I'm not mistaken, your worm belongs to a new species that has only just come to light. It was found on the seabed in the Gulf of Mexico availing itself of the bacteria that live off methane.'

'Really?'

'And that's where it starts to get interesting. Your worms are too big. Sure, some types of bristleworm grow to over two metres and live to a ripe old age. But they're nothing like yours, and you wouldn't find them around here. If yours are the same as the Mexican ones, they've done a fair bit of growing since we found them. The worms in the Mexican Gulf measure five centimetres at most, but yours are three times as long. And there's no record of them ever being found on the Norwegian shelf.'

'How do you account for that?'

'I can't. Right now I can only think that you've stumbled on a brand new species. Congratulations to Statoil. Your worm looks like a Mexican ice worm but, as far as its length and other features are concerned, it's a completely different fellow. In fact, it's more like a prehistoric worm, a tiny Cambrian monster that we thought was extinct. But I still don't see how…'

He paused. The Norwegian shelf had been picked over with a fine-tooth comb. Surely the oil companies would have noticed a worm of that size before now.

'What?' Lund pressed him.

'Well, either we're all blind or your worms have only just got there. They may have originated even further down.'

'So why did we find them where we did?' Lund asked. 'And how soon can you let me have a report?'

'You're not going to start hassling me, are you?'

'Well, I can't wait a month, if that's what you mean.'

'Whoa.' Johanson held up his hands. 'I'll have to send the worms on a trip round the world. Give me two weeks – and don't argue. There's no way I can do it any faster.'

Lund sat in silence. The chicken stew had arrived, but she hadn't touched hers. 'They feed on methane, you say?'

'On the bacteria that feed on methane,' Johanson corrected her. 'It's a complex symbiotic system. And, remember, we're talking about a worm that may or may not be related to yours. Nothing's proven yet.'

'If these worms are bigger than the ones in Mexico, they're probably hungrier too,' Lund mused.

'Hungrier than you, at least,' said Johanson, with a pointed glance at her plate. 'Incidentally, I need a few more of those monsters, if you have any.'

'We're not about to run out.'

'You've got more in reserve?'

'A dozen or so,' she said, 'but there are plenty more where those came from.'

'How many?'

'Well, it's only a guess… but I'd say several million.'

12 March

Vancouver Island, Canada

The days came and went, but the rain kept falling. Leon Anawak couldn't remember the last time it had poured for so long. It must have been years ago. He gazed out across the perfectly still surface of the ocean. In the far distance a thin silvery line divided the water from the low, thick cloud, promising a break in the rain, the first one for days. You couldn't count on it though; the fog could always roll in instead. The Pacific Ocean did as it pleased, usually without a moment's notice.

Keeping his eyes fixed on the chink of light, Anawak opened the Blue Shark's throttle and headed further out to sea. The Zodiac, a big rubber dinghy with powerful outboard motors, was full to capacity. Its twelve passengers, covered from head to toe with waterproof clothing and armed with binoculars and cameras, were rapidly losing interest. They'd been waiting patiently for over an hour and a half to catch a glimpse of the grey whales and humpbacks that had left the lagoons of Baja California, and the warm waters of Hawaii in February on their way to their summer feeding grounds in the Arctic. The round trip would take them sixteen thousand kilometres, from the Pacific Ocean through the Bering Sea to their frozen pool of plenty, the Chukchi Sea, where they'd swim to the edge of the pack ice to feast on amphipods and krill. When the days shortened, they'd set off on their long journey home towards Mexico to give birth out of reach of their deadliest enemy, the orca. Twice a year vast herds of the enormous mammals passed through British Columbia and the waters off Vancouver Island, and during those months the whale-watching tours in coastal towns like Tofino, Ucluclct and Victoria would be fully booked.

Not this year, though.

So far not a flipper or fluke had been captured on film. The chances of spotting one or other species were usually so good at this time of year that Davie's Whaling Station offered free repeat trips if you didn't see a whale. To go a few hours without a sighting was not unheard-of, but to see nothing all day was seriously bad luck. A whole week would be cause for concern, but that had never happened.

This year, though, the whales seemed to have gone astray and today's adventure was over before it had begun. Everyone put away their cameras. All they'd glimpsed from the boat was the hint of a rocky coastline, and they hadn't even been able to see that properly because of the rain.

Anawak would accompany each sighting with explanations and comments, but now his mouth dried. For an hour and a half he'd held forth on the history of the region, trying to lift the group's spirits with anecdotes. Now everyone had heard enough about whales and black bears. He'd run out of ideas as to how to divert them and, besides, he was worried about the whales' whereabouts. As skipper, he should probably have been more worried about the tourists, but that wasn't his way.

'Time to go home,' he announced.

There was a disappointed silence. The journey through Clayoquot Sound would take at least three-quarters of an hour. He decided to cut short the afternoon with a burst of excitement. The Zodiac's twin outboard motor would give them an adrenaline-pumping ride. Speed was all he had left to offer.

TOFINO'S WATERFRONT, with its houses on stilts and the Whaling Station on the wharf, was just coming into view when the rain stopped abruptly. From a distance the hills and mountains looked like grey cardboard cutouts. Their tips were enveloped in a haze of mist and cloud. Anawak helped the passengers out of the boat, then moored it to the side. The steps leading up to the wharf were slippery, and the next bunch of adventurers had gathered on the patio in front of the station. There wouldn't be any thrills for them either.

'If things don't pick up soon we'll all be out of a job,' said Susan Stringer, as he walked into the ticket office. She was standing behind the counter, restocking the plastic leaflet-holders. 'Maybe we should offer squirrel-watching instead. What do you think?'

Davie's Whaling Station was a cosy place, crammed with a mishmash of handmade objects, tacky souvenirs, clothing and books. Stringer was the office manager. She'd taken the job to finance her studies – which was why Anawak had started there too. But four years after completing his doctorate he still worked for Davie. He'd used the past few summers to write a groundbreaking book about intelligence and social bonding among marine mammals. His pioneering research had earned him the respect of experts and established his reputation as a rising star of science. Now letters were trickling in with offers of highly paid jobs that made his comfortable life in the wilds of Vancouver Island seem to lack definition. Anawak knew it was only a matter of time before he moved away. He was thirty-one years old. Soon he would take up a lectureship or become a research fellow in one of the big institutes. He would publish articles in specialist journals, travel to conferences and live on the top floor of a desirable condo, whose foundations would shake in the throb of rush-hour traffic.

He started to peel off his waterproofs.

'If only we could do something,' he muttered.

'Like what?'

'Go looking for them.'

'Didn't you want to talk to Rod Palm about the feedback from the telemetric tracking?'

'I have already.'

'And?'

'From what he said, there's not much to tell. They tagged a few bottlenose dolphins and sea-lions back in January, but the trail goes dead at the beginning of migration. All the tags stopped transmitting, and it's been quiet ever since.'

Stringer shrugged. 'Don't worry, they'll turn up. Thousands of whales can't just disappear.'

'Well, obviously they can.'

She grinned. 'I guess they must be stuck in traffic near Seattle.'

'Very funny.'

'Hey, loosen up a bit. It wouldn't be the first time they've been late. Anyway, why don't you join us later at Schooners?'

'Uh… sorry. I'm still setting up that trial with the belugas.'

'You work too hard,' she said sternly.

'I've got to, Susan. It really matters to me. And at least I understand it, unlike stocks and shares.'

The dig was aimed at Roddy Walker, Stringer's boyfriend. He was a broker in Vancouver and was staying in Tofino for a few days. His idea of a holiday entailed talking at top volume into his mobile, offering unwanted financial advice and generally getting on everyone's nerves. It hadn't taken Stringer long to grasp that the two men wouldn't become friends, especially after Walker had pestered Anawak for one long painful evening with questions about his roots.

'You probably won't believe me,' she said, 'but that's not all he ever talks about.'

'Seriously?'

'You only have to ask him nicely,' she said pointedly.

'OK,' said Anawak, 'I'll join you later.'

'No, you won't You've no intention of coming.'

Anawak grinned. 'Well, if you ask me nicely…'

He wouldn't go, of course. He knew that and so did Stringer, but she repeated the invitation all the same. 'We're meeting at eight, in case you change your mind. Think about it: maybe you should drag your mussel-covered butt down there. Tom's sister's coming, and she's got a thing about you.'

It was almost enough to persuade him. But Tom Shoemaker was the manager of Davie's, and Anawak wasn't keen to tie himself to a place he was trying to leave. 'I'll think it over.'

Stringer laughed, and left.

Anawak stayed to deal with the customers until Shoemaker took over. Eventually he left the office and headed on to the main road. Davie's Whaling Station was one of the first buildings on the way into Tofino. It was a pretty place, made of timber just like everywhere else in town, with a red roof, a sheltered terrace and a front lawn on which its trademark totem towered into the air – a seven-metre-high whale fluke made of cedar. It was set on the edge of a thick forest of pines. The area was exactly how most Europeans imagined Canada, and the locals did their best to reinforce this impression: sitting by the light of their lanterns, they would tell stories about meeting bears in their front gardens or riding on a whale's back. And most of it was true. The gently sloping beaches, rugged scenery, marshes, rivers and deserted coves, with the ancient pines and cedars that lined the west coast from Tofino to Port Renfrew, drew in hordes of tourists every year. On a good day you could look out to sea and spot a grey whale or watch the otters and sea-lions sunning themselves. And even when rain lashed the island, many people still thought it was heaven on earth.

That wasn't how Anawak saw it.

He walked a little way into town, then turned off towards one of the wharfs. A dilapidated twelve-metre-long sailing-boat was anchored there. Davie owned it, but he had been reluctant to pay for it to be repaired, so Anawak lived there for a peppercorn rent. His real home was a tiny apartment in Vancouver city but he only used it if he had business in town.

He went below deck, picked up a bundle of papers and walked back to the station. In Vancouver he owned a rusty old Ford, but on the island he made do with Shoemaker's ancient Land Cruiser. He got in, started the engine and drove to the Wickaninnish Inn, a top-class hotel a few kilometres out of town on a rocky promontory with breathtaking views of the ocean. The cloud was breaking up, revealing patches of blue. A well-maintained road led through the dense forest and he drove for ten minutes. When he came to a little car park he left his vehicle and continued on foot, past enormous dead tree-trunks that lay rotting on the ground. The path climbed upwards through trees that glowed green in the evening sunshine. He could smell damp soil and hear water dripping. The pine branches were covered with ferns and moss. Everything seemed vibrantly alive.

By the time he reached the Wick he was feeling better for his walk. Now that the sky was clearing he could sit on the beach and work in peace. It wouldn't get dark for a while yet. Maybe, he thought, as he descended the wooden steps that zigzagged down from the hotel; I should treat myself to dinner. The food at the Wick was always excellent.

Armed with his notebook and laptop he made himself comfortable on an upturned tree-trunk, but he'd been there barely ten minutes when someone came down the steps and wandered along the beach. It was low tide and the evening sunshine lit the driftwood-strewn shore. The figure kept close to the silvery-blue water. Whoever it was didn't seem to be in any hurry; but all the same it was obvious that their meandering path would eventually lead to Anawak's tree. He frowned and tried to look as busy as possible. After a while he heard the soft, gravelly crunch of approaching footsteps.

'Hello.'

Anawak glanced up.

A woman in her late fifties was standing in front of him, cigarette in hand. Her face was tanned, and criss-crossed with lines. Barefoot, she wore jeans and a dark windcheater.

'Hello.' He sounded less brusque than he'd intended – as soon as he'd looked up, his irritation at the interruption had dissipated. Her deep-blue eyes sparkled with curiosity. She must have been stunning in her youth.

'What are you doing here?' she asked.

Under normal circumstances he would have given a non-committal answer, but instead he heard himself say. 'I'm working on a paper about beluga whales. You?'

The woman sat down beside him. He looked at her profile, the delicate nose and high cheekbones – and knew, suddenly, that he'd seen her somewhere before.

'I'm working on a paper too,' she said, 'but I don't expect anyone will read it when it's published.' She paused. 'I was on your boat today.'

The small woman wearing sunglasses and a hood, he remembered.

'What's up with the whales?' she asked.

'There aren't any.'

'How come?'

'That's what I keep asking myself.'

'The woman nodded. My lot haven't shown up either, but at least I know why. 'Maybe you should stop waiting and start searching.'

'But we are.' He put down his notebook. We've got satellite tags – telemetry. And sonar. We can track down pods.'

'But they've slipped the net.'

"There were some sightings in early March off the coast of Los Angeles, but since then, nothing.'

'So they've all just vanished?'

'Not all of them.' Anawak sighed. 'It's complicated. Are you sure you want to hear it?'

'Sure.'

'You can see twenty-three different types of whale from Vancouver Island. Some are just passing through – grey whales, humpbacks, minke and so on – but others live here. We've got three different types of orca, for example.'

'Killer whales?'

'I guess,' Anawak said irritably. 'But orcas have never been known to attack humans in the wild. Pliny set them up, though, in his Natural History. He called them, "A mightie masse and lumpe of flesh without all fashion, armed with most terrible, sharpe, and cutting teeth" And Cousteau described them as our number-one enemy. What nonsense!'

'OK, point taken … so what does orca actually mean?'

'Orcinus orca, their full scientific name, means from the realm of the dead. I've no idea were it came from'.

'You said there were three types of orca here.'

Anawak pointed out to sea. 'Offshore orcas. We don't know much about them but they come and go, mostly in big groups, and tend to live a long way out. Transient orcas are nomadic and live in smaller pods. They come closest to your idea of a killer whale. They'll eat anything they can get their teeth into – seals, sea-lions, dolphins and birds. They'll even attack blue whales. In areas like this, where the coast is rocky, they stay in the water, but in South America they'll haul themselves on to the beach to hunt seals and other animals. It's amazing to watch.'

He paused, but she didn't speak so he went on: 'The third type lives in the waters around the island in large family groups. How well do you know the island?'

'A little.'

'To the east there's the Johnstone Strait, a channel of water separating it from the mainland. Resident orcas live there all year round. They only eat salmon. We've been monitoring their social behaviour since the 1970s -' He stopped. 'Why am I telling you all this?'

She laughed. 'I'm sorry, I got you sidetracked. And I'm curious. You were trying to explain which whales have vanished and which are still here.'

'That's right. But-'

'You're busy.'

Anawak glanced at his notebook and laptop. His paper had to be finished by tomorrow but. . . 'Are you staying at the Wickaninnish Inn?' he asked.

'Yes.'

'Do you have plans for the evening?'

'Oh!' She grinned. 'The last time anyone asked me that was ten years ago.'

He grinned back. 'I was thinking of my belly. I thought we could talk more over dinner.'

'Good plan.' She slid off the tree-trunk, stubbed out her cigarette and dropped the butt into her pocket. 'I warn you, I always talk with my mouth full. By the way,' she held out her hand, I'm Samantha Crowe. Call me Sam.'

'Leon Anawak.'

SITUATED ON A ROCKY promontory at the front of the hotel, the restaurant commanded an impressive view of Clayoquot Sound and the islands, with the bay and the temperate rainforest behind it. Anawak and Croupe sat at a table by the window – which would have been perfect for whale-watching, if there'd been anything to see.

'The problem,' Anawak said, 'is that the transients and the offshore orcas haven't shown up. There are still large numbers of residents, but they don't like the west of the island, even though living in the Johnstone Strait is starting to get uncomfortable for them.'

'Why?'

'How would you feel if you had to share your home with ferries, cargo ships, liners and sport-fishing vessels? Besides, the region lives off the timber industry and entire forests are being transported to Asia. Once the trees are gone, the rivers fill with silt, the salmon lose their spawning grounds and the resident orcas have nothing to eat.'

'It's not just the orcas you're worried about, though, is it?'

'The grey whales and humpbacks are a major headache. They usually reach Vancouver at the beginning of March by which stage they won't have eaten for months. During the winter, in Baja California, they live off their blubber, but they can't do that forever. It's only when they get here that they eat again.'

'Maybe they've gone further out to sea.'

'There's not enough for them to eat out there either. Here in Wickaninnish Bay, for instance, the grey whales find a key source of nutrition that they can't get in the ocean. Onuphis elegans!

'Elegans? Sounds lovely.'

Anawak smiled.

'It's a long, thin worm. The bay is nice and sandy, which suits the worms, and the grey whales love them. Without little snacks like that they'd never make it to the Arctic' He took a sip of his water. 'In the mid-1980s things were so bad that the whales didn't stop here. But that was because hardly any were left – they'd been hunted almost to extinction. Since then we've managed to raise their numbers but there are only about twenty thousand grey whales in the world, and you should find most of them here.'

'But this year they haven't come?'

'The residents are here, but they're just a minority.'

'And the humpbacks?'

'Same story.'

'You said you were writing a paper on beluga whales.?'

'Isn't it time you told me something about yourself?' Anawak asked.

'You already know the most important stuff – that I'm an old busybody who asks too many questions,' she said.

The waiter appeared with their main course: grilled king prawns on saffron risotto.

'OK, but what kind of questions, to whom and why?'

Crowe started peeling a garlicky prawn. 'It's simple, really. I ask, "Is anybody out there?"

'And what's the response?'

'I've never had one.'

'Maybe you should ask a bit louder,' said Anawak.

'I'd love to,' said Crowe, between mouthfuls, 'but right now our technological capacity limits me to a period of about two hundred light years. It didn't stop us analysing sixty billion signals during the mid-1990s. We narrowed them down to just thirty-seven that couldn't be matched with any natural phenomenon. Thirty-seven signals that might have been someone saving hello.'

Anawak stared at her. 'You work for SETI,' he said.

'Yep. 'The Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence. Project Phoenix, to be exact.'

'And you're listening to signals from space?'

'We target stars similar to our sun – a thousand of them, each more than three billion years old. There are other projects like it, but ours is the crucial one.'

'Well, I'll be damned.'

'It's not that amazing. You analyse whalesong and try to figure out what they're telling each other. We listen to noises from space because we're convinced that the universe is packed with civilizations. I expect you're having more luck with your whales.'

'I'm dealing with a few oceans. You've got the universe.'

'It's on a different scale, but I'm always being told that we know less about the oceans than we do about space.'

'And you've intercepted signals that indicate the presence of intelligent life?'

She shook her head. 'No. We've found signals we can't place. The chance of making contact is remote, almost beyond all probability. So, I should really throw myself off the next bridge in frustration. But the signals are my obsession. Like you and your whales.'

'At least I know they exist.'

'Not right now you don't.' Crowe smiled.

Anawak had always been interested in SETI. The institute's research had begun in the early 1990s when NASA had funded a targeted search for extra-terrestrial life on nearby stars – timed to coincide with the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the New World. As a result, the world's largest radio telescope, in the Puerto Rican town of Arecibo, had embarked on a new kind of observation programme. Thanks to generous private sponsorship, SETI had since been able to set up other projects across the globe, but Phoenix was probably the best known.

'Are you the woman Jodie Foster plays in Contact?

I'm the woman who'd like to take a ride in her spaceship and meet the aliens. You know what, Leon? I don't usually tell this stuff to anyone – I want to run away screaming when people ask me what I do. I can't bear having to explain myself.

'I know the feeling.'

'Anyway, you told me what you do, so now it's my turn. What do you want to know?'

Anawak didn't take long to consider. 'Why hasn't it worked?'

The question seemed to amuse her. 'What makes you think it hasn't? The Milky Way is made up of roughly a hundred billion stars. Trying to establish whether any of them is anything like the Earth is tricky because they don't emit enough light. We can only find out about them by using scientific tricks. Theoretically they're everywhere. But you try listening for signals from a hundred billion stars!'

'I get the picture.' Anawak grinned. 'Tracking twenty thousand whales is easy by comparison.'

'Do you see now how a job like mine can make you old and grey? It's like trying to prove the existence of a teeny-weeny fish by straining the ocean litre by litre. And, remember, fish don't keep still. There's a good chance that you'll strain forever and decide in the end that the fish was never there. Yet all the while it was swimming along with thousands of others – just always somewhere else. Phoenix can strain several litres at once, but it's still limited to, say, the Georgia Strait. Do you see what I'm getting at? There are civilizations out there, but I can't prove it. The universe is big, maybe infinite – the observatory's drinks dispenser can brew coffee stronger than our chances.'

Anawak thought for a moment. 'Didn't NASA send a message into space?'

'Oh, that.' Her eyes flashed. 'You mean, why don't we get off our butts and start making some noise of our own? Well, you're right. In 1974 NASA sent a binary message from Arecibo to M13, a globular star cluster a mere twenty-one thousand light years away. But the essential problem remains the same: whether a signal comes from us or from somebody else, all it can do is wander through interstellar space. It would take an amazing coincidence for someone to intercept it. Besides, it's cheaper for us to listen than transmit.'

'Even so, it would improve your chances.'

'Maybe we don't want that.'

'Why not?' Anawak was bewildered.

'Well, at SETI we want to, but plenty of folk would rather we didn't draw attention to ourselves. If other civilizations knew we were here, they might rob us of our planet. God help us, they might even eat us for breakfast.'

'But that's ridiculous.'

'Is it? If they're clever enough to manage interstellar travel, they're probably not interested in fisticuffs. On the other hand, it's not something we can rule out. In my view, we'd be better off thinking about how we could be drawing attention to ourselves unintentionally, otherwise we could make the wrong impression.'

Anawak was silent. Eventually he said, 'Don't you ever feel like giving up?'

'Who doesn't?'

'And what if you achieve your goal?'

'Good question.' Briefly Crowe was lost in thought. 'For years now I've been wondering what our goal really is. I think if I knew the answer I'd probably quit – an answer is always the end of a search. Maybe we're tortured by the loneliness of our existence, by the idea that we're just a freak of nature, the only ones of our kind. Or maybe we want to prove that there's no one else out there so we have the right to occupy a privileged position. I don't know. Why do you study whales and dolphins?'

I'm just. . . interested.' But that's not quite true, he thought. It's more than an interest … So what am I looking for?

Crowe was right. They were doing much the same thing, listening for signals and hoping for answers. They both had a deep-seated longing for the company of intelligent beings other than humans.

She seemed to know what he was thinking. 'Let's not con ourselves,' she said. 'We're not really interested in other forms of intelligent life. We want to know what their existence might mean for us.' She leaned back and smiled. 'I guess we're just looking for meaning.'

IT WAS NEARLY HALF past ten when they said goodbye after a drink in the lounge – bourbon for Crowe and water for Anawak. Outside, the clouds had dispersed and the sky was scattered with myriad twinkling stars. For a while they gazed up at it.

'I hope you find your whales,' she said at last.

I'll let you know, Sam.'

'They're lucky to have you as a friend. You've a good heart.'

'You can't know that!'

'In my line of work, knowing and believing share a wavelength.'

They shook hands.

'Maybe we'll meet again as orcas,' Anawak joked.

'Why?'

'The Kwakiutl Indians believe that if you lead a good life you'll return as an orca.'

I like the sound of that' Crowe grinned. 'Do you believe it?'

'Of course not.' 'But I thought…'

'You thought?' he said, although he knew without asking.

'That you were Indian.'

Anawak felt himself stiffen. Then he saw himself through her eyes: a man of medium height and stocky build, with wide cheekbones, copper skin, almond eyes and thick, shiny black hair that fell across his forehead. 'Something like that,' he said awkwardly.

Crowe glanced at him. Then she pulled out a packet of cigarettes, lit one and took a long drag. 'Another of my obsessions,' she remarked, blowing smoke. 'Look after yourself, Leon.'

13 March

Norwegian Coast and North Sea

Sigur Johanson heard nothing from Tina Lund for a week, during which he stood in for another professor, who'd been taken ill, and wrote an article for National Geographic. He also contacted an acquaintance who worked for the distinguished wine producers Hugel Fils in Riquewihr, Alsace, and arranged to be sent a few vintage bottles. In the meantime, he tracked down a 1959 vinyl recording of the Ring Cycle, conducted by Sir Georg Solti, which, with the wine, pushed his study of Lund's worms to the back of his mind.

It was nine days after their meeting when Lund finally called. She was in good spirits.

'You sound laid-back,' said Johanson. 'I hope that's not affecting your scientific judgment.'

'Highly likely,' she said.

'Explain.'

'All in good time. Now, listen: the Thorvaldson sets sail for the continental slope tomorrow. We'll be sending down a dive robot. Do you want to come?'

Johanson ran through a mental checklist of his commitments. 'In the morning I have to familiarise students with the sex appeal of sulphur bacteria.'

'That's no good. The boat leaves at the crack of dawn.'

'From where?'

'Kristiansund.'

'It was a good hour away by car on a wind-blown, wave-battered stretch of rocky coast to the south-west of Trondheim. There was an airport nearby, from which helicopters flew out to the many oil rigs crammed along the North Sea continental shelf and the Norwegian Trench.

'Can I join you later?' he asked.

'Maybe,' Lund said. 'In fact, that's not a bad idea – and there's no reason why I shouldn't go later too. What are you doing the day after?'

'Nothing that can't be postponed.'

'Well, that's settled. If we stay on board overnight, we'll have plenty of time for observations and evaluating the results. We can get the helicopter to Gullfaks and take the transfer launch from there.'

'Where shall we meet?' asked Johanson.

'Sveggesundet, at the Fiskehuset. Do you know it?'

'The restaurant on the seafront, next to the timber church?'

'Exactly.'

'Shall we say three?'

'Perfect. I'll get the helicopter to pick us up from there.' She paused. 'Any news on the worms?'

'Not yet, but I may have something tomorrow.'

He put down the phone and frowned. It was puzzling to see a new species within an ecosystem as well researched as this one. But it makes sense for them to be there, thought Johanson. If they're related to the ice worm, they must depend indirectly on methane. And methane deposits were present on every continental slope, the Norwegian slope included.

But it was odd all the same.

The taxonomic and biochemical findings would resolve the matter. Until then there was no reason why he shouldn't continue to research Hugel's Gewurztraminers. Unlike worms, they couldn't be found everywhere – not in that particular vintage, at least.

WHEN HE GOT TO work the next morning he found two envelopes bearing his name. He glanced at the taxonomic reports, stuffed them into his briefcase and set off for his lecture.

Two hours later he was driving over the hilly terrain of Norway's fjord landscape towards Kristiansund. The temperature had risen, melting large sections of snow to expose the earth beneath. In weather like this it was hard to know what to wear, so Johanson had packed as much as the weight restrictions on the helicopter allowed. He had no intention of catching cold on the Thorvaldson. Lund would tease him when she saw the size of his suitcase, but Johanson didn't mind. In any case, he had put in a few things that two people might enjoy together. He and Lund were only friends, of course, but that didn't mean they couldn't share a cosy glass of wine.

Johanson drove slowly. He could have reached Kristiansund within an hour, but he didn't believe in rushing. At Halsa he took the car ferry over the fjord and continued towards Kristiansund, driving over bridge after bridge across slate-grey water. Several little islands made up the town, which he drove through, then crossed to the island of Averoy, one of the first places to have been settled after the last ice age. Sveggesundet, a picturesque fishing village, lay at its furthest tip. In high season it was packed with tourists, and boats streamed out of the harbour, heading for the neighbouring islands. At this time of year, though, there were few visitors, and scarcely a soul was in sight as Johanson's Jeep crunched over the gravel of the Fiskehuset's car park. The restaurant had an outdoor seating area, overlooking the sea. It was closed, but Lund was sitting outside atone of the wooden tables, next to a young man Johanson didn't know. He walked up to them. 'Am I early?'

She looked up, eyes shining, and glanced at the man next to her. He was in his late twenties, with light brown hair, an athletic build and chiselled features.

'Do you want me to come back later?' Johanson asked.

'Kare Sverdrup,' she introduced them, 'this is Sigur Johanson.'

The young man grinned and stretched out his hand. 'Tina's told me about you.'

'Nothing too awful, I hope.'

Sverdrup laughed. 'Actually, yes. She said you were an unusually attractive scientist.'

'Attractive – and ancient,' said Lund.

Johanson sat down opposite them, pulling up the collar of his parka. His briefcase lay beside him on the bench. 'The taxonomic section's arrived. It's very detailed, but I can summarise it for you, if you like.' He looked at Sverdrup. 'I don't want to bore you, Kare. Has Tina told you what this is about?'

'Not really,' he said.

Johanson opened the case and pulled out the envelopes. 'I sent one of your worms to the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt and another to the Smithsonian Institute. The best taxonomists I know are attached to them. I also sent one to Kiel to be examined under the scanning electron microscope. I'm still waiting to hear the results on that and the isotope ratio mass spectrometry, but I can tell you now what the experts agree on.'

'Go on then.'

Johanson settled back and crossed one leg over the other. 'That there's nothing to agree on. In essence, they've confirmed what I suspected – that we're almost certainly dealing with the species Hesiocaeca methanicola, also known as the ice worm.'

'The methane-eater.'

'Wrong, but never mind. Anyway, that's the first point. The second is that we're baffled by its highly developed jaws and teeth, which usually indicate that the worm is a predator or that it gets its food by burrowing or grinding. Ice worms don't need teeth like that, so their jaws are significantly smaller. They live symbiotically, grazing off the bacteria that live on gas hydrates…'

'Hydrates? asked Sverdrup.

Johanson glanced at Lund. 'You explain it,' she said.

'It's quite simple, really,' said Johanson. 'You've probably heard that the sea is full of methane.'

'So the papers keep telling us.'

'Well, methane is a gas. It's stored in vast quantities beneath the ocean floor and in the continental slopes. Some of it freezes on the surface of the seabed – it combines with water to form ice. It only happens in conditions of high pressure and low temperature, so you have to go pretty deep before you find it. The ice is called methane hydrate. Does that make sense?'

Sverdrup nodded.

'Hordes of bacteria inhabit the oceans, and some live off methane. They take it in and give out hydrogen sulphide. They're microscopically small, but they congregate in such large numbers that they cover the seabed like a vast mat – a "bacterial mat". They're often found in places where there are big deposits of methane hydrate.'

'So far, so good,' said Sverdrup. 'I expect this is where the worm comes in.'

'Precisely. Certain species of worm live off the chemicals expelled by bacteria. In some cases, they swallow the bacteria and carry them around inside them; in others, the bacteria live on their outer casing. Either way, that's how the worms get their food. And it explains why they're attracted to gas hydrates. They make themselves comfortable, help themselves to the bacteria, and relax. They don't have to burrow because they're not eating the ice, just the bacteria on it. The only effect they have on the ice is through their movement, which melts it, leaving a shallow depression, and that's where they stay.'

'I see,' said Sverdrup, slowly. 'So there's no need for them to dig, whereas other worms have to?'

'Some species eat sediment, or substances present in it, and others eat any detritus that sinks to the seabed – corpses, particles, remains of any kind. Worms that don't live symbiotically with bacteria have powerful jaws for catching prey or burrowing.'

'So ice worms don't need jaws.'

'Well, they might need them for grinding tiny quantities of hydrate or filtering out bacteria – and, like I said, they've got jaws. But not like the ones on Tina's worms.'

Sverdrup seemed to be getting into the discussion. 'But if Tina's worms live symbiotically with bacteria…'

'We need to figure out why they have such killer teeth and jaws.' Johanson nodded. 'And that's where it gets interesting. The taxonomists have found a second worm with that jaw structure. It's called Nereis and it's a predator found in ocean depths all over the world. Tina's worms have Nereis's teeth and jaws but in other respects they resemble its prehistoric forebears – a kind of Tyran-nereis rex!

'Sounds ominous.'

'I'd say it sounds like a hybrid. We'll have to wait for the results of the microscopy and the DNA analysis.'

'There's no end of methane hydrate on the continental slope…,' said Lund, playing with her lip '. . . so that would fit.'

'Let's wait and see.' Johanson cleared his throat. 'What do you do, Kare? Are you in oil too?'

Sverdrup shook his head. 'No,' he said. 'I'm a chef.

'He's an amazing cook,' said Lund.

That's probably not the only thing he's good at, thought Johanson ruefully. Sometimes he found Tina Lund hard to resist, but deep down, he knew she would be too demanding. Now she was off-limits.

'How did you two meet?' he asked, not that he cared.

'I took over the Fiskehuset last year,' said Sverdrup. 'Tina was here a few times, but we only ever said hello.' He put his arm round her shoulders. 'Until last week, that is.'

'A real coup de foudre,' said Lund.

'Yes,' said Johanson, looking up at the sky. The helicopter was approaching. 'I can tell.'

HALF AN HOUR LATER they were sitting in the aircraft with a dozen oil workers. The dull grey surface of the choppy sea stretched out beneath them, littered with gas and oil tankers, freighters and ferries as far as the eye could see. Then the platforms came into view. One stormy winter's night in 1969 an American company had found oil in the North Sea, and since then the area had taken on the appearance of an industrial landscape. Factories on stilts extended all the way from Holland to Haltenbank off the coast of Trondheim.

Fierce gusts buffeted the helicopter, and Johanson straightened his headphones. They were all wearing ear-protectors and heavy clothing, and were packed in so tightly that their knees touched. The noise made talk impossible. Lund had closed her eyes.

The helicopter wheeled and proceeded south-west. They were heading for Gullfaks, a group of production platforms belonging to Statoil. Gullfaks C was one of the largest structures in the northern reaches of the North Sea. With 280 workers, it was practically a community in its own right and Johanson shouldn't have been allowed to disembark there. It was years since he'd taken the compulsory safety course for visitors to the platforms. Since then, the regulations had been tightened, but Lund's contacts had cleared the way. In any case, they were only landing in order to board the Thorvaldson, which was anchored off Gullfaks.

A sudden gust caused the helicopter to drop. Johanson clutched his armrests but nobody else stirred: the passengers were used to stronger gales than this. Lund opened her eyes and winked at him.

Kare Sverdrup was a lucky man, thought Johanson, but he'd need more than luck to keep up with Tina Lund.

After a while the helicopter dipped and started to bank. The sea tilted up towards Johanson, then a white building came into view. The pilot prepared to land. For a moment the helicopter's side window showed the whole of Gullfaks C, a colossus supported by four steel-reinforced pillars, weighing 1.5 million tonnes altogether, and with a total height of nearly four hundred metres. Over half of the construction lay under water, its pillars extending from the seabed surrounded by a forest of storage tanks. The white tower block where the workers slept was only a small section of the platform. Bundles of pipes, each a metre or more in diameter, connected the layers of decks, which were flanked by cranes and crowned with the derrick – the cathedral of the oil world. A flame shot over the sea from the tip of an enormous steel boom, burning natural gas that had separated from the oil.

Touch-down was surprisingly gentle. Lund yawned and stretched as far as she could. 'Well, that was pleasant,' she said, and someone laughed.

The hatch opened and they clambered out. Johanson walked to the edge of the helipad and looked down. A hundred and fifty metres below, the waves rose and fell. A biting wind cut through his overalls. 'Is anything capable of knocking this thing over?'

'There's nothing on earth that can't be toppled. Get a move on, will you? We don't have time to hang about.' Lund grabbed him by the arm and pulled him after the other passengers, who were disappearing over the side of the helipad. A small, stocky man with a white moustache was standing at the top of the steel steps, waving at them.

'Tina!' he shouted. 'Have you been missing the oil?'

'That's Lars Jörensen,' said Lund. 'He's responsible for monitoring the helicopter and seagoing traffic on Gullfaks C. He's an excellent chess player too.'

Jörensen was wearing a Statoil T-shirt and reminded Johanson of a petrol-pump attendant. He clasped Lund to his chest, then shook hands with Johanson. 'You've picked an inhospitable day,' he said. 'In good weather you can see the full pride of the Norwegian oil industry from here, every last platform.'

'Are you busy at the moment?' asked Johanson, as they climbed down the spiral steps.

'No more so than usual. Your first time on a platform, is it?'

'It's been a while. How much are you producing these days?'

'Less and less. Production on Gullfaks has been stable for a while now, with two hundred thousand barrels coming from twenty-one wellheads. We should be pleased with that, but we're not' He pointed to a tanker moored to a loading buoy a few hundred metres away. 'We're filling her up. There'll be another along later, and that's it for today. Soon we'll start running out.'

The wellheads weren't directly below the platform but were scattered a fair distance away. The oil was extracted, separated from the natural gas and water, then stored in the tanks on the seabed. From there it was pumped to the loading buoys. A safety zone stretched five hundred metres around the platform and only its maintenance vessels were allowed to cross it.

Johanson peered over the iron railings. 'Hasn't the Thorvaldson arrived?' he asked.

'She's at the other loading buoy, just out of sight.'

'So, you don't even let research vessels come close?'

'The Thorvaldson doesn't belong to Gullfaks and she's too big for our liking. It's enough trouble trying to persuade the fishermen to steer clear.'

'Do you have much trouble with them?'

'Last week we had to chase away a couple of guys after they'd followed a shoal right under the platform, and at Gullfaks A recently a tanker drifted loose – engine problems. We sent a few people to help, but the crew got it sorted just in time.'

Jörensen spoke casually, but he had described the catastrophe that everyone prayed would never happen: a loaded tanker heading straight for a platform. The impact would send shudders through some of the smaller structures, but, worse still, the tanker might explode. Every platform was equipped with sprinklers that would release several tonnes of water at the least sign of fire, but an exploding tanker could tear a platform to pieces. Such accidents were rare, and usually happened in South America where safety regulations weren't as strictly observed.

'You're looking slim,' said Lund, as Jörensen held the door open for her. They went into the accommodation module and walked down a corridor lined with identical doors that led into the living quarters. 'Don't they feed you well enough?'

'Too well,' laughed Jörensen. 'The chefs amazing. You should see our dining room,' he added quickly to Johanson. 'It makes the Ritz look like a roadside cafe. No, the platform boss doesn't like North Sea bellies. He's told us to get rid of any extra kilos, or else he'll ban us from the platform.'

'Seriously?'

'Directive from Statoil. I don't know if they'd really go that far. In any case the threat was effective. No one wants to lose their job.'

They reached a narrow staircase and walked down, passing a group of oil workers whom Jörensen greeted. Their footsteps echoed in the steel stairwell.

'Right, this is the end of the line. You've got a choice. Either we go left, grab a coffee and chat for half an hour, or right, to the boat.'

'Coffee sounds good,' said Johanson.

'We haven't time.' Lund told him.

'The Thorvaldson won't leave without you,' said Jörensen. 'You could easily -'

'I don't want to have to race there. Next time I'll stay longer, I promise. And I'll bring Sigur too. It's about time someone played you into a corner.'

Jörensen laughed, and Lund and Johanson followed him outside. Wind blasted their faces. They were at the bottom edge of the accommodation module, standing on a thick steel grating, through which they caught glimpses of billowing waves. A constant hissing and droning filled the air. Jörensen led them towards another short gangway. An orange launch was suspended from a crane. 'What are you doing on the Thorvaldson?' he asked casually. 'I heard Statoil might be building further out.'

'It's possible,' said Lund.

'A new platform?'

'Not necessarily. Maybe a SWOP.'

Single Well Offshore Production Systems were enormous vessels similar to tankers with their own oil-recovery facility, used in depths of more than three hundred and fifty metres. A flexible flowline kept the vessel in position over the well while the oil was pumped into the hold, which served as a temporary storage tank.

They got into the launch. It was spacious inside, with several rows of benches. Apart from the helmsman they were the only ones on board. The boat jerked as the crane lowered them into the sea. Cracked grey concrete flashed past the side windows, then they were bobbing on the waves. The crane detached itself from the boat and they motored away from the platform.

The Thorvaldson was now in view, recognizable, like most research vessels, by its boom, used for manoeuvring submersibles and other equipment into the water. The launch drew up alongside it and docked. Johanson and Lund climbed up a steel ladder, fixed securely to the vessel. As he struggled with his suitcase, it occurred to Johanson that maybe it hadn't been such a good idea to pack half of his wardrobe. Lund, who was ahead, glanced round. 'You thought you were here for a holiday, did you?' she asked. Johanson sighed. 'I was beginning to think you hadn't noticed.'

EVERY LARGE LANDMASS in the world was bounded by a relatively shallow strip of water, no more than two hundred metres deep, known as the continental shelf. Technically, it was the underwater continuation of the continental plate. In some parts of the world it extended only a short way into the sea, but in others it continued for hundreds of kilometres until it dipped towards the ocean's floor, either falling away sharply or inclining gently in a terraced slope. The depths beyond the shelf were an unknown universe, more mysterious to science than outer space.

The shelf regions, however, had long been conquered by mankind. Humans were land animals, but needed water to survive, which was why two-thirds of the world's population could be found within sixty kilometres of the shore.

While oceanographic charts showed the shelf around Portugal and northern Spain as a narrow strip of seabed, the perimeter of the British Isles and Scandinavia extended into the water for some distance, so that the two regions merged together to form the North Sea, a relatively shallow expanse of water that averaged between twenty and 150 metres in depth. In its present form it dated back barely ten thousand years, and at first glance there was nothing remarkable about it, with its complex currents and fluctuating water temperatures. In the world economy, though, it played a central role. The North Sea was one of the busiest areas in the world, lined by industrial nations, and home to Rotterdam, the biggest port in history. Although the English Channel was only thirty kilometres wide at its narrowest point, it was one of the world's most travelled waterways: freighters, tankers, ferries and smaller craft jostled for space within its narrow confines.

Three hundred million years ago, vast swamps connected Britain to the continent in an unbroken chain of land. From time to time the area flooded as the waters advanced, then retreated. Gradually, mighty rivers swept into the basin, laying down mud, plant and animal remains that built up into a deposit many hundreds of metres thick. Seams of coal formed, while the land continued to sink. New deposits accumulated, compacting the sediment into sandstone and lime, and trapping organic debris underground. At the same time the temperature in the rock rose. Exposed to the combined effects of heat and pressure, the organic matter underwent complex chemical changes, eventually forming oil and gas, some of which leached out of the porous rock and permeated upwards into the water. The rest remained buried.

For millions of years the shelf had lain untouched.

Then oil was discovered, and Norway joined Britain, Holland and Denmark in a race to exploit the underwater riches. In thirty years, it had become the world's second largest exporter of petroleum. The Norwegian continental shelf contained the bulk of the deposits – roughly half of Europe's oil reserves – and its store of natural gas was equally impressive. The drilling extended ever deeper, and simple scaffold constructions gave way to oil platforms the size of the Empire State Building. It wasn't long before plans to build autonomous subsea processors became reality. It seemed as though the party would last forever.

However, as fishing yields declined, so did the supply of petroleum. Many subsea oil fields had already been drained, and Europe was faced with the spectre of an enormous scrapyard full of disused platforms. There was only one way out of the plight that the oil nations had brought upon themselves. On the other side of the continental shelf untapped reserves of petroleum were stored beneath the surface of the deep-sea basins and in the continental slopes. Conventional platforms were useless in such conditions, so Lund and her team were developing a different kind of technology. The continental slope wasn't uniformly steep, and in places it sloped down to form terraces – the ideal terrain for a subsea facility. The risks involved in working at depth meant that human labour had to be avoided. With the fall in oil production, the oil workers' fortunes had waned. In the 1970s and 1980s they had been well paid and in demand, but now there were plans to reduce the workforce on Gullfaks C to two dozen. Even an enormous construction like the Troll A platform practically ran itself.

The fact of the matter was that the North Sea oil industry was no longer profitable. But closing it down would be even more costly.

JOHANSON EMERGED FROM HIS CABIN. The atmosphere on board the Thorvaldson was one of quiet routine. The boat wasn't especially big. Some of the giant research vessels, like the Polarstern from Bremerhaven, had space for helicopters to land on board, but the Thorvaldson needed every spare metre for equipment. He strolled over to the railings and gazed out to sea. They had been sailing for almost two hours, passing through conurbations of platforms and oil rigs. Now they were north of the Shetland Islands, beyond the continental shelf, and the view had opened out. Nearly seven hundred metres of water lay between the seabed and the ship's keel. The continental slope had been charted and surveyed, but the zone of eternal darkness still retained its mystery. Powerful floodlights enabled scientists to illuminate small sections, but it was like exploring an entire country by night with a streetlamp.

Johanson remembered the bottle of Bordeaux and the French and Italian cheeses in his suitcase. He went to look for Lund and found her conducting a pre-dive check on the robot. The three-metre-high open-sided box was suspended from the hydraulic boom. The outer casing of its lid bore the name 'Victor'. Cameras and an articulated arm were mounted on the front.

Lund beamed at him. 'Impressed?'

Johanson dutifully looped back around Victor.

'It's a great big yellow vacuum cleaner,' he said.

'Spoilsport.'

'How much does it weigh?'

'Four tonnes. Hey Jean!' A thin man with red hair peered out from behind a cable drum. Lund beckoned him over. Jean-Jacques Alban is first officer. He keeps the Thorvaldson afloat,' said Lund. Jean, I've got stuff to get on with. You'll look after Sigur for me, won't you?' She hurried off. The two men watched her go.

'I expect you've got more important things to do than explain Victor to me,' said Johanson.

'Oh, it's no problem. You're from the NTNU, right? I gather you've been examining the worms.'

'Why's Statoil so interested in them?'

Alban made a dismissive gesture. 'It's the characteristics of the slope that we care about, really. We found the worms by accident. I reckon the problem's all in Tina's mind.'

'But isn't that why you're here? I mean because of the worms,' said Johanson, surprised.

'Is that what she told you?' Alban shook his head. 'No, that's only part of the mission. We'll follow it up, of course, as we always do, but our main task is to clear the way for an underwater monitoring station. The idea is to build it on top of the oilfield, so if the site seems safe, we can install a subsea unit.'

'Tina mentioned something about a SWOP.'

Alban looked at him uneasily. 'Er, no. As far as I'm aware, the subsea processor is a done deal. I don't think there's been a change of plan.'

So, no floating platforms, then. Johanson decided to quiz him about the robot.

'It's a Victor 6000, a remotely operated vehicle, or ROV,' Alban explained. 'It's got a working depth of six thousand metres and can stay under water for days at a time. We guide its movements from the boat – a cable leading up to the control room delivers its data simultaneously. The next trip is a forty-eight-hour recce. We'll get it to fetch you a handful of worms – Statoil prides itself on preserving biodiversity.' He paused. 'What do you make of the creatures?'

'It's too early to say,' said Johanson.

There was a clunk and Johanson watched as the boom hoisted Victor off the deck.

'Follow me,' said Alban. They headed amidships towards five shed-sized containers. 'Most vessels aren't equipped for using Victor, but since we could accommodate it, we borrowed it from the Polarstern?

'What's in the containers?'

'The hydraulic unit for the winch, plus some other bits of machinery. The one at the front is home to the ROV control room. Mind your head.'

They stepped through a low door. Inside, over half of the space was taken up by the control panel and twin banks of screens. Some were switched off, but the rest showed navigational data and operational feedback from the ROV. A group of men sat with Lund at the consoles.

'The guy in the middle is the pilot,' Alban murmured. 'To his right, the co-pilot operates the articulated arm. Victor's very sensitive and precise, but the operator has to be equally skilled in telling it what to do. The next seat along belongs to the coordinator. He maintains contact with the watch officer on the bridge to ensure that the vessel and the robot work together. The scientists are over there, with Tina. She'll operate the cameras and record the footage.

'Are we ready?' he asked her.

'Prepare to lower,' said Lund.

One after another the blank screens lit up. Johanson could make out sections of the stern, the boom, the sky and the sea.

'From now on we can see what Victor sees,' said Alban. 'There are eight separate cameras, one main camera with zoom, two piloting cameras and five others. The picture quality's amazing – sharp images and luminous colours even several thousand metres below the surface.'

The robot descended and the sea loomed closer. Water sloshed over the camera lens and Victor continued downwards. The monitors showed a blue-green world that gradually dimmed.

The control room was filling with people, men and women who'd been working on the boom.

'Floodlights on,' said the coordinator.

The area around Victor brightened, but the light remained diffuse. The blue-green paled, and was replaced by artificially lit darkness. Small fish darted into the picture, then the screen filled with bubbles. Plankton, thought Johanson. Red-helmet and transparent comb jellyfish drifted past.

After a while the swarm of particles thinned. The depth sensor recorded five hundred metres.

'What's Victor going to do down there?' asked Johanson.

'Test the seawater and sediment, and collect a few organisms,' said Lund, focusing on the screen, 'but the real boon is the video footage.'

A jagged shape came into view. Victor was descending along a steep wall. Red and orange crayfish waved delicate antennae. It was pitch black in the depths, but the floodlights and cameras brought out the creatures' natural colours vividly. Victor continued past sponges and sea cucumbers, then the terrain levelled off.

'We made it,' said Lund. 'Six hundred and eighty metres.'

'OK.' The pilot leaned forwards. 'Let's bank a little.'

The slope disappeared from the screens. For a while they saw nothing but water until the seabed emerged from the blue-black depths.

'Victor can navigate to an accuracy of within less than a millimetre,' said Alban.

'So where are we now?' asked Johanson.

'Hovering over a plateau. The seabed beneath us contains vast stores of oil.'

'Any hydrates?'

Alban looked at him thoughtfully. 'Sure. Why do you ask?'

'Just interested. So it's here that Statoil wants to build the unit?'

'It's our preferred site, assuming there aren't any problems.'

'Like worms?'

Alban shrugged.

The Frenchman seemed to have an aversion to the topic, thought Johanson. Together they watched as the robot swept over the alien world, overtaking spindly legged sea spiders and fish half buried in the sediment. Its cameras picked up colonies of sponges, translucent jellyfish and miniature cephalopods. At that depth the water wasn't densely populated, but the seabed was home to all kinds of different creatures. After a while the terrain became pockmarked, coarse and covered with what appeared to be vast whip marks.

'Sediment slides,' said Lund. 'The Norwegian slope has seen a bit of movement in its time.'

'What are the rippled lines here?' asked Johanson. Already the terrain had changed again.

'They're from the currents. Let's steer round to the edge of the plateau.' She paused. 'We're pretty close to where we found the worms.'

They stared at the screens. The lights had caught some large whitish areas.

'Bacterial mats,' said Johanson.

'A sure sign of hydrates.'

'Over there,' said the pilot.

The screen showed a sheet of fissured whiteness – deposits of frozen methane. And something else. The room fell silent.

A writhing pink mass obscured the hydrate. For a brief moment they saw individual bodies, then the writhing tubes were too numerous to count. Pink flesh and white bristles curled under and over each other.

There was a sound of disgust from the men at the front. Conditioning, thought Johanson. Most humans disliked crawling, wriggling, sliding creatures, even though they were everywhere. He pictured the hordes of bugs swarming over his skin, and the billions of bacteria in his belly.

But, despite himself, Johanson was unsettled by the worms. The pictures from the Mexican Gulf had shown similarly large colonies, but with smaller worms sitting calmly in their holes. These worms never stopped slithering over the ice, a vast heaving mass that obliterated the surface.

'Let's zigzag round,' said Lund.

The ROV cut through the water in a sweeping slalom movement, the worms ever-present.

Suddenly the ground fell away. The pilot steered the robot to the edge of the plateau. Even with the combined power of eight strong floodlights, visibility was limited to just a few metres, but it was easy to imagine that the worms covered the length of the slope. To Johanson they seemed even bigger than the specimens Lund had brought into the lab.

The screens went dark. Victor had launched itself over the edge. There was a hundred-metre vertical drop to the bottom. The robot raced on at full speed.

'Turn,' said Lund. 'Let's take a look at the wall.'

Particles danced in the beam of the floodlights. Then something big and bright billowed into the frame, filling it for an instant, then retreating at lightning speed.

'What was that?' Lund called.

'Turn back!'

The ROV retraced its steps.

'It's gone.'

'Circle!'

Victor stopped and started to spin, but there was nothing to see, apart from impenetrable darkness and showers of plankton glittering in the light.

'There was something out there,' said the coordinator. 'A fish maybe.'

'Bloody big one,' growled the pilot.

Lund turned to Johanson, who shook his head. 'No idea.'

'OK. Let's go a bit deeper.'

The ROV headed towards the slope. A few seconds later a steep wall of seabed loomed into view. A few raised areas of sediment were visible, but the rest was covered with the now-familiar pink masses.

'They're everywhere,' said Lund.

Johanson joined her. 'Have you got a chart of the hydrate deposits here?'

'The area is full of methane – hydrates, pockets in the rock, gas seeping through the seabed…'

'I mean the ice on top.'

Lund typed something. A map of the seabed appeared on her screen. 'See the light patches? Those are the deposits.'

'Can you point out Victor's current position?'

'About here.' She indicated an area of the map covered with light patches.

'OK. Steer it this way, along and then up.'

The floodlights found a section of seabed devoid of worms. After a while the ground sloped upwards and then the steep wall appeared.

'Take us higher,' said Lund. 'Nice and slowly.'

Within a few moments they were back to the same picture as before. Pink tubular bodies with white bristles.

'Just as you'd expect,' muttered Johanson. 'Assuming your map is right, this is the site of the main belt of hydrates. The bacteria will be grazing the methane here… and being gobbled by the worms.'

'How about the numbers? Would you have expected to see millions?'

'No.'

Lund leaned back in her chair. 'All right,' she said, to the man controlling the articulated arm. 'Let's set Victor down for a moment. We'll pick up a batch of worms and take a look at the area.'

IT WAS GONE TEN when Johanson heard a knock at his door. Lund came in and flopped into the little armchair, which, together with a tiny table, was the only comfort the cabin offered.

'My eyes ache,' she said. 'Alban's taken over for a while.'

Her gaze wandered over to the cheese and the open bottle of Bordeaux. 'I should have guessed.' She laughed. 'So that's why you rushed off.'

Johanson had left the control room thirty minutes earlier.

'Brie de Meaux, Taleggio, Munster, a mature goat's cheese and some Fontina from the mountains in Piedmont,' he said. 'Plus a baguette and some butter. Would you like a glass of wine?'

'Do you need to ask? What is it?'

'A Pauillac. You'll have to forgive me for not decanting it. The Thorvaldson doesn't have any respectable crystal. Did you see anything interesting?'

He handed her a glass, and she took a gulp. 'The bloody things have set up camp on the hydrates. They're everywhere.'

Johanson sat down opposite her on the edge of the bed and buttered a piece of baguette. 'Remarkable.'

Lund helped herself to some cheese. 'The others are starting to think we should be worried. Especially Alban.'

'So there weren't as many last time?'

'No. I mean, more than enough for my liking – but that put me in a minority of one.'

Johanson smiled at her. 'People with good taste are always outnumbered.'

'Tomorrow morning Victor will be back on board with some specimens. You're welcome to have a look at them.' She stood up, chewing, and peered out of the porthole. The sky had cleared. A ray of moonlight shone on the water, illuminating the rolling waves. 'I've looked at the video sequence hundreds of times, trying to work out what we saw. Alban's convinced it was a fish… and if it was, it must have been a manta or something even bigger. But it didn't seem to have a shape.'

'Maybe it was a reflection,' Johanson suggested.

'It can't have been – it was just a few metres away, right on the edge of the beam, and it disappeared in a flash, as thought it couldn't stand the light or was afraid.'

'A shoal can twitch away like that. When fish swim close together they can look like a -'

'It wasn't a shoal, Sigur. It was practically flat. It was a wide two-dimensional thing, sort of. . . glassy. Like a giant jellyfish.'

'There you are, then.'

'But it wasn't a jellyfish.'

They ate in silence for a while.

'You lied to Jörensen,' Johanson said suddenly. 'You're not going to build a SWOP. Whatever it is you're developing, you won't need any workers.'

Lund lifted her glass, took a sip and put it down carefully. 'True.'

'So why lie to him? Were you worried it would break his heart?'

'Maybe.'

'You'll do that anyway. You've no use for oil workers, have you?'

'Listen, Sigur, I don't like lying to him but, hell, this whole industry is having to adapt and jobs will be lost. Jörensen knows that the workforce on Gullfaks C will be cut by nine-tenths. It costs less to refit an entire platform than it does to pay so many people. Statoil is toying with the idea of getting rid of all the workers on Gullfaks B. We could operate it from another platform, but it's scarcely worthwhile.'

'Surely you're not trying to tell me that your business isn't worth running?'

'The offshore business was only really worth running at the beginning of the seventies when OPEC sent oil prices soaring. Since the mid-eighties the yield has fallen. Things'll get tough for northern Europe when the North Sea wells run dry, so that's why we're drilling further out, using ROV's like Victor, and AUVs.'

The Autonomous Underwater Vehicle functioned in much the same way as Victor, but without an umbilical cord of cable to connect it to the ship. It was like a planetary scout, able to venture into the most inhospitable regions. Highly flexible and mobile, it could also make a limited range of decisions. With its invention, oil companies were suddenly a step closer to building and maintaining subsea stations at depths of up to five or six thousand metres.

'You don't have to apologise,' said Johanson, as he topped up their glasses. 'It's not your fault.'

'I'm not apologising,' Lund snapped. 'Anyway, it's everyone's fault. If we didn't waste so much energy, we wouldn't have these problems.'

'We would – just not right now. But your environmental concern is touching.'

'What of it?' She bristled at the jibe. 'Oil companies are capable of learning from their mistakes.'

'But which ones?'

'Over the next few decades we'll be grappling with the problem of dismantling over six hundred uneconomic, out-of-date platforms. Do you have any idea what that costs? Billions! And by then the shelf will be out of oil. So don't make out that we're irresponsible.'

'OK, OK!'

'Unmanned subsea processors are the only way forward. Without them, Europe will be dependent on the pipelines in the Near East and South America.'

'I don't doubt it. I just wonder if you know what you're up against.'

'Meaning?'

'Well, massive technological challenges for a start.'

'We're aware of that.'

'You're planning to process huge quantities of oil and corrosive chemicals under extreme pressure, with little provision for human intervention…' Johanson hesitated '. . . you don't really know what it's like in the depths.'

'That's why we're finding out.'

'Like today? It's not enough. It's like Granny coming home from holiday with some snapshots and saying she knows about the places that she's been. Basically, you're interfering with a system you simply don't understand.'

'Not that again,' groaned Lund.

'You think I'm wrong?'

'I can spell ecosystem backwards. I can even do it in my sleep. Is this some kind of anti-oil vendetta?'

'No. I'm just in favour of getting to know the world around us, and I'm pretty certain you're repeating your mistakes. At the end of the sixties you filled the North Sea with platforms – and now they're in the way. You need to make sure you're not so hasty in the deep sea.'

'If we're being so hasty, why did I send you the worms?'

'You're right. Ego te absolvo.'

Johanson decided to change the subject. 'Kare Sverdrup seems a nice guy.'

'Do you think so?'

'Absolutely.'

Lund swirled the wine in her glass. 'It's all very new,' she said.

Neither said anything for a while.

'In love?' asked Johanson, eventually.

'Me or him?'

'You.'

'Hmm.' She smiled. 'I think so.'

'You think so?'

'I work in exploration. I guess I'm still feeling my way.'

It was midnight when she left. At the door she looked back at the empty glasses. 'A few weeks ago I'd have been yours,' she said, sounding almost regretful.

Johanson propelled her into the corridor. 'At my age you get over it,' he said.

She came back, leaned forward and kissed his cheek. "Thanks for the wine.'

Life consists of compromises and missed opportunities, thought Johanson, as he shut the door. Then he grinned. He'd seized too many opportunities to he entitled to complain.

18 March

Vancouver and Vancouver Island, Canada

Leon Anawak waited with bated breath. Go on, he thought. You can do it.

For the sixth time the beluga turned and swam towards the mirror. Inside the underwater viewing area at Vancouver Aquarium, a small group of students and journalists waited expectantly. Through the glass wall in front of them they could see right across the inside of the pool. Rays of sunshine slanted into the water, dancing on the bottom and the sides. In the darkened viewing area, sunlight and shadow flickered across the watching faces.

Anawak had marked the whale with temporary dye, and a coloured dot now graced its lower jaw. The position had been chosen carefully so that the only way the whale could see it was by looking into the mirror. The beluga swam steadily towards one of two large mirrors that had been mounted on the reflective glass walls of the tank. The single-mindedness of its approach left Anawak in no doubt as to the outcome of the trial. As the beluga passed the viewing area it twisted its white body as if to show them the dot on its chin. When it got to the wall it sank through the water until it was level with the mirror. Then, pausing for a moment, it manoeuvred itself into a vertical position, turning its head from side to side, trying to find the best angle at which to view the dot. It paddled its flippers to keep itself upright, pointing its bulbous forehead first this way, then that.

In general, whales looked nothing like people, but at that moment the beluga seemed almost human. Briefly it seemed to smile. Indeed, unlike dolphins, the entire species could make their mouths smile or droop, even purse their lips, but it had nothing to do with their mood: the change in facial expression enabled them to vocalise.

At that moment, inspection complete, the beluga lost interest in the dot. Banking through the water in an elegant curve, it swam away from the wall.

'Well, that's that' said Anawak, softly.

'Which means what?' asked a female journalist, when the whale showed no sign of returning.

'It knows who it is. Come on, let's go upstairs.'

They emerged into the daylight, with the pool on their left. Swimming close to the rippled surface, the two belugas glided past. Anawak had deliberately refrained from explaining the experiment in advance. He was cautious about reading too much into a whale's behaviour, in case wishful thinking gained the upper hand, so he let the others share their conclusions first.

They confirmed his findings.

'Congratulations' he said. 'You've just witnessed an experiment that went down in the history of behavioural science as the "mark-test" or "mirror-test". Does everyone know what that means?'

The students did, but the journalists were less sure.

'Not to worry' said Anawak. 'We'll whiz through it now. The mark-test dates back to the seventies. Some of you may have heard of Gordon Gallup…' Half of his listeners nodded; the others shook their heads. 'He's a professor of psychology at the State University of New York. One day he hit on the crazy idea of exposing primates to their reflections. Most of them ignored the mirror, some assumed it was a rival and went on the attack, but the chimpanzees recognised themselves and used the mirror to look at themselves. Now, that was significant, since most animals can't identify their mirror image. Most animals feel, act and react – but they're not aware of themselves. They don't perceive themselves as independent individuals, distinct from other members of their species.'

Anawak went on to explain how Gallup had used a coloured dye to mark the foreheads of the apes before he exposed them to the mirror. The chimpanzees were quick to realise who they were looking at. They inspected the dye, raised their hands to touch it, then sniffed at their fingers. Gallup carried out the same experiment with parrots, elephants and other primates. The only animals consistently to pass the test were chimpanzees and orangutans, leading him to the conclusion that they were capable of self-recognition and were therefore self-aware.

'But Gallup went further than that' said Anawak. 'For years he'd rejected the idea that animals could understand the state of mind of other beings, but the results of the mark-test changed all that. These days, he not only believes that chimpanzees and orangutans are aware of their identity but that their self-awareness allows them to attribute intent and emotion to other beings and so empathise with them. In other words, it enables them to infer the mental states of others. That's the essence of Gallup's theory, and it's got a big following.'

He'd have to rein in the journalists later, he thought. He didn't want to open a paper in a few days' time and see headlines about belugas as psychiatrists, dolphins setting up rescue missions and chimpanzees playing chess.

'Until the early nineties the mark-test was conducted almost exclusively on land animals. There'd been plenty of speculation about IQ in whales and dolphins, but proving their intelligence was never going to be popular with certain sectors of industry. Monkey meat appeals to only a small percentage of the world's population but whales and dolphins are sought after, and it never looks good for hunters when their prey turns out to be smart. When we started conducting mark-tests on dolphins we upset a lot of people. In the run-up to the experiments we lined the pool with reflective glass and added some mirrors, then marked the dolphins with a spot of black ink. They searched the walls until they located the mirrors – they had obviously realised that they'd be able to see the spot more clearly in the mirror than the clear glass. To make the test more rigorous, we didn't always use a real pen. Sometimes we used a water-filled marker. That way we could test whether or not the dolphins were just reacting to the sensation of the mark being made. The test results showed that the dolphins looked longer and harder at their reflections whenever the mark was visible.'

'Did you reward them for their behaviour?' asked a student.

'No, and we didn't train them. In fact, we even kept changing the location of the mark to make sure the results weren't skewed by learning or by habit-forming behaviours. A few weeks ago we began the trials again, this time with belugas. So far we've marked them six times, including twice with the placebo pen. You've seen for yourselves what happens. The whale approached the mirror and looked for the mark. When the mark wasn't there, it swam away. To me, that proves that belugas possess a degree of self-awareness on a par with chimpanzees. In some respects whales and humans may have more in common than we think.'

A student raised her hand. 'Can we tell from the experiment that dolphins and whales have minds then?'

'That's right.'

'Then where's the proof?'

Anawak was taken aback. 'I thought I'd explained that. Didn't you see what happened in the pool?'

'Sure. I saw a whale inspecting its mirror-image. The beluga knows who it is – but does that necessarily mean it's self-aware?'

'You've just answered the question. It knows who it is. It's aware of itself.'

'That's not what I meant.' She took a step forward. She had red hair, a small pointy nose and incisors that seemed too big for her mouth. 'The experiment looks for observational faculties and the ability of the whale to recognise its body. From what we've just seen, the beluga passed on both counts. But you still haven't proven that whales have any permanent sense of identity, and you can't jump to conclusions about their attitude to other living things.'

'I didn't.'

'You did. You cited Gallup's theory about certain animals being able to infer the mental state of others.'

'I said primates.'

'Well, that's pretty controversial in itself In any case, I didn't hear you qualify your statement in relation to dolphins or whales – or maybe I misheard you.'

'There's no need for me to qualify anything,' Anawak said peevishly. 'We've just proven that whales can recognise themselves.'

'That seems to be what the experiment indicates, yes.'

'Then what are you trying to say?'

Her eyes widened. 'It's obvious, isn't it? I mean, you can see how a beluga responds, but there's no way of knowing what it's thinking. I've read Gallup's stuff too. He thinks he can prove that animals are sensitive to each other's mental states, but he relies on the assumption that animals think and feel as we do. You're trying to humanise whales.'

So that was her objection. Unbelievable. It was exactly what Anawak had always argued. 'Is that how it seemed to you?'

'Well you said so yourself "Whales have more in common with humans than we think."

'You should have paid more attention, Miss. . .'

'Delaware. Alicia Delaware.'

'Miss Delaware.' Anawak was back in control. 'I said, "Humans and whales may have more in common than we think."

'And the difference is?'

'In the perspective. It's not a question of finding parallels to prove that whales are like humans, or of using mankind as the template by which to judge whales. It's about finding fundamental similarities that-'

'But I don't think you can compare an animal's self-awareness with a human's. Even the basic stuff is so different. I mean, first of all humans have a permanent sense of identity, which allows them to-'

'Wrong,' Anawak interrupted her. 'Humans only develop a stable sense of self-awareness under specific sets of circumstances. Research shows that infants first start to recognise themselves in a mirror between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four months. Until then they're unable to conceptualise the self. In fact, they're even less self-aware than the whale we just observed. And stop referring back to Gallup. My aim is to try to understand the whales. What's yours?'

'I was only trying to-'

'Well, before you try anything else, may be you should imagine how a beluga might judge you. I mean, what's a whale going to think if it sees you looking in the mirror painting your face? Oh, it'll realise you've identified the person in the mirror, sure, but it won't find much evidence of intelligent behaviour. Come to think of it, if it doesn't like your makeup, it might even wonder if you're really self-aware. It's bound to question your IQ.'

Alicia Delaware went red. She started to answer, but Anawak cut her off. 'Needless to say, these tests are just a start,' he said. 'In any case, no one seriously involved in studying whales and dolphins wants to bring back the old myth of man's aquatic friend with the winning smile. I don't suppose whales and dolphins are especially interested in humans, particularly since they inhabit a different environment. They've got different needs from us and they've evolved differently. But if our research can persuade people to respect and protect them, it's worth the effort.'

He answered a few more questions, and finally said goodbye to the group. He waited until they were out of sight, then reviewed the trial with his research team and arranged the dates and procedures for the remaining tests. When everyone had gone, he walked to the edge of the pool, took a deep breath and tried to relax.

PR wasn't one of his strengths, but he had to learn to deal with it. His career was on track, and he'd made his reputation as a brilliant young scientist. No doubt he'd be dragged into countless more arguments with the Alicia Delawares of this world, kids fresh out of university who were so immersed in their textbooks that they'd never even touched the sea.

He crouched and dabbled his fingers in the cool water of the belugas' pool. It was still early. They always tried to conduct tests or demonstrations either before the aquarium opened or when it was closed in the evening. After the long stretch of rain, March was redeeming itself, and the morning sunshine felt pleasantly warm on his skin.

She'd said he treated whales like humans. The accusation had hit home. Anawak prided himself on his sober approach to science. In fact, he led his whole life soberly. He didn't drink and he never went to parties. His research was based on rigour, not attention-seeking theories. He was an atheist, who detested new-age spirituality and avoided projecting human values on animals. Dolphins in particular had become the focus of a romantic way of thinking that was almost as dangerous as hatred or contempt. People tended to view them as a superior species, clinging to them as though their supposed goodness would somehow rub off. The ignorance that exposed dolphins to horrendous cruelty also led to their unqualified idealisation. Humans either tortured or loved them to death.

And Alicia Delaware had had the nerve to use his own arguments against him.

Anawak patted the surface of the water. After a while the beluga with the dot on its chin swam over, poked up her head and allowed herself to be stroked. She gave a series of low whistles. Anawak wondered if she felt or could understand any of the emotions that humans experienced. There was no evidence to prove it – in that respect Alicia Delaware had been right! But no one had proven that they didn't have feelings.

The beluga warbled and disappeared underwater. A shadow fell over Anawak. He turned, and found himself looking at a pair of hand-stitched cowboy boots. Oh, great, he thought. That's all I need.

'Good morning, Leon,' said the man standing beside him. 'Who've you guys been mistreating today?'

Anawak stood up to greet the intruder. Jack Greywolf looked like something out of a modern-day Western. His colossal muscular frame was clad entirely in grease-speckled suede. Chains of traditional Indian jewellery dangled over his barrel-like chest. Long silky black hair streamed down his back from beneath his feathered cap. It was well groomed, but in all other respects he looked as though he'd spent weeks living wild on the prairie, deprived of soap and water. Anawak responded to the mocking grin with a thin smile. 'Who let you in, Jack? No, don't tell me. The Great Spirit Manitou, I bet.'

The grin widened. 'I got special permission.'

'Oh, yeah?'

'From the Pope in person. For Christ's sake, Leon, I came through the gate with the rest of them. The aquarium's open.'

Anawak realised he had lost track of the time. 'This better be a coincidence.'

Greywolf pursed his lips. 'Not exactly.'

'Uh-huh. So you were looking for me.' Anawak started to walk away, forcing Greywolf to follow. The first visitors were already strolling past. 'What can I do for you?'

'You know exactly what you can do.'

'Oh, don't start that again.'

'Join us.'

'Forget it.'

'Come on, Leon, you're one of us. Those hordes of rich assholes are filming the whales to death. That's not what you want, is it?'

'Nope.'

'People listen to you, Leon. If only you'd speak out against whale-watching, they'd take it seriously. We could use a guy like you.'

Anawak stopped in his tracks. 'That's just it. You think I could be useful. But I don't want to be useful to anyone except those who really need me.'

'Look!' Greywolf pointed in the direction of the beluga pool. 'They need you. It makes me sick to see you here, getting cosy with a pair of captives. If you're not keeping them locked up, you're hounding them down. Every time you people take the tourists out in your boats you're hastening their death.'

'Tell me, Jack, are you a vegetarian?'

'What?' Greywolf squinted at him.

'I was wondering whom they'd skinned to make your jacket.' He walked on.

Greywolf hurried after him. 'That's different. Indians have always lived in harmony with nature. They used the skins of the animals to-'

'Spare me the details.'

'But that's how it is.'

'Do you know your problem, Jack? Actually, you've got two. In the first place you pretend to be a devoted environmentalist, when all you're doing is fighting a war on behalf of the Indians who sorted out their problems years ago. And, second, you're not an Indian.'

Greywolf bristled. Anawak knew that Greywolf had been charged several times with assault, and wondered how far he could push him. One blow from the giant would finish the argument for once and for all.

'Why do you talk such shit, Leon?'

'You're only half Indian,' said Anawak. He paused by the sea otters' pool to watch them dart through the water like torpedoes. Their fur glistened in the morning sun. 'In fact, you're not even that. You're about as Indian as a Siberian polar bear. You don't know where you belong, you never make a go of anything, and you use your environmental crap to piss all over other people. Now, let me out of here.'

Greywolf squinted up at the sun. 'I can't hear you, Leon,' he said. 'It looks like you're talking but I can't hear the words. All I hear is a meaningless din, like gravel pouring on a roof.'

'Ouch!'

'Come on, it's not like I want much from you, just a little support.'

'I can't support you.'

'I've even gone to the trouble of coming here to tell you what we're planning next. I didn't have to.'

Anawak stiffened. 'What is it?'

'Tourist-watching.' Greywolf burst out laughing. His white teeth glinted like ivory. 'We'll be joining you in our boats to photograph the tourists. We'll stare at them, pull up alongside them, try to grab hold of them. Then they'll know what it feels like to be gawped at and pawed.'

'I'll have you stopped.'

'You can't. This is a free country, and no one can tell us when and where to sail. We've laid our plans and we're ready for action – although maybe if you were a bit more accommodating I'd think about calling it off.'

Anawak stared at him. 'There aren't any whales around anyway,' he said.

'Because you've driven them away.'

It's nothing to do with us.'

'Yeah, right. We're never the ones at fault. It's always the animals. They're forever swimming into harpoons or posing for photos. In any case, I heard humpbacks had been sighted.'

'A few.'

'I guess your business must be suffering. You don't want us to dent your profits even more.'

'Get lost, Jack.'

'That was my final offer.'

'Thank God.'

'Leon, you could at least put in a good word for us. We need money. We rely on donations. It's for a good cause. Can't you see that? We're both working for the same thing.'

'I don't think so. Take care, Jack.'

Anawak quickened his pace. The eco-warrior didn't follow. Instead he shouted, 'Stubborn bastard!'

Anawak walked determinedly past the dolphinarium and headed for the exit.

'Leon, you know what your problem is? Maybe I'm not a proper Indian, but you are!

'I'm not an Indian,' murmured Anawak.

'Oh, sorry!' veiled Greywolf, as if he'd heard him. 'You think you're special, don't you? Well, how come you've abandoned your people? Why aren't you there for them, where you're needed?'

'Asshole,' hissed Anawak. The beluga test had gone so well – it night have been a really good day. Now he felt worn down and miserable.

His people

Who did Greywolf think he was?

Where he was needed!

'I'm needed here.' He snorted.

A woman walked past, looking at him strangely. Anawak glanced round. He was on the street outside the aquarium. Shaking with fury, he got into his car, drove to the terminal at Tsawwassen, and took the ferry back to Vancouver Island.

THE NEXT DAY HE rose early and decided to walk to the whaling station. Wisps of pink cloud trailed on the horizon, but the mountains, houses and boats still cast dark shadows on the perfectly still water. Within a few hours the tourists would arrive. Anawak walked the length of the jetty to where the Zodiacs were moored and leaned over the wooden railings.

Two small cutters sailed past. Anawak wondered whether to call Susan Stringer and talk her into going out with him to look for whales. As Greywolf had said, the first humpbacks had been sighted, which was reassuring, but it didn't explain where they'd been hiding. Maybe together he and Stringer could identify a few. She had sharp eyes, and he enjoyed her company. She was one of the few people who never pestered him with questions about his background.

Even Samantha Crowe had asked about it. Oddly, he might have told her a bit about himself, but by now she would be on her way home.

Anawak decided to let Stringer sleep and set off on his own. He went in to the station where he stowed a laptop, camera, binoculars, tape-recorder, hydrophone and headphones in a waterproof bag. He placed a cereal bar and two cans of iced tea on top, then headed for the Blue Shark. He let the boat chug leisurely through the lagoon, waiting until the town was behind him before he opened the throttle. The prow rose up in the waves and wind swept into his face, driving the gloomy thoughts from his mind.

Twenty minutes later he was steering through a group of tiny islands and out on to the silvery-black open sea. The waves rolled in sluggishly, separated by long intervals. He eased off the throttle, and as the coast disappeared, he gazed into the morning light, trying not to succumb to the pessimism that had lately become a habit. Whales had been sighted and not just residents: the humpbacks were migrants, on their way from California or Hawaii.

Once the boat was far enough out he turned off the engine, opened a can of iced tea, drank it, and sat down with the binoculars.

It was an age before he spotted anything. Then a dark shape caught his eye, but vanished in a trice. 'Go on, show yourself,' he whispered. 'I know you're out there.'

He scanned the ocean intently. The minutes ticked by and nothing happened. Then, one after the other, two dark silhouettes rose above the waves at some distance from the boat. A sound like gunfire rang out across the water as two clouds of white spray shot into the air, like breath on a winter's morning.

Humpback whales.

Anawak was laughing with joy. Like any competent cetologist, he could identify a whale by its blow – a large one could fill several cubic metres. The air in the lungs would compress, then shoot out at high speed through the narrow holes, expanding and cooling in the atmosphere to form a spray of misty droplets. The shape and size of the blow varied, even within a single species. It depended on the whale's size, the duration of a dive and even the wind. But this time there was no doubt: those bushy clouds of spray were characteristic of the humpback.

Anawak flipped open the laptop and booted it up. The hard drive contained a database with descriptions of hundreds of whales which regularly passed that way. To the untrained eye the little of the whale visible above the water was scarcely enough to identify the species, let alone the individual, and to make matters worse, the view was often obscured by rough seas, mist, rain or blinding sunshine. But each whale had its own identifying features. The easiest way to tell them apart was by looking at the flukes. When a whale dived, its tail often flicked right out of the water and the underside of each fluke was unique to that animal, differing in pattern, structure and form. Anawak could identify many flukes from memory, but the photos on the laptop helped.

He was willing to bet that the two whales out there were old friends.

After a while the black humps resurfaced. First to appear were the blowholes, little raised bumps on top of the head, barely visible among the waves. Then came the firing noise again, followed by two puffs of air, rising in synchrony. This time the whales didn't sink back into the water, but raised their humps high above the waves. Their stumpy dorsal fins came into view, arching slowly through the air, then slicing back into the water. Anawak had a clear view of the whales' backs with their prominent vertebrae. Then they dived again, their flukes rising leisurely out of the water.

Hurriedly Anawak raised the binoculars for a glimpse of the undersides, but failed. Not to worry. The first commandment of whale-watching was patience, and there was plenty of time before the tourists arrived. He opened the second can of iced tea, unwrapped the cereal bar and took a bite.

He didn't have long to wait before his faith was rewarded, and five humps ploughed through the water not far from the boat. Anawak's heart quickened. The whales were close now. Full of anticipation he waited for the flukes. He was so engrossed in the spectacle that he didn't notice the enormous black shadow by the boat. It was only when the creature loomed vertically out of the water, towering above him, that he turned and jumped.

Instantly he forgot the other humps.

The whale's head had risen almost silently. Now it was almost touching the boat's rubber hull. Three and a half metres of whale extended upright out of the water, the drooping mouth covered with barnacles and knotty bulges. An eye as big as a human fist stared at him.

It wasn't the first time Anawak had seen a whale at such close-quarters. On dive trips he'd swum alongside them, stroking and clutching on to them. He'd ridden on them. It wasn't unusual for grey whales, humpbacks or orcas to poke their heads out of the water right next to the Zodiac to look for landmarks or examine the boat.

But this was different.

Anawak wasn't sure if he was watching the whale or if it was watching him. The enormous mammal didn't seem interested in the boat. Looking out from under its elephantine lid, the humpback's eye was fixed on him. Beneath the surface, whales had acute vision, but outside their natural element they were damned to short-sightedness by their globular eyes. Close up like that, though, the humpback must be able to see him as clearly as he could see it.

Slowly, so that he did not frighten it, Anawak stretched out an arm and stroked the smooth, damp skin. The whale showed no sign of wanting to dive. Its eye shifted focus slightly, but returned to him. There was something almost intimate about the scene. As pleased as he was to see the animal, Anawak wondered what it stood to gain from such a lengthy observation. Under normal circumstances a skyhop lasted seconds. It cost a lot of energy to stay vertical like that.

'Where've you been all this time?' he asked.

A barely audible splash sounded from the other side of the boat. Anawak swivelled just in time to see another head rising from the water. The second was smaller than the first, but just as close. It, too, fixed Anawak with a black eye.

What did they want from him?

Uneasiness crept over him. It wasn't normal for whales to stare fixedly like that. He'd never seen anything like it. All the same he couldn't resist bending down to his bag and fishing out his digital camera. He held it up in the air. 'Now, keep nice and still…'

Maybe the camera was a mistake. If so, it was the first time in the history of whale-watching that humpbacks had objected to having their picture taken. As if on command, the two enormous heads vanished, like a pair of islands sinking beneath the waves. There were a few quiet gurgling noises, a slurp and some bubbles, then Anawak was alone again on the shimmering sea.

The sun was rising over the nearby coast. Mist hung over the mountains. The grey water was turning blue.

Not a whale in sight.

Anawak released the air from his lungs and stuffed the camera back into the open bag. He was about to pick up the binoculars when he thought better of it. His two new friends couldn't have gone far yet. He pulled out the cassette-recorder, put on the headphones and lowered the hydrophone slowly into the water. The headphones crackled, plunked and droned, but there was nothing to indicate the presence of a whale. Anawak waited, expecting to hear the distinctive call of a humpback, but everything was quiet.

In the end he hauled the hydrophone back on board.

Some time later he spotted clouds of spray in the distance, but that was the last he saw of them.

On the way back to Tofino, he thought about how tourists would have reacted to the spectacle – and how they'd react if it happened again. The news would travel fast. Davie's and their tame whales – they'd be inundated with bookings.

Fantastic!

As the Zodiac forged ahead through the still waters of the bay, Anawak stared out at the nearby forest. It was almost too fantastic.

23 March

Trondheim, Norway

Sigur Johanson woke with a start, groped for his alarm-clock, then realised his phone was ringing. Rubbing his eyes and swearing, he hauled himself upright, but his sense of balance eluded him and he fell back on to his pillow. His head was spinning.

He tried to remember the previous night. They'd stayed out late drinking, he, some colleagues and a few students. They'd only meant to have dinner at Havfruen, a restaurant in a converted wharf warehouse not far from Gamle Bybro, the old town bridge. It served great seafood and some very good wine. Some truly excellent wine, he recalled. From their table next to the window they'd looked out at the Nid, with its jetties pointing upstream and the little boats, and watched the river flow leisurely towards the nearby Trondheim fjord. Someone had started to tell jokes, then Johanson had gone with the owner into the restaurant's dank wine-cellar to inspect the precious vintage bottles…

He sighed. I'm fifty-six, he told himself, as he pulled himself up again. I shouldn't do this any more.

The telephone was still ringing. He got to his feet and stumbled into the living room. Was he supposed to be lecturing that morning? He imagined himself standing in front of his students, looking every minute of his age, barely able to stop his chin sagging on to his chest. His tongue felt heavy and furred, disinclined to do anything involving speech.

When he reached the phone it dawned on him that it was Saturday. His mood improved dramatically. Johanson,' he answered, sounding unexpectedly lucid.

'You took your time,' said Tina Lund.

Johanson rolled his eyes and lowered himself into an armchair. 'What time is it?'

'Half past six.'

'It's Saturday.'

'I know it is. Is something wrong? You don't sound too good.'

I'm not feeling too good. Why the hell are you phoning me at this uncivilised hour?'

Lund giggled. 'I was hoping to talk you into coming over to Tyholt.'

'To the institute? For Christ's sake, Tina, why?'

'I thought we could have breakfast together. It'll be fun. Kare's in Trondheim for a few days, and I know he'd love to see you.' She paused. 'Besides, there's something I want your opinion on.'

'What?'

'Not on the phone. So, are you coming or not?'

'All right, give me an hour,' said Johanson. He yawned expansively, then stopped in case he strained his jaw. 'In fact, give me two. I'll call in at the lab on the way. There might be news on the worms.'

'Let's hope so. Weird, isn't it? First I was the one making all the fuss, and now it's the other way round. OK, take your time – but don't be too long!'

'At your service,' Johanson mumbled. Still dizzy, he dragged himself off to the shower.

Thirty minutes later, he was feeling more alive. Outside, it was sunny and Kirkegata Street was all but deserted. The last piles of snow had melted and as Johanson drove out towards the Gloshaugen campus he was whistling Vivaldi. The university was supposed to be closed at the weekend, but no one paid any attention to the rules: it was the best time to sort your mail and work undisturbed.

Johanson went to the post-room, rummaged in his pigeon-hole and pulled out a thick envelope. It had been sent from Kiel and almost certainly contained the lab results that Lund was so desperate to see. He stowed it away, unopened, went back to his car and resumed his journey to Tyholt.

The Institute for Marine Technology, or Marintek, as it was known, had close links with the NTNU, SINTEF and the Statoil research centre. In addition to its collection of simulation tanks and wave tunnels, it also housed the world's biggest artificial ocean-research basin, offering scientists scale-model testing in simulated wind and waves. The Norwegian shelf was covered with floating production systems that had been tested in the eighty-metre-long by ten-metre-deep pool. Two wave machines created miniature currents and storms that seemed terrifyingly powerful. Johanson was pretty sure that Lund would use it to test the underwater unit that she was planning for the slope.

As he had expected, he found her at the poolside, talking to some scientists. There was something droll about the scene. Divers were weaving through the blue-green water past Toytown platforms, while miniature tankers floated past lab staff in rowing-boats. It resembled a cross between a toy-shop and a boating party, but it had a serious purpose: the offshore industry needed Marintek's blessing before any new structure could be built.

Lund spotted him, broke off her conversation and headed over. It meant walking all the way round the pool, which she did at her usual canter.

'Why not take a boat?' asked Johanson.

'This isn't the village pond, you know,' she said. 'Everything has to be coordinated. If I ploughed willy-nilly through the basin, hundreds of oil workers would die in the tidal wave.'

She gave him a peck on the cheek. 'You're all scratchy.'

'All men with beards are scratchy,' said Johanson. 'It's lucky for you Kare hasn't got one, or you'd have no excuse for picking him instead of me. So, what are you working on? The subsea problem?'

'As best we can – the basin only lets us simulate realistic conditions for depths of up to a thousand metres.'

'You don't need to go deeper.'

'Theoretically, no. But we still like to run through the scenarios on the computer. Sometimes its predictions don't fit the results from the basin, so we keep adjusting the parameters until we get a match.'

'Shell's looking into building a unit two thousand metres down. It was in the papers yesterday. You've got competition.'

'I know. Marintek's doing the research for them too. It'll be an even harder nut to crack. Come on, let's get some breakfast.'

Once they were out in the corridor Johanson said; 'I still don't understand why you can't use a SWOP. Isn't it easier to work on a floating platform and connect it via flexible flowlines?'

She shook her head. 'Too risky. Floating structures still have to be anchored.'

'I know that.'

'And they can always come adrift.'

'But the shelf's full of them!'

'Granted, but only where it's shallower. In deeper water, the waves and currents are different. Besides, it's not just a question of anchoring the units. The longer the riser, the less stable it becomes. The last thing we need is an environmental disaster. And, anyway, who'd want to work on a floating platform on the other side of the shelf? Even the hardiest would spew their guts out. This way.'

They went up some stairs.

'I thought we were going for breakfast,' said Johanson in surprise.

'We are, but there's something I want to show you first.'

Lund pushed open a door and they went into an office on the floor immediately above the ocean basin. The large glass windows looked down on neat rows of sunlit gardens and gabled houses that stretched out in the direction of Trondheim fjord.

She walked over to a desk, pulled up two Formica chairs and flipped open the widescreen laptop. Her fingers drummed impatiently while the program loaded. The screen filled with photos that seemed strangely familiar. They showed a milky-white patch dissolving into darkness at the edges. All of a sudden Johanson realised what he was looking at. 'The footage from Victor,' he said. 'It's that thing we saw on the slope.'

'The thing I was worried about.' Lund nodded.

'Do you know what it is yet?'

'No, but I can tell you what it isn't. It's not a jellyfish, and it's definitely not a shoal. We've tried putting the image through countless different filters, but this is the best we could do.' She enlarged the first photo. 'The thing was caught in Victor's floodlights. We saw a part of it, but not as it would have looked without the artificial lighting.'

'Without the lighting you wouldn't have seen anything. It was far too deep.'

'You reckon?'

'Unless, of course, the thing was bioluminescent, in which case-' He broke off.

Lund appeared pleased with herself. Her fingers danced over the keyboard and the picture changed again. This time they were looking at a section from the top right-hand corner. At the edge of the image, the bright patch dimmed into darkness, and faint marks could be seen. It was a different kind of light, a deep-blue glow streaked with pale lines.

'When light is directed at a luminescent object you can't see its natural glow. Victor's floodlights are so powerful they illuminate everything, except at the very edge of the picture where they're no longer so bright.

But there's definitely something there. That proves to me we're dealing with a luminescent creature – a pretty big one.'

Many deep-sea creatures could luminesce. Their light was the result of symbioses with bacteria. Some organisms on the surface of the ocean could emit light too – algae, for instance, and some small species of squid – but the real sea of lights only started where darkness began, beyond the reach of the sun.

Johanson stared at the screen. There was only a hint of blue, barely visible, and most people would have missed it. Still, the robot was known for the high resolution of its pictures. Perhaps Lund was right. He scratched his beard. 'How big is it, do you think?'

'It's difficult to say because it disappeared so quickly, but in that time it must have swum to the edge of the beam. If you look here, though, it still almost covers the frame, which suggests…'

'That the part we're looking at measures ten to twelve square metres.'

'Exactly. The part! She paused. 'Judging by the light at the edge of the picture, I'd say we saw just a fraction of it.'

A different explanation occurred to Johanson. 'It could be planktonic organisms,' he said. 'Micro-organisms of some kind. Plenty of species glow.'

'How do you explain the markings?'

'You mean the paler streaks? Coincidence. We're only assuming that they're markings. We used to think that the channels on Mars were markings too.'

'I'm certain they're not plankton.'

'We can't see well enough to tell.'

'Oh, but we can. Take a look at this.'

Lund called up the next images. The milky patch retreated further into the darkness. It had been visible for less than a second. The pale area of luminescence was still apparent in the second and third frames, but the streaks seemed to shift. By the fourth frame everything had vanished.

'It turned off its light,' Johanson said, amazed. Certain species of squid could communicate with bioluminescence, and it wasn't unusual for them to flip the switch and disappear into darkness when they felt threatened. But this creature was bigger than any known species of squid.

There was an obvious conclusion, but he was reluctant to draw it. It had no business on the Norwegian continental slope. 'Architheuthis,' he said. 'Giant squid.' Lund nodded. 'It makes you wonder, doesn't it? But it'd be the first time anything like that showed up in these waters.'

'More like the first time it showed up anywhere.'

That wasn't strictly true. For a long time stories about Architheuthis had been dismissed as sailors' yarns. Then some enormous corpses had washed ashore, which seemed to prove its existence – or would have done, if it weren't for the fact that normal squid flesh was amazingly elastic and could be stretched to almost any size, even when it was decaying. Then a few years ago a team of scientists working off the coast of New Zealand had caught some juvenile specimens whose genetic profile demonstrated conclusively that in less than eighteen months they would grow into twenty-metre squid, weighing a tonne each. But no one had ever seen such a monstrous creature. Architheuthis lived in the ocean depths, and there was no reason to believe it might be luminescent.

Johanson's brow furrowed. 'No.'

'What do you mean, "no"?'

'Think of all the evidence against it. For a start, it's the wrong place for giant squid.'

'That's all very well,' Lund waved her hands in the air, 'but we don't know where they live. We know nothing about them at all.'

'They definitely don't belong here, though.'

'Nor do those worms.'

They fell silent.

'OK, suppose you're right,' Johanson said eventually. 'Architheuthis are shy creatures. No one's ever been attacked by one, so what have you got to worry about?'

'That's not what people who've seen them say.'

'For heaven's sake, Tina, maybe they've capsized the odd boat, but you can't seriously be suggesting that they're a danger to the oil industry.'

Lund closed down the screen. 'All right. So, what have you got for me? Any new test results?'

Johanson brandished the envelope at her and opened it. Inside was a fat parcel of closely typed documents.

'God!' she exclaimed.

'Don't worry, there'll be a summary… and here it is.'

'Let me see!'

'Just a moment.' He glanced over the sheet of paper. Lund got up and walked over to the window. Then she started pacing round the room.

Johanson frowned and leafed through the bundle of documents. 'Interesting.'

'Spit it out!'

'They say the worms are polychaetes. This isn't a taxonomical report, but they mention similarities with Hesiocaeca methanicola. They're puzzled by the size of the jaws. They also found… hmm, details, details… OK, here we go. They examined the jaws. Powerful mandibles, designed for boring or burrowing.'

'We knew that already,' Lund said impatiently.

'That's not all. Next come the results from the isotope ratio mass spectrometry and the scanning electron microscope. Our friend is minus ninety parts per thousand.'

'Would you care to translate?'

'It's as we thought. The worm is methanotrophic. It lives symbiotically with bacteria that break down methane. It. . . I'm not sure how to explain this… You see, depending on the isotope – you do know what an isotope is, don't you?'

'Any two or more atoms of a chemical element with the same atomic number but with differing atomic mass.'

'Ten out of ten! So, take carbon. It doesn't always have the same atomic mass. You can have carbon-12 or carbon-13. If you eat something with more of the lighter form of carbon in it – that is, with more of the lighter carbon isotope – your isotopic ratio will decrease too. Do you see?'

'No problem.'

'Now, take methane. Methane contains both isotopes of carbon, so when worms live symbiotically with bacteria that feed on the lighter form, the bacteria start to get lighter and so do the worms. Our worm is very light indeed.'

'You're an odd lot, you biologists. What the hell do you have to do to a worm to figure that out?'

'It's a most unsavoury process. It means grinding it into powder, then measuring its mass. Now, the results from the scanning electron microscope… They dyed the DNA … All very rigorous…'

Lund strode over to him and tugged at the documents. 'I don't need a lecture. All I want to know is if it's safe for us to drill.'

'There's no-' Johanson snatched back the summary and reread the final lines. 'Fantastic.'

'What is it?'

'They're coated with bacteria, inside and out. Endosymbiotic and exosymbiotic bacteria. It seems your worms are transporting bacteria by the busload.'

'And what does that mean?'

'Well, it doesn't add up. The worm lives on gas hydrates and is bursting with bacteria, so it doesn't hunt and it doesn't bore. It just lies there on its fat belly, lazing around on the ice. Yet it's equipped with enormous jaws that are perfect for boring. And the worms on the shelf looked anything but fat and lazy. I'd say they were distinctly agile.'

Neither said anything for a while. In the end Lund asked, 'What are they doing down there, Sigur?'

Johanson shrugged. 'I don't know. Maybe they really have crawled straight up from the Middle Cambrian. But I've no idea what they're up to.' He passed to consider. 'And I'm not sure if it matters. I mean, what's the worst they can do down there? They'll wriggle all over the place, sure, but they're hardly going to chew through a pipeline.'

'Well, what are they chewing, then?'

Johanson stared at the summary. 'There's one more place that might help us,' he said, 'and if they can't, we'll have to wait for a revelation.'

'I'd rather it didn't come to that.'

'I'll send off a few specimens.' Johanson yawned. 'You know what would be ideal? If they sent out their research vessel to take a proper look. At any rate, you're going to have to be patient. There's nothing we can do for the moment so, if you don't mind, I'd like some breakfast. Besides, I need to give Kare a piece of advice.'

Lund smiled, but it was clear from her expression that she wasn't satisfied.

5 April

Vancouver Island and Vancouver, Canada

Business was picking up again. Under any other circumstances Anawak would have shared wholeheartedly in Shoemaker's rejoicings. The whales were returning. The manager of Davie's could talk of nothing else. Slowly but surely they were all coming back: grey whales, humpbacks, orcas and even some minkes. Of course Anawak was pleased to see them – it was what he'd been hoping for – but he would have liked them to show up with a few answers to his questions, such as how they'd eluded the satellites and probes. He kept thinking back to his encounter with the humpbacks. He'd felt like a rat in a laboratory: the two whales had examined him as coolly and thoroughly as though he'd been laid out for dissection.

Were they spies? And, if so, what were they looking for?

It was a ridiculous idea.

He closed the ticket desk and went outside. The tourists were waiting at the end of the jetty. They looked like a Special Forces unit in their orange overalls. Anawak made his way over to them.

Someone was running after him. 'Dr Anawak!'

He stopped. Alicia Delaware was beside him, red hair scraped into a ponytail and wearing trendy blue sunglasses.

'Can I come too?'

Anawak glanced at the hull of the Blue Shark.

'We're full.'

'But I ran all the way to get here.'

'Sorry. The Lady Wexham's got a tour in half an hour. She's more luxurious, with heated indoor seating and a snack-bar. . .'

'I don't need a snack-bar. Come on, there must be room for me somewhere. How about at the back?'

'There are two of us in the cabin already – Susan and me.'

'I can stand.' Alicia smiled at him. Her large front teeth made her look like a freckled rabbit. 'Please, Dr Anawak. You're not still mad at me, are you? Your tour is the only one I want to go on.'

Anawak frowned.

'Don't look at me like that!' Delaware rolled her eves. 'I've read your books and I like your work.'

'That's not the impression I got.'

'At the aquarium?' She made a dismissive gesture. 'Forget it. Dr Anawak, I'm only here for one more day. It really means a lot to me.'

'It's against the regulations.' The excuse was lame and made him sound petty.

'God, you're stubborn,' she said. 'I'm warning you it doesn't take much to make me cry. If I can't come along, I'll be sobbing on the plane all the way to Chicago. You wouldn't want to be responsible for that.'

Anawak couldn't help laughing. 'All right. If it means that much to you, you can come.'

'Really?'

'Really. But don't get on my nerves. And try to keep your abstruse theories to yourself.'

'It wasn't my theory. It's from-'

'On second thoughts, don't say anything at all.'

She opened her mouth, then thought better of it.

'Wait here a moment,' said Anawak. I'll fetch you some waterproofs.'

For a full ten minutes Alicia Delaware stuck to her promise. Then, when the skyline of Tofino had disappeared behind the first of the tree-covered mountains, she sidled up to Anawak and held out her hand. 'Call me Licia,' she said.

'Licia?'

'From Alicia. You're Leon, right?'

He shook her hand.

'OK. Now, there's something we need to settle.'

Anawak looked at Stringer for help, but she was steering the Zodiac. 'Such as?' he asked cautiously.

'The other day at the aquarium I was acting like a stupid know-it-all and I'm sorry.'

'No problem.'

'Now it's your turn to apologise.'

'What for?'

She glanced away. 'I didn't mind you criticising my arguments in front of other people – but you shouldn't have mentioned my appearance.'

'Your appearance? I didn't… Oh God.'

'You said that if a beluga saw me doing my makeup, it would have to question my intelligence.'

'I didn't mean it like that.'

Anawak ran his hand over his thick black hair. He'd been annoyed with the girl for turning up, as he saw it, with preconceived ideas, then drawing attention to herself through her ignorance, but his angry words had hurt her. 'All right. I'm sorry.'

'Apology accepted.'

'You were citing Povinelli,' he said.

She smiled. It was proof that he was taking her seriously. In the debate about intelligence and self-awareness in primates and other animals, Daniel Povinelli was Gallup's principal critic. He supported Gallup's theory that chimpanzees who recognised themselves in the mirror must have some idea of who they were, but he rejected the claim that this meant they understood their own mental state and therefore that of others. In fact, Povinelli was far from being convinced that any animal was endowed with the psychological understanding common to humans.

'It takes guts to say what he's saying,' said Delaware. 'Povinelli's ideas seem so old-fashioned, while things are easier for Gallup – everyone likes to claim that chimpanzees and dolphins are on a par with humans.'

'Which they are,' said Anawak.

'Ethically speaking, yes.'

'That's got nothing to do with it. Ethics are a human invention.'

'No one would contest that. Least of all Povinelli.'

Anawak looked out over the bay. Some of the smaller islets were coming into view. After a while he said, 'I know what you're trying to say. You think it shouldn't be necessary to prove that animals are like humans to treat them humanely.'

'It's arrogant,' Delaware said fiercely.

'You're right. It doesn't solve anything. And yet most people would be lost without the idea that life increases in value the more it resembles our own. We still find it easier to kill animals than people. It gets tricky when you start seeing animals as relatives of mankind. Most people are aware that humans and animals are related, but they like to think of themselves as the pinnacle of creation. Few will admit that other forms of life might he as precious as their own. And that creates a dilemma: how can they treat animals or plants with the same respect as other humans when they think that the life of an ant, an ape or a dolphin is worth less than their own?'

'Hey!' She clapped her hands. 'You think the same as I do after all.'

'Almost. I think you're a bit, er, dogmatic in your approach. I believe that chimpanzees and belugas do have a certain amount in common with us psychologically.' Anawak held up his hand before she could protest. 'OK, let me put it another way. I'd say that humanity rises in the estimation of belugas the more they discover that humanity has in common with them. Assuming whales care about such things.' He grinned. 'Who knows? Some belugas might even think we're intelligent. Does that sound better?'

Delaware wrinkled her nose. 'I don't know.'

'Sea-lions!' Stringer called out. 'Over there!'

Anawak shielded his eyes with his hand and squinted in the direction she was pointing. They were coming up to a tree-lined island. A group of Stellar sea-lions were sunning themselves on the rocks.

'This isn't about Gallup or Povinelli, is it?' said Anawak, picking up his camera. He zoomed in and took a few shots of the sea-lions. 'So why not change the terms of the debate? There's no hierarchy of life-forms in nature: it's a human concept, and it needn't concern us now. We both agree that it's wrong to treat animals like humans. That said, I think it's within our power to gain a limited insight into the psychology of animals – to understand them intellectually, if you like. What's more, I'm convinced that certain animals have more in common with us than others and that one day we'll find a way of communicating with them. You, on the other hand, take the view that non-human forms of life will always be a mystery to us. We can't get inside the head of an animal, ergo, we can't communicate. Which leaves us with the fact of our difference. So you're saying we should hurry up and get used to the idea, and leave the poor creatures in peace.'

The Zodiac slowed to pass the sea-lions. Stringer imparted some information about them, while the tourists got out their cameras.

I'll have to think about it,' said Delaware, finally. She said scarcely another word until they reached the open water.

Anawak was content. It was good to start the trip with some sea-lions: it had put the tourists in a good mood.

Soon a herd of grey whales had appeared. Greys were slightly smaller than humpbacks, but still imposingly large. Some swam within a short distance of the boat and peeped briefly out of the water – to the delight of everyone on board. They looked like enormous moving pebbles, with their mottled grey skin and powerful jaws covered with barnacles, copepods and whale lice. Most of the tourists were filming frenetically or taking photos. The others looked on in silence, visibly moved. Anawak had seen grown men cry at the sight of a whale rising out of the water.

Three other Zodiacs and a bigger boat with a solid hull waited nearby, engines switched off Stringer radioed the details of the sighting. They were all committed to responsible whale-watching – but that wasn't enough for the likes of Jack Greywolf.

Greywolf was a dangerous jerk. Anawak didn't like the sound of tourist-watching. If it came to the crunch, the media would side with Greywolf – initially, at least. He and the others at the station could be as conscientious and careful as they liked, but a protest from an animal-rights group, however disreputable, would reinforce people's prejudices against whale-watching. No one bothered to distinguish between serious organisations and fanatics like Greywolf and his Seaguards. That only happened later, when the press got hold of the true facts and the damage had been done.

Anawak scanned the ocean intently, camera at the ready. Maybe he'd succumbed to paranoia after his meeting with the humpbacks. Had he been imagining things or were those whales behaving oddly?

'Over there, on the right!' Stringer shouted.

Inside the Zodiac all heads turned. Not far from the boat some grey whales were diving in glorious close-up. They looked as though they were waving with their flukes. Anawak was busy taking pictures for the archive. Shoemaker would have jumped for joy at the sight of it. It was a picture-perfect trip – as though the whales had decided to make up for their absence by putting on a real performance. Further out to sea three large ones stuck their heads out of the water.

'Those aren't grey whales, are they?' said Delaware, chewing gum.

'Humpbacks.'

'That's what I thought. I don't see any humps, though.'

"There aren't any. They make a hump when they dive, arching their backs in the water.'

'I thought it was because of the lumps on their mouths. Those bumpy things.'

Anawak sighed. 'You're not trying to start another argument, are you?'

'Sorry.' She gesticulated excitedly. 'Hey! Look over there! What are they up to?'

The heads of the three humpbacks had shot up through the surface. Their enormous mouths were wide open, revealing their tongues hanging down from their narrow upper jaws. The baleen plates were clearly visible and the throat grooves looked as if they were straining. A column of water rose up between them, with glints of something that sparkled in the light. Tiny fish, twitching frantically in the air. From out of nowhere flocks of gulls and loons appeared, circled, then plunged down to share the feast.

'They're feeding,' said Anawak, while he photographed the scene.

'Unbelievable! they look like they could eat us.'

'Licia! Try not to make yourself sound dumber than you seem.'

Delaware pushed her gum from one side of her mouth to the other. 'I was joking,' she said. 'I know perfectly well that humpbacks eat krill and other little fish, but this is the first time I've seen them feeding. I thought they just swam with their mouths open.'

'That's how Euhalaena feed – right whales,' said Stringer, turning. 'Humpbacks swim under shoals of fish or copepods and surround them with a net of bubbles. Small organisms don't like turbulent water, so they swim away from the bubbles and cluster together. Then the whales lunge out of the water, expand their throat grooves and start to gulp.'

'Don't try to explain it to her,' said Anawak. 'She knows it all already.'

'To gulp?' echoed Delaware.

Rorqual whales gulp-feed. They expand their throat grooves, which is why they look as though they've been puffed up. As the grooves open up, the throat turns into an enormous pouch, which the whale fills with food. In one huge mouthful the krill and fish are sucked in. The seawater drains out, but the prey is stuck in the baleen.'

Anawak squeezed in next to Stringer. Delaware must have sensed he wanted to talk to her privately because she made her way unsteadily out of the cabin towards the passengers in the front and started to explain gulp-feeding.

After a few moments Anawak asked softly, 'How do they seem to you?'

'Weird question.' Stringer thought about it. 'Same as always, I suppose. How do they seem to you?'

'You think they look normal?'

'Sure. They're putting on a great show, though. In fact, I'd say they're having the time of their lives.'

'So you don't think they've changed?'

She squinted across at them. The sunshine glistened on the water. A mottled grey body rose to the surface, then disappeared again. 'Changed?' she said slowly. 'How do you mean?'

'You know I told you about the megapterae that suddenly appeared either side of the boat.' At the last second he chose to use the humpbacks' scientific name. What he was thinking was mad, but at least when he put it like that it sounded half-way serious.

'So what?'

'It was weird.'

'That's what you told me. Humpbacks on either side of you. Some people have all the luck – an experience like that, and I missed it.'

'It was like they were checking me out. . . they looked like they were up to something.'

'I don't follow.'

'It wasn't nice.'

'Wasn't nice?' Stringer shook her head in disbelief 'Are you feeling OK? I'd give anything to be so close to them. If only it had been me!'

'You wouldn't say that if you'd been there. You wouldn't have liked it at all. I'm still trying to figure out which of us was watching whom. And why…'

'Leon, they're whales, not spies.'

He passed his hand over his eyes. 'Forget it. I must have been mistaken.'

There was a crackle from Stringer's walkie-talkie. Tom Shoemaker's voice screeched through. 'Susan? Tune into ninety-nine.'

They were currently on ninety-eight, the frequency used by various whale-watching stations to send and receive messages. It was a practical arrangement that allowed them to keep up with all the different sightings. Tofino Air and the coastguards also used the channel, as, regrettably, did various sport fishermen, whose idea of whale-watching was considerably less sophisticated. Each station had its own frequency for private conversations. Stringer switched over.

Is Leon with you?'

'Yes.'

She passed the walkie-talkie to Anawak, who took it and spoke to Shoemaker for a while. Then he said, 'All right, I'll do it. No, it doesn't matter that it's short notice. Tell them I'll fly over as soon as we're back. Catch you later.'

'What was all that about?' asked Stringer, as he handed her the radio.

'A request from Inglewood.'

'The shipping line?'

'Tom had a call from the directorate. They didn't say much except they needed my help and it was urgent. He had the impression they would have liked to beam me over.'

INGLEWOOD HAD SENT A HELICOPTER. Less than two hours after his radio conversation with Shoemaker, Anawak was in the air watching the spectacular landscape of Vancouver Island unfold beneath him. Hills covered with fir trees gave way to rocky mountain peaks connected by shimmering rivers and turquoise lakes. But even the island's beauty couldn't disguise the ravages of logging. The deforestation of vast swathes of land was all too evident.

They left Vancouver Island and flew over the hustling Strait of Georgia. The Rockies, peaks dotted with snow, ran along the horizon, while towers of pink and blue glass lined the sweeping bay, where seaplanes soared and dipped in the air like colourful birds.

The pilot radioed ground control. The helicopter dropped down, banked and headed for the docks. Minutes later they landed. Stacks of cedar towered on either side of them, while mounds of coal and sulphur rose in cubist-style arrangements from the wharf. A colossal cargo vessel was moored nearby. A man detached himself from a group of people and headed over. The wind from the helicopter's rotor ruffled his hair. He was wearing a long coat, and hunched his shoulders against the blast. Anawak unbuckled his seatbelt and made ready to disembark.

The man opened the door for him. He was in his early sixties, tall and well-built, with a round, friendly face and intelligent eyes. He smiled at Anawak and held out his hand. 'Clive Roberts,' he said, 'managing director.'

Anawak followed him to the others, who were inspecting a freighter. They seemed to be a mixture of crew members and people in suits.

They were walking along the starboard side of the boat, staring up at it, pausing, then setting off again.

'It's very good of you to come at such short notice,' said Roberts. 'We wouldn't normally call and expect you to come running, but it was urgent.'

'No problem,' said Anawak. 'What are we looking at?'

'An accident we think.'

'Involving that freighter?'

'Yes, the Barrier Queen. Although it's more to do with the tugboats that were supposed to be bringing her home.'

'You know I'm a cetologist, right? An expert in animal behaviour? Whales and dolphins.'

'That's exactly what we need.'

Roberts introduced him to the others. Three were from the shipping line's management team; the rest were representatives from the technical contractors. A short distance away two men were unloading dive equipment from a truck. Anawak looked into the circle of worried faces, then Roberts took him to one side.

'Unfortunately we can't speak to the crew right now,' he said, 'but I'll forward a confidential copy of the report as soon as it's available. We don't want to involve any more people than are absolutely necessary. Can I count on your discretion?'

'Of course.'

'Good. I'll give you a rundown on what's happened, and when I'm done, you can make up your own mind whether you want to stick around or fly home. Either way we'll reimburse you for your trouble and expense.'

'It's no trouble.'

Roberts looked at him gratefully. 'The Barrier Queen is fairly new. When she sailed, everything was in A-l condition and it's all been properly certified. She's a sixty-thousand-tonne freighter that we've been using to transport HGVs, mostly to Japan and back. We've had no trouble with her until now. We put a lot of money into making sure our boats are safe – more than strictly necessary. Anyway, the Barrier Queen was on her way home, fully laden.'

Anawak nodded.

'Six days ago she reached the edge of the two-hundred-mile zone on her way into Vancouver. It was three in the morning. The helmsman changed course by five degrees – a routine correction. He didn't bother checking the display: he could see the lights on a vessel ahead, which gave him perfect visual reference. He waited for the lights to shift right, but they stayed where they were. The Barrier Queen was heading straight on. He tried moving the rudder again, but there was no noticeable change in direction, so he went for full rudder, and suddenly it worked. The trouble was, it worked too well.'

'She hit the other vessel?'

'No, she was too far away for that. But the rudder blade seemed to have jammed. Nothing could budge it. Just imagine: a speed of twenty knots and you're stuck on full rudder … A ship of that size isn't simply going to stop. She heeled with her cargo. A ten-degree heel – do you know what that means?'

'I can guess.'

'The drainage system for the vehicle deck is located just above the waterline. In rough conditions the water floods in, then pours straight back out, but at an angle like that the drainage holes would be submerged. It wouldn't take a second for the ship to fill with water. Luckily for us, the sea was calm that day, but the situation was still critical. The rudder had stuck.'

'So what was wrong with it?'

'We can't be sure… but one thing's certain: that was when the trouble really started. The Barrier Queen stopped her engines, radioed a mayday and waited for help. It was clear she wasn't seaworthy. Several ships in the vicinity changed course to head over in case they were needed. In the meantime two salvage boats set out from Vancouver. They arrived two and a half days later, in the early afternoon. One sixty-metre deep-sea tug and one twenty-five-metre craft. The trickiest part of any rescue operation is to get the rope from the tug to land safely on the vessel. In bad weather it can take hours: first a thin line, then a slightly thicker one, then a heavy-duty cable. It's an interminable procedure. But in this case, well, there should have been no problem. Conditions were good and the water was calm. But the tug was obstructed.'

'By what?'

'The thing is…' Roberts grimaced. 'Have you ever heard of an attack by whales?'

It was the last thing Anawak had expected. 'An attack? On a ship, you mean?'

'Yes. A big ship.'

'It's almost unheard-of.'

'Almost?' Roberts was listening carefully. 'So this wouldn't be the first time?'

'There's one recorded incident from the nineteenth century. Melville wrote a novel about it.'

'You mean Moby Dick?

'The novel was inspired by the story of the Essex, a whaling ship sunk by a sperm whale. The vessel was forty-two metres long, made of wood and probably rotten, but that's not the point. The whale rammed the boat and it sank within minutes. Its crew are supposed to have drifted for weeks in their lifeboats… Oh, and there were two further cases last year off the coast of Australia. In both incidents a whale was reported to have sunk a fishing-boat.'

'What happened?'

'It smashed them to pieces with its tail. A man died. He had a heart-attack after plunging into the water.'

'What kind of whales were they?'

'No one knows. They disappeared too quickly.' Anawak looked across at the Barrier Queen's hull: there was no sign of any damage. 'I can't imagine a whale attacking her.'

Roberts followed his gaze. 'It was the tugs they were attacking,' he said, 'not the Barrier Queen. They came at them from the side. It was obvious they were trying to capsize them, but they didn't succeed. So they tried to prevent them attaching the tow line, which was when-'

'They launched their attack.'

'Yes.'

'Impossible,' Anawak asserted. 'Whales can overturn objects as big as or smaller than themselves. Certainly nothing any bigger. And they wouldn't attack a larger object unless they had no choice.'

'The crew swears blind that that was what happened. The whales attacked and-'

'What kind of whales?'

'God knows.'

Anawak frowned thoughtfully. 'Let's imagine the scenario. Suppose the tugs were attacked by blue whales, the largest species. Balaenoptera musculus can grow up to thirty-three metres long and weigh over 120 tonnes. They're the largest animals to have lived on this planet. Now, supposing" a creature like that tried to sink a boat of the same or similar length. It would have to be as fast as the boat, if not faster. Still, over short distances a blue whale can manage fifty or sixty kilometres per hour without too much hassle: its body is streamlined and there's almost no resistance. But how much momentum would it have? And what would be the counter-momentum of the boat? To put it simply, in the event of a collision, who would be knocked off course?'

'A hundred and twenty tonnes is pretty heavy.'

Anawak nodded at the truck. 'Do you think you can pick that up?'

'Of course no.'You see? The ground's supporting you and you still can't lift it. In the water you don't have that luxury. When you're swimming, you can't lift more than your weight. It doesn't matter if you're a whale or a human. It's all a question of relative mass. Besides, you've still got the problem of the displaced water. How much does it weigh in relation to the whale? It doesn't leave you with much, just the propulsion from the flukes. With a bit of luck the whale might nudge the ship off course. On the other hand it might deflect at an angle from the hull. It's a bit like billiards, if you see what I mean.'

Roberts scratched his chin. 'Some say they were humpbacks. Others talk about fin whales. And the crew on board the Barrier Queen think they saw sperm whales.'

'Three species that couldn't be more different.'

'Dr Anawak, I'm a reasonable man,' Roberts said. 'It seems to me that the tugs could have found themselves in the middle of a herd by accident. Maybe the boats weren't rammed by whales but the other way round. Maybe the crews did something stupid. But one thing is certain, the smaller craft was sunk by whales.'

Anawak could hardly believe what he was hearing.

'The crew had just connected the cable,' continued Roberts. 'It was a taut steel one reaching from the Barrier Queen's bow to the stern of the tug. The whales rose out of the water and crashed down on top of it- so, you see, in this instance there was no displaced water to slow the momentum. And they were pretty big specimens, according to the crew.' He paused. 'The tug whipped round and sank. It lifted up and over in the air.'

'And the men?'

'Two missing. The others were rescued. Tell me, Dr Anawak, is there any explanation for their behaviour?'

Good question, thought Anawak. Dolphins and belugas recognised themselves in the mirror. So, could they think? Could they plan? Could they plan in a way that we could understand? What motivated them? Did whales have a future and a past? What possible reason could they have for ramming or sinking a tug?

Unless the tug had threatened them or their young.

'It just doesn't fit with whales,' he said.

'That's what I thought,' Roberts said helplessly. 'But the crews see it differently. In any case, the bigger tug was also rammed. In the end they managed to attach the cable. This time it didn't come under attack.'

Anawak stared at his feet, searching for an answer. 'Coincidence,' he said. 'A horrible coincidence.'

'Do you really think so?'

'We'd have more chance of working it out if we knew what had happened to the rudder.'

'That's why we've called in the divers,' Roberts told him. 'In a few moments they'll be ready to go down.'

'Did they bring a spare set of equipment?'

'I expect so.'

Anawak nodded. 'I'm going too.'

THE WATER WAS REVOLTING, but it always was in docks. The thick dark liquid contained at least as much dirt as it did water. The bottom was covered with a metre-thick coating of mud, over which swirled a permanent cloud of organic matter and silt. As the waves closed over Anawak's head he asked himself how he was supposed to see anything. He could just about make out the hazy outlines of the two divers in front of him and beyond them a dark, misty patch – the Barrier Queen's hull.

The divers gave him the OK sign. Anawak made a circle with his forefinger and thumb in return. He released the latent air in his dive vest and dropped slowly down the side of the boat. They had only gone a few metres when they switched on their head-torches. Exhaled air bubbled and thundered in Anawak's ears. Little by little the rudder emerged in the half-light. Notched and stained, its plate was bent at an angle. Anawak felt for his depth gauge. Eight metres. Ahead of him, the divers disappeared behind the rudder, leaving two stray beams of light flitting through the darkness.

Anawak approached the rudder from the other side.

At first he could see only raised edges and irregular hollows. Then it hit him. The rudder was encrusted with black-and-white mussels. He swam closer for a better look. At the bottom of the rudder, where the plate swept the shaft, the mussels had been ground to pieces. A thick gritty paste filled the cracks and grooves. No wonder it wouldn't respond. It was clogged.

He swam further down the hull. The mussels continued. He reached out gingerly to touch the shells. They were glued to each other in layers, small molluscs no more than three centimetres long. Very carefully, to avoid cutting himself on the edges, he pulled at the mussels until some came loose. They were half open. The fibres that had anchored them in position now poked out of the shells, like tendrils. Anawak stowed them in one of his collection bags, and racked his brains.

His knowledge of molluscs was sketchy. A number of species had a similar-looking byssus, composed of adhesive fibres secreted by the foot. The best known and most feared were the zebra mussels that had been brought over from Asia. In recent years they had colonised the ecosystems of Europe and America, destroying native fauna. If the mussels that had infested the Barrier Queen were zebras, it would explain why there were so many of them. They could establish themselves in no time, spreading at an alarming rate.

Anawak prodded the creatures with his finger. So, the rudder had been invaded by zebra mussels. It seemed the only explanation. But how? They usually preferred a fresh-water habitat. They could survive and reproduce in salt water, but that didn't explain how they could overrun a moving vessel miles from the seabed in the middle of nowhere. Had they latched on to it before it set sail?

The freighter had been en route from Japan. Did Japan have a problem with zebra mussels?

Further down the stern, two curved blades loomed up like ghostly apparitions from the murk below. Anawak swam towards them, kicking his fins until he could grip the edge of one. The propeller measured four and a half metres in diameter. Eight tonnes of solid steel. For a moment he imagined what it would be like when it was turning at full speed. It seemed impossible that anything could so much as scratch it without being shredded.

Yet the propeller was covered with mussels.

An unpleasant possibility occurred to Anawak. Hanging off the edge of the blade, he swung himself hand over hand towards the middle of the propeller. His fingers touched something slippery. Gobbets of a light-coloured substance slid off and floated towards him. He snatched at them, caught one and peered at it.

It was jelly-like, rubbery, and looked like animal tissue.

He stashed it in a collection jar, and felt his way forward. One of the divers appeared on the far side, lamp shining on his mask, making him look oddly alien. He signalled for Anawak to follow. Anawak glided between the rudder shaft and the propeller. He stopped and let himself sink through the water until his fins touched the propeller shaft. A film of slime coated it. The divers were trying to tear it off and Anawak joined in, but they were wasting their energy. It had wrapped itself round the propeller and, without proper tools, they couldn't pull it off.

Anawak thought back to what Roberts had told him. The whales had tried to get rid of the tugs. It was absurd. Why would they sabotage a tow line? So that the freighter would sink? In rougher conditions she might easily have gone under – after all, she was effectively disabled. The sea wouldn't have stayed calm forever. Had the whales been trying to stop her reaching safe water before the weather changed?

He glanced at his gauge. Still plenty of oxygen. He signalled to the divers that he wanted to inspect the hull, and the three left the propeller, fanning out along the side of the vessel, with Anawak at the bottom, where the hull curved round to the keel. The beam of his head-torch explored the steel casing. The paint looked relatively new, with few scratches and little discoloration. He dropped down towards the seabed, further into the gloom. His eyes darted back to the surface: two hazy spots of light marked the position of the divers inspecting the hull. There was nothing to worry about. He knew where he was. All the same he had a heavy feeling in his chest. He kicked his fins a few times and drifted along the hull. No sign of any damage.

All of a sudden his head-torch dimmed. Anawak's hand flew up to check it – but the problem wasn't the lamp: it was where the lamp was shining. Further up, the beam had reflected evenly. Now it was swallowed by a bed of jagged mussels, whose dark outline obscured the painted stern.

How had they got there?

For a moment Anawak considered swimming back to the others, then decided against it and continued down the hull. As he neared the keel the laver of mussels thickened. If the rest of the underside was covered to that extent, a significant weight had accumulated. But someone must have noticed the state the ship was in. On the high seas a load like that would slow a freighter noticeably.

He reached the point where he was obliged to swim on his back. A few metres beneath him lay the muddy wasteland of the harbour floor. He could barely see anything, the water was so murky – just the huge mound of mussels above him. Kicking rapidly with his fins he swam towards the bow. Suddenly the bed of mussels stopped as abruptly as it had begun. For the first time he realised the true size of the outcrop. The mussels had formed a layer two metres thick along the bottom of the Barrier Queen.

There was a chink at the edge of the outcrop. Anawak hovered in front of it. Then he reached down to his ankle, where his knife was in its sheath. He pulled it out and plunged it into the shells.

The outer crust split open and something shot out towards him, twitching frantically. It collided with his face, almost pulling off his breathing apparatus. Anawak jerked backwards. His head hit the bottom of the boat. A harsh light exploded in his eyes. He wanted to get out of the water straight away, but the keel was above him. Kicking desperately, he swivelled round and was confronted by another mound of shells. Their edges seemed to be stuck to the hull with a jelly-like substance. Forcing himself to calm down, he set about hunting among the floating particles for traces of the thing that had attacked him.

It was gone. All he could see were strange formations of mussels.

Suddenly he realised he was clutching something. It was his knife. A scrap of something dangled from the blade – a blob of milky-coloured, semi-transparent material. Anawak stowed it in the collection jar with the tissue. He couldn't wait to get out of there. His heart was pounding, so he ascended slowly, with small, controlled movements, following the hull upwards until the lights of the two divers appeared in the distance. He headed towards them. They'd found the mussels too. One was using his knife to prise individual shells away from the crust. Anawak tensed, steeling himself for something to hurtle towards them, but nothing happened.

The second diver motioned upwards with his thumb and they ascended slowly to the surface. Gradually the light grew stronger, but the water remained murky.

At last Anawak found himself blinking in the sunshine. He pulled off his mask, and breathed in gratefully.

Roberts and the others were waiting on the jetty.

'So, what does it look like down there?' Roberts asked. 'Did you find anything?'

Anawak coughed and spat out a mouthful of harbour water. 'You could say that.'

THEY WERE STANDING AROUND the tailgate of the truck. Anawak had been nominated as spokesman.

'The rudder was blocked with mussels?' asked Roberts, incredulously.

'That's right – zebra mussels by the look of them.'

'How the hell did that happen?'

'Good question.' Anawak got out his collection jar, opened it and carefully emptied the blobs of jelly into a larger container filled with seawater. He was anxious about the tissue: it looked as though decomposition had already set in. 'There's no way of knowing, of course, but I'd picture it like this. First, the helmsman tries to apply five degrees rudder. The rudder doesn't move. As it turns out, it's blocked by countless mussels that have settled all over the shaft. Now, you guys know more about boats than I do, but a rudder is pretty easy to disable – although in practice it rarely happens. Consequently it never occurs to the helmsman that the rudder might be blocked. He still thinks he hasn't shifted it far enough, so he tries to shift it further. Again, nothing seems to happen. Then the helmsman goes all out, and the rudder breaks free. As it swings across the shaft, it crushes the mussels in its path, but they don't fall off. A paste of ground molluscs clogs the rudder. The blade is wedged tight and can't move back across the shaft.' Anawak pushed strands of wet hair out of his eyes. 'But that's not what really bothers me.'

'What then?'

'The sea-chests are clear of mussels, but the propeller is covered with them. It's completely infested. I don't know how they managed to latch on to the boat, but one thing is certain: a rotating propeller would be too big a challenge for even the most determined mussels. Either the molluscs climbed aboard in Japan – which seems unlikely, since the rudder was in fine working order right up to the two-hundred-mile zone, or they clung to the propeller when the engine cut out.'

'The ship was invaded by mussels in the middle of the ocean?'

'Right, although "appropriated" might he a better term. I'm trying to picture how it happened. A gigantic swarm of mussels settles on the rudder. When the rudder jams, the ship heels. Within minutes the engines are turned off. The propeller stops rotating. More and more mussels descend on the rudder, reinforcing the blockade. In no time they extend across the propeller and along the hull.'

'But the ship was out to sea,' said Roberts, confused. 'Where would tonnes of adult mussels come from?'

'Why would whales scare off tugs and jump on a tow line? You're the one who started telling stories, not me.'

'I know, but. . .' Roberts bit his lip. 'It all happened simultaneously. It almost makes you think there's a link. But it doesn't make sense. I mean, whales and mussels?'

Anawak hesitated. 'When was the last time you inspected the Barrier Queen's keel?'

'There are constant inspections. Besides, she's coated with a special paint. Before you ask it's environmentally friendly. But there aren't many things that can latch on to it. At most, a few barnacles.'

'You've got more than a few barnacles down there.' Anawak stared at Roberts. 'But that's just it. . . By all rights, they shouldn't be there. The Barrier Queen looks as though she's been exposed for weeks to hordes of mussel larvae. And in any case… there was something else down there…' Anawak described how something had shot out towards him from inside the crust of mussels. While he was talking, it all came back to him. First the shock, then hitting his head on the boat – he had seen stars.

No, not stars – flashes of light.

A single flash of light.

Then it struck him: the creature had flashed.

For a moment he was speechless. The flow of words dried up as it dawned on him that the creature had luminesced. But if it had luminesced, it must have come from the depths. It could scarcely have found its way on to the Barrier Queen while the ship was in dock. It must have latched on at the same time as the mussels. Maybe it had been drawn there by them. Perhaps they were a food source. Or a shield. The creature could have been a squid…

'Dr Anawak?'

He stopped staring into space and turned to Roberts. Yes, he thought.

It must have been a squid. It had been too quick for a jellyfish and too strong. Like a single elastic muscle, it had burst through the shells. Then he remembered something else: the creature had appeared as soon as he reached into the chink. He must have cut it with his knife. Had he hurt it? Either way the thrust of the knife had triggered a reflex.

No need to get carried away, he told himself. It was too murky to see down there.

'I recommend you have the dock checked over,' he said to Roberts, 'but first you need to send these samples' – he pointed to the sealed containers – 'to the laboratory in Nanaimo. Have them taken by helicopter. I'll come too – I know exactly who should look at them.'

Roberts drew Anawak aside.

'Leon, what do you really make of all this?' he asked quietly. 'There's no way that tonnes of mussels could have accumulated in such a short time. It's not as though the ship had been neglected for weeks.'

'Those mussels are a pest, Mr. Roberts.'

'Call me Clive.'

'Well… Clive… zebra mussels don't show up in small groups. When they find somewhere new to settle, they march in like an army. That much is known.'

'But not as fast as that, surely?'

'Every single one of those damned things can produce a thousand young every year. The larvae drift with the currents or stow away on the fins of fish or feathers of birds. In some lakes in America there are nine hundred thousand of them in a single square metre. And they appeared there overnight. They colonise waterworks and irrigation plants, and get into the cooling systems of factories built near rivers. Entire pipes are blocked and ruined by them. And from what we see here, salt water suits them just as well as fresh.'

'I get the picture – but you're talking about larvae.'

'Millions of larvae.'

'There could be billions of them, all over Osaka harbour and across the ocean seabed, but you can't seriously be suggesting that in just a few days they all turned into adult mussels, complete with shells? Can you even be sure that they're zebra mussels?'

Anawak glanced back at the truck. The divers were packing their equipment. The containers, sealed as well as he could manage it, were on the ground in front of them in a plastic crate.

'We're looking at an equation with several unknowns,' he said. 'Suppose the whales were trying to ward off the tugboats. Why? Because something was happening to the freighter and they didn't want it interrupted? Because it was supposed to sink once the mussels had immobilised it? Then there's the matter of the mysterious thing that took flight when I intruded on its den. How does that sound?'

'Like the sequel to Independence Day but without the aliens. Do you seriously think-'

'Hang on. Let's look at it again. A herd of jumpy grey whales or humpbacks feels threatened by the Barrier Queen. To make matters worse, two tugs turn up and ram them by accident. They retaliate. Coincidentally, the freighter is simultaneously afflicted by a biological plague it picked up abroad. Then, while it was at sea, a squid strayed into the mussels.'

Roberts stared at him.

'I don't believe in science fiction,' Anawak continued. 'It's all a question of interpretation. Send a few of your people down there. Have them scrape off the mussels and keep an eye open for other surprise guests. If they see any, they should catch them.'

'How soon will we hear from the lab in Nanaimo?'

'Within a few days, I guess. It would help if I could have a copy of Inglewood's report.'

'A confidential copy,' Roberts reminded him.

'Naturally. And I'd like to have a word with the crew -confidentially, of course.'

Roberts nodded. 'It's not up to me, but I'll see what I can do.'

They walked over to the truck and Anawak pulled on his jacket. 'Do you normally call in scientists in cases like this?' he asked.

'There's nothing normal about this business,' Roberts said. 'It was my idea. I'd read your book and I knew you were based on the island. The board of inquiry wasn't too happy about it, but I think it was the right thing to do. Whales aren't our strong point.'

'Well, I'll do my best. Let's get the samples into the helicopter. The sooner we get to Nanaimo the better. I'll hand them straight to Sue Oliviera. She's head of the lab, a molecular biologist.'

Anawak's mobile rang. It was Stringer. 'We need you back here,' she said.

'What's wrong?'

'The Blue Shark radioed to say there's trouble.' Anawak had a sense of foreboding. 'With the whales?'

'Of course not!' Why would whales cause trouble? No, it's that asshole Jack Greywolf again. He's such a jerk.'

6 April

Kiel, Germany

Two weeks after he'd given Tina Lund the final reports on the worms, Sigur Johanson was sitting in a taxi on his way to the Geomar Centre, Europe's leading research centre for marine geosciences. For anyone interested in the structure, development or history of the seabed, it was the first port of call. James Cameron, no less, had made regular trips there to get its seal of approval for films like Titanic and The Abyss. But trying to convince the public of the value of its research was more difficult. On the face of it, poking about in sediment or measuring seawater salinity was unlikely to solve the world's problems. Besides, few had any understanding of what the seabed was like. After all, it had taken scientists until the early 1990s to discover the truth. Although it was cut off from the warmth and light of the sun, the bottom of the ocean was not a barren wasteland. Rather, it teemed with life.

It was no secret that deep-sea hydrothermal vents were occupied by numerous exotic species, but when geochemist Erwin Suess arrived at the Geomar Centre from Oregon State University in 1989, he told of stranger things – cold seeps surrounded by oases of life, mysterious sources of chemical energy rising from inside the Earth, and vast deposits of a substance that until then had been dismissed as an intriguing but insignificant by-product of natural processes: methane hydrate.

It was time for the geosciences to break out of the seclusion in which they, like most other scientific disciplines, had worked. Now they tried to make themselves heard. They hoped to develop methods for predicting and averting natural disasters and long-term changes to the environment and climate. Methane seemed the answer to the energy problem of the future. The media sensed a story, and the geoscientists learned gradually how to make use of the new-found interest in their work.

None of this seemed to have come to the attention of the man steering Johanson's taxi towards the Firth of Kiel. For the past twenty minutes he had been venting his frustration at the idea of a research centre that had cost millions of euros being entrusted to a team of scientists who took off on cruises round the world while he could barely make ends meet. Johanson spoke excellent German, but felt no desire to set the record straight. Besides, he couldn't get a word in edgeways – the driver was talking and gesticulating wildly as the taxi veered from side to side. 'God knows what they get up to in there,' he grumbled 'Are you a reporter?' he asked, when Johanson failed to respond.

'A biologist.'

The driver took that as a signal to launch into a tirade about food-safety scandals, for which he seemed to hold Johanson personally responsible.

'A biologist? So what, in your expert opinion, is safe for us to eat? Because I'm damned if I know! We must be mad to eat the stuff they sell us.'

'You'd starve if you didn't,' said Johanson.

'If I don't eat, I'll starve, and if I do, the food'll finish me off.'

'If you don't mind me saying so, I'd rather die from a toxic steak than be crashed to death on the bonnet of that tanker.'

Without a flicker of concern the driver spun the wheel and crossed three lanes to take the next exit. The tanker thundered past. Now they were speeding along the eastern shore of the firth. On the opposite bank, giant cranes reached into the sky.

The driver had evidently taken offence at Johanson's last comment: he didn't say another word. They drove in silence along suburban streets past tall, gabled houses until a long row of linked buildings appeared ahead. The complex of steel, brick and glass looked out of place in its domestic surroundings. The driver took a sharp right and screeched to a halt in front of the Geomar Centre. The engine juddered and stopped. Johanson took a deep breath, paid, and got out. The ride in the Statoil helicopter had been a breeze compared to the last fifteen minutes.

'God knows what they're doing in there,' said the driver, apparently to his steering-wheel.

Johanson bent down to the open passenger door. 'Do you really want to know?'

'Sure.'

'They're trying to save the taxi-driving industry.'

The driver gazed at him blankly. 'It's not as though we get many fares out here,' he said doubtfully.

'No, but when you do, you need your vehicle. Which means that when the world runs out of petrol, you'll either have to scrap it – or use another fuel. And that fuel, methane, is at the bottom of the ocean. They're looking for a way to convert it.'

The driver frowned. Then he said, 'You know what the problem is? They never bother to tell you.'

'It's all over the papers.'

'Not the ones I read, mate.'

Johanson nodded and closed the door.

'Dr Johanson.' A tanned young man had emerged from a round glass building and was heading towards him.

Johanson shook his outstretched hand. 'Gerhard Bohrmann?'

'Heiko Sahling, marine biologist. Dr Bohrmann's giving a lecture. We could listen, if you like, or grab a coffee in the canteen.'

'Which would you rather?'

'Entirely up to you. Interesting worms you sent us, by the way.'

'You've been working on them?'

'We've all been working on them. Tell you what, why don't you come this way? We'll save the coffee for later. Gerhard will be finished in a moment, and he won't mind if we eavesdrop.'

They entered a spacious foyer with an air of sophisticated functionality about it. Sahling led him up some stairs and across a steel suspension bridge. For a serious research institute, thought Johanson, the Geomar Centre was suspiciously trendy.

'We usually use the auditorium for lectures,' explained Sahling, 'but today we've got a class of schoolkids.'

'How terribly worthy.'

Sahling grinned. 'To a bunch of fifteen-year-olds, an auditorium is just another classroom, which is why we do a tour with them instead. They can look at whatever they want – and touch nearly everything – too. We saved the lithotbek until last. It's where we keep our samples. Now Gerhard is telling them their bedtime story.'

'About what?'

'Methane hydrates.'

Sahling slid open the metal door. The raised platform continued on the other side. They took a few steps along it. The storeroom was at least as big as a medium-sized aircraft hangar and led out on to the quay, where Johanson caught a glimpse of a relatively large boat. Crates and equipment were piled against the walls.

'We mostly collect sediment cores and pore-water,' explained Sahling. 'It's an archive of geological history and we're proud of it.'

He raised his hand briefly. Below, a tall man returned the greeting, then focused on the group of teenagers clustered around him.

'It was one of the most exciting things we've ever seen,' Gerhard Bohrmann was saying. 'The grab sampler returned from a depth of nearly eight hundred metres, carrying several hundred pounds of sediment, interspersed with white lumps. We watched as it emptied them on to the deck. Not all of the substance survived the journey.'

'That was in the Pacific,' murmured Sahling, 'in 1996 on the RV Sonne, a hundred or so kilometres off the coast of Oregon.'

'There wasn't a moment to lose. Methane hydrate is highly unstable,' continued Bohrmann. 'I don't suppose any of you will have heard much about it, so I'll try to explain without boring you senseless. Let's imagine the ocean seabed. There's a lot going on down there, but we're going to focus on gas. Biogenic methane, for example, forms over millions of years when plants and animals decay. Large amounts of carbon are released as algae, fish and plankton decompose. Bacteria play a central role in that. One of the key things to remember, though, is that the temperature on the ocean floor is very low, but the pressure's very high. For every ten metres you descend through the water, you gain another bar of pressure. With breathing apparatus you can get to fifty metres, or maybe even seventy, but that's about the limit. The record is a hundred and forty, but I wouldn't recommend it – almost everyone who tries it ends up dead. In any case, we're talking about depths in excess of five hundred metres, and that changes the physics completely. So, when high concentrations of methane seep through the seabed something extraordinary happens: the gas combines with cold water and forms ice. They call it "methane ice" in the papers, but that's not entirely accurate. It's not the methane that freezes, but the seawater around it. Groups of water molecules solidify, forming cage-like structures around each methane molecule. Vast amounts of gas are compressed within the tiniest spaces.'

A schoolkid stuck up his hand. 'Five hundred metres isn't exactly deep, is it?' he said. 'Jacques Piccard went down eleven thousand metres in his bathyscaphe. Now, that's really deep. Why didn't he see ice down there?'

'So you know the story of the deepest manned dive. Very good. But how would you explain it?'

The teenager thought for a moment, then shrugged.

'Well, it's obvious, really,' said one of the girls. 'There's not enough life down there. Once you get below a thousand metres not much decays, so there's hardly any methane.'

'I knew it,' muttered Johanson from his vantage-point on the bridge. 'Women are simply more intelligent.'

Bohrmann smiled at her. 'That's right. Although, as always, there are exceptions. Methane hydrates can also be found in deeper water, even at depths of three thousand metres, if enough sediment containing organic matter is washed down there. It sometimes happens in marginal seas. As a matter of fact, we've also found methane hydrates in very shallow water, where there isn't much pressure. But as long as the temperature is low enough, hydrates will form – on the polar shelf, for example.' He turned back to the rest of the group. 'The main deposits of methane hydrates – compressed methane – are on the continental slopes at depths of between five hundred and a thousand metres. One of our recent expeditions took us to an underwater ridge just off the American coast. It was five hundred metres high and twenty-five kilometres long, and made mainly of hydrates. Some was buried deep within the rock, but the rest lay exposed on the seabed. Since then we've found out that the oceans are full of it, but another important discovery's been made: methane hydrates are the only thing holding the continental slopes together. They act like cement. If you took away the hydrates, the slopes would look like Swiss cheese. Without the hydrates, there'd be landslides.' Bohrmann paused to let his words sink in. 'But there's more to it than that. Like I said, methane hydrates are only stable in conditions of low temperature and high pressure. So, you see, not all the gas compresses, just the top layer. Under the Earth's crust the temperature increases, leaving pockets of methane deep in the sediment that never freeze. The methane stays in a gaseous state, with the frozen layer of hydrate acting like a lid to trap it.'

'I read about that,' said the girl. 'Aren't the Japanese trying to extract the methane?'

Johanson smiled. There was always one kid in every class who was exceptionally well prepared and knew most of the lesson before it had begun. He guessed she wasn't too popular with her peers.

'Oh, it's not just the Japanese,' said Bohrmann. "The whole world would like to extract it. But it's not that simple. When we were collecting our samples from a depth of eight hundred metres, the hydrates started to dissociate when they were half-way to the surface. By the time we had them on board, there was only a fraction of what we'd extracted. Methane hydrates are incredibly unstable. A temperature increase of just one degree at a depth of five hundred metres might be enough to destabilise the entire stock stored at that level. We knew we had to act quickly. We grabbed the lumps of hydrate and plunged them into liquid nitrogen to stop them dissociating. Come and have a look over here.'

'He's got a knack for this,' said Johanson, as Bohrmann led the class to a shelving unit made of stainless-steel frames. Containers of various sizes were stacked inside, with four tank-like, silvery barrels at the bottom. Bohrmann dragged one out, slipped on a pair of gloves and opened the lid. There was a hissing noise and vapour rose from inside. A few kids shrank away.

'It's only nitrogen.' Bohrmann reached down into the container and pulled out a fist-sized lump of something that looked like muddy ice. Within a few seconds it was fizzing and cracking. He beckoned to the girl, then broke off a chunk and held it out to her. 'It's pretty cold, but it won't hurt you,' he said.

'It stinks,' she exclaimed.

Some of the others laughed.

'Yep, like rotten eggs. It's the smell of gas dispersing.' He broke off more chunks and handed them round. 'The dark threads in the ice are seams of sediment. In a few seconds there'll be nothing left but a few specks of dirt and a puddle of water. The ice melts and the molecules of methane are released from their cages to escape into the air. Or, to put that in context, an apparently stable piece of seabed disintegrates, leaving almost nothing behind. That was what I wanted to show you.'

The kids' attention was on the fizzing ice. Bohrmann waited until it had melted, then continued: 'Now, while you were watching, something else happened invisibly. It's why we respect hydrates as much as we do. Remember I said that the methane was compressed by the ice crystals? Well, from every cubic centimetre of the hydrate that you were clutching, a hundred and sixty-four cubic centimetres of methane escaped into the air. During dissociation, the volume of methane increases by a factor of a hundred and sixty-four in the blink of an eye – leaving you with just a puddle in your hand. Taste it, if you like,' he said to the girl, 'and tell us what you think.'

She gazed at him in horror. 'But it smells!'

'Not any more. The gas has dispersed. But if you're worried about it, I'll do it.'

The girl lowered her head towards her hand and licked 'Normal water!'

'That's right. When seawater freezes, the salt separates out. On that basis, the Antarctic is the largest reservoir of fresh water on the planet. Icebergs are made of fresh water.' Bohrmann closed the tank of liquid nitrogen and pushed it back into the unit.

'The idea of exploiting methane hydrates is hugely controversial, and you've just seen why. Suppose we were to destabilise the hydrates? We might set off a chain reaction. Imagine what would happen if the substance cementing the seabed suddenly evaporated. Think how it would affect our climate if methane from the deep sea escaped into the air. Methane is a greenhouse gas. It could heat up the atmosphere, which in turn would warm the seas, which would trigger the breakdown of hydrates, and so on. That's the kind of problem that keeps me and the other scientists here busy.'

'Why bother to extract it in the first place?' asked one of the boys. 'Why not leave it down there?'

'Because it could solve all our energy problems,' the girl chimed in. She pushed to the front of the group. 'That's what it said in the stuff about the Japanese. They don't have natural fuels of their own so they're forced to import them. Methane would solve the problem.'

'That's stupid' said the other kid. 'If something causes more problems than it solves, it doesn't solve anything.'

Johanson grinned.

'You both have a point.' Bohrmann raised his hands in a conciliatory gesture. 'Methane hydrates could solve our energy problems, and that alone is enough to ensure that it's not a purely scientific question. The energy industry has a big interest in hydrates research. According to our estimates, marine gas hydrates contain twice as much burnable methane as all the other known deposits of gas, oil and coal combined. Just take the hydrate ridge off the coast of America. OK, so it extends over twenty-six thousand square kilometres, but there are thirty-five gigatons of hydrate in there. That's equivalent to one hundred times the amount of natural gas used in the whole of America in a year.'

'Sounds impressive,' Johanson whispered to Sahling. I'd no idea there was so much.'

'There's far more than that. I can never remember the figures, but Gerhard could tell you exactly.'

Bohrmann continued as if on cue: 'We can't know for sure, but we think over ten thousand gigatons of methane may be trapped in marine gas hydrates. And then you've got the onshore hydrates under the permafrost in Alaska and Siberia. To give you an idea of the quantities in question, all the available reserves of coal, oil and gas come to barely five thousand gigatons – less than half the amount of methane stored within the hydrates. No wonder the energy industry would give anything to know how to extract it. Just one per cent of that methane would double the United States' fuel reserves in an instant – and fuel consumption there is far higher than anywhere else in the world. Unfortunately it's the usual story. From the perspective of the energy industry, hydrates are an enormous reserve of untapped fuel; but scientists see them as a time bomb. The only option is for both sides to work together- in the interest of mankind, of course. Well, that brings us to the end of our tour. Thanks for coming.' He smiled to himself 'And for listening, of course.'

'Not to mention understanding,' Johanson murmured.

'Well,' said Sahling, 'we hope so.'

'I PICTURED YOU DIFFERENTLY,' said Johanson. He and Bohrmann shook hands. 'On your web page you've got a moustache.'

'I shaved it off,' Bohrmann fingered his upper lip. 'Your fault.'

'How come?'

'It happened this morning. I was shaving and thinking about your worm, when suddenly I could picture it clearly, wriggling across the mirror in front of me, swinging its tail in a loop. Too bad that my hand and the razor followed. I chopped off a corner and had to sacrifice the rest to science.'

'So now I've got a moustache on my conscience.' Johanson was amused.

'Oh, don't worry – it'll grow back in no time when the next trip starts. On the RV we all sprout beards. The lab's this way. Or would you like some coffee first?'

'No, thanks. I'm dying to see what you've got. So, you're off on another expedition?'

'In the autumn.' Bohrmann led them along glass corridors. 'We'll be heading for the cold seeps in the Aleutian subduction zone. You were lucky to catch me in Kiel. I got back from the Antarctic two weeks ago, after nearly eight months at sea. The day after we docked, I got your call.'

'What kept you there for so long?'

'Delivering over-winterers.'

'Over-winterers?'

Bohrmann laughed.

'Over-winter scientists and technicians. They started work at the station in December. They're extracting ice cores from a depth of four hundred and fifty metres. Unbelievable, isn't it? Ice as old as that can tell us the history of our climate over the last seven thousand years.'

Johanson was reminded of the taxi driver. 'Most people wouldn't be impressed,' he said. 'As far as they're concerned, climate history won't help eliminate world poverty or win the next world cup.'

'We're partly to blame for that, though. Science tends to keep itself to itself.'

'That wasn't the impression I got from your lecture just now.'

'I sometimes ask myself whether all this PR business does any good,' said Bohrmann, as he set off down a flight of stairs. 'Open days are all very well, but they don't change the general mindset. We had one recently and it was packed; but I bet if you'd asked afterwards whether we deserved an extra ten million in funding…'

Johanson thought for a moment. Then he said, 'maybe the real problem is the gulf between the different branches of science, don't you think?'

'You mean we don't communicate enough?'

'Exactly. The same applies to science and industry, and science and the military.'

'While between science and the oil industry…' Bohrmann said pointedly.

Johanson smiled. 'I'm here because someone needs an answer,' he said, 'not to force one out of you.'

'Big business and the military depend on science, whether they like it or not,' said Sahling. 'And we do communicate, you know. If you ask me, it's more a question of each party not being able to convey its point of view.'

'Or not wanting to.'

'Right. Research into ice cores can help prevent people starving – but also to build weapons. We're all looking at the same thing, but everyone sees something different.'

'And they don't see the rest' Bohrmann nodded. 'The specimens you sent us, Dr Johanson, are the perfect example. Now I don't know whether the presence of worms should affect plans for building on the slope but, without more evidence, I'd be inclined to assume so. In the interests of safety, I'd advise against construction. Maybe that's the fundamental difference between science and industry. The way we scientists see it, we don't know enough about the role of the worms so we can't recommend drilling on the slope. The oil companies will start from exactly the same premise but reach the opposite conclusion.'

'In short, unless someone proves that the worms are affecting the slope, they won't change the plans.' Johanson looked at him. 'What do you think? How important are the worms?'

'I can't say for sure. The specimens you sent us are unusual, to say the least. I don't want to get your hopes up – I could have explained our findings on the telephone, but I thought you might like to see a bit more. And there's plenty we can show you here.'

They came to a steel door. Bohrmann pressed a switch on the wall and it slid open noiselessly. Through the doorway was a hall, and in the middle of the hall an enormous metal container, as big as a two-storey house. It was studded with portholes at regular intervals. Steel ladders led up to walkways and past pieces of machinery that were connected to its sides with pipes.

Johanson had seen photos of the lab on the web, but nothing had prepared him for its dimensions. The water in the container was kept at such high pressure that the idea of it made him feel queasy. It would kill a human in less than a minute. The deep-sea simulation chamber was the reason he'd sent the worms here. It contained an artificial world complete with seabed, continental shelf and slope.

Bohrmann flipped a switch to close the door behind them. 'Not everyone is convinced of the benefits of the pressure lab,' he said. 'Even the simulator can only give us a rough picture of what really happens on the seabed, but it saves having to launch an expedition every time there's something we need to investigate. The trouble with marine geoscience is that we never see more than a tiny fraction of the whole. At least with the simulator we can try out general hypotheses. It allows us to study the dynamics of methane hydrates under changing conditions.'

'You've got methane hydrates in there?'

'A couple of hundred kilos. We recently managed to produce some ourselves, but we don't advertise it. The oil companies would like us to use the simulator entirely for their purposes and, of course, we wouldn't mind their cash, but not at the expense of our scientific autonomy.'

Johanson craned his neck to look at the top of the tank. High above him a group of scientists were gathered on the uppermost walkway. The whole thing looked strangely unreal – like a Bond scene from the 1980s.

'We can regulate the temperature and pressure with absolute precision,' Bohrmann continued. 'At the moment they correspond to a depth of eight hundred metres. At the bottom of the chamber we've got a layer of stable hydrates two metres deep. In the ocean it would be twenty or thirty times that. Underneath that layer we've simulated heat from the Earth's core to create a pocket of gaseous methane. It's a fully functional miniature seabed.'

'Amazing,' said Johanson. 'But what are you doing with it? I mean, you can observe the hydrates, of course, but…' He tailed off.

Sahling came to his aid. 'You want to know what we do apart from observe?'

'Yes.'

'At the moment we're trying to re-create a geological situation dating back fifty-five million years. At some point in the late Paleocene epoch, just prior to the Eocene, there seems to have been a global-warming event of massive proportions. The ocean emptied. Seventy per cent of all life on the seabed died, including the majority of single-cell organisms. Large sections of the deep sea became uninhabitable, while on land there was a biological revolution. Crocodiles appeared in the Arctic and primates and modern mammals migrated from subtropical climates to North America. All in all, an almighty mess.'

'How can you tell?'

'Sediment cores. Everything we know about global warming in that period is due to a single core of sediment taken from a depth of two thousand metres.'

'And does the sediment tell us what caused it?'

'Methane,' said Bohrmann. 'The sea temperature seems to have risen, causing large quantities of hydrates to become unstable. The continental slopes collapsed, resulting in underwater landslides that exposed further deposits of methane. Over a period of only thousands – or maybe hundreds – of years, billions of tonnes of gas were released into the ocean, and dispersed into the atmosphere. It was a vicious circle. Methane has thirty times the global-warming potential of carbon dioxide. The temperature rose all over the planet, including in the oceans, prompting the hydrates to dissociate, and setting the whole thing in motion all over again. The Earth became a gigantic oven.' Bohrmann turned to Johanson. 'The temperature in the depths reached fifteen degrees. Nowadays it's between two and four. That's a pretty major shift.'

'Disastrous for some species, but as for the rest… I guess they got off to a warm start. I see what you're saying. Next up is the extinction of mankind, I suppose?'

Sahling smiled. 'Things aren't that drastic yet. But you're right. There's reason to believe that we're currently in a phase of climatic fluctuation. The hydrate reserves in the oceans are highly volatile. That's why we're paying so much attention to your worm.'

'But what's a worm got to do with the stability of hydrates?'

'In theory, nothing. The layers of hydrate are hundreds of metres thick. The worms stay on the top layer, melt a centimetre or two of ice, and sit there contentedly with their bacteria.'

'But our worm's got vast jaws.'

'Our worm makes no sense at all. Come and see for yourself.'

They walked over towards a semi-circular control panel at the back of the room. It reminded Johanson of the control desk for Victor, but this one was significantly bigger. Most of the two dozen or so monitors had been switched on and were transmitting pictures from inside the tank. The technician on duty greeted them.

'We keep tabs on what's happening with the help of twenty-two cameras. In addition to that, we're constantly taking readings from every cubic centimetre,' explained Bohrmann. 'See those white patches on the upper row of monitors? They're hydrates. We set down two of your polychaetes just on the left here. That was yesterday morning.'

Johanson squinted up at the screens. 'I see ice, but no worms,' he said.

'Take a closer look.'

Johanson scrutinized every detail of the pictures. Suddenly he noticed in two dark patches. He pointed to them. 'What are those? Indentations in the ice?'

Sahling said something to the technician. The picture changed. All of a sudden the worms came into view.

'The dark spots are holes,' said Sahling. 'Let's look at the sequence in time-lapse.'

Johanson watched the worms wriggle over the ice. They crawled around for a bit, as though they were on the scent of something. Speeded up, their movements were alien and disturbing. On either side of their pink bodies, their bristles quivered as though they were charged.

'Now, watch carefully.'

One of the worms had stopped crawling. Wave-like movements pulsed through its body. Then it disappeared into the ice.

Johanson gave a low whistle. 'My God! It's burrowed in.'

The second worm was still on the surface, a little further to one side. Its head moved and suddenly its proboscis shot forward, revealing its jaws.

'They're eating their way into the ice!' exclaimed Johanson.

He stood, paralysed, in front of the screens. There's no reason to be shocked, he told himself. The worms live symbiotically with bacteria that break down hydrates, but they're equipped with jaws for burrowing.

The solution was obvious. The worms were trying to reach the bacteria buried deeper in the ice. He watched them, fascinated, as they dug into the hydrates, their rear ends wiggling. Then they were gone. Only the holes remained, two dark patches in the ice.

It's nothing to get worked up about, he thought. Some worm species spend their whole lives burrowing. But why would they burrow into hydrates? 'Where are they now?' he asked.

Sahling glanced at the monitor. 'They're dead.'

'Dead?' Johanson echoed.

'They suffocated. Worms need oxygen.'

'I know – that's the whole point of the symbiosis. The bacteria produce nutrients for the worm, and the worm provides oxygen for the bacteria. What went wrong?'

'They dug themselves to death. They chomped their way through the ice, fell into the pocket of methane and died.'

'Kamikaze worms,' muttered Johanson.

'It does look like suicide.'

Johanson thought for a moment. 'Unless they were thrown off-course by something.'

'Maybe. But what? There's nothing in the hydrates that could explain such behaviour.'

'Maybe the gas pocket.'

Bohrmann scratched his chin. 'We wondered about that, but it doesn't explain why they'd dig their way to death.'

Johanson pictured the mass of wriggling worms at the bottom of the ocean. He was feeling increasingly uneasy. What would happen if millions of worms burrowed into the ice?

Bohrmann seemed to hear his thoughts. 'The worms can't destabilise the ice,' he said. 'On the seabed the hydrate layers are infinitely thicker than they are here. Even crazy creatures like these would only dent the surface. They'd manage a tenth at most before death reeled them in.'

'So, what's the next step? Will you test some more specimens?'

'We can use the worms we kept in reserve. Ideally, though, we'd like to examine them in situ. That should please Statoil. In a few weeks' time the RV Sonne will be leaving for Greenland. If we set sail a little earlier, we could stop off at the place where they first showed up and take a look.' Bohrmann shrugged 'It's not up to me, though. We'll have to wait for a decision. It was just an idea I developed with Heiko.'

Johanson glanced back at the tank and thought of the dead worms. 'It's an excellent idea,' he said.

AFTER A WHILE JOHANSON went back to the hotel to get changed. He tried to reach Lund, but she wasn't picking up. He imagined her lying in Sverdrup's arms and hung up.

Bohrmann had invited him to dinner that evening in one of Kiel's best restaurants. He went into the bathroom and inspected himself in the mirror. His beard needed trimming, he thought. It was at least two millimetres too long. Everything else was just right, though. His once-brown hair was thick and shiny, despite the strands of grey, and his eyes still twinkled beneath heavy brows. At times he found it hard to resist his own charisma. One of his female students had told him that he looked like the actor Maximilian Schell. Johanson had felt flattered – until he found out Schell was over seventy.

He rummaged through his suitcase, pulled out a zip-neck sweater and put it on, then struggled to force his suit jacket over the top. He wrapped a scarf round his neck. He didn't look well dressed, but that was how he liked it. He cultivated a scruffy look. It took him longer to achieve his dishevelled hairstyle than most people would spend on a respectable coiffure.

He flashed himself a smile in the mirror, left the hotel, and took a taxi to the restaurant.

Bohrmann was waiting for him. They had a few glasses of wine with their dinner, but eventually the conversation drifted back to the ocean. Over desert Bohrmann asked casually, 'How much do you know about Statoil's plans?'

'Only the basic details,' said Johanson. 'I'm not especially well informed about oil.'

'What are they planning? It can't be a platform – it's too far out to sea.'

'It's not a platform.'

'I don't want to pressure you and I've no idea how confidential these things are…'

'I shouldn't worry about that. I've been told, it can't be very secret.'

Bohrmann laughed. 'So, what are they building out there?'

'They've got plans for a subsea plant. A fully automated one.'

'Like SUBSIS?'

'What's that?'

'Subsea Separation and Injection System – a unit off the coast of Norway in the Troll field. It's been active for a number of years now.'

'Never heard of it.'

'You should ask the guys who sent you here. SUBSIS is a processing plant that operates three hundred and fifty metres down. It separates the water from the oil and gas at seabed level. In conventional plants, the process takes place on the platforms and the water is discharged into the sea.'

'Oh, I remember!' Lund had said something about it. 'The water makes fish infertile.'

'SUBSIS can get round that. The water is injected back into the reservoir, pushing the oil upwards, so more oil pumps out. In the meantime, the water is removed, re-injected, and so it goes on. The oil and gas are carried through pipelines to the coast. It's pretty neat, as far as it goes.'

'But?'

'I'm not sure there is a but. SUBSIS is supposed to work perfectly in depths of up to fifteen hundred metres. Its manufacturer thinks it can do two thousand, and the oil companies are aiming for five thousand.'

'Is that feasible?'

'In the not too distant future, yes. Anything that works on a small scale will probably work on a larger one, and the advantages are obvious. It won't be long before remote-controlled plants replace all of the platforms.'

'You don't sound enthusiastic,' said Johanson.

There was a pause. Bohrmann seemed unsure how to respond. 'What bothers me isn't the subsea plant as such. It's the naivety of it all.'

'It's a remote-controlled unit?'

'Fully automated. It's operated from the shore.'

'Which means repairs and maintenance work are carried out by robots.'

Bohrmann nodded.

'I see,' said Johanson.

'There are pros and cons,' said Bohrmann. 'It's always risky when you enter unknown territory. And, let's face it, the slopes are certainly that so it makes sense to automate the system. There's nothing wrong with sending down a robot to do a bit of monitoring or to take a few samples. But a subsea station is a different proposition. Suppose oil spurts out of a well five thousand metres down. How are you going to fix it? You don't know the terrain. All you've got is piles of data. We're as good as blind down there. OK, we can use satellites, digital sonar and seismic profiling to create a map of seabed morphology that's accurate to within half a metre. OK, we've got bottom-simulating reflectors to detect oil and gas deposits, so we can tell where we should drill, where we'll find oil, where the hydrates are stored, and where best to avoid… But as for what's down there, no one really knows.'

'That's my refrain,' murmured Johanson.

'Don't get me wrong, I'm not against fossil fuels per se, but I object to making the same mistake twice. When the oil industry took off, we erected our junk in the sea, without anyone thinking about how we could dispose of it. We emptied wastewater and chemicals into rivers and seas, as though they'd simply disperse. Radioactive material was dumped in the oceans. Natural resources and life-forms were exploited and destroyed. No one stopped to consider how complex the connections might be.'

'But subsea plants are here to stay?'

'Almost certainly. They're more economic, and they can tap oil reserves that humans can't reach. After that, the stampede will start for methane. It burns more cleanly than fossil fuels and it will slow down the greenhouse effect. All the arguments in favour are perfectly valid – providing everything goes to plan. People in these companies often confuse what should happen in an ideal scenario with what could happen in reality. It makes their lives easier. Whenever they're presented with a range of possible outcomes, they pick the most favourable so they can start work straight away – even if they know nothing about the world they're intruding on.'

'But how will they exploit the methane?' asked Johanson. 'Won't the hydrates dissociate on the way to the surface?'

'That's where remote-controlled processors enter the equation. If you get the hydrates to dissociate while they're down there, by heating them, for example, all you've got to do is trap the gas and channel it to the surface. It sounds great, but who's to say that an operation like that won't start a chain reaction and trigger a heatwave like the one in the Paleocene?'

'Do you think that's possible?'

Bohrmann spread his hands. 'Every time we tamper with our environment without knowing what we're doing, we're dicing with death. But it's started already. The gas hydrate programmes in India, Japan and China are already quite advanced.' He gave a bleak smile. 'But they don't know what's down there either.'

'Worms,' murmured Johanson. He thought of the video images that Victor had taken of the seething mass on the seabed. And of the ominous creature that had disappeared into the dark.

Worms. Monsters. Methane. Natural disasters.

It was time for a drink.

11 April

Vancouver Island and Clayoquot Sound, Canada

The sight of it made Anawak angry. From head to fluke it measured over ten metres, an enormous male orca, one of the biggest transients he had ever seen. Its half-open jaws revealed tightly packed rows of glistening conical teeth. The whale was past its prime, but still immensely powerful. It wasn't until Anawak examined it more closely that he noticed the dull, worn patches that flecked its shiny black skin. One of its eyes was closed and the other was hidden from view.

Anawak had recognised it straight away. On the database it was listed as J-19, but its distinctive dorsal fin, curved in the shape of a scimitar, had earned it its nickname: Genghis. He walked to the other side of the body and spotted John Ford, director of Vancouver Aquarium's marine-mammal research programme, talking to Sue Oliviera, head of the lab in Nanaimo, and another man. They were gathered under the line of trees that fringed the beach. Ford beckoned Anawak over. 'Dr Ray Fenwick from the Canadian Institute of Ocean Sciences and Fisheries,' he said.

Fenwick was there for the autopsy. As soon as they'd heard that Genghis was dead, Ford had suggested that the dissection should be conducted on the beach, where the carcass had been found, rather than behind closed doors. He wanted to drum up a large group of students and journalists and give them an insight into the orca's anatomy. 'Besides,' he'd said, 'the autopsy will look different in the open – less clinical and distant. We'll be staring at the corpse of an orca close to the sea – in its own world. People will be more involved, more compassionate. It's a gimmick, of course, but it'll work.'

They'd thrashed it out between them: Ford, Fenwick, Anawak and Rod Palm, a naturalist from the marine research station on Strawberry Isle, off the coast of Tofino. Palm and the Strawberry Isle team monitored the ecosystem in Clayoquot Sound, and Palm had made a name for himself by studying the orcas there.

'The external evidence suggests that it succumbed to a bacteriological infection,' said Fenwick, when Anawak pressed him, 'but I don't want to rush to any hasty conclusions.'

'You don't have to,' said Anawak grimly. 'Remember 1999? Seven dead orcas, and all of them infected.'

"The Torture Never Stops",' murmured Oliviera, recalling an old Frank Zappa song. She nodded conspiratorially at Anawak. 'Come with me a second.'

Anawak followed her over to the carcass. Two large metallic cases and a container had been placed beside it, full of tools for the autopsy. Dissecting an orca was a different matter from dissecting a human. It meant hard work, vast quantities of blood and one hell of a stench.

'The press will be here in a moment, with the students,' she said, glancing at her watch, 'but since we're together, we should have a word about those samples.'

'Made any headway?'

'Some.'

'And you're keeping Inglewood in the picture?'

'I thought you and I should talk first.'

'Sounds like you haven't reached any firm conclusions.'

'Put it this way, we're amazed on one count and stumped on the other,' said Oliviera. 'For one thing, the mussels aren't described in any of the existing research.'

'I could have sworn they were zebras.'

'On the one hand, yes, but on the other, no.'

'Fill me in.'

'There are two ways of looking at it. We're either dealing with a species related to the zebra mussel or with a mutation. They look like zebra mussels and they form colonies like zebra mussels, but there's something odd about the byssus. The fibres extending from the foot are unusually thick and long. We've nicknamed them "jet mussels".' She pulled a face. 'We couldn't come up with anything better. We've observed a number of living specimens, and they're able to. . . Well, they don't just drift like normal zebra mussels. They set their course by sucking in water and expelling it. The force drives them forwards, and they use their fibres to steer. Does that remind you of something?'

'Squid use jet propulsion.'

'Well, some species do, but there's something else. I was thinking of dinoflagellates, unicellular organisms. In certain species, the cells have a pair of flagella extending outwards from the cell wall. They use one flagellum to steer, while the other rotates, moving them forward.'

'But apart from that they've got nothing in common.'

I'm treating it as convergent evolution in a very broad sense. At this stage, I need every lead I can get. As far as I know, no other species of mussel moves around like that. These swim like shoaling fish, and they can keep up their momentum, in spite of the weight of their shells.'

'Well, that would explain how they settled on the Barrier Querns hull in the middle of the ocean,' mused Anawak. 'Is that the amazing part?'

'Right.'

'What's stumped you?'

Oliviera stepped closer to the dead whale and stroked its skin. 'The fragments of tissue you found down there. We don't know what to do with them – and there's not much we can do. For the most part it had already decomposed. The small amount that we were able to analyse seemed to indicate that the substance on the propeller and the substance on your knife were identical. Apart from that, it bore no resemblance to anything we've ever come across before. The tissue is unusually well developed in terms of its contractibility. It's incredibly strong, but also extremely elastic. We don't know what it is.'

'Could that be an indication of bioluminescence?'

'Possibly. Why?'

'Because it flashed at me.'

'You're talking about the thing that knocked you over?'

'Yeah. It shot out while I was poking around in the mussel bed.'

'Maybe because you'd cut a lump out of it. Although I can't believe this tissue contains nerve fibres or anything else that might make it feel pain. It's really just… cell mass.'

They heard voices approaching. Across the sand, a group of people were heading towards them, some with cameras, others with notepads.

'We're on,' said Anawak.

'OK.' Oliviera looked at him helplessly. 'But what do you want me to do? Should I forward the results to Inglewood? I can't imagine they'll be of any use. I'd rather look at a few more samples – especially of that tissue.'

'I'll get in touch with Roberts.' Anawak stared at the orca, depressed.

First the whales had disappeared for weeks, and now there was another corpse. 'Why did this have to happen? It's such a mess.'

Oliviera shrugged. 'Save your lamentations for the press,' she said.

THE AUTOPSY TOOK MORE than an hour, during which Fenwick, assisted by Ford, cut open the whale and explained its anatomical structure, exposing its intestines, heart, liver and lungs. Its stomach revealed a half-digested seal. Unlike the resident orcas, transient and offshore orcas ate sea-lions, porpoises and dolphins – even baleen whales could fall prey to a pod of orcas.

Specialist science journalists were in the minority among the spectators, but reporters from the broadsheets, magazines and TV networks were out in force – exactly the sort of people the team had hoped to attract.

Fenwick started by explaining the distinguishing features of an orca's anatomy. 'As you can see, its shape resembles that of a fish, but that's because nature adopted this body form for sea creatures that have evolved from land animals. It happens a lot. We call it convergent evolution: in order to cope with similar environmental pressures, two totally different species develop convergent structures – that is, structures designed to solve the same problem.'

He removed sections of the thick outer skin to expose the layer of fat. Fish, amphibians and reptiles are ectotherms, which means they're cold-blooded, so their body temperature corresponds to that of their surroundings. Mackerel, for example, are present in the Arctic Ocean and in the Mediterranean. In the Arctic their body temperature is four degrees Celsius, but in the Med it's twenty-four. The same doesn't apply to whales: they're warm-blooded, like us.'

Fenwick had uttered two little words that never failed to hit their mark. As soon as the spectators heard them, they sat up and paid attention.

Fenwick continued, 'They could be swimming in the Arctic or in the Baja California, it makes no difference. Wherever they are, whales have a constant body temperature of thirty-seven degrees, and to maintain it they accumulate the layer of fat we call blubber. See this white, fatty mass? Water normally draws heat away from the body, but this layer of fat prevents it happening.'

His gloves were red and slimy with the orca's blood and fat.

'But blubber can also be fatal to a whale. The reason they die when they get stranded is because of their weight, due in part to their magnificent fat layers. A blue whale measuring thirty-three metres and weighing a hundred and thirty tonnes is four times heavier then the biggest dinosaur that ever walked the Earth. Even an orca can weigh up to nine tonnes. Creatures of that size can only survive in water. It all comes down to Archimedes' principle, which states that the weight of a body immersed in fluid will decrease by an amount equal to the weight of the fluid it displaces. On land, whales are crushed to death by the pressure of their own weight- if they haven't already been killed by the insulating effect of their blubber, which absorbs the heat of the environment. Beached whales often die of overheating.'

'Is that what happened to this one?' asked a journalist.

'No. Over the past few years we've come across an increasing number of whales whose immune systems have collapsed. They all died of bacterial infections. J-19 was twenty-two, not exactly a youngster but most healthy orcas live to thirty. So, he died early and there are no external signs of a struggle. My guess is that an infection killed him.'

Anawak took a step forward. 'We can tell you why that happens, if you're interested,' he said, in as neutral a tone as he could muster. 'There's been extensive toxicological research into the problem, and the results show that the orcas off the coast of British Columbia are badly contaminated with PCBs and other environmental pollutants. This year we've found orcas with PCB levels of a hundred and fifty parts per million: A human immune system wouldn't stand a chance against that level of toxin.'

He saw a mixture of compassion and excitement in the listeners' upturned faces. The journalists had their story.

'The worst thing about toxins,' he continued, 'is that they're fat-soluble, which means they're passed to the calves in the mothers' milk. When human babies come into the world with AIDS, it's all over the media and everyone is appalled. Write about what you've seen here and make people angry about this. Hardly any other species on the planet is as packed with toxins as the orcas.'

'Dr Anawak.' The journalist cleared his throat. 'What happens when humans eat the flesh of these whales?'

'They absorb some of the toxin.'

'Does it kill them?'

'It might in the long-term.'

'In that case, aren't businesses that dump their chemicals in the water – like the timber industry – indirectly responsible for death and disease among humans?'

Anawak hesitated. The reporter was right, of course, but Vancouver Aquarium was keen to avoid direct confrontations with local businesses, preferring to try for a diplomatic solution. Painting British Columbia's economic and political elite as a bunch of near-murderers would increase the existing tensions. 'There's no doubt that eating contaminated meat would pose a risk to human health,' he said evasively.

'Meat that our businesses have knowingly contaminated.'

'That's something we're working on with those responsible.'

'I get it.' The reporter made a note of something. 'I was thinking in particular of the people where you come from, Dr…'

'I come from round here,' said Anawak curtly.

The journalist stared at him in surprise.

No wonder, thought Anawak. The poor guy had been snapped at for doing his homework.

'That's not what I meant,' the man responded. 'I meant where you came from originally-'

'Very little whale or seal flesh is consumed in British Columbia,' Anawak interrupted. 'By contrast, relatively high levels of toxins have been recorded among inhabitants of the Arctic Circle, in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and further north in Nunavut, but also in Siberia, the Kamchatka peninsula and the Aleutian Islands. In other words, everywhere that marine mammals are part of the staple diet. It doesn't matter where the mammals pick up the toxins because they migrate.'

'Do you think the whales know they're being poisoned?' asked a student.

'No.'

'But in your books you say that they're intelligent. If only they realised there was a problem with their food…'

'Humans carry on smoking until they need an amputation or die of lung cancer. They're aware of the problem but it doesn't stop them. And humans are a good deal smarter than whales.'

'How can you be sure? It might be the other way round.'

Anawak made an effort to answer politely. 'You have to see whales as whales. They're highly specialised, but specialisation brings with it certain limitations. An orca is a streamlined living torpedo, but that comes at the expense of legs, hands, facial expressions and stereoscopic vision. They're not like humans. Orcas are probably cleverer than dogs. Belugas are intelligent enough to know who they are, and dolphins certainly have a unique brain. But take a moment to think about what they achieve with all that. Whales and dolphins share a habitat with fish and have a similar way of life, but fish get by with only a few neurons.'

Anawak was almost relieved to hear his mobile buzz. He signalled to Fenwick to carry on with the autopsy and took a few paces away from the group.

'Leon,' said Shoemaker, 'Can you prise yourself away?'

'Maybe. What's wrong?'

'He's back.'

THIS TIME ANAWAK was so angry he could barely contain himself A few days ago, when he'd been called back to Vancouver Island in a hurry, Jack Greywolf and his Seaguards had disappeared, leaving two boatfuls of disgruntled tourists in their wake. Shoemaker had been besieged by people complaining at being filmed and stared at like animals, and had only just succeeded in calming them down, in some cases by handing out free tickets. After that, things had seemed to return to normal. But Jack Greywolf had caused an upset, exactly as he'd hoped.

Back at the station they'd gone over all the options. Was it better to ignore the protesters or take action against them? If they made an official complaint they would give Greywolf a forum. People like him were as much of an irritation to serious environmental organisations as they were to the whale-watching business, but in the media uproar, an unsuspecting public would receive distorted information. Many would sympathise with Greywolf, without knowing the facts.

They'd decided to ignore him.

Perhaps, thought Anawak, as he steered the motorboat along the coast through Clayoquot Sound, that was a mistake. Maybe a simple letter of complaint would have satisfied Greywolf's need for acknowledgement. Anything to show he'd made an impact.

He scanned the surface of the ocean. The Zodiac was racing through the water and he didn't want to risk scaring or hurting a whale. Several times he spotted flukes in the distance, and once he saw glistening black fins cutting through the water not far from the boat. He kept in radio-contact with Susan Stringer on the Blue Shark. 'What are they doing?' he asked. 'They're not getting physical, are they?'

The walkie-talkie crackled. 'No,' came Stringer's voice. 'They're taking photos like last time, and yelling at us.'

'How many?'

'Two boatfuls – Greywolf and another guy in one boat, and three in the second. Oh, God, they've started to sing.'

Anawak heard a faint rhythmic sound above the radio interference.

'They're drumming,' Stringer bellowed. 'Greywolf's beating a rhythm and the others are chanting Indian songs.'

'Keep calm. Don't let yourself be provoked. I'll be with you in a moment.'

'Leon? What kind of Indian is this asshole?'

'He's a con artist,' said Anawak, 'not an Indian.'

'But I thought-'

'His mother's half Indian, but that's as far as it goes. His real name is Jack O'Bannon.'

Anawak sped on towards the boats. The noise of the drum floated over the water.

'Jack O'Bannon,' said Stringer slowly. I've got a good mind to-'

'You'll do no such thing. Can you see me now?'

'Yes.'

'Sit tight.'

Anawak stowed his radio and turned the boat towards the open water. At last he could see what was happening. The Blue Shark and the Lady Wexham were in the middle of a group of humpbacks that had spread out across the sea. From time to time flukes disappeared under the waves or a cloud of droplets rose into the air. The Lady Wexham's white hull shimmered in the sunlight. Two small, dilapidated sport-fishing boats with red-painted hulls were circling the Blue Shark tightly.

If Greywolf had noticed Anawak approaching, he didn't let on. He was standing in the boat, banging a drum and chanting. The people on the other boat, two men and a woman, were shouting insults and curses. Every now and then they took pictures of the Blue Shark's passengers and pelted them with something that sparkled. Fish scraps, Anawak realised. The people on the Blue Shark ducked. Anawak felt like ramming Greywolf's boat and watching as the man toppled overboard, but he restrained himself.

He pulled up close to the boats and shouted, 'Quit drumming, Jack. Let's talk.'

Greywolf ignored him.

A male voice came over the radio: 'Hello, Leon. Good to see you.'

It was the Lady Wexham's skipper. The boat was about a hundred metres away. The people on the top deck were leaning over the rails, staring at the beleaguered Zodiac. Some were taking photos.

'Everything OK at your end?' asked Anawak.

'Fine. What are we going to do about the bastards?'

'I'll try the peaceful approach.'

'If you want me to run them down for you, just say the word.'

The Blue Shark was being jostled by the Seaguards' motorboats. Greywolf swayed as his boat hit the inflatable, but he carried on drumming. The feathers on his hat quivered in the wind. Behind the boats a fluke rose into the air and disappeared again, but no one had eyes for the whales.

'Hey, Leon! Leon!' One of the Blue Shark's passengers was waving at him – Alicia Delaware. She was bouncing up and down. 'Who are those guys? What are they doing here?'

Anawak did a double-take. The other day she had told him she was about to leave the island. But right now it didn't matter.

He manoeuvred his Zodiac towards Greywolf's boat and drew up at right angles to it. He clapped his hands loudly. 'All right, Jack, you can stop now. Tell us what you want.'

Greywolf increased the volume. His monotonous chant rose and fell like an aggressive dirge.

'For God's sake, Jack!'

The noise stopped. Greywolf faced Anawak. 'Do you want something?'

'Tell your people to back off. Then we can talk about whatever you like, so long as you tell them to stop.'

Greywolf's face contorted with rage. 'We're not backing off.'

'What's your point, Greywolf? Why all the fuss?'

'I tried to tell you at the aquarium but you wouldn't listen.'

'I didn't have time.'

'And I don't have time to talk to you now.' His supporters laughed and jeered.

Anawak nearly lost his temper. 'I'm going to make you an offer, Jack,' he said, as calmly as he could. 'You call this off, and we'll meet tonight at Davie's. Then you can tell us what you'd like us to do.'

'Just keep away from here.'

'But why? What harm are we doing?'

Two dark islands surfaced next to the boat, textured and mottled like weathered stone. Grey whales. It would have made an amazing photo, but Greywolf had ruined the day.

'Turn back,' shouted Greywolf. He stared at the Blue Shark's passengers and lifted his arms imploringly. 'Turn back and leave the whales in peace. Live in harmony with nature. Your boats are polluting the air and the ocean. Whales are being hounded so you can take photos. This place belongs to them. Go home. You don't belong here!'

What a load of garbage, thought Anawak. Surely even Greywolf didn't believe it. But his supporters cheered.

'Come on, Jack! We're here to protect the whales, remember? Whale-watching helps us to understand them. It lets people see them in new light. It's not in their interest for you to disrupt our work.'

'Their interest? You'd know all about that, wouldn't you?' Greywolf jeered. 'Can you read their minds, Mr. Scientist?'

'Jack, drop all the Indian crap. What do you want?

'Publicity,' Greywolf said.

'And how are you going to get that here?' Anawak waved his hand at the ocean. 'There's just a couple of boats and a few people. Let's talk about this properly and get some real publicity. Both sides can put forward their arguments, and may the best side win.'

'Pathetic,' said Greywolf. 'Listen to the voice of the white man.'

Anawak lost his patience. 'That's crap and you know it. You're more of a white man than I am, O'Bannon. Get real.'

For a moment Greywolf stared at him. Then a grin spread across his face. He pointed to the Lady Wexham. 'Why do you think the people on your boat are so interested in filming us?'

'Because of you and your mumbo-jumbo.'

'Exactly,' laughed Greywolf 'You got it in one.'

Then it dawned on Anawak. The people on the Lady Wexham weren't tourists: they were reporters whom Greywolf had invited for the show.

The son-of-a-bitch.

He was about to make a suitably cutting response, when he noticed that Greywolf was still staring at the Lady Wexham. Anawak followed his gaze, and gasped.

A humpback had catapulted itself out of the water just in front of the boat. For a moment it looked as though it was balancing on its flukes. Only the tip of its tail was still submerged as it towered above the Lady Wexham's bridge. The throat grooves on its lower jaw and underbelly were clearly visible. Its long pectoral fins stuck out like wings, two shiny white appendages with dark markings and knobbly edges. A loud ooh! went up as the gigantic body tipped slowly to one side and hit the water in an explosion of spray.

The people on the top deck shrank back. Part of the Lady Wexham disappeared behind a wall of foam. But the jet of water had cloaked another dark shape. In a mantle of mist and water a second whale surged up from the waves. This time it was even closer to the vessel. Even before the cry of horror went up, Anawak knew that the leap had gone wrong.

The whale hit the Lady Wexham with such force that the vessel rocked violently. There was a cracking, splintering sound. The whale dived down, and people on the top deck were thrown to the floor. The sea around the craft foamed and boiled, then several humpbacks rose to the surface. Two dark bodies launched themselves into the air and hurled themselves at the hull.

'Vengeance!' shrieked Greywolf. There was a hysterical edge to his voice.

The Lady Wexham was twenty-two metres long, far longer than any humpback whale. She had a permit from the Ministry of Transport and conformed to the Canadian Coast Guard's safety standards, which required passenger vessels to be able to withstand rough seas, metre-high breakers and the occasional collision with a lethargic whale. The Lady Wexham had been designed to cope with all such misfortunes. But she hadn't been designed to contend with an attack.

From across the water Anawak heard her engines start. Pandemonium broke out on the two viewing decks, and screams of terror echoed over the waves. People were pushing past each other in blind panic. The Lady Wexham started to move, but a whale rose out of the water, catapulting itself against the bridge. Even this assault wasn't enough to capsize her, but now she was pitching dangerously, as debris rained into the water.

Anawak knew he had to do something. Maybe he could distract the whales. His hand reached for the throttle.

At that moment another scream pierced the air, but this time it was coming from behind him. Anawak spun round.

He was just in time to see the body of an enormous humpback surge vertically out of the water, looking almost weightless. It rose, ten, twelve metres into the air and, for a heartbeat it hung above the little red motorboat with the three protestors.

Anawak had never seen anything so terrifying, and yet so beautiful at such close range.

'Oh dear God no,' he whispered.

As if in slow motion the body gently tipped and started falling. A shadow descended on the little red motorboat, then swallowed the Blue Shark's bow. It grew longer and longer as the enormous body plummeted downwards, travelling faster by the second…

Anawak jammed down the throttle. Greywolf's boat was also quick off the mark – heading straight for Anawak. The two boats collided and Greywolf's driver disappeared overboard but Anawak didn't stop. Before his eyes, thirty tonnes of humpback crashed on to the motorboat, burying it and its crew in the water, and hitting the front of the Blue Shark. The Zodiac's stern flipped up at right-angles to the water, sending its load of orange-clad passengers spinning through the spray.

It was a chilling sight. 'The campaigners' boat had been reduced to splinters and the Blue Shark was drifting upside-down. The water was full of people, shouting and paddling wildly. Their orange suits had inflated automatically to keep them afloat but some lay still on the water, killed by the weight of the whale. Across the waves, the Lady Wexham was surrounded by flukes and fins. He watched as she picked up speed, listing severely.

Anawak picked his way slowly through the drifting bodies, trying to avoid causing more injuries. He flipped on to channel 98 and reported his position. 'We're in trouble,' he barked. 'Casualties and maybe fatalities.' Every boat in the area would pick up his distress signal. He didn't have time to say more or to explain what had happened – there'd been a dozen or so passengers on the Blue Shark, plus Stringer and her deputy, then the three protestors in the motorboat, seventeen in all.

'Leon!' Stringer was swimming towards him. Anawak grabbed her hand and pulled her aboard, then spotted dorsal fins in the water not far from his boat. The orcas' black heads and backs poked out of the water as they sped towards the carnage.

They were moving with a single-mindedness that made his stomach lurch.

Alicia Delaware was floating nearby. She was holding the head of a young man whose orange suit hadn't inflated. Anawak steered the boat towards her, then he and Stringer hauled the unconscious man and the girl on board. Others were swimming towards them now, stretching out their arms to be pulled out of the water. The boat was filling rapidly. It was much smaller than the Blue Shark and already overloaded. Frantically they kept pulling people in, while Anawak scanned the sea for bodies.

'There's one!' shouted Stringer.

A man was floating motionless in the water, face down, no suit – a protester from the motorboat.

Anawak and Stringer grabbed him by the arms and lifted him.

He wasn't especially heavy.

Not nearly heavy enough.

His head lolled back and his eyes stared blankly. His body ended at the waist, torn flesh, arteries and intestines dangled from the torso, blood dripping over the weaves.

Stringer gasped and let go, then Anawak lost his grip and the corpse splashed back into the water.

All around the boat, sword-like fins swirled through the waves. There were at least ten of them, maybe more. A blow sent the boat spinning. Anawak leaped to the wheel, opened the throttle and sped off. Three vast backs rose out of the water before him. He swerved and the whales dived. Two more appeared on the other side, heading straight for the boat. Anawak swerved again. He heard screaming and crying and panic took hold of him, but somehow he steered the Zodiac past the black-and-white bodies blocking their escape.

There was a crunching sound. He swung round in time to see the Lady Wexham shudder and heel in a cloud of spray. In that split second of inattentiveness, the Zodiac's fate was sealed. A giant tail was already hurtling towards the boat.

The Zodiac flew into the air and flipped over.

Anawak soared up, past a cloud of spray, then plummeted down into the ocean. It was bitingly cold. He kicked with all his might, and fought his way up to the surface. Gasping, he was pushed back down. Seized by panic he thrashed about, paddling madly until, spluttering, he surfaced again.

There was no sign of the boat or any of its passengers. The coastline bobbed into view. He was lifted by a wave and at last he saw some of the others. – half a dozen at most. Then gleaming black blades cut through the surf and dived down. A head jerked under and didn't resurface.

An elderly woman saw the man vanish. 'The boat! Where is it?' she shrieked.

Where was the boat? It was too far for them to swim ashore. The woman's screams became more desperate.

Anawak swam over to her. She saw him coming and stretched out her arms. 'Please! You've got to help me.'

I'm going to,' called Anawak. 'Just try to stay calm.'

'I can't keep my head up. I'm sinking.'

'You won't sink.' He took deep long strokes to reach her. ''The suit won't let you.'

The woman didn't seem to hear him: 'You've got to help me. Oh, God, don't let me drown! I don't want to drown.'

'Don't worry, HI-

Suddenly her eyes widened and she vanished under water. Something brushed against Anawak's leg.

Fear coursed through him. He pushed his upper body clear of the water and looked around. The Zodiac was drifting upside-down. All that separated him and the others from it was a few metres – and three black torpedoes.

As the whales powered towards them, something in Anawak protested. Not once had an orca attacked a human in the wild: they treated humans with curiosity, amity or indifference. And whales didn't attack boats – they just didn't. Suddenly he was hit by a rush of water and a flash of red came between him and the whales. Hands reached down to grab him. Then Greywolf steered towards the rest of the swimmers. He pulled Alicia Delaware out of the water and set her down on a bench while Anawak hauled up a wheezing man. He scanned the surface for others. Where was Stringer?

He caught a glimpse of her head between two waves. A second woman was with her. The orcas had surrounded the upturned Zodiac and were closing in from both sides. Their shiny black heads cut through the waves, jaws parted to reveal rows of ivory teeth. In a few seconds they would be upon the women. But Greywolf was at the wheel, steering purposefully towards them.

Anawak held out a hand to Stringer.

'Take her first,' she shouted.

Greywolf helped him drag the other woman to safety. Then Stringer tried to climb on board. She slid back into the water and the whales dived down behind her.

Suddenly she was alone. 'Leon?' She stretched out her arms, eves wide with fear. Anawak caught her right hand.

The blue-green water parted as something shot up at incredible speed. Its jaws were open, exposing white teeth. Then they snapped shut and Stringer screamed. Her fist hammered on the snout that held her prisoner. 'Get off she yelled.

Anawak's fingers dug into her jacket. Their eyes met. 'Susan! Give me your other hand!' He held on to her, determined not to let go, but the orca's jaws were clamped round her. Her mouth opened in a dull cry that become a piercing scream. With a sickening jolt, she was wrenched from Anawak's grip. Her head disappeared underwater, then her arms and her twitching fingers. For a second her orange suit shone in the water, a scattered kaleidoscope of colour that paled, faded and vanished.

Anawak stared at the water. Something glittered in the depths. A column of bubbles. As they reached the surface they popped and foamed.

Then the water turned red.

'No,' he whispered.

Greywolf pulled him away from the railings. 'There's no one here,' he said. 'Let's go.'

As the motorboat roared off, Anawak tripped and steadied himself. The woman whom Stringer had saved was lying on a bench, whimpering softly. Delaware was soothing her, voice shaking. The man stared fixedly ahead.

From across the water Anawak heard another commotion. He whirled round and saw that the Lady Wexham was surrounded by blades and humps. She was barely moving and listed dangerously to one side.

'We have to turn back!' he shouted. 'They're not going to make it!'

Greywolf was powering towards the coast. 'Forget it.'

Anawak reached over and snatched up the walkie-talkie. He tried to call the Lady Wexham. The radio crackled and hissed. 'We've got to help them, Jack! Turn back, damn it!'

'With this boat it's hopeless. We'll be lucky if we make it ourselves.' The worst thing was, he was right.

'VICTORIA?' SHOEMAKER YELLED into the phone. 'What the hell are they doing in Victoria?… Why? Doesn't Victoria have its own Coast Guard? There are people drowning in Clayoquot Sound! We've got one skipper dead and a boat going down and you're telling me to be patient?'

He strode up and down in the office, waiting for a reply. He stopped in his tracks. 'As soon as they can? Sorry, but I'm not interested in your damn excuses. Send someone else… What? Now, just you listen to me…'

The voice at the other end of the line was so loud that, metres away, Anawak heard it. The station was in turmoil. Davie and Shoemaker had been talking non-stop into radios and phones. Shoemaker dropped the receiver and shook his head.

'What's going on?' asked Anawak. Greywolf's decrepit old boat had fought its way back to Tofino fifteen minutes earlier, and since then the office had been swamped with people. The news of the attack had spread like wildfire through the town. All the skippers who worked for the station had come in and the frequencies were jammed. At first nearby sport fishermen had called in, ridiculing the inexperienced idiots 'too dumb to dodge a bunch of whales', and bragging about how they would save them. Then the calls had dried up. Anyone who tried to help had become the target of a fresh attack. All hell had broken loose – and no one knew for sure what was going on.

'The Coast Guard's run out of people to send us,' said Shoemaker angrily. 'They've all been dispatched to Victoria or Ucluelet. Apparently the Lady isn't the only boat in trouble.'

'More attacks?'

'And deaths, by the sound of it.'

'News from Ucluelet,' Davie called. He reached behind the counter and twiddled the dials on his shortwave radio. 'A signal from a trawler. She picked up a distress call from a Zodiac and went to help, but she was attacked. She's turning round.'

'What kind of attack?'

'Signal's gone. I've lost her.'

'And the Lady Wexham?

'No news. Tofino Air has sent two planes – I got hold of them just now.'

'And?' asked Shoemaker impatiently. 'Can they see the Lady?'

'Tom, they only just took off.'

'Why aren't we with them?'

'Don't be a jerk. You know perfectly well why-'

'They're our boats, for Christ's sake! We should be in those darned planes.' Shoemaker was pacing wildly. 'What's happened to the Lady?'

'We'll have to wait and see.'

'Wait? We can't wait! I'm going out there.'

'Tom-'

'We've got another Zodiac, haven't we? We'll take the Devilfish and see for ourselves.'

'Are you nuts?' said a skipper. 'Haven't you been listening to a word Leon's said? We need to leave this to the Coast Guard.'

'There is no Coast Guard!' yelled Shoemaker.

'Maybe the Lady Wexham will make it back without us. Leon said-'

'Maybe isn't good enough. I'm going out there!'

'That's enough now!' Davie held up a hand to silence them. He shot Shoemaker a warning glare. 'Enough lives have been lost, Tom. I don't want anyone taking needless risks. 'We'll wait for the pilots to report back, then we'll decide what to do.'

'Doing nothing never solved anything!'

Davie didn't answer. He was tuning his radio, trying to make contact with the seaplanes. In the meantime Anawak did his best to persuade the crowd to leave the office. His knees trembled and he felt dizzy. He was probably in shock, he thought. He would have given anything to lie down and close his eyes – but if he did, he knew he would see Stringer in the jaws of an orca.

The woman she had saved was lying semi-conscious on a bench near the door. If it hadn't been for her, Stringer would still be alive. The man they'd rescued was sitting next to her, crying softly: he'd lost his daughter, who'd been with him on the boat. Alicia Delaware was looking after him. For someone who'd only narrowly escaped death, she seemed remarkably composed. A helicopter was supposed to be on its way to take them to hospital, but right now they couldn't count on anyone or anything.

'Hey, Leon!' said Shoemaker. 'Will you come with me? You'll be able to tell me what to look out for.'

'Tom, you're not going,' snapped Davie.

'None of you idiots should go out there,' said a deep voice. 'Not ever again. I'll go.'

Anawak swivelled round. Greywolf had walked into the station. He pushed his way through the milling crowd, brushing the hair out of his eyes. The room fell silent and everyone stared at the long-haired giant dressed in suede.

'What are you talking about?' said Anawak. 'Go where?'

'I'm going back to your boat, to rescue your people. I'm not afraid of the whales. They won't hurt me.'

'That's very noble of you, Jack, it really is. But from now on maybe you should keep out of it.'

'Leon,' Greywolf snarled, 'if I'd kept out of it earlier, you'd be dead by now. You should keep out. In fact, you should've kept out in the first place.'

'Out of what?' said Shoemaker, with a dangerous edge.

'Nature, Shoemaker. You're the ones to blame for the whole damn disaster – you and your boats and your cameras. You're responsible for the deaths of my people and your own people and the people whose money you pocketed. It was always going to happen. It was only a matter of time.'

'Asshole!' Shoemaker screamed at him.

Delaware got to her feet. 'He's not an asshole,' she said firmly. 'He saved us. And he's right. If it hadn't been for him, we'd be dead.'

Anawak was well aware that they were indebted to Greywolf – he more than anyone else – but he couldn't forget all the trouble that the man had caused them in the past. He said nothing. For a few seconds there was an uncomfortable silence.

'Jack,' said Anawak, 'if you go out there, someone's going to have to fish you out of the water. The only place you should take your boat is a museum. It won't survive another trip.'

'You're going to let them die out there, then?'

'I don't want anyone to die – not even you.'

'Oh, so it's me you're worried about, is it? But I wasn't planning on using my boat. It took a few knocks out there. I'll take yours.'

'The Devilfish?"

'Sure.'

'I can't just hand it over to anyone,' he said, 'least of all you.'

'Then you'll have to come with me.'

'Jack, I-'

'You can tell that loser Shoemaker he can come too. We'll he in need of some bait, now the orcas are eating their enemies.'

'You've lost it, Jack.'

Greywolf bent down to him. 'Leon,' he hissed. 'My friends died out there too. Do you think I don't care?'

'Well, if you hadn't brought them along…'

'Arguing won't get us anywhere. We're talking about your people, and I'm not the one who needs to go out there. You owe me a bit of gratitude, Leon.'

Anawak swore. He glanced at the others. Shoemaker was on the telephone. Davie was speaking into his walkie-talkie and beckoned to him. 'What do you think of Tom's idea?' he said, in a low voice. 'Would we be able to help or would it be suicide?'

Anawak chewed his lip. 'What did the pilots say?'

'The Lady has capsized. She's on her side, taking in water.'

'Oh, God.'

'The Victoria Coast Guard says it can scramble a helicopter in a rescue operation, but I doubt they'll make it in time. They're busy enough already, and the calls keep coming in.'

The idea of re-entering the hell that they'd just left was a terrifying prospect, but Anawak knew he would never forgive himself if he didn't do everything in his power to help the Lady Wexham. 'Greywolf wants to come too,' he said quietly.

'In the same boat as Tom? You've got to be joking. I thought we were trying to solve a problem, not create one.'

'Greywolf could be useful. God knows what's going on in his head, but we could do with having him around – he's strong and completely fearless.'

Davie nodded gloomily. 'Keep the two of them apart, OK? And if it looks hopeless, come straight back here. I don't want anyone playing the hero.'

Anawak headed over to Shoemaker, waited for him to put down the phone, then told him of Davie's decision.

'You want to take that phony Indian with us?' Shoemaker said indignantly. 'Are you crazy?'

'I think it's more a case of him taking us.'

'In our boat.'

'Look, you and Davie are in charge around here, but I've seen what we're up against and I'm telling you now: we'll be glad to have him with us.'

The Devilfish was the same size as the Blue Shark and had the same horsepower, so it was small and easy to turn. Anawak prayed it would give them enough of an advantage. The creatures still had the element of surprise on their side. No one could tell when or where they might attack next.

As the Zodiac sped across the lagoon, Anawak wrestled with the question of why. He had thought he knew about whales, but now he was at a loss. He couldn't begin to work out what was happening. The attack on the Barrier Queen was his only obvious lead. It must be some kind of infection, he thought. A strain of rabies, perhaps.

But what kind of disease would affect different species? The attacks had been carried out by humpbacks, orcas and grey whales. The more he thought about it, the more certain he was that a grey had overturned his Zodiac.

Could the high levels of PCBs in the sea and the toxins in their food have played havoc with their instincts? But orcas ingested toxins through contaminated salmon and other creatures. Grey whales and humpbacks ate plankton. Their metabolism was different from that of toothed whales.

Disease didn't explain it.

He stared at the glistening water. He'd made this trip hundreds of times before, and each time he'd been full of anticipation at the thought of seeing a whale. He'd always known about the dangers: fog might come down; the wind might change and send treacherous waves pounding into the cliffs – in 1998 a skipper and a tourist had died like that in Clayoquot Sound. And then there were the whales: placid, friendly, but unpredictable animals of enormous size and power. They were a mighty force of nature, as any experienced whale-watcher could testify. Yet if you sought out storms, monstrous breakers and wild animals, they no longer seemed so terrifying. Fear gave way to respect – and Anawak had immense respect for nature.

But now, for the first time, he was afraid.

Seaplanes cut through the sky above the Devilfish as she sped across the waves. Anawak was at the wheel with Shoemaker, who had insisted on steering, and Greywolf was at the bow, scanning the water for trouble.

The tree-covered shores of tiny islets flashed past on their left. On the rocks, sea-lions sunned themselves, as if nothing could disturb their tranquillity. The Zodiac roared past them. The open sea lay ahead – a uniform expanse of endless water, at once familiar and forbidding.

Beyond the sheltered waters of the lagoon, the swell was higher. The Zodiac bounced noisily over the waves. During the past half-hour the sea had grown rougher and dark clouds gathered on the horizon. There was still no sign of a storm, but conditions were deteriorating rapidly – as was often the case in these waters. A rain front was probably heading their way. Anawak strained his eyes to glimpse the Lady Wexham. What if she had sunk? In the distance he saw another vessel, one of many cruise ships passing the Canadian coast at this time of year, heading north to Alaska.

'What brings them here?' shouted Shoemaker.

'I expect they heard the mayday.' Anawak peered through the binoculars. 'MS Arctic. She's from Seattle. I've seen her before – she's sailed this way regularly over the past few years.'

'Leon!'

A small, pointed outline had appeared in the distance, barely visible above the swell. Only the Lady Wexham superstructure was still above water. People had gathered on the bridge and on the viewing platform in the bow. Orcas circled menacingly, biding their time until the vessel slid into the water.

'Oh, God,' said Shoemaker. 'It doesn't seem possible…'

Greywolf turned to them, making signs for them to slow down. Shoemaker backed off the throttle. A grey, grooved hump surfaced in front of them, followed by two others. The whales lingered on the surface for a few seconds, expelled their bushy, V-shaped blow, then dived without showing their flukes.

Anawak could sense their approach underwater. He could practically feel the impending attack.

'Go, go, go!' yelled Greywolf.

Shoemaker slammed down the throttle. The Devilfish pitched forward and shot away. Behind them, the huge dark bodies of the whales surged out of the water and fell backwards. Travelling full-speed ahead the Zodiac shot towards the sinking Lady Wexham. At last they could make out individuals, waving at them from the platform and the bridge. Shouts carried over the water. To Anawak's relief the skipper was among the survivors. One by one the gleaming black blades disappeared underwater.

'We'll be next,' said Anawak.

'You mean they're coming for us?' Shoemaker was panic-stricken. For the first time he seemed to take in what was going on. 'What will they do? Capsize us?'

'They might. The grey whales and humpbacks seem to be in charge of demolition, while the orcas take care of the rest.'

Shoemaker's face drained of colour.

Greywolf pointed to the cruise ship. 'They're sending reinforcements,' he shouted.

Two small motorboats left the side of MS Arctic and moved leisurely towards them.

'Tell them to hurry or get out of here, Leon,' Greywolf yelled. 'At that speed they'll be easy pickings.'

Anawak grabbed the radio. 'MS Arctic. This is Devilfish. You're in danger of attack.'

For a few seconds there was silence. The Devilfish was almost level with the Lady.

'This is MS Arctic. What kind of attack, Devilfish?'

'The whales will try to sink your boats.'

'Whales? Is this a joke, Devilfish?'

'For your own safety I advise you to turn back.'

'We received a mayday from a sinking vessel.'

Anawak lurched forward as the Zodiac careered over a wave. He steadied himself and shouted into the radio, 'We don't have time to talk, but you can take my word for it – you need to move faster.'

'Are you kidding? We intend to assist that vessel. Out.'

Greywolf was signalling frantically from the bow. 'They've got to get away from here!' he veiled.

The orcas had changed course. They were no longer bearing down on the Devilfish but swimming out towards the open sea, in the direction of MS Arctic.

'Shit,' cursed Anawak.

A humpback soared out of the water directly in front of the motor-boats, a corona of droplets shimmering round it. For a moment it was suspended in the air, then it dropped to one side. Anawak gasped. The motorboats continued unharmed through the cloud of falling droplets.

'MS Arctic! Pull back your boats! Clear the water! We'll take care of this.'

Shoemaker cut the engine. The Lady Wexham's bridge jutted through the surface at an angle and the Devilfish halted in front of it, where a dozen men and women were huddled. 'The swell crashed against the bridge, spilling over the side. Anawak saw more people on the viewing platform in the stern. As the waves battered the boat, they hung on to the railings, like monkeys in a cage.

The Devilfish chugged forward between the bridge and the platform. Beneath the Zodiac, the Lady?, main deck shimmered green and white. Shoemaker manoeuvred the boat towards the bridge. A powerful wave seized the Devilfish and raised it into the air. The boat rose like an elevator till they were level with the bridge. For a moment Anawak was in touching distance of the outstretched hands. He looked into the frightened faces, seeing hope mixed with horror in their eyes. Then the Devilfish plummeted.

'This isn't going to be easy,' said Shoemaker, through gritted teeth.

Anawak glanced round nervously. The whales had lost interest in the Lady Wexham. They had regrouped further out and were targeting the two motorboats, which were trying feebly to evade them.

Anawak knew they had little time. The whales could return at any moment and, in any case, the Lady was sinking fast. Greywolf crouched. A steep wave took the Devilfish and lifted her. The peeling paint of the bridge flashed past. Greywolf launched himself into the air and grabbed hold of a ladder on the side of the boat. The water rose to his armpits, then the wave fell away and he was left in mid-air, holding on by one hand, a living link between the people above him and the Zodiac below. He lifted his other hand towards the bridge.

'Climb on to my shoulders,' he shouted, 'one at a time. Cling to me and wait till the boat comes, then jump.'

The group hesitated. Greywolf yelled his instructions again. A woman grabbed his arm. In no time she was on his back, hugging his shoulders. The Zodiac rose. Anawak grabbed her and pulled her in.

'Next!'

At last the rescue operation had gained momentum. One after another the passengers dropped into the boat. Anawak wondered how much longer Greywolf could hold on. He was bearing his own weight, plus that of each passenger and dangling from only one hand while waves surged over him. The bridge groaned piteously as the metal warped and cracked. Now the skipper was the only one left. A sudden screech filled the air – the bridge had taken a hit. Greywolf's body smashed against the side of the ship and the skipper lost his balance and skidded off the deck. A grey whale raised its head above the waves. Greywolf let go of the ladder and dropped into the water. Coughing, the skipper surfaced a few metres ahead of him and reached the Zodiac in a couple of powerful strokes. Hands stretched down and pulled him in. Greywolf made a grab for the side, but was knocked back by a wave.

Behind him, a few metres away, a blade rose through the water.

'Jack!' Anawak rushed to the stern. Greywolf surfaced and swam rapidly towards the boat. The dark blade pivoted, and followed. Greywolf reached up and clutched the side. The orca was ready to lunge. Anawak snatched Greywolf and, helped by others, heaved him into the boat. The orca looped round and swam off. Swearing, Greywolf broke free of the solicitous hands and slicked back his long, dark hair.

Why didn't the orca attack? wondered Anawak.

I'm not afraid of the whales. They won't hurt me.

But that was all talk…

Then it dawned on him. The orca couldn't have attacked. The flooded deck beneath the Zodiac meant the water wasn't deep enough for it to launch itself Unless, of course, it had learned from its South American cousins how to hunt in the shallows or on dry land.

The Zodiac's period of grace would last until the bigger vessel sank. It was crucial that they used it.

Anawak heard screaming.

A grey whale had smashed into one of MS Arctic's boats. Debris flew into the air. An engine howled as the other boat spun round to make its escape. Anawak stared at the spot where the whale had pulled the boat under, and saw a line of grey humps heading their way.

Now it's our turn, he thought.

Shoemaker seemed incapable of movement. His eyes bulged.

'Tom!' yelled Anawak. 'We've got to fetch the others from the viewing platform.'

'Shoemaker!' Greywolf snarled. 'Can't you handle it?'

Trembling, Shoemaker seized the wheel and steered the Zodiac towards the platform. A wave surged beneath them and the bow struck the railings where the passengers were stranded. He was breathing heavily, trying to jockey the boat closer so that people could jump in.

The grey whales bore down on them, set on a collision course with the Lady Wexham. The wreck shook with the force of the impact. A woman was thrown off and landed screaming in the water.

'Shoemaker, you moron!' shouted Greywolf.

Some of the passengers on the Zodiac rushed to pull the woman on board. Anawak looked at the Lady. How long could she withstand a fresh wave of attacks? We're not going to make it, he thought in despair.

Then something incredible happened.

Two mighty bodies rose up on each side of the boat. One was instantly familiar to Anawak: its backbone was covered with a pale criss-cross of scars so they'd nicknamed it Scarback. The elderly grey had already outlived most others of its kind. Both animals lay still in the water, rising and falling on the swell. Then one of the whales discharged its blow, followed by the other. Clouds of tiny droplets wafted over the water.

The real surprise wasn't so much the appearance of the two greys, but the effect they had on the others, who promptly vanished underwater. When they resurfaced, they'd travelled a considerable distance from the boat. Orcas continued to circle the wreck, but they, too, had backed off.

Somehow Anawak knew they had nothing to fear from the new arrivals. In fact, the two greys had scared off their attackers. There was no telling how long the peace would last, but the unexpected turn of events gave them some breathing space. Even Shoemaker had stopped panicking. He guided the Zodiac confidently under the railings. An enormous wave surged towards them and they shot upwards.

Jump!' Anawak shouted. 'Now!'

The Devilfish rose on the swell and sank back down. The people on the railings leaped after it, crashing one on top of another, amid screams of pain. Some landed in the water, but were soon fished out. Eventually everyone was aboard.

It was time to make their getaway.

But not everyone had jumped. Crouched behind the railings a boy was crying, face buried in his hands.

'Jump!' shouted Anawak. He held out his arms. 'There's no need to be afraid.'

Greywolf joined him. 'When the next wave comes, I'll fetch him.'

Anawak glanced over his shoulder. An enormous wall of water was heading straight for them. 'That might be sooner than you think,' he said.

The two grey whales sank below the surface. The sea around the Lady gurgled and foamed, then the bridge disappeared in a whirlpool of water. Her stern rose into the air and the Lady Wexham slid bow first into the depths.

'Get closer!' shouted Greywolf.

Somehow Shoemaker obliged. The Devilfish's bow struck the Lady's deck as she sank, with the boy still clutching the railings. Greywolf shoved his way to the stern, but a wave hit the Zodiac and a veil of frothy water billowed over the rails. As Greywolf leaned out to grab the boy, the Devilfish tipped, he lost his balance and crashed to the deck, but he didn't let go. His arms supported the boy like two firm tree-trunks. His bear-like hands were locked around his waist. Then the Lady Wexham vanished into the depths.

Shoemaker thrust the throttle forward. The waves rolling in from the Pacific were long and regular. They wouldn't pose a risk to the overcrowded Zodiac, providing that her skipper was careful. But Shoemaker had recovered his cool. The Zodiac shot over the crest of a wave, sank down the other side and headed for the coast.

Anawak glanced back at MS Arctic. The second motorboat was nowhere to be seen. A fluke plunged into the water, waving in what seemed to be a mocking farewell. A humpback… He would never see another whale's tail without a sense of foreboding.

A few minutes later they passed the narrow strip of land that separated the open water from the lagoon.

THE BOAT PULLED UP AT the jetty, crammed with people. In the moments following their return, the sight of the unscathed Devilfish was Davie's only comfort. They read out the names of the missing. People collapsed in shock. Then the crowd dispersed. The Zodiac's passengers nearly all had hypothermia. Most were taken away by friends or family to be treated at the nearest clinic. Some had sustained more serious injuries, but no one could say when the helicopter would arrive to take them to Victoria. The radio was still jammed with reports of new horrors.

Davie had been forced to endure hostile questioning, accusations and defamation. Physical violence was threatened if the passengers didn't return. Roddy Walker, Stringer's boyfriend, had put in an appearance, telling everyone in earshot that they'd be hearing from his lawyer. Yet no one was trying to establish who was really to blame. The idea that whales might attack unprovoked was rejected out of hand. They were placid creatures – like people, but nicer. The surviving tourists rounded on Davie and his skippers, as though they were responsible for first-degree murder. According to their accusers, they were irresponsible, took unnecessary risks and went to sea in battered old boats. It was true that the Lady had seen several seasons, but she didn't deserve to be posthumously maligned. No one was prepared to listen.

At least her crew and the majority of the passengers were escorted home safely. Most remembered to thank Shoemaker and Anawak, but Greywolf was hailed as the hero of the hour. He was everywhere at once, talking, listening, organising and offering to take people to the clinic. He was trying so hard to be a Samaritan that Anawak felt sick.

Greywolf had risked his life; there was no doubt about it. And, of course, they were right to thank him – on their knees, if he insisted. But Anawak didn't feel like it. This sudden burst of altruism seemed deeply suspect. He was sure that Greywolf's efforts to help the Lady Wexham hadn't been as selfless as they seemed. It had been a hugely successful day for Jack O'Bannon. He was the one they'd listened to and trusted. He'd always said that whale-watching would end in a disaster – well, if only they'd listened… And now this! Soon people would attest to his clear-sighted prescience. He couldn't have hoped for a better platform.

Furiously, Anawak paced up and down the empty office. They had to find out why the whales had behaved like that. Suddenly he remembered the Barrier Queen. Roberts had been going to send him that report. Now he needed it urgently. He went to the phone, dialled the operator and asked to be connected to the shipping line.

Roberts's secretary answered. Her boss was in a meeting and couldn't be disturbed. Anawak mentioned his involvement with the Barrier Queen, and intimated to her that his business was urgent. The meeting was even more so, she assured him. Yes, she'd heard about the catastrophic events of the past few hours. Full of motherly concern for his welfare, she commiserated sympathetically – but refused point-blank to put Roberts on the line. Would he like to leave a message?

Anawak hesitated. Roberts had said the report was confidential. He didn't want to get the MD into trouble. Maybe he shouldn't mention it. Then he had an idea. 'It's about the infestation on the Barrier Queen's bow,' he said. 'There were mussels and some other organic material stuck there. We sent some to the institute in Nanaimo. They need fresh stock.'

'Fresh stock?'

'Fresh samples. I suppose you've checked every inch of the vessel by now?'

'Of course,' she said, a strange undercurrent in her voice.

'And where is she now?'

'Still docked.' She paused. 'I'll tell Mr. Roberts it's urgent. Where should we send the samples?'

'To the institute in Nanaimo for the attention of Dr Sue Oliviera. Thanks for your help.'

'Mr. Roberts will be in touch directly.' The line went dead. He'd been fobbed off.

What was going on?

His knees started to tremble. He felt exhausted and despondent. He leaned against the counter and closed his eyes. When he opened them, Alicia Delaware was in front of him.

'What are you doing here?' he asked tersely.

She shrugged. 'I'm fine. There's no need for me to see a doctor.'

'Oh, yes, there is. You were in that water, and the water here is darned cold. Now, run along to the clinic before anyone decides to blame us for your frozen intestines too.'

'Hey!' She glared at him. 'None of this is my fault, OK?'

Anawak straightened up from the counter and walked to the window at the rear of the office. The Devilfish was moored outside as though nothing had happened. It was drizzling lightly.

'What was all that rubbish you told me about leaving the island?' he said. 'I broke the rules to take you with me. I only did it because you gave me that sob story.'

'I. . .' She faltered. 'I. . . Well, I really wanted to go. Are you mad at me?'

Anawak turned to her. 'I can't stand being lied to.'

'I'm sorry.'

'Well, why don't you go away and let me get on with my work, then? Run along to Greywolf He'll take care of you.'

'For God's sake, Leon.' She took a step forward, and he drew back. 'I wanted to go on your tour, that's all. I'm sorry I lied to you. The truth is, I'm here for another few weeks, and I don't come from Chicago. I'm at the University of British Columbia, studying biology. What's the big deal? I thought you'd find it funny-'

'So that's your idea of a joke? What's so funny about someone taking advantage of me?' He was losing control, but he couldn't stop shouting, even though he knew she was right. None of it was her fault.

Delaware flinched. 'Leon-'

'Why can't you just leave me alone, Licia?'

He expected her to go, but she didn't. She just stood in front of him. Suddenly Anawak felt dazed. The office was spinning, and he thought briefly that his legs were about to buckle. Then his mind cleared and he saw that she was holding something.

'What's that?' he growled.

'A camcorder.' She handed it to him.

It was a top-of-the-range Sony handycam, encased in underwater housing to protect it from splashes.

'Well?' he said.

Delaware made a despairing gesture. 'I thought you wanted to find out why it happened.'

'And you'd know all about that, I suppose.'

'There's no need to take your anger out on me, Leon!' she retorted. 'A few hours ago I nearly died out there. I could be sitting in a clinic, crying, but I'm not. I'm here and I'm trying to help. So, are you going to listen to me or not?'

Anawak took a deep breath. 'OK.'

'Did you get a good look at the whales that rammed the Lady Wexham?'

'Sure. They were greys and hump-'

'No.' Delaware shook her head impatiently. 'Not the species. The actual whales. Were you able to identify them?'

'It happened too fast.'

She smiled. It wasn't a happy smile, but it was a smile all the same. 'Remember the woman we pulled out of the water? I knew her from the Blue Shark. She's in shock. She doesn't know what's happening. But when I want something, I don't give up.'

'Don't I know it.'

'I saw the camera hanging round her neck. It was strapped on tightly, which was why she hadn't lost it in the water. Anyway, when you went out the second time, I talked to her and she'd filmed the whole thing. She was filming when Greywolf arrived. And as far as I remember, from where we were positioned, the Lady Wexham was behind Greywolf's boat.'

Suddenly Anawak saw what she was getting at.

'She filmed the attack,' he said.

'She filmed the individual whales. I don't know how expert you really are at identifying them but you live around here and you know them. And with a camcorder you can take as long as you like.'

'I suppose you forgot to ask her whether you could keep the camera?' asked Anawak.

She stuck out her chin defiantly. 'What of it?'

He twisted the camera in his hands. 'All right. I'll take a look.'

'We'll take a look,' said Delaware. 'I don't want to be left out. And don't even think of asking me why. It's the least I'm entitled to, all right?'

Anawak was dumbstruck.

'And besides,' she said, 'it's about time you started being nice to me.'

He exhaled slowly, pursing his lips. He had to admit that Delaware's idea was the best lead they had. 'I'll give it a go,' he murmured.

12 April

Trondheim, Norway

The summons came as Johanson was preparing to drive out to the lake. On his return from Kiel he'd contacted Tina Lund to tell her about the experiment in the deep-sea simulation chamber. They hadn't talked for long: Lund was up to her ears in work, and spent every spare second with Kare Sverdrup. Johanson had had the impression that her mind was elsewhere, but whatever was bothering her didn't seem to relate to her job, so he didn't ask questions.

A few days later Bohrmann called with the latest on the worms. The scientists in Kiel had been running more tests. Johanson had already packed his suitcase and was about to leave the house when he decided to call Lund and tell her the news. She seemed more focused now and jumped in before he could begin. 'Why don't you pay us a visit?' she suggested.

'At Marintek?'

'No, at the Statoil research centre. The project-management team is here from Stavanger.'

'Do you want me to regale them with stories of sinister creepy-crawlies?'

'I've already done that. Now they want details so I said I'd ask you.'

'Why me?'

'Why not?'

'Because you've got all the documentation,' said Johanson. 'Reams of it. All I can do is pass on what other people have told me.'

'You can do more than that,' said Lund. 'You can give them your personal opinion.'

Johanson was too surprised to answer.

'They know you're not an expert on wellheads or even worms, for that matter,' she said, 'but you've got a fantastic reputation at the NTNU and you can judge things impartially. At Statoil we're coming at this business from a different perspective.'

'You mean you're only interested in whether it's viable.'

'There are other factors! Look, the trouble is, we've got a bunch of people here, all acknowledged experts in something but-'

'They don't have the first clue about anything else.'

'That's not true!' She sounded put out. 'They're all extremely capable – they wouldn't be here otherwise. But we're too involved in it all, too bogged down. Christ, how else do you want me to put it? We just need some outside opinions, that's all.'

'But I hardly know anything about oil.'

'No one's forcing you.' Lund sounded annoyed now. 'If you're not interested, forget it.'

Johanson rolled his eyes. 'OK, OK. I don't want to leave you in the lurch – and in any case, there's some new data from Kiel and-'

'Can I take that as a yes, then?'

'Jesus, Tina! So, when is this meeting?'

'There's a whole row of them coming up. Every day is just one long meeting.'

'Fine. It's Friday today. I'll be away at the weekend, but Monday would be-'

'That's…' She checked herself 'That would actually be…'

'What?' Johanson prompted her. He had a nasty feeling about this.

'Got something nice planned for the weekend?' she asked conversationally. 'Another trip to the lake?'

'Well guessed. Do you want to come too?'

She laughed. 'Why not?'

'I see. And what would Kare have to say about that?'

'Who cares? It's none of his business.' She paused. 'Oh, hell.'

'If only you were as good at everything else as you are at your job,' said Johanson, so softly that he wasn't sure she'd heard.

'Please, Sigur. Can't you set off a bit later? We're meeting in two hours, and I thought. . . Well, it's not far for you to come and it won't take long. We'll be finished in no time. You can go to the lake this evening.'

'I – '

'We really need to make progress. We've got a schedule to stick to, and you know how much these things cost. Now we're slipping behind and all because…'

'I said I'd do it, all right?'

'You're a honey.'

'Do you want me to pick you up on the way?' I'll be there already. You've made my day, Sigur. Thank you.' She hung up. Johanson looked at his suitcase wistfully.

AS JOHANSON WAS USHERED into the conference hall at the Statoil research centre, the tension was almost tangible. Lund was sitting with three men at a huge table. Late-afternoon sunshine seeped into the room, lending warmth to the glass, chrome and dark-wood furnishings. The walls were lined with blow-ups of diagrams and technical drawings.

'Here he is,' said the woman who had brought Johanson from reception, and a man rose to greet him. He had close-cut dark hair and was wearing designer glasses.

'Thor Hvistendahl, deputy director of the Statoil research centre,' he introduced himself. 'I apologise for encroaching on your time at such late notice. Tina assures us that we're not disrupting your plans.'

Johanson shot Lund an eloquent look, then shook Hvistendahl's hand. 'No problem,' he said. 'I was free this afternoon.'

Lund suppressed a smile. She introduced him to the other men. One was from the Statoil headquarters in Stavanger – a burly man with red hair and friendly blue eyes. He was a member of the executive committee, and was there to represent the management board. 'Finn Skaugen,' he boomed.

The third, a bald man with heavy jowls and the only one wearing a tie, turned out to be Lund's immediate superior, Clifford Stone. He came from Scotland, and was head of the exploration and production unit in charge of the new project. He gave Johanson a distant nod. He didn't seem overjoyed at the biologist's arrival but, then, nothing about him suggested that he ever smiled.

Johanson exchanged a few pleasantries, declined the offer of coffee and took a seat.

Hvistendahl picked up a stack of papers. 'Let's get straight to business. You're familiar with the situation. We're having difficulty gauging whether the whole thing spells trouble or whether we're overreacting. I imagine you're aware of some of the regulations governing the oil industry?'

'The North Sea Conference,' Johanson said, guessing.

Hvistendahl nodded. 'That's one side of it. But we're also subject to other pressures – laws for the protection of the environment, technological limitations and, of course, public opinion, which sets the tone on many of the unregulated issues. When it comes down to it, we have to take account of anything and everything. We've got Greenpeace and a host of other organisations breathing down our necks – and we don't have a problem with that. We know the risks involved in drilling new boreholes, and what to expect when we're planning a new project, so we factor in plenty of time.'

'In other words, we're pretty good at handling things ourselves,' Stone interjected.

'Generally speaking, yes,' said Hvistendahl. 'Not every project makes it to completion, though. There are all the usual reasons – like finding out that the sediment is unstable, that we're in danger of drilling through a gas pocket or even that the water depth and current don't lend themselves to certain types of platform, you know the sort of thing – but in most cases we realise fairly early on what we can and can't do. Tina tests the technology at Marintek, we analyse lots of different samples, check out the conditions down there, get an expert opinion, then start building.'

Johanson crossed one leg over the other. 'But this time there's a worm in the system,' he said.

Hvistendahl laughed uneasily. 'You could say that.'

'Assuming they're relevant,' said Stone, 'which, in my opinion, they're not.'

'What makes you so sure?'

'Worms are nothing unusual. We find them everywhere.'

'Not this species.'

'What makes them so special? Sure, they eat hydrates,' he glared at Johanson, 'but if I remember rightly, your friends in Kiel said that wasn't anything to get worked up about. Or have I missed something?'

'That's not quite what they said. They said-'

'The worms can't destabilise the ice.'

'They're eroding it.'

'Yes, but they can't destabilise it!'

Skaugen cleared his throat. It sounded like a minor explosion. 'We called in Dr Johanson so that we could listen to what he has to say,' he said, glancing at Stone, 'not to tell him what we think.'

Stone bit his lip and stared at the table.

'You mentioned some new data, didn't you, Sigur?' said Lund. She smiled encouragingly at the others.

I'll run you through it now,' he offered.

'Bloody worms,' grumbled Stone.

'Well, that's one way of describing them. Anyway, the scientists at Geomar introduced six further specimens into the simulation chamber. Each burrowed head-first into the ice. Next they placed two fresh specimens on a layer of sediment without any hydrates. They didn't react – didn't eat, didn't burrow. Finally they put two specimens on a layer of hydrate-free sediment above a pocket of gas. The worms didn't burrow, but they became agitated.'

'What happened to the worms that burrowed?'

'They're dead.'

'How far did they get?'

'All except one made it through to the gas,' Johanson glanced at Stone, 'but that doesn't mean we can draw any hard and fast conclusions about their behaviour in the wild. The gas on the continental slopes is covered by layers of hydrates measuring tens or even hundreds of metres thick. The layers in the simulator are barely two metres. According to Bohrmann, it's unlikely that the worms could go deeper than three or four metres, but in the chamber there's no way of knowing.'

'What kills them?' asked Hvistendahl.

'They need oxygen and can't get enough in the narrow hole they make.'

'But other worms burrow,' objected Skaugen. He grinned. 'You can tell we did our homework before you got here. We didn't want to look completely stupid.'

Johanson smiled back. He knew he could get on with Skaugen. 'Other species burrow in sediments,' he said, 'in loose ones, where there's plenty of oxygen – and most worms don't dig very deep. But burrowing in hydrates is like moving through concrete. Before long, there's no air, which leads to suffocation.'

'Do you know of other creatures that behave like that?'

'You mean creatures with a death wish?'

'Is that what it is?'

Johanson shrugged. 'That would assume intent, which doesn't fit with worms. They're conditioned to behave as they do.'

'Do animals commit suicide?'

'Of course they do,' said Stone. 'What about lemmings? They throw themselves off cliffs.'

'No, they don't,' said Lund.

'They do!'

Lund placed her hand on his arm. 'Clifford, you're comparing apples and oranges. People liked the idea of lemmings committing suicide so they took it for granted that they did. But when someone looked into it properly, they found out that lemmings are just stupid.'

'Stupid?' Stone turned to Johanson. 'Tell me, Dr Johanson, is it normal scientific practice to call an animal stupid?'

'They are,' Lund continued, unabashed. 'When you get enough of them together, people can be stupid too. The lemmings at the front know that there's a cliff ahead, but the mob behind them surges on, pushing them forward – it's like fans at a rock concert. They carry on shoving each other into the sea until the procession eventually halts.'

Hvistendahl said, 'Some animals are known to sacrifice themselves, though. I guess you'd call it altruism.'

'Yes, but animal altruism always serves a purpose,' replied Johanson. 'Bees are prepared to die after losing their sting because warding off an intruder is good for the colony – or, at any rate, for the queen.'

'So there's no species-related motive for the worms' behaviour?'

'No.'

'Biology lessons aren't going to help.' Stone sighed. 'Just listen to you all! Soon we won't be able to build the unit because you'll have turned the worms into monsters.'

'And another thing,' said Johanson, ignoring him, 'Geomar would like to take a look at the area you've marked for exploration. With Statoil's backing, of course.'

'That's interesting.' Skaugen leaned forward. 'Are they proposing to send someone over?'

'A research vessel. The RV Sonne!'

'That's kind, but they can do all their research on the Thorvaldson.'

'They'll be stopping off on their way to another site. And, in any case, the Sonne has all the latest equipment. They're mainly interested in testing some of the data they got from the simulator.'

'What kind of data?'

'It relates to an increase in methane levels. By burrowing into the ice, the worms set free small quantities of methane, which disperse into the water. The Geomar scientists would like to excavate a couple of loads of sediment with some worms. They want to look at things in their true proportions.'

Skaugen laced his fingers together. 'So far we've only talked about the worms,' he said, 'but have you seen the ominous video footage?'

'Of the thing in the sea?'

Skaugen smiled wanly. 'You make it sound like a horror movie. What do you think it might be?'

I'm not sure whether we should bracket the worms and this… this creature together.'

'But you know what it is?'

'No idea.'

'You're a biologist. Isn't there anything you can think of?'

'The images Tina extracted from the footage would suggest that the creature is bioluminescent, but there aren't any big creatures that would fit that description. And it rules out mammals per se.'

'Tina mentioned the possibility that we might be dealing with a giant squid.'

'Yes,' said Johanson, 'but it's unlikely. The size and structure of the body don't look right. And, anyway, Architheuthis has always been thought to inhabit entirely different waters.'

There was silence. Stone played with his pen.

'May I ask,' said Johanson, 'what kind of unit you'll be building out there?'

Skaugen glanced at Lund.

'I told Sigur we were thinking of building a subsea unit and that nothing had been decided,' she said.

'How much do you know about subsea units?' Skaugen asked Johanson.

'Well, I've heard about SUBSIS,' he said.

Hvistendahl raised his eyebrows. 'Not bad. You'll soon be an expert. If you join us for another few meetings, you'll -'

'SUBSIS is old hat,' snapped Stone. 'We've come a long way since then. Our units can go much deeper and, safety-wise, they're far superior.'

'The system comes from FMC Technologies in Kongsberg. They specialise in developing subsea solutions,' explained Skaugen. 'It's a more advanced version of SUBSIS. In fact, we've already decided to use the technology. The only question is whether to link the unit to one of the existing platforms or run the pipelines to the shore. They'd have to cover a vast distance and be able to cope with varying depths.'

'Couldn't you build a floating processing plant above the unit?' asked Johanson.

'Sure, but either way the main unit will still be on the seabed,' said Hvistendahl.

'In any case, we know how to evaluate the risks,' continued Skaugen, 'so long as they're defined risks. But the presence of the worms is a factor we can't identify or explain. Maybe – like Clifford says – we're blowing it out of proportion and there's no need to jeopardise our schedule because of a strange glowing creature and some mysterious worms. But where there's doubt, we need to do everything in our power to eliminate it. I don't expect you to take this decision for us, Dr Johanson, but what do you think we should do?'

Johanson felt uncomfortable. Stone was staring at him with open hostility. Hvistendahl and Skaugen were waiting expectantly, and Lund's expression gave nothing away. If only I'd talked to her first, he thought. But she hadn't pressured him. Maybe she'd be glad if he called time on the project. Then again, maybe she wouldn't.

Johanson placed his hands on the table. 'If it were up to me, I'd go ahead and build the thing,' he said.

Skaugen and Lund stared at him in bewilderment. Hvistendahl frowned, and Stone leaned back with a triumphant smile.

Johanson waited for a moment. Then he said, 'I'd build it – but I'd wait until Geomar had carried out its tests and given the green light. I don't think we'll find out any more about the creature on the video – it's probably a distant relative of the Loch Ness Monster and I'm not even sure it's worth worrying about. The real question is what effect untold numbers of mysterious hydrate-eating worms will have on the stability of the slope and on future boreholes. Until you know the answer to that, I'd recommend you put the project on hold.'

Stone pursed his lips and Lund smiled. Skaugen exchanged a glance with Hvistendahl, then said, 'Thank you, Dr Johanson, and thank you for sparing your time.'

THAT EVENING, when he'd put his suitcase into the car and was doing a last check before leaving the house, there was a ring at the door.

He opened it. Lund was standing outside. It had started to rain and her hair clung to her face. 'You did well,' she said.

'Did I?' Johanson stepped aside to let her in. She walked past him, wiping the raindrops from her eyes.

'The decision was as good as made before you arrived. Skaugen just wanted your approval.'

'Who am I to approve or disapprove of Statoil's projects?'

'Like I said, you've got an excellent reputation. But that's not all Skaugen's interested in. He's the one who'll have to take responsibility for the project. He knows that anyone with any connection to Statoil will be biased. He wanted to talk to someone who had nothing riding on the project. Also, you know a bit about worms and you don't give a damn about subsea units.'

'So he put the project on hold?'

'Until Geomar can clarify the situation. Statoil's lucky to have people like him at the top.' She was standing in the hallway, arms hanging at her sides. For someone who was usually so energetic and determined, she seemed oddly at a loss. 'So, where are your bags?'

'What do you mean?'

'Aren't you going to the lake?'

'My case is in the car. You were lucky to catch me – I was about to leave.' He gave her a look. 'Is there anything else you want me to do before I abandon myself to peaceful isolation? Because now I'm going to do just that. No more delays.'

'I won't keep you long. I just wanted to tell you what Skaugen had decided…'

'Yes?'

'. . . and to ask if your offer still holds.'

'What offer?' he said, although he knew what she meant.

'To take me with you.'

Johanson leaned against the wall next to the coat rack. He sensed that things were about to get tricky. 'And I asked you what Kare would have to say about it.'

'I don't need his permission, if that's what you mean.'

'I don't want to be responsible for any misunderstandings.'

You won't be responsible for anything,' she said. 'If I want to go to the lake with you, it's my decision.'

'You're dodging the issue.'

Water from her hair was trickling down her face. 'Then why did you invite me?'

Yes, why? thought Johanson.

Because he'd wanted to. But only if it didn't screw things up. Something bothered him about Lund's sudden decision to join him. A few weeks ago he would have thought nothing of it. Sporadic trips together, dinner dates – all that was part of their long flirtation, which had never gone further. But this was different.

Suddenly he knew what was wrong. 'If you two have fallen out,' he said, 'don't drag me into it. You're welcome to come with me, but not if it's just to put pressure on Kare.'

'You're reading way too much into this.' Lund shrugged. 'OK, maybe you're right. Forget it.'

'No problem.'

They hovered in the hallway.

'Well, I'll be off, then.' He gave her a peck on the cheek and pushed her gently out of the house, then locked the door behind him. It was nearly dusk, and the rain was still falling. He'd have to drive most of the way in the dark, but the prospect was almost appealing. He'd listen to Sibelius, Finlandia, at night – not a bad combination.

'So you'll be back on Monday?' asked Lund, as she walked him to the car.

'Sunday afternoon, more likely.'

I'll give you a ring some time.'

'Sure. What have you got planned then?'

'There's always work.' She paused. 'Kare's gone away for the weekend. He's with his parents.'

Johanson opened the car door. 'You don't always have to work, you know.'

She smiled. 'Of course not.'

'Besides… you couldn't come anyway – you're not equipped for a weekend in the country.'

'What would I need?'

'Sturdy shoes, for one thing.'

Lund glanced at her feet. She was wearing heavy lace-up hoots. 'Anything else?'

'A jumper. . .'Johanson ran his hand over his heard. 'I suppose I've got some spares…'

'Uh-huh. For all eventualities, I suppose.'

'That's right. Best to be prepared.' He couldn't help laughing. 'All right, Miss Complicated. This is your last chance.'

'Me? Complicated?' Lund opened the passenger door. 'We can thrash that out on the way.'

GRAVEL CRUNCHED under the tyres as they turned on to the track leading to the house, and wound their way past the dark shapes of trees. The lake lay ahead, like a second sky embedded in the forest; its surface studded with stars. In Trondheim it was probably still raining.

Johanson parked the car and carried his case into the house, then joined Lund on the veranda. The floorboards creaked. The stillness of the place had always filled him with awe, and seemed more intense for all the sounds he could hear rustlings, the faraway call of a bird, twigs cracking, a scurrying in the undergrowth, and others he couldn't distinguish. A few steps led down from the veranda to a sloping meadow that separated the house from the lake. A crooked landing-stage jutted into it. At the far end, the boat he used for fishing lay motionless on the water.

Lund was gazing into the night. 'And you've got all this to yourself?'

'Mostly.'

'I guess you're happy in your own company, then,' she said.

Johanson laughed. 'What makes you say that?'

'Well, if there's no one else, you'd have to be.'

'When I'm out here, I can do exactly as I please – like or loathe myself, whatever… Come on, let's go inside. I'll make us a risotto.'

A few minutes later Johanson was frying onions, adding rice, stirring then pouring in hot chicken stock. He sliced a few porcini mushrooms and left them to sizzle gently over a low heat.

Lund was watching him. She couldn't cook, Johanson knew. He opened a bottle of red wine, decanted it and poured two glasses. The usual routine. They ate, drank, talked and got closer in a secluded romantic setting. An ageing Bohemian and a younger woman. He knew how it would end.

If only she hadn't insisted on coming.

He was tempted to let things take their course. Lund was sitting at the kitchen table in one of his jumpers, more relaxed than she'd seemed in a long time. There was an unexpected softness about her features that perturbed him. He'd tried to persuade himself that she wasn't his type, too hyperactive and too Nordic, with her straight white-blonde hair and eyebrows. Now he was forced to admit it wasn't true.

You could have had a quiet weekend, he told himself, but you had to go and complicate things.

They ate in the kitchen, drank their wine, chatted easily and laughed. Soon they had started on another bottle.

At midnight Johanson said, 'Fancy a boat trip? It isn't too cold.'

She propped her chin in her hands and grinned at him. 'How about a dip?'

'I'd give that a miss. In a month or two, maybe, when the water's warmer. No, I thought we could motor to the middle of the lake, take the wine with us and…'

'And what?'

'Gaze up at the stars.'

Their eyes met, and Johanson felt his defences crumble. He heard himself saying things he hadn't meant to say, setting things in motion, leading her on. He edged closer to her until he could feel her breath on his face. 'OK, let's go.'

The wind had dropped. They walked along the landing-stage and hopped down into the boat. It rocked in the water and Johanson caught her arm. He nearly laughed. It was like a film, he thought – a corny romantic comedy, with Meg Ryan as the lead.

He'd purchased the little wooden boat with the house. At the bow end, planks had been nailed together to create storage space. Lund sat cross-legged on top, and Johanson started the outboard engine.

They didn't speak while the boat was moving, and soon Johanson released the throttle and let the engine die. They were some distance from the house but the veranda lights reflected in the water as a rippling band of brightness. The silence was punctuated by soft splashes as fish darted up to seize insects. Johanson picked his way carefully across to Lund, with the half-empty wine bottle in one hand. 'If you lie back and look at the sky,' he said, 'the universe and everything in it will be yours.'

She looked at him, eyes glinting in the dark. 'Ever seen a shooting star from here?'

'Plenty.'

'Did you make a wish?'

I'm not enough of a romantic,' he said, and squeezed in beside her. 'I just enjoyed the view.'

Lund giggled. 'You don't believe in such things, then?'

'Do you?'

'Of course not!'

'You're not the type for flowers either. Kare will have his work cut out with you. A stability analysis for subsea construction would be the most romantic present anyone could give you.'

Lund gazed at him. Then she lay down, and her jumper rode up to reveal a taut abdomen. 'Do you mean that?'

Johanson propped himself up on his elbow. 'No, not really.'

'You think I'm unromantic.'

'I think you've never stopped to think what romance is about.'

Their eyes met.

And lingered.

His fingers were already in her hair, combing through the long blonde strands.

'Maybe you could show me,' she murmured. She wrapped an arm round his neck, eyes closed.

Kiss her. Now.

Neither of them moved. They were locked in position, as if they were waiting for a sign.

What's wrong? thought Johanson. Why isn't it working? He could feel the warmth of Lund's body and he breathed in her scent – but he felt like an intruder.

'It's not happening,' said Lund.

Johanson felt as though he'd been thrown into the lake's cold water. Something had been extinguished. His ardour dispersed, giving way to relief 'You're right,' he said.

They disentangled themselves reluctantly. Johanson saw a question in her eyes that was probably mirrored in his: have we spoilt what we had? 'Are you all right?' he asked.

Lund didn't reply. He sat down in front of her, with his back against the side of the boat, and offered her the bottle. 'Good friends like us,' he said, 'should never be lovers.'

It was a cliché, but it had the right effect. She giggled, grabbed the bottle and took a swig. Then she laughed. She put her hand to her mouth to stifle it, but noisy laughter spilled between her fingers, and Johanson joined in.

'Phew,' she said. 'Are you angry with me?'

'No. What about you?'

'No- it's just. . .' She hesitated. 'I don't get it. On the Thorvaldson that night in your cabin, if I'd stayed a moment longer something could have happened, but now…'

He took the bottle from her and drank some wine. 'No,' he said. 'It would have been like tonight.'

'But why?'

'Because you love him.'

Lund wrapped her arms around her knees. 'Kare?'

'Who else?'

For a long time she stared silently into space. 'I thought I could get away from him.' She paused, then went on, 'You and I were always on the verge of something happening. Neither of us wanted anything serious so we were perfectly suited… But I never thought, it has to happen now. I wasn't in love with you. I didn't want to be in love. And then I met Kare and I knew I was…'

'In love.'

'I couldn't focus on my job, my mind was always elsewhere – and that's just not me.'

'So you thought you'd cash in your chips before things got out of hand.'

'Then you are angry with me!'

'I'm not angry. I was never in love with you either.' He thought for a moment. 'I wanted you – but only really since you started seeing Kare. It dented my pride…' He laughed. 'There's a wonderful film, Moonstruck, with Cher and Nicolas Cage. Someone asks, "Why do men chase women?" And the answer comes, "Maybe it's because they fear death." Why am I telling you this?'

'Because it's all about fear – fear of being alone, fear of never being asked and, worst of all, the fear of having a choice and making the wrong one. You and I could have an affair, but with Kare… With Kare, it would be much more than that. I knew it from the start. When you find yourself wanting someone you don't even know, whatever the price. But their life is part of the deal, and you have to take that too – so you get nervous.'

'It might be a mistake.'

She nodded.

'Have you ever been in a serious relationship?' he asked.

'Once,' she said, 'a long time ago.'

'What happened?'

'He finished with me, and I was a snivelling wreck.'

'And then?'

She rested her chin on her hands. Sitting there in the moonlight, brow furrowed, she was utterly beautiful, but Johanson didn't feel a hint of regret about the way things had worked out. 'I was always the one who ended it,' she said.

'An avenging angel, then.'

'Don't be ridiculous. Mostly they got on my nerves – too slow, too sweet, too stupid. Sometimes I ran away to make sure I escaped before I. . .'

'So you're afraid of building a house in case a storm destroys it.'

'Maybe.' She frowned. 'But there's another way of looking at it. You build the house, then knock it down before anyone else can.'

Somewhere a cricket was chirping and another answered from the other side of the lake.

'Well, you almost succeeded,' said Johanson. 'If we'd slept together, you could have dumped him. Did you really think you could fool yourself like that?'

'I told myself I'd be better off having an affair with you than throwing myself into a relationship that might stifle me. Sleeping with you would have confirmed it.'

'So, you'd have screwed your way to safety?'

'No.' She glared at him. 'I was attracted to you, believe it or not. You weren't just there to help me escape. I didn't just-'

'It's OK.' Johanson made a dismissive gesture. 'You're in love.'

'Yes,' she said sullenly.

'Don't sound so grudging. Say it again.'

'Yes!'

'That's better.' He grinned. 'And now that we've turned you inside out and upside-down, let's drink to Kare.'

She gave him a lopsided grin.

'Still not sure?'

'Yes and no.'

Johanson passed the bottle from one hand to the other. 'I tore a house down once, a long time ago. The people were still inside. They both got hurt, but eventually it passed – for one of them, at least. I still haven't decided whether it was right.'

'Who was the other?' asked Lund.

'My wife.'

'You were married?'

'Yes.'

'You never said.'

'We're divorced.'

'Why?'

'That's just it. There was no real reason. No major dramas, no crockery throwing. Just the feeling that things were closing in. I was scared… of becoming dependent. I could see us starting a family. Soon there'd be children in the house and a dog in the yard, and I'd have to take responsibility.

'And now?'

'There are times when I see it as the only real mistake I've made.' He stared into the water. Eventually he straightened and raised the bottle. 'Now for a toast! Whatever you want to do, go ahead and do it.'

'But I still don't know,' she whispered.

TO JOHANSON'S ASTONISHMENT they spent the whole weekend together by the lake. After their failed attempt at romance, he'd imagined she'd want to leave first thing in the morning, but in fact the air had cleared. Their flirtation was over. So, they went for walks, talked, laughed and forgot about the outside world with its universities, oil rigs and worms – and Johanson cooked the best Bolognese of his life.

On Sunday evening they drove home. Johanson dropped Lund at her place, then went on to his own. As he stepped into his house in Kirkegata Street, he was struck by the difference between solitude and loneliness, but the feeling soon passed. He left it in the hallway: anxieties and melancholy were allowed that far but no further.

He took his case into the bedroom and turned on the TV. Zapping through the channels, he came across a concert from the Royal Albert Hall. Arias from La Traviata, sung by Kiri Te Kanawa. He started to unpack, humming with the music and wondering what he might like as a nightcap.

The music stopped, but he was folding a shirt and didn't register that the concert had ended. In the background, the news took over.

'. . . in Chile. It is not yet known whether the disappearance of the Norwegian family can be linked to similar incidents that are said to have occurred around the same time off the coasts of Peru and Argentina. In all three countries fishing-boats have disappeared or been found abandoned at sea. None of those involved have been traced. The conditions were calm and sunny when the family of five boarded the trawler on a deep-sea fishing expedition.'

He smoothed a sleeve and folded it to the middle.

'Costa Rica is currently experiencing a jellyfish invasion of unprecedented proportions. The so-called Portuguese man-of-war, or "bluebottle," has descended on the area, swamping coastal waters. Local media reports say that fourteen people have been killed by the highly poisonous creatures, while many others have been injured, including two British citizens and a German. The number of missing is still to be confirmed. The Costa Rican Foreign Office has called an emergency session of Parliament, but firmly rejects the suggestion that beaches should be closed, insisting that there is no real threat to swimmers.'

Johanson stopped what he was doing. 'Those assholes,' he muttered. 'Fourteen dead! They should have closed the beaches long ago.'

'Swarms of jellyfish are also causing concern off the coast of Australia. This time the culprits are thought to be box jellyfish, another highly venomous species. The local authorities are urging people to stay out of the water. Over the past hundred years, box jellyfish have caused seventy deaths, making them more dangerous to man than sharks.'

'In another story of marine tragedy, fatalities have been reported off the coast of western Canada. The exact cause of the accidents, which resulted in the sinking of several tourist vessels, is not yet known. Reports suggest that navigational errors may have caused them to collide.'

Johanson was gazing at the screen now. The newsreader had put down a piece of paper and was smiling emptily into the camera. 'And now for a round-up of today's other stories…'

Johanson thought of the woman he'd seen in Bali, who'd flailed in the sand, shaken by convulsions. He hadn't touched the creature and neither had she. She'd been walking along the beach when she noticed something floating in the shallows and had fished it out with a stick. Cautious by nature, she'd kept it at arm's length, turning it this way and that. Then she'd made a mistake.

The Portuguese man-of-war belonged to the genus Physalia, a type of hydrozoa that scientists still found baffling. Strictly speaking, it wasn't a jellyfish but a floating colony of tiny organisms, hundreds of thousands of polyps, grouped according to function. The main body, a jelly-like float tinted violet or blue, had a gas-filled crest that rose above the water, allowing the colony to sail across the surface. You couldn't see what hung beneath it.

But you knew as soon as it touched you.

A net of tentacles up to fifty metres long and covered with miniscule stinging cells swept beneath each Portuguese man-of-war. The structure and purpose of the cells was a masterstroke of evolution. Each consisted of a hollow sphere that curled in on itself to form a coiled tube tipped with a harpoon-like barb. At the slightest touch the tube would unfurl, bursting forth at a pressure equivalent to seventy exploding tyres. Thousands of barbed harpoons would penetrate the victim's flesh, injecting a mixture of phenols and proteins that attacked the blood and nerve cells. The victim's muscles would contract and pain would sear the skin. Shock would follow, then breathing difficulties and heart failure. Those fortunate enough to be close to the shore usually survived, but divers and swimmers further out stood little chance against the trailing tentacles.

The woman on the beach in Bali had dropped the hydrozoan but the stick had brushed her toe. It must have left a trace of venom – enough to ensure that she never forgot it.

But the Portuguese man-of-war was harmless compared to the box jellyfish – Chinmex fhekeri, the deadly Australian sea wasp.

In the course of evolution, nature had developed an impressive array of toxins. Chinmex Jleckeri was the piece de resistance. A single box jellyfish contained enough poison to kill 250 people. It's highly potent venom paralysed the nervous system, causing immediate loss of consciousness. Within minutes, or sometimes seconds, most of its victims suffered heart failure and drowned.

All this ran through Johanson's mind as he stared at the screen.

Fourteen dead and countless others injured in a matter of weeks. Had the death-count ever been so high on a single stretch of coastline from just a single species? And what about the disappearing ships?

Portuguese men-of-war in South America. Box jellyfish in Australia.

Bristleworms in Norway.

It's probably coincidence, he thought. Swarms of jellyfish appeared all over the world. The holiday season wouldn't be the same without them. They had nothing in common with worms.

He tidied away the last few items of clothing, switched off the television and went into the living room to listen to music or read. But he didn't put on a CD or pick up a book. For a while he paced up and down, eventually stopping at the window. The streetlamps lit the street outside.

The lake had been so peaceful…

It was peaceful here too…

When things were so peaceful, there was usually something wrong.

Don't be ridiculous, Johanson told himself.

He poured himself some grappa, took a sip, and tried to forget about the news.

Then he remembered Knut Olsen, a fellow biologist at the NTNU. He knew a lot about jellyfish, coral and sea anemones.

Olsen picked up on the third ring.

'Were you asleep?' asked Johanson.

'Not with the kids still up,' said Olsen. 'It's Marie's fifth birthday today. How was the lake?'

Olsen was a perpetually cheerful family man whose cosy domestic life seemed like a nightmare to Johanson. They never saw each other socially, unless you counted lunch breaks, but Olsen was a nice guy with a decent sense of humour. With four children he needed it, thought Johanson. 'One of these days, you should come with me,' he said, although they both knew it wouldn't happen. 'Have you seen the news?'

There was a short pause. 'The jellyfish, you mean?'

'Right first time. What's going on?'

'It's obvious, isn't it? Biological invasions happen all the time. Frogs, locusts, jellyfish…'

'But Portuguese men-of-war and box jellyfish?'

'It's unusual…'

'In what way?'

"They're two of the world's deadliest sea creatures. And there's something peculiar about what they're saying on the news.'

'Seventy fatalities in a hundred years?' said Johanson.

'Oh, that's rubbish.' Olsen gave a derisive snort.

'Too many?'

'Too few! The real death toll's much higher – ninety at least, if you count the Gulf of Bengal and the Philippines, not to mention all the unreported and unexplained cases. Australia has always had a problem with box jellies. They spawn in the river mouths north of Rockhampton. Almost all the accidents happen in the shallows – they can kill you in less than three minutes.'

'Is it jellyfish season?'

'In Australia, yes – October to May. In Europe they only really bother you when it's too hot to stay out of the water. We were in Menorca last summer and the kids were going crazy. The whole place was inundated with Velella.'

'Sorry?'

'Velella velella. By-the-wind sailors, Quite pretty, really, providing they're not rotting on the beach. Little violet-coloured jellies – the sand was covered with them. Everyone knows I'm a big fan of jellyfish, but there were too many even for me. The Australian story is seriously odd, though.'

'In what sense?'

'You find box jellies on the coastline, where the water's nice and shallow, not out to sea, and definitely not on the Barrier Reef- but they're saying they've been found there too. It's the opposite with Velella. They're an offshore species, and no one understands why they sometimes turn up on the beach.'

'I thought the beaches were protected by nets.'

Olsen roared with laughter. 'They're useless. The mesh stops the jellies, but the tentacles break off and carry on drifting. No one can see them.' He stopped. 'But why are you so interested? You must know a bit about jellyfish yourself.'

'Not nearly as much as you do. Is this a scientific anomaly?'

'You can pretty much bet on it,' said Olsen, balefully. 'Jellyfish distribution is linked to rising water temperatures and high levels of plankton. Plankton thrive in nice warm water, and jellyfish eat plankton, so you can guess what happens next. It's why they turn up in their hordes towards the end of summer and disappear a few weeks later. It's their natural cycle. Hang on a moment.'

Johanson heard shrieks in the background. He wondered what time the Olsen children went to bed – whenever he called, some kind of riot was going on. Olsen yelled at them to quieten down. Then he was back. 'Anyway, I reckon we get these invasions because the sea is being over-fertilised. Sewage encourages plankton levels to rise, and it all takes off from there. You only need a strong westerly or north-westerly, and the jellyfish are on your doorstep.'

'Yes, but those are normal jellyfish plagues. I want to know-'

'You want to know if it's an anomaly – and I think it probably is. But it's precisely the kind that's difficult to spot. Tell me, have you got any pot plants?'

'Yes.'

'A yucca?'

'Two.'

'There you go – an anomaly. The yucca isn't native.'

Johanson rolled his eyes. 'Don't tell me we're being threatened by a yucca invasion. Mine are fairly placid.'

'That's not what I meant. I'm saying that we've forgotten what's natural and what's not. Back in 2000 I was called out to the Gulf of Mexico to investigate a plague of jellies that was threatening the local fish stock. They invaded the spawning grounds in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, devouring fish eggs and larvae, plus the plankton that the fish would normally eat. The damage was caused by an Australian jellyfish from the Pacific that shouldn't have been there at all.'

'An invasive species.'

'Exactly. The jellies were destroying the food chain and slashing the fish yield. It was catastrophic. A few years before that, the Black Sea was on the brink of an ecological disaster because during the eighties a cargo vessel had shipped in some comb jellies with its ballast water. They didn't belong there. The Black Sea countries kicked up a fuss, but before anyone could do anything about it, the region was screwed. Eight thousand jellies per square metre of sea. Do you know what that means?'

Olsen was talking himself into a fury.

'Then this other business. Portuguese men-of-war off the coast of Argentina. That's not their territory. Central America, Peru and Chile, maybe. But further south? Impossible. Fourteen deaths, just like that. A biological invasion. You can bet the locals weren't expecting it. And now box jellies on the Barrier Reef! It's as if someone had magicked them there.'

'What I find peculiar,' said Johanson, 'is that it's the two most venomous species.'

'Absolutely,' Olsen said slowly. 'But I hope you're not about to give me some kind of conspiracy theory. This is Norway, not America. There are plenty of possible explanations for the rise in jellyfish plagues. Some scientists say it's El Niño and others blame global warming. In Malibu the plagues are the worst they've had in years, and Tel Aviv's seeing some gigantic specimens. Global warming, invasive species – it all makes sense.'

Johanson wasn't listening. Olsen had said something that stuck in his mind.

As if someone had magicked them there.

It was the same for the worms.

As if someone had magicked them there.

'. . . breeding in the shallows,' Olsen was saying. 'And another thing. When they say "unusually large numbers", they don't mean thousands, they mean millions. And the government says it's under control! There have been far more than fourteen deaths, believe me.'

'Uh-huh.'

'Are you listening?'

'Of course. More than fourteen deaths. What were you saying about conspiracy theories?'

Olsen laughed. 'Very good. But seriously, though, I think it's definitely an anomaly. It might look like a cyclical phenomenon, but I think it's something else.'

'Interesting.' Should he tell Oslen about the worms? But it was none of his business, and Statoil wouldn't be happy if the story hit the headlines – Olsen talked too much.

'How about lunch tomorrow?' asked Olsen.

'Sure.'

'I'll see if I can find out more. Fish for some information.' He chortled.

'Great,' said Johanson. 'See you tomorrow.' He hung up. Then he remembered that he'd meant to ask Olsen about the missing boats. Never mind – he'd mention it tomorrow.

He wondered whether the jellyfish story would have made such an impression on him if he hadn't known about the worms. Probably not, because the jellies weren't what interested him. He wanted to know about the connections – if there were any.

THE FOLLOWING MORNING, on the way to the NTNU, Johanson listened to the news, but there was nothing he hadn't heard already. People and boats were going missing in different parts of the world, giving rise to endless speculation but no satisfactory explanation.

His lecture was scheduled for ten. Enough time to read his emails and glance at the post. It was pouring with rain, and the grey sky hung heavy over Trondheim. He'd scarcely turned on the lights and sat down at his desk with his coffee when Olsen poked his head round the door. 'It's never-ending,' he said, 'all this bad news.'

'You mean the missing boats? I was going to ask you about that yesterday, but I forgot.'

Olsen came into the room. 'Are you going to offer me some coffee?' he said, looking around intently. Curiosity was one of Olsen's useful but slightly wearisome traits.

'It's all next door,' Johanson told him.

Olsen leaned into the adjoining office and asked for a coffee at the top of his voice. Then he sat down and let his eyes rove round the room. Johanson's secretary marched in, slammed a mug in front of Olsen and stalked back to her desk.

'What's wrong with her?' said Olsen, surprised.

'I pour my own coffee,' said Johanson. 'It's all laid out. Flask, milk, sugar, cups…'

Olsen took a noisy gulp. 'So you didn't listen to the news?'

'I heard it in the car.'

'Ten minutes ago there was an emergency newsflash on CNN. I've got a telly in my office – I keep it on all day.' The overhead lighting shone on Olsen's emerging bald patch. 'A gas tanker's exploded off the coast of Japan, then two container ships and a frigate collided in the Strait of Malacca. One of the ships sank, the other isn't seaworthy, and the frigate's gone up in flames. It belonged to the military. There was an explosion.'

'Christ.' Johanson warmed his hands on his mug. 'As far as the Malacca Strait is concerned,' he said, 'I can't say I'm surprised. It's astonishing there aren't more accidents.'

'Sure, but it's quite a coincidence.'

Three stretches of water competed for the title of busiest waterway in the world: the English Channel, the Strait of Gibraltar and the Strait of Malacca, which formed part of the main route between Europe, South East Asia and Japan. Six hundred tankers and freighters passed through the strait each day, and sometimes the channel between Malaysia and Sumatra carried as many as two thousand vessels. The strait was eight hundred kilometres long, but its narrowest point was only 2.7 kilometres wide. India and Malaysia had urged the tankers to use the Lombok Strait further south, but their pleas had fallen on deaf ears. Taking a detour would decrease the profit margin, so 15 per cent of international shipping continued to stream through the Malacca Strait.

'Does anyone know what happened?'

'Not yet.'

'How awful.' Johanson sipped his coffee. 'So, what's all this stuff about disappearing boats, then?'

'Oh, that. You haven't heard?'

'Well, if I had, I wouldn't ask,' said Johanson. His temper was starting to fray.

Olsen lowered his voice. 'It turns out that swimmers and small fishing-boats have been going missing for some time in South America, but the media didn't report it – or not in Europe, at least. They say it started in Peru. The first person to disappear was a fisherman. His boat was found a few days later, a little reed craft, drifting out to sea. At first they thought a wave had caught him, but the weather's been perfect for weeks. Since then, people have been vanishing left, right and centre. The latest victim was a trawler.'

'Why hasn't anyone mentioned it?'

Olsen spread his hands in a gesture of resignation. 'Because no one likes to advertise this kind of thing. Tourism's crucial to the region. And, anyway, it was happening on the other side of the world.'

'But the jellies made the news.'

'Oh, come on, Sigur, that's totally different. American citizens have died. Plus a German, and God knows who else. And now a Norwegian family has vanished off the coast of Chile. One of the local companies organised a deep-sea angling trip – one minute they were all on the trawler and the next they were gone. Norwegians, for God's sake! That kind of thing's always reported.'

'OK, I take your point.' Johanson leaned back in his chair. 'Did no one radio for help?'

'There were a few distress signals, nothing more – the boats that went missing weren't exactly high-tech.'

'And no sign of a squall?'

'For Christ's sake, Sigur, no. At least, nothing that could sink a vessel.'

'And western Canada? What's going on there?'

'You mean those boats that were in collision? No idea. According to one witness, they got into a fight with a bad-tempered whale. Who knows? The world's a cruel place… Now how about another coffee? Actually, I think I'll get it myself.'

DRY ROT WAS EASIER to get rid of than Olsen, but eventually he left. Johanson checked his watch. Nearly time for his lecture. He rang Lund.

'Skaugen has contacted other teams working in exploration,' she said, 'oil companies all over the world. He wants to know if anyone's found anything similar.'

'Like the worms?'

'Exactly. He thinks the Asians know at least as much as we do.'

'Why?'

'You said it yourself. Asia is trying to exploit gas hydrates. I thought that's what they told you in Kiel. Skaugen wants to sound them out.'

It wasn't a bad idea, thought Johanson. If the worms were crazy about hydrates, the companies that wanted the hydrates would have come across them too. The trouble was … 'I can't imagine the Asians will be open with him,' he said. 'They'll be as cagey as he is.'

'So you don't think Skaugen'll mention it?'

'Certainly not the whole story. And especially not now.'

'But what else can he do?'

'Well…'Johanson scrabbled for words '. . . I don't mean to insinuate anything, but suppose someone decided to build a unit regardless of the worms.'

'Impossible!'

'Just supposing.'

'But I told you, didn't I? Skaugen's taking your advice.'

'All credit to him. But this is money we're talking about. Some people would decide it's OK to pretend not to know about the worms.

'You mean they'd go ahead and build the unit?'

'You never know, it might go smoothly. And if it didn't… Well, a firm can be liable for technical incompetence, but not for methane-eating worms. Sure, they knew about them beforehand, but who could prove it?'

'Statoil wouldn't hush up a thing like that.'

'Forget Statoil. Take the Japanese. Selling methane would be equivalent to an oil boom, if not better. They'd be unbelievably rich. You can't honestly think they'd want to show their hand.'

'I guess not.'

'Would Statoil?'

'Look, this is getting us nowhere,' said Lund. 'We need to find out the truth before anyone else does. If only we had some independent observers who couldn't be traced back to Statoil. Like…' She made thinking noises. 'Couldn't you ask around a bit?'

'In the oil industry?'

'At universities, institutes – people like your friends in Kiel. Aren't hydrates being studied all over the world?'

'Yes, but-'

'And how about marine biologists? Deep-sea divers?' She was sounding excited now. 'Maybe you should take over the entire thing! We could set up a new division for you. I'll call Skaugen right away and ask him for funding. Then we can-'

'Whoa! Not so fast, Tina!'

I'm sure it would be well paid, and it wouldn't mean much work.'

'It'd be bloody awful. And there's no reason why you lot shouldn't do it.'

'You'd do it better. You're neutral.'

'Come off it, Tina.'

'Instead of arguing with me, you could've rang the Smithsonian three times already. Please, Sigur, it'd be easy… You've got to see it our way. We're a big multinational with vested interests. The minute we start asking questions, hundreds of environmental groups will pounce. They're waiting for something like this.'

'I see. So sweeping it under the carpet would be in your interest?'

'You can be bloody annoying at times, Sigur.'

'So people keep telling me.'

Lund sighed. 'What do you think we should do, then? As soon as people know about it, they'll think the worst. And you can take my word for it, Statoil isn't going to build this unit until we've found out more. But if we start making official enquiries, the news will get out and we'll be in the spotlight. Our hands will be tied.'

Johanson rubbed his eyes and glanced at his watch again. It was gone ten. 'Tina, I have to go. I'll ring you later.'

'Can I tell Skaugen you'll do it?'

'No.'

There was silence. 'OK,' she said finally, in a small voice.

Johanson took a deep breath. 'Will you at least give me time to consider it?'

'You're a sweetheart.'

'I know. That's my problem.'

He gathered up his papers and hurried to the lecture-hall.

ROANNE, France

Jean Jérôme was looking critically at twelve Brittany lobsters. He looked critically at most things. He owed his scepticism to the establishment for which he worked. Troisgros prided itself on being the only French restaurant to have kept its three Michelin stars for over thirty consecutive years. Jérôme had no desire to go down in history as the man who broke that tradition. He was responsible for seafood, Troisgros's lord of the fish, so to speak, and he'd been on his feet since dawn.

His wholesaler had been up even longer – his day began at three in the morning in Rungis, an otherwise unremarkable suburban town fourteen kilometres outside Paris that had transformed itself almost overnight into a mecca of haute cuisine. Spread over four square kilometres and fully lit, it was the place for wholesalers, restaurateurs and anyone else who spent their life in a kitchen to purchase their ingredients. Produce from all over France could be found there: milk, cream, butter and cheese from Normandy, high-quality vegetables from Brittany, and aromatic fruits from the south. Oyster farmers from Belon, Marennes, the Arcachon basin, and tuna fishermen from St Jean-de-Luz would thunder down the autoroutes to deliver their freight on time. Refrigerated lorries laden with shellfish jostled with vans and cars on the roads. Top-quality produce was on sale in Rungis before anywhere else in France.

But not all top-quality produce was the same. The lobsters, like the vegetables, came from Brittany, but some specimens were more enticing than the rest Jean Jérôme picked them up one by one and studied them from every angle. There were six in each of the large polystyrene crates lined with seaweed. They were alive, of course, but barely moving, which was only natural, since their pincers had been tied.

'They're good,' said Jérôme.

That was praise indeed, coming from his lips. In fact he was exceptionally pleased with the lobsters. They were on the small side, but fairly heavy to make up for it, and their shells were a shiny dark blue.

Then he came to the last pair. 'Too light,' he said.

The wholesaler frowned. With one hand he picked up a lobster that had met with Jérôme's approval, and in the other he held one of the rejects. He weighed them against each other.

'You're right, Monsieur,' he said, in consternation. 'I do apologise. But there's not much in it.'

'True,' said Jérôme. 'A little difference like that wouldn't be noticed in a seaside cafe – but this is Troisgros.'

'Please accept my apologies. I can go back and-'

'That won't be necessary. We'll see which of our guests has the smallest appetite.'

The wholesaler apologised again.

A short while later Jérôme was in Troisgros's magnificent kitchens, getting to grips with the evening menu. He had put the lobsters in a tub.

When it was time to blanch them, he asked for a large pan of water to be heated. Speed was of the essence when dealing with lobster- as soon as it was caught, its flesh began to lose flavour. Blanching stabilised it, and killed them. Later, when it was almost time to serve them, they would be cooked through. Jérôme waited until the water reached boiling-point, then dropped a lobster head-first into the pan. The air inside its body cavity escaped in a high-pitched scream. Then he drew it out and put it aside. One by one he repeated the process… nine, ten… He reached for the eleventh, lighter than the others, and lowered it into the steaming water.

He pulled it out, and swore under his breath.

What on earth had happened to the creature? Its shell had been ripped open and a claw had fallen off Jérôme snorted with rage. He put it down on the work surface and nudged it gently on to its back. The underside was damaged, and a slimy white substance filled the shell where the meat should have been. He turned to the pan and stared into it. Blobs of something that bore no resemblance to lobster flesh were floating in the water.

There was nothing he could do about it, and besides he only needed ten. Jérôme never risked buying too little – he had a reputation for getting the balance just right. It was important to know precisely how much of everything would be needed – in the interests of economy, of course, but also to have sufficient in reserve. Once again, the strategy had paid off.

But it was annoying all the same.

The tub caught his eye. There was one lobster left, the second of the pair he hadn't liked. But there was no time to worry about that now – into the pan with it.

Wait! He hadn't cleaned the water.

A thought struck him. The diseased lobster had been lighter than the others. This live lobster felt lighter too. Maybe it was infected with a virus or a parasite. Jérôme took the twelfth lobster out of the tub and laid it on the work surface. Its long antennae slanted back along its body twitching constantly, while its bound claws moved feebly. When lobsters were removed from their natural habitat, they tended towards lethargy. Jérôme prodded it gently and bent down to it. A transparent substance was oozing from the joint where the carapace met the segmented tail.

What the hell was that?

Jérôme crouched close to it.

The lobster raised its upper body and its black eyes seemed to fix on him.

Then it burst.

THE APPRENTICE WHOM JÉRÔME had put to work scaling fish was only three metres away from the scene, but a narrow wall unit stacked with utensils obscured his view of the stove. The first he heard was a bloodcurdling scream. Then Jérôme staggered backwards, clutching his face. The apprentice darted towards him, and both men lurched into the cupboard behind them. Saucepans jangled and something crashed to the floor, shattering.

'What is it?' the apprentice asked, panicking. 'What happened?'

The other chefs came running. The kitchen was like a well-organised factory in which each worker carried out a particular task. One was responsible for game, another for sauces, a third for pates, a fourth for salads, a fifth for patisserie and so on. For a moment everything was thrown into confusion. Then Jérôme lowered his hands and pointed a trembling finger towards the work surface next to the stove. A thick transparent substance was dripping from his hair. Blobs covered his face and a stream ran down his neck. 'It – it exploded at me,' he gasped.

His apprentice took a step forward and looked with revulsion at the lobster fragments. Only the legs were still intact. A claw lay on the floor and the jagged edges of the shell gaped open. 'What did you do to it?' he whispered.

Jérôme's face was distorted with disgust. 'I didn't do anything!' he yelled. 'It just burst!'

They fetched towels for him to wipe himself clean. The apprentice touched the substance with his fingertips. It felt taut and rubbery, but it disintegrated easily, dispersing over the worktop. Without stopping to think, he took a jar from the shelf and spooned in clumps of the jelly. Then he swept some of the liquid over the top and twisted on the lid tightly.

Pacifying Jérôme posed more of a problem. In the end someone poured him a glass of champagne, and eventually he recovered some of his poise. 'Clean up that mess,' he commanded. 'I'm going to wash.'

Immediately the kitchen staff started putting his workplace back to rights. They scrubbed the stove and the surrounding area, disposed of the lobster remnants, cleaned the pan and threw away the water in which the lobsters had spent the last hour of their lives. It went the way of all waste water – down the drain and into the sewers where it mingled with the other fluids that the town had flushed away.

The apprentice took charge of the jar with the jelly. He hadn't thought what to do with it so he asked Jérôme, who had returned to the kitchens in clean chefs whites.

'Good idea to save some,' Jérôme said. 'God knows what it could be. Send it somewhere where they test that kind of thing. But don't mention the incident. It never happened. Not at Troisgros.'

The story never left the kitchens, which was just as well as it would have shown the restaurant in an unjustly negative light. Troisgros wasn't to blame, but nothing was worse for a top-class restaurant than whisperings about its hygiene.

The apprentice kept a close eye on the substance in the jar. When it started to disintegrate, he added more water because it seemed the right thing to do.

It looked like pieces of jellyfish, he thought, and jellyfish needed water – in fact that was pretty much all they were made of In any case it seemed to do the trick. For the time being the substance remained stable. Troisgros made some discreet telephone enquiries, and the jar was immediately sent for analysis at the nearby university in Lyons. Two hours later, it landed on the desk of Bernard Roche, a professor of molecular biology. Even with the extra water in the jar, the jelly was disintegrating again. Only a few small clumps remained. Roche began to test it straight away, but the last blob dispersed before he could examine it in detail. He'd seen enough, though to identify some molecular compounds, whose presence surprised and bewildered him. One was a highly potent neurotoxin, but he couldn't be certain whether it came from the jelly or the water in the jar.

The liquid, he discovered, was saturated with organic matter and all kinds of chemicals. Since he didn't have time to analyse it immediately, he decided to return to it in a few days' time. He put the jar in the fridge.

THAT EVENING JÉRÔME FELL ILL. At first he felt nauseous. The restaurant was full, so he tried to forget about it and carried on as usual. The ten intact lobsters were exquisite, and there was no call for any more. In spite of the unpleasant incident that morning, everything went smoothly – as was expected at Troisgros.

It was getting on for ten o'clock when the nausea worsened and was coupled with a headache. Then Jérôme noticed he was losing concentration. He had omitted to put the finishing touches to one of the dishes, and had forgotten to tell his apprentice what to do next.

Jean Jérôme was enough of a professional to know when to pull the plug. He was feeling truly awful. He handed responsibility to his deputy, an ambitious and talented chef who'd learned her trade in Paris under Ducasse. He was just popping outside, he told her. The kitchens backed on to the garden: when the weather was good, diners were taken there on arrival and served their aperitif with canapés. Later they were led into the restaurant through the kitchens, catching a glimpse of the proceedings and sometimes a demonstration by a chef. Right now the discreetly lit garden was deserted.

For a few minutes Jérôme paced up and down. Through the large windows he could still see the bustle of the kitchens, but he was having trouble focusing for more than a few seconds at a time. He couldn't get enough air, and there was a weight on his chest. His legs felt like jelly. He sat down at one of the wooden tables. His thoughts returned to the events of that morning. His hair and face had been splattered with the lobster's insides. He was sure he must have inhaled a bit or swallowed some fluid. He'd probably caught a drop on his tongue when he licked his lips.

Perhaps it was the thought of the lobster, but before he knew it, he was vomiting violently over the plants. As he sat there, bent double, retching and choking, he thought it was probably for the best. At least he'd got rid of it. Now all he needed was a glass of water, and he'd feel much better.

He dragged himself to his feet. His head spun. His forehead was burning and he was gazing into a spiral. He sat down again. You've got to get up, he told himself You need to check that things are all right in the kitchen. It was vital that nothing went wrong. This was Troisgros, after all.

He managed to stand up and take a few dragging steps, then darkness overwhelmed him.

18 April

Vancouver Island, Canada

Anawak could feel his eyes reddening and swelling, while the skin round them creased. Struggling to keep his head upright, he stared at the monitor. Ever since Canada's west coast had been plunged into chaos, his eyes had barely left the screen, yet he'd sifted only a fraction of the data – electronic evidence that owed its existence to one of the most groundbreaking inventions in animal behavioural science. Telemetry.

In the late 1970s, scientists had come up with a revolutionary new method for monitoring animals. Until then there had been no accurate means of collecting data on a species' distribution or its patterns of migration. How animals lived, hunted and mated, what they needed or wanted were all matters of speculation. Of course, thousands of animals were being watched around the clock – but almost always under circumstances that made it impossible to predict how they would normally behave. Monitoring an animal in captivity was like observing a man behind bars: there was no way of telling how it lived when it was free.

But attempts to observe animals in their natural habitat were similarly unsuccessful. The creatures either took flight or failed to show up in the first place. Animals tended to see more of the scientists than the scientists did of them. Some of the less timid species – chimpanzees or dolphins, for example – put on shows for their observers, displaying aggression or curiosity, and sometimes even flirting or striking a pose, making objective conclusions all but impossible to reach. Once they'd tired of performing, they'd disappear into the jungle, take off into the sky or dive into the depths, where they'd resume their natural behaviour – except no one could see them.

It was the mystery that biologists from Darwin onwards had been longing to solve. How could we understand the ability of fish and seals to survive in the cold dark waters of the Antarctic? How could humans see inside a biotope that was sealed with layers of ice? What would the Earth look like from the sky, if we crossed the Mediterranean on the back of a goose? How did it feel to be a bee? How could we measure the speed of an insect's wings and its heartbeat, or monitor its blood pressure and eating patterns? What was the impact of human activities, like shipping noise or subsea explosions, on mammals in the depths? How could we follow animals to places where no human could venture?

The answer came in the form of a technology that allowed haulage companies to locate each of their lorries, and helped drivers to pinpoint streets in towns they'd never seen. It was a modern invention that everyone knew and used, without realising that it would revolutionise zoology: telemetry.

In the late 1950s, US scientists had already started to develop ways of electronically tagging animals. Not long afterwards the US Navy was using the technology on trained dolphins, but the experiment failed because the tags were too heavy: it was no good hoping to gain accurate information on dolphins' natural behaviour from tags that affected their movements. The initiative ground to a halt, but the invention of the microchip heralded a breakthrough. In no time ultra-light cameras and tags the size of chocolate bars were being used to transmit relevant data from the wild. The animals carried on as normal, roaming through the rainforests or swimming through the pack-ice in McMurdo Sound, unaware of the fifteen grams of equipment they were carrying. At long-last grizzly bears, dingoes, foxes and caribous were divulging their secrets. Scientists were initiated into their ways of life, mating rituals, hunting habits and migration patterns. They could even fly across the world in the company of white-tailed eagles, albatrosses, swans, geese and crows. At the cutting edge of technology, insects were fitted with miniature devices that weighed a thousandth of a gram and were powered by radar waves. They could send back their signal at double the frequency, allowing the data to be received from distances of more than seven hundred metres.

Most of the tracking was done by satellite. The system was as simple as it was ingenious. The signal from the transmitter was sent into space, where it was received by ARGOS, a satellite-based system run by the French space agency CNES. From there it was transmitted to headquarters in Toulouse and on to a terrestrial station in Fairbanks, USA, for forwarding to other institutions worldwide. The data reached the end-user in less than ninety minutes.

Research into whales, seals, penguins and turtles soon developed into a distinct field of telemetry. The planet's least-known and most fascinating habitat was opened up to view. Data could be recorded at considerable depth on ultra-light transmitters, which registered temperature, length of dive, distance from the surface, location, direction of travel and speed. Frustratingly the signals could only be received from the water's surface, which meant that ARGOS was blind where the depths were concerned. Humpbacks spent a good deal of their lives within a few kilometres of the Californian coast, but surfaced for an hour a day at most. While ornithologists could see and monitor a stork in flight, marine scientists were cut off from their subjects while they were under water. For a complete understanding of marine mammals, they needed cameras that kept rolling at all times – but the Pacific was too deep for any diver, and submersibles lacked the necessary agility and speed.

Eventually the solution came from scientists at the University of California in Santa Cruz, who invented a tiny, pressure-resistant underwater camera. They tried the device on an elephant seal and some Weddell seals and finally a dolphin. In no time they came across the most amazing phenomena. Within a few weeks their understanding of marine mammals was transformed. If only whales and dolphins had proven as easy to tag as other animals, everything would have been perfect. Instead it was virtually impossible. So Anawak was left with far less data than he would have liked – yet at the same time he had more than he could handle. Since no one knew what was important, every piece of information was significant – and that meant evaluating thousands of hours of images, audio recordings, readings, analyses and stats.

'Project Sisyphus' was what Ford had called it.

But at least Anawak had plenty of time to devote to it. The station's reputation had been restored, and yet Davie's was closed. The waters off the west coast of Canada and North America were restricted to large vessels only. The disaster that had hit Vancouver Island had been repeated along the coast from San Francisco to Alaska. During the first wave of attacks, over a hundred smaller craft had been sunk or severely damaged. The number of casualties had fallen over the weekend, but only because no one was prepared to set sail unless they owned a freighter or a ferry. The media was awash with conflicting reports. Even the death toll was uncertain. Various government-appointed emergency-response teams had been brought in to deal with the situation, which meant that the skies were filled with helicopters whirring up and down the coast, laden with soldiers, scientists and politicians peering down at the ocean, each more helpless and bewildered than the next.

It was standard procedure for emergency committees to draw on outside advisers, and that was what the Canadian authorities had done. Vancouver Aquarium was co-opted as the hub of all science-based operations under the leadership of John Ford. Almost every marine-science or research institute was placed under his control. For Ford it was a weighty burden: he was leading a mission without knowing what it was. There was a protocol for everything from catastrophic earthquakes to terrorist nuclear attacks, but no one had prepared a brief for this. Ford lost no time in proposing Anawak as an additional adviser. If anyone in North America or Canada could understand what was going on inside a whale's head, it was him. And surely that was where they'd find their explanation. Whales were supposed to be intelligent, so had the creatures all gone mad? Or was something else affecting their behaviour?

Yet even Anawak, of whom so much was expected, was unable to help. He'd begun by assembling all of that year's telemetric data from the Pacific coast. Twenty-four hours ago he and Alicia Delaware had started to analyse the material, helped by staff at the aquarium. They'd pored over positioning data and listened intently to hydrophone recordings but they still had nothing to show for it. None of the whales had been carrying tags when they set out from Hawaii and Baja California towards the Arctic – with the sole exception of two humpbacks, who'd lost their transmitters almost as soon as they'd started migrating. The video shot by the woman on the Blue Shark seemed to be their only piece of evidence. They'd studied it at the Station with the help of some skippers who were adept at recognising flukes. After replaying the footage and magnifying the images, they'd identified some of the attackers: two humpbacks, a grey and several orcas.

Delaware had been right: the video was a valuable clue.

Anawak's aversion to her had soon evaporated. Delaware had a big mouth and seldom stopped to think before she spoke, but beneath her brash manner was an intelligent, analytical mind. Besides, she had time to help. Her parents lived in the British Properties, an exclusive district for Vancouver's elite. They gave her anything she wanted, but were hardly ever there. Anawak suspected that their financial generosity was an attempt to make up for their lack of interest, but their daughter didn't seem to care – she could spend their fortune and do as she pleased. Things had worked out perfectly: Delaware saw working with Anawak as an opportunity to back up her studies with practical experience, and he needed an assistant now that Stringer was dead.

Susan Stringer…

Every time he thought of her he was overcome with guilt for having failed to save her. He had told himself that nothing he or anyone else could have done would have freed her from the orca's jaws, but the uncertainty remained. What good were all his papers and articles about intelligence in marine mammals if he couldn't understand a whale's thought processes? Was it possible to convince an orca to let go of its prey?

He reminded himself continually that orcas were animals – highly intelligent ones, but animals all the same. And prey was prey.

But orcas didn't prey on humans. Had the whales eaten the people drifting in the water or just killed them?

Anawak sighed. He wasn't making any progress. The burning in his eyes was getting worse. Half-heartedly he picked up another disk of digital images, then put it back. He couldn't concentrate. He'd spent the whole day at the aquarium, discussing findings or calling people, and now he felt drained. Wearily he switched off his computer. It was gone seven. He got up and went in search of John Ford. The director was in a meeting, so he called in on Delaware, who was studying satellite data.

'Fancy a juicy whale steak?' he asked glumly.

She looked up with a smile in her eyes. She'd swapped her blue glasses for contact lenses, but her irises were still suspiciously violet. Apart from the buck teeth, she was actually very attractive. 'Sure. Where do you want to go?'

'The snack bar on the corner's not bad.'

'Snack bar?' she said in amusement. 'I don't think so. Come on, I'll treat you.'

'There's no need.'

'Let's go to Cardero's.'

'Christ!'

'They do great food.'

'I know, but firstly, I can pay for myself, and secondly, Cardero's is… well, it's…'

'It's fabulous?

Cardero's was situated amid the yachts of Vancouver's Coal Harbour. It was a big place with large windows and high ceilings – one of the trendiest outfits in town. The restaurant offered stunning views and good west-coast cuisine, while the adjoining bar was filled with the young and chic, laughing and sipping drinks. In his frayed jeans and laded sweater Anawak could hardly have been less appropriately dressed, but he always felt uncomfortable and out of place in smart restaurants. He couldn't deny that Delaware belonged there, though.

So, Cardero's it was.

They took his old car and drove to the harbour. They were in luck. It was usually necessary to book at Cardero's, but one table was empty. It was a little removed from the bustle of the main restaurant, which was perfect for Anawak. They ordered the house specialty – salmon baked with soy, brown sugar and lemon on a cedar plank.

'OK,' said Anawak, once their order had been taken. 'What have we got?'

'Nothing,' said Delaware. 'I'm baffled.'

Anawak rubbed his chin. 'Well, maybe I've found something. The video footage put me on to it.'

'My video footage, you mean.'

'Yes,' he admitted, and added ironically, 'We're all very grateful.'

'Well, you should be, if it's given you a lead.'

'It's the whales we identified. Only transient orcas were involved in the attacks, not a single resident.'

'You're right.' She wrinkled her nose. 'We haven't heard anything bad about residents.'

'The Johnstone Strait was clear of attacks – even though it was full of kayaks at the time.'

'So the threat's being posed by the newcomers.'

'By transients, and maybe offshore orcas too. The grey and the two humpbacks on the video were all transients. All three whales spent the winter in Baja California – we've got it all on file. We emailed pictures of their flukes to the institute in Seattle, who confirmed that the whales have been seen there several times in recent years.'

'So what's the big deal? Everyone knows that greys and humpbacks migrate.'

'Not all of them.'

'I thought…'

'Something weird happened the second time we went out that day. I'd practically forgotten about it after everything else. We were desperate to get the people off the Lady Wexham, but the boat was sinking and a group of greys was trying to ram us. I couldn't see any of us getting out of there alive, let alone saving anyone. Then two more greys appeared alongside us, and lay there in the water until the others backed off.

'Were they residents?'

'Yes. A dozen or so greys stay on the west coast all year round – they're too old for the gruelling journey. When the herds arrive from the south, they make a big show of welcoming the old guard back into the fold. One of the two whales was an elderly grey that lives here. He definitely didn't want to hurt us – far from it. In fact, I think we owe those whales our lives.'

'Unbelievable. To think they protected you!'

'Tut, tut, Licia.' Anawak raised an eyebrow. 'You of all people projecting human intentions on a whale.'

'After what I saw three days ago I'm ready to believe anything.'

'I wouldn't say they actually protected us, but it seemed as though they kept the other whales at bay. They weren't keen on our attackers. All in all, we could reasonably infer that only migrants are affected. No matter which species we're dealing with, the residents appear harmless. They seem to know that the others are deranged.'

Delaware scratched her nose. 'It would fit. A large number of whales went missing in the middle of the Pacific on their way here from California. The aggressive orcas live in the middle of the ocean too.'

'Precisely. So whatever has caused the change in their behaviour, we'll find it – in the deep blue sea, miles away from anywhere.'

'The question is, what?'

'We'll work it out,' said John Ford, who had materialised beside them. He pulled up a chair and sat down. 'The sooner the better – before the politicians and their perpetual phone calls drive me nuts.'

'I NOTICED SOMETHING TOO,' said Delaware, as they were eating their dessert. 'I can see how the orcas might have enjoyed themselves, but it can't have been fun for the others.'

'What makes you say that?' asked Anawak.

'Well,' she said, through a mouthful of chocolate mousse, 'imagine how you'd feel if you kept running into something and trying to knock it over. Or flinging yourself on top of something with lots of hard edges and corners. The chances are, you'd hurt yourself.'

'She's right,' said Ford. 'Animals only hurt themselves for the survival of the species or to protect their young.' He removed his glasses and polished them. 'How about we let our imaginations run wild for a minute? What if the whole thing was a protest?'

'A protest against what?'

'Whaling.'

'Whales protesting against whaling?' exclaimed Delaware.

'Whalers have come under attack in the past,' said Ford, 'usually because they were hunting calves.'

Anawak shook his head. 'You can't seriously believe that.'

'It was just an idea.'

'Not a plausible one, though – it's not even proven that whales know what whaling's about.'

'You mean they don't know they're being hunted?' said Delaware. Crap!'

'I meant that they may not see a pattern,' Anawak retorted. 'Pilot whales always strand themselves on the same stretch of coastline. In the Faroe Islands whole herds are rounded up by fishermen and killed with metal gaffs. It's a bloodbath every time. Then there's Futo in Japan, where countless dolphins and porpoises are slaughtered each year. It's been going on for generations, so they must know what awaits them. But why go back for more?'

'It doesn't seem very smart,' agreed Ford. 'But we're still pumping greenhouse gases into the air and chopping down rainforests, even though we know we shouldn't. And that's not very clever either.'

Delaware frowned and scraped up the last of her chocolate mousse.

'It's true, though,' said Anawak.

'What?'

'Licia's point about the whales getting hurt when they launched themselves at the boats. I mean, if you decided to take out some humans, you'd find yourself a cosy niche with a good view, then point the gun and fire, making sure you didn't shoot yourself in the process.'

'Unless something affected your judgment.'

'Hypnosis?'

'Perhaps they were ill – or just confused. That's it! They're confused.'

'Or maybe they've been brainwashed.'

'Come on, guys, cut it out.'

They all fell silent, immersed in their thoughts. The background noise grew louder and snatches of conversation drifted over from neighbouring tables. The situation at sea still dominated the media and a strident voice was linking the attacks along the west coast to accidents in Asia. Some of the worst shipping disasters in decades had just occurred in the Malacca Strait and Japan. Everyone in the restaurant was speculating and hypothesising, their appetites undiminished.

'Suppose toxins are responsible,' said Anawak at last. 'PCBs and so on. What if something's driving them mad?'

'Mad with rage more likely.' Ford was fooling around again. 'They're up in arms about the Icelanders who want new whaling quotas, the Japanese who can't stop eating them, and the Norwegians who don't give a damn about the IWC. Christ, even the Makah want to hunt them again. Hey, there's our answer!' He grinned. 'They must have read it in the paper.'

'For someone who's head of a scientific think-tank,' said Anawak, 'you don't seem to be taking this seriously. You've got an academic reputation to keep up, remember.'

'The Makah?' echoed Delaware.

'The Makah are part of the Nuu-chah-nulth people,' said Ford. 'Indians from the west coast of Vancouver Island. They want to start whaling again. They've been campaigning for years for legal recognition.'

'No way! Are they crazy?'

'Your civilised outrage is all very commendable, Licia, but the Makah haven't hunted whales since 1928.' Anawak yawned. He could barely keep his eyes open. 'In any case, it wasn't them who pushed grey whales, blue whales and humpbacks to the brink of extinction. For the Makah it's a question of preserving their culture. They say that the art of traditional whaling will soon be forgotten.'

'They could always try shopping like everyone else.'

'I hope you're not spoiling Leon's noble plea for tolerance,' said Ford, refilling his glass.

Delaware stared at Anawak. Oh, no, he thought. He looked like an Indian, anyone could see that, but she was about to draw the wrong-conclusions. He could hear her question gather steam. He'd be forced to explain himself and he hated doing that. It only Ford hadn't mentioned the Makah…

He caught the other man's eye.

'Let's talk about it some other time,' Ford said hastily. Before Delaware could argue, he went on, 'The toxins theory is something we should talk about with Oliviera, Fenwick or Rod Palm, but I don't buy it. The pollution stems from oil spills and chlorinated hydrocarbons. We know what that leads to: damaged immune systems, infection and premature death – but not madness.'

'I thought all the orcas on the west coast were supposed to be dead in thirty years?' Delaware piped up.

'Thirty to a hundred and twenty, if we don't do something about it. But it's not just the chemicals. The orcas are being deprived of their main prey, so they either die of poisoning or they're forced to find new waters. And because they're hunting in areas they're not familiar with, they get caught in nets. The odds are stacked against them.'

'Actually, forget the toxins theory,' said Ford. 'If it were just the orcas, I'd say you were on to something – but when orcas and humpbacks join forces like that … I don't think so, Leon.'

Anawak thought for a moment. 'You know my stance on whales,' he said softly. 'I'm usually the last person to read intentions into animal behaviour or to talk up a creature's intelligence. But. . . don't you have the feeling they wanted to get rid of us?'

He'd expected vehement protests, but Delaware nodded. 'Yes. Except the residents.'

'Because the residents haven't gone wherever the others have been or experienced whatever it is that has changed them. Those whales that sank the freighter… We'll find the answer out to sea.'

'Christ, Leon.' Ford gulped some wine. 'It's like a horror movie. Go forth and kill humanity.'

Anawak didn't reply.

THAT NIGHT, as he was lying awake in his Vancouver apartment, Anawak played with the idea of tagging a whale. The creatures were still in the grip of whatever had possessed them, so if he could fit one with a transmitter and a camera, maybe it would provide them with the answers they so desperately needed.

But how could he tag a rampaging humpback, when even the calmest of whales seldom stayed still?

And there was the problem of the skin.

Tagging a whale and tagging a seal were two entirely different propositions. Seals could be caught on land while they were resting. The tag's biologically degradable adhesive would stick to the fur and dry quickly. After a set period of time it was designed to fall off. Later in the year, when the animal moulted, the last traces of glue would disappear.

But whales and dolphins didn't have coats. It was hard to imagine anything smoother than the skin of an orca or a dolphin. It felt like a freshly peeled boiled egg, and was covered with a thin layer of gel that decreased water resistance and kept out bacteria. The top layer was continually being replaced. When the animal breached, it shed its skin in long thin strips, ridding itself of parasites and tags in the process. The skin of grey whales and humpbacks was scarcely any easier to deal with.

Anawak got out of bed and felt his way to the window. His apartment was in an old block with a view of Granville Island. He gazed out at the cityscape, glittering in the night, and started to tick off the options. There were tricks he could use, of course. American scientists had taken to attaching tags and depth-time recorders with suction cups. With the help of a long pole, they could affix them to nearby whales or bow-riding dolphins without leaving the boat. But even suction cups only withstood the force of the water for a few hours at most. Other scientists had tried bolting the tags to the dorsal fins. Either way, he'd still have to approach the whale without being sunk.

Maybe he could stun it…

No, that was far too complicated. In any case, they'd need more than just a tag. They'd need pictures as well. Satellite telemetry plus video footage.

Then he had an idea. It would require a good marksman…

Anawak rushed to his desk, logged on to the web and started calling up sites. Another possibility had occurred to him, a technique he'd read about. He rummaged through a drawer, sifting through piles of notes, until he found the web address of the Underwater Robotics and Application Laboratory in Tokyo.

They'd have to cobble two methods together. The emergency committee would have to come up with the money, but right now it was prepared to do anything that might solve the problem.

He didn't fall asleep until the early hours of the morning. His last thoughts were devoted to the Barrier Queen and Clive Roberts. That was another mystery. The MD had never called back, although Anawak had chased him several times. He hoped Inglewood had at least sent the samples to Nanaimo. Where was that report? He wouldn't let them fob him off. There was so much to do.

I'll have to get up and make myself a list, he thought. Then he dozed off, utterly exhausted.

20 April

Lyons, France

Bernard Roche felt a pang of guilt for not having dealt sooner with the water samples. But how was he to know that a lobster could kill a man – and that it might kill more?

Jean Jérôme, the chef-poissonnier at Troisgros in Roanne, had failed to emerge from his coma and had died twenty-four hours after the contaminated Brittany lobster had exploded in his face. It was still impossible to say what had caused his death, but one thing was clear his body had never recovered from a severe toxic shock. There was no real proof that the lobster or, indeed, the substance found inside it – was to blame, but it certainly looked that way. Other members of the kitchen staff had been taken ill, but the worst affected was the apprentice who had put the mysterious substance in the jar. They were all suffering from dizziness, nausea and migraines, and had difficulty concentrating. It was no laughing matter, especially for Troisgros, which was in danger of closing its doors. But what really worried Roche was the number of people who had consulted their doctors with similar symptoms since Jérôme had died. Their cases weren't nearly as critical, but Roche feared the worst, especially now he knew what had happened to the water in which the lobsters had been stored.

For the sake of the restaurant, the press had tried to play down the story, but the incident was reported, and Roche was hearing rumours from elsewhere in the country. Troisgros was not the only establishment to have been affected. In Paris several people had died, allegedly from shellfish poisoning – but Roche suspected there was more to it than that. He'd heard similar news from Le Havre, Cherbourg, Caen, Rennes and Brest. One of his assistants had agreed to look into it and a story emerged in which the Brittany lobster played an unsavoury role. In the end Roche put aside his other work and devoted himself to analysing the water samples.

In no time he found yet more unusual chemicals, whose presence he couldn't explain. He needed fresh samples urgently, so he made enquiries in all the relevant cities. Regrettably no one had thought to preserve the substance. The lobster in Roanne was the only one to have exploded, but elsewhere people talked about unpalatable lobsters that they'd been forced to throw away or lobsters that had been leaking before they were cooked. If only everyone had had the presence of mind demonstrated by the apprentice at Troisgros, but Roche knew that fishermen, wholesalers and kitchen staff couldn't be expected to respond like scientists. For the time being he had to rely on speculation. In his opinion the lobster had been inhabited by two separate organisms. First there was the jelly, which had disintegrated, leaving nothing behind.

Then there was the other organism, which was very much alive and in plentiful supply. Something about it seemed ominously familiar.

He stared into his microscope.

Thousands of transparent spheres were rolling around like fast-moving tennis balls. If he was right in his assumption, inside each sphere was a coiled pedunculus – a kind of feeding tube.

Were these the organisms that had killed Jean Jérôme?

Roche reached for a sterilised needle and jabbed it into the tip of his thumb, producing a tiny droplet of blood. With great care he injected it on to the sample on the slide and looked through the lens. Magnified to seven hundred times their normal size, Roche's blood cells looked like ruby-red petals, each one packed with haemoglobin. They mingled with the water. The transparent spheres sprang into action, unfurling their tubes and falling on the human protoplasm. The peduncles entered the cells like miniature cannulae and the sinister micro-organisms took on a reddish hue as they sucked the blood cells dry. The assault on Roche's blood intensified: as soon as one cell was empty, the micro-organisms turned to the next, swelling all the time, as Roche had expected. Each could hold the content of ten cells. In less than forty-five minutes their work would be done. He watched, fascinated: the process was much faster than he'd believed.

Fifteen minutes later the frenzy was over.

Roche sat motionless next to his microscope. Then he noted, 'Query Pfiesteria piscicida!

'Query' stood for any lingering doubt, but Roche was sure that the agent responsible for the sickness and death had been identified. What truly unnerved him was that it seemed more monstrous than Pfiesteria piscicida, which made it a double superlative, since Pfiesteria was already thought to be a monster – albeit of just one hundredth of a millimetre in diameter. It was one of the smallest predators on Earth – and one of the deadliest.

Pfiesteria piscicida was a vampire.

He'd read a lot about it. Scientists' acquaintance with it was relatively new. It had started in the 1980s with the death of fifty fish in a laboratory at North Carolina State University. At first there was no apparent problem with the water in which they were swimming: the aquarium was swarming with tiny unicellular organisms, but that was nothing new. So the water was changed and new fish brought in. They didn't last a day. Something was exterminating them with incredible efficiency. It killed goldfish, striped bass and Nile tilapia in hours, sometimes minutes. Time and again the researchers watched as the fish twitched, then died an agonising death. Again and again the mysterious micro-organisms appeared out of nowhere, then vanished just as fast.

Slowly they pieced things together. A botanist identified the sinister organism as a new species of dinoflagellate. Numerous types had been categorised, some of which were harmless, but others had been exposed as living sacs of poison. They were known to have contaminated mussel farms, and certain species were responsible for the feared 'red tides' that turned the water red or brown. Shellfish were affected too. But these dinoflagellates were nothing compared to the newly discovered organisms.

Pfiesteria piscicida was different from other members of its order. It actively attacked. In some ways it resembled a tick – not for its appearance, but for its extraordinary patience. It lurked in the sediment of riverbeds or seas, seemingly lifeless. Each individual was encased in a protective cyst, and survived for years without food. All it took was a shower of secretions from a passing shoal of fish to trigger its appetite.

A lightning attack ensued. The algae cast aside their cysts, rising through the water in billions. Each cell was driven by a pair of flagella, one of which rotated like a propeller while the other steered. As they settled on a fish, the cells released their toxins, paralysing the creature's nervous system and burning coinsized holes in its skin. The peduncles shot into the wounds and sucked the lifeblood from the victim. Then they sank back to the seabed and retreated into their casing.

By and large, toxic algae were seen as normal, like poisonous toadstools in a wood. People had known of the phenomenon since Biblical times. Exodus contained a description that seemed to fit perfectly with the red tides: 'And all the water in the Nile turned into blood. And the fish in the Nile died, and the Nile stank, so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile…' For a fish to be killed by a single-cell organism was clearly nothing new. But the method and the degree of brutality were. It seemed as though the planet's water had been seized by a terrible sickness and, for the moment, the most spectacular symptoms bore the name Pfiesteria piscicida. Toxins were killing marine life, coral was succumbing to new forms of disease, and beds of algae had become infected. But all of this was merely a reflection of the true state of the seas, which were suffering the consequences of overfishing, chemical dumping, the urbanisation of coastal regions, and global warming. No one could agree on whether the invasion of killer algae was a new development or a periodic occurrence, but there was no doubt that it was spreading across the globe to an unprecedented extent and that Nature had once again demonstrated her infinite creativity in producing new species. In Europe people congratulated themselves that Pfiesteria had not yet reached their shores, but thousands of fish were dying off the coast of Norway, and the Norwegian salmon farmers were facing financial ruin. This time the killer organism was Chrysochromulina polylepis, a kind of baby brother to Pfiesteria. No one dared speculate what might come next.

And now Pfiesteria piscicida was attacking Brittany lobsters.

But was it really Pfiesteria piscicida?

Roche was plagued by doubt. The organism was far more aggressive than he'd expected. The real puzzle, though, was how the lobsters had survived. Had the algae come from inside them? Was it mixed with the jelly-like substance? The jelly had decomposed on contact with air; he was sure it was a distinct phenomenon, something new. But had the algae and the jelly both been hidden in the lobster? And, if so, what had happened to its flesh?

Was it really a lobster at all?

Roche was stumped. But of one thing he was certain: the substance, whatever it might be, had entered Roanne's drinking water.

22 April

Continental Margin, Norwegian Sea

At sea the world was just water and sky, with little to tell them apart. There were no visual markers, which meant that on clear days, the sense of infinity could suck you into space, and when it was wet, you never knew if you were on the surface or somewhere beneath it. Even hardened sailors found the monotony of constant rain depressing. The horizon dimmed as dark waves merged with banks of thick grey cloud, robbing the universe of light, shape and hope in a vision of desolation.

At least in the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea, the numerous oil platforms provided landmarks, although from the edge of the continental shelf, where the Sonne had been sailing for the past two days, most were too distant to see. Now even the few rigs in view were shrouded in drizzle. The vessel and everyone on it was soaked. A clammy cold crept under their waterproof jackets and overalls. Plump raindrops would have been preferable to the never-ending trickle of water, which seemed to rise off the sea as well as fall from the sky. It was one of the most unpleasant days that Johanson could remember. He pulled his hood down over his head and made for the stern, where the technicians were raising a CTD probe. Bohrmann caught up with him half-way there.

'Seeing worms in your sleep yet?' asked Johanson.

'Not quite' said the marine geologist. 'What about you?'

'Oh, I'm pretending I'm in a film. It's kind of reassuring.'

'Good idea. Who's directing?'

'Hitchcock.'

'The deep-sea version of The Birds.' Bohrmann smiled wryly. 'Sounds intriguing… Ah, here we go!'

He hurried towards the stern. A circular cage of rods rose over the side of the boat, hanging from the arm of a crane. Its top half was covered with an array of PVC bottles, containing samples of water from varying depths. Johanson watched as the probe was hauled on board and the bottles removed. Then Stone, Hvistendahl and Lund appeared. Stone hurried over to him. 'What's Bohrmann saying?' he asked.

'Not much.'

Stone's belligerence had given way to dejection. The Sonne had been following the continental slope south-west to a point above the tip of Scotland, taking readings from the water, while a sledge-mounted video system filmed from below. It was a bulky piece of equipment, like a steel shelf packed with gadgets, that was towed along the seabed. It was equipped with sensors, a floodlight and an electronic eye that took pictures and sent them via optical cable to the control lab on board.

The Thorvaldson's footage came courtesy of the more up-to-date Victor. The Norwegian research vessel was following the slope in a north-easterly direction towards Tromso, taking readings from the Norwegian Sea. Both vessels had set out from the site where the unit was to be built and were now on course to meet. Two days remained until their rendezvous, by which time they would have navigated the slope from Norway to the North Sea and recharted it from scratch. It had been Bohrmann and Skaugen's decision to survey the area as though they were exploring new territory – which, as it turned out, was what the waters had become. Since Bohrmann had announced the first findings, nothing seemed certain any more.

The news had come in the previous morning, before the sledge's first pictures arrived on the screen. They'd lowered the CTD probe at first light, when the air was damp and cold. Johanson had tried to ignore the sinking sensation in his stomach as the boat pitched over the waves. The first samples were whisked away to the geophysical lab where they underwent analysis. Shortly afterwards, Bohrmann had summoned the team to the seminar room on the main deck. They sat at the polished wooden table, waiting expectantly and clasping mugs of coffee.

Bohrmann's eyes were fixed on a sheet of paper. 'The first results are available already,' he said. 'They're not representative, more a snapshot of what's going on.' His eyes lingered briefly on Johanson, then shifted to Hvistendahl. 'Is everyone acquainted with methane plumes?'

A young man from Hvistendahl's team shook his head.

'They form when free methane gas escapes from the seabed,' explained Bohrmann. 'The gas dissolves in the water, is pulled along by the current and rises to the surface. Usually plumes are found at plate boundaries, where one plate pushes beneath the other, causing sediment compaction and uplift. As a result, fluids and gases escape. It's a well-known phenomenon.' He cleared his throat. 'Areas of high pressure like this are common in the Pacific but not in the Atlantic – and certainly not around Norway. The boundaries here are mainly passive. But this morning we picked up a highly concentrated methane plume. It doesn't figure in any of the earlier data.'

'What level of concentration?' asked Stone.

'Worryingly high – on a par with the levels we found off the coast of Oregon. And that was in a fault zone.'

'Right.' Stone smoothed the frown from his forehead. 'Well, to my knowledge, methane is always leaking into the water around here. I've seen it countless times. It's a well-known fact that somewhere on the seabed gas is constantly escaping. There's always a reason for it. I don't see any call for panic.'

'I don't think you quite understand.'

'Now, look here,' said Stone, 'all I care about is whether or not there's cause for concern. If you ask me, there isn't. We're wasting our time.'

Bohrmann smiled amicably. 'The slope in this region, Dr Stone, especially to the north of here, is held together by methane hydrates. The layers of hydrate are sixty to a hundred metres deep – that's a hefty wedge of ice keeping the seabed in place. However, we're aware of vertical breaks in the layers. Gas has been escaping through them for years. Theoretically, it shouldn't happen. At such high pressure and low temperature, it should freeze on the seabed. But it doesn't. That's the gas you were referring to. We can live with it – we can even decide to ignore it. But we shouldn't let our graphs and tables make us feel complacent. I'm telling you, the concentration of free gas in the water is excessively high.'

'But is it really a seep?' asked Lund. 'Is the gas in the water escaping from the crust, or is it coming from-'

'Dissociated hydrates?' Bohrmann hesitated. 'That's the big question. If hydrates are dissociating, it means the parameters have changed.'

'And is that the case here?' said Lund.

'There are only two parameters affecting the stability of the hydrates: pressure and temperature. But we haven't detected any rise in water temperature, and the sea level hasn't altered.'

'What did I tell you?' said Stone. 'You're worrying about a problem that doesn't exist. So far, we've only seen one sample.' He looked to the others for support. 'A single bloody sample.'

Bohrmann nodded. 'You're right, Dr Stone. We're speculating. But we'll find out the truth. That's why we're here.'

JOHANSON AND LUND HAD headed for the canteen. 'Stone's getting on my nerves,' Johanson said. 'He's always trying to undermine the tests. What's wrong with him? It's his bloody project.'

They refilled their coffee mugs and took them out on deck.

'What do you make of the results?' asked Lund.

'They're preliminary findings, not results.'

'All right. What do you make of the preliminary findings?'

'I don't know.'

'Go on, you can tell me.'

'Bohrmann's the expert.'

'But, in your opinion, is there a link with the worms?'

Johanson thought back to his conversation with Olsen. 'I don't have an opinion,' he said cautiously, 'not yet. It's too early to say.' He blew on his coffee. The sky stretched gloomily above them. 'But I'd rather be at home than here.'

That had been yesterday.

While the new set of samples was analysed, Johanson took himself off to the radio room tucked behind the bridge. From there he could contact anyone in the world via satellite. For the past few days he'd been working on a database of contacts, firing off queries to institutes and scientists, presenting the whole thing as of scholarly interest. The first replies had been disappointing. No one else had found the worm. A few hours previously, he'd extended the search to some of the other expeditions currently at sea. Now he pulled up a chair, squeezed his laptop in among the radio equipment and logged into his account. The only interesting email was from Olsen, who'd written to say that the jellyfish invasion in South America and Australia was now out of hand:

I don't know whether you're listening to the news out there, but there was an update last night on the jellies. They're swarming all over the coast. According to the newsreaders' oracle, they're specifically targeting well-populated areas. Which is nonsense, of course. Apart from that, there's been another pile-up – a couple of container ships near Japan. Boats are still disappearing, but they've managed to record a few distress calls. No concrete details about British Columbia yet, but plenty of rumour. Supposedly the whales are getting their own back and have started hunting humans. Not everything you hear is true, though, thank God. Well, that's all the good news from Trondheim for now. Don't drown.

'Thanks a bunch,' Johanson muttered tetchily.

But Olsen was right they didn't listen to the news enough here. Being on a research vessel was like falling out of space and time. People always said they were too busy to listen to the news when in fact they just wanted to he rid of politicians, cities and wars for a while. But after a month or two at sea, they'd start to long for civilisation, with its technology, hierarchies, cinemas, fast-food outlets and floors that didn't rise and sink.

Johanson realised he wasn't concentrating. His mind was on the images that had filled the monitors for the past two days.

Worms.

The continental slope was crawling with them. The mats and seams of frozen methane had disappeared under millions of seething bodies trying to burrow into the ice. They could no longer treat it as a localised invasion. They were witnessing a full-scale attack that ran the length of the Norwegian coast.

As if someone had magicked them there…

Surely other people had come across something similar.

Why did he get the feeling that the worms and the jellies were connected?

It was a crazy idea.

And yet, he thought suddenly, the craziness looked like the start of something new.

This was only the beginning.

He called up the CNN homepage to check out Olsen's news.

Lund walked in, set a mug of black tea in front of him and smiled conspiratorially. Their trip to the lake had forged a bond between them, a kind of unspoken solidarity.

The smell of freshly brewed Earl Grey filled the air. 'I didn't know they had it on board,' said Johanson.

'They don't,' she said. 'You bring it with you, if you know someone who likes it.'

Johanson raised his eyebrows. 'That was thoughtful of you. What favour were you hoping to extract from me this time?'

'A thank-you would be nice.'

'Thank you.'

She glanced at the laptop. 'Any luck?'

'Zilch. How're they getting on with the samples?'

'No idea. I had other things to deal with.'

'Such as?'

'Looking after Hvistendahl's assistant.'

'What's wrong with him?'

'He's feeding the fish.' She shrugged. 'You know, mustering his bag.'

Johanson chuckled. Lund liked using sailors' slang. Research vessels brought together two different worlds: scientists and seamen. The two groups tiptoed around each other, doing their best to be accommodating, adjusting to their different ways of talking and living, and getting used to each other's quirks. After a while, they'd know they were in safe water – but until then there was a respectful distance between them, which they bridged with jokes. 'Mustering a bag' was the crew's euphemism for a newcomer's seasickness.

'You threw up the first time too,' said Johanson.

'And you didn't?'

'No.'

'Huh.'

'It's true!' Johanson put his hand on his heart. 'I'm a good sailor.'

Lund dug out a scrap of paper with a scribbled email address. 'Next up is a trip to Greenland. One of Bohrmann's contacts is working out there.'

'Lukas Bauer?'

'You know him?'

Johanson nodded slowly. 'There was a conference a few years back in Oslo. He gave a lecture. I think he was working on currents.'

'He's an engineer. He designs all kinds of things – oceanographic equipment, pressurised tanks. Bohrmann said he even had a hand in the deep-sea simulation chamber.'

'And now he's in the Greenland Sea.'

'He's been there for weeks,' said Lund. 'You're right about his interest in currents, though. He's collecting data there. Another candidate for interrogation in your quest for the worm.'

Johanson hadn't come across the expedition in his earlier research.

The Greenland Sea… Weren't there methane deposits there too? 'How's Skaugen getting on?' he asked.

'Slowly,' Lund told him. 'He's been gagged.'

'By the board?'

'Statoil's a state-controlled company. Need I say more?'

'So, he won't learn anything new,' said Johanson.

Lund sighed. 'The others aren't stupid, you know. They'll notice if someone's trying to pump them for information without giving anything in return. And, anyway, they've got their own code of silence.'

'That's what I told you.'

'Oh, if only I had your brains.'

There was the sound of footsteps outside, then one of Hvistendahl's team poked his head round the door. 'Meeting in the conference room,' he said.

'When?'

'Now. We've got the results.'

Johanson and Lund exchanged a glance. Deep down they already knew the truth. Johanson closed the lid of the laptop, and they followed the man to the main deck below.

BOHRMANN STOOD AT THE TABLE, leaning forward on his knuckles.

'So far we've found the same state of affairs all along the slope,' he said. 'The sea is saturated with methane. Our readings concur with those from the Thorvaldson. There are a few variations, but the basic picture's the same.' He paused. 'I don't want to beat about the bush. Something has started to destabilise large sections of the hydrates.'

No one stirred. No one spoke.

Then the Statoil team all started talking at once.

'What are you saying?'

'So the hydrates are dissociating. I thought you said worms can't destabilise the ice!'

'Is the water getting warmer? Because if it isn't…'

'But what happens if-'

'OK!' Bohrmann gestured for everyone to be quiet. 'That's the situation. I still don't believe the worms are capable of causing serious damage. However, we shouldn't forget that the incidence of the worms coincides time-wise with the breakdown of the hydrates.'

'Very helpful,' muttered Stone.

'Do we know how advanced the process is?' asked Lund.

'We've studied the data from the Thorvaldson expedition a few weeks ago,' said Bohrmann. He was trying to sound reassuring. 'That was when you first discovered the worms. The readings were normal then. They must have started rising since.'

'So what's the deal?' asked Stone. 'Is it getting warmer down there or isn't it?'

'It's not. The stability field is unchanged. The fact that methane's escaping must he due to processes occurring deep in the sediment. Deeper, in any case, than the worms could burrow.'

'What makes you so sure?'

'We've already proved-' Bohrmann broke off. 'With the help of Dr Johanson we've already proved that these creatures can't survive without oxygen. They can only burrow a few metres deep.'

'All you've proved is what happens in a tank,' said Stone, disparagingly. He seemed to have selected Bohrmann as his new arch-enemy.

'If the water isn't getting warmer, then maybe the seabed is,' suggested Johanson.

'Volcanic activity?'

'It's just an idea.'

'Well, it makes sense – but not in this region.'

'Can the dissociated methane get into the water?'

'Not in sufficient quantities, no. For that the worms would need to reach a gas pocket, or be capable of melting hydrates.'

'But they can't possibly have reached a gas pocket,' Stone insisted stubbornly.

'No, like I said-'

'I know exactly what you said. Now it's your turn to listen to me. Each one of those worms is radiating heat, the same as any living creature does. And the warmth they're creating is melting the ice. It only melts a few centimetres on the surface, but it's enough to-'

'The body temperature of a deep-sea creature matches that of its environment,' said Bohrmann, smoothly.

'But, even so, if-'

'Clifford.' Hvistendahl placed a restraining hand on Stone's arm. It looked like a friendly gesture, but Johanson sensed it was a warning. 'Why don't we wait for the next set of readings?'

'Bugger that!'

'You're not helping, Cliff Drop it.' There was silence again.

'What happens if the methane keeps escaping?' asked Lund.

'There are various possible scenarios,' said Bohrmann. 'Methane fields have been known to disappear. The hydrates can dissociate within a year. That could be what's happening here, and it's conceivable that the worms have triggered the process. If that's the case, large quantities of methane will be released into the air above Norway.'

'Just like fifty-five million years ago?'

'No, there isn't enough for that, and we really shouldn't speculate. Having said that, I don't see how the process can continue without a decrease in pressure or an increase in temperature, and there's no evidence of either. In the coming hours we'll send down the video grab. Maybe that'll clear things up. That's all for the moment.' And with that he left the room.

JOHANSON EMAILED Lukas Bauer in the Greenland Sea. He was starting to feel like a biological detective. Have you seen this worm? Can you describe it to me? Could you pick it out from five other specimens in an identity parade? Is this the worm that stole the lady's handbag? All relevant information will be noted in evidence.

First he wrote a few friendly lines about their meeting in Oslo, then enquired whether Bauer had detected unusually high levels of methane in the area where he was working. He'd deliberately left this point out of his other emails.

When he returned to the deck, he saw the video sledge dangling from the arm of the crane while Bohrmann's geologists inspected it. They were hauling it in. Not far away, outside the repair room, a group of sailors sat talking on a large chest filled with scrubbing brushes. Over the years, it had established itself as a lookout and living room combined. Draped in a threadbare cloth, it was known by some as 'the couch'. It was the ideal place to sit and poke fun at the unsteady movements of the research assistants and scientists, but there were no jokes today. The tension was affecting the sailors too, most of whom knew what the scientists were up to: there was something wrong with the continental slope, and everyone was worried.

From now on everything had to happen as quickly as possible. Bohrmann had asked for the ship to be slowed right down so that they could investigate a site he'd identified using data from the multi-beam echo-sounder and the video-sledge. Beneath the Sonne there was a large field of hydrates. Taking a sample meant releasing a monster that appeared to belong to the Jurassic age of deep-sea science. The video-guided grab – a pair of metal jaws weighing several tonnes – was scarcely the most sophisticated piece of technology. In fact, it was probably the crudest, yet most reliable way of wresting a chunk of history from the seabed. Opening its maw, it bit into the sediment, and tore out hundreds of kilos of silt, ice, fauna and stone, which it then deposited at the feet of the scientists. The sailors had named it T. Rex. As it dangled from the A-frame, jaws agape, ready to plunge into the sea, the similarity was striking. A monster in the service of science.

However, as with all monsters, the grab was powerful, but lumbering and dumb. Inside its jaws were floodlights and a camera, enabling its handlers to see where it was heading before they let it off the leash. That was impressive. But the dim-witted T. Rex was incapable of stealth. No matter how carefully you let it down – and there were limits, since it took force to penetrate the seabed – it created a bow wave that frightened away most creatures. As soon as their finely tuned senses detected it, worms, fish, crabs and any other organism capable of rapid movement escaped before it pounced. Even the more up-to-date instruments gave advance warning. The bitter words of a frustrated American scientist summed up the situation: 'There's plenty of life down there. The trouble is, it sees us coming and steps aside.'

The grab was lowered from the A-frame. Johanson wiped the rain off his face and entered the control room. A crewman was operating the joystick that moved the grab up and down. He'd spent the last few hours steering the video sledge, but he still seemed focused. He had to be: staring at hazy pictures of the seabed for hours on end had a hypnotic effect. A moment of carelessness, and a piece of equipment that cost as much as a brand new Ferrari would be lost forever.

Inside the control room the light had been dimmed. The monitors cast a pale glow on the watching faces of the people sitting and standing in front of them. The rest of the world no longer existed: there was only the seabed, whose surface they studied like a coded landscape in which every detail held a message.

Outside the cable slid over the winch.

The water looked as though it was going to spurt out from the monitors, then the metal jaws passed through a shower of plankton. The screens turned blue-green, then green, then black. Bright dots – tiny crabs, krill and other creatures – sped away like comets. Watching the voyage of the grab was like seeing the opening credits for the original Star Trek series, but now there was no music. It was deathly silent in the lab. The figures on the depth gauge were changing all the time. Then the seabed flashed into view, looking like a lunar landscape. The cable stopped.

'Minus seven hundred and fourteen metres,' said the man at the controls.

Bohrmann leaned over. 'Don't do anything yet.' The monitor filled with mussels. They liked to colonise hydrates, but now they were hidden by a mass of wriggling bodies. Johanson had a strange feeling that the worms weren't just burrowing in the ice but were eating the mussels in their shells. He could see jaws shooting out and ripping off chunks of mussel flesh, which vanished into the tube-like bodies. There was no sign of the white methane ice under the siege of worms, but they all knew it was there. Bubbles rose up from the bottom, with tiny shimmering fragments – splinters of hydrate.

'Now,' said Bohrmann.

The seabed rushed towards the screen. For a moment it looked as though the worms had risen to welcome the camera, then it went black. The iron jaws buried themselves in the methane and clamped shut.

'What the hell… ?' gasped the man at the controls.

The numbers on the panel were turning rapidly. They stopped briefly, then sped on.

'The grab's broken through. It's sinking.'

Hvistendahl pushed his way to the front. 'What's going on?'

'This can't be happening! There's no resistance!'

'Pull it up!' screamed Bohrmann. 'Quickly!'

The man jerked back the joystick. The counter stopped, and the numbers started to decrease. The grab rose upwards, jaws clenched. Its external cameras showed the vast hole that had opened. Swollen bubbles surged from inside it. Then a stream of gas gushed out, hitting the grab and engulfing it. Everything vanished in a seething whirlpool.

Greenland Sea

A few hundred kilometres north of the Sonne, Karen Weaver had just stopped counting. Fifty laps of the deck. She kept running up and down, careful not to get in the scientists' way. For once she was pleased that Lukas Bauer didn't have time to talk to her. She needed exercise, but the possibilities on board a research vessel were limited. She'd tried the gym, but the three exercise machines had driven her crazy so she was running instead. Up and down the deck – past Bauer's assistants, who were working on float number five, and past the crew, who were hard at work or standing in groups, watching her, suggestive comments on the tip of their tongues.

Puffs of white breath rose from her parted lips.

Up and down the deck.

She'd have to work on her stamina. It was her weak point. She made up for it in strength, though. Her body was like a sculpture: impressive muscles and glowing skin, with an intricately tattooed falcon between her shoulders. Yet Karen Weaver had none of the bulk of a female body-builder- in fact, she'd have made a perfect model, if only she had been a little taller and her shoulders less broad. A small, sinewy panther, she lived on adrenaline. Her favoured habitat was the edge of the abyss.

In this case, the drop was 3.5 kilometres. The Juno was sailing over the Greenland abyssal plain, an expanse of seabed beneath the Fram Strait, from which the cold Arctic water flowed south. The basin between Iceland, Greenland, the north Norwegian coast and Svalhard was one of the planet's two main water pumps. Bauer was interested in what was going on there – and so was Karen Weaver, on behalf of her readers.

Bauer beckoned for her to join him. With his bald head, huge glasses and pointed white beard, he resembled the cliché of an absent-minded professor more than any other scientist she'd met. He was sixty and already slightly hunched, but indefatigably energetic. Weaver respected people like Lukas Bauer. There was something almost superhuman about them. She admired them for their will.

'Take a look at this, Karen,' he called, in a clear voice. 'Incredible, isn't it? The water here is surging downwards at a rate of seventeen million cubic metres per second. Seventeen million!'' He beamed at her. 'That's twenty times the volume of all the rivers on Earth.'

'Dr Bauer.' Weaver placed a hand on his arm. That's the fourth time you've told me that.'

Bauer blinked. 'Really?'

'And you still haven't got round to explaining how the floats work. You're going to have to talk me through this, if you want me to do your PR.'

'Yes… Well, the floats – that is to say, the autonomous drifting profilers – they… Oh, but you know all that already, don't you? It's why you're here.'

'I'm here to make computer simulations of the currents, so people can see where the floats are going, remember?'

'Of course. Dear me, you can't possibly know… You don't even… Well, I'm a bit short of time, unfortunately. There's so much to do. Why don't you watch for a while and then-'

'Dr Bauer! Not again. You promised to tell me how they work.'

'Certainly. You see, in my articles, I-'

'Dr Bauer, I've read your articles but I trained as a scientist and even I barely understood them. Popular science is supposed to be entertaining. You've got to write in a language that everyone can follow.'

Bauer looked hurt. 'My articles are easy to follow.'

'For you, maybe – and the two dozen others working in your field.'

'Now, that's not true. If you read the text carefully-'

'No, Dr Bauer, I want you to explain it.'

Bauer frowned, then smiled indulgently. 'If any of my students were to talk. . . But they wouldn't dare. They're not allowed to interrupt me – I leave that to myself. He raised his skinny shoulders in a shrug. 'But that's life, I suppose. I can't refuse you anything. I like you, Karen. You're a… Well. . . You remind me of. . . Oh, never mind. Let's take a look at this float.'

'And when we've done that, we'll talk about your findings. I'm getting enquiries.'

'Where from?'

'Magazines, TV programmes, institutes.'

'How interesting.'

'It's not interesting, it's normal – publicity's logical outcome. Do you even see the point of PR?'

Bauer grinned mischievously. 'Perhaps you'd like to explain it?'

'With pleasure – it'd only be the tenth time. But first, you're going to talk to me!

'But that won't do,' said Bauer, in agitation. 'We've got floats to lower, and then I mustn't forget to-'

'Keep your word and talk to me,' Weaver said sternly.

'But, Karen, my dear, you're not the only one getting enquiries. I'm writing to scientists all over the world. They ask the most outlandish things. One just emailed to ask about a worm. Imagine that – a worm! He even wanted to know if the methane concentration was higher than usual, which, of course, it is… But how was he to know? I'll have to-'

'I can deal with all that. I'll be your co-conspirator.'

'As soon as I've-'

'That's if you really like me.'

Bauer's eyes widened. 'I see. So that's how it is, is it?' His drooping shoulders shook with muffled laughter. 'That's exactly why I never married. It's constant blackmail. All right, then, I'll try harder, I promise. Now, let's get going. Come along!'

Weaver followed him. The drifting profiler was dangling from the boom above the grey surface of the water. It was several metres long and protected by a supporting frame. More than half of it was made up of a thin, shiny tube, with two spherical glass containers at the top.

Bauer rubbed his hands together. His down jacket was several sizes too big for him and made him look like an exotic Arctic bird. 'We drop the float into the water,' he said, 'and it bobs along with the current. Think of it as an enormous particle of water. There's a vertical drop beneath us – the water is sinking, as I said… Well, you can't see it sinking, of course, but it's sinking nonetheless. Now, how can I explain this?'

'Try avoiding jargon.'

Right. It's actually very simple. The point is, water doesn't always weigh the same. Warm fresh water is light. Salt water is usually heavier than fresh water. The saltier, the heavier, in fact – there's the added weight of the salt to consider. On the other hand, cold water is heavier than warm water because its density is higher. So water gets heavier as it cools.'

'Which means the heaviest water is always cold and salty,' Weaver put in.

'Very good.' Bauer seemed pleased with her. 'So, water doesn't just flow in currents: it moves up and down in layers. The coldest currents are on the seabed, warm currents are on the surface, and deep-water currents are somewhere in between. Of course, warm currents can travel thousands of kilometres on the surface before they reach colder regions where they start to cool down. And as the water cools-'

'It gets heavier.'

'Indeed. So, the water gets heavier, which makes it start to sink. Surface currents turn into deep-water currents, or even bottom-water currents, and the flow direction changes. It's exactly the same the other way round, but the water goes upwards, from cold to warm. That way, all the major currents are continuously in motion. And because they're all interconnected, there's a constant process of exchange.'

The float was lowered to the surface of the water. Bauer hurried to the railings and leaned over, gesturing impatiently for Weaver to follow. 'What are you waiting for? Come on, you'll get a better view from here.'

She stood next to him. Eyes glowing, Bauer was gazing out to sea. 'Imagine if there were floats in every single current!' he said. 'Just think how much we'd learn.'

'What are the glass spheres for?'

'They keep the float suspended in the current. There are weights at the other end too, but the key to the whole thing is the cylinder in the middle. All the equipment is in there. Electronic controls, microprocessor, power supply. And it's neutrally buoyant. Isn't that amazing? Neutrally buoyant!'

'I'd find it even more amazing if you told me what that meant.'

'Oh, yes. Of course…' Bauer tugged as his beard. 'Well, we had to think about how we could get the floats to- You see, it's like this: fluids are practically incompressible. That is to say, you can't compress them any further. Water is the key exception. You can't, er, squish it much, but it's possible. So that's what we do. We compress the water in the cylinder so there's always the same amount in there, but sometimes it's heavier and sometimes it's lighter. So the weight of the float can be varied without changing the volume.'

'Ingenious.'

'It certainly is! It can even be programmed to do it by itself – compressing, decompressing, compressing, decompressing, sinking down and rising up – without us lifting a finger. Clever, don't you think?'

Weaver watched the tube sink into the sea.

'It means the float can travel independently for months and even years, transmitting radio signals, while we track it and reconstruct the speed and the movement of the current. Off it goes.'

The drifting profiler had vanished.

'And where's it heading now?'

'That's the question.'

Weaver looked at him intently.

Bauer sighed resignedly. 'I know, I know. You want to hear about my work. Goodness me, you're tenacious… Very well, we can talk in the lab. But the findings are unsettling, to say the least.'

'People love to be unsettled. Haven't you heard? Jellyfish invasions, scientific anomalies, people going missing and sinking ships. You'll be in good company.'

'Do you think so?' Bauer shook his head. 'You're probably right. I'll never understand what publicity's about. I'm only a scientist.'

CONTINENTAL MARGIN, Norwegian Sea

'Shit,' Stone groaned. 'It's a blow-out.'

On board the Sonne, everyone in the control room stared at the screen. All hell seemed to have broken loose on the seabed.

Bohrmann spoke into the microphone: 'We've got to get out of here. Full speed ahead. Tell the bridge.'

Lund ran out of the room, and Johanson chased after her. Suddenly everyone on board was running. Johanson skidded on to the working deck, where sailors and technicians were shifting cold storage tanks under Lund's lead. The winch cable quivered as the Sonne accelerated.

Lund saw him and ran over.

'What was that?' he yelled.

'We hit a gas pocket. Look!'

She pulled him across to the railings. Hvistendahl, Stone and Bohrmann joined them. Two Statoil technicians had gone to the far end of the stern and were standing under the A-frame, peering down.

Bohrmann was gazing at the taut cable. 'What the hell is he playing at?' he hissed. 'Why hasn't the idiot stopped the winch?' He hurried back inside.

At that moment the sea started to bubble madly and white lumps shot to the surface. The Sonne had reached full speed. There was a clunking sound as the video-grab's cable tightened. Someone raced across the deck towards the A-frame, waving wildly. 'Get away from there!' he yelled to the pair from Statoil. 'Run!'

Johanson recognised him. It was the first officer, the Sheep-dog, as the seamen called him. Hvistendahl swivelled round, gesticulating. Then everything happened at once. A foaming, hissing geyser engulfed them. Johanson saw the outline of the video-grab rising through the surface of the water. An unbearable stench of sulphur filled their nostrils. The Sonne's stern sank, then the metal jaws shot sideways and sped through the air like a gigantic swing towards the topside. The second of the two technicians saw it coming and flung himself down. The other man froze, then took a tentative step backwards and stumbled.

The Sheep-dog sprang forward to pull him to the ground, but the metal jaws crashed into the man and sent him flying into the air. He fell back to the deck, skidded along the planks and lay still.

'Oh, God,' Lund gasped. 'Please, no.'

She and Johanson ran towards the motionless body. The first officer and other crew were kneeling beside him. The Sheep-dog glanced up. 'Don't touch him.'

'But I-' Lund began.

'Call the doctor.'

Johanson knew that Lund couldn't bear to be inactive. Sure enough, she walked towards the grab. It had nearly stopped swinging. Mud dripped from it on to the deck. 'Open it!' she shouted. 'Get whatever's left into the tanks.'

Johanson looked down at the sea. Bubbles of stinking methane were still fizzing up to the surface, but gradually subsiding. The Sonne was charging away from the scene. The last chunks of methane ice floated to the surface and disintegrated.

With a loud creak the grab opened its jaws, releasing hundreds of kilos of ice and sediment. Sailors and scientists crowded around it, trying to plunge the hydrate into tanks of liquid nitrogen. Johanson felt useless. He went over to Bohrmann to help collect the lumps. The deck was covered with small, bristly bodies. Some were twitching and writhing, but the majority hadn't survived the rapid ascent. The sudden change of temperature and pressure had killed them.

Johanson picked up a clump and examined it closely. Dark channels criss-crossed the ice, strewn with the corpses of worms. He turned it back and forth until its crackling and cracking reminded him that it needed to he conserved. Some of the other chunks were even more riddled with holes, but the real work of destruction had clearly taken place beneath the tunnelling. Crater-like breaches gaped in the ice, covered with slimy trails.

Johanson forgot about the storage tanks. He rubbed the slime between his fingers. It looked like the remains of bacterial colonies. Bacterial mats were found on the surface of hydrates: what were they doing inside the ice?

A few seconds later the lump had disappeared. He looked round. A muddy puddle covered the working deck. The man who had been hit by the grab was gone. Lund, Hvistendahl and Stone had also left the deck, but Bohrmann was leaning on the rails. Johnson joined him. 'What happened down there?'

Bohrmann ran his hand over his eyes. 'We had a blow-out. The grab penetrated more than twenty metres through the hydrates and gas came up. Did you see the enormous bubble on the screen?'

'Yes. How thick is the ice here?'

'Seventy to eighty metres minimum – at least it was.'

'So, the ice was cracked.'

'That's how it seems. We need to find out as soon as possible whether it's an isolated case.'

'You want to take more samples?'

'Of course,' said Bohrmann, testily. 'That accident should never have happened. The guy at the winch raised the grab when we were going full-speed. He should have stopped it.' He looked at Johanson. 'Did you notice anything unusual when the gas shot up?'

'It felt to me as though the boat dropped in the water.'

'That's what I thought. The methane lowered the surface tension.'

'Do you mean we could have sunk?'

'It's hard to say. Have you heard of the Witch's Hole?'

'No.'

'Ten years ago a fisherman set sail and never came back. His last radio transmission said he was going to make coffee. A research expedition found the wreck fifty nautical miles from the coast in an unusually deep pockmark on the North Sea floor. Sailors call the area the Witch's Hole. The wreck showed no sign of damage and was sitting upright on the seabed. It seemed to have sunk like a stone – as though it had suddenly stopped floating.'

'Sounds like the Bermuda Triangle.'

'You've put your finger on it. That's exactly the theory – the only one that stands up to scrutiny, anyway. Big blow-outs occur regularly in the area between Bermuda, Florida and Costa Rica. Sometimes there's enough gas in the atmosphere to set fire to the turbines of a plane. All it takes is a methane blow-out several times bigger than the one we just experienced and the water density falls so low that a ship sinks to the bottom.' Bohrmann pointed to the storage tanks. 'We'll get this stuff back to Kiel, run some tests and get answers about what's going on – and we will get answers, I promise you. We've already lost one man because of this mess.'

'Is he… ?'

'He was killed on impact. For the next sample we'll use the autoclave corer instead of the grab. It's safer that way. We have to find out what's happening. I'm not prepared to stand by and watch as subsea units are constructed willy-nilly all over the seabed.' Bohrmann moved away from the rails. 'But we're used to that, I guess. We're always trying to explain what's going on in the world but no one listens. And then what happens? Research is in the hands of big business. The only reason that you and I are on this boat is because Statoil found a worm. The state can't pay for science, so the money comes from industry. There's no science for the sake of enquiry, these days. This worm isn't an object of scholarly interest. It's a problem they want us to get rid of. Science always has to have an immediate application – and, preferably, one that gives industry free rein. But maybe those worms aren't really the problem. Has anyone stopped to consider that? The real problem could be elsewhere, and by solving the worm dilemma, we might make things worse.'

A few nautical miles to the north-east they excavated a dozen cores from the sediment without further incident. The autoclave corer, a five-metre-long tube clad in a plastic mantle with pipes round the outside, drew the sample from the seabed like a giant syringe. Before it was pulled back up, the tube was hermetically sealed by valves, preserving a perfect specimen of a different universe: sediment, ice, mud, an intact section of the top layer of hydrates, pore-water and even local organisms, unperturbed by the change, since temperature and pressure were maintained. Bohrmann had the sealed tubes stored upright in the walk-in freezer so as not to disturb the layers of life preserved within. The cores couldn't be analysed on board: they needed the deep-sea simulation chamber to provide the right conditions. Until then they had to content themselves with analysing pore-water and staring at the screen.

Despite the drama of the past hours, even the unchanging view of the worm-covered hydrates seemed tedious. No one felt like talking. In the faint light of the monitors everyone looked pale – Bohrmann and his scientists, the Statoil team and the crew. The dead man had joined the core samples in the freezer. The rendezvous with the Thorvaldson at the site of the planned unit had been cancelled so that they could head straight for Kristiansund, where they would hand over the body and transport the samples to the nearby airport. Johanson moved between his cabin and the control room, sorting through the responses to his survey. The worm wasn't described in any of the existing literature. No one had seen it. Some of his correspondents put forward the view that it was a Mexican ice worm, but that didn't take him any closer to the truth.

Three nautical miles from Kristiansund, Johanson received a reply from Lukas Bauer. The first positive reply – though positive wasn't really the word.

He read the message and chewed his lip thoughtfully.

Contacting the oil companies was Skaugen's business. Johanson was only expected to approach institutes and scientists with no obvious link to oil. But Bohrmann had said something after the accident that showed things in a different light.

The state can't pay for science, so the money comes from industry.

Could any institute, these days, afford to be truly independent?

If Bohrmann was right that research was kept alive by industry, there was scarcely an institute that wasn't working for a company. They raised their funds through sponsorship – it was either that or risk closing their labs. Even Geomar would soon be in receipt of a grant from the energy firm Ruhrgas, which had endowed a new chair in hydrates. Corporate sponsorship sounded tempting, but sooner or later companies expected the research they funded to be converted into profit.

Johanson returned to Bauer's message.

His own approach had been all wrong. Instead of contacting as many people as possible, he should have scrutinised the unofficial links between science and business. While Skaugen broached the topic in the companies' boardrooms, he could question the scientists they worked with. Sooner or later someone was bound to talk.

The problem lay in trying to unravel the connections.

But it wasn't a problem. It was just a lot of hard work.

He stood up and went to find Lund.

24 April

Vancouver Island and Clayoquot Sound, Canada

Anawak rocked impatiently on the balls of his feet. He rolled forwards on to his toes, then back on to his heels. Toes, heels. Toes, heels. It was early morning and the sky was lit in vivid shades of azure; a day straight out of a holiday brochure.

At the end of the wooden jetty, a seaplane was waiting. Its white fuselage shone in the deep blue water of the lagoon, contours creased by rippling waves. It was one of the legendary DHC-2 Beavers first manufactured by the Canadian firm Dc Havilland over fifty years ago. Engineers had yet to come up with a better design, so the planes were still in use. Beavers had made it to both poles: they were dependable, robust and safe.

Perfect for what Anawak was planning.

He glanced across at the red-and-white terminal. Tofino airbase was situated a few minutes out of town by car, and had little in common with other airports. It was reminiscent of a traditional hunting or fishing village, just a few low-lying timber buildings on the edge of a sweeping-bay, fringed by forested hills with mountaintops in the distance. His eyes swept the road leading from the main highway through the towering trees towards the lagoon. Any moment now the others would arrive.

His brow furrowed as he listened to the voice on his mobile. 'But that was two weeks ago,' he said. 'Two weeks without Mr. Roberts being-available, even though he specifically asked me to keep him informed.'

The secretary reminded him that Mr. Roberts was a very busy man.

'So am I,' barked Anawak. He stood still and tried to sound friendlier. 'Look, the situation on the west coast is spiralling out of control. There are clear parallels between the trouble we've got here and the incident at Inglewood. I'm sure Mr. Roberts would agree.'

There was a short pause. 'What parallels would those be?'

'Well, whales, of course. I should have thought that was obvious.'

'The Barrier Queen suffered damage to her rudder.'

'Sure. But the tugs were attacked.'

'One tug was sunk, if that's what you mean,' said the woman, politely uninterested. 'No one's said anything about whales, but I'll tell Mr. Roberts you called.'

'Tell him it's in his interest.'

'He'll call you in the next few weeks.'

Weeks?

'Mr. Roberts is out of town.'

What the hell is going on? thought Anawak. He tried again.

'Mr. Roberts also promised to send further samples of organic matter from the Barrier Queen to the lab in Nanaimo. Now, please don't tell me you know nothing about that either. I've seen the infestation. I even took a bunch of mussels from the hull.'

'Mr. Roberts would have told me if-'

'The lab needs those samples!'

'Mr. Roberts will deal with it on his return.'

'It'll be too late by then! Oh, forget it. I'll call back later.'

Annoyed, he jammed his mobile into his pocket. Shoemaker was trundling down the access road in his Land Cruiser, then turned into the car park in front of the terminal. Anawak headed over to him. 'You're not exactly a model of punctuality, are you?' he called grumpily.

'For heaven's sake, Leon! We're ten minutes late.' Shoemaker came to meet him with Delaware in tow. A young powerfully built black guy with dark glasses and a shaved head followed behind. 'Loosen up, will you? We had to wait for Danny.'

Anawak shook hands with the other man, who flashed him a smile. He was a marksman in the Canadian army and had been placed at Anawak's disposal. He was carrying his weapon, a state-of-the-art, high-precision crossbow. 'Nice island you got here,' he drawled. A piece of gum travelled across his mouth as he spoke. 'You need me to take care of something?'

'Didn't they tell you?' asked Anawak.

'Sure – that I needed my bow to shoot at some whales. Kind of surprised me, though. Never thought it was legal.'

It isn't. I'll tell you all about it in the plane. Let's go.'

'Hang on.' Shoemaker held up a newspaper. 'Have you seen this?'

Anawak scanned the headline. '"The Hero of Tofino"?'

'Greywolf sure knows how to sell himself He's all modest in the interview, but see what he says further down. It'll make you want to puke.'

' ". . . did my duty as a Canadian citizen, that's all," muttered Anawak.' "Sure, we could have died – but I had to do something to make up for the damage caused by irresponsible whale-watching. My organisation has been warning for years of the dangerous levels of stress that whale-watchers inflict on the animals, which leads them to behave in unpredictable ways." My God, he's crazy!'

'Read on.'

"Davie's Whaling Station can't be accused of dishonesty, but it hasn't been completely honest either. In dressing up a money-making tourist business as an environmental research project, the whale-watchers are as bad as the Japanese, whose flotillas prey on endangered species in the Arctic. The Japanese also talk about the scientific value of their activities, even though in 2002 over four hundred tonnes of whale meat went on sale as a delicacy in wholesale markets. DNA tests traced the flesh to the objects of their so-called scientific study."

Anawak lowered the paper. 'That bastard.'

'But he's right, isn't he?' Delaware demanded. 'The Japanese really are spouting all that crap about their research. At least, that's what I heard.'

'Of course he's right,' snorted Anawak. 'That's why it's so damn cunning. He's trying to implicate us too.'

'God knows what he hopes to achieve by it,' said Shoemaker.

'He's just attention-seeking.'

'Well, he…' Delaware's hands waved in gesture of appeasement. 'I guess, he is a hero in a way.'

Anawak glared at her. 'Oh, really?'

'Without him people would have died. It's not fair of him to lay into you like that but he was brave and he-'

'Greywolf isn't brave,' growled Shoemaker. 'That shit only ever does anything for effect. But he's screwed up big-time now. The Makah won't like it. I can't imagine they'll thank their self-elected blood-brother for his impassioned speech against whaling – right, Leon?'

Anawak didn't reply.

Danny pushed his gum from one cheek to the other. 'All set?' he said.

At that moment the pilot called to them through the open door of the plane, and waved. Anawak knew what that meant. Ford had made contact. It was time. Instead of responding to Shoemaker's comment he put a hand on his shoulder. 'Could you do me a favour when you're back at the Station?'

'Sure,' he said. 'I'm not exactly rushed off my feet.'

'Find out whether there's been anything in the papers over the last few weeks about the Barrier Queen and her accident. Maybe check the Internet too – and the TV.'

'Why?'

'I've a feeling it wasn't reported.'

'Uh-huh.'

'Well, I can't remember hearing anything about it, can you?'

Shoemaker squinted up at the sun. 'No. Just some vague stuff about shipping accidents in Asia. But that's not to say it wasn't mentioned. I haven't read the papers since things kicked off round here. But it's a good point. Come to think of it, not much has been said about the whole damn mess.'

'Exactly,' said Anawak.

AS THE PLANE TOOK OFF, Anawak turned to Danny. 'Your job is to fire the tag into the blubber. The whale won't feel a thing. Scientists have been trying for years to get tags to stick to whaleskin, but a biologist in Kiel came up with the solution – a crossbow with tags and time-depth recorders that are fitted to the darts. The tip pierces the fat, and the whale carries the device for a few weeks. It doesn't even know it's there.'

Danny looked at him. 'A biologist from Kiel?'

'You don't think it'll work?'

'Oh, sure. Just seems to me he should have asked the whale about it hurtin'. Jeez, you gotta be pretty darned accurate. How you gonna know it won't go deeper than the fat?'

'They used pork to test the darts and kept going until they knew exactly how far the tips would penetrate. It's all a question of math.'

'I'll be darned,' said Danny. His eyebrows appeared above his dark glasses.

'What happens if you fire it at a human?' Delaware piped up from the seat behind them. 'Would the dart go in part-way?'

Anawak turned to face her.

'Yes, – but deep enough to kill you.'

The DHC-2 banked, the lagoon glittering beneath them.

'It wasn't the only option available,' said Anawak, 'but the key thing was to make sure we could track the whale over a significant period. The crossbow method seemed the most reliable. The tag records information on heartbeat, body temperature, water temperature, depth, speed and other variables. Fitting the whale with a camera is more of a problem.'

'Why not use the crossbow?' asked Danny. 'Save yourself a lot of hassle.'

'There'd be no means of ensuring which way up the camera would land. In any case, I'd like to see the whale. I want to be able to watch it, and that's only possible if the camera is further away and not mounted on top of it.'

'Which is why we're deploying a URA,' explained Delaware. 'It's a new type of robot from Japan.'

Anawak's lips twitched. From the way Delaware talked, you'd think she'd invented it.

'What robot?' Danny looked around.

'We didn't bring it.'

The plane was out of the lagoon, flying close to the swell. The water off Vancouver Island was usually full of pleasure-boats, Zodiacs and kayaks, but no one was brave enough to venture out now. In the distance a few freighters and ferries passed, too big for the whales to be a problem. The coastal waters were deserted, apart from a single mighty ship. The plane headed away from the ragged coastline, straight for it.

'The URA is on the Whistler- down there,' said Anawak. 'First we need to find and tag our whale, then the robot gets its turn.'

JOHN FORD STOOD aft on the Whistler, shielding his eyes with his hand. He saw the DHC-2 approaching at speed. A few seconds later the plane swooped over the boat and swung round in a gentle curve.

He held his radio to his mouth and called Anawak on a tap-proof frequency. A host of channels was reserved for military and scientific purposes. 'Leon? Everything OK?'

'Receiving you, John. Where did you see them?'

'To the north-west, less than two hundred metres from the ship. Five minutes ago we had a cluster of sightings, but they're keeping their distance. There must be eight or ten. We identified two. One was involved in the attack on the Lady Wexham; the other sank a fishing-trawler last week in Ucluelet.'

'They haven't tried to attack?'

'We're too big for them.'

'How are they behaving as a group?'

'No signs of aggression.'

'Good. They're probably one big gang, but let's stick to the whales we've identified.'

Ford watched as the DHC-2 disappeared into the distance, then banked and flew back in a loop. His gaze shifted to the Whistler's bridge. The deep-sea rescue tug was sixty-three metres long, fifteen metres wide and belonged to a private company in Vancouver. With a bollard pull of 160 tonnes, she was one of the strongest tugs in the world, and far too heavy to be threatened by a whale. Ford guessed that a breaching humpback would cause the ship to rock but no more.

He still felt uneasy, though. At first the whales had attacked anything that floated, but now they seemed to know what they could and couldn't harm. Boats had been attacked by fin and sperm whales, as well as the omnipresent orcas, greys and humpbacks. And there had been a marked refinement in technique. Ford was certain that they wouldn't attack the tug – and that was what disturbed him. The idea that the whales were suffering from a rabies-like illness didn't fit with their growing ability to size up their targets. There was intelligence in their behaviour, and he wasn't sure how they'd react to the robot.

He radioed the bridge. 'We're off,' he said.

The DHC-2 circled overhead.

They'd started looking actively for the whales as soon as they'd identified some of the aggressors on the camcorder footage. For three days the tug had cruised up and down the coast and that morning they'd finally struck lucky. Among a pack of greys they'd seen two flukes they recognised from the pictures.

Ford wasn't sure if they stood any chance of getting to the truth in time. He shuddered when he thought of the increasingly militant calls from fishing unions and shipping lines who didn't like the scientists' non-aggression policy. They wanted military action – a few dead whales to show the herds what was what and to scare them into staying away from humans. The scheme was as dangerous as it was naive, but it had found plenty of supporters. The whales were doing an excellent job of gambling away all the credit that environmentalists and animal-rights groups had worked so hard to raise for them. For the time being, the emergency committee was still taking the line that killing the whales wouldn't resolve anything since no one knew what was causing their behaviour. The only option was to fight the symptoms, or so they'd said. Ford didn't know what the government was planning in the long-run. Either way, there were clear indications that individual fishermen and rogue whalers were preparing to take matters into their own hands. While no one could offer a solution to the problem, everyone was certain that the others were wrong. It was fertile ground for mavericks.

Ford glanced at the robot in the stern. He was curious to see what it could do. They'd got it from Japan remarkably quickly and with almost no red tape. The technology was only a few years old. According to the Japanese, it was designed for research, not whaling, but few were convinced. Western environmentalists saw the three-metre-long cylindrical device, studded with sensors and highly sensitive cameras, as an invention from hell, intended to hunt down entire herds of whales as soon as the moratorium on whaling was rescinded. After the URA had tracked and followed humpbacks among the Japanese Kerama Islands, it had found favour at an international symposium for marine mammals in Vancouver. But the distrust remained. It was no secret that Japan had systematically bought the support of poorer countries with the aim of putting an end to the 1986 whaling moratorium: the government had called its machinations and horse-trading 'legitimate diplomacy', while providing the bulk of the funding to the University of Tokyo, to which the inventors of the robot, Tamaki Ura and his Underwater Robotics and Application Laboratory team, belonged.

'Maybe today you'll do something worthwhile,' said Ford, softly, to the robot. 'Salvage your reputation.'

The URA glinted in the sun. Ford went over to the rails and gazed out at the ocean. Finding the whales was easier from the plane, but identification had to be done from the ship. After a while a group of greys appeared, surfacing one after another and ploughing through the waves.

The voice of the lookout sounded through the radio. 'Look back and to the right. There's Lucy.'

Ford spun and raised his binoculars in time to see a ragged, slate-grey fluke disappear beneath the water.

Lucy was one of the two whales they'd identified. A fine specimen of a grey, measuring a full fourteen metres, she'd hurled herself against the Lady Wexham. For all he knew, she might have been responsible for splitting the vessel's thin hull.

'ID authenticated,' said Ford. 'Leon?' He squinted up at the sun and saw the plane dip towards the place where the flukes had been seen. 'Well, I guess this is it,' he said to himself! 'Happy hunting.'

FROM THEIR VANTAGE-POINT a hundred metres above the water, even the enormous tug looked like a toy, though the whales seemed to grow by comparison. Anawak watched a pod of greys swimming just under the surface, moving leisurely and peacefully. Refracted rays of sunlight danced on their colossal backs. The full length of each whale was visible through the water. They were only a quarter the size of the Whistler, but they still seemed absurdly large. 'We need to get closer,' he said.

The DHC-2 descended. They flew over the pod towards the spot where Lucy had dived. Anawak hoped to God that she hadn't gone in search of food, since that would mean a lengthy wait. With any luck the water would be too deep for her here. Greys, like humpbacks, had their own feeding technique: they dived to the seabed and grazed on the sediment, rolling on to their sides and vacuuming up the bottom-dwelling organisms, such as small crustaceans, plankton and, their favourites, tube worms. The seabed near Vancouver Island was furrowed with trenches from their feeding orgies, but the giant greys seldom ventured into deeper water.

'OK, folks, prepare for the breeze,' said the pilot. 'Danny?'

The marksman grinned at them, opened the side door and pushed it back. A wave of cold air rushed into the cabin and swept through their hair. Delaware reached back and passed Danny his crossbow.

'You won't have much time,' shouted Anawak, above the roar of the wind and the engine. 'Once Lucy surfaces, there'll be just seconds to get the tag in place.'

'No sweat,' said Danny. Holding the crossbow in his right hand, he pushed himself out of his seat until he was practically sitting in the linkage under the wing. 'You gotta get me nice and close.'

Delaware shook her head. 'I can't watch.'

'Why not?' said Anawak.

'It's never going to work. He'll end up in the water – I just know it.'

'Don't you fret,' laughed the pilot. 'These boys can do anything.'

The plane shot forwards, low to the water, on a level with the Whistler's bridge. They flashed past the spot where Lucy had been seen. Nothing.

'Circle,' shouted Anawak, 'and keep it tight. Lucy will come up pretty much where she went down.'

The DHC-2 banked sharply. Suddenly the sea rose towards them. Danny was balanced like a monkey in the linkage, one hand on the door frame, the other on the crossbow, ready to shoot. In the water below, the silhouette of a whale emerged through the waves. Then a grey shiny hump broke the surface.

'Yee-hah!' screeched Danny.

'Leon!' Ford was on the radio. 'It's the wrong whale. Lucy's ahead of us, starboard side.'

'Hell,' muttered Anawak. He'd miscalculated. Evidently Lucy was determined not to play the game. 'Don't shoot, Danny.'

The plane stopped circling and sank even lower. The waves rushed beneath them. They were approaching aft of the tug. For a moment it looked as though they were going to fly straight into the Whistler's bridge, but the pilot adjusted their course and they passed to the side of the hulking vessel. A little way ahead Lucy dived again, showing her flukes. This time Anawak recognised her from the distinctive grooves in her tail. 'Slow down,' he said.

The pilot reduced speed, but they were still travelling too fast. We should have taken a chopper, thought Anawak. Now they were going to overshoot their target. They'd have to wheel round, in the hope that the whale hadn't vanished again.

But Lucy's enormous body glistened in the sunlight.

'Turn round, then down.'

The pilot nodded. 'Just don't throw up on me,' he said.

The plane tilted abruptly. A vertical wall of water sparkled through the open door, terrifyingly close. Delaware screamed, but Danny cheered and waved his crossbow.

Anawak saw everything in slow motion. He'd never imagined you could turn a plane like a pair of compasses, with the wing tip acting as the point. The plane moved in a perfect semi-circle, tilted again without warning, and then they were upright.

Engine roaring, they headed for the whale, towards the oncoming Whistler.

FORD WATCHED with bated breath as the plane returned from its daredevil manoeuvre. Its skids were almost touching the water. He vaguely remembered that one of Tofino Air's pilots used to fly for the Canadian Air Force. Now he knew which one.

The cylindrical case of the URA was dangling from the Whistler's stern crane on the other side of the railings, ready to be released as soon as the marksman fired the tag. The whale's grey back was clearly visible. The animal and the plane sped towards each other. Ford spotted Danny crouching under the wing and prayed that a single shot would do the job.

LUCY'S HUMP surged through the waves.

Danny raised the crossbow, closed one eye, and bent his finger. Concentrating hard, he pulled the trigger. He was the only one to hear the soft hiss as the tagged dart left the bow at 250 kilometres per hour and whizzed past his ear. A fraction of a second later the metal barb penetrated the blubber and embedded itself in the whale. Lucy arched her back and dived.

'We got it!' Anawak hollered into the radio.

FORD GAVE THE SIGN. The crane released the robot, which splashed into the waves. As it made contact with water, a sensor was triggered and the electrical motor leaped into action. Plunging deeper, it homed in on the disappearing whale. Seconds later, it was out of sight.

Ford punched the air. 'Yes!'

The DHC-2 thundered above the Whistler. Through the doorway Danny raised the crossbow and whooped triumphantly.

'WE DID IT!'

'Nice work!'

'One shot and – Christ, did you see it? Unbelievable!'

Inside the plane everyone was talking at once. Danny started to pull himself into the cabin and Anawak stretched out a hand to help him. Then something loomed out of the water.

A grey whale leaped into the air. The massive body shot towards them.

It was right in their flight path.

'Take her up!' screamed Anawak.

The motors gave an agonised roar and Danny fell backwards as the plane jerked up. Anawak caught a glimpse of an enormous head covered with scars, an eye, a mouth. A powerful blow rocked the cabin. A torn mess of broken linkage replaced the right wing where Danny had been standing. Delaware screamed. The pilot was screaming. Anawak screamed. The sea rushed towards them.

Something hit him in the face. Icy-cold.

There was a droning in his ears. The high-pitched screech of tearing metal.

Spray.

Dark green.

Then nothing.

FIFTY METRES FURTHER DOWN, the onboard computer steadied the cylindrical body of the URA. The robot began to track the nearest whale. Not far away, barely visible in the gloom, others came into view. The electronic eye of the URA took note of them, but the computer wasn't interested in optical data. Other functions took precedence.

The URA's optical sensors were impressive, but its real strength lay in its audio capacity. This was where the inventor had shown a flash of true genius. The robot's acoustic technology allowed it to follow a whale for ten to twelve hours without losing track of it, no matter where it went.

The URA's hydrophones – four sensitive underwater microphones – didn't merely capture the whalesong: they could also determine its source. The hydrophones were fixed at intervals around the robot's case, so that when a whale emitted its high-pitched whistle, they received the sound sequentially. No human ear could register the tiny time delays, the rise and fall in volume: only a computer was capable of that. The noise arrived first at the hydrophone nearest to the whale, then reached the other three in turn.

From there, the computer created a virtual space, assigning coordinates to the source of the sound. Gradually the digital environment filled with positioning data on the whales. The co-ordinates shifted constantly as the animals moved. Now the inside of the computer held a virtual copy of the pod.

Lucy was also emitting sounds as she disappeared into the depths. The computer's memory contained extensive information on specific noises made by whales and different species of fish, as well as the calls of individual animals. The URA searched its electronic catalogue for Lucy but couldn't find her. It automatically created a new entry for the sounds coming from her co-ordinates and compared them to other groups of coordinates, classifying all the surrounding animals as greys and accelerating to two knots to get closer.

Having located and identified the whales, the robot began its optical analysis, which was every bit as thorough as the acoustic diagnosis. Fluke patterns and shapes were stored in its memory, as well as fins, flippers and other identifying features of various whales. This time the computer was in luck. The electronic eye scanned the flukes pounding through the water ahead and identified one of the tails as Lucy's. The URA had been programmed with extensive data on individual whales that had been involved in the attacks. Now it knew which animal was the focus of its attention and changed course by a few degrees.

Whalesong allowed the animals to keep in contact with each other over distances of more than a hundred nautical miles. Sound waves moved through the water five times faster than they did in the air: Lucy could swim as fast as she liked and in any direction, but the robot would never lose her now.

26 April

Kiel, Germany

The metal door slid open. Bohrmann's gaze travelled up the imposing walls of the deep-sea simulation chamber. It was a way of taming the ocean, albeit in miniature. Created by man from second-hand experience, the world inside it was an idealised copy of the real thing. People knew less about reality than they did about its substitutes. Children in America drew six-legged chickens because drumsticks came in packs of six, while adults drank milk from a carton, and recoiled at the sight of an udder. Their experience of the world was stunted, but it only fuelled their arrogance. Bohrmann was enthused by the simulator and the possibilities it offered, but imitating life rather than analysing it could make science blind. Understanding the planet was no longer enough for most people; they were intent on trying to change it. In the Disneyland of botched science, human intervention was forever being justified in new and disturbing ways.

He was struck by the same thought whenever he came here: they could never tell for sure what science might achieve, only what it should never have attempted – and no one wanted to hear about that.

Two days after the accident on the Sonne, Bohrmann was in Kiel. The sediment cores and cold-storage tanks had been sent express freight to the care of Erwin Suess. He and his team of geochemists and biologists had lost no time in examining the expedition's haul. By the time Bohrmann had returned to the institute, the tests had begun. For twenty-four hours they'd been working non-stop but now their efforts had been rewarded. The simulator seemed to have revealed the truth about the worms.

Suess was waiting for him at the control panel, with Heiko Sahling and Yvonne Mirbach, a molecular biologist specialising in deep-sea bacteria.

'We've put together a computer simulation,' said Suess, 'not that we need it – it's for everyone else.'

'So this isn't purely a Statoil problem, then,' said Bohrmann.

'No.'

Suess dragged the cursor towards an icon and clicked. A computer graphic appeared on the screen. It was a cross-section of a gas pocket covered with a layer of hydrates a hundred metres thick. Sahling pointed to a thin dark line on the surface. 'This layer represents the worms,' he said.

'We'll zoom in a bit,' said Suess.

The picture changed to show a close-up of the surface and the worms took shape. Suess carried on zooming until a single specimen was in view, a cartoon-like representation, with highlighted sections.

'Those red marks represent sulphur bacteria,' explained Mirbach. 'The blue ones stand for archaea.'

'Endo and ectosymbionts,' muttered Bohrmann. 'One set colonises the inside, the other settles on the skin.'

'Right. It's a consortium. Different species of bacteria working in tandem.'

'The scientists who produced those reports for Johanson had realised that too,' said Suess. 'They wrote page after page on worms and symbiosis. But they drew the wrong conclusions. No one stopped to ask what the consortia were doing. All this time we've been working on the premise that the worms were destabilising the ice, even though we knew it was impossible. Now we know it wasn't them.'

'The worms are just transporters?' said Bohrmann.

'Right.' Suess clicked on another icon. 'Here's how you got your blowout.'

The cartoon worm began to move. The pincer-like jaws sprang open, and it burrowed into the ice.

'Now watch this.'

Bohrmann stared at the picture as Suess zoomed closer. Tiny organisms became visible, boring into the ice. Then, all of a sudden-

'Oh, my God,' said Bohrmann.

No one breathed.

'If the same thing's happening along the length of the slope…' said Sahling.

'Which it is,' said Bohrmann dully. 'It's happening everywhere simultaneously, as far as we can tell. We should have figured this out on the Sonne. The hydrates were dripping with bacterial slime.'

He wasn't surprised by what he had seen. He'd hoped his fears would prove unfounded, but the truth was worse than he'd imagined. Assuming it was true…

'Each individual process is an established phenomenon,' Suess was saying. 'It's the combined effect that's new. When you isolate the details, we've seen it all before. But put it together, and it's obvious why the hydrates would dissociate.' He yawned. It seemed inappropriate to do so after what they'd witnessed, but none of them had slept for more than a day. 'What puzzles me is why the worms are there at all.'

'It beats me too,' said Bohrmann, 'and I've been thinking about it for weeks.'

'So who do we tell?' asked Sahling.

'Hmm.' Suess tapped his lip. 'It's confidential, right – We should tell Johanson first.'

'Why not go straight to Statoil?' said Sahling.

'No,' said Bohrmann, firmly. 'Definitely not.'

'Surely they wouldn't hush it up?'

'Johanson's our best option. From what I can tell, he's not on anyone's side. We should leave it to him to-'

'We don't have time to leave anything to anyone,' Sahling broke in. 'If the situation on the slope is even half as critical as the simulation suggests, the Norwegian government should be informed.'

'But you can't tell the Norwegians without informing all the other North Sea states.'

'So much the better – and there's Iceland too.'

'Hang on.' Suess flapped a hand to quieten them. 'This isn't some kind of crusade.'

'That's not the point.'

'Oh, but it is. So far, we've only got the simulation.'

'Sure, but-'

'No, he's right,' Bohrmann interrupted. 'We can't go putting the wind up people when we're not even sure ourselves. I mean, we know what's causing it, but as for the consequences – that's just speculation. All we can say right now is that vast quantities of methane are likely to escape.'

'You must be joking,' said Sahling. 'We know exactly what'll happen.'

Absentmindedly Bohrmann stroked his moustache, which had started to grow back. 'Let's say we go public. We make all the headlines – and then?'

'What would happen if the papers announced that a meteorite was going to hit the Earth?' asked Suess.

'Is that a valid comparison?'

'I'd say so.'

'I don't think it's for us to decide,' said Mirbach. 'Let's take this one step at a time. First, we'll tell Johanson. He's the one we've been dealing with and, from a scholarly viewpoint, it's his due.'

'Why?'

'He discovered the worms.'

'Actually, Statoil found them. But whatever. We tell Johanson, then what?'

'We get the governments on board.'

'We go public?'

'Why not? These days, everything's dealt with in the open. We're told about nuclear programmes in North Korea and Iran, as well as idiots releasing anthrax – not to mention BSE, swine fever and GM food. In France, dozens or maybe hundreds of people are dying because of contaminated shellfish – and they're not trying to keep it quiet, are they?'

'But if the public hears us talking about a Storegga Slide…' said Bohrmann.

'There's not enough evidence to be sure it's really that,' said Suess.

'The simulation demonstrates how rapidly dissociation occurs. I'd say that's all we need to know.'

'But it doesn't prove what happens.'

Bohrmann was about to argue, but he knew Suess was right. If they went public before their case was watertight, the oil lobby could dismiss the matter out of hand. Their theory would collapse. It was still too soon. 'All right,' he said. 'How long till we get a firm answer?'

Suess frowned. 'Another week, I'd say.'

'That's a bloody long time,' said Sahling.

'I'd say it's pretty damn fast,' Mirbach argued. 'You can spend months twiddling your thumbs for a taxonomy report on a worm, but we-'

'It's too long in the circumstances?

'We've got no choice,' Suess decided. 'A false alarm won't do anyone any good. We've got to keep working on it.'

Bohrmann couldn't take his eyes off the screen. The simulation had finished, but it continued in his mind, and what he saw made him shudder.

29 April

Trondheim, Norway

Johanson entered Olsen's office. He closed the door and sat down on the other side of his desk. 'Is this a good time?'

Olsen grinned. 'I've left no stone unturned for you.'

'And what did you find?'

Olsen lowered his voice to a whisper. 'What do you want first? The monsters or the natural disasters?'

He was keeping him on tenterhooks. Johanson played along. 'Whichever you'd prefer.'

'Come to think of it,' Olsen looked at him slyly, 'isn't it time you were a bit more forthcoming?'

Johanson wondered again how much he could tell his colleague. The man was clearly dying of curiosity and, in his position, Johanson would want to know too. But within hours of Olsen finding out, the entire university would he buzzing.

He'd have to make something up. Olsen would think he was nuts, of course, but it was a risk he was willing to take.

'I'm thinking of being the first to come out with a theory,' he murmured.

'Namely?'

'That the anomalies aren't just coincidence. Those jellyfish, the boats that keep vanishing, people missing or dead … I realised there had to be a plan.'

Olsen looked blank.

'It's all connected.'

'What are you after? The Nobel Prize or a visit from the men in white coats?'

'Neither.'

Olsen stared at him. 'You're pulling my leg.'

'No.'

'Oh, come on. You're talking about. . . the devil? Forces of evil? Little green men? The X-Files?

'It's only a theory. But, there has to be a connection somewhere. Lots of different phenomena happening all at once – does that sound like coincidence to you?'

'I don't know.'

'There you go. You don't know. And I don't either.'

'What kind of connection did you have in mind?'

Johanson made an evasive gesture. 'It depends on what you've found.'

'Very clever.' Olsen curled his lip.

'Just tell me what you've got and we'll take it from there.'

Olsen bent down to open a drawer and pulled out a stack of paper. 'My Internet pickings,' he said. 'You nearly had me with that nonsense you were spouting.'

'What's the story?'

'The beaches in Central and South America are closed. No one's going into the water, and jellies are clogging the fishermen's nets. In Costa Rica, Chile and Peru, they're descending on the coastline in apocalyptic swarms. Portuguese men-of-war, plus a second species, very small, with extremely long, toxic tentacles. At first they thought they were box jellies, but now they suspect something else, perhaps a new species.'

Another new species, mused Johanson. First unidentifiable worms, now unidentifiable jellyfish…

'And the box jellyfish in Australia?'

'Similar problem.' Olsen riffled through his stack of paper. 'Increasing numbers. Fishing industry in chaos. Tourist industry on its knees…'

'What about the fish? Are they bothered by the jellies?'

'Too late – they've gone. The big shoals have abandoned the coastlines. Reports from fishing trawlers say they've left their normal range and headed out to sea.'

'But they won't find any food there. What's the official take on it?'

'All the affected areas have emergency committees,' said Olsen, 'but they won't tell you anything. I've tried.'

'So they're keeping the really bad stuff to themselves.'

'Quite likely.' Olsen pulled out a sheet of paper. 'Take a look at this. It's a list of stories that hit the press with a fanfare and haven't been heard of since. Jellies off the west coast of Africa. A probable jelly plague in Japan. Confirmation of a jelly invasion in the Philippines. People listed as missing, then a retraction, then not another peep. But that's nothing compared to this. For a few years now there's been talk of a particular kind of algae. Pfiesteria piscicida. A microscopic killer. Targets animals and humans. It's almost impossible to get rid of. Until recently it'd stuck to the other side of the Atlantic, but now France is affected. It's not looking pretty.'

'Any deaths?'

'You can bet on it. The French are fairly tight-lipped about it, but it seems they found the algae in contaminated lobster. I printed out all the key stuff.

He pushed one section of the documentation towards Johanson. 'Then we've got the disappearing boats. Some of the distress calls have been recorded, but they don't make any sense – they break off too early. Whatever happened to those vessels happened quickly.' Olsen waved another piece of paper at him. 'Three of the distress calls ended up on the web.'

'Go on.'

'The boats were attacked.'

'Attacked?'

'That's right.' Olsen rubbed his nose. 'Now there's a conspiracy theory for you. More grist to your mill, I suppose. The sea rises up and takes on mankind… About time too, after all the rubbish we've dumped in it. Not to mention the fish and the whales. Which reminds me, the last I heard was that ships in the east Pacific were being set upon by whales. Now everyone's too scared to venture out, apparently.'

'Does anyone know-'

'Of course not. No one knows anything. I tried bloody hard to get something for you. There was nothing on the collisions or the tankers either. A total news embargo. You're right about one thing: the minute anyone starts reporting the incidents, a veil of silence descends. Maybe this is The X-Files, after all.' Olsen frowned. 'In any case, there are too many jellyfish. Too much of everything, really – it's all happening in excess.'

'And no one knows why.'

'They're not rash enough to claim it's all interconnected if that's what you mean. They'll probably blame El Niño or global warming. There'll be a sudden interest in invasion biology, and all kinds of theories will be published.'

'The usual suspects, then.'

'Yes, but it makes no sense. Algae and jellies have been shipped around the world for years. It's not a new phenomenon.'

'Sure,' said Johanson. 'But that's what I'm suggesting. An invasion of box jellies is one thing, a worldwide outbreak of extraordinary phenomena is another.'

Olsen pressed his fingertips together. 'Well, if you really want to make connections. I don't think biological invasions are the right place to start. I'd go for behavioural anomalies. We're seeing attacks of a kind we've never seen before.'

'Did you come across any other new species?'

'Have you anything in mind?' asked Olsen, deliberately.

If I ask about worms, thought Johanson, he'll guess right away. 'Not really,' he said.

Olsen handed over the rest of the papers. 'So when are you planning to tell me whatever it is you're not prepared to say now?'

Johanson picked up the printouts and stood up. 'I'll buy you a drink someday.'

'Sure, you know, if I can ever find time.'

'Thanks, Knut.' Johanson stepped out into the corridor. Students streamed past from a lecture hall. Some were laughing and chatting, others more serious.

He stood still and watched them. Suddenly the idea of a master-plan didn't seem so far-fetched.

GREENLAND SEA, near Spitsbergen, Svalbard Archipelago

That night, in the moonlight, the ocean of ice looked so spectacularly beautiful that the crew came out on deck. Lukas Bauer missed it: sitting in his cabin, bent over his work, he was searching for a needle in a haystack – but the haystack was the size of two seas.

Karen Weaver had helped him enormously, but two days ago she'd disembarked in Longyearbyen, the capital of Spitsbergen, to pursue her research there. She led a turbulent life, thought Bauer, whose own was scarcely more ordered. Since starting out in journalism, she had specialised in marine-related topics. As far as Bauer could tell, she had chosen her career because it allowed her to visit the world's most inhospitable places. Weaver loved extremes, unlike Bauer, who hated them but was so committed to his work that he was prepared to give up comfort for the sake of understanding. It was the same for many scientists: people took them for adventurers, but adventure was the price they paid for knowledge.

Bauer missed comfy armchairs, trees, birds and German beer. Now he missed Weaver. He'd grown fond of the determined young woman, and he'd begun to see the point of what she did. Getting the public interested in your work meant using a vocabulary that wasn't a hundred per cent accurate, but that everyone could follow. Weaver had made him realise that all his work on the Gulf Stream would be lost on people if he couldn't explain how the current started or where it flowed. At first he hadn't believed her. Just as he'd refused to believe that no one had heard of drifting profilers, until Weaver had convinced him that they were too new and specialised. But not knowing about the Gulf Stream? Weren't children taught anything at school?

Weaver was right that his work needed public exposure: he could broadcast his anxiety and put pressure on the culprits. And Bauer was worried.

The source of his troubles lay in the Gulf of Mexico, where temperate surface water flowed from Africa along the coast of South America. Warmed by the sun in the Caribbean basin, it continued northwards, an inviting stream of salty water that remained on the surface because of its heat. The Gulf Stream, Europe's mobile heater, wound its way north, carrying a billion megawatts of warmth, equivalent in energy to 250,000 nuclear power stations. It travelled as far as Newfoundland where it mingled with the cold waters of the Labrador Current and dispersed. Some pinched off to form eddies, swirling rings of warm water that meandered northwards as the North Atlantic Drift. Prevailing westerlies saw to it that plenty evaporated, conferring ample rain on Europe and causing the water's salinity to soar. Dubbed the Norwegian Current, the water continued along the coast of Norway through the North Atlantic, staying warm enough to allow ships to dock in south-west Spitsbergen even in mid-winter. It was only when it reached Greenland and northernmost Norway that the stream of heat was halted. There, it hit the Arctic, where the icy ocean and chill winds cooled it rapidly. The Gulf Stream had always been very salty; now it was immensely cold too. The heavy water fell, sinking vertically – not as a front but in channels of water called chimneys, which were difficult to pinpoint since they moved with the swell. Convective chimneys measured twenty to fifty metres across, with ten or so clustered in the space of a square kilometre; but their exact position varied daily, depending on the wind and waves. The critical point about them was the suction effect the sinking water caused. This was the Gulf Stream's real secret: it didn't flow north but was drawn there, sucked onwards by the powerful pump at the bottom of the Arctic. When the icy water reached a depth of between 2000 and 3000 metres, it started on the return leg. It was a journey that would take it once round the world.

Bauer had released a batch of floats in the hope they would follow the path of the current, but trying to find the chimneys in the first place was difficult enough. They should have been everywhere. Instead the giant pump seemed to have packed up entirely or begun its work elsewhere.

Bauer had come here because he was aware of the problem and he knew what would follow. He hadn't expected to find things working perfectly, but he wasn't prepared to find nothing at all.

It was seriously worrying.

He'd confided his concerns to Weaver, before she'd left him. Since then he'd been updating her and entrusting her with his innermost fears. Several days ago his team had detected a dramatic rise in the methane content of the water. Now he was considering the possibility that it was linked to the disappearance of the chimneys. He was almost sure of the connection. Hunched over his data, Bauer examined stacks of calculations, diagrams and charts. Every now and then he emailed Karen Weaver to tell her of his latest findings.

He was so caught up in his work that he was oblivious to the shaking. His teacup made its way to the edge of the table and toppled over, pouring its contents on to his lap. 'Oh, blast,' he muttered. Hot tea soaked through his trousers and down his legs. He got up to examine the extent of the damage.

Suddenly he stiffened, straining to hear the noises outside.

Screams. Someone was screaming. Heavy boots pounded the deck and the ship vibrated furiously, throwing him off balance. Groaning, he collided with his desk. The ground fell away beneath him, as though the vessel had fallen into a hole. Bauer sprawled backwards and fear took hold of him. He scrambled to his feet and stumbled into the passageway. The shouts were louder now, and the engine started up. A man was yelling in Icelandic. Bauer couldn't understand the words, but he could hear the terror, which was echoed and amplified in the voice that replied.

Had there been an underwater earthquake?

He hurried along the passageway and down the stairs to the deck. Fierce vibrations rocked the ship, making it hard to stay upright. He pushed his way unsteadily to the hatch, and was hit by the stench. All of a sudden Lukas Bauer knew what was wrong.

Struggling to the rail, he looked out. The water was seething with bubbles.

There was no swell. No sign of a storm. Just thousands of giant bubbles, surging to the surface.

The boat plummeted again and Bauer toppled over, crashing face first on to the deck. Pain exploded in his skull. When he raised his head, his glasses were broken. Without them he was blind, but he didn't need lenses to know what happened next. The sea rose up and closed over the vessel.

Oh, God, he thought. Oh, dear God, no.

30 April

Vancouver Island, Canada

The night was resplendent in deep shades of green. It was a while since Anawak had first started to fall through the shadowy universe, but now a rush of euphoria swept through him, and he stretched out his arms, plummeting downwards like an Icarus of the depths, weightless and elated. He sank deeper and deeper. Something shimmered in the distance below him, a frozen white landscape, and all at once the sombre ocean became a dark night sky.

He was standing at the edge of an icefield, gazing at the deep, still water, with a wealth of stars above him.

He was at peace.

How wonderful it felt to be standing there. In time, an ice floe would form, detaching itself from the frozen water and drifting through the seas, carrying him north to a place where he would be free from the burden of questions. Anawak's chest swelled with longing and tears came into his eyes, dazzling him. He shook his head, dispersing the drops, which scattered over the sea, lighting up its darkness. Something rose towards him from the depths, and the towering water became a figure. It waited for him at a distance, too far for him to follow. Shiny and motionless it stood there, starlight trapped within its surface.

I found them, it said.

The figure had no face and no mouth, but the voice was familiar. He took a step towards it, but he was at the water's edge. A vast and terrifying presence lurked beneath him in the darkness.

What did you find? he asked.

The sound of his voice made him start. The words dropped heavily from his mouth. What the figure had said or maybe thought had sounded noiseless; now his voice shattered the silence that had filled the landscape of ice. Biting cold took hold of him. He looked for the thing in the water, but it was gone.

Surely you don't need to ask? a voice said beside him.

He turned his head and saw the delicate figure of Samantha Crowe, the SETI researcher.

You sound awful, she said. You're fine at everything else, but you need to practise talking.

Sorry, he stammered.

I've found my aliens. Do you remember? We finally made contact. Isn't that great?

Anawak shivered. It didn't seem great to him; in fact, without knowing why, he felt clammy with fear at the thought of Crowe's aliens.

So… who are they? What are they?

The SETI researcher gestured towards the dark water beyond the ice. They're out there, she said. And I think they want to meet you. They like making contact. But you'll have to go and find them.

I can't, said Anawak.