The Presence


From above, the day was perfect.

A sky of sapphire blue, a sea of sparkling turquoise. A scattering of marshmallow clouds drifted across a vast expanse of azure.

The wind had died, and the ocean rose and fell gently against the shattered end of a lava flow that extended from the sea to a vent nearly halfway up Kilauea on the island of Hawaii.

The Big Island. Bigger by far than all the rest of the Hawaiian islands put together.

And growing bigger every year.

Today, though, even the earth seemed to have fallen in with the torpor of the air and water. The fires burning deep within the island’s core seemed to have settled to a slight simmering, as if waiting for another time to push up through the rocky crust above and send trails of glowing magma snaking down the mountain’s flank to push farther into the sea.

The kind of day for which the diving team had been waiting.

An hour after dawn, they were aboard the tug and barge that carried them out of Hilo Bay. Now the barge was anchored two hundred yards off the end of the lava flow, held in place by three anchors chained to heavy hawsers. The tug itself needed nothing more than a lunch hook to hold its position, and the surface crew—with little to do until the divers in the water signaled them—relaxed on deck, drinking beer and playing cards, as somnolent as the weather itself.

Perhaps if the wind and the sea hadn’t conspired against them, someone would have felt the seismic blip and realized that the idyllic day’s serenity was an illusion.

Beneath the thick tongue of lava that wound down from the distant vent, the pressure from the hot core far below the crust of the earth had built, cracking apart a great slab of rock.

It wasn’t an explosive crack—nothing like the displacement that occurs when the locked edges of continental plates suddenly break free and hundreds of miles of solid-seeming earth jerk abruptly in opposite directions.

Nor was it the kind of crack in which, without warning, the floor of the sea heaves upward, sending a great tidal wave thousands of miles in every direction, towering over land, to drown whatever stands in its way.

This crack, occurring just below the surface, caused only the smallest of blips on the seismographs that monitored the mountain’s movements. If anyone on the island felt it at all, it was to wonder a moment later if perhaps he had merely imagined it.

Beneath the lava flow, the fissure in the rock provided just enough room for a glowing column of molten rock to begin its rise to the surface, heat and pressure widening its path as it went, until at last the white-hot magma broke into the empty tunnel under the broad strip of lava on the top, where years ago the still-molten interior of the flow had simply drained out of the tube formed by its own fast-cooling surface.

Now, as the tug bobbed peacefully at the end of the flow, and the divers below worked in blissful innocence, the liquid fire streamed downhill, both hidden and insulated by the black rock above it.

Coming to the end of the tube, to the closed chamber where the last flow had finally been frozen by the sea, the lava pooled, more and more of it pouring in every minute, its weight building against the interior of the cliff’s face, its heat relentlessly burning away the wall of stone that kept the boiling magma from the sea.

One hundred feet below the surface, the two divers, a man and a woman, worked with intense