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Chapter 4. Ocean Planet

Three days later, Milo called an early team meeting. As he made a dramatic entrance, Sage couldn’t help but admire his tall, lanky stature, auburn hair, and sharply chiseled face. She had to admit that his good looks combined with his charismatic on-screen personality created the perfect social media dynamo.

As he worked with Moshe and Georgia to prepare his presentation, Sage reminisced about first meeting Milo. Despite surfing all her life, she never heard of him until they met after she won her first big-wave contest at Jaws. As he scrutinized her with sharp looks, she should have known he was sizing her up to beat her. Later, she learned he was born into a family of movie stars and media darlings, and his entire life had revolved around fame and fortune. His parents raised him in the social media world, with every achievement, or failure, being broadcast to the galaxy. Although they loved him, they simply didn’t have time for Milo in their busy schedules, as they so publicly claimed in each broadcast, so he was raised by nannies and assistants and guarded by Moshe. Now, he lived and died through the adoration of his fans on the holoscreen. Sage hated to admit it, but she knew he was a superstar.

Now, at the age of 33, he had starred in several major films, sang in a rock band, danced in music videos, and broke records in extreme sports, including paragliding, rock climbing, sailing, and, more recently, big-wave surfing. Sage knew that he jumped around so much because he quickly grew bored after each accomplishment—he would do anything to draw attention to himself. A one-person entertainment industry, some called him. Milo lived for the limelight. But it wasn’t enough. He always wanted more, and Sage thought he would go too far to get it.

“OK, listen up,” he said. “We’re just a few days out from the planet, and we have some new data to show you from the probes we sent out last year.” She could see that Milo was relishing the moment—and the attention—as Moshe turned on the holoscreen projector. Instantly, an image of a giant blue 3-D globe with small white poles expanded to fill the control room and began rotating.

Milo proudly announced with outstretched arms, “This is our first detailed view of Thalassa, which we’ll be orbiting in a few days. And it’s not your typical holoscreen projection. It also contains detailed physical and biochemical signatures scanned by the probes. By the way, these are proprietary enhancements developed by Cutten.”

Although Sage had mixed feelings about the holoscreen, the latest and most immersive virtual social media experience of the time, she was in awe as everyone ran over to look at the magnificent projection of the planet. Using tech advancements, Cutten had added visual, aural, tactile, and olfactory elements to the projection. As Sage approached the bright-blue globe, she felt like she was floating in space and could reach out and touch the planet’s surface. Leaning in, she could smell its oceans, hear wind rushing through the mountains, and holding her hands close to the globe, she felt the cold over the poles and warmth from the tropical seas.

Drawn to the projection, she touched the ocean near a string of islands. Her finger felt warm and wet. As she tasted her salty finger, images flashed through her mind: a deep-blue ocean encircling white islands; a wall of erupting volcanoes; a touch of soft fur; spiny creatures pulsing through crystal-clear water; then, a dark, mountainous wave towering in front of her that caused her to suck in her breath. Milo’s loud voice jolted her back to his presentation.

Milo continued, “She’s an ocean world, 99 per cent water to be exact.” Then he motioned to a long spine of land running north and south, straddling the equator. “There’s a single continent, about the size of California, broken up into hundreds of islands, cays, and islets, and there are two small polar ice caps.”

He pointed at a series of dots lining the western continent. “This string of islands spreads north and south for hundreds of miles. They are perfect for capturing deep-water swells from multiple directions. These islands are the ultimate surfing paradise. Plus, we’ve identified a massive underwater reef we call the Bulge.” He pointed to a shallow light-blue area in the ocean, west and offshore of the continent, then he paused for effect.

Dina was astonished at its size. “Wow, that is something. How’d it get so big?”

Georgia happily answered, “It’s a geological feature of small planets. You see, Mars-sized planets like Thalassa cool quicker than Earth once they form. The heat from their inner core dissipates, and there is insufficient heat to drive plate tectonics. With no molten core, the magnetic field fades away, and the atmosphere and oceans eventually boil off into space from the solar winds. In essence, the planet dies, like Mars did billions of years ago.”

Milo tried to interrupt her, but she continued. “However,” she said, glaring at Milo. “Thalassa is only 1.9 billion years old, less than half of Earth’s and Mars’s age, so it could still be relatively hot, despite its small size. But we also know that Procyon has a higher metallicity than our sun, probably due to the interaction with its white dwarf. As a result, Thalassa may have a higher abundance of naturally occurring heavy metals like iron and nickel and radioactive elements.” Georgia paused to look around and see if everyone was following.

“Does that mean we’ll glow in the dark?” asked Dina.

Georgia laughed. “No. These elements are deep in the planet’s core and mantle, but they help the planet generate heat, which drives volcanism. The island arc—the line of islands Milo showed you—demonstrates that there once was significant volcanism and crustal motion, but it appears to be mostly dormant now, as the older island remnants have subsided. Without plate tectonics, hot magma from the mantle pushed up into the stationary crust and created a massive shield volcano—in this case, the Bulge.”

“Like the Tharsis bulge on Mars that created Olympus Mons,” added Byron, referencing the largest volcano in Earth’s solar system.

“Exactly,” Georgia replied. “Except Thalassa has an ocean, and the sea levels have risen and fallen so that waves have eroded the Bulge until it’s worn down and underwater and bisected by dozens of submarine canyons.” Then she pointed to a string of mountains along the eastern edge of the continent. “The enigma is why these other volcanoes are still active. Normally, massive shield volcanoes like that signal the end of plate tectonics, but something caused volcanism to restart after the Bulge formed. Strange.”

Milo tapped his foot and prodded her to move on. “And the waves?”

Georgia smiled and continued, “Yes, of course. The geomorphology of the Bulge makes it a high-probability target for waves, potentially large waves, as it’s an offshore shoal in deep water. We’ve identified at least four potential surf breaks so far,” she said while pointing to areas around the edges. “But the shoal is fairly deep, so it only breaks on big swells.”

“How big?” asked Sage.

“We don’t have enough data yet to be sure, but it probably needs at least 100-foot waves to break,” Georgia replied. “Beyond that, based on depth, it may hold swells 200 to 300 feet high, perhaps bigger. Remember, it’s a low-g planet, so the applications of physical oceanography from Earth are limited. After all, I never got to study Mars’s real oceans, which would have been a better proxy for Thalassa.”

Dina was skeptical. “We’re not riding 200-foot waves, that’s impossible. It’s simply too dangerous, and we can’t move fast enough. You all know what happened at Cortes on that monster El Niño last year, and some of those were only in the 130-foot range.”

“Why?” Byron asked. “What happened?”

Sage cringed at the memory. “People died. They just weren’t fast enough to get down the wave’s face before it broke, and they got blasted by a shit ton of water. But the Bulge is like a giant, slow Cortes Bank. Right? Time for a new world record, eh, Milo?”

“I can’t wait to set it,” he replied. “Remember the gravity on Thalassa is only 30 percent of Earth’s, so with my new motoboards and the slower waves, I’ll be invincible.”

Georgia motioned at the oceans. “There’s more. The data we have so far indicates that the wind and weather systems of the planet, due to the lack of large continents, continuously circle the globe and create large storms that generate massive swells. The small continent with its string of volcanoes isn’t big enough to significantly disrupt the winds. As a result, storms are constantly churning out large swells, in both the southern and northern hemispheres, all of which focus on the Bulge and the chains of islands. Once we launch the new probes, with real-time oceanographic data feeds and weather scans, I’ll be able to develop a wave model for the planet soon after we arrive. With the model, I can generate predictions for wave heights, periods, and directions anywhere on the globe, which is key to finding and riding good waves.” Then she smiled to herself. “And, I might add, leading to the first off-world global wave model ever constructed.”

“Wow, that is awesome,” Dina said, staring at the white islands. “You were right, Milo! Thalassa is an unbelievable place. Global storms, a string of islands like Indonesia or Hawaii, a giant offshore shoal like Cortes Bank, all surrounded by deep water. Add the effects of reduced gravity, which make the waves bigger and slower, and you have the perfect surfing planet. Sweet!”

Milo let a sigh of satisfaction as he pointed to an area in the middle of the shoal. “I’m stoked too. And look at this thumb-shaped reef on the Bulge. It’s surrounded by two submarine canyons. Our guess is the shape of the canyons amplifies the waves in deep water, just like Nazaré, but from two sides. It could be a monster peak!”

Byron shook his head. “Where is Nazaré?”

“It’s a renowned big-wave surf spot in Portugal,” Georgia said. “It’s a rocky point next to a submarine canyon. The waves move fast in deep water and are focused by the submarine canyon walls where they double up on a sandy bottom to create huge waves, sometimes over 100 feet. This spot on the Bulge looks just like that, but we don’t have accurate bathymetry to predict how it will break.”

Dina took a step closer to the projector and looked closely at the Bulge. “This shoal looks awesome. What do you think, Sage? You can surf it, right?”

Sage nodded, though the thought of it made her a little queasy. “Yeah, sure. But what other breaks are there?” She tried to keep the hesitancy out of her voice, but Milo picked up on it.

“There are many, but this is the best option for giant waves,” he said. “What’s wrong? You don’t want to surf a Nazaré-like break anymore? I understand, the most epic waves aren’t for everyone, especially after a gnarly experience like yours.”

“No, that’s not it at all!” Sage said, rubbing her arms where she had broken them at Nazaré.

Milo dug deeper. “Anyone would be afraid of embarrassing themselves like that again. No biggie. But if you’re still up for it,” he teased, “I promise I won’t take off on you out there.”

Remembering their previous battles for big-wave supremacy, Sage raised her voice. “Damn it. It’s not like I forgot the time you and your buddies took off in front of me and pushed me left at Mavericks. I got pitched out, hit bottom, and suffered a two-wave hold-down. I barely survived.”

Milo tilted his head back and mocked her. “Hey, I can’t control my family!”

Dina grabbed Sage’s shoulder to hold her back, but it didn’t stop Sage from spewing, “Oh, yeah? Well, how about at Waimea Bay when I paddled out with you deep in the peak only to get clobbered by a massive set while you powered into the channel on your motoboard, laughing. You told me that was the best spot to catch big waves that day—gullible me. I got pushed into Coffin Corner and barely made it to the beach. And I had just met you, you jerk!”

Milo winked at Sage as she struggled to escape Dina’s grip. “At least you didn’t hit the bottom like at Nazaré.”

Dina pulled her down the hallway toward the training compartment as Sage vented her rage. “Fuck you, Milo, you asshole. I’m gonna beat you at your own game.”

As Dina dragged her along, Sage could hear Milo loudly laughing at her distress. Damn him! He’s trying to freak me out before we even get to this “Bulge.” When Dina looked at Sage, she realized his tactics were working and decided she needed to shake things up.

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