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       Mirage, p.1

           Clive Cussler
 
Mirage


  DIRK PITT® ADVENTURES BY CLIVE CUSSLER

  Poseidon’s Arrow

  (with Dirk Cussler)

  Crescent Dawn

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  Arctic Drift

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  Treasure of Khan

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  Black Wind

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  Trojan Odyssey

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  Night Probe!

  Vixen 03

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  Iceberg

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  The Mayan Secrets

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  The Chase

  KURT AUSTIN ADVENTURES BY CLIVE CUSSLER

  WITH GRAHAM BROWN

  Zero Hour

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  WITH PAUL KEMPRECOS

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  OREGON FILES ADVENTURES BY CLIVE CUSSLER

  WITH JACK DU BRUL

  The Jungle

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  Golden Buddha

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  NONFICTION BY CLIVE CUSSLER

  Built for Adventure: The Classic Automobiles of Clive Cussler and Dirk Pitt

  WITH CRAIG DIRGO

  The Sea Hunters

  The Sea Hunters II

  Clive Cussler and Dirk Pitt Revealed

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  Copyright © 2013 by Sandecker, RLLLP

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  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Cussler, Clive.

  Mirage / Clive Cussler, with Jack Du Brul.

  p. cm.

  ISBN 978-1-101-63565-0

  1. Cabrillo, Juan (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Mirage—Fiction. I. Du Brul, Jack B. II. Title.

  PS3553.U75M57 2013 2013028918

  813'.54—dc23

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the authors’ imaginations or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  CONTENTS

  Also by Clive Cussler

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Prologue

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-one

  Chapter Twenty-two

  Chapter Twenty-three

  Chapter Twenty-four

  Chapter Twenty-five

  Chapter Twenty-six

  Chapter Twenty-seven

  Chapter Twenty-eight

  Chapter Twenty-nine

  OFF THE DELAWARE BREAKWATER

  AUGUST 1, 1902

  By the time the echo from the first knock on his door rebounded off the back of his cabin, Captain Charles Urquhart was fully awake. A lifetime at sea had given him the reflexes of a cat. By the second knock he knew through the vibrations transmitted by his mattress that the ship’s engines had been shut down, but the hiss of water flowing along her steel hull told him the Mohican had not yet begun to slow. Dishwater-colored light leaked around the curtain pulled over the room’s single porthole. With the ship heading north and his cabin on the starboard side, Urquhart estimated it was coming up on nine in the evening.

  He’d been asleep less than a half hour, following a grueling twenty hours on duty as the cargo vessel ran through the tail end of an early-season hurricane.

  “Come,” he called and swung his legs off his cot. The deck was covered with a carpet of such thin pile that he could feel the cool of the metal plates beneath it.

  The cabin door creaked open, light from a gas lantern marking a wedge across the threshold. The ship had an electrical generator, but the few lights it powered were reserved for the bridge. “Sorry to bother, sir,” said the third officer, a Welshman named Jones.

  “What is it?” Urquhart asked, the last vestiges of sleep sloughing off. No one woke the captain unless it was an emergency, and he knew he had to be ready for anything.

  The man hesitated for a second, then said, “We’re not sure. We need you on the bridge.” He paused again. “Sir.”

  Urquhart tossed aside his bedcovers. He thrust his feet into a pair of rubber boots and threw a ratty robe over his shoulders. A Greek fisherman’s cap finished his ridiculous outfit. “Let’s go.”

  The bridge was one deck above his cabin. A helmsman stood mutely behind the large oaken wheel, his gaze not over the bow as it should have been but fixated out the port door leading to the ship’s stubby bridge wing. Urquhart followed the gaze, and although his expression didn’t change, his mind whirled.

  About two miles away, an eerie blue glow clung to the horizon and blotted out the dying rays of the setting sun. It wasn’t the color of lightning or St. Elmo’s fire, which had been the captain’s first suspicion. It was a deeper blue, and a color he had never seen before.

  Then all at once it expanded. Not like a fog boiling up from the ocean’s surface but like the beat of a gigantic heart. Suddenly they were inside the lumi
nous effect, and it was as if color had texture. Urquhart could somehow feel the glow on his skin as the hairs on his arms raised up and the thick pelt of man fur that covered his torso and back prickled as if the legs of a thousand insects were crawling on his body.

  “Captain,” the second mate called plaintively. He was pointing at the big compass ball mounted above the main bridge windows. Inside its liquid gimbal, the compass spun like a child’s toy top.

  Like any good seaman, Charles Urquhart lived by routine, and when routine was broken, it was to be reported in the ship’s log. His next glance was to the chronograph, hanging on the back wall above a chart table, so he could record the time of this strange phenomenon. To his dismay, the two hands pointed straight down.

  Not like it was six thirty, where the shorter hour hand would rest halfway to the Roman numeral seven, but straight down.

  He crossed to it to check the mechanism and accidently dislodged its metal winding key. As if snatched by a force greater than gravity, the key dropped to the deck like it had been hurled at great speed. The key didn’t bounce but seemed to adhere itself to the metal deck. He stooped to retrieve it but couldn’t even wedge a fingernail between the key and the deck.

  He again looked to the west, but the cobalt light cut visibility to just a few dozen yards. He did notice that the sea around the ship was so still, it appeared solid, as though it had frozen as smooth as a skating rink, only it remained as black as anthracite coal.

  A few crewmen down on the main deck spotted Urquhart’s silhouette in the bridge wing door. One cupped a hand to his mouth and called, “What’s all this, Captain?”

  The voice reached him like the man had yelled from the bottom of a well.

  Other men appeared, and Urquhart could sense their nervous apprehension. He knew sailors were a superstitious lot. Each one of them carried talismans of various kinds, miniature dream catchers, rabbits’ feet, and lucky marbles. He’d once served with a fellow who kept a small jar of alcohol in his pocket with the preserved remains of his severed pinkie finger. He claimed losing the digit proved it was lucky. Urquhart had never pressed for the details of exactly why that was.

  In order to get their minds off the strangeness of the situation, he pointed to some loose chains left haphazardly on the Mohican’s forward hatch cover.

  “Stow that chain properly,” Urquhart said in his most commanding voice, “or there’ll be hell to pay.”

  The four men moved from the rail at double speed, as eager to have something to do as the veteran ship’s master had suspected. But like his experience with the key, the brawny seamen could not move so much as a link of the chain. Had someone welded the entire mass of rusted steel to the hatch, he couldn’t have done a better job of adhering the chain to the ship.

  It was just occurring to Urquhart that his ship had turned into a giant magnet when he heard the scream, an unworldly peal of anguish that keened higher and higher without letup.

  The noise galvanized him because he recognized the voice despite the agony tearing through it, and he knew what was happening to the man.

  The chief engineer, a Scotsman, had his cabin down the hallway from Urquhart’s own. Urquhart reached McTaggert’s door and burst through it only seconds after hearing him scream.

  In the beam of the brass hurricane lantern Urquhart’d snatched from the second mate, he saw the shirtless Scot atop his bed with a look of terror etched upon his face. He was pawing at his chest, or, more precisely, at the big scar that bisected his left pectoral muscle. The scar was a souvenir of a boiler explosion some twenty years back, and behind it, as McTaggert liked to brag, was a piece of pot metal the ship’s cook who’d stitched him up at the time had been unable to remove.

  “Flip over, Conner,” Urquhart shouted, but knew he was too late.

  A fresh scream exploded from the engineer, a sound so sharp and so full of pain that Urquhart winced. And then a sputter of blood bubbled from Conner McTaggert’s lips. The two men’s eyes locked, and a silent message passed between them. Good-bye, it said.

  The sputter turned into a continuous gout of rich arterial blood as the shard of metal lodged in his chest tore through his heart and lungs as it was drawn inexorably deckward by the powerful magnetic forces at play. The pain that had transformed his face into an ugly mask had passed, and the crimson stain running from chin to chest was the only testament to the man’s last horrifying seconds.

  A moment later came a wet sucking sound, then the metallic ting of the chunk of shrapnel hitting the deck after passing all the way through McTaggert’s body.

  Urquhart closed the cabin door before any of the other crew members saw the corpse. He returned to the bridge, his face ashen and his hands a little unsteady. The glow still spread over the ship with its eerie light, while the men on deck had given up their task of stowing the chain and peered anxiously toward where the glow had first emanated.

  The sea remained glassy, and not a breath of air stirred the ship’s rigging. The plume of smoke from her still-fired boilers shot straight into the sky and hung over the Mohican like a pall.

  For twenty minutes nothing changed, and then, as if a light had been switched off, the glow vanished entirely. In the next instant, a chop returned to the ocean’s surface, and the smoke began drifting aft as a wind swept across the ship from out of the north. To the west, where the phenomenon had first appeared, lay nothing but darkened skies sprinkled with a scattering of stars. A night at sea had never appeared more normal.

  Urquhart huddled with his remaining officers in the back corner of the pilothouse while they detoured west to see if another ship had been at the epicenter of the otherworldly aura. He gave them orders to have Conner McTaggert sewn into his blankets and for his body to be slipped over the side. They were close enough to making Philadelphia that the engineer’s death could be concealed, and his absence, once they left port, could be explained away as him jumping ship.

  They found no evidence of any other vessels in the area, and after an hour-long search Urquhart determined that they had wasted enough time. Still, when they reached Phili, he planned to report the incident in case any other ships had suffered from the strange effect. McTaggert’s death would remain a secret for the simple reason that it would delay them for days, or weeks, as statements were taken and investigations launched.

  He wasn’t pleased at the disrespect he was showing his friend, but he felt certain that the unmarried McTaggert would understand.

  —

  As he’d promised himself, Charles Urquhart did report the incident to the Coast Guard, and his story was picked up by a local paper. No mention was made of the dead engineer. Nor was there any mention of another ship that had experienced the phenomenon. The Mohican managed to limp back to Philadelphia. But another ship, and its five-man crew, had vanished without a trace.

  NORTH SIBERIA

  PRESENT DAY

  It was the landscape of another world. Towering black crags rose above vast glittering snowfields. Winds that could shriek out of the stillness blasted the air at over seventy miles per hour. A sky that was sometimes so clear it was as though the earth had no atmosphere. And sometimes clouds would cling to the land with such utter tenacity that the sun remained hidden for weeks on end.

  It was a landscape not meant for human habitation. Even the hardiest natives avoided this location and lived far down the coast in tiny villages that they could pack up in pursuit of caribou herds.

  All this made it the ideal spot for the Soviets to build a supermax prison in the early 1970s, a prison meant for the most dangerous criminals—the political kind. God and a few bureaucrats alone knew how many souls had perished behind the bleak concrete walls. The prison was built to hold five hundred men, and until it was shuttered in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a steady stream had been trucked in on the isolated access road to replace those who had succumbed to the cold a
nd deprivation and brutality.

  There were no graves to mark men’s remains, only a pit of ashes from their cremated bodies—a very large pit—that now lay buried in the permafrost a short distance from the main gate.

  For twenty years the facility remained abandoned and left to the vagaries of the weather, though Siberia’s notorious winters could do little to erode the cement-and-steel structure. When people returned to reopen the prison, they found that it was exactly as it had been when it closed, immutable, impenetrable, and, most of all, inescapable.

  A lone truck painted in matte green military livery wound its way toward the penitentiary that sat in the shadow of a singular mountain that looked as if it had been cleaved in two, with a sheer vertical face to the north, the Arctic Ocean some thirty miles away. The road was heavily rutted because in the summer parts of it turned into a swampy morass, and if crews didn’t smooth it before the frosts came, it retained a corrugated texture. Blowing snow drifted across it in places where the plows hadn’t opened the pathway far enough.

  The sun hung low on the horizon, cold and distant. In a few weeks’ time it would make its final plunge over the rim of the world and not reappear until the next spring. The temperature hovered just a tick above zero Fahrenheit.

  The truck approached the slab-sided prison fortress, with its four guard towers rising like minarets. An outer ring of chain-link fence with razor wire circled the entire two-square-acre building. A sentry box sat just inside of the fence to the right of the access road. Between the box and the prison sat a humpbacked heavy-transport helicopter painted arctic white.

  Only when the truck had come to a stop did a guard, bundled against the cold, waddle out of his little heated hut. He knew the truck was expected, but peering through the windshield he didn’t recognize the drivers. He kept his AK-74, the updated version of Mikhail Kalashnikov’s venerable AK-47, within easy reach on the strap dangling from his shoulder.

  He motioned for the driver to step out of the cab.

  With a resigned shrug, the driver opened his door, and his boots crunched into the compacted snow.

  “Where’s Dmitri?” the guard asked.

  “Who’s Dmitri?” the driver replied.

  It had been a test. The regular drivers of the prison transfer truck were named Vasily and Anton.

 
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