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Valhalla rising, p.13
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       Valhalla Rising, p.13

           Clive Cussler
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  Giordino unlatched the catches and lifted open the lid-and nearly two quarts of oil flowed out into his lap and onto the carpet covering the deck. He sat there in mute surprise as it soaked his pants legs and pooled on the carpet. After the shock faded, he gave Pitt a very acidic look indeed.

  "I never knew you had a thing for practical jokes."

  Pitt's face reflected pure astonishment. "I don't." He jumped to his feet, rushed across the cabin and peered into the case. "Trust me. I had nothing to do with this. This case was empty when I checked it yesterday. No one but Chief Engineer House and I have been on board for the past twenty-four hours. I don't understand why somebody would bother to sneak in here and fill it with oil. What's the point?"

  "Then where did it come from? It obviously didn't just materialize."

  "I haven't the foggiest idea," said Pitt. There was a strange look in his eyes that hadn't been there before. "But I'm betting we'll find out before the voyage is over."

  12

  The mystery of who put the oil in Egan's leather case was set aside as Pitt and Giordino began checking and testing the I equipment and electronic systems of the Sea Sleuth, the survey vessel's autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV). During the voyage to the grave of the Emerald Dolphin, they discussed the wreck probe procedure with Captain Burch and the ocean engineers on board. All agreed that for reasons of safety the autonomous vehicle should be sent down first rather than the manned submersible, Abyss Navigator. There was nothing sleek or streamlined about the design of the Sea Sleuth. She was the extreme of functional design. Utilitarian and expedient, she made a Mars lander look artistic. Seven feet high by six feet wide by seven feet in length, she weighed in at slightly less than seven thousand pounds. Her skin was a thick layer of titanium, and from a distance she looked like a huge elongated egg open on the sides, standing on sled runners. A circular protrusion on top housed her two variable-buoyancy tanks. Support tubes laced her inner construction beneath the variable-buoyancy tanks.

  Mounted inside, almost as if they had been placed there by a child with his Lego set, were high-resolution video and still cameras, a computer housing and sensors that recorded salinity, water temperature and oxygen content. A pressure-balanced, direct-drive DC motor provided her propulsion and was energized by a powerful manganese-alkaline battery system. Highly sophisticated transducers transported signals and imagery through the watery depths to the mother ship far above on the surface, and it sent control signals in return. Her path was illuminated by an array of ten external lights.

  Like some mechanical monster out of a science-fiction movie, a complicated robotic arm, or manipulator, as it was called, extended from one side of the vehicle. It had the muscle to lift a four-hundred-pound anchor and the sensitivity to pick up a teacup.

  Unlike earlier robotic vehicles, Sea Sleuth was untethered and had no umbilical cord connected to controls in the pilothouse. She was completely autonomous; her propulsion and video cameras were operated from the command room of the Deep Encounter thousands of feet above.

  A crewman came up to Pitt as he was helping Giordino adjust the robotic arm. "Captain Burch said to let you know that we're three miles from the target."

  "Thank you," said Pitt. "Please tell the skipper that Al and I will join him shortly."

  Giordino threw a pair of screwdrivers into a toolbox, stood up and stretched his back. "She's ready as she'll ever be."

  "Let's head up to the bridge and see how the Dolphin looks on the side scan sonar."

  Burch and several other NUMA engineers and scientists were in the command center compartment just aft of the pilothouse. Everyone's faces and hands were reflected in a weird purplish cast from the overhead lighting. Recent experiments had determined that instrumentation was easier to read for long elements of time under a red-blue wave band of light.

  They were massed around the computer-enhanced screen on the Klein System 5000 recorder, watching the seabed twenty thousand feet below unreel as if on a scroll. The colored image showed a fairly smooth bottom that sloped off into the deep abyss. Burch turned as Pitt and Giordino entered and pointed at the Global Positioning System digital readout that showed the distance remaining to the target.

  "She should be coming up in another mile," he commented.

  "Is this the GPS position given by the tug?" asked Giordino.

  Burch nodded. "Where the liner went down when the tow rope broke."

  Every eye in the compartment in the command center focused on the Klein imagery screen. The seabed deep below the sensor that trailed far behind the Deep Encounter on a cable showed the flat, desertlike surface covered with dingy, gray-brown silt. No jagged rocks or hills were visible. No wasteland came close to being so desolate. Still, the image was mesmerizing because everyone was waiting expectantly for an object to materialize and creep across the screen.

  "Five hundred yards," Burch announced.

  The crew and the men and women of the scientific team went silent. The command center became as quiet as a crypt. To most, the wait would have been agonizing, but not to the men and women who searched the seas. These were patient people. They were used to spending weeks at a time staring at instruments, waiting for an interesting object, a sunken ship or an unusual geological formation to reveal itself, but usually seeing nothing other than a seemingly endless and sterile seabed.

  "Something's coming," announced Burch, who had the best view of the screen.

  Slowly, the recorder showed a hard image that took on a man-constructed shape. The outline looked jagged and uneven. It looked too small, not at all the immense image of the cruise liner they were expecting.

  "That's her," stated Pitt firmly.

  Burch grinned like a happy bridegroom. "Got her on the first pass."

  "The tug's position was right on the money."

  "'It's not the right size for the Emerald Dolphin," Giordino observed in. a monotone.

  Burch aimed a finger at the screen. "Al's right. We're only seeing part of her. Here comes another piece."

  Pitt studied the images on the screen thoughtfully. "She broke up, either on the way down or on impact when she struck bottom."

  A large section of what Burch identified as the stern crept across the screen. A vast debris field between the fragments of the wreck revealed hundreds of unidentifiable objects large and small, scattered as if hurled by a passing tornado.

  Giordino made a quick sketch of the images on a notepad. "It appears to be broken in three pieces."

  Pitt studied Giordino's sketches and compared them with images on the sonar screen. "They rest about a quarter of a mile from one another."

  Burch said, "Because of the ship's weakened internal structure from the fire damage, she probably disintegrated on the way down."

  "Not unheard of," said one of the scientific team. "The Titanic broke in half as she sank."

  "But she pitched downward at an extreme angle," Burch clarified. "I talked to the tugboat captain who had the Dolphin under tow when she sank. He claimed that she plunged under rapidly on a very shallow angle of not more than fifteen degrees. The Titanic dove at a forty-five-degree angle."

  Giordino stared through the forward window at the sea ahead. "The most logical scenario is that she sank intact and shattered when she struck bottom. Her speed was probably somewhere between thirty and forty miles an hour."

  Pitt shook his head. "If that were the case, the wreckage would be more concentrated. As we can see, she's spread all over the landscape."

  "Then what caused her to break up on the way down?" Burch asked no one in particular.

  "With luck," Pitt said slowly, "we'll find the answers when and if Sea Sleuth lives up to her name."

  A dazzling orange sun rose across the flat blue horizon in the east as the Sea Sleuth hung under a new crane that had replaced the one dumped overboard during the rescue. It had been installed at the shipyard, and the crew had finished connecting the winch and its cable only hours earlier. Anticipation reigned as the oblo
ng AUV was swung over the stern. The sea was fairly smooth, with waves running no more than three feet.

  The ship's second officer directed the launch, and signaled to the crewman operating the winch when the vehicle was free of the stern. Then he waved an all-clear, and Sea Sleuth was lowered until just above the surface. One final check of her electronic systems, and then she was slowly dropped into the blue Pacific. As soon as she was afloat, a switch was activated, the electronic snap released and the lifting cable came free.

  Inside the command center, Giordino sat in front of a console with a series of knobs and switches mounted around a joystick. He would pilot the Sea Sleuth during its journey into the abyss. As one of the team who'd written the probe's computer software, he was also the chief engineer in charge of its production. Few men knew more about the eccentricities of piloting an AUV four and half miles deep under the ocean than Giordino. As he glanced at the monitor that showed the AUV floating free of the ship in the water, he activated the valves of the buoyancy tank and watched as she descended beneath the waves and disappeared.

  Next to him, Pitt sat at the keyboard, entering a series of commands into the computer on board the AUV. While Giordino controlled the vehicle's propulsion and attitude systems, Pitt operated the cameras and lighting systems. In back of them and to their side, Misty Graham sat at a table studying a copy of the Emerald Dolphin's construction plans that had been flown in from the architects. All other eyes were locked on the array of monitors that would relay images of what Sea Sleuth recorded in the depths.

  Misty was a petite woman, full of fire and vinegar. Her black hair cropped short for easy maintenance on board ship, she might have looked boyish if she didn't have well-defined construction. With light brown eyes under a pert little nose and soft lips, Misty had never been married. A dedicated scientist and one of the best marine biologists with NUMA, she spent far more time at sea than she did in her condominium in Washington and seldom had time to date.

  She looked up from the chart and spoke to Burch. "If she's caved in on herself, Sea Sleuth won't have an easy time finding anything of interest."

  "We won't know till we get there," he said slowly.

  As with other underwater search projects, conversation filled the compartment. Now that the probe was under way, the three and a half hours it would take for the AUV to reach the bottom were simply a dreary routine. There was little to see unless one of the strange species of fish that lived in the deep oceans happened to pass in front of a camera lens.

  It is generally thought by the public that underwater searches are exciting. The truth is, they are downright dull. Many hours are spent waiting for something to happen, or what is known in the trade as "an event." Yet everyone remains in optimistic anticipation for an anomaly to reveal itself on the sonar or camera monitors.

  All too often the searchers fail to find anything. Still, the vision returned from the deep had a hypnotic effect, and the crew and scientists could never tear their eyes from the monitors. Fortunately, in this case, the whereabouts of the shipwreck, after its four-mile fall to the bottom as recorded by the tugboat's Global Positioning System, was accurately targeted within an area the size of a football stadium."

  The progress of the Sea Sleuth was displayed on the guidance monitor with digital readings of direction and altitude on the bottom of the screen. Once the vehicle reached the bottom, Giordino had only to send her directly to the wreckage without the bother of a time-consuming search operation.

  He read out the digital numbers relayed by the probe's altimeter. "Two thousand, five hundred feet."

  He reported the depth readings every ten minutes as the Sleuth descended into the black void far beneath the keel of the survey ship. Finally, after two and a half hours, the sensors began to transmit a rapidly narrowing gap with the bottom.

  "The bottom is at five hundred feet and rising."

  "Turning on lower lights," Pitt responded.

  Giordino slowed the descent rate of the Sleuth to two feet every second in the event she came down directly on top of the wreck. The last thing they needed was for it to become trapped in the twisted debris, and lost. Soon the drab silt of the sea floor came into view on the monitors. Giordino stopped the probe's descent, hovering it at 100 feet.

  "What's the depth?" asked Burch.

  "Nineteen thousand, seven hundred and sixty," Giordino answered. "Visibility is extremely good. Almost two hundred feet."

  Now Giordino took over actual control of the Sea Sleuth, staring at the monitors and operating the knobs and joystick as if he were flying an aircraft in a flight simulator computer game. The bottom passed beneath in what seemed like agonizing slowness. Because of the extreme water pressure, the Sleuth's, thrusters could only move her forward at slightly better than one knot.

  Pitt pecked away at the keyboard of his computer, sending commands down to the computer on board Sea Sleuth to adjust and focus the cameras mounted on the bow and keel for viewing ahead and directly below. To his left, Burch sat at his guidance console, checking the AUV's position and keeping the Deep Encounter positioned directly above the wreck.

  "Which way?" Giordino asked Burch.

  "Move on a heading of eighteen degrees. You should run into her hull in another four hundred feet."

  Giordino set the Sleuth on the course indicated. Ten minutes later, a phantom shape loomed ahead. The dark mass spread and rose beyond view of the monitors. "Target dead ahead," he called out.

  Gradually, features of the wreck became distinguishable. They came on slightly off the starboard bow near the anchor. Unlike earlier passenger ships, the modern cruise ship's anchors were nestled farther back from the bow and not as far above the waterline.

  Pitt switched on the powerful forward lights that cut through the gloom and illuminated most of the bow section. "Cameras in motion, and rolling tape."

  Unlike other shipwreck discoveries, this one was not greeted with cheers and laughter. Everyone was as silent as if they were looking down at a coffin in a grave. Then, as though drawn and tightened by a giant rubber band, they moved closely around the monitors. They could see now that the Emerald Dolphin was not sitting entirely upright. She rested in the silt on a twenty-five-degree angle, exposing her lower hull almost to the keel.

  Giordino eased the Sea Sleuth along the hull, watching for any obstructions the vehicle might encounter that could cause her to become caught and trapped. His calculated cautiousness paid off. He stopped the AUV ten feet away from a massive opening in the hull, the plates contoured into jagged unrecognizable shapes.

  "Zoom in for a closer look," he said to Pitt.

  The command was entered and the camera lenses aimed at the shattered hole from different perspectives. Meanwhile, Giordino maneuvered the probe so that its bow faced the mangled destruction head-on.

  "Hold station," Pitt instructed him. "This looks interesting."

  "That wasn't caused by the fire," said one of the ship's crew.

  "The wreckage is blown from the inside out," observed Pitt.

  Burch rubbed his eyes and gazed at the monitors. "A fuel tank explosion maybe?"

  Pitt shook his head. "The magnetohydrodynamic engines did not run on flammable fossil fuel." He turned to Giordino. "Al, take us along the hull until we reach where it broke off from the amidships section."

  Giordino did as he was instructed and jockeyed the joystick, moving the Sea Sleuth on a parallel path with the hull. In another two hundred feet, they came on a second, even larger, hole. This one also indicated an interior blast that had ripped the hull plates outward.

  "The section inside the hole is where the air-conditioning equipment was housed," Misty informed them. She examined the deck plans closely. "I see nothing here that would cause such damage."

  "Nor I," Pitt agreed.

  Giordino steered Sea Sleuth upward slightly until the boat deck came into view. Several of the burned lifeboats had been torn out of their davits during the plunge to the bottom. The rest that remaine
d with the ship were burned and melted beyond description. It didn't seem possible that the most technically advanced ship on the seas could have had all her boats rendered useless in so short a time.

  The AUV then passed around the devastated part of the hull that had broken away from the rest of the ship. Pipes, twisted beams, shattered deck plating spread from the aft end like the remains of a burned-out oil refinery. It looked as though the Emerald Dolphin had been wrenched apart by some gargantuan force.

  The amidships section was totally unrecognizable as part of a ship. It was nothing but a huge pile of blackened, twisted rubble. The abhorrent sight was left behind as the AUV passed over the bleak ocean landscape again.

  "What course to the stern section?" Giordino asked Burch.

  The captain examined the digital numbers on the bottom of his guidance monitor. "You should find it three hundred yards on a ninety-degree course west."

 
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