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Valhalla rising, p.14
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       Valhalla Rising, p.14

           Clive Cussler
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  "Turning ninety degrees west," Giordino echoed.

  Here, the bottom was littered with all kinds of debris, most of it burned beyond recognition. Only scattered heaps of ceramic seemed to have survived. Dishes, bowls and cups, many still in stacks unfolded in the silt like a deck of cards spread across a gray felt table. To the observers in the command center, it seemed macabre that objects so fragile had endured the terrible fire and a drop of almost twenty thousand feet into the abyss without being shattered into thousands of shards.

  "Stern coming up," Giordino alerted them, as the debris field was left in the wake of the thrusters, and the final section of the sunken ship began to materialize under the AUV's penetrating lights. Now the horrible nightmare truly came home, as the men and women who had worked so courageously to rescue the passengers and crew from the burning wreck found themselves staring once again at the stern decks where survivors had abandoned the ship down the ropes or jumped into the sea before they were taken aboard the Deep Encounter.

  "I never thought I'd have to look at that again," murmured one of the women.

  "It's not something easily forgotten," said Pitt. "Come around to the forward section where it separated from amidships."

  "Coming around."

  "Descend down to five feet above the silt. I want to get a look at her keel."

  The Sea Sleuth followed Giordino's commands and crawled around the bottom of the stern that sat nearly upright. Very cautiously, inching over and around debris, Giordino stopped the vehicle and hovered it at a point where the ship's stern section was ripped open. The massive steel keel was free of the silt. They could all plainly see that it was warped and curled downward where it had been torn in half.

  "Only explosives could have done that," Pitt commented.

  "It's beginning to look like her bottom was blasted out," said Giordino. "Her internal structure, weakened by the fire and the blast, broke apart from the increasing water pressure during her fall to the bottom."

  "That would explain her abrupt sinking," added Burch. "According to the tugboat captain, she went down so fast she almost took his boat with it."

  "Which leads to the conclusion that someone had a motive for setting the ship afire and then sinking her in the deepest part of the ocean so her wreckage couldn't be examined."

  "A sound theory," said Jim Jakubek, the team's hydrographer. "But where is the hard evidence? How can it be proven in court?"

  Pitt shrugged. "The simple answer is, it can't."

  "So where does that leave us?" asked Misty.

  Pitt stared thoughtfully at the monitors. "Sea Sleuth has done its job and has shown that the Emerald Dolphin did not destroy herself, nor was it an act of God. We have to dig deeper and come up with enough proof for an investigation, proof that will lead to the doorstep of the murderous slime who is responsible for the loss of a beautiful ship and more than a hundred lives."

  "Dig deeper?" inquired Giordino, smiling as if knowing the answer. "How?"

  Pitt looked at his friend through Machiavellian eyes. "You and I go down on the wreck ourselves in the Abyss Navigator and bring home the goods."

  13

  We're free," said Giordino, as he waved to the diver outside his thick window who had released the hook and cable from the Abyss Navigator's lifting eye. Then he waited for the diver to give the submersible a final inspection before flooding the buoyancy tanks for the slow fall to the sea bottom. After a few minutes, the diver's head and face mask appeared in one of the four view ports and gave a thumbs-up signal.

  "All systems are go," Pitt notified the crew in the Deep Encounter's command center who would monitor the journey from surface to bottom to surface again.

  "Looking good on this end," replied Burch. "Ready anytime you are."

  "Flooding tanks now," said Giordino.

  The Abyss Navigator descended by filling her upper ballast tank with water. Once on the bottom, the extreme pressure was too much for pumps to expel, so weights on the vehicle's bottom were dropped, allowing it to float to the surface.

  A four-man submersible, the Abyss Navigator's nerve center was a round titanium alloy ball that housed the pilot and the technician who controlled the life-support systems, external lights, cameras and the two manipulator arms. The latter were mounted under the round hull and protruded like the special-effects arms of a robot in a science-fiction movie. A metal basket sat under the mechanical fingers to retrieve any artifacts picked off the bottom. Connected to the tubular framework around the manned ball were the pressure housings for the electronics, batteries and communications equipment. Though they served similar purposes and basically carried the same equipment, the Navigator and the Sleuth looked as much alike as a Saint Bernard and a mule. One carried a cask of brandy, the other one or more humans.

  This trip the Navigator was carrying three people. Misty Graham had joined Dirk and Al for two reasons. One, whatever project Misty tackled, she threw herself into it with every ounce of her soul. After spending every free minute studying the deck plans of the Emerald Dolphin, she knew more about specific compartment locations than anyone on the survey ship. And, two, this was an opportunity for her to study the marine organisms of the deep.

  Once Pitt had loaded the cameras and checked them out, he monitored the life-support system before positioning a small reclining seat for his lanky frame. He settled in for the long, boring trip to the seabed by working a crossword puzzle. He occasionally looked up and peered out one of the view ports as the light from the surface above began to lose reds, greens and yellows before turning a dark blue and finally pitch-black. He switched on one of the exterior lights, but there was nothing to see. No curious sea life bothered investigating the strange intruder falling into their liquid domain.

  They entered the black, three-dimensional universe of the ocean's midzone, an eternal region extending from about five hundred feet beneath the surface to five hundred feet above the seabed. Here, they received their first visitor.

  Pit laid down the puzzle and gazed through the port-side view port and found himself face-to-face with an anglerfish that was keeping up with the descent of the Navigator. There were few fish as ugly and grotesque as an anglerfish. With beady eyes the color of gray pearls, it bore a shaft that stuck up vertically from a hole in its nose. A little luminous light beaconed at its tip, a lure that attracted the anglerfish's dinner in the infinite blackness.

  Scaleless, unlike its distant cousins nearer the surface, it was sheathed in wrinkly brown skin that looked like rotting parchment. A huge mouth, accommodating hundreds of tiny needlelike teeth, stretched across its lower head like a yawning cavern. Though equal in size-a few inches in length-a piranha encountering an angler-fish in a dark underwater alley would have turned tail and fled.

  Pitt smiled. "A perfect example of the old cliche, a face only a mother could love."

  "Compared to other denizens of the deep," said Misty, "the an-glerfish is downright gorgeous."

  The homely little carnivore's curiosity soon waned, and it swam out of the light back into the darkness.

  Beyond two thousand feet, they encountered the world of bizarre sea life known as siphonophore, gelatinous predators that come in all shapes and sizes, some less than an inch long, others that stretch to more than 120 feet. They live in a realm that covers 95 percent of the Earth's waters, and yet they are a mystery to ocean scientists, seldom seen and rarely if ever captured.

  Misty was in her element as she stared entranced at the remarkably beautiful, deep-water siphonophore. Like their jellyfish cousins that inhabit surface waters, they are delicately transparent and come in spectacularly luminescent colors, with different characteristic light displays. Their bodies are modular with multiple internal organs, sometimes with more than a hundred stomachs, usually visible through their diaphanous interior. Many varieties have long, ethereal tentacles that stream over one hundred feet. The tentacles of others are more feathery, while some are similar to a dust mop. Like a spider's web, the
ir tentacles are deployed like nets to catch fish.

  The heads of most siphonophore are called bells. They are devoid of eyes or mouths but function as a means of propulsion. In an incredibly efficient system, water is drawn in through a series of valves. Then it is expelled by muscular contractions, propelling the glutinous beast in whatever direction it decides to travel, depending on which valves in the bells are compressed.

  "Siphonophore shy away from bright light," Misty said to Pitt. "Can you fade the lamps?"

  Pitt complied and reduced the Navigator's beams to a dim glow that also allowed the animals to show off their bioluminescent rainbows.

  "An apolemia," Misty whispered reverently, as she watched the creature glide past, uncoiling its ninety-foot tentacles in a deadly net.

  For the next several thousand feet, the show continued while Misty furiously recorded her observations in a notebook as Pitt recorded on the video and still cameras. As the number of creatures diminished, those that remained became much smaller. They existed in the depths under thousands of pounds of pressure because the interior of their bodies equaled the force from outside.

  Pitt was so absorbed by the drama outside his view port that he never went back to his crossword puzzle. He turned from the port only when Giordino nudged him.

  "Bottom coming up."

  Outside, the water was becoming filled with falling marine snow, tiny light gray particles, consisting of dead organisms and waste produced by the sea creatures above. The men inside the submersible felt as though they were driving through a light blizzard. Pitt wondered what underwater phenomena caused the snow to look heavier now than it had under the lights and cameras of Sea Sleuth the day before.

  He switched on all lights and stared down through the view port mounted on the floor of the Navigator. As if it were land materializing through a fog, the bottom took shape beneath the sled runners as the submersible's shadow appeared under the bottom lights on the silt.

  "We have the bottom," he alerted Giordino.

  Giordino slowed the ascent by dropping a pair of weights, neutralizing the buoyancy until their downward motion slowed to a crawl, and stopped only twenty feet above the bottom. Like an aircraft making a picture-perfect landing, Giordino had maneuvered the sub to a halt right on the mark with great skill.

  "Well done," Pitt complimented him.

  "Just another of my many accomplishments," Giordino replied grandiosely.

  "We're on the bottom and need a direction," Pitt called Burch in the command center four miles upward.

  "You'll find her two hundred yards southeast," the captain's voice came back through the depths. "Follow a course of one hundred forty degrees and you should come up on the aft end of the forward section where it tore away."

  Giordino engaged the thruster motors and steered the Navigator with his control column along the compass direction given by Burch. Fourteen minutes later, the mangled wreckage where the ship had ripped apart came into view. Seeing the devastating effects of the holocaust fire firsthand rather than through an image on a video monitor was a shock. Nothing was recognizable. They felt as if they were gazing into a monstrous cavern piled with burned-out scrap. The only resemblance to what had once been a ship was the outline of her hull.

  "Where to?" Giordino inquired.

  Misty took several moments to study the interior deck plans of the Emerald Dolphin and get her bearings. Finally, she circled an area and passed it to Giordino.

  "You want to go inside?" he asked Pitt, knowing he'd be less than pleased with the answer.

  "As far as we can go," Pitt replied. "If at all possible, I'd like to penetrate into the chapel where the crew reported the fire started."

  Giordino gave a doubtful stare inside the blackened and ominous-looking wreckage. "We could easily get trapped in there."

  Pitt grinned. "Then I'll have time to finish my crossword puzzle."

  "Yeah," Giordino grunted. "For all eternity." His sarcastic attitude was strictly for show. He would have leaped with Pitt off the Golden Gate Bridge if his friend had stood on the railing. He gripped the control column and gently placed his hand on the throttle. "Tell me where and say when."

  Misty tried to ignore their sardonic humor, but the thought of dying alone, never to be found in the deepest reaches of the sea, was not a pretty one.

  Before Pitt gave the word, he called up the Deep Encounter to report their situation. But there was no response. No voice replied over the speakerphone.

  "Odd," he said, perplexed. "They're not answering."

  "The communications equipment probably malfunctioned," Giordino said calmly.

  Pitt wasted no more time in trying to raise the control center. He checked the oxygen gauges on the life-support system. They had an hour of bottom time left. "Go on in," he ordered. Giordino gave a faint nod and orchestrated the submersible's controls, very slowly steering her into the opening.

  Already, sea life was probing the wreckage and setting up housekeeping. They spotted several rat-tailed fish, a species of shrimp and what could only be described as a sea slug that had somehow wiggled its way into the jagged ruins.

  The burned-out interior of the shipwreck looked menacing. There was a mild current but not enough to cause Giordino a problem in keeping the Navigator steady. The dim outline of what was left of the decks and bulkheads came out of the gloom. Looking back and forth from the plans of the ship and the viewport, Pitt estimated which deck to enter to get to the chapel.

  "Rise to the fourth deck," directed Misty. "It leads through a shopping mall to the chapel."

  "We'll try to gain entry there," said Pitt.

  Slowly, Giordino maneuvered the sub upward without dropping any more weights, using only the thrusters. As soon as they reached the deck Misty had indicated, he hovered the Navigator for a minute while both men stared inside the wreckage, now illuminated by the four forward lights. Melted pipes and electrical wiring hung down like distorted tentacles. Pitt turned on the camera systems and began recording the mess.

  "We'll never get around that," said Giordino.

  "Not around," Pitt contradicted, "but through. Run our bow against those pipes dead ahead."

  Without argument, Giordino eased the submersible into a maze of melted pipe that hung down from the ceiling of the deck above. The pipes parted and crumbled as if they were made out of poor-quality plaster of Paris, sending out a cloud of ashes that the sub easily slipped through.

  "You called that right," muttered Giordino.

  "I figured they'd be brittle after being subjected to the intense heat."

  They soared though the charred wreckage of the shopping avenue. Nothing was left of the open three-deck avenue of stylish boutique shops. They had all burned to nothingness. Blackened and warped bulkheads were all that remained to indicate where they once stood. Giordino cautiously navigated around and over the piles of debris that rose like a range of hills covered with jagged black lava rock.

  Misty felt an eerie feeling, more so than the men, knowing they were moving through space where men had strolled and relaxed while women shopped; where children had laughed and run ahead of their parents. She could almost imagine seeing the ghosts stalking the avenue. Most of the passengers had cheated death and were now on their way home, taking memories that would haunt them the rest of their lives.

  "Not much to look at," said Giordino.

  Pitt gazed at the desolation. "No shipwreck treasure hunter will ever waste his time and money on this ruin."

  "I wouldn't bet on it. You know how it goes. Twenty years from now, someone will claim the ship went down with a million dollars in cash in the purser's safe. Fifty years later, it will be rumored as fifty million dollars in silver. Then in two hundred years, they'll say she went down with a billion in gold."

  "Intriguing, when you consider more has been spent searching for gold under the seas during the last century than has ever been found."

  "Only the Edinburgh, Atocha and Central America truly paid off."
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  "Exceptions to the rule," said Pitt.

  "There's more treasure in the sea than mere gold," said Misty.

  "Yes," Pitt replied, "treasures yet to be discovered that did not come from man."

  They stopped talking as several fallen beams blocked their way. Carefully, Giordino threaded the Navigator through the maze, scraping the paint on the sled runners. "Too close," he sighed. "Now the trick is to get back out."

  "Coming to the site of the chapel," Misty notified them.

  "How can you tell in this mess?" asked Pitt.

  "There are still a few features left that I can match on the plans," she said, her face set in concentration. "Come to a halt in another thirty feet."

  Pitt lay on his stomach and peered through the bottom view port as Giordino covered the distance and then stopped the sub. It hung as if levitating over the space once occupied by the Emerald Dolphin's nondenominational chapel. The only distinguishing evidence that indicated they were in the right area were melted floor mountings in rows that held the pews.

 
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