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Valhalla rising, p.16
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       Valhalla Rising, p.16

           Clive Cussler
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  "There are backup systems," Gunn said patiently. "They can't all have failed."

  "How long has it been since they last responded?"

  "Ten hours." Gunn braced himself for the outburst he was sure would come.

  This time, Sandecker reacted as expected. "Ten hours! My instructions are that all survey and research ships on station maintain status reports to our communications department every two hours."

  "Your instructions were carried out to the letter. Deep Encounter responded as scheduled."

  "You've lost me."

  "Someone claiming to be Captain Burch made contact every two hours and gave updated reports on the project to investigate the wreckage of the Emerald Dolphin. We know it was not the captain, because the voice systems recording on all our communications did not accept the voice patterns. Someone was attempting to imitate him. Did a rather poor job of it, too."

  Sandecker was taking in every word, his razor-sharp mind sorting out the consequences of what Gunn was telling him. "You are very sure of this, Rudy?"

  "I can honestly say I am absolutely certain."

  "I can't believe the ship and all on board vanished into thin air."

  Gunn nodded. "When our communications department alerted me, I took the liberty of having a friend at the National Oceanic Atmospheric Agency analyze satellite weather photos of the area where Deep Encounter was working. Photo enhancement shows no sign of the ship within a hundred miles."

  "What were weather conditions?"

  "Clear skies, ten-mile-an-hour winds and calm seas."

  Sandecker was trying to sift through confusing doubts. "The ship couldn't have just gone under for no reason. She carried no chemicals that might have destroyed her. There is no way she could

  have blown herself to pieces. A collision with another ship, perhaps?"

  "She was out of regular shipping lanes and no other ships were close to her."

  "A phony voice giving up-to-date reports." The admiral fixed Gunn with a piercing state. "What you're suggesting, Rudy, is that Deep Encounter was hijacked."

  "It's beginning to look that way," acknowledged Gunn. "Short of her being sunk by an undetected submarine, a ridiculous theory at best, I see no alternative. She must have been seized and sailed out of range before the weather cameras on the satellite passed over."

  "But if she was hijacked, where did they take her? How could she have disappeared in less than two hours? I know from experience that Deep Encounter's best speed is barely over fifteen knots. She couldn't have sailed more than a hundred and fifty nautical miles since her last status report."

  "My fault," said Gunn. "I should have asked for an extended camera range. But I made the request before I knew of the phony radio communications, and hijacking was the last thing on my mind."

  Sandecker leaned back in his chair and buried his face in his hands for a moment. Then he stiffened. "Pitt and Giordino, they were on the project," he said, more as a statement than a question.

  "The last report, given by Captain Burch himself, stated that Pitt and Giordino were aboard the Abyss Navigator. They were preparing to lower into the water for their descent onto the wreck."

  "This is madness!" snapped Sandecker. "Who would dare to hijack a United States government ship in the South Pacific? There are no wars or revolutions going on in that part of the world. I fail to see a motive."

  "Nor I."

  "Have you contacted the Australian and New Zealand governments and requested an extensive search?"

  Gunn nodded. "They assured me of their full cooperation. Any ships near the area, military or commercial, have offered to depart from their scheduled course and begin searching."

  "Obtain from whatever source, NOAA or one of the security agencies, expanded satellite photos for a thousand-square-mile grid of that part of the Pacific. I don't want to miss an inch. The Deep Encounter has to be out there somewhere. I refuse to believe she went to the bottom."

  Gunn rose from his chair and headed for the door. "I'll see to it."

  Sandecker sat there for several moments, staring at a photo gallery that covered one wall. His eyes setded on a color picture of Pitt and Giordino standing next to a submersible, drinking from a bottle of champagne as they celebrated the discovery and salvage of a Chinese government treasure ship in Lake Michigan. He also noted that Giordino was smoking one of the admiral's private cigars.

  There was a very close friendship among the three men. Pitt and Giordino were like the sons he'd never had. In his wildest imagination, Sandecker could not believe the two men had died. He swiveled his executive chair and gazed out the window of his office on the top floor of the NUMA building overlooking the Potomac River.

  "What mischief," he muttered softly to himself under his breath, "have you two guys gotten yourself into this time?"

  16

  After accepting the disappearance of the Deep Encounter in the vast emptiness of the sea, Pitt, Giordino and Misty settled into the tight enclosure of their submersible and concentrated on staying alive. They found no trace of flotsam or an oil slick, so optimism overcame pessimism and they assumed that for whatever reason the survey ship had sailed away and would soon return.

  But night passed. The sun rose and set twice more and still no sign of the mother ship. Worry unfolded, and they began to suspect the worst when, hour after hour, their eyes scanned the limitless horizon and saw nothing but green sea and blue sky. No ship or even a highflying jetliner made an appearance. Their onboard GPS told them they had drifted over the international date line and were moving far south of the shipping lanes. Hope of a rescue dwindled.

  They also didn't fool themselves. A passing ship would have to be almost on top of them to spot the tiny hatch of the Abyss Navigator. Their homing beacon reached out for twenty miles, but its signal was only programmed to be received by a navigation computer on board the Deep Encounter. A passing ship or aircraft was not likely to detect it. Their only hope was if a rescue craft came within a two-mile range of their little radio.

  Water was the first priority. Fortunately, rainsqualls were frequent. A vinyl mat that covered the floor of the sub was spread out and held over the hatch; it caught the rain and sent it down a crease into the water bottles they'd carried on the dive. After the sandwiches were consumed, they began a project for catching fish. Using tools carried on board for emergency repairs, Pitt fashioned a series of hooks, while Misty relied on her artistic talent for making colorful lures out of any material she could find. For fishing lines, Giordino disassembled electronic wiring and connected it to the hooks and lures. Not relying on one line, they cast out several and were rewarded with three small fish that Misty identified as frigate mackerel before they were quickly cut up, used for bait and chummed in the water to attract more fish. Within ten hours, they had a small stock of raw fish, expertly scaled and gutted by Misty. They ate sushi style, down to the last morsel. It had little taste, but no one complained so long as it supplied nourishment.

  After endless conjecturing about the whereabouts of Deep Encounter and its crew and scientists, they finally gave up in frustration and discussed, debated and philosophized every subject from politics to food to ocean technology. Anything to take the edge off the tedium while one of them stood in the hatch to catch rain or scour the sea for a vessel while the others charted their drift and paid out the fishing lines.

  The substance they had retrieved from the wreck had been carefully removed from the basket soon after breaking the surface and placed in a plastic bag. With nothing but time on their hands, they spent endless hours speculating about its chemical composition.

  "How far have we drifted?" Misty asked for the hundredth time, shading her eyes from the glare as she spoke to Pitt at her feet below the hatch.

  "Almost thirty-two miles southeast by east since this time yesterday," he answered.

  "At that rate we should make the coast of South America in another six months," she said grimly.

  "Either there or Antarctica," m
uttered Giordino.

  "We've been there," said Pitt. "I've never developed a fondness for vacationing in the same place twice."

  "I'll make your feelings known to the wind and currents."

  "Maybe we could rig a sail with the floor mat," said Misty.

  "With ninety-five percent of their mass underwater, submersibles aren't known for their ability to sail before the wind."

  "I wonder if Admiral Sandecker is aware of our situation?" said Misty softly.

  "Knowing him as we do," said Pitt confidently, "I'll bet he's moving heaven and hell to launch a search-and-rescue operation."

  Giordino was curled up in his seat, dreaming of a thick porterhouse steak, medium rare. "I'd give a year's pay to know where Deep Encounter is at this moment."

  "No sense in rehashing that mystery," said Pitt. "We won't have a clue until we're fished out of the sea."

  The fourth day broke under gloomy skies. The routine never varied. Catch water if possible, catch fish if possible, and search the horizon. Conditions did not worsen, nor did they improve. Each person stood a two-hour watch. The hatch tower of the submersible only protruded four feet above the water, so the person on duty usually got soaked when the swells slapped over the top rim. Giordino dropped all the weights, but the heavy mass still tended to pull the craft under the crest of most waves. The little sub rolled sickeningly, but fortunately its crew had long ago become immune to mal de mer, all three having spent nearly half their lives at sea.

  Pitt fashioned a spearhead by carving with his Swiss army knife on the plastic back of a clipboard that Misty had used to make notes. During Giordino's watch, he speared a three-foot white-tipped shark. A bland-tasting feast soon followed, washed down with their last pint of water.

  During Misty's watch, an aircraft flew within a mile of the drifting submersible. Despite her frantic waving of the floor mat, the aircraft continued on. "It was a rescue plane," she cried, barely holding back her emotions. "He flew right over and didn't see us."

  "We're awfully hard to spot," Pitt reminded her.

  Giordino nodded in agreement. "They'll never detect us from an altitude much more than five hundred feet. Our hatch tower is too tiny. From the air we're as obvious as a flyspeck on a barn door."

  "Or a penny on a golf course," Pitt added.

  "Then how will they ever find us?" Misty asked, her resolve beginning to crack.

  Pitt gave her a comforting smile and hugged her. "The law of averages," he said. "They're bound to catch up."

  "Besides," Giordino chimed in, "we're lucky. Aren't we, pal?"

  "As lucky as they come."

  Misty wiped a glistening eye, straightened her blouse and shorts and ran a hand through her cropped hair. "Forgive me. I'm not as tough as I thought I was."

  In the next two days, Pitt and Giordino were hard-pressed to keep up their quixotic manner. Three more planes flew over and failed to spot them. Pitt tried to hail them over the portable radio, but they were out of range. Knowing that rescuers were raking the seas to find them and coming so close without discovering them was disheartening. Their only encouraging awareness was the certainty that Admiral Sandecker was using every influence at his command to conduct an extensive search operation.

  The gray skies that had dogged them all day cleared at sunset. Twilight deepened from an orange sky in the west to the velvet blue of the east. Giordino was on watch, leaning over the rim of the hatch tower. He soon developed a flair for catnapping, dozing off and then coming awake fifteen minutes later almost to the minute. Sweeping the horizon and seeing no light for the tenth time that evening, he dropped off into his temporary dreamland.

  When he returned to the reality of his ordeal, he woke up to music. Initially, he thought he must have been hallucinating. He reached over the side, scooped up a handful of seawater and splashed it on his face.

  The music was still there.

  He could make out the tune now. Out of the night came a Strauss waltz. He recognized it as "Tales from the Vienna Woods." Then he saw a light. It looked like another star, but it was moving back and forth in a small arc on the western horizon. It was almost impossible to estimate distance across the water at night, but Giordino swore the music and the moving light were no more than four hundred yards away.

  He jumped down through the hatch, groped for a flashlight and climbed up again. Now he could see the vague outline of a small vessel, and dim lights showing through square windows. He switched the flashlight on and off as fast as his thumb could move the switch, and he yelled like a sick goat.

  "Over here! Over here!"

  "What is it?" Pitt called out below.

  "Some kind of boat!" Giordino shouted back. "I think she's headed our way!"

  "Fire off a flare," Misty said excitedly.

  "We don't have flares on board, Misty. We only dive during the day and ascend to the surface within easy sight of the mother ship," Pitt explained in a steady voice. Calmly, he picked up the portable radio and began calling on five different frequencies.

  Misty was aching to see what was happening, but there was room for only one person at a time in the hatch tower. She could only sit and wait anxiously while Pitt tried to contact the vessel, and for Giordino to tell them whether they were about to be saved or not.

  "They haven't seen us," Giordino groaned between shouts across the water and wildly waving the flashlight. The beam barely cast a glow. The batteries were about gone. "They're passing us by."

  "Hello, hello, please respond," Pitt implored.

  His only reply was static.

  Disappointment settled over the submersible like a soaking blanket, as Giordino watched the lights begin to fade into the darkness. No one on the passing vessel had seen them, and with a sinking heart he could only watch it continue on its course toward the northwest.

  "So near, yet so far," he murmured dejectedly.

  Suddenly a voice cracked over the submersible's speaker. "Who am I talking to?"

  "Castaways!" Pitt snapped back. "You sailed right past us. Please reverse course."

  "Hold tight. I'm coming around."

  "He's turning!" Giordino shouted happily. "He's coming back."

  "Where off my bow are you?" the voice shouted.

  "Al!" Pitt yelled up the hatch. "He wants a position."

  "Tell him to steer twenty degrees to his port."

  "Steer twenty degrees to your port and you should see us," Pitt relayed the message.

  After a minute, the voice said, "I have you now-a dim yellow glow about a hundred yards dead ahead."

  The approaching boat's owner switched on an array of exterior lights. One was a large spotlight that swept the surface of the water before finally stopping on Giordino, still waving the flashlight like a madman in the hatch tower.

  "Do not be alarmed," came the voice again. "I will pass over you and stop above your little tower when it is aligned with my stern. I've dropped a ladder for you to climb aboard."

  Pitt missed the rescuer's meaning. "Pass over?" he repeated. "I do not read you."

  There was no reply, only Giordino's baffled voice, shouting. "I think he means to run us down!"

  Pitt's first thought was that they had been found by someone out to kill them, maybe even the same group behind the man who had tried to murder Kelly Egan. He put his arms around Misty. "Hold on to me for the collision. Then hurry through the hatch before we go under. I'll you push through."

  She started to say something, but then buried her face in his chest as his strong arms embraced her. "Call out when you're sure of a collision!" he ordered Giordino. "Then jump clear!"

  Giordino prepared to launch himself out of the hatch tower as he stared aghast at the brightly lit vessel bearing down on him. It looked like no oceangoing yacht he'd ever seen. It was shaped like a great green-and-white manta or devil ray, with its cephalic forward fins encircling its huge plankton-gathering mouth. A wide sloping deck on the bow swept up and around a large arched picture window and then past a circu
lar wheelhouse.

  His state of mind quickly turned from dire apprehension to vast relief as the twin catamaran hulls slipped past the submersible with five feet of clearance to spare on either side. He gazed in awe as the underhull of the main superstructure moved overhead slowly until the submersible was directly below the stern between the twin hulls. Almost on reflex, he grabbed a chrome ladder built like a small staircase that abruptly appeared less than two feet away.

  Only then did he think to bend down and report to Pitt and Misty. "Not to worry. It's a catamaran. We're directly under his stern." Then he disappeared.

  Misty came out of the hatch like a champagne cork, astounded at her first view of the incredible vessel above. She stood on the luxurious rear deck with its table and couches without remembering scrambling up the stairway.

 
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