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Valhalla rising, p.3
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       Valhalla Rising, p.3

           Clive Cussler
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  But the expected shock never came. All any of the crew felt was a slight shudder beneath decks. The impact seemed little different from a slight bump against a dock. The only sound was the faint crunch of shredding wood. In that frozen moment of time, the unearthly thing had slashed between the Kearsarge's great oak ribs as cleanly as a murderer's knife thrust, penetrating deep inside the hull just aft of the engine room.

  Hunt gaped in shock. He could see a face through the large transparent view port on the pyramid-shaped housing on top the underwater ram. The bearded face had what seemed to Hunt to be a sad and melancholy expression, as if the man inside felt remorse for the disaster his strange and bizarre vessel had caused.

  Then the mysterious vessel quickly backed off and fell away into the depths.

  Hunt knew the Kearsarge was doomed. Down below, seawater poured into the Kearsarge's, aft cargo hold and galley. The gaping wound was almost a perfect concave hole through the hull planking six feet below the waterline. The torrent increased as the warship slowly began to list on her port side.

  The only thing that saved her from immediately foundering was the bulkheads. In keeping with naval regulations, Hunt had ordered them sealed as if the ship were going into batde. The inrush of water was contained, but only until the bulkheads gave way to the crush of tremendous pressure.

  Hunt swung around and stared at a low coral island not two miles away. He turned to the helmsman and shouted. "Steer for that reef off the starboard beam." Then he called down to the engine room for full speed. His main concern was for how long the bulkheads could hold back the flood of water from gushing into the engine room. While the boilers were still able to make steam, he just might have time to run his ship aground before she sank.

  Slowly, the bow came around, as the ship picked up speed and set a course for shallow water. First Officer Ellis did not need a command from Hunt to prepare the boats and the captain's gig to be lowered. Except for the engine-room gang, all crew members were assembled on deck. To a man, they focused their eyes on the low, barren coral reef that was nearing with agonizing slowness. The propeller thrashed the water as the boilers were fired by the stokers in a near frenzy. They shoveled coal with one eye on the open grate and the other aimed at the creaking bulkhead, all that stood between them and a horrible death.

  The single screw thrashed the water, driving the ship toward what everyone hoped was salvation. The helmsman called for help in fighting the wheel as the ship became sluggish with the escalating weight from the incoming flood and the list to port that had increased to six degrees.

  The crew stood at the boats, ready to board them and abandon ship at Hunt's expected command. They shifted uneasily as the deck sloped ominously beneath their feet. A leadsman was sent to the bow to throw out a lead weight and sound the bottom. He called out the depth in fathoms.

  "Twenty fathoms and rising," he yelled out with the barest trace of optimism.

  They needed another hundred-foot rise in depth before the Kearsarge's keel would strike bottom. It seemed to Hunt that they were approaching that tiny strip of coral with the pace of a drunken snail.

  The Kearsarge was settling deeper in the water with each passing minute. Her list was nearly ten degrees, and it was becoming almost impossible to sustain a straight course. The reef was coming closer. They could see the waves striking the coral and bursting in a glistening spray under the sun.

  "Five fathoms," the leadsman called out, "and rising fast."

  Hunt wasn't going to risk the lives of his crew. He was about to give the order to abandon ship when the Kearsarge drove onto the coral bottom, her keel and hull gouging a path through the reef until she came to an abrupt stop and rolled over until she rested on a list of fifteen degrees.

  "Praise the Lord, we're saved," murmured the helmsman, still gripping the spokes of the wheel, his face red from the effort, his arms numb with exhaustion.

  "She's hard aground," Ellis said to Hunt. "The tide is ebbing, so the old girl won't be going anywhere."

  "True," Hunt acknowledged sadly. "A pity if she can't be saved." • "Salvage tugs might pull her off the reef, providing the bottom isn't torn out of her."

  "That damnable monster is responsible. If there's a God, it will pay for this travesty."

  "Maybe she has," Ellis said quietly. "She sank pretty fast after the collision. She must have damaged her bow and opened it to the sea."

  "I can't help but wonder why she didn't simply heave to and explain her presence."

  Ellis stared thoughtfully over the turquoise Caribbean water. "I seem to remember reading something once, about one of our warships, the Abraham Lincoln, encountering a mysterious metal monster about thirty years ago. It tore her rudder off."

  "Where was this?" asked Hunt.

  "I believe it was the Sea of Japan. And at least four British warships have disappeared under mysterious circumstances over the past twenty years."

  "The Navy Department will never believe what happened here," said Hunt, looking around his wrecked ship with growing anger. "I'll be lucky if I don't get court-martialed and drummed out of the service."

  "You've got a hundred and sixty witnesses who will back you up," Ellis assured him.

  "No captain wishes to lose his ship, certainly not to some unidentifiable mechanical monstrosity." He paused to look down into the sea, his mind turning to the job at hand. "Start loading supplies into the boats. We'll move ashore and wait for rescue on firm ground."

  "I've checked the charts, sir. It's called Roncador Reef."

  "A sorry place and a sorry end for such an illustrious ship," he said wistfully.

  Ellis threw an informal salute and began directing the crew to shuttle food, canvas for tents and personal belongings onto the low coral cay. Under the light of a half-moon, they labored all night and into the next day, setting up camp and cooking the first of their meals ashore.

  Hunt was the last man to leave the Kearsarge. Just before he climbed down the ladder to a waiting boat, he paused to stare down into the restless water. He would take to his death the sight of the bearded man staring out of the black monster at him. "Who are you?" he murmured under his breath. "Did you survive? And if so, who will be your next victim?"

  In the next several years, until he died, whenever a report reached him of a warship that had vanished with all hands, Hunt could not help but wonder if the man in the monster was responsible.

  Kearsarge's officers and men existed without hardship ashore for two weeks before a trail of smoke was sighted on the horizon. Hunt sent out a boat with First Officer Ellis, who stopped a passing steamer that took Hunt and his men off the cay and carried them to Panama.

  Strangely, when Hunt and his crew returned to the United States, there was no board of inquiry, a very unusual circumstance. It was as if the secretary of the Navy and the admirals wanted to sweep the incident quietly under the carpet. To Captain Hunt's surprise, he was elevated in rank to full captain before his honorable retirement. First Officer Ellis was also promoted and given command of the Navy's newest gunboat, Helena, and saw service during the Spanish-American War in Cuban waters.

  Congress authorized $45,000 to raise the Kearsarge from Roncador Reef and tow her home to a shipyard. But it was found that natives from nearby islands had set her on fire to salvage her brass, copper and iron. Her guns were removed, and the salvagers returned to port, leaving her hulk to disintegrate in a coral tomb.

  Part One

  INFERNO

  1

  JULY 15, 2003

  THE SOUTH PACIFIC OCEAN

  If the disaster had been planned months in advance with meticulous insight and judgment, it could not have been more catastrophic. Everything that could go wrong did so beyond imagination. The luxurious cruise ship Emerald Dolphin was on fire and no one on board had an omen, a premonition, not even the slightest trace of suspicion of the danger. Yet flames were slowly devouring the interior of the ship's wedding chapel, located amidships just forward of the sumptuous
shopping village.

  On the bridge, the officers went about their watch, oblivious to the pending disaster. None of the ship's automatic fire-warning systems, nor their backups, hinted at a problem. The console, with its schematic profile of the entire ship that displayed every fire-warning indicator aboard, was a sea of green lights. The one light that should have revealed a fire in the chapel failed to blink red.

  At 4 A.M., the passengers were all asleep in their staterooms. The bars and lounges, magnificent casino, nightclub and dance ballroom were empty, as the Emerald Dolphin plowed the South Seas at twenty-four knots on a cruise from Sydney, Australia, to the islands of Tahiti. Launched only the year before and then fitted out, Emerald Dolphin was on her maiden voyage. She did not have the flowing, elegant lines of other cruise ships. Her hull looked more like a giant hiking boot with a huge disk in the center. The entire superstructure of six decks was round and circled 150 feet beyond and above both sides of the hull, and fifty feet over the bow and stern. If anything, her superstructure resembled that of the Starship Enterprise. There was no funnel.

  The pride of the Blue Seas Cruise Lines, the new ship would unquestionably receive a six-star rating and was expected to become a very popular vessel, especially with her interior, which resembled that of an ornate Las Vegas hotel. She sailed on her maiden voyage with every stateroom booked. At 750 feet in length and a gross tonnage of 50,000, she carried 1,600 passengers in opulent style, served by 900 crew members.

  The marine architects of the Emerald Dolphin had gone over the top creating ultramodern glitz in the five dining rooms, three bar and lounge areas, the casino, ballroom, theater and staterooms. Glass in wildly different colors abounded throughout the ship. Chrome, brass and copper swirled on the walls and ceilings. All the furniture was created by contemporary artists and celebrity interior designers. Unique lighting created a heavenly atmosphere, or at least the designer's conception of heaven as described by those who'd died, gone there and were then revived. Except for the outside promenade decks, there was little demand for walking. Escalators, moving ramps and walkways spread throughout the interior of the ship. Glass-enclosed elevators were spaced throughout the decks within a short stroll.

  The sports deck featured a short four-hole golf course, Olympic-sized swimming pool, basketball court and a huge workout gym. A shopping avenue two city blocks long rose three decks high, and might have been taken from the Emerald City of Oz.

  The ship was also a floating museum of Abstract Expressionist art. Paintings by artists Jackson Pollock, Paul Klee, Willem de Kooning and other notables were on view throughout the ship. Bronze sculptures by Henry Moore stood in niches on platinum pedestals in the main dining room. The collection alone cost seventy-eight million dollars.

  The staterooms were circular, with no sharp corners. They were all spacious and exactly alike-there were no small inside staterooms or penthouse suites on the Emerald Dolphin. The designers did not believe in class distinction. The furniture and decor looked like something out of a science-fiction movie. The beds were raised, with extremely soft mattresses, beamed with soft overhead lights. For those on a first or second honeymoon, mirrors were mounted inconspicuously in the ceiling. The bathrooms had built-in chambers that dispersed mist, spray, rain or steam amid a jungle of flowering tropical plants that looked as though they'd been grown on an alien planet. Sailing on the Emerald Dolphin was an experience unique among cruise ships.

  The ship designers also understood where their future passengers would be coming from, and fashioned the ship in the image of the affluent young. Many were well-off doctors, attorneys and entrepreneurs of small and large businesses. Most brought their families. The single passengers were in the minority. There was a fair-sized group of senior citizens who looked like they could well afford the finest money could buy.

  After dinner, while most young couples danced in the ballroom to a band playing whatever popular music was on the charts, hung out in the nightclub with its floor show or gambled in the casino, those families with children attended the theater and watched the ship's troupe perform the latest Broadway smash success, Sonofagun from Arizona. By 3 A.M., the decks and lounges were empty. No passengers who went to bed that night would have thought that the old grim reaper was about to swing his scythe at the Emerald Dolphin.

  Captain Jack Waitkus made a brief inspection of the upper decks before retiring to his cabin. Old by most cruise ship standards, Waitkus was only five days away from his sixty-fifth birthday. He had no illusions about remaining at sea after this voyage. The directors of the company had notified him that he would be on the beach as soon as the ship returned to its home port in Fort Lauderdale after its maiden voyage to Sydney and back. Actually, Waitkus looked forward to retirement. He and his wife lived on a beautiful forty-two-foot sailing yacht. For years they had planned to take a leisurely cruise around the world. Waitkus's mind was already charting a course across the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.

  He had been named commander of the Emerald Dolphin's maiden voyage in honor of his distinguished service to the company. He was a stout man with the jolly appearance of a Falstaff without the beard. His blue eyes had a leprechaun look to them, and his lips seemed always turned up in a warm smile. Unlike many cruise ship captains who did not care to mingle with the passengers, Captain Waitkus enjoyed circulating among them. At his table in the dining salon, he regaled his guests with stories of how he had run away to sea when he was a young boy in Liverpool, sailed on tramp steamers in the Orient, and worked his way up through the ranks. He'd studied hard and passed the ships' officers' tests until finally receiving his master's papers. He'd then served for ten years with the Blue Seas Cruise Lines, as second and first officer until he was named master of the Emerald Dolphin. He was very popular and the directors of the Line were reluctant to let him go, but it was company policy and they felt they could make no exceptions.

  He was tired, but never dropped off to sleep until he'd read a few pages of one of his books on underwater treasure. He had one shipwreck in mind that had carried a cargo of gold and gone down off the coast of Morocco that he especially wanted to search for during his retirement journey. He made one final call to the bridge and was told all was normal before he drifted off to sleep.

  At 4:10 A.M., Second Officer Charles McFerrin thought he caught a distinct whiff of smoke as he made a routine tour of the ship. Sniffing the air, he gauged the smell to be strongest at one end of the shopping avenue where the boutiques and gift shops were located. Mystified, because no alarm had been sounded, he followed the acrid scent along the avenue until he stood in front of the wedding chapel. Sensing heat on the other side, he pulled the door open.

  The interior of the chapel was a raging mass of flames. Stunned, McFerrin stumbled backward away from the intense heat, tripped and fell to the deck. He quickly recovered and called the bridge on his radio communicator and shouted a series of commands. "Wake up Captain Waitkus. We have a fire in the chapel. Sound the alarm, program the damage-control computer and engage the fire-control systems."

  First Officer Vince Sheffield automatically turned to the fire-systems console. All the lights were green. "McFerrin, are you sure? We have no indication here."

  "Trust me," McFerrin shouted into the mouthpiece. "It's an inferno, and it's out of control."

  "Are the sprinklers activated?" Sheffield demanded.

  "No, something is radically wrong. The fire-extinguishing system is not operating, and there was no heat alarm."

  Sheffield was at a loss. The Emerald Dolphin had the most advanced fire-alarm and -control system of any ship at sea. Without it, there were no options. Staring at the console that showed all was well, he wasted precious seconds vacillating while standing in frozen disbelief. He turned to the junior officer on the bridge, Carl Harding. "McFerrin is reporting a fire in the chapel. Nothing shows on the fire-control console. Go down and check it out."

  More time was lost while McFerrin frantically fought the growing conf
lagration with extinguishers, but he might just as well have tried stopping a major forest fire by beating it out with a burlap sack. The flames were spreading beyond the chapel as he fought them alone. He simply could not believe that the automatic sprinklers were not operating. The flames were unstoppable unless crew members appeared and turned on the water valves and attacked the fire with hoses, but only Harding appeared, walking leisurely down the shopping avenue.

  Harding was stunned when he saw the extent of the holocaust, more so when he found McFerrin fighting a losing battle by himself. He called up to the bridge. "Sheffield, for God's sake! We've got a raging firestorm down here and have nothing to fight it with but portable extinguishers. Call out the fire crew and engage the fire-control systems!"

  Still wallowing in disbelief, Sheffield hesitated before switching on the manual override on the extinguishing system in the chapel. "System is on," he called to the men at the chapel.

  "Nothing is happening!" McFerrin cried. "Hurry, man. We can't stop this alone."

  As if in a daze, Sheffield finally called and reported the blaze to the fire-crew officer and then woke Captain Waitkus.

 
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