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Valhalla rising, p.48
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       Valhalla Rising, p.48

           Clive Cussler
 

  The Blue Flight leader sent his two wingmen in, one five hundred yards behind the other, while he circled to observe the results of the strike and follow up should his lead planes miss the target. He feared that by being too cautious his pilots would fire too far aft on the stern and as far as possible from the tanks, missing the ship completely. As it turned out, his fears were set in the wrong direction.

  The first pilot banked and rolled as he dropped in an almost vertical dive. Aiming his fighter arrow-straight for the machinery room deep beneath the big funnel of the Invader, he locked in his missile guidance systems on his target, which was becoming hidden by smoke from the burning Coast Guard cutters. But a split second before he could press his fire switch, a surface-to-air missile fired from the LNG tanker blasted his F-16 into a giant fiery pyre that burst like a fireworks rocket. It seemed to hang for a moment, no longer a sleek fighter jet but a shattered and flaming pile of scrap falling crazily in a thousand pieces and splashing into the sea,

  "Break off!" shouted the flight leader to the second aircraft.

  "Too late!" broke in the pilot. "I'm locked on-"

  He spoke no more. There was no time to take evasive action, no pulling out of his approach dive. No time to react. Another missile belched from its launcher and his plane exploded into a second fireball, which also seemed to hang suspended before plunging into the waiting arms of an apathetic sea, not more than a hundred yards from the watery burial shroud of the first F-16.

  The flight leader froze, unable to believe what he had witnessed. Two of his closest friends, National Guard pilots who had responded to the emergency, both businessmen with families, suddenly incinerated within seconds of each other and now lying within the wreckage of their aircraft on the bottom of lower New York Harbor. Numb with revulsion, he was too paralyzed with shock to launch another attack. Instead, he turned his aircraft away from the death and destruction and flew back to the National Guard field on Long Island.

  Dover watched the destruction of the two aircraft in stunned horror. He understood instantly what it meant. Everybody on board the cutters, rescue boats and helicopters knew. The loss of the pilots was appalling, but their failed mission to stop the LNG tanker before she passed into the upper harbor spelled disaster now.

  He suddenly straightened in awe as one of the small thirty-five-foot Coast Guard rescue boats abruptly shot across the water at full speed in the direction of the stern of the Mongol Invader. The crew, clutching the tops of their life vests, spilled over the sides as the boat's skipper gripped the helm and kept his bow on a straight, unde-viating course toward the huge ship.

  "Suicide," Dover thought wonderingly. "Pure suicide, but God bless him."

  Small-arms fire erupted from the Invader. Bullets clouded the rescue boat like swarms of hornets and whined around the young man at the helm. Splashes seemed to cover every inch of the water around the thin fiberglass hull. The man at the helm could be seen shaking the spray from his eyes with one hand while he gripped the wheel with the other. The little red, white and blue ensign flew stiff in the morning breeze.

  After seeing the fighter jets crash, people had stopped their cars on the bridge and were standing in crowds along the railing, watching the drama unfold beneath them. The eyes of the men in the remaining helicopters were on the rescue boat, too, every man and woman silently urging the boat's commander to jump overboard before the collision.

  "A glorious act of defiance," Dover muttered to no one but himself. "Close enough!" he yelled, knowing he could not be heard. "Abandon the boat!"

  But it was not to be. Just when it looked like the skipper was about to leap clear of the cockpit, a spray of bullets stitched him across the chest and he fell backward onto the work deck. A thousand people gazed entranced as the boat, its engines racing in a crescendo, props churning the water into a froth, struck the big port rudder of the LNG tanker.

  There was no fiery explosion, no burst of smoke and flame. The little boat simply disintegrated when it struck the massive steel rudder. The only visible evidence of the collision was a small cloud of dust and debris that sprayed the water. The great menacing ship continued on like an elephant attacked by a mosquito without feeling the bite.

  Dover dragged himself erect, not noticing the blood flooding out of his shoe from another shrapnel wound in his right ankle. He watched the massive LNG tanker sail on unmolested. Her bow was almost to a point where it was directly under the bridge.

  "Dear God, don't let us lose her now," he muttered in abject fear and anger. "God help everyone if she gets under the bridge."

  The words had hardly escaped his mouth when there was an explosion in the water under the stern of the Mongol Invader. He stared disbelieving as the bows of the giant ship slowly, inexorably began to make a sweeping turn to port away from the bridge. Ever so gradually at first, then faster and faster.

  51

  That big Liquid Natural Gas carrier looks like a line of eight pregnant women lying on their backs in a spa," said Jimmy Flett, as he stood at the console helm and closed on the Mongol Invader.

  "A helicopter, two cutters and two F-16s blasted to scrap within twenty minutes," Giordino muttered, eyeing the wreckage floating everywhere, scattered among the waves by the smaller boats that sped through it. "She's even deadlier than she is ugly."

  "They'll never stop her now," Pitt said, gazing through a pair of thirty-by-fifty binoculars at the big ship doggedly heading for Manhattan and her rendezvous with nightmarish devastation.

  "She's about a thousand yards from the bridge," judged Flett. "Just time enough for us to cut in, submerge and go for her screws and rudders."

  From Giordino's point of view, it would be a near thing. "We'll only get one pass. Miss and we'll never be able to circle and come at her again. Her speed is too great. We couldn't surface, race ahead of her and submerge for another try until she was long past the bridge."

  Pitt looked at him and grinned. "Then we'll just have to get it right the first time, won't we?"

  The Coral Wanderer skipped over the waves like a smooth, flat stone thrown by a major-league pitcher. Pitt swung his glasses onto the burning Coast Guard cutters. The William Shea was crawling toward the Brooklyn shore, the Timothy Firms listing and down by the stern. The smaller Coast Guard rescue craft had gathered around to put on extra men for damage control. The New York fireboats also pulled alongside, their pipes and nozzles throwing a shower of water on the sections of the ships that were on fire. This was one time when the hounds were outclassed by a grizzly bear, he thought. He deeply regretted that they couldn't have arrived sooner and diverted the devastation.

  He had acted cocksure in his words of optimism to Giordino, but deep down he felt the chilling fear of failure. He was determined to hinder the Mongol Invader and prevent her from entering the upper harbor, even if it meant putting his life and those of Giordino and Flett on the line.

  It was too late to turn back; the point of no return had been passed. All trepidation and uncertainty were left far astern. He knew with calculated certainty that Omo Kanai was on board. There was a score to settle, and he felt a growing wave of rage.

  He studied the shattered and shell-torn wheelhouse of the Invader, but saw no human figures moving inside. The hull below the funnel had more holes than a colander, but they were small and the damage looked slight.

  It seemed to take half a lifetime for the Coral Wanderer to narrow the gap. Two hundred yards off the starboard bow of the LNG tanker, Flett eased back the throttles and switched on the ballast tank pumps. Faster than Pitt might have thought, the luxury submarine slipped beneath the surface of the water as smoothly as if guided by a giant hand. Once submerged, Flett picked up the speed again, pushing the Coral Wanderer faster than her designers had specified. From now on there could be no room for error.

  Giordino stayed on the bridge with Flett, while Pitt dropped down to the main cabin and made his way forward to the bow and its big viewing port. Seated comfortably on a suede cou
ch, he picked up a phone set in one armrest.

  "Are we connected?" he asked.

  "We have you on the speaker," answered Giordino.

  Flett read off the numbers. "One hundred fifty yards and closing."

  "Visibility is less than forty feet," Pitt reported. "Keep a sharp eye on the radar."

  "We have a computer image of the ship as she sails," said Giordino. "I'll let you know what section of the hull we come in contact with."

  Three agonizing minutes dragged by as Flett read off the closing distance. "One hundred yards out," he notified Pitt. "Her shadow is beginning to show above on the surface."

  Pitt could hear the throb of the Mongol Invader's engines and sense the rush of water under her keel. He peered into the green gloom and barely discerned the white foam that was sliding along her hull. And then her plates materialized out of the murk thirty feet ahead and ten feet above.

  "We've got her!" Pitt said sharply.

  Flett instantly threw the twin screws into reverse, stopping the Wanderer before she rammed the Invader.

  "Take us down another ten feet, Jimmy."

  "Ten feet, it is," acknowledged Flett, sending the Coral Wanderer on a course directly under the starboard side of the Mongol Invader's hull.

  To Pitt, seated inside the bow observation cabin, it was an eerie sight to watch the great hull sweep over the submarine like a Chinook wind out of the north, a vast mechanical monster with no mind of its own. The beat of the propellers came as a distant pulse but soon increased to the sound of a farm threshing machine. Something caught his eye, a large object that bulged from the bottom of the hull near the keel. But then it flashed from view.

  Pitt was an extension of Flett's eyes. Only he could make the split-second judgment call when the great bronze screws came into sight. The movement of the huge ship through the water was blurring his visibility. He moved forward and lay down on the carpet deck with his face less than an inch from the viewing port, eyes straining to penetrate the froth and green pall to see the magnetic explosive charge on the end of the spar protruding from the bow of the Wanderer, but it was obscured by the restless water.

  "Ready, Jimmy?"

  "Say the word," Flett replied, his voice solid as a stone.

  "You should see the starboard prop only three seconds after it comes into my view on the bow."

  Nothing more was said as the suspense deepened. His mind and body as taut as banjo strings, Pitt's knuckles turned ivory as he clenched the phone only an inch from his lips. Then the green curtain parted in a white explosion of bubbles. "Now!" Pitt yelled.

  Flett reacted with the speed of a lightning bolt, shoving the throt-des forward until he felt a jar from the front of the boat and then whipping them into reverse, praying that his timing was on a thin dime.

  Pitt could only watch, helpless and exposed, as the magnetic charge impacted against the steel plates of the hull and clung an instant before Flett went full speed into reverse. The massive propeller came like an out-of-control windmill, beating the water of the bay into sparkling foam.

  From the control bridge, Giordino and Flett stared in rapt wariness, seeing the mighty blades pound toward them. For a brief instant, they were certain they would not pull clear in time, that the blades would beat the luxury boat into splinters and their bodies along with it. But in the final seconds, the Coral Wanderer's diesels roared and her own propellers chewed the water in a violent frenzy. She leaped astern as the LNG tanker's fifty-foot-diameter propellers flailed past no more than two feet from the bow view port, rocking the submarine yacht like a tree whipped in a tornado.

  As he lay on the deck, arm raised and clutching the hand railing of a circular stairway for support, all Pitt could see out the view port was a maelstrom of enraged water, embellished by the ear-pounding drumming of the spinning blades. A brief thirty seconds later, the yacht came back on a smoother keel, the water calmed into the Mongol Invader's wake and the throb of the propellers began to fade.

  "Now is as good a time as any, Al," said Pitt, coming to his feet.

  "You think we're far enough away."

  "If this boat is built to withstand the water pressure at a thousand feet, she can take the stress of a detonation a hundred yards away."

  Giordino held a small black remote control in both hands and pressed a tiny lever. A loud thud sounded, amplified by the acoustics through the water. This was followed by a pressure wave that struck the Coral Wanderer with the force of a twenty-foot swell before sweeping over and around. And then it was gone and the water calmed again.

  Pitt popped his head above the deck at the head of the stairway. "Bring her up, Jimmy, and let's see if we did any good." He looked at Giordino. "Soon as we break the surface, let's mount another charge."

  Unable to comprehend the source behind the muted underwater explosion, Admiral Dover was overcome with fleeting relief at seeing the Mongol Invader swinging away from the channel and making a wide, sweeping turn back the way she had come. He could not have known that Pitt and Giordino on board a submarine yacht were responsible. Everyone who wasn't wounded on the William Shea had been too busy to notice the unusual craft before it slipped underwater and rammed a magnetic charge of explosives just ahead of the Mongol Invader's starboard propeller. The explosion had blown an eight-foot hole in the hull below the base of the propeller shaft, shearing it apart, while the rudder mounting, already damaged by the heroic suicide run by the Coast Guardsman, became jammed in a forty-five-degree position to port.

  The propeller dipped downward on a slanted angle, barely held by the outer stub of its severed shaft, while the big turbine-driven engine inside the machinery compartment abruptly tripled its RPMs and raced out of control before the chief engineer could shut it down.

  With the port propeller still turning at full speed and the starboard critically damaged, the bow of the ship pulled slowly, deliberately, toward Staten Island, around on a reverse course that would eventually return her to sea or keep her running in circles.

  The worst of the disaster has been averted, thought Dover. But would the crazy man in command of the LNG tanker carry out his plans and blow her up, knowing that he could still cause great loss of life and billions in damage?

  Dover had prepared for certain catastrophe after losing the fight, but now that a sudden miracle had occurred, he prayed that a holocaust might still be avoided.

  If Admiral Dover was surprised at seeing the great ship suddenly reverse its course, Omo Kanai was stunned into absolute confusion. Though he had felt and heard the explosion deep beneath the Mongol Invader's stern, he had felt no concern, since no vessel or aircraft within twenty miles would dare to attack him. Then, as the ship began its unscheduled turn, he shouted down to the engine room.

  "Get back on course! Can't you see we've come around!"

  "We've lost our starboard screw from some kind of explosion," replied the chief engineer, anxiety obvious in his tone. "Before I could shut down the port engine, its screw pulled the ship around."

  "Compensate with the rudders!" Kanai ordered.

  "Impossible. Something struck the port rudder earlier, wreckage maybe, and jammed it, adding to the uncontrolled turn."

  "What are you telling me?" demanded Kanai, beginning for the first time to lose his composure.

  The words came back steadily and lifelessly. "Either we continue to go around in circles or we come to all stop and drift. The truth is, we ain't going nowhere."

  It was the end of the trail, yet Kanai refused to accept defeat. "We're too close to give up. Once under the bridge, no one can stop us."

  "And I'm telling you, with the starboard rudder jammed forty-five degrees to port and my starboard screw useless with a broken shaft, the sooner we get off this gas can, the better."

  Kanai saw it was fruitless to argue further with his chief engineer. He stared up at the great bridge. He could almost look straight up at the suspended roadway as it began to fall away astern. Less than a few hundred feet had separated s
uccess and utter failure before the Mongol Invader had been diverted by the mysterious explosion. He had come so close and defied the odds-it seemed impossible that triumph had been snatched from him at the beginning of the end.

  His eyes swept the water. It was at that moment that he saw what looked like a private yacht cruising in the wake of the Invader. There is a strange look to it, he thought. Kanai was about to turn away, but then stared with sudden understanding and anger as the yacht suddenly slipped beneath the waves.

  Okay, Jimmy," Pitt said to the submarine yacht's skipper. "We turned her. Now let's put those big balls of gas on the bottom."

  "I only hope those devils don't set off the charges," Flett said, as he worked the controls to level the Coral Wanderer at thirty feet and make another run at the LNG tanker. If there was the slightest thought of hesitation, none showed in the old seaman's ruddy face. If anything, he looked as though he was enjoying himself for the first time in ages.

  The Wanderer was running under the water as if she were a fish. Flett felt more at ease now that it looked as though they might not damage his precious boat. He set his eyes on the radar screen and the GPS to keep his course straight toward the Invader.

 
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