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Valhalla rising, p.6
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       Valhalla Rising, p.6

           Clive Cussler
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  Surprisingly, little fear was shown by the children descending down the lines. The cruise director and members of the ship's band and theatrical troupe began playing and singing songs from Broadway shows. For a while, some people even began to sing along as the evacuation seemed to be going efficiently, without bottlenecks, but as the fire came closer, the heat intensified and the fumes made it difficult to breathe, the crowd turned back into a frightened mob. Suddenly, there was a mad rush by those who decided to take their chances in the water rather than wait their turn to shimmy down the lines to safety. The ones who jumped were mostly younger people who went over the railing from the lower decks. They fell like rain, colliding with those already floating in the water. Several miscalculated and dropped onto the deck of the Deep Encounter, sustaining major injuries or dying horribly on impact. Others fell between the ships and were crushed to death when the wave action pushed the hulls together.

  The Emerald Dolphin's crew did their best to instruct the passengers on how to jump. To strike the water with their arms over their heads meant the impact would tear the life vest over their heads, leaving them to stay afloat on their own. Those who did not grasp the collar of the life vest and pull down upon impact ran the risk of breaking their necks.

  Before long, a small sea of dead bodies was drifting in the debris alongside the two ships.

  Kelly was scared. The little survey ship looked so close, yet seemed so far. There were only ten people ahead of them on one of the lines attached to the vessel below. Dr. Egan was determined that he and his daughter would endure the heat and smoke and climb down to safety when their turn came. But the undisciplined rush by the choking, coughing mob forced Egan against the railing. Suddenly, a heavy man with red hair and a mustache that stretched across his cheeks to his sideburns emerged from the human surge and tried to snatch Egan's leather case from his hands. Initially stunned, the engineer managed to hold on to the case in a death grip and refused to release it.

  In horror, Kelly watched the struggle between the two men. An officer in an immaculate and unwrinkled uniform stood watching with what seemed total indifference. He was a black man with a face of hardened obsidian, his features chiseled and sharp.

  "Do something!" Kelly screamed at him. "Don't stand there! Help my father!"

  But the black officer simply ignored her, stepped forward and, to Kelly's astonishment, began to help the red-haired man in his struggle for the leather case.

  Pushed by the combined physical force of the two men, Egan lost his balance and stumbled backward against the railing. His feet lifted free of the deck and the momentum pitched him overboard headfirst. Startled by the unexpected movement, the black officer and red-haired man froze, then melted back into the crowd. Kelly screamed and rushed to the railing and looked down just in time to see her father strike the water with a huge splash.

  She held her breath, waiting for what seemed like an hour but was less than twenty seconds, before his head rose to the surface. His life vest was gone, having been torn from his body by the impact. She was distressed to see that he looked unconscious. His head dipped forward and rolled listlessly.

  Suddenly, without warning, Kelly felt hands around her throat, and fingers squeezing relentlessly. Dazed and in shock, Kelly frantically kicked backward while attempting futilely to pull the hands from her throat. In what was a lucky thrust, her foot caught the attacker in the groin. There was a sudden intake of breath and the pressure on her throat relaxed. She spun around, and saw that it was the black officer again.

  Then the red-haired man pushed the black man out of the way and launched himself at Kelly, but she clutched the collar of her life vest and leaped clear of the railing and dropped into the void, just as the red-haired man reached out for her.

  Everything around her became a blur during the fall. In what seemed the wink of an eye, she splashed into the water, the impact knocking the breath out of her. Saltwater flowed up her nose, and she fought off the urge to open her mouth to exhale a breath to purge the flow.

  Down she plunged in an explosion of bubbles, as the sea closed over her. When her impetus slowed, she looked up and saw the surface shimmering under the lights of the two ships. She stroked upward, helped by her life vest, before she finally burst into the air. She sucked in several deep breaths as she looked around for her father, and saw him floating limply about thirty feet away from the scorched hull of the cruise ship.

  Then a wave swept over him and she lost him. Unnerved, she frantically swam to the spot where she had last seen him. A wave raised her on its crest and she spotted her father again, no more than twenty feet away. She reached him, put one arm around his shoulders and pulled back his head by the hair. "Dad!" she cried.

  Egan's eyes fluttered open and he stared at her. His face was twisted, as though he was in great pain. "Kelly, save yourself," he said haltingly. "I can't make it."

  "Hold on, Dad," she encouraged him. "A boat will pick us up soon."

  Still clutching the brown case, he pushed it toward her. "When I fell in the water, I struck this. I must have broken my back. I'm paralyzed and can't swim."

  A body floating facedown drifted against Kelly, and she fought to keep from gagging as she pushed it away. "I'll hold on to you, Dad. I won't let you go. We can use your hand case as a float."

  "Take it," he muttered, forcing her to grab the case. "Keep it safe until the proper time."

  "I don't understand."

  "You'll know . . ." He barely got the words out. His face contorted in agony and he sagged.

  Kelly was shocked at his defeatism until she realized that her father was dying before her eyes. As for Egan, he knew he was dying. But there was no panic, no terror. He accepted his fate. His biggest regret was not the loss of his daughter-he knew she would be all right. It was not knowing if the discovery he had created on paper would work. He looked into Kelly's blue eyes and smiled faintly.

  "Your mother is waiting for me," he whispered.

  Kelly looked around desperately for a rescue boat. The nearest was less than two hundred feet away. She released her father, swam several yards, waved her hands and shouted. "Over here! Come this way!"

  A woman, weakened by smoke inhalation and foundering in the waves, saw Kelly just as she herself was plucked from the water, and pointed her out to a seaman, but the rescuers were too engrossed in pulling others from the sea, and they failed to see her. Kelly rolled over and backstroked back to her father, but he was not to be seen. Only the leather case floated there.

  Egan had released his grip on the case and slipped beneath the waves. She grabbed for it and cried out for him, but at that instant a young teenager, jumping from the upper deck, splashed in the water nearly on top of her, his knee striking her on the back of the head and sending her into a pool of blackness.

  4

  At first the survivors streamed onto the Deep Encounter, but the stream soon became a flood of humanity that inundated the crew and scientists. There were not enough of them to handle it. The fifty-one men and eight women aboard the Deep Encounter could not work hard or fast enough.

  Despite their feelings of frustration and anguish at seeing so many dead and dying in the water, the rescuers refused to slacken their efforts. Several of the oceanographic scientists and systems engineers, ignoring the risks, tied ropes around their waists and leaped into the churning waters to grab two survivors at a time, while their shipmates towed them back to the Deep Encounter and hauled them aboard. Their fervor to save lives would become legend in the annals of sea history.

  The crew of the survey vessel manned the boats and frantically fished people out of the water as more and more of them threw themselves into the sea. The water under the stern soon became alive with screaming men and women, hands reaching out for the boats, afraid they might be missed. The crew on board the ship also operated the crane equipment, which dropped rafts and nets over the side for swimmers to clamber onto before lifting them up to the work deck. They even threw over hos
es and tied stepladders to the railings for swimmers to climb. As unwavering in their efforts as they were, however, they were simply overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people struggling in the water. Later, they would agonize over those who drowned and were lost before the boats could reach them.

  The women scientists took over once the passengers came on board, greeting and cheering them up before tending to the burned and injured. A great number had been blinded by the smoke and fumes and had to be led to the hospital or the aid station in the mess room. None of the scientists were trained in treating smoke inhalation, but they all learned fast and it would never be known how many lives were spared by their dedicated efforts.

  They guided the unhurt down to designated interior staterooms and compartments, spacing them out to maintain the ship's stability and balance. They also set up a passenger assembly area to list the survivors and to help them find friends and relatives that had become missing or lost in the confusion.

  During the first thirty minutes, more than five hundred people were pulled out of the water by the boats. Another two hundred made it to the rafts alongside the Deep Encounter and were lifted on board by the slings attached to winches. The rescuers concentrated only on the living. Any bodies found to be dead when pulled into the boats were returned to the sea to make room for those who still clung to life.

  Retrieving and carrying twice the capacity of passengers allowed under maritime regulations, the boats came around to the stern, where they were quickly lifted on board by one of the boom cranes. The survivors were then able to step on deck without climbing the side, and those who were injured were immediately laid onto stretchers before being carried to the ship's hospital and medical station. This system, devised by Pitt, was far more efficient and actually emptied the boats and put them back in the water in half the time it would have taken to unload the exhausted survivors from the boats and heave them over the sides one at a time.

  Burch could not allow his mind to stray to the rescue operation. He concentrated on keeping the Deep Encounter from bashing in her hull. He felt it was his task, and his task only, to try to keep his ship from destroying itself against the great cruise liner. He'd have given his left arm to have engaged the ship's dynamic positioning system, but with both ships drifting under wind and current, it proved futile.

  With a wary eye on the increasing height of the swells sweeping against the port side of his ship, he boosted the power to the thrusters and Z-drives every time one threatened to shove Deep Encounter crashing against the massive stern of Emerald Dolphin. It was a battle that he did not always win. He'd wince, knowing that hull plates were being crushed and buckled. He didn't have to be a psychic to know that water was beginning to spurt through the ruptures. A few feet away in the pilothouse, Leo Delgado computed weight and list factors as literally tons of survivors poured on the survey ship like an unending tidal wave. Already, the Plimsoll marks, indicating the maximum load level on the hull, were eighteen inches below the surface.

  Pitt took on the job of masterminding and directing the rescue operation. To those working frantically to save more than two thousand people, it seemed he was everywhere, giving orders over his portable radio, pulling survivors from the water, directing the boats to where those in the water had drifted away, helping work the cranes as the boats were brought on board and unloaded. He shepherded survivors descending down the lines into the waiting arms of the scientists who then guided or carried them below. He caught children in midair whose arms and hands had gone numb from the effort and let go of the last ten feet of line. With no small apprehension, he saw that the ship was becoming dangerously overloaded with another one thousand passengers yet to save.

  He ran up to the pilothouse to check with Delgado on the weight distribution. "How bad is it?"

  Delgado looked up from his computer and gave a gloomy shake of his head. "Not good. Add another three feet to our draft and we'll become a submarine."

  "We've still another thousand bodies to go."

  "In this sea, the waves will start surging over the gunnels if we take on another five hundred. Tell your scientists they've got to spread more survivors toward the bow. We're getting too heavy in the stern."

  Absorbing the bad news, Pitt gazed up at the multitude of people sliding or being lowered on the lines. Then he looked down to the work deck as a rescue boat unloaded another sixty survivors. There was no way he could condemn hundreds of people to their deaths by refusing to save them aboard the little survey ship. A solution, although partial, formed in his mind. He hurried to the work deck and assembled several of the ship's crew.

  "We've got to lighten the ship," he said. "Cut the anchors and chain and drop free. Hoist the submersibles over the side and let them drift in the water. We can pick them up later. Every piece of equipment that weighs over ten pounds, toss it overboard."

  After the submersibles were swung over and released to float away, the huge A-frame on the stern of the ship that was used to launch and recover oceanographic equipment was unmounted and dropped over the sides as well. Except that it didn't float. It went straight to the bottom of the sea, followed by several winches and their miles of heavy cable. He was cheered to see that the hull rose out of the water by nearly six inches.

  Next, as another weight-saving measure, he instructed the men in the boats as they came alongside, "Our load problem has become critical. After you pick up your final haul of survivors, remain adrift next to the ship, but do not send anyone aboard."

  The message was acknowledged by a wave of the hand as the helmsmen steered the boats back toward the mass of people struggling in the water.

  Pitt looked up as McFerrin hailed him from above. From his vantage point, the second officer could see that the survey ship, despite the equipment that was jettisoned, was still dangerously low in the water. "How many more can you take on board?"

  "How many people are still left up there?"

  "Four hundred, give or take. Mostly crew now that the passengers have fled."

  "Send them down," Pitt instructed him. "Is that the lot?"

  "No," answered McFerrin. "Half the crew escaped to the bow."

  "Can you give me a number?"

  "Another four hundred and fifty." McFerrin looked at the big man on the Deep Encounter who seemed to be running the evacuation with incredible efficiency. "May I have your name, sir?"

  "Dirk Pitt, special projects director for NUMA. And you?"

  "Second Officer Charles McFerrin."

  "Where is your captain?"

  "Captain Waitkus is missing," McFerrin replied, "and believed dead."

  Pitt could see that McFerrin had suffered burns. "Hurry down, Charlie. I've got a bottle of tequila waiting for you."

  "I prefer scotch."

  "I'll distill a bottle especially for you."

  Pitt turned away and raised his hands to snatch a little girl off a line and pass her into the waiting arms of Misty Graham, one of the Deep Encounter's three marine biologists. The mother and father followed and were quickly guided below. Moments later, Pitt was lifting swimmers onto the work deck who were too exhausted to climb from the rescue boats on their own.

  "Circle around to the cruise ship's port side," he ordered the boat's helmsman, "and pick up the people who were carried away by the current and waves."

  The helmsman looked up at Pitt, exhaustion straining his face, and managed a faint grin. "I've yet to receive one tip."

  "I'll see they put it on the tab later," Pitt said, grinning back. "Now get going before-"

  The piercing cry of a child seemed to come from beneath his feet. He ran to the rail and looked down. A young girl, no more than eight years old, was hanging on to a rope that dangled over the side. Somehow she had fallen overboard after coming on board and been overlooked in the confusion. Pitt lay on his stomach and reached down, gripping her by the wrists as she crested on a wave. Then he pulled her free of the water and onto the deck.

  "Did you have a nice swim?" he asked,
trying to diminish her shock.

  "It's too rough," she said, rubbing her eyes, which were swollen from smoke.

  "Do you know if your parents came with you?"

  She nodded. "They climbed out of the boat with my two brothers and sister. I fell in the water and nobody saw me."

 
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