Iceberg, page 1
CLIVE CUSSLER _ ICEBERG
The drug-induced sleep wore off into nothingness, and the girl began the agonizing struggle back to consciousness. A dim and hazy light greeted her slowly opening eyes while a disgusting, putrid stench invaded her nostrils. She was nude, her bare back pressed flat against a damp, yellow, slime-coated wall. It was unreal, an impossibility, she tried to tell herself upon awakening. It had to be some kind of horrifying nightmare. Then suddenly, before she had a chance to fight the panic mushrooming inside her, the yellow slime on the floor rose and began working up the thighs of her defenseless body.
Terrified beyond all reason, she began screaming screaming insanely as the abomination crawled ever upward over the naked sweating skin. Her eyes bulged from their sockets and she struggled desperately.
It was useless-her wrists and ankles were chained tightly to the ooze-covered surface of the wall. Slowly, ever slowly, the ungodly slime crept across her breasts.
And then, just as the unspeakable horror touched the girl's lips, a vibrating roar and a phantom, unseen voice echoed throughout the darkened chamber.
"Sorry to interrupt your study period, Lieutenant, but duty calls."
Lieutenant Sam Neth snapped the book in his hands shut. "Dammit, Rapp," he said this to the sour-faced man seated beside him in the cockpit of the droning aircraft-"every time I come to an interesting part, you butt in."
Ensign James Rapp nodded toward the book, its paperback cover illustrating a girl struggling in a pool of yellow slime-kept afloat, Rapp deduced, by a pair of immense buoyant breasts. "How can you read that crap?"
"Crap?" Neth grimaced painfully. "Not only do you invade my privacy, Ensign, you also fancy yourself my personal literary critic!" He threw his big hands up in mock despair. "Why do they always assign me a copilot whose primitive brain refuses to accept contemporary style and sophistication?" Neth reached over and placed the book in a crudely constructed rack hanging from the side panel by a coat hanger. Several dog-eared magazines, depicting the unclothed female body in numerous seductive positions, also rested in the rack, making it quite apparent that Neth's taste in literature didn't exactly take in the classics.
Neth sighed, then straightened up in his seat and peered through the windshield at the sea below.
The United States Coast Guard patrol plane was four hours, twenty minutes into a dull and routine eight-hour iceberg surveillance and charting mission. Visibility was diamond-clear under a cloudless sky, and the wind barely moved the rolling swells-a unique condition for the North Atlantic in the middle of March. In the cockpit, Neth, with four of the crew members, piloted and navigated the huge four-engined Boeing aircraft, while the other six crewmen took up office in the cargo section, eyeballing the radar scopes and other scientific instruments. Neth checked his watch and then turned the plane on a sweeping arc, settling the nose on a straight course toward the Newfoundland coast.
"So much for duty." Neth relaxed and reached for his horror book.
"Please show a little initiative, Rapp. No more interruptions till we make St. John's."
"I'll try," Rapp responded dourly. "If that book's so absorbing, how about letting me borrow it when you're finished?"
Neth yawned. "Sorry. I make it a point never to lend out my private library." Suddenly the headset crackled in his ear, and he picked up a microphone. "Okay Hadley, what have you got?"
Back in the dimly lighted belly of the plane, Seaman First Class Buzz Hadley stared intently at the radar set, his face reflecting an unearthly green glow from the scope. "I have a weird reading, sir. Eighteen miles, bearing three-four-seven."
Neth clicked the mike switch. "Come, come, Hadley. What do you mean by weird? Are you reading an iceberg, or have you tuned your set into an old Dracula movie?"
"Maybe he's picking up your sexy terror novel," Rapp grunted.
Hadley came back on. "Judging from the configuration and size, it's a berg, but my signal is much too strong for ordinary ice."
"Very well." Neth sighed. "We'll have a look-see."
He frowned at Rapp. "Be a good boy and bring us around to course three-four-seven."
Rapp nodded and turned the control column, executing the course change. The plane, accompanied by the steady roar of the four Pratt-tney piston engines and their endless vibrating beat, gently banked toward a new horizon.
Neth picked up a pair of binoculars and trained them on the unending expanse of blue water. He adjusted the focus knobs and held the glasses as steady as possible against the quivering movement of the aircraft.
Then he glimpsed it-a white inanimate speck, sitting serenely on a glistening sapphire sea. Slowly, the iceberg grew larger inside the two circular walled tunnels of the binoculars as the cockpit's windshield closed the distance. Then Neth picked up the microphone.
"What do you make of it, Sloan?"
Lieutenant Jonis Sloan, the chief ice observer aboard the patrol plane, was already studying the berg through a half-open cargo door behind the control cabin.
"Run-of-the-mill, garden variety," Sloan's robotlike voice came over the earphones. "A tabular berg with a mesa top. I'd guess about two hundred feet high, probably about one million tons."
"Run-of-the-mill?" Neth sounded almost surprised. "Garden variety? Thank you, Sloan, for your highly enlightening description. I can hardly wait to visit there someday." He turned to Rapp. "What's our altitude?"
Rapp kept his eyes glued straight ahead. "One thousand feet. The same altitude we've been at all day . . . and yesterday . . .
and the day before that-"
"Just checking, thank you," Neth interrupted pontifically. "You'll never know, Rapp, how increasingly secure my old age becomes with your able talents at the controls."
He fitted a battered pair of flying goggles to his eyes, braced himself for the blasting cold, and opened his side window for a closer look. "Here she is," motioning to Rapp. "Make a couple of passes, and we shall see what we shall see."
It took only a few seconds for Neth's face to feel like the embattled surface of a pin cushion; the icy air tore at his skin until it thankfully turned numb. He gritted his teeth and kept his eyes glued to the berg.
The huge ice mass looked like a ghostly clipper ship under full sail as it floated gracefully beneath the cockpit windows.
Rapp eased the throttles back and twisted the controls slightly, sending the patrol plane into a wide, sweeping bank to port. He ignored the bank and turn indicator and judged his angle by peering over Neth's shoulder at the gleaming mound of ice.
Three times he circled, waiting for a sign from Neth to level the plane out. Finally Neth pulled his head in and picked up the microphone.
"Hadley! That berg is as bare as a newborn baby's ass."
"There's something down there, Lieutenant," Hadley came back. "I've got a beautiful blip on my-"
"I think I've spotted a dark object, skipper," Sloan interrupted. "Down near the waterline on the west face."
Neth turned to Rapp. "Swing down to a hundred feet."
It took only minutes for Rapp to comply. More minutes passed and still he circled the berg, holding the aircraft's speed a bare twenty miles an hour above stalling.
"Closer," Neth murmured intently, "another hundred feet."
"Why don't we simply land on the damn thing," Rapp offered conversationally. If he was overly concerned, he didn't look it.
His face wore the expression of one who was about to fall asleep. Only the tiny beads of sweat on his brow betrayed the total concentration upon the risky flying job at hand. The blue swells seemed so near, he felt as if he could reach past Neth's shoulder and touch them. And to add fuel to his growing tenseness, the walls of the iceberg now towered above the plane, the
Neth became aware of something now . . . something indistinct, something flying across the unseen threshold between imagination and reality. It slowly materialized into a tangible thing, a manmade form.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity to Rapp, Neth pulled his head back into the cabin, again closed the side window, and pressed the mike switch.
"Sloan? Did you see it?" The words sounded stiff and muffled, as if Neth were talking through a pillow.
At first, Rapp thought it was because Neth's jaw and lips were frozen with the cold, but then he sneaked a fast glance and was surprised to see Neth's face frozen, not with cold but with the blank look of genuine awe.
"I saw it." Sloan's voice came over the intercom like a mechanical echo. "But I didn't think it was possible."
"Neither did I," Neth said, "but it's down there-a ship, a goddamned ghost ship imbedded in the ice." He turned to Rapp, shaking his head as if he didn't believe is own words. "I couldn't make out any details. Just a blurred outline of the bow, or maybe the stern, it's impossible to tell for certain."
He slipped off the goggles and raised the thumb of his right hand in the air, motioning up. Gratefully Rapp sighed and leveled out the patrol plane, putting a comfortable margin of space between the aircraft's underbelly and the cold Atlantic.
"Excuse me, Lieutenant." Hadley came through over the headphones.
He was hunched over his radar set, painstakingly studying a little white blip almost in the exact center of the scope. "For what it's worth, the overall length of that thing in the berg is in the neighborhood of one hundred and twenty-five feet."
"A derelict fishing trawler, most likely." Neth vigorously massaged his cheeks, wincing at the pain as the circulation began to return.
"Shall I contact District Headquarters in New York and request a rescue party?" Rapp asked matterof-factly.
Neth shook his head. "No need to rush a rescue ship. It's obvious there are no survivors. We'll make a detailed report after we've landed in Newfoundland."
There was a pause. Then Sloan's voice came through.
"Make a pass over the berg, skipper. I'll drop a dye marker on it for quick identification."
"Right you are, Sloan. Make the drop at my signal." Neth turned again to Rapp. "Bring us over the high part of the berg at 3
three hundred feet."
The Boeing, its four engines still turning at reduced power, swept over the stately iceberg like a monstrous Mesozoic bird in search of its primeval nest.
Back at the cargo door, Sloan raised his arm, pausing.
Then at Neth's spoken command, Sloan tossed a gallon pickle jar full of red dye out into space. The jar grew smaller and smaller, shrinking to a tiny speck before finally striking the smooth cliff face of the target. Peering back, Sloan could see a bright vermilion streak spreading slowly down the million-ton mound of ice.
"Right on the button." Neth almost sounded jovial. "The search party won't have any trouble spotting that one." Then suddenly grim-faced, he stared down toward the spot where the unknown ship lay entombed.
"Poor devils. I wonder if we'll ever know what happened to them?"
Rapp's eyes took on a thoughtful look. "They couldn't have asked for a bigger tombstone."
"It's only temporary. Two weeks after that berg drifts into the Gulf Stream, there won't be enough left of it to chill a six-pack of beer.
The cabin became clouded by a silence, a silence that seemed intensified by the incessant drone of the plane's engines.
Neither man spoke for several moments, each lost in his own thoughts. They could only look at the ominous pinnacle of white rising out of the sea and speculate on the enigma locked beneath its icy mantle.
At last Neth slouched backward nearly horizontal in his seat and became his old imperturbable self again.
"I strongly suggest, Ensign, unless you have a hankering to ditch this lumbering bus in forty-degree water, you take us home before the fuel gauges die from thirst." He grinned menacingly. "And please, no interruptions."
Rapp threw Neth a withering look, then shrugged and turned the patrol plane once more on a course toward Newfoundland.
When the Coast Guard patrol plane had disappeared and the last steady beat of its engines had faded away in the cold salt air, the towering iceberg once again lay enshrouded in the deathly stillness it had endured since being broken from a glacier and forced into the sea off the west coast of Greenland nearly a year before.
Then suddenly there was a slight but perceptible movement on the ice just above the waterline of the berg.
Two indistinct shapes slowly transformed into two men who rose to their feet and stared in the direction of the retreating aircraft. From more than twenty paces they would have been invisible to the unaided eye-both wore white suits that blended in perfectly with the colorless background.
They stood there for a long time, patiently waiting and listening. When they were satisfied the patrol plane was not returning, one of the men knelt and brushed away the ice, revealing a small radio transmitter and receiver. Extending the ten-foot telescopic aerial, he set the frequency and began turning the crank handle. He didn't have to crank very hard or very long.
Someone, somewhere, was keeping a tight watch on the same frequency, and the answer came almost immediately.
Lieutenant Commander Lee Koski clamped his teeth a notch tighter on the stem of a corncob pipe, jammed his knotted fists two inches deeper in his fur-lined windbreaker and shivered in the intense cold. Two months past forty-one years, eighteen of them in the service of the United States Coast Guard, Koski was short, very short, and the heavy, multi-layered clothing made him look nearly as wide as he was high. His blue eyes beneath the shaggy wheat-colored hair gleanyed with an intensity that never seemed to dim, regardless of his mood. He possessed the confident manner of a perfectionist, a quality that helped in no small measure in his section as commander of the Coast Guard's newest supercutter the Catawaba. He stood on the bridge like a gamecock, legs braced apart, and didn't bother to turn when he spoke to the tall mountain of a man standing beside him.
"Even with radar, they'll play hell finding us in this weather." The tone was as crisp and penetrating as the cold Atlantic air.
"Visibility can't be more than a mile."
Slowly, deliberately, Lieutenant Amos Dover, the Catawaba's Executive Officer, flipped a cigarette butt ten feet straight into the air and watched with analytical interest as the smoking white tube was caught by the wind and carried over the ship's bridge, far out into the rolling sea.
"Wouldn't make any difference if they did," he mumbled through lips that were turning blue from the chilly breeze. "The way we're pitching, the pilot of that helicopter would have to be extremely dumb or dead drunk or both to even consider touching down back there." He nodded aft toward the Catawaba's landing platform, already wet from the blowing spray.
"Some people don't give a damn how they die," Koski said severly.
"No one can say they weren't warned." Dover not only looked like a big bear, but his voice seemed to growl from somewhere deep within his stomach, "I signaled the copter right after it left St. John's, informing it of the building sea and strongly advising against a rendezvous. All I got from the pilot was a polite thank you."
It was beginning to drizzle now, and the twenty-five-knot breeze flung the rain over the ship in driving sheets that soon sent 4
all the men who were on duty above deck scurrying for their oilskins. Fortunately for the Catawaba and her crew, the air temperature held at 40'F, still eight degrees away from the dread of freezing, a nasty situation that would have quickly covered the entire ship with a blanket of ice.
Koski and Dover had just slipped into their oilskins, when the l
Koski picked up the hand transmitter and acknowledged. Then he turned to Dover. "I fear," he said casually, "a plot is brewing."
"You're wondering why all the urgency to take on passengers?" Dover asked.
"I am indeed. I'm also wondering why the orders to stand by station and receive a civilian helicopter came direct from the Commandant's Headquarters in Washington instead of our own district command."
"Damned inconsiderate of the Commandant," Koski growled, "Dot to tell us what these people want. One thing's certain, they're not going(, to find themselves on a pleasure cruise to Tahiti-" Koski suddenly stiffened and cocked an ear in the direction of the unmistakably thumping beat of a helicopter's rotor blade. For half a minute it was invisible in the heavy overcast. Then both men spotted it at the same time. It was coming from the west, through the light rain, and heading in a direct line toward the ship.
Koski recognized it immediately as a two-seater civilian version of the Ulysses Q-55, a craft capable of nearly two hundred and fifty miles an hour.
"He's nuts to try it," Dover said dryly.
Koski didn't comment. He grabbed the transmitter again and exploded into it. "Signal the pilot of that copter, and tell him not to attempt a touchdown while we're pushing through ten-foot-high swells. Tell him I won't be responsible for any insane actions on his part."
Koski waited for a few seconds, his eyes glued to the helicopter. "Well?"
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