Valhalla Rising, page 15
Pitt leaned over the small console that contained the controls for the manipulator arm. With a light touch of the knobs and levers, he began moving the articulated arm downward until it began probing and sifting through the charred debris with its mechanical fingers.
Clearing a ten-foot-square area and finding nothing of interest, he glanced at Giordino. "Move us five feet forward."
Giordino complied and sat patiently until Pitt asked him to maneuver the sub to another search grid. There was little conversation while each man became engrossed in his own tasks. Thirty minutes later, Pitt had sifted and examined most of the chapel area. As luck would have it, he found what he was looking for in the last grid. A strange-looking substance lay in a tiny twisted lump on the deck. The object or substance, less than six inches in length and two inches wide, did not have the usual heat-fused look to it, but rather it appeared smooth and rounded. Its colors were odd, too. Instead of black or scorched gray, it had a greenish tint to it.
"Time is up," Giordino warned. "We don't have much oxygen in reserve to reach the surface safely."
"I think we may have found what we came for," said Pitt. "Give me another five minutes."
Very tenderly, he worked the fingers of the manipulator and slowly eased them under the peculiar material half buried in the ashes. When the object was delicately gripped, Pitt fingered the controls and lifted it free of the incinerated debris. Next he pulled back the mechanical arm and cautiously set the payload into the artifact basket. Only then did he release the fingers and pull back the arm to its locked position.
"Let's head for home."
Giordino sent the submersible into a slow, gliding 180-degree turn and aimed it back through the shopping avenue area.
Abruptly, there was a clunk sound and the submersible jerked to a stop. For a moment, neither man spoke. Misty's hands came together against her breasts in sudden fear. Pitt and Giordino merely looked at each other and briefly dwelled on the possibility that they might be irreversibly trapped for eternity in this hideous place.
"I do believe you struck something," Pitt said casually.
"It would seem so," Giordino replied, about as agitated as a three-toed sloth who didn't like the taste of a leaf he was chewing on.
Pitt tilted his head and stared through the overhead viewport. "It looks like the ballast tank is hung up on a beam."
"I should have seen it."
"It wasn't here when we entered. I suspect it must have fallen after we passed."
Misty was frightened, and she couldn't understand how the two men could make light of such a deadly situation. She did not know that Pitt and Giordino had been in far tighter spots than this during their long friendship. Humor was a mechanism to keep their minds clear from creeping thoughts of fear and death.
Giordino gently eased the Navigator backward and down. There was a horrendous screeching noise. Then the sub broke free and the eerie void became silent again.
"The tank does not look good," reported Pitt stoically. "It's badly dented and looks to be caved in across the top."
"Since it's already full of seawater, at least it can't leak."
"Luckily, we won't need it for the trip home."
Outwardly, Giordino looked as serene as a millpond, but down deep he was greatly relieved when he evaded the maze of hanging debris and piloted the Navigator into open water again. As soon as they were clear of the wreck and Giordino dropped the weight for the ascent, Pitt called the surface again. When he received no reply, his eyes became pensive.
"I don't understand why the communications phone is inoperative," he said slowly. "There is nothing wrong with the system on this end, and they're far better equipped to deal with any problem than we are."
"Murphy's Law can strike anywhere, anytime," Giordino said philosophically.
"I don't think the problem is serious," said Misty, vastly relieved that they were on their way to the surface and sunshine.
Pitt gave up trying to contact the Deep Encounter. He switched off the camera and external lighting systems to conserve battery power in case of an emergency. Then he relaxed in his seat and took up his crossword puzzle again. He soon finished it except for 22 across. Ring-necked Fuzzwort. Then he killed time by taking a nap.
Three hours later, the water began to turn from deep black to deep blue again as the colors of the spectrum returned. Looking through the overhead view port, they could see the sea's restless surface shimmering and sparkling above. Less than a minute later, the Abyss Navigator broke the surface. They were happy to find the swells rolling over at a mere two feet between crest and trough. The submersible, her mass still several feet below the surface, only slightly pitched and rolled.
There were still no communications with the survey ship on the surface. They could not see the ship because all but one of the view ports were below. The top port offered no horizontal vision; the sub's crew could only look straight up. They waited for the divers to come and attach the lifting cable, but after ten minutes, there was no sign of them. Something was not going according to plan.
"Still no contact," said Pitt. "No diving team. Have they all fallen asleep?"
"Maybe the ship sank," Giordino said jokingly between yawns.
"Don't say that," Misty scolded him.
Pitt grinned at her. "Not very likely. Certainly not in calm water."
"Since the waves aren't sloshing over the top, why not crack the hatch and have a look?"
"A sound proposal," said Misty. "I'm tired of breathing male body odor."
"You should have said something sooner," said Giordino cavalierly. He held up a bottle of new car odor spray and misted the submersible. "Foul air, begone."
Pitt could not help but laugh as he stood up in the narrow tunnel that traveled through the damaged buoyancy tank. He was concerned that the collision with the beam might have jammed the hatch, but after turning the wheel that snugged it down, it swung back on its hinge with little effort. He then crawled through and stood with his head and shoulders above the hatch, breathing in the fresh sea air and looking around for the survey ship and small boats with the dive recovery team. His eyes made a 360-degree sweep of the horizons.
It would be futile to describe the storm of incredulity and emotion that swept through him then. His reactions ranged from utter bewilderment to pure shock.
The seas were empty. Deep Encounter had vanished. It was as though she had never existed.
They came aboard at almost the same moment the Abyss Navigator reached the seabed and Pitt phoned in a status report. The crew was going about their routine duties while the scientific team was in the command center monitoring Pitt and Giordino's investigation of the Emerald Dolphin's wreck. The hijacking came so suddenly and unexpectedly, no one on Deep Encounter realized it was happening.
Burch was leaning back in his chair, arms folded across his chest, eyeing the monitors, when Delgado, who was standing next to the radar equipment, noticed a fast-moving blip on the screen. "We have a visitor coming our way out of the northeast."
"Probably a warship," said Burch, without turning from the monitors. "We're a good two miles off the commercial shipping lanes."
"She doesn't have the look of a warship," answered Delgado. "But she appears to be moving at a fairly high rate of speed, and she's coming straight at us."
Burch's eyebrows rose. Without replying to Delgado, he picked up a pair of binoculars and walked out onto the bridge wing. As he stared into the distance through the 7-by-50 lenses, a bright orange-and-white boat increased in size as it cut the water toward Deep Encounter. Any hint of apprehension faded. The approaching vessel did not seem to suggest any threat.
"What do you make of her?" asked Delgado.
"An oil company utility work boat, a big one," replied Burch. "And fast, by the look of the spray flying over her bow. Good for at least thirty knots."
"I wonder where she came from. There are no oil rigs within a thousand miles."
"Does she have a name or a company emblem on the hull?"
"Odd," Burch said slowly. "The name on her bow and any sign of whatever company owns her are covered over."
As if prompted, the radio operator joined them on the bridge wing. "I have the skipper of the oil company boat on the ship's phone," he said to Burch.
The captain opened a watertight box and switched on the bridge wing speaker. "This is Captain Burch of the NUMA ship Deep Encounter. Go ahead."
"Captain Wheeler of the Mistral Oil Company boat Pegasus. Do you have a doctor on board?"
"Affirmative. What is your complication?"
"We have a badly injured man."
"Come alongside and I'll send over our ship's doctor."
"Better we bring him aboard your ship. We have no medical facilities or supplies."
Burch looked at Delgado. "You heard?"
"Most odd," said Delgado.
"My thoughts also," agreed Burch. "Having no doctor on a work boat is understandable, but no medical supplies? That doesn't figure."
Delgado began to step toward the companionway. "I'll have a crew standing by to hoist a stretcher on board."
The work boat came to a stop about fifty yards away from the survey ship. A few minutes later, a launch was lowered, with a man covered with blankets on a litter and laid across the seats. Four men also entered the launch, and it was soon rising and dropping in the waves next to the Deep Encounter's, hull. Unexpectedly, three of the work boat's crew jumped on board and helped lift the injured man onto the work deck, rudely pushing the Deep Encounter's crew aside.
Suddenly, the visitors threw back the blankets and snatched up automatic weapons that had been hidden beneath them and turned them on Burch's survey crew. The man on the stretcher leaped to his feet, took an offered gun and ran toward the starboard stairway leading to the bridge.
Burch and Delgado realized immediately that it was a hijacking. On a commercial ship or private yacht, they'd have rushed to a gun locker and begun passing out weapons. But under international law, survey ships were not allowed to carry arms. They could do nothing but stand helpless until the intruder stepped onto the bridge deck.
The hijacker did not look like a pirate, no peg leg, parrot or eye patch. He had more of an executive air about him. The hair was prematurely gray, the face dark. He was of medium height with a stomach slightly larger than his waist. He wore the appearance of a man comfortable with authority, and he was smartly dressed in a golf shirt and Bermuda shorts. Almost as an act of courtesy, he did not aim the muzzle of his automatic rifle at either Burch or Delgado, but held it casually pointed toward the sky.
For a moment, they inspected one another warily. Then the intruder ignored Delgado and turned to Burch, speaking politely in American English. "Captain Burch, I presume."
"And you are?"
"My name is of no consequence," the pirate said in a tone that rasped like a file against iron. "I hope you will offer no resistance."
"What in hell are you doing on my ship?" Burch demanded.
"We are confiscating it," replied the intruder, with a hard edge in his tone. "No one will be harmed."
Burch stared at him incredulously. "This ship is the property of the United States government. You don't have the authority to simply walk on board and confiscate her."
"Oh, but we can." He held up the gun. "This is our authority."
As he spoke, the three armed gunmen on the work deck began rounding up the survey ship's crew. The workboat's launch soon returned with ten more armed men, who stationed themselves throughout the ship.
"This is madness," snarled Burch indignantly. "What do you hope to accomplish by this criminal act?"
The tall, dark man smiled deprecatingly. "You can't begin to comprehend the purpose."
An armed hijacker approached. "Sir, the ship is secure and all crew members and scientists are under guard in the dining area."
"The engine room?"
"Awaiting your orders."
"Then prepare to get under way. I want full speed."
"You won't get anywhere fast enough not to get caught," said Delgado. "She won't do more than ten knots."
The hijacker laughed. "Ten knots? You shame your ship, sir. I happen to know you made twice that in speeding to the Emerald Dolphin's rescue. However, even twenty knots is too slow." He paused and motioned to the bow, where the workboat was moving into position in preparation for taking the survey ship in tow. "Between the two of us, we should be able to make over twenty-five knots."
"Where are you taking us?" demanded Delgado, as angry as Burch had ever seen him.
"It's not your concern," the man rasped carelessly. "Have I your word, Captain, that you and your crew will not attempt to resist or disobey my orders?"
"You have guns," Burch said simply. "We have no arms other than kitchen knives."
While they talked, the tow rope was brought aboard and looped over the Deep Encounter's, forward bollard. Burch's eyes suddenly took on a look of naked discomfort.
"We cannot leave!" he said sharply. "Not yet!"
The hijacker gazed at him, trying to read any sign of a crafty expression. He saw none. "Already you are questioning my orders."
"You don't understand," said Delgado. "We have a submersible down on the seabed with two men and a woman inside. We can't just leave them."
"A pity." The pirate shrugged indifferently. "They will have to make land on their own."
"Impossible. That would be murder."
"Don't they have communications with the outside world?"
"They have only a small portable radio and an underwater acoustic phone," explained Delgado. "They couldn't contact another vessel or aircraft unless they were within two miles of them."
"Good lord, man," pleaded Burch. "When they return to the surface and find us gone, they'll have no hope of rescue. Not this far off the shipping lanes. You'll be signing their death warrants."
"Not my problem."
Enraged, Burch took a step toward the hijacker, who swiftly raised his gun and shoved the muzzle against the captain's chest. "It would not be wise to antagonize me, Captain."
His fists clenched at his sides, Burch stood there staring at the black man as if he was mad, then turned and gazed vacantly at the area of the sea where he had last seen the Abyss Navigator. "God help you if those men die," he said, in a voice that could have cut steel. "Because you will surely pay."
"If there is retribution," said the pirate coldly, "you will not be the one to enforce it."
Defeated and heartsick thinking about Pitt, Giordino and Misty, with no course of action open to them and no ground to negotiate, Burch and Delgado could only allow themselves to be led away to the dining hall by an armed guard.
Before the Abyss Navigator had risen to the surface, the Deep Encounter had long disappeared beyond the northeastern horizon.
Sandecker was working at his desk, so intent that he did not immediately notice that Rudi Gunn had entered the office and sat down across from him. Gunn was a little man with a genial disposition. The remaining wisps of hair across the top of his head, the thick horn-rimmed glasses, the inexpensive watch on his wrist suggested a dull and colorless bureaucrat who slaved away unnoticed in a cubicle behind the water cooler.
Gunn was anything but colorless. Number one in his class at Annapolis, he'd served with distinction in the Navy before joining Sandecker at NUMA as assistant director and chief of operations. Known to possess a brilliant mind coupled with a pragmatic instinct, he ran the day-to-day operations of NUMA with an efficiency unknown in other government agencies. Gunn was a close friend of Pitt and Giordino. He often stood behind and backed their wild, adventurous schemes that ran counter to Sandecker's directives.
"Sorry to interrupt, Admiral, but we have a serious problem."
"What is it this time?" asked Sandecker, without looking up, "Another project running over budget?"
"I'm afraid it's far worse."
Only now did the admiral glance up from his paperwork. "What do you have?"
"The Deep Encounter and all on board have vanished."
There was no hint of surprise. No questioning expression. No automatic repeat of the word vanished. He sat with icy calm, waiting for Gunn to elaborate.
"All our radio and satellite phone inquiries have gone unanswered-" Gunn began to explain.
"There could be any one of a hundred reasons for a breakdown in communications," Sandecker cut in.
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