Valhalla rising, p.30

Valhalla Rising, page 30

 

Valhalla Rising
 



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  It didn't take a motion picture of the event for the passengers to know something very tragic was in the making. Yet as long as the passenger decks remained water-free and none of the crew looked frightened-since this was their first voyage in a submarine, none of them realized what real danger they were in-no one panicked. Captain Baldwin came on the speaker system and assured everyone that although the Golden Marlin had lost power, things would be back to normal shortly. The story, however, did not fly with the passengers and crew who'd noticed that almost all the pod chambers were empty. Some milled around in confusion. Some remained at the view ports and gazed at the fish who appeared after the silt settled. Some retired to the lounge and ordered drinks that were now on the house.

  Captain Baldwin and his officers began studying emergency procedures that came out of corporate manuals written by those who had no concept of how to deal with a submarine cruise liner lying helpless on the bottom with seven hundred souls on board. While the hull was sounded to make certain it was still mostly watertight and the bulkhead doors closed, the engineering crew set the pumps in operation to keep up with the sea flowing into the engine room and baggage compartment. Fortunately, all the systems but propulsion appeared unaffected by damage from the explosions.

  Baldwin sat in the communications room like a man in a daze. With great effort, he opened up communications with Lasch at the company headquarters, the Coast Guard and any ships that were within fifty miles, in that order. He issued a Mayday and gave the Golden Marlin's position. That done, he sat back and laid his head in his hands. At first, he worried that his long career at sea would be ended. Then it came to him how unimportant his career was under the circumstances. His first duty was to his passengers" and crew. "Damn the career," he muttered under his breath. He stood and walked from the bridge, first to the engine room for a full report and then he roamed the ship reassuring the passengers that they were in no immediate danger. He gave out the story that there was a problen with the ballast tanks, and repairs were in effect.

  Together, Pitt, Giordino and O'Malley went down to the evacua-tion pod deck. O'Malley began opening inspection panels and check-ing the system. There was something oddly reassuring about the big Irishman. He knew his job and knew it well. No lost motion with him. Less than five minutes after he began his inspection, he steppec back from the open panels, sat down in a chair and sighed. "Whoever activated the evacuation pods knew his business. He overrode the cir-cuits leading to the bridge and set the pods in motion by using the emergency manual controls. Luckily, it looks like one pod failed to release."

  "Small consolation," muttered Giordino.

  Pitt slowly shook his head in defeat. "They've been two steps ahead of us from the beginning. I have to give than an A for planning."

  "Who's they?" asked O'Malley.

  "Men who will murder children as easily as you and I would kill flies."

  "It makes no sense."

  "Not to sane people."

  "We still have one pod to put the children in," said Giordino.

  "It's the captain's job to give the order," Pitt said, staring at the remaining pod. "The question is, how many can we put in it?"

  An hour later, a Coast Guard cutter arrived on the scene, hauled aboard the orange marker buoy released from the Golden Marlin with a telephone line and opened communications to the boat. Only then did Baldwin give the command to gather the passengers into the theater and explain the situation. He concentrated on minimizing the danger and stated that it was in keeping with company regulations to send the youngest to the surface in case of an emergency. None of it sat well. Questions were raised. Tempers flared, and it was all the captain could do to defuse the anger and fear.

  Before the pod was loaded, Pitt and O'Malley sat at a computer in the purser's office and estimated the number of bodies the pod could carry beyond the safe limits as stated by the manufacturer and still float free to the surface.

  While they were absorbed in their work, Giordino left them to look for Kelly.

  "How many children on board?" asked O'Malley.

  Using the purser's list of passengers, Pitt totaled up the number. "Fifty-four who are under the age of eighteen."

  "The pods are constructed to carry fifty people with an average weight of one hundred and sixty pounds, for a total weight limit of eight thousand pounds. Anything above that and they won't float to the surface."

  "We can cut that figure in half. The kids should average around eighty pounds or less."

  "Now that we're down to four thousand pounds, that leaves room for some of the mothers," said O'Malley, feeling odd to be discussing whose lives would be saved.

  "Take an average weight of one-forty and we have room for nearly twenty-nine mothers."

  O'Malley punched up the families and number of children. "There are twenty-seven mothers on board," he said with a hint of optimism. "Thank God we can evacuate all of them and their children."

  "We have to ignore the new tradition of keeping families together," said Pitt. "The men make up too much weight."

  "I agree," O'Malley said heavily.

  "We still have room for one or two more bodies."

  "We can't exactly ask the other six hundred and seventeen passengers and crew to draw straws."

  "No," said Pitt. "We have to send someone, one of us, who can give a detailed report on the situation down here that can't be fully interpreted through underwater communications."

  "I'm more important here," O'Malley said firmly.

  Giordino returned at that moment. The expression on his face was not one of pleasure. "Kelly has disappeared," he said simply. "I put together a search party, but we can find no trace of her."

  "Bloody hell," Pitt swore. He did not question Giordino, did not doubt for a moment that Kelly had indeed vanished. Gut instinct alone told him it was true. Suddenly, the photo of a passenger filled his mind. He programmed in the passenger list on the computer and typed the name Jonathan Ford.

  The picture of Ford taken as he stepped off the gangway onto the deck filled the monitor. Next, Pitt hit the print key and waited until a colored image rolled from the printer. While O'Malley and Giordino stood silent, he studied the face, comparing it mentally with the pilot of the red Fokker he'd met at the air show before the dogfight. He took the image over to a desk, took a pencil and began shading in the man's face. When he was finished, he felt as if a fist had struck him in the stomach.

  "He was here on board and I missed him."

  Completely adrift, O'Malley asked, "Who are you talking about?"

  "The man who nearly killed me along with a planeload of children in New York, and the one responsible for us lying helpless on the bottom and releasing empty evacuation pods. I'm afraid that he escaped in one of the pods and took Kelly with him."

  Giordino placed a hand on Pitt's shoulder. He could appreciate how bad Pitt felt. He felt that he had failed as well, and it came back to haunt him.

  Pitt made a mental note of Ford's stateroom number, and hurried out into the passageway, followed by Giordino and O'Malley. Pitt was not in any frame of mind to take the time to ask the stateroom stewardess for a key. He hauled off and kicked the door open. The stewardess had made up the room, but there was no sign of luggage. Pitt pulled open the drawers of the dressers. They were bare. Giordino opened the closet and saw a white object far up on the top shelve. He reached up and pulled down a thick roll of paper and spread it out on the bed.

  "The blueprints of the boat," muttered O'Malley. "Where did he get them?"

  A chill ran through Pitt's body, as he realized that seizing Kelly had been another one of Ford's assignments. "He's backed by a superb intelligence operation. He was able to familiarize himself with every system and piece of equipment, every deck, bulkhead and structure in exacting detail."

  "Which explains how he knew where to place the explosives and manually activate the evacuation pods," said O'Malley.

  "There's nothing more we can do here," said Giordino, "exce
pt notify the Coast Guard on the surface to look for a vessel that was hovering over the area to pick this character and Kelly out of the pod."

  Accepting Ford's escape and Kelly's abduction as horrible reality, Pitt felt a deep sense of grotesque inadequacy and futility. He was totally powerless to help or rescue her. Pitt sagged dejectedly into a chair. He felt an even deadlier chill pass through him, and this one had nothing to do with Kelly's fate. All the pods were gone, and there was no way they could be retrieved and loaded again. He saw little hope of saving the other six hundred-plus souls on board the sunken cruise liner. He sat there listlessly for a few seconds, then looked into the silent and expectant face of O'Malley and said softly, "You know every corner of the boat." He said it as a statement of fact rather than a question.

  O'Malley hesitated, not sure of Pitt's intent. "Yes, I know her as well as anyone."

  "Is there another evacuation system besides the pods?"

  "I'm not clear what you mean?"

  "Did the boatbuilder install a backup airlock system for a chamber rescue?"

  "You mean a specially configured hatch on the top of the hull?"

  "Exactly."

  "Yes, there is one, but there is no way all six hundred of us can be rescued before we run out of air."

  "How so?" asked Giordino. "As we speak, rescue operations are under way."

  "You don't know?"

  "Only if you don't tell us," Pitt said harshly.

  "The Golden Marlin was never designed to remain underwater more than four days before surfacing. After that, the air quickly becomes unbreathable."

  "I thought the air regenerators refreshed the inside atmosphere indefinitely," said Giordino in surprise.

  O'Malley shook his head. "They're very efficient. They do a first-rate job of refreshing the air, but after a while the combined carbon dioxide buildup from seven hundred humans in an enclosed atmosphere becomes too much for the scrubbers and filters. Then the air purification begins to break down." He shrugged darkly. "All this speculation goes out the window if the flooding gets to the generator and we lose power. Then the air regeneration equipment will shut down."

  "Four days, if we're lucky," Pitt said slowly. "Three and a half, actually, since we've already been down almost twelve hours since we submerged."

  "The U.S. Navy has a deep submergence rescue vehicle that can do the job," said Giordino.

  "Yes, but mobilization, transporting it and the operating team to the site, and then setting up the rescue procedures could easily take four days." O'Malley spoke slowly, emphatically. "By the time they drop it down and lock up with the air escape chamber, it will be too late to save more than a handful of us."

  Pitt turned to Giordino. "Al, you've got to go topside with the mothers and children."

  For perhaps five incredulous seconds, Giordino stood there looking blank. When shocked realization did come, his voice became indignant. "Mrs. Giordino's boy is no coward. I won't jump ship hiding behind women's skirts."

  "Believe me, old friend," Pitt entreated, "you can do far more to save everyone by working with me from the surface."

  Giordino started to say Why don't you go? but thought better of it and accepted Pitt's reasoning as correct. "Okay, once I reach the surface, what then?"

  "It's essential that we get an open line down here to purify the air."

  "And just where am I supposed to scare up five hundred feet of hose, an air pump capable of pumping enough air to keep six hundred and seventeen people alive until rescue and a method of attaching it to the sunken boat?"

  Pitt looked at his old pal of almost forty years and grinned. "If I know you, you'll think of something."

  31

  Four vessels arrived over the site of the sunken Golden Marlin within five hours after it sank. The Coast Guard cutter Joseph Ryan; the oil tanker King Zeus; the U.S. Navy oceangoing tug Orion; and the coastal cargo carrier Compass Rose. They were soon accompanied by a fleet of sailing yachts and powerboats out of Miami and Fort Lauderdale that had arrived on the scene more out of curiosity than a desire to help in the rescue. Admiral Sandecker had dispatched a NUMA salvage ship from Savannah, but it wasn't due to arrive for another twelve hours.

  The Navy's deep submergence rescue vehicle, Mercury, its operations team and mother ship, Alfred Aultman, were pounding toward the disaster scene from Puerto Rico, where they were in the midst of conducting a practice mission. Messages were relayed back and forth from the Coast Guard vessel to the captain of the Aultman from Captain Baldwin on every aspect of the sunken cruise boat's condition.

  Down below on the Golden Marlin, the passenger's children and their mothers were loaded on board the evacuation pod after O'Malley repaired the release mechanism. There were tearful farewells with fathers, and in many cases older relatives such as grandparents. A number of small children cried up a storm when entering the confined enclosure of the pod. Calming them was difficult, if not impossible.

  Giordino tried to shut out the screaming infants and their mothers, and looked more forlorn than ever to be the only man escaping from the boat. "I feel like the guy who entered a Titanic lifeboat wearing a woman's dress."

  Pitt put his arm around Giordino's shoulder. "You'll be more crucial to the rescue operation topside."

  "I'll never be able to live this down," Giordino groaned. "You'd better come through this, you hear? If it all goes wrong and you don't make it-"

  "I'll make it," Pitt assured him, "but only with you leading the rescue where it counts."

  They shook hands one final time as Pitt nudged him into the only open seat in the evacuation pod. Pitt did his best to keep from grinning as a harried mother thrust one of her crying children into a cringing Giordino's arms. The tough little Italian looked as uncomfortable as though he were sitting on broken glass. Pitt could not recall seeing a more mournful look, as the pod door hissed closed and the launch sequence was activated. Sixty seconds later, there was a whoosh sound and the pod was on its way to the surface, floating upward very slowly because it was loaded almost to its buoyancy limit.

  "I guess all we can do now is wait," said O'Malley, who was standing behind Pitt.

  "No," said Pitt. "We prepare."

  "Where do we start?"

  "With the airlock escape chamber."

  "What do you want to know?"

  "Is the hatch compatible with the one on the Navy submersible rescue vehicle?"

  O'Malley nodded. "I know for a fact that it was designed to the Navy's specifications to mate with their rescue vehicle or bell chambers for just such an emergency."

  Pitt was already at the door. "Show me the way. I want to check it out for myself."

  O'Malley led him up the elevator to the upper deck where the dining room was located, through the galley where the chefs were busily engaged in preparing dinner as if the voyage had never been interrupted. The scene seemed terribly unreal, considering the circumstances. Pitt followed the boat's engineer up a narrow stairway to a small chamber with bench seats along the bulkhead. In the center were steps leading to a platform. Above the platform was a ladder that disappeared into a tunnel that rose up to a hatch three feet in diameter. O'Malley climbed the ladder into the tunnel and studied the hatch. It seemed to Pitt the inspector spent an inordinate amount of time in the tunnel. Finally, he climbed down and sat wearily on the platform.

  He looked up at Pitt and said, "Your friend was a very thorough character."

  "What do you mean?"

  "The frame is buckled and jammed solid around the hatch. It would take a ten-pound plastic charge to blow it free."

  Pitt's eyes traveled up the tunnel, and he gazed at the bent and distorted escape hatch with an understanding bordering on horror. "Then there is no escape into the rescue vehicle."

  "Not through here," O'Malley said, knowing all hope of saving six hundred and seventeen souls was gone. He stared at the deck and repeated, "Not through here. Not through anywhere."

  Pitt and O'Malley carried the disastrous
news to Captain Baldwin on the bridge. He took it stoically. "You're positive? The escape hatch cannot be forced open?"

  "A cutting torch might split it open," said Pitt, "but then we'd have no way of sealing it against the incoming water. At this depth we're looking at roughly seventeen atmospheres. Figuring one atmosphere for every thirty-three feet, the water pressure against our hull is two hundred and fifty pounds per square inch. No way the passengers could fight through the cascade into the rescue vehicle."

  Baldwin's face was not pleasant to see. A man of few emotions, he could not bring himself to believe that he and everyone left on board the Golden Marlin were going to die. "We have no hope of rescue?"

 

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