Valhalla rising, p.31

Valhalla Rising, page 31

 

Valhalla Rising
 



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  "There is always hope," Pitt said gamely, "but not by the usual methods."

  Baldwin's shoulder sagged as he stared vacantly at the deck. "Then all we can do is survive as long as possible."

  First Officer Conrad handed Pitt a phone. "Mr. Giordino is calling from the surface."

  Pitt held the receiver to his ear. "Al?"

  "I'm here on the Coast Guard cutter," the familiar voice crackled back.

  "How was the ride to the surface?"

  "I'm not used to an army of screaming infants. My eardrums are blasted out."

  "Did it go well?" Pitt asked.

  "All kids and mothers safe and sound. They were taken aboard a coastal cargo carrier that had better facilities than the cutter. They're on their way to the nearest port. I can tell you the women weren't happy about leaving their husbands behind. I got more dirty looks than a rattlesnake in an ice-cream parlor."

  "Any word on when the Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle will arrive?"

  "The word here is thirty-six hours," replied Giordino. "How are things down where you are?"

  "Not good. Our friend Kanai was on board and jammed the escape hatch shut before he left."

  Giordino did not immediately reply. Then he asked, "How bad?"

  "It's jammed solid. O'Malley says there is no way of forcing it open without flooding half the ship."

  Giordino could not find it in his mind to believe all was lost for those souls still on the Golden Marlin. "You're quite certain?"

  "Dead certain."

  "We won't throw in the towel at this end," Giordino promised decisively. "I'll call Yaeger and have him put Max on the problem. There has to be a way to get you up here."

  Pitt could sense the emotion building in Giordino. He thought it best to let it rest for the moment. "Keep in touch," he said facetiously, "but don't call collect."

  The crew and passengers on board the dead submarine cruise liner had no knowledge of the hurricane that was brewing over their heads. After inundating newspaper and television networks with a weeklong barrage of stories on the Emerald Dolphin tragedy, they returned like a tidal wave to cover the sinking of the Golden Marlin and the race against time to save those trapped on board the submarine. Celebrities and politicians also put in appearances.

  Boatloads of cameramen appeared as if by magic, along with a horde of reporters in light aircraft and helicopters. Less than two days after the submarine cruise liner had slipped onto the sea bottom, a fleet of ships and boats numbering close to a hundred drifted over the site. In time all but the ones holding accredited journalists were chased away by the Coast Guard.

  The fire aboard the cruise liner had been in a remote area of the Pacific Ocean. Not so, this story. The sinking happened only ninety-seven miles off the coast of Florida. Every angle was hyped. Excitement built to a fever pitch as the hours passed and the end came closer for those deep below the surface. By the third day, the media circus went into high gear in readiness for the final chapter.

  They tried every bit of ingenious scheming to make contact with anyone on the sunken boat. Some tried to tap into the phone line attached to the buoy, but the Coast Guard would have none of it. Shots were actually fired across the bows of the news media boats to keep them out of the way of those working frantically to save the 617 people left on board.

  Wives and children who'd survived in the pod were interviewed relentlessly. Reporters tried to reach Giordino, but he'd gone on board the NUMA survey ship when it arrived and refused to have any contact with them. He immediately worked with the crew to send down an ROV named the Sea Scout that was a sister vehicle to the Sea Sleuth, to investigate and inspect the Golden Marlin from the exterior of the hull.

  As he sat and guided the ROV with a remote control in his lap, the hopeless despair came home as he hovered over the escape hatch on the top of the hull. The images on the video monitor only confirmed what Pitt had told him. The hatch was irreparably jammed closed. Nothing short of explosives or a cutting torch could tear it off, and then only to allow the sea to pour through the opening before any survivors could pass through it. Making a seal with the rescue vehicle was impossible. There was no other way for those on the other side of the hull to escape.

  The next morning the naval support ship carrying the Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle arrived. Giordino moved his operation over to the Alfred Aultman, whose crew lost no time in readying the Rescue Vehicle for its descent to the sunken boat. The captain of the ship, Lieutenant Commander Mike Turner, greeted Giordino as he came aboard.

  "Welcome to the Aultman" said Turner, shaking Giordino's hand. "The Navy is always happy to work with NUMA."

  Most Navy ship commanders have a guarded look about them, as if they had bought and paid for their ship out of their own pocket and treated it as a haven for select guests. Turner wore a friendly expression, and his manner reflected deep intelligence. He gazed at the world through hazel eyes under a thinning head of blond hair with a widow's peak.

  "I only wish it was under less tragic circumstances," replied Giordino.

  "It is that," Turner admitted seriously. "I'll have one of my officers show you to your quarters. Would you like something to eat? We won't be launching the Mercury for another hour."

  "I hope you'll give me permission to go along if I don't take up needed space."

  Turner smiled. "We have room for twenty bodies. You won't be crowding us one bit."

  " 'Us'?" queried Giordino, surprised the ship's captain would not send a subordinate on the dive. "You're going, too?"

  Turner nodded, and his friendly smile vanished. "It won't be the first time I've taken the Mercury down to a sunken vessel filled with people whose only hope of survival was our vehicle."

  Prior to launch, the Mercury, painted yellow with a diagonal red stripe across its hull, hung poised over the work deck of the Falcon like a modern artist's interpretation of a huge banana with all kinds of strange protrusions overhanging its skin. She measured thirty-eight feet in length by ten feet in height by nine feet wide, and displaced thirty tons. Her maximum operating depth was twelve hundred feet and her speed was two and a half knots.

  Captain Turner boarded a ladder to the main hatch, followed by a ship's crewman. He introduced his copilot, Chief Warrant Officer Mack McKirdy, a gray-haired, grizzled sea dog with a beard like that of a sailor on an old clipper ship. He acknowledged Giordino's presence with a curt nod and a wink of one blue eye.

  "I hear you're an old submersible man," said McKirdy to Giordino.

  "I've spent a fair amount of time in them."

  "Word's out that you probed the wreck of the Emerald Dolphin at twenty thousand feet."

  "Yes, that's true," admitted Giordino. "Along with my good friend Dirk Pitt and NUMA marine biologist Misty Graham."

  "Then this dive to only five hundred and fifty feet should be a piece of cake."

  "Not unless we can hook up with the rescue hatch."

  McKirdy read the gravity in Giordino's eyes. "We'll set you right on top of it." And then he said as if to reassure him, "Don't worry. If anyone can open a jammed hatch, it's me and the Mercury. We carry the necessary equipment to do the job."

  "I hope so," Giordino murmured. "Oh, how I hope so."

  The Mercury, with Chief McKirdy at the control console, reached the sunken boat in less than fifteen minutes. The chief steered the rescue vehicle along the hull. It looked like some immense dead animal. All three men felt an eerie sensation at gazing through the view ports and seeing faces inside the Golden Martin gazing back. At one port in the boat, Giordino thought he saw Pitt waving at him, but the vehicle passed by too quickly to be sure.

  They spent three hours making a thorough inspection of the boat lying in the bottom silt. Their cameras kept videotape rolling and still shots clicking at two-second intervals.

  "Interesting," Turner said quietly. "We've been over every square foot of the hull and I saw very few bubbles."

  "That is unusual," McKirdy agreed. "Thankfully,
we've only had to perform rescue operations on two submarines. The German Seigen and the Russian sub Tavda. Both vessels went down after collisions with surface ships. In each case, air bubbles cascaded from the gashes in their hulls long after the collisions."

  Giordino stared out the view port at the morbid scene. "The engine room and baggage compartments were the only two where water gushed in. They must be completely flooded, with no more air to release."

  McKirdy steered the submersible closer to the damaged areas blown inward by the explosions. He pointed through the port. "Amazing how small the actual wounds are."

  "Large enough to sink her."

  "Were the ballast tanks ruptured?" asked Turner.

  "No," answered Giordino. "They maintained their integrity. And even though Captain Baldwin blew them empty, the boat was still dragged down by the flow of water entering through the breaks in the hull. The pumps could not keep up with the flow and lost ground. What saved the boat was the closing of the watertight doors, keeping the flooding in the cargo compartment and engine room."

  "A great tragedy," said Turner slowly, motioning out the port at the two breaks in the hull. "A foot or two smaller and she might have made it to the surface."

  "Sir, I suggest we check out the escape hatch," said McKirdy, "before we have to head topside."

  "Affirmative, Chief. Sit us down on top of it, and we'll see if we can't make a seal. If we're lucky, we can come back with a work crew and go to work freeing it."

  McKirdy guided the rescue vehicle over the top of the Golden Martin and eased to a stop just above and off to the side of the hatch. Both he and Turner studied the damage from the explosives.

  "Doesn't look encouraging," said McKirdy.

  Turner didn't look hopeful. "The sealing flange around the bottom of the hatch is ripped to shreds. There's no way we can use the air lock in the rescue chamber to make repairs, because the hull is too damaged to make an airtight seal, pump out the water and have a crew go to work with cutting torches."

  "What about divers?" asked Giordino. "It's not rare for them to work at these depths."

  "They'd have to work in shifts around the clock while living in a decompression chamber. We'd need at least four days to get a chamber on site and complete the repairs. By then . . ." His voice trailed off.

  They all looked at the shattered area around the escape hatch for a long time, or what seemed a long time. Giordino suddenly felt unequivocally tired. He wasn't sure if it was from the increasingly foul air or the overwhelming sense of frustration. He was enough of a qualified engineer to know that it was impossible to breach the hatch without sending in a flow of water that would surely doom everyone left on board. Any attempt would have been fruitless. McKirdy hovered the rescue vehicle above the escape hatch for another minute.

  "We'll have to lower a pressure chamber down on the hull, form a seal and then cut a hole through the plates large enough to evacuate everyone on Mercury." Turner described the process in terms so simple that he sounded like a schoolteacher issuing homework.

  "How long will that take?" asked Giordino.

  "We should be able to do the job in forty-eight hours."

  "Too late," Giordino said bluntly. "They don't have more than thirty hours of air left in there. You'll be opening a passage into a huge coffin."

  "You're quite right," Turner conceded. "But according to the boat's plans that we received by helicopter from the builder before we left port, there's an outside air connector for this type of emergency. A connector for an umbilical hose from the surface is mounted just forward of the fin on the stern. We have the hose and a pump that puts out more than a thousand pounds per square inch. We can have it in place and ready to supply air in"-he paused to glance at his watch-"three hours max."

  "At the very least," said McKirdy, "we can keep the poor devils alive down there until we can make a dry entry and rescue them."

  Ever the pessimist, Giordino said, "Yes, I'm aware of the exterior air emergency inlet. But you'd better check the exterior connector before you bet your hand."

  McKirdy did not wait for Turner's command. He turned the submersible on a sharp angle and headed for the forward part of the fin that reached up toward the surface and housed the boat's lounge. He hung the vehicle above a small, rounded chamber attached to the hull at the base of the fin.

  "Is that the housing for the air connector?" he asked.

  "That should be it," said Turner, consulting the boat's plans.

  "Looks like it's intact."

  "Praise God," said McKirdy, suddenly buoyant. "Now we can attach the hose and pump enough air to those people to keep them alive till we can lift them off."

  "You have manipulators," said Giordino, not wanting to pour champagne just yet. "To be on the safe side, why not lift the lid and make certain your hose fitting will match the connector?"

  "I agree," said Turner. "Since we're already in the neighborhood, we might as well set it up for coupling and save time later." He turned from the control console, picked up a small remote with hand toggles and began operating one of the two manipulator arms. Very carefully, he unlatched the four locks, one on each side of the chamber. Then he lifted the side opposite the hinges.

  The sight was not what they expected. The female fitting for the male fitting attached to the air hose was missing. It looked as if it had been mutilated and removed with a sledgehammer and chisel.

  "Who in the world would have done that?" Turner asked desperately.

  "A very shrewd fiend," Giordino muttered under his breath, with murder in his heart.

  "It's impossible to receive a replacement and make repairs before their air runs out," said McKirdy, closely studying the damaged connector.

  "You telling me that over six hundred men and women are going to die while we stand around like clay statues and watch?" Giordino said, his dark face impassive.

  Turner and McKirdy stared at each other like men wandering lost in a blizzard. There was nothing in their minds to say. They were overwhelmed with incredulity at being stymied every step of the way. There was no predicting the unexpected damage. The extent of treachery was beyond their comprehension.

  Giordino had a feeling of unreality. Losing a best friend in a quick accident was abhorrent enough, but waiting for a perfectly healthy person to simply die because no one could help him, because he was beyond the reach of modern science and technology, was totally unacceptable. A grief-stricken man is driven to defy the gods. Giordino determined to do something, anything, if it meant diving 550 feet down to the wreck himself.

  Then with grave misgiving, and without an order from Turner, McKirdy blew the water ballast, trimmed the craft and sent it toward the surface. Every man on board knew, even though he refused to visualize it, that the crew and passengers inside the Golden Marlin were watching the rescue vehicle fade until it was lost in the murky void, not knowing their hopes and illusions went with it.

  32

  The mood inside the Golden Marlin was macabre. The passengers entered the dining room and ate as scheduled, gambled in the casino, drank cocktails in the lounge, read in the library and went to bed, as though the cruise had never ended. There was nothing else they could do. If any of them felt the slowly decreasing amount of oxygen, none showed it. They talked about their situation as if it were the weather. It was almost as if they were in denial.

  The passengers who had been left aboard were mostly senior citizens, with a few younger but childless couples, two dozen single men and women, and the fathers who'd stayed behind after their wives and children left in the one remaining evacuation pod. The service crew went about their usual duties waiting on tables, cooking in the galley, cleaning the staterooms and putting on shows in the theater. Only the engine room crew worked endlessly, maintaining the pumps and the generators that still provided power. Luckily, these were housed in a separate compartment from the engine room and were sealed off immediately after the explosions.

  Pitt's worst fears were realized afte
r he watched the rescue vehicle return to the surface, and Giordino passed on the bad news over the phone. Hours later, he sat in the bridge control room at the chart table and studied the plans of the ship again and again, searching for some tiny clue to survival. Baldwin came over and sat on a stool opposite the chart table. He had regained a measure of composure, but the grim prospects weighed heavily on his mind. His breathing became noticeably labored.

  "You haven't closed your eyes in three days," he said to Pitt. "Why don't you get some sleep?"

  "If I go to sleep, if any of us goes to sleep, we won't wake up."

  "I've carried on the lie that help is just around the corner," Baldwin said in obvious anguish, "but the truth is coming home to them now. The only thing that keeps us from a nasty confrontation is they're too weak to do much of anything."

 

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