Valhalla rising, p.32

Valhalla Rising, page 32

 

Valhalla Rising
 



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  Pitt rubbed his reddened eyes, took a swallow of cold coffee and studied the builder's plans for what seemed like the hundredth time. "There has to be a key," he said in a low voice. "There must be a way to attach a hose and pump purified air into the boat."

  Baldwin took out a handkerchief and wiped his brow. "Not with the hatch and air connector destroyed. And any attempt to punch a hole in the hull would end up flooding the rest of the ship. We must face the sad but fundamental fact. By the time the Navy can repair the damage, make an airtight seal and penetrate the hull so we can all be evacuated, our air will be used up."

  "We can stop the generators. That would give us a few more hours."

  Baldwin wearily shook his head. "Better keep the power on and let these poor people live as normally as possible until the end. Besides, the pumps have to stay ahead of the overflow from the flooded compartments."

  Dr. John Ringer stepped into the control room. The ship's doctor, Ringer was swamped by passengers coming to the hospital and complaining of headaches, light-headedness and nausea. He did his best to provide them with whatever care was at his command without elaborating on the ultimate state of their tribulation.

  Pitt stared at the doctor, who was obviously exhausted and on the verge of collapse. "Do I look as bad as you, Doc?"

  Ringer forced a smile. "Worse, if you can believe it."

  "I do."

  Ringer dropped into a chair heavily. "What we're faced with is asphyxia. Insufficient breathing caused by an insufficient intake of oxygen and insufficient exhalation of carbon dioxide."

  "What are the acceptable levels?" asked Pitt.

  "Oxygen, twenty percent. Carbon dioxide, three tenths of one percent."

  "How do we stand at the moment?"

  "Eighteen percent oxygen," Ringer answered. "Slightly over four percent of carbon dioxide."

  "And the danger limits?" Baldwin put to him stonily.

  "Sixteen percent and five percent, respectively. After that the concentrations become extremely dangerous."

  "Dangerous, like in deadly," said Pitt.

  Baldwin asked Ringer the question none of them wanted to face. "How much longer do we have?"

  "You can feel the lack of oxygen the same as I," said Ringer quietly. "Two hours, maybe two hours and thirty minutes, certainly no more."

  "Thank you for your candid opinion, Doctor," Baldwin said honestly. "Can you keep some of them alive a little longer with the fire crew's respirators?"

  "There are about ten young people under the age of twenty. I'll provide them with oxygen until it runs out." Ringer came to his feet. "I'd better get back to the hospital. I suspect I have a line down there."

  After the doctor had left, Pitt went back to scrutinizing the boat builder's plans. "For every complex problem, there is a simple solution," he said philosophically.

  "When you find it," said Baldwin, with a show of humor, "let me know." He rose to his feet and started for the door. "Time for me to put in an appearance in the dining room. Good luck."

  Pitt merely gave a brief nod and said nothing.

  Slowly, a numbing fear seeped into his mind, not a fear for his life, but a fear that he might fail with so many people's lives hanging on his finding a solution. But for a few moments, it also sharpened his senses and flooded him with extraordinary clarity. This was followed by a revelation that struck with such force, it stunned him momentarily. The solution was simple. It came suddenly, with appalling ease. As with so many inspirations that struck men, he could only wonder why he hadn't seen it much earlier.

  He jumped up so quickly he knocked over the stool in his rush to get to the phone attached to the line running up to the buoy. He shouted into the receiver. "Al! Are you there?"

  "I'm here," Giordino's voice replied gravely.

  "I think I have the answer! No, I'm positive I have the answer."

  Giordino was stunned at Pitt's eagerness. "One moment, I'll put you on the bridge speaker so Captain Turner and the rest of his crew can listen." A moment's pause, and then, "Okay, go ahead."

  "How long will it take you to set up the air hose and get it down here?"

  "You know, of course, Mr. Pitt, that we can't make a connection," said Turner, his face gray like a rain cloud.

  "Yes, yes, I know all that," Pitt said impatiently. "How soon before you can be pumping air?"

  Turner looked across the bridge at McKirdy. The chief stared down at the deck as if he were contemplating what was beneath it. "We can have it ready to go in three hours."

  "Make it two or you can forget it."

  "What good will it do? We can't make a connection."

  "Your pump, will it overcome the surrounding water pressure at this depth?"

  "She puts out five hundred pounds per square inch," answered McKirdy. "Twice the pressure of the water at your depth."

  "So far so good," rasped Pitt. He was beginning to feel lightheaded. "Get the air hose down here fast. People are beginning to drop. Be prepared to use the vehicle's manipulators."

  "Do you mind telling us what you have in mind?" asked Turner.

  "I'll explain in detail when you're on site. Call me when you arrive for further instructions."

  O'Malley had stumbled groggily into the control room in time to hear Pitt's conversation with the Alfred Aultman. "What have you got up your sleeve?"

  "A grand idea," said Pitt, with growing optimism. "One of the best I ever had."

  "How do you intend to get air in here?"

  "I don't."

  O'Malley looked at Pitt as if he had already expired. "Then what's so grand about your idea?"

  "Simple," Pitt explained casually. "If Mohammed won't go to the mountain ..."

  "You're not making sense."

  "Wait and see," said Pitt mysteriously. "It's the most elementary high school physics class experiment in the book."

  The Golden Marlin was on the verge of becoming an underwater crypt. The air had deteriorated to a frightening extent, and the atmosphere had become so foul that passengers and crew were only minutes away from becoming unconscious, the first step before coma and then death. The carbon dioxide level was rapidly reaching limits that could no longer support life. Pitt and O'Malley, the only ones left on the bridge, were hanging on by the skin of their teeth.

  Because their minds were numbed by the lack of oxygen, the passengers were becoming zombies, no longer capable of rational thought. No one panicked in the final moments, because no one fully realized their end was near. Baldwin talked to those still sitting in the dining room, encouraging them with words that he knew were meaningless. He was on his way back to the bridge when he sagged to his knees in a corridor and crumpled to the carpet. An elderly couple walked past, looked at the fallen captain through vacant eyes and stumbled on toward their stateroom.

  In the control room, O'Malley was still murmuring coherently but not far from the edge of unconsciousness. Pitt was sucking deep breaths to take in what little oxygen was left in the room. "Where are you?" he gasped over the phone. "We're about done in."

  "Coming." Giordino's voice sounded desperate. "Look through the port. We're approaching the control room dome."

  Pitt staggered to the main port in front of the control console and saw the Mercury descending from above. "Do you have the hose?"

  "Ready to pump when and wherever you say," answered Chief Warrant Officer McKirdy. Captain Turner had remained on board the Aultman to command the operation from the surface.

  "Drop down until you're scraping the bottom and move toward the break in the hull opposite the engine room."

  "On our way," Giordino acknowledged without questioning Pitt's intent.

  Five minutes later, Turner reported, "We are level with the gash caused by the explosion."

  Pitt found that fighting to breathe was ironic, considering that all the air he'd need in a lifetime was only a few feet away. He gasped out the words. "Use your manipulators and insert the end of the air hose as far back into the engine room as poss
ible."

  Inside the submersible, McKirdy exchanged glances and shrugged. Then Giordino went to work moving the hose inside the gash with the manipulators, careful not to slice it open on the jagged and torn hull. Working as fast as possible, it took him nearly ten minutes before he felt the hose reach the far bulkhead and jam itself between the engine mountings.

  "She's in," announced Giordino.

  Pitt spoke, inhaling one word, exhaling the next. "Okay . . . start pumping."

  Again, the two men inside the rescue vehicle complied without challenging the request. McKirdy gave the order to Turner on the surface, and within two minutes a surge of air began bursting out of the hose into the engine room.

  "What are we doing?" asked Giordino, mystified and grief stricken as he listened to what he thought were his friend's final words.

  Pitt rasped out the answer in a voice barely above a whisper. "A ship sinks when water under pressure floods inside the hull's airspace. But at this depth, the air from your hose is blasting out at twice the pressure of the water, forcing it back out into the sea."

  The explanation drained what little fortitude he had left and he slumped to the deck beside the body of O'Malley, who had already slipped into unconsciousness.

  Giordino's hopes were suddenly renewed as he saw the water gush out of the engine room, driven back into the sea by the overwhelming pressure from the air pump 550 feet away on the surface. "It's working!" he shouted. "The air is forming a bubble inside."

  "Yes, but none of the air is escaping inside the other parts of the boat," said McKirdy.

  But Giordino saw the method to Pitt's madness. "He's not trying to purify the air inside. He's trying to raise the boat to the surface."

  McKirdy looked down and saw the hull of the boat embedded in the silt, and had grave doubts that it could break the suction and rise. After a pause, McKirdy said quietly, "Your friend isn't answering."

  "Dirk!" Giordino roared into the phone. "Talk to me."

  But there was no answer.

  On board the Navy support ship Alfred Aultman, Captain Turner paced the bridge as he listened to the drama being played out far below. He also saw the brilliance behind Pitt's stratagem. In his mind it was too incredibly simple to work. Murphy's law seldom took a backseat to Occam's razor.

  There were eight men on the bridge of the support ship. Fear and defeat hung like a wet blanket. They each thought the end had arrived and the Golden Marlin was in the midst of becoming a titanium cemetery. They found it almost impossible to believe that 617 people were taking their final breaths less than a quarter of a mile below their feet. They gathered around the speaker, conversing as softly as if they were in a church, waiting for word from the Mercury.

  "Will they recover the bodies?" mused one of Turner's officers.

  Turner shrugged bleakly. "It would cost millions for a salvage job to go that deep to retrieve them. They'll probably be left where they lie."

  A young ensign abruptly pounded his fist against a counter. "Why don't they report? Why doesn't McKirdy tell us what's happening down there?"

  "Easy, son. They have enough to worry about without us hassling them."

  "She's coming up. She's coming up." Six words from the side-scan sonar operator who had never taken his eyes off the recorder.

  Turner leaned over the sonar operator's shoulder and stared open-mouthed at the recorder. The image of the Golden Marlin had moved. "She's coming up, all right," he confirmed.

  A great groaning sound came over the speaker, a sure indication that metal was being stressed and expanded as the boat rose from the bottom. Then McKirdy's voice roared out. "She's broken loose, by God! She's on her way to the surface. Pumping air into the engine ro6m did the trick. She gained enough buoyancy to break suction and pop out of the silt-"

  "We're trying to stay with her," Giordino cut in, "so we can keep the hose pumping air inside her or she'll sink again."

  "We'll be ready!" snapped Turner.

  He began issuing orders to his engineering crew to climb aboard the cruise boat the minute she hit the surface, and cut a hole in the top of her hull to pump air inside to revive the passengers and crew. Then he put out a call to every boat within twenty miles to come quickly with any piece of resuscitating equipment and oxygen respirator they had on board. He also requested every doctor to stand by to board the Golden Marlin as soon as his crew gained entry. Time was priceless. They had to get inside quickly if they were to revive those passengers and crew who had passed out from lack of oxygen.

  The atmosphere among the fleet of ships over the Golden Marlin transformed from one of subdued gloom to wild jubilation within minutes of the word being passed that she was on her way up. A thousand eyes were straining at the open water circled by the ships and boats, when a cauldron of bubbles rose above the surface and burst in a display of rainbow colors under the morning sun. Then came the Golden Marlin. She erupted from the water on ah even keel, like an immense cork, before settling back in a great splash that sent a surge toward the surrounding vessels, rocking the smaller yachts as if they were leaves swept from a tree in a fall windstorm.

  "She's up!" shouted Turner ecstatically, almost afraid that he was seeing a mirage. "Rescue boats!" he shouted through a bullhorn from the bridge wing at the launches already in the water. "Get over there fast."

  Cheers shattered the nearly windless air. People shouted themselves hoarse, many whistled, every horn and siren sounded. Like Turner, none could believe what they were seeing. The resurrection came so suddenly, so abruptly, many had not fully expected it. Media cameramen on the boats and in planes and helicopters quickly ignored the threats and orders from Turner and the captain of the Coast Guard cutter to stay out of the area, and swarmed in anyway, a few determined to get on board the cruise boat.

  The Golden Marlin no sooner settled in the water like a hen on a roost than the armada of rescuers rushed toward her. Boats from the Alfred Aultman arrived first and tied alongside. Turner canceled the order for cutting equipment and ordered his rescue crew to simply gain entry through the boarding and cargo hatches, which could be broached from the outside now that there was no danger of water pouring inside.

  The Mercury surfaced beside the big boat, McKirdy maneuvering the submersible to keep the hose securely lodged in the engine room, pumping in the air that expelled the flooded water. Giordino threw open the hatch, and before McKirdy could stop him, dove from the submersible into the water and swam toward a boat with the rescue crew who was unlatching the starboard boarding hatch. Fortunately, one of the navy rescue crew recognized Giordino or they would have ordered him off. Giordino was hauled into the boat, and he put his muscles to work helping pull open the hatch that was coated and nearly bonded shut with bottom silt.

  They heaved it open half an inch. Then heaved again. This time it swung open on its hinges and was pushed back against the hull. For a moment they simply stood mute and peered inside as a stale smell flowed into their nostrils. It was air that they knew was unbreathable. Though the generators were still turning, it struck them as odd to see the interior of the boat brightly lit.

  In the same moment, the crew on the other side of the hull pulled open the port hatch, allowing a cross-ventilation of air to blow in and suck out the bad air. Stepping inside, both crews found bodies lying on the deck and went to work attempting to resuscitate them. Giordino recognized one of them as Captain Baldwin.

  Giordino had his own priority and did not pause. He rushed into the lobby, turned and dashed through the passageway toward the bow and up the stairs to the control room. He ran with a sinking heart, gasping the foul air that was slowly being reoxygenated. He charged into the control room with a growing dread in his chest, a dread that he was too late to save his dearest friend since childhood. He stepped over the inert form of O'Malley and knelt beside Pitt, who was lying outstretched on the deck, eyes closed, seemingly not breathing. Giordino wasted no time feeling for a pulse but bent down to apply mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Bu
t suddenly, to his astonishment, those mesmeric green eyes fluttered open and a voice whispered, "I hope this concludes the entertainment part of the program."

  Never were so many people so close to dying at the same time. And never had so many cheated the old man with the scythe and that three-headed dog that guarded Hades. It was a near thing, little short of miraculous, that none of the passengers or crew of the Golden Marlin actually died. All were brought back from the brink of death. Only seventeen, mostly elderly men and women, were airlifted by Coast Guard helicopters to hospitals in Miami, and all but two recovered without any harmful effects. The remaining two were released a week later after suffering severe headaches and trauma.

  Most revived as fresh air was recirculated throughout the boat. Only about fifty-two required resuscitation with oxygen equipment. Captain Baldwin was feted by the news media and the directors of the Blue Seas Cruise Lines as a hero who'd helped prevent what might have been a major tragedy, as was the boat's doctor, John Ringer, whose courageous efforts had helped immeasurably in keeping the death toll at zero. Captain Turner and his crew also received acclaim and honors from the Navy for their part in the rescue.

 

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