Iceberg, p.4

Iceberg, page 4

 

Iceberg
 



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  "That's the least of our worries," Pitt replied. "The elements we're short on at the moment are time and optimism.

  11

  "Might as well admit it," Hunnewell said wearily.

  "I ran out of the latter a quarter of an hour ago."

  Pitt gripped Hunnewell's arm. "Hang in there, Dog" he said encouragingly. "Our elusive iceberg may be just around the next corner."

  "If it is, it's defied every drift pattern in the book."

  "The red dye marker. Could be it washed away in the storm yesterday?"

  "Fortunately no. The dye contains calcium chloride, a necessary ingredient for deep penetration-takes weeks, sometimes months for the stain to melt away."

  "That leaves us with one other possibility."

  "I know what you're thinking," Hunnewell said flatly. "A-nd you can perish the thought. I've worked closely off an(I on with the Coast Guard for over thirty years, and I've never known them to mistake an ice position sighting."

  "That's it then. A million-ton chunk of ice evaporated mt" Pitot left the sentence unfinished, partly because the helicopter was beginning to drift off course, partly because he glimpsed something. Hunnewell suddenly stiffened in his seat and leaned forward, the binoculars jammed against his eye sockets.

  "I have it," Hunnewell cried.

  Pitt didn't wait for a command; he dipped the helicopter and headed toward the direction indicated by Hunnewell's binoculars.

  Hunnewell passed the glasses to Pitt. "Here, take a peek and tell me these old eyes aren't picking up a mirage."

  Pitt did a juggling act with the binoculars and the helicopter's controls while fighting to keep the engine vibration from jiggling the iceberg out of focus.

  "Can you make out the red dye?" Hunnewell asked anxiously.

  "Like a stripe of strawberry in the middle of a scoop of vanilla ice cream."

  "I can't understand it." Hunnewell shook his head.

  "That berg shouldn't be there. By every known law of current and drift, it should be floating at least ninety miles to the southeast."

  But it was there, resting on the sharp horizon line, a massive towering hunk of ice, beautifully carved by nature, grotesquely marred by manmade chemicals. Before Pitt could lower the binoculars, the ice crystals on the berg caught the sun and reflected the brilliance into his eyes, the intensity blasting through the lenses. Temporarily blinded, he gained altitude and altered course a few degrees to remove the glare. It was nearly a full minute before the skyrockets behind his eyeballs finally faded away.

  Then suddenly Pitt became aware of a dun, almost imperceptible shadow in the water. He hardly had time to distinguish the dark shape as the helicopter skimmed over the blue swells, not three hundred feet beneath the landing skids. The iceberg was still a good seven miles away when he swung around in a great half circle toward the east and the Catawaba.

  "What in hell's the matter with you?" Hunnewell demanded.

  Pitt ignored the question. "I'm afraid we have uninvited guests."

  "Nonsense! There isn't a ship or another aircraft in sight."

  "They're coming to the party through the basement."

  Hunnewell's eyebrows raised questioningly. Then he slowly slumped back in the seat. "A submarine?"

  "A submarine."

  "It is quite possible it may be one of ours."

  "Sorry, Dog that's wishful thinking."

  "Then the Russians beat us to it." Hunnewell's Mouth twisted. "Dear God, we're too late."

  "Not yet." Pitt turned the helicopter into another circling arc, this time back toward the iceberg. "We can be standing on the ice in four minutes. It will take the sub at least a half hour to reach the berg. With any luck we can find what we came for and get the hell out before their crew lands."

  "That's cutting it a bit fine." Hunnewell didn't sound very confident. "When the Russians see us run. 9 about on the berg, they won't come unarmed, you know?"

  "I'd be surprised if they didn't. Actually, the captain of that Russian sub has enough weapons at his command to blast us to pieces anytime he has the inclination. But I'm betting he won't take the chance."

  "What has he got to lose?"

  "Nothing. But he gains the repercussions of a mr-e fat international incident. Any commander worth a ruble in his position will be certain we're in constant radio contact with our home base, notifying them of his sub's position and ready to scream bloody murder at the first shot. This side of the Atlantic is our stomping grounds, and he knows it. He's too far from Moscow to play the role of a block bully."

  "All right, all right," Hunnewell said. "Go ahead and set us down. I suppose even getting shot at is better than sitting another minute in this tooth-jarring niixmaster."

  Pitt said no more. He made the approach and set the helicopter down without any difficulty on a small flat area of ice no more than twenty feet long by fifteen feet wide. Then, before the rotor blades had come to a final stop, he and Hunnewell jumped from the cockpit and stood on the silent iceberg wondering when the Russian submarine would surface, wondering what they would find beneath the shroud of ice that separated them from the cold unfriendly waters. They could see no life, feel no life. Their cheeks were touched lightly by a frigid breeze, but apart from that there was nothing, nothing at all.

  12

  Chapter 3

  The tense minutes passed in total silence, minutes before Pitt could bring himself to say anything that was important. When at last he did, his voice sounded to him like a vague whisper. y whisper? he thought.

  Hunnewell was probing the ice thirty feet away, the Russian submarine, now riding motionless on the surface, lay a quarter of a mile from the northern edge of the iceberg. Finally, Pitt managed to attract Hunnewell's attention with a voice that was still hushed by the cathedral-like silence.

  "Time's running out, Doc." It still seemed he might be overheard, though the Russians couldn't have picked UP his words had he shouted at the top of his voice.

  "I'm not blind," Hunnewell snapped. "How long before they get here?"

  "By the time they set a dinghy in the water, row in from the sub and step ashore-four hundred yards if it's an inch-it'll take-them between fifteen and twenty minutes."

  "We've no damned time to lose," Hunnewell said impatiently.

  "Any luck yet?"

  "Nothing!" Hunnewell boomed back. "The derelict must be deeper than I thought." He ramined the probe feverishly into the ice. "It's here; it's got to be here. A hundredand-twenty-five-foot vessel couldn't have disappeared."

  "Maybe the Coast Guard saw a phantom ship.

  Hunnewell paused to adjust his sunglasses. "The ice patrol crew might have been fooled by their eyes, but not by their radar equipment."

  Pitt moved closer to the open door of the helicopter. His gaze swung to Hunnewell, then back to the sub, and a second later he was peering through the binoculars. He studied the tiny figures that were erupting from the hatches of the low-silhouetted submarine and scrambling hurriedly across the sea-splashed deck. In less than three minutes, a large six-man dinghy was inrated, dropped beside the hull and boarded by a group of men carrying an assortment of automatic weapons.

  Then an indistinct popping sound came over the rolling blue water.

  The sound was enough-enough for Pitt to drastically cut his original time estimate.

  "They're coming. Five, maybe six of them; can't tell for sure."

  "Are they armed?" Hunnewell's query sounded urgent. "To the teeth."

  "My God, man!" Hunnewell shouted irritably.

  "Don't just stand there and gawk. Help me search for the derelict."

  "Forget it." Pitts tone was unhurried. "They'll be here in another five minutes."

  "Five minutes? You said-"

  "I didn't count on their dinghy having an outboard motor."

  Hunnewell stared stricken at the submarine. "How did the Russians find out about the derelict? How could they have possibly known the location?"

  "No great feat," Pitt answ
ered. "One of their KGB agents in Washington undoubtedly got hold of the Coast Guard's sighting report-it's hardly a classified secret-and then dispatched every fishing trawler and submarine they had in this part of the Atlantic to search the ice field. It's an unfortunate coincidence for us, but a lucky one for them that we both discovered the iceberg at the same moment."

  "It looks as if we've thrown the ball game," Hunnewell said bleakly. "They've won, and we've lost.

  Dammit, if we could only locate the derelict's hull, we could at least destroy it with thermite bombs and keep it out of the Russians' hands."

  "To the victor goes the spoils," Pitt murmured. "All one million tons of the finest, purest, genuine Greenland ice in the Atlantic Ocean."

  Hunnewell was puzzled, but said nothing. Pitts apparent indifference made no sense.

  "Tell me, Dog" Pitt continued. "What's today's date?"

  "The date?" Hunnewell said dazedly. "It's Wednesday, March twenty-eighth."

  "We're early," Pitt said. "Three days early for April Fools'Day."

  Hunnewell's voice was flat and hard. "This is hardly the, time or place for levity."

  "Why not? Somebody's played a tremendous joke on us and on those clowns out there." Pitt gestured toward the rapidly approaching landing party. "You, 1, the Russians, we're all starring in the greatest laugh riot ever to hit the North Atlantic. The climax of the final act comes when we all learn that there is no derelict in this iceberg." He paused to exhale a cloud of smoke.

  "As a matter of fact, there never was one."

  Total incomprehension and the meager beginnings of hope touched Hunnewell. "Go on," he prompted.

  "Besides radar contact, the Crew of the patrol plane reported that they sighed the outline of a ship in the ice, yet we saw nothing before we touched down.

  That alone doesn't figure. They were in an aircraft flying at a probable patrol speed of two hundred miles an hour. if anything, our chances of spotting something from a hovering helicopter were far higher."

  Hunnewell looked thoughtful. He seemed to be weighing what Pitt had said. "I'm not sure what you're hinting at." Then he 13

  smiled, suddenly his old cheerful self again. "But I'm getting wise to your siv mind. You must have something up your sleeve-"

  "No magic. You said it yourself. by every known law of current and drift, this berg should be floating ninety miles to the southwest."

  "True." Hunnewell looked at Pitt with a new respect. "And the conclusion, exactly what do you have in mind?"

  "Not what, but who, Doc. Someone who is leading all of us on the proverbial wild-coose chase. Someone who removed the red dye from the iceberg containing the lost ship and spread more of the same over a decoy ninety miles off the track."

  "Of course, the iceberg we flew over hours ago.

  The same size, configuration and weight, but no red stain."

  "That's where we'll find our mystery ship," said Pitt. "Right where you calculated it was supposed to be."

  "But who's playing games?" Hunnewell asked, his face set in a contemplative twist. "Obviously it isn't the Russians: they're as confused as we were."

  "At the moment it doesn't matter," Pitt said. "The important thing is to bid fond farewell to this floating ice palace and fly off into the blue. Our uninvited guests have arrived." He nodded down the slope of the berg.

  "Or perhaps you hadn't noticed?"

  And Hunnewell hadn't. But he noticed it now. The first of the landing party from the submarine came piling on the berg, walking cautiously onto the edge of the ice. Within a few seconds, five Pitt and Hunnewell's direction. They were dressed in black-Russian marines-and heavily armed. Even at a hundred yards, Pitt could discern the unmistakable look of men who knew exactly what they were out to do.

  Pitt casually climbed aboard the helicopter, turned the ignition switch and pushed the starter. Even before the rotor blades swung into their first revolution, Hunnewell was ensconced in the passenger's seat with his safety belt tightly secured.

  Before he closed the door to the cockpit, Pitt leined out, cupped both hands to his mouth and shouted to the advancing Russians, "Enjoy your stay, but don't forget to Pick up your litter."

  The officer leading the men from the submarine cocked an ear, then shrugged uncomprehendingly. He was certain that Pitt was hardly likely to shout in Russian for his benefit. As if to signal the occupants of the helicopter of his peaceful intentions, the officer lowered his automatic weapon and waved a salute as Pitt and Hunnewell relinquished possession of the iceberg and rose into the radiant blue sky.

  Pitt took his time, keeping the helicopter at a Minimum cruising speed and holding on a northward course for fifteen minutes. Then, after they were out of sight and radar range of the submarine, he swung around in a long circle to the southwest and by eleven fifteen they had found the derelict.

  As they bore down on the great ice giant, Pitt and Hunnewell shared a strange sense of emptiness. It wasn't just the end of the long hours of uncertaintythey were already past the time limit set by Commander Koski-it was the eerie appearance of the mystery ship itself.

  Neither man had ever seen anything quite like it.

  The atmosphere around the berg had a terrifying desolation that belonged not to earth but to some dead and distant planet.

  Only the rays of the sun broke the inertness, penetrating the ice and distorting the lines of the ship's hull and superstructure into a constantly changing series of abstract shadows. The sight seemed so unreal that it was difficult for Pitt to accept the visible fact of its existence. As he adjusted the controls and lowered the helicopter to the ice, he half expected the entombed vessel to vanish.

  Pitt tried to land on a smooth spot near the berg's edge, but the sloping angle of the ice proved too great; he finally put down directly on top of the derelict. Hunnewell leaped from the helicopter just before the skids kissed the ice, and had already paced the derelict from bow to stern when Pitt joined him.

  "Odd," Hunnewell murmured, "most odd. Nothing Protrudes above the surface, not even the masts and radar antenna. Every square inch is sealed solidly under the ice."

  Pitt pulled a handkerchief from his flight jacket and blew his nose. Then he sniffed the air, as if testing it.

  "Smell anything out of the ordinary, Doc?"

  Hunnewell tilted his head back and inhaled slowly.

  "There is something of an odor. Too faint though. I can't make it out."

  "You don't travel in the right circles," Pitt said, grinning. "If you'd get out of your laboratory more often and learn a bit about life, you'd recognize the distinct aroma of burnt rubbish."

  "Where's it coming from?"

  Pitt nodded at the derelict under his feet. "Where else but down there."

  Hunnewell shook his head. "No way. It's a scientific fact, you can't smell an inorganic substance inside a block of ice from the outside."

  "The old proboscis never lies." The midday warmth was beginning to overcome the cold, so Pitt unzipped his flight jacket.

  "There must be a leak in the ice."

  14

  "You and your educated nose," Hunnewell said acidly. "I suggest you stop playing bloodhound and start placing the thermite charges. The only way we're going to get inside the wreck is by melting the ice mantle."

  "We'll be taking a risk."

  "Trust me," Hunnewell said mildly. "I'm not about to split the berg al)d lose the derelict, the helicopter, and ourselves as well. I intend to begin with small loads and work our way down by degrees."

  "I wasn't thinking of the iceberg. I was thinking of the wrecked ship. There's a damn good chance the fuel tanks have ruptured and allowed diesel oil to slosh the entire length of the keel. If we miscalculate and ignite as much as a drop, the whole derelict goes up in one fiery puff."

  Hunnewell stamped his foot on the hard-packed ice. "How do you expect to get through that-with an ice pick.

  "Dr. Hunnewell," Pitt said quietly, "I won't argue the fact that your name is known far and
wide for your hyper-scientific intellect. However, like most superbrains, your mental depth for practical, everyday runof-the-mill matters is sadly lacking.

  Thermite charges, ice picks, you say. Why bother with complex and muscle-exerting sclemes when we can simply perform an open sesame routine?"

  "You're standing on glacial ice," Hunnewell said.

  "It's hard and it's solid. You can't walk through it."

  "Sorry, my friend, you're dead wrong," Pitt said.

  Hunnewell eyed him suspiciously. "Prove it!"

  "What I'm getting at is, the labor has already been done. Our Machiavelli and his merry band of busy helpers have obviously been here before us." He pointed dramatically up-ward. "Please observe."

  Hunnewell lifted a quizzical eyebrow and looked upward and intently studied the broad face of the steep ice slope. Along the outer edges and near the lower base, only a few yards from where Pitt and Hunnewell stood, the ice was smooth and even. But beginning at the summit and working downward into the middle of the slope, the ice was as pockmarked as the backside of the moon.

  "Well now," Hunnewell murmured, "it does appear that someone went to a lot of trouble to remove the Ice Patrol's red, dye stain." He gave a long expressionless look at the towering ice pinnacle, then turned back to Pitt. "Why would someone chip the stain out by hand when they could have easily erased all trace with explosives?"

  "I can't answer that," Pitt said. "Maybe they were afraid of cracking the berg, or maybe they didn't have explosives, who can say? However, I'll lay a month's wage that our clever little pals did more than merely chip ice. They most certainly found a way to enter the derelict."

  "So all we do now is look for a flashing sign that says enter here." Hunnewell's tone was sarcastic. He wasn't used to being outguessed, and his expression showed that he didn't like it.

 

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