Valhalla Rising, page 5
"What can we do?" she asked anxiously. "Where can we go?"
"In the water," answered Egan. "It's our only hope to stay alive as long as we can." He looked solemnly into his daughter's eyes. They sparkled like blue sapphires when the light hit them just right. He would never help marveling at how much she looked like her mother, Lana, at the same age. Their height and weight and body shapes were identical: both tall, finely contoured, with the near-perfect proportions of models. Kelly's long, straight, maple-sugar brown hair framing a strong face with high cheekbones, sculptured lips and perfect nose were a mirror image, too. The only difference between mother and daughter was the suppleness of their arms and legs. Kelly was the more athletic, while her mother had been soft and graceful. Both
Kelly and her father had been devastated when Lana had died after a long battle with breast cancer. Now, as he stood there on the burning ship, his heart felt an indescribable heaviness at realizing that Kelly's own life was in dire jeopardy of being cut short.
She smiled at him gamely. "At least we're in the tropics and the water will be warm enough for a swim."
He squeezed her shoulders, and then looked down into the sea that was rushing past the great hull nearly fifty feet below. "There's no reason to jump until the ship stops," he said. "We'll wait until the absolute last minute before we go over. There are bound to be ships coming to rescue us."
On the bridge, First Officer Sheffield gripped the bridge rail and stared at the red glow reflecting on the waves like a kaleidoscope. The whole midships were ablaze, with flames pouring out like fiery rivers through the ports and windows that had burst open from the intense heat. He could hear the groan of protest from the mighty cruise ship as she succumbed. It seemed inconceivable that before another hour would pass, the Emerald Dolphin, the pride of the Blue Seas Cruise Lines, would be a burned-out hulk, drifting dead and aimless on a turquoise sea. His mind had long ago shut down to any thoughts concerning the lives of the 2,500 passengers and crew.
He gazed unseeing over the darkened sea. If there were lights from other ships, he was blind to them. He was still standing there when McFerrin burst onto the bridge. The second officer's face was blackened, his uniform scorched, his eyebrows and much of his hair singed away. He grabbed Sheffield by the shoulder and roughly swung him around.
"The ship is maintaining cruising speed directly into the wind. The fire's being fed like a giant bellows. Why haven't you given orders for her to stop?"
"That's the captain's prerogative."
"Where is Captain Waitkus?"
"I don't know," Sheffield said vaguely. "He went away and never came back."
"Then he must have died in the fire." McFerrin saw that it was useless trying to communicate with his superior. He grabbed the phone and called down to the chief engineer. "Chief, this is McFerrin. Captain Waitkus is dead. The fire is beyond our control. Shut down the engines and get your men topside. You can't exit amidships, so you'll have to make your way to either the bow or the stern. Do you understand?"
"The fire is really that bad?" asked Chief Engineer Raymond Garcia dumbly.
"Why don't we just head for the lifeboats?"
This was crazy, McFerrin thought. No one on the bridge had alerted the engine room crew that the fire had already destroyed half the ship. "All the lifeboats have been destroyed by the fire. The Emerald Dolphin is doomed. Get out while you can. Keep the generators going. We'll need light to abandon the ship and guide any rescue vessels."
No more wasted words came from Chief Engineer Garcia. He instantly gave the order for the engines to shut down. Soon afterward, his crew abandoned the engine room and made their way through the cargo and baggage compartments to the bow.
Garcia was the last to leave. He made certain that the generators were operating smoothly before he ducked into the nearest passageway.
"Have any ships responded to our Mayday call?" McFerrin asked Sheffield.
Sheffield stared blankly. "Mayday?"
"Didn't you give our position and request immediate assistance?"
"Yes, we must send out a call for help. . . ." Sheffield muttered vaguely.
McFerrin immediately read the incoherence in Sheffield's tone and eyes and was horrified. "Oh God, it's probably too late. The flames must have reached the radio room."
He snatched up a phone and called the radio room, but heard only static. Exhausted and in pain from his burns, McFerrin sagged despairingly against the ship's control counter. "More than two thousand people are about to burn to death or die in the water with no hope of a rescue," he murmured in solemn frustration. "And we can do nothing but join them."
Twelve miles to the south, a pair of opaline green eyes gazed into the brightening sky to the east before turning and examining the red glow on the northern horizon. Absorbed, the man stepped from the bridge wing into the pilothouse of the NUMA oceanographic survey vessel, Deep Encounter, picked up a pair of strong binoculars that were sitting on the bridge counter and returned. Slowly, deliberately, he focused the glasses and stared into the distance.
He was a tall man, three inches more than six feet, and a lean 185 pounds. His every movement seemed consciously planned. The black hair was wavy, almost shaggy, with a touch of gray beginning to show at the temples. The face was a face that knew the sea above and below. The tanned skin and the craggy features revealed a love of the outdoors. He was obviously someone who spent far more time under sun and sky than under the fluorescent lights of an office.
The early-morning tropical air was warm and humid. He wore blue denim shorts under a colorfully flowered Hawaiian aloha shirt. His narrow feet that stepped straight as a spear were strapped into sandals. It was the uniform of the day for Dirk Pitt when he was on a deep-water research project, especially when he was working within a thousand miles of the equator. As special projects director for the National Underwater and Marine Agency, he spent nine months out of each year at sea. On this expedition, the NUMA scientists were conducting a deep-water geological survey in the Tonga Trench.
After studying the glow for three minutes, he retraced his path into the pilothouse and leaned into the radio room. The radio operator on the graveyard shift looked up sleepily and said automatically, "Latest satellite weather forecast reports heavy squalls headed our way with thirty-mile-an-hour winds and ten-foot seas."
"Perfect for flying a kite," Pitt said, smiling. Then his expression aimed serious. "Have you picked up any distress signals in the last hour?"
The operator shook his head. "I had a short conversation with the radioman on board a British containership around one o'clock. But no distress signal."
"A large ship off to the north looks like it's on fire. See if you can make contact with her."
Pitt turned and touched Leo Delgado, the officer on duty, on the shoulder. "Leo, I'd like you to turn the ship north and proceed at full speed. I believe we have a ship on fire. Wake Captain Burch and ask him to come to the pilothouse."
Though Pitt was head of the project and outranked Burch, the captain still commanded the ship. Kermit Burch came almost immediately, wearing only a pair of polka-dot shorts. "What's this about a ship on fire?" he asked Pitt, suppressing a yawn.
Pitt motioned out on the bridge wing and handed him the binoculars. Burch peered at the horizon, paused, rubbed the lenses on his shorts and peered again. "You're right. She's blazing like a torch. I make her out to be a cruise ship. A big one."
"Odd that she hasn't sent out a Mayday."
"That is curious. Her radio must be disabled."
"I requested Delgado to turn from our course and head toward her at full speed. I hope you don't mind my stepping in your territory. I thought it would save a few minutes."
Burch grinned. "You gave the same order I would have given." Then he stepped over to the ship's phone. "Engine room, roust Marvin out of bed. I want every revolution he can get out of the engines." He paused to listen to the voice on the other e
After the news went out, the survey ship came alive, as crew and scientists were assigned special duties. The ship's two thirty-five-foot hydrographic survey launches were made ready to drop in the water. Slings were attached to the two telescoping deck cranes used to raise and lower submersibles and survey equipment, so that groups of people could be pulled from the water. Every ladder and rope on the ship was coiled to be thrown over the sides, along with cradles to lift children and the elderly on board.
The ship's doctor, with the assistance of the marine scientists, prepared the hospital and a casualty station in the mess room. The cook and his galley help began setting out bottles of water, pots of coffee and vats of soup. Everyone chipped in to provide clothing for those who might be rescued without any. Officers instructed selected crewmen to channel survivors onto different parts of the ship, to be cared for as well as act as ballast. With an overall length of 230 feet and a 50-foot beam, the Deep Encounter was not designed to support, much less float, with two thousand passengers. If the horde that was expected to come on board was not placed strategically to balance the ship, it could roll over and capsize.
The Deep Encounter was only rated at a top speed of sixteen knots, but Chief Engineer Marvin House pulled every ounce of power from his two big 3,000-horsepower diesel electric propulsion engines. Seventeen knots became eighteen, then nineteen, until the bow was thrusting through the sea at twenty knots. Her bow almost leaped clear of the water as she burst through the crest of the rolling waves. No one knew the Deep Encounter could drive so hard.
Fully dressed, Captain Burch paced the deck, giving orders for the hundred and one details to carry out in readiness for the expected invasion of survivors. He ordered the radio operator to contact the other ships in the area, give them a sketchy report on the fire, request their position and estimated time of arrival. There were only two within a hundred miles. One was the Earl of Wattlesfield, the British containership the radio operator had contacted earlier. Her captain had quickly responded and was coming at full speed, but he was thirty-seven miles to the east. The second vessel was an Australian missile cruiser that had changed course and was charging toward the position given by Burch from the south. But she had sixty-three miles to go. Satisfied there was nothing left to consider, Burch joined Pitt on the bridge wing. Every soul that did not have a duty to perform lined the rails of the Deep Encounter, staring at the red glow lighting up the sky. Closer and closer, the survey ship pounded toward the burning cruise liner. Loud talk trailed off into murmurs as the extent of the disaster became more shocking with each passing mile. Fifteen minutes later, they all stood as if put in a trance by the incredible drama unfolding before them. What had once been a luxurious floating palace filled with laughing, happy people was now a fiery funeral pyre.
Seventy percent of the once-beautiful ship was a vortex of flames. Already, her superstructure was a twisted, seething tangle of red-hot steel that virtually divided the ship in two. Her once-emerald-and-white color scheme was blackened and charred. The interior support bulkheads had contorted into an indescribable mass of melted and scorched metal. The lifeboats, or what was left of them, hung in their davits, barely recognizable.
It was a grotesque monster beyond the imagining of the most demented horror writer.
Studying the Emerald Dolphin as she drifted broadside to the rising wind and building sea, Pitt and Burch stood stunned, uncertain that the survey ship, its scientists and crew could cope with the enormity of the tragedy.
"Good lord," mumbled Burch. "No one got away in the boats."
"Looks as if they were all burned before they could be launched," Pitt said grimly.
Flames roared and towered into the sky, reflecting like terrible demons in the water around the ship. She looked like a ghastly torch, dead in the water, waiting to be put out of her misery by slipping beneath the sea. There came a screeching roar, more like a wail, as the interior decks collapsed. For anyone within two hundred yards, it would have felt as if someone had opened the door of a blast furnace. It was light enough now to observe the charred debris littered around the burning liner, floating on a blanket of gray and white ash. Burning bits of paint and shards of fiberglass filled the air in swirling clouds. Their first impression was that nobody could have been left alive in such a holocaust, but then the great mob of people became visible, choked together on five of the liner's open stern decks. At the sight of the Deep Encounter, a steady stream of them begin to leap into the water and swim toward her.
Burch trained his binoculars on the water around the Emerald Dolphin's stern. "People are jumping off the lower decks like lemmings," he exclaimed. "Those crammed higher up on the stern seem frozen."
"Can't really blame them," said Pitt. "The upper decks are nine to ten stories high. From their viewpoint, the water must look like it's a mile away."
Burch leaned over the railing and shouted an order to his crew. "Away the boats. Get to those people swimming in the water before they float out of sight."
"Can you bring Deep Encounter under the stern?" asked Pitt.
"You mean put our ship alongside?"
Burch looked skeptical. "I won't be able to get close enough for them to jump on board."
"The nearer the fire gets to them, the more will leap over the side. Hundreds will die before we can pick them all out of the water. If we tie up to the stern, her crew can throw lines for the passengers to slide down to our deck."
Burch looked at Pitt. "In this sea, we'll beat hell out of Deep Encounter against that monster. Our hull plates will be crushed and open to the sea. We could easily sink ourselves as well."
"Better to try to sink alongside than never to try at all," Pitt said philosophically. "I'll take full responsibility for the ship from my end."
"You're right, of course," Burch agreed. He took over the helm and began orchestrating the controls of the two omnidirectional Z-drives and jet bow thrusters of the survey ship, gently nudging her starboard hull sideways against the massive stern of the Emerald Dolphin.
As the passengers reached tentative relief from the fire on the afterdecks, the terror and panic subsided to common fear and apprehension. The officers and crew, especially the women, circulated through the milling crowds, calming the most overwrought and reassuring the children. Until the Deep Encounter seemingly appeared out of nowhere, almost all of them had conditioned themselves to the thought of going in the water rather than being burned alive.
When the slightest degree of hope had seemed all but destroyed, however, the sight of the turquoise-painted NUMA survey ship plowing through the water in the light of the new dawn came like a divine miracle. The more than two thousand people crammed on the afterdecks cheered madly and waved their arms frantically. They saw salvation close at hand. It was to prove an optimistic assessment. The ship's officers quickly realized that the little ship was too small to take aboard even half the people still clinging to life.
Not yet realizing Pitt and Burch's intent, Second Officer McFerrin, who had struggled down from the bridge and reached the stern with a bullhorn to help in calming the passengers, called out across the water. "To the ship off our stern. Do not come any closer. There are people in the water."
In the mass of bodies crammed on the stern decks, Pitt could not see who was hailing him. He snatched his own bullhorn and shouted back. "Understood. Our boats will pick them up as fast as possible. Stand by, we're going to approach and tie next to you. Please have your crew ready to take aboard our lines."
McFerrin was astonished. He couldn't believe the NUMA captain and crew were willing to risk their own lives and ship in a rescue attempt. "How many can you take on board?" he inquired.
"How many have you got?" Pitt asked back.
"Over two thousand. Up to twenty-five hundred."
"Two thousand," Burch groaned. "We'll sink like a rock with two thousand people piled on the decks."
Burch smoothly worked the propulsion controls, moving his ship slowly forward, then manipulating the bow thrusters with a deft hand, swinging his ship toward the liner inches at a time. Everyone on board Deep Encounter stared up in awe at the great stern soaring over them. Then came the scraping sound of steel against steel. Thirty seconds later, the two ships were firmly lashed together.
Hawsers were passed over by the survey ship's crew, while the cruise liner's crew uncoiled lines and threw them over the sides, their ends trailing into the waiting hands of the scientists, who hurriedly tied them to any object that held firm. The instant all lines were secure, Pitt shouted for the Emerald Dolphin's, crew to begin lowering the passengers.
"Families with children first," McFerrin shouted through his bullhorn to the crew. The old tradition of women and children first was now commonly ignored by modern seamen in favor of keeping families intact. After the sinking of the Titanic, when most of the men had gone down with the ship, leaving widows with fatherless small children, practical minds had felt that families should either live as one or die as one. With few exceptions, the younger, single passengers and the senior citizens stood back bravely and watched as crewmen lowered husbands, their wives and young children down to the Deep Encounter, where they found themselves safe on the work deck amid the submersibles, robotic underwater vehicles and hydrographic survey equipment. Next came the elderly who had to be forced to drop over the side, not because they were afraid but because they believed the younger people, with their lives ahead of them, should go first.