Valhalla rising, p.7

Valhalla Rising, page 7

 

Valhalla Rising
 



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  "Don't blame them," he said softly, carrying her over to Misty. "I'll bet they're worried sick about you."

  Misty smiled and took the little girl by the hand. "Come along and we'll find your mommy and daddy."

  In that instant, a glimmer of light brown hair caught Pitt's eye, spread on the blue-green water like lace filaments on a satin sheet. The face could not be seen, but a hand made a slight gesture, as if trying to paddle through the water, or was it simply movement caused by the waves? Pitt ran twenty feet down the deck for a closer look, hoping against hope that the woman-the hair had to be that of a woman-had not drowned. The head rose slightly above the water, far enough for him to see two large beautiful blue eyes that appeared languid and dazed.

  "Pick her up!" Pitt yelled to the rescue boat's helmsman, motioning to the woman. But the rescue boat was already halfway around the stern of the Emerald Dolphin, and the helmsman failed to hear him. "Swim toward me!" he shouted to the woman. He could see that she was staring in his direction without seeing him.

  Without another second's hesitation, Pitt climbed on top of the railing, balanced for a moment and then dove into the water. He did not immediately rise to the surface but stroked mightily underwater, like an Olympic swimmer after leaping from a platform. As his hands and head broke clear, he barely spotted the head sinking below the surface. Twenty feet and he was there, pulling her head from under the water by her hair. Despite her drowned-rat appearance, he could see that she was a very attractive young woman. Only then did he notice that she was gripping the handle of some sort of small suitcase that had filled with water and was dragging her down.

  "You fool!" he snapped. "Let loose of it!"

  "I can't!" she abruptly hissed, with a determination that surprised him. "And I won't!"

  Elated that she wasn't on death's doorstep, he didn't argue the matter but grabbed her by the halter and began towing her to the Deep Encounter. When he reached the side of the hull, willing hands reached down, clutched her by the wrists and pulled her on board. Released from his burden, Pitt climbed up a rope ladder. One of the female scientists threw a blanket around the woman and was about to guide her down a companionway when Pitt stopped her.

  He looked into those blue eyes and asked, "What's so important in that briefcase that you almost died trying to save it?"

  She gave him an exhausted look. "My father's lifework."

  Pitt looked at the case with new respect. "Do you know if your father was saved?"

  She slowly shook her head and looked forlornly into the ash-coated water with its many floating bodies. "He's down there," she whispered.

  Then she abruptly turned and disappeared down the companionway.

  Finally, the boats had retrieved as many of the living as could be found. They transferred those who were badly in need of medical attention onto the survey ship, and then pulled away a short distance, carrying as many survivors as they could hold without endangering them and helping to relieve the tightly packed conditions aboard.

  Pitt contacted the boat crews through his portable radio. "We're heading around to the bow to look for more survivors. Follow in our wake."

  No anthill could have been more congested than the Deep Encounter when the final living survivor was taken on board. Bodies were crammed in the engine room, the scientific storerooms, the laboratories and the crew and scientists' quarters. They were sitting or stretched out in the lounge, the galley, staterooms and mess room. Every passageway was full. Five families were crowded in Captain Burch's cabin. The pilothouse, chart room and radio room were filled with people. The 3,400-square-foot main work deck was like an unseen street, a sea of souls packed on top of it.

  The Deep Encounter was sitting so low that water sloshed over the gunnels onto the work deck whenever the hull was struck by waves higher than four feet. Meanwhile, the crew of the Emerald Dolphin did themselves proud. Only when the cruise ship's stern was free of the last passenger did they begin to drop down the lines themselves and board the crowded survey ship. Many had suffered burns, having waited until the last moment to see the passengers off before fleeing the consuming flames and abandoning the ship.

  No sooner had they stepped on deck than those of them who were able to began assisting the overworked scientists to make the passengers' congested situation more comfortable. Death also came aboard the Deep Encounter. Several of the badly burned and those injured from the fall into the water succumbed and died amid the low murmur of prayers and weeping, as the bodies of loved ones were carried out and put over the side. Space for the living was too valuable.

  Pitt sent the ship's officers up to the pilothouse to report to Captain Burch. To a man, they offered their services, which were gracefully accepted.

  McFerrin was the last man down.

  Pitt was waiting for him and caught his arm to keep the burned and exhausted man from stumbling and falling. He looked at the seared flesh on McFerrin's fingers and said, "A pity I can't shake the hand of a brave man."

  McFerrin studied his burned hands as if they belonged to someone else. "Yes, I think it will be awhile." Then his face clouded. "I have no idea how many, if any, of the poor devils who made their way to the bow are still alive."

  "We'll know soon," Pitt replied.

  McFerrin looked around the survey ship, seeing the waves slosh over the work deck. "It would seem," he said calmly, "that you are in an extremely perilous situation."

  "We do what we can," Pitt joked with a grim smile.

  He sent McFerrin to the hospital, then turned and shouted to Burch up on the bridge wing. "That's the last of them on the stern, Skipper. The rest went for the bow."

  Burch simply nodded and closed down the thruster control console. Then he moved into the pilothouse. "The helm is yours," he said to the helmsman. "Take us around to her bow nice and easy. We don't want to aggravate whatever damage there is to our hull."

  "I'll treat her as gently as a butterfly," the young man at the helm assured him.

  Burch was greatly relieved to move his ship away from the cruise liner. He sent Leo Delgado down to sound the hull for buckled plates and leaks due to the battering. While he waited for the report, he called down to Chief Engineer Marvin House. "Marvin, how does it look in your neighborhood?"

  Down in the engine room, Chief House stood on the walkway between the engines and eyed the thin stream of water that was pooling around their mountings. "My guess is we have major structural damage somewhere up forward, probably in one of the storerooms. I've got the main pumps working at full capacity."

  "Can you keep ahead of the flow?"

  "I've ordered my crew to set up auxiliary pumps and hoses to help stem the flood." House paused, and then as he looked around at the cruise ship survivors who were jammed in every open inch of his beloved engine room, he asked, "What does it look like topside?"

  "Packed like Times Square on New Year's Eve," answered Burch.

  Delgado returned to the pilothouse, and Burch knew by the grim look on the officer's face the report was far from pleasant.

  "Several of the plates are crushed and sprung," Delgado gasped, out of breath from running up from below. "Water is coming in at an alarming rate. The pumps are keeping ahead of the flow, but they won't be able to cope if the sea gets much worse. If the waves rise over eight feet, all bets are off."

  "Chief House says he's going on auxiliary pumps in an attempt to stay ahead of the flow."

  "I only hope it's enough," said Delgado.

  "Round up the damage-control crew and go to work on the hull. Shore up and reinforce the plates the best you can. Report to me any change in the leakage, good or bad, immediately."

  "Yes, sir."

  Burch was staring apprehensively at the sullen gray clouds that were building to the southwest when Pitt returned to the pilothouse. Pitt followed the captain's gaze. "What's the latest on the weather?" he asked.

  Burch smiled and pointed through a skylight at the twelve-foot-diameter dome that held a Doppler radar s
ystem. "I don't need up-to-the-minute meteorological predictions of storm dynamics by a state-of-the-art computer to tell me that we're in for a blow within the next two hours."

  Pitt gazed at the gathering clouds no more than ten miles away. It was full daylight now, but the dawn sun was hidden by the menacing clouds. "Maybe it will pass us by."

  Burch licked an index finger and held it in the air. He shook his head. "Not according to this computer." Then he added ominously, "There is no way we're going to stay afloat."

  Pitt wearily wiped his brow with his bare arm. "Figuring the average weight of the men, women and children at one hundred twenty pounds, Deep Encounter is transporting an extra one hundred twenty tons, not counting her crew and scientific team. Our only salvation is in staying afloat long enough to transport most of the survivors to another vessel."

  "No way we can make for port," Burch added. "We'd sink before sailing a mile."

  Pitt stepped into the radio room. "Any word from the Aussies and the tanker?"

  "According to radar, the Earl of Wattlesfield is only ten miles away. The Aussie frigate is coming on strong, but she still has thirty miles to go."

  "Tell them to push hard," Pitt said gravely. "If that storm strikes before they get here, they may not find anyone left to rescue."

  5

  The interior of the Emerald Dolphin was disintegrating, bulkhead toppling against bulkhead, deck falling on deck. In less than two hours after it had burst into flames, the ship's grand interior had been consumed. The entire superstructure was collapsing into a fiery hellpit. The ornate decor, the elegant shopping avenue with its stylish shops, the seventy-eight-million-dollar art collection, the lavish casino, dining rooms and lounges, the luxurious staterooms and opulent entertainment and sporting facilities, all had been reduced to smoldering ashes.

  Everyone crowded on the open decks of the Deep Encounter, former passengers and crew, the men and women working feverishly on the NUMA survey ship, all stopped whatever they were doing and gazed at the holocaust with a mixture of grief and fascination as Captain Burch steered around the stern of the gigantic ship toward the bow.

  No longer a ball of raging flame, she was melting down into a dying furnace. The frenzied fire having attacked and consumed every flammable material, every combustible object, now found nothing left to destroy. The fiberglass-hull lifeboats hung grotesquely and contorted, having melted into unrecognizable shapes. The great circular decks were drooping down around the hull like the decayed wings of a dead vulture. The high observation lounge and most of the bridge had fallen inward and all but disappeared, as if swallowed in an immense chasm. Much of the glass that had melted was cooling and rehardening into unnatural configurations.

  Consumed by the holocaust, the entire circular superstructure caved in upon itself under a great billowing pall of smoke. Fresh flames suddenly leaped through the open sides of the hull from explosions deep below. The Emerald Dolphin shuddered like a great tortured beast. Yet she refused to die and slip beneath the waves. She drifted doggedly on a sea that was turning gray and nastier by the minute. Soon she would be little more than a gutted hulk. Never again would she hear the footsteps, conversation and laughter of cheerful and excited passengers. Never would she majestically sail into exotic ports throughout the world as proud a ship as ever sailed the seas. If she remained afloat after the fires cooled, and her hull plates did not buckle from the intense heat, she would be towed to her final harbor and to a shipyard, where she would be cut down into scrap.

  Pitt stared at her with deep sadness, watching a fabulous ship reduced to a ruin. He could feel the heat of the flames reach across the water and touch him. He wondered why such beautiful vessels had to die, why some sailed the oceans for thirty years without incident before heading for the scrappers, while others, like the Titanic on her maiden voyage or the Emerald Dolphin on hers, came to early grief. There were lucky ships and there were those that sailed into oblivion.

  He stood hunched over the rail, lost in his thoughts, when McFerrin came and stood next to him. The cruise ship's second officer remained strangely silent as the Deep Encounter moved slowly past the macabre drama. The rescue boats with their overloaded cargo of survivors followed in the wake.

  "How are your hands?" asked Pitt solicitously.

  McFerrin held them up and displayed bandages that looked like white mittens. His face, with burned and reddened skin, was smeared with antiseptic lotion and looked like an unsightly Halloween mask. "Not easy going to the bathroom, let me tell you."

  Pitt smiled. "I can imagine."

  McFerrin, on the verge of tearful rage, gazed entranced at the ghastly sepulcher. "It should never have happened," he said, his voice quavering with emotion.

  "What do you think caused it?"

  McFerrin turned from the glowing, twisted hulk. His face strained in anger. "It was not an act of God. I can tell you that."

  "You think it was terrorism?" Pitt asked incredulously.

  "There is no doubt in my mind. The fire spread too quickly for it to have been accidental. None of the automated fire-warning or fire-control systems went into operation. And when they were manually engaged, they refused to function."

  "What mystifies me is why your captain failed to send off a distress signal. We turned toward you only after we saw the glow of your fire on the horizon. Our radio inquiries regarding your situation went unanswered."

  "First Officer Sheffield!" McFerrin fairly spat out the name. "He was incapable of command decisions. When I found that no message had been sent, I immediately contacted the radio room, but it was too late. The fire had already reached it and the operators had fled."

  Pitt gestured up at the high-angled bow of the cruise ship. "I see life up there."

  A large group of human figures could be seen waving excitedly on the forepeak of the ship. Unlike those who had run for the stern, fifty or more passengers and large numbers of the crew had made their way to the open forepeak above the bow. Fortunately for them, the bow was a good two hundred feet away from the forward bulkheads of the superstructure and upwind from the fire and acrid smoke that had streaked toward the stern.

  McFerrin straightened, held a hand over his eyes to shield them from the rising sun and peered up at the tiny figures wildly gesturing above the bow. "Mostly crew, with a sprinkling of passengers. Actually, they look like they might be okay for a little while. The fire's going the other way."

  Pitt took a pair of binoculars and scanned the waters around the bow. "None appear to have jumped. I see no sign of floating bodies or swimmers."

  "So long as they're safe from the fire for the moment," said Burch, approaching from inside the pilothouse, "it's better we leave them until another ship arrives or the weather settles down."

  "It's obvious we can't stay afloat in rough seas with another four hundred people on board," Pitt agreed. "We're just a hair away from capsizing and sinking as it is."

  The wind was beginning to fling itself at them, rising from ten miles an hour to thirty. The sea was tossing whitecapped foam in the breeze, and the swells came marching in like an irresistible force, now rising nearly ten feet high. It was only a warning of the fury that was yet to come.

  Pitt rushed off the bridge and shouted for the crew and scientists to get as many people as possible off the work deck and to secure those who were left before the waves smashed over the sides and swept them away. The crush on the lower decks was quickly becoming unbearable, but there was no alternative. To leave hundreds of people exposed to the elements during a tempest would be signing their death warrants.

  Pitt studied the crews of the two boats trailing in the wake. He was gravely concerned about their situation. The sea was too chaotic for them to come alongside and unload their passengers. Pitt looked at Burch. "I suggest, Skipper, that we turn and come around on the lee side of the cruise ship and use her for a shelter from the storm's battering. If we can't get the boat crews and the survivors on board, we've got to move them to calmer wa
ter in the next few minutes or it will be too late for them."

  Burch nodded. "A sound recommendation. It may be our only salvation as well."

  "Can't you bring them on board?" asked McFerrin.

  "Another hundred people on this vessel will be the straw that broke the camel's back," said Burch soberly.

  McFerrin looked at him. "We can't play God."

  The expression on Burch's face was one of torment. "We can if it means the lives of all the passengers already aboard."

  "I agree," Pitt said firmly. "They're better off sheltered from the worst of the storm on the Emerald Dolphin than coming on board the Deep Encounter."

  Burch stared down at the deck for several moments, considering every option. Finally, he nodded wearily. "We'll keep the boats tied close to our stern in case their situation becomes critical and they have to come on board." Then he turned and looked at the wall of dark clouds that were rushing across the water like a thick swarm of locusts. "I can only hope God gives us a fighting chance."

 

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