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Dirk Pitt 8 - Cyclops

PROLOGUE

March 9, 1918

Caribbean Sea

The Cyclops had less than one hour to live. In forty-eight minutes she would become a mass tomb for her 309 passengers and crew-- a tragedy unforeseen and unheralded by ominous premonitions, mocked by an empty sea and a diamond-clear sky. Even the seagulls that had haunted her wake for the past week darted and soared in languid indifference, their keen instincts dulled by the mild weather.

There was a slight breeze from the southeast that barely curled the American flag on her stern. At three-thirty in the morning, most of the off-duty crewmen and passengers were asleep. A few, unable to drift off under the oppressive heat of the trade winds, stood around on the upper deck, leaning over the railing and watching the ship's bow hiss and lift over the high rolling swells. The main surge of the sea seemed to be moving beneath the smooth surface, while massive forces were building in the depths below.

Inside the Cyclops' wheelhouse, Lieutenant John Church stared vacantly through one of the large circular ports. He had the midnight to 4 A.M. dog watch, and it was all he could do to stay awake. He vaguely noticed the increasing height of the waves, but as long as they remained wide-spaced and their slopes gentle he saw no reason to reduce speed.

Nudged by a friendly current, the heavily loaded collier was plodding along at only nine knots. Her machinery was badly in need of overhaul and even now she was steaming on just her port engine. Shortly after departing Rio de Janeiro , the starboard engine broke down and the chief engineer reported it could not be repaired until they reached port in Baltimore .

Lieutenant Church had worked his way up through the ranks to commissioned officer. He was a thin, prematurely gray-haired man a few months shy of thirty. He had been assigned to many different ships and had sailed around the world four times. But the Cyclops was the strangest vessel he'd ever encountered during his twelve years in the Navy. This was his first voyage on the eight-year-old vessel and it was not without its odd events.

Since leaving home port, a seaman who fell overboard was battered into pulp by the port propeller. Next came a collision with the cruiser Raleigh that caused minor damage to both ships. The brig was filled with five prisoners. One of them, convicted in the brutal murder of a shipmate, was being transported to the naval prison at Portsmouth , New Hampshire . Outside the entrance to Rio Harbor , the ship came within a hair of running onto a reef, and when the executive officer accused the captain of endangering the ship by altering course, he was placed under arrest and confined to quarters. Finally, there was a malcontent crew, a problem-plagued starboard engine, and a captain who was drinking himself into oblivion. When Church summed up the luckless incidents, he felt as if he were standing watch over a disaster waiting to happen.

His gloomy reverie was interrupted by the sound of heavy footsteps behind him. He turned and stiffened as the captain came through the door of the wheelhouse.

Lieutenant Commander George Worley was a character straight out of Treasure Island . All that was missing was an eye patch and a pegleg. He was a bull of a man. His neck was almost nonexistent, his massive head seemed to erupt from his shoulders. The hands that hung at his sides were the largest Church had ever seen. They were as long and thick as a volume out of an encyclopedia. Never a stickler for Navy regulations, Worley's uniform aboard ship usually consisted of bedroom slippers, derby hat, and long john underwear. Church had never seen the captain in a dress uniform except when the Cyclops was in port and Worley went ashore on official business.

With merely a grunt of a greeting, Worley walked over and rapped the barometer with a beefy knuckle. He studied the needle and nodded.

Not too bad, he said with a slight German accent. Looks good for the next twenty-four hours. With luck it'll be a smooth sail, at least until we catch hell passing Cape Hatteras .

Every ship catches hell off Cape Hatteras , said Church flatly.

Worley walked into the chart room and peered at the penciled line showing the Cyclops' course and approximate position.

Alter course five degrees north, he said as he returned to the wheelhouse. We'll skirt the Great Bahama Bank.

We're already twenty miles west of the main channel, said Church.

I have my reasons for avoiding the shipping lanes, Worley responded gruffly.

Church simply nodded at the helmsman, and the Cyclops came around. The slight alteration brought the swells running against her port bow and her motion changed. She began to roll heavily.

I don't much care for the look of the sea, said Church. The waves are getting a bit steep.

Not uncommon in these waters, replied Worley. We're nearing the area where the North Equatorial Current meets the Gulf Stream . I've seen the surface as flat as a desert dry lake, other times I've seen waves twenty feet high, nice easy rollers that slide under the keel.

Church started to say something, but paused, listening. The sound of metal scraping against metal rasped through the wheelhouse. Worley acted as though he hadn't heard anything, but Church walked to the rear bulkhead and looked out over the long cargo deck of the Cyclops.

She was a large ship for her day, with an overall length of 542 feet and a 65-foot beam. Built in Philadelphia in 1910, she operated with the Naval Auxiliary Service, Atlantic Fleet. Her seven cavernous holds could handle 10,500 tons of coal, but this trip she was carrying 11,000 tons of manganese. Her hull was settled deep in the water a good foot over her Plimsoll mark. To Church's mind the ship was dangerously overloaded.

Staring astern, Church could see the twenty-four coaling derricks looming through the darkness, their giant clamshell buckets secured for rough weather. He could also make out something else.

The deck amidships appeared to be lifting and dropping in unison with the swells as they passed under the keel.

My God, he muttered, the hull is bending with the sea.

Worley didn't bother to look. Nothing to concern yourself over, son. She's used to a little stress.

I've never seen a ship twist like this, Church persisted.

Worley dropped into a large wicker chair he kept on the bridge and propped his feet on the binnacle. Son, no need to worry about the old Cyclops. She'll be sailing the seas long after you and me are gone.

Church's apprehension was not soothed by the captain's unconcern. If anything, his sense of foreboding deepened.

After Church turned over the next watch to a fellow officer, he left the bridge and stopped by the radio room to have a cup of coffee with the operator on duty. Sparks , as every wireless man aboard every ship at sea was called, looked up as he entered.

Mornin', Lieutenant.

Any interesting news from nearby vessels?

Sparks lifted his headset from one ear. Sorry?

Church repeated the question.

Only a couple of radiomen on a pair of merchant ships exchanging chess moves.

You should join in to avoid the monotony.

Checkers is my game, said Sparks .

How close are those two merchantmen?

Their signals are pretty weak. . . probably a good hundred miles away.

Church straddled a chair and leaned his arms and chin on the backrest. Give them a call and ask what sort of sea they're encountering.

Sparks gave a helpless shrug. I can't.

Your transmitter acting up?

She's fit as a sixteen-year-old Havana whore.

I don't understand.

Captain Worley's orders, answered Sparks . When we left Rio , he called me to his quarters and said not to transmit any messages without his direct order before we dock in Baltimore .

He give a reason?

No, sir.

Damned odd.

My hunch is it has something to do with that bigwig we took on as a passenger in Rio .

The consul general?

"I received my orders right after he came on board= Sparks broke off and pressed the headset to his ears. Then he began scribbling an incoming message on a pad of paper. After a few moments he turned, his face grim.

A distress signal.

Church stood up. What position?

Twenty miles southeast of the Anguilla Cays.

Church mentally calculated. That puts them about fifty miles off our bow. What else?

Name of vessel, Crogan Castle . Prow stove in. Superstructure heavily damaged. Taking on water. Require immediate assistance.

Prow stove in? Church repeated in a puzzled tone. From what?

They didn't say, Lieutenant.

Church started for the door. I'll inform the captain. Tell the Crogan Castle we're coming at full steam.

Sparks 's face took on a pained look. Please, sir, I can't.

Do it! Church commanded. "I'll take full responsibility.'

He turned and ran down the alleyway and up the ladder to the wheelhouse. Worley was still sitting in the wicker chair, swaying with the roll of the ship. His spectacles were dipped low on his nose and he was reading a dog-eared Liberty magazine.

Sparks has picked up an SOS, Church announced. Less than fifty miles away. I ordered him to acknowledge the call and say we were altering course to assist.

Worley's eyes went wide and he launched himself out of the chair and clutched a startled Church by the upper arms. Are you crazy? he roared. Who in hell gave you the authority to countermand my orders?

Pain erupted in Church's arms. The viselike pressure from those huge hands felt as if it were squeezing his biceps into pulp. Good God, Captain, we can't ignore another vessel in distress.

We damn well can if I say so!

Church was stunned at Worley's outburst. He could see the reddened, unfocused eyes and smell the breath reeking of whisky. A basic rule of the sea, Church persisted. We must render assistance.

Are they sinking?

The message said `taking on water.'

Worley shoved Church away. The hell you say. Let the bastards man the pumps until their ass is saved by any ship but the Cyclops.

The helmsman and the duty officer looked on in amazed silence as Church and Worley faced each other with unblinking eyes, the atmosphere in the wheelhouse charged with tension. Any rift that was between them in the past weeks was hurled wide open.

The duty officer made a move as if to intervene. Worley twisted his head and snarled, Keep to your business and mind the helm.

Church rubbed his bruised arms and glared at the captain. I protest your refusal to respond to an SOS and I insist it be entered in the ship's log.

"I warn you

I also wish it noted that you ordered the radio operator not to transmit.

You're out of bounds, mister. Worley spoke coldly, his lips compressed in a tight line, his face bathed in sweat. Consider yourself under arrest and confined to quarters.

You arrest any more of your officers, Church snapped, his anger out of control, and you'll have to run this jinx ship by yourself.

Suddenly, before Worley could reply, the Cyclops lurched downward into a deep trough between the swells. From instinct, honed by years at sea, everyone in the wheelhouse automatically grabbed at the nearest secure object to keep his footing. The hull plates groaned under the stress and they could hear several cracking noises.

Mother of God, muttered the helmsman, his voice edged with panic.

Shut up! Worley growled as the Cyclops righted herself. She's seen worse seas than this.

A sickening realization struck Church. The Crogan Castle , the ship that sent the distress signal, said her prow was stove in and her superstructure damaged.

Worley stared at him. So what?

Don't you see, she must have been struck by a giant, rogue wave.

You talk like a crazy man. Go to your cabin, mister. I don't want to see your face until we reach port.

Church hesitated, his fists clenched. Then slowly his hands relaxed as he realized any further argument with Worley was a waste of breath. He turned without a word and left the wheelhouse.

He stepped onto the deck and stared out over the bow. The sea appeared deceptively mild. The waves had diminished to ten feet and no water was coming over the deck. He made his way aft and saw that the steam lines that ran the winches and auxiliary equipment were scraping against the bulwarks as the ship rose and fell with the long, slow swells.

Then Church went below and checked two of the ore holds, probing his flashlight at the heavy shorings and stanchions installed to keep the manganese cargo from shifting. They groaned and creaked under the stress, but they seemed firm and secure. He could not see any sign of trickling grit from the ship's motion.

Still, he felt uneasy, and he was tired. It took all his willpower to keep from heading to the snug confines of his bunk and gratefully closing his eyes to the grim set of problems surrounding the ship. One more inspection tour down to the engine room to see if any water was reported rising in the bilges. A trip that proved negative, seeming to confirm Worley's faith in the Cyclops.

As he was walking down a passageway toward the wardroom for a cup of coffee a cabin door opened and the American consul general to Brazil , Alfred Gottschalk, hesitated on the threshold, talking to someone inside. Church peered over Gottschalk's shoulder and saw the ship's doctor bent over a man lying in a bunk. The patient's face looked tired and yellow-skinned, a youngish face that belied the thick forest of white hair above. The eyes were open and reflected fear mingled with suffering and hardship, eyes that had seen too much. The scene was only one more strange element to be added to the voyage of the Cyclops.

As officer of the deck before the ship departed Rio de Janeiro , Church had observed a motor caravan arrive on the dock. The consul general had stepped out of a chauffeur-driven town car and directed the loading of his steamer trunks and suitcases. Then he looked up, taking in every detail of the Cyclops from her ungainly straight-up-and-down bow to the graceful curve of her champagne-glass stern. Despite his short, rotund, and almost comical frame, he radiated that indefinable air of someone accustomed to the upper rungs of authority. He wore his silver-yellow hair cropped excessively short, Prussian style. His narrow eyebrows very nearly matched his clipped moustache.

The second vehicle in the caravan was an ambulance. Church watched as a figure on a stretcher was lifted out and carried on board, but he failed to discern any features because of heavy mosquito netting that covered the face. Though the person on the stretcher was obviously part of his entourage, Gottschalk took little notice, turning his attention instead to the chain-drive Mack truck that brought up the rear.

He gazed anxiously as a large oblong crate was hoisted in the air by one of the ship's loading booms and swung into the forward cargo compartment. As if on cue, Worley appeared and personally supervised the battening down of the hatch. Then he greeted Gottschalk and escorted him to his quarters. Almost immediately, the mooring lines were cast off and the ship got under way and was heading out to sea through the harbor entrance.

Gottschalk turned and noticed Church standing in the passageway. He stepped from the cabin and closed the door behind him, his eyes narrowed with suspicion. Something I can help you with, Lieutenant. . .

Church, sir. I was just finishing an inspection of the ship and heading for the wardroom for a cup of coffee. Would you care to join me?

A faint expression of relief passed over the consul general's face and he smiled. Might as well. I can never sleep more than a few hours at a stretch. Drives my wife crazy.

She remain in Rio this trip?

No, I sent her on ahead to our home in Maryland . I terminated my assignment in Brazil . I hope to spend the rest of my State Department service in Washington .

Gottschalk appeared unduly nervous to Church. His eyes darted up and down the passageway, and he constantly dabbed a linen handkerchief at his small mouth. He took Church by the arm.

Before we have coffee, would you be so kind, Lieutenant, as to escort me to the baggage cargo hold?

Church stared at him. Yes, sir, if you wish.

Thank you, said Gottschalk. I need something from one of my trunks.

If Church thought the request unusual, he said nothing, simply nodded and started off toward the forward part of the ship with the fat little consul general huffing in his wake. They made their way topside and walked along the runway leading from the aft deckhouses toward the forecastle, passing under the bridge superstructure awkwardly suspended on steel stiltlike stanchions. The steaming light, suspended between the two forward masts that formed a support for the skeletal grid connecting the coaling derricks, cast a weird glow that was reflected by the eerie radiance of the approaching swells.

Stopping at a hatch, Church undogged the latches and motioned Gottschalk down a ladder, illuminating the way with his flashlight. When they reached the bottom deck of the cargo hold, Church found the switch and flicked on the overhead lights, which lit the area with an unearthly yellow glow.

Gottschalk shouldered past Church and walked directly to the crate, which was secured by chains whose end links were padlocked into eyebolts protruding from the deck. He stood there for a few moments, a reverent expression on his face as he stared at it, his thoughts wandering in another place, another time.

Church studied the crate up close for the first time. There were no markings on the stout wooden sides. He judged its measurements at nine feet long by three feet high by four feet wide. He couldn't begin to guess the weight, but knew the contents were heavy. He recalled how the winch had strained when it hoisted the crate on board. Curiosity overcame his mask of unconcern.

Mind if I ask what's inside?

Gottschalk's gaze remained on the crate. An archeological artifact on its way to a museum, he said vaguely.

Must be valuable, Church probed.

Gottschalk did not answer. Something along the edge of the lid struck his eye. He pulled out a pair of reading spectacles and peered through the lenses. His hands trembled and his body stiffened.

It's been opened! he gasped.

Not possible, said Church. The top is so tightly secured by chains that the links have made indentations on the edges of the wood.

But look here, he said, pointing. You can see the pry marks where the lid was forced up.

Those scratches were probably caused when the crate was sealed.

They were not there when I checked the crate two days ago, said Gottschalk firmly. Someone in your crew had tampered with it.

You're unduly concerned. What crew member would have any interest in an old artifact that must weigh at least two tons? Besides, who else but you has the key to the padlocks?

Gottschalk dropped to his knees and jerked one of the locks. The shackle came off in his hand. Instead of steel, it was carved from wood. He looked frightened now. As if hypnotized, he slowly rose, looked wildly about the cargo compartment, and uttered one word.

Zanona.

It was as if he triggered a nightmare. The next sixty seconds were locked in horror. The murder of the consul general happened so quickly that Church could only stand frozen in shock, his mind uncomprehending of what his eyes witnessed.

A figure leaped from the shadows onto the top of the crate. He was dressed in the uniform of a Navy seaman, but there was no denying the racial characteristics of his coarse, straight black hair, the prominent cheekbones, the unusually dark, expressionless eyes.

Without uttering a sound, the South American Indian plunged a spearlike shaft through Gottschalk's chest until the barbed point protruded nearly a foot beyond the shoulder blades. The consul general did not immediately fall. He slowly turned his head and stared at Church, his eyes wide and devoid of recognition. He tried to say something, but no words came out, only a sickening, gurgling kind of cough that turned his lips and chin red. As he began to sag the Indian put a foot on his chest and yanked out the spear.

Church had never seen the assassin before. The Indian was not one of the Cyclops' crew and could only be a stowaway. There was no malevolence in the brown face, no anger or hate, only an inscrutable expression of total blankness. He grasped the spear almost negligently and silently jumped from the crate.

Church braced himself for the onslaught. He deftly sidestepped the spear's thrust and hurled the flashlight at the Indian's face. There was a soft thud as the metal tube smashed into the right jaw, breaking the bone and loosening several teeth. Then he lashed out with his fist and struck the Indian's throat. The spear dropped onto the deck and Church snatched up the wooden shaft and lifted it above his head.

Suddenly, the world inside the cargo compartment went mad and Church found himself fighting to keep his balance as the deck canted nearly sixty degrees. He somehow kept his footing, running downhill with gravity until he reached the slanting forward bulkhead. The Indian's inert body rolled after him, coming to rest at his feet. Then he watched in helpless terror as the crate, unbound by its locks, hurtled across the deck, crushing the Indian and pinning Church's legs against the steel wall. The impact caused the lid to twist half off the crate, revealing the contents.

Church dazedly stared inside. The incredible sight that met his eyes under the flickering overhead lights was the final image burned into his mind during the fractional seconds that separated him from death.

In the wheelhouse, Captain Worley was witnessing an even more awesome sight. It was as though the Cyclops had abruptly dropped into a fathomless hole. Her bow pitched sharply into an immense trough and her stern rose steeply into the air until her propellers came clear of the water. Through the gloom ahead, the Cyclops' steaming lights reflected on a seething black wall that rose up and blotted out the stars.

Deep in the bowels of the cargo holds came a dreadful rumbling that felt and sounded like an earthquake, causing the entire ship to shudder from stem to stern. Worley never had time to voice the alarm that flashed through his mind. The shorings had given way and the shifting manganese ore increased the Cyclops' downward momentum.

The helmsman stared out the bridge port in mute astonishment as the towering column, the height of a ten-story building, roared toward them with the speed of an avalanche. The top half crested and curled under. A million tons of water crashed savagely into the forward part of the ship, completely inundating the bow and superstructure. The doors to the bridge wings shattered and water shot into the wheelhouse. Worley gripped the counter railing, his paralyzed mind unable to visualize the inevitable.

The wave swept over the ship. The entire bow section twisted away as steel beams snapped and the keel buckled. The heavy riveted hull plates were ripped away as if they were paper. The Cyclops plunged deeper under the immense pressure of the wave. Her propellers bit the water again and helped impel her into the waiting depths. The Cyclops could not come back.

She kept on going, down, down, until her shattered hull and the people it imprisoned fell against the restless sands of the sea floor below, leaving only a flight of bewildered seagulls to mark her fateful passage.



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