Wally & Me
by John R. Plunkett
Blue waves foamed on a strip of dirty sand lining tall, craggy, black cliffs. Sea birds wheeled and cried in a stiff but warm onshore breeze. The sun, hanging low in the southern horizon, was bright and warm, shining like a pool of liquid gold.
In this scene was a peculiar object. Thick toward the sea and tapering in the direction of land, it was located midway between surf and cliff. Most of it was ruddy colored and sort of rumpled looking; on top of it was a light pink colored thing of more or less uniform diameter.
Closer examination revealed that the ruddy thing was actually a walrus, sitting up on his flippers and looking out across the ocean at the distant sun. The object on the walrus' back was a man, wearing nothing but a pair of shades, gazing upward at the brilliant blue sky.
The man took a pull from a two liter plastic bottle held casually in one hand, then inspected the darkened skin along his forearm.
"Ahh," he exclaimed, "I can't believe it! I'm actually getting a tan! I can't remember the last time I saw the sun long enough to get a tan!"
The walrus shifted slightly. "My skin does not darken in the sun so much as yours," he said, "But I do consider myself extremely fortunate: that the sun is shining, and that we are here to experience it."
"Ditto that," the man said. "I can't remember the last time I actually enjoyed being on the beach."
"We are only here because Morvena is laid up in refit," the walrus pointed out. "And while we enjoy the lovely weather and release from work, Ilahka suffers at sea."
"Why, do you think we should be out there with them?"
"In a way. I prefer that they could be here with us."
The man grinned and slapped the walrus' back. "You're a good one, Wally. The best. Drink?" He offered the bottle.
"Thank you." The walrus took it with a flipper that attenuated into a long, bony hand with webbed fingers.
"Ahh, Bartolomew," he said after setting the bottle aside, in the tone of one bringing up a delicate subject, "I've known you ever since I signed on, some five years ago, and you are surely my closest friend, but I still do not understand: why do you shorten my name?"
"Walestian il Tarawoc is a rather cumbersome handle," Bartolomew pointed out. "That's why people call me Bart instead of Bartolomew."
"Cumbersome?" Walestian cocked his head. "I find it distinguished."
"Please don't misunderstand," Bart amended hastily, "It's not meant in a derogatory sense. It's a familiar name; a name used among friends."
"I must admit, I have difficulty understanding Stilter customs sometimes," Walestian commented. "Particularly in the area of names." He shook his head in wonder. "But then you've always had them, haven't you? I suppose it's easy to take for granted something that's always there."
Bart craned his head around, attempting to read Walestian's expression, but his viewing angle wouldn't permit it. "I'm sorry if I upset you," he apologized.
"No, I'm not upset. I've just noticed that you Stilters tend to take action without ever pausing to consider the assumptions that engender them. For example, did you consider the possibility of an alert going out while we were here?"
"I did," Bart pronounced loftily. "We'll be able to hear the siren from here, and I told Ripley where we were going."
"Good. Because I neglected to do so."
"Why Wally, that's uncharacteristically short sighted of you."
"I realize that. I can only say that the pleasant weather has clouded my judgment."
"As it has all of us," Bart said. "'Cause I know you'd have swam right back to Stonehaven if you thought there was a problem. Speaking of clouded judgment, though, I'd been meaning to ask: did you get a chance to see Rasslia yet?"
"I have." Walestian hung his head forlornly. "She threatened to send me away if I do not give her a child soon."
"She wouldn't really do that, would she?" Bart demanded.
"She surely would. I won the right to court her through my size and strength, but the male who conceives no children is no better than a geriatric who can barely move. If I don't give her a child she will seek another mate. She has granted me this much grace only because she finds me exceptionally attractive." Walestian stroked his whiskers. "But even a doddering geriatric who is there is preferable to a handsome young stud who isn't. She rated me soundly on that point as well, for risking my life saving Stilters and their ships when I should be spending time with her."
"Hard luck, old man. What'cha gonna do about it?"
"I seeded her several times. Even if she does not conceive, I feel she will at least grant me a little more time." There might have been a tinge of self-satisfaction in Walestian's tone, or then again perhaps not.
Bart grinned. "Just doing your duty, ay?"
"Certain obligations must be met. Though I would have to admit that they are quite satisfying obligations."
"Yeah, I bet." Bart set his glasses back on his face and let his arms fall limply to his sides. The conversation lapsed, leaving nothing to intrude on the natural sounds of the area. Until-
"What's that?" Walestian asked, looking around.
"What?" Bart sat up and listened.
An eerie wail floated over the cliffs, like an air raid siren at constant pitch. It gradually increased in volume, becoming more clear.
"Summer's over," Bart muttered, rolling off and standing up. "That's the alert siren. Time to get moving."
Walestian lumbered down to the water's edge and paused while Bart hurriedly gathered up all his stuff and put it in a zippered bag. With the bag over his shoulder, Bart joined his companion. In the water Walestian darted along with powerful strokes of his flukes and flippers. Bart held on with his arms around Walestian's thick neck.
Walestian's swift, precise movements in the water were a sharp contrast to his lumbering, ungainly movements on land. He may not have been as sleek and streamlined as some other pinnipeds, but he handled himself as gracefully as any of them. Bart never ceased to wonder at the grace and even beauty of his companion's motions- and though he never would have admitted it, he sometimes wished, secretly, that he was a walrus.
Bart didn't notice the boundary in the water, where the color changed from light blue to a dark blue-gray. It wouldn't have helped him anyway.
"Jesus Christ!" Bart screamed as the water temperature seemed to plummet suddenly. "What the hell happened?"
"Our spring day has run out," Walestian replied.
Bart said nothing, just hugged closer to Walestian's back and tried to keep his teeth from chattering too hard. It was difficult; the water had become terribly cold.
The trip to the point was mercifully short. Now they had only to wait for Morvena to pick them up.
Walestian felt the vibrations in the water well before he actually saw the vessel, but that hardly mattered. He set off confidently; those sounds were as familiar and reassuring to him as the sight of a dear loved one. In the most meaningful way Morvena was a dear loved one; she was Walestian's home, his career, his very life.
As the perky little vessel rounded the headland, Walestian paused just to watch. Though he'd worked with ships for most of his life, and on salvage tugs for more than half of it, he'd never given much thought to the formulae governing their construction. As such he didn't know why Morvena was built the way she was- but he liked it.
Morvena was no pudgy little harbor tug, one of those silly little boats that look like oversized bathtub toys. Her lines were low and long, like an exotic sports car. Her deck ran straight back from the sharp bow to the towing winch, located exactly amidships, then dropped one level and continued straight on to the counter. The uncompromisingly straight funnel rose up just forward of the winch, with boats stored on the decks to either side. The bridge and wheelhouse, perched atop the high superstructure with its steeply sloped forward edge, seemed to tower over the foredeck even though it wasn't actually that high. The tall mast, located between superstructure and funnel, supported an assortment of radio, radar, and meteorological equipment. To Walestian, Morvena was a creature of sublime strength, fluid dexterity, and rugged beauty. She was no mere machine; she was a living work of art.
"L- looks like t- they g- g- got t- the n- n- n- new paint on j- j- just in t- t- time," Bart observed through chattering teeth, taking a moment to admire the shoe black hull, creamy white upperworks and dark green wheelhouse. Then he hugged Walestian even tighter in an attempt to draw a little more heat from the walrus' body. It helped a little, but the water temperature seemed to the plunging rapidly.
The beat of the diesels slacked off abruptly and Morvena coasted down toward them. A net was draped over the after deck rail; Walestian caught it and pulled himself up. Bart was hoisted aboard by a deck hand.
"Your nuts are all shrunk," she observed needlessly.
Bart's chattering teeth made the proposition of a snappy rejoinder a grave risk to his cheeks and tongue, so instead he just grabbed the proffered towels and ran for the companionway that led to the crew quarters.
Walestian paused on the after deck, lifting his head to peer over the rail at the sun. The blue had gone out of the sky, leaving a dirty gray. The sun was ringed by a sickly brown halo, and ugly black clouds were boiling out of the horizon. The last remnants of the summery day were being quickly swept up by the gathering storm. "Time to go back to work," he observed to no one in particular, then went down after Bart.
Bart showered, dried, dressed quickly, and hurried to the salon. No one had told him there would be a meeting, but he knew there would be one. There always was when Morvena set out on a mission. He was right; except for the ones on watch, every member of Morvena's twenty-four man crew was present. Some were eagerly speculating on the nature of the coming assignment; others looked like they'd been carried aboard, and others just sat silently, waiting.
Six of the twenty-four were walruses, and they were gathered along one wall, hunched up to avoid having their flippers stepped on in the confined space. Walestian was, as always, near the front.
All conversation abruptly died when the door crashed open and captain Mina "Stormy" Weathers came striding in.
As usual Walestian attempted not to stare, and failed miserably. Seemingly of their own will his eyes roved over her broad, Slavic face, taking in her strong, somewhat blunted features and her long, pepper-gray hair, tied in a bun behind her head. From there his gaze travelled down, taking in her thick torso, muscular arms and Reubenesque pelvis.
Walestian's breath caught in his throat, and he held his body rigid lest someone notice him trembling. Captain Weathers affected him that way; she was so exquisitely lovely. More than that, she was the most divinely beautiful and desirable female in all of Creation.
The captain cleared her throat. "We've picked up an SOS from a Waverly tanker, the Rothson Fairchilde," she said. "Fully loaded with crude, en route from the trans-Arctic oil fields to Eblis. She met heavy weather and lost a screw. The remaining screw wasn't enough to keep her before the wind and she fell off. The report has it that she's taking water, leaking oil, her bridge is smashed, deck gear breaking away and she's running low on fuel. Her nav gear's out and they haven't seen the sky for nine days. So... " She looked around the room. "We're gonna run out there, save her butt, and collect a nice salvage award."
Her grin vanished, replaced by a look of utter seriousness. "The down side is, we put out with barely enough time to top off the fuel tanks, to say nothing of completing the refit. The dock crews piled all the salvage gear and extra equipment on deck while the fuel and supplies were coming on board. Now all that stuff is loose on the deck." She consulted her watch. "According to the latest meteorological reports we've got eight hours before hitting any heavy weather. Anyone who believes that can walk back right now." She looked around again, meeting the gaze of everyone present. "I give us no more than five hours before the shit starts flying, and anything left out is gonna be carried away. And remember, if you screw up, I won't kill you. Ripley'll do that for me." She smiled a dark, menacing smile. "We don't have time to waste. Shag it." She turned sharply on her heel and marched out.
Walestian slumped visibly. Even disregarding the fact that she was a Stilter and he was a walrus, she was a commander and he was a lowly salvage worker. Would she even understand? It was well known that, as a rule, Stilters disliked and distrusted the Walrus. Besides, a woman with the captain's obvious maturity and self-evident child-bearing suitability must have dozens of Stilter males competing for her attention. What chance would Walestian have against that?
"Man, I know how you feel, Wally," Bart moaned, misreading his friend's reaction. He gave Wally a friendly thump on the shoulder. "We really got our work cut out for us."
"Yes, we do," Walestian agreed, looking the way Captain Weathers had gone. The two exited, joining the flow of people leaving the room.
Ripley was waiting, and laid into them mercilessly. The salvage master strode the decks like the commander of a slave galley, shotgunning orders and ruthlessly shouting down any opposition. But while the crew bitched, moaned and grumbled about Ripley's iorn-fisted rule, there was no slacking. Every one of them, from Captain Weathers on down, knew from bitter personal experience exactly how much labor was needed to get Morvena ready for sea. They also knew that the eight hours predicted by Met was hopelessly optimistic. Most important, they did not know which item, among the hundreds of pieces of salvage equipment currently stacked on Morvena's decks, would be the one to save them and their ship when an operation went disasterously wrong. With Murphy's Lawyer being the bastard he was, it would be the thing that was left on deck and swept away, or the thing in the hold that wasn't secured properly, or a thing in the hold next to something that wasn't secured. Either way, the item would be lost or battered to pieces.
Quite simply, the lives of the crew and the safety of the ship could, at any moment, depend on the ready availabilty of any particular item among the thousands of pieces of salvage equipment Morvena carried. It was not the sort of game on which these men were willing to bet their lives- or the lives of their companions.
The sea granted them one small favor and held off the storm long enough for the work to be completed. But the ocean could afford to be magnanimous; it held all the aces. There was no way that Man or his frail vessels could hope to face the awesome power of the sea; at best he could expect an uneasy truce, where the sea let him go rather than bother expending the effort to erase the irritating mites that dared venture out upon it.
There was to be no rest, though. As soon as they were in their bunks the storm vented all of its not inconsiderable fury on the hapless tug. Wind, screaming louder than a jet plane on takeoff, drove sleet and spray against the exposed superstructure like the bullets of a million machine guns. The wires shrieked like over-taught violin strings, and waves that towered higher than the funnel peak slammed Morvena's steel sides with the force and regularity of trip hammers. At times like this Bart was terribly envious of Walestian and the other walruses. The blankets on his bunk were clamped down on three sides, and he had extra straps going across his body, yet he had to hold on for dear life with both hands and feet keep from being pitched around the cabin like a peanut in a can. Conversation was utterly impossible; the noise of wind and waves inside the crew compartments was louder than an artillery barrage. Even such fundamental tasks as eating, sleeping and going to the bathroom were nearly impossible.
Walestian, on the other hand, strapped down under a cargo net, was not only at ease but sleeping. Life was not fair...
"How the Hell can you sleep in this?" Bart demanded, screaming his throat raw just to be heard. Of course Walestian did not hear; Bart could hardly recognize his own voice in the cacophony.
"I'm gonna get some soup," he mumbled, struggling from his bunk and making his way carefully to the galley.
There were plastic bulbs full of soup in the cabinet. Bart selected one and warmed it in the microwave, then took it back to his bunk and sipped it through the nipple provided. Under these conditions this was the only possible mode of nourishment a man could hope to use.
Bart had heard that these bulbs had been developed for use by astronauts in weightless conditions. It was ironic how things had turned out; no doubt those ancient engineers would have seen their rockets and space stations as technical masterpieces, and these bulbs a mere trifle. Today all those things were gone, lost in the cataclysm of the Breakdown. But through it all the soup bulbs and survived, when so many greater things had perished.
Bart disposed of the empty bulb and held on, focusing his energy on merely surviving each agonizing, eternal second that dragged by in this watery Hell.
On the bridge, Captain Weathers was also intensely aware of the time, but in a much deeper way. Each passing second was a moment of suffering and agony miles beyond the comprehension of anyone who had never experienced it. It was another second in which Morvena's frame was subjected to the terrible stress of merely remaining intact in the face of forces that were trying to tear her apart. Another second that drained the strength and vitality of Rothson Fairchilde's crew, struggling beyond the limits of human endurance to keep their crippled vessel, and themselves, alive. A second that brought Morvena's competitors, in unknown numbers and composition, to the same prize she sought. It was quite possible that all these hardships would be for naught, with Morvena arriving on the scene to find another tug's wire already secured to Fairchilde's bitts.
Another person might waste time worrying about all this, but not Captain Weathers. Her current situation held the certainty of intimate familiarity; she had set sail under similar circumstances time beyond number. She could only do her best, and hope for it.
Not to imply she felt no fear. She did; she had set herself against an enemy of terrible power and soulless indifference: the sea.
She clung to the stanchion that supported the monkey's island atop the wheel house and felt it flex as the ship bounced in the waves. It had held up so far; she could only hope that it would continue to do so.
"What's on the weather scope?" she asked.
Mr. Timmins, the executive officer, glanced at the radar from his position at the chart table. The screen was a solid mass of shifting color bands that represented clouds and precipitation, dotted with icons specifying wind speed and direction, rain, hail, sleet, snow, turbulence, and lightning.
"Everything," he replied, "Except clear spaces." He turned his attention back to the charts, where he was attempting not only to plot Morvena's position but Fairchilde's as well, and as much up-to-date weather information as possible. It was a loosing battle; the weather changed faster than he could mark it on the map, and the position of anything on this ocean was a matter of conjecture.
He might be forgiven for not paying as much attention to the radar as he might have, since he knew- as did the Captain- that a good plot was the most important part of successful salvage. Besides, the weather changed too fast for anyone to keep track anyway. As it was he looked away from the screen just as three new icons appeared in a clear space that suddenly formed.
"Sir, there's a light ahead!" the helmsman called suddenly.
"What?" Captain Weathers leaned forward, peering into inky darkness beyond the rain-smeared windows. There was a faint, diffuse glow in the distance... sort of like a will o' the wisp. But who'd ever heard of such a thing in the middle of a hurricane?
Her instincts were trying to tell her something. She had seen something like this before, though much farther south, near Sable D'or. A column of shimmering light that reached up to the sky-
She looked at the radar screen. Three little white spirals had appeared within the five kilometer range circle, ahead and off to the right. Her eyes lifted back to the window as Morvena suddenly passed out of the roiling black clouds. Even her experienced eyes widened at the incredible spectacle that met them.
Bart had attained a state of semi-consciousness that, while not actual sleep, was the closest available approximation under the circumstances. His awareness had become numbed by the intensity of the fury around him; though it still overrode many things it was no longer the primary stimulus in his environment. What small part of his consciousness that would not be banished was fixed upon Walestian, still secured beneath the net. He was beginning to wonder how much of Walestian's movements were due merely to the storm when his environment changed suddenly.
Bart looked out the porthole over his bunk. Mostly he could see only black water... but as Morvena rolled up he saw the stars. A second later they vanished behind a sheet of spray from off the deck.
The light didn't go away. The water was glowing, like one of those little green chemical light sticks people took on camping trips. They were used on Morvena, too; attached to life rings and flotation vests they marked the position of a survivor in the water when spotting them would otherwise be very difficult.
He caught sight of something else, but only for a fraction of a second before Morvena rolled his porthole under the sea. Then his attention was distracted by the sound of something sliding across the deck, followed by a meaty thud.
The fact that he could even hear it shocked him so much that it delayed his investigation. The wind noise had dropped off; he could hear the sound of Morvena's engines. Then, recalling the noise, he turned.
Walestian had left the net and, impelled by Morvena's motion, slid across the deck into the bulkhead. Now he was sliding across the bulkhead toward the companionway door.
"Wally?" Bart shouted, unsure if the walrus could even hear him. Just because the noise level had fallen didn't mean that it had dropped to where conversation was possible.
The dog tore a long, bloody gash in Walestian's side as he slid into it. "Wally!" Bart shouted, scrambling from his bunk. He did not follow Walestian's headlong slide, though; he didn't have Walestian's blubber to cushion the impact. One misstep could lead to Bart's brains decorating the bulkhead- an eventuality he wished to avoid, being of the opinion that they did him more good inside his skull.
Walestian was thrusting up the lever that would undog the door. That galvanized him; Bart sprinted across the deck in spite of the motion, trusting the roll to arrest his motion before he hit the wall. Pitch and yaw forces, though, smashed him to the floor and sent him slamming into the corner.
"What are you doing?" he heard Walestian bellow. "Bart, get back into your bunk!"
"What the Hell are you doing?" Bart shot back, clinging desperately to the conduit pipes with all his strength. "If you open that door we'll be swamped!"
"But I saw her die!" Walestian wailed.
"What?" Bart almost lost his grip. His feet shot out from under him and for a moment he was dangling by his arms. "What the Hell are you talking about? Who died?"
Half a dozen men had left their bunks. Working quickly along the walls, they'd taken the cargo netting Walestian had been sleeping in and rigged lines to it. While Bart was waiting for an answer to his question, they threw the net over Walestian and secured their shipmate just as they would any other piece of loose cargo.
Bart struggled to the door and hammered the dogs back in place. His heart cried out for his friend- but the lives of twenty four men hung in the balance, and Bart's duty was first to the vessel as a whole. It had to be; if not he'd never have lasted this long as crewman on a salvage tug.
That's not to say he or the others didn't care. They did care- enough to risk their own necks to stop Walestian from doing something that would endanger himself or the ship.
"Now would you mind explaining to me just what the fuck is so important you gotta go out on deck in the middle of a hurricane?" Bart demanded, placing his face right by Walestian's ear.
"I saw her die," Walestian muttered.
"Who?" Bart almost screamed.
"Omigod!" someone shrieked- loudly enough that it cut through the noise, interrupting Bart's train of thought. Bart looked- and his mind froze at the pale, eerie light bathing the cabin through the portholes.
Up on the bridge, Captain Weathers left her place by the binnacle and pressed herself against the suddenly clear wheelhouse windows. The black mass of the hurricane had parted like theater curtains, revealing a spectacle that filled even her with awe and shock. The edge of the hurricane was like an impenetrable black wall rising up to the sky behind them. In front the cloud cover was thick but broken; the stars were occasionally visible. Lightning ripped the blackness with continuous, staccato flashes like some sort of celestial strobe light, illuminating the clouds in sharp relief. On this horrendous stage was set the most terrifying sight of all: three enormous, sparkling vortexes, gigantic columns of water and cloud that were lit from within by bioluminescence, turning them into pillars of cold, liquid fire. The word finally forced its way into Captain Weathers' consciousness: Waterspouts- marine tornados- most likely spun off from the hurricane. They were rushing toward Morvena as if bent on her destruction.
"Helm a-port!" she shouted, grabbing the telegraph lever.
Down in the engine room Chief Daniels saw the attention light flash and the indicator needle twitch back and forth. It did not stop on "full ahead," but went slightly past it against the stops. At the same time he felt the shock and roll as Morvena started taking the seas against her quarter instead of head-on. They'd need the extra power just to keep from broaching to and taking the swells broadside. In this weather the waves would roll Morvena like a log, and she'd go down as if she were made of solid lead. He grabbed the lever that controlled the master engine speed governor and pushed it all the way forward. The propeller pitch lever he moved forward more slowly, watching the output shaft tachometer carefully.
So much for maximum efficiency settings, he thought as he saw needles going into the yellow all across the board. The transmission dynamometer was in the red; one good shock and they'd snap a propeller shaft. Oil pressure was dangerously high as well; with a nervous glance at the oil cooler he hoped that his quick-fix gaskets would hold it. Certainly wasn't doing the main bearings any good; there hadn't been time for a complete engine overhaul and he could swear that the mainshaft bearings in Number Three were starting to make funny noises. The salvage crew wouldn't believe Daniels could actually hear anything between the roar of the three supercharged diesels and the scream of wind and sea. He'd merely reply that a person noticed the things that were important.
With wind and wave now at her back and engines at full power, Morvena raced over the sea. Water thundered over the after deck and slammed the back of the superstructure with pile-driver force. It was all the helmsman to could to keep the boat aligned with the wind; each successive impact tried to twist her sideways and cast her into the troughs, a position from which she'd probably never recover. Captain Weathers dashed nervously from one side of the wheelhouse to the other. For all Morvena's speed, the waterspouts overtook her with consummate ease; two of them pulled up until they were at either beam, with the third lagging directly astern. There was nothing to do- nothing she could do. Morvena's couldn't maneuver in this sailing attitude, only run. The waterspouts were matching their course and speed, though they were fanning out slowly. There was a chance, a slim chance.
The annunciator for the engine room communicator was flashing. Mina gripped the rail even harder; she knew what Daniels was trying to say, but there was nothing to do or say. They'd make it or they wouldn't.
After thirty gruelling minutes, the last waterspout had turned aside- at the last possible moment- and passed Morvena by. The sea was not done with this persistent intruder, however; with a tremendous crash the boat was pelted with hailstones as big as golf balls falling so thickly all vision was obscured. So fierce was the onslaught that Captain Weathers could actually see the metal window frames dimpling, and cracks forming in the ultra-hard plastic windows.
As suddenly as if begun it was over. They passed out of the squall into clear weather; the sea was still running high but the wind was merely fresh, and the sky clear. She heaved a massive sigh of relief, and rang for cruising power. Now she could concentrate on getting them back on course, and making up for the distance lost to that senseless encounter.
The companionway door opened with a crash. "Allright, maggots!" Ripley shouted, "We need to lay out a towing pendant!"
Bart scrambled from his bunk, rubbing his face. Back to the grind.
He'd been intending to speak to Walestian about the incident with the door, but the relaxation of the storm had made sleep possible- and fatigue had driven him to bed and the thought from his mind. Now, the task at hand kept it away.
"What's the deal, Ripley?" one of the men called, "We can't be that close to Fairchilde."
"We got another call. Schooner Bloody Mary. Rigging carried away in the storm."
"A schooner?" someone moaned. A big, fat tanker filled with valuable petroleum would bring in a big, fat, salvage award. Most of these fishing schooners weren't even worth the skimpy wages paid their crew. But Captain Weathers had never turned away a call for help. It was similar to the bedouin code; any of the sailors presently on Morvena could, at some future date, be on board a vessel like the Bloody Mary, and they'd expect to be rescued just as much as the crew of the Rothson Fairchilde.
"God, I hate this part," a short woman on the salvage team grumbled, struggling with the heavy rocket gun.
"I know what you mean," Bart replied, grabbing the end of the barrel and pulling it up. Everything that had been stowed had to be pulled out, with the ship pitching and rocking violently. Had to be done, though.
"Leave the rocket gun," Ripley called, "We may not need it. Keep it ready, though. Lay out the towing pendant."
"I hate this, too," the woman mumbled, as she and Bart made their way sternward.
"Yeah," Bart agreed.
In truth, though, he'd have to say that laying out the pendant wasn't so bad. They ran a little wire off the towing winch, and shackled about seventy meters of thick manila hawser to it. To the other end of the hawser they secured a bundle of six wires with a large shackle; these wires would be secured to the casualty- that is, the ship being rescued.
To say it was easy, Bart thought to himself as he struggled with several other people to drag the shackle and wires- which weighed a hundred and fifty kilos by itself- across the pitching deck to the towing bows.
"What are you people bitching at?" Ripley demanded, throwing up his arms to stand, without using his hands, on the heaving deck. "This is a friggin' Sunday picnic! The sun is shining, the sky is clear. what the hell do you want? Breakfast in bed? We could be doing this in the middle of a hurricane, y'know."
He was absolutely right, Bart admitted to himself. After all, things were never so bad that they couldn't get worse.
After the work was done there was nothing left to do but wait until they made contact with Bloody Mary. Instead of going below immediately Bart made is way forward. He had to grab the railing with both hands to keep from being pitched over the side.
"Wally!" he exclaimed, finding Walestian laying against the railing near the anchor winch.
"Greetings, Bart," Walestian called back.
"What'cha doing up here?" Bart asked.
"I hope to catch sight of Bloody Mary."
Bart stared off over the rail. Morvena's bow lifted high over the seas, then plunged down into the trough. She didn't try to bury herself in the next wave, instead lifting sharply into it- but she took some of it over the bows every time. The icy water sluiced down the walkways, drenching them both.
"Just like a rock in a storm, eh?" Bart muttered.
"No," Walestian countered, "Rock sits still, mostly."
Bart didn't care to pursue that thought. He wrapped his arm around a rope at the winch and held on, looking forward. The sky was still crystal clear, but the sea was still wracked by the aftermath of the storm.
Even though his feet and legs were repeatedly sluiced with freezing water he stayed up there with Walestian. He couldn't help but to think that something was bothering the walrus, and he wanted to help in some way.
"Are you okay?" Bart finally asked.
"I'm sorry," Walestian replied.
"Huh?" Bart blinked. "For what?"
"For trying to open the door during the hurricane."
"Oh that," he'd been about to say, but cut himself off. "It's okay," he said instead. "I know things can get a little freaky sometimes."
"It was just a nightmare," Walestian continued. "With the noise and the motion of the ship- it seemed very real."
"I know." Bart stroked the broad back, careful not to disturb the bandage on Walestian's shoulder. "But we're all right now."
"Yes," Walestian agreed- but if Bart had chanced to look down at his friend's face instead of out at the sea, he might not have been so sure.
"What the hell's wrong with the radar?" Captain Weathers demanded, looking up from the bridge wing. The antenna, perched high on the masthead, was still turning, but there was no picture on the scope.
"Water probably got in the conduits and shorted the wires," the radio man speculated, "There isn't anything wrong with the set, as near as I can tell."
"String new wires! I can't have this thing out!"
"Any temporary setup will be ripped off by the wind if we go back into the storm," the radio man replied, "We'll have to pull the wires out of the conduit and string new ones."
"Then do it!" she snapped. "I want this thing back! Do whatever you have to do, but I want a picture on this. We should catch sight of Bloody Mary soon. She said anything recently?"
"Only to report that she's doing all right, but would greatly appreciate it if we could get there quickly," Timmins reported.
"Great. We'll flap our arms and fly there." Even so, she went to the talker and called the engine room. "Go ahead and boost the supercharger pressure a bit," she suggested, "Shouldn't increase our fuel consumption rate too much."
It was not Walestian who sighted Bloody Mary first, but rather a lookout stationed on the starboard boat deck. Bloody Mary was taking no chances; even knowing that Morvena had radar (Bloody Mary's master had not been informed of the difficulties in that regard) the stricken vessel was putting up signal rockets at regular intervals. Morvena sailed up to her and prepared to put a towline on her.
"What's the problem?" Bart asked, coming out onto the port boat deck. Across a mere fifty meters of water lay Bloody Mary, one of her three masts broken off at the deck. The tangled rigging had been cut away, but there was still some trailing downwind. He glanced up, and saw Captain Weathers on the bridge wing with a signal lamp, communicating with Bloody Mary. She looked exasperated.
"Won't sign an Open Form," the lookout said.
"Huh?" Bart's mouth fell open and he stared blankly at the man. "What are you talking about?"
"Master of the Bloody Mary won't sign the Open Form Salvage Contract," the lookout repeated, shaking his head.
Bart couldn't believe he was really hearing this. He looked at the schooner lying nearby, and shook his own head. This wasn't really happening, was it? What did the master think he was doing?
Probably trying to save money, Bart conceded. After all, awards under open form agreements generally went fairly heavily in the favor of the salvors.
The Open Form Salvage Agreement was a document left over from pre-Breakdown days, used universally by all insurance companies. It was a long and complex document, but its meaning and intent could be summed up very succinctly: No cure, no pay. It said as much in the contract itself. In a nutshell, where the owners of a distressed vessel and the would-be salvors signed an open form, the basic agreement was that the salvors could take any action they deemed fit to rescue the ship, but unless some of the vessel's value could be recovered- the ship itself, its cargo, or equipment- then the salvors got nothing. If they did succeed, though, the salvage court would most likely give them a very large award- enough to keep a big, expensive vessel like Morvena in business doing basically nothing else. Just a tow to port could cost the master of the Bloody Mary a pretty penny; possibly more than his boat was worth, and probably more than he could pay.
Captain Weathers was debating that point herself, very hard. She was within her rights to just sail away- but she was reluctant to abandon a casualty, even an impoverished one like this. Also to consider was that there was surely another tug right now making its way as fast as it could toward the Rothson Fairchilde.
"God damn," she snarled, her large hands worrying the bridge rail. She grabbed the lamp and started signaling again.
Back on the boat deck Bart abruptly noticed Walestian sliding down the companionway into the crew quarters.
"I thought you were watching," Bart asked.
"I didn't see what I was looking for," Walestian replied, then slid out of sight. "This job shouldn't require my services."
As Bart pondered that strange remark, on the bridge the radio operator came bursting in. "Captain!" she shouted breathlessly, "Two tugs, the Vigilant and the Indomitable, have set out from Sable D'or to intercept Fairchilde. They're about two days out of port right now."
"Muthafucker," Captain Weathers snarled. This was a fine fix. Sable D'or was much farther away, so the tugs would have farther to go, but they were big, powerful tugs like Morvena, and could go at least as fast. While she was farting around with this asshole she was wasting this beautiful sailing weather that could change at any minute-
It struck her like a bucket of seawater in the face. She stood for a second, staring blankly forward. To the helmsman, it looked like someone had just shoved an icicle up her ass. Then her countenance split into a broad, albeit slightly malicious, grin, and she grabbed up the signal lamp. The reply to her message was brief and succinct, and delighted her even further. She tossed the lamp to Timmins and ran to the rail.
The Captain's bellow from the bridge wing caused Bart to jump. She could yell very loud when she set her mind to it.
"Get a line over there," she shouted, "We're taking her in tow!"
Ripley hesitated for a fraction of a second. Had Bloody Mary's master acquiesced and decided to sign the Open Form or what, he wondered. He didn't have time to waste thinking about it, though; Stormy had obviously made up her mind and she'd have his guts to grease the towing bows if he didn't haul ass.
"Walestian!" he shouted, "Wally? Get him out on the aft deck right away! Get ready to run out the pendant!"
Bart rushed to the aft deck and helped prepare the tow wire. He wanted to be on deck to see Walestian in action.
Walestian came out on deck, and Ripley handed him the end of a messenger line with a loop in it. He took the line in his mouth, slipped over the stern and swam sedately over to Bloody Mary's bow, and held the loop up until one of the deck hands could catch it with a boat hook and bring it aboard. That completed he returned to Morvena and climbed aboard. Even before he got back Bloody Mary was pulling in the messenger line with the tow pendant attached, and in short order they had made it fast to Bloody Mary's bollards.
"You make that look so easy," Bart commented, shaking his head in wonder as Walestian climbed out of the sea. Even without wind, a man would have found it nearly impossible to swim in those tremendous, freezing waves, to say nothing of pulling a line behind him. Neither buoy nor rocket could deliver a line as quickly and precisely as one walrus.
"It is," Walestian replied, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
Captain Weathers had come down from the bridge, and stood by the winch as the wire was made fast to Morvena's towing bitts. "You ready here?" she asked.
"All set," Ripley reported, giving the wire one last thump with his fist to test the soundness of the lashings. "Mary reports that they've got their end down, too. They even said thank you." Ripley seemed confused.
"They better be, considering they're getting a free tow," she commented, then turned to the bridge. "Execute programmed vector, now!" she shouted. Timmins saluted in reply, then went into the wheelhouse. With a squirt of smoke from the stack Morvena got underway.
Ripley stood, dumbfounded, as Captain Weathers strode confidently back to the bridge. Had he heard right? Had the Captain taken leave of her senses or something?
No, certainly not, he decided. She had something up her sleeves besides her arms. He heartily wished, not for the first time, that she'd let him in on these little plans of hers.
Bart had not heard the Captain's comment. He was at the stern, looking out over the counter at Bloody Mary. The vessel was longer but much narrower than Morvena; In terms of mass she was only a fraction of Morvena's size, and Morvena's three supercharged diesels shouldered the burden without seeming to even notice the extra load.
The only thing that struck him was that as he turned forward to go back belowdecks he had to shield his eyes from the sun. This struck him as odd, and he had to stop and think about it for a moment. Abruptly he realized that Morvena was sailing south, when the nearest port was to the west.
What was Captain Weathers doing, he wondered. Then he put it out of his mind. She obviously had a plan, and so far in the four odd years he'd shipped with her she hadn't been wrong yet. He went belowdecks safe in the assurance that Captain Weathers knew what she was doing.
In actual fact, Captain Weathers was more than a little concerned. She was watching the horizon, and the screen of the weather radar closely, both of which were perfectly clear. Her plan came awfully close to trying to have her cake and eat it too, and it all hinged on something that was highly unpredictable: the weather. Morvena's owners would be terribly upset if this whole thing came apart, and she'd bear the brunt of the blame. She wondered, fleetingly, if her years of service would mitigate a not-so-little screw up that this could easily become.
Captain Weathers awoke up suddenly at 23:16, responding to some indefinable inner prompting, and hurried up to the bridge.
"See, I told you," Timmins was saying to the helmsman as she entered, "No need to waste your breath. She probably knew before you did." He was pointing at the barometer.
It had taken a small but decisive drop. She smiled; probably the only time she was glad for bad weather.
"So what's Mary doing?" she asked.
"Trolling," Timmins replied.
"That's chutzpah for you," she grumbled. "They're getting a free ride, and making money at it to boot." She looked at the chronometer, then at the barometer. "I think I'll wait another hour, then ask them politely if they want to reconsider signing the Open Form. Maybe they'll have changed their minds."
Thirty minutes later the wind was wailing loud enough to drown out Morvena's engines in every compartment except the machinery room itself. On the storm scope, which had finally been repaired, a thick, dark mass of clouds shot through with electrical activity was rushing down on them.
Ice began rattling on the bridge windows, driven by winds gusting to 170 klicks. In moments the bridge windows were covered by several centimeters of rime.
"I think now's the time," she said, taking the signal lamp and opening the starboard wheelhouse door.
She was forced to throw all of her not inconsiderable weight and strength against it to get the door open against the howling wind. She braced her feet on the icy rail and heaved as hard as he could, and finally forced the door back against the stops. In seconds centimeters of ice had accumulated on the back of the door, locking it in place even against the howling wind and sleet, which beat against the superstructure like heavy gunfire. Her question, directed at Bloody Mary, was succinct.
WILL YOU SIGN OPEN FORM
Bloody Mary's reply was equally succinct.
WILL SIGN OPEN FORM JUST GET ME TO PORT
She lowered the lamp and went in the wheelhouse, grinning devilishly. "I had a feeling he'd change his mind," she said, "Set course for Chilliwack."
By the time they reached Chilliwack Morvena was so heavily iced that the added weight was beginning to adversely affect her trim. The master of Bloody Mary was wailing that his boat was in danger of capsizing. Captain Weathers informed him shortly that if he'd agreed to sign the open form immediately then none of this would have happened.
Fortunately for both Morvena and Bloody Mary the radar, turning safely inside its housing, could see through the fifty to sixty centimeters of ice that coated it. The open wheelhouse door proved to be no problem; the ice formed a bubble over it, and shut out the wind. In point of fact it was the only way out of the ship; all the other doors, except a few of the hatchways onto the after deck, had been iced over so thickly that they were immobile. Still, it was necessary to bring up sledges and break the ice to get lookouts onto the bridge wing.
They didn't spend much time there. Captain Weathers set the crew to cleaning off as much of the ice as possible, by chipping it or just hosing it down with salt water. While Morvena was having her fuel tanks refilled Captain Weathers went to the local shipping office with Bloody Mary's master, and both of them signed the Open Form Agreement.
"You tricked me," the grizzled old man blurted after penning his signature. "You knew the weather was going to turn bad."
"So did you," she replied wanly, "But you went along anyway. What did you think, that I'd tow you all the way to Sable D'or for nothing?"
The Captain's face fell. He said nothing.
Captain Weathers laughed and clapped the man on the back. "Let me buy you a drink, Captain. We're both safe in port, our crews and vessels intact. That's all that really matters, in the end."
Bloody Mary's master smiled hesitantly, then nodded. It was true, after all.
The storm moderated quickly, and as Morvena stood out from Chilliwack the weather was blustery, but not unbearable. Apparently it had decided to be merely harsh, instead of extreme.
Once again Bart found Walestian out on deck, this time on the starboard side, watching the headland slip away. He seemed to be staring with a particular intensity.
"What is it, old boy?" Bart asked, coming up and seating himself on the davits.
"I dreamed again last night," Walestian said after a momentary pause. "The same nightmare as before."
"Where you saw someone die?"
Walestian merely nodded.
"Care to tell me about it?"
Walestian hesitated for a long time. "I'm... I saw Morvena destroyed."
Bart started in spite of himself, and covered by scratching behind his ear distractedly. Morvena's loss was something he could hardly bear contemplating, under any circumstances. She was more than just a work place, she was a home. A place were Bart spent time with dear friends. In the most meaningful way, Morvena herself was one of those dear friends.
"Yeah, I know how it must feel." Bart sat down, reaching across Walestian's back with his arm and squeezing. "But don't you worry. Morvena's a salvage tug, remember. She won't go down without a fight. And even if she does, by God we'll hoist her off the bottom by her own bootstraps!"
Walestian buried his face in Bart's side, his body shuddering violently. Bart wrapped his arms around Walestian's neck and held him tightly.
"Just a bad dream?" Wally asked.
"Just a bad dream."
"Thank you, Bart."
"You're welcome, Wally. Anytime."
Captain Weathers felt good. Morvena would get a small but not inconsequential salvage award from the job- from the Commonwealth government, even if not from Bloody Mary's owners. In order to encourage this sort of business the Commonwealth government paid a nominal salvage award for every ship and person rescued. Moreover, the storm had delayed Vigilant and Indomitable, placing Morvena back in the running. The race was still on.
Down in the engine room Chief Engineer Daniels watched the big panel with all the engine instrumentation on it. After a moment he turned the valve which regulated the oil pressure in engine #3, increasing it slightly. Then he wandered to the oil cooler and opened a valve, allowing a small amount of the red silicon oil to drip out onto a white card. He held it up before the light; it was relatively clean and free of impurities. He nodded in satisfaction, and made several notes in his log. The refitters in Stonehaven had done a good job in the time available- and they'd used the right kind of oil this time. At the last refit the engines had been filled with some other kind of oil, one that didn't conduct heat as well, and let the engine cores get too hot. Good way to warp a rotor or damage the main bearings. And in this job, having an engine pack it in unexpectedly could be extremely inconvenient- even fatal. More than any other kind of ship he'd ever been on, on a salvage tug the machinery had to be kept in best working order at all times. Anything else was to ask for, and certainly get, serious trouble.
The moderate storm that ripped the seas for the next several days was almost mild in comparison to the howling hurricane that had greeted them upon leaving Stonehaven. The wind shifted wildly and erratically, but the seas weren't too high and icing wasn't the problem it had been. All the ice that hadn't been cleaned off by the crew was stripped away by the sea.
On the fourth day out from Chilliwack, at 10:36 in the morning, the radio operator came scrambling onto the bridge with a message flimsy. He handed it to Captain Weathers without a word. She held it up to the wheelhouse light and read it.
ROTHSON FAIRCHILDE TO ALL SHIPS STOP HAVE BEEN TAKEN IN TOW BY VIGILANT STOP INDOMITABLE STANDING BY STOP BEST REGARDS TO MORVENA AND THANK YOU FOR TRYING
"Maybe they'll burst a tow wire or something," she muttered. In her mind she saw the salvage money swirling away, like wrack before the wind. Well, one couldn't expect to win them all.
"What shall we do, sir?" Timmins asked.
"Set course for Sable D'or pending further instructions. I'm not ready to go back to Stonehaven just yet. Plot a maximum efficiency vector, please."
"Aye aye." Timmins saluted, and Captain Weathers went down to her cabin. The storm wasn't bad enough to warrant her presence on the bridge; Timmins could handle it just fine.
Down below Ripley passed the word to the crew. It was met with groans of disappointment.
"Quit moaning," he said, "You'll get a chance to have your fun. The season's young yet. I'll bet we'll get a call within the day."
Ripley was right. The Waverly freighter Greenfield, bound for Roraway in ballast, had run aground on the Taggart Shelf, a series of shallow reefs paralleling the coastline about a hundred kilometers out. According to the reports she was caught in the same stormy area that Morvena was forging through, and she was grinding her bottom out against the shoals. It was fortunate in one aspect; Morvena would be able to reach Greenfield's position in less than twenty hours.
Bart peered through the porthole as Morvena made the approach to Greenfield's position. "Muthafucker," he hissed under his breath. "I sure as Hell wouldn't wanna be out there."
"Ditto that," one of the other people added quietly.
The freighter was full on the rocks, from end to end, broadside to wind and wave. The water was sweeping her decks from stem to stern; only the superstructure was clear.
"Enough sightseeing, ladies," Ripley snapped, "Let's move like we got a purpose. Break out the ground tackle anchors and get them ready to drop."
The ground tackle anchors were set quickly and relatively easily. The next step would be much harder.
"We gotta get salvage pumps and air compressors on her," Captain Weathers stated. "And there's no way a boat's gonna make it. We're gonna need the 35cm centripetals." She turned to Ripley. "Tell them to get the electric pumps and compressors ready with floats. I'm gonna go in, kick 'em over the side, and crane 'em up with Greenfield's deck gear. If necessary, we'll run a power cord from Morvena."
"Righto." Ripley left the bridge and hurried down.
Water was no problem. The electric pumps would function submerged; all they had to do was lower them into the flooded holds and let them to their thing. Their power cords had to be kept dry, though; salt water in the connections would short them out.
This was one of Bart's jobs. As the big pumps were craned out of the hold and onto the deck, he helped hook up the power cords, and check the seals to make sure they were dry. He also helped fit the big foam pads that acted not only as float but as fenders as well.
While this was happening Captain Weathers took Morvena in. Bart tried to keep his mind on his work, but he couldn't help but watch in abject fear as Morvena slipped past jagged rocks that broke the water mere meters from her sides. Working through spaces in the reef barely wider than her beam, in a gale force winds and high seas, it seemed inevitable to him that Morvena should be bashed to bits against those horrid crags that seemed to be reaching out of the sea to trap her. Even given as many times as he'd seen it done, he couldn't get used to it. He concentrated on the pumps and tried not to think about it to much.
"Okay, Wally, here's where we earn our pay!" he shouted to Walestian as he and a group of salvage men slipped into their wet suits. Then he leapt over the side, followed by Walestian.
Bart wrapped his arms tightly around Walestian's neck and hung on while the walrus swam through the raging storm to the casualty's side. A net had been let down for them.
"I'll check out the hull damage," Walestian shouted. Bart nodded, then started up the oil-splashed hull to the deck. Walestian dove out of sight into the black water.
On deck, Bart was met by a group of men in slickers. "We've got water coming in everywhere," one of them shouted, having to raise his voice to be heard over the roar of wind, the crash of waves, the groaning of metal and the splintering of rock. "The bilge pumps can't keep it down. We gotta get a pump in the engine room, or the fire's gonna be flooded!"
"Right!" Bart screamed back. "Swing out a boom and help us get the pumps on board!"
In an act of great daring Captain Weathers brought Morvena right along Greenfield's side, so that the pumps could almost be lifted from her after deck straight over.
Two 20cm pumps were rushed to the engine room and set up, along with a steam powered generator to get the water under control. As long as Greenfield had power, they were okay. If the fires went out, they were in big trouble; the nearest other source of power was Morvena. They'd either have to swing over one of the big diesel generators or run a power cable from Morvena's engines. Either would be risky.
With the pumps set and running, Bart rushed to check out the holds. The officer hadn't been exaggerating; there were three meters of water in the first hold. He was starting up when he heard something.
"What?" he looked around in confusion.
"Aart! Aartholomew!" a light flashed in the darkness.
"Wally?" he called. "How the Hell did you get in here?"
Walestian took the flashlight out of his mouth. "I swam in through a hole in the hull. All the deep tanks are tidal, and so are one, two, three and six holds."
"Jesus H. Christ," Bart moaned. The ship basically didn't have a bottom anymore. "Obviously pumping the water out isn't going to help. Tell you what: get your crew down there and patch up as many of the holes as you can, and we'll set up air compressors. Maybe we can blow the water out, assuming we can make the deck airtight."
While the walruses worked underwater with canvas, wood and silicon sealant to patch up the underwater holes, Bart worked with the deck crew to make the tops of the holds airtight. Lead sheeting was hammered into all the cracks, hatch covers nailed down and reinforced with braces. Pressure fittings were put in the decks, and air hoses strung. The ground tackle was laid out, attached firmly to Greenfield's bollards bow and stern, and rove up bar taught.
"Let 'er rip!" Bart shouted, waving his flashlight. The pump men would not hear him; the roaring wind tore away the words as they left his mouth. The compressors started up, and the pressure began to build.
"Come on, baby," Bart pleaded, eyes glued to the gauges. He was hopping up and down, hands clenched between his legs.
There was a muffled boom from below decks and a loud flatulent noise. The pressure fell.
"Who let one?" one of the pump men shouted, and he was cuffed by a companion.
"Where did it blow?" Bart demanded, running along the deck. Time was running out; the storm was picking up, and Greenfield was trying to work further onto the rocks.
"One of the underwater patches blew!" a walrus informed him.
"Find it and fix it!" Bart screamed.
The walruses located the blown patch in a matter of moments, and directed the deck team to it. Bart slithered down the oil-splashed ladder with air-powered tools slung on his back, holding a flashlight in his teeth.
"Make a new patch out of triple layerd silicon backed canvass," Bart shouted. "And this time, brace it up with more timbers!"
"Where's the hole?" one of the men shouted as Bart dropped off the ladder into the water.
"About two meters down," Bart shouted back, diving.
"Great!" he replied, then followed.
Working under the freezing water, with heavy undertows that could suck them right out of the ship, they fit the new patch and hammered the support beams into place. For good measure they packed oakum and sealant into the gaps in the planking.
With the hatches nailed down again the compressors were set to work. The pressure climbed and held, then rose again.
"The water's going down!" someone shouted. Indeed, Greenfield was starting to move more. Unfortunately, she was trying to work farther onto the shelf instead of coming off.
"Tighten the ground tackle!" Bart shouted. The winches strained; on Morvena a tow wire had been made fast and Captain Weathers threaded her way back out of the reef and started to pull.
"Chief!" she shouted into the talker, "Give her everything she's got!"
Chief Daniels moved the slides that controlled the speed of the electrically driven superchargers to the maximum extent of their travel, and increased the fuel pressure to maximum. The superchargers screamed like a flight of jets warming up on the ramp, and the diesels roared like an army of enraged demons. The intake manifold temperature was near red and still climbing. Too much of this and she'd blow a head gasket.
Morvena thrashed like a marlin on a line at the end of the tow wire, but Greenfield remained fixed. The wire and ground tackle were bar taught and shrieking like battling tomcats from the strain but Greenfield just wouldn't move.
"Move, dammit!" Captain Weathers screamed into the wind, slamming Morvena's bridge rail with her fists. "Move your filthy metal carcass, you son of a bitch!" The wood splintered under her hands.
On Greenfield's deck Bart was running through every prayer he knew at high speed. The wind was picking up, and Greenfield's time was running out. He was glad, now as always, that they had the walruses with them, so they could conceivably abandon ship and have a hope of survival. Unfortunately, return to Morvena was grim hope indeed; it was possible that a walrus could swim into the hurricane, but no boat or man could live in that watery hell around them. Downwind was the expanse of the reef; a boat would be blown away instantly, and most likely smashed to bits on the rocks before it got clear.
Without warning the ground tackle on the bow snapped, the wire whipping back through the air. It sliced through a ventilator like a razor through cooked asparagus, and flung the severed member to the wind.
The remaining ground tackle anchor proved unequal to the strain and started to drag. It caught on a rock, but the ship was still dragging downwind. There was no way it would be able to hold them, and shortly thereafter parted. The flailing end tore away twenty meters of Greenfield's railing and slashed through a winch frame as if the heavy metal casting was no more than soft butter.
Greenfield, held only by Morvena's tow wire, began to bang over the rocks, dragging downwind across the shoal. The pressure in the hull was holding at least, but if she rolled over that would be the end. She'd sink instantly.
On Morvena's bridge Captain Weathers watched in horror as Morvena's stern was dragged inexorably closer to the rocks. She gritted her teeth, snarling and spitting. Flecks of foam were beginning to appear at the corners of her mouth.
She kicked open the wheelhouse door and shoved helmsman away, taking the wheel herself. "Cast off the tow wire, you bastards!" she screamed, spittle flying from her mouth, as she spun the wheel to starboard. "Move, you stupid sons of bitches!"
The tow wire came free and was blown away by the storm. Morvena turned smartly on her heel and began running downwind into the rocks. Between the strong following sea and her own engines, she rushed forward at a terrible speed.
The helmsman cowered fearfully in the corner of the wheelhouse, nursing a bruised shoulder. The storm he could deal with; it was just weather. The shoals were just rocks. Right now he was more afraid of his captain than anything nature could throw at him. The creature standing at the wheel, driving Morvena through the reef as if she were a compact sports car, wasn't even human. It was a slavering, spitting demon, a monster from the blackest pits of Hell, a creature that would spit in the devil's eye, then kick the Reaper in the crotch; a thing that knew no fear or pity.
Be that so, nothing else could have done what Captain Weathers did that night. On Greenfield's deck Bart held on and prayed that she ship wouldn't break up before they got far enough through the reef to launch a lifeboat. Hopefully they'd be able to make it to the coastline and get help from a lifeboat station or something. Morvena had been out of sight ever since she pulled away from Greenfield's side; when the tow wire had gone slack they could only assume she'd cast off and pulled away from the reef.
Walestian was dragging himself across the deck, calling something, but Bart couldn't hear it. He was forced to devote all of his concentration to holding on while Greenfield dragged across the rocks, bucking and heaving like a wild bronco.
The unspoken fact everyone knew was that even if Greenfield made it clear of the reef and stayed afloat, it would take Morvena almost a week to sail around to their position. By that time Greenfield would be blown onto the coast, and in her weakened condition she'd break up for sure. Their only hope for survival was to get ashore in a lifeboat.
Meanwhile, Morvena drove through the reef at full speed. Captain weathers successfully guided her through, and into the deep water on the other side. When they were free and clear she brought Morvena up into the wind and moved in close.
"Get in close!" she shouted to Timmins, shoving him toward the wheel. With that she left the bridge and ran toward the stern.
She found Ripley on the after deck, watching Greenfield pensively. He turned and opened his mouth, but wasn't given the opportunity to speak. She grabbed his collar in one hand and slammed him against the bulkhead.
"Rig a new towing wire!" she screamed in his face, "Now, God dammit! Move!" She shook him bodily for emphasis.
Ripley scrambled away, more in abject fear of this horror that had once been his captain. She badgered the deck crew, snarling and spitting at them and threatening them with physical violence. They got the new pendant and wire ready in record time.
Fortunately Timmins anticipated his Captain's wishes, and brought Morvena as close to the reef as possible, near Greenfield's bow. On the after deck Captain Weathers grabbed up the rocket gun and shouldered it, balancing against the rail. As the stern came up she pulled the trigger, and the rocket went shooting away into the storm, the messenger line whipping after it.
A deck hand near Greenfield's bow let out a yell of surprise and dropped on the deck as the rocket went screaming over his head. The missile had come from a totally unexpected direction, and he could only stare after it, dumbfounded, for several precious moments.
In Morvena's stern Captain Weathers was not taking the delay well. "Get the line, you stupid shithead motherfuckers!" she screamed, jumping up and down. "God Damn ignorant fuckhead bastards!" She brought her arm back to hurl the rocket gun.
Ripley grabbed the barrel as it came back. In a fit of insane strength Captain Weathers lifted him off the deck, then threw him and the gun aside. By that time the deck hand on Greenfield had recognized the line for what it was and began hauling on it, screaming for help. With a turn around the winch he, several of Greenfield's deck crew, and some of Morvena's salvage crew, brought the pendant aboard and made it fast.
Bart didn't know that Morvena had fired the line. At this point he thought that Providence had somehow placed another tug on the inside of the reef, and that ship had heard their frantic radio calls and shot them a line. It was true that in such a case Morvena would be cheated out of all or part of her salvage claim, but he was too busy thanking the Odd Gods of the Galaxy for saving his life to think of such trivialities.
Captain Weathers went to Morvena's bridge as the tow wire came taught. She was still breathing heavily, but the light of sanity was beginning to return. She wasn't foaming at the mouth, at least.
"Are you all right?" she asked, leaning over the helmsman.
"I'm okay, sir," he squeaked, cowering away. Perplexed at his odd reaction, she turned to Timmins.
"Watch out for the shoals," she said, glancing downwind, "Best stand away from them." She squinted into the darkness, searching for the reef, but she couldn't seem to find it.
"We're clear of it, sir," he said. His tone was filled with awe, his look one of abject worship.
"Then where are we?" she asked, turning to windward. She saw the water breaking on the reef and stared in confusion.
"We're inside the reef, sir," he said. He looked at her, eyes downcast; the demon had been replaced by a saint, an angel from above who had saved not only Morvena but Greenfield as well.
"Inside..." she began, and was suddenly struck by the magnitude of what she'd done. Her knees turned to mush, and she had to lean on the wheelhouse wall to hold herself up. She almost pissed her pants- almost, but not quite. Not that anyone would have noticed a little extra dampness anyway; her uniform was soaked through and through.
She ineffectually mopped her brow with a wet handkerchief and tried to speak, but no words came out. She cleared her throat to cover, and finally found her voice. "Set course for Cape Despair, best speed. I... I'm going to get cleaned up and change."
She struggled down the ladder to her cabin, feeling weak and sick; she could barely support her weight. And why was everyone staring at her like she'd just parted the waters or something? What she'd done was insane; she must have been totally insane to even think of it, and more to try it. She needed a drink, badly.
Greenfield held together until they stood into the harbor at Cape Despair. The storm moderated, and as they passed into the harbor the headland screened them.
"Y'know," Bart said, leaning on Greenfield's rail, "To tell the truth, I was almost- almost, mind you- a bit worried." He smiled in a self satisfied way.
Walestian cocked his head quizzically. Then he rocked forward and balanced on his hands, clapping his rear flippers, and squirted a jet of water between his teeth that struck Bart in the face.
The other deck hands cracked up. Walestian butted Bart and knocked him down, then pinned him with one hand and ticked him with the other. The crewmembers on deck applauded and cheered.
The story was not over, though. Moored securely to a dock, Greenfield was worked on by her crew, Morvena's people and locals, to get her ready for the tow to the shipyards. In the middle of this a fateful message as received.
Sparks came running to Captain Weathers, waving a message. "Sir," he shouted, breathlessly, "Look at this!" He thrust the flimsy in her face.
Her eyes bulged out, and her jaw dropped. "Hot Damn!" she shouted, leaping in the air and clicking her heels. "Get everybody back to the ship, now! Tell them to drop what they're doing and haul ass and everything else they can carry! Rothson Fairchilde broke her lead and Vigilant lost her in the storm! We still got a chance, people!"
And so Morvena's equipment was hurriedly gathered up and stowed, and she put to sea without even stopping to top off her fuel tanks. Vigilant and Indomitable weren't going to just give up, and they both had radar. Further, word had come through that a couple other tugs, the Racine Bay and the Duchess Wendgreen, had joined the chase. They weren't as large or powerful as Morvena, and didn't have radar, but they were closer.
The frantic preparations of those many days ago when they'd pulled out of Stonehaven were repeated, but this time there was an air of exhilaration. It certainly wasn't a very logical reaction; someone not familiar with salvage men might think them insane to be so eager to risk their lives, but it was the same feelings that fired a warrior's lust for battle. Morvena was indeed going to do battle, but not against the other tugs- every man aboard would have busted a gut to give them any assistance they could, even if it meant loosing a salvage claim. The other tugs were not enemies but allies, or at worst rivals. The true enemy was the old gray widow-maker.
First and last it was the ocean that had to be defeated in single combat: tug and crew against wind and wave. And Morvena's crew, riding high on a crest of excitement from the spectacularly successful rescue of the Greenfield, was eager to go to battle again.
Feelings were dampened some after several days of slugging forward against heavy seas and winds. But everyone still felt good, so the hardships were endured cheerfully.
Two days after that, as they were nearing the area in which Fairchilde was, according to her position reports, a most unexpected- and tragic- report came in.
Sparks was sitting in the radio shack, on listening watch. Abruptly a new signal burst through, overriding Fairchilde's scratchy transmission, but his blood chilled as he recognized the group- SOS, over and over again. He tuned it in, and used the RDF to locate its source. The SOS stopped, and the details of this latest disaster the sea had wrought came to light. As he penned them on the message pad the words made his stomach churn and knot. This was surely the most cruel blow the ocean could have struck. As the message ended he tore the flimsy off and ran as fast as he could to the bridge.
As Captain Weathers read the message, her eyes flared, her fingers tearing the thin sheet. "Change course twelve degrees to starboard!" she snapped, "Maximum speed!"
"What is it?" Timmins asked, coming forward.
She thrust the flimsy at him. He held it up and read it.
SOS SOS SALVAGE TUG INDOMITABLE STRUCK BY FLOATING DEBRIS STOP TAKING WATER FAST STOP ENGINE ROOM FLOODING STOP REQUEST IMMEDIATE ASSISTANCE STOP CANT KEEP WATER DOWN STOP WERE IN DEEP SHIT HERE STOP REQUIRE ASSISTANCE URGENTLY STOP AM SINKING FAST STOP NEED HELP NOW STOP SHIP BREAKING UP SOS SOS
Something about this was different that just any ship in distress. It struck a deep, and very emotional chord in all of them. Perhaps it was the fact that Indomitable, despite the fact that she belonged to a competing company, was a sister vessel. Perhaps it was the knowledge that it could just as easily be Morvena that was struggling for her life, instead of this other.
Captain Weathers drove her vessel as fast as she dared, and faster, risking capsize or breaching to reach Indomitable as quickly as possible. Finally a blip appeared on the scope, directly ahead. Morvena roared down on her, the towing pendant rigged and ready. Walestian stood ready on the after deck, prepared to swim to Indomitable with a messenger line. Bart stood by with the rocket gun to back him up.
"Oh, my God," Bart whispered under his breath as Indomitable came into sight. Her design was almost identical to Morvena's, the only difference being her paint. Indomitable sported a dark red finish, with a gold stripe down her side.
It was obvious to everyone that Indomitable was in serious trouble. She didn't even try to lift into the waves; each one swept over her, burying even the wheelhouse. Only the tip of the funnel and her masthead stuck out of the water. In the troughs she struggled up, wallowing heavily.
Bart shouldered the rocket gun and fired. The rocket streaked right over Indomitable's bow, and was seized by two men on the foredeck and made fast. But they were too weak to haul in the towing pendant, and there didn't seem to be anyone else to do the job. Without a moment's thought or hesitation Bart leapt over the side, trusting Walestian to find him. He was not disappointed.
Captain Weathers brought Morvena closer and closer, until Morvena's stern was mere meters from Indomitable's bow. Meanwhile Bart and Walestian did not have to climb Indomitable's side; a wave carried them over the railing and dropped them on the deck. Bart leapt to his feet and rushed forward to help pull the pendant aboard.
Walestian made his way back to the wheelhouse. He was met by a man coming out.
"Are you from Morvena?" he shouted.
"Yes!" Walestian shouted back, "We're putting a wire on you now!"
The man shook his head. "I'm sorry, but its too late for that now. The water's coming up too fast. We can't keep the engine room dry. In a moment the water's going to reach the engine blocks, and they'll crack. We've got to abandon ship. They're too many holes to plug up. She's coming apart at the seams!"
Walestian could hear the groans as Indomitable's plates worked apart. He could hear the water surging back and forth under the deck below.
"I'll help round up the survivors!" Walestian shouted back, "If you can't get the boats out, just jump!"
More of Morvena's crew came over on walruses. Both of Indomitable's boats were unchocked and swung out, but the waves swept away one before it could be loaded. The other was held onto, but it wouldn't be large enough for all. The motor launch on the after deck was useless; it had been smashed by the debris that had initially struck the ship.
Everyone felt the sudden lurch as Indomitable rolled dangerously. "Abandon ship!" the order came, and the remaining boat was launched. It barely got away in time. Everyone else just leapt into the sea.
On Morvena's after deck Ripley watched in horror as Indomitable rolled over on beam ends, then disappeared beneath a wave. She did not come up on the other side, and the manila hawser began to slant sharply down.
He grabbed the axe and clove the line with one chop. The severed end snaked over the stern and disappeared into the black water. Indomitable was gone.
Ripley broke down in uncontrollable sobs. He screamed imprecations at the unfeeling ocean, slamming the deck with his fists.
Meanwhile Bart was struggling to stay afloat. He was found by one of the walruses from Indomitable's crew and carried back to Morvena. Walestian returned a moment later with the man he'd spoken to, who turned out to be Indomitable's master. Morvena turned and ran downwind to catch the boat load of survivors.
As the boat was brought alongside Captain Weathers was forced to wipe her face; her eyes were filled with salt water, even though she had her back to the spray. When she came back into the wheelhouse her face was streaked, but only a part of the water had come from the sea.
Vigilant came charging onto the scene, abandoning her superior position relative to Fairchilde to lend aid to her dying sister. Morvena and Vigilant hove to together to succor the survivors.
Bart was horribly depressed, angry and hopeless. He felt as if a close friend of his had died, and he had been unable to save them. He couldn't help but think that this was somehow wrong, a thing that shouldn't be. But salvage tugs were just ships, and not immune to the dangers that plagued the vessels they went to rescue. Every so often the sea claimed the life of a tug, just as it claimed the lives of so many ships and men. Indomitable was not alone in her watery grave.
The survivors were turned over to Vigilant at her request. That done, Morvena and Vigilant separated, but neither got under way.
Captain Weathers knew that Vigilant would not be able to go chasing after Fairchilde now. Her lead had been sacrificed for Indomitable, and Captain Weathers felt it horribly ghoulish to take an opportunity that had been bought at the price of Indomitable's life. The crew agreed completely with her, but she knew, as they did too, that Morvena's owners, men of numbers on a ledger sheet, would not see it that way. Passing up the opportunity to get the salvage award from rescuing Fairchilde would, to them, be a gross dereliction of duty.
Captain Weathers also had to admit that regardless of what had happened, Morvena had a duty to all the sailors and ships out there that were still alive, but in danger of dying. The sailors on Rothson Fairchilde deserved help as much as those on Indomitable, and Morvena was in position to lend aid. Her duty was clear, and Captain Weathers knew that. She gave the order, and Morvena got underway.
Vigilant followed her, but with the extra mouths to feed she didn't have enough supplies to continue the chase and was forced to turn back. Morvena was now leading the pack.
At this point the ocean, seeing that its first blow had failed, tried again. Fairchilde's transmissions ended, suddenly and quite without warning.
"What happened?" Captain Weathers demanded sourly. She was tired and irritable; she'd been on the bridge for the last four days straight.
Timmins shrugged. "Maybe her antenna was carried away. Or she could have lost power. Any number of things."
He didn't mention the one possibility that was on everyone's mind but no one mentioned, the possibility that Fairchilde had gone down. But this complicated the game; the weather was up to its usual tricks. There were several ships in the area, and all of them were experiencing very different weather patterns. Fairchilde could be drifting any direction, at any speed. Even with radar Morvena couldn't find a ship if she didn't know where to look.
But the sea wasn't done with them yet. The most cruel blow was yet to fall. Having dangled this tantalizing tidbit before them, presented in a most un appealing light, it was snatched away by the sudden and inexplicable failure of Morvena's radar. It was impossible to say whether the failure was due to a malfunction of Sparks' repairs from the first failure, or some other cause. But at sea in the storm no one could get up to the masthead to take down the antenna and inspect it. They were forced to plot Fairchilde's position by dead reckoning, without even knowing speed or direction, and to search for her visually, when visibility was down to maybe two kilometers.
Four days passed. An apathy had settled over the ship; the crew dragged themselves glumly about, listlessly to their watch stations and listlessly back to their bunks to lie and stare at the ceiling or the walls, their minds mostly as blank as the metal plates.
One woman on the salvage crew started writing again, banging out sea stories based on her experiences on Morvena, but liberally sprinkled with hyperbole and artistic licence. Bart usually found it quite interesting to read about her fictional tug, a vessel very much like Morvena but commanded by a very handsome, muscular young man with a big dick and a most profligate sex life. The men on the crew were all young and handsome, the women big busted and beautiful. The stories tended to shift unpredictably between gripping and highly realistic accounts of rescue at sea and steamy, dripping romance and hot sex. Now he lost interest even in that and he didn't even care.
Even the characters themselves were suffering under the crushing apathy. Like Morvena's crew they were becoming sullen and depressed, searching vainly for a vessel they couldn't seem to find. Shipboard romances fell apart by the score. Finally the young writer became so upset that she threw her typewriter overboard.
Not too surprisingly, it was Walestian who shocked Bart out of his apathy. It happened one evening as Bart was coming off duty and heading to bed. Wishing to speak to his friend, Bart went in search of Walestian- and found him on his back on the boat deck, wedged between the davits and the rail.
"Wally, what are you doing here?" Bart demanded. "Are you feeling okay?"
"I can't go to sleep," Walestian said in reply to Bart's query about his condition.
"Doc'll give you a sleeping pill if you want," Bart observed.
"No!" Walestian exclaimed, with such force that Bart was shocked into deep concern. "I can't go to sleep!"
Bart suddenly saw a new, much more sinister meaning to those words. He was afraid, afraid for his friend.
"Why not?" Bart asked.
"The dream's back," Walestian muttered hollowly. "Every time I close my eyes... I see her die. Again and again."
Bart hugged his friend tightly, as much to quell the ache in his own heart as to lend comfort. He could almost feel Walestian's pain, and it tore him up that there didn't seem to be anything he could do about it.
"I think it's going to happen," Walestian put in suddenly.
Bart started. "What do you mean?" his voice was shrill.
"Every time its the same," Walestian said. "I see- see her, sucked down by the maelstrom." Walestian shivered violently. "I think it's a warning. I think it's really going to happen and we're headed straight for it!"
Walestian began to struggle, thrashing to escape his confinement. Bart cursed and dove on Walestian to try and control him, for what good it did. The flabby, rumpled appearance of a walrus was deceiving; under it was rock-hard muscle that made nothing of Bart's weight.
In the end Bart succeeded only by seizing Walestian's tusks- a dangerous proposition in itself- and twisting the walrus' head so he had to look Bart in the eye.
"Listen to me!" Bart shouted forcefully. "It's just a dream, Walestian! Captain Weathers would never get us into a situation we couldn't get out of! Besides, we've got a whole boat load of equipment and experienced salvage professionals! What could happen that we couldn't happen? Don't you trust us? don't you trust Stormy?"
Walestian froze, then began to relax slowly. His eyes began to water, exuding thick, greasy tears.
"I'm- I'm sorry, Bart," he muttered, shaking his head sadly. "I'm just- well- oh, God!"
"It's okay," Bart reassured, stroking Walestian's belly. "It's just the stress of the mission giving you bad dreams. Come on, I'll have Doc get you some sleeping pills. You'll feel better after a night's sleep."
"O- okay." Walestian allowed himself to be led below.
Next day the wind died, the swells stopped and a heavy fog settled over the ocean. It was murky, dark and cold, even though they were supposedly in the tropics. With radar still out Morvena was forced to slow way down. Sparks still hadn't isolated the fault.
About midday two deck hands were sitting out on the after deck coiling lines. One of them paused, looking up, and sniffed the air.
"What is it?" her companion asked.
"I thought I smelled something." She went to the engine room skylight and knocked. It was opened from within.
"Hey, Daniels!" she shouted, "You got an oil leak down there?"
"No," the reply was shouted back, "Why?"
"I smell oil."
"Well, I'll look into it. Go tell the Captain."
"Hey, I smell it too," the other deck hand said, getting up and walking to the rail. She bent over and looked down at the sea.
The water was covered with a black film. Morvena's wake was completely covered over by a thick, dark, turgid sheen of oil.
"Captain!" she shouted, running up onto the boat deck, "We're running through a big oil slick!"
Just as she reached the boat deck, a dark metal wall loomed suddenly out of the fog dead ahead. Captain Weathers cursed, and the helmsman spun the wheel hard to port. Morvena turned on her heel, scraping her starboard side against a metal cliff coated with oil.
The tug was brought to a halt near the bows of the derelict. Captain Weathers rushed out onto the bridge wing and there, right above her head in large white letters streaked with oil, were the words: Rothson Fairchilde.
"Mother of God," she mumbled, taking off her cap and putting it over her breast. Her long, peppered hair fell down her shoulders, and for a moment she ceased to be a Captain and was just a woman. A very attractive one, Timmins thought as he looked at her back. He reached out-
"We have to get a line on her, right away." Mina put her cover back on, and suddenly was all business again. "Ripley! Get a team over there, pronto!"
The work wasn't hard. The sea was smooth as glass and there wasn't enough wind to disturb a cobweb. The men had only to climb the nets thrown over Fairchilde's sides right from Morvena's deck.
The big tanker was listing to port, and seemed to be slowly leaking oil, but other that she seemed mostly okay. Her boilers were ice cold, and had been that way for a long time. There was water in the engine room up over the gratings and the fire box was flooded, but there was no more water coming in. It was creepy; there seemed to be nothing wrong with the ship, and no reason why her crew should have left her. The thick, miasmic fog didn't help any; it muffled sounds and cut visibility until you couldn't see your hand in front of your face.
Crews searched the bridge and the radio room but all the log books had gone with the crew, leaving no explanation. The only information located was a message flimsy tacked up in the engine room, dated nine days ago, a written instruction from the Captain to the chief engineer to blow down the boilers. No explanation for the order was given.
Bart found himself glancing furtively about, always looking behind him and peering pensively down companionways. He couldn't help but feeling that hostile eyes were watching him from every corner, and the icy fingers of panic tripped up and down his spine like spiders with cold feet. He fought the urge to run as fast as he could up on deck and leap down to the comfort and safety of Morvena, to escape the formless horrors that his subconscious felt were lurking in the below deck spaces.
He encountered Ripley in the salon, going through some papers. Bart moved up quickly and touched him on the back.
Ripley let out a yell and leapt straight up. "Shit!" he yelled. "Jesus Christ! Don't sneak up on me like that!"
"Sorry," Bart mumbled. "I just came to tell you that one, two and twelve tanks are down about three meters. I think they may have pumped oil overside to keep the water down. The rest of the tanks seem full, and even though there's oil everywhere I couldn't find any obvious leaks."
"Good work, Bart. Well, go tell the Captain we're ready to hook up and get underway."
Bart helped to get the tow wire aboard. Instead of using the pendant, they ran out about fifty meters of anchor chain and shackled the wire to the end. It would act as a spring to ease strain on the tow wire, in place of the manila they usually used. Unlike manila, the chain wouldn't chafe on the bows. There was much less chance that the tow line would break.
A salvage pump was swung aboard and lowered into the engine room to clear out the water. A crew would have to stay aboard to watch it, and Captain Weathers called for volunteers. Bart pointedly did not step forward; something about that ship really gave him the creeps. He wasn't alone, either.
Five people were selected, and they went aboard with supplies, signal lights, a portable generator and storm lanterns. They set up the generator and patched it into the ship's power grid, then turned on all the lights and left them burning all the time. They fueled the generator with oil from the ship's tanks, and holed up in the salon. Bart learned indirectly that they always went around together, never letting any of their number out of sight for a second. It might seem a waste of fuel and manpower, but Bart could sympathize; if he were over there he'd have done the exact same thing.
Bart, along with all the crew still on Morvena felt safe and at home there, with Fairchilde a safe distance away at the end of the tow wire. The fog had not budged while they hooked up and the radar was still dead when all the preparations were complete, so Captain Weathers gave the order to get underway anyway. She pointed the bow due west according to the magnetic compass, and hoped for the best. It had been six days since she'd been able to take a position reading; her last three plots were just off the wall guesses. Their last more or less reliable plot put them 320 kilometers north/northwest of a group of islands, and to the west of these was open ocean. To the north was another chain, and she didn't want to risk coming across them in the fog. East was clear too, but the nearest port was to the west.
They sailed to three more days in the fog, maintaining a due west course. The crew on Fairchilde reported no problems; the pump had cleared the engine room and it was staying dry. They could find no reason why it had flooded. During this time Bart was again wrapped up in his own problems, and as such did not notice that Walestian had suddenly become moody and withdrawn. He would curse himself for his lack of awareness during that time until the day he died, many years hence.
That afternoon one of the lookouts reported hearing a strange roaring sound from somewhere ahead. Captain Weathers listened from the bridge, but couldn't hear anything over the rumble of Morvena's engines. Perplexed, and a little worried, she went inside and thumbed the talker.
"Daniels," She said, "I want you to cut the engines down as quiet as you can, but the love of Pete don't let them stall, or we could be in deep shit."
"Will do, Cap," Daniels replied. With a shrug he reduced fuel pressure to minimum, and cut the superchargers entirely. With the bypass gates open the engines drew air around the superchargers; the engines slowed down. With some careful adjusting of the fuel pressure he got the main tachometer reading just shy of 30 RPMs.
Morvena coasted, and behind her Fairchilde coasted. The tow wire went slack; Ripley ordered the winch started and brought it in gradually, watching it like a hawk, to make sure it didn't sink down and foul the propellers. He sensed, without having to be told, that the tow might have to get underway again very quickly. He couldn't say why; it was just his sailor's instincts. Something about this whole predicament seemed very, very wrong, but he couldn't say what. He wished, heartily, that they were far, far away, or that the damn fog would bug out.
It didn't go away, but at least it let up a bit- enough that Fairchilde could be seen from Morvena's deck. The image looked wrong, though, and it took Ripley a second to figure out why. Instead of seeing the ship's bow, straight behind them, the vessel was angled about thirty degrees to starboard. It also seemed strange that Fairchilde hadn't run up on Morvena's stern. A ship that big carried a lot of way. Instead, the separation seemed more or less constant.
Ripley spied a signal lamp from the deck. It was the prize crew, asking what was going on. He said nothing was wrong, and that they should be getting underway presently, and asked if anything was happening over there. The reply was that there seemed to be a strong cross-current, and a rumbling sound off to starboard.
Over the several moments in what that the conversation took place, something pricked at Ripley's mind. It was bothersome, like an inconveniently located itch that wouldn't go away. Finally he realized that Morvena was drifting farther out of line with Fairchilde- or vice versa. The feeling that something was seriously wrong came back full force, and he almost started running for the bridge, but caught himself. His station was here. If he needed to talk to the Captain he could send a messenger. His first priority was to make sure the wire stayed clear of the screw.
On the bridge Captain Weathers had same feeling. With the diesels quieted she could hear the sound: Like a waterfall in the distance. But what the Hell was a waterfall doing in the middle of the ocean?
She didn't believe in the edge of the world. She knew the world was really round, and that she couldn't inadvertently sail off the edge. She did know, though, that some oceans were higher than others, and fast currents flowed back and forth-
A thought struck her, a thought that turned her blood to ice and knotted her stomach tighter than the towing wire in a hurricane. It was so strong that despite her years of experience she was literally paralyzed with terror.
"Sir?" Timmins asked, stepping out onto the bridge wing.
The word shocked her out of it. She barged past him into the wheelhouse and rushed to the chart room, looking at the map.
There. The northern chain of islands, the ones she'd thought were too far away. A giant undersea cataract ran through them, where cold deep water from the northern ocean flowed over the ridge formed by the island chain into the warmer southern basin. Near the middle of the chain, on the south side, was a region delineated by a red line, with little whorls sprinkled through it. A note was printed in small letters next to the box.
She didn't need to read the note to know what it meant. As the undersea cataract flowed south through the islands, it came into conflict with a warm current headed north. The result of this head on collision was a lot of turbulence- specifically, whirlpools. Huge maelstroms that could suck down a supertanker. It was a waterfall in the middle of the ocean; a spinning hole to the bottom of the sea. And she was sailing right into it.
She rushed back to the wheelhouse, and froze. Through long association she had grown very familiar with her command and how she moved. She didn't need any outside reference markers to know that Morvena was beginning to crab sideways. Her hand slammed the talker hard enough to bend it.
"Daniels!" she yelled, "Full power! Everything you've got plus ten percent, right fucking now!"
Daniels had been expecting something like this, but not quite as extreme. He shoved the main throttle forward.
The engines accelerated some, then coughed and sputtered, the RPM needle flapping wildly and falling. He cursed, boosted the supercharger pressure and pulled back the throttle. The engines recovered with a roar, and he slammed everything against the stops. He opened the fuel flow valves as far as they'd go, closed the bypass gates and maxed out the supercharger pressure. The manifold pressure climbed, as did the RPMs, the oil temperature and exhaust pressure. Black smoke belched from Morvena's stack; the mixture was way too rich. Very inefficient. But he was working to extract every iota of power from the engines he could get, efficiency be dammed. He knew, intuitively, that to fail at this point meant death- not only for himself but his ship as well.
Ripley locked the winch. There wasn't time to tie down the wire, and besides he needed to pay out the wire gradually, easing Fairchilde into motion as Morvena gathered way. He had confidence in the winch; he could crane Morvena out of the water with it.
The tug leapt forward, straining against Fairchilde's dead weight and the inexorable pull of the whirlpool. The water foamed white around the counter, but the wake was dragged off to starboard even as he watched. Fairchilde, presenting much more area to the current, was drifting sharply off to the right. He hoped that the surge on the line wouldn't part it.
A single wave flashed down the wire from Fairchilde's bow, and struck hard enough to lift Morvena's stern and jerk it to one side, but the wire remained intact. Ripley was cast on the deck, slamming his head hard against the rail. The blow stunned him.
On the bridge Captain Weathers put the wheel down and prayed. Morvena struggled with all her not inconsiderable might- her engines developed as much power as those of a good sized ship- but she was being slowly, inexorably, dragged back into the vortex by Fairchilde and the current. Just like in the hurricane off the Taggart shelf. Only this time there was no escape. They could not turn and run through the whirlpool; it would suck them in for sure.
The command to cut the wire was hanging on her tongue, straining burst out. It was held in check only by the knowledge of five people huddled in Fairchilde's salon, hoping beyond hope that Morvena could save them. They couldn't abandon Fairchilde; the whirlpool would suck them just as surely. It occurred to her that they could cut the wire at Fairchilde's bows and hang onto the end, but then she'd have to stop Morvena's engines and let the wire relax so it wouldn't whip-
Would work if they'd used the normal pendant. No way they could hack through the anchor chain in time. Even so, the chain would drag them down and drown them. Catch 22; no win situation. If she didn't cut the wire, Morvena would die with the Fairchilde. If she did, the five men on Fairchilde would die anyway. There was no guarantee that Morvena would be able to win free of the murderous current even if she did cut the wire.
Captain Weathers opened her mouth to shout an order. Out the wheelhouse windows she could see it: a great big hole in the sea, a roaring vortex of water. Swirling water had stirred the air enough that the fog had cleared from the immediate area of the whirlpool. She couldn't decide whether it was better to see doom coming, or to close her eyes and cling to vain hope.
Bart had rushed up on deck when Morvena's engines roared to life. Word from the bridge about what was happening had flashed through the ship like a gas explosion, and Bart felt a surge of panic. Where was Walestian?
From the boat deck he looked for and aft. Ah, there he was. Sitting on the counter by the towing bows. Must be greasing the cable. But what was he doing with those wire cutters?
A fleeting thought turned Bart's blood to ice. Surely Walestian couldn't be thinking of-
One strand of the towing wire parted with a pistol crack. Bart pelted down the ladder headlong, stumbling on the deck and charging aft, leaping to dodge the whipping strand.
"Wally, what are you doing?" Bart screamed, slithering to a stop. He ran hard against the rail, knocking his breath away.
"Bart, I cant let her die," Walestian sobbed. "Do you see? This is it! This is what I saw in my dream!"
"But Wally-" Bart began, but couldn't finish. He couldn't think of anything to say. It was Walestian had described his dream to be- and when Bart examined the situation dispassionately, was there truly any hope Morvena could escape with Fairchilde's dead weight dragging her down?
And yet- there were Walestian's friends as well who would be sacrificed to the maelstrom so that Morvena could live. This was so unlike Walestian that Bart couldn't believe it was really happening, even though it was.
Another strand parted, cutting a deep gash on Bart's shoulder.
"Why?" he screamed. "Why, Wally? Why?"
"I saw her die!"
"Morvena's just a fucking ship!" Bart shrieked, his patience tried beyond the limit of human endurance. His anger was also fueled by the need to stop his friend from doing something that would destroy him, even though it was already too late.
"Not Morvena," Walestian replied sadly, quietly. "Mina."
"But-" Bart's universe wheeled crazily. Suddenly everything about Walestian's behavior for the past five years seemed to point inescapably at one conclusion.
Walestian was in love with Captain Weathers. He'd seen her die in his dream- and for that he was willing throw away everything, even his life.
Bart opened his mouth. Behind him, Ripley had staggered to his feet.
"Bart, you idiot, get-" Ripley began. His sentence was never completed.
The wire parted.
Bart was pitched forward on his face by the jerk. The wire end screamed through the air, slashing Ripley down where he stood in a spray of blood and viscera that splashed the deck, the rail, and the engine room skylights. Ripley's torso was flipped overside, his legs and pelvis tottering obscenely, then collapsing.
The cable sheared through the starboard boat deck ladder, and the legs of a woman coming down them, and slammed into the bulkhead. The end burst through, and tore the back of the cook's skull off.
Captain Weathers stumbled back toward the chart table. Timmins leapt forward to catch her, but he was off balance himself, and fell back under her. His neck was caught between the edge of the table and Captain Weather's shoulders; it snapped with a loud crack, killing him instantly. Cushioned by his body, Captain Weathers rolled to the floor with nothing worse than a few bruised ribs.
Below in the engine room Chief Daniels was thrown from his chair and against the oil cooler. The impact dislocated his arm, and the unit itself was hot enough to sear him badly even through the heavy coverall. The oiler, working back by the gearbox, stumbled against the main shaft of engine #3- and was, in a heartbeat, ground to a bloody pulp against the gearbox casing. The engine block was so hot that the oiler's blood began to sizzle and pop.
The other end of the wire snaked across the water like a living thing, smacking with a loud metallic clang against Fairchilde's bows. The tanker's nose swung almost immediately toward the whirlpool.
A signal rocket arced up from Fairchilde's boat deck, followed by another and other. But there was nothing that could be done; if Morvena ventured that close she'd be swallowed as well. There wouldn't be time, anyway. In a matter of moments, it would all be over, and Morvena's crew could do nothing but stand and watch.
A boat swung out from Fairchilde's side. It was still dropping when the tanker's stern swung around hard, and she began to drop by the stern into the hole in the sea.
The scream of metal could be heard even over the distance separating the two vessels. Fairchilde's plates bulged and burst, disgorging a massive torrent of black crude oil that actually choked the whirlpool momentarily. Enormous bubbles burst to the surface, and a wave of oil exploded out from the wreckage.
Which was rapidly receding as the whirlpool gulped it down. Morvena was moving away! They were going to make it!
Bart started to speak, but the comment died on his lips. He was spattered with Ripley's blood and tattered flesh. The legless woman was flopping on the deck like a landed fish, screaming in pain. It was too much; too much for Bart's battered sensibilities to take in. He simply could not accept it as real.
"Give Mina my love," Walestian was saying. "Tell her I loved her more than anything. Tell her she's the most beautiful creature in all creation. Tell her-" Walestian's voice cracked- "Tell her I dreamed about making love to her." He let out a choked sob, the wire cutters slipping from his hand and clattering to the deck. "And Bart-" he looked Bart square in the eye. "Bart, you're my best friend in all the world. I love you. Always." He leaned forward and planted a wet, bloody kiss right on Bart's mouth. Bart was too shocked and stunned to do anything but simply take it.
"What-" was all Bart go out. Walestian turned and slipped over the rail into the sea.
Below decks there was a bang; the head gasket on #2 engine had burst, blowing a jet of superheated gas out of the hole. The remaining two engines continued to drive Morvena away from the whirlpool- and away from Walestian.
"Wally!" Bart screamed, so loud that his throat stung. His vision was blurred, and his throat closed up, choking off any other sound. He screamed, calling again and again, even though his words were no longer intelligible. He just screamed, trying to scream away the terrible, searing pain of loss.
The letter was very nice, printed on satin paper in elegant, flowing script. An artfully rendered company logo graced the top.
Rasslia didn't see any of that. All her eyes would register were first five printed words.
"We regret to inform you..."
They seemed to detach themselves from the page, swirling around inside her mind like streamers in the wind. Five little words on a stupid piece of paper, five little words at whose touch all of Rasslia's hopes and dreams for the future turned to dust in the wind.
She felt a flash of white-hot rage. Did this stupid fucking Stilter bastard expected her to be grateful? She spun in place, sweeping his skinny little stick-legs out from under him.
"You stupid, ignorant piece of shit!" she howled, battering him with her head. "How could you let him go?"
"I didn't," the stilter replied, hanging his head. He didn't even try to avoud her blows, even though they bruised him badly.
Rasslia's anger seemed to pop, like a bubble, leaving her deflated and empty. He was right. Walestian would only have gone if he chose to go.
"I..." Rasslia laid a flipper on his arm. "I'm sorry."
"That's okay." He struggled to his feet, leaning on her shoulder. "I understand."
"Would- would you tell me about it?"
Bart laid his hand on Rasslia's shoulder, and together they moved slowly down the quay.