by Clive Cussler with Jack Du Brul
The Oregon Files
Published 2008 by Putnam
paperback | $9.99
An exhilarating new adventure in the New York Times—bestselling Oregon Files series.
For four novels, Clive Cussler has charted the exploits of the Oregon, a covert ship completely dilapidated on the outside but, on the inside, packed with sophisticated weaponry and intelligence-gathering equipment. Captained by the rakish, one-legged Juan Cabrillo and manned by a crew of former military and spy personnel, it is a private enterprise, available for any government agency that can afford itand now Cussler sends the Oregon on its most extraordinary mission yet.
The crew has just completed a top secret mission against Iran in the Persian Gulf, when they come across a cruise ship adrift in the sea. Hundreds of bodies litter its deck, and as Cabrillo tries to determine what happened, explosions rack the length of the ship. Barely able to escape with his own life and that of the liner's sole survivor, Cabrillo finds himself plunged into a mystery as intricateand as perilousas any he has ever known, and pitted against a cult with monstrously lethal plans for the human race...plans he may already be too late to stop.
Plague Ship is a high-stakes, high-seas journey that proves once again that Cussler is "just about the best storyteller in the business" (New York Post).
North of Norway
April 29, 1943
A pale hunter's moon hung above the horizon so that its light threw dazzling reflections off the frigid ocean. With winter not yet given way to spring, the sun had yet to rise this year. Instead, it remained hidden behind the earth's curvature, a faint glowing promise that crept along the line where sky met sea as the planet spun on its tilted axis. It would be another month before it would fully show itself, and, once it did, it would not disappear again until fall. Such was the odd cycle of day and night above the Arctic Circle.
By rights of their extreme northern latitudes, the waters of the Barents Sea should be frozen over and impassable for most of the year. But the sea was blessed with warm waters cycling up from the tropics on the Gulf Stream. It was this powerful current that made Scotland and the northern reaches of Norway habitable, and kept the Barents free of ice and navigable even in the deepest winters. For this reason, it was the primary route for war material being convoyed from the tireless factories of America to the embattled Soviet Union. And like so many such sea routesthe English Channel or the Gibraltar Straitit had become a choke point and, thus, a killing ground for the wolfpacks of the Kriegsmarine and shore-based Schnellboots, the fast-attack torpedo boats.
Far from random, the placement of U-boats was planned out with the forethought of a chess master advancing his pieces. Every scrap of intelligence was gathered about the strength, speed, and destination of ships plying the North Atlantic in order to have submarines positioned to strike.
From bases in Norway and Denmark, patrol aircraft scoured the seas, looking for the convoys of merchantmen, radioing positions back to fleet headquarters so the U-boats could lie in wait for their prey. For the first years of the war, the submarines enjoyed near-total supremacy of the seas, and untold millions of tons of shipping had been sunk without mercy. Even under heavy escort by cruisers and destroyers, the Allies could do little more than play the odds of having one ship sunk for every ninety-nine that made it through. By being gambled so coldly, the men of the merchant marine paid as high a toll as frontline combat units.
That was about to change this night.
The four-engined Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Kondor was a massive planeseventy-seven feet long, with a wingspan of nearly one hundred and ten feet. Designed before the war for Lufthansa as a passenger airliner, the aircraft had been quickly pressed into military duty as both a transport and a long-range reconnaissance platform. Her twenty-five-hundred-mile range allowed the Kondor to remain aloft for hours and hunt Allied shipping far from shore.
Used in an attack role through 1941 by carrying four five-hundred-pound bombs under her wings, the Kondor had taken some heavy losses and was now strictly employed as a reconnaissance plane, and remained well above Allied antiaircraft fire during their patrols.
The aircraft's pilot, Franz Lichtermann, chafed at the monotonous hours spent searching the trackless sea. He longed to be in a fighter squadron, fighting the real war, not loitering thousands of feet above frigid nothingness hoping to spot Allied shipping for someone else to sink. Back at base, Lichtermann maintained a high level of military decorum and expected the same from his men. However, when they were on patrol and the minutes stretched with the elasticity of India rubber, he allowed a certain amount of familiarity among the five-man crew.
"That should help," he commented over the intercom and jerked his head in the direction of the dazzling moon.
"Or its reflection will hide a convoy's wake," his copilot, Max Ebelhardt, replied in his customary pessimistic tone.
"With the sea this calm we'll spot them even if they've stopped to ask for directions."
"Do we even know if anyone's out here?" The question came from the crew's youngest member, Ernst Kessler. Kessler was the Kondor's rear gunner and sat scrunched at the aft of the ventral gondola that ran the partial length of the aircraft's fuselage. From behind his Plexiglas shield and over the barrel of a single MG-15 machine gun, he could see nothing other than what the Kondor had already flown over.
"The squadron commander assured me that a U-boat returning from patrol spotted at least a hundred ships two days ago above the Faeroe Islands," Lichtermann told his crew. "The ships were heading north, so they've got to be out here somewhere."
"More likely, the U-boat commander just wanted to report something after missing with all his torpedoes," Ebelhardt groused, and made a face after a sip of tepid ersatz coffee.
"I'd rather just spot them, then sink them," Ernst Kessler said. The gentle lad was barely eighteen, and had harbored ambitions of being a doctor before he had been drafted. Because he came from a poor rural family in Bavaria, his chances of an advanced education were nil, but that didn't prevent him from spending his off-hours with his nose buried in medical journals and texts.
"That isn't the proper attitude of a German warrior," Lichtermann admonished gently. He was thankful that they had never come under enemy attack. He doubted Kessler would have the stomach to open fire with his machine gun, but the boy was the only member of his crew who could sit facing aft for hour after hour without becoming incapacitated by nausea.
He thought grimly about all the men dying on the Eastern Front, and about how the tanks and planes shipped to the Russians prolonged the inevitable fall of Moscow. Lichtermann would be more than happy to sink a few ships himself.
Another tedious hour dragged by, the men peering into the night in hopes of spotting the convoy. Ebelhardt tapped Lichtermann on the shoulder and pointed to his log. Although the fore gunner kneeling at the front of the ventral gondola was the official navigator, Ebelhardt actually calculated their flight time and direction, and he was indicating that it was time for them to turn and search another swath of open sea.
Lichtermann applied rudder and eased over the yoke in an easy turn to port, never taking his eyes off the horizon, as the moon seemed to swing across the sky.
Ernst Kessler prided himself at having the sharpest eyes aboard the aircraft. When he was a boy, he would dissect dead animals he found around the family farm to learn their anatomy, comparing what he saw to books on the subject. He knew his keen vision and steady hands would make him an excellent doctor. His senses, however, were just as adept at finding an enemy convoy.
By rights of his aft-facing station, he shouldn't have been the one to spot it, but he did. As the plane canted over, an unnatural glint caught his attention, a flash of white far from the moon's reflection.
"Captain!" Kessler cried over the intercom. "Starboard side, bearing about three hundred."
"What did you see?" The primeval thrill of the hunt edged Lichtermann's voice.
"I'm not sure, sir. Something. A glimmer of some kind."
Lichtermann and Ebelhardt strained to see in the darkness where young Kessler had indicated, but there was nothing apparent.
"Are you sure?" the pilot asked.
"Yes, sir," Kessler replied, forcing confidence into his reply. "It was when we turned. The angle changed, and I'm sure I saw something."
"The convoy?" Ebelhardt asked gruffly.
"I can't say," Ernst admitted.
"Josef, get the radio powered up," Lichtermann said, ordering the fore gunner to his ancillary position. The pilot added more power to the BMW radial engines, and banked the aircraft once again. Their drone became a bit sharper, as the props tore through the air.
Ebelhardt had a pair of binoculars pressed to his eyes as he searched the blackened sea. Rushing toward a possible contact at two hundred miles per hour, he should spot the convoy any moment, but, as seconds grew into a minute and nothing revealed itself, he lowered the binoculars again. "Must have been a wave," he said without keying the intercom microphone, so only Lichtermann heard.
"Give it a chance," Lichtermann replied. "Kessler can see in the dark like a damned cat."
The Allied powers had done a remarkable job of applying dizzying camouflage patterns to their freighters and tankers, to prevent observers from seeing the ships from the surface, but nothing could hide a convoy at night, since the wakes that formed behind the vessels burned white against the ocean.
I'll be damned, Ebelhardt mouthed, and then pointed through the windscreen.
At first, it was just a large patch of gray on the otherwise-dark water, yet, as they flew closer, the gray sharpened to become dozens of parallel white lines, as distinct as chalk marks on a blackboard. They were the wakes of an armada of ships, driving eastward as fast as it could. From the Kondor's altitude, the ships looked as plodding as elephants traveling in a herd.
The Kondor flew closer still, until the moon's sharp glare allowed the crew to distinguish between the slower freighters and tankers and the slim wakes of destroyers set like pickets along each flank of the convoy. As they watched, one of the destroyers was making a fast run up the starboard side of the convoy, smoke pouring from her two stacks. When the destroyer reached the head of the convoy, it would slow again, and let the freighters pass it by, in what the Allies called an "Indian run." At the tail of the mile-long convoy, the destroyer would accelerate once again, in a never-ending cycle. In this way, it took fewer combat vessels to provide cover for the convoys.
"There must be two hundred ships out there," Ebelhardt estimated.
"Enough to keep the Reds fighting for months," the pilot agreed. "Josef, how's it coming with the radio?"
"I have nothing but static."
Static was a common enough problem, working this far above the Arctic Circle. Charged particles striking the earth's magnetic field were driven to ground at the poles and played havoc with the radios' vacuum tubes.
"We'll mark our position," Lichtermann said, "and radio in our report when we get closer to base. Hey, Ernst, well done. We would have turned away and missed the convoy, if it weren't for you."
"Thank you, sir." Pride was evident in the boy's response.
"I want a better count of the convoy's size, and a rough approximation of their speed."
"Let's not get so close that those destroyers open up," Ebelhardt cautioned. He had seen combat firsthand and was flying second stick now because of a piece of shrapnel buried in his thigh, thanks to antiaircraft fire over London. He recognized the look in Lichtermann's eye and the excitement in his voice. "And don't forget the CAMs."
"Trust me," the pilot said with cocky bravado, and wheeled the big plane closer to the slow-moving fleet ten thousand feet below them. "I'm not going to get too close, and we're too far from land for them to launch a plane at us."
CAMs, or Catapult Aircraft Merchantmen, were the Allies' answer to German aerial reconnaissance. A long rail was mounted over the bows of a freighter, and, with a rocket assist, they could launch a Hawker Sea Hurricane fighter aircraft to shoot down the lumbering Kondors or even attack surfaced U-boats. The drawback to the CAMs was that the planes couldn't land back aboard their mother ship. The Hurricanes either had to be close enough to Great Britain or some other friendly area for the pilots to land normally. Otherwise, the plane had to be ditched in the sea and the pilot rescued from the water.
The convoy steaming below the Fw 200 was more than a thousand miles from any Allied territory, and even with the bright moon a downed pilot would be impossible to rescue in the dark. There would be no Hurricanes launched tonight. The Kondor had nothing to fear from the mass of Allied shipping unless it strayed within range of the destroyers and the curtain of antiaircraft fire they could throw into the sky.
Ernst Kessler was counting rows of ships when winking lights suddenly appeared on the decks of two of the destroyers. "Captain!" he cried. "Fire from the convoy!"
Lichtermann could just make out the destroyers beneath his wing. "Easy, lad," he said. "Those are signal lamps. The ships are sailing under strict radio silence, so that's how they communicate."
"Oh. Sorry, sir."
"Don't worry about it. Just get as accurate a count as you can."
The Kondor had been flying a lazy circle around the flotilla and was passing along its northern flank when Dietz, who manned the upper gun platform, shouted, "Incoming!"
Lichtermann had no idea what the man was talking about and was a beat slow in reacting. A perfectly aimed string of 7.7mm machine-gun rounds raked the Kondor's upper surface, starting at the base of the vertical stabilizer and walking up the entire length of the plane. Dietz was killed before he could get a shot off. Bullets penetrated the cockpit, and, amid the harsh patter of them ricocheting off metallic surfaces and the whistle of wind through rents in the fuselage, Lichtermann heard his copilot grunt in pain. He looked over to see the front of Ebelhardt's flight jacket covered in blood.
Lichtermann mashed the rudder and pressed hard on the yoke to dive away from the Allied aircraft that had come out of nowhere.
It was the wrong maneuver.
Launched just weeks earlier, the MV Empire MacAlpine was a late addition to the convoy. Originally built as a grain carrier, the eight-thousand-ton vessel had spent five months in the Burntisland Shipyard having her superstructure replaced by a small control island, four hundred and sixty feet of run-way, and a hangar for four Fairley Swordfish torpedo bombers. She could still haul nearly as much grain as she could before her conversion. The Admiralty had always considered the CAMs a stopgap measure until a safer alternative could be found. As it was, the Merchant Aircraft Carriers, or MACs, like the MacAlpine, were to be used only until England secured a number of Essex Class escort carriers from the United States.
While the Kondor loitered over the convoy, two of the Swordfish had been launched from the MacAlpine and flown far enough out from the fleet that, when they climbed into the inky sky to ambush the much larger and faster German aircraft, Lichtermann and his men never knew they were coming. The Fairleys were biplanes, with top speeds barely half that of the Kondor. They each carried a Vickers machine gun, mounted above the radial engine's cowling, and a gimballed Lewis gun in a rear-facing cockpit.
The second Swordfish lay in wait three thousand feet below the Focke-Wulf and was nearly invisible in the darkness. As the Kondor dove away from the first attacker, the second torpedo bomber, stripped of anything that could slow it, was in position.
A stream of fire poured into the front of the Kondor from the Vickers, while the second gunner leaned far over the rear cockpit coaming to train his Lewis gun on the pair of BMW engines attached to the port wing.
Coin-sized holes appeared all around Ernst Kessler, the aluminum glowing cherry red for an instant before fading. There had been only a few seconds between Dietz's scream and the barrage that swept the underside of theKondor not nearly long enough for fear to cripple the teen. He knew his duty. Swallowing hard because his stomach had yet to catch up with the plummeting aircraft, he squeezed his MG-15's trigger, as the Fw continued to dive past the slower Swordfish. Tracers began to fill the sky, and he aimed the 7.92mm weapon like a fireman directing a stream of water. He could see a circle of little jets of fire glowing in the darkness. It was the exhaust popping around the Fairley's radial engine, and it was there that he targeted the withering fire, even as his own plane was continuously hammered by the British craft.
The arcing line of tracers converged on the glowing circle, and, suddenly, it appeared as if the Allied plane's nose was engulfed in fireworks. Sparks and tongues of fire enveloped the Swordfish, metal and fabric shredded by the assault. The propeller was torn apart, and the radial engine exploded as if it was a fragmentary grenade. Burning fuel and hot oil rolled over the exposed pilot and gunner. The Swordfish's controlled dive, which matched the Kondor, became an out-of-control plummet.
The Fairley winged over, spiraling ever faster, as it burned like a meteor. Lichtermann began to level the Kondor. Kessler could see the flaming wreckage continue to drop away. It suddenly changed shape. The wings had torn loose from the Swordfish's fuselage. Any aerodynamics the mortally wounded aircraft had possessed were gone. The Swordfish dropped like a stone, the flames winking out when the wreckage plowed into the uncaring sea.
When Ernst looked up and across the fifty-foot trailing edge of the port wing, the fear he had been too distracted to acknowledge hit him full force. Smoke trailed from both nine-cylinder engines, and he could plainly hear the power plants were misfiring badly.
"Captain," he shouted into the microphone.
"Shut up, Kessler," Lichtermann snapped. "Radioman, get up here and give me a hand. Ebelhardt's dead."
"Captain, the port engines," Kessler insisted.
"I know, damnit, I know. Shut up."
The first Swordfish that had attacked was well astern, and most likely had already turned to rejoin the convoy, so there was nothing Kessler could do but stare in horror at the smoke rushing by in the slipstream. Lichtermann shut down the inboard engine in hopes of extinguishing the flames. He let the propeller windmill for a moment before reengaging the starter. The engine coughed and caught, and fire appeared around the cowling, flames quickly blackening the aluminum skin of the nacelle.
With the inboard engine producing a little thrust, Lich-termann chanced shutting off the outside motor. When he kicked on the starter again, the engine fired immediately, producing only an occasional wisp of smoke. He immediately killed the still-burning inboard engine, fearing the fire could spread to the Kondor's fuel lines, and throttled back the damaged outside motor to save it for as long as he could. With two engines functioning properly and a third running at half power, they could make it back to base.
Tense minutes trickled by. Young Kessler resisted the urge to ask the pilot about their situation. He knew Lichtermann would tell him something as soon as he could. Kessler jumped and hit his head on an internal strut when he heard a new sound, a whooshing gush that came from directly behind him. The Plexiglas canopy protecting his position was suddenly doused with droplets of some liquid. It took him a moment to realize Lichtermann must have calculated theKondor's fuel load and the distance back to their base at Narvik. He was dumping excess gasoline in order to lighten the aircraft as much as possible. The fuel-dump tube was located behind his ventral gun position.
"How are you doing down there, Kessler?" Lichtermann asked after cutting off the flow.
"Um, fine, sir," Kessler stammered. "Where did those planes come from?"
"I didn't even see them," the pilot confessed.
"They were biplanes. Well, at least the one I shot down was."
"Must be Swordfish," Lichtermann said. "It appears the Allies have a new trick up their sleeve. Those didn't come off a CAM. The rocket-assisted motors would tear the wings clean off. The British must have a new aircraft carrier."
"But we didn't see any planes taking off."
"They could have seen us coming on radar and launched before we spotted the convoy."
"Can we radio this information to base?"
"Josef's working on it now. The radio's still picking up nothing but static. We'll be over the coast in a half hour. Reception should clear by then."
"What do you want me to do, sir?"
"Stay at your station, and keep an eye out for any more Swordfish. We're making less than a hundred knots, and one could sneak up on us."
"What about Lieutenant Ebelhardt and Corporal Dietz?"
"Didn't I hear that your father's a minister or something?"
"Grandfather, sir. At the Lutheran church in our village."
"Next letter home to him, have him say a prayer. Ebelhardt and Dietz are both dead."
There was no more talk after that. Kessler continued to stare into the darkness, hoping to spot an enemy plane but praying he didn't. He tried not to think about how he had just killed two men. It was war, and they had ambushed the Kondor without warning, so he shouldn't feel the creeping sense of guilt tingling along his nerves. His hands shouldn't be trembling and his stomach shouldn't be so knotted. He wished Lichtermann hadn't mentioned his grandfather. He could imagine what the stern minister would say. He hated the government and this foolish war they had started, and now it had turned his youngest grandchild into a killer.
Kessler knew he'd never be able to look his grandfather in the eye again.
"I can see the coast," Lichtermann announced after forty minutes. "We'll make Narvik yet."
The Kondor was down to three thousand feet when it flashed over Norway's north coast. It was a barren, ugly land of foaming surf crashing against featureless cliffs and islands. Only a few fishing villages clung to the crags and inlets, where natives eked a meager living from the sea.
Ernst Kessler felt a small lift in his spirits. Somehow, being over land made him feel safer. Not that a crash into the rocky terrain below would be survivable, but dying on the ground, where the wreckage could be located and his body given a proper burial, seemed so much better than the anonymity of dying at sea, like the British pilots he'd shot down.
Fate chose that instant to deal her final card. The outboard port engine, which had been humming along at half power and keeping the big reconnaissance plane in trim, gave no warning. It simply seized so hard that the propeller went from a whirling disc providing stability to a stationary sculpture of burnished metal that added a tremendous amount of drag.
On the flight deck, Lichtermann slammed the rudder hard over in an attempt to keep the Kondor from spiraling. The thrust from the starboard wing and the drag from the port made the aircraft all but impossible to fly. It kept wanting to nose over to the left and dive.
Kessler was thrown violently against his gun mount, and a loop of ammunition whipped around him like a snake. It cracked against his face, so that his vision went dim and blood jetted from both nostrils. It came at him again and would have slammed the side of his head had he not ducked and pinned the shining brass belt against a bulkhead.
Lichtermann held the plane steady for a few seconds longer but knew it was a losing battle. The Kondor was too unbalanced. If he had any hope of landing it, he had to equalize thrust and drag. He reached out a gloved hand and hit the kill switches for the starboard engines. They wound down quickly. The stationary propeller continued to cause extra drag on the port side, but Lichtermann could compensate, as his aircraft became an oversized glider.
"Kessler, get up here and strap in," Lichtermann shouted over the intercom. "We're going to crash."
The plane shot over a mountain guarding a fjord with a small glacier at its head, the ice dazzlingly white against the jagged black rock.
Ernst had his shoulder straps off and was bending to crawl out of the gun position when something far below caught his eye. Deep in the cleft of the fjord was a building constructed partially on the glacier. Or perhaps something so ancient that the glacier had started to bury it. It was difficult to judge scale in his brief glimpse, but it looked large, like some kind of old Viking storehouse.
"Captain," Kessler cried. "Behind us. In that fjord. There is a building. I think we can land on the ice."
Lichtermann hadn't seen anything, but Kessler was facing backward and would have had an unobstructed view into the fjord. The terrain ahead of theKondor was broken ground, with ice-carved hillocks as sharp as daggers. The plane's undercarriage would collapse the instant they touched down, and the rock would shred the aircraft's skin as easily as paper.
"Are you sure?" he shouted back.
"Yes, sir. It was on the edge of the glacier. I could see it in the moonlight. There is definitely a building there."
Without power, Lichtermann had one shot at landing the plane. He was certain that if he tried it out in the open, he and his two remaining crew members would be killed in the crash. Landing on a glacier wouldn't be a picnic either, but at least there was a chance they would walk away.
He muscled the yoke over, fighting the Kondor's inertia. Turning the plane caused the wing surfaces to lose lift. The altimeter began to spin backward twice as fast as when he was maintaining level flight. There was nothing Lichtermann could do about it. It was simple physics.
The big aircraft carved through the sky, coming back on a northerly heading. The mountain that had hidden the glacier from Lichtermann's view loomed ahead. He silently thanked the bright moonlight, because, at the mountain's base, he could see a field of virgin white, a patch of glacial ice at least a mile long. He saw no indication of the building Kessler had spotted, but it didn't matter. The ice was what he focused on.
It rose gently from the sea for most of its length before seeming to fall from a cleft in the side of the mountain, a near-vertical wall of ice that was so thick it appeared blue in the uncertain light. A few small icebergs dotted the long fjord.
The Kondor was sinking fast. Lichtermann barely had the altitude to turn the plane one last time to line up with the glacier. They dropped below the mountain's peak. The glacially shaped rock appeared less than an arms' span from the wingtip. The ice, which looked smooth from a thousand feet, appeared rougher the closer they fell toward it, like small waves that had been flash-frozen. Lichtermann didn't extend the landing gear. If one strut was torn off when they hit, the plane would cartwheel and tear itself apart.
"Hang on," he said. His throat was so dry the words came out in a tight croak.
Ernst had climbed from his position and had strapped himself in the radioman's seat. Josef was on the flight deck with Lichtermann. The radio's dials glowed milky white. There were no windows nearby, so the inside of the aircraft was pitch-black. At hearing the pilot's terse warning, Kessler bent double, wrapping his hands around the back of his neck and clamping his knees with his elbows, as he'd been trained.
Prayers tumbled from his lips.
The Kondor struck the glacier with a glancing blow, rose a dozen feet, and then came down harder. The sound of metal against the ice was like a train racing through a tunnel. Kessler was thrown violently against his safety straps but didn't dare uncurl himself from his seated fetal position. The plane crashed into something with a jarring bump that sent radio manuals fluttering from their shelves. The wing struck ice, and the aircraft began to spin, shedding parts in chunks.
He didn't know what was better, being alone in the hull of the plane and not knowing what was happening outside or being in the cockpit and seeing the Kondor come apart.
There was a crash below where Kessler huddled, and a blast of frigid air shot through the fuselage. The Plexiglas protecting the forward gunner's position had been blown inward. Chunks of ice that were being shaved off the glacier whirled through the plane, and, still, it felt like they were not slowing.
Then came the loudest sound yet, an echoing explosion of torn metal that was followed immediately by the rank smell of high-octane aviation fuel. Kessler knew what had happened. One of the wings had dug into the ice and had been sheared off. Though Lichtermann had dumped most of their gasoline, enough remained in the lines to make the threat of fire a very real one.
The plane continued to toboggan across the glacier, driven by her momentum and the slight downward slope of the ice. But she had finally started to slow. Having her port wing torn off had turned the aircraft perpendicular to her direction of travel. With more of her hull scraping against the ice, friction was overcoming gravity.
Kessler allowed himself a sigh. He knew in just moments the Kondor would come to a complete stop. Captain Lichtermann had done it. He relaxed the death grip he'd maintained since the shouted warning and was about to straighten in his seat when the starboard wing tore into the ice and was ripped off at the root.
The fuselage rolled over the severed wing and flipped onto its back in a savage motion that nearly tossed Kessler out of his safety belts. His neck whiplashed brutally, the pain radiating all the way to his toes.
The young airman hung dazed from his straps for several long seconds until he realized he could no longer hear therasping scrape of aluminum over ice. The Kondor had come to a halt. Fighting nausea, he carefully unhooked his belts and lowered himself to the aircraft's ceiling. He felt something soft give under his feet. In the darkness, he shifted so he was standing on one of the fuselage support members. He felt down and immediately yanked his hand back. He had touched a corpse, and his fingers were covered in a warm, sticky fluid he knew to be blood.
"Captain Lichtermann?" he called. "Josef?"
The reply was a whistle of cold wind through the downed aircraft.
Kessler rummaged through a cabinet below the radio and found a flashlight. Its naked beam revealed the body of Max Ebelhardt, the copilot, who had died in the first instant of the attack. Calling out for Josef and Lichtermann, he trained the light on the inverted cockpit. He spotted the men still strapped to their seats, their arms dangling as limp as rag dolls'.
Neither man moved, not even when Kessler crawled over to them and laid a hand on the pilot's shoulder. Lichtermann's head was back, his blue eyes unblinking. His face was dark red, suffused with blood pooling in his skull. Kessler touched his cheek. The flesh was still warm, but the skin had lost its elasticity. It felt like putty. He flashed the light over to the radioman/gunner. Josef Vogel was also dead. Vogel's head had smashed against a bulkheadKessler could see the blood smeared against the metalwhile Lichtermann's neck must have been broken when the plane flipped over.
The rank smell of gasoline finally burned through the fog in Kessler's head, and he staggered to the rear of the aircraft, where the main door was located. The crash had crushed the frame, and he had to slam his shoulder into the metal to pop it open. He fell out of the Kondor and sprawled on the ice. Chunks of the fuselage and wing were strewn along the glacier, and he could plainly see the deep furrows the aircraft had gouged into the ice.
He wasn't sure how imminent the threat of fire was or how long it would be before he could safely return to the damaged Kondor. But with the wind chilled by the ice as it came down off the glacier, he knew he couldn't remain out in the open for very long. His best bet lay in finding the mysterious building he'd spotted before the crash. He would wait there until he was certain the Kondor wouldn't burn and then return. Hopefully, the radio survived the crash. If it hadn't, there was a small inflatable boat stored in the tail section of the plane. It would take him days to reach a village, but if he hugged the coastline he could make it.
Having a plan helped keep the horror of the past hour at bay. He just had to focus on surviving. When he was safely back in Narvik, he would allow himself to dwell on his dead comrades. He hadn't been particularly close to any of them, preferring his studies to their carousing, but they had been his crew.
Kessler's head pounded, and his neck became so stiff he could barely turn it. He took bearings on the mountain that hid so much of the tight fjord and started trudging across the glacier. Distances on the ice were hard to determine, and what had looked like just a couple of kilometers turned into an hours-long walk that left his feet numb. A sudden rain squall had drenched him, the water freezing on his coat flaking off in icy bits that crackled with each step.
He was thinking about turning back and taking his chances with the plane when his eye caught the outline of the building thrust partially out of the ice. As he got closer and details emerged from the dark, he began to shiver with more than the cold. It wasn't a building at all.
Kessler came to a stop under the bow of a huge ship, constructed of thick wood with copper sheathing and towering over his head, that had become trapped in the ice. Knowing how slowly glaciers moved, he estimated that for the vessel to be so deeply buried it had been here for thousands of years. It was unlike anything he'd ever seen. Even as that thought crossed his mind, he knew it wasn't true. He'd seen pictures of this ship before. There were illustrations in the Bible his grandfather used to read to him when he was a boy. Kessler had much preferred the Old Testament stories to the preachings of the New, so he even recalled the ship's dimensionsone hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide, and thirty cubits tall.
"...and onto this ark Noah loaded his animals two by two."
Copyright ©2008 Clive Cussler