Ghost Ship, Page 2James Rollins
“Solving that particular danger will have to wait for the moment,” Gray said, and pointed ahead.
Thirty yards away, two large shadows hovered above, linked to the seafloor by taut anchor cables. One boat had a single keel. The twin hulls of the other marked it as the scientific team’s catamaran.
Ben eyed the larger single-hulled craft. “Definitely unwanted company.”
Gray drew closer to him. “How far off are we from Simon’s coordinates to the sea cave?”
Ben pointed toward the promontory coastline. “Fifty meters farther along.”
Gray nodded and turned his attention toward the surface.
Seichan could guess the question plaguing him. With no knowledge of the situation above, they faced a troubling choice.
Which boat should they attempt to board first?
The answer was taken from them—suddenly and violently.
The dark shadows beneath the catamaran suddenly erupted with a fiery explosion. The ship lifted out of the water for a breath, then crashed back down. Its shattered hulls crumbled in on themselves, then slowly sank as the sea flooded its compartments.
Seichan shook her head, expelling a breath.
The concussion of the blast ached in her ears and chest.
If we’d been any closer . . .
Ben swore as he gaped at the sinking wreck.
Seichan spotted a body rising off the broken deck, trailing blood.
One of the oceanographers.
The earlier gunfire echoed in her head. She pictured the ravaged body of Ben’s friend. Whoever these pirates were, they had moved beyond executing their prisoners. They were cleaning house.
But what did that mean? Were any of the other scientists still alive? And what about Simon’s daughter?
Are we already too late?
Only one way to know for sure.
“Let’s go,” Gray said coldly.
Gray hung in the shadow of the boat with Ben. The craft appeared to be an old fishing charter with a wide open rear deck, a small raised wheelhouse, and a cubby cabin beneath the bow.
He and Ben had taken up position under the steel dive deck at the stern. Across the length of the twenty-foot hull, Seichan hovered near the bow. She clutched one hand to the anchor cable. Over her head, the line rose out of the water and up to a bow roller and a winch. She would use the cable like a rope to board the boat from that side.
At the moment, they dared not even use their radios, fearing that in such close quarters the enemy might hear them. He couldn’t risk losing their best weapon.
The element of surprise.
He rose up until his palm rested against the starboard side of the dive deck. Ben followed him, taking a position on the port side.
Once ready, he eyed Seichan—then sliced his free arm through the water.
They all moved at once.
Gray grabbed the edge of the dive deck and smoothly pulled himself out of the water and twisted around to land his backside on the steel. He kept his head below the stern rail. Ben mirrored his maneuver on the far side. With no alarm raised, they shifted to get their legs under them and freed their dive knives.
As he crouched, he heard low, furtive voices, one deep chuckle, and someone softly crying. All the sounds seemed to be coming from the open rear deck—but was anyone in the ship’s wheelhouse or in the lower cabin?
Only one way to find out.
He waited for the right moment—and it came with a shout of surprise from the deck. Upon that signal, both he and Ben burst up and hurdled the stern rail. Across the boat, a figure stood exposed atop the bow deck.
While still underwater, Seichan had unzipped and stripped down the top half of her wetsuit. She stood now in her bikini top, leaning nonchalantly with her hips cocked, a hand leaning on the neighboring rail. With her bottom half still encased in her black wetsuit, she looked like a mermaid stranded atop the deck.
Her sudden appearance—along with her bored expression—momentarily baffled the two armed men guarding a pair of kneeling prisoners. Even before they could shift their weapons toward her, Gray came up behind and knifed the first man in the side of the throat. Ben was less lethal and clubbed his target with the hilt of his weapon, striking him expertly behind the left ear. Bone cracked, and the man crumpled limply to the deck.
Gray grabbed the Desert Eagle pistol carried by his target and focused on the empty wheelhouse, where a closed door led down to the cubby cabin. He collected the other weapon and tossed it to Seichan, who caught it one-handed.
She quickly crossed to the door to the cubby cabin, kicked it open, and surveilled the cramped space below. “All clear,” she called as she retreated to join them.
The two prisoners were a red-haired young man and a woman in her late forties.
Ben knelt before them as they stared wide-eyed and stunned at the sudden assault. “We’re friends of Simon,” he assured them. “I’m guessing you’re part of the ANFOG team working with him.”
The woman took a shuddering breath, wiped tears from her cheeks, and nodded.
“What happened here?” Gray asked.
The story unfolded in stuttering bits and pieces, told by the pair of survivors, Maggie and Wendell. Three hours ago, the assailants had pretended to be a fishing charter. The ruse lasted long enough for the armed men to assault the catamaran. Simon had tried to fight them, but he was overpowered, stripped, and tossed overboard.
“Why?” Ben asked. “Why not simply shoot him?”
Maggie looked near shock with the retelling. “They were trying to get his daughter to cooperate.”
She nodded. “Only Kelly knew the coordinates where the Trident’s artifacts had been found. We were all on a dive that day, leaving her, as our lowly student, aboard the ship to monitor a routine glider survey. It’s mind-numbing work. While watching the feed, she happened to spot the bell and shackle. Excited, she free-dove down to collect the trophies. But when she recognized the name on the bell—and what such a discovery implied—she erased the glider’s record. Though she told us about the discovery, she kept its exact location secret.”
“But not from her father,” Ben added.
Wendell looked startled. “What?”
“Kelly told Simon,” Ben said. “Then he told me.”
Gray suspected Simon shared this information with Ben for selfish reasons. He likely wanted to recruit Ben before his daughter tried doing anything even more foolhardy, like attempting to search those caves on her own.
“Kelly eventually broke and told the gunmen the coordinates,” Maggie explained. “But before they could pull Simon out of the water . . .”
Ben grimaced. “He ran afoul of a box jelly.”
She nodded. “Kelly witnessed it all. That poor girl.”
“Where is she now?” Seichan asked.
The woman stared out toward the forested cliffs. “They forced her to go along with them. When she initially refused, they shot Tyler and threatened us.”
Gray pictured the dead man floating amid the wreckage. “How many went with her?”
“Six, including Dr. Hoffmeister.”
Ben frowned. “Dr. Hoffmeister?”
“Our team leader,” Wendell elaborated with a bitter scowl. “He was the one who betrayed us to those murderous bastards.”
Seichan snorted. “So much for the purity of scientific research.”
Maggie looked down. “We’d all heard rumors he had a gambling problem, but I never imagined he could be so callous. Especially with those he worked alongside.”
Gray was not as surprised. All too often greed trumped friendship or loyalty.
“You have to do something,” Wendell said. “They’ll kill Kelly once they find what they’re looking for.”
Gray knew he was right. And from the despair in the kid’s voice, his interest in Kelly was more than merely collegial.
Seichan glanced toward the coast and shrugged. “Three agai
nst six. Not bad odds.”
“And we still have the element of surprise,” Ben added.
Gray began to nod when a crackling noise drew his attention to the dead assailant on the deck. The noise rose from a radio headpiece.
He quickly snatched it free and lifted the radio to his ear and lips. A trail of words reached him.
“. . . late in reporting in. What’s your status?”
Gray had to take the chance. “All quiet here,” he said gruffly.
There was a long pause before the voice on the line returned, angry and suspicious. “Who the hell is this?”
Seichan stared at him as he lowered the radio.
He shook his head.
So much for the element of surprise.
“Let’s give those blokes a wide berth,” Ben radioed to them.
Seichan didn’t argue as she followed the two men. A trio of bull sharks circled the wreck of the catamaran, likely drawn by the blood of the murdered oceanographer. Their group steered well clear of that wreckage and headed for the coast.
Earlier, before going overboard, they had briefly searched the guards for the boat’s keys but had no luck. They also found the ship’s radio disabled, requiring a digital code to unlock it. So as a precaution, they had ordered Maggie and Wendell to suit up and swim to shore, sending the pair out of harm’s way with instructions to get word to someone in authority and let them know the situation.
Seichan knew better than to expect any help in time.
We’re on our own.
Before leaving, Maggie had also informed them what they’d be facing. The crew had departed with spear guns and carried satchels of demolition charges.
Seichan glanced to the ruins of the catamaran, recognizing the handiwork of those explosives. The thieves plainly had come prepared in case they had to blow their way into that cavern system in order to search for the cache of gold.
She pictured the mutinous crew back in 1852 rowing into those same sea caves to hide their loot, perhaps fearing the Trident might be recaptured by British forces. But was the gold still here after so long?
As they neared Simon’s coordinates, Ben waved for them to spread wider, making their group less of a target. They proceeded with great caution, using the ridges of reefs as cover. If the assailants suspected treachery after the aborted radio call, the enemy would likely have a guard hidden near the entrance to the cavern system. If any of their team flushed him out, the other two would still have a chance to take him down.
Unfortunately, once they drew closer to the coordinates, they realized the guard at the entrance was not what they expected. They almost missed it as the waters grew murkier, clouded by sand and silt stirred up by the waves crashing into the towering coastal cliffs.
Through the gloom, a yellow torpedo-shaped tube with fins hovered a couple yards in front of the black eye of a tunnel. Its nosecone pointed out toward the sea, its buoyant length gently bobbing in the current.
“One of ANFOG’s gliders,” Ben hissed.
The thieves must have left this electronic guard dog to watch the entrance to the cavern system. Someone was likely monitoring its feed from inside the sea caves.
“No way we can sneak past that glider’s sensors,” Ben said. “If we get too close, the enemy will know we’re on our way inside.”
“Then we find a way to blind it,” Gray said.
Gray reached to a webbed bag hanging from his weight belt. He pulled out one of the two demolition charges they had found aboard the boat during their search.
“If you try to blow the glider up,” Ben warned, “it’ll be as good as being spotted. They’ll still know we’re coming.”
“That’s not my plan.”
Gray swam back several yards, then used his dive knife to remove three-quarters of the charge’s load of plastic explosive, weakening its potential blast. He then quickly buried it a foot into the sand at the base of a ridge of bleached, brittle coral.
“Move well back.” He waved them farther from the shoreline. “I set the timer for thirty seconds. Be ready to go on my mark.”
With the charge buried, they retreated.
Seichan counted down in her head as she swam. When she reached zero, a muffled whump thudded into her ears and rib cage. She twisted back around as the section of the seabed where Gray had buried the charge belched upward with a massive flume of sand and shattered coral. The current immediately swept the cloud toward shore.
“Now!” Gray radioed. “Get into the debris field and stick close together.”
Seichan understood. She swam with the others into the dense cloud of sediment. They quickly lost sight of one another, even when clutching an elbow or the edge of a neighbor’s fin. Still, Ben guided them unerringly forward, swimming by instruments alone, following his wrist GPS. He skirted them to the side of the blinded electronic guard dog, then along the rocks.
Moments later, the Aussie was pulling them into the mouth of tunnel. Even from here, Seichan could not spot the glider through the stirred-up silt. It was as if the entire world had vanished beyond the tunnel.
Ben took her hand and drew her fingers to a length of rope staked along the seabed. It led deeper into the tunnel.
Follow the line.
She set off behind Ben, with Gray behind her. She was soon grateful the enemy had left this path to follow. With each kick and paddle, their motion stirred up more silt in the tunnel. Not only could she barely see Ben’s fins ahead of her, but being weightless in her gear added to her disorientation. It was almost impossible to tell up from down.
Once far enough away from the glider’s sensors, Ben risked switching on a pair of small lights flanking his mask. “Okay, I love caving and I love scuba diving, but when you combine the two into cave diving,” he groused, “it turns into bloody death sport. And even more so now.”
Ben slowed and pointed to a blinking red light fixed to one side of the tunnel. It was one of the demolition charges. The enemy must be planning to blow the entrance on their way out once they secured the treasure.
As Seichan continued, following the staked line of rope, she oriented herself enough to realize the tunnel was less a passage drilled through solid rock than a winding, torturous path through and around a jumble of boulders and broken slabs.
“It’s an old rock slide,” Ben confirmed, scanning his lights around as he wriggled between two blocks of granite leaning against one another.
As Seichan followed, she sensed the precarious nature of this pile, suspecting it wouldn’t take much of a blast to bring this all crashing down.
After another minute of kicking and squirming, Ben’s voice dropped to a hissed whisper. “Got lights ahead.”
He doused his own lamps and slowed to a crawl. The passage widened enough for the three to cluster together. The way opened directly ahead, illuminated by a figure floating weightless in scuba gear beyond the tunnel. The man’s attention was on the glowing device he held in his hands. Its screen was as bright as a lamp in the dark waters.
Ben glanced significantly at them.
It must be the monitoring device and control unit for the glider outside.
Gray held up a palm, indicating the other two should hang back.
He then pushed off the tunnel floor and glided toward the man’s back. Some warning eddy of current must have alerted his target.
The diver spun around, fumbling for his shouldered spear gun—but Gray was already atop him.
He plunged his knife under the man’s chin and clutched him with his other arm. The body writhed for several seconds, then went slack. Gray deflated the man’s buoyancy vest and let his weighted form sink into the dark depths, but not before relieving him of his spear gun and glider’s control unit.
Ben and Seichan joined Gray as he doused the device, returning the waters to a stygian darkness—or at least, it should have.
They all turned their faces upward.r />
Through the waters overhead, a soft, shimmering glow beckoned to them. The diffuse light gave dimension to the flooded cavern around them. It had to be half the size of a football stadium. The glow also revealed the surface of the lake inside here. It stretched about ten meters overhead.
They slowly rose toward the shine.
With great caution, they risked peeking the edges of their masks above the water.
Ben gasped next to her. “Holy Mother of God . . .”
Gray understood the Aussie’s stunned shock.
The roof of the cavern glowed with what appeared to be swaths of stars, shining in hues from a deep blue-green to a bright silver. The glow revealed long filaments hanging from the roof, each lined by rows of pearlescent droplets.
“Glowworms,” Ben explained.
Gray had heard of caves in Australia and New Zealand that harbored these bioluminescent larvae, but he had never imagined they could produce such a brilliant display. There had to be millions glowing throughout here, attempting to lure prey with their shine into their sticky traps.
But the true wonder was not found across the roof.
The glowworms had found a more convenient purchase.
The wreck of the Trident.
The three-masted sailing ship listed crookedly in the cavern, having run aground into a sandbar on the far side. The entire surface of the ship was draped in glowworms and their fine silk nets. It was as if the wreck of Trident had risen from ghostly seas, still draped in bioluminescent kelp and algae.
Despite the wonder of the sight, movement—both on the sandbar and atop the deck—drove Gray back underwater, drawing the others with him.
“Did you notice the ship’s sails were furled and tied?” Ben said as he joined Gray. “At one time, this cavern must’ve been open to the sea. The crew likely sought to shelter here during a storm. Maybe even hiding from a cyclone.”