Read Salt Online

Authors: Colin F. Barnes

Salt (18 page)

BOOK: Salt
5.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

pter 28

Jim’s head swam with the alcohol and the need to breathe shallowly. He leaned against the sub’s control panel as the water was pumped out of the lockout. The way the chains were locked over the hatch confirmed his thought that someone had been here relatively recently, within the last few days even.

Once the water had dropped to below his ankles, he opened the main hatch to the sub and clambered inside. The air was stale on his tongue; he tasted it like a snake. He had an absurd desire to call out, speak to the ghosts of the submariners who died in this shell.

Would they hear him and reply, or would they stay silent, unable to tell him what had happened to them? Or more accurately, he thought,
had happened to them. But no, he resisted the temptation to speak, not wanting to hear the truth if it was to be found.

He made his way through the tight confines of the submarine to the bridge section. Inside, he sat in the navigator’s chair, its yoke covered in a fine dust and mildew.

Jim sat in the chair for a moment, resting against the tanks on his back. A control panel lay in front of him, displaying an array of buttons switches and long-dead information screens. Just for the hell of it, he flicked the switches, pressed the buttons.

He stood up, waited a few seconds for the dizziness to disappear, turned away from the control panel and was about to leave the bridge when he heard a thrumming noise coming from somewhere in the sub.

The sound vibrated against the hull beneath his feet.

Two lights, red, began to flash on the control panel.

“Holy shit,” he said under his breath, spinning round to see the bridge come alive with power. Lights coming online, information screens blinking on, their displays malformed and waterlogged, but alive.

Power, he thought. Somehow there was still power.

When Jim, Stanic and his crew of engineers first came aboard, they had declared the sub dead.

The nuclear reactor was offline, damaged by some unknown collision.

They had abandoned any idea of using it to power the flotilla for fear of it breaking down and leaking radiation everywhere. Even the small radiation monitors on the hull wall indicated an almost dangerous level of radiation, suggesting the core was indeed damaged.

Jim surmised that the power might have come from some auxiliary battery, but he was certain they had tested that when they first brought the sub into the flotilla. Scared he might be making any damage worse, he flicked the switches back to their original positions until the thrumming stopped and the lights went out, one by one, the console returning to its slumber.

Curious about what might have gone on here and who might have visited the sub, he decided to investigate the cabins, starting with the officer’s quarters. The alcohol still swam in his blood, making him stumble over unseen obstacles in the ankle-deep water.

Eventually he made his way to the officer’s room.

The place already looked as though it had been ransacked. The drawers of the desk unit hung open, empty.

On the bunk, however, Jim found a single sheet of paper with random, incoherent scribblings scrawled across its surface. He placed the paper inside a plastic bag attached to the belt of his scuba gear and carried on searching the cabins for something, he didn’t really know what.

Floating about the sub like a ghost himself, aimless and wandering, seeking for something he knew not what, he conceded to the compulsion to search, to look, to just be.

The other cabins turned up nothing beyond a few personal effects. Pictures of loved ones, children and mothers and sisters and fathers. Even some pets.

He gathered up the photos and letters and badges, placing them all together on a single bunk like a kind of memorial.

He thought back to his picture, now nothing more than confetti.

A deep sob welled up in his chest and burst out of him as he leaned against the bunk, burying his face into the damp mattress, letting out all the pain and frustration. He stood there for ten minutes or so crying, letting his tears soak into the fabric, wishing the pain would go away, wishing he could be a better man, a stronger man.

But he was neither.

Unable to look at the impromptu memorial any longer, Jim turned from the cabins and headed for the rear of the sub and the nuclear core. He decided that, like the submariners who lost their life here, he too would make it his grave, but not before he saw it. Saw the damage to the core for himself.

Radiation or not, it didn’t matter any more. The hatch to the nuclear reactor waited ahead. A radiation device, like a scarab beetle stuck to the bulkhead next to the hatch, glowed with a dull, red light, indicating the high levels of radiation inside.

Ignoring it, Jim reached out and turned the wheel, unlocking the hatch. He took a breath and stretched his right leg over the breach until his foot touched the floor.

There was no water in the reactor room. The rest of his body followed until he stood entirely inside. It was too late to turn back now. The light was low, but he could make out the core’s structure hiding in the gloom like some ancient monolith.

Jim began to slowly move around the room, getting his bearings. Water from his clothes dripped to the floor, making it slippery. He stepped forward and lost grip. He overbalanced, his head striking a low pipe, sending him falling backwards.

He lay with his face against the metal floor, his head swimming, the pain throbbing, the darkness coming to consume him. Whether it was death or merely unconsciousness he wasn’t entirely sure. He just waited and let it take him.

hapter 29

Eva could smell the smoke with every breath now. Her throat seemed to tighten, and her lungs were tiring with the diminishing oxygen. She led the others through a passageway and into the galley. She held Danny close to her as she approached a door at the end of the room.

“I’ve an idea,” Duncan said. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. Beyond the door is the galley fan extraction room. It sits between the galley and the junior ratings’ cabins.”

“How big are the fans and ducting?” Eva asked.

“Never really thought of it,” Duncan said. “Let’s find out.”

The giant of a man stepped around Eva and Danny, who still held the cloth to his face to help filter out the smoke, and pulled the door open. Taking a flashlight from his belt, Duncan shone the torch round the room, following the contours of the ducting.

Eva stepped forward and looked inside. The huge fans stood almost as tall as her, with great tubes spiralling off and heading up to the top deck. She saw no easy way into the ducting, and couldn’t really get a sense of how wide they were from their position.

Turning back to Patrice and the others, she looked them over to ascertain who was the smallest. None were particularly small, she thought, including herself.

“I’ll open up one of the pipes,” Duncan said. “At the very worst, we should be able to get some fresh air down in here.” He stepped into the room, navigating around the fan extractors, and headed for the machinery room opposite.

“What’s going on?” Marcel asked.

“Duncan’s getting something to open the ducting. One of us might be able to scramble through. They lead up to the top deck. I doubt those bastards will have thought of everything,” Eva said.

Marcel and the group huddled together, doubt written all over their faces. From behind them, smoke filtered down from the deck above. Whatever Faust’s people were doing, they seemed to be damned good at it. Eva felt like she and the others were rats being smoked out of their nest.

“Eva, your help, please?” Duncan stood inside the extraction room, holding a fire axe.

“What do you want me to do?”

“When I hit the ducting, I want you to pull on it, see if we can rip it out completely.” Duncan indicated the wide-diameter ducting pipe that ran out from the back of the extraction unit and headed directly up to the baffles that would lead out onto the main deck. On the ceiling of the extraction room, a square frame held the pipe in place.

“Everyone else stay back,” Duncan said. “Especially you, Dan.”

Marcel pulled Danny away from the room, out of swinging range.

“Ready when you are,” Eva said, gripping the ducting as though she were hugging it.

Duncan looked up and performed a practice swing of the axe, aiming for the very top, just below the holding frame. Eva gave the ducting a quick pull and realised how sturdy and heavy it was. The pipes were aluminium, and not so thick that they couldn’t be shifted, but they still felt solid and were held by chunky bolts. Eva had a sudden thought. “What if they hear?”

“We’ll wait after. If they’re gonna drop another Molotov, it’ll go straight into the extraction unit. But given the storm brewing up out there and the noise of the rest of the ship on fire, I think we’ll be okay. We should only need a few blows to clear this from the mountings.”

Eva wasn’t entirely convinced, but given how thick the smoke was now, she didn’t see many other options. “Okay, swing away. Let’s see if we can get this thing free.”

Duncan bent his body back, the axe over his shoulder. Springing forward like a tree in the wind, he crashed the axe head against the top of the ducting, sending vibrations down through to Eva’s arms. She yanked it back, but it didn’t budge.

“Again,” she said.

Duncan complied, striking again, grunting as he hit the axe against the pipe once more. This time it shifted, twisting within the mounting frame. Eva pulled on it, and it shifted still further, creating a gap between the top of the pipe and the rest of the ducting that headed up into the top decks.

“One more should do it,” Duncan said as he pulled the axe back and struck against the pipe with all his strength. Eva timed the pull with his strike. As she hefted it backward, the pipe came away completely from its mountings. She had to hold on to prevent herself from falling to the floor.

“Good job,” Marcel said as he entered the room with Danny in front of him.

Duncan shone his flashlight up to the ceiling where the ducting headed off.

“Give me a boost,” Eva said. “Let me take a look up there.”

Duncan handed her the flashlight and knelt, cupping his hand to make a platform for her foot. She stepped into his hands and hopped up as Duncan lifted her up to the ceiling.

She grabbed the edge with her free hand and put her head up into the extraction ducting, now nothing more than a black hole. Shining the light inside, she could see the sides of it were charred with cooking oil and heat.

Squinting, Eva could make out a baffle at the top of the ducting. That must be the top deck, she thought. As her eyes adjusted to the light, she noticed movement.

At first she thought it was someone moving by, but soon realised the movement was from the clouds. She took a deep breath and tasted fresh air among the old cooking grease.

The ducting was ridged in intervals where it had been welded in place. She brought her arm up and rested her elbow on the first ridge before pulling her head and shoulders further up, but as she tried to bring her other arm in, the duct’s narrow diameter prevented her from getting it up and above her shoulders.

“Let me down,” she said, lowering her chin.

Duncan guided her back down until her feet were back on the floor. She looked at the others. Their eyes regarded her with hope. “It does go all the way up,” she said.

“But?” Marcel added.

“I’m the smallest here, and even I can’t fit. It’s just too narrow.”

Duncan kicked the extraction unit and dropped the axe to the floor. “Great. Back to square one.” He leaned back against the wall, shaking his head.

His frustration was clear to see and reflected Eva’s own growing anxiety.

“There’s something we’ve not thought of,” said Ellie Stimson, one of the five crew members outside in the galley. She was a young girl, broad-shouldered, quiet. She looked sheepish as she spoke up, her Texas drawl evident. Everyone turned to face her. Eva noticed her almost shrink away as they did. “Go on,” Eva urged. “What is it?”

Ellie stepped forward, wringing her hands nervously. “The hull breach. It’s near the bow, but if we go down into the maintenance tunnel, we can get there beneath this deck. If someone took the scuba gear, they might be able to squeeze out between the rocks.”

She was, of course, talking about the Pico de Orizaba. One of its peaks had pierced the hull of the ship, grounding it in place, much like the Alonsa. But there was one key difference: they had managed to move the liner away from the Orizaba, creating a hole with which to get in and out. The Bravo had never been moved, and the rock was likely to have made a secure plug against the hull.

“Sorry,” Stimson said. “I know that was a stupid suggestion. I just thought…” She ran a hand through her light blonde hair and stared at the floor to avoid embarrassment.

“No,” Duncan said. “It’s not stupid at all. One of us should have thought of it before. It’s a possibility that’s worth checking out. I can get to the storage room from the side exit of the machinery store.”

“Even if there was enough space to get out,” Eva said. “You’d be on the Orizaba. If you wanted to get back to the rest of the flotilla, you’d have to swim in open water.”

They all knew what that meant, and with Jean and Ade as recent reminders, Eva didn’t think anyone would want to have to face that possibility.

“Let me at least check to see if it’s an option,” Duncan said. “I’ll be five minutes.”

Marcel, Stimson, Danny, and the other four crew members stared at Eva, waiting for her decision. Again, that feeling of being given responsibility without ever asking for it engulfed her.

“Okay, fine, we’ll check it out. Stimson, go with Duncan as you seem to know your way around here.”

The girl gave a quick nod and a smile before following Duncan out of the extraction room and into the machinery store. Before Duncan could shut the door behind him, Eva moved up to him. “Be careful,” she said. “Don’t do anything stupid.”

“I will… be careful, that is. I’ll be back before you know it.”

The great hulk of a man turned and closed the door behind him, shutting Eva in with the others. At least in there they were getting clean air from the ducting. With the galley closed off, they’d be okay for a while, but how long, Eva didn’t know.

She sat down with her back against the extraction fan unit. Danny sat next to her, holding her hand. “It’ll be okay,” he said.

What had it come to when it took the children to comfort the adults? “Yeah, we’ll get out, Dan. Get everything back to normal.”

What that normal was, she hadn’t a clue. There certainly hadn’t been any normal during the time she had spent on the flotilla, and she didn’t expect it to start now.

While they waited in the silence, Eva could hear footsteps and voices coming from up top. Occasionally a shadow would fall over the ducting hole. She knew those weren’t clouds; she could recognise the voices and accents of Faust’s followers.

She moved everyone to the edges of the room and kept them quiet. All it would take would be for one of the thugs up there to hear or see them to realise someone was down below and drop in one of the firebombs.

Eva wondered where Jim was. She pictured him beaten up, possibly dead in one of the upper-deck rooms. Or if he had been lucky enough not to be on the ship when Faust’s lot attacked, perhaps floating on the sea, having been thrown over. Although when she considered his mood lately and the near-constant bad news, she didn’t rule out that he’d go over himself. She felt the weight of his secret radio within her jacket and wondered if she should try to see if they could find someone out there. Their regular radios were jammed somehow, but would this one work, being on a different system?

She knew there was at least one place that it had communicated with, but Jim hadn’t heard back from them. In addition, considering the state Mike was in when he returned, she had a feeling there’d be no one there capable of answering if they too had suffered the same fate.

After twenty or thirty minutes, she couldn’t tell which any more, of tense silence, Eva heard the door between the extractor room and the machinery store open. Duncan stood there with Stimson. Eva put her finger on her lips to indicate quiet as she approached them.

In hushed tones, she said, “Well? What did you find? Keep your voices down.” She indicated the ducting hole by way of explanation. “We don’t want to be overheard.”

“It’s gone,” Duncan said.

“What is?”

“The scuba gear.”

“For fuck’s sake. Is this Faust’s lot, you think?”

Duncan shook his head, shaking his wild mane. “Only one person has the key to that locker. My dad. And there’s worse news.”

Eva just waited for him to get on with it.

“The locker rooms are ablaze. I’ve closed off the store, but I don’t know how much longer we’ve got. We can’t get down to the lower decks; they’ve been sealed off.”

Eva looked at Stimson. The girl wilted under Eva’s gaze. “Stimson, when was the last time you know for sure the access to the lower levels was still open?”

“I don’t know exactly, Miss Morgan, but it was at least two weeks ago.”

“So someone must have been planning this since then. A coordinated attack. This isn’t good.”

Danny appeared by her side, tugging at her arm.

“What is it, Dan?” Eva asked, keeping her voice soft, trying to hide her general annoyance.

“There’s smoke coming through,” he said before placing the fabric over his mouth.

Eva looked round, and sure enough, it was coming through gaps around the door where the frame had distorted over the years. It only took a small crack for it to find a way in. It snaked up through the ducting. It wouldn’t be long before someone spotted it, she thought.

Seemingly hearing her thoughts, Danny whispered, “I can climb up there. Let me go. I’ve climbed higher places than that. Me and Xi used to go exploring in the Alonsa. I’m good at that kind of thing.”

She initially dismissed the idea of sending Danny up there. What if one of Faust’s group caught him? Would they be so callous, so evil as to harm an innocent boy? It seemed too much of a risk to take. She couldn’t let the poor kid shoulder the responsibility for their survival. “I can’t let you do that,” Eva said. “It’s too dangerous.”

“It’s dangerous here anyway,” Danny said. “What if the fire comes through?”

Kid logic. She couldn’t refute it. But still, he was just nine years old. She had promised Jean she would take care of him. Eva looked up at the ducting hole and knew Danny probably wouldn’t have any problems in scaling it. His slim shoulders would get through the baffles too. He could get out, perhaps gather help.

She hated herself for thinking it.

Hated herself for not finding another way out.

Despite that, a plan was already falling into place in her mind. The cogs fitting together to present their only real option: Danny would climb up and out onto the main deck. From there he could go over the side and onto the exterior row of fishing boats via one of the rope ladders. As long as he kept hidden, he could climb across the boats until he reached the end and joined the flotilla on the northern edge, where he could either go into the Alonsa or carry on to Graves’ quarter and fetch help. Or, once on deck, try to free one of the main doors, but they’d still have to negotiate corridors full of smoke and flame.

“Please,” Danny said, “let me try. I want to help.”

Sweat dripped from her forehead, the pressure and heat getting to her. She looked at Duncan; he stared back at her with the same haunted expression she suspected that she wore at the thought of sending a child out there as their last hope.

“You’ll just take a quick look first, okay?” Eva said, her guts churning with anxiety.

Danny turned and started to scale the ducting pipe like a spider monkey. Before Eva could reach him, he leapt off the top and caught the edge of the mounting frame, effortlessly pulling himself into the main ducting.

“Just a look,” Eva whispered up to him. The boy nodded and continued to climb, placing his feet either side of the slim cylinder, using the ridges as rungs.

BOOK: Salt
5.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

The Glass Village by Ellery Queen
Happily Ever Afton by Kelly Curry
Entity Mine by Karin Shah
Yankee Mail Order Bride by Susan Leigh Carlton
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Kerka's Book by Jan Bozarth
El Bastón Rúnico by Michael Moorcock
A SEAL's Seduction by Tawny Weber