White Death, стр. 1

Clive Cussler

White Death

(NUMA Files – 4)

PROLOGUE I

West of the British Isles, 1515

DIEGO AGUIRREZ AWOKE from his restless sleep think- ing that a rat had scurried across his face. His wide forehead was bathed in a cold sweat, his heart hammered in his chest, and a formless panic gnawed hungrily at his innards. He listened to the muffled snores of his sleeping crewmen and the chuckle and swash of wavelets against the wooden hull. Nothing appeared to be amiss. Yet he couldn't shake the uneasy feeling that an unseen threat lurked in the shadows.

Easing from his hammock, Aguirrez wrapped a thick woolen blanket around his brawny shoulders and climbed a companionway to the fog-shrouded deck. In the muted light of the moon, the solidly built caravel glistened as if it were made of spiderwebs. Aguirrez went over to a form huddled next to the yellow glow of an oil lamp. Good evening, Captain," the man said at his approach.

Aguirrez was pleased to see that the watch was awake and alert.

"Good evening," the captain replied. "All goes well?"

"Yes, sir. Still no wind, though."

Aguirrez glanced up at the ghostly masts and sails. "It will come. I can smell it."

"Aye, Captain," the man said, stifling a yawn.

"Go below and get some sleep. I'll relieve you."

"It isn't time yet. My shift's not over for another turn of the glass."

The captain picked up the hourglass next to the lamp and turned it over. "There," he said. "Now it's time."

The man grunted his thanks and shuffled off to the crew's quar- ters while the captain took up a post in the ship's high, squared-off stern castle. He gazed off to the south, staring into the smoky mists that rose like steam from the mirror-flat sea. He was still at his post when the sun rose. His olive-black eyes were red-rimmed, and they ached with weariness. His blanket was soggy with moisture. With typical stubbornness, he ignored the discomforts and paced back and forth like a caged tiger.

The captain was a Basque, an inhabitant of the rugged mountains between Spain and France, and his instincts, honed by years at sea, were not to be taken lightly. The Basques were the best sailors in the world, and men like Aguirrez routinely voyaged to regions that more timid mariners regarded as the realm of sea serpents and giant whirlpools. Like many Basques, he had eyebrows like bramble thick- ets, large protruding ears, a long, straight nose and a chin like a mountain ledge. In later years, scientists would suggest that the Basques, with their heavy facial features, were the direct descendants ofCro-Magnon man.

The crew emerged yawning and stretching into the gray predawn light and set about their tasks. The captain refused offers to relieve him. His persistence was rewarded near midmorning. His blood- shot eyes glimpsed a shimmering splinter of light through the thick curtain of haze. The quick nervous flicker lasted only an instant, but it filled Aguirrez with an odd combination of relief and dread.

Pulse quickening, Aguirrez raised the brass spyglass that hung by a cord around his neck, snapped the sections to their full length and squinted through the eyepiece. At first he saw only a gray monotone circle of magnification where the fog bank blended with the sea. The captain wiped his eyes with his sleeve, blinked to clear his vision and raised the telescope again. Again he saw nothing. A trick of the light, he thought.

Suddenly, he saw movement through the lens. A sharp prow had emerged from the mists like the probing beak of a raptor. Then the full length of the boat came into view. The slim black-hulled craft shot forward, glided a few seconds, then surged forward again. Two other ships followed in quick succession, scudding over the flat sur- face like giant water insects. Aguirrez swore softly to himself.

War galleys.

Sunlight reflected off the wet oars that dipped into the sea with a mechanical cadence. With each sweep of the oars, the sleek vessels rapidly closed the gap separating them from the sailing ship.

The captain calmly appraised the fast-approaching ships from stem to stern, taking in the clean, functional lines with the appreci- ation of a skilled shipbuilder. True greyhounds of the sea, capable of short bursts of high speed, the fighting galleys developed by Venice were used by dozens of European countries.

Each galley was propelled by a hundred-and-fifty oars, three ranks of twenty-five on each side. The low, level profile imparted a stream- lined look that was ahead of its time, gracefully curving up at the rear where the captain's house overhung the stern. The prow was elon- gated, although it no longer functioned as a ram as in times past. I he bow had been transformed into an artillery platform.

A small three-sided lateen sail hung from a single mast near the stern, but human muscle power gave the galley its speed and ma- neuverability. The Spanish penal system provided a steady supply of rowers condemned to die pulling the heavy thirty-foot oars. The cor- sia, a narrow gangway that ran fore and aft, was the realm of hard men who urged the rowers on with threats and whip-lashes.

Aguirrez knew that the firepower arrayed against his ship would be formidable. The galleys were nearly twice the eighty-foot length of his tubby caravel. The fighting galley routinely carried fifty of the single-shot muzzle-loaded smoothbore arquebuses. The heaviest gun, a cast-iron, high-angle mortar called a bombard, was mounted on the bow artillery platform. Its position on the right-front side was a holdover from the days when naval strategy centered on ramming the enemy head-on.

While the galley was a throwback to the sturdy Greek craft that carried Odysseus from Circe to Cyclops, the caravel was the wave of the future. Fast and maneuverable for its day, the rugged ship could sail anywhere on the watery surface of the earth. The caravel blended its southern rigging with a tough northern hull of flush-built plank- ing and a hinged, axeled rudder. The easily rigged lateen sails, de- scended from the Arabic dhow, made the ship far superior to any contemporary sailing vessel when sailing close to the wind.

Unfortunately for Aguirrez, those sails, so miraculous in their sim- ple efficiency, now hung limply from the twin masts. With no breeze to stir the canvas, the sails were useless sheets of fabric. The becalmed caravel was glued to the surface of the sea like a ship in a bottle.

Aguirrez glanced at the lifeless canvas and cursed the elements conspiring against him. He seethed at the short-sighted arrogance that had led him to defy his instinct to stay far out to sea. With their low freeboard, the galleys were not designed for open waters and would have had difficulty following the caravel. But he had sailed close to land because the route was more direct. With favorable winds, his ship could outrun any vessel on the sea. He'd never antic- ipated a dead calm. Nor had he expected the galleys to find him so easily.

He brushed away his self-recriminations and suspicions. Time enough to deal with questions later. Tossing his blanket aside as if it were a matador's cape, he strode the length of the ship bellowing or- ders. The men came alive as the captain's powerful voice echoed from one end of the ship to the other. Within seconds, the deck re- sembled a stirred-up anthill.

"Launch the boats!" Aguirrez pointed to the approaching war- ships. "Look smart, lads, or we'll be keeping the executioners work- ing day and night."

They moved to their tasks with quicksilver speed. Every man on board the caravel knew that the horrors of torture and burning at the stake would be their fate if the galleys captured them. Within min- utes, all three of the caravel's boats were in the water, manned by the strongest rowers. The lines attached to the ship went bowstring-taut, but the caravel stubbornly refused to move. Aguirrez yelled at his men to row harder. The air over his head turned blue as he appealed to their Basque manhood with every salty curse he could muster.

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