Crossing the Rubicon
The ship’s fantail had been abandoned, in the Lindy’s pell-mell run for the open sea. After a while, heads reappeared over the high lip of its solid steel railing.
“Indy, how are you doin’ down there?” I heard Don yell into his radio.
I responded as best I could. The ship was throwing up such a jumbled wake that Filipe had everything he could do to hold us in close. The swells of the Bering Sea had grown to thirty feet or more. The wind howled past, even in the lee created by the large vessel’s passage before us. Both boys and Hathoot were sick. Vomit was strewn everywhere. Small bits of sandwich bread invaded every part of the Zodiac’s deck. None of us could have stayed within the craft’s great rubber tubes without holding fast to the multiple ropes tied to rungs all around its interior.
“I guess you can see,” I said in return.
I was not ill, but I was worried to death. I wanted to say more, but Don and Dutch, standing together, both pointed at the same time. Their fingers were extended at an angle high in the air, over our stern. I traced their trajectory. A Russian helicopter hovered a hundred yards behind us, holding at about fifty feet above the highest passing swells.
“How far to U.S. waters?” I said into the radio.
If the helicopter was from the Heavy Cruiser, and it could really be from nowhere else, I thought, then the Russian ship had to be within forty miles of us, give or take a few miles. With dual turbines running at flank speed, it would be gaining fast. The World Discoverer’s speed had not varied, but its shape was too rounded to make more than twenty-five miles per hour. Its hull had been designed for multiple uses. It was built for going close in to shorelines and breaking thin ice. Its purpose was not to outrun other marine vessels. On the other hand, the Churkin was expressly built to do exactly that.
I had wanted the Mouseketeers to come up with some plan to stop or slow the the ship. I no longer wanted that. If we stopped dead in the water, then the cruiser would overtake us in Russian waters before we could get aboard, and before the ‘Lindy’ could return to maximum speed.
“Forty-eight miles,” Don reported, over the radio. I calculated as best I could. We were making twenty-two to twenty-three miles an hour, or maybe a bit more. The Heavy Cruiser would be running at around thirty-three to thirty four knots, possibly a little less due to the high swells, but then we were running in a trough once again. Thirty-three knots converted to thirty-eight miles per hour. Maybe a tad more. We might make U.S. waters in a bit over two hours. The Russian ship would also arrive there at about the same time.
Plenty of variables were in play, but a good bookie would put our chances at no better than fifty-fifty. Plus, territorial limits were fairly interpretive at sea. The Russians might not honor admiralty rules. I guessed the cruiser’s captain to be an honorable man, but I had pushed him close to any limits he might have had. Of that I was certain.
The helicopter swooped in closer. So close that we could hear the roar of its great main rotor. The pilot of the craft was taking some risk. The ocean was not much of problem. The swells were slow, when compared to his capability to maneuver, but the wind made close-in work very tricky. I examined the chopper. It did not require much scrutiny, however. It was a Mi-28. NATO forces called it the “Havoc,” and that nickname told anybody all they needed to know. It had two kinds of anti-tank missiles. And a turret-mounted chain gun, that was fully armored, not that that made any difference to us.
Finding the ugly raptor of death far out over the ocean was a big surprise. It was not, after all, a Navy helicopter. It was not one of the choppers that had airlifted in the commandos to The Isle of the Tsar. Just as I was puzzling over why that combat aircraft had made no threatening gestures toward the ship, it fired a series of rounds from its nose turret. Bullets flew in a golden stream off to the Discoverer’s starboard. The sound was deafening, the roar of some huge metal machine running murderously amok for what seemed like a lot longer than a few seconds.
On the fantail, Don and Dutch had both ducked down behind the metal railing. Its thin steel offered no protection at all from the armor piercing ammo the Havoc was firing.
“Whom are they shooting at?” Don stammered over the radio. It was a good question. The bridge was three hundred feet forward. Why was the helicopter shooting from the rear, along the starboard side of the hull? If I had been the pilot, I would have positioned my chopper off the bow, then fired on a diagonal, or perpendicular to the ship’s movement. That threat would have been entirely obvious, and the Captain of the ship would have gotten a clear signal, that would be impossible to misinterpret.
Then it dawned on me. The helicopter was not from the Cruiser. It was from somewhere outside Provideniya. It had to be. They were trying to get our Zodiac to lay to. The pilot was on the radio with forces in Provideniya. Only they knew about the Zodiac, and the passengers it held. The Cruiser was not likely to know, not unless they were a whole lot better at communications between services than I knew to be the case. The Mi-28 was fast, protected, well-armed, and highly maneuverable. But it was, with its two low-thermal turbines, terrible on fuel consumption. The chopper was a long long way from where it had taken off.
Filipe stared at me, his features white and drawn. I knew he was not seasick. The chopper could kill us all, so quickly and effectively that Don and Dutch, witnessing such an event, would have little memory of what had happened to us. I shook my head slowly at Filipe. He continued in his attempts to control the Zodiac’s wild gyrations. I hung on.
It took ten minutes and three more expenditures of chain gun rounds for the chopper to give up. After enduring such intensity, I was perspiring profusely when it finally banked and headed back for the Chukotka Peninsula. I exchanged smiles with Filipe. The boys and Hathoot were beyond caring about such things, their motion sickness so severe. We then ran uninterrupted for almost two full hours. At two hours exactly, on the Brueget’s face, our ship stopped. Our shock was total.
Filipe ran the Zodiac right into the stern of the ship. The inflatable struck, then veered off to one side. There the wind caught us. We literally flew through the air, landing in a trough between two huge swells, with the ‘Lindy’ coasting away over the back of our stern. The outboard died with the impact of our strike.
Filipe struggled to restart it. We had all been saved because of how hard we had all been hanging on to the ropes. It was difficult to believe that no one had gone overboard. The outboard finally started. If I had not been holding tight to the interior lines, I would have knelt to God and thanked Him for the Mercury Marine Company.
I calculated that we had reached U.S. waters, but could not understand why that had caused Kessler to shut his engines completely. His huge diesels were not even running at idle. The sea was rough. It was very dangerous to be exposed to a storm at sea without power. Don and Dutch had retreated from the fantail with the multiple firings of the chopper’s chain gun. They had not returned. I pulled out my small radio.
“Don, what’s going on? This is Indy.” I waited.
Filipe ran the Zodiac up to the access hatch on the Port side. We did not have long to wait. The door swung open. Benito propped it wide, until the wind caught it and plastered it against the side of the hull. She motioned for us to come aboard. I looked up the length of the hull to see if anyone was hanging over the railings. I could see no one. I pulled the O’Donnely boy out, then Ivan. I helped them through the door from the bobbing Zodiac. Benito hoisted them aboard like the large children they appeared to be. I cupped my hands and yelled.
“Nobody can see them. Get them down to the bilge. Dutch knows where.”
She nodded at me, as if she knew the whole plan intimately.
Filipe eased the Zodiac out from the Lindy, and then made a large circular approach. On the outside of that run I looked up at the ship, shocked to see the Mouseketeer flag atop the mast. What did that mean? Why was it flying now, with everything we had gone through? Then we were backing into the hull of the ship just below the door. Filipe guessed that we would not be able to get Hathoot up over the big rubber tubes and in through the hatch. The rear of the Zodiac was lower, so both he and I could stand on the flat deck to hoist him up, which is what we did.
Don appeared at the entrance, helping Benito get the small, heavy man aboard.
“Get him to the infirmary,” I ordered Benito. “I’ll be right down there.”
My eyes went up and over Felipe to fasten on the form of a large, fast-moving ship. The cruiser had found us. I motioned to Filipe with my right hand. He came aboard. Gloria materialized from nowhere to hug him tightly. The Zodiac was tied to the bottom rung of the hatch, which hung open. How, I pondered, would we ever get the inflatable aboard? With the Russian Cruiser now heaving off our Port bow, we had bigger problems than saving an inflatable.
“Why’d we stop?” I asked Don, reaching the corridor and some warmth. I only realized that I was frozen to the bone at the moment the heat hit me. I shivered. I was getting warm enough to shiver.
“We had a plan to talk to Kessler. We thought he’d talk to his own stepdaughter. He did. He let her on the bridge, where she stabbed him in the stomach. Borman’s taken over as captain. You’ve got to get to the infirmary to see if you can save Kessler.”
I almost went into shock over his words. I rocked against the wall of the corridor.
“She stabbed him?”
Don’s expression answered my question.
There was no humor in him. Then I remembered. The day on the Lido deck the Basque had begun to smile. She had left the deck with a carving knife. I had suspected something at the time. And the Mouseketeer flag. That flag was her statement, and the knife her instrument. It was premeditated. She had been planning action against Kessler for a long time. What drove her fury?
“What about the cruiser?” I asked, as Don hustled me down toward the bilge. “And are the boys secure?”
He answered none of my questions. There was a blood trail leading into the infirmary. I threw off my coat and entered. Kessler was on a table. Hathoot sat splayed in a chair, his complexion still ashy white from loss of blood and motion sickness. Blood ran freely from the edge of the table to the floor. I hesitated. I was only marginally a physician’s assistant, and certainly no surgeon. I had explored the interior of the human torso only twice before, and the results had not been good.
“The cruiser, Don, the cruiser,” I said.
If we all fell into Russian hands, then what difference would saving Kessler make?
“The cruiser’s still there, but there’s a chopper trying to land on our fantail,” Don informed me.
“Oh great,” I sighed, my voice probing the depths of despondency.
“It’s not the Russian chopper. It’s American. The guy on the chopper says he’s here from Customs and Immigration. He wants to land on the Lido deck. He says his name is Maxwell.”