The Storm Online - Clive Cussler

PROLOGUE

INDIAN OCEAN

SEPTEMBER 1943

THE S.S. JOHN BURY SHUDDERED FROM BOW TO STERN AS it plowed through the rolling waters of the Indian Ocean. She was known as a “fast freighter,” designed to accompany warships and used to traveling at a decent clip, but with all boilers going full out the John Bury was moving at a pace she hadn’t seen since her sea trials. Damaged, burning, and trailing smoke, the John Bury was running for her life.

The ship crested a ten-foot wave, the deck pitched down and the bow dug into another swell. A wide swath of spray kicked up over the rail and whipped back across the deck, rattling what was left of the shattered bridge.

Topside, the John Bury was a mangled wreck. Smoke poured from twisted metal where rockets had pounded the superstructure. Debris littered the deck, and dead crewmen lay everywhere. But the damage was above the waterline, and the fleeing ship would survive if it avoided any more hits.

On the dark horizon behind, smoke poured from other vessels that had been less fortunate. An orange fireball erupted from one, flashing across the water and briefly illuminating the carnage.

The burning hulks of four ships could be seen, three destroyers and a cruiser, ships that had been the John Bury’s escort. A Japanese submarine and a squadron of dive-bombers had found them simultaneously. As dusk approached, oil burned around the sinking vessels in a mile-long slick. It fouled the sky with dense black smoke. None of them would see the dawn.

The warships had been targeted and destroyed quickly, but the John Bury had only been strafed, hit with rockets and left to run free. There could be only one reason for that mercy; the Japanese knew of the top secret cargo she carried and they wanted it for themselves.

Captain Alan Pickett was determined not to let that happen, even with half his crew dead and his face gashed by shrapnel. He grabbed the voice tube and shouted down to the engine room.

“More speed!” he demanded.

There was no response. At last report a fire had been raging belowdecks. Pickett had ordered his men to stay and fight it, but now the silence left him gripped with fear.

“Zekes off the port bow!” a lookout called from the bridge wing. “Two thousand feet and dropping.”

Pickett glanced through the shattered glass in front of him. In the failing light he saw four black dots wheeling in the gray sky and dropping toward the ship. Flashes lit from their wings.

“Get down!” he shouted.

Too late. Fifty caliber shells stitched a line across the ship, cutting the lookout in half and blasting apart what was left of the bridge. Shards of wood, glass and steel flew about the compartment.

Pickett hit the deck. A wave of heat flashed over the bridge as another rocket hit ahead of it. The impact rocked the ship, peeling back the metal ceiling like a giant can opener.

As the wave of destruction passed, Pickett looked up. The last of his officers lay dead, the bridge was demolished. Even the ship’s wheel was gone, with only a stub of metal still attached to the spindle. Yet somehow the vessel chugged on.

As Pickett climbed back up, he spotted something that gave him hope: dark clouds and sweeping bands of rain. A squall line was moving in fast off the starboard bow. If he could get his ship into it, the coming darkness would hide him.

Holding on to the bulkhead for support, he reached for what remained of the wheel. He pushed with all the strength he had left. It moved half a turn, and he fell to the ground holding it.

The ship began to change course.

Pressing against the deck, he pushed the wheel upward and then brought it back down again for another full revolution.

The freighter was leaning into the turn now, drawing a curved white wake on the ocean’s surface, coming around toward the squall.

The clouds ahead were thick. The rain falling from them was sweeping the surface like a giant broom. For the first time since the attack began, Pickett felt they had a chance, but as the ship plowed toward the squall the awful sound of the dive-bombers turning and plunging toward him again put that in doubt.

He searched through the ship’s gaping wounds for the source of that noise.

Dropping from the sky directly in front of him were two Aichi D3A dive-bombers, Vals, the same type the Japanese had used with deadly effect at Pearl Harbor and months later against the