Grim-faced, Gallagher turned to his second engineer, Chu Wen. "Get topside, put on a life vest and be ready to abandon ship when the captain gives the order."
The Chinese engineer pulled the stub of a cigar from his mouth and stared at Gallagher appraisingly. "You think we're going down?"
"I know we're going down," Gallagher replied firmly. "This old rust bucket won't last another hour."
"Did you tell the captain?"
"He'd have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to figure it out himself."
"You coming?" asked Chu Wen.
"I'll be right behind you," answered Gallagher.
Chu Wen wiped his oily hands on a rag, nodded at the chief engineer and made his way up a ladder to a hatch leading to the upper decks.
Gallagher took one final look at his beloved engines, certain they would soon be lying in the deep. He stiffened as an unusually loud screech echoed throughout the hull. The aged Princess Dou Wan was tormented by metal fatigue, a scourge suffered by aircraft as well as ships. Extremely difficult to distinguish in calm waters, it only becomes evident in a vessel pounded by vicious seas. Even when new, the Princess would have been hard-pressed to bear up under the onslaught of the waves that pounded her hull with a force of twenty thousand pounds per square inch.
Gallagher's heart froze when he saw a crack appear in a bulkhead that spread downward and then sideways across the hull plates. Starting on the port side, it widened as it progressed to starboard. He snatched up the ship's phone and rang the bridge.
Li Po answered. "Bridge."
"Put the captain on!" Gallagher snapped.
A second's pause, and then, "This is the captain."
"Sir, we've got a hell of a crack in the engine room, and it's getting worse by the minute."
Hunt was stunned. He had hoped against hope that they could make port before the damage turned critical. "Are we taking on water?"
"The pumps are fighting a losing battle."
"Thank you, Mr. Gallagher. Can you keep the engines turning until we reach land?"
"What time frame do you have in mind?"
"Another hour should put us in calmer waters."
"Doubtful," said Gallagher. "I give her ten minutes, no more."
"Thank you, Chief," Hunt said heavily. "You'd better leave the engine room while you still can."
Hunt wearily replaced the receiver, turned and looked out the aft wheelhouse windows. The ship had taken on a noticeable list and was rolling heavily. Two of her boats had already been smashed and swept overboard. Making for the nearest shore and running the ship safely aground was now out of the question. To reach the smoother waters, he would have to make a turn to starboard. The Princess would never survive if she was caught broadside in the maddened waves. She could easily be plunged into a trough without any hope of getting out. Whatever the circumstance, breaking up or the ice building on her superstructure and capsizing her, the ship was doomed.
His mind briefly traveled back sixty days in time and ten thousand miles in distance to the dock on the Yangtze River at Shanghai, where the furnishings from the Princess Dou Wan's staterooms were being stripped in preparation for her final voyage to the scrap yard in Singapore. The departure had been interrupted when General Kung Hui of the Nationalist Chinese Army arrived on the dock in a Packard limousine and ordered Captain Hunt to converse with him inside the car.
Copyright© 1997 by Clive Cussler
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