What is now Hudson Bay, Canada
The intruder came from BEYOND. A nebulous celestial body as old as the universe itself, it had been born in a vast cloud of ice, rocks, dust, and gas when the outer planets of the solar system were formed 4.6 billion years ago. Soon after its scattered particles had frozen into a solid mass one mile in diameter, it began streaking silently through the emptiness of space on an orbital voyage that carried it around a distant sun and halfway to the nearest stars again, a journey lasting many thousands of years from start to finish.
The comet's core, or nucleus, was a conglomeration of frozen water, carbon monoxide, methane gas, and jagged blocks of metallic rocks. It might accurately be described as a dirty snowball hurled through space by the hand of God. But as it whirled past the sun and swung around on its return path beyond the outer reaches of the solar system, the solar radiation reacted with its nucleus and a metamorphosis took place. The ugly duckling soon became a thing of beauty.
As it began to absorb the sun's heat and ultraviolet light, a long comma formed that slowly grew into an enormous luminous blue tail that curved and stretched out behind the nucleus for a distance of 90 million miles. A shorter, white dust tail more than one million miles wide also materialized and curled out on the sides of the larger tail like the fins of a fish.
Each time the comet passed the sun, it lost more of its ice and its nucleus diminished. Eventually, in another 200 million years, it would lose all its ice and break up into a cloud of dust and become a series of small meteorites. This comet, however, would never orbit outside the solar system or pass around the sun again. It would not be allowed a slow, cold death far out in the blackness of space. Within a few short minutes, its life would be snuffed out. But on this, its latest orbit, the comet passed within 900,000 miles of Jupiter, whose great gravitational force veered it off on a collision course with the third planet from the sun, a planet its inhabitants called Earth.
Plunging into Earth's atmosphere at 130,000 miles an hour on a forty-five-degree angle, its speed ever-increasing with the gravitational pull, the comet created a brilliant luminescent bow shock as its ten-mile-wide, four-billion-ton mass began to break into fragments due to friction from its great speed. Seven seconds later, the misshapen comet, having become a blinding fireball, smashed onto Earth's surface with horrendous effect. The immediate result from the explosive release of kinetic energy upon impact was to gouge out a massive cavity twice the size of the island of Hawaii as it vaporized and displaced a gigantic volume of water and soil.
The entire earth staggered from the seismic shock of a 12.0 earthquake. Millions of tons of water, sediment, and debris burst upward, thrown through the hole in the atmosphere above the impact site and into the stratosphere, along with a great spray of pulverized, fiery rock that was ejected into suborbital trajectories before raining back to earth as blazing meteorites. Firestorms destroyed forests throughout the world. Volcanoes that had been dormant for thousands of years suddenly erupted, sending oceans of molten lava spreading over millions of square miles, blanketing the ground a thousand or more feet deep. So much smoke and debris were hurled into the atmosphere and later blown into every corner of the land by terrible winds that they blocked out the sun for nearly a year, sending temperatures plunging below freezing, and shrouding Earth in darkness. Climatic change in every corner of the world came with incredible suddenness. Temperatures at vast ice fields and northern glaciers rose until they reached between ninety and a hundred degrees Fahrenheit, causing a rapid meltdown. Animals accustomed to tropical and temperate zones became extinct overnight. Many, such as the woolly mammoths, turned to ice where they stood in the warmth of summer, grasses and flowers still undigested in their stomachs. Trees, along with their leaves and fruit, were quick-frozen. For days, fish that were hurled upward from the impact fell from the blackened skies.
Waves five to ten miles in height were thrown against the continents, surging over shorelines with a destructive power that was awesome in magnitude. Water swept over low coastal plains and swept hundreds of miles inland, destroying everything in its path. Endless quantities of debris and sediment from the ocean floors were spread over low landmasses. Only when the great surge smashed against the base of mountains did it curl under and begin a slow retreat, but not before changing the course of rivers, filling land basins with seas where none existed before and turning large lakes into deserts.
The chain reaction seemed endless.
With a low rumble that grew to the roar of continuous thunder, the mountains began to sway like palm trees under a light breeze as avalanches swept down their sides. Deserts and grassy plains undulated as the onslaught from the oceans reared up and struck inland again. The shock from the comet's impact had caused a sudden and massive displacement in Earth's thin crust. The outer shell, less than forty miles thick, and the mantle that lay over the hot fluid core buckled and twisted, shifting crustal layers like the skin of a grapefruit that had been surgically removed and then neatly replaced so it could move around the core of fruit inside. As if controlled by an unseen hand, the entire crust then moved as a unit.
Entire continents were shoved around to new locations. Hills were thrust up to become mountains. Islands though out the Pacific Ocean vanished, while others emerged for the first time. Antarctica, previously west of Chile, slid over two thousand miles to the south, where it was quickly buried under growing sheets of ice. The vast ice pack that once floated in the Indian Ocean west of Australia now found itself in a temperate zone and rapidly began to melt. The same occurred with the former North Pole, which had spread throughout northern Canada. The new pole soon began to produce a thick ice mass in the middle of what once had been open ocean.
The destruction was relentless. The convulsions and holocaust went on as if they would never stop. The movement of the Earth's thin outer shell piled cataclysm upon cataclysm. The abrupt melting of the former ice packs, combined with glaciers covering the continents that had suddenly shifted into or near tropical zones, caused the seas to rise four hundred feet, drowning the already destroyed land that had been overwhelmed by tidal waves from the comet's impact. In the time span of a single day, Britain, connected to the rest of the European continent by a dry plain, was now an island, while a desert that became known as the Persian Gulf was abruptly inundated. The Nile River, having flowed into a vast fertile valley and then on toward the great ocean to the west, now ended at what had suddenly become the Mediterranean Sea.
The last great ice age had ended in the geological blink of an eye.
The dramatic change in the oceans and their circulation around the world also caused the poles to shift, drastically disturbing the earth's rotational balance. Earth's axis was temporarily thrown off by two degrees, as the North and South Poles were displaced to new geographical locations, altering the centrifugal acceleration around the outer surface of the sphere. Because they were fluid, the seas adapted before the earth made another three revolutions. But the landmass could not react as quickly.
Earthquakes went on for months.
Savage storms with brutal winds swirled around the earth, shredding and disintegrating everything that stood on the ground for the next eighteen years before the poles stopped wobbling and settled into their new rotational axis. In time, sea levels stabilized, permitting new shorelines to form as bizarre climatic conditions continued to moderate. Changes became permanent. The time sequence between night and day changed as the number of days in a year decreased by two. The earth's magnetic field was also affected and moved northwest over a hundred miles.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different species of animals and fish became instantly extinct. In the Americas, the one-humped camel, the mammoth, an ice age horse, and the giant sloth all disappeared. Gone also were the saber-toothed tiger, huge birds with twenty-five-foot wingspans and many other animals that weighed a hundred or more pounds, most dying by asphyxiation from the smoke and volcanic gases.
Nor did the vegetation on land escape the apocalypse. Plant life not turned to ashes by the holocaust died for lack of sunlight, along with the algae in the seas. In the end, over 85 percent of all life on Earth would die from floods, fires, storms, avalanches, poison from the atmosphere, and eventual starvation.
Human societies, many quite advanced, and a myriad of emerging cultures on the threshold of a progressive golden age were annihilated in a single horrendous day and night. Millions of Earth's men, women, and children died horribly. All vestiges of emerging civilizations were gone, and the few pathetic survivors were left with nothing but dim memories of the past. The coffin had been closed on the greatest uninterrupted advance of mankind, a ten-thousand-year journey from the simple Cro-Magnon man to kings, architects, stonemasons, artists, and warriors. Their works and their mortal remains were buried deep beneath new seas, leaving few physical examples and fragments of an ancient advanced culture. Entire nations and cities that had stood only a few hours before vanished without a trace. The cataclysm of such magnitude left almost no evidence of any prior transcendent civilizations.
Of the shockingly low number of humans who survived, almost all lived in the higher altitudes of mountain ranges and were able to hide in caves to escape the furies of the turbulence. Unlike the more advanced Bronze Age peoples who tended to cluster and build on low-lying plains near rivers and ocean shorelines, the inhabitants of the mountains were Stone Age nomads. It was as though the cream of the crop, the Leonardo da Vincis, the Picassos, and the Einsteins of their era had evaporated into nothingness, abruptly leaving the world to be taken over by primitive nomadic hunters, a phenomenon similar to what happened to the glory of Greece and Rome after it was cast aside in favor of centuries of ignorance and creative lethargy. A neolithic dark age shrouded the grave of the highly cultured civilizations that once existed in the world, a dark age that would last for two thousand years. Slowly, very slowly, did mankind finally walk from the dark and begin building and creating cities and civilizations again in Mesopotamia and Egypt.
Pitifully few of the gifted builders and creative thinkers of the lost cultures survived to reach high ground. Realizing their civilization was lost, never to rise again, they began a centuries-long quest to erect the mysterious megaliths and dolmens of huge upright stones found across Europe, Asia, the Pacific Islands, and into the lower Americas. Long after the memory of their shining legacy had dimmed and become little more than myth, their monuments commemorating the frightful destruction and loss of life still acted as warnings of the next cataclysm to future generations. But within a millennium, their descendants slowly forgot the old ways and assimilated with the nomadic tribes and ceased to exist as a race of advanced people.
For hundreds of years after the convulsion, humans were afraid to venture down from the mountains and reinhabit the lower lands and coastal shorelines. The technically superior seafaring nations were but vague thoughts of a distant past. Ship construction and sailing techniques were lost and had to be reinvented by later generations whose more accomplished ancestors were revered simply as gods.
All this death and devastation was caused by a hunk of dirty ice no larger than a small farm town in Iowa. The comet had wreaked its unholy havoc, mercilessly, viciously. The earth had not been ravaged with such vehemence since a meteor had struck 65 million years earlier in a catastrophe that had exterminated the dinosaurs.
For thousands of years after the impact, comets were associated with superstitions of catastrophic events and considered omens of future tragedies. They were blamed for everything from wars and pestilence to death and destruction. Not until recent history were comets considered nature's wonders, like the splendor of a rainbow or clouds painted gold by a setting sun.
The biblical flood and a host of other calamity legends all had ties to this one tragedy. The ancient civilizations of Olmecs, Mayans, and Aztecs of Central America had many traditions relating to an ancient cataclysmic event. The Indian tribes throughout the United States passed down stories of waters flooding over their lands. The Chinese, the Polynesians, and Africans all spoke of a cataclysm that decimated their ancestors.
But the legend that was spawned and that flourished throughout the centuries, the one that provoked the most mystery and intrigue, was that of the lost continent and civilization of Atlantis.
September 30, 1858
Stefansson Bay, Antarctica
Roxanna mender knew that if she stopped walking she would die. She was near complete exhaustion and moving on willpower alone. The temperature was well below zero, but it was the windchill from the frigid teeth of the ice gale that was biting through her skin. The deadly drowsiness gently slipping over her was slowly draining
Her will to live. She moved forward, one foot groping ahead of the other, stumbling when caught off balance by a sudden break in the ice field. Her breath came in the rapid, rasping panting of a mountain climber struggling toward a peak in the himalayas without oxygen equipment.
Her vision was nonexistent as the icy windblown particles swirled in front of her face, protected by a thick woolen scarf wrapped inside her fur-lined parka. Though she only squinted between the layers of the scarf every other minute, her eyes were sore and reddened from the onslaught of the tiny granules. Frustration gripped Roxanna when she looked up and saw the dazzling blue sky and brilliant sun above the storm. Blinding ice storms under clear skies were not an uncommon phenomenon in Antarctica.
Surprisingly, snow rarely falls in the South Polar region. It is so incredibly cold that the atmosphere cannot contain water vapor, so any snowfall is minimal. Not more than five inches falls over the continent in the course of a year. Some of the snow that is already on the ground is actually several thousand years old. The harsh sun strikes the white ice on an oblique angle and its heat is reflected back into space, contributing largely to the extraordinarily cold temperatures.
Roxanna was fortunate. The cold did not penetrate her clothing. Rather than wearing European cold-weather garb, she was dressed in clothing her husband had acquired while trading with Eskimos during his earlier whaling expeditions in the Arctic. Her inner clothing consisted of a tunic, short knee-length pants, and a socklike boot made with soft fur worn against her feet. Separate outerwear protected against extreme cold. The parka was loose-fitting to allow body heat to circulate and escape without the problem of sweat buildup. It was made from wolf fur, while the pants came from a caribou. The boots stood high and were worn over the socks, with the fur inward.
Her greatest physical danger lay in breaking an ankle or leg on the uneven surface, and if she somehow survived, there was the threat of frostbite. Though her body was protected, it was her face that worried her. At the least tingle on either her cheek or nose, she vigorously rubbed the skin to restart circulation. She had already watched six of her husband's crew develop frostbite, two of them losing toes and one his ears.
Thankfully, the icy gale began to die away and lose its violence, and her progress became easier than it had been for the past hour she had been wandering lost. The howling wind faded from her ears, and she could hear the squeak of the ice crystals beneath her feet.
She reached a hill about fifteen feet high from base to ridge formed by the restless sea ice grinding and forcing the floe upward into what was called a hummock. Most formed an uneven surface, but this one was weathered until its sides were smooth. Falling to her hands and knees, she clawed her way upward, sliding back two feet for every three she gained.
The exertion took what little strength Roxanna had left. Without knowing how, or remembering the struggle, she pulled herself onto the ridge of the hummock half-dead from exhaustion, heart pounding, breath coming in labored gasps. She did not know how long she lay there, but she was thankful to rest her eyes from the ice-plagued wind. After a few minutes, when her heart slowed and her breath began to come evenly, Roxanna cursed herself for the predicament she had foolishly caused. Time had no reference. Without a watch, she had no idea how many hours had passed since she walked from her husband's whaling ship, the Paloverde.
Nearly six months earlier, the ship had become locked in the pack ice, and to endure the boredom she had begun taking daily hikes, keeping within easy view of the ship and its crew, who kept an eye on her. That morning the skies had dawned crystal clear when she left the ship, but they soon turned dark and vanished when the ice storm swept over the ice. Within minutes, the ship had disappeared and Roxanna found herself wandering lost on the ice pack.
Traditionally, most whalers never sailed with women aboard. But many wives refused to sit at home for the three to four years their husbands were gone. Roxanna Mender was not about to spend thousands of lonely hours alone. She was a hardy woman, though petite, barely reaching five feet in height and weighing less than a hundred pounds. With her light brown eyes and ready smile, she was a pretty woman who seldom complained of the hardship and boredom and who rarely became seasick. In her cramped cabin she had already given birth to a baby boy, whom she had named Samuel. And though she had yet to tell her husband, she was about two months pregnant with the next baby. She had found acceptance aboard ship with the crew, taught several to read, written letters home to their wives and families, and acted as nurse whenever there was an injury or sickness on board.
The paloverde was one of the fleet of whalers that sailed from San Francisco on the nation's west coast. She was a stout ship, especially constructed for polar operations during the whaling season. With a length of 132 feet, a beam of 30 feet, and a draft of 17 feet, her tonnage was close to 330. Her dimensions allowed for a large cargo of whale oil and accommodations for a large crew of officers and men for voyages that could last as long as three years. Her pine keel, timbers, and beams were cut from the forests of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Once they were positioned, the three-inch planking was laid on and fastened by trunnels, a wooden nail usually cut from oak.
She was rigged as a three-masted bark, and her lines were clean, bold, and rakish. Her cabins were neatly furnished and paneled in Washington spruce. The captain's cabin was particularly well appointed because of his wife's insistence that she accompany him on the long voyage. The figurehead was a finely carved image of a paloverde tree, native to the southwest. The ship's name was spread across the stern in carved letters gilded in gold. Also adorning the stern was a spread-winged carving of the California condor.
Instead of sailing north through the Bering Sea toward the Arctic and the more established waters for whale hunting, Roxanna's husband, Captain Bradford Mender, had taken the Paloverde south to the Antarctic. He believed that since the region was overlooked and seldom visited by the hardy whalers from New England, there was a golden opportunity to find virgin whaling grounds.
Soon after arriving near the Antarctic Circle, the crew took six whales as the ship sailed in the open water between the shore, often threading its way through a sea of icebergs. Then, in the last week of March, the Antarctic autumn, the ice built over the sea at incredible speed until it reached a thickness of nearly four feet. The Paloverde might still have escaped to clear water, but a sudden shift of wind became a howling gale that drove the ship back toward shore. With no avenue of escape left open, as the ice charged toward them in chunks larger than the ship itself, the crew of the Paloverde could only stand helpless and watch the cold trap spring shut.
The ice quickly surged around the whaler with such force as to shove her relentlessly toward the land as if caught in a giant fist. The clear water near the land was quickly filling with a sheet of ice. Mender and his crew desperately labored and finally succeeded in getting the Paloverde's anchors to hold in six fathoms less than two miles from shore. But within hours, the ship was jammed tightly in the ice that continued to thicken, and soon all signs of water were replaced by a white shroud. The Antarctic winter was upon them, and the days began to shrink. There was no hope of escaping, and mild weather with warmer temperatures was a good seven months away.
The sails were dried, rolled up, and stowed away, to be raised again in the spring, if divine providence allowed for warmer weather and permitted the ship to float free. Now, in anticipation of a long imprisonment, all food was carefully inventoried and rationed for the long months of winter. Whether the victuals stored aboard the ship could be stretched until the ice began to melt in the spring was anybody's guess. But dropping lines and hooks through holes in the ice had produced better-than-hoped-for results and a nice assortment of Antarctic fish were soon frozen in a deck larder. And then there were the comical penguins on the shore. There appeared to be millions of them. The only dilemma was that no matter how the ship's cook prepared their meat, it tasted most unpleasant.
The principal threats facing the crew of the whaler were the terrible cold and any sudden movement of the ice floe. The danger of freezing was greatly reduced by burning the oil from the whales they had harpooned before becoming locked in the ice. The hold still held more than a hundred barrels, easily enough to keep the stoves burning through the worst of the Antarctic winter.
Until now, the floe had been relatively undisturbed. But Mender knew that it was only a matter of time before the ice would buckle and shift. Then the Paloverde could easily find her hull crushed to splinters, her stout timbers flattened as if they were paper, by a massive migrating iceberg. He did not relish the thought of his wife and baby trying to survive on land until another ship was sighted in the summer. And the odds of that happening were a thousand to one at best.
There was also the deadly menace of disease. Seven of the men were showing signs of scurvy. The only bright area was that the vermin and rats had long before succumbed to the awful cold. The long Antarctic nights, the isolation and freezing wind, nurtured the gloom of apathy. Mender combated the restless boredom by keeping his men busy on chores, endless jobs to keep their minds and bodies active.
Mender had sat in his cabin at his desk and recalculated their odds of survival a hundred times. But no matter how he twisted the options and possibilities, the eventuality always remained the same. Their chances of floating undamaged and intact come spring were bleak indeed.
The icy windstorm had ended as abruptly as it had arrived, and the sun returned. Peering through squinting eyes over the dazzling sparkle of the ice pack, Roxanna saw her shadow. How joyous to see her shadow again despite the endless emptiness around her. But then her heart surged as she scanned the horizon and spotted the Paloverde a good mile and a half away. The black hull was nearly hidden by the ice, but she could see the huge American flag flapping in the dying breeze and realized that her worried husband had hung it high in the rigging of the mainmast as a beacon. She found it hard to believe that she had strayed so far. In her numbed mind, she thought that she had remained reasonably close to the ship while wandering in circles.
The ice pack was not all empty isolation. Roxanna could see tiny specks moving across its surface, and she realized that it was her husband and his crew searching for her. She was about to stand up and wave, when suddenly she caught sight of something most unexpected-the masts of another ship looming between two giant floebergs, hummocks frozen together and grounded on the shore.
The three masts and bowsprit, along with their rigging, looked to be intact, with the sails furled. With the wind fallen to a slight breeze, she unwrapped the scarf from her face and eyes and could see that most of the ship's hull was embedded in the ice. Roxanna's father had been a sea captain who had commanded clipper ships in the tea trade to China, and as a young girl she had seen thousands of ships of all types of rigs and sails arrive and depart Boston, but the only time she had seen a ship like the one encrusted with ice was in a painting that hung in her grandfather's house.
The ghostly ship was old, very old, with a huge rounded stern bearing windows and quarter galleries that hung over the water. She had been built long, narrow, and deep. A good 140 feet in length with at least a 35-foot beam, Roxanna estimated. Like the ship she had seen in the painting. This one had to be an 800-ton British Indiaman of the late eighteenth century.
She turned from the ship and waved her scarf to attract her husband and crew. One caught the movement on the ice out of the corner of his eye and alerted the others. They quickly began running across the broken ice toward her, with Captain Mender in the lead. Twenty minutes later, the crew of the Paloverde had reached her, shouting joyously at finding her alive.
Usually a quiet, taciturn man, Mender showed uncharacteristic emotion when he swept Roxanne into his arms, tears frozen to his cheeks, and kissed her long and lovingly. "Oh God!" he muttered, "I thought you were dead. It's truly a miracle you survived."
A whaling master at the age of twenty-eight, Bradford Mender was thirty-six and on his tenth voyage when his ship had become locked in the Antarctic ice. A tough, resourceful New Englander, he stood six feet tall and was big all over, weighing in at close to 225 pounds. His eyes were a piercing blue and his hair was black; a beard ran from ears to chin. Stern but fair, he never had a problem with officers and crew that he couldn't handle efficiently and honestly. A superb whale-hunter and navigator, Mender was also a shrewd businessman who was not only master of his ship but its owner as well.
"If you hadn't insisted I wear the Eskimo clothing you gave me, I would have frozen to death hours ago."
He released her and turned to the six members of his crew who surrounded them, cheered that the captain's wife had been found alive. "Let us get Mrs. Mender back to the ship quickly and get some hot soup in her."
"No, not yet," she said, clutching him by the arm and pointing. "I've discovered another ship."
Every man turned, their eyes following her outstretched arm.
"An Englishman. I recognized her lines from a painting in my grandfather's parlor in Boston. It looks like a derelict."
Mender stared at the apparition, which was ghostly white under its tomb of ice. "I do believe you're right. She does have the lines of a very old merchantman from the 1770s."
"I suggest that we investigate, Captain," said the Paloverde's first mate, Nathan Bigelow. "She may still contain provisions that will help us survive till spring."
"They would have to be a good eighty years old," Mender said heavily.
"But preserved by the cold," Roxanna reminded him.
He looked at her tenderly. "You've had a hard time, dear wife. I'll have one of the men escort you back to the Paloverde."
"No, husband," Roxanna said resolutely, her fatigue banished, "I intend to see what there is to see." Before the captain could protest, she took off down the slope of the hummock to the pack ice and set off toward the abandoned vessel.
Mender looked at his crew and shrugged. "Far be it from me to argue with a curious woman."
"A ghost ship," murmured Bigelow. "A great pity she's forever locked in the ice, or we could sail her home and apply for salvage rights."
"She's too ancient to be worth much," said Mender.
"Why are you men standing there in the cold, babbling?" said Roxanna, turning and urging the men on impatiently. "Let us hurry before another storm sweeps in."
Making their way over the ice as fast as possible until they reached the deserted ship, they found that the ice had piled against the hull, making it easy for them to reach the upper bulwarks and climb over the gunwales. Roxanna, her husband, and the crewmen found themselves standing on the quarterdeck, which was covered by a thin layer of ice.
Mender stared around at the desolation and shook his head as if bewildered. "Amazing that her hull wasn't crushed by the ice."
"I never thought I'd be standing on the deck of an English East Indiaman," one of the crewmen muttered, his eyes reflecting apprehension. "Certainly not one built before my grandfather was born."
"She's a good-sized ship," said Mender slowly. "About nine hundred tons, I'd guess. A hundred and fifty feet long with a forty-foot beam."
Laid and fitted out in a Thames River shipyard, the workhorse of the late-eighteenth-century British merchant fleet, the Indiaman was a crossbreed among ships. She was built mainly as a cargo carrier, but those were still the days of pirates and marauding warships from England's enemies, so she was armed with twenty-eight eighteen-pound cannon. Besides being built to transport goods and merchandise, she was also fitted out with cabins to carry passengers. Everything on the deck was standing, encased in ice, as if awaiting a phantom crew. The guns sat silently at their ports, the lifeboats were still lashed atop the spare spars, and all hatches were neatly in place.
There was an eerie and dreadful strangeness about the old ship, a curious grimness that belonged not of earth but of another world. A mindless fear gripped the crewmen who stood on the deck that some hoary, gruesome creature was waiting to receive them. Sailors are a superstitious lot, and there were none, except for Roxanna, who was in the innocent throes of almost girlish enthusiasm, who did not feel a deep sense of apprehension.
"Odd," said Bigelow. "It's as if the crew abandoned the ship before it became trapped in the ice."
"I doubt that," said Mender grimly. "The lifeboats are still stowed."
"God only knows what we'll find belowdecks."
"Then let's go see," Roxanna said excitedly.
"Not you, my dear. I think it best if you remain here."
She gave her husband a proud look and slowly shook her head. "I'll not wait alone while there are ghosts walking about."
"If there are any ghosts," said Bigelow, "they'd have frozen solid by now."
Mender gave orders to his men. "We'll divide into two search parties. Mr. Bigelow, take three men and look about the crew's quarters and the cargo hold. The rest of us will go aft and search the passenger and officers' quarters."
Bigelow nodded. "Aye, Captain."
Snow and ice had built up into a small mountain around the door leading into the stern cabins, so Mender led Roxanna and his men up and onto the poop deck, where they put their muscles to work and lifted the after hatch cover over a companionway that had frozen closed. Casting it aside, they cautiously dropped down the stair inside. Roxanna was directly behind Mender, clutching the belt around his heavy coat. The normally white complexion of her face was flushed red with a mixture of excitement and suspense.
She did not suspect that she was about to enter a frozen nightmare.
At the door to the captain's cabin, they found a huge German shepherd dog, curled upon a small rug. To Roxanna, the dog appeared to be asleep. But Mender nudged it with the toe of his boot, and the slight thud told them that the dog was frozen solid.
"Literally hard as a rock," said Mender.
"Poor thing," Roxanna murmured sadly.
Mender nodded at a closed door toward the aft end of the passageway. "The captain's cabin. I shudder to think what we may find in there."
"Maybe nothing," said one of the crewmen nervously. "Everybody probably fled the ship and trekked off along the coast northward."
Roxanna shook her head. "I can't imagine anyone leaving such a beautiful animal to die on board alone."
The men forced open the door to the captain's cabin and entered, to a gruesome sight. A woman dressed in clothing from the mid to late seventeen hundreds sat in a chair, her dark eyes open and staring with great sadness at the form of a small child lying in a crib. She had frozen to death while in deep sorrow at losing what appeared to be her young daughter. In her lap was an open Bible turned to the Psalms.
The tragic sight numbed Roxanna and the crew of the Paloverde. Her enthusiasm at exploring the unknown had suddenly evaporated into a feeling of anguish. She stood there with the others in silence, their hushed breath misting in that crypt of a cabin.
Mender turned and walked into an adjoining cabin and found the captain of the ship, who he rightly assumed was the dead woman's husband. The man was seated at a desk, slumped in a chair. His red hair was coated by ice and his face was dead white. One hand was still clutching a quill pen. A sheet of paper lay before him on the desk. Mender brushed away the frost and read the wording.
August 26, 1779
It has been five months since we were trapped in this accursed place after that storm drove us far off our course to the south. Food gone. No one has eaten for ten days. Most of the crew and passengers dead. My little daughter died yesterday, my poor wife only an hour ago. Whoever should find our bodies, please notify the directors of the Skylar Croft Trading Company of Liverpool of our fate. All is at an end. I shall soon join my beloved wife and daughter.
Master of the Madras
The leather-bound logbook of the Madras lay to one side of Captain Hunt on the desk. Mender carefully dislodged it from the ice that froze the rear cover to the wooden desktop and placed the book in-
side his heavy coat. Then he stepped from the cabin and closed the door.
"What did you find?" asked Roxanna.
"The body of the captain."
"It's all so terrible."
"I imagine there is worse to see."
The words were prophetic. They divided up and went from cabin to cabin. The more exquisite passengers' accommodations were in the roundhouse, an expansive space with quarter galleries and windows partitioned into various-sized cabins in the stern below the poop deck. Passengers booked empty space. They had to furnish their cabin themselves, providing couches, beds, and chairs, all lashed down in anticipation of heavy weather. Wealthy passengers often brought such personal possessions as bureaus, bookshelves, and musical instruments, including pianos and harps. Here the searchers found nearly thirty bodies in various positions of death. Some died sitting upright, some lay in bed, while others were sprawled on the deck. All looked as if they had peacefully dozed off.
Roxanna was unsettled by those whose eyes were open. The color of their irises seemed enhanced by the pure white faces surrounding them. She cringed when one of the Paloverde's crewmen reached out and touched the hair of one of the ladies. The frozen hair made a strange crackling noise and broke off in the crewman's hand.
The great cabin on the deck below the more elegant roundhouse staterooms looked like a morgue after a disaster. Mender saw any number of dead, mostly men, many of them British military officers in uniform. Forward was the steerage cabin, which was also filled with frozen corpses in hammocks slung over ship's supplies and luggage in the steerage compartment.
Everyone aboard the Madras had died peacefully. There was no sign of chaos. Nothing was in disarray. All articles and goods were stowed neatly. But for the final narrative by Captain Hunt, it seemed that time had stopped and they had all peacefully died as they lived. What Roxanna and Mender saw was not grotesque or terrifying but simply an overwhelming misfortune. These people had been dead for seventy-nine years and been forgotten by the passing world. Even those who had wondered about and mourned their disappearance were long since gone.
"I don't understand," said Roxanna. "How did they all die?"
"Those who didn't starve, froze," answered her husband.
"But they could have fished through the ice and shot penguin the same as we did, and burned parts of the ship to stay warm."
"The captain's last words say his ship was driven far off their course to the south. My guess is they were trapped in the ice much farther from shore than we were, and the captain, believing they would eventually drift free, followed the rules of good seamanship and forbid fires on board his ship for fear of an accidental conflagration, until it was too late."
"So, one by one, they died."
"Then, when spring came and the ice melted, instead of being carried by the current out into the South Pacific as a derelict, contrary winds drove the ship ashore, where it has lain since the last century."
"I think you're right, Captain," said first mate Bigelow, approaching from the forward part of the ship. "Judging from the clothing on the bodies, the poor devils did not expect a voyage that would take them into frigid waters. Most all appear better dressed for a tropical climate. They must have been sailing from India to England."
"A great tragedy," Roxanna sighed, "that nothing could have saved these unfortunate people."
"Only God," muttered Mender, "only God." He turned to Bigelow. "What cargo was she carrying?"
"No gold or silver that I could find, but a general cargo of tea, Chinese porcelain in tightly packed wooden crates, and bales of silk, along with a variety of rattan, spices, and camphor. And, oh yes, I found a small storeroom, locked with heavy chains, directly below the captain's cabin."
"Did you search it?" asked Mender.
Bigelow shook his head. "No, sir. I thought it only proper that you should be present. I left my men to work at breaking the chains."
"Maybe the room contains treasure," said Roxanna, a tinge of red returning to her cheeks.
"We'll soon find out." Mender nodded at Bigelow. "Mr. Bigelow, will you lead the way?"
The first mate led them down a ladder into the aft main steerage hold. The storeroom stood opposite an eighteen-pound cannon whose port was frozen shut. Two of the Paloverde's crew were attacking the heavy padlock securing the chains that were bolted into the door. Using a sledgehammer and chisel found in the carpenters' workshop, they furiously hammered away at the lock's shackle until it snapped apart. Then they twisted the heavy door latch until it sprang free and the door could be pushed inward.
The interior was dimly lit by a small port in the bulwarks. Wooden crates were stacked from bulkhead to bulkhead, but the contents appeared to have been packed haphazardly. Mender stepped over to a large crate and easily lifted one end of the lid.
"These chests were not carefully packed and loaded aboard in port by commercial traders," he said quietly. "It looks to me like they were sloppily crated by the crew sometime during the voyage and placed under lock and key by the captain."
"Don't just stand there, husband," ordered Roxanna, mesmerized by curiosity. "Open them."
While the crew stood outside the storage room, Mender and Bigelow began prying open the wooden chests. No one seemed to notice the bitter cold. They were spellbound in anticipation of finding some great treasure in gold and gemstones. But when Mender held up one of the pieces of the contents from a chest, their hopes were quickly shattered.
"A copper urn," he said, passing it to Roxanna, who held it up in the brighter light of the steerage compartment. "Beautifully sculpted. Greek or Roman, if I'm any judge of antiquity."
Bigelow removed and passed several more artifacts through the open door. Most of them were small copper sculptures of strange-looking animals with black opal eyes. "They're beautiful," whispered Roxanna, admiring the designs that had been sculpted and etched into the copper. "They're nothing like anything I've seen in books."
"They do look unusual," agreed Mender.
"Are they of any value?" asked Bigelow.
"To a collector of antiquities or a museum maybe," answered Mender. "But I seriously doubt any of us could get rich off them. . . ." He paused as he held up a life-size human skull that gleamed black in the veiled light. "Good Lord, will you look at this?"
"It's frightening," muttered Bigelow.
"Looks like it was carved by Satan himself," murmured a crewman in awe.
Totally unintimidated, Roxanna held it up and stared into the empty eye sockets. "It has the appearance of ebony glass. And see the dragon coming out between its teeth."
"My guess, it's obsidian," observed Mender, "but I couldn't begin to presume how it was carved-" Mender was interrupted by a loud crackling sound, as the ice around the stern of the ship heaved and grumbled.
One of the crew dropped down the stairway from the upper deck, shouting, his voice high-pitched and harsh. "Captain, we must leave quickly! A great crack is spreading across the ice and pools of water are forming! I fear if we don't hurry, we'll be trapped here!"
Mender wasted no time in questions. "Get back to the ship!" he ordered. "Quickly!"
Roxanna wrapped the skull in her scarf and tucked it under one arm.
"No time for souvenirs," Mender snapped at her. But she ignored him and refused to let go of the skull.
Pushing Roxanna ahead of them, the men hurried up the stairway to the main deck and dropped down onto the ice. They were horrified to see that what had been a solid field of ice was now buckling and breaking up into ponds. Cracks turned into meandering streams and rivers as the seawater poured up through the ice onto the floe. None of them had any idea the floe could melt so fast.
Skirting the upheaved masses, some of them forty feet high, and leaping across the cracks before they widened and made crossing impossible, the crew and Roxanna ran as if all the banshees of hell were after them. The macabre, indescribable sounds of the ice grinding against itself struck terror in their minds. The going was exhausting; at every step their feet sank six inches into the blanket of snow that had accumulated on the level stretches of the floe.
The wind began to pick up again, and incredibly it felt warm, the warmest air they had felt since the ship had become jammed in the ice. After running a mile and a half, everyone was ready to collapse from exhaustion. The shouts of their shipmates on the Paloverde, begging them to hurry, urged them to greater efforts. Then, abruptly, it seemed that their struggle to gain the ship had ended in vain. The last crack in the ice before they could reach the safety of the Paloverde nearly defeated them. It had widened to twenty feet, too far for them to leap over, and was spreading at a rate of a foot every thirty seconds.
Seeing their predicament, the Paloverde's second mate, Asa Knight, ordered the men on board to lower a whaleboat over the side, and they manhandled it across the ice to the fissure, which had now increased to nearly thirty feet. Heaving and pulling the heavy boat, the crew struggled to save the captain and his wife and their shipmates before it was too late. After a herculean effort, they reached the opposite edge of the fissure. By then, Mender, Roxanna, and the others were standing knee-deep in water that was coming up through the ice.
The boat was quickly pushed into the freezing water, and the men rowed it across the rapidly expanding river in the ice, to the vast relief of those minutes away from death on the other side. Roxanna was lifted over the side first, followed by the rest of the crew and Mender.
"We owe you a great debt, Mr. Knight," said Mender, shaking his second mate's hand. "Your daring initiative saved our lives. I especially thank you on behalf of my wife."
"And child," Roxanna added, as two crewmen wrapped her in blankets.
He looked at her. "Our child is safe on the ship."
"I wasn't talking about Samuel," she said, through chattering teeth.
Mender stared at her. "Are you telling me you're with child again, woman?"
"I think about two months."
Mender was appalled. "You went out on the ice in a storm knowing you were pregnant?"
"There was no storm when I set out," she said with a weak grin.
"Good Lord," he sighed, "what am I to do with you?"
"If you don't want her, Captain," said Bigelow jovially, "I'll be happy to have her."
Despite the fact that he was chilled to the bone, Mender laughed as he hugged his wife, nearly crushing the breath out of her. "Do not tempt me, Mr. Bigelow, do not tempt me."
Half an hour later, Roxanna was back on board the Paloverde, changed into dry clothing and warming her body around the big brick-and-cast-iron stove used to melt whale blubber. Her husband and crew did not spare any time for creature comforts. The sails were hurriedly removed from the hold where they had been stowed, and were carried into the rigging. Soon they were unfurled, the anchors were pulled off the bottom, and, with mender at the helm, the Paloverde began to thread her way through the melting water between huge icebergs toward the open sea again.
After enduring six months of cold and near starvation, the captain and crew were free of the ice and headed home, but not before they had filled her casks with seventeen hundred barrels of sperm oil.
The strange obsidian skull that Roxanna had taken from the frozen Madras went on the family mantel of their home in San Francisco. Mender dutifully corresponded with the current owners of the Skylar Croft Trade Company of Liverpool, who were operating under a new name, and sent off the logbook, giving the position where they had found the derelict ship on the shore of the Bellingshausen Sea.
The sinister and dead relic of the past remained in frigid isolation. An expedition consisting of two ships was mounted from Liverpool in 1862 to recover the Madras's cargo, but neither ship was ever seen again and were presumed lost in the great ice floe around Antarctica.
Another 144 years would pass before men were to rediscover and set foot on the decks of the Madras again.
As Close to Hell as You Can Get
March 22, 2001
The waning stars in the early-morning sky blazed like a theater marquee when seen from 9,000 feet above sea level. But it was the moon that had a ghostly look about it as Luis Marquez stepped from his little wooden frame house. It wore a curious orange halo that he had never seen before. He peered at the odd phenomenon for a few moments before walking across the yard to his 1973 Chevy Cheyenne 4x4 pickup truck.
He had dressed in his work clothes and slipped quietly out of the house so as not to wake his wife and two daughters. His wife, Lisa, would have gladly gotten up and fixed breakfast and a sandwich for his lunch pail, but he insisted that 4:00 A.M. was too early for anyone but a mental case to be roaming around in the dark.
Marquez and his family lived simply. With his own hands, he had remodeled the house that had been built in 1882. His children went to school in nearby Telluride, and what he and Lisa couldn't buy in the booming resort ski town, they brought home during monthly shopping trips to the larger ranch community of Montrose, sixty-seven miles to the north.
His routine was never complete until he lingered over his coffee and stared around what was now a ghost town. Under the spectral light from the moon, the few buildings that still stood looked like tombstones in a cemetery.
Following the discovery of gold-bearing rock in 1874, miners poured into the San Miguel Valley and built a town they called Pandora, after the Greek fairy tale about a beautiful girl and her box full of mysterious spirits. A banking interest in Boston bought up the mining claims, financed the mine's operation, and constructed a large ore-processing plant only two miles above the more famous mining town of Telluride.
They'd called the mine the Paradise, and soon Pandora became a small company town of two hundred citizens with its own post office. The houses were neatly painted, with mowed green lawns and white fences, and although Pandora was set in a box canyon with only one way in and out, it was not isolated. The road to Telluride was well maintained, and the Rio Grande Southern Railroad ran a spur line into town to haul passengers and supplies to the mine and the processed ore across the Continental Divide to Denver.
There were those who swore the mine was cursed. The human cost of extracting fifty million dollars' worth of gold over forty years was high. A total of twenty-eight hard-rock miners had died inside the damp and forbidding shafts-fourteen in one disaster alone-while close to a hundred were maimed for life because of freak accidents and cave-ins.
Before the old-timers who had moved down the road and resided in Telluride died off, they'd claimed that the ghost of one of the dead miners could be heard moaning throughout the ten miles of empty shafts that honeycombed the steep, ominous gray cliffs that rose nearly 13,000 feet into the lazy blue skies of Colorado.
By 1931, all the gold that could be profitably processed from the ore with the aid of chemicals was exhausted. Played out, the Paradise Mine was shut down. Over the next sixty-five years, it became only a memory and a slowly healing scar on the panoramic landscape. Not until 1996 had its haunted shafts and tunnels heard the tread of boots and the clang of a pickax again.
Marquez shifted his stare onto the mountain peaks. A four-day storm had come and gone the week before, adding four feet of snow to the already packed slopes. The increasing air temperatures that accompanied the spring turned the snow into the consistency of mushy mashed potatoes. It was the prime avalanche season. Conditions were extremely hazardous in the high country, and skiers were warned not to wander from the established ski runs. As far as Marquez knew, no major snowslide had ever struck the town of Pandora. He was secure in knowing his family was safe, but he ignored the risk to himself every time he made the drive up the steep icy road in winter and worked alone deep in the bowels of the mountain. With the coming of warm days, a snow slide was an event waiting to happen.
Marquez had seen an avalanche only once in his years on the mountain. The sheer magnitude of its beauty and power as it swept rocks, trees, and snow down a valley in great clouds, along with the rumbling sound of thunder, was something he had never forgotten.
Finally, he set his hard hat on his head, slipped behind the wheel of the Chevy pickup, and started the engine, letting it idle for a couple of minutes to warm. Then he began cautiously driving up the narrow, unpaved road that led to the mine that once was the leading gold producer in the state of Colorado. His tires had made deep ruts in the snow after the last storm. He drove carefully as the road wound higher up the mountain. Very quickly, the drop-off along the edge stretched several hundred feet to the base. One uncontrolled skid and rescuers would be untangling Marquez's broken body from his mangled pickup truck on the rocks far below.
Local people thought him foolish for buying up the claims to the old Paradise Mine. Any gold worth extracting was long gone. And yet, except for a Telluride banker, no one would have dreamed that Marquez's investment had made him a rich man. His profits from the mine were shrewdly invested in local real estate, and with the boom of the ski resort he had realized nearly two million dollars.
Marquez was not interested in gold. For ten years, he had prospected around the world for gemstones. In Montana, Nevada, and Colorado, he had prowled the old abandoned gold and silver mines searching for mineral crystals that could be cut into precious gems. Inside one tunnel of the Paradise Mine, he discovered a vein of rose-pink crystals in what the old miners had considered worthless rock. The gemstone in its natural state, Marquez recognized, was rhodochrosite, a spectacular crystal found in various parts of the world in shades of pink and deep red.
Rhodochrosite is seldom seen in cut or faceted form. Large crystals are in great demand by collectors, who have no desire to see them sliced to pieces. Clean, clear gems from the Paradise Mine that had been cut into flawless stones of eighteen carats were very expensive. Marquez knew he could retire and spend the rest of his life in style, but as long as the vein continued, he was determined to keep picking the stones from the granite until they petered out.
He stopped his battered old truck with its scratched and dented fenders and stepped out in front of a huge rusty iron door with four different chains attached to four different locks. Inserting keys the size of a man's palm, he unsnapped the locks and spread the chains. Then he took both hands and tugged the great door open. The moon's rays penetrated a short distance down a sloping mine shaft and revealed a pair of rails that stretched off into the darkness.
He fired up the engine mounted on a large portable generator, then pulled a lever on a junction box. The mine shaft was suddenly illuminated under a series of exposed lightbulbs that trailed down the shaft for a hundred yards before gradually growing smaller, until they became tiny glimmers in the distance. An ore cart sat on the rail tracks, attached to a cable that led to a winch. The cart was built to last, and the only sign of hard use was the rust on the sides of the bucket.
Marquez climbed into the bucket and pressed a button on a remote control. The winch began to hum and play out the cable, allowing the ore cart to roll down the rails, propelled by nothing more than gravity. Going underground was not for the fainthearted or the claustrophobic. The confining shaft barely allowed clearance for the ore bucket. Timbers bolted together like door frames, known as a cap and post, were spaced every few feet to shore up the roof against cave-ins. Many of the timbers had rotted badly, but others were as solid and sound as the day they were set in place by miners who had long since passed on. The ore car descended the sloping shaft at a rapid rate, coming to a stop 1,200 feet into the depths. At this level there was a constant trickle of water falling from the roof of the tunnel.
Taking a backpack and his lunch pail, Marquez climbed from the car and walked over to a vertical shaft that fell away into the lower reaches of the old Paradise Mine until it reached the 2,200-foot level. Down there, the main drift and crosscut tunnels spread into the granite like spokes on a wheel. According to old records and underground maps, there were almost a hundred miles of tunnels under and around Pandora.
Marquez dropped a rock into the yawning blackness. The sound of a splash came within two seconds.
Soon after the mine closed down and the pumps at the pumping station below the base of the mountain were turned off, the lower levels had flooded. Over time, water had risen to within fifteen feet of the 1,200-foot level, where Marquez worked the rhodochrosite vein. The slowly rising water, spurred on during a particularly heavy wet season in the San Juans, told him that it would be only a matter of a few weeks before it reached the top of the old shaft and spilled over into the main tunnel, spelling the end of his gemstone-mining operation.
Marquez set his mind on extracting as many stones as he could in the brief time he had left. His days became longer as he struggled to remove the red crystals with nothing but his miner's pick and a wheelbarrow to carry the ore to the bucket for the ride up to the mine's entrance.
As he walked through the tunnel, he stepped around old rusting ore cars and drills left by the miners when they had deserted the mine. There had been no market for the equipment, since nearby mines were closing down one by one at the same time. It was all simply cast aside and left where it was last used.
Seventy-five yards into the tunnel, he came to a narrow cleft in the rock just wide enough for him to slip through. Twenty feet beyond was the rhodochrosite lode he was mining. A lightbulb had burned out on the string hanging from the roof of the cleft, and he replaced it with one of several he kept in a backpack. Then he took his pick in hand and began to attack the rock that was embedded with the gemstones. A dull red in their natural state, the crystals looked like dried cherries in a muffin.
A dangerous overhang of rock protruded just above the cleft. If he was to continue to work safely without being crushed by a rockfall, Marquez had no choice but to blast it away. Using a portable pneumatic drill, he bored a hole into the rock. Then he inserted a small charge of dynamite and wired it to a handheld detonator. After moving around the corner of the cleft and into the main tunnel, he pushed down on the plunger. A dull thump echoed through the mine, followed by the sound of tumbling rock and a blanket of dust that rolled into the main tunnel.
Marquez waited a few minutes for the dust to settle before carefully entering the natural cleft. The overhang was gone. It had become a pile of rocks on the narrow floor. He retrieved the wheelbarrow and began removing the debris, dumping it a short distance up the tunnel. When the cleft was finally cleared, he looked up to make certain that no threatening section of the overhang remained.
He stared in wonder at a hole that had suddenly appeared in the roof above the crystal lode. He aimed the light atop his hard hat upward. The beam continued through the hole into what appeared to be a chamber beyond. Suddenly consumed by curiosity, he ran back up the tunnel for fifty yards, where he found the rusty remains of a six-foot iron ladder among the abandoned mining equipment. Returning inside the cleft, he propped up the ladder, climbed the rungs, and pried loose several rocks from the rim of the hole, widening it until he could squeeze through. Then he thrust his upper torso inside the chamber and twisted his head from shoulder to shoulder, sweeping the beam of his hard hat's light around the darkness.
Marquez found himself staring into a room hewn in the rock. It looked to be a perfect cube approximately fifteen by fifteen feet, with the same distance separating the floor and roof. Strange markings were cut into the sheer, smooth walls. This definitely was not the work of nineteenth-century miners. Then, abruptly, the beam of his hard hat's light struck a stone pedestal and glinted on the object it supported.
Marquez froze in shock at the ungodly sight of a black skull, its empty eye sockets staring directly at him.
From "Atlantis Found" by Clive Cussler. (c) October, 1999 , William Gibson used by permission.