Chapter 42 -- Racing in the Fog
Tommy climbed halfway down the steps, silhouetted in the dawn light. Marilu looked up from her breakfast preparations, startled. “What is it?”
“Call Marvin. Get him up here, now.”
He dashed back up.
Too soon. Too soon.
Marvin was up seconds later, stuffing his shirt into his pants. “What is it?”
Tommy pointed into the air.
“That plane has been circling the island.” It appeared to be a Cessna. “Twice now, it’s flown directly overhead.”
“You think it’s the company?”
“According to the charts, there’s an airstrip on the big island south of us. I just don’t know.”
Together, they watched the plane make another pass. As it got closer, it tilted its wings, slipping sideways to shift its path directly overhead.
“Good enough for me,” Marvin muttered, looking at the hatchway, running his fingers through his hair, looking like a trapped animal.
Tommy turned on the radio, and switched to the weather broadcast. He changed the GPS to chart mode.
“Is there a problem?” Bree stood in the hatchway.
“Yes!” Tommy didn’t look up from the GPS. “Go below and tell your mother to stow everything, like for rough water. And take this.” He grabbed up the blanket and tossed it to her. He was immediately back at the GPS, scrolling the charts, checking the nearby waters.
Marvin asked, “What do we do now?”
“Morning fog moved through not long ago. If we can follow it, we might have a chance. Go raise the anchor.” He edged the throttle forward, to give the line some slack.
What I’d give for radar! He juggled the info from the weather bureau with what he’d seen. There was a chance there was a fog bank along the eastern shore.
The anchor went into the locker with a clank of chain.
“Get everyone into life jackets. No exceptions.”
He looked down. “Bert. Go below. Strange things are going to happen and I don’t want to lose you overboard.”
Marvin shoved a life jacket at him. Tommy winced and put it on. “Rig something for Bert, would you?”
Marvin looked puzzled, but followed the dog below.
Tommy kicked the hidden release and pulled out the control screen.
He’d watched the plane make its loops. Immediately after passing overhead, they were in its blind spot, and they weren’t trying anything fancy. The pilot was just keeping station, keeping watch while someone else moved in for the capture.
There. The propeller noise overhead moved past.
Tommy tapped the menu with his finger.
Engine Mode: High-speed
Keel Plane: On
The throttle controls, sliders on the screen, began to blink. He touched the image and applied power. There was a whine he’d never heard before, and a shush of water as the boat lunged forward.
He grabbed at the wheel. A warning sign blinked. “Avoid rudder at high-speed.”
Tommy eyeballed the wheel and put the rudder at neutral.
I guess I have to steer with the computer. The graphic compass moved under his finger, and the ship heeled slightly and followed his direction.
He glanced at the standard controls. The speedometer quickly passed ten knots, faster than he’d ever seen the Marissa travel. I’m beyond hull speed. He grinned. He knew hull speed wasn’t a magic limit, it just meant that the power needed to pass it rose exponentially. And they had the power.
Superconductive motor. I guess that means it won’t burn out.
The ship started to sway. Am I going too fast?
On the screen, Active Keel started to flash, and the swaying abruptly stopped. Something was actively fighting the stability problem.
His stomach told him the next step before his eyes registered it. The ship began lifting in the water. He could see the lake level dropping around them.
The sailboat hull was V-shaped, not the flat-bottom a speedboat needed to plane.
The speedometer abruptly dropped to zero.
Did it break? No, he realized. The standard gauge just registered oncoming water pressure, and the pickup was no longer under the surface.
They were still gaining speed. He watched the GPS. It calculated speed from the satellites.
Thirty miles per hour, and still climbing.
He glanced at the airplane far out over the island, just now beginning its turn. They’d be in for a shock.
Cautiously, he adjusted the course. The ship heeled slightly, but riding so high out of the water, it was a frightening feeling.
Forty miles per hour.
Rounding the island, there was the fog bank. He applied more power. Have to make it before the plane sees us!
Wisps enveloped them.
Marvin shouted from the hatchway, “What’s going on?”
He yelled back, “High speed mode. Stay put.”
But he either didn’t hear or didn’t understand, because he kept on coming.
He looked up from the open hatchway, his eyes wide with fright. The deck of the sailing ship had become something strange, out of a nightmare, with the whine of the engine and the fog whipping past.
“Marvin! Move slow! Hold onto the railing.”
He nodded, taking another step and then kneeling down to crawl.
Tommy’s visibility was limited. It was like driving at a hundred miles per hour at night with the headlights off. If anything were in the way, he’d never have time to avoid it.
He steered by the GPS. The fog was slightly thinner to port, and he kept it that way. The charts on the GPS screen moved more quickly than seemed decent.
Marvin slipped up onto the bench, his hand white from its grip on the railing.
“What’s going on?”
“High speed mode. Nick made the Marissa into a company technology demonstrator.” He shouted the words, one by one.
“We’re going faster than any sailboat has a right to go.” They were past fifty miles per hour. He trimmed the course again. Marvin shouted and wrapped both arms around the railing, and the boat shifted. It felt ready to capsize at any instant. He craned his neck and looked over the side.
“We’re out of the water!”
“Hydrofoil!” Tommy shouted. “We’re surfing on a winged keel! The whole hull is out of the water. I just discovered this last night.”
More things made sense. He remembered the strange fittings around the prop. Probably the whole shaft lowered to keep the blades in the water as the ship rose.
“I think,” he shouted, “the computer system is keeping us balanced, just like a Segway can balance a person on just two wheels. But I’m not going to risk testing its limits.”
Sixty miles per hour.
The sound of the wind and water made talking hard. Marvin nodded, just hanging on.
It was the same with Tommy. His eyes watered with the sting of the wind. He hunched down. The wind was slightly less in the protection of the cabin. The sails, even in their rolled up and stowed positions, were snapping angrily. The stays and shrouds whistled in the wind.
The dinghy, strapped down on the top of the cabin, was banging the hull as it tried to fly off in the gale.
Tommy watched the controls, and blinked, staring intently into the white fog. At their speed, he wouldn’t have a chance to avoid something in his path.
Beeeeep! Collision Avoidance
The ship heeled and swerved around something unseen. Then, just as abruptly, it heeled the other way and righted itself. They’d gone around something.
Marvin vomited over the side, and it was gone in an instant.
What was that? He eased the screen throttle back, dropping them to fifty miles per hour. It was just too nerve-wracking.
The ship saw something and took action. How? Radar, sonar? What other features were hidden on this boat?
He looked to the battery power gauge. It had quickly dropped to 30%, and then held firm.
Is that the Sterling? There was a vibration, something different from the whine of the prop. 32%. The power level is recovering.
He knew what was going on now. Down in the guts of the keel, in among whatever gears and motors were controlling the active wings, there had to be a fusion power cell. Cold fusion, sonic fusion -- he’d read the speculations. Someone had made it work, and the company had bought it out, and silenced it.
All the pieces made sense now. Purified water went to a gadget that separated out the naturally occurring heavy water, and passed the poisonous deuterium-rich water down to the fusion cell, the “Free Energy Cell” of the brochure. One heat pipe brought the heat to the hot side of the Sterling engine, and the other took waste heat to the surface of the keel to be dissipated in the cold water of the lake.
I’m driving a nuclear powered sailboat.
“Tommmeee!” Bree shrieked over the wind. Her head was in the hatchway, level with the deck.
“Stay put! It’s not safe!”
He wished he could be in the cabin, as claustrophobic as that might be, but someone had to drive.
Across the GPS screen, a wide line appeared.
That’s the bridge. They’d crossed the forty miles. He’d lost track of time.
The GPS also showed the shoreline rapidly coming in from the side. He was entering the funnel. It’s gonna force me out of the fog.
He dropped speed to forty, and peered ahead through the wisps.
The two massive towers and the central span were dead ahead, but so were two large barges.
There was room. He could leave the fog bank, and shoot the gap between the barges, a spectacle visible to hundreds of people.
He could drop down and be a normal sailboat, and smile up at the company’s spy while they took pictures.
Or he could do the third option.
Gritting his teeth, he touched the control screen and steered deeper into the fog. He didn’t look up, or ahead. He kept his eyes glued to the GPS display.
Shipping traffic would go through the central span. There, the water was deepest, and the clearance was better than a hundred and fifty feet. But over on the Mackinaw City side, under the lesser span, he might have a clear shot without being seen.
He gripped tight onto the pedestal with his free hand.
Collision avoidance worked once. Have to trust Nick. If some local fisherman decided to shave some travel time by taking the short route in the fog, there was nothing he’d be able to do about it. Marissa’s brain would work or it wouldn’t.
Marvin shouted, “The water’s changed color. We’re in the shallows.”
Tommy said nothing. He knew that from the GPS chart. Surfing on the keel, they were practically out of the water anyway. He was more concerned that the elevated mast would clear the bridge.
There was a flick of darkness -- and they were through. He hadn’t even seen it coming.
Unfortunately, the fog began to dissipate the instant they cleared the bridge.
In a panic, he slid his finger on the throttle as he yelled, “Everybody hang on!” As if they weren’t already.
The engine whine began trailing off. Status messages began blinking on the screen so rapidly that he couldn’t follow them. The ship shuddered as the wing began to sink beneath the water and drag forces rapidly escalated.
An ordinary sailboat coasted out of the fog bank.
Tommy tried to laugh, but his body just couldn’t do it. He took five seconds to relax.
“Bree! On deck!” He slid the control screen back into its hidden recess. A second later, he began raising the mainsail.
She moved shakily, holding onto the railing. He pushed her to the helm. He tapped the GPS screen.
“There’s a big island right in front of us. Sail around it.”
“Marvin, come below, we need to talk.”
He nodded, and weakly, pulled himself up.
Bree called after them. “Which way around?”
“I don’t care. Choose one.”