Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Manta – Part 3 of 17

© 2011 by Henry Melton

The problem with cruising routes that he’d never mapped was that he needed to pay attention to where he was going. Just because there wasn’t an island or a seamount on his old charts didn’t mean someone hadn’t parked an offshore oil drilling platform in his way.
Manta’s autopilot used sonar to identify wave tops and sea bottom, as well as any obvious obstructions like coral reefs. It beeped. And then beeped again when no one came to change the settings. The beep got louder.
He startled awake. By that time the shriek was near continuous.
Barefooted as alway, he stubbed his toe on the control console as he dashed up to open the view and be ready to throw the wing plane into a stall position to kill his forward momentum.
The window opened to the four mighty pillars of a long established platform. He made a few tiny corrections, and drifted under the giant structure, careful to avoid the drill shaft and numerous chains and cross beams.
He was nearly at the floor level, and he could see debris that had collected there over time. Whether valuable lost tools, or trash, he couldn’t tell. In either case, the operators hadn’t considered them worth salvaging.
But his life was based on scavenging–whether scavenging energy from the waves or canned goods and repair parts from sunken ships. He had an eye for what might be valuable someday.
He banked around and made another pass below the platform. Even if he didn’t want anything today, he might in the future. He’d see what was available, and mark the spot in his charts.
On the third pass, he frowned. That’s not right.
The hatchway to the Operations Manager’s office knocked.
“Come in.”
A gruff face with a big grin said, “Burke, you’ve got to come see this.”
He hurried down the walkway, high above the water. A cluster of a dozen men in hardhats were looking down at the surface.
“Get back to work, all of you!”
Down near the southeast pillar, a bearded man in faded blue shorts was standing on the deck of the strangest vehicle he’d ever seen, like an enormous manta ray, floating motionless.
Burke yelled, “Hello there! Can we be of assistance?”
The machinery made his voice difficult to hear, but he replied, “I’ve got to show the operator something. Something down below.”
So it was a submersible? Something flickered through his memory. “Okay. I’ll be down in a minute.”
There was a rig for dropping a raft down to water level for the divers to work from. He held on with an appearance of fearlessness to the stabilizing line as he was winched down.
The submersible moved easily over to his raft. The man gestured, and Burke stepped onto the metal surface. When he started for the door to the interior, he asked, “How long will I be gone?”
The bearded man looked puzzled, then said, “Fifteen minutes? Something like that.”
Burke relayed the information with a hand-held radio, and entered.
“My name is Joshua Burke.” He held out his hand. The stranger took and shook, but didn’t offer his name.
“I was passing through, and saw this.”
They sailed down to near the sea bed, and saw that the pipeline was bubbling out oil from a four foot long crack. The current was sweeping it off to the north, so his crew hadn’t seen the oil slick.
“I’ll have to get a crew down to fix this.” It was certainly true, but if this was some environmentalist, he wanted to be saying all the right words before things got ugly.
“Thought you might.”
He adjusted the wings and began spiraling back up to the surface.
“This is quite a vehicle you have. How deep can it go?”
“Wrong question.” He tapped the sides. “Compression glass. Gets stronger under pressure.” He thought a moment, then said. “It’d be hard to blow ballast after about a thousand feet.”
“So. Are you a scientist? Oceanographer? What are you doing in the area?”
He shrugged. “Neighbors. Just passing through.”
When they were again level with the raft, Burke said, “If you’ll wait a couple of minutes, I’d like to give you a gift, you know, for letting me know about the leak?”
He shrugged and nodded. Burke called up on the radio and a few minutes later, a small bag was lowered.
He pulled out a ragged newspaper. “These are some food staples. Just for variety’s sake.” He opened the paper. “I saw this article a few days ago. I think it’s talking about you.”
He nodded, and as if unfamiliar with the words, he said, “Thank you.”
As Burke and his raft were lifted back up, the Manta sank back below the water.
First order of business, once the Manta was set in motion, was to inventory the food. The canned goods he placed in their proper positions along with others that had been salvaged from numerous ships he’d discovered. Certainly these were likely to all be good, which was more than he could say about the others.
The prizes were a box of saltine crackers, and a loaf of bread. He never found those in good shape from wrecks. While he couldn’t gorge himself, they would need to be eaten before they spoiled.
Sitting in his comfortable chair, savoring a piece of whole wheat bread, he spread out the newspaper, uncomfortably wider than his books, and read the article.
There was a tiny little photo of Brenda on the page, and a bigger image of the Manta at something like a fifty foot depth, as taken from an airplane.
So, she was a reporter. I guess that makes sense.
“‘A modern-day Captain Nemo cruises the waters of the Caribbean in his own version of the Nautilus. But this one is more interested in quietly reading his books and rescuing this reporter than stopping warships.’” 
The story was a little bit reporting, along with more than a little fancy. She said little about the Manta, as if what he’d told her hadn’t stuck. She was more interested in his missing life story than anything.
He shrugged and began reading the other articles in the paper. Much had changed since he’d last been on land. A lot of it appeared as bad as it was then.
“Hey, Brenda. When are you going to do a follow up report on Captain Nemo?”
Linda was always pestering her about her stories–partly to remind her that her science beat/human interest pieces weren’t ‘real reporting’ like her political investigations.
Karl Hansen was close enough to hear. “She’s not going to go galavanting across the Caribbean on a whim. Certainly not to chase down some pirate with a beard and an eye-patch.”
Brenda said nothing, the ‘eye-patch’ dig was one she’d heard several times before.  Her ‘Nemo’ had two eyes, but Brenda Starr, the classic comic strip girl reporter, had a one-eyed heroic lover, and her name was always inviting connections to the more famous Brenda. Karl was a little upset by the popularity of her Nemo story. He was happy with the readership interest, but like Linda, he had his own editorial standards to maintain.
But it wasn’t ten minutes later when Karl waved her over to his office.
“Yes Boss?” she sat down as he waved her in and had her close the door.
“You remember Haiti?”
“The hurricane story?” She had been assigned to cover it, and spent a long week wandering through the tent cities, taking pictures and posting heartbreaking and heartwarming stories that the paper was happy to feed to the AP, UPI, and Reuters.
“Yes. I’ve been told to increase our coverage this season. If there’s another disaster relief crisis like last time, or worse, like after the earthquake in 2010, we need to have someone there before it happens.”
She smiled. It was never possible to be at the site of a disaster before it happened. Even when the storm path was predicted just right, it was always the little harbor town nobody’d ever heard of that was the hardest hit.
“So you want me in Port-au-Prince?”
“I want you to make plans. I want a folder I can open up at moment’s notice that has the phone numbers for planes, hotels, government officials, everything. I want folders for all the hotspots. And if you can, it’d be great if you were on a first-name basis with the critical names.”
She sat back, considering the magnitude of the task. “Just Haiti, or ...”
“Wherever the storm hits.” He smiled. “Just think of the Caribbean as your own personal beat. Weather, earthquakes, volcanoes. If you’re lucky, you might even get a revolution.” He chuckled. “Just don’t think of this as an excuse to chase pirates. Unless, they’re real, of course.”

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