In the tradition of Raise the Titanic, a startling thriller by bestselling author Harry Harrison. When the world's most luxurious liner is found floating off Peru, the crew and the 2,000 passengers have disappeared. Mysterious circular marks have been burned onto the upper decks. . . . At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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April 15, 1982
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Excerpt from The QE2 Is Missing by Harry Harrison
The QE2 Is Missing
The wide-winged bulk of the United States Navy Hawkeye plane broke out of the low-hanging cloud, barely a hundred feet above the surging waves of the Pacific Ocean. Tropical rain lashed the glass in front of the pilots, rain so heavy that the wipers had almost no effect on it. The ocean swells were gigantic, reaching up higher and higher towards the early-warning aircraft as though about to engulf it. The copilot's knuckles were white where he gripped the edges of his seat.
"Christ, Lieutenant," he said. "You're going to have us swimming in that stuff in a minute. Those clouds go right down to the deck -- I swear the waves are breaking against the bottom of the clouds. And there's nothing to see, nothing at all."
Lieutenant Leroy Palmer nodded reluctantly. The visibility was almost zero, what with the lashing rain and flying scud torn from the waves. There was a real danger that a sudden gust might put them down in the drink. He pulled slowly back on the wheel and the big turboprop plane lifted back up into the clouds. He felt the same relief as Corker the copilot did, though he tried not to show it.
"For a minute there I was sure we had had it," Corker said, aware that the sweat on his forehead had more cause than just the tropical heat. "And there's nothing we could do down there. Visibility still zero, that goes in the report. We are still going to have to rely on radar."
"Well, don't go blaming me because the screen ain't showing nothing but shit!" the radar operator said, not disguising his belligerence. He had been hauled out of his nice warm sack in San Diego, away from his nice round wife, and flown south without sleep and pushed aboard this search plane, and he was just not happy about it. "All I get on the screen is wave-echo and crud like that, and the goddamned QE2 could be down there and I couldn't see it."
"You redneck moron," Corker said, his temper barely under control -- he had been flying for two days with almost no sleep, "that's just what is down there somewhere. What the hell do you think we're doing up here going around in circles ... ."
"Hold it," the pilot said, "I'm getting a news broadcast in English." Palmer was a good officer; he tried to stop trouble before it developed. "Sounds like a limey, BBC or something. There ... ."
There was the continuous crackle of atmospherics in their earphones, but the calm voice of the announcer still came through clearly enough.
" ... search still goes on. Ships and flying craft from more than twenty nations are now actively involved in the search in one capacity or another, while at least two space satellites are scanning the area. It is known that the American military satellites can detect objects as small as two meters in length, but even this precise ability is of no use when a tropical storm completely covers the area of search. For almost three days now, since the Queen Elizabeth the Second did not respond to attempts at radio contact, the search has gone on. Though the ocean is wide it still seems impossible that the QE2, the largest liner afloat, could remain undetected for this length of time. Even if this great ship has been sunk -- horrifying as that thought may be, itmust still be considered -- there should be some debris, lifeboats, ship's launches, something. But there is nothing. It is as though the liner has vanished from the face of the globe. No warning given, a sudden cessation of radio contact. Then silence ... ."
"That's a big help," Corker said, and the pilot nodded agreement and switched the radio off. "Same old story rehashed just one more time. Let's do a navigational check."
The Hawkeye was an early-warning aircraft, easily identified by the giant parasol-shaped radar dome mounted above the wings. It had been pressed into service for this search because of the sophisticated inertial and satellite navigation equipment it carried. They were flying long legs out and back in a carefully worked-out search pattern, in conjunction with many other aircraft, most of them from the carrier Kitty Hawk. This particular area of the Pacific Ocean where they were searching was off the normal shipping routes and far enough from the coast so that the sea was empty even of offshore fishermen. It was a boring -- but very necessary -- routine.
"I think I'm getting something," the radar operator said suddenly. "Harder than goddamn to pick out a blip from all the shit out there -- but, sure -- there it is again!"
Before the operator had finished speaking, the copilot had unbuckled and was standing behind him, squinting at the hash of white flecks on the screen. The operator tapped with his finger. "There," he said, and Corker nodded.
"There sure as hell is something down there, Lieutenant. Comes and goes, but it is big and it stays in the same place. Too solid for a ghost."
"I'm taking her down," Palmer said. "Strap in."
The turbulence inside the clouds rocked the plane, sending sudden shudders through her frame. The two pilots looked out grimly at the ceaseless rain, while the altimeter unwound. Lower and lower.
"On course. Dead ahead, ten miles," the radar operator called out.
They dropped. Down and down. When they finally burst out beneath the clouds it was as though a physical pressure had been relieved. The cloud base was a good three hundred feet above the ocean here, so the towering waves were well beneath them.
"There!" the copilot called out. "Saw it for a moment. A ship, just a glimpse. Big."
"It could be her," Palmer said, trying not to be too hopeful, yet at the same time clutching his hands tightly on the wheel. "We're crossing her plotted course, the one the QE2 should have taken. She might have gotten this far ... ."
They plunged through the sheets of rain, closer and closer, until they could see the vessel clearly.
The low bulk of a supertanker appeared before them, waves crashing across her bow and water running the immense length of her decks.
"I'm taking her back up," the pilot said, suddenly weary. The others did not speak. The craft climbed steadily to cruising altitude and they went on in silence. The copilot logged the tanker, then worked on his fuel consumption figures. They flew another leg far out into the ocean, made at careful turn and searched another stretch of empty sea. The copilot checked his calculations twice before he spoke.
"When we finish this leg we better head for home," he said. "We'll be bucking headwinds on the way back and we'll need the fuel reserve."
"What could have happened to her?" the pilot asked,as they had been asking aloud for days now.
"God knows," Corker said, rubbing at his red-rimmed eyes, "I certainly don't."
"There were heavy seas when she stopped reporting, but nothing that could have any effect on a ship as big as the QE2. And they had been in constant radio contact without reporting trouble of any kind."
"On course, just a normal cruise ... ."
"Then ... nothing. It doesn't make sense."
"Someone said maybe a sudden tidal wave."
"No way, Corker. Nothing like that has been reported. No tidal waves, no underwater volcanoes, no collisions, plenty of other ships in the same area and none of them reported anything more dangerous than rain and heavy seas. Just nothing, that's the damnable part of it. Okay, small ships without radios can get into trouble, even sink, without anyone knowing about it. But not a liner -- not the biggest liner in the world. She has safety doors, multiple alarm systems, automatic sprinklers for fire, plenty of boats and launches. Sure she could be sunk -- but the world would damn well know if she was hurt and going down. But not this, not a complete absence of news of any kind. It's as though she had vanished from the face of the earth ... ."
"Bermuda Triangle?" the copilot asked. The pilot just sniffed loudly and looked at him out of the corners of his eyes. Corker smiled. "I know. Just a lot of nonsense. Dreamed up by hacks who want to get rich writing about the mysteries of the seven seas. But nevertheless, Lieutenant, she appears to have vanished, at least vanished as far as anyone can tell. And we've certainly been looking hard enough ... ."
"Got another blip," the radar operator said. "Doesn't look very big but it's persistent. Something down there all right."
"Another tanker probably," the pilot said. "We're over the north-south routes now. We'll take a look."
Once more they plunged down through the clouds and out beneath them. The rain had ceased here and they flew between two slate-gray masses, the sea below, the clouds above. A dark speck appeared on the surface of the ocean ahead and the pilot banked that way. The ship had been obscured by a line squall which blew suddenly away.
"Jesus ... ," the pilot said, breathing out the word.
There, silent and unmoving on the heaving seas, was the QE2.
They came in low, just above mast height, roaring over the decks, then going back in a wide turn.
"All the boats ... they're gone," the pilot said. "Not a lifeboat left. And no one aboard. I could look into the Bridge and there was no one there."
His eyes met those of the copilot and he saw his own horrified image mirrored in the other's face. He fumbled for the radio.