"Captain, Mister Grafton is attempting to put a man ashore, sir."
"Which man, Mister Eaton?"
Three hundred yards off the island's sheer wall, H.M.S. Retribution rolled on a ten foot swell setting away from the shore. The corvette was hove to, her gray sails billowing in opposite directions to hold her position on the sea as the sailing master kept an eye on a growing bank of cloud to the north.
Watching from the decks in silence, some of the men were praying as a boat approached the cliff. Lit pale orange by the setting sun, the palisade was bisected by a blue shadowed crevasse that streaked seven hundred feet up its face.
The Retribution was a captured French ship previously called the Atrios. For the past ten months, her crew had been relentlessly hunting H.M.S. Bounty. While the British admiralty did not object to stealing ships from other navies, they had a long memory for any ship that had been stolen from theirs. It had been five years since the mutineers had absconded with the Bounty, and still the hunt continued.
Lieutenant Eaton steadied the captain's telescope and twisted the brass drawtube to focus the image: nine men were positioning the rowboat under the crack in the cliff. Eaton noticed that the seaman reaching up toward the fissure wore a scarlet cap. "It looks like Frears, Captain," he reported.
The dark crack started about fifteen feet above the bottom of the swell and zigzagged hundreds of feet across the face of jagged rock like a bolt of lightning. The British sailors had nearly circled the two-mile-wide island before finding this one chink in its armor.
Though the captain insisted that they thoroughly investigate all islands for signs of the Bounty's crew, a more pressing matter concerned the men of the Retribution now. After five weeks with no rain, they were praying for freshwater, not signs of mutineers. As they pretended to attend their duties, 317 men stole furtive, hopeful looks at the landing party.
The boat rose and fell in the spray as the nine men staved off the cliff with oars. At the top of one swell the man wearing the red cap grabbed the bottom edge of the fissure: he dangled there as the boat receded.
"He's got a purchase, Captain!"
A tentative cheer went up from the crew.
Eaton saw the men in the boat hurling small barrels up to Frears. "Sir, the men are throwing him some barrecoes to fill!"
"Providence has smiled on us, Captain," said Mister Dunn, the ruddy chaplain, who had taken passage aboard Retribution on his way to Australia. "We were surely meant to find this island! Else, why would the Lord have put it here, so far away from everything?"
"Aye, Mister Dunn. Keep a close counsel with the Lord," replied the captain as he slitted his eyes and watched the boat. "How's our man, Mister Eaton?"
"He's gone in." After an agonizing length of time, Eaton saw the scarlet capped man finally emerge from the shadow. "Frears's signaling . . . He's found freshwater, Captain! He's throwing down the barrecoe!"
Eaton looked at the captain wearily, then smiled as a cheer broke over the decks.
The captain cracked a smile. "Ready four landing boats for provisioning, Mister Eaton. Let's rig a ladder and fill our barrels."
"It's Providence, Captain," cried the chaplain over the answering cheer of the men. " 'Tis the good Lord who led us here!"
Eaton put the spyglass to his eye and saw Frears toss another small barrel from the fissure into the sea. The men in the longboat hauled it alongside.
"He's thrown down another!" Eaton shouted.
The men cheered again. They were now moving about and laughing as barrels were hauled up from the hold.
"The Lord keeps us." The chaplain nodded on the ample cushion of fat under his chin.
The captain smiled in the chaplain's direction, knowing that he'd had the shock of his life these past months observing life aboard a working ship in the King's navy.
With a face as freckled as the Milky Way, Captain Ambrose Spencer Henders resembled a redheaded Nelson, the hero of Trafalgar, to his crew. "An island this size without breakers, birds, or seals," he grumbled. He stared at the faint colors swirled in the island's cliff. Some bands of color seemed to glitter as if with gold in the last light of the setting sun. After sounding all around the island they had found no place to anchor, and that fact alone baffled him. "What do you make of this island, Mister Eaton?"
"Aye, it's strange," Eaton said, lowering the glassbut a glimpse of Frears falling to his knees at the edge of the crevasse made him raise it hastily to his eye. Through the spyglass he found Frears kneeling in the crack and saw him drop what appeared to be the copper funnel he was using to fill the small kegs. The funnel skittered down the rock face into the water.
A red flash appeared at the sailor's back. Red jaws seemed to lunge from the twilight and close over Frears's chest and head from each side, jerking him backwards.
Faint shouts drifted over the waves, echoing off the cliff.
"Eh, what is it?"
"I'm not sure, sir!"
Eaton tried to steady the scope as the deck rolled. Between waves he saw another man in the longboat catch hold of the lip of the fissure and scramble up into the shadow of the crack.
"They've sent another man up!"
Another swell blocked his view. A moment later, another rolled under the ship. As the deck rose, Eaton barely caught the image of the second man leaping out of the crevasse into the sea.
"He's jumped out, sir, next to the boat!"
"What in blazes is going on, Mister Eaton?" Captain Henders lifted a midshipman's scope to his eye.
"The men are hauling him into the boat. They're coming back, sir, with some haste!" Eaton lowered the glass, still staring at the fissure, now doubting what he had seen.
"Is Frears safe, then?"
"I don't believe so, Captain," Eaton replied.
"What's the matter?"
The lieutenant shook his head.
Captain Henders watched the men in the boat row in great lunges back to the ship. The man who had jumped into the water was propped up against the transom, seemingly stricken by some fit as his mates struggled to subdue him. "Tell me what you saw, Mister Eaton," he ordered.
"I don't know, sir."
The captain lowered the scope and gave his first officer a hard look.
The men in the boat shouted as they drew near the Retribution.
The captain turned to the chaplain. "What say you, Mister Dunn?"
From the crack in the cliff face came a rising and falling howl like a wolf or a whale, and Mister Dunn's ruddy jowls paled as the ungodly voice devolved into what sounded like the gooing and spluttering of some giant baby. Then it shrieked a riot of piercing notes like a broken calliope.
The men stared at the cliff in stunned silence.
Mister Grafton shouted from the approaching boat: "Captain Henders!"
"What is it, man?"
"The Devil Hisself!"
The captain looked at his first officer, who was not a man given to superstition.
Eaton nodded grimly. "Aye, Captain."
The voice from the crack splintered as more unearthly voices joined it in a chorus of insanity.
"We should leave this place, Captain," urged Mister Dunn. " 'Tis clear no one was meant to find itelse, why would the Lord have put it here, so far away from everything?"
Captain Henders stared distractedly at his chaplain, then said, "Mister Graves, hoist the boat and make sail, due east!" Then he turned to all his officers. "Chart the island. But make no mention of water or what we have found here today. God forbid we give a soul any reason to seek this place."
The hideous gibberish shrieking from the crack in the island continued.
"Aye, Captain!" his officers answered, ashen-faced.
As the men scrambled from the boat, the captain asked, "Mister Grafton, what has become of Mister Frears?"
"He's been et by monsters, sor!"
Captain Henders paled under his freckles. "Master gunner, place a full broadside on that crevice, double shot, round and grape, if you please! As you're ready, sir!"
The master gunner acknowledged him from the waist of the ship. "Aye, sir!"
Retribution fired a parting shot into the crevasse on lances of fire and smoke as she came about, blasting the cliffs like a castle's ramparts.
Captain Ambrose Spencer Henders dipped a kite feather quill into the porcelain inkwell on his desk and stared down at the blank page of his logbook. The oil lamp swung like a pendulum, moving the shadow of the quill across the paper as he paused, weighing what to write.
The Trident cut the deep water with her single-hulled bow and turned three wakes with her trimaran stern. She resembled a sleek spacecraft leaving three white rocket trails across a blue universe. The storm clouds that had driven her south for three weeks had vanished overnight. The sea reflected a spotless dome of scorching blue sky.
The 182-foot exploration vessel was approaching the center of 36 million square miles of empty ocean that stretched from the equator to Antarcticaa void that globes and maps usually took advantage of to stack the words "South Pacific Ocean."
Chartered for the cable reality show SeaLife, the Trident comfortably quartered forty passengers. Now an "on camera" crew of ten who pretended to run the ship, fourteen professionals who really ran the ship, six scientists, and eight production staffers, along with a handsome bull terrier named Copepod, rounded out her manifest.
SeaLife was chronicling the Trident's yearlong around-the-world odyssey, which promised to encounter the most exotic and remote places on Earth. In its first four weekly episodes the cast of fresh young scientists and hip young crew had explored the Galapagos Islands and Easter Island, launching SeaLife to number two in the cable ratings. After the last three weeks at sea, however, enduring back-to-back storms, the show was foundering.
The ship's botanist, Nell Duckworth, glared at her reflection in the port window of the Trident's bridge, repositioning her Mets cap. Like all the other scientists chosen for the show, Nell was in her late twenties. She had just turned twenty nine seven days ago, and had celebrated over the chemical-and-mint-scented bowl of a marine toilet. She had lost weight, since she hadn't been able to keep food down for the last ten days. Her motion sickness had subsided only when the last of the massive storms had passed last night, leaving a cleansed blue sea and sky this morning. So far, bad weather, sunblock, and her trusty Mets cap had protected her fair complexion from any radical new pigmentation events. But she was not checking her reflection for wrinkles, weight loss, or freckles. Instead, all she noticed was the look of despair glaring back at her from the glass.
Nell wore taupe knee length cargo jeans, a gray T-shirt, and plenty of SPF24 sunblock slathered on her bare arms and face. Her beat up white Adidas sneakers annoyed the producers since Adidas was not one of the show's sponsors, but she had stubbornly refused to trade them in.
She gazed south through the window, and the crushing disappointment she was trying not to think about descended over her again. Due to weather delays and low ratings, they were bypassing the island that lay just beyond that horizonbypassing the only reason Nell had tried out for this show in the first place.
For the past few hours, she had been trying not to remind the men on the bridge of the fact that they were closer than all but a handful of people had ever come to the place she had studied and theorized about for over nine years.
Instead of heading one day south and landing, they were heading west to Pitcairn Island, where the descendants of the Bounty's mutineers had apparently been planning a party for them.
Nell gritted her teeth and caught her reflection scowling back at her. She turned and looked out the stern window.
She saw the mini sub resting under a crane on the ship's center pontoon. Underwater viewing ports were built into the port and starboard pontoonsNell's favorite lunch spots, where she had seen occasional blue-water fish like tuna, marlin, and sunfish drafting the ship's wake.
The Trident boasted a state-of-the-art television production studio and satellite communication station; its own desalinization plant, which produced three thousand gallons of freshwater daily; a working oceanographic lab with research grade microscopes and a wide spectrum of laboratory instruments; even a movie theater. But it was much ado about nothing, she thought. The show's scientific premise had been nothing but window dressing, as the cynic in her had chided her from the start.
On the poop deck below, she watched the ship's marine biologist, Andy Beasley, trying to teach the weather-beaten crew a lesson in sea life.
Andrew Beasley was a gangly, narrow-shouldered scientist with a mop of blond hair and thick framed tortoise-shell glasses. His long, birdlike face often displayed an optimistic smile.
Raised by his beloved but alcoholic Aunt Althea in New Orleans, the gentle young scientist had grown up surrounded by aquariums, for he lived over his aunt's seafood restaurant. Any specimens that came under his study were automatically spared the kettle.
He had gone on to live out Althea's dream of becoming a marine biologist, e-mailing her every day from the moment he left home for college to the day he accepted his first research position.
Aunt Althea had passed away three months ago. After surviving Hurricane Katrina, she had succumbed to pancreatic cancer, leaving Andy more alone than he had thought possible after feeling so terribly alone all his life.
One month after her funeral, he had received a letter inviting him to audition for SeaLife. Without telling him, Althea had sent his curriculum vitae and a photo to the show's producers after reading an article about the casting call for marine biologists. Andy had visited his aunt's grave to put flowers on it, flown to New York, and auditioned. As if it were Aunt Althea's last wish being granted, he had won one of the highly contested berths aboard the Trident.
Andy usually wore bright clashing colors that gave him a slightly clownish appearance. It also made him a natural target for sarcasm. He was as blindly optimistic and as easily crushed as a puppya combination that drew out a maternal impulse in Nell that was surprising to her.
Andy fidgeted with the wireless mike pinned to his skinny yellow leather tie. He wore a Lacoste blue-white-orange-yellow-purple-and-green-striped shirt, which resembled Fruit Stripe gum. Paired with the vertically striped shirt, he wore Tommy Hilfiger boardshorts with horizontal blue, green, pink, red, orange, and yellow stripes. To set it all off, he wore green size-11 high-top sneakers.