by James Dona
"Look Dad, a whale. " Jeremy pointed at the outline of a broad back just at the surface of the water, not 100 feet from the port side of the boat.
Rick looked at the shape in the water. It must have come from the other side of the boat. Rick turned on the Sonar, which showed the whale going away from his track at a speed of seven knots. No problem. Sonar also showed the target underwater at a depth of ten feet. It was eighty feet long, with a maximum cross section of nine feet. He switched to FISH-ID mode and the program searched for the kind of whale, but the type came up "UNKNOWN. "
The klaxon blared out a warning, and the screen changed to emergency collision avoidance mode. The display showed a boat less than a mile away on the starboard side. It sped toward them at forty knots. Rick changed course, and the klaxon quit its bleating.
"What's wrong, Dad?"
"Just the collision avoidance warning. Get your life vest on, and we'll have a practice drill." He watched Jeremy dash down the ladder. He wanted to avoid frightening his son.
Rick looked to starboard at the small boat. It came straight at him. The klaxon sounded again. He punched the EMERGENCY MAX SPEED button. The rotosailer turned downwind. Autopilot adjusted the rotors. The rotosailer now ran before the wind at thirty knots. The power boat turned to a new intercept course. It would catch up in a few minutes. Rick grabbed the handset. He pushed the talk button. "Mayday. Mayday. Mayday."
He sweated out the three second eternity before he heard, "Motorsailer Talofa Two what emergency?"
"A small power boat is chasing us."
"Talofa Two, we have your location, and a small craft is on an intercept, one mile, closing at 40 knots." Are you requesting assistance from International Coast Patrol?"
"Stand by one."
Rick looked at the fast approaching boat. He wondered what its mission might be.
"Talofa Two, You should see a drone overhead within a minute."
Rick wiped the sweat from his face. He perspired more than the hot weather justified, and a minute passed like an hour. A thunderous boom signaled the arrival overhead of the supersonic drone. It spiraled down while it slowed. When the drone passed overhead, the small boat turned off and halted.
"Talofa Two, we have the boat in view, and it has stopped. They are setting out fishing gear. It looks like a charter boat fishing for tuna. We will investigate. You may resume course for San Jose in Guatemala. Good day."
Rick breathed easier, thanked the officer, and reset a course for San Jose. Jeremy charged up the ladder with life vest and helmet on.
"Can we practice some more of the drill, Dad?"
"Sure Son. Pull out the emergency water still and see if you can operate it." Rick hoped Jeremy thought they were having a drill. Rick knew better, but what motivated the pursuit?
He watched his son remove the emergency still from its case and fill it with seawater. Jeremy pointed the parabolic reflector at the sun and pumped a vacuum on the boiler. The vacuum made the seawater boil at a low temperature, and water from the condenser flowed into the freshwater bottle. After a few minutes Jeremy tasted the distilled water and grinned at his success.
A pleasant tune came from the communicator. Rick pushed the answer button and his wife stood beside him.
Jeremy dashed toward his mother with arms outstretched, but found empty air where he had seen his mother's image. He turned his face away from his father. "I'm sorry. For a moment I forgot it was only an image."
Marge smiled through her tears. "I may be only an image to you, but I sure wish I could give you a hug right now."
Rick said, "We'd both like to hug you, but it's great just to see you looking so well. Maybe we should have delayed this trip until you finished your treatment."
"Now, now. You know we couldn't disappoint Jeremy, when he has been looking forward to this trip all year. My treatment is going just fine. The carbon-thirteen radiation doesn't bother me at all, and the doctor says the tumor is almost gone. When you get back I'll be fine, and next year we can make up for my disappointment by taking MY trip to the Caribbean."
Jeremy enjoyed his first trip sailing on the open sea. The trip was a present for his tenth birthday. Engineer Rick Kirby always tried to give his son experiences relevant to life in the 22nd Century. They were one day out of Acapulco, in the rented rotosailer. Rick knew "real" sailors called the rotosailer a floating windmill, but its greater speed made it more suited to their vacation trip. One man could handle it; no easy task on a conventional schooner.
At first Jeremy looked at the giant blades of the main rotors with some trepidation. "They come down close overhead. What if they come loose?"
Rick looked up at the vertical rotors, adapted years ago from the main rotor of a helicopter, but mounted on tall masts instead of sails. The blades came down within reach, if he jumped up and touched one with his hand when it went by. The steady west wind spun the rotors, which provided the effect of sails, while the rotors generated the electricity that drove the main propulsion motor, charged the batteries, and supplied all the auxiliaries.
"Don't worry about a blade coming loose. The blades have been developed for reliability over a century of use in autogiros and helicopters. At least we won't fall out of the sky if a rotor fails." He hoped Jeremy became used to the whirring blades after a while and enjoyed the trip. Rick adjusted the rotors angle into the wind and saw a slight improvement in the boat's speed.
Jeremy settled down with a plastic can from the deck refrigerator. He popped the can into the magnetic spinner and watched the chocolate milk mixture turn to foam. At least he could enjoy his favorite beverage during the trip. Rick studied his son, this healthy boy whose bright eyes absorbed everything.
"It looks like we're going fast enough that I could water-ski behind the boat. Too bad I left the skis at home."
"You aren't really ready to be the bait for shark trolling are you?" In an instant Rick regretted saying that, when Jeremy looked at the sea alongside and moved a little toward the center of the boat.
"Are there sharks out here, Dad?"
"A lot of hammerheads and several other kinds. No we won't go in the water out here."
Jeremy finished his milkshake and looked down at the water that rushed past the boat. "Why have a motor, when the rotor acts like a big sail?"
"The boat is faster with the jet drive. The drive pump pulls in water at the bow, swallowing the bow wave. That reduces drag. The pump forces water out the gill slits along the sides and bottom of the hull, faster than the water flows past. That reduces drag so the sail doesn't waste energy in overcoming it. The jet drive adds a lot to our speed."
Jeremy went to the refrigerator again for a tube of fruit paste. He spread the mixture on a big cookie and ate it. Rick chose a tube of irradiated fresh vegetable paste and spread it on a large cracker. At the approach of sundown the wind diminished, and the boat shifted to battery boost.
Rick turned to his son. "It's time to set the autopilot for the night. Are you ready for your first watch tonight?"
"Yes you can. Promise you'll call me if anything unusual happens."
"You mean like that big ship passing to starboard?"
"Not unless it's closer, or is coming our way. Radar will warn us if we are even close to a collision path, but two good eyes are more reliable than even the best electronics."
Jeremy looked at the radar screen. "That sure is a big ship."
Rick studied the huge freighter. "Yes, it's one of the nuclear barge ships. It carries all its cargo in barges that it drops off and picks up outside the ports. The ship has tanks it can flood like a floating dry-dock, and the barges float on or off in a few minutes, so the ships don't waste time in port. A merchant ship only makes money while it's sailing from one port to another."
"Why can't they just go into port and unload their cargo? Isn't that what some ships do?"
"People still think atomic powered ships are too dangerous to dock close to large population centers. Back in the 1960's the US developed an atomic freighter called the NS Savanna. It wasn't allowed into most ports. It failed because of fear, but navies have operated atomic powered ships for over a century. Now nuclear powered barge carriers make the biggest profits. They captured most of world trade when oil became too expensive to use for fuel. Even the tugboats operate from fuel cells using hydrogen derived from atomic power stations ashore."
"Dad, what's the first port we're going to?"
"Puerto San Jose, in Guatemala. After that, we go into a little port in El Salvador named La Libertad. The next port after that is San Juan del Sur, in Nicaragua, where we enter the sea-level canal. We'll sail through the Pacific Cut, across the Lago de Nicaragua, and down the San Juan River to the Caribbean. We sail south to Limon, Costa Rica and Colon, Panama, at the Caribbean end of that canal. The Central American Union now operates both canals.
"We come back through the Panama Canal, and sail north up the coast to Acapulco where we turn in the boat. We'll fly home from there. If I don't get back to work, how can I pay for the next big adventure?"
The wind died, and Rick folded the rotor blades alongside the masts. He lowered the masts forward, and closed the clear plastic cover over the deck. If a big wave rolled the boat over on its side during the night it would take on no more water than a healthy fish.
Rick looked forward to getting his land legs back, walking around the colorful city of San Jose the next day.
Before he turned in for Jeremy's four hour watch, Rick set the radar alarm so it rang in his stateroom and enabled the link to the traffic control system. Two radar sets now watched for potential collisions during the night. He knew sleep would not come while Jeremy stood watch.
The timer woke him and he looked up at the display screens above his head. No problems showed on the displays, and he rolled out and went on deck. He found Jeremy wide awake, studying the screens and the empty sea around him. Rick beamed with pride in his son, who always acted with responsibility beyond his years.
Rick again chatted with Marge, who reported her treatment finished, but that she needed another two weeks observation for signs of a reoccurrence. Rick and Jeremy sighed when her image faded out. They sat out on deck under the canopy and ate lunch. Jeremy drank his favorite chocolate salad paste while Rick enjoyed natural irradiated salad. They drank natural orange juice and enjoyed their fish sandwiches. They heard only the sounds of the slap of waves against the side of the boat and the whir of the rotor blades. They ate their soft ice cream quickly, before it melted in the tropical heat. Jeremy went back for seconds, but Rick didn't mind. He knew a soluble fiber provided the harmless artificial fat.
At San Jose de Guatemala, they sailed into the harbor and steered to their assigned pier, but found a similar motorsailer already tied up there. Rick dropped anchor and hailed the other boat. The operator of the other boat said he tied up there when he lost power. They agreed to exchange piers, and Rick steered on down the waterfront to the other boat's pier.
After they tied up Talofa II, connected to shore power and other utilities, Rick and Jeremy rode a taxi to the main shopping district. Rick brought along his translator and mounted it in one ear. He used it at the first stall that sold native hats.
"How much for that hat?" What he heard in the earpiece was, "Como por esso sombrero?" He repeated the words.
The proprietor grimaced. "The hat is twenty Capsos, Sir."
Rick turned off the translator. "You speak English very well."
"Of course, Sir. We have to speak English or Spanglish to make a living in a port city."
Rick mentally changed twenty Central American Pesos into dollars. "That's a tourist price. How much for a poor sailor?
"What ship are you off of?"
"We just came in on the Talofa Two."
"Well, if you can afford one of those motorsailers, you could afford twenty. But if you are just a sailor, I'll sell you the hat for fifteen."
"I can give you ten."
"Now I know you are too smart for me. A poor sailor wouldn't turn down such a bargain. Well it's only a hat. Sold for ten Capsos, if you pay me in dollars."
Rick paid for the hat and tried it on. "Do you want a sombrero Jeffrey?"
"No, dad. That's for tourists. If everybody speaks English here, how can I practice my Spanish?"
"Maybe we can find a little produce seller who doesn't speak English. Let's walk down the street a way, and see if we see a shop that looks like it caters to locals."
As their taxi neared the waterfront, they detoured around a roadblock. The driver said, "Big explotion. Uno barco go boom. All burn up."
Rick recognized the location of his assigned pier, which he had found occupied. He saw no sign of a motorsailer, and little left of the pier. He hoped Jeremy didn't recognize the location.
On board Talofa II, Rick called harbor control and filed an immediate departure for La Libertad, El Salvador. The explosion on the other boat may have been an accident, but he decided against staying in this port.
On the way to La Libertad Rick lounged at the control station. His memory drifted back to when his wife's treatment began. He and Jeremy had sat in the hospital waiting room. His son fidgeted for a second. His voice quavered. "Is Mom going to die soon?"
The question surprised Rick. Maybe Jeremy wasn't too young for an explanation of his mother's cancer treatment. "What makes you think she's going to die? "
"The doctor said she has cancer of the pancreas. Isn't that what Uncle Charlie died from?"
"Uncle Charlie died a long time ago. Only surgery was available then, and it seldom kept people alive for long. In the twenty-first century scientists discovered how to find cancerous tumors using the nuclear magnetic resonance of a carbon isotope. They increased the power of the radio frequency radiation to kill the cancer cells. You learned about isotopes in third grade science class."
"Oh yes. Isotopes are atoms that have different numbers of neutrons. Almost 99 percent of carbon atoms are carbon twelve, and about one percent are carbon thirteen."
"Well, back in the twentieth century physicists discovered a property of some atoms called Nuclear Magnetic Resonance."
"Yes, but Dad, carbon is balanced, so it doesn't have a magnetic resonance."
"That's true of common carbon twelve, but carbon thirteen has a magnetic resonance because it has an extra neutron. Scientists enriched carbon compounds with up to ninety-nine percent carbon thirteen to improve the weak signals."
"Okay, but how does that help Mom?"
"Doctors now use an MRI-C scanner to find cancer cells. The cancer cells absorb enriched carbon thirteen compounds from the blood, so they produce strong signals."
"Is that how they found Mom's cancer?"
"Yes. By giving her a regular dose of chemicals enriched in carbon thirteen, the signal from the cancer is separated from all those inert carbons. They locate the cancer when it is still small, so they can kill the cancer cells before they spread."
"Can they kill the cancer cells without killing the healthy cells around them?"
"The nuclei absorb a lot of power and turn it into heat, and the power dissipated in the cancer cells destroys them by raising the temperature of just those cells. The inert cells around them are not raised to a high enough temperature to harm them. Your mother's treatments last for an hour every day.
"In the twentieth century they used radiation or poisons, despite their harm to many parts of the body. Sometimes they even used major surgery to remove cancer cells. Such destructive measures now seem barbaric, and even then they often failed."
"Wow! Does that mean Mom's gonna get well?"
Rick's wife came down the hall into the waiting room, her face lit up with her usual radiant smile. "Thanks for waiting Guys. Can we go eat now? Those carbon thirteen cocktails may be necessary, but I have an appetite for some real food."
The mountains of El Salvador loomed over the ocean mist when the Talofa II approached La Libertad. Next the cooling towers of the local atomic power plant appeared along the shore. Rick soon made out the long jetty that protected the harbor from fierce storms out in the Pacific. El Salvador built the sea wall with funds from the CAU, and the safe harbor changed the former fishing village into a major port.
A patrol boat met them when they entered the breakwater. Rick slowed the rotosailer to allow customs and immigration to board. A tall man in a business suit followed them. His pale skin made him stand out among the darker natives. He stepped forward and introduced himself. "Mr. Kirby, I'm Interpole special agent George Stanley. We need to inspect your boat, and I have some questions for you. Please steer into that pier. It's used by the local harbor police for investigations."
As they approached the designated pier, several men and two dogs waited. Two men donned wet suits, and handlers held back their eager dogs. Agent Stanley said, "After we tie up, the divers will inspect the hull while the other officers come aboard and search the boat. One dog is trained to search for drugs, and the other for explosives. What are the chances they will find either aboard?"
"None that I know of. You probably know I only rented the boat in Acapulco a few days ago. It came fully provisioned, and we brought aboard only our personal effects."
The agent nodded. "You changed berths in San Jose de Guatemala, and the boat that used your assigned pier exploded, destroying it and most of the pier. You then made a hasty departure. Fortunately nobody died because the people from the boat were ashore. We're concerned that your boat may have a bomb aboard, or might carry contraband. Who might want to destroy your boat?"
The question surprised Rick. "My son and I are on a vacation trip. We have no other connection to anything in Central America. It occurred to me that the other boat might have been destroyed by a bomb meant for this one. That's why I left so quickly, but I filed a sailing plan to La Libertad, so I made no attempt to hide anything."
"I understand. Here come the search crews."
The searchers carried two boxes up from below. Rick saw that one of them was the emergency flares box, and the other the emergency medical kit. They carried the boxes ashore to a safe area, and the agent shrugged. "If those are the only things the dogs found, there are no bombs or illegal drugs are on board. You can proceed to your assigned berth. Welcome to El Salvador. I suggest you exercise caution while ashore, and we will post guards to prevent anyone from planting a bomb or illegal drugs on your boat. Do you know anyone who might target you or the Talofa Two for any reason?"
Rick spent a nervous few hours seeing the town, before they checked into a hotel for a night's rest. They returned to the boat in the morning and found an armed guard posted. A diver surfaced and climbed a ladder onto the pier. Rick decided they should leave without delay.
On the way to Nicaragua, the seas worsened, and Jeremy suffered from a little nausea until Rick gave him a pill. Back on deck, spray drenched him, and sometimes the boat heeled over when a green sea came aboard. Rick feared the rotor blades might hit the water's surface and break. He folded them and lowered the masts. He raised the clear plastic that shielded them from the waves.
Jeremy's nausea improved, but he frowned. "Why does the boat roll more with the rotors down?"
"The steady wind pressure against the rotors dampened the roll and pitch. Without them, only the dynamic braking stabilizers resist roll and pitch, while they produce electricity to provide some electrical power to the drive motors. We need the drives to keep our heading. The boat would roll a lot worse if we allowed it to turn sideways to the waves."
"Wouldn't we go faster if the keels were retracted?"
"So you noticed I ran both keels out all the way. In calm seas the boat is faster without their drag, but the keels stabilize the roll when the waves get bigger."
"How long will this storm last Dad?"
"It should calm down about dark tonight. We should have smoother seas going into San Juan tomorrow evening."
Rick rose and checked the automatic pilot, to make sure it kept the boat on course. He expected to arrive in San Juan del Sur by noon the next day. The weather map showed clear skies, and seas running three knots from the northwest. The wind blew at ten knots from the southeast, so the boat ran on a steady course. They continued running on batteries after the wind died down during the night. Later that night an unexpected storm far at sea sent giant waves to challenge their small boat.
Rick glanced at the radar screen and saw a tiny blip just off their course, and less than a quarter mile away. He switched to the optical screen and centered it on the target. He made out the hull of an overturned boat. He altered course and went closer, to search for survivors.
As they came near, he saw someone in a life preserver, hanging onto a rope tied to the hull. Rick picked up the hailer and called out. "Ahoy there. It looks like you need some assistance. Can you hear me?"
He now saw two faces turned toward him, so at least two people clung to the wreck. Their mouths opened but he heard nothing over the crash of waves. He unfolded the parabolic reflector and pointed it at the boat. Now he heard their cries for help.
"Jeremy. Inflate the liferaft, and tie it to the aft cleat. Use the stern line, so we can let it out to them." Rick maneuvered into the waves, in a position so the people in the water were directly off his stern.
Jeremy understood. The liferaft sprang to life. He tied one end of its rope to the stern line, and the line to a cleat. He threw a turn of the rope over the aft winch. They pushed the raft over the stern. Rick returned to the controls, and warily maneuvered the raft to the people in the water.
When the raft came within reach the two swimmers grabbed it. They dropped the rope to the overturned boat and climbed into the raft. They sat in the raft while Jeremy ran the winch and hauled them in.
Rick picked up the hailer and called out, "Is anybody else in the boat?"
The people in the raft shook their heads in the negative. Rick pulled away, clear of the wreck. When the raft came up to the stern, Rick helped the young man and woman aboard. They wore only shorts, and shivered despite the tropical heat. Rick hurried them below, where they wrapped themselves in blankets. They introduced themselves. They were Gerd and Anna Strause from Germany. Rick read the name on the sailboat's stern; "Nordman, Nordingham, Germany."
Rick called Coast Patrol, to report the wreck's position and the rescue of two survivors. Coast Patrol verified the name of the boat and the identity of the two people on board. The patrol advised Rick to leave the wreck adrift and proceed to his destination with the two people he picked up. Coast Patrol continued tracking the wreck, to salvage it when the weather improved.
Gerd spoke only German, but his wife spoke fluent English and translated for him. Rick slipped his translator into his ear, to see what they said to each other. He set it for German, listen-only.
Anna said, "We sailed peacefully, until the boat hit something in the water and overturned. We never saw what we hit, but assumed it was a whale. A small boat came along and circled the wreck, but turned away. When it left we expected to die, until you came to our rescue."
Rick said, "We'll drop you off in San Juan del Sur tomorrow."
Anna relayed this to Gerd in German, and his face brightened. Anna didn't wait for his comment. "That's good. We were on our way to San Juan to see the canal. We can still see it from the sightseeing overlook, and from the tourist tram."
Rick marveled at how these prospects perked them up, and relieved some of the pain of losing their boat.
On arrival in San Juan del Sur, they were met by customs, immigration, a German diplomat, and the same Interpole man who had met them in La Libertad. The Germans went away with the diplomat, and the Interpole agent waited until the others left before he spoke to Rick. "You seem to attract disasters wherever you go. Could there be some connection between your call to Coast Patrol about a fishing boat, the explosion at the dock you were supposed to be at in San Jose de Guatemala, and the wreck of a boat that just happened to be on your course here? Is it safe to stand here on your boat?"
Rick already wondered about so many events in so short a time. "I haven't seen any little black clouds following me. Are you going to call in the dogs and divers again?"
"You're the investigator. You have my permission to look at anything you like. Is it all right if we go ashore and see this great canal? We came down here to see the canals."
"With your permission we will make another search of your boat while you are away."
They stood at the overlook and marveled at the great seawalls that held the lake waters from the deep cut through the western ridge that previously separated the Pacific Ocean from the lake. Across the channel, a great wall of concrete marked the spillway for the lake overflow. Below it, the water from the hydroelectric power station spilled into the canal.
"How did they make such a big cut through this high ridge, Dad?"
"They drilled down below sea level and set off small hydrogen bombs, to break up the rock into boulders. They used the rock to build those massive seawalls that seal off the lake."
"What about the radiation? Is it safe here?"
"That problem required nearly a hundred years to solve. The suppression of radiation in underground fusion bombs may have been an even greater achievement in the twenty-first century than building this canal. A lot of effort went into development of small enough bombs and suppression of their radiation."
"Why did they build the walls so high? Why didn't they make the lake part of the canal?"
"The Nicaraguan Government wanted to preserve the lake at its original level for their people to use, plus they get a lot of hydroelectric power from the dams."
The appearance of the German couple from the sunken sailboat interrupted Rick. He called to them, and they came over to chat for a while. The Germans invited Rick and Jeffrey to join them for dinner that night. A taxi carried them to a German restaurant on the cliff that overlooked the harbor.
After they ate and watched the sunset, Rick called a taxi to drive them to a hotel near the marina.
Jeremy seemed perplexed. "Why can't we just stay on the boat tonight, so we're ready to go in the morning?"
"Son, I just want to sleep in a big bed, that doesn't move around during the night." No use scaring Jeremy with his concern that the boat might not survive the night.
Rick awoke when daylight showed in the hotel window. After they ate a big breakfast in the hotel coffee shop they walked down to the marina and found the boat intact.
The Interpole man waited on the dock, with a uniformed man, whom he introduced. "Señor Alfonso Juarez will be your canal pilot."
The uniformed man handed Rick a card. "Here are my documents. I will guide you through the canal to ensure the safety of your transit. There are many ships in the waterway, and we must make sure there is no conflict with them."
Rick ran the picture ID through the scanner to transmit it to Central American Union Maritime Office. Verification came back within seconds.
The affable Alfonso helped untie the boat and stood beside Rick at the control station. He said little, but guided Rick to the canal entrance with a wave of his hand to indicate the directions.
Once in the channel Rick stayed within the line of buoys. He kept to the posted speed limits, and the pilot watched the traffic without speaking. They passed under the high suspension bridge that carried the highway and two rail lines. The channel's width and the height of its walls even amazed Rick. He found the view from their small boat much more impressive than from the scenic overlook.
A few miles into the canal, it widened into a broad lake. Jeremy looked at this vast expanse of water. "Why is the canal so wide here?"
Alfonso explained that the depth at the center of the lake made it better to build walls around the deepest part. "This wider part of the canal provides a temporary holding basin for many ships if some problem should block either end."
Rick nodded. "So the canal levees divide El Lago de Nicaragua into three lakes?"
"Si, Señor. The people on both sides of the lake still have their original shoreline, but they have to go over a bridge to get to the other side. There are bridges at each end of the canal and one where the lake once flowed into the river. Next to the middle bridge, locks bring lake boats down to canal level and back up the other side, similar to the locks on the Panama Canal. Using locks to cross a canal is unusual."
Rick nodded. "Your country can take pride in this great canal."
"Yes we do. It required all the resources of the CAU, with help from many other countries, including yours, to build it. Most of the lake is north of the canal, and a smaller part in the south."
When the canal narrowed again, red lights flashed, and all traffic came to a halt. That brought to their attention huge doors at either side. The doors opened, and from each side came a tugboat and barge. The barges passed each other in the channel and entered the opposite doors. The doors closed and the flashing lights turned to a steady green.
Rick said, "Those locks allow boats to cross the canal between the north lake and the south?"
"Yes. The people of Nicaragua have crossed the lake for centuries. They still have that right. The CAU Canal Authority pays for lock operation."
They sailed under another suspension bridge, and passed another hydroelectric power dam, on the north side of the canal. Rick said, "Why are the dams only on the north lake? What happens to the water from the south lake?"
Alfonso showed no sign of surprise at the question. "It flows through a new little river to the sea. Little boats can sail down the river to the sea like they did in the days before the construction of the canal. It's only fair that the people on the lake still have their river, even if it has locks to limit loss of water from the lake. The canal east of the lake curves back and forth, following the San Juan River's original course. They dredged and widened the river to form the canal."
A torrential rain began, and the pilot concentrated on steering, because the steamy air reduced visibility until even the levee wall on their right disappeared. Alfonso glanced at the display screens for radar and sonar, but knew his way in the familiar waterway from years sailing on it.
Jeffrey started to ask a question, but his father motioned for him not to speak for fear of distracting Alfonso in this perilous journey. The pilot held a course between the buoys, which gave out light, sound, and radio signals. The hoot of ship's whistles added to the spooky feel of their passage through this part of the canal.
The rain let up, and turned into a slow drizzle. They again saw other ships, and even the wall on the other side of the canal. They sailed under the East Coast Bridge, which carried the highway and railroad. A pilot boat came alongside, and Alfonso left to catch a ship going west. The radio came alive and the voice of Coast Control asked for their destination. Rick gave his destination and received clearance on a course out to sea. He hoped to find the Caribbean calmer than the Pacific.
After he left the Nicaraguan canal, Rick set his course south for the port of Limon in Costa Rica. He studied the forecast for hurricanes, and noted that the nearest threatened the Mexican coast north of the Yucatan Peninsula. If that one kept on course it should present no problem. The biggest waves came from astern, and the winds from the northwest. Hurricanes seldom turned south, so Rick expected clear sailing through the warm blue waters.
After dark, the Caribbean Moonsat provided an extra two hours of daylight. Those great balloons in synchronous orbit provided a boon to those who needed longer days. The industrialization of Central America benefited from their deployment, almost as much as from the atomic power plants.
Jeffrey sat reading a book on the development of Central America. "The people here were really poor before they formed the CAU. They grew bananas and coffee, mostly for export, and other crops just to feed the people. They fished for Tuna to export, and other fish for their own use.
"Now they have atomic power plants and grow many commercial crops on land and in aquaculture beds along the coasts. The two canals provide connection with the entire world. They can sell their produce and manufactured goods everywhere. They claim to be the center of the world now."
Rick said, "Yes, they have gone from one of the poorest to one of the richest parts of the world. They followed the example of the European Union and combined to form an economic block that benefits from the advantage of their hot climate, heavy rainfall, and long coastlines, to develop an economy second to none. Many other parts of the world have to spend a lot of energy just to get enough fresh water. There isn't a desalinization plant in the whole Central American Union."
They stood under the plastic bubble that enclosed the steering station, and tried to see through the sudden heavy downpour. The decks outside steamed from the hot sun that shone through a break in the clouds. Rick watched the radar and sonar screens to keep clear of nets around the fish farms on the voyage south. The rain stopped and the sky turned red when the last light of the sun passed through the atmosphere. Softer white light, reflected from the moonsat, replaced the red light when it faded.
"Can I stand the first watch tonight, Dad?"
"Sure. Can we eat dinner first?"
"Aw, Dad. I guess my interest in the canal made me forget about food."
"Well then. Let's see what's on the menu from the Auto-Chef." They went below to select their favorite meals. The selections depended on their needs for their individual diets and what they had eaten that day. Jeremy carried his plate back on deck to stand watch, and Rick turned on the communicator to chat with his wife while they ate so many miles apart.
They sailed up the channel to Limon, and Jeremy spent some time watching workmen repairing the nets. Jeremy turned to his father. "Why do they wear those funny hats that hang down their backs?"
"Those are air conditioners. The brims are covered with solar cells, and the crowns are covered with electronic heat exchangers to keep their heads cool and prevent heat stroke. The extended brims also cool the upper body to keep their core temperature down."
They pulled into the assigned pier and tied up to the deserted dock. Rick half expected to see the Interpole agent and at least someone from customs, but found no one around the dock. Cameras moved to inspect the boat, and a voice boomed out, "Welcome to Puerto Limon. You may request services at the gate. Please have your document cards when exiting and entering."
They walked up to the gate and presented their cards to the electronic reader. Rick requested fuel and stores for the boat. They went through the gate and found moving sidewalks running down the main pier. They walked on and rode to the central shopping mall's main concourse. Here they saw shops of all kinds, in the several levels above and below ground. People from all over the world shopped here.
They paused at a coffee shop for refreshments and to rest their feet after they walked around for a while.
"Are you enjoying Limon?"Rick and Jeremy looked up to see the German couple standing next to them. Rick's eyes widened in surprise. "I thought you were headed for Panama. It seems strange to find you here."
Anna said, "We flew over here first for the great shopping. We lost everything in the boat wreck, and this is the best shopping mall in Central America. We're going out to the botanical gardens this afternoon. They have all the plants and animals from the rain forest and the mountains all in one giant exhibit. The viewing areas are air-conditioned for your comfort."
Jeremy's eyes widened. "Can we go too, Dad?"
"Of course." He turned to Anna. "Why don't we join you?"
They went by electric tram to the huge enclosed gardens. After they saw everything, Anna invited them to have dinner at a German restaurant.
Rick grinned. "I suppose the restaurant is owned by a friend of yours?"
Anna smiled back. "One of my cousins from Bremen. Will that do?"
After the meal, Rick and Jeremy went back to the boat. They secured everything, and went to a hotel near the great mall for the night.
They sailed out of Limon, bound for Panama. The hurricane had turned north, leaving the seas moderate and the wind out of the west. Rick set a course for the port of Colon, Panama, and settled down for the voyage. Whatever might have threatened in the Pacific, the Caribbean proved safer.
They sailed into the port of Colon, where the heat and humidity pressed down upon them like a steam bath. They tied up at a marina, and went ashore to see the old town, which showed its Spanish origin. The restored shops were all air conditioned. They still offered for sale the "Panama" straw hats, made in Ecuador since the days of the forty-niners. An air-conditioned restaurant offered an international menu. Diners from many countries spoke in a babble of languages. The waiters spoke modern Spanglish, and most people communicated in that language.
They enjoyed a good view of the locks from their fourteenth-floor hotel room, and watched the big ships being raised or lowered between sea level and canal level. Jeremy wondered how they pumped that much water so fast, but Rick explained that the water all came from the canal, and valves opened to fill each section of the lock, or to drain it out.
"But Dad? How can those little engines pull the big ships from one lock to another?"
Rick laughed. "They don't. The ships use their own power. The 'Electric Mules' just hold the lines to prevent the ships from drifting into the sides or gates while they are in the locks. An operator used to drive each individual mule, but now a central computer controls all of them."
Long after dark, Jeremy watched the ships pass through the locks. Floodlights lit up the whole area. Rick anticipated passing through those locks, along with several other small boats, the next morning.
They joined the line of small boats. Schooners, yachts, and rotosailers, formed up to transit the locks together. They sailed out to the pair of floating docks, joined together underwater by trusses, to make a moveable harbor for small boats. Each boat in turn sailed between the piers and tied up inside. When the little harbor was full, and all the boats secured, the whole assembly sailed into the first lock and tied up to hawsers from the electric mules. People in most boats chatted with their neighbors about adventures, destinations, and particulars of their crafts. Anna and Gerd called to them from a nearby yacht. They were guests of the people who owned the German restaurant in Cristobel Colon. They intended to sail through the canal to Panama City. Rick started to wonder how chance continued to bring them together with this couple.
The flotilla passed through the three locks into Gatun Lake where they sailed out of the mini-harbor. They joined several other boats that tied up to buoys in the lake. Many people went swimming in the clear fresh water. Others broke out hoses and scrubbed down decks and hulls to rid them of salt from the sea. "Ready to go for a swim, Jeremy?"
"Is it safe to go in here? Can't big sharks swim through the locks?"
"Not likely. Sonars at the locks keep a lookout for anything big, and fresh water around the canal entrance repels the sharks. No one has ever reported sharks in the lake since the canal began operation."
"There are sharks in Lake Nicaragua, aren't there?"
"Those are freshwater sharks. They adapted to fresh water millennia ago, when lava flows sealed off the lake from the ocean. Gatun Lake has always been a freshwater lake."
After a refreshing swim they turned on the anchor light and went to bed. Wakes from passing ships stirred up waves that gently rocked their boat, and the faint sound of parties on other boats blended with calls from parrots and howler monkeys. Rick and his son slept well.
At dawn they set sail through the dredged channel that crossed the lake. At Gamboa they entered the Gaillard Cut. Rick said, "They call this the Culebra Cut in Spanish."
Jeremy said, "Culebra means snake. The canal sure does twist and turn like a snake here."
"Yes, they followed the canyon through the continental divide. The effort to build a sea-level canal here failed because of the difficulty in digging this section."
They sailed the eight miles through the narrow winding channel to the single Pedro Miguel lock which brought them down into a little lake a mile long. At the far end of the lake they came to the two Miraflores Locks, which lowered them down to Pacific sea level. They sailed down a seven mile long channel into the Bay of Panama, and docked at the Panama City Marina.
Jeremy said, "Are we going to see Anna and Gerd here?"
Rick laughed. "Only if we find the right German restaurant. Panama City must have several." Jeremy now expected to see the German couple wherever they went. Rick wondered if more trouble waited, back here in Pacific waters.
His worry increased at the sight of the same Interpole agent who followed them down the west coast. "I hope you found the waters of the Caribbean more placid than the Pacific."
"Yes, we found it a little boring over on that side. Are you here to tell us something?"
"You can find your friends at the Panama Hostel Hotel. They have the best German restaurant in Panama City."
"Thanks, but I'm ready for some local Hispanic food tonight."
"Well then, I can recommend the Cocina Loca. They are the best in town."
"Why don't you join us? Maybe you can explain the coincidences we have encountered, and help us avoid them on our trip north."
"Maybe you should ask your German friends. Sorry I can't make it tonight. Maybe I can join you for dinner in Acapulco."#
"When they found a taxi, Rick said, "The Panama Hostel Hotel, please."
"But Dad, you said ."
"I changed my mind."
"Was it something the Interpole man said?"
"I'm afraid so. I might get Anna to answer the questions I have..."
At the German restaurant in Hotel Hostel de Panama, they sat at a table for four. Rick watched the entrance station. He hoped to see the Strause's come in while he and Jeremy sat at this table. The aroma of Sauerbraten drifted from the kitchen. "Dad. Why can't we have something besides German food?"
Rick laughed. "Well, just look at the menu for something else you like. In cosmopolitan Panama City even a German restaurant serves international foods."
Gerd and Anna arrived a minute after the food was served. Gerd turned to Anna and pointed them out. They came over and Anna said, "So we have you hooked on our country's great food?"
Rick smiled and rose to offer them chairs. "This is the best bratwurst and red cabbage I have tasted anywhere. We just started, and we have plenty of time. We hope you will join us."
Gerd frowned, but Anna didn't hesitate to accept. "This time you surprised us by showing up. Surely it isn't just the good food that brought you here."
"As a matter of fact I have been wondering why the frequency of our meeting is far outside the normal limits of probability. Our first meeting seems unlikely to have been planned, but after that the number of our meetings seems to defy the odds."
"I will have to confess, that we have been keeping tabs on you." The man's voice startled Rick. He started to look around before he realized it came from the usually silent Gerd, who now revealed his ability to speak English.
Anna sighed. "Yes, we thought it best for you not to know what we were doing in this area. The international agency we work for prefers us to continue operating like tourists, who just happen to have friends and relatives in the restaurant business. I hope you will continue to keep our operations confidential."
Rick said, "I'd like to help, but not at the risk of endangering my son."
Gerd said, "You were already at risk. Your motorsailer escaped destruction only because of the breakdown of the other boat that occupied your berth at Puerto San Jose de Guatemala. You'll be safer with us aboard on your trip back to Acapulco. We have resources we can't disclose. You have an extra cabin on Talofa Two. May we make use of it? We can pay half the cost of the entire trip expenses for the boat."
Jeremy spoke up, "That sounds like fun, Dad, to have more people to talk to on the trip back. Why can't they come with us?"
"I'll think about it. I guess we can spend the night at this hotel and talk it over at breakfast in the morning. Can you meet us here for breakfast about seven?"
All agreed, and they finished their meal almost in silence. Rick found sleep long in coming that night. He sat on the side of the bed and rubbed his forehead. He finally sighed and lay down.
At breakfast the next morning he invited Anna and Gerd to join them for the trip to Acapulco. Jeremy had a big grin at the news, as Anna gave him a hug. Only Gerd showed no emotion.
They enjoyed the warm day at sea, moderated by a cool breeze; a welcome relief after the stifling heat and humidity of Panama City. Anna relaxed in the sun on the foredeck, while Gerd studied the control systems on the Talofa II. Jeremy tried to explain how everything operated, and Gerd's amusement turned to amazement at the boy's technical knowledge.
They made a brief visit to Puntarenas, Costa Rica, for fresh supplies, and rode a maglev train to San Jose, the capital city. They saw no sign of the Interpole agent here, and Rick hoped to have no more incidents on the return trip.
The next day at sea, Jeremy spotted a waterspout in the distance. Rick explained that waterspouts were like a tornado over land. They all marveled at this phenomenon, so seldom seen at sea.
Not long afterward, Jeremy spotted a white plume ahead and to the port side. "Is that another waterspout, Dad?"
"No, that's the warm breath of a whale exhaling. They breathe in before they dive and breathe out when they come up again."
"But Dad. We didn't see plumes when we came close to that whale before. Why is this one different?"
Rick glanced at Gerd and Anna, who stared back at him. He almost knew the question before it came.
Gerd said, "Where were you when you saw that whale?"
"We were less than a day out of Puerto San Jose, Guatemala. We were on a standard course from Acapulco, where we rented Talofa Two for this trip. Right after that a small speedboat pursued us. It turned off and set out fishing nets when we called in an SOS to Coast Patrol."
Gerd said, "Can we look at Auto-log for that incident?"
Rick retrieved the data, which included latitude, longitude, and time of the encounter. Gerd said, "That's another good data point. I'll send it in right away. We should get a pretty good path estimate now. This gives us an even better chance of making an intercept."
"So we saw a submarine, no doubt smuggling drugs into Mexico. Is Acapulco the likely landing point?"
"Not now. They haven't used that area for years. There are many little inlets along the coast, including California, where they may land their cargo now. We can't cover them all, but if we intercept one of their subs at sea, we can make it a Trojan horse."
Gerd studied the radar screen, and smiled. He pointed out the second blip on the screen, some distance behind the speedboat. "That's the stealth hovercraft. It'll catch up to them before they get to us. The patrol has paralleled our course since we left Puntarenas."
"Thanks for not telling me, but suppose they came from our port side."
"Oh, the little boats always come out from shore, but we have other eyes to port. The speedboat is after us because we're catching up to the submarine."
The speedboat kept coming closer. Rick saw three men inside. If they carried weapons they kept them out of sight. This boat resembled the one that pursued them earlier. He hadn't seen any weapons then either.
The boat turned aside. The pursuer became the pursued. The speedboat halted and the men cast out nets. They also threw out some other things that might have been weapons.
The big hovercraft came alongside the speedboat and headed back toward shore with it in tow. Gerd watched them go, and then turned to Rick. "Now that they are out of the way we can concentrate on finding their sub."
"What will you do with it when you catch it?"
"Nothing. Others will deal with that. We may see some of the action though."
Now they concentrated on the sonar screen, changing direction to stay on the course Gerd determined. Soon they saw a Sonar target similar to the first "whale" Rick had seen earlier. Rick saw a larger target approach it from the port side. The two targets ran side by side, getting closer together until they merged. Gerd rubbed his hands together. "We've got it."
A conning tower boiled up from the sea, and a big submarine surfaced. A smaller submarine, which resembled a whale, came up with it. Rick said, "That must be what we saw on sonar before. How many men in its crew?"
"None. It's fully automated but they have boats come out to watch for it. They came after you because they feared you might figure out what it was. You were lucky the Coast Patrol drone came so quickly. We weren't that lucky. They hit our boat with an RPG and capsized it. We hid under the boat until they left us for dead. We breathed air trapped in the cabin to keep us alive for awhile. We were lucky you picked us up soon after they left. You may have even scared them off."
Talofa II passed near the submarines. The surface of the larger one appeared strange. It changed color like a chameleon to fit its surroundings. Above the horizon it blended into the clear blue sky. Below the horizon it changed to the mottled green of the sea. Under water it disappeared altogether. Rick marveled at this fine example of twenty-second century camouflage. He looked in vain for the submarine's identification. Just another part of the disguise?
The smaller submarine was shaped like a whale, with eyes and other features painted on. Artificial flukes moved up and down in a steady rhythm to complete the illusion.
Men came out of the big submarine and climbed down onto the "whale" with tools that made quick work of opening the hatch on its top. One of the men crawled inside, and came back out. The crew lowered one end of a large diameter hose into the hatch. An officer on the conning tower waived them off, and Talofa II continued on its way.
The two submarines soon disappeared astern, and Gerd explained, "We have tried to stop the smuggling of cocaine from Columbia for over a hundred years. We tried to eliminate the market for it by treating addicts who support the trade. Aversion therapy is used on everyone convicted of drug possession, distribution, or smuggling. Success is limited because of the demand from those rich and powerful enough to avoid prosecution and treatment.
"In our laboratories we developed a gas that denatures cocaine. You saw the gas being pumped aboard the smuggler's submarine. After the submarine is released and continues on its way, our submarine will follow it, but allow the smugglers to retrieve their cargo and distribute it through their channels to all the cities where the "untouchables" can buy it. When the buyers use the modified drug it will give them a little high, but will make them sensitive to regular cocaine. After that, they will experience nausea on their next exposure, and won't want to use the drug again. That will help eliminate more of the market."
Rick said, "Amazing. Will this completely eliminate the smuggling? Many things have been tried and it still goes on."
"There is a laboratory working on development of a plant disease to wipe out the source. The plant disease that destroyed the poppy fields in Southeast Asia succeeded in eliminating the opium trade, but we can't wait for a similar assault on the coca plants."
When they arrived back at San Juan del Sur, they found the Interpole agent waiting on the dock. "You're half an hour late, and you all have guilty looks on your faces. What have you been up to?"
Rick grinned. "Well officer, if we are late we must not have exceeded the speed limit. What is the charge?"
"I wish I knew. I get suspicious whenever I check a boat and find two Greenist agents on board. Someone please enlighten me."
Gerd raised his eyebrows. "Why these two gentlemen were kind enough to offer us a ride, and they are such good company, we just couldn't pass up a pleasant ride on a rotosailer to top off our vacation. Too bad we have to fly home from here."
Rick said, "We're going to miss the company of these two young people. Feel free to join us on the trip back to Acapulco."
The agent turned and stomped off.