The sun-drenched sails of the caravela Conceição tugged earnestly at the mast. It was as if they had caught the sailors’ anxiety to return home after a long stay in the New World. The helmsman made routine checks on his bearing to make sure he was cutting the quickest route home.
The ship’s captain stood to his left mapping the horizon with a sextant. “We’ll reach the Açores by tomorrow.” The captain’s voice was gravelly but reassuring.
“Olhe, Capitão!” one of the sailors called from the ship’s bow. A string of dark clouds rode the sky ahead. The helmsman could feel the air dampening. In minutes the storm was upon them.
“Mãe de Deus! What kind of storm is this?” the captain growled. The helmsman crossed himself and spun the wheel to port. The captain stopped him. “We’ll ride this one out.”
Strong winds began to lash at the sails that had been eagerly outstretched only moments before. The troughs in between the waves became deeper. Thick rain battered the ship. The bow pushed up a mountainous wave and through the white spray at its top only to find itself facing the bottom of another, larger wave. The helmsman saw that the caravela would not make the climb and made a last ditch turn to port. The wave struck the ship full on the starboard side and rolled it like a child’s toy. As if it were the hand of God, a third wave punched the capsized ship, plunging it under the heaving waters.
Lara Croft looked over the side of the fishing boat as if she expected to see the Conceição in the depths below. In the back of her mind Lara knew the ship was in reality resting on a sea ridge two hundred meters beneath the surface, but the sheer wonder forced her to look anyway. The wreck had become the watery grave for all but the helmsman, Joaquim Alonso. He had survived long enough to be rescued by another merchant vessel. While on the island of São Miguel in the Azorean archipelago Alonso had recounted the episode to a priest. It had taken days of searching in chapels all over the island but Lara now held in her hands the transcription that priest had made.
“God was in that storm,” Alonso had said.
Amazing. Lara slid the parchment back into its watertight bag and placed it gingerly in her worn backpack lying on the deck.
“So are we going to find this thing or not?” Lara looked up to see her assistant, Paul Murdock, standing over her. His arms were folded across his chest and his round red face was twisted in a half grin. Paul was in his forties, pudgy, slightly balding and he carried about him a state of perpetual cheer that lightened even the direst of circumstances.
“Just waiting for you,” Lara smiled back. She stood and stretched her arms heavenward, taking her last chance to soak up the sun. “Are you positive that contraption is reliable?” Lara pointed to a robotic heap of yellow and gray plastic caught in the ship’s nets.
“We’ve been over this Lara. It’s reliable enough. More importantly, it’s cheaper than renting a mini-sub.”
Lara nodded and climbed through the nets to where her “dive suit” lay. She hoped that the suit had not caught the nets’ fish odor. With Paul’s help Lara wriggled into the bottom half and then waited while Paul dragged the top half within reach of her arms. Slowly Lara half pulled, half pushed herself into the top piece. There was a faint hiss as Paul sealed the suit and pressurized it.
The boat’s captain, a withered and weather-beaten old Portuguese, appeared from the wheelhouse and switched on the net winch. From within the cupola of her dive suit Lara saw the nets move upward and then felt them lift her off the deck. Paul and the captain swung her out over the water and then let out the nets. The feeling of falling with no way to arrest herself caused an involuntary lump to rise in Lara’s throat. Then she was surrounded by water.
As soon as the nets receded Lara twisted the joystick in her right hand sideways. The suit responded with a low rumble as exhaust jets rolled Lara off her back. Lara pivoted the forward thrust stick and the suit lurched down. As the depth gauge rose, the darkness surrounding her thickened. The small luminescent gauge at the bottom of the suit’s copula showed two hours of oxygen remaining.
Ten minutes passed and the Conceição came into view. In the darkness Lara could only make out the outline of the hull and mast. Lara clicked on the suit’s external search light. Some things never cease to amaze.
Although it was lying on its side the ship appeared to be intact; its sails still fluttered slightly in the underwater currents. A host of coral and marine life had made its home on the hull and deck. Lara guided herself to the opening just forward of the mast and entered careful not to injure her suit; at two hundred meters depth the slightest puncture could sink her. With gentle taps on the suit’s control sticks Lara managed to navigate the first lower deck. Something fluttered at the head of the ladder space that led to the ship’s hold. Closer inspection revealed the remains of a sailor’s uniform and skeleton. With a suppressed shudder Lara nudged the obstacle from her path and twisted the control sticks until she was looking down into the hold.
The whir of the exhaust jets mingled with the hum of the suit’s batteries as Lara descended into the hold. The contents had been thrown everywhere; crates, barrels and waterlogged sacks lay in heaps against the hull’s timbers. Where are you? Lara pressed her right thumb against the control pad that manipulated the suit’s searchlight. It cast odd shadows onto the hull which seemed to obscure more than clarify. Lara sighed; it was going to be a long search.
Then something in the bow caught her eye. It was a dark rectangle chained to the rafters. Lara trained the light on it. The rectangle gained three dimensions upon illumination and Lara smiled. Finally a spot of luck. Lara made the move towards it and the rectangle was obscured again. Slowly the area immediately surrounding the rectangle darkened. Lara checked her searchlight. It was working but the darkness expanded, soon she could see nothing but blackness outside. She looked at the gauges within the suit and they slowly ceased to glow. Power failure? No. Lara could still hear the hum of the batteries.
Suddenly the hum was replaced by a pounding in Lara’s ears. Her whole body began to shudder and her head felt like it was splitting in two. The air was sucked out of her lungs. Lara clawed desperately at the controls and whipped the suit into a one hundred and eighty degree turn. Everything was still pitch black. Lara rammed the thrusters forward and after a second felt the cupola hit against the hull. The pounding did not lessen. Lara felt that her eardrums would burst.
Directions had lost meaning but Lara had the general idea of her exit. She moved left and felt a touch of relief as the suit did not bang into any obstacle. It was short-lived. Something resisted her forward progression but it was not wood. Sails? No. Hammocks for the crew. That meant she was in the first deck again. Struggling to keep a straight course Lara once more moved to the bow of the ship where the surface hatch was located. Her body began to grow cold and fits of trembling took her. The mounting pressure in Lara’s head caused a blood vessel to burst in her nose. She panicked and pushed upward.
The suit collided with the wooden beams overhead. Lara felt something frigid on her back. It passed along her wetsuit down to her legs. Water. Oh no. Lara jammed the controls forward and the suit responded but sluggishly. The precious seconds passed by until Lara estimated she was at the hatch. She yanked on the right control stick and like a wounded fish the dive suit slowly eased out of the ship.
Water was beginning to pool in the legs of the dive suit. Lara could barely feel her feet. After fifty meters of ascent Lara was immersed up to her waist. The suit stopped climbing and began to drop slowly. Through the searing pain Lara fought to remember Paul’s instructions. “Should you ever need to bail out,” Paul had said. “And I pray this does not have to happen—there is an emergency lever at the waist joint. Pull it from your right hip to left. That will release the bottom half.”
Lara yanked her arm out of the right sleeve and plunged it into the icy water which now reached mid-chest. Her hand grasped at the waist joint searching for the lever that held her escape. A small knob came in contact with her fingers but it was impossibly small to manipulate with numb fingers. Lara gritted her teeth and fixed her hand in a white-knuckled grip on the lever and pushed. Nothing happened. The water was lapping at her neckline now. Lara gasped and pushed again. The lever budged.
The sun was dipping into the Atlantic as Lara broke the surface. The pounding in her ears had subsided but a vicious headache had taken its place. Tremors that were brought on by more than the cold water coursed through her body. The only warmth she could feel came from the small trickle of blood from her nose. The pain had caused spots to appear in her vision but at least her eyes were no longer darkened. Lara could make out the silhouette of the fishing boat twenty meters away. Slowly Lara eased herself towards it.
As Lara approached the boat she sensed something was wrong. She could see the outlines of Paul and the old Portuguese fisherman but there were other shapes as well. Strange shapes. One of them called out.
“Where is it Miss Croft?” The voice was thinly accented. Lara could not quite place it. There was an icy resonance in that voice that crept up her spine slowly and painfully.
“What?” She tried to sound in control but all she could muster was a whisper.
“The item you just recovered belongs to us. Where is it?”
“I didn’t recover anything.” The setting sun backlit the man speaking so that Lara could not make out his face but she could plainly see that he was carrying a handgun. There were three other men with him. They had guns trained on Paul and the fisherman.
“Then go back down there until you do.”
“I can’t,” Lara protested weakly. Shock was beginning to set in.
“She can’t, she’s gone and lost my dive suit. It’s—.” The voice was Paul’s. One of the shadows placed a fist in Paul’s gut, doubling him over.
The accented voice spoke again. “Then we will keep your friend until you can recover the item. I suggest you work quickly.” Two of the men dragged Paul to the far side of the boat. The leader whispered something to the fourth gunman and turned to follow the others. The gunman raised his pistol to the back of the fisherman’s head and fired once. Lara cried out and the gunman turned towards her. He tossed something at her and Lara winced, fearing what the impact might be. A life preserver landed in the water in front of her. The gunman turned and left. As Lara rested her trembling body on the orange buoy her ears caught the sound of speedboat engines rumbling to life. The sound intensified and then faded away.