A margin of seconds in which to prepare! Ken locked the controls and scrambled back into the passenger compartment. Steadying himself on the bucking floor, he opened the torpoon's entrance port and slid in; quickly he locked the port and strapped the inner body harness around him; and then he waited.
Now it was all chance. If the plane crashed into clear water, he was safe; but if she hit ice.... He put that thought from him.
The locked controls held the amphibian for perhaps thirty seconds. Then with a scream the storm-giant took her. A mad up-current of wind hurled her high, whirled her dizzily, toyed with her--and then she spun and dove. Down, down, down; down with a speed so wild Ken grew faint; down through the core of a maelstrom of snow till she crashed.
Kenneth Torrance knew a sudden shaking impact; for an instant there was uncertainty; and then came all-pervading quiet....
The Fate of the Peary Quiet, and utter, liquid darkness.
Liquid! Around him, Ken heard a gurgling, at first loud and close, then subsiding to a low whispering of currents. The amphibian had hit water.
Gone in an instant was the shriek and fury of the storm and in its place the calm, slow-heaving silence of underwater. The plane was shattered in a dozen places, but the torpoon had easily stood it.
Ken turned to action. He switched on the torpoon's dashboard lights and twin bow-beams, and saw that the shell was wedged in the fuselage. The plane was apparently entirely under the surface, and her interior filled with water.
Holding the propeller in neutral, he revved up the powerful electric motor. Then he bit the propeller in, slowly. The torpoon nudged back for inches. Then, throwing the gear into forward, Ken gave her full speed. The torpoon leaped ahead, crunched through the weakened corner ahead and was free.
It was a world of drab tones that she came into. Down below was impenetrable blackness, shading softly overhead into blue-gray which was mottled by lighter areas from breaks in the floes above. All was calm. There was no sign of life save for an occasional vague shadow that, melting swiftly away, might have been a fish or seaweed. Placid always, would be this shrouded sea of mystery, no matter what furious tempest raged above over the flat leagues of ice and water.
But the seeming peacefulness was but a mask for danger. Kenneth Torrance's face was set in sober lines as he sped the slim torpoon northward, her bow lights shafting long white fingers before her. For now there was only one path--and that lay ahead. He could not turn back. Storm and water had destroyed the plane that could take him back to land. He could not possibly reach any outpost of civilization in the torpoon, for her cruising radius was only twenty hours. He had planned to land the amphibian on the ice above the spot where the Peary had disappeared, then find a break in the ice and slide down below in the torpoon on his quest--to return to the plane if it proved fruitless. But now there was no retreat. It was succeed, or die.
And with that realization a more dreadful thought flashed into his mind. All those men, of the whaling company and the sanitarium, thought him a little crazy. And, since lunatics are always convinced of the reality of their visions, what if the sealmen--his adventure amidst them--had been but a dream, a nightmare, an hallucination? What if he were in truth crazy? The fear grew rapidly. What if he were? God! He, hunting for the Peary, when all those planes and men had failed! He, expecting to achieve what those searchers, with far greater resources, had not been able to! Did not that give evidence that his mind was twisted? Creatures, half-seal, half-men, living under the ice--it certainly seemed a lunatic's obsession.
Then something within him rose and fought back.
"No!" he cried aloud. "I'll go bugs if I think like that! Those sealmen were real--and I know where they are. I'm going on!"
And, an hour later, the dashboard's shaded dials told him he was on the exact spot where the Peary had last reported....
Here was the real Arctic, the real polar sea. No sun, no breath of the world above could reach it through its eternal mask of solid ice. As one of the few unfamiliar aspects of the earth, it was as far removed from the imagination of man as if it were part of a far planet hung spinning millions of miles out in space. Men could reach it in shells of metal, but it was not meant for him, and was always hostile. A dozen times a daring one could cross safely its cold lonely reaches, but the thirteenth time it would snare and destroy him for the unwanted trespasser he was.
It was here that the Peary had stepped off into mystery. At this point her hull had throbbed with air, movement, life; at this point all had been well. And then, minutes or hours later, close to here, the sea devil had sprung.
What had happened? What had trapped her? What, even more baffling, had kept her men with their manifold safety devices from even reaching and climbing up on the ice above to signal the searching planes?
Ken Torrance, oppressively alone in the hovering torpoon, gazed through its vision-plate of fused quartz around him. Gray sea, filtering to black beneath; distant eerie shadows, probably meaning nothing, but possibly all important; ceiling of thick ice above, rough and in places broken by a sharp down-thrusting spur--these were his surroundings. These were what he must hunt through, until he came upon the crumpled remnant of a submarine, or the murky, rounded hillocks which gave habitation to the creatures he suspected of capturing that submarine's crew.
He began the search systematically. He angled the torpoon down to a position halfway between sea-floor and ice-ceiling, then swung her in an ever-widening circle. Soon his orbit had a diameter of a half-mile; then a mile; then two.
The torpoon slipped through the water at full speed, her light-beams like restless antennae, now stabbing to the right to dissolve a formless shadow, now to the left to throw into blinding white relief a school of half-transparent fish which scurried with frantic wrigglings of tails from the glare, now slanting up to bathe the cold glassy face of an inverted ice-hill, now down to dig two white holes in the deeper gloom.
Ken continued this routine for hours. Steadily and low the electric motor droned in the ears of the watchful pilot, and the stubby propeller's blades flashed round in a blur of speed between the slightly slanted rudders. Somewhere, miles away, a splintered amphibian plane was slipping down to her last landing, and above, perhaps, the white hell of storm which had brought her low still bowled over the trackless wastes; but here were only shadows and shifting gloom, straining the alert eyes to soreness and tensing the watcher's brain with alarms that, one after another, were only false.
Until at last he found her.
Immediately he shut off all his lights. He no longer needed them. Far in the distance, and below, wavered a faint yellow glow. It was no fish; it could mean only one thing--the lights of a submarine.
And lights meant life! There would be none burning in a deserted submarine. His heart beat fast and his tight, sober lips widened in a quick grin. He had found the Peary! And found her with some life still aboard her! He was in time!
So Ken rejoiced while he slid the torpoon down to a level just a few feet above the silty sea bottom, reducing her to quarter-speed. There was an urge inside him to switch on his bow-beams, reach them out toward the submarine's hull to tell all within that help was at last at hand; he wanted to send the torpoon ahead at full speed. But caution restrained him to a more deliberate course. He was in the realm of the sealmen, and he did not wish to attract the attention of any. So he advanced like a furtive shadow slinking along the dark sea-bottom, deep in the covering gloom.
Nearer and nearer, while the distant blur of yellow light grew. Nearer and nearer to the long-trapped men, while the consciousness that he had succeeded intoxicated him. He alone had found them! Sealmen or no sealmen, he had found the Peary! And found her with lights lit and life inside! Nearer and nearer....
And then suddenly Ken halted the torpoon and stared with wide, alarmed eyes. For the submarine was now plainly visible in detail--and he saw her real plight and with it knew the answer to the mystery of her long silence and the non-appearance of her men on the ice field above.
The Peary was a spectacle of fantastic beauty. It was as if a huge, rounded piece of amber, mellow, golden, lay in the murk of the sea-floor. Not steel, hard and grim, but of transparent, shimmering stuff she was built, all coated a soft yellow by her lights, clearly visible inside. Ken had known something of her radical construction; knew that a substance called quarsteel, similar to glass and yet fully as tough as steel, had been used for her hull, making her a perfect vehicle for undersea exploration. Her bow was capped with steel, and her stern, propellers, diving rudders; her port-locks, for the releasing of torpoons, were also of steel, as were the struts that braced her throughout--but the rest was quarsteel, glowing and golden as the heart of amber.
Beautiful with a wild yet scientific beauty was the Peary, but she was not free. She was trapped. She was fastened to the mud of the gloomy sea-floor.
Ropes held her down; and Ken Torrance knew those ropes of old. They were tough and strong, woven of many strands of seaweed, and twenty or thirty of them striped the Peary's two hundred feet of hull. Unevenly spaced, stretched clear over the ship from one side to the other, they were caught around her up-jutting conning tower, fastened through her rudders, and holding tight in a score of places. They held the submarine down despite all the buoyancy of her emptied tanks and the power of her twin propellers.
And the sealmen swam around her.
Restless dark shadows against the golden hull, they wavered and darted and poised, totally unafraid. Another in Kenneth Torrance's place would have put them down as some strange school of large seals, inordinately curious but nothing more; but the torpooner knew them as men--men remodeled into the shape of seals; men who, ages ago, had forsaken the land for the old home of all life, the sea; who, through the years, had gradually changed in appearance as their flesh had become coated with layers of cold-resisting blubber; whose movements had become adapted to the water; whose legs and arms had evolved into flippers; but whose heads still harbored the now faint spark of intelligence that marked them definitely as men.
Emotions similar to man's they had, though dulled; friendliness, curiosity, anger, hate, and--Ken knew and feared--even a capacity for vengeance. Vengeance! An eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth--the old law peculiar to man! Chanley Beddoes had slain one of them; if only the Peary's crew had not killed more! If only that, there might be hope!
First he must get inside the submarine. Warily, like a stalking cat, Ken Torrance inched the torpoon toward the great shining ship. At least he was in time. Within her he could see figures, most of them stretched out on the decks of her different compartments, but one of whom occasionally moved--slowly. He understood that. For weeks now the Peary had lain captive, and her air had passed beyond the aid of rectifiers. Tortured, those survivors inside were, constantly struggling for life, with vitality ever sinking lower. Some might already be dead. But at least he could try to save the rest.
He approached her from one side of the rear, for in the rear compartment were her two torpoon port-locks. The one on his side was empty, its outer door open. The torpoon it had held had been sent out, probably for help, and had not returned. It provided a means of entrance for him.
At perhaps a hundred feet from the port-lock, Ken halted again. His slim craft was almost indistinguishable in the murk: he felt reasonably safe from discovery. For minutes he watched the swimming sealmen, waiting for the best chance to dart in.
It was then, while studying the full length of the submarine more closely, that he saw that one compartment of her four was filled with water. Her steel-caped bow had been stove in. That, he conjectured, had been the original accident which had brought her down. It was not a fatal accident in itself, for there were three other compartments, all separated by watertight bulkheads, and the flooded one could be repaired by men in sea-suits--but then the sealmen had come and roped her down where she lay. Some of the creatures, he saw, were actually at that time inside the bow compartment, swimming around curiously amidst the clustered pipes, wheels and levers. It was a weird sight, and one that held his eyes fascinated.
But suddenly, through his absorption, danger prickled the short hairs of his neck. A lithe, sinuous shadow close ahead was wavering, and large, placid brown eyes were staring at him. A sealman! He was discovered! And instinctively, immediately, Ken Torrence brought the torpoon's accelerator down flat.
The shell jumped ahead with whirling propeller. The creature that had seen him doubled around and sped in retreat. In brief snatches, as the torpoon streaked across the hundred-foot gap to the empty port-lock, Ken glimpsed his discoverer gathering a group of its fellows, and saw brown-skinned bodies swarm after him with nooses of seaweed-rope--and then the great transparent side wall of the Peary was before him, and the port-locks dark opening. Ken threw his motor into reverse, slid the torpoon slightly to one side, and there was a jerk, a jar, and a sensation of something moving behind.
He turned to see the port-lock's outer door closing, activated by controls inside the submarine--and just in time to shut out the first of his pursuers. Then the port-lock's pumps were draining the water from the chamber, and the inner door clicked and opened.
Kenneth Torrance climbed stiffly from the torpoon to enter the interior of the long-lost and besieged exploring submarine Peary.
"No Chance Left"
His entrance was an unpleasant experience. He had forgotten the condition of the air inside the submarine, and what its effect on him, coming straight from comparatively good and fresh air, would be, until he was seized by a sudden choking grip around his throat. He reeled and gasped, and was for a minute nauseated. Lights flashed around him, and teetering backward he leaned weakly, against some metal object until gradually his head cleared; but his lungs remained tortured, and his breathing a thing of quick, agonised gulps.
Then came sounds. Figures appeared before him.
"From where--" "Who are you?"
"What--what--what--" "How did you?"
The half-coherent questions were couched in whispers. The men around him were blear-eyed and haggard-faced, their skins dry and bluish, and not a one was clad in more than undershirt and trousers. Alive and breathing, they were--but breathing grotesquely, horribly. They made awful noises at it; they panted, in quick, shallow sucks. Some lay on the deck at his feet, outstretched without energy enough to attempt to rise.
Beautiful and slumber-like the submarine had appeared from outside, but inside that effect was lost. There were the usual appurtenances: a maze of pipes, wheels, machinery, all silent now, and cold; here were the two port-locks for torpoons; the emergency steering controls; the small staterooms of the Peary's officers. Looking forward, still striving for complete clear-headedness and normality, Ken could see the two intact forward compartments, silent and apparently lifeless, with dim lamps burning. They ended with the watertight bulkhead which stood between them and the flooded bow compartment.
Ken at last found words, but even his short query cost a sickening effort.
"Where's--the commander?" he asked.
A man turned from where he had been leaning against a nearby wheel control. He was stripped to the waist. His tall body was stooped, and the skin of his ruggedly cut face drawn and parchment-like. His face had once been dignified and authoritative, but now it was that of a man who nears death after a long, bitter fight for life. The smile which he gave to Ken was painful--a mockery.
"I am," he said faintly. "Sallorsen. Just wait, please. A minute. I worked port-lock. Breath's gone...."
He sucked shallowly for air and let his smile go. And standing there, beside him, gazing at the worn frame, Ken felt strength come back. He had just entered; this man and the others had been here for weeks!
"I'm Sallorsen," the captain went on at last. All his words were clipped off, to cost minimum effort. "Glad you got through. Afraid you're come to prison, though."
"No!" Ken said emphatically. He spoke to the captain, but what he said was also for all the others grouped around him. "No, Captain! I'm Kenneth Torrance. Once torpooner with Alaska Whaling Company. They thought me crazy--crazy--'cause I told about sealmen. Put me in sanitarium. I knew they had you--when--heard you were missing." He pointed at the brown-skinned creatures that clustered close around the submarine outside her transparent walls. "I got free and came. Just in time."
"In time? For what?"
Another voice gasped out the question. Ken turned to a broad-shouldered man with a ragged growth of beard that had been a trim Van Dyke; and before the torpooner could answer, Sallorsen said: "Dr. Lawson. One of our scientists. In time for what?"
"To get you and the submarine free," said Ken.
Ken paused before replying. He gazed around--out the side walls of glistening quarsteel into the sea gloom, into the thick of the smooth, lithe, brown-skinned shapes that now and again poised pressing against the submarine, peering in with their liquid seal's eyes. Dimly he could see the taut seaweed ropes stretching down from the top of the Peary to the sea-bottom. It looked hopeless, and to these men inside it was hopeless. He knew he must speak in confident, assured tones to drive away the uncaring lethargy holding them all, and he framed definite, concise words with which to do it.
"These creatures have caught you," he began, "and you think they want to kill you. But look at them. They seem to be seals. They're not. They're men! Not men like us--half-men--sealmen, rather--changed into present form by ages of living in the water. I know. I was captured by them once. They're not senseless brutes; they have a streak of man's intelligence. We must communicate with that intelligence. Must reason with them. I did once. I can do it again.
"They're not really hostile. They're naturally peaceful; friendly. But my friend--dead now--killed one of them. Naturally they now think all creatures like us enemies. That's why they trapped your sub.
"They think you're enemies; think you want to kill them. But I'll tell them--through pictures, as I did once before--that you mean them no harm. I'll tell them you're dying and must have air--just as they must. I'll tell them to release submarine and we'll go away and not disturb them again. Above all I must get across that you wish them no harm. They'll listen to what my pictures will say--and let us go--'cause at heart they're friendly!"
He paused--and with a ghastly, twisted smile, Captain Sallorsen whispered: "The hell you say!"
His sardonic comment brought a sudden chill to Kenneth Torrance. He feared one thing that would render his whole value useless. He asked quickly: "What have you done?"
"Those seals," Sallorsen's labored voice continued "--they've killed eight of us. Now they're killing all."
"But have you killed any of them?" Breathless, Ken waited for the answer be feared.
The men were all staring at Ken, so he had to hide the awful dejection which clamped his heart. He only said: "That's what I feared. It changes everything. No use trying to reason with them now." He fell silent. "Well," he said at last, trying to appear more cheerful, "tell me what happened. Maybe there's something you've overlooked."
"Yes," Sallorsen whispered. He started to come forward to the torpooner, but stumbled and would have fallen had not Ken caught him in time. He put one of the captain's arms around his shoulder, and one of his own around the man's waist.
"Thanks," Sallorsen said wryly. "Walk forward. Show you what happened."
There were men in the second compartment, and they still fought to live. From the narrow seamen's berths that lined the walls came the sound of breathing even more torturous than that of the men in the rear. In the single bulb's dim light Ken could see their shapes stretched motionlessly out, panting and panting. Occasionally hands reached up to claw at straining necks, as if to try and rid throats of strangling grasps. Two figures had won free from the long struggle. They lay silent and still, the outline of their dead bodies showing through the sheets pulled over them.
Slowly Sallorsen led Ken through this compartment and into the next, which was bare of men. Here were the ship's main controls--her helm, her central multitude of dials, levers and wheels, her televisiscreen and old-fashioned emergency periscope. A metal labyrinth it was, all long silent and inactive. Again the weird contrast struck Ken, for outside he could still see the scene of vigorous, curious life that the sealmen constituted. Close they came to the submarine's sheer walls of quarsteel, peering in stolidly, then flashing away with an effortless thrust of flippers, sometimes for air from some break in the surface ice.
Like men, the sealmen needed air to live, and got it fresh and clean from the world above. Inside, real men were gasping, fighting, hopelessly, yielding slowly to the invisible death that lay in the poisonous stuff they had to breathe....
Ken felt Sallorsen nudge him. They had come to the forward end of the control compartment, and could go no farther. Before them was the watertight door, in which was set a large pane of quarsteel. The captain wanted him to look through.
Ken did so, knowing what to expect; but even so he was surprised by the strangeness of the scene. In among the manifold devices of the front compartment, its wheels and pipes and levers, glided slowly the sleek, blubbery shapes of half a dozen sealmen. Back and forth they swam, inspecting everything curiously, unhurried and unafraid; and as Ken stared one of them came right up to the other side of the closed watertight door, pressed close to the pane and regarded him with large placid eyes.
Other sealmen entered through a jagged rip in the plates on the starboard side of the bow. At this Sallorsen began to speak again in the short, clipped sentences, punctuated by quick gasps for air.
"Crashed, bow-on," he said. "Underwater ice. Outer and inner plates crumpled like paper. Lost trim and hit bottom. Got this door closed, but lost four men in bow compartment. Drowned. No chance. Sparks among 'em, at his radio. That's why we couldn't radio for help." He paused, gasping shallowly.
"Could've got away if we'd left immediately. One flooded compartment not enough to hold this ship down. But I didn't know. I sent two men out in sea-suits--inspect damage. Those devils got them.
"The seal-things came in a swarm. God! Fast! We didn't realize. They had ropes, and in seconds they'd lashed us down to the sea-floor. Lashed us fast!" Again he paused and sucked for the poisoned air, and Ken Torrance did not try to hurry him, but stood silent, looking forward to the squashed bow, and out the sides to where he could see the taut black lines of the seaweed-ropes.
"The two men put up fight. Had crowbars. Useless--but they killed one of the devils. That did it. They were torn apart in front of us. Ripped. Mangled. By spears the things carry. Dead like that."