Sallorsen and Lawson unquestioningly obeyed. Ken had reached the spirit in them, the strength not physical, that had all but been driven out by the long, hopeless weeks and the poisonous stuff that passed for air, and it had risen and was responding. Sallorsen's voice, for the first time in days, had his old stern tone of command in it as, calling on everything within him, he shouted: "Men, there's still a chance! Everyone into sea-suits! Quick!"
A few of the blue-skinned figures lying panting on the deck looked up. Fewer moved. They did not at once understand. Only four or five dragged themselves with pathetic eagerness towards the pile of sea-suits and the little store of fresh air that remained in them. Sallorsen repeated his command.
"Hurry! Men--you, Hartley and Robson and Carroll--your suits on! There's air in them! Put 'em on!"
And then Lawson was among them, shaking the hopeless, dying forms, rousing them to the chance for life. Several more crawled to obey. By the time the next crash of the torpoon came, eleven out of the twenty-one survivors were working with clumsy, eager fingers at their sea-suits, pushing feet and legs in, drawing the tough fabric up over their bodies, sliding their arms in, and struggling with quick panting breaths to raise the heavy helmets and fasten them into place. Then--air!
Again the ear-shattering crash. The scientist and the captain drove at the rest of the crew. They stumbled, those two fighting men, and twice Lawson went down in a heap as his legs gave under him; but he got up again, and they began dragging the suits to the men who had not even the strength to rise, shoving inert limbs into place, switching on the air-units inside the helmets and, gasping themselves, fastening the helmets down. Theirs was a conflict as cruel, as hard and brutal as men smashing at each other with fists, and they then proved their right to the shining roll of honor, wherever and whatever that roll may be. They fought on past pain, past sickness, past poisoning, that man of action and men of the laboratory.
And outside that foul transparent pit the tempo quickened also. The sledging blows at the last door came quicker. All around the captive Peary the sleek brown bodies stirred uneasily. For weeks there had been but little activity inside the submarine; now, all at once, three of the figures that were men whipped the others into action, rousing those lying dying on the deck--working, working. Observing this, the lithe seal bodies moved with new nervous, restless strokes, to and fro, never pausing--passing up and down in a milling stream the length of the craft, clustering closest outside the walls of the fourth compartment, where they pressed as close as they could, their wide brown eyes already on the haggard forms that worked inside, their smooth bodies patterned by the constantly shifting shadows of their fellows above and behind.
So they watched and waited, while in the third compartment the battered torpoon was slung at the last door, and drawn back, and slung again--waited for the final moment, the crisis of their month-long siege beneath the floes of the silent Arctic sea!
Kenneth Torrance worked by himself.
He saw that Sallorsen and Lawson had answered his call; man after man was clad in his suit and sucking in the incomparably fresher, though artificial, air of the units. As he had hoped, that air was revitalizing the worn-out bodies rapidly, giving them new strength and clearing their brains. His plan required that--strength for the men to move and act for themselves--sane heads!
The plan was basically simple. Bringing his best concentration to the all-important details, Ken started to build the road to the world above.
First he opened the inner door of the starboard port-lock, wherein lay his torpoon. Opening the entrance panel of the steel shell, he quickly transferred within the cans of compressed food retrieved from the second compartment. When he had finished, there was left barely room for the pilot's body.
And then the nitromite.
The explosive was carried by the Peary for the blasting of such ice floes as might trap her. It was contained for chemical stability in a half dozen six-inch-square, water-proof boxes, strung one after another on an interconnecting wired rope. Ken would need them all; he wished he had five times as many. It would not matter if the whole of the Peary were shattered to slivers.
Ken tied the rope of boxes into a strong unit, as small as it could be made. Firing and timing mechanisms were contained in each unit: he would only have to set one of them. He wrapped the whole charge, except for one small corner, in several pieces of the men's discarded clothing--monkey jackets, thick sweaters, a dirty towel--and stuffed it in an empty tin container for sea-biscuits.
All this had taken only minutes. But in those minutes the quarsteel of the watertight door had been subjected to half a dozen smashing blows, and already a flaw had appeared in the pane. Another grinding crunch, and there would be the visible beginning of a crack. Three more, perhaps, and the door would be down.
But the plan was laid, the counter move ready; and, as Sallorsen and Lawson, last of them all, got into suits, Ken Torrance, in short, gasping sentences, explained it.
"All the nitromite's in this," Ken said. "I hope it's enough. In a moment I'll set the timing to explode it in one minute--then eject it from the empty torpoon port-lock. It's a gamble, but I think the explosion should kill every damned seal around the sub. Water carries such shocks for miles, so it should stun, if not kill, all the others within a long radius. See? We're inside sub, largely protected. When the stuff explodes, you and men make for the hole you blew in the ice above."
Another crash sent echoes resounding through the remaining compartment. All around the three were suit-clad figures, grotesque clumsy giants, all feeling new strength as they gulped with leathern throats and lungs at the artificial air which was giving them a respite, however brief, from the death they had been sinking into. In the third compartment of the Peary, five seal-like creatures with swift and beautiful movements picked up their torpoon battering ram again; while all around the outside of the Peary their hundreds of watching fellows pressed in closely.
"Yes!" cried Lawson, the scientist. "But the explosion--it might shatter the ship!"
"No matter; I expect it to!" answered Ken. "Then you can leave through a crack instead of a port-lock."
"Yes--but you!" objected the captain. "Get on a suit!"
"No; I'm jumping into my torpoon in the other port-lock. I've got the food in it. Now, Sallorsen, this is your job. I'll be in my torpoon, but I won't be able to let myself out the port. You open it, right after the explosion. Understand?"
"Yes," replied Sallorsen, and Lawson nodded.
"All right," gasped Ken Torrance. "Empty the chamber." As the captain did so, Ken opened the lid of the biscuit can and adjusted the timing device on the exposed unit in the clothing-wrapped bundle. Then he replaced it, ticking, in the can and thrust the can bodily into the emptied chamber of the port-lock. He closed the inner door of the chamber, and said to the men by him: "Close your face-plates!"
And Ken pushed the release button: and then he was running to the other port-lock and to his torpoon, and harnessing himself in.
His brain teemed with the possibilities of the situation as he lay stretched out in the torpoon, waiting. How much would the submarine be smashed? Would the charge of nitromite, besides killing the sealmen, kill everyone inside the Peary? For that matter, would it affect the sealmen at all? How much could the creatures stand? And would the firing mechanism work? And then would he himself be able to get out; or would the lock in which the torpoon lay be damaged by the explosion and trap him there?
Seconds, only seconds, to wait, small fractions of time--but they were more important than the days and the weeks that the Peary had lain, a lashed-down captive, under the Arctic ice; for in these seconds was to be given fate's final answer to the prayer and courage of them all.
Time for Ken expanded. Surely the charge should have gone off long before this! The pulse beat so loudly in his brain that he could hear nothing else. He counted: "... nine, ten, eleven--" Had the fuse failed? Surely by now--"... twelve, thirteen, fourteen--"
On that the submarine Peary leaped. Ken Torrance, himself inside the torpoon, felt a sharp roll of thunder made tangible, and then complete darkness took him....
The Awakening He had no idea of how long he had been unconscious when, his full senses returning, he eagerly peered ahead through the torpoon's vision-plate. For some seconds he could see nothing; but he knew, at least, that the torpoon had survived the shock, for he was dry and snug in his harness. And then his eyes became accustomed to the darkness, and he saw that he was outside the submarine. Sallorsen had followed his orders; had opened the port-lock! The undersea reaches lay ahead of him, and the way was clear.
Ken stared into a gray, silent sea, no longer shadowed with moving brown-skinned bodies. He tried his motors. Their friendly, rhythmic hum answered him, and carefully he slipped into gear and crept up off the sea-floor. He did not dare use his lights.
The Peary was a great, blurred shadow, a dead thing without glow or movement, with no figures of sealmen around her. As Ken's eyes gained greater vision, he was able to make out a wide, long rent running clear across the top of the fourth compartment of the submarine. The explosion had done that to her, but what had it done to her crew? What had it done to the sealmen?
He saw the sealmen first. Some were quite close, but in the murk he had missed them. Silent specters, they were apparently lifeless, strewn all around at different levels, and most of them floating slowly up toward the dim ice ceiling.
But up under the ice was movement! Living figures were there! And at the sight Kenneth Torrance's lips spread in their first real grin for days. The plan had worked! The sealmen had been destroyed, and already some of the Peary's men were up there and fumbling clumsily across the hundred feet which separated them from the hole in the ice that was the last step to the world above.
A ghostly gray haze of light filtered downward through the water from the hole. Ken counted twelve figures making their way to it. As he wondered about the rest of the crew, he saw three bulging, swaying shapes suddenly emerge from the split in the top of the Peary, and begin an easy rise toward the ice ceiling ninety feet above. There was no apparent danger, and they went up quite slowly, with occasional brief pauses to avoid the risk of the bends. Clasped together, the group of three were, and when they were halfway to the glassy ceiling of the ice, three more left the rent in the submarine and followed likewise. Twelve men were at the top; six others were swimming up; three more were yet to leave the submarine--and after they had abandoned her, he, Ken, would follow with the torpoon and the food it contained.
So he thought, watching from where he lay, down below, and there was in him a great weariness after the triumph so bitterly fought for had been achieved. He rested through minutes of quiet and relaxation, watching what he had brought about; but only minutes--for suddenly without warning all security was gone.
From out the murky shadows to the left a sleek shape came flashing with great speed, to jerk Ken Torrance's eyes around and to widen them with quick alarm.
A sealman! A sealman alive, and moving--and vengeful! A sealman which the explosion of nitromite had not reached!
Doubtless the lone creature was surprised upon seeing all its fellows motionless, drifting like corpses upward, and the men of the Peary escaping. With graceful, beautiful speed, a liquid streak, it flashed into the scene, eeling up and around and down, trying to understand what extraordinary thing had happened. But finally it slowed down and hovered some thirty feet directly above the dark hull of the Peary.
The men rising toward the ice had seen the sealman at the same time Ken Torrance had, and at once increased their efforts, fearing immediate attack. Quickly the two groups shot to the top where the other twelve were, and began a desperate fumbling progress over toward the hole that alone gave exit. But the sealman paid no attention to them. It was looking at something below.
Ken saw what it was.
The last three men were leaving the Peary. Awkward, swaying objects, they rose up directly in front of the hovering creature.
With an enraged thrust of flippers, it drove at them. The three humans--Sallorsen, Lawson and one other, Ken knew they must be--were clasped together, and the long, lithe, muscular body smote them squarely, sent them whirling and helpless in different directions in the sea-gloom. One of them was driven down by the force of the blow, and that one the sealman chose to finish first. It lashed at him, its strong teeth bared to rip the sea-suit, concentrating on him all the rage and all the thirst for vengeance it had.
But by then, down below, the torpoon's motors were throbbing at full power; the thin directional rudders were slanting; the torpoon was turning and pointing its nose upward; and Ken Torrance, his face bleak as the Arctic ice, was grasping the trigger of the nitro-shell gun.
He might perhaps have saved the doomed man had he swept straight up then and fired, but a quick mounting of the odds distracted him for a fatal second. Out of the deeper gloom at the left came a swiftly growing shadow, and Ken, with a sinking in his stomach, knew it for a second sealman.
Then another similar shadow brought his eyes to the right.
Two more sealmen! Three now--and how many more might come?
At once Ken knew what he must do before ever he fired a shell at one of the brown-skinned shapes. The man just attacked had to be sacrificed in the interests of the rest. The torpoon swerved, thrust up toward the ice ceiling under the full force of her motors; and when halfway to it, and her gun-containing bow was pointed at a spot in the ice only twenty feet in front of the foremost of the men stroking desperately towards the distant exit-hole, Ken pressed the trigger; and again, and again and again....
Twelve shells, quick, on the same path, bit into the ice. Almost immediately came the first explosion. It was swelled by the others. The ice shivered and crumbled in jagged splinters--and then there was a new column of light reaching down from the world of air and life into the darkness of the undersea. A roughly circular hole gaped in the ice sixty or seventy feet nearer the swimming men than the old one.
"That'll give 'em a chance," muttered Kenneth Torrance. He plunged the torpoon around and down. "And now for a fight!"
Without pause, now, there was, straight ahead, a hard, desperate duel, a fitting last fight for any torpoon or any man riding one. Each of the seven shells left in the nitro-gun's magazine had to count; and the first of them gave a good example.
Ken turned down in time to see the death of the man first attacked. His suit was ripped clean across, his air of life went up in bubbles, and the water came in. The seal-creature lunged at its falling victim a last time, and as it did so its smooth brown body crossed Ken's sights. The torpooner fired, and saw his shell strike home, for the body shuddered, convulsed, and the sealman, internally torn, went sinking in a dark cloud after the human it had slain.
That sight gave pause to the other two creatures that had arrived, and gave Ken Torrance a good second chance. Motor throbbing, the torpoon turned like a thing alive. Its snout and gun-sights swerving straight toward the next target. But, when just on the point of pressing the trigger, Ken's torpoon was struck a terrific blow and tumbled over and over. The whole external scene blurred to him, and only after a moment was he able to bring the torpoon back to an even keel.
He saw what had happened. While he had been sighting on the second seal-creature, the third had attacked the torpoon from the rear by striking it with all the strength of its heavy, muscular body. But it did not follow up its attack. For it had crashed in to the whirling propeller, and now it was hanging well back, its head horribly gashed by the steel blades.
For a moment the three combatants hung still, both sealmen staring at the torpoon as if in wonder that it could strike both with its bow and stern, and Ken Torrance rapidly glancing over the situation. The remaining two of the last group of three men, he saw, had reached the top, and the foremost of the Peary's crew were within several feet of the new hole in the ice. In a very short time all would be out and safe. Until then he had to hold off the two sealmen.
Two? There were no longer only two, but five--ten--a dozen--and more. The dead were coming to life!
Here and there in the various levels of drifting, motionless brown bodies that he thought the explosion had killed, one was stirring, awakening! The explosion had but stunned many or most of them, and now they were returning to consciousness!
The Duel Upon seeing this, all hope for life left Ken. He had only six shells left, and at best he could kill only six sealmen. Already, there were more than twenty about him, completely encircling the torpoon. They seemed afraid of it, and yet desirous of finishing it--they hung back, watching warily the thing that could strike and hurt from either end; but Ken knew, of course, that he could not count on their inaction long. One concerted charge would mean his quick end, and the death of most of the men above.
Well, there was only one thing to do--try to hold them off until those men above had climbed out, every one.
With this plan in mind, he maneuvered for a commanding position. Quietly he slid his motor into gear, and slowly the torpoon rose. At this first movement, the wall of hesitating brown bodies broke back a little. It quickly pressed in again, however, as the torpoon came to a halt where Ken wanted it--a position thirty feet beneath, and slightly to one side, of the escaping men above, with an angle of fire commanding the area the sealmen would have to cross to attack them.
Almost at once came action. One of the surrounding creatures swerved suddenly up toward the men. Instinctively angling the torp, Ken sent a nitro-shell at it; and the chance aim was good. The projectile caught the sealman squarely, and, after the convulsion, it began to drift downward, its body torn apart.
"That'll teach you, damn you!" Ken muttered savagely, and, to heighten the effect he had created, he brought his sights to bear on another sealman in the circle around him--and fired and killed.
This sight of sudden death told on the others. They grew obviously more fearful and gave back, though still forming a solid circle around the torpoon. The circle was ever thickening and deepening downward as more of those that the explosion had rendered unconscious returned to life.
And then, above, the first man reached the hole, clawed at its rough edges and levered himself through.
That was a signal. From somewhere beneath, two brown bodies flashed upward in attack. Fearing a general rush at any second, Ken fired twice swiftly. One shell missed, but the other slid to its mark. Almost alongside its fellow, one of the creatures was shattered and torn, and that evidently altered the other's intentions, for it abandoned the attack and sought safety in the mass of its fellows on the farther side.
Another respite. Another man through the hole. And but two nitro-shells left!
The deadly circle, like wolves around a lone trapper who crouches close to his dying fire, pressed in a little; and by their ominous quietness, by the sight of their eyes all turned in on him, their concerted inching closer, Ken sensed the nearness of the charge that would finish him. All this in deep silence, there in the gloomy quarter-light. He could not yell and brandish his fists at them as the trapper by the fire might have done to win a few extra minutes. The only cards he had to play were two shells--and one was needed now!
He fired it with deliberate, sure aim, and grunted as he saw its victim convulse and die, with dark blood streaming. Again the swarm hesitated.
Ken risked a glance above. Only three men left, he saw; and one was pulled through the hole as he watched. Below, in one place, several seal-creatures surged upward.
"Get back, damn you!" he cursed harshly. "All right--take it! That's the last!"
And the last shell hissed out from the gun even as the last man, above, was pulled through up into the air and safety.
Ken felt that he had given half his life with that final shell. Completely surrounded by a hundred or more of the sealmen, he could not possibly hope to maneuver the torpoon up to the hole in the ice and leave it, without being overwhelmed. He had held off the swarm long enough for the others to escape, but for himself it was the end.
So he thought, and wondered just when that end would come. Soon, he knew. It would not take them long to overcome their fear when they saw that he no longer reached out and struck them down in sudden bloody death. Now it was their turn.
"Anyway," the torpooner murmured, "I got 'em out. I saved them."
But had he? Suddenly his mind turned up a dreadful thought. He had saved them from the sealmen, but they were up on the ice without food. There had been no time to apportion rations in the submarine; all the supplies were stacked around him in the torpoon!
Searching planes would eventually appear overhead, but if he could not get the food up to the men it meant their death as surely as if they had stayed locked in the Peary!
But how could he do it without shells, and with that living wall edging inch by inch upon him, visibly on the brink of rushing him. Some carried ropes with which they would lash the torpoon down as they had the others. Must all he and those men had gone through, be in vain? Must he die--and the others? For certainly without food, those men above on the lonely ice fields, all of them weakened by the long siege in the submarine, would perish quickly....
And then a faintly possible plan came to him. It involved an attempt to bluff the seal-creatures.
Thirty feet above the lone man in the torpoon was the hole he had blasted in the ice. He knew that from the cone of light which filtered down; he did not dare to take his eyes for a second from the creatures around him, for all now depended on his judging to a fraction just when the lithe, living wall would leap to overwhelm him.
Now the torpoon was enclosed by what was more a sphere of brown bodies than a circle. But it was not a solid sphere. It stretched thinly to within a few feet of the ice ceiling where, in one place, was the hole Ken had blown in the ice.
He began to play the game. He edged the gears into reverse, gently angled the diving-planes, and slowly the torpoon tilted in response and began to sink back to the dark sea-floor.
Motion appeared in the curved facade of sleek brown heads and bodies in front and to the sides. The creatures behind and below, Ken could not see; he could only trust to the fear inspired by the damage his propeller had wreaked on one of them, to hold them back. However, he could judge the movements of those behind and below by the synchronized movements of those in front; for the sealmen, in this tense siege, seemed to move as one--just as they would move as one when a leader got the courage to charge across the gap to the torpoon.
In reverse, slowly, the torpoon backed downward. Every minute seemed a separate eternity of time, for Ken dared not move fast at this juncture, and he needed to retreat not less than fifty feet.