The Silent Ray A strange shape had suddenly materialized on the screen--an immense, oval-shaped thing of dull metal, with great curving cuts of glass-like substance in its blunt bow, like staring eyes; a lifeless, staring thing, stretching far into the curtain of gloom behind. How long it was, Keith could not tell; at first his numb brain refused to grasp it and reduce it to definite, sane standards of size and length. The cold weeds of the sea-floor kelp beds swayed eerily over and around it. From its bow, he saw, peculiar knobs jutted, the function of which he guessed with dread.
Was it waiting with a purpose? Was it waiting--and inviting attack?
A frightened whisper from Hemmy Bowman broke the hush: "Keith, the thing has ports, but shows no lights! What kind of creatures can they be?"
As he spoke, the three men in the control room felt the unmistakable, jarring tingle of an electric shock. And while their nerves still jumped, it came again; and again. They were conscious of a slight feeling of drowsiness.
Keith gaped at Bowman and Brown, and then a flash on the teleview screen drew his eyes. There, against the blackness of its otherwise inanimate hulk, one of the jutting knobs on the bow of the mysterious submarine was glowing and pulsing with orange life! With it came the tingling shock again. It flicked off as they watched, then returned and went once more.
"They're attacking, but thank God the shock was harmless!" Wells said grimly. "All right; they've asked for it: I'm going to see how they like the taste of a torpedo!"
The two submarines were resting on the ocean floor with perhaps two hundred feet between them. The NX-1's bow tubes were not exactly in line to score a direct hit; she would have to be maneuvered slightly to port. The range was short; the explosion from the torpedoes would be titanic.
Keith punched the control studs, ordering the men below to assume firing stations. Then, while waiting for the NX-1 to shift, he studied the teleview screen to sight the range exactly. The black dot which represented the enemy craft was not directly on the crossed hair-lines of the dial-like range-finder, but shifting the NX-1 a few feet would bring it to the perfect firing point.
But the NX-1 did not budge.
Surprised, her commander swung and looked at Bowman. "What the devil?" he cried. "Did that shock--?" He left the dread thought unfinished and leaped to the speaking tubes.
"Craig! Jones! Wetherby!" he yelled. "Men! Don't you hear me? Aren't you--"
He broke off, wordless, waiting for an answer that did not come, then sprang to the connecting ramp and ran to the deck below.
The scene he found halted him abruptly in his tracks. Every member of the crew was sprawled on the deck, in grotesque, limp postures. They had been standing rigidly at posts, he saw, when the thing, whatever it was, had struck. Without a sound, without a single cry of alarm, the NX-1's crew had been laid low!
The commander slowly advanced to the deck and stared more closely at the upturned faces around him. He saw that every man's eyes were open.
Bending over one still form, he pressed his hand on the heart. It was beating! The man was alive! Amazed, he moved to another and another: they were all breathing, slowly and regularly--were all alive! A curious look in their eyes staggered him for a moment. He could swear that they recognized him, knew he was staring at them--for every single pair was alight with intelligence, and Keith fancied he saw gleams of recognition.
"It must have been a paralyzing ray!" he gasped. "A thing our scientists've been trying to develop for years.... And that monster outside knows the secret...." He lifted an arm of the inert figure at his feet; when he released the grip, it flopped limply back to the deck again.
"Keith! Come back, quick!"
Startled, the commander turned to find Hemingway Bowman at the top of the connecting ramp, his face distorted with alarm.
"For God's sake, come back quick!" he yelled again. "Down there the ray might get you!"
With the words, Wells leaped to the ramp and raced to the control room. He had no sooner made it than he felt again the queer tingle of the electric charge. He found himself trembling. Bowman's face was white. His words came stuttering.
"One second later and they'd have got you.... They got Sparks in his cubby.... You see, the ray doesn't affect us in the control room because--"
"Because the Gibson insulation that protects the instruments keeps it out!" Keith finished grimly. "I see!"
Just then a slight jar ran through the submarine. Coincident with it came a cry from Brown, the helmsman. His arm was pointed at the teleview.
There they saw the enemy's mighty dirigible of metal was now within thirty feet of the NX-1. It had crept up silently, without warning. And, spanning the short gulf between them, an arm of webbed metal craned from the other's huge bow, hooking tightly into the American submarine's forward hawser holes!
As they took this in, the enemy ship moved away and the arm of metal tightened. The NX-1 shuddered. And, at first slowly, but with ever increasing speed, she got under way and slid after her captor. They were being towed away. Kidnaped! Men, submarine and all!
Keith Wells mopped sweat from a hot brow and rapidly reviewed his weapons. He was sorely restricted. Through an emergency system the NX-1 could be propelled and maneuvered from her control room; but the torpedo tubes needed local attendance.
"Hemmy, reverse engines," he jerked, himself spinning over a small wheel. "Let's see if we can out-pull the devil!"
At once they felt the shock of the paralyzing ray, and then the surging whine of the Edsel electrics pulsed up and in the teleview screen they watched the grim struggle of ship against ship.
Imperceptibly, almost, as her screws cut in and churned, the forward progress of the NX-1 was slowing, the speed of the other being cut down, until finally they but barely forged ahead. Slowly, ever so slowly they were out-pulled; inch by inch they were dragged ahead. Their motors could not hold even.
"She's more powerful than we!" Wells' bitter voice spoke. "Damn!" He thought desperately, while Bowman and Brown stared at the fantastic tale the teleview spelled out.
Again the paralyzing shock tingled, an intangible jailer that bound them, more surely than steel bars, to the control room. To dare that streaming barrage meant instant impotence, and perhaps, later, death....
"Our two bow torpedoes," Keith mused slowly. "We're a bit close, but it's our only chance. The ray comes at intervals of about a minute; the torps are ready for firing. If one of us could dash forward and discharge 'em.... Brown, that's you!"
The petty officer met his commander's gaze levelly. He smiled. "Yes, sir, I'm ready!" he said.
"Good! It'll have to be quick work, though; I'll try and keep the sub pointed straight. Wait for the ray, then run like hell!"
The first officer took over the helm and Brown stepped to the forward ladder, waiting for the periodic ray to be discharged.
The odd tingle came and vanished. "Now!" Wells roared, and Brown leaped down the thin steel rungs.
He staggered at the bottom from the force of his impact, then straightened and raced madly forward. Through the drone of the motors the two officers could hear the staccato beat of his feet.
But their eyes were glued to the teleview. Through clutching beds of seaweed the enemy submarine was ploughing. Her great, smooth bow lay straight ahead, metal hawser arm spanning the thirty feet between them. In another second, Keith thought grimly, two dynamite packed tubes of sudden death would thunderbolt into that hull, and-- Brown pulled the lever.
The tubes spat out compressed air; a scream ran through the submarine; and the two steel fish leaped from their sheaths, their tiny props roaring. Over the narrow gulf they shot; the range was short, their target dead ahead--and yet by bare inches they missed!
No answering roar bellowed back. Keith had watched their course; had seen them flash by the enemy's bow, flicking it with their rudders, but nothing more. "Why?" he cried. And, as Bowman moved his hands in a hopeless gesture, he saw in the teleview the reason.
It was a jagged pinnacle of rock, which, just before Brown had fired, had been straight ahead. The towing monster had seen it and veered sharply to avoid crashing. The barest change of course, yet sufficient to avoid the torpedoes....
Wells and Bowman were cursing savagely when the sound of Brown, racing desperately aft, jerked the commander to the ladder. He saw the petty officer at its foot. "Hurry!" Wells shouted. "The ray!"
Brown grasped the steel rungs and scrambled upward, but he was too late. The fatal charge tingled. A peculiar, surprised expression washed over his face; his hands loosened their grip. For a second his eyes looked questioningly at his commander; a faint sigh escaped him; and then his arms flung out, his body relaxed, and he slumped like a slab of meat to the deck below....
Keith Wells saw red. Blind to everything, he was just about to charge down the ladder to himself re-load the forward tubes when the grip of Hemmy Bowman's hand stayed him. The thing Hemmy was staring at in the teleview screen sobered him completely.
The wall of rock to which the enemy submarine had first been charging had become visible, soaring vastly from the gloom of the sea-floor. And the monster was towing them straight into a dark, jagged cleft at its base.
"It's a cavern!" Keith breathed. "A split in the rock--the lair of that devil. And we're being dragged into it!"
Sacrifice At that moment Keith Wells knew fear. Each second they were being hauled closer to the monster's dim lair. It lay there, dark, mysterious, fingered by gently swaying, clammy kelp. A hushed solitude seemed to reign over it, aweing all undersea life from the vicinity.... Wells turned his head to meet Bowman's eyes, and read in them a silent question.
He groaned in the agony of his mind. In a few minutes, all would be over. Once the NX-1 was dragged into that dark cavern there'd be no chance of escaping to warn the world above, of saving the submarine. What now? The question brought beads of sweat to his tormented brow. He, Keith Wells, standing impotently by while his ship, the pride of the service, was hauled inch by inch to some strange doom!
Racked by these thoughts, he murmured tortured, jerky phrases, unconscious he was giving voice to the things that flogged his brain.
"What can I do? I've got to save my ship--I've got to get back to break the news--I've got to tell the world! But how? How--" His expression changed suddenly. "That's it! That hawser arm between us must be broken!"
First Officer Hemingway Bowman's clear voice broke in on the older man's thoughts with that one crisp word. Keith swung to find the other's eyes fixed levelly on his.
"You're right, Keith. The hawser arm must be broken; with a depth charge, of course. It's the only way.
"To attach a depth charge," he continued evenly, "a man must leave the ship. You can't, Keith. It will be me."
The commander did not speak. "I'll put on a sea-suit," Hemmy went on quickly, eyes lighting. "You tip the submarine and I'll slide out the conning tower exit port on the lee side, so they can't see me, and worm forward through the kelp. We're almost holding them even; that'll be easy. I'll be protected from the paralyzing shock until the last second, and it may not get me outside; that'll have to be chanced. The hawser arm's only some ten feet above the sea-floor; I can reach it with a hook on the charge." He paused.
"I'll attach it; and when it bursts I'll try to get back and grab that ring on the midships exit port, and you can let me in when we get to the surface. But if I take too long, Keith--if I miss--you beat it without me. You understand? Beat it!"
He gazed straight at his friend. "Understand, Keith?"
Commander Keith Wells bowed his head in acquiescence. He was afraid that if he met Hemmy Bowman's steady eyes he'd make a fool of himself....
Hemmy glanced at the screen once more, shivering as he saw how near the black cavern was. Then he moved rapidly, playing the cards carefully for his gamble with death. He had to: the trumps were in the other hand.
From the locker where their sea-suits were stowed he grabbed his own, and with quick fingers ripped the slides and fitted it on. A sheath of yellow Lestofabrik, its weighted feet and gleaming casque transformed his slim figure into a giant such as might stalk through a nightmare. Built cunningly into the helmet was a tiny radio transmitter and receiver, with a range of a quarter-mile; hugging to the shoulders, inside nestled the air-making mechanism, its tiny generators already in motion. Around the helmet was fastened a small removable undersea-light. The wrists of the suit were very flexible, permitting the freest motion.
Once in the suit, Hemmy smiled through the still-opened face-shield.
"Got the depth charge ready, Keith? Make it fast--that cavern's near!... Good!"
Silently the commander fitted the black bomb to his friend's shoulders. It was timed to fire a minute after being set. A long wire hook craned from its top, and this hook Bowman would fasten on the hawser arm.
"Without Sparks, I guess I'll have to communicate with you through portable," Keith said, and quickly donned one of the tiny portable sets.
"Right. Ready, Keith."
Bowman started his awkward, crawling progress up the ladder into the conning tower just above, Keith helping from behind. When they stood before the exit port on the lee side, Wells shot back its bolts and the door swung open, revealing the black emptiness of the water chamber. The commander gazed for a second into Bowman's eyes. The moment had come.
Keith turned his head away, felt a hand grip his. He wrung it tightly....
Bowman clumped into the chamber.
The commander closed and locked the door, and he heard the streaming water pour in as Hemmy turned the valve. Then Wells sped down the ladder and tilted the diving and course rudders of the submarine.
She swayed daintily over to port; held there. A moment later the recurring electric tingle brushed him. Had the enemy seen Bowman leave? Had the ray struck him down?
He glared into the teleview. "Thank God!" he breathed. For Hemmy had already slid down the NX-1's smooth hull and was safe on the sea-floor beside her.
"Everything right?" Wells asked, speaking into the microphone of his portable.
"All O.K.," came the answer. "Going forward now. Kelp thick as hell."
Keith's eyes bored at the screen. This misshapen monster who was his friend! Almost obscured by bands of thick-leaved kelp the yellow form moved, hands clearing a pathway through the weeds. Slowly but surely he made for the bow of the submersible.
"Hard going, Keith. God--the cavern's right ahead!"
It was ghostly to hear Hemmy's warm voice from the lifeless solitude outside. Breath coming quickly, Wells watched the silent scene--the cleft in the wall of rock overshadowing everything now. The diver fought ahead, gaining inch by inch.
Now, save for occasional clumps of weed, he was exposed to the enemy.... Now the last desperate gauntlet was reached.... Keith felt his blood pound hotly.
"I'm gaining, Keith. Gaining...."
Bowman had little breath for speech. His tiny form battled on, now sinking from sight as he dropped into some masked gully, now wrestling slowly with great swaying strands of kelp, but always struggling ahead.
"I'm at the bow, Keith! The hawser arm's right in our mooring holes. I'll go halfway before fastening the charge. Any signs of life from the devil?"
"None yet, Hemmy. But go slow. Hide all you can, old man, for God's sake!..."
Right beneath the metal arm, Bowman's dwarfed figure crept doggedly ahead. Forward, inch by breathless inch. Kelp thickened, washed away; the two hulking submersibles, captor and captive, surged onward--but just a little faster went the valiant figure with the black charge on its back.
The towing monster had its snout in the cavern. The darkness thickened. Bowman was quarter way!
He plunged desperately. Half way!