McKegnie's voice was much louder now, and growing every second. The note of pride persisted. "Of course, sir!" he confirmed. "It was kind of hard at first, with these octopises botherin' me, but I got onto it pretty quick. That octopis ship chased me with them heat rays for a long time, but I ain't seen them lately. I guess I kinda tired them out."
His last words grew louder with a rush, and from the dark depths beneath a long shape suddenly appeared, hurtling up at the group of astounded men in a zoom that bade fair to take it straight through the ceiling. It was the NX-1.
"Dive, man, dive!" Keith yelled. "Cook, pull that black-handled lever towards you! Yank it back! Yank it back! Quick!" He sighed with relief as he saw his madly-driven submarine pause, whip its nose downward, and crash back for the depths from which it had come.
The commander spoke rapidly. "McKegnie, listen: Leave the black lever halfway, so you'll level out. Straighten your helm. We're only a little above you; come round in a circle till I tell you to stop."
The NX-1 came out of her dive, and, as the cook evidently shoved her helm over, went skirting around in a wide, drunken circle, some thousand feet below her regular crew.
"All right!" Keith shouted. The fear that the octopi submarine would dart back before he could get aboard his ship was looming in his mind. "You're at the helm, Cook; there's a wheel right over your head. Spin it around--oh, my God, there you go again!" He groaned while the NX-1 went swooping off on a repetition of her crazy circle.
"Sorry, sir," the culinary navigator said thickly. "I guess I got the wrong thing."
"Now!" Wells roared. "Spin that wheel above your head.... That's right--right--there! Don't touch a thing, Cook! We're coming down."
The submarine had paused directly beneath them, listing slightly to port. Then began the cautious business of the descent. Under Wells' rapid orders the men linked arms again and discharged more air from their sea-suits. Slowly, thin chains of bubbles rising behind them, they sank towards the dim shape of the NX-1 below. Wells' eyes kept probing the thick gloom far beneath. Every moment he expected to see it disgorge a swarm of octopi.
They neared the submarine, and saw numberless pitted spots in her body, where the heat ray had stabbed for a moment. In their excitement they missed their level by some feet, but clutching together they admitted more air and soon rose even with the starboard exit port.
"Swim forward," Keith ordered. "Hurry!" The weird figures groped clumsily, and very slowly neared the port. The commander, in the van, at last reached out and gripped its jutting external controls. He could not work them at first: his hands were numb and awkward.
As he tugged and struggled with them a shout rang in his headphone. It was McKegnie, scared to death.
"Oh, hurry, Mr. Wells!" he yelled. "Quick! Quick, please! The octopis ship's comin', sir! The red light's back!"
To the Death The emergency steadied Keith's fingers. He got the door open and motioned Graham and six men inside the water chamber. The passage took but a minute. Then he sent the rest of the crew in, being himself the last to enter. When the chamber was finally empty, and Wells had stepped through the inner door onto the lower deck of the NX-1, a great sigh of relief broke from him. Never before had anything looked so good as that brilliantly lit deck with its familiar maze of machinery and bulkheads.
"Thank God," he said simply, and his joy was shared by the whole crew. A new feeling had come over them. Back home--in their own submarine, their own element--they had at least a fighting chance with the octopi. But Keith let them waste no time. He knew that a final, desperate duel to the death with their foe still was ahead. "Above to the control room," he ordered. "Fast!"
They lumbered up the connecting ramp. A disheveled, wild-eyed form met them. Keith couldn't help chuckling as he passed the now much thinner and paler cook, with the arsenal handy at his waist. On the deck of the control room lay a huge tentacled body, metal-scaled, with its dome of glass shattered and its great cold eyes staring unseeingly away. "I killed him," stammered McKegnie pridefully; "but Mr. Wells--look at that red light, sir!"
Keith glanced rapidly at the location chart, ripping off his sea-suit as he did. The fateful red stud was moving swiftly down on the motionless green one. The men had surrounded McKegnie, laughing and slapping him on the back, but the commander's terse orders jerked them abruptly back to action.
"The rectifiers, Graham: clean out this stale air. Sea-suits off; at emergency posts. Take the helm, Craig; you, Wetherby, trim the ship. No, no, Cook--keep away from the controls!"
The NX-1 balanced herself; fresh air came rushing in, sweeping out the stale. Keith stared at the location chart, waiting for the submarine to be ready. The red light was almost upon them.
"Right!" he roared at last. "Diving rudder controls, Graham! Full speed for the tunnel!"
At that moment the octopi ship swept into view, its full battery of offensive weapons flaring forth. The paralyzing ray tingled again and again over the control room. Someone laughed at its uselessness. The violet heat ray leveled full at them, but the commander avoided it with "Port ten, starboard ten! Maintain zigzag course to the tunnel." He understood the enemy's weapons now; he was throbbing with the fierce thrill of action. This duel was to be the climax of their whole adventure. "And, by heaven," he promised, "it's going to be a fight!"
The other craft seemed to realize the NX-1 was now in expert hands. She raced along to starboard for some minutes, her heat ray trying vainly to steady on the American's weaving form. Wells wondered if the king of the octopi was aboard her, in command; he thought perhaps the ship had postponed her chase of McKegnie to pick him up. "I hope he is!" the commander breathed, and fingered the torpedo lever. He had some debts to pay.
The NX-1, engines working smoothly, proceeded on a desperate dash for the tunnel that led to the outer sea. But the octopi ship apparently knew what Keith intended, for she abandoned her offensive rays, changed course a few degrees and slowly but steadily pulled ahead. "Damn!" Keith exclaimed. "She'll get there before us!"
The dim shape dwindled on the screen, and before long her bulk had disappeared entirely. Wells then could watch her swift, straight progress only on the location chart.
Ten minutes later the funnel-like opening of the tunnel loomed on the teleview, and squarely in front, blocking it, was the waiting form of the octopi submarine.
"Quarter speed!" Keith snapped. "Hold her steady, Graham; I'm going to try a bow torpedo. I think we're beyond their ray."
Sighting his range on the telescopic range-finder, he worked the NX-1 slowly into position. He noticed that his first officer was staring oddly at him. He was bothered by the queer look. "What's wrong?" he asked impatiently.
"But--what about Hemmy Bowman?"
Bowman! In the rush of action and suspense, Keith Wells had completely forgotten his officer in the enemy submarine. "Oh, God!" he groaned. The cruel situation that had stayed his hand once before had again come to falter his course of action. The men were watching him; Graham had a question in his eyes. They all knew what had to be decided....
Keith shrugged his shoulders hopelessly. It was his greater duty to destroy the octopi submarine. And yet-- "Fish for Hemmy, Sparks," he ordered. "Craig, keep present distance from enemy. Full stop."
A moment later the radio operator looked up. "Mr. Bowman on the phones, sir." With a heavy weight on his heart the commander clipped on the extension headphones.
"Keith? Keith? Thank God you're alive!" Bowman's voice shook with gladness. "You're all back on the NX-1, Keith? The whole crew's with you? Oh, Lord, it's good to hear you again!"
"Yes. We got back all right, Hemmy--a miracle. They've still got you prisoner?"
"Yes.... Keith--you're trying to dodge out of the tunnel, aren't you?"
Wells smiled bitterly, and as he paused to frame an answer Bowman spoke again.
"I want you to blow up this submarine, Keith," he said quickly. "A favor to me."
He cut Wells short when the commander started to interrupt. "Wait! Let me finish," he pleaded. "I want to explain. I'd been hoping--but never mind that.... Keith, a while ago I managed to work loose. I lost my head completely and tackled these devils. It was a foolish thing to do; they overcame me, naturally. But, in the struggle, they tore my sea-suit."
"Oh, just a tiny tear, or I wouldn't have lasted till now. But a leak all the same--in the right leg. Since then I've been gripping the edges of the fabric as tightly as I can--but I couldn't keep the water inside this ship from seeping through. It came in slowly at first, then faster as my hands grew numb. It's up to my neck now, Keith ... and--it won't be long! I've just a few minutes left...."
The faint words tapered into silence.
"No!" roared Keith in a great rush of emotion. But Hemmy's eager voice came right back: "Oh yes, you must! It would be a mercy to kill me, Keith."
There were tears in the commander's eyes. "Are you sure, Hemmy?" he asked. "Are you sure?"
"Oh, yes. It would be a mercy."
Wells' lips formed a straight grim line. His words squeezed through it tightly. "All right, Hemmy. Thanks. Thanks. I--I'll go after them now, old man. I'll try and keep in touch with you through the duel, but I--I can't promise--"
He could almost see Hemingway Bowman give his old familiar smile as he answered: "Then so long, Keith!"
Commander Keith Wells studied the teleview screen. The men were half afraid to look at his strained blanched face.
Repeatedly the violet beam speared through the water, reaching for the NX-1's bow.
"Turn ship. Line up for stern torpedoes," the commander ordered harshly. He realized he could not hold his submarine steady to obtain a perfect sight, for the heat ray needed only thirty seconds to melt through their shell. He would have to swing the ship slowly about; and, as the shape of the enemy crossed the hair-lines on the range-finder, unleash his torpedoes and gamble on hitting the moving target.
The NX-1 swung around, always maintaining a slight forward motion and zigzagging constantly to nullify the heat beam. Wells watched the range-finder closely. The octopi ship slanted downwards, the deadly violet ray stabbing from her bow. Slowly the black dot that represented her appeared on the dial, and slowly it dropped towards the crossed lines that showed the perfect firing point.
Keith grasped the torpedo lever. The NX-1's stern was towards her target. Dead silence hung in the control room. The NX-1 swung slightly. The octopi craft appeared directly in the middle of the dial.
Wells pulled back the lever.
The hiss of compressed air sprang from her stern. He had fired two tubes, his whole stock of stern torpedoes. The pair of dreadful weapons leaped out and settled on their course. Keith shot his gaze to the teleview.
The torpedoes missed. Only by feet, but a miss all the same. They raced on past the octopi submarine and, with a tremendous, ear-numbing explosion, burst on the wall of the cavern beyond. Both ships reeled from the shock. Graham swore viciously, but Wells' masklike face showed no slightest change of expression....
A voice rang in Keith's headphones. "Tough, Keith! Better luck next time!" Then the commander winced. He simply could not answer Hemmy Bowman; could not answer that fine, brave voice....
The stern torpedoes were gone. The tubes could not be reloaded, for the paralyzing ray bound the men to the control room. That left them two torpedoes in the bow.
The violet heat ray kept fingering hungrily on their outer hull, and every man knew that the plates were weakening under the steady strain, which was only lessened by the NX-1's constant zigzagging. The control room was very hot. Both ships were now a full mile from the tunnel entrance. Keith plunged the NX-1 down, swung her around, to bring his bow tubes to bear, and zigzagged upwards.
It was obvious that the octopi craft had been alarmed by the terrific explosion. They now adopted tactics similar to the American ship's, and for awhile both submarines circled cautiously, maneuvering for an opening.
"If only we could keep the ship steady!" Graham muttered. "But then that heat ray'd get us!"
The commander kept his eyes on the teleview. Again and again the violet shaft pronged at them. The heat grew stifling. Sweat was pouring from all the men's bodies. Every face was strained and taut.
"Starboard full!" Wells said suddenly. "A little up, Graham!" He had seen a chance; the octopi craft was slightly above, and in a moment would pass directly in the line of the bow tubes. The NX-1 stuck her nose up, swung rapidly to the right. Keith pulled back the firing lever, releasing one torpedo.
The long messenger of death hurtled straight for the enemy's hull. They watched its course breathlessly....
"My God!" the first officer groaned. "Could they see it coming?" For the octopi submarine had swung to one side, neatly dodging the speeding tube of dynamite.
"One left!" he added bitterly. "One left!"
A desperate plan formed in Keith Wells' mind. His last torpedo simply had to strike the mark; he could take no chances with it. He motioned the haggard-faced Graham to him.
"There's only one thing left to do," he said quietly. "We've got to deliberately face that heat ray; chance its puncturing our plates."
"How do you mean, sir?"
"Get in very close, so as to make our last torpedo sure to hit. We've got to approach the enemy head-on at full speed. We'll corkscrew up to them until we get within two hundred yards, then go straight forward for ten or fifteen seconds, giving us the opportunity to sight the remaining torpedo directly on them. The heat ray may break through before I fire--but when I do fire it's a sure hit."
The men had heard every word. Quietly Wells ordered: "Take the torpedo control, Graham. I'll take the helm."
The first officer obeyed without a word. Keith grasped the helm. The plans were made for their last desperate attempt.
"Right," the commander said shortly. "Here we go."
There had been a taut silence before, but now, knowing that they were deliberately offering themselves a perfect target for the heat ray in order to get their last torpedo home, the intensity was almost unbearable. The men felt like shrieking, jumping--doing anything to break the awful hush. The air was charged with the same unnameable something that heralds a typhoon.
Keith Wells was like a white statue at the helm, save for the betraying trickles of sweat that coursed down his drawn cheeks. His hands moved the wheel slowly from port to starboard; his eyes bored at the screen before him. The ship was in command of a man of steel, a man with but one purpose....
"Up--up," he ordered. "Hold--in trim--full speed forward!"
He had brought the NX-1 directly in line with the octopi ship. And now the craft leaped forward under full power, while he shot the helm back and forth ceaselessly. His ship was describing a corkscrewing motion, weaving straight at the enemy. Grasping her opportunity, the octopi submarine remained motionless, steadily dousing the approaching American craft with her silent violet ray and driving the temperature in the control room to even greater heights.
The distance between them rapidly lessened. Would the plates stand it? Would the ray melt through the weakened steel before he could fire? With an effort Keith drove these doubts from his mind ... but he could not banish a certain dull, steady ache from his consciousness....
The range dwindled. The heat became intolerable. Everyone's clothing was sopping wet. A man ripped off his shirt, gasping for air. Wells kept his eyes on the screen, though half-blinded by smarting sweat. The plates had to give soon, he knew.
The octopi submarine, beam on and dead ahead, began to move to port at quickly increasing speed. At once Keith stopped swinging the helm, and the NX-1's corkscrewing motion of protection ceased. And then came the real test, the gauntlet of seconds.
Right straight into the retreating violet beam they went, at top speed. They gained rapidly. The heat was furnace-like. The commander, watching the range-finder, kept moving the helm slightly over. A shaft of violet heat spanned the two shells of metal. For ten seconds it had held on the NX-1. The black dot of the enemy craft moved slowly to exact center on the dial. Fifteen seconds ... twenty ... twenty-three-- "Fire!"
Graham jammed the torpedo lever back.
The deck tilted downward. And Wells' white lips formed the words, "So long, Hemmy!"--and he tore the phones from his head.
Seconds later a titanic explosion sounded through the cavern; echoed and re-echoed in vasty roars. The American craft's lights went off--but not before her men had seen, in the teleview, a fire-shot maelstrom where a moment before the octopi submarine had been.
"We got them!" yelled Graham.
A roar of exultation burst from every throat. The men flung their arms out, jumped, yelled crazily. Faint emergency lights lit the scene.
"Below, at regular posts," Wells ordered. "Reload bow and stern tubes. Graham, see to the lights." He himself remained at the helm. In a few moments the submarine had climbed back to the level of the tunnel. At quarter speed she nosed into the wide entrance, and slowly forged into the dense, deceptive shadows.