Under Arctic Ice
Chapter 1: An Empty Room

Public Domain

The house where the long trail started was one of gray walls, gray rooms and gray corridors, with carpets that muffled the feet which at intervals passed along them. It was a house of silence, brooding within the high fence that shut it and the grounds from a landscape torpid under the hot sun of summer, and across which occasionally drifted the lonely, mournful whistle of a train on a nearby railroad. Inside the house there was always a hush, a heavy quiet--restful to the brain.

But now a voice was raised, young, angry, impatient, in one of the gray-walled rooms.

“Yes, I rang for you. I want my bags packed. I’m leaving this minute!”

The face of the man who had entered showed surprise.

“Leaving, Mr. Torrance? Why?”

“Read this!”

[Illustration: She was fastened in the mud of the gloomy sea-floor.]

As if, knowing and therefore dreading what he would see, the attendant took the newspaper held outstretched to him and followed the pointing finger to a featured column. He scanned it:

Deadline Passed for Missing Submarine

Point Barrow, Aug. 17 (AP): Planes sent out to search for

the missing polar submarine Peary have returned without

clue to the mystery of is disappearance. The close search

that has been conducted through the last two weeks,

involving great risks to the pilots, has been fruitless, and

authorities now hold out small hope for Captain Sallorsen,

his crew and the several scientists who accompanied the

daring expedition.

If the Peary, as is generally thought, is trapped beneath

the ice floes or embedded in the deep silt of the polar

sea-floor, her margin of safety has passed the deadline, it

was pointed out to-day by her designers. Through special

rectifiers aboard, her store of air can be kept capable of

sustaining life for a theoretical period of thirty-one days.

And exactly thirty-one days have now elapsed since last the

Peary’s radio was heard from a position 72° 47’ N, 162°

22’ W, some twelve hundred miles from the North Pole itself.

In official circles, hope was practically abandoned for the

missing submarine, though attempts will continue to be made

to locate her...

“I’m sorry, Mr. Torrance,” said the attendant nervously. “This paper should--”

“Should never have reached me, eh? Through some slip of the people who censor my reading matter here, I read what I wasn’t supposed to--that’s what you mean?”

“It was thought better, Mr. Torrance, by the doctors, and--”

“Good God! Thought better! Through their sagacity, these doctors have probably condemned the men on this submarine to death! I haven’t heard a word about the expedition; didn’t even know the Peary was up there, much less missing!”

“Well, Mr. Torrance,” the attendant stammered, more and more unsettled, “the doctors thought that--that any news about it would--well, upset you.”

The young man laughed bitterly;

“Bring on my old ‘trouble, ‘ I suppose. The doctors have been considerate, but I won’t concern them any more. I’m through. I’m leaving for the north--right now. There’s a bare chance I might still be in time.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Torrance, but you can’t.”


The attendant had retreated to the door. His eyes were nervous, his face pale.

“It’s orders, Mr. Torrance. You’ve been under observation treatment, and the doctors left strict orders that you must stay.”

The young man throbbed with dangerous anger. His hands clenched and unclenched. He burst out, in a last attempt at reason:

“But don’t you see, I’ve got to get to the Peary! It’s the last hope for those men! The position she was last heard from is right where I--”

“You can’t leave, Mr. Torrance! I’m sorry, but I’ll have to call a guard!”

For a minute their eyes held. With an effort, the young man said more calmly:

“I see. I see. I’m a prisoner. All right, leave me.”

The attendant was more than willing. The young man heard the door’s lock click. And then he lowered his head and pressed his hands hard into his face.

But a second later he was looking up again, at the single wide window which gave out on the lonely landscape over which sometimes came drifting the distant cry of a train’s whistle.

Two months before, Kenneth Torrance had returned to the whaling submarine Narwhal, of which he was first torpooner, with a confused story of men who were half-seals that lived in mounds under the Arctic ice, [1] who had captured him and--he found--had also captured the second torpooner, Chanley Beddoes. In breaking free from their mound-prison, Beddoes had killed one of the sealmen and had been himself slain minutes later by a killer whale, one of the fierce scavengers of the sea which the sealmen trapped for food even as the Narwhal sought them for oil. Ken Torrance alone came back.

[Footnote 1: See the February, 1932, issue of Astounding Stories.]

Over their doubts, he had stuck to his story. Later, he had repeated it to officials of the Alaska Whaling Company, who worked the submarine and several surface ships. They in return had sent him to a private sanitarium in the State of Washington for a rest which they hoped would “iron out the kink” in his brain.

Here Ken had been for six weeks, while the exploring submarine Peary nosed her way northward toward the Pole. Here he had been, all unknowing, while the world hummed with reports of the Peary’s disappearance in that far-off ever-shrouded sea of mystery.

She might, Ken knew, have struck a shaft of underwater ice, sending her to the bottom; some of her machinery might have cracked up, paralyzing her; the ice-fields under which she cruised might have shifted suddenly, crushing her ribs--of these perils the world knew as well as he. But the submarine’s crew was prepared for them; the Peary was equipped with a circular saw for cutting up through the ice from beneath, and she carried sea-suits which would allow her men, if she were wrecked on the bottom, to leave her and get up on the ice and wait for the first searching plane.

Why, then, had not the planes which scoured the region found the survivors?

That was the mystery--but not to Ken Torrance. There was another peril, of which he alone knew. Not far from where the Peary’s last radio report had come, a group of hollowed-out mounds lay on the sea-floor, swarming with brown-skinned, quick-swimming creatures. Sealmen, they were--men who, like the seals, had gone back to the sea. Months ago, Second Torpooner Chanley Beddoes had killed one of them. They were intelligent; they could remember; they were capable of hate and fear; they would be desirous of leveling the debt!

There, Ken felt sure, lay the reason for the Peary’s baffling silence, for the non-appearance of her men.

There might still be time. No one of course would listen to him and believe, so he would have to go in search of the Peary and her crew himself.

Standing by the window, Kenneth Torrance quickly planned the several steps which would take him to the Arctic and its silent ice-coated sea.

And when, some two hours later, after a short warning rap on the door, the individual who served as Mr. Torrance’s attendant entered his room, he was confronted, not by the gentleman whose dinner he carried, but by an empty room, a stripped bed, an open window, and a rope of sheets dangling from it toward the ground two stories beneath.

That was at seven o’clock in the evening.

The source of this story is SciFi-Stories

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