Under Arctic Ice
Chapter 3: 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.