Under Arctic Ice
Chapter 6: In a Biscuit Can
Ken Torrance glanced with dull, hopeless eyes over the compartment he stood in. Figures stretched out all over the deck, gasping, panting, strangling--men waiting in agony for death. His head sank down, and he wiped wet hands across his aching forehead. Nothing to do but wait--wait for the end--wait as the patient horde outside had been waiting in the sea-gloom for their moment of triumph, when the soft bodies inside the Peary would be theirs to rip and mangle...
A dragging sound brought Ken’s eyes wearily up and to the side. One of the crew who had been lying on the deck was dragging his body painfully toward a row of lockers at one side of the compartment. The man’s eyes were feverishly intent on the lockers.
Ken watched his progress dully, without thinking, as inch by inch he forced himself through the other bodies sprawled in his way. He saw him reach the lockers, and for a minute, gasping, lie there. He saw a clawing arm stretch almost up to the catch on one locker, while the man whimpered like a child at his lack of quick success.
Crash! The grinding blow of the torpoon hitting the quarsteel clanged out from behind. But Ken’s mind was all on the reaching man’s strange actions. He saw the fingers at last succeed in touching the catch. The door of the locker opened outward, and eagerly the man reached inside and pulled. With a thump, a row of heavy objects strung together rolled out onto the deck--and Ken Torrance sprang suddenly to the man’s side:
“What are you doing?” he cried.
The man looked up sullenly. He mumbled:
“Damn fish--won’t get me. I’ll blow us all to hell, first!”
At that the connection struck Ken.
“Then that’s nitromite!” he shouted. “That’s the idea--the nitromite!”
And stooping down, he wrenched the rope of small black boxes which contained the explosive from the man who had worked so painfully to get them.
“I’ll do the blowing, boy!” he said. “Don’t worry; I’ll do it complete!”
Ken, holding the rope of explosives, crossed the deck and pulled Sallorsen and Lawson around. Their worn faces, with lifeless, bloodshot eyes, met his own strong features, and he said forcefully:
“Now listen! I need your help. I’ve found our one last chance for life. We three are the strongest, and we’ve got to work like hell. Understand?”
His enthusiasm and the vigor of his words roused them.
“Yes,” said Lawson. “What--we do?”
“You say there’s an hour’s air left in the sea-suits?” Torrance asked the captain.
“Yes. An hour.”
“Then get the men into the suits,” the torpooner ordered. “Help the weaker ones; slap them till they obey you!” There came the ugly, deafening crash of the hurled torpoon into the compartment door. Ken finished grimly: “And for God’s sake, hurry! I’ll explain later.”
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!