And now he was guided smoothly forward to the third hillock, where the leaders of the group glided through a V-shaped cleft in its face. His guards brought him along behind.
A wry smile twisted Kenneth Torrance’s lips. To him, the cleft was more than an entranceway. To him it signified the beginning of the hopeless, lonely end of his life….
The cleft led into a corridor, and the corridor was softly illuminated with a peculiar light whose source he could not discover. It served to show him a passageway that was wide rather than tall, and gouged from the firm, clayey soil by blunt tools that had left uneven marks. Straight ahead it led, and, as they continued, the mysterious illumination brightened, until suddenly, rounding a turn, its source appeared.
Like will-o’-the-wisps, a score of arrows of light flashed softly into view down the corridor. They were of delicate green and orange and yellow, glowing and luminous, and hovering like humming birds between floor and ceiling. Ken looked at them in some alarm until his nearer approach showed him what they were, and then he exclaimed in amazement:
“Why—they’re fish! Living electric bulbs!”
A school of slender, ten-inch fish they were, each one a radiant, shimmering, lacey-finned gem of orange or green or yellow. In concert they shot to the ceiling over the party of seal-creatures, who still swam impassively ahead, paying no attention to them, and from there scattered in quick darts in all directions, showering the cortege with washes of spectral luminosity. Then the corridor crooked again, and with one simultaneous movement they were gone. And the scene that lay revealed before Kenneth Torrance took his breath from him.
In the passageway he had seen a score of the living jewels; now he beheld hundreds. He peered up at a shimmering sheet of brilliance, composed of hundreds of the slender refulgent fish, all swimming in slow rotation. Below them was a large cavern, which he guessed had been created by hollowing out one of the underwater hillocks. The sides were rounded, and pitted with holes that represented other passageways, showing dark against the luminosity from above. And streaming out from these dark holes of corridors came dozens of the seal-creatures, gathering in response to some unheard, unseen signal that had called them to witness the strange captive their fellows had brought in….
Ken’s guards gripped him more firmly and he was guided forward and downward to the smooth black floor of soil.
Scores of large, placid eyes stared at him from the slowly undulating, brown-skinned bodies packed close about him. The sight was so weird, so beyond his imagination, that he laughed a little hysterically.
“Dreaming!” he said. “Dreaming! But what a dream!”
Silently, a space cleared in the center of the horde. His bonds were taken away, the guards released his arms and he righted himself and stood there on braced legs, the object of a concerted gaze.
This, the torpooner felt, was the crucial period. Something was about to be decided. If it looked bad he would make a wild—and of course, futile—break for freedom, and die quickly when they punctured his suit. But meanwhile he would stick things out. Anything might happen in that fantastic convocation.
There came a stir in the tiers of brown bodies. An aisle cleared, and down it a single seal-creature glided slowly towards Ken Torrance—undoubtedly the leader of the herd, ruler of the underwater labyrinth.
Gracefully the creature glided up to the lone human, and when only a foot away extended one of its long upper flippers so that its webbed edge rested on his sea-suit’s casque. And its placid brown eyes hung close to the face-shield and gazed through inquisitively, intelligently! Intelligently! No longer did Kenneth Torrance doubt that. As he held absolutely motionless under the close-searching scrutiny, his brain rang with the conviction that this creature, this thing of blubbery body and long, webbed flipper-arms and legs—this brown-skinned denizen of the Arctic underseas was, with all its fellows, related to him, a man of the upper world.
Men they were; or, rather, blubber-men!
Previously he had marveled at something suggestively human-like in their appearance; now he recognized human intelligence in his observer’s peering brown eyes and questing movements of the flipper over his head casque and suit. Warm red blood flowed in its blubber-sheathed body; an intelligent brain lay in the fat round head. And why not?
Whales, ages ago, were land mammals, animals that walked on the soil of the dim, early world. They had taken to the seas in quest of food, had stayed there and never returned; and Nature had guarded their bodies against the cold and great depths by giving them layer upon layer of oily blubber. The ancestors of these creatures before him might well have lived on the soil, walked and run as he did; then, when the ice came, taken to the sea and made a new home for themselves.
They had enticed the splendent light-fish into their caverns to give illumination. Intelligence almost human. A brain not as highly developed as man’s, but a human brain!
Ken Torrance had been almost apathetic toward his eventual fate, but suddenly, now, a great hope came to him—and twin with it, on its heels, came fear. If, or since, this creature inspecting him had an intelligent, human brain, in some way he might be able to correspond with it. He might be able to show that his real body was inside the sea-suit; that he had to have air; that he would die if he were kept underwater, that he could not survive as a prisoner. These creatures appeared to be friendly; seemed to wish him no harm. If he could show them that he was a man of the upper world, they might let him go.
If he could do it! He had to make known to the herd leader that he breathed air, and that he’d die if they didn’t release him at once. On that depended life and death.
Ken trembled as he cast about for some way of putting over his idea, and then the plan came. Smiling through his face-shield at the brown eyes so close, he drew back slowly and took out a short steel crowbar from the belt at his waist. He bent over and made a line on the soft floor.
All eyes watched him; every creature held motionless, apparently interested, eager to understand. Under his suit-clad figure the crowbar traced a rude outline of a man in a sea-suit. The torpooner pointed to the drawing and then fingered his suit, repeating the gesture several times. Then he drew another figure in the soil, this one intended to represent him without the sea-suit. It was not as bulky; the features were sharper and thinner. Ken pointed to the twin dots standing for eyes, then tapped his face-shield; he did this again and again.
For a moment the leader did not move; but then he slid forward and stared through the shield. Rapidly Ken opened and closed his eyes, and pointed again to the dots on the drawing’s face.
“Eyes! Eyes!” he said excitedly, voicing the thought his brain was making. “Eyes—inside the suit! The suit’s not me; I’m inside! Eyes!” He waited for a reaction, tense and strained. The blubber-man reached out one flipper-arm and took the steel bar from his hand.
A thrill ran through him as the creature dipped its body down and began to draw in the soil. Laboriously, crudely, he outlined another sea-suit, and on the circle representing the face-shield marked two dots—eyes.
“He’s getting it!” Ken cried.
The blubber-man went on drawing. He sketched a second suit, similar in all respects, and looked up at the torpooner, inquiringly, it seemed.
Ken nodded rapidly. He tapped the drawings, then his suit; nodded again. “The idea’s over!” he told himself. “Now I’ll make a move towards that corridor to show them that I want to go, and if—”
But before he could stir, the leader of the blubber-men, with one quick gesture, summoned two creatures from the innermost circle. Swiftly they placed themselves alongside Kenneth Torrance, lifted him and bore him forward, right across the cavern to another of the passageway-entrances.
It was so sudden that for a moment Ken could not think clearly. What had happened? Were they releasing him? Or was he still to be kept a prisoner? No doubt the latter. And he had been so sure that he was communicating with the blubber-man’s brain!
His lips pressed tight in a hard white line. It was a tough blow to take.
“Well, that’s that,” he said. “It was all imagination.”
He did not know that his drawings had signified something to the leader of the herd—that each had mistaken the meaning of the other. Nor did he have any inkling of the greatest surprise of all that now lay just before him.
The surprise lay in another cavern.
A quick turn through a cleft-like entrance brought them into it. The room was only a fraction of the size of the central meeting place, and its light, from but several of the light-fish, was dim and vague, barely enabling Ken to see what looked like a pile of rocks in the chamber, heaping upwards. The ceiling was flat and strangely blurred, a rippling veil. As he wondered what caused this, his guards lifted him rapidly towards it, up alongside the rocks.
Not only towards it, but through it! His head-casque pierced through; rivulets of water gurgled off it—and he realized that the blurred veil he had seen was the top plane of the water, which only filled three-quarters of the cavern.
Surprise left him breathless. At first he could see nothing, could only feel that his shoulders were above water. Then he was pushed slowly upward until he rested almost completely above the surface. How did the cavern come to be but part-filled with water? he wondered. And was this dim emptiness around him air? Could he breathe it?
Then he was vaguely aware of a presence on the top of the rock heap. He sensed rather than heard a stir of movement. Then suddenly a ray of light stabbed through the darkness and impinged on his head-casque—white, electric, man-made light!
And there came to his ears, muffled by the suit and distorted by echoes, a call that sounded like his own name!
“Ken! Is it you, Ken?”
Bewildered, he motioned the blinding light to one side. It turned upward and backward, and in its glare a face suddenly appeared out of the darkness.
“Good God!” Kenneth Torrance cried.
It was a pale, drawn face, stubbled with beard, and its eyes were wild.
It was the face of Chanley Beddoes, the lost second torpooner of the Narwhal.
Ken stared, his body rigid. Chan Beddoes! The dead brought back! So it at first seemed. And here, in a cavern of the blubber-men!
He pulled himself further up on the rock pile, unfastened the clasps on his helmet and took it off—for Beddoes wore none, and that meant the space was filled with breathable air.
“Chan!” he said. “And we were sure you were dead!”
A high-pitched, hysterical voice cried in answer!
“It’s you, Ken! They got you too! Oh, but it’s good to see you! It’s been so lonely, so dark…. You are there, Ken? I’m not just dreaming again?”
Ken realized that the other’s nerves were shot, and he replied gently:
“You’re not dreaming, Chan. I’m here with you now. Steady. Take it easy. Lord, this air—it’s pretty foul, but it smells good to me, and it’ll save our units. How ever do they get it down here?” He asked the question in hope of steadying Beddoes; giving his mind something definite to occupy it.
A soft ripple sounded just then; looking round, Ken saw that his two guards had slipped back beneath the water, leaving them alone.
Chan Beddoes’ helmet was off, but the rest of his body was still clad in a sea-suit. He half squatted on the rocks, his face raised and peering at the first torpooner fearfully, as if afraid he would disappear as suddenly as he had come. The beam of light came from a hand-flash held in his hand. Scattered around were pieces of whitish meat—fish—and the air was sickening with its smell. Ten feet above was the chamber’s domed ceiling, from which water kept dripping to the slimy rocks below.
“Air?” repeated Beddoes, stupidly. His mind was obviously affected. “They fetch it from the surface with seal-hide bags, and release it. They change it often. All over the caverns. They have to breathe, too. I think they sleep in rooms like this.” His voice rose with hysteria. “Ken, they’re seals and yet they’re human! Human, down here! They have arms and legs and they breathe air, like whales—and they’ve kept me here for weeks, years—I don’t know! They’re devils! It’s been so dark and cold and—and—” He began to cough painfully.
“I know,” Ken told him sympathetically. “Steady, man. How did you get here? How did they catch you?”
Beddoes’ eyes wandered. He sucked his lips.
“I can’t remember,” he said. “No. Yes! We left the Narwhal, both of us, chasing those killers. They broke up and we went after different ones, and I lost sight of you.
“I chased mine for a long time, and when I fired I only wounded him. He went like hell, and I after him. After half an hour I was ready to give up; I couldn’t get close enough. God! Ready to return! To the submarine! To life!”
His voice broke, and he paused until he was able to go on.
“Then I saw another shape ahead of the whale. A queer looking thing—one of these human seals, though I didn’t know it then. It seemed to be fleeing from the killer, just as the killer was from me. There was something big and dark ahead—a shadow, I thought, and kept my eyes on the whale. And the next second my torpoon crashed and I was knocked cold.
“It’s a deliberate scheme,” he went on at a tangent. “The seal things get a killer chasing them and lead it towards the traps they’ve got in the sides of these hillocks. They dart in and the whale follows; then bars drop over the entrance and they’ve got the killer trapped. They eat them.”
“But how does the blubber-man get out?” Ken asked.
Beddoes scowled. “Oh, they’re clever enough! A passage runs off the trap, big enough for the seal thing, but not for a killer…. Well, my torp had gone into the trap and was stuck in one of the walls. When I came to I reversed my engines full, but I couldn’t get free. The impact had ruined my radio.
“Through the after peep-holes I could make out the killer in the trap with me, lashing around like mad. The bars over the entrance were wide-spaced enough to let the torp squeeze through—but I couldn’t get loose.
“As I lay there, wondering what to do, I saw some more of those blubber-men in the corridor raising the bars. They had long spears and knives—and in ten minutes that killer was dead and the place black with its blood.
“Well, I thought I saw my chance. I got into my sea-suit, thinking I maybe could dig the torp free and escape before the damned fish caught me. I climbed out the port and was hacking at the mud bank with my crowbar when a rope slipped over my head and they had me.”
Ken nodded. “They got me in the same way,” he said.
“And gave you the once-over in the big room,” Chan declared. “You’ll get plenty more of that.”
For most of the man’s narrative his tone and manner had been sane enough, but now again he broke out wildly.
“And I’ve been here for days! Weeks! And nothing but fish to eat, and whale meat, and pieces of ice brought for me to drink, and the darkness and the fish smell! God, it’s driven me crazy! I can’t stand it any longer, Ken, and I won’t. I’ve got to get out right away or kill myself. I’ve got to!”
Ken gripped his shoulders and shook. “Steady!” he said sharply. “Get control over yourself!”
“Steady!” Beddoes gasped. “You don’t know how long I’ve kept control! Waiting and hoping, for a chance. One little chance to escape!”
“Why haven’t you tried before? Don’t they leave you alone here?”
Chanley Beddoes laughed harshly. “Just because you can’t see them, you think that? Hell, no! Put on your helmet. Look down—down under the water—and you’ll see a guard at the entrance. There’s always one there—with a spear. And every now and then he comes up, to see what I’m doing. But no matter; now that you’re here we can make a break. You’ve still got your crowbar; they took mine away. I’ve only had my flash to work with.”
In spite of his awful experience and intolerable predicament, Ken was getting drowsy. He had been through much; he had been short on sleep when he had started out. Nevertheless, he forced himself to consider their situation. Since the blubber-men had kept Chan Beddoes a prisoner, they would no doubt keep him one likewise. It did not mean immediate death from suffocation, for there was air of a kind here; and food was brought. But—imprisonment!
All around him was damp darkness; the rocks they lay on were jagged and slime coated all over and there were little pools of water here and there. Gloom; awful water beneath; slimy rocks to lie on; raw whale meat to eat; stench of rotting fish. Imprisonment! Weeks of this! Suddenly he felt deep admiration for Beddoes in having clung to sanity so long.
“Yes,” he said slowly, “we’ve got to get out. But with that guard on duty…. What’s your plan?”
The other coughed long, then began:
“It all depends on whether they’ve moved my torpoon from the trap where it stuck. You didn’t see it anywhere? Well, it’s got to be still in the trap, and we’ve got to get to it. It’ll carry both of us. The whale that led me into the trap is dead, and we can finish prying the torp loose with your crowbar.”
Ken nodded. “But the guard?”
Chanley Beddoes said harshly: “I’m going to kill it!”
Ken looked at him. His pale, drawn face was contorted; his hands clenched and unclenched. He repeated:
“Yes, kill it! I’ve a score to settle with these devils, anyway. I’ll take him unawares. One blow’ll do it, if it’s placed right. Then, down the corridor and to the trap. I think I remember the way.”
Ken thought it out, and shook his head.
“What’s the matter?” Beddoes asked.
“We’d better not,” he said “Not yet. And never, if we can help it.”
“Why not?” Beddoes cried in great surprise.
“Don’t you see? They haven’t really harmed us. They’re friendly. Yes, they’ve kept you prisoner and they’ll keep me, too—but probably they don’t think that’s any terrible hardship for us. And they don’t realize how much we want to get free.”
“What will we do then?” Beddoes broke in impatiently.
“When I see the leader again I’ve got to get it over that we want to be released. It’s a better risk than killing this guard, anyway. They’re disposed to be friendly; but if you killed one there’d be the devil to pay.” Ken paused, and his eyes closed. He said wearily:
“But, I’m dog tired; no sleep for twenty hours. Let me sleep an hour or two; my head’ll be much clearer and we’ll talk it over.”
Chanley Beddoes said nothing. Ken yawned and stretched his body as comfortably as he could on the slime-coated rocks. Dazed from the rush of amazing events his eyelids closed at once, and soon his breathing settled into a regular beat.
Perhaps half an hour later, a shape moved in the dank gloom of the underwater cavern. The top plane of water rippled softly; little wavelets eddied against the rocks and whispered as the shape slipped down underneath. Then there was silence, no movement; and the water again calmed into a black sheet, smooth as glass. For minutes it stayed so, while Ken’s deep, regular breathing stirred the air.
Then suddenly the water’s calm was broken. Through its rippling waves the shape reappeared, rivulets streaming from it. Quickly hauling itself up on the rocks, it clambered towards the sleeper. For a moment it paused; then its helmet swung back, revealing Chan’s tense, pale face. A hand reached out and gripped the sleeper’s arm. A voice called:
“Ken! Wake up! Hurry!”
Even as the words reverberated in the close bowl, the black mirror of water stirred once more. Something pierced through and drifted idly on the surface. It was a large brown-skinned shape, apparently lifeless.
“Ken!” called Chan anxiously again.
The first torpooner stirred. Out of the depths of slumber he mumbled:
“What’s the matter?”
“We’ve got to shove off right now! Quick! Put on your helmet!”
Kenneth Torrance sat up and peered through half-open eyes. He saw before him the face of Chanley Beddoes, wild and excited. In one hand he held the steel crowbar. And behind, on the surface of the water, floated the motionless body of a blubber-man, its head beaten in, streamers of red trailing from it.
Ken said sharply:
“You killed him? After what I told you? You fool!”
“Yes, I killed him!” Beddoes answered brazenly. “What of it?”
Ken said nothing for a moment. Bitter reproach trembled on his tongue, but he did not speak the words, for Chan’s mind was all too clearly on the thin line this side of insanity. He only said:
“Well, you’ve forced the issue, and we’ve got to leave immediately. It may mean our death, but let’s forget it. Now—how much of your air-units is left?”
“About two hours. I lost a lot through a leak.”
Ken took half of his own store of the little cells from his helmet. “I’ll share mine. That’ll give us both sixteen hours all told—in case we don’t find your torpoon. You’re sure they killed the whale in that trap? And you know the way?”
“I think so,” said Beddoes excitedly. “You follow me.”
“All right. On helmets, then.”
The clasps were fastened down, cutting them off from spoken communication with each other. Ken took the hand-flash and crowbar and stuck them in his own belt, and both clumsy, grotesque figures splashed into the water, vanished beneath its surface and ducked under the shadowy body of the dead blubber-man.
Below, in the dim quarter-light, Ken peered out of the entrance to the cell chamber. The corridor seemed safe, there being only the distant colored streaks of light-fish, and occasionally even these disappeared, leaving heaped shadows in the darkened water. He nodded to Beddoes and boldly they began their flight.
Their progress was nerve-rackingly slow, in spite of their utmost exertions. The water that retarded them at times contained unsuspected currents that destroyed their equilibrium and sent them stroking madly with both hands to regain it. Far different, this, than the swift, effortless swimming of the blubber-men. Their weighted feet stumbled often on the floor of the passage, and several times they lost balance and fell towards the sides. Each time that this happened Ken was struck with the fear of ripping the fabric of his sea-suit. And all the time there was the apprehension of imminent discovery.
At last he saw Beddoes wave an arm and enter a dim cleft a few feet ahead in the left side of the wall. In turn he floundered through—and just in time. From around a bend in the corridor shortly ahead there came two blubber-men. In only a few seconds they would pass the niche the two humans had entered. Crowbar ready, Ken flattened himself against the sidewall, pulling his companion back with him. They waited.
The seal-men passed by—two sleek, blubbery shapes, flipper-arms and legs weaving gracefully, bodies rolling slightly, eyes apparently directed ahead. Close!
They had escaped that time, but there was a disturbing thought in Ken’s mind and in Beddoes’ too, perhaps—as they resumed their slow-motion flight down the second corridor. “What if those two were going to visit us in the cell-chamber? Once they see the dead guard, hell sure will start to pop!”
For a period that seemed to be measured in hours they fought their way forward through the retarding pressure of the water. The corridor described a long curve. They were on the last stretch—and still no pursuit!
“If only the torp’s there!” Ken kept exclaiming in his thoughts. “Just that!”
“If only the torp’s there!…” Had they come the right way? He had to trust that to the memory of Beddoes. Beddoes, whose mind had clearly been affected by his seven-day nightmare…. He shook his head. He dared not doubt.
They increased their pace a little. Imagination stimulated their weary muscles. The Narwhal! Men of their own kind! Sun and air! Life again! Ken could have shouted when he saw his partner stop and gesture excitedly before a dark spot in the wall. It could be nothing but the entrance to a trap.
He pressed forward, flicking on his flash and making sure by the water-waved beam it threw. But Beddoes was attending to some sight down the corridor; and suddenly he pointed in fright. The first torpooner looked in the indicated direction and saw what was meant.
Approaching was a wave of menacing brown-skinned bodies, streaming swiftly through the passage several abreast. Their escape had been discovered. The blubber-men were coming.
At once Ken acted, pushing Chan into the narrow opening and scrambling after himself. They wormed along for several feet, till they emerged in a large dark chamber at the far end of which was a big circular entrance barred by three great pale stakes. They were certainly in a whale trap.
Rapidly Ken played his flash around, looking for the torp, but it was nowhere visible. To one side was an out-jutting rock with a niche beneath it. It was a promising place and he stumbled his way there, followed by the other.
It was then that a most peculiar feeling came over him, a feeling that was instantly a surge of panic. Something else was in the trap! His flash arced around and up, and what lay revealed in its ray caused cold shivers to run down the backs of the two men.
Above them, just over the three-toothed outer entrance, hung a black, sleek body, white-striped. Head-on it was, and motionless, eyeing them. A killer whale—alive!—and poised for a lunge!
It barred the way to the outer entrance. They could not retrace their steps; already the round brown head of a blubber-men showed in the inner entrance. They were trapped, front and rear, and confronted by the deadliest animal in the sea.
A second they watched it, frozen immobile; then the whale’s great body curved and its flukes went up, and by purest instinct the men dove for the niche at their feet. Head to head, they arrived in it, and just in time, for the great jaws of the killer barely missed their snap.
As the monster curved past, the swirling water of its passage nearly dislodged the torpooners, and they made haste to jam themselves into the crevice as tightly as they dared for the safety of their suits.
The whale whipped around in a narrow circle and returned. Its pointed teeth gleamed as it snapped shut its jaws and muzzled its hard, wicked snout into Ken’s ribs. Again it circled and streaked for the niche; and, helpless, Kenneth Torrance lay there as the beast tried to slide its head into it. He felt more of the terrifying nuzzling of the snout. But the creature could not dislodge him.
“Can’t bring his teeth to bear,” he muttered with a certain relief. “Niche isn’t high enough. We’re safe, I guess, for a couple of minutes. Unless the blubber-men come in and kill him like they did the one Chan followed last week.”
For several minutes the sea-beast continued its frantic attempt to reach the two humans, and then its attacks became desultory. During one respite Ken managed to get up his flashlight and send its beam out over the floor—and what he discovered was the essence of irony. Directly opposite, on the floor by the wall, lay a familiar long slim shape, its stern tipped by rudder-planes and propeller, its metal flanks gleaming in the white ray. The torpoon. And utterly useless—a heartbreaking jest—unless they could reach it.
But a slight hope grew in the men at its discovery. They had come to the right trap, after all. Probably the whale had dislodged the shell from the wall with fluke-blows—possibly, too, the blows had sprung its seams and opened the engine-compartment to water….
Ken occupied himself with the problem of how to get to it. It held their only hope. But with all his racking his brains he could think of no way but to make a rush for it. If he could get inside, the torp, lying flat on the ground, would be reasonably safe from the killer until he could get it running.
Through the face-shields, he met his companion’s eyes. The same decision had come to both.
There was a tiny space of muddy floor between them. Kent doused it with light from the flash. In the mud, with a forefinger he slowly traced these words one at a time, rubbing each one out to make room for the next:
“I get torp. Kill whale with gun. Only way. I go. I senior. If fail, you try.”
He looked at the other inquiringly. Vigorously, Chanley Beddoes shook his head.