- Author: Harry Bates
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[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from Astounding Stories February 1932. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Sleepily the lookout stared at the scope-screen before him, wishing for something that would break the monotony of the scene it pictured: the schools of ghostly fish fleeting by, the occasional shafts of pale sunlight filtering down through breaks in the ice-floes above, the long snaky ropes of underwater growth. None of this was conducive to wakefulness; nor did the half-speed drone of the electric engines aft and the snores of some distant sleeper help him. The four other men on duty in the submarine—the helmsman; the second mate, whose watch it was; the quartermaster and the second engineer—might not have been present, so motionless and silent were they.
The lookout man stifled another yawn and glanced at a clock to see how much more time remained of his trick. Then suddenly something on the screen brought him to alert attention. He blinked at it; stared hard—and thrilled.
Far ahead, caught for an instant by the submarine Narwhal's light-beams, a number of sleek bodies moved through the foggy murk, with a flash of white bellies and an easy graceful thrust of flukes.
The watcher's hands cupped his mouth; he turned and sang out:
"K-i-i-ll-ers! I see killers!"
The cry rang in every corner, and immediately there was a feverish response. Rubbing their eyes, men appeared as if from nowhere and jumped to posts; with a clang, the telegraph under the second mate's hand went over to full speed; Captain Streight rolled heavily out of his bunk, flipped his feet mechanically into sea-boots and came stamping forward. First Torpooner Kenneth Torrance, as he sat up and stretched, heard the usual crisp question:
"Five points off sta'b'd bow, sir; quarter-mile away; swimming slow."
"How large a school?"
"Couldn't say, sir. Looks around a dozen."
"Whew!" whistled Ken Torrance. "That's a strike!" He pulled on a sweater and strode forward to the scope-screen to see for himself, even as Captain Streight, all at once testy with eagerness, bawled:
"Sta'b'd five! Torpoon ready, Mister Torrance! Mister Torr—oh, here you are. Take a look."
Never in the two years of experience which had brought him to the important post of first torpooner had Ken failed to thrill at the sight which now met his eyes. Directly ahead, now that the Narwhal's bow was turned in pursuit, but veering slowly to port, swam a pack of the twenty to thirty-foot dolphins which are called "killer whales," their bodies so close-pressed that they seemed to be an undulating wave of black, occasionally sliced with white as the fluke-thrusts brought their bellies into view. Their speed through the shadowed, gloomy water was equal to the submarine's; when alarmed, it would almost double.
"Three more of 'em will fill our tanks," grunted Streight, his chunky face almost glowing. He bit on a plug of tobacco, his eyes never moving from the screen. "Now, if only we hadn't lost Beddoes.... Y' think you can bag three, Mister Torrance?"
"Well, if three'll fill our tanks—sure!" grinned Ken.
The other's eyebrows twitched suddenly. "They're speeding up!" he shouted, and then: "That torpoon ready, there? Good." His voice lowered again as Ken pulled his belt a notch tighter and snatched a last glimpse of the fish before leaving. "I want you to try for three, son," he said soberly: "but—be careful. Don't take fool chances, and keep alert. Remember Beddoes."
Ken nodded and walked to the torpoon catapult, hearing Streight's familiar send-off echoed by the men of the crew who were nearby:
The idea of an underwater craft for the pursuit of killer whales—tremendously valuable since the discovery of valuable medicinal qualities in their oil—had been scoffed at by the majority of the Alaska Whaling Company's officials at the time of its suggestion, but the Narwhal after her first two months of service had decisively proved her worth. She was not restricted to the open seas, now swept almost clean of the highly prized killers; she could follow them to their last refuge, right beneath the floe-edges of the Arctic Circle; and as a result she could bring back more oil than any four surface whalers.
With a cruising radius of twenty-five hundred miles, she stayed out from the base until her torpoons had accounted for anywhere from sixty to eighty killers. One by one these sea-animals would be taken to the surface and there cut up and boiled down, until her tanks were full of the precious blubber oil. Ever farther she pressed in her quest for the fish schools, dipping for leagues into a silent sea that for ages had been known only to the whale and the seal and their kindred; a sea always dark and mysterious beneath its sheath of ice.
The inner catapult door closed behind Kenneth Torrance, and he slid into his torpoon. Twelve feet long, and resembling in miniature a dirigible, was this weapon that made practical an underwater whaling craft. The tapered stern bore long directional rudders, which curved round the squat high-speed propeller: its smooth flanks of burnished steel were marked only by the lines of the entrance port, which the torpooner now drew tight and locked. Twin eyes of light-beam projectors were set in the bow, which was cut also by a vision-plate of fused quartz and the nitro-shell gun's tube, successor to the gun-cast harpoon.
Ken lay full-length in the padded body compartment, his feet resting on the controlling bars of the directional planes, hands on the torpoon's engine levers. A harness was buckled all around him, to keep him in place. His gray eyes, level and sober, peered through the vision-plate at the outer catapult door.
Suddenly a spot of red light glowed in it; the door quivered, swung out. A black tide swirled into the chamber. There came the hiss of released air-pressure, and the slim undersea steed rocketed out into the exterior gloom, her light-beams flashing on and propeller settling into a blur of speed as she was flung.
Ken turned on her full twenty-four knots, zoomed above the dark bulk of the slower mother ship, whose light-beams flashed across him for a second, and then straightened out in a long, slight-angled dive after the great black bodies ahead.
Aware that some strange enemy was on their track, the killers had become panicky and were darting away at their full speed, which was only slightly under that of the torpoon's humming motors, and which at times even surpassed it. Ken saw that it looked like a long chase, and settled his lean body as comfortably as he could.
His mind was not concentrated on the task ahead, for the first part was mere routine and he could follow his quarry almost mechanically. And so, as his steel shell drove through the ever-shadowed, icy sea, he began to think about the disappearance of Chan Beddoes, the Narwhal's second torpooner.
Dead, now Beddoes; it was a week since he had set out on the chase from which he had never returned. Ken could only conjecture as to what had stricken him down. There were countless possibilities: perhaps a blow from a dying killer whale's flukes bursting his torpoon's seams; perhaps a crash into underwater ice. Whatever it was, it had been sudden, for not even a faint radioed S.O.S. had trembled into the ear-phones of the Narwhal's radio-man. For two days they had held hopes that the second torpooner still lived, as the sea-suit stored in each torp contained air-units sufficient for thirty-six hours. But a whole week's passing told them that that vast stretch of glacial sea was now Chan Beddoes' grave.
Ken's reflections brought an urge to get the present job over with as quickly as possible. He squeezed another ounce of speed from the torpoon, taxing it to the limit and setting up a slight vibration; then he fondled the nitro-shell gun's trigger and studied the huge fish bodies ahead.
"Seems as if they're going to run forever," he muttered indignantly. "We'll be to the Pole if they keep it up!"
Already the Narwhal was miles behind. Through the torp's vision-plate a scene of ever increasing mystery and gloom met his gaze. The killers' course had brought them beneath a wide sheet of ice, apparently, for there were no more columns of pale sunlight piercing through. The quarter-light monotone was unbroken, save by deeper drifts of shadow, and as he drummed through it the torpooner wondered at its lifelessness. He discerned no more of the ghostly fish-schools that usually abounded. Some enemy possibly had driven them from the region; but not the whale he was pursuing, for they scorned such fare.
He was scanning the surrounding murk apprehensively, when, of a sudden, his brain and body tensed.
Off to one side, far to the right, he thought he had glimpsed a figure. It was hanging motionless, level with him; and at first it looked like a seal. But the flippers seemed longer than a seal's; moreover, no seal would be anywhere near a pack of killer whales; nor did they poise in an upright position. It couldn't be a seal, he told himself. What, then? Was it only imagination that made it appear faintly human-shaped?
He strove to catch it again with staring eyes, but it was gone, leaving only a jumbled impression of something fantastic in his mind, and the next instant the whole thing was forgotten in the movements of the killer school, now only a few hundred yards ahead.
They suddenly began a great sweeping curve to the right, a typical maneuver before standing for attack or breaking up. At once Ken swerved to starboard and drove the torpoon's nose for an advance point on the circle the fish were describing. His move swallowed the distance between them; the sleek, thick-blubbered bodies swept close by his vision-plate, their rush tossing the torp slightly. Twelve of them went past in a blur, and then came the thirteenth, the invariable straggler of a school. The thin light-beams pencilled through the darkness, outlining the rushing black shape; Ken gripped the gun's trigger and jockeyed the torp up a trifle in the seconds remaining, always keeping the sights dead set on the vital spot twelve inches behind the whale's little eye.
When only fifteen feet separated them he squeezed the trigger and at once zoomed up and away to get clear of the killer's start of pain and, if the shot were true, its following death flurry.
The shell slid deep into the rich outer blubber; and, wheeling, Ken watched the mighty mammal quiver in its forward rush. This was merely the reaction from the pain of the shell's entrance; the nitro had not as yet exploded.
Now it did. The projectiles carried but a small charge, in order not to rip too much the buoyant lungs and so cause the body to sink, but the killer trembled like a jelly from the shock. The heart was reached; its razor-sharp flukes thrashing and tooth-lined jaws clicking, the killer wheeled with incredible speed in its death flurry. A minute later the body shuddered a last time, then drifted slowly over, showing the white belly. It began a gentle rise up toward the ceiling of ice.
"One!" grinned Ken Torrance. He noted his position on the torpoon's dials and gave it to the Narwhal by radio. They would then follow and pick up the whale.
"I'll have the second in ten minutes," he promised confidently. "Signing off!"
Again the torp darted after its prey.
He found it easy, this time, to overhaul them. Not many minutes had elapsed before he again caught sight of their rhythmically thrusting flukes and the flash of white under-sides. Unaware that one of their fellows had been left a lifeless carcass by the steel fish again nearing them, they had reduced their speed somewhat.
Ken angled down a hundred feet into the deeper shadows, not wanting to apprise them of his presence. He continued at that level until the belly of the rearmost whale rolled white above him; then he veered off to the left, rising as he did so, in order to bring his assault to bear directly on the killer's flanks.
He swung back and streaked in for the kill. It looked like an easy one.
But he was never more mistaken in his life. For, as luck had it, he had chosen a tartar, a fighting fish—literally the "killer" which its kind had been named.
The torpooner knew what he was in for as soon as he fired his first shell. Its aim was bad, and instead of sinking into the flesh it merely ripped across the whale's back, leaving