The Last Salvage


By

Lawrence Dagstine and Bob Veon

                 There had been no warning whatsoever. If it was another submarine, it must have been running silent. Nothing else could have produced the sudden, disconcerting heave of Firebrand’s big hull, the outer metal grinding as her propeller blades were mangled. The initial shock had thrown the big missile submarine-turned-salvaging vessel forward and heavily to starboard. It was followed by a series of smaller, scraping blows. Then suddenly it was over, the noise gone, leaving only confused looks and a slow-growing appreciation of disaster.

                A careful inspection of the turbine mounts and propeller shaft, conducted later, confirmed that these massive mechanisms had been displaced—some as much as half an inch—and had then returned to their normal positions. Firebrand’s chief engineering officer, Frank Vargas, was incredulous, but the proof was indisputable: something had rattled the dark gray horizontal section of the pressure hull, which projected through the side of a tremendous circular steel tank and was filled with light green seawater. The purpose of the salt water, Frank knew, was to duplicate the radioactive shielding effect of the sea. The hull section, with the reactor and engine compartments, was almost identical to massive submarines like the USS Connecticut or USS Hawkbill, except that, for economy, only a single turbine and propeller shaft had been installed. Though the Firebrand was fully equipped for combat, in the last few years, lack of funding had made this seafaring wonder little more than a vessel for marine research, exploration, search-and-rescue, simulated reconnaissance, and underwater retrieval.

             Now, with arms crossed, Frank was looking with satisfaction at the surrealistic monster. It was humming softly, and he hoped to keep it that way. In a sealed compartment beneath its deck, he explained to a fellow engineer, the new prototype’s heart was pumping out an unnecessary supply of steam, which was piped into the engine room to turn the turbine and thus the propeller shaft. With electric turbogenerator sets, the steam also provided power for the myriad pieces of machinery that made up the complex whole. It was then cooled to form water, which was pumped back into the steam generator to repeat the cycle, but apparently there was a delay here.

             There, in the steam generator, the water was reheated to become steam, not by combustion of oil, gas or coal but by the pressurized water of the reactor primary loop—water under such great pressure that it could not flash into steam, even under the tremendous temperature of nuclear fission.

             The engineer listened to Frank’s explanation, his whole attention captured. “And this is where the grinding and shifting originated from?”

             “In such a cramped space,” Frank said, “yes. That’s the culprit.”

“I hardly believe that kind of pressure could throw a submarine off course like that.”

Frank took a long look at the newly arrived engineer. There had to be a twenty-year difference between them. The young man’s shock of brown hair was as full as ever, where Frank’s hairline had receded a trifle; wide-spaced gray eyes gazed directly from a youthful, though more self-confident face, where lines had become etched around the chief engineering officer’s mouth. But he was still the same wiry, naval activist; at least he felt. Only his capable hands, slightly wrinkled, betrayed that he was nearing fifty.

After a moment Frank went on, “What we do here is operate Firebrand just like a submarine under way for a long cruise. We go through all the evolutions of starting, maneuvering, stopping, and most of all, coping with casualties to the machinery. After all, this is the Arctic. You won’t find this the most comfortable place in the world.” A pause. “Perhaps if you had a little more faith in the Navy.”

“Have faith in the Navy! What faith?”

“The faith all of us have.”

“I have faith, all right! Faith that the Navy will never back its people up in a tough spot! That the trade-school boys will look out for themselves. Faith. Yeah, right. They always put people like Swanson in the most danger, Washington forgets a memo, and they go off and leave guys like us to face it alone. Faith in the Navy? After we’ve been reduced to this?” he almost shouted. “That’s a laugh! You need to stop living in the past, Vargas. The real glory boys are in the Gulf. And where are we? Picking up polar bear shit at the bottom of the ocean.” As the young engineer turned his back, he said, “Oh yeah, the captain wants to see you.”

“Thank you,” Frank said, knowing the engineer’s job under Swanson’s difficult leadership must have its problems.

Kevin Swanson was your typical substitute captain, filling in on these types of voyages when the need arise or the Navy require it. His section of the navigation bridge was gleaming classic purple chrome, yet it was as bright and functional as any modern-day operating room. The control console beside him stretched the full width of the bridge, beneath its huge periscope. The old-fashioned radar stations and communication systems had been separated into sections, and they had been replaced by electronics better suited for privately financed expeditions and military exercise rather than surveillance and intelligence for deep-sea warfare. To the side was the navigational area, with the touch-screen chart table and a battery of computer equipment that stood against what was once a bulkhead door.

Kevin had been maneuvering his ship slowly, positioning her under a promising opening in the ice. Originally it had been a long narrow channel, or lead, in the ice floe. It was frozen over at the surface now to a depth of five or six feet. Seen from below, it was the shape of a ravine in an otherwise fairly smooth, inverted plain of ice.

Kevin switched on the big combat management computer, which also regulated the submarine’s Active-Passive attack sonar and performed routine surface searches from his seat. The display lights flashed and faded and flashed again in red. “Doesn’t make sense,” he muttered. “Submarines don’t shift starboard by themselves.” 

“Bridge. This is the chief engineer,” said a disembodied voice from the speaker above Kevin’s head. “Hull’s not breached and engines are running smoothly.” A pause, and then that word of special approbation. “Beauty!” But the chief pronounced it in three syllables, “Be-yew-dy!”

“I need to be sure before I surface,” Kevin responded. “It’s just me and a few trainees at the moment.”

“I was on my way up,” Frank said.

“I hope you have a logical explanation.”

“Don’t I always? See you in five.”

Kevin stood there a moment, trying to decide then why Firebrand was still running slow. Suddenly he considered a possibility that brought a metallic gleam of anger into his eyes. Nodding to the third officer, who had shared the deck, he ducked through the doorway that led to his day cabin. It was a ploy to go below decks unseen. From his room he darted down the companionway and past the mess hall.

The secondary sodium-cooling reactor, as modern and gleaming as the navigation bridge, was completely enclosed with titanium to cut down the thunder of the engines that filled the steel cavern beyond. It was the custom for any visitor, even the captain, to announce his arrival below deck to the chief engineer. Ignoring custom, and well aware that Vargas was on his way upstairs, Kevin slipped in through the sliding hatch.

Booger Nelson—Boog, for short—was deep in conversation with an electrician, and Kevin reached the pump room before the mechanic noticed. Then Boog spun around to face him.

The pump room occupied the secondary reactor’s interior, from metal floor to metal roof. Toolboxes, workbenches, storage lockers and bins were everywhere. Boog’s pump room was festooned with steel ladders, catwalks, wire cables, the ordered confusion and paraphernalia of many functions and many workers.

Very angry, Kevin’s lips compressed in a single white line. “What caused this mess? You pulled the override,” he accused in a flat, passionless voice. “You’re governing her out at seventy percent of power. Meanwhile, I’m upstairs jerking off.”

“That’s top of the green in my book,” Boog told him. “I’m not running my pumps at eighty percent in this sea. She’ll shake the guts out of herself!” He paused and the whole area shuddered with vibration. “Listen to her, man.”

“I want the override out, just in case it is another sub. She’s built to take it.” Kevin indicated the handle and pointer with which the Irish mechanic could cancel the power settings asked for by the bridge. “I don’t care when you do it, just as long as it’s done.”

“You get out of my pump room,” Boog said, picking up a wrench, “and go play with your toys!”

“All right.” Kevin nodded. “But the next time you and Frank don’t work together, I’ll be down here to personally shit down your neck.”

Running deep beneath the surface, Firebrand effortlessly put three hundred and sixty nautical miles behind her per day. She would make her landfall very soon near the Archipelago Ice Shelf—if landfall was the proper term—for the latest salvage report had placed the edge of the ice pack well to the south of that frosty sheath. After Archipelago, at the new reduced speed their orders required, their final destination of Ellesmere Island would be only a day or so away.

At the proper time, Kevin slowed the ship and brought it to periscope depth. He spent long minutes inspecting the thin white ribbon on the horizon. Seen from a distance, the ice looked like a solid line between the cold gray of the sea and the leaden blue of the sky. As the Firebrand drew cautiously nearer it became evident that it was not solid but a mass of broken blocks, most weighing several tons. When Kevin had approached as close as was prudent, he turned to a course parallel to the frontal edge for a more detailed inspection.

The color of the ice was fascinating. White on top, of course, but the snowfall built up during the years. Where the ice entered the water it assumed a greenish tinge, shading swiftly to almost black. The discoloration was the combined result of normal sea growth, and water action on tiny organisms frozen into the ice when it was formed. This growth on the undersurface made up much of the food for the seals, porpoises, whales and fish. And, through them, for man himself.

Firebrand had been rebuilt with an ice suit; her sail, propeller, hull and control surfaces were specially strengthened. In addition, her sailplanes were designed so that they could put on ninety degrees rise to facilitate breaking through if necessary.

In order to break through the ice cover Kevin first had to align the bulbous submarine between two downward-projecting cliffs on either side of the lead, then bring her up exactly midway in the thin spot. From this time onward, except for the occasional tests of missiles, Firebrand would be confined beneath a virtually impenetrable layer of ice twenty feet thick. There was an underwater television transmitter mounted on the bridge, and this was connected to an antenna in the sail. With two strong searchlights, synchronized in direction with the television head, Kevin could see about a hundred feet in any direction. The only thing visible, however, was the Firebrand’s rounded bow. There was danger in this, of course. Firebrand could inadvertently come too close to a very sharp hummock—a downward projection of pointy ice—and damage her periscope. Also, he had been using both his main power and the auxiliary “outboard motor,” a retractable emergency electric-propulsion motor, when the mysterious collision came. His first reaction was that they must have struck an unseen berg embedded in the ice, or some other disastrously deep pinnacle. But echo-ranging sonar, which had continuously been reporting all clear, suddenly announced strange noises dead astern. Why sonar had not previously given some warning would bear further investigation—and Boog only complicated things further—but Kevin was aware of the vagaries of underwater sound transmission.

By careful calculation, the top of the periscope was no closer than twenty-five feet from the bottom of the ice floe. Kevin had momentarily forgotten that the scope had a magnification of one and a half times, and his first reaction was alarm as the huge menacing cover filled the delicate lens. Training the scope forward, he saw the powerful rays from the television searchlights reflecting upon the bottom of the ice, giving it an eerie surreal effect. To either side, the ice appeared like heavy green-tinged rain clouds, except much closer and more threatening.

Firebrand had officially entered the ice pack, but already the vista was discouraging. Kevin motioned for the periscope to be lowered. The entire time it was up had been one of tension. “I still think there’s something down here with us,” he said.

“Buried treasure?” Frank stepped onto the bridge, but nobody noticed him in the excited buzz of submarine movement that absorbed them all. The chief engineering officer had an old copy of Archaeology Digest, and as he read aloud from it, his spectacles slid to the end of his nose and his Tennessee accent twanged like a guitar. “In a statement issued by the new chairman of the Smithsonian, a tribute was paid, along with a send-off from the Defense Department’s psychic weapon division, for fifteen years of loyal service and research to Dr. Henry Sutton. Sutton abandoned his search for the sunken remains of Ellesmere Island after he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He had devoted his life to the waters surrounding Ellesmere Island up until 2000, much of his work done on behalf of Washington. It is said that in 1914, after the outbreak of World War One, the Germans went on a secret expedition. They had stumbled upon what top generals described as a weapon of clairvoyance, and which might have won them the maritime side of the war. In order to further test out this weapon, and keep it out of English hands, they sent their finest scientists, inventors and psychics to the polar regions to build a base, where Allied powers would have difficulty retrieving it. Dr. Sutton was once quoted as saying, ‘History may never tell us if the Germans were on to something of paranormal or psychic significance. Such evidence is probably lost at sea.’”

He turned the page and read on, “Even now, the Defense Department believe this weapon is not only an item of immense historical value, but it may possess something of a telekinetic nature which could prove resourceful for American troops in the Middle East.” He threw the magazine down on the closest console and took his spectacles off, cleaning the rims. “Is this our salvage?”

“I think so,” Kevin said, with eyes wide-set. “My understanding is that it’s over a hundred years old and there have been a few military salvage attempts before us. The first attempt was thirty years ago, when the Brits sent two Oberon-class submersibles to the region. One came back empty-handed, the other never came back at all. If it’s not along the Archipelago, then it’s got to be at the bottom of the Arctic.”

“Water’s pretty cold,” Frank said smartly. “How do you expect to retrieve it?”

“If it exists? Divers.”

“The crew won’t be too thrilled about that.”

“We’ll send Boog,” Kevin joked.

The steward walked in and offered Frank a dish of stewed fruit.

“I’d like a boiled egg,” said Frank mildly.

At that moment a huge black man in a snowy apron and a theatrical chef’s cap appeared from the mess hall. He moved like a dancer. His dreadlocks, in a shiny, carefully coiffured bob, fell to his shoulders, and in the lobe of his left ear shone a small diamond earring. He gestured toward the fruit with a hand as hairy as that of a gorilla, but his voice was as lyrical as a female rapper’s. The trainees enjoyed whatever he prepared, and, like Boog, got into the habit of nicknaming him Eats.

“The sailor’s curse is constipation, man,” he said with a serious face, “and I look after my officers. I’m doing your eggs now, but eat your fruit first, Vargas.” The diamond twinkled as he vanished.

Frank stared after him in the silence.

“Fantastic cook,” blurted Kevin, his fair skin flushing hotly, “but I wouldn’t want to run into him in an alley if you haven’t eaten what he spent time preparing. Could get a job on any passenger liner. Also, he’s almost a doctor. He did five years at medical school.”

“It’s useful to have a doctor aboard,” Frank said. “Hope he specializes in hypothermia.”

Frank picked up his spoon and lifted a little of the fruit to his mouth. Every officer on deck watched intently. “Bitter.” Frank forced another spoonful.

“You should taste his jams,” Kevin chuckled.

“Like I said,” Frank went on, putting the fruit bowl down, “I investigated the hull and primary reactor from top to bottom. I inspected the turbine mounts and propeller shaft. I even inspected the primary cooling system. I still believe the fault lies in the steam generator.”

“Regardless of what Boog thinks?” Kevin asked.

“Yes. Regardless of what Potato Boy thinks.”

“And you don’t think there’s a couple of Red Oscars going undetected?”

“Russians? I doubt it. What are the chances they’re on the same treasure hunt?”

While he believed everything Frank told him, there was still that sense of concern. Kevin ordered Firebrand’s depth increased. His mission, though one of retrieval, was top secret, and it was going to be more difficult than he had imagined. While he had a fix on the location, there were still millions of square miles of ice in the Arctic Ocean. Ellesmere Island was no exception. On his side, he had a fine exploration vessel, with a magnificent, ever supplying heart—the reactor. But compared to the vast expanse of solidity under which he must maneuver, Firebrand was only a matchstick suspended under a flat ceiling of ice.

Then, twelve hours later, it struck again, only this time Firebrand’s right aft. Whatever it was, Kevin could no longer dismiss it as a fault in the steam generator at this depth; neither could Vargas. Though sonar picked up nothing as before, the invisible entity, now in close proximity, was clearly on the same divergent heading. At one point it had shoved Firebrand ahead and sideways, positioning her exactly where Kevin had wanted her. Was the entity helping them get to their destination of Ellesmere Island faster? If so, why? He seized the opportunity to bring her the rest of the way up to the frozen surface, then began blowing the main ballast tanks.

Firebrand’s reinforced sail broke through the ice with a great creaking and groaning, carrying a big chunk of frosting atop the dark, rectangular-appearing structure. But Kevin stopped blowing before the entire hull had heaved through the pack. The remaining undisturbed ice would conceal the Firebrand from surface or air observation, while the inverted crevasse into which he had brought her would shield her from sonar detection. It was almost like an underwater garage.

Kevin weighed the priorities. There would be some delay while a hastily organized work party hacked away with axes and crowbars, first to clear the top level of ice, then to clear the vessel’s retractable antennas for hoisting. Twenty-five minutes would elapse before Firebrand’s communication relay could begin to transmit. A message—long overdue, anyway—had been written by him and Frank Vargas when the decision was made to surface in this lead, a few miles shy of Ellesmere Island.

“Are you sure about this?” Frank asked.

“Something is purposely getting in the way of our salvage,” Kevin replied, “and something wants us parked in this region. I plan to find out what it is.” He was never more serious than he was now, as he headed for his locker.

“The boys are nervous,” Frank called out to him. “I don’t think they’re ready for this.”

“Just tell Boog to get upstairs and man the bridge, please.”

Encryption had been completed within the hour. The few minutes before the message could be sent were long enough to make a quick change to report the first collision. He had handed the quickly revised text to the nearest communications operator, thinking, What if the Russians are trying to creep their way in on the recovery effort? What were the odds? Or was he just paranoid as everyone assumed, and, in his mind, living out some 80’s Superpower fantasy? Then, donning a heavy parka, specially insulated trousers and boots, he hurried up the stairs above the bridge.

The hatch trunk above the control area allowed at least some transition from the temperature inside the submarine to that of the winter Arctic. Kevin’s lungs nevertheless felt as though he had suddenly drawn in a shaft of solid ice. He kept his head down, knotted the drawstrings of his parka hood, and shoved his mittened hands under his armpits. In the freezing wind it was much easier to look to leeward, but he forced himself to survey the entire vista.

The month of March was at midpassage, and the sun had not yet broken above the horizon. The entire Arctic was a rapidly lightening twilight zone. The temperature topside, according to a thermometer on the bridge, was minus forty degrees Fahrenheit. Kevin had lost sensation in his cheeks; frostbite must be near. A few feet away, four men garbed as they demolished the last of the ice on Firebrand’s sail. They had been topside for almost an hour; the stiffness of their features and the clumsiness of their movements showed it.

There was something he could do for them, for morale in general. He pressed the button for the bridge speaker. “Boog, this is Swanson. The ice-chopping crew is finished and coming below. Tell Eats to issue them a ration of medicinal spirits. Also, be sure all hands coming topside wear face masks and full cold-weather gear.” He released the button, pressed it again. “I’m going out on the ice,” he said. “Send me a mask, and keep a watch on me through the periscope.”

He released the button, waited for the mask, then began to climb over the side. There would be little visible damage on the top exterior, but that was not why he went to inspect the ice. His binoculars showed a brass-looking object half-buried in some frost a short distance away.

Later, while he was thawing out in the engine room, watching Frank and his machinist’s mates as they crawled among the heavy foundations of the propeller shaft, another half-dozen men were earning their rations of medicinal brandy by daubing white paint over all visible portions of the ship. He was grateful to the supply officer who had included a few cans in Firebrand’s list of Arctic equipment.  

Damage assessment was amazing. There was a series of dents along the sub’s bottom, visible from inside, and the shock to her propulsion machinery had been enormous. Her huge propeller was badly damaged, and the propeller shaft showed measurable travel from side to side as the electric “creep motor” rotated it slowly. When faster revolutions were attempted, under turbine power, the vibration transmitted to the machinery was so strong that Kevin ordered the shaft stopped.

“I can’t believe I missed this on my first inspection,” said Frank, mopping sweat off his ample forehead. “The shaft must be really bent out of shape.”

“Like a huge metal fist was taken to it,” said a fellow engineer.

“It looks bad,” agreed Kevin, in an equally low voice. “Frank…” He drew the chief engineer away from the others. “We’ve got to hope at least one blade of that screw can still give us some thrust. The emergency propulsion motor is gone! Wiped clean off.”

Frank’s eyes widened. “It was rigged out. I’d forgotten!”

“Also, look at this.” Kevin had gone and come back with a round rusty object. He handed it to Vargas. “Ever see anything like this?”

“Looks old, whatever it is.” Frank turned it over. “I think it’s a diving helmet.”

“Russian expedition?”

“No. I don’t think so.” He turned it over once more. “This is vintage, maybe eighty or a hundred years old. They use different faceplates these days. Where did you get this?”

“I found it outside,” Kevin said, “half-buried in the ice when I was making my rounds. Maybe it’s from an earlier salvage attempt.”

“A foreign party? We’re still a good distance away from Ellesmere,” Frank said. “Greenland, even further. Why, what do you think?”

“I say we’ve been going about this recovery all wrong. I say Sutton’s weapon is close to here. Very close. I say the Russians got here before us, saw us coming, and politely intervened. I had been using those outboard motors of yours to help position the ship under the lead, and somebody went to the trouble of bumping us, thus shearing the propeller off.” A pause, then, “So we’re in the lead, where they presumably want us, and where I want us, only we can’t go any further. We’re totally dependent on Firebrand’s main drive for any movement, which puts us at a problem with maneuvering properly and utilizing what was once our emergency propulsion. And we all know how the Russians like to recycle old gear,”—with this, he took the helmet from Vargas—“so they popped back into their metal cigar the moment their radar located our position, forgetting this little antique in the rush.”

Frank’s face showed the seriousness with which he now viewed the situation, should this all be true. “Captain,” he said, trying to come up with a slightly better explanation than the one Kevin proposed, “we did have the shaft up to twenty rpm, but I don’t think we could have even kept it up for that long. It looked to me like it was bent out of line from the get-go, and that, sir, is a miscalculation on my part. Believe me, I hate myself for it. Yes, our former Soviet neighbors have technology that can elude us…but the Cold War’s been over a long time. This isn’t a race.”

Kevin considered everything his chief engineer had to say. “Then if I can drive the ship at all, Frank, we’ve got to go for broke. Look for alternatives. Maybe loosen some of the foundation bolts—”

The telephone on the wall buzzed. “For you, Captain,” a crewman said, and held out the instrument.

Kevin listened, put it back on its cradle with a terse thanks, and turned to Vargas. “They need me up on the bridge. Do everything you can. We’re in trouble.”

From the after end of the engine room to the bridge was a distance of over four hundred feet, the major portion devoted to the silos in the missile compartment—twenty-six tremendous cylinders, extending vertically from the bottom of the submarine through all the decks between and through the hull on top. Five levels, including the tower.

The huge vertical tubes, painted a light coral tone, had never failed to impress Kevin with their total lack of malevolence. And yet the contents of these twenty-six silos—though fully loaded, the war-ready missiles were disabled and only primed during military exercises—carried within them more explosive power than the total used in both world wars.

Kevin continued his hurried trip into the nerve center of the vessel. Booger Nelson, sprouting the fuzzy red beard which would come off before return to port, was standing on the raised starboard periscope station, a look of concern on his face. “I lowered the periscope, Captain,” came the thick Dublin accent. “There’s people on the horizon, and I figured we’d be a little harder to see with it down.”

“You mean on the ice? Impossible!” Kevin threw the mechanic a confused look. “How many?”

“I’d say at least a dozen.”

“Are they coming our way?” Kevin leaped up the metal steps.

“Couldn’t tell. They weren’t walking toward us. Yet, anyway.”

“Could you see any flags blowing, any tents pitched or snow cycles?”

“Too far.”

“They must be another salvage team. Must be!” With a decisive movement Kevin shoved the hydraulic control handle, started the periscope up. “I’ll have to take a look,” he muttered. “Do we have anyone topside?”

“Negative,” said Nelson. “All hatches are shut. Can I go back to the reactor now?”

“No, I may still need you,” said Kevin, as the periscope appeared smoothly out of its well. He snapped the handles down, hooked his right elbow over one, his left hand on the other, put his face to the eyepiece. “We can’t dive out of this hole we’re in until we know if we have propulsion, and Frank is looking for a source.” He began to rotate the tall, thin instrument. “Besides, we’d never get back to it.” Without taking his eye from the eyepiece, he leaned to his left, letting the weight of his body do the work. He stopped suddenly, manipulated the controls. Then he looked for a long instant and flipped up the handles. The periscope began to drop away.

“What do you see?” Boog asked.

“Twelve divers on the horizon, heading our way. They’re walking in four groups of three.” A moment’s forethought. “So it was a salvage team. But whose?”

“I thought this mission was top secret, sir,” a crewman said.

“So did I,” Kevin replied.

“You think they’re looking for Sutton’s weapon?” Boog asked.

“Could be, I suppose, but that would be pretty fast recovery.”

“Could you make out who they are?”

“No. They might not be Russian after all. I’m glad now we had enough white paint to cover everything that came up through the ice.” Kevin paused. “Listen, I don’t want to use the periscope any more than we can help. But we’ve got to keep a watch on them. Get a lookout topside right away. He’ll need heavy-weather gear, a rifle, and a heater positioned in the upper planks. He’ll also need to wrap a white sheet around himself. Any volunteers?”

“Here, sir,” a voice from the path to the kitchen said. “After months of being cooped up with nothing but white folk, a brother tends to need a little fresh air.”

“Eats.” Kevin smiled at the Rastafarian chef. “Pretty cold out there, and we don’t know who’s rocking those suits. Sure you’re up for it?”

“When am I not game?” Eats laughed.

Kevin was grateful. For a moment he thought Booger was going to volunteer, and the idea of that left him with a disturbed feeling in his stomach. He could already feel growing within him the dread of what he might discover when two things happened: when at last the propeller’s end was inspected, and when the divers finally approached the submarine, took off their helmets, and revealed who they were. Also, with the secondary propulsion system gone—at least, according to Vargas—and the main propulsion out of commission, he and his ship and crew were trapped in the Arctic.

He decided to contact the US mainland again. They needed to know what was going on up here.

Drafting a second message had taken longer than the first one—within that timeframe, Eats confirmed that the divers had advanced a whole mile—because of the necessity to compress as much meaning as possible into the fewest words. As Kevin had surmised, the transmission had been timed to go out while there was the best chance of reception on the east coast of the United States. Kevin was looking over the operator’s shoulder while it was being sent. There had been a perceptible thrill as he recognized the interposition of an allied station transmitting his crew’s own code; another part of him realized how pissed Washington would be if somebody else got to the weapon first. The divers could be freelancers, he thought, part of a black market operation to sell the weapon to a terrorist organization. He couldn’t fathom a country like Syria or Iran owning such an important device.

“Sir, we may not be out of harm’s reach yet,” one of the crewmen on the bridge said.

Kevin hurried down the metal steps to the operator’s station. He leaned over him and his monitor. “What do you mean?”

Listening to his earphones carefully, the crewman said, “We’re picking up a massive object beneath the ice pack, a few miles west of Ellesmere Island. Its signal is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

“Is it connected to the divers?”

“Could be, sir.”

“Hostile?”

“I can’t answer that yet, sir.” There was hesitation in the young man’s voice. He turned a large white knob in front of him to get a better frequency. “However,” he went on, “I think I may know what contributed to our being stranded here.”

“Go on.”

“A giant magnet,” said the crewman. “Or at least something with the strength capable of shearing a large submarine, then dragging it where it wants it.”

“A magnet? From where?” Kevin asked.

“Look at these signals.” The crewman showed him a print graph. “Only magnetism could make the kind of wavy marks you see in this printout. What if this weapon the Germans discovered in 1914 was one big magnet, a magnet that could move underwater, kind of like a submarine? And what if this weapon could be piloted or manipulated using telekinesis or some other kind of psychic phenomena?”

“You mean men using their minds to direct it?”

“Yes. Or maybe something else. But I’m damn sure about the magnet, and I’m pretty certain about the mind control part as well.”

“Sounds more like a page from a comic book,” said Boog, “but then that would be one hell of a naval deterrent.”

Up till now Kevin had not thought about heightened security either. Only now, sensing his operator’s reticence at speaking out plainly—and when science and technology suggests another explanation, one must consider the impossible—did the possibility of interception by unwanted listeners cross his mind.

Kevin was still talking when the telephone on the bridge rang. The communications officer held it out to him. “For you, sir. Should I transfer it?”

“Here’s hoping my words and thoughts aren’t stolen,” Kevin said, putting the nearest handset up to his ear. “Go ahead.”

“This is Eats, Captain. I have to talk low. I’m stationed behind the tower, and those divers are trying to climb up the side of the sub. They can see through the paint job. They seem to be headed for the bridge. What do I do?”

“What are you doing up there?”

“You told me to stay positioned, and I couldn’t. You gave me a rifle, but you didn’t say fire.”

“You’re right,” Kevin said. “We can’t fire until we know who they are. For all we know, they might be civilians or one of ours.” A pause, then, “If they find the hatch, tell them to identify themselves and give a warning shot.”

“Will do,” Eats said. “But I will say this…they don’t look like one of ours.” Eats practically whispered now, bent low against the base of the conning tower with the white sheet wrapped tightly around him. “Their faceplates are glowing a green and red. They look like something out of a 1950s creature feature. Maybe Annapolis sent them.”

“There’s no way it’s Annapolis, and there’s no way I can get a visual,” Kevin said to the cautious-sounding chef above. “A lot of stuff has been changed around in this vessel since they retired her from active duty. If the situation looks grim in twenty minutes, improvise! Then get your ass inside. Oh, and be ready to submerge!” Kevin dropped the handset.

Turning to Nelson, he said, “Boog, I want you and two of your grease monkeys stationed at the foot of the tower with pistols. Be ready for anything!”

Boog nodded. “Aye, aye, sir.”

Then Kevin turned to his men on the bridge and said, “We have no communication outside the Arctic. Not yet, at least. We have to assume that whatever led us into this ice pack and stuck us here is more intelligent than us, and we have to assume that whoever’s trying to enter Firebrand is hostile. I want every man at his station and this ship ready for starboard immediately! We take her down on my command.”

While propulsion was still an issue, Firebrands annunciators had been placed on AHEAD FLANK, her course set via the main drive and reserve power flow via the secondary reactor, then set again for a great curve around Ellesmere Island. This action, Kevin hoped, would generate the amount of thrust they needed.

Now Frank’s voice lit up on the speaker. “Hey, can you keep me updated? I see you readying to dive down here. What the hell? Over.”

Kevin returned to the handset. “Negative, Frank. There’s too much activity upstairs. Perhaps even below us.” Maybe he was being a little coy, but there was no point in giving away his intentions to a chance listener.

Suddenly the transmission between him and Vargas was paralleled by the ship’s general communication system. Boog’s voice. “Captain, this is Nelson. I’m on top of the bridge, not too far from the access ladder and stern hatch. I’m with Melky and AJ.” They were positioned along a fork in the steel corridor that flanked the old attack periscope and air intake shaft. “I don’t hear Eats…only footsteps around the tower’s satellite mast.” He paused as he heard an intermittent clanging noise. “Those divers are closer than before, and I think they want in.”

“They’ll need blueprints then,” Kevin said through the handset. “Only US Navy personnel know how to enter Firebrand. There’s no way a foreign salvage can get inside.” Perhaps Swanson had spoke too soon, for the locking mechanism in the ceiling clicked, and the hatch above the access ladder swung open.

Boog and his men immediately backed up. They knelt behind the nearest corridor wall, their hearts skipping a beat. “Tell that to them,” he replied in a low voice. “They’re in!”

There was a moment of eerie silence. Boog could see a large circle of daylight shining down from above, a patch of subzero air floating in and around it.

“Eats? Eats, is that you?” he called out.

There was no answer.

He turned to his men. “Cover me.” The biting of the cold mixed with the smell of death filled the walkway ahead, as he advanced forward on his own. He felt distinctly uneasy; he felt as if each step were slowly leading him to his last.

Seconds later a body in a thick gray and white parka came plummeting from above. It bounced off the sides of the access ladder twice before slamming onto the steel grating. Boog jumped back and held his pistol upwards; Melky and AJ did the same. He quickly picked himself up and snagged a peek at the person behind the hood of the Arctic jacket. It was Eats’ skeleton, and judging by the shape of the corpse, it looked as if something had drained the very life force from it.

Boog ran back to the foot of the corridor. “Fire on my order,” he told Melky and AJ. He didn’t even have time to report back to Swanson.

A minute later his men shot a fearful glance at the six foot four, brass-bolt and copper-helmeted figure making his way slowly down the ladder. They both felt a shock. Its muscles were huge, and its iced-up faceplate was glowing a strange color from within. And it was very close—much too close.

As the diver traversed the corridor, a second and third diver descended the ladder behind it. They moved with a disturbing calm; the likes Boog had never seen. Here were these gigantic men, almost bodybuilders, only wearing heavy, encrusted sea suits—a throwback to the expeditionists or salvagers of a century earlier—gaining impossible entrance and unbelievable passage to a 21st century nuclear submarine. How was this possible? Who were they? What were they?

Boog gave the order. Melky and AJ fired at semi-close range. The bullets seemed to bounce off the first diver. Struggling with taking him down, Boog looked at the pipe above him and released the pin on the nearest pressure gauge. Then he turned the gear on the wall beside him. The idea was to bring a portion of steam from the generator up into the air intake shaft. Then, as fast as possible, spray it across the menace of those massive arms. If the blast didn’t kill him, maybe it would slow him down at the very least. It was worth a try, as already a fourth and fifth diver were descending the ladder at the opposite end.

The smoking splutter of the steam pipe that rose vertically up the side of the corridor to the ceiling—and many other shafts and corridors throughout Firebrand’s bowels—suddenly died away, and there was only the sound of pressure build-up. Boog hoped his knowledge of boilers was appropriate, as nothing like this had ever been tried before aboard a nuclear submarine. They froze, staring out at the first diver from the fork in the corridor as pressurized hot steam bore down on him without the slightest flinch.

The diver, with two more of equal height right over his shoulder, stood perfectly still in the center of the walkway, as the bursts of steam bounced off his thick frame. He extended an open hand and slowly reached up, ripping the pipe off its hinges. Melky and AJ immediately carried out another round of gunfire beside the air intake shaft tunnel. Boog was behind them, squatting, his face only inches from one of the shaft’s ducts. He closed one eye and cocked his head. He wondered if it were distortion from the steam output or his own fears.

Swanson contacted him. “What’s going on? I hear gunfire! Where’s Eats?”

Boog unclipped his transmitter. “He’s gone, Captain. They took his flesh off somehow. I don’t know how to describe it. I don’t even know what they are!”

“Can you halt their advance till I send backup?”

“Don’t send anyone up here, Captain. Just seal this section off. We’ve been infiltrated! Everything Melky and AJ have unloaded has gone right through them. I’ll give it one more go. But I urge you to reconsider our internal defenses. Take her down before any more get inside.”

Suddenly, startlingly, the shaft slammed into stillness. The deceleration was so abrupt that the torque was transferred into the shaft tunnel, and it creaked with the strain. Unsure whether this would affect Firebrand’s ability to submerge, Boog rocked back onto his heels. Almost instantly the shaft began to spit bursts of steam again, but in reverse. Once more Boog was forced further back, the pressure along all sections of the corridor so intense—and it didn’t help that the lead diver had manipulated the overhead pipe, which was now shooting sharp bursts down at the floor—that Melky and AJ toppled back against the hatch leading to Firebrand’s multipurpose antenna, suffering second-degree burns. The whine of the pressure released around them built up swiftly into a rising shriek. They were already pulling emergency power from the generator and bridge, and it was madness, suicidal madness. It got to the point where they had to retreat from the T-shaped fork in the corridor to the roomier section of walkway shaped like a curved E. Boog fired three shots and seized Melky, who was now stuck between the T-shaped corridor and the winding path to the upper staircase, and shouted into his ear, “Get back to the bridge! Find out why we haven’t dived yet.”

Melky scrambled away down the long spiral staircase. Boog lowered his head again, and now he could clearly see that the outline of the shaft was flickering out of balance. Perhaps relocating steam emissions wasn’t such a good idea after all.

The metal floor under his feet began to quiver. He looked for AJ in the crazy rush of steam. “They’re going to get into the bowels anyway!” he shouted, and jumped back. “Return to the reactor, man!” AJ was cornered by the first and second divers. He shrunk into a scared little ball at their feet. The diver that entered Firebrand first now looked down at the cowering man, unlatched the safety bolt on his helmet’s faceplate, opened it and, through the icy particles, shined a green misty light downward.

“Don’t look at him!” Boog shouted.

But AJ found himself looking up—more in curiosity than fear—and it would be the last thing he would see before the flesh on his face and body evaporate in a wisp of airy smoke. Whatever nutrients lay beneath the skin, transfer upwards into the copper-fitted helmet. On the floor, seared bone was all that remain.

The diver closed his faceplate and now focused his attention back on Nelson. Boog couldn’t believe his eyes. He retreated back along the E-shaped corridor, but the entire path ahead of him and behind him was shuddering so violently that he had to grab at the nearest bulkhead to steady himself. He looked over his shoulder briefly. He saw the huge gray and silver intake shaft beginning to rise and buckle as the bearing ripped loose from its mountings; giant lug nuts and screws flew out of the wall as if by some invisible force.

“Captain, shut the generator down! Don’t dive until you do!” he now screamed into his transmitter. “For God’s sake, shut down!” But his warning was lost as the main bearing exploded. The shaft itself began to snake and whip. Hot steam quickly lashed out in all directions and licked part of Nelson’s face. He cowered back, but the power being generated now from the kicking shaft, like a mindless predator, practically crushed him against the farthest section of the E-shaped corridor. Half a dozen divers paid the upheaval at the top of the submarine no mind—it was as if they were the ones responsible for the contortion of metal—and continued their slow but deadly march through it.

It happened again. More snaking, more whipping. The impact, when it came, was shattering. Boog was hurled into the next part of the corridor, his forehead striking the hot steel. He was stunned. He pulled himself up onto his knees as spurts of hot steam now jetted through the crevices beside him.

“Impossible!” he said, holding a hand out to the steam jet.

Then the surrounding pipes snapped like a twig at the point where it had been too overheated and too weakened. The weight of the pressure build-up now tore the stump of the shaft out. Escape through the tower was no longer possible. Assessing the damage from within the chaos, Boog realized only a high-powered magnet could have done this. And while he wasn’t much of a believer in strange phenomena, he did wonder where such destructive energy could be operating from, or if the divers were receivers and transmitters for it.

Bloodied up and weak, he lifted his body in one last show of might. “You bastards aren’t getting near that stairway. Over my dead body.” Out of ammo, he pulled a nearby fire extinguisher off the wall and started spraying one of the divers in the face with it. The diver brought his hand down in a karate-like fashion—a show of force that literally chopped the red canister in half. The white foamy contents exploded upwards and blinded Nelson.

The diver now put his massive hand out, grabbed Boog’s collarbone, and squeezed with crushing force. Then he lifted the Irishman above his head and pressed him against the ceiling. Boog recited the old sailors’ doggerel to himself, shading his swollen eyes with one hand as he looked downward. He spit and cursed at the diver. A green light shone upwards at him, flowing lethally out of the face of one of the most dangerous monsters the Arctic could ever summon.

While Kevin could hear the volley of gunfire, he did not hear the screams of his best mechanic coming from the floor above him. Without Boog answering his transmitter, he did not know how close the divers were. He just knew that they were unwelcome guests, and stood over the chart table with a handful of his officers and played ship captain incoherently, wondering what to do next.

Think! he urged himself fiercely. Once before, when Firebrand’s primary reactor had stopped, he had helped Boog repair it; it was only in recent months that they had a falling out, disagreeing with each other on this and that. He remembered that he had controlled the revolutions of the engine by hand at the side of the engine room. Now he was left with a broken propeller and a pre-21st century drive to maneuver with, and he was not looking forward to being the first submarine captain—if he lived to tell about it—to recover from the shock of realizing that Firebrand’s engine had ultimately failed.

“Why haven’t we submerged?” he yelled.

“You didn’t give the order, sir,” one of his crewmen said. “Don’t you want to call Vargas first? He’s still figuring out a way to get us propulsion.”

“What’s he going to say that he hasn’t said so far? That we’re on battery from here on out? Or that the generator is exhausted too?”

He tried to think. Life jackets! He shouted to one of the communication officers, “The life jackets are in the lockers at the foot of the staircase.”

The crew turned to him, suddenly stricken. Up to this moment it had all been a glorious romp.

“Move!” he shrieked at them, and there was a rush back along the thin path of the bridge.

As for Vargas, he didn’t know that a hostile enemy had already entered. Frank’s engineers were too busy relocating power from the reactor and prepping for Swanson’s order to submerge. Firebrand’s sonar was actively searching ahead and to both sides—away from the ice pack—her fathometer recording the depth of the water beneath. Her whole being was concentrated on but a single objective: to reach, as soon as possible, the vicinity of Greenland on the polar grid, Firebrand’s last reported position.

One week earlier, however, Firebrand often slowed to come to periscope depth. Since she had very little apparatus for making oxygen from seawater, or for removing carbon dioxide, she routinely conserved her supply of compressed oxygen by exchanging her internal air with the atmosphere. After a full day, oxygen depletion was noticeable, and the instant restoration of vitality when fresh air could finally be drawn in became one of the pleasures of the ship’s routine. Given the current situation, and with the generator damaged, Kevin and Frank now wondered if this depletion would become a major issue.

Kevin turned and found Vargas and two members of his staff looking up at him from the bridge entrance. “Shouldn’t you be down by the reactor?” he asked.

“Shouldn’t you have dived already?” Frank countered.

Both men were dimly aware that the generator was idling again and that the submarine had shifted wildly in the ice pack in some powerful turbulence maneuver. Then they realized it must be whatever Boog did, along with encapsulated pressure surrounding the hull.

“The enemy is in,” Kevin said with a bluntness often reserved for emergencies. “You’re going to need to work faster.”

“Where’s Eats, and Boog?”

“There was a commotion up in the tower,” he told him. “Eats is dead, and something tells me Boog tried his best. That, and buy us very little more time.”

“Do you know what we’re dealing with here?”

“Not really. One of my men keeps going on about a psychic magnet. These invaders are linked to it somehow, and the magnet may very well be the salvage.”

“I just inspected the propeller shaft and turbines again,” Frank said, and then—with feeling—“but I’m not going to bother going down that route again. Somebody else can do it.”

“Show me how then,” Kevin said, “and you can take the bridge. The sooner we get back to port—any port!—the happier I’ll be.”

“Damn it, Swanson! It doesn’t work like that. It’s not as simple as you think.”

Kevin stared across the length of the bridge. He studied the receding bulk of Firebrand’s computer stations, communication equipment, and other internal machinery and shook his head in wonder. “Then what do you propose? This is Firebrand, for God’s sake!” he exclaimed. “If this ship were still militarily active it would be one of the seven wonders of the oceanic world.”

Frank thought for a moment. “We take her down on what power we’ve got, let these sonsabitches creep close enough, then blow them to kingdom come!”

“Torpedoes?” Kevin asked. “I don’t know. I’m not Charlie.”

“Bullshit,” Frank said. “You’re just as good a captain as Abnett was. If it is a clairvoyant weapon, or a foreign sub with a magnetic beacon attached that the Navy is not used to in underwater combat, you take out the heart of the device. That destroys psychic transmission, if there is any. You wanted me to look for alternatives—Well, it’s the only alternative we’ve got.”

Sounded simple enough. Yet it was a job that was scheduled for a dozen or more men, and there were not enough hands to spare.

“Topside is finally secured for sea, Captain,” one of the bridge officers said, “and the ship is rigged to dive. If it helps, we can secure the maneuvering watch after we round out the ice pack.”

“There’s still a chance Firebrand’s propeller isn’t entirely gone,” Frank added. “We should be getting another message from engineering with more information anytime.”

“That’s not what I’m worried about,” Kevin said. “If we’re disabled at shallow depth, we can’t send or receive emergency transmissions from the underwater antenna. We can’t transmit unless we get an antenna through the ice cover, and if we submerge now we won’t be able to do that.”

“How long can we last?”

“We must rely on assumption,” Kevin muttered. “We must assume the primary reactor is at ninety percent or better, and we’ve got enough power in that old drive. We must assume that we can control our own atmosphere, and that we can supply enough oxygen in the event we can’t resurface for a long time. Provisions are the limiting factor. Assuming nothing happens to the secondary reactor, and that the enemy above doesn’t kill us, we can last three months tops.”

Frank nodded. The set of his mouth was suddenly grim. “If Annapolis can’t transmit, we have to assume it’s because we can’t. So, if we don’t do something pretty soon, you’ll have to take action based on pure speculation.”

At that moment Melky came staggering through the bulwark. Vargas followed Swanson’s surprised face to the aft side of the bridge; the order to seal off the rear bulkhead was finally given.

“He’s hurt.” Frank noticed the full extent of Melky’s burns as he got closer.

“Get this man some medical attention,” Kevin ordered, and two crewmen quickly went for the first aid kit. “Where’s Boog?”

The pump room mechanic fell into a nearby chair, out of breath. “Last I saw Nelson was transferring pressure from the generator core to the intake shaft. I think he was trying to scare them off. It didn’t work. Bullets didn’t work. Nothing worked. It only made things worse for us.”

“Where’s he now?” Frank asked.

“Last I saw they cornered AJ, and Nelson was trying to remedy the steam output to the tower. I’ve never seen anything like it, sir—such unbelievable strength!”

“Almost sounds inhuman,” Frank said.

“I think they are,” Melky remarked.

Kevin’s eyes dilated as the severity of the situation sank in once more. The divers had not only managed to get inside one of the most technologically secure and apt vessels on the face of the planet, but more than likely they were working their way down toward the missile silos. There was malevolent intent in that. “Clear the aft side of the bridge!” he yelled, his fingers gripping the emergency microphone suddenly. “Take her down!” He had stalled long enough.

With his other hand he pushed the control of the hydraulic periscope hoist. As the bright metal tube slithered silently up from the well he could sense the bustle of the control center crew standing up to their stations, waiting for the orders that would send the disabled Firebrand deep into the icy sea.

“Our goal is three hundred feet,” Kevin said over the speaker. “Remember that.”

Vargas now assisted him, sounding the diving alarm. With Nelson more than likely dead, and with the tremendous job Kevin now faced, he would be the next to last man down. If the captain reopened the rear bulkhead and needed a lookout, Frank and his engineers would be there every step of the way; their friendship far exceeded their time in the Navy.

Kevin glanced at the ballast control panel. Its operator was flipping the last of the switches that would open vents and release air from tanks.

He grabbed the periscope handles. Just as he had thought! All this time there was something in the water, almost brushing the ice, trying to remain concealed. Whether it was another submarine, a magnet, or a combination of the two, it was now headed directly for the Firebrand.

“I think I see it. It’s been here the whole time.” Kevin turned the periscope to look aft. Yes, his sub’s rudder had vanished below the ice. “So it wants to play, eh? Then we’re going to play with it. I want movement the moment Firebrand’s sail is out of view.”

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Frank said.

Kevin looked back into the periscope’s eyepiece. He could not see whether its sail was still visible. The vessel was closer, although he had been looking away less than ten seconds. “And I want that bulkhead manned!” he snapped. “What’s the depth?”

“Only forty-seven feet.” Vargas, now standing beside him, answered instantly. “Zero bubble. Forty-seven and a half—now it’s forty-eight feet. Seventeen feet to go!” Frank knew the Firebrand went completely under at keel depth sixty-five feet, but they were still a long way from three hundred.

Suddenly the enemy assumed a climbing trajectory, something an underwater vessel was incapable of. It flattened its half-visible shape and an object detached itself from its belly, separated rapidly from it, then grew swiftly in size as the vessel rocketed upwards through the ice.

“What in God’s name is that?” When Kevin finally took his eyes away from the periscope, he shouted, “Sound the collision alarm! He’s dropped something! Could be depth charges!” Kevin turned the periscope rapidly, keeping the dark silhouette in sight as the scream of the collision alarm and the deep thuds of slamming watertight doors reverberated in his ears. “Shit! All this time it’s been playing us.”

Firebrand’s emergency lighting system was activated. The crew stopped and looked at each other. They were concerned now more than ever.

“One hundred feet,” Frank called out.

Boom! The explosion came with shocking suddenness. A cloud of blinding bubbles filled the periscope lens. The enemy was lost to view. But, on releasing its weapon, the craft had begun climbing up onto the ice above to escape the shockwave of the detonation, which could be as hazardous to the bomber as to the target.

“One hundred seventy-five!” Firebrand was finally dropping faster. Kevin snapped up the periscope handles but kept his face to the eyepiece. Vargas lowered it at half speed. Minutes before Kevin pulled his head clear, he thought he saw the enemy’s shell, barely visible through the thinning bubbles. It resembled a metallic stingray with appendages, ultra-thin and sailing directly beneath the ice bed. After that he could not be sure, but there was something different about it, something suddenly askew.

Only a lowly sonarman heard the muffled sound of rockets, as the vessel parked itself on the top of the ice a quarter of a mile away. The sound, transmitted first through the unyielding ice and then through water, resembled nothing he had ever heard. It was much less frightening than the explosion which had blasted into his eardrums moments before.

There was no further underwater noise, and Firebrand kept dropping to a significant depth. The sonarman took up his logbook and began to compose a laborious description of what he had heard in that confusing and scary instant. Then he recorded it on his tablet. Not until the evening, as the submarine sank deeper into the frigid waters of the Arctic, unable to move, with divers of unknown origin working on getting past the rear bulkhead, did the man call his superior’s attention to the strange noise that he had heard.

Darkness in the Arctic came swiftly. The night was ferociously cold and utterly black. On this night there were no stars, no moon. With the last of the light, the stingray-shaped vessel, now perched in spacecraft fashion on a mountainous sheath facing Ellesmere Island, emitted a green light from its underbelly. Suddenly the heavens began to burn like a bed of hot coals, and the sea shone with a ruddy luminosity, as if the sky were a furnace door thrown wide open.

Three divers emerged from the stingray, fists clenched and helmets aglow, as if communicating telepathically with their separated brothers deep below. They stared up at the clouds that raced above them, clouds that glowed with that terrible ominous flare. Slowly the light faded and changed, turning a sickly greenish hue. The phenomenon could easily be mistaken for mariner lore—the Devil’s Beacon that leads a doomed ship on to its fate—but it was so much more.

The weird light faded slowly away, leaving the night even more foreboding than it had been before.

Firebrand now drift three hundred feet down near a snakelike trench, blades of ice extending up and outward of its intimidating mouth. She had become well acquainted with the Arctic Ocean during the past weeks. The only difference was that this time, instead of a short jaunt to sea for salvaging, Firebrand was paralyzed hundreds of miles to the north. Behind its rear bulwark an enemy pounded on metal, with the hopes of breaking in and killing each member of the crew. Above, a rocket-powered vessel, capable of travel by sea or air, sent forth quasi-magnetic emissions from an extrasensory weapon in its stomach and waited in deadly silence. All related, all after the same thing—if not already part of the same thing. Terror from all sides, and for a submarine whose only chance of survival now rested in the efficacy of manmade technology, a chief engineering officer who knew more than he wanted to imply, and a substitute captain who bit off more than he could chew.

Deep underwater there was no feeling of motion, no feel whatsoever of the sea. The interior of the ship was now a quiet cavern, full of controlled, efficient activity. Officers worked with operators, and operators worked alongside engineers. And they were admired for that. Now, all facing the same threat, there was none of that old hurly-burly, no necessity for split-second timing. Only patience, because three hundred feet down what else did you have to rely on? The people on the bridge were allowed to plot with some dignity. No one encased in that elongated steel cylinder was unaware of the dangers of the sea. The Grim Reaper was never far away, in some cases only inches. And he needed only a single entry point to begin his deadly work.

It had been assumed by the sonarman that the enemy they now faced was quite possibly extraterrestrial in origin—nothing on Earth could give off those signals—and the fact that they used powerful magnetic emissions to disable its prey might mean that it too had linked onto Sutton’s weapon, making it probable they were a salvage team themselves, only from outer space. The divers were more than likely reanimated expeditionists, he informed the captain, there to buy the hosts time and help feed and necessitate power while stationed underwater. Sound was the next step.

Since sound normally traveled sixteen hundred yards per second in water, the sonarman was certain long scale pings from still-active, echo-ranging sonar could be heard from the greatest distance, and have the best chance of being picked up by a rescue ship. Since a round trip by sound was involved, the time in seconds on their watches, multiplied by eight hundred yards, would give each submarine the approximate distance to the other.

“Whatever it takes,” Swanson said, focusing all worry on the underwater antenna. “Saving the crew is the very bottom line. Frank, have your boys come up with any ideas? Is there another way to fix the propeller or replace the emergency propulsion motor?”

Vargas shook his head. “We’ve been brainstorming all night, but either one of these fixes is a dry-dock job. Here under the ice, there’s no way at all.” He cleared his throat morosely.

Melky, face bandaged up and carrying on a low-voiced discussion with one of the engineers, caught Swanson’s eye. “Captain, if echo-ranging sonar doesn’t pan out there’s three other things Firebrand can do out of shallow water. One is to wait for another submarine to try the old-fashioned tow operation. Another is to serve as communications relay station, assuming we already got through to the mainland and we’re immobilized and can’t transmit for another few weeks. A qualified rescue party may be able to talk us through to Greenland via underwater voice communication set. The third thing is worse comes to worst a rescue party can come alongside and take Firebrand’s crew through the escape hatches or anti-torpedo bulges.”

“What about our alien friend?”

“Checking radar now, sir,” said a nearby operator.

With time to kill, Firebrand slowly described the enemy’s imprecise pattern. It had returned to the depths of the sea minutes earlier, and it was now making complete circles in the water. It was as though suspended in space, preparing itself. Above, below, in all directions, nothing but sea. Hundreds of feet overhead, a solid sheet of ice, twenty feet thick or more. Thousands of feet below, the floor of the Arctic Ocean and uncertainty; the Firebrand dare not budge. The enemy, a metallic blob of life, the size of a particle of dust, launched into an Olympic-size swimming pool in search of another dust-size particle.

Swanson made a snapping motion with his hand. “Of course, scubamen!”

Frank threw him a weird look. “Are you for real?” Maybe Swanson’s exhaustion was showing in his slowness at picking up sane ideas. “How?”

“That bulkhead isn’t going to stop the divers,” Kevin said, turning an ear to the echoing sound of fists on steel, “and we need to buy as much time as possible and protect the crew. When those things find out they can go back up and gain access through the front stairwell, we’ll be finished. I need you to make sure they don’t make it into those silos. Arm a couple of scuba divers, send them out through the escape hatches, have them swim up to the top of the tower, and come down and enter through the stern hatch. If this alien submarine does have a psychic link with the divers aboard, then it will use that link to communicate and find an alternate way to destroy us from within. Without the divers, there is one less thing to worry about. This gives us more time for the sonar team to send out their pings, fix whatever needs to be fixed, set up a relay and consider Melky’s suggestions.”

“I still think you should fire torpedoes at its heart.”

Again the voice of a nearby operator. “Sir, activity again. Right above us!”

“Quiet everyone!” Kevin shouted.

The ventilation blowers had been purposely turned off in the silent condition, and Swanson was perspiring heavily as he looked down at the operator’s terminal. An atmosphere of dread permeated the ship. Within moments there was a signal unlike anything ever picked up, and it transported the bridge crew back about nine hours; it was exactly the same as it had been during the previous attack beneath the ice, only the rhythm more stretched out.

In a few moments another noise, a high hum, began emanating from the same bearing. “We’re picking up his machinery,” the operator stated. He spoke into his mike. “Sonar, can you detect its propellers yet?”

There was no answer. Then, “Turn count, one two oh!” said the speaker suddenly. “Same as a single-screw ship!”

Helplessly the crowd around the sonar section heard the alien submarine close in. After a minute, Kevin turned to Vargas. “I don’t like this at all. I think we should go to battle stations.”

“And I’ve been telling you that you should,” said Frank. “I’ll go get started putting that diving squad together.”

“I think he’s closing,” Melky called out from one of the sonar consoles, where he had taken over. “He sounds louder, sir, and the decibel meter is reading a little higher.”

Swanson turned the far corner of the bridge. “Glad to see your injuries haven’t left us a man short. Boog would be proud. What else have you got?”

“Checking now, sir.”

The darkened sonar section was dominated by two long consoles opposite each other, in the center of which lay a circular glass-faced tube dimly backlighted in red. Greenish white flashes emanated regularly from the four o’clock sector, halfway to the edge, and each flash coincided with a piercing high-frequency ping which jumped from the half dozen pairs of earphones listening to it. Swanson wondered why they were not deafened by the echo-ranging signals sent by the enemy vessel.

Melky said, “He’s not being very polite. We may as well go active ourselves. Wait one minute, then aim it right into his receiver.”

Kevin spoke into the handset. “All hands, ready ship for torpedo launch. Port side. This is the captain,” he said. “This time it’s for real!” In a moment the musical chimes signaling battle stations sounded through Firebrand’s general announcing system. It was the first time in years Kevin had heard them except in exercise or drill. “On my mark…Fire!”

Two torpedoes shot out of Firebrand’s mouth and slammed into the space of water the alien submarine occupied.

Melky gave a coarse laugh. “That barrage slowed him down.” At the same time, the pounding from the rear bulkhead stopped. The two gun-toting crewmen manning the aft side looked at each other, somewhat alarmed. They didn’t know if this was a good thing or a bad thing.

Back in the sonar section, the men were gratified to see that the enemy hadn’t blasted forth one of its beams or dropped explosive charges. It was still very much a mystery to the crew as to where it got its power. The spot on the scope it now occupied was bathed in a succession of flashing pings.

Swanson saw Melky huddled over the sonar display. “He’s echo-ranging again,” he said. “And he’s moving out ahead of us. He’s up to something!”

“If he shoots a torpedo, we’ll have to maneuver to avoid it.” Then a thought struck Swanson. “Don’t we have a couple of decoys?”

“Yeah, they’re stored behind the pump room. Why?”

“Have the men down there get one ready for firing. Quick, man!”

Melky picked up the phone, gave the order. Then he was silent for a long, thoughtful minute. “But what do we do after we fire it? Without propulsion, there’s not much maneuvering we can do.”

“If we stop our screws, put her in full dive and flood negative, Firebrand might coast overhead. If not, we dive further.”

Melky felt an elbow in his middle. The sonarman next to him was pointing to the illuminated spot on his dial. The enemy had drawn well ahead and was no longer echo-ranging. Kevin stepped away from the console.  

“What’s he doing?” said one of the bridge officers. “Getting ready to shoot?”

“Somebody tell Frank Vargas and his boys to brace themselves. Full power and short scale!” Kevin ordered. Grabbing the nearest handset, he said, “Tubes forward, set the decoy for short-scale pinging. Then flood the tube and shoot it!”

“Good for you, sir,” said the bridge officer. “He’s likely got a quiet, fairly slow charge, programmed to finish its run by homing on noise. He shut off his link so as not to confuse it. If he plans to retaliate, he’ll do it when we’re pinging, so his fish can home on us.”

“Exactly. And we’re not going to ping right away.” Kevin snapped his fingers. “The decoy’s away. Secure pinging immediately!” Melky flipped a switch on the console. “Now flood negative! Thirty degrees down angle! Make our depth six hundred feet!” The depth gauge was at five hundred as Kevin struggled back to the sonar section.

“He’s just stopped,” Melky said. “Hovering, I suppose, waiting for us to catch that fish of his.”

 The men in the sonar section had to brace themselves against the steep downward inclination of the submarine. “Hold on to something,” Kevin hollered.

“We eluded him this time,” Melky said, fixing his head bandage, “probably even made him angry. But what about our salvage?” He seemed to be thinking the same thing as Swanson.

“Yes, the salvage,” Kevin muttered. “I’m starting to think we’re the fly in that ointment. It’s the salvage this thing wants. And we’re competition, snaking her out from under their nose.”

“You think we’re the target because of it?”

“If they continue to play real rough, we are. If we disappear, their mission for Planet X, or wherever, is complete.”

“We should warn Frank again before he releases the divers, shouldn’t we?”

“We should,” Kevin said, “but that vessel must be monitoring us. Frank knows our depth increased. He’ll cope.”

It was a conservative decision that the captain would deeply regret later, but Frank still went ahead. Slowly, three men at a time, the transfer began. Three men, equipped with semi-automatics and wearing NASA-engineered diving gear specifically made for deep Arctic waters, with their bulky tanks, filled the Firebrand’s escape chamber nearly to capacity. The goal was to first get six divers out and up to the sail, then secure a line to go back and forth between hatches. Then it was necessary to close the outer door, quickly release the pressure, and secure the tower corridors before the enemy realize another stairwell exist.

The water was cold, even through the suits, several degrees below the freezing point of fresh water, but that was to be expected. They were not uncomfortable with the form-fitting outfits on, the men told Vargas. Nevertheless, he ordered the divers to use the lungs and shift their jobs after thirty minutes in the water, the limiting time for this depth and kind of equipment, according to the naval manual.

Things were going well. But three men per transfer, opening and shutting hatches, taking turns and changing equipment took time. In the event the crew needed to escape by these same means, Vargas knew well who that last man would be.

He would never forget the sinking feeling in his chest when one of the scubamen reported that Firebrand was lower in the water. Two-dozen sets of transfers had been made, and it seemed as if every extra hand—from engineer to planesman to pump mechanic—had played a role in unlocking the stern hatch. Kevin’s voice over the general communication system told Frank what he was afraid to hear: the ship would not last longer than an hour more at that depth, so either get the men clear or finish what has been started.

Then more disaster. Three of the scuba tanks ran out of compressed air and had to be recharged; two insulated mouthpieces had been dropped and damaged. Three men waited nervously at the now-opened stern hatch, hoping the next transfer set would come along to relieve them or ferry them back. Other than that, time was lost.

“Those are my best engineers,” Vargas said. “I don’t want them up in the tower any longer than they have to be. Refill these tanks, pronto!”

The cable connecting the escape hatch to the sail was extending downward at an appreciable angle now. The action of the line, stretched to its uttermost, was causing the half-crippled Firebrand to drift slowly under the enemy by about a hundred-foot margin. Vargas tried to contact the bridge, but there was a fault in the line and communication was temporarily one way.

Hurriedly the divers at the foot of the tower urged the next set of men onward and up the line. If they were going to retrieve them, it was now or never. Then, with a snap audible inside Firebrand’s bowels, the metal line broke.

The released cable snapped backward like a rubber band. The short end of it struck the scubaman on the Firebrand’s foredeck, knocking him off. At that instant the submarine skidded across the side of the trench and shook. Pulling himself back by his safety line, the scubaman found to his horror that the cord was jammed in its slot on the deck, where the trench’s scraping passage had crimped the recessed track. He could feel the pressure increasing in his ears, and the cold suit getting colder. Frantically he struggled with the belt around his middle. It seemed jammed. He let out all his breath, tried to force the belt over his hips. It would not move. The buckle was suddenly too complicated to operate. Desperately he tried to shove it over his shoulders, but he had forgotten about the tanks on his back, and now his mouthpiece had come undone.

Vargas watched helplessly through the porthole of the inner hatch. “His only chance is if he makes it up to the sail,” he said, turning to his diving squad. “The others are still trapped up there with those things.”

The elements of the Arctic now tore its way into the fibers of the stranded diver’s suit. He grabbed for his mouthpiece in hypothermic waters, Velcroed the padding and jammed the inner hose between his lips. No air in his lungs. He would have to inhale frigid water, swallow it. Then, maybe, he could get air. But at this depth a violent coughing fit seized him. The Velcro on the mouthpiece came undone again. He could not release himself from the ship. With a last convulsive effort, he managed to yank the toggles which inflated his life jacket. The jacket lifted him to the limit of the tether connecting him to the sail. He was like a lost kite, floating above the slowly descending Firebrand. As the distance between him and the sail receded, he reached for the nearest rail he could find; he knew full well that he was doomed if he did not grab hold of something.

One of the three scubamen waiting inside the stern hatch released himself from his safety line, now attached to the tower’s access ladder. He swam after the struggling diver. Grabbing his arm, he motioned toward the dark submarine ten feet below. The stranded scubaman nodded, tried to ignore the intense cold and paddle back downward. He could not. The scubaman squeezed the insulated hood, forced out a bubble of air, but the hood expanded again with air from the breathing tube.

Anxiously the scubamen outside the Firebrand swam down and tried to reenter. It was closed. The men inside were trying to funnel as much water as possible out through the flood disposal tubes. One of them banged on the hatch with a hammer tied there for a purpose. After an interminable wait, the seal opened. The scubamen on the inside reached up for the nearest so as to bring him to safety. One of them recoiled in horrified dismay. The arm hung limply.

The man was dead; so was the other.

Several muscular figures in early 20th century diving gear now floated up from Firebrand’s sides. The two remaining scubamen, looking out from the foot of the tower, could not believe their eyes. The ship was surrounded.

Quickly they swam down through the cramped space of the pressurized stern hatch. The second scubaman got only partway down, became entangled and stopped, desperately gripping the line. The scubaman below him was forced to stop also. When the scubaman at the top of the hatch was finally able to clear the tangle, he had to pry both bodies free. Two more divers appeared at the bottom of the flooding accessway below, menacing hands reaching up. Helplessly, fatalistically, the top scubaman let go of the stiffened corpse in his arms, then used his body as a torpedo and lunged down. He was able to knock the two divers waiting at the bottom of the accessway back, and save his remaining partner.

When they finally managed to swim down to the fork in the corridor and the next flood disposal tube, immediately pulling the release, there was no one in sight—no AJ, no Boog—only steam coming out of broken pipes in intervals, and the intake shaft below it crushed by massive heat discharge and something else. Seconds later two more divers appeared, moving slow but threateningly from the twenty-five percent flooded E-corridor to the fifty-percent flooded T-corridor.

As the water level slowly decreased between passages—it would take a while before the tubes disposed of everything at this depth—the first scubaman waded past and signaled to his partner to get to the access shaft for the front stairwell. He raised his semi-automatic. He would try and hold the divers off as long as he could, while his partner sealed off the starboard bow.

He stood in the center of the T-shaped corridor and gave the divers all he had, spraying them with about twenty rounds each, but it was not enough. Any holes that the shots did make in the lining of their suits did not have streams of blood dripping from them. Straight lines of green light shot forth instead, as if bullets had ricocheted out of a lime-colored lampshade. The scubaman pushed his life jacket aside and looked down at his chest and waist. Some of the beams shone directly at him and, removing his hood to get a better look, he saw smoke coming out of the fibers of his cold suit. Moments later they burned through the special fabric and his entire body went up in flames.

The last scubaman to make it had come back from sealing off the shaft to the stairwell when he saw his partner turning into a phosphorescent skeleton, screaming, wriggling before his very eyes. The catwalk on the other side, in which he now stood twisted, tilting so steeply because of the way the metal interior had been damaged, caused him to grab for a handhold. He stood frozen in horrified fascination as he watched the scubaman turn into green-glowing ashes. The whole deck began to bend at its weakened center, folding shut like an enormous nutcracker, and there he was, caught between the jaws of the nutcracker. On the opposite side, two aberrations put their hands up to their copper faceplates and stared him down. It was as if they communicated telepathically with the man, saying, You could come to us and die, or stay there and get crushed by the restrained frenzy of your vessel’s environment, which we control now anyhow. Either way we win.

And as the walls surrounding the catwalk came free, the sail, held together until that moment by Firebrand’s bulk and buoyancy, began to bend and collapse inward.

The scubaman tossed his fins and tanks for more flexibility and freedom of movement. He broke into a lurching, blundering run back toward the same stairwell accessway which, only moments earlier, had been welded shut with a portable torch, and he was sorry for this. While the crew was safer than before, he realized he had trapped himself. He called urgently into his transmitter, “Shear! Shear the sail now!” But Vargas got a shoddy transmission back at the escape hatches; not only was the chief engineer unable to reply, but he couldn’t understand much of the words that followed.

The scubaman’s only chance was to jump into one of the ventilation ducts near the bow, now that the blowers were turned off. He could squeeze his way between the blades of the stopped fans and, if memory served right, exit somewhere between the kitchen and mess hall.

But his haste was fatal, for as he jumped from the catwalk to the vent opposite where the two divers were situated, deck plates gaped open like the jaws of a steel monster. The last remaining scubaman fell through the opening. The next lurch of the submarine’s hull and the magnetic energy present closed the plates. He was gone.

With a surge of power from the ship’s reactor and a flash of blue electric flame, the thick steel links sheared as cleanly as cheese under a cutting wire. The upper part of the conning tower, along with the main antenna and attack periscope, was taken into the deep dark waters, divers and all. Bulkheads on either side of the Firebrand, welded perfectly airtight, was all that protected Kevin Swanson’s men from the abyss.

“It’s been six hours,” Kevin said, pacing. “What’s taking so long?” There was an earsplitting noise, like metal being sawed in half, from above. “What?” Firebrand shook for a complete sixty seconds, from left to right, then right to left. There was a sharp chemical stink in the air, the smell of crude oil gushing from a ruptured tank somewhere. “This isn’t good.”

An entire console on the bridge went black—computer terminals, television transmitters, navigational beacons—and a communications officer playing around with the buttons and knobs in front of him, said, “We lost the antenna, sir. We lost the sail too!”

Kevin rushed over. “What do you mean we lost the sail?”

“It’s gone, sir. Something happened. The bulkheads on other levels are secure, compartments fully pressurized, and according to Vargas we still have the escape hatches. That’s what matters.”

“Yes, but what about our depth?” Kevin asked. “We’ll continue to sink now. And we’re sure to deplete oxygen faster.”

“We still have sonar capabilities.”

“Tell Vargas to get his ass back up here. We have a leak.”

The air reeked. The heavy fumes of escaping oil from somewhere close by burned Kevin’s lungs and constricted his throat as he ran across the bridge. Firebrand was not only disabled, but punctured now in about a hundred places, and no matter how majestic she was, the hull, too, was likely contorted.

Kevin soon found himself back in the darkened sonar section, awaiting developments which could only be seen, and poorly, with the sonar equipment because there was no more antenna. The enemy vessel had approached to within about a mile and had apparently stopped. She made a faint but discernible note. It was this tiny noise, which Melky and the passive sonar operators were so strenuously keeping in their earphones, that created a spot on the sensitive scope. It was somewhere overhead, resting near the surface with all machinery stopped.

Kevin could remain in this current condition for two hours before digging deep into his battery and experiencing problems firing up the primary reactor. Apparently Frank had stopped every piece of nonessential machinery, but had kept both reactors functional in a low-power condition. Full power to those sections could be restored in minutes, but not without difficulty. The enemy, however, fell dramatically and hovered at the four-hundred-foot level. For the time being, it was a standoff, and Firebrand was the mortally wounded gunfighter. “I’ll bet he can’t see us,” said Melky. “Maybe he’s even lost us, and is making up his mind to go active with his own sonar.”

“Then he’ll find us,” Kevin muttered. “Not because of the shape we’re in, but because he operates on a much different sonar than us, one on a more extrasensory wavelength. Also, he’ll give the bigger echo.”

“At this depth we could try keeping our broadside to him. Then our echo will be about as big as his.”

“If we ease up against him ourselves, it could confuse him even more and may throw off his link with any divers that may still be aboard,” said Kevin thoughtfully. “I don’t know. Sound is so funny we might lose position on him, and the fact that our sail got chopped off might end up doing us more harm than good.”

“We’re dropping anyway, Captain. Does it make a difference?” 

Kevin looked at his crew in silence. Two-dozen of which now stood huddled around the sonar section, hoping, praying for a positive outcome. “No,” he said. “I suppose it doesn’t. You better get that relay you mentioned earlier set up.”

“A flexible antenna cable, wire cutters, and a roll of utility tape and I’m on it.”

He picked up the mike in front of Melky, motioned to the nearest sonar operator to turn it on. “This is your captain speaking. For the last twenty-four hours we have been at war with an indescribable invader from outside Firebrand and from within, and both entities have only weakened our internal defenses further than the damage previously assessed. We lost people dear to us, and we may very well meet our maker. But I refuse to go down without one last fight. That is why as of this transmission I am ordering Firebrand active for military operation. We are taking her out of full retirement. I want all missile silos opened, and their contents primed and ready. I want spare torpedoes loaded, and I want firepower at maximum. This will take about a half hour in our current state. Any backup power is to be used for the silos, and any remaining electricity is to be conserved and rerouted. God be with all of us. We fire everything we’ve got on my command.” 

With the sounding of the final alarm, furious activity struck the missile sector, dozens of men circling the oblong cylinders. One by one they passed the heavy torpedoes down a line, until six men lifted it, loaded it, and sealed it up. Kevin left the bridge for the missile compartment—for only a few minutes—trusting Melky with the command center and restoring communication without satellite capability; a lot to ask of a mechanic, and as if sonar operator wasn’t enough.

By his presence in the missile compartment, Kevin hoped to galvanize his men into even greater effort—Frank had often been a better candidate for this—but to his non-technical eyes, they were already working as rapidly as possible. Soon sixteen torpedoes would be prepped and on standby. Once on their way, at least one of them would certainly home in on the target. If the alien submarine decided to evade the torpedoes and rocket back to the surface, hopefully the heavier artillery, the missilesnow primed and ready—would annihilate it.

Frank Vargas was present through all this. He heaved a deep sigh, and at the moment heard Swanson scream, “Torpedoes one and two!”

Instantly he felt the tilt of the deck, the bite of the last accelerated screw. But there was so little time. The range was much too short; the depth way off. Even as the air whistled from the negative tank, there was a vicious jolt, and the high-pitched sound of an explosion.

“Maneuvering says the starboard shaft is stopped!” The telephone talker stuttered in panic.

Frank snatched the nearest handset. “Maneuvering, Vargas here. Covering. How bad is it?”

“The launch was all wrong. That explosion must have been right on the starboard propeller! She started vibrating again like crazy right after.”

“The vibrations could be from a dozen different things. Also, with no sail our periscope and other visual equipment are out for the count. We’re shooting in the dark. Are you taking water? How’s your shaft seal?”

“The seal’s been damaged, and the room’s taking water.”

Frank turned around. “Swanson! Order the angle taken off the boat! Then start her back up!” Back on the headset, “Vargas here. There isn’t a flood disposal tube on that level so use your drain-pump suction, stat! And maneuvering, get some men back aft and tighten the gland. Keep me informed about the leak. I’ll send two of my boys down to you when I have hands to spare.” Vargas hurried after Swanson, who had returned to the sonar section. Kevin was leaning over Melky and complimenting him on his feeble excuse for a communication set. “Swanson! Why don’t you get on aft? See how bad we’re flooding!”

Kevin paid him no mind. “Prepare to fire torpedoes three and four.”

“Damn it, Swanson! This is the wrong approach. You’ll kill us.”

“Melky, finish that homemade relay,” Kevin ordered.

“Aye, aye, Captain.”

Swanson now faced Vargas. “As my chief engineer, what do you propose I do?”

“For starters, stop firing up at it. Can’t you see it’s using some kind of invisible magnetic wave to turn our own metallic weapons on us?”

“There’s no way to get out of its ring, and I’ve never heard of a submarine that can reverse magnetic wavelengths.”

“No, there is a way,” Frank assured him. “Sink us. Now!”

Kevin threw the chief engineer a confused look as he walked away. “Where are you going?”

“To do my job,” Frank said over his shoulder.

“Melky, watch operations again.” Kevin followed a few feet behind.

Twelve hundred feet was far below Firebrand’s designed depth. She was there in slightly more than a minute, and the immense pressure of the sea was already obvious. Bulkheads were bowed, sheet-metal doors were jammed shut. Even decks were curved upward or downward, where their girders were compressed. All depth gauges had reached their limits. Only a few of the sea pressure gauges could register the six hundred pounds per square inch the depth produced.

On its last bearing, the rudder was left on for one more emergency circle downward to render the magnetic disturbance in the water as nearly penetrable as possible. The real battle, as everyone was well aware, was taking place in the pump room and maneuvering, where water was spurting in with sufficient force to break an arm or rip off clothes. But the men must be coping with the leak somehow. Frank knew that with a special reinforced suit like Firebrand’s, constructed by real Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineers—the same kind of metal used in some of the more recent Mars robot lander missions—magnetic rays would bounce off. The only way it would be possible was if gravity—or in this case, depth—was severally altered. Then the torpedoes or missiles could home in on its target without backfiring on Firebrand.

One of the engineers who had gone to inspect maneuvering returned to the primary reactor, leaving a trail of water behind him. He stopped, facing Vargas; Swanson stood in the entrance to the engine room. The young man was soaked and breathing hard. “We can’t hold her at this depth, chief,” he said. “We’ve got the packing nuts as tight as they’ll go, but the water is coming in so hard that two of us had to hold a piece of sheet metal to deflect it so that one man could reach the gland nuts. We’ll have to pressurize those compartments again.”

“I’d hate to be onboard when our depth gauges pass the fifteen hundred mark, Frank,” Kevin said worriedly. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

“We’ve got to stay down here,” Vargas said, “until we’re free of the magnetic hold and one of those torpedoes makes a direct hit. Either that or Melky get a signal on that toy he’s building. Whichever first.” He turned to the wet engineer. “Have them abandon the aft side completely and start putting air in it.”

The engineer said, “Yes, chief!” As he ran aft he heard Swanson on the wall phone, ordering, “Continue spiral! Downward two-thirds! Ready two more torpedoes before slowing her down and leveling her out.” 

Before hanging up, Kevin added, “The moment Melky finishes the relay, get it hooked up. Get on the horn with Greenland. They must have a scout in the region. They’re our last hope.”

“Come with me,” Frank said. “I’ve altered the reactor’s cooling mechanism so we don’t overheat, but we still need to repair the problem in the generator. I know where the piping is.” Kevin followed.

With maneuvering closed off, they were forced to take a detour and pass through one of the levels of the missile compartment. A tremendous geyser of water and explosive gas burst out of the doors and silos nearest them, rose high above it and drenched everything within several hundred yards. Almost simultaneously a wracking, explosive boom shattered the atmosphere outside and above; torpedoes three and four must have been fired. But this was different. It seemed more like one of the missiles had been activated. A plume of gray smoke shot above the ice, then lazily drifted away in the still daytime air. Deep below, Firebrand’s ruined silo instantly filled with angry water. Then it jerked sideways and, contorted, hung from its moorings.

The magnetic energy was still very much present and at work again. The alien submarine figured out that the wounded Firebrand was purposely sinking itself so it could fire its arsenal out of magnetic range, thus it was now bent on destroying the crew even faster.

The stingray-shaped vessel dived after them, and at almost twice Firebrand’s falling speed. Kevin was trying to hold on to Frank through the onrush of water, as they headed toward the section of pipe conduits that were faulty. “Frank, grab my hand!” Kevin shouted. But Vargas ignored him and let the wave carry him down to the next bulkhead.

The alien submarine fired a beam from its stomach while giving chase. The green laser struck a silo diagonally opposite the one first hit. Its exit doors burst open and two crewmen were tossed from the deck. A second geyser of water, mixed with smoke and gas, shot into the air, followed by a streak of white-hot fire from the ruptured fuel section of the missile inside.

The two damaged silos, flooding with seawater, now dragged down part of the structure, and the section of the compartment into which it had been built, to within inches of the rising water level. The personnel of the undamaged silos managed to load two more torpedoes, then abruptly started up the interior ladders to the top level and ran out. They were barely in time, for great cracks had begun collecting on the metal surface, everywhere.

Within moments rocketlike flames were erupting from the exploded silo doors, reaching twenty feet into the air, then petering out through the entire compartment. The missiles were launched deceptively by some unknown invisible power, the Arctic Ocean spitting them out and exploding them six hundred feet above Ellesmere Island in a noticeable plume of black smoke. The whole network of steel beams, insulated conduits, pipes and cables, had been laid out with great engineering skill when Firebrand was constructed, then reinforced after retirement. Now, like some plastic children’s model, it cracked in several places. With a great groaning and snapping of steel, the hangar, the catwalks, the silos, and all metal collapsed in on itself. The missile sector was gone, but in such a way that passage from one side of the Firebrand to the other was impossible.

At one point, the waves swept Kevin down toward a wall phone. He just managed to grab hold of the receiver. “Bridge, this is Swanson! What’s our status?”

“Captain, we’re flooding bad!” came the bridge officer’s reply. “Active pinging also reveals the enemy very close on our tail.”

“Listen, I can’t get back upstairs. Frank was washed away. I’m going after him. I think the wave carried him toward the escape hatches. What’s going on with the communication set?”

Melky got on the line. “Good news, sir. The relay works. I don’t know what made our missiles launch by themselves like that, but Greenland saw the fireworks display. They also received yesterday’s report, and Annapolis ordered the Vanderbilt and the Rockefeller to the Archipelago for an immediate capsule transfer and tow operation. We’re going to be rescued.”  

“Not at this depth we aren’t,” Kevin said. “Stop the spiraling incline. Immediately!”

“But sir, we’ll be a sitting duck for—”

“Just do it! I’m going to get Frank. And there should be two more torpedoes. Make them count!” He let go of the phone cord and the water continued carrying him past the bulkhead and through the destroyed missile compartment.

It would be a few hours before the Vanderbilt and Rockefeller—the same class submarine as Firebrand—arrived in the North Arctic. Sensing the danger in this wait, and from the water creeping even further inside, everyone left alive began to run toward the only pressurized area not damaged, the bridge.

As for Swanson, his mind was still numb as he emerged by the escape hatches, dropping out of sight from the rest of the crew, following the already vanished silos. He sealed off the area so no more water could get inside. Then, standing atop one of the foredecks, through one of the larger hatch portholes, he saw it. It was the stingray, with two large camouflaged windows. And it kept trying to broadside the Firebrand, coming closer and closer, until the dark foundations of this unique vessel was perfectly visible.

It was a strange submarine. Now that the Firebrand had stopped diving and leveled off at sixteen hundred feet, it appeared oddly tilted, with the highest visible portion of the hull at the point farthest away from its glowing underbelly. Much of what Kevin saw defied known science, especially when it was chasing them and stripping them of their artillery; but then Firebrand had defied a few sciences (and odds) of its own. At the moment he could hear noises of concealed activity, apparently from outside. He wondered if it came from the aliens who operated it.

Then he found Vargas, his forehead cut open and his body washed up in mangled fashion by one of the crushed bulkheads. “Jesus, Frank. Are you all right?”

Frank spit up a mess of blood. “Do I have to answer that?”

“It’s right outside,” Kevin said, “waiting.”

“Tell him I said hello.” Kevin tried to lift him. “Ouch!”

“I’m no doctor, but judging by the head I’d say you have a concussion—couple of busted ribs, and probably some internal bleeding too. Lean on me for support.” Once his arm was secure around Kevin’s shoulder, they started searching for an exit. “We can’t go back the way we came, and it’s impossible to head up through the bow. We’re going to have to find an access point through one of the shafts.”

“How do you know they didn’t all collapse inward back there?” Frank asked weakly.

“I don’t know,” Kevin replied. “Melky told me the Vanderbilt was dispatched, but that’ll take time.”

“Tow operation, eh? Looks like we’re the salvage now,” Frank said in good spirits. “We could wait inside one of the hatches till they arrive, or perhaps one of the lungs. More oxygen there at the moment than anywhere else in the ship.”

“I just want to try that last door on the foredeck. The phone beside it might still work.” With Frank limping but in tow, and with the water level well above their knees, Kevin waded on toward the short metal steps.

He was carrying Frank past the crushed bulkhead opposite, when he saw something old and round floating past. It was covered in rust, mostly, and some areas had barnacles glued to it. 

Frank nodded down at the seawater. “What’s that?”

“It’s that helmet,” Kevin said, picking it up with his free hand and shaking the water off, “the one I found up in the ice two days ago.” He held it up and looked into the dirty faceplate. “Hard to believe an alien wore this thing.”

“Why don’t you put it on?”

“No thank you.”

Suddenly, alarmingly, there was a flash of green light and two divers materialized at the foot of the steps. Their hands were held out in menacing fashion, faceplates green-tinged and aglow. Kevin hoisted Frank up and started backing away quickly. Behind them, another flash of light. Through some form of teleportation—perhaps from the enemy submarine, perhaps from the surface—two more divers materialized.

Their exit blocked from both sides, and finding it hard to maneuver around the cold floodwaters, Kevin veered to the right, dragging Frank along with him. But two more appeared on that side, and both captain and chief engineer found that six was way too many to contend with. They were cornered.

“I don’t understand. They should have crushed us by now,” Frank said. “What do you think they want?”

The diver closest Kevin took a small step forward and opened his hand, the same way someone opens up a hand to ask for money or candy. Kevin looked at the aged helmet. “Of course,” he muttered. “I’ve been blind. But it can’t be that simple, can it?”

“What are you going on about?” 

“Don’t you see, Frank, they’ve been after it all along.”

“The helmet?”

“Yes! This is Sutton’s psychic weapon. This is what the Germans hid during the early parts of World War One. This is what would have won them the maritime side of the war had it not been lost in the ice. This is what these extraterrestrial salvagers are after. And I uncovered it.”

“But how?”

“It must give the wearer unthinkable extrasensory powers somehow.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Believe it, Frank,” Kevin said. “There’s a reason Firebrand has taken so much damage and not imploded thus far, there’s a reason those divers were blending in on the surface, and there’s a reason that vessel was stationed just beneath the ice pack. Their craft homed in on this.” He raised the helmet. “We could have saved a lot of time and a lot of innocent people.”

Frank pulled the helmet from Kevin’s hand and tossed it to the diver. “Then I hope this saves the rest. Good riddance!” There was a moment’s silence. “Go ahead! Get out of here! Take your salvage and go.”

The diver, standing silently before Kevin and Frank, looked down at the one hundred year old artifact, a weapon so integral and so important that even aliens from another planet sought it. Then he took two steps back, waited with the rest of his flock, and dematerialized out of Firebrand.

Moments later Kevin could hear the alien submarine turning port side in the water. It was prepping its rocket thrusters and getting ready to take its salvage back to the surface, then, most likely, its home world. Kevin continued helping Frank up the foredeck stairs, when the chief engineer said, “So that’s it. We wait for the Vanderbilt and take things in stride? Eats, Boog, AJ—my men! That’s it?”

“No, not by a long shot,” Kevin replied softly.

The moment they reached the door, Kevin picked up the big red wall phone. He asked Melky if the active sonar was still operational, and if the alien submarine was coming up as a small dispersing blip. “Rudder amidships,” he ordered gently. “Level us off and fire torpedoes in five.”

“Rudder amidships and torpedo launch in five!” Melky shouted from sonar.

“What?” The acting bridge officer was puzzled. “What exactly are we firing at?”

“Questions later! The Captain’s alive! Put everything you’ve got left into those hydraulics!”

“Rudder is amidships!” cried the helmsman, throwing his weight into the effort. Then, relieved of the slowing effect of the hard-over rudder at this depth, she bounced forward almost as if injected with vitamins and shot from a bow. Two torpedoes were launched with a reckless abandon as Firebrand’s powerful heart rammed superheated pressurized water through the steam generator—thanks, in part, due to the recently altered cooling mechanism.

“Captain, if you can hear this,” Melky said, “speed increasing rapidly.”

Kabloom! A loud, somewhat muffled explosion. Close, but not intimately close. The faces on the bridge beamed. “We beat it the hard way, Captain,” Melky said over the handset. “Cool her down gently and treat her like the goddess she is, boys. It’s finally over.”

CONTENTS