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Chapter 4 Silver on the Sea

  • Night had come hours ago. Craig stood on the deck, watching the sea and th_ky and the stars in the sky. Up overhead the constellations had changed. The_ere not the familiar star clusters that he knew. Completely blacked out, th_daho moved very slowly through the darkness. Her speed was kept to almos_othing because the charts of the navigators were useless. The charts had bee_ade in that far future which the battle wagon had quitted forever and the_evealed nothing about this sea. There might be a mile of water under th_hip. She might be scraping bottom. The navigators were going mad worryin_bout what might be under the ship. Captain Higgins was going mad worrying no_nly about what might be under the ship but about what might soon be over it, when the mysterious planes returned. The pilot of the scouting plane had bee_escued. He had not lived to tell what he had found.
  • Craig was aware of a shadow near him but he thought it was one of the cre_ntil the match flared. It was Margy Sharp. She was lighting a cigarette.
  • A sharp reprimand from an officer caused her to drop the match.
  • "What's wrong?" she demanded. "Why can't I smoke?"
  • "Blackout," Craig said.
  • "Oh, it's  _you_ ," the girl spoke.
  • "Where have you been?" Craig asked. "I looked around for you but I couldn'_ind you."
  • "In the hospital," she said. "Helping out a baffled doctor."
  • "How is English?" Craig asked.
  • "English has been dead for hours," she said. "I've been with Mrs. Miller."
  • "Oh! How is she?"
  • "Fine. But the doctor almost went nuts. He said it was the first time in nava_istory that a baby had been born on a battleship. He seemed to think i_iolated the rules of etiquette, or something. It was a girl," she went on, _ittle breathlessly now, as if talking about babies made her excited. "Mrs.
  • Miller said she was going to name it Margaret, after me. Isn't that nice? Sh_ays her husband will be worried to death about her and she wants to use th_hip's radio to send him a message. Do you think she could do that?"
  • "Do I—" Craig choked. "Listen, girl, do you know what has happened?"
  • The tone of his voice alarmed her. "No," she said quickly. "I don't know. Wha_as happened?"
  • She had been busy down in the hospital bay, too busy to wonder what was goin_n up above. Craig told her the whole story. She listened in incredulou_mazement. He had to tell it twice before she began to understand it. And the_he didn't believe it.
  • "You're kidding me," she said.
  • "Sorry," Craig answered. "But I'm not kidding."
  • "You mean—you actually mean we're back somewhere in the past?"
  • "Exactly."
  • "But—but what are we going to do?"
  • The big man shrugged. "We're going to wait and see what happens. That's all w_an do. Wait and see." There were tones of excitement in his voice.
  • "You sound pleased about this," she challenged.
  • "I'm not pleased," he quickly corrected her. "I'm sorry for Mrs. Miller an_or Margaret, for you, for Captain Higgins, and the men on the Idaho. But a_or myself—well, I'm not sorry. This is the ultimate adventure. We have a ne_orld to explore, new things to see. I know hundreds of men who would give a_rm to be dropped back here into this world. I've met them in every minin_amp I ever saw, in every trading post on the frontiers of civilization, i_very corner of earth. They were misfits, most of them. I'm a misfit, or _as, back in our time. I didn't belong, I didn't fit in. I wasn't a busines_an, I never would have made a business man. I couldn't have been a lawyer o_ clerk or a white-collar worker. But here—well I seem to belong here. This i_y time, this is my place in the world." He broke off. "I don't know why I a_elling you all this," he said shortly.
  • She had listened quietly and sympathetically. "You can tell me," she said.
  • "Remember, back in the life-boat, when I told you we were two of a kind? _idn't fit in, either, back home. I belong here too."
  • She had moved closer to him, in the soft darkness. He could sense he_earness, sense her womanliness. He started to put his arms around her.
  • "Well," a voice said behind him.
  • Craig turned. Voronoff stood there. "What do you want?" Craig said.
  • "From you, I want nothing," Voronoff answered. "I was not speaking to you. I, at least, have not forgotten about the water."
  • "The water?" Craig said puzzled. "What are you talking about?"
  • "The water that wasn't in the cask we had in the life-boat," Voronof_nswered. "The water that you drank in the night when the rest of us wer_sleep."
  • "Damn you—" Craig said.
  • Voronoff walked away. Craig made no attempt to follow him. He had completel_orgotten about the water. With an effort, he got his temper under control an_urned back to the girl.
  • She had turned away and was looking at the sea. When Craig spoke, she did no_nswer. A moment before, a warm magic had been between them. Voronoff's word_ad changed the warmth to coldness.
  • That night the lookouts on the Idaho were constantly reporting that the shi_as being shadowed. Overhead in the darkness were planes, silent planes. Th_ookout occasionally spotted them against the moon.
  • The fact that the planes flew silently, like shadows in the night, perturbe_he lookouts and their uneasiness was communicated to the crew. No one woul_ave much minded planes that made the proper amount of noise, but ghost plane_hat made no noise at all were dreadful things. The silent planes scouted th_hip, then seemed to disappear. At least they were no longer visible, bu_hether or not they were still hidden somewhere in the sky, no one knew. The_ade no attempt to bomb the ship, or to attack it in any way. This seeme_minous.
  • The Idaho carried four planes of her own. One had been lost. Before dawn, Captain Higgins ordered another catapulted into the sky, to search th_urrounding area. This plane went aloft. It was not attacked or molested. Th_ilot, by radio, reported the presence of a large body of land very near.
  • Navigators, consulting their charts, discovered that this body of land was no_n any of their maps.
  • Dawn, that hour of danger when an attack might reasonably be expected, came.
  • The crew of the Idaho stood by their guns, waiting. No attack came.
  • The sun rose. Still there was no attack. The ship, moving very slowly, entere_n area where the surface of the sea seemed to have turned to silver. Thi_ffect was caused by some oily substance that floated on the water, a ne_henomenon to officers and men alike.
  • On the horizon the land mass the pilot of the scouting plane had reported wa_imly visible, a range of forested hills sloping upward to mountains in th_ackground, the rim of some mighty continent of the old time. Later, million_f years later, only the tops of these mountains would remain above the sea, to form the thousands of islands of the Pacific.
  • Craig breakfasted below. He came on deck just as the alarm sounded. The cre_aced to their stations. He discovered the cause of the alarm.
  • Overhead, at a height of thirty to thirty-five thousand feet, was a plane. I_as shadowing the ship. It made no attempt to attack. Craig went to th_ridge. Captain Higgins had been on the bridge all night. He was still there.
  • He greeted Craig wanly.
  • "We're being watched," Higgins said. "I don't like it."
  • "Anything we can do about it?"
  • Higgins squinted upward through his glasses. "Too high for ack-ack. No, ther_s nothing we can do about it. And I'm not sure we want to do anything abou_t."
  • "What do you mean?"
  • "We're not fighting a war here in  _this_  time," the captain answered. "W_on't want to fight, if we can possibly avoid it."
  • "It may be a problem to avoid fighting," Craig said. "Remember, they shot dow_he pilot of your scouting plane."
  • "I remember," Higgins said grimly.
  • "Of course, we could surrender," Craig suggested.
  • "How would you like to go to hell?" Higgins said.
  • "It was only an idea," Craig grinned. "But I don't like this business. W_on't know what we're trying to avoid fighting, or what strength they have, o_ow they will attack, if they attack."
  • "I don't like it either," Higgins answered. "But I didn't choose it. Dam_hem, if they're going to attack, I wish they would get on with it!"
  • Over the huge ship the tiny plane circled. Every man on the Idaho knew th_ituation was nasty. They were being watched. There was nothing they could d_o stop it. The shadowing plane was above anti-aircraft fire. The warshi_ould not hide from it. There was no protecting destroyer to lay a friendl_moke screen to shield them from the eyes in the sky. Meanwhile, somewher_round them a hidden enemy might be marshalling forces to destroy them.
  • "Have you tried to contact them?" Craig asked.
  • "I tried to reach them by radio all last night," Higgins answered. "There wa_o answer. The radio operators say there are no signals in the air. This, plu_he fact that they have not attempted to answer our signals, forces me to th_onclusion that they have not discovered radio. Of course they may use wav_ands beyond the range of out receivers—Hello! What's that?"
  • From somewhere near them a shout had sounded.
  • Leaning over the edge of the bridge, Craig saw a sailor on the lower deck. Th_an was also leaning over pointing down toward the sea. He shouted again an_urned upward toward the bridge. His face was white with terror.
  • "What is it?" Captain Higgins demanded.
  • "It's—It's that silver stuff on the surface, sir," the sailor answered.
  • "It's—it's eating the sides of the ship sir. It's eating the ship."
  • The Idaho was still in the area of the bright substance that floated on th_urface of the sea. Captain Higgins raced from the bridge down to the mai_eck. Craig followed him. By the time they reached the spot where the sailo_as standing several other officers had gathered. They were all staring dow_t the sea.
  • Craig leaned over the rail, looked down. Horror tightened an iron band aroun_is heart.
  • At the waterline, a great gash had been eaten into the steel hull of th_daho. The plates of the ship were the best grade of chrome steel, heat- treated and hardened. They were designed to withstand the battering o_ixteen-inch shells. The steel in them was the toughest metal that had eve_ome out of Pittsburgh.
  • Where the oily, shiny substance touched it, the steel was crumbling away.
  • "Acid!" Craig heard an officer gasp. "That's what the silver stuff is. Acid!
  • They sprayed it on the sea."
  • "They plotted our course and set a booby-trap for us."
  • "That can't be an acid," someone protested. "It is impossible to secure _oncentration of acid on the surface of the sea strong enough to eat holes i_teel."
  • "Maybe it's impossible but it sure as hell has happened!"
  • Each passing wave tossed the oily liquid against the hull of the Idaho. I_issed softly when it struck and promptly began its deadly work. What wa_appening below the waterline was not visible. Probably no damage was bein_one there because the acid was on the surface and did not touch the area_elow the waterline. But enough damage was being done above the water! Pit_wo inches deep were already appearing in the steel sides of the ship.
  • "Full speed ahead!" Captain Higgins ordered.
  • Their hope was to get out of the area covered by the acid and to get out of i_uickly. But—the patch of silver was miles in extent. And there was no way t_etermine exactly how much damage had been done to the ship. The line o_orrosion extending around the hull might have weakened her so badly that sh_as unseaworthy.
  • Captain Higgins took the only possible course. He ordered the ship to make fo_and.
  • Two hours later the Idaho was resting in a natural harbor between low hills. _iver emptied into the sea here. Captain Higgins had grown years older as h_ook the ship into the mouth of the harbor. He had no charts of the place, n_ay of knowing how much water was available, or whether there were hidde_eefs waiting to rip the bottom out of the ship. He took her in blind, th_ardest job any ship's master ever has to face.
  • Like a wounded lion, the Idaho was seeking a place where she could lie up an_etermine how badly she had been hurt. In entering the harbor she was goin_nto what might easily be a death trap but if she stayed outside, her weakene_ull might give away and she might go down with all hands.
  • Higgins sent his engineers in boats to determine how much damage had been don_o the hull. With his officers, he waited on the bridge for the engineers t_eport. There was none of the acid on the surface of the harbor.
  • Craig heard the chief engineer report.
  • "The hull is so weak that the ship may sink at any moment, sir. An effort t_ove her might crumble the plates. Holes in the sides six to eight inche_eep, sir."
  • The captain's hands on the rail of the bridge tightened until the knuckle_howed white.
  • "Very well," he said. "Beach her."
  • "Beach her, sir?"
  • "Yes. If we stay here, we may find more of that acid sprayed on the water, i_hich case the ship will sink."
  • The crew began preparations to carry out the orders. The Idaho was done, finished, ended.
  • High overhead the single watchful plane still circled.
  • Higgins shook his fist at it. "Damn you—" he said. "Damn you—"
  • The Idaho was carefully brought into the mouth of the river until she touche_ottom. Fortunately the bottom was sandy mud. The ship sighed and settle_erself into it like a tired sea monster coming out of the ocean to die.
  • Everyone on board her knew that this was the ship's last resting place. He_teel bones would remain here until they rusted away. As the ship's kee_rated on the bottom, Captain Higgins looked like a man who is hearing his ow_eath sentence but his back was stiff as a ramrod and his chin was high.