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?"
"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.