There had been a time when people thought it would solve most seafaring problems to take ocean shipping beneath the surface storms. But, as had happened so many times in the past, for every problem solved a new one was added.
Beneath the ocean surface flow great salt rivers, their currents not held to a horizontal plane by confining banks. The 600 feet of plastic barge trailing behind the Ram twisted, dragged, and skidded -- caught by currents flowing through 60 degrees at right angles to their course. If the current set downward the Ram tipped upward and had to fight against the climb. If a current took the tow upward, the Ram headed down. Variations often gave the subtug's deck a stately rolling and tipping as though the vessel was beset by a slow-motion storm.
Automatics took care of most of the deflections, but many were sufficient to cause wide course error. Because of this, a portable gyro repeater always accompanied the man on duty.
Bonnett carried such a repeater on his remote-control panel as he prowled the engine room during his watch. The little timelog repeater beside the gyro dial showed seven days, eight hours, and eighteen minutes from departure. The Ram had moved forward deep into the ocean no man's land south of Iceland.
Maybe it'll be a milk run, he thought. For all our detectors have shown, we could be alone in the whole damned ocean. He fell to remembering the night before departure, wondered if Helene was really faithful to him. So damned many Navy wives . . .
An amber light glowed at the upper corner of his board, the signal that someone had entered the control room. He spoke into his chest mike: "I'm on the second-level catwalk in the engine room."
Sparrow's voice came out of the board speaker: "Continue as you are. I'm just restless. Thought I'd look around."
"Right, Skipper." Bonnett turned to examine the master control gauges on the reactor bulkhead. Ever since they'd found the dead Security officer, Bonnett had been nursing an uneasy feeling about the room in the subtug's nose.
A sudden needle deflection on his control board caught his attention. The outside water temperature had dropped ten degrees: a cold current.
Ramsey's voice came over the intercom: "This is Ramsey in the shack. My instruments show a sharp ten-degree temperature drop outside."
Bonnett thumbed his mike switch: "What're you doing up and about, Junior?"
"I'm always nervous when it's your duty," said Ramsey. "I couldn't sleep, so I came in here to run an instrument check."
"Wise guy," said Bonnett.
Sparrow's voice joined them: "Find out how deep it is, Ramsey. If it doesn't extend below our limit, we can hide under it and pick up speed. Ten degrees will cloud a lot of noise."
"Right, Skipper." Pause. "Sixty-eight hundred feet, give or take a few."
"Les, take her down," said Sparrow.
Bonnett racked his control console onto the catwalk railing, took electronic hold of the diving planes. Abruptly, his static pressure-gauge repeater showed what his sense of balance already had told him: they were going down too fast; an upcurrent was following them, lifting the tow. Bonnett fought it until they were inclined at a safe three degrees.
The Ram leveled at 6780 feet.
In the shack, Ramsey looked at his own repeater for the master pressure gauge: 2922 pounds to the square inch. Instinctively, his gaze went to the pressure hull beside him -- a small length of it seen through a maze of pipes and conduits. He tried to fight away from the thought of what would happen if the hull should implode: bits of protein pulp floating amidst shattered machinery.
What was it Reed had said? It came back to Ramsey clearly, even to the impersonal tones of his instructor's voice: "An implosion of external equipment at extreme depths may set up a shock wave which will split your hull wide open. Of course, it'd be all over for you before you'd hardly realized what happened."
What is Sparrow's reaction to the increased danger? he wondered. Then: I don't really care as long as his ability keeps me safe.
This thought shocked Ramsey. He suddenly looked around his electronics shack as though seeing it for the first time, as though he had just awakened.
What kind of a psychologist am I? What have I been doing?
As though answering a question from outside himself his mind said: You've been hiding from your own fears. You've been striving to become an efficient cog in this crew because that way lies a measure of physical safety.
Back came the answer: You're afraid of your own personal extinction.
"It'd be as though I'd died en utero," he said, speaking the thought softly to himself. "Never born at all."
He found that he was trembling, bathed in perspiration. The plug holes of the test board in front of him seemed to stare back -- a hundred demanding eyes. He suddenly wanted to scream, found he couldn't move his throat muscles.
If there was an emergency now, I'd be helpless, he thought. I couldn't move a finger.
He tried to will the motion of the index finger of his right hand, failed.
If I move I'll die!
Something touched his shoulder and he almost blanked out in frozen panic. A voice spoke softly beside his ear and it was as though the voice had shouted loud enough to split his eardrums.
"Ramsey. Steady boy."
"You're a brave man, Ramsey. You took it longer than most."
Ramsey felt the trembling of his body had become so violent that his vision blurred.
"I've been waiting for this, Ramsey. Every man goes through it down here. Once you've been through it, you're all right."
Deep, fatherly voice. Tender. Compassionate.
With all his being, Ramsey wanted to turn, bury his head against that compassionate chest, sob out his fears in strangled emotion.
"Let it go," said Sparrow. "Let it come. Nobody here but me, and I've been through it."
Slowly at first, then in gasping sobs, the tears came. He bent over the bench, buried his face in his arms. All the time, Sparrow's hand upon his shoulder, a feeling of warmth from it, a sense of strength.
"I was afraid," whispered Ramsey.
"Show me the man who isn't afraid and ITI show you a blind man or a dolt," said Sparrow. "We're plagued with too much thinking. It's the price of intelligence."
The hand left Ramsey's shoulder. He heard the shack door open, close.
Ramsey lifted his head, stared at the test board in front of him, the open intercom switch.
Bonnett's voice came from the speaker: "Ramsey, can you give us a sound-distance test now?"
Ramsey cleared his throat. "Right." His hands moved over the board, slowly, then with rapid sureness. "There's enough cold stuff above us to blanket force speed," he said.
The speaker rumbled with Sparrow's voice. "Les, give us force speed. Ramsey, we are within ninety pounds of pressure limit. Remain on watch with Les until you are relieved."
The humming of the Ram's electric motors keened up a notch, another.
"Right, Skipper," said Ramsey. Garcia's voice came over the intercom. "What's up? I felt the motors."
"Cold layer," said Sparrow. "We're gaining a few knots while we can."
"Come up here on stand-by." Ramsey heard the voices over the intercom with a peculiar clarity, saw the board in front of him with a detail that amazed him: tiny scratches, a worn plug line.
Back came the memory of his blue funk and with it, a detail his mind had avoided: Sparrow calling to him over the intercom to make the sound-distance test.
And when I didn't answer, he came immediately to help me.
Another thought intruded: He knows how green I am -- has known it all along.
Sparrow stood in the shack doorway.
Ramsey stared at him.
Sparrow entered, sat down on the bench stool beside the door. "What are you, Ramsey?"
He cleared his throat. "What do you mean?"
"Every man has to wrestle with his shadow down here. You held out a long time."
"I don't understand you."
"This life makes you face your fears sooner or later."
"How did you know I was afraid?"
"Every man's afraid down here. It was just a matter of waiting until you found out you were afraid. Now, answer my question: What are you?"
Ramsey stared past Sparrow. "Sir, I'm an electronics officer."
A faint smile touched Sparrow's eyes and mouth. "It's a sad world we live in, Ramsey. But at least Security picks its men for their courage." He straightened.
Ramsey accepted this silently.
"Now, let's have a look at that little box of yours," said Sparrow. "I'm curious." He stood up, went out into the companionway, turned aft.
"Why not keep it in the shack?" asked Sparrow.
"I've been using my time off to check it."
"Don't wear yourself out." Sparrow dropped down to the lower level, Ramsey behind him. They entered Ramsey's room. The humming of the induction drive came through the bulkhead.
Ramsey sat down on his bunk, brought out the box, put it on his desk, and unlocked it. Can't let him look too close, thought Ramsey. He noted that the disguise system was working.
Sparrow peered into the box with a puzzled frown.
What's he expect to find? Ramsey wondered.
"Give me a rundown," said Sparrow.
Ramsey pointed to a dial. "That monitors the sweep of the primary search impulse. The first models were plagued by feedback echo."
Ramsey indicated a group of signal lights. "These separate the pulse frequencies. They flicker red when we're out of phase. The particular light tells me which circuit is bouncing."
Sparrow straightened, shot a searching glance at Ramsey.
"Tapes inside make a permanent record," said Ramsey.
"We'll go into it at greater length some other time," said Sparrow. He turned away.
He expected some Security gadget, thought Ramsey.
"Why'd Security plant you on us?" asked Sparrow. Ramsey remained silent.
Sparrow turned, stared at him with a weighing look. "I won't force this issue now," he said. "Time enough for that when we get home." His face took on a bitter expression. "Security! Half our troubles can be traced to them."
Ramsey maintained his silence. "It's fortunate you're a good electronics officer," said Sparrow. "Doubtless you were chosen for that quality." A sudden look of indecision passed over his features. "You are a Security man, aren't you?"
Ramsey thought: If he believes that, it'll mask my real position. But I can't just admit it. That'd be out of character. He said, "I have my orders, sir."
"Of course," said Sparrow. "Stupid of me." Again the look of indecision. "Well, I'll be getting --" Abruptly, he stiffened.
Ramsey, too, fought to keep from showing surprise. The pellet imbedded in his neck had just emitted a sharp ping! He knew that the identical equipment in Sparrow had also reacted to a signal.
Sparrow whirled to the door, ran forward to the control deck, Ramsey on his heels. They stopped before the big master board. Garcia turned from his position at the monitor controls. "Something wrong, Skipper?"
Sparrow didn't answer. Through his mind was running a senseless rhyme born of the twenty kills the EPs had made in the previous months: Twenty out of twenty is plenty . . . twenty out of twenty is plenty . . .
Ramsey, standing behind Sparrow, was extremely conscious of the charged feeling in the control room, the stink of the atmosphere, the questioning look on Garcia's face, the clicking of automatic instruments,
and the answering response of the deck beneath his feet.
The pellet in his neck had begun sending out a rhythmic buzzing.
Garcia stepped away from the board. "What's wrong, Skipper?"
Sparrow waved him to silence, turned right. Ramsey followed.
The buzzing deepened. Wrong direction.
"Get a signal snifter," said Sparrow, speaking over his shoulder to Ramsey.
Ramsey turned to the rear bulkhead, pulled a snifter from its rack, tuned it as he rejoined Sparrow. The instrument's speaker buzzed in rhythm to his neck pellet.
Sparrow turned left; Ramsey followed. The sound of the snifter went up an octave.
"Spy beam!" said Garcia.
Sparrow moved toward the dive board, Ramsey still following. The sound from the snifter grew louder. They passed the board and the sound deepened. They turned, faced the board. Now, the signal climbed another octave.
Ramsey thought: Garcia was in here alone. Did he set up a signal device?
"Where's Les?" asked Sparrow. "Forward," said Garcia.
Sparrow seemed to be trying to look through the wall in front of him.
He thinks it may be Bonnett sending that signal, thought Ramsey. With a sudden despair, he wondered: Could it be?
Sparrow spoke into his chest microphone: "Les! To the control room! On the double!"
Bonnett acknowledged and they heard a clang of metal as he slipped on the catwalk; then he shut off his microphone.