Chapter 29

There was no horizon. Everything was a neutral white. 1 panicked. I thought irrationally that I had been blinded by the mast charges.

Then I realized the reason for my white-out vision: ahead and above me towered a skyscraper of ice five hundred metres high.

I had been catapulted so near Trolltunga that I had to turn on my side to get a view of the top.

I trod water, got my bearings. The lighted fleet was to my right, Jetwind at my back. Ahead was the pinnace, perhaps a hundred metres away — an easy swim. The water was icier than a mortuary slab. Without the survival suit, I would have been gasping my last.

I started for the pinnace. I had gone only a few clumsy dog-paddle strokes towards my objective when a searchlight stabbed out from the Sposobny towards Jetwind. The bulk of the Berezina sprang into silhouette in front of the light. The searchlight, inhibited in range because of the fogginess, picked out a splash near Jetwind’s bows — the anchor had gone!

Tideman was wasting no time. I almost ceased paddling, the sight of the sail-setting was so beautiful. An ethereal quintuple bank of white mounted up on Jetwind’s foremast, clean as a swan’s breast against the blue-white night. Sail on four other masts followed — not on the ship’s full number. Tideman wasn’t risking the structure of Number Two after the ring charges blast.

Then — the fore-yards went aback: Tideman was emulating the manoeuvre I had used to spin Jetwind round in Port Stanley.

Like an angry hornets’ nest coming alive, beam after beam leapt out from the fleet, spotlighting the lovely fabric of the sailer. They had heard the concussion of the ring charges — what now?

I propelled myself towards the pinnace. The whole anchorage was ablaze with hostile light. I felt sure someone would spot my give-away splashing.

My hand grabbed the pinnace’s gunnel. I yanked my clumsy body aboard and my head came up. On the summit of Trolltunga a group of men were gesticulating and yelling, although I could not hear the sound. It wasn’t at the searchlights; it was at me.

How long would the fastest of them take to race down the cliff? Would he have a gun?

The thought goaded me. I crawled on all fours to a locker in the bows. I fumbled at the latch — I was about as nimble as a whale stranded on a reef. I finally managed to open it.

There it was! There was no mistaking the characteristic box-explosives!

Time fuses were already mounted in the heads of the charges. These were about the size of half a brick. Each fuse setting had a pointer, a gnarled rotatable screw, and numbers punched at intervals. I read: FUMS. ASXX. 01. 02. 00 (03). 10’9. What the devil did it mean?

I dragged out the box. The Trolltunga men were slipping and sliding down the cliff like cross-country runners.

I took a blind guess as to how to set the fuses on six charges I set aside. On two of them I would set the firing pointer to the first digit; on the next two to the second, and on the final pair to the third. What if I blew myself up?

I set my teeth, turned the first pointer to 01. Nothing happened. I fused its twin charge. Rapidly I followed with the other four. Now!

I yanked the starting-cord of the engine. It was an inboard type. I prayed that it wasn’t too cold. It fired first time.

I unmoored the pinnace and motored clear of the cliff at low throttle.

Jetwind had almost completed her turn and her bows now pointed slightly at an angle to the fleet. That was our escape direction — northeast!

I manoeuvred the pinnace to aim at a gap between the Berezina and Sposobny. I hauled the explosives box well into the open to ensure maximum flash effect. I stopped in my tracks.

A boat was being lowered from the enclosed stern section of the Berezina. I caught the reflection of gun barrels as a party of men jumped from the deck overhang into the boat.

Would the cutting-out party reach Jetwind before my fire-craft slipped in among the fleet?

I jammed the pinnace’s throttle wide and threw myself into the sea. I paddled frantically for Jetwind. I willed Tideman to break out without waiting for me — he could not have failed to see the boarding-party. As if in response, Jetwind’s after yards also were backed in order to mark time waiting for me.

I thrashed and flailed onwards. Then I was against Jetwind’s side and a rope was in the water beside me. I snatched it up, snicked the loop under my arms. On the rail above, Jim Yell was grinning and gesturing. Once he was certain I was secure, he raised an arm to the bridge. That was the signal Tideman had been waiting for.

Even before Yell had dragged me inboard and freed me of my suit I could feel the sternway come off the ship and the beginning of headway take its place. ‘You were great, sir!’ Yell burst out. ‘We’ll lick ’em yet!’

I ran to the rail. Without the suit, I felt as light as a disembodied ghost. ‘Where’s their boat?’

It was there, all right. But it was not coming at Jetwind. It was heading towards the pinnace!

I stared in disbelief and anguish. I was brought to earth by a muffled tat-tat from Jetwind’s stern.

Yell spun on his heel. ‘The gang is still fighting it out aft — I’ve got to help.’

I sprinted up a bridge ladder. I saw Kay first. For the eternity of one second our eyes locked. Neither of us said anything. There was no need.

Tideman stood at the control consoles. The bloodied mess that had been the bridge guard lay in one corner.

‘Course as ordered, Peter? Same route?’ Tideman asked without any show of agitation. ‘Aye. Get the sails on the damaged mast also.’ ‘Think it will take it?’ ‘We need all the speed we can get. You’ve seen the boat party?’ ‘I have.’

‘They’ve sheered away from the pinnace! They’re coming this way!’ exclaimed Kay.

I guessed what had happened — when the boarding party had got close enough and seen the pinnace unmanned, they had decided on Jetwind as their primary target. They knew — as we knew — that with all the fuel about they dared not risk a long shot. ‘Oh, Jesus!’

I was accustomed to Tideman never raising his voice under almost any provocation: his breathed imprecation was as shattering as a close-up burst of automatic fire.

‘Look!’ he exclaimed. ‘Look at the sub!’ The blue.hull with its blue-mauve sail was swinging at its mooring near the destroyer. Its snout was turning deliberately, menacingly, slowly pointing towards Jetwind. ‘She’s going to fire!’ ‘She can’t risk it…’

‘Compressed air has no flash,’ Tideman replied. ‘Torpedoes are fired by compressed air.’

It took Jetwind twenty to thirty seconds to set sail. The damaged Number Two mast sails were in the process of slotting home; the other backed yards were swinging into position to pick up the wind on Jetwind’s starboard quarter. As yet the ship was barely under way. With half one mast missing, perhaps we accounted for the maximum scheduled time of thirty seconds. They were not thirty seconds; they were thirty years.

Jetwind seemed to hang. The sub’s nose swung at her, round, round. There was a faint quiver through the hull as the wind gripped the aerofoils. Was Jetwind moving — at all? ‘There!’ Tideman pointed.

There was a white burst at the sub’s bows. She was chancing a shot in a surfaced position. Perhaps the torpedo-men were over-eager, perhaps the skipper had miscalculated the running depth in Molot’s shallow waters.

As it was, the silver-white tube leapt into the air. Then it plummeted back again in a flurry.

Tideman said unemotionally, ‘Shooting is tricky when they run shallow like that.’

Half my mind noted one fact- Jetwind was moving! The other half seemed paralysed, fixated on the torpedo’s progress. ‘Give her two points of starboard helm!’

The long gleaming menace leaped clear of the water again. It shimmied, nose-dived. That leap gave away its target course. It would, I saw, intercept Jetwind a little onwards as she gathered speed. What a sub commander could not know was a windjammer’s power to brake. ‘Back the foremast! All aback!’

Tideman threw the toggle switches. Jetwind stopped as if held by a drag parachute.

The torpedo’s trail streaked under Jetwind’s bows. Now it headed straight for Trolltunga. It seemed to flash over the intervening distance I had laboured across in a matter of seconds. It detonated against the ice cliff.

It was not the concussion of a warhead filled with torpex TNT, cyclonite and aluminium powder which stunned and raped our sense of hearing. It was Trolltunga. Years of drifting, years of Antarctic weathering attrition, years of Southern Ocean corrosion, had shaken the interior architectural structure of the monster iceberg. Perhaps the final deep-down pummelling on the iron-bound tips of Molot seamount had also contributed to its inner break-up. Perhaps that very disintegration had been the reason why the Red scientists had been eager to probe its secrets.

Whatever it was, the torpedo completed the process. It was its coup de grace.

The warhead’s explosion was a puny thing compared to what followed.

Trolltunga split, rolled, buckled, fell apart, in a thousand fragments, each tearing at the other like cannibal killer whales. There was a stupendous broadside of sound as the iceberg writhed in its death-agony — heaving, twisting, convulsing, ice platforms the size of islands clumping and inverting as if activated by vast unknown sources of energy. Only the last few kilometres of iceberg were visible to us — it was anyone’s guess what was happening to the main body out of sight in the fog. I tore my eyes from the sight — the sub!

The world might be falling apart, but that Red skipper knew his job. His target was Jetwind, and he meant to get her. The submarine’s blue-mauve bows steadied on target. This time he did not mean to miss.

‘Brace those yards — quick!’ As I shouted the order I wondered if the sound of my voice was audible to Tideman only a metre or two away.

Even as I got out the words, I knew it was too late. I had halted Jetwind; she could never gain enough way in time to evade the next shot.

The cutting-out boat broke clear of the fleet. What the torpedo didn’t do, the boarding party would finish. The light of the searchlights was reflecting off their weapons. Kay’s fingers bit into my arm. ‘Look’’

The pinnace’s sparkle of orange flame in the heart of the fleet was insignificant compared to the tumultuous spectacle of Trolltunga. Molot exploded.

One moment there were ships and men, living things, moving, plotting, aiming; the next they all stood still in death in front of our eyes. The world of Molot gave a single hideous orgasmic jerk and then stopped like a movie freeze. Everything pulsed in blinding relief for one explosive moment. Then the flames reached up into the overcast.

I had sense enough to remember the danger of Jetwind’s sail plan being exposed to a whirlwind blast of concussion. I scarcely recognized my own voice. ‘Get the sails off her! Furl everything!’

The Shockwave passed like a wind out of hell. It arrived moments before the minor tidal wave Trolltunga threw up. I thought it would roll the masts out of the ship before I dared risk setting a couple of steadying top-gallants.

The burning fuel on the water drew a merciful curtain of thick black smoke over what was happening to the trapped ships. As Jetwind edged past the blazing holocaust to the escape route there was a brighter stab from amongst the blackness, and we saw Catherine wheels of exploding ammunition cartwheeling high into the air. Jetwind’s crew on deck heard screams from the men of Group Condor from deep inside the flames, they told me later, but on the enclosed bridge we were shut off from them.

‘Course nor’east’ I ordered Tideman. ‘Follow the iceberg channel.’

His face was grim and withdrawn; he operated the console switches like an automaton.

Kay came and hid her face against my chest. She did not speak; her dry sobs said everything.

Then the fuel-oil smut on the bridge windscreen cleared, and the wind came clean and fresh. Jetwind was free.