Ice Station Zebra Online - Alistair MacLean

ONE

Commander James D. Swanson of the United States Navy was short, plump and crowding forty. He had jet black hair topping a pink cherubic face, and with the deep permanent creases of laughter lines radiating from his eyes and curving round his mouth he was a dead ringer for the cheerful, happy-go-lucky extrovert who is the life and soul of the party where the guests park their brains along with their hats and coats. That, anyway, was how he struck me at first glance but on the reasonable assumption that I might very likely find some other qualities in the man picked to command the latest and most powerful nuclear submarine afloat I took a second and closer look at him and this time I saw what I should have seen the first time if the dank grey fog and winter dusk settling down over the Firth of Clyde hadn’t made seeing so difficult. His eyes. Whatever his eyes were they weren’t those of the gladhanding, wisecracking bon vivant. They were the coolest, clearest grey eyes I’d ever seen, eyes that he used as a dentist might his probe, a surgeon his lancet or a scientist his electronic microscope. Measuring eyes. They measured first me and then the paper he held in his hand but gave no clue at all as to the conclusions arrived at on the basis of measurements made.

‘I’m sorry, Dr Carpenter.’ The south-of-the-Mason-Dixon-line voice was quiet and courteous, but without any genuine regret that I could detect, as he folded the telegram back into its envelope and handed it to me. ‘I can accept neither this telegram as sufficient authorisation nor yourself as a passenger. Nothing personal, you know that; but I have my orders.’

‘Not sufficient authorisation?’ I pulled the telegram from its cover and pointed to the signature. ‘Who do you think this is — the resident window-cleaner at the Admiralty?’

It wasn’t funny, and as I looked at him in the failing light I thought maybe I’d overestimated the depth of the laughter lines in the face. He said precisely: ‘Admiral Hewson is commander of the Nato Eastern Division. On Nato exercises I come under his command. At all other times I am responsible only to Washington. This is one of those other times. I’m sorry. And I must point out, Dr Carpenter, that you could have arranged for anyone in London to send this telegram. It’s not even on a naval message form.’

He didn’t miss much, that was a fact, but he was being suspicious about nothing. I said: ‘You could call him up by radio-telephone, Commander.’

‘So I could,’ he agreed. ‘And it would make no difference. Only accredited American nationals are allowed aboard this vessel — and the authority must come from Washington.’

‘From the Director of Underseas Warfare or Commander Atlantic submarines?’ He nodded, slowly, speculatively, and I went on: ‘Please radio them and ask them to contact Admiral Hewson. Time is very short, Commander.’ I might have added that it was beginning to snow and that I was getting colder by the minute, but I refrained.

He thought for a moment, nodded, turned and walked a few feet to a portable dockside telephone that was connected by a looping wire to the long dark shape lying at our feet. He spoke briefly, keeping his voice low, and hung up. He barely had time to rejoin me when three duffel-coated figures came hurrying up an adjacent gangway, turned in our direction and stopped when they reached us. The tallest of the three tall men, a lean rangy character with wheat-coloured hair and the definite look of a man who ought to have had a horse between his legs, stood slightly in advance of the other two. Commander Swanson gestured towards him.

‘Lieutenant Hansen, my executive officer. He’ll look after you till I get back.’ The commander certainly knew how to choose his words.

‘I don’t need looking after,’ I said mildly. ‘I’m all grown up now and I hardly ever feel lonely.’

‘I shall be as quick as I can, Dr Carpenter,’ Swanson said. He hurried off down the gangway and I gazed thoughtfully after him. I put out of my mind any idea I might have had about the Commander U.S. Atlantic Submarines picking his captains from the benches in Central Park. I had tried to effect an entrance aboard Swanson’s ship and if such an entrance was unauthorised he didn’t want me taking off till he’d found out why. Hansen and his two men, I guessed,