The biologist, Thomas Young, jumped to his feet so abruptly, his chair toppled over and hit the floor with a crash. Retching, he dashed out of the wardroom with a hand over his mouth.
“Go on,” Malcolm urged Sheridan. “Mr. Young could be some time. I’ll put him in the picture later.”
“These symptoms,” I said. “What was their nature?”
McCafferty answered for his colleague. “Panic attacks, persecution mania, extremely aggressive behavior.”
“Could they have been triggered by the polar night and isolation from the outside world?” asked Professor Kinnock.
“The men had been stationed in equally arduous places in the past,” McCafferty replied. “What’s more, the initial symptoms did not become noticeable until May, when the days were already growing longer. Not long afterward, the crew of a supply ship found the station in a derelict state. Over half of the thirty-two men were either dead or missing. The rest were suffering from various degrees of dementia and physical injuries that included frostbite.”
“But that’s terrible!” I exclaimed. “Wasn’t it possible to ask the survivors what had happened?”
McCafferty and Sheridan glanced at one another. They seemed reluctant to answer.
“If you withhold important information from us,” I said, “it will impede our investigations.”
“Their statements were extremely contradictory,” Sheridan said in a low voice. “Insofar as there were any. For instance, two men claimed they’d been attacked by wild beasts.”
“Polar bears?” Kinnock interposed.
Sheridan shook his head vigorously. “That was our initial supposition too, but the witnesses described the creatures as ghostly. They appeared out of nowhere and attacked them with lethal intent. Successfully in most cases, it seems clear.”
“Where are the survivors now?” asked Malcolm.
McCafferty answered this time. He ran his splayed fingers through his hair, ruffling it. Was he nervous? Did he believe the survivors’ accounts? “They’re in a hospital under medical supervision, but only five of the fourteen were still alive as of yesterday. The rest have either committed suicide or died from hitherto unknown causes.
“The Ramsgate’s pitching and tossing ceased abruptly.
I looked out of one of the big portholes. The deck had been awash until a few moments ago; now, all that broke the silence was the throb of the engines. The dark gray sky was brightening, and shafts of sunlight were piercing the cloud cover like golden arrows.
“What steps have been taken to ensure that nothing similar happens to the four men who are holding down the fort?” I asked.
“They’re directly responsible to the War Office,” said McCafferty, as if that was a guarantee of their invulnerability.
“Let me guess, Mr. McCafferty,” I rejoined. “You and your colleague, Mr. Sheridan, are also in the service of the British War Office.”
McCafferty pursed his lips. “That will be all for the moment.”