The wardroom was thick with tobacco smoke. There were four men present in addition to Malcolm Hurd. Broke took his leave and closed the door behind me.
The ship was now laboring through heavy seas, and I could feel her soar and swoop from one peak and trough to the next. A more sensitive soul might have been smitten with seasickness, but I felt fine.
The men were seated at a round table in the middle of the wardroom. Malcolm rose and came over to me. He moved far less laboriously than at our last meeting and had even dispensed with his stick, which was leaning against the bulkhead.
He began by introducing those present. “This is Stanley Kinnock, professor of geology.”
Kinnock rose and shook my hand. His hand was a massive paw whose calluses indicated that the professor was probably not averse to wielding a pickax on his geological excursions. He was a fifty-something bear of a man who hadn’t an ounce of excess weight on him, a commendable sign of self-discipline.
“I admire the way you write, Sir Arthur,” he said in a pleasant bass voice, grinning amiably. I took it to him at once.
The man beside him had considerable difficulty in greeting me appropriately. “Thomas Young,” he said, swaying on his feet and pale as death. “I’m a biologist. You must forgive me, I’m feeling rather unwell.”
Malcolm promised to provide him with a remedy for seasickness.
Finally, I was introduced to Roger McCafferty and Howard Sheridan. Their identical haircuts-the hair was parted on the left with almost mathematical precision made them look like twin brothers, an impression reinforced by their common predilection for mouse-gray three-piece suits. On closer inspection, however, Sheridan suffered from a slight squint that made me feel he was staring at something just beside me.
I was wondering about the two men’s functions on board when Malcolm enlightened me. “Sheridan and McCafferty are government representatives. They will now inform us of our purpose.”
McCafferty, whose fair hair was a trifle paler than that of his colleague, cleared his throat. “First of all,” he began, “I should like to point out that this conversation, like the entire expedition, is highly classified. The captain and his first officer are the only persons on board who are privy to it, so avoid any discussion of the subject when other members of the crew are present.”
He submitted each of us in turn to a stony glare.
“All right, all right,” boomed Professor Kinnock, “we aren’t schoolchildren.”
McCafferty’s lips twitched, and I hoped he wouldn’t respond by disrespectfully reprimanding the geologist, who was considerably older than he was.
Instead, his colleague, Sheridan, stepped in. “The thing is,” he said with a would-be conciliatory smile, “one false word in the wrong place could needlessly upset the crew. Seamen are superstitious.”
Kinnock emitted a noncommittal grunt. Meantime, Young, the biologist, looked as if he might throw up at any moment. Malcolm gave him an encouraging pat on the back.
“The research station,” Sheridan went on, “was installed on the west coast of Prins Karls Forland at the beginning of this year. The island is believed to contain rich deposits of ore. Swift action is essential, or other countries may beat us to it. In contrast to other regions, relatively tolerable temperatures prevail on the west coast, which faces the open sea, so the development of the station made rapid progress. That is until problems arose. Some of the men displayed symptoms of a mysterious disease.”