The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham
I am thankful that such imagination as I, myself, have is more prosaic, and seated further from the heart.
Half an hour later the telephone rang. I answered it, and recognized the voice with some surprise.
‘Oh, hullo, Freddy. What is it?’ I asked, for nine-thirty in the evening was not a time that one expected to be called by the EBC’s Director of Talks & Features.
‘Good. ’Fraid you might be out. You’ve heard the news?’
‘Well, we want something from you on this deep-sea menace of yours, and we want it quick. Half-hour length.’
‘But, look here, the last thing I was told was to lay off any hint – ’
‘This has altered all that. It’s a must, Mike. You don’t want to be too sensational, but you do want to be convincing. Make ’em really believe there is something down there.’
‘Look here, Freddy, if this is some kind of leg-pull-’
‘It isn’t. It’s an urgent commission.’
‘That’s all very well, but for over a year now I’ve been regarded as the dumb coot who can’t let go of an exploded crackpot theory. Now you suddenly ring me at about the time when a fellow might have made a fool bet at a party, and say–’
‘Hell, I’m not at a party. I’m at the office, and likely to be here all night.’
‘You’d better explain,’ I told him.
‘It’s like this. There’s a rumour running wild here that the Russians did it. Somebody launched that one off within a few minutes of the news coming through on the tape. Why the hell anybody’d think they would want to start anything that way, heaven knows, but you know how it is when people are emotionally worked up; they’ll swallow anything for a bit. My own guess is that it is the let’s-have-a-showdown-now school of thought seizing the opportunity, the damn fools. Anyway, it’s got to be stopped. If it isn’t, there might be enough pressure worked up to force the Government out, or make it send an ultimatum, or something. So stopped it’s damned well going to be. Metal-fatigue isn’t good enough this time, so the line is to be your deep-sea menace. To-morrow’s papers are using it, the Admiralty is willing to play, we’ve got several big scientific names already, the BBC’s next bulletin, and ours, will have good strong hints in order to start the ball rolling, the big American networks have started already, and some of their evening editions are coming on the streets with it. So if you want to put in your own pennyworth towards stopping the atom bombs falling, get cracking right away.’
‘Okay. A half-hour feature. What angle?’
‘It’s to be a topical-special. Serious, but not blood-curdling. Not too technical. Intelligent man-in-the-street stuff. Above all, convincing. I suggest the line: Here is a menace more serious and more quickly developed than we had expected. A blow that has found us as unprepared as the Americans were at Pearl Harbour, but men of science are mobilizing already to give us the means to hit back, et cetera. Cautious but confident optimism. Okay?’
‘I’ll try – though I don’t know what the optimism is to be founded on.’
‘Never mind about that; just express it. Your primary job is to help fix the thing in their minds as a fact, so that it keeps out this anti-Russian nonsense. Once that is well established we can find ways to keep it going.’
‘You think you’ll need to?’ I asked.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, after the Yatsu, and now this, it looks to me as if the things may have gone over to the offensive, and these won’t be the only ones to suffer.’
‘I’d not know about that. The thing is, will you get down to this right away? When you’re through, ring us, and we’ll have a recorder fixed ready for you. You’ll give us a free hand to fiddle it around as necessary? The BBC are sure to have something along pretty similar lines.’
‘Okay, Freddy. You shall have it,’ I agreed, and hung up.
‘Darling,’ I said, ‘work for us.’
‘Oh, not to-night, Mike. I couldn’t…’
‘All right,’ I said ‘but it’s work for me.’ I handed on what Freddy Whittier had just told me. ‘It looks,’ I went on, ‘as if the best way would be to decide the thesis and the style and approach, and then rake together the bits out of old scripts that will suit it. The devil of it is that most of the scripts and all the data are in London.’
‘We can remember enough. It doesn’t have to be intellectual – in fact, it mustn’t,’ Phyllis said. She thought for some moments. ‘We’ve got all that organized scoffing to break down,’ she added.
‘If the papers really do their stuff to-morrow morning it ought to be cracked a bit. Our job is pressing home what they will have started.’
‘But we need a line. The first thing people are going to ask is: “If this thing is so serious, why has nothing been done, and why have we been hoodwinked?” Well, why?’
‘I don’t think that need be too difficult. Viz: the sober, sensible people of the West would have reacted wisely, and no doubt will; but the more emotional and excitable peoples elsewhere have less predictable reactions. It was therefore decided as a matter of policy that the Service Chiefs and scientists who have been studying the trouble should preserve discretion in the hope that it might be scotched before it became serious enough to cause public alarm. How’s that?’
‘Um – yes. As good as we’re likely to get,’ she agreed.
‘Then we can use Freddy’s unpreparedness angle as a challenge – the brains of the world getting together and turning the full force of modern science and technique on to the job of avenging the loss, and preventing any more. A duty to those who have been lost, and a crusade to make the seas safe.’
‘That’s what it is, Mike,’ Phyllis said, quietly, and with a reproving note.
‘Of course it is, darling. Why do you so often think that I say what I say by accident?’
‘Well, you start off as if truth is going to be the first casualty, as usual, and then end up like that. It’s kind of bewildering.’
‘Never mind, my Sweet. I intend to write it the right way. Now, you run up to bed, and I’ll get on with it.’
‘To bed? What on earth–?’
‘Well, you said you couldn’t–’
‘Don’t be absurd, darling. Do you think I’m going to let you loose on this on your own? Now, which of us had the atlas last…?’
It was eleven o’clock the next morning when I made my mazy way into the kitchen and subconsciously got together coffee and toast and boiled eggs, and fumbled back upstairs with them.
It had been after five that morning when I had finished dictating our combined work in the recording machine in London, by which time we had both been too tired to know whether it was good or bad, or to care.
Phyllis lit a cigarette to accompany the second cup of coffee.
‘I think,’ she suggested, ‘that we had better go into Falmouth this morning.’
So to Falmouth we went, and, in the course of duty, visited four of the most popular bars in that port.
Freddy Whittier had not exaggerated the need for swift action. The rumour of Russian responsibility for the loss of the Queen Anne was tentatively about already; noticeably stronger among the double-scotches than among the pints of beer. There could have been little doubt that it would have swept the field but for the unanimity with which the morning papers had laid responsibility on the things down below. In the circumstances, their solidarity succeeded in producing an impression that the anti-Russian talk must be an entirely local product sponsored by a few well-known local diehards and fire-eaters.
That did not mean, however, that the deep-sea menace was fully accepted. Too many people could recall their first uncritical alarm, followed by their swing to derision, to be able to make the new volte-face all at once. But the serious views in the morning’s leaders had got as far as damping the derision and causing many to wonder whether there might not have been something in it after all. It looked to me as if, assuming that we had
‘To-morrow,’ said Phyllis, knocking back the fourth gin-and-lime occasioned by our researches, ‘I think we ought to go back to London. You must have quite enough of those morganatic marriages in the bag to be going on with, and there’ll probably be quite a lot of work for us to do on this business.’
It was only in expressing the idea that she had forestalled me. The next morning we made our customary early start.
When we arrived at the flat, and switched on the radio, we were just in time to hear of the sinkings of the aircraft-carrier Meritorious, and the liner Carib Princess.
The Meritorious, it will be recalled, went down in mid-Atlantic, eight hundred miles south-west of the Cape Verde Islands: the Carib Princess not more than twenty miles from Santiago de Cuba: both sank in a matter of two or three minutes, and from each very few survived. It is difficult to say whether the British were the more shocked by the loss of a brand-new naval unit, or the Americans by their loss of one of their best-found cruising liners with her load of wealth and beauty: both had already been somewhat stunned by the Queen Anne, for in the great Atlantic racers there was community of pride. Now, the language of resentment differed, but both showed the characteristics of a man who has been punched in the back in a crowd, and is looking round, both fists clenched, for someone to hit.
The American reaction appeared more extreme for, in spite of the violent nervousness of the Russians existing there, a great many found the idea of the deep-sea menace easier to accept than did the British, and a clamour for drastic, decisive action swelled up, giving a lead to a similar clamour at home.
In a pub off Oxford Street I happened across the whole thing condensed. A medium-built man who might have been a salesman in one of the large stores was putting his views to a few acquaintances.
‘All right,’ he said, ‘say for the sake of argument they’re right, say there are these whatsits at the bottom of the sea: then what I want to know is why we’re not getting after ’em right away? What do we pay for a navy for? And we’ve got atom bombs, haven’t we? Well, why don’t we go out to bomb ’em to hell before they get up to more trouble? Sitting down here and letting ’em think they can do as they like isn’t going to help. Show ’em, is what I say, show ’em quick, and show ’em proper. Oh, thanks; mine’s a light ale.’
Somebody raised the question of poisoning the ocean.
‘Well, damn it, the sea’s big enough. It’ll get over it. Anyway, you could use H.E., too,’ he suggested.
Somebody else agreed that the size of the sea was a point: indeed, there was an awful lot of it for games of blind man’s buff. The first man wouldn’t have that.
‘They said the Deeps,’ he pointed out. ‘They’ve kept on talking about the Deeps. Then, for God’s sake why don’t they get cracking right away, and sock the Deeps good and hard. They do know where they are, anyway. Who bought this one? Here’s luck.’
‘I’ll tell you why, chum,’ said his neighbour, ‘if you want to know. It’s because the whole thing’s a lot of bloody eyewash, that’s why. Things in the frickin’ Deeps, for crysake! Horse-marines, Dan Dare, and bloody Martians! Look, tell me this: we lose ships, the Yanks lose ships, the Japs lose ships – but do the Russians lose ships? Do they hell – and I’d like to know why not.’
Somebody suggested that it might be because the Russians hadn’t many ships, anyway.
Somebody else remembered that away back at the time when the Keweenaw was lost the Russians bad lost a ship, and not quietly, either.
‘Ah,’ said the complainant, ‘but where are the independent witnesses? That’s just the kind of camouflage you could expect from them.’
The feeling of the meeting, however, was not with him. But neither was it altogether with the first speaker. A third man seemed to talk for most of them when he said:
‘You got to plan for it, like for anything else, I s’pose; but I must say – well, thanks, old man, just one for the road – I must say it’d make you feel easier to know somebody was really doing something about it.’
Probably it was in deference to similar views, more vigorously expressed, that the Americans decided to make the gesture of depth-bombing the Cayman Trench close to the point where the Carib Princess had vanished – they can scarcely have expected any decisive result from the random bombing of a Deep some fifty miles wide and four hundred miles long.
The occasion was well publicized on both sides of the Atlantic. American citizens were proud that their forces were taking the lead in reprisals: British citizens, though vocal in their dis-satisfaction at being left standing at the post when the recent loss of two great ships should have given them the greater incentive to swift action, decided to applaud the occasion loudly, as a gesture of reproof to their own leaders. The flotilla of ten vessels commissioned for the task was reported as carrying a number of H.E. bombs specially designed for great depth, as well as two atomic bombs. It put out from Chesapeake Bay amid an acclamation which entirely drowned the voice of Cuba plaintively protesting at the prospect of atomic bombs on her doorstep.
None of those who heard the broadcast put out from one of the vessels as the task-force neared the chosen area will ever forget the sequel. The voice of the announcer when it suddenly broke off from his description of the scene to say sharply: ‘Something seems to be – my God! She’s blown up!’ and then the boom of the explosion. The announcer gabbling incoherently, then a second boom. A clatter, a sound of confusion and voices, a clanging of bells. Then the announcer’s voice again; breath short, sounding unsteady, talking fast:
‘That explosion you heard – the first one – was the destroyer, Cavort. She has entirely disappeared. Second explosion was the frigate, Redwood. She has disappeared, too. The Redwood was carrying one of our two atomic bombs. It’s gone down with her. It is constructed to operate by pressure at five miles depth….
‘The other eight ships of the flotilla are dispersing at full-speed to get away from the danger area. We shall have a few minutes to get clear. I don’t know how long. Nobody here can tell me. A few minutes, we think. Every ship in sight is using every ounce of power to get away from the area before the bomb goes off. The deck is shuddering under us. We’re going flat out…. Everyone’s looking back at the place where the Redwood went down…. Hey, doesn’t anybody here know how long it’ll take that thing to sink five miles…? Hell, somebody must know…. We’re pulling away, pulling away for all we’re worth…. All the other ships, too. All getting the hell out of it, fast as we can make it…. Anybody know what the area of the main spout’s reckoned to be…? For crysakel Doesn’t anybody know any damn thing around here…? We’re pulling off now, pulling of…. Maybe we will make it…. Wish I knew how long…? Maybe…. Maybe…. Faster, now, faster, for heaven’s sake…. Pull the guts out of her, what’s it matter?… Hell, slog her to bits…. Cram her along…
‘Five minutes now since the Redwood snak…. How far’ll she be down in five minutes…? For God’s sake, somebody: How long does that damn thing take to sink…?
‘Still going… Still keeping going… Still beating it for all we’re worth…. Surely to heaven we must be beyond the main spout area by now…. Must have a chance now…. We’re keeping it up…. Still going…. Still going flat out…. Everybody looking astern…. Everybody watching and waiting for it…. And we’re still going…. How can a thing be sinking all this time…? But thank God it is…. Over seven minutes now…. Nothing yet…. Still going…. And the other ships, with great white wakes behind them…. Still going…. Maybe it’s a dud…. Or maybe the bottom isn’t five miles around here…. Why can’t somebody tell us how long it ought to take…? Must be getting clear of the worst now…. Some of the other ships are just black dots on
But he survived, that radio announcer. His ship and five others out of the flotilla often came through, a bit radio-active, but otherwise unharmed. And I understand that the first thing that happened to him when he reported back to his office after treatment was a reprimand for the use of over-colloquial language which had given offence to a number of listeners by its neglect of the Third Commandment.
That was the day on which argument stopped, and propaganda became unnecessary. Two of the four ships lost in the Cayman Trench disaster had succumbed to the bomb, but the end of the other two had occurred in a glare of publicity that routed the sceptics and the cautious alike. At last it was established beyond doubt that there was something – and a highly dangerous something, too – down there in the Deeps.
Such was the wave of alarmed conviction spreading swiftly round the world that even the Russians sufficiently overcame their national reticence to admit that they had lost one large freighter and one unspecified naval vessel, both, again, off the Kuriles, and one more survey craft off eastern Kamchatka. In consequence of this, they were, they said, willing to co-operate with other powers in putting down this menace to the cause of world Peace.
The following day the British Government proposed that an International Naval Conference should meet in London to make a preliminary survey of the problem. A disposition among some of those invited to quibble about the locale was quenched by the unsympathetically urgent mood of the public. The Conference assembled in Westminster within three days of the announcement, and, as far as England was concerned, none too soon. In those three days cancellations of sea-passages had been wholesale, overwhelmed air-line companies had been forced to apply priority schedules, the Government had clamped down fast on the sales of oils of all kinds, and was rushing out a rationing system for essential services, the bottom had dropped out of the shipping market, the price of many foodstuffs had doubled, and all kinds of tobacco had vanished under the counters.
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