The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham
On the day before the Conference opened Phyllis and I had met for lunch.
‘You ought to see Oxford Street,’ she said. ‘Talk about panic-buying! Cottons particularly. Every hopeless line is selling out at double prices, and they’re scratching one another’s eyes out for things they wouldn’t have been seen dead in last week. Every decent piece of stuff has disappeared, presumably into store for later on. It’s a better picnic than any of the Sales.’
‘From what they tell me of the City,’ I told her, ‘it’s about as good there. Sounds as if you could get control of a shipping-line for a few bob, but you couldn’t buy a single share in anything to do with aircraft for a fortune. Steel’s all over the place; rubbers are, too; plastics are soaring; distilleries are down; about the only thing that’s holding its own seems to be breweries.’
‘I saw a man and a woman loading two sacks of coffee-beans into a Rolls, in Piccadilly. And there were – ’ She broke off suddenly as though what I had been saying had just registered. ‘You did get rid of Aunt Mary’s shares in those Jamaican Plantations?’ she inquired, with the expression that she applies to the monthly housekeeping accounts.
‘Some time ago,’ I reassured her. ‘The proceeds went, oddly enough, into aero-engines, and plastics.’
She gave an approving nod, rather as if the instructions had been hers. Then another thought occurred to her:
‘What about the Press Tickets for to-morrow?’ she asked.
‘There aren’t any for the Conference proper,’ I told her.
‘There will be a statement afterwards.’
She stared at me. Aren’t any? For heaven’s sake! What do they think they’re doing?’
I shrugged. ‘Force of habit, I imagine. They are planning a campaign. When you plan a campaign, you tell the Press as much as it is good for it to know, later on.’
‘Well, of all the–’
‘I know, darling, but you can’t expect a Service to change its spots overnight.’
‘It’s absolutely silly. More like Russia every day. Where’s the telephone in this place?’
‘Darling, this is an International Conference. You can’t just go – ’
‘Of course I can. It’s sheer nonsense!’
‘Well, whatever VIP you have in mind will be out at lunch now,’ I pointed out.
That checked her for a moment. She brooded. ‘I never heard of such rubbish. How do they expect us to do our job?’ she muttered, and brooded some more.
When Phyllis said ‘our job’ the words did not connote exactly what they would have implied a few days before. The job had somehow changed quality under our feet. The task of persuading the public of the reality of the unseen, indescribable menace had turned suddenly into one of keeping up morale in the face of a menace which everyone now accepted to the point of panic, EEC ran a feature called News-Parade in which we appeared to have assumed, as far as we understood the position, the roles of Special Oceanic Correspondents, without being quite sure how it had occurred. In point of fact, Phyllis had never been on the EBC staff, and I had technically left it when I ceased, officially, to have an office there some two years before; nobody, however, seemed to be aware of this except the Accounts Department which now paid by the piece instead of by the month. We had been briefed together on this change to a morale-sustaining angle by a director who was clearly under the impression that we were a part of his staff. The whole situation was anomalous, but not unrewarding. All the same, there was not going to be much freshness of treatment in our assignment if we could get no nearer to the sources than official handouts. Phyllis was still brooding about it when I left her to go back to the office I officially didn’t have in EBC.
She rang me up there about five.
‘Darling,’ she said, ‘you have invited Dr Matet to dine with you at your club at seven-thirty to-morrow evening. I shall be there, too. I explained how it was, and he quite agreed that it was a lot of nonsense. I tried to get Captain Winters to come as well, as he’s a friend of his – he thought it was a lot of nonsense, too, but he said the Service was the Service, and he’d better not come, so I’m having lunch with him to-morrow. You don’t mind?’
‘I don’t quite see why the Service should be less the Service tête-à-tête,’ I told her, ‘but I appreciate the Matet move. So, darling, you may pat yourself on the back because this town must now be full of assorted ographers that he’s not set eyes on for years.’
‘He’ll be seeing plenty of them by day,’ Phyllis said, modestly.
This time there was no need for Phyllis to coax Dr Matet. He started off like a man with a mission, over sherries in the bar.
‘The Service makes its own rules, of course,’ he said, ‘but no pledges were required from the rest of us, so I choose to regard myself as at liberty to discuss the proceedings – I think it’s a duty to let people know all the main facts. You’ve heard the official pronouncement, of course?’
We had. It amounted to little more than advice to all shipping to keep clear of the major Deeps when possible, until further notice. One imagined that many masters would already have taken this decision for themselves, but now they would at least have official advice to quote in any argument with their owners.
‘Not very specific,’ I told him. ‘One of our draughtsmen for television has produced a work of bathymetric – or do I mean hydrographic? – art showing areas over twenty thousand feet. Very pleased with it, he was, but last seen tearing his hair because someone had told him that it’s not technically a Deep unless it’s over twenty-five thousand.’
‘For present purposes the danger area is being reckoned as anything over four thousand,’ said Dr Matet.
‘What?’ I exclaimed, wildly.
‘Fathoms,’ added Dr Matet.
‘Twenty-four thousand feet, darling. You multiply by six,’ said Phyllis, kindly. She ignored my thanks, and went on to Dr Matet:
‘And what depth did you advise as marking the danger area, Doctor?’
‘How do you know I did not advise four thousand fathoms, Mrs Watson?’
‘Use of the passive, Doctor Matet – “is being reckoned,” ’ Phyllis told him, smiling sweetly.
‘And there are people who claim that French is the subtle language,’ he said. ‘Well, I’ll admit that I recommended that three thousand five hundred should be regarded as the safe maximum, but the shipping interests were all for keeping the extra distances involved as low as possible,’
‘Isn’t this supposed to be a Naval Conference?’ Phyllis asked.
‘Oh, they have the real say on strategy, of course, but this was in the first general session. And, anyway, the Navies agreed. You see, the more sea they declare unsafe, the worse it is for their prestige.’
‘Oh, dear. Oh, dear. Is it going to be one of those Conferences?’ said Phyllis.
‘Less so than most, I hope,’ Dr Matet replied.
We went in to dinner. Phyllis prattled lightly through the soup, and then steered gracefully back to the topic.
‘The first time I came to see you was about that ooze that was coming up into currents – and you were dreadfully careful. What did you really think then?’
He smiled. ‘The same as I think now – that if you get yourself made a kind of mental outlaw, you also make your purposes very much harder to attain. Poor old Bocker – though everybody’s had to come round to accepting the second part of his contention now, yet he’s still out beyond the Pale. I could not afford to say it, but I believed then that he was right about the mining. One could think of nothing else that would account for it, so, as the genius of Baker Street once remarked to your husband’s namesake – ’
I headed him off: ‘But you didn’t want to join Bocker in the wilderness.’
‘I did not. Nor have I been by any means the only one. Bocker’s miscarriage warned us all to allow full gestation. Incidentally, I suppose you know that there have been further discolorations of currents, and that those first discoloured have returned to norm
‘Yes, Captain Winters told me. What do you think would cause that?’ Phyllis asked, just as one might who had not immediately rung up Bocker the moment she heard it, to demand an explanation.
‘Well, pursuing the mining theory, one would suggest that all the loose sediment near the scene of operations would gradually be washed away. Imagine sticking the end of a suction-pipe into sand. At first you’d get sand coming through it, and you’d create a funnel-shaped depression. After a while you’d reach rock, but there’d still be some sand trickling down the sides of your depression, and having to be sucked clear. In time, however, your depression would be of such a shape that very little sand – which, of course, represents the sedimental ooze – would trickle down, and you would be able to work on the cleared rock-face without disturbing the surrounding sand, or ooze, at all.
‘But, of course, on the sea-bed the scale of such an operation would be immense, and a colossal quantity of ooze would have to be shifted before you could get to a rock-face that would remain clear. It would certainly be better to mine horizontally where possible. Once work on the rock itself had begun, the detritus would be too heavy to rise more than a few hundred feet before it began to settle, so the surface-water would no longer be discoloured.’
No one observing Phyllis’s rapt attention would have suspected that she had already made use of this theory in a script.
‘I see. You make it easy to understand, Doctor. Then the various discolorations will have enabled you to locate quite closely where this mining is going on?’
‘With reasonable accuracy, I think,’ he agreed. ‘And so, of course, those spots become priority targets – in fact, to be honest, the only closely-localized targets, so far.’
‘There’ll be an attack on them, then? Soon?’ Phyllis asked.
He shook his head. ‘Not my side of things, but I imagine that any delay will be due simply to technical reasons. How much of the sea can we afford to poison with atomic weapons? Are we to risk ships on the task? Or how long will it take to construct a depth-bomb light enough for air transport? The others have been exceedingly heavy, you know. There must be quite a number of points of that kind.’
‘And that is all we can do as a counter-attack?’ said Phyllis.
‘All that I have heard of,’ Dr Matet told her, cautiously. ‘The emphasis at the moment is naturally defensive, and on securing safety for ships. There again, that’s not my department at all: I can only give you what I have picked up.’ And he went on to do so.
It was generally agreed, it seemed, that ships were liable to two forms of attack (three forms if one included electrification, but this had occurred only to ships using cables at considerable depths for grappling or other purposes, and could be disregarded as far as the rest were concerned). Neither of these weapons was explosive: the explosions suffered by some of the ships were almost certainly due to their own boilers blowing up when the stokeholds were flooded, for there had been no similar explosions with the motor-vessels that had been lost.
One of the weapons appeared to be vibratory and capable of setting up sympathetic vibrations of such intensity in the attacked craft that she literally shook herself to pieces in a minute or two. The other was less obscure in its nature, but even more puzzling in its capacity. It was undoubtedly some contrivance which attacked the hull below the waterline. There were several obvious ways in which a device could be made to do this: what was less comprehensible was its method of assault, since the rapidity with which its victims sank, the fact that the air trapped in the hull blew the decks upwards, and various other effects, all tended to suggest some instrument that was capable, not simply of holing a ship, but of something that must be very like slicing the bottom clean off her.
Even before the Conference had begun Bocker had suggested that these devices might be found to form strategic barrages, or minefields, about certain deep areas, and might very well be regarded as perimeter defences. There would, he pointed out, be no great difficulty in constructing a mechanism to lurk inertly at any predetermined depth, and become active only on the approach of a ship – that, indeed, had been the principle of both the acoustic and magnetic mines. But on the means by which it could be made to slice through the hull of a ship with, apparently, the efficiency of a wire through cheese, even Bocker had no suggestions to make.
No one had disagreed with this, in general, but neither had anyone as yet been able to amplify it. The suddenness and success of the attacks, the small numbers of the survivors and the loose quality of their accounts gave very little data.
‘To my mind,’ said Dr Matet, ‘the important thing at the moment is to get across to the public that the danger is not incomprehensible, and so stop this silly panicking – for which we may blame the Stock Exchanges more than any other persons or institutions. The attack comes from an utterly unexpected direction, it is true, but, like any other, it can and will be met, and the sooner people can be made to realize that it is simply a matter of finding a counter to a new kind of weapon, the sooner they’ll cool off. I gather your job is to cool them off, so that is why I decided to tell you all this. In a few days I imagine there will be quite full and frank reports from the various Committees that are now being set up – once they have been brought to realize that here, at least, is one war in which there are no enemy spies listening.’ And on that note we parted.
Phyllis and I did our best during the next few days to play our part in putting across the idea of firm hands steady on the wheel, and of the backroom boys who had produced radar, asdic, and other marvels nodding confidently, and saying in effect: ‘Sure. Just give us a few days to think, and we’ll knock together something that will settle this lotl’ There was a satisfactory feeling that confidence was gradually being restored.
Perhaps the main stabilizing factor, however, emerged from a difference of opinion on one of the Technical Committees.
General agreement had been reached that a torpedo-like weapon designed to give submerged escort to a vessel could profitably be developed to counter the assumed mine-form of attack. The motion was accordingly put that all should pool information likely to help in the development of such a weapon.
The Russian delegation demurred. Remote control of missiles, they pointed out, was, of course, a Russian invention in any case; moreover, Russian scientists, zealous in the fight for Peace, had already developed such control to a degree greatly in advance of that achieved by the capitalist-ridden science of the West. It could scarcely be expected of the Soviets that they should make a present of their discoveries to warmongers.
The Western spokesman replied that, while respecting the intensity of the fight for Peace and the fervour with which it was being carried on in every department of Soviet science, except, of course, the biological, the West would remind the Soviets that this was a conference of peoples faced by a common danger and resolved to meet it by co-operation.
The Russian leader responded frankly that he doubted whether, if the West had happened to possess a means of controlling a submerged missile by radio, such as had been invented by Russian engineers working under the inspiration of the world’s greatest scientist, the late Josef Stalin, they would care to share such knowledge with the Soviet people.
The Western spokesman assured the Soviet representative that since the West had called the Conference for the purpose of co-operation, it felt in duty bound to state that it had indeed perfected such a means of control as the Soviet delegate had mentioned.
Following a hurried consultation, the Russian delegate announced that if he believed such a claim to be true, he would also know that it could only have come about through theft of the work of Soviet scientists by capitalist hirelings. And, since neither a lying claim nor the admission of successful espionage showed that disinterest in national advantage which the Conference had professed, his delegation was left with no alternative but to withdraw.
This action, with its reassuring ring of normality, exerted a valuable tranquilli
Concerning the less easily comprehensible vibratory weapon, it was announced that experiments with damping devices and counter-vibration fields had been begun, and were already showing hopeful results. The Conference appointed a Research and Co-ordination Committee to work in conjunction with Unesco, another for Naval Co-ordination, a Standing Committee for Action, several lesser Committees, and adjourned itself, pro tem.
Amid the widespread satisfaction and resuscitating confidence, the voice of Bocker, dissenting, rose almost alone: It was late, he proclaimed, but it still might not be too late for some kind of pacific approach to be made to the sources of the disturbance. They had already been shown to possess a technology equal to, if not superior to, our own. In an alarmingly short time they had been able not only to establish themselves, but to produce the means of taking effective action for their self-defence. In the face of such a beginning one was justified in regarding their powers with respect, and, for his part, with apprehension.
The very differences of environment that they required made it seem unlikely that human interests and those of these xenobathetic intelligences need seriously overlap. Before it should be altogether too late, the very greatest efforts should be made to establish communication with them in order to promote a state of compromise which would allow both parties to live peacefully in their separate spheres.
Very likely this was a sensible suggestion – though whether the attempt would ever have produced the desired result is a different matter. In circumstances where there was no will whatever to compromise, however, the only evidence that his appeal had been noticed at all was that the word, ‘xenobathetic’, and a derived noun, ‘xenobath’, began to be used in print.
‘More honoured in the dictionary than in the observance,’ remarked Bocker, with some bitterness. ‘If it is Greek words they are interested in, there are others – Cassandra, for instance.’
Previous PageNext Page