The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham
The decision to avoid crossing the greater Deeps proved wise. For several weeks not a ship was reported lost. The markets settled down, confidence became convalescent, and the passenger lists began to fill up again, though slowly. Delays and higher freight-rates were continuing effects, nevertheless there presently arose a disposition to feel that the long-suffering public had once again been stampeded by sensationalism, and the advertising departments of all journals threatened falling revenues unless a note of sprightly plerophory were maintained.
Meanwhile, the brains moiled in the backrooms, and after some four months the Admiralty were able to announce that when certain naval craft had been equipped with the new counter-devices a test would be held over the series of Deeps south of Cape Race, in the neighbourhood where the Queen Anne had been lost.
It is possible that the omission of the Press from the test-party was due to a lukewarm enthusiasm in demanding its rights. Certainly no representative of my acquaintance was genuinely burning to be included – or, it may have been that the authorities were disinclined to take greater risks than necessary. Whatever the cause, there was no correspondent further forward than the reserve ships. For first-hand accounts we had to depend on a somewhat inexpert running commentary, and the descriptions given later by the personnel of the test vessels.
Phyllis got herself an introduction to a young Lieutenant Royde, and worked on him. When he came back, we took him out to dinner, gave him some drinks, and listened.
‘It turned out to be a piece of cake,’ he assured us. ‘Though, mind you, most of us were feeling pretty windy about it beforehand, and didn’t mind admitting it.
‘We all sailed together, and then hove-to some fifty miles short of the Deeps, and our party got its stuff all set up.
‘The anti-vibration gadget is a bit wearing at first. In fact, anti – isn’t quite the word I’d use because it sets up a constant hum which you can half-feel, half hear; but you get used to it after a time.
‘The other gimmick is a tin fish that you sling overboard – a dolphin, they’re calling it. It promptly makes away forward, and then settles down to travel about two hundred feet ahead of the ship at about five fathoms. It’s under control, of course, but when it spots anything it flashes a signal on a screen, and goes for it automatically. What its spotting range is, how it spots, and just why it doesn’t lash about and go for the parent ship isn’t my pigeon. You’ll have to ask the boffins if you want to know about that – but, in the rough, that’s the way it works.
‘Well, when it was all fixed, and the boffins had finished tearing round and testing everything in sight, we set off with the whole ship buzzing like a beehive and the dolphin leading the way, and none of us feeling too good in our bellies – anyway, I wasn’t. Everybody wore jackets, and orders were for all personnel who hadn’t duty below to keep on deck, just in case.
‘For about three hours nothing happened, and the sea looked just like any other sea. Then, while we were wondering whether the whole thing was going to turn out phoney, a voice from the hailer said:
‘ “Number One dolphin away! Make ready Number Two dolphin!”
‘The dolphin party had just time to get Number Two swung out when Number One got home. And did it get home! By the record, it contacted whatever it was after at around thirty-five fathoms. When it blew, what we saw was several acres of sea going up in the air off the port bow. We raised a bit of a cheer. The hailer came through with:
‘ “Lower away there Number Two dolphin. Stand by Number Three dolphin.”
‘Dolphin Number Two went down in her sling, and ran away forward, and they hitched Number Three’s sling ready.
‘There was a boffin standing by me, looking pretty pleased with himself. He said:
‘ “Well, whatever it was, there was some pressure there. A dolphin going up on its own has about a quarter the punch of that.”
‘We kept steady on the same course, all looking out like hawks now, though there wasn’t anything to be seen. After about five minutes the hailer said:
‘ “Dolphin away! Make ready Number Three dolphin!”
‘It didn’t take so long this time before another lot of sea went up with a woomph, and Number Three dolphin was lowered away.
‘After that nothing happened for quite a while. Then the pitch of the humming that we’d got so used to that we didn’t notice it began to change so that we did notice it. The boffin beside me gave a grunt and whipped back like a streak into a kind of float-off instrument-room they had rigged up on deck. You could feel a sort of trembling in the deck, and the humming kept on changing pitch, and everybody gave a hitch to his lifejacket, and got ready for something to happen.
‘The thing that did happen was that Number Three dolphin way ahead of us blew up. It was a far smaller blow than the others had been, and they reckon it was just the vibrations that set her off. She certainly didn’t go for anything. The hailer started to order out Number Four dolphin, and in the middle of that an excited boffin bounced out of the instrument-room and ordered the depth-charge-thrower to work. It lobbed off a couple of spherical containers which just sank. We kept on waiting for a couple of bangs until we realized that they weren’t going to come. And that was roughly that.
‘After a bit the humming settled down to what it had been before, and there was a noise of uproarious boffins slapping one another on the back in the instrument-room.
‘We altered course to the north. About an hour later Number Four dolphin went up with a thundering good wham. The boffins, all of them pretty tight by this time, tumbled out on deck to cheer and sing Steamboat Bill, and that was about the end of it. We still had Number Five dolphin running serenely ahead of us when we reckoned we were clear of the area.’
A nice lad, Lieutenant Royde, but not, perhaps, a source of technical information. However, it was eye-witness stuff we were after. We knew in a general way how the ‘dolphins’ worked, and we had heard that the spheres launched by the mine-thrower were intended to home on the source of the vibrations, and were capable of reaching far greater depths than the dolphins. Even if it had been explained to us exactly how they did it we should probably not have understood.
The effects of the successful tests were immediate. There was an overwhelming demand for the defensive gear, and shipping shares began to rally. Freights, however, remained high. There was the cost of the gear to be covered, consumption of dolphins to be offset, and it would take some time before all cargo vessels could be equipped and revert to their normal courses. Meanwhile, the price of everything went up.
Progress in equipment was such, however, that six months later it was possible for London and Washington to speak optimistically. The Prime Minister announced to the House:
‘The Battle of the Deeps has been won. Our ships, which we had to divert, are able once more to ply upon their usual courses.
‘But we have seen before, and we must remember, that to win a battle is not of necessity to win a war. These menaces that have for a time played the highwayman upon our vital sealanes and caused us such grievous losses, these menaces still remain. And, as long as they remain, they are a potential danger.
‘We cannot afford, therefore, any slackening of effort in combating them. We must use all our capacities and our wits to find out more, everything we can, about this peril that is lurking beneath our seas. For still, and in spite of the fact that we have won this battle, we know virtually nothing of it, save that it exists. No one – no one can describe these creatures – if creatures they are; no one, so far as we know, has ever seen them. To us, here in the sunlight, these creatures of the darkness and the depths, are still, anonymously and amorphously, “those things down there”.
‘When we know more about them, their nature, their strength, and, most importantly, their weaknesses: when, in fact, we have a full view of what we are about, then we shall be able to launch our attack upon this pestilence so that, with its utter destruction, our ships and our seamen shall be free to sail upo
But, a month later, a dozen ships of various sizes were sunk in a week, four of them while attempting to rescue survivors of earlier disasters. The few men who were brought safely back could tell little, but from their accounts it appeared that the dolphins had operated successfully; the other gear for some reason had failed to prevent the ships shaking to pieces under their feet.
Official advice once more recommended that the neighbourhoods of all the greater Deeps should be avoided pending further investigations.
Hard on that, but with a significance that was not immediately recognized, came the news first from Saphira, and then from April Island.
Saphira, a Brazilian island in the Atlantic, lies a little south of the Equator and some four hundred miles south-east of the larger island of Fernando de Noronha. In that isolated spot a population of a hundred or so lived in primitive conditions, largely on its own produce, content to get along in its own way, and little interested in the rest of the world. It is said that the original settlers were a small party who, arriving on account of a shipwreck some time in the eighteenth century, remained perforce. By the time they were discovered they had settled to the island life and already become interestingly inbred. In due course, and without knowing or caring much about it, they had ceased to be Portuguese and become technically Brazilian citizens, and a token connexion with their foster-mother country was maintained by a ship which called at roughly six-monthly intervals to do a litle barter.
Normally, the visiting ship had only to sound its siren, and the Saphirans would come hurrying out of their cottages down to the minute quay where their few fishing boats lay, to form a reception committee which included almost the entire population. On this occasion, however, the hoot of the siren echoed emptily back and forth in the little bay, and set the sea-birds wheeling in flocks, but no Saphiran appeared at the cottage doors. The ship hooted again, but still there was no sign of anyone making for the quay. There was no response whatever, save from the sea-birds.
The coast of Saphira slopes steeply. The ship was able to approach to within a cable’s length of the shore, but there was nobody to be seen – nor, still more ominously, was there any trace of smoke from the cottages’ chimneys.
A boat was lowered and a party, with the mate in charge, rowed ashore. They made fast to a ringbolt and climbed the stone steps up to the little quay. They stood there in a bunch, listening and wondering. There was not a sound to be heard but the cry of the sea-birds and the lapping of the water.
‘Must’ve made off, the lot of ’em. Their boats’s gone,’ said one of the sailors, uneasily.
‘Huh,’ said the mate. He took a deep breath, and gave a mighty hail, as though he had greater faith in his own lungs than in the ship’s siren.
They listened for an answer, but none came, save the sound of the mate’s voice echoing faintly back to them across the bay.
‘Huh,’ said the mate again. ‘Better take a look.’
The uneasiness which had come over the party kept them together. They followed him in a bunch as he strode towards the nearest of the small, stone-built cottages. The door was standing half-open. He pushed it back.
Several putrid fish decomposing on a dish accounted for the smell. Otherwise the place was tidy and, by Saphiran standards, reasonably clean. There were no signs of disorder or hasty packing-up. In the inner room the beds were made up, ready to be slept in. The occupant might have been gone only a matter of a few hours, but for the fish and the lack of warmth in the turf-fire ashes.
In the second and third cottages there was the same air of unpremeditated absence. In the fourth they found a dead baby in its cradle in the inner room. The party returned to the ship, puzzled and subdued.
The situation was reported by radio to Rio. Rio in its reply suggested a thorough search of the island. The crew started on the task with reluctance and a tendency to keep in close groups, but, as nothing fearsome revealed itself, gradually gained confidence.
On the second day of their three-day search they discovered a party of four women and six children in two caves on a hillside. All had been dead for some weeks, apparently from starvation. By the end of the third day they were satisfied that if there were any living person left, he must be deliberately in hiding. It was only then, on comparing notes, that they realized also that there could not be more than a dozen sheep and two or three dozen goats left out of the island’s normal flocks of some hundreds.
They buried the bodies they had found, radioed a full report to Rio, and then put to sea again, leaving Saphira, with its few surviving animals, to the sea-birds.
In due course the news came through from the agencies and won an inch or two of space here and there. Two newspapers bestowed on Saphira the nickname of Marie Celeste Island, but failed at the time to inquire further into the matter.
The April Island affair was set in quite a different key, and might have continued undiscovered for some time but for the coincidence of official interest in the place.
The interest stemmed from the existence of a group of Javanese malcontents variously described as smugglers, terrorists, communists, patriots, fanatics, gangsters, or merely rebels who, whatever their true affiliations, operated upon a troublesome scale. In due course the Indonesian police had tracked them down and destroyed their headquarters, with which loss went much of the prestige which had enabled them to dominate and extort support from several square miles of territory. In the dispersal which resulted, most of the rank and file following melted swiftly away into more conventional occupations: but, for two dozen moving spirits with varying prices on their heads, disappearance was less easy.
In difficult terrain and with small forces at their disposal the Indonesian authorities did not pursue them, but awaited the arrival of the informer who, sooner or later, would be tempted by easy money. In the course of a few months several informers applied; none, however, collected the rewards, for on each occasion the government party arrived only to find that the outlaws had moved on. After several such expeditions, informing fell off. No more was heard of the trouble-makers, who seemed to have vanished for good.
About a year after the dispersal, a trading-steamer put in to Jakarta carrying a native who had an interesting tale to tell the authorities there. He came, it appeared, from April Island which lies south of the Sunda Strait, and at no great distance from the British possession of Christmas Island. According to him, April Island had been pursuing its normal and not very arduous life in its immemorial manner until some six months previously when a party of eighteen men had arrived in a small motor-vessel. They had immediately introduced themselves as the new administration of the island, taken charge of the only small radio transmitter, posted up new laws and regulations, ordered that houses should be built for them, and helped themselves to wives. After the salutary shooting of a few persons who raised objections, a régime of a severely feudal type set in and was, so far as the informant knew, still in operation. Possible trouble with infrequently visiting ships was forestalled by coralling a number of the inhabitants under the muzzles of rifles as hostages. This, since the invaders’ trigger-fingers were well known to work with very slight provocation, had been effective, and the vessels had left again without suspecting that anything was amiss.
The informant himself had succeeded in hiding a canoe and getting away by night. He had been trying to reach the mainland in order to question the authenticity of this unpopular form of administration when he had been picked up by the steamer.
A few questions and his descriptions of the invaders satisfied the Jakarta authorities that they were once more on the track of their malcontents, and a small gunboat, flying the flag of the Indonesian Republic, was commissioned to deal with them.
In order to minimize the risk of a number of innocent people dying by the hostage technique the approach to April Island was made by night. U
Three-quarters of an hour had been the length of time estimated for the party’s crossing of the isthmus, and then perhaps another ten or fifteen minutes for its disposal of itself about the village. It was, therefore, with concern that after only forty minutes had passed the men aboard the gunboat heard the first burst of automatic fire, succeeded presently by several more.
With the element of surprise lost, the Commander ordered full speed ahead, but even as the boat surged forward the sound of firing was drowned by a dull, reverberating boom. The crew of the gunboat looked at one another with raised eyebrows: the landing-party had carried no higher forms of lethalness than automatic rifles and grenades. There was a pause, then the automatic rifles started hammering again. This time, it continued longer in intermittent bursts until it was ended again by a similar boom.
The gunboat rounded the headland. In the dim light it was impossible to make out anything that was going on in the village two miles away. For the moment all there was dark. Then a twinkling broke out, and another, and the sound of firing reached them again. The gunboat, continuing at full speed, switched on her searchlight. The village and the trees behind it sprang into sudden miniature existence. No figures were visible among the houses. The only sign of activity was some froth and commotion in the water, a few yards out from the edge. Some claimed afterwards to have seen a dark, humped shape showing above the water a little to the right of it.
As close inshore as she dared go the gunboat put her engines astern, and hove-to in a flurry. The searchlight played back and forth over the huts and their surroundings. Everything lit by the beam had hard lines, and seemed endowed with a curious glistening quality. The man on the Oerlikons followed the beam, his fingers ready on the triggers. The light made a few more slow sweeps and then stopped. It was trained on several sub-machine-guns lying on the sand, close to the water’s edge.
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