The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham

  A stentorian voice from the hailer called the landing-party from cover. Nothing stirred. The searchlight roved again, prying between the huts, among the trees. Nothing moved there. The patch of light slid back across the beach and steadied upon the abandoned arms. The silence seemed to deepen.

  The Commander refused to allow landing until daylight. The gunboat dropped anchor. She rode there for the rest of the night, her searchlight making the village look like a stage-set upon which at any moment the actors might appear, but never did.

  When there was full daylight the First Officer, with a party of five armed men, rowed cautiously ashore under cover from the ship’s Oerlikons. They landed close to the abandoned arms, and picked them up to examine them. All the weapons were covered with a thin slime. The men put them in the boat, and then washed their hands clean of the stuff.

  The beach was scored in four places by broad furrows leading from the water’s edge towards the huts. They were something over eight feet wide, and curved in section. The depth in the middle was five or six inches; the sand at the edges was banked up a trifle above the level of the surrounding beach. Some such track, the First Officer thought, might have been left if a large boiler had been dragged across the foreshore. Examining them more closely he decided from the lie of the sand that though one of the tracks led towards the water, the other three undoubtedly emerged from it. It was a discovery which caused him to look at the village with increased wariness. As he did so, he became aware that the scene which had glistened oddly in the searchlight was still glistening oddly. He regarded it curiously for some minutes without learning more. Then he shrugged. He tucked the butt of his sub-machine-gun comfortably under his right arm, and slowly, with his eyes flicking right and left for the least trace of movement, he led his party up the beach.

  The village was formed of a semi-circle of huts of various sizes fringing upon an open space, and as they drew closer the reason for the glistening look became plain. The ground, the huts themselves, and the surrounding trees, too, all had a thin coating of the slime which had been on the guns.

  The party kept steadily, slowly on until they reached the centre of the open space. There they paused, bunched together, facing outwards, examining each foot of cover closely. There was no sound, no movement but a few fronds stirring gently in the morning breeze. The men began to breathe more evenly.

  The First Officer removed his gaze from the huts, and examined the ground about them. It was littered with a wide scatter of small metal fragments, most of them curved, all of them shiny with the slime. He turned one over curiously with the toe of his boot, but it told him nothing. He looked about them again, and decided on the largest hut.

  ‘We’ll search that,’ he said.

  The whole front of its glistened stickily. He pushed the unfastened door open with his foot, and led the way inside. There was little disturbance; only a couple of overturned stools suggested a hurried exit. No one, alive or dead, remained in the place.

  They came out again. The First Officer glanced at the next hut, then he paused, and looked at it more closely. He went round to examine the side of the hut they had already entered. The wall there was quite dry and clear of slime. He considered the surroundings again.

  ‘It looks,’ he said, ‘as if everything had been sprayed with this muck by something in the middle of the clearing.’

  A more detailed examination supported the idea, but took them little further.

  ‘But how?’ the officer asked, meditatively. ‘Also what? And why?’

  ‘Something came out of the sea,’ said one of his men, looking back uneasily towards the water.

  ‘Some things – three of them,’ the First Officer corrected him.

  They returned to the middle of the open semi-circle. It was clear that the place was deserted, and there did not seem to be much more to be learned there at present.

  ‘Collect a few of these bits of metal – they may mean something to somebody,’ the officer instructed.

  He himself went across to one of the huts, found an empty bottle, scraped some of the slime into it, and corked it up.

  ‘This stuff’s beginning to stink now the sun’s getting at it,’ he said, on his return. ‘We might as well clear out. There’s nothing we can do here.’

  Back on board, he suggested that a photographer should take pictures of the furrows on the beach, and showed the Commander his trophies, now washed clean of the slime.

  ‘Queer stuff,’ he said, holding a piece of the thick, dull metal. ‘A shower of it around.’ He tapped it with a knuckle. ‘Sounds like lead; weighs like feathers. Cast, by the look of it. Ever seen anything like that, sir?’

  The Commander shook his head. He observed that the world seemed to be full of strange alloys these days.

  Presently the photographer came rowing back from the beach. The Commander decided:

  ‘We’ll give ’em a few blasts on the siren. If nobody shows up in half an hour we’d better make a landing some other place and find a local inhabitant who can tell us what the hell goes on.’

  A couple of hours later the gunboat cautiously nosed her way into a bay on the north-east coast of April Island. A similar though smaller village stood there in a clearing, close to the water’s edge. The similarity was uncomfortably emphasized by an absence of life as well as by a beach displaying four broad furrows to the water’s edge.

  Closer investigation, however, showed some differences: of these furrows, two had been made by some objects ascending the beach; the other two by, apparently, the same objects de – scending it. There was no trace of the slime either in or about the deserted village.

  The Commander frowned over his charts. He indicated another bay.

  ‘All right. We’ll try there, then,’ he said.

  This time there were no furrows to be seen on the beach, though the village was just as thoroughly deserted. Again the gunboat’s siren gave a forlorn, unheeded wail. They examined the scene through glasses, then the First Officer, scanning the neighbourhood more widely, gave an exclamation.

  ‘There’s a fellow up on that hill there, sir. Waving a shirt, or something.’

  The Commander turned his own glasses that way.

  ‘Two or three others, a bit to the left of him, too.’

  The gunboat gave a couple of hoots, and moved closer inshore. The boat was lowered.

  ‘Stand off a bit till they come,’ the Commander directed. ‘Find out whether there’s been an epidemic of some kind before you try to make contact.’

  He watched from his bridge. In due course a party of natives, eight or nine strong, appeared from the trees a couple of hundred yards east of the village, and hailed the boat. It moved in their direction. Some shouting and counter-shouting between the two parties ensued, then the boat went in and grounded on the beach. The First Officer beckoned the natives with his arm, but they hung back in the fringe of the trees. Eventually the First Officer jumped ashore and walked across the strand to talk to them. An animated discussion took place. Clearly an invitation to some of them to visit the gunboat was being declined with vigour. Presently the First Officer descended the beach alone, and the landing-party headed back.

  ‘What’s the trouble there?’ the Commander inquired as the boat came alongside.

  The First Officer looked up.

  ‘They won’t come, sir.’

  ‘What’s the matter with them?’

  ‘They’re okay themselves, sir, but they say the sea isn’t safe.’

  ‘They can see it’s safe enough for us. What do they mean?’

  ‘They say several of the shore villages have been attacked, and they think theirs may be at any moment.’

  ‘Attacked! What by?’

  ‘Er – perhaps if you’d come and talk to them yourself, sir – ?’

  ‘I sent a boat so that they could come to me – that ought to be good enough for them.’

  ‘I’m afraid thev’ll not come, short of force, sir.’

  The Com
mander frowned. ‘That scared are they? What’s been doing this attacking?’

  The First Officer moistened his lips; his eyes avoided his commander’s.

  ‘They – er, they say – whales, sir.’

  The Commander stared at him.

  ‘They say – what?’ he demanded.

  The First Officer looked unhappy.

  ‘Er – I know, sir But that’s what they keep on saying. Erwhales, and er – giant jelly-fish. I really think that if you’d speak to them yourself, sir – ?’

  The news about April Island did not exactly ‘break’ in the accepted sense. A curious going-on on an atoll which could not even be found in most atlases had, on the face of it, little news value, and the odd line or two which recorded the matter was allowed to slip past. Possibly it would not have attracted attention or been remembered until much later, if at all, but for the chance that an American journalist who happened to be in Jakarta discovered the story for himself, took a speculative trip to April Island, and wrote the affair up for a weekly magazine.

  A pressman, reading it, recalled the Saphira incident, linked the two, and splashed a new peril across a Sunday newspaper. It happened that this preceded by one day the most sensational communiqué yet issued by the Standing Committee for Action, with the result that the Deeps had the big headlines once more. Moreover the term ‘Deeps’ was more comprehensive than formerly, for it was announced that shipping losses in the last month had been so heavy, and the areas in which they had occurred so much more extensive that, pending the development of a more efficient means of defence, all vessels were strongly advised to avoid crossing deep water and keep, as far as was practicable, to the areas of the Continental Shelves.

  It was obvious that the Committee would not have dealt such a blow to recovering confidence in shipping without the gravest reasons. Nevertheless, the answering outburst of indignation from the shipping interests accused it of everything from sheer alarmism to a vested interest in air-lines. To follow such advice, they protested, would mean routing transatlantic liners into Iceland and Greenland waters, creeping coastwise down the Bay of Biscay and the West African coast, etc. Transpacific commerce would become impossible, and Australia and New Zealand, isolated. It showed a shocking and lamentable lack of a sense of responsibility that the Committee should be allowed to advise, in this way, and without full consultation with all interested parties, these panic-inspired measures which would, if heeded, bring the maritime commerce of the world virtually to a stop. Advice which could never be implemented should never have been given.

  The Committee hedged slightly under the attack. It had not ordered, it said. It had simply suggested that wherever possible vessels should attempt to avoid crossing any extensive stretch of water where the depth was greater than two thousand fathoms and thus avoid exposing itself to danger unnecessarily.

  This, retorted the shipowners, curtly, was virtually putting the same thing in different words; and their case, though not their cause, was upheld by the publication in almost every newspaper of sketch-maps showing hurried and somewhat varied impressions of the two-thousand fathom line.

  Before the Committee was able to re-express itself in still different words the Italian liner, Sabina, and the German liner, Vorpommern, disappeared on the same day – the one in mid-Atlantic, the other in the South Atlantic – and reply became superfluous.

  The news of the latest sinking was announced on the 8 a.m. news bulletin on a Saturday. The Sunday papers took full advantage of their opportunity. At least six of them slashed at official incompetence with almost eighteenth-century gusto, and set the pitch for the Dailies. The Times screwed down rebukes to make the juice run out. The Guardian’s approach was similar in intention, but more like an advancing set of circularsaws in manner. The New-Chronicle’s was not unlike, though with the teeth set slightly wider apart. The Express turned its hammer from the forging of imperial links to flailing those whose ineptitudes were now weakening them. The Mail denounced the failure to rule the seas as supreme treachery, and demanded the impeachment of the saboteurs, omissive and commissive. The Herald told the housewife that the price of food would rise. The Worker, after pointing out that in a properly ordered society such tragedies would have been impossible since luxury liners would not exist and therefore could not be sunk, rounded upon owners who drove seamen into danger in unprotected ships at inadequate wages.

  On the Wednesday 1 rang up Phyllis.

  It used to come upon her periodically when we had had a longer spell than usual in London that she could not stand the works of civilization any longer without a break for refreshment. If it happened that I were free, I was allowed along, too; if not, she withdrew to commune with nature on her own. As a rule, she returned spiritually refurbished in the course of a week or so. This time, however, the communion had already been going on for almost a fortnight, and there was still no sign of the postcard which customarily preceded her return by a short head, when it did not come on the following day.

  The telephone down in Rose Cottage rang forlornly for some time. I was on the point of giving up when she answered it.

  ‘Hullo, darling!’ said her voice.

  ‘I might have been the butcher, or the income-tax,’ I reproved her.

  ‘They’d have given up more quickly. Sorry I was so long answering. I was busy outside.’

  ‘Digging the garden?’ I asked, hopefully.

  ‘No, as a matter of fact. I was bricklaying.’

  ‘This line’s not good. It sounded like bricklaying.’

  ‘It was, darling.’

  ‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Bricklaying.’

  ‘It’s very fascinating when you get into it. Did you know there are all kinds of bonds and things; Flemish Bond, and English Bond, and so on? And you have things called “headers” and other things called – ’

  ‘What is this, darling? A tool-shed, or something?’

  ‘No. Just a wall, like Balbus and Mr Churchill. I read somewhere that in moments of stress Mr Churchill used to find that it gave him tranquillity, and I thought that anything that could tranquillize Mr Churchill was probably worth following up.’

  ‘Well, I hope it has cured the stress.’

  ‘Oh, it has. It’s very soothing. I love the way when you put the brick down the mortar squudges out at the sides and you – ’

  ‘Darling, the minutes are ticking up. I rang you up to say that you are wanted here.’

  ‘That’s sweet of you, darling. But leaving a job half–’

  ‘It’s not me – I mean – it is me, but not only. The EBC wants a word with us.’

  ‘What about?’

  ‘I don’t really know. They’re being cagey, but insistent.’

  ‘Oh. When do they want to see us?’

  ‘Freddy suggested dinner on Friday. Can you manage that?’

  There was a pause.

  ‘Yes. I think I’ll be able to finish. All right. I’ll be on that train that gets into Paddington about six.’

  ‘Good. I’ll meet it. There is the other reason, too, Phyl.’

  ‘It being?’

  ‘The running sand, darling. The unturned coverlet. The tarnished thimble. The dull, unflavoured drops from life’s clepsydra. The – ’

  ‘Mike, you’ve been rehearsing.’

  ‘What else had I to do?’

  ‘Couldn’t you have taken Mildred out to dinner?’.

  ‘I tried that. And she does begin to grow on one as one sees more of her. It’s surprising, really. All the same – ’

  ‘Mike, I happen to know that Mildred has been in Scotland for the last three weeks.’

  ‘Oh, did you say Mildred? I thought – ’

  ‘Come off it, darling. See you Friday.’

  ‘I shall hold my breath until then,’ I assured her.

  We were only twenty minutes late, but Freddy Whittier might have been desiccating for some hours from the urgency with which we were swept into the bar. He disappeared into the mob round the counter w
ith a nicely-controlled violence and presently emerged with a selection of double and single sherries on a tray.

  ‘Doubles first,’ he said.

  Soon his mind broadened out of the single track. He looked more himself, and noticed things. He even noticed Phyllis’s hands; the abraded knuckles on the right, the large piece of plaster on the left. He frowned and seemed about to speak, but thought better of it. I observed him covertly examining my face and then my hands.

  ‘My wife,’ I explained, ‘has been down in the country. The start of the bricklaying season, you know.’

  He looked relieved rather than interested.

  ‘Nothing wrong with the old team spirit?’ he inquired with a casual air.

  We shook our heads.

  ‘Good,’ he said, ‘because I’ve got a job for you two.’

  He went on to expound. It seemed that one of EBC’s favourite sponsors had put a proposition to them. This sponsor had apparently been feeling for some time that a description, some photographs, and definite evidence of the nature of the Deeps creatures was well overdue.

  ‘A man of perception,’ I said. ‘For the last five or six years – ’

  ‘Shut up, Mike,’ said my dear wife, briefly.

  ‘Things,’ Freddy went on, ‘have in his opinion now reached a pass where he might as well spend some of his money while it still has value, and might even bring in some valuable information. At the same time, he doesn’t see why he shouldn’t get some benefit out of the information if it is forthcoming. So he proposes to fit out and send out an expedition to find out what it can – and of course the whole thing will be tied up with exclusive rights and so on. By the way, this is highly confidential: we don’t want the BBC to get on to it first.’

  ‘Look, Freddy,’ I said. ‘For several years now everybody has been trying to get on to it, let alone the BBC. What the – ?’

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