The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham
‘Expedition where to?’ asked Phyllis, practically.
‘That,’ said Freddy, ‘was naturally our first question. But he doesn’t know. The whole decision on a location is in Bocker’s hands.’
‘Bocker!’ I exclaimed. ‘Is he becoming un-untouchable, or something?’
‘His stock has recovered quite a bit,’ Freddy admitted. ‘And, as this fellow, the sponsor, said: If you leave out all the outerspace nonsense, the rest of Bocker’s pronouncements have had a pretty high score – higher than anyone else’s, anyway. So he went to Bocker, and said: “Look here. These things that came up on Saphira and April Island; where do you think they are most likely to appear next – or, at any rate, soon?” Bocker wouldn’t tell him, of course. But they walked; and the upshot was that the sponsor will subsidize an expedition led by Bocker to a region to be selected by Bocker. What is more, Bocker also selects the personnel. And part of the selection, the EBC’s blessing and your approval, could be you two.’
‘He was always my favourite ographer,’ said Phyllis. ‘When do we start?’
‘Wait a minute,’ I put in. ‘Once upon a time an ocean voyage used to be recommended for the health. Recently, however, so far from being healthy – ’
‘Air,’ said Freddy. ‘Exclusively air. People have doubtless got a lot of personal information about the things the other way, but we would prefer you to be in a position to bring it back.’
‘Such thoughtfulness is greatly appreciated,’ I assured him.
‘Good. Well, go and talk it over with Bocker to-morrow, and then come round to my office and we’ll go into contracts and all the rest of it.’
Phyllis wore an abstracted air at intervals during the evening. When we got home I said:
‘If you’d rather not take this up – ’
‘Nonsense. Of course we’re going,’ she said. ‘But do you think “subsidize” means we can get suitable clothes and things on expenses?’
‘Even,’ I said, surveying the scene, ‘even a diet of lotuses can pall.’
‘I like idleness – in the sun,’ said Phyllis.
I reflected. ‘I think it is more than that, more than just “like”. I mean,’ I suggested, ‘twentieth-century woman appears to regard sunlight as a kind of cosmetic effulgence with a light aphrodisiac content – which makes it a funny thing that none of her female ancestors are recorded as seeing it the same way. Men, of course, just go on sweating in it from century to century.’
‘Yes,’ said Phyllis.
‘You can’t answer a whole observation like that with simply “yes”,’ I pointed out.
‘I have reached a comfortable stage of enervation where I can say “yes” to practically anything. It is a well-known effect of the tropics, often underlined by Mr Maugham.’
‘Darling, Mr Maugham depends very largely on the wrong people saying “yes”, even outside the tropics. It is not so much a matter of temperature as his system of triangulation, in which he is second only to Euclid, another best-seller, by the way, makes one wonder whether a trinitarian approach to literature – ’
‘Mike, you’re rambling – that’s probably the heat, too. Let’s just contemplate idly, shall we?’
So we resumed the occupation which had been the leading eature of the last few weeks.
From where we sat at an umbrellaed table in front of the mysteriously named Grand Hotel Britannia y la Justicia it was possible to direct this contemplation on tranquillity or activity. Tranquillity was on the right. Intensely blue water glittered for miles until it was ruled off by a hard, straight horizon line. The shore, running round like a bow, ended in a palm-tufted headland which trembled mirage-wise in the heat. A backcloth which must have looked just the same when it formed a part of the Spanish Main.
To the left was a display of life as conducted in the capital, and only town, of the island of Escondida.
The island’s name derived, presumably, from erratic seamanship in the past which had caused ships to arrive mistakenly at one of the Caymans, but through all the vicissitudes of those parts it had managed to retain it, and much of its Spanishness, too. The houses looked Spanish, the temperament had a Spanish quality, in the language there was more Spanish than English, and, from where we were sitting at the corner of the open space known indifferently as the Plaza or the Square, the church at the far end with the bright market-stalls in front of it looked positively picture-book Spanish. The population, however, was somewhat less so, and ranged from sunburnt-white to coal-black. Only a bright-red British pillar-box prepared one for the surprise of learning that the place was called Smithtown – and even that took on romance when one learnt also that the Smith commemorated had been a pirate in a prosperous way.
Behind us, and therefore behind the hotel, one of the two mountains which make Escondida climbed steeply, emerging far above as a naked peak with a scarf of greenery about its shoulders. Between the mountain’s foot and the sea stretched a tapering rocky shelf, with the town clustered on its wider end.
And there, also, had clustered for five weeks the Bocker Expedition.
Bocker had contrived a probability-system all his own. Eventually his eliminations had given him a list of ten islands as likely to be attacked, and the fact that four of them were in the Caribbean area settled our course.
That was about as far as he cared to go simply on paper, and it landed us all at Kingston, Jamaica. There we stayed a week in company with Ted Jarvey, the cameraman; Leslie Bray, the recordist; and Muriel Flynn, one of the technical assistants; while Bocker himself and his two male assistants flew about in an armed coastal-patrol aircraft put at his disposal by the authorities, and considered the rival attractions of Grand Cayman, Little Cayman, Cayman Brac, and Escondida. The reasoning which led to their final choice of Escondida was no doubt very nice, so that it seemed a pity that two days after the aircraft had finished ferrying us and our gear to Smithtown it should have been a large village on Grand Cayman which suffered the first visitation in those parts.
But if we were disappointed, we were also impressed. It was clear that Bocker really had been doing something more than a high-class eeny-meany-miny-mo, and had brought off a very near miss.
The plane took four of us over there as soon as we had the news. Unfortunately we learnt little. There were grooves on the beach, but they had been greatly trampled by the time we arrived. Out of two hundred and fifty villagers about a score had got away by fast running. The rest had simply vanished. The whole affair had taken place in darkness, so that no one had seen much. Each survivor felt an obligation to give any inquirer his money’s worth, and the whole thing was almost folklore already.
Bocker announced that we should stay where we were. Nothing would be gained by dashing hither and thither; we should be just as likely to miss the occasion as to find it. Even more likely, for Escondida in addition to its other qualities had the virtue of being a one-town island so that when an attack did come (and he was sure that sooner or later it would) Smithtown must almost certainly be the objective.
We hoped he knew what he was doing, but in the next two weeks we doubted it. The radio brought reports of a dozen raids – all, save one small affair in the Azores, were in the Pacific. We began to have a depressed feeling that we were in the wrong hemisphere.
When I say ‘we’, I must admit I mean chiefly me. The others continued to analyse the reports and go stolidly ahead with their preparations. One point was that there was no record of an assault taking place by day; lights, therefore, would be necessary. Once the town council had been convinced that it would cost them nothing we were all impressed into the business of fixing improvised floods on trees, posts, and the corners of buildings all over Smithtown, though with greater proliferation towards the waterside, all of which, in the interests of Ted’s cameras, had to be wired back to a switchboard in his hotel room.
The inhabitants assumed that a fiesta of some kind was in preparation; the council considered it a harmless form of lunacy but were pl
Port Anne, the chief town on Gallows, and three large coastal villages there were raided the same night. About half the population of Port Anne, and a much higher proportion from the villages disappeared entirely. Those who survived had either shut themselves in their houses or run away, but this time there were plenty of people who agreed that they had seen things like tanks – like military tanks, they said, but larger – emerge from the water and come sliding up the beaches. Owing to the darkness, the confusion, and the speed with which most of the informants had either made off or hidden themselves, there were only imaginative reports of what these tanks from the sea had then done. The only verifiable fact was that from the four points of attack more than a thousand people in all had vanished during the night.
All around there was a prompt change of heart. Every islander in every island shed his indifference and sense of security, and was immediately convinced that his own home would be the next scene of assault. Ancient, uncertain weapons were dug out of cupboards, and cleaned up. Patrols were organized, and for the first night or two of their existence went on duty with a fine swagger. Talks on an inter-island flying defence system were proposed.
When, however, the next week went by without trace of further trouble anywhere in the area, enthusiasm waned. Indeed, for that week there was a pause in sub-sea activity all over. The only report of a raid came from the Kuriles, for some Slavonic reason, undated, and therefore assumed to have spent some time under microscope examination from every security angle.
By the tenth day after the alarm Escondida’s natural spirit of mañana had fully reasserted itself. By night and siesta it slept soundly; the rest of the time it drowsed, and we with it. It was difficult to believe that we shouldn’t go on like that for years, so we were settling down to it, some of us. Muriel explored happily among the island flora; Johnny Tallton, the pilot, who was constantly standing-by, did most of it in a café where a charming señorita was teaching him the patois; Leslie had also gone native to the extent of acquiring a guitar which we could now hear tinkling through the open window above us; Phyllis and I occasionally told one another about the scripts we might write if we had the energy; only Bocker and his two closest assistants, Bill Weyman and Alfred Haig, retained an air of purpose. If the sponsor could have seen us he might well have felt dubious about his money’s worth.
While we still contemplated idly, Leslie’s voice up above started on its repertoire with O Sole Mio. The other part of the repertoire, La Paloma, would undoubtedly follow. I groaned, and sipped at my gin-sling.
‘I think,’ said Phyllis, ‘that while we are here we really ought to dig up – oh, dear – !’
Out of the street leading to the waterfront came a din with which the mere human voice could not compete. Presently a very small, coffee-coloured boy almost eclipsed by a very large hat emerged leading a yoke of rhythmically swaying oxén. Behind them a steel-shod mountain sledge clattered, squealed, and rasped on the cobbles. When it had descended, loaded with bananas, we had thought it noisy; now that it was unladen the row was fiendish. One could only wait while the oxen made their unhurried way across the Plaza. Presently it became possible to hear Leslie again, now dealing with La Paloma.
‘I think,’ Phyllis began once more, ‘that we ought to find out what we can about this Smith while we are here. I mean, he might turn out to be a kind of illegitimate Hornblower, or we might be able to turn him into one. How much do you know about square-rigged ships?’
‘Me? Why should I know anything about square-rigged ships?’
‘Well, nearly all men seem to feel it incumbent upon them to appear to know something about ships, so I thought – ’ She broke off. La Paloma had just finished with a triumphant chord, and the guitar pranced off on an entirely different rhythm. Leslie’s voice rose:
Oh, I’m burning my brains in the backroom,
Almost setting my cortex alight
To find a new thing to go crack-boom!
And blow up a xenobathite.
Oh, I’ve pondered the nuclear thermals
And every conceivable ray.
I’ve mugged up on technical journals,
And now I’m just starting to pray.
What I’d like is the germ of the know-how
To live at five tons per square inch,
Then to bash at the bathies below now
Would verge on the fringe of a cinch.
I’ve scouted above ultra-violet,
I’ve burrowed around infra-red,
And the –
‘Poor Leslie,’ I said. ‘You see what happens in a climate like this, Phyl. We are being warned. Backroom – crackboom! – For heaven’s sake! Softening sets in without the victim being aware of it. We must give Bocker a time limit – a week from now to produce his phenomena. If not, he’ll have had it, as far as we are concerned. Any longer, and real deterioration will get us. We, too, shall start composing songs in outdated rhythms. Our moral fibres will rot so that we shall find ourselves going around doing dreadful things like rhyming “thermals” with “journals”. What do you say, one week’s grace?’
‘Well – ’ Phyllis began, doubtfully.
A step sounded behind us as Leslie came out of the hotel door.
‘Hullo, you two,’ he said, cheerfully. ‘Time for a quick one before el almuerzo? Hear the new song? A smasher, isn’t it? Phyllis called it “The Boffin’s Lament”, but I suggest “The Lay of the Baffled Boffin!” Three gin-slings? Okay.’ And he departed to fetch them.
Phyllis was studying the view.
‘So?’ I remarked grimly. ‘Well, I said a week, and I’ll stand by it – though it’ll very likely be fatal.’
Which was truer than I knew.
Less than a week nearly was fatal.
‘Darling, stop worrying that moon now, and come to bed.’
‘No soul – that’s the trouble. I often wonder why I married you.’
‘It’s by no means impossible to have too much soul. Look at Laurence Hope.’
‘Pig! I hate you!’
‘Darling, it’s late. Nearly one o’clock.’
‘On Escondida, life laughs at clocksmiths.’
‘Wasted, darling. You mislaid your notebook this afternoon. Remember?’
‘Oh, I do hate you. Sweet, sweet Diana, take me from this man!’
I got up and joined her at the window.
‘See?’ she said. ‘ “A ship, an isle, a sickle moon…” So fragile, so eternal.… Isn’t it lovely?’
We gazed out, across the empty Plaza, past the sleeping houses, over the silvered sea.
‘I want it. It’s one of the things I’m putting away to remember,’ she said.
Faintly from behind the opposite houses, down by the waterfront, came the tinkling of a guitar.
‘El amor tonto – y dulce,’ she sighed. ‘Why don’t you see and hear what I see and hear, Mike? You don’t, you know.’
‘Mightn’t it be a little dull for us if I did – both of us crying upon Diana, for instance? I have my own gods.’
She turned to look at me. ‘I suppose you have. But they are rather obscure ones, aren’t they?’
‘You think so? I don’t find them difficult. I’ll quote Flecker back to you. “And some to Mecca turn to pray, and I toward thy bed, Yasmin.”’
‘Oh!’ she said. ‘Oh, Mike!’
And then, suddenly, the distant player dropped his guitar, with a clang.
Down by the waterfront a voice called out, unintelligible, but alarming. Then other voices. A woman screamed. We turned to look at the houses that screened the little harbour.
‘Listen!’ said Phyllis. ‘Mike, do you think – ?’
She broke off at the sound of a couple of shots.
‘It must be! Mike, they must be coming!’
‘Hey, Ted!’ I shouted. ‘Turn up your lights! Down by the waterfront, man. Lights!’
I heard his faint okay. He must have been out of bed already, for almost as I turned back to the window the lights began to go on in batches.
There was nothing unusual to be seen except a dozen or more men pelting across the Square towards the harbour.
Quite abruptly the noise which had been rising in crescendo was cut off. Ted’s door slammed. His boots thudded along the corridor past our room. Beyond the houses the yelling and screaming broke out again, louder than before, as if it had gained force from being briefly dammed.
‘I must – ’ I began, and then stopped when I found that Phyllis was no longer beside me.
I looked across the room, and saw her in the act of locking the door. I went over.
‘I must go down there. I must see what’s – ’
‘No!’ she said.
She turned and planted her back firmly against the door. She looked rather like a severe angel barring a road, except that angels are assumed to wear respectable cotton night-dresses, not nylon.
‘But, Phyl – it’s the job. It’s what we’re here for.’
‘I don’t care. We wait a bit.’
She stood without moving, severe angel expression now modified by that of mutinous small girl. I held out my hand.
‘Phyl. Please give me that key.’
‘No!’ she said, and flung it across the room, through the window. It clattered on the cobbles outside. I gazed after it in astonishment. That was not at all the kind of thing one associated with Phyllis. All over the now floodlit Square people were now hurriedly converging towards the street on the opposite side. I turned back.
Previous PageNext Page