The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham
‘Phyl. Please get away from that door.’
She shook her head.
‘Don’t be a fool, Mike. You’ve got a job to do.’
‘That’s just what I – ’
‘No, it isn’t. Don’t you see? The only reports we’ve had at all were from the people who didn’t rush to find out what was happening. The ones who either hid, or ran away.’
I was angry with her, but not too angry for the sense of that to reach me and make me pause. She followed up: ‘It’s what Freddy said – the point of our coming at all is that we should be able to go back and tell them about it.’
‘That’s all very well, but – ’
‘No! Look there.’ She nodded towards the window.
People were still converging upon the street that led to the waterside; but they were no longer going into it. A solid crowd was piling up at the entrance. Then, while I still looked, the previous scene started to go into reverse. The crowd backed, and began to break up at its edges. More men and women came out of the street, thrusting it back until it was dispersing all over the Square.
I went closer to the window to watch. Phyllis left the door and came and stood beside me. Presently we spotted Ted, turret-lensed ciné-camera in hand, hurrying back.
‘What is it?’ I called down.
‘God knows. Can’t get through. There’s a panic up the street there. They all say it’s coming this way, whatever it is. If it does, I’ll get a shot from my window. Can’t work this thing in that mob.’ He glanced back, and then disappeared into the hotel doorway below us.
People were still pouring into the Square, and breaking into a run when they reached a point where there was room to run. There had been no further sound of shooting, but from time to time there would be another outbreak of shouts and screams somewhere at the hidden far end of the short street.
Among those headed back to the hotel came Dr Bocker himself, and the pilot, Johnny Tallton. Bocker stopped below, and shouted up. Heads popped out of various windows. He looked them over.
‘Where’s Alfred?’ he asked.
No one seemed to know.
‘If anyone sees him, call him inside,’ Bocker instructed. ‘The rest of you stay where you are. Observe what you can, but don’t expose yourselves till we know more about it. Ted, keep all vour lights on. Leslie – ’
‘Just on my way with the portable recorder, Doc,’ said Leslie’s voice.
‘No, you’re not. Sling the mike outside the window if you like, but keep under cover yourself. And that goes for everyone, for the present.’
‘But, Doc, what is it? What’s – ’
‘We don’t know. So we keep inside until we find out why it makes people scream. Where the hell’s Miss Flynn? Oh, you’re there. Right. Keep watching, Miss Flynn.’
He turned to Johnny, and exchanged a few inaudible words with him. Johnny nodded, and made off round the back of the hotel. Bocker himself looked across the Square again, and then came in, shutting the door behind him.
Running, or at least hurrying, figures were still scattering over the Square in all directions, but no more were emerging from the street. Those who had reached the far side turned back to look, hovering close to doorways or alleys into which they could jump swiftly if necessary. Half a dozen men with guns or rifles laid themselves down on the cobbles, their weapons all aimed at the mouth of the street. Everything was much quieter now. Except for a few sounds of sobbing, a tense, expectant silence held the whole scene. And then, in the background, one became aware of a grinding, scraping noise; not loud, but continuous.
The door of a small house close to the church opened. The priest, in a long black robe, stepped out. A number of people nearby ran towards him, and then knelt round him. He stretched out both arms as though to encompass and guard them all.
The noise from the narrow street sounded like the heavy dragging of metal upon stone.
Three or four rifles fired suddenly, almost together. Our angle of view still stopped us from seeing what they fired at, but they let go a number of rounds each. Then the men jumped to their feet and ran further back, almost to the inland side of the Square. There they turned round, and reloaded.
From the street came a noise of cracking timbers and falling bricks and glass.
Then we had our first sight of a ‘sea-tank’. A curve of dull, grey metal sliding into the Square, carrying away the lower corner of a housefront as it came.
Shots cracked at it from half a dozen different directions. The bullets splattered or thudded against it without effect. Slowly, heavily, with an air of inexorability, it came on, grinding and scraping across the cobbles. It was inclining slightly to its right, away from us and towards the church, carrying away more of the corner house, unaffected by the plaster, bricks, and beams that fell on it and slithered down its sides.
More shots smacked against it or ricochetted away whining, but it kept steadily on, thrusting itself into the Square at something under three miles an hour, massively undeflectible. Soon we were able to see the whole of it.
Imagine an elongated egg which has been halved down its length and set flat side to the ground, with the pointed end foremost. Consider this egg to be between thirty and thirty-five feet long, of a drab, lustreless leaden colour, and you will have a fair picture of the ‘sea-tank’ as we saw it pushing into the Square.
There was no way of seeing how it was propelled; there may have been rollers beneath, but it seemed, and sounded, simply to grate forward on its metal belly with plenty of noise, but none of machinery. It did not jerk to turn, as a tank does, but neither did it sheer like a car. It simply moved to the right on a diagonal, still pointing forwards. Close behind it followed another, exactly similar contrivance which slanted its way to the left, in our direction, wrecking the housefront on the nearer corner of the street as it came. A third kept straight ahead into the middle of the Square, and then stopped.
At the far end, the crowd that had knelt about the priest scrambled to its feet, and fled. The priest himself stood his ground. He barred the thing’s way. His right hand held a cross extended against it, his left was raised, fingers spread, and palm outward, to halt it. The thing moved on, neither faster nor slower, as if he had not been there. Its curved flank pushed him aside a little as it came. Then it, too, stopped.
A few seconds later the one up our end of the Square reached what was apparently its appointed position and also stopped.
‘Troops will establish themselves at first objective in extended order,’ said to Phyllis, as we regarded the three evenly spaced out in the Square. ‘This isn’t haphazard. Now what?’
For almost half a minute it did not appear to be now anything. There was a little more sporadic shooting, some of it from windows which, all round the Square, were full of people hanging out to see what went on. None of it had any effect on the targets, and there was some danger from ricochets.
‘Look!’ said Phyllis suddenly. ‘This one’s bulging.’
She was pointing at the nearest. The previously smooth fore-and-aft sweep of its top was now disfigured at the highest point by a small, dome-like excrescence. It was lighter-coloured than the metal beneath; a kind of off-white, semi-opaque substance which glittered viscously under the floods. It grew as one watched it.
‘They’re all doing it,’ she added.
There was a single shot. The excrescence quivered, but went on swelling. It was growing faster now. It was no longer domeshaped, but spherical, attached to the metal by a neck, inflating like a balloon, and swaying slightly as it distended.
‘It’s going to pop. I’m sure it is,’ Phyllis said, apprehensively.
‘There’s another coming further down its back,’ I said. ‘Two more, look.’
The first excrescence did not pop. It was already some two foot six in diameter and still swelling fast.
‘It must pop soon,’ she muttered.
But still it did not. It kept on expanding until it must have been all of five feet in diamet
In a lurching, amoebic way it ascended for ten feet or so. There it vacillated, steadying into a more stable sphere. Then, suddenly, something happened to it. It did not exactly explode. Nor was there any sound. Rather, it seemed to split open, as if it had been burst into instantaneous bloom by a vast number of white cilia which rayed out in all directions.
The instinctive reaction was to jump back from the window away from it. We did.
Four or five of the cilia, like long white whiplashes, flicked in through the window, and dropped to the floor. Almost as they touched it they began to contract and withdraw. Phyllis gave a sharp cry. I looked round at her. Not all of the long cilia had fallen on the floor. One of them had flipped the last six inches of its length on to her right forearm. It was already contracting, pulling her arm towards the window. She pulled back. With her other hand she tried to pick the thing off, but her fingers stuck to it as soon as they touched it.
‘Mike!’ she cried. ‘Mike!’
The thing was tugging hard, looking tight as a bow-string. She had already been dragged a couple of steps towards the window before I could get after her in a kind of diving tackle. The force of my jump carried her across to the other side of the room. It did not break the thing’s hold, but it did move it over so that it no longer had a direct pull through the window, and was forced to drag round a sharp corner. And drag it did. Lying on the floor now, I got the crook of my knee round a bed-leg for better purchase, and hung on for all I was worth. To move Phyllis then it would have had to drag me and the bedstead, too. For a moment I thought it might. Then Phyllis screamed, and suddenly there was no more tension.
I rolled her to one side, out of line of anything else that might come in through the window. She was in a faint. A patch of skin six inches long had been torn clean away from her right forearm, and more had gone from the fingers of her left hand. The exposed flesh was just beginning to bleed.
Outside in the Square there was a pandemonium of shouting and screaming. I risked putting my head round the side of the window. The thing that had burst was no longer in the air. It was now a round body no more than a couple of feet in diameter surrounded by a radiation of cilia. It was drawing these back into itself with whatever they had caught, and the tension was keeping it a little off the ground. Some of the people it was pulling in were shouting and struggling, others were like inert bundles of clothes.
I saw poor Muriel Flynn among them. She was lying on her back, dragged across the cobbles by a tentacle caught in her red hair. She had been badly hurt by the fall when she was pulled out of her window, and was crying out with terror, too. Leslie dragged almost alongside her, but it looked as if the fall had mercifully broken his neck.
Over on the far side I saw a man rush forward and try to pull a screaming woman away, but when he touched the cilium that held her his hand became fastened to it, too, and they were dragged along together.
As the circle contracted, the white cilia came closer to one another. The struggling people inevitably touched more of them and became more helplessly enmeshed than before. They struggled like flies on a fly-paper. There was a relentless deliberation about it which made it seem horribly as though one watched through the eye of a slow-motion camera.
Then I noticed that another of the misshapen bubbles had wobbled into the air, and drew back hurriedly before it should burst.
Three more cilia whipped in through the window, lay for a moment like white cords on the floor, and then began to draw back. When they had vanished across the sill I leaned over to look out of the window again. In several places about the Square there were converging knots of people struggling helplessly. The first and nearest had contracted until its victims were bound together into a tight ball out of which a few arms and legs still flailed wildly. Then, as I watched, the whole compact mass tilted over and began to roll away across the Square towards the street by which the sea-tanks had come.
The machines, or whatever the things were, still lay where they had stopped, looking like huge grey slugs, each engaged in producing several of its disgusting bubbles at different stages.
I dodged back as another was cast off, but this time nothing happened to find our window. I risked leaning out for a moment to pull the casement windows shut, and got them closed just in time. Three or four more lashes smacked against the glass with such force that one of the panes was cracked.
Then I was able to attend to Phyllis. I lifted her on to the bed, and tore a strip off the sheet to bind up her arm.
Outside, the screaming and shouting and uproar was still going on, and among it the sound of a few shots.
When I had bandaged the arm I looked out again. Half a dozen objects, looking now like tight round bales, were rolling over and over on their way to the street that led to the waterfront. I turned back again and tore another strip off the sheet to put round Phyllis’s left hand.
While I was doing it I heard a different sound above the hubbub outside. I dropped the cotton strip, and ran back to the window in time to get a glimpse of a plane coming in low. The cannon in the wings started to twinkle, and I threw myself back, out of harm’s way. There was a dull woomph! of an explosion. Simultaneously the windows blew in, the light went out, bits of something whizzed past, and something else splattered all over the room.
I picked myself up. The outdoor lights down our end of the Square had gone out, too, so that it was difficult to make out much there, but up the other end I could see that one of the sea-tanks had begun to move. It was sliding back by the way it had come. Then I heard the sound of the aircraft returning, and went down on the floor again.
There was another woomph! but this time we did not catch the force of it, though there was a clatter of things falling outside.
‘Mike?’ said a voice from the bed, a frightened voice.
‘It’s all right, darling. I’m here,’ I told her.
The moon was still bright, and I was able to see better now.
‘What’s happened?’ she asked.
‘They’ve gone. Johnny got them with the plane – at least, I suppose it was Johnny,’ I said. ‘It’s all right now.’
‘Mike, my arms do hurt.’
‘I’ll get a doctor as soon as I can, darling.’
‘What was it? It had got me, Mike. If you hadn’t held on – ’
‘It’s all over now, darling.’
‘I – ’ She broke off at the sound of the plane coming back once more. We listened. The cannon were firing again, but this time there was no explosion.
‘Mike, there’s something sticky – is it blood? You’re not hurt?’
‘No, darling. I don’t know what it is, it’s all over everything.’
‘You’re shaking, Mike.’
‘Sorry. I can’t help it. Oh, Phyl, darling Phyl… So nearly… If you’d seen them – Muriel and the rest… It might have been…’
‘There, there,’ she said, as if I were aged about six. ‘Don’t cry, Micky. It’s over now.’ She moved. ‘Oh, Mike, my arm does hurt.’
‘Lie still, darling. I’ll get that doctor,’ I told her.
I went for the locked door with a chair, and relieved my feelings on it quite a lot.
It was a subdued remnant of the expedition that foregathered the following morning – Bocker, Ted Jarvey, and ourselves. Johnny had taken off earlier with the films and recordings, including an eye-witness account I had added later, and was on his way to Kingston with them.
Phyllis’s right arm and left hand were swathed in bandages. She looked pale, but had resisted all persuasions to stay in bed. Bocker’s eyes had entirely lost their customary twinkle. His wayward lock of grey hair hung forward over a face which looked more lined and older than it had on the previous evening. He limped a little, and put some of his weight on a stick. T
‘If you can manage it, sir,’ he said. ‘I think our first move ought to be to get out of this stink.’
‘By all means,’ Bocker agreed. ‘A few twinges are nothing compared with this. The sooner, the better,’ he added, and got up to lead the way to windward.
The cobbles of the Square, the litter of metal fragments that lay about it, the houses all round, the church, everything in sight glistened with a coating of slime, and there was more of it that one did not see, splashed into almost every room that fronted on the Square. The previous night it had been simply a strongly fishy, salty smell, but with the warmth of the sun at work upon it it had begun to give off an odour that was already fetid and rapidly becoming miasmic. Even a hundred yards made a great deal of difference, another hundred, and we were clear of it, among the palms which fringed the beach on the opposite side of the town from the harbour. Seldom had I known the freshness of a light breeze to smell so good.
Bocker sat down, and leant his back against a tree. The rest of us disposed ourselves and waited for him to speak first. For a long time he did not. He sat motionless, looking blindly out to sea. Then he sighed.
‘Alfred,’ he said, ‘Bill, Muriel, Leslie. I brought you all here. I have shown very little imagination and consideration for your safety, I’m afraid.’
Phyllis leaned forward.
‘You mustn’t think like that, Dr Bocker. None of us bad to come, you know. You offered us the chance to come, and we took it. If – if the same thing had happened to me I don’t think Michael would have felt that you were to blame, would you, Mike?’
‘No,’ I said. I knew perfectly well whom I should have blamed – for ever, and without reprieve.
‘And I shouldn’t, and I’m sure the others would feel the same way,’ she added, putting her uninjured right hand on his sleeve.
He looked down at it, blinking a little. He closed his eyes for a moment. Then he opened them, and laid his hand on hers. His gaze strayed beyond her wrist to the bandages above.
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