The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham

  ‘You’re very good to me, my dear,’ he said.

  He patted the hand, and then sat straight, pulling himself together. Presently, in a different tone:

  ‘We have some results,’ he said. ‘Not, perhaps, as conclusive as we had hoped, but some tangible evidence at least. Thanks to Ted the people at home will now be able to see what we are up against, and thanks to him, too, we have the first specimen.’

  ‘Specimen?’ repeated Phyllis. ‘What of?’

  ‘A bit of one of those tentacle things,’ Ted told her.

  ‘How on earth?’

  ‘Luck, really. You see, when the first one burst nothing came in at my particular window, but I could see what was happening in other places, so I opened my knife and put it handy on the sill, just in case. When one did come in with the next shower it fell across my shoulder, and I caught up the knife and slashed it just as it began to pull. There was about eighteen inches of it left behind. It just dropped off on to the floor, wriggled a couple of times, and then curled up. We posted it off with Johnny.’

  ‘Ugh!’ said Phyllis.

  ‘In future,’ I said, ‘we, too, will carry knives.’

  ‘Make sure they’re sharp. It’s mighty tough stuff,’ Ted advised.

  ‘If you can find another bit of one I’d like to have it for examination,’ said Bocker. ‘We decided that one had better go off to the experts. There’s something very peculiar inded about those things. The fundamental is obvious enough, it goes back to some type of sea-anemone – but whether the things have been bred, or whether they have in some way been built-up on the basic pattern – ?’ He shrugged without finishing the question. ‘I find several points extremely disturbing. For instance, how are they made to clutch the animate even when it is clothed, and not attach themselves to the inanimate? Also, how is it possible that they can be directed on the route back to the water instead of simply trying to reach it the nearest way?

  ‘The first of those questions is the more significant. It implies specialized purpose. The things are used, you see, but not like weapons in the ordinary sense, not just to destroy, that is. They are more like snares.’

  We thought that over for a moment.

  ‘You mean,’ said Phyllis, ‘the purpose was to catch and collect people, like – well, as if they were sort of – shrimping for us?’

  ‘Something of the kind. Clearly the primary intention was capture – though whether as a means to something, or as an end in itself, one cannot say, of course.’

  We digested that thought. I could have wished that Phyllis had dropped on some analogy other than shrimping. Presently Bocker went on:

  ‘Ordinary rifle-fire doesn’t appear to trouble either the “sea-tanks” or these millibrachiate things – unless there are vulnerable spots that were not found. Explosive cannon-shells can, however, fracture the covering. The manner in which it then disintegrates suggests that it is already under very strong stress, and not very far from breaking-point. We may deduce from that that in the April Island affair there was either a lucky shot, or a grenade was used. What we saw last night certainly explains the natives’ talk of whales and jellyfish. These “sea-tanks” might easily, at a distance, be taken for whales. And regarding the “jellyfish” they weren’t so far out – the things must almost without doubt be closely related to the coelenterates.

  ‘As to the “sea-tanks” the contents seem to have been simply gelatinous masses confined under immense pressure – but it is hard to credit that this can really be so. Apart from any other consideration it would seem that there must be a mechanism of some kind to propel those immensely heavy hulls. I went to look at their trails this morning. Some of the cobblestones have been ground down and some cracked into flakes by the weight, but I couldn’t find any track-marks, or anything to show that the things dragged themselves along by grabs as I thought might be the case. I think we are stumped there for the present.

  ‘Intelligence of a kind there undoubtedly is, though it appears not to be very high, or else not very well co-ordinated. All the same, it was good enough to lead them from the waterfront to the Square which was the best place for them to operate.’

  ‘I’ve seen army tanks carry away house-corners in much the same way as they did,’ I observed.

  ‘That is one possible indication of poor co-ordination,’ Bocker replied, somewhat crushingly. ‘Now have we any observations to add to those I have made?’ He looked round inquiringly.

  Ted said, hesitantly:

  ‘Well, I did have the impression that these jellyfish things were not all quite the same type. The later ones had a rather shorter range, and they didn’t contract so quickly, either. One on the other side of the Square lay there for quite twenty seconds with the tentacles curling and twisting about before it started to pull in at all.’

  Bocker turned to him.

  ‘You’re suggesting that the cilia were actually searching?’

  ‘I’d not go as far as that. But, anyway, I got a picture of it on the hand-camera, so we’ll be able to study it.’

  ‘Yes. It’s to be hoped we shall get quite a lot from those films. Anything else? Did anyone notice whether the shots appeared to have any effect at all on these tentacular forms?’

  ‘As far as I could see, either the shooting was rotten, or the bullets went through without bothering them,’ Ted told him.

  ‘H’m,’ said Bocker, and lapsed into reflection for a while.

  Presently I became aware of Phyllis muttering.

  ‘What?’ I inquired.

  ‘I was just saying “millibrachiate tentacular coelenterates”,’ she explained.

  ‘Oh,’ I said.

  ‘The recorder kept on going to the end,’ Ted observed to me, ‘but I don’t know that we shall get a lot from that. It’s a pity we didn’t have more of a plan. We ought to have had a mike fixed for you to give a running commentary.’

  ‘I’m sure that’s what EBC will say, too,’ I agreed, ‘but as it happened I was rather busy at the time. What I want to do now is to make a rather fuller and less hurried recording than this morning’s version, but I’m damned if I can face Smithtown yet. Never under heaven was there such a concentrated pong.’

  We continued to sit where we were, each of us mostly occupied with his own thoughts. It was quite a long time later that Bocker said reflectively:

  ‘You know, I think that if I believed in God I should now be a very frightened man. Luckily, however, I am rather old-fashioned, so I don’t, thank God.’

  Phyllis’s eyebrows rose.

  ‘Why?’ she said. ‘I mean, why would you be frightened?’

  ‘Because I should be a superstitious man – and superstitious men are always frightened when they are out of their depth with something new. I should be tempted to think that God proposed to teach me a lesson. That He was saying: “H’m. You think you’re so clever. Little gods yourselves with all your atom-splitting and microbe-conquering. You think you rule the world, and possibly heaven, too. Very well, you conceited little mites, there’s a lot about life and nature that you don’t know. I’ll just show you one or two new things and see how your conceit stands up to them. I have had to do it before.”’

  ‘However, as you don’t believe that–?’ prompted Phyllis.

  ‘I don’t know. There have been lords of the earth before us. Some of them in a sounder position, too. There was a great variety of dinosaur types – which should have given them a broad chance of survival. All the human eggs, on the other hand, are pretty nearly in one basket.’

  Nobody made any further comment. The four of us continued to sit on, looking out across a blandly innocent azure sea.…

  Among the other papers I bought at London Airport was the current number of The Beholder. Though it is, I am aware, not without its merits and even well thought of in some circles, it leaves me with an abiding sense that it is more given to expressing its first prejudices than its second thoughts. Perhaps if it were to go to press a day later… However, t
he discovery in this issue of a leader entitled DOCTOR BOCKER RIDES AGAIN, did nothing to alter my impression. The text ran something after this fashion:

  ‘Neither the courage of Dr Alastair Bocker in going forth to meet a submarine dragon, nor his perspicacity in correctly deducing where the monster might be met, can be questioned. The gruesome and fantastically repulsive scenes to which the EBC treated us in our homes last Tuesday evening make it more to be wondered at that any of the party should have survived than that four of its members should have lost their lives. Dr Bocker himself is to be congratulated on his escape at the cost merely of a sprained ankle when his sock and shoe were wrenched off, and another member of the party on her even narrower escape.

  ‘Nevertheless, horrible though this affair was, and valuable as some of the Doctor’s observations may prove in suggesting counter-measures, it would be a mistake for him to assume that he has now been granted an unlimited licence to readopt his former role as the world’s premier Fat Boy.

  ‘We are alarmed, reasonably alarmed, at the damaging blows that attacks from beneath the sea have dealt to world trade, but we are confident that scientific research will before long find a means to restore to us the freedom of the seas. We are also distressed by the calamities that have fallen upon the inhabitants of certain islands, and we protest a disgust at its form which increases our sympathy for those who have experienced it. We do not, however, have any intention of responding to Dr Bocker’s latest attempt to set our editorial flesh creeping; neither, we imagine, have our readers; nor, we hope, have any of the more thoughtful part of the population of this long-suffering island.

  ‘It is our inclination to attribute his suggestion that we should proceed forthwith to embattle virtually the entire western coastline of the United Kingdom to the effect of recent unnerving experiences upon a temperament which has never shunned the sensational, rather than to the conclusions of mature consideration.

  ‘Let us consider the cause of this panic-stricken recommendation. It is this: a number of small islands, all but one of them lying within the tropics, have been raided by some marine agency of which we as yet know little. In the course of these raids some hundreds of people – to an estimated total no larger than that of the number of persons injured on the roads in a few days – have lost their lives. This is unfortunate and regrettable, but scarcely grounds for the suggestion that we, thousands of miles from the nearest incident of the kind, should, at the taxpayer’s expense, proceed to beset our whole shoreline with weapons and guards. This is a line of argument which would have us erect shockproof buildings in London on account of an earthquake in Tokio….’

  And so on. There wasn’t a lot left of poor Bocker by the time they had finished with him. I did not show it to him. He would find out soon enough, for The Beholder’s readership had no use for the unique approach: it liked the popular view, bespokenly tailored.

  Presently the helicopter set us down at the terminus, and Phyllis and I slipped away while pressmen converged on Bocker.

  Dr Bocker out of sight, however, was by no means Dr Bocker out of mind. The major part of the Press had divided into pro – and anti – camps, and, within a few minutes of our getting back to the flat, representatives of both sides began ringing us up to put leading questions to their own advantage. After about five of these I seized on an interval to ring the EBC and tell them that as we were about to remove our receiver for a while they would probably suffer, and would they please keep a record of callers. They did. Next morning there was quite a list. Among those anxious to talk to us I noticed the name of Captain Winters, with the Admiralty number against it.

  ‘Here’s one that ought to have priority, I think,’ I suggested. ‘Would you like to deal with it?’

  ‘Oh, dear! Can’t I just be an invalid?’ asked Phyllis. ‘I really don’t – ’ then she saw where my finger was pointing. ‘Oh, I see – well the Navy’s a bit different, of course.’

  She reported a little later:

  ‘One of the Lordships wants to see us, and Captain Winters would be delighted if he may have the privilege of rewarding and reviving us with dinner afterwards. I said he should.’

  ‘All right,’ I agreed, and then took myself off to face a thirsty day of discussing and planning at EBC.

  The Admiral, when we reached him, turned out to be a great deal more human and less awe-inspiring than his further approaches suggested. His greeting to Phyllis was, indeed, little short of avuncular. He asked concernedly after her injuries, and congratulated her upon her escape in a most protective manner. Then we all sat down. He glanced at a paper on his desk.

  ‘Er – we have of course had Dr Bocker’s report on the Escondida affair. It raises a large number of controversial points. In fact, he shows, if I may say so without offence, a generosity of hypothesis which appears to exceed the warrants of the observed facts to a degree quite remarkable in a scientist. I thought that a little talk with others who were present at the incident might – er – help to clarify the picture for us.’

  I assured him that I understood the position well.

  ‘All day long,’ I told him, ‘there has been a battle raging at EBC between the sponsor who backed the expedition, a government representative, EBC’s Policy Panel, EBC’s Audio-Assessment Department, the Director of Talks and Features, and several other people, about what Dr Bocker shall and shall not be allowed to say over the air. It’s been heated, but a bit academic because Dr Bocker himself wasn’t there and will certainly fight any amendments to his scripts that anybody tries to make, whatever they are.’

  ‘There can be very little doubt of that, I think,’ agreed the Admiral. He looked down at his paper again. ‘Now he says here that these “sea-tank” things and the exuded objects which it pleases him to call “pseudo-coelenterata” are unaffected by rifle-fire, but that the “sea-tanks” completely disintegrate when hit by explosive cannon shell. You support that?’

  ‘They explode – almost as thoroughly as a broken light-bulb implodes,’ I told him.

  ‘Leaving no identifiable fragments?’

  ‘A lot of metal splinters and pieces which might have been anything. That’s all.’

  ‘Except the slime?’

  ‘Yes. Except that, of course.’

  Phyllis wrinkled her nose at the recollection of it.

  ‘By the afternoon the sun had baked that dry, and it was like a hard varnish over everything,’ she told him.

  He nodded. ‘Now these “pseudo-coelenterata” things. I’ll read you what he says about them.’ He did so, ending: ‘Would you call that a fair description? Is there anything you would add?’

  ‘No. It’s accurate to my memory,’ I said.

  ‘I didn’t see much, but the first part’s accurate,’ Phyllis agreed.

  ‘Now would you say that both these forms were sentient?’ he asked.

  I frowned. ‘That’s a very difficult one, sir. In the most elementary sense of the word they both were – that is, they responded to certain external stimuli, and very strongly. But if you are meaning, did they show any degree of intelligence? – well, I simply can’t tell you. There was intelligent direction of both forms undoubtedly. The sea-tanks followed an intelligent route into the Square, and disposed themselves advantageously when they got there. The other things took the same route back to the water when the straight line was obstructed by houses. But it would not be very difficult to make remote-control mechanisms that would obey directions of that kind.’

  ‘Then you are aware of Dr Bocker’s theory that these forms were, in fact, agents only; that is that the controlling mind was elsewhere and directed them by some means of communication at present unknown to us? What is your opinion on that?’

  ‘Not very definite, sir. But I think Dr Bocker’s theory is tenable. If you don’t mind an analogy, the whole operation struck one as having more the style of trawling than of harpooning. My wife places it somewhat lower than that; she said “shrimping”.’

  ‘An undisc
riminating instrument rather than a precise one?’ ‘Exactly, sir. It discriminated no further than to select the animate from the inanimate.’

  ‘H’m,’ said the Admiral. ‘And neither of you has formed any idea how these sea-tanks may be propelled?’

  We shook our heads. He looked down at his paper again for a moment.

  ‘Very rarely, in my experience of him,’ he observed, ‘has Dr Bocker failed to equip himself with a brand-new cat when approaching pigeons. We now come to it. It is implicit in his use of the term ‘pseudo-coelenterata”.

  ‘If I understand him rightly, he suggests that these coelenterate forms are not only not coelenterates, but not animals, and probably not, in the accepted sense, living creatures at all.’

  He raised questioning eyebrows. I nodded.

  ‘It is his opinion that they may well be artificial organic constructions, built for a specialized purpose. He – let me see now, how does he put it? – ah, yes: “It is far from inconceivable that organic tissues might be constructed in a manner analogous to that used by chemists to produce plastics of a required molecular structure. If this were done and the resulting artifact rendered sensitive to stimuli administered chemically or physically, it could, temporarily at least, produce a behaviour which would, to an unprepared observer, be scarcely distinguishable from that of a living organism.

  ‘ “My observations lead me to suggest that this is what has been done: the coelenterate form being chosen, out of many others that might have served the purpose, for its simplicity of construction. It seems probable that the sea-tanks may be a variant of the same device. In other words, we were being attacked by organic mechanisms under remote, or predetermined, control. When this is considered in the light of the control which we ourselves are able to exercise over inorganic materials; remotely, as with guided missiles, or predeterminedly, as with torpedoes, it should be less startling than it at first appears. Indeed, it may well be that once the technique of building up a natural form synthetically has been discovered, control of it would present less complex problems than many we have had to solve in our control of the inorganic.”

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