The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham
‘Now, Mr Watson, did you receive any impressions that would support such a view?’
I shook my head. ‘Right out of my field, sir. Surely the report on the specimen ought to help there?’
‘I have a copy of that – all jargon to me, but our advisers tell me that everything in it is so qualified and cautious as to be practically useless – except in so far as it shows that it is strange enough to baffle the experts.’
‘Perhaps I’m being stupid,’ Phyllis put in, ‘but does it really matter a lot? From a practical point of view, I mean? The things have to be tackled the same way whether they are really living or pseudo-living, surely?’
‘That’s true enough,’ the Admiral agreed. ‘All the same, a speculation of that kind, if unsupported, has the effect of putting the whole report in a dubious light.’
We went on talking for a while, but little more of importance emerged, and shortly afterwards we were ushered from the presence.
‘Oh – oh – oh!’ said Phyllis painedly, as we got outside. ‘I’ve a good mind to go straignt round and shake Dr Bocker. He promised me he wouldn’t say anything yet about that “pseudo” – business. He’s just a kind of natural-born enfant terrible, it’d do him good to be shaken. Just wait till I get him alone.’
‘It does weaken his whole case,’ Captain Winters agreed.
‘Weaken it! Somebody is going to hand this to the newspapers. They play it up hard as another Bockerism, the whole thing will become just a stunt – and that will put all the sensible people against whatever he says. And just as he was beginning to live some of the other things down, tool Oh, let’s go and have dinner before I get out of hand.’
A bad week followed. Those papers that had already adopted The Beholder’s scornful attitude to coastal preparations pounced upon the pseudo-biotic suggestions with glee. Writers of editorials filled their pens with sarcasm, a squad of scientists who had trounced Bocker before was now marched out again to grind him still smaller. Almost every cartoonist discovered simultaneously why his favourite political butts had somehow never seemed quite human.
The other part of the Press, already advocating effective coastal defences, let its imagination go on the subject of pseudo-living structures that might yet be created, and demanded still better defence against the horrific possibilities thought up by its staffs.
Then the sponsor informed EBC that his fellow directors considered that their product’s reputation would suffer by being associated with this new wave of notoriety and controversy that had arisen around Dr Bocker, and proposed to cancel arrangements. Departmental Heads in EBC began to tear their hair. Time-salesmen put up the old line about any kind of publicity being good publicity. The sponsor talked about dignity, and also the risk that purchase of the product might be regarded as tacit endorsement of the Bocker theory, which, he feared, might have the effect of promoting sales-resistance in the upper income brackets. EBC parried with the observation that build-up publicity had already tied the names of Bocker and the product together in the public mind. Nothing would be gained from reining-in in midstream, so the firm ought to go ahead and get the best of its money’s worth.
The sponsor said that his firm had attempted to make a serious contribution to knowledge and public safety by promoting a scientific expedition, not a vulgar stunt. Just the night before, for instance, one of EBC’s own comedians had suggested that pseudo-life might explain a long-standing mystery concerning his mother-in-law, and if this kind of thing was going to be allowed, etc…. etc…. EBC promised that it would not contaminate their air in future, and pointed out that if the series on the expedition were dropped after the promises that had been made, a great many consumers in all income-brackets were likely to feel that the sponsor’s firm was unreliable….
Members of the BBC displayed an infuriatingly courteous sympathy to any members of our staff whom they chanced to meet.
People kept on popping their heads into the room where I was trying to work, and giving me the latest from the front; usually advising me to omit or include this or that aspect according to the way the battle was going at the moment. Through everything ran a nervous realization that the arch-rivals might come out with an eye-witness at any moment and ruin our thunder – the courteousness seemed suspiciously urbane. After a couple of days of the atmosphere there I decided to stay at home and do the work there.
But there was still the telephone bringing suggestions and swift changes of policy. We did our best. We wrote and rewrote, trying to satisfy all parties. Two or three hurried conferences with Bocker himself were explosive. He spent most of the time threatening to throw the whole thing up because EBC too obviously would not trust him near a live microphone, and was insisting on recordings.
At last, however, the scripts were finished. We were too tired of them to argue any more. When the first of them did get on the air at last, it sounded to us like something misplaced from Mummy’s Angel’s Half-Hour. We packed hurriedly and departed blasphemously for the peace and seclusion of Cornwall.
The first noticeable thing as we approached Rose Cottage, 268.6 miles this time, was an innovation.
‘Good heavens!’ I said. ‘We’ve got a perfectly good one indoors. If I am expected to come and sit out in a draught there just because a lot of your compost-minded friends – ’
‘That,’ Phyllis told me, coldly, ‘is an arbour.’
I looked at it more carefully. The architecture was unusual. One wall gave an impression of leaning a little.
‘Why do we want an arbour?’ I inquired.
‘Well, one of us might like to work there on a warm day. It keeps the wind off, and stops papers blowing about.’
‘Oh,’ I said.
With a defensive note, she added:
‘After all, when one is bricklaying one has to build something.’
Logical enough, I supposed, but there was a haunting feeling that it did not start from quite the right premiss. I assured her that as arbours went, it was a very nice arbour. I had just not been expecting an arbour, that was all.
‘It was not a kind conclusion to jump to,’ she said, huffily.
There are times when I wonder whether the two of us are quite as well en rapport as I like to hope. The use of the word ‘kind’, for instance, in the circumstances…. But I was able to assure her that I thought it very clever of her: and I did; I don’t suppose I myself could have got one brick to stick to another.
It was a relief to be back. Hard to believe that such a place as Escondida existed at all. Still harder to believe in sea-tanks and giant coelenterates, pseudo or not. Yet, somehow, I did not find myself able to relax as I had hoped.
On the first morning Phyllis dug out the fragments of the frequently neglected novel and took them off, with a faintly defiant air, to the arbour. I pottered about, wondering why the sense of peace wasn’t seeping in upon me quite as I had hoped. The Cornish sea still lapped immemorially at the rocks. It could thunder, it could menace, it could wreck good ships when it had a mind to; but these were old, natural hazards. They made places like Escondida seem frivolous, even in conception; such places belonged to a different world, one where it was not altogether surprising that freakish things should happen. But Cornwall was not frivolous. It was real and solid. The centuries passed over it unsensationally. The waves gnawed steadily at it, but slowly. When the sea killed its inhabitants it was because they had challenged it: not because it challenged them. It was hard indeed to imagine our home sea spawning such morbid novelties as had slid up the Caribbean beaches of Escondida. Bocker seemed, in recollection, like an impish sprite who had had a power of hallucination. Out of his range, the world was a more sober, better-ordered place. At least, so it appeared for the moment, though the extent to which it was not was increasingly borne in upon me during the next few days as I emerged from our particular concern to take a more general look at it.
The national air-lift was working now, though on a severe schedule of primary necessities. It had b
The petrels of Muscovy, finding the climate bracing, declared through their accustomed London mouthpiece, and disseminated by all the usual channels, their view that the shipping crisis was largely a put-up job. The West, they declared, had seized upon and magnified a few maritime inconveniences as an excuse to carry out a vastly enlarged programme of air-power.
With trade restricted to essentials, half a dozen financial conferences were in almost permanent session. Ill-feeling and tempers were rising here and there where a disposition to make the delivery of necessities conditional on the acceptance of a proportion of luxuries was perceptible. There was undoubtedly some hard bargaining going on, and there would, equally without doubt, be some far-sighted concessions that the public would only learn about later on.
A few ships could still be found in which crews, at fortune-making wages, would dare the deep water, but the insurance rate pushed cargo prices up to a level at which only the direst need would pay, so that they were largely voyages of bravado.
Somebody somewhere had perceived in an enlightened moment that every vessel lost had been power-driven, and a ramp in sailing craft of every size and type had gone into operation all round the world. There was a proposal to mass-produce clipper ships, but little disposition to believe that the emergency would last long enough to warrant the investment.
In the backrooms of all maritime countries the boys were still hard at work. Every week saw new devices being tried out, some with enough success for them to be put into production – though only to be taken out of production again when it was shown that they had been rendered unreliable in some way, if not actually countered. Nevertheless, it was being recognized by a scientifically-minded age that even magicians may have sticky relays sometimes. That the boffins would come through with the complete answer one day was not to be doubted – and, always, it might be to-morrow.
From what I had been hearing, the general faith in boffins was now somewhat greater than the boffins’ faith in themselves. Their shortcomings as saviours were beginning to oppress them. Their chief difficulty was not so much infertility of invention as lack of information. They badly needed more data, and could not get them. One of them had remarked to me: ‘If you were going to make a ghost-trap, how would you set about it? – particularly if you had not even a small ghost to practise on.’ They had become ready to grasp at any straw – which may have been the reason why it was only among a section of the boffins that Bocker’s theory of pseudo-biotic forms received any serious consideration.
As for the sea-tanks, the more lively papers were having a great time with them, so were the news-reels. Selected parts of the Escondida films were included in our scripted accounts on EBC. A small footage was courteously presented to the BBC for use in its news-reel, with appropriate acknowledgement. In fact, the tendency to play the things up to an extent which was creating alarm puzzled me until I discovered that in certain quarters almost anything which diverted attention from the troubles at home was considered worthy of encouragement. Sea-tanks were particularly suitable for this purpose; their sensation value was high, and unattended by those embarrassments which sometimes result from the policy of directing restive attention abroad.
Their depredations, however, were becoming increasingly serious. In the short time since we had left Escondida raids had been reported from ten or eleven places in the Caribbean area, including a township on Puerto Rico. A little further afield, only rapid action by Bermudan-based American aircraft had scotched an attack there. But this was small-scale stuff compared with what was happening on the other side of the world. Accounts, apparently reliable, spoke of a series of attacks on the east coasts of Japan. Raids by a dozen or more sea-tanks had taken place on Hokkaido and Honshu. Reports from further south, in the Banda Sea area, were more confused, but obviously related to a considerable number of raids upon various scales. Mindanao capped the lot by announcing that four or five of its eastern coastal towns had been raided simultaneously, an operation which must have employed at least sixty sea-tanks.
For the inhabitants of Indonesia and the Philippines, scattered upon innumerable islands set in deep seas, the outlook was very different from that which faced the British, sitting high on their Continental shelf with a shallow North Sea, showing no signs of abnormality, at their backs. Among the Islands, reports and rumours skipped like a running fire until each day there were more thousands of people forsaking the coasts and fleeing inland in panic. A similar trend, though not yet on the panic scale, was apparent in the West Indies.
Catching up on the news, the gravity of it came home to me more strongly. I began to feel that I had been taking it all rather as the readers of the more irresponsible papers were still taking it. I started to see a far larger pattern than I had ever imagined. The reports argued the existence of hundreds, perhaps thousands of these sea-tanks – numbers that indicated not simply a few raids, but a campaign.
‘They must provide defences, or else give the people the means to defend themselves,’ I said. ‘You can’t preserve your economy in a place where everybody is scared stiff to go near the seaboard. You must somehow make it possible for people to work and live there.’
‘Nobody knows where they will come next, and you have to act quickly when they do,’ said Phyllis. ‘That would mean letting people have arms.’
‘Well, then, they should give them arms. Damn it, it isn’t a function of the State to deprive its people of the means of self-protection.’
‘Isn’t it?’ said Phyllis, reflectively.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Doesn’t it sometimes strike you as odd that all our governments who loudly claim to rule by the will of the people are willing to run almost any risk rather than let their people have arms? Isn’t it almost a principle that a people should not be allowed to defend itself, but should be forced to defend its Government? The only people I know who are trusted by their Government are the Swiss, and being landlocked they don’t come into this.’
I was puzzled. The response was off her usual key. She was looking tired, too.
‘What’s wrong, Phyl?’
She shrugged. ‘Nothing, except that at times I get sick of putting up with all the shams and the humbug, and pretending that the lies aren’t lies, and the propaganda isn’t propaganda, and the dirt isn’t dirt. I’ll get over it again…. Don’t you sometimes wish that you had been born into the Age of Reason, instead of into the Age of the Ostensible Reason? I think that they are going to let thousands of people be killed by these horrible things rather than risk giving them powerful enough weapons to defend themselves. And they’ll have rows of arguments why it is best so. What do a few thousands, or a few millions of people matter? Women will just go on making the loss good. But Governments are important – one mustn’t risk them.’
‘But, Phyl, darling – ’
‘I know what you are going to say, Mike, but I am scared. Nobody’s really doing anything. There’s no realization, no genuine attempt to change the pattern to meet it. The ships are driven off the deep seas; goodness knows how many of these sea-tank things are ready to come and snatch people away. They say: “Dear, dear! Such a loss of trade,” and they talk and talk and talk as if it’ll all come right in the end if only they can keep on talking long enough. When anybody like Bocker suggests doing something he’s just howled down and called a sensationalist, or an alarmist. How many people do they regard as the proper wastage before they must do anything?’
‘But they are trying, you know, Phyl – ’
‘Are they? I think they’re balancing things all the time. What is the minimum cost at which the political set-up can be preserved in present conditions? How much loss of life will the people put up with before they become dangerous about it? Would it be wise or unwise to declare martial law, and at what stage? On and on, instead of admitting the danger and getting to work. Oh, I could – ’ She stopped suddenly. Her expression changed. ‘Sorry, Mike. I shouldn’t have gone off the handle like that. I must be tired, or something.’ And she took herself off with a decisive air of not wanting to be followed.
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