The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham

  The outburst disturbed me badly. I hadn’t seen her in a state anything like that for years. Not since the baby died.

  The next morning didn’t do anything to reassure me. I came round the corner of the cottage and found her sitting in that ridiculous arbour. Her arms lay on the table in front of her, her head rested on them, with her hair straying over the littered pages of the novel. She was weeping forlornly, steadily.

  I raised her chin, and kissed her.

  ‘Darling – darling, what is it – ?’

  She looked back at me with the tears still running down her cheeks. She said, miserably:

  ‘I can’t do it, Mike. It won’t work.’

  She looked mournfully at the written pages. I sat down beside her, and put an arm round her.

  ‘Never mind, Sweet, it’ll come…’

  ‘It won’t, Mike. Every time I try, other thoughts come instead. I’m frightened.’ She gave me a curiously intense look. I tightened my arm.

  ‘There’s nothing to be frightened about, darling.’

  She kept on looking at me closely. ‘You’re not frightened?’ she said, oddly.

  ‘We’re stale,’ I said. ‘We stewed too much over those scripts. Let’s go over to the north coast, it ought to be good for surfboards to-day.’

  She dabbed at her eyes. ‘All right,’ she said, with unusual meekness.

  It was a good day. The wind and the waves and the exercise brought more colour into her cheeks, and neither of us pecked at our lunch. We reached the stage where I felt that I could hopefully suggest that she should see a doctor. Her refusal came pat. She was feeling a whole lot better. Everything would be all right in a day or two.

  We idled the rest of the day away on a leisurely course which brought us back to Rose Cottage about nine-thirty in the evening. While Phyllis went to warm up some coffee, I turned on the radio. With a touch of disloyalty I tried the BBC first and got in on the early lines of a play in which it seemed likely that Gladys Young was going to be a possessive mother, so I turned to the EBC. I found it engaged in putting forth one of those highly monotonous programmes that it unblushingly calls variety. However, I let it run.

  A plugged number finished. Somebody I had never heard of was introduced as my ever-popular old friend, So-and-So. There were a few preliminary runs on a guitar, then a voice began to sing:

  Oh, I’m burning my brains in the backroom,

  Almost setting my cortex alight –

  It was a moment before my surprise registered, then I turned and stared incredulously at the set:

  To find a new thing to go crack-boom!

  And blow up a xenobatbite!

  There was a crash behind me. I turned to see Phyllis in the doorway, the coffee things on the floor at her feet. Her face was puckering, and she sagged. I caught her, and helped her to a chair. The radio was still going:

  … technical journals,

  And now I’m just starting to pray.

  I leaned over and switched it off. They must have got the song somehow from Ted. Phyllis wasn’t crying. She just sat there shaking all over.

  ‘I’ve given her a sedative, so she’ll sleep now. What she must have is a complete rest and a change,’ said the doctor.

  ‘That’s what we’re having,’ I pointed out.

  He regarded me thoughtfully.

  ‘You, too, I think,’ he said.

  ‘I’m all right,’ I told him. ‘I don’t understand this. She had a shock, and she was hurt, but that was right at the beginning of it. After that, she was unconscious. She seemed to get over it quite soon, and she really knows no more of the rest than anyone else who has seen the films. Though, of course, we have been rather steeping in it.’

  He continued to look at me seriously.

  ‘You saw it all,’ he remarked. ‘You dream about it, don’t you?’

  ‘It has given me a few bad nights,’ I admitted.

  He nodded. ‘More than that. You’ve been going over it again and again in your sleep?’ he suggested. ‘Particularly you have been concerned with somebody called Muriel, and with a man who was torn to pieces?’

  ‘Well, yes,’ I agreed. ‘But I haven’t talked to her about it. I’d rather forget it.’

  ‘Some people don’t easily forget things like that. They are apt to break through when one is asleep.’

  ‘You mean I’ve been talking in my sleep?’

  ‘A lot, I gather.’

  ‘I see. You mean that’s why she-?’

  ‘Yes. Now I’m going to give you the address of a friend of mine in Harley Street. I want you both to go up to London to-morrow, and see him the next day. I’ll fix it up for you.’

  ‘Very well,’ I agreed. ‘You know, it wasn’t the thing itself that worried me so much as the pressure of getting the scripts out afterwards. That’s relaxed now.’

  ‘Possibly,’ he said. ‘All the same, I think you should go and see him.’

  There was something wrong, and I knew it. I didn’t admit to the doctor, though I did to the Harley Street man, that it was more often Phyllis than Muriel that I saw being dragged along by her hair, and more often her than an unknown man that I saw being pulled to pieces. As a quid pro quo he told me that Phyllis had been spending most of her nights listening to me and dissuading me from jumping out of the window to interfere in these imaginary happenings.

  So I agreed to go out of circulation for a time.

  Nirvana is for the few; nevertheless, the old manor house in Yorkshire to which my advice led me managed to induce a passable temporary substitute. The first few days without newspapers, without radio, without letters, had a purgatorially fretful quality, but after that came an almost physical sense of taut springs relaxing. As the feeling of urgency receded my values and perspective shifted. Exercise, open air, a complete change of pattern led to a feeling of having changed gear; the engine began to settle down to a more comfortable running-speed. There was a great simplification. One seemed to grow fresher and cleaner within, larger, too, and less pushable-around. There was a new sense of stability. A very comfortable, easy pattern it was; habit-forming, I imagine.

  Certainly, in six weeks I had become addicted and might have continued longer had a twenty-mile thirst not happened to take me into a small pub close upon six o’clock one evening.

  While I was standing at the bar with the second pint the landlord turned on the radio, the arch-rival’s news-bulletin. The very first item shattered the ivory tower that I had been gradually building. The voice said:

  ‘The roll of those missing in the Oviedo-Santander district is still incomplete, and it is thought by the Spanish authorities that it may never be completely definitive. Official spokesmen admit that the estimate of 3,200 casualties, including men, women, and children, is conservative, and may be as much as fifteen or twenty per cent below the actual figure.

  ‘Messages of sympathy from all parts of the world continue to pour into Madrid. Among them are telegrams from San José, Guatemala, from Salvador, from La Serena, Chile, from Bunbury, Western Australia, and from numerous islands in both the East and West Indies which have themselves suffered attacks no less horrible, though smaller in scale, than those inflicted upon the north Spanish coast.

  ‘In the House to-day, the Leader of the Opposition, in giving his party’s support for the feelings of sympathy with the Spanish people expressed by the Prime Minister, pointed out that the casualties in the third of this series of raids, that upon Gijon would have been considerably more severe had the people not taken their defence into their own hands. The people, he said, were entitled to defence. It was a part of the business of government to provide them with it. If a government neglected that duty, no one could blame a people for taking steps for its self-protection.

  ‘It would be much better, however, to be prepared with an organized force. Since time out of mind we had maintained armed forces to deal with threats by other armed forces. Since 1829 we had maintained an efficient police-force to deal with internal threa
ts. But it appeared that we had now become so administratively barren, so inventively infertile, so corporately costive that we were unable to produce the means of giving the dwellers upon our coasts that security to which their membership of this great nation entitled them.

  ‘It seemed to the members of the Opposition that the Government, having failed to fulfil its election pledges, was now about to belie the very name of its party by its reluctance to consider means which would conserve even the lives of its electors. If this were not so, then it would appear that the policy of conservation was being carried to a length which scarcely distinguished it from niggardliness. It was high time that measures were taken to ensure that the fate which had overtaken dwellers upon the littorals, not only in Spain, but in many other parts of the world as well, could not fall upon the people of these islands.

  ‘The Prime Minister, in thanking the Opposition for its expression of sympathy, would assure them that the Government was actively watching the situation. The exact steps that would, if necessary, be taken would have to be dictated by the nature of the emergency, if one should arise. These, he said, were deep waters: there was much consolation to be found in the reflection that the British Isles lay in shallow waters.

  ‘The name of Her Majesty the Queen headed the list of subscribers to the fund opened by the Lord Mayor of London for the relief–’

  The landlord reached over, and switched off the set.

  ‘Cor!’ he remarked, with disgust. ‘Makes yer sick. Always the bloody same. Treat you like a lot of bloody kids. Same during the bloody war. Bloody Home Guards all over the place waiting for bloody parachutists, and all the bloody ammunition all bloody well locked up. Like the Old Man said one time: his bloody-self, “What kind of a bloody people do they think we are?”’

  I offered him a drink, told him I had been away from any news for days, and asked what had been going on. Stripped of its adjectival monotony, and filled out by information I gathered later, it amounted to this:

  In the past weeks the scope of the raids had widened well beyond the tropics. At Bunbury, a hundred miles or so south of Fremantle in Western Australia, a contingent of fifty or more sea-tanks had come ashore and into the town before any alarm was given. A few nights later La Serena, in Chile, was taken similarly by surprise. At the same time in the Central American area the raids had ceased to be confined to islands, and there had been a number of incursions, large and small, upon both the Pacific and Gulf coasts. In the Atlantic, the Cape Verde Islands had been repeatedly raided, and the trouble spread northward to the Canaries and Madeira. There had been a few small-scale assaults, too, on the bulge of the African coast.

  Europe remained an interested spectator. Ex Africa semper aliquid novi may be translated, with a touch of freedom, as: ‘Funny things happen in other places,’ conveying that Europe, in the opinion of its inhabitants, is the customary seat of stability. Hurricanes, tidal waves, serious earthquakes, et cetera, are extravagances divinely directed to occur in the more exotic and less sensible parts of the earth, all important European damage being done traditionally by man himself in periodical frenzies. It was not, therefore, to be seriously expected that the danger would come any closer than Madeira – or, possibly, Rabat or Casablanca.

  Consequently, when, five nights before, the sea-tanks had come crawling through the mud, across the shore, and up the slipways at Santander, they had entered a city that was not only unprepared, but also largely uninformed about them.

  From the moment they were observed opinion split into two parties; roughly the modern and the classical. Someone in the former telephoned the garrison at the cuartel with the news that foreign submarines were invading the harbour in force; someone else followed up with the information that the submarines were landing tanks; yet another somebody contradicted that the submarines themselves were amphibious. Since something was certainly, if obscurely, amiss, the soldiery turned out to investigate.

  Meanwhile, the sea-tanks had entered the streets. It was immediately clear to the more classically-minded citizens that, since the advancing objects were no known form of machine, their origin was likely to be diabolic, and they aroused their priests. The visitants were conjured in Latin to return to their Captain, the Father of Lies, in the Pit whence they had come.

  The sea-tanks had continued their slow advance, driving the exorcising priests before them. The military, on their arrival, had to force their way through throngs of praying townspeople. In each of several streets patrols came to a similar decision: if this were foreign invasion, it was their duty to repel it; if it were diabolical, the same action, even though ineffective, would put them on the side of Right. They opened fire.

  In the comisaría of police a belated and garbled alarm gave the impression that the trouble was due to a revolt by the troops. With this endorsed by the sound of firing in several places, the police went forth to teach the military a lesson.

  After that, the whole thing had become a chaos of sniping, counter-sniping, partisanship, incomprehension, and exorcism, in the middle of which the sea-tanks had settled down to exude their revolting coelenterates. Only when daylight came and the sea-tanks had withdrawn had it been possible to sort out the confusion, by which time over two thousand persons were missing.

  ‘How did there come to be so many? Did they all stay out praying in the streets?’ I asked.

  The innkeeper reckoned from the newspaper accounts that the people had not realized what was happening. They were not highly literate or greatly interested in the outer world, and until the first coelenterate sent out its cilia they had no idea what was going to happen. Then there was panic, the luckier ones ran right away, the others bolted for cover into the nearest houses.

  ‘They ought to have been all right there,’ I said.

  But I was, it seemed, out of date. Since we had seen them in Escondida the sea-tanks had learnt a thing or two; among them, that if the bottom storey of a house is pushed away the rest will come down, and once the coelenterates had cleared up those trampled in the panic, demolition had started. The people inside had had to choose between having the house come down with them, or making a bolt for safety.

  The following night, watchers at several small towns and villages to the west of Santander spotted the half-egg shapes crawling ashore at mid-tide. There was time to arouse most of the inhabitants and get them away. A unit of the Spanish airforce was standing-by, and went into action with flares and cannon. At San Vicente they blew up half a dozen sea-tanks with their first onslaught, and the rest stopped. Several more were destroyed on the second run; the rest started back to the sea. The fighters got the last of them when it was already a few inches submerged. At the other four places where they landed the defence did almost as well. Not more than three or four coelenterates were released at all, and only a dozen or so villagers caught by them. It was estimated that out of fifty or so sea-tanks engaged, not more than four or five could have got safely back to deep water. It was a famous victory, and the wine flowed freely to celebrate it.

  The night after that there were watchers all along the coast ready to give the alarm when the first dark hump should break the water. But all night long the waves rolled steadily on to the beaches with never an alien shape to break them. By morning it was clear that the sea-tanks, or those who sent them, had learnt a painful lesson. The few that had survived were reckoned to be making for parts less alert.

  During the day the wind dropped. In the afternoon a fog came up, by the evening it was thick, and visibility no more than a few yards. It was somewhere about ten-thirty in the evening when the sea-tanks came sliding up from the quietly lapping waters at Gijon, with not a sound to betray them until their metal bellies started to crunch up the stone ramps. The few small boats that were already drawn up there they pushed aside or crushed as they came. It was the cracking of the timbers that brought men out from the waterside posadas to investigate.

  They could make out little in the fog. The first sea-tanks must have sent
coelenterate bubbles wobbling into the air before the men realized what was happening, for presently all was cries, screams, and confusion. The sea-tanks pressed slowly forward through the fog, crunching and scraping into the narrow streets, while, behind them, still more climbed out of the water. On the waterfront there was panic. People running from one tank were as likely to run into another. Without any warning a whip-like cilium would slash out of the fog, find its victim, and begin to contract. A little later there would be a heavy splash as it rolled with its load over the quayside, back into the water.

  Alarm, running back up the town, reached the comisaría. The officer in charge put through the emergency call. He listened then hung up slowly.

  ‘Grounded,’ he said, ‘and wouldn’t be much use even if they could take off.’

  He gave orders to issue rifles and turn out every available man.

  ‘Not that they’ll be much good, but we might be lucky. Aim carefully, and if you do find a vital spot, report at once.’

  He sent the men off with little hope that they could do more than offer a token resistance. Presently he heard sounds of firing. Suddenly there was a boom that rattled the windows, then another. The telephone rang. An excited voice explained that a party of dockworkers was throwing fused sticks of dynamite and gelignite under the advancing sea-tanks. Another boom rattled the windows. The officer thought quickly.

  ‘Very well. Find the leader. Authorize him from me. Put your men on to getting the people clear,’ he directed.

  The sea-tanks were not easily discouraged this time, and it was difficult to sort out claims and reports. Estimates of the number destroyed varied between thirty and seventy; of the numbers engaged, between fifty and a hundred and fifty. Whatever the true figures, the force must have been considerable, and the pressure eased only a couple of hours before dawn.

  When the sun rose to clear the last of the fog it shone upon a town battered in parts, and widely covered with slime, but also upon a citizenry which, in spite of some hundreds of casualties, felt that it had earned battle honours.

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