The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham


  The account, as I had it first from the innkeeper, was brief, but it included the main points, and he concluded it with the observation:

  ‘They reckons as there was well over a bloody ’undred of the damn things done-in them two nights. And then there’s all those that come up in other places, too – there must be bloody thousands of the bastards a-crawlin’ all over the bloody sea-bottom. Time something was bloody done about ’em, I say. But no. “No cause for alarm,” says the bloody Government. Huh, we’ve had a basinful of that before. It’ll go on being no bloody cause for bloody alarm until a few hundred poor devils somewhere ’as got their bloody selves lassoed by flying jellyfish. Then it’ll be all emergency orders and bloody panic. You watch.’

  ‘The Bay of Biscay’s pretty deep,’ I pointed out. ‘A lot deeper than anything we’ve got around here.’

  ‘So what?’ said the innkeeper.

  And when I came to think of it, it was a perfectly good question. The real sources of trouble were without doubt way down in the greater Deeps, and the first surface invasions had all taken place close to the big Deeps. But there were no grounds for assuming that sea-tanks must operate close to a Deep. Indeed, from a purely mechanical point of view, a slowly shelving climb should be easier for them than a steep one – or should it? There was also the point that the deeper they were the less energy they had to expend in shifting their weight…. Again the whole thing boiled down to the fact that we still knew too little about them to make any worthwhile prophecies at all. The innkeeper was as likely to be right as anyone else.

  I told him so, and we drank to the hope that he was not. When I left, the spell had been rudely broken. I stopped in the village to send a telegram, and then went back to the Manor to pack my things, and tell them that I should be leaving the following day.

  To occupy the journey by catching up on the world I bought a selection of daily and weekly newspapers. The urgent topic in most of the dailies was ‘coast preparedness’ – the Left demanding wholesale embattlement of the Atlantic seaboard, the Right rejecting panic-spending on a probable chimera. Beyond that, the outlook had not changed a great deal. The boffins had not yet produced a panacea (though the usual new device was to be tested), the merchant-ships still choked the harbours, the aircraft factories were working three shifts and threatening to strike, the C.P. was pushing a line of Every Plane is a Vote for War.

  Mr Malenkov, interviewed by telegram, had said that although the intensified programme of aircraft construction in the West was no more than a part of a bourgeois-fascist plan by warmongers that could deceive no one, yet so great was the opposition of the Russian people to any thought of war that the production of aircraft within the Soviet Union for the Defence of Peace had been tripled. War was not inevitable.

  Long analyses of this statement by the regular Kremlinologists conveyed the impression that the tripod, as well as a touch of the conversational style, of Delphi, had been transferred to Moscow.

  The first thing I noticed when I let myself into the flat was a number of envelopes on the mat, a telegram, presumably my own, among them. The place immediately felt forlorn.

  In the bedroom were signs of hurried packing, in the kitchen sink, some unwashed crockery. A half-written page in the typewriter in the sitting-room presented some cross-talk; as one of the speakers was called Perpetua, I recognized it for a part of the stand-by novel. I looked in the desk-diary, but the last entry was a week old, and said simply: ‘Lamb chops.’

  The precious notebook was there beside it. I don’t usually look at that: it has a status slightly lower than personal letters, but still private. However, this was an exceptional occasion, and I wanted a clue if there was one, so I opened it. The last two entries read:

  Ever since the phi etymological Mr Nash

  Turned the dictionary into a polysyllabical bit of hash,

  ‘S’no longer the lingo

  The Bard used to sing-oh.

  And:

  Even if I should live a very, very long time

  I still shouldn’t be very likely to find the rhyme

  That Ogden

  Got bogged on.

  More plaintive than constructive, I thought; certainly not instructive. I picked up the telephone.

  It was nice of Freddy Wittier to sound genuinely pleased that I was about again. After the greetings and congratulations:

  ‘Look,’ I said, ‘I’ve been so strictly incomunicado that I seem to have lost my wife. Can you elucidate?’

  ‘Lost your what?’ said Freddy, in a startled tone.

  ‘Wife – Phyllis,’ I explained.

  ‘Oh, I thought you said “life”. Oh, she’s all right. She went off with Bocker a couple of days ago,’ he announced cheerfully.

  ‘That,’ I told him, ‘is not the way to break the news. Just what do you mean by “went off with Bocker”?’

  ‘Spain,’ he said, succinctly. ‘They’re laying bathy-traps there, or something. Matter of fact, we’re expecting a dispatch from her any moment.’

  ‘So she’s pinching my job?’

  ‘Keeping it warm for you – it’s other people that’d like to pinch it. Good thing you’re back.’

  In the subsequent course of the conversation I learnt that Phyllis had stood her rest-cure for just one week, and then showed up again in London.

  The flat was depressing, so I went round to the Club and spent the evening there.

  The telephone jangling by the bedside woke me up. I switched on the light. Five a.m. ‘Hullo,’ I said to the telephone, in a five a.m. voice. It was Freddy. My heart gave a nasty knock inside as I recognized him at that hour.

  ‘Mike?’ he said. ‘Good. Grab your hat and a recorder. There’s a car on the way for you now.’

  My needle was still swinging a bit.

  ‘Car?’ I repeated. ‘It’s not Phyl – ?’

  ‘Phyl – ? Oh, Lord, no. She’s okay. Her call came through about nine o’clock. Transcription gave her your love, on my instructions. Now get cracking, old man. That car’ll be outside your place any minute.’

  ‘But look here. – Anyway, there’s no recorder here. She must have taken it.’

  ‘Hell. I’ll try to get one to the plane in time.’

  ‘Plane – ?’ I said, but the line had gone dead.

  I rolled out of bed, and started to dress. A ring came at the door before I had finished. It was one of EBC’s regular drivers. I asked him what the hell, but all he knew was that there was a special charter job laid on at Northolt. I grabbed my passport, and we left.

  It turned out that I didn’t need the passport. I discovered that when I joined a small, blear-eyed section of Fleet Street that was gathered in the waiting-hall drinking coffee. Bob Humbleby was there, too.

  ‘Ah, the Other Spoken Word,’ said somebody. ‘I thought I knew my Watson.’

  ‘What,’ I inquired, ‘is all this about? Here am I routed out of a warm though solitary bed, whisked through the night – yes, thanks, a drop of that would liven it up.’

  The Samaritan stared at me.

  ‘Do you mean to say you’ve not heard?’ he asked.

  ‘Heard what?’

  ‘Bathies. Place called Buncarragh, Donegal,’ he explained, telegraphically. ‘And very suitable, too, in my opinion. Ought to feel themselves really at home among the leprechauns and banshees. But I have no doubt that the natives will be after telling us that it’s another injustice that the first place in England to have a visit from them should be Ireland, so they will.’

  It was queer indeed to encounter that same decaying, fishy smell in a little Irish village. Escondida had in itself been exotic and slightly improbable; but that the same thing should strike among these soft greens and misty blues, that the sea-tanks should come crawling up on this cluster of little grey cottages, and burst their sprays of tentacles here, seemed utterly preposterous.

  Yet, there were the ground-down stones of the slipway in the little harbour, the grooves on the beach beside the harbour
wall, four cottages demolished, distraught women who had seen their men caught in the nets of the cilia, and over all the same plastering of slime, and the same smell.

  There had been six sea-tanks, they said. A prompt telephonecall had brought a couple of fighters at top speed. They had wiped out three, and the rest had gone sliding back into the water – but not before half the population of the village, wrapped in tight cocoons of tentacles, had preceded them.

  The next night there was a raid further south, in Galway Bay…

  By the time I got back to London the campaign had begun. This is no place for a detailed survey of it. Many copies of the official report must still exist, and their accuracy will be more useful than my jumbled recollections.

  Phyllis and Bocker were back from Spain, too, and she and I settled down to work. A somewhat different line of work, for day-to-day news of sea-tank raids was now Agency and local correspondent stuff. We seemed to be holding a kind of EBC relations job with the Forces, and also with Bocker – at least, that was what we made of it. Telling the listening public what we could about what was being done for them.

  And a lot was. The Republic of Ireland had suspended the past for the moment to borrow large numbers of mines, bazookas, and mortars, and then agreed to accept the loan of a number of men trained in the use of them, too. All along the west and south coasts of Ireland squads of men were laying minefields above the tidelines wherever there were no protecting cliffs. In coastal towns pickets armed with bomb-firing weapons kept all-night watch. Elsewhere, planes, jeeps, and armoured cars waited on call.

  In the south-west of England, and up the more difficult west coast of Scotland similar preparations were going on.

  They did not seem greatly to deter the sea-tanks. Night after night, down the Irish coast, on the Brittany coast, up out of the Bay of Biscay, along the Portuguese seaboard they came crawling in large or small raids. But they had lost their most potent weapon, surprise. The leaders usually gave their own alarm by blowing themselves up in the minefields; by the time a gap had been created the defences were in action and the townspeople had fled. The sea-tanks that did get through did some damage, but found little prey, and their losses were not infrequently one hundred per cent.

  Across the Atlantic serious trouble was almost confined to the Gulf of Mexico. Raids on the east coast were so effectively discouraged that few took place at all north of Charleston; on the Pacific side there were few higher than San Diego. In general, it was the two Indies, the Philippines, and Japan that continued to suffer most; but they, too, were learning ways of inflicting enormous damage for very small returns.

  Bocker spent a great deal of time dashing hither and thither trying to persuade various authorities to include traps among their defences. He had little success. It was agreed that a full knowledge of the enemy’s nature would be a useful asset, but there were practical difficulties. Scarcely any place was willing to contemplate the prospect of a sea-tank, trapped on its foreshore, but still capable of throwing out coelenterates for an unknown length of time, nor did even Bocker have any theories on the location of traps beyond the construction of enormous numbers of them on a hit-or-miss basis. A few of the pitfall type were dug, but none ever made a catch. Nor did the more hopeful-sounding project of preserving any stalled or disabled sea-tank for examination turn out any better. In a few places the defenders were persuaded to cage them with wire-netting instead of blowing them to pieces, but that was the easy part of the problem. The question what to do next was not solved. Any attempt at broaching invariably caused them to explode in geysers of slime. Very often they did so before the attempt was made – the effect, Bocker maintained, of exposure to bright sunlight, though there were other views. Whatever the cause, it could not be said that anyone knew any more about their nature than when we first encountered them on Escondida.

  It was the Irish who took almost the whole weight of the north-European attack which was conducted, according to Bocker, from a base somewhere in the Deep, south of Rockall. They rapidly developed a skill in dealing with them that made it a point of dishonour that even one should get away. Scotland suffered only a few minor visitations in the Outer Isles, with scarcely a casualty. England’s only raids occurred in Cornwall, and they, too, were small affairs for the most part – the one exception was an incursion in Falmouth Harbour where a few did succeed in advancing a little beyond high-tide mark before they were destroyed; but much larger numbers, it was claimed, were smashed by depth-charges before they could even reach the shore.

  Then, only a few days after the Falmouth attack, the raids ceased. They stopped quite suddenly, and, as far as the larger land-masses were concerned, completely.

  A week later there was no longer any doubt that what someone had nicknamed the Low Command had called the campaign off. The continental coasts had proved too tough a nut, and the attempt had flopped. The sea-tanks withdrew to less dangerous parts, but even there their percentage of losses mounted and their returns diminished.

  A fortnight after the last raid came a proclamation ending the state of emergency. A day or two later Bocker made his comments on the situation over the air:

  ‘Some of us,’ he said, ‘some of us, though not the more sensible of us, have recently been celebrating a victory. To them I suggest that when the cannibal’s fire is not quite hot enough to boil the pot, the intended meal may feel some relief, but he has not, in the generally accepted sense of the phrase, scored a victory. In fact, if he does not do something before the cannibal has time to build a better and bigger fire, he is not going to be any better off.

  ‘Let us, therefore, look at this “victory”. We, a maritime people who rose to power upon shipping which plied to the furthest corners of the earth, have lost the freedom of the seas. We have been kicked out of an element that we had made our own. Our ships are only safe in coastal waters and shallow seas – and who can say how long they are going to be tolerated even there? We have been forced by a blockade, more effective than any experienced in war, to depend on air-transport for the very food by which we live. Even the scientists who are trying to study the sources of our troubles must put to sea in sailing-ships to do their work. Is this victory?

  ‘What the eventual purpose of these coastal raids may have been, no one can say. It may be that those who referred to them as “shrimping” were not so far from the mark – that they have been trawling for us as we trawl for fish – it may be, though I do not think so myself; there is more to be caught more cheaply in the sea than on the land. But it may even have been part of an attempt to conquer the land – an ineffectual and ill-informed attempt, but, for all that, rather more successful than our attempts to reach the Deeps. If it was, then its instigators are now better informed about us, and therefore potentially more dangerous. They are not likely to try again in the same way with the same weapons, but I see nothing in what we have been able to do to discourage them from trying in a different way with different weapons. Do you?

  ‘The need for us to find some way in which we can strike back at them is therefore not relaxed, but intensified.

  ‘It may be recalled by some that when we were first made aware of activity in the Deeps I advocated that every effort should be made to establish understanding with them. That was not tried, and very likely it was never a possibility, but there can be no doubt that the situation which I had hoped we could avoid now exists – and is in the process of being resolved. Two intelligent forms of life are finding one another’s existence intolerable. I have now come to believe that no attempt at rapprochement could have succeeded. Life in all its forms is strife; the better matched the opponents, the harder the struggle. The most powerful of all weapons is intelligence; any intelligent form dominates by, and therefore survives by, its intelligence: a rival form of intelligence must, by its very existence, threaten to dominate, and therefore threaten extinction. Any intelligent form is its own absolute; and there cannot be two absolutes.

  ‘Observation has shown me that m
y former view was lamentably anthropomorphic; I say now that we must attack as swiftly as we can find the means, and with the full intention of complete extermination. These things, whatever they may be, have not only succeeded in throwing us out of their element with ease, but already they have advanced to do battle with us in ours. For the moment we have pushed them back, but they will return, for the same urge drives them as drives us – the necessity to exterminate, or be exterminated. And when they come again, if we let them, they will come better equipped….

  ‘Such a state of affairs, I repeat, is not victory….’

  I ran across Pendell of Audio-Assessment the next morning. He gave me a gloomy look.

  ‘We tried,’ I said, defensively. ‘We tried hard, but the Elijah mood was on him.’

  ‘Next time you see him just tell him what I think of him, will you?’ Pendell suggested. ‘It’s not that I mind his being right – just that I never did know a man with such a gift for being right at the wrong time, and in the wrong manner. When his name comes on our programme again, if it ever does, they’ll switch off in their thousands. As a bit of friendly advice, tell him to start cultivating the BBC.’

  As it happened, Phyllis and I were meeting Bocker for lunch that same day. Inevitably he wanted to hear reactions to his broadcast. I gave the first reports gently. He nodded:

  ‘Most of the papers take that line,’ he said. ‘Why was I condemned to live in a democracy where every fool’s vote is equal to a sensible man’s? If all the energy that is put into diddling mugs for their votes could be turned on to useful work, what a nation we could be! As it is, at least three national papers are agitating for a cut in “the millions squandered on research” so that the taxpayer can buy himself another packet of cigarettes a week, which means more cargo-space wasted on tobacco, which means more revenue from tax, which the government then spends on something other than research – and the ships go on rusting in the harbours. There’s no sense in it.’

 
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