The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham

  There must, I think, be a great many people who go around just longing to be baffled, and who, moreover, feel a kind of immediate kin to anyone else who admits bafflement along roughly similar lines. I say ‘roughly’ because it became clear to me as I read the mail that classifications are possible. There are strata of bafflement. A friend of mine, after giving a talk on a spooky experience, was showered with correspondence on levitation, telepathy, materialization, and faith-healing. I, however, had struck a different layer. Most of my correspondents assumed that the sight of the fireballs must have roused me to a corollary interest not only in saucers, but showers of frogs, mysterious falls of cinders, all kinds of lights seen in the sky, and also seamonsters. After I had sifted through them, I found myself left with half a dozen which might possibly have reference to fireballs similar to those we had seen. One, referring to a recent experience off the Philippines, I identified with fair. certainty as being a confirmation of what the Captain of the Guinevere had told me. And the others seemed worth following up, too – particularly a rather cagey approach which invited me to meet the writer at La Plume d’Or, where lunch is always worth having.

  I kept that appointment a week later. My host turned out to be a man two or three years older than myself who ordered four glasses of Tio Pepe, and then opened up by admitting that the name under which he had written was not his own, and that he was a Flight-Lieutenant, RAF.

  ‘It’s a bit tricky, you see,’ he said. ‘At the moment I am considered to have suffered some kind of hallucination, but if enough evidence turns up to show that it was not an hallucination, then they’re almost certain to make it an official secret Awkward, you see.’

  I agreed that it must be.

  ‘Still,’ he went on, ‘the thing worries me, and if you’re collecting evidence, I’d like you to have it – though maybe not to make direct use of it. I mean, I don’t want to find myself on the carpet. I don’t suppose there’s a regulation to stop a fellow discussing his hallucinations, but you can never be sure.’

  I nodded understandingly. He went on:

  ‘It was about three months ago. I was flying one of the regular patrols, a couple of hundred miles or so east of Formosa – ’

  ‘I didn’t know we – ’ I began.

  ‘There are a number of things that don’t get publicity, though they’re not particularly secret,’ he said. ‘Anyway, there I was. The radar picked these things up when they were still out of sight behind me, but coming up fast from the west.’

  He had decided to investigate, and climbed to intercept. The radar continued to show the craft on a straight course behind and above him. He tried to communicate, but couldn’t raise them. By the time he was getting the ceiling of them they were in sight, as three red spots, quite bright, even by daylight, and coming up fast though he was doing close to five hundred himself. He tried again to radio them, but without success. They just kept on coming, steadily overtaking him.

  ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I was there to patrol. I told base that they were a completely unknown type of craft – if they were craft at all – and as they wouldn’t talk I proposed to have a pip at them. It was either that, or just let ’em go – in which case I might as well not have been patrolling at all. Base agreed, kind of cautiously.

  ‘I tried them once more, but they didn’t take a damn bit of notice of either me or my signals. And as they got closer I was doubtful whether they were craft at all. They were just as you said on the radio – a pink fuzz, with a deeper red centre: might have been miniature red suns for all I could tell. Anyway, the more I saw of them the less I liked ’em, so I set the guns to radar-control and let ’em get on ahead.

  ‘I reckoned they must be doing seven hundred or more as they passed me. A second or two later the radar picked up the foremost one, and the guns fired.

  ‘There wasn’t any lag. The thing seemed to blow up almost as the guns went off. And, boy, did it blow! It suddenly swelled immensely, turning from red to pink to white, but still with a few red spots here and there – and then my aircraft hit the concussion, and maybe some of the debris, too. I lost quite a lot of seconds, and probably had a lot of luck, because when I got sorted out I found that I was coming down fast. Something had carried away three-quarters of my starboard wing, and messed up the tip of the other. So I reckoned it was time to try the ejector, and rather to my surprise it worked.’

  He paused reflectively. Then he added:

  ‘I don’t know that it gives you a lot besides confirmation, but there are one or two points. One is that they are capable of travelling a lot faster than those you saw. Another is that, whatever they are, they are highly vulnerable.’

  And that, as we talked it over in detail, was about all the additional information he did provide – that, and the fact that when hit they did not disintegrate into sections, but exploded completely, which should, perhaps, have conveyed more than it seemed to at the time.

  During the next few weeks several more letters trickled in without adding much, but then it began to look as if the whole affair were going the way of the Loch Ness monster. What there was came to me because it was generally conceded at EBC that fireball stuff was my pigeon. Several observatories confessed themselves puzzled by detecting small red bodies travelling at high speeds, but were extremely guarded in their statements. None of the newspapers ran it because, in editorial opinion, the whole thing was suspect in being too similar to the flying-saucer business, and their readers would prefer more novelty in their sensations. Nevertheless, bits and pieces did slowly accumulate – though it took nearly two years before they acquired serious publicity and attention.

  This time it was a flight of thirteen. A radar station in the north of Finland picked them up first, estimating their speed as fifteen hundred miles per hour, and their direction as approximately south-west. In passing the information on they described them simply as ‘unidentified aircraft’. The Swedes picked them up as they crossed their territory, and managed to spot them visually, describing them as small red dots. Norway confirmed, but estimated the speed at under thirteen hundred miles per hour. A Scottish station logged them as travelling at a thousand miles per hour, and just visible to the naked eye. Two stations in Ireland reported them as passing directly overhead, on a line slightly west of south-west. The more southerly station gave their speed as eight hundred and claimed that they were ‘clearly visible’. A weather-ship at about 65 degrees North, gave a description which tallied exactly with that of the earlier fireballs, and calculated a speed close to 500 m.p.h. They were not sighted again after that.

  The reason that this particular flight got on to the front pages when others had been ignored was not simply that this time there had been a series of observations which plotted its track; it lay more in the implications of the line that had been drawn. However, in spite of innuendo and direct suggestion, there was silence to the east. Ever since their hurried and unconvincing explanation which followed the first atomic explosion in Russia, her leaders had found it convenient to feign at least a temporary deafness to questions on such matters. It was a policy which had the advantages of calling for no mental exertion while at the same time building up in the minds of the general public a feeling that inscrutability must mask hidden power. And since those who were well acquainted with Russian affairs were not going to publish the degree of their acquaintanceship, the game of aloofness was easily able to continue.

  The Swedes announced, with careful lack of particularizing, that they would take action against any similar violation of their sky, whoever might be the violators. The British papers suggested that a certain great power was zealous enough in guarding its own frontiers to justify others in taking similar measures to protect theirs. American journals said that the way to deal with any Russian aircraft over U S territory was to shoot first. The Kremlin apparently slept.

  There was a sudden spate of fireball observation. Reports came in from so far and wide that it was impossible to do more than sort out the mor
e wildly imaginative and put the rest aside to be considered at more leisure, but I noticed that among them were several accounts of fireballs descending into the sea that tallied well with my own observation – so well, indeed, that I could not be absolutely sure that they did not derive from my own broadcast. All in all, it appeared to be such a muddle of guesswork, tall stories, third-hand impressions, and thoroughgoing invention that it taught me little. One negative point, however, did strike me – not a single observer claimed to have seen a fireball descend on land. Ancillary to that, not a single one of those descending on water had been observed from the shore: all had been noticed from ships, or from aircraft well out to sea.

  For a couple of weeks reports of sightings in groups large or small continued to pour in. The sceptics were weakening; only the most obstinate still maintained that they were hallucinations. Nevertheless, we learnt nothing more about them than we had known before. No pictures. So often it seemed to be a case of the things you see when you don’t have a gun. But then a flock of them came up against a fellow who did have a gun – literally.

  The fellow in this case happened to be the USN Carrier, Tuskegee. The message from Curaçao that a flight of eight fireballs was headed directly towards her reached her when she was lying off San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Captain breathed a short hope that they would commit a violation of the territory, and made his preparations. The fireballs, true to type, kept on in a dead straight line which would bring them across the island, and almost over the ship herself. The Captain watched their approach on his radar with great satisfaction. He waited until the technical violation was indisputable. Then he gave the word to release six guided missiles at three-second intervals, and went on deck to watch, against the darkling sky.

  Through his glasses he watched six of the red dots change as they burst, one after another, into big white puffs.

  ‘Well, that’s settled them,’ he observed, complacently. ‘Now it’s going to be mighty interesting to see who squeals,’ he added, as he watched the two remaining red dots dwindle away to the northward.

  But the days passed, and nobody squealed. Nor was there any decrease in the number of fireball reports.

  For most people such a policy of masterly silence pointed only one way, and they began to regard the responsibility as good as proved.

  In the course of the following week, two more fireballs that had been incautious enough to pass within range of the experimental station at Woomera paid for that temerity, and three others were exploded by a ship off Kodiak after flying across Alaska.

  Washington, in a note of protest to Moscow regarding repeated territorial violations, ended by observing that in several cases where drastic action had been taken it regretted the distress that must have been caused to the relatives of the crews aboard the craft, but that responsibility lay at the door not of those who dealt with the craft, but with those who sent them out apparently under orders which transgressed international agreements.

  The Kremlin, after a few days of gestation, produced a rejection of the protest. It proclaimed itself unimpressed by the tactic of attributing one’s own crime to another, and went on to state that its own weapons, recently developed by Russian scientists for the defence of Peace, had now destroyed more than twenty of these craft over Soviet territory, and would, without hesitation, give the same treatment to any others detected in their work of espionage….

  The situation thus remained unresolved. The non-Russian world was, by and large, divided sharply into two classes – those who believed every Russian pronouncement, and those who believed none. For the first class no question arose; their faith was firm. For the second, interpretation was less easy. Was one to deduce, for instance, that the whole thing was a lie? Or merely that, when the Russians claimed to have accounted for twenty fireballs, they had only, in fact, exploded five or so?

  An uneasy situation, constantly punctuated by an exchange of notes, drew out over months. Fireballs were undoubtedly more numerous than they had been, but just how much more numerous, or more active, or more frequently reported was difficult to assess. Every now and then a few more were destroyed in various parts of the world, and from time to time, too, it would be announced that numbers of capitalistic fireballs had been effectively shown the penalties that waited those who conducted espionage upon the territory of the only true People’s Democracy.

  Public interest must feed to keep alive; without fresh nourishment it soon begins to decline. The things existed; they buzzed through the air at high speed; they blew up if you hit them; but, beyond that, what? They didn’t appear to do anything – at least nothing that anyone seemed to know about. Nor did they do anything to fulfil the sensational role they had seemed to promise.

  Novelty waned, and an era of explaining-away set in. Presently we were back to something very like the St Elmo’s fire position, for the most widely accepted view was that they must simply be some new form of natural electrical manifestation. As time went on, ships and shore-stations ceased to fire at them, and let them continue on their mysterious ways, noting merely their speed, time, and direction. They were, in fact a disappointment.

  Nevertheless, in Admiralty and Air Force Headquarters all over the world these notes and reports came together. Courses were plotted on charts. Gradually a pattern of a kind began to emerge.

  At EBCI was still regarded as the natural silting-place for anything to do with fireballs, and although the subject was dead mutton for the moment I kept up my files in case it should revive. Meanwhile, I contributed in a small way to the building up of the bigger picture by passing along to the authorities such snippets of information as I thought might interest them.

  In due course I found myself invited to the Admiralty to be shown some of the results.

  It was a Captain Winters who welcomed me there, explaining that while what I should be shown was not exactly an official secret, it was preferred that I should not make public use of it yet. When I had agreed to that, he started to bring out maps and charts.

  The first one was a map of the world hatched over with fine lines, each numbered and dated in minute figures. At first glance it looked as if a spider’s web had been applied to it; and, here and there, there were clusters of little red dots, looking much like the money-spiders who had spun it.

  Captain Winters picked up a magnifying-glass and held it over the area south-east of the Azores.

  ‘There’s your first contribution,’ he told me.

  Looking through it, I presently distinguished one red dot with a figure 5 against it, and the date-time when Phyllis and I had leant over the Guinevere’s rail watching the fireballs vanish in steam. There was quite a number of other red dots in the area, each labelled, and more of them were strung out to the north-east.

  ‘Each of these dots represents the descent of a fireball?’ I asked.

  ‘One or more,’ he told me. ‘The lines, of course, are only for those on which we have had good enough information to plot the course. What do you think of it?’

  ‘Well,’ I told him truthfully, ‘my first reaction is to realize that there must have been a devil of a lot more of them than I ever imagined. The second is to wonder why in thunder they should group in spots, like that.’

  ‘Ah!’ he said. ‘Now stand back from the map a bit. Narrow your eyes, and get a light and shade impression.’

  I did, and saw what he meant.

  ‘Areas of concentration,’ I said.

  He nodded. ‘Five main ones, and a number of lesser. The densest of the lot to the south-west of Cuba; another, six hundred miles south of the Cocos Islands; pretty heavy concentrations off the Philippines, Japan, and the Aleutians. I’m not going to pretend that the proportions of density are right – in fact, I’m pretty sure that they are not. For instance, you can see a number of courses coverging towards an area north-east of the Falklands, but only three red dots there. It very likely means simply that there are precious few people around those parts to observe them. Anything else strik
e you?’

  I shook my head, not seeing what he was getting at. He produced a bathymetric chart, and laid it beside the first. I looked at it.

  ‘All the concentrations are in deep-water areas?’ I suggested.

  ‘Exactly. There aren’t many reports of descents where the depth is less than four thousand fathoms, and none at all where it is less than two thousand.’

  I thought that over, without getting anywhere.

  ‘So – just what?’ I inquired.

  ‘Exactly,’ he said again. ‘So what?’

  We contemplated the proposition awhile.

  ‘All descents,’ he observed. ‘No reports of any coming up.’

  He brought out maps on a larger scale of the various main areas. After we had studied them a bit I asked:

  ‘Have you any idea at all what all this means – or wouldn’t you tell me if you had?’

  ‘On the first part of that, we have only a number of theories, all unsatisfactory for one reason or another, so the second doesn’t really arise.’

  ‘What about the Russians?’

  ‘Nothing to do with them. As a matter of fact, they’re a lot more worried about it than we are. Suspicion of capitalists being part of their mother’s milk, they simply can’t shake themselves clear of the idea that we must be at the bottom of it somehow, and they just can’t figure out, either, what the game can possibly be. But what both we and they are perfectly satisfied about is that the things are not natural phenomena, nor are they random.’

  ‘And you’d know if it were any other country pulling it?’

  ‘Bound to – not a doubt of it.’

  We considered the charts again in silence.

  ‘People,’ I told him, ‘are continually quoting to me things that the illustrious Holmes said to my namesake, but this time I’ll do the quoting: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Which is to say that if it is no terrestrial nation that is doing this, then–?’

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