The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham
‘But those things down there have taken a beating,’ Phyllis pointed out.
‘We ourselves have a tradition of taking beatings, and then winning wars,’ said Bocker.
‘Exactly,’ said Phyllis. ‘We have taken a beating at sea, but in the end we shall get back.’
Bocker groaned, and rolled his eyes. ‘Logic – ’ he began, but I put in:
‘You spoke as if you thought they might actually be more intelligent than we are. Do you?’
He frowned. ‘I don’t see how one could answer that. My impression is that they think in a quite different way – along other lines from ours. If they do, no comparison would be possible, and any attempt at it misleading.’
‘You were quite serious about their trying again? I mean, it wasn’t just propaganda to stop interest in the protection of shipping from falling off?’ Phyllis asked.
‘Did it sound like that?’
‘I meant it, all right,’ he said. ‘Consider their alternatives. Either they sit down there waiting for us to find a means to destroy them, or they come after us. Oh, yes, unless we find it very soon, they’ll be here again – somehow….’
SOMETHING checked us. Not with a jolt, but with a gentle yielding, and a slight rubbing sound. From where I sat in the stern of the dinghy, keeping a little way on, and steering with a muffled oar, I could see practically nothing in the darkness, but it did not feel as if we had hit the bank.
‘What is it?’ I whispered.
The little boat rocked as Phyllis clambered forward. There was a faint thud from some part of our gear dislodged. Presently her whisper came back:
‘It’s a net. A big one.’
‘Can you lift it?’
She shifted. The dinghy rocked again, and then remained tilted for a moment. It relaxed back to an even keel.
‘No. Too heavy,’ she said.
I hadn’t expected that kind of hold-up. A few hours before in daylight I had prospected the route with binoculars, from a church tower. I had observed that to the north-west there was a narrow gap between two hills, and beyond it the water widened out into a lake stretching further than I could see. It looked as if, once past that neck, one ought to be able to travel a considerable distance without coming too close to the shore. I traced the way to the gap and memorized it with care before I came down. The tide turned and began to rise before it was quite dark. We waited another half-hour, and then set off, rowing up on the flood. It had not been too difficult to find the gap, for the silhouette of the two hills showed faintly against the sky. I had moved to the stern to steer and let the tide carry us silently through. And now there was the net….
I turned the craft so that the flow held us broadside against the barrier. I shipped the oar cautiously, felt for the net, and found it. It was made of half-inch rope with about a six-inch mesh, I judged. I felt for my knife.
‘Hold on,’ I whispered. ‘I’ll cut a hole.’
While I was in the act of opening the blade there came a crack, followed by a whoosh. A flare broke out above. The whole scene about us was suddenly visible, and there we sat in midstream, bathed in a hard, white light.
The lower hill, on the left, was covered with turf and a few bushes among wandering paths. To the right was a row of houses a few feet above the water-level. In front of them, and closer, was another row, built on a slant across the hillside. The house at the right-hand end was high enough for its whole roof to show above water. Its neighbours marched gradually deeper until they only showed chimney-pots, and finally nothing at all.
A rifle cracked somewhere in one of the houses in the upper row. I missed the flash, but the bullet phewed by, not far from our heads. I dropped my knife into the bottom of the dinghy, and put up my hands. A voice carried clearly from one of the dark windows:
‘Get back where you came from, chum,’ it advised.
I lowered my hands, looked at Phyllis, and shrugged.
‘We only want to go through, to get home. We don’t want to stay, or ask for anything,’ she called back to the unseen man.
‘That’s what they all say. Where’s home?’ he asked.
‘Cornwall,’ she told him.
He laughed ‘Cornwall! You’ve got a hope.’
‘It’s true,’ she said.
‘True it may be, but it’s bloody impossible, too. And I’ve got my orders. It’s get back or get hurt. So start moving.’
‘But we’ve got enough food to – ’ Phyllis began.
I shook my head at her. From what I’d been told, the only chance had been to get through without being seen – and having food with one was not a thing to advertise.
‘Okay,’ I called wearily. ‘We’ll get back.’
There was no need for silence any more, so I tilted the outboard into the water, and wound the cord on it.
‘You got sense – and better not try again,’ advised the voice.
‘I’m kind of old-fashioned – don’t like shooting people that’ll act reasonable. But there’s others not so particular. So just keep going, chum.’
I pulled the cord, and she started. We pushed clear of the net, and then chugged off downstream, against the tide. The flare sank gradually behind us, and burnt out. Darkness, darker than before, closed in.
Phyllis clambered over the gear, and came to sit beside me. Her gloved hand found my knee, and pressed it.
‘Sorry, darling,’ I said.
‘Can’t be helped, Mike. We’ll try again somewhere. Third time lucky, perhaps.’
‘This time lucky,’ I said. ‘He shot to miss. He needn’t have done that.’
‘A net and a guard must mean that a lot of people have been trying this way. Where are we now?’
‘I’m not sure. It’s difficult to identify anything from the map. Must be somewhere in the Staines-Weybridge area, though. Seems a pity to go back now.’
‘More of a pity to get shot,’ said Phyllis.
We puttered along, keeping a look-out for obstacles by occasional flashes of a torch.
‘If you don’t know where we are, how do you know where we’re heading?’ Phyllis inquired.
‘I don’t,’ I admitted. ‘I’m just keeping going, like the gentleman said. It seems wise to get clear of his territory.’
Presently the moon rose and began to shine intermittently through gaps in the clouds. Phyllis pulled her coat more closely round her, and shivered a little.
‘June,’ she said. ‘June – moon – spoon – soon. They used to sing about June nights on the river. Remember? Uh-huh. Sic transit…’
‘From what I do remember they were a trifle optimistic, even then,’ I replied. ‘A wise man took rugs.’
‘Oh?’ said Phyllis. ‘Who with?’
‘Never you mind. Autres temps, autres mondes.’
‘Autre monde,’ indeed,’ she said, looking round over the waste of water. ‘We can’t go on aimlessly like this, Mike. Let’s find somewhere to get warm, and sleep.’
‘All right,’ I agreed, and put the tiller over a bit.
A mile or so away stood a mound, dotted with houses. One could not tell whether it was an island or not, but between it and us more houses, submerged to different degrees, protruded from the water. We selected a solid-looking white one, late-Georgian, judging from the visible upper storeys, and steered towards it.
The wood of the window-frame was too swollen to slide, so we had to push in the window with an oar before we could get inside. The torch showed a bedroom; very tasteful once, but now with a tidemark half-way up the walls. I squelched across the carpet and got the door open with a little difficulty. Outside on the landing the water was within a few inches of the top of the stairs. The floor above was all right, though. Quite comfortably furnished, too.
‘This’ll do,’ Phyllis decided.
She lit a couple of candles, and started to rearrange things in the room she had chosen. I went down again, pulled our rolls of bedding and the other nec
When I got the stuff up Phyllis had already shed her coat and, looking business-like in a kind of windbreaker-suit, was lugging comfortable chairs in from another room. I got busy knocking away the stair-rail and breaking up the banisters for a fire.
The curtains were only cotton, so we covered them with blankets. It was not very likely that anyone would come to investigate a light, but if he did, and found the dinghy unguarded, he would certainly make off with it. Then we were able to settle down to stoking the fire and enjoying the growing warmth of the room.
Our supper consisted of biscuits, sausages cooked in the can and eaten off a fork, and tea made with bottled rainwater and condensed milk. Not an elegant meal, but in spite of the depressing thought that down in the depths of such a house, and safely out of our reach, there must be a lot of more exciting things to drink, we felt the better for it.
When it was done we extinguished the candles for economy’s sake, piled on more wood, and lay back enjoying the blaze. For half a cigarette there was silence, then Phyllis said:
‘Well, so far, so not very good. What now?’
It was a fair summary of my own state of mind.
‘I don’t like to admit it,’ I said, ‘but it does begin to look as if Cornwall may have to be cancelled.’
‘That man was pretty scornful about it, wasn’t he? But that might have been because he didn’t believe us.’
‘It sounded as if he foresaw a lot of obstacles in the way – with himself as the first,’ I said. ‘It seems likely that there are quite a lot of independent districts we should have to cross.’
‘Even if we were to go back to London we should have to face getting out of it somehow, sooner or later – unless, of course, we get shot there. It’s bound to go on getting worse all the time. In the country you can at least grow things. You do have a chance. But a city is a sort of desert of bricks and stones. Once you’ve used up what is there, you’re done for.’
I considered Rose Cottage. There was some soil, of a kind-though it was not a region I should have chosen for attempting to live off the land. But it was clear that no one was going to welcome us on to good, lush land – if there was any left. And she was right about the barrenness of cities, once their reserves have been used up. I doubted any welcome in Cornwall, but Rose Cottage might offer just a chance – provided there was not someone already there, and that we could get there at all….
We went on discussing the prospects in a desultory way for an hour or more without getting any further, and ended by gazing silently into the fire, devoid of further suggestions. Presently Phyllis yawned. We pulled the damp clothes from the beds, spread out on own bedding rolls with their waterproof covers on the mattresses, made up the fire again, put the shotgun handy, and then turned in.
Technically, I suppose, it was the morrow that brought us the new idea, though I have an abiding feeling that a morrow does not properly begin until breakfast-time, and this idea turned up at about one in the morning. It arrived with a bump that woke me.
I sat up with the sound of the thud still in my ears, thoroughly awakened and alert. The room was almost dark, for the fire had sunk to a few ashes. There came another, but lesser, thump on the wall outside, and then the sound of something scraping along it. I snatched up the shotgun, jumped out of bed, and whipped the blanket and curtain aside from the nearest window. There was plenty of flotsam, sheds, chicken-houses, furniture, logs, all kinds of smaller stuff that could have made the bump. On the other hand, it might have been made by somebody who had spotted the dinghy, and the loss of that would be disastrous.
I looked out. The moon was sinking now, but still bright. The dinghy still rode safely just below. The scraping came again, along the other wall. I scrambled back, and found the torch on the table between the beds.
‘What’s the matter?’ inquired Phyllis’s voice, but I was in too much of a hurry to answer. Gun in one hand and torch in the other, I ran to the next room. One of its windows faced north. I dropped the torch, raised the sash, and looked out over the levelled shotgun. Just below, there was a boat, a small, cabin motor-boat, nudging along the wall, and I was gazing down at the figure of a woman lying in her well. It was scarcely more than a glimpse, for at that moment the boat scraped to the corner of the house; the current swung her out and took her away. I caught up the torch.
‘What is it?’ Phyllis demanded as I pelted past the bedroom door.
‘Boat,’ I called back as I ran down the stairs.
The water on the next floor was waist-deep now, and icy, but I was in too much of a hurry to pay it a lot of attention. With the risen level it was difficult to get aboard the dinghy without upsetting her, but I managed it. Then, of course, the outboard had to go sulky. Not until the fourth or fifth attempt did it fire.
By that time I had lost sight of the drifting motor-boat, but I turned into the current, and chased after her.
It was only by chance that I did not miss her altogether and go charging on uselessly downstream. The current had carried her straight into a submerged spinney, and I had just a glimpse of her in the tangle of branches as I passed. Like any other boat nowadays she had been painted not for show but for discretion, and it was a near thing.
When I got aboard her I flashed the light in through the open doors of the little cabin. There was no one in there. The woman lying in the well had been shot twice, in the neck and in the chest, and must have died some hours before. I lifted her over the side, and let her go.
I could not hope to tow the boat back against both tide and current with the outboard, and I was growing too numb with cold to spend time trying to find out how to run her. The best course seemed to be to make sure that she would drift no further, and hope that no one else would see her before I could come back in daylight. It was a risk. A boat of any kind was beyond price, but the alternative was almost certainly pneumonia. Moreover, I daren’t delay long, for once the moon had set it wouldn’t be easy to find the house again.
Phyllis was warming a blanket for me in front of the rekindled fire. Freed of my wet pyjamas, and wrapped in that, I began to glow after a bit.
‘A sea-going motor-boat?’ Phyllis inquired, excitedly.
‘Well, kind of high in the bows – not one of those car-on-water things. So I should think it’s meant for sea. Small, though.’
‘Don’t be irritating. You know perfectly well what I mean. Could it get us to Cornwall?’
‘With our knowledge of the things, it’s more a question of could we get it to Cornwall? – and there my opinion isn’t worth any more than yours. We might try – at least it looks to me as if we might. See what you think when you’ve looked her over.’
I had no doubt whatever what she would think. But for decisive discouragement on my part we should probably have set out on an attempt to get along the coast in the little fibre-glass dinghy.
‘I feel like making an offering, or something,’ she said.
‘Keep it until we find out whether she’s sound. There could be a lot of snags yet,’ I told her.
The warmth after the exposure was making me sleepy. I told her to wake me up when it began to get light, so that we could get across to the boat before anyone else should spot her.
Then I went to sleep with an easier mind than I had had for some weeks. I knew that whatever we should find in Cornwall it would be no picnic. On the other hand, London was a slowly-closing trap; a good place to get out of before it began to squeeze….
Even though Bocker had been unaware of it when he gave his warning, the new method of attack had already begun, but it took six months more before it became apparent.
Had the ocean vessels been keeping their usual courses, it would have aroused general comment earlier, but with transatlantic crossings taking place only by air, the pilots’ reports of unusually dense and widespread fog in the west Atlantic were simply noted. With the increased range of air
Checking reports of that time in the light of later knowledge I discovered that there were reports about the same time of unusually widespread fogs in the North-Western Pacific, too. Conditions were bad off the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, and said to be still worse off the Kuriles, further north. But since it was now some time since ships had dared to cross the Deeps in those parts information was scanty, and few were interested. Nor did the abnormally foggy conditions on the South American coast northward from Montevideo attract public attention.
The chilly mistiness of the summer in England was, indeed, frequently remarked, though more with resignation than surprise.
Fog, in fact, was scarcely noticed by the wider world-consciousness until the Russians mentioned it. A note from Moscow proclaimed the existence of an area of dense fog having its centre on the meridian 130° East of Greenwich, at, or about, the 85th parallel. Soviet scientists, after research, had declared that nothing of the kind was on previous record, nor was it possible to see how the known conditions in those parts could generate such a state, let alone maintain it virtually unchanged for three months after its existence had first been observed. The Soviet Government had on several former occasions pointed out that the Arctic activities of the hirelings of capitalist warmongers might well be a menace to Peace.
The territorial rights of the USSR in that area of the Arctic lying between the meridians 32° East and 168° West of Greenwich were recognized by International Law. Any unauthorized incursion into that area constituted an act of aggression. The Soviet Government, therefore, considered itself at liberty to take any action necessary for the preservation of Peace in that region.
The note, delivered simultaneously to several countries, received its most rapid and downright reply from Washington.
Previous PageNext Page