The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham
‘From sources which it would be unwise to disclose we understand that the Russians are showing a greater appreciation of the situation than they have hitherto. It appears that floods in Karelia and the marshes south of the White Sea are extensive, and growing worse rapidly. Further to the east lies an inlet of the Arctic Sea called the Gulf of Ob. To the south of it stretches an immense area of marshland now in the process of inundation. If the rise in the water-level continues it is likely that we shall see the formation in Central Russia of a great inland sea, possibly larger than Hudson Bay – a feature doubtless more familiar to members of this House than is the Gulf of Ob.’
We began to hear a lot of Harrogate and district, and it became obvious that a great deal of preparation had been done in the area. For one thing, our own centre of EBC administration was established there in a resuscitated military camp, though, according to our informants at such a distance from the town that the only leisure occupation was to spy by telescope upon the arch-rival concern situated similarly, but on the other side of a valley.
As for ourselves, we began to shake down into a routine. Our living-quarters were on the top floor. Offices, studios, technical equipment, generators, stores, etc., on the floor beneath. A great reserve of diesel-oil and petrol filled large tanks in the basement, whence it was pumped as necessary. Our aerial systems were on roofs two blocks away, reached by bridges slung high over the intervening streets. Our own roof was largely cleared to provide a helicopter landing, and to act as a rainwater catchment. As we gradually developed a technique for living there we decided it was pretty well found.
Even so, my recollection is that nearly all spare time in the first few days was spent by everyone in transferring the contents of the provision department to our own quarters before it should disappear elsewhere.
There seems to have been a basic misconception of the role we should play. As I understand it, the idea was that we were to preserve, as far as possible, the impression of business as usual, and then, as things grew more difficult, the centre of EBC would follow the administration by gradual stages to Yorkshire. This appears to have been founded upon the assumption that London was so cellularly constructed that as the water flowed into each cell it would be abandoned while the rest carried on much as usual. As far as we were concerned bands, speakers, and artists would all roll up to do their stuff in the ordinary way until the water lapped our doorsteps – if it should ever reach as far – by which time they would presumably have changed to the habit of rolling up to the Yorkshire station instead. The only provision on the programme side that anyone had made for things not happening in this naïve fashion was the transfer of our recorded library before it became actually necessary to save it. A dwindling, rather than a breakdown, was envisaged. Curiously, quite a number of conscientious broadcasters did somehow manage to put in their appearances for a few days. After that, however, we were thrown back almost entirely upon ourselves and the recordings. And, presently, we began to live in a state of siege.
I don’t propose to deal in detail with the year that followed. It was a drawn-out story of decay. A long, cold winter during which the water lapped into the streets faster than we had expected. A time when armed bands were roving in search of untouched food-stores, when, at any hour of the day or night, one was liable to hear a rattle of shots as two gangs met. We ourselves had little trouble; it was as if, after a few attempts to raid us, word had gone round that we were ready to defend, and with so many other stores raidable at little or no risk we might as well be left until later.
When the warmer weather came there were noticeably fewer people to be seen. Most of them, rather than face another winter in a city by now largely plundered of food and beginning to suffer epidemics from lack of fresh water and drainage, were filtering out into the country, and the shooting that we heard was usually distant.
Our own numbers had been depleted, too. Out of the original sixty-five we were now reduced to twenty-five, the rest having gone off in parties by helicopter as the national focus became more settled in Yorkshire. From having been a centre we had declined to the state of an outpost maintained for prestige.
Phyllis and I discussed whether we would apply to go, too, but from the description of conditions that we prised out of the helicopter pilot and his crew the EBC Headquarters sounded congested and unattractive, so we decided to stay for a while longer, at any rate. We were by no means uncomfortable where we were, and the fewer of us that were left in our London eyrie, the more space and supplies each of us had.
In late spring we learnt that a decree had merged us with the arch-rival, putting all radio communication under direct Government control. It was the Broadcasting House lot that were moved out by a swift airlift since their premises were vulnerable while ours were already in a prepared state, and the one or two BBC men who stayed came over to join us.
News reached us mainly by two channels: the private link with EBC, which was usually moderately honest, though discreet; and broadcasts which, no matter where they came from, were puffed with patently dishonest optimism. We became very tired and cynical about them, as, I imagine, did everyone else, but they still kept on. Every country, it seemed, was meeting and rising above the disaster with a resolution which did honour to the traditions of its people.
By midsummer, and a cold midsummer it was, the town had become very quiet. The gangs had gone; only the obstinate individuals remained. They were, without doubt, quite numerous, but in twenty thousand streets they seemed sparse, and they were not yet desperate. It was possible to go about in relative safety again, though wise to carry a gun.
The water had risen further in the time than any of the estimates had supposed. The highest tides now reached the fifty-foot level. The flood-line was north of Hammersmith and included most of Kensington. It lay along the south side of Hyde Park, then to the south of Piccadilly, across Trafalgar Square, along the Strand and Fleet Street, and then ran north-east up the west side of the Lea Valley; of the City, only the high ground about St Paul’s was still untouched. In the south it had pushed across Barnes, Battersea, Southwark, most of Deptford, and the lower part of Greenwich.
One day we walked down to Trafalgar Square. The tide was in, and the water reached nearly to the top of the wall on the northern side, below the National Gallery. We leant on the balustrade, looking at the water washing around Landseer’s lions, wondering what Nelson would think of the view his statue was getting now.
Close to our feet, the edge of the flood was fringed with scum and a fascinatingly varied collection of flotsam. Further away, fountains, lamp-posts, traffic-lights, and statues thrust up here and there. On the far side, and down as much as we could see of Whitehall, the surface was as smooth as a canal. A few trees still stood, and in them sparrows chattered. Starlings had not yet deserted St Martin’s church, but the pigeons were all gone, and on many of their customary perches gulls stood, instead. We surveyed the scene and listened to the slip-slop of the water in the silence for some minutes. Then I asked:
‘Didn’t somebody or other once say: “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper?”’
Phyllis looked shocked. ‘ “Somebody or other!” she exclaimed. ‘That was Mr Eliot!’
‘Well, it certainly looks as if he had the idea that time,’ I said.
‘It’s the job of poets to have the idea,’ she told me.
‘H’m. It might also be that it is the job of poets to have enough ideas to provide a quotation for any given set of circumstances, but never mind. On this occasion let us honour Mr Eliot,’ I said.
Presently Phyllis remarked: ‘I thought I was through a phase now, Mike. For such a long time it kept on seeming that something could be done to save the world we’re used to – if we could only and out what. But soon I think I’ll be able to feel: “Well, that’s gone. How can we make the best of what’s left?” – all the same, I wouldn’t say that coming to places like this does me any good.’
‘You seem to be on unusually happy terms with other people’s Muses to-day. Whose was that?’ Phyllis inquired.
‘Well,’ I admitted, ‘I’m not sure whether you would class her as a muse at all – more, perhaps, of a bent. Mr Kipling’s.’
‘Oh, poor Mr Kipling. Of course he had a Muse, and she probably played a jolly good game of hockey, too.’
‘Cat,’ I remarked. ‘However, let us also honour Mr Kipling.’
There was a pause. It lengthened.
‘Mike,’ she said, suddenly, ‘let’s go away from here – now.’
I nodded. ‘It might be better. We’ll have to get a little tougher yet, darling, I’m afraid.’
She took my arm, and we started to walk westward. Half-way to the corner of the Square we paused at the sound of a motor. It seemed, improbably, to come from the south side. We waited while it drew closer. Presently, out from the Admiralty Arch swept a speedboat. It turned in a sharp arc and sped away down Whitehall, leaving the ripples of its wake slopping through the windows of august Governmental offices.
‘Very pretty,’ I said. ‘There can’t be many of us who have accomplished that in one of our waking moments.’
Phyllis gazed along the widening ripples, and abruptly became practical again.
‘I think we’d better see if we can’t find one of those,’ she said. ‘It might come in useful later on.’
The rate of rise continued to increase. By the end of the summer the level was up another eight or nine feet. The weather was vile and even colder than it had been at the same time the previous year. More of us had applied for transfer, and by mid-September we were down to sixteen.
Even Freddy Whittier had announced that he was sick and tired of wasting his time like a shipwrecked sailor, and was going to see whether he could not find some useful work to do. When the helicopter whisked him and his wife away, they left us reconsidering our own position once more.
Our task of composing never-say-die material on the theme that we spoke from, and for, the heart of an empire bloody but still unbowed was supposed, we knew, to have a stabilizing value even now, but we doubted it. Too many people were whistling the same tune in the same dark. A night or two before the Whittiers left we had had a late party where someone, in the small hours, had tuned-in a New York transmitter. A man and a woman on the Empire State Building were describing the scene. The picture they evoked of the towers of Manhattan standing like frozen sentinels in the moonlight while the glittering water lapped at their lower walls was masterly, almost lyrically beautiful – nevertheless, it failed in its purpose. In our minds we could see those shining towers – they were not sentinels, they were tombstones. It made us feel that we were even less accomplished at disguising our own tombstones; that it was time to pull out of our refuge, and find more useful work. Our last words to Freddy were that we would very likely be following him before long.
We had still, however, not reached the point of making definite application when he called us up on the link a couple of weeks later. After the greetings he said:
‘This isn’t purely social, Mike. It is disinterested advice to those contemplating a leap from the frying-pan – don’t!’
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘what’s the trouble?’
‘I’ll tell you this. I’d have an application in for getting back to you right now – if only I had not made my reasons for getting out so damned convincing. I mean that. Hang on there, both of you.’
‘But – ’ I began.
‘Wait a minute,’ he told me.
Presently his voice came again.
‘Okay. No monitor on this, I think. Listen, Mike, we’re overcrowded, underfed, and in one hell of a mess. Supplies of all kinds are right down, so’s morale. The atmosphere’s like a lot of piano-strings. We’re living virtually in a state of siege here, and if it doesn’t turn into active civil war in a few weeks it’ll be a miracle. The people outside are worse off than we are, but seemingly nothing will convince them that we aren’t living on the fat of the land. For God’s sake keep this under your hat, but stay where you are, for Phyl’s sake if not for your own.’
I thought quickly.
‘If it’s as bad as that, Freddy, and you’re doing no good, why not get back here on the next helicopter. Either smuggle aboard – or maybe we could offer the pilot a few things he’d like?’
‘All right. There certainly isn’t any use for us here. I don’t know why they let us come along. I’ll work on that. Look for us next flight. Meanwhile good luck to you both.’
‘Good luck to you, Freddy, and our love to Lynn – and our respects to Bocker, if he’s there and nobody’s slaughtered him yet.’
‘Oh, Bocker’s here. He’s now got a theory that it won’t go much over a hundred and twenty-five feet, and seems to think that’s good news.’
‘Well, considering he’s Bocker, it might be a lot worse. ’Bye. We’ll be looking forward to seeing you.’
We were discreet. We said no more than that we had heard the Yorkshire place was already crowded, so we were staying. A couple who had decided to leave on the next flight changed their minds, too. We waited for the helicopter to bring Freddy back. The day after it was due we were still waiting. We got through on the link. They had no news except that it had left on schedule. I asked about Freddy and Lynn. Nobody seemed to know where they were.
There never was any news of that helicopter. They said they hadn’t another that they could send.
The cold summer drew into a colder autumn. A rumour reached us that the sea-tanks were appearing again for the first time since the waters had begun to rise. As the only people present who had had personal contact with them we assumed the status of experts – though almost the only advice we could give was always to wear a sharp knife, and in such a position that it could be reached for a quick slash by either hand. But the sea-tanks must have found the hunting poor in the almost deserted streets of London, for presently we heard no more of them. From the radio, however, we learnt that it was not so in some other parts. There were reports soon of their reappearance in many places where not only the new shore-lines, but the collapse of organization made it difficult to destroy them in effectively discouraging numbers.
Meanwhile, there was worse trouble. Overnight the combined EBC and BBC transmitters abandoned all pretence of calm confidence. When we looked at the message transmitted to us for radiation simultaneously with all other stations we knew that Freddy had been right. It was a call to all loyal citizens to support their legally elected Government against any attempts that might be made to overthrow it by force, and the way in which it was put left no doubt that such an attempt was already being made. The thing was a sorry mixture of exhortation, threats, and pleas, which wound up with just the wrong note of confidence – the note that had sounded in Spain and then in France when the words must be said though speaker and listener alike knew that the end was near. The best reader in the service could not have given it the ring of conviction.
The link could not, or would not, clarify the situation for us. Firing was going on, they said. Some armed bands were attempting to break into the Administration Area. The military had the situation in hand, and would clear up the trouble shortly. The broadcast was simply to discourage exaggerated rumours and restore confidence in the Government. We said that neither what they were telling us, nor the message itself inspired us personally with any confidence whatever, and we should like to know what was really going on. They went all official, curt, and cold.
Twenty-four hours later, in the middle of dictating for our radiation another expression of confidence, the link broke off, abruptly. It never worked again.
Until one gets used to it, the situation of being able to hear voic
The winter closed in. One noticed how few people there were to be seen in the streets now, compared with a year ago. Often it was possible to walk a mile without seeing anyone at all. How those who did remain were living we could not say. Presumably they all had caches of looted stores that supported them and their families; and obviously it was no matter for close enquiry. One noticed also how many of those one did see had taken to carrying weapons as a matter of course. We ourselves adopted the habit of carrying them – guns, not rifles – slung over our shoulders, though less with any expectation of needing them than to discourage the occasion for their need from arising. There was a kind of wary preparedness which was still some distance from instinctive hostility. Chance-met men still passed on gossip and rumours, and sometimes hard news of a local kind. It was by such means that we learnt of a quite definitely hostile ring now in existence around London; how the surrounding districts had somehow formed themselves into miniature independent states and forbidden entry after driving out many who had come there as refugees; how those who did try to cross the border into one of these communities were fired upon without questions.
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