The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham
‘Nevertheless,’ he said, ‘I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to hold it up for a while.’
Phyllis looked understandably disappointed; she had worked hard on that script. Not just for cash, either. She had tried to make it a tribute to the two men, Wiseman and Trant, who had vanished with the bathyscope. She looked down at her toes.
‘I’m sorry,’ said the Captain, ‘but I did warn your husband that it wouldn’t be for immediate release.’
Phyllis looked up at him.
‘Why?’ Zshe asked.
That was something I was equally anxious to know about. My own recordings of the preparations, of the brief descent we had both made in the bathyscope, and of various aspects that were not on the official tape record of the dive, had been put into cold-storage, too.
‘I’ll explain what I can. We certainly owe you that,’ agreed Captain Winters. He sat down and leant forward, elbows on knees, fingers interlaced between them, and looked at us both in turn.
‘The crux of the thing – and of course you will both of you have realized that long ago – is those fused cables,’ he said. ‘Imagination staggers a bit at the thought of a creature capable of snapping through steel hawsers – all the same, it might just conceivably admit the possibility. When, however, it comes up against the suggestion that there is a creature capable of cutting through them like an oxy-acetylene flame, it recoils. It recoils, and definitely rejects.
‘Both of you saw what happened to those cables, and I think you must agree that their condition opens a whole new aspect. A thing like that is not just a hazard of deep-sea diving – and we want to know more about just what kind of a hazard it is before we give a release on it.’
We talked it over for a little time. The Captain was apologetic and understanding, but he had his orders. He assured us that he would make it his business to see that we were notified of release at the earliest possible moment; and with that we had to make do. Phyllis hid her disappointment under her usual philosophic good sense. Before we left, she asked:
‘Honestly, Captain Winters – and off the record, if you like – have you any idea what can have done it?’
He shook his head. ‘On or off the record, Mrs Watson, I can think of no explanation that approaches being possible – and, though this is not for publication, I doubt whether anyone else in the Service has an idea, either.’
And so, with the affair left in that unsatisfactory state, we parted.
The prohibition, however, lasted a shorter time than we expected. A week later, just as we were sitting down to dinner, he rang through. Phyllis took the call.
‘Oh, hullo, Mrs Watson. I’m glad it’s you. I have some good news for you,’ Captain Winters’ voice said. ‘I’ve just been talking to your EBC people, and giving them the okay, so far as we are concerned, to go ahead with that feature of yours, and the whole story.’
Phyllis thanked him for the news. ‘But what’s happened?’ she added.
‘The story’s broken, anyway. You’ll hear it on the nine o’clock news to-night, and see it in to-morrow’s papers. In the circumstances it seemed to me that you ought to be free to take your chance as soon as possible. Their Lordships saw the point – in fact, they would like your feature to go out as soon as possible. They approve of it. So there it is. And the best of luck to you.’
Phyllis thanked him again, and rang off.
‘Now what do you suppose can have happened?’ she inquired.
We had to wait until nine o’clock to find that out. The notice on the news was scanty, but sufficient from our point of view. It reported simply that an American naval unit conducting research into deep-sea conditions somewhere off the Philippines had suffered the loss of a depth-chamber, with its crew of two men.
Almost immediately afterwards EBC came through on the telephone with a lot of talk about priorities, and altered programme schedules, and available cast.
Audio-assessment told us later that the feature had an excellent reception figure. Coming so soon after the American announcement, we hit the peak of popular interest. Their Lordships were pleased, too. It gave them the opportunity of showing that they did not always have to follow the American leadthough I still think there was no need to make the US a present of the first publicity. Anyway, in view of what has followed, I don’t suppose it greatly matters.
In the circumstances, Phyllis rewrote a part of the script, making greater play with the fusing of the cables than before. A flood of correspondence came in, but when all the tentative explanations and suggestions had been winnowed none of us was any wiser than before.
Perhaps it was scarcely to be expected that we should be. Our listeners had not even seen the maps, and at this stage it had not occurred to the general public that there could be any link between the diving catastrophes and the somewhat démodé topic of fireballs.
But if, as it seemed, the Royal Navy was disposed simply to sit still for a time and ponder the problem theoretically, the US Navy was not. Deviously we heard that they were preparing to send a second expedition to the same spot where their loss had occurred. We promptly applied to be included, and were refused. How many other people applied, I don’t know, but enough for them to allocate a second small craft. We couldn’t get a place on that either. All space was reserved for their own correspondents and commentators who would cover for Europe, too.
Well, it was their own show. They were paying for it All the same, I’m sorry we missed it because, though we did think it likely they would lose their apparatus again, it never crossed our minds that they might lose their ship as well….
About a week after it happened one of the NBC men who had been covering it came over. We more or less shanghaied him for lunch and the personal dope.
‘Never saw anything like it – never want to,’ he said. ‘They were using an automatic instrument pretty much like the one you people lost. The idea was to send that down first, and if it came up again okay, then they’d take another smack at it with a manned depth-chamber – what’s more, they had a couple of volunteers for it, too; funny the way you can always find a few guys who seem kind of bored with life on Earth.
‘Anyway, that was the project. We lay off a couple of hundred yards or more from the research ship, but we had a cable slung between us to relay the television, so we could watch it on our screens just as well as they could on theirs.
‘We did – awhile, but I guess it’s one of those subjects you have to have majored in to keep the interest up. The way we saw it, it was more of a test-out. We were aiming to get our real stuff from the depth-chamber dive where there’d be the human angle, even though it’d not go down so far.
‘Well, we watched the thing slung overside, then we went into our saloon to look at the screens. I guess what we saw’d likely be what you saw; sometimes it was foggy, sometimes clear, and sometimes there’d be quite a few screwy-looking fish and squids, and whole flocks of things that don’t have any names I ever heard of, and, I’d say, don’t need’ em, either.
‘Over the screens was a lighted panel recording the depth – which was a good idea on account of it all looked like it might be going around on an endless band, anyway. By one mile down all the guys with better-trained consciences had taken them up on deck under the awning, with smokes and cold drinks. By two miles down, I was out there, with them, leaving two or three puritanical characters to cover it and tell us if anything new showed up. After a bit more, one of them quit, too, and joined me.
‘ “Two and a half miles, and the last half-mile as dark as the Tunnel of Love – and that wouldn’t interest even fish a lot, from what they tell me,” he said.
‘He drew himself a coke and started to move over towards me. Then he stopped short.
‘ “Christ!” he said. And simultaneously there was some kind of yell from inside the saloon.
‘I turned my head and looked the way he was looking – at the research ship.
‘A moment before she had been lying there placid, with
‘Well, I don’t know what kind of thunderstorms you folks have over here, but in some places they have a kind where the lightning looks like it’s running around all over a building. And that was the way the research ship looked just then. You could hear it crackle, too.
‘She can’t have looked that way for more than a few seconds, though it seemed a lot longer. Then she blew up….
‘I don’t know what they had aboard her, but she sure did blow. Every one of us hit the deck in a split second. And then there was spray and scrap coming down all over. When we looked again there wasn’t anything there but a lot of water just getting itself smoothed out.
‘We didn’t have a lot to pick up. A few bits of wood, half a dozen lifebuoys, and three bodies, all badly burnt. We collected what there was, and came home.’
During the longish pause Phyllis poured him another cup of coffee.
‘What was it?’ she asked.
He shrugged. ‘It could have been coincidence, but say we rule that out, then I’d guess that if ever lightning were to strike upwards from the sea, that’d be about the way it’d look.’
‘I never heard of anything like that,’ Phyllis said.
‘It certainly isn’t on the record,’ he agreed. ‘But there has to be a first time.’
‘Not very satisfactory,’ Phyllis commented.
He looked us over.
‘Seeing that you two were on that British fishing-party, do I take it you know why we were there?’
‘I’d not be surprised,’ I told him.
He nodded. ‘Well, look,’ he said, ‘I’m told it isn’t possible to persuade a high charge, say a few million volts, to run up an uninsulated hawser in sea-water, so I must accept that; it’s not my department. All I say is that if it were possible, then I guess the effect might be quite a bit like what we saw.’
‘There’d be insulated cables, too – to the cameras, microphones, thermometers, and things,’ Phyllis said.
‘Sure. And there was an insulated cable relaying the TV to our ship; but it couldn’t carry that charge, and burnt out – which was a darned good thing for us. That would make it look to me like it followed the main hawser – if it didn’t so happen that the physics boys won’t have it.’
‘They’ve no alternative suggestions?’ I asked.
‘Oh, sure. Several. Some of them could sound quite convincing – to a fellow who’d not seen it happen.’
‘If you are right, this is very queer indeed,’ Phyllis said, reflectively.
The NBC man looked at her. ‘A nice British back-hand understatement – but it’s queer enough, even without me,’ he said, modestly. ‘However they explain this away, the physics boys are still stumped on those fused cables, because, whatever this may be, those cable severances couldn’t have been accidental.’
‘On the other hand, all that way down, all that pressure…?’ Phyllis said.
He shook his head. ‘I’m making no guesses. I’d want more data than we’ve got, even for that. Could be we’ll get it before long.’
We looked questioning.
He lowered his voice. ‘Seeing you’re in this, too, but strictly under your hats, they’ve got a couple more probes lined up right now. But no publicity this time – the last lot had a nasty taste.’
‘Where?’ we asked, simultaneously.
‘One off the Aleutians, some place. The other in a deep spot in the Guatemala Basin. What’re your folks doing?’
‘We don’t know,’ we said, honestly.
He shook his head. ‘Always kinda close, your people,’ he said, sympathetically.
And close they remained. During the next few weeks we kept our ears uselessly wide open for news of either of the two new investigations, but it was not until the NBC man was passing through London again a month later that we learnt anything. We asked him what had happened. He frowned.
‘Off Guatemala they drew blank,’ he said. ‘The ship south of the Aleutians was transmitting by radio while the dive was in progress. It cut out suddenly. She’s reported as lost with all hands.’
Official cognizance of these matters remained underground – if that can be considered an acceptable term for their deep-sea investigations. Every now and then we would catch a rumour which showed that the interest had not been dropped, and from time to time a few apparently isolated items could, when put in conjunction, be made to give hints. Our naval contacts preserved an amiable evasiveness, and we found that our opposite numbers across the Atlantic were doing little better with their naval sources. The consoling aspect was that had they been making any progress we should most likely have heard of it, so we took silence to mean that they were stalled.
Public interest in fireballs was down to zero, and few people troubled to send in reports of them any more. I still kept my files going though they were now so unrepresentative that I could not tell how far the apparently low incidence was real.
As far as I knew, the two phenomena had never so far been publicly connected, and presently both were allowed to lapse unexplained, like any silly-season sensation.
In the course of the next three years we ourselves lost interest almost to vanishing point. Other matters occupied us. There was the birth of our son, William – and his death, eighteen months later. To help Phyllis to get over that I wangled myself a travelling-correspondent series, sold up the house, and for a time we roved.
In theory, the appointment was simply mine; in practice, most of the gloss and finish on the scripts which pleased the EBC were Phyllis’s, and most of the time when she wasn’t dolling up my stuff she was working on scripts of her own. When we came back home, it was with enhanced prestige, a lot of material to work up, and a feeling of being set on a smooth, steady course.
Almost immediately, the Americans lost a cruiser off the Marianas.
The report was scanty, an Agency message, slightly blown up locally; but there was a something about it – just a kind of feeling. When Phyllis read it in the newspaper, it struck her, too. She pulled out the atlas, and considered the Marianas.
‘It’s pretty deep round three sides of them,’ she said.
‘That report’s not handled quite the regular way. I can’t exactly put my finger on it. But the approach is a bit off the line, somehow,’ I agreed.
‘We’d better try the grape-vine,’ Phyllis decided.
We did, without result. It wasn’t that our sources were holding out on us; there seemed to be a blackout somewhere. We got no further than the official handout: this cruiser, the Keweenaw, had, in fair weather, simply gone down. Twenty survivors had been picked up. There would be an official enquiry.
Possibly there was: I never heard the outcome. The incident was somehow overlayed by the inexplicable sinking of a Russian ship, engaged on some task never specified, to eastward of the Kuriles, that string of islands to the south of Kamchatka. Since it was axiomatic that any Soviet misadventure must be attributable in some way to capitalist jackals or reactionary fascist hyenas, this affair assumed an importance which quite eclipsed the more serious American loss, and the acrimonious innuendoes went on echoing for some time. In the noise of vituperation the mysterious disappearance of the survey-vessel Utskarpen, in the Southern Ocean, went almost unnoticed outside her native Norway.
Several others followed, but I no longer have my records to give me the details. It is my impression that quite half a dozen vessels, all seemingly engaged in ocean research in one way or another, had vanished before the Americans suffered again off the Philippines. This time they lost a destroyer, and, with it, their patience.
The ingenuous announcement that since the water abou Bikini was too shallow for a contemplated series of deep-water atomic-bomb tests the locale of these experiments would be shifted westwards by a little matter of a thousand miles or so, may possibly have deceived a portion of the general public, but in radio
Phyllis and I had better standing now, and we were lucky, too. We flew out there, and a few days later we formed part of the complement of a number of ships lying at a strategic distance from the point where the Keweenaw had gone down off the Marianas.
I can’t tell you what that specially designed depth-bomb looked like, for we never saw it. All we were allowed to see was a raft supporting a kind of semi-spherical, metal hut which contained the bomb itself, and all we were told was that it was much like one of the more regular types of atomic bomb, but with a massive casing that would resist the pressure at five miles deep, if necessary.
At first light on the day of the test a tug took the raft in tow, and chugged away over the horizon with it. From then on we had to observe by means of unmanned television cameras mounted on floats. In this way we saw the tug cast off the raft, and put on full speed. Then there was an interval while the tug hurried out of harm’s way and the raft pursued a calculated drift towards the exact spot where the Keweenaw had disappeared. The hiatus lasted for some three hours, with the raft looking motionless on the screens. Then a voice through the loudspeakers told us that the release would take place in approximately thirty minutes. It continued to remind us at intervals until the time was short enough for it to start counting in reverse, slowly and calmly. There was a complete hush as we stared at the screens and listened to the voice:
‘ – three – two – one – NOW!’
On the last word a rocket sprang from the raft, trailing red smoke as it climbed.
‘Bomb away!’ said the voice.
For a long time, as it seemed, everything was intensely still. Around the vision screens no one spoke. Every eye was on one or another of the frames which showed the raft calmly afloat on the blue, sunlit water. There was no sign that anything had occurred there, save the plume of red smoke drifting slowly away. For the eye and the ear there was utter serenity; for the feelings, a sense that the whole world held its breath.
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