The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham

  ‘ “But – ” and then some stuff about the improbable places you do find life, leading up to: “ – is this, the most secret womb in the world, not barren, after all?” Er, well, words to that effect, anyway. And then, giving the Bocker line a complete miss: ‘Is a new form of life – and not only of life, but of intelligent life – about to emerge from these depths, from this slime, and struggle up through the miles of water to the sunlight, perhaps to challenge the supremacy of man himself? Millions of years ago our own ancestors crawled from the sea on to the land – ” Then-sprinkle in some bits which support the possibility. Then you can follow on with a piece about the inevitable animosity, and I can take the line that should the two forms of intelligence be complementary they may be able to solve all the riddles of the universe between them. What about something along those lines?’

  I considered. ‘Well, to be frank, darling, I don’t quite see the over-all form, and conclusion.’

  ‘I’m seeing it rather as one of those “Whither – ?” things, only not highbrow. You know, ending on a question.’

  ‘As well it may. If I may say so, Voice doesn’t seem to have quite made up his mind whether he is a florid moralist, or a metaphorical guide. But I think I see the mood you’re after – the picture of a new kind of life emerging from the mysteries of a sort of super Celtic-twilight – that kind of thing?’

  ‘Well, allowing for the fact that I shouldn’t express it at all like that – roughly, yes, I suppose.’

  ‘Well, Phyl, you’d have an awful handful there, because, honestly, I don’t think this thing can be made to lend itself to a romantic treatment. Why not wait until we get a few more facts to add to it, and then try again along more documentary lines? They’re always your real hits, you know.’

  She thought it over. ‘You’re probably right, Mike. But I’d like to get in first with that angle, so I hope we don’t have to wait too long for the extra facts.’

  ‘I, on the other hand, would prefer that we should never have them at all. I should be a lot happier if I were to hear that the things down there had simply drowned themselves, but I’m prepared to be disappointed.’

  And I thought I was. Nobody, however, was really prepared for the next day’s news.

  Phase Two

  WE made an early start that morning. The car, ready loaded, had stood out all night, and we were away a few minutes after five, with the intention of putting as much of southern England behind us as we could before the roads got busy. It was two hundred and sixty-eight point eight (when it wasn’t point seven or point nine) miles to the door of the cottage that Phyllis had bought with a small legacy from her Aunt Helen.

  I had rather favoured the idea of a cottage a mere fifty miles or so away from London, but it was Phyllis’s aunt who was to be commemorated with what was now Phyllis’s money, so we became the proprietors of Rose Cottage, Penllyn, Nr Constantine, Cornwall, Telephone Number: Navasgan 333. It was a grey-stone, five-roomed cottage set on a south-easterly sloping. heathery hillside, with its almost eavesless roof clamped down tight on it in the true Cornish manner. Straight before us we looked across the Helford River, and on towards the Lizard where, by night, we could see the flashing of the lighthouse. To the left was a view of the coast stretching raggedly away on the other side of Falmouth Bay, and if we walked a hundred yards ahead, and so out of the lee of the hillside which protected us from the south-westerly gales, we could look across Mount’s Bay, towards the Scilly Isles, and the open Atlantic beyond. Falmouth, 7 miles; Helston, 9; elevation 332 feet above sea-level; several, though not all, mod. con. When you did reach it you decided that it was worth travelling two hundred and sixty-eight point eight (or nine) miles, after all.

  We used it in a migratory fashion. When we had enough commissions and ideas on hand to keep us going for a time we would withdraw there to drive our pens and bash our typewriters in pleasant, undistracting seclusion for a few weeks. Then we would return to London for a while, market our wares, cement relations, and angle for commissions until we felt the call to go down there again with another accumulated batch of work – or we might, perhaps, simply declare a holiday.

  That morning, I made pretty good time. It was still only half past eight when I removed Phyllis’s head from my shoulder and woke her up to announce: ‘Yeovil, and breakfast, darling.’ I left her trying to pull herself together to order breakfast intelligibly while I went to get some newspapers. By the time I returned she was functioning better, and had already started on the cereal. I handed over her paper, and looked at mine. The main headline in both was given to a shipping disaster. That this should be so when the ship concerned was Japanese suggested that there was little news from elsewhere.

  I glanced at the ‘story’ below the picture of the ship. From a welter of human interest I unearthed the fact that the Japanese liner, Yatsushiro, bound from Nagasaki to Amboina, in the Moluccas, had sunk. Out of some seven hundred people on board, only five survivors had been found.

  Now, in common with most of my fellow-countrymen, though independently of foundation, I have the feeling that in the Occident we construct, but in the Orient they contrapt. Thus the news of an oriental bridge collapsing, train leaving the rails, or, as in the present case, ship sinking, never impinges with quite the novelty its western counterpart would arouse, and the sense of concern is consequently less acute. I do not defend this phenomenon; I regard it as reprehensible. Nevertheless, it is so, and in consequence I turned the page with my sense of tragedy somewhat qualified by non-surprise. Before I could settle down to the leader, however, Phyllis interrupted with an exclamation. I looked across. Her paper carried no picture of the vessel; instead, it printed a small sketch-map of the area, and she was intently studying the spot marked ‘X’.

  ‘What is it?’ I asked.

  She put her finger on the map. ‘Speaking from memory, and always supposing that the cross was made by somebody with a conscience,’ she said, ‘doesn’t that put the scene of this sinking pretty near our old friend the Mindanao Trench?’

  I looked at the map, trying to recall the configuration of the ocean floor around there.

  ‘It can’t be far off,’ I agreed.

  I turned back to my own paper, and read the account there more carefully. ‘Women,’ apparently, ‘screamed when –,’ ‘Women in night-attire ran from their cabins,’ ‘Women, wide-eyed with terror, clutched their children –,’ ‘Women’ this and ‘Women’ that when ‘death struck silently at the sleeping liner.’ When one had swept all this woman jargon and the London Office’s repertoire of phrases suitable for trouble at sea aside, the skeleton of a very bare Agency message was revealed – so bare that for a moment I wondered why two large newspapers had decided to splash it instead of giving it just a couple of inches. Then I perceived the real mystery angle which lay submerged among all the phoney dramatics. It was that the Yatsushiro had, without warning, and for no known reason, suddenly gone down like a stone.

  I got hold of a copy of this Agency message later, and I found its starkness a great deal more alarming and dramatic than this business of dashing about in ‘night-attire’. Nor had there been much time for that kind of thing, for, after giving particulars of the time, place, etc., the message concluded laconically: ‘Fair weather, no (no) collision, no (no) explosion, cause unknown. Foundered less one (one) minute alarm. Owners state quote impossible unquote.’

  So there can have been very few shrieks that night. Those unfortunate Japanese women – and men – had time to wake, and then, perhaps, a little time to wonder, bemused with sleep, and then the water came to choke them: there were no shrieks, just a few bubbles as they sank down, down, down in their nineteen-thousand-ton steel coffin.

  When I had read what there was I looked up. Phyllis was regarding me, chin on hands, across the breakfast table. Neither of us spoke for a moment. Then she said:

  ‘It says here: “ – in one of the deepest parts of the Pacific Ocean.” Do you think this can be it, Mike – so soon

  I hesitated. ‘It’s difficult to tell. So much of this stuff’s obviously synthetic…. If it actually was only one minute…. No, I suspend judgement, Phyl. We’ll see The Times to-morrow and find out what really happened – if anyone knows.’

  We drove on, making poorer time on the busier roads, stopped to lunch at the usual little hotel on Dartmoor, and finally arrived in the late afternoon – two hundred and sixty-eight point seven, this time. We were sleepy and hungry again, and though I did remember, when I telephoned London, to ask for cuttings on the sinking to be sent, the fate of the Yatsushiro on the other side of the world seemed as remote from the concerns of a small grey Cornish cottage as the loss of the Titanic.

  The Times noticed the affair the next day in a cautious manner which gave an impression of the staff pursing their lips and staying their hands rather than mislead their readers in any way. Not so, however, the reports in the first batch of cuttings which arrived on the afternoon of the following day. We put the stack between us, and drew from it. Facts were evidently still meagre, but there was plenty of comment. My first read:

  ‘Mystery still shrouds the fate of the ill-starred Japanese liner, Yatsushiro, which plunged to her doom bringing sudden death to all but five of her seven hundred passengers, including women and children, on Monday night off the southern islands of the Philippine group. No mystery of the sea since the still unsolved riddle of the Marie Celeste has presented more baffling queries…’

  The next one read:

  ‘It seems likely that the fate of the Yatsushiro may well take a place in the long list of unsolved mysteries of the sea. Nothing quite so unaccountable has occurred since the schooner, Marie Celeste, was discovered adrift with…’

  And the next:

  ‘Statements made by the five Japanese sailors, the only survivors of the Yatsushiro disaster, serve only to deepen the mystery surrounding the ship’s fate. Why did she sink? How could she sink so swiftly? Answers to these questions may never be forthcoming, any more than they were to the questions posed by the mystery of the Marie Celeste which have eluded solution…’

  And the next:

  ‘Even in these modern times of radio, etc., the sea can still produce mysteries to defeat us. The loss of the liner, Yatsushiro, presents puzzles as baffling as any in the annals of navigation, and to all appearance no more likely to be satisfactorily explained than were the problems aroused by the famous Marie Celeste, which, it will be recalled…’

  I reached for another.

  ‘It says here,’ Phyllis broke in, looking at the cutting in her hand, with a slight frown: ‘ “The tragic loss of the Yatsushiro bids fair to rank high among the unsolved problems of the high seas. It is, in its way, only a little less baffling than the still unanswered questions posed by the famous Marie Celeste…”’

  ‘Yes, darling,’ I agreed.

  And the one before said: ‘ “A mystery even deeper than that surrounding the celebrated Marie Celeste veils the fate of the vanished Yatsushiro…” Wasn’t the whole point about the Marie Celeste that she didn’t sink?’

  ‘Roughly – yes, darling.’

  ‘Well, then what is all this about her for?’

  ‘It is what is known as an “angle”, darling. It means in translation, that nobody has the ghost of an idea why the Yatsushiro sank. Consequently she has been classified as a Mystery-of-the Sea. This gives her a natural affinity with other Mysteries-of-the-Sea, and the Marie Celeste was the only specific M-of-the-S that anyone could call to mind in the white heat of composition. In other words, they are completely stumped.’

  ‘It’s not worth looking through the rest, then?’

  ‘Scarcely. But we’d better. I’d like to know if anybody is speculating – and if not, why not? We can’t be the only people who are putting two and two together. So just keep an eye out for guesses.’

  She nodded, and we went on working through the pile, learning more about the Marie Celeste than we did about the Yatsushiro. There was only one check. Phyllis gave a ‘Ha’ of discovery.

  “This one’s different,’ she said. ‘Listen! “The full story behind the sinking of the Japanese vessel Yatsushiro, is not likely to be revealed. This luxury liner, lavishly decorated and furnished, was built in Japan, with capital emanating largely from Wall Street, at a time when the gap between uncontrolled wage-levels and the rising cost of living for the Japanese worker – “ Oh, I see.’

  ‘What do they work round to?’ I asked.

  She skimmed the rest. ‘I don’t think they do. There’s just a kind of all through suggestion that it was too contaminated by capital to keep afloat.’

  ‘Well, that’s the only theory out of this lot,’ I said. ‘All got a strong dose of not-before-the-children this time. And not altogether surprising, seeing the hell the advertisers raised over the last global panic they pulled. But they’re going to have to do better than this skulking behind the Marie Celeste; you can’t just proclaim a thing a Mystery-of-the-Sea and stop all theories for long. For one thing, the more intelligent weeklies haven’t such sensitive advertisers. Somehow I can’t see Tribune or the – ’

  Phyllis cut me off:

  ‘Mike, this isn’t a game, you know. After all, a big ship has gone down, and seven hundred poor people have been drowned. That is a terrible thing. I dreamt last night that I was shut up in one of those little cabins when the water came bursting in.’

  ‘Yesterday – ’ I began, and then stopped. I had been about to say that yesterday Phyllis had poured a kettle of boiling water down a crack in order to kill a lot more than seven hundred ants, but thought better of it. ‘Yesterday,’ I amended, ‘a lot of people were killed in road accidents, a lot will be to-day.’

  ‘I don’t see what that has to do with it,’ she said.

  She was right. It was not a very good amendment – but neither had it been the right moment to postulate the existence of a menace that might think no more of us than we of ants.

  ‘As a race,’ I said, ‘we have allowed ourselves to become accustomed to the idea that the proper way to die is in bed. at a ripe age. It is a delusion. The normal end for all creatures comes suddenly. The – ’

  But that wasn’t the right thing to say at that time, either. She withdrew, using those short, brisk, hard-on-the-heel steps.

  I was sorry. I was worried, too, but it takes me differently.

  I was evidently not alone in thinking that a solution would have to be provided. The next day, it was. Almost every newspaper explained it, and on Friday the weeklies elaborated it. It could be compressed into two words – metal-fatigue.

  Certain new alloys recently developed in Japanese laboratories had, it seemed, been used, for the first time on any considerable scale, in the construction of the Yatsusbiro. Metallurgical experts conceded it as not impossible that some, or one, of these alloys might, if the ship’s engines were to produce vibrations of a certain critical periodicity, become fatigued, and therefore brittle. A fracture of one member so affected would throw on others a sudden strain which, in their weakened state, they might be unable to take. Thus, the collapse of susceptible members might be rapidly successive and conducive to speedy disintegration of the whole. Or, one might put it that the whole ship was ready to fall apart at the drop of a hat.

  This could not, at the moment, be positively established as the sole cause of the disaster since detailed examination of the structure was at present precluded by circumstances. Or, again, five or six miles of water.

  It had been decided, however, that all work on the Yatsushiro’s sister-ship, now on the stocks, would be suspended pending the application of exhaustive tests regarding the crystalline structure of the alloys intended for use in her construction.

  ‘Ah! The blinding light of science,’ I said after reading several closely similar versions in different papers. ‘A bit hard on that shipyard, and not, perhaps, very consoling to the relatives, but a pretty piece of work, all the same. So reassuring for all the rest of us. Ob
serve the nicer points: not just general metal-fatigue, nor even weld-fatigue, which might alarm people about welded ships in general; no, just the fatigue of an unspecified alloy or two used in one Japanese ship. No other ship is likely to suffer from this deciduous complaint: no need for the seafaring public to feel the least concern lest any other ship should get a touch of this ague and shake itself to bits. And the sea…? Nothing to do with it. The sea is as safe as ever it was.’

  ‘But it could be so, couldn’t it?’ said Phyllis.

  ‘That’s the beauty of it. It had to be something that could be – if only just. And I think they’ll very likely get away with it. The general public will take it, and the technical men won’t stand to gain anything by contesting it – in public, anyway.’

  ‘I’d like to believe it,’ said Phyllis. ‘I think I even might, if I hadn’t given myself to a cynic – and, of course, if the thing hadn’t happened to happen just where it did.’

  I pondered.

  ‘I imagine,’ I said, ‘that marine insurance rates will be pegged at the moment, to preserve confidence – but we ought to keep an eye on the prices of shipping shares.’

  Phyllis got up and went to the window. From where she stood, at the side of it, she had a view of the blue water stretching to the horizon.

  ‘Mike,’ she said, ‘I’m sorry about yesterday. The thing – this ship going down like that – suddenly got me. Until now this has been a sort of guessing game, a puzzle. Losing the bathyscope with poor Wiseman and Trant was bad, and so was losing the naval ships. But this – well, it suddenly seemed to put it into a different category – a big liner full of ordinary, harmless men, women, and children peacefully asleep, to be wiped out in a few seconds in the middle of the night! It’s somehow a different class of thing altogether. Do you see what I mean? Naval people are always taking risks doing their jobs – but these people on a üner hadn’t anything to do with it. It made me feel that those things down there had been a working hypothesis that I had hardly believed in, and now, all at once, they had become horribly real. I don’t like it, Mike. I suddenly started to feel afraid. I don’t quite know why.’

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