The Sea Terror

by Captain S.P. Meek

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: The mysterious loss of the Arethusa is investigated by Dr. Bird and Carnes.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

“I beg your pardon, sir. I’m looking for Dr. Bird.”

The famous Bureau of Standards scientist appraised the speaker rapidly. Keen blue eyes stared questioningly at him from a mahogany brown face, criss-crossed with a thousand tiny wrinkles. The tattooed anchor on his hand and the ill-fitting blue serge suit smacked of the sea while the squareness of his shoulders and the direct gaze of his eye spoke eloquently of authority.

“I’m Dr. Bird, Captain. What can I do for you?”

“Thank you, Doctor, but I’m not a captain. My name is Mitchell and I am, or was, the first mate of the Arethusa.”

“The Arethusa!” Operative Carnes of the United States Secret Service sprang to his feet. “You said the Arethusa? There were no survivors!”

“I believe that I am the only one.”

“Where have you been hiding and why haven’t you reported the fact of your rescue to the proper authorities? Tell the truth; I’m a federal officer!”

Carnes flashed the gold badge of the Secret Service and an expression of anger crossed Mitchell’s face.

“If I had wished to talk to an officer I could have found plenty in New York,” he said shortly. “I came to Washington in order to tell my story to Dr. Bird.”

The seaman and the detective glared at one another for a moment and then Dr. Bird intervened.

“Pipe down, Carnes,” he said softly. “Mr. Mitchell undoubtedly has reasons, excellent reasons, for his actions. Sit down, Mr. Mitchell, and have a cigar.”

Mitchell accepted the cigar which the doctor proferred and took a chair. He lighted the weed and after another glance of hostility toward the detective he pointedly ignored him and addressed his remarks to Dr. Bird.

“I have no objection to telling you why I haven’t spoken earlier, Doctor,” he said. “When the Arethusa sank, I must have hit my head on something, for the next thing I knew, I was in the Marine Hospital in New York. I had been picked up unconscious by a fishing boat and brought in, and I lay there a week before I knew anything. When I knew what I was doing I heard about the loss of my ship and was told that there were no survivors, and I didn’t know what to do. The story I had to tell was so weird and improbable that I hesitated to speak to anyone about it. I was not sure at first that it was not a trick of a disordered brain, but since my head has cleared I am convinced of the truth of it ... and yet I know that it can’t be so. I have read about you and some of the things you have done, and so as soon as I was able to travel I came here to tell you about it. You will be better able to judge than I, whether what I tell you really happened or was only a vision.”

Dr. Bird leaned back in his chair and put the tips of his fingers together. Long, tapering fingers they were, sensitive and well shaped, though sadly marred by acid stains. It was in his hands alone that Dr. Bird showed the genius in his make-up, the artistry which inspired him to produce those miracles of experimentation which had made his name a household word in the realm of science. Aside from those hands he more resembled a pugilist than a scientist. A heavy shock of unruly black hair surmounted a face with beetling black brows and a prognathous jaw. His enormous head, with a breadth and height of forehead which were amazing, rose from a pillar-like neck which sprang from a pair of massive shoulders and the arching chest of the trained athlete. Dr. Bird stood six feet two inches in his socks, and weighed over two hundred stripped. As he leaned back a curious glitter, which Carnes had learned to associate with keen interest, showed for an instant in his eyes.

“I will be glad to hear your story, Mr. Mitchell,” he said softly. “Tell it in your own way and try not to omit any detail, no matter how trivial it may be.”

The seaman nodded and sat silent for a moment as though marshaling his thoughts.

“The story really starts the afternoon of May 12th,” he said, “although I didn’t realize the importance of the first incident at the time. We were steaming along at good speed, hoping to make New York before too late for quarantine, when a hail came from the forward lookout. I was on watch and I went forward to see what was the matter. The lookout was Louis Green, an able bodied seaman and a good one, but a confirmed drunkard. I asked him what the trouble was and he turned toward me a face that was haggard with terror.

“‘I’ve seen a sea serpent, Mr. Mitchell, ‘ he said.

“‘Nonsense!’ I replied sharply. ‘You’ve been drinking again.’

“He swore that he hadn’t and I asked him to describe what he had seen. His teeth were chattering so that he could hardly speak, but he gasped out a story about seeing a monstrous head, a half mile across, he said, with a long snake body stretching out over the sea until the end of it was lost on the horizon. I turned my glass in the direction he pointed and of course there was nothing to be seen. The man’s condition was such as to make him worse than useless as a lookout, so I relieved him and ordered him below. I took it for a touch of delirium tremens.

“We were bucking a head wind, although not a very stiff one, and we didn’t make port until after dark, so we anchored at quarantine, just off Staten Island, in forty fathoms of water, and Captain Murphy radioed for a Coast Guard boat to come out and lay by us for the night. As you have probably heard, we were carrying four millions in bar gold consigned to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from the Bank of England.”

Dr. Bird and Carnes nodded. The inexplicable loss of the Arethusa had occupied much space in the papers ten days earlier.

“The cutter came out, signalled, and dropped anchor about three hundred yards away. So far, everything was exactly as it should be. I walked to the stern of the boat and looked out across the Atlantic and then I realized that Green wasn’t the only one who could see things. The wind had fallen and it was getting pretty dark, but not too dark to see things a pretty good distance away. As I looked I saw, or thought I saw, a huge black leathery mass come to the surface a mile or so away. There were two things on it that looked like eyes, and I had a feeling as though some malignant thing was staring at me. I rubbed my eyes and looked again, but the vision persisted, and I went forward to get a glass. When I came back the thing, whatever it was, had disappeared, but the water where it had been was boiling as though there were a great spring or something of the sort under the surface.

“I trained my glass on the disturbed area, and I will take my oath that I saw a huge body like a snake emerge from the water. It lay in long undulations on the waves, and moved with them as though it were floating. It was quite a bit nearer than the first thing had been and I could see it plainly with the glass. I would judge it to be fifteen or twenty feet thick, and it actually seemed to disappear in the distance as Green had described it. The sight of the thing sent shivers up and down my spine, and I gave a hoarse shout. The lookout hurried to my side and asked me what the trouble was. I pointed and handed him the glass. He looked through it and handed it back to me with a curious expression.

“‘I can’t see nothing, sir, ‘ he said.

“I took the glass from him and tried to level it but my hands were trembling so that I was forced to rest it on the rail. The lookout was right. There was absolutely nothing to be seen and the peculiar appearance of the sea had subsided to normal. The lookout was staring at me rather curiously and I knew that he was thinking the same thing about me as I had thought about Green in the afternoon. I made some kind of an excuse and went below to pull myself together. I caught a glimpse of myself in the glass. I was as white as a sheet, and the sweat was running off my face in drops.

“I shook myself together after a fashion and managed to persuade myself that the whole thing was just a trick of my mind, inspired by Green’s vivid description of his delirious vision of the afternoon. Eight bells struck, and when Mr. Fulton, the junior officer, relieved me, I laid down and tried to quiet myself. I didn’t have much luck. Just before I took the deck again at midnight I slipped down to the forecastle to see how Green was coming along. He was lying in his bunk, wide awake, with staring eyes.

“‘How are you feeling now, Green?’ I asked.

“He looked up at me with an expression of a man who has looked death in the face.

“‘Ain’t there no chance of dockin’ to-night, Mr. Mitchell?’ he asked.

“‘Of course not, ‘ I said rather sharply. ‘What’s the matter with you? Are you afraid your sea serpent will get us?’

“‘He’ll get us if we stay out here to-night, sir, ‘ he replied with an air of conviction. ‘I saw the horrible mouth on him, large enough to bite this ship in half; and it had a beak like a bird, like a bloody parrot, sir. I saw its horrible body, too, with great black ulcers on the under side of it where the sharks had been after it. For all the shark takes a man now and then, he’s the seaman’s friend, sir, because he kills off the sea serpents who would take ship and all.’

“‘Nonsense, Green!’ I said sharply. ‘Don’t talk any more such foolishness or I’ll have you ironed. You’ve been drinking so much that you are seeing things, and I won’t have the crew disturbed by your crazy talk.’

“‘You won’t think it’s talk when those big eyes stare into yours to-night, Mr. Mitchell, and that body twists around you and squeezes the life out of you. I don’t care whether you iron me or not; I know that I’m doomed and so is everyone else; but I won’t talk about it, sir. The crew might as well rest easy while they can, for there’s no escape if we have to stay out here to-night.’

“‘Well, be sure you keep a tight mouth then, ‘ I said, and left rather hurriedly. I was in a cold sweat, for his air of conviction, together with what I had seen, had shaken me pretty badly. I heard the watch changing up above, and knew there would be men in the forecastle in a minute. I didn’t want to face them right then.

“Mr. Fulton reported everything quiet when I went on deck to relieve him, and although I surveyed the water through a night glass for as far as I could see, there was nothing out of the way. The Coast Guard’s lights were shining less than a quarter of a mile away, and things looked peaceful enough. The wind had gone down with the sun; the sea was almost glassy, and there was a bright moon.

“After going around the ship, I relieved all of the watch except two men for lookouts, and sent them below to get a good night’s sleep. If I hadn’t done that, some of them might be alive now.

“I paced the deck for an hour trying to quiet my nerves, but really getting more nervous every minute. Three bells struck and I walked forward and leaned on the rail to watch the water. I saw a peculiar swirl as though some large body were coming to the surface from below, and then I saw--it.

“Dr. Bird, I take a drink once in a while when I am on shore, but never at sea and never in excess, and I know it wasn’t a vision of drink delirium. I felt perfectly normal aside from my nervousness, and I don’t think it was fever. Either I saw it or I am insane, for it is as vivid to me as though I were standing on the Arethusa’s deck and that monstrous horror was rising once more before my eyes.”

The seaman’s face had become drawn and white as he talked, and drops of sweat were trickling from his chin. Carnes sat forward absorbed in his narrative while Dr. Bird sat back with a glitter in his black eyes and an expression of great attention on his face.

“Go on, Mr. Mitchell,” the doctor said soothingly. “Tell me just what you saw.”

Mitchell shuddered and glanced quickly around the laboratory as though to assure himself that he was safe within four walls.

“From the surface of the sea,” he went on, “rose a massive body, black, and of the appearance of wet leather. It must have been a couple of hundred yards across, although the size of objects is often magnified by moonlight and my terror may have added to its size. In the midst of it were two great discs, thirty feet across, which glowed red with the reflected moonlight. It stared for a moment and then rose higher until it towered above the ship; and then I saw, or thought I saw, a huge gaping beak like a parrot’s. It was as Green had described it, large enough to bite the Arethusa in half, and she was a ship of three thousand tons.

“I was frozen with horror and couldn’t move or cry out. As I watched, I saw the long snake-like body emerge from the water, and the estimate I had made of the size in the afternoon seemed pitifully inadequate. Presently a second and a third snake arose from the water, and then more, until the whole sea and the air above it seemed a writhing mass of huge snakes. I remember wondering why the watch of the Coast Guard cutter didn’t sound an alarm, and then I realized that the thing had arisen on our port side and the cutter was on the starboard.

“The mass of snakes writhed backward and forward, and then two of them rose in the air and hung over the ship. I could see the under side and I saw what Green had called the scars where the sharks had attacked. They were great cup-shaped depressions with vile white edges, and they did resemble huge sores or ulcers. They wavered over the ship for an instant, and then both of them dropped down on the deck.

“I found my voice and I think that I gave a yell, but even as I opened my mouth, I realized the futility of it. The Arethusa was sucked down into the sea as though it had been a tiny chip. I saw the water rising to the rail, and I think I cried out again. The ship tilted and I felt myself falling. The next thing I knew was when I was in the hospital and was told that I had been raving for a week. I was afraid to tell my story for fear I would be put in an asylum, so I kept a tight tongue in my head until I was discharged.”

Dr. Bird mused for a moment as the seaman’s voice stopped.

“You cried out all right, Mr. Mitchell,” he said. “You gave two distinct shouts, both of which were heard by the watch on the Wren, the Coast Guard cutter. They reported that at 1:30, the Arethusa sank without warning. As soon as he heard your shouts, the watch gave the alarm and the crew piled on deck. The Arethusa was gone completely and the Wren was tossing about like ‘a chip in a whirlpool’ as they graphically described it. The Wren had steam up and they fought the waves and steamed over your anchoring ground looking for survivors, but they found none. The sea gradually subsided and they did the only thing they could do--dropped a buoy, to guide the salvage people, and radioed for assistance. The Robin came out and joined them, and both cutters stood by until daylight, but nothing unusual was seen. The insurance people are trying to salvage the wreck now, but so far they have made little headway.”

“That brings me to the rest of the story, the part that made me decide to come to you, Doctor,” said the seaman. “Did you see what happened to the divers yesterday?”

Dr. Bird nodded.

“I saw a brief account of it,” he said. “It seems that two of them were lost through their lines getting fouled and their air connections severed in some way. I don’t believe the bodies have been recovered yet.”

“They never will be recovered, Doctor. I was discharged from the hospital yesterday and the papers were just out with an account of it. I went down to the dock where the John MacLean, the salvage ship, ties up, and I talked to Captain Starley who commands it. I have known him casually for some years, although not intimately, and he gave me a few more details than the press got. He didn’t connect me up at first with the Mitchell who was reported lost on the Arethusa.

“The first man to go down from the MacLean was Charley Melrose, an expert diver. He went down in a pressure outfit to the bottom and started to work. Everything was going along fine until the telephone suddenly rang and the man who answered it heard him say, ‘Raise me, for God’s sake! Hurry!’ The signal for raising was given, but they hadn’t got him more than thirty feet from the bottom before there came a tug on the line and he was gone! The air line, the lifting cable and the telephone cord floated free and were reeled in. Melrose had been plucked off the end of that line as you or I would pluck off a grape.”

Dr. Bird leaned forward with the curious glitter again in his eye.

“Go on,” he said tersely.

“Blake, the other diver, donned a suit and insisted on being lowered at once. Starley tried to dissuade him but he insisted on going down. They lowered him over the side with a twelve-foot steel-shod pike in his hand. He never got to the bottom. He had not been lowered more than a hundred feet when a scream came over the telephone, and again there was a jerk on the lines which threatened to wreck the reel--and the line came aboard with no diver on the end of it. At the same time, Starley told me, the sea boiled and churned as though the whole bottom were coming up, and his ship was tossed about as though it were in a violent storm, although it was calm enough for forty fathom salvage work and that is pretty quiet, you know. Half the time his screws were out of water and he had a hard time to keep from being capsized. He fought his way out of the disturbed area, and as soon as he did, it started to quiet down, and in ten minutes it was calm again.

“Starley was pretty badly shaken and besides he had lost both of his divers, so he came in and I saw him at the dock. When I heard his yarn, I took him into my confidence and told him what I had seen and that I proposed coming to you and asking your advice. I was afraid until I heard his story that it was merely a vision that I had had, but it certainly was no vision that plucked those two divers off their lines.”

“Has Captain Starley told that story to anyone else yet?”

“No, Doctor, he hasn’t. He promised not to talk until after I had seen you. I’ll vouch for him; he’ll keep his word through anything; and he is keeping his whole crew on board until he hears from me.”

Dr. Bird sprang to his feet.

“Mr. Mitchell,” he said energetically, “you have shown excellent judgment. Wire Captain Starley that you have seen me and that he is to hold his crew on board and to talk to no one until I get there. Carnes, telephone the Chief of Naval Operations and ask him to receive me in conference at once. Have him get the Secretary of the Navy in, too, if he is available. When you have finished that, telephone Bolton that you will be away from Washington indefinitely.”

“I’ll telephone Admiral Buck for you, Doctor, but I don’t dare telephone any such message to Bolton; he’d take my head off. He has been running the whole service ragged lately, and this is my first afternoon off duty in a fortnight.”

“What’s the trouble, a flood of new counterfeits?”

“No, the counterfeit division is getting along all right. In point of fact, they have lent us a dozen men. The trouble is a sudden big increase in Communist activity throughout the country, with the Young Labor party behind it. Bolton has been pretty jumpy since that Stokowski affair last August and he is afraid of another attempt of some sort on the President.”

“The Young Labor party? I thought that gang was bankrupt and out of business, since the Coast Guard broke up their alien smuggling scheme.”

“They were down and out for a while, but they are in funds again--and how! They must have three or four millions at least.”

“Where did they get it?”

“That’s what we have been trying to find out. The leaders have presented bars of gold to a dozen banks throughout the country and demanded specie. The banks shipped the gold to the mint and it was good gold, nine hundred and twenty-five fine. What we are trying to find out is how that gold got into the United States.”

“A shipment of that size should be easy to trace.”

“It would seem so, but it hasn’t been. We have accounted for every pound of every shipment that has come in through a port of entry, and we have checked almost that close on the output of every mine in the United States. If the gold came from Russia, it would have had to cross Europe, and we can’t get any trace of it from abroad. It looks as though they were making it.”

Dr. Bird rubbed his head thoughtfully.

“Possible, but hardly probable,” he said. “How much did you say they had?”

“Over three millions in thirty-pound bars. Each bar shows signs of having a mint mark chiselled off, but that don’t help much for they have done too good a job. It has us pretty well bluffed.”

Again Dr. Bird rubbed his head.

“Telephone Admiral Buck, and then phone Bolton and tell him exactly what I told you to: that you will be away indefinitely. When he gets through exploding, tell him that you are going with me and that possibly, just barely possibly, we might be on the trail of that gold shipment.”

“On the trail of the gold!” gasped Carnes. “Surely, Doctor, you don’t think--”

“Once in a while, old dear,” replied the Doctor with a chuckle, “which is more than anyone in the Secret Service does. You might tell Bolton that I said that, but hang up quickly if you do. I don’t want the wires of my telephone melted off. No, Carnesy, I have no miraculous inspiration as to where that gold is coming from; I just have a plain old-fashioned hunch, and that hunch is that we are going to have lots of fun and more than our share of danger before we see Washington again. After you get through bearding Bolton in his den, you might call the Chief of the Air Corps and ask him to have a bomber held at Langley Field subject to my orders. If he squawks any, I’ll talk to him.”

He turned to a telephone which stood on his desk and lifted the receiver.

“Get Mr. Lambertson on the wire,” he said. “He is the chief technician of the Pyrex Glass Works at Corning, New Jersey.”

The U.S.S. Minneconsin steamed out of New York harbor and headed down toward the lower bay. On her forward deck rested a huge globe. The bottom quarter of the sphere was made of some dark opaque substance but the upper portion was transparent as crystal. Through the walls could be seen a quantity of apparatus resting on the opaque bottom portion. Two mechanics from the Bureau of Standards were making final adjustments of one of the pieces of apparatus, which resembled a tank fitted with a piston geared to an electric motor. From the tank, tubes ran to four hollow pipes, an inch and a half in diameter, which ran through the skin and extended thirty inches from the outer skin of the twenty-foot sphere. Dr. Bird stood near talking with the executive officer of the ship and from time to time giving a brief word of direction to the mechanics.

“It’s safer than you might think, Commander,” he said. “In the first place, that globe is not made of ordinary glass; it is made of vitrilene, a new semi-malleable glass which was developed at the Bureau and which is being made on an experimental scale for us by the Pyrex people. It is much stronger than ordinary glass, and is not sensitive to shock. It is also perfectly transparent to ultra-violet light, being superior even to rock crystal or fused quartz in that respect. The walls, as you have noticed, are four inches thick, and I have calculated that the ball will stand a uniform external pressure of thirty-five hundred atmospheres, the pressure which would be encountered at a depth of about twenty miles. I believe that it will stand a squeeze of six thousand tons without buckling, and it is impossible to fracture it by shock. It could be dropped from the top of the Woolworth Building, and it would just bounce.”

“It seems incredible that it could stand such a pressure as you have named.”

“My figures are conservative ones. Lambertson calculated them even higher, but we allowed for the fact that this is the first large mass of the material to be cast, and lowered them.”

“But suppose your lifting cable should break?” objected the naval officer. “The outfit weighs a good many tons.”

“You notice that the lower quarter is made of lead. The specific gravity of the entire globe when sealed up tight with two men in it is only a little more than unity. In the water its weight is so little that a three-inch manilla hawser would raise it, let alone a steel cable. I have another safety device. Granted that the cable should snap, I can detach the lead from it and it would shoot to the surface like a rocket.”

“How long can you remain under water in it?”

“A week, if necessary. I have an oxygen tank and a carbon dioxide removing apparatus which will keep the air in good condition. The globe is electrically lighted, and can be heated if necessary. Should my telephone line become fouled and broken, I have a radio set which will enable me to communicate with you. I can’t see that it is especially dangerous; not nearly as much so as a submarine.”

“What is your object in going down, if I may ask?”

“To take pictures and to explore the wreck if we can. The globe is equipped with huge floodlights and excellent cameras. The salvage people are having a little trouble and we are trying to help them out.”

“You mentioned exploring. Can you leave the globe while it is under water?”

“Yes. There is a locking device for doing so. A man in a diving suit can enter the lock and fill it with water. Once the external pressure is released he can open the outer door and step out. Coming back, he seals the outer door and the man inside blows out the lock and compressed air and then the inner door can be opened. It is the same principle as a torpedo tube.”

A jangle of bells interrupted them and the Minneconsin slowed down. Commander Lawrence stepped to the rail and gave a sharp order to the navigating officer on the bridge. The bells jangled again and the ship’s engines stopped.

“We are almost over the buoy, Doctor,” he said.

Dr. Bird nodded and spoke to the two mechanics. With a few final touches to the apparatus they emerged from the globe and Dr. Bird entered.

“Come on, Carnes,” he called. “No backing out at the last minute.”

Carnes stepped forward with a sickly smile and joined the Doctor in the huge sphere.

“All right, boys; close her up.”

The mechanics swung the outer door into place with a crane. Both the edge of the door and the surface against which it fitted had been ground flat and were in addition faced with soft rubber. Bolts were fastened in the door which passed through holes in the main sphere, and Dr. Bird spun nuts onto them and tightened them with a heavy wrench. He and Carnes lifted the smaller inner door into place and bolted it tight. Dr. Bird stepped to the telephone.

“Lower away,” he directed.

From a boom attached to the Minneconsin’s forward fighting top, a huge steel cable swung down, and the latch at the end of the cable was closed over a vitrilene ring which was fastened to the top of the sphere. The cable tightened and the globe with the two men in it was lifted over the side of the battleship and lowered gently into the water. Carnes involuntarily ducked and threw up his hand as the waters closed over them. Dr. Bird laughed.

“Look up, Carnes,” he said.

Carnes gasped as he looked up and saw the surface of the water above him. Dr. Bird laughed again and turned to the telephone.

“Lower away,” he said. “Everything is tight.”

The globe descended into the depths of the sea. Darker and darker it grew until only a faint twilight glow filled the sphere. A dark bulk loomed before them. Dr. Bird snapped on one of his huge floodlights and pointed.

“The Arethusa,” he said.

The ill-fated vessel lay on her side with a huge jagged hole torn in her fabric amidships.

“That’s where her boilers burst,” explained the Doctor. “Luckily we have a hard bottom to deal with. Let’s see if we can locate any of Mitchell’s sea serpents.”

He turned on other flood lights and swept the bottom of the sea with them. The huge beams bored out into the water for a quarter of a mile, but nothing unusual was to be seen. Dr. Bird turned his attention again to the wreck.

“Things look normal from this side,” he said after a prolonged scrutiny. “I’ll have the Minneconsin steam around it while we look it over.”

In response to his telephone orders the ship above them swung around the wreck in a circle, and Carnes and the Doctor viewed each side in turn. But nothing of a suspicious nature made its appearance. The sphere stopped opposite the hole in the side and Dr. Bird turned to Carnes.

“I’m going to put on a diving suit and explore that wreck,” he said. “If there ever was any danger, it isn’t apparent now; and I can’t find out anything until I get inside.”

“Don’t do it, Doctor!” cried Carnes. “Remember what happened to the other divers!”

“We don’t know what happened to them, Carnes. No matter what it was, there is no danger apparent right now, and I’ve got to get into that ship before I can get any real information. We could have lowered an under-sea camera and learned as much as we have so far.”

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