The Danger From the Deep

by Ralph Milne Farley

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Marooned on the sea-floor, his hoisting cable cut, young Abbot is left at the mercy of the man-sharks.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Within a thick-walled sphere of steel eight feet in diameter, with crystal-clear fused-quartz windows, there crouched an alert young scientist, George Abbot. The sphere rested on the primeval muck and slime at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, one mile beneath the surface.

The beam from his 200-watt searchlight, which shot out through one of his three windows into the dark blue depths beyond, seemed faint indeed, yet it served to illuminate anything which crossed it, or on which it fell.

For a considerable length of time since his descent to the ocean floor, young Abbot had clung to one of the thick windows of his bathysphere, absorbed by the marine life outside. Slender small fish with stereoscopic eyes, darted in and out of the beam of light.

Swimming snails floated by, carrying their own phosphorescent lanterns. Paper-thin transparent crustaceans swam into view, followed by a few white shrimps, pale as ghosts. Then a mist of tiny fish swept across his field of vision. Abbot cupped his face in his hands, and stared out.

The incongruous thought flashed across his mind that thus he had often sat by the window of his club in New York, and gazed out at the passing motor traffic.

His searchlight cut a sharp swath through the blue muck. More than once he thought he saw large moving fish-like forms far away.

“Speed up the generator,” he called into his phone.

Immediately the shaft of light brightened. He set about trying to focus upon one of those dim elusive shapes which had so intrigued him.

But suddenly the searchlight went out! Intent on repairing the apparatus as rapidly as possible, Abbot snapped the button-switch, which ought to have illuminated the interior of his diving-sphere; but the lights did not go on. Then he noticed that the electric fan, on which he depended to keep his air-supply properly mixed, had stopped.

He spoke into the telephone transmitter, which hung in front of his mouth: “Hi, there, up on the boat! My electric power is cut off. I’m down here with my fan stopped and my heat cut off. Hoist me up, and be quick about it!”

“O.K., sir.”

As the young man waited for the winch to get under way on the boat a mile above him, he pulled out his electric pocket flashlight and sent its feeble ray out through his quartz-glass window into the dim royal-purple depths beyond, in one last attempt to get a look at those mysterious fish-shapes which had so intrigued him.

And then he saw one of them distinctly.

Evidently they had swum closer when the glow of his searchlight had stopped; and so the sudden flash of his pocket-light had taken them by surprise.

For, as he snapped it on, he caught an instant’s glimpse of a grinning fish-face pressed close against the outside of his thick window-pane, as though trying to peer in at him. The fish-face somewhat resembled the head of a shark, except that the mouth was a bit smaller and not quite so leeringly brutal, and the forehead was rather high and domed.

But what most attracted Abbot’s attention, in the brief instant before the startled fish whisked away in a swirl of phosphorescent foam, was the fact that, from beneath each of the two pectoral fins, there protruded what appeared to be a skinny human arm, terminating in three fingers and a thumb!

Then the fish was gone. Abbot snapped off his little light.

The diving-sphere quivered, as the hoisting-cable tautened. But suddenly the sphere settled back to the bottom of the sea with a jarring thud. “Cable’s parted, sir!” spoke a frantic voice in his ear-phones.

For a moment George Abbot sat stunned with horror. Then his mind began to race, like a squirrel in a cage, seeking some way of escape.

Perhaps he could manage to unscrew the 400-pound trap door at the top of the sphere, and shoot to the surface, with the bubbling-out of the confined air. But his scientifically trained mind made some rapid calculations which showed him this was absurd.

At the depth of a mile, the pressure is roughly 156 atmospheres, that is to say, 156 times the air-pressure at the surface of the earth; and the moment that his sphere was opened to this pressure, he would be blown back inwardly away from the man-hole, and the air inside his sphere would suddenly be compressed to only 1/156 of its former volume.

Not only would this pressure be sufficient to squash him into a mangled pulp, but also the sudden compression of the air inside the sphere would generate enough heat to fry that mangled pulp to a crisp cinder almost instantly.

As George Abbot came to a full realization of the horror of these facts, he recoiled from the trap-door as though it were charged with death.

“For Heaven’s sakes, do something!” he shrieked in agony into the transmitter.

“Courage, sir,” came back the reply. “We are rigging up a grapple just as fast as we can. Long before your oxygen gives out, we shall slide it down to you along the telephone line, which is the only remaining connection between us. When it settles about your sphere, and you can see its hooks outside your window by the light of your pocket-flash, let us know, and we’ll trip the grapple and haul you up.”

“Thank you,” replied the young man.

He was calm now, but it was an enforced and numb kind of calmness.

Mechanically he throttled down his oxygen supply, so as to make it last longer. Mechanically he took out his notebook and pencil and started to write down, in the dark, his experiences; for he was determined to leave a full account for posterity, even though he himself should perish.

After setting down a categorical description of the successive partings of the electric light cable and the hoist cable, and his thoughts and feelings in that connection, he described in detail the shark with hands, which he had seen through the window of his sphere.

He tried to be very explicit about this, for he realized that his account would probably be laid, by everyone, to the disordered imagination of his last dying moments; being a true scientist, George Abbot wanted the world to believe him, so that another sphere would be built and sent down to the ocean depths, to find out more about these peculiar denizens of the deep.

Of course, no one would believe him. This thought kept drumming in his ears. No one--except Professor Osborne. Old Osborne would believe!

George Abbot’s mind flashed back to a conversation he had had with the old professor, just before the oil interests had sent him on this exploring trip to discover the source of the large quantities of petroleum which had begun to bubble up from the bottom of a certain section of the Pacific very near where Abbot now was.

Osborne had said, “This petroleum suggests a gusher to me. And what causes gushers? Human beings, boring for oil, to satisfy human needs.”

“But, Professor,” Abbot had objected, “there can’t be any human beings at the bottom of the sea!”

“Why not?” Professor Osborne had countered. “Life is supposed to have originated spontaneously in the slime of the ocean depths; therefore that part of the earth has had a head-start on us in the game of evolution. May not this head-start have been maintained right down to date, thus producing at the bottom of the sea a race superior to anything upon the dry land?”

“But,” Abbot had objected further, “if so, why haven’t they come up to visit or conquer us? And why haven’t we ever found any trace of them?”

“Quite simple to explain,” the old professor had replied. “Any creature who can live at the frightful pressures of the ocean depths could never survive a journey even halfway to the surface. It would be like our trying to live in an almost perfect vacuum. We should explode, and so would these denizens of the deep, if they tried to come up here. Even one of their dead bodies could not be brought to the surface in recognizable form. No contact with them will ever be possible, nor will they ever constitute a menace to any one--for which we may thank the Lord!”

George Abbot now reviewed this conversation as he crouched in his diving-sphere in the purple darkness of the marine depths. Yes, old Osborne would believe him. The diary must be written for Osborne’s eyes.

Abbot sent another beam from his pocket light suddenly out into the water; and this time he surprised several of the peculiar fish. These, like the first, had arms and hands and high intelligent foreheads.

Then suddenly Abbot laughed a harsh laugh. Old Osborne had been wrong in one thing, namely in saying that the super-race of the deep would never be a menace to anyone. They were being a menace to George Abbot, right now, for it was undoubtedly they who had cut his cables.

Probably they were possessed of much the same scientific curiosity with regard to him as he was with regard to them, and so they had determined to secure him as a museum specimen.

The idea was a weird one. He laughed again, mirthlessly.

“What is the matter, sir?” came an anxious voice in his ear-phones.

“Hurry that grapple!” was his reply. “I have found out what cut my cables. There are some very intelligent-looking fish down here, and I think they want me for--”

An ominous click sounded in his ears. Then silence.

“Hello! Hello there!” he shouted. “Can you hear me up on the boat?”

But no answer came back. The line remained dead. The strange fish had cut George Abbot’s last contact with the upper world. The grapple-hooks could never find him now, for there was now not even a telephone cable to guide them down to his sphere.

The realization that he was hopelessly lost, and that he had not much longer to live, came as a real relief to him, after the last few moments of frantic uncertainty.

Hoping that his sphere would eventually be found, even though too late to do him any good, he set assiduously to work jotting down all the details which he could remember of those strange denizens of the deep, the man-handed sharks, which he was now firmly convinced were the cause of his present predicament.

He stared out through one of his windows into the brilliant blue darkness, but did not turn on his flashlight. How near were these enemies of his, he wondered?

The presence of those menacing man-sharks, just outside the four-inch-thick steel shell, which withstood a ton of pressure for each square inch of its surface, began to obsess young Abbot. What were they doing out there in the watery-blue midnight? Perhaps, having secured his sphere as a scientific specimen, they were already preparing to cut into it so as to see what was inside. That these fish could cut through four inches of steel was not so improbable as it sounded, for had they not already succeeded in severing a rubber cable an inch and a half thick, containing two heavy copper wires, and also two inches of the finest, non-kinking steel rope!

The young scientist flashed his pocket torch out through the thick quartz pane, but his enemies were nowhere in sight. Then he fell to calculating his oxygen supply. His normal consumption was about half a quart per minute, at which rate his two tanks would be good for thirty-six hours. His chemical racks contained enough soda-lime to absorb the excess carbon dioxide, enough calcium chloride to keep down the humidity and enough charcoal to sweeten the body odors for much more than that period.

For a moment, the thought of these facts encouraged him. He had been down less than two hours. Perhaps the boat above him could affect his rescue in the more than thirty-four hours which remained!

But then he realized that he had failed to take into consideration the near-freezing temperature of the ocean depths. This temperature he knew to be in the neighborhood of 39 degrees Fahrenheit--even though no thermometer hung outside his window, as none could withstand the frightful pressures at the bottom of the sea. For it is one of the remarkable facts of inductive science that man has been able to figure out a priori that the temperature at all deep points of the ocean, tropic as well as arctic, must always be stable at approximately 39 degrees.

Abbot was clad only in a light cotton sailor suit, and now that his source of heat had been cut off by the severing of his power lines, his prison was rapidly becoming unbearably chilly. His thick steel sphere constituted such a perfect transmitter of heat that he might almost as well have been actually swimming in water of 39 degrees temperature, so far as comfort was concerned.

Abbot’s emotions ran all the gamut from stupefaction, through dull calmness, clear-headed thought, intense but aimless mental activity, nervousness, frenzy, and insane delirium, back to stupefaction again.

During one of his periods of calmness, he figured out what an almost total impossibility there was of the chance that his ship, one mile above him on the surface, could ever find his sphere with grappling hooks. Yet he prayed for that chance. A single chance in a million sometimes does happen.

Several hours had by now elapsed since the parting of the young scientist’s cables. It was bitterly cold inside the sphere. In order to keep warm, he had to exercise during his calm moments as systematically as his cramped quarters would permit. During his frantic moments he got plenty of exercise automatically. And of course all this movement used up more than the normal amount of oxygen, so that he was forced to open the valves on his tanks to two or three times their normal flow. His span of further life was thereby cut to ten or twelve hours, if indeed he could keep himself warm for that long.

Why didn’t the people on the boat do something!

He was just about to indulge in one of his frantic fits of despair, when he heard or felt--the two senses being strangely commingled in his present situation--a clank or thump upon the top of his bathysphere. Instantly hope flooded him. Could it be that the one chance in a million had actually happened, and that a grapple from the boat above had actually found him?

With feverish expectation, he pressed the button of his little electric pocket flashlight, and sent its feeble beam out through one of the quartz-glass windows into the blue-black depths beyond.

No hooks in front of this window. He tried the others. No hooks there, either. But he did see plenty of the superhuman fish. Eighteen of them, he counted, in sight at one time. And also two huge snake-like creatures with crested backs and maned heads, veritable sea-serpents.

As there was nothing the young man could do to assist in the grappling of his sphere by his friends in the boat above, he devoted his time to jotting down a detailed description of these two new beasts and of their behavior.

One of the sharks appeared to be leading or driving them up to the bathysphere; and when they got close enough, Abbot was surprised to see that they wore what appeared to be a harness!

The clanking upon the bathysphere continued, and now the young man learned its cause. It was not the grapple hooks from his ship, but chains--chains which the man-armed sharks were wrapping around the bathysphere.

Two more of the harnessed sea-serpents swam into view, and these two were hitched to a flat cart: an actual cart with wheels. The chains were attached to the harness of the original two beasts; they swam upward and disappeared from view; and the sphere slowly rose from the mucky bottom of the sea, to be lowered again squarely on top of the cart. The cart jerked forward, and a journey over the ocean floor began.

Then the little pocket torch dimmed to a dull red glow, and the scene outside faded gradually from view. Abbot switched off the now useless light and set to work with scientific precision to record all these unbelievable events.

In his interest and excitement, he had forgotten the ever-increasing cold; but gradually, as he wrote, the frigidity of his surroundings was forced on his consciousness. He turned on more oxygen, and exercised frantically. Meanwhile the cart, carrying his bathysphere, bumped along over an uneven road.

From time to time, he tried his almost exhausted little light, but its dim red beam was completely absorbed by the blue of the ocean depths, and he could make out nothing except two bulking indistinct shapes, writhing on ahead of him. Finally even this degree of visibility failed, and he could see absolutely nothing outside.

He was now so chilled and numb that he could no longer write. With a last effort, he noted down that fact, and then put the book away in its rack.

He began to feel drowsy. Rousing himself, he turned on more oxygen.

The effect was exhilaration and a feeling of silly joy. He began to babble drunkenly to himself. His head swam. His mind was in a daze.

It seemed hours later when he awoke. Ahead of him in the distance there was a dim pale-blue light, against which there could be seen, in silhouette, the forms of the two serpentine steeds and their fish-like drivers. Abbot’s hands and feet were completely numb, but his head was clear.

As they drew nearer to the light, it gradually took form, until it turned out to be the mouth of a cave. The cart entered it.

Down a long tunnel they progressed, the light getting brighter and brighter as they advanced. The color of the light became a golden green. The rough stone walls of the tunnel could now be seen; and finally there appeared, ahead, two semicircular doors, swung back against the sides of the passage.

Beyond these doors, the tunnel walls were smooth and exactly cylindrical, and on the ceiling there were many luminous tubes, which lit up the place as brightly as daylight. The cart came to a stop.

The young scientist could now see with surprising distinctness his captors and their serpentine steeds, and even the details of the chains and the harness. He tried to pick up his diary, so as to jot down some points which he had theretofore missed; but his hands were too numb. But at least he could keep on observing; so he glued his eyes to the thick quartz window-pane once more.

A short distance ahead in the passage there was another pair of doors.

Presently these swung open and the cavalcade moved forward. Five or six successive pairs of doors were passed in this manner, and then the sea-serpents began to thrash about and become almost unmanageable. It was evident that some change not to their liking had taken place in their surroundings.

At last, as one of the portals swung open, young Abbot saw what appeared to be four deep-sea diving-suits. Could these suits contain human beings? And if so, who? It seemed incredible, for no diving-suit had ever been devised in which a man could descend to the depth of one mile, and live.

These four figures, whatever they were, came stolidly forward and took charge of the cart. One of the sharks swam up to them and appeared to talk to them with its hands. Then the sharks unhitched the two sea-serpents and led them to the rear, and Abbot saw them no more.

The four divers picked up the chains, and slowly towed the cart forward, their clumsy, ponderous movements contrasting markedly with the swift and sure swishings which had characterized the man-sharks and their snake-like steeds.

Several more pairs of doors were passed, and then there met them four figures in less cumbersome diving-suits, like those ordinarily used by men just below the surface of the sea. One of the deep-sea divers then pressed his face close to the outside of one of the windows of the bathysphere, as though to take a look inside; but the four newcomers waved him away, and hurriedly picked up the chains. Nevertheless, in that brief instant, Abbot had seen within the head-piece of the diver what appeared to be a bearded human face.

Several more pairs of doors were passed. The four deep-sea divers floundered along beside the cart, quite evidently having more and more difficulty of locomotion as each successive doorway was passed, until finally they lay down and were left behind.

At last the procession entered a section of tunnel which was square, instead of circular, and in which there was a wide shelf along one side about three feet above the floor. The four divers then dropped the chains, and one by one took a look at Abbot through his window.

And he at the same time took a most interested look at them.

They had unmistakable human faces!

He must be dreaming! For even if Osborne was right about his supposed super-race at the bottom of the sea, this race could not be human, for the pressures here would be entirely too great. No human being could possibly stand two thousand pounds per square inch!

Having satisfied their curiosity, the four divers pulled themselves up onto the shelf, and sat there in a row with their legs hanging over.

Abbot glanced upward at the ceiling lights, but these had become strangely blurred. There seemed to be an opaque barrier above him, and this barrier seemed to be slowly descending. The lights blurred out completely, and were replaced by a diffused illumination over the entire ripply barrier. And then it dawned on the young man that this descending sheet of silver was the surface of the water. He was in a lock, and the water was being pumped out.

The surface settled about the helmets of the divers, and their helmets disappeared; then their shoulders and the rest of them. At last it reached the level of Abbot’s window. The divers could again be seen, and among then on the shelf there stood a half dozen naked bearded men, clad only in loin-cloths. They had evidently entered the lock while the water was subsiding.

These men unbuckled the helmets of the divers and helped them out, and then splashed down into the water and peered in through the windows of the bathysphere. Presently some of them left through a door at the end of the platform, but soon reappeared with staging, which they set up around the sphere. Then, climbing on top, they got to work on the man-hole cover.

As George Abbot realized their purpose, he became frantic. Although these men appeared to be human, just like himself, yet his scientifically-trained mind told him that they must be of some very special anatomical structure, in order to be able to withstand the immense pressures at the bottom of the Pacific. It was all right for them to be out there, but it would be fatal to him!

And then the heavy circular door above him began slowly to revolve.

This was terrible! In a moment the crushing pressures of the depths would come seeping in. Rising unsteadily upon his knees, the young man tried with his fingers to resist the rotation of the door; but it continued to turn.

Yet no pressure could be felt. The door became completely unscrewed.

It was pried up, and slid off the top of the bathysphere, to crash upon the floor outside. Inquisitive bearded faces peered down through the hole.

Young Abbot slumped to the cold bottom of the sphere and stared back at them. He was saved; incredibly saved! These were real people, the air was real air and he must therefore be on the surface of the earth, instead of at the bottom of the Pacific as he had imagined! With a sigh of relief, he fainted...

When he came to his senses again, he was lying in a bed in a small room. Bending over him was the sweetest feminine face that he had ever seen.

The girl seemed to be about twenty years of age. She was clad in a clinging robe of some filmy green substance. Her hair was honey-brown, short and curly, and her forehead high and intelligent. Her eyes, an indescribable shade of deep violet, were matchlessly set off by her ivory skin.

The young man smiled up at her, and she smiled back. Thus far it had not occurred to him to wonder where he was, or why. No recollection of his recent strange adventures came to him. To him this was an exotic dream, from which he did not care to awake.

She spoke. Her words were unintelligible, and unlike any language which George Abbot knew or had even heard; and he was an accomplished linguist in addition to his other attainments.

And her words were not all that was strange about her speech, for the very tones of her voice sounded completely unhuman, although not displeasing. Her talk had a metallic ring to it, like the brassy blare of temple gongs, and yet was so smooth and subdued as to be sweeter than any sound that the young scientist had ever heard before.

“Beautiful dream fairy,” replied the enraptured young man, “I haven’t the slightest idea what you are saying, but keep right on. I like it.”

His own voice sounded crass and crude compared to hers. At his first words she gave a start of surprise, but thereafter the sound did not appear to grate on her ears.

Then one of the bearded men in loin-cloths entered, and he and the girl talked together, quite evidently about their patient. The man’s voice had the same strange metallic quality to it as that of the girl, but was deeper, so that it boomed with the rich notes of a bell.

At the sight of the man, young Abbot’s memory swept back, and he remembered the adventure of his diving-sphere, and its capture, one mile down, by the strange shark-fish with human hands and arms. But how he had reached the surface of the earth again, he couldn’t figure out. Nor did he particularly care.

The strange man withdrew, and the girl sat down beside the bed and smiled at Abbot. He smiled back at her.

Presently another girl entered and called, “Milli!”

The girl beside the bed started, and looking up asked some question, to which the other replied.

The newcomer brought in some strange warm food in a covered dish and then withdrew. The first girl proceeded to feed her patient.

After the meal, which tasted unlike anything which the young man had ever eaten before, the beautiful nurse again essayed conversation with him. She seemed perplexed and a bit frightened that he could not understand her words. Somehow, the young man sensed that this girl had never heard any other language than her own, and that she did not even know that other languages existed.

Strengthened by his food, he determined to set about learning her language as soon as possible. So he pointed at her and asked, “Milli?”

She nodded, and spoke some word which he took for “yes.”

Then he pointed to himself and said, “George.”

She understood, but the word was a difficult one for her to duplicate in the metallic tongue of her people. She made several attempts, until he laughingly spoke her word for “yes.”

Then he pointed to other objects about the room. She gave him the names of these, but he could easily see that she felt that, if he did not know the names for all these common things, there must be something the matter with him.

He wondered how he could make her understand that there were other languages in the world than her own; and then he remembered the sharks with their hands and what he had taken to be their sign language.

Perhaps Milli at least knew of the existence of the sign language.

This would afford a parallel; for if she realized that there were two languages in the world, might there not be three?

So Abbot made some meaningless signs with his fingers. Milli quite evidently was accustomed to this kind of talk, but she was further perplexed to find that George talked gibberish with his hands as well as with his mouth.

She made some signs with her hands, and then said something orally.

Young Abbot instantly pointed to her mouth, and held up one finger; then to her hands, and held up two; then to his own mouth, and held up three, at the same time speaking a sentence of English. Instantly she caught on: there were three languages in the world. And thereafter she no longer regarded him as crazy.

For several hours she taught him. Then another meal was brought, after which she left him, and the lights went out.

He awakened feeling thoroughly rested and well. The lights were on and Milli was beside him.

He asked for his clothes. They were brought. Milli withdrew and he put them on.

After breakfast, which they ate together, one of the bearded men came and led him out through a number of winding corridors into a larger room, in which there was a closed spherical glass tank, about ten feet in diameter, containing one of the human sharks. Around the tank stood five of the bearded men.

One of them proceeded to address Abbot, but of course the young American could not make out what he was saying. This apparent lack of intelligence seemed to exasperate the man; and finally he turned toward the tank, and engaged in a sign language conference with the fish; then turned back to Abbot again and spoke to him very sternly.

But Abbot shook his head and replied, “Milli. Bring Milli.”

One of the other men flashed a look of triumph at their leader, and laughed.

“Yes,” he added, “bring Milli.”

The leader scowled at him, and some words were interchanged, but it ended in Milli being sent for. She apparently explained the situation to the satisfaction of the fish, to the intense glee of the man who had sent for her, and to the rather complete discomfiture of the leader of the five.

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