Marooned Under the Sea

by Paul Ernst

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Three men stick out a strange and desperate adventure among the incredible monsters of the dark sea floor.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Yacht Rosa was due to leave the San Francisco harbor in two hours.

We were going on some mysterious cruise to the South Seas, the details of which I did not know.

“Professor George Berry, the famous zoologist, and myself are going to do some exploring that is hazardous in the extreme,” Stanley had said. “For purely mechanical reasons we need a third. You are young and have no family ties, so I thought I’d ask you to go with us. I’d rather not tell you what it’s all about until we are on our way.”

That was all the explanation he had given. It was sufficient. I was fed-up with life just then: I had enough money to avoid work and was tired of playing.

“I must warn you that you’ll risk your life in this,” he had continued, in answer to my acceptance of his invitation.

And I had replied that the hazard, whatever it might be, only made the trip appear more desirable.

So here I was, on board the yacht, about to sail for far places on some scientific mission which had so far been kept veiled in secrecy and which was represented as “hazardous in the extreme.” It sounded attractive!

Stanley came aboard accompanied by a lean, wiry man with iron gray hair and cool, alert black eyes.

“Hello, Martin,” Stanley greeted me. “I want you to meet Professor Berry, the real leader of this expedition. Professor, this young red-head is Martin Grey, a sort of nephew by adoption who knows more about night life than most cabaret proprietors--and not much of anything else. He has shaken the dangers of the gold-diggers to face with us the dangers of the tropic seas.”

The professor gripped my hand, and his cool black eyes gazed into mine with a kind of friendly frostiness.

“Don’t pay any attention to him,” he advised me. “Twenty years ago, when I first met him, he was on his way to Africa to shoot elephants because some revue beauty had just thrown him over and he felt he ought to do something big and heroic about it. It was shortly afterward that he decided to stay a bachelor all his life, and became such a confirmed woman hater.”

He smiled thinly at Stanley’s prod in the ribs, and the two went below, talking and laughing with the intimacy of old friendship.

I stayed on deck and soon found myself watching, with no little wonder, an enormous truck and trailer arrangement that drew up on the dock heavily loaded with a single immense crate. It was for us. I speculated as to what it could possibly contain.

It was a twenty or twenty-five-foot cube solidly braced with strap-iron and steel brackets. It evidently contained something fragile. The yacht’s donkey engine lowered a hook for it, and swung it over the side and into the hold as daintily as though it had been packed with explosives.

The last of the ship’s stores followed it over the side: the group of newspaper reporters who had been trying to pump the captain and first mate for a story were warned to leave, and we were ready to go. Precisely where and for what purpose?

I was to find out almost immediately.

Even as the yacht nosed superciliously away from the dock, the steward approached me with the information that lunch was ready. I went to the small, compactly furnished dining salon, where I was joined by Stanley and the professor.

There were only the three of us at the table. Stanley Browne, noted big game hunter and semi-retired owner of the great Browne Glassworks at Altoona, a man fifteen years my senior but tanned and fit looking; Professor Berry, well known in scientific circles; and myself, known in no branch of activity save the one Stanley had jested about--the night life of my home city, Chicago.

“It’s time you knew just what you’re up against,” said Stanley to me after the consomme had been served. “Now that we’ve actually sailed, there’s no longer any need for secrecy. Indeed there never has been urgent need of it: the Professor and myself merely thought we might provoke incredulity and comment if we stated the purpose of our trip publicly.”

He buttered a roll.

“We--the Professor and you and I--are going in for some deep sea diving. And when I say deep, I mean deep. We are going to investigate conditions as they exist one mile down from the surface of the ocean.”

“A mile!” I exclaimed. “Why--”

There I stopped. I had only a layman’s knowledge of such matters. But I knew that the limit of man’s submersion, till then at any rate, was a matter of a few hundred feet.

“Sounds incredible, doesn’t it,” said Stanley with a smile. “But that’s what we’re going to do--if the Professor’s gadget works as he seems to think it will.”

“I don’t think it, I know it,” retorted the Professor. “And man, man, the things we may see down there! New and unknown species--a world no human has ever seen before--perhaps the secret of all of life--”

“Dragons, sea-serpents, and what not!” Stanley finished with a grin.

“Or, possibly--nothing at all.” The Professor shrugged. “I mustn’t let my scientific curiosity run away with me. Perhaps we’ll find no new thing down down. Our deep sea dredging and classification may already embrace most of the forms of life in the greater depths.”

“If it does I want my money back,” said Stanley. “When you asked me to finance this expedition for you, I agreed on condition that you would show me a thrill--some real big game, even if I would not be able to shoot it. If we draw blank--”

“The mere descent should satisfy you, my adventuring friend,” replied the Professor brusquely. “I think you’ll find that thrilling enough.”

“But--a mile under the surface!” I marveled, feeling not entirely comfortable. “The pressure! Enormous! It can’t be done! That is, I mean, can it be done?”

“It had better be,” said Stanley with a humor that I did not entirely appreciate. “If it isn’t, the three of us are going to be pressed out like three sheets of tissue paper! For we are assuredly going down that far in the Professor’s gadget.”

“Was that the thing I saw hoisted aboard just before we left?”

“That was it. We’ll stroll around after lunch and look it over.”

If I had taken this cruise in search of distraction--I was surely going to be successful! That was plain!

“Just where are we going?” I asked. “You said something about the South Seas, but you’ve named no special part of them.”

“We’re bound for Penguin Deep. That’s a delightful little dimple in the Kermadec Trough, which,” Stanley explained, “is north-northeast of New Zealand almost halfway up to the Fiji Islands. Penguin Deep is ticketed at five thousand one hundred and fifty feet, but it probably runs deeper in spots.”

The rest of the meal was consumed in silence. I hardly tasted what I ate; I remember that. Over five thousand feet down--where no man had ever ventured before! Could we make it?

I tried to recall my neglected physics lessons and compute the pressure that far down. I couldn’t. But I knew it must be an appalling total of tons to the square inch. What possible arrangement could they have brought in which to make that awful descent?

And, if the descent were accomplished, what in the world would we see when we got down there? Gigantic, hitherto unknown fishes? Marine growths, half animal and half vegetable?

Decidedly, hot rolls and salad, cutlets and baked potatoes, good as they were, could not distract attention from the crowding questions that assailed me. And I could see that Stanley and the Professor were also far away in their thoughts--probably already exploring Penguin Deep.

After lunch we went forward to look at the Professor’s gadget, as Stanley insisted on calling it.

It had been carefully unpacked by the crew while we ate, and it shimmered in the electric lighted hold like a great bubble.

It was a giant glass sphere, polished and flawless. Inside it could be made out various objects--a circular bench arrangement on a wooden flooring, batteries that filled the cup between the floor and the bottom arc of the sphere, tall metal cylinders, a small searchlight set next to a mechanism that was indeterminate. At three equidistant points on the sides there were glass handles, as thick as a man’s thigh, cast integral with the walls. On the top there was a smaller handle.

At first glance the sphere seemed all in one piece, with the central objects cast inside like a toy ship in a sealed bottle. Then a mathematically precise ring of prismatic reflections showed me that the top third of the ball was a separate piece, fitting conically down like the tapered glass stopper of a monstrous perfume bottle. The handle on the top was for the purpose of lifting this giant’s teapot lid, and allowing entrance into the sphere.

“Isn’t it a beauty?” murmured Stanley. “It ought to be,” he added. “It cost me eighty-six thousand to make it in my own glass factory. Eleven castings before this one came along that was reasonably free of flaws. Twenty-two feet six inches over all, walls five feet thick, new formula unbreakable glass, four men working a month to grind the lid into place, tolerance limits plus or minus zero.”

He slapped the Professor’s shoulders. “Let’s go in and look over the apparatus.”

To accommodate the huge ball a well had been constructed in the Rosa’s hold. This brought the deck we were standing on up to within six feet of the top ring, above which was rigged a chain hoist for lifting the ponderous lid.

The hoist was revolved, the conical top was swung free, and we clambered into our unique diving shell.

The tall cylinders were revealed as great flasks of compressed air. The indeterminate thing beside the searchlight turned out to be a hand pump, geared to work against heavy pressure. From the suction chamber of this three tubes extended.

“We inhale the air of the chamber,” the Professor explained to me, “and exhale through the tubes into the pump cylinder. Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. The pump piston is forced down by this geared handle, sending the used air out of the shell through this sixteenth-inch hole. A ball check valve keeps the water from squirting in when the exhaust pressure is released.”

He pointed to a telegraphic key which completed a circuit from the batteries in the bottom of the ball to a thread of copper cast through the lid.

“That’s your plaything, Martin. You are to raise or lower us by pressing that key. It controls the donkey engine electrically, so that we guide our own destinies though we are a mile beneath our power plant. Stanley works the pump. I direct the searchlight, write down notes, and, I sincerely hope, take snapshots of deep sea life.”

For a moment my part of the labor seemed so easy as to be unfair. Merely to sit there and punch a little key at raising and lowering time! But as I thought it over it began to appear more difficult.

The Rosa could not anchor, of course, in a mile of water. We would drift helplessly. If we approached an undersea cliff I must raise us at once to prevent us being smashed against it. And if the cliff were too lofty to be cleared in time...

I mentioned this to the Professor.

“That would be unfortunate,” he said, with his frosty smile. “Stanley assures us this glass is unbreakable. He means commercially unbreakable. What would happen to it if it were submitted to the strain of being flung against a rock pile--in addition to the enormous stress of the water pressure--I don’t know. It’s your job to see that we don’t have to find out!”

It had been planned to test the sphere empty first to see how it stood the strain.

We drifted to a full stop over the center of Penguin Deep where we were to gamble our lives in a game with Neptune. Sea anchors were rigged to lessen our drift and the donkey engine was geared to the first cable drum.

There was an impressive row of these drums, each holding an interminable length of three-quarter-inch cable. The bulk of a mile of steel cable has to be seen to be believed!

The glass sphere was lifted from the hold, delicately for all its enormous weight, and swung over the rail preparatory to being lowered into the depths.

Not until that moment did I notice two things: that there was no fastening of any kind to keep the thick lid in place: and that the three-quarter-inch cable looked like a pack thread in comparison to the ponderous bulk it strained to support.

“We couldn’t use a heavier cable,” said the Professor, “because of the strain. We’re overloading the hoist as it is. As for the lid being fastened down--I think you’ll find it will be pressed into place securely enough!”

There was unanimous silence as the great globe slipped into the sea--down and down until the last reflection of the morning sun ceased to shimmer from its surface. Drum after drum was played out, till the first mate held his hand up to check the engineer.

“Five thousand feet, sir,” he called to Stanley.

“Haul it back up. And let us hope,” Stanley added fervently, “that we’ll find the gadget in one piece.”

The engine began to snort rhythmically. Dripping, vibrating, the coils of cable began to crawl back in place on the drums. There was a glint under the surface again as the sunlight reflected on the nearing sphere.

The great ball flashed out of the water, and a cheer burst from the throats of all of us. It was absolutely unharmed. Only--there was a beading of fine moisture inside the thick globe. What that could mean, none of us could figure out.

“Difference in temperature?” worried the Professor. “No, it’s as cold inside as out. Molecules of water driven by sheer pressure through five feet of glass to unite in drops on the inside? Possibly. Well, there’s one way to find out. Stanley, Martin--are you ready?”

We nodded, and prepared to visit the bottom a mile below the Rosa’s keel. The preparation consisted merely in donning heavy, fleece-lined jumpers to protect us from the cold of the sunless depths.

Soberly we entered the ball to undergo whatever ordeal awaited us on the distant ocean floor. How comparative distance is! A mile walk in the country--it is nothing. A mile ascent in an airplane--a trifle. But a mile descent into pitch black, bone chilling depths of water--that is an immense distance!

Copper wire, on a separate drum, was connected from the engine switch to the copper thread that curled through the glass wall to my telegraphic key. We strapped the mouthpieces of the breathing tubes over our heads, and Browne started the slow turning of the compression pump.

The Professor snapped the searchlight on and off several times to see that it was in working shape. He raised his hand, I pressed the key, and the long descent began.

That plunge into the bottomless depths remains in my memory almost as clearly as the far more fantastic adventures that came to us later.

Smoothly, rapidly, the yellow-green of the surface water dimmed to olive. This in turn grew blacker and blacker. Then we were slipping down into pitch darkness--a big bubble lit by a meagre lamp and containing three fragile human beings that dared to trust the soft pulp of their bodies to the crushing weight of the deepest ocean.

The most impressive thing was the utter soundlessness of our descent. At first there had been a pulsing throb of the donkey engine transmitted to us by the sustaining cable. This died as we slid farther from the Rosa. At length it was hushed entirely, cushioned by the springy length of steel. There was no stir, no sound of any kind. As far as our senses could tell us, we were hanging motionless in the pressing, awesome blackness.

The Professor switched off our light and turned on the searchlight which he trained downward through the wall at as steep an angle as the flooring would permit. Even then the illusion of motionlessness was preserved. There was nothing in the water to mark our progress. We might have been floating in a back void of space.

Down and down we went, for an interminable length of time--till at length we reached the abysmal level where the sun never shone and the eyes of man had never gazed till now.

Words were made to describe familiar articles. I find now when I am faced with the necessity of portraying events and objects beyond the range of normal human experience that I cannot conjure up words to fit. I despair of trying to make you see what we saw, and feel what we felt.

But try to picture yourself in the glass ball with us:

All is profound blackness save for a streak of white, dying about fifty feet away, which is the beam of our searchlight. Twenty feet below is a bare floor of flinty lava and broken shell. This is unrelieved by sea-weed of any kind, appearing like an imagined fragment of Martian or lunar landscape.

The ball sways idly to the push of some explicable submarine current. It is like being in a captive balloon, except that the connecting cable extends stiffly upward instead of downward.

There is a realization, an instinctive feel of awful pressure around you. Logic tells you how you are clamped about, but deeper than logic is the intuition that the glass walls are pressing in on themselves--at the point of collapse. Your ears, tingle with the feel of it: your head rings with it.

You are breathing in through your nose--thin, unsatisfying gulps of air that cause your lungs to labor at their task; and you are exhaling through, your mouth, with difficulty, into the barrel of the powerful pump. No bubbles arise from the tiny hole where the used air is forced into the water. The pressure is too enormous for that. Only a thin, milky line marks its escape from the sphere.

In a ghostly way you see Stanley turning the pump handle. With a handful of waste which he has borrowed from the Rosa’s engine room, the Professor wipes from the section of wall through which the searchlight plays the moisture that constantly collects there. I sit with my hand near the key, peering downward and ahead like an engineer in a locomotive cab, ready to raise the shell or lower it as occasion warrants.

And always the suffocating awareness of pressure...

Strange and mystic journey as the tortured glass sphere floated over the bottom, following the slow drift of the Rosa far above!

The finger of light played along the tilted side of a wrecked tramp steamer. There was a crumpled gash in the bow. From this ragged hole suddenly appeared a great, serpentine form...

The Professor clutched at his camera, pointed it, and clenched his hands in a frenzy of disappointment. The serpent shape had disappeared back into the hull. A little later and we had drifted slowly past the wreck.

“Damn it!” the Professor snatched away his mouthpiece to exclaim: “If we could only stop.”

The bottom changed character shortly after we had passed the hulk. We began to creep over low, gently rounded mounds.

These were so regular in form that they were puzzling. About fifty feet across and ten in altitude, they looked artificial in their symmetry--like great saucers set on the ocean floor bottom side up. They took on a dirty black hue as our light struck them, and glowed with a faint phosphorescence as they stretched away into the darkness.

A twelve-foot monstrosity, all toad-like head and eyes, swam into the light beam and bumped blindly against the glass ball. For an instant it goggled crazily at us. The Professor took its picture. It blundered away. As it reached the darkness beyond the beam it, too, showed phosphorescent. A belt of blue-white spots like the portholes of a liner extended down its ugly sides.

Along the bottom, between the curious mounds, writhed a wormlike thing. But it was too huge to be described as truly wormlike--it was eighteen or twenty feet long and a foot thick. It was blood red, almost blunt ended and patently without eyes.

I took my gaze off it for an instant. When I looked again it had disappeared. I blinked at this seeming miracle and then discovered a foot or so of its tail protruding from under the edge of one of the mounds. It was threshing furiously about.

It was at this instant that I suddenly found increased difficulty, and glanced at Stanley.

He had stopped pumping and was clutching at the Professor’s arm with one hand while he pointed down with the other. The Professor motioned him toward the pump, and began to click pictures furiously with the camera pointed at the nearest mound.

Wondering at the urgency of Stanley’s gesture and the frantic clicking of the camera shutter, I looked more closely at the curious, saucerlike hump.

Under closer inspection something remarkably like a huge, mud-colored eye was revealed! And as we drifted along, twenty feet away on the farther slope, another appeared!

Paralyzed, I stared at the edges of the thing. They were waving almost imperceptibly up and down, creeping!

The mounds were living creatures! Acres and acres of them lying lethargically on the bottom waiting for something to crawl within range of their monstrous edges!

Involuntarily I pressed the key to raise us. But we had gone only a few feet when the Professor called to me.

“Down again, Martin. I don’t think these things will bother us unless we scrape against them. Anyway they can’t hurt the shell.”

I lowered the ball to our former twenty-foot level, and there we swung just over the monsters’ backs.

The Professor had said that the giant inverted saucers would probably not bother us if we did not come in contact with them. It soon became apparent that, in a measure, he was right. The creatures either could not or would not lift their enormous bulks from the sea floor.

A gigantic wriggling thing, all grotesque fringe and tentacles, drifted down into the range of our light. Lower it floated until it hovered just above one of the larger mounds. The Professor got its portrait. At the same instant, as though it had heard the click of the shutter and been frightened by it, the thing dropped another foot--and touched the sloping back.

With the speed of light the inverted saucer became a cup. Like a clenching fist, the cup closed over one of the straggling tentacles.

There followed a tug of war that was all the more ghastly for its soundlessness. The hunted jerked spasmodically to get away from the hunter. So wild were its efforts that several times it raised the monster clear of the bottom for a foot or so. But the grim clutch could not be broken.

Closer and closer it was dragged. Then, after a supreme paroxysm, the tentacle parted and the prey escaped. The tentacle disappeared into the mass of the baffled hunter. It made no attempt to follow the fleeing creature. It slowly relaxed along the bottom and waited for its next meal.

The unearthly incident gave us fresh confidence, convincing us that the monsters did not move unless they were directly touched. Of course we could not foresee the fatal accident that was going to put us within reach of one of the giant saucers.

We thought for awhile that these great blobs of cold life were the largest creatures of the depths. It was soon made clear to us how mistaken that notion was!

For a time we gazed spellbound at the nightmare assortment of grotesqueries that gradually assembled around us, attracted no doubt by our light. The things were mainly sightless and of indescribable shape. Most of them were phosphorescent, and they avoided collisions in a way that suggested that they had some buried sense of light perception.

As time passed the Professor emptied his camera, refilled it several times and groaned that he had no more film. Twice as we drifted along I raised us to keep us clear of a gradual upward slope of the smooth floor.

Stanley removed his mouthpiece long enough to suggest that we go back to the surface: we had been submerged for nearly four hours now. But before we could reply a violent movement was felt.

The ball rocked and twirled so that we were forced to cling to the circular bench to avoid being thrown to the floor. It was as though a hurricane of wind had suddenly penetrated the unruffled depths.

“Earthquake?” called Stanley.

“Don’t know,” answered the Professor. He swung the searchlight in an arc and focussed it at length on something that appeared only as a field of blurred movement. He wiped the moisture from the wall before the lens, and there was revealed to us a sight that makes my heart pound even now when I recall it to memory.

Something vast and serpentine had ventured too near the bottom--and had been caught by the death traps there!

The creature was a writhing mass of gigantic coils. It was impossible even to guess at its length, but its girth was such that the mound-shaped monsters that had fastened to it could not entirely encircle it.

There it twined and knotted: a mighty serpent of the deepest ocean, snapping its awful length and threshing its powerful tail in an effort to dislodge the giant leeches that were flattened against it. And every time it touched the bottom in its blind frenzy, more of the teeming deathtraps attached themselves to it, crawling over their fellows in an effort to find unoccupied areas.

Soon the sea-serpent was a distorted, creeping mass. For one appalling instant its head came into our view...

It resembled the head of a crocodile, only it was ten times larger and covered with scale like the armor plate of a destroyer. The jaws, wide open and slashing with enormous, needle-shaped teeth at the huge parasites, were large enough to have held our glass sphere. One eye appeared. It was at least three feet across and of a shimmering amethyst color.

One of the deadly saucers wrapped itself around the great head. The entire mass of attackers and attacked settled slowly to the bottom.

But before it completely succumbed the beaten monster gave one last, convulsive flick of its tail...

“Good God!” cried Stanley, shrinking away from the pump and staring upward.

I followed his gaze with my own eyes.

In the faint reflected glow of the searchlight I could see row on row of large cups flattened against the top of the ball. As I watched these flattened still more and the big sphere quivered perceptibly.

In its death struggle the mighty serpent had flicked one of the huge leeches against us. It now clung there with blind tenacity, covering nearly two-thirds of our shell with the underside of its body.

I reached for the control key to send us to the surface.

“Don’t!” snapped the Professor. “The weight--”

He needed to say no more. My hand recoiled as though the key had been red hot.

The three-quarter-inch cable above us was now sustaining, in addition to its own huge weight, our massive glass ball and the appalling tonnage of this grim blanket of flesh that encircled us. Could it further hold against the strain of lifting that combined tonnage through the press of the water? Almost certainly it could not!

There was nothing we could do but hang there and discover at first hand exactly what happened to things that were clamped in those mighty, living vises!

The Professor turned on the interior bulb. The result was ghastly. It showed every detail of the belly of the thing that gripped us.

Crowded over its entire under surface were gristly, flattened suckers. Now and then a convulsive ripple ran through its surface tissue and great ridges of flesh stood out. With each squeeze the glass shell quivered ominously as though the extreme limit of its pressure resisting power were being reached--and passed.

“A nice fix,” remarked the Professor, his calm, dry voice acting like a tonic in that moment of fear. “If we try to go up, the cable would probably break. If we try to outlast the patience of this thing we might run out of air, or actually be staved in.”

He paused thoughtfully.

“I suggest, though, that we follow the latter course for awhile at least. It would be just too bad if that cable broke, gentlemen!”

Stanley shuddered, and looked at the dirty white belly that pressed against the glass walls on all sides.

“I vote we stay here for a time.”

“And I,” was my addition.

I relieved Stanley at the pump. He and the Professor sat down on the bench. Casting frequent glances at the constricted blanket of flesh that covered us, we prepared to wait as composedly as we might for the thing to give up its effort to smash our shell.

The hour that followed was longer than any full day I have ever lived through. Had I not confirmed the passage of time by looking at my watch, I would have sworn that at least twenty hours had passed.

Every half-minute I gazed at that weaving pattern of cup-shaped suckers only five feet away, trying to see if they were relaxing in their pressure. I attempted to persuade myself that they were. But I knew I was only imagining it. Actually they were pressed as flat as ever, and the sphere still quivered at regular intervals as the heavy body squeezed in on itself. There was no sign that its blind, mindless patience was becoming exhausted.

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