Creatures of the Abyss
Chapter 6

Public Domain

Fourteen hours later the Esperance made ready to sail from Thrawn Island. Her purpose was to carry the plastic objects to Manila, where they would be turned over to specialized laboratories to be studied. Five such objects had been found before: one in the Thrawn Island lagoon, while the satellite-tracking station was under construction, and four attached to exotic fish brought to market by the commercial fishing boat La Rubia. Now there were eight more, of four different kinds. To the laboratories would go Terry’s observation that one kind of these objects absorbed sound at audible frequencies and retransmitted it at much higher ones, but only under water. All this was very interesting and very puzzling.

But a serious disturbance had arisen at the tracking station.

Dr. Morton came to the Esperance before her departure. He had a problem. He’d predicted to the minute, and almost to the mile, the landing of the bolide of the night before. That was the first accurate prediction of the kind in history. But his forecast stood alone in its precision. Nobody else had even come near being right. Now he was being insistently queried by astronomers the world over. They wanted to know how he’d done it. In particular, they wanted to know how he’d figured that the bolide would lose just so many feet per second velocity, neither more nor less, in a three-quarter orbit around the world. Nobody else had such a figure in his equation for the landing spot. Dr. Morton had. His prediction had been exact. Where did he get that necessary but inexplicable figure?

He beckoned Davis and Terry to go below with him, in the Esperance’s after cabin. Terry hesitated.

“You may as well hear my troubles,” said Morton vexedly. “You’re largely responsible for them.”

Terry followed uneasily. He didn’t see how Dr. Morton could hold them responsible. He had guarded his own guesses about the Esperance’s discoveries against even the slightest expression. He couldn’t let himself believe in their correctness, but he was appalled at the inadequacy of all other explanations of past events.

“In sixteen months,” said Morton annoyedly, down below, “we’ve spotted six bolides coming in to land in the Luzon Deep. That’s out of all reason! Of course, it could be a mathematical series of wildly unlikely coincidences, such as probability says may happen sometimes. Up to last night that seemed to be a possible explanation.”

Davis nodded. His expression was odd.

“But now,” said Morton somehow indignantly, “that’s ruled out! It’s ruled out by last night’s bolide, and yesterday’s fishing experiment, and that business of the shining sea, plus those damned plastic gadgets and deep sea fish thriving in shallow water! There’s no reasonable explanation for such things, and they’re not mere coincidences!”

“I’m afraid,” admitted Davis, “that they’re not.”

“The obvious explanation,” said Morton doggedly, “I refuse to name or consider. But nevertheless the question is not whether a theory or an explanation is unlikely or not. The question is whether it’s true!”

Davis nodded. Terry had to agree. But the way people are trained in modern times puts a great emphasis on reason, often at the expense of fact. Terry felt the customary civilized reluctance to accept a statistically improbable idea.

“I’m on a spot,” fumed Morton. “I calculated that the damned bolide would slow after it went into orbit around the earth. I calculated that it would slow exactly so much. Do you want to know how I figured how much it should slow down? I’ll tell you! I calculated exactly how much it would have to slow to be able to fall into the Luzon Deep! It did slow. It did fall there. But how am I going to explain that to Washington?”

Terry suddenly felt a warm sympathy for Morton. It is bad enough to dispute with oneself when something incredible happens. But Dr. Morton had gone out on a limb. He’d been caught psychologically naked telling the truth, and now he was asked to explain it. And he couldn’t.

“This thing has got to come to a head!” he said angrily. “Sooner or later they’ll find out that I don’t calculate where it’ll land by its behavior in space but by its landing spot! Davis, you’ve talked about stirring something up. For Heaven’s sake, do it! You may save my reputation! And you...”

“I’ll try to think of something,” said Davis reservedly.

“I’ve got to have proof that my suspicions are right or wrong before I’m ruined. I know what you’re planning to do. Do it! Is there anything that can be done here to help?”

Davis spread out his hands helplessly. But Terry said, “Yes. Send a boat every so often to listen at the gap in the reef. Put an oar overboard and put your ear to the handle. You should hear the underwater hum, if it’s still there. It was there this morning.”

Morton looked at him suspiciously.

“Why check on it? Should it change?”

“Perhaps,” said Terry. “We’ve speared most of the deep-sea fish in the lagoon. Maybe we’ve interfered with ... the reports from the plastic objects, telling what was happening up here. There may be a reaction. If so, most likely the humming will stop, and after a longer or shorter time begin again. And then, if my guess is right, there’ll be more deep-sea creatures in the lagoon.”

“Ha,” said Morton. “I think you and I have the same kind of delusions! All right. I’ll see that that’s done. You two do the rest.”

He went abovedecks. When Terry got on deck, Dr. Morton’s angular figure was already marching along the wharf to the shore.

There was no ceremony of departure. The Esperance cast off and her engine started. She moved toward the lagoon entrance under power only, but her sails were hoisted as she floated on, and Jug Bell was trimming the jib when she cleared the opening to the sea.

The humming in the water was still audible to the submarine ear, close to the land. It occurred to Terry to take a bearing on the source of the sound, noting both the compass direction and the vertical angle from the reef. If his vertical-angle reading was accurate, a line from the reef to the source of the sound would touch the bottom at twenty-seven thousand feet down, between four and five miles away.

The Esperance sailed on. The humming duly faded away. Terry left the recorder picking up undersea sounds, without recording them. It relayed the underwater sounds to the people on deck. It was in Terry’s mind to keep at least half an ear cocked to it, in case the mooing sounds, heard and recorded elsewhere, should come again.

They did not. The Esperance went methodically on her way, headed south by east, under sail. A slowly swaying horizon of unbroken sea was all about. There was nothing in the least unusual or mysterious to be seen anywhere.

Presently, Terry found himself in conversation with Deirdre, and the world seemed so blatantly normal that their talk dodged all unusual trends. They talked about their childhoods, about things they had done and places they had seen.

At about four in the afternoon Nick bellowed, “Thar she blows!” in a fine attempt at proper whaling ship style, and all the Esperance’s company joined to watch a spouting far ahead. The yacht changed course a little, and presently reached a pod of sperm whales at the surface. The huge dark bodies moved leisurely through the water. Jud displayed great erudition on the subject and explained in detail how their spouting proved them to be sperm whales. Deirdre pointed out a baby whale close beside a larger one.

They sailed on, leaving the whales behind. The crew-cuts, inevitably, argued about them. They canvassed all the information and misinformation they possessed and came up with a heated discussion about whales, how they can swim down to the enormous depths without suffering from the bends on rising again. Then the conversation turned to the food they eat. Whalers, in the old days, had found snouts of squids and undigested sections of squids’ tentacles in the stomachs of harpooned sperm whales. There were reports of sections of tentacles four feet thick, implying a startling total size, all of which proved that the whales had been at the bottom of the ocean, where such gigantic squids can be found. These were the reports of reliable whaling skippers. Certainly the scars made by the tentacular arms of huge squids, indicating battle, have been found on the skin of sperm whales, and there have been reports of battles on the surface between whales and squids of sizes most naturalists would be unwilling to certify. In such cases it was assumed that the squids had been attacked at the bottom of the sea and had followed the whale to the surface when it came up in need of air. Certainly only an enormous squid would be able to sustain a battle with a whale.

Terry listened to the discussion. Everybody had his own opinion.

“You’d never settle the argument, unless you could put a camera and a flash gun on a whale and get an instrument-report from it.”

Which was not a new idea, of course. But it was curious that the thought of sending self-reporting instruments down to the bottom of the sea had been suggested by his own suspicion that similar instruments had been sent up from below. Sounding lines had been lowered with thermometers and nets and sampling machines. Core-takers had been dropped to get samplings of abyssal mud. But tethered instrumentation is never more than so useful.

Deirdre said something. Terry realized that she’d repeated it. He’d become absorbed in the possibilities of instrument-reporting from the surface to the depths and back again.

“You’re not listening,” protested Deirdre. “I’m talking about the bathyscaphe that ought to be in Manila any day now.”

“I’m trying to picture myself going down in a bathyscaphe,” said Terry hastily. “I don’t think I’d like it.”

A bathyscaphe is a metal sphere with walls and windows of enormous thickness, hung from a metal balloon filled with gasoline for flotation. It is lowered to appalling depths with the help of heavy ballast, and is equipped with electric motors for independent motion. It carries powerful electric reflectors which allow as much as thirty or forty feet of visibility. It rises to the surface again when its ballast is dumped. There are only three such undersea exploring devices in the whole world.

“I’m not at all sure you wouldn’t like it,” said Deirdre.

Terry scowled at his own thoughts. There are opinions a man holds firmly without ever being aware of them, unless they are challenged, and if that happens, he is deeply suspicious of the challenge because it suggests that his opinion needs to be re-examined. Terry had been gathering scraps of information here, and unquestionable items there, resisting a conclusion all the while.

It seemed fantastic to think that the plastic objects carried by deep-sea fish out of their natural environment were actually man-made instruments--telemetering apparatus closely comparable to the devices used to transmit information from outer space. It was wildly imaginative to suppose that they transmitted information from the water surface to the depths of the ocean; that fish had been driven up from the abyss in order to report what went on at the surface. Report to whom? It was the most fantastic of fantasies to think that there was curiosity, in the Luzon Deep, about the manners and customs of the inhabitants of the surface waters and of those areas not covered by the sea.

But Terry stopped short. There were limits to the ideas he would allow his brain to think about.

Deirdre walked away, and he assured himself he never thought of anything so ridiculous as the conclusions he had just reached. Presently, dinner was served, and Terry painstakingly acted like a perfectly rational person. After dinner Davis, as usual, settled himself down to enjoy a program of symphonic music from San Francisco, many thousands of miles away. And Deirdre vanished from sight again.

Later on Terry found himself alone on the Esperance’s deck, except for Nick at the wheel--a mere dark figure seen only by the light of the binnacle lamp. There was a diffused, faint glow coming from the after-cabin hatch. Up forward, one of the crew-cuts plucked a guitar, and Terry could imagine Doug dourly trying to read poetry despite the noise. The sails were black against the sky. The deck was darker than the sea.

Terry’s guesses haunted him. He assured himself that he did not entertain them even for an instant. They were absurd! A part of his mind argued speciously that if they were absurd there was no reason not to test them. If he was afraid to try, it would imply that at least part of him believed them.

He picked up one of the plastic objects, and moved the recorder close to the lee rail. It still transmitted faithfully, at minimum volume, the washing of the waves as heard from beneath, and occasional small sounds from living creatures, generally far away in the sea. Heeled over as the Esperance was, his hand could reach down into the rushing waters overside.

He came to a resolution. He felt foolish, but by now he was determined to try an experiment. Tiny light-blue sparks flashed where the water raced past the yacht’s planking. When he dipped his hand, water piled up against his wrist and a streak of brightness trailed away behind.

He tapped the plastic object against the hull. One tap, two taps, three taps, four taps. Then five, six, seven, eight. He went back to one. One tap, two, and three and four. Five and six and seven and eight.

The recorder gave out the tappings the underwater microphone had picked up. It seemed to Terry that the loudspeaker struggled to emit the shrillest imaginable sounds in strict synchrony with the tappings.

Then Deirdre’s voice came quietly, very near.

“I don’t think,” she said evenly, “that that’s a fair thing to do.”

He’d been bent over the rail in an awkward position. He straightened up, guiltily.

“I know it’s nonsense, but I was ... ashamed to admit...”

“To admit,” Deirdre concluded for him, “that by tapping numbers with a plastic spy-device, you hoped to say to whom it might concern that we’ve found a communicator, and we know what it is, and we’re trying to get in touch with the intelligent creatures who made it.”

To hear his own self-denied guesses spoken aloud was appalling. Terry instantly disbelieved them entirely.

“It’s ridiculous, of course,” he protested. “It’s childish...”

“But it could be true,” said Deirdre. “And, if true, it could be dangerous. Suppose whatever put those plastic gadgets on the fish doesn’t want to be communicated with? Suppose it feels that it should defend the secret of its existence by killing those who suspect it? I wasn’t spying on you,” she added. “I heard the tappings down below.”

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