Creatures of the Abyss
Chapter 9

Public Domain

The sun rose high in the sky as the Esperance returned to the wharf. Davis went ashore and held lengthy conversations with Manila by short-wave radio. The biologists essayed to investigate the squid. La Rubia still attempted to catch fish. All efforts seemed to tend toward frustration.

When Terry walked over to see his victim at close range, he found the biologists balked by the mere huge size of the squid. There were literally tens of tons of flesh to be handled. Squid have no backbone, but a modified internal shell is important to biologists for study. The biologists wanted it. The gills needed to be examined, and their position under the mantle noted, and their filaments counted. The nervous system of the huge creature must have its oddities. But the actual preservation of the squid was out of the question. The mere handling of so large an object was an engineering problem.

Terry consulted the frenziedly swearing Capitán Saavedra, who was ready to weep with sheer rage as he contemplated torn nets, and fish he could not capture. Squids were an article of commerce. Terry took the Capitán to view this one. His crew would help the biologists get at the scientifically important items, and for reward they would have the rest of the giant--more than they could load upon La Rubia. This would make their voyage profitable, and the Capitán would have the opportunity to tell the most stupendous story of his capture and killing of the giant. With the evidence he’d have, people might believe him.

Presently, the crewmen of La Rubia clambered over the monster, huge knives at work under the direction of the men from Manila. There was bitter dispute with the tracking station cook, who objected to the use of his refrigeration space to freeze biological material before it was sent to Manila by helicopter.

In mid-afternoon the Esperance left the lagoon again. The sonar-depth-finder probed the depths delicately. The objects in mid-sea, it appeared, had been rising steadily. Their previous position had averaged twenty-five hundred fathoms deep. They were now less than two thousand fathoms down, and there were many of them. Unfortunately, the Esperance was not a steady enough platform for the instrument. But a fairly accurate calculation was made, and if the unidentified objects continued their ascent at their present rate, they would surface not long after sunrise. Then what?

Increasingly urgent queries came by short-wave, asking for Dr. Morton’s explanation of how he had computed the landing place and time of the latest bolide. His accuracy was not disputed. But astronomers and physicists wanted to be able to do it themselves. How had he done it?

Terry came upon him sitting gloomily before a cup of coffee in the tracking station. Davis was there too.

“I wish I hadn’t done it,” Morton confided. “It’s one of those things that shouldn’t happen. It’s bad enough to have a giant squid to account for. They tell me it’s a new species, by the way. Never found or even described before. One of the Pelorus men tells me it’s an immature specimen, too. It’s not full-grown! What will a grown-up one be like?”

“I have a hunch we’ll find out when those submerged giants reach the surface,” said Davis unhappily.

Terry said, “The one we killed couldn’t get out of the water. I wonder if the adult forms can walk over the land!”

Davis stared. “Should we send Deirdre to safety on the Esperance?”

“Safety?” asked Terry. “On a boat? When a mass of bubbles from undersea could provoke such a turmoil in the water that no ship could stay afloat? That’s how one ship disappeared. It might be the Esperance’s turn next. Who knows?” Then he added, “There’s no limit to the size of a swimming creature!”

A bald-headed member of the tracking station staff walked in. He carried an object of clear plastic. It was a foot and a half long, about six inches in diameter. There was an infinite complexity of metallic parts enclosed in the plastic.

“I caught one of the fishermen making off with this,” he said in a flat voice. “It was fastened to one of the squid’s shorter arms. The fishermen didn’t want to give it up. The skipper claimed it as treasure-trove.”

He put it down on the table. Davis, Terry and Morton looked at it. Then Morton shrugged his shoulders, almost up to his ears.

“The intelligent being that made it,” said Davis, “apparently came down from the sky in a bolide. That’s easier to believe than that a submarine civilization of earthly origin lives down in the depths. But why would anybody prefer the bottom of the sea to--anywhere else on earth? Where would such a creature come from?”

Deirdre walked in and stood by the table, watching Terry’s face. The bald-headed man said, “I could believe some pretty strange things, but you can’t make me believe that a creature can develop intelligence without plenty of oxygen. There’s not much free oxygen at the bottom of the sea.”

“But there’s something intelligent down there,” said Davis doggedly. “If it has to have free oxygen, you’ve only raised the question of where it gets it. Maybe it brings it.”

Deirdre shook her head. “Foam,” she said.

The four men stared at her. Then Terry said sharply, “That’s it! On the Esperance there’s a picture of a huge mass of foam on the sea. A ship dropped right out of sight right into it. Deirdre found the answer! Something down below needs free oxygen. In quantity. Why not get it from the water? What to do with the hydrogen that is left? Let it loose! It’ll come to the surface, make a foam-patch...”

Dr. Morton said with a sort of mirthless geniality, “I add a stroke of pure genius! Davis just asked what would be the origin of a creature which preferred the depths of the sea to any other place on earth. What’s to be found down there that’s missing everywhere else? Cold? No. Moisture? No. Just two things! Darkness and pressure! At the bottom of the Luzon Deep the pressure is over seven tons to the square inch. There’s no light--I repeat, none--below three hundred fathoms. Down at the sea-bottom it’s black, black, black! Now, where in the universe could there be creatures capable of riding down here in a bolide, and in need of an environment like that?”

Terry shook his head. He remembered seeing a book on the solar planets, in the after-cabin of the Esperance. He hadn’t read it. The others on the yacht must have.

“How about Jupiter?” asked Deirdre. “The gravity’s four times the earth’s, and the atmosphere is thousands of miles thick. The pressure at the surface should be tons to the square inch.”

Morton nodded. With the same false geniality he added, “And there’ll be no light. Sunlight will never get through that muggy thick atmosphere! So we consider ourselves to be rational beings and guess that the bolides come from Jupiter! But I must admit that the last bolide was headed inward toward the sun, and from the general direction of Jupiter. So-o-o-o, do we warn the world that creatures from Jupiter are descending in space ships and are settling down under water, at a depth of forty-five hundred fathoms? Like hell we do!”

He got up and walked abruptly away.

“I...” said the bald-headed man, shaking his head incredulously, “will put this gadget away and go back to carve some more squid.”

“I’ll talk to Manila,” said Davis drearily. “Something is coming up from below. There shouldn’t be any ships allowed to come this way until we find out what’s happening.”

Deirdre smiled at Terry, now that they were alone.

“Have you anything very important to do just now?”

He shook his head.

“If the things that are coming up are--space ships, we can’t fight them. If they’re anything else, they can’t very well fight us. If we wanted to attack something at the bottom of the sea we’d have to fumble at the job. We wouldn’t know where to begin. So maybe, if a submarine power wants to attack at the surface of the sea, it may find it difficult, too.”

He frowned. Deirdre said, “Let’s go look at the sea and think things over!”

She very formally took his arm and they walked out. Presently, they stood on the white coral beach on the outer shore, and talked. Terry’s mind came back, now and then, to how inadequate his previous guesses about the impending menace had been. It seemed now that the menace must be much worse than he had imagined. But there were many things he wanted to say to Deirdre.

As they talked, they were disturbed. The helicopter, which had left before noon loaded down with biological material for Manila, was approaching again. It landed by the tracking station. Then they were alone again.

When night fell, they were astonished at how quickly time had passed. They went back to the station. The helicopter was on the ground. The biologists had stopped their work, exhausted but very excited by their discovery of a new species of squid, of which an immature specimen measured eighty feet. It had offered extremely interesting phylogenic material for the Cephalopoda in general. The photographs they’d taken were invaluable, from a scientific viewpoint.

The crew of La Rubia had returned to their boat. The Esperance had been out beyond the reef once more. The unidentified objects were still rising. They had risen to less than a thousand fathoms from the surface, well before sundown. At this same rate of rise, they should reach the surface some time after midnight. What would happen after that?

“What will happen depends,” said Terry, “on how accurate their information about us is. It depends on their instruments, really. I suspect their ideas about us are weird. I find I haven’t any ideas about them.”

At dinner, Davis said worriedly, “I talked to Manila. The mine layer that was in the Bay left harbor yesterday. The flattop picked it up by radio and they’re both going to come on here tomorrow. I had to talk about the foam. They weren’t impressed. The squid does impress them, but the foam--no. I hate,” he said indignantly, “to try to convince people of things I couldn’t possibly be convinced of myself!”

They talked leisurely. Somebody mentioned La Rubia. It had been more or less expected that her skipper would turn up for drinks and conversation again. But he hadn’t. The conversation turned to the plastic objects. They might or might not pick up sounds. It was not likely they’d respond to light. Certainly, complete images would be meaningless to creatures who had evolved in blackness and without a sense of sight. They might respond to pressure-waves, such as are known to be picked up by fish when something struggles in the water, even though man-made instruments have not yet detected them. They might furnish data of a sensory kind that is meaningless to humans, as pictures would be to Jovians. If there were such things...

“Why argue only for Jupiter?” asked Deirdre. “Venus is supposed to be mostly ocean. There could be abyssal life there.”

The crew-cuts joined in the argument, but tentatively, because there were many experts present.

Midnight came. The open sea outside the reef showed nothing unusual. The waves glittered palely at their tips. There were little flashings in the water where an occasional surface fish darted. The stars shone. The moon was not yet risen.

Two o’clock came. The Esperance people were divided. Terry and Davis were too apprehensive to sleep. Deirdre’d gone confidently to the yacht to turn in. The crew-cuts slept peacefully, too. Davis said uneasily, “I’ve got a feeling that the ... objects are at the surface, or very close to it, but that they simply aren’t showing themselves. I think they’re lying in ambush. The squid that was killed must have had trouble getting into the lagoon. They probably won’t try to get the big ones in. They’ll wait...”

Terry shook his head.

“We killed that little one--save the mark!--and its death was probably reported in some fashion. So maybe they’ll use the big ones on the surface as bait for another kind of weapon. Foam, for example. We know how a ship simply dropped out of sight, as if into a hole.”

“I know!” said Davis drearily. “I told the flattop about that. But I don’t think they really believe it.”

At two-thirty Davis and Terry went down to the yacht. They stood on the deck. They kept watch by mere instinct. There was no activity anywhere. Faint noises were coming from La Rubia. Maybe her crew was repacking the hastily loaded masses of squid-flesh. The last-quarter moon rose at long last, and shone upon the glassy-rippled water of the lagoon. Star-images danced beside its reflection.

A little after three, quite abruptly, the Diesels of La Rubia rumbled and boomed. The dark silhouette of the ship headed across the lagoon toward its opening. Terry swore.

“She lifted her anchor without making a noise,” he said angrily. “Her skipper wants to get to Manila with his catch before it spoils! Damnation! I told him not to leave without warning. Anything could be waiting outside!”

He raced for the shore and the outboard motorboat. Davis shouted down the forecastle and pelted after him. Terry had the outboard in the water by the time Davis arrived. He jumped in and pulled the starter. The motor caught.

The outboard went rushing across the water. Its wake was a brilliant bluish luminescence.

The booming of the Diesels grew louder. Capitán Saavedra thought he had put over a fast one on los americanos, who had moved the fish from where he regularly captured them in vast quantities and gathered them in a lagoon where his nets tore. They had given him most of a monster squid, true, but they had reserved certain parts for themselves. They were undoubtedly the most valuable parts. So when labor officially ceased at sundown, La Rubia’s skipper only pretended to accept the idea. In the last hour his crew had quietly completed loading La Rubia with squid. They’d been carefully silent. They’d lifted anchor without noise. Now La Rubia headed for the lagoon entrance, heavy in the water but with precise information about what coral heads needed to be dodged. She had on board a cargo history had no parallel for. Her skipper expected to be rewarded with fame, as well as cash.

When the outboard motor rushed toward La Rubia, Capitán Saavedra zestfully gave his engines full throttle. When the racketing, roaring motorboat arrived beside his ship, and Terry shouted to him to stop, he chuckled and drove on. In fact, he left La Rubia’s pilot-house to wave cheerfully at the two men. They frantically ran close and shouted to him above the rat-tat-tatting of their own motor and the rumble of his Diesels.

La Rubia reached the lagoon entrance with the smaller boat close at her side, and Terry still shouting.

But Capitán Saavedra did not believe. Maybe he did not understand. Certainly he did not obey. Ocean swells lifted and tossed the motorboat. It became necessary to slow down, for safety. But La Rubia went grandly on, into the open sea.

“We can’t force him to stop,” said Davis in a despairing voice. “He won’t. I only hope we’re wrong, and he gets through!”

The outboard stayed where it was, and swells tossed it haphazardly. La Rubia switched on her navigation lights. She drove zestfully to the southward. She sailed on, dwindling in size, as the drone of her Diesels diminished in volume.

Looking back, Terry saw the Esperance approaching from the lagoon, dark figures on her deck. Terry shouted, cries answered him, and the Esperance came to a stop as the motorboat drew alongside.

Terry and Davis scrambled to her deck while one of the crew-cuts led the smaller boat astern and tethered it.

“We’re safe enough here,” Terry said bitterly, “and since you’ve come, we can stay and watch if anything happens. If only she keeps on going...”

But La Rubia did not. Her lights showed that she had changed course. She changed course again. Her masthead light began to waver from side to side. She wallowed in such a way that it was clear she was neither on course nor in motion any longer.

Nobody gave orders, but the Esperance’s engine roared. The action from this point on became an automatic and quick response to an emergency.

The schooner-yacht plunged ahead at top speed. Terry switched on the recorder and the ultrapowerful sound projector. Davis bent over the searchlight. Two of the crew-cuts readied the bazookas.

Suddenly, a flare went off on La Rubia’s deck. Her stubby masts and spars became startlingly bright. Screams came across the waves, even above the growling of the surf and above the noise of the Esperance’s engine.

The flare shot through the air. It arched in a high parabola, bright in the sky, and fell into the sea. Another flare was ignited.

The Esperance’s searchlight flicked on. A long pencil of light reached across the waves as she raced on. More screamings were heard. Another flare burned. It arched overside. The Esperance plunged on, shouldering aside the heavier waves of open water.

A half-mile. A quarter-mile. La Rubia wallowed crazily, and more shrieks came from her deck. Then the fishing boat seemed to swing. Beyond her, a conical, glistening and utterly horrifying monster emerged, a mere few yards from her rail. Enormous eyes glittered in the searchlight rays. A monstrous tentacle with a row of innumerable sucker-disks reached over the stern of La Rubia.

Another flare swept from the fishing boat’s deck in the direction of the giant squid. It fell upon wetted, shining flesh. The monster jerked, and La Rubia was shaken from stem to stern. Hurriedly, Terry pressed the power-feed button, and the sound projector was on. Its effect was instantaneous. The monster began to writhe convulsively. It was gigantic. It was twice, three times the size of the squid captured in the lagoon. Terry heard his own voice cry out, “Bazookas! Use ‘em! Use ‘em!”

Flaring rocket missiles sped toward the giant. Davis flung one of the hand grenades he’d manufactured. The yacht plunged on toward the clutched, half-sunk fishing boat. The hand grenade exploded against the monster’s flesh. Simultaneously, the bazooka-missiles hit their target and flung living, incandescent flame deep into the creature’s body. Those flames would melt steel. They bored deeply into the squid, and they were infinitely more damaging than bullets.

The creature leaped from the water, as chunks of its flesh exploded. It was a mountainous horror risen from the sea. As it leaped, it had squirted the inky substance which is the squid’s ultimate weapon of defense. But, unlike small squid, this beast of the depths squirted phosphorescent ink.

The beast splashed back into the sea, and the wave of its descent swept over the deck of La Rubia. The fishing boat nearly capsized. But the monster had not escaped the anguish of its wounds. It fought the injured spots as though an enemy still gnawed there. It was a struggling madness in the sea.

The Esperance swung to approach the half-sunken trawler, and Terry kept the searchlight on the turmoil. The beast knew panic. It was wounded, and the abyss is not a place where the weak or wounded can long survive. Its fellows would be coming...

They did. Something enormous moved swiftly under the sea toward the wounded monster. It could be seen by the phosphorescence its motion created, as it approached the surface. There was a jar, a jolt. Some part of it actually touched the Esperance’s keel. The huge monster moved ahead, but a trailing tentacle flicked up to what it had touched a moment before.

The ugly tentacle trailed over the yacht’s rail. The rail shattered. The forecastle hatch was wiped out. The bowsprit became mere debris which dangled foolishly from the standing rigging.

The Esperance bucked wildly at this fleeting contact. Nick fired a bazooka-shell, but it missed. Holding fast, Davis flung a grenade. It detonated uselessly. It was then that Deirdre screamed.

Terry froze for an instant. There had simply been no time for him to think that Deirdre might be aboard. It was inexcusable, but nothing could be done now.

Tony had been knocked overside by the shock of the contact with the giant, and was swimming desperately trying to follow the yacht and climb back on board. Terry flashed the searchlight about. He found Tony, splashing. The Esperance swung in her own length while Terry kept the searchlight beam focused. More shrieks came from La Rubia. Davis threw a rope and Tony caught it. They hauled him aboard, and the Esperance turned again to pluck away the trawler’s crewmen.

There were unbelievable splashings off to port. Terry flung the lightbeam in that direction. It fell upon unimaginable conflict. The monster that had passed under the yacht now battled the wounded squid. They fought on the surface, horribly. A maze of intertwining tentacles glistened in the light, and their revolting bodies appeared now and again as the battered creature fought to protect itself, and the other to devour. Other enormous squids came hurrying to the scene. They flung themselves into the gruesome fight, tearing at the dying monster and at each other. There were still others on the way...

The sea resounded with desperate mooing sounds.

The Esperance bumped against La Rubia. Frantic, hysterically frightened men clambered up from the deck of the sinking trawler to the yacht. As soon as they were aboard they implored their rescuers to head for land, immediately.

 
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