In the Abyss

by H. G. Wells

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: The Abyss' is a short story about deep sea exploring and the strange creatures that inhabit the unknown depths.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

The lieutenant stood in front of the steel sphere and gnawed a piece of pine splinter. “What do you think of it, Steevens?” he asked.

“It’s an idea,” said Steevens, in the tone of one who keeps an open mind.

“I believe it will smash--flat,” said the lieutenant.

“He seems to have calculated it all out pretty well,” said Steevens, still impartial.

“But think of the pressure,” said the lieutenant. “At the surface of the water it’s fourteen pounds to the inch, thirty feet down it’s double that; sixty, treble; ninety, four times; nine hundred, forty times; five thousand, three hundred--that’s a mile--it’s two hundred and forty times fourteen pounds; that’s--let’s see--thirty hundredweight--a ton and a half, Steevens; a ton and a half to the square inch. And the ocean where he’s going is five miles deep. That’s seven and a half”--

“Sounds a lot,” said Steevens, “but it’s jolly thick steel.”

The lieutenant made no answer, but resumed his pine splinter. The object of their conversation was a huge ball of steel, having an exterior diameter of perhaps nine feet. It looked like the shot for some Titanic piece of artillery. It was elaborately nested in a monstrous scaffolding built into the framework of the vessel, and the gigantic spars that were presently to sling it overboard gave the stern of the ship an appearance that had raised the curiosity of every decent sailor who had sighted it, from the Pool of London to the Tropic of Capricorn. In two places, one above the other, the steel gave place to a couple of circular windows of enormously thick glass, and one of these, set in a steel frame of great solidity, was now partially unscrewed. Both the men had seen the interior of this globe for the first time that morning. It was elaborately padded with air cushions, with little studs sunk between bulging pillows to work the simple mechanism of the affair. Everything was elaborately padded, even the Myers apparatus which was to absorb carbonic acid and replace the oxygen inspired by its tenant, when he had crept in by the glass manhole, and had been screwed in. It was so elaborately padded that a man might have been fired from a gun in it with perfect safety. And it had need to be, for presently a man was to crawl in through that glass manhole, to be screwed up tightly, and to be flung overboard, and to sink down--down--down, for five miles, even as the lieutenant said. It had taken the strongest hold of his imagination; it made him a bore at mess; and he found Steevens, the new arrival aboard, a godsend to talk to about it, over and over again.

“It’s my opinion,” said the lieutenant, “that that glass will simply bend in and bulge and smash, under a pressure of that sort. Daubrée has made rocks run like water under big pressures--and, you mark my words”--

“If the glass did break in,” said Steevens, “what then?”

“The water would shoot in like a jet of iron. Have you ever felt a straight jet of high pressure water? It would hit as hard as a bullet. It would simply smash him and flatten him. It would tear down his throat, and into his lungs; it would blow in his ears”--

“What a detailed imagination you have!” protested Steevens, who saw things vividly.

“It’s a simple statement of the inevitable,” said the lieutenant.

“And the globe?”

“Would just give out a few little bubbles, and it would settle down comfortably against the day of judgment, among the oozes and the bottom clay--with poor Elstead spread over his own smashed cushions like butter over bread.”

He repeated this sentence as though he liked it very much. “Like butter over bread,” he said.

“Having a look at the jigger?” said a voice, and Elstead stood behind them, spick and span in white, with a cigarette between his teeth, and his eyes smiling out of the shadow of his ample hat-brim. “What’s that about bread and butter, Weybridge? Grumbling as usual about the insufficient pay of naval officers? It won’t be more than a day now before I start. We are to get the slings ready to-day. This clean sky and gentle swell is just the kind of thing for swinging off a dozen tons of lead and iron; isn’t it?”

“It won’t affect you much,” said Weybridge.

“No. Seventy or eighty feet down, and I shall be there in a dozen seconds, there’s not a particle moving, though the wind shriek itself hoarse up above, and the water lifts halfway to the clouds. No. Down there”-- He moved to the side of the ship and the other two followed him. All three leant forward on their elbows and stared down into the yellow-green water.

Peace,” said Elstead, finishing his thought aloud.

“Are you dead certain that clockwork will act?” asked Weybridge presently.

“It has worked thirty-five times,” said Elstead. “It’s bound to work.”

“But if it doesn’t?”

“Why shouldn’t it?”

“I wouldn’t go down in that confounded thing,” said Weybridge, “for twenty thousand pounds.”

“Cheerful chap you are,” said Elstead, and spat sociably at a bubble below.

“I don’t understand yet how you mean to work the thing,” said Steevens.

“In the first place, I’m screwed into the sphere,” said Elstead, “and when I’ve turned the electric light off and on three times to show I’m cheerful, I’m swung out over the stern by that crane, with all those big lead sinkers slung below me. The top lead weight has a roller carrying a hundred fathoms of strong cord rolled up, and that’s all that joins the sinkers to the sphere, except the slings that will be cut when the affair is dropped. We use cord rather than wire rope because it’s easier to cut and more buoyant--necessary points, as you will see.

“Through each of these lead weights you notice there is a hole, and an iron rod will be run through that and will project six feet on the lower side. If that rod is rammed up from below, it knocks up a lever and sets the clockwork in motion at the side of the cylinder on which the cord winds.

“Very well. The whole affair is lowered gently into the water, and the slings are cut. The sphere floats, --with the air in it, it’s lighter than water, --but the lead weights go down straight and the cord runs out. When the cord is all paid out, the sphere will go down too, pulled down by the cord.”

“But why the cord?” asked Steevens. “Why not fasten the weights directly to the sphere?”

“Because of the smash down below. The whole affair will go rushing down, mile after mile, at a headlong pace at last. It would be knocked to pieces on the bottom if it wasn’t for that cord. But the weights will hit the bottom, and directly they do, the buoyancy of the sphere will come into play. It will go on sinking slower and slower; come to a stop at last, and then begin to float upward again.

“That’s where the clockwork comes in. Directly the weights smash against the sea bottom, the rod will be knocked through and will kick up the clockwork, and the cord will be rewound on the reel. I shall be lugged down to the sea bottom. There I shall stay for half an hour, with the electric light on, looking about me. Then the clockwork will release a spring knife, the cord will be cut, and up I shall rush again, like a soda-water bubble. The cord itself will help the flotation.”

“And if you should chance to hit a ship?” said Weybridge.

“I should come up at such a pace, I should go clean through it,” said Elstead, “like a cannon ball. You needn’t worry about that.”

“And suppose some nimble crustacean should wriggle into your clockwork”--

“It would be a pressing sort of invitation for me to stop,” said Elstead, turning his back on the water and staring at the sphere.


They had swung Elstead overboard by eleven o’clock. The day was serenely bright and calm, with the horizon lost in haze. The electric glare in the little upper compartment beamed cheerfully three times. Then they let him down slowly to the surface of the water, and a sailor in the stern chains hung ready to cut the tackle that held the lead weights and the sphere together. The globe, which had looked so large on deck, looked the smallest thing conceivable under the stern of the ship. It rolled a little, and its two dark windows, which floated uppermost, seemed like eyes turned up in round wonderment at the people who crowded the rail. A voice wondered how Elstead liked the rolling. “Are you ready?” sang out the commander. “Ay, ay, sir!” “Then let her go!”

The rope of the tackle tightened against the blade and was cut, and an eddy rolled over the globe in a grotesquely helpless fashion. Someone waved a handkerchief, someone else tried an ineffectual cheer, a middy was counting slowly, “Eight, nine, ten!” Another roll, then with a jerk and a splash the thing righted itself.

It seemed to be stationary for a moment, to grow rapidly smaller, and then the water closed over it, and it became visible, enlarged by refraction and dimmer, below the surface. Before one could count three it had disappeared. There was a flicker of white light far down in the water, that diminished to a speck and vanished. Then there was nothing but a depth of water going down into blackness, through which a shark was swimming.

Then suddenly the screw of the cruiser began to rotate, the water was crickled, the shark disappeared in a wrinkled confusion, and a torrent of foam rushed across the crystalline clearness that had swallowed up Elstead. “What’s the idee?” said one A.B. to another.

“We’re going to lay off about a couple of miles, ‘fear he should hit us when he comes up,” said his mate.

The ship steamed slowly to her new position. Aboard her almost everyone who was unoccupied remained watching the breathing swell into which the sphere had sunk. For the next half-hour it is doubtful if a word was spoken that did not bear directly or indirectly on Elstead. The December sun was now high in the sky, and the heat very considerable.

“He’ll be cold enough down there,” said Weybridge. “They say that below a certain depth sea water’s always just about freezing.”

“Where’ll he come up?” asked Steevens. “I’ve lost my bearings.”

“That’s the spot,” said the commander, who prided himself on his omniscience. He extended a precise finger south-eastward. “And this, I reckon, is pretty nearly the moment,” he said. “He’s been thirty-five minutes.”

“How long does it take to reach the bottom of the ocean?” asked Steevens.

“For a depth of five miles, and reckoning--as we did--an acceleration of two feet per second, both ways, is just about three-quarters of a minute.”

“Then he’s overdue,” said Weybridge.

“Pretty nearly,” said the commander. “I suppose it takes a few minutes for that cord of his to wind in.”

“I forgot that,” said Weybridge, evidently relieved.

And then began the suspense. A minute slowly dragged itself out, and no sphere shot out of the water. Another followed, and nothing broke the low oily swell. The sailors explained to one another that little point about the winding-in of the cord. The rigging was dotted with expectant faces. “Come up, Elstead!” called one hairy-chested salt impatiently, and the others caught it up, and shouted as though they were waiting for the curtain of a theatre to rise.

The commander glanced irritably at them.

“Of course, if the acceleration’s less than two,” he said, “he’ll be all the longer. We aren’t absolutely certain that was the proper figure. I’m no slavish believer in calculations.”

Steevens agreed concisely. No one on the quarter-deck spoke for a couple of minutes. Then Steevens’ watchcase clicked.

When, twenty-one minutes after, the sun reached the zenith, they were still waiting for the globe to reappear, and not a man aboard had dared to whisper that hope was dead. It was Weybridge who first gave expression to that realisation. He spoke while the sound of eight bells still hung in the air. “I always distrusted that window,” he said quite suddenly to Steevens.

“Good God!” said Steevens; “you don’t think--?”

“Well!” said Weybridge, and left the rest to his imagination.

“I’m no great believer in calculations myself,” said the commander dubiously, “so that I’m not altogether hopeless yet.” And at midnight the gunboat was steaming slowly in a spiral round the spot where the globe had sunk, and the white beam of the electric light fled and halted and swept discontentedly onward again over the waste of phosphorescent waters under the little stars.

“If his window hasn’t burst and smashed him,” said Weybridge, “then it’s a cursed sight worse, for his clockwork has gone wrong, and he’s alive now, five miles under our feet, down there in the cold and dark, anchored in that little bubble of his, where never a ray of light has shone or a human being lived, since the waters were gathered together. He’s there without food, feeling hungry and thirsty and scared, wondering whether he’ll starve or stifle. Which will it be? The Myers apparatus is running out, I suppose. How long do they last?”

“Good heavens!” he exclaimed; “what little things we are! What daring little devils! Down there, miles and miles of water--all water, and all this empty water about us and this sky. Gulfs!” He threw his hands out, and as he did so, a little white streak swept noiselessly up the sky, travelled more slowly, stopped, became a motionless dot, as though a new star had fallen up into the sky. Then it went sliding back again and lost itself amidst the reflections of the stars and the white haze of the sea’s phosphorescence.

At the sight he stopped, arm extended and mouth open. He shut his mouth, opened it again, and waved his arms with an impatient gesture. Then he turned, shouted “El-stead ahoy!” to the first watch, and went at a run to Lindley and the search-light. “I saw him,” he said. “Starboard there! His light’s on, and he’s just shot out of the water. Bring the light round. We ought to see him drifting, when he lifts on the swell.”

But they never picked up the explorer until dawn. Then they almost ran him down. The crane was swung out and a boat’s crew hooked the chain to the sphere. When they had shipped the sphere, they unscrewed the manhole and peered into the darkness of the interior (for the electric light chamber was intended to illuminate the water about the sphere, and was shut off entirely from its general cavity).

The air was very hot within the cavity, and the indiarubber at the lip of the manhole was soft. There was no answer to their eager questions and no sound of movement within. Elstead seemed to be lying motionless, crumpled up in the bottom of the globe. The ship’s doctor crawled in and lifted him out to the men outside. For a moment or so they did not know whether Elstead was alive or dead. His face, in the yellow light of the ship’s lamps, glistened with perspiration. They carried him down to his own cabin.

He was not dead, they found, but in a state of absolute nervous collapse, and besides cruelly bruised. For some days he had to lie perfectly still. It was a week before he could tell his experiences.

Almost his first words were that he was going down again. The sphere would have to be altered, he said, in order to allow him to throw off the cord if need be, and that was all. He had had the most marvellous experience. “You thought I should find nothing but ooze,” he said. “You laughed at my explorations, and I’ve discovered a new world!” He told his story in disconnected fragments, and chiefly from the wrong end, so that it is impossible to re-tell it in his words. But what follows is the narrative of his experience.

It began atrociously, he said. Before the cord ran out, the thing kept rolling over. He felt like a frog in a football. He could see nothing but the crane and the sky overhead, with an occasional glimpse of the people on the ship’s rail. He couldn’t tell a bit which way the thing would roll next. Suddenly he would find his feet going up, and try to step, and over he went rolling, head over heels, and just anyhow, on the padding. Any other shape would have been more comfortable, but no other shape was to be relied upon under the huge pressure of the nethermost abyss.

Suddenly the swaying ceased; the globe righted, and when he had picked himself up, he saw the water all about him greeny-blue, with an attenuated light filtering down from above, and a shoal of little floating things went rushing up past him, as it seemed to him, towards the light. And even as he looked, it grew darker and darker, until the water above was as dark as the midnight sky, albeit of a greener shade, and the water below black. And little transparent things in the water developed a faint glint of luminosity, and shot past him in faint greenish streaks.

And the feeling of falling! It was just like the start of a lift, he said, only it kept on. One has to imagine what that means, that keeping on. It was then of all times that Elstead repented of his adventure. He saw the chances against him in an altogether new light. He thought of the big cuttlefish people knew to exist in the middle waters, the kind of things they find half digested in whales at times, or floating dead and rotten and half eaten by fish. Suppose one caught hold and wouldn’t let go. And had the clockwork really been sufficiently tested? But whether he wanted to go on or to go back mattered not the slightest now.

In fifty seconds everything was as black as night outside, except where the beam from his light struck through the waters, and picked out every now and then some fish or scrap of sinking matter. They flashed by too fast for him to see what they were. Once he thinks he passed a shark. And then the sphere began to get hot by friction against the water. They had underestimated this, it seems.

The first thing he noticed was that he was perspiring, and then he heard a hissing growing louder under his feet, and saw a lot of little bubbles--very little bubbles they were--rushing upward like a fan through the water outside. Steam! He felt the window, and it was hot. He turned on the minute glow-lamp that lit his own cavity, looked at the padded watch by the studs, and saw he had been travelling now for two minutes. It came into his head that the window would crack through the conflict of temperatures, for he knew the bottom water is very near freezing.

Then suddenly the floor of the sphere seemed to press against his feet, the rush of bubbles outside grew slower and slower, and the hissing diminished. The sphere rolled a little. The window had not cracked, nothing had given, and he knew that the dangers of sinking, at anyrate, were over.

In another minute or so he would be on the floor of the abyss. He thought, he said, of Steevens and Weybridge and the rest of them five miles overhead, higher to him than the very highest clouds that ever floated over land are to us, steaming slowly and staring down and wondering what had happened to him.

He peered out of the window. There were no more bubbles now, and the hissing had stopped. Outside there was a heavy blackness--as black as black velvet--except where the electric light pierced the empty water and showed the colour of it--a yellow-green. Then three things like shapes of fire swam into sight, following each other through the water. Whether they were little and near or big and far off he could not tell.

Each was outlined in a bluish light almost as bright as the lights of a fishing smack, a light which seemed to be smoking greatly, and all along the sides of them were specks of this, like the lighter portholes of a ship. Their phosphorescence seemed to go out as they came into the radiance of his lamp, and he saw then that they were little fish of some strange sort, with huge heads, vast eyes, and dwindling bodies and tails. Their eyes were turned towards him, and he judged they were following him down. He supposed they were attracted by his glare.

Presently others of the same sort joined them. As he went on down, he noticed that the water became of a pallid colour, and that little specks twinkled in his ray like motes in a sunbeam. This was probably due to the clouds of ooze and mud that the impact of his leaden sinkers had disturbed.

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