Or should they try to ride out the storm in spite of being crippled by the drag of us?
"I think if I were up there I'd cut us adrift," said Stanley grimly. Both the Professor and myself nodded. "Though," he added hopefully, "my captain is a good gambler...."
The cable quivered like a live thing under the terrific strain. At each downward swoop, before the upswing began, there was a sickening sag.
"We no longer have a decision to make," said the Professor. "Press the key, Martin, and God grant we can rise with all this dead weight."
And at that instant the crew of the Rosa were also relieved of the necessity for making a decision.
At the bottom of one of those long, sickening falls there was a jerk--and we continued on down to the ocean floor!
The sphere rolled over, jumbling the equipment in a tangled mess with the three of us in the center, bruised and cut. The light snapped off as the battery connections were torn loose.
There we lay at the bottom of Penguin Deep, in an inert sphere that was dead and dark in the surrounding blackness--a coffin of glass to hold us through the centuries....
"Martin," I heard the Professor's voice after a time. "Stanley--can either of you move? I'm caught."
"I'm caught, too," came Stanley's gasping answer. "Something on my leg--feels like it's broken."
A heavy object was pressing across my body. With an effort I freed myself and fumbled in the pitch darkness for the other two.
"Lights first," commanded the Professor. "The pump, you know."
I did know! Frantically I scrambled in the dark till I located the batteries. They were right side up and still wired together.
The air grew rapidly foul with no one at the pump. Panting for breath I blundered at the task of connecting the light. After what seemed an eternity I accomplished it.
The light revealed Stanley with an air tank lying across his leg. The mouthpiece of his breathing tube had been forced back over his head, gashing his face in its journey. His face was white with pain.
The Professor was caught under the heavy bench. I freed him and together we attended to Stanley, finding that his leg wasn't broken but only badly bruised.
The mound-shaped monster, dislodged possibly by the fall, was nowhere to be seen.
I resumed work at the pump, the connections of which were so strongly contrived that they had withstood the shock of the upset.
For a moment we were content to rest while the air grew purer. Then we were forced squarely to face our fate.
The Professor summed up the facts in a few concise words.
"We're certainly doomed! Here at the bottom of Penguin Deep we're as out of reach of help as though we were stranded on the moon. We're as good as dead right now."
"If we have nothing left to hope for," whispered Stanley after a time, "we might as well close the air valves and get it over with at once. No use torturing ourselves...."
The Professor moistened his lips.
"It might be wise." He turned to me. "What's your opinion, Martin?"
But I--I confess I had not the stark courage of these two.
"No! No!" I cried out. "Let's keep on living as long as the air holds out. Something might happen--"
I avoided their eyes as I said it, utterly ashamed of my cowardly quibbling with death. What in the name of God could possibly happen to help us?
The Professor shrugged dully, and nodded.
"I feel with Stanley that we ought to get it over in one short stab. But we have no right to force you...." His voice trailed off.
We readjusted our mouthpieces. I turned automatically at the pump; and we silently awaited the last suffocating moment of our final doom.
As before, attracted by the light, a strange assortment of deep-sea life wriggled and darted about us, swimming lazily among the looped coils and twists of our cable which had settled down around us.
Among these were certain fish that resembled great porcupines. Spines a foot and a half long, like living knife blades, protected them from the attacks of other species.
They were the only things we saw that were not constantly writhing away from the jaws of some hostile monster--the only things that seemed able to swim about their own affairs without even deigning to watch for danger.
Fascinated, I watched the six-foot creatures. Here were we, reasoning humans, supposed lords of creation, slowly but surely perishing--while only a few feet away one of the lowest forms of life could exist in perfect safety and tranquility!
Then, as I watched them, I seemed to see a difference in some of them.
The majority of them had two fins just behind the gill slits, typical fish tails and blunt, sloping heads. But now and then I saw a spined monster that was queerly unlike its fellows.
Instead of two front fins, these unique ones had two vacant round holes. The head looked as though it had forgotten to grow; its place was taken by an eyeless, projecting, shield shaped cap. And there was no tail.
Glad to find something to distract my half crazed thoughts, I studied the nearest of these.
They moved slower than their tailed and finned brothers, I noticed. I wondered how they could move at all, lacking in any kind of motive power as they seemed to be.
Next instant the secret of their movement was made clear!
Out of the empty fin holes of the creature I was studying crept two long, powerful looking tentacles. But these were not true tentacles. There were no vacuum discs on them, and they moved as though supported by jointed bones--like arms.
The arms ended in flat paddles that resembled hands. These threshed the water in a sort of breast-stroke, propelling the body forward.
Shortly after the arms had appeared, the spiny head cap was cautiously extended a few inches forward from the main shell. Further it was extended as the head of a turtle might slowly appear from the protection of its bony case. And under it-- "Professor!" I screamed wildly. "My God! Look!"
Both the Professor and Stanley merely stared dully at me. I babbled of what I had seen.
"A man! A human looking thing, anyway! Arms and a head! A man inside a fish's spined hide--like armor!"
They looked pityingly at me. The Professor laid his hand on my shoulder.
"Now, now," he soothed, "don't go to pieces--"
"I tell you I saw it!" I shouted. Then, shrinking from the hysterical loudness of my own voice, I lowered my tone. "Something that looks human has occupied some of those prickly, six-foot shells. I saw arms--and a man's head! I swear it!"
"Nonsense! How could a human being stand the cold, the pressure--"
Here I happened to glance at the wall of the shell through which the searchlight shone.
"Look! See for yourself!"
Squarely in the rays of the light showed a head, projecting from one of the shells and capped with a wide flat helmet of horned bone.
There were eyes and nose and mouth placed on one side of that head--a face! There were even tabs of flesh or bony protuberances that resembled ears.
"Curious," muttered the Professor, staring. "It certainly looks human enough to talk. But it's only a fish, nevertheless. See--in the throat are gill slits."
"But the eyes! Look at them! They're not the eyes of a fish!"
And they were not. There was in them a light of reason, of intelligence. Those eyes were roaming brightly over us, observing the light, the equipment, seeming to note our amazement as we crowded to look at it.
The sphere rocked slightly. Behind the staring, manlike visitor there was a glimpse of enormous, crocodile jaws and huge, amethyst eyes. Instantly the head and arms receded, leaving an empty-seeming, lifeless shell. An impregnable fortress of spines, the thing drifted slowly away through the twisted loops of cable.
"It certainly looked like--" began Stanley shakily.
"The creature was just a fish," said the Professor shaking his head at the light in Stanley's eyes. "Some sort of giant parasite that inhabits the shells of other fish."
He opened the valve of the last air cylinder and seated himself resignedly on the bench.
"We have another half hour or so--"
All of us suddenly put out our hands to brace ourselves. The sphere had moved.
"Look at the cable!" called Stanley.
We did so. It was moving, writhing away from us over the bottom as though abruptly given life of its own. Coil after coil disappeared into the further gloom.
At length the cable was straight. The ball moved again--was dragged a few feet along the rocky floor.
Something--possessed of incredibly vast power--had seized the end of the steel cable and was reeling us in as a fisherman reels in a trout!
Slowly, unsteadily, we slid along the ocean floor. Ahead of us appeared a jagged black wall--a cliff. There was a gloomy hole at its base. Toward this we were being dragged by whatever it was that had caught the end of the cable.
Helpless, we watched ourselves engulfed by the murky den. In the beam of the searchlight we saw that the submarine cavern extended on and on for an unguessable depth. The cable, taut with the strain, stretched ahead out of sight.
Time had been lost track of during that mysterious, ominous journey. It was recalled to us by the state of the air we were breathing.
The Professor removed his mouthpiece and cast the tube aside.
"You might as well stop pumping, Martin," he said quietly. "We're done. There's no more air in the flask."
We stared at each other. Then we shook hands, solemnly, tremulously, taking leave of each other before we departed on that longest of all journeys....
The air in that small space was rapidly exhausted. We lay on the floor, laboring for breath, and closed our eyes....
The Professor, the oldest of the three of us, succumbed first. I heard his breath whistle stertorously and, glancing at him, saw that he was in a coma. In a moment Stanley had joined him in blessed unconsciousness.
I could feel myself drifting off.... Hammers beat at my ears.... Daggers pierced my heaving lungs....
Hazily I could see scores of the bristly, manlike fish when I opened my eyes and glanced through the walls. It was not one monster then, but many that had brought us to their lair. Abruptly, as though a signal had been given, they all streamed back toward the mouth of the cavern....
My eyesight dimmed.... The hammers pulsed louder.... A veil descended over my senses and I knew no more....
A soft, sustained roar came to my ears. Through my closed eyelids I could sense light. A dank, fishy smell came to my nostrils.
I groaned and moved feebly, finding that I was resting on something soft and pleasant.
Dazedly I opened my eyes and sat up. An exclamation burst from me as I suddenly remembered what had gone before, and realized that somehow, incredibly, I was still living.
Feeling like a man who has waked from a nightmarish sleep to find himself in his tomb, I gazed about.
I was in a long, lofty rock chamber, the uneven floor of which was covered with shallow pools of water. The further end was of smooth-grained stone that resembled cement. The near end was rough like the walls; but in it there was a small, symmetrical arch, the mouth of a passage leading away to some other point in the bowels of the earth.
The place was flooded with clear light that had a rosy tinge. From my position on the floor I could not see what made the light. It streamed from a crevice that extended clear around the cave parallel with the floor and about twelve feet above it. From this groove, along with the light, came the soft roaring hiss.
Beside me was the glass ball, the cover off and lying a few feet away from the opening in the top. There was no trace of Stanley or the Professor.
I rose from my couch, a thick, mattresslike affair of soft, pliant hide, and walked feebly toward the small arch in the near end of the cave.
Even as I approached it I heard footsteps, and voices resounded in some slurring, musical language. Half a dozen figures suddenly came into view.
They were men, as human as myself! Indeed, as I gazed at them, I felt inclined to think they were even more human!
They were magnificent specimens. The smallest could not have been less than six feet three, and all of them were muscular and finely proportioned. Their faces were arresting in their expression of calm strength and kindliness. They looked like gods, arrayed in soft, thick, beautifully tanned hides in this rosy tinted hole a mile below the ocean's top.
They stared at me for an instant, then advanced toward me. My face must have reflected alarm, for the tallest of them held up his hand, palm outward, in a peaceful gesture.
The leader spoke to me. Of course the slurred, melodious syllable meant nothing to me. He smiled and indicated that I was to follow him. I did so, hardly aware of what I was doing, my brain reeling in an attempt to grasp the situation.
How marvelous, how utterly incredible, to find human beings here! How many were there? Where had they come from? How had they salvaged us from Penguin Deep? I gave it up, striding along with my towering guards like a man walking in his sleep.