The senator puffed his cigar in thoughtful silence.
"We'll just have to keep working with him," Taggert said. "Maybe we'll eventually make sense out of this precognition thing.
"At least we've got what we wanted. The Soviets think they've put us back ten years; they figure they've got more time, now, to get their own program a long ways ahead.
"When they do get to Mars and Venus and the planets of Alpha Centauri and Sirius and Procyon, they'll find us there, waiting for them."
Senator Kerotski chuckled softly. "You're a pretty good prophet, yourself, Brian. The only difference between you and Forsythe is that he's right half the time.
"You're right all the time."
"No," said Taggert. "Not all the time. Only when it's important."
THE TENTACLES FROM BELOW.
By Anthony Gilmore
"Full stop. Rest ready."
These words glowed in vivid red against the black background of the NX-1's control order-board. A wheel was spun over, a lever pulled back, and in the hull of the submarine descended the peculiar silence found only in mile-deep waters. Men rested at their posts, eyes alert.
Above, in the control room, Hemingway Bowman, youthful first officer, glanced at the teleview screen and swore softly.
"Keith," he said, "between you and me, I'll be damned glad when this monotonous job's over. I joined the Navy to see the world, but this charting job's giving me entirely too many close-ups of the deadest parts of it!"
Commander Keith Wells. U. S. N., grinned broadly. "Well," he remarked, "in a few minutes we can call it a day--or night, rather--and then it's back to the Falcon while the day shift 'sees the world.'" He turned again to his dials as Hemmy Bowman, with a sigh, resumed work.
"Depth, six thousand feet. Visibility poor. Bottom eight thousand," he said into the phone hung before his lips, and fifty feet aft, in a small cubby, a blue-clad figure monotonously repeated the observations and noted them down in an official geographical survey report.
Such had been their routine for two tiring weeks, all part of the NX-l's present work of re-charting the Newfoundland banks.
As early as 1929 slight cataclysms had begun to tear up the sea-floor of this region, and of late--1935--seismographs and cable companies had reported titanic upheavals and sinkings of the ocean bed, changing hundreds of miles of underwater territory. Finally Washington decided to chart the alterations this series of sub-sea earthquakes had wrought.
And for this job the NX-1 was detailed. A super-submarine fresh from the yards, small, but modern to the last degree, she contained such exclusive features as a sheathing of the tough new glycosteel, automatic air rectifiers, a location chart for showing positions of nearby submarines, the newly developed Edsel electric motors, and automatic teleview screen. When below surface she was a sealed tube of metal one hundred feet long, and possessed of an enormous cruising radius. From the flower of the Navy some thirty men were picked, and in company with the mother-ship Falcon she put out to combine an exhaustive trial trip with the practical charting of the newly changed ocean floor.
Now this work was almost over. Keith Wells told himself that he, like Bowman, would be glad to set foot on land again. This surveying was important, of course, but too dry for him--no action. He smiled at the lines of boredom on Hemmy's brow as the younger man stared gloomily into the teleview screen.
And then the smile left his lips. The radio operator, in a cubby adjoining the control room, had spoken into the communication tube: "Urgent call for you, sir! From Captain Knapp!"
Wells reached out and clipped a pair of extension phones over his ears. The deep voice of Robert Knapp, captain of the mother-ship Falcon, came ringing in. It was strained with an excitement unusual to him.
"Wells? Knapp speaking. Something damned funny's just happened near here. You know the fishing fleet that was near us yesterday morning?"
"Well, the whole thing's gone down! Destroyed, absolutely! The sea's been like glass, the weather perfect--yet from the wreckage, what there is of it, you'd think a typhoon had struck! I can't begin to explain it. No survivors, either, so far, though we're hunting for them."
"You say the boats are completely destroyed?"
"Smashed like driftwood. I tell you it's preposterous--and yet it's the fact. I think you'd better return at once, old man; you're only half an hour off. And come on the surface; it's getting light now, and you might pick up something. God knows what this means, Keith, but it's up to us to find out. It's--it's got me...."
His tones were oddly disturbed--almost scared--and this from a man who didn't know what fear was.
"But Bob," Keith asked, "how did you--"
"Stand by a minute! The lookout reports survivors!"
Wells turned to meet Bowman's inquisitive face. He quickly repeated the gist of Knapp's weird story. "We saw them at dusk, last evening--remember? And now they're gone, destroyed. What can have done it?"
For some minutes the two surprised men speculated on the strange occurrence. Then Knapp's voice again rang in the headphones.
"Wells? My God, man, this is getting downright fantastic! We've just taken two survivors on board; one's barely alive and the other crazy. I can't get an intelligible thing from him; he keeps shrieking about writhing arms and awful eyes--and monsters he calls 'machine-fish'!"
"You're sure he's insane?"
Robert Knapp's voice hesitated queerly.
"Well, he's shrieking about 'machine-fish'--fish with machines over them!... I--I'm going to broadcast the whole story to the land stations. 'Machine-fish'! I don't know.... I don't know.... You'd better hurry back, Wells!"
He rang off.
Keith slipped off the headphones and told Bowman what he had learned. Hardy, staunchly built craft, those fishing boats were; born in the teeth of gales. What horror could have ripped them--all of them--to driftwood, with the weather perfect? And a half-mad survivor, raving about "machine-fish"!
"Such things are preposterous," Bowman commented scornfully.
"But--the fleet's gone, Hemmy," Keith replied. "Anyway, we'll speed back, and see what it's all about."
He punched swift commands on the control studs. "Empty Tanks, Zoom to Surface, Full Speed," the crimson words glared down below, and the NX-1 at once shoved her snout up, trembling as her great electric motors began their pulsing whine. The delicate fingers of the massed dials before Keith danced exultantly. The depth-levels tolled out: "Seven thousand ... six thousand ... five thousand--"
"Keith! Look there!"
Hemmy Bowman was pointing with amazement at the location chart, a black mesh screen that showed the position of other submarines within a radius of two miles. In one corner, a spot of vivid red was shining.
"But it can't be a submarine!" Wells objected. "Our reports would have mentioned it!"
The two officers stared at each other.
"'Machine-fish!'" Bowman whispered softly. "If there were machines, the metal would register on the chart."
"It must be them!" the commander roared, coming out of his daze. "And, by God, we're going after them!"
Rapidly he brought the NX-1 out of her zoom to the surface, and left her at four thousand feet, in perfect trim, while he read the instruments closely.
A green spot in the center of the location chart denoted the NX-1's exact position. A distance of perhaps forty inches separated it from the red light on the meshed screen--which represented, roughly, a mile and a half. Below the chart was a thick dial, over which a black hand, indicating the mysterious submersible's approximate depth, was slowly moving.
"He's sinking--whatever he is," Keith muttered to Hemmy. "Hey, Sparks! Get me Captain Knapp."
A moment later the connection was put through.
"Bob? This is Wells again. Bob, our location chart shows the presence of some strange undersea metallic body. It can't be a submarine, for my maritime reports would show its presence. We think it has some connection with the 'machine-fish' that survivor raved about. At any rate, I'm going after it. The world has a right to know what destroyed that fishing fleet, and since the NX-1 is right on the spot it's my duty to track it down. Re-broadcast this news to land stations, will you? I'll keep in touch with you."
Knapp's voice came soberly back. "I guess you're right, Keith; it's up to you.... So long, old man. Good luck!"
In Wells' veins throbbed the lust for action. With control studs at hand, location chart and teleview screen before his eyes and fifteen men waiting below for his commands, he had no fear of any monster the underseas might spew up. He glanced swiftly at the location chart and depth indicator again.
The mysterious red spot was slowly coming across the NX-1's bows at a distance of about one mile. Keith punched a stud, and, as his craft filled her tank and slipped down further into deep water, he spoke to Hemmy Bowman.
"Take control for a minute. Keep on all speed, and follow 'em like a bloodhound. I'm going below."
He strode down the connecting ramp to the lower deck, where he found fifteen men standing vigilantly at posts. At once Keith plunged into a full explanation of what he had learned up in the control room. He concluded: "A great moral burden rests on us--every one of us--as we will soon come face to face with a possible world menace. Anything may happen. A state of war exists on this submarine. You will be prepared for any wartime eventuality!"
Sobered faces greeted this announcement, and perceptibly the men straightened and held themselves more alertly. Wells at once returned to the control room. A glance at the location chart and its two tiny lights told him that the intervening distance had been decreased to about half a mile.
The depth dial showed them both to be two miles below, and steadily diving lower. Charts showed the sea-floor to be three miles deep in this position, and that meant-- "Look there!" exclaimed the first officer suddenly. "It's changing course!"
The crimson stud had suddenly shifted its course, and now was fleeing directly before them. For a moment the distance between the green and red lights remained constant--and then Keith Wells stared unbelievingly at the chart, wiped a hand across his eyes and stared again.
"Why--why, the devils are as fast as we!" he exclaimed in amazement. "I think they're even gaining on us!"
"And there's no other submarine in the world that can do more than thirty under water!" Hemmy Bowman added. "We're hitting a full forty-one!"
A call came through the communication tube from Sparks. "Report from Consolidated Radio News-Broadcasters, sir, aimed especially at us."
"Well?" asked Keith, motioning Hemmy to listen in. Sparks read it.
"'A week ago Atlantic City reported that seven men were snatched off fishing boat by unidentified tentacled monsters. Testimony of witnesses was discredited, but was later corroborated by the almost identical testimony of other witnesses at Brighton Beach, England, who saw man and woman taken by mysterious monsters whilst bathing.' Perhaps these same creatures destroyed the Newfoundland fishing fleet." His level voice ceased.
"Tentacled monsters ... 'machine-fish,'" Wells murmured slowly. "'Machine-fish.'..."
Their eyes met, the same wonder in each. "Well," Keith rapped at last, "we're seeing this through!"
He turned again to the location chart. The green spot as always was in the center, and at a constant distance was the red, showing that the NX-1 was hot on the other's trail. The depth dials indicated that both were diving deeper every moment.
"Where in hell's it going?" the commander rasped. "We'll be on the floor in a few minutes!"
Here the teleview showed the world to be one of fantasy, one to which the sun did not exist. It was not an utter, pitchy blackness that pervaded the water, but rather a peculiar, dark blueness. No fish schools, Keith noted, scurried from them. They had already left these waters; aware, perhaps, of the passing Terror....
They plunged lower yet. Wells was conscious of Hemmy Bowman's quick, uneven breathing. Conscious of the tautness of his own nerves, strung like quivering violin strings. Conscious of the terrific walls of water pressing in on them. And conscious of the men below, their lives bound implicitly in his will and brain....
A thought came to him, and quickly he reached into a rack for the chart of the local sea-floor. His brow creased with puzzlement as he studied it.
"Here's more mystery, Hemmy," he muttered. "Look--there's an underwater cliff about half a mile dead ahead. It rises to within four thousand feet of the surface. And that thing out there is charging straight into its base!"
"They must be aware of it," jerked the other. "See?--they've stopped!"
It was true. The gulf between the two colored spots was rapidly being swallowed up. At a pulsing forty-one knots the NX-1 was closing in on the motionless mystery craft.
"They're sinking to the floor itself," observed Wells. "Perhaps waiting to attack."
The invisible beams from their ultra-violet light-beacons streamed through the silent gloom outside, yet still the teleview screen was empty. Keith punched a stud, and the NX-1's whining motors dulled to a scarcely audible purr.
"What is the thing?" muttered Hemmy Bowman. "God, Keith, what is it?"
For answer, the commander dropped them the last five hundred feet. The sea-floor rose like a gray ghost. More control studs were pushed; the order-board below read: "All Power Off, Rest in Trim." The location chart told a tale that wrung a gasp from Bowman's throat. The red and green lights were practically touching....
The hands of Petty Officer Brown, the helmsman, were quivering on the helm. Wells' fists kept tensing and relaxing as he peered for a sight of the enemy in the teleview. Nothing showed but the moving fingers of spectral kelp. Then both he and Bowman cried out as one: "There!"