"I'm there, Keith! Now for it!"
"Oh, God!" Wells cried. "They see you; they're coming!"
For he had seen strange shapes leaving the enemy submarine.
And at that same moment, Bowman saw them, too.
They came like the blink of a dark eye from a door that had quickly slid open in the mysterious ship's bow. As tall as a man they were, and there were two of them, though at first the nature of their bodies merged with the wreathing kelp made them seem like a dozen. Bowman stared at them, hypnotized with fear. His legs and arms went dead, and his whole gallant spirit seemed to slump into lifeless clay. Now he knew why the fishermen had shrieked "machine-fish." Each one of them had eight tapering arms, eight restless tentacles. These were octopi, most hideous scavengers of the ocean floor! And not only octopi--but octopi sheathed in metal-scaled armor!
As they came closer, he realized this preposterous fact. The dark substance of their writhing tentacles was not flesh: it was a coat of metal scales. And the fat central mass which held their eyes and vital organs and beaked jaw--this mass was completely enveloped by a globe of glass. From inside, he could see great eyes staring at him. The monsters came towards him quite slowly, obviously wary, advancing over the sea-floor in what was a hideous mockery of walking, their forward tentacles outstretched.
With a sob, Hemmy Bowman pulled himself from his trance. He glanced back at the NX-1. He still had time to retreat. He might be able to get back inside before these monsters seized him.
But that meant abandoning his job. And already his own submarine was nosing into the cavern. The choice between the octopi and retreat stared him in the face. He pulled himself together and jerked his arms back to action.
Eyes bulging, Keith Wells peered at the dim teleview screen. He saw the creatures approaching Hemmy. And then, suddenly, he remembered his radiophone.
"Hemmy! Come back, for God's sake!" he cried. "Come back while you can--it's hopeless!"
But Bowman had already seized the depth charge from his back and hooked it on the hawser arm above.
Immediately, with that action, all caution fled from the approaching monsters. Their tentacles whipped furiously; and in a great arc they sprang for the tiny figure of the diver.
With a deep breath, Hemmy staggered forward to meet them. "Keith!" he gasped. "I'll try to hold 'em away from the charge! When it bursts, zoom! Zoom like hell to the surface!" And then the tentacles had him.
Keith watched, cursing his impotence to help. Hemmy had no weapon; he was trying to hold them back by the weight of his body; he reached out and grasped a tentacle and hugged it to him, shoving forward with all his puny strength. But all his effort was as nothing. One of the octopi writhed past him and darted onto the depth charge. Its tentacles tugged at the bomb; pulled furiously.
The time charge exploded. The NX-1 rocked like a quivering reed; Wells was knocked violently to the floor; a vast roar smote his ear-drums. When he staggered to his feet he found that the octopus that was pulling at the charge had disappeared--blown into fragments of flesh and metal. But the hawser arm was broken! The NX-1, free, shot back a full fifty feet under the pull of her reversed screws. A cry echoed in her commander's ears: "Go back, Keith! Go like hell!"
He saw the remaining octopus lift Bowman and whip to the exit port of its submarine. The lid slid into place, closing on the monster and his friend, and the enemy ship vanished into the black cavern....
Once clear of the opening, Keith set his motors full forward and brought the diving rudders up. Quickly the ship sped from the haunted sea-floor to the sun-warmed surface. A last thin call rang in his radiophone: "They've got me inside, Keith. It's dark, and filled with water. I can't see anything, but I--I guess we're going through the cavern.... Forget about me, old boy. So long! So--"
The voice was abruptly cut off.
Keith ripped the instrument from his head. Then, face white and drawn, he ran to the radio cubby. Standing over Sparks' inert body, he put through a call to Robert Knapp, on the Falcon.
"Knapp?" he said harshly. "This is Wells. I'll be with you in a few minutes. Yes--yes--I'll tell you the whole story later. But get this now: Have the day shift all ready to take over the submarine by the time I pull alongside."
He said no more just then; but rang off, and, looking back, he muttered savagely: "But I'll be back, Hemmy--I'll be back!"
In the Cavern "That's the story, Knapp. They got Bowman, and I had to run away. Their ship disappeared into the cavern. I've got a hunch, though, that it's not just a cavern, but a tunnel, leading through to some underwater world. That series of sub-sea earthquakes probably opened it up; and now these devil-octopi are free to pour out. I've got to find out what's what, and that's why I'm going down again as soon as the torpedo system's ready!"
Keith and Robert Knapp were in the Falcon's chart room. On the table before them lay a broad white map with a cross-mark indicating the position of the mysterious dark cavern.
Wells was striding up and down like a caged tiger in his impatience to be off. Every other minute he glared down to where the NX-1 lay alongside. On her conning tower stood the tall blond-haired figure of Graham, the first officer of the day shift, supervising the final details of the work of installing a system of jury controls whereby the submarine's torpedoes could be fired from her control room.
Keith stopped short and faced Knapp. "It won't be so one-sided this time, Bob," he promised. "You see: when the location chart shows the enemy ship, I'll rush all men into the control room, where the paralyzing ray can't harm them. I don't know but what they have in other weapons, but I'm gambling on getting my torps in first. They've killed Bowman; they've ravaged a whole fishing fleet; they're free to emerge from their hole and maraud every ocean on the globe! They've got to be stopped! And since I'm armed and have the only submarine on the spot, I've got to do it! I know how to fight them now!"
Captain Robert Knapp's sense of things was badly disordered. He had just heard a story which his common sense told him couldn't be true, but which the evidence of his eyes had grimly authenticated. He had seen fifteen men slung aboard his ship from the NX-1's silent hull; men stretched in grotesque, limp attitudes; men struck down by a paralyzing ray. Why, no nation on earth had developed rays for warfare! Yet--a crew of helpless men was even then in the sick bay, receiving attention in the hope that they might recover.
"You're going right through that cavern, then, Wells?" he asked incredulously. "You're going to investigate what lies beyond?"
"Nothing else! And I won't come out till I've blown that octopi ship to pieces!"
"It sounds preposterous," Knapp murmured, shaking his head. "Octopi, you say--and clad in metal suits! Running a submarine more powerful than the NX-1! Armed with a ray--a paralyzing ray! I can't believe--I can't conceive--"
"You've seen the men!... Knapp, if I were you I'd swing my eight-inchers out, bring up the plane catapult and keep the deck torpedo tubes loaded and ready. It's best to be prepared; God knows what's going on underseas these days!"
First Officer Graham appeared at the door. "Work finished, sir," he said. "Ready to cast off."
"Thank heaven!" Wells muttered, and stretched out his hand to Robert Knapp. "Broadcast what I've told you, Bob, and say that the NX-1 won't be back till everything's under control. I'll keep in touch with you. So long!" And he was gone before the captain could even wish him good luck.
Orders raced from her commander's fingers on the stud board in the control room. "Crash Dive" filled her tanks and put her nose perilously down, so that in thirty seconds only a swirling patch of water was left to show where once she'd lain. A brief command to the helmsman and she pointed straight for the dark cavern marked on the chart.
When well under way, Keith descended with Graham to inspect the new torpedo firing system, and found it in good working order. "Graham," he ordered tersely, "instruct the crew fully about rushing to the control room on one ring of the general alarm. And send the cook up to me in a minute or so. I'll be in Sparks' cubby."
Above again, he instructed the radio man to rig a remote control sender and receiver in the insulated control room. The need for centering the whole crew there during engagements would crowd the room awkwardly, but at other times, while proceeding on their inspection of the cavern lair, they could remain at their regular posts.
That, at least, was Wells' plan.
He looked up and found the cook, McKegnie, grinning at him from the door of the control room. Keith smiled, running his eyes over the portly magnificence of his gently perspiring figure. "Keg," he said cheerfully, "I want you to move your hot plate and culinary apparatus up here; you see, we're all likely to be crowded in here for some time, and your coffee's going to be an absolute necessity." He couldn't resist a crack at McKegnie's well-known and passionate curiosity as to what made the thigmajigs of the control board work: "And besides, it'll give you a chance to observe the instruments and perfect yourself for your future career as a naval officer. Much better than a correspondence course in 'How to Be a Submarine Commander,' eh?"
Cook McKegnie grinned sheepishly, and left. He was well used to such jests, but he never would admit that his extraordinary interest in watching the ship's wheels go round was accompanied by a miraculous inability to comprehend why they went round....
Fifteen minutes later the helmsman's cry, "Cavern showing, sir!" swung the commander to the teleview screen. The dark, kelp-shrouded opening he knew so well was already looming on it. And he was prepared.
"Enter," he said, while his punched studs ordered, "Quarter Speed, Ready at Posts, Tanks in Trim." The NX-1 slackened her gait, balanced cautiously, and struck a straight, even course as she crept closer to the cleft entrance through which, some two hours earlier, the octopi ship had nosed.
Screws turning slowly, she edged through the jagged cavern. Shades of inky blackness grew on the teleview and danced in fantastic blotches; the screen turned to a welter of black, threatening shadows; became a useless maze of ever-changing forms. Keith mouthed curses as he stared at it; he now had nothing by which to judge his progress, to maneuver the submarine, save directional instruments and, perhaps, chance scrapings of the tunnel's ragged walls against the outer hull. The NX-1 was running a gauntlet of immeasurable danger, her only assurance of success being the fact that a larger craft had preceded her.
But how far, Keith wondered, had that ship preceded her? How was he to know that it had gone straight through? There might be a dozen different turnings in this tunnel: the submarine could easily tilt head-on against a jagged rock and puncture her hull. There might be mines planted directly in their course; he might be swimming straight into some hideous ambuscade.
He drove these thoughts from his mind. The passage had to be made on the fickle authority of the senses; and, realizing this, Wells took the helm into his own hands. Graham was posted at the location chart, with instructions to report the red light if it showed.
Down below, the Edsel electrics were humming very softly; the men stood vigilantly at posts. On their brows were little beads of sweat, and here and there a hand clenched nervously. All knew they were in a tight place; otherwise they were ignorant of where their commander was leading them. Occasionally a long, shivering rasp ran through the ship as her hull nudged the rough tunnel wall. Then the course rudders would swing gently over; and perhaps, almost immediately, another grinding cry of rock and steel would come from the other side. Then would come quickly indrawn breaths as the rudders swung again and the humming silence droned on.
The scrapings came quite often. Often, too, the motors would go silent altogether, and the NX-1 would rest almost motionless as her commander felt for an opening. It was a tense, nerve-wringing ordeal. The silence, the waiting, the dainty scrapings were maddening.
Keith Wells' skin was prickling. He kept only fingertips on the tiny helm: he was playing that uncanny sixth sense of the submarine commander. When it misled him, the rasping rock groaned out, scarring the submarine's smooth skin. Generally, the tunnel was straight; but each time he heard his ship rub against some exterior obstruction, his teeth went tight--for who knew but what it might be a mine?
They had penetrated perhaps a half-mile when Graham, eyes steady on the teleview, reported: "Light growing, sir!"
Wells saw that the screen was filling with a soft, faintly glowing bluish color. The walls of the tunnel became visible, and he noted that they were widening out, funnel-like. He dared to increase speed slightly. Three minutes later he saw that the blue illumination was seeping from the end of the tunnel. They continued out.
"Thank God, we're through!" he muttered to Graham. "You see, I was right! It's an underground sea--and we're at the top of it." For the instruments indicated a depth beneath them of roughly three miles. They were in, evidently, a large cavern, of vast length and depth.
The NX-1 continued slowly forward, two pairs of eyes intent on her teleview screen. Keith jotted down the tunnel's position, and the funnel-shaped hole sank away behind their slow screws. And then, upon the location chart, a faint red dot suddenly glowed!
It was upon them in a flash. A small tube of metal, shaped somewhat in the form of the big octopi submarine, had darted up from below, hovered a second close to them, and then, almost before they realized they were being surveyed, sped back into the mysterious depths from which it had come.
"A lookout, I suppose," Keith muttered, breathing more easily. "Couldn't have held more than two of those creatures.... Well, the alarm's out, I guess, Graham, but it can't be helped. Let's see what it's like down below."
They plunged steadily down, then ahead. And presently there grew on the teleview vague forms which widened their eyes and made their breath come quicker. Keith had guessed the tunnel led to a civilization of some kind, but he was not prepared for the sight that loomed hazily through the soft blue water.
Strange, moundlike shapes appeared far below, mounds grouped in orderly rows and clusters, with streets running between them, thronged with tiny, spidery dots. Octopi! It was, the commander realized, a city of the monsters--a complete city like those of surface peoples! For several miles in every direction the water-city spread out, farther than the teleview could pierce. Wells marveled at this separately developed civilization, this deep-buried realm of octopi whose unexpected intellectual powers had permitted such development. Perhaps, he pondered, this city was only one of many; perhaps only a village. He could but vaguely glimpse the queer mound buildings, but saw that they were of varying height and were filled with dark round entrance holes, through which the creatures streamed on their different errands....
He saw no schools of fish around. "I guess they're been all killed off, or eaten," he commented to the wonder-struck Graham. "Probably the octopi have separate hatcheries where they raise them for food."
"But--good Lord!" the first officer exclaimed. "A city--a city like ours! Down here, filled with octopi!..."
"Yes," answered Wells grimly, "and this 'city' may only be a small settlement; there may be scores of these places. We'd better continue ahead now that we're here; for we've got to get all the information we can. I only hope these monsters haven't more than one big submarine. We can expect an attack any minute...."
The NX-1 pressed on. The city dropped behind. A breathless tenseness had settled down over the submarine; she was proceeding with utmost caution, her anxious officers alert at the location chart. The great fear that tormented them was that they might be attacked, not by one, but by a fleet of the octopi ships....
Then, at the rim of the chart, a red dot appeared! It grew rapidly, charging down on them at great speed. The spot was large; this was no small sentry boat! At once the alarm bell shrilled its warning; the crew below left their posts and raced to the control room. With sure mechanical fingers the emergency system gripped the valve handles and motor levers; Keith swung the NX-1 onto a level keel, straightened her out, and decreased speed still more. Giving the rods of the motor and rudder controls to Graham, he moved to the small lever which would unleash his bow torpedoes, and fingered it lightly. The NX-1 was ready for action.
Scarcely had the men reached the small control room than the familiar electric charge tingled. They stared wonderingly at each other, half afraid. No one seemed hurt. One hand on the torpedo lever, Wells watched his charts and instruments. He thanked God that there was only one of the enemy.
The ray's shock came again--and stronger. The red dot was practically upon them. The screen was still empty. Coolly, Keith slowed the submarine to a dead stop. The crimson stud came closer....
And then he saw it. It was the same fearsome, hulking form. The same curving windows, dark and lifeless. The same knobs on its bow, one now leaping and pulsing with the paralyzing glow. At a distance of a few hundred feet the octopi ship swerved to a halt, dousing the NX-1 with its ray unceasingly. Again those two underwater craft, so oddly contrasted, were face to face. And again the weapon that had once struck the American ship's crew down at their posts was directed full onto the NX-1.
But it was harmless! It merely tingled, and did not paralyze! The control room sheathing held it out stoutly. The men's faces showed overwhelming relief.
Keith smiled grimly. Now, at least, he had the devils where he wanted them; now it was his turn to strike with a--to them--terrible, mysterious weapon. They had attacked; had failed--and now he could square up for Hemmy and send a pair of torpedoes into that ship of hideous tentacles.
"Port five!" The ship swerved slightly. "Hold even!" The enemy craft was very close. The NX-1's bow tubes were sighted in direct line. Her torpedoes could not possibly miss. This time, destruction for the octopi ship was inevitable....
Keith Wells gripped the lever that held the torps in leash.
Sparks, a bare foot from him, yelled out the word. Wells, alarmed, released his grip on the knob. The radio operator was listening intently, a circle of taut faces around his crouched back. He swung excitedly around.
"For God's sake, don't fire!" he cried. "Hemingway Bowman's on that submarine! He's alive--and calling for you!"
The Other Weapon Bowman--alive!
Keith Wells let go the torpedo lever. His whole orderly plan of action was crashed in a second.--For an instant he stood gaping at the radio man, forgetful of the peril outside, striving desperately to hit on some way of surmounting this unlooked-for obstacle. The idea of firing on his friend--killing Hemmy Bowman with his own hand--paralyzed his brain.
And in that unguarded instant the octopi struck.
From the bow of the enemy submarine, slanting from another of its peculiar knobs, a narrow beam of violet light poured, cutting a vivid swathe across the teleview. The huddled men stared at it, not comprehending what it was. They felt no shock of electricity, nor could they discern any other harmful effect. The ray held steadily on their bow, not varying in the slightest, for a full thirty seconds. And still none of them could feel or see any damage.
Wells, however, gradually became aware that he was bathed in perspiration, that great streams of sweat were coursing down his face. A quick glance told him that every member of the crew was the same way; and then, suddenly, he was conscious of a wave of intense heat--heat which quickly became terrific. The control room was stifling!
Before he could act, the NX-1 slipped sharply to one side. A sharp hissing sound grew at her bow, climbing steadily to a shriek. Long streamers of white steam crept along the lower deck and seeped up into the control room. And then rose the fatal sound of rushing water--water pouring into the submarine from outside!
For the violet beam was a heat ray--a weapon surface civilizations had not yet developed. While the NX-1's crew had stared at it in the teleview, it had melted a hole in their bow.
Immediately the submarine lost trim, and the deck tilted ominously. In the face of material danger--danger from a source he understood--the commander became cool and methodical.
"Sea-suits on!" he snapped. "Then forward and break out steel collision-mat and weld it in place! Every man! You, too, Sparks and McKegnie!"
"But--but, sir!" stammered Graham. "Do you want them to get us with their paralyzing ray?"
"You'd rather drown?" Wells flung back. Silenced, the first officer donned his sea-suit, and in thirty seconds the rest of the crew had theirs on and were cluttering clumsily forward.