Alone in the control room, Keith battled with the unbalancing flow of water, maneuvering with all his skill in a futile attempt to keep the NX-1 on even keel. The men forward worked with great speed, spurred on by the realization that they were fighting death itself, but even as they labored the submarine swung in ever increasing rolls and dips; the great weight of water she had shipped slopped back and forth; her bow went steadily down. Keith swept her forward tanks clean of water, always conscious of the immobile, staring octopi submarine in the teleview, watching them, it seemed, curiously, and not driving home their advantage with additional bolts of the violet heat ray.
Despite her commander's frantic efforts, the NX-1 fluttered down remorselessly; the cavern floor rose, and, sinking with them, came the octopi craft, in slow mockery of a fighting plane pursuing its stricken foe to the very ground....
She struck bottom with a soft, thudding jar, and settled on even keel. At once Wells released the helm, jumped into his own sea-suit and stumbled down to take command.
He found the steel collision-mat in place, and the welding of it nearly completed. A few feathery trickles of water still seeped through on each side, but under his terse directions the pumps were soon draining it out. The weird figures of the crew in their sea-suits looked like creatures from another planet as they rapidly finished the job.
"All right--up to the control room, everybody! Fast!" Wells roared.
The men stumbled aft as rapidly as they could in their cumbersome suits. Several were already on the ladder. A few feet further-- But at that moment the paralyzing ray again stabbed into the ship--and Keith Wells slumped helplessly to the deck. And as he crumpled, he glimpsed the grotesque, falling figures of his men, and saw one come tumbling down the ladder from the control room, where he had almost reached safety....
Peculiar sensations, unendurable thoughts raced through the commander as he lay there limply. He knew his predicament. He wanted desperately to rise, to rush to the control room. Time and time again in those first few moments of impotence he strove mightily to pull his limbs back to life. But his greatest efforts were barren of result, save to leave him feeling still weaker. The fate that he had seen strike down Brown now enmeshed him. He was paralyzed. Helpless. In the midst of his crew.
After a moment all sensation left his body. His limbs might not have existed. Sensation, pain, lived only in his brain--and there it was terrible, because self-created.
He found himself sprawled flat on his back, his eyes directed stiffly upward. He could not move them, but out of the corners he vaguely sensed the other figures around him. Helpless, every one! And who knew if they would ever come out of the spell! Victory had gone to the octopi....
Minutes that seemed like hours passed. And then a well-remembered voice sounded in the radio earphones in his helmet. It was Hemmy Bowman, speaking from the enemy ship.
"Keith! Keith Wells! Are you there?" the voice cried. "Keith! What have they done to you?"
And Keith, he could not answer! He could not answer that troubled voice of his friend--that voice from a friend he had thought dead.
Again Bowman spoke. "Keith! Can't you hear me? What are they doing to you? Oh--" For a moment it stopped, then came once more, thick with anguish. "Oh, God, what's happened?" Then lower: "If only there were light, so I could see what they're doing...." The voice tapered into silence. Keith could picture Hemmy, probably bound, giving him up for dead....
Then, quite distinctly, he heard a clank at the NX-1's bow! The submarine jerked, her bow tilted up--and with increasing speed she moved forward, silently as a ghost.
Keith thought he knew what that meant. The octopi ship had grasped them with another of its hawser arms, and was pulling them away. But where to? One of those mound cities? His brain was a turmoil as he tried to imagine what was before them. But all he could do was lie there and wait.
The American craft was towed for perhaps ten minutes--ten ages to her commander--then coasted slowly to a pause, and with a sharp jar settled into rest. As she did so, every light in her hull went suddenly out.
It had been bad enough with the lights on, but the darkness was far worse. The submarine was a tomb--as silent as one, and full of men who lived and yet were dead. Hemmy Bowman's voice came no more to Wells. He was alone with his moiling doubts and fears and unanswerable questions, and he knew that every other man there was alone with them, too....
As his eyes became partially accustomed to the darkness, he could distinguish vaguely the forms of the familiar mechanisms above him. A slight noise grew suddenly and resolved itself into a prolonged scraping along the outer hull of the submarine. At intervals it paused and gave way to a series of sharp, definite taps.
Keith realized what those sounds signified: the octopi were striving to find some entrance to the NX-1! This, he told himself, was the end. The creatures would break through; water would rush in, and every man would drown. For the face-shields of their sea-suits were open!
The dull scrapings ran completely around the motionless submarine, punctuated with the same staccato tappings. By the movement of the sound, Wells realized the octopi were approaching the lower starboard exit port. And as they neared that port, the noise abruptly stopped.
Then for some minutes silence fell. Next, the commander heard what was unmistakably the exit port's water chamber being filled--and a moment later emptied again. The devilish creatures had solved the puzzle of the means of entrance!
In the awful darkness the inner door of the port swung open. A slow, slithering sound came to Wells' ears. He sensed, though he could not see, the presence of alien creature. An odor struck his nostrils--that of fish....
A deliberate something crawled directly across one outstretched arm, and another across his legs. And above him loomed a monstrous, complicated shadow, which, after a moment, slowly melted from his line of vision. Panicky, he strove again to bring his limbs back to life, but still could not....
Keith knew that in the darkness which their huge unblinking eyes could penetrate they were inspecting the NX-1's interior, examining the men stretched on its deck, feeling them with their cold metal-scaled tentacles. Another complicated shadow crept back over the commander's line of sight, and from all around rose the slithering, shuffling tread of the octopi's many tentacles, rasping on the steel flooring.
Sweat from Wells' forehead trickled down and stung his eyes as he lay in that dark agony. There seemed to be countless investigating tentacles feeling through the entire submarine. One of them, iron-hard, suddenly coiled under his armpit and lifted him lightly as a feather from the deck. Another snaked up and clicked his face-shield securely shut. Keith heard other clicks, and knew that the shields of his men were likewise being closed.
The commander was held straight out from the octopus' revolting body, and as he swung, helpless, he could see that more men were grasped similarly in other mighty arms. Dangling in the shadow-filled darkness he was carried slowly to the exit port, and he heard the inner door swing open, then close again. Water streamed through the valves; it encompassed him with a feeling of lightness, a feeling of floating, as he swung at the end of the long metal-sheathed tentacles. A moment later a soft bluish glow burst on his vision, and he saw that he was outside. There was a long wait, and when the current next swung him around he was dismayed to see that every one of the monstrous creatures near him was dangling on high two or three men of his helpless crew. The whole outfit was in the power of the devil-fish!
And then their captors moved forward with them on a ghastly march of triumph....
But Keith Wells did not know that, crouched behind the instrument panel in the control room, shivering and sick with fear, was the plump form of Cook Angus McKegnie, who had just gained it just before the paralyzing ray had struck.
The Monster with the Armlets of Gold Hemingway Bowman's ardent wish, after he was whipped quickly through the round exit port of the octopi submarine, was for a quick, clean death. The horror and mystery of his situation had left him with one conscious emotion, that he was afraid. The worst had been when he was hauled through the port; when, expecting anything, he had been able to see nothing in the dark, water-filled mystery ship.
Deliberate tentacles had stroked over every inch of his body--tentacles that were not metal-scaled, as had been the arms of the creature that captured him. It was then that he guessed the true purpose of the metal suits the octopi wore--to protect their bodies against the lesser pressure near the surface of the sea. Inside the submarine they did not need them. He decided that the ship was used for rapidly transporting large numbers of the octopi to distant regions, and also for a weapon of offense and defense. The intelligence of the cuttlefish astounded him.
Keith had got away. At least he knew that, and he thanked God for it. His bold stroke had not been in vain, his sacrifice not useless.
After the inspection of the tentacles, Hemmy had been shoved to a corner of the octopi submarine. He had felt cords wrapped around his body. After being thus secured, he was left to himself. He was utterly alone, except for strange, vague shadows that floated through the darkness--shadows that heated his brain as he realized how many of the devil-fish there were.
Hours that seemed like endless days passed.
Bowman concluded that the submarine had gone straight through the cavern and emerged finally into what seemed to be another sea. Dead silence filled the ship. What was happening, he could only guess. The craft seemed to run on forever. Never once did tentacles brush or inspect him again.
Finally the ship stopped, and a great round door opened in one wall. By the soft bluish glow that seeped in Hemmy caught a glimpse of his surroundings, and his gorge rose at the sight. The ship was literally filled with a slowly waving forest of long black tentacles. Weird instruments, unlike anything he had ever seen, were grouped around the walls, and before them attendant octopi poised, their hideous eyes fixed and steady. There were no dividing decks as in the NX-1; the craft was one huge shell.
Then came furious activity. The door fell shut again, and the ship shot off at great speed. Hemmy felt sure that they were advancing to again attack the NX-1, and at once began to try to reach his comrades through radiophone. He knew that Wells would come back.
Finally he caught a human voice, and heard the NX-1's radio operator shout to the commander that he, Bowman, was alive and calling. But when he tried to speak further, the American craft's radio was silent.
And then, in the octopi submarine, had come a soft glow of violet....
Was it a more deadly weapon than the paralyzing ray? In great suspense the prisoner waited. Silence--silence! Horrible doubts beset his mind. Was Keith refraining from firing his torpedoes because he, Bowman, was on board the enemy boat? The thought stung him. He tried desperately again to reach Wells; but there was no answer. Were the Americans dead?
Age-long minutes passed. Then the exit port opened and several metal-clad octopi swam out. Hemmy had a glimpse of the NX-1 lying silent and apparently lifeless on the sea-floor, a gaping hole in her bow!
As if to taunt him with the sight, the creatures left the round door open, and presently Bowman beheld the octopi open the NX-1's starboard exit port and enter. Later the port swung open again, and he saw the monsters emerge, each gripping several men clad in yellow sea-suits! That they were dead, or victims of the ray, was obvious from the way they limply dangled.
The exit port closed, and darkness filled the octopi ship. Hemmy Bowman panted with the futile effort to break his bonds.
"You devils!" he yelled in blind rage, exhausted. "Why don't you take me with them? Take me! Take me, damn your stinking hides!"
When Keith Wells was taken from the silent NX-1, a host of astounding impressions swarmed his brain. Swinging lightly at the end of his captor's tentacle, he strove as best he could, with eyes rigidly fixed straight ahead, to grasp his new surroundings. He had, first, one flash of the octopi ship lying quite close to them, its hulk, as always, immobile and apparently lifeless. And inside it, he was sure, was his friend and first officer, Hemmy Bowman--a captive.
He saw that the octopi submarine had towed the NX-1 into one of the weird mound cities. His own ship was lying in what seemed a kind of public square, and crowds of black octopi were swarming around it as he and his crew were brought out. Shooting straight off the square ran one of the wide streets he had previously seen from above, and on each side the brown mound-buildings rose. Their details were hazy, because of the cuttlefish inhabitants who swam thickly in front of them.
His captors started their march down this broad street. Great crowds of reddish-colored octopi clustered on each side of it; other swarms hung almost motionless--except for their constantly writhing tentacles--above, so that their line of progress was through what resembled a restless, living tunnel of repulsive black flesh, snaky arms and huge, unblinking eyes. Keith felt faint from the horror of it. Thousands of the monsters were there, all hanging in the soft, blue-glowing water; and occasionally, as he floated almost horizontally in his captor's firm grip, his legs would brush the wall of clammy flesh; or perhaps one of the tentacles would reach out as if to touch him.
The octopus that held him swam some five feet off the street bed itself; at intervals the thick swarm on either side would part for a second, and Keith could glimpse the huge mound-buildings, ever growing larger, with round entrance holes dotted all over their smooth surface, above as well as the sides.
The march was ghastly. Their captors were taking them through the heart of the water-metropolis; displaying their human captives as did the Caesars in Roman triumphs of old!
The swarming crowds of tentacled monsters grew thicker as they progressed, and their tentacles began to whip more quickly, as if anger was burning in their loathsome bodies. Keith noted the menace of their sharp-beaked jaws, and the sickening sucker-discs on the livid under-side of the tentacles. As far as he could see, the swarms fell in behind the procession after it had passed. Following them--where?
Just as Wells felt himself on the verge of fainting, the procession turned to the right and entered the largest mound-building of all, a vast dome rising in the very center of the octopi metropolis. They continued through a corridor perhaps twenty feet high, from which at intervals other corridors branched. Held by one arm, and ever and again turning helplessly over in his horizontal transit, Keith caught glimpses of walls covered with intricate designs on a basic eight-armed motif--designs of artistic value, that gave evidence of culture and civilization.
The passage ended as suddenly as it had begun, and they came into the main body of a gigantic building.
The commander could hardly credit his eyes. The place resembled a stadium, and was so vast that he felt dwarfed to nothingness. The domed roof soared far above in misty bluish light. On the floor, exactly beneath the center of the great dome, was a raised platform, and on it a dais resembling a very wide throne. Around the dais a score or more of octopi--officials, Keith supposed--were grouped.
Rapidly the creatures following the procession swam into the chamber. Monstrously large as the place was, the floor soon was filled with the thick flood of cuttlefish which swarmed in from many doors. Keith, held with the other captives just to one side of the hole he had entered by, began to think that they must soon refuse to let any more in--when, to his surprise, he saw the latest arrivals begin to form a gallery twenty feet above those on the ground floor, and, when this was extended far back and completely filled, start yet another above it--and another, and another.... In ten minutes the mighty hall was crowded with countless layers of the cold-eyed monsters, each layer angling up from the central dais so that all could see.
"God!" the commander thought. "Nothing but solidly-packed devil-fish all the way to the dome! A slaughter pit! And we, of course, are to be the cattle!"
Minutes passed. The throne was still empty, and the thousands in the amphitheater seemed waiting for an occupant. Keith wished he was able to close his eyes. The restless, never-ceasing weaving of the countless tentacles in the levels above made the scene a nightmare. Some waved slowly, others whipped excitedly, but never for an instant did one pause. The movements were like the never-ceasing shifting and swaying of the trunks and feet of elephants; in the dim glow the huge chamber seemed to be filled with one fantastic, million-tentacled monster that stared with its thousand eyes down on the forlorn group of puny human beings....
As if at a command the arms of the octopi on the platform suddenly began to weave in perfect unison in some weird ceremony. First they swayed out towards the waiting captives, then they swerved slowly to the empty throne. Then came a few quick, excited whippings; and once more the long arms reached out at the small group at the entrance. This went on for some minutes. Then, very suddenly, a creature swam up from what must have been an opening in the floor onto the dais-throne.
Keith saw it well.
It was an octopus, a giant amongst octopi, and Wells knew at once it was the ruler of the realm, the lord and master of the swarming galleries and the cities of mound-buildings.
It was larger than its fellows by a full three feet. And, encircling each great tentacle just where it joined the central mass of flesh, was a broad, glittering band of polished gold--eight thick armlets that ringed the creature's revolting head-body with a circle of gleaming pagan splendor. Keith could almost fancy that a certain royal air hung over the monster.
The huge, unblinking eyes of the king stared at the horror-frozen captives. One long tentacle lifted slowly upward, and their captors at once started towards the throne with them. The score of octopi on each side stilled their weaving arms. A battery of emotionless eyes drilled into Wells' paralyzed body. He felt faint. Unquestionably the horrible ceremony was leading up to some form of cold-blooded sacrifice....
The monarch stretched a mighty arm towards Keith, and, as in a dream, he felt himself lifted out of his guard's grasp. The snakelike tentacle gripped him about the waist, and held him dangling like a puppet twenty feet in the water while the two deadly eyes stared steadily at him. He was brought closer, until the hideous central mass, with its cruel beaked jaw and ink sac hanging behind, was no more than a foot away.
Then another arm stroked slowly along the commander's helpless body. Once or twice it prodded sharply, and Wells felt a surge of fear, for his sea-suit might break. Deliberately the prying tentacle moved over him, delicately feeling his helmet, his weighted feet, his legs.
Keith Wells grew angry. He was being inspected like a trapped monkey! He, commander of the NX-1, representative of one of the world's mightiest nations--prodded and stared at by this fish, this octopus! A great rage suffused him, and with a terrific effort he tried to jab his arms into one of those devilish eyes. But try as he might, his body would not respond. He could not move a finger.
For a long time the loathsome inspection continued, until the monstrous king seemed satisfied. Wells was handed back. There followed an interminable period in which nothing whatever was done, as far as he could see. He was sure that they must be talking, debating, but no sound reached his ears through the tight helmet. All the time the endless motion in the swarming levels above went on. It became hazy, dreamlike, and in spite of himself the commander began to feel drowsy. The weaving and swaying was producing a hypnotic effect. At last the desire to sleep grew overpowering.
Wells and his men were more than half unconscious when their original captors finally pulled them back from the royal presence and began a humble retreat from the throne room. Slowly they backed to the entrance. Keith's last drowsy glimpse was of a grotesque, gold-ringed monster on a throne, with a score of smaller tentacled creatures around him, and a vast haze of weaving tentacles and unblinking eyes above.
They passed from the huge chamber. The commander felt delirious, as in a nightmare, but he knew that they were again in the long corridor, and that their captors were taking them further into the mighty building, further from the street outside. He glimpsed great rooms branching off the corridor, and swarms of black octopi inside them. The light became fainter; and at last the procession turned into a separate, rough-walled chamber, dimly lit and empty.
Wells felt the grip around his arm loosen, and he floated limply to the floor among his men. He slept....
The Glass Bell Jar Keith awoke hours later.
Slowly he became conscious of a cramped, stiff body, of a dull pain racking his head. He stretched out his limbs--and, suddenly, realized he could move.
Remembering the paralyzing ray that had struck him down, and half afraid that his senses were tricking him, he kicked his left leg out. It moved with its old vigor. He quickly found that his strength had returned, that he could feel and move. The effect of the ray had worn off!
With a glow of new hope he rose to his feet and exercised numb muscles. Looking around, he saw the other men still stretched out on the floor of their rough-walled, watery prison. He called into his radiophone mouthpiece: "Graham! Graham, wake up!" A grotesque figure stirred among its fellows; turned over. "It's Wells, Graham," Keith continued. "Get up; you can, now!" And he watched the form of his big first officer stretch out and finally rise, while stupid, sleepy sounds came to his radio receiver.
"Why--why; the paralysis is gone!" Graham said at length.
"Yes, but maybe the octopi don't know it. Rouse the other men at once, and we'll see what we can do."
It was weird, the sight of the lifeless figures of the men stirring to life in the dim-lit water as Graham shook each one's shoulder. The radiophones buzzed and clicked with their excited comments and ejaculations. Keith felt much better. With his men restored to strength, and clustered in a determined, hard-fighting mass, he saw a hope of breaking out and regaining the NX-1.
He let them exercise as he had for some minutes, then proceeded to a brisk roll-call. There should be fifteen men and two officers. Rapidly Graham ran over the names, and each time a voice rang back in reply--until he came to the cook.
"McKegnie?... Cook McKegnie?"
There was no answer. Wells stared around the group of dim figures and himself called the name again. But McKegnie was not present. And as the commander and his men realized it the numbing spell of their desperate position settled down on them again like a shroud.
Keith shook off the mood. "Well," he muttered, "I guess the devils got him. Poor McKegnie's seen the wheels go round for the last time.... All right: take command, Graham. I'm going to do a little reconnoitering."
The round entrance hole was some fifteen feet from him, at the far end of the cell. Keith advanced cautiously to it, the peculiar light feeling the water gave him making his steps uncertain. The dim blue illumination made the details of the corridor outside hazy, shadowy, but it seemed to be empty. Peering out, Wells could sight no guarding octopi. He edged closer and stared down to the left. Twenty feet away the vague light tapered into darker gloom, filled with thick, wavering shadows; but it was apparently devoid of tentacles. He wondered if the octopi were unaware that the effects of their ray had worn off, and peeped cautiously around the edge to the right.
Immediately a long arm whipped out, grasped him around the waist and flung him twisting and turning back into the chamber. Graham laboriously made his way to the commander and helped him to his feet. "Hurt, sir?" he asked anxiously.
"No," Keith gasped. "But that devil--"
He stopped short. The first officer turned and followed his commander's stare.
The entrance hole of the cell had filled with a monstrous shape. A huge octopus was resting there, its unblinking eyes coldly surveying the crew of the NX-1. On each of its thick tentacles was a broad band of polished gold. It was the king, the same creature that had inspected them from the throne-dais a few hours before. And behind him in the corridor the men glimpsed another octopus.