Slowly the ruler of the octopi swam into the chamber. Its great eyes centered icily on Keith Wells, standing at the head of his cowering men; and its mighty tentacles waved slowly, gracefully, as if the creature stood in doubt. One of them tentatively reached out and hovered over their heads, moving uncertainly back and forth. Then, like a monstrous water snake, the tentacle poised, flicked out and plucked a man from his comrades.
His shriek of terror rasped in their earphones. "Steady, men!" Keith cried. "It's hopeless to try and fight them! The monster just wants to look him over!"
The man--Williams, a petty officer--was dangled by the armpit in mid-water and made to slowly revolve. The tip of another huge arm snaked out and for some seconds stroked his body, probing curiously. He panted with fright, and in their earphones his friends could hear his every tortured exhalation. Anxiously, Keith watched. Then, without warning, another tentacle darted up, fastened its tip on the breast of the captive's sea-suit, and deliberately ripped it open.
The doomed man's last scream rang in their helmets as the water poured into his suit. They saw him writhe and struggle desperately in the remorseless grip which held him. The two huge eyes of the cuttlefish surveyed his death throes minutely; watched his agonized struggles gradually weaken; watched his legs and arms relax, his head sink lower.... And then the tentacle let a lifeless body float to the floor.
Jennerby, a huge engineer, went completely mad. "I'll get him, the devil!" he yelled, and before Keith could command him to stay back, had flung himself onto the giant king.
Death came as a mere matter of course. Without apparent effort, the monarch ripped off Jennerby's helmet and sent him spinning back. The man's body writhed and shuddered, and in a moment another stark white face showed where death had struck....
Trembling, sick at heart, the commander yet had to think of his men. "For God's sake," he cautioned them, "keep back. Don't try to fight now; we've got to wait our chance! Steady. Steady...."
The king's deliberate tentacle again began its slow weaving. It was choosing another victim. And this time it darted straight out at Keith Wells and gripped him with a mighty clutch about the waist.
The commander did not cry out. As he was brought close to the staring eyes, and felt their sinister gaze run over him, it flashed through him for some obscure reason that the monster knew him for what he was, the leader, from the tiny bars on each shoulder of his sea-suit.... He waited for the tentacles to rip it open.
But they did not. Instead, the creature turned and swiftly swam with him out through the entrance hole.
They went to the left in the corridor, further into the heart of the building. The bluish light became stronger. As Keith twisted in the giant monarch's grip he glimpsed the other octopus following with the two dead men. He saved his strength knowing it was hopeless just then to try and struggle free.
Quick as was his passage, he noticed that the walls of the corridor were covered with intricate designs, in bas-relief, and colored. He passed row after row of mural paintings of octopi in various activities, and guessed that they represented the race's history. One was obviously a scene of battle, with a tentacled army locked in combat with another strange horde of fishlike creatures; a second showed the construction of the queer mound-buildings on the sea-floor, with scores of monsters hauling great chunks of material into place, and another pictured the huge audience chamber, with a gold-banded king motionless on his throne.
As the king drew him rapidly along, he had a glimpse through a circular doorway of a large room, inside which were clustered the black shapes of thousands of baby octopi, tended by what were evidently nurses. Other such rooms were passed, and the young commander's brain whirled as he tried to measure the size and progress of this undersea civilization. Perhaps the race of octopi was growing, reaching out; needed new room to colonize. That would explain why their submarine had been sent through the tunnel....
A voice sounded in his ears: "Keith? Are you all right?" It was Graham, calling from the cell behind.
"So far," Wells assured him. "I'll keep in touch, and let you know what happens."
At that moment, his captor carried him into a large chamber at the end of the corridor. He looked around, and decided it was a laboratory. He beheld strange instruments, anatomical charts of octopi on the walls and, in one corner, a small jar of glass, in which a dull flame was burning. Many-shaped keen-bladed knives lay on various low tables, and thin, wicked-looking prongs and pincers.
"I'm in their experimental laboratory, Graham," Wells spoke into the mouthpiece of his tiny radio. And then his roving eyes saw something that made him audibly gasp.
"What's the matter, Keith?" came the first officer's anxious voice.
After a moment the commander answered. "It's--it's a pile of human bodies. The bodies of those fishermen. They--they've been experimenting on them...."
Was he, too, Wells wondered, to be experimented on? The sight of that stacked pile of bodies chilled him with horror. He kept his eyes from them, till the octopus with the golden bands swung him through a hinged door in the farther wall.
He found himself in a side room, smaller than the outer chamber, the whole center of which was occupied by a huge glass bell jar, some thirty feet in diameter. Inside it was much strange-looking apparatus on tables, and trays of operating instruments--knives like those in the outer room, and the same thin prongs. The great jar was empty of water, and on one side was an entrance port.
The king tossed Keith into a corner and quickly donned a metal-scaled water-suit. When he had it all on, and the glass body-container fastened into place, he picked up his captive again and advanced through the bell jar's entrance port into a small water chamber. A moment later Wells felt his body grow heavy as the water of the compartment ran out, and then there was a click and he found himself inside the jar, still held in the merciless grip of a tentacle.
He twisted around to find the cold eyes of the octopus staring at him only a foot away. And as he wondered what was going to happen next, the king unfastened the glass face-shield of the commander's sea-suit with a quick flip of the tip of a tentacle.
Keith's arms were pinned to his sides; he could not move to try to refasten the face-shield. Fearful, he held his breath; held it until his face was purple and his lungs were near to bursting. But at last the limit was reached, and with a great wrench he sucked in a full breath.
It was clean, fresh air!
The air was like a breath of his own world brought down to this cold realm of octopi. Once he had caught up with his breathing it poured new life into his limbs, jaded from the artificial air of the sea-suit. Keith felt his muscles respond, felt his whole body glow with new strength and life. Twelve inches away the king was watching his every reaction closely through the huge helmet of glass. The thought passed through the commander's mind that he was not only king, but chief scientist of this strange water civilization.
Then, while his lungs swallowed hungrily the good, fresh air, several tentacles began to feel around him in an attempt to unfasten the rest of his sea-suit.
Wells blanched at the sudden realization of how helpless he would be if the suit were taken from him. He would then not only be a prisoner of the octopi, but a prisoner of the glass jar, unable ever to leave it, and more than ever at the mercy of his captor's least whim. Not that he had any delusion that he would live long in any case: it was just the simple strong instinct of self-preservation that made him grab at every chance for life.
This thought flashed through his mind, even while the octopus was fumbling with the catches of his suit. And along with it was born a desperate plan of escape. He was in his own element, air; the octopus out of his. If he could crack the glass of the king's helmet, and let the water out and air in!... The glass was only twelve inches away.
The commander stopped his resistance, and at the same time felt about with his legs until he had them well braced against a lower tentacle. He pushed gently, and came a few inches nearer the glass; a little more. Then, with a quick, strong jerk of his body he crashed the steel frame of his helmet square against the cuttlefish's sheathing of glass.
The creature was taken wholly by surprise. Tentacles whipped out to tear the rash human quickly away--but not before Keith had pounded again, and heard the splinter of smashed glass! He had jabbed a hole in the glass body-piece, and already the life-giving water was pouring out!
Panic seized the king, and he became a nightmare of tortured tentacles. Wells was flung wildly away and fetched up against the side of the jar with a crash that for a second stunned him. More and more water poured from the octopus' suit, and air at once rushed in to take its place. The creature's great eyes became filmy, while the revolting spidery body slewed here and there across the jar, all the time whipping and thrashing at the strangling air. Keith scurried from side to side, trying to keep out of reach of the crazy, writhing tentacles. Once a glancing blow knocked him flat, but the monster was altogether unconscious of him and he got away.
Little by little the terrific whipping and coiling of the tentacles quieted down. The drowning king lay in one place now; its loathsome red body, no longer protected by glass, turned bluish. Keith thrilled with elation at his victory.
And then, for the first time, he noticed that there was a full three inches of water on the floor--far too much to spill from the king's suit. A quick look around showed him where it came from. There was a long crack in the side of the glass jar, at the place where he had been crashed against it--and water was pouring in!
Keith flung himself against the crack, jammed his arm into the broadest part of the leak. But still the water rushed in. The octopus was in its death throes, weakening steadily--but just as steadily the water poured in and rose up the sides of its body. In a flash Wells saw that the liquid would win the race to cover it and allow the monster to resume breathing.
"Oh, damn it!" he cursed fervently. "Now I've got to run for it!"
He stumbled to the port, snapping shut his face-shield as he went. In a moment he had solved the working of the mechanism and was in the water chamber, then outside in the room itself. Fortunately his sea-suit was unhurt. He thanked heaven for that as he tore away a boardlike piece of apparatus and jammed it over the leak in the jar.
Keith paused a moment to plan. The king of the octopi was still writhing in ever weakening struggles, but the water was halfway up his body. "It'll cover him soon," thought the commander, "and then it's a question how long it'll take him to come to. I've got to move fast--slip out into the corridor and run the gauntlet back to the men." His eyes rested on a large knife, and he appropriated it, since he saw nothing else he might use.
For the first time since the beginning of the fight he answered the questions and exclamations that had constantly sounded in his ears from the distant crew. Tersely he told them what had happened, and of the gauntlet he had to run.
"Make ready for a dash to the NX-1," he finished. "It's now or never. Wait three minutes for me, and if I don't make it, go ahead anyway. Remember--three minutes. This is an order. So long, fellows!"
He shut his ears to the bedlam of comment that followed. His knife ready, he took a few steps to the door and pushed out--right into the tentacles of a waiting octopus.
His knife was useless. While locked motionless by three arms of his captor, another streaked out and wrenched it from his hand. Once again Keith was absolutely helpless.
Great confusion resulted in the laboratory. The commander heard no sound, but the guard must have called, for five more octopi darted rapidly out of an adjoining room. Their tentacles writhing in great excitement, they swam past and into the inner chamber to the rescue of their nearly drowned king.
The devil-fish that held Wells almost crushed him to death in its excitement. It was obviously undecided what to do; but finally it sped him down the passageway and cast him back inside the cell with his men. Then it quickly retreated.
The commander staggered to his feet and faced Graham and the others. "A miracle!" he gasped; "I'll tell you later. But now we've got to make our break. The king's out, and we've got to get away before they bring him to. There's nothing to do but rush the door. It means sure death for half of us, and probably for all--but God help us if the king catches us!"
He paused and surveyed them keenly. "Everybody with me?" he asked. And not one man held back his answer.
Wells smiled a little. "Good!" he said.
There were twelve men and two officers. There were thousands of octopi. On the face of it, their chances seemed hopeless. Not for a second did Keith count on getting many men to the NX-1. But he knew where the submarine was, and he had to try.
Tersely he gave them final instructions.
"This corridor leads to the main entrance. That is, to the right--understand? Then straight down the street outside, to the left, is the square where they towed the NX-1. I'd say it was a hundred yards.
"There's one guard outside. Graham, you and half the men to the right of the door. I'll take the rest to the left. Our only chance is to try and destroy the octopus' eyes."
His mind cast about desperately for some form of weapon. The only detachable thing on their sea-suits was the small helmet-light, a thing, Keith told himself, without possible offensive use. Still, the beams would enable them to more clearly see their path and keep together, so he ordered them in hand.
The men were grouped and alert. The moment had come.
"Remember," he said, "--its eyes. Then stick together and run like hell. All right--good luck--and let's go!"
Awkwardly, stumbling clumsily in the retarding water, the small group surged through the door. Immediately a black shape pounced upon them from the clustered shadows--the guarding octopus.
Its tentacles seemed to be everywhere. In seconds five men were clutched in its awful grip, their fists rising and falling impotently as the hideous arms constricted and crushed them inward. Keith, free of the clasp, yelled: "The eyes! The eyes! Put out its eyes!"
For answer, a yellow arm clutching a helmet-light broke through the grotesquely milling mass and struck at the cuttlefish's great pools of eyes. It missed, but the switch flicked on, and there stabbed through the gloom a broad, glaringly white ray.
Its effect was astounding. The beam smote the octopus squarely in its huge eyes, and immediately the creature shuddered; writhed with pain. The tentacles released the men--and the monster fled back into the protecting shadows!
A shout from the men roared in the commander's earphones. "They can't stand the light!" he cried. "Thank God! Beams on, everyone! Flash 'em in their eyes! Forward!"
Fourteen shafts of eye-dazzling light forked through the corridor. The tiny company, beating their path with criss-crossing shafts of white, forged ahead. They thrashed the shadows with their beams, probing each inch of water--clearing their way even as a tank hoses machine-gun bullets before its clumsy body. Their former slender chance grew; they filled with hope.
Another swarm of devil-fish, long arms whipping before them, raced from branching corridors and bore down on the company of humans. The men were ready, and fourteen tongues of white met them squarely. They faltered; the weight of their fellows behind shoved them on; but the rays steadied, and the front row of octopi broke in panic. The others at once followed in wild retreat.
"Keep together, men!" Keith ordered sharply. "One beam to each octopus--straight in its eyes till it retreats! Forward!"
They pressed on. The octopi, with eyes used only to the soft blue glow of the cavern, could not stand against the brilliant rays. Keith leading, the NX-1's crew stumbled out into the street.
They faltered a moment when they saw each entrance hole of the mound-buildings shooting out streams of octopi. Hundreds were in sight already. The whole city was evidently alarmed. Wells at once formed his men in a circle, so their beams would guard them on every side and above. Apparently the octopi could not approach within thirty feet of them, and even at that distance they turned and fled, writhing with pain, whenever a shaft of light struck full in their eyes.
"The square's just ahead!" the commander roared. "One last rush, now, and we'll reach the submarine! Stick close; keep your arms locked; and watch out above!"
The circle of men narrowed. The rays gave their tiny cluster the appearance of a monster even more fantastic than those moiling around them--a monster with long straight tentacles of glaring white. They stumbled forward through the magically parting ranks of black octopi. The beams kept the creatures back; they were helpless before them.
Foot by foot under the inverted bowl of threshing tentacles the NX-1's crew lumbered ahead. The street at last ceased; the wide square opened before them.
"We're here!" Wells yelled exultantly. "This is the--"
His voice fell into abrupt silence. He stared around the square, and his heart went cold indeed. They had reached the right place, but it was empty.
The NX-1 was not there!
Cook, the Navigator Through all these hours, one man had remained on the NX-1, and that man was, to put it mildly, scared to death.
Cook Angus McKegnie had been nearest the connecting ladder when Keith Wells roared out the command to retreat above, and his desire to regain a place of safety was so earnest that he made the control room in record time. At once he had felt the tingle of the paralyzing ray. Struck by a horrible thought, he ventured to peer down the ladder--and groaned to see the figures of his comrades, all lying limply on the deck. His portly frame quivered like jelly as realization came to him that he was the only one who had escaped the ray.
Heroic ideas of saving the submarine, of rescuing the men below, flashed wildly through his head. But only for a moment. On second thought, he felt he ought to hide. So, in the tomblike silence that had fallen, the two-hundred-and-twenty-pound McKegnie wormed a way behind an instrument panel, effecting the journey by vigorous shoves of his stomach. It was minutes later that he first noticed that some sharp jutting object was jutting deep into his ample paunch, but he could do nothing to remedy it. He was hidden, anyway, and he was going to stay hidden!
The cook felt the NX-1 being towed forward. Then, after a dreadful wait, he heard queer noises down below, and was positive the exit ports had opened. The snakelike slithering and shuffling which followed would mean that the enemy was inside the NX-1. The thought brought St. Vitus' dance to his limbs, and, try as he might, he couldn't still them. Then again the ports opened, the gloomy silence returned, and Angus McKegnie was alone with his reflections.
After the first hour he gave voice to them in one simple, bitter sentence. "Just why the hell," he muttered, "did I ever join the Navy?" The silence offered no reply, and McKegnie, desperate from his cramped position, ventured to poke his head around the instrument panel. The faint emergency lights showed the control room to be empty. He decided to come out, and did so, worming his way back with great difficulty.
Once out, the first thing his eyes fell on was the teleview screen. Now the cook had never seen one of the octopi, and the screen showed hundreds of monsters clustering around the NX-1. So with unusual promptness he acted, jamming himself once again into his hiding place. Maybe, he thought, they had some way in which they could see into the control room and discover him!
Hours passed. The cook was sopping with sweat. Finally his thoughts emerged into words.
"I got to get out of here!" he said intensely. "I got to! And I got to run this submarine!"
The sound of his voice somehow emboldened him. Once more he backed out of his cranny, and with cautious, trembling steps explored the control room. He kept his eyes from the teleview, though it had a terrible fascination for him, and surveyed the NX-1's array of control instruments. The prospective navigator groaned at the sight.
There were dozens of mysterious wheels, jutting from every possible angle, squads of black and red-handled levers, whole armies of queer little stud-buttons and dials. His knowledge of cooking helped him not at all in the presence of that maze of devices. Timidly he touched one of the levers, but immediately snatched his hand away as if afraid it would bite. His boldly announced purpose of running the craft went glimmering.
An accidental glimpse of the monsters in the teleview suddenly decided him that he needed a weapon. He hunted frantically through the lockers and found three service revolvers, which he fastened at his waist, adding his own carving knife to the arsenal. But he didn't feel much better. Then, remembering for the first time his sea-suit radio, he yelled: "Mr. Wells! Mr. Wells! Oh, Mr. Wells, where are you? Can you hear me?" There was, of course, no answer.
He tried to bring his muddled thoughts and fears to order. "I got to run this thing," he said doggedly. "Got to! Now, let's see: what the hell's this thing for?... What the--"
He broke off short, and his eyes went wide. He had heard a noise!
Yes--there it was again! The same peculiar scraping at one of the exit ports! He glanced fearfully at the teleview. "Oh, Lord!" he yelped. "They're comin' in to get me!"
He started to dive back behind the instrument panel, but stopped, drew two guns, and in an agonized muddle trotted back and forth for a moment, waving them. Another look at the screen showed that an exit port was open, admitting two metal-scaled octopi. McKegnie couldn't stand it any longer: he wedged himself behind his panel again. Soon sounds of the metal tentacles on the deck below told him that one of the creatures was coming up the ramp--then slithering into the control room itself. The cook was a lather of cold perspiration.