For a few minutes there was silence. The octopus was apparently surveying this new part of the submarine. Then, without warning, the tip of a metal-scaled tentacle felt around the panel and crept, exploring, up Angus McKegnie's leg--which leg was again suddenly afflicted with St. Vitus' dance. The tentacles coiled, pulled hard--and the cook with a yowl was yanked out into the room.
Dangling upside down, high in the air, he submitted to the fishy stare of the great eyes under the sheathing of glass. But soon he started to squirm, and his violent contortions brought a rush of blood to his head, making him quite dizzy. It was while he was in that state that things started to happen.
First, a great roar rolled through the NX-1, and McKegnie found himself flat on the floor with his breath knocked out. Then, while this was registering on his mind, he discovered himself the center of a madly milling set of tentacles, and instinctively scrambled out of the way. From a distance he saw that the tentacles belonged to the octopus that had held him, and that their coilings and threshings were gradually dying down, until only a quiver ran through them from time to time. While McKegnie was trying to figure this all out he noticed that the monster's glass sheeting was shattered, that it lay in a pool of water, and that the odor of burnt powder was in the air. Looking down he found that he had a gun in his hand. A thin wisp of smoke was curling from the barrel.
"Gee whiz!" he ejaculated. "Gee whiz!"
As he stood there recovering from his surprise, he heard the other octopus crawling up the connecting ramp, coming to see what had befallen its fellow. Preceded by two trembling guns, McKegnie tiptoed to the ramp and peered down.
From the darkness he saw another complicated mass of metal tentacles and glass advancing up towards him. Fear smote the cook, and almost without volition be pointed his guns and pulled the triggers. As before, a bullet crashed into the great dome of glass, and he watched a short but terrible death struggle. He had, by himself, slain two octopi!
A tremendous elation filled McKegnie--until it occurred to him that his shots might have been heard outside. At once he ran and looked at the teleview view screen, and what he saw on its silver surface took all the triumph abruptly out of him. The octopi outside were darting about with alarming activity; a whole cluster of them was centered at the exit port, and, even as the cook stared, the preliminary sounds of opening it came to his ears.
"Now I got to run this ship!" he groaned.
He peered at the mass of levers and wheels, put out a hand, closed his eyes, hesitated, and pulled one of them back. Nothing happened.
He tried another. The noise below grew, but still the NX-1 remained motionless. Desperate, the cook jerked several other levers. The whine of electric motors surged through the silence; the submarine shuddered and slewed off to the right, as if trying to dig into the sea-floor.
"I got it started!" he cried. He did something else. The NX-1 stuck her bow dizzily up and sped into the misty-blue realm above in a grand, sweeping circle. The sea-floor with its mound-buildings and swarming octopi fell away behind with a rush.
"There!" muttered the triumphant cook. "But--how did I do it?"
The submarine was rising like a sky-rocket. McKegnie remembered suddenly that Wells had said the cavern was only a few miles high; he must now be very near the top. He held his breath while he pushed a likely looking lever the other way.
He was lucky. The NX-1 capered like a two-year-old, kicked up her stern and bolted eagerly for the depths once more. Again the floor of the cavern rushed up at him, again he pulled the potent lever back, and again the submarine meteored upward.
This procedure went on for some time. McKegnie was only running an elevator. Was he doomed to dash up and down between floor and ceiling forever? He gave forth pints of sweat, now and then groaning as the submarine grazed horribly close to top or bottom. The dead octopus at his feet slithered limply around on the crazy-angling deck.
"I can't keep this up forever!" the cook said peevishly. "Now, what the hell's this thing for?"
He turned it, and the NX-1 tilted in one of her dives and raced forward, midway between ceiling and floor. Her navigator relaxed slightly. He had found the major controls; at least he had been able to stop his dizzy game of plunging up and down. Then, just as he was beginning to wonder where he could go, a large red spot glowed at the edge of the location chart.
"Oh, Lord!" he cried. "That's the other submarine--an' it's comin' after me!"
Evidently it was, for the red spot rapidly approached the green one. The paralyzing ray tingled, and a moment later the enemy's huge bulk loomed on the teleview screen, a band of violet light spearing from one of her jutting knobs.
Frantically McKegnie juggled his levers, and then it was that the NX-1 really showed what was in her. She emulated, on a grand scale, a bucking bronco: she stood almost on her nose, and threatened to describe somersaults; she tried it the other way, on her stern; she rolled dizzily; she all but looped the loop, and went staggering around the cavern in great erratic bounds that must have made the octopi think she was in the hands of a mad-man--which she practically was. Her designer would have had heart failure.
In the teleview screen the frantic McKegnie would see the octopi submarine rush erratically by with a flash of its violet heat ray; the location chart showed the red spot zigzagging drunkenly around the green one. Each boat made occasional short, crazy darts at the other; sometimes they would stand approximately still. It was a riotous game of tag, and McKegnie knew too well that he was "it."
During one brief pause the anguished cook found himself groaning aloud: "Oh, Mr. Wells, where are you? I can't keep this up! I can't! I can't!"
There were still several important-looking controls that were mysteries to him. But what if he should pull one and open all the exit ports? He shuddered at the thought.
Things had become nightmarish. The ship was pitted scores of places by the heat ray. The control room had grown stifling. McKegnie was losing pounds of flesh, and literally stood in a pool of his own perspiration. The octopi craft kept doggedly after the NX-1, no matter how often and effectually the sweating cook's reckless hands prevented her getting the heat ray home.
For a long time the two ships continued to race up and down. The NX-1 would plunge, pirouette around the other, and scamper away towards the ceiling as if enjoying it all hugely, abruptly to forsake her course and come zooming down once more. She would weave in romping circles and seem to go utterly crazy as her jumbled navigator pulled his levers and turned his wheels in a frantic effort to get somewhere.
To get somewhere! Yes--but where?
"Oh, Mr. Wells, where are you?" the harried cook would bleat at intervals.
Or, plaintively: "Now, what the hell's this thing for?"
At Bay Fourteen humans stood at bay on the cold sea-floor, dazed by the ruthless stroke of ill-luck which had taken the NX-1 from where they had left it.
"It's gone," whispered Graham over and over in a hopeless tone. Keith tried to pull himself together. He had to think of his men.
In a second, his whole plan, which had seemed to be approaching success so rapidly, was smashed by the disappearance of the submarine. Mechanically he kept his helmet-light playing into the ever-thickening eyes and tentacles around him, while he scanned the sea-floor nearby. It was filling more closely than ever with the black, writhing forms of the cuttlefish. The rays still held them back, but their great bulk loomed over the small party of humans like a sinister storm cloud. Soon, in their overwhelming mass, they would crush down, and the submarine's crew be conquered by sheer force of numbers.
"Look!" Keith cried. "There's where she was lying!"
He pointed out on the floor of the square a deep groove, obviously made by the hull of the NX-1. Its length and jaggedness seemed to denote that the submarine had tried to bore into the bed of the cavern itself. Wells was mystified. If the octopi-ship had towed her away, she would certainly not have gouged that deep scar on the sea bottom....
But he dismissed the strange disappearance from his mind. He had to work out a plan of action.
"Keep together, men, and follow that scar!" he ordered tersely. "There's a chance that the NX-1's somewhere further along!"
It was a futile hope, he knew--but there was nothing else. The tiny group, centered in the inverted bowl of black, writhing tentacles, lumbered onward.
Then the octopi struck with another weapon, in an effort to dull the spearing beams of white. Here and there from the mass of black an even blacker cloud began to emerge. It quickly settled over the whole scene, pervading it with a pitchy, clinging darkness that obscured each man from his neighbor.
"Ink!" cried one of them. It was sepia from the cuttlefish's ink sacs--the weapon with which these monsters of the underseas blind and confuse their victims.
"Faster!" the commander roared in answer. "And for heaven's sake, keep together!"
They huddled closer. Under the protecting cloud of ink the mass of octopi pressed nearer. The struggle became fantastic, unreal, as the brilliant beams of white bored through the utter blackness searching for eyes which the men knew were there, yet could not see until their rays chanced upon them. Snaky shadows milled horribly close to the little group of bulging yellow figures. Blacker and blacker grew the water; they could not always see the monsters as they drove them back on each side. Now and then a bold tentacle actually touched one of them for a moment before its owner was thrust, blinded, away.
Suddenly the dark cloud cleared a little as the fight moved into an unseen current. Their range of vision lengthened to ten or twelve feet; they could dimly sense the looming mass of cuttlefish: and it was less often that one of the monsters darted forward, daring the rays of white, and became altogether visible. When this did happen, half a dozen dazzling beams converged on the octopus' eyes and drove it back in writhing agony.
The men were the hub of a grotesque cartwheel, whose spokes were inter-crossing rays of white. They still forged onward along the groove, but moved more slowly now, and Keith Wells, tired to death, realized the combat could not go on much longer. Their advance was useless; a mere jest. The NX-1 had vanished. It would only be a question of time before their batteries gave out, or the swarms of octopi crushed in on the struggling crew. Their overwhelming numbers would tell in the end.... The men were silent, except for the occasional gasps which came from their laboring lungs.
And then the king of the octopi appeared.
Keith had been wondering, in the aching turmoil that was his brain, where the gold-banded monarch was. He knew the monster had been rescued, and he dreaded coming face to face once more with that huge form. Now, armlets of glittering yellow suddenly flashed in the thick of the besieging tentacles, and two great evil eyes glared for a second at Keith Wells. The commander flung a burst of light at them and laughed crazily as the monster scurried back. For a few moments the king was not visible.
"Well, fellows," Wells said, "it won't be long now. His Majesty's back on the field." He grinned a little through his weary face. "I wonder what he'll hatch up to combat our helmet-lights? Watch close: he's damn clever!"
The commander did not have long to wonder. The vague wall of tentacles began retreating deeper into the ink. Keith could not imagine the reason for it, but held himself taut and ready. His men, likewise noting the move, unconsciously grouped closer, waiting tensely for they knew not what.
The king of the octopi had indeed hatched a plan of attack. After a moment the mass of creatures again became slowly visible, but this time when the rays shot out they did not hold them back. Could not--for their eyes were not visible.
"My God!" Wells cried. "They're coming backwards!"
It was so. The octopi--no doubt under their ruler's orders--had turned themselves around, and now, with eyes directly away from the dazzling shafts of white, were closing slowly in on the humans from all sides. The helmet-lights were useless. They could not reach the creatures' eyes.
Tentacles coiling, whipping, interweaving, the wall of flesh pressed in. Death stared the helpless crew of the NX-1 in the face. First Officer Graham shrugged his shoulders and said tiredly: "Well, I guess it's all over.... Unless," he added with a feeble smile, "somebody figures a way to melt us through the sea-floor...."
Keith Wells' face suddenly lit up with an idea. He swung around and roared: "The hell it's over! We can go up!"
His crew understood at once. "What fools we--" Graham began, but Keith cut him short.
"Listen," he rapped quickly. "Jam together in one bunch and lock arms tight. When I give the word, flood your suits with air. We'll go up like comets; crash right through the devils.... Hurry!... All ready?"
He saw that they were. "Then, together--go!" he commanded.
As one man the crew adjusted their air-controls, bulging the sea-suits with air. Their weighted feet left the cavern floor at once, and, locked tightly together, the whole fourteen of them shot like a bullet to the living ceiling of unsuspecting cuttlefish above.
They hit with a terrific crash. Keith was momentarily stunned by the force of impact. He felt himself torn away from his men, felt a dozen tentacles snake over him, and mechanically stabbed out with his helmet-light. For a moment he was held; then the air and his light pulled him through, and he broke out through the top.
In his rocketing upward progress the extra oxygen rapidly cleared his mind. Glancing below he saw a great, dark, many-fingered cloud dropping rapidly away, and was glad to know that the octopi could not follow him into the lesser pressures above without their suits. Over the dark cloud he glimpsed a few scattered pin-points of light--the helmet-beams of the other men. They were rising as swiftly as he.
"Thank God!" he murmured reverently. "We broke through! We broke through!"
The Return of the Wanderer Wells watched the several helmet-lights shooting upwards and wondered if they represented all the men that had got safely through the net of tentacles. Remembering the rocky ceiling they were rapidly approaching, he ordered the others to reduce speed by discharging air from their sea-suits. He received no articulate answer.
Although he cut down the rush of his own progress, it was with a jar that he bounded into the top of the cavern. As he dangled there, he beheld four light beams hurtling upward; his earphones registered crash after crash: and then he saw the beams go spinning down into the gloom again, weaving and crossing fantastically, the shock having jerked them from their owner's hands. Keith had lost his own helmet-light below, but peering around he could make out a few vague forms, bumping and twisting in the current.
"Graham!" the commander called. "Graham, you there?" After a moment his first officer's voice came thickly back.
"Yes--here. A bit groggy. That crash...." Wells swam clumsily towards him.
"I guess only a few of us broke through," the commander said slowly. As the two officers hung at the roof, swinging grotesquely, one by one the other men came to their senses and reported their presence in the radiophone. Keith ordered them to cluster around him, and soon eight weird figures had grouped nearby. After a while they located two others, which brought their total to ten men and two officers. They looked a long time, but could not find any more. Two were gone.
Deep silence fell over the tiny group. The dark mass of the rocky ceiling scraped their helmets; below, the bluish waters tapered into a thick gloom, hiding, miles beneath, the mound-buildings and swarming octopi.
One of the men spoke. His words were audible to everyone, and they voiced the thought in every brain: "What're we going to do now?"
Keith had no answer. They had escaped the immediate danger, but it was only a temporary respite. The commander knew it was hopeless to try and locate the tunnel leading to the outer sea, for they were very tired, and in their clumsy suits they would be able to swim only a few rods. Their helmet-lights were gone; they had played their last card.
"They're goin' to find us after a while," the pessimistic voice continued. "They'll send that submarine of theirs after us--or maybe they'll come up in their metal suits...."
"Well," Keith replied with forced cheerfulness, "then we'll have to fight 'em off."
"Why not rip our suits an' end it now--" began another, but Graham's voice cut in sharply.
"Quiet!" he said. "I heard something!"
The men stilled abruptly. In tense silence their ears strained at the headphones. Wells asked: "What did you hear?"
"Wait!" Graham interrupted, listening intently. "There it is again! Listen! Can't you hear it? Why, it sounded like--like--"
Keith concentrated his whole mind on listening, but could catch nothing at all. He was just about to give up when he caught a faint, jumbled murmur--the murmur of a human voice.
"My God!" he whispered. The voice, little by little, grew, and Wells could distinguish words. They formed into a complete sentence. Keith heard it plainly. It was: "Now, what the hell's this thing for?"
Unmistakably, it was the voice of Cook Angus McKegnie, whom they all had thought dead.
Amazed, the men of the crew started to jabber. "Quiet!" Wells ordered sharply. He listened again. McKegnie's voice was growing quickly and steadily louder.
"McKegnie!" the commander cried excitedly. "McKegnie, can you hear me?" There was no answer. Patiently Wells waited a minute, every second of which increased the volume of his long-lost cook's bewildered tones. Again he tried.
"McKegnie! Can you hear me? This is Commander Wells. McKegnie!"
The cook's stammering voice came back: "Why--why--is that you, Mr. Wells? Did I hear you, Mr. Wells?"
"Yes!" Keith shouted impatiently. "This is Commander Wells! For heaven's sake, McKegnie, where are you?"
"I don't know, sir!" the cook responded. "Where are you?"
Keith was for the moment perplexed. "But--but, are you a prisoner?" he questioned. And he could have sworn he heard a distinct note of pride as the invisible McKegnie replied: "Oh, no, sir! Not yet! These devils been tryin' their best to get me, but they couldn't! No, sir!"
Wells became more and more puzzled. "Then--but--you're not running the NX-1, are you?"