When evening came, it seemed as though the octopuses had concentrated their forces for a great drive. The whistlings had increased to such a volume that sleep was nearly impossible, and as soon as the sun went down, the movements of dark forms could be observed where the animals were silhouetted against the sky along the beach The first attack came half an hour later. It was a sporadic outburst, apparently, consisting of only three or four individuals, and these were quickly dispersed or slain by a few bursts from the seventy-fives. But it was followed by another, and another, the numbers of the attackers ranging all the way from three to fifteen or twenty. Unlike the previous attempts on the fort they were frenzied and unorganized as though the directing intelligence behind them had suddenly failed. Immune to fear, the living octopuses came right on, through the hail of fire and died at the foot of the rampart, or dashed over it even, to be wounded to death by bayonets fixed on long poles with which the black soldiers reached and stabbed frenziedly at eyes and softer parts.
Once, during a lull in the combat, the commandant and Weyl were called to witness a monstrous dud, at the very edge of the fort between two of the hideous beasts. The ungainly creatures locked in each others' tentacles, rolled hideously together, tearing at each other with their great beaks, till a Senegalese reached over with one of those improvised bayonet pikes and dealt first one and then the other mortal stabs. Weyl felt a singular sensation of nausea.
Toward dawn it became evident to the exhausted artillerymen and their wearied leaders that the octopuses were now aiming not so much at conquest, as at escape. They no longer blundered into the fires that had been built about the fort and village; no longer hurled themselves upon Mulgrave's crew of flame-throwers and the shells of the seventy fives. They seemed to be heading for the beach, to be striving to reach the water.
And when dawn broke, the men in the enclosure saw a few stragglers from the hideous army at the edge of the jungle, making their way, like the others, with ungainly flappings and swishings, always toward the beach. It was impossible to watch them without feeling an almost physical sensation of illness, of sinking. But what did it mean? No one among the harassed defenders of Fort Dauphin was prepared to say.
Mulgrave's wearied crew had gone aboard with their ship, and the white men, refreshed by a few hours' sleep and a bath, were discussing the question. "I am of the opinion," Weyl was declaring, "that they have certain periods when they must wet their gill-plumes again, and last night's disturbance represents one of those periods. If we could only attack them at such a time—"
He was interrupted by the arrival of an excited Senegalese, who addressed Major Larivet: "The boat she is smoke. She go."
"How?" "What?" cried the four, leaping to their feet and starting down the road in the direction of the pier.
It was too true. The Morgana, out beyond the reef line, was marked by a tiny plume of smoke from her funnel, and as they gazed, she seemed to move a bit.
"Quick!" shouted Weyl, "let's push off a dhow.
Followed by the Englishman, and at a longer distance by Duperret, he raced for the pier and leaped into the little craft. "Grab a sweep," he called to Larivet.
Propelled by sail and oar, the little craft began to swing out from the pier, and then catching the land breeze in its full strength, heeled over. Duperret drew in his sweep, useless at that speed. He shaded his eyes and looked toward the Morgana. Suddenly he turned with a short bitter laugh.
"Look," he said, pointing. A few hundred yard. ahead of the dhow, Weyl and Mulgrave saw a globular grey shape among the waves. From it, lying flush with the water, radiated — tentacles. Weyl put the tiller over to avoid it, and as the craft swang saw another, and then another. It was the end.
But even as he prepared to wear the little ship round and run back for the pier, if indeed they could make that temporary safety, they saw out beyond the loathsome globular head and spreading arms a triangular fin-shape that cut the water with hardly a ripple.
It was charging straight at the octopus, and as they watched, there was a swift turmoil in the water, the flash of a sleek, wet, black body, a vision of dazzling teeth, had the globular head of the octopus disappeared into a boil of water from which rose two tentacles, waving vainly. Off to the right, another of those knife-like fins was coming, followed by more — a half dozen, a dozen, a score; and suddenly around each of them there gathered the whirl and flush of a combat.
The dhow drew ahead, right toward the center of one of the tumultuous whirlpools. Out of it dissolved an octopus that was only half an octopus, its tentacles torn and a huge gash across that inhuman parody of a face — an octopus that was striving vainly to escape from a flashing fate that ran behind it.
Weyl shouted — Duperret began to weep; the unaffected tears of joy of the emotional Frenchman and Mulgrave, stirred from his imperturbability, was shouting, "Killer whales!" to an audience that had eyes and ears only for the savage battles all about them.
Everywhere, they could see through the clear tropical water that the killers, stronger and swifter, if less intelligent, were the victors. The octopuses, routed, were trying to get away as vainly as the natives had tried to escape from them.
"Let the bally yacht go," shouted Mulgrave to Weyl. "I want to enjoy this."
For fifteen, twenty minutes, they watched, until they saw the vanishing fin of a killer moving off to northward, signal that that part of the battle was over, and that the killers were departing for new fields of triumph. Three men, with hearts lighter than they had known them for weeks, manoeuvred the boat back to the pier.
"They seem to be gone, sure enough," said Weyl, tossing down on the table a brace of the native pheasants. It was only two days later, but he had returned from a four hours' trip into the jungle.
"I didn't even come across the traces of a single one of them — unless you can call a trace the fact that they seem to have cleaned out about all the animals in this district. Even the monkeys are gone."
"Do you think they will come back?" asked Major Larivet.
"I am sure they will not," said Weyl. "There seem to be perfect shoals of killer whales off the coast, attracted no doubt by the octopuses, which are their favorite food. You may be sure they would hunt down every one, as the killers are very voracious."
"But what made them appear in the first place?"
"God knows. It is, or was, since they are now gone, some phenomenon allied to that which produces the lemming migrations every twenty-eight years. You, Mulgrave, are a biologist. You know how, once in twenty-eight years, these little rat-like animals breed in such numbers that they overrun whole districts, and then migrate into the ocean where they are drowned by the thousand.
"These octopuses would have plenty of opportunity to develop their extraordinary size and intelligence, as well as their quality of breathing air by life in the shallow, deserted lagoons all around Madagascar, and if they were actuated by a life-cycle similar to that of the lemmings, they would breed in the vast numbers which we saw. It seems the only logical hypothesis.
"In any case, there is nothing for the rest of the world to fear. A sort of wireless telegraphy seems to exist among animals with regard to neighborhoods where food can be obtained in quantities, and just as you will see the condors of the Andes flock to where food is, the killer whales gathered around this visitation of giant cuttle fish.
"It is one of Nature's numerous provisions to right the balance of things on the earth when they threaten to get out of joint in any direction. If any other enemy of man were to multiply as these octopuses did, you may be sure he would find an animal ally.
"We were merely panic-stricken and foolish to think we could accomplish anything. We should have waited."
"And now, my friend," said Duperret, "I suppose I must bid you farewell."
"Yes. I am anxious to get back to my monograph on the Ammonites of the Upper Cretaceous. It will astonish the scientific world, I think."
By Frank Quattrocchi
There were but three days in which to decipher the most cryptic message ever delivered to earth.
George Harrison noticed the flashing red light on the instrument panel as he turned onto the bridge to Balboa Island. Just over the bridge, he pulled the car to the curb and flipped the switch with violence. "Harrison," he muttered.
"How's the water, fella?" asked the voice of Bob Mills, his assistant.
There was a beautiful moon over the island. The surf lapped at the tiers of the picturesque bridge. Soft music was playing somewhere. There was a tinkle of young laughter on the light sea breeze.
Harrison was vacationing and he viewed the emergency contact from Intersolar Spaceport with annoyance.
"What do you want, Bob?"
"Sorry, George," Bob Mills said more seriously. "I guess you got to come back."
"Listen--" protested Harrison.
"Orders, George--orders from upstairs."
Harrison took a long look at the pleasant island street stretching out before him. Sea-corroded street lamps lit the short, island thoroughfare. People in light blue jeans, bronzed youths in skipper caps, deep-tanned girls in terry-cloth.
"What the hell is it?"
"Don't know, but it's big. Better hurry." He clicked off.
Harrison skidded the car into a squealing turn. Angrily, he raced over the bridge and onto the roaring highway. Thirty minutes later Intersolar Spaceport, Los Angeles, blazed ahead of him.
The main gate guards waved him in immediately and two cycle guards ran interference for him through the scores of video newsmen who lined the spaceport street.
Bob Mills met him at the entrance to the Administration building.
"Sorry, George, but--"
"Yeah. Oh, sure. Now what the hell is it all about?"
Mills handed him a sheaf of tele-transmittals. They bore heavy secret stamps. Harrison looked up quizzically.
"You saw the video boys," Mills said. "The wheels think there might be some hysteria."
"Any reason for it?"
"Not that we know of--not that I know of anyway. The thing is coming in awfully fast--speed of light times a factor of at least two, maybe four."
Harrison whistled softly and scanned the reports frowning.
"They contacted us--"
"--in perfect Intersolar Convention code. Said they were coming in. That's all. The port boys have done all they could to find out what to expect and prepare for it. Somebody thought Engineering might be needed--that's why they sent for you."
"Used Intersolar Convention code, eh," mused Harrison.
"Yes," said Mills. "But there's nothing like this thing known in the solar system, nothing even close to this fast. Besides that, there was a sighting several days ago that's being studied.
"One of the radio observatories claims to have received a new signal from one of the star clusters...."
The huge metal vessel settled to a perfect contact with its assigned strip. It hovered over the geometric center of the long runway and touched without raising a speck of dust.
Not a sound, not a puff of smoke issued from any part of it. Immediately it rose a few feet above the concrete and began to move toward the parking strip. It moved with the weightless ease of an ancient dirigible on a still day. It was easily the largest, strangest object ever seen before at the spaceport.
A team of searchlight men swivelled the large spot atop the tower and bathed the ship in orange light.
"What's that mean?" asked Mills paging his way through a book.
"'Halt propulsion equipment,' I think," said Harrison.
"It's a good thing the code makers were vague about that," smiled Mills. "It's a good thing they didn't say jets or rockets--'cause this thing hasn't got any."
That single word suddenly issued from the alien ship.
"The Races of Wan greet you."
It might have been the voice of a frog. It was low, gutteral, entirely alien, entirely without either enthusiasm or trace of human emotion.
"Jesus!" muttered Mills.
Scores of video teams focused equipment on the gleaming alien.
"The Races of Wan desire contact with you."
"In English yet!" amazed Mills.
"The basis of this contact together with its nature are dependent upon you!"
The voice had become ugly. There was nothing human about it save only the words, which were in flawless English.
"Your system has long been under surveillance by the Races of Wan. Your--progress has been noted."
There was almost a note of contempt, thought Harrison, in the last sentence.
"Your system is about to reach others. It therefore becomes a matter of urgency that the Races of Wan make contact.
"Your cultural grasp is as yet quite small. You reach four of your own system's planets. You have attempted--with little success--colonization. You anticipate further penetrations.
"You master the physical conditions of your system with difficulty. You are a victim of many of the natural laws--natural laws which you dimly perceive.
"But you master yourselves with greatest difficulty, and you are infinitely more a victim of forces within your very nature--forces which you know almost not at all."
"What the hell--" began Mills.