Astounding Stories of Super-Science August 1931, by Astounding Stories is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. VOL. VII, NO. 2: The Danger from the Deep
The Danger from the Deep
By Ralph Milne Farley
He caught a glimpse of the grinning fish-face.
Within a thick-walled sphere of steel eight feet in diameter, with crystal-clear fused-quartz windows, there crouched an alert young scientist, George Abbot. The sphere rested on the primeval muck and slime at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, one mile beneath the surface.
Marooned on the sea-floor, his hoisting cable cut, young Abbot is left at the mercy of the man-sharks.
The beam from his 200-watt searchlight, which shot out through one of his three windows into the dark blue depths beyond, seemed faint indeed, yet it served to illuminate anything which crossed it, or on which it fell.
For a considerable length of time since his descent to the ocean floor, young Abbot had clung to one of the thick windows of his bathysphere, absorbed by the marine life outside. Slender small fish with stereoscopic eyes, darted in and out of the beam of light. Swimming snails floated by, carrying their own phosphorescent lanterns. Paper-thin transparent crustaceans swam into view, followed by a few white shrimps, pale as ghosts. Then a mist of tiny fish swept across his field of vision. Abbot cupped his face in his hands, and stared out.
The incongruous thought flashed across his mind that thus he had often sat by the window of his club in New York, and gazed out at the passing motor traffic.
His searchlight cut a sharp swath through the blue muck. More than once he thought he saw large moving fish-like forms far away.
"Speed up the generator," he called into his phone.
Immediately the shaft of light brightened. He set about trying to focus upon one of those dim elusive shapes which had so intrigued him.
But suddenly the searchlight went out! Intent on repairing the apparatus as rapidly as possible, Abbot snapped the button-switch, which ought to have illuminated the interior of his diving-sphere; but the lights did not go on. Then he noticed that the electric fan, on which he depended to keep his air-supply properly mixed, had stopped.
He spoke into the telephone transmitter, which hung in front of his mouth: "Hi, there, up on the boat! My electric power is cut off. I'm down here with my fan stopped and my heat cut off. Hoist me up, and be quick about it!"
As the young man waited for the winch to get under way on the boat a mile above him, he pulled out his electric pocket flashlight and sent its feeble ray out through his quartz-glass window into the dim royal-purple depths beyond, in one last attempt to get a look at those mysterious fish-shapes which had so intrigued him.
And then he saw one of them distinctly.
Evidently they had swum closer when the glow of his searchlight had stopped; and so the sudden flash of his pocket-light had taken them by surprise.
For, as he snapped it on, he caught an instant's glimpse of a grinning fish-face pressed close against the outside of his thick window-pane, as though trying to peer in at him. The fish-face somewhat resembled the head of a shark, except that the mouth was a bit smaller and not quite so leeringly brutal, and the forehead was rather high and domed.
But what most attracted Abbot's attention, in the brief instant before the startled fish whisked away in a swirl of phosphorescent foam, was the fact that, from beneath each of the two pectoral fins, there protruded what appeared to be a skinny human arm, terminating in three fingers and a thumb!
Then the fish was gone. Abbot snapped off his little light.
The diving-sphere quivered, as the hoisting-cable tautened. But suddenly the sphere settled back to the bottom of the sea with a jarring thud. "Cable's parted, sir!" spoke a frantic voice in his ear-phones.
For a moment George Abbot sat stunned with horror. Then his mind began to race, like a squirrel in a cage, seeking some way of escape.
Perhaps he could manage to unscrew the 400-pound trap door at the top of the sphere, and shoot to the surface, with the bubbling-out of the confined air. But his scientifically trained mind made some rapid calculations which showed him this was absurd.
At the depth of a mile, the pressure is roughly 156 atmospheres, that is to say, 156 times the air-pressure at the surface of the earth; and the moment that his sphere was opened to this pressure, he would be blown back inwardly away from the man-hole, and the air inside his sphere would suddenly be compressed to only 1/156 of its former volume.
Not only would this pressure be sufficient to squash him into a mangled pulp, but also the sudden compression of the air inside the sphere would generate enough heat to fry that mangled pulp to a crisp cinder almost instantly.
As George Abbot came to a full realization of the horror of these facts, he recoiled from the trap-door as though it were charged with death.
"For Heaven's sakes, do something!" he shrieked in agony into the transmitter.
"Courage, sir," came back the reply. "We are rigging up a grapple just as fast as we can. Long before your oxygen gives out, we shall slide it down to you along the telephone line, which is the only remaining connection between us. When it settles about your sphere, and you can see its hooks outside your window by the light of your pocket-flash, let us know, and we'll trip the grapple and haul you up."
"Thank you," replied the young man.
He was calm now, but it was an enforced and numb kind of calmness. Mechanically he throttled down his oxygen supply, so as to make it last longer. Mechanically he took out his notebook and pencil and started to write down, in the dark, his experiences; for he was determined to leave a full account for posterity, even though he himself should perish.
After setting down a categorical description of the successive partings of the electric light cable and the hoist cable, and his thoughts and feelings in that connection, he described in detail the shark with hands, which he had seen through the window of his sphere. He tried to be very explicit about this, for he realized that his account would probably be laid, by everyone, to the disordered imagination of his last dying moments; being a true scientist, George Abbot wanted the world to believe him, so that another sphere would be built and sent down to the ocean depths, to find out more about these peculiar denizens of the deep.
Of course, no one would believe him. This thought kept drumming in his ears. No one—except Professor Osborne. Old Osborne would believe!
George Abbot's mind flashed back to a conversation he had had with the old professor, just before the oil interests had sent him on this exploring trip to discover the source of the large quantities of petroleum which had begun to bubble up from the bottom of a certain section of the Pacific very near where Abbot now was.
Osborne had said, "This petroleum suggests a gusher to me. And what causes gushers? Human beings, boring for oil, to satisfy human needs."
"But, Professor," Abbot had objected, "there can't be any human beings at the bottom of the sea!"
"Why not?" Professor Osborne had countered. "Life is supposed to have originated spontaneously in the slime of the ocean depths; therefore that part of the earth has had a head-start on us in the game of evolution. May not this head-start have been maintained right down to date, thus producing at the bottom of the sea a race superior to anything upon the dry land?"
"But," Abbot had objected further, "if so, why haven't they come up to visit or conquer us? And why haven't we ever found any trace of them?"
"Quite simple to explain," the old professor had replied. "Any creature who can live at the frightful pressures of the ocean depths could never survive a journey even halfway to the surface. It would be like our trying to live in an almost perfect vacuum. We should explode, and so would these denizens of the deep, if they tried to come up here. Even one of their dead bodies could not be brought to the surface in recognizable form. No contact with them will ever be possible, nor will they ever constitute a menace to any one—for which we may thank the Lord!"
George Abbot now reviewed this conversation as he crouched in his diving-sphere in the purple darkness of the marine depths. Yes, old Osborne would believe him. The diary must be written for Osborne's eyes.
Abbot sent another beam from his pocket light suddenly out into the water; and this time he surprised several of the peculiar fish. These, like the first, had arms and hands and high intelligent foreheads.
Then suddenly Abbot laughed a harsh laugh. Old Osborne had been wrong in one thing, namely in saying that the super-race of the deep would never be a menace to anyone. They were being a menace to George Abbot, right now, for it was undoubtedly they who had cut his cables. Probably they were possessed of much the same scientific curiosity with regard to him as he was with regard to them, and so they had determined to secure him as a museum specimen.
The idea was a weird one. He laughed again, mirthlessly.
"What is the matter, sir?" came an anxious voice in his ear-phones.
"Hurry that grapple!" was his reply. "I have found out what cut my cables. There are some very intelligent-looking fish down here, and I think they want me for—"
An ominous click sounded in his ears. Then silence.
"Hello! Hello there!" he shouted. "Can you hear me up on the boat?"
But no answer came back. The line remained dead. The strange fish had cut George Abbot's last contact with the upper world. The grapple-hooks could never find him now, for there was now not even a telephone cable to guide them down to his sphere.
The realization that he was hopelessly lost, and that he had not much longer to live, came as a real relief to him, after the last few moments of frantic uncertainty.
Hoping that his sphere would eventually be found, even though too late to do him any good, he set assiduously to work jotting down all the details which he could remember of those strange denizens of the deep, the man-handed sharks, which he was now firmly convinced were the cause of his present predicament.
He stared out through one of his windows into the brilliant blue darkness, but did not turn on his flashlight. How near were these enemies of his, he wondered?
The presence of those menacing man-sharks, just outside the four-inch-thick steel shell, which withstood a ton of pressure for each square inch of its surface, began to obsess young Abbot. What were they doing out there in the watery-blue midnight? Perhaps, having secured his sphere as a scientific specimen, they were already preparing to cut into it so as to see what was inside. That these fish could cut through four inches of steel was not so improbable as it sounded, for had they not already succeeded in severing a rubber cable an inch and a half thick, containing two heavy copper wires, and also two inches of the finest, non-kinking steel rope!
The young scientist flashed his pocket torch out through the thick quartz pane, but his enemies were nowhere in sight. Then he fell to calculating his oxygen supply. His normal consumption was about half a quart per minute, at which rate his two tanks would be good for thirty-six hours. His chemical racks contained enough soda-lime to absorb the excess carbon dioxide, enough calcium chloride to keep down the humidity and enough charcoal to sweeten the body odors for much more than that period.
For a moment, the thought of these facts encouraged him. He had been down less than two hours. Perhaps the boat above him could affect his rescue in the more than thirty-four hours which remained!
But then he realized that he had failed to take into consideration the near-freezing temperature of the ocean depths. This temperature he knew to be in the neighborhood of 39 degrees Fahrenheit—even though no thermometer hung outside his window, as none could withstand the frightful pressures at the bottom of the sea. For it is one of the remarkable facts of inductive science that man has been able to figure out a priori that the temperature at all deep points of the ocean, tropic as well as arctic, must always be stable at approximately 39 degrees.
Abbot was clad only in a light cotton sailor suit, and now that his source of heat had been cut off by the severing of his power lines, his prison was rapidly becoming unbearably chilly. His thick steel sphere constituted such a perfect transmitter of heat that he might almost as well have been actually swimming in water of 39 degrees temperature, so far as comfort was concerned.
Abbot's emotions ran all the gamut from stupefaction, through dull calmness, clear-headed thought, intense but aimless mental activity, nervousness, frenzy, and insane delirium, back to stupefaction again.
During one of his periods of calmness, he figured out what an almost total impossibility there was of the chance that his ship, one mile above him on the surface, could ever find his sphere with grappling hooks. Yet he prayed for that chance. A single chance in a million sometimes does happen.
Several hours had by now elapsed since the parting of the young scientist's cables. It was bitterly cold inside the sphere. In order to keep warm, he had to exercise during his calm moments as systematically as his cramped quarters would permit. During his frantic moments he got plenty of exercise automatically. And of course all this movement used up more than the normal amount of oxygen, so that he was forced to open the valves on his tanks to two or three times their normal flow. His span of further life was thereby cut to ten or twelve hours, if indeed he could keep himself warm for that long.
Why didn't the people on the boat do something!
He was just about to indulge in one of his frantic fits of despair, when he heard or felt—the two senses being strangely commingled in his present situation—a clank or thump upon the top of his bathysphere. Instantly hope flooded him. Could it be that the one chance in a million had actually happened, and that a grapple from the boat above had actually found him?
With feverish expectation, he pressed the button of his little electric pocket flashlight, and sent its feeble beam out through one of the quartz-glass windows into the blue-black depths beyond.
No hooks in front of this window. He tried the others. No hooks there, either. But he did see plenty of the superhuman fish. Eighteen of them, he counted, in sight at one time. And also two huge snake-like creatures with crested backs and maned heads, veritable sea-serpents.
As there was nothing the young man could do to assist in the grappling of his sphere by his friends in the boat above, he devoted his time to jotting down a detailed description of these two new beasts and of their behavior.
One of the sharks appeared to be leading or driving them up to the bathysphere; and when they got close enough, Abbot was surprised to see that they wore what appeared to be a harness!
The clanking upon the bathysphere continued, and now the young man learned its cause. It was not the grapple hooks from his ship, but chains—chains which the man-armed sharks were wrapping around the bathysphere.
Two more of the harnessed sea-serpents swam into view, and these two were hitched to a flat cart: an actual cart with wheels. The chains were attached to the harness of the original two beasts; they swam upward and disappeared from view; and the sphere slowly rose from the mucky bottom of the sea, to be lowered again squarely on top of the cart. The cart jerked forward, and a journey over the ocean floor began.
Then the little pocket torch dimmed to a dull red glow, and the scene outside faded gradually from view. Abbot switched off the now useless light and set to work with scientific precision to record all these unbelievable events.
In his interest and excitement, he had forgotten the ever-increasing cold; but gradually, as he wrote, the frigidity of his surroundings was forced on his consciousness. He turned on more oxygen, and exercised frantically. Meanwhile the cart, carrying his bathysphere, bumped along over an uneven road.
From time to time, he tried his almost exhausted little light, but its dim red beam was completely absorbed by the blue of the ocean depths, and he could make out nothing except two bulking indistinct shapes, writhing on ahead of him. Finally even this degree of visibility failed, and he could see absolutely nothing outside.
He was now so chilled and numb that he could no longer write. With a last effort, he noted down that fact, and then put the book away in its rack.
He began to feel drowsy. Rousing himself, he turned on more oxygen. The effect was exhilaration and a feeling of silly joy. He began to babble drunkenly to himself. His head swam. His mind was in a daze.
It seemed hours later when he awoke. Ahead of him in the distance there was a dim pale-blue light, against which there could be seen, in silhouette, the forms of the two serpentine steeds and their fish-like drivers. Abbot's hands and feet were completely numb, but his head was clear.
As they drew nearer to the light, it gradually took form, until it turned out to be the mouth of a cave. The cart entered it.
Down a long tunnel they progressed, the light getting brighter and brighter as they advanced. The color of the light became a golden green. The rough stone walls of the tunnel could now be seen; and finally there appeared, ahead, two semicircular doors, swung back against the sides of the passage.
Beyond these doors, the tunnel walls were smooth and exactly cylindrical, and on the ceiling there were many luminous tubes, which lit up the place as brightly as daylight. The cart came to a stop.
The young scientist could now see with surprising distinctness his captors and their serpentine steeds, and even the details of the chains and the harness. He tried to pick up his diary, so as to jot down some points which he had theretofore missed; but his hands were too numb. But at least he could keep on observing; so he glued his eyes to the thick quartz window-pane once more.
A short distance ahead in the passage there was another pair of doors. Presently these swung open and the cavalcade moved forward. Five or six successive pairs of doors were passed in this manner, and then the sea-serpents began to thrash about and become almost unmanageable. It was evident that some change not to their liking had taken place in their surroundings.
At last, as one of the portals swung open, young Abbot saw what appeared to be four deep-sea diving-suits. Could these suits contain human beings? And if so, who? It seemed incredible, for no diving-suit had ever been devised in which a man could descend to the depth of one mile, and live.
These four figures, whatever they were, came stolidly forward and took charge of the cart. One of the sharks swam up to them and appeared to talk to them with its hands. Then the sharks unhitched the two sea-serpents and led them to the rear, and Abbot saw them no more.
The four divers picked up the chains, and slowly towed the cart forward, their clumsy, ponderous movements contrasting markedly with the swift and sure swishings which had characterized the man-sharks and their snake-like steeds.
Several more pairs of doors were passed, and then there met them four figures in less cumbersome diving-suits, like those ordinarily used by men just below the surface of the sea. One of the deep-sea divers then pressed his face close to the outside of one of the windows of the bathysphere, as though to take a look inside; but the four newcomers waved him away, and hurriedly picked up the chains. Nevertheless, in that brief instant, Abbot had seen within the head-piece of the diver what appeared to be a bearded human face.
Several more pairs of doors were passed. The four deep-sea divers floundered along beside the cart, quite evidently having more and more difficulty of locomotion as each successive doorway was passed, until finally they lay down and were left behind.
At last the procession entered a section of tunnel which was square, instead of circular, and in which there was a wide shelf along one side about three feet above the floor. The four divers then dropped the chains, and one by one took a look at Abbot through his window.
And he at the same time took a most interested look at them.
They had unmistakable human faces!
He must be dreaming! For even if Osborne was right about his supposed super-race at the bottom of the sea, this race could not be human, for the pressures here would be entirely too great. No human being could possibly stand two thousand pounds per square inch!
Having satisfied their curiosity, the four divers pulled themselves up onto the shelf, and sat there in a row with their legs hanging over.
Abbot glanced upward at the ceiling lights, but these had become strangely blurred. There seemed to be an opaque barrier above him, and this barrier seemed to be slowly descending. The lights blurred out completely, and were replaced by a diffused illumination over the entire ripply barrier. And then it dawned on the young man that this descending sheet of silver was the surface of the water. He was in a lock, and the water was being pumped out.
The surface settled about the helmets of the divers, and their helmets disappeared; then their shoulders and the rest of them. At last it reached the level of Abbot's window. The divers could again be seen, and among then on the shelf there stood a half dozen naked bearded men, clad only in loin-cloths. They had evidently entered the lock while the water was subsiding.
These men unbuckled the helmets of the divers and helped them out, and then splashed down into the water and peered in through the windows of the bathysphere. Presently some of them left through a door at the end of the platform, but soon reappeared with staging, which they set up around the sphere. Then, climbing on top, they got to work on the man-hole cover.
As George Abbot realized their purpose, he became frantic. Although these men appeared to be human, just like himself, yet his scientifically-trained mind told him that they must be of some very special anatomical structure, in order to be able to withstand the immense pressures at the bottom of the Pacific. It was all right for them to be out there, but it would be fatal to him!
And then the heavy circular door above him began slowly to revolve.
This was terrible! In a moment the crushing pressures of the depths would come seeping in. Rising unsteadily upon his knees, the young man tried with his fingers to resist the rotation of the door; but it continued to turn.
Yet no pressure could be felt. The door became completely unscrewed. It was pried up, and slid off the top of the bathysphere, to crash upon the floor outside. Inquisitive bearded faces peered down through the hole.
Young Abbot slumped to the cold bottom of the sphere and stared back at them. He was saved; incredibly saved! These were real people, the air was real air and he must therefore be on the surface of the earth, instead of at the bottom of the Pacific as he had imagined! With a sigh of relief, he fainted….
When he came to his senses again, he was lying in a bed in a small room. Bending over him was the sweetest feminine face that he had ever seen.
The girl seemed to be about twenty years of age. She was clad in a clinging robe of some filmy green substance. Her hair was honey-brown, short and curly, and her forehead high and intelligent. Her eyes, an indescribable shade of deep violet, were matchlessly set off by her ivory skin.
The young man smiled up at her, and she smiled back. Thus far it had not occurred to him to wonder where he was, or why. No recollection of his recent strange adventures came to him. To him this was an exotic dream, from which he did not care to awake.
She spoke. Her words were unintelligible, and unlike any language which George Abbot knew or had even heard; and he was an accomplished linguist in addition to his other attainments.
And her words were not all that was strange about her speech, for the very tones of her voice sounded completely unhuman, although not displeasing. Her talk had a metallic ring to it, like the brassy blare of temple gongs, and yet was so smooth and subdued as to be sweeter than any sound that the young scientist had ever heard before.
"Beautiful dream fairy," replied the enraptured young man, "I haven't the slightest idea what you are saying, but keep right on. I like it."
His own voice sounded crass and crude compared to hers. At his first words she gave a start of surprise, but thereafter the sound did not appear to grate on her ears.
Then one of the bearded men in loin-cloths entered, and he and the girl talked together, quite evidently about their patient. The man's voice had the same strange metallic quality to it as that of the girl, but was deeper, so that it boomed with the rich notes of a bell.
At the sight of the man, young Abbot's memory swept back, and he remembered the adventure of his diving-sphere, and its capture, one mile down, by the strange shark-fish with human hands and arms. But how he had reached the surface of the earth again, he couldn't figure out. Nor did he particularly care.
The strange man withdrew, and the girl sat down beside the bed and smiled at Abbot. He smiled back at her.
Presently another girl entered and called, "Milli!"
The girl beside the bed started, and looking up asked some question, to which the other replied.
The newcomer brought in some strange warm food in a covered dish and then withdrew. The first girl proceeded to feed her patient.
After the meal, which tasted unlike anything which the young man had ever eaten before, the beautiful nurse again essayed conversation with him. She seemed perplexed and a bit frightened that he could not understand her words. Somehow, the young man sensed that this girl had never heard any other language than her own, and that she did not even know that other languages existed.
Strengthened by his food, he determined to set about learning her language as soon as possible. So he pointed at her and asked, "Milli?"
She nodded, and spoke some word which he took for "yes."
Then he pointed to himself and said, "George."
She understood, but the word was a difficult one for her to duplicate in the metallic tongue of her people. She made several attempts, until he laughingly spoke her word for "yes."
Then he pointed to other objects about the room. She gave him the names of these, but he could easily see that she felt that, if he did not know the names for all these common things, there must be something the matter with him.
He wondered how he could make her understand that there were other languages in the world than her own; and then he remembered the sharks with their hands and what he had taken to be their sign language. Perhaps Milli at least knew of the existence of the sign language. This would afford a parallel; for if she realized that there were two languages in the world, might there not be three?
So Abbot made some meaningless signs with his fingers. Milli quite evidently was accustomed to this kind of talk, but she was further perplexed to find that George talked gibberish with his hands as well as with his mouth.
She made some signs with her hands, and then said something orally. Young Abbot instantly pointed to her mouth, and held up one finger; then to her hands, and held up two; then to his own mouth, and held up three, at the same time speaking a sentence of English. Instantly she caught on: there were three languages in the world. And thereafter she no longer regarded him as crazy.
For several hours she taught him. Then another meal was brought, after which she left him, and the lights went out.
He awakened feeling thoroughly rested and well. The lights were on and Milli was beside him.
He asked for his clothes. They were brought. Milli withdrew and he put them on.
After breakfast, which they ate together, one of the bearded men came and led him out through a number of winding corridors into a larger room, in which there was a closed spherical glass tank, about ten feet in diameter, containing one of the human sharks. Around the tank stood five of the bearded men.
One of them proceeded to address Abbot, but of course the young American could not make out what he was saying. This apparent lack of intelligence seemed to exasperate the man; and finally he turned toward the tank, and engaged in a sign language conference with the fish; then turned back to Abbot again and spoke to him very sternly.
But Abbot shook his head and replied, "Milli. Bring Milli."
One of the other men flashed a look of triumph at their leader, and laughed.
"Yes," he added, "bring Milli."
The leader scowled at him, and some words were interchanged, but it ended in Milli being sent for. She apparently explained the situation to the satisfaction of the fish, to the intense glee of the man who had sent for her, and to the rather complete discomfiture of the leader of the five.
Abbot later learned that the leader's name was Thig, and that the name of the gleeful man was Dolf.
The reception over, Milli led Abbot back to his room.
There ensued many days—very pleasant days—of language instruction from Milli. Dolf and Thig and others of the five came frequently, to note his progress and to talk with him and ask him questions.
A sitting room was provided for him, adjoining his sleeping quarters. Milli occupied quarters nearby.
Within a week he had mastered enough of the language of these people, for their strange history began to be intelligible to him.
In spite of the fact that the air here was at merely atmospheric pressure, nevertheless this place was one mile beneath the surface of the Pacific. Milli and her people lived in a city hollowed out of a reef of rocks, reinforced against the terrific weight of the water and filled with laboratory-made air. They had never been to the surface of the sea.
The fish with the human arms were their creators and their masters.
Professor Osborne had been right. The fish of the deep, having a head start on the rest of the world, had evolved to a perfectly unbelievable degree of intelligence. Centuries ago they had built for themselves the exact analog of George Abbot's bathysphere, and in it they had made much the same sort of exploring trips to the surface that he had made down into the deeps. But their spheres had been constructed to keep in, rather than to keep out, great pressure.
Their scientists had gathered a wealth of data as to conditions on the surface, and had even seen and studied human beings. But their insatiable scientific curiosity had led them to want to know more about the strange country above them and the strange persons who inhabited it. And so they set about breeding, in their own laboratories, creatures which should be as like as possible to those whom they had observed on the surface.
Of course, this experiment necessitated their first setting up an air-filled partial vacuum similar to that which surrounds the earth. But they had persisted. They had brought down samples of air from the surface of the sea, and had analyzed and duplicated it on a large scale.
Finally, through long years, they had so directed—and controlled the course of evolution, in their breederies, as first to be able to produce creatures which could live in air at low pressures, and then to evolve the descendants of those creatures into intelligent human beings.
Some of the lower types of this evolutionary process, both in the direct line of descent of man, and among the collateral offshoots, had been retained for food and other purposes. Abbot, with intense scientific interest, studied these specimens in the zoo of the underwater city where he was staying.
Plans had been in progress for some time, among the fish-folk and their human subjects, to send an expedition to the surface. And now the shark masters had fortunately been able to secure alive an actual specimen of the surface folk—namely, George Abbot. The expedition was accordingly postponed until they could pump out of the young scientist all the information possible.
Abbot was naturally overjoyed at the prospect. This would not only get him out of here—but think what it would mean to science!
The plans of the sharks were entirely peaceful. Furthermore there were only about two hundred of their laboratory-bred synthetic human beings, and so these could constitute no menace to mankind. Accordingly he enthusiastically assured them that they could depend upon the hearty cooperation of the scientists of the outer earth.
During all his stay so far in this cave city, Abbot had been permitted to come in contact only with Milli, the members of the Committee of Five, and an occasional guard or laboratory assistant. Yet, in spite of the absence of personal contacts with other members of this strange race, Abbot was constantly aware of a background of many people and tense activity, which kept the wheels of industry and domestic economy turning in this undersea city.
Although the young man readily accustomed himself to the speech and food and customs of this strange race, his personal modesty and neatness revolted at the loin-cloths and beards of the men; and so, by special dispensation, he was permitted to wear his sailor suit and to shave.
The Committee of Five, who constituted a sort of ruling body for the city, interviewed him at length, cross-examined him most skilfully and took copious notes. But there seemed to be a strange lack of common meeting ground between their minds and his, so that very often they were forced to call on Milli to act as an intermediary. The beautiful young girl seemed able to understand both George Abbot and the leaders of her own people with equal facility.
A number of specially constructed submarines had already been built to carry the expedition to the surface. Before it came time to use them, Abbot tried to paint as glowing a picture as possible of life on earth; but he found it necessary to gloss over a great many things. How could he explain and justify war, liquor, crime, poverty, graft, and the other evils to which constant acquaintance has rendered the human race so calloused?
He was unable to deceive the men of the deep. With their super-intelligence, they relentlessly unearthed from him all the salient facts. And, as a result of their discoveries, their initial friendly feeling for the world of men rapidly developed into supreme contempt.
But Abbot on the other hand developed a deep respect for them. Their chemistry and their electrical and mechanical devices amazed and astounded him. They even were able to keep sun-time and tell the seasons, by means of gyroscopes!
Age was measured much as it is on the surface. This fact was brought to Abbot's attention by the approach of Milli's twentieth birthday.
Strange to relate, she seemed to dread the approach of that anniversary, and finally told Abbot the reason.
"It is the custom," said she, "when a girl or a boy reaches twenty, to give a very rigorous intelligence test. In fact, such a test is given on every birthday, but the one on the twentieth is the hardest. So far, I have just barely passed each test, which fact marks me as of very low mentality indeed. And, if I fail this time, they will kill me, so as to make room for others who have a better right to live."
"Impossible!" exclaimed the young man indignantly. "Why, you have a better mind than those of many of the leading scientists of the outer world!"
"All the same," she gloomily replied, "it is way below standard for down here."
On the day of the test, he did his best to cheer her up. Dolf also came—she seemed to be an especial protege of his—and gave her his encouragement. He had been coaching her heavily for the examinations for some time previous.
But later in the day she returned in tears to report to Abbot that she had failed, and had only twenty-four hours to live. Before he realized what he was doing, Abbot had seized her in his arms, and was pouring out to her a love which up to that moment he had not realized existed.
Finally her sobbing ceased, and she smiled through her tears.
"George, dear," said she, "it is worth dying, to know that you care for me like this."
"I won't let them kill you!" asserted the young man belligerently. "They owe me something for the assistance which I am to give them on their expedition. I shall demand your life as the price of my cooperation. Besides, you are the only one of all your people who has brains enough to understand what I tell them about the outer earth. It is they who are weak-minded; not you!"
But she sadly shook her head.
"It would never do for you to sponsor me," said she, "for it would alienate my one friend in power, Dolf. He loves me; no, don't scowl, for I do not love him. But, for the safety of both of us, we must not let him know of our love—yet."
"'Yet'?" exclaimed Abbot, "when you have less than a day to live?"
"You have given me hope," the girl replied, "and also an idea. Dolf promised to appeal to the other members of the Five. I have just thought of a good ground for his appeal; namely, my ability to translate your clumsy description into a form suited to the high intelligence of our superiors."
"'Clumsy'?" exclaimed the young man, a bit nettled.
"Oh, pardon me, dear. I'm so sorry," said she contritely. "I didn't mean to let it slip. And now I must rush to Dolf and tell him my idea."
"Don't let him make love to you, though!" admonished Abbot gloomily.
She kissed him lightly, and fled.
A half hour later she was back, all smiles. The idea had gone across big. Dolf, as the leader of the projected expedition, had demanded that Milli be brought along as liaison officer between them and their guide; and the other four committeemen had reluctantly acceded. The execution was accordingly indefinitely postponed.
The young couple spent the evening making happy plans for their life together on the outer earth, for as soon as they should arrive in America, Dolf would have no further hold over them.
The next day, the Committee of Five announced that, for a change, they were going to give George Abbot an intelligence test. He had represented himself as being one of the scientists of the outer earth; accordingly, they could gauge the caliber of his fellow countrymen by determining his I. Q.
Milli was quite agitated when this program was announced, but the ordeal held no terrors for George Abbot. Had he not taken many such tests on earth and passed them easily?
So he appeared before the Committee of Five with a rather cocky air. He had yet to see an intelligence test too tricky for him to eat alive.
"Start him with something easy," suggested Dolf. "Perhaps they don't have tests on the outer earth. You know, one gains a certain facility by practice."
"Milli didn't, in spite of all the practicing which you gave her," maliciously remarked Thig.
Dolf glowered at him.
"What is the cube root of 378?" suddenly asked one of the other members of the committee.
"Oh, a little over seven," hazarded Abbot.
"Come, come," boomed Thig: "give it to us exactly."
"Well, seven-point-two, I guess."
"Don't guess. Give it exact, to four decimal places."
"In my head?" asked Abbot incredulously.
"Certainly!" replied Thig. "Even a child could do that. We're giving you easy questions to start with."
"Start him on square root," suggested Dolf kindly. "Remember he isn't used to these tests like our people are."
So they tried him with square root, in which he turned out to be equally dumb.
Abstract questions of physics and chemistry he did better on; but the actual quantitative problems, which they expected him to solve in his head, stumped him completely.
Then they asked him about education on earth, and the qualifications for becoming a scientist, and who were the leaders in his field, and what degrees they held, and what one had to do to get those degrees, etc. Finally they dismissed him. Dolf then sent for Milli.
She was gone about an hour, and returned to Abbot wide-eyed and incredulous.
"Oh, George," said she, lowering her voice. "Dolf tells me that your intelligence is below that of a five-year-old child! Perhaps that is why you and I get along so well together: we are both morons."
He started to protest, but she silenced him with a gesture and hurried on. "I am not supposed to tell you this, but I want you to know that your examination to-day has resulted in a complete change in their plans for the expedition to the surface. They have consulted with the leaders of our masters, and they agree with them."
She was plainly agitated.
"What is it, dear?" asked Abbot, with ominous foreboding.
Milli continued: "Early during your test, when you demonstrated that you couldn't do the very simplest mathematical problems in your head, they began to doubt your boastings that you are a scientist. But you were so ingenuous in your answers about conditions on the surface, that finally their faith in your honesty returned. If you are a scientist among men, as they now believe, then the average run of your people must be mere animals. This explains what has puzzled them before; namely, how the people of the earth tolerate poverty and unemployment and crime, and disease and war."
"And so a mere handful of our people, by purely peaceful means, could easily make themselves the rulers of the earth. Probably this would be all for the best; but somehow, my feelings tell me that it is not. I know only too well what it is to be an inferior among intelligent beings; so will not your people be happier, left alone to their stupidity, just as I would be?"
George Abbot was crushed. This frank acceptance by Milli of the alleged fact that he was a mere moron, was most humiliating. And swiftly he realized what a real menace to the earth, was this contemplated invasion from the deeps.
All that was worst in the world above would taint these intellectual giants of the undersea. They would rise to supremacy, and then would become rapacious tyrants over those whom they would regard as being no more than animals.
He had witnessed jealousies among them down below. Might not these jealousies flame into huge wars when translated to the world above? Giants striving for mastery, using the human cattle as cannon fodder! He painted to the girl a word-picture of the horrible vision which he foresaw.
The invasion must be stopped at all costs! He and Milli must pit their puny wits against these supermen!
But what could they do? As they were pondering this problem, a girl entered their sitting room—the same who had brought Abbot's breakfast on his first day in the caves. Milli introduced George to the newcomer, whose name was Romehl.
Romehl appeared so woebegone that the young American ventured to inquire if she too had been having difficulty with one of her tests. But that was not the trouble; hers was rather of the heart.
About the same age as Milli, Romehl had recently passed her twentieth birthday test and hence was eligible to marry; so she and a young man named Hakin had requested the fish-masters to give them the requisite permission. But their overlords for some reason had peremptorily denied the request. Romehl and Hakin were desolate.
Young Abbot's sympathies were at once aroused.
"Can't something be done?" he started to ask.
But Milli silenced him with a warning glance. "Of course not!" she said. "Who are we to question the judgment of our all-knowing masters?"
Romehl had really come to Milli just to pour her troubles into a friendly ear, rather than because she hoped to get any helpful ideas. So she had a good cry, and finally left, somewhat comforted.
George and Milli then took up again the problem of saving the outer earth from the threatened invasion. Milli suggested that they go peaceably with the expedition, and then warn the authorities of America at the first opportunity after their arrival; but Abbot pointed out that this would merely result in their both being shut up in some insane asylum, as no one would believe such a crazy story as theirs.
The time for lights to be put out arrived without their thinking of any better idea.
Next day Milli spent considerable time with Dolf, and on her return excitedly informed Abbot that he had evolved a most diabolical plot. There were sufficient quantities of explosives in storage to blast a hole through the wall of the caves, letting in the sea and killing everyone in the city. Dolf planned to set this off with a time fuse, upon the departure of the expedition. Thus Thig and the people who were left behind—about two-thirds of the total population of the city—would be destroyed, and the fish would have no one to send after Dolf and his followers to dictate to them on the upper earth.
Relieved of the thraldom of the fish, Dolf could make himself Emperor of the World, and rule over the human cattle, with Milli at his side as Empress. An alluring program—from Dolf's point of view.
"I didn't expect such treason even from Dolf!" exclaimed the young American. "We must tell Thig!"
"What good would that do?" remonstrated the girl. "If you failed to convince Thig, Dolf would make an end of us both. And if you convinced Thig, it would mean the end of Dolf, whose influence is all that keeps me alive. We must think of something else."
"Right, as always," replied Abbot.
A growl came from the doorway. It was Dolf, his bearded face black with wrath.
"So?" he sputtered. "Treachery, eh?"
He whistled twice and two guards appeared.
"Take them to the prison!" he raged, indicating Abbot and Milli. "Our expedition will have to do without a guide. I have learned enough of the American language to make a good start, and I guess I can pick up another guide when we reach the surface." Then, bending close to the frightened girl, he whispered, "And another Empress."
The guards hustled them away and locked them up. As an added precaution, a sentinel was posted in front of each cell door.
Abbot immediately got busy.
"Can you get word for me at once to Thig?" he whispered to the man on guard.
"Perhaps," replied that individual non-committally.
"Then tell him," said Abbot, "that I have proof that Dolf is planning to destroy this city behind him, and never return from the surface."
The sentry became immediately agitated.
"So you know this?" he exclaimed. "How did it leak out? But—through Milli, of course. And the guard on her cell is not a member of the expedition! Curses! I must get word to Dolf, and have that guard changed at once."
And he darted swiftly away.
The young prisoner was plunged into gloom. Now he'd gone and done it! Why hadn't he first made appropriate inquiries of his guard?
A new guard appeared in front of the door.
"Are you going on the expedition?" asked Abbot.
"Yes, worse luck," replied the guard.
The prisoner forgot his own gloom, in his surprise at the gloominess of the other.
"Don't you want to go?" he exclaimed incredulously.
"Do you know Romehl?" asked the guard.
"Yes," Abbot replied.
"Well, that's why."
"Then you must be Hakin!" exclaimed Abbot, with sudden understanding.
"Yes," replied the other dully.
"You are going on the expedition, and Romehl is not?"
"Say, look here!" exclaimed Abbot, and then he launched into the description of a plan, which just that moment had occurred to him, for him, Milli, Romehl and Hakin to make their getaway ahead of the expedition—in fact, that very night—and to set off the time-fuse before leaving.
It turned out that Hakin knew where the explosives were planted, and where the submarines were kept, and even how to operate them. He eagerly accepted the plan; and when next relieved as sentinel, he hurried away to inform Romehl.
Three hours later he was back on post. Quickly he explained to his prisoner all about the workings of the submarines of the expedition. The lights-out bell rang, and all the city became dark, except for dim lights in the passageways. Hakin at once unlocked the door of Abbot's cell, and together the two young men sneaked down the corridor to the cell where Milli was confined.
Silently Hakin and Abbot sprang upon the guard and throttled him; then released Milli. There was no time for more than a few hurried words of explanation before the three of them left the prison and made for the locks of the subterranean canal, picking up Romehl at a preappointed spot on the way.
The canal locks were unguarded, as well as the storerooms of the submarines. Each of the rooms held two subs, and could open onto the second lock and be separately flooded.
The submarines were of steel as thick as Abbot's bathysphere. Their shape was that of an elongated rain drop, with fins. In the pointed tip of their tails were motors which could operate at any pressure. At the front end were quartz windows. In the top fin was an expanding device which could be filled with buoyant gas, produced by chemicals, when the craft neared the surface. Each submarine also contained a radio set, so tuned as to be capable of opening and closing the radio-controlled gates of the locks. Each would carry comfortably two or three persons.
Having picked out two submarines and found them to be in order, Hakin sneaked back into the corridor to set off the time-fuse, leaving his three companions in the dark in the storeroom. Abbot put a protecting arm around Milli, while Romehl snuggled close to her other side.
Their hearts were all racing madly with excitement, and this was intensified when they heard Hakin talking with someone just outside their door.
Then Hakin returned unexpectedly.
"Something terrible has happened!" he breathed. "The explosives have been discovered and are gone. One of the expedition men has just informed me. Someone must have gotten word to Thig—"
"Why, I did," interrupted Milli. "I told my guard, just before they came and changed him."
Hakin continued hurriedly: "So Dolf plans to leave at once. He is already rounding up his followers. Come on! We must get out ahead of him!"
An uproar could be heard drawing near in the corridor outside. Abbot opened the door and peered out; then shut it again and whispered, "The two factions are fighting already."
"Then come on!" exclaimed Hakin.
As he spoke he turned on the lights, wedged the door tight against its gaskets and threw the switch which started the water seeping into the storeroom; then he led Romehl hurriedly to one of the two submarines, while George and Milli rushed to the other. Heavy blows sounded against the storeroom door.
The water rapidly rose about them, and the four friends crawled inside the two machines and clamped the lids tight. Then they waited for sufficient depth, so that they could get under way.
The water rose above their bow windows, but suddenly and inexplicably it began to subside again. A man waded by around the bow of Abbot's machine.
"They've crashed in the door, and are pumping out the water again!" exclaimed Abbot. "We're trapped!"
"Not yet!" grimly replied the girl at his side. "Can you work the radio door controls?"
"Then quick! Open the doors into the lock!"
He pressed a button. Ahead of them two gates swung inward, followed by a deluge of water.
"Come on!" spoke the girl. "Full speed ahead, before the water gets too low."
Abbot did so. Out into the lock they sped, in the face of the surging current. Then Abbot pushed another button to close the gates behind them. But the water continued to fall, and they grounded before they reached the end of the lock. Quite evidently the rush of the current had kept the doors from closing behind them. The city was being flooded through the broken door of the storeroom.
But Abbot opened the next gate, and again they breasted the incoming torrent. This time, although the level continued to fall, their craft did not quite ground.
"They must have got the gates shut behind us at last," said he, as he opened the next set and pressed on.
And then he had an idea. Why not omit to close any further gates behind him? As a result, the sea pressure would eventually break down the inmost barriers, and destroy the city as effectively as Dolf's bomb would have done. But he said nothing to Milli of this plan: she might wish to save her people.
Gate after gate they passed. This was too simple. A few more locks and they would be out in open water. The submarine of Hakin and Romehl swept by—evidently to let George and Milli know their presence—and then dropped behind again. But was it their two friends after all? It might have been some enemy! They could not be sure.
This uncertainty cast a chill of apprehension over them, which was immediately heightened by the sudden extinguishing of the overhead lights of the tunnel. Abbot pressed the radio button for the next set of locks, but they did not budge.
"What can be the matter?" he asked frantically.
"My people must have turned off the electric current," Milli replied. "The gates won't open without electricity to feed the motors. We're trapped again."
For a moment they lay stunned by a realization that their escape was blocked.
"Kiss me good-by, dear," breathed Milli. "This is the end."
As the young man reached over to take her in his arms, the submarine was suddenly lifted up and spun backward, end over end: then tumbled and bumped along, as though it were a chip on an angry mountain torrent.
Stunned and bruised and bleeding, the young American finally lost consciousness….
When he came to his senses again, his first words were, "Milli, where are you?"
"My darling!" breathed a voice at his side. "Are you all right?"
"Yes," he replied. "Where are we? What has happened?"
"The entire system of locks must have crashed in and flooded the city," said she.
Instantly Abbott's mind grasped the explanation of this occurrence: their leaving open so many gates behind them had made it impossible for the few remaining gates ahead to withstand the terrific pressures of the ocean depths, and they had crumpled. But he did not tell Milli his part in this.
She continued, "I was pretty badly shaken up myself, but I've got this boat going again, and we're on our way out of the tunnel. See—I've found out how to work our searchlight."
He looked. A broad beam of light from their bow, illuminated the tunnel ahead of them.
Presently another beam appeared, shooting by them from behind.
"Hakin and Romehl!" exclaimed the girl. "Then they're safe, too!"
The tunnel walls grew rough, then disappeared. They were out in the open sea at last, although still one mile beneath the surface.
But in front of them was an angry seething school of the man-sharks, clearly illumined by the two rays of light. Behind the sharks were a score or more of serpentine steeds.
The sharks saw the two submarines and charged down upon them; but Milli, with great presence of mind, shut off her searchlight and swung sharply to the left.
"Up! Up!" urged the young man, so she turned the craft upward.
On and on they went, with no interference. Presently they turned the light on again, so as to see what progress they were making. But they were making absolutely none! They were merely standing on their tail. They had reached a height of such relatively low pressure that it took all the churning of their propeller just merely to counteract the great weight of their submarine.
Abbot switched on their chemical gas supply, and as their top fin expanded into a balloon they again began to rise.
One thing, however, perplexed the young man: the water about him seemed jet black rather than blue. They must by now be close to the surface of the sea, where at least a twilight blue should be visible. Even at the one mile depth in his bathysphere, the water had been brilliant, yet here, almost at the surface, he could see absolutely nothing.
He switched on the searchlight again to make sure that their window wasn't clouded over; but it wasn't.
Then suddenly a rippling veil of pale silver appeared ahead; then a blue-black sky and twinkling stars. They had reached the surface, and it was night.
He pointed out the stars to the girl at his side, then swung the nose of the submarine around and showed her the moon.
Where next? George Abbot picked out his position by the stars and headed east. East across the Pacific, toward America.
But soon he noticed that their little craft was dropping beneath the surface. He kept heading up more and more; he threw the lever for more and more chemical gas; yet still they continued to sink.
"Milli!" he exclaimed, "we've got to get out of here!"
She clutched him in fear, for to her the pressure of the open sea meant death, certain death. But he pushed her firmly away, and unclamped the lid of the submarine. In another instant he had hauled her out and was battling his way to the surface, while their little boat sunk slowly beneath them.
Milli was an experienced swimmer, for the undersea folk enjoyed the privilege of a large indoor pool. As soon as she found that the open sea did not kill her, she became calm.
Side by side they floated in the moonlight. The sky began to pink in the east. Dawn came, the first dawn that Milli had ever seen.
Suddenly she called George's attention to two bobbing heads some distance away in the path of light the rising sun made on the ocean.
"Hakin and Romehl!" he exclaimed. Long since they had given them up for dead; but evidently fate had treated them in much the same way as themselves.
And a moment later his own salt-stung eyes noticed a long gray shape to one side.
As the day brightened, Abbot suddenly noticed a large bulking shape nearby.
It was his own boat!—the one which had lowered him into the depths in his bathysphere so many weeks and weeks ago! Evidently it was still sticking around, grappling for his long dead body.
"Come on, dear," said he, and side by side they swam over to it.
He helped her up the ship's ladder. The ship's cook sleepily stuck his head out of the galley door.
"Hullo, Mike," sang out George Abbot merrily to the astonished man. "I've brought company for breakfast. And there'll be two more when we can lower a boat."
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Various. 2010. Astounding Stories of Super-Science, August 1931. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved May 2022 from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/33016/33016-h/33016-h.htm#The_Danger_from_the_Deep
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