Title: Out of the sea
Author: Leigh Brackett
Illustrator: John Giunta
Release date: August 9, 2022 [eBook #68718]
Original publication: United States: Fictioneers, Inc, 1942
Credits: Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Astonishing Stories, June 1942.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
The Hordes from Below
Anyone but Webb Fallon would have been worried sick. He was down to his last five dollars and quart of Scotch. His girl Madge had sketched him categorically in vitriol, and married somebody else. His job on the Los Angeles Observer was, like all the jobs he'd ever had, finally, definitely, and for all time, cancelled.
Being Webb Fallon, he was playing a fast game of doubles on the volley-ball court at Santa Monica Beach, letting the sun and the salt air clear off a hangover.
When he came off the court, feeling fine and heading for the water, big Chuck Weigal called to him.
"So the Observer finally got wise to you, huh? How come?"
Fallon grinned, his teeth white against the mahogany burn of his hard, lean oval face. His corded body gleamed in the hot sun, and his slanting grey-green eyes were mockingly bright.
"If you must know," he said, "I was busy drowning my sorrows on the night of the big quake, two weeks ago. I didn't know anything about it until I read the papers next morning. The boss seemed to think I was a little—er—negligent."
Weigal grunted. "I don't wonder. A quake as bad as the 'Frisco one, and you sleep through it! Phew!"
Fallon grinned, and went on. About half-way down the beach a bright yellow bathing suit caught his eye. He whistled softly and followed it into the water. After all, now that Madge was gone....
He knew the girl by sight. Fallon had an eye for blonde hair and Diana-esque figures. That was one thing Madge and he had fought about.
The girl swam like a mermaid. Fallon lengthened his stroke, came up beside her, and said, "Hello."
She blinked salt water out of sapphire blue eyes and stared. "I know you," she said. "You're Webb Fallon."
"You needn't be. I know a girl named Madge, too."
"Oh." Fallon's grey-green eyes narrowed. His lean face looked suddenly ugly, like a mean dog. Or more like a wolf, perhaps, with his thin straight lips and slanting eyes.
"What did Madge tell you about me?" he asked softly.
"She said you were no good." The blue eyes studied his face. "And," added the girl deliberately, "I think she was right."
"Yeah?" said Fallon, very gently. He hadn't yet got over his cold rage at being jilted for a dull, prosperous prig. The girl's face was like a mask cut out of brown wood and set with hard sapphires. He made a tigerish, instinctive movement toward it.
A wave took them unawares, knocked them together and down in a struggling tangle. They broke water, gasping in the after-swirl.
Then, quite suddenly, the girl screamed.
It was a short scream, strangled with sea-water, but it set the hairs prickling on Fallon's neck. He looked past the girl, outward.
Something was rising out of the sea.
Webb Fallon, standing shoulder-deep in the cold water, stared in a temporary paralysis of shock. The thing simply couldn't be.
There was a snout armed with a wicked sword. That and the head behind it were recognizable as those of a swordfish. But the neck behind them was long and powerful, and set on sloping shoulders. Members like elongated fins just becoming legs churned the surface. A wholly piscine tail whipped up gouts of spray behind the malformed silver body.
Fallon moved suddenly. He grabbed the girl and started toward shore. The Thing emitted a whistling grunt and surged after them.
Waves struck them; the aftersuck pulled at their legs. They floundered, like dreamers caught in nightmare swamps. And Fallon, through the thrashing and the surf and the sea-water in his ears, began to hear other sounds.
There was a vast stirring whisper, a waking and surging of things driven up and out. There were overtones of cries from unearthly throats. Presently, then, there were human screams.
Fallon's toes found firm sand. Still clutching the girl, he splashed through the shallows. He could hear the wallowing thunder of creatures behind them, and knew that they had to run. But he faltered, staring, and the girl made a little choked sound beside him.
The shallow margin of the sea was churned to froth by a nightmare horde. The whole broad sweep of the beach was invaded by things that, in that stunned moment, Fallon saw only as confused shadows.
He started to run, toward the hilly streets beyond the beach. The creature with the swordfish snout was almost on them. A fish, out of the sea! It reared its snaky neck and struck down.
Fallon dodged convulsively. The sword flashed down and buried itself in the sand not five inches from his foot.
It never came out of the sand. A tail-less, stub-legged thing with three rows of teeth in its shark-like jaws fastened onto the creature's neck, and there was hot mammalian blood spilling out.
They ran together, Fallon and the girl. The summer crowds filling the beaches, the promenade, the hot-dog stands and bath-houses, were fighting in blind panic up the narrow streets to the top of the bluff. It was useless to try to get through. Fallon made for an apartment house.
Briefly, in clear, bright colors, he saw isolated scenes. A starfish twenty feet across wrapping itself around a woman and her stupefied child. A vast red crab pulling a man to bits with its claws. Something that might once have been an octopus walking on four spidery legs, its remaining tentacles plucking curiously at the volley-ball net that barred its way.
The din of screaming and alien cries, the roar of the crowds and the slippery, thrashing bodies melted into dull confusion. Fallon and the girl got through, somehow, to the comparative safety of the apartment house lobby.
They found an empty place by a bay window and stopped. Fallon's legs were sagging, and his heart was a leaping pain. The girl crumpled up against him.
They stared out of the window, dazed, detached, like spectators watching an imaginative motion-picture and not believing it.
There was carnage outside, on the broad sunlit beach. Men and women and children died, some caught directly, others trampled down and unable to escape. But more than men were dying.
Things fought and ate each other. Things of mad distortion of familiar shapes. Things unlike any living creature. Normal creatures grown out of all sanity. But all coming, coming, coming, like a living tidal wave.
The window went in with a crash. A woman's painted, shrieking face showed briefly and was gone, pulled away by a simple marine worm grown long as a man. The breeze brought Fallon the stench of blood and fish, drowning the clean salt smell.
"We've got to get out of here," he said. "Come on."
The girl came, numbly. Neither spoke. There was, somehow, nothing to say. Fallon took down a heavy metal curtain rod, holding it like a club.
The front doors had broken in. People trampled through in the blind strength of terror. Fallon shrugged.
"No way to get past them," he said. "Stay close to me. And for God's sake, don't fall down."
The girl's wet blonde head nodded. She took hold of the waistband of his trunks, and her hand was like ice against his spine.
Out through broken doors into a narrow street, and then the crowd spread out a little, surging up a hillside. Police sirens were beginning to wail up in the town.
Down below, the beaches were cleared of people. And still the things came in from the sea. Fallon could see over the Santa Monica Pier now, and the broad sweep of sand back of the yacht harbor was black with surging bodies.
Most of the yachts were sunk. The bell-buoy had stopped ringing.
The sunlight was suddenly dim. Fallon looked up. His grey-green eyes widened, and his teeth showed white in a snarl of fear.
Thundering in on queer heavy wings, their bodies hiding the sun, were beasts that stopped his heart in cold terror.
They had changed, of course. The bat-like wings had been broadened and strengthened. They must, like the other sea-born monsters, have developed lungs.
But the size was still there! Five to ten feet in wing-spread—and behind, the thin, deadly, whip-like tails.
Rays! The queer creatures that fly bat-like under water—now thundering like giant bats through the air!
There were flying fish wheeling round them like queer rigid birds. They had grown legs like little dragons, and long tails.
A pair of huge eels slid over the rough earth, pulled down a man and fought over the body. Policemen began to appear, and there was a popping of guns. The sirens made a mad skirling above the din.
Some of the rays swooped to the crowded beach. Others came on, scenting human food.
Guns began to crack from the cliff-tops, from the windows of apartment houses. Fallon caught the chatter of sub-machine guns. One of the rays was struck almost overhead.
It went out of control like a fantastic plane and crashed into the hillside, just behind Fallon and the girl. Men died shrieking under its twenty-foot, triangular bulk.
It made a convulsive leap.
The girl slipped in the loose rubble, and lost her hold on Fallon. The broad tentacles on the ray's head closed in like the horns of a half moon, folding the girl in a narrowing circle of death.
Fallon raised his iron curtain rod. He was irrationally conscious, with a detached fragment of his brain, of the girl's sapphire eyes and the lovely strength of her body. Her face was set with terror, but she didn't scream. She fought.
Something turned over in Fallon's heart, something buried and unfamiliar. Something that had never stirred for Madge. He stepped in. The bar swung up, slashed down.
The leathery skin split, but still the feelers hugged the girl closer. The great ray heaved convulsively, and something whistled past Fallon's head. It struck him across the shoulders, and laid him in dazed agony in the dirt.
The creature's tail, lashing like a thin long whip.
Webb Fallon got up slowly. His back was numb. There was hot blood flooding across his skin. The girl's eyes were blue and wide, fixed on him. Terribly fixed. She had stopped fighting.
Fallon found an eye, set back on one of the tentacles. He set the end of the iron rod against it, and thrust downward....
Whether it was the rod, or the initial bullet, Fallon never knew, but the tentacles relaxed. The girl rose and came toward him, and together they went up the hill.
They were still together when sweating volunteers picked them up and carried them back into the town.
Fallon came to before they finished sewing up his back. The emergency hospital was jammed. The staff worked in a kind of quiet frenzy, with a devil's symphony of hysteria beating up against the windows of the wards.
They hadn't any place to keep Fallon. They taped his shoulders into a kind of harness to keep the wound closed, and sent him out.
The girl was waiting for him in the areaway, huddled in a blanket. They had given Fallon one, too, but his cotton trunks were still clammy cold against him. He stood looking down at the girl, his short brown hair unkempt, the hard lines of his face showing sharp and haggard.
"Well," he said. "What are you waiting for?"
"To thank you. You saved my life."
"You're welcome," said Fallon. "Now you'd better go before I contaminate you."
"That's not fair. I am grateful, Webb. Truly grateful."
Fallon would have shrugged, but it hurt. "All right," he said wearily. "You can tell Madge what a little hero I was."
"Please don't leave me," she whispered. "I haven't any place to go. All my clothes and money were in the apartment."
He looked at her, his eyes cold and probing. Brief disappointment touched him, and he was surprised at himself. Then he went deeper, into the clear sapphire eyes, and was ashamed—which surprised him even more.
"What's your name?" he asked. "And why haven't you fainted?"
"Joan Daniels," she said. "And I haven't had time."
Fallon smiled. "Give me your shoulder, Joan," he said, and they went out.
Santa Monica was a city under attack. Sweating policemen struggled with solid jams of cars driven by wild-eyed madmen. Horns hooted and blared. And through it all, like banshees screaming with eldritch mirth, the sirens wailed.
"They'll declare martial law," said Fallon. "I wonder how long they can hold those things back?"
"Webb," whispered Joan, "what are those things?"
Strangely, they hadn't asked that before.
They'd hardly had time even to think it.
Fallon shook his head. "God knows. But it's going to get worse. Hear that gunfire? My apartment isn't far from here. We'll get some clothes and a drink, and then...."
It was growing dark when they came out again. Fallon felt better, with a lot of brandy inside him and some warm clothes. Joan had a pair of his slacks and a heavy sweater.
He grinned, and said, "Those never looked as nice on me."
Soldiers were throwing up barricades in the streets. The windows of Corbin's big department store were shattered, the bodies of dead rays lying in the debris. The rattle of gunfire was hotter, and much closer.
"They're being driven back," murmured Fallon.
A squadron of bombers droned over, and presently there was the crump and roar of high explosives along the beaches. The streets were fairly clear now, except for stragglers and laden ambulances, and the thinning groups of dead.
Fallon thought what must be happening in the towns farther south, with their flat low beaches and flimsy houses. How far did this invasion extend? What was it? And how long would it last?
He got his car out of the garage behind the apartment house. Joan took the wheel, and he lay down on his stomach on the back seat.
His back hurt like hell.
"One good thing," he remarked wryly. "The finance company won't be chasing me through this. Just go where the traffic looks lightest, and shout if you need me."
He went to sleep.
It was morning when he woke. Joan was asleep on the front seat, curled up under a blanket. She had spread one over him, too.
Fallon smiled, and looked out.
The first thing he noticed was the unfamiliar roar of motors overhead, and the faint crackling undertone of gunfire. They were still under siege, then, and the defenders were still giving ground.
They were parked on Hollywood Boulevard near Vine. Crowds of white-faced, nervous people huddled along the streets. The only activity was around the newsboys.
Fallon got out, stiff and cursing, and went to buy a paper. An extra arrived before he got there. The boy ripped open the bundle, let out a startled squawk, and began to yell at the top of his lungs.
A low, angry roar spread down the boulevard. Fallon got a paper, and smiled a white-toothed, ugly smile. He shook Joan awake and gave her the paper.
"There's your answer. Read it."
She read aloud: "Japs Claim Sea Invasion Their Secret Weapon!
"Only a few minutes ago, the Amalgamated Press recorded an official broadcast from Tokyo, declaring that the fantastic wave of monsters which have sprung from the ocean at many points along the Western Coast was a new war-weapon of the Axis which would cause the annihilation of American and world-wide democratic civilization.
"The broadcast, an official High Command communique, said in part: 'The Pacific is wholly in our hands. American naval bases throughout the ocean are useless, and the fleet where it still exists is isolated. In all cases our new weapon has succeeded. The Pacific states, with the islands, come within our natural sphere of influence. We advise them to submit peacefully.'"
Joan Daniels looked up at Fallon. At first there was only stunned pallor in her face. Then the color came, dark and slow.
"Submit peacefully!" she whispered. "So that's it. A cowardly, fiendish, utterly terrible perversion of warfare—something so horrible that it...."
"Yeah," said Fallon. "Save it."
He was leafing through the paper. There was a lot more—hurried opinions by experts, guesses, conjectures, and a few facts.
Fallon said flatly. "They seem to be telling the truth. Fragmentary radio messages have come in from the Pacific. Monsters attacked just as suddenly as they did here, and at about the same time. They simply clogged the guns, smothered the men, and wrecked ground equipment by sheer weight of numbers."
Joan shuddered. "You wouldn't think...."
"No," grunted Fallon. "You wouldn't." He flung the paper down. "Yah! Not an eyewitness account in the whole rag!"
Joan looked at him thoughtfully. She said, "Well...."
"They fired me once," he snarled. "Why should I crawl back?"
"It was your own fault, Webb. You know it."
He turned on her, and again his face had the look of a mean dog. "That," he said, "is none of your damned business."
She faced him stubbornly, her sapphire eyes meeting his slitted grey-green ones with just a hint of anger.
"You wouldn't be a bad sort, Webb," she said steadily, "if you weren't so lazy and so hell-fired selfish!"
Cold rage rose in him, the rage that had shaken him when Madge told him she was through. His hands closed into brown, ugly fists.
Joan met him look for look, her bright hair tangling over the collar of his sweater, the strong brown curves of cheek and throat catching the early sunlight. And again, as it had in that moment on the cliff, something turned over in Fallon's heart.
"What do you care," he whispered, "whether I am or not?"
For the first time her gaze flickered, and something warmer than the sunlight touched her skin.
"You saved my life," she said. "I feel responsible for you."
Fallon stared. Then, quite suddenly, he laughed. "You fool," he whispered. "You damned little fool!"
He kissed her. And he kissed her gently, as he had never kissed Madge.
They got breakfast. After that, Fallon knew, they should have gone east, with the tense, crawling hordes of refugees. But somehow he couldn't go. The distant gunfire drew him, the stubborn, desperate planes.
They went back, toward the hills of Bel Air. After all, there was plenty of time to run.
Things progressed as he had thought they would. Martial law was declared. An orderly evacuation of outlying towns was going forward. Fallon got through the police lines with a glib lie about an invalid brother. It wasn't hard—there was no danger yet the way he was going, and the police were badly overburdened.
Fallon kept the radio on as he drove. There was a lot of wild talk—it was too early yet for censorship. A big naval battle east of Wake Island, another near the Aleutians. The defense, for the present, was getting nowhere.
Up on the crest of a sun-seared hill, using powerful glasses from his car, Fallon shook his head with a slow finality.
The morning mists were clearing. He had an unobstructed view of Hollywood, Beverly Hills, the vast bowl of land sloping away to the sea. The broad boulevards to the east were clogged with solid black streams. And to the west....
To the west there were barricades. There were clouds of powder smoke, and fleets of low-flying planes. And there was something else.
Something like a sluggish, devouring tide, lapping at the walls of the huge M-G-M studios in Culver City, swamping the tarmac at Clover Field, flowing resistlessly on and on.
Bombs tore great holes in the restless sea, but they flowed in upon themselves and were filled. Big guns ripped and slashed at the swarming creatures. Many died. But there were always more. Many, many more.
The shallow margin of the distant ocean was still churned to froth. Still the things came out of it, surging up and on.
Fighting, spawning, dying—and advancing.
Joan Daniels pressed close against him, shuddering. "It just isn't possible, Webb! Bombers, artillery, tanks, trained soldiers. And we can't stop them!" She stiffened suddenly. "Webb!" she cried. "Look there!"
Where the bombers swooped through the smoke, another fleet was coming. A fleet of flat triangular bodies with bat-like wings, in numbers that clouded the sun. Rays, blind and savage and utterly uncaring.
Machine guns brought them down by the hundred, but more of them came. They crashed into heavy ships, fouled propellers, broke controls.
Joan looked away, "And there are so few planes," she whispered.
Fallon nodded. "The whole coast is under attack, remember, from Vancouver to Mexico. There just aren't enough men, guns, or planes to go round. More are coming from the east, but...." He shrugged and was silent.
"Then—then you think we'll have to surrender?"
"Doesn't look hopeful, does it? Japan in control of the Pacific, and this here. We'll hold out for a while, of course. But suppose these things come out of the sea indefinitely?"
"We've got to assume they can." Joan's eyes were dark and very tired. "What's to prevent Japan from loaning her weapon to her friends? Think of these things swarming in over England."
"War," said Fallon somberly. "A hell of a long, rotten war."
He leaned against the car, his grey-green eyes half closed. The breeze came in from the sea, heavy with the stench of amphibian bodies. The radio droned on. The single deep line between Fallon's straight brows grew deeper. He began to talk, slowly, to Joan.
"The experts say that the Little Brown Brothers must have some kind of a movable projector capable of producing rays which upset the evolutionary balance and cause abnormal growth. Rays like hard X-rays, or the cosmic rays that govern reproduction.
"California Tech has dissected several types of monsters. They say that individual cell groups are affected, causing spontaneous growth in living individuals, and that metabolism has been enormously speeded, so that life-cycles which normally took years now take only a few weeks.
"They also say that huge numbers—the bulk of these creatures—are mutants, new individuals changed in the egg or the reproductive cell. All these monsters are growing and spawning at a terrific tempo. Billions of eggs, laid and hatched, even with the high mortality rate.
"They're evolving, at a fantastic rate of speed. They're growing legs and lungs and becoming mammals. They're coming out of the sea, just as our ancestors did millions of years ago. They're coming fast, and they're hungry."
He fixed the girl suddenly with a bright, sharp stare.
"Do you think a thing as big as that is man-made?"
There was a grim, stony weariness in her face. "The Japanese say so. What other explanation is there?"
"But," said Fallon, "why not South America, too?"
"They were probably afraid the monsters might get out of hand and tackle their own people," said Joan bitterly.
"Maybe." Again Fallon's eyes were distant. Then he clapped his hands sharply and sprang up. "Yes! Got it, Joan!"
The quick motion ripped at the wound across his back. He swayed and caught her shoulder, but he didn't stop talking.
"Einar Bjarnsson! He was my last job. I interviewed him the day before the quake. I want to see him, Joan. Now!"
She took his wrists, half frightened. "What is it, Webb?"
"Listen," he said softly. "Remember the radio calls from the islands? The monsters came out of the west here, didn't they? Well, out there—they came out of the east!"
Fallon explained, as he sent the car screaming perilously along winding mountain roads. Einar Bjarnsson was an expert on undersea life. He had charted tide paths and sub-sea 'rivers,' mapped the continental shelves and the great deeps.
Bjarnsson's recent exploration had been in the Pacific, using a specially constructed small submarine. His findings on deep-sea phenomena had occupied space in scientific journals and the Sunday supplements of newspapers throughout the world.
Two days before the big quake Einar Bjarnsson returned to the place he called home—a small bachelor cabin on a hilltop, crammed with scientific traps and trophies of his exploring. Webb Fallon drew the assignment of interviewing him.
"I was pretty sore at Madge, then," Fallon confessed, "and I had a ferocious hangover. The interview didn't go so well. But I remember Bjarnsson mentioning something about a volcanic formation quite close to the Pacific coast—something nobody had noticed before. It was apparently extinct, and the only thing that made it notable was its rather unusual conformation."
Joan stared at him. "What's that got to do with anything?"
Fallon shrugged. "Maybe nothing. Only I recall that the epicenter of the recent quake was somewhere in the vicinity of Bjarnsson's volcano. I remember that damned quake quite well, because it cost me my job."
Joan opened her mouth and closed it again, hard. Fallon grinned.
"You were going to tell me it wasn't the quake, but my own bad character," he said mockingly.
There was something grim in the upthrust lines of her jaw. "I can't make you out, Webb," she said quietly. "Sometimes I think there's good stuff in you—and then I think Madge was right!"
Fallon's dark oval face went ugly, and he didn't speak again until Bjarnsson's house came in sight.
Fallon stopped the car and got out stiffly, feeling suddenly tired and disinterested. He hesitated. Why bother with a crazy hunch? The rolling crash of gunfire was getting closer. Why not forget the whole thing and go while the going was good?
He realized that Joan was watching him with sapphire eyes grown puzzled and hard. "Damn it!" he snarled. "Stop looking at me as though I were a bug under glass!"
Joan said, "Is that Bjarnsson in the doorway?"
For the third time Fallon's hands clenched in anger. Then he turned sharply, white about the lips with the pain it cost him, and strode up to the small rustic cabin.
Einar Bjarnsson remembered him. He stood aside, a tall stooped man with massive shoulders and a gaunt, cragged face. Coarse fair hair shot with grey hung in his eyes, which were small and the color of frozen sea-water.
He said, in a deep, slow voice, "Come in. I have been watching through my telescope. Most interesting. But it gets too close now. I am surprised you are here. Duty to your paper, eh?"
Fallon let it pass. He might get more out of Bjarnsson if the explorer thought he was still with the Observer. And then the thought struck him—what was he going to do if his hunch was right?
Nothing. He had no influence. The statesmen were handling things. Suppose Japan did take the Pacific States? Suppose there was a war? He couldn't do anything about it. Let the big boys worry. There'd be a beach somewhere that he could comb in peace.
He made a half turn to go out again. Then he caught sight of a map on the far wall—a map of the Pacific.
Something took him to it. He put his finger on a spot north and east of the Hawaiian Islands. And even then he couldn't have said why he asked his question.
"Your volcanic formation was about here, wasn't it, Bjarnsson?"
The tall Norseman stared at him with cold shrewd eyes. "Yes. Why?"
"Look here." Fallon drew a rough circle with his fingertip, touching the Pacific Coast, swinging across the ocean through the Gilberts and the Marshalls, touching Wake, and curving up again to Vancouver.
"The volcanic formation is the center of that circle," Fallon said. "It was also the epicenter of the recent quake, according to Cal-Tech seismologists. That's what gave me the hunch. The monsters seem to be fanning out in a circle from some central point located about there."
"That is already explained," said Bjarnsson. "The Japanese may have their projector located there. And why not?"
"No reason at all," Fallon admitted. "You mentioned, in your interview, something about a Japanese ocean survey ship coming up just as you left. That ship might still have been near there at the time of the quake, mightn't it?"
"It is possible. Go on." There was a little sharp flame flickering in Bjarnsson's eyes.
Fallon said, "Could these super-evolutionary rays be caused by volcanic action?"
Bjarnsson's grey-blond shaggy brows met, and the flame was sharper in his eyes. "Fantastic. But so is this whole affair.... Yes! If an area of intense radioactivity were uncovered by an earth-shift, the sea and all that swims in it might be affected."
"Ah!" Fallon's lips were drawn in a tight grin. "Suppose the officers of the Japanese ship saw the beginnings of the effect. Suppose they radioed home, and someone did some quick thinking. Suppose, in short, that they're lying."
"Ja," whispered Bjarnsson. "Let us think."
"I've already thought," said Fallon. "Two weeks would give them time to arrange everything. The important thing is this—if the force is man-made, even destroying the projector won't do any good. They'll have others. But if it were a natural force, the psychological aspect of the thing alone would be tremendous. There'd be a chance of doing something."
The explorer's deep light eyes glinted. "Our people would fight better if it was something they could fight." He swung to the big telescope mounted in the west windows. "Bah! It gets worse. Those creatures, they don't know when they are dead. And the way they come! We must go soon."
He swung back to Fallon. "But how to find out if you are right?"
"You have a submarine," said Fallon.
"So has the Navy."
"But they're all needed. Yours can go where the big ones can't—and go deeper. These monsters are all heading for land, which means they gravitate to the surface. You might get through below."
"Yes." Bjarnsson strode up and down the cluttered room. "We could take a depth charge. If we found the volcano to be the cause, we might close the fissure.
"Time, Fallon! That is the thing. A few days, a few weeks, and the sheer pressure of these hordes will have forced the defenders back to the mountains and the deserts. Civilian morale will break."
He stopped, making a sharp gesture of futility. "I am forgetting. The radiations, Fallon. Without proper insulation, we would evolve like the sea-things. And it would take many days to make lead armor for us, even if we could get anyone to do the work."
"Radiations," said Fallon slowly. "Yeah. I'd forgotten that. Well, that stops that. Projector or volcano, you'd never reach it."
He brushed a hand across his eyes, all his brief enthusiasm burned away. He was getting like that. He wished he had a drink.
"Probably all moonshine, anyway," he said. "Anyhow, there's nothing we can do about it."
"Nothing!" Joan Daniels spoke so sharply that both men started. "You mean you're not even going to try?"
"Bjarnsson can pass the idea along for what it's worth."
"You know what that means, Webb! The idea would be either laughed at or pigeonholed, especially with the Jap propagandists doing such a good job. The government's got a war on its hands. Even if someone did pay attention, nothing would be done until too late. It never is."
She gripped his arms, looking up at him with eyes like sea-blue swords.
"If there's a bare chance of saving them, Webb, you've got to take it!"
Fallon looked down at her, his wolf's eyes narrowed.
"Listen," he said. "I'm not a fiction hero. We've got an Army, a Navy, an air force, and a secret service. They're getting paid for risking their necks. Let them worry. I had a hunch, which may not be worth a dime. I passed it along. Now I'm going to clear out, before anything more happens to me."
Joan's face was cut, sharp and bitter, from brown wood. Her eyes had fire in them, way back.
"Your logic," she whispered, "is flawless."
"I saved your life," said Fallon brutally. "What more do you want?"
The color drained from the brown wood, leaving it marble. Only the angry fires in her eyes lived, in the pale hard stone.
"You're remembering how I kissed you," said Fallon, so softly that he hardly spoke at all. "I don't know why I did. I don't know why I came here. I don't know...."
He stopped and turned to the door. Bjarnsson, very quietly, was picking up the phone. Fallon took the knob and turned it.
"I am sorry," said a quiet, sibilant voice. "You cannot leave. And you, sir—put down that telephone."
A small neat man with a yellow face stood on the threshold. He was holding a small, neat, efficient-looking automatic. Fallon backed into the room, hearing the click of the cradle as the phone went down.
"You are Einar Bjarnsson?" The question was toneless and purely rhetorical. The black eyes had seen the whole room in one swift flick. "I am Kashimo," said the man, and waited.
"Fallon," Webb said easily. "This is Miss Daniels. We just dropped in for a chat. Mind if we go now?"
"I am afraid ..." said Kashimo, and spread his hands. "I have been discourteous enough to eavesdrop. You have an inventive mind, Mr. Fallon. An inaccurate mind, but one that might prove disturbing to our plans."
"Don't worry," grunted Fallon. "I have no business whatsoever, and I attend to it closely. Your plans don't matter to me at all."
"Indeed." Kashimo studied him with black, bright eyes. "You are either a liar or a disgrace to your country, Mr. Fallon. But I may not take chances. You and the young lady I must, sadly, cancel out."
"And I?" Bjarnsson asked.
"You come with us," said Kashimo. Fallon saw four other small neat men outside, close behind their leader in the doorway.
He said, "What do you mean, 'cancel out'?" He knew, before Kashimo moved his automatic.
Kashimo said, "Mr. Bjarnsson, please to move out of the line of fire."
No one moved. The room was still, except for Joan's quick-caught breath. And then motion beyond the west windows caught Fallon's eye. A colder fear crawled in his heart, but his voice surprised him, it was so steady.
"Kashimo. Look out there."
The bright black eyes flicked warily aside. They widened sharply, and the cords went slack about the jaw. Fallon sprang.
He had forgotten the wound across his back. The shock of his body striking Kashimo turned him sick and faint. He knew that the little man fell, staggering the others so close behind him.
He knew that Joan Daniels was shouting, and that Bjarnsson had caught up an ebony war-club and was using it. Shots boomed in his ears. But one sound kept him from fainting—the thunder of slow relentless giant wings.
He got up in unsteady darkness. A round sallow face appeared. He struck at it. Bone cracked under his knuckles, and the face vanished. Fallon found a wall and clung to it.
Hands gripped his ankle—Kashimo's hands. Bjarnsson was outside mopping up. Fallon braced himself and drew his foot back. His toe caught Kashimo solidly under the angle of the jaw.
"Joan," said Fallon. The wings were thundering closer. Joan didn't answer. A sort of queer panic filled Fallon.
"Joan!" he cried. "Joan!"
"Here I am, Webb." She came from beyond the door, with a heavy little idol in her hand. It had blood on it. Her golden hair was tumbled and her neck was bleeding where a bullet had creased it.
Fallon caught her. He felt her wince under his hands. He didn't know quite what he wanted, except that she must be safe.
He only said, "Hurry, before those things get here."
The throb of wings was deafening. Bjarnsson came in, swinging his club. His cragged face was bloody, but his pale eyes blazed.
"Good man, Fallon," he grunted. "All right, let's go. There's a cave below here. Take their guns, young lady. We'll need them."
The sky beyond the west windows was clogged with huge black shapes. Fallon remembered the smashed windows of the department store in Santa Monica. "Joan," he said, "come here."
He put his arm around her shoulders. He might have walked all right without her, but somehow he wanted her there.
They dropped down the other side of the hill into a little brush-choked cleft. There was a shallow cave at one end.
"There go my windows," said Bjarnsson, and cursed in Swedish. "In with you, before those flying devils find us."
They were well hidden. Chances were the rays would go right over them—after they'd finished off Kashimo and his men. Bjarnsson said softly, "What did they want with me, Fallon?"
"There's only one thing they couldn't get from somebody else," returned Fallon. "Your submarine."
"Yes. The mechanisms are of my own design. They would need me to operate it. Does that mean we are right about the volcano?"
"Maybe. They'd have made plans to control it, of course. Or they may want your ship merely as a model."
There was silence for a while. Outside, heavy wings began to beat again. They came perilously low, went over, and were gone.
Einar Bjarnsson said quietly, "I'm going to take the chance, Fallon. I'm going to try to get my ship through."
"What about the radiations?"
"If Kashimo was planning to use the ship, he'll have arranged for that. Anyway, I'm going to see." His ice-blue eyes stabbed at Fallon. "I can't do it alone."
Joan Daniels said, "I'll go."
Bjarnsson's eyes flicked from one to the other. Fallon's face was dark and almost dangerous.
"Wait a minute," he said gently.
Joan faced him. "I thought you were going away."
"I've changed my mind." Looking at her, at her blue, unsympathetic eyes, Fallon wondered if he really had. Perhaps the stunning shock of all that had happened had unsettled him.
Joan put both hands on his shoulders and looked straight into his eyes. "What kind of a man are you, Webb Fallon?"
"God knows," he said. "Where do you keep your boat, Bjarnsson?"
"In a private steel-and-concrete building at Wilmington. Some of the improvements are of interest to certain people. I keep them locked safely away. Or so I thought."
Fallon rose stiffly. "Kashimo didn't come in a car, that's certain. He'd have been arrested on sight. Any place for a plane to land near here?"
The explorer shook his head. "Unless it could come straight down."
Fallon snapped his finger. "A helicopter! That's it."
He led the way out. They found the 'copter on a small level space beyond the shoulder of the hill. Fallon nodded.
"Ingenious little chaps. The ship's painted like an Army plane. Any pilot would think it was a special job and let it severely alone." He turned abruptly to Joan.
"Take my car," he told her. "Get away from here, fast. Find someone in authority and make him listen—just in case."
She nodded. "Webb, why are you going?"
"Because there isn't time to get anyone else," he told her roughly. "Because there's a story there...."
He stopped, startled at what he had said. "Yes," he said slowly, "a story. My story. Oh hell, why did you have to come along?"
He put his hands suddenly back of her head and tilted her face up, his fingers buried in the warm curls at the base of her neck.
"I was all set," he whispered savagely. "I knew all the answers. And then you showed up. If you hadn't, I'd be half-way to Miami by now. I'd still be sure of myself. I wouldn't be so damned confused, thinking one way and feeling another...."
She kissed him suddenly, warmly. "I'll make somebody listen," she said. "And then I'll wait—and pray."
Then she was gone. In a minute he heard the car start.
"Come on," he snarled at Bjarnsson. "I remember you said you fly."
A Dead Man Comes Back
It was a nightmare trip. The battle below was terribly clear. Twice they dodged flights of the giant rays, saved only because the scent of food kept the attention of the brutes on the ground.
The harbor basin at Wilmington was choked with slippery, struggling beasts. There was hardly a sign of shipping. Bjarnsson made for the flat top of a square building, completely surrounded.
A flight of rays went over just as they landed. A trap door in the roof raised and was slammed shut again.
"Now," said Fallon grimly, and jumped out.
They were almost to the trap when a ray sighted them. Fallon shot it through the eye, but others followed. Bjarnsson wrenched up the trap. A surprised yellow face peered up, vanished in a crimson smear.
Bjarnsson hauled the body out and threw it as far as he could. The rays fought over it like monstrous gulls over a fish head.
Fallen retched and followed Bjarnsson down.
There were three other men in the building. One tried to shoot it out and was killed. The others were mechanics, with no stomachs for the guns.
They looked over the sub, a small stubby thing of unusual design, and Bjarnsson nodded his gaunt shaggy head.
"These suits of leaded fabric," he said. "One big, for me. The other smaller, for Kashimo, perhaps. Can you get into it?"
Fallon grunted. "I guess so. Hey! Look there."
"Ha! A depth charge, held in the claws I use for picking specimens from the ocean floor. They have prepared well, Fallon."
"You know what that means!" Fallon was aware of a forgotten, surging excitement. His palms came together with a ringing crack.
"I was right! Kashimo was going to hold you here until the Government capitulated. Then he was going out to shut off the power. There's no projector, Bjarnsson. It was the volcano. If we can close that fissure while there's still resistance, we'll have 'em licked!"
Bjarnsson's ice-blue eyes fixed Fallon with a sharp, unwavering stare, and he spoke slowly, calmly, almost without expression.
"It will take about three days to get there, working together. One fit of cowardice or indecision, one display of nerves or temper may destroy what slight chance we have."
"You mean," said Fallon, "you wish you had someone you could depend on." He smiled crookedly. "I'll do my best, Bjarnsson."
They struggled into the clumsy lead armor and shuffled into the small control room of the submarine. Everything had been prepared in advance. In a few seconds, automatic machinery was lowering the sub into its slip.
Water slapped the hull. Bjarnsson started the motors. They went forward slowly, through doors that opened electrically.
Ballast hissed and snarled into the tanks.
Bjarnsson said, "If we can get through this first pack, into deep water, we may make it." He pointed to a knife-switch. "Pull it."
Fallon did. Nothing seemed to happen. Bjarnsson sat hunched over the controls, cold blue eyes fixed on the periscope screen. Fallon had a swift, horrible sense of suffocation—the steel wall of the sub curving low over his helmeted head, the surge of huge floundering bodies in the water outside.
Something struck the hull. The little ship canted. Fallon gripped his seat with rigid, painful hands. Bjarnsson's armored, unhuman shoulders moved convulsively with effort. Fallon felt a raw panic scream rising in his throat....
He choked it back. Heavy muffled blows shook the submarine. The motors churned and shook. Fallon was afraid they were going to stop. Sweat dripped in his eyes, misted his helmet pane.
The screws labored on. Fallon heard the tanks filling, and knew that they were going deeper. The blows on the hull grew fewer, farther between. Fallon began to breath again.
Einar Bjarnsson relaxed, just a little. His voice came muffled by his helmet. "The worst, Fallon—we're through it."
Fallon's throat was as dry as his face was wet. "But how?"
"Sometimes, in the deeps, one meets creatures. Hungry creatures, as large even as this ship. So I prepared the hull. That switch transforms us into a travelling electric shock, strong enough to discourage almost anything. I hoped it would get us through."
Thinking of what might have happened, Fallon shut his jaw hard. His voice was unnaturally steady as he asked, "What now?"
"Now you learn to operate the ship, in case something should happen to me." Bjarnsson's small blue eyes glinted through his helmet pane. "Too bad there is not a radio here, Fallon, so that you might broadcast as we go. As it is, I fear the world may miss a very exciting story."
"For God's sake," said Fallon wearily, and he wasn't swearing. "Let's not make this any tougher. Okay. This is the master switch...."
In the next twenty-four hours, Fallon learned to handle the submarine passably well. Built for a crew of two, the controls were fairly simple, once explained. Nothing else was touched. The only extra switch that mattered was the one that released the depth charge.
For an endless, monotonous hell, Fallon stood watch and watch about with Bjarnsson, one at the controls, one operating the battery of observation 'scopes, never sleeping. They saved on oxygen as a precaution, which added to the suffocating discomfort of the helmet-filters.
Black, close, nerve-rasping hours crawled by, became days. At last, Fallon, bent over the 'scope screen, licked the sweat from his thin lips and looked at Bjarnsson, a blurred dark hulk against the dim glow of the half-seen instrument panel.
Fallon's head ached. The hot stale air stank of oil. His body was tired and cramped and sweat-drenched, and the wound across his shoulders throbbed. He looked at the single narrow bunk.
There was nothing out there in the water but darkness. Even the deep-sea fish had felt the impulse and avoided the sub. Fallon got up.
"Bjarnsson," he said, "I'm going to sleep."
The explorer half turned in his seat.
"Ja?" he said quietly.
"There's nothing out there," growled Fallon. "Why should I sit and glare at that periscope?"
"Because," Bjarnsson returned with ominous gentleness, "there might be something. We will not reach the volcano for perhaps ten hours. You had better watch."
Fallon's hard jaw set. "I can't go any longer without sleep."
Bjarnsson's cragged face was flushed and greasy behind his helmet, but his eyes were like glittering frost.
"All the whisky and the women," he whispered. "They make you soft, Fallon. The girl would have been better."
A flashing glimpse of Joan as she had looked in the car that morning crossed the eye of Fallon's mind—the tumbled fair hair and the sunlight warm on throat and cheek, and her voice saying, "You wouldn't be bad, Webb ... so lazy and so hell-fired selfish!"
He cursed and started forward. The dark blur of Bjarnsson rose, blotting out the green glow. And then the panel light rose in a shuddering arc.
Fallon thought for a moment that he was fainting. The low curve of the hull spun about. He knew that he fell, and that he struck something, or that something struck him. All orientation was lost. His helmet rang against metal like a great gong, and then he was sliding down a cluttered slope.
A blunt projection ripped across his back. Even through the leaded suit, the pain of it made him scream. He heard the sound as a distant, throttled echo. Then even the dim green light was gone.
The screen flickered abominably. It showed mostly a blurred mob of people, trampling back and forth. Then it steadied and there was a picture, in bright, gay colors.
A starfish twenty feet across wrapping itself around a woman and her stupefied child.
"We saw that," said Fallon. "On the beach. Remember?"
He thought Joan answered, but there was another picture. A vast red crab, pulling a man to bits with its claws. And after that, the shrieking woman outside the broken window, dragged down by a worm.
"Wonder who got those shots?" said Fallon. Again Joan answered, but he didn't hear her. The pictures moved more rapidly. Rays, black against the blue sky. Planes falling. Guns firing and firing and choking to silence. People, black endless streams of them, running, running, running.
Joan pulled at him. Her face was strangely huge. Her eyes were as he had first seen them, hard chips of sapphire. And at last he heard what she was saying.
"Your fault, Webb Fallon. This might have been stopped. But you had to sleep. You couldn't take it. You're no good, Webb. No good. No good...."
Her voice faded, mixed somehow with a deep throbbing noise. "Joan!" he shouted. "Joan!" But her face faded too. The last he could see was her eyes, hard and steady and deeply blue.
"Joan," he whispered. There was a sound in his head like the tearing of silk, a sensation of rushing upward. Then he was quite conscious, his face pressed forward against his helmet and his body twisted, bruised and painful.
The first thing he saw was Einar Bjarnsson sprawled on the floor plates. A sharp point of metal had ripped his suit from neck to waist, laying his chest bare.
For a moment of panic horror, Fallon sought for tears in his own suit. There were none. He relaxed with a sob of relief, and looked up at the low curve of the hull.
It was still whole. Fallon shuddered. What product of abnormal evolution had attacked them in the moment that he had looked away? Strange he hadn't seen it coming, before.
The dim, still bulk of Einar Bjarnsson drew his gaze. Crouched there on his knees, it seemed to Fallon that the whole universe drew in and centered on that motionless body.
"I killed him," Fallon whispered. "I looked away. I might have seen the thing in time, but I looked away. I killed him."
For a long time he couldn't move. Then, like the swift stroke of a knife, terror struck him.
He was alone under the sea.
He got up. The chronometer showed an elapsed time of nearly two hours. The course, held by an Iron Mike, was steady. The beast that had attacked them must have lost interest.
Fallon clung to a stanchion and thought, harder than he had ever thought in his life.
He couldn't go on by himself. There had to be two men, to gauge distances, spot the best target, control the sub in the resultant blast. Why couldn't he forget the volcano? There were lots of islands in the Pacific, beyond the affected sphere.
He could stay drunk on palm wine as well as Scotch.
He'd never see Joan again, of course. Joan, accusing, hard-eyed, contemptuous. Joan, condemning him for murder....
Fallon laughed, a sharp, harsh bark. "Joan, hell! That was my own mind, condemning me!"
His gaze went back to Bjarnsson's body, rolling slightly with the motion of the ship. It boiled down to that. Murder. His careless, selfish murder of Bjarnsson. The murder of countless civilians. War, bitter, brutal, desperate.
Fallon drew a long, shuddering breath. His head dropped forward in his helmet, and his slanting wolf's eyes were closed. Then he turned and sat down at the controls.
The single forward 'scope field gave him vision enough to steer. Anything might attack from the sides or the stern—another beast grown incredibly huge, but not yet a lung breather.
Alone, he probably wouldn't succeed. He wouldn't live to know whether he had or not. His gloved hands clenched over the levers that would change the course, send him away to safety.
Savagely he forced his hands away. He gripped the wheel. Time slid by him, black and silent as the water outside. And then....
Something moved in the dark behind him.
Slowly, slowly, Fallon rose and turned. The veins of his lean face were like knotted cords. The hard steel of the hull held him, tight and close, smothering.
Blurred, faint movement. The soft scrape of metal against metal. He had been so sure Bjarnsson was dead. He'd been dazed and sick, he hadn't looked closely. But he'd been sure. Bjarnsson, lying so still, with his suit ripped open.
His suit ripped open. Volcanic rays would be seeping into his flesh. Rays of change—perhaps they even brought the dead to life.
There was a grating clang, and suddenly Fallon screamed, a short choked sound that hurt his throat.
Bjarnsson's face looked at him. Bjarnsson's face, with every gaunt bone, every vein and muscle and convolution of the brain traced in lines of cold white fire.
The shrouding leaden suit slipped from wide, stooped shoulders. The heart beat in pulses of flame within the glowing cage of the ribs. The coil and flow of muscles in arm and thigh was a living, beautiful rhythm of light.
"Fallon," said Einar Bjarnsson. "Turn back."
The remembered voice, coming from that glowing, pulsing throat, was the most horrible thing of all.
Fallon licked the cold sweat from his lips. "No," he said.
"Turn back, or you will be killed."
"It doesn't matter," whispered Fallon. "I've got to try."
Bjarnsson laughed. Fallon could see his diaphragm contract in a surge of flame, see the ripple of the laughter.
A wave of anger cut across Fallon's terror, cold and sane.
"I did this to you, Bjarnsson," he said. "I'm trying to make up for it. I thought you were dead. Perhaps, if you put your armor back on, we can patch it up somehow, and it may not be too late."
"But it is too late. So, you blame yourself, eh?"
"I left my post. Otherwise, you might have dodged that thing."
"Dodged it?" Tiny sparkles of light shot through Bjarnsson's brain. "Oh, ja. Perhaps." And he laughed again. "So you will not turn back? Not even for the beautiful Joan?"
Fallon's eyes closed, but the lines of his jaw were stern with anger. "Do you have to torture me?"
"Wait," said Bjarnsson. "Wait a little. Then I will know."
His voice was suddenly strange. Fallon opened his eyes. The glowing fire in the explorer's body was growing brighter, so that it blurred the lines of vein and bone and sinew.
"No," said Bjarnsson. "No need for torture. Turn back, Fallon."
God, how he wanted to! "No," he whispered. "I've got to try."
Bjarnsson's voice came to him, almost as an echo.
"We were fools, Fallon. Fools to think that we could stop this thing with a single puny bomb. Kashimo was a fool, too, but he was a gambler. But we, Fallon, you and I—we were the bigger fools."
"The kind of fools," said Fallon doggedly, "that men have always been. And damn it, I think I'd rather be the fool I am than the smart guy I was!"
Bjarnsson's laughter echoed in his helmet. Fallon had a moment's eerie feeling that he heard with his brain instead of his ears.
"Wonderful, Fallon, wonderful! You see how circumstance makes us traitors to ourselves? But there is no need for heroics. You can turn back, Fallon."
The lines of Bjarnsson's body were quite gone. He loomed against the darkness as a pillar of shining mist. Fallon's weary eyes were dazzled with it.
"No," he muttered stubbornly. "No."
Bjarnsson's voice rolled in on him suddenly, soul-shaking as an organ.
Voice—or mind? A magnificent, thundering strength.
"This is evolution, Fallon. So shall we be, a million million years from now. This is living, Fallon. It is godhood! Take off your suit, Fallon! Grow with me!"
"Joan," said Fallon wearily. "Joan, dearest."
Cosmic laughter, shuddering in his mind. And then,
"Turn back, Fallon. In an hour it will be too late."
The shining mist was dimming, drawing in upon itself. And at the core, a tiny light was growing, a frosty white flame that seared Fallon's brain.
"Turn back! Turn back!"
He fought, silently. But the light and the voice poured into him. Abruptly, something in him relaxed. He'd been so long without rest.
He knew, very dimly, that he turned and changed the course, back toward the coast of California.
From somewhere, out of the gulfs between the stars, a voice spoke to him as he lay sprawled across the control panel.
"There was no need for you to die, Fallon. Now, I can see much. It was no monster that struck us, but the first shock of a series of quakes, which will close the fissure far better than any human agency. Therefore, what happened to me was not your fault.
"And I am glad it happened. I, Bjarnsson, was growing old, I had nothing but science to hold me to Earth. Now my knowledge is boundless, and I am not confined by the fetters of the flesh. I am Mind—as some day we will all be.
"You will be safe, Fallon. The invasion will fail as the power is shut off, and America can deal with any further dangers. Marry Joan, and be happy.
"I don't know about myself, yet. The possibilities are too vast to be explored in a minute. I am not dead, Fallon. Remember that! But—" and, here Fallon heard an echo of Bjarnsson's harsh, mocking laughter—"if you should ever cease to be a fool and become again a smart guy, I shall find a way to send you back along evolution, to a stupid ape!
"I go now, Fallon. Skoal! And will you name your first-born Einar? I can see that it will be a son!"