For this one, I swapped the genders of the mad scientist and the damsel in distress and removed the genders of the butler and the protagonist. So how do you read this? As a slightly twisted love story or as something from a Twilight Zone episode?
(Based on From the Ocean’s Depths and Into the Ocean’s Depths by Sewell Peaslee Wright)
The Depths of Passion
From somewhere out on the black, heaving Atlantic, the rapid, muffled popping of a speedboat’s exhaust drifted clearly through the night.
I dropped my book and stretched, leaning back more comfortably in my chair. There was real romance and adventure! Rum-runners, seeking out their hidden port with their cargo of contraband from Cuba. Heading fearlessly through the darkness, fighting the high seas, still running after the storm of a day or so before, daring a thousand dangers for the sake of the straw-packed bottles they carried. Sea-bronzed men, with hard, flat muscles and fearless eyes; ready guns slapping their thighs as they –
Absorbed in my mental picture of these modern freebooters, the sudden alarm of the telephone startled me like an unexpected shot fired beside my ear. Brushing the cigarette ashes from my smoking-jacket, I crossed the room and snatched up the receiver.
“Hello!” I snapped ungraciously into the mouthpiece. It was after eleven by the ship’s clock on the mantelpiece, and if –
“Taylor?” The voice – Wanda Mercer’s familiar voice – rattled on without waiting for a reply. “Get in your car and come down here as fast as possible. Come just as you are, and – ”
“What’s the matter?” I managed to interrupt her. “Burglars?” I had never heard Mercer speak in that high-pitched, excited voice before; her usual speech was slow and thoughtful, almost didactic.
“Please, Taylor, don’t waste time questioning me. If it weren’t urgent, I wouldn’t be calling you, you know. Will you come?”
“You bet!” I said quickly, feeling rather a fool for ragging her when she was in such deadly earnest. “Have –”
The receiver snapped and crackled; Mercer had hung up the instant she had my assurance that I would come. Usually the very soul of courtesy and consideration, that act alone would have convinced me that there was an urgent need for my presence at The Monstrosity. That was Mercer’s own name for the impressive pile that was at once her residence and her laboratory.
I threw off the smoking-jacket and pulled on a woolen golfing sweater, for the wind was brisk and sharpish. In two minutes I was backing the car out of the garage; a moment later I was off the graveled drive and tearing down the concrete with the accelerator all the way down, and the black wind shrieking around the windshield of my little roadster.
My own shack was out of the city limits – a little place I keep to live in when the urge to go fishing seizes me, which is generally about twice a year. Mercer picked the place up for me at a song.
The Monstrosity was some four miles further out from town, and off the highway perhaps a half-mile more.
I made the four miles in just a shade over that many minutes, and clamped on the brakes as I saw the entrance to the little drive that led toward the sea, and Mercer’s estate.
With gravel rattling on my fenders, I turned off the concrete and swept between the two massive, stucco pillars that guarded the drive. Both of them bore corroded bronze plates, “The Billows,” the name given The Monstrosity by the original owner, a newly-rich dot-com billionaire.
The structure itself loomed up before me in a few seconds, a rambling affair with square-shouldered balconies and a great deal of wrought-iron work, after the most flamboyant Spanish pattern. It was ablaze with light. Apparently every bulb in the place was burning.
Just a few yards beyond the surf boomed hollowly on the smooth, shady shore, littered now, I knew, by the pitiful spoils of the storm.
As I clamped on my brakes, a swift shadow passed two of the lower windows. Before I could leap from the car, the broad front door, with its rounded top and circular, grilled window, was flung wide, and Mercer came running to meet me.
She was wearing a bathrobe, hastily flung on over a damp bathing suit, her bare legs terminating in a pair of disreputable slippers.
“Fine, Taylor!” she greeted me. “I suppose you’re wondering what it’s all about. I don’t blame you. But come in, come in! Just wait till you see him!”
“Him?” I asked, startled. “You’re not in love, by any chance, and bringing me down here like this merely to back up your own opinion of them eyes and them lips, Mercer?”
She laughed excitedly.
“You’ll see, you’ll see! No, I’m not in love. And I want you to help, and not admire. There are only Carson and myself here, you know, and the job’s too big for the two of us.” She hurried me across the broad concrete porch and into the house. “Throw the cap anywhere and come on!”
Too much amazed to comment further, I followed my friend. This was a Wanda Mercer I did not know. Usually her clean-cut, olive-tinted face was a polite mask that seldom showed even the slightest trace of emotion. Her eyes, dark and large, smiled easily, and shone with interest, but her almost beautiful mouth, beneath the long aquiline nose, seldom smiled with her eyes.
But it was her present excited speech that amazed me most. Mercer, during all the years I had known her, had never been moved before to such tempestuous outbursts of enthusiasm. It was her habit to speak slowly and thoughtfully, in her low, musical voice; even in the midst of our hottest arguments, and we had had many of them, her voice had never lost its calm, unhurried gentleness.
To my surprise, instead of leading the way to the really comfortable, although rather gaudy living room, Mercer turned to the left, towards what had been the billiard room, and was now her laboratory.
The laboratory, brilliantly illuminated, was littered, as usual, with apparatus of every description. Along one wall were the retorts, scales, racks, hoods and elaborate set-ups that demonstrated Mercer’s taste for science. On the other side of the room a corresponding workbench was littered with a tangle of coils, transformers, meters, tools and instruments, and at the end of the room, behind high black control panels, with gleaming bus-bars and staring, gaping meters, a pair of generators hummed softly. The other end of the room was nearly all glass, and opened onto the patio and the swimming pool.
Mercer paused a moment, with her hand on the knob of the door, a strange light in her dark eyes.
“Now you’ll see why I called you here,” she said tensely. “You can judge for yourself whether the trip was worth your while. Here he is!”
With a gesture she flung open the door, and I stared, following her glance, down at the great tiled salt water swimming pool.
It is difficult for me to describe the scene. The patio was small but beautifully done. Flowers and shrubs and even a few small palms grew in profusion in the enclosure, while above, through the movable glass roof – made in sections to disappear in fine weather – was the empty blackness of the sky.
None of the lights provided for the illumination of the covered patio was turned on, but all the windows surrounding the patio were aglow, and I could see the pool quite clearly.
The pool – and its occupant.
We were standing at one side of the pool, near the center. Directly opposite us, seated on the bottom of the pool, was a human figure, nude save for a great mass of tawny hair that fell about him like a silken mantle. The strangely graceful figure of a boy, one leg stretched out straight before him, the other drawn up and clasped by the interlocked fingers of his hands. Even in the soft light I could see him perfectly, through the clear water, his pale body outlined sharply against the jade green tiles.
I tore myself away from the staring, curious eyes of the figure.
“In God’s name, Mercer, what is it? Porcelain?” I asked hoarsely. The thing had an indescribably eerie effect.
She laughed wildly.
“Porcelain? Watch … look!”
My eyes followed her pointing finger. The figure was moving. Gracefully he arose to his full height. The great cloud of corn-colored hair floated down about him, falling below the knees. Slowly, with a grace of movement comparable only with the slow soaring of a gull, he came toward me, walking on the bottom of the pool through the clear water as though he floated in air.
Fascinated, I watched him. His eyes, startlingly large and dark in the strangely pale green face, were fixed on mine. There was nothing sinister in the gaze, yet I felt my body shaking as though in the grip of a terrible fear. I tried to look away, and found myself unable to move. I felt Mercer’s tense, sudden grip upon my arm, but I did not, could not, look at her.
“He – he’s smiling!” I heard her exclaim. She laughed, an excited, high-pitched laugh that irritated me in some subtle way.
The figure in the pool was smiling, and looking up into my eyes. He was very close now, within a few feet of us. He came still closer, until he was at my very feet as I stood on the raised ledge that ran around the edge of the pool, his head thrown back, staring straight up at me through the water.
I could see his teeth, very white between his coral-pink lips, and his chest rising and falling beneath the veil of pale gold hair. He was breathing water!
Mercer literally jerked me away from the edge of the pool.
“What do you think of him, Taylor?” she asked, her dark eyes dancing with excitement.
“Tell me about it,” I said, shaking my head dazedly. “He is not human?”
“I don’t know. I think so. As human as you or I. I’ll tell you all I know, and then you can judge for yourself. I think we’ll know in a few minutes, if my plans work out. But first slip on a bathing suit.”
I didn’t argue the matter. I let Mercer lead me away without a word. And while I was changing, she told me all she knew of the strange creature in the pool.
“Late this afternoon I decided to go for a little walk along the beach,” Mercer began. “I had been working like the devil since early in the morning, running some tests on what you call my telepathy-telegraph. I felt the need of some fresh sea air.
“I walked along briskly for perhaps five minutes, keeping just out of reach of the rollers and the spray. The shore was littered with all sorts of flotsam and jetsam washed up by the big storm, and I was just thinking that I would have to have someone with a truck come and clean up the shore in front of the place, when, in a little sandy pool, I saw – him.
“He was laying face down in the water, motionless, his head towards the sea, one arm stretched out before him, and his long hair wrapped around him like a half-transparent cloak.
“I ran up and lifted him from the water. His body was cold, and deathly pale, although his lips were faintly pink, and his heart was beating, faintly but steadily.
“Like most people in an emergency. I forgot all I ever knew about first aid. All I could think of was to give him a drink, and of course I didn’t have a flask on my person. So I picked him up in my arms and brought him to the house as quickly as I could. He seemed to be reviving, for he was struggling and gasping when I got here with him.
“I placed him on the bed in the guest room and poured him a stiff drink of Scotch – half a tumbler, I believe. Lifting up his head, I placed the glass to his lips. He looked up me, blinking, and took the liquor in a single draught. He did not seem to drink it, but sucked it out of the glass in a single amazing gulp – that’s the only word for it. The next instant he was off the bed, his face a perfect mask of hate and agony.
“He came at me, hands clutching and clawing, making odd murmuring or mewing sounds in his throat. It was then that I noticed for the first time that his hands were webbed!”
“Webbed?” I asked, startled.
“Webbed,” nodded Mercer solemnly. “As are his feet. But listen, Taylor. I was amazed, and not a little rattled when he came for me. I ran through the French windows out into the patio. For a moment he ran after me, rather awkwardly and heavily, but swiftly, nevertheless. Then he saw the pool.
“Apparently forgetting that I existed, he leaped into the water, and as I approached a moment later I could see him breathing deeply and gratefully, a smile of relief upon his features, as he lay upon the bottom of the pool. Breathing, Taylor, on the bottom of the pool! Under eight feet of water!”
“And then what, Mercer?” I reminded her, as she paused lost in thought.
“I tried to find out more about him. I put on my bathing suit and dived into the pool. Well, he came at me like a shark, quick as a flash, his teeth showing, his hands tearing like claws through the water. I turned, but not quickly enough to entirely escape. See?” Mercer threw back the dressing robe, and I saw a ragged tear in her bathing suit on her left side, near the waist. Through the rent three deep, jagged scratches were clearly visible.
“He managed to claw me, just once,” Mercer resumed, wrapping the robe about herself again. “Then I got out and called on Carson for help. I put Carson into a bathing suit, and we both endeavored to corner him. Carson got two bad scratches, and one rather serious bite that I have bandaged. I have a number of lacerations, but I didn’t fare so badly as Carson because I am faster in the water.
“The harder we tried, the more determined I became. He would sit there, calm and placid, until one of us entered the water. Then he became a veritable fury. It was maddening.
“At last I thought of you. I phoned, and here we are!”
“But, Mercer, it’s a nightmare!” I protested. We moved out of the room. “Nothing human can live under water and breathe water, as he does!”
Mercer paused a moment, staring at me oddly.
“The human race,” she said gravely, “came up out of sea. The human race as we know it. Some may have gone back.” She turned and walked away again, and I hurried after her.
“What do you mean. Mercer? ‘Some may have gone back?’ I don’t get it.”
Mercer shook his head, but made no other reply until we stood again on the edge of the pool.
The boy was standing where we had left him, and as he looked up into my face, he smiled again, and made a quick gesture with one hand. It seemed to me that he invited me to join him.
“I believe he likes you, Taylor,” said Mercer thoughtfully. “You’re light, light skin, light hair. Carson and I are both very dark, almost swarthy. And in that white bathing suit – yes, I believe he’s taken a fancy to you!”
Mercer’s eyes were dancing.
“If he has,” she went on, “it’ll make our work very easy.”
“What work?” I asked suspiciously. Mercer, always an indefatigable experimenter, was never above using her friends in the benefit of science. And some of her experiments in the past had been rather trying.
“I think I have what you call my telepathy-telegraph perfected, experimentally,” she explained rapidly. “I fell asleep working on it at three o’clock, or thereabouts, this morning, and some tests with Carson seem to indicate that it is a success. I should have called you to-morrow, for further tests. Nearly five years of damned hard work to a successful conclusion, Taylor, and then this merman comes along and makes my experiment appear about as important as one of those breakers rolling in out there!”
“And what do you plan to do now?” I asked eagerly, glancing down at the handsome pale face that glimmered up at me through the clear water of the pool.
“Why, try it on him!” exclaimed Mercer with mounting enthusiasm. “Don’t you see, Taylor? If it will work on him, and we can direct his thoughts, we can find out his history, the history of his people! We’ll add a page to scientific history – a whole big chapter! – that will make us famous. Why this is so big it’s swept me off my feet! Look!” And she held out a thin, aristocratic brown hand before my eyes, a hand that shook with nervous excitement.
“I don’t blame you,” I said quickly. “I’m no savant, and still I see what an amazing thing this is. Let’s get busy. What can I do?”
Mercer reached around the door into the laboratory and pressed a button.
“For Carson,” she explained. “We’ll need help. In the meantime, we’ll look over the set-up. The apparatus is strewn all over the place.”
She had not exaggerated. The set-up consisted of a whole bank of computers, each one in its own shielding copper box. On a much-drilled horizontal panel, propped up on insulators, were half a score of delicate meters of one kind and another, with thin black fingers that pulsed and trembled. Behind the panel was a tall cylinder wound with shining copper wire, and beside it another panel, upright, fairly bristling with integrated circuit boards, CPUs, and switches. On the end of the table nearest the door was still another panel, the smallest of the lot, bearing only a series of jacks along one side, and in the center a switch with four contact points. A heavy, snaky cable led from this panel to the maze of apparatus further on.
“This is the control panel,” explained Mercer. “The whole affair, you understand, is in laboratory form. Nothing assembled. Put the different antennae plug into these jacks. Like this.”
She picked up a weird contrivance built from two semi-circular pieces of spring brass, crossed at right angles. On all four ends were bright silvery electrodes, three of them circular in shape, one of them elongated and slightly curved. With a quick, nervous gesture, Mercer fitted the thing to her head, so that the elongated electrode pressed against the back of her neck, extending a few inches down her spine. The other three circular electrodes rested on her forehead and either side of her head. From the center of the contrivance ran a heavy insulated cord, some ten feet in length, ending in a simple switchboard plug, which Mercer fitted into the uppermost of the three jacks.
“Now,” she directed, “you put on this one” – she adjusted a second contrivance upon my head, smiling as I shrank from the contact of the cold metal on my skin – “and think!”
She moved the switch from the position marked “Off” to the second contact point, watching me intently, her dark eyes gleaming.
Carson entered, and stopped at Mercer’s gesture. Very nice old butler, Carson, impressive even in a bathing suit. Mercer was mighty lucky to have servants like Carson….
Something seemed to tick suddenly, somewhere deep in my consciousness.
“Yes, that’s very true: Carson is a wonderful butler.” The words were not spoken. I did not hear them, I knew them. What – I glanced at Mercer, and she laughed aloud with pleasure and excitement.
“It worked!” she cried. “I received your thought regarding Carson, and then turned the switch so that you received my thought. And you did!”
Rather gingerly I removed the thing from my head and laid it on the table.
“It’s wizardry, Mercer! If it will work as well on him….”
“It will, I know it will! – if we can get him to wear one of these,” replied Mercer confidently. “I have only three of them; I had planned some three-cornered experiments with you, Carson, and myself. We’ll leave Carson out of to-night’s experiment, however, for we need someone to operate this switch; the equipment isn’t waterproof, obviously. As it is now wired only one person transmits thoughts at a time. The other two receive. When the switch is on the first contact, Number One sends, and Numbers Two and Three receive. When the switch is on Number Two, then he sends thoughts, and Numbers One and Three receive them. And so on. I’ll lengthen these leads so that we can run them out into the pool, and then we’ll be ready. Somehow we must induce him to wear one of these things, even if we have to use force. I’m sure the three of us can handle him.”
“We should be able to,” I smiled. He was such a slim, graceful, almost delicate little thing; the thought that three strong swimmers such as ourselves might not be able to control him seemed almost amusing.
“You haven’t seen him in action yet,” said Mercer grimly, glancing up from her work of lengthening the cords that led from the antennae to the control panel. “And what’s more, I hope you don’t.”
I watched Mercer in silence as she spliced and securely taped the last connection.
“All set,” she nodded. “Carson, will you operate the switch for us? I believe everything is functioning properly.” She surveyed the panel of instruments hastily, assuring herself that every reading was correct. Then, with all three of the devices she called ansibles in her hand, their leads plugged into the control panel, she led the way to the side of the pool.
The boy was strolling around the edge of the pool, feeling the smooth tile sides with his hands as we came into view, but as soon as she saw us she shot through the water to where we were standing.
It was the first time I had seen him move in this fashion. He seemed to propel himself with a sudden mighty thrust of his feet against the bottom; he darted through the water with the speed of an arrow, yet stopped as gently as though he had merely floated there.
As he looked up, his eyes unmistakably sought mine, and his smile seemed warm and inviting. He made again that strange little gesture of invitation.
With an effort I glanced at Mercer. There was something devilishly fascinating about the boy’s great, dark, searching eyes.
“I’m going in,” I said hoarsely. “Hand me one of your head-set things when I reach for it.” Before she could protest, I dove into the pool.
I headed directly towards the heavy bronze ladder that led to the bottom of the pool for two reasons: I would need something to keep me under water, with my lungs full of air, and I could get out quickly if it were necessary. I had not forgotten the livid, jagged furrows in Mercer’s side.
Quickly as I shot to the ladder he was there before me, a dim, wavering pale green shape, waiting.
I paused, holding to a rung of the ladder with one hand. He came closer, walking with the airy grace I had noted before, and my heart pounded against my ribs as he raised one long, slim arm towards me.
The hand dropped gently on my shoulder, pressed it as though in token of friendship. Perhaps, I thought quickly, this was, with him, a sign of greeting. I lifted my own arm and returned the salutation, if salutation it were, aware of a strange rising and falling sound, as of a distant humming, in my ears.
The sound ceased suddenly, on a rising note, as though of inquiry, and it dawned on me that I had heard the speech of this strange creature. Before I could think of a course of action, my aching lungs reminded me of the need of air, and I released my hold on the ladder and let my body rise to the surface.
As my head broke the water, a hand, cold and strong as steel, closed around my ankle. I looked down. The boy was watching me, and there was no smile on his face now.
“All right!” I shouted across the pool to Mercer, who was watching anxiously. Then, filling my lungs with air again, I pulled myself, by means of the ladder, to the bottom of the pool. The restraining hand was removed instantly.
The strange creature thrust his face close to mine as my feet touched bottom, and for the first time I saw his features distinctly.
He was beautiful, but in a weird, unearthly sort of way. As I had already noticed, his eyes were of unusual size, and I saw now that they were an intense shade of blue, with a pupil of extraordinary proportion. His nose was well shaped, but the nostrils were slightly flattened and rather more elongated than I had ever seen before. The mouth was utterly fascinating, and his teeth, revealed by his engaging smile, were as perfect as it would be possible to imagine.
The great mane of hair which enveloped him was, as I have said, tawny in hue, and almost translucent, like the stems of some seaweeds I have seen. And as he raised one slim pale green hand to brush back some wisps that floated by his face, I saw distinctly the webs between his fingers. They were barely noticeable, for they were as transparent as the fins of a fish, but they were there, extending nearly to the last joint of each finger.
As his face came close to my own, I became aware of the humming, crooning sound I had heard before, louder this time. I could see, from the movement of his throat, that I had been correct in assuming that he was attempting to speak with me. I smiled back at him and shook my head. He seemed to understand, for the sound ceased, and he studied me with a little thoughtful frown, as though trying to figure out some other method of communication.
I pointed upward, for I was feeling the need for fresh air again, and slowly mounted the ladder. This time he did not grasp me, but watched me intently, as though understanding what I did, and the reasons for it.
“Bring one of your gadgets over here, Mercer,” I called across the pool. “I think I’m making progress.”
“Good!” she cried, and came running with two of the antennae, the long insulated cords trailing behind him. Through the water the boy watched him, evident dislike in his eyes. He glanced at me with sudden suspicion as Mercer handed me the two instruments, but made no hostile move.
“You won’t be able to stay in the water with him,” explained Mercer rapidly. “The salt water would short the antennae, you see. Try to get him to wear one, and then you get your head out of water, and don yours. And remember, he won’t be able to communicate with us by words – we’ll have to get him to convey his thoughts by means of mental pictures. Try to impress that on him. Understand?”
I nodded, and picked up one of the instruments. “You may fire when ready, Gridley,” I commented, and sank again to the bottom of the pool.
I touched the boy’s head with one finger, and then pointed to my own head, trying to convey to him that he could get his thoughts to me. Then I held up the antennae and placed it on my own head to show that it could not harm him.
My next move was to offer him the instrument, moving slowly, and smiling reassuringly – no mean feat under water.
He hesitated a moment, and then, his eyes fixed on mine, he slowly fixed the instrument over his own head as he had seen me adjust it upon my own.
I smiled and nodded, and pressed his shoulder in token of friendly greeting. Then, gesturing toward my own head again, and pointing upward. I climbed the ladder.
“All right, Mercer,” I shouted. “Start at once, before he grows restless!”
“I’ve already started!” he called back, and I hurriedly donned my own instrument.
Bearing in mind what Mercer had said, I descended the ladder but a few rungs, so that my head remained out of water, and smiled down at the boy, touching the instrument on my head, and then pointing to him.
I could sense Mercer’s thoughts now. She was picturing herself walking along the shore, with the stormy ocean in the background. Ahead of her I saw the pale body lying face downward in the pool. I saw her run up to the pool and lift the slim, pale figure in her arms.
Let me make it clear, at this point, that when I say that I saw these things, I mean only that mental images of them penetrated my consciousness. I visualized them just as I could close my eyes and visualize, for example, the fireplace in the living room of my own home.
I looked down at the boy. He was frowning, and his eyes were very wide. His head was a little on one side, in the attitude of one who listens intently.
Slowly and carefully Mercer thought out the whole story of her experiences with the boy until he had plunged into the pool. Then I saw again the beach, with the boy’s figure in the pool. The picture grew hazy; I realized Mercer was trying to picture the bottom of the sea. Then she pictured again the boy lying in the pool, and once again the sea. I was aware of the soft little tick in the center of my brain that announced that the switch had been moved to another contact point.
I glanced down at the boy. He was staring up at me with his great, curious eyes, and I sensed, through the medium of the instrument I wore, that he was thinking of me. I saw my own features, idealized, glowing with a strange beauty that was certainly none of my own. I realized that I saw myself, in short, as he saw me. I smiled back at him, and shook my head.
A strange, dim whirl of pictures swept through my consciousness. I was on the bottom of the ocean. Shadowy shapes swept by silently, and from above, a dim bluish light filtered down on a scene such as mortal eyes have never seen.
All around were strange structures of jagged coral, roughly circular as to base, and rounded on top, resembling an igloo. The structures varied greatly in size, and seemed to be arranged in some sort of regular order, like houses along a narrow street. Around many of them grew clusters of strange and colorful seaweeds that waved their banners gently, as though some imperceptible current dallied with them in passing.
Here and there figures moved, slim green figures that strolled along the narrow street, or at times shot overhead like veritable torpedoes.
There were both men and women moving there. The men were broader of shoulder, and their hair, which they wore to their knees, was somewhat darker in color than that of the women. Both sexes were slim, and there was a remarkable uniformity of size and appearance.
None of the strange beings wore garments of any kind, nor were they necessary. The clinging tresses were cinctured at the waist with a sort of belt of twisted orange-colored material, and some of the younger men wore bands of the same material around their brows.
Nearest of all the figures was the boy who was visualizing all this for us. He was walking slowly away from the cluster of coral structures. Once or twice he paused, and seemed to hold conversation with others of the strange people, but each time he moved on.
The coral structures grew smaller and poorer. Finally the boy trod alone on the floor of the ocean, between great growths of kelp and seaweeds, with dim, looming masses of faintly tinted coral everywhere. Once he passed close to a tilted, ragged hulk of some ancient vessel, its naked ribs packed with drifted sand.
Sauntering dreamily, he moved away from the ancient derelict. Suddenly a dim shadow swept across the sand at his feet, and he arrowed from the spot like a pale green, slim meteor. But behind him darted a black and swifter shadow – a shark!
Like a flash he turned and faced the monster. Something he had drawn from his belt shone palely in his hand. It was a knife of whetted stone or bone.
Darting swiftly downward his feet churned the yellow sand, and he shot at his enemy with amazing speed. The long blade swept in an arc, ripped the pale belly of the monster just as it turned to dart away.
A great cloud of blood dyed the water. The green figure of the boy shot onward through the scarlet flood.
Blinded, he did not see that the jutting ribs of the ancient ship were in his path. I seemed to see him crash, head on, into one of the massive timbers, and I cried out involuntarily, and glanced down at the boy in the water at my feet.
His eyes were glowing. He knew that I had understood.
Hazily, then, I seemed to visualize his body floating limply in the water. It was all very vague and indistinct, and I understood that this was not what he had seen, but what he thought had happened. The impressions grew wilder, swirled, grew gray and indistinct. Then I had a view of Mercer’s face, so terribly distorted it was barely recognizable. Then a kaleidoscopic maze of inchoate scenes, shot through with flashes of vivid, agonizing colors. The boy was thinking of his suffering, taken out of his native element. In trying to save him, Mercer had almost killed him. That, no doubt, was why he hated Mercer.
My own face appeared next, almost godlike in its kindliness and its imagined beauty, and I noticed now that he was thinking of me with my yellow hair grown long, my nostrils elongated like his own – adjusted to him own ideas of what a person should be.
I flung the instrument from my head and dropped to the bottom of the pool. I gripped both his shoulders, gently, to express my thanks and friendship.
My heart was pounding. There was a strange fascination about this boy from the depths of the sea, a subtle appeal that was answered from some deep subterranean cavern of my being. I forgot, for the moment, who and what I was. I remembered only that a note had been sounded that awoke an echo of a long-forgotten instinct.
I think I kissed him. I know his arms were about me, and that I pressed him close, so that our faces almost met. His great, weirdly blue eyes seemed to bore into my brain. I could feel them throbbing there….
I forgot time and space. I saw only that pale, smiling face and those great dark eyes. Then, strangling, I tore myself from his embrace and shot to the surface.
Coughing, I cleared my lungs of the water I had inhaled. I was weak and shaking when I finished, but my head was clear. The grip of the strange fantasy that had gripped me was shaken off.
Mercer was bending over me; speaking softly.
“I was watching,” he said gently. “I can imagine what happened. A momentary, psychic fusing of an ancient, long since broken link. You, together with all mankind, came up out of the sea. But there is no retracing the way.”
I nodded, my head bowed on my streaming chest.
“Sorry, Mercer,” I muttered. “Something got into me. Those big eyes of his seemed to tug at threads of memory … buried…. I can’t describe it….”
She slapped me on my naked shoulder, a blow that stung, as he had intended it to. It helped jerk me back to the normal.
“You’ve got your feet on the ground again, Taylor,” she commented soothingly. “I think there’s no danger of you losing your grip on terra firma again. Shall we carry on?”
“There’s more you’d like to learn? That you think he can give us?” I asked hesitantly.
“I believe,” replied Mercer, “that he can give us the history of his people, if we can only make him understand what we wish. God! If we only could!” The name of the Deity was a prayer as Mercer uttered it.
“We can try, old-timer,” I said, a bit shakenly.
Mercer hurried back to the other side of the pool, and I adjusted my head-set again, smiling down at the boy. If only Mercer could make him understand, and if only he knew what we wanted to learn!
I was conscious of the little click that told me the switch had been moved. Mercer was ready to get her message to him.
Fixing my eyes on the boy pleadingly, I settled myself by the edge of the pool to await the second and more momentous part of our experiment.
The vision was vague, for Mercer was picturing her thoughts with difficulty. But I seemed to see again the floor of the ocean, with the vague light filtering down from above, and soft, monstrous growths waving their branches lazily in the flood.
From the left came a band of men and women, looking around as though in search of some particular spot. They stopped, and one of the older men pointed, the others gathering around him as though in council.
Then the band set to work. Coral growth were dragged to the spot. The foundation for one of the semi-circular houses was laid. The scene swirled and cleared again. The house was completed. Several other houses were in process of building.
Slowly and deliberately, the scene moved. The houses were left behind. Before my consciousness now was only a vague and shadowy expanse of ocean floor, and in the sand dim imprints that marked where the strange people had trod, the vague footprints disappearing in the gloom in the direction from which the little weary band had come. To me, at least, it was quite clear that Mercer was asking whence they came. Would it be as clear to the boy? The switch clicked, and for a moment I was sure Mercer had not been able to make her question clear to him.
The scene was the interior of one of the coral houses. There were persons there, seated on stone or coral chairs, padded with marine growths. One of the occupants of the room was a very old woman; her face was wrinkled, and her hair was silvery. With her were a man and a woman, and a little boy. Somehow I seemed to recognize the child as the boy in the pool.
The three of them were watching the old woman. While her lips did not move, I could see her throat muscles twitching as the boy’s had done when he made the murmuring sound I had guessed was his form of speech.
The scene faded. For perhaps thirty seconds I was aware of nothing more than a dim gray mist that seemed to swirl in stately circles. Then, gradually, it cleared somewhat. I sensed the fact that what I saw now was what the old woman was telling, and that the majestic, swirling mist was the turning back of time.
Here was no ocean bottom, but land, rich tropical jungle. Strange exotic trees and dense growths of rank undergrowth choked the earth. The trees were oddly like undersea growths, which puzzled me for an instant. Then I recalled that the boy could interpret the old woman’s words only in terms of that which he had seen and understood. This was the way he visualized the scene.
There was a gray haze of mist everywhere. The leaves were glistening with condensed moisture; swift drops fell incessantly to the soaking ground below.
Into the scene roamed a pitiful band of people. Men with massive frames, sunken in with starvation, women tottering with weakness. The men carried great clubs, some tipped with rudely shaped stone heads, and both men and women clothed only in draped skins.
They searched ceaselessly for something, and I guessed that something was food. Now and then one or the other of the little band tore up a root and bit at it, and those that did so soon doubled into a twitching knot of suffering and dropped behind.
At last they came to the edge of the sea. A few yards away the water was lost in the dense steaming miasma that hemmed them in on all sides. With glad expressions on their faces, the party ran down to the edge of the water and gathered up great masses of clams and crabs. At first they ate the food raw, tearing the flesh from the shells. Then they made what I understood was a fire, although the boy was able to visualize it only as a bright red spot that flickered.
The scene faded, and there was only the slowly swirling mist that I understood indicated the passing of centuries. Then the scene cleared again.
I saw that same shore line, but the people had vanished. There was only the thick, steamy mist, the tropic jungle crowding down to the shore, and the waves rolling in monotonously from the waste of gray ocean beyond the curtain of fog.
Suddenly, from out of the sea, appeared a series of human heads, and then a band of men and women that waded ashore and seated themselves upon the beach, gazing restlessly out across the sea.
This was not the same band I had seen at first. These were a slimmer race, and whereas the first band had been exceedingly swarthy, these were very fair.
They did not stay long on shore, for they were restless and ill at ease. It seemed to me they came there only from force of habit, as though they obeyed some inner urge they did not understand. In a few seconds they rose and ran into the water, plunged into it as though they welcomed its embrace, and disappeared. Then again the vision was swallowed up by the swirling mists of time.
When the scene cleared again, it showed the bottom of the sea. A group of perhaps a hundred pale creatures moved along the dim floor of the ocean. Ahead I could see the dim outlines of one of their strange cities. The band approached, seemed to talk with those there, and moved on.
I saw them capture and kill fish for food, saw them carve the thick, spongy hearts from certain giant growths and eat them. I saw a pair of killer sharks swoop down on the band, and the quick, deadly accuracy with which both men and woman met the attack. One man, older than the rest, was injured before the sharks were vanquished, and when their efforts to staunch his wounds proved unavailing, they left him there and moved on. And as they left I saw a dim, crawling shape move closer, throw out a long, whiplike tentacle, and wrap the body in a hungry embrace.
They came to and passed other communities of beings like themselves, and a city of their own, in much the way that Mercer had visualized it.
Fading, the scene changed to the interior of the coral house again. The old woman finished her story, and moved off into a cubicle in the rear of the place. Dimly, I could see there a low couch, piled high with soft marine growths. Then the scene shifted once more.
A man and a woman hurried up and down the narrow streets of the strange city the boy had pictured when he showed us how he had met with the shark, and struck his head, so that for a long period he lost consciousness and was washed ashore.
Others, after a time, joined them in their search, which spread out to the floor of the ocean, away from the dwellings. One party came to the gaunt skeleton of the ancient wreck, and found the scattered, fresh-picked bones of the shark the boy had killed. The man and the woman came up, and I looked closely into their faces. The woman’s features were torn with grief; the man’s lips were set tight with suffering. Here, it was easy to guess, were the boy’s parents.
A milling mass of pale green forms shot through the water in every direction, searching. It seemed that they were about to give up the search when suddenly, from out of the watery gloom, there shot a slim pale green figure – the boy!
Straight to the mother and father he came, gripping the shoulder of each with frantic joy. They returned the caress, the crowd gathered around them, listening to him story as they moved slowly, happily, towards the distant city.
Instead of a picture, I was conscious then of a sound, like a single pleading word repeated softly, as though someone said “Please! Please! Please!” over and over again. The sound was not at all like the English word. It was a soft, musical beat, like the distant stroke of a mellow gong, but it had all the pleading quality of the word it seemed to bring to mind.
I looked down into the pool. The boy had mounted the ladder until his face was just below the surface of the water. His eyes met mine and I knew that I had not misunderstood.
I threw off the instrument on my head, and dropped down beside him. With both hands I grasped his shoulders, and, smiling, I nodded my head vigorously.
He understood, I know he did. I read it in his face. When I climbed the ladder again, he looked after me, smiling confidently.
Although I had not spoken to him, he had read and accepted the promise.
Mercer stared at me silently, grimly, as I told her what I wished. Whatever eloquence I may have, I used on her, and I saw her cold, scientific mind waver before the warmth of my appeal.
“We have no right to keep him from his people,” I concluded. “You saw his mother and father, saw their suffering, and the joy his return would bring. You will, Mercer – you will return him to the sea?”
For a long time, Mercer did not reply. Then she lifted her dark eyes to mine, and smiled, rather wearily.
“It is the only thing we can do, Taylor,” she said quietly. “He is not a scientific specimen; he is, in his way, as human as you or I. He would probably die, away from his own kind, living under conditions foreign to him. And you promised him, Taylor, whether you spoke your promise or not.” Her smile deepened a bit. “We cannot let him receive too bad an opinion of his cousins who live above the surface of the sea!”
And so, just as the dawn was breaking, we took him to the shore. I carried him, unresisting, trustful, in my arms, while Mercer bore a huge basin of water, in which his head was submerged, so that he might not suffer.
Still in our bathing suits we waded out into the ocean, until the waves splashed against our faces. Then I lowered him into the sea. Crouching there, so that the water was just above the tawny glory of his hair, he gazed up at us. Two slim pale green hands reached towards us, and with one accord, Mercer and I bent towards him. He gripped both our shoulders with a gentle pressure, smiling at us.
Then he did a strange thing. He pointed, under the water, out towards the depths and with a broad, sweeping motion of his arm, indicated the shore, as though to say that he intended to return. With a last swift, smiling glance up into my face, he turned. There was a flash of pale green through the water. He was gone…
Silently, through the silence and beauty of the dawn, we made our way back to the house.
As we passed through the laboratory, Mercer glanced out at the empty pool.
“We came up from the sea,” she said slowly, “and some of us went back to it. They were forced back to the teeming source from whence they came, for lack of food. You saw that, Taylor – saw his forebears become amphibians, like the now extinct Dipneusta and Ganoideii, or the still existing Neoceratodus, Polypterus and Amia. Then their lungs became, in effect, gills, and they lost their power of breathing atmospheric air, and could use only air dissolved in water.
“A whole people there beneath the waves that we never dreamed of – except, perhaps, the sailors of olden days, with their tales of mermaids, which we are accustomed to laugh at in our wisdom!”
“But why were no bodies ever washed ashore?” I asked. “I would think – ”
“You saw why,” interrupted Mercer grimly. “The ocean teems with hungry life. Death is the signal for a feast. It was little more than a miracle that his body came ashore, a miracle due perhaps to the storm which sent the hungry monsters to the greater depths. And even had a body come ashore it would have been buried as that of some unknown, unfortunate human. The differences between these people and ourselves would not be noticeable to a casual observer.
“No, Taylor, we have been party to what was close to a miracle. And we are the only witnesses to it, you and Carson and myself. And” – he sighed deeply – “it is over.”
I did not reply. I was thinking of the boy’s odd gesture, at parting, and I wondered if it were indeed a finished chapter.
The next year passed, as time always must. Mercer continued her experiments, sometimes with my aid and that of Carson, sometimes alone. I spent more time than ever at my little fishing hut but still spent two or three weeks each month in the city, tending to business. And suddenly, one day there was an email from Mercer. Trembling with excitement, I opened it and read it, hoping that this would be the news that I longed for.
I read the email quickly then went back and read it for the second time. Then I pressed the little button on my desk. My mind was made up.
“Fentress, I’m leaving this afternoon on an extended trip. The Florida address will reach me after Thursday. Tell Wade and Bennett to carry on. I think you have everything in hand? Is everything clear to you?”
“Yes, Boss.” Fentress was not in the least surprised, as I had gotten in the habit of making sudden trips. The outfit got along perfectly without me; sometimes I think my frequent absences are good for the business. Everyone works like the devil to make a fine showing while I’m away. And Fentress is a perfect gem of a secretary. I had nothing to worry about there.
“Fine! Will you get my diggings on the phone?” I hurriedly put my few papers in place, and signed a couple of letters. Then Smythe was on the wire.
“Smythe? Pack my bags right away, will you? For Florida. The usual things… Yes, right away. I’ll be leaving by noon… Yes, driving through.”
That was that. There were a few more letters to sign, a few hasty instructions to be given regarding one or two matters that were hanging fire. Then, on my way to my bachelor apartments, I read the email through again:
Think it worthwhile if you feel adventurous and have nothing pressing to come to the Monstrosity. Make your will first. Shall look for you any day as I know you are always looking for excitement and never have anything important to do so don’t bother to write. Perhaps we shall see him again!
I smiled at Mercer’s frank opinion of my disposition and my importance to my business. But I frowned over the admonition to make my will, and the last telling statement: “Perhaps we shall see him again.” I knew whom she meant by “him.”
Smythe had my bags waiting for me. A few hurried instructions, most of them shouted over my shoulder, and I was purring down the main drag, my duffel in the rumble, and the roadster headed due south.
“Perhaps we shall see him again.” Those words from the telegram kept coming before my eyes. Mercer knew what she was about when she put that line in. Now, Mercer said, we might see him again! How? Mercer, conservative and scientific, was not the type to make rash promises. But how…?
The best way to solve the riddle was to reach Mercer, and I broke the speed laws of five states on my trip down.
I did not even stop at my own little shack. It was only four miles from there to Mercer’s huge, rather neglected estate, built in boom times by some newly-rich promoter, and dubbed “The Monstrosity” by Mercer.
Hardly bothering to slow down, I turned off the concrete onto the long, weed-grown gravel drive, and shot between the two massive, stucco pillars that guarded the drive. Their corroded bronze plates, bearing the original title of the estate, “The Billows,” were a promise that my long, hard drive was nearly at an end.
As soon as the huge, rambling structure was fairly in sight, I pressed the flat of my hand on the horn button. By the time I came to a locked-wheel halt, with the gravel rattling on my fenders, Mercer was there to greet me.
“It’s ten o’clock,” she grinned as she shook hands. “I’d set noon as the hour of your arrival. You certainly must have made time, Taylor!”
“I did!” I nodded rather grimly, recalling one or two narrow squeaks. “But who wouldn’t, with an email like yours? You’ve got a lot to explain.”
“I know it.” Mercer was quite serious now. “Come on in and we’ll mix highballs with the story.”
Locked arm in arm, we entered the house together, and settled ourselves in the huge living room.
Mercer, I could see at a glance, was thinner and browner than when we had parted, but otherwise, she was the same lithe, soft-mannered little scientist I had known for years; dark-eyed, with an almost beautiful mouth, topped by a slim, aquiline nose.
“Well, here’s to our seaman,” proposed Mercer, when Carson had brought the drinks and departed. I nodded, and we both sipped our highballs.
“Briefly,” said my friend, “this is the story. You and I know that somewhere beneath the Atlantic there are a people who went back to whence they came. We have seen one of those people. I propose that, since they cannot come to us, we go to them. I have made preparations to go to them, and I wanted you to have the opportunity of going with me, if you wish.”
“But how, Mercer? And what – ”
She interrupted with a quick, nervous gesture.
“I’ll show you, presently. I believe it can be done. It will be a dangerous adventure, though; I was not joking when I advised you to make your will. An uncertain venture, too. But, I believe, most wonderfully worthwhile.” Her eyes were shining now with all the enthusiasm of the scientist, the dreamer.
“It sounds mighty appealing,” I said. “But how….”
“Finish your drink and I’ll show you.”
I downed what was left of my highball in two mighty gulps.
“Lead me to it, Mercer!”
She smiled her quiet smile and led the way to her laboratory in the manse’s former billiard room. The first thing my eyes fell upon were two gleaming metal objects suspended from chains let into the ceiling.
“Diving suits,” explained Mercer. “Rather different from anything you’ve ever seen.”
They were different. The body was a perfect globe, as was the head-piece. The legs were cylindrical, jointed at knee and thigh with huge discs. The feet were solid metal, curved rocker-like on the bottom, and at the ends of the arms were three hooked talons, the concave sides of two talons facing the concave side of the third. The arms were hinged at the elbow just as the legs were hinged, but there was a huge ball-and-socket joint at the shoulder.
“But Mercer!” I protested. “No human being could even stand up with that weight of metal on and around him!”
“You’re mistaken, Taylor,” smiled Mercer. “That is not solid metal, you see. And it is an aluminum alloy that is not nearly as heavy as it looks. There are two walls, slightly over an inch apart, braced by innumerable trusses. The fabric is nearly as strong as that much solid metal, and infinitely lighter. They work all right, Taylor. I know, because I’ve tried them.”
“And this hump on the back?” I asked, walking around the odd, dangling figures, hanging like bloated metal skeletons from their chains. I had thought the bodies were perfect globes; I could see now that at the rear there was a humplike excrescence across the shoulders.
“Air,” explained Mercer. “There are two other tanks inside the globular body. That shape was adopted, by the way, because a globe can withstand more pressure than any other shape. And we may have to go where pressures are high.”
“And so,” I said, “we don these things and stroll out into the Atlantic looking for the boy and his friends?”
“Hardly. They’re not quite the apparel for so long a stroll. You haven’t seen all the marvels yet. Come along!”
She led the way through the patio, beside the pool in which our strange visitor from the depths had lived during his brief stay with us, and out into the open again. As we neared the sea, I became aware, for the first time, of a faint, muffled hammering sound, and I glanced at Mercer inquiringly.
“Just a second,” she smiled. “Then – there it is, Taylor!”
I stood still and stared. In a little cove, cradled in a cunning, spidery structure of wood, a submarine rested upon the ways.
“Good Lord!” I exclaimed. “You’re going into this right, Mercer!”
“Yes. Because I think it’s immensely worthwhile. But come along and let me show you the Turtle – named after the first submersible. Come on!”
Two guards with automatics strapped significantly to their belts nodded courteously as we came up. They were the only people in sight, but from the hammering going on inside there must have been quite a sizeable crew busy in the interior. A couple of raw pine shacks, some little distance away, provided quarters for, I judged, twenty or thirty workers.
“Had it shipped down in pieces,” explained Mercer. “The boat that brought it lay to off shore and we lightered the parts ashore. A tremendous job. But it will be ready for the water in a week; ten days at the latest.”
“You’re a wonder,” I said, and I meant it.
Mercer patted the side of the submarine affectionately. “Later,” she said, “I’ll take you inside, but they’re busy as the devil in there, and the sound of the hammers fairly makes your head ring. You’ll see it all later, anyway – if you feel you’d like to share the adventure with me?”
“Listen,” I grinned as we turned back towards the house, “it’ll take more than those two pop-guns to keep me out of the Turtle when it sails – or dives, or whatever it is it is supposed to do!”
Mercer laughed softly, and we walked the rest of the way in silence. I imagine we were both pretty busy with our thoughts; I know that I was. And several times, as we walked along, I looked back over my shoulder towards the ungainly red monster straddling on spindling wooden legs – and towards the smiling Atlantic, glistening serenely in the sun.
Mercer was so busy with a thousand and one details that I found myself very much in the way if I followed her around, so I decided to loaf.
For weeks after we had put our strange young visitor back into the sea from whence Mercer had taken him, I had watched from a comfortable seat well above the high-water mark that commanded that section of shore. For I had felt sure by that last strange gesture of his that he meant to return.
I located my old seat, and I found that it had been used a great deal since I had left it. There were whole winnows of cigarette butts, some of them quite fresh, all around. Mercer, cold-blooded scientist as she was, had hoped against hope that the boy would return too.
It was a very comfortable seat, in the shade of a little cluster of palms, and for the next several days I spent most of my time there, reading and smoking – and watching. No matter how interesting the book, I found myself, every few seconds, lifting my eyes to search the beach and the sea.
I am not sure, but I think it was the eighth day after my arrival that I looked up and saw, for the first time, something besides the smiling beach and the ceaseless procession of incoming rollers. For an instant I doubted what I saw; then, with a cry that stuck in my throat, I dropped my book unheeded to the sand and raced towards the shore.
He was there! Pale green and slim, his straw gold hair clinging to his body and gleaming like polished metal in the sun, he stood for a moment, while the spray frothed at his thighs. Behind him, crouching below the surface, I could distinguish two other forms. He had returned, and not alone!
One long, slim arm shot out toward me, held level with the shoulder: the well-remembered gesture of greeting. Then he too crouched below the surface that he might breathe.
As I ran out onto the wet sand, the waves splashing around my ankles all unheeded, he rose again, and now I could see his lovely smile, and his dark, glowing eyes. I was babbling – I do not know what. Before I could reach him, he smiled and sank again below the surface.
I waded on out, laughing excitedly, and as I came close to him, he bobbed up again out of the spray, and we greeted each other in the manner of his people, hands outstretched, each gripping the shoulder of the other.
He made a quick motion then, with both hands, as though he placed a cap upon the shining glory of his head, and I understood in an instant what he wished: the antenna of Mercer’s ansible, by the aid of which he had told us the story of himself and his people.
I nodded and smiled, and pointed to the spot where he stood, trying to show him by my expression that I understood, and by my gesture, that he was to wait here for me. He smiled and nodded in return, and crouched again below the surface of the heaving sea.
As I turned toward the beach, I caught a momentary glimpse of the two who had come with him. They were a man and a woman, watching me with wide, half-curious, half-frightened eyes. I recognized them instantly from the picture he had impressed upon my mind nearly a year ago. He had brought his parents with him on his journey.
Stumbling, my legs shaking with excitement, I ran through the water. With my wet clothes flapping, I sprinted towards the house.
I found Mercer in the laboratory. She looked up as I came rushing in, wet from the shoulders down, and I saw her eyes grow suddenly wide.
I opened my mouth to speak, but I was breathless. And Mercer took the words from my mouth before I could utter them.
“He’s come back!” she cried. “He’s come back! Taylor – he has?” She gripped me, her fingers like steel clamps, shaking me with amazing strength.
“Yes.” I found my breath and my voice at the same instant. “He’s there, just where we put him into the sea, and there are two others with him – his parents. Come on, Mercer, and bring your mind gadget!”
“I can’t!” she groaned. “I’ve built an improvement on it into the diving armor, and a central instrument on the sub, but the old apparatus is strewn all over the table, here, just as it was when we used it the other time. We’ll have to bring him here.”
“Get a basin, then!” I said. “We’ll carry him back to the pool just as we took him from it. Hurry!”
And we did just that. Mercer snatched up a huge glass basin used in her chemistry experiments, and we raced down to the shore. As well as we could we explained our wishes, and he smiled his quick smile of understanding. Crouching beneath the water, he turned to his companions, and I could see his throat move as he spoke to them. They seemed to protest, dubious and frightened, but in the end he seemed to reassure them, and we picked him up, swathed in his hair as in a silken gown, and carried him, his head immersed in the basin of water, that he might breathe in comfort, to the pool.
It all took but a few minutes, but it seemed hours. Mercer’s hands were shaking as she handed me the antenna for the boy and another for myself, and her teeth were chattering as she spoke.
“Hurry, Taylor!” she said. “I’ve set the switch so that he can do the sending, while we receive. Quickly, now!”
I leaped into the pool and adjusted the antenna on his head, making sure that the four electrodes of the crossed curved members pressed against the front and back and both sides of his head. Then, hastily, I climbed out of the pool, seated myself on its edge, and put on my own antenna. Just as before, he had to convey his thoughts to us by means of mental pictures which told his story. And this is the story his pictures unfolded.
First, in sketchy, half-formed pictures, I saw him return to the village, of his people; his welcome there, with curious crowds around him, questioning him. Their incredulous expressions as he told them of his experience were ludicrous. His meeting with his parents brought a little catch to my throat, and I looked across the pool at Mercer. I knew that she, too, was glad that we bad put the boy back into the sea when he wished to go.
These pictures faded hastily, and for a moment there was only the circular swirling as of gray mist; that was the symbol he adopted to denote the passing of time. Then, slowly, the picture cleared.
It was the same village I had seen before, with its ragged, warped, narrow streets, and its row of dome-shaped houses, for all the world like coral igloos. At the outskirts of the village I could see the gently moving, shadowy forms of weird submarine growths, and the quick darting shapes of innumerable fishes.
Some few people were moving along the streets, walking with oddly springy steps. Others, a larger number, darted here and there above the roofs, some hovering in the water as gulls hover in the air, lazily, but the majority apparently on business or work to be executed with dispatch.
Suddenly, into the midst of this peaceful scene, three figures came darting. They were not like the people of the village, for they were smaller, and instead of being gracefully slim they were short and powerful in build. They were not pale green like the people of the boy’s village, but swarthy and they were dressed in a sort of tight-fitting shirt of gleaming leather – shark-skin, I learned later. They carried, tucked through a sort of belt made of twisted vegetation, two long, slim knives of pointed stone or bone.
But it was not until they seemed to come close to me that I saw the great point of difference. Their faces were scarcely human. The nose had become rudimentary, leaving a large, blank expanse in the middle of their faces that gave them a peculiarly hideous expression. Their eyes were almost perfectly round, and very fierce, and their mouths huge and fishlike. Beneath their sharp, jutting jaws, between the angle of the jaws and a spot beneath the ears, were huge, longitudinal slits that intermittently showed blood-red, like fresh gashes cut in the sides of their throats. I could see even the hard, bony cover that protected these slits, and I realized that these were gills! Here were representatives of a people that had gone back to the sea ages before the people of the boy’s village.
Their coming caused a sort of panic in the village, and the three nose-less creatures strode down the principal street grinning hugely, glancing from right to left, and showing their sharp pointed teeth. They looked more like sharks than like human beings.
A committee of five gray elders met the visitors, and conducted them into one of the larger houses. Insolently, the leader of the three shark-faced creatures made demands, and the scene changed swiftly to make clear the nature of those demands.
The village was to give a number of its finest young men and women to the shark-faced people; about fifty of each sex, I gathered, to be servants, slaves, to the shark-faced ones.
The scene shifted quickly to the interior of the house. The old men were shaking their heads, protesting, explaining. There was fear on their faces, but there was determination, too.
One of the three envoys snarled and came closer to the five elders, lifting a knife threateningly. I thought for an instant that he was about to strike down one of the villagers; then the picture dissolved into another, and I saw that he was but threatening them with what he could cause to happen.
The fate of the village and the villagers, were the demands of the three refused, was a terrible one. Hordes of the shark-faced creatures would come swarming. They would tear the houses apart, and with their long, slim pale green weapons they would kill the elders and the children. The villagers might fight desperately, but they would be outnumbered. The shark-skin kirtles of the invaders could turn the villagers’ knives like armor, and the sea would grow red with swirling blood that spread like scarlet smoke through the water. Then, this too faded, and I saw the elders cowering, pleading with the three terrible envoys.
The leader of the three shark-faced creatures spoke again. He would give them time – a short revolving swirl of gray that indicated only a brief time, apparently – and return for an answer. Grinning evilly, the three turned away, left the dome-shaped house, and darted away over the roofs of the village into the dim darkness of the distant waters.
I saw the boy, then, talking to the elders. They smiled sadly, and shook their heads hopelessly. He argued with them earnestly, painting a picture for them: Mercer and myself, as he viewed us, tall and very strong and with great wisdom in our faces. We too walked along the streets of the village. The hordes of shark-faced ones came, like a swarm of monstrous sharks, and – the picture was very vague and nebulous, now – we put them to rout.
He wished us to help him and he had convinced the elders that we could. He started out from the village along with his parents. Three times they had fought with sharks, and each time they had killed them. They had found the shore, the very spot where we had put him back into the sea. Then there was a momentary flash of the picture he had called up, of Mercer and I putting the shark-faced hordes to rout, and then, startlingly, I was conscious of that high, pleading sound – the sound that I had heard once before, when he had begged us to return him to his people.
The sound that I knew was his word for “Please!”
There was a little click. Mercer had turned the switch. She would transmit now; the boy and I would listen.
In the center of the village – how vaguely and clumsily she pictured it! – rested the Turtle. From a trap in the bottom two bulging, gleaming figures emerged. Rushing up, a glimpse through the face-plates revealed Mercer and myself. The shark-faced hordes descended, and Mercer waved something, something like a huge bottle, towards them. None of the villagers were in sight.
The shark-faced ones swooped down on us fearlessly, knives drawn, pointed teeth revealed in fiendish grins. But they did not reach us. By dozens, by scores, they went limp and floated slowly to the floor of the ocean. Their bodies covered the streets, they sprawled across the roofs of the houses. And in a few seconds there was not one alive of all the hundreds who had come!
I looked down at the boy. He was smiling up at me through the clear water, and once again I felt the strange, strong tug at my heart-strings. His great dark eyes glowed with a perfect confidence, a supreme faith.
We had made him a promise.
I wondered if it would be possible to keep it.
The next day, the Turtle was launched. Two days later, trial trips and final adjustments completed, we submerged for the great adventure.
It sounds very simple when recorded thus in a few brief lines. It was not, however, such a simple matter. Those three days were full of hectic activity. Mercer and I did not sleep more than four hours any of those three nights.
We were too busy to talk. Mercer worked frantically in her laboratory, slaving feverishly beside the big hood. I overlooked the tests of the submarine and the loading of the necessary supplies.
The boy we had taken back to his parents, giving him to understand that he was to wait. They went away, but every few hours returned, as though to urge us to greater haste. And at last we were ready, and the boy and his two companions seated themselves on the tiny deck of the Turtle, just forward of the conning tower, holding themselves in place by the chains. We had already instructed the boy in his duties: we would move slowly, and he should guide us, by pointing either to the right or the left.
I will confess I gave a last long, lingering look at the shore before the hatch of the conning tower was clamped down. I was not exactly afraid, but I wondered if I would ever step foot on solid land again.
Standing in the conning tower beside Mercer, I watched the sea rise at an angle to meet us, and I dodged instinctively as the first green wave pelted against the thick porthole through which I was looking. An instant later the water closed over the top of the conning tower, and at a gentle angle we nosed towards the bottom of the sea.
An account of the trip itself, perhaps, does not belong in this record. It was not a pleasant adventure in itself, for the Turtle, like every undersea craft, I suppose, was close, smelly, and cramped. We proceeded very slowly, for only by so doing could our guide keep his bearings, and how he found the way was a mystery to all of us. We could see but very little, despite the clearness of the water.
It was by no means a sight-seeing trip. For various reasons, Mercer had cut our crew to the minimum. We had two navigating officers, experienced submariners both, and five sailors, also experienced in undersea work. With such a short crew, Mercer and I were both kept busy.
Bonnett, the captain, was tall and dark, stooped from years in the low, cramped quarters of submarines. Duke, our second-officer, was a youngster hardly out of adolescence and as clever as they come. And although both of them, and the crew as well, must have been agog with questions, neither by word nor look did they express their feelings. Mercer had paid for obedience without curiosity, and she got it.
We spent the first night on the bottom, for the simple reason that had we come to the surface, we might have come down into territory unfamiliar to our guide. As soon as the first faint light began to filter down, however, we proceeded, and Mercer and I crowded together into the conning tower.
“We’re close,” said Mercer. “See how excited they are, all three of them.”
The three strange creatures were holding onto the chains and staring over the bulging side of the ship. Every few seconds the boy turned and looked back at us, smiling, his eyes shining with excitement. Suddenly he pointed straight down, and held out his arm in unmistakable gesture. We were to stop.
Mercer conveyed the order instantly to Bonnett at the controls, and all three of our guides dived gracefully off the ship and disappeared into the depths below.
“Let us settle to the bottom, Bonnett,” ordered Mercer. “Slowly … slowly….”
Bonnett handled the ship neatly, keeping it nicely trimmed. We came to rest on the bottom in four or five seconds, and as Mercer and I stared out eagerly through the round glass ports of the conning tower, we could see, very dimly, a cluster of dark, rounded projections cropping out from the bed of the ocean. We were only a few yards from the edge of the village.
The scene was exactly as we had pictured it, save that it was not nearly as clear and well lighted. I realized that our eyes were not accustomed to the gloom, as were those of the boy and his people, but I could distinguish the vague outlines of the houses, and the slowly swaying shapes of monstrous growths.
“Well, Taylor,” said Mercer, her voice shaking with excitement, “here we are! And here” – peering out through the glass-covered port again – “are his people!”
The whole village was swarming around us. Pale green bodies hovered around us as moths around a light. Faces pressed against the ports and stared in at us with great, amazed eyes.
Then, suddenly the crowd of curious creatures parted, and the boy came darting up with the five ancients he had showed us before. They were evidently the council responsible for the government of the village, or something of the sort, for the other villagers bowed their heads respectfully as they passed.
The boy came close to the port through which I was looking, and gestured earnestly. His face was tense and anxious, and from time to time he glanced over his shoulder, as though he feared the coming of an enemy.
“Our time’s short, I take it, if we are to be of service,” said Mercer. “Come on, Taylor; into the diving suits!”
I signaled the boy that we understood, and would hurry. Then I followed Mercer into our tiny stateroom.
“Remember what I’ve told you,” she said, as we slipped into the heavy woolen undergarments we were to wear inside the suits. “You understand how to handle your air, I believe, and you’ll have no difficulty getting around in the suit if you’ll just remember to go slowly. Your job is to get the whole village to get away when the enemy is sighted. Get them to come this way from the village, towards the ship, understand. The current comes from this direction; the way the vegetation bends shows that. And keep the boy’s people away until I signal you to let them return. And remember to take your electric lantern. Don’t burn it more than is necessary; the batteries are not large and the bulb draws a lot of current. Ready?”
I was, but I was shaking a little as the crew helped me into the mighty armor that was to keep the pressure of several atmospheres from crushing my body. The helmet was the last piece to be donned; when it was screwed in place I stood there like a mummy, almost completely rigid.
Quickly we were put into the air lock, together with a large iron box containing a number of things Mercer needed. Darkness and water rushed in on us. The water closed over my head. I became aware of the soft, continuous popping sounds of the air-bubbles escaping from the relief valve of the head-piece.
For a moment I was dizzy and more than a little nauseated. I could feel the cold sweat pricking my forehead. Then there was a sudden glow of light from before me, and I started walking towards it. I found I could walk now; not easily, but, after I caught the trick of it, without much difficulty. I could move my arms, too, and the interlocking hooks that served me for fingers. When my real fingers closed upon a little cross-bar at the end of the armored arms, and pulled the bars towards me, the steel claws outside came together, like a thumb and two fingers.
In a moment we stood upon the bottom of the ocean. I turned my head inside the helmet, and there, beside me, was the sleek, smooth side of the Turtle. On my other side was Mercer, a huge, dim figure in her diving armor. She made an awkward gesture towards her head, and I suddenly remembered something.
Before me, where I could operate it with a thrusting movement of my chin, was a toggle switch. I snapped it over, and heard Mercer’s voice: ” – n’t forget everything I tell him.”
“I know it,” I said mentally to her. “I was rather rattled. O.K. now, however. Anything I can do?”
“Yes. Help me with this box, and then get the boy to put on the antenna you’ll find there. Don’t forget the knife and the light.”
“Right!” I bent over the box with Mercer, and we both came near falling. We opened the lid, however, and I hooked the knife and the light into their proper places outside my armor. Then, with the antenna for the boy, so that we could establish connections with him, and through him, with the villagers, I moved off.
This antenna was entirely different from the one used in previous experiments. The four cross-members that clasped the head were finer, and at their junction was a flat black circular box, from which rose a black rod some six inches in height, and topped by a black sphere half the size of my fist.
These perfected ansibles (I shall continue to use my own designation for them, as clearer and more understandable than Mercer’s) did not need connecting wires; they conveyed their impulses by ULF radio waves to a master receiver on the Turtle, which amplified them and re-broadcast them so that each of us could both send and receive at any time.
As I turned, I found the boy beside me, waiting anxiously. Behind him were the five ancients. I slipped the antenna over his head, and instantly he began telling me that danger was imminent.
To facilitate matters, I shall describe his messages as though he spoke; indeed, his pictures were as clear, almost, as speech in my native tongue. And at times he did use certain sound-words; it was in this way that I learned, by inference, that his name was Imee, that his people were called Teemorn (this may have been the name of the community, or perhaps it was interchangeable – I am not sure) and that the shark-faced people were the Rorn.
“The Rorn come!” he said quickly. “Two days past, the three came again, and our elders refused to give up the slaves. Today they will return, these Rorn, and my people, the Teemorn will all be made dead!”
Then I told him what Mercer had said: that he and every one of his people must flee swiftly and hide, beyond the boat, a distance beyond the village. Mercer and I would wait here, and when the Rorn came, it was they who would be made dead, as we had promised. Although how, I admitted to myself, being careful to hide the thought that he might not sense it, I didn’t know. We had been too busy since the boy’s arrival to go into details.
He turned and spoke quickly to the elders. They looked at me doubtfully, and he urged them vehemently. They turned back towards the village, and in a moment the Teemorn were stalking by obediently, losing their slim pale green forms in the gloom behind the dim bulk of the Turtle, resting so quietly on the sand.
They were hardly out of sight when suddenly Mercer spoke through the antenna fitted inside my helmet.
“They’re coming!” she cried. “Look above and to your right! The Rorn, as Imee calls them, have arrived!”
I looked up and beheld a hundred – no, a thousand! – shadowy forms darting down on the village, upon us. They, too, were just as the boy had pictured them: short, swart beings with but the suggestion of a nose, and with pulsing gill-covers under the angles of their jaws. Each one gripped a long, slim pale green knife in either hand, and their tight-fitting shark-skin armor gleamed darkly as they swooped down upon us.
Eagerly I watched my friend. In the clasping talons of her left hand she held a long, slim flask that glinted even in that dim, confusing twilight. Two others, mates to the first, dangled at her waist. Lifting it high above her head, she swung a metal-clad right arm, and shattered the flask she held in her taloned left hand.
For an instant nothing happened, save that flittering bits of broken glass shimmered their way to the sand. Then the horde of shark-face creatures seemed to dissolve, as hundreds of limp and sprawling bodies sank to the sand. Perhaps a half of that great multitude seemed struck dead.
“Hydrocyanic acid, Taylor!” cried Mercer exultantly. “Even diluted by the sea water, it kills almost instantly. Go back and make sure that none of the boy’s people come back before the current has washed this away, or they’ll go in the same fashion. Warn him to keep them back!”
I hurried toward the Turtle, thinking urgent warnings for Imee’s benefit. “Stay back! Stay back, Imee! The Rorn are falling to the sand, we have made many of them dead, but the danger for you and your people is still here. Stay back!”
“Truly, do the Rorn become dead? I would like to see that with my own eyes. Be careful that they do not make you dead also, and your friend, for they have large brains, these Rorn.”
“Do not come to see with your own eyes, or you will be as the Rorn!” I hurried around the submarine, to keep him back by force, if that were necessary. “You must – ”
“Help, Taylor!” cut in a voice – Mercer’s. “These devils have got me!”
“Right with you!” I turned and hurried back as swiftly as I could, stumbling over the bodies of dead Rorn that had settled everywhere on the clean yellow sand.
I found Mercer in the grip of six of the shark-faced creatures. They were trying desperately to stab her, but their knives bent and broke against the metal of her armor. So busy were they with her that they did not notice me coming up, but finding their weapons useless, they suddenly snatched her up, one at either arm and either leg, and two grasping her by the head-piece, and darted away with her, carrying her bulging metal body between them like a battering ram, while she kicked and struggled impotently.
“They are taking her to the Place of Darkness!” cried Imee suddenly, having read my impressions of the scene. “Oh, go quickly, quickly, toward the direction of your best hand – to your right! I shall follow!”
“No! No! Stay back!” I warned him frantically. All but these six Rorn had fallen victims of Mercer’s hellish poison, and while they seemed to be suffering no ill effects, I thought it more than likely that some sly current might bring the deadly poison to the boy, did he come this way, and kill him as surely as it had killed these hundreds of Rorn.
To the right, he had said. Towards the Place of Darkness. I hurried out of the village in the direction he indicated, towards the distant gleam of Mercer’s armor, rapidly being lost in the gloom.
“I’m coming, Mercer!” I called to her. “Delay them as much as you can. You’re going faster than I can.”
“I can’t help myself much,” replied Mercer. “Doing what I can. Strong – they’re devilish strong, Taylor. And, at close range, I can see you were right. They have true gill-covers; their noses are rudimentary and – ”
“The devil take your scientific observations! Drag! Slow them down. I’m losing sight of you. For heaven’s sake, drag!”
“I’m doing what I can. Damn you, if I could only get a hand free – ” I realized that this last was directed at her captors, and plunged on.
Huge, monstrous growths swirled around me like living things. My feet crunched on shelled things, and sank into soft and slimy creeping things on the bottom. I cursed the water that held me back so gently yet so firmly; I cursed the armor that made it so hard for me to move my legs. But I kept on, and at last I began to gain on them; I could see them quite distinctly, bending over Mercer, working on her…
“Do your best, Taylor,” urged Mercer desperately. “We’re on the edge of a sort of cliff; a fault in the structure of the ocean bed. They’re tying me with strong cords of leather. Tying a huge stone to my body. I think they – ” I had a momentary flash of the scene as Mercer saw it at that instant: the horrid nose-less face close to his, the swarthy bodies moving with amazing agility. And at her very feet, a yawning precipice, holding nothing but darkness, leading down and down into nothingness.
“Run quickly!” It was Imee. He, too, had seen what I had seen. “That is the Place of Darkness, where we take those whom the Five deem worthy of the Last Punishment. They will tie the stone to her, and bear her out above the Blackness, and then they will let her go! Quickly! Quickly!”
I was almost upon them now, and one of the six turned and saw me. Three of them darted towards me, while the others held Mercer flat upon the edge of the precipice. If they had only realized that by rolling her armored body a foot or two, she would sink … without the stone … But they did not. Their brains had little reasoning power, apparently. The attaching of a stone was necessary, in their experience; it was necessary now.
With my left hand I unhooked my light; I already gripped my knife in my right hand. Swinging the light sharply against my leg, I struck the toggle-switch, and a beam of intense brilliancy shot through the gloom. It aided me, as I had thought it would; it blinded these large-eyed denizens of the deep.
Swiftly I struck out with the knife. It hacked harmlessly into the shark-skin garment of one of the men, and I stabbed out again. Two of the creatures leaped for my right arm, but the knife found, this time, the throat of the third. My beam of light showed palely red, for a moment, and the body of the Rorn toppled slowly to the bed of the ocean.
The two shark-faced creatures were hammering at me with their fists, dragging at my arms and legs, but I plunged on desperately towards Mercer. Myriads of fish, all shapes and colors and sizes, attracted by the light, swarmed around us.
“Good show!” Mercer commended. “See if you can break this last flask of acid, here at my waist. See – ”
With a last desperate plunge, fairly dragging the two Rorn who tugged at me, I fell forward. With the clenched steel talons of my right hand, I struck at the silvery flask I could see dangling from Mercer’s waist. I hit it, but only a glancing blow; the flask did not shatter.
“Again!” commanded Mercer. “It’s heavy annealed glass – hydrocyanic acid – terrible stuff – even the fumes – ”
I paid but slight heed. The two Rorn dragged me back, but I managed to crawl forward on my knees, and with all my strength, I struck at the flask again.
This time it shattered, and I lay where I fell, sobbing with weakness, looking out through the side window of my head-piece.
The five Rorn seemed to suddenly lose their strength. They struggled limply for a moment, and then floated down to the waiting sand beneath us.
“Finish,” remarked Mercer coolly. “And just in time. Let’s see if we can find our way back to the Turtle.”
We were weary, and we plodded along slowly, twin trails of air-bubbles like plumes waving behind us, rushing upwards to the surface. I felt strangely alone at the moment, isolated, cut off from all humanity, on the bottom of the Atlantic.
“Coming to meet you, all of us,” Imee signaled us. “Be careful where you step, so that you do not walk in a circle and find again the Place of Darkness. It is very large.”
“Probably some uncharted deep,” threw in Mercer. “Only the larger ones have been located.”
For my part, I was too weary to think. I just staggered on.
A crowd of slim, darting pale green shapes surrounded us. They swam before us, showing the way. The five elders walked majestically before us; and between us, smiling at us through the thick lenses of our headpieces, walked Imee. Oh, it was a triumphal procession, and had I been less weary, I presume I would have felt quite the hero.
Imee pictured for us, as we went along, the happiness, the gratefulness of his people. Already, he informed us, great numbers of young Teemorn were clearing away the bodies of the dead Rorn. He was so happy he could hardly restrain himself.
A dim skeleton shape bulked up at my left. I turned to look at it, and Imee, watching me through the lights of my head-piece, nodded and smiled.
Yes, this was the very hulk by which he had been swimming when the shark had attacked him, the shark which had been the cause of the accident. He darted on to show me the very rib upon which his head had struck, stunning him so that he had drifted, unconscious and storm-tossed, to the shore of Mercer’s estate.
I studied the wreck. It was battered and tilted on its beam ends, but I could still make out the high poop that marked it as a very old ship.
“A Spanish galleon, Mercer,” I conjectured.
“I believe so.” And then, in pictured form, for Imee’s benefit, “It has been here while much time passed?”
“Yes.” Imee came darting back to us, smiling. “Since before the Teemorn, my people were here. A Rorn we made prisoner once told us they discovered it first. They went into this strange skeleton, and inside were many blocks of very bright stone.” He pictured quite clearly bars of dully-glinting bullion. Evidently the captive had told the story well.
“These stones, which were so bright, the Rorn took to their city, which is three swims distant.” How far that might be, I could not even guess. A swim, it seemed, was the distance a Teemorn could travel before the need for rest became imperative. “There were many Rorn, and they each took one stone. And of them, they made a house for their leader.” The leader, as he pictured him, being the most hideous travesty of a thing in semi-human form that the mind could imagine: incredibly old and wrinkled and ugly and gray, a nose-less face seamed with cunning, eyes red rimmed and terrible, teeth gleaming, pale green and sharp, like fangs.
“A whole house, except the roof,” he went on. “It is there now, and it is gazed at with much admiration by all the Rorn. All this our prisoner told us before going, with a rock made fast, out over the Place of Darkness. Thee Rorn, too, was very proud of their leader’s house.”
“Treasure!” I commented to Mercer. “If we could find the city of the Rorn, we might make the trip pay for itself!”
I could sense her wave of amusement.
“I think,” she replied, “I’d rather stand it myself. These Rorn don’t appeal to me.”
Just beyond the wreck was the Turtle, resting where we had left it. With weary limbs but glad hearts, we entered the airlock that we had left such a short time before. Once inside, we signaled for the crew to aid us in removing the suits as they had dressed us earlier. Even with their help, it was over half an hour before we were at last free of our diving suits.
The first thing Captain Bonnett said:
“We’ve got to get to the surface, and that quickly. Our air supply is running damnably low. By the time we blow out the tanks we’ll be just about out. And foul air will keep us here until we rot. I’m sorry, ma’am, but that’s the way matters stand.”
Mercer, white-faced and ill, stared at the captain dazedly.
“Air?” she repeated groggily – I knew just how she felt – “We should have lots of air. The specifications – ”
“But we’re dealing with facts, not specifications,,” said Bonnett. “Another two hours here and we won’t leave ever.”
“Then it can’t be helped, Captain,” muttered Mercer. “We’ll go up. And back. For more compressed air. We must remember to plot our course exactly. You kept the record on the way out as I instructed you?”
“Yes, sir,” said Captain Bonnett.
“Just a minute, then,” said Mercer.
Weakly she made his way forward to the little cubbyhole in which was housed the central station of her ansible. I didn’t even inspect the gleaming maze of apparatus. I merely watched her dully as she plugged in an antenna similar to the one we had left with Imee, and adjusted the things on her head.
Her eyes brightened instantly. “He’s still wearing his antenna,” she said swiftly over her shoulder. “I’ll tell him that something’s happened; we must leave, but that we will return.”
She sat there, frowning intently for a moment, and then dragged the antenna wearily from her head. She touched a switch somewhere, and several softly glowing bulbs turned slowly red and then dark.
“You and I,” she groaned, “had better go to bed. We overdid it. He understands, I think. Terribly sorry, terribly disappointed. Some sort of celebration planned, I gather. Captain Bonnett!”
“You may proceed now as you think best,” said Mercer. “We’re retiring. Be sure and chart the course back, so we may locate this spot again.”
“Yes, ma’am!” said Captain Bonnett.
When I awoke we were at anchor, our deck barely awash, before the deserted beach of Mercer’s estate. Still feeling none too well, Mercer and I made our way to the narrow deck.
Captain Bonnett was waiting for us, spruce in a blue uniform, with shoulders bowed as always.
“Good morning,” he offered, smiling crisply. “The open air seems good, doesn’t it?”
It did. There was a fresh breeze blowing in from the Atlantic, and I filled my lungs gratefully. I had not realized until that instant just how foul the air below had been.
“Very fine, Captain,” said Mercer, nodding. “You have signaled the workers on shore to send out a boat to take us off?”
“Yes, sir; I believe they’re launching it now.”
“And the chart of our course – did the return trip check with the other?”
“Perfectly, sir.” Captain Bonnett reached into the double-breasted coat’s inner pocket, extracted two folded pages, and extended them, with a little bow, to Mercer.
Just as Mercer’s eager fingers touched the precious papers, however, the wind whisked them from Bonnett’s grasp and whirled them into the water.
Bonnett gasped and gazed after them for a split second; then, barely pausing to tear off her coat, he plunged over the side.
Bonnett tried desperately, but the tossing white specks were washed beneath the surface and disappeared. Ten minutes later, uniform bedraggled and shapeless, Bonnett clambered back on deck.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Bonnett gasped, out of breath. “Sorrier than I can say. I tried – ”
Mercer, white-faced and struggling with her emotions, looked down and turned away.
“You don’t remember the bearings, I suppose?” she ventured tonelessly.
“I’m sorry – no.”
“Thank you, Captain, for trying so hard to recover the papers,” said Mercer. “You’d better change at once; the wind is sharp.”
The captain bowed and disappeared down the conning tower. Then Mercer turned to me, and a smile struggled for life.
“Well, Taylor, we helped Imee out, anyway,” she said slowly. “I’m sorry that – that Imee will misunderstand when we don’t come back.”
“But, Mercer,” I said swiftly, “perhaps we’ll be able to find our way back to him. You thought before, you know, that – ”
“But I can see now what an utterly wild-goose chase it would have been.” Mercer shook her head slowly. “No, old friend, it would be impossible. And Imee will not come again to guide us; he will think we have deserted him. And” – she smiled slowly up into my eyes – “perhaps it is as well. After all, the photographs and the data I wanted would do the world no practical good. We did Imee and his people a good turn; let’s content ourselves with that. I, for one, am satisfied.”
“And I, old timer,” I said, placing my hand affectionately upon her shoulder. “Here’s the boat. Shall we go ashore?”
We did go ashore, silently. And as we got out of the boat, and set foot again upon the sand, we both turned and looked out across the smiling Atlantic, dancing brightly in the sun.
The mighty, mysterious Atlantic – home of Imee and his people!