They came in armies from under the sea - they possessed an intelligence and cunning beyond any human. These incredible tales were dismissed as the ravings of madmen by marine expert Peter Hollows, and his lovely assistant Sally Brent. But then they appeared... strange and monstrous creatures that Hallows and his expedition might never live to describe.
Release date: April 28, 2016
Print pages: 176
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The Sea Beasts
A. Bertram Chandler
“That,” I told him, “is just what I do not, repeat not, need. This is my Annual Leave, during which I make a slow recovery from the strains and stresses of the last ten months.” I took a hearty gulp of beer, followed it with another. Meeting his disapproving stare, I said, “I ‘as to build me strenf up, dearie.”
“And a very fine way to do it,” he said sarcastically. “Loafing around in bars, soaking …”
“Just drinking to forget,” I said. “Or to remember. But does it much matter which?”
“For three months?” he asked.
“Why not? I’ll give it a go, anyhow.”
“Don’t be a bloody fool,” he snapped. “Even though you think you have an excuse. Peggy and I were damned sorry when you and Jane broke up. More than sorry. We were shocked. Even so …”
“We did present a united front to the world until the very finish,” I said.
“You did, at that. But this is what I’m getting at, Peter. I can guess how you feel about things. But it’s not the end of the world.”
“To me it might be.” I rattled money on the counter, caught the barmaid’s eye. “Yes, we maintained our united front until the end, and then the situation became quite intolerable. For both of us. I could, I suppose, have stopped her from leaving Australia for England. But I was a perfect little gent and gave my permission. And she’s fixing the divorce from that end.”
“So it’s quite hopeless?”
“Looks like it.”
Clancy sipped his fresh drink slowly. “I’m an editor,” he said, “not a psychiatrist. Although, come to that, I might know rather more about human nature than the head shrinkers. And it seems to me that occupational therapy might well be the answer in your case …”
“Doing what? Weaving baskets? Getting a job, as so many officers do when they run short of money during their leave, behind the counter of some chain store? The Christmas rush is over now, you know.”
“I know. But what about writing? You did, at one time, manage to turn out an occasional saleable short story.”
“I’ve tried, Frank. I’ve tried. But everything turns out as subjective as all hell. Broken hearts and salt tears on every page. Not even the women’s magazines will touch the muck.”
He said, “I might be able to organise a job for you.” He added, “Look at it as self-defence on my part. I’m getting rather tired of leaving my desk so that I can watch you cry into your beer.”
“Journalistic?” I asked, with a flicker of interest.
“But I’m not a journalist,” I said snootily. “I’m a creative writer.”
“Balls!” he said to that. “You’re nothing but a seaman who, on the rare occasions when he feels in the mood, can make the odd five guineas on his typewriter. You’re a master mariner with years of experience in big ships, little ships and all the sizes in between.”
“And still not a journalist,” I said.
“But I don’t want you as a journalist. I want you as a technical expert.”
“And about time,” I told him. “You want somebody to vet the highly coloured rubbish turned in by your bright young men who infest the waterfront and get in the hair of hard-working Chief Officers.”
“That would be a waste of time,” he said. “The general public wouldn’t know port from starboard.”
“But they should,” I told him.
“Balls,” he said.
“Then what do you want me for?”
It was his turn to order the drinks. He did so reluctantly. He waited until we had fresh glasses in front of us before he resumed his explanation.
He said, “We want a seaman—but we want a seaman with imagination. So many of your breed don’t have any. We, as you may have guessed, are far from satisfied with the government’s defence policy …”
“The editorial ‘we’, I take it?” He nodded. “Just for once, I’m with you. Anybody satisfied with anything that that fatuous slob, Menzies, says or does wants his head examined. Seamen have no imagination, you say? What about our noble Prime Minister?”
“Bugger him,” he swore.
“Heartily seconded. The man couldn’t run a Sailors’ Home in Tristan da Cunha.”
“There was a volcanic eruption there,” he said. “The island was evacuated.”
“I know. I read the papers. Even yours.”
“If you’re going to be insulting, Pete,” he growled, “I’ve a bloody good mind not to organise the job for you.”
“Then don’t. I have no great desire to become a journalist. The average journalist knows less about more things than anybody else, and I’d just hate to put myself into that category.”
“I thought I made it clear,” he said, “that you were to be employed as a technical expert. Surely you don’t think that you’d be capable of turning in printable copy.”
“At least as well as the average semi-illiterate in your employ.”
“You’re a nasty bastard after a few drinks, aren’t you?” he said.
“Sorry, Frank,” I said, rather grudgingly, after a long pause. “I’m afraid that it’s just the way that I feel about the world in general right now.”
“I’d guessed the same—otherwise I’d have thrown my beer into your face and left you here to stew in your own juice.”
“It would have served me right.”
“Too flaming right it would.”
“All right. And now will you do me a favour?”
“What is it?” he asked cautiously.
“Just to listen while I think out loud. I want to evaluate.” I stared down into the clear amber fluid in my glass. “Here goes. I’ve no wife, no home. It wasn’t worthwhile keeping the flat going. I’ve nothing to keep me occupied. I didn’t want to take my Leave, but I had to. If I hang around Sydney I might find somebody to take Jane’s place. On the other hand, I might not. And I shall certainly drink too much. I don’t think that I have the makings of an alcoholic—but I can’t be sure …”
“And …” he prompted.
“That’s about all.”
“My heart fair bleeds for you. But, as I said quite a while ago, I can make the offer of occupational therapy.”
“Thank you, Frank. Tell me more.”
“We,” he said, lowering his voice, “are getting worried about what’s happening to the north of us …”
“Oddly enough, no. Oh, we are concerned about Indonesia, but there’s no mystery there. Or the only mystery is the government’s policy. It’s what’s happening around the Islands that’s mysterious …”
“What’s so mysterious about Western Samoa’s independence—and surely that’s no cause for alarm.”
“We don’t want you as a technical expert in international politics, Pete,” he said rather huffily. “We want you as a practical seaman.”
“A little while ago you were wanting an imaginative seaman. Just what do you want me for?”
“This. We are making an investigation of all these small ship disappearances. Like Joyita.”
“Russian submarines,” I said sarcastically. “Or latter day pirates. Or little green men from a flying saucer. Which angle do you want investigated? But if it’s only Joyita you’re worried about, I may be able to explain it for you. Or explain it away. When I was on the island trade, a while ago, we carried, as a passenger, the Judge who’d been in charge of the official enquiry. When we got to Apia, where he lived, he lent me the transcript of the proceedings. But, before then, he’d told me quite a lot about the circumstances and about the various characters involved.”
“Go on—but don’t make too long a story of it.” He looked at his watch in a rather pointed manner.
“I’ll try to cut it short. Joyita was actually American owned, but was on charter to her Captain, who was a British citizen. Captain Miller was a first-class seaman and, furthermore, had served in the R.N.R. during the War as a salvage expert. He, surely, would have known just how much damage a ship—a wooden ship at that—can sustain and still remain afloat.”
“So what did happen?”
“Joyita was in Apia. Dusty Miller was flat broke—he was having to take house painting jobs and such to make both ends meet. There was no money at all for maintenance or repairs. His ship—especially regarding main engines and life saving equipment, and there just wasn’t the money to put things right. And Dusty Miller’s fiancée, back in Honolulu, was getting restive about his long absence …”
“So he was offered this advantageous government charter—stores and passengers to one of the other islands. He took it. It was a golden opportunity for getting out of the red. He must have known—the point was raised at the Enquiry—that in view of the American registry of his ship he was not allowed to carry passengers. Don’t ask me why not—it was just one of those legal quibbles. So, naturally enough, he wanted to get the hell out of Apia harbour before the authorities woke up to this. So he sailed, although his ship was in a far from seaworthy condition. It was a gamble—and nine times out of ten it would have paid off. But this was the tenth time …”
“But what did happen?” asked Clancy, breaking the silence.
“This is where the supposition comes in. The guesswork—but intelligent guesswork. Joyita, as you know, was found drifting. Her wheelhouse had been smashed—probably by a heavy sea. A badly corroded pipe in the engine room—cooling water, or a discharge—was fractured, admitting the sea. The engine room was flooded. But she was a wooden ship, and the additional buoyancy of the empty drums in her hold made her virtually unsinkable …
“What follows is my own reconstruction. It is reasonable to suppose that Captain Miller was on his bridge when that heavy, freak sea smashed his wheelhouse. It is possible that he was badly injured, or killed, or washed overside—he, the salvage expert, who would have known that his crippled ship was far safer than any amateurishly constructed raft.
“Came the dawn. The surviving crew and passengers saw land quite close. They constructed a raft of sorts, using empty drums and odd pieces of timber. They abandoned ship. The wind and current carried them away to hell and gone. They were never seen again …
“And it’s not the first time,” I concluded, “that ships have been abandoned too hastily. The only mysteries involved are the mysteries of human psychology.”
“Even so,” said Clancy, “there have been far too many small craft going missing—and all in that general area. Joyita, I admit, was found drifting—but all the others have just vanished.”
“As ships have vanished,” I said, “ever since that first beach dweller, who should have known better, pushed off to sea astride a floating log.”
“Ships in these days,” he pointed out, “have radio.”
“If their radio is in the same sorry state as Joyita’s,” I told him, “it might just as well not be there.”
“All the same,” he persisted, “there’s something odd. Every small craft transmitter can’t be on the blink. Whatever it is that’s doing it …”
“Doing what?” I asked.
“… it’s sudden.”
“So what do you want me to do about it?”
“I’m not a policeman, Frank.”
“Afraid it might be risky, Pete?”
“And didn’t I hear you say, not so long ago, that now that Jane’s flown the coop, you’ve nothing to live for? You even said that if volunteers for the first manned moon rocket were called for, you’d be the first to step forward.”
“That,” I told him, “was different.”
“How? For all we know, it might be little green men from flying saucers that are knocking the small craft off. If you must have a science fiction adventure—this could be it.”
I laughed at the absurdity of his words, then lapsed into thoughtful silence. Perhaps there would be a small element of risk attached to the job—but there is risk in all seafaring. There is risk in crossing a busy street, come to that. To stay in Sydney with its memories, happy and unhappy, would be riskiest of all. There would be the risk of my crossing the barrier that divides the normal, social drinker from the alcoholic.
“All right, Frank,” I said abruptly. “When do I start on the hunt for the little green men from the flying saucers?”
I had thought, in my suddenly impatient innocence, that my acceptance of Frank Clancy’s offer would be followed, almost immediately, by my being flown to Apia or Suva or Port Moresby or some other likely spot from which to initiate investigations. (I like flying, especially when somebody else is paying my fare.) But it was all of three weeks before I was under way—and then it was by sea.
To begin with, there were the interviews with the high brass of the Clarion, the daily of which Frank was News Editor. I had to listen to a lot of blah about the sacred duty of a newspaper to its readers, to the nation, even to God Almighty. I managed to keep a straight face, to refrain from even a sardonic lift of the eyebrows. I had realised that I wanted the job. It wasn’t that I was hard up—my holiday pay would be ample for my simple and solitary requirements—it was just that I was bored and lonely.
Then there were the various legal formalities—passport, income tax clearance and the like. The permission from my wife for me to leave the country was almost a stumbling block—we were not yet divorced, and the only address that Jane had given me was that of her solicitors in London. But even that, thanks to the air mail and the Clarion’s London office, was obtained in a short time.
I had not supposed that I should be allowed to play happily in some quiet corner all by myself. Everybody had made it quite clear that I was being engaged as a technical expert, not as a journalist. I was prepared to put up with the company of some weary and cynical young man, concerned only with news value. I was surprised, therefore, and not overly pleased, when Frank introduced me to the reporter who was to accompany me.
“Pete,” he said, “meet Sally Brent. Sally, this is Peter Hallows.”
I mumbled an ungracious acknowledgment. I was passing through a phase of disliking women intently. (To be honest, I was disliking any and all women who were not Jane.)
“So you’re the technical expert,” she said.
“I’m supposed to be,” I admitted.
She looked me up and down rather disdainfully. I returned the compliment. She was, it seemed to me, thin rather than slender, conveying the impression of being one of those fashion models whose photographs appear in glossy magazines such as the New Yorker. To add to this initial impression, she was faultlessly turned out. Her face, too, was thin, but strongly featured. Even during this first cursory inspection I revised my estimation of her, decided that what I had thought was a brittle hardness was, in fact, extreme toughness.
“Satisfied?” she asked coldly.
“We shall be working together,” I said. “So …”
“So what?” she demanded.
“Pete is right,” put in Frank hastily. “You’ll have to function as a team, and if you think you can’t, now is the time to say it.”
“I can work as one of a team with anybody,” she said. “In working hours.”
“As a seaman,” I told her, “I can do the same.”
“Splendid,” said Frank. “So you’re both quite happy …”
“No,” she said.
He laughed. “You wouldn’t be you, Sally, if you were.”
“I suppose not,” she admitted grudgingly.
“And what about you, Pete?”
“I can tolerate,” I said, “a man. . .
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