Night is not the best time for moving in the ocean on a ship like theirs, that’s why Tuccert decided to move further tomorrow. And first of all – to approach the military ship which will complete filling them with fuel.
But the impudent fellow who was on night duty decided in his own way. At dawn, when everybody will be still sleeping he will himself lead the ship according to the coordinates marked in the journal. This is a good chance to have practice. Let them get angry and shout afterwards. It is always pleasant to watch people get back before his cool-headedness. And this crank of a Professor first of all.
That’s why just when the night darkness began to disappear he started the noiseless engine and stood at the wheel.
He calculated that it was a little more than an hour’s way to the military ship. It means, people will not get awakened by that time. He wondered if he would be able to find the exact place according to the coordinates pointed out.
Less than in an hour the young man was nearly enraptured with joy – in the light, pre-morning ocean the ship could be seen straight ahead. Wasn’t it great! Now it was just about fifteen minutes’ way to it…
The ship appeared to be so-so; its sides were higher, but the size – not much bigger than their own.
When there were some three hundred feet left a sailor appeared at the deck of the military ship and waived his arms in greeting. And when the distance was twice smaller he could be seen already quite clearly and made a sign to moor to their closest side.
The impudent young man was a little at a loss, because he had never moored, moreover, not to the pier, but straight in the ocean.
But, having reduced the speed to the minimum, he decided that he would try anyway. And having turned the steering-wheel to move side by side came out to the deck to prepare the mooring end.
He had already bent to the rope folded in the figure of eight, but suddenly everything raised, and the site at which he was heeled sharply upwards. The impudent fellow lost his balance and fell on his back, having hurt his shoulder painfully.
– What the hell is this?! – he just said but felt at once that the deck returned to the correct position.
Having stood up he again was quite perplexed.
It seemed that the wave which had hit their ship, was holding them, because the end of the mast of the navy ship appeared at the same level with his eyes.
No… the mast has just disappeared and their light ship was dragged by the stern towards a large screw-shaped crater…
Professor was not too frightened by the wave which had shaken their ship because everything got stabilized again. Such things happen, solitary waves sometimes appear from nowhere. But the wave was not important, at least not squally.
The morning light could be seen in the porthole and he wanted to look at the clock when a heart-rending shriek was heard at the deck.
In two seconds professor, who had rushed to the deck, collided with Christian. The latter moved him from the way and rushed to the deck cabin. And almost at once the engine started working with all its power.
All the rest also appeared on the deck, almost naked.
– What happened, Professor? What?
– I don’t understand myself! – he went into the deck-house where Christian was already standing at the steering-wheel.
– Can you explain to me what is happening?
– Let us get away from here, Marc! To the shallow waters! Order everybody to get to crew’s quarters! At once!
Tuccert, still not understanding, ordered the fellows not to come out of the crew’s quarters and only now noticed that there were three of them, not four.
– And where is our watchman, Chris? – having fully awakened from his sleep and ununderstandable mess he asked. – And whom are we running from? My God, what’s happened to you? Your face looks like white paper.
His assistant made an effort, overcoming a lump in his throat, and than spoke in an unnaturally distinct voice:
– Marc, the lad is already dead.
– What have you said?!
– An albino squid. A giant tentacle… raised over the ship and licked him like a speck of dust.
– Are you in your right mind?
– Almost. Though one can get crazy of such horror. Our ship is like a grain for such a creature.
– Get away from the wheel!
– Get away from the wheel at once!
– Marc, if we do not move to shallow waters as soon as possible…
– Get to the boat with the lads and rush there at full speed.
– Listen, it is impossible to save him! I can bet, he perished in the moment when the tentacle got him.
– And I bet I will kill you if you do not obey my order!
When the boat rattled Tuccert had already replaced the steering-wheel and turned the ship in the opposite direction. “That’s good, – he thought, – at such speed they will soon get not only to shallow waters but to the nearest islands. I wish I had learned more from Chris. A giant squid? What was it actually?”
The door of the deck cabin was suddenly opened.
– Everything is all right, Marc. I’ve sent them.
– Chris! What the… Why have you stayed?
The latter looked at the panel with the clock and compass.
– Take a little to the right… In four minutes we’ll be in the place again.
Tuccert suddenly felt burning shame. How could he let himself speak in such a tone with his best and most devoted student in his life a few minutes ago? In reality he insulted him accusing him of cowardice. Insulted the man devoted to him, with whom, if one remembered the fifteen years of their joint work, they went through a lot of difficulties. He reproached him with faint-heartedness for the attempt to save the rest of the crew.
– You, well – said the professor in a low voice, – tell me, please, what could you notice?
– It was just a second and a half, Marc. I rushed out just a little earlier than you. The lad was standing at the fodder as though looking into the water. And at once… in about eighty feet from the fodder the ocean foamed up in a stream as though a huge geyser started working and then a huge white tentacle rose in the air. Of fantastic size, Marc.
– Try to remember the size.
– Diameter near water… not less than ten feet.
– And that end which rushed from the height and seized the lad was about four feet. It squeezed him across his body, so only his head and legs could be seen. It again arched up, and all this disappeared under water with an unnatural speed.
– Chris, if the tentacle has ten feet in diameter, the whole length of the squid must be not less than six hundred feet. This follows from its anatomical structure, – professor shook his head. – I can’t imagine anything like that.
– Though it is you who are the author of the theory about gigantic marine invertebrates which are hidden from us.
– But I haven’t prepared myself for a meeting with one, as you can see.
– I don’t want to frighten both of us, Marc, but I didn’t mean that the tentacle’s diameter was ten feet at its basis.
– I don’t understand, what do you mean?
– The basis is the body. But nothing like that appeared near water. It seemed that the tentacle was coming out somewhere from the depth.
– It means that it is just its intermediary length?
– It looks so. Put out the engine, we are at the place.
– Whatever will be, will be! – Professor took his binoculars out of the case and went out to the deck. – One should see everything, Chris, and I pray God that he should help our boy.
Low sloping waves were opening the vast expanse of the ocean’s surface…
Everything was empty.
They covered another mile. Then they circled around looking into the water… And strange though it was they have never felt danger for themselves.
– You know, Marc, I just cannot digest what has happened. I am all the time catching myself at the thought that nothing happened in reality. My mind does not want to accept it as reality. It seems to me we shall soon come back, and our lad will be there, among other fellows…
Professor looked in the face of his assistant, and he did not like something in it.
– Go to my cabin, Chris, there is a bottle of brandy in the cupboard there.
– I don’t want brandy.
– Neither do I, but still go there.
He came back to the deck cabin and, having launched the engine at full speed, got to the reverse motion.
– This is good brandy! – When the bottle appeared Tuccert said in a voice which was not to be contradicted. – Pour out half a glass at once for you and me.
– I don’t know why, I cannot feel the taste, – announced Christian, having drunk his portion.
– You understand yourself, my dear, what the switching off of taste receptors means.
– Strong stress. And in order to overcome it you should not allow what you saw to hide in your subconscious, otherwise it will transform into a nightmare. Think about what has happened as a reality. If possible, try to remember the details in cold blood.
– It looks, headache has gone, – said the assistant in five minutes. – And as to the details… Yes, white colour, I would even say, milky-white. And something else, there were no suckers there.
– You might not have paid attention.
– Might have… though not likely. I think they were not there.
– You are saying there were no signs of the body near the surface?
– Nothing at all.
– Then how could the squid direct his tentacle? Of course he saw our ship from below, but how could he direct it at the man? You are saying it shot upwards vertically?
– Just so.
– It means the creature was down and not somewhere at the side. Maybe it was by chance? The squid was simply circling around with his tentacle?
– It was not circling around. I swear to you, Mark, it swooped at the lad like a hawk who is flying at his aim.
– It is strange… Squids are rather dumb, and his tentacles have only rough sensitivity to mechanical irritants.
– Look here, we have not paid attention, – the assistant pointed his finger at the ship journal. – It is opened at the page with the coordinates of the military ship. That’s why we happened to be so far from shallow waters.
– Did he bring the ship here while we were asleep?
– According to this, this was just that.
– Then why did not we see these military fellows? Everything around is empty up to horizon.
Suddenly radio started working. Tuccert responded and at once heard a polite voice. The officer on duty of the cruiser was speaking.
– Good morning, Sir. Have you met our ship for refueling? They are not answering our call sign, and you seem to be somewhere near?
Professor was silent for a while, thinking over the best answer.
– You see, we appeared at the same place, but we have not found your ship. Besides, something happened here, and I would like to talk to Pete.
– Excuse me, Sir?
– Yes, with General Tuccert, of course.
It looked his interlocutor hesitated.
– Night duty is finishing only in twenty minutes. Excuse me, Sir, but I cannot wake up the commander of the squadron without sufficient reason.
– Well, O.K. But report to him about me as soon as he wakes up.
– In twenty minutes exactly, Sir.
– Their ship, Christian, is not answering the call sign.
– The things are lousy, Marc. How much can a six hundred feet squid weigh?
Professor thought for a while and frowned his eyebrows somberly.
– Yes, at least more than a light ship.
In twenty two minutes he heard his brother’s voice.
– What’s happened, Marc? And haven’t you really found our ship yet according to the coordinates?
– I would not like to upset you, but it’s quite possible that it had the same fate as one of my crew members.
– That is?
– An attack of a six hundred feet squid, Pete.
– Isn’t it a slip of the tongue?
– Unfortunately, no. My assistant managed to see only one of his tentacles. The rest is the matter of simple calculations.
His brother was silent for a while…
– Where are you now, Marc?
– I’ll be in shallow waters soon. Don’t worry, it is safe there.
– A reconnaisance fighter will fly to your region soon. It will be there in fifteen minutes. It means, I will soon get the information of the inspection from air and will communicate with you again.
– Please, let it better not fly low.
– Will two miles height be all right?
The general ordered to transfer the connection with the pilot to the main command post and took his place there himself in fifteen minutes, having had enough time to shave.
– Came out to the sector. – It could be heard by communication. – Beginning to fly around.
Later the pilot reported the situation every thirty or forty seconds, as it was supposed to be.
The situation was sad. There ship was no to be found. Alongside with it, the borders of the sector were selected in such a way that the ship could not cross them in the time passed after the latest communication, even if it had put forward such a foolish task.
– Flying round is finished, – it was heard ultimately in the end, and it was something which one did not want to hear at all.
– Let him return, – ordered the general somberly.
He sat for another minute in the armchair and when he wanted to get up he heard the excited voice of the pilot:
– I’ve been attacked! Attacked, but I do not see the enemy. Two holes in the wing!
Pete Tuccert reacted at once:
– Get back to the coastal line!! – he shouted in such a voice that the officer on duty did not have to repeat it in the air.
– Yes, Sir, to the coastal line.
The general himself got connected to the pilot.
– Fire on board?
– No fire. But the wing is becoming bare.
This term, maybe funny for the civilians, means a very fast approaching disaster. The damaged metal on the frame is becoming to get torn by the air streams. The rest, according to the type of the aircraft, is a matter of a minute or ten seconds.
– Is it tearing strongly?
– Middling…now, already strongly.
– Can hold on for a while.
– At once!
He knew what every second could bring with it. Pilots get nervous and miss the moment when the aircraft, losing at once its aerodynamics, starts flying down, circling and whirling. And the catapult saves rarely in these cases: the pilot dies having hit his own wing, or he is covered by the machine falling from up.
But thank God! The signal of the working catapult has already sounded.
The rest of the orders took no more than a minute. He had only, having declared the general alarm, to call the number of commands known to each subdivision.
Two fighters on battle duty flew into the air in ten seconds, and in one and a half minutes four other battle machines followed them. These six were to block the sector from the air and, having discovered the enemy, hit the target. Straight after them a rescue hydroplane followed to pick up the catapulted pilot. These were standard measures. And now their innovation – launching a rocket from the side of a ship. It will reach the given coordinates already in two minutes and in the middle of the sector at the height of five miles a parachute with a minilocator station will hang down. The parachute will not lower down, because the station has a vertical motor unit. It will start to transmit everything here, looking not only through air, but water, at the depth of a mile, that is the depth lower than which modern submarines cannot go. The one who attacked the aircraft, thus, is sure to be found. He will have no time to leave the sector.
The cruiser and three other ships already turned in the opposite direction and were sailing at full speed.
But who could, who could dare to to attack a fighter of the US navy? What kind of weapon was it? Hit at the height of two miles… The pilot did not record an explosion of an antiaircraft missile the splinters of which could do it. Then what? And where from? The pilot would have seen any ship when flying around. It means, from a submarine. And the volley has been made from under water. Whose submarine? The Chinese, the Russians’?
North Atlantic allies were warned about the tests in this region, his own people – more so. What follows is that it was not a chance mistaken volley.
The general gave one more command, having ordered the fastest of the three ships to follow the coordinates of the downfall of the aircraft. They were lucky, it fell down near the coastal line. It will not be difficult to lift it.
They managed to find the boat with the lads quite soon. Because they have taken the only correct decision: at the place of the unique find, where the day before yesterday the skeleton of a cachalot was discovered, a buoy was set up, and they guesses that it was the best to loiter around that place.
The news about the terrible death of their comrade shocked all the three.
– In the present conditions I am obliged to stop our research work and get you at once to the nearest port, – Marc Tuccert announced to them. – You must not stay in such a dangerous neighbourhood.
– And you, Professor, can you?
– I do not know still what I shall do myself, but judging by the unusual size of the squid it will not be difficult for it to overturn and drown a ship like ours.
– But why has it not done it but just attacked a man?
– Maybe because he was busy with other catch under water.
– With a military ship, – explained Christian, – which was to be in that very place.
– And before this the squid finished up the cachalot?
Professor thought for a long time. Everyone became silent watching his fingers tuck at his wiry beard too nervously.
– Everything is too unclear, – he said at last. – Too much! Even for me it is too difficult to believe in such gigantic size of the squid.
– If he is an albino it means that it lived at a very great depth, – one of his students dared to suppose. – But something drove it away from there.
– This is not the point! – Tuccert frowned, irritated. – I don’t understand, first of all, how such tentacles could let go of the cachalot from the depth. For them it is just a toy. But the main thing is something else. The jaw hook of this giant must be no less than thirty feet, and its blows can be compared to the force of an enormous industrial press. But the skeleton is intact. Not a single broken bone, not a single dislocated part due to fantastic squeezing by the tentacles. – Professor let go of his beard and spread his hands almost angrily. – I don’t understand!
– Besides, – Christian reminded, – I have not seen the suckers on the tentacle.
– Why can’it be some unknown deep water species, Professor?
– Because everything which acquires quite specific qualities not characteristic of other individuals is already not species! – he kept silent for some time and added gloomily: – It is another animal.
– Do you want to say that it is not a squid at all? – asked the assistant.
– Yes, one can’t exclude it.
In half an hour they entered the bay of a small resort island and tied up at the pier.
It was strange that with all this nightmare having happened he was feeling hungry. But of course, they did not have breakfast, plus the brandy…
But nobody mentioned breakfast, and the lads were looking at him as though awaiting new explanations.
They sat down in gloomy silence under the bow tent into folding cloth chairs.
– We have examined everything there, – said Tuccert guiltily, – only water was around…
– Do not torture yourself, Professor, – said one of the students consoling him, – you are not to blame.
– Besides, he took the ship to the ocean himself, – supported someone else, – what did he need it for?
– “When a man suddenly perishes in the world”, my father used to say, “it means there is something wrong with this world”, – he answered sadly.
And, after a short silence, spoke again:
– I don’t know if I have the right to let out the information known to me… in any way, I did not sign up anything. Well, just recently in this region military men conducted experiments: gamma-irradiation at the depth. And I suspect that by this they troubled and brought in an aggressive state someone who would never think of sailing to the surface.
– May I ask a question, Professor?
– It is known that gamma-irradiation is deadly for man, but can cause growth and mutations of primitive organisms.
– They can, but not in such short time. If we were speaking about plants or microorganisms, then yes, the effects can be seen quickly there. But squids are not primitive at all, this is the first point. Secondly, if we mean the mutation mentioned, its basis is the following. – Suddenly he stopped and looked at his assistant. – Christian, you know all this very well, that’s why look after breakfast. We haven’t eaten anything yet.
Three pairs of eyes stared at him in expectation.
– Well, colleagues, mutation is often equaled to regeneration of cells and structures consisting of them. It is only partly so, because one should be very attentive and cautious towards the word «regeneration». It means transformation from one state to another. Do you understand me? One should at once make a conclusion that another state is in principle made possible by nature for the given species of animals. In other words, the natural potential of any organism is much wider than what has been concretely formed. Why? Because in the process of evolution all living beings tried to get the maximum safety margin. Otherwise there would have been no evolution. – Professor raised his finger. – This is the most important point, and I will explain it now. Imagine that a man has ideally tuned himself to one and only situation. What, I am asking you, does that mean?
– Well… – there was an indefinite answer.
– It means – he subjugated all his resources to it rigidly, – said Christian, going towards crew’s quarters. – And he won’t be able to adapt himself if the situation changes a little.
– Thank you, but do not get distracted from cooking.
– The stomach is like the one of a hungry shark, – a pitiful voice supported the professor.
– But the blood does not flow from the head, – he consoled. – Well, friends, listen attentively further. Primitive theory of evolution thinks this way: the one conquers in nature who is adapted to today’s circumstances better than the rest. It is nonsense. It means he would be the first to perish during their frequent changes. And hence follows, accordingly, that it is not profitable to adjust as much as possible to concrete circumstances, that is, to give all the strength to this task. But what is then profitable?.. Two things: proceeding from the given conditions of life to percept its main contents, and not the details, directing maximum strength at the answer to all possible changes of the details. In other words, only the minimum strength is directed to the necessary present moment survival and maximum for the readiness for the changes of the situation. The one who follows this principle preserves himself the best in the animal world.
– Excuse me, Professor, can we say like this: nature makes the living being give away its resources for the programming of the situations, making stronger the one who looks aside?
– Not just can, but must say like that.
– But you have mentioned some second point…
– Yes. And you will not find it in Darwin’s works, moreover in the works of his not too intelligent followers. The second point is the collectivity of survival of any definite species. Even the man – a very young creature compared to any species of oceanic fauna – is guided first of all by collective motives of survival. All wars which have ever taken place were caused by ethnic or macrogroup social interests. And if a “middling man” did not put them subconsciously higher than personal ones no war would have taken place. But the man, as I hope you understand, has not quite proved his evolutional stability yet. It is not clear whether we shall exist in thirty or forty thousand years, but it is clear that in this very ocean the same squids, sea-urchins, jellyfish will exist… What do we know at present about their program potential and collective methods of survival stored in them?.. Now, going back to mutation: this is just switching over to one of other programs which corresponds to new conditions better. But however did the Colorado bug, for instance, mutate, he still remains a bug, and you can be sure, he will not get transformed into a rain worm.
– But why can’t we suppose that the mutation of the squid has led to its losing his hook and jaw apparatus and acquired instead of that a huge sucking hole.
– You mean that now he can swallow the food alive and digest it till only skeleton remains? I am not against most fantastic suppositions, and the same thought, I confess, came to my head too. But it was not difficult to make some calculations in my mind. We cannot go beyond the main and fundamental biological laws. For example, the speed of certain chemical reactions. It has its limiting constants. The same, in their own way, as the speed of light. The military men conducted their first radiation here just eight days ago. Transformation of living structures could have begun at once. But even according to boldest calculations it is a funny term for the squid to change its supersolid and superfirm jaw apparatus and the chemical complex of digestion system. These are not those wonders in which one should believe.
– Maybe my question is not very competent, – began one of the students cautiously, – but was the difference noticed between one organism subject to radiation and a group of them? I am asking it in connection with your words about collective survival.
– A wonderful question, my boy! Unfortunately, it has been studied very little still. But the problem you formulated is one of the most important. Imagine that a man appeared alone in a burning house. What will he do? Simply save himself, run away. Everyone will have this program working in him. And if there is a big group of healthy strong men in the house? They will undertake quite different actions: begin to extinguish fire, save the belongings. Moreover, interacting they will launch several different programs: somebody will bring water, somebody will take the fire away from curtains, take away the furniture which has not caught fire yet, and so on. That is, the program of escape will not work at all, and instead of it there will be a complex of several functional links. Something like that may happen with a big group of similar organisms. But the difficulty is that the unexpected laboratory conditions should really put into action one of potential programs of collective action. What experiment and in regard of what organisms is it better to conduct? Alas, it is very difficult to plan such investigations.
– If one follows the suggested logic, Professor, squids are very old creatures on the planet. They used to exist in the epoch of ichthyosaurs. Nature has changed since then, but the squids stood it. It means they have a great inner potential. Why could it not respond to stiff gamma-rays?
Professor nodded, agreeing reluctantly:
– I do not state categorically that the squid failed to transform. But then we should make a conclusion that we know almost nothing about the genuine speeds of biological reactions.
– And why – not? Einstein’s theory of relativity is also doubted by some scientists.
– Let it be so. But we know very little about sea depths. Who could be preserved there besides the squid?
– I’ve got everything ready, – declared Christian putting his head out of crew’s quarters.