Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"Undersea Prisoner" by Harl Vincent, part 2

This is the second installment of "Undersea Prisoner" by Harl Vincent, a science fiction story that first appeared in the February 1940 issue of Amazing Stories.

The story so far:
After being framed for his friend's murder, Richard Burke avoids a prison sentence by volunteering to take part in a dangerous experiment, riding an undersea balloon to a depth of six miles. Burke suspects that the balloon's inventor, Professor Francis Augustine, is the man who framed him. With the aid of another prisoner, Burke is able to trap Augustine with him in the descending balloon . . .

Chapter II
Monster of the Deep

The real Francis Augustine did not recover consciousness until the outside pressure gauge registered more than eleven hundred pounds. They were nearly a half mile beneath the surface. Trussed and gagged as he was, the professor could only struggle madly and make horrible grunting noises as his eyes seemed about to fall from their sockets.

Ungently, Burke ripped the gag from his mouth.

"G-god!" babbled Augustine, looking wildly at the gauges. "We're down. We've submerged."

Burke was untying the professor's feet. "You're telling me!" he said savagely. "And how do you like it?"

"But, Dick!" Augustine's stare was frenzied and perspiration oozed out in great beads from his forehead as he struggled to a sitting position. "You don't understand. You --"

"Damn right I understand. You fixed things so I'd stay sunk and now you're in the same boat. Don't think so much of it, do you?"

"But I didn't mean --"

"No, you didn't mean to come alone. But here you are. It was all right for me, wasn't it? When it's you it's different. Now, see if you can figure out a way out -- for both of us."

Augustine's flabby jowls twitched violently; his pendulous lower lip quivered. "Un-tie my hands, Dick," he begged.

Burke obliged, first patting his own hip pocket, to which the professor's capsule projector had been transferred. "Don't try anything funny," he warned. I've your gun. Not that I'd need it."

The older man was almost as white now as had been Zybyski when he stepped outside the sphere. With his hands finally free, he at once buried his face in them. His big frame shook convulsively. He was in a mortal funk.

"Snap out of it!" snarled Burke. "Get your think tank working. What'd you do to this thing to wreck it so it couldn't rise?"

The professor looked up with an agony of craven fear in his every expression. He was suddenly an old, old man. "I -- I welded the ballast weights to the shell," he admitted.

"That's nice. Lovely. All beautifully taken care of on the outside where we can't get at them. Where the pressure'd flatten us like chewing gum even if we could get out there. You're good, you are."

Augustine slumped to his knees, started alternately praying and cursing. Incoherently. Burke slapped him back to blubbering sanity.

"Get yourself together and face the facts. If we have to die, let's die sane anyway. And if there's any chance at all, let's try and dope it out."

"There's no chance in the world," sobbed the professor.

Burke drew back his arm for another swing. "Don't, don't," the demoralized man pleaded. "I'll be good."

He was like a child. The young research engineer regarded him contemptuously, turned his back and moved to the televis. "This is no good down this far, is it?" he asked.

"No -- not below a thousand feet."

Burke looked at the pressure gauge. Two thousand pounds, it read. "We're not sinking very fast," he said.

"No, the difference in weight of the car in excess of the buoyancy of the balloon is very little. The descent must be gradual for safety."

"Safety -- hmpf. Call this safety?"

"I mean under ordinary circumstances." Augustine was coming around to normal.

"Then we wouldn't need to discard much weight to halt our downward progress, would we?"

"A couple of hundred pounds would do it now. But there is no way of throwing off any weight at all. The manhole can't be opened from inside; even if it could be the pressure would swamp us. No hope!"

"How long will our air last? Food and water?"

"Four days with two aboard."

Burke's eyes narrowed, then he laughed. "Hell's bells," he chuckled. "No need of killing you or of you killing me to make it last eight days, is there? That would only prolong the agony for the one that was left alive. Might just as well wait for what's coming to us."

He stared at the professor. Augustine stared back. The spectre of certain death was between them.

* * *

Three thousand pounds, nearly seven thousand feet, they were down before either of them thought of switching on the outside lights to see what there was to see of the fabled denizens of the deep. Until now no man still alive and sane had seen ore than vague shadows on a color screen. That is, at any depth such as this.

"You can finishe telling me about the gadgets now," said Burke. "How do you turn on the outer floods?"

Augustine showed him, first illuminating the huge balloon that swayed above them, then the sides, then below. There were five of the thick glass ports, one above, one below, and three spaced around the middle. They saw absolutely nothing outside the circles of misty brilliance and nothing within the zones of illumination excepting a few wriggling, corkscrewlike glistening threads that slithered upward over the circular ports. They were utterly alone in the depths.

"Showing you about the gadgets, as you call them, reminds me," said the professor. "How did you and the other manage this? Where's he? All I remember is when the mountain fell on my head."

Burke laughed in spite of the seriousness of the situation. His companion was taking it better than he'd expected -- so far. "That was Teddy," he told him. "He slugged you from behind. You didn't make a sound to warn those outside. Then he took your sun glasses and stuck on the false mustache we'd made from his own hair in imitation of your real one. We stripped you and he changed into your clothing. Then he went outside and bossed the job of closing us up and dropping us over."

Augustine nodded. "Yes, that way, he could easily pass for me." Dropping his eyes to the unfamiliar clothing he'd not even noticed yet, the professor snapped: "But you -- you aided a criminal to escape. He would get away in my plane and not be suspected!"

"That's what you think. And that's what Teddy thought. I kidded him along so I could get you right here where you are. I won -- he lost. Once we were down I used the televis -- quick. Zybyski will say it was a double cross. I call it justice -- turning him in again. Think I'd let a rat like that loose? He'd be murdering someone else's baby in a year or so. Oh, no."

Augustine looked thoughtful. "You did a pretty good job at that," he admitted. "And I guess I deserve what I'm getting, too."

Burke was amazed; his companion was as cool now as a cucumber. Was he cooking up something in his treacherously inventive mind?

"You certainly do deserve it. But isn't there something we can do? No possible chance at all?"

The professor shook his head dolefully. Then his eyes widened suddenly and he pointed to one of the viewing ports. "Look!" he yelped. "What on earth is that?"

They had switched off the outer floodlight to save the batteries as much as possible, though why they needed to save them was not clear. "Looks like a submarine," exclaimed Burke.

It did. Something was approaching steadily in the inky blackness out there, something with a long row of small lights along its side and with a twin beam exploring ahead. Burke switched on their side floods and the creature was revealed, not as any man-made duplication of Captain Nemo's Nautilus, but as a gigantic living, swimming monster that carried its own lights. One look at its enormous bulk, its ten foot long razor fins, its huge head and broad, tusk-filled mouth was enough for Burke. He switched off the lights both inside and outside the sphere. The creature was five hundred feet long if it was an inch.

"Holy Smoke!" he gasped. "That thing could swallow us whole. And if it should get tangled up in the cables above or puncture the balloon, it'll be just too bad. Hope he didn't see us."

Augustine moaned a little in the darkness. "As well go that way as the other," he whispered.

It was true. Burke felt a little foolish over his useless precaution. But he didn't turn on the inside lights until they'd seen the monster that was like a lighted ocean liner in the blackness drift on up past the bulking shadow of the balloon and out of sight.

* * *

Fifty-five hundred pounds. About two and a half miles of ocean lay above them. A distinct sense of movement was felt suddenly; the pointer of the gauge swung rapidly across the scale to sixty-two hundred, then remained stationary.

"What the hell," said Burke. "Did we fall?"

Augustine looked at another of the gauges. "We were swept downward by a submarine current. And we're still in it, but it has leveled off and is carrying us rapidly toward the northeast. Sa-ay!"

The professor's eyes brightened on the exclamation.

"Say what?" Burke couldn't see anything to be jubilant over.

"There is a chance, just one remote chance," said Augustine, "that we may be swept into a rising current. Sort of an updraft, you know. We're heading for the Irish coast now. Where we started, the depth was more than five miles. It'll be getting shallower after a while. And if there is such an upward current and we strike it . . . "

"What are the probabilities?" asked the younger man dubiously.

Augustine's face fell. "About ten million to one," he admitted.

"That's what I thought."

They had started dropping again at about the former rate; the current had been unable to hold them. It was like drifting in the car of an ancient gas-filled balloon, at the mercy of every errant wind, falling for lack of ballast to throw out. They could discharge oil from the bag above, of course, the same as you could use the ripcord of a gas balloon. But that would hasten the end, not prolong it.

"Let's light up outside," said Burke for want of action. And he switched on the floods as he spoke. He hadn't the heart to go to work on Augustine right now. He'd suffer enough -- later.

A mountain peak looked immediately alongside, vanished into the blackness above. They were slithering downt the sheer face of a granite cliff, the great balloon overhead bouncing over its jutting edges. Fortunately, their descent was very gradual.

And then the balloon had lodged between two projecting fingers of rock. They jerked to a stop. The car dangled, swaying before the mouth of a huge cavern. The pressure was seventy-one hundred.

Burke's eyes tried to penetrate the gloom beyond the white wall of light that pushed perhaps a hundred feet into the cavern. He had thought he saw something flicker back there. He had! Four discs of luminosity swam into view, like the eyes of a team of dogs gleaming in an automobile headlight glare. But these four ghastly orbs grew steadily larger.

And then an ugly, squirmy monster hove into view. This was a giant squid, an octopus thing with four eyes that reared its hideous body forty feet from the cavern floor on three of its sucker-lined arms while the other five arms weaved and twined toward the dangling sphere. Two eyes were beneath, two above a cavernous, wide-open mouth that was lined with row upon row of glistening incisors. A tentative arm reached out as the terrifying creature advanced, its tip curling around a few of the cables that connected their car with the balloon. The car swung crazily in toward that yawning mouth, spilling the two men in a heap on the floor.

"God!" screamed Augustine. "It's going to swallow us."

The car jerked as cabled snapped. And then the great jaws closed in over them. There was the crunch of huge teeth on the berylumin shell. But the creature, powerful as it was, could make no impression on that glass-hard surface. The car rolled inside and the teeth snapped shut on what was left of the frayed cables.

There were convulsive heavings of the sphere and it rolled over and over in the huge cavity of a mouth, battering its two occupants against bunks, instrument tables and walls. A few dizzying flashes came to them in the tumbling, of great reddish-purple splotches and dangling fleshy members, of a constricted opening down which their sphere spun madly.

The monster was swallowing them whole!

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