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Phase Three (part 4)


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« on: December 05, 2022, 03:42:01 am »

The rate of rise continued to increase. By the end of the summer the level was up another eight or nine feet. The weather was vile and even colder than it had been at the same time the previous year. More of us had applied for transfer, and by mid-September we were down to sixteen.

Even Freddy Whittier had announced that he was sick and tired of wasting his time like a shipwrecked sailor, and was going to see whether he could not find some useful work to do. When the helicopter whisked him and his wife away, they left us reconsidering our own position once more.

Our task of composing never-say-die material on the theme that we spoke from, and for, the heart of an empire bloody but still unbowed was supposed, we knew, to have a stabilizing value even now, but we doubted it. Too many people were whistling the same tune in the same dark. A night or two before the Whittiers left we had had a late party where someone, in the small hours, had tuned-in a New York transmitter. A man and a woman on the Empire State Building were describing the scene. The picture they evoked of the towers of Manhattan standing like frozen sentinels in the moonlight while the glittering water lapped at their lower walls was masterly, almost lyrically beautiful—nevertheless, it failed in its purpose. In our minds we could see those shining towers—they were not sentinels, they were tombstones. It made us feel that we were even less accomplished at disguising our own tombstones; that it was time to pull out of our refuge, and find more useful work. Our last words to Freddy were that we would very likely be following him before long.

We had still, however, not reached the point of making definite application when he called us up on the link a couple of weeks later. After the greetings he said:

‘This isn’t purely social, Mike. It is disinterested advice to those contemplating a leap from the frying-pan—don’t!’

‘Oh,’ I said, ‘what’s the trouble?’

‘I’ll tell you this. I’d have an application in for getting back to you right now—if only I had not made my reasons for getting out so damned convincing. I mean that. Hang on there, both of you.’

‘But—’ I began.

‘Wait a minute,’ he told me.

Presently his voice came again.

‘Okay. No monitor on this, I think. Listen, Mike, we’re overcrowded, underfed, and in one hell of a mess. Supplies of all kinds are right down, so’s morale. The atmosphere’s like a lot of piano-strings. We’re living virtually in a state of siege here, and if it doesn’t turn into active civil war in a few weeks it’ll be a miracle. The people outside are worse off than we are, but seemingly nothing will convince them that we aren’t living on the fat of the land. For God’s sake keep this under your hat, but stay where you are, for Phyl’s sake if not for your own.’

I thought quickly.

‘If it’s as bad as that, Freddy, and you’re doing no good, why not get back here on the next helicopter. Either smuggle aboard—or maybe we could offer the pilot a few things he’d like?’

‘All right. There certainly isn’t any use for us here. I don’t know why they let us come along. I’ll work on that. Look for us next flight. Meanwhile good luck to you both.’

‘Good luck to you, Freddy, and our love to Lynn—and our respects to Bocker, if he’s there and nobody’s slaughtered him yet.’

‘Oh, Bocker’s here. He’s now got a theory that it won’t go much over a hundred and twenty-five feet, and seems to think that’s good news.’

‘Well, considering he’s Bocker, it might be a lot worse. ’Bye. We’ll be looking forward to seeing you.’

We were discreet. We said no more than that we had heard the Yorkshire place was already crowded, so we were staying. A couple who had decided to leave on the next flight changed their minds, too. We waited for the helicopter to bring Freddy back. The day after it was due we were still waiting. We got through on the link. They had no news except that it had left on schedule. I asked about Freddy and Lynn. Nobody seemed to know where they were.

There never was any news of that helicopter. They said they hadn’t another that they could send.

The cold summer drew into a colder autumn. A rumour reached us that the sea-tanks were appearing again for the first time since the waters had begun to rise. As the only people present who had had personal contact with them we assumed the status of experts—though almost the only advice we could give was always to wear a sharp knife, and in such a position that it could be reached for a quick slash by either hand. But the sea-tanks must have found the hunting poor in the almost deserted streets of London, for presently we heard no more of them. From the radio, however, we learnt that it was not so in some other parts. There were reports soon of their reappearance in many places where not only the new shore-lines, but the collapse of organization made it difficult to destroy them in effectively discouraging numbers.

Meanwhile, there was worse trouble. Overnight the combined EBC and BBC transmitters abandoned all pretence of calm confidence. When we looked at the message transmitted to us for radiation simultaneously with all other stations we knew that Freddy had been right. It was a call to all loyal citizens to support their legally elected Government against any attempts that might be made to overthrow it by force, and the way in which it was put left no doubt that such an attempt was already being made. The thing was a sorry mixture of exhortation, threats, and pleas, which wound up with just the wrong note of confidence—the note that had sounded in Spain and then in France when the words must be said though speaker and listener alike knew that the end was near. The best reader in the service could not have given it the ring of conviction.

The link could not, or would not, clarify the situation for us. Firing was going on, they said. Some armed bands were attempting to break into the Administration Area. The military had the situation in hand, and would clear up the trouble shortly. The broadcast was simply to discourage exaggerated rumours and restore confidence in the Government. We said that neither what they were telling us, nor the message itself inspired us personally with any confidence whatever, and we should like to know what was really going on. They went all official, curt, and cold.

Twenty-four hours later, in the middle of dictating for our radiation another expression of confidence, the link broke off, abruptly. It never worked again.

******

Until one gets used to it, the situation of being able to hear voices from all over the world, but none which tells what is happening in one’s own country, is odd. We picked up enquiries about our silence from America, Canada, Australia, Kenya. We radiated at the full power of our transmitter what little we knew, and could later hear it being relayed by foreign stations. But we ourselves were far from understanding what had happened. Even if the H.Q.’s of both systems, in Yorkshire, had been over-run, as it would appear, there should have been stations still on the air independently in Scotland and Northern Ireland at least, even if they were no better informed than ourselves. Yet, a week went by, and still there was no sound from them. The rest of the world appeared to be too busy keeping a mask on its own troubles to bother about us any more—though one time we did hear a voice speaking with historical dispassion of ‘l’écroulement de l’Angleterre’. The word écroulement was not very familiar to me, but it had a horribly final sound. . . .

******

The winter closed in. One noticed how few people there were to be seen in the streets now, compared with a year ago. Often it was possible to walk a mile without seeing anyone at all. How those who did remain were living we could not say. Presumably they all had caches of looted stores that supported them and their families; and obviously it was no matter for close enquiry. One noticed also how many of those one did see had taken to carrying weapons as a matter of course. We ourselves adopted the habit of carrying them—guns, not rifles—slung over our shoulders, though less with any expectation of needing them than to discourage the occasion for their need from arising. There was a kind of wary preparedness which was still some distance from instinctive hostility. Chance-met men still passed on gossip and rumours, and sometimes hard news of a local kind. It was by such means that we learnt of a quite definitely hostile ring now in existence around London; how the surrounding districts had somehow formed themselves into miniature independent states and forbidden entry after driving out many who had come there as refugees; how those who did try to cross the border into one of these communities were fired upon without questions.

‘It’s going to be bad later on,’ was the opinion of most of those I spoke to. ‘Just now pretty well all those who are left still have a few cases of this and that stowed away, and the chief worry is stopping the other fellow from finding out where it is. But later on the worry is going to be the other way round; finding out where the chaps who do have some left are hiding it—and that’s going to be nasty.’

In the New Year the sense of things pressing in upon us grew stronger. The high-tide mark was now close to the seventy-five foot level. The weather was abominable, and icy cold. There seemed to be scarcely a night when there was not a gale blowing from the south-west. It became rarer than ever to see anyone in the streets, though when the wind did drop for a time the view from the roof showed a surprising number of chimneys smoking. Mostly it was wood smoke, furniture and fitments burning, one supposed; for the coal stores in power-stations and railway yards had all disappeared the previous winter.

From a purely practical point of view I doubt whether anyone in the country was more favoured or as well found as our group. The food originally supplied together with that acquired later made a store which should last sixteen people for some years. There was an immense reserve of diesel-oil, and petrol, too. Materially we were better off than we had been a year ago when there were more of us. But we had learnt, as had many before us, about the bread-alone factor, one needed more than adequate food. The sense of desolation began to weigh more heavily still when, at the end of February, the water lapped over our doorsteps for the first time, and the building was filled with the sound of it cascading into the basements.

Some of the party grew more worried.

‘It can’t come very much higher, surely. A hundred feet is the limit, isn’t it?’ they were saying.

It wasn’t much good being falsely reassuring. We could do little more than to repeat what Bocker had said; that it was a guess. No one had known, within a wide limit, how much ice there was in the Antarctic. No one was quite sure how much of the northern areas that appeared to be solid land, tundra, was in fact simply a deposit on a foundation of ancient ice; we just had not known enough about it. The only consolation was that Bocker now seemed to think for some reason that it would not rise above one hundred and twenty-five feet—which should leave our eyrie still intact. Nevertheless, it required fortitude to find reassurance in that thought as one lay in bed at night, listening to the echoing splash of the wavelets that the wind was driving along Oxford Street.

One bright morning in May, a sunny, though not a warm morning, I missed Phyllis. Enquiries eventually led me on to the roof in search of her. I found her in the south-west corner gazing towards the trees that dotted the lake which had been Hyde Park, and crying. I leant on the parapet beside her, and put an arm round her. Presently she stopped crying. She dabbed her eyes and nose, and said:

‘I haven’t been able to get tough, after all. I don’t think I can stand this much longer, Mike. Take me away, please.’

‘Where is there to go?—if we could go,’ I said.

‘The cottage, Mike. It wouldn’t be so bad there, in the country. There’d be things growing—not everything dying, like this. There isn’t any hope here—we might as well jump over the wall here if there is to be no hope at all.’

I thought about it for some moments.

‘But even if we could get there, we’d have to live,’ I pointed out, ‘we’d need food and fuel and things.’

‘There’s—’ she began, and then hesitated and changed her mind. ‘We could find enough to keep us going for a time until we could grow things. And there’d be fish, and plenty of wreckage for fuel. We could make out somehow. It’d be hard—but, Mike, I can’t stay in this cemetery any longer—I can’t. Look at it, Mike! Look at it! We never did anything to deserve all this. Most of us weren’t very good, but we weren’t bad enough for this, surely. And not to have a chance! If it had only been something we could fight—! But just to be drowned and starved and forced into destroying one another to live—and by things nobody has ever seen, living in the one place we can’t reach!

‘Some of us are going to get through this stage, of course—the tough ones. But what are the things down there going to do then? Sometimes I dream of them lying down in those deep dark valleys, and sometimes they look like monstrous squids or huge slugs, other times as if they were great clouds of luminous cells hanging there in rocky chasms. I don’t suppose that we’ll ever know what they really look like, but whatever it is, there they are all the time, thinking and plotting what they can do to finish us right off so that everything will be theirs.

‘I dream about that sea-bottom; the great wide plains down there where it is always always raining teeth and scales and bits of bone and shells and millions and millions of tiny plankton creatures, on and on for centuries. There are ranges of mountains rising out of the plains, and in some places huge precipices split by winding gullies, and the things down below send the sea-tanks in regiments across the plains, and the regiments break into strings which go into the gullies, and come winding up in search of us in long, long processions; out of the gullies into the shallow water, and then through the towns which have gone under the sea, still searching for us and hunting us.

‘Sometimes, in spite of Bocker, I think perhaps it is the things themselves that are inside the sea-tanks, and if only we could capture one and examine it we should know how to fight them, at last. Several times I have dreamt that we have found one and managed to discover what makes it work, and nobody’s believed us but Bocker, but what we have told him has given him an idea for a wonderful new weapon which had finished them all off.

‘I know it all sounds very silly, but it’s wonderful in the dream, and I wake up feeling as if we had saved the whole world from a nightmare—and then I hear the sound of the water slopping against the walls in the street, and I know it isn’t finished; it’s just going on and on and on . . .

‘I can’t stand it here any more, Mike. I shall go mad if I have to sit here doing nothing any longer while a great city dies by inches all round me. It’d be different in Cornwall, anywhere in the country. I’d rather have to work night and day to keep alive than just go on like this. I think I’d rather die trying to get away than face another winter like last.’

I had not realized it was as bad as that. It wasn’t a thing to be argued about.

‘All right, darling,’ I said. ‘We’ll go.’

******

Everything we could hear warned us against attempting to get away by normal means. We were told of belts where everything had been razed to give clear fields of fire, and there were booby-traps and alarms, as well as guards. Everything beyond those belts was said to be based upon a cold calculation of the number each autonomous district could support. The natives of the districts had banded together and turned out the refugees and the useless on to lower ground where they had to shift for themselves. In each of the areas there was acute awareness that another mouth to feed would increase the shortage for all. Any stranger who did manage to sneak in could not hope to remain unnoticed for long, and his treatment was ruthless when he was discovered—survival demanded it. So it looked as though our own survival demanded that we should try some other way.

The chance by water, along inlets that must be constantly widening and reaching further, looked better. Our search for a speedboat had been disappointing. We had discovered nothing better than the fibre-glass dinghy. Into that I began to stow supplies that I hoped might at least serve to buy us safe transit.

We delayed a little in the hope that the weather would turn warmer, but by late June we gave up the hope, and set out up-river.

******

But for the luck of our finding that sturdy little motor-boat, the Midge, I don’t know what would have happened to us. I rather think we should have tried up-river again, and quite likely got ourselves shot. The Midge, however, changed the whole outlook. The following day, we took her back to London. Navigation of the more deeply flooded streets was a strain. Only unreliable memories could tell us whether the lamp-standards ran in the middle of the street, or at the sides, and we went cautiously, in constant alarm lest we should hole the boat upon one of them. Shallower parts we could take faster. At Hyde Park Corner we hove-to a couple of hours, waiting for the tide, and then ran safely up into Oxford Street on the flood.

An uneasy feeling that some of the others might wish to get away, too, and press to come with us now that we had more room, turned out to be baseless. Without exception they considered us crazy. Most of them contrived to take one of us aside at some time or another to point out the wilful improvidence of giving up warm, comfortable quarters to make a certainly cold and probably dangerous journey to certainly worse and probably intolerable conditions. They helped to fuel and store the Midge until she was inches lower in the water, but not one of them could have been bribed to set out with us.

Our progress down the river was cautious and slow, for we had no intention of letting the journey be more dangerous than was necessary. Our main recurrent problem was where to lay up for the night. We were sharply conscious of our probable fate as trespassers, and also of the fact that the Midge with her contents was tempting booty. Our usual anchorages were in the sheltered streets of some flooded town. Several times when it was blowing hard we lay up in such places for several days. Fresh water, which we had expected to be the main problem, turned out not to be difficult; one could almost always find some still in the tanks in the roof-spaces of a partly submerged house. Overall, the trip which used to clock at 268.8 (or .9) by road took us slightly over a month to make.

Round the corner and into the Channel the white cliffs looked so normal from the water that the flooding was hard to believe—until we looked more closely at the gaps where the towns should have been. A little later, we were right out of the normal, for we began to see our first icebergs.

We approached the end of the journey with caution. From what we had been able to observe of the coast as we came along there were often encampments of shacks on the higher ground. Where the land rose steeply there were often towns and villages where the higher houses were still occupied though the lower were submerged. What kind of conditions we might find at Penllyn in general and Rose Cottage in particular, we had no idea.

I took the Midge carefully into the Helford River, with shotguns lying to hand. Here and there a few people on the hillsides stopped to look down at us, but they neither shot, nor waved. It was only later that we found they had taken her to be one of the few local boats that still had the fuel to run.

We turned north from the main river. With the water now close on the hundred-foot level the multiplication of waterways was confusing. We lost our way half a dozen times before we rounded a corner on an entirely new inlet and found ourselves looking up a familiar steep hillside at the cottage above us.

People had been there, several lots of them, I should think, but though the disorder was considerable the damage was not great. It was evidently the consumables they had been after chiefly. The standbys had vanished from the larder to the last bottle of sauce and packet of pepper. The drum of oil, the candles, and the small store of coal were gone, too.

Phyllis gave a quick look over the debris, and disappeared down the cellar steps. She re-emerged in a moment and ran out to the arbour she had built in the garden. Through the window I saw her examining the floor of it carefully. Presently she came back.

‘That’s all right, thank goodness,’ she said.

It did not seem a moment for great concern about arbours.

‘What’s all right?’ I inquired.

‘The food,’ she said. ‘I didn’t want to tell you about it until I knew. It would have been too bitterly disappointing if it had gone.’

‘What food?’ I asked, bewilderedly.

‘You’ve not much intuition, have you, Mike? Did you really think that someone like me would be doing all that bricklaying just for fun? I walled-off half the cellar full of stuff, and there’s a lot under the arbour, too.’

I stared at her. ‘Do you mean to say—? But that was ages ago! Before the flooding even began.’

‘But not before they began sinking ships so fast. It seemed to me it would be a good thing to lay in stores before things got difficult, because it quite obviously was going to get difficult later. I thought it would be sensible to have a reserve here, just in case. Only it was no good telling you, because I knew you’d just get stuffy about it.’

I sat down, and regarded her.

‘Stuffy?’ I inquired.

‘Well, there are some people who seem to think it is more ethical to pay black-market prices than to take sensible precautions.’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘So you bricked it in yourself?’

‘Well, I didn’t want anybody local to know, so the only way was to do it myself. As it happened, the food airlift was much better organized than one could have expected, so we didn’t need it, but it will come in useful now.’

‘How much?’ I asked.

She considered. ‘I’m not quite sure, but there is a whole big vanload here, and then there’s all the stuff we’ve got in the Midge, too.’

I could see, and do see, several angles to the thing, but it would have been churlishly ungrateful to mention them just then, so I let it rest, and we busied ourselves with tidying up and moving in.

It did not take us long to understand why the cottage had been left unoccupied. One had only to climb to the crest to see that our hill was destined to be an island. Four months later it became one.

Here, as elsewhere, there had been first the cautious retreat as the water started to rise, and, later, the panicky rush to stake a claim on the high ground while there was still room there. Those who remained, and still remain, are a mixture of the obstinate, the tardy, and the hopeful who are continually thinking that the water will not come much further. A feud between those who stayed and those who went is well established. The uplanders will allow no newcomer into their strictly rationed territory: the lowlanders carry guns and set traps to discourage raids upon their fields. It is said, though I do not know with how much truth, that conditions here are good compared with Devon and other places further east, since a large part of the population, once it took to flight, decided to keep on towards the lusher areas beyond the moorlands. There are fearful tales about the guerilla warfare between starving bands that goes on in Devon, Somerset, and Dorset, but here one hears shooting only occasionally, and only on a small scale.

The thoroughness of our isolation, beyond occasional bits of hearsay, has been one of the difficult things to bear. The radio set which might have told us something of how the rest of the world, if not our own country, was faring, failed a few weeks after we reached here, and we have neither the means of testing it, nor of replacing the necessary parts.

Luckily, our island offers little temptation, so we have not been molested. The people about here grew enough food last summer to keep themselves going with the help of fish, which are plentiful. Also, our status is not entirely that of strangers, and we have been careful to make no demands or requests. I imagine we are supposed to be existing on fish and what stores we brought aboard the Midge—and that what is likely to be left of those by now would not justify the trouble of a raid on us. It might have been a different story had the crops been poorer last summer . . .

******

I started this account at the beginning of November. It is now the end of January. The water continued to rise slightly, but since about Christmas time there has been no increase that we can measure. We are hoping that it has reached its limit. There are still icebergs to be seen in the Channel, but it seems to us that they are fewer than they were.

There are still not infrequent raids by sea-tanks, sometimes singly, but more usually in fours or fives. As a rule, they are more of a nuisance than a danger, for the people living close to the water post watchers to give the alarm. The sea-tanks avoid any climbing, and seldom venture more than a quarter of a mile from the water’s edge; when they find no victims they soon go away again.

By far the worst thing we have had to face has been the bitter cold of the winter. Even making allowance for the difference in our circumstances, we think that it has been a great deal colder than last. Our inlet has been frozen over for many weeks, and in calm weather the sea itself freezes well out from the shore. But mostly it is not calm weather; for days on end there have been gales when everything is covered with ice from the spray carried inland. We are lucky to be sheltered from the full force of the south-west, but it is bad enough.

We have now quite decided that when the summer comes we must try to get away. Possibly we could last out here another winter, but it would leave us less well provisioned, and less fit to face a journey that will have to be made sometime. We may, we hope, be able to find in what is left of Plymouth, or Devonport, fuel to replace that which we used in coming here; but, in any case, we intend to rig a mast so that if we are warned off, or if there is no fuel to be found, we shall be able to continue southward under sail when our present supplies give out.

Where to? We don’t know yet. Somewhere warmer, where it will be easier to grow things and start again. Perhaps we shall find only bullets where we try to land, but even that will be better than slow starvation in bitter cold.

Phyllis agrees. ‘We shall be taking “a long shot, Watson; a very long shot!” ’ she says. ‘But, after all, what is the good of our having been given so much luck already if we don’t go on using it?’

May 24th

I amend the foregoing. We shall not be going south. This MS. will not be left here in a tin box on the chance of somebody finding it some day, as I had intended; it will go with us. Perhaps it may even be read by a number of people after all, for this is what has happened:

We had the Midge pulled up on shore, and were working to get her ready for the journey. Phyllis was painting, and I still had the engine apart, trying to get the valve-timing back right, when a dinghy came tacking into our inlet, with only one man aboard her. As he came closer I recognized him as a local whom I used to see about when times were normal, and had come across once or twice since. I did not know his name. But there was nothing to bring anyone up the inlet except us. I took a look at the gun, just to make sure it was handy. He kept on on a tack that brought him a little above us, and then turned into the wind.

‘Ahoy, there!’ he hailed. ‘Your name Watson?’ We told him it was. ‘Good,’ he called. ‘Got a message for you.’

He shortened his sheet, put the rudder over, and ran straight towards us. Then he dropped his sail and let the dinghy run right on to the heather. He jumped out, pulled her up a bit, and then turned to us.

‘Michael and Phyllis Watson? Used to be with EBC?’ he asked.

We admitted it, wonderingly.

‘They been putting your names out on the wireless,’ he said.

We stared at him blankly. At last:

‘Who—who has?’ I said, unsteadily.

‘Council for Reconstruction they call themselves,’ he told us. ‘They’ve been putting out a broadcast every night for a week or ten days now. Every time they end up with a list of people they’re trying to find. Your names were among ’em last night—“believed to be in the neighbourhood of Penllyn, Cornwall”—so I reckoned you’d better know about it.’

‘But—but who are they? What do they want?’ I asked him.

He shrugged. ‘Some party that’s trying to straighten this lot out a bit. Good luck to ’em, I say, whoever they are. It’s more than time somebody did.’

Phyllis went on staring at him. She was looking a little pale.

‘Does that mean it’s—all over?’ she said.

The man looked at her and then turned to regard the water spread over former fields, the new inlets that reached back into the land, the abandoned homes washed through by every tide.

‘No,’ he said, decisively, ‘that’s not what it means. But trying to make the best of it is going to be a lot better than just putting up with it.’

‘But what is it about us? What do they want?’ I asked.

‘They just said they want you in London—if you think you can make it safely. If you can’t, you’re to stand by for instructions later on. They give lists of names of people that they want to go to London, or Malvern, or Sheffield, or one or two other places—not many for London, but yours was.’

‘They don’t say anything about what it’s for?’

He shook his head. ‘There’s not really a lot they have said yet, but they’re going to be dropping small radio-sets with batteries soon, and later on some transmitters, too. For the present they’re telling people to form groups for local government until communications get working properly.’

Phyllis and I looked thoughtfully at one another for some moments.

‘I think I can see what we’re going to be wanted for,’ I said.

She nodded. We let the idea sink in for a bit, then I turned back to the man.

‘Come on,’ I said, nodding towards the cottage. ‘There’s a bottle or two up there that I’ve been keeping in case of something special. This seems to be it.’

Phyllis linked her arm in mine, and we went up the hill together.

‘We want to know more about it,’ I said, putting down my half-empty glass.

‘There’s not much yet,’ he repeated. ‘But what there is sounds like the turn all right, at last. Remember that fellow Bocker? They had him on talking a night or two ago—and a bit more cheerful than he used to be, too. Giving what he called a general survey of the position, he was.’

‘Tell us,’ said Phyllis, beside me. ‘Dear A. B. being cheerful ought to have been worth hearing.’

‘Well, the main things are that the water’s finished rising—could’ve told him that ourselves, near six months ago, but I suppose there’ll be people some places that haven’t heard of it yet. A big lot of the best land’s gone under, but all the same he reckons that if we get organized we ought to be able to grow enough, because they think the population’s down to between a fifth and an eighth of what it was—could be even less.’

‘All that?’ said Phyllis, staring at him incredulously. ‘Surely—?’

‘Sounded as if we’ve been pretty lucky round here compared with most parts,’ the man told her. ‘Pneumonia, mostly, he said, it was. Not much food, you see; no resistance, no medical services, no drugs, and three hellish winters—it’s taken ’em off like flies.’

He paused. We were silent, trying to grasp the scale of it, and what it would mean. I got little beyond telling myself the obvious—that it was going to be a very different world from the old one. Phyllis saw a little further:

‘But shall we even get a fair chance to try?’ she said. ‘I mean, the Bathies are still there. Suppose they have something else that they’ve not used yet—?’

The man shook his head. He gave a twisted grin of satisfaction.

‘Oh, he talked about them, too, Bocker did. Reckons that this time they’ve really had it.’

‘How?’ I asked.

‘According to him, they’ve got hold of some kind of thing that’ll go down in the Deeps. It puts out ultra-something—not ultra-violet; a sort of noise, only you can’t hear it.’

‘Ultrasonics?’ I suggested.

‘That’s it. Sounds queer to me, but he says the waves it puts out’ll kill under water.’

‘It’s right enough,’ I told him. ‘There were a whole lot of people working on that four or five years ago. The trouble was to get a transmitter that’d go down there.’

‘Well, he says they’ve done it now—and who do you think?—the Japs. They reckon they’ve cleared a couple of small Deeps already. Anyway, the Americans seem to think it works all right, ’cause they’re making some, too, to use round the West Indies way.’

‘But they have discovered what Bathies are . . . What they look like?’ Phyllis wanted to know.

He shook his head. ‘Not so far as I know. All Bocker said was that a lot of jelly stuff came up, and went bad quickly in the sunlight. No shape to it. Not the pressure to hold the things together, see? So what a Bathy looks like when it’s at home is still anybody’s guess—and likely to stay that way.’

‘What they look like when they’re dead is good enough for me,’ I said, filling up the glasses once more. I raised mine. ‘Here’s to empty Deeps, and free seas again.’

******

After the man had left, we went out and sat side by side in the arbour, looking out at the view that had changed so greatly. For a little time neither of us spoke. I took a covert glance at Phyllis; she was looking as if she had just had a beauty treatment.

‘I’m coming to life again, Mike,’ she said.

‘Me, too,’ I agreed. ‘Though it isn’t going to be a picnic life,’ I added.

‘I don’t care. I don’t mind working hard when there’s hope. It was having no more hope that was too much for me.’

‘It’s going to be a very strange sort of world, with only a fifth or an eighth of us left,’ I said, meditatively.

‘There were only five million or so of us in the first Elizabeth’s time—but we counted,’ she said.

We sat on. There was planning, as well as the reorientation, to be done.

‘As soon as we can get the Midge ready?’ I asked. ‘I think we’ve still more than enough fuel to take us that far.’

‘Yes. As soon as we can,’ she told me.

She went on sitting, with her elbows on her knees and her chin on her hands, looking far away. It was getting chilly again as the sun sank. I moved closer and put my arm round her.

‘What is it?’ I asked.

‘I was just thinking. . . . Nothing is really new, is it, Mike? Once upon a time there was a great plain, covered with forests and full of wild animals. I expect our ancestors hunted there. Then one day the water came in and drowned it all—and there was the North Sea. . . . I think we’ve been here before, Mike. . . . And we got through last time . . .’

THE END

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