Wailing Octopus

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11. Lights on Clipper Reef



"This," Hobart Zircon boomed, "is a phenomenon that will rock the science of zoology to its very depths! We will examine this creature and determine his genus and species, and we will name him after you two. Octopus waili branti-scotti. Or perhaps Octopus screami would be better."

"Of course we're not certain that it was a wail," Rick said soberly. "He might have been singing. He might even have been telling us to go catch him a fish."

Tony Briotti observed, "This may not be an isolated phenomenon. Who knows? A search may disclose screaming squid, or simpering sharks, or burbling barracuda."

"Seriously," Zircon asked, "have either of you a theory to account for this? Or do you really believe that the octopus wailed?"

"We'd be in a better position to answer that if we'd had a chance to explore the cave," Scotty replied. "How can we tell? Maybe the octopus really did wail, and we were the lucky ones who heard the sound for the first time." He grinned. "We should have wailed back and tried to strike up a conversation."

Rick agreed. "I'm with Scotty. We just don't know. I agree that a wailing octopus is a new kind of beast, but that's not entirely impossible, is it?"

"Perhaps not." Tony stared at the sunset. "I'm trying to recall the physiology of Octopus vulgaris, as the garden variety of octopus is called, but my memory isn't working. It isn't beyond reason. After all, some fish make sounds. I've caught croakers myself that were pretty noisy. But I've never heard of octopus sounds until now."

Scotty chuckled. "Haven't I read that octopuses have some intelligence? We might teach him to sing. He'd be a natural for television."

"You say that the sound was loud?" Tony asked.

"Very loud. My head hurt. Did yours, Scotty?"

"I'll say! For a minute I thought my brain cells were rubbing together."

Zircon sighed. "I am stumped. And not only by your Wailing Willie, either. This whole affair baffles me, including the presence of Steve's former tail on this island. Hasn't it occurred to you that those fancy frogmen, as you call them, would have made some overt move by now if they were really interested in us?"

"Dropping the chicken was an overt move," Rick pointed out.

"Yes and no. I'd prefer to call it a not-too-subtle warning. Yet they haven't tried to interfere with your diving around the wreck."

"I've wondered about that," Scotty offered, "and it seems to me they've satisfied themselves that our interest is just in the wreck, and not in whatever they have hidden underwater. If they have anything hidden, I mean. As long as we stick with the wreck, they have no reason for causing trouble."

Tony agreed. "That makes sense to me. Perhaps you can answer this: Why do they wear cold-water suits? It's appreciably cooler at twenty fathoms, but it's certainly not cold enough for a suit."

"We only stay down fifteen minutes," Scotty said. "If we stayed down longer we might get chilled. The water isn't warm by any means down by the wreck."

Rick had a thought. "We're used to cold water, remember? Diving off Spindrift would chill a polar bear, even in summer. Suppose these people had done all their diving in tropic waters? This water would seem cold to them, particularly down deep."

It was nearly dark now, only a glimmer of light in the west. The four sat on the front porch of the cottage.

Zircon asked, "Did you monitor the radio tonight, Rick?"

"Yes, but there was no word from Steve."

"Don't you think he might like to know about the presence of his shadow on Clipper Cay?" Tony inquired.

Rick pointed to the Sky Wagon resting on the beach. "Trouble is, that's our only communication. I could contact the St. Thomas airport and request that they pass a message, but that would be like broadcasting it to the world. Steve might not like it."

Zircon's deep voice cut into his comment. "Look! Our friends are apparently going to do some night work."

There were lights on the frogmen's boat, and it was putting out. As the Spindrifters watched, it slowly approached the reef, then stopped. Scotty got the glasses and examined the scene. "Something's up!" he exclaimed. "I saw a diver go over the side!"

Hobart Zircon coughed self-consciously. "Do you know, I have taken a certain amount of pride in the fact that I am by nature a conservative individual with a highly developed capacity for minding my own business."

Rick wondered what on earth the big scientist was getting at.

"The pursuit of truth has led me along many devious routes," Zircon continued. "I have tried, with some success and many failures, to plumb the mysteries of Nature. But while I have tried to make the business of our natural universe my own, I have never thrust my not-inconsiderable nose into the business of neighbors. However, this admirable reticence has limits, since, as a scientist, I am also possessed of that inherent trait of curiosity without which no person can succeed in science."

Rick exploded into laughter. "And what you're leading up to is, you want to go see what those people are doing!"

"Precisely," Zircon admitted.

Tony and the boys roared with laughter.

"Hobart," Tony said with a chuckle, "you never fail to astonish me. And how do you propose to stick your not-inconsiderable nose into the business now going on over there?"

Zircon waved his hand. "The method was developed by our young Mr. Brant, who sometimes shows slight sparks of intelligence. He has a device which projects infrared light, and glasses that allow the wearer to see whatever that light illuminates."

Rick stared. Zircon was proposing that they take his underwater camera and use it for illumination. That must mean ... "You want to swim over with the lungs?" he asked incredulously.

"And why not?"

"But we've never done any night diving!"

"You tested the camera at night, did you not?"

"Yes," Rick admitted, "but that was in water that we knew, off Pirate's Field at home. And we only stayed in long enough to expose a few feet of film."

"We know enough about these waters to know that there are no dangerous obstructions beyond the reef, at least between here and the Maiden Hand."

Scotty laughed. "This is a day I never thought would come. It's usually the other way around, with Rick trying to sell some idea that everyone else opposes. Why not swim at night, Rick?"

"No reason," Rick admitted. "It was just that it hadn't occurred to me. There's one difficulty, though. I have only two pairs of glasses with infrared-sensitive lenses. So only two of us could go."

"Only two could dive with the camera," Tony corrected. "But all of us could go. Two would remain on the surface, with the floats, in case of trouble."

"Who would dive and who would stay on the surface?" Scotty demanded.

Rick produced a quarter. "Let coins decide. Except for the professor. He thought of it, so he dives."

"Fair enough," Scotty agreed. "All right with you, Tony?"

"Of course. The three of us, then. Odd man goes with Hobart."

Tony and Scotty produced coins. With Rick, they walked into the living room and lighted a kerosene lamp.

"Now," Rick said, and tossed his coin, catching it in the palm of his hand and slapping it onto his other wrist. Tony and Scotty followed suit. Rick uncovered first. He had heads. Tony uncovered and displayed a tail.

Scotty groaned. "Shucks! I lose. It's one of you."

Rick held his breath as Scotty uncovered--another tail! He turned to Zircon. "We dive, while Scotty and Tony stay topside."

"Good. Well, what are we waiting for?"

They changed quickly into trunks, then assembled their diving gear. Rick took the front plate from his camera and put the infrared searchlight on its mounting bracket. He changed to a fresh battery, then replaced the film in the camera with the special infrared-sensitive film.

Whatever the infrared illuminated could be seen through special glass. Rick had ordered lenses ground from the glass and had placed them in frames made to fit into a face mask. These frames could be purchased at any diving-equipment supply house. They had been designed for divers who had to wear their own corrective glasses, and they suited Rick's purpose to perfection. He handed a pair to Hobart Zircon, then inserted the other pair in his own mask.

Zircon, Tony, and Scotty decided to take spear guns. Zircon chose Rick's rubber-powered gun, while Tony selected the light spring gun. Scotty chose the highest-powered gun they had, a new jet-type powered with carbon dioxide.

Rick and Zircon connected their regulators to two freshly filled tanks, then tested the equipment. Zircon tied a rope to his belt.

The big scientist drew them together for a brief conference.

"We'll swim out and cross the reef," he directed. "Then we'll swim along the reef, staying as close as possible to the breakers. They will help conceal us. When we approach the boat, Tony and Scotty will stop and hold position. Scotty, are the binoculars waterproof?"

"Yes, they are."

"Then take them. Rick and I will go directly to the bottom at the base of the reef. We will then proceed along the reef until we spot our friends yonder."

Rick had an unhappy thought. "Suppose they see us?"

"We will try to prevent them from seeing us. However, if they do, I suggest a retreat in as good order as we can manage. If they should catch up with us, we will bluster and bluff our way on the basis that we were only diving to see if they were trying to search our wreck."

Scotty laughed. "Turn their own table on them. That's very good, Professor."

"I'm glad I'm not a physicist," Tony said piously. "We archaeologists aren't half so devious."

"I am acting in my capacity as a former consultant to JANIG, and not as a physicist," Zircon retorted with dignity. "You will refrain from casting aspersions on my profession, Doctor Briotti."

"My apologies," Tony said, grinning. "In other words, the man is devious, but the scientist is not."

"Exactly. Well, shall we go?"

Rick was glad to get into the water. The camera in its underwater case was heavy in air, but weighed only a few ounces in water. He swam with face mask under, breathing through his snorkel and letting the camera hang.

They crossed the reef without difficulty, then turned to swim along it. The trough just seaward of the breaking point of the waves was the most comfortable swimming position and they went in single file, Zircon leading.

Every now and then Rick looked up. They were getting near the boat, he thought. Perilously near. The boat was anchored just inside the reef, and he could see activity on its deck. Apparently the frogmen had returned from their first dive and were changing tanks.

Zircon stopped swimming and lay motionless in the water. Rick drew abreast of the big scientist, and Tony and Scotty stopped behind them. As they watched, suited figures with belt lights and back tanks climbed down a ladder into the water. A third man, on deck, lowered something to them. It was hard to see, but Rick thought it had a golden glisten and that it was round, about the size of a basketball. The frogmen took it and went under.

A third man lowered something that glistened like gold

Zircon's big hand took Rick by the shoulder, then he turned and motioned to the others that they were going under. Rick shifted from snorkel to aqualung mouthpiece. He took the end of rope that Zircon held out and snapped it to his weight belt. He and Zircon were now connected by a ten-foot length of rope, necessary to keep them from becoming separated in the darkness.

He submerged and dove straight down into the blackness. His thumb compressed the button on the side of the case and the camera started, the infrared light turning on. A narrow cone of water extending out about twenty feet was illuminated, but the illumination was visible only through the special glasses he and Zircon wore.

Rick held the button until they reached bottom, then suddenly realized he would use all his film before they had even found the frogmen. He groaned silently. Why hadn't he used his head? The light as well as the camera motor were operated by the same button. If he had only thought, it would have been a few seconds' work to change the circuit so the light would be on continuously. Or he might even be able to rig a waterproof switch that would operate just the light.

Well, it was too late now. He jerked on the rope for Zircon to stop, then took his belt slate and wrote, "Cam on whn lite is. Wll use nw & thn." He held it in the beam of infrared light for Zircon to read. The scientist scribbled "OK" under the message, then gave him a gentle push as a signal to go ahead.

Rick held his wrist in the beam and read ninety-two feet on his depth gauge. He calculated quickly. They would have enough air for about twenty-five minutes at this depth.

He held the camera switch long enough to see that there was only smooth bottom ahead, then released it. Almost total blackness flooded in. For all practical purposes it was completely dark, no glimmer of light to mark their way.

For an instant Rick felt panic, but reason reasserted itself. It was instinctive to feel fear under such circumstances, he thought. Not only was he out of his own medium, air, but in a high-pressure realm inhabited by potentially dangerous creatures. He grinned inwardly at the thought. The most dangerous creatures in this vicinity were human.

A twinkle of light stopped him, but Zircon continued on and the connecting line tightened. Rick identified the twinkle as phosphorescence from some marine creature on the reef. There were many such in the ocean. He flashed the infrared light, saw that they were still heading properly, and cut it off again.

The rope at his belt tugged four times for danger! He stopped instantly, letting go of the camera with one hand while he reached for his belt knife. Then he saw what Zircon had seen, a glow in the water ahead and above them. Rick estimated quickly the distance they had traveled. There was no doubt of it. The frogmen were at the octopus cave!

He followed Zircon's lead, cutting the light off and on as necessary, as the big scientist moved ahead. The glow grew in intensity, but they were still too far away to see its exact position, or whether there were men around it.

Rick's heart beat faster, and his breathing speeded up appreciably. In spite of Zircon's plan to claim they were only checking on the frogmen's interest in the wreck, Rick knew that being discovered would mean serious trouble. He recalled Steve's warning that they were up against a ruthless enemy.

The question was, how close could they get without being seen? He could take pictures at ten feet, but at any greater distance the camera would be useless.

Zircon moved ahead, going slowly now. Rick followed, not bothering with the dark-light unit because the glow in the water was enough for a beacon. Then the glow faded for a moment as a figure crossed in front of it. Still Zircon moved ahead until Rick could see two additional, smaller glows that he identified as the belt lights the frogmen had been wearing.

Zircon continued on, still hugging the bottom, and Rick divined his intention. The big scientist was going to take them directly under the frogmen! It was logical, since the frogmen would not expect danger below.

Rick followed, staying just behind Zircon's flippers, feeling the wash of water from his wake. The light was nearly overhead now, and Rick saw dark figures moving. It was unreal, like a Hollywood motion picture, except that the tense music of a movie production was replaced only by the soft sighing of their regulators.

And with the thought, Rick almost lost his mouthpiece. Their bubbles! Their bubbles would rise right past the frogmen, a dead giveaway! It might already be too late, because Zircon was almost directly under the cave!