Also appeared in Swedish as Tidvagen in Hapna! 7-8/1958.
All Earth-type planets are not likely to have exactly the same conditions as we experience on this water-covered planet of ours. For instance, a planet without a satellite is not likely to have much of a tidal problem — but take the other extreme and find a planet with nine satellites and the ocean tides would present quite a problem once in a while. As author Rayer indicates in the following story.
Illustrated by TAYLOR
The powerful motor barge slid to rest by the concrete jetty and
bumped imperceptibly, swaying gently to the waves lapping her hull.
From her deck Joe Baring stepped to the pier, composed of the
pounded rock of Regulus I, and sloping away up to the mainland fifty
yards ahead, where the land-based section of the power station stood,
a veritable castle backed by fleecy clouds. The two years hard work
had been well spent, he thought, his feet thudding on the brown
aggregate. Regulus I was a planet with promise. When her sun,
Regulus Major, had first been pointed out to him on the star map,
midway between Hydra and Ursa Major, he had felt indecision,
hesitation. The accomplishment of work well done had dispelled both.
A tall man of forty-five stood on the pier, waiting. “ I suppose the generators will be running within the hour, Mr. Baring ?” he asked.
Joe halted, nodding. Chris Winnett looked gloomy — but that was usual. “ I’m just going to report the first stage of the work finished. If Regulus I has no coal or other fuel we’ve at least enough tidal power to make that unimportant.”
Winnett looked morose. “ Been simpler if the preliminary investigation had located coal seams. But there aren’t any. Ever wondered why ? ”
“ Can’t say I have. Because there was no large vegetation or forests, I suppose.”
“ Of course. But why wasn’t there such vegetation — the planet is as old as Earth.”
Joe shrugged, and turned to face the way he had come. The sea breeze stirred his blonde hair and he screwed up his light blue eyes against the sunlight reflected from the water. The circumstances of millions of years before were not his to unfathom. His duty was the present : a colony would need power, and the tides would furnish it. The sea-borne section of the generating plant rode at the mouth of the estuary, tethered by giant cables. From the pier it was just visible as a long, low shape almost lost in the haze, and backed by the brilliance of Regulus Major’s setting.
“ I don’t like things I don’t understand,” Chris Winnett stated behind him.
Joe put his back to the setting sun, recalling his mind from the great floating powerhouse that would soon hum into action. “Meaning the lack of primeval vegetation on an Earth scale ?”
Joe shrugged. “ There was no coal on Mars, remember ?”
“ Mars had an extinct culture. Regulus I hasn’t.”
A new world always posed problems, Joe admitted as he strode easily up the rising pier. The lack of coal, initially troublesome, had ceased to bother him the moment the tidal-power project had been commenced. Newcomers to a planet must make do with what they had. Tidal power would do fine until the authorities on Earth became sufficiently clear of their own red-tape to state whether atomic generating plant would be permitted.
A small wing of the huge brown building housed the sub-space radio. Joe hoped he was not late. Project Commander Harvey was acid-tongued against laxity, and excuses calmed him as much as petrol thrown on a bonfire.
The indicator bulb on the equipment was just awaking to a glow as Joe entered. He closed the door hastily and settled his six-foot body on the mushroom stool. Fair, scarcely thirty-five, Joe had a certain fiery undercurrent that sometimes bubbled up, but was usually hidden by his caution and thoughtfulness.
Static crackled and hissed in the reproducer. “ Contacting Regulus I project.”
“ Joe Baring here.”
There was a delay, then a new voice : “ Project Commander Harvey here. I regret being a trifle late.”
Joe smiled. “ I have been waiting, sir. I hope it’s nothing important”
“ A commission meeting. It’s unlikely atomic power will be allowed on Regulus I for years — they’re afraid the natives will profit by the introduction of atomics to blow us up !” A snort revealed the commander’s opinion of such excess caution. “ The tidal power station is going to schedule ? ”
“ Yes, sir ! It should be running within hours.”
“ Good. No one can pretend the natives might use that to clear us off the planet !”
“ No, sir. I have great faith in its success.”
Commander Harvey made a sound denoting approval. “ You have also now set up good relationships with the natives ?”
Joe hesitated. It was difficult to admit two years had accomplished nothing whatever in that direction. “ Not yet, sir.” He hoped the background static would make his hope sound convincing.
“ Then don’t delay further. It is very important indeed.”
A whining bubble crossed the end of the commander’s words, and Joe knew the contact was ending. The sub-radio could maintain communication for minutes only.
“ We will do our best, sir !”
The light faded and he did not know if Harvey had heard. Easy to sit in a comfortable office on Earth and instruct, he thought. But hard to be on an alien planet and fulfil ! How establish friendship with a race that ignored every Earthman, or looked through him with scornful eyes ?
Outside, the sun had gone, leaving a blaze of red above the horizon. One small moon had risen, and Joe searched the heavens for others. The nine moons that circled Regulus I were a constant thing of wonder to him. Each on its own path, they rose and set in always-changing sequence, nine satellites never agreeing in orbit or period. The first time Chris Winnett had seen seven in the sky at once, his face had been gloomy with suspicion of disaster.
“ Eight too many !” he growled.
Remembering, Joe smiled. Luna was something of an exception, and the nine moons of Regulus I at least gave variety. A second moon was rising from the east, overtaking the first, and Joe did not doubt others were concealed by the brilliance of Regulus Major’s setting.
Chris Winnett was returning from the jetty with a basket of marine specimens. He halted.
“ Commander Harvey pleased, Mr. Baring ? ”
“ Well enough, except for our failure with the natives. Any idea when the Linwoods went out ? ”
Winnett scratched his narrow jaw. “ Early, just after you left in the motor barge.”
Then it was time they were back, Joe thought. No one stayed away unprotected during dark, and a motor jeep with canvas hood was vulnerable.
“ Think I’ll look from the bluff,” he said.
The jeep had radio, but if neither of the pair was listening, contact would be impossible. Joe hoped Philip Linwood’s occasional irresponsibility had not caused an accident, or trouble. Not if Veronica could prevent it, he decided. What Linwood lacked his sister had in full.
The rocky promontory permitted an extensive view in all directions. The great raft, with all its equipment, was more clearly visible, but the light was fading rapidly. The wide river flowed evenly, its waters meeting the waves of the rising tide. Inland, twilight obscured the scene. A few dots of flickering red were Regulian camp-fires. If the jeep was within the field of view, its lights were extinguished. Nor was its motor audible above the murmuring tide.
Joe listened, straining his gaze over the dark landward horizon, but no rapidly-moving glow told of the Linwood’s return. In some ways Regulus I resembled Earth. Gravity, air, relative land and sea areas — all were similar, but there the likeness ended. No huge forests dotted her surface, and they had found neither oil nor coal Transporting components for the tidal power station had been a major problem, but successfully met.
Half way down the slope a Regulian stood beside the path. Equalling Joe’s six feet, it met his gaze levelly as he descended. There was something disconcertingly human in its scorn, Joe thought, and he felt the unease of a child caught in wrong doing. He halted, schooling his tongue to Regulian phrases Veronica Linwood had taught him.
“ Greetings. All is well ? ”
The eyes showed no response. The whole expression suggested a human was in all ways unworthy of any attention. Joe felt anger, suppressed it, and shrugged.
“ How about a little co-operation sometime ? ”
Long, golden lashes closed over the eyes for a moment. “ Your co-operation and presence are both alike unnecessary to us,” the Regulian said.
The cutting tone brought colour to Joe’s cheeks. He swore silently and went on. When he looked over his shoulder the native was continuing up the path, and did not glance back. The sleek hair of its head and shoulders glinted ; . its step was sure, its bearing erect.
Always scorned, always ignored, Joe thought as he reached level ground. The natives numbered millions. Six-fingered, they spun fibre garments, sowed and harvested, made boats each a miracle of craftsmanship, and built dwellings of carved stone blocks. Water flowed through their villages in rock channels. In all, Joe judged them the equals of men from the ancient civilisations of Earth. They wrote a flowing cursive script, kept to themselves, and regarded Earthmen as mud.
When Joe entered the main building, Spenser, the young mechanic on radio watch, was looking for him. Relief crossed the mechanic’s round face.
“ It’s the Linwoods, Mr. Baring.”
“ Trouble ?” Joe followed him back down the corridor.
“ Seems the jeep’s stuck and they can’t shift it.”
Probably Philip Linwood’s fault, Joe thought. Linwood had a high accident potential.
In the radio room he dropped on a seat before the local radio equipment.
“ Joe Baring here.”
Linwood had obviously been waiting. “ We’re stuck in two feet of mud, Joe !” The tone was plaintive, irritated. “ I’ve been trying an hour to get the jeep out.”
“You want a rescue party ? ”
“ Of course ! There’s a gang of natives here, but they won’t help. They’re damned unco-operative — ”
Joe silenced him. “ What happened? Where are you ?”
“ Not more than ten miles from you. I was trying a short cut over a stream bed. Veronica thought it looked risky — ”
“ But you preferred to try first and think afterwards.” Joe could not resist the sarcasm. “ I can’t send anyone. I’ve told Commander Harvey the plant is to start this evening, and start it will. You’ll have to get back best you can.”
“ But it’s ten miles, Joe !”
“ Then walk !” Joe snapped.
He turned up the equipment switch and any reply went unheard. Trust Philip to find trouble, he thought. He caught the expression in the young mechanic’s eyes as he rose.
“ You’re thinking I’m hard on them, Spenser.”
The other looked uncomfortable. “ A rescue jeep could get there in half an hour, sir.”
Joe smiled. “ Not sending one makes sense, Spenser. First, Linwood needs to realise someone can’t always be present to pull him out of a hole. Second, and most important, it’ll be a test to see if the Regulians will help. Two humans obviously in difficulty under their very noses. Miss Linwood can talk to them. The thought of ten miles of broken country on foot will make her and Linwood more persuasive. If there’s an atom of sympathy or compassion in the natives they’ll help !”
He ascended to the top floor of the building, where the power control equipment, so far unused, occupied a long panel. The tides moved in a strangely complex pattern, due to Regulus Major and the nine moons, but were never still, and never quite repeated the same sequence. After two years study, Chris Winnett had not wholly mapped their rise and fall. Nevertheless, ebb and flow there always was, and the power station on the great metal raft was ready.
A line ran from raft to shore, and the man left in charge answered the phone at once.
“ All in order and ready, sir.”
Joe felt satisfaction. Here, at least, Harvey would have no reason for complaint.
“ Good,” he said. “ We’re ready to go.”
“ Yes, sir!”
The line went dead and Joe replaced the phone. The tidal plant, moored to shore and seabed, could ride the rise and fall of the sea. Below the flat steel hull, extending to great depths, sluices and culverts directed the ebb and flow of mighty currents through specially designed turbines. Cables carried the power to the shore station, where voltage- control transformers provided a constant output, and distribution circuits could feed a grid upon which would depend the first civilised community.
A remote murmur not of the tides began, and meters on the long panel stirred from zero. Oil-immersed contactors thudded ; the building became as if alive, and lights outside glowed and grew. Brilliantly illuminated, the rock upon which the building stood was outlined as at noon. Away over the running sea a string of bulbs showed the full length of the tidal-power raft. Joe stood for a long time watching the spectacle, before leaving a man in charge and seeking his bunk.
Noon sun shone full on headland and estuary when Philip and Veronica Linwood, striped with dust and mud, slogged into view. No help from the Regulians ! Joe thought.
Philip Linwood was angry ; his sister’s lips hinted at suppressed amusement, as if she agreed the lesson was not out of place.
Joe’s light blue eyes twinkled. “ Sorry no one was free to help. Have any luck with the natives ?”
Linwood said something inaudible. His sister smiled. Equally dark, but several years his junior, her gaze was constant, honest, and her chin indicative of self-reliance.
“ They talked, but didn’t help,” she said. They watched us sweating to get the jeep out, up to our knees in mud. I showed them the rope we’d got, and explained just a little extra pull would bring us clear.”
“ But it wasn’t forthcoming ?” Joe murmured.
Her eyes clouded at the memory. “ No ! In brief, I believe they didn’t think us worth helping !”
Joe sighed. In two years the Regulians had shown nothing but scornful contempt for any human, and all humanity’s doings. It was galling.
Philip Linwood slapped the dried mud on his trousers. “ Damned unco-operative lot !”
He stamped away into the living quarters. Joe recalled that there would soon be another period of brief contact with Harvey.
“ Pity they’re always so awkward,” he said.
She looked at him quickly. “ The natives ? After two years we don’t know what they think of us. Is it toleration — or hostility ?”
“ Wish I knew.” He started towards the block that held so much of success, yet which might become only a symbol of failure. “ The sub-radio schedule means Project Commander Harvey will soon be waiting. I’d have liked to report progress with the natives.”
“Was that one reason why you let us walk ?”
“ Perhaps. An emergency sometimes brings out good feelings.”
He went in and waited for the bulb to glow. The sub-radio schedule depended on many variables, was worked out far in advance, and was in its own way as irregular as the rise and fall of the planet’s nine moons.
When Harvey came on his enthusiasm was evident even above the inter-galactic noise. “ The commission is very pleased, Mr. Baring. The plant works correctly ?”
“ Very well, sir.”
“ Good. There’s a lot of important money behind this project.” Something was lost in static. “ I am asked to stress the great importance of keeping on terms of friendship with the natives. Without that, no colonisation is ever possible.”
Joe was glad his superior could not see his expression. “No overt act of hostility has ever arisen between Regulian and Earthman,” he said guardedly.
“ Good. The commission would never permit you to have atomic plant except under circumstances of full co-operation and friendship between natives and humans.”
The static became a burbling whine, and Joe knew contact was going. Many light-years, and fifty relay stations away, Harvey was growing unintelligible.
“ I will report all developments, sir,” Joe said into the hubbub, and watched the bulb fade.
Friendship, he thought as he rose. Co-operation! To get either out of a Regulian was like trying to beg water spring from a stone ! For once he felt a fiery upsurge of emotion he could not altogether quell.
“ Damn ’em!” he said. But he knew Harvey was right. Native scorn was galling. Worse, lack of friendship suggested preparation for hostility. Possible hostility meant every man must walk armed ; free expansion would be stifled ; the colony could become a besieged outpost. It was no good.
At the top of the jetty Chris Winnett sat upon a perforated container, mopping his long face. His trousers were rolled to his knees, his feet muddy. Joe halted opposite him.
“ Found anything new in marine life ?”
“ No, Mr. Baring. We’ve seen it all — if seeing is enough.”
The tone stirred a vague unease in Joe’s mind. “ You’re worried ?”
Winnett rose from his seat on the punched lid. “ Perhaps — and puzzled.” He removed the lid. Joe looked in and saw a species of conical shell-fish broad as his palm, each moving on many short pseudopods.
“ You’ve brought these in before,” he said, puzzled. Winnett never wasted words or energy on the unnecessary.
“ I have. There are thousands on the rocks. Usually they sit tight, but now it’s different.”
He put on the lid and slapped it down with a fist. Watching him, Joe felt his unease increase. Abruptly Winnett swung his legs over the jetty and dropped to the sand and rock five feet below. He paused, looking up.
“ Come down here and you’ll see what I mean, Mr. Baring.”
Joe hesitated, then lowered his large frame down. His feet sank in slush as he followed Winnett among the pools. At last Winnett halted, pointing.
“ Most of the shell-fish were here. Now they’ve other ideas.”
Joe followed his gesture. Innumerably damp muddy trails led up from the tide-line pools, as if a myriad of tiny sea creatures had migrated inland. He walked across the rocks, following them. Almost a hundred yards inland, amid the higher rocks, thousands of shellfish moved awkwardly, making slow and infinitely painful progress.
“ See what I mean ?” Chris Winnett asked behind him. “ That's never happened in the two years I’ve been studying this coast !” Joe nibbled his lower lip, bending so that blonde hair fell over his eyes. Many of the migrating hundreds within his field of view slipped, almost surmounting a rock only to fall back. But each tried again, repeatedly, driven as by some inner compulsion. He straightened.
“ Ever seen them move to avoid high tides ?”
“ No,” Winnett stated factually, “ never. We’ve had pretty high water, as you know — twenty or thirty feet or more, but they’ve never budged. If they haven’t shifted in two years, why now ?”
There was no answer and Joe was silent. He doubted if the shellfish averaged more than two or three yards an hour, and ahead was steeply rising, broken rock. The instinct driving them was strong.
“ Has there been any report of bad weather posted ?” he asked. Chris Winnett shook his head with melancholic certainty. “ I checked that first.” He turned back towards the jetty.
Joe saw him go from view with his specimens, and stepped down into one of the moored power barges. Wide, flat and long, they had transported many tons of equipment out to the tidal float. He cast off. started the powerful engine, and took the barge out into the swell. The sky was reminiscent of a calm spring day on Earth, he thought, momentarily nostalgic. Storms looked impossibly unlikely.
The tidal-power raft lay like a half-submerged dry-dock, so wide and long that the in-running seas did not move her. Joe took the barge alongside, threw the loop over a mooring bollard, and stepped aboard. The deck felt firm as solid rock under his feet.
The man he had left in charge had the hard, lean look of a seaman. Joe felt confidence in him. Sorrell was to be trusted ; had, indeed, scarcely been ashore in six months. The raft was his ship ; he its skipper.
He nodded at Joe’s question. “ Never had less trouble. Since you phoned from shore and I opened the sluices last night I haven’t done a thing.”
The thought brought a smile to his weathered face. Joe walked a little way along the edge of the raft, inside the guard rail. A hundred yards long by thirty wide, she floated a bare six feet above water. Only in her centre did a metal cabin interrupt the steel deck, giving access to the levels below.
He eyed the waves rolling almost to his feet. Lower, inside, was the murmur of turbines.
“ Like to ride out a storm in her, Captain ?” he asked.
Sorrell laughed briefly. “ Nothing easier, Mr. Baring ! She’d take it like an iceberg — come to think of it, she’s at least ninety percent submerged. When we go below and close the hatch, the weather doesn’t matter.”
At regular intervals massive cables stretched from the raft to shore. Seaward, others descended obliquely to immovable anchors moored to the sea bed. The immense strength of the whole project was comforting, Joe felt. From early beginnings, the colony was becoming self-sufficient. No ferry from Earth had landed for over a month, and none was due for three months longer. That meant isolation, Joe thought, but it also developed self-reliance.
He did not descend into the mighty hull of the raft, almost a floating counterpart of the building ashore. Instead, he returned to the powerful barge and took her back across the gently-moving sea that was to lend its power to a thousand useful purposes.
Chris Winnett stood near the end of the jetty, lean as a pole and with waves running to his feet. He walked beside the power barge as it lost way.
“ What kind of tides would you expect on a planet with nine moons, Mr. Baring ?”
Joe pulled the mooring rope tight. “ Something pretty irregular, I suppose.”
“ Only irregular ? ”
Joe jerked the knot tight and straightened, wondering at the tone. “ What do you mean ?”
“ Back on Earth there is Sol and one moon. The sea tries to follow the gravitational pull of both, piling up against any land mass in the way. When sun and moon are in line the pull is added, and we get high tides.” He jerked a pointed finger at the sky. “ We’ve nine moons here, each on its own orbital period, not to speak of Regulus Major. Scatter nine moons round a planet, and you get what we’ve so far experienced.” He paused, gaze on the sea. “ Bring those nine moons roughly into line — and you expect such an almighty lifting of the waters as to make Earth’s highest Spring tides look nothing !”
The unease Joe had first felt on the rocks returned with a jab almost of physical impact. “ There’s been no exceptional tide in two years!”
“ Perhaps two years aren’t long enough. Nine moons give a complex pattern. Maybe two hundred years, or two thousand, wouldn’t be too long to wait for a certain combination.”
Joe thought of the immense strength of the tidal raft. “ Could be. So what ? ”
Winnett shrugged. “ Don’t ask me, Mr. Baring, but I’d like to work on it.”
Joe went pensively to the office portion of the main building and found Veronica Linwood engaged upon the phonetic transcription of the Regulian tongue, almost her only work for two years. Still oddly girlish, he nevertheless knew she had a fully developed, mature understanding. He sat on the corner of the desk, swinging a long leg.
“ You talk with the locals best. I want to find out what they know about tides here.”
She looked up at him, oval face pillowed in palms. “ I thought Chris Winnett had worked out a schedule.”
“ He has, but thinks it varies. He’s got a scare that nine moons make things difficult. If so, the natives should know.”
She closed the folder, put it in the desk, and rose. “ What makes you suppose their reserve, indifference and hostility will be less now than previously ?”
Silent because it was only hope, he led the way out. The building, a concrete aggregate of crushed rock, stood fairly high upon the coast. Inland, the rocky outcrop was lost amid the fresh green of bushes. Two jeeps appeared from the lower ground near the estuary, one driven by Spenser, the second, mud-caked, by Linwood.
“We’ll ride,” Joe suggested.
Spenser left the jeep and Joe took it down into a gap in the bushes. A crude road, cleared for transport from the rocket landing site nearly two miles inland, ran almost straight as a line across the undulating ground.
“ Funny there’s no species of big vegetation,” Veronica Linwood said as the brushland closed round them.
Trails crossed the road at intervals, original native paths through which the bulldozers had cut at right angles. When the bush began to thin, allowing a glimpse of the plain where the Earth transports landed, Joe saw roof's to his left. He stopped the bouncing jeep and got down.
A path led to a clearing, occupied by a score of dwellings of artistic appearance and excellent construction. Regulians who saw the newcomers made no sign. All had sleek hair, extending like black silk down the back, meeting woven fibre garments. Their skin was humanly pink, detracting from a certain odd resemblance to seals walking erect. Outside a large house one sat twirling a spin-wheel drill between the opposing pairs of three fingers of one hand.
“ We wish to speak with you,” Joe said, halting.
The other looked up, his expression that of a sage disturbed by an urchin, then returned his gaze to the carving upon which the drill worked. Joe frowned slightly, irritated.
“ We wish you well, and have never harmed any of you,” he pointed out.
The Regulian lifted eyes oddly human except for the long, golden lashes. “ Your coming was not desired, and has not increased our happiness or prosperity, Earthman,” he said. The voice had melody, but the assurance of a stated fact. “ We would prefer you all leave.”
Their indifference was becoming enmity, Joe thought. If that grew into active hostility, it would be grave.
Joe sighed. “ Try to tell them what I mean, Veronica,” he suggested. “ You do it better.”
As she talked he watched the Regulian for any symptom of friend-ship. The drill whirled between the six sensitive fingers, and particles flew. The delicacy and power of the wide, strong hands fascinated Joe. Alert as a man’s, yet wide as a seal’s flippers. When a Regulian swam, it was with an accustomed ease no human could ever equal.
The native only looked up when the girl ceased. “ Your presence is not necessary here.”
Hot annoyance burned Joe’s neck. The words were a dismissal of even the need for contact between Regulian and Earthman. He stifled his anger.
“ Ask him about the tides !”
Veronica’s fluent diction began again. He followed most of it, and admitted she put things well.
When she had finished the native placed aside his tool. “ The affairs of our world need not be your concern.”
He disappeared into the house, back hairs glistening with the movement, and Veronica made a helpless gesture.
“Near as telling us to clear out as doesn’t matter !” she said. “Anything we find out won’t be with their help!”
Joe grunted, returned to the jeep, and started it with a jerk that bounced them on the seat. He wondered what Harvey would do.
Ahead beyond the opening bushes was the wide, stony plain where the Earthships landed. Its emptiness emphasised their remoteness and need to rely on self. Little animals moved on the near edge of the vast clearing. Sand-rabbits, Joe had christened them, because of their size and sandy hue. But he had never seen so many above ground. As he watched, a queer knot of terror grew in his mind. All were on the move in one direction. Here was no play or mere grazing, but a mass migration !
He looked at Veronica Linwood and saw her face was white. Her gaze followed the rodents ; some left their holes hesitantly, but joined the others that dotted the plain far as he could see, until lost to sight.
“ Instinct !” she breathed. “ Like the shell-fish !”
“ Winnett told you about them ?” Tension made his voice hard.
“ He’s told everyone.”
A score of sand-rabbits passed near, hopping in a group, ears down. An urgency marked their movements, and some common impulse gave all a uniform direction. Veronica stood on the seat.
“ I once saw lemmings on the move. It was like this.”
She sat down and Joe started the vehicle abruptly and turned for the roadway. His throat felt dry, his muscles tensed. The plain was probably on an average 200ft. above sea level, he thought, astonished. Impossible that some instinctive fear of a high tide drive the rodents away !
They did not speak until the jeep emerged by the generating plant building. There, he got out stiffly.
“ I want to talk to Chris Winnett !”
Winnett’s room was long, narrow, and filled with the equipment required by his specialised work. Drag and drift nets, deep-sea sampling bottles, floats, lines, aquaria and cages occupied all the walls and much of the floor. Joe would be among the first to admit Winnett’s usefulness — a large proportion of their food came from ocean and shore. Notebooks and charts before him, Winnett sat at a stained table fixed under the window, his expression one of abiding sorrow.
Joe halted behind him and looked down at the charts. Each showed the position of one moon, with distances, calculated mass, and orbital period.
“ We really need a computer, Mr. Baring.” Chris Winnett tapped the charts. “ The total mass of all nine moons nearly equals that of Regulus I. If they’re the debris of a companion, she was almost as large as this planet. Each moon is influenced by the other eight, and that makes calculation damned difficult.”
It would be, Joe thought, with nine simultaneously inter-acting variables, not counting Regulus Major herself. He nodded.
“ What do you make of it, near as you can get ? ”
“ The satellites range in distance from a midget at 73,000 miles, circling us in just over six days, to a giant at 600,000 miles, with a 79 day orbit. The other seven moons are scattered between that, not all on the same plane, and vary in mass and period. At any one time there’s usually a conflict of gravitational pull, the main tidal motion being from a co-incidence in position of any two moons, helped by Regulus Major.” Winnett drew a sheet out from under the others. “ With patience, it’s possible to get an idea of the situation at any time.”
Joe took up the charts. There was the small moon at 73,000 miles, and one almost equally sized at 150,000. Beyond that were two rotating about themselves, and circling the planet at 250,000 miles, with a 28 day period — and probably responsible for a good deal of tidal movement, Joe thought. Beyond were three minute satellites which he mentally classified as little more than asteroids, a smallish moon with 60 day period and distance of 500,000 miles, then the giant at 600,000 miles.
“ The perturbation of orbits is considerable at times,” Winnett said. “ The outermost moons are pretty close as regards distance from us, but have somewhat elliptical orbits off-set by nearly twenty degrees. The only moons to get caught up by each other’s gravity is the pair at about Lunar distance.” He fingered notes. “ The highest tide we ever had, over ten months ago, was from that pair being in line with the small moon at 150,000 miles, with Regulus Major contributing.”
“ I see.” Joe replaced the sheets. “ And what’s the worst we can look forward to ?”
Winnett spread out the diagram he had withdrawn from under the others. It showed all the moons, and Joe felt almost physical shock. The three asteroids and 28-day pair were in line, with the three most remote moons only a little behind, and the midget at 73,000 miles speeding in its six day orbit to catch up. Winnett’ s finger moved to the paper edge and Joe saw Regulus Major on a dead straight line from planet to the three asteroids.
“ This happens about once in 3,000 years,” Winnett said.
His voice had a hard note. Joe licked his lips, eyes riveted on the diagram. “ You haven’t made a mistake ?”
“ Not that I can find.”
“ How long until the tide begins to run here ?”
Winnett looked at the clock. “ About twelve hours, near as I can calculate-”
Twelve hours, Joe thought. Only that long. Twelve hours to make secure two years work ! He grunted, releasing pent breath.
“ How high will it be ? ”
“ Can’t say. Pretty high !”
He leaned back and Joe saw for the first time the expression on his face. Winnett looked older. Tired eyes and lined face told of long concentration on the complex pull of the planet’s satellites. Joe pressed his shoulder momentarily.
“ We’ll do what we can !”
Joe left him, and warned Sorrell. The hard raft-boss seemed wholly confident. His voice on the phone lacked any uncertainty.
“ We’ll ride it out, Mr. Baring ! High tides don’t worry me — we’re built to stand ’em !”
Joe wished he felt similar confidence. From the office window the sea lay calm and low — too low, he thought. The waters were piling up east, and would roll back as Regulus I rotated. A great strip of mud and silt was already exposed, revealed by an ocean movement more vast than any in the previous two years. He rang off, stood at the window chewing his lower lip, and slowly his brows drew down. Some inner instinct had driven the conical shell-fish from the beach — and the sand-rabbits from the landing field, two-hundred feet above sea level ! His lips compressed and he jerked up the phone again.
“ I’m having extra lengths of mooring cable brought out, Captain Sorrell ! ”
“ But we’re equipped for a 75ft. tide rise ! ”
Sorrell sounded astonished. More rise than ever expected, Joe agreed. But creatures with instincts trained by the absolute necessity of survival were often right !
“ Nevertheless, I’m sending it ! I want it spliced on the end of the cables already fitted, so that you can unwind to compensate for a greater rise if necessary ! I’ll send men out.”
Within the hour things were beginning to move. Reels of spare cable were brought out, rolled to the power barges, and taken to the raft. The sea moved back to normal level, and seemed to pause, waves from a light breeze licking the jetty. Much had already been done when Veronica Linwood sought Joe out.
“ I’ve been on the landing site watching.”
He saw a twitch about her firmly-set lips. “ Yes ? ”
“ There’s not a sand-rabbit left, either there or on the low hills beyond ! ”
Chris Winnett came round the building from the office block. “ Creatures’ instincts are hard to explain. I spent five years on eel migration as a student.” His expression said five years had been too short a period. “ The shell-fish and sand-rabbits know, that’s all.”
Joe felt part of his mind rebel. “ The landing site is high ! We can’t have a tide to swamp that — ”
Winnett’s expression silenced him. “ I’m not saying we can’t,” Winnett stated. “ I don’t know just what we should expect— but this tide will astonish even Sorrell ! ”
He went on, shoulders hunched. Silence came, backed by the murmur of the sea. The girl watched until Winnett was gone, then her gaze reverted to Joe.
“ What about the Regulians ? ”
Joe realised this more immediate, personal danger had driven them from mind. Haughty, even insulting, they nevertheless deserved a warning, if only because silence would be inhuman.
“ If you’ll come with me to talk, we’ll go warn them,” he decided. “ We’ve a couple of hours. I’d like to be back here before the tide begins ! ”
Indigenous life was unlucky in this area, Joe thought as he drove. North and south were other land-masses with at least some fairly high points, but that was not so in the neighbourhood of the tidal station. After full investigation they had chosen the locality because tides were less good towards the higher and lower latitudes, dwindling to insignificance at the poles. In more equatorial regions the tide would be at maximum, and nowhere within hundreds of miles was any significant mountain range, even if time existed to move the natives there.
“ If such a tide sweeps most of the equatorial and temperate regions once every three thousand years, that would account for the lack of large forests,” Veronica Linwood said, watching the bush bump past. “ Big trees couldn’t survive. Everything left is attuned to periodic swamping.”
When Joe halted the jeep silence filled the bush, oddly complete. They followed the path to the village. The dwellings stood unoccupied, and nowhere sounded any voice or activity.
“ All gone ! ” Joe said uneasily.
A trail led out of the village opposite the way they had entered. No bushman’s trained eye was necessary to see that many feet had gone that way. Joe wondered why — no high ground was to be found there, only the coast, sea, and a few scattered islands never investigated in detail.
“ We’ll follow in the jeep,” he decided. “ There’s no time for ceremony.”
He drove through the silent village and along the trail which wound through the scrub, descending slowly towards the coast several miles distant. Soon the stunted trees and bush ceased, giving an extended view. Far to his left was the high ground beyond which lay the tidal station. Ahead, two islands stood perhaps a mile and a half from shore. Like carved, painted toys, native boats were being paddled from shore to the more distant island, bush-covered, quite large in area, but low.
“ They’re bent on suicide ! ” Joe said bitterly.
He took the jeep bumping down the slope. A group of Regulians stood on the shore, waiting transport, and a tall native with dyed fibre habit turned and regarded the vehicle with unfriendly eyes. Joe almost pushed Veronica from the jeep.
“ Tell them they’ll be safer with us, or on high ground ! ”
She jumped out, and a flood of Regulian commenced. Joe stopped the engine, leaning over to listen, but finding it difficult to follow. There was a pause.
“ Tell him their boats are going to the lowest island ! ” he snapped. “ The other would be better !”
Words passed. The Regulian said something abruptly, turned on a heel, and stalked back to the sea’s edge, where empty canoes were loading. The girl made a gesture of helplessness. Joe felt irritation — this near insanity on the part of the natives was serious, and Harvey would doubtless say they should have been protected !
“ What did he say ? ” he demanded.
“ Briefly, that we could go to hell, and that they are going to the haven mentioned in the legends of their forefathers.”
Joe swore, eyes on the long, low island. “ Group suicide if ever I saw it ! Didn’t you point out they might be safe with us ? ”
“ I did.” She watched the carved canoes push off. “ He said the Earthmen’s constructions were but as worm casts on the shore, or words to that effect.”
Joe grunted, his reply unspoken. A rustling had begun in the low bush behind the jeep, and scores of sand-rabbits emerged, hopping quickly. As he stared in amazement they swept down the shore and into the sea, swimming strongly, tiny bodies bobbing in the waves. Others came, ignoring the vehicle, streaming into the water. Like lemmings indeed, he thought — bent on suicide !
The girl shaded her eyes, staring at the island. Joe took binoculars from the jeep and watched. Within half an hour the sand-rabbits, just visible, were passing the nearer, highest island, and fighting the incoming tide in their efforts to gain land where the canoes were now moored. He studied the long, low island from end to end. At no point did it rise to any great height, and it seemed almost covered with low scrub. A forty-foot rise in ocean level would undoubtedly swamp the lot.
“ Perhaps it was once higher, even part of the mainland,” Veronica Linwood suggested. “ Instincts are blind and tend to fail when circumstances change.”
The last native had gone, the last canoe was tied by its companions. Joe mopped his brow, started the jeep, and set it bumping back along the trail. Group suicide was catching, he thought. Every living thing on the island would undoubtedly drown long before high tide !
Waves were running high up the jetty, the hissing foam cold and silvery in the early dawn light. The hours of darkness had been few, but seemed long. Working by floodlight, Joe had everything portable made secure. The jeeps were brought close against the landward side of the generating plant building, and men waited in the power barges, ready to take them out into the safety of deep water.
Joe’s gaze seldom strayed from the rising sea. Mist and low cloud met the grey horizon, which seemed to be creeping heavenwards to touch the sky. The light breeze brought a dull, heavy murmuring that told of the mighty ocean movement already inundating or laying bare half the seashores of the planet. When no further action to secure personal safety was possible, Joe’s mind returned to the Regulians, and the hopeless refuge they had chosen. He found Winnett talking with Veronica Linwood, and told them of his doubts.
“ Why not take one of the power barges and see if the high water has given them sense ? ” Winnett suggested.
A good plan, Joe thought. They boarded, and he sent the craft out into the waves, now running strongly and making a background of low thunder against the coast. Spray struck the edge of the vessel and splashed the deck.
“We might still ferry them off !” he said, staring ahead for a first glimpse of the islands.
“ Assuming they agree ! ”
The girl sounded doubtful, but Joe felt the desire for life must at last force the natives to accept help. The power station and tidal raft drifted behind and the barge rose strongly to heavy seas. Beyond the estuary mouth, the coastline grew abruptly from the submerged strand only visible at low water, and a dull, continuous roar told of the rising ocean.
A brisk wind whipped mist from the wave tops, and the islands dawned through it. Joe studied them, brows drawn down. The higher island was still deserted ; on the nearest edge of the other, many natives had camped amid the brush, their canoes drawn up out of the sea.
“ When the tide’s highest, there won’t be even a top twig showing !” Chris Winnett stated. Feet set squarely apart, he swayed as a wave ran obliquely past. “ They’ve made the damndest mistake this time, Mr. Baring!”
Joe slowed the barge and took it in a curve to the beach. As she bumped gently he motioned Winnett to the shielded wheel. “ Keep the boat here, Chris!”
He sprang ashore, feet sinking ankle deep into a springy mass of roots and fibre. The bushes extended within a few yards of him, and several Regulians stood watching coldly.
“ You’ll drown here !” His breathing was heavy, but he knew they understood.
None of the natives moved. Joe felt anger, but fought it down. A light touch on his arm showed the girl had followed. He grunted, compressing his lips.
“ Tell the silly idiots the high tide’s only just beginning, but that we can take them off ! ”
Her Regulian was fluent, and sounded convincing even to Joe. When it had ended the nearest native shot back a rapid, acid phrase, then all turned and stalked into the bush. Veronica gestured help- lessly.
“ He says they stay on the refuge of their forefathers !”
Joe’s impatience boiled over. “ We can’t drag the lot away by force ! Let’s go back !”
He stamped through the carpet of roots, soggy already and drenched with each breaker. Again on the power barge, he swore with feeling. Apparently a Regulian would rather die than accept an Earthman’s help !
Only when they were half a mile away did he look back. “ Heard anything about this island before ? ”
Chris Winnett shook his head. “ It’s a dot on our map, but of no importance, and never studied or investigated.”
Veronica Linwood came into the shelter of the wheel shield. “They’ve never hinted it was specially important,” she said. “ Not that they give confidences. Don’t see why they should choose that island in preference to any of the score along the coast.”
A high sea ran over the flush deck and waves flowed by Joe’s feet. No one could do more, he thought. The Regulians wouldn’t come. He set his back to the island, and kept the blunt nose of the barge nearly square with the running sea.
A great atmospheric movement appeared to be following the rising waters, and wind spattered every wave top like rain across the deck. Never had Joe seen waves so high up the pier. Rocks, sand and shingle were gone, replaced by heaving brown.
“ Another few hours will give us an idea of what to expect !” Winnett announced miserably.
The unease and helplessness Joe felt grew as time passed. Never would the inundation of mighty waters cease, he thought with despair. Waves rolled and thundered until the pier was covered. Salt rain sped on the gale. Numbed by sound, shaken by the heaving barge, reality became a nightmare with no refuge. Water flowed round the transformer building, half way up the doors. Short of fleeing to the rocket landing field, or watching from an upper window, there was no option to remaining aboard a barge in deep water. Only once did Joe risk approaching the building. A sudden wave could have been disastrous and he did not try again.
To gain the tidal raft, or another barge, was like trying to exchange boats in a mid-ocean gale. The raft was riding it out, waves sluicing across her. Sealed down, she was virtually air-tight. Other power barges faced the tide. Once one bearing Linwood and the young mechanic drew near, dancing on the frantic sea, and Linwood gesticulated wildly. Joe could make nothing of his actions, or hear Spenser’s voice above the slap and smash of the waves.
Hours had passed when Joe realised the water was no longer creeping up the power-station building, now two storeys submerged. As the tide ceased to flow, the wind dropped, leaving them on a heavy swell of conflicting currents. Veronica and Winnett had been in the storage hold. A weatherproof hatch opened, and Winnett’s long face came into view. He looked about, flung back the trap with a clang, and emerged to the deck.
His gaze passed to the building. “ That was high this time !”
Joe’s nerves jerked. “ This time ? ”
The sad eyes returned from the ebb surging round the walls. “ High tides don’t happen only one day, Mr. Baring. From my calculations tomorrow will be worse. After that, our little neighbour with the six day orbit gets out of line, as do the pair.”
He stared at the heavens, hidden by cloud. Joe felt his strength had abruptly gone — worse . . . !
“ How bad will it be, Chris ?” he asked, dry lipped.
Winnett looked down at the washed deck. “ Can’t say — only guess.”
“ And your guess ? ”
“ It’ll be pretty bad. I’ve been figuring, below.” Winnett released his breath in an uneven sigh. “ All considered, I’d say the sand-rabbits didn’t leave the plateau for nothing.”
“ But that’s two-hundred feet ! ”
Winnett nodded. “ Tides are difficult to figure, because the wind helps. Fifty feet is possible on Earth.” His expression was revealing. “ A total rise of three to four-hundred feet is easily feasible here, with the gravity pull we’ve got.”
Joe read the truth on his face. Winnett had studied marine life. Often morose, he never exaggerated. Winnett’s figures were not guess-work, but calculation based on knowledge.
That high, Joe thought. Over the plain, over the power-house, over any land within hundreds of miles ! Then three thousand years of peace — if anything of intruding Humanity remained to see it !
Night drifted over the sea, then over glistening mud, and a dark sea bed never before exposed. No moon hung in the sky, and only starlight of an indescribable dimness filtered through the clouds above. The tidal raft lay tilted, deck sloping, giant orifices in her sides revealed. Mooring cables lay slack to huge anchors secured to the dry sea bed, and the conductors from shore to raft draped like wet string across naked rocks. The barges lay on the mud beside the jetty, and for the first time in two years Joe could hear no sound. So remote were the ebbing waters that no murmur showed where they were piled.
Footsteps came along the jetty, and a dark, youthful form dawned out of the gloom. Short hair awry, he halted.
“ It’ll be worse tomorrow, Joe !”
Joe studied the other, a few inches shorter, slighter, and unhardened by life.
“ So Chris Winnett says, Philip.” He wished the lad had some of the tough determination of his sister.
“ If it’s high as he says, what’ll we do ? ”
Panic edge the voice and Joe wished there was some assuring reply. No land within reach would be safe ; submerged, too, would be every level of the power house. The barges might live — unless carried by the tide to shallow water and shattered.
“ It may be safest on the raft.” Joe gazed at the silent shape now isolated beyond mud, rock, and pools. “ We’ll board her early.”
“You know there’s not enough anchor cable if the tide’s as high as he says !” Linwood objected, tone disturbed.
Yes, he knew, Joe thought. They must hope Chris was wrong. He pressed the other’s slender shoulder, hoping his voice sounded confident : “ We don’t bother about things like that when we can’t do anything about them !”
“ If the cables were cut she’d float through anything, Joe !”
Panic, more obvious. “ We’re not cutting them,” Joe said. Freed, cast ashore, the mighty labour would all be lost . . . “ Go and try to sleep.”
It was much later when Joe himself went up to the transformer building to take a brief rest. Still no moon lit the way — the first night he had ever seen without at least two moons in the sky, he thought bitterly. Just before going in he halted, listening. The ocean was so silent all her water might have vanished.
Joe did not realise he had slept until the heavy murmur of flowing tide crept into his ears, jarring him into awareness. He rose, rubbing tired eyes, and sought a window. Brown seas were rolling landward in the dawn light, and already the tidal raft was half submerged.
Strain was visible on the faces of the men as they prepared to ferry across to the raft. The sea was rising quickly, rollers sweeping higher over the sea bed, breaking in low thunder and boiling white foam amid the rocks. Soon water flowed round the jetty and the barges lifted, dancing ponderously to the swell.
“ It’s rising twice as fast as yesterday,” Chris Winnett said as he waited his turn to jump aboard.
Joe thought that Linwood was exceptionally pale, and quick terror shone in his eyes whenever they turned upon the in-rolling waters. A single barge could easily have carried them all, but Joe thought it best that his companions and the fifteen skilled workmen who had accomplished so much should split among the four craft. Within the hour the great generating-plant hulk was afloat, and everyone aboard her, the barges trailing on lines a safe distance to leeward.
Captain Sorrell’s lean face was expressionless as teak. Only as they descended into the hull did Joe catch unease in his eyes.
“ What happens if the tide rise exceeds our cables ?” Sorrell asked quietly.
Joe felt there was no answer. “ We’ll see.”
A single generator hummed low in the body of the raft, just audible above the murmuring sea. Other sluices stood idle and open, offering least resistance to the tidal current. In the automatic control room the echo-sounding equipment beeped rhythmically, operating circuits that controlled the four great electrical winches from whose drums the anchorage cables descended. Indicators showed all were slowly unwinding, to compensate for the increasing depth of water below.
The gleaming metal bulkheads, stout and numerous, and with an atmosphere of extreme strength, made Joe feel more confident. A slow swinging movement had begun, and he went back on deck.
Waves already lapped round the base of the shore building, and long, deep rollers were sweeping in across the rising sea, striking the tidal raft obliquely and breaking in creamy foam over her. Froth ran round his feet, ankle deep, and spray struck his cheeks, carried on wind that followed the tide. Some of the men waited near the hatch ; others were below.
Little by little the lower part of the building ashore sank from view, rising breakers creeping up the mottled walls. A powerful swell with strong undercurrent was flooding inland. The brushwood beyond the building vanished, submerged, and a debris of leaves, twigs and uprooted rubbish began to pass on the sea, telling of other land-areas already covered by the deluge.
Joe went below and met Sorrell coming to find him. The Captain’s face had aged. He indicated a corridor and narrow stair. Joe descended and found himself in one of the winch rooms. Sorrell closed the door.
“ We’ll soon be at the limit of our cable, Mr. Baring.”
The great winch was running, hesitating, then running again, responding to impulses from the echo-sounder. The drum was always unwinding, the great cable always paying out through the armoured, sealed duct. Most of the cable had gone, and one end of the threaded cylinder already stood naked.
“ Another ten fathoms will see us finished,” Sorrell stated.
A magnetic brake clicked ; gears spun and more wire rope vanished. Joe watched it go.
“You spliced on the extra lengths ? ”
“ Every bit. The drums couldn’t hold more if we’d had it.”
More cable, thick as a man’s wrist, sped from the drum. The winding indicator showed under ten fathoms remained. Joe’s gaze went from the dial to the other’s lined face.
“ How long will it last ? ”
Sorrell chewed his lower lip momentarily. “ Twenty to thirty minutes, at this rate, Mr. Baring.”
So short a time, Joe thought. So great a sea had never been imagined, and was consequently not provided for by the cable winches. He left the winding room, found Chris Winnett, and took him aside.
“ How long before high tide ? ”
Winnett studied his watch, calculating. “ We’re not half way there yet !”
“ It’ll rise as fast ? ” Joe felt aghast.
“ Yes, until near maximum high-water. The figures I gave you yesterday may be exceeded.”
“ I see.” There was insufficient cable. No one had allowed for a tidal complex arising once in three thousand years ! Joe hesitated, seeking inspiration and decision out of his conflict and dismay. “ Get everyone on deck ! ”
When he went up all were standing compactly round the hatch, surf swilling over their feet. He explained tersely that the cable was nearly all paid out, but high tide by no means reached. The men looked uneasy, but were silent. Only Philip Linwood’s face showed panic. He held Joe’s arm, fingers biting.
“ You’ll cut the cables, Joe !”
“ And lose two years’ work ? Never ! ” Joe pulled himself free. Unthinkable that the huge tidal raft be cast up helplessly on the shore ! She would be useless, immovable — a vast relic token of his folly.
“ But we’d be safe aboard, Joe !” Linwood urged. Spray dashed his face and unruly hair clung to his wet forehead. “ She’d never sink ! ”
Joe silenced him harshly, not listening. “ We take to the barges! The raft stays here — moored to her cables ! She may survive.” His gaze sped over them. “ Anyone want to stay ?”
A man moved uneasily. “ A hundred feet under water, moored to the sea-bed ? Not likely !”
“ Then draw the barges in and divide among them !” Joe ordered.
All but one were loaded before he realised Linwood had disappeared. Winnett was holding the last barge as near as he dared, its rope looped round a bollard.
“ Wait !” Joe roared, and descended three rounds at a time into the comparative stillness no longer a feasible refuge.
Lights burned in the corridors and control room, but all were empty. The thunder of breakers was dull and remote, the tidal plant so massive that she barely moved to the swelling flood. Emotion akin to panic began to spread through Joe’s nerves. Philip wasn’t tough enough, he thought as he ran.
The first winch room was empty, with barely two turns of cable left on its drum. Even as he stared in, the magnetic release slammed open and more hawser, taut as a steel rod, was paid out. In the second winch chamber a metal pick with razor-sharp edge lay, and a hot, scorching smell struck Joe’s nostrils. The great cable was cut. Water spilled through the empty exit orifice where the gland had nothing upon which to close, and when the drum turned it was to unwind a stunted end of cable, discoloured and steaming.
Swearing, Joe ran for the next winch. The door was open, ruby and blue playing into the corridor. Shirt blackened, face running sweat, Linwood was directing the jet of a portable welder upon the taut cable. It was red hot, hissing, and Joe flung himself at Linwood’s waist. The torch flew in an arc. Red-hot outer wires began to give, crackling, then with a twang the inner strands parted. The broken cable lashed from the exit orifice, whipping past Joe’s head like a snake.
“ You young fool !” Joe realised he was pounding Linwoods head, and stopped, jerking him upright by the collar. Upon these four hawsers depended a billion pounds’ worth of equipment.
Linwood was terrified, almost sobbing. “ We’ll drown in the boats, Joe ! The raft will float through anything if she’s free !”
Joe did not trust himself to reply. He kicked shut the torch valve, shoved Linwood into the corridor, and slammed the door. Holding him, he marched to the remaining winch room. The cable was taut with stress, the drum fully unwound and locked. The sight turned Linwood’s legs to jelly.
“ We’ll be dragged down ! The sea will be over us — ”
“ No bloody thanks to you if it is !” Joe snarled.
He half pushed, half carried Linwood up to the hatchroom. Brown water was draining in, growing to a thick torrent as a wave passed over. Gasping, Joe forced Linwood up ahead of him, emerged and slammed down the hatch. A wave ran across the deck, knee-high. The raft was pitching, buoyancy trying to keep her afloat, but the anchoring cables holding her down. Already she was awash, seeming to sink as the water rose.
A rope sang through the air and struck Joe’s chest. He clung to it, one arm round Linwood. The next wave took him off his feet, but someone was pulling. Amid choking brown water he emerged again into air and found Winnett heaving him into the barge. Spluttering, Joe stood up, letting his breath return.
The motor began to hum, and a wake appeared behind the craft. Looking back, Joe saw a great rectangle of relatively calm water marked the spot where the tidal raft lay. Two cables, he thought. To leave the raft moored was the only way of saving her. Would two cables be enough ?
“ We thought you were finished,” Winnett said. His gaze passed over the ocean. “ It’s growing rough.”
Slowly the area of calm water grew less obvious. Joe wondered whether the great hull, with all its equipment, was sinking. The exit trap had not been secured, but water pressure should hold it shut. Again, the flush deck had been to run off spray and rain, and might not withstand such stresses. When he looked landward he was shocked to note that no part of the plant building remained visible. Nothing indicated they were within a mile of the jetty. Instead, waves ran on over the shore and slopes beyond, forming moving brown billows as far as he could see. Winnett was keeping the blunt bow to the tide, but water splashed aboard with every wave. A hundred yards away the other barges were bobbing to each heightening breaker, white spume flying in the wind.
Standing behind the wind shield, Joe wondered whether anything made by Man would remain when the flood receded. The fresh wind was developing into a gale, driving waves across the heaving ocean, and the barge danced as if ready to up-end and sink. Clouds rode in, making the sky dark as evening, and rain came heavily on the increasing wind.
“ Think we’ll be swamped, Mr. Baring ?” Winnett asked, swaying to the movement.
Waves ran over them shin deep. “ The wind’s bringing high seas !” Joe felt he dared not prophesy. If land were attainable, no man in his senses would be afloat. “ If it gets worse we’re finished !”
A squall lashed him. Linwood had crept below, but his sister stood close against the shield, buffeted but apparently unafraid. She saw his glance.
“ What of the natives, Joe ?”
Wind whipped her voice away, almost unheard. He grimaced. All drowned, he supposed. As he opened his mouth to shout, a dull, heavy explosion shook the air, rumbled, then was lost in the thunder of running seas. Nothing showed its distance or cause, and the wind made its direction uncertain. The barge trembled, but whether from shock or heavy wave, Joe could not decide.
Veronica Linwood came nearer to him. “ Instincts arise to preserve a species ! Perhaps the Regulians know what they’re doing after all !”
Joe shook his head. “ It wasn’t instinct took them to that island, but some out-dated legend !” He did not for an instant doubt that the island was totally submerged, every canoe carried away, swamped, and every Regulian dead.
A determined look shone in the girl’s eyes. “ Sand-rabbits don’t have legends — I was thinking of them as well !”
“ We could try,” Winnett put in. “ Keeping under way in that direction looks as safe as anything else — ”
Joe followed his arm. The three other barges had spread out over half a mile of seething water, and would eventually reach the position of the islands, if not first swamped. He nodded.
“ Keep going, then !”
Astonishment grew into disbelief as the last mile slid by and the pitching barge drew near the location of the two islands. The coast was hidden below running seas ; the taller island was gone too — but the low, brush-covered refuge Joe had condemned so finally remained, in no way more submerged than formerly. He rubbed his eyes, but it was no hallucination. Central in a great expanse of almost placid water, the island remained, canoes moored, water lapping its rim, with a few thin trails of ascending smoke telling of camp fires.
“ So their legend was sense,” Veronica Linwood breathed.
Astounded still, Joe felt their pitching cease as the barge reached smooth water. Only slowly did understanding came to him. Some trick of currents and configuration of sea bed and shore combined to give an area free of waves. Debris floated by them, twirling slowly, uprooted trees, twigs and boughs, and a vast pulpy mass of leaves and vegetable matter, torn from other, remote lands, for all he knew. Here, the rubbish circled, a vast heap with the island at its centre.
The barges ploughed through the debris, slowed, and drifted to a halt. Joe stepped off on to the spring mass of roots and fibre. Floating, he thought. The whole island was a buoyant mass of rubbish from other great tides, held together by roots, bushes and grass, increasing in size as the currents brought new material. For hundreds of thousands of years the debris had accumulated supporting the vegetation whose roots bound the whole together.
Far away in the bush voices sounded loudly, but did not approach. Joe caught a glimpse of a swarm of sand-rabbits, but they were nearly invisible among the multitude of brown stems and slender trunks.
“ We are moving, you know,” Chris Winnett said.
He pointed far away to their left, and Joe saw that a strong current seemed to move in that direction, drawing away the mass of uprooted rubbish. Two miles out, almost at the limit of visibility, the ocean surface appeared to dip, as if a fissure had opened in the sea bed.
Natives came through the bushes, halting as they saw the new arrivals. Speech fluttered among them, and one came forward.
“ There is no refuge for you here, Earthmen.”
Joe felt quick anger. “ We’ll do no harm !”
The Regulian regarded him aloofly. “ Your presence or absence is a thing of no importance to us — it is not that, but the island is no longer safe. Go.”
“ Not safe ?” Joe felt astonishment replace his anger.
“ No.” A lean arm lifted, pointing. “ There came an explosion in the sea. The sea bed has opened, and the waters are falling through. Do you not see the current ?”
Joe remembered the dull explosion, the concavity where waves and ocean appeared to melt from view. The dip was clearer now — and not so far. The enormous pressure of piling water had opened some fault in the strata of the ocean floor. Slowly yet relentlessly the floating island was being drawn from its backwater, out into the breakers, almost certainly to eventual destruction.
The Regulian’s noble face was infinitely said. “ Our race is ended, Earthman.”
With his companions he moved back into the bush, where a low, tuneless wailing had commenced, setting an edge to Joe’s nerves.
“It is their burial song,” Veronica Linwood whispered.
The other barges emptied, men piling ashore, their feet sinking ankle deep in the mass of fibre and root tendrils. The depression in the ocean surface was nearer, and visible now as a vast whirlpool, spinning and sucking amid the boiling waves. Its approach was only apparent, Joe thought. The island was in fact drifting towards it, drawn with the loose rubbish.
“ We’ll never live out there,” Chris Winnett declared morosely. “ If the waves and current don’t break this lot to bits it’ll probably sink ! It’s about as buoyant as a soaked sponge, all told !”
For once Joe felt inclined to agree. At no point did the waterlogged mass rise high out of the sea. Its very size would be dangerous, once the rim of the giant whirlpool was reached. The island would break up. Already waves were striking over it with unusual force, tearing away the looser rubbish at its edge. The whole would undoubtedly be destroyed and sink.
Winnett looked at his watch. “ It’s an hour to high tide, six till the sea’s down to normal.”
Joe’s gaze flickered again to the dip in the ocean. Perhaps a mile across, they were now almost at its rim, and it sloped more sharply to its centre. In some strange manner it smoothed the rolling waves, forming a spinning saucer amid the swell. From it his gaze travelled to the men, and the four power barges, and a dim hope sprang alive in his heart.
“ Get in the boats and tow against the current !”
They stared at him, and Winnett’s face was the first to show understanding. But the doubt returned. “ This island is half a mile across.”
“ Don’t talk,” Joe snarled. “ Try ! If we fail we’ll drown anyway !”
Running, he sprang into the nearest barge, uncoiling the lines used to moor it. They dragged the ropes through the bushes, fixing them at a score of points. First one, then two, then all four barges were throbbing, twin screws sending up a surging wash.
“ The wind’s with us !” Chris Winnett roared once.
Joe scarcely knew how long passed. A rope pulled free, dragging a mass of uprooted bushes and rubbish. He swam from barge to island, carrying back the line, and secured it again. A group of natives came into view, watched a moment, then disappeared among the brush. Within minutes they were back, bearing many plaited cords with which they lengthened the tow-rope and tied it to every bush and trunk.
Roaring motors thundered at the sky, whining at maximum power. Sometimes waves drenched them ; sometimes a barge failed to rise to the incoming swell, and was momentarily half lost under brown water.
Only after an apparent infinity of time did Joe realise that the centre of the whirlpool was drifting slowly away. Wind and men combined had changed the drift to destruction into a slow movement towards safety.
After a time the tide began to ebb and the direction changed again. For an hour Joe thought all their effort was to be made vain, then all movement ceased and he knew the bast mass of the floating island had grounded.
He stopped the barges, and for a time they rested, moored close to the brush. Sorrell came squelching along, and boarded the craft at Joe’s side.
“ I want to be going back, Mr. Baring.”
Joe read emotion on his face. The lean raft-boss wished to see if the raft still floated. Joe felt his doubt and near despair, and put a hand momentarily on Sorrell’s shoulder.
“ There were only two cables, Captain.” He turned away, sad. Better not to hope too much — disappointment would be the less.
The wind had almost gone, and the ebbing tide had settled down to a steady, strong current, making an oblique course necessary to compensate for drift. Joe watched the island drop from view behind, until it was a dim shape beyond the sea-mist, then lost to sight. The following day’s tide would be relatively slight, and by then the sub- terranean cavities under the sea bed would probably be filled so that no dangerous current could arise.
Only slowly did the tidal raft come into sight, tilted, so that one end projected unusually, and the other was just submerged, but apparently intact and still afloat. Sorrell boarded immediately, descended from view, and soon returned. He waved, cupping his hands to bellow from the hatch.
“ If I can have half a dozen men we can make all secure for tomorrow, Mr. Baring ! ”
Joe put them off, left one barge, and took the others back to the jetty, just emerging from the coursing ebb tide. The building stood unmoved, every window broken.
Inside, Joe decided he had never seen such disorder. Mud, leaves and broken rubbish lay everywhere ; sodden debris half obstructed doors ; water dribbled down walls, from ceilings, and trickled along corridors. The building had broken the force of the current, and no major equipment was disturbed. Most was sealed against damp and atmosphere, and impervious to immersion.
Joe decided the radio equipment must receive first attention. At dawn Harvey expected contact and a report. If not forthcoming, a major disaster would be assumed.
Only a few men were available, as it was imperative Sorrell lift and join the severed cables. Darkness had come and the sea was down to normal when the Captain reported all secure.
“ We’d shipped a few thousand gallons of water,” he said, the phone loud with his note of difficulties overcome. “ But the pumps are clearing it. You can have current when you want it.”
“ We’ll have it now,” Joe said. “ A gang is working all night on the radio installation.”
“ Certainly, Mr. Baring.”
High on the floodlit roof the aerial elements were restored, jury-rigged against the time for proper repairs. Rubbish was shovelled unceremoniously from the broken windows, floors washed down, equipment tested and replaced. Dawn was lightening the sky when Spenser, muddy and round face grimed, reported that the radio was workable. Joe sought out Chris Winnett, and found him trying to set in order a confusion of traps, nets and other specialist apparatus. Tired, Joe sat on the metal bench.
“ How much tide do we expect today, Chris ?”
Winnett sucked his lower lip cogitatively. “ Slightly less than the first day, I think — we may get a few feet round the building, nothing more.”
“ Nothing the tidal raft can’t stand ? ”
“ No,” Winnett said with conviction. “ She took the first day well enough.”
Joe washed and had half an hour’s rest. Within a few months everything would be back where it was, he thought morosely, flat on his back on his bunk. The plant would be restored, the three-day tidal deluge a thing of the past — the Regulians still as distant, if not openly hostile, and Harvey still yelling for friendly relations ! No friendship with the natives, no Earth settlement. Ultimately, it was as simple as that, and as final.
Joe wondered what he should tell Harvey. A full report must wait. Meanwhile, he must confess complete failure in establishing friendship with the Regulians. “ Without friendship, continued settlement will be impossible,” Harvey had said. Joe sighed. Never before had such an enormous project been abandoned as useless.
A tap came on the door and a man looked in. “ Half an hour until contact time, Mr. Baring.”
“ Thanks.” Joe got up. Thirty minutes to find a good excuse, he thought. Harvey would not be satisfied with the mere statement that the Regulians did not want men’s friendship.
On the way down he met Veronica Linwood. Excitement radiated from her steadfast eyes.
“ A ceremonial canoe has just reached the jetty, Joe !”
Joe felt unimpressed. “ I’ve Commander Harvey on schedule. Send ’em away — ”
“ But it’s a red canoe !” Impatience made the eyes dance. “ Red is their symbolic colour for peace and friendship !”
Joe snorted. “Impossible! Friendship is the last thing a Regulian has to give.”
“ Perhaps not now ! ”
Her tone shook him into silence. His gaze flickered to the corridor clock, back to her face, then he began to run, hearing her rapid footfalls behind him.
The canoe was brilliant red, the natives in red jerkins and with red hats of various design topping their sleek hair. Conscious of his own personal dignity, the leader was ascending the jetty. He halted, and for the first time in his life Joe saw a Regulian smile.
“ Our leaders have decided there shall be friendship and peace.” The tone was grave, but not cold. “ Your boats have saved us, when the refuge of our ancestors would have been lost.” A graceful gesture took in the barges. “ Your action was that of good men. You can show us many things. In return, we can help your people. There is no need for enmity, none for war—”
A shout interrupted the words. Spenser was at the comer of the building, waving.
“ Mr. Baring — your contact !”
Joe turned to run, hesitated, looking back, and caught Veronica Linwood’s gaze. “ Thank them — explain to them — get them to wait.”
He ran like a hare, panting, slammed into the radio room, and gained the stool as the panel light began to glow. Burblings changed to the hiss of static.
“ Project Commander Harvey speaking.”
Joe relaxed. “ Joe Baring here. I had been waiting for you. Commander !”
“ Everything is in order ?” Harvey sounded annoyed at not having caught a subordinate behind schedule.
“ Perfectly, Commander Harvey !” Joe permitted himself a weak smile. “ We have had a little flooding, but you will be receiving a full report about that in due course. Meanwhile, I am happy to say we have now definitely set up friendly relationships with the natives — ”
“ Good !” Harvey’s voice blurred behind static. “ The Commission will be impressed, Mr. Baring, and will probably reward you — ”
The fizzling whine began, and Joe knew contact was going. “Thank you, Mr. Harvey ! A full record of all related circumstances will be reaching you — ”
Amid burbling the light faded, and he sighed, wiping his face. Friendship meant peace ; peace, successful colonisation. As he rose he met constant eyes regarding him from the doorway, and grinned crookedly.
“ Will Harvey think I’m guilty of understatement, Veronica ? ”
The dark head shook. “If he agrees with me he’ll think you are a miracle, Joe ! ”
Francis G. Rayer.