by José Moselli
Translated by Michael Shreve
José Moselli, born Joseph Théophile Maurice Moselli in Paris on August 28, 1882 and died of cancer in Cannet on July 21, 1941, was a prolific writer of science fiction, crime fiction and adventure stories for French pulps. Called “the writer without a book” he was one of the most popular feuilletonistes (serial writers) in the early 20th century, publishing in pulp magazines like Science et voyages or L’Épatant, L’Intrépide, Cri-Cri, Le Petit Illustré from Editions Offenstadt where he was considered their “bestselling” author alongside George Fronval.
Born into a well-to-do family but hungering for adventure, he ran away from home at the age of 13 to get hired as a cabin boy aboard a sailing ship. Though bullied and abused, the boy did his duty as he traveled the seven seas. The hard life, the exploits and experiences he had, the people and places he encountered would serve him well in his future writings.
Despite his wanderlust, however, he missed boarding the ship in South America, making a deserter out of him as he went on to explore the islands and native girls in the South Seas. Eventually he returned to France where he turned himself over to a disciplinary hearing of the Merchant Marines. The judges were lenient and recommended the boy be trained as an officer. His adventures continued as a navigator but ultimately wore thin, so he accepted a job in Paris as a journalist in charge of a maritime news column.
At the same time, he started writing stories and got in contact with Editions Offenstadt where he wrote countless serials for various magazines and journals and was soon considered a veritable “house writer” for them. One of, if not the first, was “W… Vert” published in L’Intrepide in 1910. Thus began his writing career, at almost 30 years old, but it was interrupted by the Great War, in which he served at sea again, transporting troops this time, but he returned to France for good afterward. Dozens upon dozens of serials followed, spread out over hundreds of episodes for years to come until he finally retired to the South of France in 1939, dying in Le Cannet in 1941.
None of his work was published as a book in his lifetime. It was not until 1970 that his serial stories, the science fiction at least, started to be published in book form. The rest, the crime fiction and exotic adventure stories, are disappearing with the paper they were originally printed on. And although he has become a cult writer for pulp aficionados, only Illa’s End (arguably his masterpiece) and The Planetary Messenger have so far been translated into English (by Brian Stableford for Black Coat Press).
“The City in the Abyss” (“La cite du gouffre”) was first printed in L’Almanach Pittoresque in 1926. This is the first English translation.
There are many cases, controlled cases, of collective hallucinations. But everything leads us to believe that what happened on board the cargo ship Ariadne (out of Bordeaux) is real.
Captain Mercier is a calm, thoughtful man known for his self-control. Lieutenant Mauris was top of his class when he became Master Mariner. The chief engineer of the Ariadne, Gerard Fouque, is an even-tempered fifty-year-old veteran. The chief officer, Jacques Michel, is known for certain astronomical studies that earned him honors from the Academy of Sciences.
They all agree. They saw. They heard. Moreover, the logbook, Captain Mercier’s report, signed by two crew members, attests that it was a real, unquestionable fact—but no one will believe it.
It was five in the evening. The Ariadne, a cargo ship hauling six thousand tons of rice from Saigon to Nantes, was sailing in the Gulf of Aden. Two hours after rounding the ominous Cape Guardafui — where so many ships have been lost — Lieutenant Mauris, who was on watch, informed Captain Mercier that he had just spotted a floating mine!
A floating mine in the Gulf of Aden?
Captain Mercier believed that his subordinate was mistaken. He joined him on deck and could see to the west, straight ahead on their route, a red sphere that was bobbing up and down in the choppy water.
A mine or some harbor buoy gone adrift?
Captain Mercier brought his ship closer to the strange object and saw that it did indeed look like a floating mine: an old naval mine whose “horns” were mostly broken off and that was red from all the rust eating away its surface.
How had it not sunk? A mystery!
Whatever the case, it was a terrible danger to navigation. Captain Mercier, out of his sailor’s altruism, ordered Lieutenant Mauris to try to sink the contraption with a firearm. Mauris was twenty-five, a Parisian, fresh out of the Maritime Academy, and a good shot. With the Ariadne barely five hundred meters from the mysterious sphere, he fired off a few bullets in close succession without missing. Four in all.
To everyone’s amazement, the first three smashed against the object and kicked up white clouds of dust. Was the buoy or mine really made of iron? From a distance, it looked like plaster!
The fourth produced an even more unexpected result: they heard a sharp crack, like a pot split open, and the buoy or whatever it was flew into pieces, but without exploding!
The sailors who had gathered on the ship’s forecastle to watch the action whooped and hollered. But the buoy was hollow and it contained a human being …
Everyone could see him for a brief second: dressed in rags and putting his hands over his bloody head. And the sea abruptly buried him along with the wreckage of the weird device.
“The dinghy!” Captain Mercier ordered at the same time as he sent a message to the engine room to stop the ship, then put it in reverse.
A maneuver was never executed so fast!
In less than two minutes, the dinghy with the chief officer Jacques Michel on board between four hearty sailors was put to sea before the cargo ship had completely stopped, and it cruised off in the general direction where the red sphere had disappeared with the man inside.
A gentle eddy laced with a rim of foam still indicated the spot.
“There, there!” the sailors shouted from on board the Ariadne. Being higher up than those in the dinghy, they had a wider field of vision.
“On your left. That’s it!”
The light craft, pushed on by the rowers, sliced through the rough waves as if it were in a race. In the back, standing up, working the rudder with his ankles, Jacques Michel headed for a black point that had just appeared only to vanish right away: the head of the stranger, no doubt …
He was not mistaken.
Almost right away, the man bobbed up again, flapping his arms spasmodically only to disappear again—and probably for good!—when one of the sailors in the dinghy managed to grab him by the hair.
The man, who was oblivious, tried to struggle. The sea dog slapped him hard across the face, calmed him down and, with the help of his shipmates, lifted him up and put him in the boat.
The poor man was dressed in rags that looked corroded by some acid. His pants and shirt, his only clothes, were in shreds and had lost any distinct color. They were different shades of gray and black with a little dark green and brownish red mixed in.
The stranger was covered in bruises. Black scabs stuck to his ears, eyes, and the corners of his mouth. The bath he had just taken was not long enough to wash them off.
The chief officer moved the sailors aside and leaned over the mysterious individual. “He’s alive. That’s the main thing. Lay him down in the back… there. Help me! Okay, and now everyone back to the oars and let’s start swimming!”
All excited, the sailors obeyed.
Jacques Michel, sitting next to the motionless body of the strange castaway, piloted the dinghy back to the Ariadne, half a mile away, a short kilometer, which the boat crossed in record time.
Captain Mercier, the chief engineer Fouque, the cook, the stokers, and the sailors, who had all crowded together at the top of the ladder, waited and whispered comments. Lieutenant Mauris was also watching from the deck…
Two of the men from the dinghy carried the stranger and laid him on the hatch of the rear hold. Captain Mercier, who was a little bit of a doctor (a very little bit!), was instantly leaning over him, opening his shirt and listening to his chest. Dead silence all around.
“He’s alive,” the captain muttered as he straightened up. “But his heartbeat’s really irregular… like a hoist losing pressure. Monsieur Michel, get the ship back en route, please, and bring it round four or five degrees north… the currents are treacherous here and I have no desire to hit a reef.”
The chief officer, duly ordered, mumbled a hollow “aye cap’n” and headed for the bridge. He was furious because he wanted to stay and hear what the castaway had to say.
Captain Mercier had the stranger brought into the small deckhouse built on the poop deck that served as the owner’s cabin when he traveled on board. The man was laid on the brass bed. The black steward, Capron, undressed him, washed his face and put on him a new shirt.
After this, Captain Mercier tried to bring him around. It was not easy. First, he put a flask of ether, then some smelling salts under his nose. Next, he dropped some cheap rum (bought in Singapore and more corrosive than acid) down his throat. In vain!
Capron, an athletic man, rubbed, massaged and finally shook him to no avail.
The man, however, was not dead. And yet, his heart seemed to stop at times. Mercier could not hear it. A second later, the organ would start beating again, stronger than ever, rattling the poor guy’s chest, but he remained leaden on the bed.
Captain Mercier (from Nantes way back in his family) had many fine qualities but gentleness and sensitivity were not among them. Neither was patience. “Deckhand!” he called. “Fetch me some cotton and the bottle of wine spirits in my cabin!”
The deckhand rushed off to follow orders and came back presently with the requested objects.
Mercier took a clump of cotton, put it in the stranger’s left hand, which he balled up with a bit of rope. Then, after pouring a half-glass of alcohol on the cotton wadding, he set it on fire. The cotton flamed up and the castaway’s skin crackled.
The man jumped up. He opened his eyes and let out a furious, “Hellfire and damnation!”
“Ah, he talks! All right,” Mercier wrapped the flaming fingers in his big hand and put out the fire.
The man was trembling violently. Agape and agog, his face expressed a nameless dread. He looked around as if he could barely grasp reality and mumbled, “It was a dream.”
“What was a dream?” Mercier asked, surprised by the odd remark.
The man did not answer. His brow furrowed. A deep wrinkle grooved into his forehead showing that he was thinking hard.
Mercier took the opportunity to examine him. He looked to be in his forties. His beard and moustache, which must have been shaved regularly, were around a centimeter long. His thin hair was graying. He had a high forehead and deep-set eyes under arching eyebrows. His nose, a little big, was veined with red. His mouth was fixed in a cynical, world-weary smirk. All in all, an intelligent but not very friendly face.
You, my friend, should love this alcohol, Mercier thought as he held out the flask to the mysterious castaway.
The man looked at it, took it and, after a moment of uncertainty, he gulped it all down.
“Feeling better?” Mercier asked.
The stranger furrowed his brow again. “You’re French?” came out in a hoarse voice.
“As you see, my boy. And you?” the captain of the Ariadne shot back. “Are you going to tell us what you were doing in that mine… in that buoy?”
“The float, the bobbing ball you were using as a shell.”
“Yeah, the red sphere we thought was a floating mine. The one we shot with a rifle and destroyed… you were inside.”
Again, the man did not respond. His body shook. His eyes started swimming in their sockets. He stared at Mercier, then at the chief officer Jacques Michel, who had just come in, then at the deckhand. “So… it wasn’t a dream,” he muttered.
“A dream?” Mercier questioned. “Look, you have to explain it to us. You want another drink? Or something to eat? You want to rest a little? When you feel better, you can tell us everything. You’re safe here so you can relax.”
The man did not answer. His heart started beating spasmodically; so violently that they could see the organ pulsing in his ribcage. His throat tensed, and his Adam’s apple rose up. “Drink!” he croaked.
Mercier filled a glass and held it out. The man downed it greedily. His cheeks turned red. The cynical crease of his mouth darkened. “So, you found me in a ball… a float?”
“Exactly!” Mercier said. He gave a brief account of what had happened after Lieutenant Mauris spotted the mysterious device.
The man nodded. He tried to control his throbbing heart and stammered, “I can… might as well tell you everything… I’m done for! Any minute now, the machine’ll crack! Anyway, it’s better like this. We only die once and life isn’t worth the trouble of regretting it.”
The stranger paused. He was panting.
“My name’s Philippe Raquier… engineer. Top of my class at… but what do you care? Life is a matter of good luck and bad luck… A stroll that starts at birth and ends in death. You’re happy when things are going good but miserable when things turn sour.
“Me, I was lucky at first. I studied hard and became an engineer. I liked the good life. I went out and got a place on the rails in Ethiopia, then in South America… but you don’t care about all that. Anyway, I started drinking. Why? Because I like alcohol! Some people like peas, others oysters… No telling why!
“But alcohol is a wicked friend. To get the little high I wanted, I had to drink more and more… It showed even though I did my job without a hitch. Still, I dropped one job after another… lower and lower down the ladder… But you’re wondering what all this has to do with you fishing me out of the water? I’m getting there.
“So, I told you I was losing work. I ended up hustling plumbing fixtures in Glasgow. But one day, I got drunk and missed a delivery. Just like that, I was back on the street. And I hit rock bottom. I was sleeping in shelters… when there was room. When you don’t have a home and you’ve got no decent clothes, it’s impossible to pull yourself out of the hole!
“So as not to die of poverty, I was more than happy to find a job as greaser in the engine room of an English steamer. But in Melbourne, I binged on my first shore leave. They kicked me off.
“I was lucky! They were building a railroad between Saint Kilda and Buxton through the malaria-infested plains. The engineers were dropping like flies. And they couldn’t find replacements. I showed my credentials and was hired at fifty pounds a month. A windfall!
“I did my duty for seven months until a Syrian came and set up a canteen along the tracks. He sold this cheap whisky that poisoned the workers. But for me, he got real cognac, like I hadn’t tasted for months. I closed my eyes to his bootlegging and satisfied my passion for alcohol. An inspector from the company came by one day. I was drunk. I was sent back to Melbourne where I found myself back on the street with three hundred pounds in my pocket but also with a reputation that barred me from working anywhere in Australia.”
Philippe Raquier stopped talking. His voice had grown weak and hoarse. At times, his heart leapt in his chest. His face hardened — a sign of the terrible willpower required for him to speak. He continued:
“In a bar on Pitt Street, I met an Irishman, James O’Baldy, drunk like me. I’d met him in line at a shelter in Glasgow… We drank together. We talked together. To make a long story short, O’Baldy told me he was an assistant, an assistant purser, handling the money on board an English ocean liner, the Thames, which was leaving the next day for Europe. O’Baldy and I were two of a kind. That’s why he confided in me without hemming and hawing over trust: The Thames was carrying a bunch of cases of rubies and opals worth more than 200,000 pounds sterling!
“The precious stones had been loaded on the Thames in secret the night before and were locked in the safe — basically a closet with armored walls whose only access was through the purser’s cabin. 200,000 pounds worth of stones! O’Baldy went pale just thinking about it. If he had a partner, someone he could count on… He was sure he could snatch the fortune… But he needed help, someone to crack the safe if need be…
“I should also tell you, gentlemen, that during my stint of poverty in England, me and O’Baldy had done a few robberies together… that never netted me much.
“I knew what O’Baldy was saying. It sounded like an interesting proposal. After a few questions, which the Irishman answered plainly, I realized that the job was feasible and I could easily hide the booty… For this I’d have to get on board. Which is exactly what I did.
“I got some new clothes and a few indispensable tools: a manganese steel crowbar, skeleton keys, blank keys, and even a little oxyhydrogen blowtorch. Then I bought a first class ticket to Suez. Suez seemed like the easiest place to get off and disappear once the job was done.
“The Thames left… I had two pounds sterling and four shillings left in my pocket. The two pounds earned me the good graces of my cabin boy when I gave it to him on embarking.
“But it was bad sailing. All the way from Melbourne to Colombo, the weather was appalling. Between Colombo and Aden, the southwesterly monsoon kept us shaking for three days, then it calmed down so the passengers could eat a full meal for the first time on the trip… The purser, with the captain’s approval, decided that it was the perfect time to give the traditional benefit party for the line’s widows. O’Baldy and I had been waiting for this chance.
“The purser was going to be busy during the party so we could take advantage of it to ‘work’!
“The party took place two days before the estimated arrival in Aden. At eleven in the evening, O’Baldy snuck me into the purser’s cabin. On deck, an orchestra of horns and reeds accompanied by accordions was raging. I guess they were dancing a jig…
“After going through the purser’s small office, then his cabin, we stood before a narrow, metal door that accessed the safe. O’Baldy opened one of the closets where I was supposed to hide in case the purser came back for one reason or another. Then he went to keep watch in the corridor close to the cabin door. He would alert me by dropping a sugar bowl if the purser showed up.
“The door of the safe was fitted with three tumbler locks. I only had to break one. Figuring out how to open the other two was easy. I pulled the door open, turned on the flashlight I had brought, and stepped into the safe.
“It was a square closet, two and a half meters on each side, whose walls were made of steel; basically, just an extension of the purser’s cabin. The armored walls were thick, braced by steel buttresses riveted to the deckbeam. A solid iron cross protected the porthole.
“On the shelves before me, I saw little wooden boxes with red wax seals. There were thirteen in all, each as big as a box of dominoes, lying next to them were cases full of jewelry and money that prudent passengers had trusted to the purser.
“I reached out for the boxes. Behind me, I heard a thump. It was the door closing! I tried to open it. I heard two sharp knocks against the steel. At least I thought I heard… I figured—I’ll never know if I was right or not—that it was O’Baldy shutting the door when he saw the purser come. But maybe it was from the lurch of the ship, which I had just felt.
“Whatever it was, it gave me the willies. Picture yourself in my situation: I was facing hard labor for life.”
After a short pause, Philippe Raquier said, “Drink!”
Captain Mercier poured him a glass of rum. He downed it in one gulp.
“I was trying to study my situation calmly, yes, when a big jolt threw me to the metal floor. After a minute, because the shock had knocked me senseless, I tried to get up and I felt the floor tipping over more than forty-five degrees! The Thames was almost on its side!
“I could stand up, however, and I felt the floor dropping under my feet — like an elevator going down. The Thames was sinking! It was zigzagging down in rolling waves, sliding from side to side, tilting up, then dipping its nose…
“All around me, I heard muffled blows that made the steel walls vibrate. I heard rumbling and gurgling…
“I was clear-headed again. When you’ve pictured hard labor for life, you can picture death!
“Knowing that, if I stayed in the safe, I was going to die slowly of suffocation or I’d drown, I thought of opening the door to get out, to get back up to the surface. But I stayed put. I realized that it was already too late. The purser’s cabin and office, the corridor that I’d have to pass through before reaching the deck were already flooded. No way out.
“Beads of sweat ran down my spine…
“The ship kept going down. At each rocking, the jewel boxes and other cases slid over the floor and slapped against the walls. But I’d already forgotten all about them!
“The flashlight that I’d dropped was still on. I picked it up and went to the porthole. I could see bands of pale foam passing by the dark shadows… I knew, without any possible doubt, that the ship was plunging into the abyss. I was a goner. No power could save me. And yet, here I was…
“I’m a practical man. Yes, practical, when I’m not drinking… I hadn’t drunk all night! So, knowing that I was a goner, gone for good, I sat down, or rather I reclined on the floor swaying under me…
“The rumbling continued. Any minute now, the steel walls were going to split apart, burst open under the heavy pressure. And that would be the end for me. I turned off the flashlight, put it in my pocket and waited.
“In spite of myself, I stared out the porthole as I stretched out before it. I saw weird, glowing shapes pass by and bubbles… I heard cavernous eruptions: different parts of the ship breaking apart under the great pressure of water…
“I must have been the sole survivor. Me, the thief, the safe cracker… Right? And what an agonizing death I was going to have! If only I had a gun! Oh, I envied the others who were already dead.
“At times, when the sinking ship pitched a little stronger, I felt the little sealed boxes with rubies and opals bang against me. Madness! When the moment came, this huge fortune wouldn’t help my life last one second longer. And I had boarded the Thames to steal it!
“I felt a very slight, almost imperceptible bump, and the ship stopped moving. It had reached the bottom of the sea where it would rest until the end of days. The floor of the safe was pretty much horizontal now. I stood up. I had a little headache, but that was all. I turned on my flashlight. It looked to me like the walls of the safe were slightly warped, but they had held strong. For the moment, I wouldn’t have to risk death by drowning. But there was still suffocation…
“I turned off the flashlight. I wanted to save the batteries. To die in darkness was a sickening thought.
“Understand that I was very lucid. To the point that I automatically tried to calculate the depth by analyzing the warp of the walls according to their thickness and the resistance of the steel… A completely inaccurate calculation, given that I didn’t know their exact thickness or the degree of resistance… I figured I’d be better off trying to get some sleep.
“I turned around to lie down on the floor and found myself looking out the porthole. The surprise froze me to the spot. Through the thick window barred with a steel cross, I saw a reddish brown glow, red like hot iron. Infrared even. For a moment, I imagined some kind of phosphorescent phenomenon. But I saw shadows moving around! Probably fish? I watched, both intrigued and frightened at the idea that these fish, or whatever they were, were going to feed on my body when the walls of the safe finally gave in…
“I watched… It looked like the shadows — those blurry shadows — were slowly changing color, going from dark green to brownish red, then black and vanishing.
“My eyes were gradually adjusting to the semi-darkness. Little by little, I could make out odd cylindrical structures, full of spikes and spurs as big as scythes, and between them had been bored horizontal funnels. Over these cylinders, gigantic gate-like structures rose up in dark green shadows.
“I thought I was the victim of an illusion. What I was seeing was algae, no doubt, and coral. I looked harder. I forced myself to stay calm and objective.
“No! It was not coral and algae! They were artificial buildings, constructed by beings who could think. The cylinders and gates were proportioned; the funnels were made in staggered rows. The gates were set up, I would have sworn to it, at forty-five degree angles to one another.
“Any doubts I may have still had vanished when I saw what was between the cylinders and towers: oblong frames ending in spindles, and on top of them were sitting weird machines that looked like enormous accordions fitted with toothed gears! You heard me, toothed gears! And there were groups of the most extraordinary beings bustling around these machines…
“Beings! Three meters tall… maybe less (the porthole window was a little warped by the water pressure). These beings were made of a white bulb with vertical, dark green stripes, and three rows of round, cherry-red eyes set around it. Under the bulb, which might’ve been around fifty centimeters high by forty in diameter, there were seven (I counted them) tentacles waving around, like an octopus’ but of different lengths. Some of the tentacles (three to be exact) ended in sharp points that looked like they were made of metal.
“The head (I mean the weird bulb) of these beings was encircled by a ring of metal over the three rows of eyes. And on top of the bulb, a white jet squirted out, sometimes thick, sometimes thin, sometimes almost impossible to see.
“The beings were surrounding one of the accordion-machines, apparently trying to push it or drag it…
“Behind them were other similar creatures, but smaller, who had only one row of eyes. They were coming forward. Their bulb was not crowned with any jet or fitted with a metal ring. They did not have spikes at the end of their tentacles. Slaves, workers, probably—I mean like entomologists use the word when talking about worker bees and ants.
“I don’t know why… I couldn’t help it: I took my flashlight and spontaneously, instinctively, unconsciously you might say, I raised it up to the window and turned it on.
“Right away, I saw one of the beings around the accordion-machine approach the porthole while the jet spurting out of the bulb grew bigger and stronger. It plastered itself, so to speak, against the window. I saw its countless red eyes, the green-black stripes of its bulb. A hideous creature but endowed with intelligence! The three rows of red eyes glowed like molten metal. The stripes on the bulb seemed to come alive, to twist and twirl.
“I myself, gentlemen, was perfectly calm. I was thinking of my own hide. These beings, whatever they were, could (maybe) save me. Anyone sentenced to death will hang onto any hope, even the craziest.
“I waved my flashlight. I saw the stripes intertwine, spread apart, wriggle and writhe… Obviously it was trying to make me understand something?
“It went away. Then a few of the smaller beings who were following the accordion-machine broke away and came up to the porthole, entwining their tentacles and producing a bright red glow that lit up almost the whole safe room.
“That’s not what I wanted! I wanted to get out! To get back to the surface!
“I danced around! I didn’t know what I was doing. I tried to make them understand, to communicate with these beings who had nothing in common with me, who must have been as ignorant of humans as humans were of them, who didn’t know what air was or sunlight… Beings as different from us as Martians would be, if there were any!
“I was starting to feel the lack of air… and it was getting desperately cold—a real freezer. I was shivering as much from the cold as from fear.
“When the ship had hit the bottom of the sea, I had accepted the sacrifice of my life. And now, here was a new hope to give me courage… It was hard for me to surrender a second time to the great voyage beyond…
“I called on all my reasoning power, all my knowledge… I attempted the impossible.
“I went up to the porthole, almost touching it, opened my mouth and pretended to gasp for air, trying to make them understand that I was suffocating. But they certainly knew nothing about our bodies.
“Some of them stayed huddled around the window, watching. I observed that, at times, their eyes changed color and went from dark red to bright red. What were they thinking? Who knows?
“All of a sudden, they went away. And without figuring out how it moved, I saw a kind of cage come up, which looked pretty much like a spindle standing on end. In the middle of this spindle, two cones with their tips facing each other were shooting two red rays that bounced off the bars of the cage — bars that looked like they were made of jade. The double scarlet ray got rapidly brighter. Any second it was going to be bright enough to light up the safe room, which was now bathed in the rays…
“…of light! That wasn’t what I wanted! I needed air! I was suffocating… How long had it been since the Thames had sunk? How many minutes? Hours? I was so wrapped up in what I was seeing that I’d lost track of time… But my lungs were crying for air.
“I slowly realized that the chill in the room was edging off. The weird spindle was not only radiating light but warmth as well. I felt better. I wasn’t shivering. I could see the drops of condensation on the walls disappearing one by one. But I heard two or three dull cracks, which told me that the walls of the safe were starting (like me) to show signs of fatigue… I started trembling again just thinking about the death awaiting me! Dying now would be dying twice. After what I’d seen, what I’d just seen, I wanted to live, to tell the world about my extraordinary discovery!
“But I knew salvation was impossible…
“If I stayed in the safe, I’d suffocate to death, as long as the walls held up. Leaving it meant being crushed to death, drowned.
“I was jumping around madly, convulsively, frantically. Air! I needed air! I pointed to my throat. I pretended to choke.
“The beings just watched. Their three rows of eyes changing color and their stripes wriggling on their bulbs showed me that they were thinking, reasoning… maybe they were emotionally moved? No doubt they’d seen other men, but dead men! By extraordinary luck, I was here alive! The god of thieves maybe…”
Philippe Raquier smirked cynically. His voice grew weak. But the men listening were so absorbed that they did not think of suggesting that he rest. He waited a few seconds for his heart to calm down. Then he spoke again in a barely audible voice:
“The beings scattered. I thought they’d abandoned me. I saw others pass by, the small ones, the ones I called ‘slaves’. They were pushing hemispheres that glided easily and were piled with all kinds of objects—I recognized the wreckage of the Thames: mangled davits, angled sections, boiler plates, etc.
“An intuitive thought crossed my mind: what if these beings had caused the shipwreck to plunder it?
“A little later, I heard a grinding noise that made me shiver. I wondered if the walls of the safe were giving way. I thought I smelled sulfur… And all of a sudden, I was breathing more easily. My head felt lighter. I felt reassured and relieved. I tried to figure it out. I analyzed the sensations. And I understood! Yes, I understood! The beings were sending me oxygen, pure oxygen!
“I saw them once again approach the porthole to watch me. Me, I was panting. I was breathing frantically. I was feeling strangely excited… overexcited, like I was drunk! I think I said a bunch of incoherent things then. I was shouting at the beings… The effects of the oxygen. I did all I could to calm down a little.
“I was breathing. That was the upshot. But I couldn’t kid myself—the walls were bulging more and more. At any minute now, they were going to burst.
“I don’t know why, but I became raging mad. I picked up some of the boxes with opals and rubies and with all my strength I threw them at the walls. They shattered into pieces. The floor became littered with precious stones that sparkled in the scarlet light of the double ray emitted by the spindle-shaped cage.
“I noticed that the beings showed no emotion, no reaction at the sight of these human riches.
“My heart was beating harder and faster. I felt my arteries boiling. A devastating thirst dried my throat, burned my palate. My tongue, little by little, became hard… I knew it was the end.
“Like an idiot, I started waving my arms again. I wanted to get out, to get back to the surface, to see the sun, to live, just for an hour if I could… But to see bright light, real light, daylight: the light of men!
“Motionless, the beings watched me. The jet of steam shot out of their bulbs, and, behind them, I could make out a chaotic swarm of… I was no longer calm enough to analyze. I was panting like a dog. My dry, hard tongue was darting in and out of my mouth…
“The temperature in the safe was still mild, warm, but water was again seeping through the walls.
“Abruptly, I resigned myself. Do you get it? I accepted the inevitable!
“One last time I looked at the strange beings who could do nothing but prolong my agony. Then I lay down on the steel floor, feeling it wet under me. Carbon dioxide, which is heavier than oxygen, was sitting in the lower part of the room and suffocating me. I thought I heard banging and creaking… I thought I was being shaken… And then nothing. I passed out.”
Philippe Raquier stopped talking. Captain Mercier and Jacques Michel, leaning over the man, had barely heard the end of his story. Believing that the castaway wanted to regain some strength before continuing, they waited.
After a little while, Mercier asked, “And after?”
“What after?” the engineer mumbled, looking at them. “After, sir, I don’t know anything. Yes… According to what you told me, I was obviously put into that ball you found me in… The beings of the abyss took pity on me and sent me to the surface… Give me a drink, please.”
The bottle of rum was empty. Mercier looked at the man, then turned to the chief officer and sent him to get another bottle.
“Drink and try to get some rest,” he told Raquier, holding out a half-full glass.
The shipwreck victim drank without saying a word. He laid his head on the pillow and closed his eyes.
Mercier motioned to his second-in-command to follow him, and they left the deckhouse. “What do you think?” he asked when they were outside. “A phony or a fool?”
“But who put him in that sphere? It couldn’t have been made of metal since it only took a couple of bullets to crack it open,” Jacques Michel objected.
“We’ll see. Tomorrow, after a good sleep, we’ll question him in detail so we can get to the truth. Let’s eat. It’s after eight, and poor Mauris is probably getting bored on the bridge.
The next morning, Captain Mercier went to see the castaway and found him dead.
His rags held no papers or identification. He was sewed up in a canvas sheet and buried at sea later that morning.
In the evening, the Ariadne dropped anchor in the port of Djibouti, where Captain Mercier immediately submitted his ship’s log in which he reported how he had found the extraordinary castaway.
He learned that the Thames, a mail boat from Australia, really did exist and was eagerly awaited in Aden after four days missing.
The Ariadne left Djibouti the following day. A week later, after crossing the Suez Canal, it arrived in Port Saïd, where Captain Mercier found out that the Thames had sunk in the waters around Cape Guardafui, but nobody knew how or why. Some Arab fishermen, however, who had picked up and brought back to Aden some wreckage from the unfortunate ship, maintained that the weather was particularly beautiful around Guardafui at the time of the accident. Two other ships, the Ophir out of London and the General Errazuriz from Callao, which were sailing off Guardafui on the night of the Thames shipwreck, confirmed their statement.
When Captain Mercier got into Nantes with Philippe Raquier’s tale haunting his mind, he did some research and quickly learned that, in Melbourne, the Thames had taken on board a large quantity of rubies and opals on its final voyage. Philippe Raquier had told the truth…
Are there beings, therefore, at the bottom of the sea who know about us, but whom we do not know about? Beings who have developed an advanced civilization? And who maybe cause shipwrecks to appropriate certain materials?
One fact is undeniable: off the Cape Guardafui, more than a hundred ships are lost every year—the Ghodoc, the Renard, the Amiral Gueydon sailed their last… along with many others…
The currents are to blame, of course, but they are not the only guilty parties.