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Norman mumbled something, and he vaguely felt Beth grab him strongly by the arm, lead him back toward the habitat. The water was now clouded with white eggs. The alarms were ringing in his ears. The sound was very loud. And then he realized: a new alarm. This alarm was ringing inside his suit.
He began to shiver. His teeth chattered uncontrollably. He tried to speak but bit his tongue, tasted blood. He felt numb and stupid. Everything was happening in slow motion.
As they approached the habitat, he could see that the eggs were sticking to the cylinders, clinging densely, making a nubbly white surface.
"Hurry!" Barnes shouted. "Hurry! It's coming this way!" They were under the airlock, and he began to feel surging currents of water. There was something very big out there. Beth was pushing him upward and then his helmet burst above the waterline and Fletcher gripped him with strong arms, and a moment after that Beth was pulled up and the hatch slammed shut. Somebody took off his helmet and he heard the alarm, shrieking loud in his ears. By now his whole body was shaking in spasms, thumping on the deck. They stripped off his suit and wrapped him in a silver blanket and held him until his shivering lessened, then finally stopped. And abruptly, despite the alarm, he went to sleep.
"It's not your goddamned job, that's why," Barnes said. "You had no authorization to do what you did. None whatsoever."
"Levy might have still been alive," Beth said, calm in the face of Barnes's fury.
"But she wasn't alive, and by going outside you risked the lives of two civilian expedition members unnecessarily."
Norman said, "It was my idea, Hal." Norman was still wrapped in blankets, but they had given him hot drinks and made him rest, and now he felt better.
"And you," Barnes said. "You're lucky to be alive."
"I guess I am," Norman said. "But I don't know what happened."
"This is what happened," Barnes said, waving a small fan in front of him. "Your suit circulator shorted out and you experienced rapid central cooling from the helium. Another couple of minutes and you would have been dead."
"It was so fast," Norman said. "I didn't realize - "
" - You goddamn people," Barnes said. "I want to make something clear. This is not a scientific conference. This is not the Underwater Holiday Inn, where you can do whatever you please. This is a military operation and you will damn well follow military orders. Is that clear?"
"This is a military operation?" Ted said.
"It is now," Barnes said.
"Wait a minute. Was it always?"
"It is now."
"You haven't answered the question," Ted said. "Because if it is a military operation, I think we need to know that. I personally do not wish to be associated with - "
" - Then leave," Beth said.
" - a military operation that is - "
" - Look, Ted," Barnes said. "You know what this is costing the Navy?"
"No, but I don't see - "
" - I'll tell you. A deep-placement, saturated gas environment with full support runs about a hundred thousand dollars an hour. By the time we all get out of here, the total project cost will be eighty to a hundred million dollars. You don't get that kind of appropriations from the military without what they call 'a serious expectation of military benefit.' It's that simple. No expectation, no money. You following me?"
"You mean like a weapon?" Beth said.
"Possibly, yes," Barnes said.
"Well," Ted said, "I personally would never have joined - "
" - Is that right? You'd fly all the way to Tonga and I'd say, 'Ted, there's a spacecraft down there that might contain life from another galaxy, but it's a military operation,' and you'd say, 'Gosh, sorry to hear that, count me out'? Is that what you'd have done, Ted?"
"Well ..." Ted said.
"Then you better shut up," Barnes said. "Because I've had it with your posturing."
"Hear, hear," Beth said.
"I personally feel you're overwrought," Ted said.
"I personally feel you're an egomaniacal asshole," Barnes said.
"Just a minute, everybody," Harry said. "Does anybody know why Levy went outside in the first place?"
Tina said, "She was on a TRL."
"A Timeclock Required Lockout," Barnes said. "It's the duty schedule. Levy was Edmunds's backup. After Edmunds died, it became Levy's job to go to the submarine every twelve hours."
"Go to the sub? Why?" Harry said.
Barnes pointed out the porthole. "You see DH-7 over there? Well, next to the single cylinder is an inverted dome hangar, and beneath the dome is a minisub that the divers left behind.
"In a situation like this," Barnes said, "Navy regs require that all tapes and records be transferred to the sub every twelve hours. The sub is on TBDR Mode-Timed Ballast Drop and Release - set on a timer every twelve hours. That way, if somebody doesn't get there every twelve hours, transfer the latest tapes, and press the yellow 'Delay' button, the sub will automatically drop ballast, blow tanks, and go to the surface unattended."
"Why is that?"
"If there's a disaster down here - say something happened [[ 205to all of us - then the sub would automatically surface after twelve hours, with all the tapes accumulated thus far. The Navy'd recover the sub at the surface, and they'd have at least a partial record of what happened to us down here."
"I see. The sub's our flight recorder."
"You could say that, yes. But it's also our way out, our only emergency exit."
"So Levy was going to the sub?"
"Yes. And she must have made it, because the sub is still here."
"She transferred the tapes, pressed the 'Delay' button, and then she died on the way back."
"How did she die?" Harry said, looking carefully at Barnes.
"We're not sure," Barnes said.
"Her entire body was crushed," Norman said. "It was like a sponge."
Harry said to Barnes, "An hour ago you ordered the EPSA sensors to be reset and adjusted. Why was that?"
"We had gotten a strange reading in the previous hour."
"What sort of a reading?"
"Something out there. Something very large."
"But it didn't trigger the alarms," Harry said.
"No. This thing was beyond alarm-set parameters."
"You mean it was too big to set off the alarms?"
"Yes. After the first false alarm, the settings were all cranked down. The alarms were set to ignore anything that large. That's why Tina had to readjust the settings."
"And what set off the alarms just now?" Harry said. "When Beth and Norman were out there?"
Barnes said, "Tina?"
"I don't know what it was. Some kind of animal, I guess. Silent, and very big."
She shook her head. "From the electronic footprint, Dr. Adams, I would say the thing was almost as big as this habitat."
Beth slipped one round white egg onto the stage of the scanning microscope. "Well," she said, peering through the eyepiece, "it's definitely marine invertebrate. The interesting feature is this slimy coating." She poked at it with forceps.
"What is it?" Norman said.
"Some kind of proteinaceous material. Sticky."
"No. I mean, what is the egg?"
"Don't know yet." Beth continued her examination when the alarm sounded and the red lights began to flash again. Norman felt a sudden dread.
"Probably another false alarm," Beth said.
"Attention, all hands," Barnes said on the intercom. "All hands, battle stations."
"Oh shit," Beth said.
Beth slid gracefully down the ladder as if it were a fire pole; Norman followed clumsily back down behind her. At the communications section on D Cyl, he found a familiar scene: everyone clustered around the computer, and the back panels again removed. The lights still flashed, the alarm still shrieked.
"What is it?" Norman shouted.
"What equipment breakdown?"
"We can't turn the damn alarm off!" Barnes shouted. "It turned it on, but we can't turn it off! Teeny - "
" - W orking on it, sir!"
The big engineer was crouched behind the computer; Norman saw the broad curve of her back.
"Get that damn thing off!"
"Getting it off, sir!"
"Get it off, I can't hear!"
Hear what? Norman wondered, and then Harry stumbled into the room, colliding with Norman. "Jesus..."
"This is an emergency!" Barnes was shouting. "This is an emergency! Seaman Chan! Sonar!" Tina was next to him, calm as always, adjusting dials on side monitors. She slipped on headphones.
Norman looked at the sphere on the video monitor. The sphere was closed.
Beth went to one of the portholes and looked closely at the white material that blocked it. Barnes spun like a dervish beneath the flashing red lights, shouting, swearing in all directions.
And then suddenly the alarm stopped, and the red lights stopped flashing. Everyone was silent. Fletcher straightened and sighed.
Harry said, "I thought you got that fixed - "
" - Shhh."
They heard the soft repetitive pong! of the sonar impulses. Tina cupped her hands over the headphones, frowning, concentrating.
Nobody moved or spoke. They stood tensely, listening to the sonar as it echoed back.
Barnes said quietly to the group, "A few minutes ago, we got a signal. From outside. Something very large."
Finally Tina said, "I'm not getting it now, sir." "Go passive."
"Aye aye, sir. Going passive."
The pinging sonar stopped. In its place they heard a slight hiss. Tina adjusted the speaker volume.
"Hydrophones?" Harry said quietly.
Barnes nodded. "Polar glass transducers. Best in the world."
They all strained to listen, but heard nothing except the undifferentiated hiss. To Norman it sounded like tape noise, with an occasional gurgle of the water. If he wasn't so tense, he would have found the sound irritating.
Barnes said, "Bastard's clever. He's managed to blind us, cover all our ports with goo."
"Not goo," Beth said. "Eggs."
"Well, they're covering every damn port in the habitat." The hissing continued, unchanging. Tina twisted the hydrophone dials. There was a soft continuous crackling, like cellophane being crumpled.
"What's that?" Ted said.
Beth said, "Fish. Eating."
Barnes nodded. Tina twisted the dials. "Tuning it out." They again heard the undifferentiated hiss. The tension in the room lessened. Norman felt tired and sat down. Harry sat next to him. Norman noticed that Harry looked more thoughtful than concerned. Across the room, Ted stood near the hatch door and bit his lip. He looked like a frightened kid.
There was a soft electronic beep. Lines on the gas-plasma screens jumped.
Tina said, "I have a positive on peripheral thermals."
Barnes nodded: "Direction?"
They heard a metallic clank! Then another clank!
"The grid. He's hitting the grid."
"Hitting it? Sounds like he's dismantling it."
Norman remembered the grid. It was made of three-inch pipe.
"A big fish? A shark?" Beth said.
Barnes shook his head. "He's not moving like a shark. And he's too big."
Tina said, "Positive thermals on in-line perimeter. He's still coming."
Barnes said, "Go active."
The pong! of the sonar echoed in the room.
Tina said, "Target acquired. One hundred yards."
"FAS on, sir."
There was a rapid succession of sonar sounds: pong! pong! pong! pong! Then a pause, and it came again: pong! pong! pong! pong!
Norman looked puzzled. Fletcher leaned over and whispered, "False-aperture sonar makes a detailed picture from several senders outside, gives you a good look at him." He smelled liquor on her breath. He thought: Where'd she get liquor?
Pong! pong! pong! pong!
"Building image. Ninety yards."
Pong! pong! pong! pong!
They turned to the screens. Norman saw an amorphous, streaky blob. It didn't mean much to him.
"Jesus," Barnes said. "Look at the size of him!"
Pong! pong! pong! pong!
Pong! pong! pong! pong!
Another image appeared. Now the blob was a different shape, the streaks in another direction. The image was sharper at the edges, but it still meant nothing to Norman. A big blob with streaks ...
"Jesus! He's got to be thirty, forty feet across!" Barnes said. "No fish in the world is that big," Beth said.
"It's not a whale."
Norman saw that Harry was sweating. Harry took off his glasses and wiped them on his jumpsuit. Then he put them back on, and pushed them up on the bridge of his nose. They slipped back down. He glanced at Norman and shrugged.
Tina: "Fifty yards and closing."
Pong! pong! pong! pong!
Pong! pong! pong! pong!
Pong! pong! pong! pong!
"Holding at thirty yards, sir."
Pong! pong! pong! pong!
Once again, they heard the hiss of the hydrophones. Then a distinct clicking sound. Norman's eyes burned. Sweat had rolled into his eyes. He wiped his forehead with his jumpsuit sleeve. The others were sweating, too. The tension was unbearable. He glanced at the video monitor again. The sphere was still closed.
He heard the hiss of the hydrophones. A soft scraping sound, like a heavy sack being dragged across a wooden floor. Then the hiss again.
Tina whispered, "Want to image him again?"
"No," Barnes said.
They listened. More scraping. A moment of silence, followed by the gurgle of water, very loud, very close.
"Jesus," Barnes whispered. "He's right outside."
A dull thump against the side of the habitat.
The screen flashed on.
I AM HERE.
The first impact came suddenly, knocking them off their feet. They tumbled, rolling on the floor. All around them, the habitat creaked and groaned, the sounds frighteningly loud. Norman scrambled to his feet - he saw Fletcher bleeding from her forehead - and the second impact hit. Norman was thrown sideways against the bulkhead. There was a metallic clang as his head struck metal, a sharp pain, and then Barnes landed on top of him, grunting and cursing. Barnes pushed his hand in Norman's face as he struggled to his feet; Norman slid back to the floor and a video monitor crashed alongside him, spitting sparks.
By now the habitat was swaying like a building in an earthquake. They clutched consoles, panels, doorways to keep their balance. But it was the noise that Norman found most frightening - the incredibly loud metallic groans and cracks as the cylinders were shaken on their moorings.
The creature was shaking the entire habitat.
Barnes was on the far side of the room, trying to make his way to the bulkhead door. He had a bleeding gash along one arm and he was shouting orders, but Norman couldn't hear anything except the terrifying sound of rending metal. He saw Fletcher squeeze through the bulkhead, and then Tina, and then Barnes made it through, leaving behind a bloody handprint on the metal.
Norman couldn't see Harry, but Beth lurched toward him, holding her hand out, saying "Norman! Norman! We have to - " and then she slammed into him and he was knocked over and he fell onto the carpet, underneath the couch, and slid up against the cold outer wall of the cylinder, and he realized with horror that the carpet was wet.
The habitat was leaking.
He had to do something; he struggled back to his feet, and stood right in a fine sizzling spray from one of the wall seams. He glanced around, saw other leaks spurting from the ceiling, the walls.
This place is going to be torn apart.
Beth grabbed him, pulled her head close. "We're leaking!" she shouted. "God, we're leaking!"
"I know," Norman said, and Barnes shouted over the intercom, "Positive pressure! Get positive pressure!" Norman saw Ted on the floor just before he tripped over him and fell heavily against the computer consoles, his face near the screen, the glowing letters large before him:
DO NOT BE AFRAID.
"Jerry!" Ted was shouting. "Stop this, Jerry! Jerry!"
Suddenly Harry's face was next to Ted, glasses askew. "Save your breath, he's going to kill us all!"
"He doesn't understand," Ted shouted, as he fell backward onto the couch, flailing arms.
The powerful wrenching of metal on metal continued without pause, throwing Norman from one side to the other. He kept reaching for handholds, but his hands were wet, and he couldn't seem to grasp anything.
"Now hear this," Barnes said over the intercom. "Chan and I are going outside! Fletcher assumes command!"
"Don't go out!" Harry shouted. "Don't go out there!"
"Opening hatch now," Barnes said laconically. "Tina, you follow me."
"You'll be killed!" Harry shouted, and then he was thrown against Beth. Norman was on the floor again; he banged his head on one of the couch legs.
"We're outside," Barnes said.
And abruptly the banging stopped. The habitat was motionless. They did not move. With the water streaming in through a dozen fine, misty leaks, they looked up at the intercom speaker, and listened.
* * *
"Clear of the hatch," Barnes said. "Our status is good. Armament, J-9 exploding head spears loaded with Taglin-50 charges. We'll show this bastard a trick or two."
"Water ... Visibility is poor. Visibility under five feet. Seems to be ... stirred-up bottom sediment and ... very black, dark. Feeling our way along buildings."
"North side. Going east now. Tina?"
"Behind you, sir."
"All right. Put your hand on my tank so you - Good. Okay."
Inside the cylinder, Ted sighed. "I don't think they should kill it," he said softly.
Norman thought, I don't think they can.
Nobody else said anything. They listened to the amplified breathing of Barnes and Tina.
"Northeast corner ... All right. Feel strong currents, active, moving water ... something nearby. ... Can't see ... visibility less than five feet. Can barely see stanchion I am holding. I can feel him, though. He's big. He's near. Tina?"
A loud sharp crackling sound, static. Then silence.
"I've lost Tina."
Another, very long silence.
"I don't know what it ... Tina, if you can hear me, stay where you are, I'll take it from here. ... Okay ... He is very close. ... I feel him moving. ... Pushes a lot of water, this guy. A real monster."
"Wish I could see better."
"Tina? Is that - "
And then a muffled thud that might have been an explosion. They all looked at each other, trying to know what the sound meant, but in the next instant the habitat began rocking and wrenching again, and Norman, unprepared, was slammed sideways, against the sharp edge of the bulkhead door, and the world went gray. He saw Harry strike the wall next to him, and Harry's glasses fell onto Norman's chest, and Norman reached for the glasses for Harry, because Harry needed his glasses. And then Norman lost consciousness, and everything was black.
AFTER THE ATTACK
Hot spray poured over him, and he inhaled steam. Standing in the shower, Norman looked down at his body and thought, I look like a survivor of an airplane crash. One of those people I used to see and marvel that they were still alive.
The lumps on his head throbbed. His chest was scraped raw in a great swath down to his abdomen. His left thigh was purple-red; his right hand was swollen and painful.
But, then, everything was painful. He groaned, turning his face up to the water.
"Hey," Harry called. "How about it in there?"
Norman stepped out, and Harry climbed in. Scrapes and bruises covered his thin body. Norman looked over at Ted, who lay on his back in one of the bunks. Ted had dislocated both shoulders, and it had taken Beth half an hour to get them back in, even after she'd shot him up with morphine.
"How is it now?" Norman said to him.
Ted had a numb, dull expression. His ebullience was gone. He had sustained a greater injury than the dislocated shoulders, Norman thought. In many ways a na?ve child, Ted must have been profoundly shocked to discover that this alien intelligence was hostile.
"Hurt much?" Norman said.
Norman sat slowly on his bunk, feeling pain streak up his spine. Fifty-three years old, he thought. I should be playing golf. Then he thought, I should be just about anywhere in the world, except here. He winced, and gingerly slipped a shoe over his injured right foot. For some reason, he remembered Levy's bare toes, the skin color dead, the foot striking his faceplate.
"Did they find Barnes?" Ted asked.
"I haven't heard," Norman said. "I don't think so."
He finished dressing, and went down to D Cyl, stepping over the puddles of water in the corridor. Inside D itself, the furniture was soaked; the consoles were wet, and the walls were covered with irregular blobs of white urethane foam where Fletcher had spray-sealed the cracks.
Fletcher stood in the middle of the room, the spray can in hand. "Not as pretty as it was," she said.
"Will it hold?"
"Sure, but I guarantee you: we can't survive another one of those attacks."
"What about the electronics. They working?"
"I haven't checked, but it should be okay. It's all waterproofed."
Norman nodded. "Any sign of Captain Barnes?" He looked at the bloody handprint on the wall.
"No, sir. No sign of the Captain at all." Fletcher followed his eyes to the wall. "I'll clean the place up in a minute, sir."
"Where's Tina?" Norman asked.
"Resting. In E Cyl."
Norman nodded. "E Cyl any drier than this?"
"Yes," Fletcher said. "It's a funny thing. There was nobody in E Cyl during the attack, and it stayed completely dry."
"Any word from Jerry?"
"No contact, sir, no."
Norman flicked on one of the computer consoles.
"Jerry, are you there?"
The screen remained blank.
He waited a moment, then turned the console off.
Tina said, "look at it now." She sat up, and drew the blanket back to expose her left leg.
The injury was much worse than when they had heard her screaming and had run through the habitat and pulled her up through the A Cyl hatch. Now, running diagonally down her leg was a series of saucer-shaped welts, the center of each puffed and purple. "It's swollen a lot in the last hour," Tina said.
Norman examined the injuries. Fine tooth-marks ringed swollen areas. "Do you remember what it felt like?" he said. "It felt awful," Tina said. "It felt sticky, you know, like sticky glue or something. And then each one of these round places burned. Very strong."
"And what could you see? Of the creature itself." "Just - it was a long flat spatula - thing. It looked like a giant leaf; it came out and wrapped around me."
"Sort of brownish. I couldn't really see."
He paused a moment. "And Captain Barnes?"
"During the course of the action, I was separated from Captain Barnes, sir. I don't know what happened to Captain Barnes, sir." Tina spoke formally, her face a mask. He thought, Let's not go into this now. If you ran away, it's all right with me.
"Has Beth seen this injury, Tina?"
"Yes, sir, she was here a few minutes ago."