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Authors: Frederik & Williamson Pohl,Frederik & Williamson Pohl

Undersea Fleet

BOOK: Undersea Fleet
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Undersea Fleet

by Frederik Pohl
and Jack Williamson

(1956)

1
The Raptures of the Depths

We marched aboard the gym ship at 0400.

It was long before dawn. The sea was a calm, black mirror, rolling slowly under the stars. Standing at sharp attention, out of the corner of my eye I could see the distant docks of the Sub-Sea Academy, a splash of light against the low dark line of Bermuda.

Cadet Captain Roger Fairfane rapped out: “Cadets!
Ten-hut!

We snapped to attention, the whole formation of us. The gym ship was a huge undersea raft, about as lively and graceful as an iceberg. The sub-sea tugs were nuz-zling around it like busy little porpoises, hauling and pulling us around, getting us out to sea. We were still on the surface, standing roll-call formation on the deck of the gym ship, but already the raft was beginning to pitch and wallow in the swells of the open sea.

I was almost shivering, and it wasn’t only the wind that came in from the far Atlantic reaches. It was tingling excitement. I was back at the Sub-Sea Academy! As we fell in I could sense the eagerness in Bob Eskow, beside me. Both of us had given up all hope of ever being on the cadet muster rolls again. And yet—here we were!

Bob whispered: “Jim, Jim! It gets you, doesn’t it? I’m beginning to hope—”

He stopped abruptly, as the whole formation fell suddenly silent. But he didn’t have to finish the sentence; I knew what he meant.

Bob and I—Jim Eden is my name, cadet at the Sub Sea Academy—had almost lost hope for a while. Out of the Academy, in disgrace—but we had fought our way back and we were full-fledged cadets again. A new year was beginning for us with the traditional qualifying skin-dive tests. And that was Bob’s problem, for there was something in his makeup that he fought against but could not quite defeat, something that made skin-diving as diffi-cult for him as, say, parachute-jumping would be for a man afraid of heights. It wasn’t fear. It wasn’t weakness. It was just a part of him.

“Count off!”

Captain Fairfane gave the order, and the whole long line of us roared out our roll-call. In the darkness—it was still far from dawn—I couldn’t see the far end of the line, but I could see Cadet Captain Fairfane by the light of his flash-tipped baton. It was an inspiring sight, the rigid form of the captain, the braced ranks of cadets fading into the darkness, the dully gleaming deck of the gym ship, the white-tipped phosphorescence of the waves.

We were the men who would soon command the SubSea Fleet!

Every one of us had worked hard to be where we were. That was why Bob Eskow, day after day, grimly went through the tough, man-killing schedule of tests and work and study. The deep sea is a drug—so my uncle Stewart Eden used to say, and he gave his whole life to it. Sometimes it’s deadly bitter. But once you’ve tasted it, you can’t live without it.

Captain Fairfane roared: “Crew commanders,
report!

“First crew, allpresentandaccountedforSIR!”

“Second crew, allpresentandaccountedforSIR!”

“Third crew, allpresentandaccountedforSIR!”

The cadet captain returned the salutes of the three crew commanders, whirled in a stiff about-face and saluted Lieutenant Blighman, our sea coach. “AllpresentandaccountedforSIR!” he rapped out.

Sea Coach Blighman returned the salute from where he stood in the lee of the bow superstructure. He strode swiftly forward, in the easy, loose-limbed gait of an old underseaman. He was a great, brown, rawboned man with the face of a starving shark. He was only a shadow to us in the ranks—the first pink-and-purple glow was barely beginning to show on the horizon—but I could feel his hungry eyes roving over all of us. Coach Blighrnan was known through the whole Academy as a tough, exacting officer. He would spend hours, if necessary, to make sure every last cadet in his crews was drilled to perfection in every move he would have to make under the surface of the sea. His contempt for weaklings was a legend. And in Blighman’s eyes, anyone who could not match his own records for depth and endurance was a weakling.

Fifteen years before, his records had been unsurpassed in all the world—which made it hard to match them! When he talked, we listened.

“At ease!” he barked at us. “Today you’re going-down for your depth qualification dives. I want every man on the raft to pass
the first time.
You’re all in shape—the medics have told me that. You all know what you have to do—and I’ll go through it again, one more time, in case any of you were deaf or asleep. So there’s no excuse for not qualifying!

“Skin-diving is a big part of your Academy training. Every cadet has to qualify in one sub-sea sport in order to graduate; and you can’t qualify for sports if you don’t qualify to dive, right here and now this morning.”

He stopped and looked us over. I could see his face now, shadowy but strongly marked. He said: “Maybe you think our sub-sea sports are rough. They are. We make them that way. What you learn in sports here at the Academy may help you save lives some day. Maybe it will be your own life you save!

“Sea sports are rough because the sea is rough. If you’ve ever seen the sea pound in through a hull leak, or a pressure-flawed city dome—well, then you know! If you haven’t, take my word for it—the sea is
rough.

“We have an enemy, gentlemen. The enemy’s name is ‘hydrostatic pressure.’ Every minute we spend under the sea is with that enemy right beside us—always deadly, always waiting. You can’t afford to make mistakes when you’re two miles down! So if you’ve got any mistakes to make—if you’re going to cave in under pressure—take my advice and do it here today. When you’re in the Deeps, a mistake means somebody dies!

“Hydrostatic pressure! Never forget it. It amounts to nearly half a pound on every square inch, for every foot you submerge. Figure it out for yourselves! At one mile down—and a mile’s nothing, gentlemen, it’s only the beginning of the Deeps!—that comes to more than a ton pressing on every square inch. Several
thousand
tons on the surface of a human body.

“No human being has ever endured that much punishment and lived to talk about it. You can’t do it without a pressure suit, and the only suit that will take it is one made of edenite.” Beside me, Bob Eskow nudged me. Edenite! My own uncle’s great invention. I stood straighter than ever, listening, trying not to show the pride I felt.

There still was very little light, but Lieutenant Blighman’s eyes missed nothing; he glanced sharply at Bob Eskow before he went on. “We’re trying something new,” he said. “Today you lubbers are going to help the whole fleet. We’re reaching toward greater depths—not only with edenite suits, but in skin-diving. Not only are we constantly improving our equipment, the sea medics are trying to improve us!

“Today, for instance, part of your test will include trying out a new type of depth-adaptation injection. After we dive, you will all report to the surgeon for one of these shots. It is supposed to help you fight off tissue damage and narcosis—in simple words, it makes you stronger and smarter! Maybe it will work. I don’t know. They tell me that it doesn’t always work. Sometimes, in fact, it works the other way…

“Narcosis! There’s the danger of skin-diving, men! Get below a certain level, and we separate the real sea cows from the jellyfish. For down below fifty fathoms we come across what they call ‘the rapture of the depths.’

“The rapture of the depths.” He paused and stared at us seriously. “It’s a form of madness, and it kills. I’ve known men to tear off their face masks down below. I’ve asked them why—the ones that lived through it—and they’ve said things like ‘I wanted to give the mask to a fish!’ Madness! And these shots may help you fight against it. Anyway, the sea medics say it will help some of you jellyfish. But some of you will find that the shots may backfire—may even make you more sensitive instead of less!”

I heard Bob Eskow whisper glumly to himself, beside me: “That’s me. That’s my luck!”

I started to say something to encourage him, but Blighman’s hungry eyes were roving toward our end of the formation; I took a brace.

He roared: “Listen—and keep alive! Some men can take pressure and some can not. We hope to separate you today, if there are any among you who can’t take it. If you can’t—watch for these warning signs. First, you may feel a severe headache. Second, you may see flashes of color. Third, you may have what the sea medics call ‘auditory hallucinations’—bells ringing below the sea, that sort of thing.

“If you get any of these signs,
get back to the locks at once.
We’ll haul you inside and the medics will pull you out of danger.

“But if you ignore these signals…”

He paused, with his cold eyes on Bob Eskow. Bob stood rigidly silent, but I could feel him tensing up.

“Remember,” the coach went on, without finishing his last sentence, “remember, most of you can find berths on the commercial lines if you fail the grade here. We don’t want any dead cadets.”

He looked at his watch.

“That’s about all. Captain Fairfane, dismiss your men!”

Cadet Captain Fairfane came front-and-center, barked out: “Break for breakfast! The ship dives in forty minutes, all crews will fall in for depth shots before putting on gear. Formation dis-MISSED!”

We ate standing and hurried up the ladder, Bob and I. Most of the others were still eating, but Bob and I weren’t that much interested in chow. For one thing, the Acad-emy was testing experimental depth rations with a faintly bilgy taste; for another, we both wanted to see the sun rise over the open sea.

It was still a long way off; the stars were still bright overhead, though the horizon was all edged with color now. We stood almost alone on the long, dark deck. We walked to the side of the ship and held the rail with both hands. At the fantail a tender was unloading two fathom-eters to measure and check our dives from the deck of the sub-sea raft itself. A working crew was hoisting one of them onto the deck; both of them would be installed there and used, manned by upperclassmen in edenite pressure suits to provide a graphic, permanent record of our qual-ifications.

The tender chugged away and the working crew began to bolt down the first of the fathometers. Bob and I turned and looked forward, down at the inky water.

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