As with my other quicktakes, bonus trivia is in the comments (as an incentive to click through).
That hollow knock again, a burst of sound from every direction, inside and out. William woke with a start. Pressed up against the window, lit only by the almost-glow of his radium-handed wristwatch, were the eyes of an inhuman face.
Adrenaline sheared through his bloodstream, and he jerked backward, smacking his head against the curved steel wall of his tiny prison. Color exploded into his vision.
Blind, William fumbled under his seat for the reassuring chill of the two-foot iron rod. The hatch had a habit of sticking shut once back on the surface; that had been his excuse for stowing a prybar in the bathysphere when he went down. But really, it was a psychological tool. Stuck in a tiny circle of steel amid miles of open water, William found it all too easy to feel helpless, and having a weapon to hold -- as useless as it was -- gave him back a sense of control.
The colors spread, danced, and cleared only gradually; departed, and left the merman at the porthole behind.
Oh. Them. William's heart started to beat again.
William put down the prybar and groped for the electrical connectors at his right. As his fingers found the wire, he reflexively glanced at his watch face. The glowing hands formed a perfect corner, rigid, perpendicular, the only sharp angle in the cramped globe of the bathysphere: nine o'clock. Huh, William thought. There was something about nine o'clock, teasing at the edges of his memory, but it didn't seem pressing -- a merman was back.
The connector fumbled into place. A sharp wave of ozone, a snap of arcing energy, and the sea outside burst into painful brilliance. The face vanished as the merman swam out of view, then returned several feet away atop a well-muscled blue-scaled torso, one arm holding a thin piece of slate, the other writing quickly upon it with a thick piece of chalk. He flipped the board toward William: EYE HAS PASSED. YOU O-K?
William groped for the pencil and pad in the mesh pocket by the window, squinting against the searchlight glare the slate was reflecting at him. He drew a line underneath his previous writing, scribbled FELL ASLEEP - YOU STARTLED ME, and pressed it up against the thick glass.
The merman leaned in, shading his eyes from the floodlight, and read. William watched the gills on his neck flare out. Then the merman nodded and backed away, erasing the slate with a cloth tied to one corner and scribbling again. AIR?
William blinked in sudden recognition. That's why nine o'clock had seemed so important! He reached off to his left for the hindmost oxygen tank; missed, then grabbed its valve and turned with clumsy fingers. The hiss of escaping air filled his globe, and almost immediately the fuzz in William's head cleared into a dull throb.
LAST CANISTER, William wrote. 3 MORE HRS.
The merman seemed to take longer writing his reply. Was that worry in the lines of his inscrutable face? DON'T LOSE HEART.
Then, with a few sweeps of his powerful tail, he shot upward out of William's light, leaving behind a spreading cloud of sand and mud from the seafloor.
William leaned forward and pressed his face against the glass. The searchlight was already dimming; the battery, too, was on its last legs. A few fish swam at the edge of the light, darting among the ruined Atlantean columns. And there -- sprawled in limp coils across the mud -- several hundred feet of thick steel cable, tipped by a splay of fatigued metal.
The cable had jammed in the winch. That in itself could have been dealt with -- but then the extra strain snapped it, sending two and a half tons of metal plummeting straight to the bottom. In a fantastic stroke of luck, his fall had startled a nearby group of mermen, who arrived, curious, within minutes.
William looked down at his pad, which he'd dated before starting the trip: 1938/02/19, in careful lettering. What he'd written in the depths was far more agitated. PLEASE HELP, the first line said. Then: BATHYSPHERE FELL. INFORM SHIP ON SURFACE. Several acknowledgements of the ship's lack of backup cable or other such rescue supplies. HOW MANY ARE YOU? CAN YOU LIFT IT? ... then some discussion of the oncoming hurricane, and of the bathysphere's air supply. And, finally, THANKS. WILL AWAIT THEIR RETURN.
With the storm bearing down directly at them, the Icarus had had no choice but to flee for safety in the lee of the islands to the east. With more time they could have jerry-rigged something together. With more time ...
Their enemy was always time. They'd agreed to push it, to stay as long as possible in the face of the oncoming winds; the Rockefellers' grant was fast running out, and if they sailed back to Florida without some proof that their explorations were bearing fruit, their financial backers would pull out. With mermen in the seas and dragons in the air, human pride was fast taking a back seat to pragmatism, and the mighty airplanes and diving machines that a decade ago had set imaginations alight were turning into the relics of a prior age.
William sighed and disconnected the battery. A relic, indeed. Had it not been for the mermen, he would already be dead. Fate, it seemed, loved a laugh: He might be rescued by the very ones that made him obsolete.
Or, he thought grimly, I might not. Let's hope Fate isn't feeling cruel.
Time passed in the silence, in the thin green pall of the wristwatch's radium hands.
The sphere, barely five feet across, was always a bit uncomfortable -- but he usually had a telephone wire and electric cable to the surface, and knew he was an adventurer reporting back from strange realms untouched by Man. Abandoned on the seafloor, with storm clouds and a thousand feet of water blocking out even the starlight, it reminded him of nothing so much as the oubliette in the dungeons of the Gothic historical novels he read; a tiny room far below the surface, where the heathens were cast to die. Alone.
To be forgotten.
A thousand feet of water. The prison of his five-foot sphere was the only thing keeping him from being crushed like an egg. Even Max Nohl, in his suit of armor, had only descended last year to the bottom of Lake Michigan: four hundred and twenty feet. William was over twice as far down, in the middle of the Gulf.
And yet, outside, fish and mermen swam ...
Another knock echoed through the sphere, and William realized that he had again fallen asleep. He looked over at the face in the window and checked his watch. 11:30. He reattached the battery and the searchlight flared out.
The merman backed away. Looked down. Wrote simply: HI.
A chill passed through William. He grabbed his pad. WHERE'S ICARUS? he wrote.
The merman read, then backed away and chalked: DELAYED.
HOW FAR? William wrote, stomach sinking.
TWO HOURS, came the answer.
William stared numbly. Already he felt a bit light-headed. He would surely suffocate before the ship returned.
It was so unfair. Two damn hours. Time, the unblinking foe ...
The merman wrote, deliberately, for what seemed like an eternity. William noticed, on the edge of the visibly fading light, a second merman floated, body drooping in a sadness his scaled face was incapable of expressing.
The slate flipped back toward him. In smaller, precise letters: WE'LL STAY UNTIL THE END, KEEP YOU COMPANY, PASS ON MESSAGES TO LOVED ONES.
And William felt frustration boil out. No. He wasn't going to die slowly and passively in this coffin. He was down here because he believed man could conquer the sea; and he'd be damned if he wasn't going to give it one last try.
SURFACE CONDITIONS? he wrote.
The mermen exchanged glances. CHOPPY, LIGHT RAIN, DYING WIND, wrote the one with the slate after a furious bout of erasing.
STILL HAVE PRYBAR? William wrote. The Icarus had given the mermen one earlier, in the frantic rush to raise the bathysphere before they had to flee.
The mermen exchanged glances again. The second one flicked his tail and scooted upward, toward the top of the bathysphere. The light sound of scraping echoed inside William's globe; they'd left the three-foot metal rod wedged through the sphere's cable connector. The second merman came back into view, the last piece of William's idea glinting in the dying glow of the searchlight.
And William was already furiously writing. DANGEROUS PLAN. NEED YOUR HELP, he scrawled -- then ripped off the front page of the pad, licked the top of the page, and pressed it against the window, where the mermen could read it while he continued to write. WATER PRESSURE HOLDING TOP HATCH SHUT. GOING TO FLOOD SPHERE. PRY OPEN HATCH, GRAB ME, SWIM TO SURFACE. He left unsaid what they should do if the sudden flooding left nothing for them to grab.
William held the pad to the porthole for slow seconds as the mermen read. They turned to each other again -- conferred, in a brief rush of chirps and hand signals. Then the first merman erased his slate and chalked: THEN WHAT?
William chuckled. And here he thought he was being optimistic. KEEP ME BREATHING, he wrote, then considered. OR GET ME BREATHING. TAKE ME TO SHIP, OR SHORE.
As he held up the note, William could see the searchlight dimming before his eyes. The battery was spent. Soon, he'd be in near total darkness; it was now or never.
He reached up above his head, grabbed the wheel on the top hatch, grunted, and heaved. With some effort, he spun it open, and the rods holding the door retracted -- though the door itself, held in by the oppressive ocean, only sagged further inward.
Then William reached under his seat, past the battery. His fingers closed around the cold length of the prybar. He leaned forward, raised it over his head, and thrust with all his strength at the thick porthole window.
He flinched away from the impact, expecting a wall of watery death to slam into him. But nothing happened. He looked back. The sharp end of the prybar had left a small chip in the glass.
William gritted his teeth and swung again. And again. The chip grew into a gouge in the last reflected glow of the searchlights. The mermen backed away, expectant.
Five minutes later, the light was dead, and William was working in the dark, the hands of his wristwatch leaping back and forth like a drunk firefly. Sweat poured down his face and body; he could feel his labor eating away at the last of his precious oxygen, and he was getting more lightheaded by the swing.
It only drove him into a further frenzy. No, he thought. I will not suffocate in here. If the water's going to kill me, it'll have to come in and do so itself.
His eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, and he realized that the water outside wasn't pitch black: there was just enough light filtering in from the distant moon to distinguish the blue-black sea from the green-black radium-lit interior. And William noticed his strikes had been drifting off center; the chips were scattered, shotgun-like, on a slow trend downward.
He stopped for breath, tried to correct his aim, swung hard, and missed, hitting the battered glass right on its outer edge.
He heard, for the first time, a sharp snap.
Then he heard nothing, and his world went black.
William tried to refocus, thoroughly disoriented. Then the blast of the Icarus' whistle brought him back to his senses.
He opened his eyes, and sunrise assaulted his face with light.
Sensation slowly returned: waves massaging his legs and torso, cool wind numbing his soaked body, fire smoldering in his chest with each breath.
One of his arms wouldn't move, and neither of his legs; but he was lying on a beach, breathing, his friends on the way. William laughed -- quietly, painfully -- and that pain was a reminder he was alive.