BRITISH COMICS

(Rover Homepage)

THE FLOATING THING

First episode from The Rover issue 1491 January 23rd 1954.

Where did this thing come from? What nameless horrors did it contain? This spine-chilling story of terror on the high seas – Starts Today!

Dawn light was breaking over the Southern Pacific Ocean, revealing an apparently limitless expanse of water with a lone ship upon it. The s.s. Lilla, thirty days out from Singapore, and tens days from Callao, her destination in Peru, was making a steady 12 knots.

Her cargo was rubber, and at Callao she expected to take aboard nitrates for Britain. The round-the-world trip was one which her master, Captain Waynard, did twice a year. Ken Stoker, the young Second Officer, yawned and stretched. His four watch was almost over and he was expecting to be relieved in a few minutes by his junior. It had been an uneventful four hours. “Floating object on the starboard bow, sir!” sang out the lookout. Ken Stoker swiveled on his heels and stared through the faint haze which clung close to the sea. For a moment he could see nothing. Then he saw something like a huge ball floating on the water. The Second Officer snapped instructions to the man at the wheel, who changed course. The thing on the water was about a mile away. The light was improving every moment. As they drew near, Stoker rang for half-speed, then dead-slow. The thing was a perfect sphere, about a hundred feet in diameter, almost all of which half showed above the surface. As the s.s. Lilla came level with the mysterious object, Stoker saw that the outside of the sphere was not smooth. There was some kind of pattern on it, which reminded him of a spider’s web. The thing seemed to be perfectly still. “What in the name of wonder is it?” muttered the young Second Officer, and on impulse he rang for the ship to be stopped. They came to rest about one hundred yards from the great ball on the water. Almost immediately, the whistle in the speaking tube shrilled. Ken Stoker knew that Captain Waynard had been awakened by the sudden stop, and he was calling from his bunk. He snatched out the whistle-plug, and heard the angry voice of the master of the freighter. “What’s the matter, Stoker? Why have we stopped?” asked the captain’s voice. “Beg pardon, sir, but I would like you to come on deck,” said Stoker. “We’ve overhauled something strange. I would like you to look at it, sir.” He heard a grunt, then the tube became silent. A few minutes later, Captain Waynard emerged from the saloon doorway. By this time, half a dozen deck-hands were at the rail, staring across the water. Captain Waynard stared for a moment, then strode to the bridge. “What is it, Stoker?” he asked. “Can’t say, sir. The lookout reported it about a mile to starboard, and I changed course to get a closer view,” replied the Second Officer. “It looks to me like a balloon!” grunted the skipper. “Yet, it’s made of metal, sir,” said Ken Stoker. “Metal! Huh, yes, I suppose it is. Anyway it’s rigid.” The captain was scowling across the water. “Queer sort of design on the outside. Reminds me of spiders’ webs.” “Do you want me to get one of the boats launched, sir?” Stoker inquired. “Yes, put Number 3 overside.” Snapped the captain. “You’d better go over and have a closer look. I’ll put on some more clothes.” He hurried below, and Ken Stoker shouted the necessary orders. Dr Raymond, one of the six passengers carried by the Lilla, appeared in pyjamas and top-coat. “What in the world is that, Stoker?” he asked the Second Officer. “We’re just going over to see,” Stoker told him, and slid down the ladder into the waiting boat. When close alongside, the floating sphere seemed larger than ever. The boat circled it twice, and Ken Stoker looked for some entrance to the interior of the thing, but there was nothing of this kind. The substance of which the remarkable thing was made shone like silver in the sunshine. “Closer!” grunted the Second Officer, and leaned out to touch the object. He gripped part of the lattice-work and felt it cold to his touch, although whether it was metal, plastic or some unknown material, he could not tell. For some reason the whole thing had an unreal, non-solid appearance. “Pass me one of those rowlocks,” he ordered the nearest sailor. He banged on the sphere with the end of the rowlock. There was a dull booming as though from a great drum. From across the water came the voice of Captain Waynard through a megaphone. “Examine it closer!” bellowed the captain. “Get aboard it, man. You’re not scared, are you? If it turns over, they’ll pick you up.” Ken Stoker muttered to the men with the oars, and they held the boat steady alongside as he reached up for a grip on the outer shell. Then he swung himself across, digging his toes and fingers into the cracks in the outer lattice. He had half expected the thing to roll over under his weight, but it remained steady. Higher and higher he climbed until he lay on top of the sphere and looked down the other side. He kicked with his heels, and was again surprised by the deep drumming note. There was no doubt about the sphere being hollow, but there was no way of getting or looking inside. As an afterthought, he took out his knife and tried to chip a piece off one of the flanges. He did not make the slightest impression. Just then, one of the men in the boat called up to Stoker. “It’s moving, sir. It’s drifting nearing the ship.” “Drifting!” exclaimed the Second Officer. “That’s—” He was about to say it was because of the wind, then noticed that the wind was in the opposite direction. An object with the area of this gigantic ball might have been expected to be blown the other way. Across the water came the voice of Captain Waynard again. “That thing’s drifting down on us. I don’t want any contact with it. Come back, Stoker. It’s too big for us to take in tow. We’ll have to leave it and report its position by radio.” Ken Stoker gladly clambered down to the boat. “Back to the ship!” he muttered to the men, and he saw by their expressions that they were nervous. “What’s the matter with you? Think it might explode and blow us sky-high?” “No, sir,” replied Snarler Wolfe, one of the biggest men aboard. “But there’s a feeling about the thing. Somehow it—it doesn’t seem natural, sir!” A murmur of agreement came from the others, and Ken Stoker had to admit to himself that he was conscious of the same sensation.

A MONSTROUS LEECH

Captain Waynard listened to his report with impatience. “But confound it, there must be some reason for the thing being here!” he exploded. “Can it be part of an aircraft—or an airship? Is it one of those bathyspheres that they use to explore the bed of the ocean?”

He answered his own question with snorts, then shouted for Arthur Bryce, the chief radio operator, who had come out of the radio cabin to look at the thing in the water. “Bryce, try to get in touch with the Marquesas, or that gunboat we passed two days ago, and ask if anything is known of a thing like this. Describe it and give the position.” He turned to a tall lean officer. “First, get the position worked out at once and give it to Bryce.” Peter Howard, the First Officer, hurried off to the navigation room. One of the men at the rail said—“It’s moving! It’s still coming closer.” Captain Waynard almost snarled when he glanced towards the strange object. It did not appear to be moving, and there was no sign of movement in the water, but it was no more than 60 yards distant. He reached for the engine room signal to order to have the turbines started again, but checked himself when he heard the radio-operator gasping from the foot of the ladderway— “Captain Waynard—sir! I can’t get the radio to work. It seems to have gone dead.” “Then get busy and put it right! It sounds like a break in the power circuit,” snapped Captain Waynard. “Hurry, man. I want to know about this wretched—“ He suddenly looked up and let his jaw sag. “I’ll be keel-hauled if the thing isn’t nearer still! It’s moving faster in our direction, yet the wind’s the other way. It’ll be alongside in a few minutes.” He spun the engine room telegraph and the bell rang below for half-speed ahead. The deck began to vibrate as the turbines were re-started, but before they could pick up speed there was a dull thud from the port side. The floating thing had covered those last 40 yards amazingly quickly. It had collided with the Lilla just forward of the stern but not sufficiently hard to do any damage. “Hi, there, mister,” roared the captain to the First officer, who had come out of the navigation room, “get those men to fend that thing off. We don’t want it scraping the paint as we pass by.” By this time the Lilla was moving, but there was no bumping and scraping as she did so. The huge sphere that lay alongside seemed to have caught on something. “Push it away! Fend it off!” bellowed Waynard. “Didn’t I tell you to shove the thing off, mister?” He rang for full-speed ahead. The decks vibrated to the sudden surge of power from the turbines and there was a foam of white wash astern. Then came the voice of the First officer, who was panting as a result of his vigorous efforts with a pole. “We can’t shift it, sir! It’s stuck to us in some way. We can’t prise it loose.” Captain Waynard muttered under his breath and ran down the ladder to the deck. The men with the poles re-doubled their efforts when they saw the skipper coming, but without effort. Captain Waynard leaned over the rail and looked down the tall sides of his vessel. So far as he could see, only at one point did the huge sphere make contact with the Lilla, but at that point the thing had in some way adhered to the steel plating so strongly that nothing could break the contact. “Almost as though it was magnetized and attracted by our plating,” murmured the First officer. Captain Waynard looked at him with scorn. “Magnetised fiddlesticks! Something’s caught under our keel. We’re risking getting our propellers fouled. We’ll have to heave-to again and investigate. I wish Stoker had never stopped in the first place.” Thirty seconds later, the s.s. Lilla hove-to on the oily sea. Captain Waynard asked for volunteers to go over the side to dive and find out what was holding the thing to the ship. Three men volunteered and quickly stripped. First one of divers and then the other two returned after several extended spells below. They all made the same report. There was nothing holding the great sphere to the side of the vessel. The only contact between the Lilla and the thing was above the water-line, where all could see it. “Sparks! Where’s Sparks?” shouted Waynard. The radio-operator came running again. He wore a worried expression. “Can you get through now, Sparks?” demanded Waynard. “Is that set of yours working again?” “No, sir, it’s quite dead, and we can’t find the cause,” gasped the radio-operator. “It’s nothing to do with the power. Everything has gone silent.” Captain Waynard opened his mouth to say just how inexplicable it was to him, when a shout from the bridge brought him about. Tom Ralph, the elderly bo’sun, had been left in charge of the wheel. Now he looked as though he was seeing a ghost as he stared at the binnacle before him. “The compass, sir—!” he gasped. “What’s the matter with the compass?” snarled the Captain. “Look, sir, look!” was all Tom Ralph could stutter as he pointed. Choking with suppressed fury Captain Waynard climbed to the bridge. He took one look at the compass, and then began to splutter. The needle was spinning round and round. As Captain Waynard tried to find breath to express himself, the needle three times circled the 360 degree card. “Magnetic!” grunted Waynard. “Howard was right. There is something strongly magnetic about that thing. It has made our compass useless. What with this, and the radio going dead, I’m beginning to wish that confounded thing at the bottom of the sea!” He clenched his hands. “That’s it! It’s jeopardizing my ship. I can’t navigate without a compass, and I can’t report what happened to anyone else or summon aid. We’ll knock a hole in the wretched thing and send it to the bottom.” Both watches were now on deck. Waynard called all three officers to him and gave them their orders. Number 1 lifeboat was lowered on the other side and both it and Number 3 were packed with men and the equipment required. Very soon the two boats were under the overhang bulge of the mystery object, between it and the side of the freighter. Men held the legs of their comrades as these leaned far over the gunwales with drills. Their object was to drill a number of holes in the sphere below the water-line. Simultaneously, other men were standing up and thrusting with long crowbars as they tried to force the mystery object away from the plating to which it had adhered. First one drill and then the another snapped off. New bits were fitted to the drills and the effort was repeated, but ten minutes later the report went up to Captain Waynard— “Nothing that we have will make any impression on the shell of the sphere. It’s made of something harder than steel, something that our drills can’t bite into.” As the news spread through the ship, for the first time, the members of the crew felt the thrill of fear.

THE SPIDERY SHAPE

As the sun went down, the s.s. Lilla was limping slowly eastwards. Her speed was no more than four knots. Such was the drag caused by the enormous sphere, which she unwillingly towed, that she could go no faster.

That same drag upset the steering and made it necessary for the rudder to be kept hard over. Every effort to rid themselves of the monstrous sphere had failed. In desperation, Captain Waynard had decided to head for the South American coast as best he could. The men on deck eyed the huge thing that loomed over them and there was fear in their eyes. Nobody slept. Many had fastened on their lifebelts. Fear hung like a fog over the ship. Even the passengers felt and forsook their usual game of cards to pace the deck and watch the thing. Not that there was anything to watch. The huge sphere had done no more than attach itself to the freighter. No sound came from it. There was no sign of life, but the mere fact that it was there, and that nobody could explain it, made everybody believe toe worst. The passengers among themselves had decided that it was a secret weapon belonging to the navy of some great power, and that it had broken adrift. “There’s machinery inside it, you mark my words,” said George Rowland, a planter from Malaya who was taking the long way home for the benefit of his health. “It’s stuffed with electrical gadgets and explosives.” “What makes you think that?” asked Dr Raymond, who believed nothing unless he could prove it. “By the magnetism that it gives off,” replied the planter. “It stands to reason there must be electrical gadgets inside. It may be some kind of atomic device. Both the Americans and the Russians have been carrying out experiments with A-bombs at sea. Perhaps this was intended to explode at the bottom of the sea and it got blown out here in a storm.” All over the ship, similar conversations were going on, but in the radio-cabin there was frantic activity. Bryce, the chief operator, and his assistant, had taken the entire transmitting and receiving sets to pieces in an effort to find out why everything had gone dead. Their instruments showed that the current was flowing normally. “I’ll get the set working before long even if it kills me!” declared Arthur Bryce. The night was very dark. The new moon had set, and haze hid the stars. Everyone was conscious of the glug-glug sound which was cause by the slap of the water on the underside of the great globe which they were dragging along with them. Occasionally there was a dull boom. As eight bells sounded, Dr Raymond said, “Well’ if I’m going to be blown to pieces it may as well be in my bunk as anywhere else. Goodnight everyone!” Nobody followed his example. On his way to the cabin which he had beneath the bridge, he encountered the Captain and asked him if the ship’s radio was working yet. “Not yet, Doctor, but Sparks assures me that it should be in working order within the hour,” replied Waynard. “Once I can send out an S O S, we’ll soon have a naval craft alongside.” At eight bells, tea was brewed for the watch which came off duty, and cups were passed out from the galley to the others. Nobody saw a movement on the top of the thing, where a shadowy something was slithering silently down to deck level. Even if they had been looking in that direction, they would have seen only a vague shape, something more spidery than human. The object swarmed down until it touched the side of the freighter, and then it began to climb upwards. Down in the radio-cabin, Arthur Bryce’s assistant complained of the heat and of pains in his stomach. “You’ve got the wind-up, that’s what’s the matter with you!” growled the senior operator. “Go and lie down a while, I can finish this job alone. I’ll call you when I want you. Bring me a cup of tea before you go off.” Five minutes later, Bryce was left alone with the partially dismantled set and a steaming cup of tea. He believed he had examined and tested every separate component and circuit in the set. “There’s no reason why it shouldn’t!” he kept muttering to himself. “No earthly reason.” Bill Owens, the ship’s cook had been round collecting the used cups. The men were supposed to return them to the galley, but they never did. As Owens was made responsible for breakages, he found it cheaper to fetch the cups himself. He looked in on Bryce, and waited for him to finish his tea. “Going to get this little lot fixed up soon, Sparks?” he asked. “Within an hour,” replied Bryce confidently. Bill Owens went along the lower gangway towards the galley. Few lights were burning below. Captain Waynard believed in economizing with the current. The corners of the gangway were in darkness, and as he passed one of these, Owens got the feeling that something was crouching watching him. He jerked up his arm, as though to ward off a blow, and two of the cups fell to the floor and smashed. “Now see what you’ve done!” he muttered, making a grab too late to save them. Something dark and strange stirred the air, but was not quite visible to him. He blinked, rubbed his eyes, and blinked again, for when he straightened he saw that there was nothing in the corner nor on either side of him in the gangway. Muttering to himself, he picked up the pieces of the broken cups and hurried to the galley, where he brewed himself a specially strong cup of tea. He was not an imaginative man, but for some reason he had a chill down his spine. In the radio-cabin, Arthur Bryce connected wires with deft fingers. He knew that at the moment he was the most important man on the ship. If he could get in communication with the outside world, it would change the whole situation for the s.s. Lilla.

They could send for aid. They could ask if anything was known about the thing which had attached itself to them like a giant limpet. The air behind him stirred, although he was not conscious of hearing anything. “Who’s that?” he asked. “That you, Ted?” He thought that perhaps his assistant had returned. There was no reply, and he swung about with a condenser in one hand. Then he saw what was within the doorway, in the act of reaching for him, and his mouth opened for the scream which never came, and his eyes bulged with incredulous horror. It was the Second Officer who found him, half an hour later, when he came to see how he was getting on with the repairs. Arthur Bryce was lying on the floor of the cabin, quite dead, with a condenser clutched in his right hand. There was no mark or injury on his body, but his mouth and eyes were open, and his expression made Ken Stoker shudder. If ever a man had died of fright it was Arthur Bryce.

 

THE FLOATING THING (6 Episodes) The Rover issues 1491 – 1496 January 23rd 1954February 27th 1954

© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2007