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NEPTUNE’S CHIMNEY

Final episode taken from The Hotspur issue: 827 September 13th 1952.

THE STARTLING STORY OF THE MEN WHO FLEW TO A CITY AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PACIFIC OCEAN.

MUTINY!

The s.s. Sea Roamer was 600 miles south of the Aleutian Islands, and as far north of Honolulu, which was her immediate destination. It was a clam, still night, and the warmest her crew and passengers had known for two months past. At a steady twelve knots she headed southwards. A peaceful-looking craft of sturdy lines, Sea Roamer was a research vessel of Anglo-American ownership, and most of her explorations were done in northern waters. In his cabin Captain Blake slept soundly after doing his usual watch, but the slightest change of weather, the slightest variation in engine revolutions, would bring him on deck. Down in the engine room mutiny was being planned, and the leader was one of the passengers, a man who had half a dozen scientific degrees after his name, a tall, thin man with a narrow head, and thick spectacles which failed to hide his deep-sunk eyes. The black squad and the others who had received word to come to the meeting were listening to him intently. “It must be tonight,” he was saying, turning his head with quick, bird-like jerks from one side to the other. “The chart shows there is an unnamed island fifty miles ahead of us, and it will be ideal for marooning the Captain and any others who are so foolish as not to join us.” “There won’t be many of those,” growled Bart Brewer, the Mate. “I’ve got Dagg half convinced. He only needs you to talk to him for a few minutes, Professor.” “You mean to say you’ve been fool enough to tell the second-officer?” snapped Professor Pettrie. “Do you want us to be betrayed? He’s cousin to the captain—” “But hates him,” put in the Mate, with a grin. “I’m not such a fool as you think, Professor. I’ve got Dagg shut in the lower bunker, and if he doesn’t come in with us I’ll see he never comes out of there alive.” There was such ferocity in his tone that some of the grimy, tight-lipped crowd about him shuddered. They were all greedy men, tempted by the thought of untold wealth. “Bring him out!” snapped Professor Pettrie, and turned to mutter something in a foreign tongue to Boris Hacker, a research chemist. At least half a dozen of the men assembled there were scientists of some description, for the Sea Roamer’s passengers were all specialists in their jobs, from Professor Pettrie down to Bugs Tarman, the colour photographer. The rest of the mutineers included crew members, ranging from negro stokers to Oki, the Japanese cook.

The Mate was not gone for more than two minutes. He returned with a pale, narrow-eyed young man in officer’s uniform, who was blinking in the bright light. Professor Pettrie turned. “Dagg, I hear you are thinking of joining us. Wise man!” Russell Dagg looked cunning. “I’m not certain. Mutiny at sea is a terrible business. Even if we get away with it now, we shall be hounded down,” he muttered. “I think not. There are certain people in this world who will not only give us great wealth for the secret which I hold, but protection as well,” said the Professor. “This ship has been cruising in Aleutian waters on general research work, and at point 83 we made one of the most remarkable discoveries of the ages—a vast deposit of uranium. Uranium is used in the production of atomic energy, and is one of the most coveted metals in the world today. All the great powers are sending out expeditions to locate deposits of the metal, and are willing to pay anything for information about uranium. You know that.” Dagg nodded, watching the Professor’s thin lips as he went on: “We were not seeking uranium, but we found it in large quantities. Captain Blake and Daniel Gilbert, the metallurgist, want to take the information back to the owners of this vessel, who will probably give us a small bonus for being concerned in the discovery. The fools don’t seem to realise that what we have found will bring us both wealth and power—yes, power, my friends!” Professor Pettrie tapped his waist. “The others let me draw the chart of the position of the deposits, and I have it here. Get rid of these others who would deny you the chance to become millionaires, change the course of this ship to a port that I will name, and I can promise you a life of wealth and luxury. There will be no more need for work. Why should we give up such a chance because three or four pig-headed fools who want to hand over our secret to their employers?” he demanded.

There was an answering growl, and all eyes were on the second-officer. Dagg hesitated a moment longer, then said: “I’m with you!” In a moment he was surrounded by stokers and sailors, scientists and others, all slapping him on the back. Professor Pettrie stood aloof, a contemptuous glint in his eyes. He had made a tool of yet another man, but despised Dagg for his stupidity, just as he despised all the others. Pettrie had long ago decided that only one person should benefit from the amazing discovery that they had made. Once they got the ship to that certain foreign port… “Let us get going,” he said. “I’m leaving the details to you, Brewer.” The Mate grinned. “You can do that! The skipper is still asleep. Simson and I will see to him…You others get back to your posts, and do nothing until you hear my whistle. We shan’t have trouble with more than four or five.” They dispersed as silently as they had collected, and the s.s. Sea Roamer pursued her steady course. In his cabin Captain Blake wakened for a few seconds, lay listening to the swish of the water past the hull, and the steady beat of the engines, then turned on his side and went to sleep again. Two minutes later he was roused by a light on his face. He jerked open his eyes to see the Mate and Big Simson, a giant stoker, leaning over him. Brewer had the captain’s revolver. “Beg pardon, Captain Blake,” said the Mate, with mock politeness. “It would be as well if you got up and dressed in your shore-going clothes. There is mutiny afoot.” Captain Blake jerked to a sitting position and snatched for the revolver. The hammer-like fist of Big Simson crashed against his jaw, and he knew no more. The Mate stepped outside the cabin door and blew his whistle shrilly.

The Sea Roamer was only a small craft, and the signal was heard from end to end. There came the sound of running feet, shouting, stamping, and then silence. When the Mate and the stoker led Captain Blake on deck with his arms bound, all was over. It had only been necessary for the mutineers to deal with four others. They were Daniel Gilbert, the famous metallurgist; Jim Cook, an ex-Naval diver who had worked in the same capacity aboard; Gavin Rawson, the pilot of the helicopter which had been used from the ship for spotting purposes; and Ken Palmer, the youngest of the ship’s apprentices. Professor Pettrie was telling them of his plans. “We are merciful people,” he was saying. “There is an island straight ahead, unmarked on many charts and unnamed on any. We proposed to set you ashore there in about two hours time, with food and provisions. Then we shall sail the Sea Roamer to a country where that discovery of uranium will be really appreciated.” “You scoundrel!” roared Dan Gilbert. “You’re a traitor as well as a self-seeking brute. Don’t you think your own country needs that uranium?” “I’ve no concern with countries or nationalities,” said the power-mad scientist. “I shall make my offer to the highest bidder.” “You will never get away with this!” snapped Captain Blake. “The Royal Navy has a long arm.” “The Royal Navy will know nothing about it, thanks to your secrecy about our discovery, mocked Pettrie. “Not once has it been mentioned on the radio that we found any uranium. No one knows that the Sea Roamer is on her way to Honolulu. It will be a month at least before our radio-silence causes a search to be made, and then it will be too late.

MAN OR FISH?

Two hours later, four men and a boy stood on the stony beach of a cone-shaped island that rose out of the northern Pacific. They watched the boat that had put them ashore pulling back to the research ship. Resistance had been impossible. They had been kept with their arms tied until they and the stores had been landed. Only at the last moment and then at revolver point, they had been unbound. The Sea Roamer lay in the bay about a hundred yards out. The ship was only staying overnight to take on fresh-water supplies in the morning. “Undoubtedly volcanic,” said Dan Gilbert, looking behind him at the thousand-foot cone that rose towards the starlit sky. “This is the upper part of a mountain. The rest is below the sea. Once this would have been bare rock and ashes. In course of time birds have brought the seeds which have given it this scant vegetation.” He waved towards the stunted bushes and sun dried grass. The only sign of life that they had so far seen was land-crabs. There were no tall bushes, no trees. “The swine intend us to starve to death,” growled Rawson. “With these stores, and by fishing, we might last out a month, and there’s a chance that we shall be found by then,” put in Captain Blake, “although the island is off the steamer routes and on few charts. I’ve never known a name for it.” “Well, as we’ve only what they’ve deigned to leave with us, we’d better try and put it somewhere where the land-crabs won’t get at it,” said the metallurgist, briskly. “What’s in that hollow over there, Ken?” “Only more crabs,” came the boy’s disgusted voice a few moments later. “The place swarms with ‘em.” They stacked their stores on top of a slab of black rock, then sat down on the edge of the rock with branches in their hands to knock away marauding crabs. They could see the ship still at anchor. The landing-party had returned aboard, and lights showed that the crew were still awake. “Celebrating!” muttered Dan Gilbert, in disgust. “Funny how we never suspected Pettrie of this sort of thing. Although once he said to me that if he could invent a pocket-sized atomic bomb he would be Master of the Earth. I ought to have guessed from that that he was half-crazy.” “But clever!” said the Captain. “Yes, a genius in his own way. No doubt he thinks now that he’ll find some way of getting the sole benefit from this mutiny. I can’t imagine him going shares with the crew or men like Oki. He despises ordinary manual workers.” “Maybe they’ll turn on him,” muttered Gavin Rawson. Not much chance of that. He has been clever enough to keep the chart and other details of the uranium deposit to himself.

Gradually conversation lagged, and they became silent. Captain Blake began to doze. Jim Cook pondered in his slow way over the possibility of trying to recapture the ship before she put to sea. Rawson wondered what would happen to his helicopter. It must have been an hour later, when Ken Palmer gripped Dan Gilbert by the arm, and hissed. “What’s that, down on the beach?” He pointed. The metallurgist looked, and the boy felt his companion’s muscles become rigid. Gilbert nudged Jim Cook. “What do you make of that?” In the bright moonlight the boy had seen the thing come crawling out of the sea. At first he had taken it for a seal, until it suddenly stood up and begun to walk towards the inlet where the ship was anchored. It walked on legs like a man, but its feet were extra large, almost like flippers. Its hair hung like wet seaweed around its head, and the starlight made its wet body glitter as though it was covered with scales. It took short strides. “Man or fish?” whispered Dan Gilbert. They watched in silence as it halted at the edge of the beach, shading its eyes with a hand. They could clearly see its fingers. The hand was human. It was almost as though a spell was on the party up the beach. They neither moved nor spoke. Not one rose to his feet. Captain Blake slept on. It was about three minutes the thing stood watching the ship, then with a lightning movement it dived into the water and went below the surface. “A mermaid!” whispered Ken Palmer. “You mean a merman!” corrected Dan Gilbert. “If it wasn’t a man with scales I’ll—I’ll eat the first hat I see when we get away from here. He came out of the sea and went back into the sea. I’ve seen some queer things—” “What’s the matter?” demanded Captain Blake suddenly awake. “What’s everyone staring at?” They told him. A hard-headed man like John Blake, who had sailed the seas all his life, was unlikely to believe in mermen, and he said so.

Rawson then suggested that they went down the beach to see if there were any footprints. Captain Blake scoffed, but he went with them. At the water’s edge there was a narrow belt of sand and Ken palmer silently pointed. Clearly there could be seen the imprint of feet, what appeared to be human feet webbed between the toes! Captain Blake knelt down to examine these marks in silence. He was still down when Rawson tapped him on the shoulder, and muttered: “Don’t move! Look along the beach.” Something was coming out of the water and climbing on to the rocks about fifty yards away. For a moment it stood upright, and they saw their fish-man again, water running from his scaly shoulders. Then he jumped down the other side of the rock and was lost to sight. Captain Blake drew a hand across his eyes. “I give you best. That was neither man nor fish like anything I’ve seen before,” he confessed. They went back to their rock, and sat there while the stars faded into blackness. Towards dawn they slept, all except Ken Palmer, who sat there brushing away crabs until the first rays of sunlight sent these scuttling to their holes. Then the boy fell asleep. It was Dan Gilbert who wakened first, and roused his companions. “I’ve been watching the deck of the Sea Roamer for the last five minutes,” he said, “and can’t see a movement. Do you think they’ve all rowed round the headland for fresh water?” The glint in his eyes told them what he meant. If the ship was deserted, or only lightly manned, it might be possible to board and take her. They were desperate enough for anything. “Even if the crew have gone ashore, and the passengers are still below, we could deal with them,” agreed Captain Blake. “By crawling behind that line of black rocks we could get almost to the water’s edge.” Excited by the prospect of action, the five of them crawled along the beach under cover of the low rocks.

From time to time they peered at the Sea Roamer, but the decks were still empty. At last they came to the end of a natural jetty from which it was possible to study the ship more closely. Nothing stirred aboard. The riding-lights still burned. No smoke came from the funnel. No sound came across the water. “Let me go out and make sure,” suggested Jim Cook, who besides being a professional diver was a first-class swimmer. He pulled off his shirt and slipped into the clear water. Once clear of the rocks he dived and they lost sight of his bronzed body. He only came up twice to the surface between there and the stern of the ship. They watched him grasp the anchor cable and swing himself upwards, then lost sight of him again. Five minutes passed before he appeared boldly on the stern deck, and bellowed through cupped hands: “Ahoy there! There’s nobody aboard—not a soul. Somethin’ queer’s happened.” When his meaning dawned on them they all slipped into the water and swam out to join him.

NEPTUNE’S KINGDOM

Something had certainly happened aboard the Sea Roamer since the landing-party had returned. Not only had all the crew and passengers vanished, but the passages below the gangways and the deck itself, were littered with small objects which seemed to have been brought from the cabins. There were watches, cups and saucers, some cutlery, a few knives, and a pair of spectacles. They searched the ship twice, but found no living thing, although below there was a distinct smell of fish. Again they assembled on the deck. Above rose the thousand-foot cone, black and bare of vegetation above the first hundred feet. There was obviously a crater at the top, but no smoke curled from it. “I don’t like it,” muttered Captain Blake. “If they’d gone ashore for water we’d see or hear them. There’s no reason why they should abandon ship. There’s nothing to show they intended doing so. It’s a mystery.” Rawson pointed to the canvas hanger which housed the helicopter. “If we took to the air we could see for many miles in all directions. If they’re out in the boat we could spot them. It was the obvious solution and they helped him to make the helicopter ready. It was one of the latest type, and the cabin was capable of holding seven or eight. It was decided that all should go aloft. When the motors were started and bellowed out their power-note, which was echoed from the rocky mountain, they waited instinctively for some sign of movement. Surely someone from the ship, or the mysterious fish-man, would hear the noise and come to see what was happening. But now even a sea-bird raised complaint at the din. “Let’s go!” muttered Captain Blake. He had strapped on a revolver.

Rawson manoeuvred the aircraft off the deck, vertically. In the early morning sunshine the sea glittered brilliantly below them, but even the beauty of the scene could not dispel that air of mystery and fear which the island seemed to give off. Up and up they went, the helicopter climbing steadily. Soon they were more than a thousand feet in the air. A great circle of sea was now brought within their view. They scanned it in all directions through powerful glasses, but without success. “A boat, and more than a dozen men, clean vanished!” growled Dan Gilbert. “It’s not natural. Get over to the other side of the island and see if there’s anything there.” Slowly, for it was not a speedy craft, the helicopter passed over the top of the central cone. On impulse Rawson went down almost level with the edge of the crater, which appeared to be several hundred yards across. He made the aircraft hover, and all craned their necks to look down into the extinct volcano. All saw the same thing at once—a bright patch of light far below. “Not as extinct as we thought,” said Rawson. “That must be lava. Not many people have looked straight down a volcano as though down a chimney.” Dan Gilbert was adjusting the glasses. “That’s not lava. The light is too steady for that. Go a little lower. There’s no risk—no smoke or lava fumes.” Rawson gently and slowly lowered the helicopter into the mouth of this giant natural chimney. The light appeared to be over a thousand feet below them, and there was a strange greenish hue about it which certainly did not come from volcanic fires or glowing lava. “Almost phosphorescent,” reported the metallurgist. “What in the name of wonder is it? It’s like looking down a huge chimney into the lighted interior of a kiln.” “We’re supposed to be looking for Pettrie,” put in Captain Blake. “Yes, I know, but if Rawson could go just a little lower, so that we’re out of the glow of the sun, we could see still better,” urged Dan Gilbert. The pilot looked at the crater, and at the immense funnel which ran down from it. The sides appeared to be as smooth as the inside of a great pipe. He judged that nowhere was the crater less than a hundred yards across, and he knew he could manoeuvre the helicopter in much less space than that. “I’ll take you down, but at the first sign of fumes or hot air we’ll have to rise again,” he told them. Slowly, for he wanted to retain perfect control. Rawson lowered the machine into the crater, keeping in the exact centre. Once the sides of the crater overshadowed them they could see the green glow below with extra clearness. The light drew them.

The helicopter descended a hundred feet, then another. Rawson discovered that the sides were not closing in, and that there were no rising fumes or hot air-currents. Above them the circle of sky showed that they had descended several hundred feet, but there was not one of them who suggested going back. Curiosity had them in its grip. “I suppose this had nothing to do with the disappearance of the others?” suggested Jim Cook. “Couldn’t have!” grunted Dan Gilbert. “They didn’t use the helicopter last night or we’d have heard it, and they certainly didn’t come ashore and climb to the crater to lower themselves down here. No, it—what in the name of wonder—!” He was staring through the powerful glasses. “It’s like a great cave at the bottom—a giant cave—as though the whole mountain’s hollowed out far below sea-level. The crater opens out—yes, the crater rises from the top of the cave, and we’re nearly there.” They dropped another hundred feet, and suddenly passed out of the vertical crater into a cavern so enormous that they could not see the limits of it. It was dimly but clearly lit by what appeared to be some phosphorescence from the rock walls, and from the floor of the cave, which must have been many miles in extent. But what shocked them to startled silence was the sight of something immediately below them in the centre of the cavern. It was a city, built of red rock or coral, a city with high buildings, straight streets, tall towers, and a boundary wall! Some of those towers must have risen for a hundred feet, and on top of these were cupolas which glowed with the green light. As they hovered in their helicopter they could see figures moving in the streets below. “This is below sea-level,” whispered Gavin Rawson. “A city below the sea—Neptune’s City—or Atlantis!” “Scarcely Atlantis below the Pacific,” murmured the always accurate Dan Gilbert. “Look out beyond the walls of the city. There are fields of green and white. Seaweed and mushrooms—or that’s what it looks like! Yes, and over there farther still is water—miles of it. There must be an exit to the sea. This great lake must be joined with the sea outside.” They were silent, trying to convince themselves of what they actually saw. “It’s a mirage—like they have in the desert—a trick of the light!” exclaimed Captain Blake at last. “It’s the most solid mirage I’ve ever seen,” Dan Gilbert snapped. “Look, there are men out there working in the fields! Men whose skins shine like scales, like our fish-men of last night. Let’s go down!”

NEPTUNE’S CHIMNEY 6 Episodes appeared in The Hotspur issues 827 – 832 (1952)

© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2007