Six miles above the ocean bedrock of the Caribbean, the research ship Gorgon rolled gently in the blazing heat of the mid-afternoon.
Overhead the sky was a limpid sapphire blue. And beneath the ship's keel - more than thirty thousand feet down on the ocean floor - lay the Tanangas Deep: the deepest marine valley known to man.
It was a moment of history.
On the squat research ship, derricks stretched outwards over the starboard bow, giving the vessel a slight list.
Suspended over the water from the derricks hung the most unearthly object ever seen East of Cape Canaveral.
A great, bloated melon of crystal-steel blazing off the fire of reflected sunlight; an orb of metallic splendour which hung like a man-made planet, barely ten feet from the surface of the glassy sea.
Upon it, perched like grotesque frogs, two men balanced themselves - waiting.
On the deck of the research ship, half-blinded by the sunlight reflected from the giant globe, brown-skinned men sweated to manoeuvre the derricks.
One of them was shouting. His voice was gutteral and pitched high.
"Steady on number three! Ease her out slowly!"
The two men crouched on top of the sphere looked at each other.
The younger one, pale-faced and nervous, whispered throatily: "Shall we get in no, Harben?"
Harben, bird-faced and with eyes malevolently calm replied softly: "You get in. I'll join you in a moment."
But the younger man hesitated. He trembled slightly as he glanced around him. He laughed nervously.
"It's silly. I know, but I feel kind of -- scared." He paused before adding tremulously: "What do you think we're going to find down there, Harben?"
Harben's lips curled into a grin. "Getting butterflies, Linwood? Don't worry. This bathysphere is the safest ever built." His tone became mocking. "I thought you wanted to be the first to see this prehistoric fish?"
Linwood muttered: "Sorry. It's just a feeling - a kind of premonition. Nobody's ever been this deep before, have they?"
Harben's voice was barely audible. "For God's sake man get in! You wanted to have a look down there and you're in no danger!"
Linwood, with an apologetic whimper, eased himself through the open hatch of the bathysphere. His head was visible for a few seconds as he hung there. Then it disappeared. His voice came hollowly from inside the metal globe: "All right, I'm in."
Harben's face hardened. He looked like a bird of prey, poised there with his beak of a nose and his hair ruffled by the gentle breeze. The disquieting calmness had returned to his eyes.
He looked around him. Up at the sun -- down into the water. Nothing could go wrong, he told himself.
He cursed Linwood. The man's fear was infectious.
Harben swore viciously at the crew on the deck:
"Don't stand there gaping! Swing her out!"
The crew scurried to obey his orders.
Electric winches began to hiss and hum.
Harben clambered hurriedly down into the sphere, closing the heavy hatch behind him.
On board the Gorgon the mate of the research ship stood by the radiophone. Soon Harben's voice came barking out of the receiver. "All right, Vasquez! Let her go! Slowly for the first fifty feet -- then increase speed."
Ramon Vasquez let a grim expression of resentment spread over his face in the privacy of the control cabin.
He didn't like Harben. He didn't like taking orders from him. And he didn't like what Harben was doing. It was against the instruction of the project chief -- Professor Hoddard Curtis.
Curtis had forbidden anyone to use the bathysphere without his permission. And Harben had no permission -- but the crew had to obey him because Harben was second in command and Curtis was miles away, trying to get money out of Marine Institute in Florida.
"Very good, sir," Vasquez replied with a hard edge on his voice. "Slowly for the first fifty feet."
He reached across the bank of metres to the electric winch regulator and switched on the down-drive.
Once more Harben's voice rasped harshly over the line. "I'm breaking contact for a short while. I'll call you again in a minute."
"Roger," the mate acknowledged. He flicked the switch to 'recieve' and let it stay there. Then he watched from the control cabin window, as slowly and with delicate and precise grace, the hugh sphere began to sway downwards.
It touched the surface of the water and the sea heaved up as if to reject it. But an instant later the great globe was plunging down, breaking through the translucent blue waves to be slowly swallowed in the darkness beneath.
The sea eddied round the cables supporting the twelve ton globe -- the fine, woven cords of steel which looked too slender to support such a colossal weight.
Ramon Vasquez, the mate, kept his dark eyes on the pressure metres.
An indicator needle crept slowly round a large dial marked in tens feet, then in hundreds, then in thousands.
Ten feet ... twenty ... fifty ...
The needle began to climb faster.
Seventy ... ninety ... a hundred ... two hundred ...
The mate licked his thin lips as the needle climbed steadily to five hundred.
A cold feeling moved deep in his stomach as the metres told of the fantastic pressures now coming to bear on the sphere. Two hundred pounds on the square inch!
The needle crept up to the six hundred mark. It passed it. Seven hundred ...
Then the radiophone crackled into sudden life:
"It's very dark now. We're using the lamps--" came Harben's voice. "Can't see much yet. We're just opposite a grotto of some sort; a cave in the cliff face. The water seems thicker; like oil. It's quite weird. I've never seen anything to compare with --"
Suddenly Harben's matter-of-fact tone was cut off by a gasp.
"God! What is it?"
His voice was suddenly shrill with excitement and horror. "My God! This is awful -- I never thought -- it's -- it's disgusting! Horrible! Pull us up! Pull the sphere up! Quickly!"
Vasquez flicked the switch. "What is it, sir? What have you seen?"
But Harben was deaf to the mate's inquiries. "For Heaven's sake do something! Pull us up! It's going to kill us! It's awful! We were mad to risk it! Hurry! You've got to save us!"
Already the mate had slammed the machinery into reverse. Now, with hands that shook, he flicked the switch and spoke again.
"What is it? What's wrong?"
There was no reply.
For ten long seconds there was nothing but silence.
Then suddenly the whole ship lurched. Shock waves crashed upwards, rocking the vessel like a toy.
A burst of muffled thunder reverberated up from the deep, smashing against the ship's keel ... And a sound like the bellow of some enormous sea-beast erupted from the ocean.
The mate was flung backwards. He crashed against a bank of metres. Glass shattered and flew like rain.
He scrambled desperately to reach the radiophone. But the boat lurched again. He pitched headlong.
A second time he tried and managed to grab the handset.
"Mr Harben! Mr. Harben! What happened?"
But the phone was dead. No static crackled; no side tones. The link was broken.
Frantically, the mate wrenched open the hatch of the cabin and tore up the companionway. The crew were sprawled all over the deck.
Vasquez stumbled towards a man and hauled him to his feet.
"What happened? What did you see?"
The crewman shook his head numbly.
The mate ran to the ship's rail where the derricks poked out over the ocean. Part of his answer was there.
Instead of taut, straining cables there were only contorted steel wires. Wires which had only whipped up from the sea, relieved of their burden -- to tangle round the screaming pulleys in an inextricable, tortured mass.
"Madre de Dois! May the saints preserve them! What was it? What did they see? What got them?"
Vasquez stared down into the imperturbable waters which covered the deepest ocean valley in the world -- and knew that nothing could save the two men that had gone down.
Without the cables to support them, nothing lay between the bathysphere and the bedrock of the Tangaras Deep -- except water.
Six miles of it!
Two men had gone down there. They were doomed. Two men -- hopelessly, irrevocably, trapped in a twelve-ton coffin of stainless steel -- plunging down thirty thousand feet to the deepest place on earth!
Never to return!
"They are finished," Vasquez mouthed the incredible words as they froze on his lips. "We shall never save them."
The eighth son of an Indian fisherman, Vasquez had been taught from the age of five to fear the sea and its mysteries.
All the tales of sea monsters he had ever heard came flashing into his mind.
Cold fear seized him.
What had happened?
The sea foamed and boiled softly against the side of the rocking vessel. Mysterious, dangerous -- it seemed to be laughing at the mate, mocking him.
Two more victims had been taken into its insatiable depths.
The sea -- or something that lurked beneath the sea -- had claimed two more human lives.