Hoddard Curtis, blond-headed, broad and bitterly angry, grated his teeth with suppressed fury as he was encased in inch-thick armour plating, on the deck of the research ship Gorgon.
Only two hours ago he had returned to the ship with good news. The Florida Marine Institute had promised to give him another grant. He had returned with a light heart , bouyant and confident because his research was to be allowed to continue.
Years of work had gone into the construction of the bathysphere. Two hours ago he had returned to the ship with a new lease of life -- assured that all the money, blood and sweat of the last five years would soon give way to the realisation of a dream.
Then he'd met Vasquez.
And two hours ago, to the minute, his dream had been shattered ...
The bathysphere had sunk!
Vasquez had stuttered out his story, and Curtis' world had collapsed around him. At first the young professor hadn't been able to believe it. Then shock had set in, soon to be followed by blind, unreasoning hate towards the men who has disobeyed his orders and perished.
The bathysphere was unique. Its loss was a mortal blow to Curtis's project.
For nearly an hour he had been unable to speak.
Then, like a drowning man clutching at a straw, he had ordered out the Sonar equipment, to search the depths for some last clue as to the bathysphere's final fate.
And suddenly, incredibly, after half an hour of fruitless casting about, the underwater radar had blipped out the position of the sphere -- and Curtis had been unable to believe it.
The bathysphere wasn't six miles down. It wasn't even a mile. It was only eleven hundred feet below the surface.
Eleven hundred feet! Such a depth seemed the merest trifle. Until he remembered that the finest diving suit in the world had never been tested below a depth of nine hundred feet.
Such suits were mechanically operated, armour-plated and clumsy. Curtis had a pair of them on board. He had no means of knowing whether they would stand up to and extra two hundred pounds of pressure.
But he had determined to find out! If five long years of unremitting toil were to mean anything, he had to risk the descent. He had to see the bathysphere; to find out what had gone wrong.
Now, as Vasquez and one of the crewmen helped him into the suit, Curtis reassured himself that he knew marine life well enough to have no fear of monsters which lurked unknown in the deep.
And yet --
A surge of claustrophobia overwhelmed him as the great steel helmet was placed over his head and locked home against the colossal cylindrical torso. Something light and unnerving fluttered inside his stomach.
But there could be no turning back. Grimly he forced himself to attend to the job. He ran through the routine checks of his suit.
From the arms, which were great, hinged sections of metal, claws like the pincers of a great metallic lobster sprang to serve as hands. They were grappling irons like those used in nuclear laboratories to handle radioactive isotopes.
They were worked by remote control and Curtis tested them by operating a pair of switches inside the suit.
Next he satisfied himself that the radiophone was working; that the built-in air supply was functioning faultlessly.
Then, with the cable fixed to his shapeless headpiece, he was ready to be lowered into the ocean.
* * *
Within three minutes he had been swung out over the water and was descending at six feet a second; a body within a body, a skull within a skull.
He caught a final glimpse of the grey-green surface, of the sunlight -- then he was going down swiftly into the gloom of the deep Caribbean.
He was in a world of silence; a world of slime-green and swirling darkness.
He spoke into the microphone, his words echoing in the metal confines of the helmet.
"How far down am I?" he needed to know.
"Six hundred feet, sir," came the voice of Vasquez. "Still descending. How do you feel?"
"Not so bad. Give me regular readings."
Curtis recalled the things he had read and heard about the dangers of diving. Faults in men's suits had resulted in the water pressure closing in -- turning a six foot man into a neat package of bone and flesh -- one foot by one foot!
Suits had been hauled up, seemingly empty -- until they'd looked looked inside the helmets.
So much easier to bury, Curtis thought grimly. If all men died so neatly the undertakers would lose money.
"Seven hundred feet!" crackled the radiophone.
Curtis's headlamp now cut through the gloom. Inky waters swirled on both sides of the incandescent beam as it cut a tunnel of light through the darkness.
Down -- down -- down ...
"Eight hundred feet!"
At this depth a sinking wooden ship would be smashed to driftwood in moments. The pressure would cut it like a sledgehammer smashing a toy.
Under this pressure metal could buckle and twist into shapes beyond all recognition.
Curtis sweated and tried not to think.
"Nine hundred feet!"
Curtis cursed the dead Harben for the hundredth time. He should never have trusted the man. He had only signed him on because Harben had offered to help on board in return for his passage to the Caribbean. Curtis had been low on funds; he'd been glad of Harben's assistance.
Since then Harben had behaved strangely. He'd disappeared on trips to Maliba for a day or more at a time during the four weeks the research ship had been anchored over the Tanangas trench. Curtis had been reluctant to pry into the man's affairs, but only because he'd still been glad of the help; Harben had shown himself a capable and clever engineer.
But why had he taken the bathysphere? What had he wanted to show the other man, Linwood?
Curtis knew there was a legend about a sunken Spanish treasure ship in these parts. But he'd already rejected this as a possible explanation. Every island had a similar legend.
Now he could hear his own breath rasping inside the helmet. He could smell his own body sweating inside the confines of the suit.
But all he could see was black, slimy rock as he entered the narrow, marine valley flanked on both sides by tall, underwater mountains -- mountains taller than Everest!
"One thousand feet!"
Curtis started. He said thickly: "Okay Vasquez. Take it slowly. I should see it any moment now."
He felt the speed of his descent level off and began casting about with his lamp as the last hundred feet crept up.
The suit was withstanding the pressure. Would it hold out for long enough? His ears strained for the slightest sound which would betray the creak of metal; the faintest groan of steel.
Then Curtis's casting beam illuminated something brighter than bleak rock.
It was silver. A great orb of silver light.
He'd found the sphere.
"Hold it!" he ordered. His descent suddenly ended. He hung in the water, w swaying gently from side to side.
Above him was blackness, and somewhere far away, the surface.
Beneath him was blackness again -- and a drop of over five miles!
But he wouldn't drop that far if the cable gave out under the strain. Before he'd fallen a thousand feet he would be pulverised and smashed like an eggshell.
Slowly he worked his metal arms out towards the rocks on his left. The sphere lay on a narrow ledge where it had lodged.
Curtis's metal claws touched the walls of rock. He made them grasp a projection and by careful manipulation worked his way towards the ledge.
On one side of the vessel's ledge there was a space of about three feet, while on the other side sheer rock face soared up into the gloom.
Curtis worked with painful slowness. He got one foot on the ledge and pulled himself upwards.
After what seemed like an age, he was able to touch the sphere. He worked round it slowly, taking care not to disturb its position. Then at length, his face-plate was opposite the bathysphere's porthole.
He pressed his face forward, raised his lamp and shone the beam into the dim interior.
* * *
On the research ship, Vasquez was watching the dials and praying. They were two things he could do simultaneously. His heart pounded and perspiration stood out on his brow.
Suddenly Curtis's voice cracked over the radiophone:
"I'm beside the sphere now. I'm looking in. The equipment has taken some hard knocks but the sphere is okay apart from a small hole near the top -- not much bigger than my fist. Can't be sure what caused it. We can salvage the sphere, I think."
His tone lowered. "I can see one body -- not a nice sight -- it's badly crushed by pressure..."
Then: "That's strange..." Curtis sounded puzzled.
"Great Heavens! It's not possible!" He suddenly shouted: "There's only one body! The other one has gone! It's unbelievable -- but it's true! One of them's disappeared! No-one could get out of here at this depth --"
His voice broke off suddenly, then. There was a long and heavy silence. When finally he spoke again, Curtis's voice was pitched high with a new note -- a note of hysteria:
"God Almighty! I don't believe it! I must be going mad! I can't believe my eyes--!"
"What is it, sir?" Vasquez cut in with a voice that was shaking with terror. "What have you seen?"
"This body!" Curtis's voice rose to a scream. "This man's been murdered! He's been stabbed in the back! I must be going insane, but I can see it! I can see the knife! He's been stabbed in the back!"
Vasquez made no reply to that. In the silent sunlight of the research ship's control cabin he had suddenly ceased to feel the heat of the Caribbean afternoon. Cold sweat had broken out all over his body.
Icicles of fear clutched at his heart and bowels as the uncanny implications of the Professor's words registered in his mind.
One dead body was floating in the sphere -- murdered. And the other man had defied the laws of nature and disappeared.