The Battle of the Monsters
by Morgan Robertson
Extract from hospital record of the case of John Anderson, patient of Dr. Brown, Ward 3, Room 6:
August 3. Arrived at hospital in extreme mental distress, having been bitten on wrist three hours previously by dog known to have been rabid. Large, strong man, full-blooded and well nourished. Sanguine temperament. Pulse and temperature higher than normal, due to excitement. Cauterized wound at once (2
) and inoculated with antitoxin.
As patient admits having recently escaped, by swimming ashore, from lately arrived cholera ship, now at quarantine, he has been isolated and clothing disinfected. Watch for symptoms of cholera.
August 3, 6
Microscopic examination of blood corroborative of Metschnikoff's theory of fighting leucocytes. White corpuscles gorged with bacteria.
He was an amphibian, and, as such, undeniably beautiful; for the sunlight, refracted and diffused in the water, gave his translucent, pearl-blue body all the shifting colors of the spectrum. Vigorous and graceful of movement, in shape he resembled a comma of three dimensions, twisted, when at rest, to a slight spiral curve; but in traveling he straightened out with quick successive jerks, each one sending him ahead a couple of lengths. Supplemented by the undulatory movement of a long continuation of his tail, it was his way of swimming, good enough to enable him to escape his enemies; this, and riding at anchor in a current by his cable-like appendage, constituting his main occupation in life. The pleasure of eating was denied him; nature had given him a mouth, but he used it only for purposes of offense and defense, absorbing his food in a most unheard-of manner—through the soft walls of his body.
Yet he enjoyed a few social pleasures. Though the organs of the five senses were missing in his economy, he possessed an inner sixth sense which answered for all and also gave him power of speech. He would converse, swap news and views, with creatures of his own and other species, provided that they were of equal size and prowess; but he wasted no time on any but his social peers. Smaller creatures he pursued when they annoyed him; larger ones pursued him.
The sunlight, which made him so beautiful to look at, was distasteful to him; it also made him too visible. He preferred a half-darkness and less fervor to life's battle—time to judge of chances, to figure on an enemy's speed and turning-circle, before beginning flight or pursuit. But his dislike of it really came of a stronger animus—a shuddering recollection of three hours once passed on dry land in a comatose condition, which had followed a particularly long and intense period of bright sunlight. He had never been able to explain the connection, but the awful memory still saddened his life.
And now it seemed, as he swam about, that this experience might be repeated. The light was strong and long-continued, the water uncomfortably warm, and the crowd about him denser—so much so as to prevent him from attending properly to a social inferior who had crossed his bow. But just as his mind grasped the full imminence of the danger, there came a sudden darkness, a crash and vibration of the water, then a terrible, rattling roar of sound. The social inferior slipped from his mouth, and with his crowding neighbors was washed far away, while he felt himself slipping along, bounding and rebounding against the projections of a corrugated wall which showed white in the gloom. There was an unpleasant taste to the water, and he became aware of creatures in his vicinity unlike any he had known,—quickly darting little monsters about a tenth as large as himself,—thousands of them, black and horrid to see, each with short, fish-like body and square head like that of a dog; with wicked mouth that opened and shut nervously; with hooked flippers on the middle part, and a bunch of tentacles on the fore that spread out ahead and around. A dozen of them surrounded him menacingly; but he was young and strong, much larger than they, and a little frightened. A blow of his tail killed two, and the rest drew off.
The current bore them on until the white wall rounded off and was lost to sight beyond the mass of darting creatures. Here was slack water, and with desperate effort he swam back, pushing the small enemies out of his path, meeting some resistance and receiving a few bites, until, in a hollow in the wall, he found temporary refuge and time to think. But he could not solve the problem. He had not the slightest idea where he was or what had happened—who and what were the strange black creatures, or why they had threatened him.
His thoughts were interrupted. Another vibrant roar sounded, and there was pitch-black darkness; then he was pushed and washed away from his shelter, jostled, bumped, and squeezed, until he found himself in a dimly lighted tunnel, which, crowded as it was with swimmers, was narrow enough to enable him to see both sides at once. The walls were dark brown and blue, broken up everywhere into depressions or caves, some of them so deep as to be almost like blind tunnels. The dog-faced creatures were there—as far as he could see; but besides them, now, were others, of stranger shape—of species unknown to him.
A slow current carried them on, and soon they entered a larger tunnel. He swam to the opposite wall, gripped a projection, and watched in wonder and awe the procession gliding by. He soon noticed the source of the dim light. A small creature with barrel-like body and innumerable legs or tentacles, wavering and reaching, floated past. Its body swelled and shrank alternately, with every swelling giving out a phosphorescent glow, with every contraction darkening to a faint red color. Then came a group of others; then a second living lamp; later another and another: they were evenly distributed, and illumined the tunnel.
There were monstrous shapes, living but inert, barely pulsing with dormant life, as much larger than himself as the dog-headed kind were smaller—huge, unwieldy, disk-shaped masses of tissue, light gray at the margins, dark red in the middle. They were in the majority, and blocked the view. Darting and wriggling between and about them were horrible forms, some larger than himself, others smaller. There were serpents, who swam with a serpent's motion. Some were serpents in form, but were curled rigidly into living corkscrews, and by sculling with their tails screwed their way through the water with surprising rapidity. Others were barrel- or globe-shaped, with swarming tentacles. With these they pulled themselves along, in and out through the crowd, or, bringing their squirming appendages rearward,—each an individual snake,—used them as propellers, and swam. There were creatures in the form of long cylinders, some with tentacles by which they rolled along like a log in a tideway; others, without appendages, were as inert and helpless as the huge red-and-gray disks. He saw four ball-shaped creatures float by, clinging together; then a group of eight, then one of twelve. All these, to the extent of their volition, seemed to be in a state of extreme agitation and excitement.
The cause was apparent. The tunnel from which he had come was still discharging the dog-faced animals by the thousand, and he knew now the business they were on. It was war—war to the death. They flung themselves with furious energy into the parade, fighting and biting all they could reach. A hundred at a time would pounce on one of the large red-and-gray creatures, almost hiding it from view; then, and before they had passed out of sight, they would fall off and disperse, and the once living victim would come with them, in parts. The smaller, active swimmers fled, but if one was caught, he suffered; a quick dart, a tangle of tentacles, an embrace of the wicked flippers, a bite—and a dead body floated on.
And now into the battle came a ponderous engine of vengeance and defense. A gigantic, lumbering, pulsating creature, white and translucent but for the dark, active brain showing through its walls, horrible in the slow, implacable deliberation of its movements, floated down with the current. It was larger than the huge red-and-gray creatures. It was formless, in the full irony of the definition—for it assumed all forms. It was long—barrel-shaped; it shrank to a sphere, then broadened laterally, and again extended above and below. In turn it was a sphere, a disk, a pyramid, a pentahedron, a polyhedron. It possessed neither legs, flippers, nor tentacles; but out from its heaving, shrinking body it would send, now from one spot, now from another, an active arm, or feeler, with which it swam, pulled, or pushed. An unlucky invader which one of them touched made few more voluntary movements; for instantly the whole side of the whitish mass bristled with arms. They seized, crushed, killed it, and then pushed it bodily through the living walls to the animal's interior to serve for food. And the gaping fissure healed at once, like the wounds of Milton's warring angels.
The first white monster floated down, killing as he went; then came another, pushing eagerly into the fray; then came two, then three, then dozens. It seemed that the word had been passed, and the army of defense was mustering.
Sick with horror, he watched the grim spectacle from the shelter of the projection, until roused to an active sense of danger to himself—but not from the fighters. He was anchored by his tail, swinging easily in the eddy, and now felt himself touched from beneath, again from above. A projection down-stream was extending outward and toward him. The cave in which he had taken refuge was closing on him like a great mouth—as though directed by an intelligence behind the wall. With a terrified flirt of his tail he flung himself out, and as he drifted down with the combat the walls of the cave crunched together. It was well for him that he was not there.
The current was clogged with fragments of once living creatures, and everywhere, darting, dodging, and biting, were the fierce black invaders. But they paid no present attention to him or to the small tentacled animals. They killed the large, helpless red-and-gray kind, and were killed by the larger white monsters, each moment marking the death and rending to fragments of a victim, and the horrid interment of fully half his slayers. The tunnel grew larger, as mouth after mouth of tributary tunnels was passed; but as each one discharged its quota of swimming and drifting creatures, there was no thinning of the crowd.
As he drifted on with the inharmonious throng, he noticed what seemed the objective of the war. This was the caves which lined the tunnel. Some were apparently rigid, others were mobile. A large red-and-gray animal was pushed into the mouth of one of the latter, and the walls instantly closed; then they opened, and the creature drifted out, limp and colorless, but alive; and with him came fragments of the wall, broken off by the pressure. This happened again and again, but the large creature was never quite killed—merely squeezed. The tentacled non-combatants and the large white fighters seemed to know the danger of these tunnel mouths, possibly from bitter experiences, for they avoided the walls; but the dog-faced invaders sought this death, and only fought on their way to the caves. Sometimes two, often four or more, would launch themselves together into a hollow, but to no avail; their united strength could not prevent the closing in of the mechanical maw, and they were crushed and flung out, to drift on with other debris.
Soon the walls could not be seen for the pushing, jostling crowd, but everywhere the terrible, silent war went on until there came a time when fighting ceased; for each must look out for himself. They seemed to be in an immense cave, and the tide was broken into cross-currents rushing violently to the accompaniment of rhythmical thunder. They were shaken, jostled, pushed about and pushed together, hundreds of the smaller creatures dying from the pressure. Then there was a moment of comparative quiet, during which fighting was resumed, and there could be seen the swiftly flying walls of a large tunnel. Next they were rushed through a labyrinth of small caves with walls of curious, branching formation, sponge-like and intricate. It required energetic effort to prevent being caught in the meshes, and the large red-and-gray creatures were sadly torn and crushed, while the white ones fought their way through by main strength. Again the flying walls of a tunnel, again a mighty cave, and the cross-currents, and the rhythmical thunder, and now a wild charge down an immense tunnel, the wall of which surged outward and inward, in unison with the roaring of the thunder.
The thunder died away in the distance, though the walls still surged—even those of a smaller tunnel which divided the current and received them. Down-stream the tunnel branched again and again, and with the lessening of the diameter was a lessening of the current's velocity, until, in a maze of small, short passages, the invaders, content to fight and kill in the swifter tide, again attacked the caves.
But to the never-changing result: they were crushed, mangled, and cast out, the number of suicides, in this neighborhood, largely exceeding those killed by the white warriors. And yet, in spite of the large mortality among them, the attacking force was increasing. Where one died two took his place; and the reason was soon made plain—they were reproducing. A black fighter, longer than his fellows, a little sluggish of movement, as though from the restrictive pressure of a large, round protuberance in his middle, which made him resemble a snake which had swallowed an egg, was caught by a white monster and instantly embraced by a multitude of feelers. He struggled, bit, and broke in two; then the two parts escaped the grip of the astonished captor, and wriggled away, the protuberance becoming the head of the rear portion, which immediately joined the fight, snapping and biting with unmistakable jaws. This phenomenon was repeated.
And on went the battle. Illumined by the living lamps, and watched by terrified non-combatants, the horrid carnival continued with never-slacking fury and ever-changing background—past the mouths of tributary tunnels which increased the volume and velocity of the current and added to the fighting strength, on through widening archways to a repetition of the cross-currents, the thunder, and the sponge-like maze, down past the heaving walls of larger tunnels to branched passages, where, in comparative slack water, the siege of the caves was resumed. For hour after hour this went on, the invaders dying by hundreds, but increasing by thousands and ten thousands, as the geometrical progression advanced, until, with swimming-spaces nearly choked by their bodies, living and dead, there came the inevitable turn in the tide of battle. A white monster was killed.
Glutted with victims, exhausted and sluggish, he was pounced upon by hundreds, hidden from view by a living envelop of black, which pulsed and throbbed with his death-throes. A feeler reached out, to be bitten off; then another, to no avail. His strength was gone, and the assailants bit and burrowed until they reached a vital part, when the great mass assumed a spherical form and throbbed no more. They dropped off, and, as the mangled ball floated on, charged on the next enemy with renewed fury and courage born of their victory. This one died as quickly.
And as though it had been foreseen, and a policy arranged to meet it, the white army no longer fought in the open, but lined up along the walls to defend the immovable caves. They avoided the working jaws of the other kind, which certainly needed no garrison, and drifting slowly in the eddies, fought as they could, with decreasing strength and increasing death-rate. And thus it happened that our conservative non-combatant, out in midstream, found himself surrounded by a horde of black enemies who had nothing better to do than attack him.
And they did. As many as could crowd about him closed their wicked jaws in his flesh. Squirming with pain, rendered trebly strong by his terror, he killed them by twos and threes as he could reach them with his tail. He shook them off with nervous contortions, only to make room for more. He plunged, rolled, launched himself forward and back, up and down, out and in, bending himself nearly double, then with lightning rapidity throwing himself far into the reverse curve. He was fighting for his life, and knew it. When he could, he used his jaws, only once to an enemy. He saw dimly at intervals that the white monsters were watching him; but none offered to help, and he had not time to call.
He thought that he must have become the object of the war; for from all sides they swarmed, crowding about him, seeking a place on which to fasten their jaws. Little by little the large red-and-gray creatures, the non-combatants, and the phosphorescent animals were pushed aside, and he, the center of an almost solid black mass, fought, in utter darkness, with the fury of extreme fright. He had no appreciation of the passing of time, no knowledge of his distance from the wall, or the destination of this never-pausing current. But finally, after an apparently interminable period, he heard dimly, with failing consciousness, the reverberations of the thunder, and knew momentary respite as the violent cross-currents tore his assailants away. Then, still in darkness, he felt the crashing and tearing of flesh against obstructing walls and sharp corners, the repetition of thunder and the roar of the current which told him he was once more in a large tunnel. An instant of light from a venturesome torch showed him to his enemies, and again he fought, like a whale in his last flurry, slowly dying from exhaustion and pain, but still potential to kill—terrible in his agony. There was no counting of scalps in that day's work; but perhaps no devouring white monster in all the defensive army could have shown a death-list equal to this. From the surging black cloud there was a steady outflow of the dead, pushed back by the living.
Weaker and weaker, while they mangled his flesh, and still in darkness, he fought them down through branching passages to another network of small tunnels, where he caught a momentary view of the walls and the stolid white guard, thence on to what he knew was open space. And here he felt that he could fight no more. They had covered him completely, and, try as he might with his failing strength, he could not dislodge them. So he ceased his struggles; and numb with pain, dazed with despair, he awaited the end.
But it did not come. He was too exhausted to feel surprise or joy when they suddenly dropped away from him; but the instinct of self-preservation was still in force, and he swam toward the wall. The small creatures paid him no attention; they scurried this way and that, busy with troubles of their own, while he crept stupidly and painfully between two white sentries floating in the eddies,—one of whom considerately made room for him,—and anchored to a projection, luckily choosing a harbor that was not hostile.
"Any port in a storm, eh, neighbor?" said the one who had given him room, and who seemed to notice his dazed condition. "You'll feel better soon. My, but you put up a good fight, that's what you did!"
He could not answer, and the friendly guard resumed his vigil. In a few moments, however, he could take cognizance of what was going on in the stream. There was a new army in the fight, and reinforcements were still coming. A short distance above him was a huge rent in the wall, and the caves around it, crushed and distorted, were grinding fiercely. Protruding through the rent and extending half-way across the tunnel was a huge mass of some strange substance, roughly shaped to a cylindrical form. It was hollow, and out of it, by thousands and hundred thousands, was pouring the auxiliary army, from which the black fighters were now fleeing for dear life.
The newcomers, though resembling in general form the creatures they pursued, were much larger and of two distinct types. Both were light brown in color; but while one showed huge development of head and jaw, with small flippers, the other kind reversed these attributes, their heads being small, but their flippers long and powerful. They ran their quarry down in the open, and seized them with outreaching tentacles. No mistakes were made—no feints or false motions; and there was no resistance by the victims. Where one was noticed he was doomed. The tentacles gathered him in—to a murderous bite or a murderous embrace.
At last, when the inflow had ceased,—when there must have been millions of the brown killers in the tunnel,—the great hollow cylinder turned slowly on its axis and backed out through the rent in the wall, which immediately closed, with a crushing and scattering of fragments. Though the allies were far down-stream now, the war was practically ended; for the white defenders remained near the walls, and the black invaders were in wildest panic, each one, as the resistless current rushed him past, swimming against the stream, to put distance between himself and the destroyer below. But before long an advance-guard of the brown enemy shot out from the tributaries above, and the tide of retreat swung backward. Then came thousands of them, and the massacre was resumed.
"Hot stuff, eh?" said his friendly neighbor to him.
"Y-y-y-es—I guess so," he answered, rather vacantly; "I don't know. I don't know anything about it. I never saw such doings. What is it all for? What does it mean?"
"Oh, this is nothing; it's all in a lifetime. Still, I admit it might ha' been serious for us—and you, too—if we hadn't got help."
"But who are they, and what? They all seem of a family, and are killing each other."
"Immortal shade of Darwin!" exclaimed the other sentry, who had not spoken before. "Where were you brought up? Don't you know that variations from type are the deadliest enemies of the parent stock? These two brown breeds are the hundredth or two-hundredth cousins of the black kind. When they've killed off their common relative, and get to competing for grub, they'll exterminate each other, and we'll be rid of 'em all. Law of nature. Understand?"
"Oh, y-yes, I understand, of course; but what did the black kind attack me for? And what do they want, anyway?"
"To follow out their destiny, I s'pose. They're the kind of folks who have missions. Reformers, we call 'em—who want to enforce their peculiar ideas and habits on other people. Sometimes we call them expansionists—fond of colonizing territory that doesn't belong to them. They wanted to get through the cells to the lymph-passages, thence on to the brain and spinal marrow. Know what that means? Hydrophobia."
"Oh, say, now! You're too easy."
"Come, come," said the other, good-naturedly; "don't guy him. He never had our advantages. You see, neighbor, we get these points from the subjective brain, which knows all things and gives us our instructions. We're the white corpuscles,—phagocytes, the scientists call us,—and our work is to police the blood-vessels, and kill off invaders that make trouble. Those red-and-gray chumps can't take care of themselves, and we must protect 'em. Understand? But this invasion was too much for us, and we had to have help from outside. You must have come in with the first crowd—think I saw you—in at the bite. Second crowd came in through an inoculation tube, and just in time to pull you through."
"I don't know," answered our bewildered friend. "In at the bite? What bite? I was swimming round comfortable-like, and there was a big noise, and then I was alongside of a big white wall, and then——"
"Exactly; the dog's tooth. You got into bad company, friend, and you're well out of it. That first gang is the microbe of rabies, not very well known yet, because a little too small to be seen by most microscopes. All the scientists seem to have learned about 'em is that a colony a few hundred generations old—which they call a culture, or serum—is death on the original bird; and that's what they sent in to help out. Pasteur's dead, worse luck, but sometime old Koch'll find out what we've known all along—that it's only variation from type."
"Koch!" he answered eagerly and proudly. "Oh, I know Koch; I've met him. And I know about microscopes, too. Why, Koch had me under his microscope once. He discovered my family, and named us—the comma bacilli—the Spirilli of Asiatic Cholera."
In silent horror they drew away from him, and then conversed together. Other white warriors drifting along stopped and joined the conference, and when a hundred or more were massed before him, they spread out to a semi-spherical formation and closed in.
"What's the matter?" he asked nervously. "What's wrong? What are you going to do? I haven't done anything, have I?"
"It's not what you've done, stranger," said his quondam friend, "or what we're going to do. It's what you're going to do. You're going to die. Don't see how you got past quarantine, anyhow."
"What—why—I don't want to die. I've done nothing. All I want is peace and quiet, and a place to swim where it isn't too light nor too dark. I mind my own affairs. Let me alone—you hear me—let me alone!"
They answered him not. Slowly and irresistibly the hollow formation contracted—individuals slipping out when necessary—until he was pushed, still protesting, into the nearest movable cave. The walls crashed together and his life went out. When he was cast forth he was in five pieces.
And so our gentle, conservative, non-combative cholera microbe, who only wanted to be left alone to mind his own affairs, met this violent death, a martyr to prejudice and an unsympathetic environment.
Extract from hospital record of the case of John Anderson:
August 18. As period of incubation for both cholera and hydrophobia has passed and no initial symptoms of either disease have been noticed, patient is this day discharged, cured.