"The Sea Thing" (1940) by A. E. van Vogt
Wednesday 11 February 2015, by
In this very early story first published in the January 1940 edition of Unknown magazine , A. E. van Vogt made a rare but very successful venture into the realm of fantasy. Or rather near-fantasy, as the shark-god "Thing" (in human form!) that comes out of the sea to wreak revenge on a group of fishermen in an isolated area of the South Seas is an interesting and just-about-credible (especially at night in sufficiently-eerie surroundings) incarnation of the ancestral lore of the native inhabitants of those far-away parts.
The skillful way the narrative of the deadly conflict between this awesome creature and the very tough group of fishermen evolves, seen from the Thing’s own point of view (a brilliant technique also used by van Vogt to great effect in his two earlier stories is characteristic of the style of this most talented of golden-age science-fiction writers.
With a surprisingly modern theme – one cannot now help but feel a certain sneaking sympathy for the plight of those masses of magnificent animals being so systematically massacred by gun-toting fishermen, or rather riflemen – this rare story  is well worthy of being brought to the attention of the modern reader.
With the dramatic 1940 Unknown illustrations by Orban and the 1948 Out of the Unknown illustrations by Charles McNutt and cover by Roy Hunt.
An e-book is available for downloading below.
THE SEA THING
HE THING scrambled out of the water and stood for a moment swaying gently on its human legs, as if intoxicated. Odd how blurred everything was. With misty mind, it fought to adjust itself to its human body and to the cool, new feel of the sand under its feet. Behind it, the waves whispered against the moon-lit beach. Friendly waves. Uncertainly, it stared into the shadow world ahead. It felt unwillingness, a vast melancholy reluctance to leave the edge of the water. A dragging uneasiness writhed along the fish nerves of its human body, as it realized that its deadly yet all-necessary purpose left no alternative but to go ahead.
No fear could ever touch that cold fish brain, and yet the thing quivered as the deep, hoarse guffaw of a man jarred the sullen night air. The sound carried on the slow, warm trade wind, queerly distorted by distance, a disembodied bellow of laughter that stabbed from the other side of the coral island through the semi-darkness of the moon-filled night. A raucous, arrogant laugh it was, that brought an answering thickness to the creature’s throat. An icy, ruthless sneer squeezed the lines of the thing’s human face until, for a brief moment, it changed horribly. A tiger shark’s face grimaced there, a ferocious head that barely held its human shape. Steely teeth clicked with the metallic snap of a shark lashing forth at its prey.
With a quivering gasp, the creature drew breath into its human mouth and down its human throat. The air felt suddenly unpleasantly dry and hot after that semi-reversion to a fish state. The harsh, strangling sensation brought a racking paroxysm of cough choking up in a mist of white foam. The thing clutched at its neck with its hard human fingers, and stood fighting the darkness out of its brain. Rage against this human body burned a shivering course along its fish nerves. It hated this new form—this helpless thing of legs and arms; small horrible construction of globular head and snakelike neck, fastened precariously to an almost solid chunk of weak flesh and bone. Not only was it almost useless in water, but it seemed useless for any other purpose as well.
The thought fled as, with muscles tensed, it stared across the dim reaches of the island. In the near distance, blackness piled up fantastically into the deeper blackness of the trees. There were other dark clumps in the farther distance, but it was too hard to see whether they were trees or hills or buildings. One was unmistakably a building. A pale, yellow-orange light gleamed from an opening in its low, spreading bulk. As the thing watched with grim eyes, a shadow passed before the light. The shadow of a man.
These white men were a hardy lot, incredibly different from the brown natives of the nearby islands. It was not yet dawn, but they were risen from sleep, preparing for the labors of the day. The thing spat with a sudden ferocity of hate as the thought of those labors poured like molten fire through its brain. Its human lips parted in a grin of uncontrollable rage at these human beings who dared to hunt and kill sharks.
Let them keep to the land and live on the land where they belonged. The sea—this wild and great sea—was not for their kind; and of all the things of the sea, the shark lords were the sacred, the untouchables. Nothing else mattered, but they must not be systematically hunted. Self-defense was the first law of nature! With a snarl of fury, the thing strode along the gray-dark shore, then headed inland, straight toward where the yellow light blinked palely out into the false dawn of early, early morning.
The sinking, bloated moon rode the waters to the west as Corliss finished washing himself. He turned and heaved his square-built body up the sharp embankment that led from the water’s edge to the cook’s building. The man ahead of him, Progue, the Dutchman, stepped into the shack’s doorway, and his thick body almost blotted out the sickly yellow lamp glow that came from within.
A deep bellow burst from the Dutchman’s throat as he moved into the room. "Isn’t breakfast ready yet? You’ve been sleeping in again, you lily-livered slob !"
Corliss swore to himself. He liked the tremendous Dutchman, but the man could be annoying in his swift, terrible tempers. Corliss called sharply: "Shut up, Progue!"
Progue turned and grunted, "When I’m hungry, Corliss, I’m hungry; and blast his cockney soul for keeping me waiting."
He stopped, and Corliss could see his head jerk sideways. The man’s eyes glowed with a faint, yellow light as he stared at the pale, bloodless ball of moon. His voice held a queer, urgent pitch when he spoke:
"Corliss, we’re all here, the whole sixteen of us, aren’t we? On this side of the island, I mean!"
"We were a minute ago," the leader replied. "I saw the whole gang pile out of the bunkhouse and start washing up. Why ?"
Progue snapped tensely, "Just watch that moon. Maybe he’ll do it again."
The Dutchman’s vast body grew so rigid with the intentness of his stare that, briefly, Corliss throttled down his questions. He followed the man’s gaze. The seconds dragged by; an eerie sense of unreality crept over Corliss. The island in the immediate foreground was a black mass, except where the gloomy, white moon path lay in a thick somber swath across the silent, dark land. Beyond the island, he could see the dark glint of the lagoon waters, the darker ocean beyond, and the way the white, mysterious moonbeams made a road of light into the remote distance of that immensity of water.
Incredible vista it was in the night under that blue-dark southern sky. The lap, lap of the water against the sand of the shore; the faint, distant, sullen roar of the breakers when the waves pounded their tireless strength against the shallow line of rocks that formed a jagged, guardian ring around the island. The breakers themselves, visible in the darkness, a long scatter of glittering white, like broken glass, that swirled and plunged, and broke and fought, and roared and smashed the eternal, bitter battle of the sea against the land. And over everything hung the brooding night sky; the moon, so bright and white and sated-looking, sinking sluggishly behind the ocean to the west. With an effort, Corliss tore his mind back to the Dutchman, as Progue half-whispered:
"I could have sworn — I do swear I saw a man silhouetted against the moon !"
Corliss threw off the spell of that early morning. He snapped: "You’re crazy! A man here, in this, the loneliest waste of the lonely Pacific. You’re seeing things !"
"Maybe I am," Progue muttered. "The way you put it, it does sound crazy."
He turned reluctantly, and Corliss followed him in to breakfast.
The creature slowed instinctively as the yellow-orange glow from the doorway washed across its feet. Men’s voices spilled out the door, a low, deep murmur of conversation. There was a clatter of other sounds and the blurred scent of strange foods. The thing hesitated the barest moment, then walked full into the open doorway and stood blinking with fish eyes at the scene that spread before it.
Sixteen men sat around a large table, their needs being served by a seventeenth. It was this serving man, a scrawny, horrible caricature of a man, in greasy white apron, who looked straight into the creature’s eyes.
"Blimey!" he ejaculated. "If ’t’ain’t a bloomin’ stranger ! Where the devil are you from?"
Sixteen heads bobbed up. And thirty-two eyes, hard with surprise and speculation, stared at the thing. Under that alert scrutiny, it felt a vague unease, a distant sense of alarm, a cold premonition that these men were going to be more difficult to murder than it had anticipated. The moment lengthened into seconds; and the thing suddenly had the impression that, not a few, but a million eyes swayed and gleamed there before it—a million searching, suspicious eyes that blurred and wavered. The thing fought off the feeling; and it was then that, from deep within itself, came the first disturbing reaction to the question the little cockney had asked. Even as the unpleasant glimmer of thought quivered at the doors of its brain, another man asked the question:
"Where did you come from?"
Come from! The question beat a vague path in the thing’s brain. Why, from the sea, of course! Where else? In all these wild, dark miles, there was only the sea, and the waves that rose and fell in their ceaseless rhythm—glittering like cut gems in the eternity of sunlit days, turgid and morose in the nights! The primeval sea that whispered and rippled and hinted blackly of things indescribable.
"Well !" rapped Progue, before Corliss could speak, "Haven’t you got a tongue? Who are you? Where’re you from?"
"I—" the creature began lamely. Dismay was creeping along those icy fish nerves. It seemed suddenly incredible that it had prepared no explanation. Where had it come from that would satisfy the harsh, shrewd minds of these men? "Why, I—" it started again hopelessly. Frantically, it searched its memory for things it had heard could happen to men. A picture came of a boat, and of what a boat could experience. Its voice stabbed forth eagerly: "M-my boat ... over-turned. I was rowing and—"
"A rowboat !" Progue snorted. The big Dutchman sounded to Corliss as if his intelligence had been outraged by such an explanation. "Why, you dirty liar. A rowboat a thousand miles from the nearest port! What’re you up to? What’re you trying to put over? Who do you think you’re foolin’?"
"Pipe down, Progue!" Corliss snapped. "Can’t you see what’s happened to this chap ?" He lifted his commanding bulk of body out of his chair and came around the table. He grabbed a towel from the towel rack and tossed it to the creature. "Here, stranger, dry the chill off your body with this !"
He faced the table of men, half-accusingly. "Can’t you see, he’s been through hell! Think of swimming out there in these shark-infested waters and accidentally hitting this island. He must have gone nearly crazy. His mind did go a little, his memory snapped. Amnesia, they call it. Here are some dry togs, stranger!" Corliss jerked an old pair of trousers and a rough gray shirt from a hook and watched as the creature gingerly climbed into them.
Hey," said a man, "he’s putting the pants on backwards."
You can see," said Corliss grimly, as the thing hesitantly corrected its mistake, "how far gone he was. Doesn’t even know any more how to dress. At least, he understands. Here, stranger, sit down and stow some hot food under your belt. It ought to go good after what you’ve been through."
The only vacant space was across from Progue. The thing sank hesitantly into the chair, and, as hesitantly, tackled the plateful of food the cook set before it, using the knife and fork as it had seen the others do.
Progue grumbled, "I don’t like the looks of this guy! Those eyes! He may be a weak-minded baby now, but I’ll bet he was so tough he was tossed overboard from a passing ship. Those eyes give me the shivers!"
"Shut up !" Corliss roared in abrupt fury. "None of us are to blame for our appearance, for which you should be damned thankful.
Bah!" said Progue. He went on, muttering words that came to Corliss in a disconnected stream. "If I was boss ... believe me, this outfit ... a damned crime ... when I don’t trust a man it’s a cinch ... probably the mate on some tramp steamer ... so tough be was heaved over—"
"That’s impossible!" said Corliss flatly. "No tramp steamers pass this way. There’ll not be a steamer until ours arrives five months from now. This fellow’s explanation, though blurred, is clear enough. He was in a rowboat; and you know as well as I do there are some larger islands to the south of us, with small native populations and some whites. He could have come from there."
Yeah!" snarled Progue, his beefy face aflame with ugly color. Corliss recognized the stubborn streak that sometimes made the big Dutchman unmanageable. "Well, I don’t like him, see! Do you hear that, you?"
The thing looked up. An abrupt burning rage pulsed through its alien brain. It saw in this man’s hostility a danger to its purpose, a suspicious mind questioning its every action. The creature’s throat thickened and drooled forth a snarl of feral hate. "Yes," it snapped from its human mouth. "I hear."
With a single lunge, it was on its feet. All in one incredibly swift movement, it reached across the table, caught Progue’s shirt where it bulged open at his great neck—and jerked! The Dutchman bellowed his fury as that steel strength tore him off the floor, smashed his body across the table and flung him in a single, sweeping motion head-first out of the door. Half a dozen dishes clattered to the cement floor, but they were made of tough clay and none broke.
A man said in an awed voice, "He may be weak-minded, but now I can understand how he could swim maybe miles."
Amid dead silence, the creature sat down and began to eat again. Its brain was swirling with the murderous desire to leap after the stunned man and tear him to bits. With an effort it controlled that wild and flaming lust. It recognized that it had made a good impression on these hard men.
To Corliss, the silence was a weighted thing. The yellow-orange light that flooded from the lamps which hung down from the ceiling did ghastly things to the strained faces around the rough table. It was only with half his mind that he noticed the light of dawn was trickling through the window at his left, spilling in a dingy pool on the floor. From outside came the scraping sound of Progue picking himself off the packed dirt. It was an angry noise, fraught with a sense of violence, the rage of a violent, unruly nature frenzied by humiliation. And yet, Corliss knew, the big Dutchman was unpredictable. Anything could happen. He held his breath as Progue’s scowling face peered in at the door. When the man came in, the leader said sharply, his voice deep with command:
"Progue, don’t start anything if you want to keep my respect."
The Dutchman flashed a terrible look at him, his face dark and glowering. "I’m starting nothing. I had that coming to me. But I still don’t like his eyes. That’s all."
He went around the table; and it was odd, Corliss thought, that in spite of the ease with which the stranger had handled him, the big man had lost none of the respect of the others. There was no feeling that Progue had backed down from fear, for it was only too obvious that fear was not in him. He grunted into his chair and began to shovel food into his mouth at a mad pace. Corliss echoed the sigh that went up from the men—an audible noise like a faint hiss. He had had visions of a cook shack being smashed to a heap of firewood by two raging, muscular giants.
One of the men—the swarthy Frenchman, Perratin—said hastily, and the very haste suggested that he was as much anxious to ease the tense atmosphere as to say what he had to say:
"Boss, I think a couple of us ought to go see if that monster we saw yesterday has come to the surface yet. I’ll absolutely swear, and le bon Dieu be my witness, that I got him right between the eyes."
"Monster !" a tall, thin-faced, thin-bodied man exclaimed from the end of the table. "What’s all this ?"
"Seen from boat number two !" Corliss explained succinctly. -Perratin was telling me about it last night, but I was rather sleepy. Something about a big creature with flippers like a devilfish."
"Sacre du Nom !" cried Perratin. "The devilfish is a harmless baby compared to this fellow. He was all gray-blue, hard to see, I mean, and had a shark’s head and tail, both long and vicious—" he broke off abruptly. "What’s the matter with you, Brains ? The way your eyes are goggling means you’ve seen one of these before."
"Not seen, but heard of!" the tall Englishman said slowly.
There was something so queer in the way he spoke that Corliss looked at him sharply. He had a deep respect for Brains Stapley. The man was reputed to be a university graduate; his past was a =:.stery but that was nothing unusual. Everyone in the room had a past of some kind.
Stapley went on, "You may not realize it, Perratin, but what you’re describing is the natural form of the mythical shark god. I never thought to hear of such a thing actually existing—"
"For Heaven’s sake," somebody cut in, "are we gonna listen to a bunch of native superstitions? Go on, Perratin."
Perratin looked at Stapley with the quiet respect that he and some of the others had for the man. Then, as Stapley was silent, he said, "It was Denton who saw him first. You tell ’em, Denton."
Denton was a smallish man with lively black eyes, and a quick, jerky voice. He took up the refrain in his choppy way:
"Like Perratin said, Corliss, we were sittin’ there in the boat, the big hunk of meat bait dangling well into the water. We had to take the dark meat yesterday, you know, and you know how scary sharks act with the dark stuff. Well, that’s the way it was. They just cruised around, almost mad with the smell of the meat but scared because it was dark. I guess there were fifteen of ’em when I saw the flash in the water and this creature came up.
"He wasn’t alone, either. Had a bunch of hammerheads with him, biggest, most dangerous-looking sharks I’ve ever laid eyes on. Great big long fellows, with those wicked heads, you know, and torpedo bodies; we shot a couple of ’em, so you saw ’em, too. Anyway, this big flipper fellow was swimming in the center of ’em like a king. Well, there was nothing really surprising about that. We’ve seen sword-fish cruising around with sharks, and all kinds of sharks hanging around together just as if they knew they was related; though come to think of it, I’ve never seen a devilfish with sharks, and the devil-fish belongs to the shark family.
"Anyway, there he was, big as life. He stopped and looked at that bait we had in the water, and then, just as if to say, ’What are you fellows scared of ?’ he dived right at it, and that was that. The whole pack closed in on the meat and started chawing away like merry hell—just what we’d been waitin’ for."
Corliss noticed that the stranger was staring at Denton intently. For the briefest moment, he understood Progue’s repelled feeling at the man’s eyes. He fought the emotion down and said:
"Denton means that we’ve found, once sharks attack, they lose all fear, no matter how many of their fellows are killed thereafter. Our whole industry here—we want their amazingly tough hides—is built on that fact."
The stranger looked at him as if to indicate that he understood.
Denton went on, "Well, that’s what happened. As soon as the water stopped boiling from their movements, we started picking them off with—"
Perratin broke in eagerly, "It was then I noticed the big fellow had moved off to one side and was just watching us—that’s the way it looked to me, anyway. I tell you he just lay there, his eyes cold and hard and calm—and he watched what we were doing; so I let him have it right between the eyes. He jumped like a mule that’s been stung, and then dropped into the depths like a dead weight.
"I tell you I got him, boss, and he’ll be floating on the surface by now. A couple of us ought to go out and tow him in."
"Hm-m-m!" frowned Corliss, his strong, tanned face dark with thought. "We can’t really spare more than one man. You’d have to take the small boat."
The creature was quivering, a deep, internal throb of unutterable ferocity as it stared at Perratin. This was the man who had fired the weapon that had struck it such a staggering blow. Its every nerve shrank as it remembered the stunning pain of that one smash in the head. Its mind soared with the awful hunger of rage to leap at the man. Only by sheer physical effort did it fight down that ravening eagerness. It said in a thin voice:
“I’ll be glad to go along and help him. I might as well be earning what I eat here. I can help in any of the physical work."
"Why, thanks !" said Corliss, and he hoped that Progue felt properly ashamed of his suspicions of the stranger, after such a good-will offer. "And incidentally," he added, "until you remember your real name, we’ll call you Jones. Now, let’s get going. Hard day ahead !"
As the thing followed the men into the muggy gloom of early dawn, it thought rapaciously: "It’s easier than I expected!" It’s steel muscles vibrated tautly with hellish glee at the very idea of what was going to happen to the man when the two of them were alone in the small boat. Shaking with the passion of its blood hunger, it followed the men, followed them over the spongy grass, through a dim shadowland toward where a projection of land jutted out into the gray waters of the lagoon. A building loomed there, a long, low bulk that dissolved itself presently into a one-story wooden structure with a platform running out into the water.
From this building there came a stench. As the first wave of that incredible, piercing smell struck the thing, it stopped short. The tart odor of decaying fish—dead shark! The thing started dizzily forward again. Its brain was awhirl with flaming thoughts, and as that stink grew stronger the unwholesome stream of hate grew wilder and more violent. It stared at the men’s backs with hot, glittering eyes, fighting back the impulse to leap at the nearest man and sink razor-sharp teeth into his soft neck, and then slash at the next man with a ferocious, murder strength, tearing him to bits before the others could even realize what was going on. A surging of memory stopped that insane impulse. Remembrance that its body, too, was human now, and correspondingly weak. An attack against these experienced men would be suicide at this stage.
With a start, the thing saw that Perratin had fallen back level with it. He was saying, "You and me go this way, Jones. That’s a good name, Jones is. Covers up a lot—like Perratin! Anyway, you and me take this little boat here. We’ve got a long row ahead of us. We’ll just cruise straight west. That’s the best way to get out, too. Some pretty dangerous rock splits the lagoon into several sections; we’ll have to edge along the shore for a ways to get by them, and then out through the break in the breakers that surround the island. Ha, that’s funny, isn’t it? Break in the breakers! Get it, Jones?"
Funny! thought the thing. Funny! What was funny, and why? It wondered if it was supposed to make some answer to what was obviously at least half a question. It grew tense with the thought that, if it did not answer, this man might become suspicious—just now when he was walking into a trap. Slowly the creature relaxed as the swarthy little man put the oars in the boat and cried:
"Get in! Get in!"
Out in the water, it was still dark, but the waves were turning a strangely beautiful blue shade as the dawn crept forward toward sunrise, and the western sky grew brighter and brighter until the whole horizon was a dazzle of brilliance. Abruptly, the first blaze of sun sparkled across the waters, and Perratin said:
"How about you takin’ the oars for a while? Two hours is a long row for one guy!"
As they crowded past each other in the narrow confines of the boat, the thing thought with burning intensity: "Now!" Then it paused. They were too close to the island. The island lay behind them on its bed of water, glistening like an emerald in a platinum setting, with the sun directly behind it. The whole world of ocean was shining, dominated by the ball of fire resting in full circle now on the heaving horizon of water.
Perratin exclaimed, "Mon Dieu, but there are a lot of sharks around! I’ve seen two dozen in the last two minutes. The men should have come out this way again today." He fingered the long gun he held. "Maybe I ought to ping a few, and we could tow them in. I got plenty of rope."
A shock stabbed through the monster as it realized the man had a gun. The gun made a difference. A damnable difference! The thing was conscious of a wave of fury that it had so readily taken over the oars, leaving the man’s hands free. Somehow, their present positions dimmed the certainty of the man being an easy prey.
The sun was hours higher in the sky, the island a dark spot on that living waste of water, when Perratin said:
"Should be about here. Keep your eyes peeled, Jones. If those blasted sharks haven’t eaten it. Hey, you’re shaking the boat!"
His voice, shrill with anxiety, seemed to come from a great distance. And his body, too, seemed farther away, isolated there at the rear of the boat. Yet the thing could see everything with preternatural clearness. The swarthy face of the little, thick-built man, cheeks strangely pale under their sunburn, eyes wild and wide. Arms and hands tensed, but still holding the gun.
"What the devil are you trying to do? This place is alive with sharks. Sacre du Nom, say something, and quit staring with those horrible eyes."
He dropped the gun and grabbed wildly at the gunwale. With a snarl, the creature launched at him and in one swift play of irresistible muscles threw him overboard. There was a boiling of movement, as long, dark bodies shaped like cigars darted up from the depths. Blood mingled with the blue waters, and the thing picked up the oars. It was shaking in every nerve with excitement, a burning sense of satisfaction. But now—there were explanations to think of. Cold with thoughtful speculation, it rowed toward where the island lay slumbering in the warm brilliance of the peaceful morning sun.
It got back to the island too soon! The sun hung in mid-sky over a silent, deserted land. The cook was around somewhere, but no noises came from him. The boats of the men were beyond vision, beyond the blue, watery horizon that quivered ever so gently against the background of blue haze of sky. It was the waiting that was hard. The seconds and minutes dragged their slow course. The thing walked along the shore, tensely. It lay restlessly in the lush green grass under the cool of the palm trees, and in every moment of every hour its mind was fuming with a chaos of plans, of wild emotion tides turgid with murder lust, and of a ceaseless, anxious mental reiteration of the explanation it had prepared. Once, it heard the clatter of dishes from the cook’s shack. Its pulses leaped, and its first deadly desire was to rush over and destroy him. But cunning stopped that feral eagerness. It would go over, instead, and try its story on him. But it dismissed that plan, too, as useless.
At last, the men came, their boats pulling long rows of dead sharks. The creature watched with glowing, remorseless eyes, its body so tortured by fury that it wanted only to leap down on the boat and smash the men to death. And then Corliss was climbing, out of his boat, and the thing heard itself saying something in a choked voice, and Corliss was exclaiming incredulously:
"Attacked you! The flipper thing attacked the boat and killed Perratin !"
Corliss was vaguely aware of the other men hurrying up from the boats, muttering questions. The sun, low in the western sky, speared slanting rays into his eyes. He kept squinting them, as he stood there on the wooden, makeshift dock. Instinctively, his feet planted apart, as if he had to brace his body against a stunning blow. He stared at the lean, dark face of the stranger with its queer eyes, rugged line of powerful jaw and aquiline features; and a chill followed an abnormal path up his spinal column, lodging finally like a cake of ice in his brain.
It wasn’t the death. He had seen death before, horrible death, and heard of the things that had happened to men he knew; mind shaking things. And always he felt that some day the laws of chance would write an agonizing conclusion to his own life. More than once he had felt the thrill touch, when it seemed as if the day had come. No, it wasn’t the death. It was the sense of unreality, of disbelief, of slow, sick distrust of this—this Jones. The feeling grew until it was a dry ache within him. His voice, when he forced himself to speak again, sounded harsh and rasping in his own ears:
"Why didn’t Perratin shoot the damned beast? A couple of bullets could have—"
"He did shoot !" the creature said hurriedly, adjusting his mind to this new twist. It hadn’t thought again of the gun until this moment, but if Corliss wanted Perratin to have fired a gun, then he could have that, too. It went on swiftly, "But we didn’t have a chance. The monster struck the boat so hard that Perratin was knocked out. I tried to pull him in, but I was far too late. The creature pulled Perratin under, and I was scared that it might come at the boat again so I grabbed the oars and pulled for the island. The cook will tell you that I arrived about noon."
From behind Corliss, Progue uttered a jarring laugh, a deep, mirthless guffaw that split the late afternoon air. He said, "Of all the weak stories I’ve ever heard, the ones this guy pulls are lousiest. I tell you, Corliss, there’s something damn funny when, the first time this here stranger goes out with one of our men, there’s a murder. Yeah, I said murder !"
Corliss stared at the big Dutchman, and for a moment it seemed to him his own face must have looked very like Progue’s: dark and grim and suspicious. And then—it was odd how Progue, putting into words the very thoughts that were in his own mind, made him realize how mad and preposterous such a thing was. Murder! Utterly ridiculous!
"Progue," Corliss snapped, "you’ve got to learn to control your tongue! The idea of murder is absurd."
The thing looked at the Dutchman, its body stiff. Strangely, its only emotion was egotistical consciousness of its control of the situation. The conviction was so strong that, for a moment, it was incapable even of anger. It said, "I don’t want to quarrel with you, and I realize it looks bad, what happened, but just remember we were going out after what Perratin himself described as a new and dangerous type of shark. And why should I want to murder a perfect stranger ?"
Its voice trailed off, for Progue had turned away and was staring down at the rowboat it and Perratin had used. The boat was moored to the end of the dock, and Progue just stood there, looking down at it. Suddenly, he jumped down into the boat, and the thing held its breath as the Dutchman stooped out of its sight beyond the edge of the dock. Its impulse was to run forward and see what the man was doing, but it didn’t dare.
Corliss was saying, "That’s right, Progue. You’re altogether too damn free with your accusations. What possible motives could—"
The creature heard no more. Its brain was a black swirl of chaos as it stared aghast at Progue. The Dutchman had straightened, and in his hands he held Perratin’s shining rifle. He had taken something from the gun, a glittery metal thing that shone in his hands; he said softly:
"How many bullets did you say Perratin fired?"
A strange blur swirled over the thing’s mind. It knew there must be meaning to such a question, for there was meaning to the hard, expectant expression on the tough, muscular face of the Dutchman. A trap! But what, how? It stammered: "Why ... two ... three." With a dreadful effort, it caught itself. "I mean two. Yes, two ! Then the flipper fish hit the boat and Perratin dropped the gun and—"
It stopped. It stopped because Progue was smiling, a dangerous, nasty, triumphant, sneering smile. His voice came, a deep, liquid, caressing sound: "Then how come that not one bullet in the clip of this automatic rifle has been fired? Explain that, Mr. Clever Stranger Jones—" His voice exploded abruptly into a burst of rage: "You damned murderer!"
It was strange the way the comforting world of the island seemed suddenly to fade away into remoteness. To Corliss, the effect was grim and unpleasant, as if the little group of men seemed abruptly to be, not on the island at all, but on that bare, wooden, unprotected platform in the middle of a vast, unfriendly sea. The sickening sensation was heightened by the way the long, low-built building blotted out the green security of the island. Only the shaking shadows of darkening water remained on all sides, and into his brain pulsed the indescribable melancholy of its ceaseless, insistent lapping against the wooden girders that held up the platform.
It didn’t make sense, what Progue had said. The big body of the Dutchman towered before him, and on the man’s face was the tigerish smile of certainty. For a moment, then, in his mind’s eye, Corliss saw the horror of the swarthy little Frenchman, Perratin, being ripped to pieces by an armored monster of the deep. But the rest didn’t make sense. He jerked out:
"You’re crazy, Progue. Why in the name of all the gods of this ocean should Jones kill any of us ?"
The thing’s whirling mind snatched ravenously at the refuge offered by those words. It asked, in bewilderment:
"A clip? I don’t know what you mean !"
The Dutchman’s beefy face thrust forward until it was only a foot from the thing’s lean, hard, puzzled face. "Yaah !" he snarled. "That’s exactly what caught you—not knowing what an automatic rifle was. Well, it has a clip in it, a clip of bullets. Twenty-five, this one’s got, and not one of ’em’s been fired."
The full force of the trap into which it had thrust itself closed like steel jaws on the creature’s mind. But now the danger was here, uncertainty and confusion fell away from its brain. Caution remained, and a raging chagrin; it spat in an ugly voice:
"I don’t know how it happened, but it did. He fired two shots and if you can’t think how he could have done it, I can’t help you. I repeat, what reason could I have for killing anybody here?"
"I think I can explain this business." The tall, thin body of Brains Stapley forced itself to the front of the group of men who stood there in grim silence. "Suppose Perratin did fire twice—with the two bullets that remained from his last clip. Before he could more than insert another clip, it was too late. Jones could have been so excited that he didn’t even notice what Perratin was doing."
"Jones ain’t the excitable type !" Progue grunted, yet there was a grudging acceptance of the explanation in his voice.
"But there’s something else not so easily explained," Stapley went on in a stiff voice. "Considering that a shark can travel up to seventy miles an hour, it isn’t possible that they found this creature in approximately the same place as yesterday. In other words, Jones is lying when he says they saw the creature, unless—" He hesitated, and Corliss broke in: "Unless what?"
Brains still hesitated, but at last he said almost reluctantly, "I’m back on my subject, the shark god !" He went on hastily, before anybody could speak, "Don’t say it’s far-fetched. I know it. But we’ve all been in the South Seas for years, and we’ve all seen inexplicable things. Our minds have taken curious, irrational twists in that period. I know that, according to scientific outlook I’ve become a superstitious yokel, but I’ve reached the point where I question that verdict. I think in reality I’ve become attuned to the mystery that’s here. I can see things, feel things, know things that have no meaning for the westerner. For years now, I’ve been in lonely places, listening to the tide whisper against a hundred remote shores. I’ve watched the southern moon, and been saturated with a sense of the timelessness of this world of water; the primeval, incredible timelessness of it.
"We white men have come here in our boisterous way, and we’ve brought motor-driven ships, and we’ve built cities on the edge of the water. Unreal cities! They suggest time in the midst of the timeless, and you know that they’re not here to stay. Some day, there’ll be no white men in this part of the world; there’ll only be the islands and the men of the islands, the sea and the things of the sea.
"What I’m getting at is that I’ve sat around native fires and listened to the old, old stories of the shark gods, and of the form of the shark god when he was in the water. It fitted; I tell you Corliss, it fitted with this creature that Perratin described. At first, it just struck me as curious that there actually could be a shark of that description. And then I began to think about it, and the more I thought about it the more alarmed I became. Because, you see, a shark god can take the form of a man. And there really isn’t any other explanation of a man coming to this island, a thousand hopeless miles from the nearest port. Jones is—"
A deep, disgusted voice interrupted him—to Corliss’ amazement, Progue’s voice, biting, sharp with sarcasm: "Of all the damned crazy, superstitious junk ! Brains, you’d better go soak your head. I still don’t like this guy’s manner; I don’t like his eyes; I don’t like anything about him. But when the day comes that I swallow that kind of rot—"
"You can both stop talkin’," said the little Englishman, Denton. Corliss saw that the man had moved to the edge of the building, from where the island was partly visible. "If you’ll come here, and see what I see, you’ll both quit spoutin’ rot. There’s a native in a canoe, and he’s already inside the breakwater, coming along the shore toward us. He’s proof that Jones could have come in a boat."
The native was a splendid young man in his prime, brown-skinned, handsome, magnificently muscled. As he came forward from where he had drawn his canoe up onto the rocky shore, he was grinning with the easy good nature of a friendly man of the islands in the presence of white men. Corliss grinned in return, but when he spoke it was to Progue and to the thing:
"Denton’s right—and Jones, believe me, I’m sorry for all the trouble we’ve been making for you."
The thing acknowledged the apology with a slight nod of its head. But there was no relaxing of its body or mind. It stared at the approaching native with every muscle tensed, conscious of a cold dismay as it remembered that these men of the islands had within them the special sense. It half turned away, as the native stopped a few feet from Corliss. Partly concealed by the little group of men, it knelt and fumbled with the shoelace of one shoe. It heard Corliss say in one of the island dialects:
"And what brings you here, friend?"
The young man answered in the low, musical voice of his people: "A storm comes, white man, and I was far out to sea. The storm approaches from the direction of my own land, so I have come seeking refuge where it is to be found."
His voice trailed off curiously, and Corliss saw that he was staring with widening eyes at Jones. "Hello," the leader said, "do you know him ?"
The thing rose to its feet, like a tiger at bay. There was a swift, ruthless, unconquerable ferocity in the chill gaze with which it bored into the brown man’s eyes. The incredible fury in that icy fish brain bridged the gap between the native and the creature. The man opened his mouth, tried to speak, licked dry lips, and then turned blindly and started to run back toward his boat.
"What the devil !" Corliss ejaculated. "Hey, come back here."
The native did not even look around. At top speed he reached his boat. All in one movement, he jerked it into the water and leaped into it. And in the gathering gloom of falling night began to paddle with furious disregard of danger along the devious path of deep water that wound in and out among the rocks that made the lagoon at this point a trap for the unwary.
Corliss snapped, "Progue, take the rest of the men and get those sharks into the warehouse!" He raised his voice in a shrill shout: "Hey, you fool! You can’t go out into a storm. We’ll protect you !"
The native must have heard. But in the darkness it was impossible to see whether he so much as looked back. Corliss whirled on the thing, his face hard with suspicion.
"That was rather obvious," he said coldly. "The man knew you. That means you’re from his island or from around there. He’s afraid of you, so extraordinarily afraid that he immediately thought that he had fallen in with your gang. Progue was quite right. You’re a tough customer. Well, let me warn you! We’re the toughest outfit you’ve ever run across! You’ll never be alone with one of us again, though I must admit that I still don’t believe you killed Perratin. It doesn’t make sense. As soon as this storm’s over, we’ll take you to the islands and find out what all this is about."
Abruptly, he walked away. But the thing was scarcely aware, except that he was gone. It was thinking flamingly: "The man from the islands will be driven back this way by the storm. He will remember what Corliss said about protecting him and will remember that white men, too, are strong. In his terror, he will expose me. There is only one thing to do !"
It was darker now, and the native was barely visible in the dusk that was pressing down upon the island and the water. The thing walked swiftly to where a gill of turgid water cascaded down into the lagoon. The lagoon was deep here, sinking straight from the rock shore. The thing was so intent on the shark that swirled up in a rush of water that the swirl and the noise of the tiny waterfall drowned out the approach of Corliss. Suddenly, with a gasp, it twisted on its heel; and there was Corliss, a few feet away, staring down at the black waters.
Corliss couldn’t have explained the impulse that had made him turn and follow the thing. It was partly interest in watching the native, and then the movement in the water where Jones had gone, and the way Jones was bending toward the water. A needle of horror pierced him now as he saw, by the light of day that remained, a long, dark, vicious shape, a torpedo-like body that plunged into the shadows below and vanished. Abruptly, he glanced up at the thing, conscious of danger.
The thing stood very still for a moment, glaring back at him. They were alone there, at the edge of the sea; and its every muscle grew taut and electric with the murder determination to drag this big, grim man into the water. It half crouched, to make one overpowering spring, when it caught the glint of metal in Corliss’ hand, and its unholy desire evaporated like mist in sunlight before that weapon of death.
Corliss was saying, "By Heaven, that was a shark, and you were talking to it! I must be going crazy—"
"You are crazy !" the thing gasped. "I saw the shark and I drove it away. If the storm’s over by morning, I want to take a swim here, and I don’t want any sharks around. Get those ideas out of your head."
It was interrupted by a shriek for help, a horrible, high-pitched sound that quivered on the dim, twilight air like a very devil’s scream of agonized fear. It came from out over the water, where the native was a dim shape against the background of black water and dark, moonless sky. It was a sound that made Corliss’ blood run cold. The world of lowering darkness pressed down upon Corliss like an enveloping blanket, weighted yet without warmth. There, a few feet away was—Jones—a lean, hard-built man with cold, inhuman eyes that glowed vaguely in the quarter light of approaching night. The sense that this ruthless-looking stranger might attack him was so strong that Corliss gripped his gun with tight fingers, and for a moment dared no more than send one glance out toward the southwest, where the native was a blur on the black water.
Instinctively, he backed away from the water’s edge, and from the stranger. And looked again out over that ebony sea. The native seemed to be fighting something that was attacking him from the water, striking at it with his paddle, up and down, up and down, desperately, hopelessly. Three times, while Corliss looked, the man grasped at the gunwale of his canoe, and simply clung there, trying to keep his tiny craft from turning over. With a rush, Corliss turned his gaze back to the thing, motioned menacingly with his weapon.
"Get going—ahead of me !" He raised his voice, a deep-bellowed command for the men on the wharf: "Hey, Progue, quick! Get the launch ready, start the engine! We’ve got to go after that native—and a couple of you come out here, give me a hand !"
Two men came running, and Corliss recognized Denton and a man called Tareyton, a blunt-nosed, blunt-minded American. Corliss snapped:
"Take this guy to the bunkhouse and keep him under guard till I get back. Denton, here’s my gun !"
He thrust the weapon into the tough little Englishman’s fingers, and the last thing he heard, as he sped off, was Denton’s harsh voice snarling, "Get a move on, you!"
The boat engine was throbbing as Corliss leaped aboard, and, under Progue’s guiding fingers, moved away from the wharf immediately. Gasping, Corliss flung himself down beside Progue, who was at the steering wheel. The big Dutchman turned a dark, humorless face toward him.
"We’re fools to risk those rocks in this darkness !"
Corliss ground out, "We’ve got to save that native from whatever is attacking him—to find out why he was so desperately afraid of Jones. I tell you, Progue, it’s the most important thing in our lives right now."
It wasn’t exactly dark. The beam of the motor launch’s searchlight blazed a path along the black waters. Corliss watched tensely as the launch began at dead-slow pace to wind in and out along the rock-lined valley of deep water that was the only outlet to the larger, deeper part of the lagoon, where it was too dark now to see the native—too dark because of the black, ugly clouds that swam up out of the horizon and billowed monstrously over the night sky.
Abruptly, a sickening jar! The boat reeled, and Corliss was flung down. Dizzily, he clawed for a hold, grabbed a brace pole of the steering gear and pulled himself back. The boat was still tilting sharply, the motor screaming with speed, and then, somehow, they were going on again.
Corliss gasped, "We struck a rock !"
He waited for the rush of water that would drag them into the black depths. Progue’s voice came to him, deep-toned, puzzled, alarmed. "It wasn’t a rock. We’ve been out of the shallows for more than a minute. We’re in deep water. I thought for a second we might have run into that native’s canoe, but I would have seen it first!"
Corliss relaxed—and was flung with a jar that jerked him painfully against the gunwale. He clutched frantically, dizzily for support; and then his blurring vision saw that the launch was keeling over at a dismaying angle. With a shout, he clawed in the other direction, throwing his weight desperately to re-establish the balance. Alone, he couldn’t have done it. He realized that and thanked his gods for the insight that had made him select quick-witted men for his sharking crew—men who, like himself, had faced danger in all its forms and needed no leader to tell them what to do in an emergency. As one man, they, too, flung their weight into that desperate balance. And once again the boat righted itself and plowed on.
"Slow down!" Corliss yelled hoarsely. "And turn that searchlight into the water. We’ve got to see where we are."
Somebody manipulated the searchlight mechanism; the beam flashed down into the waters of the lagoon. For a moment, it sparkled and reflected so brilliantly that Corliss was dazzled. And then he flinched. Never in all his days would he forget the horror, the spine-chilling terror of the nightmare shapes that turned and twisted, wriggled and churned in the nocturnal gloom below. In that lurid spray of light, the water showed alive with sharks. Massive, twisting, writhing bodies, glittering triangular fins. Hundreds of long, vicious, torpedo shapes. Thousands! Even as he stared with distended eyes, he realized that somewhere out there was the torn and tattered body of the native. Corliss felt the launch reel like a sick and living thing as it struck a wall of the giant fish. He saw the towering Dutchman twist the wheel like a flash, and dizzily the boat turned and righted itself.
"Back !" Corliss thundered. "Head for the beach. Beach the boat on the sand! They’re trying to turn us over !" The water swirled and boiled; the motor snarled with power; the boat shuddered and squealed in every thin, hard plank, and overhead the reaching blackness of clouds swelled over the farthest sky. The first blast of wind, like a blow from a sledge hammer, spewed water at them as they frantically dragged the boat onto the upper heights of the sandy beach. Corliss shouted:
"We’ve got to hurry, hurry! Grab the loose stuff and head for the bunkhouse. We left Denton and Tareyton alone with the devil himself. They haven’t a chance because they don’t know what they’re up against."
A solid sheet of rain struck his face and body, and nearly knocked him to the ground before he could turn his back to it. The rain and the wind lashed their backs with whip-like savagery as they ran, a long, thin line of men, desperately striving to escape that hell of raging storm.
The howling of the wind outside came to the thing as it sat with stiffened muscles and taut nerves in the bunkhouse. To its straining, infuriated senses, bent only on escape, the dim world of wooden bunks was an unreal, fantastic place. Weird yellow shadows flickered on the walls as the yellow light from the lamps that hung down from the ceiling waxed and waned in the raging drafts that squeezed through the cracks in the walls of the poorly constructed building.
And then the rain came, a battering roar of it that threatened to smash the very roof above them. But the roof, at least, was snugly built, and no leaks started. The seeking, frenzied mind of the creature flashed from the thoughts of the storm to the men who were out in the tempest—who must be coming toward the cabin by now—if they had escaped. It felt no real hope that they had not escaped the peril of the water monsters. That thought, too, was smashed aside; and once again the thing’s mind concentrated on the two men who stood between it and safety, two men who must die within two minutes if the escape was to be made before Corliss and the others returned. Two minutes! The monster turned its chill gaze on the two men, appraising for the hundredth time in less than half an hour the situation they created. The man Denton sat on the edge of his bunk, small, chunkily built, inordinately nervous, shifting his feet, twisting his body, his fingers manipulating with ceaseless energy the glinting gun he held. He caught the measured gaze of the thing and stiffened; the words that barked from his lips only confirmed the creature in its opinion of the grim capabilities of this little Englishman.
"Yeah !" the man snapped. "There’s a look in your eye that says that you want to start something. Well, don’t! I’ve been around these seas for twenty years, and believe me I’ve handled tough customers in my time. I don’t have to be told you’ve got the strength to tear me apart. I saw you handle Progue this morning and I know what you can do. But just remember this little piece of steel cuts you right down to my size."
He waved the gun with an easy confidence, and the thing thought tensely : "If I changed to my true shape, I could kill him in spite of the gun, but I couldn’t change back again unless I was in water, and I couldn’t get out of this cabin. I’d be trapped !"
It grew aware that the American was speaking. "What Denton said goes double for me, see? There ain’t nuthin’ I ain’t done in my time, an’ to my way of thinkin’ Perratin was a damn good guy and I don’t like the way he died. I’m just achin’ for you to start somethin’ so Denton here—an’ me—can watch the lead tearin’ into your brain. You know, Denton"—he half turned, his brown eyes gleaming, his flattened nose dilating—"why not just make a target outa him, an’ tell Corliss he tried to escape."
"Naw !" Denton shook his head. "Corliss ought to be here any minute with the gang. Besides, I don’t go for straight murder."
"Bah !" Tareyton grunted ferociously. " "T’ain’t murder to kill a murderer !"
The thing watched Denton uneasily. He had the gun, and nothing else mattered. It said, with an effort at casualness, "You men must be fools, or cowards. Here we are, all of us, on an island. There’s no way for any of us to get off. If I leave this cabin, I go out into the naked storm—and I’d spend a miserable, rotten night, and in the morning you’d find me, anyway. What’re you going to do—sit up and watch me all night?"
"By golly!" snapped Tareyton. "There’s an idea. Let’s turn him out, lock the door, and we’ll all get some sleep."
The thing’s brain leaped high with hope, then sank leadenly as Denton shook his head. "Naw, I wouldn’t do that to a mad dog. But what he said gave me an idea." His voice became mocking. "Tareyton, show the gentleman what we’re gonna do with him. Take the rope from that nail behind you and tie him up. I’ll watch the whole business with this little gun, so there’ll be no funny business. Mind that, you, or I’ll let you have it."
The thing rasped, "What a fool I’d be to attack Tareyton and have you put a bullet in my back." But with horrendous eagerness, it thought: "The American would block the gun for one fraction of a second. Even if he didn’t, it wouldn’t matter. He’d be close, the first time either of them had come close, and that was all that he needed." Neither had the faintest inkling of the strength they faced.
With tigerish speed, it leaped at Tareyton. It had a flashing vision of his distorted eyes, mouth gaping to cry out, and then it had ripped him from the floor, and flung him, all in one movement, straight at Denton. The hoarse, startled bellow of Denton mingled with the dismayed baritone cry of Tareyton in one blended scream of agony as they smashed together sickeningly and crashed against the wall. The thing ached to leap upon them, but there was no time even to see if they were dead. Already the two minutes of grace were ages past. It was too late—too late for anything but flight. It snatched open the door and bumped with headlong, body-jarring force into Corliss. It was flung back off its balance. And in that moment of dismay it saw the towering Progue beyond the leader. And there were other men crowding forward.
The moment seemed an eternity in that night of mad storm. The yellow-orange light from inside the bunkhouse did crazy, ghastly things to the faces of the startled men who crouched low against the nightmare blasts of tempest; a jagged spur of lightning showed them the lean, dark, wolfish face of the thing as it struggled to right itself. Surprise was equal, but the harder, steelier muscles recovered first. The thing struck at Corliss, one smashing, hate-driven blow that caught him glancingly and sent him staggering back against Progue. And then it was darting out into the night, out into the fury of unrelenting wind and rain.
One assault it made against the wild strength of the storm, head bent, body straining against that awful pressure, and then, in a flare of caution, as it realized its slow progress made it an easy target for rifles fired from the bunkhouse, it ceased bucking the wind and, instead, ran with it toward where the water glinted black in the near east—black and boiling with unholy frenzy of wind-lashed waves. As it ran, it began to tear off its clothes, shirt, trousers, shoes, socks, and the men saw it for an instant silhouetted against a spasm of sheet lightning, tall and gleaming naked against the briefly brilliant sky.
They saw it once more after that, a shining, unconquerable shape, as it poised on the rocky brink of the Stygian sea. And then it was gone—a white flash diving into the pounding black waters beyond. Corliss found his voice:
"We’ve got him !" he bellowed above the shriek of the tempest. "We’ve got the damn thing where it can’t get away."
Before he could speak further, he was swept into the bunkhouse by the tide of men that poured through the open doorway. The door was shut, and it was Progue who breathlessly snapped:
"What do you mean—got him? The damn fool committed suicide. You bet your life he can’t get away after that."
Corliss pulled himself together, but when he started to explain, a literal gush of words flooded from him. "I tell you," he finished, "that’s the proof ! Brains was right. That damned thing out there is the shark god in human form—and I tell you we’ve got him—if we hurry !" His voice took on a machine-gun quality, "Don’t you see? There’s no outlet to the ocean where he jumped into the lagoon except through the channel we use for our boats. At one point, that channel hugs the shore, and that’s where we’ve got to stop him from getting to the safety of the open sea. Brains !"
"Yes, sir !" The tall, thin Englishman jumped forward briskly. "Take a half dozen men, get a parcel of dynamite caps from the ammunition shack, take a searchlight, and station yourself on the shore beside the channel. Set off the dynamite at intervals under water—no fish or any living thing can stand the blast of sound made by an underwater explosion. Use the searchlight to probe the waters. It’s narrow there. You can’t and mustn’t miss! Hurry!"
After the men were gone, Progue said, "You’ve forgotten one thing, boss. There is an outlet to the sea where that damned thing jumped into the lagoon. Remember the bottleneck of water between two towering stretches of rock? A shark could just slip out of there."
Corliss shook his head grimly. "I didn’t forget, and you’re right—as far as you go. A shark could get out there. But this thing in its natural form has great, powerful flippers. And those flippers are too big for it to go through the narrow hell of water; they’d be torn off, cut to ribbons. Don’t you see what that means? The thing has to retain its human form if it wants to ’go through that neck of deep water to the open sea; and in its human shape, it must be horribly vulnerable, or it wouldn’t have been so cautious with us."
A dull boom out of the night cut his voice off abruptly. A smile of satisfaction twisted his heavy, powerful face. "There went the first explosion. That may mean the damned thing tried to get through the regular channel. Well, it knows better now. We’ve got it cornered. Either it takes the risks of swimming that hell’s gauntlet in human form, or we kill it tomorrow morning, whatever its shape. And now, quick, everybody take torches and rifles and line the shore. It mustn’t get ashore!"
The sea was too strong, the waves too high, the night too dark! A sense of disaster, cold and deadly, throbbed along the thing’s fish nerves as it struggled to keep its human body where its thin, helpless knob of human head could breathe air. It fought with bitter, ceaseless strength, but the sea thundered and roared, bellowed and churned. The nightmare sea was a pressing wall of darkness on every side except one. And that one straight ahead, where the water glittered white. Even in this darkness the fury of the breakwater was visible. In that white sea of foam-flecked death showed a single dark ribbon, the one way that was open to the safe, vast ocean beyond. A narrow ribbon of blackness, where the water was deep and twisting and incredibly fast.
And through that storm-frenzied channel, a shark was now pressing outward from the lagoon toward the ocean, showing the way. The thing struggled to hold itself erect in the water, paddled furiously with its legs, slashed at the boiling, raging water with its arms, and strained its vision to the utmost limit, striving to follow the faint gleam of the flashing dark, triangular fin of the pilot shark as it made the test run of that demon channel. The shark was struggling now, maneuvering frantically as it fought the roaring water that poured and belched through the writhing bottleneck to safety. The fin vanished, and then it was there again, vaguely visible against the gray-white waves. It was through, safe, a dingy blur of fin that vanished instantly into the blackness of the thunderous ocean beyond.
The thing hesitated. It was its turn now, but there was no eagerness within it to storm those jagged, shaking waters in the frail human body that it wore. It snarled in frustrated rage, a high, shrill, inhuman cry of unutterable hate—and half turned back to the shore, impelled by a desperate will to smash its way through the soft-bodied cordon of men, regardless of the danger they represented. And then it snarled again and spat its ferocity as it saw the line of flaming torches that dotted the shore. Each torch cast a pale, flickering shadow of light even in that hell of rain and tempest, and beside each torch a man paced restlessly, carrying a rifle in alert nervous fingers. That way was blocked. The thing realized it even as the mad thoughts of rushing the shore stabbed through its brain. Only too well, now, it saw the trap that held it. This small section of the lagoon was blocked off as completely as if nature had waited through a million million years for this moment to trap this deadly monster of the deep. Escape was blocked, except—straight ahead!
Once again, the thing turned its cold, glittering fish eyes toward that deadly outlet. Steely teeth clicked in horrible defiance, lips tightened into a thin, sharkish line. And then it launched itself into those raging waters. There was a sense of incredible velocity. Instinctively it struggled to make a twist that sight of the shark’s test run had seared into its mind. Water smashed down into its mouth; it spat, coughed, fought, and then it had a brief vision of dreadful doom—a wall of rock reared up straight ahead, yards high, black, grim, merciless rock. Frantically, it twisted and plunged aside with maddened, reaching arms. But no human muscles could fight that irresistible sea.
One glimpse of its doom, one fearful snarl of astounded, unbelieving ferocity, and then a stab of pain unutterable as its human head crushed into pulp against steel-hard rock. Bones broke, muscles tore, flesh mashed. A tormented body was flung out into the midnight ocean.
The pilot shark smelled the fresh meat and came circling back. In a moment, it was joined by a dozen other dark, struggling shapes.
The storm pounded all through that black night. It was a cold, wet dawn that broke finally over a cold, wet, weary group of men. As Corliss headed the first boat out into the quietened waters of the lagoon, toward that narrow, still-roaring funnel of death, his face was dark with the fatigue of the long vigil, but grim with determination.
"If the thing took the chance," he said, "we’ll never find anything. But we’ll know. There’s an undercurrent where the channel twists that only a big fish could fight. Nothing else could prevent itself being smashed."
"Hey," yelled Denton in alarm, his face still white from the pain he had endured, "don’t go near that place. Tareyton and I have had enough smashing for one day."
It was noon before Corliss was convinced that no dangerous living thing remained in the lagoon. As they headed toward the shore, tired but relieved, the southern sun was sparkling down on an emerald isle that glittered and shone in its vast setting of sapphire sea.
 The Sea Thing was only ever reprinted in the 1948 hardcover collection of fantasy stories by van Vogt and E. Mayne Hull Out of the Unknown, and in a 1965 horror-story paperback anthology The Monsters.