The War with the Newts, by Karel Čapek

Chapter 8

Chief Salamander Makes His Demands

Three days after the earthquake in Louisiana there was another geological catastrophe announced, this time in China. The coast of the province of Kiangsu, north of Nanking, about half way between the mouth of the Yangtse and the old bed of the Hwangho, was ripped apart in a powerful, thunderous earthquake; the sea gushed into this fissure and joined up with the great lakes of Pan Yoon and Hungtsu between the cities of Hwaingan and Fugyang. Apparently as a result of the earthquake, the Yangtse left its course below Nanking and flowed down towards Lake Tai and on to Hang-Cho. Loss of human life cannot, so far, even be estimated. Hundred of thousands of refugees are fleeing into the provinces to the north and south. Japanese warships have been given orders to sail to the affected area.

Although the earthquake in Kiangsu was far more extensive than the disaster in Louisiana it attracted little attention in the world press because everyone was used to catastrophes happening in China and the loss of some million lives did not seem very important; and besides, it was scientifically clear that it was only a tectonic earthquake to do with the deep sea trench near the Riukiu and Philippine archipelagoes. But three days later, seismographs in Europe registered new tremors centred somewhere near the Cape Verde Islands. More detailed reports stated that the coast of Senegambia, south of St. Louis, had been hit by a serious earthquake. A deep fissure appeared between Lampul and Mboro, allowing the sea to gush in through the Merinagh and as far as Wadi Dimar. Eyewitnesses said that a column of fire and steam had erupted from the ground with a terrible noise, hurling sand and stones for miles around; and then there was the sound of the sea as it rushed into the gulf that had been opened up. There was no significant loss of life.

This third earthquake stirred up something akin to panic. Were all the Earths volcanoes becoming active? the papers asked. The Earths crust is starting to break up, the popular press declared. Specialists gave their opinion that the Senegambian gulley may have been no more than the result of a granite eruption by Mount Pico on the Cape Verde island of Fogo; this volcano had erupted as recently as 1847 but since then had been considered extinct. In this case, the west African earthquake had nothing to do with seismic events in Louisiana and Kiangsu which were clearly tectonic in origin. But nobody seemed to care whether the Earth was breaking up for tectonic reasons or volcanic. The fact was that all the churches were filled to capacity that day and in some areas they had to stay open all night.

At one in the morning on the 20th. November, radio hams over most of Europe suffered serious interference to their reception, as if a new and exceptionally strong broadcaster was operating. They located the interference at two hundred and three metres; it sounded something like the noise of machinery or rushing water; then the continuous, unchanging noise was suddenly interrupted by a horrible, rasping noise (everyone described it in the same way: a hollow, nasal, almost synthetic sounding voice, made all the more so by the electronic apparatus); and this frog-like voice called excitedly, “Hello, hello, hello! Chief Salamander speaking. Hello, chief Salamander speaking. Stop all broadcasting, you men! Stop your broadcasting! Hello, Chief Salamander speaking!” And then another, strangely hollow voice asked: “Ready?” “Ready.” There was a click as if the broadcast were being transferred to another speaker; and then another, unnaturally staccato voice called: “Attention! Attention! Attention!” “Hello!” “Now!”

A voice was heard in the quiet of the night; it was rasping and tired-sounding but still had the air of authority. “Hello you people! This is Louisiana. This is Kiangsu. This is Senegambia. We regret the loss of human life. We have no wish to cause you unnecessary harm. We wish only that you evacuate those areas of coast which we will notify you of in advance. If you do as we say you will avoid anything regrettable. In future we will give you at least fourteen days notice of the places where we wish to extend our sea. Incidents so far have been no more than technical experiments. Your explosives have proved their worth. Thank you for them.

“Hello you people! Remain calm. We wish you no harm. We merely need more water, more coastline, more shallows in which to live. There are too many of us. Your coastlines are already too limited for our needs. For this reason we need to demolish your continents. We will convert them into bays and islands. In this way, the length of coastline can be increased five-fold. We will construct new shallows. We cannot live in deep ocean. We will need your continents as materials to fill in the deep waters. We wish you no harm, but there are too many of us. You will be free to migrate inland. You will not be prevented from fleeing to the hills. The hills will be the last to be demolished.

“We are here because you wanted us. You have distributed us over the entire world. Now you have us. We wish that you collaborate with us. You will provide us with steel for our picks and drills. you will provide us with explosives. You will provide us with torpedoes. You will work for us. Without you we will not be able to remove the old continents. Hello you people, Chief Salamander, in the name of all newts everywhere, offers collaboration with you. You will collaborate with us in the demolition of your world. Thank you.”

The tired, rasping voice became silent, and all that was heard was the constant noise resembling machinery or the sea. “Hello, hello, you people,” the grating voice began again, “we will now entertain you with music from your gramophone records. Here, for your pleasure, is the March of the Tritons from the film, Poseidon.”

 

The press, of course, said this nocturnal broadcast was just a “crude joke”, some illicit sender; but there were nonetheless millions of listeners waiting at their receivers the following night to find out whether the horrible, earnest and rasping voice would speak again. It was heard at precisely one o’clock to the accompaniment of a broad howling and hissing like the sound of the sea. “Good evening, you people,” the voice quacked gaily. “To start tonight’s broadcast, we would like to play you a gramophone recording of the Salamander Dance from your operetta, Galatea.” Once the shameless clamour of the music had come to its end the voice once more began its vile and somehow cheerful croaking. “Hello you people! The British gunboat, Erebus, has just been torpedoed and sunk in the Atlantic Ocean after it had attempted to destroy our broadcasting equipment. The entire crew was drowned. Hello, we urge the British government to issue a statement by radio. The Amenhotep, registered in Port Said, was reluctant to deliver a cargo of explosives we had ordered to our port of Makallaha, apparently on the grounds that orders had been given to refuse any further provisions of explosives. The ship was, of course, sunk. We advise the government of the United Kingdom to revoke this order by noon tomorrow. Failure to do so will result in the sinking of the Winnipeg, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec, presently underway in the North Atlantic with cargoes of grain from Canada to Liverpool. Hello, we urge the French government to issue a statement by radio. You are to call back the cruisers presently underway to Senegambia. Work to widen the newly created bay there is still in progress. Chief Salamander has given orders that these two governments should be reassured of his unshakeable friendship towards them. End of message. We will now, for your pleasure, play you gramophone records of Salamandria, valse érotique.”

The following afternoon the Manitoba, Winnipeg, Ontario and Quebec were sunk south-west of Mizen Head. The world was overcome with a wave of horror. That evening the BBC stated that His Majesty’s Government had prohibited any further supplies of food, chemical products, machinery, weapons or metals to the newts. At one o’clock that night an excited voice rasped out from the radio: “Hello, hello, hello, Chief Salamander speaking! Hello, Chief Salamander is going to speak!” And then the tired, croaking and angry voice was heard: “Hello you people! Hello you people! Do you believe we would allow you to starve us? Do not be so foolish! Whatever you do will be turned against you! In the name of all newts of the world I call on Great Britain. With immediate effect, we declare a total blockade of the British Isles with the exception of the Irish Free State. The English Channel will be closed off. The Suez Canal will be closed off. The Straits of Gibraltar will be closed to all shipping. All British ports will be closed. All British shipping in whatever part of the world will be torpedoed. Hello, calling Germany. Orders of explosives are increased ten-fold. They are to be made available immediately at the main depot on the Skagerrak. Hello, calling France. Orders of torpedoes are to be met forthwith and supplied to underwater forts C3, BFF and Quest 5. Hello you people! You have been warned. If any attempt is made to limit our supplies of foodstuffs they will be taken from your ships by force. You have been warned.” The tired voice declined to a scarcely comprehensible croaking. “Hello, calling Italy. You are to prepare for the evacuation of the territories around Venice, Padova and Udine. You people have been warned, and warned for the last time.  Any more nonsense from you will not be tolerated.” There was a long pause while nothing was heard but the hissing of the radio like a cold, black sea. And the gay and quacking voice was heard once more: “And now we will entertain you with gramophone records of one of your latest hits, the Triton Trot.”

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:34