Earth was a crowded world of vast cities, manned by robots who carried out all of the menial tasks, who saw to it that everything contained functioning normally. Interplanetary travel was now an established fact. The planets favourable to Man's existence had been colonised but where, as yet, under-developed according to Earth standards. In the whole of the Solar System, mankind was supreme. There was life on Mars, Venus and the outer moons of Jupiter and Saturn, but nothing which could match the military might of Earth. Yet now, Earth itself faced destruction. Quite suddenly the thread had materialised. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that Someone - or Something - wanted Earth. But vast creatures such as these had never originated on any of the Solar Planets and Brad Norton, investigating events for the Military Commission, refused to believe that they could have been transported through space from an of the stars. But the undeniable fact was that they were here and Earth science was powerless against them...
Release date: December 22, 2014
Print pages: 146
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Day of the Beasts
In the long, low building which stood some fifty yards from the radar tracking station, the wall TV set was already on. A thin, earnest-faced man sat in one of the low, cushioned chairs, watching it with a keen interest. His companion, seated stiffly erect, stared at the screen with a disapproving look. Then he turned his back on the screen and said quietly:
“Dr. Mendel, have you any idea why the Government had decided, at the last minute, to send this man down to the experimental site?”
The other shook his head, laid his pipe casually on the glass-topped table in front of him. “I don’t know, Webb, I don’t know. Once I had theories as to the way the Government worked, but not any more.”
“And Breden—what about him? Think it could be that which has brought this guy all the way from the Pentagon?”
Mendel shook his head and repressed the slight urge to tell the other to keep his mouth shut about things which didn’t concern him. Impassively, he watched the screen, saw that the plane had almost landed on the airstrip a quarter of a mile away across the desert. Picking up his pipe, he pulled reflectively on it for a few moments, then said: “No one outside the establishment knows anything about Breden. That was hushed up when it happened.”
“But there must have been a report sent to Washington.” The other looked at him in brief astonishment.
“No. There was nothing like that. I understood you’d been told about the incident. As soon as Breden’s case was analysed, the Chief clamped a security shield around the entire place so tight that nothing could leak through without his say-so.”
“And does anyone know exactly what is wrong with him?”
More smoke as Mendel puffed furiously on his pipe to slow the quiet welling of anger inside him. Webb was one of those naive young scientists who believed everything they had been taught at College, and refused to believe anything else.
“I’m no psychiatrist myself, but it seems to be a familiar pattern. There’s no need to go into subconscious motives. Breden was present at the first trial with the new reactor. We’re nearly there. In fact, it’s taken for granted that it’s only a matter of time before we’ve got this whole problem licked. I’m pretty certain that Breden had a temporary aberration brought on by shock and strain. He’s been under a tremendous mental strain for these past three months, carrying most of the project on his shoulders. I’m surprised he hasn’t had a breakdown long ago.”
Webb said: “You seem to have had the most contact with him since it happened, apart from the medical staff. What’s wrong with him exactly? I mean his mental state?”
The other shrugged. “He’s gone into some form of protective stupor. That’s as close as I can put it without being too technical. He won’t talk or listen or open his eyes. He just lies there, face turned towards the ceiling, just breathing. As far as he’s concerned, the rest of us, the whole project, doesn’t exist.”
“Some form of natural healing process that we don’t know too much about.”
“That’s about it, I reckon.” The other rose sharply to his feet, knocking out his pipe into the tray on the table. “He’s here by the look of it. I suppose we’d better go down and join the reception committee.” The tone of his voice implied that he liked military observers even less than he did young scientists.
On the screen, in the moment before Mendel switched it off, the cameras gave a close up of the tall, powerfully-built man who had stepped from the plane in front of the hangar. Mendel eyed it curiously. That face, even at first glance, seemed different. A military man, perhaps, but there was something in those wide, clear-set eyes which he had seldom noticed in other men, an expression which was quite extraordinary.
It was a level-eyed expression, calm and undeviating, a probing, searching stare which seemed to penetrate his own, even through the intangible medium of the television screen. Just why, he wasn’t sure, but he felt a tiny shiver course through him as that far, compelling look seemed to lock momentarily with his own. It was the look of a man who had seen things far different from those of Earth.
The screen hazed and then faded to its normal greyness. He pulled himself together and followed Webb out of the room, along the wide, echo-ringing corridor, down in the smoothly-gliding elevator to the ground floor, and then out into the clear, desert air, towards the airstrip.
Dr. Alfred C. Scott, head of the Centaurus Project, was already there, a short, bird-like figure, hurrying forward to buttonhole the new arrival. Mendel could guess why he was in so much of a hurry. Scott was becoming increasingly anxious about the progress of the project. This was his own particular baby, had been for almost three years now. God alone knew how much money the Treasury Department had poured into it, and all because of the promises he had made about the tremendous advance it would make once it succeeded, how far ahead of the Eastern Federation it would put them.
Ever since the Russians had beaten them to the punch more than twenty years earlier, they had been striving desperately to gain the initiative. The first ship to land on the Moon had been manned by a Soviet crew. True they had been followed within two months by the American rocket, but the Communist scientists had retained their lead throughout the whole of the past twenty years. First Mars, then inward to Venus, beating them to the punch in each instance by several months. It had been a whole year after the Russian interplanetary ships had reached out to the satellites of Jupiter and Saturn that their own vessels had been able to follow them. True, they had been the first to probe out to the very rim of the Solar System and set up the Tombaugh Station on frozen Pluto, but that had been the only cosmic chestnut they had been able to pull out of the fire.
Now, if Dr. Scott was right in his predictions, and more important still, if the maths proved to be anywhere on the right track, they stood an excellent chance of regaining the scientific initiative which they had lost twenty years before. Mendel shrugged as he stopped the flow of thoughts and moved forward to where Scott stood beside the tall man from Washington, a man who stood head and shoulders above him and outweighed him by almost a hundred pounds.
Was it possible that Washington had finally decided that the project gave little chance of success and had sent this man down to examine the position, to evaluate all of the work they had done up to the present, and then to submit his report to the scientific department of the Treasury? He dismissed the thought. If they had intended to do anything like that, surely they would have sent along a scientist, not one of the military brass hats.
Thus reassured, he walked forward, side by side with Webb, pushing his way through the crowd of junior technicians who had come forward to witness the arrival of the man on whom their fate, as far as the project itself was concerned, seemed to depend.
“Naturally, everything will be open for your inspection,” Scott was saying in his high-pitched, almost squeaky voice, talking earnestly to the tall, stocky man. “We’ve no secrets to hide from the military, I assure you, Major.”
“I understand all that, Doctor.” The other had a deep, powerful voice which matched his frame. “You know my commission here. Washington need this information as soon as possible. I intend to see that they get it.”
“Of course, of course.” Scott nodded his head excitedly. He turned as Mendel and Webb came up to them, nodded affably, and paused.
“Major Norton—these are my two top assistants on the project. Doctors Mendel and Webb. As you’ll appreciate, work has to go on here, all round the clock if we’re to complete our tests on schedule. Most of my time will be taken up with routine work of an extremely important nature. But both Mendel and Webb will be placed at your disposal. If there is anything you wish to know, anything at all you wish to see, they have orders to co-operate with you in every detail.”
Norton shook hands with each man in turn, nodding. “I’m sure we’ll get along fine together,” he said quietly.
Ten minutes later, they were seated in the wide, spacious office on the second floor of the tall, steel-and-concrete building which overlooked the main testing grounds of the establishment. Major Brad Norton settled himself more comfortably in the high-backed chair and looked from the older of the two men, across to the other, and then back again.
“Perhaps if I explained the reason why I’m here it might help to put you both in the picture,” he said, by way of introduction. “I realise that this visit may have been sprung on you as something of a surprise, particularly as Washington seem to have left you alone most of the time since the inception of this programme of research.
“I assure you, however, that this was more by design than accident. We’ve received monthly reports on the project from Dr. Scott and so far these have been eminently satisfactory.
“You seem to be making far better progress than we had anticipated at the beginning of this work. I don’t have to impress upon anyone here the tremendous urgency of this project. If we’re to beat the Reds to the punch this time and steal their thunder for all time, we must obtain the star-drive. It’s essential to us. The Solar System has been conquered. Either we or the Russians have set up colonies on Mars, Venus, the outer moons of Jupiter and Saturn and there’s Tombaugh Station on Pluto.”
He paused, then: “There’s nothing left for us in the entire Solar System. We’ve got to go out to the stars now, if we want to find another planet sufficiently like Earth for us to be able to live there and colonise, without the necessity for protective domes always over our heads. I’ve visited most of these other colonies. I know what it’s like out there. Believe me, it isn’t nice.”
“You’ve been there, Major?” Mendel removed the pipe from his mouth and looked at the other in surprise.
Norton nodded. “That was part of my assignment. More than anything else out there, it’s the loneliness that begins to get you sooner or later. Even the regular contacts with Earth seem to lose their meaning in time. They become nothing more than voices speaking out of a plastic box on the wall. You can’t visualise bodies attached to them, faces and expressions. Here on Earth, you can be stranded somewhere in the middle of the Amazonian jungle, hundreds of miles from anywhere, and yet all the time, there’s the feel of human beings somewhere around you, even though rescue might be a long way off. But on the planets, there’s only the complete loneliness. We’ve got to have a drive that can take us out to the stars—and that’s why I’m here, to find out how things are going, how close you are to perfecting this revolutionary principle that Dr. Scott keeps talking about in his reports.”
Mendel thought for a moment, then said: “You realise, of course, Major, that even the maths behind this principle you speak of are so complicated that only perhaps half a dozen men in the world can make head or tail of them. And as for the set-up itself——”
“Go on. I know what you’re going to say. That they might as well have sent the junior office-boy from back there for all that I’m going to understand of what you tell me and show me here.”
The other spread his hands defensively. “Believe me, Major, I didn’t mean to imply anything like that. It’s just that——”
“There’s no need to apologise, Dr. Mendel, I quite understand the position, but perhaps I ought to mention some points of my own background. Then you may see more clearly why I was chosen for this particular assignment.”
“Go ahead. Major,” said Mendel, interested. He lit the inevitable pipe, puffed on it furiously for a few moments until it was going, then sat back in his chair, his grey eyes watching the other shrewdly.
“You’ve heard of Meitzner, the Viennese physicist?” queried Norton.
Mendel nodded. Norton saw that there was a hint of genuine puzzlement in the other’s eyes.
“You knew him?” asked Mendel.
“I worked with him for three years before he was killed in that automobile accident last spring.”
This time, there was no mistaking the astonishment in the other’s face. “You worked with him? But you’re——”
“Nothing more than a down-at-earth military man? Is that what you were going to say, Dr. Mendel?” There was a touch of amusement in Norton’s tone. “I thought you might be surprised at that. But the Army has to have some scientists, you know They snapped me up, acting on orders direct from Washington, before I had any chance to protest. Not that it would have done much good where they’re concerned. Since the Reds blasted off and landed on the moon all that time ago, we’ve had very little say in the matter. I ought to add, I suppose, that some of Professor Meitzner’s theoretical work was directed towards the same end as your own. A form of star-drive which could take mankind clear of the Solar System and out to Centauri. He looked on that as merely the first big step across space.”
“You say—theoretical,” murmured Webb, leaning forward. His brow was knit in deep concentration. “Are we to gather from that, that he did little or no practical work?”
“In a manner of speaking—yes. If he did anything in the way of building apparatus to check his theories, then I’m afraid I knew nothing of it. He may have been working on that when he was killed.”
“So now you’re here to check over our set-up,” said Mendel quietly. “It’s a trifle disturbing to find that the man the Army has sent down here to probe into our mysteries understands almost as much about them as we do ourselves, but in a way it’s also gratifying. I visualised spending several fruitless and pointless hours attempting to explain things to you.” He got heavily to his feet, stood looking down at Norton for a long moment, thoughtfully. Then he said: “I’ll organise some coffee and sandwiches, Major, and have them brought here for us. While we have a little time on our hands, I suggest that I explain to you the lay-out of the site here. I could take you all the way around it, but in the first instance, it will be quicker and easier to make use of the wall map. I think you’ll find that we have a larger and more diverse establishment here than even Washington realises.”
The coffee and sandwiches arrived five minutes later on a couple of trays. While they ate, they stood in front of the large map which hung on the wall, coloured in a multitude of hues and shades, the entire establishment covering an area of close on fifty square miles.
“You’ll see each of the individual sections during your stay here, Major. At the moment, I’ll just give you a short briefing on each of them, so that you’ll know a little of what to expect when you are taken round them. Naturally, of course, there’s a strict radio silence kept every minute of the day, except in a case of dire emergency. Only one section has any real contact with the outside world.”
He jabbed at the map with a long index finger. “Here—this blue area close to the northern perimeter. Part of our work here, totally unconnected with the Centaurus Project, is to act as one of the major receiving stations for the Weather Prediction Satellite Programme.”
Norton nodded. “I’ve heard something of that.”
“We do the job properly here,” went on the other, as if he had not heard the interruption. “We have our own radar station, watching cloud formations, giving advance warning of hurricanes and the like. In addition, we pick up the signals from the satellites, compute future weather conditions and release them to the met stations throughout the country.”
“Quit. . .
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