Planet Earth was finished, its surface seared by nuclear heat, its great cities obliterated, its billions of inhabitants dying or dead. Only a few pockets of survivors remained. For all but a few it was only a matter of time. Then into the poisoned atmosphere of Earth there flashed a mysterious craft from somewhere deep in space. It landed, a small number of Earth people were taken aboard, then the craft disappeared into the great void. During the dark millennium which followed a strange experiment was conducted. When it was complete, another space craft took off for Earth...
Release date: June 30, 2015
Print pages: 143
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The Dark Millenium
The hand which sent it hurtling on its way was lost in anonymity and, as it turned and drove on through empty space, then down through the thickening layers of the atmosphere, it remained invisible and unheard; unseen by ordinary eyes, its presence indicated only for fractions of a second on the fluorescent faces of the watching radar screens.
It was night in Europe, and the earth turned slowly, mapping the years with the slow wheel of the stars; but never once betraying what those years might yield.
On one hemisphere, it was day; a hot, sultry day in late summer with leaves turned a blistered yellow on the trees and dust lying thickly on sun-glaring roads. But here it was night; an uneasy night where men looked anxiously at the dark sky and wondered how close they were to the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
The earth turned and the warm night of stars wheeled against it; fantastically brilliant constellations marching grandly over a crystal horizon.
Carefully, Ilse Walchern placed the white lace blouse and the woolen skirt on top of the neat pile of clothing behind the rocks and loosened the pins in her blonde hair so that it cascaded over her bare shoulders in the moonlight. She looked out over the broad strip of pale, moon-silvered sand and shivered a little.
Behind her, less than fifty yards away, the concrete length of the narrow pier was sprawled in shadow across the sand, deserted. From farther along the esplanade came the thin, distance-muted laughter of early-morning revelers, but she didn’t expect any of them to follow her down to the beach, and their voices were muffled by the sea.
She stood for a moment, running her fingers over her tanned body, then walked down to the water’s edge. Before her, stretching as far as the eye could see, was the dark swell of the Baltic, relieved only by the thin fringe of white whenever one of the little waves ran along the shore.
In the short time she had spent at the hotel bar, she had had too much to drink and had come out here, away from the others, for a breath of fresh air to help clear her head.
There was no doubt in her mind that she needed it, for the muted voices were all blended into one confused sound that mingled with the soft murmur of the waves.
Her hands felt peculiarly stiff. Just before she had left the hotel a few minutes earlier, she had looked up at the warm sky and gazed pensively at the stars, wondering why she had been unable to see any of the artificial satellites which they had been putting up with such unfailing regularity over the past few years.
As far as she was aware, there was no sense of being watched by those cold, impersonal eyes, thrown into orbit by both East and West.
Strangely enough, she felt no premonition of death, even though everyone now spoke of the nearness of a war; and she knew, without thinking, that when it came there would be no warning of any kind, no ultimatum.
For all she knew, the war would begin and end in a single night. Perhaps there would be the merest scream of sound in the air over the cities which would be the key targets; maybe the slightest flourish of light against the clouds and the dark sky. Like corn scattered over a plowed field, the rockets and the bombs would drift down with a fearful, unseen swiftness.
With an effort, she thrust the thought away and wondered idly if Carl would follow her, if he had even noticed her leave. She put one foot into the cold water, drew it back again sharply, then thought:
Don’t be a fool. Just because the water’s cold, there’s no reason to run away from it. That was what was the matter with the entire world these days: everybody running away from things because they were too difficult to put one’s mind to. And so everything moved slowly, but inexorably, toward the heightening tension and the sudden extinction of the human race.
The water ran softly between her toes. She wanted very much to stand there quietly, soundlessly, not moving, until everything about the night faded and the dawn came up, bright and clean and new over the edge of the sea. There was no doubt about it, she thought, she had had too much to drink that night at the hotel bar, and this was the best way she knew to clear her throbbing head and alleviate, in some small way, the tense fear in her stomach.
Standing there in the cool darkness, she turned over in her mind what Carl had said only two hours earlier:
“It only needs one man to lose his nerve—one man in a position to start a missile on its way—and there’ll be a lot of misery for everybody. This time, no one will be safe.”
Safe. For a long while, she stood absolutely motionless. If anything like that happens, she thought quickly, not only one town, one city, will come tumbling down, but the whole world will collapse in ruins like a pack of cards scattered by God’s hand.
Safe. With the Russian frontier less than a hundred miles away, there was no guarantee that they would get through that night without anything happening somewhere on the face of the earth.
The sea was dark except where the moonlight touched it, laying a finger of silver across the tiny waves that splashed in a thin line of white foam around her bare feet. The drunken shouts at the far end of the esplanade were suddenly drowned in the gentle, heaving motion of the sea.
Slowly, she walked forward, feeling the cool water climb higher and higher up her body before finally throwing herself backward, floating almost motionless in the waves. Everything seemed to drift away as she allowed her tired body to be cradled and refreshed by the gently swelling water that lapped about her limbs, bringing a delicious sense of release. The fear was still there and the tension, but they were now things that could be borne without too much effort.
Looking down, she could see, just below the surface, the pale whiteness of her limbs, their outlines blurred and distorted by the water, and when she drew in her arms close to her sides, she could feel herself sink gently down.
Still young, not yet twenty-three, she had found life a gay whirl of dancing and swimming during the past six weeks. Late summer at Ustka on the Baltic was something to be enjoyed and remembered.
Restless, she swam lazily to the beach. Running out onto the sand, suddenly cold, she saw the dark shadow at the end of the pier coming slowly toward her over the sand. Before he could reach her, she had snatched up the towel and flung it about her shivering body. The moon went behind a cloud, throwing a blackness over the silvered sand.
“Ilse! I thought I’d find you somewhere out here.” Carl watched her closely as she stood beside the pile of clothing.
“Why did you follow me?”
“Ilse, how often have I told you not to bathe here at night?”
She laughed a little at his obvious embarrassment. “I don’t see anything wrong in it. I like it here. I don’t mind being alone.”
“It isn’t that.” He shrugged his shoulders helplessly. “You know what I mean. I’m worried about something else. Maybe it isn’t true. Perhaps it’s some more of the general hysteria we’ve been hearing lately, but …”
“What’s happening, Carl?”
Quite suddenly, the restless murmur of the sea in her ears faded to a mere background noise, as if all the other sounds of the earth had suddenly become more magnified or her senses had become infinitely more receptive.
The moon came out again, and she saw by its light that he was serious.
“I’m not sure. They were talking in the bar just after you left. More news is coming in over the radio every minute. They say there’s going to be a war. It’s all over town by now. I don’t think there’s any point in going to bed tonight, even if we weren’t on holiday.”
She was suddenly aware that the rowdy noises in the distance were silent. Overhead, the stars and the moon seemed to move quietly in the inverted bowl of the dark heavens as though afraid to make a sound.
“They’ve always said there’s going to be a war for as long as I can remember,” she said scornfully. “Why are you so afraid, Carl?”
“You don’t understand, Ilse. It’s too early yet for any details, but according to the radio, the Russians launched a nuclear rocket against the United States less than half an hour ago. They’re saying that there isn’t much left of New York right now.”
“But it can’t be true.”
“I’m afraid it is.”
“But surely nobody could be so utterly insane.”
“They warned us all to be ready.”
As he spoke, it seemed to Ilse as though the sea at her back had suddenly become strained and more restless in its motion, surging up onto the beach in time with the speeded beating of her own heart against her shoulders, then began rubbing her skin vigorously, her fingers moving almost of their own volition.
She could feel the nervous tension that had been with her now for several days solidify into a tightening web of nameless fear around her heart. So this was the message, the messenger and the revelation. She was suddenly cold.
“They’ll retaliate, of course,” said Carl. He took a cigarette from his pocket, stuck it into his mouth and lit it with his head thrown back, the moonlight etching his face with a multitude of tiny shadows.
“And when they do?” She asked the question and yet was strangely afraid of the answer.
“Then it’ll be our turn tomorrow, or the day after. When hydrogen bombs begin to fall, nobody pauses to ask who fired them; they’re only too willing to believe it was a deliberate act of war and not the action of a fear-crazed man. Then they start firing them in turn. Soon there won’t be a town or a city left standing anywhere in the world.”
“And you really believe all that?” She spoke in a hoarse whisper.
They stood together in the silence for a moment; then he turned his back while she toweled herself dry and dressed. When he looked back again, she was combing the sand out of her long hair.
“Shall we go back now?” he asked, looking at her in the moonlight.
She spoke the word in a quiet whisper, turned to take one last look at the restless ocean, flooded silver with the moon, then screamed out loud with a terrible fear as the sun burst into being less than fifteen miles away, temporarily blinding her.
Far away, there was a tremor, then something so loud that it could not be heard and so bright that it could not be seen. There was a roll of drums that beat at her ears until they burned with agony at the thunderous concussion.
Dimly, after the sound had faded, she heard someone close at hand whimpering in terror and realized with a distinct shock that it was her own voice bubbling out of her shaking lips. She wanted suddenly to rush forward, shout, yell, scream aloud for all the inhabitants in that distant town to run into the deep concrete shelters. But the town was no longer a town. The houses were no longer houses.
A second bomb dropped while she stood there, not looking directly at it, shivering uncontrollably, scarcely moving her feet. Then her knees bent beneath her and she toppled forward at Carl’s feet.
All about them, like a moving, surging river, came the inferno air; a giant’s breath, a dragon’s tongue that forked between the rows of toppling houses. Bricks and stone shattered and came banging down the sidewalks, splintering into a million pieces.
Before Ilse Walchern regained consciousness, a thousand houses had been bent and flowed before the wind and the thunder roar. Streets had been transmuted into river deltas. The two bombs set the bony structures afire, turned the air in the town into a cauldron, burned wood to ash, brick to dust, men and women and children into nothing at all.
The bombs came billowing down on the end of silken cords, strung up into canopies of spreading cloth. The planes, high up, which carried them in their metal bellies, circled on the edge of the rising holocaust, then bumbled off into the distance.
But already, sleek-nosed rockets were passing them, activated by mechanical impulses kept ready for such a sneak attack as this. They were fully automatic. They lived only for this very purpose with a metal intelligence that carried their fountains of radioactive destruction unerringly around the curved limb of the earth.
The pilots of the first planes would find nothing waiting for them when they arrived back at their bases.
Two hours earlier on the other side of the world, it was almost four-thirty in New York, a city that was full of life and light and noise on that hot, sultry afternoon in late August.
In the street window of the small Brooklyn restaurant, a fly was buzzing noisily between the thin curtains and the glass. Inside, the heat was stifling.
Simon Marks sat tautly upright in his chair as though remaining seated with the greatest reluctance. His long, ascetic face seemed to have been burned to the shade of old leather by long exposure to the sun. From time to time, he reached out for the half-filled glass of beer on the table in fro. . .
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