Earth had been destroyed, but man had built his colonies on Mars and Venus and the far-flung moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Mutation and forced breeding had changed these people so they were no longer human. Clyde Lester, the last man on Earth, had a special problem. From somewhere in space there originated strange radio signals which could only come from beyond the orbit of Pluto, the outermost planet.
Release date: June 30, 2015
Print pages: 192
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The World Makers
Behind those doors, as Huntley well knew, boron and cadmium control rods would be maneuvered into place inside the raging furnaces of the atomic engines. He sucked in a deep breath, reached out with one hand and steadied himself against the hull of the star ship as weightlessness threatened to send him drifting helplessly toward the opposite wall.
Wildly, his brain fought the panic that spilled through it, slowing his reflexes, making it impossible to think right. Something had happened to throw the delicate safety devices off balance. Somehow, the automatic safety units had failed to operate under the full thrust of power.
And now, behind those thick doors, the engines were slowly building themselves up into a small sun, a tiny nova, boiling with the elemental energy of the universe, waiting to consume him and the ship in a single blaze of radiation.
The radiation intensity was mounting. The heavy shielding doors were taking a lot of it, absorbing it, but there was still plenty coming through. Sufficient to ionize the air inside the control chamber. Enough to send the alarm signals flashing madly through all the various shades of red until they gleamed like rubies, sprinkled throughout the length and breadth of the control panels.
God, if only he hadn’t been in free fall when it had happened. The initial trials had gone off well enough. The star ship had behaved perfectly. And now, for some completely unknown reason, this had happened.
If only they had allowed someone else to go up with him on these teething trials. But it was an unknown quantity, and they couldn’t afford to lose more than one of their meagre supply of trained scientists.
He extended his arms in front of him and pushed off from the wall with his feet, floating gently, almost ludicrously, toward the impressive array of the control panel.
If only he could reach the manual controls, there might still be something he could do about it. He threw a swift glance at the radiation meters and saw that the thin red needles had long since passed into the red danger segments of the dials.
The effect of such unshielded radiation was cumulative, it was true, and at present he was in no immediate danger. But he would not be able to stand the dosage for long. Already he could sense a peculiar tingling of his skin, but that was probably nothing more than his imagination.
With an effort, he pulled himself along the giant panel, noting the readings of every meter. Sweat had burst out on his forehead, and the air inside the control chamber was becoming oppressive and unbearably hot.
He had been putting the star ship through her preliminary trials, testing the great vessel for acceleration, nothing more. Something could have gone wrong with the complicated mechanism; it was quite possible. But somehow, at the back of his mind, he did not think so.
The immensely complex controls which governed the atomic engines should have been completely foolproof, self-adjusting, keeping the radiation down to manageable limits. There should have been nothing like this.
The radiation alarms screamed all the louder.
He started to drift over to the shielding doors, then caught at the edge of the control panel and stopped himself. That was sheer suicide. There was nothing he could do beyond those doors, even if he managed to break the automatic locking device and get them open.
Behind there, with no damper fields apparently operating, the miniature suns were blazing up into roaring, seething, turbulent fires of hell. They would not burn themselves out for hours, perhaps days; and there was no way of cutting off the fuel supply. But long before then the ship would have plunged toward the distant surface of Mars, and he would be a dead man.
If not destroyed by the fearful radiation, blown into mutilated obscurity by the resulting explosion, Jamieson and the other members of the administration would have an unexplained mystery on their hands, and the experiments would have to begin again.
Futilely he went over to the short-wave radio and spun the dials, shouting into the sensitive microphone, but there was no reply. At first, when the contact with the planet had been broken, he had tried to tell himself that it was nothing more than an atmospheric condition, a temporary affair, and that it would last for a couple of hours at most.
Now he had resigned himself to that fact that it was caused either by the burning out of the wiring of the transmitter or by deliberate sabotage.
Perhaps that was what had happened in the two previous attempts. In each case, something had gone wrong with the star ship while it had been circling the planet prior to skipping along the upper layers of the thin atmosphere in its final series of braking curves.
He bit his teeth together and tried once again to work the manual controls. He swung himself over and gripped the emergency flushing wheel, straining every muscle in his body with a strength born of desperation. This was his only chance.
For a moment, it seemed as though he were going to make it in spite of everything. The wheel turned gently, protestingly, as he twisted it in his hands, grunting with the strain.
Then, quite abruptly, so abruptly that it flung him completely off balance, it locked immovably. He tried again, then relaxed. For a long moment he hung there, shivering with apprehension, sensing the empty feeling of weightlessness in his stomach. The noise of the alarms was a persistent thing in his ears; impossible to hear anything else above them.
Ten minutes later, the star ship hit the upper atmosphere of Mars and skipped across it at an angle, like a stone flung across a stretch of flat water. It bounced and swayed a little, moving wildly, out of control.
On the ground, in the red-dust desert, electronic equipment picked it up; signals reached out, touched it and were reflected back, making its presence known as a small green blip on a cathode-ray tube. Three pairs of eyes watched it intently.
Finally: “But what could have gone wrong? He isn’t following the directed course. Any ideas?”
“It couldn’t have been anything wrong with the mechanism, Director.” Carl Nayland, tall and broad-shouldered, glanced round quickly in the cold darkness.
“How can you be so sure?”
“Well, it was all checked and re-checked before he took off.”
“You think that it’s more than a mere accident, then?” There was an unusual sharpness in the director’s tone.
Nayland paused. He had no wish to commit himself any more than was absolutely necessary. Things had been happening too quickly lately, unexplainable things which must surely have been more than mere coincidence.
“I think these accidents we’ve been having with the star ships are more than could possibly happen by chance alone. There have been too many of them during the past three years. Huntley was a good man and an experienced pilot. I realize that this is a new field of exploration and that we still don’t know half enough about this form of propulsion, but—”
“But that doesn’t explain why the last two attempts and now this one should all fail at the same crucial moment, just when we’ve almost got it. Is that what you were going to say, Nayland?”
“I see. I’m afraid I must agree with you. To my mind, it can point only to one thing—sabotage! Somebody doesn’t want us to get to the stars and will stop at nothing to prevent us.”
Fifty miles above the red deserts and canals of Mars, the star ship, now completely out of control, began to slow as the retarding effect of the thin atmosphere began to make itself felt. Inside the control chamber, the shielding door was already beginning to melt under the unimaginable heat, as the temperature of the atomic piles began to rise to unbelievable heights.
Huntley, the pilot, lay where he had fallen on the floor, one hand outstretched toward the useless controls. The radioactivity inside the room was now sufficient to kill anyone within minutes. Slowly, the flow of fuel being fed into the reaction chambers began to mount, building up over the amount that was being consumed.
Soon it was almost a critical mass.
From the ground, the rage of incandescent gases that spilled out and flared up briefly was a vast glare outlined against the darkness of the heavens and the foaming stars.
For a moment, it seemed to the three watchers that even the stars dimmed before the intolerable glare. Then it faded slowly, and they regained their hard, inscrutable brilliance.
They were still as aloof and as remote as ever.
Beyond the window, high up, there was only blackness and loneliness and a thousand swarming stars. One of the moons was visible, low on the distant horizon. Deimos, grown out of the reddish-purple haze of the Martian twilight into a bright star the size of Jupiter, standing out alone beyond the brilliant glory of the Asteroid Belt.
The size of earth whenever it was visible, thought Clyde Lester wearily. He felt himself pulled as taut as wire with the rising strain of uncertainty.
During the few moments he had been standing there, the city had come alive. Below him, above him, and all around him, it was an airy structure of shining bridges looping in all directions from central towers.
Yes, they certainly knew how to build on Mars, far better than on earth. Tiny fountains glittered in the blackness of parks, throwing up vast, foaming clouds of illuminated water in the middle of their tiny patches of night. The square windows were filled with warm lights of blue and green and yellow. There were the tall, sky-rearing shafts of the great slender buildings built easily in the low gravity of Mars.
It was a sight which was renowned throughout the entire length and breadth of the solar system, but most of the wonder of it was lost on him. The bitter loneliness still rankled deep inside him.
Life on the planets, especially on Mars, was such a tremendously delicate balance of favorable and unfavorable factors, ecological, mental and physical, chemical and geographical, that it was barely worth thinking about. For him, at least—although it was not quite as bad as far as the natives were concerned.
Natives? Martians? Even after all these years, the words still seemed strange and devoid of meaning in his mind. They had been human once, but no longer. They had lived and planned and died and had their roots on the mother planet, leaving only when an overgrown population and too few remaining resources, coupled with an insatiable curiosity, had sent them spilling out to the neighboring planets.
The advance of technical knowledge had been rapid during the two decades following the development of atomics. Mars and Venus and the dark, frozen moons of Jupiter and Saturn had been colonized by the first waves of these intrepid explorers.
There had been failures and disasters, yet even these had been swallowed up and forgotten in the welter of excitement and new knowledge. Action was an escape for the spirit. It seemed that the mere act of leaving earth had removed the prevailing inhibitions which had been. . .
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