Men had fought wars throughout history, but never such a war as the one which destroyed the cities of earth and turned vast areas into badlands, stretches of intense radioactivity where nothing could grow and no one could live. It also produced the deviates, mutants who had warped bodies and strange talents. But there were others who had still stranger talents, mental powers exceeding those of the mutants, and whose bodies did not bear the sign of the deviate. Their origin could not be traced to an atomic war; even they themselves had no idea whence they came. Forced to take part in the abortive war between the Eastern and Western Federations, one man and one man eventually escaped and discovered creatures similar to themselves. But to discover their origin they had to go back five thousand years; and the answer lay not on earth, but somewhere in the stars.
Release date: April 30, 2015
Print pages: 192
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When The Gods Came
Space flowed about the vessel in a quivering of flux-patterns, thrust between the worlds along the slender, invisible pencil of an ion stream. The controls had been set for decades, the probe-beams, searching ahead for inhabitable planets, feeding back the information in a series of complex impulses into the instruments, always looking for a G-type sun.
When the information came, the instruments were ready, hidden relays clicked. The metal, fatigued by the long ages, fell into dust less than a second after the electrical impulse which it had fashioned was born. Swiftly, the impulse sped along spider wires of silver, made contact with a rippling mercury pool, fled deeper into the depths of the ship, turned it slowly, gently, into a decelerating orbit.
The instruments which still remained, caught the brief, fragmentary signal-beams which came striking back through space, bringing information concerning the planet which lay almost directly ahead. Mass, diameter, atmospheric constitution and density, temperature, radioactivity; each made itself known, was absorbed and measured, checked against those of the home planet, found to lie within the tolerances which had been prescribed, and the ship went into a spiralling orbit around Earth.
The airless, sun-torn, star-flamed blackness of space was left behind for the first time in over a thousand years. The black went, became purple, then blue. The clouds drifted up around the slowly, cautiously descending vessel. Thunder walked downwards on fiery stilts as the braking rockets came on. The sound echoed back from the surrounding hills, beat across the still waters of the stretching lake, burned the pines to ash, gouged a furrow in the earth.
But the instruments were gone, shattered into dust. The ship had travelled further than had been anticipated by the Builders; the rockets cut out while it was still forty feet above the surface of the planet. It fell the rest of the way completely out of control.
The crash came inevitably. The metal buckled and collapsed under the impact. Inside the ship, the finely sprung couches, yielding under the strain, protected the bodies of the crew and passengers to a certain extent.
The rocket lay there in the glare of the sun. The Builders left it and went out on to the planet. The metal would rot slowly in the sun and the rain. The winds would sweep over it, the soil silt up against the broken, shattered hull, burying it gradually in the soft earth.
The big hunger which had pushed them on—on towards the end of space, was over. The endless search was finished. The Gods had come to Earth….
It was almost two o’clock and the night was at its deepest when Clifford McQuater woke. For a long moment, he lay quite still, listening intently. Something had woken him, he felt sure of that, some faint whisper of sound that had crept, unbidden, into his consciousness, despite the rolling thunder in the distance. After a moment, he sat up, straining with his eyes across the darkened room. Vague shadows resolved themselves after a while. The pale square of the window was the first to appear and beyond it, he could just make out the distant purple glow of the Badlands, where the ground had been fused into a hard, radioactive rock.
Getting to his feet, he padded over to the window, rested his elbows on the ledge, looked out and tried to recall what had woken him. For some strange reason, he felt weary to his very bones. There was a peculiar tightness in his skull as if a metal band had been drawn about his forehead and was slowly being pulled tighter until it bit into his flesh, crushing his brain.
Outside, nothing was visible, but the faint silhouette of trees on the far horizon, outlined against the flickering purple glow of the Badlands and to one side, nearer at hand, crowding high into the heavens, the tall, craggy slopes, at the top of which stood the collection of domes which made up the Mount Palomar Observatory.
There were a few breaks in the clouds that touched the crescent of the moon, low down, but both moonlight and starlight were too dim to reveal any details of the miles of rugged country which lay a couple of hundred feet below the window; only the jagged line of the horizon, jet black against the radioactive glow told of the terror which lay to the south.
In the darkness, he heard the soft tap on the door although he had not heard the footsteps in the corridor outside.
“You awake in there, Clifford?”
“Yes. Come in, the door’s open.”
Dr. Paul Weston came in, closing the door behind him, a vague shadow. He moved towards the window and stood beside McQuater.
“What is it?” he asked in a whispered voice.
“I’m not sure. I thought I heard something, something that woke me up, but there doesn’t seem to be anything out there.”
“What sort of noise was it?”
“I don’t even know that for certain. Perhaps it was just my imagination.”
“But you don’t think so. You think there may still be some of the Regressives still around out there. We’re not far from the fringe area of the Badlands to the south, you know. If there are any still alive …” He deliberately left the rest of his sentence unsaid, but his words, or the memory of them, hung on the still air like a veiled threat.
For a brief moment, McQuater knew fear; real fear. It was something he had experienced several times before in his life, something he could not even begin to understand. Always before, it had been an emotion associated with the dream.
The dream! Funny that he should remember about that now. Was it that which had woken him? Had he been dreaming that same odd nightmare again, in the brief instant before it had grown so real that it had woken him? Somehow, he didn’t think so. In the past, the dream had always been the same, clear and strangely frightening.
He dreamed that he stood on a tall hill, overlooking a vast city that lay spread out towards the four horizons, tall, sky-rearing buildings, leaping upwards from the hard ground in a symphony of spires and towers, interlinked by a faerie tracery of lights, even though there was the pale blue light of the sun touching everything with radiance and shadow.
Then he would lift his head, peer upwards into the clear sky, and the horror would come washing over him, even in sleep, as he realised that there were two suns up there in the blue-purple heavens, close to the zenith; a large red giant sun which almost filled the whole sky and a smaller, blue-white companion which occasionally moved in front of the red sun, and at other times lay hidden, eclipsed by it.
There were people moving around in the streets, but he could not see them clearly from where he stood; and he could not tell whether they were human, like himself, or had some other form.
Such was the dream which had been with him for almost as long as he could remember. He had mentioned it to nobody. Since the war which had razed three-quarters of the surface of the Earth forty years earlier, it had not been wise to talk of things such as this, innocent as it seemed. He had been forced to live with it, forced to try to ignore it, although it was becoming increasingly more difficult to do so.
Always the same dream. And recently it had been coming to him increasingly frequently. Sometimes it came when the sky was covered with thick cloud, when there would be no observing possible at the Observatory, but more and more it came when the sky was clear and starlit and the moon stood out brilliantly against the darkness.
Weston touched his arm. He pointed. “That’s what always frightens me most,” he said softly. “If that should ever happen again, then everything is finished.”
“They say that the enemy are still building their machines. They haven’t forgotten how close they came to defeating us the last time. This time, if they start it again, they won’t make any mistake.”
“You don’t think they will begin again? Not after what happened the last time.”
In the darkness, Weston shrugged. It was impossible for McQuater to see his face, but there was uncertainty in the slump of the other’s shoulders.
“You don’t—do you?”
“I’m not sure. There have been rumours during the past few months.” Sudden anger tinged the other’s voice. “As if we didn’t have enough on our hands with the Regressives. They’re bound to rise again, if we aren’t careful.”
“But the Government?”
“The Government!” There was naked scorn in Weston’s tone as he spat the words out. “They can do nothing. Once it was a centralised thing and could make laws and enforce them. Now, after the Holocaust, everything has deteriorated. All they think of now, is hunting down the mutants. Any deviations from the Norm are caught at birth, examined by their doctors, and killed if this is confirmed.”
McQuater turned, then nodded. What the other said was true, of course. After the short atomic war, when mankind had been forced to isolate itself into small communities to continue living, away from the desolated, widespread area of high radioactivity, it had been necessary to enforce strict and rigid laws. Mutation had been known long before the war. Atomic and hydrogen bomb tests had been carried out in the short, intervening period between the two wars and slowly, the level of radioactivity in the atmosphere had grown. There had been a few mutants during that period, but they had been easily recognised and eliminated before the pollution had had a chance to spread.
Now, things were different. Thousands of men and women had been caught in the Badlands when the hydrogen bombs had fallen. Most of them had been killed outright, but some, particularly on the fringes of the desolated area, had escaped death, only to bring a greater danger to Earth.
Tainted by the deadly radiation, which had acted upon the genes and chromosomes of the parents, the vast proportion of the children had been mutants. The majority had died at birth or shortly afterwards, but some had survived for several years, often showing only minor signs of mutation. The obvious monstrosities were destroyed on sight, but the others lingered without being discovered. Many escaped into the fringe areas close to the Badlands, where nobody normal dared to go, bred and multiplied until by now, forty years later, they had become such a serious menace that the Central Government had decreed that the local authorities must do everything in their power to destroy these creatures.
McQuater himself, had seen a few of them. On the surface, they had seemed little different from the other humans he knew, but under the rough clothing which they wore, they could hide a multitude of differences; and there was no telling the strange powers which they possessed.
He grew aware that the other was speaking again, his voice soft and hushed in the night. “There doesn’t seem to be anything out there now, Cliff. At least, nothing I can see. You must have been imagining it.”
“I suppose you’re right.” For a moment, his train of thought had been such that he had almost forgotten the reason why he was there, standing at the half-open window, looking out into the night. Somehow, by some sense deep within him, he knew that he would not sleep again that night. For a moment, he debated whether to go up the mountain and join the others in the Observatory. Now that the clouds were beginning to clear and the storm was moving away to the north, there were larger rifts in the clouds and with three or four more hours still to go before dawn made seeing impossible, there would be quite a lot of work to be done.
Then he decided against it. At the Observatory, they worked in teams and it was not his turn for duty. The work they were engaged in was important and it wouldn’t be wise to break into it at this stage.
“Maybe you’d better get some sleep if you can,” suggested Weston. “It’s nearly three o’clock already. If the weather clears and holds at all, we’ll both be up there on the top tomorrow night.”
McQuater nodded. “I’ll try,” he said slowly. “But somehow, I’ve never felt more wide-awake. Probably it’s looking at that thing out there on the horizon. Sometimes, I get so scared that I can’t go back to sleep.”
“Try to ignore it. That’s the only way. It’ll be there for the rest of our lifetimes, so there’s no getting away from it. Those unstable atoms have a half-life of close on twenty thousand years. The fires won’t die down for a long while yet. Maybe, some time in the future, they’ll be able to reclaim that land, if the Deviates don’t do it first.”
With this parting shot, he fumbled his way across the darkened room, opened the door, stood outlined against the dim light of the corridor for a moment, then was gone as he closed the door quietly behind him.
With trembling fingers, he felt in the pocket of his jacket, stretched over the back of the wooden chair near his bed, brought out a packet of cigarettes and lit one quickly, blinking a little, reflexively, as his lighter flamed. Thank God, they still had a few of the amenities and pleasures of life; but at the moment, it was more of a necessity than a pleasure.
There was something working away inside his mind that he couldn’t understand, at whose nature he couldn’t even begin to guess. Guided as he had been in the past by a rigid, intellectual honesty, that one important faculty which made a scientist differ from any other calling, even in this strange world, he found himself freely acknowledging that they s. . .
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