(approx. 4,000 words)
The blast-off from Tycho had been successful. That, at least, was one good step towards the goal of this last, desperate bid for survival.
With characteristic slump, the Leader relaxed into the padded seat if his private insulated coach, and strove to prepare his tired mind for the greater ordeal ahead.
Swinging high above the dark lunar landscape, along the monorail link between Tycho and Imbrium City, he allowed his thoughts to drift over the events of the past six months.
The dire problem of the Colony was overcrowding. Only he and his Senate of four representatives knew the extent of the catastrophe that threatened the Colony. He thought of their long nights of endless discussion, and the one inevitable, but quite reluctant, conclusion, to resettle Earth.
After 200 years of successful build-up of a near-perfect supply system, a complacent easing of the essential regulation of control had recoiled. To doom the Colony.
He glanced through the observation port as the coach lurched down the shadow of Pitatus to roll into the Mare Nubium. He saw the blobs of light, scattered about the wide plain, that were the Plant culture Areas and the Oxygen Pipeline Centres. He thought of the sweating, desperate men in the Carbon Cycle Factories of Procellarum. Of the collapse, one by one, of those domed cities and towns at the extreme ends of the pipelines on the far side of the Coliny. He saw again, the tangled, debris and the crushed buildings; the burst bodies of the hapless inhabitants caught in the horror of the sudden vacuum. He thought of the long struggles and the skills to preserve life against the extreme conditions of temperature and radiation. Of the lonely squads of tireless men who patrolled the pipelines, each in his small, isolated world of the vacuum suit. Of the unending, hopeless battle to maintain the pressures in the huge domed cities and towns of the moon. That was the burden and responsibility of the Leader. Now, Project Earth. It was the only solution, he had no doubt. Even during the tense, prayerful moment of launching, with the ineffable relief as the ancient spacecraft moved from the ramp to spin out to the black to the black, starbright void. He knew it was the one resort.
The monorail dipped into the airlock of Imbruim City, and the coaches eased down to the small platform. Alighting, the Leader went forward to be met by the four Senators who, with him comprised the government of the Moon Colony. The five were very quickly surrounded by the horde of reporters and cameramen who had converged on the narrow platform. With microphones thrust into his face, in the clamorous surge and welter of the crowded airlock, in the insistent questioning, the glare of camera lights, the Leader looked pathetically bewildered and it seemed as if he would be swept down beneath the panic tide of interrogation. However, he asserted himself, and addressed the crowd with the imperious quality of tone for which he was famous. He announced, “A statement will be issued to the Colony in one hour from now. The message will be relayed to all points from our headquarters.”
With his four advisors, the Leader moved determinedly to the waiting car. They passed out of airlock into the domed city.
Perfectly composed, the Leader looked at the cameras and, slowly deliberately, spoke into the microphones. His carefully modulated words and steadfast gaze went out to the stark, airless moonscape, over the high Apennines, the Carpathians, and the Juro Mountains; across the grey maria, to every home in every town and city. To the Synthetic food Production Centres of Sinus Aestuum; to the mining areas of Tranquillitatis and Frigoris; to the hydrophonic farms of Nectaris, the Water Extraction Unit at Serenitatis. Out over the wide network, placed four-square to the Colony, at last, the truth.
“Colonist, I greet you. But not with a message of congratulation, not with the assurance of high achievement, but with one word. Defeat! For more than two hundred years, this colony has thrived, since our intrepid forebears forsook the dying Earth and the mass-suicide of the the Nuclear War. But, the facts about the establishment of this colony have never been promulgated and have been known to only a few in each succeeding generation. in fact eh very title ‘colony’, has lost its meaning for us. We have never disclosed our origins, and history, as taught, had been a chronicle of achievement within the colony. Thousands have lived and died with no idea of the existence of Earth and, certainly, no knowledge of our connection with the planet. To all of you, except the scientists at Tycho, the swirling cloud, that hovers in your sky a quarter of a million miles away, is just a natural thing that has always been there and, probably, always will. But, beneath that cloud is the Earth. A richly verdant world with an atmosphere that can be breathed. Atomic warfare once made the Earth untenable, but now, with the lapse of time, we believe it is clean again. And there lies our only hope.” The Leader paused and wiped his face with a handkerchief. He appeared to be collecting his strength for a last terrible announcement.
“When the first one hundred and twelve men, women and children settled on this airless globe for survival, all links with Earth, our parent, were severed. Against almost insuperable odds, the community survived and prospered and-”, the Leader hesitated an instant, “-EXPANDED!” The word was snapped out in bitterness. “It is this trend of overpopulation that has has been our undoing. We are a doomed people. Demand exceeds suppy. Oxygen and food output is at its absolute maximum and is deteriorating rapidly. We cannot expand our resources. There WERE hopes that science would discover a solution. We know, now, that there is no remedy. We are simply not able to increase pur production of the two vital elements. So, in agreement with your representatives of the Senate, it was decided to attempt to reach Earth, to contact any survivors, to establish, if possible, a trade-link with the one ultimate aim of re-settlement. Necessity has engendered Project Earth.”
The leader, on this dramatic announcement, allowed a few minutes to elapse, then continued, but more quietly.
“You will be wondering HOW this contact can be made. The facts are that the first settlers did not completely sever their links with Earth. It was decided to break up the fleet for the materials, one spacecraft was retained intact. A museum piece, they said; a monument, they argued, to our achievement. But the ship was kept in secret at Tycho; and in a constant condition of readiness on the launching ramp. Fuelled. And maintained over the years by succeeding generations of specifically trained and dedicated families. Ten hours ago this craft was launched. And with it, our hope of survival. We have six months i which to pray for the miracle. Goodnight.”
The face of the Leader faded from a hundred thousand screens. A cold fear pervaded every man and woman; even the children seemed to sense an impending disaster. Out of their windows the people gazed, to the high domes; and beyond the high domes to the black airless and the vast nebula that ever rolled across the sky. The Earth that, in all their lifetimes, had been shrouded by deep, impenetrable cloud layers. A world they had never known and could not see.
Although they had been trained, in theory, what to expect, nevertheless, the escape velocity, as the Mooncraft hurtled away from the Tycho, startled them. couched at full length on the contour fitting mattresses, the rapid gravitational increases distorted their facial muscles and tore, painfully, at their entrails. The brutal force verged them on complete blackout. Then the motors cut and the rocket-ship fell free into orbit.
Jan was the first to recover. With fumbling fingers he released the restraining harness and found himself floating in a sickening weightlessness. Only his eyes seemed, consciously, to live as the rest of his dissociated limbs threshed wildly for support. The panic reaction was shortlived and the grasped the guide-rail. With a supreme effort of co-ordination, he forced his body into a comparatively, upright position, and watched as his three companions slowly recovered awareness.
Theo, then Hahn, and soon Stev, drifted free. Their expressions of alarm, and the frantic efforts to orientate, were extremely comical, but they did not succumb to the nausea and with a few collisions, found stability with Jan at the guide-rail.
There, ranged together at the observation ports, the four young emissaries to Earth watched their worlds diminish far below them. Looking forward, they saw the dense mass of clouds beneath which, they had learned, was the parent planet, Earth.
The four were the sons of the Tycho families, descendants of those pioneer astronauts, and had been trained, almost from birth, to man the emergency link with Earth. Born to the secrets of Tycho and a heritage of space travel, their lives, like those of their fathers and grandfathers, had been spent in a technological world of astronautics. Artificially induced conditions had inured them, as fully as possible, to the anticipated hazards of space. Long, arduous and painful periods in the centrifuge had trained their bodies for take-off strain and eventual landing in the much higher gravity fields. Generation by generation, the Tycho communities had dreamed and worked for the one ultimate achievement, to take the ship back to Earth. The jagged rampart surrounding Tycho had been the limits of their horizon, but the geography of gleaned from old maps and films, was an open book to them. The manoeuvres and calculations necessary for entry into atmosphere had become as natural to them as breathing. The circumstances that had prompted the present mission were tragic, but this in no way detracted from the pride and elation that each one felt, and they were completely confident it would be accomplished.
Jan, sat strapped, at the control panel forward. He studied the array of instruments and the dials with their wavering needles. There was little to do. During the free fall, the ship was purely automatic and would not deviate, by even the fraction of a degree, from the set course.
Jan was the leader of the expedition. Hahn, the engineer, sat next to him. Stev was in charge of communication and Theo was navigator. However, these were only titles of convenience. Their duties were interchangeable and, if necessary any one of the four wad capable of flying the ship on his own.
Turning to Stev, who sat to starboard, Jan said,
“Better send a report to Tycho. State that everything’s going to plan. At our present speed we shall fall into Earth orbit in three days. We will make a further report after entering the atmosphere. And, Stev,” Jan smiled, “You can send your love to Tessa.”
“And mine to Greta,” said Hahn. Theo merely grinned. He was a confirmed bachelor.
Stev started transmitting.
Within minutes Tycho beamed a reply. Stev’s face registered dismay and he almost yelled,
“The dome at Crissium’s collapsed! My God! Here, Jan, Leader’s on. Wants to talk to you.”
Jan quickly plugged in his mike.
“Colonist Jan here, Sir. What are your orders?”
Against the faint hum and crackle of static, the Leader’s grave voice came through.
“Deterioration is becoming more rapid than was anticipated. As soon as you make planet-fall establish, one, whether Earth is still inhabited. If it is, contact the highest authority at once. Or, two, if there is no sign of life, take samples of soil, air and water. Test for radio-activity. Report your findings and return to Tycho immediately. Preparations are being made to build a fleet for evacuation of the entire Colony. Imperative you come back without delay because Mooncraft is needed as prototype of fleet. Good luck and godspeed. Out.”
Jan’s face was serious as he turned to the others.
“It’s worse than we thought,” he said, and went on to explain the Leader’s message. They could hardly accept the truth of the tragedy that threatened their world.
“Of course,” said Hahn, “The unknown factor, in this damn’ equation of survival, is Earth.”
The Mooncraft continued to fall, effortlessly, towards the swirling nebula.
It was like plunging into a storm-racked ocean. The billowing cloud-mass swept about the ship as it fought the brutal drag of Earth’s gravity.
They had reversed the ship and, with full power, it was braking gently towards the atmosphere. Touching the surface, curving off into space again to cool, in a series of elliptical skimmings, the ship was gradually slowed down sufficiently to be swung into orbit.
Soon the Mooncraft, now easily manageable in the atmosphere, dropped to within fifty miles of the planet’s surface. The clouds at this altitude were thinner, and the four eager explorers had their first glimpse of the Earth.
Bred to the harsh, vacuum outlines of almost colourless moonscape, the dominant blue, the patches of green, yellow and brown, the white expanses of the Polar Regions, bewildered their eyes. Knowing only the stark brightness and intense black of the moon, the diffused light patterns of Earth were uncanny. As they dropped lower and observed the panorama through the telescopic scanners, details became more plainly visible. The gentle contours of the land masses, the undulant motion of the vast stretches of water, in spite of their study of films and photographs, was of a beauty unbelievable.
They circumvented the planet and quartered it from every angle, traversing each continent in turn. They scanned the land areas minutely, concentrating particularly on the sites of the main cities. Back and forth, they flew, but could detect no sign of life, animal or human. They hovered over the place marked on the map, London. There was complete desolation. Dark stubs of masonry, overgrown with a tangled vegetation, and huge craters filled with water, were the principal features of the distorted landscape. All over the world the grim pattern was repeated. Craters, ruins and unchecked wild growth. Rome, Paris, Moscow, Canberra, Cape Town. As if the planet were sealing the scars of annihilation.
New York was completely non-existent except as a wide Atlantic bay, unmarked on their maps. So they continued westward to complete their survey.
They had travelled perhaps fifteen hundred miles, when Hahn suddenly shouted, “Look, in that clump of trees!”
A wisp of clear blue smoke, hardly discernible, even through the giant telescopes, curled outward from the small wood. Jan reduced speed and hovered. Slowly, slowly they lowered the great ship to within ten thousand feet of surface.
The wood was a salient feature in the wide, barren plain. A few miles south were the unmistakable mounds they have come to recognize as devastated towns. To the west was a slowly darker patch that could mean a herd of animals. Scattered across the plain, at half-mile intervals, were the ruins of squat buildings, evidently part of an obsolete defence system.
Jan called to Theo.
“Prepare the tender, we’re going down.”
To Stev he said,
“Send a message to Tycho. Signs of life on American continent. We are about to investigate by tender. Will report further after reconnaissance. That’s all. You and Hahn remain with the ship. Go up to ten miles and circle out of sight. If you don’t hear from us in six hours, investigate. Theo, is the tender ready?”
“All fixed,” said Theo.
“Good, get aboard, we’ll launch.”
Jan climbed into the small winged craft and squeezed in beside Theo. They clamped the hatch into position and Jan signalled to Hahn. Hahn promptly pushed the machine to the port bulkhead as Stev pulled the lever to release the sliding door and extend the take-off ramp. Their movements were slow and laboured under the terrific pull of gravity as, together, they heaved the gleaming machine into the air. It dropped free for about fifty feet, then a jet flared from the rear vents. Stev and Hahn watched it bank, soar, and make a spiralling descent. It touched down, lurched into the air, and, finally, rolled to the stop. A cloud of dust enveloped the machine but, before it had subsided, the Mooncraft was out of sight, over the horizon.
With a feeling of intense relief, Jan slid back the hatch cover and clambered out. Theo followed him. Together, the clung to the side of the machine, perspiring freely. Jan shook his head. He was dizzy, and his legs felt as if they were trying to force him onto the ground. It was going to be a struggle to adapt themselves to nearly six times their normal gravity.
Stumbling and lurching , with dragging feet, they slowly advanced towards the wood and blue haze drifting through the trees. There seemed to be movements of flitting whiteness, but distance and the shadows made recognition difficult.
Theo, breathless with exertion, said.
“Something alive over there.”
“Yes,” answered Jan, equally breathless, “But what? Human? Or animal? A mutant species of either? Could be hostile!”
The struggled on.
When they eventually reached the wood, they, literally plunged into it. The tangled vegetable growth that had appeared to be trees from a distance were, in fact, giant weeds with thick and spongy stalks of a species Jan had never encountered during his years of botanical study. The ‘branches’ were long, waving tendrils that had coiled about each other in a thickly interwoven growth. The leaves were broad and incurring.
The acrid tang of smoke was very strong, and, soon, a more revolting smell assailed them. a pungent sourness, as of unwashed bodies and stale excreta. Used, as they were, to hygiene, to deodorants and air-purification, the mingled odours sickened them. Theo retched visibly but, although dismayed, they forced themselves to go on.
Their stubborn efforts were halted abruptly by a natural barrier of matted vegetation. They could find no way to get round it. Theo unsheathed his long knife to hack through when Jan, who had moved further down the barrier and was peering through a small gap, signalled him to be silent.
Theo joined Jan and, together, they stared, horrified, at the grotesque climax to their journeyings. The small gap in the barriers revealed a clearing about thirty feet in diameter. In the centre was a large fire, obviously fed from a large pile of dried animal droppings. There were creatures around and about the fire, some resting, others engaged in simply communal tasks.
“Evidently, a mutant species,” whispered Jan.
There were about forty of them, al naked. Humanoid, but in no way human. They were hunched, completely hairless and of the odd, frightening white of albinism. Two long arms, extending from shoulders, jointed at the elbows, tapered, like tentacles, into thin, prehensile extremities. The legs were thick, muscular, bending at the knee; the feet were broad, flat and without toes. Small eyes glowed darkly red in the firelight. Judging by the pointed teeth, Jan decided they were carnivores.
Theo made a rapid calculation and estimated that there were fifteen adult females and ten males. The rest were your of various ages. The breasts of women hung, bulbous and flabby, and the men were singularly lean. All were underdeveloped by moon-human standards, and from the babble of sounds, Jan deduced that their speech was, basically, an English form, but it was a curiously stilted dictation, as if it lacked the broadening quality of vowels.
“It’s useless to try for any help here. They’re just primitive animals.”
“You’re right,” said Jan, “Let’s get back to the tender and call up Stev. What a shock this is going to be for the Leader. It’s like taking God out of religion. We’ve always believed at Tycho in the survival of intelligence on Earth. The project pretty well depended on it. We’ll have to operate Plan Two, instead, now. Still, there’s plenty of room on this planet. Let’s go.”
They turned from the barrier to retrace their steps. Then stopped. The passage they had forced through the thick mass was overgrown again. The violently waving tendrils seemed to possess a vicious instinct as they threshed and coiled about each other.
“Makes no difference which way we go, the wood’s not very big. We’ll soon reach the plain.”
Jan agreed and they started to hack their way forward. As they went, the chopped vines lashed and writhed behind them.
After forty yards or so, the vegetation suddenly thinned out into a clearing. Jan and Theo gasped in amazement.
A metal building, topped by a solid, dome-shaped structure occupied the centre of the open space. In the dome was an aperture through which protruded a cone. The building was surrounded by coils of rusted barbed wires. Eroded and crumbling, a low wall of concrete was on the inside of the wire. Set into this were big double doors of rust encrusted metal. There was a sign over the top, but they were unable to decipher the letters.
“Obviously, a defensive relic from the Nuclear War, part of the lot we saw on the plain. Let’s see if we can read that sign,”
As they crossed the clearing, their sensitive nostrils became aware to the familiar sour smell of the mutants. A small band of naked males appeared from behind the building. Each was armed with a crude type of axe that had been fashioned from an animal bone. The weapons were held in the coiled tentacles, high above their heads. They adopted a menacing attitude as they closed in.
Noting the hostility and the apparent lack of fear, Jan, in an attempt at conciliation, spread his hands before him and said,
“Friends. We are friends. We seek your leader.”
One of the mutants advanced. In harsh tones, he answered,
“Nt gt – frnds. No frnds. No ppl, ony Mercn in wld. Al ppl enmi. Grt gd dstry enmi,” and he turned to the building with a smirk of confidence.
“But we are not enem - ”, Jan started, but the mutant thrust out an arms and the extremity wound about Jan’s throat like a steel spring. He struggled to free himself and tore at the coiled tentacle with frantic fingers. Theo drew his knife and slashed at the slowly tightening noose. He severed it at the elbow as the mutant, in a wild fury, struck out with his axe. They caught the blow at the side of the neck. He was almost decapitated and died instantly. Jan, shocked, flung the lifeless tentacle from him and swirled on the wounded mutant who was, vigorously licking the bubling blood from the ghastly stump.
He was brought up short as three of the creatures encircled him and bound him with their wiry arms.
Forcibly, they dragged him across the clearing and flung him down on the barbed wire. The rusted spikes pierced his clothing and tore his flesh as he struggled to extricate himself. The mutants, with dexterity that was astonishing, pulled at the growing tendrils and made them into a rope, and, seemingly quite oblivious of the sharp barbs, bound him securely to the coils of wire.
There they left him.
Jan’s struggles were of no avail, and at last, because every move demanded six times a normal effort, because the horror of Theo’s death, he became unconscious from sheer exhaustion.
He was roused by the sound of voices. He squirmed about to face the clearing and every move was agony. It seemed that the entire community of mutants assembled there. They were chanting a sort of hymn and appeared to be conducting some kind of religious rite. The words were almost unintelligible, but Jan plainly heard, ‘Great god’ and ‘Great defender’.
The males kept to the background, waving their axes. The females were about three feet away from him, swaying, clapping their hands and moving their feet in a frenzied dance. He heard the slap of the naked breast against flesh, and the stench of filthy bodies nauseated him.
The chanting and cavorting went on interminably. Jan hung on the wire and the noise, jangling through his brain, precluded any coherant thought.
Then he saw it. High above the clearing, those silver-gleaming and beautiful lines, dropping lower and lower towards the wood. The Mooncraft.
Hope surged through him. His mind revived. Stev and Hahn. They would rescue him. The very sight of the ship would intimidate these barbarians.
Even with the thought, he noticed that the chanting had ceased. The mutants were staring, incredulous, as the floating bulk of the Mooncraft hovered above them.
Jan, intent on watching the progress of his ship, failed at first, to detect the sounds. But, soon, he became aware of a grinding hissing the seemed to emanate from inside the building. The mutants, he saw, had prostrated themselves.
There was a tremendous surge of force from the dome and something flashed upwards in blurred trajectory. The Mooncraft dissolved in a violent explosion and, as the fierce incandescence seared down upon the clearing to blast everything into oblivion, Jan read, with dying eyes, the inscription over the gates.
‘U.SA.F. Automatic Interceptor Missile Site. No 414. Neb.
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Other Prose Fiction