Authors: David A. Hardy
Tags: #science fiction adventure, #hard science fiction
Copyright Â© 1986, 2003, 2012 by David A. Hardy
A version of Act Two appeared as a short story under
the title “Rock” in the magazine
Published by Wildside Press LLC
I am indebted to the late Dr. Anthony T. Lawton, one-time President of the British Interplanetary Society, for checking and supplying data on star evolution and the mechanism of novae and supernovae. To Michael Guest, former Secretary of Midland Dowsers, for checking the description of dowsing. The interpretation of this information is entirely mine! To Paul Barnett for his encouragement and for editing the final ms. And not least to my wife, Ruth (a non-SF reader, normally), for painstakingly reading and re-reading this story and offering many valuable comments, suggestions, and corrections.
ANY PORT IN A STORM
The darkened land lay swathed in bandages of cloud which, pallidly reflecting the light of a full moon, hid fresh wounds and old scars alike.
The horizon flattened as he leveled the craft out at 4,000 meters. When the clouds parted, not a glimmer appeared below except a glint of moonlight on water in the distance. To his unaided eyes, the city spread out beneath him might be totally lifeless. His instruments said otherwise, though; they showed he was passing through a lattice of powerful radio beams. Reaching forward slightly, he touched a button. Just a regular pulse throbbed in his ears: no voices.
With a reflex that startled even himself, he swooped upward, narrowly missing the black-coated craft which had suddenly appeared before him, diving across his own line of flight. Only its four sets of flickering exhausts had picked it out to his keen eyes. Increasing the sensitivity of his screen (and mentally cursing himself for relying on his own vision until then), he saw it drawing away from him; but others were approaching. Five...ten...twenty.... All were roughly at his own level, but losing height.
He eased his craft into their line, following them down to about 3,000 meters. Above, a few stars shone coldly.
Below and ahead of him, a cluster of brilliant new stars appeared as though sprinkled by a giant hand. The coils of the great river he had seen earlier shone like molten silver in the brightening glow. The blue-white flares were joined by moreâand more. Now there were hundreds, dripping from the sky beneath plumes of white vapor until they drowned out the moonlight.
It seemed, at first, a beautiful sight, reminiscent of the pyrotechnics at a carnival. But soon it became obvious that this incandescent snow had an evil intent. Alighting upon buildings, it transformed itself swiftly into orange and red flames which licked hungrily at roofs and windows. In the fitful light of the flames he could see thick black smoke begin to billow upward. Now great gouts of fire started to leap into the air at various points along the sides of the river, then further into the city. He could envisage bricks, tiles, and chunks of concrete flying in all directions.
The river turned from silver into blood. Pale beams of light sprang from the ground and probed at the clouds, sweeping slowly back and forth.
His craft rocked, buffeted by a blast of hot air from below. Spiraling slowly downwards he headed further south, away from the worst of the destruction, and began to descend.
He had no option. His fuel was almost exhausted.
* * * *
The Heinkel was “riding the beam” above the English coastline, the strong and regular pulse in the wireless operator's earphones showing that his receiver was keeping them on course for their target, ignoring the decoy beams laid by other German stations to bluff the British. Hauptmann Herman Schirmer, the pilot, knew exactly where to deliver his package that night: Waterloo Station. In just about thirty minutes the bomb-doors would open and eight incendiaries would be followed by two 250-kilo high explosives.
The thought gave Schirmer no pleasure. Ten years earlier, when he'd been seventeen, he had visited Britain and made many friends. Quite possibly he was now about to destroy some of those friends...but he had been trained to obey orders without question, so he would drop his deadly load and then return for more. The most he could do was to try to ensure that his aim was accurate and would not senselessly destroy the homes of innocent Londoners.
As midnight approached, his aircraft flew steadily at 290 kilometers per hour and five kilometers high, following in line on the tails of a dozen identical Heinkels. Some of their pilots, he knew only too well, would not be so scrupulous about where their loads landed. Just drop them and get back to base, that was their attitude. He sighed and rubbed his cramped neck.
There was no need now for the intersecting beams to guide them to their target. As he drew closer, Schirmer could clearly see that London was ablaze, burning like a bonfire on the horizon.
The sight appalled him.
The misty-white pencils of the searchlights quested to and fro, but he felt fairly confident that the coating of lamp-black on the Heinkels would absorb the light.
He certainly hoped so....
There was a sudden hellish racket in the cockpit, and he saw the unmistakable glowing red lines of tracer drawing a dotted line through the thin metal skin to his right.
A sharp stab of pain in his calf, and he could see, through a windscreen now streaming with black oil from the starboard engine, the familiar shape of a Spitfire pulling away for a second attack. A yellow tongue of flame burst from the Heinkel's engine.
He hauled on the stickâthe craft was yawing to starboardâbut it would not respond.
“Get rid of the bombs!” he gasped.
His aircraft must be lightened. He felt a perverse pleasure, despite his Luftwaffe training, as he imagined the bombs falling harmlessly on the open countryside below. Then he realized with a shock that the Heinkel was already well over the capital.
“Bail out!” he barked into his intercom.
He glanced behind him. All four of his crew were slumped across their controls.
Through a jagged hole in the floor he glimpsed a broad, shining curve of the Thames reflecting burning warehouses and factories. Frantically he searched for somewhere to crash the Heinkel; not, as he knew he should, where it would do maximum damage, but where it would do as little as possible.
But where? The river was behind him. There was nowhere else....
As the plane began to spin it struck him forcibly that he did not want to die. He struggled desperately with the escape hatch. It finally burst open and he was choked by the acrid smell of the thick, oily smoke that blinded him before it swirled away in the slipstream.
He leapt into emptiness.
Moon. Clouds. Black buildings silhouetted against flames. Each whirled past time and again. He was falling, falling.
Schirmer jerked frantically at the ripcord. Too lateâhe had left it too late.
Then the parachute fluttered above him with a jolt that almost pulled his arms out of their sockets.
He knew he was travelling too fast, too close to the ground.
He had not called upon God in years, but now, eyes closed, he muttered a silent prayer.
* * * *
When he opened his eyes again there was a shape beside him. For a moment he thought he was about to collide with another parachutist. But this figure had no chuteâand he had the strangest feeling that it had risen
him, not fallen. As it reached out its arms to him, a mere thirty meters above dark rooftops, it seemed not to touch him but to engulf him in a firm yet pliable web. Together they drifted relatively gently to the ground.
* * * *
“Jerries! Two of 'em on one flamin' parachute!”
“Come onâlet's give 'em wot for!”
Within seconds they were surrounded by men in Home Guard uniforms and helmets, rifle butts raised, heavy boots poised for kicking. Half-unconscious already, Schirmer tensed for the blows to fall.
When he opened his eyes the next time, the guardian angel responsible for saving his life had vanished. Around him lay Home Guard men in strangely stiff postures: arms still raised as though to pummel, legs outstretched to kick.
Then one of them stirred, moaned. Another sat up slowly, cursing. Herman edged away from them, but at that moment he saw the dim, cowled lights of a vehicle bearing down, jolting on the rubble-strewn street. It screeched to a halt, and in the brief glare of light from a distant explosion he saw the red cross on its side.
Two women ran out of the cab. One examined and questioned the rapidly recovering Home Guard men. The other bent over Schirmer. He saw the look of distaste which flickered across her homely face as she took in his Luftwaffe flying suit and harness, but she quickly became professional and turned her attention to his bleeding leg. Minutes later he was being thrust on a stretcher into the back of the ambulance.
Herman Schirmer knew that now he had at least a chance of surviving the war and seeing his family again. If only his fellow airmen would allow it, he thought wryly, as yet another wave of bombers thundered overhead.
Already, his mysterious savior was being dismissed by the Home Guard stalwartsâand by himselfâas a combination of shock, hallucination, imagination, and optical illusion.
* * * *
Old Annie Wimbush didn't hold with air raid shelters, and she told the warden so, vociferously.
“I've 'ad a good life, and I've lived in this 'ouse for the last fifty years. So did my Fred, till he died in 'is bed, Gawd bless 'im. 'Ere I've lived, and 'ere I'll die, and if some Jerry bomb's goin' to blow me 'ouse up it can take me with it, and that's that.”
Seeing that she was not to be persuaded, Warden Bill Bramley pulled the blackout curtains closer together, then went outside to ensure that the chink of light that had first attracted his attention no longer showed.
“Good night, then,” he called round the door, and he meant it sincerely.
Camberwell was peaceful so far, but further north, beyond the Thames, the skyline was an angry, shifting red glow. From time to time a vortex of hot air and smoke would boil up to meet the lowering cloud, which gave back the ruddy glare. With luck, he thought, the raid would not come any further south tonight.
Even as he completed the thought, he heard a high-pitched whine...which rapidly became a rushing roar. Then everything went black.
Warden Bill Bramley's war was over.
* * * *
The house adjoining Mrs. Wimbush's semi seemed to burst apart, yet hers was left standing, incongruously tall and narrow, apparently intact.
The appearance was deceptive. The connecting wall had fallen in upon the widow, leaving her half-buried. Both her legs were broken, and she had suffered smashed ribs and many other internal injuries.
Yet she remained conscious and alert; in shock and not yet aware of the pain.
She pushed weakly at the bricks all around her.
“Throwin' ruddy bricks now, they are. Joey?âare you all right, Joey?”
A domed cage lay on its side in the rubble, its bars bent and its door sprung open. There was a fluttering of tiny wings and a green shape landed on her shoulder. The budgerigar started nibbling at her ear.
“Oh, Joey, love,
you are! I'd rather they got me than you.”
A spasm of further pain creased Annie's lined face, and again she scrabbled feebly at the bricks.
A new sound made her turn her head. She winced again. Had it just been more falling rubble?
“Help!” she cried. “Is anybody there?”
Then, with a flash of the humor for which she had been known in the neighborhood for many years, she muttered, “It's a pity you ain't a pigeon, Joey. Then you could carry a message for me.... Oooh, I wish somebody'd take this pain away.”
A pale, insubstantial figure drifted into her field of view. All the lights had gone out when the bomb struck, but a broken gas main next door burnt with a harsh hiss, its yellow-white pillar of fire casting fugitive shadows. The glare limned the figure with gold, and for a moment she thought of an angel.
“Is that you, Mr. Bramley? Can you give me an 'and? I'm stuck!”
The flames that had been licking tentatively at the rafters protruding from the open roof-space suddenly blossomed into a roaring, crackling ball of fire. Beams shifted and, with a groaning creak, began to topple.
The stranger placed a hand gently on the old lady's temple, then slipped away quickly. There was nothing more he could do here, and his time was short.
As her house began to collapse around her, Annie Wimbush's wish of a few minutes before was granted.
There was no more pain.
* * * *
“Go to sleep, my baby...,” crooned Dorothy Petrie drowsily, regretting for the thousandth time that she had ever let her husband, Rory, persuade her to leave Scotland for London when he was offered a better-paid job. Now he was away in the trenches, Lord knew where, up to his eyes in mud or worse, while she, instead of being safely asleep in their old, stone-built cottage tucked snugly into the hillside, tried to doze on a horse-hair sofa while her eight-year-old son Stephen waved his toy guns, assiduously shooting down the airplanes droning endlessly overhead, and her baby daughter, Aurora, tossed restlessly in her cot, whimpering, about to cry again.
Aurora. The imaginative name had been Dorothy's idea. The Northern Lights had been draping their ethereal multicolored banners above the cottage on the night Dorothy and the kids had left for the south, for London.
Stephen had been dangerously ill with pneumoniaâshe put it down to his having to be taken through the cold air night after night to the sheltersâbut was now well on the mend. He had qualified for a Morrison indoor shelter: chocolate-brown metal plates bolted to a girder frame, with metal-grid sides. The Morrison was supposed to double as a table during the day, but the boy played inside it almost constantly, sticking cut-out models of Hurricanes, Spitfires, Lancasters, Messerschmitts, and Heinkels to its “sky” with black cotton and Plasticine, spotlighting them with battery-powered searchlights and aiming wooden shells at them from model guns, complaining because caps were no longer available to supply sound effects.
The house shook as the
of a nearby explosion seemed to flatten the air.
That was too close for comfort!
Darting across the room, Dorothy grabbed the baby up from the cot and dived for the Morrison,
An eerie whistling sound grew louder, louder, louder. A cloud of soot burst from the fireplace. There was clatter from the roof.
For a moment there was silence, apart from a spattering rain of plaster.
Then the ceiling fell in.
“Stevie! Get back!” she cried in horror, lying on her side with a leg twisted beneath her, trapped under a heavy joist. The baby lay on the ground, just beyond her reach, but was bawling lustily, apparently more frightened than hurt. Through the clouds of choking dust she watched as her son, as though in slow motion, tried to crawl towards her from the shelter, wailing, terrified. Above her the roof gaped open to the sky. She could see showers of sparks streaming upwards from a burning building nearby. Water gushed out the end of a lead pipe that protruded from the hole, spreading in a dark stain down the wallpaper.