Authors: David A. Hardy
Tags: #science fiction adventure, #hard science fiction
But these horrors were as nothing compared to another. Right above her, swinging from the rafters by the cords of its parachute, hung a dull metal cylinder.
Her wartime conditioning was profound: even in her fright she found part of her brain thinking of the underwear she could make from the parachute's green silken folds.
But only for a second. Then the fear came surging back through her.
The tall chimney of Dobson & Dart's paint factory next door, which should have towered above her, was missingâabsent from the patch of livid night sky framed by the shattered ceiling above her. And now she could see a solid fountain of flame gushing up from the factory, its roar like a blowtorch trying to sear the clouds. Tins of paint and varnish rocketed into the skyâat any moment one could splash its blazing contents around this room.
We're trapped! Oh, God, take
but spare the kids....
Stephen had crawled out of the Morrison. She watched, powerless, frozen, as the rest of the ceiling and a section of the Dobson & Dart chimney collapsed, covering Stevie and Aurora in dust, grit, and stones. The baby disappeared completely, the sound of her crying cut off abruptly. Stevie, ominously silent now, was only partially hidden by the rubble and the rising shrouds of dust, his open eyes upon her.
She screamed wildly.
“Help! Oh, for God's sake, somebody, help!”
Silhouetted against the flames and sparks which filled the frame of sky overhead there came into view something bulbous, metallic, and balloon-like. It slid slowly out of sight, sinking downwards, its underbelly orange in the reflected glare. There was a haze around it which seemed not entirely smokeâalmost as though the smoke and sparks were deflected around it as it sank onto the blazing factory.
The ceiling of flame reddened and dimmed, reminding her of a candle in church being smothered by a brass snuffer. The roar and crackle diminished as though someone were turning down the volume of a wireless set. The sky, so fiery moments before, became dark. A few wisps of pink cloud drifted overhead, and a star winked.
Stevie moaned faintly.
“Stevie! Are you all right, love?” At least he was alive.
But what about the baby?
“IâI think so, Mummy.” He started to sob again. “But I can't move.” Then the natural curiosity of the child kicked in. “What was that funny thing up there?”
Several timbers crashed down between them, one narrowly missing his head. The mine hanging above them, the Sword of Damocles, shifted.
It's going to fall right on top of us.
Something moved above the mine. Refocusing her eyes, she saw the balloon-like object appear again, now hovering, almost motionless. It was smaller than she had thought. She felt rather than heard a low, throbbing hum.
The mine moved again. Her scream filled her mind until that was all there was.
Then, between her fingers she saw the mine
, drawn upwards as though by a magnet. Bomb and balloon slid out of view.
As did the rest of the world....
* * * *
The weight had gone from her legs, and someone was shining a bright, unshielded torch on Stephen.
“Put that light out!” she cried automatically, then: “Oh, sorry, sorry, sorry! Thank you, thank you for helpingâbut won't they see your light?”
Dorothy glanced up at the sky. The drone of aircraft, which had seemed continuous for hours, was gone. The heavens were paling with the dawnâ
or is it just the light of the city burning?
She remembered the baby, and looked around frantically. A pathetic white bundle lay on a dust-covered chair.
Grunting with pain, she struggled to get to her feetâand succeeded, surprised she wasn't more badly injured.
The man in the wrecked room put out his hand to stop her.
He set down his lamp, a globe without obvious battery-pack. He had been scrabbling in the mound of plaster, bricks, and mortar that had almost buried the boy. He had said nothing in reply to her. She frowned as she took in his tight, grey uniform and close-fitting helmet. There was something wrong about him, but she didn't know what it was.
Then realization dawned.
A German parachutist!
Her fingers closed around a length of broken rafter, but then she dropped it. German or not, he was humanâand he had helped her, and he was now trying to help her son.
The man stood up, then clutched his side as if in pain.
“Are you hurt? Areâare youâGerman?” she babbled. “ErâDeutsch? What is your name?” She pointed at her own chest. “Dorothy.”
The man looked at her, still without a word. She thought he smiled.
Dorothy made another effort to reach her baby, but at that moment the stranger pulled Stevie from under the pile of debris. Laying the small form down gently, he ran his hands over the boy's body and legs.
Stevie jerked and stiffened, and Dorothy took a half-pace towards him with a cry, but the man waved her back almost savagely. In the shadows she couldn't see what he was doing.
Retreating, she bumped into the chair where baby Aurora lay.
Stevie stirred and sat up. “Hello. Who are you?” he asked in an incongruously calm voice, as if he had just woken from a peaceful sleep.
The stranger helped the boy to his feet. Stevie swayed unsteadily for a moment, like a new-born faun, then walked stiffly to his mother.
Dorothy clutched the body of her little daughter tightly to her, tears streaming down her cheeks. Her gaze flicked back and forth from her lifeless baby to her son. It was too much. Hysterically, she laughed and cried, then slipped once more into oblivion.
* * * *
A loud battering sound beat against her. She opened her eyes to see two men bursting through the front door. Both wore the uniform of Air Raid Wardens.
“Are you all right, Mrs. Petrie?” yelled one, his gaze roving the shattered room warily, obviously terrified there would be a further fall of rubble. She knew himâMr. Hicks, the greengrocer. The other was unknown to her.
Dorothy spared them barely a glance, for from the chair came the plaintive wail of a hungry baby.
Aurora's alive? Yet I was so sure....
Mr. Hicks went off for help after a while, and Dorothy tried to explain to the other man.
“If there was a German, madam,” said the warden, “we'll get him, don't you worry. He may have been a Good Samaritan, but he can't go running around loose in London for long. For his own good, apart from anything else.”
“You don't understand...,” she shouted in exasperation.
“Mummy, what was that silvery thing we saw?” interrupted Stevie.
“What? Oh...it must have been a...a barrage balloon that got shot and drifted down, dear. Yes, that's it, a barrage balloon. Now, will you listen, Mr...?”
“Thompson. Just calm down, ducks. We'll have to find you somewhere to live for the time being, but your roof can be fixed. You're lucky you can all walk out of here.”
? That's what I've been trying to tell you! Stephen hasn't walked since he fell off a swing when he was two. He's been paralyzed from the waist down ever since.”
Thompson stared, speechless. He had just opened his mouth to speak when a movement above caught his eye.
They both looked up in time to see a metallic spheroid drifting upward. It shrank to the size of a full Moon, then vanished in a brilliant blue, soundless explosion.
“Hydrogen, you know. It does that,” said Thompson.
* * * *
It was some time later that Dorothy Petrie realized in horror that the baby girl she held in her arms was not Aurora.
She was quite sure.
After all, a mother knows her own child.
Yet it was ridiculous. Of course the baby was Aurora! It had to be!
Over the years that followed, Dorothy never dared mention her knowledge to anyone, and after a while she convinced herself that the shock of all those strange and violent events must have done something to her mind.
to be Aurora.
“Spare us a couple a bob, mate? Just enough for a cup of coffee?”
The girl couldn't have been more than fifteen. Her face was thin and drawnâand dirtyâyet she was pretty in a pale, elfin kind of way.
“You mean ten new pence, don't you?” grinned Lefty. “Well, I was just going to the pub, as it happens. I'll buy you a Coke, if you like, if we can get to the bar before they close.”
“Coke? Oh, wow! Yeah, all right, then. Why not?”
Five minutes later Lefty was gazing in awe as she downed a large gin and tonic in one swig.
“You'll get me arrested,” he said. “Buying alcoholic drinks for minors.”
“I'm not a minor. Don't you worryâI'm old enough.”
“Yeah, yeah, and I'm the Duke of Edinburgh. I just hope you can prove it if the Law comes snooping around.” He stuffed a wad of banknotes into his inside pocket.
“You're a bit flush, aren't you?” she asked, cocking her head.
“Just been paid for a job.”
“Oh yeah? What do you do then, this time of night? Burgle houses?”
“Ha, ha. No. During the day I'm self-unemployed. But I'm in a bandâthe Gas Giants, heard of us? We've been getting quite a few gigs in the evenings.”
“Funny name. No, I never heard of them. Why're you called that?”
“Oh, some of the outer planets are called gas giants 'cause, well, they're just big balls of gas. That's us!” His white teeth shone. “No, it just sorta sounded rightâwe play “spacey” sort of musicâone day we'll show Pink Floyd and Hawkwind how it's doneâand âit's a gas'. You know?”
“Not really. What do
“Bass guitar. I'm left-handedâthey call me Leftyâand just to be really different I tune it E, B, G, D, like the top four strings on an ordinary guitar, only back to front. I can really leap around on it though!”
“If you say so. That stuff's all Greek to me. I don't know anything about music. Pop all sounds the same, and the stuff they play on Radio Three's boring. Mind you, a boy took me to the Last Night of the Proms once.” Her face, which had been almost sullen, brightened. “Now
was great. Not the music so muchâit didn't mean much to me, reallyâbut all those people, enjoying it together. I've never known anything like that. Except....”
“I dunno. Something I seem to remember. But I can never seem to get a handle on it. You know what I mean?”
“I suppose. Well you must come to one of our gigs, then you'll see what it's all about.”
“Maybe. Can I have another drink?”
“Eh? Oh, right, sure.” He sneaked a glance at her unusually pale, almost violet eyes, set in dark hollows. He couldn't quite figure her out. Under the grime she was really very good-looking, with her long, very blonde hair, but sort of remote. And she was so slim as to be almost twiggy.
Perhaps she's been ill?
As he got up the barman shouted, “Last orders please, ladies and gents!” It was already 10:40 p.m.
“Better make it a double then,” said the girl with a grin.
“Do you think you oughta drink so much?”
“Habit,” she replied without apparent offence. “It doesn't help, though. Neither does anything else I've tried. Once I thought acid was the answer, but....”
“What are you trying to find? Drugs aren't the way, you know. Oh, yeah, I tried them tooâtook me two years to kick them for good. Cold turkey...ugh.” Lefty shuddered. “If it'll help you to talk about it, though, go ahead. I'm a good listener, they tell me. Hey, listen, I don't even know your name...?”
She put her hands behind her neck and piled her hair on top of her head. It suited her, thought Lefty. Made her look older.
“It's Aurora. Don't you dare laugh.”
He raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
“Oh, I don't know myself what's wrong with me. I always feel there's something missing, that's all. Whatever I do, I don't seem to belong.”
She paused for a long moment, eyes closed, until Lefty thought she had fallen asleep. Then she continued, drowsily.
“My dad died in the war. I almost did too, so my mother told meâin the Blitz. We moved back up to Scotland after the warânear Inverness.”
“Inverness? WowâSwingsville! So what brings you back here?” asked Lefty. Then he frowned. “Hang on! What do you mean, you were in the Blitz? That'd make you over thirty! Come on, there's no way you're more than sixteen. Eighteen, tops. What's your game?”
The girlâwoman called Aurora gave him an enigmatic smile. “No game. I don't tell many people, and to be honest I don't know why I'm telling you, but I'm thirty-two. Yes, on the level.”
Lefty gave her a long, hard look, then shook his head as if pestered by a fly. “Yeah, right. Go on, then. You were sayingâ?”
“Mum died when I was ten, in a car crash. I got out without a scratch. But I didn't have any other living relatives except my older brother, Steve. We were in and out of children's homes until I was fifteen. I kept running away. I was good at school, or I was whenever I bothered to go. The problem was, I found lessons too easy. The other kids thought I was a swot, and the teachers couldn't handle me. So I used to bunk off. Except for scienceâI liked that. I was good at art too. Of course, even that threw them into a tizzy, 'cause you weren't supposed to be good at both. Steve would have been OK if it hadn't been for me. He's a worker. He's settled down with his own family nowâhaven't seen him for years.
“Anyway, after that I could never seem to hold down a job for more than a week or two.” Then, in a sudden rush, she added: “I always seem to cause trouble, wherever I go. You'll seeâyou won't want me around for long, either.”
She started to rise, ready to leave, but Lefty gripped her arm. “Where're you going? You got a place to stay?”
“Oh, sure, I've got a nice comfy cardboard box on the Embankment. As long as somebody hasn't beaten me to it....”
“Come on, I'll take you to my pad. You could do with somethin' to eat, anyway. It's all rightâI'll sleep on the couch.”
She looked at him doubtfully for a moment, then came to a decision.
“Sure. Why not? Thanks.”
Outside, it was raining heavily. Lefty hailed a passing cab but it sailed on past, its wake drenching them.
“Come on, it's not far,” he yelled, grabbing Aurora's hand, his head down. “We can walk. Run.”
Minutes later they were scampering up half-a-dozen worn, chipped concrete steps and passing through a door still boasting a few shreds of brown paint. Then up four flights of twisting, lino-covered stairs, then another door, which Lefty kicked just below the handle. It flew open.
“It's not much, but it's home, to coin a phrase,” Lefty said with a grin. He reached for a box of matches on the cast-iron mantelpiece and shook it, then bent down and lit the gas fire.
“Look, you really oughta get out of those clothes. They're as wet as if you'd jumped into the Thames. If you....”
He stopped in surprise as, with a few deft movements, Aurora shrugged out of her clothes and draped them over a chair near the fire. That done, she flopped naked into another chair in front of it. Against the segment of dark sky framed by the dirty, rain-streaked window, her face and body reflected the warm orange glow of the gas fire.
Lefty hastily looked in the other direction, pointing. “That'sâerâthat's the piano where we do most of our songwriting. The rest of the guys have got flats in this dump, or just down the road. There's the bathroom; you have to pull the chain twice to make it flush. No shower, but there should be hot water if you want a bath. The bedroom's through there. I can probably find you a pair of pajamas if you....”
“No, thanks. I never bother, not when I've got a proper bed.”
“Oh, man!” Lefty raised his eyes heavenwards. He reached inside the bedroom door and pulled a string which hung there. An unshaded orange bulb clicked on over the bed, and he picked up his pajamas from a heap on the floor.
“Sleep well,” he said through a yawn as Aurora passed him on her way in.
* * * *
He raised his head groggily and pried open his bleary eyes. What had woken him? Someone must have turned on the radio, for there was tinkling music coming from behind him. Something on Radio Three? Classical, yet a bit avant-garde? Normally the dial was never moved from Radio One. It seemed a bit loud and clear for the old trannie, though. He levered himself up and peered over the back of the sofa.
Aurora, wearing only briefs and braâbut at least she'd got
onâwas sitting at the piano, her fingers flickering over the yellowed keys, her face trancelike.
“Heyâyou never told me
could play!” Lefty yelled, louder than he had intended. “You said you didn't like music much! So where'd you learn to do that?”
The girl started violently and drew back her hands as though the keys had suddenly become red-hot. “I said I didn't like the music I've
. I've never had a chance to play an instrument myself before.”
“Oh, sure. Now pull the other oneâgot bells on it!”
“It's true.” She looked at him blankly. “Why not? You just find out where the notes are and then play them, don't you?”
“Yeah, right on. Except that most people take weeks just to learn the basicsâand some have lessons for years and still never get further than âJingle Bells'....”
“Well, p'raps I'm just a natural, then. Some people are, aren't they?”
“So the story goes,” said Lefty dubiously. A moment later the door sprang open with the inevitable crash and four men, all aged between twenty and thirty, burst into the room. They screeched to a halt on spotting Aurora, and began making exaggerated motions of backing out of the door again.
One of them, who sported an Afro hairstyle in bright red hair, said with a grin, “Hey, sorry to break in on your scene, man!”
“Like, we didn't know you'd got company!” added the one with a droopy, Mexican-style moustache.
Lefty glowered, but before he could speak Aurora snapped: “I don't know what you're all staring at. But, if you're embarrassed, I'll go and get dressed.”
She left the room with a histrionic sigh. The five young men exchanged guilty looks, wondering what it was they should be feeling guilty about.
A minute or two later she reappeared wearing her jeans, now dry and stiff.
“Perhaps I can do the introductions now,” said Lefty with a flourish, as the door opened and a youth with shoulder-length dark hair strolled in. “The latecomer, as usual, is Synth. The rest of this mob”âhe pointedâ“are Ginge, Doug, Acker, and Herbie. Herbie's our road manager, but he doubles on guitar as well. Guys, this is Aurora.”
He didn't explain further. The others seemed immediately to accept her presence as one of the gang.
“Hey, the new synth's arrived,” burst out the newcomer. “It's just got to be stacks better than that old thing I cobbled together.”
“It better be,” grunted Acker, “after we've sold all our worldly goods to pay for it.” He grimaced at Aurora. “Just to put a deposit on it, even.”
why you call him Synth?” Aurora whispered to Lefty. “I thought perhaps he wasâyou know....”
Lefty smiled. “Don't let him hear you say that!” He continued more loudly: “This one's polyphonicânot like the old Moogs.” He pronounced the name to rhyme with “rogues”.
Aurora looked totally blank. “Sorry, mate, but I haven't a clue what you're talking about.”
“Oh, yeah, I forgotâyou aren't into our kind of music, are you? Well, on the old Moog synthesizers you could only play single notes. If you wanted to record something like Walter Carlos's album
you had to keep overdubbingâre-recording from one tape to anotherâto get the harmonies and so on. But we've just got hold of one that plays chords. And it's really compact as well.”
The group fell to discussing their gig that night and Aurora roamed around the room, taking science-fiction paperbacks and magazines from the shelves that lined the walls, and staring with a puzzled expression at the star-charts and maps of the Moon and Mars, and at the big art print of a planetary landscape with a huge red sun looming in its sky, bearing the title
, that filled the rest of the wall-space along with faded posters of rock bands in concert. Someone had turned on the old radio, and they took a brief interest as a news bulletin announced that Apollo 16 had landed safely at Descartes. Lefty bemoaned the fact that the next Moon landing could well be the last manned space mission for decades if not forever. “We should be going on to Marsâ
where it's at,” he stated decisively.
Aurora blinked, as if coming out of a reverie, as Ginge called: “See you in the grotty clubâsorry, Grotto Clubâtonight, then.”
“Who, me?” she said.
“Well you want to see what we can do, don't you?” said Lefty.
“Oh, well, s'pose so. Why not? I've got nothing better to do.”
“Cor, such enthusiasm! You'll seeâone of these fine days you'll be boasting about knowing us when we were just starting out!”