Of the struggling dregs of humanity only a few could hope to survive to build a new world . . . thanks to those who had foreseen their plight and planned their salvation.
"THE TWILIGHT of the human race..."
Erik recalled the words his father had spoken upon the day he died, twenty-one years before. Ten minutes later had come that fearful tremor which had devastated large parts of Europe, and Professor Kato had been killed even as they ran from the house.
He remembered how his father had turned from the great, curved window, with its view of the white-capped mountains in the hazy distance, nervous fingers plucking at his silky white beard, his face lined and grey in the dull, foreboding light streaming into the lounge. Even as the old man turned, a sudden, growing rumble, immensely loud and distant, echoed through the oppressive air. The earth began to tremble ominously with great, shuddering pulses, and Erik felt that the divan on which he sat was striving to waltz round the huge circular room. He clung to its arms and peered anxiously through the window. Somewhere below, a heavy crash sounded; his half-empty glass of julep skated across the smooth table to tinkle into fragments on the composite floor. The lights pendant from the ceiling oscillated gently.
"Hmm! The volcano near Skagatara, in Scandinavia, I expect," the Professor announced shakily. "We will listen to the world newscast; then we had better follow the rest into open country, for safety's sake. It is as well you did not stay at college for your half-term vacation," he added, concern on his wrinkled face. He crossed the room and slid back the panel concealing the audioviewer. Erik withdrew his gaze from an overcast sky of leaden yellow such as no human eye had ever looked upon before, and watched his father finger the dials. The screen flashed; a reproducer sprang to life.
"This is the world newscast for to-day-- 10th ]une, 2104.
The great sub-terranean upheaval shows no sign of abating. Near the scene of the first disturbance, volcanic activity is very great and many new craters have appeared within the last few hours. No messages have been received from any of the Philippine Islands, or from Borneo or Celebes, and it is believed that the population of these islands is in danger of complete annihilation."
A map came on the screen, the areas mentioned outlined in red. "A report brought in by a trans-continental flier states that the whole of the Pacific Ocean lies under an immense yellow cloud of volcanic smoke and floating ash. Flying low over Formosa, the pilot saw that the southern end of the island had tilted downwards and been inundated by the sea, and the northern end was a mass of boiling lava. No survivors were seen, and it is believed that such conditions now cover most of the southern hemisphere."
Professor Kato's face was white. "The greatest disaster since the dawn of man," he said slowly. "Heaven help those who caused it! Never has science made such an error."
Erik did not reply. There had seemed much justification for the attempts to harness the Earth's internal heat, and none had suspected that they could have such disastrous results. Floris, a geophysicist of international repute, had been proud of the plan he had conceived; Tsi-Kweih, a superb engineer, confident of his ability to carry it out.
For over a century now, men had looked askance at atomic power. Its first industrial uses, with imperfect plant, had almost flung the civilisation of 2000 A.D. into a new dark age. Radioactive infection- that had been the trouble. Coolants were activated as they surged through the piles and transferred their radioactivity to great rivers in the secondary cooling stations so that the waters were polluted, and no processing could remove the taint. Fish ceased to spawn; weed drifted in rotting masses near all the seashores of the world. Rising molecules of water had lingering radioactivity; rain clouds shone faintly blue in the night. In another hundred years, plant life- and man -might have been annihilated; but the fission piles were halted just in time.
SINCE THEN, all measures for the disposal of the dangerous by-products of atomic plants had proved equally futile. So, Floris had shown that the heat at the Earth's core could be tapped, and Tsi-Kweih had sunk the enormous shafts and tubes through which molten alloys were to be circulated to carry the heat to the engines" above. A few days before, the heat-exchangers had been set in operation. Now-
"The disturbances are spreading rapidly," the voice of the announcer continued. "South America reports that scores of previously extinct volcanoes along the Andes are erupting violently. Volcanic activity in Europe is also increasing, and earthquakes of unparallelled violence are reducing many cities to rubble. Wherever possible, people should take food and clothing into areas free from buildings. They should seek high ground, as tidal waves may arise at any time . . ."
The screen became blank, except for the waving line which showed that the station was still sending. But Erik could picture the catastrophe for himself, in all its horror. Earthquakes made every continent tremble. Old volcanoes erupted explosively, hurling masses of torn rock up through billowing clouds of smoke and vapour; new craters appeared, adding their lurid glare. Smoke and ash obscured the Sun, so that an unnatural night came soon. Cities tottered into rubble, the thunder of their collapse hiding the puny screams of the millions who sought unavailingly, with upflung arms, to stay downcrushing tons of masonry. Flames licked from the ruins, fitfully illuminating the heavy sky, and still the tremors increased in violence.
"This is fantastic!" cried Professor Kato, impotently. "just because those two crazy men thought they could tap Earth's heat, the whole human race is threatened. Fools! They should have known that they would upset the balance of pressures. I warned them-- but even I did not expect anything so terrible as this! The falling temperature was bound to cause reduced subterranean pressure and allow the sea to rush into the extinct craters in the Pacific. The steam blows Guam off the map; and then, when more water finds its way to the planet's core, there's this... this..."
The screen flickered to life again
"It is now revealed that Floris and Tsi-Kweih have been done to death by the mob that stormed their laboratory this morning. Fearing this attack, they had locked themselves in, but the crowd was bent on revenge. Tsi-Kweih died trying to escape from an upper window, while Floris was dragged into the street and killed."
The screen blanked, and Kato, with a muttered exclamation, strode to the window. Erik followed him. The Professor rested his hand affectionately upon the shoulder of the slim figure scantily clad in linen shorts and shirt.
"It is noon, but the Sun has not shone to-day," he said at length. "We saw it yesterday- and I fear that is the last time it will ever shine upon Earth"
Erik was startled. "You mean-?"
"Yes." His father made a sweeping gesture. "The sky is yellow and dull. There are a thousand volcanoes in eruption." As he spoke the room quivered, and he steadied himself by placing a lean hand against the window-sill. "This must have far-reaching results, not only upon us but all life on this planet. Never before has there been such a titanic release of natural forces."
Erik gazed through the window. The sky had become so heavy that the distant mountains were now entirely hidden from view by clouds extending to ground level like a pea-soup fog. Looking up, he could not distinguish where the Sun might be. He pushed open the broad window, stepped out on to the balcony, then gave an exclamation. The terrace outside was covered with a minutely fine, brownish dust that settled slowly out of the sky.
"Yes," Professor Kato said, as a distant rumble shuddered through the air. "Volcanic dust. With it comes gloom- and twilight. The twilight of the human race..."
LOOKING BACK, Erik found that every subsequent detail stood out in his memory. The tidal waves, fortunately small; the rioting and stricken misery of peoples that followed the disruption of social life throughout the World, as a terrifying month of constant volcanic eruption dragged on. Social services failed; disease and famine decimated the population; and when the disturbance had settled down it was a sorry world in which he wandered--a world shaken and torn, existing in a semi-gloom caused by the polluted atmosphere.
But a lifetime of work was necessary to restore man to his former standing. Dwelling on the past would do no good-- he must not degenerate to the cult of the Past-worshippers. With a shrug, he straightened his drooping shoulders, turned as the door opened. In the years that had passed since the Catastrophe he had shed all immaturity, had developed his father's incisive judgment. He had proved himself a courageous, stimulating Leader of Reconstruction.
A smile greeted him, from lips set in an oval face surmounted by flaxen hair which curled in ringlets around a clear-skinned forehead. Elena, his secretary, wore a white linen dress belted at the waist such as was favoured by all the Intellectuals. She closed the door behind her and stood before Erik, her face now serious as she referred to the notes she carried.
"The last attempt to precipitate the atmospheric dust at Station N5 has failed," she stated simply.
Erik's shoulders seemed to sag, and once more he stifled a sigh. The electrostatic discharges in which he had pinned so much hope had been useless, then. He should have expected it had not all their experiments during the last decade proved as vain as his attempts to reawaken in the Workers the self-respect they had lost? The Intellectuals possessed insufficient skill, lacking the technical knowledge that was available before the Catastrophe.
"Must we give up hope?" he said slowly. "Why were so many valuable men killed, so much knowledge destroyed? We need their aid and the help of the lost technologies, as never before. No moisture rises, and our bones are chilled to the marrow for lack of the Sun's direct rays. I begin to fear I shall never bask in them again."
He turned to stare from the window, as he had done so often through the long years. He could see scarcely a hundred feet through the murk, in which the glaring electric lights glowed ceaselessly but dimly. He counted four- all the rest were lost in the gloom which was so all-pervading that nothing could disperse it. Daily he had counted those four, wishing that some day he would see five, perhaps six, and know that the air was clearing. But it was always four: the chill air did not clear. Instead it was so thick that only a dull yellow glow showed when day had come. The lights were never extinguished; nowhere in all the world did daylight dawn.
There was a step behind him, and a slender hand brushed his shoulder gently
"You worry too much," Elena said tenderly. "Your hair is grey- yet you are still young. Why worry about the Workers? We Intellectuals will survive, whatever happens. Give up this senseless struggle-"
Erik shook off her hand, frowning. "No. Animal life has died, all but the specimens we have kept, and vegetation too-- and man will go the same way soon. The Workers need our encouragement, as we need them. Can we let everyone revert to savagery- become mere animals living from day to day, forgetting our human heritage?"
"If the others have not the will to fight, they are not worthy to live," she insisted. "Why waste your own life struggling for them?"
WITH A careless shrug, she moved slowly to the desk and began sorting out papers from the case she had left there.
"I have a report from the Astronomical Board," she said, as Erik seated himself. "That also is bad."
He knew that a giant comet was supposed to be approaching the Earth through space, but the clouded sky prevented observation, and he hoped fervently that further odds were not to pile up against them. The remnant of humanity which had survived the Catastrophe was in no condition to withstand an ordeal that had daunted even the world of his father's day. And the Workers were ignorant, superstitious, fearful.
Erik read the report in silence. There had been a scare in his early youth when the new comet, Pi Vagranto, had swept in from the boundaries of the Solar System, narrowly missing intersection of Earth's orbit. Next time, it was said, they might not be so lucky. The time of its return had been nicely calculated, but the old astronomers had died in the upheaval of 2104 or been killed in the Workers' Revolt of 2106 when most of their records were destroyed. Now the world lacked data on such phenomena. None could say with certainty what Pi Vagranto would do when it returned; but its threat had become more important with the passing years.
There were many gaps in scientific knowledge since the days of the Catastrophe. Fear-crazed peoples had said that Science was responsible for the disaster, and they had pillaged and destroyed whole libraries so that the scientists could never again try to tap the planet's heat or harness the energy of the atom. When sanity came, it was too late to repair the damage. All but the simplest processes were no longer available to mankind, except through the slow, painful way of rediscovery. The astronomers had salvaged a few bare facts or speculations on Pi Vagranto, but even if they had reliable instruments they could not have observed anything through the murky atmosphere.
"So they fancy it's making a better shot at us this time," Erik mused, laying the papers down. "Its head may graze the atmosphere, and they estimate that the nucleus-- which is remarkably dense, I remember- will almost certainly collide with the Moon and cause a heavy shower of meteors. Most of them will land on the Moon, but there will be repercussions on Earth, for which we must be prepared. If only we had more precise data..."
Elena leaned forward excitedly. "The Capsule will give it to us- and my brother, Crossland, thinks he has located it!"
"Yes? Where?" Erik's face brightened. The Time Capsule, which had been no more than a legend for so long... Buried on the eve of the 2106 rebellion by a small band of scientists, it would almost certainly contain exact information about the wanderer which had invaded the Solar System. For years he had cherished the hope that the Capsule might be found, for it was said to contain all the knowledge man needed to work his rehabilitation.
"Yes," Elena went on. "He has been taking magnetic soundings around the supposed site of the Capsule, and yesterday a large metal object was located."
Erik jumped to his feet. "Then we will go immediately and begin excavating!"
He hurried her from the room and along the corridors. As they hastened down the four flights of stairs in the scanty light, he wished that power were more plentiful so that they might have moving stairways as they did when he was a boy, and that the streets could be properly illuminated. But the synthetic fuels available were barely sufficient for their essential needs.
In a fragile pedal-car propelled by a hefty Worker, they swept through cold, dimly-lighted streets that were deserted except for a small crowd on a corner. Peering through the window of the car, Erik saw a score of youths and girls listening intently to a man standing upon the high steps of a doorway. Erik groaned at the sight of the crude banner behind the speaker.
"Yes," said Elena, following his gaze. "It must seem strange to you; but talk of the Sun and the Earth, when all was light, has a curious fascination for those born since the Catastrophe-- I myself have felt it."
They soon reached open land beyond the city, where they alighted, to pick their way slowly across a field of sickly-looking grass. No vegetation thrived in the perpetual gloom, though sometimes a dead tree with gaunt, outstretched limbs loomed through the murk. At length they reached a tent where a light was burning. Cables snaked over the ground, and a portable generator was whining. A tall, slender man pushed aside the tent flap and came towards them: Crossland, Elena's brother, a few years her senior, skilful and reliable.
"You have located the Capsule?" Erik demanded.
Crossland nodded a sleek head. "Yes. We explored many square miles with dip-needles, and unless we err, there lies the Capsule-- a mere hundred feet down." He raised his hand, and Erik saw a white pole placed in the ground a little distance away.
"Good!" He restrained his excitement with difficulty. "Get all the men and machinery available to work immediately. No time must be lost-understand?"
"Perfectly. You suspect that it will give us data on the comet?"
"And on other things..."
TWO DAYS had passed before Elena burst into Erik's room with the news for which he was waiting. "The Capsule has been unearthed and opened!"
"Yes--?" He thought he saw something like fear in her blue eyes.
"It has been brought here. It is below-- will you come?"
Erik descended. The Capsule was a long, gleaming torpedo of incorrodible metal to which particles of earth still clung. The end had been unscrewed, revealing the watertight packages it contained, some of which had already been removed. Crossland came towards Erik as he entered the room and put opened papers into his hands.
"Pi Vagranto passes the Earth on the first day of 2126," he said.
Erik calculated rapidly. "That gives us a bare forty-five weeks. How close?"
"The fringe of its envelope will brush our atmosphere. The nucleus itself will cross the lunar orbit."
Erik consulted the flimsy, waxed papers. "These figures were compiled from careful observations- we cannot doubt them." He felt a bitter dismay. There was so little warning. "The Capsule contains information on all the old sciences, preserved from destruction- just as its creators hoped," Crossland said.
Erik looked at the packages being withdrawn one by one. Here was treasure- those lost arts and technologies, so essential to civilisation, were what the world now sorely needed. With their aid, perhaps they could raise mankind again. If they survived-
"All the information in the Capsule will be placed at the disposal of a Technicians' Board which I shall select," he said. "Nothing must be mislaid or damaged- every sheet is irreplaceable. Make a careful inventory and report to me when it is ready."
IN HIS room in the Leaders' Building, Erik operated a bell-push on his desk. Seconds later the door opened to disclose a small man with long arms who stood respectfully awaiting orders. He was a typical Worker, stunted of body and low in intelligence.
"Have all the Workers' Leaders summoned," Erik told him. "They are to come immediately to the Leaders' Chamber."
"Yes, Master Kato." Fear showed in the twitching fingers of the stumpy man, though his features were resigned. Watching him, Erik felt both pity and revulsion. Here was a man who, in common with most of the survivors of the Catastrophe, had been so overwhelmed by the disaster and its consequences that he had ceased to fight. He looked like a thoroughly whipped monkey; yet he was among the best specimens of the Workers. The others, labouring in the synthetic fuel plants and the great hydroponic nurseries which consumed three-quarters of the available power, were mere shadows of men, never aspiring to such a position of trust as Kobold had.
But the Intellectuals would not allow the human race to fall to pieces within a mere two generations, or the Workers revert to the cave-man existence which otherwise might be their lot. The rising generation were dull and stupid; their parents whined about the hopelessness of their lives, and talked only of the days before the Catastrophe. Those with courage and determination to carve out a new future numbered scarcely more than a thousand, though there were many times more Workers.
Kobold was still standing silently by the door, and Erik felt a sudden irritation at his servility.
"Go now!" he snapped. I have myself notified the Intellectuals' Leaders, who will meet first. Hurry!"
He waited at his desk, greeting the Leaders of the Intellectuals as they arrived and passed into the Chamber. When all were present, he joined them.
"My fellows," he announced, "a situation of some gravity has arisen following the discovery of the Time Capsule. Were it not for one piece of information which it contains, and which has confirmed the surmises of our astronomical researchers, the mass of data which it has put into our hands would solve all our problems. But this one thing is all-important- yet it may save us from over- whelming disaster."
There was tense silence as he briefly related the details which verified the impending approach of Pi Vagranto and the probable effects. When he had finished there was a confused murmur of voices, and Austin, the Leader of Food Production, rose ponderously to his feet.
"Why were we not told of this before?" he demanded, his flabby cheeks pale in the dim light. "All our work- it will be in vain."
"We did not have definite information until now," Erik retorted. "It would have been senseless to cause anxiety. Now we must lay our plans for the future- quickly. There is still time, but none to waste."
A second Leader, white-haired and feeble, rose slowly. "Can we be sure that the threat is so severe?" he asked. "I recall that last time the comet came our way there were no effects except an unjustifiable hysteria. Even if it should come closer this time, can it hurt us?"
"According to the warning in the Capsule, which we cannot doubt, there will be great atmospheric disturbances, particularly in these regions. The nucleus of Pi Vagranto is so vast and so unusually dense that, when it collides directly with the Moon, as it must certainly do this time, it will cause perturbations which, though slight in themselves, are bound to have effect on the Earth's tides. There will be great floods, and we shall certainly perish unless we prepare to save something from the wreckage."
"But what preparation is possible?"
"That, too, the Capsule suggests," Erik went on. "The scientists made plans for us, knowing the day would come when we would have to meet this emergency -though they did not realise how difficult it would be for us, with so few resources, to put them into operation. They propose that a large vessel- an Ark- should be built from an alloy they describe. It would be airtight and buoyant, and would carry as much food, fuel and other necessities as possible, together with a selected crew. They propose that some animals should also be taken, and seeds. They suggest that when Pi Vagranto recedes and the flood subsides, the survivors could emerge to form a new community. They recommend that many such vessels be constructed, but we shall have barely sufficient time and materials for one."
The elderly Leader nodded. "And the thousands of Workers- what of them?"
"They cannot be taken, obviously. But it may be possible to construct reinforced buildings upon high ground, stocked with food and fuel." He paused. "Now, if anyone has any point to raise, let him speak, before we implement these plans."
"I gather that all the Intellectuals cannot be taken aboard," said the first questioner, mopping his white face with a handkerchief. "How will you choose those to survive? Of course, we Leaders will be of the party-"
"Not necessarily," Erik interrupted. "An Examining Board will be appointed to decide who shall enter the vessel, and their moral courage and physical capacities must be considered first."
"Outrageous!" Leader Austin thumped a moist hand on the table. "As Leader of Food Production, I shall demand admittance!
Erik cut him short impatiently. "This question will not need attention for some months. Are there any points of immediate importance to raise?"
They looked at one another, and the white-haired Leader rose. "This plan appears sound enough; if it were not, its proposers would not have suggested it. Our survival seems to depend on it- what more is there to say? I propose that the work be commenced immediately."
There was a murmur of agreement. Erik raised his hand as the Leaders began to leave their seats.
"One more point. I shall now advise the Workers' Leaders of the project, in the most general terms. Do you agree that they should be kept in ignorance, for the moment, of the real purpose behind it and why it is necessary? It will save undue panic."
There were renewed murmurs of assent. Erik followed the Leaders out of the Chamber and returned to his desk, where he pressed a button to summon Elena, He told her what had been decided.
Her blue eyes narrowed as she put the question: "You are sure you will not let anything impede your plans- your concern for the Workers, for example? It would be foolish to consider them now, at the expense of those who would help to found a new community."
Erik's eyes clouded. "I wish it were possible to save them all, but we have only time and materials to construct a single vessel in which we must accommodate all the Intellectuals that we can. Even then, it will be comparatively few, and only the best can qualify. As for the Workers, I'm afraid they will have little chance of survival," he admitted sadly.
Elena smiled reassuringly. Simultaneously there was the sound of shuffling feet, and they turned to see Kobold waiting at the door.
The Workers' Leaders are ready for assembly, Master Kato."
Erik nodded curtly. "Let them come in."
As Kobold turned, he exchanged glances with Elena. How much had the dolt heard, he wondered?
AFTER THREE months of feverish activity, the Ark began to take shape. Technicians worked like madmen, making calculations based on their examination of the plans from the Capsule. The crew must have food and fresh water; there must be oxygen apparatus for use if they were submerged, medical supplies, and quarters for men, women and beasts. A long list of stores and equipment was drawn up and examined time and again for possible omissions., A list of names, too, was scrupulously examined, in conjunction with personal records; and every day the list became shorter...
Even Elena could not gain access to that list, though she would dearly have loved to get her hands on it. She knew that it would not be revealed until the last moment who had been chosen to go in the Ark, though to her it seemed a foregone conclusion that Erik and her brother Crossland, who was engaged in its construction, would be among the fortunate ones; and she could not imagine that the selectors would be so heartless as to exclude her, if Crossland was to go. For herself, she could not bear the thought of separation from Erik, but she dare not broach the subject with him; he would have scorned her unmercifully.
Day after day she went to watch the Ark grow on the hill in the centre of the city, until it was a great, gleaming egg-shape with a single sliding door and the interior fittings were being installed. Then she could no longer resist the urge to go closer and inspect it, with the approval of Crossland. He smiled at the eager look in her blue eyes as he walked down the ramp to meet her.
"The whole of the lower part of the vessel will contain fuel and stores for ballast," he explained. "There are two engines- one for generating current to work the interior mechanisms, including the gyrostat; the other to provide forward motion. If we get into violent seas, a little steerage-way will make all the difference, and we do not know how far we may have to travel before the floods subside or we can find unsubmerged land."
She followed him round to the bows of the vessel, where he pointed to a large opening set low down in the smooth hull. "See that hole? It's a tube that runs right through to the stern. The propellers are in there. No amount of pitching or running aground can damage them."
It's wonderful," Elena agreed. "But how many will it hold?
"Only fifty, now. Materials were short and we had to reduce dimensions. A great deal of space is taken up by provisions and other things that must be taken if we- if they are to survive." He suddenly corrected himself, as though he had been taking too much for granted. But Elena ignored his apologetic look.
"Fifty! That is very few- a mere handful of us." Her beautiful face showed her increasing doubt of her inclusion among them. She could not bear the thought.
"Yes," Crossland agreed. "But the fewer go, the greater in the long run will be their chance of survival. Remember that the Earth will not be very hospitable after this visitation. It will be a struggle for survival, and the provisions will not go very far if there are too many to share them. On the other hand, if there were fewer than fifty...."
But Elena was not listening. A wistful smile lighted her face, now, and her eyes held a faraway look. Crossland's words seemed to justify the thoughts which had been forming in her mind all these anxious weeks. She had told herself that her slowly dawning plan was too bold and brazen to succeed, but if her future were not to be assured otherwise, it would be worth the attempting.
Why should she be left out, when other women were to go-- to go with Erik, as forerunners of the new race? Why shouldn't she go with him, who had so long rebuffed her, and shut all the rest out at the last moment, so that they two would survive -she and Erik alone, together? If they alone emerged from the Ark, what more was necessary to justify the project?
"Come and look inside!" Crossland's invitation, as he moved towards the great, open door, awakened her to a quick response. The more she learned of the vessel, the better; all she needed was the opportunity. With her head held back and lips slightly parted she moved lightly up the ramp.
A small man with long, swinging arms watched them go through the door, then emerged from behind a pile of stacked equipment beside the ramp. As they disappeared from view, he shambled off towards the Workers' residential section, grumbling in a low tone. As he passed one of the squat, reinforced concrete structures that his toiling fellows had erected upon the hill, he muttered more distinctly to himself.
"Master Kato himself says they'll be useless. Only those in the Ark- those precious Intellectuals- will have a chance. Yet we are more than they. Why must we be the ones to drown?"
ERIK EXAMINED the Ark with satisfaction. Built from the new alloy, it formed a complete, self-contained little world whose inhabitants had been carefully selected for their fitness to survive. They would emerge into a dark, cold world, rendered more inhospitable by the cataclysmic forces which would shake and tear at the foundations of their prison; yet they should have a chance to live as long as it remained intact.
"We must not delay too long," he told Crossland, as they tested the air-generating apparatus in the stern. "It would be dangerous to be caught outside. As soon as there is the slightest sign of disturbance, the Chosen must be immediately notified and taken aboard."
Crossland switched off the humming apparatus. "Everything is in order here. There is little more to be done- except to say farewell to those who must stay behind." He grinned wrily. "I'd give my share of the food stores to see Austin's face when he finds he has not been selected-- poor devil!" Then his face became grave. "I wish I knew for certain about Elena, though . . ."
Erik did not reply. He led the way down the long, central gangway, from which other passages led off on either side. Once he went along a corridor which opened on to a large compartment filled with cages and cubicles. Quick, bright eyes flashed at him in the dimness, and there were soft squeakings and gruntings. "Anyway," said Crossland, "the animals seem to have adapted themselves." Erik regretted that the chosen specimens were so few, but they had had to limit themselves to those which were useful. Other compartments held seeds and stores. Outside, they stared up at the Ark's great rounded side. Erik was about to turn away when, abruptly, Crossland gripped his forearm.
With ears straining, Erik caught the faint sound of running feet, lightly shod. As he peered, he cursed the perpetual fog which enveloped them, limiting visibility to a few yards even in the illuminated area about the vessel. The footsteps grew louder; then Elena, running wildly, burst into view.
"Quick!" She seized his hand with trembling fingers. "Into the Ark-the Workers are coming!"
She pointed back the way she had come, and Erik heard a distant, savage murmur which rapidly became an excited talking and shouting. Gesturing Elena towards the door of the vessel, he stood halfway up the ramp, waiting, while Crossland escorted his sister into the Ark. The shouting grew louder, then suddenly ceased. As Crossland reappeared beside him, squat figures loomed up out of the murk, side by side. A score of Workers faced them, chests heaving, their lank hair disarrayed.
"It's him!" cried one, pointing an accusing finger. "He did not tell us what is going to happen. Yet he made us build this thing so that he may save himself and a few others of his kind. And we-- we shall all die!"
"Kill him- and the other one! They are all against us- kill them!"
A score of throats took up the cry. The figures advanced slowly, threateningly. Erik waited until they reached the foot of the ramp, then raised an arm. They stopped, instantly on their guard, like half-cowed animals.
"Wait! Now, go back. There is no room here for you- nor for most of your Masters. Go to your own shelters, where there are places for all who may secure them. You have food and supplies. But hurry, and take your women and children with you. Those who are slow may be left outside!"
They shrank back, their dull eyes wide with fear and uncertainty. Two or three whispered harshly among themselves, then turned and raced away. The others lingered for a moment, then, muttering, shambled after them.
Erik breathed his relief. "Crossland-- go at once and see that the Chosen are instructed to assemble in the Ark without delay. I will stay here and look after Elena. Yes- she must come with us. Now, hurry!"
Eagerly Crossland disappeared into the gloom. As Erik turned, there was the patter of hurrying feet from the side and Kobold materialised, his face twisted with anxiety.
"Master Kato! The Workers are rising! They have heard that the comet is coming- that they may all drown. They are like frightened beasts, and are revolting against the Intellectuals."
"Yes, Kobold- we have just had evidence of that. A few of them have been here-"
"A few?" Kobold's long arms dangled helplessly. "But there are hundreds in the city, where the ringleaders have gathered. They are storming the Leaders' Building, demanding better protection, wanting to see you. When they find that you are here-"
Erik groaned, uncertain for a moment where his duty lay. After a second's hesitation, he took Kobold's long arm. "Then we must get into the vessel, in case they send a larger deputation. Come, Kobold."
THEY WENT up the ramp into the Ark, where Erik stood guard at the door, ready to close it immediately. He was glad that they had been too busy struggling for the bare necessities of life all these years to make- or want- weapons. The Ark was designed to withstand buffeting seas, and would never be breached without explosives.
He glanced at Elena's pale face as she stood, strangely silent, beside him.Kobold fidgeted uneasily. It was inevitable, Erik decided, that the truth should at last penetrate even the sluggish intellects of the Workers, though their reaction was unexpected- and might be disastrous, now. A lot depended on Crossland. If the Chosen could be notified and each contrived to get out to the Ark before it was too late...
Erik thought it unlikely. He was disturbed; yet, though he could not account for it, he did not feel despair. Somehow Elena's presence, the knowledge that she was safe with him, was remarkably comforting. And Kobold- if he had anything to do with divulging the purpose of the Ark to his fellows, at least he was loyal now.
"Master Kato-" Kobold's keen ears had caught the sound of upraised voices in the distance. "They are coming!"
Their breathing quickened as they waited, straining to catch the sounds which grew louder every second. Erik thought he could distinguish shouted phrases:
"Down with the Intellectuals!... . leave us to die... the ship we built on the hill.... room for the Workers.... safety...."
The shouting subsided. A confused babble of voices grew and grew, and suddenly a host of Workers burst into the lighted area around the Ark. Some of them carried crude banners bearing Sun emblems. Their clothes were disordered, their hair loose and ragged about their ears, their eyes wild with excitement and fear. The banners were uplifted as the ringleaders renewed their chant.
Down with the Intellectuals! Into the ship-- there lies safety!
They swarmed up the ramp, brandishing tools and pieces of wood and stone. Realising the futility of trying to reason with this mob, Erik motioned Elena and Kobold aside as he quickly closed the door and secured the lock. The Workers still came on, swarming around the plastic window alongside, pressing their faces against the surface and grimacing insanely.
Erik felt a light touch on his shoulder. Elena pointed through the window upwards. "Look!" she said, in an awed voice.
Raising his eyes, Erik let out a gasp. High in the sky, brooding ominously over the scene, was a faint reddish blur of light. Its source could not be distinguished, yet it seemed to penetrate the miles of polluted atmosphere above them as though it would burn up the heavens. It was obvious what it was.
"The comet!" Erik whispered, and realised that those outside had seen it too. A great, fearful sigh swept through the mob as heads were turned skyward. Then they were attacking the vessel with renewed fury, hammering upon the metal hull with their stones, swarming back and forth across the ramp, pushing each other from behind, fighting and clawing to gain admittance.
Erik bit his bloodless lips as he watched the rabble through the window. Even if they came in time, how could he let the Chosen into the Ark while these semi-crazed creatures stormed outside? And if he were forced to let any of them in, and they survived, what hope was there for the future of humanity? Such stock could bear no good fruit. Just look at them, flaunting their ridiculous emblems, battering at the door, shrieking to be admitted, their features distorted with terror as they cast furtive glances every so often at the dull red glow in the sky
Instinctively he slipped an arm about Elena's shoulders as, with a shudder of disgust, he turned away from the window.
"They will all die," the girl said flatly, her blue eyes cold, her lips taut and shapeless. Kobold, still gazing fearfully at the heavens, muttered miserably.
SOMETHING IN Elena's toneless voice stirred Erik, then. He turned back to the door, undecided. The girl moved a restraining hand, but he shook her off and with sudden resolution opened the door a few inches, turning the locking handle to hold it secure. The shouting of the crowd bore in on them deafeningly; then, as Erik appeared in the gap and raised his hand, it stopped abruptly.
"Workers, listen! Every moment you spend here lessens your chances." As he pointed up at the sky, he thought the red glow shone a little more brightly and was certain that a rising wind was beginning to sigh around the Ark, scattering the crowd with dust. "Go to your buildings. Take warm clothing, if you can. Bar yourselves in against the coming storm. Join your comrades- they will have a chance to come out alive!"
He paused, relieved to find that his words were having some effect. A few of the rabble fell back. But one who carried a banner in the forefront of the mob turned to shout to his fellows behind, gesturing crazily.
"Don't let him fool you. We shall die-- there is no room for us in the shelters. Into the ship !"
They all surged forward again, shouting and screaming. Erik had started to close the door when a trembling hand stopped him.
"Master, I am one of them. Let me go outside. Perhaps they will listen to me." Kobold's eyes were unusually bright, his voice alive with rare eagerness.
"Right," Erik agreed quickly, stepping aside. "Tell them they must go- quickly, while there is yet time."
He stood marvelling while the little man whirled the release wheel of the door to widen the opening. Had Kobold the courage to face that mob? He must have under-estimated him sadly. But he had ample room, now, to get through, and he was still turning the wheel.
Even as Erik stepped forward with a question half-formed, Kobold, with surprising agility, leapt upon him, spun him round, and wound his strong arms about him like pinions. Then, through the opening he had made, he shouted: "Into the Ark- quickly!"
There was a roar of triumph from those outside, one of whom had already slipped through into the vessel. "Turn that handle to open the door wide!" cried Kobold, as another appeared behind him. The man hastened to obey, while Erik struggled to free himself from Kobold's iron grip. With a startled cry, Elena ran off down the gangway. As more Workers shoved through the door, Kobold suddenly released Erik, who raced after her. It was useless trying to stem the tide of the attackers.
Fifty feet along the passage, a communicating door marked the centre of the vessel. Urging Elena through it, Erik slid the door to quickly, dropped the securing lock. For the moment they were safe; there was no other way into that sect1on of the Ark. The door was a safeguard for use if the outer shell were breached.
He listened intently, ear pressed against the metal. There was the sound of running feet and the thud of stones against the door; cries, muffled by six inches of alloy, then silence. The Workers were debating how to get through to them. Elena regarded Erik anxiously. Her lips quivered, and her fingers clutched at a tear in her White linen dress where grasping hands had seized it.
They won't go away," she whispered. "WE are alone- with them!
Erik led her down a corridor and looked from a window. All around the Ark the elated Workers milled, intent upon the open door. Straining his eyes through the fog, now tinged a pale crimson by the suffused glow of the comet, Erik saw a group of white-clad Intellectuals standing helpless in the background, unheeded by the mob. As he watched, others joined them.
"The Chosen are coming," he told Elena, beside him. "But they will never get through that rabble-"
The loose clothing of the Workers outside was flapping wildly about their limbs, while the fog swirled before the increasing gale. Erik thought he felt rather than heard a shrill whistling which made the vessel shiver throughout its length. Elena felt it too, and clutched his arm.
"Only the rising storm. It is the work of the comet. It must be very near"
The Workers were struggling against the wind while they elbowed and jostled each other, trying to force a way into the shelter of the Ark. Some, on the outskirts of the crowd, gave up the struggle and fell to their knees, raising frightened eyes heavenwards. Shielding their faces from the storm, the little group of Intellectuals bunched together and moved nearer the vessel.
ERIK DRAGGED himself from the window. "We must help them! I must try to drive the others out- I think there is a way. Come with me, Elena!"
He ran down the gangway towards the stern of the vessel, into the generating-room. From a locker he took a long roll of stiff cable, bared one end, and fixed an adaptor-plug to the other while, at his direction, Elena started the lighting generator. He flung over the master switch of the plant, gathered the cable in his arms, and ran back to the central door on which the Workers were still hammering furiously.
"Simple, but effective- I hope," he said, as he fitted the adaptor into a socket high up in the passage wall. "See?" Grasping the cable firmly, with the bare end well out in front of him, he approached the metal door. A vivid, crackling spark sprang from the bare wire to the door, and he laughed grimly. "That should curb their enthusiasm. Now- open the door!"
While he retreated, Elena obeyed. The Workers, suspicious, instantly fell back, and Erik advanced towards the opening, the stiff cable extended. With a snarl, one of the men rushed towards him. As his body came in contact with the wire his shriek echoed down the corridor, and he crumpled up on the floor.
The others drew back and Erik advanced further, dragging the free cable behind him. His nostrils twitched from the smell of burned flesh as he passed the fallen man, the bare wire held out like a lance before him in the narrow passage. The Workers retreated, fear in their faces. One, pushed by those behind, touched the wire and fell with a half-choked cry in an inert heap. The others, then, turned in a wild stampede down the gangway towards the door of the vessel, shouting to their fellows to clear the way as they fought to find escape from the Ark
Erik let them go. With a cry of defiance he closed and secured the door. Shouting a warning to Elena, he turned and retraced his steps, the cable held carefully in front of him. Passing through the communicating door, he disconnected the cable, turned off the generator. When he came out again Elena had disappeared along the passage. He followed, and heard the sound of hammer blows as he neared the main door.
Elena, a heavy wrench in her hand, stood by the door. The operating handle was buckled and twisted. There was a strange light in her eyes.
"Elena! Have you gone mad?" He clutched her wildly, then threw her aside and fumbled at the door-handle. It was jammed. He shook her again. "You fool-- you crazy fool!"
She hung back her head and laughed hysterically. "There's just you and I now, Erik," she cried, her eyes shining in the dim light of the passage. "You and I alone will be the forerunners of the new race!"
Erik stepped back, releasing her. He could find no words to express his bewilderment.
"The others will never get in," she went on more calmly "It is too late now- look!"
Erik peered through the window. The wind was whipping across the lighted clearing with such fury that those outside could scarcely stand against it. Their cries of terror penetrated into the vessel, even against the whistling of the gale. Carried by the wind, great swirls of dust were sweeping up out of the murk, which grew darker with every second. Suddenly, a flash of lightning lit the scene with stark brilliance; then the heavens seemed to open and the rain came down with such force that the milling crowd broke up and dispersed as if by magic, leaving a little group of white-clad figures huddled together a few yards from the foot of the ramp.
"Fool!" Erik's rage was uncontrollable. "The Workers have gone, and our fellows are still there. What possessed you to try to keep them out? We must find a way to let them in- there is no time to repair the damage you have done"
"Oh, no-no!" Elena, sobbing, threw her arms about his shoulders. "There will still be us- what else matters?"
"And what of your brother? At least, you might have thought of him!" He shook her off roughly. "He was one of the Chosen- you were not, and now I realise why. I should never have brought you in!"
In an agony of mind, he left her there and ran back to the generating-room, where one of the vessel's great ventilators was situated. Elena, of course, would not think of such things as alternative means of ingress. With frantic haste he spun the control wheel, and the daurite flap, fully three feet in diameter, slowly opened. It was the work of a few minutes to remove the grille; then, pushing head and shoulders through the opening, he waved and beckoned wildly as he shouted against the raging of the storm.
FAR ABOVE the murky blanket of Earth's atmosphere, the approaching comet shone balefully in the sunlight. Of moderate dimensions but phenomenal density, it had escaped the gravitational pull of mightier planets to complete its thirty-years' journey round the Solar System in the elliptical orbit to which it was now confined. Its core was an enormous mass of rock and metal fragments, debris it had picked up on its earlier, more distant travels; while about the nucleus swirled great volumes of tenuous gas and finer particles, streaming behind in a stubby tail.
Had it collided with the Earth on its original visit, mankind would still have survived to suffer the greater Catastrophe which followed ten years later; for even the most menacing comets were never capable of the dreadful destruction which mankind has expected of them. The most that might have happened would have been much less disastrous than the results of foolhardy tinkering with Earth's internal forces, which were always more insidious than a comet's puny mass. But the rare combination of Pi Vagranto's crowded nucleus and the intersection of its orbit with that of the Moon made its closer approach on this occasion a far more subtle menace.
Though its direct collision with the Earth might have caused no more than a heavy shower of meteors, most of which might have fallen harmlessly into the oceans or upon untenanted areas of Earth's surface, its effect upon the lesser mass of the satellite would be sufficient to upset the delicate balance of forces regulating the Earth-Moon system. Far greater havoc would result from interference with the smooth ebb and flow of the tides, and the severe inundation of the areas where man still eked out his precarious living.
So, the Moon trembled beneath the bombardment of the material in the visitant's core as the comet struck her, engulfed her, and passed on. Vast clouds of pulverised rock swirled above her pitted surface; her cold lava-beds were riven, her mountains battered and torn. Thousands of new craters, large and small, were born out of her rocky substance as it was fused by the heat generated by the colliding particles. The Earth, too, received its share of meteors, which were mostly consumed by the atmosphere; but disaster came when the remnants of the comet passed, leaving the Moon oscillating in its orbit, staggering beneath the sudden impact and striving to recover itself.
Under its erratic gravitational pull, the oceans of Earth rose in fury. A mighty tidal wave was born in the Pacific, and surged eastward, building up against the American continent until it broke in chaos over Panama, torrented into the Caribbean. The Atlantic swelled; receding waters disclosed a thousand new islands in the Indian Ocean, and the wave broke along the coasts of Europe and Africa. Ports were overwhelmed; seas invaded the valleys, bearing a flotsam of uprooted trees and debris on their churning backs. Under the heavy yellow sky the waters raced, striking a glowing city in one instant into darkness; the next, bearing up and outwards a tiny metal egg that bobbed and whirled like a cork in a maelstrom...
Inside the Ark, Erik and his fellows listened to the tumult of the raging seas gradually subsiding as the great wave swept onwards and was gone. Bruised, sick and shaken from the violence of the vessel's motion, all were yet thankful for their deliverance from a more luckless fate. It had been hard, slow work hauling themselves, one after another, up the smooth side of the Ark, buffeted by the howling wind and drenched by the rain breaking in torrents against the vessel. The last man was almost exhausted when willing hands helped him to scramble up the improvised ladder of cable and Erik closed the ventilator through which the rain was pouring.
Soon the vessel had begun to lurch violently as it was lifted from its cradle by the encroaching seas; and they had hardly time to reach their padded couches before it was borne swiftly aloft on the crest of the tidal wave, to sink, rise and sink again beneath the seething waters in a riot of sickening motion. They could only cling to their handrails and breathe prayers for their deliverance while the pitching and tossing continued, day after day, until the Ark rode the waves which slapped at the plastic windows and water extended to the limit of visibility in all directions.
Then the gyrostat which had been powerless to offset the unleashed forces of the tide had begun to exert its steadying influence on the vessel, and the blowers which drew air from cowled tubes on the ship's curved top were able to supplant the air-generating apparatus. It was vital to conserve their power and spare their machines as much as possible.
AS THE ARK settled down to a smoother roll, Erik made a tour of inspection with Crossland, calling in the cabins as they went from bow to stern. The whole structure had borne up well to the crushing force of the waters. The animals, frightened at first, were calmer now, and most of the company had roused themselves to take their first nourishment while they discussed their recent ordeal.
Crossland, as much as any one of them, was anxious to express his gratitude to Erik. "It is you I have to thank for my sister's safety," he said. "I had not dared to imagine she would not be among the Chosen, though she herself was uncertain. I cannot tell you how grateful I am that you took her in and that she has been spared with me."
Erik smiled uneasily. "What else could I do?" he asked, and only then realised how odd the question must have seemed to Crossland. "Never mind," he added hastily. "Tell me, how is she?"
"Not very well, I'm afraid. She is resting in her cabin. Later she will tell you herself how grateful she is. I think, though, that she feels unworthy..."
Erik felt relieved that he would not have to face Elena yet awhile, though more on her account than his own. Now that all was well, with brother and sister united, he could not feel resentment towards her; rather, he felt a strong compassion towards her, and was ready to attribute her behaviour to an excusable anxiety over her possible separation from Crossland - or was it from himself? Anyway, it was better for all concerned that he forget the whole unfortunate affair. His attitude towards her would be resumed on the basis of their past relationship, once she had recovered from her rebuff. As far as the rest were concerned, they need never know that she was not one of the Chosen.
But the matter was not to be so simply resolved. As he entered a corridor leading to the storerooms with Crossland close behind him, his jaw dropped open in sudden shock. There, at the end, stood a figure he knew well but which he had not expected to see again.
"Austin!" Crossland, too, was amazed. "What are you doing here?"
The man's flabby face was pallid; his whole body shook as with the ague. Clearly, he was as shocked at his discovery as Erik was to see But he recovered himself quickly as he approached them, blurting defiantly:
"I-I had to come! I felt I was needed. And, after all, why should I stay behind? Why was I not chosen? I may lack the physique of men like you, but I too am a Leader and my mind is equal to any situation-"
"Leadership was no criterion," Crossland said sternly. "We have left many Leaders behind, with others more deserving than you!"
The fat cheeks trembled, then puffed out vainly. "My fund of experience is rare; you will find it invaluable."
Erik's brows contracted. The Leader of Food Production, though capable enough, had none of the virtues which had been demanded of the Chosen. His age, of itself, was against him. It had been agreed to spare the most youthful, vigorous Intellectuals who, in addition to intelligence, had resourcefulness and courage. Such a combination of assets was to be found in a comparative few among the hundreds of young men and women who had been considered. Those who had not been selected had surrendered themselves to their fate as philosophically as their elders-- or all of them except Austin.
"You have been hiding here, I presume?" Erik demanded.
Austin grinned slyly. "Of course -just in case you ran across me too soon. I believe you had prior notification of the Chosen, although they did not know themselves until the last whom they were. I knew I would not be amongst them, so I- er- took the precaution of slipping aboard quietly and secreting myself among the stores."
He paused, significantly. "I was here, Kato, when you yourself came aboard with the charming Elena. I could not help hearing some slight disagreement, even after you had disposed of the Workers' claims to a share in our salvation..."
Erik felt Crossland's eyes upon him, but he held his peace. Austin went on meaningfully, very certain of himself.
"I appreciate your motives, of course-her case is very similar to mine. He smiled with mock sympathy at Crossland. "But I wonder if the Chosen would approve of her presence any more than my own-"
"Why, you-- !" Crossland had stepped forward and grasped the man's wide shoulders before Erik could restrain him. But he checked himself at Erik's command, while Austin retreated slightly, smoothing his clothes with podgy fingers.
"We understand you perfectly," Erik said. "But it is not for fear of any trouble you might cause that we shall treat you, for the moment, as though you had a right to be here. Later, we shall consider your case on its- merits-meanwhile, be careful."
He brushed past Austin, who stood breathing heavily, his eyes half-closed, thick lips pursed stubbornly. For a second Crossland glowered hatefully at the plump figure; then, with an imprecation, he turned and followed Erik along the corridor.
THE DAYS dragged by While the Ark ploughed steadily through the waves towards an unknown goal. Though the instruments they had incorporated into the vessel, following the old scientists' careful plans, told them the depth of water beneath them, they had no charts by which they might navigate towards a new haven; for in the twenty years following the Catastrophe there had been no Communication with the world beyond the confines of that which Erik knew.
For most of his life there had been no transport other than the pedal-cars they used to get about the city and to make occasional excursions beyond its boundaries. There were no motor cars, no airplanes, no ships; although they were not far from the sea, few had been there, and only the memories of the longer-lived held any knowledge of the lands beyond the sea. If there were men there too, they had never penetrated to the great, half-ruined city where all who had survived the Catastrophe in this part of the world had finally herded together to make of life what they could.
In the vessel's control-room was a compass- the first most of its occupants had ever seen- which enabled Erik's navigator to hold to a straight course in a direction where, the oldsters had said, they would discover mountains whose tops were tall enough to be left high and dry by the swollen seas. But, though the Capsule had contained maps of the world as it was before the volcanic eruptions, they were of little use now except as a rough indication of the globe's main land-masses. There had been no exploration of the new face of the world before the Workers' Revolution had plunged mankind's remnants into a deeper despond from which, after two decades, they had hardly begun the slow climb back to civilisation.
Erik had only the haziest idea of where the Ark was bound; nor would his hopes have been better founded if he had, since the effects of the tidal waves caused by the comet were mostly unknown to him. It was certain that his own little world had been submerged, never to rise again. If there were men living in the mountains they might have survived, but it was doubtful- the cold would have driven them into the lowlands long since. The only safe assumption was that the world was desolate except for the little handful of humans whose destiny was now linked with his own.
But although the rest of the company quickly settled down, under his captaincy, to a routine as free of monotony as they could make it, there were two whose discontent soon became evident to each other. Austin's presence on board had come as a slight shock to Elena, but she was too disconsolate to concern herself with it until he forced himself upon her. Feeling herself an interloper and wishing to avoid Erik, she had kept to her own compartment as much as possible. But finally, at Crossland's urging, she began to venture into the saloon where the rest met to pass the time in idle discussion.
Austin made no attempt to conceal his awareness of her situation; rather, he seemed to take an unpleasant delight in it.
"You are unhappy, my dear, and I can appreciate why," he sympathised unctuously. "He is too proud, that Kato, with all his high motives. But he will fall, never fear. Then, when he has need of you, he will be glad to return your affection."
"Perhaps," she said, non-committally. As she fought down a surge of the revulsion she had always felt towards Austin, Elena wondered why he should be so interested in the relations between her and Erik. How much did he know?
"He is too headstrong, and the success of this project- up to now- has given him a sense of authority which is dangerous in such a man. A Leader should have humility . . . Your brother, now-he would not behave so foolishly."
"No. I am not sure that he is not better fitted to have command of this undertaking. In fact, I would feel a good deal safer if he were in Erik's shoes."
"Then why was he not appointed instead of Erik?" Elena feigned interest while taking care to give no sign of agreement.
Austin spread his thick fingers. "The Leaders, as a whole, were not always as wise as they might have been. Erik has done well enough, with the help of Crossland. But if the Ark's complement felt that Crossland would make a better captain, who is there now to prevent it? Our lives are our own to direct whom we may to safeguard them-"
"After all Erik did to save you when you were locked out-by the Workers?" she ventured, hesitantly.
She thought she saw a ghost of a smile flit across Austin's chubby face before he replied:
“Certainly! He did no more than Crossland would have done had he been inside. After all, are we not better companions for him than they would have been?"
Elena said no more. Again she wondered: how much did Austin know? Obviously he did not realise that it was she who had locked out the Intellectuals- or did he? Even Crossland did not know . . .
AUSTIN DID not pursue the subject, then. But several times during the days that followed he sought conversation with her, and always he hinted at the desirability of Crossland's assuming the leadership. How he must hate Erik! But so did she, in a different way. His studied indifference to her, which showed whenever they met, ate into her woman's soul, tempting her to seize any opportunity to compel his attention- or, if he would not accept her, to revenge herself for the insult.
By simulating no more than a healthy feminine curiosity, she encouraged Austin to reveal the full extent of his desire to see Erik supplanted by Crossland- which was all he conceded of a plan that, she suspected, went much deeper. Either Austin imagined he would get more of his own way with Crossland in command, or he wanted to wrest the leadership away from Erik for himself- and this was the more likely, with such a man as Austin. What a fool he must take her for, if he thought she could not see through his naive scheming!
Nor could she- as far as it went. For Austin had been careful to arouse in her only the uneasy suspicion that he knew more than he would reveal, at present, of her own duplicity. If, through this veiled threat, he could enlist her support in discrediting Erik enough to shake the company's trust in him, he might blast their confidence in both him and Crossland by accusing them of having conspired together to ensure Elena's admittance to the Ark instead of his own- as one rightly chosen! It would be a bluff, but rather than reveal her own guilt they would be forced to admit his story. Kato was just the sort to indulge in such heroics. After that, it should be easy to seize the position of power he craved- and hold it.
But first it would be a subtle process of undermining the influence Erik exerted over the affairs of the Ark and its occupants. There would be growing discontent, a falling away of the ready discipline he expected of each one in the interests of the whole. Already there were ample signs that some did not relish being cooped up indefinitely in their metal prison, at the mercy of the seas, quite uncertain of their future. Austin thought the situation would soon become irksome, and that with a little encouragement it could be made intolerable. The main thing was to ensure, by suitable suggestion and criticism, that Erik would be blamed for their discomfiture.
And, in his extremity, Erik would become more responsive to Elena. In telling her just sufficient of his plan to win her co-operation, Austin insisted on that, as though it were all for her benefit. Once he found he was no longer the object of general approbation, Erik would turn to her for solace, satisfied to leave the responsibility to Crossland. Crossland would make a much better Leader . . .
Austin did not say precisely what he expected of Elena, except that her part in the plan would come later. Whether it was by accident or by some design of his that the first setback came so soon, she could not decide, but she believed Austin must have had a hand in it when, that same evening, the Ark's driving-engine spluttered and died. There was talk among the men of a blocked lubrication channel which had caused overheating; the consequent damage, it was said, would take some time to repair.
So the vessel drifted aimlessly while they waited for the renewed hum of the propellers which had become so familiar. But it was only a couple of hours before they were under way again, in an apparently endless search for sight of something other than churning water and the wall of dull fog which hemmed them in.
Next day it was the gyrostat that failed, leaving the vessel rolling in a sea which had suddenly become very disturbed and threatened to overwhelm them. Soon the Ark was pitching and tossing helplessly in the teeth of a howling gale and great waves were rolling over her, necessitating the closing of the ventilators and the use of the air-generator. Elena knew, then, that Austin must have gone to work in earnest. As she lay prone in her cabin, clinging to the handrails, she began to wish she had not fallen in with his mischief-making; but she gained some consolation from the thought that, although he could not have engineered the storm, he was suffering as much discomfort from it.
The gyro, once working again, stopped the vessel's crazy lurching, and she went towards the saloon where Austin was already intent on spreading dissatisfaction among the Chosen. As she entered he was declaiming loudly against the inefficiency of Erik's engineer, and the captain himself, while taking care to apportion some of the blame to the long-dead designers of the vessels.
Though his hearers seemed to agree with him mostly out of politeness, it was evident that they harboured grave doubts. He appealed to her in turn as she sat down beside him.
She ignored his complaints. "Are you sure you are not placing us all in jeopardy?" she whispered.
He hissed at her. "Not here!" Then, in a louder tone, with an unctuous smile: "Our voyage seems none too propitious- but I suppose we must be thankful for our deliverance."
ELENA SAW that the fat man's face was streaming with perspiration. It was close; the air seemed heavy and drowsy, and the others were lolling back in their seats as though exhausted. She stifled a yawn, overcome by a sudden lassitude, and wanted desperately to sleep.
Austin was breathing noisily. "There is no air in here," he wailed. "More inefficiency! If we must not open the ventilators, at least they might see that the air supply is properly regulated."
A frightening thought struck Elena. A moment later it was partly confirmed Crossland appeared at the door of the saloon. He announced calmly:
"I'm afraid there is some trouble with the air-generator. There is no cause for immediate alarm, but you may find breathing difficult in some parts of the vessel. If it becomes absolutely imperative we shall open one of the ventilators, but while the storm continues it is not advisable. Please give us time to effect repairs to the apparatus, and all will be well."
While he was speaking his gaze lighted on Elena and Austin, sitting together. She thought his eyes hardened as he looked at the stout man, and was certain that he cast him a glance of supreme contempt as he turned and withdrew hastily.
Elena turned to Austin. His face has taken on an awful pallor, and his eyes dilated as he returned her gaze. "N-no !" he whispered hoarsely. "It wasn't- " Then, with a furtive look around him at the white-faced occupants of the room, he struggled to his feet and made for the door.
Elena followed him into the gangway. He brushed off her nervous, inquiring hand. "No, I say! It was nothing to do with me, I swear!" And she knew that he was speaking the truth.
It was easier to breathe in the passage, where others were congregating as they deserted their stuffy cabins. Anxiety showed in their faces as they waited, murmuring among themselves, gulping at the precious air. Austin made no attempt to exploit the situation. Instead, he eased his bulk between them, making for the other end of the corridor, obviously intent on getting well away from Elena. Seeing the stark fear in his sweating face, she let him go.
But, as the minutes passed and her breathing became more and more laboured, the urge to follow him grew irresistibly. She must find some other place where there was more air. If there was such a place, trust Austin to have discovered it! Muttering apologies, she thrust her way through the crowd.
The gangway led through the central door towards the bows of the vessel where the control-room was located. Next to it lay the animals' quarters; and it was there, she felt, the wily Austin had gone. There was a big ventilator there . . .
As she turned the corner into the side passage, she glimpsed a man emerging from the control-room and stepped quickly into the shadow to wait for him to pass by. He did so, in a hurry, but not so fast that she could not see it was Erik, nor catch sight of the expression on his face. It was taut, anxious.
The door to the animals' quarters was closed, as always. She hesitated a moment, then grasped the handle and opened it wide A slight draught of welcome air wafted past her into the passage as she stood on the threshold of the dim-lit compartment. She heard a hurried movement, then saw the white face of Austin as it turned towards her in the gloom beyond.
He was kneeling down by the big ventilator, wrenching at the handle which kept it securely fastened and which had been locked in its turn as a precautionary measure. As soon as he saw her, he ceased his straining and gasped at her: "Shut the door--quickly! No one must see-"
She saw his utter desperation and closed the door behind her. "Lock it!" he wheezed, and she obeyed. Then she stepped forward.
"You fool! You mustn't open that ventilator. The waves will sweep in. It is not far above the water-line, and the seas are still high."
"Nonsense! Must-get a breath-of air!" He gasped out the words as he strove with all his might to turn the handle. He cursed, then pulled himself ponderously to his feet, his plump chest heaving with his exertions. "Locked- can't move it. Must be some way-"
Frantically he rummaged in a corner, emerged with a heavy bar of metal. Panic surged in Elena's breast as she realised what he was going to do, to what lengths this cowardly creature would go to gratify himself even if it meant jeopardising the safety of all others. She moved to wrench the bar from his grasp- but not fast enough. With surprising speed he turned, raised his thick arm, and brought the iron sharply down upon her wrist. She shrieked with the pain and drew away from him, her head reeling.
"Keep away! I'm going to-open it! No harm-- letting in some air--" Austin’s eyes were starting out of their sockets as he croaked at her. He raised the bar again, brought it down on the handle once, twice, a third time. It gave and, still grasping the bar, he started to turn the handle quickly, his breath coming in great, sobbing gasps.
Through a dim haze as she stood, swaying, Elena saw a thin trickle of water ooze from the sides of the ventilator. Then it became a steady stream, pouring, from the gaping hole which suddenly appeared in the wall as the ventilator opened-wide. For a moment Austin seemed to stand stock-still, in mortal terror of the consequences of what he had done. Then he staggered back as the water gushed forth in a flood which swept him off his feet and slopped forward greedily to engulf her as she fell senseless to the floor.
ERIK GAZED through the control room window at the enveloping wall of murk as though the intentness of his scrutiny should penetrate its greyness and reveal the secrets he felt it must conceal. His mouth was firm as he fought to thrust down into the furthest recesses of memory the events which had occurred only a few hours before.
He remembered the glad relief on the faces of his fellows as he returned from the generating-room in the stern immediately following the announcement that the air-feed was working again. He had shared their relief as the pressure built up, slowly but surely, removing the burden from aching lungs and dulled senses as the cooling draughts surged through the passages and compartments once more. It had required an almost incredible amount of skill and fortitude to get the repair job done at such speed, but Crossland and his assistant technicians had accomplished the impossible.
He instantly ordered them to their quarters for a well-deserved rest, and went back to the control-room, wondering how long it would be before the next stroke of ill-fortune put a further strain on their resources. Yet what could they expect, when the Ark had been built so hastily, with poor materials and little understanding of what they were doing? It was a miracle they had got so far . . .
The storm was at its height, the great waves thundering upon the Ark's tortured sides, when Crossland left his uneasy bed to relieve Erik at his post. On the way to the control-room he had to pass the door of the animals' quarters, and there he stopped in his tracks to stare disbelievingly. The door was firmly closed, but from all around it trickled a stream of water which had collected in the passage. Already several inches deep at the door's end, it swirled back and forth along the passage as far as the main corridor.
Shocked into action, Crossland burst in upon Erik. "Quick! We've sprung a leak- in the animals' compartment!"
Before he leapt from his seat, Erik pressed a button, and instantly the clangour of alarm bells sounded throughout the vessel. With Crossland, he ran out to the flooded passage.
The water was running across the main gangway into the opposite passage, now, as the vessel rolled gently in the swell. It was obvious that the flooded compartment had caused a pronounced tilt which the gyrostat could not entirely rectify, though it tended to keep the Ark on an even keel in spite of it, as far as the raging seas allowed. How much water had been shipped already they could not tell; but the doors of the main compartments had been made against such contingencies, and this one was standing up well beneath what was manifestly a considerable pressure from the other side.
Erik urged Crossland to activity. "Get everybody into the stern section and close the central door. Send one man here to watch with me until the storm abates. If there is any danger of this door giving way, we will join you immediately. There is nothing more we can do."
Crossland hesitated for an instant; then, seeing Erik's determined look, hurried to obey his orders without question. Erik waited while the sound of voices raised in questioning alarm echoed through the corridors, then died away as the occupants of the forward compartments were urged into the stern section. Soon the man who had volunteered to share his watch came hurrying along the gangway, and they settled down to their vigil.
Back and forth the water ran, collecting in a dark pool on one side as the source of the leak sank below the water-line, adding to the flood within the compartment, then rushing towards them as the vessel rolled over and more water oozed through the metal door. With every roll the level of the water against the door grew almost imperceptibly higher, and the stream which flowed back along the passage crept further into the gangway. Frequently they inspected the inner walls of the compartments on either side of the flooded section, but the water did not penetrate- as yet. They could only wait- and hope . . .
Waiting, Erik had time to ponder, and to regret the loss of the animals; but it would only have endangered the lives of his human charges if they had made any attempt at rescue. It was fortunate that the leak had occurred here- if leak it was: he suspected it must be a fault in the ventilator which had caused the flooding- and that the heavy door had been firmly fastened. Now, all they could do was pray that it held and wait for the seas to calm sufficiently to let the water find its own level, then open the door and bale out what was left.
IF HE HAD only known what else floated there, beside the small, furry bodies of lifeless animals in their cages . . . Gazing into the dimness outside, Erik shuddered at the memory which rose before him.
His prayer had been answered. With remarkable suddenness the storm had subsided, leaving the Ark floating smoothly over the waves. Then the water-logged compartment was opened- to disclose the bloated corpse of Austin and the poor, drenched body of Elena. The flabby face of the fat man, more bloodless than ever, was a death mask of stark horror. But in the lovely features of Elena was a look of quiet content, as though she had embraced death gladly.
The white hand of Austin still clutched the iron bar. It was obvious to Crossland what had happened. His eyes glinted in a futile burst of fury as he examined the bruise on Elena's wrist. Austin, craven as ever, careless of the safety of his fellows, had gone to open the ventilator. Elena, suspecting his treachery had followed and tried to dissuade him, and he had struck her down, only to be drowned in the flood he had created. Senseless, she had drowned with him.
It was close enough to the truth. To Erik, the shock of the tragic discovery had been too numbing for his mind to analyse it. When at length he had begun to appreciate its significance, he was inclined to blame himself for his attitude to Elena. She had been very young, the victim of a foolish infatuation. He had cared for her, but not as her heart demanded. Now she was gone. It was as if the righteousness of his action in saving her from the cataclysm had been disputed, since she was not of the Chosen. As for Austin, the justice of his end was abundantly clear.
With an effort, Erik turned his eyes away from the grey blanket outside, let them fall upon the instruments before him. Now, he mused, it was as had been planned. Fifty had been chosen; fifty remained. What would they make of life, given further opportunity? Whatever was in store, there would be ample for him to do.
His eyes, on the sounding-meter, suddenly conveyed a message to his clouded brain. Quickly he consulted the reading he had recorded only an hour before. It was unbelievable- that there should be land so close beneath the Ark's keel after all those fathoms of water which it had registered for so long, day after endless day.
He looked up, and as his eyes widened his pulses responded until they were racing with the wonder of it. The surrounding murk was no longer grey; it was only a white mist through which a dark shape was emerging- and above it, high in the heavens, was a patch of dim blue sky!
The disturbance caused by the comet had cleared the atmosphere of the dust which had obscured the heavens for so long, sufficient to let a hint of sunlight through. The murk had been banished- they might see the Sun and the stars again! And the dark shape. . . it was clearer now, rising up from the rippling sea before him in a still distant but distinct outline.
With trembling hand he picked up the mouthpiece of the instrument with which he communicated with the engine-room. When Crossland answered, he spoke in a firm voice:
Stand by! Land lies ahead!
The Chosen had reached their new world
Francis G. Rayer