The logical way to colonise a planet would be to get rid of the local inhabitants first — sterilise them so that they die off in a few generations. Then just walk in.
Illustrated by QUINN
“Yes,” said George Kiccone, “I’ll go straight over.”
He replaced the phone receiver and leaned back in his swivel chair, a frown drawing down his thick black brows. His gaze rested on the girl who had patiently waited, a shorthand pad in her hand, but he did not see her close-clipped corntousled hair or the enquiry on her symmetrical face.
Betty Magee tapped the pad with a pencil.
“Anything important ?” she asked.
Kiccone started. Betty was more than a mere secretary and one day soon their relationship would be quite different, though probably she’d still want to work with him. He shook his head.
“I can’t say. It was Hendricks’ News Agency. You know they get on to me as soon as anything off the beaten track turns up. They seem to think I’m an authority on everything.”
He stretched to his full height, yawned, took a cigarette from the box on the desk and made for the door.
“You’d better come too, Betty. They’ll look for an authentic story signed by yours truly.”
London baked under a hazy blue sky. Kiccone drove without speaking, going over the facts Hendricks had passed on. They were few enough. It might even be a hoax. It would not be the first time he had gone to check on a possible story, only to find a fraud not worth half an inch in a back column.
“Some man rang in saying he’s seen bubbles floating down,” he said abruptly, conscious that Betty’s curiosity hadn’t been satisfied.
“Yes, that’s the word he used, Hendricks said. Bubbles, big as a man’s head, dropping down from nowhere.”
He left it at that and accelerated through the congested traffic. No use arguing, he thought. Speculation was wasted effort when another ten minutes would give them the facts.
He reached the park gates and turned in. A little knot of people stood near several waiting vehicles and a lanky, hawkfaced man detached himself, to drift towards them. Kiccone got out.
“Hendricks himself. Must be something special to stir him.”
Greetings over, Hendricks led them away and through a wooden gate. Kiccone noted an attendant guarded it, letting them by with curious glances. They emerged into a lightly-wooded area where cool shadows dappled the green. The city and its scurry seemed very far away. Kiccone stared round.
“Where’s the show ?”
“You’ll see soon enough.” Hendricks led them on to a group of trees beneath which a man in blue trousers waited. “We’ve kept it pretty quiet and unobtrusively held the public off. Seigler here’s got brains. He’ll tell you all he saw.”
The man came forward hesitantly. Hendricks nodded.
“This is George Kiccone. You’ll have seen his name on many a scientific news paragraph. Tell him everything.”
“There’s little enough,” said Seigler. “When I’m free I often come here for quiet. I was having a smoke in the shade when these things come down.” “What things ?”
“The bubbles, Mr. Kiccone. Leastways that’s what I thought them. Big as a man’s head.”
“I see. Meteorological balloons, perhaps?”
“No, sir. They dropped quickly.”
Kiccone raised his brows. “Show me. Any planes over ?”
“No. Not a sound within miles. I was dozing, like, when down they come.” Seigler led the way among the trees, stopping to point dramatically. “There !”
Kiccone walked round the object indicated. It was a sphere eight to ten inches in diameter and of a gold-paint colour. Kneeling by it, he touched it with fingertips. It was cool; nowhere was there any mark or irregularity.
“What d’you make of it ?” demanded Hendricks.
“Don’t know — yet.”
Kiccone rolled the sphere over and grunted. It was light as the merest wisp of thistledown. The underside was equally featureless. He squatted back on his heels.
“And this dropped down?”
“Yes. Heavy as lead. Plummeted straight from the sky like a cannon ball.”
“What about the others ?”
“I only saw one more, sir. It’s behind the trees. It’s just the same.”
It was. Kiccone felt baffled. He cursed the heat, mopped his brow, and went back to the first. Betty fanned herself with her notebook, open at an unmarked page.
“Any observations from the great George Kiccone ?” she said.
“Nothing you can’t write. You know the stuff — ‘The two spheres found in Regents Park at midday are still a mystery, pending further examination . . ” He glared at the object, glimmering like a gigantic marble on the grass. “Better have someone with a van collect them, Hendricks. Dump one in my back room. I’ll send you a report on it as soon as I can.”
Hendricks looked sulky. “Don’t forget our deadline.”
“I shan’t. You’ll get my copy in time to run it — even if it’s only to say I don’t know what the spheres are!”
Back in the workshop that had once been office rooms, Kiccone checked routine business with many a glance at the clock. When a workman came he ordered that the box he carried be put on a bench, and locked the door when the man had gone. Betty sat beside the box, swinging one foot, as he flung out straw packing.
“Why the secrecy, George ?”
“Because we’ve got something here very queer indeed. Seigler was telling the truth. Other reports say they fell from the sky — yet they’re only heavy enough to drift.”
Heaving the box over, he lifted the sphere to the bench. It shone with a burnished glint and might have been a solid globe of metal but for its almost utter weightlessness. It looked like brass or gold, and yet like neither. Experimentally he tried a file on its surface and grunted. The tool made no mark.
He held it against an emery wheel. The wheel shrieked, smoked, and flung sparks and dust. Afterwards they could not tell which part of the feather-weight sphere had been attacked.
Kiccone wiped his brow.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ll see this side eternity ! We’ll try acids.”
They did, and afterwards he broke the point of a diamond drill without effect. He was wondering what the next step was when the phone rang.
“This is Hendricks.” The voice sounded taut. “Expect you’ve been busy and haven’t heard what’s happened.”
Kiccone grunted assent, glancing at his wrist. To his surprise he had been trying to crack open the sphere for well over an hour.
“Then expect a shock,” continued Hendricks. “These things have been falling everywhere.”
“ Everywhere !”
“That’s what I said. Every cub reporter’s sitting on one and the police have got tired of handling messages reporting them. I’ve had a man out checking. They’ve fallen in the city and round its outskirts. They seem to be moving in a belt. Hyde Park is full of them and they’re floating down the Thames in shoals. Reports have started coming in from neighbouring towns.” Hendricks paused. “What d’you make of it ? What you say on the one you’ve got will make front pages. You’ve got half an hour to deadline.”
Kiccone snorted. “I’ll let you have what I can, but it won’t be much.”
He returned to the bench to find Betty bending so that her hair brushed the sphere, one ear on its surface.
“It ticks,” she said.
Kiccone listened. It did. But it was no ordinary tick. The noise, very faint, was so rapid it might have been a whirr, yet it still retained the characteristics as of a watch going at enormous speed. He felt increasing respect for it.
“Might be worth while X-raying the thing. We’ll test it for radiation, too. Get Don Regan and have some coffee and sandwiches sent in.”
They were still trying without result to find some means of opening the sphere, or determining its contents, when lights and signs began to spangle the streets outside. To the far west, the last rays of the sun shone on other golden globes as they flashed down to Earth, to touch without the slightest concussion and lie still.
As the hours passed they spread westwards over the Midlands and Wales. Soon they bobbed everywhere on the Atlantic and before dawn returned to London, New York had been liberally sprinkled. Some came down in towns so that the inhabitants gazed, pointing excitedly; some dropped through forests, bouncing from twigs and slipping off boughs. They sank to rest on soft desert sand and rested like down where deep snow lay, spreading west as the Earth turned. Every sea knew them, and the planet’s icy poles, though here no day came to show their presence.
After two hours’ sleep Kiccone stirred himself and found it was dawn. Betty, fresh as if she had slept twelve hours, had just admitted Hendricks. Hendricks looked as if he had slept not at all.
“The world’s covered with ’em,” he stated.
Kiccone shook the sleep from his eyes. “Has anyone found what they are ?”
“No. Wires have been humming and every paper has a different opinion. There isn’t a town or country which hasn’t reported them. Luckily they seem harmless and folk haven’t panicked.”
“Harmless; I wonder.” Kiccone got up. “How many have landed ?”
Hendricks shrugged and left the chair into which he had dropped.
“The devil knows ! From information I’ve been able to get they seem to drop at intervals of a few miles. Some are closer, like the two Seigler found. The number striking Great Britain in the night must run into hundreds of thousands. Radio reports from every European country and America say the same. Asia got its dose last of all. If we find some place they haven’t landed that’ll be news.”
Kiccone whistled. He had not anticipated anything as big as this. From a local curiosity it had grown to a world affair. The Earth might have been a peeled orange over which some hand had sprinkled sugar as it turned.
“They came from space,” he said. “There can be no doubt about that. But to what purpose ?”
No one answered. Followed by Hendricks, Regan and Betty, he stamped through into the work-room. The sphere still rested on the bench, left by Regan, who had said his apparatus could make nothing of it. Kiccone touched the sphere and removed his hand sharply.
“Hello, it’s hot !” He caressed the object’s surface. Its temperature was too high for his hand to bear and seemed to be rising. When he put a moistened finger on the sphere a sizzling broke the complete silence.
Regan, a wiry young man of thirty, pursed his lips. He touched the sphere in turn and swore, sucking his finger.
“To think it’s been dead all night while I’ve slaved, and starts cooking up on its own now !” he growled.
Without looking at him, Kiccone eyed the sphere. A wisp of straw touching it was beginning to turn brown.
“Better get your gear set up again, Don,” he grunted. “If I’m not mistaken things are going to happen now.”
He drew back. The sphere was radiating heat which scorched his face and oil on the top of the bench began to sizzle, a wisp of smoke rising. Regan was working frantically to get his electronic spectroscope and counters ready but by the time he had finished the globe was unmistakably red-hot.
“Betty, get out,” Kiccone ordered.
He did not look to see if she obeyed. The sphere had become white-hot; the bench frizzled and straw licked into flame. He let it burn. Soon the crate was mere ash and the spherical object that had seemed so harmless was glowing so fiercely they could not look at it. Shielding his face from the glare and heat, Kiccone withdrew through the door. The radiance cast a bright sphere of light like that from a thousand watt bulb after them.
Grumbling, Regan left his apparatus and followed. The reflected glow through the door slowly became blue, then mauve — a hard, harsh light which hurt their eyes even when tightly closed.
Then abruptly the light went out. Kiccone peeped round the door. The metal-work of the bench was red-hot but the sphere had gone. His nerves tingling, he went in. The sphere had been artificial. Therefore from the point of view of its makers everything had appeared to go to schedule.
But to what purpose ?
“So that’s what it radiated,” said Don Regan, consulting his notes. “Ultra-violet light, a few X-rays, Gamma rays too— in short, everything from about 4,000 AU down, not to mention a lot of heat. The radiations had queer points. They seem to have lingered in the human cell. We’re all a trifle radio-active, though nothing dangerous as far as I can tell.”
Kiccone nodded, sprawled behind his desk. Three days had passed since the brief activity of the sphere. Reports had come in by the hundred. A few spoke of fires caused; one of deaths as an unsuspected globe burnt its way through a roof. Some told of shallow waters boiling, but on a world scale the loss of life and damage had been effectively zero. A general air of puzzlement and mystery remained.
“I see,” he said. “And the range of these radiations ?”
“Several miles. More, for the very penetrating freqencies.”
Which meant, thought Kiccone, that the whole surface of the planet had been bathed in those rays. The knowledge made his skin prickle. Such radiations could do queer things. He pondered, then took a calendar from his desk and leafed it over. After calculation he drew a ring round a date. Betty watched him seriously.
“What do you make of it, George ?”
“I don’t know, Betty. But I want you to make a few notes. If there are any cases of radiation sickness, or anything which may be along that line, I must know immediately.” He rested back in his chair and his voice dropped a tone. “I want you to be on the watch for anything abnormal .” He showed her the date. “From then on I want a synopsis of birth accounts each day.”
She had gone white and nibbled the end of her pencil.
“You — you don’t mean mutants ?”
“I don’t mean anything — yet I suspect everything.” Kiccone got up and paced round the desk. “Keep a look out for records of the birth of abnormal animals and let me know of anything strange, even if you fear it may prove unfounded. I’ve a feeling those spheres didn’t come just to provide a nine-day wonder.”
He patted her shoulder, softening a moment, then beckoned to Regan, who still appeared petrified.
“Come on, Don. We need to know more about those rays, if possible. And more of what they could do.”
The months dragged to Kiccone. Interest in the spheres began to wane as they were dismissed as oddities soon to be forgotten. Kiccone did not forget them. Instead, he wondered if the date he had encircled would prove to be a milestone in the progress — or retrogression — of mankind. He feared what that day might bring to the human race, though the appearance of healthy, normal young animals conceived after the day of the spheres was encouraging.
Betty found him petting a litter of puppies he had brought into the office. He did not look up.
“Here are we, married only six months, and you prefer puppies to me,” she said in mock complaint.
He kissed her. “Sorry, Betty. Destiny hangs on — that.” He motioned towards the calendar. Only a few weeks remained until the date he had marked. “Anything turned up ?”
She lowered her eyes.
“N-no. Nothing anyone can fix on. Folk don’t talk much about such things unless they know. But I’ve heard a rumour or two — nothing concrete, but things a man probably wouldn’t hear.”
Kiccone did not press her. He knew that if Betty knew anything definite she would tell him. Rumours he had determined to close his ears against. Yet he found her suspicions disturbing. Disturbed, too, were her eyes. Something in them had died.
He breathed an imprecation.
“If things do turn out for the worst what is the purpose ? We’re not merely — the subjects of some experiment by the gods ?”
Betty did not answer and Kiccone knew she could not. No one could answer that question. Perhaps there was no question. Yet he could not hope that. Soon they would know.
He released her and turned the calendar face downwards. For a little while he wished to forget this dread which would not be suppressed.
But forget it he could not, and when the day came he rose from a restless night. He feared the worst, yet prayed it would not come. Rumours had grown, painting shadows on the faces of the folk who walked the streets. The encircled day brought a trickle of facts; the days following brought more. Kiccone swore often to himself, not sleeping.
“There were no births yesterday,” Betty said on the eighth day after the one he had marked.
Kiccone rose slowly from his chair and put his arms round her shoulders. The full severity of the news had dawned slowly over the past week and he was not surprised.
“None — anywhere ?”
“Not that we can trace.”
Kiccone cursed more vividly than he had done since their marriage, thumping the desk so that the inkwells jumped.
“Offer a prize for anyone who finds a baby, be it white, black or yellow ! Get the news into every town and village. If you succeed, inform me immediately.”
As the weeks passed Kiccone knew they would not succeed. Folk passing in the streets looked at each other covertly; women talked in little groups, laughter forgotten. From native tribes came news of queer rites and sacrifices to propitiate the demon of infertility which had smitten them. Black, white and yellow set up a wail that echoed round the planet; nowhere was it answered by a new-born babe’s cry.
In his office, Hendricks’ face was grey. From outside came the machine-gun click of typewriters.
“The human race seems to be utterly sterile,” he said.
Kiccone stuck a cigarette in the corner of his mouth and lighted it.
“It is. I hadn’t even thought of anything that bad. Mutants, whatever their type, would be descendants of man and possibly forerunners of new races. But this — it’s a full-stop we can’t run past.”
He breathed smoke, thinking. When the younger generation died man would be an extinct species. Untrod roads would stretch between empty cities reaching to skies where no planes flew. The forests would return, creeping as wind and rain eroded the buildings no man now needed; from their depths animals would peer, wondering at the crumbling heaps of masonry.
“We might have saved a few folk from this blight if we’d known,” he said pensively. “There was no way to guess in advance what would happen, or that there would be radiations which could modify the human gene so severely.”
Hendricks nodded slowly. “And what do you suppose lies behind it ?”
Kiccone smoked for a few moments before replying. He had often thought over that problem.
“It was purposive,” he said at last. “Purposive on the part of something which saw in mankind the sole thing on Earth capable of opposing some plan
Apparently that plan demanded the planet be rid of humanity, and it seems to be succeeding.”
He paced to the window and stared out. The sun was shining, yet the city was hushed. There had been no riots, no bloodshed — yet. The catastrophe had drifted up on the average person unawares, first as rumour, then as suspicion, finally becoming scarcely-believed fact. Man was numbed. And there was nothing against which he could turn his wrath.
“How about young people born since the day of the spheres ?” asked Hendricks behind him. “D’you think they will break this curse of sterility ?”
“I doubt it. The plan of — them seems too cast-iron. Time will show.”
Often as he looked down through that window, Kiccone feared what it would show. Months crept into sad, sober years. Little children grew up until there were no infants anywhere. Kiccone aged. The last and youngest of humanity — those born in the months following the day of the spheres — were sober, puzzled children who soon forgot how to laugh. Dimly they realised their elders looked to them with eager, frightened expectation, but as yet they knew not why.
Sometimes Betty would put her hand on Kiccone’s shoulder.
“I — I’m sorry, George.”
He would pat her hand and force a smile.
“So are we all. There’s nothing anyone can do except wait and see.”
Looking down on the youngsters, he feared what they would see. Months and years slipped past and soon no child was left anywhere on Earth. The town became a city of old men and women who looked at each other furtively, and watched the growing adolescents with ill-concealed hope. They smiled as the first young couples found each other, fell in love, and married.
Kiccone expected nothing and consequently was not disappointed. The few baby-toys and clothes in the shops remained unwanted, a curiosity for passing eyes.
“I’m an old man now, Kiccone,” Hendricks told him over the phone one day he was at his own office. “There isn’t a nipper in the world.” His voice was sad. “Did you ever get anywhere in trying to find out where the spheres came from ?”
Kiccone grunted a negative. He had not seen Hendricks for nearly a year. The wheels of life were grinding to a halt; folk made no progress because there was nothing for which to work. Mankind had no future. From his window he could see a thin crocodile of women wending along the street. They chanted a dirge which drifted up like a melancholy sigh and their leader carried a stuffed, lifeless figure — a pitifully crude bundle representing a baby in wrappings.
“There were no clues,” he said slowly. “The spheres seemed to have come out of space from one general direction, hitting Earth as it turned. I never saw one drop myself, but they dropped rapidly. The newsreels showed that. Yet objects don’t disobey natural laws without reason and they were very light.”
“Some attractive force ?” Hendricks suggested.
“Perhaps. Again, maybe not. They might have been drifting by their time standards. Suppose they came from a world so utterly alien its very rate of progression of time is different from ours.”
Hendricks considered. “You mean if we parachuted down into a world where incidents moved very slowly, relative to us, our fall would seem as rapid as the earthward trajectory of a bomb to that world ?”
“And where does that get us ?”
Kiccone could not reply and Hendricks rang off. It was odd that this relative time-disparity should so have stuck in his mind, Kiccone thought. Betty had suggested it. He would go and find her, he decided. Though now quiet because of the sad passing years, her company was soothing. No use to work, when knowledge would die with the last of men . . .
The clamouring bell recalled him. Hendricks sounded unusually stirred.
“New spheres are coming down,” he said.
“Yes. Those in Hyde Park are the nearest. I’m on my way.”
Shouting for Betty, Kiccone ran out. He wasn’t so active as he had been perhaps twenty years before when he had first hurried to Regents Park, he reflected. Those spheres had left an almost indefinable radio-activity which had stopped man’s fertility. What would the new ones bring ?
There was not a great deal of traffic and few people paused to look at them as they sped by. Hendricks had just pulled to a halt near one gate and he led the way into the park with long steps which somehow accentuated his leanness.
“Perhaps things are happening !” he said over his shoulder.
Before he had gone far Kiccone saw a small round object falling from the sky. He noted its direction and ran, but it had landed before he could reach it.
“They’re different,” Betty said behind him.
Kiccone walked round the sphere. It had fallen with such speed he was sure it must be heavy, yet the breeze which came across the park stirred it and under his touch it moved like thistledown. Resilient as a child’s balloon, it did not resemble the globes of so many years before.
Suddenly it gave a pouff and he jumped back. The surface had shriven, revealing a mass of blue-green substance like wool. From the ball tendrils reached out, sinking into the earth, then the ball was still.
“What the hell,” said Hendricks. “It’s a plant.”
Kiccone walked round it. It looked immeasurably fragile, a hot-house growth that could be crushed underfoot. As he watched it slowly became a deeper blue-green, which faded in turn to drab brown. Ten minutes after it had opened it was yellow and new bulbs were forming on its stems.
“Better get folk busy killing them — if they can,” Kiccone suggested. “But leave this one. We’ll watch it.”
Rather to his surprise killing the plants proved easy. Roused into a fury by at last having something to attack, bands of men and women scoured the country, pouncing on the tangled brown heaps and crushing them to pulp. Bonfires glinted where someone decided no chances would be taken and lorry loads of brown vegetation sizzled to ashes, sending up thick smoke. Where they landed on the sea fish tore them to pieces in scurrying shoals. Where they fell on desert and snow no rootlets sprang into being; winds blew them hither and thither until they shrivelled and died, sinking into dust as if they had never been.
In Hyde Park, Kiccone examined the one he had saved. The police had shut the public from that section of the grounds and had allowed a fence to be erected to keep away those who might think the plant a menace. Guards unobtrusively paced the circumference of the enclosure and within the fifty yard area Kiccone watched.
Soon the top of the ball opened and with little snaps half a dozen small globes sprang out. They settled in a rough circle about two yards in diameter and sent down rootlets.
“So it is a plant,” said Betty, coming in through the fenced gateway.
“Yes. Quite a lot of ordinary weeds have similar ways of dispersing their seeds when ripe. There’s a springy membrane which comes under stress as it dries.”
Kiccone’s interest increased as the days went by. After the first seeding the new plants came to brown maturity and flung out seeds at ten hour intervals, acting as if that short period equalled an Earth plant’s entire season. Where it began to approach the fence he tore the growth up and destroyed it. Soon the vegetation filled the entire area, sending up diaphanous, spindly stems of mottled blue and brown. They were as high as his shoulder and sometimes they seemed to move when there was no wind to stir them.
Hendricks’ interest had been waning and Kiccone sought him out in his office. His feet were on a desk and only one typewriter rattled in the outside office.
“Why should I bother ?” objected Hendricks to Kiccone’s question. “There’s no future in it. When I die, the agency finishes. It’s the same with everything. The old die off, and there are no young to fill their places.”
Kiccone realised Hendricks had become aged and bitter. He turned the subject.
“The plant’s not dangerous. It’s delicate and easily killed.”
Hendricks snorted. “Damn the plant ! If you want to bleat about its peculiar osmotic processes you’ve chosen the wrong man. I wouldn’t give you a farthing a line.”
“We’ll see,” said Kiccone, unperturbed. “It may be more than plant alone.”
He paused, listening to a sad chant outside. A funeral. Often a whole street of people followed a funeral. They had nothing else to do and knew every man who died could never be replaced.
“Why did those light spheres drop like bricks ?” he continued. “There’s a reason for everything.”
Hendricks waved a skeleton hand. “I don’t remember, but you said something about them having a dissimilar time-rate to ours.”
“And I do again. If every one of our seconds contained a hundred of theirs an object that took a minute or so in falling, to them, would appear to drop rapidly, to us. Relatively, it would be rapid, and who can deny that such relativity of time is possible ? Likewise the slow maturing of these alien plants would appear speeded. And now they are established they seem to be seeding in ten hour cycles.”
Hendricks nodded ponderously. “Ten hour cycles. You mean a season of their time fits into ten hours of ours, because ours is so slow by comparison. What of it ?”
“I don’t know. But it means many alien generations have passed during
one of ours, since the first spheres came.” Kiccone got off the comer of the
desk. “Come out to Hyde Park with me and I’ll try to give you a hint. You’ve
nothing to do and I can think best talking.”
Dusk was beginning to steal from under the trees and a cool air drifted from the direction of Hyde Park corner and the Palace Gardens. Kiccone opened the door in the circular fence and they stood there, looking in.
The diaphanous tracery of stems seemed too fragile to support themselves in the dim light. They trembled to the breeze like vibrant rising smoke, whispering together when they touched.
“I’m convinced this plant was intended to acclimatise our planet for the beings who are to follow,” Kiccone said.
“But they would know we should never let it spread.”
“Would they ? Maybe not. Suppose we intended to move in somewhere where the vegetation and other conditions were unsuitable. First of all we should need to plant trees, shrubs and grasses. If there were animals there which would destroy those shrubs and grasses we should first destroy them. If the animals were numerous and we were kind-hearted we might shrink from outright killing or causing bodily pain. If so, our best plan would be to render them all sterile. We would wait for them to die out and then plant the vegetation we had chosen to make the area habitable. That’s how swamps have been cleared and desert places made habitable by man. I’m convinced that’s what’s been happening here, except that we’re the animal to be eliminated. In us they saw the only creature who could repel them. So they rendered man sterile by a radiation which nullified, but perhaps did not destroy, his fertility. They waited for us to die, then sent plants which would have covered half the Earth by now except for our unexpected intervention.” Hendricks looked fearfully at the spidery vegetation, too dense to be penetrated. “So you expect the appearance of whatever is responsible ?” “Yes. But only where this vegetation is. They need these plants. They might even be something dormant in them which emerges only after a time.” “Then they’ve failed. We can smash this patch to pulp.”
Kiccone shook his head in the gloom. “I don’t think that’s necessary.” Hendricks stared, his face blanching. “You mean it’s best to let them live ! That Earth had better be a planet peopled by aliens than a sterile world populated by animals alone !”
Kiccone raised a hand.
“No, Hendricks. Remember the time difference. Remember the maturing and seeding of these things in ten hours ? They pass hundreds of seasons to man’s one, so the aliens may have made an error. If we were clearing an area in which we wanted to live we should not use something effective for a hundred generations. Nor would any intelligent being. Therefore the aliens may have allowed insufficient time ”
He stopped abruptly. A faint blue light had risen above the centre of the vegetation. It grew until it was yards in diameter, an unearthly floating halo, and shapes began to stream up to it from the plants below. So lightly did they ascend that the thin stems scarcely bent; so rapid were their movements they appeared little more than flashes of shadow and coloured light. “The last move,” murmured Hendricks, the blue light shining on his face.
Kiccone said nothing. Among the plants things moved, dimly-seen and formless. A snake-like shape as of thick smoke came through the stems opposite the gateway and was withdrawn.
“This would have been happening everywhere,” whispered Kiccone. “But the plant couldn’t live in wild places and man has killed it wherever it touched cultivated fields.”
From the centre of the vegetation cylindrical objects as long and round as a man’s arm appeared, to float up to the blue circle. They were orange with open, green interiors and they turned slowly, hesitating sometimes, while about their ends a faint radiance played. Somehow he felt the beings were trying to communicate with their fellows, expecting similar activity had begun all over the Earth.
After a while the tubes dropped from view and complete silence returned, unbroken by movement.
“A hundred generations by their time equals a single one of man,” murmured Kiccone. “We would not spray a pest-infested house with insecticide for a month, knowing a few hours would do. Or if our fumigant rendered the unwanted occupants sterile it would only need to be effective for one or two generations.”
He halted because the circle of light had waxed stronger. The smoky coloured shadows appeared again, rising in great haste. Vaguely he noted he could see through them as through a mist. Soon the clump of vegetation was still. The circle of light grew in brilliance then began to move towards the sky at high velocity. It shone far above them, twinkling, then vanished, immeasurably distant in space.
“They’ve gone,” said Hendricks unbelievingly.
Kiccone withdrew and shut the gate. Whence the things had come, they would never know. Whither they had departed, fleeing their solitary outpost, none could guess.
Outside the park all was silent. Kiccone thought of Betty and of the pitiful processions of childless families; of the empty hearts and lack of ambition.
“So that is the end,” said Hendricks. “Exit homo sapiens — to no purpose.”
“I wonder.” Somewhere in the distance a man was shouting and Kiccone listened. The sterilising qualities of the radiations could not last for ever. “I wonder,” he repeated. “The aliens have miscalculated. They thought they had waited long enough for all men to die. But one generation of us outlived a score of theirs so we’re still alive after their whole plan to exterminate us has run its course.”
He stopped, gripping Hendricks’ arm. The shout was louder — a wild, stentorian cry of triumph, echoing down the road and across the empty park. He smiled as he listened :
“Yip-ee ! My wife’s going to have a baby !”
Francis G. Rayer.
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