BRITISH COMICS

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THE LAST ROCKET TO VENUS

First episode taken from The Hotspur issue: 313 August 26th 1939.

THIS ASTOUNDING STORY STARTS TO-DAY

It tells of the world’s doom 8000 years from now—and mankind’s 60 million mile flight into space for safety.

THE GREAT FREEZE

For a hundred years the ice had been creeping farther south over Europe from the North Pole, and northwards from the vast ice-cap at the South Pole. Everyone knew the end of the world was near. These were terrible, fear-ridden days. Not only was the Earth cooling down rapidly, but its speed of rotation had slowed so much that a day was now forty eight hours long. The nights were so long and so bitterly cold that people had to live underground or in artificially heated dwellings in order to survive. Civilised life in many countries had ceased altogether. The whole of northern Europe was buried under ice. The survivors of countries such as Russia, Germany, the Baltic States, and Poland had fled southwards, but there was no food for them in the few countries that remained free of the ice and snow. Fierce fights took place. There were massacres, terrible epidemics of sickness broke out, and men died by the million. The day was drawing near when mankind must either seek shelter on some other planet, or be wiped out altogether. All the wonderful inventions of science during the past few thousand years were powerless against the advance of the ice caps. When the Great Freeze came with its long, ice-cold nights, work came to a standstill, and fear-maddened people fought like tigers to get somewhere warmer. Great Britain lay under a thick mantle of snow and ice. Some parts of the north were already uninhabitable. But for the warm tides round its shores, this country would already have shared the fate of Germany, Russia and Poland. Government had practically ceased. Great armies of men roamed the countryside, looting and murdering, taking whatever they wished. Cities were set on fire, and burned to the last cinder, for there was no water with which to fight the flames. All water was frozen. No crops could grow. No motors, aeroplanes or ships could move about. Even the electric power-stations were dead, because there was neither coal nor water to run them. People did not trouble to work. They knew in a few months or years, they would all be dead. Many thousands of people had sought refuge in underground tunnels specially constructed for the purpose. The idea was to get as deep down in the Earth as possible, for some heat might remain there. Others searched for the old coal-mines, and lived in the dark depths there.

Only one corner of Great Britain was there any attempt at law and order. Around Snowdon, the Welsh mountain, a mighty barricade had been built, fenced by electrified wires and guarded by grim men with the latest types of guns and flame-throwers. Within that three-mile-long barricade men toiled to enable mankind to survive. But not on Earth. On another planet. For seven years experiments had been going forward. A brilliant young engineer named Gavin Ainsworth had invented a space-rocket which could be shot to distant planets. An ordinary gun was useless for such a purpose, so Ainsworth had made use of the highest mountains in the country. At first, he had used the Scottish mountains, for they were higher peaks there than in any other part of Great Britain. Mighty steel tubes were sunk in these mountains, pointing skywards. From these tubes the gleaming space-rockets were fired, containing men and supplies. Brave men had volunteered for those experiments. Rockets had been shot to Mercury, to Mars, and to Jupiter. But in no case had any signal been received from the pioneers who had gone there. Bu Gavin Ainsworth had persevered. He knew the end of the Earth would come in a matter of a quarter of a century. He knew that if mankind was to survive, some planet must be found for them to live on. He next tried Venus, shooting rockets from Ben Nevis to that distant planet. Six rockets were fired and three of them hit Venus. Only after the last of them arrived were signals received telling the people on the Earth that it was possible to live on Venus. Since then more than a hundred rockets had been fired, each with a hundred or more men, women and children in them. Sometimes the rockets landed on Venus, sometimes they disappeared into space. It was a risk that had to be taken. Gradually, during the course of the years, a colony of British pioneers had settled on the planet, and Gavin Ainsworth had the satisfaction of knowing that even though the Earth perished, mankind would still survive. Then Scotland had become impossible for the firing of rockets. It was colder there than in any other part of the country. Snow had fallen in the Highlands as deep as the tops of the mountain peaks. Ainsworth and his gallant band of scientists and engineers had had to go southwards. Now only Snowdon still remained possible for firing of rockets. Nearly every day a space-rocket was sent off into the sky. At first, when he had started his experiments, people had laughed and jeered at Ainsworth.

He had found it difficult to get volunteers to take the risk of the seven-miles-a-second journey. But now things were very different. Everyone wanted to go. People were so terrified of the approaching end that they clamoured to be shot to Venus. It was obviously impossible for Ainsworth to send even a hundredth part of the human race to their new home. That was why that mighty barricade had been constructed. It was to keep out the maddened hordes who sought to break in and force themselves into the rockets. This day in the year 9939 there was more than the usual excitement outside the barricade. A mob numbering more than fifty thousand had arrived, armed with all the latest weapons, ones which had been used in modern armies before the Great Freeze. The look-outs had warned Ainsworth just before dawn. Together with his right-hand man, Toby Greaves, he had gone to a tower on the mountainside from which the surrounding country could be watched. Men were pouring towards the barricade. From a distance they all looked alike, muffled to the eyes in furs, woolens, and thick garments. They looked like Eskimos, except for their weapons. They even had a snow-plough driven by steam. Petrol motors could not work in that frightful cold. “It’s a long time since I saw one of those,” murmured Ainsworth, a tall, lean, dark-haired man with a strong chin. “What do you make of it, Toby?” Eight thousand years earlier, Toby Greaves might have been an all-in wrestler. He was tremendous in build, bulging with muscle, and at least three inches over six feet. In his thick garments, he looked nearly as big as a house. His good-humoured face always bore a cheery grin. He was probably the strongest and the best-tempered man living. He had been the foreman of the boiler-makers who had made Ainsworth’s earlier rockets. Now the engineer and he were inseparable comrades. “There’s someone riding on the snow-plough, waving his arms to the others as he comes along,” he grunted. “Reckon it’s their leader. He’s got an old-fashioned aluminium umbrella over his head to keep off the snow. He’s urging them on. Wonder who he is?” “I don’t know, but I hope he doesn’t make trouble,” growled Ainsworth. “We’ve got trouble enough, now that the last steel works down at Merthyr have closed down. That reminds me, Toby, we’ve got to make a trip down to Merthyr to-day yet. I’m not certain just how many more rockets remain to be fired.” “I’m afraid it’s only five,” said Toby. “Five besides the one we’re loading up to-day. The time’s coming when the last rocket will be fired to Venus, and then—” He spread out his hands meaningly. Gavin Ainsworth tightened his lips. “It’s going to be tough! It’s bad enough now picking out those who can go and those who can’t. There’s only one way of picking them, Toby. We must send only those who will be of special value in the colony on Venus. Wealth or importance don’t matter. A good carpenter will be worth more up there than the greatest financier who ever lived. Yes, it’s going to be a tough business deciding the last few batches.”

A deafening roar from the mob beyond the barricade drew their attention again in that direction. Signals had been flashed from the defenders of the barricade, ordering the newcomers back. The great host of men had stopped, but the snow-plough came on. An enormous man, his black beard frozen to the fur garment on his chest, stood up in it and raised a megaphone. “You inside have got to listen to me. We’ve come for our rights, and we mean to get them! I’m Black Burrell, conqueror of the Midlands, and what I say goes!” There was a delighted roar from the army around him. Gavin Ainsworth frowned. “Who’s Black Burrell?” Toby Greaves shrugged his massive shoulders. “I seem to have heard of him,” he said. I believe he’s one of these mob-leaders who have jumped up from nowhere during the world crisis. I believe he was a coal-miner, or an oil-worker, or something of that kind. He thinks himself a new Napoleon or a new Caesar, and imagines he’s important. I’m afraid he’s going to make trouble.” Ainsworth looked at his electric watch. “I hope this trouble is finished within a reasonable time. The rocket has got to be fired at noon. If it’s a second late it will miss Venus, and another hundred lives will be lost.” “Open those gates and let us in!” came Black Burrell’s voice in a bellow. “We’ve as much right to be saved from freezing as any of you. You cowardly scum are so busy saving yourselves, you’ve forgotten the millions of ordinary people outside. We want to live in another world, the same as you do. Open the gates, I say, or we’ll smash a way in.” Gavin Ainsworth sighed, and picked up a microphone. This was linked up with a hundred loudspeakers all around the barricade. He began to speak clearly and firmly.

STORMING THE BARRICADE

“My friends,” he said, “be reasonable! No one has forgotten you. We are not inhuman. If we could make enough rockets to send you all to Venus, we would do so, but you know that that is impossible. Already the foundries and the steel works have stopped making metal for us. The cold has frozen them out of action. We have only six rockets left, enough for six hundred people. The last one is only big enough for half a dozen. And may be no good at all. How can I get fifty thousand of you in a handful of rockets?” “You’re lying!” bellowed Black Burrell. “You’re going to save your own skin and that of your friends. You’re sending the rich and leaving the poor. You’re leaving us to our doom, and we won’t stand for it.” Again there was a roar of approval from the mob. Gavin Ainsworth bent to the microphone patiently. His voice boomed out over the glittering snow. “My friends, that is untrue. My own friendships have nothing to do with this. I am not even going to save my own skin. When the last rocket is fired, I shall still be here with you, for my usefulness will have finished. Only one thing decides who will go with the rockets and who will not—usefulness in colonizing a new world.” Howls and cat-calls drowned his voice for some minutes, but again Ainsworth won a hearing. “I have sent farmers who can till the ground on Venus and plant the seeds which they have taken with them. Carpenters, blacksmiths, builders, and practical engineers have been sent, also men and women who can weave cloth. Children who will grow up strong, healthy citizens have gone and will go. Only the fit and the well are being sent, for there is no room for weaklings. A few teachers with a sound general knowledge to carry on the pursuit of learning, a few chemists and practical scientists, but no professors or men who deal in theories have gone. With only a few hundred to choose, I have had to be careful. Nobody will be sent who cannot prove his usefulness. If any of you can prove that the colony on Venus needs you, you will be allowed to go.” There was a moment’s silence, and then Black Burrell jerked up his megaphone and shouted—“I’ll take you at your word. Let me in. I’m Black Burrell, the leader of fifty thousand men!” “And what have you done for the world?” asked Gavin Ainsworth mildly. Black Burrell nearly choked behind his megaphone. “I tell you I’m Black Burrell!” he raved. “I’m important. I’ve risen from nothing. I’ve won over thousands of followers. I’ve organised an army. There’s nothing in this country or any other that can stand against me to-day. I could conquer the world if I wished.” Gavin Ainsworth’s lips curled. “And you call that useful?” he said scornfully.

“Man, there have been hundreds of leaders like you, and bigger than you, in the history of mankind. There have been Caesars, Hannibals, Napoleons, Praeters, Sing Fus, but where are they now? Have they ever done anything which helps us to live to-day? Would they be any good to us in our hour of need in this year of 9939? All they did was conquer people who would have been happier without them. To satisfy their own ambition, they caused suffering to millions. You and your kind are worthless, Black Burrell. There are always mob leaders and always have been throughout history, but if they were all here now I would not select one of them to be sent to the new world. The folk on Venus will be better off without that sort of leader. No, Black Burrell, you can stay here, like millions of far better men!” He stepped back from the microphone as a deafening howl went up from the mob. Black Burrell could be seen throwing back his head and waving his arms as he yelled orders to the crowd. They surged forward, their electric rifles spitting, their gas-bombs hurtling over the barricade upon the defenders inside. Queerly-shaped guns capable of firing incendiary shells were being brought up from the rear. These shells burned wherever they struck. Gavin Ainsworth pressed a button, and red lights gleamed at intervals of a dozen yards right round the barricade. At the same time a mechanical voice thundered from a hundred loudspeakers. “Keep back! The barricade is electrified. It means death to touch it. You are given ten minutes to retreat. If you fire any more shots, or come any closer, you will be wiped out.” Over and over again this was repeated, but the maddened crowd took no notice. Black Burrell was working himself into a frenzy as he danced on top of the snow-plough. He had a voice like a foghorn, and a gift for rousing mobs. The army of men did not listen to reason. They listened to Burrell. There was a dull boom in the rear, and from less than a mile range an incendiary shell whined over the top of the barricade and burst inside the enclosure at the foot of Snowdon. It gave of flaming particles of terrific heat, which would set fire to everything they touched. Black Burrell had decided that if he could not get into a rocket, no one else should. He would destroy the whole place, and everyone in it. A dozen men wearing gas-masks and asbestos suits dashed to fight the flames. On their look-out, the two engineers looked at each other grimly. “It’s got to be done!” muttered Ainsworth, paler than usual, and he pressed a second button. A hundred sirens started wailing. The noise was hideous, deafening, terrifying. It drowned the voice of the mob outside, but it did not drive them back.

The gun which had fired the shell was being reloaded. Black Burrell was waving his men forward. But Gavin Ainsworth had given the signal for extreme measures to be taken. The defenders raised a number of what looked like searchlights above the top of the barricade. These were switched on. There was a sizzling noise. Although it was broad daylight, the beams from these searchlights were dazzling. Slowly they swept over the crowd, beginning with Black Burrell. The men out there did not shrink with pain or show any suffering. They did not shrivel up or burn, or even change colour. They merely dropped where they stood and lay still. It was the deadly radiocation-ray, which stilled life quicker than any bullet, and quite painlessly. Slowly it swept along the ranks, mowing down thousands of the attackers. As those in the rear saw what was happening, they turned and fled. There was no standing against this terrible weapon. One man could have wiped out an army with it. Nothing could guard against it. Within five minutes those fifty thousand men could have been wiped out, but once the terrified mob was on the run, the current was switched off. There was no need for useless slaughter. Toby greaves sighed as he looked down at the heaps of fur-clad dead. “Let’s go and see how the next rocket’s passengers are behaving themselves,” he suggested, “then we’ve got to visit Merthyr about those other rockets. Don’t forget we’ve got to be back by noon.” They descended to the snowy enclosure and entered some low, concrete buildings which were set at the foot of the mountain for warmth. Inside were several hundred men, women and children. The air was electrically warmed, and there was a cheerful light from unseen lamps. It seemed to do the occupants good, for they were laughing and chatting, the children were playing and everyone seemed quite carefree. But when the engineers entered, men crowded round them eagerly. “Is it time?” they asked. “Is the rocket going to be fired now?” “No, not until noon,” replied Ainsworth. “I just wanted to make sure you were all ready. Don’t forget, number one batch must be quite ready, with all their belongings, by eleven-thirty. We load up at that time.” A pleasant nod and a smile to those about him, and Gavin Ainsworth walked through to the inner control-rooms and offices. There, men were working day and night over this scheme for colonizing Venus, thinking nothing of themselves. Few, if any of them, were going in the rockets, but that did not prevent them sticking to their duty. Satisfied that everything was ready, Ainsworth and Toby Greaves emerged from a tunnel some distance away, and approached a garage-like building where a queer machine awaited them. It was something like an old-fashioned army tank, with caterpillar-tracks.

The cockpit was totally enclosed, and the machine was worked by electricity. Mechanics in electrically-warmed overalls, not unlike those used by altitude record breaking airmen, stepped back and announced that the machine was ready. “We’re going straight to Merthyr, and expect to be back here by eleven-twenty,” declared Ainsworth. “If any messages come for us while we’re away, just say that.” The two of them entered the electric tractor, and Toby Greaves took the controls. Smoothly and swiftly the machine glided over the snow towards the gates, which were opened wide by some of the guards, and immediately closed again. Outside the wind was howling and there was a touch of snow in the air. Snow lay in drifts fifty feet thick. Ice plastered everything. The bodies of the men who had died with Black Burrell were already frozen hard. Toby Greaves carefully picked his way between the bodies. It might have been noticed that when the electric tractor touched snow there was a hissing sound, a cloud of steam, and the snow or ice melted. The exterior of the machine was heated to a terrific temperature by a strong current. It could thaw a way through any ice barrier. Except in such a machine as this it was impossible to move swiftly over the dying, ice-bound world. They passed in a cloud of steam on to the southern road, and Toby Greaves increased speed. It was important that they should be back at the stated time, or they would miss a chance of firing the rocket.

ACROSS THE WASTELAND

There was no normal landscape. There were no trees or buildings, no telegraph poles, no roads or railways to be seen. Here and there the top of a building pushed a few feet out of the snow-drifts. But all the two in the electric tractor saw were solid walls of snow and ice on either side of them. At times they were completely buried beneath thousands of tons of snow, for when they came to mountainous drifts they did not climb over the top, but burrowed through them. It was strange to see the way the tractor dived at a wall of ice or snow, hissing and spluttering, like a hot knife going through ice cream. Without slowing its speed, the strange vehicle would burrow right underneath, its tracks still on the road which was somewhere at the bottom. How Toby Greaves steered was a marvel. His powerful headlights were not of much use in a wall of snow, yet he always kept his direction. Occasionally they touched the side of a buried house, or what had been a lamp post, but the tractor was so strongly made it was never damaged. There were some windswept stretches where there was little snow, and only a covering of ice on the barren land. When they emerged on these stretches they sometimes saw roving bands of desperate people muffled like grizzly bears. Armed to the teeth, these wandering bands were worse than packs of wolves. They attacked anything they saw. Only the knowledge that the electric tractor was “live” prevented them from throwing themselves upon it and trying to pull it to a standstill. They ran alongside it for miles, shooting at it, hurling threats, and shaking their fists savagely. They did not know who was inside, but they believed the occupants were well fed, and for that reason they wanted to kill them. There were other dangers as well. As the ice-cap had crept south, the Arctic animals had fled before it. There were vast packs of wolves which preyed on people. They had increased in number tremendously since the collapse of civilization. In one valley, between enormous dumps of slag which told of those distant days when coal had been mined in Wales, the travelers came upon one of these tracks.

There must have been five hundred wolves in all, and when they saw the moving tractor they gave one wild yelp and raced to attack it. “Poor brute!” muttered Greaves. “Be ready for the bump!” The bump came right enough. Knowing nothing of the electrical heat, and caring less, the maddened beasts hurled themselves at the tractor. As they touched it they were electrocuted. The stench of smoking fur and scorched flesh was sickening. It nearly choked the two men inside. As the wolves died they were flung in all directions into the snow, and their comrades fell upon them and tore them to pieces. By the time the tractor had won through, the survivors of the pack had fed well on the dead wolves. When they got clear, Ainsworth opened the shutters and let in the ice-cold air to drive away the stench. The temperature dropped so quickly that the shutters were soon closed. The tractor sped up and over an icy hillside where outcrops of coal could still be seen. They were now at Brecknock. Toby Greaves suddenly broke the silence. “Gavin, this morning you said to Black Burrell that you were going to remain behind when the last rocket was fired!” “So I am!” Toby Greaves eyes widened. “You must be crazy! Of course you’re going in the last rocket. You’re just the sort of man they want up there. You’re the most brilliant engineer in the world, and—” “Too brilliant, old chap,” broke in Ainsworth. “I’m not the kind of mechanic they want in the new world. I’m used to handling scientific inventions, and having great workshops at my beck and call. I’m not the sort who can take a hammer and chisel, a spanner and a few nuts, and make something simple and effective. That’s the kind of engineers they’ll need up there for years to come, with a man such as you to be their foreman.” “Me!” Greaves’ big hands trembled on the wheel. “You’re not suggesting that I’m going?” “You certainly are,” said Ainsworth. “I’ve got you listed for the last rocket to Venus. You’ve got brawn, pluck, and the practical mechanical knowledge which will make you the leader of the engineers I’ve already sent. There’s no argument about it. You’re going!” “Huh!” grunted the burly Greaves, and there was a strange look in his eyes which Ainsworth did not see. The tractor turned, burrowed deeply into a drift of snow until it found the steep slope of a hill, and climbed to the top. The wind had blown most of the snow off the summit. For a few minutes they were in the open again, glimpsing a valley almost completely filled with snow beneath them. Then they dived and were shut in by thousands of tons of icy flakes which had become as hard-packed as steel. But their direction was right. When at last they emerged they were near a great opening in the foot of the hill. It was like the mouth of a tunnel, and in front of it had been built a barricade like the one round Snowdon, but smaller.

Behind it armed guards were on the watch, and the tractor’s approach was at once signalled. The tractor halted before the gates, and Ainsworth stepped out. Just as at Snowdon, no unauthorized person was admitted into this last remaining workshop in Britain. The gates were opened, and they passed inside. The tractor stopped, and the two engineers got out, nodding to the men on all sides. The tunnel was comparatively modern. It had not been built more than fifty years. Down under the mountain were coal-mine galleries which had been dug somewhere about the year 1939, nearly eight thousand years earlier. Down in the ancient coal mine men were at work on the construction of the last of the rockets. Coal and iron could both be found in the locality, and old-fashioned methods were being employed to mine them. But work was nearing the end. The engineer in charge came forward and told Ainsworth they were approaching their limit. “The cold has got down so far that the men can hardly live any more,” he said. “The soil is becoming solid ice. Even all our arti8fical heat will not thaw it. After this last batch of steel is rolled into plates, we’ll have no more.” Gavin Ainsworth tightened his lips as he looked at an immense rocket, one hundred and fifty feet long, which stood on scaffolding in the tunnel. “How many more like that can you make, Brown?” he asked. “Four or five more. Possibly four like that, and one small one. There is not enough steel for any more. Furthermore, the men are dying rapidly. It’s a wonder that the survivors keep at their work.” Brown, a tall young fellow, shrugged his shoulders. He had long since decided to give up his life to this great task. “I’ll have this rocket delivered to you to-morrow,” he said. “I suppose you’re firing the other one to-day?” “Yes, at noon. That’s why we can’t stay long. Let’s go down below.” Electric hoists carried them thousands of feet into the depths of the earth. It was a little warmer down there, but not much. The workers both lived and worked in those depths by artificial light. They were all warmly wrapped up.

Compared with the workshops of 1939, those underground workshops were amazing. There were machines unknown eight thousand years before, and processes never invented in those far-off days. But to Gavin Ainsworth, used to modern inventions, everything seemed painfully old-fashioned and slow. He talked with some of the men. Toby Greaves joked and chatted with others, and his cheery smile did a good deal to spur them on. Even if the end of the world was coming, Toby Greaves showed no sign of worry. He often said that all the grumbling possible would not alter things a scrap. They saw the frozen steel foundries, and realised it was impossible to open them again. All that could be done was to finish constructing the last five rockets. After those, no more could be made. The people who remained could not be saved. Back on the surface once again, Ainsworth gave final instructions to Brown about the delivery of the next rocket. At last the two shook hands with Brown and climbed back into the tractor. A queer red light shone over the snow covered landscape, which made them glance at the sky. Queer things were happening in the sky these days. The moon was getting closer to the Earth, and people wondered what was going to come of this sinister approach. But the engineers had no time to worry about things which had not yet happened. Very soon the electric tractor was outside the barricade, and burrowing into the snow with the cloud of steam gushing out behind it. The track they had thawed on their way out had completely disappeared. The pressure of the deep snow was more than sufficient to block it. So Toby Greaves had to steer his course anew, and melt his way as he went along. But they would be back at Snowdon on time. The next rocket must be fired.

THE MILLIONAIRE’S DEMAND

The journey during the first part of the trip was uneventful. They met neither wolves nor marauders. They made good time, and it was not yet eleven o’clock when they came in sight of the great barricade around Snowdon. They came in full view of it as they emerged from a mighty snowdrift through which they had melted their way for more than five miles. Toby Greaves gave a sudden shout—“What’s going on there?” Through the unbreakable glass observation window a group of men could be seen in front of the gates of the enclosure. In their midst was a machine not unlike that in which the two engineers were travelling, but much larger. Behind it were no less than four streamlined trailers, and from these had descended something like twenty men. Unlike the mob which had recently attacked the barrier, these men were not clad in rough woolens or furs, but in heated garments of rubber and leather. They wore metal helmets, which the engineers knew to be radio receivers, and looked well-fed and healthy. Some kind of argument was going on between them and the guards behind the barricade. It only stopped when the electric tractor with the engineers arrived on the spot. “Here comes Mr Ainsworth, who is in charge of this place. You must ask him,” came a voice through the loudspeakers on the barricade. “He’ll be able to tell you definitely.” A man out in front of the others turned, and stared at the small machine which had now stopped. He came hurrying towards them, and they saw he was a big, stout man with a red face, bulging eyes, and a cruel, full-lipped mouth. “Now what?” murmured Gavin Ainsworth, and stepped out to meet the stranger. In the tone of one accustomed to command, the stout man addressed him—“These fools of yours have kept me waiting! Tell them to open those gates!” “Why?” demanded Ainsworth, looking round at the others who stood close by. “Who are you?” “I? You don’t know me?” rasped the man. “I am Herman Baskerville, the richest man in West State, owner of the International Air Routes, and of the Pacific Tunnel. I’ve just journeyed three thousand miles across the frozen Atlantic.” “Very interesting!” murmured the engineer. “Why?” “Because I hear you are sending people to Venus to escape this—this Great Freeze,” returned Baskerville. “I want to go. I’ve come all this way and have brought my best men with me. Now those fools won’t let me through the barricade.” “They have their orders,” Ainsworth told him. “No one else is to be admitted.” The millionaire’s face became redder than ever. “But—but how do I get into the rocket without entering the enclosure?” he demanded. “You don’t!” said Ainsworth firmly. “I’m sorry, but all the passengers have been chosen, Baskerville. You have had your journey for nothing. I’m very sorry.” “But—but—” The man’s podgy hand closed on the engineer’s arm. “You can’t do that! Did you hear me say who I was? I’m the richest man in the Wets State, which makes me the richest man in the world. I demand to go in one of those rockets.

I’ve brought a hundred tons of gold in those trailers to take to Venus with me. Open those gates pretty quickly, young man, or it will be the worse for you!” Toby Greaves started forward, an angry glow in his eyes, but Ainsworth checked him. “Sorry, Baskerville, but we want no gold on Venus. Every inch of space in those rockets is being filled with useful people and useful things. You are not a useful person and gold is not a useful thing. Food, seeds, tools, and clothing are the things we mean to send to Venus. Nothing else matters.” He turned away, and found his way barred by the men from the trailers. “Stop him!” barked the millionaire. “He doesn’t get away with this. We’re going in one of those rockets even if I have to buy one of the things. “All the money you ever owned wouldn’t buy one of those rockets,” said Ainsworth, quietly. “Can’t you get it into your stupid head that money now means nothing? A ton of gold couldn’t buy a beef-steak or a pail of coal. Gold is worthless. You are worthless, Baskerville. Now, let me pass. I’ve important work to do in half an hour.” As Ainsworth spoke, the millionaire’s face had been becoming purple. It looked as though he was going to have a fit. Baskerville was one of the Big Five who had ruled the world for the past two generations, and he could not believe his own ears. He had been brought up to a life where gold meant everything, power, friends, luxury, and the control of others. He just could not believe things had changed. “You’ll change your tune before I’ve finished with you, young man!” he rasped. “Seize him, Hawkins. He’s not going back in there until he’s promised to take us in one of those spaceships, or whatever he calls them.” His men leaped to obey his orders, and the next moment Gavin Ainsworth was struggling furiously in their grasp. It was not only for himself he was struggling, but for the people who were waiting to enter the rocket that was to be fired in less than half an hour. If he was delayed, they would lose their chance of travelling to the new world on Venus. He hit out right and left, but they were too many for him. Some grasped his arms, some his legs, and between them they pulled him down. Hardly had he touched ground when they came a bellow. Toby Greaves was slow to act, but when he did act, he was like a tornado. His forward bound carried him into the middle of the crowd of West State men. His method was simple. He either drove his fist up under a jaw, or into a stomach. In either case, the same thing happened—the victim was lifted from his feet and landed on his back in the snow. For a few moments Toby’s attack took them by surprise, but the millionaire’s shouts brought more men from the trailers, and they leapt upon Greaves from behind. Even that did not knock him over. A swift bend of his thick body, a shrug of his mighty shoulders, and attackers flew from him like drops of water from a duck. Toby Greaves good-humoured face had become fierce. His eyes gleamed with the light of battle. He felt a blow on the head and turned to see the millionaire in the act of bringing down a clubbed electric pistol for the second time. “Would you!” roared the angry Toby, and his fist hooked upwards with more than usual force behind it. Baskerville must have weighed a lot, but he sailed through the air as though he had wings, and went head-first into a snowdrift, where he remained with his feet in the air.

Without their leader to urge them on, the West Staters fell back to their queer land-ship, and watched sullenly as the two engineers staggered into the enclosure. The massive gates were closed, and the officer in charge of the defences nodded inquiringly towards the radiocation-ray machine. “No!” grunted Ainsworth, wiping blood from his nose. “No need for that. It’s not the fault of those stupid fools. They only obeyed Baskerville, and it’s not his fault either. He believes gold can buy anything, so he must be a fool. Let them live. He’ll find the day will arrive when his gold won’t stop him from starving or freezing to death.” As he straightened his clothes, more shouts came from outside. The two friends mounted to the top of the barricade to see what was happening. The cold snow had brought Herman Baskerville round. He had been hauled out, and stood there a pitiful sight. With tears freezing his fat cheeks, he staggered towards the barricade. “For the love of pity, let me in!” he cried. “We’ll all die out here. I’ll give you all the gold I’ve got, a hundred tons of it. I’ll give you the lot, for one passage in a rocket!” Gavin Ainsworth’s lip curled. Not far beyond the millionaire lay the body of Black Burrell, who had died that morning in trying to dictate his terms to the guardians of the rockets. “Baskerville, if you could prove you were valuable to a new community starting life in a new world, you could have a passage in a rocket for nothing,” called Ainsworth. “That is the only test.” “Useful!” howled the millionaire. “Of course I’m useful. I founded the International Stock Exchange. I launched the Three Continents Oil Merger. I was the man who handled the Wheat Corner three years ago, and who—” “That’s just the sort of thing that’s useless nowadays,” replied Gavin Ainsworth. “All those things are useless to anyone but yourself. You’re a financier, a man who neither produces nor invents. You’re the most useless creature on earth, as useless as a drone in a bee-hive. I’m sorry, but you can count yourself out!” He turned to descend the ladder, and Baskerville lifted his podgy fist in the air as he shrieked— “You’ll pay for this! You’ll be sorry for this! I’ll get a place in one of those rockets, or nobody else will leave the Earth! You see if I’m not right. I still have power. I still have a hundred tons of gold, food, stores, and a knack of handling men. You’ll regret this, you young fool!” One of the guards on the barricade fired an electric rifle over Baskerville’s head, and it was almost comical to see the way the millionaire scampered for the leading electric trailer. He jumped in and called his men. They all boarded their various trailers, the doors were clanged to, and the queer land-ships churned through the deep snow towards the east. The last those behind the gates saw of Baskerville was his furious face glaring at them from behind unbreakable glass windows. “Pity I hadn’t slugged him a bit harder!” muttered Toby Greaves. “I fell we’ll have more trouble from him. Ainsworth was already on the ground below. “Rot, Toby! What can he do?” he chuckled. “Forget him. He was never any use to himself or anyone else. Let’s go and see some folk who are really worth while.”

WHEN THE MOON BROKE UP

It was now eleven-thirty, and there were signs of excitement amongst the men who manned the stockade round Snowdon. The two engineers let themselves into a tunnel which ran deep into the mountain. This tunnel led to the foot of the giant steel tube which had been sunk downwards from the summit of Snowdon. This tube formed the “barrel” of the gun which fired the rockets. It was three thousand feet deep and sixty feet across, the same width as the rockets. A massive chamber of concrete and steel in the bowels of the earth contained several hundred tons of the most powerful explosive known. No ordinary gun could have withstood such a charge. Bu this one had steel walls ten feet thick, and the steel was specially hardened. Silent men in rubber overalls and rubber shoes were waiting for Ainsworth’s inspection. They showed him that everything was ready, the charges set, the electric detonator in position, and the wiring to the control post on the mountain top in perfect order. He and Greaves inspected everything, then mounted in a lift which carried them nearly a thousand feet up the inside of the mountain to the waiting room. There they found a hundred men, women and children who were going in the rocket that was shortly to be fired. They were all fine, healthy people, and each had a small bundle of personal belongings with him. The passengers were not allowed very much. There were farmers and peasants, miners and doctors, teachers, carpenters and sailors, all men whose work would be of use in founding a colony on an unknown world. The women looked a little nervous, but the children were excited as though they were going on an excursion to the seaside. There were one or two boys who had brought a football along with them. The ancient game would not be allowed to die out. Gavin Ainsworth grinned at this. He could not tell them that a football was not a real necessity. He pretended not to see it. “Well, folks,” he said cheerfully. “In about a quarter of an hour you’ll be off. In a few minutes you’ll be taken up and loaded. I’m afraid your quarters for the next few hours will be rather cramped, but there’s plenty of space on Venus.” “Are you sure we’ll get there, sir?” asked a woman. “Certainly!” nodded Ainsworth. “At exactly midday to-day Venus is exactly opposite our gun. It has all been worked out most carefully, including the allowance for the Earth’s spin. Of the last six rockets fired, all have landed somewhere on Venus. I can’t promise which part of the new world you’ll land on, but at least you’ll get there. That is more than I could promise earlier travelers. Some of them missed altogether.” “And when we get there, shall we be met?” asked someone. “I don’t know,” Ainsworth shook his head. “The moment before you are fired I send an ultra-violet ray signal to Venus to those of our friends who are already there.

They will be on the look-out for you, and even if you don’t land exactly in their midst, they’ll find some way of getting in touch with you. Venus is a little smaller than Earth, and there are no big seas on it, so you can’t plunge into the middle of an ocean. I’m sure you’ll be all right. Tomorrow, some more folk will be sent after you. Now, good-bye, and good luck!” He went round and shook hands with them all. The hundred passengers then passed into a second lift, which whirled them up through a long shaft to the mountain-top. The engineers used a smaller lift, and were there before the passengers. The end of the “gun” from which the rockets were fired was on a level with the frozen ground. It was possible to look down into that thirty-foot-wide shaft and marvel at the straightness of it. The rocket itself lay close by, on a sliding platform which would presently be tilted by hydraulic means. Mighty derricks towered to one side, ready to lift the rocket and gently lower it into the tube. The rocket shell was highly polished and marked to give it grip on the rifling inside the barrel of the tube. One end was filled with apparatus for supplying oxygen to the passengers, steering gadgets, and apparatus for shooting out explosives to break their fall when they got in the gravity pull of Venus. The other end was divided into ten chambers each ten feet high, and in these chambers the pioneers to Venus would live during the time it took them to reach the planet. Some of the rockets had been fitted with storerooms, with stables for domestic animals, and other things, but this one was purely for passengers. The engineers had a look round to make sure everything was in perfect order, and by that time the passengers had reached the mountain top. It was bitterly cold up there, even colder than down below, and they shivered as they passed down the covered gangway into the rocket. Most of them tried to look around them for one last glimpse of the Earth on which they and their ancestors had lived for thousands of years. It seemed unbelievable that they were actually going to leave the Earth and voyage through space to another planet. Some of them were dazed at the thought. The young children did not understand the seriousness of the undertaking. They did not know what might await them at the other end. At the last moment, just as the passengers were embarking, there came an alarming disturbance. From somewhere up in the clouds a rain of molten fire began to fall. It was like lava from a mighty volcano in eruption. Huge pieces of flaming rock or metal came hurtling through the air, and crashed down on the snow-covered countryside to the south. Wherever a fragment fell there was a great hissing and steaming. Holes were made in the snow, and flames spurted up. Luckily none of this fire from the skies fell on Snowdon, or inside the enclosure, but some was sufficiently close to scare the group of passengers who were about to enter the space-rocket. “What is it? Where does it come from?” they asked. Children shrank close to their mothers, and that men looked grave. “Don’t be alarmed,” reassured Ainsworth. “You’ll soon be out of this danger. I can’t be sure, but I think those pieces come from the moon.

The moon is much nearer the Earth than it has ever been before, and as the seas here are frozen there are no tides. Something has gone wrong with the moon. Some scientists prophesy that it will break up and fall upon the Earth. That’s another reason why you should be glad to be away. This old Earth of ours is in for a bad time. Flaming torrents of fragments descended about a dozen miles to the south, like some tremendous firework display. One or two of them must have been a mile long. Secretly, Ainsworth was nervous. There was no reason why this fiery rain should not fall on Snowdon. If it did, the rocket firing apparatus might be damaged. It might be made impossible to send off the remaining rockets. Yet he could not fire this one before midday. It had to leave the tube at noon, and not a moment before. Leaving Toby Greaves to marshall the people into the chambers of the rocket, he retired to his observatory, which was built in a tower nearby. In this tower, with its glass dome, there was every known astronomical and meteorological instrument. Here Ainsworth worked out all his difficult calculations. The rocket could not be aimed by moving the gun. The gun was Mount Snowdon, and the only thing that could move Mount Snowdon was the earth’s spin. Ainsworth had to rely on this point his mighty gun in the right direction. If he was a second out, that rocket, with its innocent cargo, would hurtle into nothingness. Swiftly he checked over everything. Then he took a peep through the daylight telescope to get a glimpse of Venus. He focussed it on the reflecting table. The image of Venus showed clear. Telescopes were so powerful that it was possible to see details of the world on to which he was firing those last survivors of the human race. Ainsworth could see a wild, barren countryside, almost waterless, and strangely green. He knew he was not looking at the spot where the rocket would land, for before the giant missile with its human cargo had reached Venus, both that planet and the Earth would have spun several times. He could not judge where the rocket would land. That was a matter of luck. There were five minutes to go. He touched the signalling apparatus. Ultra-violet and infra-red rays were used. He had sent a similar apparatus to Venus in a rocket, so the colony already established there could get in touch with him.

He pressed the key, and sent out a series of red flashes—“Rocket leaving in four minutes. Travelling at the usual rate. One hundred men, women and children on board.” Twice he repeated this, knowing that even infra-red rays took a minute to reach the distant observers. Then on the surface of Venus there appeared a tiny pin-point of red light. It twinkled and flashed. “Will keep a look-out for them,” was what it said. “What are those flashes from the moon?” There was no time to reply to that. Gavin Ainsworth knew the signal came from Jerry Mortimer, a wireless expert who had been a great friend of his in the old days. It was curious to think that old Jerry was on a different world altogether, and that he would never be seeing him again. It was almost like talking with one of the dead. “Going to fire rocket. Good-bye!” Ainsworth tapped, and grabbed a telephone receiver which was connected with the firing-chamber. “Hullo, Toby! Is all set?” “Everyone stowed away and everything O K,” came back the voice of Toby Greaves. “Right! Stand by. I’ll set her off at exactly the hour. Cross your fingers and wish them luck!” Ainsworth put down the receiver and bent over the enlarged clock-face that was set before him. In his hand he had a plunger, not unlike the plunger that works a camera. This one controlled the firing of the immense charge of explosives that would shoot the rocket into the sky.

SIXTY MILLION MILES THROUGH SPACE

Seconds passed. The hands of the clock turned slowly, but smoothly towards the vital mark. Gavin Ainsworth scarcely breathed. His finger trembled a little. The hand moved nearer. The edge of it touched the hair-line. Now it fairly covered the line. Gavin Ainsworth pressed the plunger. Instinctively he ducked, like many a gunner in the old days when firing a far smaller gun. From somewhere inside the mountain came a dull growl which might have been the explosion of a volcano. The mountain trembled. The observatory swayed like a ship’s mast in a storm. The unbreakable glass windows rattled. Then came a rush of wind, a roar louder than that made by any tornado or hurricane. The building rocked again, and all the snow which had collected on top of Snowdon was whisked up into the air for more than a mile, and cast over a wide space. That was the result of the one hundred and fifty foot rocket speeding into space. So great was its speed that it sucked all the air up behind it, and caused a wind which shook the barricade at the foot of the mountain, and would have sucked men into the air if they had not been under cover. Red lights burned at the moment when the rocket was fired to warn everyone to be careful. There was no excuse for Ainsworth’s helpers to be caught napping. They had experienced this sort of thing too many times. In the distance there was a shrill, whistling noise, a noise that became fainter and fainter. The telephone whirred softly, and Ainsworth took up the receiver. “Yes?” “Seems to have gone off all right,” came Toby’s voice. “Two of the men here have got nose-bleed. I expect that’s the sudden change of pressure in the air.” “Maybe!” replied Ainsworth. “I’m just waiting for the flying snow to settle, and then I’ll be able to see if she’s on her course. Come on up.” “Right!” Toby Greaves sounded as matter-of-fact as though he had been helping at the planting of a row of potatoes. Again the lone man in the observatory pored over his reflecting telescope. It was still obscured by snow and fragments of ice, but it was clearing. Gradually the glass became bright, and the dazzle of the sky made him blink as he stared into it. There was a movement at his side. Big Toby Greaves had arrived. “Well?” demanded the one-time boilermaker’s foreman. “There she goes!”

Ainsworth put his finger on a tiny speck speeding across the illuminated reflector before him. “She’s dead on course, and is balancing perfectly. She’s stopped spinning now. I’m always afraid they may not stop spinning, and so burn themselves up.” There were observation windows through which they could watch the receding world. Even the noisiest youngsters would be silent with awe now. Ainsworth wondered if the boys still hugged their football. But as the two engineers looked, some vivid flashes appeared on the screen, all around the speeding rocket. They came nearer, became bigger, flared more openly, and came rushing towards the earth at terrific speed. “More of those moon fragments,” growled Gavin Ainsworth. “I don’t like them. They’re getting worse and worse. A few days ago we only got an occasional fragment. Now it’s a real bombardment. If the moon really breaks up it will fly in fragments to the Earth, and smash everything and everyone to bits.” There was a dull impact somewhere near the foot of the mountain, and they rushed to the window to see a spout of fire rising less than a mile away. One of the big moon fragments had struck not far from the road to Merthyr. “H’m!” grunted Toby Greaves. “Looks as though it’ll be a toss up whether this old world of ours is frozen or burnt out of existence.” “After I’ve got you away in the last rocket, I won’t mind,” murmured his companion. “I just want another week, and then I’ll have done all I can do. I hope the road from Merthyr isn’t bombarded when the next rocket comes along.” He was staring from the window at the dying flames in the snow. He did not see the look his friend gave him, the same kind of look which Toby Greaves had given when he had been told on the way to Merthyr that Ainsworth did not intend to save himself. “I shouldn’t worry about that. It’s one chance in a million that anything of ours gets hit,” declared Toby. Even as he spoke there came a crash on the other side of the observatory, and when they rushed across to the further window they saw a gaping scar in the mountainside where a molten mass of rock weighing many tons had smashed through the frozen surface. “Too near for my liking!” growled Ainsworth. “Think it will have damaged the barrel of the gun?” Toby Greaves studied the smoking hole through a pair of powerful field-glasses. “No, it’s not deep enough, but I don’t want to be underneath one of those little souvenirs from the moon. Talk about the bombs used in the aerial wars of thousands of years ago. They would have looked like chicken-feed compared with these. Hullo!” His voice had suddenly hardened. “What’s the matter?” frowned Ainsworth. “Don’t quite know,” answered Toby.

“There’s some kind of trouble down below. Looks like a panic. I believe some of our workers have decided to bolt. They’re trying to force the troops to open the gates to let them out. He pointed to the enclosure far below. A frenzied group stormed around the inside of the gate. A fight seemed to be going on. From above, the men looked like struggling ants, but those two in the observatory knew their work would fail completely if their helpers left them now. “Come on!” snapped Ainsworth, and he dived for the door leading to the express lift which would take them down to ground level. As the doors slammed behind them he pressed the button, and they dived down into the mountain at a speed which almost lifted their stomachs. For three thousand feet they sped silently downwards, then stopped with the softest of jolts. Ainsworth jerked the door open and dived through the tunnel beyond. That tunnel led to the inside of the enclosure, and in that enclosure there was a riot. The guards had their orders to let on one in or out without permission. They were trying to prevent a group of fifty workers from throwing open the gate and rushing out into the corpse-strewn snow beyond. Unwilling to use their terrible weapons on their friends, the guards were slowly being driven backwards. Gavin Ainsworth gritted his teeth as he dashed into the open. If his men deserted him now, there would be no chance of firing those last five rockets to Venus!

 

© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2007