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I SAW THE END OF THE WORLD

First episode taken from The Wizard issue: 1325 July 7th 1951.

Revealed here are the amazing experiences of a man who witnessed the destruction of the world – and survived to tell the tale.

THE FLASH IN THE SKY

On the day of the explosion that spelled the doom of the world, I was tending seedling fir trees in a Hampshire plantation. It was a dull, sultry day and when I saw the vivid flash in the sky I thought at first that it was lightning.

 

But it was like no lightning I had ever seen. It was as if the whole sky had been suddenly illuminated by an intense white light, stronger than the light of many suns. I closed my eyes against the dazzle, and when I opened them again the sky was once more overcast and everything seemed normal. I listened for the thunder, but there was no thunder. In fact, for a few seconds there was no noise anywhere. It was as if the world had stopped for a moment, then even as the intensity of the silence impressed itself on my mind, the normal everyday sounds came back, the lowing of cattle in the fields at my father’s farm, the rustle of leaves, the creak of a gate, the whistle of a train in the distant valley. Everything seemed the same again, yet, deep down inside me, I had a strange feeling that everything was changed. I looked at my rows of seedlings, decided they were doing nicely, and made my way back to the farm for dinner. I was tired, but it was a healthy tiredness, for the open air life I led, working for the Forestry Commission, was a grand life, and I wanted no other. I could, perhaps, have satisfied my craving for the open air by working on the farm, but it was a small farm, and my father, my brother Tom, and our hired man, Ned Haslett, were enough to cope with it. As I took the short-cut through Dead Man’s Spinney I met Reuben Kane, who farmed the next land to ours, and he gave me a sour look, which was nothing unusual. He was big, sullen-looking, a few years older than myself, and since ever I had known him I had felt his enmity. “Your cattle have been straying on my land again,” he growled. “That’s because you let your fences get into a mess,” I said. “And, anyway, they’re my father’s cattle. Take it up with him.” He planted himself in my path and stuck his jaw out at me. “Look here, Howard, I don’t take cheek from you or anyone else,” he snarled. “Maybe you think you’re tough because you’ve been picked for England, but you wouldn’t do much batting with a broken arm.” “And you wouldn’t do much yammering with a broken jaw,” I said. “So keep it out of my reach.” He stood glowering at me, and I knew it was touch and go whether we came to blows or not. We both played cricket for the county, and Kane was bitterly jealous because I had been chosen to play for England against the Australians in the first game of the forthcoming Test Match series. I gave him back look for look, and all at once he relaxed, shrugged his shoulders, and stepped aside. He was not sure that he could beat me in a fight, and apparently he did not feel the time was ripe for trying to find out. I walked on without another word, but I had gone only a few yards when there was a whizzing noise past my ear and a large stone struck a tree trunk just in front of me. I whirled round at once, but Kane had vanished from sight, and after a moment of hesitation I went on. I knew Kane was not normal because of his jealousy, and I wanted my dinner. The family were all at the table, except my spry old grandfather, who was sitting at the fireside as usual, reading a book about astronomy. There was little chance of getting him to the table before he had finished his book, for he was mad about astronomy, and hardly ever talked about anything else. My father gave me a welcoming grin as I took my seat at the table, and my mother put a heaped plate in front of me. “Hungry, Peter?” she asked. “He’s always hungry,” said dad. “Eats like a horse. Did you see that flash in the sky about half an hour ago?” “Yes,” I confirmed. “Queerest thing I ever saw. I thought the world had stopped for a moment.” “It’s queer right enough,” put in Tom, “and it’s upset the animals. There’s something in the air. Animals always know before humans.” There was no change in the weather, however. The sky remained dull, and there was no wind. If anything, the atmosphere was closer, but by the time we had finished dinner we had put thoughts of the mysterious flash out of our heads. In the early afternoon I went back to have a look at my seedlings, and it was then I got my first inkling that some terrible catastrophe was impending. The seedlings were all dead. I could scarcely believe my eyes at first. They were year-old seedlings, and everything possible had been done to encourage them to thrive. Now the results of a whole year’s work were destroyed in an instant in the most mysterious way. My assistant, Benson, was in the tool shed, and when I called him over, he stood beside me rubbing his grizzled head. He had been a forester all his life, and was almost as rugged as a veteran oak. “You could have blown me over when I saw them,” he said. “They were as right as rain at two o’clock, and an hour later they were like that. I’ve never known anything like it.” Returning to my little office at the plantation, I sat down to write a report to the Forestry Commission of what had happened. I went home that evening feeling worried, and found the family assembled much as they had been at dinner-time. My brother Tom immediately threw aside his newspaper and his smiling face went serious. “Something’s wrong,” he said. “You’re in trouble.” I told him about the mysterious fate of the seedlings, and grandpop looked up from his book on astronomy long enough to say. “Earthquake might have caused it.” “We don’t have earthquakes in these parts,” I pointed out. “Wouldn’t need to be in these parts if the shock was great enough. An earthquake shock thousands of miles away can affect conditions here,” said grandpop. Grandpop was a real old character. He was thin and wiry, but held himself as straight as a poker and had a trim, white, military moustache. He had gone to sea as a boy and sailed round the world in a windjammer. Then he had joined the army and fought in half a dozen campaigns. He had a wonderful collection of medals of which he was intensely proud, and which he polished by the hour. Adventure was in his blood, and now, over eighty years old, he was still game for adventure. After tea, Tom switched on the television set. Recent experiments with long-range television had enabled programmes to be picked up direct from any country in the world, and there was a big musical show in New York that Tom was keen to see. We had colour television now, too, much superior to the old stuff, but although Tom tinkered with the set for about twenty minutes, the screen remained blank. After he sat back on his heels, a puzzled frown on his face. “That’s funny,” he observed. “I can’t get America at all.” He tried the set again, and presently a colourful presentation of a music hall show flashed on to the screen. “Paris,” he said, and tried once more. This time he got Spain. “I can’t get a thing west of Madrid,” reported Tom soon afterwards. “That’s queer,” I commented. “I could understand one station breaking down, but not half a dozen. Get the B.B.C. news, it’s just about due.” The news was not very enlightening, but it was alarming. Some unknown atmospheric disturbance, said the announcer, had affected radio and television reception, and America was completely cut-off. Three transatlantic air liners were overdue, and scientific instruments had recorded an earthquake shock on the Pacific coast of America far more severe than anything that had ever been known. It was thought that San Francisco might have been the earthquake centre, and, if so the city must have suffered much worse damage than in the great earthquake of 1906. Radio signals from Hawaii had been picked up in Australia, reporting that the shock had been felt in Honolulu, over two thousand miles from San Francisco. A plane had been despatched from Hawaii to investigate, but had not yet reported back. I looked at grandpop with increased respect. “So you were right about the earthquake,” I said. “It must have been some earthquake,” said Tom, “if it blighted your seedlings.” “Yes,” said the old man. “The poor old earth must have been gravely hurt. You see, Pete, the roots of your seedlings weren’t strong enough yet to withstand a shock of any kind.” “That flash in the sky might have been due to the earthquake, then?” asked dad, who always took grandpop’s opinions seriously. “It might,” confirmed grandpop.

THE GREAT GALE                                                                                                                                

We waited for the midnight news, but the announcer had little more to tell us. Radio communication with the North American Continent had not yet been restored and the transatlantic cable was out of commission.

 

Nothing had been heard of the planes sent out from Honolulu, or of the missing air liners, and it was feared they must be considered lost. Eye-witnesses all over Europe had reported seeing a vivid flash in the sky, but scientists had been unable to give any explanation of it. Before turning in, dad and I went round the farm to see that all the animals were safely bedded down. There was not a cloud in the sky, and the stars were clustered thick. It was so close we could scarcely breathe. “There’ll be thunder before morning,” said dad. But it wasn’t thunder that came in the night. It was wind, such a wind as we had never known. Tom and I shared an upstairs bedroom, and for quite a long time we lay talking across to each other in the dark. Tom was a year younger than I, and we had always been the best of pals. He had a great sense of humour, and I had never known anyone like him with engines. He kept the farm tractor in the peak of condition, and our battered old family car could still pass anything on the road because of the mysterious things Tom did to its engine. My recreation was cricket and Tom’s was flying. He had recently joined the local flying club, and was already acknowledged as the club’s crack pilot. Tom’s heavy breathing told me that sleep had overcome him, and soon afterwards I, too, drifted off into a doze. It seemed that I had only been asleep a few minutes when I was awakened by a loud bang. I sat up in bed and saw that Tom was sitting up also. “What was that?” I asked. “Something hit the window, I think,” said Tom, and as he spoke the sound came again, a deep booming sound; and the window rattled violently. “It’s wind,” I said. “Some wind,” commented Tom. He got up and closed the open window, and then the whole house shock with the violence of the blast. I heard a chimney go rattling down the roof and land with a clatter in the courtyard below. Then, somewhere downstairs, there came an appalling crash of glass. “Window blown in,” said Tom. “We’d better go down.” It was the kitchen window that had gone. Glass lay everywhere; the curtains had been blown across the room, and a whole rack of china had been swept off the dresser. The wind was howling through the room with a noise like a high-powered siren, and Tom rushed to the cupboard where he kept the wooden blackout screen we had used in the war. He held it in place while I nailed it on to the window frame, then we began to pick up the fragments of glass and china. Father and mother arrived in their dressing-gowns while we were in the middle of this, and then grandpop came in. At last we had the kitchen cleared up, but all the time we had been working the strength of the wind had been increasing, and now it was roaring round the house like a host of tormented demons. We listened awestruck, and, as the gate rose to even greater heights of fury, a terrifying crash outside announced another disaster. Tom peered through the unbroken window. “The roof of the byre’s away!” he exclaimed. Above the noise of the storm we could hear the bellowing of terrified cows, and dad and I at once rushed through the back door. The wind caught me and hurled me breathless against the wall of the house, and for a few moments I could do nothing but stand there gasping. Then I saw dad, struggling head down, towards the byre, and followed after him. I am a big man and supposed to be strong, but it took everything I had to make headway against that wind. When I reached the shelter of the byre wall, my knees were shaking with exhaustion and father was leaning, white-faced and spent, against the door. Inside, the cows were kicking up a terrific din, and what with their bellowing, the barking of the dogs, the frightened cackling of the hens, and the howling of the wind, it was a perfect bedlam. Dad got the door of the byre open with a struggle and we staggered in. The cows were stamping about in their stalls, beside themselves with fear. Somehow we managed to calm them. Half of the byre roof gaped open to the sky, and, as I looked up at the opening, a heavy drop of rain hit me on the face. There had been no rain up till now, but it was obvious that a deluge was on the way. Dad and I dragged a ladder round to the sheltered side of the byre, and Tom found a large tarpaulin in one of the outhouses. The three of us fought our way on to the roof, and after a tremendous struggle got the tarpaulin over the gap, lashing it in place with stout ropes. Tired, miserable, drenched, we filed down the ladder to the ground. Back in the house we changed into dry clothes. It was hopeless to think of going back to bed. No one could have slept through the uproar, and at any moment we might be needed again to deal with some other crisis. We drank hot cocoa. When dawn did come, you would hardly have recognised it, for it was not so much daylight as a faint lessening of the darkness. Ragged grey banners of cloud swept across the sky, and the wind and the rain were worse than ever. The news announcer on the radio told a horrifying tale of storm havoc. Giant waves had lashed the coasts of Britain, smashing concrete promenades, flooding streets and houses, tearing up tramlines. The toll of shipping had been tragically heavy, many small vessels were feared lost with all hands, larger ships had had to run for shelter, and several had been wrecked on rock-bound coasts. The storm had baffled the weather experts, none of whom had foreseen it, and it was thought to be a sequel to the supposed earthquake disaster in America, no details of which were available. All at once we were aware of stillness. The wind had died as suddenly as it had arisen, and the rain had dwindled to a slight drizzle. The clouds parted, a wink of blue sky showed for a moment, and in its centre was a pinpoint of light. It was the morning star. “That’s Venus,” said grandpop. “Sometimes it appears as the morning star and sometimes as the evening star, depending on whether it’s east or west of the sun at the time.” “Just how far away is it?” asked Tom. “Twenty-three million miles away, lad, when it’s rotation brings it closest to the earth, and one hundred and sixty-two million when it’s furthest away,” grandpop replied. “D’you know I’ve been all over the world, seen everything there is to see, but there’s one thing I’d dearly love to see, something no one has ever seen.” “What’s that?” asked Tom. “The other side of the moon.” “The other side of the moon!” repeated Tom. “Yes, the moon always shows the same face to earth. We know there are mountains there, and huge craters, but what’s on the other side nobody knows, for nobody’s ever seen the moon’s other side.” “You’ll have to stow away on that atomic space ship everybody’s talking of, when she makes her first flight to Venus,” I said. Grandpop’s eyes twinkled. They were very shrewd, bright blue eyes, and their sight still keen. “I would be game to do just that, Pete,” he said, “if I thought I could get away with it.”

THE SHOTS IN THE SPINNEY

After breakfast the sun came out and I set off for the plantation, knowing I was in for a hard day’s work repairing the ravages of the storm. As I headed towards Dead Man’s Spinney, I heard a shot, and instinctively halted. A second shot followed and immediately afterwards a flock of crows flew over my head. They were coming from the direction of Reuben Kane’s farm.

 

All along the road there were signs of storm damage. Fences had been levelled, hedges uprooted, telephone wires blown down, whole fields flooded. Half a mile from the plantation the Air Ministry had requisitioned a field—Harelaw Field it was called—laid a concrete runway across it, and then built a huge, white, hanger for some purpose they had not disclosed. Now the hanger stood up, white and lonely, surrounded by water, and about fifty yards of barbed wire fencing had been blown down. Guarding the gap was a sentry of the Royal Air Force Regiment, who greeted me with a suspicious stare. “It’s been some night,” I said. “You said it chum,” returned the sentry. I nodded towards the glistening white hanger. “What’s that for?” “Maybe you’ll know to-morrow, chum, if the water goes down in time, but you aren’t going to know to-day, so on your way, chum,” he replied. “Sorry,” I apologised. “I was just curious.” The havoc at my plantation was indescribable. There was not a yard of fence still standing, and if my seedlings had not died yesterday, they would certainly have been dead to-day. The lower end of the plantation was under water, a row of three-year-old firs had been uprooted, and a huge oak tree, belonging to the forest that sheltered the northern end of the plantation, had crashed down on top of an outhouse, knocking it flat. In the afternoon I got the laboratory report on the dead seedlings, but it shed no light on the mystery. The experts just hadn’t a clue. Later, on the way home, I saw the flooding in Harelaw Field had gone down, and that the runway was clear. The broken fence had been repaired, and the sentry had gone. I was so full of my thoughts about what still had to be done at the plantation that I took a short-cut through Dead Man’s Spinney without realising it. Crows were busy in the trees about me, and I was almost halfway through the spinney when something zipped past my ear like a mosquito looking for a fight. At the same moment, the crack of a rifle shot split the echoes, and I jumped quickly behind a tree. I risked a peep round the tree trunk, but nothing happened. I could see part of Kane’s farm lands and the roof of his farmhouse, but there was no sign of Kane or anyone else. The only living thing in sight was a single cow, lying down in the shade at the far end of the nearest field. I threw myself flat on the soaking grass, keeping the tree between me and the farm, and, after a few moments, rolled sideways to the shelter of the next tree. Still nothing happened. Most of the crows had taken flight after the shot, but a few hardy spirits still remained. There was one in the tree above me, ruffling its feathers and cawing defiance, and, just as I was screwing up my courage to emerge from shelter, there was another shot, and the crow fell dead at my feet. Again I peered round the tree, and again I could see nothing. If it was Kane at the other end of that rifle he was certainly some shot, for the crow, half-screened as it had been by the branches, must have been a difficult target. I lay still for about five minutes, then rolled sideways to the next tree. There was no shot, no sound of any kind, no movement anywhere. Cautiously I rose to my feet, waited another five minutes, and ran for it. A bullet thudded into a tree trunk inches from my face, and the next second I was on the other side of that tree, my heart thudding. There could be no pretence now that the hidden marksman had been shooting at crows, for after the second shot the remaining crows had flown. I wondered if I would have to remain concealed in the spinney till dark, and then I heard the voice of my brother Tom calling, “Pete! This way, Pete.” I looked through the trees to the left, and there, on the flat, open ground beyond the spinney, was Tom, sitting on the farm tractor. “Run for it, Pete!” he yelled. “He won’t dare to shoot now!” I ran for it; there was no shot, and as I scrambled up beside Tom I saw he had a double-barrelled shotgun lying across his knees. “Thought you might run into trouble,” he explained, “so I came to meet you. I’ve been noticing recently that Kane hates you so much that he’s liable to do something serious.” “You’ve saved my life,” I said. Tom put the heavy tractor in motion. “You shouldn’t have come through Dead Man’s Spinney,” he said. “It just about lived up to its name. As the tractor rumbled off I heard a shout, and, looking back, saw Kane running across the field, waving his rifle and calling on us to stop. The lone cow was now on its feet, and I realised then why I hadn’t seen Kane before. He had been lying hidden behind the cow shooting over its body. “Stop,” I said, “and let’s hear what he’s got to say.” He arrived puffing with exertion, his face even redder than usual. “I’m mighty sorry,” he said. “I’d no idea you were in the spinney. I was shooting at crows.” “You hit one, too,” I said. “Congratulations.” “I don’t like your tone,” he growled. “And I don’t like being taken for a crow,” I said. “I’m a bit big for that.” I snatched up the shotgun from Tom’s knees and levelled it at Kane. “Drop that rifle!” I snapped. He had been holding the rifle loosely in the crook of his arm, and my action took him by surprise. He hesitated, and I said grimly, “Drop the rifle.” He dropped it and stood glaring at me. “You’ll regret this,” he threatened. “About turn,” I said. Again he hesitated, but when I raised the shotgun threateningly, he obeyed. “Now quick march,” I ordered, “and keep on marching till you’re out of my sight. If you don’t, I’ll help you on your way with a charge of buckshot. He began to walk away from me, and I got down and picked up his rifle. “If you want your gun back you can sue me for it,” I called, “and I’ll tell in court why I kept it.” I climbed back into the tractor. “I like his nerve to try to apologise,” I said. “He couldn’t do anything else with me here as a witness,” Tom pointed out. “He’d got to make out it was an accident.” “I’ll watch out for any more accidents,” I promised, as we headed towards our farm. After tea I drove our battered old family car into Southampton for some cricket practice at the nets. Most of the team were down practising, but there was no sign of Kane. Tom and I had agreed to say nothing at home about the shooting, for there was no point in worrying the family. I could not get him out of my mind, and, in half an hour’s batting at the nets, I was clean bowled twice, which did not look well for the next county match. Harrower, our captain, approached me at the end of my batting spell, his face troubled. “What’s the matter with you to-night, Pete?” he asked. “Got something on your mind?” “I’m just tired, I guess,” I told him. “I got no sleep last night, and I’ve been shifting fallen trees all day.” “Better cut off home early, then,” said Harrower. I took his advice, and Tom came early to bed so as not to waken me, which was pretty decent of him. I was just dropping off when I was startled into wakefulness by a strange noise overhead. It was a high-pitched roar, almost a whine. Looking through the window from my bed, I saw a streak of fire lancing across the sky at terrific speed. It was gone in an instant, but it brought Tom to his feet and made me sit up. Tom ran to the window, but there was nothing to be seen. “What was it?” I asked. “Must have been some kind of jet plane,” said Tom with a puzzled expression. “But it’s not like any type of plane I know.” In the morning, however, the mystery was revealed, for the papers were full of it. The space ship, Thunderbolt, driven by atomic energy had been airborne for the first time, and had flown during the night from the place of its construction to Harelaw Field. It was now housed in the new white hanger where it would be provisioned and made ready for its forthcoming attempt to fly to Venus. It would actually begin the flight from Harelaw Field. Now I knew why there had been a sentry on the field. The authorities did not want strangers nosing round the space-ship. I said to grandpop, “Now’s your chance to see some of those worlds you’re always reading about. All you have to do is slip past the guards and hide yourself on board the space ship.” Grandpop grinned back. “I’ll send you a postcard when I get there,” he promised. Tom switched on the radio, and a few moments later, at the breakfast table, we were listening, horror-struck, to the tale of the most terrible disaster the world had ever known. Radio communication had been re-established with America, and at last the dreadful truth was out. It seemed that two days before, the United States cruiser, Hiawatha, had been about to sail from San Francisco for an island in the Pacific with a cargo of hydrogen bombs, which it had been proposed to store on the island for safety. She was just about to clear San Francisco harbour when a freak thunderstorm had sprung up out of a clear sky. So far as could be surmised, the Hiawatha had been struck by lightning, and the lightning had detonated her deadly cargo. The resultant explosion had been more ghastly than anything we could have imagined or dreamed. Every building in San Francisco and Los Angeles and other towns along the whole coast of California had been raised to the ground, and, so far as could be ascertained, not a single citizen had escaped alive. The awesome thunder of the explosion had been heard hundreds of miles away, and a ball of fire, like a great, green sun, had risen fifty thousand feet into the sky. It was as if the earth had opened and the heavens had split and the terrific force of the atomic energy thus released had set up an uncontrollable chain reaction in the atmosphere, so that part of the Pacific Ocean boiled, and the very air was set on fire. Observers many miles away spoke of fire five miles high, stretching for hundreds of miles along the Pacific coast. Fire-tenders were being rushed to the scene from every other town and city in America, but the presence of deadly radio-active rays made fire-fighting impossible, until protective clothing could be provided for the firemen. The calm voice of the announcer seemed only to heighten the horror of the news, and we looked at each other with shocked faces. “A wall of fire five miles high!” exclaimed mother. “Just imagine if it had happened here.” Grandpop took his pipe from his mouth and tapped it on the hearth. “It may reach here yet,” he said quietly.

 

 

“I SAW THE END OF THE WORLD” 8 Episodes The Wizard issues 1325 July 7th 1951 – 1332 August 25th 1951

 

 

© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2006