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Half-way up the hill, exhaustion forced Stoddard to rest. He chose a suitable boulder and sat cautiously on it. His head swam as he bent to untie his laces. Once off his swollen feet he placed the scuffed and cracked boots carefully beside him. As usual they exuded an ammoniacal stench. The heat would soon dry them out.
There was no shade at all on the hill. Sinking in the west the Sun was still an unbearable white glare that hung over the ocean and sadistically refused to set. He fumbled through his pockets and found a salt tablet to swallow.
From this high up Stoddard could look down over the marine research station he nominally controlled, and past it to the beaches at the southern end of the island. A red stain of vegetation had crept up onto the beach from the sea.
He noted apathetically that it had failed to establish much of a foothold on the land as yet. A week ago there had been nothing at on the island except a scattering of scrubby green. Not enough water, that was the reason. This far out in the Indian Ocean there was little atmospheric turbulence. Apart from its single hill the island was low-lying, and the hill wasn’t big enough to precipitate rain except during the two monsoon weeks.
Perhaps the new, red vegetation didn’t need water. No, Stoddard thought wearily, even in this age of biological impossibilities that was impossible. It must have a root system down into the sea. Seaweed. Of a sort. Tomorrow, next week, sometime — he’d go down and investigate. Before someone got at it with a flame-thrower. The problem raced through his head like a fever delirium, racing in superficial circles. Deep down the real mind only looked at it, uninvolved, uncaring, and totally bewildered.
It took a conscious effort of will to get his boots back on and start climbing the hill again.
The previous Director had decided that his status demanded a residence some distance away from the old RAF base that now housed the research institute. In those days there had been petrol for the Land Rover, but when Stoddard was appointed he hadn’t liked the isolation. It had been convenient to let Pamela Barnett take the bungalow over — until the supplies had stopped coming and the heat had grown so intense. Now it was too much effort climbing the hill. Small wonder she hadn’t reported for work.
The bungalow was built of pre-fabricated wooden sections. Finding the door ajar he went in without knocking. Inside drawn curtains provided shade but little respite from the heat. Hearing sounds from the kitchen he went through. She was at the sink, washing plates. The detached part of his mind critically noted that she hadn’t bothered to be economical with water. Pumping it up from the desalination and sterilisation plant was expensive.
“Hi,” he said.
“Ted.” She acknowledged his presence and identity without turning from the sink. Her voice was unwelcoming. Maybe she’s ill, he thought.
“Do you think the Sun’s any worse?” he asked. It was an awkward, meaningless question. If the Sun exploded it would be no worse than it was now.
“How should I know?”
He changed tack. “I was worried when you didn’t show up this morning.”
“Manji can get along without me. There’s nothing to do anyway.”
“I’d have said there was everything to do. We have to get those tanks producing soon.”
“We don’t have to do anything,” she said listlessly.
He crossed the kitchen and put his arms around her, cupping her breasts in his hands and pulling her body into his. She reacted violently, pushing him away and turning to face him. “It’s got to end. Face facts, Edward.”
“This is rather sudden, isn’t it?” he asked, not wanting to believe her.
She started washing plates again, noisily. “If you must know I’ve run out of pills. I can’t take the risk of getting pregnant. So keep your hands off me and stay away .”
Stoddard was offended. “I didn’t come up here to go to bed with you. Not just that anyway. There’s no need to treat me like a potential rapist.”
“Why pretend?” she asked. Her voice stayed flat. “No sex means nothing left between us. So now it’s over and I feel like being left alone. Is that all right by you, Mr Stoddard?”
“I know you’re under a strain,” Stoddard said carefully. “We all are. But we stand a better chance if we stick together.”
Emotion came into her voice. If bitter sarcasm was an emotion. “Lucky me. In my hour of need someone wants to stick by me. The whole world’s falling on its arse but you and me can stand up to everything if we stick together. Is that it?”
“Pretty much. Yes, that’s exactly it. It’s something to hope for.”
He slapped her face with the flat of his hand. “Snap out of it!”
The knife was suddenly in her hand — snatched from the draining board. A large, clean, sharp, kitchen knife. He recognised hysteria welling in her. “Keep away from me. Understand? Stop bothering me.”
He backed away under threat of the blade. “You’re upset, that’s all, Pamela. You know you don’t mean it.”
“I don’t know anything. Why did your wife run away?” she asked cruelly. Another weapon to wound him with.
He felt a flush of embarrassment replace the half-welcome chill of fear the knife had aroused. Part of his mind still observed the clumsy, mechanical actions of his inadequate persona with dispassion. He talked to calm her. “You know she was offered a better job at Stanford. I was still in London. The marriage just fell apart. It was a long time ago.”
“Funny coincidence, I came here from Stanford, remember? Is that why you hired me, Ted? What Stanford takes away from you Stanford must give back? Did you choose me to make up for your wife, Ted? Any lay as long as it’s a California lay?”
He fumbled for something to say. Some defence. “All right. If that’s the way you want it. But I still need you at the station, Miss Barnett. I hope you’ll have calmed down enough to come into work tomorrow.”
Stoddard left with as much dignity as he could muster. It was never enough.
For two years the Sun had been pouring out increased radiation on every spectral band, peaking in the ultraviolet and upwards in frequency. The solar wind was now a hurricane, a sleet of atomic particles travelling at a million miles an hour that hit the upper atmosphere and rained a torrent of high energy alpha-particles. It didn’t kill, not immediately. But it was intense enough to mangle genes. A secret and patient torturer.
At the bottom of the hill Stoddard collapsed from heat exhaustion. He lay for over an hour in the direct rays of the Sun before one of the men from the station found him. It was a week before he was fully rational again. Large, stiff blisters encrusted the side of his face that had been exposed.
“Feeling better?” asked Manji as he came into the Director’s bedroom. The room was almost dark, the blinds at the windows of the hut were drawn. The fans whirring loudly in the ceiling sent draughts of trapped heat rushing about the airless room.
“You should have followed Miss Barnett’s example and stayed indoors. You Europeans are too fair skinned for this climate now. I swear it’s getting worse,” Manji said.
Stoddard stayed flat on his back on the bed. What could get worse?
“The Sun you mean?” Of course the Sun. What else did anyone ever talk about now? The words had come out awkwardly, one side of his face stiff, burning and immobile.
“It’s just my imagination I expect.” Manji pulled a chair to the bedside and made himself comfortable.
“Has Miss Barnett reported back to work?”
“Don’t worry. We can manage without her. It’s crazy for her to try to make that trip every day.”
“She could move down here,” Stoddard said brusquely.
Manji made a mock expression of horror in the gloom. “She’s a woman. She needs her privacy from us rough chaps. Haven’t you ever noticed how much more private women are in a hot climate? We never really integrated the sexes in India the way it used to be in Europe.”
“Don’t you ever take anything seriously?” Stoddard asked irritably.
“We Hindus are taught the material world is illusion. Nothing more. It may not be true, but it’s a comfort all the same.”
Stoddard hauled himself up in the bed angrily. “I didn’t like the way you used the past tense about Europe either.”
Manji stopped smiling. “A figure of speech. I’m just making conversation. India would go first.”
“How are the men taking it?” As Director, Stoddard had never mixed much with the others on the island.
“As before. Fatalistic. We’re used to disaster.” Like Manji most of the staff were Indian nationals.
“Not on this scale,” Stoddard said.
‘Big or small, if your family are probably all dead and you’re waiting to die yourself what difference does it make?”
“You’re not used to disaster at all, Manji. Your family always had enough money to protect itself.” The Mercedes contract in Mumbai he remembered.
“Yet they lived in India, in close proximity to all those centuries of drought and famine and oppression. Something’s bound to rub off.”
“Unless you were brought up and educated in England like you were. Are you inured to the end of the world?” Stoddard asked insistently.
Manji shook off the seriousness and laughed lightly. “I suppose I retain a certain fatalism in my blood. It’s no use worrying about such things. Best to think of it all as illusion. How’s your face?”
“It’ll wear off. If you stay indoors.”
“There’s too much to do. I’ll wear a hat.
‘Take it easy. Leave it to me. I have everything under control.”
“The algae tanks?”
“Coming along fine. We won’t starve.”
Stoddard lapsed back onto his bed. It was true, Manji could look after things on his own. He was a better biologist than Stoddard had ever been. That was the reason Stoddard was Director, he’d been kicked upstairs out of the way of the workers. But there was nothing for a Director to do now that communications with the mainland were cut. No budgets to negotiate, no supplies to order, no-one to write reports for.
Manji was attempting to farm algae in the abandoned fuel tanks under the old RAF base. Hopefully they were far enough underground to shield most of the high energy rays the Sun threw out. With luck the algae wouldn’t mutate and would remain edible. Manji was right, if anyone could keep them from starving, he could. There was still a few months’ supply of tins in store anyway.
Manji evidently felt he’d stayed long enough. He stood up. “You’ll be all right then?” he inquired.
“I’ll be fine. Thanks, Manji.”
“I’ll send a man across with some food later.”
“I’ll make it across to the canteen.” Stoddard said defiantly.
The last link between the isolated marine research station and the mainland had been broken four months before. It had come suddenly and almost without warning. The last supply plane had landed on the tenth of November. Stoddard had an arrangement with the pilot, a young flight lieutenant of the Indian Air Force, who brought in the odd, unofficial bottle of gin on his monthly flights. The pilot was never in any rush to get back into the air. Usually he sat with the Director for a few hours sharing the bottle.
“Things are under control.” the flight lieutenant had said confidently. “I read in the papers this morning that world food supplies will only be cut by thirty per cent according to official estimates. The fall-short isn’t comfortable of course, we’ll lose several millions through starvation, but that’s tolerable. If they all keep their heads.”
“But the rice and wheat crops must still be mutating,” objected Stoddard.
The pilot shrugged. “The military government has reassured the public that the mutation isn’t as serious as was first thought. Though most countries are suspending cattle and pig farming for the time being while they try to find a way to genetically stabilise the animals.”
“That should help things temporarily,” Stoddard said. Sipping his gin the young man nodded confident agreement.
The pilot left as the Sun was beginning to sink below the horizon. He was slightly too drunk to fly safely. It was the last they saw of him.
On November the fourteenth the short wave set in the common-room had picked up an English language broadcast. Which station was broadcasting was obscure. The solar wind ripped vast holes in the ionosphere. Stations tended to switch wavelengths in an uncontrolled fashion trying to find the one that was momentarily best. It had been the content of the broadcast that was important. A report on the Geneva Symposium on Solar Activity. A lone Frenchman who declared the Sun was in the process of going nova was shouted down. The American delegation had insisted the phenomenon was short lived and normalcy would soon he resumed. When Academician Sarnov stood up and asked what evidence they had for this opinion the Americans supplied a long answer which repeated what they’d said and added nothing.
Academician Sarnov had then claimed the anomalous solar activity was due to a NASA experiment on the corona in which a ton of titanium pellets had been dropped into the Sun. The Americans denied all knowledge of the experiment. Academician Sarnov declared it was yet another example of Neo-imperialist meddling contrary to the interests of the peoples of the world.
On the fifteenth of November twenty-two American embassies were razed in various countries. The radio reported that seven more countries went under military control within the space of twenty-four hours. Food riots, political riots and Anti-American riots were universal by the eighteenth. On the nineteenth, static on the radio became worse than ever. It hardly mattered. There were no more broadcasts.
Almost immediately rumours of a nuclear war circulated among the men on the island. Stoddard had tried unsuccessfully to squash the story. There was no basis for it he told Manji who was a cheerful supporter of the theory. They had argued publicly in the canteen.
“The Russians and the French have attacked America.” Manji said. “And the Americans have retaliated. Armageddon has happened.”
“It’s more likely the various military governments have decided to stop public broadcasting to conserve energy.”
Manji fended the postulate with logic. “There is no shortage of electricity, only of edible foodstuffs. Electricity isn’t edible.”
“They may have done it as a gesture. To emphasise the need for restraint in other areas. Or just to stop all these wild stories about the American experiments spreading.”
“Then we should still be able to pick up military broadcasts. They wouldn’t stop those,” Manji replied forcefully.
“You know what reception’s like. There could be any amount of radio transmitting. We just can’t hear it for the static.”
“I think the world is dead outside of this island.” Manji’s words cut through the room that had gone silent as men listened to the row.
“That’s ridiculous and defeatist,” Stoddard stated loudly. He began to get worried about order breaking down in the station. Visions of hopeless anarchy came to him.
Manji seemed unmoved by the prospect. “It might be for the best. All the seed plants are mutating because of the Sun’s rays. The climate has changed in any case, that must have at least decimated the harvests. The fast breeding animals are mutating. Look at the fish we’ve been getting out of the sea, the last we caught had two heads. It’s simply a matter of time before long gestating animals like man show signs of wide-spread mutation. All this talk about solving the problem is propaganda, nothing more. The problem is too big. The human race is finished, we simply have to accept it. Who wants to carry on anyway when the next generation will be a collection of abortions and still-born monstrosities? And you know anything born that survives will be a circus freak.”
“Then why are you still working here?” Stoddard asked angrily. ‘Why not simply give up now?”
“I keep myself busy. I have to do something. I survive.”
Stoddard walked out of the canteen shaking. By morning the whole thing was forgotten. If the world had ended people pretended not to have noticed.
A stench like a combination of yeast and decaying fish permeated the southern end of the island as work progressed on the algae tanks. The nauseous miasma rose in the heat and hung in the still, humid atmosphere.
“It won’t taste as bad as it smells,” Manji promised.
“I hope not.”
“Do you think it’s wise to walk around in this temperature?” Manji asked, wiping sweat off his shining forehead.
“I’m not spending the test of my life locked up in my room,” Stoddard replied. “It’s all right for you. You’ve got something to do. I’m bored.”
“Why don’t you join our bridge club in the evenings?” Manji offered.
“I hate bridge. I was never good at card games.”
“Learning the game would help you pass the time.”
“Don’t you have a pair of binoculars about somewhere?” Stoddard asked. “Can l borrow them?”
“Certainly. Are you studying…?”
“Bird watching,” Stoddard said. “It used to be my hobby once. I’m going to take it up again.”
“Be careful,” Manji warned. “Don’t pass out like you did before. We might not find you next time.”
Stoddard shrugged. “I’ll wear my hat.”
Stoddard had always been a late riser, but he began to set his alarm-clock to wake himself before dawn. The early morning was cooler. The hours between six and nine were almost tolerable. There was time enough to walk two miles and back. The north end of the island had been untouched by the comings and goings of man over the years. The terrain was rocky and fell in low cliffs to the beaches and the vast green ocean. Stoddard knew there had once been a colony of sea birds here. He felt a mixture of revulsion and curiosity as he investigated the guano-spattered rocks to see what had happened to them.
The homogeneous flocks of white feathered gulls had disappeared. In their place were individual birds which belonged to no known genus. The sports mostly kept to themselves, only infrequently could Stoddard find a pair close enough together in appearance to form a mating bond. Elsewhere piles of bloody feathers showed where fighting had broken out as it had become more difficult to identify between friend and foe, or where hunger for the altering food supply had caused an unnaturally savage reaction. Several birds had mutated into peacock coloured dandies. Others showed morphological differentiation. Tail feathers had developed into two foot long fans which stopped the bird from flying. Beaks had curved into parrot-like monstrosities, wings had atrophied until the bird resembled a miniature parody of an albino penguin. The tide mark was lined with other things. Things that had crawled out of the sea following some archetypal evolutionary impulse and found their adaptation unsuccessful.
On the fourth morning of his coming to the rocks Stoddard saw something else. A figure lying on the beach in the distance. He raised his binoculars to study it. The figure lay face down, but from the curve of the buttocks it could only be a woman. Pamela Barnett. She was naked, her outstretched arms and legs tanned a deep mahogany, the rest of her body burnt a lurid red by the vicious ultraviolet. The knowledge that she must be dead washed through him accompanied by a physical sensation as if his viscera were draining from his body.
She turned over. His mind lurched again as it was forced to accept her insanity. It was suicide for her to sunbathe now.
He began to run along the cliff top to a point where he could descend to the beach, he wanted to warn her of the danger, the probability of heat stroke and heart failure, the certainty that in a year or two at most skin cancers would develop.
He came to a sudden halt, binoculars banging against his chest. She knew the dangers as well as he did.
The next morning she was on the beach again. Almost as if she had slept there, He stood at the same place on the cliff-top and watched through Manji’s binoculars. The sight of her naked body aroused no sexual pleasure. The scene held only the kind of fascination he had felt as a child when he’d spied on the mysterious world of adults. There had been a secret hiding place behind the settee in the living room. He’d been five, maybe six. no older. He recognised the sensation now; he hadn’t then of course. It was the knowledge that their behaviour, however strange, was also contained in his own potential self but somehow held from his understanding by undiscovered rules.
Stoddard had been kept awake most of the night thinking of the figure on the beach, pulling at the desperate problem she posed. He had decided against the theory that this was a macabre form of suicide. Her body had flared into a vivid redness but there was no blistering of the smooth, perfect skin. Obviously Pamela had been coming here for days. She had not abandoned herself to the Sun but had gradually accepted it, exposing herself at first only momentarily while building up tolerance to the rays.
But did it imply a fall into insanity? Could she perhaps believe she lay sunbathing on some Mediterranean beach? Was she on holiday somewhere inside her skull? Had she forgotten the world was lurching under the impact of shattered genes? Did her mind pretend to itself that nothing had changed?
He could have borne a realisation of her madness but something told him that the girl was as sane or saner than Stoddard himself. Her actions as she turned over were deliberate and calm, they showed none of the emphatic motility of the truly crazy. She was dressed modestly now in the fine, pale sand which clung to her sweating body. Once it seemed she looked straight at him but her eyes passed on. unseeing or uncaring that there was a watcher on the cliff-top.
A fear had grown in him. A fear that the meaning of life was lost and that Pamela knew and accepted it. He was afraid that her acceptance would force him to acknowledge it too. At the beginning she had hated the Sun, hated what it was doing to the ova inside her. Now she had decided, he thought, that the world of mankind was finished. The world had rejected her kind as Master and now belonged again to the primeval god of fire. In Stoddard’s mind at least, Pamela Barnett had decided that the only way she could survive was by accepting the new order, by offering herself as sacrifice to the new-old god in the hope that the offering would bring salvation.
The idea was as crazy as the others but somehow more irrationally human. Crazy only because reality had turned crazy.
He let the idea sink away and pushed the fear under with it, replacing it with the daily conviction that contact would be re-established with the mainland. It might still happen. It was certain to.
A week passed. It could possibly have been two weeks or a month. The heat was debilitating. Stoddard was tired. Each day merged into the next in his memory, the stench, the boredom, the hours spent watching Pamela Barnett. Things had ceased to mean anything. Imperceptibly Pamela reverted from burn redness through deep tan to the blackness of the first ancestor to emerge from Africa. At the end of the week or month Stoddard stopped visiting the cliff-top. The world shrank to his room and occasional, diffident visits to the algae tanks. He no longer made any pretence of being in control of the station.
And then years passed. And Stoddard and Manji and the others whom Stoddard never talked to were old men though not enough years had passed to make them old. But nothing changed. Manji still tended his tanks of stinking algae and Stoddard sometimes went to the north of the island to search the empty beaches through binoculars.
It was late afternoon when Manji burst into the darkened bedroom.
“The binoculars,” he demanded excitedly.
Stoddard was only half awake. “What?”
“Get up. We’ve spotted a plane,” Manji shouted.
Stoddard followed as Manji snatched the binoculars and raced from the room as quickly as undernourished legs could take him.
A small group of men stood on the beach staring into the western sky. The yellow globe of the Sun sent streamers of brilliance dazzling over the swell of the waves.
One of the Indians pointed silently as the two men ran up.
“It’s circling,” Manji said. He brought the binoculars up to his eyes. A silver dot travelled slowly across the horizon.
Agonised, one of the men cried “It’s going past. It’s missing us.”
Manji brought the binoculars down. The expression of macabre glee he usually warded tragedy off with was missing. He handed them to Stoddard and began to walk slowly back towards the buildings.
Stoddard looked through the glasses.
The silver dot focussed into a globe, featureless, shining in the mirrored rays of the Sun, perfect in its roundness.
Whatever had made and flew the globe had gone beyond human technology. Genes had mutated, it hardly mattered from what loins the genes had sprung, whether they had come from an anthropoid ape, a dog, or man himself. Stoddard realised the meaning of the flying machine. Man was obsolescent. The next step up the evolutionary ladder had been taken. When the machine had dissolved into the glare of the Sun he dropped the glasses into the sand and turned away.
Along the beach, in the distance, he made out the naked figure of Pamela Barnett, her body as youthful and darkly golden as a heat mirage. She stood at the edge of the water and stared into the nova bright sky where the machine had disappeared. He realised then that something more than mere distance separated them.
The woman was as alien as anything the disaster had created.
Perhaps secretly she always had been.
There was nothing left to hide now. And perhaps that was why she’d discarded her clothes. Or maybe she was just crazy. Adapted to a mad environment.
“She’ll go blind if she looks at the Sun much longer,” he thought.
Though James Corley later became more prominent as an writer of thrillers and detective stories (under several pseudonyms) he began his career as part of the British ‘New Wave’ SF scene in the 1970’s. Alongside magazine stories published in such magazines as New Worlds and Vortex he produced two novel length satirical space operas now republished in kindle format and coming soon as epubs to Shakespir:
Few people on Mars wanted to help. Six men were already lost, one was dead and another insane. Benedict’s newly discovered planet could make him a billionaire if he managed to get a sample of bohridium back to Earth. Bohridium which augmented the power of interstellar drives by orders of magnitude. But no one could explain events on the lost world that looked like a frozen earthquake. Were the nightmare Thight still in existence? Was Jonah Scull really the legendary saviour of the alien Youn? And were the mathematicians right when they predicted ships travelling in these phantom dimensions could slip outside of reality altogether?
Corley mixes roaring adventure with bizarre satire as Earth Defence Forces fail to save human space from invasion by the malevolent Thight. In the face of calamity the squabbles between Earth, its colonies and the eccentric terrorists of S.P.A.D.E are forgotten. And Jonah Scull finds himself snatched from the court where he is charged with genocide and is told to save humanity.
“Alarms screamed as hard radiation sleeted through the surviving Hellcats. Consoles blanked as external aerials burnt off superheated alloy skins. An impossibly long prominence exploded from the sun’s north pole, then the globe itself elongated as if the star was straining out after the fleeing ships to engulf them in a nuclear maw.”
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Short Story The last link between the isolated marine research station and the mainland had been broken months before. It had come suddenly. The last supply plane had landed on the tenth of November. For two years the Sun had been pouring out increased radiation on every spectral band, peaking in the ultraviolet and upwards in frequency. The solar wind was now a hurricane, a sleet of atomic particles travelling at a million miles an hour that hit the upper atmosphere and rained a torrent of high energy alpha-particles. It didn’t kill, not immediately. But it was intense enough to mangle genes.