Read Seven Steps to the Sun Online

Authors: Fred Hoyle,Geoffrey Hoyle

Tags: #sf

Seven Steps to the Sun (10 page)

'Morning, Jerome. You might as well give yourself up,' came the familiar voice of Major Leadbury. Mike remained silent.
'You know, you should never have come back here.
You had a good chance of getting away,' said the Major, from somewhere in the graveyard.
'Bloody, bloody bastard,' Mike said coldly, under his breath. A movement in front of him made him look cautiously round the headstone. The sleazy fellow he'd encountered earlier was now standing dressed in uniform, guarding the gates. A movement off to his right caught his attention. A soldier was moving up towards him. Standing up, he turned, and ran through the headstones. Somewhere behind him an automatic weapon clattered. They really meant business, Mike thought to himself as he dived for cover, waiting for a moment before running on.
Towards the back of the cemetery he found a large tombstone. He stood carefully controlling his breathing. A sound of crushed gravel made him look for his next move. Behind him he could see the boundary of the cemetery, and as the footsteps on the gravel were coming nearer, he decided to keep moving towards it. Weaving in and out of the cold pieces of stone, he suddenly found there was no way round the headstones in front of him. He stood up and jumped, putting a foot on top of one of the stones, like a Steepler. Mike realized his mistake too late. He was in full flight and couldn't stop. The old grave digger was standing in his path with a spade at the ready.
Mike dived for the legs of the grave digger as the spade tore through the air. He landed awkwardly hitting his head against a stone and failing to bring his opponent down. The man took the advantage and gave him a sharp blow across the shoulders. Mike avoided the next jab, then, suddenly, to his surprise, the ground opened up and he fell into a newly dug grave. He heard a command, a volley of shots and the man fell in on top of him. With the old man's fusty clothing in his mouth and nose, darkness closed in on him.

 

6
‘I Travel light’
Christopher Fry
Mike lay with his eyes firmly closed. The humidity seemed impossibly high, and he wondered whether he was buried alive. Rubbing his hand across his eyes, he opened them. His fingers glistened with sweat, and he made a supreme effort to sit up. From his pocket he withdrew a crumpled, dirty handkerchief and selected the cleanest part to mop his soaking face. He shook his head vigorously, and decided if this were hell he didn't like it. He looked round but, unable to see much, was forced to stand up. Everything was very puzzling. A few minutes ago he'd been in the middle of a graveyard dodging an evil spade and now he was in the country.
He moved from the grass into the shade of near-by trees but they provided no respite from the humidity, and he pushed on up a steepish rise. At the top he had a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. A deep blue heat haze stretched away into the distance. He saw no signs of life as he searched the ground below him. His eyes were now stinging sharply but there was little he could do, as his handkerchief was soaked with salty sweat. Mike knelt down and closed his eyes until the pain began to diminish. When they felt more normal, he opened them and slowly straightened up. Again he studied the surrounding country until the clear image he had at first began to swim with the concentration. He still couldn't make out any sign of human habitation. The only thing he could think of was that London had been wiped out by a bomb.
God, he suddenly thought to himself, he'd been involved in another time change. But where was he? No bombs had been dropped round here, otherwise the ground would be black and burnt. Mike sat down and started to do a little geography. The land was of a rolling nature, with groups of trees dotted over the area and, after careful thought, he decided that he must be somewhere in the Cotswolds. The topography wasn't rugged enough for the north or even the west country. If this were so, it might explain the lack of inhabitants, and habitations. Looking carefully round, he couldn't see any better vantage point so decided to stay put until dark, when perhaps he could catch a glimpse of any lights.
A high-pitched whine shattered the silence. Mike stood up abruptly and looked around; the noise seemed to be coming from somewhere directly below him. He listened carefully, and decided to investigate. On the way down the hill he heard something else. Looking up he saw tiny dots that grew bigger until he recognized them as helicopters. He moved quickly into cover and waited, but the machines just proceeded on their way. Mike struggled down into the bottom of the valley moving cautiously through the undergrowth.
At length he reached a clearing where he found the helicopters. No one was there so he walked in the direction of the whining noise and, coming to the edge of some trees, stood in utter surprise. Twenty yards or so away, giant machines were mangling up large blocks of concrete which looked like the remnants of a giant motorway. Mike made his way down into the dust and rubble. A couple of men stood under a tree in deep discussion. Neither of them looked like Leadbury or a British soldier.
'Yeah?' shouted one of the men, above the noise.
'I'm sorry to bother you but I'm a bit lost and I'm wondering where I am,' Mike said.
'You're about ten miles from White Plains,' the man replied.
'Could you tell me the best way to get there?' asked Mike, wondering where the devil White Plains was. The two men looked at each other in amazement.
'You been out all day?' said one of the men.
'Yes' replied Mike.
'Well, it's a long way to walk. If you hold on a while we'll give you a lift,' said the man, obviously thinking Mike had had enough sun for one day.
'That's very kind of you,' Mike said, wondering what he looked like.
'We'll be leaving in around ten minutes.'
Peering into one of the 'choppers' Mike caught a glimpse of himself. His face was very dirty, lips pale and puffy, and when he stuck his tongue out it was white and swollen. He suddenly felt as if he'd been in the desert for days.
The controls appeared very simple in comparison with the amount of technical equipment he remembered, and there were other differences such as the two rotor blades above the cockpit. Mike was just about to return to the shade when the men appeared. One of them beckoned him as he climbed in and Mike slipped quickly round the machine and opened the door on the passenger side.
'Name's Joe Blinberg,' said the swarthy-faced man who'd originally spoken to Mike.
'Mike Jerome,' said Mike, shaking hands.
'Gee, that name rings a bell,' said Joe, starting up the helicopter. 'Give me a clue, what do you do?'
'I write?' said Mike, nervously.
'That's right, didn't you write a novel called Section Q?' asked Joe.
'Yes,' said Mike surprised.
'Great spy thriller, absolutely great. I'm pleased to meet you, Mr Jerome. Say, I would have thought you'd be an older man,' laughed Joe in a big-hearted way.
'I think they call it wearing well,' laughed Mike.
The helicopter lifted off the ground and they were soon speeding back to civilization.
'Say, what are you doing up here near White Plains?' asked Joe, above the noise of the engines.
'Oh, I've been hiking around and got a little lost. Then I heard the whine of those concrete eating machines,' he lied. Mike now knew where he was. It wasn't the Cotswolds as he'd thought; he was for some reason about thirty miles north of New York.
'What are you doing back there?' he asked, wanting to keep the conversation away from himself.
'I run the contracting company that's demolishing that road.'
'Why are you breaking it up?'
'That freeway's been out of use for several years. The kids started using it as a speedway, so the authorities decided to do away with it; there've been bad accidents.'
'If you're doing away with the roads, how does one get around?' Mike inquired before he realized what he'd said.
'If you can afford it, you have one of these ; if not, you don't do any travelling, except on vacation,' the man said, without showing suspicion at Mike's unguarded question.
'And mono-rail systems?' asked Mike.
'Man, where have you been?' said the man, with a laugh.
'Studying in the sticks,' Mike laughed back.
'You sure must have been out there for some time. Mono-rails are like the old brontosaurus. You must have seen them when you came in from the airport. They never really worked. I tell a lie, I think somewhere out west like Detroit they still use them for local commuting,' Joe said, warming to Mike.
'Sorry about all the questions,' said Mike.
'That's O.K., I often think that you writing fellas must be a damned curious bunch, and you sure are.'
Both men laughed. Mike more out of relief than amusement. He wondered where Joe had got hold of his book. The last thing he'd heard it was being reprinted, and that was 1968. Joe was either very polite, as he knew the Americans could be, or a fool.
Section Q had been first published in 1965, and if he'd been through two or three time jumps, he ought to look definitely middle-aged ; but maybe the dirt was an effective disguise.
'You researching for another book?' asked Joe.
'Yes. I could kick myself, I forgot my tape machine,' said Mike trying to be a writer.
'Not to worry, I think I know where I've got a spare one you can borrow.'
'That's very kind of you, Joe. I might buy it from you.'
'We'll see about that.'
'You know, I was always under the impression that helicopters were unsafe,' said Mike, peering out into the distance.
'I think they still are. There's a hell of a lot of servicing to do, and if you don't, wham,' Joe said, smacking his hands together. 'The thing that saved the chopper is the amount of research and development that's gone into the rotor blades. Because of that you just fly the thing like a little old plane,' Joe said, putting the helicopter into a loop the loop. Mike held on but the machine did a perfect loop and came back onto an even keel. Joe cut the engine. Mike waited with baited breath for the helicopter to fall out of the sky but it didn't, it just started to glide gently towards the ground.
'You see what I mean?' Joe said, looking proudly at Mike.
'Very good, but the pilot's pretty good, too,' said Mike playing the game. Joe gave an embarrassed smile and pointed into the distance. White Plains was now in sight. The sky scrapers stood tall and elegant against the blue heat haze. Joe eased the chopper to a stop and put it gently down on top of one of the buildings.
'That was very, very kind, Joe. Thank you,' said Mike, when they cleared the machine.
'Not at all, Mr Jerome, it was my pleasure too.' He added hesitantly, 'Mr Jerome, I know this might sound rude, but if you're stuck for a bed for the night, my wife and I would feel honoured if you would stay with us.'
Mike smiled warmly at Joe. He had always found the Americans almost over generous in their hospitality. Most of the time this kind of invitation would be very embarrassing, and on occasions a downright nuisance, but now he was grateful that the tradition was still maintained.
'That's one of the nicest things I've heard in days. Are you sure it won't be too much trouble for you and your wife?' asked Mike.
'Not at all, not at all; I'll give her a call. Then if you don't mind waiting for a bit, I'll just wind up what I have to do here, and we can take the rest of the day off.'
'Fine, you take all the time you need. But you know I could do with a really cool drink.'
'Sure.' Joe led the way from the lift to his very plush apartment.
'Here's the kitchen, help yourself to whatever you want.' Joe went whistling on his way.
Mike looked in dismay at the strange kitchen and pulled and slid the drawers and cupboards open until he found the refrigerator. It was crammed full of delicious tit-bits. A jug contained orange juice and, not finding a cup, Mike drained it.
'Find what you wanted?' asked Joe from his desk.
'Yes, thank you. I was just admiring your apartment.' The flat wasn't big, but it was planned to utilize all available space.
'Glad you like it. We used to live here before we were able to afford a house.'
'You use it as an office now?'
'Yes, actually I can work from here, or home, depends on how I feel and what I'm doing,' said Joe, feeding punch cards into a small reading machine. With a slight ticking a screen recessed in the wall began to flicker. A woman's face appeared.
'Say, Honey, we have a guest. Mr Jerome here. You remember the book I was reading the other day, well this is the man who wrote it,' Joe said into thin air.
'That's great, Joe. What time will you be back?' asked the woman.
'This is my wife, Mary,' Joe said, pointing at the screen.
'Hello, Mary,' said Mike.
'Hi, Mr Jerome, it's a great pleasure meeting you,' she said with a smile.
'We'll see you in about an hour, O.K.?' said Joe. His wife nodded, and the picture vanished. Joe turned to Mike as he inserted more cards into the phone machine.
'I just want to have a word with my partners, and then we can go.' The monitor screen began to glow again, and Mike watched with a child-like interest.
This time however the screen split up into six segments, and in each one appeared a face. Joe started to talk about the demolition of the road, giving them a progress report, and notes on more equipment that they were going to need. This phone system seemed to Mike to be a very good idea. Here was Joe having a full board meeting. The use of offices must now be a thing of the past, rather like the motorway he'd seen them digging up. It was an obvious step to go from the man commuting to his office to the man remaining in his own environment and conducting his business through the use of advanced electronics. The office had only really been an innovation to bring everyone's specialized knowledge together in one place.

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