Read Seven Steps to the Sun Online

Authors: Fred Hoyle,Geoffrey Hoyle

Tags: #sf

Seven Steps to the Sun (18 page)

Mike suddenly woke from his doze with Ed shaking his arm. All he remembered was sitting down on the bed, and bang.
'I thought I'd better wake you,' said Ed, hovering round the room.
'Why, what's the time?' said Mike, yawning.
'Quarter to seven, and time for a drink and dinner.'
'When's this great show tonight?' he asked, wondering what he'd have to sit through.
'Nine, but the Commander has been called out to a farm, so he and some of those government fellows may not be around.'
'I see, where's this drink you were talking about?' asked Mike enthusiastically, putting on the coat.
'Over in the Commander's office,' said Ed, looking at the coat. Mike let Ed lead the way to the Commander's office.
'Here we are,' said Ed, pushing open the door. Inside was a long table set for dinner.
'Why are we eating here?'
'I gather the Commander may be late and he didn't want to keep the kitchens open for him. Gives the men a break before the show,' said Ed, pouring water onto a couple of pills, 'I hope you like whisky, that's all the old man usually has.'
'Fine. When am I going to get to talk to Pete Jones?'
'Tomorrow, he'll be back in Darwin from a trip to New Guinea, and the Commander said there was a plane going over there in the morning, so you can hitch a ride,' said Ed, calming Mike down.
'Oh fine,' said Mike, relaxing.
'Evening, Gentlemen,' said the Commander, coming in with a group of the observers.
'Evening,' said Mike getting out of his chair. 'Successful?' asked Ed.
'Not really, they had the barns well alight by the time we got there. I'm afraid some of the people here were a little disappointed in the way we just let the place burn. As I told them, you have to conserve water in these parts,' said the Commander, taking a drink from an orderly.
Mike was beginning to feel the effects of the alcohol by the time trolleys of food began to appear. He helped himself to a delicious steak, mushrooms and saute potatoes, and washed all this down with quite a good red wine. While they were eating some of the men were making notes. Mike wasn't interested in the general conversation, which seemed to revolve round the topic of tighter security. In a way he wished Colonel Ryan had been there, as the man had a good sense of humour. After cleaning up his plate, he didn't feel like any of the sweets, which consisted mainly of fresh fruit prepared in different ways, so he took coffee and a brandy. Mike wondered what the Commander and Ed had in common, as all through the meal they were thicker than thieves. The Commander eventually rose and announced that they should proceed to the assembly hall. Everyone seemed pleased with the idea, except Mike, who would have felt much happier talking to men like the soldier in the P.X. store.
The hall was packed with a mass of happy jabbering faces. The Commander led the way down the aisle to their seats near the front. Mike sank down into his seat and watched the Commander take the stage. The audience quietened down, and waited for the CO. to say something. The Commander was very good at keeping the audience in suspense. To Mike's surprise and delight the evening's entertainment was going to be given by a magician called Maestro Normande, a tall man in traditional dress of black tie and cape. Mike loved magicians. In London he and Pete used to go to the Scala Theatre every year to watch the magicians from all over the world perform.
The show was a great success. Every time the maestro finished his final trick the audience went into thunderous applause and wouldn't stop until the man returned to the stage and performed more magic. Even Mike was on his feet bellowing along with the others until the Commander and a Sergeant Major managed to bring the show to a close. The Sergeant Major's bellow brought the whole hall to its feet and the maestro was given three cheers for his performance. He looked relieved that the show had finally stopped and Mike wondered whether he was beginning to run out of ideas.
The whole group of them, including the magician, went back to the Commander's for a nightcap. It was an hour before the party broke up and Mike returned to his room and his cot. He lay there with his mind racing and sleep miles off. He'd heard Ed go in next door shortly after he climbed into bed. The light was still burning when he opened the communications door but Ed wasn't there. Funny, he thought, but returned cheerfully to his own room.
Mike had gone to sleep with a pleasant warm friendly feeling, but when he woke in the morning suspicion pervaded his mind. Again he'd had dreams about Pete, and the professor. He'd dreamt that they were all sitting in a dark cinema watching the film he'd scripted. At the end of it they just applauded but didn't talk to him, almost as though he were on a pinnacle, inaccessible. There was now an urgency in his mind to find his friend. There was some gloom hanging over him that he couldn't explain, some kind of disaster.
Mike washed and shaved, climbed into his clothes and packed his bags. The sooner he got out of this place the better. He looked out of the window and saw soldiers square bashing. Watching them, he was thankful not to have to be up and out with the men at some unearthly hour, running round in full kit, waiting for a Sergeant to criticize his buttons or his boots. The sun must be up, judging by the shadows that were created, and he worked out that he must be looking south. It was a strange feeling to see the sun rising to the north side of a vertical line, and not the south side as in the northern hemisphere. He went outside and stretched in the brisk morning air. Mike walked over to Ed's door and banged hard.
'Come on, you lazy old ... ' said Mike as he opened the door and went in. The bed was empty. It hadn't been slept in. Mike looked round the room and discovered that none of Ed's clothes was there. He came out of the room and made his way quickly to Colonel Ryan's office.
'Good morning,' said Ryan, as Mike burst into the office.
'Morning,' said Mike coming up to the soldier.
'Sit down, I'll be with you in a moment,' said Ryan, reading some papers in front of him. Mike stood fidgeting until he noticed a jug of coffee on the sideboard.
'Help yourself,' said the Colonel, looking up for a moment.
Mike poured coffee into a cup and felt better after taking a good drink.
'Did you sleep well?' asked Ryan, finishing his reading.
'Yes thanks,' said Mike, refilling his cup. 'Jakins,' called Ryan. A communicating door opened and a soldier came in. 'Yes, sir,' said the soldier.
'Is everything ready for Mr Jerome here?' asked Ryan.
'Yes, sir. Whenever you're ready,' said the man.
'Fine, Jakins. I'll let you know when he's ready,' said Ryan. The soldier saluted and left the room.
'What's ready for me?' asked Mike.
'Your transport to Darwin, Ed Bolton asked me to arrange it,' said Ryan.
'By the way, where is Ed?' asked Mike.
'He packed his bags early this morning and left for Darwin.'
'Why did he do that?' asked Mike, puzzled by the sudden departure.
'He doesn't like it up here, I told you about his brother. He tends to drink a lot when he comes, and sometimes he just gets up and goes,' said Ryan.
'Poor fellow,' said Mike thoughtfully.
'Are you going home from Darwin?' asked Ryan.
'No, I want to find a man called Pete Jones, I'm writing an article on him,' said Mike.
'I hope you get your story,' said Ryan, smiling pleasantly.
'So do I. When do I leave?'
'Any time you want to.'
'I'll go now.'
'Right, if you get your things together, I'll let the pilot know,' said Ryan, switching on the intercom.
'I'll nip and get my bag, and say my goodbyes to your Commander,' said Mike from the door.
'He's out of the camp, he was called out early this morning to check a farm,' said Ryan, with his finger on the intercom button.
'Would you say goodbye for me, then?' said Mike.
'Certainly,' said Ryan. Mike smiled and closed the door behind him. Funny coincidence both Ed and the Commander leaving early in the morning, thought Mike as he went for his bag.

 

11
'I am quite perplexed in a world of doubts and fancies.'
Keats
At first Mike thought the helicopter would take him to Darwin, but after half an hour's flying it came to rest on the edge of a large runway. The pilot said cheerio and left him standing in the middle of a wilderness.
The runway appeared to be built on a plateau among hills. Mike stood looking around searching for a sign of life. After what seemed like hours he heard the whine of jet engines somewhere to the north. His ears had just tuned themselves to the noise, when the air was shattered by a low flying aircraft. It was on top of him before he could get his hands to his ears, leaving his head buzzing with the vibrations when it had gone. Several minutes later he saw the plane again, coming in very low at the far end of the runway. There was a puff of smoke from the wheels and the plane was down. It taxied up to him and the noise of the engines died as it did so. The plane was as thin as a pencil, with slim delicate wings. At first he couldn't see any cockpit, then a bubble on top opened and a helmet appeared.
'Mike Jerome?' came a voice from inside the helmet.
'Yes, you nearly deafened me last time round,' said Mike but the helmet had vanished.
'Here.' Mike looked up just in time to see a bundle coming towards him. 'You'll be more comfortable if you put the suit on,' came the voice.
'But I'm only going as far as Darwin.'
'You are, so please yourself, they tell me it's very unpleasant without oxygen.'
'Git,' said Mike, unstrapping the bundle. A flashy helmet dropped to the ground. Mike pulled the overalls on and donned the helmet. 'Just to go on a bus ride.'
'What was that?'
'What do I do now?' asked Mike, waiting to get at the man.
'See where it says fuel filler?'
'Yes,' said Mike looking at the large red letters.
'Well, that's where the ladder is,' said the voice in desperation.
'So I see,' said Mike, climbing up.
'Ready?' said the voice. Another bubble-like cover lifted up and Mike climbed crossly into it. A dark coloured visor prevented him seeing the man's face. H
e
settled back into the narrow seat and the canopy above him snapped shut. Belting himself in, he felt like an overgrown baby in a pram. Somewhere behind him, the engine started and suddenly he felt very sick, as the 'G' forces for take-off built up. His stomach steadied when the plane levelled out a moment or two later. Looking directly above him at the intense blue he felt they must be at a terrific height. Once he was s
ure
of the behaviour of the plane, he started to study his surroundings. He found a lead coming from his suit which he plugged into a panel in front of him. A faint hum came over the earphones in his helmet.
'Hello,' Mike said, 'can you hear me?' Nothing happened apart from the humming but a strange light-headedness started to overcome him and an increasing difficulty in breathing. Lack of oxygen flashed across his mind as his movements became slow and clumsy. He swore roundly at the pilot for not showing him what to do before take-off. Finding an oxygen pipe he plugged it in, the suit inflated slightly, and his breathing began to ease. He sat there catching his breath, and thinking how strange it was for the pilot to be so uncommunicative. The man must have known he was a civilian, and should have shown him the ropes before they set off.
It took a little time to regain his normal breathing. Meanwhile he sat watching the dials in front of him. His fury at the pilot's negligence cooled as he watched the joy stick in front of him move with nervous gestures correcting the flight of the plane.
'Hello up front, can you hear me?' he said, in some frustration. There was no reply. He tried again for something he heard in the earphone attracted his attention. When he spoke he found the hum vanished, but when he stopped speaking it came back suggesting the crazy thought that perhaps there was no pilot up front at all.
Impatiently dismissing this absurd idea, he once again became interested in the panel in front of him. He took hold of the joy stick and pushed it gently forward trying to rouse some reaction from up front. The plane started to go into a dive. It took only a moment for Mike to feel this and he waited for the pilot to correct the plane but the suspense proved too much and he pulled the joy stick gently back. The plane came gracefully out of its dive and levelled up. He pulled the stick sharply backwards and the plane climbed quickly. He levelled it out and sat in total bewilderment. Looking at the air speed indicator didn't tell him much as the dial was marked in segments not miles per hour. On the joy stick he noticed two small buttons. He took hold of the stick and pressed the right hand button. Nothing happened at first so he pushed a little harder, and this time got a punch in the spine for his trouble. He glanced at the air speed indicator to see that the plane had accelerated one whole section on the dial. He gently pushed the left hand button and the air speed dropped. He tried calling on the intercom, again without any response. The answer to his problem was obvious, the ejector seat. He looked round for the release handle, which he found located on the side of the cockpit. Suddenly Mike remembered the compass. There seemed to be no marker on it, so he gave it a bang. A green line appeared racing madly from one side of the dial to the other. Eventually it settled down and gave a steady reading of three hundred and ten degrees north-west.
Mike now knew something was terribly wrong, for although Darwin might be north-west of the army camp, by now they must have passed it. The fuel gauges were flickering around the half empty mark. Suddenly as he sat there thinking the plane started to accelerate. Grabbing hold of the joy stick he pressed hard on the left hand button but the plane went on accelerating. The air speed dial reached its stop mark and then shattered. Darkness started to envelop him. He tore at his hands in an effort to keep awake and scrabbled at the cockpit above him, but nothing seemed to prevent the sudden drowsiness he felt and he slowly passed into a deep black abyss.

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