Read Seven Steps to the Sun Online

Authors: Fred Hoyle,Geoffrey Hoyle

Tags: #sf

Seven Steps to the Sun (7 page)

'Why do you have petrol cars?' he asked.
'All public services are allowed to have petrol-driven machines. They are so much quicker if you have to get to an accident,' was the reply.
'Are private citizens allowed motor cars?'
'Certainly, but they need a permit if they want to travel further than their home area. That's usually a radius of some thirty miles round their point of residence.'
'How do people commute to work then?'
'Most firms and businesses are now decentralized. The people remain in their own community and the business firms go to them. That's roughly what happens.'
This explained why there were so few people in the streets. London looked very different with more open space and higher buildings. The old, familiar places like Hyde Park were bathed in the bright sunlight, as they sped past. Everything was incredibly clean. They passed by Buckingham Palace, which didn't appear to have changed. A large, red, single-decker bus went silently by. One or two people sat on the benches in St James's Park, taking the morning sun. The summer flowers gave the world a sane feeling in Mike's eyes. The car soon pulled up outside New Scotland Yard, as the sign above the door said. Mike followed the detective through the main entrance and into a lift wondering whether he would ever see the bright sun again, or whether he was going to be shut away for crimes he hadn't committed. At the seventh floor, they left the lift and made their way towards the back of the building. At length the detective stopped and knocked on a door, and they were told to come in.
Mike was amused by the old-fashioned appearance of the office; metal filing cabinets, dusty bookshelves, and the old leather-topped desk.
'Come in, come in,' said a young man in army uniform as they stood in the doorway.
'Good luck, Mr Jerome,' said the detective, turning and going off down the corridor. Mike went into the office and closed the door. On the desk there were even in and out trays, which forced a smile from Mike
as
he waited for instructions. None came so he sat down in a rickety, wheelback chair.
'Tea or coffee?' asked the man.
'Coffee,' said Mike, a little bewildered by the casualness of the proceedings and being questioned by a military person.
'Major Leadbury,' said the man holding out his hand. Mike stood up and shook it firmly. The communications door opened and a very pretty Wren came in with a couple of cups of coffee. The Major made no effort to help her as she held the door open with her foot. Mike reached for the door and held it. The woman smiled in appreciation, put the tray down, clicked her heels and left.
'Help yourself,' said the Major. Mike did.
'Mr Jerome, you probably wonder why you've been brought to me?'
Mike nodded and took a drink of his coffee.
'You pose a very interesting problem. Your statement given under truth serum has rather stumped the police, so they've handed you over to me,' said the Major.
'Why the military?' asked Mike politely.
'Good question. The police have put forward the theory that you have been conditioned to say what you've said. If this is true, then you might come under the heading of unwanted alien, which is my department.'
'That's ridiculous,' said Mike.
'Not really, I've had cases of people entering this country with fantastic stories, and some of them have turned out to be crack-pots, and the others, spies.'
'Spying? God, what are you people going to think up next?' said Mike with a laugh.
'Are you a British subject?'
'Yes.'
'Can you prove it though? There is no record of your existence.'
'What about these?' said Mike, handing over his wallet and cheque book. The Major studied them and then handed them back.
'You're going to need a little more than that.'
'What happens if my story is true?'
'Then you'll be a very interesting subject for the physicists,' said the Major smiling.
'Why don't you see what they have at Somerset House, or get hold of Sue Kimbell, or Pete Jones?'
'Pete Jones, he's dead,' said the Major, watching for the reaction.
'When did he die?' asked Mike after he'd collected himself together.
'June 7th, 1979,' said the Major, reading from some papers in front of him. Mike was thunderstruck, it wasn't possible. The Major took a bottle from off the top of his filing cabinet and poured Mike a drink.
'You know,' said the Major, handing the drink to Mike, 'your birth certificate shows that you were missing in 1969, and in 1979 you were presumed dead, so that doesn't help you. You could have taken on the identity of a dead man.'
'This whole situation is bloody ridiculous,' said Mike. 'I know that I am a British citizen. I'm not conditioned to tell my story. I know it's true.'
'Fine, don't worry, we'll soon know some of the answers,' said the Major, in a friendly way.
'What are you going to hold me on, what charge?' said Mike, not really trusting the Major's manner.
'I'll charge you if you want, but I'd prefer it if you'd just co-operate for a little while.'
'Why?'
'Jerome, your story is so fantastic that there may be some truth in it. If I charge you, the authorities would assume I'd made up my mind and they might take you from my custody. All I'm doing is to give you the benefit of the doubt and a little dignity.'
'What happens if you find out that I am a spy?'
'That depends on whether the case is a civil or a military one. If it's civil you'll get a prison sentence, if it's military, I wouldn't like to say,' said the Major, getting up. 'Come on, let's start our inquiry.'
Mike got up and followed the Major. He wondered whether to belt the man one and make a run for it. This idea froze in his mind when he saw the two MPs standing in the corridor with their automatic rifles. There wasn't much chance of escape as the beefy-looking men fell in behind him. They all climbed into a lift. Mike had been visualizing a deep dungeon in the sub-basement, where they would start an agonizing torture to extract a truth he didn't know, but instead the lift took them to the roof of the building, where several helicopters were parked. They approached one of them and got in. A soldier in a private's uniform climbed into the pilot's seat, and they were soon airborne.
The view of London was superb. The whole character of the city had changed. Instead of a sprawling mass of buildings and roads, there were now just groups of buildings set out in great parks of grass and trees. This must be the decentralization Mike had been told about. From the position of the sun he reckoned they must be travelling west. Surrounding the complexes of buildings he saw cars and trucks, travelling back and forth like ants. The progress of society back to small communities struck Mike as a splendid idea, and it seemed strange that the authorities hadn't done this sooner. They were now over open country.
'What's that?' asked Mike, pointing to a huge line of excavation running away into the distance.
'They're laying down a tunnel to carry a vast communications system which will link up the whole country,' said the Major.
'About time,' said Mike, remembering how bad the phones had been. The helicopter began to descend. Below them was a vast area surrounded by fencing. Mike looked carefully to see what kind of prison he was entering. Dotted over the compound were long buildings, and in one corner was a collection of field-guns.
'Where are we?' asked Mike as the helicopter landed.
'Aldermaston,' came the abrupt reply from the Major.
All Mike could remember about the place was that it used to be a research establishment. The rotors of the helicopter stopped and Mike was ushered out onto the concrete. The four of them moved over to one of the long, low buildings. A soldier smartly saluted the Major, and the two of them vanished farther into the building. Mike looked round for some clue as to what kind of place this was. The Major returned, and led Mike down the passage to a room where he was left alone. The room was absolutely empty without any obvious lights. He walked over to the window and peered out through the heavily barred frame. Apart from the odd soldier who went by, there seemed to be a large number of white-coated men and women hurrying around. This made Mike uneasy, as he felt that Aldermaston might still be a research centre. If it were, he didn't like the idea of being put on the operating table, or being brain washed. A grill opened in the door and a pair of eyes studied him for a moment and then vanished.
Turning back to the window, Mike felt very lost and sad. Sad because of what he'd learned about Pete. Was it the shock of the time change that had killed Pete, or was it his heart that had caught up on him? It was probably a combination of the two. If there had to be an immense amount of power to bring about the time change, this could have hurt Pete if he'd tried to fight against it. Mike wondered if Pete had been meant to come with him. What a hell of a tragedy. The two of them, together, could have stormed the world.
Outside the traffic of people seemed to be diminished and Mike noticed that the sun's shadows were lengthening out. Maybe Pete was around.
The door slid silently open and a soldier came in.
'Please empty your pockets.' Mike obliged and gave the man all the odds and ends he had.
'Are you taking these to Major Leadbury?' asked Mike.
'Yes,' came the reply.
'Good. Could you ask him whether there's a piano here?' said Mike. The soldier nodded and left. The door opened a few minutes later and there stood the Major.
'Why do you want a piano?' he asked curiously. 'Because I'd like to play.'
'Well, that seems very reasonable,' said the Major, ushering him through the door. He had the feeling that the Major was taken aback by the request.
'Do you play well?' asked the Major.
'After a fashion. Tell me what happens if I run away?'
'Probably give me a stronger case against you.'
'You might not catch me.'
'I don't think you'd get very far, without friends or money. Then it's only a matter of time before you'd give yourself up through hunger, or a mistake,' said the Major in his offhand way, opening large double doors. Mike found himself in a hall, and at the far end on a platform, stood an upright piano.
'There you are, help yourself,' said the Major.
'Oh, just in case you feel like leaving us, you'll find all the exits guarded, with instructions to shoot
on
sight.'
'What a nice place,' said Mike under his breath, watching the Major leave. He turned and walked up the gangway between rows of comfortable looking I hairs. He climbed slowly onto the platform and walked round. Behind the backcloth were large charts "l Europe, a silver screen and piles of curtains. Mike saw some stairs and hurriedly descended them. Near the bottom he found his way barred by a locked door, link on the stage, he looked round for the light switches, but couldn't find any, so he'd have to play in the dark. The piano turned out to be an organ of sorts, he couldn't get a peep out of it. He became irritated at not being able to find any power lead or power point. He pushed and pulled buttons and switches without result. Then he gave the instrument a sharp push, and found what he'd been looking for. The power point was underneath the damned thing. He plugged in a lead, and pressed the keyboard. The hall was filled by the sound of a D minor seventh chord. Holding this chord he pushed and pulled all the switches and buttons until he was satisfied with the function of the organ. One switch turned the machine from an organ into a piano. This intrigued him as there seemed to be no sound from the machine, and yet the chord sounded in the hall. An electronic piano, thought Mike, as his fingers moved swiftly over the keys. He turned up the volume until the hall boomed with sound, then started his playing with a medium tempo twelve-bar blues, intermingled with Christmas carols.
After a while, Mike turned the machine back into an organ, and really started shaking the building with pounding rhythm and blues. This brought back memories of Pete and a mounting conviction that he would find him. Suddenly the lights went up, leaving him blinking. Sitting in the hall were a number of people obviously enjoying the impromptu concert. Mike finished with the number called 'High Society'. His small audience applauded vigorously as he got up from the organ, bowed and left the platform.
'That was very enjoyable, Mr Jerome,' said an oldish man, standing next to Major Leadbury.
'Thank you,' said Mike, feeling somewhat embarrassed.
'This way, Jerome,' said the Major, pleasantly. He was led from the building, across the concrete and into another small building. A soldier stood to attention as they came through the door, then took out some keys and walked with them. The soldier had unlocked a door. Mike wasn't quite expecting a comfortable room. This had wall to wall carpeting, incandescent lighting and a soft looking bed.
'You've got a very nice hotel,' said Mike, turning to the men behind him.
'Glad you like it,' said the Major. 'You'll be able to get a good night's sleep. If there's anything you want just give that a push,' he said, pointing to a button by the door.
'Thanks,' said Mike, as the men left. He was surprised when the door was left open. Mike looked out into the corridor, but there was no one there. He moved stealthily down to the outside door and peered out. A couple of M.P.s stood chatting a few yards away. He went back to his room and lay down on the bed.
Mike was soon asleep, but it wasn't a good sleep. He was troubled by a vivid dream. In it he woke to an appetizing breakfast. He poured himself a cup of coffee and went over to the washstand and found what looked like an electric razor. He put the razor to his face, and he soon had a perfect shave. The door slid open and two M.P.s came in. Mike smoothed out his very old-fashioned, crumpled clothes as best he could, and went off with the soldiers. They crossed back to the building of the previous day. This time he was taken straight to the big hall. His heart began to race, as all the chairs had been removed and in their place were a couple of tables near the platform. He walked forward to the tables and his escort withdrew. Mike looked up at the platform where there was another table and several chairs. Soldiers came in carrying chairs and set them down in the hall. They weren't the comfortable ones of the night before. He pulled o
ne
towards him and sat down.

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