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Pioneers

World's Third E-Book—Published On the Web in 1997 For Digital Download

an Empire of Time SF novel

by John Argo


 Preface   Chapter 1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9   10   11   12   13   14   15   16   17   18   19   20   21   22   23   24   25   26   27   28   29   30   31   32   33   34   35   36   37   38   39   40   41   42 


Heartbreaker

12. Old World—Year 2299

The radar man waved from his plexi bubble atop the Aerie's highest tower: "All clear, no avians." His voice crackled over the speakers. The sun glared on the bubble's silvery top.

Paul stood not far from Licia on one of the lower escarpments with a crowd of other onlookers. Licia stood by her father, Citizen Engineer Krings. This little experiment was his defining statement. He had bet the store that the surface of the Earth was becoming more livable. Paul felt torn between the hope that Krings might be right, so he'd be less cantankerous, and the hope that Krings were wrong, because otherwise the star flight project to N60A would be canceled. The radar dish rotated evenly on its axis. On the ramparts high up stood dark- silhouetted riflemen, their weapons ready should any avians threaten the onlookers.

The center of attention was a ten-foot yellow drone with long, narrow wings, sitting on a wooden runway aimed away from the Aerie. The plane was to penetrate the black clouds below and send back television pictures in video and infra-red. It was to be man's first look at Earth's surface in generations.

A technician began reading off breathability soundings on a scale Krings had devised. "Index, one oh," the tech singsonged over the loudspeaker. The "1.0" was the index in fresh air at Aerie level. "One oh, one oh," he repeated.

Loud as gunfire, the unmuffled engine fired up, shooting kerosene in black blobs.

"One oh, allowing for fuel porting."

With a jerk, the plane cut loose and its little rubber wheels whirled down the long ramp. Paul and the others watched, fascinated, as it described a long beautiful curve through free air. It rose up slightly.

"One oh, steady."

Quickly growing small and distant, it curved in a lazy circle while Paul wanted to hold his breath. Finally it eased down into the lightning-studded clouds.

"Point nine. Point eight. Point seven. Point six. Point five."

Paul and the others crowded around a series of monitoring screens. Dr. Mannering in his billowing white lab coat stood near the engineering console watching a flickering stream of numerical information on backlit readouts.

"Point five. Critical line." If it dropped below fifty per cent, Paul knew, Krings would be wrong. He'd predicted an average of point six, up from point five where the soundings had held steady for the past twenty years.

Sound pickups on the plane generated a blast of engine noise and whistling wind as the craft penetrated two miles of deadly cloud cover.

"Point five."

A loud whistling noise signaled the beginning of the engine's suffocation from lack of oxygen. The technicians switched off their flight control monitors. The plane was now in free glide. Already, the technicians exchanged triumphant handshakes. The mood, however, was muted, for there was nothing more to celebrate than the technical accomplishment of a toy-like plane flight.

"Point four." A murmur of disappointment ran through the crowd. "Point three." Krings looked shocked. "Point two five. Point two five. Steady. Point two three." Disbelief, rage, defeat, denial, tragedy spread across Krings's features. The air was no longer breathable at all to humans at the surface. The Earth they'd known, that their race and most related life had evolved on, was virtually dead. And the clouds were rising at several feet per year.

The plane's cameras now used battery power to send back a series of grayscale stills that were threaded like jerky movie footage. The crowd became silent in the Aerie.

"Point two two. Steady. Point two three. Point two two."

For a long time, the picture was a uniform, cloudy gray. The technician no longer bothered to read the soundings as they dropped into meaninglessness.

Rocky outcroppings cast sharp outlines as the plane dropped to within two hundred feet of the surface.

Somebody gasped.

The plane quivered and prepared to break up in the air if it did not crash first as it entered the lowermost, thickest layer of sulfurous gases.

A murmur of comment arose.

Paul saw a huge shape moving around. Someone screamed. The scream was quickly muffled by the horror of realization.

A gasp of revulsion arose from the spectators.

Two immense, humped bodies writhed in combat. Other viperous shapes, surmounted by serpentine necks, looked this way and that, searching for whatever unholy prey became these inheritors of the poisoned earth.

Last, before the cameras abruptly ceased to transmit, they recorded a writhing mass: An entire herd of the abominations.

"You see," Paul heard Souspolitis say to Krings, "there is no going back."

Paul looked through the crowd, and felt saddened by Krings's crushed look, Souspolitisí predatory glint of triumph, and Licia's pathetic attempts to console her father.

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Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.