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Satellite Science Fiction

March 1959

A WORLD OF SLAVES

He was a man apart, alone... knowing full well that the success or failure of his mission would determine Mankind's future under the stars. The cities were depopulated, in ruins, and all of the splendors and triumphs of human civilization were at the mercy of a horror unspeakable.

by JOHN CHRISTOPHER

The Man Who Wrote No Blade of Grass

PROLOGUE

AS LIGGARD AWOKE, George's words were echoing in his mind: "You'll be a museum specimen, Stan. Probably in a glass showcase ... attendants in white smocks . . . admission fifty cents—free on Saturdays and Sundays. And a doctor checking that two-an-hour pulse every few days. That's how it should be. But just in case—in case we're being too optimistic—there's the blast exit. I hope you won't need it."

He blinked his eyes clear of a film of dust. The underground chamber they had constructed was unchanged; the dust was on it, softening the outlines everywhere, but it was unchanged. George's chair still stood by his desk in one corner. He walked across to it on uncertain legs. The log lay open; the pencilled writing clear enough under the layer or grey:

Thursday. January 17. Everything normal. Pulse and Mood suitably retarded. This marks six months from the beginning; I'll give him another few weeks before publishing. After that I don't suppose I'll be able to get near him for visiting celebrities.

That was all. A routine statement. No broken message trailing off into cryptic uncertainty. But he hadn't come back. A fatal accident? But there had been full details among his papers; the executors must have found them. Liggard looked round the small cell again. Clearly they hadn't. So a lot depended on the blast exit.

The mechanism seemed in order. He primed it, flicked the control, and retired to crouch behind the brick blast wall. He counted aloud, listening to his own voice echoing, so unlike the welcoming voices they had expected:

"One... two... three... four..."

The explosion cracked sharply through the air and fresh dust, swirling up, made him cough. He looked up. As he did his nostrils caught the scent of fresh air. There was the light of day, too, breaking in on the dim artificial illumination that his awaking had switched on. The blast exit had worked. The way was open; a small tunnel leading upwards. He squirmed his way through it and out onto a green hillside, on what seemed like a late summer afternoon.

I

THE COTTAGE HAD BEEN CHOSEN for its location—a mile and a half from the city limits, on a slope sufficiently elevated to protect the cell from any ordinary flooding. The cottage still stood a few yards further up the hill, or rather its skeleton did. It had sagged in on itself, it seemed, through the ordinary dilapidations of time.

Liggard looked the other way, towards the city. At first sight it seemed not to have changed. He could see the glint of the river, could see that the Consular Bridge still spanned it, or almost spanned it. His eyes caught a gap, just short of the cast bank. And the Civic Building—when he examined it more carefully he saw that the top was crumpled, as though some giant had placed a hand on it and carelessly pushed it down. Other buildings, when lie came to look at them, were also incomplete.

War? It seemed obvious enough. Misleadingly obvious, perhaps. There was damage, but hardly the kind that would have resulted from a universal holocaust. But radiation sickness—bacteriological warfare? That might account for much of what he saw. He watched the city. Yes, it was deserted.

He went down, anyway, to check. Before the sun set, he had confirmed his guess, bill he was no nearer to finding the reason for the desertion. There were no skeletons. He camped for the night on the crumbling counter of what had been a chain grocery. He found some canned provisions but not many, another thing which surprised him.

From his couch he could see, through splintered windows, the brilliant night sky. If this city was deserted, was there any reason for him to expect any better luck in other places? Obviously not, if he were looking for the kind of civilized life he had left behind him a hundred years ago in the twentieth century. But he refused to allow his disappointment to blind him.

Deserted cities didn't necessarily mean the end of Man. He remembered the flies, the mosquitoes, the cockroaches that had been attacked with D.D.T. There was always the odd, resistant strain in the breed. Somewhere there would be men—if only a handful, if only savages. And he would find them all right. It might take him a long time, but he would find them.

He rolled over, finding a more comfortable position on the pitted wood, and went peacefully to sleep.

He rose early the next morning. The weather was still pleasant. He packed a dozen cans in his knapsack and set out, heading eastwards, away from the skeleton of the city. Provisionally he laid his course for New York, but not with any expectation of finding it inhabited. When he found men he knew it would be by chance, by stumbling on the isolated community that had escaped whatever pestilence had stalked across the planet. But there had to be a mark to aim at, and New York was as good as any.

He thought of getting hold of some kind of vehicle since the roads seemed to be in tolerably good condition—a bicycle perhaps. But he realized the stupidity of that idea when he looked at the car in a garage on the road out from the city. It had been well sheltered, but it was no more than a pattern of rusts. He walked on as cheerfully as possible, thinking of the distance he might yet have to walk.

His surprise was all the greater when, no more than half an hour after he had left the city behind him, he reached the brow of a small hill, and looked down onto a neat pattern of well-tilled fields, dotted with small, roughly built houses. He stood for several minutes looking at the view, and trying to disbelieve it.

There had been people who had wanted men to turn their backs on the cities and return to the land, he remembered. But the idea that a large number of people might have acted on their advice still seemed fantastic, despite the evidence of the city behind him and the thriving agricultural land in front. He looked at the scene more closely. The houses were spaced roughly at the corners of squares which measured about two miles across.

They were small holdings, and at the comer of one of the nearer squares, nine or ten houses huddled into a tiny village. With this as his new objective, he set off down the hill.

It was about three miles away, and he had covered approximately half the distance towards it when he heard the hooting. It was a sound not unlike a ship's whistle, and with the same staccato intervals. Automatically his ear registered the direction of sound, and he turned round to look for it. Something was following him, and rapidly narrowing the distance that separated them.

The key feature was the spherical cabin, carried at a height of about twenty feet from the ground on three metal legs that seemed to be jointed in at least half a dozen places. The cabin seemed to be windowless but was studded with various minor features, some of which might have been lookouts. Three metallic-looking fronds were curled up beneath it.

The whole machine advanced rapidly on its jointed tripedal locomotory apparatus. At a rough guess, he estimated its speed to be a little less than thirty miles an hour. Fearful that it might miss him he stood in the middle of the crumbling roadway, waving his arms vigorously.

As the machine got within twenty yards of him one of the fronds beneath the cabin unrolled into a segmented metal tentacle, perhaps twenty-five feet long. It swung viciously towards him, and even as he ducked abruptly out of its way his mind merely accepted the possibility of some clumsy mismanagement of the controls.

He only began to suspect there might be some hostility about the machine's intentions when a second tentacle unrolled and flung its savage steel at him with a fury that made the air whir about him. He threw himself towards the edge of the road, tumbled over a parapet, and felt himself falling helplessly.


When he recovered, he saw that he was lying at the bottom of a steep crevasse. There had been a land slip at some time and a fissure, perhaps ten or twelve feet deep, ran for several yards between the dilapidated road and the scrub country beside it.

He looked up. The machine was straddling his refuge. Far up against the blue arc of sky the spherical cabin swayed in motion as the machine settled its legs on either side of the crevasse. The tentacles lashed down at him, but cut the air five feet over his head. They weren't long enough to reach him.

For two or three minutes they whipped to and fro above him. Then, just as rapidly, they curled up again and with a convulsive jerk the machine passed across his field of vision, and out of sight. He heard its hooting resumed, and heard it grow fainter with distance. By the time he had climbed up the rocky slope to the road again, it was about a mile away.

He stood watching it. Its jerky but rapid motions were carrying it towards the group of houses he had himself been heading for. It approached them without slackening pace. Tiny now, but distinct in the clear air, he saw it pass over the buildings, apparently brushing unconcernedly against them. He thought he saw one of the tentacles uncurl to wave briefly in some motion, but he was too far away to be sure.

The machine disappeared into the distance. He continued his own journey, his mind still more confused and wondering. Presently the buildings grew larger, and he slackened his pace.

He saw men and women as he drew near to the cluster of houses. He saw the damage, too. The side of one of the houses had been ploughed open, presumably by one of the machine's tripedal legs, and people were grouped about it. He noticed they were dressed in roughly woven, handmade clothes. He walked towards them, conscious that his own dramatic arrival from the twentieth century might be somewhat marred as far as these people were concerned by the pressing catastrophe of their own immediate affairs. He heard their raised voices as he drew near, and paused to listen. George's guess that the English tongue was unlikely to alter much in the next hundred years had at least been borne out.

A small man with a shrill voice—he looked about forty—was saying: "Yeah, it's the same one. He's extraordinarily vicious. It's the same one, all right. I couldn't mistake him."

Liggard found himself on the edge of the group, but they weren't taking any notice of him. lie began to say something—anything to hear his own voice speaking to other men—but the others were too busily discussing the damage to the cottage to pay him any attention. Or most of them were. But a grey-haired man, tall, with a lean face, came round to stand beside him.

The tall man said quietly: "Stranger in these parts?"

Stanley Liggard nodded. "It's a long story. A difficult and an incredible one. I don't suppose you'll believe me."

The other pursed his lips into a wry smile. "I believe easily. Come on in and have a drink, anyway. It won't be back."

A girl joined them. She was slightly built, with a pleasant but rather strained face. Her hair was glossy brown, and curly. She wore a simple red dress.

Liggard said: "You called that metal monster 'it.' Hasn't it a name? I never saw anything quite so unnerving—"

The stranger looked at him with real curiosity. "You don't know what that was? You do interest me."

They went through a low doorway into a small, square, stonewalled room. It looked like the inside of a colonial-period farm-house. Its original owner had apparently been antiquarian-minded. There was even a rack of churchwarden pipes on the wall behind the bar that stretched across the room and barred the way to the rest of the house. A woman was cleaning glasses on the other side of it.

The stranger went over and drew three glasses of tap beer. He paid for the drinks in heavy coins that rang on the wood.

He brought the glasses over to the table beneath the small square window, at which Stanley Liggard and the girl were already sitting.

"My name's Coolen. Luther Coolen. My daughter, Patience."

"Stanley Liggard." He looked at them speculatively. "I still think it's going to be difficult," he said. "I can't expect you to believe me."

Patience had a brittle-sounding voice, with a harshness that was in a way attractive. "If you don't know what the Meccanoes are," she said, "you must have been hiding some place."

He drank from the glass. The beer was dark and heavy—a brew with body to it.

"Well," he said, "I suppose you could say I've been hiding."

He told them his story as simply as possible, glancing at their faces at intervals to watch disbelief creeping in. But it didn't. Luther Coolen continued to look at him with bland acceptance, the girl with rather more interest, but also without comment.

"Now," he finished. "You can tell me what kind of world I've returned to."

The girl echoed bitterly: "What kind of a world!"

Luther Coolen said thoughtfully: "I wonder what happened to your friend George? He may have been killed in one of the first panics. Or perhaps entirely by accident—and the panics began before anybody could pay attention to his papers and come and find you."

Stanley said: "The panics?"

"In your time", Luther said, as if confirming something, "the world was divided between two power blocs. It looked as though another atomic world war was in preparation?"

Liggard nodded. "No doubt about that."

"People on this side of the world didn't know much about what the others might be planning. They were believed to be surpassing us in war-making potential. And they were, of course. But they were onto other things, too, especially in the field of cybernetics?"

Stanley nodded again. "Servomechanisms—electronic brains."

"Electronic brains. A lot of work had been done on them here. Some people talked of it as the second technological revolution. The first had largely dispensed with the need for human labor. The second would cut out the white collar workers in a hundred thousand different fields of organization and accountancy."


Stanley remembered something. "More than that! Someone said there was no reason why machines shouldn't write poetry. A joke, I guess." Luther smiled awkwardly. "It turned out to be a bad joke. The Russians were on it, too. They had one man—a fellow called Kronz. We don't know much about his career in Russia though he had had a brilliant one as a physicist in western Europe before he had the bad judgment to go back to his Russian homeland on a holiday. They kept him. There were reports after that. He was supposed to be working on a super cosmic-ray bomb and half a dozen times he was reported dead. Actually they couldn't do anything with him. He wasn't to be intimidated, and the only chance of his paying a dividend was for them to leave him strictly alone. Eventually they did.

"And on his own he turned to cybernetics. Whether out of real interest in a field quite unrelated to his early work or whether out of despair and cynicism about mankind we'll never know now. When he started getting results he was encouraged, of course. I don't know what his superiors thought he was giving them. Probably robot soldiers, giant remote-control tanks—all that kind of useful playthings. He asked for supplies of the precious plutonium—and they gave them to him.

"Then he built his Brain. We know its plutonium-activated; and that's about all we do know about it. We know there's only one. These tripod arrangements that scavenge the countryside are in some kind of radio communication with the main center. The country people credit them with individual personalities, but they're all part of the Brain. It was the Brain that swiped at you in the ditch, and kicked half a house in here."

Stanley said: "And Kronz? He couldn't control it?"

Patience Coolen said: "From what we've learned about it since, probably the first thing the Brain did was to pluck his arms and legs off. It's one of its favorite pastimes."

Stanley said: "I get the impression that the Brain is vindictive. Surely a machine can't be—emotional?"

"It's an interesting point", Luther agreed, "Purely as a guess, I should say that it's fascinated by gesture. That's something we take for granted; as an automatic part of all animal life, and especially of men. Smiles, frowns, waving arms—all the translations into the physical of mental proce...

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