When the Sleepers Woke - Cover

When the Sleepers Woke

by Arthur L. Zagat

Public Domain

: Only two small groups of people-enemies-survive the vast desolation of the Final War.

Tags: Science Fiction   Apocalyptic   Post Apocalyptic   Futuristic   War   Military   Pulp Classic  

“Prepare for battle!” The command crackled in Allan Dane’s helmet. “Enemy approaching from southeast! Squadron commanders execute plan two!” Allan settled back in the seat of his one-man helicopter, his broad frame rendered even bulkier by the leather suit that incased it. He was tensed, but quiescent. Action would be first joined sixty miles away, and his own squadron was in reserve.

Over New York and its bay the American air fleet was in motion. Suddenly movement ceased, and the formation froze. Ten flying forts were each the apex of a far-spread cone, axis horizontal, whose body was the fanned back-ranging of its squadron of a thousand helicopter planes. The cones bristled oceanward from the sea-margin of New York, their points a fifty-mile arc of defiance, their bases tangent to one another, almost touching the ground at their lower edges, then circling upward for ten thousand feet. From van to rear each formation was five miles in length.

Behind and above, the main body of the fleet sloped in echeloned ranks, hiding the threatened city with an impenetrable terraced wall of buzzing helios and massive forts. Up, back, up, back, the serried masses reached, till the rearmost were twenty-five thousand feet aloft. And farther behind, unmoving on their six-mile level, were the light ‘copters of the reserve. Dane gazed down that tremendous vista to the far-off front line, and swore softly. Just his luck to be out of the scrap: the enemy would never penetrate to these northern out-skirts of New York.

“Men of the fleet!” General Huntington’s voice sounded from his flagship, the Washington. Somehow its gruffness overrode the mechanical quality of the intra-fleet radio transmission. Almost it seemed he was there in the tiny cabin. “Reports have at this moment been received that our attack fleets have been everywhere successful. Our rocket ships have destroyed Tokyo, Addis Ababa, Odessa, Peiping and Cape Town, and are now ranging inland through enemy territory.”

Even through the double leather of his helmet a roar came to Allan. He felt his craft vibrate to the exultant cheers of the fleet. His own mouth was open, and his throat rasping...

But“—the single syllable choked the surge of sound—”London, Paris, and Berlin have fallen to the enemy.” The words thudded in the pilot’s ear-phones. “San Francisco is being attacked. Communication with New Orleans has failed. The enemy are in sight of Buenos Aires—” The general broke off, and Allan sensed dully that there was other news, news that he dared not give the fleet.

The gruff voice changed. “Men of the fleet, New York is in our charge. The enemy is upon us, the battle is commencing. The issue is in your hands.”

Pat on his last word, a dark cloud spread along the south-eastern horizon. From the spear-heads of the cone formations great green beams shot out across the sea. Orange flame flared in answer, all along the black bank that was the enemy fleet. Where the green beams struck the orange blinked out, and the blue of sky showed through. And the American ships were as yet untouched. A great shout rose to Allan’s lips—that they had the range on the enemy, and the attack defeated before it was well begun.

But was it? Swift as the American rays scythed destruction along the enemy line, the gaps filled and lethal orange leaped out again. Now the black cloud was piling up, was rising till it was a towering curtain against the sky. On it came, like some monstrous tidal wave. Great rents were torn through it by the stabbing beams of the flying forts, holes where ships and men had been whiffed into dust by the hundred. But the attack came on.

Now all the great defensive cones burst into an emerald blaze as the smaller ships loosed their bolts. And from the terraced slope of the supporting fleet a hundred steel ovoids lumbered forward to meet the threat. All the vast space between the hosts, mountain-high from the sea’s surface, was filled with dazzling light, now green, now orange, as the conflicting beams crossed and mingled. There were gaps in the advancing curtain that did not fill, but the defending cones were melting away, were disappearing, were gone.

“Flight ZLX prepare for action!” Dane’s eyes flicked over the gages, checking in routine precaution. He started when he saw the V of the chronometer’s hands. Only six minutes had passed since the battle’s start—it seemed hours. And already the reserve was being called on! He was suddenly cold. Out there, over the bay, the enemy forces had ceased their advance. The American first line cones were gone—true enough, but the support fleet was still intact. Some new element had entered the battle, visible as yet only in the Washington’s powerful television view-screens. The flight adjutant’s voice again snapped a command:

“Direction vertical. Thirty thousand feet. Full speed. Go!”

Dane jerked home his throttle. The battle shot down, and his seat thrust up against him. Something hurtled past, blurred by the speed of its descent. The plane rocked to a sudden detonation, and Allan fought to steady it. Then he had reached the commanded height. At sixty thousand feet the helio vanes were useless, only the power of the auxiliary rocket-tubes maintained his altitude.

“Formation B. Engage the enemy!” came the order.

They were just ahead, a dozen giant craft, torpedo-shaped and steel-incased, the scarlet fire of their gas blasts holding them poised steady in their fifty-mile-long line. From curious swellings that broke the clean lines of their under-bodies black spheres were dropping in steady streams. Allan knew then whence came the crash that had rocked his ship as she rose. These were bombs, huge bombs, charged with heaven alone knew what Earth-shaking explosive. They were catapulting down, an iron death hail, on the fleet and the city twelve miles below!

The enemy’s strategy was clear. While his main fleet was engaging the American defense in a frontal attack, these huge rocket-bombers had looped unseen through the stratosphere to this point of vantage. The planes that had leaped to this new menace swept toward the bombers in three parallel lines, above, to right and left of them. Allan’s plane leaping to position at the very end of one long line. The three leaders reached the first rocket-ship, and their green beams shot out. In that instant the enemy craft seemed to explode in intense blue light. Then the awful dazzle was gone. The rocket ship was there, just as before, but the American helio-planes were gone, were wiped out as though they had never been. The next trio, and the next, rushed up. Again and again came that flash of force, annihilating them. Superbly the tiny gnats that were the American planes plunged headlong at the hovering Leviathan of the air and were whiffed into nothingness. Sixty brave men were dancing motes of cosmic dust before the shocked commander could sound the recall.

The helicopter squadron curved away, still keeping its ordered lines, but orange flame leaped out from all twelve of the enemy vessels, orange flame that caught them, that ran along their ranks and sent them hurtling Earthward—blackened corpses in blazing coffins. “Abandon ships!” The adjutant’s last order crisped, coldly metallic, soldierly as ever. In the next breath, as Allan reached for the lever that would open the trapdoor beneath him, he saw the command-ship plunge down, a flaring comet.

Above Allan Dane, the twenty-foot silk of his parachute bellied out in the denser air of the lower heights. His respirator tube was still in his mouth, and the double, vacuum-interlined leather of his safety suit had kept him from freezing in the spatial cold of the stratosphere. He looked south.

All the proud thousands of the defense fleet were gone, blown to fragments by the time bombs from above. The city was hidden in a thick, muddy-yellow fog. “Queer,” the thought ran through his brain, “that there should be fog in mid-afternoon, under a blazing sun.” Then he saw them, the circling black ships of the enemy, trailing behind them long wakes of the drab yellow vapor that drifted heavily down to shroud New York with—gas!

Allan felt nauseated as he imagined a fleeting picture of the many-leveled city, of its mist-darkened streets with swarming myriads of slumped bodies clogging the conveyor belts that still moved because no hand was left to shut them off; of women and children, and aged or crippled men strewn in tortured, horrible attitudes in all the roof-parks, in their homes, in every nook and cranny of the murdered city. He looked beneath his drifting descent and saw roads that were rivers, alive with every manner of fleeing conveyance, and he groaned, knowing that in moments the pursuing ships would send down their lethal mist to put an end to that futile flight.

Sugar Loaf Mountain rose toward him. At its very summit was a clearing among the trees, and, incongruously motionless in that world where every one was rushing from inescapable death, a man stood calmly there, gazing up at him. Allan screamed down to him! “Run! You fool. Run or the gas will get you!”

Of course the man could not hear that cry, but one tiny arm rose and pointed south. Allan followed the direction of the gesture and saw a black plane veering toward him. Then orange flared from it, though it was distant, and a wave of intolerable heat enveloped him. Something cried within him: “Too far—he’s too far off to kill me with his beam!” Then he knew no more.

From New York, from devastated San Francisco, from Rio, from Buenos Aires, from fifty other desolated points along the seaboards of the Americas, the black fleets swept along the coasts and inland, vomiting their yellow death till all the continents were blanketed with life-destroying gas. And in Europe and Australasia the destroying hordes, having smashed the proud defenses of the coastlines, engaged in the same pursuit, till in one short week all the lands of the Western Allies were swept clear of life. Then the Eastern ships turned homeward, to wait until the vapor they had strewn had lost its virulence, and the teeming masses of the East might take possession of the half world the ebony-painted destroyers had conquered. The black fliers turned homeward, but there was no homeland left for them to seek!

For though the defense fleets of the Western Coalition had been everywhere beaten, their attack squadrons had been everywhere successful. All Asia and Africa lay under a pall of milky emerald gas as toxic, as blasting, as the Easterners’ yellow.

And the Westerners were returning too!

In their teleview screens the commanders of the black swarms, and of the white thousands, sought their home ports, and saw the world to be a haze-covered sphere where not even a fly could live. Then, as if by common accord, the white ships and the black sped across lifeless hemispheres to meet in mid-air over the long green swells of the Pacific. They met, and on the instant they were at each others’ throats like two packs of wild dogs, killing, killing, killing till they themselves were killed. No quarter was asked in that fight, and none given. No hope of victory was there, nor fear of defeat. Better swift death in the high passion of combat, than slow, hopeless drifting over a dead world.

But there was one black ship that slunk out of that mass suicide of man’s last remnant. Within its long hulk three motionless forms lay in a welter of blood that smeared their officers’ badges, and a dozen gibbering men labored at the controls of their craft. The long black shadows came at last to veil an empty sky, and a sea whereon there was drifting wreckage but not one sign of any life. And as far to the north a shadowed airship sped athwart the moon, searching for one spot, one tiny patch of solid ground, that was free from the dread gas.

Consciousness came slowly back to Allan Dane. At first he was aware, merely, that he was alive. That was astonishing enough. Even if the orange beam had not killed him with its heat, the gas should have struck his leather suit. The Easterners could not be behind his own forces in their development of that terrible weapon.

Allan felt a coolness on his face, his hands, that could mean only that his helmet and gloves had been removed. He heard movement, and opened his eyes.

At first he could see only blueness, pale and lambent. He gazed dully up at a lustrous, glasslike substance that arched above him. The sound of some one moving came again, and Allan turned his head to it. His neck muscles seemed stiff, that simple motion drew tremendously on his strength.

About fifteen yards away, a man bent over a transparent, boxlike contrivance in which something fluttered. From this device a metal tube angled away into the wall. There was other apparatus on the long table at which the man was—

“At last! Clear at last!” a mellow, rounded voice exclaimed jubilantly.

“Clear? Are you sure, Anthony, are you sure?” This other voice, throbbing with vibrant repression as if its owner feared to believe longed-for tidings come at last, was a woman’s. As the man half turned, its owner came between him and Allan. All he could see of them was that the one called Anthony was very tall, and thin, and the woman almost as tall, and that both wore hooded white robes, the woman’s falling to her heels, the man’s to his knees, waist-girdled with black cords.

“Look for yourself, Helen.”

She bent over the transparent cage. “Oh Anthony, how wonderful!”

Allan attempted to rise. He was unutterably weak; to move a finger was a gigantic task, to do more impossible. He tried to call out. No sound came from his straining throat.

The couple straightened. The man spoke, too low for Dane to hear. Each took something from the table, something that gleamed metallically. Then they turned—and Allan saw what the white robes clothed!

Skulls leered at him from beneath the hoods—fleshless skulls; tinted a pale green! Jutting jawbones, cavernous cheeks, lipless mouths that grinned mirthlessly—his eyes froze to them and a scream formed within him that he could not utter. Hands appeared from within the flowing sleeves, and they were skeleton hands, each phalanx clearly marked. They moved, that was the worst of it, the hands moved; and deep in the shadowed eye-pits of the skulls blue light glowed in living eyes that peered at something to Allan’s right.

His eyes followed the direction of their gaze. Ranged along the wall, and jutting out, he saw four couches. On each was a figure, shrouded and hooded in white. Utterly still they were—and the cadaverous countenances exposed between robe and hood betrayed not the slightest twitch. The arms were crossed on each breast. Allan realized that his own arms were similarly crossed. He looked down at them, saw the white gleam of a robe that fell down his length in smooth, still folds, saw his hands—greenish skin stretched tight over fleshless bones. Suddenly it seemed to him that the air was musty and fetid.

Footsteps slithered across the floor. The woman-form bent over the farthest couch. With one skeleton hand she bared an arm of the corpselike figure; the other hand lifted—metal glinted in it and plunged into the unshrinking limb! A slow movement of the bony fingers and the threadlike, silvery thing was withdrawn. She stared ghoulishly—and the man, too, gazed tensely at her victim. A long quiver ran through the recumbent shape, another. The death’s-head on the pallet moved slightly—and merciful blackness welled up in Allan’s brain...

A cool liquid was in his mouth. He swallowed instinctively, and warmth ran through his veins. He felt strength flooding back into him—and he remembered horror.

“That’s better,” a mellow voice said, close above him. “Drink just a little more.” The cool liquid came up against Allan’s lips again, pungent, and he drank. Once more strength surged warmingly within him. “That’s a good fellow. A little more now.”

Fingers were on Allan’s wrist, life-warm. There was friendliness in the voice that was speaking to him, and solicitude. He dared to look.

A skull-like head was right before him. But seen thus closely, the terror of it was lessened. Fleshless indeed it was. But a parchment skin was tightly drawn over the bones, and Allan could see that its true shade was a sere yellow. It was the bluish light that had given it the green of decay. The deep-sunk eyes were kindly; they gleamed with pleasure as Allan’s opened; and the voice asked:

“How do you feel?”

Allan made shift to reply, though a strange lassitude still enervated him, and his mouth was full of tongue. “Much better, thank you. But who—who... ?”

With a sudden access of energy Allan sat up on his couch. He looked about him, and his fears were back full flood.

He was in a chamber with neither door nor window—floor, walls, and arched ceiling entirely formed of the palely lustrous, glasslike substance. The room was perhaps twenty by forty feet, its ceiling curving to about five yards from the floor at its highest point, and the spectral blue glow that filled it was apparently sourceless. It lit three vacant couches to his left. To his right were the four he had already seen. The woman was ministering to the occupants of these—living skeletons that lay flaccid, but whose heads were moving, barely moving from side to side. Like nothing else but a sepulcher the place seemed, a tomb in which the dead had come to life!

Allan clutched at Anthony’s arm, grasped textured fabric that was cold to his frantic touch, and thin bone beneath. “In Heaven’s name,” he mouthed, “tell me what sort of place this is before—” He stopped, appalled by a sudden thought. Perhaps he was insane, this seeming tomb really some hospital ward transformed by his crazed brain. A wave of weakness overcame him, and he fell back.

“Careful,” the other spoke soothingly, “you must give the plasma time to act or you may harm yourself.”

If Allan shut out sight with his eyelids, and listened only to the resonance of Anthony’s voice, he could hold his slipping grip on reason. He felt that the cloth of his robe was metal, fine spun and woven. That was strangely reassuring.

“How long do you think you have slept?”

“How long?” Dane murmured. Something told him that he had been unconscious for a long time. “A week?”

Anthony sighed. “No. Longer than that, much longer.” There was reluctance in his tone. “You have lain here for twenty years.”

Allan’s eyes flew open, and he stared up into the speaker’s face. Twenty years! Somehow it did not occur to him to disbelieve this astounding statement. He struggled hard to realize its implication. Two decades had passed since last he remembered. He had been a youth then. Now he was forty-four.

Anthony continued. “That may be a shock to you, but this will be a greater. Unless I am greatly mistaken, we seven, we four men and three women, are the only living humans left on Earth.”

The words dripped into Allan’s consciousness. Beyond them, he could hear movements, exclamations. But they meant nothing to him. Only the one thought tolled, knell-like, within him. “We seven are the only living humans left on Earth.”

Dimly he knew that Anthony was talking. “There is a possibility, a bare possibility, that somewhere near here there are two others. That chance is faint indeed. Otherwise humanity is dead, killed by its own hand.”

Through a dizzy vertigo that blurred sight and sound Allan heard the rounded voice go on and on, telling the story of the doom that Man’s own folly had brought. And intermingled with that tale of a world gone mad there came back to the listener the clear-cut vision of the day of horror that to him seemed but yesterday. He remembered the sudden ultimatum of the Easterner’s, the Western Coalition’s stanch defiance. Again he saw a supposedly invincible fleet utterly destroyed, saw comrades whiffed out of existence in infinitesimal seconds. Again he watched a city of twenty millions inundated by a muddy yellow gas in which no human being, no animal, might live. He waked once more to find himself helpless with weakness, among living corpses, in a place that seemed a tomb.

“All this we saw in our long-distance televisoscope.” Anthony gestured to a blank screen above the apparatus ranged along the opposite wall. “Then, just as that last weird battle ended, something happened to the eye-mast outside, and we were isolated.” He fell silent, in a brooding reverie, and Allan, recovered somewhat, saw that the other strange occupants of the place had risen and were clustered about that cage where something fluttered.

He turned to his mentor. “But I still don’t understand. How is it that we escaped the holocaust?”

“Four of us, members of the scientific faculty of the National University, having foreseen the inevitable result of the course of world events, had joined forces and developed a substance—we called it nullite—so dense and so inert that no gas could penetrate it or chemical break it down. We offered it to the Western General Staff, and were laughed at for our pains. Then we decided to use it to preserve our families from the danger we foresaw.

“At first we sheathed one room in each of our own dwellings with the nullite. Later we decided that the deposited gas might last for many years, and blasted out this cave, a hundred feet below the summit of Sugar Loaf Mountain, for a common refuge.

“When the red word flared from the newscast machines, ‘War!’, we fled here with our wives, as we had planned. All, that is, save one couple, the youngest of us. They never arrived—I waited for them in the clearing at the entrance to the shaft. At the last moment I saw you dropping in your parachute, saw the death beam just miss you, saw you land at my feet, unconscious, but still breathing. I carried you in with me. There were two vacant spaces: you could occupy one of them. Then we sealed the last aperture with nullite, and settled to our vigil. We did not know how long the gas would last, but we had sufficient concentrated food, and enough air-making chemicals, to last two persons for a century.”

“Two people,” Allan interjected. “But there were seven here.”

Anthony nodded. “We had worked out every detail of our plan. When release came we needs must be in the full vigor of our prime. From our loins must spring the new race that will repopulate the Earth; that will found a new civilization, better, we hope, and wiser than the one that had died. By injecting a certain compound we suspended animation in all but a single couple. Those so treated were to all intents dead, though their bodies did not decay. The two who remained awake kept watch, making daily tests of the outside atmosphere, drawn through tubes of nullite that pierced the seal. At the end of six months they revived another couple by the use of a second injection, and were themselves put to sleep. We exempted you from the watch, since you could have no companion, so that while we have lived about seven years in the twenty, you have not aged at all.”

“Not aged at all!” Dane exclaimed. “Why, I have wasted away to a mere bagful of bones, and you others also.”

The other smiled wistfully. “Even though life was the merest thread there was still an infinitely slow using of bodily tissue. But the drink we partook of as we awoke is a plasma that will very quickly restore the lost body elements. In an hour we shall all have been rejuvenated. You will be again the age you were on that fateful day in 2163, and the rest of us but seven years older. Look!” He moved aside, so that Allen could see the others, who had gathered around his couch. They were a curious semicircle of gaunt figures, but he could see that they had subtly changed. Still emaciated beyond description, they were no longer simulacra of death. The contours of their faces were rounding, were filling out, and the faintest tinge of pink was creeping into the yellow of their skins.

“Anthony, isn’t it time that we opened the seals and went outside? Haven’t we been long enough in this prison?” It was a short man who spoke, his voice impatient, and there was an eager murmur from the others.

“I am as anxious as you.” Anthony’s slow words were dubious. “But it may still be dangerous. The gas may have cleared away only from our immediate vicinity. In hollows, or places where the air is stagnant, it may still be toxic. It is my opinion that only one should go at first, to investigate.”

A babble of volunteering cries burst out, but Dane’s voice cut through the others. “Look here,” the sentence tumbled from his lips. “I’m an extra here. It doesn’t matter whether I live or die—I have no special knowledge. I cannot even father a family, since I have no wife. I am the only one to go out as long as there is danger.”

“The young man is right,” some one said. “He is the logical choice.”

“Very well,” agreed Anthony, who appeared the leader. “He shall be the first.”

His instructions were few. One plane had been preserved, and was in the shaft. Allan was to make a circuit of the neighborhood. If he deemed it safe he was to visit the building, described to him, where the fourth couple had lived, and see if he could find trace of them. Then he was to return and report his findings.

All stuffed their ears with cotton wool, and crowded against one end of the chamber. Anthony had the end of a long double wire in his hand, and it curled across the floor to the farther wall. He pressed the button of a pear-switch—and there was a concussion that hurled the watchers against the wall behind them. A great gap appeared in the farther wall, beyond it a black chasm, and a helicopter that was dimly illumined by the light from within the room. A quick inspection of the flier revealed that its alumino-steeloid had been unaffected by the passage of time, and Allan climbed into it. A wave of his hand simulated an insouciance he did not feel. Then he was rising through darkness. The sun’s light struck down and enveloped him, and he was in the open air. He rose above the trees.

Desolation spread out beneath him. In all the vastness that unfolded as the lone ‘copter climbed into a clear sky, nothing moved. The air, that from babyhood Allan had seen crowded with bustling traffic, was a ghastly emptiness. Not even a tiny, wheeling speck betrayed the presence of a bird. And below—the gas that was fatal to animal life seemed to have stimulated vegetable growth—an illimitable sea of green rolled untenanted to where the first ramparts of New York rose against the sky. Roads, monorail lines, all the countless tracks of civilization had disappeared beneath the green tide. Nature had taken back its own.

Heartsick, he turned south, and followed the silver stream of the Hudson. The river, lonely as the sky, seemed to drift oily and sluggish down to plunge beneath the city at the lower end of the Tappan Zee. Allan Dane came over New York, gazed down at the ruin of its soaring towers, at the leaping arabesque of its street bridges. He peered into vast rifts of tumbled, chaotic concrete and steel. Nothing moved in all that spreading wonder that had housed twenty millions of people.

Allan drifted lower, and saw that from what had been gardened roof-parks, now a welter of strewn earth, the green things had spread till they covered the heaped jetsam with a healing blanket of foliage. Not all the city had been laid waste, however. Here and there, great expanses of the cliff-like structures still stood, undamaged, and in the midst of one of these areas he saw the high-piled edifice to which he had been directed. Its roof was lush with vegetation but by dextrous handling he set his helicopter down upon it.

The engine roar diminished and died. Silence folded around him, a black, thick blanket.

Dane got heavily from his seat, oppressed by the vast soundlessness, and pushed through curling plants that caught at his heels. The sound of his passage was like crackling thunder. A decaying door was marked, in faded, almost undecipherable letters, “Emergency Stairs.” It was half open, and Allan squeezed around its edge. Spiral steps curved down into blackness. He hesitated a moment. He could feel the awful silence, the emptiness below was a pit of death. Anthony’s words came back to him, echoed in his ears: “We seven are the only living humans left on Earth.”

In that moment, out of the pitch-black well of soundlessness, a scream shrilled! No words, only a red, thin thread of sound, rising, and falling, and rising again out of depths where not even a living mouse should be! It came again, ripping the silence—a woman’s scream, high-pitched, quivering with fear!

Allan plunged down into the darkness, caroming from wall to wall as he half ran, half fell, down the twisting stairs. Another sound reverberated from unseen walls, and Dane realized that it was his own voice, shouting.

His feet struck level floor. A pale rectangle of light showed before him, and he dived through it. He was in a corridor, dim-lit by phosphorescent fungi that cloaked the damp walls. He halted, at fault. The long hall stretched away to either side, cluttered with grimed bones, slimy with mold. By the age-blistered name cards on closed doors he knew himself to be on a residential level. But which way should he turn? Whence had come that scream? He crouched against the wall, his heartbeats thudding loud in his ears, and listened for a clue.

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