Holocaust - Cover


by Charles Willard Diffin

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: The extraordinary story of "Paul," who for thirty days was Dictator of the World.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

I am more accustomed to the handling of steel ingots and the fabrication of ships than to building with words. But, if I cannot write history as history is written, perhaps I can write it the way it is lived, and that must suffice.

This account of certain events must have a title, I am told. I have used, as you see: “Holocaust.” Inadequate!--but what word can tell even faintly of that reign of terror that engulfed the world, of those terrible thirty days in America when dread and horror gripped the nation and the red menace, like a wall of fire, swept downward from the north? And, at last--the end!

It was given to me to know something of that conflict and of its ending and of the man who, in that last day, took command of Earth’s events and gave battle to Mars, the God of War himself. It was against the background of war that he stood out; I must tell it in that way; and perhaps my own experience will be of interest. Yet it is of the man I would write more than the war--the most hated man in the whole world--that strange character, Paul Stravoinski.

You do not even recognize the name. But, if I were to say instead the one word, “Paul”--ah, now I can see some of you start abruptly in sudden, wide-eyed attention, while the breath catches in your throats and the memory of a strange dread clutches your hearts.

‘Straki, ‘ we called him at college. He was never “Paul,” except to me alone; there was never the easy familiarity between him and the crowd at large, whose members were “Bill” and “Dick” and other nicknames unprintable.

But “Straki” he accepted. “Bien, mon cher ami,” he told me--he was as apt to drop into French as Russian or any of a dozen other languages--”a name--what is it? A label by which we distinguish one package of goods from a thousand others just like it! I am unlike: for me one name is as good as another. It is what is here that counts,”--he tapped his broad forehead that rose high to the tangle of black hair--”and here,”--and this time he placed one hand above his heart.

“It is for what I give to the world of my head and my heart that I must be remembered. And, if I give nothing--then the name, it is less than nothing.”

Dreamer--poet--scientist--there were many Paul Strakis in that one man. Brilliant in his work--he was majoring in chemistry--he was a mathematician who was never stopped. I’ve seen him pause, puzzled by some phase of a problem that, to me, was a blank wall. Only a moment’s hesitation and he would go way down to the bed-rock of mathematics and come up with a brand new formula of his own devising. Then--”_Voila! C’est fini!_ let us go for a walk, friend Bob; there is some poetry that I have remembered--” And we would head out of town, while he spouted poetry by the yard--and made me like it.

I wish you could see the Paul Straki of those days. I wish I could show him to you; you would understand so much better the “Paul” of these later times.

Tall, he seemed, though his eyes were only level with mine, for his real height was hidden beneath an habitual stoop. It let him conceal, to some extent, his lameness. He always walked with a noticeable limp, and here was the cause of the only bitterness that, in those days, was ever reflected in his face.

“Cossacks!” he explained when he surprised a questioning look upon my face. “They went through our village. I was two years old--and they rode me down!”

But the hard coldness went from his eyes, and again they crinkled about with the kindly, wise lines that seemed so strange in his young face. “It is only a reminder to me,” he added, “that such things are all in the past; that we are entering a new world where savage brutality shall no longer rule, and the brotherhood of man will be the basis upon which men shall build.”

And his face, so homely that it was distinctive, had a beauty all its own when he dared to voice his dreams.

It was this that brought about his expulsion from college. That was in 1935 when the Vornikoff faction brought off their coup d’etat and secured a strangle hold on Russia. We all remember the campaign of propaganda that was forced into the very fibre of every country, to weaken with its insidious dry-rot the safe foundations of our very civilization. Paul was blinded by his idealism, and he dared to speak.

He was conducting a brilliant research into the structure of the atom; it ended abruptly with his dismissal. And the accepted theories of science went unchallenged, while men worked along other lines than Paul’s to attempt the release of the tremendous energy that is latent in all matter.

I saw him perhaps three times in the four years that followed. He had a laboratory out in a God-forsaken spot where he carried on his research. He did enough analytical work to keep him from actual starvation, though it seemed to me that he was uncomfortably close to that point.

“Come with me,” I urged him; “I need you. You can have the run of our laboratories--work out the new alloys that are so much needed. You would be tremendously valuable.”

He had mentioned Maida to me, so I added: “And you and Maida can be married, and can live like a king and queen on what my outfit can pay you.”

He smiled at me as he might have done toward a child. “Like a king and queen,” he said. “But, friend Bob, Maida and I do not approve of kings and queens, nor do we wish to follow them in their follies.

“It is hard waiting,”--I saw his eyes cloud for a moment--”but Maida is willing. She is working, too--she is up in Melford as you know--and she has faith in my work. She sees with me that it will mean the release of our fellow-men and women from the poverty that grinds out their souls. I am near to success; and when I give to the world the secret of power, then--” But I had to read in his far-seeing eyes the visions he could not compass in words.

That was the first time. I was flying a new ship when next I dropped in on him. A sweet little job I thought it then, not like the old busses that Paul and I had trained in at college, where the top speed was a hundred and twenty. This was an A. B. Clinton cruiser, and the “A.B.C.’s” in 1933 were good little wagons, the best there were.

I asked Paul to take a hop with me and fly the ship. He could fly beautifully; his lameness had been no hindrance to him. In his slender, artist hands a ship became a live thing.

“Are you doing any flying?” I asked, but the threadbare suit made his answer unnecessary.

“I’ll do my flying later,” he said, “and when I do,”--he waved contemptuously toward my shining, new ship--”you’ll scrap that piece of junk.”

The tone matched the new lines in his face--deep lines and bitter. This practical world has always been hard on the dreamers.

Poverty; and the grinding struggle that Maida was having; the expulsion from college when he was assured of a research scholarship that would have meant independence and the finest of equipment to work with--all this, I found, was having its effect. And he talked in a way I didn’t like of the new Russia and of the time that was near at hand when her communistic government should sweep the world of its curse of capitalistic control. Their propaganda campaign was still going on, and I gathered that Paul had allied himself with them.

I tried to tell him what we all knew; that the old Russia was gone, that Vornikoff and his crowd were rapacious and bloodthirsty, that their real motives were as far removed from his idealism as one pole from the other. But it was no use. And I left when I saw the light in his eyes. It seemed to me then that Paul Stravoinski had driven his splendid brain a bit beyond its breaking point.

Another year--and Paris, in 1939, with the dreaded First of May drawing near. There had been rumors of demonstrations in every land, but the French were prepared to cope with them--or so they believed ... Who could have coped with the menace of the north that was gathering itself for a spring?

I saw Paul there. It lacked two days of the First of May, and he was seated with a group of industrious talkers at a secluded table in a cafe. He crossed over when he saw me, and drew me aside. And I noticed that a quiet man at a table nearby never let us out of his sight. Paul and his companions, I judged, were under observation.

“What are you doing here now?” he asked. His manner was casual enough to anyone watching, but the tense voice and the look in his eyes that bored into me were anything but casual.

My resentment was only natural. “And why shouldn’t I be here attending to my own affairs? Do you realize that you are being rather absurd?”

He didn’t bother to answer me directly. “I can’t control them,” he said. “If they would only wait--a few weeks--another month! God, how I prayed to them at--”

He broke off short. His eyes never moved, yet I sensed a furtiveness as marked as if he had peered suspiciously about.

Suddenly he laughed aloud, as if at some joking remark of mine; I knew it was for the benefit of those he had left and not for the quiet man from the Surete. And now his tone was quietly conversational.

“Smile!” he said. “Smile, Bob!--we’re just having a friendly talk. I won’t live another two hours if they think anything else. But, Bob, my friend--for God’s sake, Bob, leave Paris to-night. I am taking the midnight plane on the Transatlantic Line. Come with me--”

One of the group at the table had risen; he was sauntering in our direction. I played up to Paul’s lead.

“Glad I ran across you,” I told him, and shook his extended hand that gripped mine in an agony of pleading. “I’ll be seeing you in New York one of these days; I am going back soon.”

But I didn’t go soon enough. The unspoken pleading in Paul Stravoinski’s eyes lost its hold on me by another day. I had work to do; why should I neglect it to go scuttling home because someone who feared these swarming rats had begged me to run for cover? And the French people were prepared. A little rioting, perhaps; a pistol shot or two, and a machine-gun that would spring from nowhere and sweep the street--!

We know now of the document that the Russian Ambassador delivered to the President of France, though no one knew of it then. He handed it to the portly, bearded President at ten o’clock on the morning of April thirtieth. And the building that had housed the Russian representatives was empty ten minutes later. Their disguises must have been ready, for if the sewers of Paris had swallowed them they could have vanished no more suddenly.

And the document? It was the same in substance as those delivered in like manner in every capital of Europe: twenty-four hours were given in which to assure the Central Council of Russia that the French Government would be dissolved, that communism would be established, and that its executive heads would be appointed by the Central Council.

And then the bulletins appeared, and the exodus began. Papers floated in the air; they blew in hundreds of whirling eddies through the streets. And they warned all true followers of the glorious Russian faith to leave Paris that day, for to-morrow would herald the dawn of a new heaven on earth--a Communistic heaven--and its birth would come with the destruction of Paris...

I give you the general meaning though not the exact words. And, like the rest, I smiled tolerantly as I saw the stream of men and women and frightened children that filtered from the city all that day and night; but I must admit that our smiles were strained as morning came on the First of May, and the hour of ten drew near.

Paris, the beautiful--that lovely blossom, flowering on the sturdy stalk that was La Belle France! Paris, laughing to cover its unspoken fears that morning in May, while the streets thudded to the feet of marching men in horizon blue, and the air above was vibrant with the endless roar of planes.

This meant war; and mobilization orders were out; yet still the deadly menace was blurred by a feeling of unreality. A hoax!--a huge joke!--it was absurd, the thought of a distant people imposing their will upon France! And yet ... and yet...

There were countless eyes turned skyward as a thousand bells rang out the hour of ten; and countless ears heard faintly the sound of gunfire from the north.

My work had brought me into contact with high officials of the French Government; I was privileged to stand with a group of them where a high-roofed building gave a vantage point for observation. With them I saw the menacing specks on the horizon; I saw them come on with deadly deliberation--come on and on in an ever-growing armada that filled the sky.

Wireless had brought the report of their flight high over Germany; it was bringing now the story of disaster from the northern front. A heavy air-force had been concentrated there; and now the steady stream of radio messages came on flimsy sheets to the group about me, while they clustered to read the incredible words. They cursed and glared at one another, those French officials, as if daring their fellows to believe the truth; then, silent and white of face, they reached numbly for each following sheet that messengers brought--until they knew at last that the air-force of France was no more...

The roar of the approaching host was deafening in our ears. Red--red as blood!--and each unit grew to enormous proportions. Armored cruisers of the air--dreadnaughts!--they came as a complete surprise.

“But the city is ringed with anti-aircraft batteries,” a uniformed man was whispering. “They will bring the brutes down.”

The northern edge of the city flamed to a roaring wall of fire; the batteries went into action in a single, crashing harmony that sang triumphantly in our ears. A few of the red shapes fell, but for each of these a hundred others swept down in deadly, directed flight.

A glass was in my hand; my eyes strained through it to see the silvery cylinders that fell from the speeding ships. I saw the red cruisers sweep upward before the inferno of exploding bombs raged toward them from below. And where the roar of batteries had been was only silence.

The fleet was over the city. We waited for the rain of bombs that must come; we saw the red cloud move swiftly to continue the annihilation of batteries that still could fire; we saw the armada pass on and lose itself among cloud-banks in the west.

Only a dozen planes remained, high-hung in the upper air. We stared in wonderment at one another. Was this mercy?--from such an enemy? It was inconceivable!

“Mercy!” I wonder that we dared to think the word. Only an instant till a whistling shriek marked the coming of death. It was a single plane--a giant shell--that rode on wings of steel. It came from the north, and I saw it pass close overhead. Its propeller screamed an insolent, inhuman challenge. Inhuman--for one glance told the story. Here was no man-flown plane: no cockpit or cabin, no gunmounts. Only a flying shell that swerved and swung as we watched. We knew that its course was directed from above; it was swung with terrible certainty by a wireless control that reached it from a ship overhead.

Slowly it sought its target: deliberately it poised above it. An instant, only, it hung, though the moment, it seemed, would never end--then down!--and the blunt nose crashed into the Government buildings where at that moment the Chamber of Deputies was in session ... and where those buildings had been was spouting masonry and fire.

A man had me by the arm; his fingers gripped into my flesh. With his other hand he was pointing toward the north. “Torpedoes!” he was saying. “Torpedoes of a size gigantic! Ah, mon Dieu! mon Dieu! Save us for we are lost!”

They came in an endless stream, those blood-red projectiles; they announced their coming with shrill cries of varying pitch; and they swung and swerved, as the ships above us picked them up, to rake the city with mathematical precision.

Incendiary, of course: flames followed every shattering burst. Between us and the Seine was a hell of fire--a hell that contained unnumbered thousands of what an instant before had been living folk--men and women clinging in a last terrified embrace--children whose white faces were hidden in their mothers’ skirts or buried in bosoms no longer a refuge for childish fears. I saw it as plainly as if I had been given the far-reaching vision of a god ... and I turned and ran with stumbling feet where a stairway awaited...

Of that flight, only a blurred recollection has stayed with me. I pray God that I may never see it more clearly. There are sights that mortal eyes cannot behold with understanding and leave mortal brain intact. It is like an anaesthetic at such times, the numbness that blocks off the horrors the eyes are recording--like the hurt of the surgeon’s scalpel that never reaches to the brain.

Dimly I see the fragmentary scenes: the crashing fall of buildings that come crumbling and thundering down, myself crawling like an insect across the wreckage--it is slippery and wet where the stones are red, and I stumble, then see the torn and mangled thing that has caused me to fall ... A face regards me from another mound. I see the dust of powdered masonry still settling upon it: the dark hair is hardly disturbed about the face, so peaceful, so girlishly serene: I am still wondering dully why there is only the head of that girl resting on the shattered stone, as I lie there exhausted and watch the next torpedo crash a block behind me ... The air is shrill with flying fragments. I wonder why my hands are stained and sticky as I run and crawl on my way. The red rocks are less slippery now, and the rats, from the sewers of Paris!--they have come out to feed!

Fragments of pictures--and the worst of them gone! I know that night came--red night, under a cloud of smoke--and I found myself on the following day descending from a fugitive peasant’s cart and plodding onward toward the markings of a commercial aerodrome.

They could not be everywhere, those red vultures of the sky, and they had other devils’-work to do. I had money, and I paid well for the plane that carried me through that day and a night to the Municipal Airport of New York.

The Red Army of occupation was halfway across communist Germany, hailed as they went as the saviors of the world. London had gone the way of Paris; Rome had followed; the countries of France and England and Italy were beaten to their knees.

“We who rule the air rule the world!” boasted General Vornikoff. The Russian broadcasting station had the insolence to put on the air his message to the people of America. I heard his voice as plainly as if he stood in my office; and I was seeing again the coming of that endless stream of aerial torpedoes, and the red cruisers hanging in the heights to pick up control and dash the messengers of death upon a helpless city. But I was visioning it in New York.

“The masses of the American people are with us,” said the complacently arrogant voice. “For our fellow-workers we have only brotherly affection; it is your capitalist-dominated Government that must submit. And if it does not--!” I heard him laugh before he went on:

“We are coming to the rescue of you, our brothers across the sea. Now we have work to do in Europe; our gains must be consolidated and the conquests of our glorious air-force made secure. And then--! We warn you in advance, and we laugh at your efforts to prepare for our coming. We even tell you the date: in thirty days the invasion begins. It will end only at Washington when the great country of America, its cruel shackles cast off from the laboring masses, joins the Brotherhood--the Workers of the World!”

There was a man from the War Department who sat across from me at my desk; my factories were being taken over; my electric furnaces must pour out molten metal for use in war. He cursed softly under his breath as the voice ceased.

“The dirty dog!” he exclaimed. “The lying hypocrite! He talks of brotherhood to us who know the damnable inquisition and reign of terror that he and his crowd have forced on Russia! Thirty days! Well, we have three thousand planes ready for battle to-day; there’ll be more in thirty days! Now, about that vanadium steel--”

But I’ll confess I hardly heard him; I was hearing the roar of an armada of red craft that ensanguined the sky, and I was seeing the curving flight of torpedoes, each an airplane in itself...

Thirty days!--and each minute of each hour must be used. In close touch with the War Department, I knew much that was going on, and all that I knew was the merest trifle in the vast preparations for defense. My earlier apprehensions were dulled; the sight I had of the whole force of a mighty nation welded into one driving power working to one definite end was exhilarating.

New York and Washington--these, it was felt, would be the points of first attack; they must be protected. And I saw the flights of planes that seemed endless as they converged at the concentration camps. Fighters, at first--bombers and swift scouts--they came in from all parts of the land. Then the passenger planes and the big mail-ships. Transcontinental runs were abandoned or cut to a skeleton service of a ship every hour for the transport of Government men. Even the slower craft of the feeder lines were commandeered; anything that could fly and could mount a gun.

And the three thousand fighting ships, as the man from Washington had said, grew to three times that number. Their roaring filled the skies with thunder, and beneath them were other camps of infantry and artillery.

The Atlantic front was an armed camp, where highways no longer carried thousands of cars on pleasure bent. By night and day I saw those familiar roads from the air; they were solid with a never-ending line of busses and vans and long processions of motorized artillery and tanks, whose clattering bedlam came to me a thousand feet above.

Yes, it was an inspiring sight, and I lost the deadly oppression and the sense of impending doom--until our intelligence service told us of the sailing of the enemy fleet.

They had seized every vessel in the waters of Europe. And--God pity the poor, traitorous devils who manned them--there were plenty to operate the ships. Two thousand vessels were in that convoy. Ringed in as they were by a guard of destroyers and fighting craft of many kinds, whose mast-heads carried the blood-red flag now instead of their former emblems, our submarines couldn’t reach them.

But our own fleet went out to measure their strength, and a thousand Navy planes took the air on the following day.

Uppermost in my own mind, and in everyone’s mind, I think, was the question of air-force.

Would they bring the red ships? What was their cruising range? Could they cross the Atlantic with their enormous load of armored hull, or must they be transported? Were the air-cruisers with the fleet, or would they come later?

How Vornikoff and his assassins must have laughed as they built the monsters, armored them, and mounted the heavy guns so much greater than anything they would meet! The rest of us--all the rest of the world!--had been kept in ignorance ... And now our own fliers were sweeping out over the gray waters to find the answer to our questions.

I’ve tried to picture that battle; I’ve tried to imagine the feelings of those men on the dreadnaughts and battle-cruisers and destroyers. There was no attempt on the enemy’s part to conceal his position; his wireless was crackling through the air with messages that our intelligence department easily decoded. Our Navy fliers roared out over the sea, out and over the American fleet, whose every bow was a line of white that told of their haste to meet the oncoming horde.

The plane-carriers threw their fighters into the air to join the cavalcade above--and a trace of smoke over the horizon told that the giant fleet was coming into range.

And then, instead of positions and ranges flashed back from our own swift scouts, came messages of the enemy’s attack. Our men must have seen them from the towers of our own fleet; they must have known what the red swarm meant, as it came like rolling, fire-lit smoke far out in the sky--and they must have read plainly their own helplessness as they saw our thousand planes go down. They were overwhelmed--obliterated!--and the red horde of air-cruisers was hardly checked in its sweep.

Carnage and destruction, those blue seas of the north Atlantic have seen; they could tell tales of brave men, bravely going to their death in storm and calm but never have they seen another such slaughter as that day’s sun showed.

The anti-aircraft guns roared vainly; some few of our own planes that had escaped returned to add their futile, puny blows. The waters about the ships were torn to foam, while the ships themselves were changed to furnaces of bursting flame--until the seas in mercy closed above them and took their torn steel, and the shattered bodies that they held, to the silence of the deep...

We got it all at Washington. I sat in a room with a group of white-faced men who stared blindly at a radiocone where a quiet voice was telling of disaster. It was Admiral Graymont speaking to us from the bridge of the big dreadnaught, Lincoln, the flagship of the combined fleet. Good old Graymont! His best friend, Bill Schuler, Secretary of the Navy, was sitting wordless there beside me.

“It is the end,” the quiet voice was saying; “the cruiser squadrons are gone ... Two more battleships have gone down: there are only five of us left ... A squadron of enemy planes is coming in above. Our men have fought bravely and with never a chance ... There!--they’ve got us!--the bombs! Good-by, Bill, old fellow--”

The radiocone was silent with a silence that roared deafeningly in our ears. And, beside me, I saw the Secretary of the Navy, a Navy now without ships or men, drop his tired, lined face into his hands, while his broad shoulders shook convulsively. The rest of us remained in our chairs, too stunned to do anything but look at one another in horror.

We expected them to strike at New York. I was sent up there, and it was there that I saw Paul again. I met him on lower Broadway, and I went up to him with my hand reaching for his. I didn’t admire Paul’s affiliations, but he had warned me--he had tried to save my life--and I wanted to thank him.

But his hand did not meet mine. There was a strange, wild look in his eyes--I couldn’t define it--and he brought his gaze back from far off to stare at me as if I were a stranger.

Then: “Still got that A.B.C. ship?” he demanded.

“Yes,” I answered wonderingly.

“Junk it!” he said. And his laugh was as wild and incomprehensible as his look had been. I stared after him as he walked away. I was puzzled, but there were other things to think of then.

A frenzy of preparation--and all in vain. The enemy fooled us; the radio brought the word from Quebec.

“They have entered the St. Lawrence,” was the message it flashed. Then, later: “The Red fleet is passing toward Montreal. Enemy planes have spotted all radio towers. There is one above us now--” And that ended the message from Quebec.

But we got more information later. They landed near Montreal; they were preparing a great base for offensive operations; the country was overrun with a million men; the sky was full of planes by night and day; there was no artillery, no field guns of any sort, but there were torpedo-planes by tens of thousands, which made red fields of waiting death where trucks placed them as they took them from the ships.

And there were some of us who smiled sardonically in recollection of the mammoth plants the Vornikoff Reds had installed in Central Russia, and the plaudits that had greeted their plans for nitrogen fixation. They were to make fertilizers; the nitrates would be distributed without cost to the farms--this had pacified the Agrarians--and here were their “nitrates” that were to make fertile the fields of Russia: countless thousands of tons of nitro-explosives in these flying torpedoes!

But if we smiled mirthlessly at these recollections we worked while we chewed on our cud of bitterness. There came an order: “Evacuate New England,” and the job was given to me.

With planes--a thousand of them--trucks, vans, the railroads, we gathered those terrified people into concentration camps, and took them over the ground, under the ground, and through the air to the distributing camp at Buffalo, where they were scattered to other points.

I saw the preparations for a battle-front below me as I skimmed over Connecticut. Trenches made a thin line that went farther than I could see! Here was the dam that was expected to stop the enemy columns from the north. I think no one then believed that our air-force could check the assault. The men of the fighting planes were marked for death; one read it in their eyes; but who of us was not?

How those giant cruisers would be downed no man could say, but we worked on in a blind desperation; we would hold that invading army as long as men could sight a gun; we would hold them back; and somehow, someway, we must find the means to repel the invasion from the air!

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