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Fred Hoyle & John Elliot

Andromeda Breakthrough

CHAPTER ONE

OUTLOOK UNSETTLED

The alarm signal buzzed quietly but insistently above Captain Pennington's head, a discreet echo of the bell jangling outside the guard room across the parade ground of the headquarters unit No. 173 Marine Commando.

Pennington groped for the bedlight switch and sat up. He stared uncomprehendingly at the vibrating clapper arm.

In every officer's room were these little buzzers. They were painted red; they existed for No. 1 alert. It was accepted that a No. 1 would in reality mean only one thing: notification of the seven minutes the ballistics people had worked out as the breathing space before World War Three came and went.

Captain Pennington heaved himself out of bed. He was conscious of running feet as the Marine Commandos observed their long-taught procedure. The bedside phone rang as he was struggling into his denims.

'Major Quadring,' came the abrupt, clipped voice. 'Sorry about the panic measures. Orders from Whitehall. It's not the big thing, so ease up. But it's bad enough. Thorness.

Major fire. Probably sabotage. Can't be sure that the trouble isn't sea-borne. Hence the S.O.S. to your boys.'

'Thorness!' Pennington repeated. 'But that's the kingpin-'

'Exactly. Save your mental reactions till later. Get over here within an hour. Four groups, with amphibians and frogmen, of course. I'll be at the gates to get you through.

Tell your men not to fool around. The guards here won't be waiting to ask questions.'

The phone clicked dead. Pennington checked his assault kit and ran from the officers barrack hut into a night of soft-falling snow. He could make out shadowy figures of the men already standing to by their trucks and amphibious vehicles, the engines ticking over. Not a light showed.

'Right,' he called loudly through the darkness. 'You'll be glad to know that this isn't it. Nor is it just a dummy run.

Some real bother at the rocket station down at Thorness. I know no more than you, though we're going because there's probably a sea job to do. You can, of course, use headlights.

I'll set the rate; we ought to average fifty. Keep the intercom channel open till I order otherwise. Carry on!'

A Land-Rover wheeled round and stopped beside him. He got in. Orders snapped out and the Marines got aboard their trucks. Pennington nodded to his driver and they roared through the gates.

They had a forty-five mile run from their base to the lonely promontory nosing into the Atlantic on which Thorness had been built as the nerve centre of Britain's rocket testing range. The whole area had been cleared of civilians, and the twisting, undulating road straightened and levelled for the articulated rocket carriers and fuel tankers. Pennington made the trip in precisely 55 minutes.

The main gates between the barbed-wire-festooned chain link fencing were shut. Guards with automatic guns stood under the floodlights. Dobermann Pincher dogs sat, immovable and alert, beside them. At the sound of the convoy Major Quadring came out of the concrete guard post with an N.C.O. Quadring was a lithe officer of middle-age, smartly dressed and unruffled. After a glimpse at the Commando identity marks on Pennington's vehicle he gave orders for the gates to be opened.

'Pull into the parking bay to the left,' he said as Pennington jumped down. 'Tell your chaps to relax, but to remain with the vehicles. Then come on in here. I'll put you in the picture. Over a cup of char - laced, of course.'

Beyond the floodlights at the entrance a double necklace of lamps edging the main road of the camp strung away into the misty night. The snow had stopped and what had fallen was melting into slush, so that the ground was dark, and the shapes of the camp buildings were dark, too, except where emergency lights were shining at windows.

Faintly inside the compound there was another smudge of light, where mobile lamps were trained on the main computer building, and a heavier pall - which was smoke - hung, smelling sulphurous, among the mist. Quadring led Pennington across the concrete into the guard hut.

Only in the light of the unshaded bulb of the guard room was it evident that Quadring was a worried man. His face was grey with fatigue and strain, and he tipped an over-liberal portion of rum into his own mug of tea.

'I'm sorry about a sortie on a night like this to this Godforsaken place. I think Whitehall and Highland Zone overdid it a bit with that No. 1 alarm and excursion, but then I'm only a simple soldier. They know better than I what's involved, though even to my un-technical mind this is a bloody business.'

He refused Pennington's offer of a cigarette and began ramming tobacco into a blackened pipe. 'The sea mist has closed in like a blanket down on the coastline. You drop from the station right into cotton wool. Not a damned inch in front of your nose. It'll lift with dawn, probably with rain or sleet. I tell you, it's a nice place.

'Someone or something attacked this place about four hours ago, and destroyed its brain. Which means, if my job here is as vital as they tell me, that old Lady Britannia is stripped of power, wealth, and about everything the politicians were banking on.'

Pennington looked at him sceptically. 'Frankly sir, you're over-dramatising things, aren't you ? I mean, everyone knows Thorness is a rocket testing base, and where they run the computers which made those I.B.M. interceptions such a wow. Surely the machines aren't unique. The Yanks and the rest of N.A.T.O .... '

'The machines were unique,' Quadring answered. 'If you commandeered every computer in commercial or Government use in the country they wouldn't amount to more than a cash register compared with the scientific toy that's now a tangled mess of valves and wires and smouldering insulation.

Nor does the rocket side matter all that much.'

Pennington drained his rum and tea, easing himself on the hard wooden chair. 'Of course, I've heard some pretty bizarre accounts of the sidelines here,' he said with a grin.

'It's pub gossip. That sort of thing was bound to start rumours.'

'But nothing as good as the truth,' Quadring said. 'I've had an okay from G.D.1 to put you vaguely in the picture.

Your boozing pals in the bar parlour haven't burbled anything about the Dawnay Experiment in their cups, have they ?'

'The Dawnay Experiment?' Pennington repeated. 'No sir.'

'I'd never have believed my security was so good,' the Major grinned.

He relit his pipe and sucked gratefully at it a while.

'This Dawnay woman's a sort of de-sexed biochemical genius from Edinburgh, though I admit I found her pleasant person before she fell ill, through some infection from her own work, poor old girl. And so far as I can understand it, the computer helped her to synthesise chromosomes, which you no doubt learned when you were told about the birds and the bees being the seeds of life.

'She obviously hadn't much of a clue as to what it was all about, beyond the fact that the formulae spewed from the computer made sense. But the upshot was a human embryo.'

'Human ?'

'That's what they say. I agree it's a nice point. It grew like fun - or rather she did, for the organs of sex were there - and in four months she was 5 ft 7 ins tall and weighed 123 lb. The report is good on pointless and harmless facts.'

Pennington tried to look amused. 'Was this zombie, robot, or whatever she was, still in some sort of enlarged test tube, fixed in a clamp, or what?'

'Not a zombie by any means,' Quadrlng retorted. 'They called her human, because she looked human, behaved like a human, had human intelligence and human physical abilities. Though not, I gather, human instincts or emotions until she was taught them. In fact a rather pretty girl. I know. I've met her dozens of times.'

'The people who know about all this and have to look after her must have a feeling of revulsion,' Pennington said thoughtfully. 'I mean, a thing produced in a lab... '

     

 

2011 - 2018