There was silence.
Kurt called again, but still nothing. "Where the hell is everyone?"
With his spacecraft hovering a few kilometers above the ground he checked his instruments, they confirmed that he was correctly aligned for landing. The space center should be directly below him but there was nothing on his monitor.
A few hours earlier, the Earth had come into view on his monitor—the first he'd seen of it for a long time. It was a welcome sight and, from space, looked no different. The cloud-covered sphere still rotated slowly on its axis revealing each continent in turn. The Sun continued to transfuse life into the planet just as it had done for millions of years. The journey had been lonely and Kurt was glad to be back. He smiled as he looked down through the window at the blue sphere. The most beautiful thing in the universe.
The desire to be an astronaut had been in Kurt's blood. He had never considered doing anything else. Friends had attempted to put him off, mainly because Kurt had inherited his father's height, not a desirable attribute for an astronaut who is crammed into confined spaces most of the time. Although he had always enjoyed a challenge, this operation was something different. He had embarked on the mission fully aware that he would never see any of his family or friends again. Mission control had emphasized that this would be a tough assignment and that once the craft left the Solar System, they were on their own.
"Are you sure you want to spend all this time away?" they asked.
"Wouldn't be volunteering if I didn't," Kurt replied.
Kurt was now returning from the one-year journey exploring stars in the Sagitarius region. His task had been to seek and explore extra-stellar planets in the hope of finding one that could support life. He had seen many spectacular star systems but was unable to locate any planets suitable for humans. The lack of even the most primitive microscopic organisms led him to believe that Earth was the only place in the universe where life existed.
Kurt had been travelling close to light speed for most of his one-year journey but, for those on Earth, he had been gone three hundred years. He knew changes would have occurred since his departure but was unprepared for the surprise that awaited him.
He leant his head against the window and looked down. He reminisced about his family. During his long isolation, he had often thought about them, his wife and daughter. He wondered what had become of them and wished things had been different. Of course, none of his immediate family would be alive after all this time and he doubted if anyone on Earth would remember him: the crazy person who chose to go on that journey all those years ago and never came back.
This had been the first manned operation to travel beyond the Solar System. Kurt was excited about it—to him it was the adventure of a lifetime. The invitation to lead the mission came about at the time when his marriage to Wendy began to fall apart, so he volunteered. He had had plenty of time to think about his marriage during that lonely expedition. I know I haven't always been the easiest person to live with. Even as a child, I had a short fuse.
The first few weeks of the trip had been uneventful. His co-pilot Larry was the practical type: everything always done by the book, always reliable. In contrast, Kurt was adventurous, a risk taker, never afraid of danger. He was chosen to lead the operation because of his reputation for bravery. He had established that status ten years earlier whilst still a junior officer. Kurt had served as a crew member on the stranded Mars Module. When all hope of rescue had been given up, he decided on a risky plan.
"If we stay here we're going to die, for sure. Why not let me give it a try?" His senior officer shook his head but Kurt ignored him and, with aid of makeshift equipment, climbed outside the craft and repaired the broken fuel unit. The mission was saved.
Most of Kurt's successes were the result of risk taking, rather than smart thinking. He was a man of action. If something needs to be done, then get on and do it. That was his motto.
The authorities stonewalled all questions about the politics behind the venture but Kurt didn't really care about that. It was the prospect of travelling to the center of the Milky Way that excited him.
Kurt stared again at the monitor. This is very strange. Why doesn't mission control respond? It was getting dark now and the only landing site visible was a small park well within the city. He sent out his call signal again, but still no response. Damn it, where is everyone. "Can you hear me down there? This is AX593 calling. Come in!"
The spacecraft had provided every requirement for the long trip. Food, drink and air were synthesized by stellar radiation. On-board entertainment—music, electronic games and movies —helped alleviate the tedium.
Disaster struck just a week into the mission. A failure in the craft's purification systems temporarily cut the oxygen supply. Larry suffocated and died. Kurt narrowly escaped death himself. Gasping for air and semi conscious, he crawled across the floor towards the emergency mask that hung on a hook on the cabin wall. He had no recollection of placing the mask over his face and turning it on.
Having to dispose of Larry's body was one of the most distressing things Kurt had ever had to do. He relived that day. How glad Larry would have been now to be returning home. Kurt felt angry. Someone—he didn't know who—had stuffed up.
Kurt ejected Larry's body through the air lock. He felt he should say a prayer but words failed him. Tears came to his eyes as he said, "Good luck, old buddy." The words seemed so inadequate. He would forever remember his partner's body slowly drifting away, getting smaller as it floated into the distance. It's going to be tough being alone.
A mayday signal was sent to base requesting help. Kurt waited for them to make a decision but, for hours, heard nothing. In the meantime, the craft continued to accelerate away from Earth.
He waited. Perhaps they can't rescuing me and will leave me to float forever in space.
He called them again.
"We're working on it, Kurt. We'll get back to you soon."
Four more hours passed before they called again. "Sorry about the delay, Kurt." There was a pause. "OK, here's what we've got." The controller hesitated, searching for the right words. "Although it'll be costly—and difficult, we can organize a rescue mission." Kurt waited for the word "but".
The controller hesitated again. "But—you'll appreciate—it's really in the national interest for the operation to continue. It's more than just the national interest, it's—as you know—this project is vitally important. We're really depending on you, Kurt—in a big way."
The controller paused once again. "I know what you're thinking: a year alone in space is a long time—but we won't pressure you—it's up to you."
"Yeah, right! OK, let's get on with it."
Thus, for a whole year, he had travelled alone, exploring the depths of space, the stars and their planets. The Sagitarius region is densely populated with stars, millions of them, stars of every size and color. Although it was a lonely period, it was also a time he would never forget.
The journey was now over. He was home again and desperate for company. As he looked down on planet Earth, memories of his family flooded his mind. Kurt thought about his daughter Suzy and wondered what her life would have been like. But even his grandchildren, if he had had any, would be long gone.
Kurt attempted again to contact mission control but without success. It was getting dark now and his only option was to land his spacecraft in the park. His instruments showed that there was a clearing someway from the road among the trees. In spite of a raging storm, the landing was smooth.
He emerged from his craft confronted by heavy rain. It was a short walk from the park to the street where he sought shelter under the canopy of a large building. There were few streetlights to illuminate the night. Strong winds lashed the rain against his face and thunder could be heard in the distance.
"Thanks for the welcome back!" he shouted, but the wind swept his words away.
The lights of this building, like most of the others, were off. Sporadic street lighting provided the only illumination, leaving some areas in almost total darkness. Occasional flashes of lightning allowed him a brief glimpse of his surroundings, outlining the tall buildings against the sky.
Since his departure, the city had grown considerably, both in area and in the size of its buildings, many of which towered precariously two or three hundred storeys above the streets.
Something's very wrong here. He would have expected the city to be bustling, but there were no vehicles and not a single person on the streets.
Where the hell is everyone? I can't just wait around here. Got to find out what's going on.
He left the protection of the canopy and moved further down the street looking for people.
"Is there anyone here? Where is everyone?" But his shouts just echoed back.
As he walked from street to street, there was no letup in the rain. He noticed poles with flags, saturated by the rain, hanging limply. In spite of the occasional gusts of wind, the flags just hung there, so he couldn't make out what was on them. He felt slightly optimistic, though. The flags meant there must be people here somewhere.
But as Kurt continued on, his concerns were now turning to anxiety. His eyes roamed nervously, his muscles were tense and perspiration ran down his face. Kurt had rarely known fear but this was different. This world was alien to him. Perhaps the entire human race has been wiped out. Then he thought about the flags.
He looked up at the massive buildings, dark and lifeless. What the devil's happened to the world since I left?
In spite of the rain, he sat down on a small stone wall and thought. So this is what's become of the human dream of a better life—its search for Utopia? He looked around. What a godforsaken place this is.
He continued making his way through the deserted streets. Occasionally, he would notice light coming through the windows of buildings. He'd then bang loudly on the doors and shout, "Is anyone in there?" But the empty echo was the only response.
It occurred to him that villains might be lurking in the semi darkness, so he avoided dark areas, and narrow lanes. It was whilst approaching a particularly poorly lit section of street that he became more nervous. He had a premonition of danger. There was something, some small sound he hadn't heard before. He was not imagining it. He stood motionless, listening. The rain was still falling heavily and the wind howling. The surge of adrenaline in his veins flooded his senses, increasing his awareness a hundred fold and in spite of the wind, he was alert to every sound.
Some minutes passed before he felt safe to continue but was ready to defend himself if need be. There was a narrow alleyway, a short distance away on his left. Just as he reached it, there was a scratching sound. A black form leapt out and, with a blood-curdling scream, darted off into the night. He got a brief glimpse of the creature, as it scampered away. It was an enormous feral cat.
Kurt's heart beat rapidly and he reached out to a wall to steady himself. His legs were shaking and it was some minutes before he recovered from the fright. His fright was followed by another emotion: anger. He was angry that, of all things, a mere cat had caused him such alarm.
He turned a corner and, for the first time, saw people scurrying away in the far distance. His frantic shouts for attention were either not heard or ignored. The people disappeared and Kurt was alone again.
As he travelled from street to street, he occasionally glimpsed people but always in the far distance usually hurrying along under cover of their umbrellas. This is hopeless. There must be some place 'round here where people gather.
He was walking down a narrow road just about ready to give up, when he came across an open doorway. The illuminated interior was warm and inviting, so he stepped inside. It took him just a few moments to realise that this was a cinema; the first he had seen since he was a small boy. There was no one in the ticket box but, from the sounds coming from within, there was a movie showing. People at last!
Kurt went in. He desperately needed to speak to these people but was unsure what to do. Should he try and speak to someone now? Should he call out? The movie appeared to be reaching its end, so he decided to wait until it was over. He could at least dry out for a while.
The cinema was dark and he had difficulty making out the seats. The back row appeared to be empty, so he sat down. From the silhouettes of the people watching, it seemed that the place was about three quarters full.
The movie was nearly over. Stirring music was playing to scenes of soldiers, wearing large helmets, and marching away into the distance. Superimposed over the marching soldiers was a flag portraying the outline of an arm with a clenched fist. It reminded him of the patriotic movies of the old days usually shown on Sunday afternoons, movies depicting the glorious armies of the homeland once again conquering the evil oppressor.
The excitement of the audience and their readiness to applaud, made Kurt feel uneasy. It was as if he were a stranger in a political rally. As the movie ended, the audience applauded enthusiastically. Too enthusiastically. There were occasional shouts of approval as patriotic symbols appeared on the screen. The intensity of emotions increased as words appeared from the bottom and slowly moved upwards and into the distance. "Unity of Purpose! Onwards Together! Purity of Race! Remove Corruption!"
The flag appeared on the screen again as the cinema lights slowly came on. People got to their feet ready to move out. Kurt rubbed his eyes adjusting to the light. Two rows ahead of him, a man spoke: "Very stirring."
"Indeed it was," replied the man next to him.
Kurt gazed in the direction of the conversation. The two men were moving along the row of seats towards the exit. One of them turned to the other. Kurt caught his breath, overcome with horror at the sight of the poor man. He had clearly been in an accident. His face was dreadfully misshapen and grotesque. The narrow mouth showed little evidence of lips and his teeth were prominent when he spoke. The nose was long and narrow and his protruding eyes large and round.
Not wanting to embarrass the man, Kurt tried not to stare but curiosity forced him to look again. He was unprepared for the sight that met his eyes. The man standing next to him had now turned. His face was identical. Fear gripped Kurt as he looked around at the faces of the other people. Every one of them looked the same. Each had the same hideous face. Kurt shivered with revulsion, realizing he had been sitting in the dark among these ugly creatures for the past few minutes. Instinctively, he hid his face in his hands to avoid attracting attention to his own appearance.
About five minutes elapsed before the last of them left the cinema. He then got up and cautiously headed toward the exit. Reaching the street, he decided to head back the way he had come but, as he passed beneath a street lamp, he heard shouting. Three of the creatures were standing on the other side of the road and pointing in his direction.
"Mutant! Get the mutant!" they shouted.
A dark alley to Kurt's left seemed his only chance of escape. He entered and ran at full speed through the semi darkness. At the far end, there was a sharp turn to the right. He emerged thinking that he had escaped, but slipped in a puddle and fell heavily. As he attempted to get up, he became aware of someone standing over him. It was one of them. The creature grabbed Kurt's shoulder with a vice-like grip. "Get to your feet, mutant!"
The other three creatures had caught up and surrounded him. Their faces looked even more ugly up close. They were tall and muscular and their fingers long and thin like those of a tree frog. Their dark rounded eyes peered down at him as if he were a cockroach to be squashed.
Where have these repulsive creatures come from? Will they kill me? It was while these monsters stood over him that he noticed their fingernails. They were like the claws of a predatory bird, long and sharp.
The four spoke excitedly.
"He's so ugly!"
"A corruption of the breed. He must be exterminated."
"But where's he from? There may be more of them."
"Take him to the Thought Police."
One of the monsters interjected: "I suggest we take him to old man Omicus first. He'll know what to do."
Two of the creatures grabbed hold of Kurt, one on each side. They lifted him up bodily and propelled him down the street his feet barely touching the ground. As they frog marched him along, their claws penetrated the skin of his arms.
"Let go of me, you monsters!" Kurt shouted angrily.
They travelled a few blocks before coming to a doorway where he was ushered into an outer room. The others went into another room, presumably to inform this Omicus person.
The clawed hand of one of Kurt's captors gripped the back of his neck, forcing his head forward, whilst another held Kurt's hands firmly behind his back. Under the combined pressure, he was hardly able to prevent himself from falling to the floor. The muscles of his legs ached.
Some time elapsed during which he could hear the croaky voice of an elderly man. "Where'd you say you found him? Why didn't you take him straight to the Thought Police?"
After further discussion, Kurt's captors led him in. The creature sitting behind the desk was an older version of the others with shoulder-length grey hair. The men saluted with raised arm and clenched fist.
The creature studied the man standing before him. Alarm showed on his face. He grabbed the arms of his chair, as if to get up but he had second thoughts.
Perspiration flowed down Kurt face as, resigned to the inevitable, he looked with dread at the creature. There seemed little doubt that his captors would torture and eventually kill him.
The creature continued to scrutinize Kurt and, without taking his eyes off him, asked the guards, "Is he violent?"
"Doesn't appear to be."
The Omicus creature thought for a moment. "In that case, you can leave him with me. Close the door on the way out. I'll call if I need you."
"We'll secure his hands just in case he tries something."
After tying Kurt's hands behind his back, the guards left. Omicus sat down but continued to stare for some time, eyebrows raised. After a lengthy silence, he said, "So, Mr Mutant, where have you come from?"
"My name is Kurt and I come from here—from Earth."
"What's there to explain? I was born here on Earth."
"Are you alone?"
"So where have you been hiding, Mr Mutant, or, should I say, Kurt?"
He made no reply. Although the creature's appearance was terrifying, there was something about his manner that softened this hideousness. Kurt felt he could speak freely.
"I've been away from Earth for about three hundred years visiting star systems," he said, and then explained that this was only one year in his time. A furrowed brow and intensity in the old man's eyes indicated concern.
"Were there other space missions like yours?"
"I don't think so. Mine was a special operation."
Kurt shrugged his shoulders. "All we knew was that there was some sort of unrest. We had no idea what it was. Had to be serious. Why else would they seek out other planets?"
It was now Kurt's turn to ask questions.
"Where are all the humans? Have you come from another world? Taken over Earth?"
"As far as we know, there is no life elsewhere," Omicus replied.
"Then. . . where've you come from?"
The old man stood up, a thoughtful look on his face. He pushed his chair back, walked around the desk and sat next to Kurt. Omicus cupped his long chin in his hands and looked Kurt firmly in the eye.
"We are humans—just like you. I know what you're thinking. We don't look much alike do we?"
"You're nothing like a human."
Omicus was silent for a moment and then spoke again. "You left Earth three hundred years ago, you say?"
"Umm, yes. That's about the time of the new regime." He stared vacantly at the ceiling and sighed. A few seconds passed before he turned to look at Kurt again.
"I shouldn't be telling you about this, but I will." Then, pointing to the door he said, "Those poor devils out there have never known any different. I'm from the old generation. There aren't many my age. So few recall how all this came about."
Kurt listened intently.
"A scientist by the name of Hans Olsen—damn him!—was appointed to a prominent position in the International Court. He was a charismatic speaker and a man of action. His ability to solve long-standing economic problems quickly brought him support from every nation. He was considered a great leader with bold ideas. Prior to entering politics, he had been a geneticist. This undoubtedly influenced his aim to: purify the human race."
The name Olsen seemed familiar to Kurt. Where have I heard that name before?
Omicus frowned. "Olsen was intolerant of weakness of any kind. Some say that it was the birth of his first child, who was sickly, that launched him into his campaign to refine the human genome."
"Refine it? Why? I wasn't aware that the human race needed refining!"
"Oh, it certainly needed something! The human race as a species had always been inherently aggressive and disagreeable. Their entire history had been one of intolerance and conflict."
Kurt felt intensely annoyed that this hideous creature had the gall to explain to him about humans, to sum up the entire human race in this way. He let Omicus continue.
"Olsen set up a rigidly controlled scheme of human breeding. He sought the advice of other scientists in determining which characteristics were most desirable: eyes that could see better, noses that could smell better and so on. His aim was to develop a form of human that was less susceptible to disease and with fewer birth defects. Although I'm from an older generation—this occurred well before my time. But I can still recall my father and my grandfather speaking in muted tones about these developments. They disapproved of what was happening but it was dangerous to speak against the regime."
"Isn't it dangerous then to speak of these things to me, a complete stranger?" Kurt asked.
"Indeed it is, but I probably don't have long to live and, in a way, you're not a complete stranger to me."
"What do you mean?"
"When I first set eyes on you this evening, I recalled some pictures my father had, pictures of the original human form. When I was still very young, I found some old pictures hidden away in a book. I asked my father about them. He was shocked that they still existed. Then, in a whisper, he explained about Olsen."
Omicus thoughtfully gazed up at the ceiling again and appeared to be reminiscing. "I still remember those lengthy conversations between my father and grandfather. They would sit in the seclusion of the garden and talk about those terrible times for hours; times when newborn babies were snatched from their mothers' arms because the child didn't conform to Olsen's ideal. People who expressed any misgivings just disappeared. What a monster he was!"
"But surely there must have been people who opposed him?" Kurt thought about his wife and daughter and wondered what had become of them.
Omicus continued: "Olsen was clever. Like many dictators throughout the ages, he was skilful at manipulating the masses. His fanatical campaigns and his promises of better things kept the idea alive. Everything, including movies, television, marches and meetings, were aimed at enforcing the idea that the process of perfecting the human race was for the common good. Very few people opposed him. Wherever people gathered, whether it was men at work, women out shopping or kids at school, his ideas were what they all talked about. People were excited about the promises of a better life."
Kurt had so many questions but was aware that those just outside the door would become impatient. "There's something I don't understand," He said. "I realise that three hundred years is a long time but I can't understand how the human form could have changed so much in this time."
"I'm no expert on genetics but I remember my father talking about some procedure they were using to modify or manipulate the genes themselves. It was so long ago now I can't remember the details."
"Another thing. The movie I watched at the cinema still promoted this propaganda. If everyone is brainwashed now, surely this is no longer necessary?"
Before Omicus had a chance to answer, Kurt said: "And another thing, you and the others referred to me as mutant. Have there been others like me?"
Omicus smiled. "So many questions!"
Anxiously, he looked in the direction of the door. "For a while, mutants were quite common, usually children brought up in country communities. Parents hid their children from the authorities but were soon discovered. They were always hunted down and destroyed. Nowadays, throwbacks are rare but the campaign to eradicate them continues."
Kurt thought about the human race. Would it now find a way to revert to its true form? From what he'd seen, this possibility seemed unlikely.
Omicus stood up and returned to sit behind his desk. His expression and tone of voice changed. "We have talked long enough. Your guards will be impatient." He pointed. "Go quietly through that door. I'll give you five minutes start before I alert them of your escape. Return to your space vehicle and go in search of a home elsewhere. There is nothing here on Earth for you."
"But aren't you putting yourself at risk?" Kurt asked.
"Doesn't matter about me, I'm old. It's been worth it seeing with my own eyes, the true human form."
He got to his feet again, walked behind Kurt and released the ties securing his hands. Kurt jumped up and made for the door.
As Kurt disappeared into the darkness, Omicus called out "Take care, Mr Mutant! You may be the last true human in the universe!"
It was still raining heavily as Kurt ran. He had no idea which way to go and was petrified he might run into more of the creatures. Exhausted, he turned a corner and slowed down to regain his strength. Just as he did so, he noticed two of the creatures just ahead with their backs to him. Holding his breath, he quietly turned into an alcove and waited until they'd gone. They continued to speak for some minutes and then strolled off and turned a corner. Kurt couldn't afford to wait any longer because his captors would be close behind.
He continued on but nothing looked familiar. Damn it. I have absolutely no idea which way to go. He was fearful he might run into more of the monsters. Then in the distance he spotted a building that he recognized. Yes, it's the building with the canopy—where I first sheltered. With renewed strength, Kurt ran towards it. The park was just opposite and in the distance, barely visible amongst the trees, was his spacecraft.
As he entered the park, the shouts of his pursuers could be heard not far behind. They were gaining on him. He could feel his strength draining away but he could run no faster. He still had some way to go and knew that when he reached his craft he still had to enter it and prepare for takeoff.
He could see the craft clearly now but the shouts of "Stop! Stop!" were much closer. Kurt's lungs felt as if they were about to burst. He summoned the last of his strength, but his legs were numb and would take him no further. He looked back and could see two of the monsters coming through the trees, no more than a hundred metres away. Kurt shuddered at the sight of their ugly oversized heads bobbing from side to side as they ran. Kurt staggered forward and reached the door of his craft and hauled himself up. The door opened easily and he was soon inside. He flopped on the floor sapped of energy. But now was not the time to rest. Kurt struggled to his feet, trying to close the door. Just as he did so his pursuers arrived.
"Clear off, you misfits! Leave me alone!" He tugged at the door with all his strength but they resisted him. He tried to lever the door shut by placing his feet against the frame, but his enemies were stronger. The door was opening further. I'll fight them off if I have to. A good hard kick in their ugly faces should do the trick.
The door was now almost fully open. Because of the darkness, he wasn't able to see his pursuers clearly but was prepared to kick out at the first opportunity. The door swung fully open. He was ready for them and about to strike but stopped himself. The monsters standing before him were changing in appearance. Their ugliness was transforming itself into a human image. Is this some sort of evil deception or are they real humans? Kurt hesitated not knowing what to do.
"But. . . "
"Let us in—quickly! They'll soon be here!"
Kurt attempted to speak but was lost for words. He just stood back as the two men entered, closing the door behind them.
"Quick! Take off before it's too late!"
Heavy banging could be heard on the door just as the craft lifted off.
"Just in time," sighed one of the men.
Kurt laid back, every sinew of his body exhausted. He struggled to speak but was gasping for breath. "Where've you come from? I don't understand."
"You can relax now," said the taller of the two men.
"But. . . are you really humans. . . I don't understand?"
"We live among the monster population by morphing our appearance so as to look like them," said the other man.
Kurt, still sapped of energy, attempted to speak. "But why?"
"We are, what you might call, undercover agents, seeking out 'throwbacks' and rescuing them. Whenever we hear reports of a 'mutant', as they call them, we attempt to rescue them by transporting them to our human territories," said the taller man.
The other man chipped in. "Many of the human children born to the monsters are considered freaks and are killed by their own parents. But for some, the parental instinct predominates and they attempt to hide their children from the authorities—that's where we come in."
" So you plan to overthrown the monsters?"
"Not at all! You see, whilst the monsters have certain physical advantages they are not quite as perfect as intended. They are prone to many diseases that humans can resist."
The other man added, "Our aim, once we are a large enough group, is to synthesize the two branches of humanity into a super bread that has the best of both worlds"
Kurt frowned. "Personally I can't see what's wrong with the human race as it is."
The men smiled. "As you learn more about our world you'll come to realise the benefits of the super-race."
Kurt wasn't convinced but asked, "Where are your human territories exactly?'
"We'll guide you there," said the man pointed to the map on the monitor.
"It's just south of Lake Van Golu in northern Turkey."
"Isn't that. . . ?"
"Yes—where the Garden of Eden was supposed to have been. Appropriate, isn't it?"
The craft touched down a half hour later, not far from a group of houses. From these streamed humans—hundreds of them—men, women and children. As the door of the craft swung open, these people stood in a wide arc, beaming smiles on their faces.
Kurt held back his tears and thought about the human race, its survival over the ages and marvelled at man's ability to prevail against all odds.
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