"Defense" (1947) - A. E. van Vogt’s shortest (and most shattering!) story

(actualisé le ) by A. E. van Vogt

This tiny 2-pager, in spite of its brevity or perhaps partly because of it - there is not a wasted syllable - is one of van Vogt’s most dramatically effective stories.

With its central theme of the dangers posed by ultra-sophisticated atomic-age weaponry to man’s very existence - certainly one of the first literary explorations ever of that immense subject - interlaced with the mysteries of alien technology and the hazards of interplanetary exploration, this quite amazingly intense and action-packed story just sweeps you irresistably along in an atmosphere of ever-rising tension up to the final cataclysmic end.

First published in the September 1947 issue of the quite short-lived (18 issues between Feb. 1947 and March 1952) Avon Fantasy Reader, it was included in van Vogt’s first (and finest, we do believe) anthology of his short stories, Destination Universe! in 1952 - and, strangely enough, never republished since.

Short but very gripping, this is golden-age science fiction at its well-written, imaginative, fast-paced and thought-provoking best.

And, apart from reissues of Destination Universe! - all long out of print - it is now only available . . . well, here!


DEFENSE

IN the bowels of the dead planet, tired old machinery stirred. Pale tubes flickered with uneven life, and slowly, reluctantly, a main switch was wheezed out of its negative into its positive position.
There was a hissing and a fusing of metal as the weary copper alloy sagged before a surge of mighty power. The metal stiffened like human muscles subjected to the intolerable shock of electric current, and then with a lurch the switch dissolved in flame and settled with a thud into the dust of an unswept floor.

But before it died it succeeded in starting a wheel turning.

The texture of the ancient silence of the chamber was changed now. The wheel spun lazily on a scabrous cushion of oil that, sealed off as it had been, had survived a million years. Three times the wheel made its rounds, and then its support crumbled to the floor. The shapeless mass that had been a wheel ended up against a wall, half powder and all useless.
Before it died, the wheel spun a shaft that opened a tiny hole at the bottom of a pile of uranium. In the passageway below the hole, other uranium gleamed a dull silvery brightness.
With a cosmic breathlessness, the two piles of metal regarded each other. They stirred. The life that flowed between them needed no gestation period. One look, and they changed to a fiery activity. What had been solid metal liquefied. The upper flushed down upon the lower.
The flaming mass cascaded along a channel and into a special chamber. There, coiling back upon itself, it simmered and seethed, and waited. It warmed those cold, insulated walls, and that set off an electric current. The fateful current pulsed silently through the caves of a dead world.

In all the chambers of an interlocking system of underground forts, voices spoke. The messages whispered hoarsely from receivers, in a language so long forgotten that even the echoes mocked the meaning. In a thousand rooms, voices from an in­credibly remote past spoke into the silence, waited for response and, receiving none, accepted that mindless stillness as assent.
In a thousand rooms then, switches plunged home, wheels spun, uranium flowed into specially built chambers. There was a pause while a final process ran its course. Electronic machines asked each other wordless questions.
A pointer pointed.
’There?’ asked a tube, insistently. ’From there?’
The pointer held steady.
The questioning tube, having waited its specified time, closed a relay.
’There,’ it said positively to a thousand waiting-in-line elec­tronic devices. ’The object that is approaching has definitely come from there!
The thousand receptors were calm.
’Ready?’ they asked.
In the mechanism chambers behind the seething uranium chambers, lights laconically shrugged their readiness.
The reply was curt, an ultimate command.
’Fire!’

When they were five hundred miles from the surface, Peters, pale and intense, turned to Grayson.
’What the hell,’ he asked violently, ’was that?’
’What? I wasn’t looking.’
’I’ll swear I saw flashes of fire leap up from down there. So many I couldn’t count them. And then I had the impression of something passing us in the dark.’
Grayson shook his head pityingly. ’So the little boogies have got you at last, pal. Can’t take the tension of the first attempt to land on the moon. Relax, boy, relax. We’re almost there.
’But I’ll swear -’
’Nuts!’

More than 238,000 miles behind them, the earth rocked and shook as a thousand super-atomic bombs exploded in one con­tinuous barrage of mushrooming thunder.
Instantly, the mist spread throughout the stratosphere, blot­ting out the details of catastrophe from the watching stars.

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