A Dystopian Novel
It was mid-summer. Then suddenly it began to snow. Another joke on the British weather? But the snow kept on falling and greenish light pervaded all. What started off as a joke and a bother turned into national calamity as the snow kept on falling until normal life was completely stopped.
Then it was discovered that the snow was radioactive...
John Boland (12 February 1913 – 9 November 1976), a British novelist and science fiction author, first published this classic of dystopian science fiction literature in 1955. Apex is publishing a revised edition of the novel.
At seven o’clock on the evening of July 28th, the sun glared down from a cloudless sky. Over the whole of the Worcestershire countryside its rays were still a burden after a day of almost intolerable heat. On the slopes of the Malvern Hills gangs of weary, sweating men had extinguished the gorse fire, although smoke still rose straight from the ashes in many places.
Three miles to the west of the hills the village of Sturridge was almost without movement; the only man-made sounds a bumble of voices and the clinking of glasses that filtered from the open windows of the Wheel Inn. At a quarter past seven, old Sam Hurrel left his smithy and stumped his way down the dusty village street towards the pub. Sam had done the same walk at the same time for over fifteen years. On his slow way along the street, he took stock of the village, his dull eyes taking in everything within their range. The front gardens of the cottages were deserted, doors and windows wide open in an attempt to induce a current of air.
Sam entered the bar-parlour of the Wheel, nodding to the various occupants. »Evening, Dan,« he said.
Daniel Widdowson, the crippled landlord of the inn, had Sam’s pint of bitter ready and waiting.
»That’s a proper queer-looking sky,« Sam said. »Don’t recall as I’ve ever seen it that colour afore.«
»Don’t look no different to me,« Dan replied, staring out through the open window.
»Ain’t over there. It’s in the west.«
Widdowson hobbled from behind the bar. »Might as well have a look at it for myself.« He went outside, followed by two or three of the more curious among the customers. Their excited comments emptied the bar, the others crowding through the door to find out what was going on. In the west the sky was green.
Albert Teal, a farm worker who had served during the war in the Royal Navy, had something to say about the colour. »It reminds me of the time I was up in the Arctic,« he said. »We used to get skies like that up there. Green, they was, just like that ’un. Used to be green all night. Not that it ever got really dark at night, not the time of year when I was there. But that’s the colour the sky used to be.«
»Do you reckon as some of that Arctic cold’s a-coming down to cool us off a bit?«
»We could do with it.«
Daniel Widdowson stared at the western sky. »Looks something like that cream-de-menthy I’ve got on the top shelf, don’t it?« The unusual spectacle held his attention for another few seconds and then he started to limp back inside. »It’s certainly getting cooler.«
»Well, what do you expect? Sun’s almost gone.«
»Aye, but it do seem cooler than it’s been for the last few nights.«
Sam Hurrel was waiting, his glass empty.
»What did I tell you! I ain’t never seed that colour sky afore.«
»Somebody blowed up one of them atom bombs, I shouldn’t wonder,« Daniel offered. »Dust clouds, that’s what it is. Something to do with the way the sunlight shines through the bits of dust. I read about it once. Some volcano that blowed a whole island to Kingdom Come. Terrible calamity it was. A lot of dust was floating round in the sky for years and there was all sorts of queer colours. Went on for three or four years, it did.«
»Reckon as they’ll tell us on the nine o’clock news, if that’s the case,« Sam said. »There’s too many of them things being blowed up nowadays.«
During the next half-hour the unusual colour spread eastwards across the sky, and as the light failed it became much cooler, the temperature dropping rapidly, affording relief from the heat for the first time in two weeks. By eight o’clock the whole evening sky was green. At nine o’clock it began to snow.
The Wheel was crowded when the first fine flakes began to drift down from the darkening sky. The flakes melted even as they fell, the survivors vanishing as they touched the still-warm earth. But, without doubt, it was snowing.
William Barnaby Garrett, Doctor of Science, was walking to the Wheel Inn from his home a mile outside the village. One of the foremost scientists in the country, head of the Farncroft Experimental Establishment at Malvern, the Doctor was a man of simple tastes. Two or three pints of beer in the evening, and a pipe of tobacco, satisfied him. A tall, thin, bald man in early middle-age, he was a widower. Ten years earlier his wife had been drowned in a boating accident in the first week of their marriage. This evening as he was walking along, he was contemplating the idea of getting married again. The girl was his secretary, Mary Gilholland, whose home was in Sturridge.
As he walked, Garrett kept turning his face upwards, enjoying the abnormal effect in the sky. Just as he reached the outskirts of the village an ice-cold spot of water fell on to his forehead. He stopped, and as he stood there looking up another spot of icy water hit his cheek. He stretched out his hand and saw with deep interest a small, circular snowflake fall on to his palm. The flake melted immediately, but within a minute he saw half a dozen more. They seemed to be all the same size—approximately as big as a grain of rice.
He turned the last bend and came within sight of the pub. Everyone in the village was out in the street, staring up at the sky and excitedly calling out to one another as more of the flakes came down. Among the din and excitement, he was unnoticed for a moment. Then the villagers saw him and they crowded round, eager voices hailing him from every direction.
»What do you make of it, sir?«
The people clustered round him, bringing him to a halt. »Proper old English summer, ain’t it, eh, Doctor? Sun a-burning everything to dust one minnit; next minnit it’s a-snowing.« There was a burst of laughter. But Sam Hurrel’s question reflected the anxiety felt by some of the older people.
»’Tain’t natural, is it, sir?« he asked uneasily. »Do you reckon as there’s suthin’ gone wrong somewheres?«
Garrett smiled. »I don’t think so. At a guess, I’d say it’s the result of high-flying aircraft causing condensation. That’s only a guess, mind you.«
»But there ain’t been nothing flying round here this evening, sir.«
»Maybe the planes were so high that you couldn’t see them or hear them, either.«
»There worn’t none of them vapour trails.«
»And even if there was aircraft up there, they couldn’t have changed the colour of the sky to the way it’s been this evening.«
The scientist smiled again. »Well, then it’s probably just what you said it was: English summer weather!«
The crowd laughed, the small sally easing the momentary tension. The people started to drift apart, most of the men going back inside the Wheel, and the women hurrying indoors. But Sam Hurrel and Albert Teal lingered in the doorway of the pub to watch the still falling flakes. The two big men stood close together, each conscious of the other’s uneasiness.
»’Taint natural,« Hurrel muttered stubbornly. »’Tis all very well for them fools to laugh, but I could see as the Doctor didn’t like it no more’n do I.«
»Aye. ’Tis a queer business, Sam, and that’s a fact. I’ve been in a good many places, and I’ve seen a-plenty of queer sights, but I never did see one to cap this ’un.«
The street was almost deserted again. One or two women stood talking quietly at the gates of their gardens, but most of them had gone indoors. A thought occurred to Albert Teal. »I wonder if this is just local?«
Teal’s question was answered by the B.B.C, in their late news bulletin. At the end of the news, the announcer, in light-hearted mood, said: »During the past two or three hours, many hundreds of listeners have reported to the B.B.C. that snow is falling. These reports have been sent in from all over England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.« He paused. »Er—the weather forecast for tomorrow is that the present heat-wave will continue.«
All through the night the peculiar sky effects continued. Strong lunar rainbows were visible from most areas, while in northern Scotland moving masses of luminosity, similar to the Aurora Borealis, filled the night sky to the west.
The morning news broadcast from the B.B.C. was very different in manner from the previous day’s. There was nothing light-hearted in the announcer’s tone. Very soberly he gave details of the freak weather conditions. Snow was reported to be falling over the whole of the British Isles; the mean temperature was more than thirty degrees cooler than the day before. From the Shetlands to the Scillies, it was the same story. A dead calm prevailed, under skies coloured a dark green.
Shortly after the news broadcast began, Charles Henry Warburton, Prime Minister of Great Britain, switched off the radio and strode into the garden of his Kentish home. Slow-moving, almost clumsy, he looked like a prize-fighter run to flesh. Small brown eyes set in a round face that was topped by a shining bald pate, he was no beauty. But his voice and gift of oratory were the envy of every actor and politician speaking the same tongue.
Warburton ambled round the edge of the lawn, twisting his head from time to time to look up at the sky. He stood and watched a few flakes come down. They disappeared as they hit the wet earth, and he remained staring at the place where they had vanished. Suddenly he made up his mind and went back to the house. For the next half-hour he kept his private secretary busy putting through various telephone calls. Three hours later, as a result of the answers to the phone calls, the Prime Minister was on his way to No. 10 Downing Street.
On Sunday, July 30th, at eleven o’clock, Warburton faced four men in the small committee-room at the rear of No. 10. Clare, the neat, precise, acid-tongued Minister of War; Maliart, one-eyed, trim-bearded Foreign Secretary; Timothy, a huge bull of a man, who was Defence Minister; and the fussy, close-mouthed leader of the Opposition, William Gregson. Warburton ushered them to seats at an oval table near the window, then slumped into a chair.
»I am sorry that I had to call you here,« he said, »but I have news to impart, news of the utmost gravity.« He stared for a moment at the expectant faces. »News of such terrible import that I hesitate to inform you. Gentlemen, I have to inform you that this country—that Great Britain—is at war!«
He raised a hand to quell the shocked outburst of questions. »No, Tam not mad. Far from it. Look for yourselves; look there.« He pointed to the window that overlooked the walled garden at the back of the house. »There is the evidence; you can see it with your own eyes.«
The men watched in silence as two or three small flakes drifted down outside the window. Warburton’s face was grim. »Do you, gentlemen, do you for one moment believe that that snow is natural? That it is brought about by some natural means, through some freak weather condition?« He paused. »I tell you, in all solemnity, that it is brought about by one of our enemies; by one of the Queen’s enemies!«
Maliart ventured a question. »But, Prime Minister, is it possible?«
Timothy answered the question. »It’s possible, certainly. The Americans were the first to produce artificial rain and snow. It was a matter of some importance to them because of the large areas of the United States that suffered from drought. Although we haven’t any need of it in this country, we have tried the technique, purely as an experiment. It was only on a small scale, of course. I was there when we did it. In Buckinghamshire it was, a couple of winters back. There was a measurable fall of snow after an aeroplane had seeded the clouds with pellets of some chemical or other. Carbon dioxide, I believe it was.«
Clare snorted. »What we did was, as you say, on a small scale, a very small scale. And in order to produce even that bit of snow we had to do it in winter, with suitable cloud conditions.« He smiled bleakly at Warburton. »Er—precisely what are your reasons for making such a startling announcement, Prime Minister? On what evidence do you state that we are at war? And don’t you think it might be as well if you told us the name of the enemy with whom we are at war?«
The Prime Minister chuckled. He was almost genial as he prepared to deal with the Minister. »You have put more than one question, Clare. So, I will be generous in my turn, and give you more than one answer. When I have given them, maybe you will agree with me. Here are some facts. Fact number one: it is somewhat singular for snow to be falling at this time of the year. Even in this country. In the one hundred and fifty-six years that records have been kept, there is no report of snow falling in July. Fact number two: the rate of fall is exactly uniform throughout the whole of the British Isles. There is no measurable variation.
»And now for fact number three, which is, without doubt, the most significant of all. The area of precipitation is almost completely rectangular in shape. From the northeast tip of the Scottish coast, to the tip of North Foreland, the snow ceases approximately thirty miles out to sea. But at Dover the snow extends only ten miles out from the shore. But at Hastings the distance is again thirty miles. Do you see the significance of this? The overlap from the coast is less at Dover. Therefore, not one flake of snow has, so far, fallen on the Continent.«
»It very often rains in Dover when it’s fine on the French coast on the opposite side of the Channel,« Clare said.
»Oh, quite,« Warburton agreed smoothly. »But the facts I have given you must make any man with brains suspect that there is more to it than freak weather. No, gentlemen, I am positive we cannot escape from the conclusion that the snowfall is being directed by an intelligence. It is far, far too methodical for it to be happening by chance.«
Maliart shifted uneasily in his seat. He was about to say something, when Clare spoke again.
»Er—you haven’t named this enemy, Prime Minister,« he said, his voice smoother than usual.
Warburton nodded. »I wondered how long it would take you to harp back to that fact, Clare. Well, I’m afraid that’s one answer you are not going to get. Personally, I don’t believe I have to. Is there any doubts in your minds as to the nation responsible? But until we have proof, I suggest it would be wiser to keep our thoughts to ourselves. It would do more harm than good.«
»But what can we do?«
»We can’t do anything, Mailart. Unless we can find the source of the trouble, there is nothing we can do.« He looked at each man in turn. »Gentlemen, this soft, white, innocent symbol of purity may prove to be a weapon more powerful, more terrible, more potent in its destruction than anything we have had to endure in all our long history. It might well be that this weapon could outstrip the horror of what, for want of a better term, I call a conventional atomic attack. Let us assume for a moment that the temperature drops below freezing-point. Once that has happened, the snow will begin to settle. If the snow continues to fall for long enough, then almost every spark of life in these islands be extinguished. We shall be suffocated—suffocated by a white blanket that will increase in weight and thickness hour by hour, day by day, until there is no life strong enough to exist under it.«
»That could happen, Prime Minister, but will it?« the leader of the Opposition said. »The snow might stop at any moment.«
»It may stop. But it may not! And for the sake of the country’s safety, we must assume that the snow will continue. At the moment, the fall is very slight. But what will happen when the weather conditions are more favourable for snow? The fall may become very rapid indeed.«
Timothy slammed a huge hand on the table. »You’re right, Prime Minister, absolutely right. We’ve got to be prepared for whatever may happen. If it gets worse...«
»If it does, we are doomed. First, we should lose the harvest; then travel would become increasingly difficult, until it reached a stage where we should not be able to move supplies of food and fuel. Millions of our people would either starve or freeze to death.«
»They could be evacuated.«
»Impossible! Where could we send them, even supposing we had sufficient shipping to do the job? What guarantee that the other countries in the Commonwealth will not themselves be attacked?«
For the first time, the four men began to grasp the full implications of what could happen. Up to now they had felt an air of unreality about the whole affair, a sense that it wasn’t really happening, that they were dreaming. They were standing on the threshold of an experience they had never even thought possible. And never had they felt so helpless. If only they could name a human enemy, most of the horror they felt would disappear. They would at least be able to focus on something within the realm of their understanding.
Gregson swallowed. For the first time in many years his imagination was at work, and he did not enjoy the fact. He swallowed again. »There is one point I would like to raise.«
»This—this is a fantastic affair. So, I want to put a fantastic question. Could this attack—if it is an attack—be launched from another planet? Or from an artificial satellite?«
»The idea had occurred to me,« Warburton admitted. »I checked with our radar defence chain. According to the information they gave me, there is no artificial satellite or unknown body moving anywhere near the earth. If there were, they would be able to trace it and track it. As for the attack coming from some other planet, I would say not. The way in which these islands have been singled out seems to me to suggest an earthly enemy.«
»What do you propose we should do?«
»There is only one thing to be done. Find the source of the snow. If we can do that, maybe we can stop the snow. We shall be faced with openly declared war; but we have no choice. Tomorrow morning, I am meeting the heads of all our Research Establishments. One of them may be able to suggest a way to combat this menace. I have spoken with the President of the United States. He is sending us his top artificial-weather scientists, so we may learn something from them. If any other measure occurs to me, I shall put it into operation. In the meantime, we must wait and see what develops.«
Warburton’s meeting with the heads of the scientific establishments opened briskly. He gave the three men, Garrett, from Farncroft; Doctor Brennar, Controller of the Cambridge Research Laboratories; and Doctor Pinkerson, of the Bristol Research Establishment, a summary of the events up to the moment.
The situation had changed very little from the previous day; the only notable change being that the mean temperature over the whole of the British Isles had dropped to forty degrees Fahrenheit, and it was still slowly going down. The Prime Minister outlined the major problems that would confront the authorities, should the temperature drop below freezing-point.
»But there is one main problem,« he continued, »and that is why I have called you to this meeting. Once we have located the source of the snow, then we shall merely have a straightforward military matter on our hands. We are not unaccustomed to dealing with such matters, and I should have no doubts as to the outcome. But first, we’ve got to find the cause. Have any of you a suggestion?«
Doctor Brennar stroked the huge walrus moustache that was his secret pride. »It had occurred to me that possibly a chemical is being released into the upper atmosphere scores, maybe hundreds, of miles away from our shores, and that it is carried here by the prevailing winds.«
He shook his head gloomily. »It is a pretty theory but, unfortunately, it won’t do. It would be impossible to control the area of precipitation as closely as it appears to be controlled, by setting free some sort of chemical dust in the atmosphere and leaving it to the mercy of the winds. Snow would, under such circumstances, fall in various areas, in varying amounts.«
The Bristol scientist was scribbling a series of lines and circles on the blotting-pad in front of him. »There is another reason for discounting that idea,« he said. »We fitted a squadron of jet fighters with filter boxes on their wings. They went up, exposing the plates in the filters every five thousand feet from ground level to fifty-five thousand feet. The only thing they got on the filters was snow. Just common or garden snow; nothing less, nothing more.«
Warburton praised him warmly. »That was quick work, Pinkerson.«
»Unfortunately, Prime Minister, it didn’t get us anywhere.«
Garrett spoke for the first time. »The fact is, we have nothing to give us a lead. We are blind men, searching for something we wouldn’t recognize if we found it.«
The Prime Minister leaned forward. »That was one of the points I was going to raise. I may have something that will give you a pointer.« He paused. »It’s a faint chance, but I’m ready to grasp at straws.« He paused again, the three scientists watching him closely. At last, he spoke. »Some years ago, a scientist told me, in confidence, that he had succeeded in producing an artificial fall of snow, with the help of radio waves. Frankly, I thought he was lying—that he was trying to impress me with his cleverness. But now I am not so sure, because the name of the man was Bruderhof.... Hans Bruderhof.«
The name produced the effect of a small explosion. His listeners jumped; they had all known Hans Bruderhof, they had all worked with him before his disappearance, a few years before.
Hans Bruderhof had been one of the world’s leading scientists. An Austrian, with degrees from half a dozen Continental universities, he was brilliant, but unstable. So small as to be almost a dwarf, with his head twisted permanently over his left shoulder, Bruderhof was no lover of normal mankind. Forced into exile before the last war, he had carried on his work in France. Only at the last minute had he been saved from the Germans and brought over to work in England. He had been given a free hand at Cambridge, where Garrett had, for a time, been his first assistant.
After the war, Bruderhof had apparently chosen to stay in England for the rest of his life. But one day he had left his rooms, ostensibly to go up to London to attend a
Conference, and since that day he had never been seen. It is not easy for anyone, particularly a man of Bruderhof’s appearance, to vanish without trace. But despite the most thorough investigations, not only in Britain, but also on the Continent and in North America, not a single clue as to his possible whereabouts had been uncovered.
His main work had been concerned with the propagation of Ultra High Frequency Radio waves. This was also Garrett’s particular branch of science, and it had earned him the chance to work with the Austrian. But it was no secret that Bruderhof was also interested in the possibilities of artificial weather control. The subject was a hobby with him; often he had stated his belief that, in the not too far distant future, mankind would be able to choose whatever climatic conditions he required.
Bruderhof’s disappearance had created world-wide excitement. At first, before many details were known, it was suggested that he had been kidnapped. But when it was discovered that he had either destroyed or removed all his papers from the secret files where they were kept, the affair took on a different complexion. Apparently, he had disappeared because he chose to.
Garrett’s thin face showed a trace of excitement.
»That certainly gives me a lead,« he said. His own work at Farncroft was an extension of the work he had been carrying out under the Austrian’s guidance. At present, the Malvern Establishment was working on the propagation of Extra Ultra High Frequency Radio waves. The work was not nearly completed; there was much to be done before Garrett would be able to prove his theories of propagation. But it might well be that he was working towards something the Austrian had stumbled upon.
The others were waiting impatiently for him to explain. Before he had a chance to speak, the Prime Minister started to question him. For a few minutes the politician listened intently. Finally, he nodded his head with satisfaction. »It will give us something to do, I agree. But I’m thinking of the more immediate problem. Would any of you offer a suggestion as to where we should start looking for whatever apparatus is causing the snow?«
Nobody answered him. Warburton smiled grimly. »I’m asking the impossible, is that it?«
Brennar took it upon himself to act as spokesman. »We are up against something unknown, Prime Minister. If we offered any opinions they would be, at best, wild guesses. And we do not encourage wild guesses in our profession.«
Warburton made up his mind. »Very well, then. As I see it, we have one clue: Bruderhof. Doctor Garrett, I am going to give you and your work top priority. If there is anything you want; money, equipment, workers, you shall have them for the asking. I understand you are on the threshold of finding the answers you have been seeking ever since you worked with Bruderhof. If material assistance can help speed you to your goal, I will see to it that you are stinted for nothing.«
Garrett smiled wryly. For years he had been fighting a losing battle against the administrators who questioned and cut down on every penny of expenditure. »I hope I shall be able to produce the answer you want, Prime Minister,« he said. »But I could not allow there to be the smallest possibility of misunderstanding. There may be absolutely no connection between the work I am doing, and the production of artificial weather conditions. In fact, quite honestly, I cannot for the life of me see how there can be any link!«
It was quite true. He was concerned solely with the problems of propagating radio waves of hitherto unheard of wavelengths. In the field of radar, the micro-wave technique had been developed during the last war. Radar equipment, using microwaves, had been one of the major weapons. But the equipment was bulky. It was Garrett’s belief that he would one day produce a microwave Transmitter/Receiver which could comfortably be carried by one man; and that such a set would give an' accuracy greater than anything ever before achieved. Only the curvature of the earth would limit the set’s use, because radio waves of Ultra High Frequencies travel in straight lines.
The Premier was speaking again. »Time. That’s the crux of the matter, gentlemen. Time. How much time have we got before the temperature falls to a point where the snow begins to settle? Once that happens, the country may well be brought to a standstill within a matter of weeks. And so, although I appreciate your objections, I must insist that you make suggestions as to what we should do in order to combat this threat.«
By the time the three scientists had each offered an idea, Warburton nodded with satisfaction. At least he would now be able to start some positive action. The first suggestion was that extra interference might have been noted by the BBC Monitor Units. If the snow was being causal by some form of radio, then it was possible that unusual forms of interference might have been noted by the broadcasting authorities.
Because there was a chance that the snow might come from a source within the British Isles, a house-to-house search was to be organized at the first possible moment. The armed forces, working in co-operation with the police, would be responsible for the search. Any suspicious-looking equipment would be confiscated until it could be examined by an expert. Every house and building in Great Britain were to be searched; there was to be nothing overlooked. But before the search could take place, there would have to be special powers granted to Parliament.
»The more you look at this business,« the Premier said, »the more complicated it becomes. Every move we make is pure, experiment; there is no precedent.« He looked at his watch. »I am expecting the leader of the Opposition and a few members of the Cabinet,« he said. »I want you gentlemen to talk with us all. My Ministers have their own problems concerning this matter, and they would probably welcome the opportunity to air them.«
The eight men, scientists and politicians, had just settled themselves round the oval table when the telephone at the Prime Minister’s elbow rang. He picked up the receiver. »I gave instructions that I was not to be disturbed,« he barked into the instrument. »Do you—What! What’s that!« They saw his cheeks blanch. »Good God!« He listened intently. The room was absolutely silent as the men waited for the Prime Minister to finish.
Warburton put the receiver down. His face was grey; his cheeks sagging. He had aged ten years in ten seconds. Tensely they watched him. He seemed to be trying to speak, but it was a minute before he could control his lips and tongue. »That was the University of Birmingham,« he said at last. »Professor Leadbetter.« He cleared his throat. »The Professor has just informed me that the snow is radioactive!«
»God help us!« Gregson started to his feet, looking at the Prime Minister in horror.
The Foreign Secretary tugged at his collar, which had suddenly become too tight. Every man felt for a brief second the flare of panic. They looked round the room which had, for a moment, seemed a tomb.
»At the moment, it is all right,« Warburton assured them. »The degree of radioactivity is too small to be harmful.«
»But did he say if it would stop like that?«
»No, Clare, he could offer no opinion.«
Doctor Brennar’s voice made itself heard. »I think it possible that you may be unduly distressed, Prime Minister. You may not be aware of the fact that the University of Birmingham has several times recorded radioactive rain falling. I believe I am right in saying that on four occasions, radioactive rain has fallen on the city of Birmingham. It was as a result of the American atomic explosion experiments in the Pacific.«
»You mean it was harmless?«
»Suppose, Doctor, suppose the degree of radioactivity increased every day?«
»In that case, sir, if the increase were sufficient, all life would be burned from these islands.«
Warburton slumped in his chair, his mind racing. The picture conjured up by the scientist’s words was too dreadful to contemplate. The threat of the snow had been terrible. But this...
The leader of the Opposition wiped the cold sweat from his face. »What do you intend to do about-the people, Prime Minister? Are you going to tell them of the possible doom that is about us? I must warn you that if you do, in my opinion there will be such a panic that it would lead to catastrophic loss of life.«
»I am afraid,« the Prime Minister said slowly, »I am afraid that there is nothing we can do to avoid a catastrophe. There is one solution: find the cause of the snow. How much time we have, remains to be seen; but our one hope of life, of the continuation of our very existence, depends on the success of our search. How ironic the situation is, gentlemen, how very ironic! For years we have spent scores of millions of pounds in making weapons of war—guns, tanks, planes, warships, atomic weapons. For years we have been training men and women to cope with the results of fire and explosion. And now, without one single explosion taking place, without one single casualty from fire, we face extinction.«
During the next few days, those people who knew of the snow’s radioactivity lived in a state of constant strain. For the first day the Prime Minister was informed every hour of the prevailing conditions. Only when he had received a constant stream of reports that the degree of radioactivity was not increasing, did he relax. He issued fresh instructions. He was to be notified, whatever the time of day or night, the instant there was any change. Gradually his sense of tension eased; the volume of the snowfall was increasing, but the radioactivity remained at an insignificant level.
By Thursday the temperature was down to thirty-six degrees, and a pall of green fog kept the British Isles in semi-darkness throughout the day. It was on the same day that the first breakdown occurred in the electric supply system. As was usual at the time of year, approximately one-third of all the generating plant in England and Scotland was out of action, stripped down for its annual overhaul. The remaining plant was unable to cope with the extra demands for light and heat.
The grid system failed, plunging into darkness and cold most of England south of a line from Bristol to Southend.
The failure would undoubtedly have occurred earlier in the week but for the fact that most engineering works were closed for the annual holidays. Those members of the Cabinet who had been away when the snow started had been recalled to London. A full Cabinet meeting was in session when the power failure occurred. Warburton acted with speed. He issued orders that the overhaul of generating equipment was to be abandoned, and all generators brought back into service without waste of time. Fuel stocks at the generating stations were trebled; and in order to move the extra coal, British Railways were instructed to cut their programme of August Bank Holiday trains by seventy-five per cent. Fuel and food were to be the railways main freight.
So far, there had not been any indication for the people that the Government considered the situation serious. All the Government’s preparations had been made in secret, but now they came out into the open. A State of Emergency was declared; extraordinary powers being granted to the newly-formed Coalition. The first move was to bring the armed forces to a state of readiness; all reserves were called to the colours. The Army was given two major tasks to carry out in conjunction with the police.
All known enemies of the State were to be taken into custody. Every building in the country was to be searched for any unusual machinery. In addition, the Army was to ensure that there was no waste of electric light or heat.
The harsh penalties listed under the Emergency Act told the people for the first time that they were faced with a major disaster. At first, they were inclined to treat it as a joke. But a wave of hysteria, born of the fantastic rumours which sprang from nowhere, turned the mood of the public. In the north of England there were a number of public demonstrations against the Act, and one or two ugly incidents occurred. In Sheffield and Newcastle, only the tact of the local police averted bloodshed.
Because of the bitter reactions, Warburton made a personal broadcast to the nation.
»We do not know,« he said in the middle of his talk, »we do not know whether the snow is caused by a freakish circumstance in weather conditions, or—and this is a possibility—if it is caused by man. It may be that this unwelcome visitation will cease by tomorrow. But it may go on for several days—even for weeks or months! If it does continue for some considerable period, then we shall have to adjust our individual lives in order to combat the difficulties that will arise. You have my most profound assurance that we in the government are doing everything within our power to meet the situation.«
After Warburton’s radio speech, public reaction swung the other way. Now the situation was so unreal as to be laughable.
Despite the restrictions, the inhabitants of the cities and larger towns were not so far feeling too much inconvenience. Most of the factory workers were on their summer holidays; but because of the bad weather the vast majority of them had not gerne away. Instead, they had stayed within easy reach of their homes, filling to capacity the cinemas, theatres and music halls, the caf6s and restaurants. Although they grumbled unrestrainedly about the weather, it was a source of fun. Radio and music-hall comedians had only to refer to British summer weather to be sure of getting a laugh. Yet underneath the mockery there was a certain queer pride, as if the public said to itself: »Such a marvel could only happen to us!«
But in the country, all work on the harvest was at a standstill, with only the routine everyday jobs to keep the farm workers busy. It was in the seaside resorts that the effects of the abnormal weather were making themselves felt. Every train arriving at the seaside carried only a few passengers. On the return journeys the trains were packed with people who had decided to cut short their holidays. By the end of the week most of the seaside towns were empty of visitors. The sole benefit to accrue from the bad weather was in the startling drop in the number of road accidents: the roads being almost free from traffic.
August Bank Holiday Monday was the first day on which the temperature dropped below freezing-point. Already the higher slopes of the Welsh and Scottish mountains were covered with snow; on the Monday it began to spread in a white veneer over the whole of the British Isles. Only children enjoyed the spectacle.
In Sturridge the villagers were beginning to consider organizing themselves to help meet the conditions. In the bar-parlour of the pub, after general conversation back and forth across the counter, Daniel Widdowson hammered on the bar-top to attract everyone’s attention.
»Listen to me, friends,« he shouted. »I’ve got summat as I’d like to say.« The noise of conversation quietened and they all turned to stare at him. »Right now, friends,« he began, »we’re all warm and cosy. Fire’s burning well, and there’s fresh logs to put on if
Publisher: BookRix GmbH & Co. KG
Text: John Boland/Apex-Verlag/Successor of John Boland.
Images: Christian Dörge/Apex-Graphixx.
Cover: Christian Dörge/Apex-Graphixx.
Editing: Mina Dörge.
Proofreading: Mina Dörge.
Publication Date: 04-19-2022
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