Childhood s End

Part I: EARTH AND THE OVERLORDS Chapter 1

The volcano that had reared Taratua up from the Pacific depths had been sleeping now for half a million years. Yet in a little while, thought Reinhold, the island would be bathed with fires fiercer than any that had attended its birth. He glanced towards the launching site, and his gaze climbed the pyramid of scaffolding that still surrounded the "Columbus". Two hundred feet above the ground, the ship's prow was catching the last rays of the descending sun. This was one of the last nights it would ever know; soon it would be floating in the eternal sunshine of space.

It was quiet here beneath the palms, high up on the rocky spine of the island. The only sound from the Project was the occasional yammering of an air compressor or the faint shout of a workman. Reinhold had grown fond of these clustered palms; almost every evening he had come here to survey his little empire. It saddened him to think that they would be blasted to atoms when the "Columbus" rose in flame and fury to the stars.

A mile beyond the reef, the "James Forrestal" had switched on her searchlights and was sweeping the dark waters. The sun had now vanished completely, and the swift tropical night was racing in from the east. Reinhold wondered, a little sardonically, if the carrier expected to find Russian submarines so close to shore.

The thought of Russia turned his mind, as it always did, to Konrad, and that morning in the cataclysmic spring of 1945. More than thirty years had passed, but the memory of those last days when the Reich was crumbling beneath the waves from the East and from the West had never faded. He could still see Konrad's tired blue eyes, and the golden stubble on his chin, as they shook hands and parted in that ruined Prussian village, while the refugees streamed endlessly past. It was a parting that symbolized everything that had since happened to the world-the cleavage between East and West. For Konrad chose the road to Moscow. Reinhold had thought him a fool, but now he was not so sure.

For thirty years he had assumed that Konrad was dead. It was only a week ago that Colonel Sandmeyer, of Technical Intelligence, had given him the news. He didn't like Sandmeyer, and he was sure the feeling was mutual. But neither let that interfere with business.

"Mr. Hoffmann," the Colonel had begun, in his best official manner, "I've just had some alarming information from Washington. It's top secret, of course, but we've decided to break it to the engineering staff so that they'll realize the necessity for speed." He paused for effect, but the gesture was wasted on Reinhold. Somehow, he already knew what was coming.

"The Russians are nearly level with us. They've got some kind of atomic drive-it may even be more efficient than ours, and they're building a ship on the shores of Lake Baikal. We don't know how far they've got, but Intelligence believe it may be launched this year. You know what that means."

Yes, thought Reinhold, I know. The race is on-and we may not win it.

"Do you know who's running their team?" he had asked, not really expecting an answer. To his surprise, Colonel Sandmeyer had pushed across a typewritten sheet and there at its head was the name: Konrad Schneider.

"You knew a lot of these men at Peenem—Ćnde, didn't you?" said the Colonel. "That may give us some insight into their methods. I'd like you to let me have notes on as many of them as you can-their specialties, the bright ideas they had, and so on. I know it's asking a lot after all this time-but see what you can do."

"Konrad Schneider is the only one who matters," Reinhold had answered. "He was brilliant-the others are just competent engineers. Heaven only knows what he's done in thirty years. Remember-he's probably seen all our results and we haven't seen any of his. That gives him a decided advantage."

He hadn't meant this as a criticism of Intelligence, but for a moment is seemed as if Sandmeyer was going to be offended. Then the Colonel shrugged his shoulders.

"It works both ways-you've told me that yourself. Our free exchange of information means swifter progress, even if we do give away a few secrets. The Russian research departments probably don't know what their own people are doing half the time. We'll show them that Democracy can