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Chapter VI

            "Please, ladies and gentlemen, PLEASE stay in line, wait your turn, PLEASE," implored the harassed ticket-seller. People were crowded before, behind, around his booth, clamoring for tickets for the next rocket, ANY rocket that leaves Venus. The people were getting afraid of the quakes. They had seen their loved ones snatched from them, boiled in the steaming geysers, crushed beneath their falling houses, trampled by humans as they rushed to get out of the tenements and apartments, snatched away by the rushing crowds that swept families apart, never to meet again. The Venusians had decided that they had enough of their home and wanted to get back to Earth. The rocket depots were jammed, queues blocks long were waiting, not too patiently, for tickets and a ride to safety. The crowds, embittered by the stalling of the ticket-sellers, tore apart the booths and grabbed the tickets they wanted, distributing the rest over the heads of the crowd to other migrants, waiting in the rear. The great Exodus to Earth had begun.
            Martial law was introduced into the panic-stricken cities, and was promptly taken out again by the fighting mobs. Rockets were horribly overcrowded, some only half loaded by the pilots who were interested in their own skins and took off before their ships were filled. Some of the citizens, enraged at the shortage of available pilots, took matters into their own hands and endeavored to fly the ships with only a sketchy knowledge of landing procedure. Some were successful; others weren't. Loading platforms were jammed with people and when a ship would land they would crowd aboard. There was no "women and children first" chivalry, people stepped over the heads of their fallen neighbors; some stepped ON those heads. These were the pessimists. They were sure that they would surely die if they stayed on that planet another night.
            There were SOME optimists. Mr. and Mrs. Lee Harding (the mutants usually had no last names, their parents, for the most part, were unknowns; Lee adopted Alice's surname) and daughter were among these. Not that they wanted to be. There were rumors that the mutants were not allowed on board the badly overcrowded ships; Lee might be killed by the maddened crowds if they found him to be a mutant. They didn't want to chance it. Sandy didn't seem to mind the bustle of moving people, the ones that were leaving, around her. She enjoyed herself by playing in the piles of rubble outside their tent that they had set up again after their stone hut had been ruined. The bride doll was entirely forgotten.
            The air was continually filled with the dust of the new buildings that fell on top of the ruin of the old. The thundering never entirely ceased; constant rumblings were the norm; whenever they stopped the townspeople raised their heads, expectant. One day the duration of the silence was longer than usual; it was ominous, forboding. The populace feared that the internal forces were building up for one final cataclysm---they were not mistaken.
            Crashings like earthly waves sounded more loudly than ever. Even the ones who said that they were used to the incessant noise raised their heads to watch and wait. Geysers, surpassing all they had ever seen, squirted almost to the dome, far above them. Molten metals flowed from open holes in the ground, building up miniature volcanic cones from the ash and rock that was coughed up by the convulsed planet. Trees that had courageously stood all other onslaughts now tottered, fell; their root systems burned completely away. The makeshift tenements that had been thrown up at the spur of the moment fell instantly; they had been of inferior construction. The looming bubble of the West loading platform was right next to the part of the main bubble where the Hardings had set up housekeeping. It had always been the danger signal for the Hardings. Whenever they saw that dome shimmer in the diffuse sunlight, they started watching out for the geysers and eruptions that inevitably followed it. Whatever shook that smaller bubble must have the same influence on the ground inside the bigger one.
            Today, when they looked up at the dome that covered that platform, they saw it agitated more than they had ever seen it before. Suddenly, as they watched, the dome seemed to curve in on itself at the bottom; the reflection of the Sun, by which they could determine how much sway there was, streaked all the way down to the bottom of the dome, where it rested on the surface of the planet. With a snap that could be faintly heard even within their bubble, the neighboring dome cracked down its center. With their hearts in their mouths, they raced over to the very limits of their city-dome, where the separate, smaller dome started its ascent to the sky. Alice could see the attendants of the spaceships and the loaders and packers that were stationed there look up at their life-protecting covering fall away. It snapped again and again and then, like a gigantic flower, the segments peeled away, exposing the workers to the oxygen-less atmosphere of Venus. The atmosphere was heavier than air, so the oxygen-filled dome's gas escaped into the ether. A fountain could not have executed a more perfect sweep of substance as the oxygen gathered in a heap in the middle of the enclosure and then, majestically, it swept up into the clouds; slowly it started, then faster and faster until, at length, the ground level was void of air and the clouds that have eternally veiled Venus began their slow descent onto the plain.
            The trio's eyes were directed downward as soon as the last wisp of gas soared off into the atmosphere of Venus. For a few minutes the plain was clear; in that few minutes, hundreds of lives were lost by the loss of that life-giving gas: oxygen. The first thing that struck their eyes as they pressed themselves against the warm plastic was the hurtling form of one of the workers as he jumped off one of the loading platforms. Far better, he must have thought, to die suddenly, mercifully, than slowly, surely, suffocate.
            The workers took off their shirts on a first impulse as the full heat of the midday Sun hit them. They continued to breathe normally; the gas vapor on Venus was not poisonous, it simply had no life-giving qualities. Some of them began to breathe heavier, deeper, as if trying to fill their lungs to the utmost---it did them no good. They puffed and panted, trying to get some air---there was none left, it had already dissipated. Some of them tore off their shirts, as if it would save their lives. They clawed at their straining, gasping chests. One man near the margin nearest the city-dome continued to clench and unclench his fists. Mouths opened, they screamed; unheard screams tore the ether. Their mouths worked convulsively; some of them were rolling on the ground, biting their lips---in agony. One poor fellow's chest distended to a remarkable capacity, his mouth open as if to get life from lifeless air. He fell backward; tore at his neck spasmodically; expired. Others were in the same situation; geysers mercifully scalded them before the last horrible death throes set in. They convulsed, writhed on the ground, jerked a few times, lay still. The vapor cloud that covered Venus obscured the scene, it lifted momentarily---all was still---fell again, eternally.
            "How HORRIBLE!" murmured Alice as she clung to Lee for protection. "Horrible."
            All that time the ground had been shaking as with ague. Not one of the permanent or makeshift buildings was left standing. All was dust, destruction. The reflection of the Sun on the city-dome was dancing crazily. There was no time to spare; they had to get out of the city. That was the thought uppermost in the minds of everyone else in the city also. Even the die-hards who firmly believed that the bubble was too well constructed to ever crack, changed their minds when the adjacent dome split. The shell above them, once so seemingly solid and safe, now grew thin in the imaginations of the inhabitants.
            "Well," sighed Alice, "I guess this is the end of the honeymoon, and the wedding."
            "What are you talking about, darling," he said gruffly, "you're going to be on one of those ships when it leaves this doomed planet if I have to carry you on board. Don't let that rumor of death to the mutant fool you; they're so busy saving their own skins that they won't care WHO climbs aboard, just as long as they're on it." This was a rather long speech for a five-year-old, but Alice loved him for it.
            "Oh, darling, I'm so glad, I was afraid that I would have to die. I wouldn't want to die, ever, even with you holding me. Dearest, I'm not the heroic type, I wouldn't lay down my life for anyone. Oh," she paused, confused, embarrassed, "I hope you don't hate me for it, ever." She paused, breathlessly. His lips came down, trembling, met hers. He didn't mind, she thought. She was content.
            As they ran across the city to the East port they heard screams from every other pile of rubble that they passed. Sometimes they could see an arm or leg sticking out of a pile, bloody. They were no longer nauseated by the sight of death; they had seen so much of it that they were used to it. The only people they saw that weren't injured were milling around the entrance to the subway that led under the ground to the port, in which there was one lone space ship waiting for passengers.
            "Lee," Alice called, horrified, "where's Sandy?" Lee whirled about and called Sandy's name loudly.
            "I thought she was with you," Lee said, hotly. He had grown to love the little girl as his own daughter.
            "We have to get her," said Alice, as she turned to go back.
            "Don't be a fool," he said roughly. "You can't go back, not now, it's too late." Even as the words left his mouth, the tall building across from them---one wall of which was still standing---started to sway dangerously. "Alice, come here quick," he said, a note of terror coming into his voice as hunks of masonry began to rain from the jagged top. "Quick."
            This last was lost in a loud rumble. She started uncertainly over the ten feet of ground between them. Lee saw that she would never make it. Bricks were bouncing off the wriggling ground; there was no chance to think. The five-year-old impetuousness came to the fore of his mind. He loved her; he couldn't let her be crushed by the cascading tons of rock. He sprinted as he had never before done, even in the school football games. His feet pumped madly, disturbing the dirt and dust that had been deposited there from the previous disturbances. She stood before him, her hand instinctively in the air between her and the falling wall. He caught her around the waist and, with a burst of supreme strength, threw her out of reach of the rain of rock. Startled, she let herself fall backward on the soft, warm dirt. She saw the dim forms of rock dropping down before her, onto the prostrate form of Lee. She scrambled to her feet and attempted to save him. How, it didn't occur to her; just save him. A foremost brick struck him on the head as he was endeavoring to crawl out from under the wall, throwing him back to the ground; in another instant the whole of the wall was upon him, burying him from her view. Her first impulse was to sit by the roadside and cry her heart out. She restrained herself and fell to pulling the huge chunks of masonry from where she thought his body must lie. The pile was deep and the portions of rock were too much for the frail, courageous woman. She could not do anything; it was beyond her. She was twenty-eight; he died at five.
            Sandra was forgotten. She wanted to die, to fling herself onto one of the geysers that were everywhere and be scalded to death. She had nothing to live for. Her true love was gone, dead, buried, no one could replace him.
            The rapidly shortening queue in front of the subway lured her onward. The desire for life was much greater than the desire for death.
            She took her place in the line; others, stragglers, pushed in behind her. She was pushed along with the crowd---jostled when they were jostled, shoved when they were shoved; she stood, silent, when they stood, ran when they ran; she was pulled along as a weakened fish at the mercy of the tides, ebb and flow, back and forth.
            The people around her could hardly keep their footing on the dancing ground; as for her, she was wedged so tightly against two burly, sour-smelling men, that she could not move except when they did.
            Looking back over her shoulder to catch a last glimpse of the deserted city, she saw the sign that she had seen before: the ominous sign of the breaking point being reached. The reflection of the Sun jiggled up and down for a while and then it bent in on itself, the reflection shot down to the ground. A grinding, jarring, rending crack was heard and the city-dome that had stood so long was split into two hemispheres.
            A rising sigh came from the throats of the horrified onlookers. It was the end; it was finished. Other cracks appeared simultaneously at other quadrants of the shell. They stood, pointing at the Sun, for an instant; another shiver---they were down. The subway entrance was in the center of the city. They could see the dust being agitated near the outskirts as the oxygen-laden air was sucked up into the clouds. The crowd was awed, silent, for a second; awareness hit them and a panic ensued as everyone tried to be the first one down the ramp into the subway. The dust agitation came nearer; as it traveled it gained in speed. She felt herself being pushed along in the tide of humanity. Just as she reached the long overhang of the subway, the wind reached her. The train was not in the station---if they waited for the next one they would surely suffocate. The wind passed by, she could not exactly put her finger on it but it seemed that there was a great void where there had once been air. She looked upward, and she saw an umbrella-shaped cloud of clear fresh gas disappearing into the eternal cloud blanket of Venus. She breathed deeply, the gas had no---no---substance. She breathed but there was nothing to breathe.
            The panic of the crowd caught her. She shoved her way through the milling throng onto the brink of the downgrade. They were afraid to go down into that stygian darkness that yawned below them, more afraid than they were of suffocation. Her exertions were beginning to tell on her. She was breathing deeply, more deeply that she had believed possible, but she wasn't getting any benefit from it. She could feel her heart pumping faster, faster, faster---it must BURST! Recklessly she ran down the grade, despite the rumblings that she could feel of the advancing subway car. The single track sped along beneath her feet. She felt dizzy; almost fell; faint, she collapsed onto the track.