My first novel, 1964


Chapter One

Bill Burkett
14 min readMar 7, 2024


The sky was dark over London when Bradford Donovan took his delivery truck out into the streets and began his nightly run. The tires spun as they hit the level after climbing out of the subterranean garage, and left a little rubber on the pavement, for this was one of the bad nights and Donovan was feeling irritable.

As he rolled, he viewed the darkened streets and buildings with a jaundiced eye. London, the twenty fifth century. Bigger, higher, deeper an unkillable man-made growth upon the British Isles, and its distinctive English flavor gone beyond recall, banished by the winds of time and stellar trafficking. London of the twenty fifth century resembled nothing so much as the New York City of the twentieth big, uncouth and brawling.

Which was why the cool pressure of the gun under his jacket was so reassuring. Kid gangs yet too young to be drafted and much too combative to confine their exercise to legalized sport had discovered a new diversion: trap the late night delivery vehicle, loot it, burn it and rough up the driver. The insurance companies could stand the gaff and no one was hurt, particularly.

No one except the hapless truck driver.

Donovan growled under his breath. Anyone attempting to slap him around was first going to comb lead out of his eyebrows. Tonight especially, he was trouble looking for a chance to start.

He turned on the radio, got a husky feminine voice singing one of the freshly written and highly popular war ballads, “The Saga of the Scout”:

“…and fast cruisers abaft of his beam.

‘God, ‘ said the Scout,

‘I’ll never get out. ‘

But nevertheless turned on the steam…”

Without waiting to hear if the Scout got out, Donovan changed stations. Again, the voice was female. Most of the disc jockeys and announcers formerly heard were wearing uniforms and fighting Larrys ninety parsecs out. This time it was news.

`”…Mad Hatter will be in Londonport for minor repairs the week of the twenty ninth. Relatives and friends having men aboard the Hatter may contact Base H.Q. for details concerning the possibility of dirtside liberty. So much for the comings and goings of our boys in uniform.

“As for the weather, a continuing warming trend can be expected over much of England for the remainder of the week, but Old Man Winter is on the way. For those of you having business on the continents, may we recommend Stop Wear, the superior lubricant for the engines of your aircars. Especially to those who have business in the Americas, Stop Wear will provide that extra margin of safety for those trips across the wintry North Atlantic…”’

He tried again. This time he recognized the voice of Johnny Hatcher, a favorite recording artist before the war, since killed in action on some nameless asteroid somewhere out along the Line. `

“…the stars are shining brightly, hanging in the void

Their beauty catches at the throat, their cold heat chills the soul…

Space is deep and space is cruel, but a man’d be paranoid

To hate the suns that warm the worlds that are the Black Sea’s shoals…”

‘And again.

“…the draft call for November is expected to reach an all time high, and the government has announced new emergency measures designed to free more able bodied men for the war effort. If you are an independent businessman, remember: Hire the handicapped you’ll be freeing a man for the front lines.”


Donovan cursed softly and stared out through the windshield. His left hand strayed from the steering wheel, smacked histhigh soundly. The plastic masked by his pants leg gave back a dull thump. Plasteel legs and modified robot muscles to give them mobility superior in some ways to flesh and blood. But according to the Military Board, it made him half a man. And a fifty year old half man is simply not military material.

“Free a man for the front lines.”

But not half a man. Half a man can push a truck normally handled by a brute with more muscles than a gorilla, less brains than a gnat, while the gorilla gnat points and fires a gun half a galaxy away. Even a robot could handle this run but robots were too scarce nowadays to sacrifice to the gangs. Not so a cripple such as himself.


He gritted his teeth and his plastic foot nudged the accelerator a little. The truck began to vibrate gently as the extra speed shifted the load. It shot past deserted intersections, under dim or burnt out street light — this was one of London’s meaner sections.


Had been a time when Bradford Donovan hadn’t been a caricature of a man with robot’s legs; had been a time twenty years ago when Bradford Donovan had taken a stellar voyage with his bride of six months, a voyage that lasted another half year with the result that their first son was born in vacuo. At the end of that voyage had been Risstair, world of promise and possible wealth; world within, and under the jurisdiction of, the Llralan Empire, but open to Terran trappers. In the years that he was there his lend lease trapping line had prospered,thanks to his skillful traps and ready rifle. The Donovan brand had become familiar to Terra side furriers and his signature to bankers dealing in out world trade. Things were progressing nicely; Jane had given him another son, and a fat bank account awaited their return to Terra. Another two years, he figured, and they could return to Terra wealthy enough to want for nothing the rest of their natural lives.

Then, on a regular run of the traps, there had been the smell of death in the air.

He could never forget it that distinctive, incredibly delicate odor exuded by all dying Risstairan life. Often he had wondered if any get rich quick character would decide to attempt distilling and bottling the essence for sale to Terran females, but no such scheme had developed while he was on Risstair.

The odor of death had been overpowering, drawing him to the woodland glade irresistibly. And in the glade the mangledbodies of three Risstairan woodcutters clustered about their loaded logging sled and kept company by a pair of marq carcasses, one with an ax split skull, the other with a crossbow quarrel in its brain.

They had been hit fast, without warning or provocation, and from the rear. His flesh crawled. That meant one thing on Risstair: rogue pack in a kill sweep. And the home station was six miles away through the gathering dusk.

Almost, he made it. The sounds of everyday activity around the station were faintly in his ears and the jungle was thinning away to only an occasional thicket growing stubbornly beneath the tall and wide spaced trees. That sparsity of cover was the only thing that saved his life.

Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of a bounding shape that rushed at him with the speed of a greyhound closing on a rabbit. There had been no time to shoot; instead, he leaped straight up. With his still one gravity accustomed muscles in the lesser pull of Risstair, it had been a good jump a fantastic jump. The marq, startled, had lunged after its soaring quarry,but lacked the proper timing. Three inch fangs had slashed across him at a point halfway up the thigh.

The shock of the hit was such that it deadened the pain. Turning as he fell, Donovan fried the recovering marq with a full strength squirt from his long barreled flame rifle and took another slash from a second beast quartering in from the opposite direction. That one died with its head cindered, but there was a third, fourth, a fifth…. He held down the trigger and waved the gun like a wand, laying a path of flaming destruction around him. The squalls of scalded beasts had mingled with the guttering song of his rifle, but they had come right through the flames with the terrible single mindedness only a marq in a kill craze could exhibit. Dying jaws, already headed for the ground, slashed his legs again and again, and the number and seriousness of the wounds had put him on his back and helpless.

But the marqs had finally had enough. With twelve of their number gone and the flame rifle lashing the area all about like blind lightning, even they were at last discouraged and went in search of easier prey. And the night was still, but someone was screaming and would not shut up and he realized vaguely that it was himself, and voices were calling his name, but distantly, distantly…

And then there was nothing. Nothing until he awoke in a Federation naval hospital back inside Federation territory and was told his legs were gone; the choice had been simple for the medic on the ship bringing him in: his legs or his life. And in the months that followed months in which, he now realized, he had behaved more like a frightened child than the man he thought himself to be, he had come to believe the medic had made the wrong choice. It had been a long and bitter road down from the lofty status of out hunter with money in the bank to that of lowly truck driver with a budget that seldom balanced.

This last was the final blow. The Federation could take his sons and train them as fodder for Imperial guns, his young, strong sons with their lives still before them but it refused an embittered old man the right to give the ending of his life some dignity and purpose…

Abruptly, without preamble, the raid alarms began to moan from the rooftops. Donovan came out of his reverie, startled, and looked around. He had passed into a better section of town, in which aircars moved to and fro over rooftop runways, gleaming groundcars slid through the well lighted streets and the quality and number of pedestrians had shot upward.

But the aircars were diving for the roofs, the groundcars were pulling in at the curbs and the pedestrians were vanishing from sight with magical speed. As if spewed from sidewalk gratings, characters wearing yellow armbands and helmets topped by amber flashers appeared, gesticulating wildly and mouthing instructions.

London’s ancient heritage of raids from the sky and experience gained during the past year seemed to have instilled in its populace an instinct for diving promptly, accurately and without question into the nearest hole.

Donovan pulled over, parked and got out. Locking the truck, he glanced at the star spangled sky and then hurried after a group of citizens looking for their hole. As he joined the tag end a warden joined the van and ushered them through a door that gave onto a foyer and so through to a seemingly endless series of stairs. The group clattered downward in grim silence, and Donovan followed. After long enough to have reached Hell, the warden halted before a steel door, swung it open. Donovan fully expected to see an imp waiting to show them in, but was disappointed. The room in which they found themselves was filled with wooden benches, had a partitioned room in one corner. A long low cabinet took up one wall. A short wave set resided on the cabinet. Naked, yellow painted I beams jutted horizontally through the space; dim light bulbs were mounted thereon.

The crowd filled up the benches rapidly. Donovan sat in a pool of shadow and lit a cigarette. Heavy feet sounded on the stairs, came through the door and became attached to a uniformed policeman. He dogged the door behind him, took two heavy steps into the shelter and gave a quick look round.

His gaze paused briefly on Donovan’s cigarette. “Douse the butt,” he said, and headed for the short wave.

Donovan went on smoking.

The cop must have sensed something amiss, for he turned back. For a long moment he seemed at a loss as to how to cope with this bare faced insubordination. Then he reacted typically for one who has the law in his pocket and glories in abusing the privilege. He took a menacing step forward, hand going to his nightstick.

“Maybe you don’t hear so good. I said ‘Douse the butt.’”

“I hear fine. Why?”

“Just get rid of it.”


“No buts.” The cop unslung his nightstick, used it to point at a plastic fronted list of shelter conduct rules fastened to the door. “Yuh see that? Them are standard procedure rules, and I know ’em by heart. They say an officer of the law, whether off duty or on, shall be the authority in any shelter in which he takes refuge.”


“So douse the butt or grab grief.”

In his present mood, Donovan was more inclined to grab grief, but in view of the circumstances he abstained. The cigarette died under his heel. “Satisfied, Bossy?”

“Oh, so you’re a wise one, eh?” The cop gave him the cold eye.

“Not at all,” contradicted Donovan, undismayed by the glare. “I simply wonder why, when we have purifiers in these holes, you forbid me one of life’s few enough pleasures.”

“Purifiers have been known to fail, and we might be locked up in here for quite a spell.”

“Oh, come now, that’s reaching a bit far, isn’t it? Aren’t you just throwing your weight around to keep up your own nerve?”

“No,” said the cop, unconvincingly. “No, that’s not it.”

“What then?”

“Just chalk it up to my dislike of smoke getting in my eyes,” snapped the arm of the law, growing apoplectic. “Now shaddup!”

With poor grace, Donovan shaddup. Authority when in the hands of chumps or of anyone else for that matter, rubbed him the wrong way. Being ordered around was the surest way of unleashing his quick temper. But, again in view of the circumstances, he bowed to stupidity, the same kind of stupidity that kept him earthbound while men with less on the ballthan he but with the proper number of natural limbs tried to hold back the Larry advance.

The radio crackled, said loudly, “Condition Red Maximum! Condition Red Maximum! Central Control Canada reports three full strength assault waves inbound past Jupiter. Repeat, Condition Red Maximum. E.T.A. first wave, fifteen minutes; advance scouts, momentarily…”

Overhead, sudden deep throated thunder rolled. It started as a mutter, passed quickly to a bellow, then a deafening howl. At its peak, the shelter trembled ever so slightly and loosened dust shifted in the weak light of the naked bulbs. The occupants of the shelter grew still and tense, waiting.

As suddenly as it had come it was gone, fading to a waspish buzz and then dying away altogether. For a seeming eternity, there was only silence. Then the warden straightened from the instinctive crouch he had dropped into, wiped shiny perspiration from his forehead.

“Wheweee!” he breathed shakily. “That was a close ‘un! Bet there ain’t a whole pane of glass left in London.”

“Glass can be replaced,” came a voice from beyond Donovan’s eye range. “I’ll be happy if there’s a city left.”

“Me too,” endorsed another.

The cop scowled darkly. “You shouldn’t talk that way. We don’t have anything to worry about.” Then his authoritative demeanor was spoiled when he gave out with a wide mouthed yawn.

Donovan turned to his neighbor. “At a time like this, he tells us we shouldn’t worry about things like low flying enemy ships, and then tops it off by gaping like a sick hippopotamus. What do you think…”

He never finished the sentence; his thought hung unsaid.

His neighbor, a piglike man nursing a battered briefcase and wearing a wrinkled suit, was slumped untidily against the wall. His mouth was hanging open; from it seeped gentle bubbling noises. Porky was in dreamland. Incredulously, Donovan looked back at the cop. That worthy was hanging onto an I beam as if it were the proverbial straw and he the drowning man. Even as Donovan watched he slowly and jerkily slid down the beam until he prostrated himself at its base. Now he seemed to be worshiping the sickly 15 watt bulb fixed thereon.

The warden turned from where he had been speaking softly into the short wave, glanced without much curiosity at the fallen cop. “He seems a ha’ fallen down,” he observed thickly. Then he yawned.

“And you don’t think that’s curious?” inquired Donovan.

The warden regarded him owlishly, pushing his helmet further and further back on his head until it fell off and hit the floor with a resounding clang. The amber flasher shattered and went out. “Wazzat yew say?”

“You don’t think his passing out that way is…” began Donovan, then hushed as another wash of propulsor noise swept over from the north and dwindled into the southeast. When quiet returned, he noticed a sound not present before in the shelter.


He peered hard at the assemblage, and cold prickles began to dance along his spine. Three quarters of the occupants of the shelter were sprawled or slumped or hunched about with no care for their posture. As he watched, his eyes began to water and he rubbed them violently. The atmosphere of the shelter suddenly seemed unbearably thick. He blinked again. And again. The room seemed to reel just a bit.


He swung his head around dopily, wasn’t too surprised to see the warden on the floor, one arm draped in brotherly fashion about the cop’s broad shoulders, the other pinned beneath the short wave set where he had dragged it from the cabinet as he fell. There was movement in the shelter. Donovan glanced up.

The ceiling came rushing down.

He cried out involuntarily, threw up his arms.

There was no impact. He lowered his arms cautiously, stared hard at the ceiling. It was back in place. No, no it wasn’t, not quite. Wasn’t it creeping downward again, trying to surprise him? The next moment he was frantically tearing at the door, then bolting up the metal stairs, taking them four at a time with agility remarkable even for robot legs, extremely difficult for a whole man even in the prime of condition. He made it backto the street in a fraction of the time it had taken him going down, burst through the foyer and into the cold night air. Sagging against a wall, he panted for breath.

Far away, propulsors muttered, and he looked at the sky.

Blue circles were blooming in clumps and pairs everywhere blooming and drifting down with the gentleness of the first snow of winter. His jaw dropped. Well he knew, having seen news films taken at the front, what those were. Paratroopers! Larry space infantry, floating in on anti grav units.

And they were unopposed. Nothing was disturbing their orderly downward drift; no airships, no missiles, no autogun tracers or flamer beams were tearing holes in their descending ranks. Not so much as a stone was being hurled against the invaders.

From my 1963 sketchbook kept beside my typewriter

Again, he began to run. He tore around two corners and across three streets before he ran into a waiting line of lean, tall figures lounging in an intersection. His sudden precipitation into their midst touched off startled exclamations and momentary confusion.

He had time to get his gun out and half empty the clip before they dived for cover, leaving two still forms on the pavement and one that kicked and screamed.

He jumped behind a stalled bus, scooted alongside it and began to gallop frantically away. A pale blue tongue of fire snapped over his head and authoritative shouts rang in the air behind him. Another searbolt passed so close he felt its hot breath. Then he was around another corner and pounding heavily on. His leg stumps were beginning to throb painfully from the unaccustomed exertion when a string of figures again barred his way. He skidded to a halt, stumbled, brought up his gun.

A searbolt smacked into the concrete at his feet. Blued metal gleamed dully as a dozen weapons shifted to cover him. Picking the tallest of those before him he fired twice, then started working leftward along the line until the hammer dropped on an empty chamber. Only then did he realize that several searbolts had riddled his remarkable legs, and that their controls were dead.

As he stood there swaying uncertainly, another bolt hit his ankle and severed it completely, knocking the foot awry.

Down he went, like a timbered Sequoia.



Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.